Geopolitics is always written with the blood of the people

When the photographer Mani and I arrived in Homs, in mid-January 2012, the Syrian revolution was reaching the end of its first year. In the city and the surrounding towns, the people were still gathering daily to demonstrate – calling for the fall of the regime, loudly asserting their belief in democracy, in justice, and in a tolerant, open, multi-confessional society, and clamoring for help from outside, for a NATO intervention, for a no-fly zone to stop the aerial bombardments. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up mostly of Army and secret services deserters disgusted by the repression, still believed its primary mission was defensive, to protect the opposition neighborhoods and the demonstrations from the regime snipers and the feared shabbiha (mafia thugs, mainly Alawite in Homs, formed into militias at the service of the al-Assad family). The Syrian citizen-journalists, like those that helped, guided, and protected us during our stay, still believed that the constant flow of atrocity videos they risked their lives every day to film and upload on YouTube would change the course of things, would shock Western consciousnesses and precipitate strong action against the regime. The people still believed that song, dance, slogans, and prayer were stronger than fear and bullets. They were wrong, of course, and their illusions would soon drown in a river of blood. America, traumatized by two useless and disastrous wars to the point of forgetting its own founding myth – that of a people rising against tyranny with their hunting guns, helped only by indomitable spirit and idealism – stood back and watched, petrified. Europe, weakened by economic crisis and self-doubt, followed suit, while the regime’s friends, Russia and Iran, occupied every inch of the political space thus made available. And geopolitics is always written with the blood of the people. The day after I left Homs, on February 3, a series of mortar shells targeted the neighborhood of al-Khalidiya, where I had spent so much time, killing over 140 civilians. As Talal Derki, the Syrian director and narrator of the magnificent documentary Return to Homs, comments at that point in his film, this mass murder was the turn of the revolution: “The dream of a revolution with songs and peaceful protests ended.”

Jonathan Littell, Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising.

No, silly, you’re not swimming

Obeying a sign shaped like a triangle, I left the highway and headed for the sea. Parking lots followed one another, monotonous, crowded with cars baking in the sun. Finally I noticed an out-of-the-way trail and took it. It led to a little stretch of beach, none too clean, but almost empty: only a few people had spread out the colored squares of their towels and were lazing about, naked and ruddy, exposed to the rage of the sun or else half-hidden under the laughable disks of little parasols. This suited me, and I too undressed and went into the water. It was warm and soft, and instead of waking me up, this monotonous, lapping expanse, swollen with a huge repetitious murmur, lulled me to sleep even more, enveloping my dormant body in the sinuous play of its forms and sounds. Naked, I floated on my back, my head borne by the waves, my eyes blind beneath the triumphant sky, pierced at its zenith by the bleak insatiable fire of the sun, and I dreamed I was swimming out to sea, calmly, with patience and rhythm, pitting without exhausting it the strength of my muscles against the inertia of this immense, shapeless, sly mass agitated by a placid, continuous violence; from time to time, my head went under water, and, with eyes closed against the biting salt, I lost all notion of space, I found myself tossed about, overcome, a dull anguish weighing down my limbs that seemed to move like seaweed, with no more force or power, each limb separate from the others and incapable of rediscovering a whole that might have served to give sense and direction to this movement; in my lungs, the air was turning sour, sucking in my ribs; then a contrary surge of the waves would hurl me back to the sky, my mouth open in a circle just above the waves, whipped by seaspray, and I resumed my regular movements, forcing my way through this endless waste. This lasted a long time, until I heard a voice, a young woman with a loud, tinkling laugh: “No, silly, you’re not swimming, you’re dreaming you’re swimming. Do you even know how to swim?”—“Of course I do,” I wanted to protest: but I opened my eyes in vain, I saw no one.

Jonathan Littell, The Fata Morgana Books , transl. Charlotte Mandell, Two Lines Press

Reread if you’ve forgotten

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…reread if you’ve forgotten, for the initial fault is hers everyone agrees on that but given the fault there is solution 4 known as eating one’s cake and having it too, and if not number 4 then number 2 with the matchbox on all fours, we’ll come back to that, number 3 out of the question for she won’t have it if number 3 then number 1, yes but he won’t have number 4, ah but that’s not the same thing oh well okay then, back to number 2, the basin the blood and all that she is willing, she says yes to the basin, but there’s nothing to be done, the fault passes to him, since fault there is since for her that means her on all fours and the blood, the horror, yes but the other for him is also the horror, the cage and the wall and the rats…

Jonathan Littell, The Fata Morgana Books, translated by Charlotte Mandell, Two Lines Press (November 12, 2013)