Since the beginning of Syria’s civilian uprising in 2011, the Syrian poet Rasha Omran has been a fearless critic of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the failure of Arab intellectuals to denounce its crimes. She lives in exile in Egypt, where she has continually spoken out against the war and in support of democratic reform. In her article “The Sect as Homeland,” Omran, who belongs to Syria’s ruling Alawi sect, described how the peaceful uprising was transformed into a violent conflict:
The regime mobilized to counter the challenge by besieging the revolution in specific areas and alienating it from others—stock divide-and-rule methods. At a time of peaceful protest, state media spoke of armed takfiri gangs killing soldiers and security agents (those honorable patriots), and of their goal of sectarian war in Syria. Then it launched false-flag operations and spread rumors amongst the Alawis, reminding them with increased intensity of the narrative of historical persecution. The regime also sacrificed some Alawis in areas of sectarian friction in order to frighten the rest into believing that those who claimed to stand for revolution were actually sectarian killers intent on revenge for [the 1982 massacre of Muslim Brothers in] Hama. Simply put, the regime let loose the monster of fear which had been latent in Alawi minds, and reinforced the link between homeland and sect, and the link between their personal survival and the survival of the sect/homeland. And today the Alawis believe they’re fighting against the threat of personal, sectarian, and national extinction.
….But will they realize the extent of the delusion under which they have lived for so long? Will they understand that the graves of their children, increasing day by day, were nothing but a cheap price for the regime to pay? The regime treated these children as pawns in a game of chess as it fought for its own survival. Perhaps they will eventually understand. But this will come long after their lives have been transformed into an endless round of funerals and condolences, and after all, Syria has been transformed into a land of cemeteries and death by the crimes of a regime which uses sectarianism as a tool of war.
Omran has also spoken eloquently about the plight of Syria’s refugees and of the original protesters, whose cause has been forgotten. “In history, no other revolution has managed to remain so beautiful for so long, when confronted with such brutal crimes,” she wrote in 2015. “Now blood is the only memory of Syria, as everyone has conspired to bury this beauty.”
Recently, the poet Charles Simic conducted an interview with Omran about Syria, her experience as a poet, and why the West has failed to end the war.
Charles Simic: Does the international silence about the carnage in Syria extend also to writers and intellectuals in the Arab world?
Rasha Omran: At the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, intellectuals and Arab writers sympathized with what was happening in Syria, but this soon disappeared. When the situation became complicated, they started to say, “We do not know what is happening in Syria.” A large portion of them kept completely silent about all the crimes committed by the Syrian regime and its allies, and then suddenly got loud when Daesh and similar other organizations committed crimes. Unfortunately, intellectuals and Arab writers now look on Syria with one eye when it needs ten, not only two.
As Yugoslavia was breaking up in the 1990s, I criticized my fellow Serbs and their leaders for the wars they were waging against other ethnic and religious groups and was denounced as a traitor. I imagine you’ve experienced something like that too?
Yes. A lot of people in my country and my native city call me as a traitor, curse me daily, accusing me of being a fifth columnist, working for the West, or being financed by the radical Islamic organizations and parties. This has caused me a lot of pain and sorrow; among those denouncing me are friends and relatives, life-long friends. Now, I’m just a traitor who deserves the death penalty or the cancellation of my Syrian citizenship at least.
Tell us about growing up in Tartus and being a poet.
Tartus is a city on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. I just can’t remember much. I wasn’t yet five years old when my family left and moved to Damascus where I spent my childhood, teens, and my youth—the capital. Tartus and my village there—I’m originally from the countryside, a mountain village, about four hundred meters above sea level—remained a place for summer vacation only. We used to go back to play in the mountains, the sea, the fun. Our house in Damascus had a very big library. I was a bookworm from my early days, I read anything I laid my hands on. No one ever told me what to read or what not to. The broad exposure to books came from that period of my life. Afterward, my readings became very selective for years. As for becoming a poet, I think I was fascinated by the poets I knew. My father was a poet, our house was a center for poets and artists, maybe that’s why? I’m not absolutely sure. My father used to tell me, before he knew I wrote poetry, that I would make a good novelist: my long-term memory is strong, I have a great deal of ability to remember details. But I didn’t become a novelist.
How divided politically are the millions of refugees and exiles who have left Syria?
Unfortunately, one of the most important realities of the Syrian tragedy is the divisions it has created. Not only among regime supporters and their opponents, but also among the opponents themselves. It’s evident, after a huge increase in the number of refugees, Syrians abroad have no common vision for Syria. Refugees and exiles, out of despair, look to their own survival. For all of us, Syria has become the few posts we write on Facebook with every massacre, while on the ground, in exile, we do not do anything significant to stop the war and death.
In September 2012, you launched a hunger strike outside the Arab League headquarters on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. How much support did you get from the local population?
The fact is, it was the idea of four of my Syrian women friends who were living in Cairo before Sisi came to power. It was easy for the Syrians to organize an action to support the Syrian cause in Egypt; and the sit-in and the strike continued for about fifteen days. It did not come to any result, of course, but Egyptians at the time were very sympathetic to the Syrian cause. The sit-in drew dozens of Egyptian intellectuals, along with the support of ordinary people crossing in front of the sit-in. These were remarkable days of harmony; Egypt was standing with the Syrian people in their tragedy. That all has changed now. There are no longer a lot of Syrians in Egypt. My friends who went on strike have left Egypt for Europe or the US. I alone have stayed. Currently it’s not permitted for Syrians in Egypt to organize anything related to Syria. The Egyptian media mostly support the Assad regime under the justification of fighting terrorism. This also has affected how Egyptians perceive what happens in Syria.
It didn’t seem possible, but in the last few weeks, we have seen new horrors, like the bombing of an international aid convoy and yet more destruction of Aleppo by Russian planes. Who or what is preventing the warring sides from stopping the bloodshed of the innocent in Syria?
Funders of these forces and the countries supporting them. We hear foreign leaders denouncing what’s happening every day, we watch meetings and conferences on Syria, bilateral and other agreements about ceasefires—without any results. The killings continue, death and displacement go on and keep on destroying Syria. I do not think that the world is serious about stopping the Syrian slaughter. If there was a definite decision to find a final solution to the tragedy, it would have happened by now. But there are rearrangements, and there are political changes taking place in the world, mostly through war and death in Syria.
The US has been particularly ineffective in stopping the violence. What do you think about the US and its involvement in the Middle East?
I think that the United States is the major player in the Middle East, whether it wants it or not. All other powers have to coordinate their interests with the interests of the United States. I don’t think the United States has any desire to have real democracies in the Middle East. In the Arab countries that have fallen regimes, far worse systems have come in their place, they are backed up by the United States in the same way as the former regimes were. Personally, I think that if the United States had a serious desire to stop death in Syria and change the regime, it would’ve happened in the first year of the revolution. But who supported the presence of Bashar al-Assad when he inherited rule in Syria after the death of his father? It was the United States. We Syrians remember the visit of Madeleine Albright, secretary of state at the time, to pay condolences after the death of Hafez al-Assad and to meet with Bashar al-Assad, a long joint meeting about which no information was leaked. The United States, alas, has one policy in the Middle East, whether Democrats or Republicans are in power.
Rasha Omran is a Syrian poet living in exile in Egypt, where she has continually spoken out against the war in Syria and in support of democratic reform. Charles Simic has been Poet Laureate of the United States. His most recent books are The Lunatic, a volume of poetry, and The Life of Images, a book of his selected prose. (August 2016)