In his masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner about curse and redemption, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes:
An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man's eye!
A curse in an old woman's eye might be even more horrible. Last week, a video emerged from Homs of an old woman explaining to the camera about her suffering from the bloody campaign of the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. In the video, she is shown sitting on her bed (a simple mattress on the ground, two pillows and a thin blanket that cannot protect her from Syria's freezing winter), and speaking not about her two sons who were "gone" (in Syria, being "gone" can mean in prison or dead), but about two gas cylinders that had been stolen from her. She asks for milk and eggs for herself and her three remaining sons.
"My two gas cylinders have gone," she says. "May God protect you, bring me some milk and some eggs. It's been two days without food. Treat me as your mum."
When the young man behind the camera tells her that he will, "inshallah", she assertively asks: "When are you going to bring them?" The poor-sighted woman pauses, waiting for an answer, and then continues: "When, my son? Tell me?"
The old woman's suffering can be defined in one word: zulm, which is Arabic for injustice or oppression, but also is associated with a cloud of profoundly esoteric meanings. The word, which is written in three letters in Arabic, connotes bitterness, suffering, suppression, grimness and severity. In fact, any Arabic word that shares at least two letters with zulm is infected with one or a combination of these characteristics.
Zulm has a rich cultural depth; it is one of the principal themes of the Quran and Hadiths. In the Quran, arrogance is one of the themes that is treated in the context of zulm. The word has incubated the tragic experiences of the people in the region who have historically suffered for no other reason than being at the crossroads (both literally and figuratively) of political powers.
Zulm is essentially a state of accumulated injustice: people accept an act of injustice and internalise it, but then they are afflicted with another and another. As people in the region, in Syria and elsewhere, often believe that suffering is preordained, they accept zulm as a fact of life or even a "blessing" that can bring about a catharsis or emotional release - sometimes to the extent of self-annihilation. Zulm is also believed to redeem the sins of the past; as such, psychological adaptation turns the curse into redemption.
A powerful moment in the video of the old woman comes when she is asked what she thinks of Mr Al Assad. She suddenly seems unable to find the appropriate words. Instead, she moves her hand in the air in a manner similar to flipping through pages, the dark pages of injustice, and then points to the heavens. Then, finally, she begins to curse Mr Al Assad for depriving her of everything that she had, from children to gas cylinders.
For many who have seen this video, this old woman represents those in Syrian society who are caught in the regime's bloody campaign, although they stand on the sidelines and they feel that they have no stake in the uprising that began a year ago. It is an uprising against political oppression, which they have accepted, and for freedom, which is a luxury.
Mr Al Assad, in his last speech, declared war against those very people when he said: "There is no grey colour. Those who stand in the middle in national causes are traitors to their country. There is no choice."
But why is there no grey, Mr President? It is the language of zulm, a colossal arrogance to decide that these people must stand with you. The regime that has labelled itself "the revolution of workers and farmers", and yet has neglected or victimised these people for decades.
No one has the right to blame ordinary Syrians who try to just live their normal lives, not even the political opposition. The opposition forces represented by Syrians in exile speak little about justice or why change is relevant to the silent margins of society. Activists who are suffering, and dying, inside the country are a different matter. But talk of freedom, delivered from offices in capitals across the world, does not convince these people. The opposition leaders have been preoccupied by apportioning political representation and, for reasons that are not their fault, have failed to end the bloodshed.
Even when the regime goes, people like this old woman will probably remain victims of zulm. How will the "armchair generals" be any different? Will they ever comprehend the sacrifices that are being made by the people on the ground?
A famous poem sung at prisons during the French occupation of Syria reads: "O prison! Bring down your darkness (zalam). We fear it not, for there is nothing beyond darkness but a bright glorious day". Sadly, darkness has followed upon darkness in Syria. People like the old woman must know that a bright day does not necessarily follow a dark night.
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