The spirit of the Syrian people

Shireen Akram-Boshar reviews a collection of short stories by author Osama Alomar.

Syrian civilians walk through the rubble of the city of Deir ez-ZorSyrian civilians walk through the rubble of the city of Deir ez-Zor

"WHEN THE captivating warmth of love penetrated me, my spirit expanded infinitely, embracing and drawing in the greatest number of souls. But when the bitter cold of hatred invaded it, my spirit contracted to the point where it could not even contain itself."

This is Syrian writer Osama Alomar's short story, "Warm and Cold," part of his 2017 collection of 162 stories, The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories. In all its brevity, "Warm and Cold" manages to convey the magnitude of the psychological change within Syrian society from the hopeful beginning of the Arab uprisings to the long and bitter counterrevolution that continues to destroy the country.

The start of the Syrian Revolution allowed many Syrians to finally connect with one another, ending an extreme alienation characteristic of dictatorships that mandate fear and mistrust. For the first time, entire towns came out and both demonstrated and celebrated together as they called for the end of a regime that pitted Syrians against each other.

Syrians have spoken of their first protests, and these celebratory demonstrations, as an indescribable taste of freedom--even as the first time they were able to breathe. These were moments of connection and revolutionary transformation, and of envisioning what might be possible in a free and democratic Syria.

In many towns, Syrians reclaimed their streets with song and dance. And across the country, activists created networks to coordinate Friday protests with unified slogans and statements, while working to assess and centralize their actions.

Review: Books

Osama Alomar, The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories. New Directions, 2017, 96 pages, $13.95.

The second and final line of "Warm and Cold" moves us quickly to the disaster of the counterrevolution, which has dispersed, exiled and imprisoned Syrians who rose up. The "hatred" Alomar speaks of alludes to all three elements of counter-revolution: the regime's use of sectarianism to divide Syrians once again, the growth of Islamist fundamentalism, and the invasion of vulturous imperialist powers including Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, nevermind the US's bombing campaigns.

Each of these assisted the other in crushing the dreams of millions of Syrians who rose up for freedom and dignity in 2011.

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ALL OF Alomar's stories in The Teeth of the Comb are powerful, gut-wrenching and dark. The stories, many of them just sentences long, reflect the brief passing hope at the start of the Arab Spring and Syrian Revolution followed by a long fall into counterrevolution that seems to have turned the author into a permanent cynic, ridiculing humankind and the meaning of human progress throughout the pages of his book.

Alomar uses personification and magical realism to describe the fear and mistrust, imprisonment and torture, exile, hope and devastation--in short, the Syrian experience over the past six years--with such power it leaves the reader speechless, and shaken.

The stories are brimming with bitterness, anger and heavy sarcasm. The collection is dark and pessimistic, fitting for the current moment, but in many ways suggesting a permanent cynicism and depression.

In "Freedom of Expression," in which a government grants citizens the right to freedom of facial expression and the move is seen as an "unprecedented victory for democracy," Alomar ridicules so-called modern democracies and the lack of basic fundamental freedoms in societies today.

And in stories like "The Temple," where a young man creates a religion based on the worship of money, Alomar brilliantly and appropriately pairs the turn to neoliberalism and fundamentalism that have grown hand-in-hand, leading us down a continuously darker path.

The collection also stands as a sharp denouncement of sectarianism and all the categorizations used by states and rulers to divide their people.

In many ways, however, this work is an examination of how the tyranny of a dictatorship becomes inescapable, and a part of everyone in society. Alomar pinpoints that it comes from the top and oozes down (see "On Top of the Pyramid"), but often implies, somewhat unfairly, that we have all become a part of the problem, and each other's enemies, harboring jealousy, resentment, and ill-will toward one another.

Alomar provides examples of deep mistrust that is particular to Syria: in "Wolves and Sheep," his characters are wolves who pretend to be sheep in order to pounce on their prey, only to be devoured by their prey, who were also wolves in disguise.

This story is a reminder of the police state in Syria where desperation and neoliberalism combined with deep repression created an enormous security apparatus, a culture of fear and a "kingdom of silence," turning Syrians against each other and creating mistrust throughout the country.

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IN SEVERAL stories, Alomar jabs at the hypocrisy of conservative Syrian society (see "Closing the Blinds"), in a manner that recalls the brilliant late Syrian writer Muhammad al-Maghout, who wrote about the deprivation in society under dictatorship that turns people into warped creatures, mainly debased men who prey on women.

Other stories point to corruption within neoliberal state systems like Syria's in ways that are comic and lighthearted. In "Flowers of Different Classes," a flower outside the house "looked spitefully at another flower inside the house" and asked her friend why that flower was welcomed inside.

Her fellow rejected flower says, "She must have known an important flower!" This lighthearted interjection still manages to mock the Syrian state, class and corruption, and their permeation throughout society.

In "War," Alomar centers the Syrian situation as emblematic of today's age and our major crises. This story can be read as an acknowledgement of the devastation of the ruling class's war against populations across the globe.

He writes that aliens landing on earth immediately found

nuclear explosions and millions of refugees pouring out in all directions and severed human limbs piled up everywhere. Everything they photographed was killing, destruction, desolation, tongues of fire. The leader of the space fleet sent a short message to his planet saying, "We are unable to land on Earth because it is utterly consumed by a crushing civil war."

This story highlights the Syrian catastrophe, which, though often neglected and forgotten, has impacted the entire world, and serves as a reminder that Syria is an extreme example of what we're seeing all over the globe.

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THESE LAST few weeks, as hurricanes and floods destroy and displace tens of thousands in the U.S., the Caribbean and South Asia, the death count of refugees left to drown in the Mediterranean continues to rise, and Trump again threatens nuclear war with North Korea, we can feel the horrors of the world shaped by the elite threatening to destroy this planet in its entirety.

For the past 50 years, it has been a "civil war," or a class war of the ruling elites against the rest of us.

Though all of Alomar's short stories resonate deeply, I will end with one that sharply argues why neoliberalism was behind the Syrian Revolution and the Arab Spring, called "The Earthquake":

The unemployed young man suffered a psychological earthquake with a magnitude of 8 on the Richter scale. It almost completely destroyed the city in which he lived. The loss of human life was horrifying.

The authorities were astounded at this unprecedented disaster. They undertook to rebuild the structures of the city in a different form, reinforcing them with materials resistant to human earthquakes. Unemployed young men began to be regarded with utmost seriousness and caution. Unemployment was eradicated within a short time.

Indeed, the astounding rates of unemployment among educated youth was one of the major causes for the Arab revolutions of 2011. And the underlying causes of the Arab Spring and Occupy remain, even as counterrevolutionary governments work harder to build up their security states, destroy ("eradicate") their revolutionary populations, and incarcerate their young and unemployed en masse to hold on to their crumbling regimes.

Alomar's collection is haunting, politically fierce, poetically ingenious and should not be overlooked.