Though comedy is not what comes to mind when considering the six years of the Syrian civil war that transpired into a proxy war between countless parties, many of the habits and idiosyncrasies that Syrians have adopted to survive can only be described as peculiarly tragicomic.
As each side of the conflict attempts to impose its agendas and demands in accordance with their respective spheres of influence, civilians are left struggling to secure their survival and maintain some semblance of normalcy against daily losses. With time, the stream of accumulated suffering devolves into something akin to a comical memory—curiously recalled with a bittersweet relish.
Over these countless days of war, Syrians have advanced a number of ways to cope with their circumstances. Ahmed, a resident of Aleppo, tells Raseef22 that for the past two years, he decided to only wear black or dark grey, and to walk alongside the walls.
“For years, I lived in the al-Ashrafieh neighborhood, and the street where I lived was monitored by a sniper who killed dozens of residents. Yet, I still had to go to work every day, and so I would avoid wearing bright colors, so as not to pique the sniper’s interest and trigger his appetite to kill. I also avoided walking in the middle of the road. These habits I developed helped me feel a bit safer,” he explains.
As for Mazen, another Aleppo local, he hardly ever finds a clean fork or spoon at home, because of the constant water disruptions, and so he has grown accustomed to eating with a knife, straight out of tuna or sardine cans.
“I fall asleep easily to the sound of shelling and shooting now. The only thing that will wake me up is the announcement that the water has come back,” he says.
Disguises on the Border
“Our neighbor Umm Fada’s life, and that of her 12-year-old daughter, became a living nightmare when her husband was killed. He worked as a driver, and died in an airstrike on the suburbs of Aleppo." Tells us Maha (28), "Following his death, she endured difficult days in Raqqa, one of Islamic State’s remaining strongholds. This was aggravated by the pressures imposed on women by Islamic State forces to marry them off to militants. She decided to escape from this hell, and we encouraged her. My father decided to help her by hosting her at our house in Turkey, but she was shocked to find that women are not permitted to travel outside of the city without a male guardian."
“My father came up with a plan to get Fada and her mother out with a group of shepherds and farmers, as they are the only groups of people who are permitted to move outside of Raqqa with some degree of freedom. They travel in a truck, and there is little security supervision by Islamic State forces. The two of them disguised themselves as farmers, and she had to find a male volunteer who would impersonate her dead husband with his identification card,” she continues.
“Umm Fada told us over the phone that the plan worked, and that she and her daughter will cross the Turkish borders within days, after a long, difficult trip. When my father asked her about the person who volunteered to impersonate her husband, she told him everyone had refused. In the end, she had to resort to shaving her daughter’s head and claiming that she was her son.”
The tragicomic and peculiar has come to punctuate the landscape of six years of war in Syria.
The oddities and idiosyncrasies developed by Syrians as a means for coping and survival.
Khadija, 22, describes the bus drivers who work in Syria today as “clever diplomats”, particularly those who move between the areas of different military forces, and submit to interrogations and harassment at the different checkpoints. These drivers need to learn how to play along with the different camps and come up with various tricks and plans to get by.
“I was on a visit to my family in Idlib, and then I had to go back to the university in Aleppo. I called one of the drivers to book a ride, so he asked me to wear a wedding ring. I thought he was simply giving me some advice to avoid harassment at the checkpoints, since we were passing through about 18 different checkpoints belonging to both regime and opposition forces. There were five other female students on the bus, so the driver asked which of us did not have a male guardian. The six of us raised our hands, so he divided us and sat us with some older men and women, asking them to pretend as though we were their daughters-in-law. He gave my ID and that of another student to an old man, and asked him to keep them and to say we were his daughters-in-law. The old man nodded, but I was still very worried. I wasn’t sure it would work,” Khadija says.
“The bus took off, and at the third checkpoint, one of the al-Nusra Front officers opened the door and began checking everyone’s IDs. He got to the old man and asked him who was with him, so he said we were his daughters-in-law. This is Noura, he said, then he looked at me and fell silent. My heart skipped a beat, then a woman behind us whispered, ‘Khadija, Khadija’. So he said ‘Khadija’. The security officer was suspicious, so he asked for my parents’ names, but of course the old man had forgotten them. I tried whispering their names to him, but the officer stopped me.
“The old man just kept shaking his head, not saying a word, as though apologizing for the situation he put me in. At that point, the bus driver got off the bus and spoke to the officer, and began showering him with well-wishes and praying for his cause as he patted him on the shoulder. He then got on the bus and told me, ‘Everything’s fine, don’t worry.’ And we took off again.”
Hossam, a young Syrian man who was imprisoned between 2012 and 2013 by the Syrian regime forces for protesting, says: “On August 23, 2012, exactly three months had passed since my detainment in a security unit in Damascus. The prison guard opened the door of the underground cell I was sharing with 47 other inmates. He called out seven names, including mine, and asked us to prepare ourselves. We rejoiced, thinking we were about to be released. Other cellmates began congratulating us and asking us to remember their loved ones’ phone numbers."
“Out of sheer optimism, I decided to take off my underwear, which had grown putrid after three months of being worn, day-in and day-out. One of the cellmates warned me to wait a while, lest it turn out not to be time for our release, but I didn’t listen."
“They transferred us to another unit, and once we arrived there, the warden asked us to strip down to our underwear. Though we were about to enter a torture cell, everyone started laughing at me once I took off my clothes, since I was the only one without underwear. I spent three days like that. We would spend the whole day in the courtyard, where I was subjected to additional abuse. Finally, one of the inmates gave me a pair of shorts to me, and I spent yet another three months in them, before I was released.”
“When I recall those times, I start to laugh, but invariably, the laughter turns into tears later,” Hossam concludes.
A Veiled Man
A solitary wanderer, he speaks to no one, and smiles at everyone. Children gather around him. This is all the locals know about Souheil, the young man who lives alone in a basement in an Idlib sidestreet. Ahmed, one of the locals, says that Souheil is ever-present in the locals’ daily gossip. Envied for his perpetual state of detachment, he has become the subject of common musings and aphorisms. Struck by the difficulties of daily existence, the residents find themselves wishing they were “just like Souheil”, completely unperturbed by their surroundings.
Unlike everyone else, Souheil did not listen to the news or discuss politics, as though supporters or opposition forces were all the same to him. “He was unaware of the political developments around him; the only observable change in his life is the power-cuts, and the security checkpoint that was set up by his house in 2013,” Ahmed says.
In the first months of 2015, when armed opposition forces took over Idlib, Ahmed explains that they “spent three days inside the house during the clashes. We only came out after things settled down, and Jaish al-Fath had taken control of the city, eliminating the regime checkpoints. When I came out the first day to buy food, I found Souheil walking down the street, wearing a veil like a lady, as some children followed him laughing. A few people tried to convince him to remove the veil, but he refused.”
“Perhaps he sensed the danger and thought this would be the best way to protect himself against new fighters, particularly since the Islamist forces that took over forced little girls to wear the veil,” Ahmed concludes.
Such tragicomic oddities have come to mark the landscape of six years of war, as the pursuit of survival becomes an increasingly impossible task for all Syrians.