Kassem Eid’s memoir moves through life in pre-war Syria to his time as a FSA resistance fighter and beyond. Beautifully written, captivating and horrific in equal parts, My Country: A Syrian Memoir is a must read, writes Clarissa Hjalmarsson.
In My Country: A Syrian Memoir, Kassem Eid writes with a warm, distinctive voice that captures moments of pre-war Syrian life with beauty and levity. Many of Eid’s tales of life in the Damascene suburb of Moadamiya are intensely relatable; this reader certainly identified with his experience of growing up as a bookworm and taking trips to the countryside with family. Throughout the memoir we hear about food, family, and neighbours, as well as the shock and lasting pain of losing a parent. However, intermingled with these familiar elements are those that many readers will not be able to identify with, such as young Kassem’s exposure to Baath Party propaganda and Hafez Al-Assad’s inescapable cult of personality at school, or his brother being steered into a ‘spontaneous’ political rally in support of the government.
Eid explains politics particularly well. He rejects lazy, imperialist descriptions of ‘intractable’ complexity or ‘internecine strife’ used to discuss almost any question of politics and identity in the Middle East, and to which many English-language readers are accustomed. Instead, in a handful of straightforward, well-timed paragraphs throughout the book, Eid provides simple explanations of the key differences between the majority Sunni, Shiite, and the ruling Alawite minority populations, and how power and control were historically distributed and entrenched in Syria. While My Country is undeniably written with political and humanitarian goals in mind, readers hoping for an uncomplicated and precise explanation of the current situation in Syria will be grateful for Eid’s clarity and insight.
The book seamlessly moves through Eid’s life: from his childhood and schooldays to the persistent discrimination he faces as a Palestinian-Syrian and Sunni, and how this curtails his academic progression and employability. Eid conveys the mood of his generation effortlessly, giving a fascinating account of the rapid westernisation following the death of Hafez Assad and the succession of his son, Bashar Assad. Eid describes the explosion of fear, joy and hope felt by millions of Syrians at the thought of change as the Arab Spring begins, before the total horror of its brutal suppression. His accounts of the plainclothes regime agents, the shabiha, and their horrific, unprovoked assaults as part of a strategy to quash dissent, filled me with terror.
The starving resistance fighters listen to the same songs over and over, smoke anything they can find, browse pictures of food on the internet, and wish desperately for someone to hug.
Eid gives us insight unlike any I have read into the experience of becoming a resistance fighter, and what goes through an individual’s mind when they have lost and suffered enough that opposition becomes the only option. He was mobilised to fight on behalf of the FSA after the regime’s use of lethal chemical weapons on his neighbourhood on 21st August 2013. His account of using a gun for the first time, firing on enemy troops, and living off adrenaline and fury, is utterly compelling. Eid shows us not only the extraordinary courage and frenzied anger of the anti-regime FSA fighters during the day, but also the exhaustion and helplessness that seeps in during the evenings. The starving resistance fighters listen to the same songs over and over, smoke anything they can find, browse pictures of food on the internet, and wish desperately for someone to hug.
I was struck throughout My Country by the creativity of Eid and his fellow Syrians to continue existing in the face of repeated indignities, injustices, and discrimination, and ultimately war crimes and atrocities. We see years of determined resourcefulness, the realities of negotiating with old schoolfriends who have become the enemy, and the human processes that underpin both cruelty and compassion. The importance of communication and bearing witness recurs throughout the book: Syrians charge their mobile phones on makeshift generators powered by nail varnish and olive oil, and Eid persistently risks his life in order to give interviews to media outlets and shoot footage of Christmas under siege.
Countless injuries dot the book, before Eid’s personal pains are forgotten in the context of another, much greater, suffering
However, Eid also shows us how normal people break under the dire conditions of siege, and gives us a sense of the circumstances of chaos and deprivation in which warlords are able to grow up and flourish. Each chapter becomes more horrifying than the last, as torture becomes omnipresent, entire ways of life are bombed to oblivion, death and bullets are everywhere, and a grave must be dug for yet another bloated, swollen corpse of a friend who tried to break the siege. Countless injuries dot the book, before Eid’s personal pains are forgotten in the context of another, much greater, suffering. My Country makes us aware of the hundreds of tiny moments of luck and opportunity that separate Eid by a hair’s breadth from so many of his less fortunate compatriots; so few who find themselves at the extremes of this conflict are now able to tell their stories.
When international networks fail the trapped Syrians, individuals are able to provide help and hope – Eid credits many quietly heroic acts in the book. Nevertheless, these stories of individuals taking enormous personal risks to provide small relief to vulnerable citizens, or to provide testament to the appalling atrocities committed by the Assad regime, are underscored by their inability to fundamentally alter the course of the war. As the fighters burn rubbish for fuel during the cold winter, utterly without food, they discuss the Barcelona vs Real Madrid game unfolding in some distant part of the world; ultimately, this is a book about the power of ideas. Even in the face of unspeakable suffering, pain and hunger, Eid speaks with remarkable clarity of thought about the need for freedom and democracy, and the gulf between the conditions the FSA are fighting for and the measly concessions, riddled with compromise and humiliation, that they are offered.
This is a hugely accomplished piece of writing that achieves great things while remaining a simple and compelling read. Eid’s accounts of being drawn back to his ruined family home to look through the ruins and remember his past life is not only deeply moving, but also accomplished; at several points the text echoes the nasib of the pre-Islamic qasida, a verse in the traditional poetic structure in which the author returns to a ruined camp. As the bombardment and starvation of the siege continues, the text segues into Eid’s blogposts written during the siege and his symbolic hunger strike. Their reproduction verbatim in the book allows us a real-time insight into Eid’s increasingly tortured and unravelling mind.
Lucidly and point-by-point, My Country shows us how individuals and communities are encouraged to buy into the idea of an international order that prizes freedom, solidarity and justice above all, before these principles are exposed as hollow in Syrians’ time of need. Eid provides us with a glimpse into lives overshadowed by conflict, in which the promise of a common humanity is not experienced as slogans or symbolic rituals but the hope of peace and security. We begin to comprehend the horror of finding out that when red lines are repeatedly crossed, international politics only impede any meaningful humanitarian intervention in the name of democracy or human rights. The passages on Eid’s loss of hope at the decision not to prosecute Syrian officials for war crimes, and Obama’s deal with Russia, are some of the hardest to read in the book.
After the betrayal of continued inaction by the international community, even when confronted by proof of unspeakable atrocities, Eid writes, “[Assad] proved that, when confronted with absurd and unspeakable evil, the world will do everything in its power to look away”. Readers of this beautifully written, captivating and horrifying book will walk away wondering how the international community can imagine a long arc towards justice after the abandonment of the citizens of Syria.