Cornerstone Global Associates

Simeon Stylites (must fall off his column)

Posted by: msomos on: February 23, 2012

(Photograph by the author)

Mark Somos, Cornerstone

The deaths in Syria, and my friends there, make me want to go. But if you're committed to one place, why not to others? And if to all, what can you do? "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all," and you become a coward or much worse: a self-righteous coward, with an argument.

Nearly fourteen years ago I spent months in Syria, visiting castles and world-class understudied archaeological sites for my BA. Trips to Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, France and Great Britain over six years rounded out a comparative survey of ruins and customs. In Syria I made many friends, and have kept in touch with many over the years. The stories I can tell. 

Vocation is another thing, interlocking with, but separable from the human interactions. Archaeology is undoubtedly the most exciting profession in the world. I'm albino and burn n number of times every summer; I grew an alligator skin in Syria. I'm pathologically scared of heights; I scaled 10+m unsupported and crumbling walls in Syria. I'm hopeless with languages; with constant note-taking and conversation I picked up enough Arabic and local dialects to get by. I don't relish violence; I got through several situations. I've tried replicating these results on holidays, only to fail miserably. There is something about approaching a vibrant past community's historical remains, and the vivacity of their connections to the present (I can tell stories), that make one suspend the self with extraordinary ease. I met people literally all over Syria, and heard and lived a thousand Arabian stories that would make you buy me a beer.

None of these should be relevant today. Not the story of Syrian hospitality; not the morning songs that rise and soar over Damascus; not the kids diving from the crazy water wheels of Hama; not the shimmer over incredible Palmyra; not the vibrant red tels and hills; not the northern deserts' unsung family graves; not the majestic Gothic arches and bats of Crac de Chevaliers; not the improbable suspense of Saone's visionary drawbridge and the surreal motorbike ride there; not the Byzantine commanding imperialism of Marqab and its heart-stoppingly private, intimate frescoes; not Belvoir's chess-like, iron-cast yet elegance-minded gamesmanship; and not the boat ride to Arwad with all passengers' hands linked over the cabin's roof to stop one another slipping from the three-inch foothold, the other hand grabbing on to whomever's child happens to be running around, unconscious of the deep. Talk of interdependence. Making any of this relevant to my point would debase it. 

Syria is on fire today. You must have seen the news. The death of Syrian, and now American and French journalists, together with an untold number of civilians, is a constant fourth- and fifth-column news item. Homs, Hama, and Latakia were flashpoints, as historically they have always been. Ask yourself: did the tributes to Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik make you feel differently than the statistics about the Syrian dead? How about brave Edith Bouvier, begging for extraction? Did it change your mind? If it did, did that make you reassess your perspective? Are you becoming a better person by widening your scope of allegiance, or have you already found a comfort zone too tempting to ever abandon? What are you going to do? 

It is equally wrong to sub-alternise and idealise Syrians. The friend/enemy binarism of the reptilian brain, legal scholar and war correspondent, prevents us perfectly from identifying with the object of our news, be they heroes or villains. There is nothing other-like in Syrians. They are very much like us. Given circumstances, both historical and contemporary, they ARE us. That's not a rhetorical gesture, but a point of fact. I do know that the rhetorical point has been made for millennia, and I'd be proud to only add a small voice: we are responsible for one another. It may be biological, moral, or it may be a divine imperative. Yet the intermingling of races and cultures takes us beyond this rhetorical point. The chances are that you have Levantine ancestry and/or neighbours. I'm actually too angry to care (and should you imagine I'm ranting, I have a wallful of cold degrees to give me a seat at The Conceited Table). 

It seems to me we should do more to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria. I hope writing is not the best that I can do. I hope you do something, too. Otherwise your voice will self-negate, and your self-image back-fire. In sum, the international community's criminal lack of involvement in the Syrian violence today must make us sit up and act, choosing the risk of naïveté over complicity in mass murder. I don't know what's left of us if we don't. No solipsist could live with self-disgust, and no survivalist with setting a standard of extreme uncare to his kids. That covers the logical extremes. No half-way decent human, let alone intellectual, should be institutionally indulged in a self-cuddling race to the moral bottom, and beyond.

The obvious objection, namely that we cannot take on all the problems of this world, makes no sense to me. There must be a reason why we chose and kept our profession. When farmers, plumbers, builders, medics, and other non-academic friends talk to me, I know how to answer. I do what I do because, being dumb and inept, I believe that being a historian and a lawyer is my best shot at helping others, making an achingly small contribution that stops me being righteously labelled a parasite. I admire the Bardo Thodol ritual of repaying the world in full, and wish I could live up to it. I can't. But likewise I cannot ignore flagrant bloodshed, when clearly we can do something about it, and stop pretending that writing or giving more to high-overhead Western charities is enough to assuage our conscience. 

Regard this entry as a question. Having looked into your heart, in the stillness of your conscience, should you do something about Homs? My friends live there.