This radio documentary about the lives of Damascene citizens on the edge – literally – of war is all the more compelling for being understated.
Nelofer Pazira – writer ( A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan), film-maker (Kandahar) and journalist – spent time in Damascus earlier this year, talking to its residents and thinking about poets, poetry, and history while she visited dangerous sites on the very edge of conflict, bearing witness to the effects of war. We hear gunfire and mortars in the background as she talks to people about their experiences, their many griefs, and their belief that their city will survive this conflict as it has survived every other conflict that has threatened to destroy it over centuries. Their assertion of the necessity to carry on with normal life includes the fact that they will eat in restaurants within 500 metres of the frontline, that they will take a brief and pointless train journey into dangerous territory for no other reason than that it reminds them of normality and asserts that they are not afraid to do it. Nelofer Pazira’s equivalent response – and courage – is evident in the fact that her voice doesn’t waver, not once, in her conversations with these extraordinarily brave people, all of them under fire from those who would annihilate their world and everything that they – and she – stand for.
The Damascene poet Nizar Qabbani is quoted extensively. Most memorable (to me, and in the context of this documentary) are these lines from “Damascus, What Are You Doing To Me?”:
My voice rings out, this time, from Damascus
It rings out from the house of my mother and father
In Sham. The geography of my body changes.
The cells of my blood become green.
My alphabet is green.
In Sham. A new mouth emerges for my mouth
A new voice emerges for my voice
And my fingers
Become a tribe
(Translated from Arabic by Shareah Taleghani (Words Without Borders)
Damascus, Nelofer Pazira tells us, is not a boundary between East and West but a gateway to both.
If you have any free time at all in the coming weeks – as the bombing raids on, and war in, Syria continue – take the time to sit and listen to this documentary and wonder what has become of the historians, journalists, shopkeepers and students who spoke to Pazira just a few months ago. Palmyra has already been destroyed. How long can Damascus survive?