Any place on its way to hell or already there has been preceded by stories like this. Small things that insist on attention and remain in memory, because that is the world people spontaneously create and sustain all the time in their daily lives when they are free to do so, alongside whatever authorities and governments and media regimes they may live under. Violence disrupts this everyday freedom, as it has disrupted even my memories from a distance. As various nations and political figures now take positions on the conflict and its outcome, as more deaths are reported daily and more weapons flow into the conflict, I think again of the desire for perspective that attended my trip.
With a few notable exceptions, like the pieces by Charles Glass cited earlier, I do not see much trace of the place I visited when reading mainstream articles on the current crisis in Syria from across the political spectrum in the U.S. It is a depopulated discourse, one as empty of people as the postcard images of Palmyra happened to be, the ones that I bought from the little boy. I read about tactics, strategy, and stereotypes, bereft of any connection to the everyday lives of the people whose fate is being decided and to that extent blind to the human costs. This impoverished rhetorical predisposition leaves me with a sense that the shadows cast by a monumental and perhaps ruinous political narcissism have already grown too dark to admit of reflection. I doubt if, say, Russia and China are any less attentive to their perceived national interests, but autocracy makes them less prone to the charge of hypocrisy and less vocal about internal divides. America, alongside Europe, has long aspired to a moral internationalism. But the weaknesses of this self-conception have become ever more apparent in the continuing “war on terror,” and the deep divisions of American domestic politics seem best to serve the interests of home-grown propagandists and opportunists. But narcissists are notoriously bad judges of the interests or needs of others, and it seems to me that entire human worlds have already disappeared into that inhospitable opacity, mostly silently, without remark or extended public conversation. Things could have been, could perhaps yet be, otherwise.
As a traveler, I am left with the idiosyncratic memories I have described, interior souvenirs of time and place. Syria continues to exist in my mind as I experienced it then, even though I know there are no tourists anymore and the Finnish Institute that hosted the conference I was attending now sits empty. The resulting simultaneity of the violent and the mundane, of now and then, is profoundly uncomfortable. Tipping points and talk of civil war, images of people ripped apart by artillery and bombs, and accounts of murdered children—the discrepancies between the place I recall and the one that I read about now in the papers are real and signal a moral breach that is widening. I write not to relieve but rather to heighten the contrasts between the increasingly sovereign domain of terror and that of the everyday and unexceptional. Of the two, only the latter provides an empathic ground for the experience of horror at violence and atrocity inflicted upon others. Because surely there must be a better politics than this.
Sitting at my desk, considering how to conclude this piece, I can still turn a corner in my mind and see the place and people as they were, as I remember them. One last memory occurs to me, perhaps because at the time I took it for an anonymous political protest, or perhaps because it now seems a harbinger of what was to come. Near one of the old churches, an English graffiti was scrawled across a white wall, though I can’t remember now whether it angled upwards or downwards from left to right. A single phrase—simply, “the man who sold the world.”