Jerusalem: Seventy Years of Displacement and Resistance

On 29 November, I gave a talk in Berlin about occupied Jerusalem. I discussed Israel’s multi-layered system of dispossession, control and discipline in the city, Palestinian resistance against erasure and repression, and the importance of replacing the liberal discourse on Palestine with an emancipatory, decolonial approach. You can watch the full video of the talk here:

And you can check out the Q&A session here:


“Can You Hear Us?”: Letter to Niraz Saied

Niraz picture

The world is a heap of people, a sea of tiny flames.

Each person shines with his or her own light. No two flames are alike. There are big flames and little flames, flames of every color. Some people’s flames are so still they don’t even flicker in the wind, while others have wild flames that fill the air with sparks. Some foolish flames neither burn nor shed light, but others blaze with life so fiercely that you can’t look at them without blinking, and if you approach you shine in fire.

—Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces (Translated by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer)

Have I ever told you, dear Niraz, that you are one of those flames that blazes with life so fiercely that it overpowers anyone who approaches with warmth and spark? I took your presence for granted, perhaps, and forgot to tell you how fortunate, how immeasurably privileged, I have been to approach your fueguito, your little flame, to listen to you, to call you my friend and my compañero.

An award-winning photographer based in Yarmouk, you’ve become known for capturing with your lens the daily life in the besieged refugee camp, the stories of people, their struggle for survival, their fears, dreams, and the small details that often go unnoticed. Your photo, “The Three Kings,” won the first prize in a photography contest organized by UNRWA, and you co-directed a film about Yarmouk Refugee Camp. I was supposed to interview you about the film, life inside the camp, and what it’s like to be a non-white “war photographer” and live under siege. But what started out as an interview via Skype on that lovely November afternoon, turned into a conversation about Palestine, Syria, the left, your accent, our mutual friends, and our shared frustrations. In 1948, your grandparents were displaced from the ethnically-cleansed Palestinian village of Awlam near Tiberias. Awlam is today completely destroyed but its beautiful spring remains, and you talk about it as if you’ve been there and tasted its water. My grandmother used to herd the sheep near Awlam in the 1950s, and she knows the spring, too. She relishes her memories there. Zionists denied you the right of forming your own physical memory in Awlam, but they couldn’t strip you of your connection and belonging to the village.

As our interactions became more frequent, your energy, passion, and kindness became all the more astounding. I’d add that your courage was tremendous, too, but you would refuse to call yourself courageous. You would mention your love of Víctor Jara, Eduardo Galeano, and Ghassan Kanafani. And when you spoke of Yarmouk, you’d make those of us who’d never been inside the camp feel that we also knew every corner, and that we, too, played football on its streets. “The camp is the essence of the Palestinian story,” you’d proclaim, even while sensing that the camp you knew so well wouldn’t ever be the same.

“Yarmouk as we know it is gone forever,” you said back in November 2014. “It is either heading towards complete decimation or becoming an Islamic emirate.”

While you tried to remain positive, it was getting increasingly harder not to be grim.

And we, Palestinians inside Palestine, failed Yarmouk and its people. We did not speak out against the siege and shelling loudly and strongly enough; we did not genuinely treat the plight of Syria’s Palestinian camps as an inseparable part of the Palestinian cause; we did not support the people of Yarmouk the way they have supported us during every single Israeli attack and incursion. And many of us only started caring when Islamic State fighters stormed the Camp, and when it was too late to care.

You were among those forced to flee the camp when the Islamic State occupied much of it in April 2015. “I’m sure that life will finally do you justice, that you will finally get the chance to reunite with Lamis, your fiancée,” I assured you. You smiled. Your smile a little flame, blazing with life, lighting the universe.

But does it make any difference if I say that now? Will my words make it past the borders and barbed wire, the checkpoints and sniper towers, the walls and the guards, and somehow reach your cell? Is there room on the walls of your windowless prison cell for one more scribble and one last desperate supplication?

Can you hear us? Amid the screams of tortured detainees and squeals of starving inmates, can you hear us?

Amid the shouts of guards and curses of interrogators, can you hear us?

Can you hear the tremor in the hearts of those who love you and their collective heartbeat? There are countless hearts, Niraz, pounding and fluttering and shaking at the very possibility of one more crumb of information about you. There are countless stretched arms, dearest Niraz, waiting to be wrapped around you, to hold onto you, to keep you strong, to make sure you never feel alone, forgotten or abandoned.

Can you feel us?

And if all voices drown and all words evaporate, you cannot fail to spot Lamis’ voice. She counts on the strength and ferocity of her love to protect you. She does not have the wings of an angel to carry you to freedom, but she has never stopped believing, or at least she refuses to stop believing in your salvation. She writes to you every day and once you are released, she will read her letters to you out loud, and you will probably feel them to be familiar. Lamis refuses to utter the word “if” when she refers to your release. For her, it’s always “when.”

“When Niraz gets out, we will do this and that,” she always says.

But doubts may be setting in.

On 2 October 2015, over two years ago, Syrian security forces took you without warrant or explanation. You survived years of siege and shelling in Yarmouk, but you were taken from a place you thought was safer.

During the first few months of your detention, not a day would pass without reassurances. Your release is a question of days or weeks at worst, Lamis was repeatedly told, but it was not supposed to take long. More than two years later, we don’t know whether you are alive or dead. Dead? Did I even contemplate this word?

Hope is a revolutionary act, some say. Despair is betrayal, too. I refuse to relinquish hope and so does Lamis, but your ongoing absence is stretching our capacity for perseverance to its very limits. You have now joined the ranks of Syria’s disappeared: the tens of thousands of women and men hidden somewhere by Syrian security forces without leaving a trace. Writing “tens of thousands of disappeared” is heavy enough. Thinking about the faces behind this figure, the horrifying fate awaiting them, the anguish, helplessness, and alienation that their families and loved ones are condemned to, is even more suffocating.

Dear Niraz,

Before fleeing Yarmouk, you reiterated that if you could choose between dying under shelling, or dying under torture in prison, you would choose the former. I could offer no appropriate response except to think that people in Syria deserve a more humane diversity of choices. They deserve to think where and how they want to live, not by which means they prefer to die. And it is this utter inhumanity of choices and the breathtaking standards of brutality to which Syrians are subjected that makes me, unconsciously, wish for a more “conventional” punishment. The cruelty of forced disappearance makes me hope that Syrians would just be put on trial. It doesn’t have to be a fair trial and the conditions in jail can be awful, but if only we could have access to them, know where they are being held, and be able to actually protest their arrest even if this protest were futile.

Unconsciously, and with a massive sense of guilt, I am now treating imprisonment as a relative blessing when contrasted with forced disappearance.

Do you see how much we have been distorted, Niraz? Imprisonment is inhuman; detention is inhuman; physical torture is inhuman; psychological torture is human, and no such thing exists as “regular” imprisonment. We should never allow oppressors to put us in a place where we prefer one form of cruelty and repression over another.

But if only you would give us a sign, Niraz. Give us a sign that you are still alive, that you can hear us, that you can feel how much we yearn to you.

We will cope with the burden of waiting; we will resist the inclination to normalize “conventional” punishment and repression; we will continue to dig holes through the walls of silence and complacency until they collapse, but give us a sign so we can exorcise our doubts.

I owe you a cup of coffee on the steps of Damascus Gate and a long walk around Jerusalem’s Old City, remember? I will never be tired of waiting for the day I can fulfill this promise. Stick to your promise to us and cling to life, for there are more beautiful and more just days ahead. For you, for Lamis, and for all of us.


They’re out there somewhere / all assembled

disassembled / bewildered / voiceless

each seeking the others / seeking us

hemmed in by their question marks and doubts

with their eyes on the ironwork in the plazas

the doorbells / the shabby rooftops

sorting through their dreams / forgotten memories

perhaps recovering from their private deaths

no one has told them yet for sure

if they’re gone for good or not

if they’re banners now or tremors

survivors or prayers for the dead

they see trees and birds go by

and wonder which shadows are theirs

when they first started disappearing

three five seven ceremonies ago

disappearing as if they were ghosts

with no trace or face or good reason

they glimpsed through the window of their absence

what was left behind / that scaffold

of embraces sky and smoke

when they first started disappearing

like the oasis in a mirage

disappearing with no last words

they still held in their hands the pieces

of things they loved

they’re out there somewhere / in the clouds or a grave

they’re out there somewhere / of that I’m certain

in the dear southern reaches of my heart

it may be they’ve lost their bearings

and now they wander asking always asking

where the fuck is the road to true love

because they’re coming from so much hate

—Mario Benedetti, The Disappeared (Translated by Louise B. Popkin)

The Missing Bond of Solidarity

I despise all forms of nationalism and patriotism. To achieve genuine emancipation and self-determination, I believe that the oppressed should look for alternatives other than nation-states and closed borders.

If the history of national liberation struggles has taught us anything, it would be to never trust the national bourgeoisie. Once independence is achieved, the all-too familiar modes of exploitation, domination, and injustices will be reproduced by the new ruling elites under the guises of nationalism and protecting sovereignty.

Calls for social justice will be silenced in favor of, we will be told, more pressing, security related issues. We will be told that now is not the time to fight for public education, free healthcare, disability benefits, and affordable housing; that now is not the time to fight against gender discrimination, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and violence against women; that now is not the time to criticize the government, end militarization, or protest repression, police brutality, and attacks on our individual freedoms.

We will be told instead that now is the time to privatize everything, including the air we breathe, which will enrich a small elite. We will be told that, to protect our new borders, we must buy arms, more arms, and even still, more arms.

Discrimination against ethnic minorities will be justified by a deep-seated clinging to past grievances and perpetual cycles of retaliation and oppression. Those “from below,” the poor, the unemployed, the misfits, the nobodies, and the outlaws will mostly remain below after independence, despite the fact that they were the actual—albeit invisible—leaders of the liberation struggle.

But none of this means that we should abandon the struggle or accept foreign occupation. What it does mean is that we should also be aware of the glaring limitations of any movement whose exclusive focus is on nationalism and statehood. We should resist the cooptation of the struggle by self-appointed, corrupt, authoritarian demagogues who mask their hunger for power with a populist, nationalist discourse, not without the necessary false promises of democracy and prosperity. And we should save ourselves the pain of disillusionment by preparing ourselves for a long, perhaps even more draining, post-independence battle.

Kurdistan will not be an exception. Neither will Palestine, Kashmir, or Western Sahara for that mtter.

And yet, despite fully acknowledging that—despite strongly opposing the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP); despite realizing that its authoritarian leader Masoud Barzani is employing nationalist propaganda and exploiting collective grievances to serve personal and factional interests; and despite major reservations on his motives for declaring the referendum—I could only stand in solidarity with the Kurds who voted on 25 September in what was undoubtedly an historic occasion for them.

It was impossible not to shed a tear or two while listening to Kurdish women and men, some of them are survivors of the Anfal genocide, express their joy and demand that the world take notice and respect their choices. I could not contain my rage as anti-Kurdish statements and bigoted, arrogant rhetoric and threats poured from Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad. The hypocrisy of Arab nationalists who support Catalan independence but not Kurdish independence is appalling, but predictable. Notwithstanding their support of Kurdish fighters in the battle for Kobane, the lack of solidarity from most Arabs with the Kurdish cause cannot be overlooked.

Kurds feel betrayed and left alone. When they fight ISIS they are praised and backed by western powers, but when they peacefully call for self-determination, they are vilified and denounced. Their sectarian neighbors disagree on a host of issues, but appear united in demonizing Kurds and inciting against them.

You do not have to agree with the tactics, and you certainly do not have to support the dominant Kurdish parties in order to support Kurdish right to self-determination. You can be critical of the KDP in Iraq, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Rojava/Northern Syria, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, while still siding with Kurdish liberation and Kurdish rights. It is not complicated, really. As Palestinians, many of us are staunchly opposed to Fatah, Hamas, and the entire Palestinian political class while still insisting that the Palestinian cause should not be reduced to those powers.

One image I could not erase from mind, however, was the constant raising of the Israeli flag in Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil. While the extent of the relations between the State of Israel and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) can be debated, the existence of these relations is quite transparent. Israel’s support for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is not a secret, although the motives of this support have nothing to do with supporting self-determination for the oppressed. The possibility of normalized relations between Israel and an independent Kurdistan is very likely, too. And it hurts. But what hurts more is hearing Kurds say that “Palestine is an Arab issue, why should we care about it?” or “Israel is not our enemy, but rather the enemy of Arabs.”

Some go as far as praising Israel as a beacon of democracy and pluralism in the Middle East, echoing Zionist propaganda, word for word. It is not surprising to hear it come from politicians and elites because it perfectly fits their agenda, but to hear these arguments from the people of Kurdistan—to see the Israeli flag being carried by people who call for liberation—is incredibly disappointing, for the Palestinian cause is not merely an Arab issue; it is an anti-colonial struggle against an ethnocratic state that has one of the strongest militaries in the world and that enjoys the full and unconditional support of the United States.

This is not the place to discuss the myriad forms of oppression and subjugation that Israel perpetrates against Palestinians; nor do I intend to begin yet another tedious comparison between the brutalities of Israel and the brutalities of Arab regimes. Ideally, if you are committed to emancipation and liberation in your country, you are expected to support the liberation struggle of your fellow oppressed people from a settler-colonial state that has ruled over them for over 69 years. You cannot chant azadi while raising a flag that stands for ethnic cleansing, land theft, occupation, and white supremacy.

The position of many Palestinians, particularly of the Palestinian political elite, on the Kurdish issue has been shameful indeed. Any critique of Kurds who embrace Israel will be incomplete without first condemning the Palestinians who support regimes that strip Kurds (and Arabs) of their rights. Siding with oppressive, racist regimes is never justified even when done in the name of realpolitik. Palestinians who glorify Erdogan and gloss over Turkey’s oppression of Kurds, or who previously supported the genocidal Saddam Hussein, make a massive moral mistake. And so do Kurds who support Israel and whitewash its crimes and occupation.

In a slightly less twisted reality, Palestinians and Kurds should be standing side-by-side against all the powers that try to crush them. What unites us as peoples in terms of history of struggle, aspirations and shared yearnings for freedom is much more than what divides us.

Is it possible to get over past grievances and prejudices, and forge a bond of solidarity between the Palestinian people and the Kurdish people? I believe that this will never happen as long as we are driven by nationalism and nationalist sentiments, rather than the universal commitment to justice and freedom.

Meanwhile, we can just take heart from the fact that in several pro-Palestine protests in Europe, some Kurdish activists participated; and that in some pro-Kurdish events, a few Palestinians participated, too. They are few and nowhere near as visible or promoted as the Kurds who are pictured raising the Israeli flags, but they give us hope. They give us hope that perhaps one day we can chant azadi and hurriyeh in one voice; that we can overcome the divisiveness of nationalism; and that we can learn to prioritize solidarity over ethnic grievances.

Ode to Fallen Dreamers

Syrian Revolutionary Youth Banner

“The only revenge to which I aspire is witnessing the triumph of the noble ideals for which I fought, and for which so many men and women in this country have lost their lives and their freedom.”

— Marcos Ana, communist poet who spent 23 years in General Franco’s prisons

For those of us not living under shelling or siege in Syria, we have the luxury of avoiding or trying to avoid viewing the public spectacle of cruelty and death.

In a futile attempt at escaping the current horrors in Aleppo and Idlib, I sought to take shelter under the familiar instead: the Syrian uprising’s vast visual archive of demonstrations, sit-ins, flash-mobs, and graffiti campaigns.

Through the footage we’ve inherited, we are witness to even the most miniscule of protests in the rural, long-forsaken peripheries, each significant enough for somebody to upload to YouTube along with their greatest of hopes.

Syrian Revolutionary Youth Graffiti

Whether having access to such a memory trove is a blessing or a curse, I now have no idea. What I am certain of is that my sinking into nostalgia has proved to be an equally painful place, for today I know the future that was to await the hopeful.

When Syrians originally published this footage, we read it as a testament to The World and to fellow Syrians of their existence. Years later in hindsight, we might now wonder if they had also hoped to ensure that when the inevitable flames of nihilism and civil war burn down their land—present and future—they would still be able to salvage fragments of their collective memory from the ashes of revisionism. That maybe they sought to preserve a corpus of uncontestable evidence to prove to themselves that they did indeed rise up—that this was not a fleeting daydream. That even after the conqueror and his jubilant entourage take a victory lap on the ruins of their homeland, Syrians could still hang on to the songs they once sang, the streets they once marched on, the squares they once possessed.

To cope with my helplessness in the face of carnage; to guard the remaining shreds of my sanity; to convince myself that 2011 and 2012 actually happened and were not a chapter mistakenly thrown out of a dystopian novel, I often feel the need to go back to those videos, particularly the ones uploaded by the Syrian Revolutionary Youth. I chant with them, gasp at their courage, and wonder: How many of those chanting in the videos are still alive? Is it easier to count the living than to count the now dead among them?

How could such a flickering outburst of hope be so haunting, so unimaginably rousing? How could the voices of a group of fearless youngsters be so loud, louder than the missiles, louder than the bullets, louder than the raucous chorus praising the Eternal Leader, and louder than the bombastic speeches given by sectarian preachers with millions of followers on social media?

Syrian Revolutionary Youth Banner showing their chants for bread, freedom and social justice

Remember when the Syrian Revolutionary Youth chanted for bread, freedom and social justice at a time when the elites of the political opposition insisted that this revolution was mainly about liberty and electoral democracy?

Remember when they gathered in their Damascene neighborhood of Rukneddine and serenaded Gaza, and then one of their comrades, a Palestinian refugee from Haifa, added: “O, Haifa, we’re with you till death!”?

Remember how they worked and organized together, men and women, not because of an imposed quota but because they genuinely believed in gender equality?

Remember how they mocked and rejected foreign intervention at a time when the elites of the political opposition were busy groveling to the United States and other outside powers?

Remember how they opted to remain independent and refused external funding when many, more famous groups had already begun to rely on foreign aid dictated by donor agendas?

Remember how they braved the crackdown and defied Syria’s notorious intelligence and security apparatus, week in and week out until June 2013, to show their support for besieged towns and cities?

Remember how encouraging their stance for real national unity was amid rising incitement and fearmongering?

“Syrian Revolutionary Youth” channel on Youtube

It probably matters little now, but they deserve to be remembered and honored.

They were beautiful and they were young, and they had hearts as big as Syria.

They were stubborn, erratic and slightly reckless. And they were outrageously courageous—far too courageous.

Now many of them have gone so soon, without goodbyes. They are gone now, but their voices remain and, alongside that, our permanent guilt.

It was on 30 December 2013 that nine members of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth were arrested by Syrian security forces: two were abducted from college in the afternoon and seven were taken from a house in Rukneddine in a night raid.

Six of them were killed under torture in Syrian regime jails, one by one, dream by dream: Roudin Ajek, Fayez al-Ayoubi, brothers Muaz and Qusai Burhan, Amer Zaza, and Imad Ghanam.

In December 2014, Amer and Imad’s deaths under torture were finally confirmed, months after their actual death, by a cold, ruthlessly indifferent phone call from security forces to their family members: “Your brother is dead. Come receive his identification card and belongings.”

Syrians are repeatedly asked to provide hard evidence to corroborate claims of massacres by the Syrian regime. But how can the parents, relatives, and friends of those killed under torture present such proof when all they are given is a wet piece of paper and the last scarf worn by their loved ones during their arrest? How can they satisfy the neutral, professional obsession with accuracy and verification when they have no clue where their beloved are buried, if buried at all, how they were tortured, and even why they were taken in the first place?

Imad Ghanam was not yet twenty-six when he was killed under torture. A founding member of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, an unarmed leftist collective in Damascus, Imad was first arrested along with two other members of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth in November 2012. They survived and were released in February 2013.

Months later, on 31 May 2013, Palestinians marked the Global Day of Solidarity with the Syrian People by holding a small protest in occupied Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. Imad asked me to carry a banner for the Syrian Revolutionary Youth during that protest. “This way we can fulfill our dream of visiting Jerusalem, if only through a banner.”

His eloquence and political maturity were striking, and his commitment to the Palestinian cause was remarkable. “The Palestinian struggle has inspired our revolution,” he added, “and Palestine is present in our protests not only through the flags, signs, and chants, but also through the Palestinian refugees who protest with us all the time.”

Imad had moved to Egypt following his release. He stayed there only briefly before deciding to go back to Syria. It was risky, but the young man was too attached to Syria and to the uprising and chose them over the safety of exile.

I could not get in touch with Imad again after his return to Syria. I could never tell him how much I missed him or ask him how he was doing.

When you have friends who live under the imminent threat of arrest, forced disappearance, or shelling, make sure to constantly remind them how much they mean to you. Do not postpone the call or the message until tomorrow for tomorrow may never come. Savor your conversations with them, hold on to their memories, cherish their smiles, remember their first words and the final song you shared with them. Do not simply expect that they will reply the next time you write or call. And do not take their presence for granted.

Another friend whose presence we took for granted is Jihad Asa’ad Muhammad. Perhaps it was because he was outspoken and prolific. Maybe it was because his writings articulated all that we failed to say, or maybe because we thought he was too strong for absence. But it has been three years, four months and seven days since his arrest. The man who powerfully portrayed the heroic struggle of the mothers of the disappeared in Syria, is now himself forcibly disappeared.

When you have friends who disappear, you first count the days since anyone last heard from them. The days then turn into months. Now, we are counting in years. These years flirt with our fading hope and test our fragile resolve yet we cling to the mothers’ unshakable faith. Umm Jihad’s heart tells her that he will return soon, and you must always trust a mother’s heart. Somehow.

But when Jihad is released, how will we look him in the eye and admit that the revolution has been defeated? That Syrians have been trapped between an emboldened dictator and a litany of warlords vying for power and control and profiting from people’s suffering? That our demands have been reduced to merely pleading with experts, analysts and war tourists to just shut up for a moment so that we might mourn in silence and count our dead in peace?

When Jihad is released and asks us about Homs, Aleppo, Qalamoun, Mleiha, Harasta, Zabadani, Douma and Yarmouk, what are we supposed to say?

And when he asks us about his friends who we know have been killed under torture or about his family that has been dispersed and torn apart, do we just point to the wreckage or to his father’s grave and remain silent? Or do we simply ask him to sing? Sing for the fallen and for those fooling death; sing for the shattered dreams, the Syria that might have been, and for dreamers who will never be forgotten?

“In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing

About the dark times.”

“The End of the World”: A Poet’s Journey from Yarmouk to Algiers


On 25 November, 2015, Dima Yousef, her mother and two sisters landed in the Algerian capital. Her mother had decided that living in war-torn Syria was a gamble that the family could no longer risk.

Dima Yousef, a 30-year-old poet and Arabic language teacher, is the third of five siblings. Born and raised in Yarmouk refugee camp in the southern outskirts of Damascus, Dima belongs to a family uprooted from the Palestinian village of Hosheh, east of Haifa. The village had been the site of a fierce battle between the Arab Liberation Army and Haganah terrorists in April 1948. It fell to the Haganah’s Carmeli Brigade on the 16th of that month, forcing all residents to flee either to neighboring villages or to Lebanon and later to Syria, where Dima’s grandparents settled.

A lone palm tree, a graveyard and some ruins bear witness to what was once a peaceful agricultural community. Physically destroyed, Hosheh was revived through the stories and memories passed on by the survivors to the second and third generations of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias in 1948.

When Dima bid Damascus a final farewell, she was overwhelmed by the jarring sense of permanent loss and uprooting, the feeling experienced and often articulated by Nakba survivors in Yarmouk.

There are no regular power cuts and fuel shortages in Algiers, no random mortar shells or military checkpoints tearing the city asunder. Yet, somehow, Dima always felt “safer” in Damascus. “It would be ungrateful of me to complain or talk about nostalgia,” Dima told me. “I am lucky to be alive, to have a room of my own, but I miss everything about Damascus, even all those long days without electricity.”

Upon leaving Damascus, Dima could only fit her most precious belongings in her bag, including the books a dear friend had given her. But she left behind a heart torn in two: one piece lay in the timeless streets of Damascus’ Old City; the other remains in Yarmouk, or what is left of it.

Dima is eloquent in her vivid poetry, yet still struggles to put into words what she misses most about Yarmouk. She hasn’t been able to set foot in the camp for over three years, and deep down, she knows she will never go back again.

“No, not just the streets, the alleys, the houses or my memories that are still floating there. Not just people’s faces, their clear eyes, their raw emotions and their astounding intimacy. These are not the only things I miss about Yarmouk,” Dima writes.

“Not just my father’s grave, the presence of which I haven’t gotten used to yet. Not only do I miss the things I used to possess, the things that were mine: my home, my family, my friends, my life.

Life! This is precisely what I miss the most when I think about the camp. Life, in all of its noise, its anguish, and its exhaustion. Yarmouk and its people were masterful at imbuing everything around them with life, pulse, warmth and spark.

‘Yarmouk never sleeps,’ this is what anyone who knew the camp used to say. It never slept as though it were scared of missing something. Yarmouk has always been true to this habit. And even when death arrived, Yarmouk stayed awake and missed none of it.”


It was in July 2013, just before Syrian government forces had imposed a full siege on the camp, that Dima and her family fled Yarmouk. Dima had to face so many losses: the high schoolers she used to teach, who were both her students and her friends in Yarmouk; her home in the camp, which was destroyed by shelling; her father, who succumbed to his wounds in that same month after being shot by a sniper.

Death by a sniper, Dima would later conclude, is still more merciful than the slow death under siege.

In an untitled poem, translated by Fawaz Azem, Dima explains that her father “would have surely been destroyed by his indignation at seeing hunger rampaging on the bodies of the young, unstoppable!”

She goes on to say:

Thank you, bullet that claimed father’s life before it was claimed by indignation!

Thank you, sniper, who performed his ablution with his blood!

Thank you father’s blood, which brought closure to the scene!

In another cruel twist, Dima, then encouraged by friends to begin seriously contemplating the idea of publishing her first poetry collection, was arrested by Syrian security forces on 27 November 2014. The reason for her arrest was a complaint presented against her two years earlier. It stated that she was “active” on Facebook pages opposing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Dima has been explicit in her support for peaceful protests and has spoken out against repression. Yet, she has never considered herself an activist, arguing that rejecting injustice and oppression is the natural thing to do, not a form of activism.

“I’m not a hero and what I faced in prison pales in comparison to what most detainees go through,” Dima reiterates. “You do not need to be a political activist to express solidarity with people under siege and shelling.”

Dima believes she was lucky not to have been tortured or humiliated like the others. She spent two weeks in detention, but knows that people can spend years and even die in Syrian prisons on the basis of reports linking them to political activism.

“A year ago today, I learned that there are places that God never visits,” Dima wrote on the first anniversary of her arrest, referring to the security branches run by the Syrian government.

Although she often preferred not to rub that unscabbed wound, in an unpublished diary entitled “The End of the World,” Dima tried, for the first time, to articulate what her experience in detention was like.

“Now I know what the end of the world looks like,” she begins.

It is a wall covered with many scribblings and indecipherable words written by the prisoners; a wall filled with pleas and the counting of endless vanishing days; a wall that testifies to the voices of those who try to create noise out of the inaudible screams buried in their throats.

I would open my eyes and close them to a prayer scrawled in black large letters, as if the person who wrote it had tried to release all the darkness and indignation inside her through one last supplication.

On prison walls, so many women left their names behind like stains of blood. With an eyeliner forgotten in one woman’s pocket, the edge of a button, or with their nails, they scratched the harsh face of truth embodied by a prison wall upon which life begins and ends.

Or perhaps, they simply wrote down their names to make sure that they still exist and that their names have not been thrown into oblivion.

In her prison diaries, Dima also remembers the screams of tortured detainees –the screams that are too painful for “just one heart and two ears” to handle – the everyday “tricks” used by women to cope and survive, and the wait for prison doors to open, for the guard to call names of those selected for release, and for the arrival of the “morning bus” –the bus that transfers detainees out of jail, “from a certain death to a possible life.”

She writes about her anger at being dragged to a corner by a prison guard and photographed by an officer, known as Abu Ali, without being allowed to smile.

“If only he’d let me smile, smile to all the faces of prisoners photographed for the last time of their life, by Abu Ali.”

During her two weeks in detention, Dima’s family insisted on maintaining utmost secrecy for fear of possible repercussions.

Dima, too, was reluctant to talk about her brief arrest due to the stigma associated with political detention and the fact that she was a public sector employee in Syria.

For Dima Yousef, exile and imprisonment bear many similarities: the alienation, the loneliness, the uncertainty, a feeling that time is frozen and that her life is on hold.

Dima is finding it hard to break free from the shackles of memory and longing just as she struggled after her release from prison.

Her free verse poetry gives her strength and solace.

The fact that her poems are only published on her personal Facebook page means that Dima’s poetry is yet to receive the publicity or the readership it deserves. But thanks to Azem’s translations, Dima’s poetry reached unexpected audience, when Chicago-based flautist Shanna Gutierrez adapted one of her poems into a musical composition.


“Songish” meant a lot to Dima, who is also a big fan of the flute. It reaffirmed her faith that poetry and music have the power to break borders she is forbidden from crossing, and show the human face of a tragedy mostly reduced to numbers and geopolitical calculations.

In a journey that continues to be marked by uncertainty and marred by individual and collective losses, Dima has no idea where life will take her next. What she does know for certain is that distance is measured by heartbeats rather than miles. And Yarmouk lives in each and every heartbeat.

How the Syrian Revolution has transformed me



The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.


Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.


When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”

I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.

I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.

I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.

All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.

“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.

I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.

And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.

I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.

I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.


The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.

It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.

It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged.

How can one not be inspired by a people rediscovering their voices, transforming folk songs and football chants into revolutionary chants? How can one not be taken aback by protests choreographed in front of tanks?


The Syrian geography was much more diverse and rich than that promoted by the regime and the official narrative collapsed as Syrians from the margins reconstructed their own narratives. The Syrian rainbow had many more colors than those permitted by the regime. And Syrians could raise their voices in places other than football stadiums, using their famous victory chant in public squares and streets to curse Hafez al-Assad, the “eternal leader.”


If Hafez al-Assad’s name could only be whispered with trembles before 2011, people at last could vociferously curse him and his son, shaking both the physical as well as the symbolic hegemony of this dynasty to its foundations.


I could not remain neutral as Syrians redefined the feasible and stretched the boundaries of people power, albeit briefly, during those early months of fatal hope.

Wouldn’t remaining impartial have been an act of treason to anything I claimed to stand for? How could I possibly read out Howard Zinn’s quote “You cannot be neutral on a moving train” to those sitting on the fence on Palestine, while I was doing the same on Syria? The Syrian revolution crumbled the fence from under me. I rediscovered my voice thanks to the mass mobilization I witnessed in Syria. I would listen to clips from Syrian protests, memorize their chants, and repeat them in Palestinian protests. Thinking of the fearlessness of Syrians would immediately make my voice louder and help make me overcome any slight semblance of fear.


You do not choose the nationality into which you were born but you don’t have to be bound by its shackles.

My Syrian identity, my sense of belonging to the Syrian revolution, was not forced onto me. I chose to adopt it. I never stepped foot in Syria. It was not until 2013 that I first met a Syrian not from the Occupied Golan Heights in the flesh, face to face. My main way of connecting with Syrians was and remains through social media and Skype. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel Syrian and completely identify with the struggle.

Until 2011, my talk about breaking borders and internationalist solidarity was but a soundbite, mere rhetorics. Thanks to the Syrian uprising, I finally understood what solidarity is really about.


I always expected people to support the Palestinian cause without imposing conditions, without preaching or lecturing, without dictating. When the Syrian uprising erupted, I acted exactly like those armchair preaches demanding a jasmine revolution from Palestinians, constantly asking us about the New Gandhi and MLK. But as the revolution went on, I could finally comprehend the true meaning of solidarity from below, a solidarity that is unconditional yet also critical. I saw how people like martyr Omar Aziz applied horizontal self-governance in some of the more conservative and traditional neighborhoods, and I learned from his model.

I learned the meaning of communal solidarity and Palestinian-Syrian togetherness from the Palestinian residents of Daraa refugee camp: they risked their lives to smuggle bread and medicine and break the siege on the rising city of Daraa. It was not just a humanitarian act; it was a political statement and the beginning of the formation of an identity, that of the Palestinian-Syrian revolutionary.


Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk, and Zaradasht Wanly, a Syrian youngster from Damascus, were both injured by Israeli occupation forces during “return marches” to the Golan Heights in 2011. Both Khaled and Zaradasht were murdered by the Syrian regime: the former was killed under torture, the latter was shot dead during a peaceful protest.


Syrians marched in solidarity with Gaza amid the rubble of their houses destroyed by Syrian regime air strikes. The Syrian Revolutionary Youth put out posters against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Naqab when most of the group’s members were in hiding, jails, exile, or graves.

Such is the solidarity of the oppressed which Syrians turned from rhetorics to practice. How can one not admire it?


If the Second Intifada in October 2000 shaped the political consciousness and national identity of an 11-year-old girl who had just left her tiny village to move to the city; the first wave of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 rebirthed a woman making her more confident steps in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, my city, the one I chose to call home, could not by any means be liberated by the oppressors of my people, of Syrians. Jerusalem’s spirit cannot be hijacked by those bombing a hospital carrying its name.

Far from struggling to reconcile my Palestinian and Syrian identity layers, The Syrian uprising made me even more committed to the struggle for Palestinian liberation: the liberation of the land from the occupier and the liberation of the cause from dictators and bandwagoners.


And while I parted company with people I once regarded comrades because of their support for the Syrian regime, I also gained new, lifelong friendships that have imbued my world with warmth and strength.


I owe so much to the Syrian revolution, which re-created me. I have no status or self-importance or willingness to speak on behalf of anyone, let alone on behalf of the Palestinian people, but I personally owe an apology to the Syrian people. I should have never hesitated in supporting their just cause. I should have never privileged geopolitical concerns over Syrian lives; and I should have never been so naively deceived by the propaganda of the resistance axis.

I owe an apology to a people who, for decades, were trodden upon, silenced, and humiliated in the name of my own cause; to a people whose only encounter with “Palestine” was in a prison dungeon carrying this name; the people who were blamed and mocked for being so docile yet when they did rise up, they were abandoned.

I owe an apology to a people who are blamed for a carnage committed against them, just as we have been, and who have been betrayed by an opposition pretending to represent them, just as we have been, too. I owe an apology to a people cynically called upon to bring an alternative to the Assad regime and Islamists while bombs and missiles fall on their heads. Those same people asking “Where is the alternative?” ignore that Syrians who were ready to offer a progressive vision have either been jailed, killed or displaced by the regime.

One would think that Palestinians know the cynicism behind the question of alternatives that they wouldn’t pose it to another oppressed people fighting to build everything from scratch.


Yet despite contradictions, Palestinians and Syrians do share the same yearning for freedom, the same burning desire to live in dignity and the dream to walk in the streets of the Old City of Damascus and the Old City of Jerusalem.

The road we shall cross to get there, though, is not the one that the regime and Hezbollah saturated with Syrian corpses, but one paved with the hands of Palestinian and Syrian freedom fighters: by people who know that their freedom is always incomplete without the freedom of their sisters and brothers.



Aspiring Palestinian journalist killed months before graduation

“We immediately shut down the store to see what was happening,” said a coworker, who asked not to be named. “Later, we saw a massive number of troops storm the camp so we began marching through the camp’s market while chanting.” Continue reading “Aspiring Palestinian journalist killed months before graduation”