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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2017 > Voices of hope

Voices of hope

One day, the war in Syria will end and its society will have to rebuild. The stories of its ordinary citizens show that there is a way forward

Sameer Rahim is Arts and Books Editor of Prospect

Think of Syria and what comes to mind is a stream of gruesome images: the ruined streets of Aleppo, bombed into the dust by Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies; the grotesque spectacles served up by Islamic State (IS); the dead children, the destroyed hospitals and the tide of refugees—whether victims of the regime or the rebel forces which have, at times, also unleashed indiscriminate violence. Even as yet another ceasefire is announced, this time brokered by Russia and Turkey, it broke down within hours.

But when I think of Syria, I remember voices speaking in a melodious Levantine dialect—greeting, inquiring, joking, discussing. When I was a teenager, my parents ran tourist trips to the Middle East, and I visited Syria half-a-dozen times. I returned in my mid-twenties to study Arabic at Damascus University and travelled all over the country, including the (now ruined) antiquities of Palmyra and the bustle of ancient (and latterly besieged) Homs. I developed a strong affection for the country’s mosaic of cultures, epitomised by the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, built on the ruins of a Roman temple and the Christian mausoleum of St John the Baptist. Most of all, though, I loved the people I met, with their humbling hospitality, quiet dignity and that accent I loved to imitate.

Yet now it seems we can only see Syrians as either crazed killers or helpless victims. Not only is that a gross distortion, but it stops us from making sense of how Syria lapsed into its current disaster— and how it might emerge from it. I wanted to bring the voices of ordinary Syrians back into their country’s tale and allow them to tell their own stories. So in September, I headed to the refugee camps in Lebanon with my wife Nabeelah Jaffer, also a journalist.

We had been invited by Rouba Mhaissen, a 28-year-old Syrian- Lebanese woman who heads the refugee charity SAWA, which helps thousands of people with food, water, shelter, education and health in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Mhaissen made a speech at the Syria conference in London last February berating Ban Ki-moon, then UN Secretary General, which went viral among Syrians. She wanted to show us the reality of life in a refugee camp. “People aren’t just numbers,” she said, “we see them as human beings, not just as beneficiaries.”

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In Prospect’s February issue: Tom Clark and Luke Harding examine the attacks facing democracy. Clark reviews two books on democracy and suggests a new intellectual assault may be on the horizon. Harding looks at Russia’s attempts to derail the democratic process by focussing on its technical frailty. Melissa Deckman asks why women voted for Trump, while Duncan Bell charts the story of the Anglosphere and suggests Brexiteers are indulging in an old fantasy. Also in this issue: Matthew Harries asks if it’s time to ban the nuclear bomb, Adam Mars-Jones looks at the way we perceive aliens in films and Elizabeth Pisani explores the role of activists in changing the perception of Aids and its pushing for treatment.