North Africa, West Asia

A message from Mataz Suheil

Mataz Suheil
1 October 2014

I’m Syrian. I lived most of my life in Syria and the Gulf, until I came to the UK to study. There is an apartment I think of as home, but not much chance of accessing it. I have family still in Syria, but scattered, as many people do.

At the beginning of the Arab uprisings I was doing my MA at SOAS, studying politics in the Middle East. I was already engaged politically, but with issues in Europe and in Britain - tuition fees, Britain’s role in the world. This choice of focus came out of a sense of futility with my own region: I didn’t see any chance of change in the countries I come from and belong to.

But of course all that dramatically changed with those stupendous events on the ground in 2010/2011, and what turned out to be a curiously alienating business: studying ‘myself‘ under such circumstances. Witnessing historical events and radical change happening without participating in them, and having to catch up as much as any other student on what was happening. Being Syrian and Arab, I was of course often asked about what was going on. But I had left Syria before January 2011, and after that was cut off and couldn’t go back.

So my only links were with family and friends. But once the uprising started, I began to come into contact with people who had been politically active for many years beforehand, and came to understand the degree of dedication and willpower involved and the sacrifices these people had made all along.

There was a fork in the path six months into the uprising, and I became a supporter of the anti-sectarian, nonviolent, and anti-interventionist stance. I was convinced that outside understanding and reinforcement was needed as things became much more complicated.  Solidarity from afar can only do so much: you can protest outside embassies, draft statements, organise conferences. I wanted to be more than a witness. I became involved with Syrians inside and outside Syria through social media networks who were active in the grassroots nonviolent resistance movement, particularly with those documenting and highlighting humans rights abuses.

Mass networks of communication build up with lightening speed in periods of intense social change, and I put a lot of effort into participating and building that. After eighteen months or so, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights sought me out: they knew they could trust me. They don’t exactly advertise an internship scheme, so I was lucky to have been brought to their attention through my activity, and to be vouched for at this point.

I was studying Syria for my dissertation, working on rather ‘topdown’ theories—all there was––concerning how socio-economic policies had influenced populations, ideologies and concepts of statehood, as well as consolidating power in the centre. But gradually my own work shifted towards an analysis of bottom-up narratives of violence and how that affected the struggle under way. I was working with people like Charles Tripp, Laleh Khalili, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam and Gilbert Achcar, and extended my MA for a year because my perspective had dramatically changed over this period.

I wanted to understand better how western narratives affect what happens on the ground and what ideas are reproduced, what was marginalised as a result. This involved talking to Syrian grassroots movements and political detainees who had spent years in detention since the 70’s and 80’s. This history, not serving cold war, big power politics in the region, had never been reported; and this, as I saw it, was all part of what gave large sections of the population such a sense of futility about the all-powerful Syrian state, with security services everywhere, which were omnipotent. This was not the case, but this was a carefully cultivated perception.

So my task, I believed, was to unpack that perception through much more specific local narratives, and explain how these relate to global ones. All this work came together. I was where I wanted to be. I had a sense of agency, and a huge sense of the trust of many people who were in much harsher conditions than my own.  I knew I had to do what I could.

As a translator and spokesperson for the Syrian Observatory, I engaged mainly with the media in the UK, relaying the information that had been corroborated and verified by 230 activists throughout Syria. I would be asked about daily developments in Syria and found myself having to go head to head with mainstream media concepts of the conflict.  My aim was to go beyond the concept of a ‘good or bad day’ – over a hundred or less than a hundred killed – and to suggest that ‘civilian’, ‘military’ and ‘rebel’ concepts all had their own complexity that needed to be understood. So my first encounter with journalism was not exactly sympathetic. I often felt I was on ‘the other side’, and that a lot was missing from the western-mediated accounts of Syria.

When I could spend time in the region, I worked in Lebanon, interviewing and documenting the testimonies of survivors of political detention, or people who had been forcibly disappeared or beaten or who had witnessed demonstrations. During times of crisis, like last winter, I helped to coordinate work in Lebanon between various refugee solidarity organisations and collectives made up of Syrian refugees themselves, to unify efforts to give assistance and aid.

In a conflict, statistics are necessary and sought after, so I was often included in the conversation when many other nonviolent civil activists did not have a way in. I was privileged, and openDemocracy now provides me with a platform to open up the media space and to be able to share these alternative voices to the dominant narratives; to enable the networks of people with whose voices I am familiar through my human rights, democracy and refugee solidarity work, to be heard, understanding why they are important outside the disempowiring victim narratives to which they are usually confined in the mainstream media.

Hopefully that will help complicate the safe assumptions and the mixture of guilt and apathy which these media inculcate. I want people to see Syria not with horror or sympathy but as a people with an active will, many of whom are in revolt against a very strong security state and against armed groups, who have received many a battering over the years and yet continue to maintain themselves in one way or another.

These people are very much in need of communication with the outside world. One of the main slogans for Syrians is, ‘Freedom, dignity and bread’ – and the sense of dignity crucially involves not just speaking truth to power in Syrian towns and villages, but in the global media as well. The need is not so much to ask for help, as to have your own voice heard, not mediated through talking heads or experts or even by Syrians abroad, all of whom can abuse their position if not guided by the legitimate concerns of Syrians themselves.

We need expert commentary on openDemocracy, of course. One that does not claim ultimate objectivity, but understands what it can and can’t do. Orientalism and sectarian analysis are dominant in most other spaces, issuing readings which try to reduce the situation to ‘age-long disputes between Sunni’s and Alawis’ and other similarly a-political red herrings. We need to strive against those narrowing discourses and understand, for example, how many states have manipulated sectarianism. 

One way of doing this is to create a non-hierarchical platform for experts and non-experts alike – and to seek out local voices, bypassing the spokespeople and 'official representatives' of the Syrian people, of this town, religion or sect – so that we can start a new dialogue between them. Because what has prevented a ceasefire up until now has a lot to do with a crisis in representation which can only be overcome through a different kind of inclusion. We can provide a small example of that way forward.

In openDemocracy, there is also a chance to discuss a key common theme across the national silos and not just as confined to one region of the world. There are so many assumptions about ‘Middle East politics’ which cut us off from the world, when we have a great deal to say to each other. We need to counter that mystification as well. Counter-insurgency, for example, is menacingly rather similar everywhere.

So I am very much looking forward to working on three fronts: 

  • Creating a non-hierarchical space for local voices in the global digital commons, beginning with Syria, and including the six million Syrian refugees who find themselves scattered across the region. Through Syrian Eyes will give activists, journalists, people on the ground, and grassroots organisations a platform for engaging directly with interested western audiences;

  • Working with such partners as Syria Untold, who are monitoring social media and grassroots activism in all its variety, and a new emerging Syrian research centre, the Centre for Thought and Public Affairs, which is forming an analytical overview on where space now exists for peacebuilding and moving forward positively;

  • Lastly, I have a particular interest in highlighting the voices of those Syrians who are most often spoken for and about – endlessly objectified as victims and as numbers – refugee women in the camps in Lebanon and Turkey, political detainees and survivors of kidnappings.

  • We say:  Please help us to bring a brilliant Syrian editor on board openDemocracy.


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