Can the Syrians speak?
By Ammar Azzouz. Dr Ammar Azzouz is an architect at Arup and a Short-Term Research Associate at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. He completed his PhD in architecture at the University of Bath, UK. His Twitter handle: @Dr_Ammar_Azzouz
It was 2018, a panel was organised at one of the UK universities on Syria. I booked my ticket and went to attend. The meeting venue was filled with academics and students. It was overcrowded as some people were standing or sitting on the floor with all the seats taken. Everyone wanted to hear about Syria.
The panel included four speakers, of which none was Syrian.
Since the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, there has been a significant interest in discussing and researching Syria. From seminars, conferences and workshops, to exhibitions, films and publications, efforts have been made to unveil different themes about Syria. But who shapes these efforts? And for whom?
In the UK, where I have resided since 2011, funding streams have been allocated to Syria projects. This led to the emergence of almost an industry of research projects that deal with Syria and Syrians. In particular, there has been a fascination with cultural heritage sites in Syria as well as the so-called Syrian ‘refugee crisis’.
Many of these projects, however, have been led by academics who knew little about our pain; we, who lived the horrors of war, and who still live the trauma of forced displacement, destruction, and exile. But our pain, our suffering, was a fundable project.
I lived the horrors of violence myself, living in Homs, a city where tanks destroyed over half of the neighbourhoods. I have lost friends who were killed in peaceful demonstrations and I have seen the people I love suffer in their everyday life. But this struggle is often whitewashed and neglected in the apolitical research that strips out our voices from the projects.
What I saw in the panel in 2018, where no Syrian was speaking, was not the only time that Syrian voices have been completely excluded. It made me think of the rights of being at the table, and the right to speak, and similar to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who asked Can the Subaltern Speak? I also want to ask, Can Syrians speak?
Now, after more than a decade since the start of the Syrian Revolution, more than half of the Syrian people have been displaced from their homes. Who tells their stories? And what stories to tell?
In my research field, which focuses on questions of the built environment, destruction and reconstruction, there has been a growing body of literature that looks at the radical reshaping of Syrian cities. This literature is shaped both by Syrians and non-Syrians who produce some of the finest and most important work that gets us closer to understanding the struggle of Syria and Syrians. So, I hope in their response to this blog, readers do not think that my criticism has to do with someone’s place of birth. My criticism is about the way research and knowledge in conflict and violent settings are produced and presented.
In 2019, Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock published a paper titled ‘Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry’ that raises some important questions about research ethics carried out overseas by academics in the UK. In their paper, they show how UK based academics who have giant funds to research Syrian refugees in Lebanon sub-contract Syrian and or Lebanese research assistants who conduct the research on the ground. The paper shows how the findings of such research projects are presented by the UK based Principal Investigators as if they are the ones who met with the Syrians in Lebanon and listened to their stories. One of the ‘research assistants’ interviewed in the paper noted that ‘I felt stolen’ when the PI presented, noting that they, the PI, had not spoken to the refugees. The paper is an important scholarly work that asks courageously some of the ethical and moral questions that are rarely introduced in the growing research on Syria.
But it was not only the research assistant who felt stolen. Many of us, the sufferers of violence, conflict, war and displacement, feel that our story is taken from us and presented as a ‘noble’ cause by those who are distant and alienated from us, by those who may or may not even allow us to sit with them at the table, by those who would look down at us, and speak over us, and not listen to our voices, because well, we are not needed to be listed to for them to speak.
The dilemmas I felt about the erasing of the Syrian pain and struggle in many of the Syria research projects (both by Syrians and non-Syrians), and the way that Syria and Syrians are talked about have eventually led me to write this publicly on Twitter in a thread that went viral, and was viewed over half a million times. I wrote:
Thousands of people have engaged with the thread, sending messages of solidarity, and explaining how they feel the same, how their pain and trauma have been the target of career opportunists that cared little about the suffering of people they are supposed to serve. From Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, to Somalia, Bosnia and Libya people have reflected on the unethical approaches that turned the pain of others into a business.
Our pain is not a funding project.