“May this ink come to your defense…as it has for every anarchist, freedom fighter, and activist. They’ll tell you, ‘actions speak louder than words until your words make people act like this.’”
–Luka Lesson, “Athena”
As writers, we have the opportunity to record life in its rawest state. We have to take it upon ourselves to be historians of the individual, artistic record keepers, even if it means recording within silences. Marginalized groups, minorities, and people you only hear about in world history courses in high school are often ignored outside of whatever context the media places them in. Stories contradicting the narratives assigned to these groups can go completely unrecorded, especially when it has nothing to do with the country reporting the news. It was frustrating, being a Syrian-American witnessing a crumbling country through the eyes of locals, with absolute silence from Western media. So I, along with others, took it upon ourselves to relay the news by becoming social media activists for the Syrian Revolution.
At the start of the revolution, sharing thoughts against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime on Facebook was risky. I had the privilege as an American to speak freely knowing my rights protected me, but that was not the issue. My father approached me one evening and asked me to stop posting about Syria on Facebook and to remove the “FreeSyria” label I put as my middle name. I went on a rant about my free speech rights and how passionate I was about his country. I told him he should be proud I was speaking up. His silence ate up the rest of my rambling. He then told me Assad had people monitoring those who posted anything anti-Assad. He told me to stop, not for my sake, but the sake of my relatives who have remained silent for the safety of their families. I expressed my annoyance to other Syrian friends and they told me it was a very real threat. Facebook wasn’t safe.
It was a very natural transition, then, to head to Twitter. Most of the young crowd was switching over there anyway. With the anonymity of usernames, there was no way to be identified, and as an added plus for the Syrians using it within Syria, it was not being monitored as Facebook was. At first it was hard to express my anger and grief in writing. I had difficulty translating emotion into language, to write when I was experiencing new levels of shock after watching raw footage of a shelling attack on a city I had once spent an evening strolling through with my cousin. It was harder still to express myself in 140 characters without sounding trivial or insincere. It took practice to distance myself from what I was writing. I wasn’t sure whether I was losing parts of me or hardening under the reality I was being exposed to. It took a few months to settle into some habit, but even then some things would rattle me back into silence.
Twitter proved to be the better outlet over all. Facebook, at the time, did not support hashtags and trending stories while those features were built into Twitter. It was much easier to access information from activists around the globe, particularly ones in Syria who were sharing live footage of snipers, bombings, and ground views of the rubble the country had become. Where news outlets failed to report on the Syrian people, Twitter empowered their experiences. I stopped checking CNN and Aljazeera and wherever else. I began to get my news from Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders and young men and women who were daring enough to videotape rubble sites, kidnappings, and police brutality on the streets and at checkpoints. By looking for news, I found connections to news that would be otherwise overlooked by people in the West: Tweets written solely in Arabic. Being bilingual, I could translate and Tweet it back in English. In addition to this, there were also hashtag campaigns to help raise awareness. Some were grim, like the #1100Children campaign in 2012 to raise awareness to the number of children who have been reported dead since the start of the Syrian Revolution. Others were easier to write for, like #MemoriesFromSyria. Most of the people using this hashtag were Syrians born outside the country, children of migrants who no longer can spend their summers with relatives living there.
“#MemoriesFromSyria Bargaining with the store clerks for a lower price and threatening to leave without buying anything if they refuse.”
“#MemoriesFromSyria Fitting 10 cousins on one bed because your grandma’s house is too packed.”
These hashtags and campaigns were part of efforts to raise awareness to help people understand who Syrians were, bringing out the humanity of the crisis. Jump back six years and many people I knew didn’t even know what or where Syria was. So why would the world care what was happening there? Looking back, it seemed like a small, fruitless gesture to use social media to expose the revolution, but at the time, it was the only way to break the world’s silence.
My time as an activist taught me much about the Syrian conflict and made me realize how crippling silences could be. If we’d done just a little more, pushed for action a little harder, could we have prevented the chaos it has become today? The world hadn’t really woken up to the issue until there were thousands of refugees pouring into Europe. Tweets and posts about Syria became an echo people grew tired of hearing, but with increasing animosity towards Syrians, I wanted to do what I could. We’ve all heard that ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hate. With little understanding of the struggles refugees have gone through, and nothing but a negative narrative on Arabs and Muslims buzzing through the media, it was easy to tar them all with the same brush. I wanted to combat this phenomenon. I wanted to create a counter-narrative.
Up until a few months before applying to MFA programs, I had only been writing speculative fiction, using it as an outlet to get away from the chaos of the stories pouring out of Syria, but seeing the impact words can have, whether in a tweet or short story, made it clear I needed to own this narrative—my narrative. I knew it was a daunting task to represent an entire country, a conflict, and its people in an effort to humanize a region, but my work as an activist and my background in the culture motivated me to try.
Hana Al-Harastani hails from Michigan and is currently a first year MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida. When she’s not trying to save the world, she runs a blog for a modest fashion line.