Last week, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, Hadi Al-Bahra, was the main guest on The Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart. At the end of the interview, Al-Bahra presented Stewart with a thick black book. It’s the size of an old telephone directory, but this was no directory of the living, rather a list, 100,000 names long, of Syrians who have been killed in the last three and a half years.
The Book of Syria’s Dead is part of the #100000Names Memorial for Syria project that I — along with Syrian activists, Kenan Rahmani, Nada Hashim, and Aya Samman — initiated last March. Since then we have held multiple oral memorials for Syria, in Washington D.C., New York City, and seven other cities across the world including inside Syria. The memorial was an attempt to not just quantify, but identify our dead.
It takes 3 seconds to say over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria in the last three years but it took us 72 consecutive hours to read their names.
As I wrote for Nicholas Kristof’s NYT blog about the first reading we held in March in front of the White House, “To Syrians, every one of those numbers has a name, a family, and a lifetime of unfulfilled dreams. Syrians do not have the luxury of the world’s blind eyes. We cannot stop counting our dead — the thousands wrapped in white shrouds, lined up in rows of graves dug in Syria’s rust-colored soil. We cannot turn away from their faces or their names.”
Each Syrian name, carefully recorded in the book, asks a question: “How many more?” How many more Syrians must die before the international community takes sincere measures to end the senseless bloodshed? When will the world take into account the suffering of the Syrian people instead of cold geopolitical calculations that have so far saved no lives?
Although the #100000Names Memorial was conceived with the intention to bring Syrian loss up close to people who continue to feel that the Syrian people’s suffering is too far, too foreign to relate to, I was still surprised to watch Stewart flip through the endless pages of the book before the show with a look of pure shock on his face. That powerful photograph proved that this simple concept, a list of our dead (only half of our dead actually) could move people from disconnect to empathy.
There is much talk among frustrated Syrians about the need to “change the narrative,” that we “have lost the media war,” and for some, a sense of apathetic helplessness, “we don’t have the power to change a thing, so why do anything at all?” These questions are born out of despair after witnessing three and a half years of death and destruction with no end in sight. They are nevertheless the wrong questions to ask. Syria’s narrative is clearly documented for the world to see. The narrative is the truth. The book is the truth.
Aya Samman, who compiled The Book of Syria’s Dead, says, ”The weight that the #100000Names book carries was translated on T.V. — because the language of loss is universal. It was both humbling and empowering to realize that. I hope that the message of the book — which is made up of nothing but names — continues to tell the powerful narrative that it does, and that the final chapter is soon to come.”
Later on the air, Stewart perfectly summed up our sentiments, ”This is what’s remarkable. It’s astonishing. A book of 100,000 Syrians who have been killed during this terrible war. . . . Here’s the hope that there will be no more books and you will find the peace you are looking for.”
We hope so too, Mr. Stewart.
Until then we will continue to read the names of the dead. We will continue to compile the lists into heavy books written with Syrian blood and tears. We will not stop until the final name is written on the final page. And then, at last, there will be peace.
For more information on the #100000Names Memorial for Syria, please visit www.100000Names.com.