May 22, 2024

What do you know about disappearance?

This essay, by Mutasim Khalaf, a Syrian Palestinian Journalist and writer, was originally published by Megaphone in Arabic.

The last bus on the side of the road.

One of Beirut’s most important internal transport buses passes from Ain Al-Mreisseh to Nahr Al Mot. The buses are rickety and take a long time to reach their destination. We use them to save money, given the high rates of private taxis. The fact that we pay less than a dollar on these buses who cross Beirut makes all other expenses justified, affordable.

The bus is moving provocatively slowly, whilst the driver makes a call in a striking whisper. The call did not last long, then, the driver turned to us, and asked fearfully: is there someone that knows how to drive here?

A young Syrian eagerly volunteered telling him: I do.

The driver asked him in a Syrian accent: do you have a driver’s license?

The young man answered in a low voice: no.

This “no” prompted the driver to park the bus on the side of the road, and to tell us that there is a security checkpoint, mandated to check the official papers of Syrians. The checkpoint is at the beginning of Sin El-Fil, right just under Jisr Al Wati, where the buses began to line up. These transport buses, whose working hours extend from 6:00 a.m. to 9 p.m. for a daily salary of only ten dollars, found only Syrians to accept the long working hours and cheap wages.

We all got off the bus, there were only two workers who seemed to be of East Asian ethnicity and an old fisherman who was indifferent to what was happening. We looked at each other, not knowing where to go. Some vanished between the alleys on both sides of the road, passing by side streets, while others turned back, emptying all the buses, and we disappeared between people, trying to disappear again between alleys and houses.

A new round of self-erasure

Now we, the strangers of this city, the Syrians, have to erase ourselves. And erasing is not a bad act after all, it’s not painful, but it leaves a strange kind of pity, our self-pity when we don’t know where to go. But it ends quickly, especially when hiding is not enough.

Whatever the arguments of the new racist tour, motorcycles will now roam the streets, and SUVs will roar with dubious chants, calling for unworthy glories with drained headlights into semi-dim street lighting.

This is a new round of racism.As every time, all Syrians should feel shame, fear, and guilt, To bear the responsibility of being alive as a sin, in a country that is collapsing economically, politically, and socially, whose parties found nothing but beating Syrians in the streets, crushing them as if they were the banking mafia that stole Lebanese money, and chasing them among neighborhoods as if they were responsible for the bombing of August fourth.

This is simply how the ruling power and its parties succeeded in generalizing its moral downfall, to vent the anger of the street on the only group that can be insulted without rocking the boat of its sectarian system.

About self-erasing techniques

It’s like they didn’t find you.

At two o’clock in the afternoon, lying on the bed, I’m trying to sleep a little, but I am in a gray area, where I explain to a large crowd of angry women and men, with a painful moment of honesty, what it means to be a “Syrian that will be deported”. From time to time, I pass by motorbikes as they roam the streets, accompanied by the chants of the Lebanese Forces. I think they aren’t looking for me, why me specifically? Even if they were looking for me, they have not found me yet. This should make you feel angry, and ask yourself, why am I thinking all these things, and no matter what the answer is, I’m going to get up and stack my necessary things in a small bag I don’t know where to. But I often wait for a sudden call either from the landlord, hurriedly demanding me to hand over the house as soon as possible, or from a friend who with obvious reluctance invites me to stay at their house. And no one may call. Either way, I’m going to think, ‘what if I go down the street and get insulted and beaten?’

The hiding I read and heard this everywhere, and it is reported dozens of times daily by Lebanese television reports. Syrians are stealing. They are outlaws. They commit crimes. They pollute public spaces. I subconsciously scrutinized myself in the mirror before going out of the house, asking myself, ‘do I look Syrian?’

Am I walking or talking or appearing Syrian? I know you’re wondering why someone would ask themselves such questions. I actually don’t know. I don’t know how a Syrian walks, nor what a Syrian looks like. But I think that inside me, and inside every human being who is trying to overcome racism, there is some fear, a fear that they have to hide a part of themselves, not show themselves fully.

But in any case, it is very easy, while walking through the streets of Beirut, to find us Syrians hurrying to our business, claiming obvious indifference. We exchange reassuring glances, often useless, as long as we are all involuntarily prepared to escape for suspicious reasons. There is no victory here, except in our ability to pass, to transcend violent and absurd words, which we absorb calmly and carefully, with all the pores of our skin, with the slightest reaction. Then we go on knowing that this will not be the end, muttering words of gratitude that we are here without being beaten.

And like every day, now I have to come home, to remember that all my previous attempts to disguise my Syrian-Palestinian accent were failures. Taxi drivers, supermarket sellers, and curious people must realize that I am one of the strangers in this city. But no matter what happens, I will tell myself that honesty is not important now, I will not think about it, I may pretend to be Jordanian with the taxi driver, become mute with the supermarket seller, and deaf-dumb in front of the questions of the curious. There must be some cover, who knows. I may take off all my masks when the questions are inescapable, but from now until that moment, I have to disappear more than necessary, deeply erase who I am, what I do, where I come from, in order to survive in this country.