The Cloud That Harbors Heavy Showers: Giving Voice to a Multi-Dimensional Revolution and a Library

My peace is there in the receding mist

When I may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds

And the space of a door

That opens and shuts

Samuel Beckett [1] 

The gigantic oak tree’s branches blatantly transgress the fences which separated my space from the neighbor’s. I am in Berkeley, on a patio of an old house nested on a hill. I am facing an unkempt garden, trying to capture the glimpses from the story of a young Syrian activist, based in Istanbul as of July 2016. She would have liked Berkeley, the city with a long history of protests if only she had the ‘right’ kind of passport. She would have stood out in the crowd with her colorful headdress and clothes, her shining olive-green eyes and dimples. I associate her with absolute freedom, nature, youth, colors, and determination, mainly because of her belief in the revolution, her constant repetition of the R word.

My gaze returns to the thorny and expansive oak tree. I don’t remember seeing one with spiky leaves before. Being thorny is okay in Berkeley, not in Damascus.

Muzna wants a “normal” life, a word she easily used in the interview but I need to have scare crows around it. I no longer know what a “normal” life is, being a driftwood myself. I ask for clarification, she says: Being free from fear and guilt is normal. “I am a victim of what has happened in Syria too, am I not? But each time, I take a warm shower and drink a glass of water, I feel guilty.”

Muzna is modest about her boldness at such a young age although people of her caliber are more prone to hubris. She hesitates to take the compliment regarding her courage because she repeatedly says that she has nothing to lose any longer, her whole world has already been upside down. Her parents are also avid activists, she helps me picture an evening after dinner in her engaging gestures and carefully selected English words with a French accent: Each parent and herself picked their corner to dive into lives constructed through the computer screens: reading, commenting, sharing, swearing, leaving hundreds of virtual yet indelible traces every night. She has two brothers. One of them wanted to specialize in therapy medicine but after the revolution began, he switched to emergency medical. I guess the reasons for his switch needs no speculation.

If I can choose to remain radical on a single topic despite my maturity (wisdom?) or whatever impact the years have on me, it would be freedom of expression. There should be no negotiating on the trimming down of human creativity. My mind makes constant connections between the trees that are being uprooted, cut down or “relocated” to some places designated by the authorities and my Turkish and Syrian friends (among many others) whose creative minds are restricted by the border crossings, visa requirements. Their bodies are controlled by the people whose main duty is to constrain and suspect people. When they are uprooted and relocated (if not killed!) the decisions are not theirs most of the time, bringing them closer to the trees and forests that I have in mind.

I asked Muzna what her name means since I have learned during my interviews that most names in Syria have meanings like we do in Turkey: The cloud which harbors heavy showers is her answer. I wonder if she believes in the power of the names and the destiny it might bring to its carrier. She was born at a military hospital during the Gulf War (1991), in which Syria was also involved. When asked about her character and moods, her replies come out with no pauses: “I feel sad and guilty. My character is shy but very honest. One thing I learned from my parents, which shaped my character is that when we commit to the Revolution we should be honest. This means not working for one’s personal needs or concerns but for the community. The struggle for the Revolution should continue even if I am tired or all my energy is exhausted at all levels. Even at war times when it looks like there are no longer any rules, people should still be honest and consult their inner ethics.” She is very hard-working and her energy is hidden in her commitment to freedom and revolution. She is still modest: Because I am single, I have more freedom and time to be an activist, she says.

When I half-jokingly tell her that I wouldn’t want to be her boyfriend, her answer is wise and well-thought: “If he shares the same ideals with me and we can agree on these ideals, then it will not be a problem. We can work for the same community. If he expects me to fulfill traditional gender roles in the house while working as an activist in public, it is going to be a problem. I won’t bake a cake or hang out in restaurants with him. Being with a woman who is dedicated to a collective cause can be a big problem for men. The Revolution with capital R should thus include revolutions of gender and Islam.

We move on to her future dreams, which mostly host hopes and reveals some unexpected aspect about the narrator. She wants to become an academic, get an MA and PhD. But in 10 years or so, she will choose a very different occupation. She will live in an isolated corner of the world, engaging herself with translation and literature. And she will build a voice library. This is an unusual yet creative dream to look forward to but it makes sense because she has a sweet voice and had music training as a child. She believes that hearing is more effective than seeing the worlds. As a teenager, she read many books both in Arabic and in French more than she can ever remember or name.

[1] Collected Poems, 1930-78, London: John Calder, 1984, p. 59.

Lifelines: Syrian Womanhoods in Transition | Ozlem Ezer | Berkeley CMES