For American born Syrian author, Alia Malek, whose latest book about Syria, The Home That Was Our Country, is getting rave reviews, it is impossible that Kashmir will turn into Syria. Malek, before heading to Jaipur literature festival spent three days in the Valley. She stayed in Srinagar and Gulmarg. She had Wazwaan (a multi-course meal in Kashmiri cuisine) at Ahdoos but she was all praise for Harisa (A mutton preparation).
She found Kashmiri shawls and carpets as exquisitic and Kashmiris as “dignified people who in spite of drawn conflict and immense tragedy don’t wear victimhood on their sleeves. She also described Kashmiris as foreigner-friendly.
She visited Mughal gardens, went to Gulmarg, walked in old city Srinagar, went to vegetable market in Dal Lake. “This place is beautiful and I mean it”, she says adding before her visit she had a simplistic understanding of Kashmir.
“In Middle East people recognize you as an outsider. There is an aggression towards the foreigner. I have not felt any sort of aggression here.”
The author, who was on a leisure trip to the Valley last week, says in other conflict areas particularly in the Middle East, sometimes people play to the outsider. “I understand that instinct to show that you are a victim. It is always like a performance of victimhood. Here I haven’t seen that at all. People are very dignified. In Kashmir, it doesn’t feel like in the Middle East, it feels like its own thing.”
“But when I saw presence of soldiers I felt like in Palestine. These convoys, soldiers everywhere, watching the people, I felt like Palestine. I hate that kind of intimidation because a show of force is intimidating people. It looked familiar to places like Palestine”, the author says.
As the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and others like Kashmir interlocutor, Dineshwar Sharma often say Kashmir shouldn’t turn into Syria, Malek laughs at such analogies.
The Centre’s interlocutor, Dineshwar Sharma, has been saying that if radicalisation in the Valley picks up, the situation will be similar to that in Yemen, Syria and Libya. He often likes to say that his biggest challenge and the top priority in Kashmir is to deradicalize Kashmiri youth and militants and prevent it from turning into a Syria of India.
But Malek has a different view. “What happened in Syria is that it became easier to hijack the revolution? I think it would be harder to hijack Kashmir’s revolution. Kashmiris are politicized from the day they are born. While as in Syria after having for 50 years the same totalitarian regime people had become unpoliticised in many ways because it was so dangerous to have a politics.”
She says when the current regime in Syria consolidated its power in the 70s and 80s it slaughtered any kind of opposition and dissent. She argues over the years Syrians had become “un-political” while in Palestine or Kashmir people are highly politicized. “So it was easy in many ways to hijack the legitimate movement by external forces in Syria and it would be harder in Kashmir. I think it would be very hard let us say for the ISIS to grow here as it is very foreign. That is my impression so far”, she says.
She says it was easy for the ISIS to make way in Syria as Syrians who started the movement were not experienced in politics and they were almost naïve and they naively believed that people from outside wanted to help out Syrians for the Syrian’s sake.
“But the truth is nobody wants to help Syria for Syrians. It was easier to fragment Syrian society because Syrians could never speak openly to each other. We have something called Mukhabarat (Intelligence). We would say walls have ears. We never knew what Syrians thought of each other. So it was easier for outside forces to divide and destroy the movement and the regime helped that to happen”, she says.
In May 2011 when the Syrian uprising had begun and everyone was fleeing, Malek moved to Damascus from Baltimore, where she grew up. Her parents came to the U.S. in the ’70s and settled there. Malek went to the Johns Hopkins University and then Georgetown. She was a trial lawyer with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Later she got her master’s from the Columbia School of Journalism.
In 2010, she published “A Country Called Amreeka,” narrating the history of the United States through Arab-Americans.
But, Malek always wanted to be a witness of a historical movement in Syria, which many felt was shaping up in the region with Arab Spring in 2011.
“I always wanted to write about Syria,” she says.
“In 2011, I thought maybe something was going to change. I was born in 1974 but I felt I was waiting for it since 1967. And I was not even born in 1967. But in 1967, the Arab world just came to halt. The defeat of Arab world at the hands of Israelis and the rise of these authoritarian and corrupt regimes ensured that nothing was happening in the Arab world.”
“There, in the book (The Home That Was Our Country) a story of a house. I was meant to be raised in. The house was taken from the family under Syrian law. Only in 2010 we had got the house back and in 2011 we started restoring it and I thought I will have a story to fix the house and it would be an also nice beautiful metaphor that we will be taking back our house at the same time the Syrians were taking back their country. But it didn’t work that way. I moved there in April 2011 and it didn’t go the way I thought”, she says. Malek remained in Syria for two years researching and interviewing people. But in 2013, Malek left Syria as she felt her presence in Syria could endanger family members in Syria.
“I remained there for two years. And I became suspect. Everyone was thinking I was a jasoos (spy). People thought I am an American and I must be rich and there were chances of kidnapping for ransom”, she says.
As the “revolution” didn’t work and Syrian government stayed, Malek says “the regime is a winner.”
“The face of the ruling class in Syria is Alawites. But, this regime didn’t remain in power without many Sunnis being in bed with the regime,” she says.
“Meanwhile, most of the people who are getting killed by the regime are in fact Sunnis, as the country is majority Sunni. But it would be mistaken to think that people’s interests are only determined by their sect. Rich Sunni businessmen from Aleppo or Damascus, who might have made a lot of money under the regime, don’t necessarily have the same interests as poor rural Sunnis who — like most Syrians of all sects, including Alawites — have been left out of the financial success that a very small elite have enjoyed in Syria since the 1990s under Hafez al Assad. These monetary gains only increased under Bashar al Assad,” she adds.
The author says Iran supported the regime but the regime and ruling elite in Damascus don’t like Iran as Iran is a theocracy. “That is why they also roped in Russia.”
How the ISIS came in? “During the American invasion of Iraq, the regime opened the border and allowed people to go Iraq to fight. When jihadis returned, the regime arrested them. But when the uprising started in 2011, lawyers, academics and other civil society activists and just regular hopeful civilians were put into prison and these jihadis were released. The intelligent opposition was taken off the road and others were let out to hijack the movement. Similarly, Turkey opened its border with Syria and helped outsiders — looking for jihad or the caliphate or paradise or a place to kill or righteousness etc — into Syria. And several gulf nations channeled money to extremists and several Western nations handed out weapons and funding to people they couldn’t really vet. “