I recently had the privilege to travel to the Syrian border in Turkey for work. I was producing, as well as operating camera; regional FR manager Thabrez was the main face and rep of our NGO and my friend and sister Nur Hannah Wan played the crucial role of interviewing and photographing people. My objective, alongside my colleagues, was to document the construction of an orphanage. The film has been cut and broadcast and an online version will come soon. A disclaimer: I’m no expert on geo/theo/politics or international relations so this post will mostly be an account of my experiences, something I’ve needed to write for some time now, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to begin with a short story, or a sort of diorama, if you will. I’m no Hemingway, nor Ghazali. The following words are an image impressed upon me both in my dreams and waking state by the statements of horror I had to log in my process as a film maker interviewing Syrian children:
I walk towards a playground in the distance. It’s alive, a funfair. Lights and smells, of sweetness emanate. I’m drawn, like a moth. My steps are hurried and I don’t think about if my friends are still by my side. In almost a rush I don’t realise the increasingly cold, dry grass beneath my feet.
I push a big iron gate open and eagerly fall in expecting to see clowns and candy floss, and pop corn, and rides.
I feel a sickness in my stomach. Cold water runs through my veins and I feel faint. I look back and my friends are not here with me.
The sounds and the smells are still distant, though I stand right here in the midst of the circus. Echoes of children laughing. In a panic I pace to my right, past revellers who I dare not look at. In a panic I pace to my left, past the ghostly patrons of this lonely place. Around me they walk. Don’t look at them, don’t look at them! I can’t help it. I look at them.
Each and every one of them. She looks at me, steps closer, and as she passes by, keeps her empty eyes fixed on me. She’s asking me something but her lips don’t move. I turn my eyes away, too afraid and ashamed to speak. Too cold to engage. I feel pity and fear. I wonder if she is dead. Hundreds of her. The same. Wearing hijab, jilbab. Empty oval faces, pale and chalky. No eyes. No nose. No mouth. One draws far too close and reaches out, and in fear of the consequence of her touch I run, though my body feels heavy, I run as fast as I can.
I catch a glimpse of something, some sparkle, twinkling point of light. A young face. Again, like a moth, I’m drawn but I feel warmth as I reach her. Hiding behind the banana boats and bumper cars a beautiful girl gestures me to join her. I’m startled by her beauty, winded by it. Before I can speak she takes my hand, this girl of 9, or 10, and rushes me to the big iron gate from which I entered. I have no time to say thank you, or ask her name as she pushes me through and I fall on my back with my eyes closed.
I scramble to my feet and opening my eyes, see nothing. An empty field. But beneath my feet the grass feels warm, and moist.
Thanks for reading that, and I apologise if it’s left you as confused as I was after my trip to the Turkish/Syrian border.
The experience of flying out and meeting people who have suffered such atrocities is a hard one to describe. I could speak about the weather there, or the local etiquette and manners of the people. I could even talk about the production process, which I fear I will have to as even that was affected by the way we as a team were moved by the people; but I think the most profound feeling I am left with in the wake of this project is one of both immense love and sorrow for my new family whom I have left behind on the borders of Syria and Turkey. The most beautiful kids I’ve ever seen in my life, with so much hope, and energy. I refuse to accept this as naive cliche; but in the face of unspeakable evil, those children, and those people showed me courage and perseverance like I’ve never known.
I’ve a lot to learn, about being a human being, from those children. Perhaps only my colleagues will really know what I mean.
The films were shown on television and alhamdulillah we were able to raise above our target to help build the orphanage, which in itself is a great vindication for putting oneself through the gruelling experience of documenting tyranny and sadness.
I think in a follow up post I’ll explain how we made the films and also a link to the longer version. Here is a link to the trailer cut by Nur Hannah (@NurHannahWan): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIny7GQ8Nsw
And please, if you’re able to donate, donate! This is such an important and wonderful project, and an active solution to rebuilding a country that has been ravaged by war: http://www.muslimaid.org/donate
Picture: Mohammad Hannon, Associated Press