Marcell Shehwaro's Dispatches on Syria

Marcel Shehwaro

Marcel Shehwaro: “Revolt”. Taken during Arab Bloggers Meeting in Jordan by Amer Sweidan. Photo used with permission.

In this evocative, award-winning series for Global Voices, Syrian blogger and activist Marcell Shehwaro describes her life in Aleppo, the heart of Syria's armed conflict, and in eventual exile outside of Syria.

On September 26, 2015, “Dispatches From Syria” won a 2015 Online Journalism Award in the category of Online Commentary. The judges praised her “intensely personal writing” for finding “the gray areas in a war usually told from polar extremes.”

This stories are originally written in Arabic and translated by Amira Al Hussaini and Lara AlMalakeh. Marcell Shehwaro blogs at and tweets at @Marcellita, both primarily in Arabic.

Marcell on Global Voices

“To all those who will inhabit the places we left….

We once had a revolution there. I never resided in those neighborhoods, but was a visitor, a stranger, with all my little rituals, such as greeting the neighbor on the staircase in the morning, my frantic searches for products that were not customarily sold there, my long, obsessive conversations with taxi drivers in order to gauge their political leanings and their views on checkpoints.”

“Yes, we are Christians, but we are afraid of Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Afghans and all who are not “us”. You see love is selective, based on class and affiliation. But for some reason Jesus Christ neglected mentioning those things, and spoke of love for all.”

“Do I look angry to you? I apologize! I haven’t yet mastered your manners. Appearing angry makes one suspicious, I know, and you know how emotional we are. You see, we haven’t yet learnt how to be less angry while all the planes in the world are helping our government bomb us day and night. I will try to look cheerful and happy in the airport, but allow me to give you a small tip: if you see a cheerful and happy Syrian in an airport, it’s then you should really be suspicious.”

“We had only a little energy left, and it was not enough for us to fight against ourselves and combat the easy notion of considering them merely ‘murderers’. The effort to consider them just like us became exhausting, as we were becoming more like them—murderers—than they were becoming more like us—victims.”

“Today, I don’t know what I believe in anymore. It’s the war. Living perched on the verge between life and death all the time. You would either need a survival instinct always steering you toward the inevitable death of the enemy, or you’d surrender. One of you must die for the other to triumph. It’s the violence which redefined everything: our hopes, our beliefs, and our trust in the world. At a very early stage I had to rethink the answers to many violent questions: Am I a murderer? Am I capable of killing? Do I want to kill?”

“I gather friends around me. Most of them are decorating a Christmas tree for the first time and even though the ritual has no religious meaning for them, they came and stayed around me to share my joy. Jawad, the weirdest among them, says cheerfully: “Christian feasts are really nice.” And we all laugh. Ali, my friend in the Free Syrian Army, approaches carrying a gift he wants me to put under the tree. I take it—I’m stunned with terror. A very small assassination pistol. He says: “It’s nothing. Is case they come for you,”—he means ISIS – “don’t let them get you alive.”

“I am not sure exactly what constitutes ‘personal’ and ‘public’ in a Syrian's normal existence. My friends are the friends of resistance—our lives are intertwined as a result of prison and escape and the memory of our martyred friend. The only person left in my family that I am in touch with is my sister, who was forced to be displaced for security reasons related to me. Her displacement is part of the Syrian hemorrhage to the rest of the world.”

“I don't know how sick of me it is to say this, but I was genuinely better off there, closer to death. Joy was an act of heroism, a blunt challenge in the face of death, while here joy turns into loads of guilt and the unreal rumination of stories that used to matter with the same friends with whom we shared life on the edge of death.”

“After my mother died it didn't feel appropriate to celebrate in the house without her. I was still wearing black. My childhood friends forgot—or pretended to forget—my birthday. The fear of being associated with me became the defining factor in our relationship. Our differences became political. It became a sharp ethical difference, which could no longer be bridged with humour or even sarcasm.”

“In that house I learned to cook large amounts of food, enough to feed ten of my male friends. In that house I stayed up late talking politics and sharing intimate stories about our families. I got to know theirs and they got to know mine. Together we shed many tears on the balcony and anxiously waited for our crazy reckless friends. In that busy house, always filled with homeless activists, I learnt how in the time of war one’s privacy completely vanishes.”

“On entering the church premises I was almost broken by the sight of a busload of security forces. I don’t know why my mother’s funeral entailed an armed security presence. All of that would have broken me, had it not been for the revolutionary whiteness that embraced me. I don’t know where all of those people came from, but all the love and acceptance they held brought me peace. Revolutionists filling the steps of the church in their white shirts, holding their red roses up high, screaming freedom in silence and with reverence.”

“I need to clarify that the Syrian people did not have the opportunity to go shopping at the “Victory Supermarket”, where items such as the option of Assad fleeing in the style of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, or stepping down like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, were on sale. Nor did we have enough oil to buy the NATO option, like Libya. Instead, we purchased Al-Qaeda, which we found wrapped in yellow tape in the discount bin.”

“On a very normal day, during lunch with a friend in Turkey, away from the pounding of bombs and death, and close to suffocation with guilt at being away from my city, enjoying luxuries like electricity and communications services while Aleppo is dying, I—being as much of a social media addict as the next person—opened my Facebook page. There, I  found a message on my wall from a friend with close ties to the rebels.”

“In three months, many things had changed. The cameras of the media disappeared. Some men started to grow beards. Others started wearing Afghan garb. Some refused to discuss ISIS while some others exaggerated their support for this group.”

“The revolutionaries are hoping to reunite parts of the city, which has been divided for about two years. With some areas under government control, and others in the hands of the rebels, we residents of Aleppo have ourselves become a divided people, separated within ourselves.”

“They told me from the first day that her husband was in prison, and that the songs I have the habit of singing could trigger her sadness. I wasn't particularly touched by that. We have become accustomed to hearing about the families of prisoners, as if it were normal, in Assad's Syria, to be imprisoned, and those outside of prison—or who consider themselves as such—are the exception.”

“Our power supply has disappeared completely for long periods. We'd complain for a couple of days, or a week, then we'd have to turn our attention to burying the remains of the dead as the Assad killing machine switches from bombing the Damascus countryside to bombing the city, sometimes with Scud missiles.”

“For someone who lost her mother to a lethal bullet, writing about mothers, and about Mother's Day, is not completely therapeutic. Even if we agree that writing has magical powers, some kinds of pain are simply too colossal. They wear down your body and soul, and are immune to medication.”

“This post was supposed to be about the daily life of a normal girl who is a just bit different. Let's call her an activist, as this label is more attractive to some.”

“I realise this year how late we are in talking about the third anniversary of the Syrian revolution. It is as if delaying talk about it will change the depressing reality. We are marking the third year since the start of the revolution.”

“Who am I? I have always considered this the most difficult question to answer or write about, especially today, three years from the start of the Syrian revolution. The truth is that I don't really know how much I resemble the young woman I was before.”

Marcell Shehwaro at the funeral of her mother, who was killed at a Syrian regime forces' checkpoint in June 2012. Fellow activists paid tribute by carrying red roses.

Marcell Shehwaro at the funeral of her mother, who was killed at a Syrian regime forces’ checkpoint in June 2012. Fellow activists paid tribute by carrying red roses. Image courtesy Marcell Shehwaro.