Review: Tiger and Clay: Syria Fragments, Rana Abdul Fattah
By Greg Chatterton
You either live here or there.
Rana Abdul Fattah’s autobiographical book, Tiger and Clay: Syria Fragments, explores her existence as a Syrian woman in exile living in Istanbul. She moved to Turkey before the beginning of the Syrian uprising to attend university, but she is now at ideological odds with the Syrian government and cannot return to her family – her home. Most would expect such a situation to be expressed in a totality of despair; to never know in advance what life will bring – good or bad, there is only the static limbo of waiting. But Rana does not view the world or her situation in this way. Of course there are currents of inescapable feelings of loss and longing, but for Rana they are not the overbearing factors of life, existence, being human. It is not acceptance of a tragic circumstance, nor a wish to ignore the destruction of her homeland and its people by governments from across the world (including its own); it is, rather, a will to retain a semblance of ‘existential’ freedom that abounds when freedom is attempted to be seized from you – that which they can never wholly take. And it is not just a matter of those who are at war who attempt to negate this freedom, it is those who view the war from a safe distance who also decide what freedoms those who are fleeing the devastation should be allowed – the masses watching their own partisan news programmes and the rhetoric of their arms-trading politicians, they have decided on the ideal definition of refugee-hood. Rana explicates her view on this as such:
Here is my definition of what a refugee is [from the external world], you are a slave waiting for someone or some state to give you rights and make you so happy with what is given.
Your material freedom, once taken for granted, is now under the laws and decisions of a society that is not your own, and your position is posited as that of being an-other, an alien, something that must be controlled and a new regime of laws are created to govern you. Literal and metaphorical walls and fences are built to cage you in or keep you out, but to be kept away from other human beings at any rate. And as Rana so poetically puts it, humanity’s extreme desire for difference and therefore the ability to suppress it is expressed as such:
I am so happy migrating birds and animals do not have visa issues and fences in the sky to halt their efforts to survive, but humans with their mindful consciousness do actually build walls around themselves.
My own interpretation of what Rana is stipulating here is that there is a universality of what it is to be human, and that is our Consciousness, at one and the same time objective for it is a shared innateness of being human and yet it is also subjective for we each experience our own psyche alone (the totality of the human condition). And yet we have decided the best solution to our objective subjectivity is to create differences and exploit those differences by imprisoning ourselves by national/cultural/racial borders, locking ourselves in as much as keeping the ‘dangerous’ other out.
In her book, Rana is not attempting a sociological exploration of the Syrian peoples’ situation, yet she is not solely concerned with individualistic perceptions of it either. Rather, she describes a personal, lived experience in a world of being with others as an individual within the phenomenon of the continued creation of a dark history: the presence of the globalised war industry exploiting the Syrian refugees. She writes:
… they do not stop milking the presence of refugees all over the world. Weapons sold to keep the war going, NGOs starting projects to launder money, jobs revitalising the economies of Syria’s neighbours…
The refugees of war are either ignored or prescribed an essence by external judges under banners of race, gender, nationality, religion, etc., all of which Rana forces the reader to confront; we encounter her existence as one that is consciously individual instead of only a part that makes up the whole.
Rana does not wish to be the representative for all Syrian refugees to the rest of the world, for how could she be? – She is an individual, not an entire objective consciousness of an entire country or culture; she is an emotional human being, sometimes full of love and sometimes, as she says, narcissistic, for everyone needs to think solely of themselves sometimes, just to lift the weight of what it means to be human amongst other humans. Constant outward care will not solve the crisis of Syria and would only lead her to a perpetual state of helplessness. An individual can only do so much at any one time; one cannot be altruistic all of the time – there is no such utopian reality. Even a flea-ridden cat cannot stay in the flat of a cat-lover for too long!
A mixture of prose and poetry, Rana leads us through her life of love and loss, of the man she once loved whose ways of understanding the world they inhabit are sclerotic to the person she has now become and continues becoming.
The author writes her work in English, instead of Arabic (her mother tongue), “It is not risky to be in another language, is it? Perhaps it is a way to counter the linguistic hegemony.” For her, English is a private language; very few people around her would be able to read her thoughts – English, a language so dominant throughout this Anglophone-globalised world, becomes a bastion of secrecy, towards a vanguard, expressing her candid imagination, memories and reality away from prying eyes.
What is not said in this book is that which we think we already know, but is, in fact, irreal. And insofar as Rana is concerned with the plight of the exile who is not in exile, in a world that wishes to make the migrant conform to the fixed idea of what it is to be a migrant, she is a non-intellectual intellectual, someone to be feared; a woman, a Muslim woman at that, and a migrant, how she is viewed cannot fit into the conformity as laid out by those who would normally consider her and those like her in absolute otherness: “It’s exotic that you think I am exotic…” she writes, “I will be your migrant. I will be your third world smartass… I kiss you angrily with my interesting other and I fall in love with your great civilised other”. How highly the un-afflicted position themselves in the face of these belittled entities in refuge.
Tiger and Clay should be gratefully received by its reader for it grants us a certain knowledge and understanding of one who knows the individual existence, realities, ideas and emotions of a situation that we, who are not in that situation, cannot know first-hand. That which Rana has not put in this book, the things you might be expecting, aren’t there because what we think we already know about the condition of the Syrian ‘civil war’ and Syrian civil society is nothing like the truth we take it to be. It is time we started to re-humanise ourselves to see the humanity in each individual other who is always fighting personal battles within external conflicts.
The history books may tell future generations of our epoch, but here and now every individual’s life is its own eternity.
Greg Chatterton is an essayist and writer of fiction who is currently researching his philosophy and literature Master’s thesis focusing on the works of Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre at the University of Dundee in Scotland. He visited Istanbul in 2017 with his wife and fell in love with the city.
You can find the book here.