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Who to Believe?

On Syria.


As I concluded a reporting trip through northeastern Syria two summers ago, a friend asked whether I would like to visit several Syriac Christian villages a bit off the beaten path. He had already directed my travel thus far, and I had mostly finished my work. I agreed, and the next day I found myself speeding off with a designated driver and two young soldiers in the Syriac Military Council.

Wherever we stopped, I got out of the car and asked a few people about local history and current affairs. As we talked, they often offered me thick coffee and processed sweets. Our visits inevitably included a tour of the village’s Syriac Orthodox church. These churches are only used on special occasions since there are rarely enough people around to sustain a weekly Mass. Festivals are held on the feast days of the church’s patron saint, and, of course, weddings and funerals are celebrated there. The village’s cemetery is always in the church garden.

Our second day, we came to a village different from all the others. Here Syrians and Arabs lived alongside each other. An Arab faction within the Syrian Democratic Forces manned a checkpoint outside town. In the other villages, the local garrison typically followed the Kurdish Y.P.G. or the Syriac Military Council. The Syrian soldiers in my car waved politely, calling the young guy at the checkpoint “comrade” in Arabic (rafiq) instead of Kurdish (heval) or Syriac (hawro). We stopped at a house, and one of the Syrian fighters got out. He knew everyone in each village; we had even stopped at his mom’s house to get the keys to one of the churches as we were passing through. But the family he was looking for wasn’t home. He suggested we try another house nearby, since he knew the owners as well.

The others walked into the garden, announcing themselves in Syriac as I trailed behind. An older woman emerged from the house and welcomed us. The soldiers spoke to her—explaining in Arabic so I could understand—that I was a foreign journalist and had come to ask a few questions about the village and the Syrian community here and that I wanted to see the church. She told us to go visit the church while she prepared coffee. She summoned her two grandsons, who were listening to the conversation, and handed the older one a set of keys.

When we walked through a gate into the churchyard, I noted that the church was the smallest one we had seen yet. But the village’s Syrian community of three families clearly took decent care of it. The outside was tiny and very simple: drab grayish paint to match the drab grayish countryside and a small sign in both Syriac and Arabic saying that it had been built in the 1990s. Before we entered, one of the Syrian fighters approached a nearby house and knocked on the door. An Arab family emerged, and he explained that they were showing a foreign journalist the church. I didn’t join him, since he signaled for me to hang back. I waved from afar. They waved back.

We had seen five churches the previous day, and the interior of this one was not much different than those. We didn’t linger. Later, the old woman told me its history, which was bound up with her own. Like many Syrians in the region, her family had lived in what is now Turkey until the Assyrian genocide of 1915. They fled the Ottoman government and settled in a village further north along the Syrian-Turkish border. When her father moved to this village, he was the first Christian. She was born here and was part of the small Syrian community that had built the church. That community was now dwindling, and life had become lonely as there were no other Syrian villages around. I asked about the Arab militia outside town. She said they were respectful.

As we got up to leave, she insisted we stay for lunch, clearly not wanting to lose the infrequent pleasure of guests. The others decided to keep going (I secretly wished we could stay). She showed us one more thing before we left. She had a shrine in her backyard to a saint whose bones her mother had uncovered. It was visually underwhelming: just a pile of rocks, one of which had a rudimentary cross carved into it. But it seemed to fit this dusty village on the edge of the desert. And I was intrigued by the story behind it, which I only followed with difficulty because the old woman frequently switched between Syriac and Arabic in her explanation. As far as I understood, her mother had dug up the bones, and a female saint had appeared to her in a dream, saying that the bones belonged to her.

Only later did I realize that I had missed something essential, and wished I had asked for more details about the story. I was confused about the timeline. Did the mother dig up the bones first, and then see the saint in a dream? Or did she see a saint in a dream, who told her to dig at that spot and she would find her bones? I’m a Catholic, and I was not prepared to discount the possibility of a miraculous occurrence. I wanted to believe the story was true. But the next day, as we drove back to Iraq, I could not help thinking that the sequence of events mattered a great deal. If she had dug up the bones first, the apparition could simply be a subconscious effort to handle the trauma of disturbing a grave. Indeed the old woman said that her mother had prayed at that pile of rocks every day and took meticulous care of the site. But if the dream happened first, then the story appeared much more plausible. Either way, I intend, someday soon I hope, to return, take her up on the offer of lunch, and learn the truth.

When I left the village it was with a certain understanding. It was exclusively Arab until this woman’s father became the first Syrian to arrive. Others followed, and at its peak the Syrian community there numbered twenty to thirty families. They had now mostly left, many to the city of Qamishli and others further afield to Sweden or to America. An Arab Muslim family lives in the house that shares the grounds with the church. The church’s keys are with the old woman, who trusts her grandson to open it for visitors. And the Arab militia that provides security in the village treats the small Syrian Christian community with respect.

But back in Iraq, that understanding was challenged. It happened unexpectedly. I was sitting in the office of a Syrian organization with the friend who organized the trip, as well as another man I had not met previously. When I mentioned the name of the village where I had seen the shrine, he said he knew about that village. He addressed me in Syriac, telling me about the problems it faced: how the Arabs had prevented the Christians from entering the church, how there was sectarian tension, and how the Arab militia was aggressive towards the Syrian villagers. He claimed that the village had once been exclusively Syrian, but now the Arabs had moved in and most of the Syrians were leaving. My friend translated all this into Arabic for me. I replied that I had only just visited the church, and that the keys were in the hands of a Christian family. I also repeated the old woman’s contention that it was actually the Syrians who were the newcomers and that the Arab militiamen had been respectful.

We reached a conversational impasse, made worse by the need for translation. Here was an entirely different version of this village’s story: a former Syrian enclave whose original Christian inhabitants were being pushed out by Arab Muslims; an Arab militia harassing Christians even preventing them from entering the church which I had myself visited. What was I to believe? With my own eyes I had seen that the church keys, or at least one set of them, were with the Christian family we had visited. It seemed unlikely that the Arabs were preventing them from using the church. And when I asked about the Arab militia, the woman responded that they were respectful, and she had sounded sincere. Why should she not have been? The militiamen had politely waved through the Syrian soldiers with whom I had been traveling. And what about the village’s history? Was it originally Syrian, Arab, perhaps both? Archival records of the Ottoman Empire, or the French Mandate, or the Syrian state might provide an answer. It is a mystery but a solvable one. The weight of evidence to me seems to favor the old woman. She actually lives there and should know better than anyone what the relations are like between her and the Arabs in the village. She should know when her father came there and whom he found when he arrived.

But after a decade of civil war in Syria, there is very little trust between anyone. I now wonder whether I should really have believed that this woman would tell me all the problems of her village. I speak neither Syriac nor Kurdish, only Arabic, which makes me an outsider in northeastern Syria, not unlike one of the Western journalists in the Beirut bars who wait for the conversation to switch back to English from French or Arabic so that they can presumptuously explain Lebanese politics to their Lebanese friends. For the old woman, telling me what I wanted to hear—that the Arabs treat her well, that there are no problems in the village—was the safest bet. That doesn’t mean, though, that there are problems. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but neither is absence of evidence itself evidence.

Of course, both versions could both be right about different elements of the story. The woman could be right about the village’s history—that the Arabs were there first and that her father was the first Syrian there. At the same time, the man could be right about sectarian tensions in the village that she didn’t want me to see, fearing perhaps that mentioning it would put her in danger. Or a dispute could have occurred, say, six months ago. Perhaps the Arabs locked the church in a fit of rage, and later they duly re-opened it and apologized for the insolence of the young hothead of the group. No hard feelings, the Syrians might have said. Come drink coffee and eat processed sweets at our house and we’ll forget it ever happened. No interlocutor is entirely reliable, and almost no interlocutor is entirely unreliable.

Whatever the reality, most people outside the village now remember it as the place where the Arabs oppress the Christians. Does the man’s mistaken impression about the village’s history suggest he is also wrong about the current tensions? Of course not, but I was still inclined to discount his version because of his distance from the village and because his information seemed to contradict what I had observed myself. But who knows? We have all misremembered something about which we felt certain. It does not mean that all of our other memories are false or mistaken.

Let’s say I had to write about the village. What would I say? And how would readers receive it? Reporting in Syria is often spotty, not least because most journalists are just passing through and generally don’t speak the language. It’s a reminder of how tenuous “the news” can be. As my grandfather once put it, when we read the local paper, ninety-five percent of the time the reporter knows more than we do and we believe his telling of events. But five percent of the time we know the story better than the reporter. In those cases, we see all the gaps in the story. We know that the sequence of events is wrong, or that it only tells one side of the story, or that some of the interviewees are making themselves out to look better than they really were.

In the Middle East, this tendency is amplified. Reporting requires time and resources, both of which are limited even in the best of circumstances. Most journalists have to believe people when they tell their own stories or offer accounts of events they have witnessed. The possibility that what they are hearing contains some admixture of false memories, or even outright deceptions, can never be entirely ruled out. Had I not met the second man and spoken only to the woman, I would have felt reasonably comfortable writing a short news article about the village with its tiny church and its dwindling Christian community. I would have focused on the other more news­worth­y issues we discussed: the fires that were burning crops in the area, the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war. I would not have hesitated to pass along what I had learned as fact. But then, by happenstance, I was given more information that contradicted what I had been led to believe. I am glad I did not have to write about it.

My fellow journalist Rania Abouzeid was not so lucky. In No Turning Back, her book about Syria, she chronicled a massacre in the city of Jisr al-Shughur carried out in 2011 by the Syrian government. Only years later did she discover that this account had been largely false. But it seemed like there had been little room for doubt at the time. She had interviewed so many people fleeing from Syria into Turkey, all telling the same story. These, it turned out, were mostly repeating something they had not actually witnessed, though they believed to be true. Anyway, it was in keeping with the narrative surrounding the conflict in Western media at the time. The truth—that rebels had surrounded government soldiers and opened fire—would have been harmful to the rebels’ cause. It was first told by a rebel commander on Syrian state television after he was captured, but was dismissed as implausible because it appeared on the propaganda network of the state broadcasting arm of a dictatorial regime. But even then, there were reasons to believe him. He did not, for instance, repeat the pro-government talking points shared by other guests on state television. He rejected the interviewer’s insistence that he refer to armed groups as terrorists. And he emphasized that the government did not, in fact, give orders to open fire on protesters. Only by sticking with the story for several years was Abouzeid able to uncover the truth, or at least part of it. Had she not done so, her original reporting would have passed from journalism into history.

How many journalists in the Middle East approach their work with such humility? For obvious reasons, their main priority tends to be finding some exclusive story, one that involves a pressing issue or a novel angle or both. A simple example: a European journalist in Erbil, the city in Iraqi Kurdistan where I live, approached me shortly before the coronavirus pandemic to ask whether I knew of any musicians in Iraq who were doing something innovative. She was looking to write about young Iraqis challenging the status quo through music but was at a dead end. The problem was that even young Iraqis’ musical tastes were pretty traditional. Most were not pushing limits, but rather focused on furthering an inherited musical heritage. Her tone about these traditionalists was dismissive, and she was frustrated that she couldn’t find what she was looking for. But is the role of a journalist to decide the story ahead of time and then find the anecdote to confirm it? Isn’t the conservatism of Iraqi musicians a story in itself? Even if she found a band that fit her preference, isn’t it noteworthy—if perhaps not newsworthy—that most of the bands she first examined didn’t fit the bill? In this sense, the news we read out of the Middle East really does skew our understanding of the region from afar.

I don’t mean to pick on this particular journalist. I do, however, find her attitude typical of many Westerners in the Middle East. They are mostly informed by life in America or Europe, and they see what they want to see. They tend to make dramatic, even definitive pronouncements on all manner of subjects, though they don’t speak the language or read much apart from what other journalists write. They seek out narratives that seem to be in keeping with stories they have already decided to tell. They accept things at face value that they ought to question and question many things that are obvious. They are more interested in getting things first than in getting things right. While most of them are smart enough not to get caught passing along information that can easily be disproved, they seem unaware that truth is not synonymous with facts, especially when it appears in an unfamiliar context.

All of which is to say that I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the way journalists often write about the Middle East, even if I can’t always put my finger on exactly why that is. Most English-language reporting here reads as though the writer has found something objectively true and is reporting it to the reader. Naturally, stories that fit the favored understanding of issues such as the Syrian conflict get more coverage than others. Abouzeid’s coverage of Jisr al-Shughur is a good example. Most people didn’t question it because it appeared to be in keeping with the Western view of the conflict: Good Protesters versus Bad Dictator. Likewise, many stories of Christian persecution are passed along in the American right without questions about whether the situation is more complicated.

The entire Syrian conflict revealed that some stories are infinitely complex. Many journalists covering it have written about the frustration that their early reporting on atrocities did not prompt the world to take action and stop the bloodshed. But within Syria there was never a straightforward solution to its political problems and even the best reporting had no answers about what to do. After all, journalism cannot hope to answer the questions of politics. It can explain what happened and how it happened. It cannot explain why something occurred. And in Syria, so many journalists were wrong about what was actually going on that readers can be forgiven for starting to doubt everything they read.

Back to our village. It is possible that one day I will find written evidence that establishes whether it was originally Syrian or Arab. But the rest of the story will probably not be verified through archival research. If I ever pursue it further, a broader range of interviews will probably be valuable. If ninety percent of people I talk to lend support to one narrative or the other, I will feel reasonably confident that I have uncovered the truth. I won’t be entirely sure, but I don’t think the lesson here is that there is no objective truth or even that there is but we can’t know it. It is more accurate to say that, in addition to documented facts, perception matters. Much of the disagreement between my two interviewees might involve a radically different perception of a similar event. I also have to realize that my own bias will shape how I perceive it.

In the end, I’ll just have to accept my limitations. I cannot write with so many caveats that the reader wonders why I am writing at all. Journalists cannot cover every possible angle even in a very small story, and I am more sympathetic than ever to those who decide to write even though they still have questions themselves. But I do think that journalism can be better than it is now. Because of my location it is easy for me to see the shortcomings in coverage of the Middle East; when I read about the coronavirus or racial politics in the United States or the national debt, I know that they must be there regardless of whether I am able to identify them. As a writer I can be more diligent about what I put on paper, because I owe it to my readers to do just that. As a reader, though? I still have no idea.

For now, all I know is that if I ever read a news story about a tiny Syriac Christian village in northeastern Syria, presenting a definitive answer to some lingering questions in my mind, I’ll realize that the writer either knows much more—or much less—than I do.

Samuel Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, and many other publications.

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