(Berlin) Due to political circumstances and conflict, massive numbers of Syrians have left their country and found shelter in Europe, with Berlin proving a popular destination. I moved to the German city in early April 2017. From the time of my arrival, as in previous visits to the city, I met up with Syrian friends.
As a native of Acre, Palestine, I was able for the first time to meet with Syrian men and women (with the exception of those from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights); to have coffee with a Syrian friend; to see a play by a Syrian playwright; or, most notably, to accept the invitation of an Aleppo friend to come for dinner—the kind where the soirée transforms into a singing party that transports us to Damascus or Suwayda in the south. My encounters with Syrian men and women have allowed me to map unseen geographies.
Conversations covered all kinds of ground. Most of them touched on Syria and memories of Syria. Asylum-seeking routes were another recurring theme in stories told by Syrian friends, especially the tough journey across the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to the details, I noticed that many of them recounted their stories with the bilim (rubber dinghy), smugglers, and the sea, with a unique sense of humor and sarcasm, or they chose to focus on the amusing and hilarious moments they experienced or that happened to people they know. Most of these comedic accounts are in reality tragedies, with painful contexts brimming with fear and disaster, yet many of their heroes and heroines manage to find something to laugh about and make others laugh along with them.
Fear and Laughter
A year ago, I met Muhammad Saadeddin, a native of Aleppo who was born in 1991. When I first met him, he told me about his sea journey, bursting out with laughter all throughout the narration. I was struck by this ability to tease out comic moments from such a tragic tale. When asked why he retells it with humor, he managed to make me laugh too.
“I don’t know, we always tell what happened to us and laugh,” he replied. “Maybe we’re used to hide things behind this laughter, but the situations were really funny.”
Muhammad told me that the moment he boarded the raft he realised its driver had no idea what he was doing. ““He kept steering the bilim (rubber boat) and drawing a circle but God delivered us!” he said. “Anyway, the smuggler had asked him if he knew how to steer a boat, to which the guy asserted that he was born by the sea. But we soon discovered that the dude is actually from Suwayda, which is totally inland! He had barely seen the sea twice in his life!”
The story of the guy and his rubber boat did not stop there. “He usually wore glasses, and apparently he had astigmatism and weak vision,” continued Muhammad laughing. “But two days before the journey he had his glasses broken, so practically he had not seen the sea and he could barely see! I swear to god, the only thing that got us onshore was the prayers of our parents. We live off prayers indeed.”
The journey on the rubber boat, if you hear Mohammed tell it, is an “adventure from the very start,” full of laughable moments.
“The smuggler’s sidekicks came to turn on the bilim,” he recalls of their departure. “It was dark, five in the morning. We weren’t allowed to make noise or use any light. We had to get on the bilim one after the other. Suddenly the engine wouldn't start. Anyway, we Arabs love to be pedantic. The bilim engine works just like any electricity generator, with a wire that ought to be pulled. The poor guy kept pulling in vain and it didn’t work. One guy shouted out to him ‘put it ON.’ Apparently it was still off.”
Once at sea, the hilarity continues.
“After we shipped out, our esteemed driver began drawing circles in the water but we kept advancing,” remembers Mohammad. “In the sea there are certain things you should be wary of, like whenever you spot Turkish police you must run away fast until you hit the opposite shore lest they make you turn back. We just didn’t! We saw the police and happily drifted towards them! We had no idea who they were but we turned ourselves in.”
After two hours, the raft reached the shores of Greece. But for Muhammad, comedy did not stop when the raft stopped. “We had just arrived with the first light when people began taking selfies! It’s like, how about you breathe in some air? We’ve barely arrived!”
Muhammad acknowledges these situations that we now perceive as funny were nothing but unpleasant when they first unfolded. But with the benefit of distance and hindsight, they now seem hilarious. “Fright has turned into laughter,” noted Muhammad. “I still tell friends about the funny situations I’ve been through on the bilim. I once told a friend about what had happened with me, and after comparing them to what had happened with him, he was like ‘What a sad unfunny story! You should return and do that again!’”
Mahmoud Faris, an 18-year-old Syrian who is also living in Germany, agreed that tough situations turn over time into comedy. “They become a laughing matter,” he said. He first left Syria for Egypt. Once there, his brother decided to leave Egypt for Europe, and Mahmoud decided to follow him not wanting to stay alone. They contacted a smuggler and travelled to Alexandria to Cairo.
For him, the funniest moments came before arriving to the sea, especially a chapter of cohabitation with chickens.
“We arrived at Alexandria, they wrapped us and hid us in a hen house,” Mahmoud recounted with a laugh. “They often sprayed us with water, so the chickens could drink, but also so that passion security personnel wouldn’t spot us! Two days passed like this, then the smuggler came and told us to get going. They put us in a car and hid us under sunshades to avoid detection. Then they piled vegetables over the sunshades so our heads would not be visible.”
I met Mahmoud through his brother, Tariq Faris, whom I have known for quite some time. I have witnessed firsthand his impressive storytelling skills, especially when recounting his experiences in the Syrian revolution, and various stages of his long asylum-seeking road which ended in Germany. These stories, especially the hilarious ones, inspired me to write this report.
“Most who survive such situations take it as comedy,” Tariq commented. “But these are moments of utmost fear, in which people go through experiences they feel unable to translate. We were scared and troubled, yet once we reach the next stage, we remember the previous one and laugh. People in such situations are in no way aware of what they are doing, which is also funny in itself.”
Despite having told me countless stories, Tariq found it difficult to remember what he would consider a precise, single moment of hilarity. But he remembered a funny element of continuity that lasted the duration of his journey. The journey, he said, started with 11 people crammed into a single car to reach a departure point near the Turkish town of Izmir. After passing a particular point, they continued the journey on foot.
“Everyone had life jackets, except for one person who took rubber rings because he was very frightened of water,” recalled Tariq. “He was anxious and walking awkwardly. The smuggler told us that we’d reach the sea in 10 minutes. That dude froze when he heard the word ‘sea’! Anyway, I helped him out. We couldn’t afford losing him because he was an English teacher and the translator we were relying on. We just couldn’t leave him behind because we’d need his services at least until Germany.”
Tariq broke out with laughter then continued to tell the story.
“We humored him,” he said. “I grabbed him from his hand like the little kid, although he was the oldest among us. We got on the bilim, and I sat closer to its front and pulled the rope to keep its bow high. Meanwhile, he grabbed my leg like he was hugging it. The son of my cousin, who was a 7-year-old boy, was with us aboard, and we placed him in the middle of us. The scared old man also held tight to the boy. We kept sailing in the middle of the sea, and it went all fine at the beginning, until we reached a place where the waves got higher, and the bilim started to swing. The man began shouting ‘Please I beg you, put the rings on me…’ When I asked him to give me his hands, he said ‘No, through my legs please.’ He lied back so I could keep holding his hands.”
Once on land, after everyone came off the raft, Tariq realised he had forgotten his bag. As he went back to the raft, he was surprised to find the same old man still on it and fast asleep.
“I told him we’re there,” remembered Tariq. “But he said he cannot walk for he was still too scared. I told him we’re ashore. He refused to believe it until we carried him out. This is perhaps the funnies situation. I mean, we were in serious danger and yet he managed to make us laugh all the way and to make us feel like macho men.”
Of course, these stories reflect individual experiences and cannot be generalised. But they stem from the depths of a shared pain and suffering felt by Syrians, collectively and individually. Human nature seems to equip us with the phenomenal capacity to move on, one way or another, wake up to a new day. Sarcasm, laughter, looking for moments of comedy in the midst of ruin are in fact coping mechanisms that make survival possible.
As Lebanese poet Bechara El Khoury said: “He cries and laughs, neither from sadness nor joy, as a lover drawing a line in the air then erasing it.” And they are certainly mechanisms of resistance to all systems of destructions, including those targeting man’s tendency to laugh out of pain. But they shall not succeed. Whether time smiles or frowns upon them, people will always learn how to keep laughing.