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Monkey Business

Freedom’s Ring In yet another topsy-turvy week where chimpanzees tore off a man’s face, when George Bush nominated U.N. hater John Bolton to be our next ambassador . . . to the U.N., and when our media were obsessed with Michael Jackson’s masturbation habits and Martha Stewart’s new jailmate-knit poncho, Marc Cooper found a reminder that there are people in the world to whom Bush’s “freedom is on the march” rhetoric is not just a talking point to be debated on Sunday news shows, but a frightening and hopeful and potent agent of change. The following passage is from Amarji — A Heretic’s Blog (amarji.blogspot.com), written by Syrian author Ammar Abdulhamid, who studied astronomy and history at the University of Wisconsin and now lives in Damascus with his fashion designer/activist wife and two teenage children. Though many of his eloquent posts end with a panicked “Do you know now why I have to leave?,” the despair-filled March 4 entry ends on an almost American jolt of optimism. Rumors, Facts and Heresies! The city’s air is rife with all sorts of untoward rumors. Everything is now possible: There is talk of arrests, purges, coup d’états, assassinations, sanctions, invasions, anything and everything, except, of course, freedom. Everything is possible except freedom. Freedom is never mentioned. Freedom never comes to mind. Freedom remains a distant dream. The world is changing around us, but we, Damascenes, Syrians, Sunnis, Alawis, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, or however we define ourselves these days, including perhaps heretics, can’t feel any hope in that. Nothing has touched us so far. Nothing seems to loom in the air, except for rumors and hearsays . . . The face of an ugly and malevolent god still stares down upon any possibility of hope within us. A reported wave of arrests has already swept a variety of “low-key” dissidents, that is, those whose arrest is not likely to generate much notice abroad, or even here, no matter how terrible this may sound. But then, everything sounds terrible these days. Despairingly terrible. There is hope all around us, but somehow there always needs to be some pit of despair somewhere meant to serve as a continuous reminder of how things were or could again be. But those whose fate is to live in such a pit have themselves to blame as well. If history teaches anything it’s that such punishment is always earned somehow. We earned it with our long and studious silence. Being a potentially high-profile case, not to mention, of course, a heretic, my punishment is doubled, tripled and quadrupled: I have to watch others arrested while I am spared, I have to live in the anticipation of a potentially worse fate when the “right” time finally comes, I have to face the look of sickly blame on my sullen wife’s face, and I have to come back home at the end of another long day feeling numb and defeated, regardless of any achievements made. Khawla and I have indeed reconciled ourselves to the fact that things seem to be like a race against time now: Our decision is not simply about leaving the country, but about leaving it before it’s too late, that is, before events catch up with us and prevent us from traveling, together, or at all . . . All these years I spent abroad without ever trying to obtain if not another citizenship then simply another residency seem increasingly wasted to me now. All this misplaced love for and belonging to the homeland is coming back to haunt me. But then, idealists never prosper, do they? Do they? On the positive side though, I feel like I have enough materials for a quite a few best-selling novels. One day this should make us all rich. One day. —March 4, 2005

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