To hear a war from far-away.

For others; to bomb, eliminate a country,

blow-up a civilization, destroy the living.

Etel Adnan, To Be In A Time Of War

In the summer of 2013, I watched in a Parisian movie theatre Hiroshima, mon amour, a remastered copy of Alain Resnais’s 1959 film. This was the first time I had seen it since living back home in Damascus. On that sunny summer day, as I watched the film, I clearly heard Marguerite Duras’ dialogue, “You have seen nothing in Hiroshima”, said between a French woman and her Japanese lover in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb. The man tells the woman that she has seen nothing because she was not inside the events, and what she observes now is only the effects of the catastrophe.

And in the dark of the movies theatre, I started telling myself: “You have seen nothing in Syria”.

The last time I had been to Syria then, was in 2011, the same year that people started demonstrating in the streets. I only experienced preceding events on my computer screen; I watched hours of footage taken by activists all around the country. Eventually my status as an observer looking from afar disconnected me not only from events in my country, but also from family and friends – and their struggles – that I had left behind.

Although I grew more estranged from news in Syria, my vantage point abroad afforded me the ability to follow the work of Syrian artists, most of whom living now in exile. I began to use their creations as sources of information about Syria, but it soon occurred to me that these artists too had “seen nothing” because they too had fled the violence.

Artwork by Tammam Azzam

I asked myself: Is the Syrian artist in exile a witness, or does time and distance undermine the ability to bear witness? And to go further, are not we all exiled and displaced, fantasizing about a country we do not know much about anymore? These questions certainly shake one’s certainties and sense of legitimacy; but maybe it is about time to ask them if we really want to see what kind of country Syria is becoming from inside its borders.

More than 3 years after watching that remastered copy of Hiroshima, mon amour, I ended up returning home. I returned to a city both so familiar and strange at the same time. I discovered how Damascus’ blue sky became a source of fear because today it brings death and destruction. But I also knew that I arrived too late and that everything I got to experience was through ruins, both physical and psychological. Today, I do believe that if I want to “see” a bit more, I have to also look through the eyes of those who stayed and of those, who despite unbearable conditions, are still making art, longing for a brighter future, and waiting for the day when all of us will be able to return home.

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