Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Syria: The fields are unsown

Alison Phipps is Co-Convener of GRAMNET and from 2008-2012 was an advisor to the World Council of Churches’s International Ecumenical Peace Convocation spiritual life working group as both an academic and Member of the Iona Community. She is Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies at the University of Glasgow, a poet, creative writer and liturgist.


Its December 2009. I arrive into Damascus and the sun is setting. Up in the hills, outside the city, where I am staying are olive trees, and earth ploughed over ready for the seasonal sowing of next year’s crops.  The air is dry, wintry. The light, long. syria august2013In the meetings we are having here, a group of people together as part of the preparations for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation of the World Council of Churches, the mood is relaxed, gentle, even optimistic.  We are hosted by the Syrian Orthodox Church and here to learn from a country with a history of interfaith living of over 2,000 years, here to learn from the experiences in Syria of receiving and offering sanctuary to over one million refugees from the Iraq war.

Our learning takes place in round table discussions and in at least four languages, but it is also embodied and sensual. I find myself thinking of Sarah Pink’s description of sensory ethnography, of the ways in which we learn by so much more than cognitive and verbal reasoning, and of John Law’s work in After Method (2004), where he says that research needs also to proceed through “Pains and pleasures, hopes and horrors, intuitions and apprehensions, losses and redemptions, mundanities and visions, angels and demons, things that slip and slide, or appear and disappear, change shape or don’t have much form at all, unpredictabilities.” (p.2). We change our clothing habits, learn to wrap scarves in new ways, visit Mosques and churches and projects and the Souk al-Hamidiyya with its starry roof and join prayers for the Feast of John of Damascus. Our bodies, stand, sit, squat, bow, bend, sing, suggest, taste, smell, touch all in ways which open worlds up to us in new ways. I am aware how easy it is and was to orientalise such new assaults on the senses and such learning, how easy to fetishise what is new, and exciting, for us. I check myself, critical, and think again.

syriaaugust2013-2In our meetings with Iraqi refugees we listen in appalled silence to the suffering of people. I listen to stories. Listening to stories of refugees when this is something you have studied and worked with means you quickly recognise structures, patterns of narrative, turns of phrase. It’s easy, in such times of listening to hear one long story, the same story, The Story of Exile, echoing down the centuries. Listening to these stories in Damascus means also hearing the stories with an underlying cadence of Paul’s Epistles, Biblical narratives. I catch myself thinking this, of this sensuous, palpable material intertextuality. I am sitting metres from the window where Paul is supposed to have escaped through the walls of Damascus in a basket, a stone’s throw from Strait Street.  I pull myself back to the present to listen again, more deeply. The Story of Exile I am listening to is from an Iraqi woman who watched her family executed in the chaos of the conflict and post-conflict situation in Basra. She cannot tell her story without tears. She fled for her life, over the border in Syria, along with the millions of others. I find myself weeping with a new companion as she speaks. Eleanor Sanderson’s work in geography speaks of how sometimes we work with and in tears as actions of solidarity.

syriaaugust2013-3The faith groups where we are guests, learning of their work, show us how they attend to two social aspects, which will give a renewed sense of hope: to beauty and to work. Their projects attend to the bodies and minds, scarred by war, and work with beauticians to teach, perhaps again, the crafts of aesthetics in everyday life. And they make courses available for learning to work with the internet, to fill gaps and help people know how they might connect with other family members who fled in a different direction and ended up somewhere else. This gentle hospitality and attention, together with the vast numbers of refugees in Syria brings a lump to my throat. We, in the UK, responsible for the displacement of these people from their homes, are concerned that twenty thousand asylum seekers a year from the conflict regions of the world are too many. Here, there are millions, displaced by actions taken by the UK.

As I write this the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are discussing a UK-proposed resolution “authorising necessary measures to protect civilians” in Syria. I am only repeating what has already been said by others, but we have been here before. The twitter feed across my screen tells me that the price of oil has just peaked in anticipation of the coming war. I feel sick. The civilians are those who took bread in Damascus, from a small bakery, on a street corner, and tore it in half, and gave it to me, and called me a friend, despite being from the enemy country. I wonder where they are now, what has become of those gentle projects in beauty and learning. There has been no news from them since the civil war in Syria broke out. In Turkey perhaps, or Jordan, or they may even have been among those Immigration Minister Mark Harper triumphantly filmed as they were found arriving from Syria in a container lorry in Dover, by UK Border Force, to be sent back to where they came from. In 1943 we would have given Jewish Refugees from war torn Europe sanctuary. Today we send them back to face the prospect of our own weapons being unleashed upon them.  I could qualify this and say so much for seeking safety in the UK, but it is redundant.

The BBC is telling me of the range of cruise missiles from Syria and of sophisticated anti-missile shields. An international lawyer is explaining whether this will or will not be a legal war. This may not be a blog posting full of facts and precise figures and pie diagram estimates of numbers of casualties, but this too is research.  Elegiac, but as such, of its time. It comes in a more narrative philosophical mode, out of theology, history, anthropology, literature. We are bound together in memory and moments and our thinking at these times is as clear for its subjectivity as for its objectivity and even more so for its helplessness and unknowing. The philosopher Hannah Arendt said that story telling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. War is chaotic and the flows of people and weapons, bodies and their blood are tangled in the midst of struggles to love and survive and protect.

I have no answers here beyond arms embargos, relationships and love.

syriaaugust2013-4The shadows made

by human

beings alive

in Syria


lengthen now

and turn,


fading after


into the


The fields are



2 comments on “Syria: The fields are unsown

  1. Jean Brookes
    August 29, 2013

    Deep thanks for such a clear analysis and spiritual challenge to us all in the West to see clearly what is happening


  2. Daniel connell
    August 30, 2013

    What an incredibly beautiful and true and sadening article Thank you for taking the time to launch human understanding deep and accurate into this conflict.


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