Living in the temporary

For Syrians, the past is long gone, while the future—a homeland free of Assad—is forbidden, writes Yassin al-Haj Saleh in this reflection on exile, time, and revolution.

The day I left Syria in the fall of 2013, I published a short essay titled, ‘On Bidding Syria Farwell… Temporarily.’ I could not leave my country for the first time without saying something, and without pledging that this was a temporary departure. Four years and five months have now passed without any end to the temporary in sight, nor does it seem that one will appear in the foreseeable future. While I personally have had the chance during these years to resume my work as a writer to a large extent, most refugees have not had the chance to resume their interrupted work and lives, especially those living in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, or various European countries, suffering from various forms of discrimination, including limitations on movement and appearance in public spaces.

To resume a life that has been put on hold, or to work to make exile an opportunity for a new beginning, is the most important challenge faced by the refugee. Like the extrajudicial detainee who, despite not knowing how long she will stay in jail, nonetheless does not spend her years in prison awaiting the moment of release, the refugee in turn works to place the experience of being uprooted and exiled within brackets, and to not spend the rest of her years waiting to return to her house and homeland.

In prison, one works to neutralize time with productive activities, or even try to get time on your side by going through a process I call “enjailment,”1 to make the prison into a home, a framework to change and free ourselves from other prisons. This is when the prison is not extremely brutal, such as in Tadmor, Saydnaya, and the new detention camps in Syria, in which enjailment is difficult or impossible. The refugee does the same as the prisoner, to the extent possible; trying to take control of her life in her new conditions. What does it mean to be in control of one’s life? At the very least, to have a base; a point of stability; “a room of one’s own;” a house, if possible, to allow for transformation from uprootedness, the status of someone who escaped with nothing but her “bare life,” to the more stable status of refugee, who is able to resume a life of her own, or give herself a new beginning. This too is when the conditions of refuge are not too brutal so as to make “exilification”2 similarly impossible. A base of this kind is a necessity in order to plan one’s life; to take some control over time and its subjugation.

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