This morning it is Saturday, February 11. I am dancing in my living room. The room spins while I dance. I see the concrete grey floors of my apartment, but I also see grey piles of rubble from the video my uncle just sent me from where he is in northwest Syria, after the earthquake on February 6 in Syria and Turkey.
I see a crack in the floor of my apartment. The crack travels from the floor into my feet, up in between my legs, through my belly, sliding between my veins, through the center of my heart, up in my throat, and all the way to Syria and into the earthquake’s epicentre in Turkey where my aunts have fled. This crack splits my reality between where I am now and there. I blink and see rubble. I see my family friend’s sister, found dead in the rubble holding her son. I have an urge to sob but when I open my mouth, I can only feel the crack. It is a void that lets out into the vast unknown of space, somewhere in the universe, where the pieces of our spirits go when they are far from home.
I go through the day like an animated puppet—smiling, laughing fully with my teeth—but in the back of my eyes a ghost beats a quiet drum. I picture my shadow in Syria, wandering through the ruins, flowerless, and full of sharp edges. Upon closer look, an observant friend might notice my spirit is on a brief hiatus from my body this week. But it’s not about me; that’s the point. It’s about my family.
We became alternate timelines of each other in each country.
It’s my aunt jamming the keys in the car as she flees Gaziantep with her children and her eldest daughters’ babies in tow. It’s about a Syrian regime who has been killing with impunity for twelve years, whose army mercilessly bombed the city of Marea only one day after the trifecta of earthquake tremors—first at 7.8, then at 7.9 and 5.0. And then another set of tremors at 6.8 and 5.8 two weeks later.
It’s about my aunt’s brother, killed by regime bombs a few years ago, and my aunt’s choice to flee Syria and chase down love in another country. Now she flees her home again in Turkey. It’s about my cousin’s face when she smiles, the way her whole body animates when she laughs. It’s about my little cousin’s love of Minecraft because he’s obsessed with building new things. It’s about my two new baby cousins I haven’t even met yet, fleeing death so young, held in laps while swerving across disjointed slabs of concrete in the road. It’s about my elderly great aunt calmly telling us her life is in God’s hands as she stays behind in the epicentre in Turkey.
It’s about how none of us had the choice where we were displaced to. We became alternate timelines of each other in each country.
It’s about the photographs of our family that stayed on the walls while they crumbled during the earthquake. Who will remember to come back for the heirlooms? My father could not take anything with him when he fled Syria. I cradle a necklace my grandfather gave me from Yemen after the family was displaced, like it is a missing thread—a piece that will glue the crack together. So many pieces of our story are missing.
We belong to no one anymore.
Missing cousins kidnapped by the Syrian state; missing childhoods spent in terror of police violence; missing memories I could not have because even after my father fled Syria in the 1980s, a new generation renewed our exile; missing stories no one can bear to repeat of rape and torture in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons, in electric chairs; missing action by those who hold power in the world because my family cannot bend into whiteness.
My family cannot even properly bend into being refugees, because time passed too quickly, and generations of displacement suddenly compounded into forty years. We belong to no one anymore.
Many of my cousins claim asylum from a country they have never seen—living in the crack of eternal displacement, never able to claim refuge anywhere. They are denied basic human dignity and live undocumented, in fear, rejected by every country that has hosted them, perpetually waiting on new visas, new guidelines, forged papers, because of the strange cacophony of sounds determining who officially gets to be a refugee. “Yes, we never recognized you, but we expected you to disappear into the crack. We didn’t know your displacement would keep growing. Why don’t you disappear?” the global North says.
I watch my family’s humanness make up for the crack—the gaps in social services they receive, in rights, in resources. I see their generosity fill in that widening ravine in the earth that has split my heart in two. I see the love of people who know firsthand that love is all there is. Somehow, living in scarcity, my family has chosen an abundance of love for each other.
“We have to celebrate everything in life. Birthdays, good news, graduation, every holiday we can. It’s only right,” my aunt told me this summer in Turkey, after she surprised me with a homemade watermelon fruit cake for my birthday, the same day as her son’s wedding. My mother always keeps her home open for activists who need a place to stay. In her heart, a chorus of Syrian ancestors chant, “love, be loved, share love.”
This is how we met our family friend, my aunty, whose sister was found dead in the earthquake. The revolution in Syria had just begun in 2011, and my mom worked as a translator in Syria’s prisoner movement. She shared the news of an imprisoned, nonviolence medical activist in Assad’s jails. When he was freed, his family came to seek asylum in the U.S. They were stranded in a Holiday Inn on the other side of the country when my mom told them to come live with us. She knows the feeling of having no home and nowhere to go. They came; friendship turned into family fast. Aunty stayed for years and had a baby who became my little sister.
My voice cracks while speaking to my aunty on the phone. I have no words for the loss of her sister under the rubble.
When they were deported, we vowed to come visit them in France whenever we could. We still do. We reminisce about those early days of the revolution when things were so different. Their daughter, my sister, speaks English, Arabic, French, and Turkish, like the many polyglot babies of displacement.
My voice cracks while speaking to my aunty on the phone. I have no words for the loss of her sister under the rubble. I can’t stop thinking about another relative of ours who was pregnant and also died under the rubble. One of our relatives witnessed his whole family buried alive. The images of jagged wire and debris my uncle sends us daily from northwest Syria, the most collectively punished region—by Assad, by Turkey, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), rebels, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in their own specific brand of horrors—and now this.
As my aunts fled the earthquake’s epicentre, my uncle rushed toward it to see how he could help. He came to fill in the crack. Only the displaced know how to take care of each other. Because everything else has failed. The UN aid will be confiscated by the Syrian regime. But the blankets and diapers my uncle brought with his own hands will not. He works for an organization called Syria Forum that was on the ground supporting earthquake victims in Jinderis, Syria. My uncle’s wife’s brother stayed behind to rescue his neighbours from the rubble. “My neighbour’s daughter was laughing when I took her out. A-ha! She laughed and laughed,” he told us in a voice note on Telegram. “And then, before you know it, her breath went out and she died.”
I keep picturing our family friend’s sister—the mother and son who died in an embrace. In her 2000 book, Methodology of the Oppressed, Chicana feminist Chela Sandoval quotes Roland Barthes when he says:
“I want to change systems: no longer to unmask, no longer to interpret, but to make consciousness itself a drug, and thereby to accede to the perfect vision of reality, to the great bright dream, to prophetic love. And if such consciousness were our human future? If by an additional turn of the spiral, someday, most dazzling of all, once every reactive ideology had disappeared, consciousness were finally to become this: the abolition of manifest and the latent, of the appearance and the hidden? If it were asked of analysis not to destroy power (nor even to correct or direct it), but only to decorate it, as an artist?”
This new realm of consciousness Barthes asks us to join is called prophetic love. Sandoval points to it as the only solution for the rigid brutality of a postmodern world. It is a form of differential oppositional consciousness accessed as a methodology of the oppressed—a feminist vision for social transformation and change. It is an aesthetic and moral insistence on love in all we do as feminist praxis.
My feminism is these Syrian women surviving apocalypse and showing us how they carved out secret places for their own freedom inside it.
But I don’t care about that language right now. There is a kind of feeling, a kind of love that comes from seeing the totalizing face of destruction and yet insists on moving toward each other instead of apart. My feminism is these Syrian women surviving apocalypse and showing us how they carved out secret places for their own freedom inside it.
In Damascus this week, a local woman launched a project called “Sandwisha,” making sandwiches 24/7 to send to earthquake victims in Idlib and Aleppo. Other jam3iyat (women’s collectives) are sending medical supplies, food, and milk from Damascus to victims in Aleppo and Idlib, even while food insecure themselves. According to my family in Damascus, after the earthquake happened at 5:00 a.m., one woman in their community drove to Latakia at 7:00 a.m. so she could deliver food and toys to the children of the earthquake. She handwrote encouraging messages on colourful paper and wrapped them inside the toys so the children would feel a sense of personalized care.
It reminds me of Syrian women such as the members of Jana Women’s Organization in Raqqa, who, while under starvation siege, coordinated the Let There Be Bread Among Us campaign, in which they passed out homemade loaves to the community with handwritten notes of solidarity. Or how the Mazaya Center coordinated mask-making workshops in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began, using scraps of fabric to ensure community care. Or the Syrian Jasmines’ community food-bank projects in Idlib that distribute free breakfasts to recently displaced refugees.
What do I do with all this grief? And: what do I do with all this beauty?
I’ve seen Syrian women under regime bombing and our family members under Israeli invasion in Syria, fleeing dictatorship, then under American invasion in Iraq, then under new forms of violence in diaspora, healing quietly through embroidery, cooking, prayer, bellydance, motherhood, and interdependence. I’ve seen them give up, then return to hope as a necessity. I’ve seen Syrian women living and loving in ways that I believe will save us all. What do I do with all this grief? And: what do I do with all this beauty?
I think of the baby born under rubble in Jinderis, Syria, while the rest of his family died in the earthquake. The baby was found, still connected to his dead mother’s umbilical cord. The baby lived a miracle without ever even knowing the warmth of a human embrace. The baby lived. Even when nestled under compact rubble and human remains, like a flower in the mud choosing the sun. Syrian people, in our weary bodies, with memories that haunt us, with ancestors who never got to rest, become branches of a tree that is so deeply rooted it cannot bow to the bulldozer even if it wanted to.
We, in our ancient languages—Assyrian, Kurdish, Turkmani, Arabic of many dialects—in our heavy wounds, hold music inside our spirits so haunting, words so beautiful, our essence becomes a strange pantomime reminding the world that at the end, we will be okay. We refuse burial—our children emerge, defiant and living, in a cloud of dust. And even in death, our skeletons wrap around each other, mother and child, flattened pieces of God, contorted, neglected reminders of a tenacious presence; the kind of love that binds the earth together and stitches the crack back together after it all has broken.
Banah Ghadbian is a poet from Syria raised in the U.S south. They have a PhD in ethnic studies and are an assistant professor of comparative women’s studies at Spelman College. They wrote La Syrena (Dzanc Books, 2022) and homegirls, hashish, and the moon (Everybody Press, forthcoming).