By Way of Manifesto

As a Syrian prodemocracy activist living in exile in Silver Spring, Maryland, since 2005, I feel a growing sense of angst, frustration, and despondency when I listen to news from my home country and around the world these days. I cannot deny the ugly realities I see, and I have to struggle to find ways to keep myself going in the face of it all. Despair is surrender, and surrender is accepting that things can never be changed. To me, living with this belief is a far worse fate than the hell we have to go through to bring about change—the desired change, the change that we deserve.

I don’t believe I am the only who thinks along these lines, but I might be one of the few foolish enough—if that’s the right term—to articulate their thoughts and share them, even as it means baring my soul to the world and exposing myself to ridicule and charges of nihilism. For my vision is often dark and somewhat off putting, at least at first glance, and some, maybe even many, may not be able to immediately grasp what I am trying to accomplish. But my point is quite simple: by acknowledging the incredible difficulties of the challenges we face and the seemingly insurmountable odds, the point is not to inspire despair and frustration, but to prepare those of us who are willing to put our everything on the line for the barrage of heartaches we are about to face.

As far as we know, life is all we have. It does not matter how tragic it can often be and how its majesty and beauty can often serve as cover for all sorts of existential dangers. Because life is all we have, the fight to make it better, and safer—to extract justice, and assert our freedom and our own creative potential—must surely be worth it. Some people can reconcile themselves to the alternative that is surrender, but thankfully, they are not the ones who end up making history at crucial junctures. The continued survival of the human race and the progress it seems to have made over the last few millennia seem to attest to that.

But setbacks do happen, and progress is always achieved in the long run and is only detected when we compare a millennium or century to the previous one. This is rarely sufficient to help someone who feels despondent in the here and now remain motivated. Indeed, the activists rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their labors, and they always have to work in the absence of any guarantees of success or the promise of any immediate rewards. The struggle—rather, the way of life built around it—and the little sporadic joys and small pleasures it may occasionally bring has been reward enough for the activists to keep going, irrespective of any setbacks.

I don’t blame people who decide to give up the fight at one point because they have grown too tired and weary. And I don’t blame those who didn’t even try to take up the mantle, because blame is always a useless exercise. Personally, and so long as I have the energy, I prefer to focus on moving on and facing the challenges, dealing with the setbacks as they come, and starting over again when necessary. It will never be easy, of that I can be certain, and this certainty is one of the few I have.

Moving on is always the right thing to do. And should I lose the energy to do so one day, I will be gracious enough to admit defeat. In truth, this may happen at any given moment now. After all, I am not getting any younger, and I have certain internal demons with which to wrestle daily as well. The combined struggle is taking its toll. Perhaps by publishing this book I am, in fact, admitting defeat and passing on the mantle. But my admission here is only meant to be understood in the personal sense. I will not fall into the trap of generalization or of declaring the war unwinnable and the struggle unworthy for all and sundry. That’s the kind of narcissism I cannot allow myself to harbor. It has proven to be the downfall of many, and it shall not be mine.

My outlook on life is rather dark. Perhaps even too dark. I was often told I only see the empty half of the glass. But in truth, I never really cared whether the glass was half full or half empty. This has never been the real question for me. The real question we have to deal with in life, from my perspective, is this: Does our basic humanity require the glass to be full? Or, to frame it differently, can we feel that we are leading a dignified life without having a full glass in our hand?

If the requirement for leading a dignified life calls for having more water in our glass, then that’s a sufficient reason to fight. Who cares how much water there is already in the glass if that amount is insufficient? Who cares if there are no guarantees for victory, for getting the glass full? If the need is there, and if it’s genuine, then the fight must proceed. There are no acceptable alternatives to that.

In my twenty something-year career as an activist, the only real thing I have had going for me was, perhaps, my ability to be honest and forthcoming with myself and others—to put myself out there in the thick of it and bare my soul out, no matter the risk. In doing this, I was motivated neither by bravery nor folly but by an innate inability to do things differently. I can only do what feels right to me, irrespective of any consequences. Now that is the sort of narcissism I had always harbored deep within me and that I could never root out, come what may. I am more driven by an inner compulsion than principle, and it is for this reason that I can never claim to be good. And it is this compulsion that is at work here, forcing me to share thoughts that others would deem inappropriate, to say the least. But are they? Are they really?

Bear in mind in this regard that everything I have to say is, in fact, intended primarily as a question. Even my seemingly vehement affirmations. I also don’t make any attempt at hiding the glaring contradictions that can easily be spotted throughout the book because, in a sense, I am my contradictions—an observation that I believe might apply to us all as well. We all are, in part, at least, the sum total of our contradictions. It’s only by accepting this little-advertised truth about ourselves that we can acknowledge our frailties and vulnerabilities and begin dealing with the challenges they pose to our continued survival. Previously, our certainties have served to hide our frailties and vulnerabilities. But this cover has, time and again, proven too costly and useless to be retained. There is no hiding our real nature, and there is no hiding from our real character and the nature of our existence. It’s time we acknowledged that and began dealing with the consequences.

Some might find this attitude of mine toward life and being rather irreverent, and they would be right. But my irreverence has never excluded me. In fact, I have always been the primary subject of my own irreverence. I act and write out of a sense of deep irreverence toward everything and everyone. Yes, even those I lay a claim to love. But I find such deep and evenhanded irreverence to be…liberating. Perhaps after reading this, you might come to feel this way as well.

Also bear in mind that, to me, respect and reverence are not the same. I can respect, but I never revere. It’s one tiny step/slip away from adulation/adoration. And I certainly could never do that.

I am an irreverent activist. And how could I not be? I am the son of recurring betrayal and constant letdowns. Everything that I ever believe in, no matter how critical my embrace of it is, turns out to be a lie and an illusion, and all people who ever earn my respect, as few as they are at any given moment, turn out to be as flawed as I am.

Every day, again and again, I have to start from scratch: discovering who I am in this world,  figuring out the basic rights and wrongs of it, and determining whether mine is still an actual living conscience and not some preprogrammed set of instructions installed by the very people, notions, and forces that were responsible for each of my letdowns. Then I have to decide again whether moving on is still worth it, whether I am still worth it, whether I still have what it takes to make it happen, and what my exact role in life could possibly be at this or that particular stage.

More telling, perhaps, is the fact that I have to go through all this, time after time, without any guarantees for achieving success or, at the very least, making progress, no matter how infinitesimal, in any of my chosen endeavors. Still, that’s really not my main concern, and this is probably why I survive. More than anything else in life, I am concerned with my desire to die while not engaged in any act of blame or finger-pointing when the moment finally comes. I want to die while assuming full responsibility for everything that I am and everything that I did—the good, the bad, and the macabre of it. My conscience may not be clear then, and it is not clear now, but I do not need a clear conscience to go on; I just need a functioning one.

Besides, how can a flawed being ever have a clear conscience? And aren’t we all flawed, even if differently so? No one can go through life with a clear conscience. Such a claim can only be reasonably made in regard to specific instances. But the continuing untenability of achieving a certain goal is not a good or acceptable excuse for giving up on it. We should all try to have a clear conscience at every moment and every step, even as we have to learn how to go on with it almost perennially stained.

Knowing all this, how could it ever be possible for me to live without a heavy dose of irreverence wantonly coursing through my veins? How could I avoid being an irreverent activist when irreverence, to me, is just like testosterone and adrenaline—the very thing I need to make me feel alive?

Ammar Abdulhamid
Silver Spring, Maryland