Memoricide: The killing of memory
In the wars of our time, cities have been destroyed, bombed, and sieged. From Ukraine and Afghanistan to Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, architecture has been deliberately targeted, causing deep suffering and trauma to the people who live in these cities and who are forcibly displaced from their homes. Destruction in times of war, however, has not been limited to architecture, but also to paintings, sculptures, art collections, documents, books, archives, photographs, manuscripts, periodicals, housing, and land and property ownership papers. It is a destruction of memory targeted at wiping out peoples’ past and presence. This is what has come to be known as “memoricide,”1Nur Masalha, “Settler-colonialism, Memoricide and Indigenous Toponymic Memory: The Appropriation of Palestinian Place Names by the Israeli State,” Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies 14, no. 1 (2015): 3–57. or the killing of memory, which authors around the world have engaged with as a lens to analyze the impact of war on people and their cultural memory.“Whilst memory is erased in times of violence, people resist by protecting what remains of their past and reconstructing their heritage.”
Among these authors is Hariz Halilovich, who discusses in his work stories of loss, grief, and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the attempts of survivors “to construct intimate archives about their shattered lives.”2Hariz Halilovich, “Re-imaging and Re-imagining the Past after ‘Memoricide’: Intimate Archives as Inscribed Memories of the Missing,” Archival Science 16, no. 1 (2016): 77–92. Whilst memory is erased in times of violence, people resist by protecting what remains of their past and reconstructing their heritage. Questions of memory become essential in times of crisis as people search for their own past to make their wounds visible. In 1994, Ivan Lovrenovic wrote an article about his own story of loss and displacement. In “The Hatred of Memory,” he narrated that he fled with his family from Grbavica in 1992 without being able to take anything with him. He also described his return to Sarajevo, finding the city in ruins. Lovrenovic questioned how it was possible for people in the West to remain calm “in the face of the hatred that burned down the Vijecnica, that murdered the paintings, that burns private libraries and intimate memories.” He feared that “if permitted, that hatred would burn down the human world.”
Nearly three decades after Lovrenovic’s article, the world continues to witness extreme waves of destruction. Millions of people are forcibly displaced from their homes, making the search for a lost past and lost worlds increasingly essential. In my own country, Syria, more than 14 million people have been displaced since March 2011, both inside and outside the country. Memoricide has caused significant damage to the country’s tangible and intangible heritage, which has led to a memory boom in the last decade as people fear social amnesia.3Silke Arnold-de Simine, “Memory Boom, Memory Wars and Memory Crises,” chap. 2 in Mediating Memory in the Museum (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). This led to many projects and initiatives to reclaim and rebuild the pre-war and war-time memory. But what story to tell about Syria? How could the past lay the foundation for the future? And who has the right to tell the Syrian tale? These are some of the ethical and critical questions that need to be asked when thinking about heritage and memory during times of rupture and violence.“In many situations, the Syria story has been narrated by people who silenced and marginalized Syrians.”
There is no doubt that telling the story at the time of conflict is part of the writing and rewriting of history. The story of Syria and of Syrians includes not only the story of the conflict in the post-2011 period, but also the story of pre-2011 times: the everyday life in cities, the culture and history of the country. Telling this story is a challenge in times of war, as powerful elites and political powers dominate the platforms to tell their own version of the story. As Rebecca Solnit notes, “every conflict is in part a battle over the story we tell, or who tells and who is heard.” In many situations, the Syria story has been narrated by people who silenced and marginalized Syrians. This led to the emergence of many projects, articles, publications, and news reports by non-Syrians on the country’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage. At the same time, barriers have been built to prohibit Syrians from being involved in such projects. Many academics and researchers have found in the Syrian crisis an opportunity to get new grants and improve their careers. Syria has turned into a fashionable conflict site. But on several occasions, these academics and researchers have failed to engage with Syrians and looked down on Syrian researchers and academics and, more broadly, Syrian communities. We have turned into a subject matter for opportunists to boost their careers. They have refused or avoided talking to Syrians as they would be challenged by how little they know about the country. I attended once a panel discussion “on Syria” at the University of Cambridge, where there were five speakers and none were Syrian. It often felt, as Solnit noted, that another front in the Syrian conflict is a battle for telling the story.
Fears grow today not only over the large scale of memoricide that has erased the material heritage inside Syria, but also over many of the Syria projects that whitewash the pain, loss, memory, and trauma of the war. Another battle is inside Syria, where the Syrian government prohibits opponents in government-held areas from expressing their freedoms and grieving publicly. Not only is it a challenge outside the country to tell the story of the conflict, it is also challenging inside Syria with the absence of freedom of expression.
To reclaim the narrative, many Syrians have started new projects as part of grassroots movements to establish an alternative story about Syria, including new publishing platforms, art festivals, and research projects. Opposition Syrian groups have been essential to keeping the Syrian struggle alive and protecting the memory of Syrians and Syria.
Questions of memory have become more critical for many Syrians due to the war. How much should we remember and how much should we forget? How should we protect memory and preserve Syria’s heritage? What pieces of history should we bring to the surface? These questions and others have been central to the work of many Syrians both inside and outside the country.
In addressing these questions, Syrians have organized various platforms through which to explore their experiences and thoughts. Al Jumhuriya (the Republic) is one of the projects that emerged after the start of the Syrian Revolution. It is a platform for Syrians to speak in their own voice about the myriad political, social, and cultural questions. The platform publishes articles on different themes, including the weaponization of the built environment and the use and abuse of cultural heritage sites at the time of war. Memory has also been central to the work of several authors published by Al Jumhuriya, including Mona Rafea, who writes under a pseudonym from inside Homs, a city where the voices of authors are threatened, oppressed, and silenced. In 2021, she reflected on the tenth anniversary of the Syrian Revolution in a seminal article titled “We’re Still Here.” In her article, Rafea wrote eloquently about the tension between remembering and forgetting, noting that:
…you want to look forward and forget what’s behind. Yet, what’s behind weighs heavily—very heavily—and pulls you backwards all the time; grabs you by your clothes and hair; begs you not to leave it, and to put it in front of you. When you relent, and turn to it, it tells you, “Aaaaaaaah…” Your chest heaves with the sigh, and you surrender to it, and take pity on yourself at last.
Another author who wrote about memory for Al Jumhuriya is Wael Abd Alhmyd. In his writings, he not only focuses on remembering what Homs looked like before the war, including his own neighborhood and his home, but also documented several events and sites that witnessed protests since 2011. His work can be seen as an essential tool to reconstruct the memory of Homs both before and during the war.“Cultural heritage is at the heart of the festival as organizers create a wide range of events, including music concerts, dance workshops, and theatre performance.”
In addition to publishing platforms, festivals have been organized in exile to celebrate Syria’s rich heritage. In 2022, the Syrian Arts and Culture Festival (SACF) was launched as the first festival about Syria in London. The festival brought together a series of events that showcased the work of Syrian writers, architects, activists, journalists, and musicians. Whilst SACF has brought Syria to the heart of London, another festival has brought Syria to the heart of Manchester. Since 2017, Celebrating Syria has become a cultural and artistic hub that attracts both Syrian diaspora and non-Syrian communities in the United Kingdom. By doing so, new bridges have been built between different communities. Cultural heritage is at the heart of the festival as organizers create a wide range of events, including music concerts, dance workshops, and theatre performances. When violence erupts and prohibits millions of people from returning to the homeland they fled, another homeland is reconstructed miles away.
These themes of destruction and reconstruction of memory have been at the heart of Celebrating Syria, including a panel titled “On Remembering and Forgetting.” In the discussion, two projects were presented. Rasha Youssef, a refugee resettlement worker, presented her project, the Syrian Time Capsule. In it, she collected stories about items that traveled thousands of miles, often in the pockets or bags of refugees, to then arrive in a new land to a place that might be called home. Bassel Hariri, a Syrian lawyer, musician, and social entrepreneur, presented his project, Aleppo Antika, a social platform he started in 2013. In this project, he has been using collective memory as a compass toward collective behavior, which can lead to various forms of social cohesion. Antika offers people, both in Syria and in the diaspora, different avenues to help them explore and express their identity. Both these projects exemplify how Syrians in the United Kingdom are resisting the erasure of memory and providing platforms for the emergence of individual and collective memory projects even when miles away from Syria.
Reconstructing memory is not only important today, in a time of war, but also for future generations to know how they arrived there, to remember and reflect. As Oula Ramadan— founder and director of Badael, a nongovernmental organization that aims to foster transformative justice in Syria—notes:
In 20 or 30 years, many people will want to know what happened. The new generation, especially, will want to know what their parents went through. I think our job is to make knowledge available for them. We can do our best to open new horizons and opportunities, and maybe they will carry on to make the change that we didn’t manage to create.4Oula Ramadan and Wendy Pearlman, “‘We Don’t Have the Luxury to Stop’—An Interview with Syrian Civil Society Activist Oula Ramadan,” Middle East Research and Information Project 301 (Winter 2021).
Memory as the carrier of hope
Ann Rigney emphasizes the need for “memory studies to go beyond its present focus on traumatic memories and to develop analytical tools for capturing the cultural transmission of positivity and the commitment to particular values.”5Ann Rigney, “Remembering Hope: Transnational Activism beyond the Traumatic,” Memory Studies 11, no. 3 (2018): 368–380. This is very much needed today in the Syrian context and, of course, in many of the other conflict situations. Most of the focus on Syria during the last decade has been on traumatic events, violence, and victimhood, but little has been directed toward positive memory. The grassroots initiatives and the emerging arts and culture festivals offer an alternative story about Syria, a story of rich heritage, collective solidarity, and resistance. Through memory, hope can be remembered as a torch in the darkest moments of history. This hope is vital today as many people around the world feel a sense of collective loss, trauma, and grief.“Little has been done by news media, academics, and journalists to describe Syria as a welcoming and hospitable land where different communities once found refuge.”
In Celebrating Syria this year, I found one of its events a beacon of hope amidst the dark. Professor Dawn Chatty presented her work on people who were forcibly displaced and fled to Syria in the last 150 years and explained how Syria became a refuge for communities fleeing wars, persecution, and violence in history. This history of openness, generosity, and solidarity in Syria is not known to many, especially to Syrians who have not been able to explore their own history. I found this book and the panel of vital importance as they show an alternative and different story about Syria not like the one we see in the news. For over a decade, Syria has turned into a story of “the refugee crisis.” Syrians have been depicted as a burden on other countries. Little has been done by news media, academics, and journalists to describe Syria as a welcoming and hospitable land where different communities once found refuge. A number of attendees at the event expressed that they were not aware of this history. They explained how important it is today to reopen this history of hospitality at times when governments continue to close borders in the face of forcibly displaced people, including Syrians.
As millions of people flee for their lives each year, we need to continue the fight to remember hope even in times of crisis. This hope is our collective resistance against memoricide.
Banner photo: “Rebuilding Homs,” 2012. Art by Ammar Azzouz.