While the credits rolled at the end of The Last Men In Aleppo at PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival in 2018, I wept uncontrollably, audibly – the way you’re not supposed to in public. Out of nowhere another Teach For India alumnus materialised, enveloping me in a long, solemn hug. Beside me my partner stood hunched over with a white face.
The audience streamed out slowly, silent and avoiding eye-contact. For most of us who usually register Syria as a headline about a US drone attack, another bombing by Russia – the unbearable reality of it was suddenly in the room with us. And with it, the foolish question: how? How was it possible for something like this to happen?
Brothers of The Gun maps out that how. In vivid strokes (literal and literary), the memoir describes what it is like to live the exceptional as everyday – V Geetha’s term for viewing the exception in terms of the norm – in war-torn Raqqa, then the ISIS capital of Syria. More than anything, this book, written by Marwan Hisham and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, is a meditation on the conditions which foster fundamentalism, and on creating meaning in circumstances that defy meaning.
Let’s get this out of the way: you should read this book. You should read it over days, and let the questions it wonders about sit with you.
I should also say at the outset that I found it impossible to read it isolated from the noise of Twitter – at the time of writing #BoycottPakistanDay was trending and the trailer for the Narendra Modi “biopic” had just been released. This was only fitting, for Twitter and the internet play a big role through the narrative of the book.
The sense of loss
In ISIS’s Raqqa, Wi-Fi is scarce and it is Hisham’s internet cafe that puts him in close proximity to the ISIS fighters. Twitter is where he wrests control of the narrative from TV pundits safely ensconced on foreign shores, and where he meets Crabapple with whom he begins his series of “art-crimes”. (The revolution will be tweeted.)
In lyrical prose, Hisham recollects the Raqqa of his childhood, the Aleppo of his university days where he took to English literature with a hunger for language, and his complex friendship with Nael – one of the eponymous brothers of the gun. In other words, he remembers that most essential of things – home. Accordingly, like sifting through memories or searching for what still breathes under the rubble, the book too is fragmented.
This can on occasion make it confusing to understand the chronology, while heightening the sense of loss as he circles back to what could have been – if only the revolution had brought the democracy the young protesters chanted for in the streets, if only boys were not conscripted into a nationalist masculinity. One of the most moving segments is about a teenage ISIS fighter who strikes up a friendship with Hisham – smoking in secret with him, giggling over porn, completely ordinary. Crabapple’s illustrations breathe life and heft into the scene. In her characteristic style, people and places appear as blotchy memories, like hopeful ink-stains.
Putting faces to stories
The book is an oddity for the present day. Not quite a graphic novel, but instead a book with over 80 illustrations, it belongs to an old lineage of illustrated literature – Thakurmar Jhuli, Russian folk-tales of our childhood libraries and in recent times, Dave McKean’s sinister depictions of the “Other Mother” in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
Earlier in 2019 I attended an event during Crabapple’s visit to Delhi, where she described the painstaking process behind each image. “I’d ask Marwan to describe them, make a picture and send it to him and he’d correct them for me,” she said. “Sometimes he’d pose himself to get the body posture right – then we’d go back and forth till we had an image that felt like a true reconstruction of his memory.”
“Then there were cops making trophy videos of torture,” Crabapple said. “Marwan would use his camera phone for those. Or bombing sites, civilians. I’d take the videos and freeze frame them a hundred times to get a panorama, print all of them out and try to deduce which flesh colour smear was another person’s skin.”
The results of what Crabapple calls her “peculiar greed to engage with the world as it is” are astonishing, and elevate Hisham’s writing to something even more poignant and true.
All too familiar
The sharp heart of the conflict in Syria is children crouching in fear under tables in the basement and adults telling them comforting lies. Children know. One has to wonder: What does it mean in the long-term to grow up where bombs are routine, death is always at the doorstep, and the doorstep is always a minute away from the possibility of collapse?
Of his school days Hisham recollects, “When I was nine years old, I thought that Hafez al-Assad was the president of the entire world. His portrait was everywhere. Sometimes we confused him for god.” He’s talking about Raqqa but the calls for performed, militaristic nationalism and the “deification of one man” sound all too familiar.
The BBC coverage dubs the conflict “Syrian against Syrian” and Hisham wonders, “...in a country of 23 million people, how could one word encompass us all?” Thinking back to #IndiaWantsRevenge I wonder, how, indeed?
Later as Raqqa is overwhelmed by foreign strikes, Hisham writes, “People kept saying ‘These are our city’s bridges, not ISIS’s’ – but no one outside the city gave a damn. The world never wondered whether the radicalisation originated from the bombs they and the others dropped.”
A strange normalcy
The book is a damning indictment of Western imperialism – an intelligent and necessary voice to puncture the soothing lie that Western populations tell themselves about their countries’ values. Hisham writes with quiet rage about how French and Russian aircrafts bomb Raqqa while neglecting to address ISIS fighters homegrown in European cities.
It’s a question that finds resonance everywhere: why is it that deaths count less if they are Arab, if the bodies being killed are brown, if they are Muslim?
Life settles down into a kind of normalcy under ISIS.
“We lived happily during the war”, writes poet Ilya Kaminsky in his new book Deaf Republic. Perhaps one thing we take from the book is that these problems are not unique to “those people over there”. As has become increasingly clear in the last few years, no religion has a monopoly on violence or fundamentalism. Syria just shows us a stark image of what comes after.
One of the shortest chapters in the book is titled “Jasmine”. Someone dies. Those who knew and loved him grieve. In the end, there is a jasmine. And in the end there is no more that person.
After Pulwama, the streets of Delhi were overrun by loud screaming hordes – clearly organised. As they passed by the roadside market in my neighbourhood, the woman at the shop-counter said to me “Pata nahi yeh log kyun chilla rahe hain. Jinko farq padega woh toh unke parivaar hai na.” (“I don’t understand why these people are shouting. The ones it makes a difference are their families.”)
One of my few quibbles with the book was the lack of women in the narrative – unsurprising for a memoir set in gender-segregated Raqqa. Still, it left me wanting.
There’s a stunning illustration of two Yazidi women who burst out on the page. Not yet covered up as demanded by the dictates, the mother and daughter have been abducted into sexual slavery by ISIS and are at the cafe to make a phone call to let the father know. Hisham does not, and cannot, “save them”. Some of the ISIS men struggle to justify these abductions. There is no singular narrative here.
Crabapple’s last illustration shows people on the streets over in Istanbul, a preponderance of cafes, whole buildings – elsewhere, the persistence of life.
At the event I asked Crabapple a naive question: does any of this stuff – writing and making art, her journalism on the conditions of workers in Abu Dhabi, prisoners in Guantanamo – actually change anything for the people on ground?
“No,” she said bluntly. “Not a single drop of ink by any journalist has changed things for the people suffering in Syria – but the book advance did help take care of Marwan, who is one of my best friends. And art can have unpredictable ripples.”
So we keep writing – against erasure, towards resistance, and public memory, towards hope.
As ISIS claims responsibility for the Easter Sunday blasts in Sri Lanka and we discover that the attackers come from “good backgrounds”, it is important we understand that fundamentalism wears many faces – including those of people who are educated, wealthy, devoted to “development”.
Brothers of The Gun is a potent addition to literature written from the frontlines, asking urgent questions. In the thick of our own strictly rule-adhering, completely democratic elections in India we’d do well to listen.
When we let fundamentalism take over, what happens next? When the Western neo-imperialist powers are only too happy to “help” liberate us, when climate change affects not just those communities at the margins, when our “smart cities” have no water, what is the future we are looking at?
After the rebels pulled down the statue of Hafez, an old man pissed on it. A youth took out a can and spray-painted a message on the statue’s side in the distinct Raqqawi dialect. “Tomorrow is better.” it read.
It could be.
Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War, written by Marwan Hisham and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, One World.