Middle East questions

Last night’s student-led Jaw re-told the stories of Syrian refugees – four poignant accounts of trauma and loss, culminating in that of Abdullah Kurdi whose family drowned and whose son, Aylan, became such a powerful image in turning the world’s sympathy more fully towards the plight of people fleeing Syria.

This was the second time that the community’s attentions have been focussed on the Syrian tragedy: an assembly two weeks ago by our two librarians featured John Badley’s watercolours of Palmyra and his journal entries. These fine paintings will become better known as they are reproduced as cards and sold to support Syrian refugees.

When I had a sabbatical in summer 2009, I chose to spend most of it in the Middle East. It was a part of the world I did not know and was interested in. I am glad that I did. The demanding and fascinating bit was trying to make as much progress as possible with Modern Standard Arabic through doing a beginner’s course at a language school in Cairo. Two of our children joined us when their summer term ended. They spent some time with us in Cairo before we travelled through Jordan and then into Syria. We didn’t visit Palmyra but stayed in Hama (where Assad’s father is reported to have killed anywhere between 1,000-40,000 Muslim Brotherhood), Damascus and Aleppo. Amongst all the pre-Arab Spring fascinations, Syria was the most fascinating and alluring: Damascus’s Umayyad mosque ranks in my mind amongst the most beautiful holy places I have visited. Damascus itself, arguably the oldest continually occupied city in the world, was bewitching. Aleppo, more bustling and deservedly legendary in its historic role as a great trading city. Unsurprisingly, the Syrians we encountered, although immensely hospitable and friendly, wisely would not be drawn on any of the less attractive features of living in a police state.

It is salutary and poignant to think now about the state of Libya, Egypt and, above all, Syria almost five years after the start of the Arab Spring.

The debate is well under way here as to what the community’s response should be to the refugee crisis.  These will certainly not be the only events which focus on the Middle East and the refugee crisis this term.