Once upon a time—from June 2008 until June 2009, to be specific— I lived in Damascus, Syria, where I pursued my graduate studies in Arabic. During that intensely fraught and indelibly formative year of my life, I met a lovely Syrian girl by the name of Shurouq*, a student in the English department of the University of Damascus, where my master's program was hosted. Shurouq had an eminently gentle soul and warm demeanor. Soft-spoken but sweet, friendly, poised, and thoughtful, her quiet charm was accentuated by her competent yet occasionally unsure, endearingly accented English. Needless to say, I was smitten.
We went out a few times together doing the simple, perfectly innocent sort of things one does with a girl they have a crush on when living in a socially conservative (relative to the West), Muslim-majority country: strolls in the park, devouring fresh cinnamon rolls at the one French cafe in town, long talks in the campus squares. She was one of the few Syrians that I made it a point to stay in touch with after leaving the country. She got married almost two years later, in the spring of 2011.
At that point, the nascent Syrian uprising was still largely characterized by a cycle of peaceful protest followed by bloody government crackdown.
By the time she gave birth to her daughter Loujain a year later, the civil unrest had turned into civil war. Large portions of Syria's third largest city, Homs, the hometown of another friend of mine, lay in ruins due to heavy fighting between insurgents and government forces. Two bombs had went off near her house. As part of the Christian minority, I imagine she and her family felt particularly threatened
And by that time, I had almost stopped talking with my Syrian friends altogether. Just what do you say to someone living in a country tearing itself apart in a whirlpool of internecine bloodletting? "Hey, how's work going? How many of your loved ones have been buried or imprisoned?"
When Shurouq Facebook messaged me out of the blue late last summer, I felt a shock of pleasant surprise tinged with guilt and worry. She told me the latest news: through some minor miracle, she and her family managed to get out of the country in what she hinted was a harrowing journey a few months prior. She skimped on the details.
I didn't pry.
* * *
I've been reading Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns. The book, an excellent, compelling, and dreadful account of the wars that have wracked the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the past twenty years, is full of depressing and horrifyingly violent anecdotes. The one below in particular caught my attention:
The [church] elders described successive waves of soldiers and refugees intruding on their small village. First, a wave of fleeing soldiers had come to town—Mobutu's soldiers mixed with ex-FAR. They had terrorized the local population, taxing and stealing their livestock. Then the refugees arrived, "like a band of walking corpses." They were starving. Instead of talking, they just stared and cupped their hands. They pulled up cassava roots and peanuts from the fields and and picked raw mangos from the trees. As dire as their situation was, if the villagers shared the little they had with this horde of foreigners, they knew they would all die of starvation. The men from the church helped organize vigilante groups to guard the village and the fields. They patrolled with machetes and sticks. If they found someone stealing, they would beat him to death. There were no prisons and no courts. Justice was swift and decisive.
Like a band of walking corpses.
* * *
"Nooooope. Fuck that."
This was the reaction of a co-worker last night when I recommended that he play The Walking Dead.
"I hate zombie shit," he said. "It's so dumb. You see, zombie shit is used as a foil to have a backdrop of complete social collapse and disorder," he said. "But here's the thing: if you want to have such a backdrop, there are so many more plausible ways to do that!"
He was so enthusiastic about communicating his point that I'm not sure if he realized I was in agreement. I mean, The Walking Dead is a great game. But on another level I am sometimes uneasy with the use of genre fiction as a way of framing stories that are, in their most salient thematic aspects, often lived by real people in real places. A Hobbesian mode of survival is not the exclusive province of fantasy; it often characterizes the lives of far more people on this globe than we in comfortable, developed, stable nations bother to think about. Chris Franklin takes on video games' depressing paucity of things to say about real-world challenges (albeit in relation to non-violent contexts) in his review of the critically acclaimed game Gone Home. Emphasis added:
The Walking Dead and The Last of us prove stories about people can be affecting even in the face of absurd genre fiction. But too often and too easily we don’t use that artifice to construct meaning; we just take shelter in it. We champion escapism because it feels good even as it means our coming of age stories need to be about gunning people down and our father-daughter stories need to happen in zombie apocalypses. We use it to give crackle and zing to stories that might better be told here in the real world with people you grew up with or people know today; people whose suffering isn’t due to zombies or monsters but the way we operate socially, culturally, or economically. Escapist fantasy is wonderful, but escapist fantasy can only hint at problems that affect real people in real ways. This game, and a precious few others, take a bold, powerful step in trying to reclaim a relatable humanity in video game characters, and it does so by insisting they’re as boring and normal and real as everyone else.
I think about how Shurouq, this wonderful girl that I used to walk in the park with, that had dreams of traveling Europe, of using the English that she worked so hard to acquire in her career somehow, of giving her daughter the world, is now a refugee in Macedonia, sharing a two-bedroom house with seven other people. I often wonder how she makes it through her days. I wonder what she hopes to impart to her precious daughter, Loujain, who may never again know the feeling of her homeland's soil beneath her feet. How will Loujain make sense of the world as she grows older?
I continue to make my way through Stearns's account of recent Congolese history, and I think about what sort of pressures must one feel to, as an ostensible man of religion, resolve to beat and hack starving, helpless refugees to death to protect one's own community haunted by food scarcity.
And then I wonder: in a videogame landscape dominated by conflict-as-power-fantasy, how can we make room for the stories of the Shurouqs and Loujains of the world. The stories of conflict-as-trauma. Conflict-as-exile. Conflict-as-loss. Conflict-as-quiet-strength. The stories of men driven to violence by forces much larger than themselves, not preternaturally engaged in it. If I ever make it into the game industry, my hope would be to make a game that honors, in its own way, the story of Loujain, this little girl that I've never met.
*Names have been changed