Illustration by author
The night the Islamic State attacked Paris, I was translating a book by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani.
The regularity of the work was what kept my brain from spiraling into a pain loop. Write down the Arabic words you know. Look up the ones you don't. Force the sentences to make sense. Check on friends in Paris. Drink. Avoid the panic and death on Twitter. Translate another page.
Qabbani is a bit like Syria's Pablo Neruda in that he combines revolutionary sentiment with eroticism. The book I translated, Sparrows Don't Need Entry Visas, was a collection of introductory essays Qabbani had read at Arab capitals, many now destroyed by war. In one essay, Qabbani describes the subversive power of words evade governments—to fly, not like airplane passengers, but like sparrows.
Words, Qabbani says, don't need visas.
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The person who gave me his book is the holder of a bad passport. Even before a civil war consumed his country, people with its passport required visas to go nearly anywhere. Now they crowd on rubber rafts tossed by the waves between Izmir and Lesbos. Those who survive the passage will trudge through half the European continent to gain asylum. They don't travel this way because they're broke—smugglers fees start at $1,000. They do it because wealthy countries have banned them from buying plane tickets.
Words don't need visas, but humans do.
After my friend gave me the book, he took me to the Istanbul airport. While we waited for my flight, we compared our passports. They were both cheap leatherette, stamped in gold. But mine gave me the gift of movement. His did not.
Citizenship is our most loaded form of fiction. Our nationalities are invented, nothing but marks on a page, but they can determine who is free and who is not. Or who dies and who gets to live.
Every god needs his priesthoods, his churches, his taboos, his talismans. We stood amidst them in Ataturk Airport, with its customs agents, gates, and scanners, holding our passports like supplicants awaiting an audience with the divine. My friend and I hugged goodbye. I waited on the long lines for security that he could not pass through. After I crossed to the other side, he texted me to wish me a safe flight.
Qabbani was right. Borders or no, words still move freely over WhatsApp.
"Yes, we might die on the way to Europe... but in Domiz, we're dying slowly every day."
This summer, the Syrian refugee crisis was on its way to presenting an important challenge to the idea of borders.
The crisis is years old, and primarily afflicts Syria's neighbors. Millions of Syrians live and work in Turkey, and Syrian refugees make up a fifth of the people living in Lebanon. But for most of the war, the rich parts of the world world ignored this.
But over the past several months, cuts to aid and the opening of a new route across Turkey led to hundreds of thousands of Syrians taking to the road. These people were often part of the country's educated, ambitious middle class.
I saw this in Iraqi Kurdistan's Domiz camp, where I interviewed Syrian Kurds about to make the trip. One man was paying $12,500 to smugglers to bring his whole family over—he would gladly have bought residency permits and plane tickets instead, were that an option. There were doctors hoping to resume their practices in Germany after they survived the death boats. There were families with bright kids longing for university. There were people who needed jobs. None would allow their Syrian passports to chain them to the dust of that miserable tent city. Most carried smartphones, using, as Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul Ahad wrote, "the mobilization techniques used in the Arab Spring" to navigate across Europe. Their feet may have been bloody ruins, but their GPS was omniscient, and their words flew, like sparrows, back to their loved ones stuck back home.
They knew the risks. They were going anyway. One hard-faced woman cradled a baby as I interviewed her.
"Yes, we might die on the way to Europe," she said. "But in Domiz, we're dying slowly every day."
At first, most of Europe tried to pretend that this woman was a problem they could contain. But this summer, after the toddler Aylan al Kurdi drowned, the borders' cruelty became too stark for many to bear. How could passports matter in the face of the refugees' numbers, their dignity, their determination, their deaths? Something cracked in fortress Europe. Even in America, many people began speaking about the urgent need to accept refugees.
Watch the VICE News documentary about the Islamic State:
The Islamic State hates refugees. They're visceral proof of its failure.
The group has spread propaganda against them, calling on Muslims to immigrate instead to their Cosplay caliphate—an offer not many are eager to accept. They've also enacted capricious and harsh travel restrictions. But the Paris attacks were their most extreme action yet against refugees. The terrorists' most obvious targets were the civilians they killed, yet a purportedly fake passport found in one's possession points at a more complex game: Some analysts believe the passport was meant to be found, a deliberate gesture designed to stoke mistreatment of Syrian refugees and of Muslims in general, to "narrow the grayzone," in IS's words, so Muslims cannot live in the West.
Judging by the more than two dozen US governors who have announced that Syrian refugees would not be welcome in their states (a decision they don't have the authority to make), this strategy seems to be working.
Ironically, all the identified attackers were EU citizens; at least one of them, the New York Times reports, had taken a trip to Syria, then returned to Europe. He had used his freedom of movement to take that of Syrians' away.
Refugees are often described as fleeing IS. Many Syrians are, but the many others have more complicated reasons. They are fleeing from all sides of the war, from airstrikes, barrel bombs, arrests, conscription into Assad's army, religious persecution, kidnapping, or "just" poverty, homelessness, and despair. Welcoming these people to countries where they can build lives should not be a debate, it should be regarded as a basic form or humanity.
But as we defend Syrians rights to move freely, we should note the other half of the equation, the thousands of Europeans who have travelled to Syria to commit terrorism against Syrians. In Raqqa, European jihadis rape, torture, steal houses and lives. Though innocent Western Muslims have been demonized in the wake of the Paris attacks, no one seems to be eager to call for limiting Europeans' ability to travel. Western passport privilege is never at stake.
If there's one lesson the war on terror should have taught the West by now, it's that a powerful country's fear is a terrorist's greatest weapon.
One day before the Paris attacks, IS suicide-bombed a market in working-class south Beirut, murdering 43 people.
Beirut is often called the Paris of the Middle East, but that is a lazy title invented by people who cannot conceive of an Arab city that drinks and dances and loves. Beirut is Beirut, which is more than enough.
But Paris and Beirut have things in common. They are two of the world's great cities, cosmopolitan, free, diverse, thrilling—centers of publishing, art, nightlife and thought. People of myriad faiths and backgrounds live in both. In other words, they contain everything IS wants to destroy.
If there's one lesson the war on terror should have taught the West by now, it's that a powerful country's fear is a terrorist's greatest weapon. If a population gives in to this fear, it strangles itself through paranoia and violence. It destroys what is best inside itself.
The West cannot stop refugees from seeking safety. It cannot stop migrants from trying for a decent life. This is impossible because borders are lies—words travel across them effortlessly, but people can cross them too, and will, even if they know they might not live to see the other side. Even if we could turn borders into actual walls, the way some ridiculous politicians want, it would not have stopped the European citizens from committing murder in Paris.
In the aftermath of a mass murder, it's natural to want to do "something." That something could be lying to ourselves that Syrians are carriers of a terrorism virus, not humans like us, forced by war to risk their lives for safety. It could mean more security, more closed minds and borders. It could mean shrinking our world down, putting up barriers for some false sense of security. It could mean giving IS exactly what they want.