Understanding the New Urban Geographies of the Syrian Conflict

ACOR-CAORC Pre-Doctoral Fellow Ali Hamdan, seen here in Amman’s Jabal Lweibdeh neighborhood, is studying the political geographies of Syrian exiles in two cities deeply affected by the conflict, Gaziantep in Turkey and Amman in Jordan.

Jordan is a rewarding place to be a geographer. To the south and east, deserts host an array of communities living close to tribal traditions, while the north is the very picture of settled agriculture, its loping hills blanketed with olives, figs, and pomegranates and dotted with Greek and Roman ruins. Lying at the confluence of environmental, but also cultural and historical spheres of influence – or as King Abdullah likes to put it, “between Iraq and a hard place” – Jordan also becomes an important place for studying political geography in the Middle East. For me in particular, it is an ideal vantage point for studying the conflict across the border in Syria.

It is not hard to feel this conflict’s impact on Jordan. The struggles of Syrian refugees here (as in Lebanon and Turkey) is by now well-known, while more recently the question of resettling refugees in the United States has divided domestic politics in America. But I came to Jordan this summer to investigate the Syrian civil war from a different angle – namely, how exiled Syrian dissidents continue to shape events inside despite being scattered across Europe and in neighboring countries. And this is no small question: After five years of civil war, it is difficult not to wonder how the exiled Syrian opposition has managed to keep alive the struggling movement opposing Bashar al-Assad in the face of enormous challenges. All of this takes place amid the personal traumas and the difficulties of everyday life in exile, which tears apart families, friends, and communities.

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Language is important to this story. Is it right to call this agglomeration of individuals, organizations, and narratives a coherent opposition movement? What about the word opposition? A prominent historian and analyst of Syria likens attempts to understand the opposition to “nailing Jello to a wall.” What is it exactly that ties these Syrians together, beyond the shared trauma of exile? How do they come together in practice, and what are they able to achieve when they do?

The Gaziantep Citadel, a notable landmark of the city. In this citadel, Turkish and Syrian rebels fought off French and British forces occupying Anatolia after World War I. Gaziantep, Turkey.

This last year I was fortunate enough to receive an ACOR-CAORC pre-doctoral fellowship, which has enabled me to begin addressing these questions. Although the first portion of my dissertation research began in Turkey, being an ACOR Fellow has made the Jordan portion of my fieldwork significantly more productive by placing me in contact with other scholars and resources. I have been able to learn far more about my project in Amman than I had otherwise expected thanks to this research residency.

As far as my broader project is concerned, I am conducting field research and interviews in two cities that have, until now, played critical roles in the experience of Syrian exiles. The first is Gaziantep, a peripheral city of the Turkish Republic lying a mere 120 kilometers from war-torn Aleppo. In some ways, Gaziantep could not be further from the conflict in Syria. As bombs continue to fall in rebel-held, liberated neighborhoods of Aleppo, Syrians meet in the shining new shopping malls of Gaziantep to write grants, fix journalists with local informants, and enjoy coffee with friends. At the same time, Gaziantep now hosts a bewildering array of civil society and international NGOs, humanitarian organizations, private contractors, journalists, and armed factions, all composing the larger landscape of opposition to the Assad regime in Damascus. Gaziantep has become a political center, the exile-capital for individuals from across Syria.

View of the city of Gaziantep in Turkey from the new Zeugma Museum. In the foreground one sees the historic city surrounding the citadel, while in the background looms the new residential towers designed to cope with the city’s recent housing crisis. It is believed that nearly one million Syrians live in the greater Gaziantep area.

The second city is Amman, Jordan’s capital and largest city in the Kingdom. It, too, is an exile-capital of sorts, but a struggling one. Life in the city is difficult for Jordanians as much as Syrians, and the government navigates the pressures of being so close to an active war zone. International humanitarian organizations like the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Islamic Relief International, and the World Food Program send flows of aid into Syria, while the UNHCR (mufawidiye), Save the Children, and the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations struggle to provide aid to refugees inside Jordan. Meanwhile, activists open smaller organizations closer to the everyday realities of Syrians like the Mulham Volunteer Group and Auranitis. Journalist networks like Orient News, Souriali, and Syria Direct provide opportunities for Syrians within and outside Syria to discuss events “inside.” All of these activities are coordinated and organized from Amman.

View of Abdali, Amman, Jordan
The sun setting over Abdali from Ba’ouniye Street. Abdali Station, where tours for Syria used to embark, lies at the base of the hill. In the background, the towers of “New Abdali” rise in the distance behind the King Abdallah Mosque and “old Abdali,” home to state ministries and the Jordanian Parliament. Amman, Jordan.

A great deal sets apart these two cities in ways that transcend a simple focus on state refugee policy. The mix of social forces present in both cities, the regional origins of Syrians who have settled in them, the forms of mobility (legal and illegal) available to Syrians, urban political economies, locations relative to the Syrian border, and finally, the discourses of the war circulating among Syrians all shape the decision and ability of Syrians to come together and continue opposition politics from these places. But, despite these differences, both cities offer their own respective testimonies to a community of Syrians engaging in exactly the kind of politics that the Assad regime has tried to “kill,” to use the words of University of Chicago political scientist Lisa Wedeen.

And it is in both contexts that my research seeks to understand the various ways that these political communities are managing to survive in exile. I want to show, from the inside-out, that to become a refugee is not to lose one’s political agency. Rather, as scholars like Edward Said and Liisa Malkki have argued, it is sometimes through exile that people discover it.

View over Ras al-Ain, Amman
Overlooking Ras al-Ain from Buhtari Street in Amman, Jordan. Ras al-Ain is a working-class neighborhood near downtown and home to an affordable, well-liked used clothes market.

My project is not about finding an end to the conflict. Nor is it about the end of life in Syria for its many exiled citizens. My project is more concerned with the relationships, activities, and narratives that emerge from the semi-chaos of exile, and the messy politics of how these are assembled in specific places. We are increasingly pushed to notice how different “political orders” arise during and change the course of civil war. In the case of Syria, exile-capitals represent yet another distinct form of political order, one that could use a little more attention.

Written by Ali Nehme Hamdan, ACOR-CAORC Pre-Doctoral Fellow for 2015-2016 and Ph.D. Candidate in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.  All photographs in this article were provided by the author.

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