26. Susan

I was introduced to Susan through an old friend, Lisa, whose work with Beloved Syria popped up on my facey feed. While there’s always some niggling anxiety before interviewing someone I don’t know, Susan put me at ease immediately. Chatting over coffee one morning, I was in awe of her story and the warmth and modesty with which she told it. Her willingness to share her passion for humanity, her deep love of Syria and her fight for peace for the sake of my project was so humbling. It is an absolute privilege to feature her work. Susan, thank you for all that you do!

Susan Dirgham 084

“My father was a bit of a nonconformist. Both world wars impacted on his life. He wasn’t afraid to speak up when he thought things weren’t right, was guided by his conscience, and gave thought to problems in the world. I like to think some of him is in me.

When I was two, my father got a job in the outback Queensland town of Charleville. It was where I became really aware of the stars, the shapes of clouds and the vast red landscape. I loved it. It gave me the feeling of being in the universe.

We returned to Melbourne to live in the suburbs. We didn’t have a television or a telephone so, as a teenager, I shut myself in my bedroom and read and reread classics that were set all over the world. The first time I went overseas, I didn’t go to Europe or to America — I went to Papua New Guinea and stayed with a family in a village in Bougainville. Later, in the mid-1970’s, I spent nearly four years teaching in China. As it was the end of the Cultural Revolution, I learnt to expect the unexpected and to be wary of violent revolutions.

I wanted to teach in another country before I retired. In 2003, there happened to be a 12 month contract with the British Council in Damascus. My maternal grandfather had been in the Middle East in World War 1 and was in Damascus in 1918 so at some level, I felt connected to that part of the world.

Teaching four different classes a week with up to twenty students per class, I met hundreds of Syrian people from diverse backgrounds — professionals, government workers, waiters, shop managers and uni students. The classrooms were always full of joy, warmth and laughter. I have kept my students in my heart and reference them when working on Beloved Syria

Although Syria has a diverse population, there was a sense that the Syrian people were united, particularly by a common love for their country and a feeling of communal responsibility. There was nothing ugly or aggressive about their feelings of patriotism

Damascus is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world so there’s something really magical about the place. I’d spend mornings sitting on my balcony overlooking Mount Qasioun, smelling jasmine, drinking Arabic coffee and listening to Fairuz – an 80 year old Lebanese singer popular in the Middle East. I could have happily lived in Damascus permanently.

I felt so connected to Syria and her people that I accepted another year contract and returned in late 2004. It was on this second trip that I took my camera and started taking photos. I then returned in 2008 with a group of students from La Trobe University and continued the photography.

The world didn’t know much about Syria. I’d noticed that photography books on Syria focused on the food, the souqs, the architecture or the monuments, not the people. The Syrian people have such warmth, and a direct and gracious way of connecting with you. I wanted to present Syria with respect and depth, through its people.

At that time, the ABC had a community website, Pool – a space for people to contribute their photos and writing. I posted my favourite photo from Damascus – a woman shopping in the souq – and soon after, the editors asked me to add some text to the photo. This encouraged me to contribute more to the site and in turn, I gave more thought to Syria, its history, its people and its culture.

While it has a significant Christian population, Syria is a mainstream Muslim country so it was mostly Muslim Syrians I was meeting at work, in the classroom, in the souq and in restaurants. I experienced a warm and inclusive expression of Islam, which had a big impact on me.

Through teaching in Australia, I was also meeting a lot of people from around the world with a Muslim background. I started to expand my contributions to Pool by interviewing and photographing Muslim women – I interviewed women from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman. I think there is a strong misunderstanding of Islam in Australia so I wanted to present a different perspective.

When the crisis in Syria started in March 2011, I felt a door had opened to a nightmare. The ugliness and madness of war were familiar to people in Syria.  Some of my students had been Iraqi refugees. In April 2011, I went back to Damascus to hear the local perspective which was, not surprisingly, very different to the version of events that we were being presented in the mainstream media.

I was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and my brother was a draft resister so he was willing to go to jail rather than register for national service. We were both involved in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) which was active in protests against the war and in producing well-researched material on the wars in Indo-China. I was arrested with other SDS members for handing out pamphlets encouraging young men not to register for national service. Through these experiences, I learnt that you have to be very skeptical about the mainstream interpretation of war – you need to do independent research. So, in presenting Syria, I was searching for voices of integrity who gave regard to peace and diplomacy – values we are taught to cherish.

At that time there wasn’t much information available but if you dug deep and joined the dots, it was obvious we weren’t being told the full story in Australia. The general public in Syria who want an end to the terror, were being ignored. It was like the Syria I knew and the sophisticated, warm people I had met in classrooms didn’t exist. Partisan players who supported a militarized opposition were being allowed to determine the discourse. And journalists and public figures in Australia who effectively spoke out in support of the so-called revolution in Syria didn’t realize the impact their words could have. Australians who would never support violence for political ends in this country were supporting it in Syria. It didn’t make sense to me. 

Eventually, the ABC Pool website closed but I felt a sense of responsibility to continue to present Syrian voices and images.

To this end, I created a number of blogs and returned to Syria a few more times. In 2009, I acted as producer for Bruce Petty, the Australian cartoonist and film-maker, and I introduced him to a mix of voices in Damascus. And in 2013 I travelled with an international peace delegation led by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. We visited refugee camps in Lebanon and met religious leaders and locals in Damascus. These trips reinforced my desire to work for peace and reconciliation.  

In 2015, when Australia slowly started receiving Syrians on humanitarian visas, a journalist asked me to connect him with Syrian refugees he could interview. I got a very strong “No” from the articulate Syrian refugee I approached. He said he didn’t trust that his words would be clearly presented. Newly arrived Syrians generally need all their time and energy to make a home in Australia. It would take a huge effort for them to counter prevailing views on Syria.

As an Anglo-Saxon Australian, it’s much easier for me to share these voices and I felt a sense of responsibility to do so. So, with the help of a Syrian woman in one of my English classes, Norma Medawar, Beloved Syria was born. Beloved Syria presents the Syria that is loved by its people. It’s not about politics; it showcases what Syrians have given the world. I hope it motivates readers to give more respectful attention to Syria.

We have already launched two issues and set up a website, and a third edition is in the works. There’s so much to discover about Syria, identity and nationhood. 

I’ve interviewed a number of Syrians on humanitarian visas, and they are so grateful for the opportunities they have here. But they miss the life they had in Syria — where people talk heart to heart, where music is so celebrated, where life is full of spontaneity and where stepping onto the street makes you immediately feel part of the community.

We don’t ask Syrians to tell their stories of war. Printing them won’t help unite people, establish peace or rebuild the community. But storytelling through poetry, music and art can touch every human heart – they have a place in Beloved Syria.

I love people. I feel at home on a crowded train and in a classroom with students. Because my career has been with people from different countries, I take multiculturalism for granted. I hope that we continue to have opportunities to open our hearts and minds to people from other backgrounds and seek stories that unite us by celebrating our common human values. ”

Photography: Jacqueline Mitelman

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