Book review by Daniel Gawthrop posted on The British Columbia Review (formerly the Ormsby Review) on February 25, 2022
man@the_airport: How Social Media Saved My Life. One Syrian’s Story
by Hassan Al Kontar
New Westminster: Tidewater Press, 2021
$23.95 / 9781777010188
Given the staggering human toll of the civil war in Syria since 2011 — half a million dead, more than six and a half million internally displaced, another five and a half million fleeing the country, creating the largest refugee population on the planet — the ongoing tragedy was bound to produce its own literary sub-genre. From memoirs (The Boy on the Beach by Vancouver’s Tima Kurdi, Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair by Nujeen Mustafa, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria by Samar Yasbek) and journalistic or academic treatments (The Unwanted by Don Brown, The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon by Robert G. Rabil) to all sorts of fiction (The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri, Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi, Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai, Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Sea Prayer by Kahled Hosseini, Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar, The Clothesline Swing by Vancouver’s Ahmad Danny Ramadan), the Syrian claim on our collective consciousness has been well staked through books by or about refugees.
Lower Mainland resident Hassan Al Kontar’s man@the_airport is a worthy addition to the list. This is the fascinating survival story of a migrant worker who, falling victim to geopolitical forces beyond his control, ends up in stateless limbo and is forced to rely on instinct, intelligence, and fortitude — plus the kindness of strangers — to avoid the grim prospect of returning to his homeland. I suppose I was naturally drawn to such a story, being married to someone who once relied on his wits to escape his own country and forge a new life elsewhere. (A native of Myanmar’s Kayin State, my spouse fled Burma as a teenager during the SLORC dictatorship years, crossing the border into Thailand on foot after a several-day journey through mountains and forests.) Once I opened Al Kontar’s highly readable and deeply affecting memoir, I finished it in a couple of sittings.
The book begins with a tender account of the author’s hometown of Sweida, a small city of half a million people located just south of Damascus, a place where “everyone knows everyone, and it’s very social: hunting, playing cards or watching soccer games. Government employees during the week are farmers at the weekends. Time is not very important there, there is no rush.” Noting his father’s pride in the family olive farm, which multiple generations have tended, Al Kontar sums up the traditional outlook of the average Syrian male: “They know their land, they are the masters there…. Protecting their land and their women is their definition of masculinity. If that were to fail, they could no longer exist, their life would have lost its purpose.”
To please his father, Al Kontar studies law at Damascus University but hates it. He’d rather be a writer or a journalist than a lawyer, but Syria’s no place for a journalist. By age twenty-five, he is not only seeking financial independence but heeding the call of international travel: intrigued by friends’ accounts of Dubai, with its “wealth, lifestyle, roads, towers, beaches [and] nightclubs”, he flies to the United Arab Emirates. Recalling the first — and last — time he leaves home, he describes with ironic foreshadowing the thrill of being in an airport, “sparkling with excitement” at the prospect of boarding a plane.
What seems a promising stint overseas — his father’s connections land him stable, if uninspiring employment as an insurance marketing agent near Dubai — soon leads to disillusionment as Al Kontar discovers the real UAE behind the glossy brochures: “a modern country with an old system of slavery” where foreign workers have no other purpose but to build cities for tourists while their exposure to the country is limited to “their rooms, the bus that takes them to work, the blazing heat they work in, the tower they are building, their daily rice meal and the airport when they leave.” In 2011 his work permit expires, and he is refused a new passport, just as the “Arab Spring” movement is crushed. Using his cell phone, he sets up an Instagram profile so he can keep working off the grid as a freelance solar panel installer. The money isn’t good: soon he is sleeping in public gardens, stairways, and a rented car, cleaning himself in mosques. By the time he has maxed out his credit cards and traded in a cherished wrist-watch for three loaves of bread, his Kafkaesque nightmare has only just begun.
After serving time in Central Jail and an immigration detention centre in Abu Dhabi, his flight to Malaysia on a three-month visa offers only temporary reprieve. In Kuala Lumpur, he is hired for a manager’s position that turns out to be a scam. Then, researching which countries will take Syrians and which airports will let them fly there, he is refused by almost every country. After a failed attempt to fly to Ecuador, his final option is Cambodia. Upon landing in Phnom Penh he is refused entry, put back on the plane and returned to KL airport where his seven-month ordeal begins. Airport wifi provides free access to the Internet, so he sets up a Twitter profile and another Instagram account, recording video testimonials about his situation. On Day 35, when BBC News Asia posts a story about him and the Washington Post picks it up, his Twitter account goes from three hits to 27,000. He is now a global celebrity.
American journalists, trying to turn him into a novelty interest story, inevitably ask if he’s seen “The Terminal,” a 2004 Hollywood film starring Tom Hanks as an Eastern European man who gets stuck at New York’s JFK Airport in a similar state of limbo. But the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, following him on Twitter and retweeting his posts, offers journalistic advice: “After you talk a little bit about yourself and the developments of your situation, add a word about the cause that made you end up at the airport … tell us about a generation that lacks education. Tell us why we need peace in the Arab world!” (Toward the end of his story, Al Kontar learns of Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.) Palestinian Israeli video journalist Nuseir (Nas) Yassin, who wrote the book’s foreword, makes a video about Al Kontar’s plight but is unable to visit him because Israeli citizens are barred from entering Malaysia.
The travellers Al Kontar meets throughout his airport prison experience represent the full range of humanity: the people who give him cash, feed and clothe him or provide his much-desired coffee refills; the lost souls who find themselves in the same situation and seek his guidance on how to cope with it; the celebrity-chasers who approach him for dubious reasons (marriage proposals “from both genders”, people wanting selfies — including one woman who says a friend will give her 500 Euros to save pets if she gets a photo with him); a documentary filmmaker who advises him to shoot his own movie — but to buy his own equipment and sign an exclusive contract giving the director all but 10 per cent of the revenue; and a woman who, waking him up from a deep sleep, asks in all earnestness to borrow his mattress because her flight has been delayed by seven hours and she needs to sleep.
One of the book’s best qualities is the self-deprecating humility of its narrator. Much of Al Kontar’s misfortune is predetermined by the racist protocols of international travel since 9/11, but he doesn’t wallow in bitterness. While he berates governments and airport officials who prevent him from traveling (“Would you do the same if I were holding an American, Canadian, Australian, or European passport?”), he is more often effusive in praising the people who have helped him. From his manager in Dubai, an elderly Pakistani man who pays the equivalent of six months’ salary for his tuition at the Chartered Insurance Institute, and the eight Canadian and American expatriate teachers who bring him a suitcase of clothes and necessities while he’s stuck at the airport, to Laurie Cooper and her fellow Canadian activists who secure Al Kontar’s freedom, his gratitude overflows. A member of the Druze minority outside the Muslim mainstream, Al Kontar retains a sense of optimism about the human condition that’s refreshingly devoid of religious cant. “Faith is also truth, justice, freedom and human rights,” he muses: “It’s your obligation and duty as a human being.”
The book’s subtitle is misleading, suggesting more focus on the medium than the messenger. Yes, Twitter and Instagram triggered the events that led him to Canada, but it was Al Kontar’s own rugged perseverance — as much as a fully-juiced cell phone — that truly saved his life. Now settled in B.C., employed by the Canadian Red Cross as an emergency care worker, he’s still active on social media. In the early days of the anti-vaccine mandate “freedom” convoy that paralyzed our nation’s capital for three weeks, he tweeted his respect for the truckers’ right to protest — but strong disagreement with their reason for protesting.
As man@the_airport reveals, Al Kontar knows a thing or two about “freedom” that convoy supporters could learn from.