The Dissolution of Past and Present

August 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Baal-Shamin,PalmyraAn edited version of this piece was published at the National.

Zabadani, a mountain town northwest of Damascus near the Lebanese border, was one of the first Syrian towns to be liberated from the Assad regime (in January 2012) and one of the first to establish a revolutionary council. (The martyred anarchist revolutionary Omar Aziz was involved in setting up this council, as well as the council in Barzeh). Zabadani has been besieged and intermittently shelled since its liberation. And since July 3rd this year it has been subjected to a a full-scale assault by (the Iranian-backed) Lebanese Hizbullah, alongside continuous barrel bombing. Apparently the town’s 800-year-old al-Jisr mosque has been pulverised. Human losses are in the hundreds, and beyond the numbers, incalculable.

In other news, Daesh (or ISIS) has bulldozed the 1500-year-old monastery of Mar Elian in al-Qaryatain and blown up the beautiful 2000-year-old temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra. The temple once mixed Roman, Egyptian and Mesopotamian styles. Today its rubble is further evidence that there will be no resumption of Syrian normality. The people, monuments, even landscapes that Syrians once took for granted, that they assumed their grandchildren would enjoy, are disappearing for ever.

Palmyra – Queen Zenobia’s desert city – is a world heritage site and perhaps Syria’s most precious cultural jewel. Remarkably intact until recently, it provided a tangible link to antiquity and a breathtaking proof of the region’s civilisational wealth. Nationalist Syrians, whether secular or Islamist, feel the importance of such sites for communal pride and identity. Rational Syrians can at least understand their utilitarian benefit to any future tourism industry.

Neither Bashaar al-Assad nor (Daesh ‘caliph’) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are nationalists. Al-Baghdadi is explicit about it: “Syria is not for the Syrians,” he says, “and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.” Al-Assad’s rhetoric is still nationalist (and sectarian), but his war effort is managed by a foreign power now pushing towards the nation’s partition. Though not nationalists, both are certainly fascists obsessed with reinforcing their respective totalitarian states and eliminating any independent intellectual influence. Thus, in a flesh-and-blood echo of its slaughter of Palmyran history, Daesh tortured and publically beheaded Palmyra’s head of antiquities, 81-year-old Khaled al-Assa‘ad, perhaps because he’d refused to reveal the location of hidden treasures.

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Bitter Almonds

August 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

bitteralmondsAn edited version of this review appeared at the National.

This story starts with a birth and a departure, in Jerusalem in 1948. The birth is Omar Bakry’s, and it orphans him. The departure, alongside three quarters of a million others, is his forced expulsion from Palestine. “We’ll be back in a couple of weeks,” one fatefully quips.

Omar, now in the care of a neighbouring family, relocates to Damascus, where the novel unfolds through the fifties and sixties, both an engaging romance and a convincing period drama.

Lilas Taha writes in American English. My British-English ear found it difficult at first to believe in old-fashioned Arabs saving each others’ asses and getting in each others’ faces. The effect was exacerbated by occasionally clumsy dialogue. Real Palestinian-Syrians would see no need to specify, for example, “the ruling Baath Party” or “the actress Souad Hosni”. Realism is lost at moments such as these when the novel, veering into explanatory overstatement, seems too obviously an act of cultural translation. It might have been better to write a preface, or to add footnotes.

But as the pages turn, slowly but surely, the characters come entirely credibly to life. We learn a great deal about them by observing their negotiations of etiquette and social ritual as they traverse a domestic danger zone marked by deaths, difficult births, precarious marriages, and looming scandals.

The cast is close-knit. Mustafa is a farmer denied his land whose lungs are broken in a wool factory. The book’s title comes from his mouth, and provides a wisdom for the drama: “The bitter almonds make you savour the sweet ones more.” His wife Subhia, their son Shareef and daughters Huda and Nadia, make up Omar’s surrogate family.

Taha depicts them trying to make ends meet, their life in cramped quarters, male and female sleeping areas demarcated by a blanket, and the profound familiarities and festering resentments which grow in such conditions.

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Arabs Without God

July 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

isis-flagThis was first published at NOW.

In the Arab world, the public declaration of religious disbelief is as taboo as the open profession of homosexuality. Publically-declared atheists and agnostics can wave goodbye to social respect, marriage prospects, even legal recognition. Yet a 2012 poll in Saudi Arabia – a state whose legal system equates atheism with terrorism, and which potentially applies the death penalty to apostates – found that 19% described themselves as ‘not religious’ and a further 5% as atheists.

In his new book “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East” (soon to be translated into Arabic as ‘Arab bala Rab’) journalist Brian Whitaker interviews activist and quietist unbelievers from around the region, and investigates the pressures ranged against them. Most usefully, the book provokes a question – how can a revived Arab secularism (freed from the taint of the so-called ‘secular’ dictatorships) provide a future in which the rights of religious majorities as well as unbelieving or sectarian minorities will be respected and strengthened?

Demands to believe and submit go far beyond religion. Whitaker quotes sociologist Haleem Barakat, who noted that, like God, the Arab head of state and the Arab family patriarch require absolute respect and unquestioning compliance. “They are the shepherds, and the people are the sheep.” (This is why ‘rab’ – which means ‘Lord’ rather than only the monotheist God – is as apt a translation as ‘Allah’ for the book’s Arabic title). So intellectual atheism is perceived as an attack on family and state, and on community solidarity. The contemporary politicisation of religious identity makes unbelief akin to treason in some minds; for this reason minority sects, dissenters and atheists are frequently seen as fifth columnists, agents weakening state and nation on behalf of foreign powers.

Identity politics in the region took on its modern forms with the building of centralised nation states. Nationalism itself was an assertion of a politicised cultural identity, first against the Ottomans, then against the European empires. For the new rulers of post-independence states, a fear of disloyal communities turned to a generalised rage for homogeneity – ‘the good citizen’, depending on where they found themselves, was to be an Arab, or a Muslim, (or a Turk, or a Jew) as imagined by the state. Many states standardised dress, dialect and worship.

The state’s top-down approach to culture is infectious. Opposition groups too, whether nationalist, leftist or Islamist, have sought to emulate the rulers by seizing control of the state apparatus and imposing their vision from above.

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Echoes of the Tearing

June 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

This very useful documentary on the Syrian revolution, in Arabic and Spanish with English subtitles, was made by a good friend (known on Facebook as Couteras Madriz), and features many of the creative and courageous activists I and Leila al-Shami interviewed for our forthcoming book. The film is particularly strong on the self-organisation of revolutionary Syrians in committees and councils, and on the counter-revolutionary challenges they face.

The “Islamic State” and the Strategists of Terror

June 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Christoph Reuter is one of the world’s most important investigative journalists. His dispatches for Der Spiegel have illuminated many of the otherwise murky details of conflicts around the Middle East and South-Central Asia. Recently he may have written his most important story yet when he came into possession of the initial planning documents for the organisation that we now know as the “Islamic State”. Here is joins Petra Stienen in conversation at the Heinrich Böll Foundation to discuss the groups origins, which he writes about in detail in his recent book Die Schwarz Macht. (The interview in English starts at 24:10).

Syria: Beyond the Red Line

May 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

An important discussion on Syria, hosted by the Frontline Club, featuring Jonathan Littell, Orwa Nyrabia, Laila Alodaat, and Nerma Jelacic.

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Robin on Syria for the BBC World Service

May 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Pulse editor Robin Yassin-Kassab speaking to the BBC on a program titled Islamic State controls over half of Syria.

Islamic State controls over half of Syria (50 mins) | mp3

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