Syria and the revolt against reason

September 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

by Charles Davis


Leftist protesters carry pictures of Bashar al Assad at an “anti-war” march.

Perhaps the most humorous aspect of the latest drivel published by Jacobin in defense of the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad is the way the “anti-imperialist” author is forced by their own tautological premise to downplay the decisive role that U.S. imperialism has played in defending what appears to be a leftist revolution (with, as always, flaws) currently taking place in Syrian Kurdistan.

It’s understandable, to a degree: as one who also sympathizes with this seemingly left-libertarian project, which the author describes as a “spark of hope to many leftists in the West” – hope that is “not misplaced” – I too have been challenged by the fact that were it not for an extensive air campaign that the United States reluctantly carried out in Kobane, it might very well not exist. But while one can have doubts as to the ultimate wisdom of allying with a nation-state not known for its long-term friendships with left-wing radicals, one can’t deny that thus far that alliance has proved beneficial to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militias, the all-men YPG and all-women YPJ. One can also acknowledge that while it might sully the beneficiaries’ anti-imperialist credentials to accept U.S. aid, those beneficiaries would say that in a world full of bad options they chose the least-bad one available, preferring it to genocide.

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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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The Looting Machine: Investigating Corruption in Africa

August 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

Mapping out the networks that link kleptocrats to middlemen, multinationals and markets is the key to understanding the dark side of the globalised economy. Tom Burgis, Financial Times investigations correspondent and author of a new book on the looting of Africa, discussed the tools required: following money trails, reporting from conflict zones, understanding the bigger context – and door-stepping Zimbabwe’s secret police.

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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What is the State?

August 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Quentin Skinner’s Lecture What is the State? The question that will not go away.

Pakistan’s Hidden Shame

August 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Powerful Channel 4 documentary about the sexual exploitation and abuse of many thousands of poor and vulnerable children in Pakistan’s north-western city of Peshawar.

Why Iranian Dissidents Support the Nuclear Deal—In Their Own Words

July 25, 2015 § 1 Comment


Iranian writer Mahmoud Dolatabadi, author of such books as The Colonel, which has been banned in Iran. (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran)

In my new article for In These Times magazine I discuss the important International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran report High Hopes, Tempered Expectations: Views from Iran on the Nuclear Negotiations, which features interviews with an array of Iranians—former political prisoners, filmmakers, political scientists, civil rights lawyers, playwrights, journalists, actors, economists, novelists, publishers, theater directors (some of them belonging to two or more of these categories, former political prisoner being the most common)—about the nuclear agreement.

Go here to read the article. If you tweet it, please give the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran a shout-out (@ICHRI).


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