The Bamboo Stalk

April 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

bamboostalkThis review was published at The National.

“A man,” wrote the poet Shelley, “to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another.” The novel, if well-achieved, is the form offering the greatest opportunity to experience the world through another’s eyes, to escape the self by shifting perspective; a novelist could perhaps be defined as a person able to see his home as freshly as a foreigner would, someone unable therefore to take anything for granted. This is Saud Alsanousi’s successful conceit in “The Bamboo Stalk” – a plea for tolerance and 2013 winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction – a text supposedly translated from Filipino to Arabic, now really (and wonderfully) translated to English by Jonathan Wright.

When he’s in Manila, our narrator is called José, and sometimes ‘the Arab’. In Kuwait, he’s called Isa, and sometimes ‘the Filipino’. José/Isa is the product of a brief marriage between a migrant housemaid and a Kuwaiti of good family. He looks Filipino but has his father’s voice. It’s to him that the title refers – “a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular … the stalk will grow new roots if replanted.”

So Alsanousi, with great wit and lightness of touch, portrays the inner dynamics of not one but two families, and of at least two cultures. Half the book takes place in the Philippines, a tropical and entirely credible setting, redolent of mangoes and diesel fumes. Amongst the vividly drawn characters are a roguish, broken grandfather and Isa’s mixed-race cousin Merla, who has good reason to resent both men and Europeans. She looks to an unconventional love for solace, as well as to the “purely Filipino religion” of Rizalism, a deification of independence hero José Rizal.

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What Do Syrians Want? The Syrian Freedom Charter

April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Syrian-Freedom-Charter-logo‎Planet Syria – كوكب سوريا‎ has declared tomorrow — 7 April — a global day of solidarity with the people of Syria. In the spirit of this important effort, I present the following interview with Talal Barazi, Program Associate with the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), a civil society development and humanitarian support organization, about the Syrian Freedom Charter, a momentous initiative inspired by the South African Freedom Charter.

The Syrian Freedom Charter is a national unity document based on tens of thousands of face-to-face interviews with Syrians, in every governorate of the country, about what kind of society they want. Over the course of a year, a team of over a hundred activists assembled by FREE-Syria and the Local Coordination Committees (LLC) of Syria, completed more than 50,000 surveys.

How did the South African Freedom Charter influence the Syrian Freedom Charter?

The Syrian Freedom Charter used the South African Freedom Charter as a model from which to work. The biggest influence the South African Freedom Charter had on the Syrian counterpart was in the idea. We also leveraged the expertise of a university professor who was involved with South Africa’s ANC for more than 30 years, and other experts with experience in other conflicts (Ireland, South America). In the final analysis, we consider the Freedom Charter a national unity document, in which the vision of the Syrian people is the only component. We also used the format of the South African predecessor to lay out the vision of the Syrian people.

How representative is the Freedom Charter? The introduction refers to Syrians “from our diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and religious sects”. How much of a cross-section of Syrian society does the document represent? Were Syria’s minority communities genuinely included? Can you provide some numbers?

As a document of national unity, the target number of surveys for the Freedom Charter was done proportionally based on districts, not based on ethnicities or religious sects. To get a proportional representation of all districts, we looked at the percentage each district made up of the total population, and set our goal for each district, proportionally, based on that. We did work in areas with prominent minority presence such as Sweida, a governorate known for the high presence of Druze, and Hassaka, a governorate with a large number of Kurds. The work was harder in predominantly Alawite areas and Damascus proper.

With that, we see that 50% of people chose not to disclose their ethnicity, and 36% of people chose not to disclose their religious beliefs. Below are the graphs for the demographic questions.

EthnicityReligionAge-GroupHow would you respond to the argument that the sentiments and ideals expressed in the Freedom Charter represent only a thin layer of Syrian society — an elite sector that is educated, westernized, urban, and/or living in exile — and that the sectarian violence the country has descended into is a more realistic reflection of popular sentiments and political loyalties? This view has been advanced by Joshua Landis, for example, but it’s widely shared across all sorts of ideological boundaries.

There is nothing elitist about the Freedom Charter — in fact, it is truly “the voice of the people.” The Freedom Charter represents the opinions of ordinary Syrians — more than 50,000 — the majority of whom live inside Syria under abysmal conditions imposed by the Assad regime and other militarized groups. The actual surveys were conducted at the grassroots level. Activists surveying in a specific district were locals of the district. 99% of surveys done were completed inside Syria and in neighboring countries that currently host a large number of refugees. The only precondition for surveys was that respondents be Syrian, without regard to ethnicity, religious affiliation, political affiliation, or social/economic status.

There’s a lot of discussion now of finding a political solution in Syria some sort of negotiated settlement. Of course that’s not a new idea, but for a while it seemed to have receded from the horizon with the failure of the Geneva process, the exasperated resignation of both Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi as Special Envoy for Syria, and the seemingly intractable geopolitical deadlock over Syria. Recently, however — with the new geostrategic equation created by the intervention against ISIS the push for a political solution is being revived. Various proposals have been floated, and virtually all of them involve Assad staying in power in some form. So my question for you is: the Freedom Charter doesn’t directly address the issue of political transition how to get from the current moment to the political order outlined in the document but from your point of view is there ANY scenario in which it would be acceptable for Assad to remain in power, or does the Freedom Charter necessarily preclude that?

For more than three years, Syrians have taken to the streets in both nonviolent and armed resistance to state what they do not want. The goal for the Freedom Charter was to express to the world what Syrians do want. The document does not discuss the transition period, nor the current situation; it is purely a statement of what Syrians are demanding. The Freedom Charter articulates the desires and goals of the Syrian people, not the process to achieve them.

With regard to the political process, FREE-Syria certainly advocates nonviolent solutions. However, the Assad regime has proven, through the failed initiatives of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, that it is not prepared to pursue a political process. Rather, the regime has and continues to use deadly force, including chemical weapons, against civilians, particularly children. We do not foresee a future in which Assad or those regime supporters with blood on their hands can play a lasting role in a peaceful, democratic Syria.

For more on the Syrian Freedom Charter, go here. For more on ‎Planet Syria‘s global day of solidarity with the Syrian people, go here.

Quentin Skinner: How Machiavellian was Machiavelli?

March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Professor Quentin Skinner delivered a public lecture, How Machiavellian was Machiavelli?, at the University of York, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the composition of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, in 2013.

ISIS: Hassan/Weiss versus Cockburn

March 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

isisThe review below was published at the Guardian. Unfortunately the heart of the review was cut from the published version. I’ll put it here first of all, because it shows that Patrick Cockburn actually makes stuff up in order to defend Assad and Iran and to slander the Syrian people. Here it is:

“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.

And now here’s the whole thing:

ISIS feeds first on state dysfunction, second on Sunni outrage. In Iraq – where its leadership is local – Sunni Arabs are a minority displaced from their privileged position by America’s invasion. Their revanchism is exacerbated by the sectarian oppression practised by the elected but Iranian-backed government. In Syria – where most ISIS leaders are foreign – Sunnis are an oppresssed majority, the prime targets of a counter-revolutionary tyranny headed by mafias but claiming and exploiting Alawi sectarian identity.

Under other names, ISIS first grew in Iraq as it would later in Syria, by exploiting resistance to occupation, American in one case, that of a delegitimised regime in the other. Drawing on research by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov as well as their own, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how Syria’s regime collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist extremists, facilitating the passage of bombers to Iraq who would do more to precipitate civil war than to shake off American occupation. This was a message to America to leave Syria alone.

Popular disgust and the US-backed Awakening movement eventually drove al-Qaida out of Sunni Iraq. The jihadists waited; their moment returned when peaceful Sunni protests were repressed by live fire in 2013. Heading a Baathist-Islamist coalition, ISIS then captured huge swathes of the country and set about its reign of terror.

Weiss and Hassan have produced a detailed and immensely readable book. Their informants include American military officials, American, Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence operatives, defected Syrian spies and diplomats, and – most fascinating of all – Syrians who work for ISIS (these are divided into such categories as politickers, pragmatists, opportunists and fence-sitters). They provide useful insights into ISIS governance – a combination of divide-and-rule, indoctrination and fear – and are well placed for the task. Hassan, an expert on tribal and jihadist dynamics, is from Syria’s east. Weiss reported from liberated al-Bab, outside Aleppo, before ISIS took it over.

Cockburn’s book, on the other hand, is more polemic than analysis. While Weiss and Hassan give a sense of the vital civil movements which coincide with jihadism and Assadism in Syria, Cockburn sees only an opposition which “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy”. He concedes the first revolutionaries wanted democracy, but still talks of “the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011”. The label doesn’t account for (to take a few examples) the widespread chant ‘The Syrian People are One’, or Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman leading protests in Sunni Homs, or Communist Christian George Sabra leading the Syrian National Council.

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Ilan Pappe on Palestine and Noam Chomsky

March 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Ilan Pappe talks to Frank Barat about the Israeli elections and “On Palestine” his book with Noam Chomsky.

Syrian Appeal: Stop the Barrel Bombs!

March 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

I had the pleasure of meeting Haid, a Syrian civil-society activist, in Berlin last year. Please listen to his message:

What Price Assad’s Rehabilitation?

March 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Bente Scheller, Middle East Director of Heinrich Böll Stiftung and author of the excellent The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads, asks if the West is prepared to pay the high political and financial costs of rehabilitating Assad.

A rehabilitation of Syria would come at an exorbitantly high price, politically as well as financially. How much is the West prepared to pay?

Photo: Beshr Abdulhadi. This image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

If you cannot overthrow the tyrant, co-operate with him – after four disastrous years in Syria this seems to be the conclusion the international community has arrived at. While back in 2011 Bashar al-Assad’s days appeared to be drawing to a close, a growing number of people are now suggesting to see him as part of the solution, as illustrated recently by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura in Vienna.

The more methodical and brutish Syria’s dictator disregards human rights, the more he seems to assume the role of a potentially reliable partner in the eyes of some. That is primarily due to the Islamist terror army ISIS. Albeit there are few atrocities with civilian victims the regime is not responsible of committing and although it commits these crimes to a much greater, deadlier extent – Assad is readily seen as the “lesser evil”.

The implication that the situation in Syria could be pacified through a co-operation with Assad in the battle against terrorism is as plain as it is ill-conceived when it comes to the actual implementation. The fight against ISIS requires three things: the means, the will and a strategy.

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