Upheaval in Souls, Bodies, Imaginations

Christopher Lydon of the wonderful Radio Open Source interview joins the great Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury for a stimulating discussion on art, politics and literature.

CAIRO — Elias Khoury is the sort of novelist we rely on to tell us what is going on. Himself of Lebanese and Christian antecedents, he wrote Gate of the Sun (1998), a stylized and much-admired fictional account of the Palestinian naqbah or “catastrophe” from 1948 to the infamous Sabra and Shatillah massacres in Lebanon in 1982. Writing, he remarks, is his means of discovering his ignorance and overcoming it.

Negotiations?

We Will Not Die We Will Remain Here by Wissam al-Jazairy
We Will Not Die We Will Remain Here by Wissam al-Jazairy

This was published at The National.

On January19th  Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem gave an apparently conciliatory interview to state TV. “I tell the young men who carried arms to change and reform, take part in the dialogue for a new Syria and you will be a partner in building it. Why carry arms?” In the southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus his voice was drowned out by the continuing roar of the regime’s rocket, artillery and air strikes.

The UN and parts of the media have also called for negotiations. Until late January this year, however, the Syrian National Coalition – the widely-recognised opposition umbrella group – opposed the notion absolutely. But then SNC leader Moaz al-Khatib announced that he would talk directly to regime representatives (not Bashaar al-Assad himself) on condition that the regime releases 160, 000 detainees and renews the expired passports of exiled Syrians.

In the context of Moallem’s media offensive (and in the absence of concerted international financial or military support for either the SNC or the revolutionary militias) al-Khatib’s announcement calls the regime’s bluff. It doesn’t, of course, mean that negotiations are about to be launched. For a start, the regime only intends to negotiate with, as it puts it, those “who have not betrayed Syria”. Like successive Israeli regimes, it will only talk with the ‘opposition’ it chooses to recognise. This includes, as well as pro-regime people posing as oppositionists, Haytham Manaa’s National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, a group which has no influence whatsoever on the revolutionary fighters setting the agenda. The SNC – which does have some influence on the ground, and would have far more if it were sufficiently funded – is definitely not invited.

Continue reading “Negotiations?”

Archaeology of Revolutionary Knowledge

My review of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire which first appeared in Guernica.

As tsar Alexander III sat down for an evening’s entertainment at the St. Petersburg opera in late 1887, he little knew that the performance would be upstaged by one far more dramatic. Shortly after the curtains rose, a slender, goateed man with azure eyes, dressed in robe and turban, got up from a box nearby and proclaimed loudly: “I intend to say the evening prayer—Allah-u-Akbar!” The audience sat bemused and soldiers waited impatiently as the man proceeded unperturbed with his evening prayers. His sole companion, the Russian-born intellectual Abdurreshid Ibrahim, squirmed in fear of his life.

Jamal ud-Din al-Afghani was determined to recruit Russian support in his campaign against the British. Having failed to secure an audience with the tsar, he had decided to use his daring as a calling card. The tsar’s curiosity was duly piqued and Afghani had his hearing.

This could be a scene out of Tolstoy or Lermontov; but so extraordinary a figure was Afghani (1838-97) that inserting him into fiction would have compromised verisimilitude. So, renowned essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra has opted for the genres of historical essay and intellectual biography to profile the lives of Afghani and other equally remarkable figures in From the Ruins of Empire: The intellectuals who remade Asia.

The book is a refreshing break from lachrymose histories of the East’s victimhood and laments about its past glories. It concerns a group of intellectuals who responded to the threat of western dominance with vigour and imagination. Together they engendered the intellectual currents that have shaped the last century of the region’s history. Continue reading “Archaeology of Revolutionary Knowledge”