Amal Hanano on Kafranbel

kafranbel1First published at Foreign Policy, the great Syrian journalist Amal Hanano describes her visit to Kafranbel last June (I was honoured to accompany her), and the revolutionary town’s changing strategy in the face of global indifference to (or orientalist misrepresentation of) the Syrian people’s struggle. “Many activists inside and outside Syria,” she writes, “realize that there is no longer a reason to convince the world to action. No one is coming to save Syria.”

KAFRANBEL, Syria — The Syrian revolution’s heart — not yet ravished by the regime or Islamist extremists — beats on in the northern town of Kafranbel, where a group of dedicated activists has captured the world’s attention through witty posters and banners that reflect the state of the revolt since spring 2011. And even as the Syrian narrative has increasingly focused on the extremists or an international plan to dismantle the Assad regime’s chemical stockpiles, the artists of Kafranbel have been engaged in their own struggle — to win back the support of residents of their own town.

The 40-year-old Raed Faris and his partner, 33-year-old Ahmad Jalal, are the creative duo behind the banners. Faris — a tall man with a booming laugh — writes the banners, while Jalal, quiet and shy, draws the cartoons. Together, they spend their time brainstorming, researching, and connecting with others on how to display Syria’s tragedy to the world.

The banners express sophisticated geopolitical analysis in the simplest of forms. They are often inspired by iconic pop culture references: Faris and Jalal have used a Pink Floyd album cover, the Titanic movie poster, and even The Lord of the Rings to describe what is happening in Syria. No side in the crisis was spared — not the Syrian regime and its allies, not the Western powers and the United Nations, not the exiled Syrian opposition, and not even the radical jihadists who eventually came to live among the activists.

Kafranbel’s messages traveled the world. A large collection of the posters and banners was smuggled out of Syria to protect them from being destroyed, and they were displayed as exhibitions across the United States and Europe. One poignant banner — carried in front of the White House last spring on the second anniversary of the revolution — adapted and adopted Martin Luther King Jr.’s timeless words: “I have a dream, let freedom ring from Kafranbel.”

Banners like this one — along with the famous response to the Boston Marathon bombing — drove home the universal and historic nature of the Syrian struggle. Kafranbel’s artists consistently made these connections to show that Syria’s war was not an event isolated by time or geography.

What made Kafranbel’s messages unique was their relentless insistence to reach out to the world. The banners expressed empathy and solidarity: “You are not alone; we suffer with you.” But another message was always embedded: “Do not leave us alone. Do not forget about us.”

But the world read the banners, and did nothing. Eventually, Kafranbel — and by extension, Syria — were disappointed by their global audience.

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The West is Wrong on Syria

by Razan Zaitouneh

Human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh bemoans the West’s indifference to Assad’s crimes, its focus on chemical weapons but not on the starving children in the areas besieged by Assadist forces, and its failure to arm the Free Army. This was first published at The Damascus Bureau.

Why does the West insist on dealing with our dead and injured as if they were less valuable than a Westerner – and as if our casualties don’t even deserve respect or compassion?

After the chemical massacre in Syria’s two Ghoutas, we believed that the world would, at last, take our interests into account in one way or another. We did not believe that, upon seeing hundreds of dead children, the international community would act only in favour of its narrow interests.

The chemical massacre was a milestone, not only in the Syrian revolution, but also in the Syrians’ consciousness and minds.

I witnessed the massacre myself. I saw the bodies of men, women and children in the streets. I heard the mothers screaming when they found the bodies of their children among the dead

As a human rights activist who has always believed in the humanitarian principles of the United Nations, I can talk for hours about the psychological breakdown and the amount of humiliation I felt after the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 2118. This resolution implies that Bashar al-Assad will continue to rule Syria for at least one more year, with the international community’s acquiescence. The resolution also reveals the lie we have all been living regarding the human rights principles that have not been applied, not even in form, in Syria.  If this is how I have been affected, how does the ordinary Syrian citizen, who has never believed our misleading slogans about human unity and equality, feel after suffering such discrimination and injustice?

The world goes further in disrespecting the sufferings of the Syrians by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize this year to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This award shows the West has exchanged its moral ethical obligations for the legal ones.

Meanwhile Assad, the real criminal, is free because no one cares.

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Revolutionary Gardening

the radishes are at ground level
the radishes are at ground level

For a long time it’s been too late for a happy ending in Syria. The longer this process continues, the less we can hope for.

How do you fight a monster without becoming a monster? How, particularly when the monster’s chief strategy is to make a monster of you? How, when the world’s most powerful storytellers depict you as a monster? How, when monsters hiding behind human facades walk by blindly as you are tortured, raped, humiliated, maimed, murdered?

I don’t really know. I’d welcome a reading list, if anyone has one.

I know this monster must be fought, even if we become monsters while fighting it. I know we must fight both internally and externally. I know the greater and lesser jihads must be fought simultaneously.

At some point, somehow, this stage will be replaced by another. Most probably that stage like this one will be bumbled through blindly. Human beings seldom or never achieve control over their larger social movements. Still, it’s pleasant to imagine that Syrians will be able to defuse the sectarian tensions which have existed at least since ibn Taymiyyeh, which were immeasurably exacerbated by Sykes-Picot and the French occupation’s construction of an ‘army of minorities’, and then set afire by Assad’s gang and its allies. It’s good to hope too that a new constitution will guard against any party, clique or ideological police imposing its straitjacket on the plural people.

Beyond religion and politics, environmental factors should also be taken into account.

It’s interesting to note that Jared Diamond’s three factors of civilisational collapse (deforestation, soil erosion, water management problems) have been present in Syria since late Ottoman times, and rampant in the last couple of decades. People my age who grew up in Damascus remember that in their childhoods the Ghouta still consisted of orchards and streams, that summer temperatures almost never climbed above the mid to high thirties. You don’t have to be my age to remember the Barada as an actual river, rather than a layer of concrete and a few stinking pools. Wasn’t Damascus the city the Prophet refused to enter, fearing to sin by imagining himself prematurely in paradise? The dicatorship’s corruption (anyone with connections or money could build in the green zone) put paid to that. Stupidly grand development schemes repeated the pattern all over the country (Lake Assad, like Lake Nasser, was an environmental and social disaster – see Omar Amiralay’s film A Flood in Ba‘ath Land – a wonderful exercise in quiet irony). People’s lack of control over the public space meant they were alienated from it, and threw black plastic bags all over it (this explains the discrepancy between people’s spotlessly clean homes and the filth in the streets outside). Over the decade before the revolution erupted, a million climate change refugees, according to the UN, left the desertifying north east for the impoverished outskirts of Dera’a, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. This, combined with the effects of Bashaar’s crony capitalism, provides the backdrop to the uprising. The revolutions to the west, and the monster’s extreme violence, provided the spark.

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Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy Talk Science and Art

Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss suggests that science and art ask the same fundamental question: Who are we, and what is our place in the universe? He is joined in the conversation  by Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy. (Don’t miss Herzog reading a passage from McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses at 38:00).

(via the indispensable Open Culture)

A Slaughter of Alawi Innocents

For the first time there is proof of a large-scale massacre of Alawis – the heterodox Shia offshoot sect to which Bashaar al-Assad belongs – by Islamist extremists among Syrian opposition forces. In its context, this disaster is hardly surprising. It follows a string of sectarian massacres of Sunni civilians (in Houla, Tremseh, Bayda and Banyas, and elsewhere), the sectarian ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from areas of Homs province, and an assault on Sunni sacred sites such as the Khaled ibn al-Waleed mosque in Homs, the Umawi mosque in Aleppo, and the Omari mosque in Dera’a. It follows two and a half years of rape, torture and murder carried out on an enormous scale by a ‘Syrian’ army commanded by Alawi officers and backed by sectarian Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, and by Alawi irregular militias. Assad and his backers have deliberately instrumentalised sectarian hatred more effectively than the Americans did in Iraq, and they must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the dissolution of Syria’s social mosaic. Next, the counter-revolutionary forces in the West (chief among them the United States) must be blamed for obstructing the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army, a policy which has inevitably strengthened the most extreme and sectarian jihadist groups (some of whom, such as the foreign-commanded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, are actively fighting the Free Army). Human Rights Watch’s important report on the massacre of Alawi villagers is summed up in the video below. Sadly, HRW fails to adequately distinguish between Syrian and foreign, and moderate and extremist anti-Assad militias. The excellent EAWorldview critiques the report here. Its conclusion:

The HRW report illustrates the dangers of conflating the various factions of the insurgency under the heading “armed opposition groups”.

Coincidentally, that conflation is a tactic of the regime who seeks to portray the insurgency as extremist-led, largely foreign fighters rather than an extension of the indigenous protest movement that took up arms after Assad’s forces used violence to quash it from March 2011.

By this conflation, HRW (a fine organisation which has done great work in uncovering the truth of the Syrian conflict) veers dangerously close to the orientalist/racist stereotyping of the Syrian people’s struggle now dominant in both the rightist and liberal/leftist Western media.

It goes without saying that the crimes committed against Alawi civilians in northern Lattakia province are grotesque and idiotic, and constitute another strategic blow against the revolution and the survival of the Syrian state.

Khaled Khalifa: Silence is Disgraceful Too

The following is an interview with the renowned Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa, which was released on the 2nd Sept 2013. Pulse editor Robin Yassin-Kassab was honoured to be asked to write the introduction to the English translation of Khaled Khalifa‘s third novel, In Praise of Hatred. Some of that introduction is available here.

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