On Saturday October 29th, 2016, Leila Al Shami and Robin Yassin Kassab, authors of the book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’, were invited by the London Anarchist Book Fair to give a talk on Syria. As Leila wrote yesterday night, they “had in particular wanted to focus on anti-authoritarian struggles, self-organization as well as issues of militarism, sectarianism and the rise of Islamist extremist groups.” Shortly before speaking, Robin told me that some people were going around the book fair saying that ‘a pro-Jihadi Syrian nationalist fascist’ was going to give a talk and that he must be prevented from doing so. We laughed it off.
Robin and Leila sat down and, barely having had the time to introduce themselves, they were interrupted. One man, later identified as Amir Taaki, went on stage, followed by about seven friends, one of whom was in full military garb, and started ranting about Robin’s alleged love for Jihadis, Syrian nationalism, Ahrar Al Sham and other such inanities. Robin left and Leila, who had tried to stay and reason with them, ended up leaving too.
As for Taaki, he is a British-Iranian who was involved in the creation of BitCoin and who never misses an opportunity to boast that according to Forbes he was ‘their top 30 under 30 list for 2014’. He claims he has just returned from Rojava, an achievement he thought was enough to qualify him to speak on Syria as a whole. That an actual Syrian Kurdish Anarchist from Rojava, Shiar Neyo, was already on the panel didn’t prevent him from trying to hijack it. The self-appointed representative of Kurdistan had sent several emails to Leila demanding a spot on their panel – demanding, not asking.
Those of us familiar with this neo-colonial and racist arrogance expressed by foreigners after visiting ‘the region’ for a few months can think of a few Taakis we’ve met over the years.
When all resistance proved to be futile, the organizers were forced to let Taaki speak for a few minutes. He then proceeded to speak for as long as he wanted (10-20 minutes before people in the audience started complaining again), and what a monologue it was! He rambled on about how Kurdish culture is inherently egalitarian and how it’s a light in a dark world. He spoke of ancient Mesopotamia, of some bloody pyramids and of how all of that linked to some mystical Kurdish Shangri-La that all Anarchists and revolutionaries must defend. His rambling reminded me of what a book on Orientalism for Children would look like. Taaki told us how he ‘went there thinking that he’ll teach them’ but instead ‘they taught me so much’; ‘these people’ who he described as heroic men and women engaging in guerilla warfare in the mountains while reading Bookchin and Nietzsche (I’m not joking). ‘Kurdistan’ is apparently replacing ‘the Orient’ given that the latter has failed to satisfy westerners who got bored of Aladdin.
Not only that, but they were profoundly racist. Taaki, in his Aladdin monologue, listed Turkey and Saudi Arabia as the two most racist countries on the planet, an odd statement given the existence of a settler colonial state, Israel, on one of Syria’s borders or, for that matter, the existence of instutitionalized racism in many countries of the region, including my own, Lebanon, and beyond. One of them even told me ‘you people’. When I asked him what people he was talking about given the fact that I was raised in a Lebanese Arab Catholic family, he went silent. When I lost my patience and yelled ‘f-ing white people’, two of them accused me of being racist against white people. They started yelling about how it’s unfair to paint all of them with the same brush. All Lives Matter, folks.
Kurdish friends who later heard about what happened were horrified at how a group of mostly white people used Kurdistan, the Kurdish struggle for autonomy and social justice and pretty much all struggles in and around Kurdistan to fit their orientalist fantasy. Kurds didn’t really exist in Taaki’s monologue. It was a bizarre manifestation of racism mixed with Islamophobia and Kurdish diaspora ultra-nationalism. In fact, when we went back in with Shiar Neyo in an attempt to confront Taaki and his cult followers, who by then had emptied the whole room of its original audience and replaced it with a dozen ‘anarchists’ who all knew one another, his cult followers shut Neyo down and called him disgusting.
Neyo soon understood that this was not a crowd that cared much about Rojava, Syria as a whole or anything for that matter. The people of Syria, Arabs or Kurds, were irrelevant to them. Neyo told them that this is not what solidarity looked like and we left. Leila and Robin’s talk was canceled. Neyo’s talk was canceled. Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds were not allowed to talk on Syria. Instead, some British guy who hasn’t written a single article on Syria was allowed to control the narrative because he’s been to Rojava, learned Kurdish and ‘about Kurdish culture’. By those standards, I should be Queen of England by now. Never has Said’s ‘permission to narrate’ sounded so relevant to my ears.
This was a strange event, one which Leila told me she had never witnessed despite giving countless talks with Robin on Syria. And this included talks with actual Shabbiha in the room. Taaki’s cult followers didn’t seem to have any ‘ideology’ other than engaging in orientalist fantasies. There wasn’t anything ‘anarchist’ about them given that they shut down a panel featuring a Syrian Arab anarchist, Leila, and insulted a Syrian Kurdish anarchist, Shiar. They also repeatedly harassed people, yelled at them and called them Jihadi sympathizers. They refused to stop filming people’s faces despite being repeatedly asked by the organizers and members of the audience to stop filming as this violated the very basic definition of a safe space – especially one on Syria with so many still having family in regime or ISIS-controlled areas. What a funny version of Anarchism it is in which the basic notion of solidarity is rejected.