The Ghouta Slaughter and Arab Responsibility

This article was first published at the New Arab.

AFP photoIn 2011, people in the eastern Ghouta (and throughout Syria) protested for freedom, dignity and social justice. The Assad regime replied with gunfire, mass arrests, torture and rape. The people formed self-defence militias in response. Then the regime escalated harder, deploying artillery and warplanes against densely-packed neighbourhoods. In August 2013 it choked over a thousand people to death with sarin gas. Since then the area has been besieged so tightly that infants and the elderly die of malnutrition.

Seven years into this process – first counter-revolutionary and now exterminatory – the Ghouta has tumbled to the lowest pit of hell. This didn’t have to happen. Nor was it an accident. Local, regional and global powers created the tragedy, by their acts and their failures to act. And Arab and international public opinion has contributed, by its apathy and relative silence.

Blame must be apportioned first to the regime, and next to its imperialist sponsors. Russia shares the skies with Assad’s bombers, and is an equal partner in war crime after war crime, targeting schools, hospitals, first responders and residential blocks.

Then Iran, which kept Assad afloat by providing both a financial lifeline and a killing machine. Iran’s transnational militias provided 80% of Assad’s troops around Aleppo, and some surround the Ghouta today. Their participation in the strategic cleansing of rebellious (and overwhelmingly Sunni) populations helped boost a Sunni jihadist backlash and will continue to provoke sectarian conflict in the future.

But the blame stretches further. American condemnations of the current slaughter, for instance, ring very hollow in Syrian ears. The Obama administration, focused on achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, ignored Iran’s build-up in Syria. It also ensured the Free Syrian Army was starved of the weapons needed to defend liberated zones. And by signalling his disengagement after the 2013 sarin atrocity, Obama indirectly but clearly invited greater Russian intervention. Since the rise of ISIS, the United States has focused myopically on its ‘war on terror’, bombing terrorists – demolishing cities and killing civilians in the process – but never deploying its vast military might in a concerted manner to protect civilians. Objectively, despite the rhetoric, the US has collaborated with Russia and Iran.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, called for a humanitarian truce to allow civilians to evacuate. This sounds humane, and if the fall of Aleppo is any guide, it’s probably the best scenario Ghouta residents can expect. But the proposal’s lack of ambition illustrates the current dysfunction of the global system. Instead of acting to stop the slaughter and siege, European statesmen support mass population expulsion, requesting only that it be done as gently as possible.

Continue reading “The Ghouta Slaughter and Arab Responsibility”

Advertisements

Burning Country New Edition

hi-res-cover

A new edition of our book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War has now been released. That’s it in the picture bearing a Folio Prize Shortlist rosette.

This edition contains a long new chapter called Syria Dismantled, which attempts to update the situation from the summer of 2015 to the present. It covers the stages of defeat through Daraya to Aleppo, the Russian assault and Iran’s militia surge, and the sectarian cleansing, and the PYD’s expansion, and Turkey’s intervention… Of course it’s already out of date.

But buy it, do, and ask your local library and bookshop to stock it. In order to understand the current situation (globally, not just in Syria), it’s necessary to understand how the democratic revolution started – and how the counter-revolution’s response sparked an endless series of wars. More importantly, our book does its best to give voice to Syrians themselves, those who dared to create new possibilities, and who paid an unfathomable price.

Published by Pluto in the UK, distributed by Chicago University Press in the US.

Here it is on British Amazon, and here on the American site.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

This review was first published at the New Statesman.

frankensteinBaghdad, 2005. Occupied Iraq is hurtling into civil war. Gunmen clutch rifles “like farmers with spades” and cars explode seemingly at random. Realism may not be able to do justice to such horror, but this darkly delightful novel by Ahmed Saadawi – by combining humour and a traumatised version of magical realism – certainly begins to.

After his best friend is rent to pieces by a bomb, Hadi, a junk dealer, alcoholic and habitual liar, starts collecting body parts from explosion sites. Next he stitches them together into a composite corpse. Hadi intends to take the resulting “Whatsitsname” to the forensics department – “I made it complete,” he says, “so it wouldn’t be treated as trash” – but, following a storm and a further series of explosions, the creature stands up and runs out into the night.

At the moment of the Whatsitsname’s birth, Hasib, a hotel security guard, is separated from his body by a Sudanese suicide bomber. The elderly Elishva, meanwhile, is importuning a talking portrait of St. George to return her son Daniel, who – though he was lost at war two decades ago – she is convinced is still alive.

In what ensues, some will find their wishes fulfilled. Many will not. After all, the Whatsitsname’s very limbs and organs are crying for revenge. And as each bodily member is satisfied, it drops off, leaving the monster in need of new parts. Vengeance, moreover, is a complex business. Soon it becomes difficult to discern the victims from the criminals.

This loping, murdering, free-floating metaphor for events escaping their intentions, for violence gaining its own momentum, won Ahmed Saadawi (also an acclaimed poet, screenwriter and filmmaker) the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Detective story and satire as well as gothic horror, “Frankenstein in Baghdad” provides a tragi-comic take on a society afflicted by fear, and a parable concerning responsibility and justice.

Continue reading “Frankenstein in Baghdad”

Syria’s Opposition Should Support Kurdish Autonomy

This was published first at The New Arab.

ocalan
‘There is no life without the leader’. PYD militants raise Abdullah Ocalan’s picture in Raqqa

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a Marxist-Leninist turned authoritarian-anarchist (yes, that is an oxymoron) Kurdish separatist party-militia at intermittent war with the Turkish state. The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a PKK-offshoot set up while Abdullah Ocalan was hosted in Syria by Hafez al-Assad. Given its focus on the war against Turkey rather than civil rights in Syria, the PYD was usually tolerated by the regime.

As the revolution began liberating territory in 2012, Assad forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight, handing them over to PYD control. Thereafter the PYD monopolised arms and aid money, repressed opposition parties, and shot at protestors.

At the same time, it won an undoubted national victory for the Kurds. After decades of enforced ‘Arabism’, locals finally policed their own neighbourhoods and children were taught in their mother tongue. Through the commune system, the PYD also promoted a measure of local democracy. The allocation of 40% of commune seats to women is evidence of the party’s impressive commitment to gender equality.

As well as the PYD’s avowed secularism, the fact that its territories were not subjected to Assad’s scorched earth inoculated them against penetration by transnational jihadists. The PYD’s political innovations, meanwhile, won the admiration of many leftists and anarchists in the west. Sadly this support was often uncritical, and generally ignored similar democratic self-organisation experiments in the liberated but heavily bombed territories beyond PYD rule.

At first, the PYD governed Syria’s three Kurdish-majority areas, that is the Afrin, Kobani and Jazira cantons. These areas (collectively called Rojava, or Western Kurdistan) are non-contiguous. Kurdish autonomy could work there, but not statehood.

The PYD, however, was able to take advantage of both Russia’s war on the rebels and the American-led coalition’s war against ISIS to join up and expand its territory. In February 2016, in alliance with Russia, the PYD captured Tel Rifaat, Menagh, and surrounding areas close to Afrin. These Arab-majority towns were governed by civilian local councils and defended by non-jihadist rebels. Both people and rebels were driven out by Russian air power (Russian bombs destroyed all three of Tel Rifaat’s health centres during the assault) accompanied by the PYD’s troops on the ground. Next, in July 2016, the PYD captured the Castello Road leading into Aleppo, assisting the Assad regime’s siege on the city and eventually its fall (in December) to Assad’s Iranian-backed militias.

Continue reading “Syria’s Opposition Should Support Kurdish Autonomy”

Militant Buddhist-Nationalism and the Rohingya Tragedy

This was first published at the National.

rohingya refugees1The Rohingya Muslims are currently the world’s most persecuted minority. Since last year at least 625,000, over half the total population, have fled slaughter in Myanmar (also known as Burma). This is only the latest wave in a series of killings and expulsions starting in 1978. The UN calls it a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing.

Two recently-published books provide necessary background to the Rohingya tragedy. Francis Wade’s “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: the Making of a Muslim Other” contextualises events politically and historically. Azeem Ibrahim’s “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” covers similar ground while, as the title suggests, convincingly arguing that Myanmar “stands on the brink” of genocide,  a crime defined by the UN as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The Rohingyas have been designated as ‘Foreigners’ since 1978. The Myanmar state today describes them either as Indians imported by the British or as recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Both books dispute this revisionism. Ibrahim begins Rohingya history as far back as 3,000BCE, when Indo-Aryan people arrived in what is now Arakan (or Rakhine province), while Wade presents evidence of an 11th Century CE Muslim community composed of stranded Indian, Arab and Perisan sailors.

Ibrahim’s account of ancient and colonial history is the most detailed. Rohingyas lived alongside Rakhine people who were connected linguistically and religiously to the Burman, the dominant ethnicity in today’s Myanmar. Though Arakan was influenced by the ancient Burmese kingdom, it wasn’t conquered until 1784. Over the next four decades 30,000 Muslims fled Burmese-Buddhist rule, until the British annexed Arakan in 1826. Burma – with Arakan and its Rohingyas attached – won its independence in 1948.

The Rohingyas entered the new state at a disadvantage. Their loyalty to the British during the 1942 Japanese invasion had sparked conflict with the Rakhine. Nevertheless they participated in national life. Some joined the army and others served in parliament. They were included as an ethnic group in the 1961 census.

In 1962 Myanmar’s military seized power. At this point Wade’s book takes the lead in describing the rage for national homogeneity motivating these Burman generals, in a country where minority groups make forty percent of the population. The army waged wars to subdue the Shan, Kachin and Karen peoples, amongst others. In the 1960s, it expelled Indian and Chinese residents.

Continue reading “Militant Buddhist-Nationalism and the Rohingya Tragedy”

Pais En Llamas

paisI’m very happy to say that “Burning Country” has been published in Spanish by Capitan Swing. It’s designed beautifully too.

Leila and I visited Barcelona, Zaragoza and Madrid to give talks and interviews. Here, for instance, is a long radio interview with RTVE, and here is an interview in El Nacional of Catalunia. And here’s an article in El Periodico.

The audiences were fairly small (the largest in Zaragoza), and there was an online campaign against Leila for being an ‘imperialist’ and a ‘Salafi rat’. But those who did turn up were very engaged indeed (many of them libertarian leftists, the sort who actually deserve the label). We met some great Syrians, some of whom had escaped to Spain decades ago in the era of Hafez al-Assad, Bashaar’s father. We met a young and determined revolutionary from Idlib who has shrapnel in his body and is only partially-sighted since a sarin attack. Our wonderful friend Elisa, and her wonderful parents, fed and hosted us in Zaragoza. And in Lavapies in Madrid, where we have really good friends, we were looked after by Leila Nachawati Rego, one of the best. I’m really hoping for an English translation of her novel of the Syrian Revolution, “Cuando La Revolucion Termine.”

Dancing in Damascus

wissam

This review of miriam cooke’s new book was published at the Guardian.

Syria’s revolution triggered a volcano of long-repressed thought and emotion in cultural as well as political form. Independent newspapers and radio stations blossomed alongside popular poetry and street graffiti. This is a story largely untold in the West. Who knew, for instance, of the full houses, despite continuous bombardment, during Aleppo’s December 2013 theatre festival?

“Dancing in Damascus” by Arabist and critic miriam cooke (so she writes her name, uncapitalised) aims to fill the gap, surveying responses in various genres to revolution, repression, war and exile.

Dancing is construed both as metaphor for collective solidarity and debate – as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it isn’t my revolution” – and as literal practice. At protests, Levantine dabke was elevated from ‘folklore’ to radical street-level defiance, just as popular songs were transformed into revolutionary anthems.

Cooke’s previous book “Dissident Syria” examined the regime’s pre-2011 attempts to defuse oppositional art while giving the impression of tolerance. The regime would fund films for international screening, for instance, but ban their domestic release.

souad-al-jundi

“Dancing in Damascus” describes how culture slipped the bounds of co-optation. Increasingly explicit prison novels and memoirs anticipated the uprising. Once the protests erupted, ‘artist-activists’ engaged in a “politics of insult” and irony. Shredding taboos, the Masasit Matte collective’s ‘Top Goon’ puppet shows, Ibrahim Qashoush’s songs and Ali Farzat’s cartoons targeted Bashaar al-Assad specifically. “The ability to laugh at the tyrant and his henchmen,” writes cooke, “helps to repair the brokenness of a fearful people.”

As the repression escalated, Syrians posted atrocity images in the hope they would mobilise solidarity abroad. This failed, but artistic responses to the violence helped transform trauma into “a collective, affective memory responsible to the future”.

Explicit representations of “brute physicality and raw emotion”, from mobile phone footage to Samar Yazbek’s literary reportage, soon gave way to formal experimentation. Notable examples include “Death is Hard Work”, Khaled Khalifa’s Faulknerian novel of a deferred burial, the ‘bullet films’ of the Abounaddara Collective, and Azza Hamwi’s ironic short “Art of Surviving”, about a man who turns spent ordinance into heaters, telephones, even a toilet. “We didn’t paint it,” he tells the camera, “so it stays as it arrived from Russia especially for the Syrian people.”

This section also covers full-length films such as “Return to Homs”, which follows the transformation of Abdul-Basit Sarut from star goalkeeper to protest leader to resistance fighter.

Cooke’s consideration of the role of social media is better informed than the somewhat superficial journalistic takes on the cyber aspects of the Arab Spring which filled commentary in 2011. The internet provides activists anonymity and therefore relative safety. It also offers a space in which to display and preserve art, even while Syria’s physical heritage, from Aleppo’s mosques to Palmyra’s temples, is demolished by regime bombs and jihadist vandalism. Online gallery sites archive the uprising’s creative breadth and complexity. One such is the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, whose multimedia approach sometimes “connects specific elements within each genre to produce a film about the process of painting that responds to music.”

Certain digital images ‘aestheticise’ sites of destruction in order to both lament and humanise the war. The best known are works by Tammam Azzam which superimpose Klimt’s “The Kiss” on a crumbling residential block, Matisse’s circle dancers against a rubble-strewn street, and Gaugin’s Tahitian women on a refugee camp.

A section on arts produced in exile examines refugee theatre created in the youth centres of camps and urban slums. Via Skype, a cross-border Shakespeare production played by Syrian children cast Romeo in Jordan and Juliette in Homs. The performance was completed despite bombs, snipers and frequent communication cuts. The play’s conclusion was optimistically adapted. The doomed lovers threw away their poison and declared, “Enough blood! Why are you killing us? We want to live like the rest of the world!”

Through ‘applied theatre’ techniques women performed Euripides’ “Trojan Women” and so found a way to talk about the regime’s mass rape campaign. Director Yasmin Fedda incorporated the rehearsals into her prize-winning documentary “Queens of Syria”.

Of course, “Dancing in Damascus” doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s nothing on hip hop or several other important genres. The book tends to concentrate on ‘high art’ rather than the arguably more significant bottom-up production. Yet, with admirable concision and fluency, it assists what journalist Ammar al-Mamoun calls “an alternative revolutionary narrative to contest the media stories of Syrian refugees and victims”. It shows how, despite everything thrown at it, the revolution has democratised moral authority, turning artist-activists into the Arab world’s new “organic intellectuals”. As such it is an indispensable corrective to accounts which erase the Syrian people’s agency in favour of grand and often inaccurate geo-political representations. Beyond Syrian specifics, it is a testament to the essential role of culture anywhere in times of crisis.