Syrian Dust: An Overview of Books

syriaThis review of books on Syria, mainly of Francesca Borri’s ‘Syrian Dust’, was published at the National.

…if you only talk about those who are fighting, any revolution becomes a war.” – Francesca Borri

For a long time very little was published on Syria in English. Patrick Seale’s useful but hagiographic “Assad: the Struggle for Syria” was the best known. Hanna Batatu’s classic “Syria’s Peasantry and their Politics” and Raymond Hinnebusch’s “Revolution from Above” were valuable academic studies of the Hafez-era state.

Over the last five years of revolution and war, several shelf loads of books have appeared. Many are sensationalist, cashing in on the latest terrorism scare. But several are of very high standard. Bente Scheller’s “The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game”, for instance, is an excellent analysis of Assadist pre-revolution foreign policy. Thomas Pierret’s “Religion and State in Syria” is an indispensable resource on the social roles of the Islamic scholars in the same period.

Novelist Samar Yazbek’s “Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution” is the best account of the revolution’s early months, though “Revolt in Syria” by Stephen Starr, an Irish journalist then resident in Damascus, comes close. Jonathan Littell, author of the remarkable WW2 novel “The Kindly Ones” wrote “Syrian Notebooks” after spending two weeks of 2012 in besieged Homs. Marwa al-Sabouni’s well-received “The Battle for Home” gives a Syrian architect’s perspective on the destruction (and potential rebuilding) of the city.

Charles Lister’s masterful “The Syrian Jihad” is not only the best guide to the various Islamist groups operating in Syria, it also explains and contextualises their rise. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” is an accessible summary of the organisation’s history and modus operandi. “Jihad Academy” is French journalist Nicolas Henin’s thoughtful account of ISIS captivity.

And three recent books, beneficial in very different ways, provide insider views from outsider women.

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Committees, Councils and Cultural Production

Omar Aziz
Omar Aziz

In this presentation on Syria – in green Seattle’s public library  – Leila al-Shami talks about Razan Zeitouneh, founder of the Local Coordination Committees, and Omar Aziz, the anarchist who first thought of building local councils. And I talk about the revolution’s cultural and media achievements. Interesting questions from the audience afterwards.

On the Brian Lehrer Show

Amreeka March-May 2016 033In New York (what an astounding city), Leila and I were interviewed by Brian Lehrer for his show on WNYC. We talked about Syria’s failing ceasefire, the illusory Damascus Spring, Assad’s collaboration with George W Bush, the history of the Baath, and Obama’s deals with Iran and Russia. A couple of listeners called in with questions – one about the sectarian element.

You can listen to the interview here.

Iraq’s Forgotten Uprising

iraq protestThis was published at al-Araby al-Jadeed/ the New Arab. The texts referred to are Ali Issa’s Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, and Sam Charles Hamad’s essay ‘The Rise of Daesh in Syria’, found in Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution.

A great deal has been written on the factors behind the rise of ISIS, or Daesh, in Iraq and Syria. Too much of the commentary focuses on abstracts – Islam in total, or Gulf-Wahhabi expansionism, or a vaguely stated American imperialism – according to whichever axe the author wishes to grind. And too much describes a simple split in these societies, and therefore a binary choice, between different forms of sectarian authoritarianism – in Iraq it’s either ISIS or the US and Iranian-backed government’s Shia militias; in Syria it’s either ISIS or the Russian and Iranian-backed Assad regime forces.

To take this representation seriously, we must force ourselves to ignore the very real third option – the non-sectarian struggle against the tyrannical authoritarianism of all states involved, whether Iraqi, Syrian or ‘Islamic’. Hundreds of democratic councils survive in Syria’s liberated areas, alongside a free media, women’s centres, and a host of civil society initiatives. In Iraq too, though it holds no land, there is a potential alternative, at least a gleam of light. The Iraqi state’s attempt to smother this gleam is an immediate and regularly overlooked cause of ISIS’s ascendance.

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Burning Country at the Middle East Institute

Someone in New York sneered and said Washington was a sterile city, but I liked DC a lot during our two-day visit. The centre is full of people from everywhere, lobbying, plotting and misgoverning. The rest of the city has a mainly black population. We stayed with wonderful people, ate good food, and the sun was shining, the trees in bloom. I met my niece, lots of lovely Syrians, and some great Arab thinkers at the Tahrir Institute, most notably Hassan Hassan. The Museum of the American Indian is worth a visit too.

At the Middle East Institute our talk was chaired by the scholar Charles Lister, author of the indispensable book The Syrian Jihad. Here Leila talks about the aspects of the Syrian revolution rendered invisible by Western commentary, and I talk about what’s stopping us seeing: ideological assumptions, and the fact of war. Q and A afterwards.

 

Talking about Syria in Chicago

On a pier poking into the icy turquoise of Lake Michigan, looking back at Chicago’s brutal towers, Leila and I were interviewed on Syria by Jerome McDonnell, an engaging host, for WBEZ’s Worldview. We talked about Razan Zaitouneh, revolutionary councils, imperialist intervention, American policy, Islamism, Robert Fisk, and the farmers and dentists who make history. Jerome McDonnell hosted us again that evening at Chicago University’s International House.

Listen to the 30-minute interview here.

Daniel Lazare

grosz2Throughout April, Leila and I spoke about Syria and our book Burning Country in the United States and Canada. Some audiences were large , some were small. A couple contained a preponderance of anarchists, a couple included people from the State Department. Some were academic, some were grassroots. One was entirely Syrian. Audience questions stretched from those informed by various conspiracy theories to those grounded in humanity, intelligence, and information.

We heard some strange things, but were only once confronted by a highly aggressive, profoundly ignorant and prejudiced white man. This was during our talk at Columbia University, New York. This character was the first to put up his hand after our presentations. He’d been glaring, particularly at Leila, throughout the talks.

He was almost spitting with anger. How could Leila describe Iran as a prime generator of sectarianism, he wanted to know, when everyone knew it was Saudi Arabia? He himself knew for sure that Syria’s 2011 protest movement was entirely made up of Sunnis, and that they were calling for the blood of the Alawis and Christians from the first day. He knew that all the Christians and Alawis and Druze had protested for Assad. He named a French commentator as evidence for this (Fabrice someone?), and expressed admiration for Patrick Cockburn, who I’d criticised in my talk.

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