The ‘Hakawati’ as Artist and Activist

hassanI interviewed my friend Hassan Blasim, a brilliant writer and a wonderful human being, for the National.

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and film-maker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections “The Madman of Freedom Square” and “The Iraqi Christ” (the latter won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize), and editor and contributor to the science fiction collection “Iraq +100”. His play “The Digital Hat Game” was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.

Because it’s so groundbreaking, his work is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.

Why do you write?

To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.

If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq? why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realise the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom, and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.

Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.

Maybe writing is a psychological treatment, or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.

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The Palestinisation of the Syrian people

A woman, holding a placard reading "We support the Syrian people", cries as she stands among other Bosnians during a protest in SarajevoA slightly edited version of this article was published at al-Jazeera.

In solidarity with Aleppo, the lights on the Eiffel Tower were extinguished. Elsewhere in Paris, and in London, Amsterdam, Oslo and Copenhagen, people demonstrated against the slaughter. Turks rallied outside Russian and Iranian embassies and consulates in Istanbul, Ankara and Erzerum. The people of Sarajevo – who have their own experience of genocide – staged a big protest.

The protests are nothing like as large as they were when the United States bombed Iraq, but they are welcome nonetheless. If this level of support had been apparent over the last six years, it would have made a real difference. Perhaps it is making a difference even now. Public sympathy for the victims may have pressured Vladimir Putin to allow those in the surviving liberated sliver of Aleppo to evacuate rather than face annihilation. At the time of writing, the fate of the deal is in doubt, subject to the whims of the militias on the ground. If it works out and the tens of thousands currently trapped are allowed to leave – the best possible outcome – then we will be witnesses to an internationally brokered forced population transfer. This is both a war crime and a crime against humanity, and a terrible image of the precarious state of the global system. The weight of this event, and its future ramifications, deserve more than just a few demonstrations.

The abandonment of Aleppo is a microcosm of the more general abandonment of Syria’s

People gather during a protest to show solidarity with the residents of Aleppo and against Assad regime forces, in Casablanca

democratic revolution. It exposes the failures of the Arab and Muslim worlds, of the West, and of humanity as a whole.

Many Syrians expected the global left would be first to support their cause, but most leftist commentators and publications retreated into conspiracy theories, Islamophobia, and inaccurate geo-political analysis, and swallowed gobbets of Assadist propaganda whole. Soon they were repeating the ‘war on terror’ tropes of the right.

The Obama administration provided a little rhetorical support, and sometimes allowed its allies to send weapons to the Free Army. Crucially, however, Obama vetoed supply of the anti-aircraft weapons the Free Army so desperately needed to counter Assad’s scorched earth. In August 2013, when Assad killed 1500 people with sarin gas in the Damascus suburbs,  Obama’s chemical ‘red line’ vanished, and the US more or less publically handed Syria over to Russia and Iran.

Keeping to the ‘war on terror’ framework, the US bombs ISIS and others in Syria, hitting symptoms rather than the cause of the crisis. Europe, meanwhile, declares a crisis over the refugees arriving on its shores. So long as Assad remains in power, most of these refugees will not return home.

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Addressing the Oireachtas (Me and Hassoun)

hassoun
Hassoun and Assad

I was happy to have a chance to adress the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Irish Parliament. I spoke about the crushing of the Syrian revolution and the Russian and Iranian occupation of Syria. You can read my address below.

Before me, the committee was addressed by a delegation of the Syrian regime, headed by the state Mufti, Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun. Hassoun has previously threatened Europe and America with an army of suicide bombers, and has specifically called for the civilians of liberated Aleppo to be bombed. It’s incredible that such a man can get a visa to a European country (unlike millions of desperate Syrians who are not terrorists), let alone address a parliament. Hassoun was also invited to Trinity College, and (most ironic of all) to sign some declaration ‘against extremism’.

Some argue that Hassoun should be heard in the interests of balance and free speech. I say that all Syrian perspectives should be heard, and that I would have no problem with a delegation of pro-Assad civilians making their case. My problem is with this official regime propaganda exercise, at a time when the regime and its backers are slaughtering and expelling civilians en masse. And of course the people who talk about balance and free speech in this case don’t apply the principle in all cases. I don’t see official representatives of ISIS being invited to make their case in these settings. And ISIS, monstrous as it is, has killed, raped, and tortured far, far fewer people than the Assad regime.

Thanks to the work of the wonderful people in the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement, the Irish people were alerted to Hassoun’s nature. This report was on the RTE news. In the Arab media, Asharq Al-Awsat, al-Quds al-Arabi and the New Arab have also covered Hassoun’s visit.

Here is the filmed record of the sessions, first Hassoun’s group, then me. And here is my address:

Liberated Aleppo is falling. The suburbs of Damascus are falling, or have already fallen, and been cleansed of their recalcitrant population. The families of foreign militiamen are moving in. Silence is returning to a devastated and demographically-changed Syria. This presentation is therefore more a lament for the defeated Syrian revolution, and for our failure to help it, than a policy recommendation. Continue reading “Addressing the Oireachtas (Me and Hassoun)”

Civil Disobedience

Anyone near Exeter should make sure to visit Making Light’s exhibition Stories from Syria (and visit the website). I wrote three small texts to accompany some of the art work. Here’s the first:

no-justificationTwo posters made in early 2011.

One reads: “It’s civil disobedience. No excuse for silence after today.”

A figure grabs lines from a thumb print, and runs. The thumb print evokes ID cards and the whole machinery of state. The figure is fleeing surveillance, therefore, and defining his own identity as he does so. Have those lines transformed into sticks in his arms? Is he about to light a fire?

The figure in the second poster is trapped inside a ‘no entry’ road sign, either dismantling it, and by implication the political prohibitions in Syrian society, or saying ‘no’ himself, refusing orders.

The words in this one read: “Civil disobedience. I don’t obey the law of an illegitimate iwontobeyauthority.” The sentence is a response to a regime poster campaign of the period. One of those official slogans read: “I obey the law.”

The revolutionary poster aims to force a dialogue where before there was only monologue. It answers back.

Before 2011, nobody answered back, at least not in public. Back then, veteran dissident (and long-term political prisoner) Riad al-Turk was entirely just when he called Syria a “kingdom of silence”.

Syrians were terrified to speak openly and honestly about domestic politics. Those who did either had to leave the country or were imprisoned for decades in the most brutal conditions. The state had ears and eyes everywhere, spies in every workplace, school and café. It owned all the tongues in the country, every newspaper, every radio and TV station. It decided which books were published and which films were shot. It dominated trades unions and universities and every last inch of the public space, even the graffiti on the walls.

In 2000, Bashaar al-Assad inherited power from his father Hafez. The new president’s neo-liberal (and crony-capitalist) economic reforms impoverished the countryside and city suburbs while excessively enriching a tiny elite. Rami Makhlouf, for instance, the president’s tycoon cousin, was estimated to control 60% of the national economy by 2011.

In the spring of 2011, Syrians refound their voices. Enmired in increasing poverty, rejecting the humiliations of unending dictatorship, lashing out against corruption, and encouraged by the Arab Spring uprisings nearby, they took to the streets.

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Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the War on Terror

yassin-and-samira
Yassin al-Haj Saleh and his abducted wife Samira Khalil

Western leftists would do themselves a favour by listening carefully to the Syrian leftist Yassin al-Haj Saleh. In this interview with Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham, first published at the Intercept, Yassin discusses leftist misconceptions as well as Islamism, secularism, intervention, the ‘Palestinization’ of Syrians and the ‘Israelization’ of the Assad regime.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh has lived a life of struggle for his country. Under the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, he was a student activist organizing against the government. In 1980, Saleh and hundreds of others were arrested and accused of membership in a left-wing political group. He was just 19 years old when a closed court found him guilty of crimes against the state. Saleh spent the next 16 years of his life behind bars.

“I have a degree in medicine, but I am a graduate of prison, and I am indebted to this experience,” Saleh said, sitting with us in a restaurant near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Now in his 50s, with white hair and a dignified, somewhat world-weary demeanor, Saleh, called Syria’s “voice of conscience” by many, has the appearance and bearing of a university professor. But he speaks with passionate indignation about what he calls the Assad dynasty’s “enslavement” of the Syrian people.

Saleh was living in Damascus in 2011 when Syrian civilians rose up to demand political reform. That protest movement soon turned into open revolution after government forces met the protestors with gunfire, bombardment, mass arrests, and torture.

From painful firsthand experience, Saleh knew the cost of challenging the Assad regime. But when the uprising started, he did not hesitate to join it. He left home and spent the next two years in hiding, helping Syrian activists organize their struggle.

By late 2013, Syria had descended into anarchy. The conflict between the government and a range of opposition forces had become increasingly militarized. Like many other activists for the revolution, Saleh was forced to flee across the border to Turkey. That same year, armed groups in the Damascus suburbs kidnapped his wife, along with three other activists. ISIS kidnapped his brother in 2013. Neither has been heard from since.

Saleh is now among the millions of Syrians living in Turkey as refugees. He travels the country helping to train Syrian writers and activists in exile, while writing and speaking about his country’s plight. As a leftist, he has also been a vociferous critic of a growing international consensus that has come to see the Syrian conflict in Bashar al-Assad’s terms — as a fight against terrorism.

Our interview with Saleh is presented below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Massacre in Hass

armThis won’t be a headline. And it happens every day.

Either Russian or Assadist planes bombed two schools in the small town of Hass, Idlib province, this morning. The video below shows a citizen journalist heading to the scene. I’ve seen much worse videos of this specific slaughter. One shows mothers screaming in total despair over the body parts of their children. The current death count is 35, most of them children. There are many injured.

I visted Hass very briefly in June 2013 on the way back to the Turkish border from Kafranbel. Hass is the next town along the road after Kafranbel, and like Kafranbel it’s a hotbed of democratic revolutionaries, not jihadists. Beyond that, the people are warm and welcoming rural Syrians, always willing to offer hospitality. In return the world ignores their torment.

It’s interesting that Assad has been sending surrendered civilians from revolutionary communities to Idlib province. The surviving people of revolutionary Daraya, for instance, were transported to Idlib. Then the families of Iraqi Shia militias began moving in to evacuated Daraya. Russian officials have said they want people from liberated  Aleppo to be transported to Idlib too. It looks like the emerging plan may involve a vast Sunni refugee camp across the province. Turkey may provide aid, and even be responsible for policing it. Some of the refugees in Turkey may ‘return’ there. Assad/Russia/Iran keep the cities of what the French called ‘useful Syria’. If Idlib gets too noisy, it will be bombed. Like Gaza but on a larger scale.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the Syrian Majority

yassin-al-haj-salehIt’s worse than just a shame that people in the West rely on their own ignorant, ideology-driven ‘informants’ on Syria, from Cockburn and Chomsky to Landis and Kinzer, rather than seeking out the analysis of progressive Syrians, people who actually understand the country and its people from their first-hand experience of life and struggle. This is particularly the case when Syria boasts thinkers of the standard of Yassin al-Haj Saleh, surely one of the most significant intellectuals in the world today.

In the article below, first published in Arabic and English at al-Jumhuriya, Yassin considers Syria’s past, present and possible futures. He makes the key point that the question of tyrannous Sunni majority rule will never arise in Syria, because there is no ‘Sunni Arab majority’. Though Sunni Arabs are a majority of the population, they are incapable of unifying into a political force, because their Sunni Arabism is only one component of their identity. They are divided by class, region, urban or rural location, lifestyle, education, as well as schools and shades of belief. Any government in the name of the ‘Sunni Arab majority’ would inevitably use the name for propaganda purposes, and would inevitably be another minority regime, drawn from one narrow subsection of Sunni Arabs and having to violently subdue the rest. (This is entirely true. More than that, even amongst Sunni Islamists, there isn’t a majority view on the shape of government or those who should draft and staff it).

Yassin’s thoughts on the western desire to ‘protect minorities’ (an old colonial trope now most visible on the fake left) are invaluable. His take on the Kurdish issue is a brilliant antidote to western leftist  fetishisation of the PYD.

Everything published at al-Jumhuriya is worth reading. The site should be bookmarked and referred to frequently. Here’s Yassin’s latest piece in full:

This article is addressed to an unidentified, moderately informed and well-meaning reader, and it suggests to them a vision for a just Syrian resolution, examining potential problems and hindrances in its path.

What is a resolution in Syria?

Syrians engaged in public affairs are always being asked about our conception of a resolution to the Syrian conflict. Rarely is the question a mere inquiry about what just resolutions may be possible. Instead, it is usually to provoke a concession that the issue is “complicated,” the resolution beyond the realm of possibility, or perhaps, that a solution is not attainable without setting the clocks back to a time before March 2011. Apart from that, the question often stems from a deafening ignorance of the history of political dissent in Syria, and of the squashed struggles towards democratic transition by a previous generation of Syrians. This line of questioning is also divorced, from any insight, albeit modest, of the different phases leading to the current juncture in our struggle.

Nevertheless, this article tackles that question of resolution directly, imagining an earnest unidentified reader, who genuinely aspires to a just resolution to the prolonged Syrian calamity, or one at least in the vicinity of justice.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: A just solution in Syria should be based on establishing a new political majority in the country, one in which an expanding majority of Syrians become familiar with its political representation, and do away with minoritarian, oligarchical rule, in turn laying the foundation for a new Syria and an assimilative Syrian regime. This requires the end of Assadist rule, and of Daesh and any Salafist-jihadist groups, in addition to instituting political and cultural equality for the Kurds with no nationalistic hegemony . It requires laying the foundations for a democratic Syria that is based upon citizenship.

Continue reading “Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the Syrian Majority”