Of Monsters and Men

This is my review of Yassin al Haj Saleh’s book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. It first appeared in The New Arab

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution over six years ago, there has been a determined effort to smother it both literally and figuratively. There is the ceaseless attrition of bullets, bombs, torture, starvation and poison gas; there is the relentless subversion of truth through erasure, distortion, slant and fabrication. But in defiance of the terror, through myriad betrayals, regardless of the slander, and in the face of global indifference, the revolution survives. Every time the violence ebbs, the revolutionary flag returns to the street borne by crowds chanting the same slogans that reverberated through earlier, more hopeful days. Even in the absence of peace, besieged neighbourhoods have elected local councils, provided social services, educated children, treated the wounded and fed the needy. Under impossible circumstances, the people who stood up against one of history’s most murderous regimes persist.

saleh-impossible-revolution-final-rgb-webYou would know none of this if your only window into the Syrian conflict is the western media or, worse, its Kremlin counterpart. Syria, for all one can tell from their coverage, is about ISIS atrocities, Al Qaeda gains, Coalition bombings, regime advances, Russian resurgence and CIA manoeuvres. It is a geopolitical chessboard in which Syrians are mere pawns, denied agency, except in violence; denied humanity, except in victimhood.  When earlier this week the UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte resigned over the Security Council’s inaction, she saw fit to add: “everyone in Syria is bad now”. She said this at a time the news of the execution of media activist Bassel Khartabil was becoming public, Idlib University was holding free elections, Saraqib and Eastern Ghouta were electing local councils and volunteers from the Syrian Civil Defence were risking lives to rescue victims of the regime’s relentless bombings. For del Ponte and her ilk, these people might as well not exist.

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Sectarianization — events in the UK next week

Nader Hashemi and I will be in the UK May 8-11 for a series of launch events and panel discussions for our new book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.

Monday 8 May, 6:00 PM, LSE, Room 9.04, Tower 2, LSE — panel discussion with contributors Madawi Al-Rasheed (LSE Middle East Centre); Toby Matthiesen (University of Oxford); Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi (University of Manchester). MORE

Tuesday 9 May, 5:00 PM, Seminar Room 1, Oxford Department of International Development, 3 Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TB. With Leïla Vignal (Fellow, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford). Hosted by the Refugee Studies Centre. MORE

Wednesday 10 May, 1:00 PM, Chatham House, London. Panel discussion with Madawi Al-Rasheed (Middle East Centre, LSE), Chair: Nussaibah Younis, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House. MORE

Thursday 11 May, 6:00 PM, Royal Holloway, University of London, Founders Main Lecture Theatre. Chair: Ibrahim Halawi, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Islamic and West Asian Studies (who recently reviewed the book). MORE

A dizzying abundance of events this coming week

There’s never a shortage of rich cultural programming in a cosmopolis like Chicago, but the coming week presents an absolute frenzy…

 

Monday, April 3 at 6:00 PM

Joel Beinin discusses his book Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — at the Evanston Public Library (in partnership with Northwestern University’s Middle East and North African Studies Program)

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Wednesday, April 5 at 6:00 PM

Mustafa Akyol discusses his book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims — at Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston

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Sectarianization

My colleague Nader Hashemi and I have a new edited book out examining what we call the sectarianization of Middle East politics. It is published by Hurst in the UK (and worldwide) and by OUP in North America. This nifty video trailer for the book was produced by the talented Simeon Tennant.

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.

2084: The Recurring Liberal Apocalypse

2084This was first published at the National.

The true subject of science fiction is always the present. Its imagined futures are mirrors to today’s hopes and fears. George Orwell’s “1984” simply shifted the numbers of the year in which he wrote the book – 1948 – and made a metaphor of that time’s dark politics. Likewise “2084”, the latest from Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, is addressed to, and in some way is part of, very contemporary woes.

Sansal lays out a fantastically detailed dystopia in complex and often elegant prose. After the Great Holy War killed hundreds of millions, an absolutist theocracy has been founded by Abi the Delegate, servant of the god Yolah. Abi’s rule is secured by such institutions as the Apparatus and the Ministry of Moral Health, and displayed by frequent mass slaughters of heretics in stadia built for the purpose. The nine daily prayers are compulsory. Women must cloak themselves in thick ‘burniqabs’.

Dissent, individuality, and progress have been abolished. The future must be a strict replica of the past. All languages are banned save the state-invented ‘Abilang’.

Ati, the story’s vague hero, is sent to a sanatorium in the mountains to cure his tuberculosis. Here he hears rumours of a nearby border, a limit to Abi’s reign. The notion “that the world might be divided, divisible, and humankind might be multiple” sparks a crisis of doubt in him, and then a journey of discovery.

At times “2084” suffers from science fiction’s most common pitfall: an unwieldy listing of technical or political information describing the imagined world outweighs and obscures the necessary human information. Sansal’s characters are somewhat two-dimensional, and the plot can seem almost accidental.

It is best, therefore, not to read this as a conventional novel but as a mix of satire, fable, and polemic.

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Culture and Imperialism

A version of this first appeared in The National.

During the Cold War there was an attempt by both major powers to instrumentalise art as a means of ideological domination. The artistic landscape was fraught with political landmines. Artists had to navigate this terrain with caution. Some became willing instruments of policy, some were coerced into it, some made expedient compromises—but many were snared unwittingly.

The eastern bloc’s means of control were explicit, hence better known. They were exemplified in the persecution, fear, and exile suffered by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mendelstam, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. They have also been fictionalized in popular films like Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.

Less known however are the means that the ‘free world’ used to engineer a favourable intellectual climate. Decidedly more tolerant of dissent than its eastern counterpart, the west developed a system of rewards and exclusion to amplify favourable voices and marginalise critical ones.

This vast apparatus was orchestrated and conducted by the analytical wing of the CIA, which in its halcyon days relied on Ivy League recruits, often with backgrounds in the humanities. Erudite and urbane, these recruits were seen as the ideal candidates to erode the seductive appeal of Soviet communism. They could counteract it through a strong anti-communist line that emphasized the western ideals of freedom and openness.

finks_cvfFinks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers is Joel Whitney’s riveting account of the CIA’s machinations to enlist some of the world’s leading writers in this ideological contest. Part literary history, part investigative journalism, the book unravels hitherto unknown details about the CIA’s vast cultural offensive.

Whitney’s story pivots around The Paris Review, a highly regarded literary publications best know for its series of interviews with literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, and Vladimir Nabokov, and fiction and poetry from the likes of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, V.S. Naipaul and Philip Roth.

But in 1953 when it was launched, one of The Paris Review’s three co-founders, the novelist Peter Mathiessen, was working for the CIA and using the magazine as cover. George Plimpton, the Review’s other co-founder, was also aware that the magazine’s benefactor, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), was heavily funded the by the CIA. The CCF sustained The Paris Review by mass purchasing its copies, syndicating its content, and paying extra for material that aligned with Cold War imperatives. The CCF also tried to influence the magazine editorially. This despite the fact that the Paris Review wasn’t even part of the large stable of magazine’s that CCF directly funded and controlled.

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