Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn

The following is an excerpt from an interview with me and my collaborator Nader Hashemi that will be published soon by the excellent online magazine Qantara.de. The interviewer is Emran Feroz, a journalist based in Germany, founder of the Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims, and author of a book on drone warfare. The interview revolves around our recent book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, in which we challenge the new conventional wisdom in Western media and policy circles that attributes the violence engulfing the Middle East today to “ancient hatreds”. We call this sectarian essentialism a new form of Orientalism. In this section of the interview we’re responding to a question about the pervasiveness of this sectarian narrative across the ideological spectrum.

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Versions of the sectarian narrative can be found on the right, in the center, and on the left. The New York Times columnist and establishment sage Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the 7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis”. Barack Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”. A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. The former cable television host Bill O’Reilly has remarked that “the Sunni and Shia want to kill each other. They want to blow each other up. They want to torture each other. They have fun. … This is what Allah tells them to do, and that’s what they do”.

 

This is hardly surprising, given the anti-Muslim prejudice so pervasive on the right. What is surprising is to find people on the left trafficking in the sectarian narrative. Take the case of Patrick Cockburn, the influential Middle East reporter for The Independent. Cockburn has consistently framed the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms — using language like “sectarian blood-letting” and “demons” — and even criticized others for downplaying sectarianism. He did this from very early on, seeing sectarianism as immanent even during the nonviolent popular demonstrations of 2011, which were notably devoid of sectarian slogans and involved Syrians of multiple religious backgrounds/identities. The Syrian conflict became sectarian, but it didn’t start that way and, contra Cockburn, its sectarianization was by no means inevitable. In his chapter in our book, the anthropologist Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto demonstrates how the Assad regime pursued a deliberate strategy of sectarianizing the conflict through the use of sectarian pro-regime militias and the “selective distribution of violence” to punish specific sub-groups of protesters; and by releasing various jihadis from Syria’s prisons, to poison the well and produce a “preferred enemy”. Continue reading “Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn”

Morbid Symptoms: A Conversation with Gilbert Achcar

Danny Postel and Gilbert Achcar at After-Words bookstore in Chicago, 10 July 2018

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar for a conversation about the complex situation in the Middle East and various myths about the region that permeate the global leftosphere. The conversation was recorded for the podcast of Chicago DSA, the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

Achcar has been called “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world” (Le Monde) and “the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region” (CounterPunch). He is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2002), Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010), The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013), Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (2013), and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016).

Forum on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy

On June 6, I moderated a panel discussion in Chicago on Yassin al-Haj Saleh‘s momentous book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. The event was presented by Haymarket Books, the volume’s North American publisher (it’s published in the UK and worldwide by Hurst). The panelists were Wendy Pearlman, author of We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria; Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder of the Karam Foundation; Firas Aladai, director of the film Winter; Sarah Hunaidi, an activist and co-host of the Hummus for Thought podcast; and Behzad Tehrani with Haymarket Books. The discussion starts a few minutes into the video. Sorry for the uneven audio quality. Turn the volume up!

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.

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.

How it came to this

mohjaBy Mohja Kahf

 

It Came to This

 

i.

For Kurdish rights in Syria

For Kurds stripped of citizenship since 1963

stripped of their land   their language   their names

whipped by the Arab Belt of the Baath

no economic justice no equality no

 

dignity for prisoners of conscience in Syria

families of prisoners assemble on the curb

outside the Justice Building in Damascus

for Tal Malouhi, 17, imprisoned for a poem

for a word   for an essay   for a blog

no charge no warrant no

redress and no recourse

for Raghda Hassan, imprisoned for her novel manuscript

her ten-year-old son on the curb beaten at the vigil

no charge no warrant no

 

accountability of government

its rubber-stamp parliament

its executive all powerful for life

its security branches all powerful

all seventeen of them

its Mr. Ten Percent lining his pockets

the Assad family plundering the country

Continue reading “How it came to this”

stargazing on the backs of our children

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by Huma Dar

stargazing on the backs of our children
what kind of heaven lies under our feet, yet
starry, starry nights on the backs of our beloveds:
“Andromeda, you see, sweeps from right to left. Ursa Major just above it, Cassiopeia is the loose bunch near the shoulder, within, there are all the signs.”

stars, also, on the pitch-black eyes of our daughters, our sons
dying stars, supernovae of frightful beauty
freedom’s terrible thirst clotting into black holes
amidst galaxies of desire
desire of freedom, both deadly and rejuvenating
the dead(ly) gaze of our youth
still threatens to annihilate the brutal
despite their guns
turn the enemy into stone, my dear child!
look him in the eye.

“Make this your star gazing, your horoscope for the week, for all of tomorrow. A starry eyed tomorrow…”

they shoot our young on their backs, on their eyes,
our eyes will petrify them still
the battle will be won
Medusa, the freedom fighter, will have her day

P.S: This poem was originally written as a Facebook post on Aug 27 or 28, 2015, inspired by Najeeb Mubarki’s caption, within quotation marks above, of a photograph of a Kashmiri youth’s back, shimmering with scores of pellet injuries… Pellet injuries that are touted to be “non-lethal,” but are anything but.

It happens to be one of the few things coincidentally saved from my now-disabled account — please sign here to demand that Facebook reinstate it.

Read more about this horrifying oppression by the Indian Occupation in Kashmir – Scars of Pellet Gun: The Brutal Face of Suppression by Mannan Bukhari.

 

The Syrian Revolution and the Project of Autonomy

What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion.

By Stephen Hastings-King

Note: This is a revised version of a presentation I made at Hamisch, the Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul, on October 16, 2015. I would like to thank the comrades of Hamisch for their hospitality and for the chance to make something new. Then as now, my hope is to contribute to a widening of conversations about the Syrian revolution and the ways in which the struggles of the Syrian people are interconnected with global struggles for basic human dignity.

=-=-=-=-=

Where I am from there is no political future. There is only repetition of the same. The present is a ubiquitous horizon. Only the details will vary.

Where I am from the future has been privatized. People worry about their children.

We need to make new significations, ways of thinking beyond the horizon of the present.

=-=-=-=-=

What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion. Continue reading “The Syrian Revolution and the Project of Autonomy”

Syria Speaks on Tour

left to right: Khalil, me and Khaled. photo by Khalil.
left to right: Khalil, me and Khaled. photo by Khalil.

This was published at the National

For a week in June, Syrian writers and artists toured England, giving readings and workshops to promote “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline”, a book reflecting the country’s new revolutionary culture. British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab describes the experience.

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In Bradford we met a woman who had tried as hard as she could to forget she was Syrian. We didn’t discover her original trauma, but we heard its symptoms over a British-Pakistani curry. She hadn’t spoken Arabic for years, and never told anyone where she was from. Once a policeman detained her for an hour because she refused to tell him her origin.

In Bristol, on the other hand, we met a little old woman who, with her red hair and flowery dress, we might have mistaken for English. But she was a Damascene, and she wept when I read a description of her city. Afterwards she came to introduce herself. “I’ve lived in England for thirty years, and I didn’t realise until the revolution that I had a fear barrier inside. Then I noticed I’d never talked about Syria. I’d tried not to even think about it. But those brave youths gave me courage; they gave me back my identity and my freedom.”

So the Syrian revolution is alive and well in Bristol if not in Bradford, for this is where the revolution happens first, before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations – in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words. Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’ in which public discourse was irretrievably devalued by enforced lip-service to the regime and its propaganda pieties. As a result, many Syrians describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, a kind of rebirth. In “Syria Speaks”, Ossama Mohammed’s story “The Thieves’s Market” concerns a woman who attends the state’s official demonstrations, until her friend is murdered for participating in an oppositional one. “I grew up,” she says, “came of age, abandoned someone and was abandoned, on a march that finished yesterday.” When that coerced march ended and a thousand new ones began, Syrians found unprecedented liberation simply by expressing honest opinions in the presence of their neighbours, by breaking the barriers of fear.

Continue reading “Syria Speaks on Tour”