The Prison

blinding-absence-of-lightThis article about Arab prison writing was published at the National.

From ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’ to ‘Orange is the New Black’, prison dramas fill the Anglo-Saxon screen. In the Arab world, you’re more likely to see them on the news. In recent months, for example, detainees of the Syrian regime have staged an uprising in Hama prison and been assaulted in Suwayda prison.

No surprise then that contemporary Arab writing features prisons so prominently, sometimes as setting, more often as powerful metaphor.

“About My Mother”, the latest novel by esteemed Moroccan writer Taher Ben Jelloun (who writes in French), is an affectionate but unromantic portrait of his parent trapped by incoherence. The old lady suffers dementia, mistaking times, places and people, but there is a freedom in her long monologues, the flow of memory and shifting scenes, torrents of speech which eventually infect the narration.

The novel is family memoir and social history as well as an experiment with form. Jelloun’s mother was married thrice, and widowed first at sixteen. At the first wedding, the attendants presenting the bride chorus: “See the hostage. See the hostage.”

Fettered by tradition and domestic labour, now by illness and age, she responds with superstition, fatalism and resignation. Her own confinement is echoed by memories of national oppression, first by the French, then by homegrown authorities. She learns to mistrust the police even before her son Taher’s student years are interrupted by eighteen months in army disciplinary camp, punishment for his low-level political activism. “That’s what a police state is,” the adult writes, “arbitrary punishment, cruelty and barbarity.”

Yet the ultimate prison here is death, frailly resisted by language and dreams.

Jelloun has also written about prison as a lived experience. His 2001 ‘non-fiction novel’ “This Blinding Absence of Light” is loosely based on the actual testimony of Aziz Binebine, refigured here as ‘Salim’. Salim “became ageless on the night of July 10th 1971”. In this historical respect his story is somewhat representative of the many who disappeared from sight as the Arab security states consolidated themselves in the early 70s.

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Russia, Trump and the New ‘McCarthyism in Reverse’

Soviet propaganda: “Money, Nuclear Weapons and the KKK” (source:

It is U.S. election season, 2016, and the extremely dumb baseline for presidential-year rhetoric has already been exceeded with gusto thanks to a fake-tanned reality TV blowhard now leading a white nationalist movement as the Republican Party’s nominee. “Could it get even more dangerously silly, though — the discourse?” asks a visitor from a planet yet to be discovered by terrestrial science. Well, this is America, my little green partner: you’re damned right it will.

The how, however, in “how this election will increase the urgency of our desire for an early demise” has come out of far left field. The banal idiocy of the liberal, centrist, and now alt-right debate has been answered by contrarian-left columnists and their invocation of the Cold War witch hunt against allegedly-traitorous alleged communists, except this time it is not right-wing anti-communists being called out for baiting anyone to the left of Joe McCarthy as a red. No, the Soviet Union having collapsed 25 years ago, the roles of left and right have been inverted, and so it is the left-of-center critics of a proto-fascist who risk being outed as rank McCarthyites for criticizing a billionaire’s ties to and fondness for a right-wing authoritarian (one on the verge of a formal partnership with the U.S. war machine).

And with that, the alien craft exits the solar system.

Donald J. Trump, the candidate citing the Cold War as the basis for a new, “ideological screening test” to be imposed on immigrants: a victim of anti-communism? The mere thought of the argument may dull the senses, but it’s an argument that, unlike the USSR, just will not die in the alt-reality of punditry. That matters, not just because bad arguments are bad (certainly they are, but not all are worth rebutting), but because world peace literally depends on it. If the left’s so singularly focused on the worst claim a liberal personality has to offer that it spends more time rebutting than  proposing—explaining that Vladimir Putin is not the head of the Illuminati—we’ll never get around to building a genuinely internationalist movement that rejects conspiracy for a consistent opposition to greedy capitalists and vicious imperialists wherever they may be.

In the meantime; instead: “Democrats Are Redbaiting Like It’s 1956,” informs the online magazine Current Affairs, for example, the article to which the headline is attached arguing that 2016 Democrats “have revived a long-dormant practice: accusing those to their left of being Kremlin operatives, and discrediting their political opponents with allegations of grand KGB conspiracies.”

But Russia isn’t red and neither is the Republican nominee for president. Still, though, we persist as if the KGB still exists, not because those engaging in the discourse are dumb, necessarily, but rather: we’re distracted by the dumbest arguments of the moment, and opposing them, to the point that we’re not making better arguments of our own. To wit: By suggesting, for instance, that Russian hackers infiltrated the Democratic National Committee and leaked unflattering emails to harm a candidate the Russian government has reason to hate — conflated, for purposes of knocking a straw-argument out the park, with the decidedly less common belief that Trump is literally a Russian secret agent — liberal Democrats are “conspiratorially positing that those who disagree with them are either intentionally or unintentionally serving the interests of the Kremlin.”

That argument requires no conspiracy, though: Trump has proposed policies that would serve the interests of the Kremlin — which, like the United States, seeks to promote its interests abroad — just as he and others, like Hillary Clinton, have proposed policies that would serve the interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain and other repressive governments. And, just as the U.S. notices when certain factions abroad are perceived as more amenable to its interests, Russia does as well. This isn’t chemtrails.

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National Liberation War

Mourning in Iran for a general killed in Syria

An edited version of this article was first published at the New Arab.

Because the Iran Iraq war was followed by an endless succession of conflicts, we forget its foundational horror. Killing at least a million, burning entire cities, and propelling identity politics towards its current fascistic heights, it was the region’s equivalent of World War One.

Iraq started the war. Exploiting Iran’s mid-revolution weakness, Iraqi forces invaded, seeking to annex Khuzestan province. Had Saddam Hussein been a leader interested in safeguarding civil and national rights, Iranian oppression of Khuzestan’s Ahwazi Arabs might have provided justication. But Saddam was a tyrant who oppressed Iraq’s Arabs just as much, and his prime concern was the province’s oil wealth. His brutal aggression included raining poisonous gas on Iranian cities.

No-one can fault the Iranians for the passion of their response. Gulf, Western and Soviet support for Iraq’s war understandably exacerbated the Iranian sense of victimhood which persists, and clouds so many minds, until today. After a certain point, however, the Iranian war lost its defensive character. Khomeini rejected a 1982 truce offer from a chastened Saddam, determined to fight on until Iran occupied the Shia holy cities of southern Iraq. This never happened, but war conditions helped Khomeini neutralise Iran’s revolutionary energies and firmly establish his own rule. The war dragged on for another six years.

Trench warfare followed the same grim routine as it had at Flanders and the Somme. Every day hundreds of boys surged from their defenses and were cut down by enemy fire. Some accuse the Iranian regime of distributing plastic ‘keys to paradise’ for the conscripts to wear around their necks. It seems more likely that a prayer book entitled “Keys to Paradise” was handed out. Whatever the truth, the Iranian leadership’s attitude to these men’s lives was as callous as that of the aristocratic British officers who sent wave after wave of working class men ‘over the top’ to their deaths.

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Why Assad Can’t Win


This is fascinating. Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and other commentators dressed up as reporters tell us the only coherent force in Syria is the Syrian ‘government’ and its army, and that the Free Army doesn’t exist. Here a Russian imperialist officer, addressing his own, explains that the Syrian army is only good for extortion, that it can’t recruit any more fighters, and that the Free Army and Islamist resistance far outweighs it in morale and combat ability. He concludes that a victory for Assad is impossible, and that Russia should therefore pull out. Original text here.

The following is a translation of a scathing article on the state of the Syrian Arab Army that appeared in an online outlet, which is Kremlin-controlled but sometimes critical of the Russian authorities online. The author is a retired Russian officer with 8 years of experience working in the General Staff and 5 years as an editor of an established military magazine. The article, originally titled “It would be easier to disband the Syrian army and recruit a new one”, mirrors the emerging Syria fatigue sentiments in the Russian military circles and reportedly was confirmed by a serving Russian colonel, who added “Everything is like it’s written but worse”. The expert notably omits mentioning regime war crimes even when describing the use of barrel bombs. Throughout the text, he calls Syrian rebels “militants” and “illegal armed groups” — terms widely used by Russian military and media to describe Chechen fighters during the wars. This anti-rebel stance perhaps lends even more credibility to the author’s assessment of their capabilities versus those of the SAA.

While militias, Iranian volunteers, Hezbollah and PMCs fight in lieu of the Syrian army, Bashar Assad’s soldier busy themselves with collecting bribes at checkpoints. This view becomes more and more widespread among military experts aware of the actual situation in Syria. The country’s air force is worn down and uses home-made bombs, the soldiers dig moats to protect from terrorists’ tunnels, while the militants enjoy tactical and moral superiority, says Mikhail Khodarenok,’s military observer.

The pro-government forces are likely to capture the city of Aleppo soon. However, it remains doubtful if this will bring the end of the Syrian war closer. In Middle Eastern wars, there is no single building to plant a flag on that would make the enemy surrender unconditionally.

Indeed, it is quite hard to say which side is currently winning the military conflict. Bashar al-Assad, the president of the Syrian Arab Republic, still does not control about half the country’s territory and a majority of towns and villages.

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The Syrian volunteers who rush to bombed buildings to save victims

PBS News Hour on the White Helmets. (Please ensure that this year the Nobel Peace Prize goes to real heroes).

Once tailors, bakers, pharmacists, some 3,000 ordinary Syrians are now the unwitting heroes of the Syrian war. Nicknamed “the White Helmets,” members of the Syrian Civil Defense work under the harshest conditions to claw through the remains of buildings flattened by barrel bombs, the Syrian regime’s weapon of choice. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports from Turkey.

Exodus: Our Journey to Europe

n 2015, we gave cameras to some of the people who smuggled themselves into Europe, to record where no-one else can go. The result is a terrifying, intimate, epic portrait of the migration crisis.

All three episodes of Exodus: Our Journey to Europe are available on the BBC iPlayer here.