An Account Syncopated by Death: Littell’s Syrian Notebooks

syrian notebooksThis review was published at the National.

“The Kindly Ones”, one of the 21st Century’s great novels, is an epic inquiry into the intersection of state power and human evil. Its narrator is supremely civilised but also – and somehow without contradiction – an SS officer engaged in industrial-scale murder. The novel is set in the battlefields and death camps of World War Two.

The author, Jonathan Littell, previously worked for humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim in various war zones including Chechnya, in whose fate he sees Syrian parallels. In 1996 Chechnya won de facto independence. Then collusion between Russian security services and Islamist extremists weakened Chechen nationalists, made the country too dangerous for journalists, and drained international support. This facilitated Russia’s 1999 reinvasion and the total destruction of the capital, Grozny. The Russian strategy is echoed today in what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius describes as the “objective complicity” between Assad and ISIS.

There are World War Two parallels too. Aleppo is the most bombed city since that conflict. Syria’s refugee crisis is the greatest since 1945. And the Assad regime, like Hitler’s, produces “thousands of naked bodies tortured and meticulously recorded by an obscenely precise administration.”

Perhaps these commonalities explain why Littell chose to bring his clear sight to bear on Syria’s war. He went in, for 17 days in January 2012, with renowned French photographer Mani. The experience led to a series of reports in Le Monde in February, and now to a book: “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising.”

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Danny Danon talks to Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera’s Teymor Nabili interviews Danny Danon, the far-right deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset about his views on Israel’s future and the “so-called Palestinians.” Nabili wrote this on his blog yesterday:

The deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament, Danny Danon, appeared on my radar only recently, after he co-sponsored the country’s recent “Boycott Bill”, a piece of legislation that was widely attacked as anti-democratic both at home and by Israel’s traditional supporters in the US.

Danon was, and is, unapologetic about his action, calling critics “hypocrites” and seeing no problem in a law that rides roughshod over one of the bedrock principles of justice – the presumption of innocence.

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Sailing to Yemen with human traffickers


Freelance journalist Glen Johnson recently traveled on a human smuggling boat from Djibouti to Yemen, where he was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks. The following is an excerpt from his report on the voyage for Al Jazeera:

I waited for an hour while people filed onto the boats, departures of each boat were staggered by around 15 minutes. Gradually the Affar left and one of the smugglers approached and signalled to me. While dozens of crabs scuttled across the sand, I waded out waist deep and clambered into the boat’s bow. Nearly 50 people were crammed into the boat, which was essentially a fishing dhow. The passengers were squeezed one next to the other as the boat set-off.

A young man from Ethiopia – his forehead covered in a line of 10 faded, blue tattoos depicting the cross – said there was no work in Ethiopia; in Saudi Arabia he would have everything, like his friend in Riyadh, the capital.

“Ethiopia is a very big country. I have no job and no monies. I calling to my friend and he says about his big house and big car. I say I must go, go, go.”

He had little money, but was carrying a block of hasheesh, to sell in Saudi Arabia. Other passengers carried bottles of vodka, to sell to Yemeni bootleggers in order to fund the rest of their trip to Saudi. Those who could not afford to pay for a vehicle would attempt the journey on foot.

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