Israel’s attack on Assad’s military bases on Mount Qassioun above Damascus have provoked mixed feelings amongst Syrians. On the one hand, Syrians have been well aware for over two years that Assad’s army is designed not to confront Zionism but to slaughter the Syrian people. For a year and a half Mount Qassioun has been the launching pad for for artillery and missile attacks on civilian areas of Damascus and its suburbs. On the other hand, hatred and mistrust of Israel rightly runs very deep indeed among the people, far deeper than among the regime which, despite all its rhetoric, has not once (since 1973) responded to Israeli violations of Syrian sovereignty. Syrians know that Israel’s attack is an attempt to exploit the revolutionary situation for Israel’s own ends, that it is part of Israel’s confrontation with Iran – something Syrians want no part of, however much they may hate Iran’s criminal support of the genocidal Assad regime – and that it offers grist to Assad’s propaganda mill.
Here are some immediate responses to Israel’s attack. The Syrian National Coalition released this statement, including this line: “The Coalition holds the Assad regime fully responsible for weakening the Syrian Army by exhausting its forces in a losing battle against the Syrian people.” Many Arabic language Youtube videos show various Free Army and Salafist militias condemning both Israel and Assad’s regime.
I wrote this on Facebook:
Assad responds to the Israeli attack by escalating his sectarian massacres on the coast and his bombardment of Syrian cities, including the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk. Infantile so-called ‘anti-imperialists’ everywhere cheer on Assad’s ‘heroic resistance’.
By ‘sectarian massacres on the coast’ I was referring specifically to the ongoing slaughter of Sunnis in al-Bayda and other areas of Banyas, causing thousands to flee the area.
This review was published at the Independent.
Joshua lives in a brand new town called Amarias. He shares his brand new house with his mother who, since his father’s death in battle, has been “like a pane of glass riddled with cracks that was still somehow sitting there in the frame,” and also with tree-killing Liev, the “anti-father” whose cloying unpleasantness is a great pleasure to read.
One day, chasing a lost football and propelled by an overbearing curiosity, Joshua discovers a tunnel which leads under a wall to an entirely different world – one containing both danger and kindness, and a beguiling young girl. As storytellers from CS Lewis to Philip Pullman know, there’s something archetypal about holes in walls opening onto entirely unexpected realms; and tunnels to wonderland have been evoking rebirth since ancient cave painters squeezed through crevices to make their sacred art. William Sutcliffe employs all this rites-of-passage symbolism with a very light touch, and crafts his novel with sustained suspense.
The new world is not named (not until page 80 is it called “the Occupied Zone”; and the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ are never mentioned) – in this way the book avoids being self-professedly ‘political’ – yet the place is described with great accuracy and atmospheric precision. An “aftertaste of violence is hanging in the air, like a bad smell.” The houses are close-packed, unpainted, unfinished. The shops spill onto cracked streets which are “both enticingly alive and strangely depressing.” Those who know will recognise “the mournful wail of a solo voice backed by violins” as the Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum, but Joshua doesn’t know. He doesn’t even speak the language, though the inhabitants speak his.
Amarias, on his side of the wall, with its lawns and pools and rows of identical houses, is clean and fresh “as if a magic spell has conjured it up out of thin air.” Once Joshua has tasted forbidden knowledge, the town, and the fact that no-one around Joshua seems to recognise the absurd ephemerality of its situation, become darkly surreal.
I was invited to al-Jazeera International’s Inside Syria programme to discuss the political opposition and its divisions with Najib Ghadban of the SNC and Professor Amr al-Azm.
This was published in the National.
From the very start, some commentators convinced themselves that the Syrian popular revolution was plotted, funded and armed by the West. From Seamus Milne to John Pilger, from Glenn Greenwald to George Galloway, they described the West supplying oppositionist ‘jihadist elements.’ Former leftist icon Tariq Ali spoke on Russia Today of “Russia and China resisting attempts by the West to take Syria over.” Russia is resupplying the Assad regime with the materiel with which to slaughter the Syrian people, making Ali’s performance on Russia’s satellite as unedifying, and as distant from reality, as that of a commentator telling Fox News that Palestinian resistance is simply an Iranian attempt to take over Israel.
These journalists have staked their positions against the evidence. They have done so by forcing Syrian realities, breaking the edges of these jigsaw pieces, to fit their prior geopolitical concerns (their opposition to concurrent Israeli-American and Saudi enmities towards Iran) or ideological stances (that, following Iraqi and Palestinian models, the West must always be the troublemaker in the Arab world).
But Syria is neither Palestine nor Iraq; Syrian events are moved primarily by internal dynamics – namely the violence of the regime and the agency of the rising Syrian people. The conspiratorial leftist perspective misses this, first by vastly overestimating Western influence on current events (a failure to accurately diagnose the historical moment) and, secondly, by misunderstanding how unenthusiastic the West is for any rapid democratic or revolutionary change in Syria.
A version of this review was published at the Independent.
“The Silence and the Roar” by Syrian novelist and screenwriter Nihad Sirees was written in 2004, long before the roar of revolutionary crowds, and the countervailing roar of gunfire and warplanes, filled Syrian skies.
The pre-revolutionary roar of the title is that of the (capitalised) Leader speaking, and of the crowd celebrating the Leader speaking, and of those being beaten because they aren’t celebrating loudly enough; a roar relentlessly repeated by radios and televisions throughout the city, accompanying the protagonist almost everywhere he goes.
Counterposed to the roar there are two forms of silence: of imprisonment and of the grave. The first holds an ironic allure, for “the most beautiful thing in the entire universe is the silence that allows us to hear soft and distant sounds.”
The narrator is Fathi Sheen, a writer fallen out of favour with the regime, silenced only to the extent that he doesn’t write any more. He’s very pleasant company, amusing and straightforward, his digressions into Aristotle and Hannah Arendt notwithstanding. Over the course of a day Fathi struggles against the flow of celebrant crowds and regime thugs to visit first his mother and then his lover. He’s been content thus far to continue not to write in return for being left alone, but it becomes clear as the hours pass that the Leader’s friends plan to drive a different sort of bargain. The novella is in part a parable of the artist surviving under dictatorship. How does he make space for creation between silent and roaring states of mind? How does he avoid the regime’s Faustian temptations? More generally, how should one resist?
One answer for Fathi and his lover Lama, as for Winston Smith and his Julia, is through sex, which they find to be “a form of speech, indeed, a form of shouting in the face of the silence.”
A slightly edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.
Hassan Blasim, author of the acclaimed debut collection “The Madman of Freedom Square”, returns with fourteen more stories of profane lyricism, skewed symbolism and macabre romanticism. The qualities which distinguished the “Madman” are all here again in the opening pages of “The Iraqi Christ”: the sly self-referentiality of the frame – a story-telling competition hosted by a Baghdad radio station – the black comedy, the unexpected twists, and the sharp, disturbing images (a man “with no arms and a beard that almost reached his waist… deep in thought, like a decrepit Greek statue.”)
Like the “Madman”, this collection contains tales of war and migration, but these are more abstract, more difficult than the first, if possible stranger still. Treating casual cruelty, rape and murder, and common insanity, these sour cries from a land of generalised trauma don’t make easy bedtime reading. The processing of trauma, or the impossibility of such processing, is the collection’s central theme. Not only are stories dedicated to the dead, they are also narrated by the dead, concerned with death and the echoes of death in the souls of the living.
The subject matter is not exclusively Iraqi. Europe’s forests – with echoes of Grimm – loom as large as Baghdad’s broken streets. The title story, grimly ironic, is about a Christian soldier possessing uncanny powers of prediction who sacrifices himself so his mother may live. An extremist leader marches through with Purge The Earth of Devils tatooed on his forehead. Elsewhere, a narrator falls into a hole alongside a flesh-eating jinn who used to teach poetry in Baghdad. Another helps his brother bury a stranger alive. Characters slip into criminal perversity unwittingly, almost by accident, as spontaneously as the poisonous trees which, in “Sarsara’s Tree”, sprout from a bereaved woman’s gaze.
Blasim’s work is so unusual it’s hard to place. “A Thousand and One Knives”, as the title suggests, owes something to the heritage of the Nights and the ancient fantastic tradition of Arabic writing, now revived by the pains of Arab modernity, particularly in post-invasion Iraq. But “The Iraqi Christ” also seems to belong with the literature of Latin America, likewise struggling with contesting cultures, political violence and overbearing religion. Read the rest of this entry »