Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Writers in Erbil, 2011

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I wrote this account of the Erbil Literature Festival in early 2011, as Assad was bringing war to Syria, before the PYD militias took over Syria’s Kurdish areas, long before Mosul fell to Daesh. Since then there’s been a revolution in Syrian culture, and a further expansion of Iraqi literature. Ahmad Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad”, mentioned here, last year won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as ‘the Arab Booker’.

the Chaikhana Muchko in Erbil

the Chaikhana Muchko in Erbil

5th May 2011

It was an annoying journey out: a thirty-mile lift to the train station, then a train, a bus, a plane, a transit zone, a plane; unfitting and refitting my belt, tired and prickle-skinned among the glassy hustling public, and the jarring mesh of duty-free odours, and the funneling tunneling lights. My night in Vienna, old Austro-Hungaria, was spent in a very contemporary airport hotel. The windows were sealed by regulation. I lay on the bed and watched TV – all I ever do in anonymous, upmarket hotels – on pillows too bulky, sheets too sterile. I watched too much Arabic Jazeera, slow eyes chasing the script on the news bar, about the killing in Syria, in Homs and in Dara‘a. I slid to sleep to the hiss of airconditioning.

6th May

Inaam Kachachi is a Paris-based novelist and journalist. Her most recent novel, available in English too, is “The American Granddaughter”, which concerns a young Iraqi-American woman who ‘returns’ to Iraq as a translator with the American military.

When Inaam returns home these days she finds that Baghdad, the cradle of her early life, has become a foreign city. Last time she was there an American soldier assumed she was the foreigner because she was dressed only in T-shirt and trousers, revealing her light skin, startling orange hair and (by her own description) her plumpness. ‘When he passed by me he said “Hi Ma’am!” I replied in English,’ (she puts on a parodic American growl) – ‘“Fuck you, I’m Iraqi!”’

Once she mentions her plumpness I notice it. She’s elegant and swish with it too. Her size seems to be an outward manifestation of powerful inner warmth, as if her raging humour requires great space to rush about in. We’d met before, half a year earlier in Berlin, and we wave to each other as she comes through the Vienna airport gate.

So: eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey. And south over snow-caked mountains towards the flatlands of Iraqi Kurdistan. I think I glimpse the glistening Tigris from my port hole. On the other side of the river is Mosul, where Inaam’s family originates (and, so rumour has it – much more distantly – mine too), and near Mosul are the ruins of Nineveh, where Ashurbanipal’s library was buried and dug up, and with it the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest versions of the flood myth, the omens and divinations of the ancient world. I experience a frisson of firm location: my first time in Iraq, which is the homeland of all writers, the birthplace of literature, the Babel-land of stories. This is where human beings first discovered writing.

The airport is contemporary, spacious and airy. Our group of writers is processed through passport control and into a minibus, green fields and long grass on either side; after a kilometre we stop at a lonely concrete hut where our bags are scanned again. We change buses here, for security’s sake.

And into the city. It’s called Hawler in Kurdish, Erbil in Arabic, Arbaa-ilu (Four Gods) in Akkadian, and Urbilum (The Upper City) in Sumerian. It’s the fourth largest city in Iraq, the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Its population is well over a million, but it doesn’t feel like that. It’s spacious like the airport, low rise, and most of it is in very good shape.

Our hotel compound is surrounded by blast walls. The public side of the walls is painted with murals – prisoners breaking through bars, the Pepsi logo, mountains and flowers. Our bags are searched and scanned at the entrance to the compound and again in the foyer of the hotel.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 23, 2014 at 12:58 pm

The Road to Iraq

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A slightly shorter version of my review of Pulse editor Idrees Ahmad’s devastating dissection of the neoconservatives and their deeds appeared at the National.

roadtoiraqMeticulously researched and fluently written, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s “The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War” is the comprehensive guide to the neoconservatives and their works. The book’s larger story is of the enormous influence wielded by unelected lobbyists and officials over the foreign policies of supposed democracies, their task facilitated by the privatisation and outsourcing of more and more governmental functions in the neoliberal era. (Similar questions are provoked by the state-controlled or corporate media in general, as it frames, highlights or ignores information.) The more specific story is of how a small network of like-minded colleagues (Ahmad provides a list of 24 key figures), working against other unelected officials in the State Department, military and intelligence services, first conceived and then enabled America’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a disaster which continues to overshadow regional and global relations today.

The first crop of neoconservatives emerged from a Trotskyist-tinged 1930s New York Jewish intellectual scene; they and their descendants operated across the political-cultural spectrum, in media and academia, think tanks and pressure groups. Hovering first around the Democratic Party, then around the Republicans, they moved steadily rightwards, and sought to form a shadow defence establishment. During the Cold War they were fiercely anti-Soviet. Under George Bush Jr. they shifted from the lobbies into office.

The neoconservative worldview is characterised by militarism, unilateralism, and a firm commitment to Zionism. Even the Israel-friendly British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said of neocon Irving Libby: “It’s a toss-up whether Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans on any given day.” The neoconservatives aimed for an Israelisation of American policy, conflating Israeli and American enemies, and adopting their doctrine of ‘pre-emptive war’ from Israel’s 1967 war on the Arabs.

Lest we slip into antisemitic tropes (hidden cabals conspiring on international Jewry’s behalf), let’s remember that the neoconservatives form a tiny minority within a generally much more liberal American Jewish community. (The Israel lobby as a whole is much more hawkish than American Jewish opinion – the former aggressively lobbied for war against Iraq while the latter was much more opposed than the American mainstream).

And the neoconservatives weren’t the only factor. Ahmad recognises the military industrial complex is always enthusiastic for war, and writes “The neoconservatives succeeded because they operate within a political consensus that sees US global dominance as the desired end and military force as the necessary, if not preferred, means.” Nevertheless, the fact that neoconservatives were placed well enough to exploit the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 was the crucial element in the decision to invade.

The neoconservatives wanted (through ‘creative chaos’) to remake not only Iraq but also Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and even such crucial American allies as Saudi Arabia. Yet their messianic vision didn’t dominate administration ‘realists’ (Colin Powell and Richard Armitage were working on ‘smarter’ sanctions to contain the Iraqi regime) until the ‘catalysing event’ of 9/11.

They immediately seized the opportunity to establish a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussain, promoting claims made by Laurie Mylroie, who had also, improbably, held Iraq responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing and the 1993 World Trade Centre attack. This misinformation sold the war to the public. A 2004 poll showed 74% of Americans believed the Iraq al-Qaida link; 85% of American soldiers polled in 2006 believed their role in Iraq was to retaliate for 9/11.

Within the administration, Dick Cheney, a ‘robust nationalist’ and probably the most powerful vice president in American history, championed neoconservative perspectives and propaganda. Supposed evidence of Iraq’s WMD programmes was entirely furnished by the neoconservatives and their allies. The Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, for instance, set up by neocon Douglas Feith, relayed questionable Israeli intelligence to the White House and played up the ‘imminent threat’ posed by Saddam. That unfounded allegations were presented as casus belli to the United Nations was not an ‘intelligence failure’ but, Ahmad proves, the result of a very successful process of suppressing, spinning or promoting information for the sake of invasion.

Cheney was motivated not by neoconservative ideology but by a hardnosed (and unrealistic) realism. 9/11 for him was an opportunity to make an example of an easy target (North Korea and Iran, the other members of the ‘axis of evil’, were too difficult). But he was greatly influenced by neoconservative orientalist and popular historian Bernard Lewis, who held Arab rage against the West to be purely cultural, not political, and believed Arabs only understood the language of force. These assumptions played a part in ‘shock and awe’ over Baghdad; orientalist theories – in this case of Arab masculinity, straight from Israeli torture guides – were applied again in the sexual humiliations at Abu Ghraib.

Against Cheney’s hopes, Iraq proved America’s weakness rather than its strength. The American public was briefly awed; the rest of the world was only shocked by American recklessness. More Iraqi post-war oil contracts were awarded to states which hadn’t intervened than to those which had, while Sunni and Shia insurgencies steadily bled American lives and morale, and the region plummeted to greater depths of polarisation and instability.

Neoconservatives had hoped Saddam’s deposal would be followed by regime change in Iran, or at least a radical weakening of the Iranian theocracy, but this was their most dramatic miscalculation. Strengthened by the removal of hostile regimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran took advantage of the new sectarian order to embed itself in Iraqi politics. In Syria today, Iranian-backed sectarian militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting on Assad’s frontlines. Iran has not been challenged on this policy, despite it constituting a major factor in the rise of Sunni sectarianism and groups such as ISIS.

By the end of Bush’s presidency, the ‘realist’ realisation that Arab democracies would produce economically nationalist and anti-Zionist governments (as the Palestinians voted for Hamas) was reasserted, and so therefore was the traditional dictator-friendly policy. Stung by Iraq and economically weak, the US under Obama attempted and failed to disengage from the region. Obama set ‘red lines’ and ignored their crossing; he let his Sunni regional allies arm Syrian resistance groups ineffectually and in mutual competition; he blocked them from providing the heavy weapons necessary to resist Assad’s scorched earth and the consequent refugee crisis.

Eleven years after the invasion, ‘realist’ folly has compounded neoconservative madness. One common thread between the schools is an abiding refusal to deal with the people at the grassroots struggling to improve their situation. After the 1991 Gulf War, America permitted Saddam’s defeated military to use helicopter gunships to put down the intifada in the south – the mass graves of this period incubated the later sectarian breakdown. In 2003 the neoconservatives pinned their hopes on Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, an exile organisation as irrelevant on the ground as the Syrian National Coalition is today (the SNC enjoys tepid and purely rhetorical American support; the grassroots Local Coordination Committees enjoy no recognition whatsoever). And now, rather than providing effective weaponry to the Free Syrian Army which has been fighting ISIS all year, America loses hearts and minds by bombing Syria’s grain silos and oil installations.

If the region is to ever recover, imperial democracies as well as Arab tyrannies require further democratisation and greater accountability. This is one unspoken lesson of Ahmad’s very useful account.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 23, 2014 at 12:56 am

Posted in book review, History, Iraq

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Shock and Awe versus Dentists, Farmers and Students

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binladensWhatever the hearts-and-minds rhetoric at the United Nations, in Syria the Obama administration is feeding the flames of Sunni extremism, and proving once again the truism that the American state is an enemy of the Syrian people (as it’s an enemy, like all states, of all peoples, including the American).

We expected strikes on ISIS. Some of the strongest strikes (and the strikes are far stronger than in Iraq), however, have been aimed at Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), the organisation from which ISIS split. Nusra is certainly an extremist Salafist group, and is openly linked to al-Qa’ida. Because its ideology terrifies not only minorities but also huge swathes of the Sunni population, it’s also a strategic obstruction in the way of the Syrian revolution. In August 2013 it participated (with ISIS) in the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians in the conflict. On the other hand, Nusra (unlike ISIS) was until yesterday actually fighting the regime, not other rebel groups. From January, along with every rebel formation, it’s been fighting ISIS too. And its leadership is entirely Syrian. Many Syrians, not necessarily extremist Salafists themselves, admire Nusra’s victories against their most immediate enemy – the Assadist forces dropping barrel bombs on cities and raping and torturing at checkpoints. A sensible answer to Nusra would be to provide weapons and funds to Free Army forces who would then be in a position to gradually draw men from the organisation, slowly making it irrelevant (most men don’t care about the ideology of their militia’s leadership; they care about food and ammunition). But the Americans are allergic to working with the people on the ground most immediately concerned by the outcome, and bomb from the air instead. Nusra is now abandoning front line positions (in some areas the regime may be able to take immediate advantage). One Nusra leader has already spoken of an alliance with ISIS against the Americans.

Syria’s new daily routine: the Americans and Gulf Arabs bomb the Salafist extremists while Assad bombs the Free Army and Islamic Front (and of course civilians – as usual it isn’t being reported, especially not now the televisual US war is on, but about a hundred are being killed every day). The headline in regime newspaper al-Watan reads “America and its Allies in One Trench with the Syrian Army against Terrorism”. The opposition reads it this way too. Several demonstrations yesterday condemned the American strikes, called for America’s fall, and for solidarity with ISIS and Nusra. A sign at one protest read: “Yes, It’s an International Coalition Against Sunnis.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 25, 2014 at 9:44 am

Posted in Islamism, Syria, USA

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Three Monsters

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threemonstersPart of me, of course, is happy to see bombs fall on the heads of the international jihad-fascists tormenting the Syrian people (I refer to ISIS, not the Shia jihad-fascists fighting for Assad, who I’d love to see bombed too). Mostly, I’m just disgusted. In the name of disengagement the West not only refused to arm and supply the democratic Syrian opposition – even as Assad launched a genocide against the people – the United States actually prevented other states from providing the heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weaponry the Free Army so desperately needed. It was obvious what would happen next. The Free Army – and the Syrian people – were increasingly squeezed between Assad and the ISIS monster. And now the Americans are bombing both Iraq and Syria. This is where ‘disengagement’  and ‘realism’ has brought us.

ISIS, like Assad, can be hurt from the air but defeated only on the ground. Obama and the Congress have just agreed to spend $500 million on training 5000 vetted members of the Free Syrian Army – the same people that Obama mocked as irrelevant “pharmacists, farmers and students” a few months ago. The training won’t be finished for eight months, and anyway will be of little use. The Free Army now houses some of the best, most battle-hardened fighters in the world. They don’t need training; they need weapons. In the present balance of forces, in any case, the wounds inflicted by America’s photogenic bombing run may not translate into any improvement on the ground. Only Syrians can improve things on the ground.

The West was not moved to act by 200,000 (at least) slaughtered, or nine million homeless, or by barrel bombs, rape campaigns, starvation sieges or sarin gas. It was only moved when an American was beheaded. The inconsistency is noted well by Syrians. In some quarters, an assault on ISIS which is not accompanied by strikes on Assad and aid to the Free Army will be perceived as a Western-Shia-Assadist alliance against persecuted Sunnis. This could increase the appeal of ISIS and successor Sunni extremist groups.

ISIS has many parents, but the first of these, in Syria at least, is Assad. He released extremists from prison while he was assassinating unarmed democrats. He sectarianised the conflict by setting up sectarian death squads and by bringing in Iran-backed Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon. His scorched earth policy made normal life impossible in the liberated areas, creating the vacuum in which organisations like ISIS thrived. And until this June, he had an effective non-aggression pact with ISIS, not fighting it, buying oil from it. From January, on the other hand, all opposition militias – the Free Army groups and the Islamic Front groups – have been fighting ISIS (and losing thousands of men in the struggle). These fighters are not about to become an on-the-ground anti-ISIS militia, as the Americans seem to want. They know the truth – that both states, the Assadist and the psychotic-Islamist, are absolute enemies. There’s no destroying one without the other. And both must be destroyed by Syrian hands, not by foreign planes.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 23, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Posted in Iraq, Syria, USA

Updates

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Liberated Kafranbel, abandoned to Assad's bombs, pays tribute to James Foley

Liberated Kafranbel, abandoned to Assad’s bombs, pays tribute to James Foley

Everything’s burning from Libya to Iran. I’m working on fiction, so not responding except in Facebook bursts. Here are a few status updates, starting with today’s:

A year ago Assad’s fascist regime sprayed sarin gas over the Damascus suburbs, killing over 1400 men, women and children in five hours. Hundreds more died from the effects in the following weeks. Obama had given Assad effective permission to use tanks, artillery, missiles and war planes against the Syrian people (and had ensured that the people remained effectively unarmed), but made large-scale chemical attacks a ‘red line’. We soon saw that the red line meant nothing. An alliance of the British Labour Party, Tory back benchers, UKIP, the BNP, the US Congress and the Tea Party helped Obama step away, and to hand the Syria file to Putin’s Russia – the same power arming the criminal. So the genocide continued, and continues, to the mood-music accompaniment (in the liberal-left press) of absurd conspiracy theories, racist slanders, and willed deafness to the voices of those suffering.

(On absurd conspiracy theories, read this. And here is one of the best accounts of the Syrian revolution and counter-revolutions I’ve read.) It would be great if the US were really ‘withdrawing’ from the region, as some claim Obama is doing, leaving the people there to solve their problems independently. But Washington is not withdrawing – it continues to back the murderous coup junta in Egypt, and the Israelis as they pummel the refugees in the Gaza ghetto yet again for no more than psycho-symbolic reasons. Washington actively prevented states which wanted to aid the Syrian resistance from providing serious weapons. The result is the Islamic State (or ISIS) phenomenon – also provoked by Malki’s Iran-backed sectarianism in Iraq, and the US occupation and sanctions beforehand, and Saddam Hussain before that – and now American bombing runs in northern Iraq. Obama’s ‘withdrawal’ is as illusory as the Stop the War Coalition’s Putinesque ‘pacifism’.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 21, 2014 at 10:06 am

Posted in Iraq, Islamism, Syria, USA

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Why I’m Voting Yes

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Photo0035I’ll be voting for Scottish independence in next month’s referendum, and obviously not for ethnic-nationalist reasons – I have no Scottish blood as far as I’m aware (although the Scots may have some Syrian), and my mixed-up accent is far more English than not. Furthermore, I reject the simplistic ‘Braveheart’ narratives of uninterrupted Scottish victimhood. There’s an ex-mining town not far from here named Patna – after the Indian city – and in Sri Lanka the tea plantations bear Scottish names. Scots played an essential role in the British empire, and over the centuries Scottish as well as English landlords and industrialists have exploited the poorer Scottish classes (at some points driving them off their land en masse).

I’m voting yes because Scotland has a different political culture to England. It doesn’t contain that consmerist-suburban ‘middle England’ mainstream; the mainstream here is social democratic. If the Scots had taken control of their North Sea oil resources in the 1980s they may well have established a national oil fund, as Norway did, and perhaps today Scotland would not be Europe’s murder capital, nor the life expectancy in east Glasgow so depressingly low. What actually happened was that Thatcher spent the oil money in the boom years on privatisation and tax cuts, and used Scotland as a guinea pig for the most unpopular Tory policies, such as the Poll Tax, brought in here a year before England. Scotland has never voted Tory – as Alex Salmond says, there are more pandas in Edinburgh zoo than there are Scottish Conservative MPs – but it keeps suffering Tory governments. This is an evident democratic failure.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 17, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Posted in Scotland, UK

Ten Things to Remember about Syria

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I edited the Critical Muslim’s Syria issue, which includes excellent essays by Amal Hanano, Rasha Omran, Itab Azzam, Maysaloon, Malu Halasa, poetry by Golan Hajji, prose from Zakkariya Tamer, and much more. I contributed an essay on Syrian culture revolutionised, and I wrote the following list:

yerba mateIn the old days Syrians were ready to list their ten favourite picnic spots, their ten favourite restaurants, or even ten of the sects participating in the imaginary happy mosaic. Today lists of traumatisation leap to the mind: the ten largest refugee camps, or ten major massacres, or perhaps ten of the numerous new militias.

This list tends towards the positive (only number 10 is a bad thing – it’s something that can’t be ignored). It focusses on those aspects of Syrian reality that can’t be destroyed by war, those things which will survive (with the exception, we hope, of number 10).

1. Maté

Along with Turkish Coffee, Argentinian Yerba Maté is Syria’s quintessential drink. Drink it strong and sugary in a gourd or a glass, through a silver straw from the Qalamoun region; keep the water hot for continual fill-ups; and you’ll be telling Homsi and muhashish jokes all night. Maté connotes conviviality, and sometimes more specifically the Druze, Christian and Alawi mountain communities. When the martyred Free Army commander Abu Furat appealed to the Alawi community, he did so in terms every Syrian would understand: “I know the Alawis well. I’ve visited them in their houses. We’ve drunk maté together. We lived together before and we’ll live together again, despite you, Bashaar.”

How did a South American drink become a Syrian (and Lebanese) staple? The answer is in the late 19th/ early 20th Century mass migration of Syrian-Lebanese to South and North America, the Caribbean, and west Africa. A couple of hundred drowned with the Titanic. The ‘Street of the Turks’ in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo is so-called because the people were Ottomans when they arrived in Colombia, but they were Syrian Ottomans, Arabs. Today 20 million people describe themselves as Syrian-Brazilians. Guyana’s richest family is the Maqdeesis. Carlos Menem, former Argentinian president, is of Syrian origin too.

Abdul-Qadir al-Jaza'iri

Abdul-Qadir al-Jaza’iri

2. Migrants

Abdul-Qadir al-Jaza’iri led a long and heroic resistance against the French occupation of Algeria. Eventually captured and brought to Paris, he was given the choice of exile elsewhere in the Arab world. Abdul-Qadir chose Damascus, where he wrote Sufi poetry in the shrine of the mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, who was an earlier migrant, from Andalucia. In 1860, when the Christian quarter of the Old City was burnt in sectarian rioting, Abdul-Qadir protected hundreds of Christians in his house and garden.

The tomb of Ibn ‘Arabi stands between two inner-city neighbourhoods climbing the slope of Mount Qassiyoun: ‘Muhajireen’, or Migrants, is so-named because it once housed Muslim refugees from the Balkans; and ‘Akrad’ means Kurds – still a Kurdish area, it was first built for the Kurds who came with Salahudeen al-Ayyubi (Saladin’s) armies.

Who else? Armenians, descendants of those who survived the forced march from Anatolia. Half a million registered Palestinian refugees and many more Palestinian-Syrians (Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Syria’s largest Palestinian population, is nearly empty now – its population refugees for a second time, mostly in Lebanon). Over a million and a half Iraqi refugees until Damascus and Aleppo became even less secure than Baghdad and Basra. And in 2006, a million refugees from the Lebanese South (fleeing Israeli bombs), who were welcomed in mosques, schools and private homes. Syrians angrily compare the way they welcomed refugees with the way they are now (not) welcomed, in their hour of need.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 31, 2014 at 11:54 am

Posted in Syria

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