Archive for June 2011
Rothko canvases are rectangles or slabs of colour. At first sight they often seem monolithic or blank; upon closer inspection the colour is layered and subtly varied in tone and intensity. But ‘inspect’ is the wrong verb, a far too cold and conscious and controlling verb. The observer is absorbed, rather; in the same semi-dazed or forgetful way he finds himself absorbed by the sky or the form of a mountain. The colours throb and quake, until it feels that the canvas is inspecting the observer instead of vice versa.
Ancient building sometimes creates the same sensation – I’ve felt it at Tadmor and Resafah in Syria, at Persepolis in Iran, in the Hippostyle Hall at Karnak in Egypt. Or in old mosques, stupefied by columns and shadows, by the contradiction of space and constriction. Sumerian statuary also does it for me. I understand entirely why people worshipped statues or remarkable rocks or shapes; I do it myself, involuntarily. Or the larger part of me which has nothing to do with self or will does it. Perhaps the deepest part of me is always reacting like this to the world. Always has. That’s why labels don’t help in Rothko’s case – he could as easily have emerged from the 20th century BC.
Bashaar al-Asad’s speech this week was undoubtedly a sign of weakness. Apart from a phone call to Lebanon, the ‘president’ (how insubstantial the word now sounds) hadn’t been seen or heard for two months. Turkey, the West, even Russia wanted to see a proactive, present president dealing with the crisis; Syrians began to wonder if the man was under house arrest, or sedated, or dead. So finally he turned up, only to repeat vague and unsubstantiated noises about ‘reform’, ‘dialogue’, and the like. All entirely meaningless – the killings and arrests continue regardless. The greater part of the speech focussed on the alternative reality which lives in regime heads – on conspiracies, germs, saboteurs, vandals, infiltrators. At the start of the trouble, the president said, he’d thought the ‘armed groups’ contained only 10,000 men. Imagine his surprise when he learnt there were in fact 64,000!
The only change was one of style. This time al-Asad was careful not to giggle. (A Facebook page was set up the day before the speech, called – in Arabic – ‘Bashaar, if you laugh tomorrow, we’ll shit on you.’) The camera was careful to pull away from the president when the audience applauded, lest he break into one of his gormless smiles. But he wasn’t smiling. There was very definitely fear in his eyes. And he’d lost weight. Not as much as lost by 1400 corpses, but a good few kilos.
Today, following a period of Facebook madness, I deactivated my account. Unlike reefer madness, this one was a by-product of the Arab revolutions. Since January I’ve been updating statuses, liking pages, linking to articles, posting youtube videos. And, regrettably, I’ve been getting into fights. I don’t mean physical fights. My computer screen is still intact. I mean Facebook fights. Sometimes these are reasonably polite altercations; sometimes they aren’t polite at all. At all times they eat up time. Hours and hours of time. Time I could have spent reading Tolstoy or trying to play the saxophone or walking across the fields.
Getting into fights on Facebook is undoubtedly a symptom of psychological problems. I possess many social skills, diplomacy not included. I am overly passionate. Plus I am too sensitive for someone who is also a rhetorical bruiser – like a soft-jawed weakling who packs an iron fist (which sounds like Bashaar al-Asad; but this becomes too ugly). Beyond my own issues, however, Facebook presents challenges to any human being more used to communicating through the contexts fine-tuned over millenia – face to face, or in a crowded room, or by private or public letter. All these situations contain subtle mechanisms for conflict resolution or avoidance. Facebook doesn’t.
I was on BBC Radio 4′s The World Tonight again last night, again talking about Syria. Boutheina Shaaban – translator of Chinua Achebe’s excellent novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ into Arabic, but someone who has clearly forgotten the value of words – comes before me. Unfortunately the dispute over Abdullah Gul at the end (I was right) made me forget what I was talking about.
Here’s today’s Guardian article in its pre-sub-edited form.
Last January Syria seemed, along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, to be amongst the least likely candidates for revolution. If President Bashaar al-Asad had run in a real election, he may well have won.
It’s difficult remembering it today: most Syrians did grudgingly credit the regime with ensuring security and prosecuting a vaguely nationalist foreign policy. It’s that keen desire for security, the overwhelming fear of Iraq-style chaos, which keeps a section of Syrians fiercely loyal to the regime even now.
To start with, although they were inspired by revolutions in Tunisa and Egypt, most protestors didn’t aim for regime change. The first demonstration – in the commercial heart of Damascus – was a response to police brutality. That one ended peacefully, but when Dera’a protested over the arrest of schoolchildren the regime spilt blood. Outraged, communities all over the country took to the streets, and met greater violence, which swelled the crowds further. A vicious circle began to spin. All the intelligence, and the nationalist pretensions, peeled away from the government to reveal a dark and thuggish core.
A (real) Facebook exchange:
Him: Qunfuz…what a horrible horrible horrible name to have…good God…
Me: why? it means hedgehog. i like hedgehogs..
Him: Qunfuz (la) was Omar ibn al Khattab’s (la) servant who whipped and beat up Hadhrat Fâtimat uz-Zahrâ (as) when Omar (la), Abu Bakr (la), Khalid ibn Walid (la), Abu Sufyan (la), Muawiyah (la) and the tribe of the Bani Aslam attacked the house of our Queen Fatimah (as) in order to force Amîr ul Mu’minîn (as) to give his allegiance to the satanic opressor Abu Bakr (la). Qunfuz (la) is one of the people I ask Allah (swt) to curse for all eternity for having oppressed our Queen (as) while she was pregnant. The beating delivered by Qunfuz (la) and Omar (la) was so severe that Sayyidah Fatimah (as) miscarried her baby and died a few weeks later. When I opened that link I just couldn’t believe my eyes. The disgusting smell of satanic blasphemy that comes out of that name just makes me sick.
I was interviewed on KCRW’s To the Point. The programme focuses on Syria, Libya and foreign intervention. I was in august company – Anthony Shadid, New York Times correspondent and author of the wonderfully-written book on Iraq, Night Draws Near; as well as Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy magazine. I’m on between 14.40 and 23.00, and then again from 36.00 to 37.15.
The regime brought thousands of supporters onto the streets of Damascus today. The picture shows them carrying a two-kilometre-long flag along Mezzeh Autostrade – this supposedly proves that the regime, despite its mass murder of Syrian civilians, is a patriotic one. Some of the loyalist demonstrators will be genuine supporters of the president. Many will be civil servants, teachers and schoolchildren told to do their duty. That’s how official demonstrations work in Syria.
I remember the run-up to the final referendum on Hafez al-Asad’s reign. Every night extended news bulletins screened grim-faced crowds shaking their fists on snowy hillsides or stiffly dancing debke in enormous stadiums. The newsreaders described these spectacles as spontaneous expressions of joy and loyalty. When the president won 99.something percent of the vote, the newsreaders called it ‘a marriage of people and leader.’
In honour of today’s occasion, I’m reposting the short story below. It’s inspired by an organised riot which I witnessed in Damascus in the late 1990s.
There were no classes. Instead we marched down to the square and began to shout slogans. At first the teachers led us but soon we got into a group with no teachers and we could shout what we wanted.
Ya Blair Ya haqeer
dumak min dum al-khanzeer
O Blair, you are mud
Your blood is swine’s blood
It was hard to say the words because I was laughing so loud. Muhannad squashed his nose with his finger and oinked like a pig.
This piece was published at Foreign Policy.
“Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh” — “peaceful, peaceful” — was one of the Tunisian revolution’s most contagious slogans. It was chanted in Egypt, where in some remarkable cases protesters defused state violence simply by telling policemen to calm down and not be scared. In both countries, largely nonviolent demonstrations and strikes succeeded in splitting the military high command from the ruling family and its cronies, and civil war was avoided. In both countries, state institutions proved themselves stronger than the regimes that had hijacked them. Although protesters unashamedly fought back (with rocks, not guns) when attacked, the success of their largely peaceful mass movements seemed an Arab vindication of Gandhian nonviolent resistance strategies. But then came the much more difficult uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria.
Even after at least 1,300 deaths and more than 10,000 detentions, according to human rights groups, “selmiyyeh” still resounds on Syrian streets. It’s obvious why protest organizers want to keep it that way. Controlling the big guns and fielding the best-trained fighters, the regime would emerge victorious from any pitched battle. Oppositional violence, moreover, would alienate those constituencies the uprising is working so hard to win over: the upper-middle class, religious minorities, the stability-firsters. It would push the uprising off the moral high ground and thereby relieve international pressure against the regime. It would also serve regime propaganda, which against all evidence portrays the unarmed protesters as highly organized groups of armed infiltrators and Salafi terrorists.
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I was on BBC Radio 4′s The World Tonight the other night to comment on the situation in Syria.
Then Jeb Sharp of the BBC interviewed me for PRI’s The World.
Will Syria experience a civil war? There’s already a civil war of narratives, pitching the regime’s version against everyone else’s, and a social civil war, in which Syrians find themselves shocked by the responses of their friends and relatives, and find new friends and unexpected allies, realigning their perspectives and values as they do so. Many Syrians are still so scared of the unknown, and so deep in the slave mentality, that they wish to believe what the old authority tells them.
But decreasingly so. Most people have a time limit on their gullibility, or their self-deception. The lies of state TV and the ridiculous ad-Dunya channel, though they come as thick as summer flies, cannot cover the dazzlingly obvious – that the regime is torturing children to death, shooting women and old men, and randomly arresting, beating and humiliating the innocent. That Syria’s tanks and helicopter gunships should be liberating the Golan, not slaughtering Syrians. That the protestors are patriots seeking their basic rights. (I gave up having the argument about Salafis and foreign infiltrators weeks ago on the basis that anyone who wants to believe the regime version will believe it regardless of facts and logic.)
There are still diehards who point to Syria’s social and cultural ills as a reason for sticking with the regime. Give it a chance, they say. Let it reform, as it will undoubtedly do. The alternative is sectarian civil war.