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.