Archive for September 2011
This was first published at Foreign Policy.
From the start of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime’s media have portrayed the overwhelmingly peaceful grassroots protest movement as a foreign-backed military assault. Its preferred catchall term to describe the tens of thousands of patriots it has kidnapped and tortured, as well as the thousands it has murdered, is “armed gangs.” Despite a series of televised “confessions,” the regime has not provided any serious proof of the supposed American-French-Qaeda-Israeli-Saudi-Qatari plot against the homeland. Nor has it explained the evident contradictions between its narrative and the thousands of YouTube videos and eyewitness accounts of security forces shooting rifles and artillery straight into unarmed crowds.
Of course it hasn’t. Yet its propaganda is taken seriously by Russian and Chinese state media, certain infantile leftists, and a vaguely prominent American academic.
Tragically, the propaganda is also taken seriously by members of Syria’s minority sects — not by all of them by any stretch, but perhaps by a majority. It’s tragic because perceived minority support for this sadistic regime will inevitably tarnish intersectarian relations in Syria in the future.
Those Sunni Syrians who are (understandably) enraged by the minorities’ siding with the dictatorship should remember first that many Alawis and Christians, as well as many more Druze and Ismailis, have joined the revolution and that many have paid the price. Second, Sunnis should remember that Alawis and Christians have good reason to fear change, if not to believe the propaganda.
She was eighteen, from Homs. The regime wanted to get its hands on her brother Muhammad, an activist on the run, so it arrested her instead, as bait. Shortly afterwards the insecurity forces caught Muhammad, and shortly after that they summoned Muhammad’s mother to pick up his corpse. The corpse was burnt and punctured by bullets. While in the morgue, by chance, the mother found Zainab’s corpse too. Zainab’s arms had been cut off. Part of her body had been skinned. She had been decapitated.
During the battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime in the early eighties the regime committed massacres. But it never tortured children and women to death. This style of barbarism is an innovation. Does it need to be said that it’s an innovation which doesn’t suit Syrian values? There are still some people, astoundingly, who tell us that this regime of the psychopathically ill is capable of ‘reform’.
Hafez al-Asad was a ruthless dictator of great but flawed intelligence. His sons do not qualify as dictators. To call them dictators is to insult dictators. They are a foul mix of pervert, monster, idiot, and spoiled brat. Each moment they remain at liberty is another catastrophe.
Beyond that, for Zainab, I can say nothing more.
UPDATE: – It now appears the regime is playing a clever sick game. Zainab has turned up on regime TV alive. The regime did kill her brother, and did label some other person’s dismembered corpse as Zainab’s, no doubt to discredit the accounts of the revolutionaries. So whose corpse did they dismember? This theatre reminds me of the time a few months ago when a French TV channel received a communication from a known contact at the Syrian embassy in Paris telling them the ambassador had resigned. The channel reported the story, then the next day the ambassador turned up to denounce the ‘lies’. Here’s Rime Allaf’s comment on Facebook:
The Zeinab story: the lie is the regime’s and the regime’s alone. The regime first came to arrest her (the real Zeinab), then first returned the body of her brother to the family (he died under torture), then told the family come take your daughter too – and gave them a burned beheaded body, unrecognizable, in pieces. That body, of course, still is a martyr, we just don’t know whose it is. The family was told by the regime that this was their daughter, they didn’t just find the corpse in the street, and it’s not the opponents of the regime who made this up. And after everyone got all worked up, they deliver “the victim who simply ran away” because – to boot – her brothers (who must be “extremists”) were abusing her.
The point is that the regime is not only criminal but criminally stupid, as if these games can prove anything about the “armed terrorist gangs” and about the “lying activists” and as if we’re supposed to forget the whole sequence of events, and only watch the Syrian television clip like idiots and say oh, the opposition lied. (Ironically, the criminal Taleb Ibrahim the other day claimed on television these same gangs had killed Zeinab.)
The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London is hosting a film festival starting tomorrow. The festival begins with the discussion – ‘Is there a Muslim world?’ Panelists include Hamid Dabashi, Ziauddin Sardar, and me. Of the films being shown, I strongly recommend Salt of this Sea, a Palestinian film starring Suheir Hammad and Salah Bakri, and Hatem Ali’s The Long Night, on Syrian political prisoners and their families. I’m introducing that one. The ICA blurb is below. I hope to see you there.
The Arab Spring is the starting point for films selected for a festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from 21 September that, like this year’s mass demonstrations for democracy across Arab regions, is concerned with civic freedom; human rights; gender and social equality; the challenges of modernity; and the place of religion within social structures.
I was invited to the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. Malta is a fascinating place, with a fascinating Arabic-origin language, and I met many fascinating writers there. I’ll write about it soon. In the meantime, here are a couple of interviews with me from the Maltese press.
First, from the Times of Malta.
Albert Gatt discusses hedgehogs, dictators and parricide with author Robin Yassin Kassab.
As the crackdown in Syria continues, and the revolution in Libya inches towards resolution, another blow is dealt to the grand narrative of the Arab nation which various dictators – self-styled fathers to their people – used to justify their rule. Can literature offer a nuanced view that counters this narrative’s deadly simplicity?
This year, the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, organised by Iniżjamed and Literature Across Frontiers, will focus on the Arab Spring.
One of the guest writers is Robin Yassin Kassab, who appears courtesy of the British Council (Malta). Born in West London of Syrian descent, Yassin Kassab is a regular contributor to the press and blogs on
– qunfuz is Arabic for hedgehog or porcupine.
In his first novel, The Road from Damascus (Penguin, 2009), Sami, the son of Syrian migrants in London, struggles to carry the mantle bequeathed to him by his father, a staunchly secular Arab intellectual.
But the turmoil of his own private life and the havoc wreaked by 9/11 force him to challenge the worldview he has inherited, in whose name his father committed the ultimate betrayal.
I’m intrigued by the name of your blog – Qunfuz. In what sense is the writer a hedgehog?
It’s always dangerous to declare generalised love for a movement or school of thought – including Sufism, because Sufism can be subdivided into spirit and tradition, into various orders and popular customs, into the sober and the drunk, the vocal and the silent, the revolutionary and the tame. Still, I’ll say I love it for its symbolic, illogical, individualist challenge to literalism and the obsession with rules, and because it smiles, and for its openness and tolerance, and its music and poetry; because, as Adonis says: “Sufism has laid the foundations for a form of writing that is based upon subjective experience in a culture that is generally based on established religious knowledge.”
My own Islam is closer to deep agnosticism than to literal belief; it’s more spiritual (when I manage it) than religious. As time goes by and political events unfurl I have less and less sympathy for rigidly exclusive forms of Islam, whether modernist or traditional, less sympathy for certainty, and more and more dislike for current Islamic political movements, which are state-obsessed, and divisive, and which seek to reinforce the stultifying, censorial aspects of Muslim cultures. So I happily defend those who shake and shout and dance as they pray, or who remember the names in silence alone, and I defend them more fiercely every time the orthodox tell me I shouldn’t.
I met a Syrian whose identity will be revealed at the time of revealing. The Syrian, who is a revolutionary and someone who knows, reassured me of the final outcome. There are two options, the Syrian said. Either the regime goes or the people go. The people say: let’s say there’s been an earthquake. Let’s say a million of us have been killed. Now let’s go out and bring down the regime.
The Syrian said the businessmen of Aleppo in recent weeks have sent their capital into Turkey. Aleppo will rise, the Syrian said.
The Syrian has suffered. The Syrian is not a child. Almost enough clues.
While we were talking the Syrian heard that another friend had been detained. A woman. A professional.
our dead live more deeply
water flows stalactite
our lungs do not breathe