Archive for November 2011
The first issue of Critical Muslim, a quarterly magazine in book form co-edited by Ziauddin Sardar and me, will be in the shops in January. More on that at a later date. Today I’m finishing off a long essay on Syria, Iraq and sectarian hatred for Critical Muslim’s third issue. Amongst the books I review in the essay are Fanar Haddad’s indispensable “Sectarianism in Iraq” and Nir Rosen’s “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World,” which is also indispensable, in a different way. As a taster, here’s the section on “Aftermath.”
For a mix of contextual analysis and gripping reportage, the reader will find no better book than Nir Rosen’s magisterial “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s wars in the Muslim World”.
Most Western correspondents were flown into Iraq unable to speak Arabic, largely ignorant of the context, to pass their time attending coalition press briefings or embedded with the US military. Their reports were heavy with simplistic labels (‘the Sunni triangle’, for instance) and ignored non-sectarian nationalism and class issues. Rosen’s writing on Iraq is the polar opposite of such parachute journalism. He speaks Arabic for a start, and blends in physically as a result of the “melanin advantage” bequeathed by his Iranian father. More to the point, he is courageous and energetic, going where few outsiders would dare, whatever their skin tone. He’s a reporter of the best kind, capable of locating pattern behind the copious detail. So he doesn’t merely report the mosque sermons he attended, or his encounters with militiamen and their victims, but accurately interprets and reads between the lines. His descriptions of time, place and personality are vivid, with not an ounce of orientalism added. His lack of sentimentality combined with his obvious sympathy for the people of the region make him the perfect candidate to voyage into the sectarian heart of darkness.
For Syrians it’s an exhilarating experience simply to express honest political opinions out loud in a public place. For decades anti-regime gripes have been expressed in private, in whispers. Many were frightened to speak even in the home, lest the children repeat what they’d heard at school. But now people are screaming and singing against the regime every morning, afternoon and night. The sense of solidarity amongst the revolutionaries – breaking the fear barrier together, facing possible torture and death together – is enormous. These two films demonstrate the sometimes carnivalesque quality of the revolution as well as the Syrian people’s musicality. In the first, filmed in Da’el in the Hawran, a romantic tune is turned into an anti-Asad anthem. In the second, filmed in the Baba Amro neighbourhood of Homs, the authorities cut electricity to a protesting area; the protestors illumine their mobile phone screens and keep on going. Both films should be watched with the volume on maximum.
Novelist, screenwriter and journalist Samar Yazbeck in interview: “The regime has indeed destroyed the Alawite religion, a peaceful religion, as it engaged in things foreign to the faith, leading some to become its Alawite thugs. But many of us are opponents, in jail, in exile, or banned from travel. The regime is playing with sectarianism to terrify “its” minority and get support. A game that will end, but first, I fear, there will be clashes between the communities. ”
In this interview an Alawite member of the Syrian Revolution General Council based in Homs argues, “We need to break down the myth that the regime is the defender of Alawites and other minorities. It is just defending itself, and using us for its own ends.”
And in this interview actress Fadwa Sulaiman explains why she’s thrown her lot in with revolutionaries in a besieged area of Homs (she’s currently on hunger strike): – “I just wanted to go just to say we Syrians are one people. I wanted to contradict the narrative of the regime.“
The Syrian regime’s blanket ban on journalist access has some carefully selected exceptions. Robert Fisk, for instance, who seems to be compensating for the naive anti-Syrian and pro-March 14th line in his reporting of Lebanon over the last years by treating the statements of Syrian regime figures – professional liar Boutheina Shaaban is one – with great naivety. At least he didn’t apply the ‘glorious’ epithet to her which he used to describe Walid Jumblatt’s wife. Fisk’s book on Lebanon “Pity the Nation” is a classic, his account of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila remain fresh in the mind (the blood-footed flies clambering over his notebook), and for many years he was one of the very few English-language journalists with some real knowledge of the Middle East. Sadly, his knowledge doesn’t extend to a working familiarity with Arabic. In several recent articles he has informed us that that the slogan of the Ba‘ath Party – umma arabiya wahda zat risala khalida – means ‘the mother of the Arab nation.’ In fact it means ‘one Arab nation with an eternal message’. Fisk is confusing ‘um’ – mother – with ‘umma’ – nation. It’s a rather disastrous mistake. Someone ought to tell him about it.
Nir Rosen is an excellent journalist who clearly does speak Arabic and who makes the effort to talk to ordinary people rather than just politicians and PR people. His book “Aftermath” is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how the American occupation of Iraq catalysed an outbreak of Sunni-Shia sectarian hatred across the Arab world. His recent visit to Syria (see here and here and here and here) seems to have been both above and below regime radar. While he appears to have been smuggled in to certain locations he also interviews such regime figures as the state Mufti Hassoun – someone once known for his touchy-feely liberalism and his campaign against honour killing now making absurd threats about armies of pro-Asad suicide bombers lying low in Western countries. Unfortunately, Rosen sees Syria through the prism of Iraq’s sectarian war. He expects to find expressions of sectarian hatred, and he finds them aplenty. He can’t be blamed for making it up, because sectarian hatred certainly does exist in Syria, and because he honestly reports what people say to him. The danger of this method, however, is twofold. First, his selection of informants necessarily reinforces his bias. He does interview some pro-regime Sunni figures (like Hassoun) but chooses not to interview Alawi, Christian, Ismaili or secularist figures who support the revolution. He doesn’t consider such people to be representative of the revolution because he’s decided that the dynamic must be sectarian, even if the Ismaili town of Selemiyeh has been demonstrating for months and secularists like Suhair Atassi are very prominent in the revolution’s Coordination Committees. (Indeed, Burhan Ghalyoun, the head of the umbrella Syrian National Council, to which many demonstrations have proclaimed allegiance, is fiercely anti-clerical).
Samar Yazbeck, Ibrahim Qashoush, Rasha Omran, Ali Farzat, Mai Skaf, Khaled Khalifa, Samih Shqair – there’s an impressive list of Syrian writers, musicians and artists who have bravely and unambiguously supported the people’s aspirations for dignity. And now the actress Fadwa Sulaiman. Here she is in besieged Homs leading chants of ‘no Salafis, no Brotherhood, the Syrians want freedom’ and ‘One, One, the Syrian People are One.’ Here she is on Jazeera (Arabic) interviewed via skype. And, below, here she is announcing her hunger strike until the prisoners are released and the siege of the besieged cities is lifted. Laila Al-Attar’s translation of her words follows after the page break.
This review appeared in the Guardian.
The Arabian Nights (or the Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights Entertainments – there are so many versions) constitute, in Marina Warner’s words, “a polyvocal anthology of world myths, fables and fairytales.” The antecedents of these Arab-Islamic texts are Quranic, Biblical, Indian, Persian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Turkish and Egyptian. In them, oral and written traditions, poetry and prose, demotic folk tales and courtly high culture mutate and interpenetrate. In their long lifetime the Nights have influenced, amongst many others, Flaubert, Wilde, Marquez, Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, Douglas Fairbanks and the Ballets Russes.
The frame story, in which Shahrazad saves her life by telling King Shahryar tall tales, is only one such ransom. More than simple entertainment, then: throughout these stories within stories, and stories about stories, and stories metamorphosing like viruses, endlessly generative, narrative even claims for itself the power to defer death.
Although oral versions of the Nights had long percolated through Europe (elements turning up in Chaucer, Ariosto, Dante, Shakespeare), the tales were established in the mainstream of European popular and literary culture with Galland’s early 18th Century French translation. Galland purged the eroticism and homosexuality, added tales from the dictation of a Lebanese friend, and perhaps invented the two best-known and seemingly most ‘Arabian’ tales of all: Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
Warner quotes Jorge Luis Borges (a guiding spirit in her book) approving the belle infidele approach to translation. “I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.”
Not a great Eid in Syria. The traditional open air Eid prayers turned into anti-regime demonstrations and, as usual, the regime’s insecurity forces fired at the demonstrators. At least twenty three people were murdered today, including an infant. Many of the dead were in the central city of Homs, which has been a veritable war zone for weeks, the site of clashes between loyalist and defected soldiers as well as tank bombardments and sniper fire from the regime. In the last four days, since the regime supposedly agreed to release prisoners and withdraw its forces from civilian areas according to the Arab League plan, at least 80 people have been reported killed in the city.
There is one piece of very important good news, however. Burhan Ghalyoun, leader of the Syrian National Council, delivered an Eid address to the Syrian people which was carried by al-Jazeera. Ghalyoun, who does not wish to become a future president, was truly presidential. He appealed to those Syrians still hesitant or afraid to support the revolution, assuring them that the future Syria will be a state of citizenship and equal rights, and that minorities will be protected. Bringing larger sections of the Alawi and Christian minorities on board is the only way for the revolution to move forward, so Ghalyoun’s speech is most welcome, and long overdue. The English translation which follows after the break was posted at al-Jazeera’s live blog, but I found it at the excellent Walls.