A shorter version of this piece was published at the New Arab.
From the canyon walls of Manhattan island to science-fiction California, coastal and urban America is more diverse and sophisticated than almost anywhere else in the world.
As for inland America, the stereotypes are true, but other things are also true.
In April we were travelling to talk about our Syria book, in New Jersey, then Boston, then over to LA. From there inland to Colorado, high desert at the mountains’ beginning where you can suffer sunstroke and frostbite in the same afternoon.
The cities here exemplify American modernity. They are clean, bright, spacious, and architecturally befuddled. At the same time they bear an emotional trace of the recent Wild West past. One of our talks was in a town called Golden (for the metal, and the craze), at the Colorado School of Mines.
Another was at a liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, a conservative city boasting a US Airforce Academy, lots of retired soldiers, weapons factories, and a concentration of evangelical churches. It also houses the 47-acre HQ of Focus on the Family, a media and lobbying organisation which militates against abortion and gay marriage and promotes creationism instead.
Before we spoke a woman came up and introduced herself as “an international poet”. She told us she cared about Syria very much. “And it’s so obvious what the solution is! An international Sunni-Shia peace conference.”
A slightly edited version of this article was published at the New Arab.
Aleppo is 7000 years old, its mythical origins mixed up with the prophet Abraham and a milk cow, its opulent history underwritten by its place on the Silk Road. Socially and architecturally unique, in its pre-war state Muslims and Christians, and Arabs, Armenians, Turkmen and Kurds, lived and traded in streets redolent sometimes of the Ottoman empire, sometimes of corners of Paris. Before the war Aleppo contained the world’s largest and most intact Arab-Islamic Old City. Now – with the covered souq, the Umayyad mosque, and many other markets, baths and caravansarays destroyed – that honour passes to Morocco’s Fes.
The city’s working class eastern districts have been liberated twice in the last five years. On the first occasion, July 2012, armed farmers swept in from the countryside to join urban revolutionaries against their Assadist tormentors and for a few weeks it felt the Assad regime would crumble in Syria’s largest city and economic powerhouse. But the battle soon succumbed to the war’s general logic: rebel ammunition ran out, the fighters squabbled and looted, foreign jihadists took advantage as the stalemate extended.
These strangers pranced about on blast-traumatised horses, imposed their brutal versions of sharia law, murdered a fifteen-year-old coffee-seller for supposed blasphemy, and finally declared themselves a state.
In January 2014, prompted by popular anger, the entire armed rebellion declared war on ISIS, driving it out of western Syria, Aleppo city included. This was the second liberation.
Aleppo is Syria’s most important centre of civil activism. It houses revolutionary councils and emergency healthcare projects, independent newspapers and radio stations, theatre groups and basement schools. Despite the years of barrel bombs and scud missiles, 300,000 people remain in the liberated zone.
An edited version of this piece was published at the National.
You may think Syrians are condemned to an unpleasant binary choice, between Assad – a mass-murdering dictator who at least shaves – and the jihadist with the beard, the dripping knife, the global agenda. Which perhaps makes Assad the lesser evil. Yet the real choice being fought out by Syrians isn’t between the dictator and the jihadists (the two feed each other), but between various forms of violent authoritarianism on the one hand, and grassroots democracy on the other. The democrats deserve our support.
Interviewing activists, fighters and refugees for our book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”, we discovered the democratic option is very real, if terribly beleaguered. To the extent that life continues in the ‘liberated’ but brutally bombed areas – areas independent of both Assad and ISIS – it continues because self-organised local councils are supplying services and aid.
For example, Daraya, a suburb west of Damascus now suffering its fourth year under starvation siege, is run by a council. Its 120 members select executives by vote every six months. The council head is chosen by public election. The council runs primary schools, a field hospital, a public kitchen, and manages urban agricultural production. Its military office supervises the Free Syrian Army militias defending the town.
This was first published at the New Arab.
While we were in New York to talk about “Burning Country”, I visited the 9/11 Memorial, a commemoration of the spectacle that arguably set the tone for the 21st Century. I was advised to visit by a friendly progressive professor, the host of one of our events. He said the attached museum was a good example of America’s self-portrayal as the world’s supreme victim. He wasn’t alone. Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post described the museum as “an oversized pit of self-pity, patriotic self-glorification and voyeurism.”
I didn’t really agree about the museum, and the memorial to the day when the twin towers were hit and almost three thousand civilians killed seemed to me tasteful and correct.
At the precise site of each tower’s base there are two-tiered pools of falling water. These enormous bottomless basins are inversions of the towers, the very opposite of phallic triumphalism. Each implies absence and a hidden abyss. In a way they are beautiful, superficially calming, and their noise nearly drowns the rush of the city around. But ultimately they are terrible, because gravity’s incessant pull on the water, the sound and sight of continuous descent, is a reminder of the terror of jumping, falling people, those who chose to plunge rather than burn, and of the tumbling shoes, the floating paper, the towers themselves collapsing, so many tons of metal and concrete, so many volumes of dust and smoke.
In the museum the focus is on the trauma experienced by the victims. There are first-hand accounts played on audio, and photographs and films of shocked New Yorkers gazing skyward, or running for their lives, or trudging slowly, whitened by dust. A shock, literally out of the blue, for an America almost entirely untouched on its own soil by war, at least since its civil war (though native-Americans and African-Americans must be excluded from this peaceable account of history).
This was published at al-araby al-Jadeed/ The New Arab.
On June 16th Jo Cox, a proponent of EU membership, a compassionate supporter of refugees, and the most articulate voice for revolutionary Syria in the British parliament, was shot, stabbed and kicked by a middle-aged man screaming “Britain First!”
On the same day Syrian citizen journalists Khaled al-Issa and Hadi Abdullah, 48 hours after surviving an air raid, were severely injured in an assassination attempt by controlled explosion.
Jo died in hospital shortly after she was attacked. In a different world, the kind she fought for, she would have been an honoured guest in free Syria. Khaled al-Issa died of his wounds on June 24th. Having survived Assad and ISIS-inspired brushes with death, it was probably Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, that got him in the end. In a different world Khaled would be reporting on the achievements of post-dictatorship Syria. In this world, however, the very best are being murdered. The very worst are growing in power.
East and west, violent and nativist authoritarianism is on the rise. The British media focused on characterisations of Jo’s murderer, Thomas Mair, as a troubled loner rather than as a terrorist. Had he screamed ‘Allahu Akbar’ rather than ‘Britain First’ as he stabbed and shot, the emphasis would certainly have been different.
I was interviewed by the Catskill Review of Books on the Syrian revolution, the war, the roles of outsiders, and media (mis)representations of events.
You can listen to it here.
This review of books on Syria, mainly of Francesca Borri’s ‘Syrian Dust’, was published at the National.
“…if you only talk about those who are fighting, any revolution becomes a war.” – Francesca Borri
For a long time very little was published on Syria in English. Patrick Seale’s useful but hagiographic “Assad: the Struggle for Syria” was the best known. Hanna Batatu’s classic “Syria’s Peasantry and their Politics” and Raymond Hinnebusch’s “Revolution from Above” were valuable academic studies of the Hafez-era state.
Over the last five years of revolution and war, several shelf loads of books have appeared. Many are sensationalist, cashing in on the latest terrorism scare. But several are of very high standard. Bente Scheller’s “The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game”, for instance, is an excellent analysis of Assadist pre-revolution foreign policy. Thomas Pierret’s “Religion and State in Syria” is an indispensable resource on the social roles of the Islamic scholars in the same period.
Novelist Samar Yazbek’s “Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution” is the best account of the revolution’s early months, though “Revolt in Syria” by Stephen Starr, an Irish journalist then resident in Damascus, comes close. Jonathan Littell, author of the remarkable WW2 novel “The Kindly Ones” wrote “Syrian Notebooks” after spending two weeks of 2012 in besieged Homs. Marwa al-Sabouni’s well-received “The Battle for Home” gives a Syrian architect’s perspective on the destruction (and potential rebuilding) of the city.