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.
This review was published at the Guardian.
Reading “The Morning They Came For Us” by veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni is at once necessary, difficult, and elating. Giovanni’s reporting from the Syrian revolution and war is clear-eyed and engaged in the best possible sense – engaged in the human realm rather than the abstractly political.
Remembering previous wars too, her account is first-person and deeply personal. She’d once been obsessed with Bosnian crimes; in the introduction we hear warning that Syria may “engulf her”. Giovanni finds herself unable to trim her baby son’s nails for thinking of an Iraqi who’d had his ripped out. Later, accepting a cigarette pack from a student of human rights, she notes the old cigarette burns on his arms.
Her Syrian visits fell between March and December 2012. The first told, from the summer, finds an uneasy silence in central Damascus even as the suburbs burn. Class in this society is a more significant divider than religion, and the bi-national elite are spinning conspiracy theories, sunk into pool parties and denial. In these “last days of a spoilt empire that was about to implode” Giovanni delineates the different kinds of regime ‘believer’: true devotees, or those simply scared of the potential alternatives. 300 frustrated UN monitors are confined to their hotel, and war is “descending with stunning velocity”.
The book thereafter recounts the ramifications on Syrian civilians of Assad’s various scorched earth strategies. An estimated 200,000 people have disappeared into the regime gulag. Most have experienced torture. “I struggle to remember a place where torture has been so widespread and systematic,” a Human Rights Watch official tells Giovanni, who sets about particularising, humanising, some of these lost stories through interview, tales of beatings, burnings, cuttings perpetrated to the torturer’s usual refrain: “You want freedom? Is this the freedom you want?”
Rose Aguilar interviewed Leila al-Shami and I for ‘Your Call’ on San Francisco radio . We talked about our book, and dealt with a doubting caller. We did the interview from a Chicago studio, but later we visited the beautiful Bay Area. The picture is one of the many Mexican-style murals in the Outer Mission.
Listen to the interview here.