On Facebook (which steals my time and makes me angrier than I already am) I remarked that the Tories will be in power for another decade in Britain now that ‘leftists’, mistaking an electoral party for a social movement, have re-elected the pro-Putin, pro-Khamenei Jeremy Corbyn to leadership of the Labour Party. (Here is the excellent Sam Hamad on Corbyn’s foreign policy.) Likewise, or even worse, some American ‘leftists’ will be voting for Jill Stein in their presidential elections. Stein believes that wi-fi rays (not just internet use) damage our brains. She attended a dinner with Putin in Moscow, then told Russia Today that ‘human rights discourse resonates here’. This while Russia occupies parts of Ukraine and rains white phosphorus and thermite cluster bombs on Syrian hospitals. Speaking in a city where it isn’t safe to be black, or openly gay, to write investigative journalism, or to dissent from the Putin line. Stein’s running mate believes that Assad won an election fair and square. Even if she could win, this hippy-fascist mix would not in any way be a progressive alternative. But of course she can’t win. What she can do is take votes from Hillary Clinton, and help Trump to win (something Putin is praying for). Yes, Clinton is as horrible as anyone from the American establishment, but she’s a hell of a lot better than Trump, the white-nationalist candidate whose election will have immediate and terrible effects on American society. As Clay Claiborne points out, voting for Stein in this context may be one definition of white privilege.
The discussion after my anti-Corbyn post includes me commenting on the stuff I wrote on this blog before 2011 (particularly on Iran), and one lesson I think I’ve learned since. As that stuff can still be viewed here, I’m posting part of the discussion.
I am interviewed (from 14 minutes to the end) in Requiem for Syria, a generally excellent and very sweary film by subMedia, an anarchist news channel in Canada. It’s particularly good to see their nuanced take on the (Kurdish) Democratic Union Party, or PYD. You can watch the episode here.
Henry Peck interviewed Leila al-Shami and me for Guernica magazine. You can read that here.
And Ursula Lindsey reviewed our book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’, alongside other books, for the Nation. That’s here.
This article about Arab prison writing was published at the National.
From ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’ to ‘Orange is the New Black’, prison dramas fill the Anglo-Saxon screen. In the Arab world, you’re more likely to see them on the news. In recent months, for example, detainees of the Syrian regime have staged an uprising in Hama prison and been assaulted in Suwayda prison.
No surprise then that contemporary Arab writing features prisons so prominently, sometimes as setting, more often as powerful metaphor.
“About My Mother”, the latest novel by esteemed Moroccan writer Taher Ben Jelloun (who writes in French), is an affectionate but unromantic portrait of his parent trapped by incoherence. The old lady suffers dementia, mistaking times, places and people, but there is a freedom in her long monologues, the flow of memory and shifting scenes, torrents of speech which eventually infect the narration.
The novel is family memoir and social history as well as an experiment with form. Jelloun’s mother was married thrice, and widowed first at sixteen. At the first wedding, the attendants presenting the bride chorus: “See the hostage. See the hostage.”
Fettered by tradition and domestic labour, now by illness and age, she responds with superstition, fatalism and resignation. Her own confinement is echoed by memories of national oppression, first by the French, then by homegrown authorities. She learns to mistrust the police even before her son Taher’s student years are interrupted by eighteen months in army disciplinary camp, punishment for his low-level political activism. “That’s what a police state is,” the adult writes, “arbitrary punishment, cruelty and barbarity.”
I love The New Arab, but they do some really strange editing… An edited version of this article was first published there.
Because the Iran Iraq war was followed by an endless succession of conflicts, we forget its foundational horror. Killing at least a million, burning entire cities, and propelling identity politics towards its current fascistic heights, it was the region’s equivalent of World War One.
Iraq started the war. Exploiting Iran’s mid-revolution weakness, Iraqi forces invaded, seeking to annex Khuzestan province. Had Saddam Hussein been a leader interested in safeguarding civil and national rights, Iranian oppression of Khuzestan’s Ahwazi Arabs might have provided justication. But Saddam was a tyrant who oppressed Iraq’s Arabs just as much, and his prime concern was the province’s oil wealth. His brutal aggression included raining poisonous gas on Iranian cities.
No-one can fault the Iranians for the passion of their response. Gulf, Western and Soviet support for Iraq’s war understandably exacerbated the Iranian sense of victimhood which persists, and clouds so many minds, until today. After a certain point, however, the Iranian war lost its defensive character. Khomeini rejected a 1982 truce offer from a chastened Saddam, determined to fight on until Iran occupied the Shia holy cities of southern Iraq. This never happened, but war conditions helped Khomeini neutralise Iran’s revolutionary energies and firmly establish his own rule. The war dragged on for another six years.
It was a pleasure to be hosted on ‘Rising Up with Sonali’, an LA-based radio and TV show run by women. We discussed the High Negotiations Committee’s transition plan for Syria, the origins of the Assad dictatorship, and how the revolution erupted.
You can watch or just listen to it here.
This was first published at the New Arab.
On August 9th, Turkish President Erdogan visited Russian President Putin in Saint Petersburg. The two leaders cleared the air after a period of mutual hostility during which Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter jet and Russia had bombed Turkish aid convoys heading to Syria.
Clearly some kind of deal was struck at the meeting. Turkey now feels able to engage in robust interventions in northern Syria against both ISIS and the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Kurdish party-militia closely linked to the PKK, a group at war with the Turkish state. Except for the public recognition that Moscow is more relevant than Washington, it isn’t clear what Turkey has given Russia in return. Turkey has after all just supported the rebel push to break the siege of Aleppo.
Perhaps the earliest sign of the new reality was the Assad regime’s aerial bombardment of PYD-controlled territory in Hasakeh. The PYD closed Aleppo’s Castello road to regime traffic in response.
A ceasefire was quickly agreed, but the clash was still a surprising turnaround. Assad had never bombed the PYD before. In fact the two had sometimes collaborated, not as a result of ideological proximity or fraternal feeling, but out of a ruthless pragmatism. The regime withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight in June 2012. The PYD inherited the security installations in these three cantons – now called Rojava, or western Kurdistan – and Assadist forces were freed up to fight the revolution elsewhere.
Here’s an interview Leila and I did in Berkeley, California in April (or was it early May?) We talked about local democracy and self-organisation in Syria, the fascist and imperialist forces ranged against the revolution, and the idiotic misconceptions of the dominant Western ‘left’.
You can listen to it here.