Archive for March 2013
I was invited to al-Jazeera International’s Inside Syria programme to discuss the political opposition and its divisions with Najib Ghadban of the SNC and Professor Amr al-Azm.
This was published in the National.
From the very start, some commentators convinced themselves that the Syrian popular revolution was plotted, funded and armed by the West. From Seamus Milne to John Pilger, from Glenn Greenwald to George Galloway, they described the West supplying oppositionist ‘jihadist elements.’ Former leftist icon Tariq Ali spoke on Russia Today of “Russia and China resisting attempts by the West to take Syria over.” Russia is resupplying the Assad regime with the materiel with which to slaughter the Syrian people, making Ali’s performance on Russia’s satellite as unedifying, and as distant from reality, as that of a commentator telling Fox News that Palestinian resistance is simply an Iranian attempt to take over Israel.
These journalists have staked their positions against the evidence. They have done so by forcing Syrian realities, breaking the edges of these jigsaw pieces, to fit their prior geopolitical concerns (their opposition to concurrent Israeli-American and Saudi enmities towards Iran) or ideological stances (that, following Iraqi and Palestinian models, the West must always be the troublemaker in the Arab world).
But Syria is neither Palestine nor Iraq; Syrian events are moved primarily by internal dynamics – namely the violence of the regime and the agency of the rising Syrian people. The conspiratorial leftist perspective misses this, first by vastly overestimating Western influence on current events (a failure to accurately diagnose the historical moment) and, secondly, by misunderstanding how unenthusiastic the West is for any rapid democratic or revolutionary change in Syria.
A version of this review was published at the Independent.
“The Silence and the Roar” by Syrian novelist and screenwriter Nihad Sirees was written in 2004, long before the roar of revolutionary crowds, and the countervailing roar of gunfire and warplanes, filled Syrian skies.
The pre-revolutionary roar of the title is that of the (capitalised) Leader speaking, and of the crowd celebrating the Leader speaking, and of those being beaten because they aren’t celebrating loudly enough; a roar relentlessly repeated by radios and televisions throughout the city, accompanying the protagonist almost everywhere he goes.
Counterposed to the roar there are two forms of silence: of imprisonment and of the grave. The first holds an ironic allure, for “the most beautiful thing in the entire universe is the silence that allows us to hear soft and distant sounds.”
The narrator is Fathi Sheen, a writer fallen out of favour with the regime, silenced only to the extent that he doesn’t write any more. He’s very pleasant company, amusing and straightforward, his digressions into Aristotle and Hannah Arendt notwithstanding. Over the course of a day Fathi struggles against the flow of celebrant crowds and regime thugs to visit first his mother and then his lover. He’s been content thus far to continue not to write in return for being left alone, but it becomes clear as the hours pass that the Leader’s friends plan to drive a different sort of bargain. The novella is in part a parable of the artist surviving under dictatorship. How does he make space for creation between silent and roaring states of mind? How does he avoid the regime’s Faustian temptations? More generally, how should one resist?
One answer for Fathi and his lover Lama, as for Winston Smith and his Julia, is through sex, which they find to be “a form of speech, indeed, a form of shouting in the face of the silence.”
A slightly edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.
Hassan Blasim, author of the acclaimed debut collection “The Madman of Freedom Square”, returns with fourteen more stories of profane lyricism, skewed symbolism and macabre romanticism. The qualities which distinguished the “Madman” are all here again in the opening pages of “The Iraqi Christ”: the sly self-referentiality of the frame – a story-telling competition hosted by a Baghdad radio station – the black comedy, the unexpected twists, and the sharp, disturbing images (a man “with no arms and a beard that almost reached his waist… deep in thought, like a decrepit Greek statue.”)
Like the “Madman”, this collection contains tales of war and migration, but these are more abstract, more difficult than the first, if possible stranger still. Treating casual cruelty, rape and murder, and common insanity, these sour cries from a land of generalised trauma don’t make easy bedtime reading. The processing of trauma, or the impossibility of such processing, is the collection’s central theme. Not only are stories dedicated to the dead, they are also narrated by the dead, concerned with death and the echoes of death in the souls of the living.
The subject matter is not exclusively Iraqi. Europe’s forests – with echoes of Grimm – loom as large as Baghdad’s broken streets. The title story, grimly ironic, is about a Christian soldier possessing uncanny powers of prediction who sacrifices himself so his mother may live. An extremist leader marches through with Purge The Earth of Devils tatooed on his forehead. Elsewhere, a narrator falls into a hole alongside a flesh-eating jinn who used to teach poetry in Baghdad. Another helps his brother bury a stranger alive. Characters slip into criminal perversity unwittingly, almost by accident, as spontaneously as the poisonous trees which, in “Sarsara’s Tree”, sprout from a bereaved woman’s gaze.
Blasim’s work is so unusual it’s hard to place. “A Thousand and One Knives”, as the title suggests, owes something to the heritage of the Nights and the ancient fantastic tradition of Arabic writing, now revived by the pains of Arab modernity, particularly in post-invasion Iraq. But “The Iraqi Christ” also seems to belong with the literature of Latin America, likewise struggling with contesting cultures, political violence and overbearing religion. Read the rest of this entry »