Robin Yassin-Kassab

Introducing al-Haj Saleh’s Impossible Revolution

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Yassin and Samira

Yassin and Samira

It was an honour to write the foreword to Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s indispensable collection of essays “The Impossible Revolution”. If you haven’t read the book yet, you should. Yassin is perhaps Syria’s most important political dissident, and a thinker of global importance.

Here are some extracts from my foreword:

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a burningly relevant political thinker. Unlike most of his counterparts, he speaks not only from theory but from a lived experience of repression, revolution, counterrevolution, and war. Objective but never neutral, he is engaged and in tune with the rapid shifts and turns of his tormented society, urgently seeking answers to the most wide-ranging and inclusive of questions, and unearthing more, previously unthought-of questions as he goes.

His context is Syria, where 12 million are homeless, perhaps half a million dead. Syria which, six years into the upheaval, has become a truly global issue. The war Assad unleashed to marginalise and destroy a democratic opposition has given rise to a series of increasingly complicated conflicts, often bearing ethnic or sectarian tones. Fanned by overlapping, sometimes competing foreign interventions, these conflicts have infected the region and the world in turn. Regional and international imperialisms are feasting on Syria. Battle lines and forced demographic changes are fueling a hunger to redraw the maps. The spectre of Syrian refugees and/or terrorists, meanwhile, is shaping America’s domestic politics and helping undo the European Union. As hopes for freedom and prosperity are crushed, new strains are injected into old authoritarianisms, and 21st Century forms of nativism are taking root, west and east.

Yassin speaks from the heart of this turmoil. Yet this in your hand is the first book-length English translation of his work.

It’s been a long time coming.

“They simply do not see us,” he laments. If we don’t see Syrian revolutionaries, if we don’t hear their voices when they talk of their experience, their motivations and hopes, then all we are left with are (inevitably orientalist) assumptions, constraining ideologies, and pre-existent grand narratives. These big stories, or totalising explanations, include a supposedly inevitable and ancient sectarian conflict underpinning events, and a jihadist-secularist binary, as well as the idea, running against all the evidence, that Syria is a re-run of Iraq, a Western-led regime-change plot. No need to attend to detail, runs the implication, nor to Syrian oppositional voices, for we already know what needs to be known.

Purveyors of such myths, the ideologues and regime-embedded journalists, the ‘experts’ who don’t speak more than a few words of Arabic, often seem to rely on each other to confirm and develop their theories. They brief politicians, they dominate opinion pages, learned journals and TV panels. And we the public, to a large extent, rely on them too. We see through their skewed lens, through a certain mythic framework which ‘covers’ the Syrian revolution only in the sense of hiding it from view. As a result we are unable either to offer solidarity to this most profound and thoroughgoing of contemporary social upheavals, or to learn any lessons from it.

While studying medicine in Aleppo, Yassin joined the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau), a group formed in 1973 after the mainstream Communist Party had been co-opted by the Assad regime. The ‘Political Bureau’ advocated democracy as well as social justice, and agitated against the regime’s 1976 intervention in Lebanon on the side of right-wing Falangists.

Yassin was arrested in 1980, and languished as a political prisoner for the next 16 years. He spent the last year in Tadmor prison, near the ruins of Palmyra. Tadmor prison is a name, or a crime scene, which resonates terribly in the Syrian imagination. Poet Faraj Bayraqdar, a fellow prisoner, called Tadmor “the kingdom of death and madness”.

But languish is not quite the word. Despite the torture and unliveable conditions, Yassin read and thought as much as he could, liberating himself from the “internal prisons” of political and ideological regimentation. “With Salvation, O Youth: Sixteen Years in Syrian Prisons” is his memoir of the period, an addition to Syria’s rich ‘prison literature’ genre (though Yassin, considering all of Assad’s Syria a prison, preferred to slip the label and categorise the text more generally as “a matter of concern”).

Released in 1996, he completed his long-interrupted medical studies in Aleppo, then moved to Damascus. In 2000 he met his wife, Samira al-Khalil, also a former political prisoner.

Yassin resists authoritarianism in all its manifestations, and confronts lazy thinking and prejudice wherever he finds them. He lashes orientalists and Islamophobes, for instance, as much as he does Islamists. Anyone looking for the reassurance of simplistic binaries will be disappointed, for he sides with neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran, neither Russia nor America, neither (to use his terms) “necktie fascists” nor “long-bearded fascists”.[i]

His writing is ethically-concerned and multilayered. Very usefully, he recognises that cultural and political analysis can’t be disentangled. Cultural production, from educational projects and newspapers to radio stations and online poetry, has been central to the revolutionary process, and the key achievements of the revolution – self-organisation, the formation of democratic councils, the opening of debate – are part of cultural life as much as of politics, because they concern people’s lived values in community practice.

The writing is again multilayered, finding a welcome balance between localism and reductive geo-strategic discourse, when it delineates the links – the cross-infection of political illnesses as well as emancipatory possibilities – between an internationalized Syria and a Syrianized world.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s is an important voice for our uncomfortable historical moment, in which distinctions between left and right are dissolving and reforming, when notions of sovereignty  and identity are in flux, when absolutely everybody’s freedom is in question.

[i] From ‘Syria, Iran, ISIS and the Future of Social Justice: In dialogue with Yassin al-Haj Saleh’, Radio Zamaneh, 29 May 2015

You should also consider watching the film named after Yassin’s book, which includes interviews with Yassin. See here.


Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 20, 2018 at 12:35 pm

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