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.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh was born in 1961 in a village near Raqqa. His concern for social justice arose from his immediate environs: the poor rural hinterland of a troubled post-colonial state.

Karam Nachar, an academic  and sometimes a collaborator of Yassin’s, illustrates Syria’s urban/ rural and class divides by comparing the situation of his relatives in bourgeois Aleppo, who attended cinemas back in the 1920s, with the Raqqa (a mere 200 kilometres away) that Yassin grew up in forty years later, where there were still no cinemas, nor even paved roads.

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.

In the summer of that year, Hafez al-Assad died and his son Bashaar inherited the presidency. A brief and illusory ‘Damascus Spring’ unfolded shortly afterwards. The president seemed to encourage constructive criticism, and dissenters took him at his word, speaking against corruption, organising discussion forums, soon signing petitions and issuing declarations calling for democratic reforms and human and civil rights. A fragile civil society began to develop.

By autumn 2001, spring had turned back to winter. The key figures of the democratic movement were imprisoned. Yet most Syrians remained unaware of the drama, because the intellectual dissenters, forbidden to directly appeal to the people, were unable to either galvanise them or express their concerns. ‘The masses’, in any case, often confounded the expectations of older oppositionists. They could no longer be mobilised by outworn slogans. The Syrian demographic was increasingly young, and increasingly tightly-squeezed economically.

Yassin’s criticism of the opposition he belonged to was coruscating:

“The opposition must change itself first in order to be an example of change to society … Neither communism nor Arab nationalism can solve the problem. The democratic opposition needs new ideas about Syrian patriotism and the current economic and social transformation taking place in Syria … It must be independent from the outside. The only way to exit this crisis of failure is to focus on … developing knowledge of Syrian society, which the opposition in all its different branches lacks completely.”[i]

In most cases, the eruption of the 2011 protests took the various strands of the opposition, whether co-opted, repressed or exiled, by complete surprise. Gathering huge crowds from all of Syria’s regions, sects and ethnicities, the protest movement was famously ‘leaderless’. No single figure, ideology or political platform dominated, yet a grassroots organisational structure was quick to emerge, often staffed by young people with little or no prior political experience. Yassin and Samira took part in this early ferment. They worked with key activists including human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, a founding member of both the Local Coordination Committees – which connected each neighbourhood’s revolutionaries to the rest of the country – and the Violations Documentation Centre – which recorded and publicised the escalating repression.

Yassin lived in hiding for the first two years of the revolution. In April 2013 he moved to Douma, a suburb of Damascus liberated from the regime but besieged, bombarded, and increasingly prevailed over by a Salafist militia called Jaysh al-Islam. He planned to head straight on north to Raqqa, but circumstances forced him to wait until July. By this time, Samira had arrived in Douma, where she helped establish women’s centres and small income-generating projects. She stayed on to continue this work, planning to join Yassin later in Turkey.

Yassin’s journey to Raqqa (documented in the film “Our Terrible Country”) took him out of range of one tyranny and into the domain of another. Da’esh had imposed its own brand of totalitarianism on the city, and had detained Yassin’s friends, fellow activists, even his brothers.

Then, on December 9, 2013, Samira was abducted in Douma along with Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hamadi. The four activists have not been heard of since. Yassin considers Jaysh al-Islam accountable for their fate.

“Her abductors represent an Islamist recreation of the cruelty against which the revolution originally erupted. The case of Samira and her colleagues represents the case of Syria, trapped between the regime, the embodiment of brutality, and the Islamists, the embodiment of inhumanity. For the two, the prisons were the first thing they cared about in whatever area they control.”[ii]

We would expect most men to buckle under the pressure of such personal and national tragedy. But Syrians very often find they have no such option. Living in Istanbul, Yassin has helped set up the cultural and discussion centre Hamisch. He writes for al-Jumhuriya, the online journal he helped establish in 2012, addressing the current crisis and imagining the shape of a better future.[iii] And he constantly engages with his tormented and scattered society, whose creativity and resilience he shares.

We should read Yassin al-Haj Saleh to learn more about Syria, but also because the implications of his work, like the effects of the war, stretch far beyond Syria.

Large swathes of the Western left have failed to adequately analyse and respond to the Syrian revolution to the extent that they’ve ended up rehashing the security discourse of the right, sometimes even its war-on-terror rhetoric. When Yassin laments this, he also throws down a challenge:

“My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate … We, rank-and-file Syrians, refugees, women, students, intellectuals, human rights activists, political prisoners … do not exist … But honestly I’ve failed to discern who is right and who is left in the West from a leftist Syrian point of view … Before helping Syrians or showing solidarity with Syrians, the mainstream Western left needs to help themselves.”[iv]

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

[i] 2008 interview with al-Hayat cited in Joshua Landis ‘The National Salvation Front Folds’, 23 April 2009 http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-national-salvation-front-folds/

[ii] https://douma4.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/yassin-haj-saleh-on-samira-khalil-translation/

[iii] The English-language site can be accessed at http://aljumhuriya.net/en/

[iv] ‘Interview with Yassin al-Haj Saleh: Syria and the Left’, New Politics, Winter 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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