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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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Beirut Three: Social Life

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me with Khaled Khalifa

I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the third.

At this year’s Karachi Lit Fest, Hanif Qureishi asserted that the purpose of such festivals was “to give writers a social life.” I concur wholeheartedly, but still I admit I was a little scared to go to Beirut and socialise there. This is because several Syrians had advised me to avoid speaking about the revolution while in the city, and to watch my back in areas controlled by Syrian regime allies. “They know who you are,” they muttered darkly.

But I was fine. At no point did I feel under any threat. I presume the warnings tell us more about the fear so successfully planted in Syrian hearts than they do about the capacity of the flailing regime to hunt down obscure writers. True, one Syrian slit another Syrian’s throat outside the Yunes Cafe just a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel one night. Reports varied as to whether the killing was personally or politically motivated. And true, writer Khaled Khalifa’s arm was still in a sling after being broken by regime goons during the funeral of murdered musician Rabee Ghazzy back in May. Khaled, whose most famous novel ‘In Praise of Hatred’ is about to be published in English by Doubleday (I’m writing the introduction), is a warm and gentle man who smiles irrepressibly despite it all. He spoke fearlessly during his event at the Hay Festival. He’ll be back in Syria now. In Beirut I asked him why he didn’t stay outside, in safety. He said he can’t, he becomes scared for his friends and family when he’s outside.

I spent one inspiring evening with a group of Syrian revolutionaries, supporters of the Free Syrian Army who confound the stereotypes propounded by the regime and picked up on by certain infantile leftists. Far from being Salafists and tools of imperialism, these were secular men and women (one of Christian background) sharing a flat and ideas, drinking whiskey and mate, reflecting on the surging movement of the recent past and checking internet updates on the immediate present. They were well-informed, intelligent, and nuanced in their thinking (at one point we discussed the nature of evil and the complex question of individual culpability). They had seen nasty things, yet talking to them made me surprisingly buoyant. They believed they were winning their fight.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Lebanon

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Beirut Two: Everyone in their Box

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I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the second.

When a Scottish-based writer, an escapee from the perma-gloom, visits Beirut for a mere four days, he must prioritise his activities very carefully. As previously stated, I aimed first of all to immerse myself in the sea.

A small group of us hailed a cab to take us southwards down the coast to Jiyeh, where a beach had been recommended. Jiyeh wasn’t very far – we could still see Beirut jutting into the sea behind us – but it was still a good third of the way to the South and the troublesome border with Israel-Palestine.

Lebanon is a small, closely-packed country chopped again into still-smaller zones. Our driver (he was called Abdullah) inched us through the snarled traffic of central Beirut and past Tariq Jdaideh, a Sunni area loyal to the Hariri family, whose posters were prominent. Then along the edge of the Shi‘i southern suburb which was hit so brutally by Israel’s assault in 2006. Here Hizbullah controls one side of the road, with its pictures of Nasrallah and the late Ayatullah Fadlullah; the Amal movement rules over the other, shabbier side, where the pictures feature Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament. As the building density eased, banana plantations alternated with churches and seaside resorts. We sped up past Khalde, which had housed an illegal Druze port during the civil war fragmentation, and then Ouzai, which had housed an illegal Amal movement port. Inland, the Shouf mountains rose, the Druze heartland where the Junblatt family predominates. In this country, it seemed, everyone fitted into their specific box.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 13, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Posted in Lebanon

Beirut One: Dividing Lines

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I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the first.

On the plane from Heathrow I sat next to an Armenian lady. She was born in Aleppo, Syria’s most cosmopolitan city, has lived in New Jersey for years, and is visiting Lebanon for a week, for her nephew’s wedding. I asked why she wasn’t staying longer; it’s such a long flight from the states after all. “Why not?” she replied. “Relatives and politics: these are two reasons not to stay long in the Middle East.”

Politics, which tends to suck in relatives, especially if you’re Armenian, or Palestinian, or any variety of Lebanese. We talked about her grandmother’s sister, a victim of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Turkey, when somewhere between half and one and a half million people were murdered, either by massacre or by forced marches into the heat of the Syrian desert. Armenians call it ‘the Great Crime’.

The grandmother’s sister, a very little girl at the time, survived the march, but was separated from her family. She ended up outside Mosul, in northern Iraq, where she married a Beduin (“a man in a tent,” the Armenian lady said). She forgot her language but remembered her name and her Armenian identity. Whenever he went to town, her husband asked people to let him know if any Armenian turned up. Many years passed, and eventually an Armenian did turn up, and was directed to the tent. So the lost child was at last put in touch with the remnants of her family, and came to spend a month with them in Beirut. Then she returned to the tent and her Beduin life. She didn’t fit in the city.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 9, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Posted in Lebanon

Aftermath

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The first issue of Critical Muslim, a quarterly magazine in book form co-edited by Ziauddin Sardar and me, will be in the shops in January. More on that at a later date. Today I’m finishing off a long essay on Syria, Iraq and sectarian hatred for Critical Muslim’s third issue. Amongst the books I review in the essay are Fanar Haddad’s indispensable “Sectarianism in Iraq” and Nir Rosen’s “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World,” which is also indispensable, in a different way. As a taster, here’s the section on “Aftermath.”

For a mix of contextual analysis and gripping reportage, the reader will find no better book than Nir Rosen’s magisterial “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s wars in the Muslim World”.

Most Western correspondents were flown into Iraq unable to speak Arabic, largely ignorant of the context, to pass their time attending coalition press briefings or embedded with the US military. Their reports were heavy with simplistic labels (‘the Sunni triangle’, for instance) and ignored non-sectarian nationalism and class issues. Rosen’s writing on Iraq is the polar opposite of such parachute journalism. He speaks Arabic for a start, and blends in physically as a result of the “melanin advantage” bequeathed by his Iranian father. More to the point, he is courageous and energetic, going where few outsiders would dare, whatever their skin tone. He’s a reporter of the best kind, capable of locating pattern behind the copious detail. So he doesn’t merely report the mosque sermons he attended, or his encounters with militiamen and their victims, but accurately interprets and reads between the lines. His descriptions of time, place and personality are vivid, with not an ounce of orientalism added. His lack of sentimentality combined with his obvious sympathy for the people of the region make him the perfect candidate to voyage into the sectarian heart of darkness.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 27, 2011 at 7:22 pm

Resistance Regime?

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One of my favourite chants from the Syrian uprising is the powerful and cleanly apparent illi yuqtil sha‘abu kha’in, or ‘he who kills his people is a traitor.’ It’s cleanly apparent to me at least – but not to everybody. Some kneejerk ‘leftists’ (a rapidly diminishing number) still hold that the Syrian regime is a nationalist, resistance regime, a necessary bulwark against Zionism, and that therefore it must be protected from its unruly subjects; that in fact it’s the unruly subjects, rather than those who murder them, who are the traitors.

Very sadly, Shia Islamists – Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the sectarian parties in power in Baghdad, and Iran – have repeated the same argument, not because they believe it but for tedious clannish reasons. Syrians aren’t very surprised by the Iraqi or Iranian positions; it’s Hizbullah’s betrayal which sticks in the craw. After all, until Hassan Nasrallah began propagandising on behalf of the regime’s repression, Syrians of all sects supported and admired Hizbullah. During Israel’s 2006 assault they welcomed southern Lebanese refugees into their homes. Indeed, the regime’s alliance with Hizbullah can in large part be credited to the Syrian people; the alliance was one of the regime’s only real sources of popularity. The Asad clique needed Hizbullah’s resistance flag to cover its own nationalist nakedness.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 6, 2011 at 10:40 am

Posted in Lebanon, Syria

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Tunisia in Syria?

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The Guardian published this piece on Syria tacked onto the end of this piece on Egypt. Unfortunately they cut my paragraphs on sectarianism, the most important part of my argument. I should add that, after today’s great revolutionary awakening in Egypt, I am no longer certain of anything. Everything has changed.

2008 demonstration against US bombing of Syria. photo - Xinhua/ Reuters

With its young population, and a bureaucracy run by the same authoritarian party for four decades, Syria is by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society, conditions which have now brought revolution to Tunisia. Nevertheless, in the short to medium term it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.

A state-controlled Syrian newspaper blamed the Tunisian revolution on the Bin Ali regime’s “political approach of relying on ‘friends’ to protect them.” Tunisia’s status as Western client was only a minor motivator for the uprising there, but still al-Watan’s analysis will be shared by many Syrians. Unlike the majority of Arab states, Syria’s foreign policy is broadly in line with public opinion – and in Syria foreign policy, which has the potential to immediately translate into a domestic security issue, matters a great deal. The regime has kept the country in a delicate position of no war with, but also no surrender to, Israel (which occupies the Golan Heights), and has pursued close cooperation with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements as well as emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. This is appreciated by ‘the street’, and the president himself is no hate figure in the mould of Ben Ali or Mubarak. Where his father engineered a Stalinist personality cult, mild-mannered Bashaar al-Asad enjoys a reasonable level of genuine popularity. Much is made of his low-security visits to theatres and ice cream parlours.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 28, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Posted in Lebanon, Syria

“Coffee with Hezbollah”

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Here’s a strange and sparkly, jumpy and tightly-packed little book by PULSE’s own Belen Fernandez, in which our heroines (Belen and the photographer Amelia Opalinska) hitch-hike through Lebanon and Syria a few weeks after the war of summer 2006, consuming far more caffeine than is good for them.

Beyond Gonzo, it doesn’t pretend to journalism at all. Instead it recounts a fairly lunatic, fairly random sight-seeing tour towards ‘the dark force’ Hezbollah. The setting, of course, is an Israeli-devastated landscape, and the ‘dark force’ tag, like all the book’s other appropriations of mendacious political language, is ironic. “Coffee with Hebollah” is, as Norman Finkelstein writes in his recommendation, “simultaneously serious and silly.” It’s also quick witted and very well informed, sensitive to the discourses and stereotypes of Lebanon’s 18 sects, the country’s tortured history, as well as the fantastic representations of Lebanon that have emerged from Israeli and Western power centres. This makes the book a new kind of journalism as well as a parody of the mainstream version.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 12, 2010 at 5:06 pm