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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Resistance’ Category

The Tragedy of Daraya

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This was published at The New Arab.Daraya1

Daraya is – or used to be – a sizeable town in the Damascus countryside. A working and middle-class suburb of the capital, it was also an agricultural centre, famed in particular for its delicious grapes. In recent years the town has become a symbol of the Syrian revolution, and of revolutionary resilience in the most terrible conditions. And now, after its August 25th surrender to the Assad regime, it becomes symbolic of an even larger disaster.

Daraya’s courageous social and political activism stretches back long before the eruption of the revolution in 2011. Its residents protested against Israeli oppression in Palestine during the second intifada, and then against the American invasion of Iraq. Those who believe that Assad’s regime represents popular anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism won’t realise how brave these actions were. Independent demonstrations were completely illegal in Syria, punishable by torture and imprisonment, even if the protests were directed against the state’s supposed enemies. And Daraya’s activism focused on domestic issues too, in the form of local anti-corruption and neighbourhood beautification campaigns.

This legacy of civic engagement owes a great deal to the Daraya-based religious scholar Abd al-Akram al-Saqqa, who introduced his students to the work of ‘liberal Islamist’ and apostle of non-violence Jawdat Said, and was twice arrested as a result. Jawdat Said emphasised, amongst other things, rights for women, the importance of pluralism, and the need to defend minority groups.

In 2011 Daraya became one of the most important laboratories for exploring the possibilities of non-violent resistance. Ghiath Matar, known as ‘little Gandhi’, put al-Saqqa and Said’s principles into practice by encouraging protestors to present flowers and bottles of water to the soldiers bussed in to shoot them. The regime responded, as usual, with staggering violence. Matar, a 26-year-old tailor, was arrested in September 2011. Four days later his mutilated corpse was returned to his parents and pregnant wife.

From the start, despite the regime’s divide-and-rule provocations, Daraya’s protest movement rejected sectarian polarisation. As in Deraa and Homs, Christians in the town joined protests, and church bells rang in revolutionary solidarity with the martyrs. Even as Salafism and jihadism rose to prominence elsewhere in the traumatised country, Daraya preserved its tolerance.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 27, 2016 at 6:43 pm

Posted in Resistance, Syria

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Aziz’s Story

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aziz cellThis was published at NOW

The Syrian city of Selemiyyeh lies to the east of Hama, where the fertile crescent becomes barren. The ruins of Shmemis castle, dating to the late Hellenistic period, cling to the cone of an extinct volcano nearby. The major historical site in the city itself is a shrine containing the tombs of Imam Taki Muhammed and Radi Abdallah. Some believe that Imam Ismail, the foundational figure of the Ismaili sect, is buried here too.

Although it’s an ancient city, with ancient links to the Ismaili faith, the ancestors of its present population were 19th and 20th Century migrants from Ismaili hill towns to the west, places such as Qadmous and Misyaf. The town, which also houses significant populations of Sunnis, Twelver Shia and Alawis, has long been a model of sectarian co-existence. Its secularism has been real – a genuine popular tolerance for difference, not the debased, propagandistic ‘secularism’ of the regime.

Along with Homs, Darayya, Dera‘a and Kafranbel (each one for different reasons), Selemiyyeh has become one of the capitals of the Syrian revolution. As a predominantly non-Sunni community which has since the start stood solidly for freedom and against the regime, its example proves both the mendacity of Assad’s sectarian narrative and the oversimplified western media discourse which portrays the fight as one between Sunni extremists and minority-secularists.

As part of its divide-and-rule strategy, the regime has spared Selemiyyeh the aerial bombardment and rocket attacks it has visited on majority-Sunni areas, but the city has suffered as much as anywhere from detentions and disappearances. Its revolutionaries, like all revolutionaries in regime-controlled areas, live underground.

Selemiyyeh has also bled (in January and February) from bomb attacks, probably organised by Jabhat an-Nusra, which targetted the regime’s shabeeha militia but also killed many innocent civilians. Despite such provocations, Selemiyyeh’s revolutionaries have cooperated with the Salafists of Ahrar ash-Sham, who have brought food aid to the city. And the community has done a great deal to house and feed its brothers and sisters of all sects fleeing violence in Homs and Hama. Pioneers of the early non-violent protests, many of Selemiyyeh’s residents are now engaged in the armed struggle.

When I met Aziz Asaad, an activist from Selemiyyeh, across the Turkish border in Antakya, I asked him why the community was so revolutionary, why it hadn’t been scared into fencesitting or even grudging support for Assad by the Islamist element of the opposition. His answer: “We read a lot. We’ve always read books.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 14, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Talbeeseh for Um Shurshouh

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Syrian revolutionary chants are as distinctive, creative, as powerful and sometimes as comical as their Egyptian equivalents. One of my favourites parodies Qaddafi’s threat to hunt down the Libyan opposition ‘alley by alley, house by house’:

zanga zanga dar dar                              alley by alley, house by house

bidna rasak ya bashaar                         we want your head, O Bashaar

In the film below, residents of Um Shurshouh in besieged Homs enjoy a talbeeseh, or bridegroom’s wedding party. The neighbourhood itself is the bridegroom. The leader calls out a verse, and the crowd repeats it.

Traditional calls of welcome to those arriving at the party:

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Posted in Resistance, Syria

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Hope, and How Not to Visit Palestine

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My visit to Nablus coincided with the first Palestinian Human Rights Film Festival at an-Najah University. Even better than the films shown were the panel discussions afterwards, on issues such as refugees, resistance and women’s rights. The first film I saw was “To Shoot an Elephant” (watch it here), a brutal, highly-recommended documentary shot by International Solidarity Movement activists who happened to be in Gaza as the 2008/09 massacre unfolded. After the screening the audience communicated with director Alberto Arce via a video link-up to Spain. (Alberto is permanently banned from entry into Israeli-controlled territory.)

Alberto said this: “It is not my job to tell the Palestinians what to do. It’s my job to support the Palestinians and to witness what’s happening to them. The Palestinians have suffered so much from the actions of foreigners, and foreigners have no right to impose their beliefs on Palestinians.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 7, 2010 at 4:35 pm

In the Face of Overwhelming Odds

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art by Ghassan Kanafani

This is in large part an amalgam of other pieces I’ve written on the topic. Like almost all of my stuff, it’s at PULSE, and will be crossposted at the indispensable Mondoweiss.

In his contribution to the debate on the rights and wrongs of violent resistance to oppression, David Bromwich tells us that non-violent action is supposed to be “visible and exemplary.” In the case of Palestine, this chimes with the dominant Western narrative that the Palestinians would have achieved liberation long ago if only they had avoided mindless acts of terrorism. Much of the mainstream media goes a step further to suggest that the Palestinians are hindered by their culture and religion – which are inherently violent, hysterical and anti-Semitic – from winning their rights. If only they would grow up a little. If only they’d set a good example.

Leading liberal clown Bono has also asked where the Palestinian Gandhis are. The problem here, though, is not the absence of Gandhis but their lack of visibility – the visibility which Bromwich says is so important. For the first two decades after the original ethnic cleansing of 1947 and 48, almost all Palestinian resistance was non-violent. From 1967 until 1987 Palestinians resisted by organising tax strikes, peaceful demonstrations, petitions, sit-down protests on confiscated lands and in houses condemned to demolition. The First Intifada was almost entirely non-violent on the Palestinian side; the new tactic of throwing stones at tanks (which some liberals consider violent) was almost entirely symbolic. In every case, the Palestinians were met with fanatical violence. Midnight arrest, beatings, and torture were the lot of most. Many were shot. Nobel Peace Laureate Yitzhak Rabin ordered occupation troops to break the bones of the boys with stones. And despite all this sacrifice, Israeli Jews were not moved to recognise the injustice of occupation and dispossession, at least not enough to end it.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 15, 2010 at 9:15 pm

When Did Resistance Become a Dirty Word?

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Any Resistance There? by Ali Farzat

What the Western political class and its media demand of the Arabs and Muslims is acceptance of the unacceptable status quo in Israel-Palestine. To resist the status quo is to be troublesome, destabilising and irrationally violent. Resistance arises from the inadequacies of a culture and religion given to antisemitism and hysteria. In order to develop, these backward folk must give resistance up.

For the Lebanese, this means that they must forget the brutal 22-year occupation of their country and the 1982 siege of Beirut as well as the 2006 assault on the country’s civilian infrastructure. They must forget the endless chain of massacres perpetrated by Zionists and their allies on Lebanese territory. They must smile when Israel violates their air space on a daily basis and threatens to send them “back to the stone age” on a weekly basis. They must disarm and label as terrorist Hizbullah, the principled defender of their country.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 6, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Bubbling with Energy

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An edited version of this article was published in The National.

Palestine 045We entered Palestine from Jordan, across the Allenby Bridge and over the trickle which is what’s left of the diverted, overused, and drought-struck river. The Dead Sea glittered in the hollow to our left. Jericho, the world’s oldest city, shimmered through heat haze to our right. The site where Jesus was baptised was a stone’s throw away. Palestine is most definitely part of bilad ash-Sham, in the same cultural zone as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but it is also most definitely like nowhere else on the planet. Suddenly the superlatives were coming thick and fast.

Palestine feels as large as a continent – but one that’s been crushed and folded to fit into the narrow strip of fertile land between the river and the sea. The Jordan Valley depression is the lowest point on earth, part of the Rift Valley which stretches from east Africa, and it’s as hot as the Gulf. But only a few miles up from the yellowed, cratered desert into the green hills before Jerusalem, and the weather is very different. As we left our performance in Ramallah a couple of nights later, gusts of fog blew in on an icy wind. If a Palestinian in the West Bank manages to find an unoccupied hilltop – which isn’t at all easy – he can look all the way to the forbidden Mediterranean, and perhaps he’ll pick out the fields of his ancestral village.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 24, 2009 at 1:01 pm