Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category
This was published at The New Arab.
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.
A slightly edited version of this article was published at the New Arab.
Aleppo is 7000 years old, its mythical origins mixed up with the prophet Abraham and a milk cow, its opulent history underwritten by its place on the Silk Road. Socially and architecturally unique, in its pre-war state Muslims and Christians, and Arabs, Armenians, Turkmen and Kurds, lived and traded in streets redolent sometimes of the Ottoman empire, sometimes of corners of Paris. Before the war Aleppo contained the world’s largest and most intact Arab-Islamic Old City. Now – with the covered souq, the Umayyad mosque, and many other markets, baths and caravansarays destroyed – that honour passes to Morocco’s Fes.
The city’s working class eastern districts have been liberated twice in the last five years. On the first occasion, July 2012, armed farmers swept in from the countryside to join urban revolutionaries against their Assadist tormentors and for a few weeks it felt the Assad regime would crumble in Syria’s largest city and economic powerhouse. But the battle soon succumbed to the war’s general logic: rebel ammunition ran out, the fighters squabbled and looted, foreign jihadists took advantage as the stalemate extended.
These strangers pranced about on blast-traumatised horses, imposed their brutal versions of sharia law, murdered a fifteen-year-old coffee-seller for supposed blasphemy, and finally declared themselves a state.
In January 2014, prompted by popular anger, the entire armed rebellion declared war on ISIS, driving it out of western Syria, Aleppo city included. This was the second liberation.
Aleppo is Syria’s most important centre of civil activism. It houses revolutionary councils and emergency healthcare projects, independent newspapers and radio stations, theatre groups and basement schools. Despite the years of barrel bombs and scud missiles, 300,000 people remain in the liberated zone.
An edited version of this piece was published at the National.
You may think Syrians are condemned to an unpleasant binary choice, between Assad – a mass-murdering dictator who at least shaves – and the jihadist with the beard, the dripping knife, the global agenda. Which perhaps makes Assad the lesser evil. Yet the real choice being fought out by Syrians isn’t between the dictator and the jihadists (the two feed each other), but between various forms of violent authoritarianism on the one hand, and grassroots democracy on the other. The democrats deserve our support.
Interviewing activists, fighters and refugees for our book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”, we discovered the democratic option is very real, if terribly beleaguered. To the extent that life continues in the ‘liberated’ but brutally bombed areas – areas independent of both Assad and ISIS – it continues because self-organised local councils are supplying services and aid.
For example, Daraya, a suburb west of Damascus now suffering its fourth year under starvation siege, is run by a council. Its 120 members select executives by vote every six months. The council head is chosen by public election. The council runs primary schools, a field hospital, a public kitchen, and manages urban agricultural production. Its military office supervises the Free Syrian Army militias defending the town.
This was published at al-araby al-Jadeed/ The New Arab.
On June 16th Jo Cox, a proponent of EU membership, a compassionate supporter of refugees, and the most articulate voice for revolutionary Syria in the British parliament, was shot, stabbed and kicked by a middle-aged man screaming “Britain First!”
On the same day Syrian citizen journalists Khaled al-Issa and Hadi Abdullah, 48 hours after surviving an air raid, were severely injured in an assassination attempt by controlled explosion.
Jo died in hospital shortly after she was attacked. In a different world, the kind she fought for, she would have been an honoured guest in free Syria. Khaled al-Issa died of his wounds on June 24th. Having survived Assad and ISIS-inspired brushes with death, it was probably Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, that got him in the end. In a different world Khaled would be reporting on the achievements of post-dictatorship Syria. In this world, however, the very best are being murdered. The very worst are growing in power.
East and west, violent and nativist authoritarianism is on the rise. The British media focused on characterisations of Jo’s murderer, Thomas Mair, as a troubled loner rather than as a terrorist. Had he screamed ‘Allahu Akbar’ rather than ‘Britain First’ as he stabbed and shot, the emphasis would certainly have been different.
I was interviewed by the Catskill Review of Books on the Syrian revolution, the war, the roles of outsiders, and media (mis)representations of events.
You can listen to it here.
This review of books on Syria, mainly of Francesca Borri’s ‘Syrian Dust’, was published at the National.
“…if you only talk about those who are fighting, any revolution becomes a war.” – Francesca Borri
For a long time very little was published on Syria in English. Patrick Seale’s useful but hagiographic “Assad: the Struggle for Syria” was the best known. Hanna Batatu’s classic “Syria’s Peasantry and their Politics” and Raymond Hinnebusch’s “Revolution from Above” were valuable academic studies of the Hafez-era state.
Over the last five years of revolution and war, several shelf loads of books have appeared. Many are sensationalist, cashing in on the latest terrorism scare. But several are of very high standard. Bente Scheller’s “The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game”, for instance, is an excellent analysis of Assadist pre-revolution foreign policy. Thomas Pierret’s “Religion and State in Syria” is an indispensable resource on the social roles of the Islamic scholars in the same period.
Novelist Samar Yazbek’s “Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution” is the best account of the revolution’s early months, though “Revolt in Syria” by Stephen Starr, an Irish journalist then resident in Damascus, comes close. Jonathan Littell, author of the remarkable WW2 novel “The Kindly Ones” wrote “Syrian Notebooks” after spending two weeks of 2012 in besieged Homs. Marwa al-Sabouni’s well-received “The Battle for Home” gives a Syrian architect’s perspective on the destruction (and potential rebuilding) of the city.
This review was published at the Guardian.
Reading “The Morning They Came For Us” by veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni is at once necessary, difficult, and elating. Giovanni’s reporting from the Syrian revolution and war is clear-eyed and engaged in the best possible sense – engaged in the human realm rather than the abstractly political.
Remembering previous wars too, her account is first-person and deeply personal. She’d once been obsessed with Bosnian crimes; in the introduction we hear warning that Syria may “engulf her”. Giovanni finds herself unable to trim her baby son’s nails for thinking of an Iraqi who’d had his ripped out. Later, accepting a cigarette pack from a student of human rights, she notes the old cigarette burns on his arms.
Her Syrian visits fell between March and December 2012. The first told, from the summer, finds an uneasy silence in central Damascus even as the suburbs burn. Class in this society is a more significant divider than religion, and the bi-national elite are spinning conspiracy theories, sunk into pool parties and denial. In these “last days of a spoilt empire that was about to implode” Giovanni delineates the different kinds of regime ‘believer’: true devotees, or those simply scared of the potential alternatives. 300 frustrated UN monitors are confined to their hotel, and war is “descending with stunning velocity”.
The book thereafter recounts the ramifications on Syrian civilians of Assad’s various scorched earth strategies. An estimated 200,000 people have disappeared into the regime gulag. Most have experienced torture. “I struggle to remember a place where torture has been so widespread and systematic,” a Human Rights Watch official tells Giovanni, who sets about particularising, humanising, some of these lost stories through interview, tales of beatings, burnings, cuttings perpetrated to the torturer’s usual refrain: “You want freedom? Is this the freedom you want?”