I interviewed my friend Hassan Blasim, a brilliant writer and a wonderful human being, for the National.
Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and film-maker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections “The Madman of Freedom Square” and “The Iraqi Christ” (the latter won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize), and editor and contributor to the science fiction collection “Iraq +100”. His play “The Digital Hat Game” was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.
Because it’s so groundbreaking, his work is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.
Why do you write?
To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.
If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq? why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realise the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom, and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.
Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.
Maybe writing is a psychological treatment, or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.
Dezeray Lyn interviewed me for the Arab Daily News on the next stage in Syria, propaganda and conspiracy theories, and the connections between Syria and the world. The full article is here.
DL: I think it cheats every revolutionary, pro democracy organizer and all lovers of the land to only discuss Syria only in post counter-revolutionary, post civil war contexts. Can you intimate us with life in Syria and Aleppo before the Arab Spring uprising in terms of organizing/living/arts/love/culture under an oppressive Assad dictatorship?
RYK: Syria was in many ways a lovely country. Foreigners who visited generally loved it, and Syrians were very proud of it. Syria has a fine climate, one of the world’s great cuisines, unparalleled historical riches, and a diverse and friendly population.
It was also, beneath the surface, a tragic country, one which had suffered enforced poverty and dislocation under first Ottoman and then French imperialism, then bitter class oppression, and then sixty years of dictatorship in which a new ruling class of security officers and loyal businessmen coalesced. All forms of government exploited sectarian, ethnic, regional and tribal differences amongst the people, the better to control them. The Baathist dictatorship in particular ruled by violence and fear. About 30,000 people were killed in Hama in 1982, and thousands of dissidents disappeared in the regime’s torture prisons. Civil society was crushed.
Despite the extreme repression, Syrians produced some remarkable poetry, music, drama and films. And dissident thought continued to surface, particularly in the brief and abruptly aborted ‘Damascus Spring’ in 2000, after Bashaar al-Assad inherited the dictatorship from his father Hafez.
Bashaar shut down the political and social opening. Instead, he ‘opened’ the economy. In effect this meant a set of neo-liberal and crony capitalist reforms which enormously enriched his own family and friends while impoverishing large swathes of the population. This was the context for the 2011 uprising.
A slightly edited version of this article was published at al-Jazeera.
In solidarity with Aleppo, the lights on the Eiffel Tower were extinguished. Elsewhere in Paris, and in London, Amsterdam, Oslo and Copenhagen, people demonstrated against the slaughter. Turks rallied outside Russian and Iranian embassies and consulates in Istanbul, Ankara and Erzerum. The people of Sarajevo – who have their own experience of genocide – staged a big protest.
The protests are nothing like as large as they were when the United States bombed Iraq, but they are welcome nonetheless. If this level of support had been apparent over the last six years, it would have made a real difference. Perhaps it is making a difference even now. Public sympathy for the victims may have pressured Vladimir Putin to allow those in the surviving liberated sliver of Aleppo to evacuate rather than face annihilation. At the time of writing, the fate of the deal is in doubt, subject to the whims of the militias on the ground. If it works out and the tens of thousands currently trapped are allowed to leave – the best possible outcome – then we will be witnesses to an internationally brokered forced population transfer. This is both a war crime and a crime against humanity, and a terrible image of the precarious state of the global system. The weight of this event, and its future ramifications, deserve more than just a few demonstrations.
The abandonment of Aleppo is a microcosm of the more general abandonment of Syria’s
democratic revolution. It exposes the failures of the Arab and Muslim worlds, of the West, and of humanity as a whole.
Many Syrians expected the global left would be first to support their cause, but most leftist commentators and publications retreated into conspiracy theories, Islamophobia, and inaccurate geo-political analysis, and swallowed gobbets of Assadist propaganda whole. Soon they were repeating the ‘war on terror’ tropes of the right.
The Obama administration provided a little rhetorical support, and sometimes allowed its allies to send weapons to the Free Army. Crucially, however, Obama vetoed supply of the anti-aircraft weapons the Free Army so desperately needed to counter Assad’s scorched earth. In August 2013, when Assad killed 1500 people with sarin gas in the Damascus suburbs, Obama’s chemical ‘red line’ vanished, and the US more or less publically handed Syria over to Russia and Iran.
A young woman ties a keffiyeh around her face. The text reads: “I’m coming out to protest.”
From a hole in another girl’s head, butterflies rush out. A girl shot in the head, like so many girls, but the butterflies suggest she’s achieved a kind of freedom – either the freedom that motivated the defiant act that provoked her murder, or simply the freedom of death. The text reads: “Your bullets have only killed the fear within us.”
Women have been at the forefront of Syria’s revolutionary struggle.
The two most important grassroots revolutionary coalitions were set up by women: the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution by Suhair Atassi, and the Local Coordination Committees by Razan Zeitouneh.
Suhair Atassi went on to play important roles in the Syrian National Council and the Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
As well as setting up the LCCs, Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer, helped establish the Violations Documentation Centre to record and publicise the regime’s killings and detentions. After some time living underground, she moved to Douma, a liberated town near Damascus, where she was forthright in her criticism of any authoritarian actor who sought to limit the people’s freedom, whether the regime or any of the militias which had been formed to fight the regime.
In December 2013 Razan was abducted, probably by Jaish al-Islam, an Islamist militia. Three others were taken with her: the activists Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi. Collectively they are known as the Douma Four. Nothing has been heard of them since.
Before her abduction, Samira Khalil, a former political prisoner, was setting up micro-finance projects and women’s centres in the Douma area. Similar centres operate all over those parts of Syria liberated from both Assad and ISIS.
This old man has habitually kind eyes
but now he’s in a rage
arms flap cheeks bunch hands wave
If you burn the earth under us
we will not leave
If you kill us all
we will not leave
If you bury us
we will not leave
The victory of a man on the floor of a cell
or hung from the ceiling
who does not count
who no longer feels the blows
The victory of a woman
who knows her rapist’s honour is wrecked
of a child
who draws a picture of a different city
Read the rest of this entry »
I was happy to have a chance to adress the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Irish Parliament. I spoke about the crushing of the Syrian revolution and the Russian and Iranian occupation of Syria. You can read my address below.
Before me, the committee was addressed by a delegation of the Syrian regime, headed by the state Mufti, Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun. Hassoun has previously threatened Europe and America with an army of suicide bombers, and has specifically called for the civilians of liberated Aleppo to be bombed. It’s incredible that such a man can get a visa to a European country (unlike millions of desperate Syrians who are not terrorists), let alone address a parliament. Hassoun was also invited to Trinity College, and (most ironic of all) to sign some declaration ‘against extremism’.
Some argue that Hassoun should be heard in the interests of balance and free speech. I say that all Syrian perspectives should be heard, and that I would have no problem with a delegation of pro-Assad civilians making their case. My problem is with this official regime propaganda exercise, at a time when the regime and its backers are slaughtering and expelling civilians en masse. And of course the people who talk about balance and free speech in this case don’t apply the principle in all cases. I don’t see official representatives of ISIS being invited to make their case in these settings. And ISIS, monstrous as it is, has killed, raped, and tortured far, far fewer people than the Assad regime.
Thanks to the work of the wonderful people in the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement, the Irish people were alerted to Hassoun’s nature. This report was on the RTE news. In the Arab media, Asharq Al-Awsat, al-Quds al-Arabi and the New Arab have also covered Hassoun’s visit.
Here is the filmed record of the sessions, first Hassoun’s group, then me. And here is my address:
Two posters juxtaposed.
A man impossibly crammed in a cage. “They struggled for our freedom,” reads the text, “so let’s struggle for theirs.”
Beside a noria, one of the ancient water-wheels of the ancient city of Hama, a child writes on a wall: “It will not happen again.” The phrase combines bitter irony and fierce defiance, for even as we read it we know that it has happened again, it is happening, and ten or a hundred times worse.
In 1982 there was a massacre in Hama. Its memory haunted and silenced Syrians until 2011. The massacre was a success for the regime, and therefore a model for its current policy.
An anti-regime movement began to organise in 1978. It wasn’t a mass movement of the scale and breadth of the 2011 revoution, but it included leftists, nationalists and democrats as well as Islamists. The regime responded with a dual policy of extreme repression and radicalisation of their opponents, murdering, torturing and imprisoning them en masse. By 1982 not much was left of the movement other than the radicalised armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood which, mixing stupidity with desperation, took over Hama by force of arms.
The regime welcomed the confrontation as an opportunity to teach the country an unforgettable lesson. Making no distinction between civilians and insurgents, its army levelled the city’s historical districts with tank, artillery and aerial bombardment. With churches, mosques and markets burning, its soldiers went house to house, riddling whole families with bullets. Estimates of the dead range from ten to forty thousand. Many thousands more were killed elsewhere in the country.
Thousands of political prisoners were thrown into the country’s dungeons. Hundreds were hanged, shot, or otherwise murdered inside. The rest languished for decades without sufficient food, medical care, any comfort or hope. Their relatives feared to ask after them.