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?”
Rose Aguilar interviewed Leila al-Shami and I for ‘Your Call’ on San Francisco radio . We talked about our book, and dealt with a doubting caller. We did the interview from a Chicago studio, but later we visited the beautiful Bay Area. The picture is one of the many Mexican-style murals in the Outer Mission.
Listen to the interview here.
In this presentation on Syria – in green Seattle’s public library – Leila talks about Razan Zeitouneh, founder of the Local Coordination Committees, and Omar Aziz, the anarchist who first thought of building local councils. And I talk about the revolution’s cultural and media achievements. Interesting questions from the audience afterwards.
In New York (what an astounding city), Leila and I were interviewed by Brian Lehrer for his show on WNYC. We talked about Syria’s failing ceasefire, the illusory Damascus Spring, Assad’s collaboration with George W Bush, the history of the Baath, and Obama’s deals with Iran and Russia. A couple of listeners called in with questions – one about the sectarian element.
You can listen to the interview here.
This was published at al-Araby al-Jadeed/ the New Arab. The texts referred to are Ali Issa’s Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, and Sam Charles Hamad’s essay ‘The Rise of Daesh in Syria’, found in Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution.
A great deal has been written on the factors behind the rise of ISIS, or Daesh, in Iraq and Syria. Too much of the commentary focuses on abstracts – Islam in total, or Gulf-Wahhabi expansionism, or a vaguely stated American imperialism – according to whichever axe the author wishes to grind. And too much describes a simple split in these societies, and therefore a binary choice, between different forms of sectarian authoritarianism – in Iraq it’s either ISIS or the US and Iranian-backed government’s Shia militias; in Syria it’s either ISIS or the Russian and Iranian-backed Assad regime forces.
To take this representation seriously, we must force ourselves to ignore the very real third option – the non-sectarian struggle against the tyrannical authoritarianism of all states involved, whether Iraqi, Syrian or ‘Islamic’. Hundreds of democratic councils survive in Syria’s liberated areas, alongside a free media, women’s centres, and a host of civil society initiatives. In Iraq too, though it holds no land, there is a potential alternative, at least a gleam of light. The Iraqi state’s attempt to smother this gleam is an immediate and regularly overlooked cause of ISIS’s ascendance.
Someone in New York sneered and said Washington was a sterile city, but I liked DC a lot during our two-day visit. The centre is full of people from everywhere, lobbying, plotting and misgoverning. The rest of the city has a mainly black population. We stayed with wonderful people, ate good food, and the sun was shining, the trees in bloom. I met my niece, lots of lovely Syrians, and some great Arab thinkers at the Tahrir Institute, most notably Hassan Hassan. The Museum of the American Indian is worth a visit too.
At the Middle East Institute our talk was chaired by the great scholar Charles Lister, author of the indispensable book The Syrian Jihad. Here Leila talks about the aspects of the Syrian revolution rendered invisible by Western commentary, and I talk about what’s stopping us seeing: ideological assumptions, and the fact of war. Q and A afterwards.