Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Posts Tagged ‘Gamal AbdulNasser

A Country of Words

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“We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere…

We have a country of words.”

A traditional Arab media operation, according to Abdel Bari Atwan, is “characterised by editorial interference from the owners, slavishness to social hierarchies, backstabbing and nepotism.” It goes without saying that all the Arab local-national press, TV and radio stations are controlled by their respective regimes. Only in the pan-Arab sphere, beyond the control of any single regime, is there a possibility of anything better. Yet of the pan-Arab newspapers, ash-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat are owned by different branches of the Saud family dictatorship, while the smaller-circulation al-Arab is part of the Libyan regime’s propaganda apparatus. Even after the satellite revolution, pan-Arab TV remains tame and partial, fattened and diluted by Gulf money, often providing its viewers a contradictory diet of Islamic and American-consumerist bubble gum. The second most famous channel in the Arab world, al-Arabiyya, is yet another mouthpiece for the Sauds (during last winter’s Gaza massacre it became known amongst Arabs as al-Ibriyya, or ‘the Hebrew’). The most famous channel, al-Jazeera, is of course the model that broke the mould. Its challenging reporting and inclusion of all sides in open debate has had a revolutionary effect on the Arabs.

Al-Jazeera’s print equivalent is the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, founded in 1989, seven years before al-Jazeera. It may not have the immediate impact or mass audience of al-Jazeera (it’s banned in most Arab countries) but with its cast of excellent writers, its fearless exposure of Arab regime corruption, its scoops (al-Qa’ida chooses to communicate with the world through its pages), its renowned culture section, and its refusal to bury news from Palestine behind the football results, al-Quds al-Arabi is indispensable. Rather than backstabbing, its staff have sometimes worked for no pay to keep the operation afloat. Its founder, editorialist and editor-in-chief Abdel Bari Atwan is as passionate and articulate in speech as on the page, and is admired by the Arabs for his call-a-spade-a-spade style on those TV channels which dare to host him, usually al-Jazeera Arabic and Hizbullah’s al-Manar. Atwan’s “The Secret History of al-Qa’ida” is a book-length account of his meeting with Osama bin Laden and of the development of the al-Qa’ida network. Now Atwan has written an autobiographical memoir titled with a line from a Mahmoud Darwish poem, “A Country of Words.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 23, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Two Stages of the Syrian Ba’ath

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stamp commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Ba'ath's founding

Again inspired by Hanna Batatu’s excellent book, here are some notes on the first two of the three stages of the Ba’ath Party in Syria. I haven’t mentioned the party’s development in Iraq.

The first Ba’ath was the old Ba’ath, and it was led by ideals. The party’s founders, Michel Aflaq (a Christian) and the two Bitars (Sunnis) were the sons of grain merchants from the Damascus suburb of Maydan, and were genuinely motivated by the desire for a unified Arab state. They were of the commercial class that felt most immediately the loss of the natural Arab marketplace entailed by the Sykes-Picot partition and the actions of the French Mandate. The French had ceded Arab-majority areas north of Aleppo to Turkey, and in 1939 handed over the entire Iskenderoon governorate (which had an Arab and Alawi majority) in return for Turkish neutrality in the approaching European war. From 1925 to 26 the Druze had risen against the French under the anti-sectarian slogan ‘Religion is for God and the Homeland For All.’ The Ghuta peasant-gardeners, aflame with the nationalism of nearby Damascus, also struck, and the French bombarded the Ghuta with artillery and planes. The 1948 fall of Palestine added impetus to the pan-nationalist agenda. Sunnis from Deir ez-Zor, now cut off from their kinsmen and marketplaces in Iraq, were also attracted to Arabism.

Before it became a party of policemen and bureaucrats the Ba’ath was a party of schoolteachers (the leadership) and schoolboys (the mass membership). Pedagogic aims run deep in the Ba’ath’s family history. The subject of instruction at this stage was an unfeasibly romantic vision of the Arabs, something beyond the traditional nationalist picture of the Arabs as a people united by language and culture, in other words by historical forces. The Ba’ath saw the Arabs as a nation outide history, as an eternal creative force and unified will (Henri Bergson’s philosophy was important), and Ba’athist rhetoric transported spiritual language into nationalist discourse. Umma Arabiya Wahida, goes the slogan, Zat Risala Khalida. Or One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message. Umma hitherto referred to the Islamic community, not the Arabs, and Risala is the word used for God’s message transmitted by Muhammad, the Rasool. Like Zionism, Stalinism, fascism and hedonist-consumerism, the Ba’ath was one of the 20th Century’s attempts to secularise and channel people’s religious impulses, to provide a substitute for the crumbling or crumbled traditional religions.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 27, 2009 at 1:36 pm