More from Yassin al-Haj Saleh

This interview is some seven months old, but it is still highly relevant today to understanding the way in which western people speak about Syria:

I don’t expect much out of the international left, but I thought they would understand our situation and see us as a people who were struggling against a very despotic, very corrupt, and very sectarian regime. I thought they would see us and side with us. What I found, unfortunately, is that most people on the left know absolutely nothing about Syria. They know nothing of its history, political economy, or contemporary circumstances, and they don’t see us.

In America, the leftists are against the establishment in their own country. In a way, they thought that the U.S. establishment was siding with the Syrian revolution — something that is completely false and an utter lie — and for this reason they have stood against us. And this applies to leftists almost everywhere in the world. They are obsessed with the White House and the establishment powers of their own countries.

A bit also to highlight, about the differences between theory and practice:

The experience of prison transformed me and my ideas about the world. In many ways, it was an emancipatory experience. I developed the belief that to protect our fundamental values of justice, freedom, human dignity, and equality, we had to change our concepts and theories. The Soviet Union had fallen and many changes were occurring in the world. My comrades who refused to change, those who adhered to their old methods and tools, found themselves in a position of leaving their values behind. This is one reason why many leftists today are against the Syrian revolution — because they adhere to the dead letter of their beliefs, rather than the living struggle of the people for justice.

 

 

Depopulated Narratives

There is an important article out this month from Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, handily translated into great English by Yaaser Azzayyaa.

It addresses a pervasive toxicity running through nearly all English discourse on matters Syrian. That being: when people speak about Syria in English they never concern themselves with Syrians. They don’t reference Syrian voices. Maybe as anecdotes of the experiential, but almost never as authoritative. It would be difficult to improve on the hyperlinked article. It is better than accurate and precise.

a German, a Brit, or an American activist would argue with a Syrian over what is really happening in Syria. It looks like they know more about the cause than Syrians themselves. We are denied “epistemological agency,” that is, our competence in providing the most informed facts and nuanced analysis about our country. Either there is no value to what we say, or we are confined to lesser domains of knowledge, turned into mere sources for quotations that a Western journalist or scholar can add to the knowledge he produces. They may accept us as sources of some basic information, and may refer to something we, natives, said in order to sound authentic, but rarely do they draw on our analysis. This hierarchy of knowledge is very widespread and remains under-criticized in the West.

 

 

Sitting on the Thames last week (that is to say, sitting privileged), taking a couple pints with a veteran journalist who has more bylines in real newspapers than there are flimsy posts on this website, he mentioned that usually, after he outlines the project being attempted (and failed) here, the curiosity of his audience almost always lies with the author, not the topic.

That is to say Syria is merely the buzzword by which a fellow white person piques their interest.

This is the norm, not an unruly exception. A huge portion of westerners consume Syria related content with the purpose of appearing sympathetic should the opportunity to do so present itself. They want both to be considered informed and to consider themselves informed. Solidarity has nothing to do with it, actually.

I used to pooh-pooh such people on the basis that truth wasn’t their highest value. But as disturbing and destructive as such casual epistemological approaches can be, a far more troublesome realisation has slowly washed over me. That human solidarity is completely absent from both the hierarchy of their present needs and the hierarchy of their desired needs.

In theory these people consider the Syrian catastrophe real. If you ask them, of course they will tell you as much. But if you were to look at the manner in which they engage with it, you would observe someone for whom the catastrophe is virtual. It is a simulated object.

There is another western propensity that wants to understand the human disaster in terms of how the geopolitical chess board now stands (also analysed by Saleh). Every event has ramifications for states with various histories, alliances, interests, influences, and power relations. And again the purpose of keeping up with the events, for them, is to know how such an event will affect ephemeralities — Russia’s relationship with America, Israeli leadership’s assessment of Erdogan’s sphere of influence, and endlessly so forth.

I notice two things about this.

First, there is nothing actionable at the end of their investigation. Knowing is the end in of itself. They can reflect more accurately on the great game in which they will never possess any agency. In almost every case, confessing to agency otherwise is an incredible delusion of grandeur. And knowing is also far away. You will memorise the complete book of modern chess openings in shorter order — thus time passes and so did your opportunity to do something for an actual person.

Second, the actors discussed have access to violence, whether its Russia, Hezbollah, Assad, the YPG, or Daesh. And therefore in choosing such focus these information consumers participate in the most base, depopulated narrative.

One that makes no real mention of something — let’s call it the enormity — that some half a million people have been killed for no reason. That something on the order of ten million have been displaced. For nothing. That twenty million people are and have been living in constant dread that any day now they will get horrifying news about their family or friends on Whatsapp. For no purpose. To no end. With no possible comeuppance or rectification.

Meanwhile the opportunities to be in solidarity with Syrians is effectively endless. It is actually easy to do something to help. But people opt to invest time in making sure their words are chosen carefully, that they don’t embarrass themselves.

As a friend and I settled on last night, there is a big difference between appearing as you should, a polite person in polite society, being nice to others, and being in human solidarity.

The difference between this niceness/politeness and solidarity is like the difference between the heavens and the earth, actually.

Black in Bosphorus Review of Books

The Bosphorus Review of Books, an English bi-monthly centred in Istanbul, came out with its third issue May 1st, and my piece, Black, can be found there:

My son must go to check on my daughter, to find her. My daughter called to say she was trapped and cannot go out, the plane is in the sky, ‘Please open a way to take me out of this place.’

The husband of my daughter, he was imprisoned by the regime at the time. So my son was the only one to rescue her. And he went to this place and brought her out, even though it was difficult.

He saw all of these people killed on the way. He saw pieces of people everywhere along the road. After he saw all of these people dying and in pieces on the ground, he decided to go to the Free Syrian Army.

I told him ‘Please, don’t go.’

 

Sarin

Well into the English version of Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (Haruki Murakami), we meet Yoshiko Wada, whose husband died of sarin poisoning.

Even the media, they didn’t say a thing about how the victims died in agony. Not a word. There was a little at the time of the Matsumoto incident, but with the gas attack, nothing. Strange. So I’m sure the majority of people out there probably imagine they just keeled over and died “normal” deaths. The same with the newspaper articles. I only learned how painfully my husband died when the prosecutor read me those testimonies. I want more people to know the truth about just how horrible it was… Otherwise, it all becomes somebody else’s problem.

 

 

More than simply being “anti-war” is required of you in order to be a critical thinker.

Eighty-six people died writhing agonising deaths and it amazes me that people with no knowledge whatsoever could pretend to have enough knowledge of the military realities on the ground in Idlib to form an opinion. The worst offenders are those adopting the language of critical thinking without doing any of the legwork, as if every question of geopolitics and massacre could be answered from the vista of their armchair.

They remind me of those cab drivers who start some revelatory story about cold fusion with “I’ve done a lot of research and…” I have yet to meet someone who speaks in that manner who knows what research is. The best sources are books and being there. And if you are unwilling to delve into either you better have a really strong reason.

 

 

 

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The Narrative, Again and Again

After first reading The Black Swan, I read it again.

There the narrative fallacy appears repeatedly. It is a bit hypocritical to say the book is under-read and under-understood, while in this very space using narrative to forward certain perspectives. Even if those perspectives are ‘laudable’ — humanising Syrians, de-mystifying Turkey, what have you — it is still trading in cognitive fallacy. I am not going to resolve this point.

I woke up in Tel Aviv this morning and went for a walk south along the water. Picture evidence (timestamped 1:39pm). I made my way back to the spot where the picture is taken and grabbed some frozen yogurt (2:30pm-3:00pm).

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At that same time, less than 50 meters away, a man from Nablus (according to the Jerusalem Post) was stabbing four people. None were seriously injured (so far as I know) and the man was arrested shortly after. I was blissfully unaware. There seemed to be a lot of sirens and police presence on the beach even as I had walked up and down it in the hour before the attack.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (I’ve also seen/read it as Holocaust Memorial Day) and I was surprised how many of the shops and restaurants in the neighbourhood were open. Strange, I thought, seems like an ordinary day here. At around six o’clock, once the sun was low enough, I went for a run, north, along the beach.

I ran and ran and I saw many families walking on the beach in orthodox clothing, beside joggers running in short shorts and spandex. My experience of the city through twenty kilometers of waterfront was positively idyllic. I still hadn’t connected to the internet, so I still didn’t know about the nearby attack.

When I returned to the room I had rented, I quickly showered and went to find something to eat. To my surprise everything was closed. I came to a grocery store, the sign flipped to ‘closed’ as I approached. Out of luck and hungry.

Before I had realised this was the state of affairs, the first restaurant I had walked by seemed open. I went back to it. It was 8:05. All the chairs were on the tables but the light was on and the door open. One guy (the owner, turns out) was eating alone at the one table with a chair down. I went in and from the counter saw some guys working in the kitchen. They emerged.

Next I was told the restaurant was closed by about six men, each believing I had not understood the English of the previous one, even though each in succession said the exact same phrase. Really by the time the second was informing me I was asking (with apparently uncommunicative hand gestures), did they know anywhere that was still open?

The sixth, a cook, identified by the others as English fluent, was last to come out of the kitchen to meet me.

Cook: Sorry we are closed.

Me: Yes, I gathered

Cook: Yes, it is the law. Eight o’clock.

Me: Right, do you know anywhere that is open?

Cook: I do not know. But I do know that everywhere else you can go is closed.

Me: I see.

Pause.

I don’t immediately leave because there is nowhere to go. Slight crestfallenness apparent.

[brief conspiratorial discussion among employees happy to be done working]

Cook: We can give you a dish of take out.

Me: That would be amazing. [reaches in pocket] How much is it?

Cook: Nothing, it is a gift.

Me: What really? [or something like this]

Cook: Yes, it is a gift. It is chicken and rice, called Upside Down. It is from Nabulus, this recipe.

Me: Nablus? [I surely mispronounced]

Cook: Yes, a city in Palestine, in the West Bank. Many tourists visit there. It is beautiful, I think you should go if you have time.

Me: Thank you so much, really.

Cook: Nothing to thank for duty.

 

This was obviously la-shukra ala wagib translated to English. But for whatever reason (dimness) I stuck to English instead of saying shukran jazeelan. I will rectify this tomorrow.  We exchanged names, I thanked them a few more times and ate my delicious food in the park nearby.

The police drive up and down the streets, I found out subsequently, to make sure every store is closed. So this was no small favour.

The man from Nabulus really saved me tonight. Narrative, narrative.

Leonard Cohen hearing in Gaziantep

Everyone knows the ship is sinking/ everyone knows the captain lied.

These lyrics were repeated to me last night in wake of the referendum’s results.

Also from the same song;

Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

There is definitely a feeling of decline present in Turkey, in the young, in the educated, in the secular, in the liberal, corners, in which I often find myself. Many Syrians were already resigned here — now crestfallenness has come to the Turks.

It is important not to be a fatalist.