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Adventures in Understanding the Other

Toronto —

There is a barbershop with Arabic signage that only takes cash in my sister’s neighbourhood. As I waited on the couch for my turn — is that Turkish I hear? —

Mehmet the barber turns out to be an old man from Konya. And after I butchered some Turkish — his eyes wide enough to ask me twice where I was actually from  — he was quick to get into the nitty gritty of my experiences in Gaziantep.

And of course the question came up — the question every Erdogan supporter asks every suspected non-Erdogan supporter — “What do you think of Erdogan?” I think this was around the time I was baring my throat.

I mulled — some might say hesitated — “But completely openly! Really be honest.” His insistence on this was earnest.

“I think he is  dangerous man,” I said. “Anyone with so much power in one country is dangerous. Maybe he was different when he was mayor of Istanbul, but now he has maybe changed.”

“Was that the wrong answer?” I smiled. The length of the ensuing pause told me it was.

“No! It was the right answer,” Mehmet grinned. “Because it was your right answer.”

I felt my next line was relatively incontrovertible — “You know they have locked up a number of journalists and closed many press outlets?”

“Well if they got arrested, they were not doing a good job in those cases.”

It was from there — after he said something I could not have disagreed with more —  we found common ground.

When an attack happens in Turkey, it is a spectacle — and when it is in London it hits home.

And “when the event suits their story, they are there with their cameras every day,” Mehmet said in reference to the Gezi Park protests.

That was a political movement a few years ago that had absolutely nothing to do with his political sensibilities — he came to Canada in 1994, the year many protesters would have been born.

He brought up the London attacks, how they have dominated the coverage ceaselessly. Meanwhile the US has destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq. And everyone in the west is getting a pass on both. These are all linked phenomena that inform his worldview (and it would be a fantasy effort to try to disentangle them).

And so I left — çok teşekkürler efendim baba thinking this is how these people get alienated. It is not just a disservice to the dead when Kurdish children in Gaziantep get killed by a Daesh suicide bomb that their photos don’t appear on BBC or CNN’s 24 hour fear watch —  like those poor concert-goers in Manchester — it is a very effective way to reinforce the distrust of the thinking people on the other side. Most people never even heard of the Gaziantep suicide bomb.

Mehmet’s reasons for supporting Erdogan has a lot to do with death and the destruction of Syria, of Iraq, of Afghanistan and his worries about Turkey. We spoke about the coup attempt of course. And you can argue that is misplaced (congratulations). But he has reasons — that is what is not meditated upon, most anti-Erdogan thinkers would leap to see him as someone who is politically manipulable, nothing more.

Outside of Iraq and Syria, Daesh has arguably done its worst in Turkey the past two years. The under-service of this reinforces the sort of division these same western media outlets present as a factual description of the world — that those like Mehmet are reactionaries who favour strongmen because they are somehow backwards.

The truth is those outside the western periphery are more likely to view every dead child as having equal value. If for the simple reason they remember the rocket attack down the street and they see coverage of Paris and Brussels on the news. The reverse isn’t true.

from Foreign Affairs

An overwhelming majority of those we surveyed—close to 90 percent—embraced the idea of returning to Syria when the war is over. These interviews thus provide a rare glimpse into the views of those who consider themselves part of the country’s future

This is curious.

This glimpse isn’t rare — nor is it really a glimpse. There are millions of Syrian refugees around the world and any one of them will tell you they want to go back as soon as is possible.

I can’t say why people use language like this. I can speculate it is because they feel it is necessary for the readership to swallow the conclusion or to justify the breadth of their investigation (if they hadn’t discovered something surprising ((which they didn’t)), would it have been worth surveying so many people?). It is written a bit like clickbait… they discovered something secret or hidden.

I don’t  understand why this is always framed as surprising or counterintuitive. Syrians want to go back to Syria because they are Syrians. The desire to return and settle/resettle in their own country should be the assumption, but in the marketplace of ideas this has to be continually re-established.

I feel this whole article is incredibly repetitious of what is known but bills it as discovered or novel. I don’t know what to make of it.

only 0.5 percent of people said they supported Assad.

We also already knew this.

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.’



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.