Podcast: The Israeli passion for Arabic music

 
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By Khaled Diab

Mizrahi Jews are reviving the Arabic music of their heritage and fusing it with new influences, which is proving popular with young Palestinians.

 

An Israeli magazine from 2104 has a cover story on Umm Kulthoum, with the headline "Enta Omri".

An Israeli magazine from 2014 has a cover story on Umm Kulthoum, with the headline “Enta Omri”.

Thursday 31 March 2016

Like Cold War Moscow was for the West, Israel is the location for many an Arab spy thriller. So, by rights, my first visit, nearly a decade ago, should have been accompanied by suspenseful, high-tempo incidental music.

Instead, as I watched the Tel Aviv skyline whizz by in a blur from the taxi window, my ears were telling me I was in a Cairene ahwa, or traditional teahouse, not in Israel. The dulcet, glass-shattering, tones of Umm Kulthoum bombarded my eardrums.

Enta omri,” “You are my life,” sang the taxi driver, undaunted by the enormity of the task of emulating the Arab world’s most revered singer. His gravelly, tuneless voice, thickened by too many years of too much smoke, jarred painfully against the deep, husky mystery of Umm Kulthoum’s own contralto voice.

Statistically speaking, of course, my surprise was unfounded, as I’ve discovered over four years of living here.

Although Israel’s image abroad and the self-image it projects is very Western, about half of its Jewish population originates in the Middle East, but it is coy of showing this Arab face to the world.

Known as Mizrahi, or Eastern Jews in Hebrew, the first generation were born in Arab countries, the second generation grew up in Arabic-speaking households, and many in the third generation are busy rediscovering their roots.

The first generation had it tough. They fled their homelands out of fear following the creation of Israel, landed in desolate refugee camps and were usually sent off to remote “development towns” which never developed into anything beyond a receptacle for broken promises and shattered dreams.

Their Arab culture, which was also the culture of the enemy, was shunned and looked down upon by the Ashkenazi pioneers who founded Israel. This led the Mizrahim to seek escape from the offending Mizrahiness.

However, even if their culture was shunned in public, the Mizrahim maintained it in private, speaking Arabic at home and listening to the music they had grown up with. This was driven home to me by Murad, a oud player I met, who performed Arabic music at weddings and bar mitzvahs for the Iraqi community.

Despite having left his native Baghdad as a child, Mordechai, as he was known in Hebrew, had a large repertoire of Arabic songs, spoke fluent Baghdadi Arabic and had picked up the Palestinian dialect.

Some of the musicians who moved to Israel were among the crème de la crème of Arabic music, but found no interest from the Ashkenazi establishment. These included Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti.

Born in Kuwait to an Iraqi-Jewish family, the Kuwaiti brothers were popular both with the political elite, including Iraq’s then King Faisal, and the masses in Iraq and the Gulf, though they were expunged for decades from the Arab collective memory. In Israel, they fared no better. Saleh and Daoud were forced to eke out an existence as shopkeepers in Tel Aviv and sang in small bars.

Decades later, Daoud’s grandson Dudu Tassa revived their memory by fusing their songs with the guitar riffs he had become famous for as a rocker. And Tassa is not alone. Recent years have seen Mizrahi music come out of the home and on to the radio, TV and the club scene. You can hear it at parties, weddings and even on Saturday nights at Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s covered market.

Numerous young artists have reclaimed the Iraqi, Yemeni and North African music of their ancestors, others have mixed it with other genres to create original new sounds. Some sing in the Arabic of their heritage, while others perform in the Hebrew of their present.  There are Israeli artists who cover classics of Arab song or take the tunes and plonk Hebrew lyrics on them.

Despite the distrust of Israel and growing hatred towards Israelis in Palestinian society, Mizrahi music in Hebrew has a surprisingly strong following among young Palestinians, a trend which confounded a Palestinian artist friend who hears it all around the Bethlehem area. Even more bewildering, a trickle of Palestinian artists are singing Mizrahi music in Hebrew, such as Nasreen Qadri, who has found mainstream success.

While some Palestinian activists I know dismiss this interest in Mizrahi music as a form of assimilationism with the occupier and an expression of self-hatred, I think its causes run deeper. Despite their disparate politics, young Mizrahim and Palestinians have a lot  in common: they are socioeconomically marginalised, their forebears were uprooted and their culture has been under threat.

As is the case with African-Americans, the fact that Mizrahi music has become hip and mainstream does not mean that the Mizrahim are no longer marginalised. Despite some success stories, the Israeli establishment and upper echelons are still firmly Ashkenazi.

This growing cultural pride has not translated into greater sympathy for Palestinians and Arabs. In fact, there has been a hardening of sentiment and a troubling surge in anti-Arab racism.

This is disheartening to Mizrahi activists I know who possess the dream that their communities’ Arab roots can help bridge the gaping chasm separating Israelis and Palestinians.

This is unlikely to happen for many long years to come. But one day the Mizrahim and Palestinian appreciation for the same music may help them find the cultural common ground to hit the same notes politically and work in concert towards a better future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This report was first broadcast on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on  26 March 2016.

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Make diplomacy, not war

 
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By Khaled Diab

The world is paying the price for Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s foiled attempts to reform the United Nations into an effective force to resolve conflicts.

Photo: UN

Photo: UN

Tuesday 1 March 2016

As Egyptian diplomacy shifts from the art of the possible to the farce of the improbable, Egypt bids farewell to perhaps its most capable and accomplished international diplomat.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 93, whose long life included an illustrious academic career, long service in the Egyptian government, as well as a stint as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, died in his hometown, Cairo, on Tuesday 16 February.

Born into a prominent aristocratic family in 1922, Boutros-Ghali was the grandson of his namesake, Egypt’s first Coptic prime minister, Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated for his perceived pro-British stance.

Raised in a cosmopolitan environment at a time when Egypt was a more diverse country, Boutros-Ghali possessed an easy multiculturalism. This was reflected in his mastery of French and English, as well as his decades-long marriage to Leia Nadler, who was born into a wealthy Alexandrian Jewish family.

After gaining qualifications from Cairo and Paris, Boutros-Ghali became an eminent professor of international law and international relations at Cairo University. He departed academia, though he was to return regularly, to enter politics in the 1970s.

Egypt’s embattled president at the time, Anwar al-Sadat, took Boutros-Ghali on board to aid him in his controversial bid to forge peace with Israel. In Arab eyes, this is the darkest point in his long career.

Despite his public support for Sadat, Boutros-Ghali had many private misgivings about the peace process: Israel’s refusal to deal with the Palestinian question, Arab rejectionism, as well as Sadat’s acquiescence to Menachem Begin’s demands, his cavalier attitude towards the Arab world and the president’s undermining of the Egyptian negotiating team.

“Sadat had concluded that Egypt could not undertake a major effort to gain the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people as long as Egyptian territory lay under Israeli control,” the frustrated diplomat wrote in his diary. “I was convinced that no treaty of peace could endure unless it included measures for Palestinian rights.”

One can only imagine how different the Israeli-Palestinian context would have been today had Israel sought a peace deal with the Palestinians alongside Egypt, had the Arabs dropped their rejectionist posturing and joined Egypt to form a united front, and had Sadat courted the Arab world instead of berating it.

But the idea that Boutros-Ghali had sold out the Arab and African cause is an unfair one. He just pursued it in his own way, whether you agree with it or not, as his subsequent track record shows.

For example, Boutros-Ghali humbly never took public credit for one of his most significant achievements, both symbolically and politically, the secret talks he held to help negotiate the release of Nelson Mandela.

As the first African and Arab to become UN Secretary General, in 1991, the mild-mannered, self-effacing, but tough Egyptian sought to transform the international body at a time when the world was taking new form after the end of the Cold War.

Against the backdrop of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Boutros-Ghali quickly set to work, formulating an innovative Agenda for Peace which expanded the then focus on peacekeeping to embrace preventive diplomacy, and to  encompass post-conflict peacebuilding.

But for the law-professor-turned-diplomat, the new world order would not be made by peace alone. To complete a complementary trinity of sorts, Boutros-Ghali formulated an Agenda for Development and an Agenda for Democratisation, which was his parting gift as he was being pushed out of office.

Boutros-Ghali stands before a shed containing the remains of scores of dead killed during a massacre at Nyarubuye Church, in south-eastern Rwanda. Photo: UN

Boutros-Ghali stands before a shed containing the remains of scores of dead killed during a massacre at Nyarubuye Church, in south-eastern Rwanda.
Photo: UN

Barely two years after formulating his blueprint for preventing, making and keeping peace, the Rwandan genocide, in which up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were bludgeoned to death, occurred.

While an independent report found that Boutros-Ghali and his team had missed important signals that a genocide was imminent, the team document apportioned most of the blame on the permanent members of the UN’s Security Council: their failure to provide peacekeepers with a mandate to use military force and their unwillingness to send troops once the mass killings began.

“We cannot solve every such outburst of civil strife or militant nationalism simply by sending in our forces,” the then American president Bill Clinton said dismissively, despite desperate UN appeals.

Frustrated by Western stalling, Boutros-Ghali turned to African heads of state. “I begged them to send troops,” he disclosed at the time. “Unfortunately, let us say with great humility, I failed. It is a scandal.”

The Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica.

The Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica.

At around the same time, Bosnian Serbs massacred over 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks in Srebenicia despite the presence of UN peacekeepers. A later investigation partly blamed the UN’s “philosophy of neutrality and nonviolence” for enabling the mass killings. However, as with Rwanda, most of the blame was placed at the feet of the Security Council and its unwillingness to commit enough troops and give them the mandate to use force.

This inertia caused by individual member states, especially those seated on the Security Council, was what Boutros-Ghali had presciently attempted to shore up with his Agenda for Peace. Although the document did not call for the rethinking of the Security Council, it did recommend the establishment of forces to prevent conflict and enforce the peace, a special peace fund and the right for the UN to levy taxes to finance operations.

But now that the United States had become the world’s sole superpower, it was in no mood for such multilateral reforms. Although Boutros-Ghali’s constant drive for reform and his relative prioritisation of Africa and developing countries endeared him to most member states, Washington was livid.

This said more about Pax Americana than it did about Boutros Ghali. As Le Monde Diplomatique pointed out at the time, this scion of a wealthy Egyptian family was no “dangerous subversive” but an “enlightened conservative”.

And the experience of being booted out of the UN was enlightening for Boutros-Ghali. “It would be some time before I fully realised that the United States sees little need for diplomacy; power is enough,” he wrote. “Diplomacy is perceived by an imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a sign of weakness.”

Boutros-Ghali spent the rest of his years promoting, in his cautious, “enlightened conservative” kind of way, pluralism, multilateralism, and multiculturalism, which he viewed as “the essence of democracy”.

Among other things, he became secretary-general of la Francophonie, the French equivalent of the British Commonwealth, and served as director of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights.

With the Middle East ablaze and the international community unable to cope with the spreading flames, one thing is clear: the world needs to appoint another reformer to lead the UN and to empower him or her to reinvent it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 February 2016.

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ليست سورية هي المسألة، المسألة هي العالم

 
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بقلم بوستيان فيدمشك

في لقاء موسع، يتحدث الكاتب والناشط البارز ياسين الحاج صالح هنا عن سوريا الماضي، الحاضر المأساوي والمستقبل المجهول.

صوري 1

الأربعاء 27 يناير 2016

ياسين الحاج صالح، من مواليد 1961، كاتب سوري يعيش في تركيا منذ خريف 2013. كان سجينا سياسيا شيوعيا أيام حافظ الأسد لمدة 16 عاما. زوجته سميرة الخليل مخطوفة منذ الشهر الأخير في عام 2013 من دوما في غوطة دمشق، وأخوه فراس مخطوف من قبل داعش في الرقة منذ تموز 2013. وله كتب منشورة عن الشأن السوري، وعن الإسلام المعاصر، وعن تجربة السجن.

نشرت هذه المقابلة باللغة الانجليزية هنا

ترجم المقابلة عن الانجليزية فاتح تامر، وراجعها ياسين الحاج صالح

_____

كيف حالك؟ وأين تعيش اليوم؟
أنا بخير، شكراً على السؤال. حين كنت في سوريا اعتدت على القول: ليس لدي أسباب شخصية للشكوى، ولا أسباب عامة للرضا. لكن بعد الثورة، واختطاف زوجتي سميرة وشقيقي فراس، ثم عيشي خارج البلد، في اسطنبول، صار ما هو شخصي عاماً وسياسياً أكثر من أي وقت مضى، وما هو عام وسياسي صار شخصياً جدا. إنها حياة صراع.

بماذا تشعر عندما ترى الكثير من أبناء بلدك ينزحون من النزاع الأسوأ في وقتنا الحالي؟ هل توقعت هذه الهجرة الجماعية؟
قبل أسابيع، ساعدت شخصيا بتهريب زوجة أخي وابنهما من تركيا إلى اليونان. وكمبتدئ في هذه الصنعة، استشرت أصدقاء، والتقيت بمهربين، واخترت أحدهم في النهاية. كنت قلقاً على سلامتهم، واسترخيت طبعا لدى وصولهم إلى بلد أوروبي، وإن لم يكن البلد الذي أرادوا الوصول إليه في البداية. يبقى الآن تدبير أمر النصف الآخر من العائلة، أخي وابنيه الأصغرين، ليلتحق بالنصف الأول. وبمساعدة أصدقاء، نعمل الآن على تأمين شقيقي الآخر وعائلته في بلد آخر، هذا بعد أن تم اغتيال صديق مشترك لنا، الصحفي والمخرج الوثائقئ ناجي الجرف في 27 كانون الأول 2015 في تركيا.
كما ترى، ندعو أنفسنا إلى عالم لم يكن كريما معنا ولم يساعدنا على التحرر في وطننا.

لا، لم أتصور يوماً إمكانية حصول نزوح واسع كهذا. لم أتوقع أن يتمكن النظام من قتل مئات الآلاف من السوريين، وأن ترتفع حظوظه بالبقاء بالسلطة كلما ازداد عدد ضحاياه. لم أتوقع نشوء كيان متوحش مثل داعش. ولم أعتقد بإمكانية مشاركة حوالي 70 دولة في قصف بلدي، قصف لا يستهدف المجرم الذي يحكم البلد، بل قوة إجرام جانبية.

كيف ترى التعاطي الأوروبي مع أزمة اللاجئين؟

كلي إعجاب بكثير من الأشخاص من البلدان الأوروبية، متطوعات ومتطوعين أفرادا. معجب بكرمهم وشجاعتهم، وأراهم يشرفون الجنس البشري. تأثرت كثيراً برسالة وصلتني من امرأة نرويجية قبل حين، جاءت من بلدها لتساعد اللاجئين في جزيرة ليسبوس اليونانية. أما بالنسبة للحكومات فليس من العدل أن تشمل بمجموعة واحدة، ألمانيا ليست كهنغاريا، والسويد ليست كالدنمارك، لكن أظن بأن الدول كلها تعمل على بناء أسواء عالية حولها لمنع تدفق اللاجئين إليها، وبشكل خاص الفقراء والضعفاء منهم.
تقوم الحكومات الأوروبية منذ شهور بالضغط على أنقرة لعدم السماح لللاجئين بمغادرة تركيا. في تشرين الثاني 2015 دفعوا للحكومة التركية مبلغ 3 مليار يورو مقابل حماية الحدود الأوروبية من خطر اللاجئين.
مع كل هذا الدم الذي أريق تحت أنظار العالم خلال الأعوام الخمسة الماضية قادت البشري نفسها نحو الفقدان الكامل للشعور الأخلاقي. أعتقد بأن عدم الاكتراث الذي أظهره العالم بخصوص المحنة السورية سيؤدي بالمؤسسات السياسية كلها إلى إحساس أدنى بالمعاناة الإنسانية في كل أنحاء العالم.

في وضعٍ غارق بالفوضى كهذا، أين ترى يمكن الحل أو الحلول؟
يمكن للمرء أن يفكر بتسوية تاريخية تنهي الحرب، وتضمن انسحاباً شاملاً للقوات الأجنبية، وتؤسس لبيئة سياسية مختلفة كليا في البلد. يمكن لحل سياسي مستدام أن يبنى حصراً على أساس أكثرية سياسية جديدة في سورية. ولا يمكن تحقيق هذا الأمر عن طريق مواجهة داعش لوحدها، أو النظام لوحده. يتطلب وجود أكثرية سورية جديدة حدوث تغيير سياسي جوهري، وهو الأمر الذي لا يمكن تصوره بدون وضع حد نهائي لحكم سلالة الأسد، وهي في السلطة منذ أكثر من 45 سنة،وتتحمل المسؤولية عن حربين كبيرتين في البلد: حرب 1979-1982 وحرب 2011 الجارية الآن.
هذا التغيير هو الشرط السياسي والأخلاقي المسبق للوصول إلى حرب على داعش بمشاركة واسعة من قبل السوريين. ما زالت القوى العالمية حتى الآن تحاول وضع العربة أمام الحصان عن طريق استهداف داعش وحدها، متجاهلة جذورالعسكرة والتطرف والطائفية خلال السنوات الخمس الماضية، أعني نظام الأسد. هذه سياسة قصيرة النظر ومحكومة بالفشل، بصرف النظر عن أنها لا أخلاقية. إنها وصفة مثالية لحربٍ لا تنتهي.
يمكن أن يتم بناء سوريا الجديدة على عدد من الأسس الجوهرية: اللامركزية، اعتبار الجماعات الإثنية والدينية والمذهبية المختلفة جماعات متساوية تأسيسيا، مساواة حقوقية وسياسية بين المواطنين الأفراد (عرب وكرد وآخرون، مسلمون ومسيحيون وآخرون، سنيون وعلويون وآخرون: متدينون وعلمانيون وآخرون). من غير المقبول الحديث عن سوريا كدولة علمانية، كما تنص وثيقة فيينا الموضوعة في 30 تشرين الأول 2015، حين لا تتطرق الوثيقة نفسها لأي شيء عن العدالة والمحاسبة، وتتجنب كلمة الديمقراطية. هذا الضرب من إعطائنا محاضرات عن العلمانية يذكر بأسوأ خصائص الخطاب الاستعماري.

ماذا يجدر بما يسمى “المجتمع الدولي” فعله؟ وماذا عن الأمم المتحدة؟
السنوات الخمسة الماضية كانت فرصة ممتازة لمتابعة آلية عمل المؤسسات الدولية والقوى العالمية. بالنسبة لي لم تعد القضية قضية سورية وحدها، إنها قضية العالم. ليس الأمر أنني لا أتابع ما يجري في بلدي، لكن العالم حالياً موجود في سوريا (70 دولة دخلت بالحرب هناك).
أرى أن عالم اليوم يفتقر إلى كوامن العدالة والحرية أكثر من أي وقت مضى منذ نحو قرن. في كانون الأول من 2015 ألمح فلاديمير بوتين إلى إمكانية استخدام الأسلحة النووية ضد “الإرهابيين”، هذا تصريح استثنائي وغير مسؤول، وقد قوبل بصمت مطبق من المجتمع الدولي. بعده بأيام قال الرجل نفسه بأن العملية العسكرية الروسية في سوريا “لا تشكل عبئا على الميزانية… بل إن من الصعب تخيل تدريب أفضل منها للقوات الروسية. يمكن أن نتدرب هناك لمدة طويلة من دون أن نلحق أي ضرر بخزينتنا”. تصريح مليء بالغطرسة الاستعمارية، لكنه لم يستثر أي ردة فعل على الإطلاق من الأمم المتحدة أو القادة الغربيين، ولا من مجموعات حقوق الإنسان أو المنظمات اليسارية في العالم.
تطور الوضع في سوريا من ثورة ضد الطغيان الى مسألة عالمية، المسألة السورية. أرى أن صنع المسائل هو النهج السياسي للأقوياء في صنع التاريخ. المسائل أوضاع معقدة تبث اليأس في النفوس، وهي تدوم عقوداً أو أجيالاً بأكملها أو “إلى لأبد”، كما يقول أحد شعارات موالي الأسد، وخلال هذا الوقت الطويل ينشبك الفقراء والضعفاء في أوضاع معقدة لا مخرج منها. وعلى النقيض، فإن نهج الضعفاء السياسي هو الثورات التي تخلق الوضوح والأمل. إن سحق الثورات في سوريا والمنطقة عموماً هو المهمة المتشكرة التي تجمع الأقوياء في سوريا والمنطقة والعالم عموماً. هذه العُقدة الغوردية التي يعقدونها ستبقى معنا لوقت طويل للغاية.
تاريخياً، سارت المسائل والحروب الكبيرة سارت معاً على قدم وساق. المسألة الشرقية انتهت مع الحرب العالمية الأولى، والمسألة اليهودية وجدت “حلين نهائيين” في الحرب العالمية الثانية وما تبعها، الثاني منهما كان على حساب الشعب الفلسطيني. ويمكن للمرء أن يضيف المسألة الكردية: منع الأكراد من تشكيل دولتهم، وهو أيضاً منبع للكراهية واليأس والحرب. سوريا مساحة تقاطع لهذه المسائل الثلاث معا.
لهذا السبب فإن سوريا هي تمثل عالماً مصغراً ومثالاً عالمياً. لا حاجة للقول بأن الأمم المتحدة والمجتمع الدولي هما صانعو مسائل، بل هم قوى ثورة مضادة. لا ينتظر المرء منهم أن يكونوا قوى ثورية، لكن دورهم كان إجرامياً بحق.

هل الانقسام السني-الشيعي أعمق اليوم من أن يحل سياسياً؟
إنه كذلك. ولكن لا يوجد حل سياسي للانقسامات الطائفية. وعلى كل حال، ليس الانقسام بحد ذاته هو المشكلة، المشكلة هي الصراع العنيف بين الجماعات الاعتقادية. وعلى العكس من الاعتقاد السائد في الغرب، فإن هذا الصراع ليس شيئا يترتب تلقائيا على وجود سنة وشيعة. في الحقيقة وعلى النقيض من ذلك، الصراعات الاجتماعية والسياسية هي التي تحرك هذه الانتماءات الخاملة وتشحنها بكهرباء سياسية خطرة. فتحولها عمليا إلى أحزاب سياسية، بل عسكرية. وهذا أيضاً من مناهج الأقوياء في إضعاف الشعوب المتمردة لتحويل الصراع من النطاق السياسي الاجتماعي الذي يتمثل بالمواجهة بين النخبة والفئات الأضعف إلى النطاق الثقافي الاجتماعي المتمثل بالمواجهة بين الضعفاء على جانبي خطوط الانقسام الدينية والاعتقادية. ما أريد قوله هو أنه يلزم أن تدرك بصورة أفضل ديناميكيات وعمليات النزاع السياسي الاجتماعي في بلدان مثل سوريا، العراق، البحرين، إيران والسعودية، وكذلك والنزاعات الاقليمية من أجل فهم الانقسام السني الشيعي نفسه. هذا الانقسام يتعمق اليوم بالتأكيد، ويجري استخدامه كأداة للسيطرة على الجموع وتعميق الهيمنة على المنطقة. الطائفية عموما هي استراتيجية للسيطرة السياسية. والمسألة في النهاية مسألة سياسة، ليست مسألة دين أو ثقافة.

هل بإمكاننا القول بأن سوريا لا تزال قائمة كبلد، كدولة؟
مجدداً، سوريا اليوم هي العالم. هناك أكثر من 70 دولة مشتركة بالحرب بشكل رسمي، ويوجد أيضاً جهاديون من أكثر من 70 دولة موجودون أيضاً هناك. سوريا مسألة عالمية، رمز فريد للظلم واللامبالاة والنسيان. لدينا سوريا هذه على الأقل، سوريا الرمز.

يؤسفني القول بأنني لست واثقاً من بقاء سوريا كبلد قابل للحياة. الاحتمال الوحيد لنجاة سوريا هو تغير سياسي جوهري. سوريا كما هي الآن بلا تغير تموت، عاجلاً أم آجلاً. فقط سوريا المتغيرة ستكون قابلة للحياة.

إن الأسباب الأولية لنشوء الحرب ووحشية النظام هي أمور قد تم بشكلٍ أو بآخر نسيانها في الرواية الغربية عن الحرب. لماذا؟

بشكل رئيسي بسبب علاقة تماه بين النظام والقوى العالمية العظمى على المستويات البنيوية والرمزية. ان عقيدة الحداثة هي مسألة مشتركة بين الفاشي بربطة عنق، بشار الأسد، وهؤلاء القادة ذوي ربطة العنق في الغرب الذين ينقصهم بعد النظر والإحساس بالمسؤولية العالمية. للأمر صلة بشكل ما مع تكون النخبة السياسية في الغرب، وهي مكونة من أشخاص ذوي دخل عال، منعزلين تماماً عن المعاناة الشعبية الناجمة عن السياسة. وهذا أحد مصادر أزمة الديمقراطية في الغرب ذاته. فالديمقراطية تموت حين تنفصل عن الصراع من أجل العدالة. نحن نشاهد بأعيننا كيف أن الديمقراطية تتقلص الى مجرد تكنولوجيا سياسية لإدارة الأزمات. منهج إدارة الأزمة، بانفصاله التكويني عن القيم وقضايا العدالة هو اليوم المنهج السائد في السياسة خلال السنوات ال25 الماضية، حتى في الغرب. هذا المنهج ليس نافعاً في شيء سوى خلق المسائل، والشرق الأوسط هو التجسيد الفعلي لهذه السياسات اللاأخلاقية.
وترجع بعض جذور ضعف الذاكرة الى تكوين الوسائل الاعلامية الكبرى في الغرب، حيث يتجه التفضيل إلى ما هو مثير على حساب ما هو هام إنسانياً وسياسياً. على سبيل المثال، قطع رأس رجل ما أكثر إثارة من قتل 100 آخرين ببرميل متفجر، وأكثر نيلا للاهتمام والتغطية الإعلامية. نتماهى مع من يقتلون بطريقتنا، جرائمهم مثل جرائمنا ليست أخبارا ولا تغطيها أقنية الأخبار التي نتحكم بها. لكن يصيبنا الهلع من هؤلاء الذين يقومون بالقتل بطريقة مختلفة، هنا الجريمة خبر جدير بالاهتمام، إلى درجة قيام وسائل الإعلام الغربية بشن حملات دعائية لداعش على مدار سنتين.
على فكرة، أعتقد بأن هذا الافتتان بداعش، وقد بدأ في صيف 2013، مرتبط بصورة وثيقة بالصفقة الكيماوية المشينة بين الولايات المتحدة وروسيا. فهم منها نظام الأسد ضمنياً أنه من المقبول أن يقتل الناس بأسلحة أخرى، ليس تلك التي قمنا نحن بتحريمها. كانت وسائل الإعلام الرئيسية مطيعة للغاية بتغطية كل ما تقوم به داعش وتهميش كل جرائم النظام، هادفةً لإضافة الشرعية على تلك الصفقة الخسيسة بين حاميي السلام  العالمي المفترضين.
الهوس بداعش هو وسيلة متبعة لغسيل عار تلك الصفقة. ترغب وسائل الإعلام والنخب القوية أن تبقى الشعوب متسمرة أمام العجيب المعروض، وتظل أذهانهم معلقة بقاطعي الرؤوس الوحشيين، المختلفين تماماً عنا وعن شعوبنا العزيزة. أريد أيضا أن أضيف شيئاً فيما يتعلق بمسألة الهوس بداعش. يخيل لي أن هذا المستوى المجنون من القتل والسيطرة الذي تمارسه داعش في المناطق التي تحتلها هو المستوى الذي تطمح النخب القوية في “العالم المتحضر” لتقليده. هذا العنف له وظيفة رئيسية: إنه يرفع سقف ما يمكن فعله بالشعوب في بلاد أخرى، معطياً نخب السلطة في كل مكان إحساساً بالسيطرة والحرية. فاذا كان من الممكن القيام بهذا الفعل هناك اليوم، فلعله سيكون ممكناً هنا أيضاً يومأ ما. داعش تمثل التجارب المخبرية التي يراود مخيلة نخب غربية محاكاة ما تفعله يوماً ما. طوباهم هذه هي كابوسنا. ولهذا بالضبط ينبغي أن تشعر الشعوب في الغرب بالقلق مما يجري في سوريا في السنوات الخمس الماضية. لا تدافعوا عنا، بل دافعوا عن أنفسكم!

هل هنالك أي جهة على الاطلاق تقوم بلعب دورٍ ايجابي؟
جهة خارجية؟ ربما لا. لكنه سيكون خطأً كبيراً ان استنتجنا من هذا الكلام أن كل الأطراف متساوون بالسوء. السجل التركي معقد، لقد قامت باستقبال حوالي مليوني ونصف لاجئ، وضعنا هنا مقبول، وحتى الآن أخذت تركيا موقفاً متسقا من نظام الشبيحة في سوريا، لكنها سببت العديد من المتاعب بسبب مخاوفها غير المنصفة وغير العقلانية حيال الكرد على جانبي الحدود. موقف فرنسا كان غالباً ثابتا أيضاً. كلا البلدين كانا واضحين طوال الوقت وحددا أن المجرم هو نظام الأسد، وأنه يجب أن يتم التخلص منه وحاولا التصرف على هذا الأساس، ولكن تم كبحهما عن طريق الولايات المتحدة. مثلت واشنطن العدو الأسوأ للثورة السورية، أسوأ حتى من روسيا، التي كانت عدواً صريحاً منذ اللحظة الأولى، بالاضافة لايران وتوابعها العراقية واللبنانية. لست مناهضا أصوليا للامبريالية على طريقة من يعتقدون أنها جوهر سري مكنون في مكان ما في الولايات المتحدة، ربما في البيت الأبيض أو البنتاغون أو السي آي إيه، ولكني حاولت جاهداً أن أجد أي عوامل إيجابية في السياسة التي انتهجتها إدارة أوباما حيال سوريا، ولم أفلح. العالم بأكمله أصبح مكاناً أسوأ من ذي قبل، وخاصةً بعد الصفقة الكيميائية والتي كانت بمثابة هدية كبيرة لداعش وجبهة النصرة، وبالتأكيد للأسد.

أما بالنسبة للأطراف الداخلية، فأعتقد أنه يمكن تعريف الظلامية بأنها القول بعدم وجود جيدين في الصراع السوري، وأن الكل سيئون. أرى بأن هذه نظرة أصولية، تشبه أسلوب داعش في التعامل مع قضيتنا. أنا لا أقول بأنه لا يوجد سيئون، هنالك كثير منهم، ولا أريد القول أيضا بأن هناك الكثير من الأشخاص الجيدين، وهو صحيح طبعا، ما لم يكن الواحد منا روبرت فيسك أو باتريك كوكبيرن أو فلاديمير بوتين. عوضاً عن كل ذلك، أريد إحداث تحول في الباراديغم من التوزيع الرجعي لتصنيفات جيد وسيء إلى النظر في الديناميكيات الفعلية للصراع. سبق وألمحت الى المجزرة الكيماوية والتي قضى بها 1466 سورياً على يد النظام الأسدي في آب 2013، والصفقة الكيماوية بين الأميريكيين والروس والنظام. دعني أتوقف هنا قليلا: ما كانت تلك الصفقة؟ كان هنالك أربع أطراف، وليس ثلاثة، في ذلك الوقت: النظام، الأميركيون، الروس، ثم ملايين السوريين الذين كانوا يقاومون نظام الطغمة الأسدية لأكثر من سنتين وخمسة أشهر حينها، سلميا في البداية وبالسلاح لاحقاً. لم يكسب النظام من تلك الصفقة المخزية نجاته فحسب، بل أيضاً الحصانة والإفلات من العقاب. تمكن الروس من إنقاذ نظام عميل لهم وكسب دور أعظم في المنطقة والعالم بشكل ملحوظ، في حين نجحت الولايات المتحدة (ومن خلف الكواليس، اسرائيل) في تجريد النظام من أسلحته الخطيرة والتي كان يفترض بأنها رادعة لاسرائيل.
الطرف الذي تم التضحية به بشكل كامل هو الطرف الذي كان قد فقد لتوه 1466 شخصاً في ظرف ساعة واحدة: السوريون الثائرون. لهذا السبب كانت هذه الصفقة خسيسة، وكذلك كان “أبطالها”، وعلى الأخص من اسمه باراك أوباما.
وبسبب وحشية النظام، وخسة أنوات العالم الكبار، انطلقت موجةٌ من التطرف والأسلمة والعسكرة والاستماتة، وغيرت كل شخصٍ في البلد، ومن بينهم أنا. في أيلول 2015، تواجدت في أوسلو لعدة أيام، وهناك ظهرت في برنامج تلفزيوني. قبل البرنامج، سألتني المقدمة إن كنت معتدلا؟ أجبتها: لا، لست معتدلاً. ارتاعت لبرهة، فأرادت أن تطمئن: لكنك علماني، أليس كذلك؟
تقرر العادات الخطابية في الغرب أن كلمة “معتدل” تعني بأنه يقف معنا (نحن كمركز للعالم)، وهي مرادفة أيضا لكلمة “جيد”. وتكون “متطرفا” و”سيئا” إذا وقفت الى جانب شعبك.
من جهتي، أنا سيء.

كيف ترى التورط التركي في الشأن السوري؟ وما هو مستقبل المسألة الكردية؟
هذا هو المنبع الرئيس لأهم أخطاء الحكومة التركية في سوريا. لم تتمكن تركيا من التعامل مع المشكلة الكردية في أراضيها على أساس من المساواة والحرية والأخوة. الآن هنالك حرب حقيقية في المناطق الكردية في تركيا، يجري فيها إذلال للناس الفقراء وتشريدهم وقتلهم. وقد صدَّرت الحكومة التركية إلى سوريا تجربتها السيئة بالتعاطي مع الأكراد. وكي تصير الأمور أسوأ، قام حزب الاتحاد الديمقراطي الكردي السوري باستيراد تجربته في تركيا إلى سوريا، واستورد معها مطبقيها، ومعها الرمزيات الخارجية للإيديولوجية الحداثية الرثة، المصمم خصيصاً لسحر المُعنّسين (الذكور غالبا) من يساريي للطبقة الوسطى في الغرب. سبب هذا الكثير من المعاناة حتى الآن، وأخشى أنه في سبيله إلى تسبيب المزيد. ما نشهده الآن برأيي هو عملية بناء نظامٍ حزب واحد مغالٍ في النزعة القومية الكردية، وله علاقاتٍ خفية مع نظام الأسد وإيران، وأخرى أقل سريةٍ مع الولايات المتحدة وروسيا.

كيف يمكن قتال داعش بصورة فعال؟ شخصياً، أنا لا أرى أي إرادة سياسية حقيقية لمحاربتهم بالقوة المطلقة.
أنت محق. لا ترى إرادة سياسية لقتال داعش لأنها غير موجودة ببساطة. هنالك إرادة سياسية لاستمرار الحرب طويلاً. وبقاء داعش جيد للحرب كي تستمر. زوالها هو الشيء السيء من وجهة النظر هذه. ولهذا يبدو العالم موحداً في وجه هذا التنظيم الفاشي ضعيف التسليح، بدون تحقيق أي تقدم في سبيل هزيمته.
أعتقد بأن المنطق الأميركي لتحليل المشكلة هو كالتالي: داعش قوية برجالها، لذلك علينا أن نحاصرهم في منطقة محددة، كي لا ينتشروا في كل مكان كما حدث بعد غزونا (الهستيري) لأفغانستان في 2001. ثم أنه يجب أن يبقى بشار نظراً للدرس الذي تعلمناه من غزونا (الإجرامي) للعراق وتفكيك الدولة فيه. أما بالنسبة لهؤلاء الذين هم ضد داعش ويحاربون الأسد، يعني… يعني هم غالباً “سيئون”. وربما يسير التفكير الروسي هكذا: نريد لبشار أن يبقى بالسلطة. ولتحقيق هذا علينا أن ندمر أولئك الذين يحاربونه حقاً. طبعا سنتكلم علناً عن حرب على الإرهاب فقط، وعن وقتال داعش. أليس هذا ما كان الأميركيون يطنطنون به طوال الوقت؟ عندما نسحق كل هؤلاء الذين هم ضد داعش وبشار، فإن التفاهم الضمني بيننا وبين الأميريكيين سيصبح علنياً، وسنقرر مصير سوريا والشرق الأوسط سويةً. اسرائيل ستقف معنا. نحن نستطيع أن نعطيها أكثر من ما يمكن أن يعطيها الأميركيون.

فلندع جانبا هذا التخطيط الاستراتيجي الافتراضي، أعتقد أنه ليس من الصعب أبداً قتال داعش، لكن لا يمكنك أن تفعل ذلك وأنت تتجاهل بشكل ممنهج القوات المحلية التي واجهت هذا الكيان في الماضي، وبينما أنت تعتمد على تنظيمٍ فاشيٍ آخر، نظام الأسد.

هناك ثلاث مستويات لصراع مثمر مع داعش. أولاً، يجب أن يتم تحديد قضية عادلة لهذه الحرب، ولا يمكن لهذه القضية أن تكون سوى العدالة والحرية لهؤلاء الذين تقمعهم داعش، وهو ما لا يمكن تحقيقه مع تجاهل المصدر الرئيسي للقمع والظلم، نظام الأسد. كيف تريدني أن أحارب داعش وأنت تتعامل من وراء ظهري مع نظام طغموي قتل أو تسبب بقتل 300000 من أبناء بلدي؟
ثانياً، يجب أن تكون هناك رؤية سياسية واضحة لدعم انتقال ديمقراطي للسلطة في سوريا والعراق. ستكون أوضاع الانتقال فوضوية في كلا البلدين لسنوات قادمة أو حتى أكثر، لكن هذا سيكون أفضل بكثير من حرب تستمر لأجيال طويلة ضد داعش، كما قال كل من جولي بيشوب وزير الخارجية الأسترالي ومارتن ديمبسي رئيس هيئة الأركان المشتركة الأميركية السابق، في كلمات مماثلة منذ عدة شهور.
ثالثاً، نحتاج استراتيجية عسكرية واضحة ومن الممكن تطبيقها خلال شهور أو سنة أو سنتين. ما أراه الآن هو حرب من دون هدف معلن بوضوح، بدون جدول زمني، وبدون حلفاء محليين (حزب الاتحاد الديمقراطي ليس حليفاً حقيقياً، فهو مرتبط بعلاقات مع النظام الفاشي، وهو غير ديمقراطي في تعامله مع السكان المحليين، دعك عن أن الاعتماد المنفرد عليه سيؤدي الى التسبب بمشكلة إثنية كبيرة في سوريا).

التعبئة الدولية اليوم ضد داعش تحفزها نزعة إبادة، وليس تحقيق العدالة. وهذا بالضبط ما يميز التعبئة التي تقوم بها داعش ضد العالم. هل من المستغرب حقاً أن نعترف بأن داعش هي انعكاس لصورة عالمنا الحالي على المرآة؟ كيف يمكن أن نفسر هذا الانجذاب المرضي للكتابة والحديث عن داعش في وسائل الاعلام الغربية بغير ذلك؟ بغير هذا النزع لنزع السحر عن وجه العالم؟
ربما هذا هو السبب الحقيقي لانعدام الرغبة في قتال هذا العدو العالمي المفترض.

ما سيكون دور داعش المستقبلي في سوريا والعراق؟
لا شيء على الإطلاق.
داعش هي مزيج من استعمار استيطاني ونظام فاشي وإرهاب عدمي. وهي بذلك مضخة للشر والموت يجب أن يتم تفكيكها بالكامل.
لكن من الضروري أن يكون هناك تغيير كبير بالتعبئة الحالية النازعة لإنسانية المسلمين، التي قد تتسبب بمجزرة كبيرة. أفضل نقطة للانطلاق هي فهم حقيقة داعش كقوة في العالم وتفسيرها بأدوات تحليل علمانية. ليست داعش شيئا دينيا، ولا هي نمو لبذرة في صلب الإسلام عابرة للزمن.

ومن المؤسف أن المرء لا يرى فرصة لتغيير، عندما نرى أشخاصاً مثل سلافوي جيجك يتبرع بالمشاركة في هذه الحملة الهستيرية، مزوداً إياها بمنطق تصنيفي حربي من قبيل “نحن” و”هم”، وتعميمات جاهلة عن الصراع السوري (صراع زائف حسب رأيه) وعن سوريا التي لا يعرف إطلاقاً شيئاً عنها، لا عن مجتمعها ولا عن تاريخها ونظامها السياسي واقتصادها السياسي وبيئتها الإقليمية. هذا النجم ما بعد الحديث كتب مؤخراً مقالةً ذات نزعة أكثر حربية بعد عن العلاقة بين تركيا وداعش، مقالة مبنية بالكامل على معلومات مغلوطة وعلى شغف بالكراهية. إذا أخذنا هذه الوقائع بعين الاعتبار، أخشى بأن الآمال بتغيير في مسارات التفكير أصبحت أضعف بشكل ملحوظ.

يخيل للمرء بأن داعش على قدر ما هي سيئة للسوريين والعراقيين، هي شيءٌ جيد للغرب ولروسيا. لذلك فالسؤال عن مستقبل داعش يجب أن يكون: هل سيقومون يوماً ما بفعل شيءٍ حقيقي لتفكيك هذا الكيان؟ هل هم حقاً معادون لهذا المزيج من استعمار استيطاني ونظام فاشي وتنظيم إرهابي؟ لعلهم يتعرفون في داعش على أشياءً يتعرفونها جيدا في أنفسهم.

هل ما يجري هو إعادة ترسيم للحدود في المنطقة؟
من المحتمل أننا داخلون في عملية كهذا. رسم حدود الشرق الأوسط كان نتيجة ما انتهت إليه الحربان العالميتان الأولى والثانية، والتغيرات التاريخية في مسألتين رئيسيتين، المسألة الشرقية والمسألة اليهودية، وجرى بإشراف القوى الاستعمارية التي شكلت النظام العالمي الحالي. سوابق حربي العراق ولبنان تفيد أن إعادة رسم الحدود ليس بالموضوع السهل. لكي يقع شيء من هذا القبيل يجب أن يحدث واحدٌ من شيئين بالضرورة: نظام عالمي جديد، و/أو تطهير عرقي على مستوى هائل، يتسبب بضحايا أكثر مما وقع في رواندا.

ولا أرى كيف من الممكن أن رسم حدود جديدة للمنطقة سيؤدي لحل أي مشاكل معلقة فيها. منذ الآن تبلغ أعمار الدول الموجودة في منطقتنا مئة عام تقريبا، وهي أقبل للإصلاح من دول جديدة ستكون إما صافية عرقيا أو طائفيا، وبالتالي أقل قابلية للترقي السياسي والأخلاقي لسكانها، أو مختلطة، لكن بدون ضمانات لعدم تصاعد الأوضاع لحلقة جديدة من الحروب العرقية أو الطائفية. وفي كلا الحالتين ستسعى كل من هذه الدول الجديدة الصغيرة لحماية نفسها من نظيراتها عن طريق اللجوء إلى القوى الاستعمارية القديمة نفسها التي رسمت الخرائط القديمة، ورعت الصراعات الحالية نفسها.
أنا مع (1) إصلاح دولنا (لامركزية، استقلالية محلية واسعة وحكم ذاتي، إلخ…).
(2) دولة فلسطينية سيدة.
(3) دولة كردية سيدة.
أتطلع أيضا إلى قيام كومونويلث شرق أوسطي حيث يعيش سوية العرب، الاسرائيليون اليهود، الأتراك، الأكراد والايرانيون، على أسس من المساواة والاحترام والرخاء المشترك.

سوريا تدمرت، يوجد الآن أكثر من 4.5 مليون لاجئ وأكثر من 11 مليون نازح داخل وطنهم. الدولة انهارت، جيلان على الأقل أصيبوا برضوض نفسية شديدةوتحطمت حياتهم بشكل غير قابل للعكس. ما الذي يمكن فعله للمساعدة؟ كيف يمكننا الانطلاق من الصفر؟ كيف نعيد بناء المجتمع؟
أولاً، علينا أن نسحب السكين من الخاصرة. نظام الأسد هو سكين، سكين مسمومة، لن تتعافى سوريا أبداً قبل إزالتها. ثانياً، سوريا ستحتاج الكثير من الوقت لتتماثل للشفاء. انه أمر مؤسف للغاية أنه لا يمكننا أن نتوقع المساعدة من المجتمع الدولي الذي ساعد بالأحرى في غرز السكين في مكانها منذ البداية. التعافي الوطني أصبح مهمةً غاية في الصعوبة، لكن ما تحتاجه سوريا بشدة هو إطلاق دينامية معاكسة لما سبق من دينامية عسكرة وتطرف وطائفية، دينامية مصالحة واعتدال واستيعاب للجميع. الناس الآن ناقمون ونزاعون إلى الثأر ببساطة لأنهم لا يزالون تحت القتل. من شأن دينامية مختلفة أن تقوي الاستعداد للتعاون والتفاهم المشتركين.

أعتقد أن عددا متزايدا من الناس سيعملون من أجل سوريا جديدة وأكثر استيعابا في اللحظة التي تنزع فيها السكين الأسدية من الجسد السوري. هم الآن متناثرون في كل أنحاء العالم، لكن حدوث تغير حقيقي في البلد وبناء سوريا جديدة سيكون قضية  جامعة لأكثرهم.

معظم المتعلمين غادروا البلد. كيف ترى المستقبل في وطنك؟
سؤالك مؤلم. إن لم تمت سوريا، فالعديد من هؤلاء الذين غادروا البلد سيعودون. وسأكون واحداً منهم بالتأكيد. أنا بانتظار أصغر فرصة للعودة. علي أن أقتفي أثر زوجتي وشقيقي الذين خُطفا في 2013.
أعتقد بأن إبداعية الناس يمكنها أن تفعل الكثير. اتحاد الضعفاء والمحرومين هو أمر ممكن، وهو ما سينقذ سوريا. أرغب بالعيش في سوريا جديدة أو سوريا تتغير، وسط الناس الذين يصارعون من أجل الحياة. لقد عشت هناك حياتي كلها.

كيف تؤثر مأساة شعبك على طريقتك بالكتابة؟
أنا بالأساس كاتب مقالات. أجد متعة في ذلك وأعيش منه.
ولما كنت الناجي بعد أن اختطفت زوجتي وشقيقي والعديد من أصدقائي بدون أي معلومات عنهم، فأنا أحاول أن أروي قصصهم، كي لا تضيع وتنسى. هذا أحد أهم المواضيع التي أكتب عنها.

وككاتب، أعتقد بأن مساهمتنا النوعية ككتاب في الثورة المخذولة تتمثل في إحداث ثورة في مجالنا الخاص، مجال الكتابة، والثقافة عموما.
الثورة ثقافية هي أمر ضروري جداً في سوريا والعالم العربي، وهي المشروع الوحيد الذي من الممكن يصون كرامة المخطوفين والمعذبين والمقتولين. أعرف أن عملي مشرب اليوم بحس مأساوي جاء مما أصاب سورية، وأصاب أحبابي، وأصابني شخصيا. في اللغة العربية هناك علاقة اشتقاقية بين كلمتي المعاناة والمعنى، وأعتقد بأنه يجب إعادة بناء ثقافتنا على أساس من معاناتنا وتجاربنا المريعة.
إلى ذلك، أرى أن الثقافة ميدان استراتيجي لصراعنا في هذا الوضع الاستثنائي. لقد قلت فوق شيئاً عن الأعداء وميادين الصراع. يمكن أن تكون الحرب أداةً في الصراع عندما يكون لك عدو واحد (طغيان السلالة الأسدية)، لكن السياسة هي الوسيلة عندما يكون لديك عدوين (لنقل الأسديين والجماعات الدينية المتطرفة)، أما الثقافة في الميدان الأنسب عندما تكون بمواجهة ثلاث أعداء: سلالة الأسد، المجموعات الإسلامية العدمية وقوى الامبريالية العالمية، روسيا والولايات المتحدة أساسا. بالطبع يجب أن تتشكل الثقافة بالطريقة الأنسب للرد على التحدي المتمثل بهذه القوى الثلاثة اللاانسانية. ما يوحد هذه الميادين الثلاثة من الصراع هو الذاتية والإبداع.
إنها مسألة انعتاق.

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Yassin al-Haj Saleh: “Syria is a unique symbol of injustice, apathy and amnesia”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

In an exclusive interview, prominent Syrian writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh talks about Syria’s past, tragic present and uncertain future.

صوري 1

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a leading Syrian writer, a former political prisoner and one of Syria’s foremost intellectuals. Ever since his student days, Saleh has been a vocal critic of the Assad regimes. He was arrested in 1980 during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad and spent the next 16 years as a prisoner of conscience.

During the early days of the Syrian uprising, his voice became louder than ever. In 2012, he was given the Prince Claus Award (supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) but was unable to collect it, as he was living in hiding in Damascus. In 2013, he fled to Turkey. His wife and brother were abducted the same year. He is the author of several books,  including Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014).

Here, he speaks to Boštjan Videmšek about Syria’s past, tragic present and uncertain future.

How and where are you right now?

I am fine, thank you. When I was in Syria, I used to say: I have no personal reasons to complain of, and no public reasons to be contented. After the revolution, with the abduction of my wife Samira and my brother Firas and my living in exile in Istanbul, the personal has become public and political much more than before. The public and political has become personal. It is a life of a struggle.

How do you feel when you see so many of your fellow citizens on the run from the most horrible conflict of our time? Did you expect an exodus like that?

Weeks ago, I helped smuggle my sister-in-law and my nephew from Turkey to Greece. As a beginner, I consulted friends, met smugglers, and chose one.

I was anxious about their safety, and was relieved when they arrived in a European country, even if it was not the one they wanted to go to. The other half of my brother’s family, he and his two younger sons, are to join the first half someday. With the help of friends, we are trying to arrange things for another brother and his family to take refuge in another European country, after a mutual friend of ours, the journalist and film maker Naji Jerf, was assassinated in Turkey on 27 December 2015.

We are helping ourselves to a world that did not help to liberate us at home. Never had I contemplated the possibility of such an exodus. I did not expect that the regime would kill hundreds of thousands of people and that its chances of staying in power would grow bigger as the numbers of its victims soared. I did not expect the emergence of a monstrous creature like Da’esh [ISIS]. I did not expect that around 70 countries would be partners in bombing my country: not against the ruling criminal, but against an offshoot of his monstrosity.

How do you see the European handling of the refugee crisis?

I am impressed by many people from many European countries, mostly individual volunteers. Their generosity, courage and humanity dignify the human race. I was touched by a message from a Norwegian woman who was in Lesbos helping refugees. As for governments, while it is not fair to include all of them in one category – Germany is not like Hungary, Sweden is not Denmark – I think they are unified in building higher walls in the face of the influx of refugees, specifically the poorest and most vulnerable ones.

For months now, European governments have been pressuring Ankara not to allow refugees to depart from Turkey. In November, they promised to pay €3 billion to the Turkish governments to guard European borders.

With all this blood that has been spilt over the past five years right under the world’s nose, humanity has led itself down the path to full ethical numbness. I suppose the indifference the world showed towards the Syrian ordeal will lead to even less sensitivity to human suffering in political institutions everywhere.

Where do you – in this chaotic situation – see the solution(s)?

One could think of a historical compromise that ends the war, guarantees full withdrawal of foreign forces, and is the basis of a wholly different political landscape in the country. A sustainable solution can only be built on a new political majority. This cannot be achieved through facing Da’esh alone or the regime alone. A new Syrian majority requires a substantial political change that is impossible to envisage without putting a full-stop to the rule of the Assad dynasty that has been in power for 45 years, a dynasty responsible for two big wars in the country: 1979-1982 and 2011-…

This change is the political and ethical precondition for a war against Da’esh with the broad participation of Syrians. The global powers have so far been putting the cart before the horse by targeting Da’esh only, ignoring the root cause of the militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation that has occurred over the past five years, namely the Assad regime. This is a short-sighted and failing policy, not to mention unethical. It is a prescription for an endless war.

The new Syria could be built on a number of essential principles: decentralisation; thinking of different ethnic, religious and confessional communities as equal constituent communities; full equality among individual citizens (Arabs, Kurds and others; Muslims, Christians and others; Sunnis, Alawites and others; religious, secular and others). It is not acceptable to talk about Syria as a secular state, as the Vienna document of 30 October 2015 states, when the same document says nothing about justice and accountability, and avoids the word democracy. Lecturing about secularism reminds one of the worst traits of the colonial discourse.

What should the so-called international community do? What about the UN?

The past five years were a great chance to follow the international institutions and the world powers. For me, it is no longer Syria, it is the world, which is in a deep crisis. It is not that I do not follow what is happening in my country, but the world is in Syria (around 70 states are at war there).

I tend to think that the world lacks the potential for freedom and justice more than at any time over the past a century. In December, Vladimir Putin raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons against “terrorists”, an extraordinarily irresponsible statement that was met with utter silence form the international community. A few days later, the same man said that the Russian offensive in Syria “is not a serious burden for the budget … It’s hard to imagine a better exercise [for the Russian forces]. So we can train there [in Syria] for a long time without any serious harm to our budget.” Full of colonial arrogance, this statement stirred no reaction at all from the UN or Western leaders, not even a word from human rights groups, or any leftist organisations in the world.

The situation in Syria has developed from a revolution against tyranny to a global question, the Syrian question. Creating questions is, in my opinion, the political method of the powerful in shaping history. They create complicated, despair-inducing situations that last decades or generations (or forever, as an Assadist slogan says), during which the poor and weak are entangled in ineffectual struggles. By contrast, the method of the vulnerable is to create clarity and hope through revolutions. Crushing the revolutions in Syria and in the region has been the common job of the powerful local, regional and global powers. The Gordian knots they create will be with us for a long time.

In history, questions and big wars walked hand in hand. The Eastern Question ended in the First World War, and the Jewish Question found two “Final Solutions” in the Second World War and its aftermath (the second at the expense of the Palestinian people). One might add the Kurdish question: denying the Kurds statehood, which is also a source of hatred, despair, and war. Syria is an active field for this question now.

That is why Syria is a microcosm and a global metaphor.  Needless to say – the UN and the international community are creators of questions, or are, indeed, counterrevolutionary powers. I do not expect them to be revolutionary, but their role was criminal indeed.

Is the Sunni-Shia divide now too deep to overcome it politically?

It is. But there are no political solutions to confessional divisions. However, division in itself is not a problem; the problem is the violent struggle between the confessional groups. Contrary to the common wisdom in the West, this struggle is not something primordial that emanates from the very fact that there are Sunnis and Shia. Actually, it is the opposite: social and political struggles mobilise these idle belongings of ours and electrify them, or charge them politically. They transform into political, indeed military, parties. This is also the method of the powerful in order to weaken rebellious people and transfer the struggle from the socio-political field (the underprivileged v the elite) to the socio-cultural field (our underprivileged against theirs). What I want to say is that we need to know better the dynamics and processes of the social and political struggle in countries like Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the regional struggles to understand the ‘Sunni- Shia divide’. This is deepening indeed. It is being used as a tool to rule the masses and to exercise regional influence. Sectarianism, in general, is a strategy for political control. So it is politics, not religion or “culture”.

Can we say that Syria still exists as a country, as a state?

Again, Syria is the world. More than 70 countries are formally at war in the country, and jihadists from more than 70 countries are also there. Syria is a global question, a unique symbol of injustice, apathy, and amnesia. We have this Syria, at least – the symbol.

I am sorry to say that I am less sure about Syria as a viable country. The only chance, however, for Syria to survive is substantial political change. Unchanged, Syria is a dying land, sooner or later. Only changed will Syria become viable.

The reasons for the war and the brutality of the regime have been more or less forgotten in the Western narrative of the war. Why?

Primarily due to the identification between the regime and the major powers on the structural and symbolic levels. The modernist ideology is a common issue between the fascist with a necktie, Bashar al-Assad, and those neck-tied leaders in the world who lack vision and global responsibility. This issue is, in a way, related to the formation of the political elite in the West: high-income people who are fully isolated from politically inflicted human suffering. One source of the crisis is democracy in the West. If separated from the struggle and human aspiration for justice, democracy dies. In front of our eyes, we are witnessing democracy being reduced to political technology for dealing with crises. Crisis management, with its innate divorce from values and issues of justice, is the dominant method of politics over the past 25 years, even in the West. This method is good for nothing but creating questions, and the Middle East is the incarnation of these extremely unethical policies.

Some additional roots of this amnesia are related to the constitution of the powerful mass media in the West: the exciting is always more preferable to feed the masses on than what is humanly and politically important. For instance, beheading a man is more exciting than killing 100 with a barrel bomb. We identify with these who kill the way we do (their crimes, like ours, are not news), but we are enchanted with those who kill in a different way to the degree that we have offered Da’esh free propaganda for two years.

By the way, I think this enchantment with Da’esh that began in the summer of 2013 has deep connections with the sordid chemical deal between the US and Russia, which practically informed the Assad regime that it was okay to kill people with other tools, not with the one we had forbidden. The mainstream media was obedient in highlighting whatever Da’esh did and sidelining the crimes of the regime in order to legitimise that despicable deal between the two big global keepers of the peace (read: war). Da’eshmania is a way of suppressing the shame of that deal. Media and power elites want the masses to remain mesmerised, with their minds fixated on those exotic decapitators, who are absolutely different from us and our dear masses.

I want to add one additional thing concerning this fascination with Da’esh. I suspect that the mad extent of killing and control that Da’esh is practising in the regions it occupies is the level the power elites in the “civilized world” aspire to imitate. That violence has an essential virtue: it pushes past the limits of what can be done to the population at home, giving the power elites everywhere a sense of mastery and freedom. If this can be done there, it will be possible here someday. Da’esh is the laboratory test the elites like to peep at and hope to imitate someday. It is their utopia and our dystopia. That is why the population in the West should be anxious of what has been happening in Syria for the past five years. Do not defend us, defend yourselves!

Is there any player at all who has  a positive role?

External players? Maybe not. However, it would be a big mistake to conclude from that that all the players are equally bad. Turkey’s record is mixed: it welcomed around 2.5 million refugees. Our situation here is acceptable and, so far, Tukey has had a consistent position towards the Shabeeha regime in Syria, but it caused a lot of trouble because of it is irrational and unjust concerns about the Kurds on both sides of the border. France’s position was mostly a consistent one, too. Both countries were clear all the time that the culprit is the regime and it should be overthrown and they tried to act accordingly, but were kept back by the United States. Washington has been the worst enemy of the Syrian revolution, worse even than Russia, which was a clear enemy from the first moment, along with Iran and the latter’s satellites in Lebanon and Iraq. I am not an essentialist anti-imperialist who thinks that imperialism is an essence hidden somewhere in the US, maybe at the White House, the Pentagon, or the CIA, but I tried hard to locate any positive elements in the Syrian policy of Obama’s administration in Syria. The world at large has become a worse place, especially after the chemical deal which was a big gift to Da’esh and al-Nusra Front (and, of course, to Assad), than it was before.

As for internal players: I think one can identify obscurantism as the position of saying that there are no “good guys” in the Syrian conflict; they are all bad. I see this as an essentialist, Da’esh-like way of approaching our cause. I do not imply that there are no bad guys, there are many; neither do I want to say that there are many good guys, which is of course true, unless one is Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, or Vladimir Putin. Rather, I want to make a paradigm shift from that reactionary distribution of labels of good and bad, to the actual dynamics of the struggle. I alluded before to the chemical massacre in which 1,466 Syrians were killed at the hand of the Assad regime, and to the chemical deal between the Americans, Russians and the regime. What was that deal? There were four actors, not three, at the time: the regime, the Americans, the Russians and millions of Syrians who had been resisting the thuggish regime for more than two years and four months, peacefully at the beginning then with arms. The regime gained not only its survival from that sordid deal but also impunity; the Russians managed to save a client regime and won a greater recognised role in the region and the world, while America (and from behind the scenes, Israel) succeeded in disarming the regime of the dangerous weapons that were thought of being deterrent to Israel. The party that was completely sacrificed is the one who had just lost 1,466 people in one hour: the rebellious Syrians. That is why that deal was despicable and its “heroes”, especially the one named Barak Obama, were extremely villainous.

Due the regime’s brutality and the baseness of the big egos of the globe, a dynamic of radicalisation, Islamisation and militarisation, was triggered and changed everybody in the country, myself included. In September 2015, I was in Oslo for a few days, where I appeared on a TV programme. Before this show, the presenter asked me, if I was “moderate”. No, I am not, I replied. She was alarmed, but she wanted to be sure: “But you are secular, aren’t you?” For the discursive habits in the West, ‘moderate’ implies that siding with us (“We are the centre of the world.”) and “good” are synonyms. You are “extremist” and “bad” whenever you side with your own people.

Of course, I am bad.

How do you see Turkey’s involvement and the future of the Kurdish question?

This is the main cause of the Turkish government’s biggest mistakes in Syria. Turkey has not been able to deal with its own Kurdish problem on a basis of equality, freedom and fraternity. Just now, there is a real war in the Kurdish regions in Turkey, with poor people being humiliated, displaced and killed. To Syria, the Turkish government exported its bad experience in dealing with the Kurds. And to make things worse, the Syrian PYD imported from Turkey its experience there, people to apply this experience, and with spades of the modernist ideological rubbish, designed specifically to enchant middle class left-wing spinsters (mostly males) in the West. This has already caused a lot of suffering, and I am afraid it will only cause more. What we are witnessing is, in my view, the building of an ultranationalist, one-party system, with hidden connections to the Assad regime and Iran, and less hidden ones with the US and Russia.

How can we effectively fight Da’esh? Personally, I don’t see any substantial political will to fight them with full force.

You do not see political will to fight Da’esh because there is none. There is political will for the war to go on. Da’esh is good for the war to continue. Its demise is the bad thing from this perspective. That is why the world seems unified against this ill-equipped (in military terms) fascist organisation, without making progress toward defeating it.

I think the American reasoning goes this way: Da’esh is strongest in its men. We have to besiege them in a certain area, so they will not spread everywhere the way they did after we (hysterically) invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Bashar should stay according to the lesson we learnt from our (unjustifiable) invasion of Iraq and dismantling the state there. As for those who are against Da’esh and fighting Bashar, well, er… they are mostly bad. The Russian monologue maybe goes like this: we want Bashar to stay in power. To achieve this we have to destroy those who are really fighting him. Of course, we will talk only about a war against terror and fighting Dae’sh, is it not that what the Americans have been droning on about the whole time? When we crush all those who are against Bashar and Da’esh, the clandestine understanding between us and the Americans will become public, and we will decide the fate of Syria and the Middle East together. Israel will side with us. We can give it more than the Americans are able to do.

Imaginary strategising aside, I think it is not at all difficult to fight Dae’sh, but you cannot do so while systematically ignoring the local forces that did face this entity in the past, and relying on another fascist organisation, namely the Assad regime.

There are three levels of a fruitful struggle against Da’esh. First, to honestly build a just cause for this war, and this cannot be but justice and freedom for those oppressed by it, which in turn cannot be achieved while ignoring the main source of oppression and injustices, the Assad regime. How do you want me to fight Da’esh while you are dealing from behind my back with a cliquish regime that killed 300,000 of my fellow citizens? Second, there should be a clear political vision of supporting a democratic transition in Syria and Iraq. Things will be messy in the two countries for years to come or even more, but this is still far better than a war that goes on for generations as both Jolly Bishop, the Australian foreign affairs minister, and Martin Dempsey, the former American head of staff, said in similar words few months ago.

Third, you need a clear military strategy that can be achieved in months or a year or two. What I see now is that we have a war without a clearly expressed aim, with no timeframe, with no local allies (The PYD is not that ally: they have relation with the fascist regime, and they are not democratic, let alone that relying solely on them will creating a very big ethnic problem in Syria). The international mobilisation against Da’esh is annihilation-oriented (not geared towards justice). But this is also the essential feature of Da’esh’s mobilisation against the world. Is it that far-fetched to say that Da’esh is a mirror reflection of the present world? How else can we explain this morbid attraction to talking and writing about Da’esh in the media of the West? This dis-disenchantment of the world?

Maybe this is the reason for this reluctance to fight this supposed global enemy.

What will be their role in the future of Syria and Iraq?

Absolutely nothing.

Da’esh is a mixture of settler colonialism, a fascist regime, and a nihilist terrorist organisation. As such, it is a pump of evil and death that should be completely dismantled.

But there should be a big shift in the current dehumanising mobilisation that affects all Muslims and promises us only a huge massacre. For effecting such a shift, the best starting point is to understand Dae’sh as a worldly power and explain it through secular tools of analysis. It is not a religious thing, not a flourishing of a primordial seed within Islam.

It is a sorry fact that one does not see any prospect for such a shift, when even people like Slavoj Žižek volunteer in this hysterical campaign, providing it with a warring classificatory logic of us and them, and stupid generalisations about the Syrian struggle (a pseudo struggle according to him) and Syria that he knows absolutely nothing about – its society, history, political system, political economy, regional environment. That postmodernist superstar wrote recently an even more combative article about the relationship between Turkey and Da’esh – one based on false information and a passion for hatred. With this in mind, I am afraid hopes for a change of course become considerably slimmer. One may even think that Da’esh, as bad as it is for Syrians and Iraqis, is something good for the West and Russia. So the question of Da’esh’s future is: will they ever do anything real to dismantle this entity? Are they really antagonistic to this combination of settler colonialism, fascist regime, and terrorist organization? Maybe they are identifying in it things that they know very well in themselves.

Are the old borders in the region being redrawn?

It is possible that we are in the process. Drawing borders in the Middle East was an outcome of two world wars and historical shifts in two questions (the Eastern and the Jewish one), under the supervision of the colonial powers as they shaped the present world system. The precedents of Iraq’s and Lebanon’s wars denoted that creating new states and redrawing borders is not as easy as we may think. For such a thing to happen, one of the following two is a pre-requirement: a new world system and/or a massive ethnic cleansing; one that surpasses Rwanda.

I do not see how redrawing new maps in the region will solve any older problems. Our present states are already a century old at least, and they are reformable far more than new states that will be either pure, and consequently less capable of ethical and political promotion, or mixed, with no guarantees of not spiraling into a new circle of ethnic or sectarian wars. And in both cases these new smaller states will seek protection from each other by resorting to the same old colonial powers that drew the old maps, and that patronised their very present struggle.

I am for (1) reforming our states (decentralisation, autonomous regions, etc.); (2) a sovereign Palestinian state; (3) a sovereign Kurdish state. I look forward to a Middle Eastern commonwealth, where Arabs, Israeli Jews, Turks, Kurds, and Iranians live together on a basis of equality, respect, and shared prosperity.

Syria has been destroyed, with 4.5 million refugees and more than 11 million people displaced inside their own country. The state has collapsed, at least two generations have been deeply traumatised, their lives irreversibly shattered. What can be done to help? How do we start from “ground zero”? How do we rebuild society?

First of all, you have to remove the knife from the loin.The  Assad regime is a knife, a poisoned one, that Syria will never recover from without it first being removed. Second, Syria will need a long time to convalesce. It is regrettable that one cannot expect help from “the international community” that helped plunge the knife in the first place. National recovery has become a formidable task, but what Syria needs most is to launch an opposite dynamic to that of militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation – one of reconciliation, moderation and inclusivity. People are vengeful now just because they are still being killed. A different dynamic will encourage a predisposition towards co-operation and mutual understanding.

I believe that an increasing number of people will work for a new, more inclusive Syria, the moment the Assadic knife will be plucked out of the Syrian body. They are now scattered all over the world, but real change in the country and building a new Syria will be a collective cause for the majority of them.

Most of the educated people fled. How do you see the future of your country?

Your questions are painful. If Syria does not die, many of those who fled would come back. I will be one, definitely. I just want a minimal chance to go back home. I have to track down a loving wife and a brother, both abducted in 2013.

I believe that the creativity of people can do a lot. The alliance of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, is possible, and they will save Syria. I only want to live in a changing/changed Syria, among the people who are struggling for life. I lived there all my life.

How does the tragedy of your people affect the way you write?

I am essentially an essayist. I enjoy doing this and I am living off it.

Having survived after my wife, my brother and many of my friends were abducted with no information about them, I am trying to tell their stories, to prevent them from lapsing into oblivion. This is one of the main topics of my work.
As a writer, I think our specific participation as writers in the let-down revolution is to achieve revolution in our own sphere: writing and culture in general. A cultural revolution is extremely vital in Syria and the Arab World, and it is the only project that radically dignifies those abducted, tortured and killed. I know that my work is now imbued with a tragic sense, derived from what befell Syria, my beloved and me personally. In Arabic, there is a telling etymological relation between suffering and meaning, and I think that our culture should be rebuilt around our horrible experiences of suffering.

Besides, I feel that culture is a strategic field of our struggle in this exceptional situation. I said something before about enemies and fields of struggle: war could be a tool of struggle when you have one enemy (Assad dynasty tyranny), politics is the method when you have two enemies (say tyranny and religious extremism), but culture is the right field when you have three enemies, as we have: the Assad dynasty, the nihilistic Islamic groups and global imperialist powers, principally the US and Russia. Of course, culture should be formed in a way that responds best to the challenge of these three inhumane powers. What unifies these three fields of struggle is autonomy and creativity.

It is a matter of emancipation.

 

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Prisoners of love in Syria

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

In Syria, Amer and Raghda found liberation from political prison in love. But as refugees in Europe, their love became hostage to politics and guilts.

ASLS

Tuesday 6 October 2015

London’s British Film Institute recently hosted the preview of ‘A Syrian Love Story’ a documentary by Sean McAllister who, over a period of five years, followed Amer and Raghda as their lives became intertwined when they both found themselves in a Syrian prison.

Their love story began 15 years ago behind bars when Amer, a Palestinian refugee in Syria and an active member of the leftwing of the PLO, met Raghda, a Syrian Alawite who opposed the regime. He first saw her bloodied face after being deposited in a neighbouring cell following a severe beating. They eventually started communicating through a tiny hole they had secretly made in the wall. They fell in love and, when released, got married and started a family together. But politics never allowed them to have a conventional married life. Raghda spent most of her time in prisons while Amer was left to care for their four sons.

In 2009, while McAllister was enjoying a night out at a local bar, he came across Amer who was on the phone talking about his imprisoned wife. Up until that point, McAllister had been, in his own words, living in the journalist bubble that the Assad regime wanted to confine them within, seeing and recording what the government approved. During that first encounter, Amer told McAllister: “If you want to report about the real Syria, follow me I will show you the hidden reality that the world won’t get to see.”

A few months before the wave of revolutions hit the Arab world, McAllister’s camera began to follow Amer and his four sons – at the time, Raghda was a political prisoner and Amer was left to care for the young children alone. Fadi, Shadi, Kaka and Bob had spent their whole lives watching either their father or mother go to prison for their political beliefs. During the filming the family had to move constantly out of fear, as Raghda was well known to the security services and her family were under constant surveillance. Bob, who was three years old when filming began, did not understand why his mother was not with them and the closest he got to her was a phone call. Kaka, the middle child, quiet, who is considerate and mature, vowed to follow his parents to prison for the sake of freedom, whereas Shadi, the eldest, seemed to be indifferent to his situation, and was even in love with a girl who is pro-Assad and against anyone who opposed his rule. The couple break up when Shadi’s girlfriend gets engaged to someone else. At the end of the documentary, we learn she died during the conflict when, soon after her wedding, a bomb struck her house.

This intimate family portrait helps the outsider to understand why people are literally dying for change in the Arab world. Once the revolution started, Amer saw it as an opportunity to free Raghda from prison and took part in the protests. But he had to change houses and moved to the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, which was besieged by the Assad regime, then brutally attacked by ISIS.

Under international pressure, the Syrian government released some political prisoners, including Raghda. However, Sean McAllister himself got arrested for filming and the political pressure on all activists intensified, especially Amer and Raghda, who were seen on the footage captured by McAllister and stored on his laptop and camera which were confiscated by Syrian intelligence.

Out of fear ,the family fled to Lebanon, where cracks in Amer and Raghda’s relationship began to surface and grow. Feeling torn and desperate to join the big change that was sweeping Syria, Raghda could no longer just stay and watch from afar and, so, she returned to Syria, leaving Amer and the children to struggle to eek out an existence. Amer informed the London audience during the Q&A session that there were days when he had to rely on local Lebanese churches for food. Being Palestinan meant that he could not get a job, his children were not accepted into local schools and, even when he applied to the UN for political asylum, he was told that without Raghda he stood no chance, as he was not Syrian.

After three months, Raghda returned and, finally, they were approved by the UN and were taken to France, where they received political asylum in the sleepy town of Albi, watching the revolution from afar, waiting for Assad to fall.

However, contrary to the idea that once you are out of the conflict zone you are somehow safe and happy, in exile, the family began to fall apart. Raghda’s mental heath suffered and she even attempted suicide. Amer started an affair after he failed to find the love that once existed in a prison cell. The irony of the documentary is that love was thriving in a prison cell but died in the country of love and freedom. The audience see their new life in France develop but the war is now between them. In finding the freedom they fought so hard for, their relationship begins to fall apart.

At the end of the 76 minutes documentary, the audience witnessed how the once pro-revolutionary Kaka question the benefit that the call for change brought to Syria, while Bob, who is eight now, declares he is ‘French’ and no longer remembers his previous life in Syria. In fact, when McAllister asedk Bob about his house in Tartous, Syria, he had no collection of a place they once loved and called home – he even confused it with Tripoli in Lebanon.

A Syrian Love Story is a documentary that McAllister regards as “the most special film I have made to date.” One that he was not even sure it would ever see the light of day, as he wasn’t commissioned or supported to make the film until quite late in the process, McAllister had one objective for making the documentary: to allow people to understand the Syrian conflict without all the political jargon. “I wanted the average Hull factory worker to see the revolution without all the politics…just as a simple story of ordinary human beings,” McAllister informed the audience, who gave him and Amer’s family a standing ovation for a simple but thought-provoking tale of a family’s journey of hope, dreams and despair: for the revolution, their homeland and each other.

 

A SYRIAN LOVE STORY by Sean McAllister

Twitter: @SyrianLoveStory #ASyrianLoveStory

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ASyrianLoveStoryFilm

Website: www.asyrianlovestory.com

TECHNICAL DETAILS

Duration: 76 mins

Production country: United Kingdom

Languages: English, Arabic, French

Subtitles: English

Production year: 2015

HD, Colour

IN CINEMAS ACROSS THE UK  AND ON VOD FROM 18TH SEPTEMBER

 

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The West’s hidden tribalism

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tribalism and sectarianism afflicts Western societies too. So why is that they seem to be tearing the Middle East apart?

Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the Netherlands.

Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the Netherlands.

Thursday 17 September 2015

The disintegration of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya – and the increasingly likely redrawing of their maps once the dust settles – are widely regarded, both in the West and within the Arab world, as a symptom of tribalism and sectarianism which the “artificial borders” imposed by the imperial powers were unable to contain.

While it is true that many of the conflicts in the region have taken on a tribal, sectarian or even religious dimension, or a combination of the three, they did not start that way. The idea that centuries-old Sunni-Shia animosities are behind the violence in, say, Syria or Yemen, are simply self-serving myths and half-truths.

Yet the media and politicians continue to fixate on this conviction, echoing  the late Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir’s infamous quip that: “Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world – the rest are just tribes with flags.”

While a number of countries in the region are small enough to qualify as a tribe with a flag, this is not unique to the Arab world. And I’m not just thinking of Africa and other developing societies here.

Despite the Enlightenment’s focus on individualism and the shining light of reason, the West, after all these centuries, has not shaken off many elements of its traditional tribalism, and new forms of tribalism have also emerged.

As a small example, take Belgium, the country of which I am a naturalised citizen. Not belonging to either of its two main linguistic communities, I have often been baffled by the amount of mutual bitterness and distrust on view.

The quiet conflict between Flemings and Walloons that has been simmering for over a century could easily be framed in “tribal” terms – what is (ethno-)nationalism, after all, except a broader form of tribalism. However, to do so, would be to oversimplify an extremely complex situation.

As for “artificial borders”, Europe, like the Middle East, is replete with them. The two world wars were, at least partly, a case of borderline insanity.

Belgium is a prime example of how fake European frontiers are. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and the dissolution of the First French Empire, what is today Belgium was handed over to the Dutch king William I.

Like Sunnis in modern-day Iraq, the Protestant minority controlled the state, though all citizens theoretically enjoyed legal equality.

Some 15 years later, as revolution fomented in neighbouring France, the Catholic majority of the Southern Netherlands revolted in what become known as the Belgian Revolution. How much of it was sectarian and religious and how much a reaction to William I unlimited (despotic) power and his bulldozer approach to modernisation (imposing modern notions of equality on his traditionalist subjects and stripping the Catholic church of its centuries-old privileges) is hard to ascertain.

Sect was the apparent driver of the conflict back then. Language is today.

Responding to the uprising, the great European powers agreed to give “Belgium” its independence, drawing lines in the mud similar to those they would draw later in the Middle Eastern sand. Belgium was destined to serve as a buffer zone (read: regular punching bag) between Germany, France and the Netherlands.

And faultlines like this abound across Europe. In fact, there isn’t a country in Europe whose borders are not artificial, whose historical frontiers do not overlap with that of its neighbours and whose population is not a messy mix of peoples.

This raises the question of how and why it is that European states manage to keep their tribal undercurrents in check, while the Middle East is apparently being torn asunder by the very same forces.

That’s because it is not. If it were, then Egypt should be – due to its apparently more homogenous nature and far clearer historical boundaries, not to mention the regional headstart it got as a modern nation-state – the most stable country in the region.

Tribalism is the symptom, rather than the cause, of the Middle East’s ills. Unlike the generally much older nation-state experiment in Europe, many Arab states have failed and others are on the brink of failure.

This is due to a complex mix of poor governance, corruption, authoritarianism, economic and gender inequality, poverty, under-education, foreign domination, overpopulation, environmental stress, and more. The vacuum left by this enormous, state-shaped black hole has enabled the demons of  tribalism and sectarianism to rear their ugly heads.

That does not mean that the West is immune. It is simply cushioned by effective governance, relative prosperity, greater freedom and the painful memory of the totally destructive power of modern-day tribalism, both between nations and within them.

But there is no room for complacency. Disintegration can come fast, like a chain reaction, order can quickly descend into disorder, and the most “civilised” can rapidly more into the most “barbaric”.

Many of the ingredients of that sort of unravelling are already in place, but the secret combination that unleashes mayhem has not yet been mixed together. Early signs of this include the growing “tribalism” within and between European states, including the Greek-German standoff and the rising spectre of far-right nationalism from France to Hungary, not to mention huge levels of youth unemployment, growing hardship and inequity.

Across  the Atlantic, the United States has among the greatest inequalities in the advanced industrialised world, enormous inter-racial tensions, massive gun crime, mass incarceration, growing class divisions, and rising animosity between the north and south.

While Western societies appear robust enough today to deal with these challenges, the chance still exists that, with time, the “never again” of yesteryear will become the “not again” of tomorrow. Let’s hope that does not happen.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 September 2015.

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A utopian refuge for refugees?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Can an Egyptian billionaires vision of turning a Mediterranean island into a just republic for refugees help solve the refugee crisis?

Monday 14 September 2015

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

This verse from the poem by Emma Lazarus titled The New Colossus was not quite the words used by Naguib Sawiris, but it seems to be what he meant. The Egyptian billionaire caused a tempest when he announced his wish to purchase a Mediterranean island – possibly near Rhodes, where the original Colossus stood – to provide shelter for the region’s desperate refugees.

“Greece or Italy sell me an island, I’ll [declare] its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country,” Sawiris tweeted. And this brave, new refugee republic would be named Ilan, the Egyptian tycoon later elaborated, in  honour of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian child whose haunting image shook the world.

With neighbouring countries unable to cope further with the influx of Syrian refugees and wealthy Gulf states doing almost nothing to take them in – while even contributing by proxy to the Syrian refugee crisis and directly in Yemen – Sawiris is the latest entrepreneur to step into the void. One prominent example was Turkey’s yoghurt moghul, Hamdi Ulukaya, who pledged to give away more than half his $1.4 billion fortune to help Kurdish and other refugees.

Sawiris’s proposal resonated so widely because it is an appealing and symbolic notion which tugs at the heartstrings. As untold thousands of refugees take to the sea to escape the shipwreck of failed and failing nation states, Aylan island will provide them with a safe haven from the storm, and a place where they can live in dignity, and not be “treated and used like cattle,” in Sawiris’s word.

The scheme, though extremely costly for the Egyptian billionaire, sounds impressively self-sufficient. Housing, educational and other infrastructure on the uninhabited island would be built, and presumably operated, by the refugees themselves, providing them with a shot at independence and dignity, rather than the marginalisation and unemployment that often greets those fleeing conflict.

Sawiris’s implied faith in the refugees’ abilities, work ethic and potential for productivity is an implicit jab at Europe’s anti-immigrant right, who regard refugees and migrants as  lazy layabouts and a threat to their way of life. It would also help boost Europe’s capacity to absorb refugees by providing it with a purpose-built refuge.

That said, despite the presence of numerous candidate islands and the welcome income to the cash-strapped treasuries of Greece or Italy, it seems unlikely that either country will take enthusiastically to the scheme.

One major stumbling block is the question of sovereignty. Which European country would be willing to cede territory, which would be declared “independent”, to the eccentric scheme of a foreign billionaire?

Even if they were to accept this or were to retain sovereignty, there would be the possible fear that, rather than an alternative for refugees which would sidestep the European mainland, the island would simply become a stepping stone to Europe, rather like the Italian island of Lampedussa or the Greek island of Kos. This would especially be the case if Sawiris’s idealistic project ends up becoming little more than a glorified refugee camp, rather than a utopian republic.

But it is Sawiris’s almost Platonic discourse of  a just republic for refugees that is probably the most appealing to the Arab public’s ear, especially if, against the odds and expectations, this idealised and idyllic oasis can succeed where Arab regimes have failed. In fact, it would be extremely poignant – even poetic – if refugees fleeing murderous dictatorships and blood-thirsty non-state groups managed to construct a functioning and productive society which respects individual freedom and dignity. If successful, I imagine it would attract Arab immigrants, not just refugees.

In addition to the challenge of building an effective society from scratch by truamatised people from diverse backgrounds, one wonders whether Sawiris will have the commitment to carry through such a feat.

It is true that Sawiris was a self-declared supporter (and fairly enthusiastic for a businessman who made the bulk of his fortune under Mubarak) of the 2011 revolution, helping set up the “Council of Wisemen” which was rejected by Egypt’s revolutionary youth.

However, like with many Egyptians, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi spooked him, and the party he established, the Free Egyptians Party, backed Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s campaign for president, despite the clearly undemocratic way al-Sisi had got to where he was and his violent repression of dissent.

This raises the question of whether rich Egyptians and Arabs can help lead their societies down the path to freedom, justice, equality and prosperity.

Some Arab tycoons are joining the growing movement of billionaires committed to philanthropy. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has voiced his intentions to give away his considerable fortune.

Despite the undoubted value of philanthropy and the importance of interclass solidarity, the world’s billionaires are more a part of the problem than the solution, especially when you consider that the richest 1% own more than the rest of the world, and 85 or so billionaires are worth as much, in economic terms, as half of humanity.

This is the case in the Arab world, and perhaps more so. Not only is economic inequality massive, and widening, the region has become a living laboratory for unfettered neo-liberal economics and a stronghold for crony capitalism.

The intimate links, both explicit and implicit, between the business elites, the military and repressive regimes across the region mean that, no matter how well-meaning, the individual efforts of (relatively) enlightened tycoons are no substitute for systematic and fundamental change and reform.

More than greater philanthropy, the Arab world is crying out for greater social democracy, equity, solidarity, welfare systems, education and justice for all.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 7 September 2015.

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Hijabs and the beautiful game

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Despite their conservative reputation, a growing number of veiled Muslim women are taking up football… and giving men a run for their money.

Kicking ball

Wednesday 9 September 2015

There is a general perception across the globe that if you are a Muslim woman who covers her hair, then you are restricted in the sports you can play – or that you are not allowed to play sports at all. While this is the case among the most conservative, many hijabbed Muslim women play sports, including professionally.

Leena Rodgers is of Syrian and British descent who resides and works in Dubai, UAE, as a social media executive during the day but in the evenings and at weekends, she laces up her boots and turns her attention to football – her hobby and passion. “As a child, I was an all-rounder at sports,” recalls Leena.

At the age of nine, Leena first encountered the beautiful game when she accompanied her mother to her younger brother’s football practice. “I felt this instinctive urge to play too,” she recounts. Leena soon discovered that football had a more powerful pull on her than any other activity, toys or games, and it rapidly became her main source of fun.

Luckily, rather than informing Leena that girls don’t play football, her mother encouraged her talent. Leena began training with a professional coach who was an injured ex-footballer  and it was he who helped develop her skills.  A few years later, Leena started to learn advanced football skills on her own and through practice games.

At first, other girls were unaware that Leena was playing football, as it was still an unfamiliar concept for girls to play such sports around where she lived. It was only when she began secondary school that Leena actually started playing in a girls’ team.

Fortunately for the upcoming generation, the situation in Dubai has changed considerably since Leena’s pioneering days. “I currently coach girls in skills that I didn’t learn until my 20s, and they are only 4-12 years of age,” observes Leena. “It makes me sad to think how many skills I could have been taught that would have enabled me to become natural at them, if I’d been able to start younger.”

From the start of her footballing career, Leena was lucky to enjoy the full support of her family, although she admits that she still gets surprised looks when she informs her extended family that she plays football. “They see a girl and they just don’t think you’re actually any good,” she explains. In reality, Leena was always as good as her siblings and better in certain positions, especially defence.

Football was traditionally a working-class sport played mainly by men. Although this has changed considerably in the West, in the Arab world the sport was almost exclusively male. Leena’s instincts and abilities prompted her to push back the boundaries and to break with tradition. “I found myself good at it, sometimes better than the boys, so it made sense to continue,” she points out. “I was also the star of the defence, so the praise I got for that kept me going. I was depended on and I felt useful.”

IMG-20150131-WA017Her passion, talent and determination led Leena to play in the Dubai Football Women’s Association amateur league. She helped her previous team, the Arabian Leopards, to become league champions before moving to her current club, Sandstorm. Leena also plays in a mixed league and takes part in tournaments, which is a new trend that started last year.

Leena has been pleased by people’s positive reaction to women’s football team. “Off the pitch, they are usually impressed and don’t expect it when I say I play football,” Leena describes. But there is a lot of pressure to perform. “You almost feel like you have to justify to them that you are good and just as good as the guys, or even better. The standard is set in their eyes as soon as they see a girl, and a veiled one at that, which makes the task of the female footballer much harder than her male counterpart, as she needs to do double the effort in order to earn the audience’s respect in a way.”

On the pitch, though, it is different story. Male footballers tend to hold back because they are afraid of hurting the female players. “Some think that they shouldn’t challenge you – somehow they do it sympathetically, and some just refuse to play with girls because they think that they are not going to get a tough game out of it,” says Leena. “Also the more annoying part is when they don’t pass to you as much because they think you are going to cost them the game.”

Ultimately, however, Leena believes that her gender and religion do not, and should not, play a role in her sport. “At the end of the day, if you play well, no one cares where you’re from or what you are wearing,” she insists, “they are greedy for your talent and contribution.”

Leena regards football as both a hobby and a way of life, and, as a coach, a profession too. She loves everything about football because “it teaches you team work, reflection, improvement, fitness, excitement, urgency, awareness of your surroundings, concentration, handling situations under pressure – almost everything.”

“It also makes me incredibly happy, so I am so committed to it,” she adds.

The dream of playing football professionally is what keeps Leena’s ambition going but she is quick to point out that “I am where I am right now because I have got a bit of everything in my life – football, photography, social media, coaching.”

Football can affect one’s personal life, especially for women. Leena recognises that time management “is going to be a big factor in my life, knowing when to say no to football (which is extremely hard). I definitely have to fight for time with my family, because I recognise how important they are in my life and they shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

Leena sees a bright future for Arab and Muslim women’s football. “I think it is definitely on the rise and inshallah there will be more professional cups, leagues and tournaments because there is such a high demand for it.”

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Taxing questions about democracy in the Middle East

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the Middle East, there appears to be a link between autocracy and low taxes. Would higher taxation lead to greater representation or repression?

Tuesday 18 August 2015

The only certainties in life are death and taxes, sages, from Benjamin Franklin to Daniel Defoe, have been informing us for centuries.

In the Middle East, death is becoming an ever-more probable prospect of increasing ugliness and savagery. But taxes are a very different matter. Compared with Europe, America and other highly industrialised economies, most of the region’s taxation levels and tax revenue are very low.

The most extreme example are the petroleum-producing states. For example, Saudi Arabia’s total tax revenues account for around 5% of its GDP, while Oman’s is an even lower 2%. This is because most Gulf countries, flush with oil revenues, impose little-to-no taxation on their citizens and corporations.

Even in countries which are not rich in oil, governments impose and, more importantly, collect surprisingly little in the way of taxes compared with their Western counterparts. In Egypt, for example, tax revenue hovers at around 13-14% of GDP, even though the country possesses no sizeable natural resource wealth.

The inability or unwillingness of countries in the region to tax their citizens has far-reaching implications. Although everything from religion and the patriarchy to the deep state and corruption have been explored as causes behind the ongoing failure of the Arab revolutions, the issue of the economic bottom line has received surprisingly scarce attention.

The imposition of taxes by the state was a major factor in the emergence of democracy in Britain and Western Europe. Though it may be largely forgotten today, democratic participation was once contingent on the state’s financial dependence on its citizens. In fact, in its early days, rather than one person, one vote, the democratic system in place resembled more a Democracy Inc, with shareholders instead of equal voters.

For instance, from the 15th century, voting in England was limited to people holding land worth 40 shillings or more, and property was the defining feature of the electoral system until after World War I.

Reflecting how common the notion was that only those who could pay were allowed to play, the prominent Victorian liberal John Stuart Mill argued: “The assembly that votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed.”

In a way, this is the stage much of the Arab world is at right now, albeit informally. Through backdoors and informal channels, the wealthy and the upper-middle classes can influence the direction of the state and have their rights protected ­– at least far more so than the masses.

Today, the West lives in a more enlightened age and every citizen – whether rich or poor, male or female – possesses an equal right to vote. But the basic premise remains unchanged: the government takes money from the citizenry and so citizens have the right to choose the government and hold it to account.

If taxation is at the core of representation, does the inverse hold: that without taxation, there is no representation?

While numerous complex factors affect the level of authoritarianism in the Middle East, I’m convinced that it is no coincidence that political participation and democracy seem to be (loosely) correlated to the level of taxation.

Viewed in this light, it is unsurprising that the oil-rich states tend to be the most autocratic. This is both because the rentier state, as it is known, is not beholden to its citizens for its survival and because it can use the wealth it has accumulated to purchase influence and silence or ignore demands for reform.

Even non-petroleum countries often depend on resources other than taxes, including foreign aid, mining rights, or revenues from national assets such as the Suez Canal. This results in a situation in which governments are more concerned aabout pleasing foreign corporations and states than their own citizens.

“A basic feature of the social contract in the Arab countries is that the citizen accepts limitations on public representation and state accountability in return for state-provided benefits,” explained the Arab Human Development Report in 2009. “Such a contract is only possible when states have sources of revenue other than direct taxes, such as oil, to finance public expenditure.”

However, in the poorer Arab countries this tacit social pact has broken down, and it is teetering on the verge of collapse in the wealthier states. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that in the poorer countries, the state plays little to no (positive) role in the lives of its underprivileged citizens.

In Egypt, for instance, the state once provided free education and healthcare of adequate standard, and attempted to guarantee full employment, at least in theory. Today, state schools are ignorance factories, state hospitals are death incubators, and with the public and private sectors in tatters, people are increasingly relying on the informal economy for employment and sustenance. That is why “bread” and “social justice” were two of the revolution’s main demands.

This raises the intriguing question of why it is that, though higher taxation is in the interests of both the state and its citizens, neither side seems terribly interested in broadening the tax base.

On the part of the government, Middle Eastern regimes do not have the authority or credibility to collect more taxes. More importantly, it appears they would generally prefer to enjoy a monopoly on power in an emaciated and failing state than to share power with citizens in a more vibrant, powerful and robust political partnership.

The motives of citizens are more complex. Naturally, taxes are unpopular almost everywhere. In the Middle East, more so. In much of the Ottoman Empire, peasants and workers were heavily taxed under a system known as Ilitizam, or “tax farming”. This double taxation had a devastating effect, such as depopulating entire villages in Egypt.

The situation did not improve with Western rule. After European lenders had helped to bankrupt Egypt during the construction of the Suez Canal, Britain formally occupied Egypt. In a 19th-century version of the Greek debt crisis, Britain handed over Egypt’s public treasury to European banks who swallowed up two-thirds of the state’s revenue.

With high taxation generally leading to no representation, not to mention a great deal of repression, persecution and corruption, it is unsurprising that the people of the region have such a cavalier attitude towards paying taxes. And native governments, with their high level of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, have not helped raise the credibility of paying taxes in the public eye.

But there are some initial signs of change. Governments across the region are looking to increase their revenues by broadening the tax base. These efforts have mostly focused on indirect taxation, such as sales and consumption taxes, which are easier to levy and require less accountability.

However, indirect taxation is reaching its limits. Egypt, for one, has raised its low income tax level to try to shore up its deficit, especially as aid from its Gulf patrons gradually dries up. Even in the Gulf, a robust debate has begun about the need to raise tax levels to compensate for fluctuating and falling oil revenues. Additionally, it is time for the region to find a new ownership model for natural resources which boosts accountability and places control in the hands of citizens.

While governments are bound to try to impose taxation without real representation, in modern economies, this would require the kind of coercive ability no state in the region possesses. In addition, it will undoubtedly lead, like in the 19th century, to falling tax receipts, as taxpayers collapse out of exhaustion or find ever-more creative ways to evade taxation.

Although taxation alone will not bring about fair representation, manipulated cleverly by the citizenry, it will force the region’s governments to become more accountable and, eventually, more democratic.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 11 August 2015.

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Egyptian Jews, love triangles and conspiracy theories

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite outlandish conspiracy theories, a Ramadan TV drama about Egypt’s lost Jewish community is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism.

Haret al-yahoud

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Love triangles, unrequited love and the torment of separation are staples of Egyptian soap operas. This is especially the case during Ramadan, when fasting and piety dominate during daylight hours and feasting and revelry kick off once the sun goes down.

But one Ramadan drama stands out for a love story with an unusual twist. Leila and Ali are the classic boy and girl next door who have been madly in love since childhood, with Ibtihal their jealous neighbour, representing the obtuse angle of this triangle. So far so ordinary.

However, Leila is an Egyptian Jew and Ali is an Egyptian officer deployed to the Palestine front during the 1948 war. To complicate matters further, her brother is one of the few Egyptian Jews who has gone to Palestine to help the Israeli effort.

The Leila-Ali affair makes up one of the central storylines of Haret el-Yahoud, which is set in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter, the controversial historical drama that is currently airing in Egypt and across the Arab world.

I have watched the first few episodes of this slick production and have generally been impressed by the quality of the acting and the period mood it evokes of 1940s “belle epoque” Cairo.

Most of all, I am pleased that a largely forgotten and distorted period of Egypt’s recent history, that of the demise of the country’s once-vibrant, 80,000-strong Jewish community, has been made accessible to a broader public – and in a humane and sympathetic light.

Though many Egyptians have welcomed the series, it has also provoked inevitable anger and allegations of “whitewashing history” in some quarters, especially among those who seem convinced that Jews, Israelis and Zionists are the same thing.

One example of this is Ahmed Metwali, described as a professor of history at Cairo University, who claimed that Jews in Egypt isolated themselves socially and worked exclusively in trade and business.

Obviously, the good professor’s grasp of his own country’s history is shaky at best, or ideology has blinded him to reality. Though a small community, Egypt’s Jews were prominent in every walk of life, including culture and politics – and many were ordinary, working class folk.

In fact, it might surprise the learned professor to learn that Jews played a central role in awakening Egypt’s modern national consciousness. A good example of this was Yaqub Sannu. Though almost totally forgotten today, in the 19th century, Sannu established one of the country’s first anti-imperialist and anti-royalist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses. He was also possibly the creator of the quintessential Ibn el-Balad (Son of the Country) character who stood for native virtue and the anti-imperial and class struggle.

Jews in Egypt felt so apparently comfortable that they not only made films, but some made films about Jews. At a time when German Jewish filmmakers were fleeing Hitler, Togo Mizrahi, one of the founding fathers of Egyptian cinema, made numerous films which had Jewish protagonists and main characters  – something that was rare if unheard of in 1930s Hollywood.

Even more unbelievably, Metwali claims that there were no love affairs between Muslims and Jews.

Has the history professor really not heard of perhaps the most famous on- and off-screen couple in Egyptian cinematic history, Leila Murad, who was once everyone’s favourite silver screen beauty with the golden vocal chords, and the debonair Anwar Wagdi? Out of love, Murad converted from Judaism to Islam to marry Wagdi (three times), who ruined their relationship by insisting on owning her entire career.

The character of Leila is done up in such a way as to pay tribute to her legendary namesake, while Ali, with his Clark Gable moustache, bears more than a passing resemblance to Wagdi.

Some critics have gone even further and taste the ingredients of a conspiracy by the al-Sisi regime to appease Israel and engineer a rapprochement by “narrowing the psychological gap between the two peoples”, according to Hossam Aql of the al-Badeel al-Hadari party.

But again, this strikes me as a case of conflating Jews with Israel. While the series portrays Egyptian Jews in a sympathetic light, the only Israeli I have seen so far was a two-dimensional sadist army officer who tortures Ali.

For Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it is Haret al-Yahoud’s less-than-flattering portrayal of their founding father, Hassan el-Banna, that seems to have provoked the greatest fury. “al-Sisi’s TV serials are a misrepresentation in favour of the Jews,” Anas Hassan, a prominent activist and the founder of Rassd, a pro-Brotherhood grassroots news site, wrote on his Facebook page, eliciting more than 2,000 likes. “al-Sisi is a complete Zionising project.”

The flimsy evidence for this is that the Israeli media has praised al-Sisi repeatedly. But if that is an indicator of being a “Zionist stooge”, then the Brotherhood’s very own Mohamed Morsi deserves that accolade just as much, given the acclaim he got in Israel and the love letter he sent to former Israeli president Shimon Peres.

In other posts, Hassan accused al-Sisi of being an “apostate” who was “raised by Jews”. Since al-Sisi’s rise to power, many Muslim Brotherhood supporters and activists have subscribed to outlandish ­– and frankly anti-Semitic – conspiracy theories about the Egyptian leaders ancestry, alleging that he is a Jew.

The damning case against him? According to a popular YouTube video, al-Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter. “Only Jews resided in the Jewish quarter,” the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area, despite its name, was always a mixed one.

Though not all Muslim Brothers entertain such feverish fantasies, this kind of hate-filled, intolerant, sectarian discourse does little to counteract the image of el-Banna and his men, who set off a deadly campaign of bombings against Jewish targets in 1948 just because they shared the same religion as the enemy, presented in Haret el-Yahoud as violent fanatics.

To my mind, there is no pro-Israel conspiracy behind Haret el-Yahoud, but perhaps an alliance of convenience and some co-option. Many artists in Egypt feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist intolerance in general, and this has, sadly, made many staunch or hesitant supporters of the ruthless military regime.

The series’ uncritical veneration of the army is a case in point. Even though al-Sisi hadn’t yet been born at the time of the 1948 war, the makers’ decision to set this drama in al-Sisi’s old neighbourhood and to make the main star a handsome, principled and sensitive army officer to whom women are instinctively drawn is a powerful subliminal message to audiences. Of course, any resemblance to real or living presidents may be entirely coincidental and unintentional.

For audiences and programme makers alike, the main draw to Haret al-Yahoud, in these tumultuous times, is nostalgia. Many look back wistfully to an Egypt that was once perched on top of the Arab and developing world. It was the wealthiest and most advanced Arab country, and a place where modernity and progress seemed to be on an unstoppable onward march.

In a contemporary Egypt where intolerance towards Christians, not to mention anyone who is different, many Egyptians feel that their country seriously lost its way in the second half of the 20th century, when it was supposed to have been liberated.

Haret al-Yahoud is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism. By coming to terms with the injustice it committed against its Jewish minority, Egypt may be able to save its soul.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 June 2015.

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