Adam Curtis, archives, and the US in Syria, 1947-49

BBC documentary filmmaker and part-time blogger Adam Curtis went into the archives and returned with a timely reminder of what Americans mean when they talk about intervention. Or rather what they choose to forget. A chapter of Syrian history that is glossed in nearly all media coverage of the uprising since March:

Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite – and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that “the Syrian people are naturally democratic” and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites – and a new world of “peace and progress” would inevitably emerge.

What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today.

The archive interview with Miles Copeland reveals the CIA as it once was: dastardly, knowing, but also frank and direct in a way that American foreign policy and politicos aren’t anymore. Among the old BBC reels is footage of Hama in 1977. As Curtis writes, “They are labelled Stockshots in the BBC archive. But since 1982 they have become more than that. They are one of the few film records that remain of a city that was practically destroyed by Assad as he struggled to put down an uprising by the disgruntled Sunnis, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who dominated the town.”

You can practically hear the groan of the norias in the silent, washed out color stock.

Read the full post, and watch the various clips, at Curtis’s BBC blog.

Another good read on Syria

Reported pieces from Syria are few, so it’s great to read such a good one as Asne Seierstad’s piece in Newsweek, beautifully written and deeply reported. Most of all she captures the mood of surveillance and fear of the ever-present Mubkhabarat here:

Surveillance dominates every aspect of life. The secret police—the Mukhabarat—is divided into an intricate system of departments and subdepartments; no part of society is left unexamined. A network of agents spans Syria. Some have tenure; others work part time. Who could be a better observer than the greengrocer by the mosque or the hospital night watchman? Who can better keep tabs on a family than the schoolteacher who asks what Daddy says about the man on the posters?

And in the following scene of Friday prayers at the Umayyad mosque in the Old City:

This Friday the Umayyad Mosque is stage to a modern drama. The mosque is the only legal gathering place, and still strictly monitored by the security forces. Every word from the imam’s mouth is noted.

The bazaar is empty. The stalls are closed. Iron shutters protect glass jars and baskets. A whiff of cardamom rests over the spice market. The leather craftsman has left behind a faint tang of hide, the soapmaker a trace of lavender. The tourists have gone; only the locals are left, small boys on bicycles, grandfathers on their chairs. Police units on motorcycles have closed off several streets. Some plan a protest after prayers.

The silence is oppressive. The area teems with Mukhabarat. Everyone knows who they are, even though they act like normal men. They squat on curbsides, lean against walls, sit on benches or together by doorways. They’re dressed in shirts and trousers, like other men. Though they might be more broad-shouldered than the average Syrian, and certainly have a stronger proclivity for leather jackets, the clothes aren’t what set them apart. It’s their glance.

They possess a way of looking that is inquisitive but not curious. It’s one-way; they want to take, not meet. Their conversation, or lack thereof, is the other giveaway. Between most people there is at least a little chitchat. These men hardly talk, and when they do, they do it without facial expressions, without a jab in the side, a poke on the shoulder. They don’t talk like people really talk. They are on assignment.

Photo by Ed Kashi.

Rosier US-Egyptian relations

A 1953 “Report from the Near East” via the Travel Film Archive on “how Egypt, Jordan and Iran were working with the U.S. to stabilize the Middle East in the early 1950s.” Through the lens of Julien Bryan. I have a soft spot for these old propaganda reels. Americans like to imagine their rosier relations with Egypt and the Arab world in the 1950s, signaled most of all by US intervention in Suez in 1956. Oh for the halcyon days of postwar aid and development! (Paging Daniel Lerner).

If the 58 years of foreboding in this film are any indicator, the Hashemites should be nervous, though I’m sure they already are.

Watch out Aleppo!

Times readers are coming! First Damascus is chalked up as the next Marrakesh. Now Aleppo is plastered in the Sunday travel section, with the obligatory shill for vastly overrated Beit Sissi and some evocative prose about the souk. Though can’t hate too hard — I love Aleppo. As for whatever their writer has to bemoan about the bar at the Baron Hotel, the bartender is delightfully surly and the old leather chairs comfy despite the Euro-tourists.

Having contributed some stories of my own on the looming tourist boom in Syria, I can’t totally decry this cozy travel coverage. For a look past the souk and cherry kebab of Aleppo, though, might I plug my Syrian travelogue for the Faster Times one more time? A Syria roadtrip, seriously.

Avi Shlaim, Abraham Burg and Ian Black on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera English’s talk programs are so much better than CNN, among others. Too bad it’s barely available here in the United States. Here in this program of Empire, Shlaim, Burg and Black discuss whether Israel is involved in a colonial war, how quickly Obama has failed to live up to his Cairo speech vis-a-vis Israeli occupation and settlements, and other such topics that the US media would never touch. Have to say, the moderator Marwan Bishara still has to fill the void of semi-annoying host.

Nasser on TIME

I’ve been doing some research on foreign press coverage of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s trip to Damascus in 1958 and the declaration of the United Arab Republic. It was his first visit to Syria, and before his arrival the Syrians already declared him their new president. I looked in the archives of Time Magazine, which is available and free, including covers, back in the days when Time was, if not more serious, at least better to look at. The catalog of their covers of Nasser:

1101550926_400Sep 26, 1955

1101560827_400Aug 27, 1956

1101580728_400July 28, 1958

1101630329_400Mar 29, 1963

1101690516_400May 16, 1969

1101701012_400Oct 12, 1970