Life in the Ruins

deknatel_lifeintheruins_ba_img_0How the destruction of architectural treasures became a weapon in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Assad’s staging of a soft-focus victory lap in Krak des Chevaliers represented more than a culture war unfolding in the civil war’s cross-fire. Targeting historic architecture for destruction or co-opting it for propaganda exercises are both regime tactics, to be added to an arsenal that also includes barrel bombs—metal drums filled with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from helicopters onto rebel-held territory. Many of the bombs fall on Aleppo, whose covered medieval markets were burned by regime forces in 2012. “That was totally punitive,” Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist and member of the Syrian opposition who teaches history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, told me. “When Aleppo rose up, the regime had constantly reminded and threatened the city’s merchant classes that if they did not control their local population—if they did not support suppressing any protest and the city was allowed to become a hotbed of demonstrations—there would be a great price to pay.”

As a warning in 2011, al-Azm said, the regime sent tanks into the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, on the Euphrates River, which has close commercial and cultural ties with Aleppo, and besieged it. “If you want to make a demonstration of force without destroying Aleppo itself, burning the commercial center of Deir ez-Zor would be a good way to remind the people of Aleppo: ‘This is what I will do to you if you also start protesting.’” When the protests finally took off there in 2012, “the regime burnt the souks down—wanton destruction just for the sake of destruction.”

It was only the start. When the eleventh-century minaret of Aleppo’s grand Umayyad Mosque collapsed from a mortar strike in April 2013, the Syrian government and the rebels traded accusations over who was to blame. Satellite images show that a corner of the mosque’s rectangular courtyard is missing. Where the minaret stood, there is only a pile of stones. But as Diana Darke states in her memoir, My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, much of the destruction of Aleppo’s mosque involved strategic terror tactics focused on symbolic and historic places. “Before leaving, the regime soldiers scrawled the same chilling graffiti on the mosque’s water dispenser that was starting to appear all over the country,” Darke writes, “Al-Assad aw nahriqhu, ‘Assad, or we will burn it.’”

Read the rest at The Nation.

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Not just branches – on the Syrian and Egyptian Brotherhoods

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The irony of these parallel accounts is that, with Egypt’s current disorder and Lefèvre’s analysis, which privileges the Brotherhood’s early pragmatism and democratic participation over their violence in the 1970s and 1980s, the Syrian Brotherhood – long considered more radical – comes across as more of a political moderate than its Egyptian relative. Lefèvre insists that “today, there is little doubt left about the organisation’s commitment to ideas and concepts such as democracy and political pluralism,” even if it still remains doctrinally “embedded in the ideological substance of political Islam”. Its internal history is far more contentious, and reflective of the broad social and political wounds of decades of single Baath Party rule, than is often framed. In Egypt, meanwhile, where the Brotherhood’s history was never so violent, the group instead participated in what Wickham calls “a political process warped by authoritarian rule”. That didn’t liberalise the organisation so much as entrench hardliners who kept it as a closed coterie. Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood knew it couldn’t reasonably hold power, so it was free to advocate democracy while leaving major doctrines and policies vague. But political power changed all that, and exposed their doublespeak. It ran a presidential candidate after pledging it wouldn’t; it deflected criticisms with canards, and refused to admit mistakes.

Until the Syrian Brotherhood runs in elections and realises similar political aspirations, the organisation will be held up to its Egyptian counterparts and their penchant for saying one thing while pursuing only narrow group interests. The interviews Lefèvre cites give voice to his broad claims about the Syrian Brotherhood’s newfound restraint and accommodations. But if the Egyptian Brotherhood has proven anything after Mubarak, and after Morsi, it is that its words are hardly sacrosanct. Exiled Syrian Brothers such as Attar or Salem, whether they want to be, will be associated with Khairat Al Shater, the Egyptian Brotherhood’s senior strategist and chief financier, who told the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper last year: “There must be as much integration and cooperation as possible, with alliances and coalitions among the various political stakeholders … There is no possibility of a power monopoly. It simply is not part of our strategy or our culture.”

Read the whole story, on the cover of The Review, at The National.

Distance Resistance

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Arwa works out of a walk-up office in Heliopolis, near Cairo’s international airport, amid the din of low-flying passenger jets overhead. The 27-year-old former state television producer, who declined to give his last name, left Damascus in late 2011 to avoid being drafted into the army. After months of inactivity in Egypt, he and another Syrian friend founded SouriaLi, an internet radio station focused not on news of the brutal government crackdown and uprising devastating his country, but Syrians’ common history and culture (the name means “Syria is mine”.)

“We try to remind people of our connections,” said Arwa, his cigarette nearly done. “We’re speaking about how to build our society, how we can live together tomorrow. Like Mahmoud Darwish wrote, ‘we love life’.”

The opening lines of that Darwish poem – “And we love life if we find a way to it. We dance in between martyrs and raise a minaret for violet or palm trees” – is an unlikely elegy for Syria today, where the death toll, according to the United Nations, exceeds 70,000. One million Syrians have fled abroad, most to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, bringing the realities of war across a region that has known too many refugee crises.

The trauma of displacement is often captured in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to some 146,000 people, or similarly squalid camps in the mountains and valleys of Lebanon and Turkey. Cairo has no refugee camps. But new Syrian communities, displaced by war, have formed in its urban sprawl, from the city centre to the desert satellites, just like the Sudanese and Iraqi ones before them. For many young Syrians who joined the earliest protests against Assad and then were forced to flee, Egypt’s capital has become both an activist base and a refuge.

Read the rest at The National. To read the piece as it appeared in print in The Review, click here. And check out more of Bridgette Auger’s great photographs here.

The Prophet of Aleppo

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Syria’s leading novelist makes his English-language debut—at last.

A popular writer living under dictatorship refuses to join the regime’s propaganda machine, and so he goes silent. His novels are banned and he cannot work or write. This is Fathi Sheen, the narrator of Syrian writer Nihad Sirees’s scathing, absurdist, and powerful novel The Silence and the Roar—but it is also Sirees himself, who fled Syria last year for Cairo after decades of writing to resist the cult of the ruling Assads—Hafez and now Bashar (whom he writes about in this issue of Newsweek). Sirees’s novels promote the individual’s power of free expression under an authoritarian regime that demands the masses’ blind adherence and for three decades has silenced people with what Sirees calls “an expansive roar”—of rallies, secret prisons, and now artillery, tanks, and jets—“that renders thought impossible.”

On a recent afternoon in Providence, Rhode Island, Sirees sits at a table in a Greek restaurant near Brown University, where he is a visiting fellow, and toiled with what to call the civil war devastating his country, where the death toll exceeds 70,000. It mimics a scene in his novel, in which Fathi meets a doctor in a hospital overwhelmed with the bodies of people trampled by hysterical crowds celebrating the Leader. The doctor begs Fathi to tell him “what we should call what’s going on here. Naming can satisfy a need.” Fathi’s answer—“surrealism”—was Sirees’s initial reply, too. But then he conceded, “No one could give a name or a title to this. It’s only criminal.”

Read the rest of my profile at Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

The Syria I Knew – On the Fall of the House of Assad

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I have a piece in the LARB on David Lesch’s Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, that includes some reflection on my time in Damascus in 2008-09. The photo above is the view from my apartment in the Old City, which I wrote about here:

At the apartment I lived in for most of a year in Syria between 2008 and 2009, in the Old City of Damascus, I had Arabic lessons with one of my tutors in a small kitchen. Whenever I brought up politics with my tutor — like the potential for negotiation with Israel to return the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967 — he got quiet, removed the SIM card from his cell phone, then mine, and chose his words carefully. If it seemed paranoid — so your phone is being tapped, but how can they listen when it is off? — taking out the SIM card was the preamble to any vaguely sensitive discussion in Syria. The feeling of being monitored was always present. Neighbors and grocers knew your schedule, your friends, and their schedules.

The apartment was on the top floor — the roof, really — of a modern, five-story walk-up on Straight Street. The kitchen peered down into the courtyard of a traditional Damascene house below, which had been renovated, like many others, into a boutique hotel, and which is now likely empty or boarded up while the city fears the fight to come. My kitchen window looked east, past the Roman-era Bab Sharqi, the eastern gate of the Old City, to the Ghouta suburbs that today are slowly falling, by fierce firefight, into rebel hands.

From my roof looking west across the city, I’d stare at Mount Qassioun, which looms over Damascus even as housing creeps up its steep, arid slopes. The mountain is reportedly now being fortified by the Syrian military, a final redoubt in the regime’s defense of the capital. Qassioun is celebrated as the mountaintop from which the Prophet Muhammad first saw Damascus. He didn’t climb down and enter the city, though; you could only enter paradise once. Now, regime artillery on the mountain is used to shell restive suburbs below.

Read the whole piece at the LARB.

On Samar Yazbek’s Syria diaries

In late April 2011, as news of heavy gunfire and rooftop snipers leaked out of the southern town of Daraa, besieged by the Syrian army and security services, Samar Yazbek received a text message from a childhood friend. “Dear traitor,” it read, “even God’s with the president and you’re still lost.” Yazbek’s diary entry for that day, April 29, records 62 peaceful demonstrators killed, mostly in Daraa, where the government blocked flour shipments as part of its siege. “Why are they doing this?” she asks. “After the electricity and the water and the medicine, they’ll even cut off the bread?”

The entry is one of more than 40 written between March 25 and July 9, 2011 that together form A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, a personal document and definitive account of the first 100 days of a once-peaceful uprising that is now a civil war. The diaries catalogue the bravery, confusion, torment and mounting brutality as the violence took over Syria, from the perspective of a prominent novelist (she was one of the three Syrian authors whose work was featured in 2010’s Beirut39 anthology), screenwriter and journalist whom the Al Assad regime tried to silence.

From a notable Alawite family in Jableh, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Yazbek was compelled by kin and community to back the government. Her early, outspoken criticism of Bashar Al Assad’s suppression of peaceful protests that began in Daraa 18 months ago – when children were detained and tortured for scrawling anti-regime graffiti on their school – instead brought public denunciation and personal threats.

Three times in those first 100 days of Syria’s uprising, Yazbek was brought to a security office in Damascus, where she was beaten, berated, condemned as a traitor and pawn of Salafi militants, and dragged through an underground prison below the office where tortured demonstrators hung in chains and in heaps on the floor to be stomped on (the calm, sinister officer told her it’s “just a short trip, so you’ll write better”.)

Read the rest of my review at The National.

Aerial Views 1919

A young English painter born in Oxford joined the British air force during World War I and became an “Official War Artist,” sketching battlefields and cities from above, some of which he turned into oil paintings in his studio after the war. From an airplane Richard Carline’s views are realist but flat, distances shortened and the horizon stretched. The views suggest the compactness of some of the area’s landscape. High above Damascus, at 10,000 feet, you can see over the Anti-Lebanon range to Jebel Sannine and the Mediterranean.They are also an artifact of an imperial era, since the views are from an RAF plane over lands that the British and French had taken during and would occupy after the war. A perspective of domination, maybe, or at least of framing Damascus, Baghdad, and Jerusalem from above, as a British airplane saw them.

The BBC has a gallery of his paintings, all of which are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Above, Baghdad. Below, Jerusalem: