band annie's Weblog

I have a parallel blog in French at



3 Million Reasons Why Your Heart Will Break In One Video

I’ve been plunged into despair but I’ve been healed by looking around and seeing what we do for each other to bring each other back up from the depths.” Neil Gaiman

“We watch the news about Syria and the situation is bleak. In May when I travelled to Jordan with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and visited Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps with fashion designer Georgina Chapman and her husband, film producer, Harvey Weinstein, the scale of the refugee situation was extraordinary to us. Conflict was forcing innocent people in love with their country to abandon their homes and bleed, in their thousands, across its borders. How are they able to cope with losing everything? How are the neighbouring countries expected to cope with the flood of human beings overwhelming their infrastructure and their already scarce resources?

6 months on and the numbers of refugees and internally displaced have climbed, not inch by inch, but in dizzying numbers: over 6.4 million people displaced inside Syria, over 3 million refugees outside Syria. Spirits have been broken, homes wrecked, lives destroyed, and a generation of children traumatized.

But somehow, still, in amongst the horror and the nightmares, there are still many small and glorious stories of survival and hope, resilience and dignity. I have already shared many of them with you, but there are more to tell. I’m sharing them in order to build a connection between the people I have met – Ayman, Ibrahim, Um Murad and the rest – and with you. Yes, you. I’m asking, on their behalf and UNHCR’s, for help, because if you could have the conversations that we had, if only you could sit and speak to the refugees, face to face, you would see that we really are the same, that we really are part of one family. And, at its best, a family does all it can to support each other.” – Neil Gaiman

Please visit to help now. If you’re in the UK, you can also text NEED2510 to 70070 to donate £10 now.

Original piano music was composed & recorded for this film by Amanda Palmer.

Information for media:
If you would like to use this video to communicate refugee stories or require B-Roll, transcripts, stills or much more information, please contact us at or

Keep up to date with our latest videos:…


Three Monsters

September 23, 2014 

threemonstersPart of me, of course, is happy to see bombs fall on the heads of the international jihad-fascists tormenting the Syrian people (I refer to ISIS, not the Shia jihad-fascists fighting for Assad, who I’d love to see bombed too). Mostly, I’m just disgusted. In the name of disengagement the West not only refused to arm and supply the democratic Syrian opposition – even as Assad launched a genocide against the people – the United States actually prevented other states from providing the heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weaponry the Free Army so desperately needed. It was obvious what would happen next. The Free Army – and the Syrian people – were increasingly squeezed between Assad and the ISIS monster. And now the Americans are bombing both Iraq and Syria. This is where ‘disengagement’  and ‘realism’ has brought us.

ISIS, like Assad, can be hurt from the air but defeated only on the ground. Obama and the Congress have just agreed to spend $500 million on training 5000 vetted members of the Free Syrian Army – the same people that Obama mocked as irrelevant “pharmacists, farmers and students” a few months ago. The training won’t be finished for eight months, and anyway will be of little use. The Free Army now houses some of the best, most battle-hardened fighters in the world. They don’t need training; they need weapons. In the present balance of forces, in any case, the wounds inflicted by America’s photogenic bombing run may not translate into any improvement on the ground. Only Syrians can improve things on the ground.

The West was not moved to act by 200,000 (at least) slaughtered, or nine million homeless, or by barrel bombs, rape campaigns, starvation sieges or sarin gas. It was only moved when an American was beheaded. The inconsistency is noted well by Syrians. In some quarters, an assault on ISIS which is not accompanied by strikes on Assad and aid to the Free Army will be perceived as a Western-Shia-Assadist alliance against persecuted Sunnis. This could increase the appeal of ISIS and successor Sunni extremist groups.

ISIS has many parents, but the first of these, in Syria at least, is Assad. He released extremists from prison while he was assassinating unarmed democrats. He sectarianised the conflict by setting up sectarian death squads and by bringing in Iran-backed Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon. His scorched earth policy made normal life impossible in the liberated areas, creating the vacuum in which organisations like ISIS thrived. And until this June, he had an effective non-aggression pact with ISIS, not fighting it, buying oil from it. From January, on the other hand, all opposition militias – the Free Army groups and the Islamic Front groups – have been fighting ISIS (and losing thousands of men in the struggle). These fighters are not about to become an on-the-ground anti-ISIS militia, as the Americans seem to want. They know the truth – that both states, the Assadist and the psychotic-Islamist, are absolute enemies. There’s no destroying one without the other. And both must be destroyed by Syrian hands, not by foreign planes.

Worth reading Yassin al-Haj’s comment, from here:

I am ambivalent about a Western attack against ISIS.

On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society.

On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.

Western powers could have avoided this had they helped the Syrian resistance in its battle against the fascist Assad regime. The right thing to do, ethically and politically, is to build a coalition against both ISIS andthe Assad regime, and to help Syrians bring about significant changes in their country’s political environment.

Let me finally say that I am very skeptical of the plans and intentions of the American administration. ISIS is the terrible outcome of our monstrous regimes and the West’s role in the region for decades, as much as it is the result of grave illnesses within Islam. Three monsters are treading on Syria’s exhausted body.

—Yassin al-Haj Saleh, one of the leading writers and intellectual figures of the Syrian uprising, imprisoned from 1980 to 1996 for left-wing activities, now living in exile in Istanbul


Let’s Talk About Genocide: The Case of Palestine

 declaration made by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its resolution 96 (I) dated 11 December 1946 that genocide is a crime under international law

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.  

Though still contentious in some circles even within the Palestine solidarity movement, I’d like to join the, Ali Abunimah, Ilan Pape and others [1,2] and put forth that Israel, typical of a colonialist entity, isn’t only guilty of war crimes, discrimination, and employing an apartheid system on the Palestinian people, but is actually committing genocide. Before the reader rules me out as another “extremist” and clicks on, I’d like to remind you that all these terms are legal terms. And though I’m by no means a legal expert, I intend to argue the legal points in this article, in hopes of not only proving that Israel is in fact committing the crime of genocide, but that legal professionals would refine these arguments and take them where they belong- International Criminal Court.

… intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group

“Intent to destroy” a group is a basic qualifier for the crime of genocide. Intent is probably the element of a crime that is most difficult to prove, however the zionist movement and its subsequent colony in Palestine in its 67 years of colonialism, has never really hid its intent, the “enemy” being identified alternately as “Arabs”, “Muslims”, or “Palestinians”. I give you exhibits A through H:

A- Theodor Herzl

When we occupy the land, we shall bring immediate benefits to the state that receives us. We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly … It goes without saying that we shall respectfully tolerate persons of other faiths and protect their property, their honor, and their freedom with the harshest means of coercion. This is another area in which we shall set the entire world a wonderful example … Should there be many such immovable owners in individual areas [who would not sell their property to us], we shall simply leave them there and develop our commerce in the direction of other areas which belong to us…

Granted, Hertzl wasn’t specifically referring to Palestine at the time, just outlining a generalized strategy. This quote within itself doesn’t show intent of genocide, but clearly outlines strategies of collective economic destruction (a “root cause of genocide” according to the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide website) and ethnic cleansing (another legal term). The quote’s relevance is in the future impact that Hertzl would have on the Zionist movement and its leaders, who had adopted his methods, as I intend to show in the rest of the quotes of this section.

B- Ben Gurion

What we really want is not that the land remain whole and unified. What we want is that the whole and unified land be Jewish [emphasis in original]. A unified Eretz Israel would be no source of satisfaction for me—if it were Arab.From our standpoint… We must expel Arabs and take their place… 

C- Golda Meir (collection)

Peace will come to the Middle East when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us… Any one who speaks in favor of bringing the Arab refugees back must also say how he expects to take the responsibility for it, if he is interested in the state of Israel. It is better that things are stated clearly and plainly: We shall not let this happen… There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist… When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons… Arab sovereignty in Jerusalem just cannot be. This city will not be divided — not half and half, not 60-40, not 75-25, nothing. 

D- Yitzak Rabin

[Israel will] create in the course of the next 10 or 20 years conditions which would attract natural and voluntary migration of the refugees from the Gaza Strip and the west Bank to Jordan.

E- Ariel Sharon

While Sharon was more of a doer than a talker , he was nevertheless rather straightforward about his actions:

It is the duty of Israeli leaders to explain to public opinion, clearly and courageously, a certain number of facts that are forgotten with time. The first of these is that there is no Zionism, colonialization, or Jewish State without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands.[]

You don’t simply bundle people onto trucks and drive them away … I prefer to advocate a more positive policy, to create, in effect, a condition that in a positive way will induce people to leave []

F- Ehud Olmert

There is no doubt in my mind that very soon the government of Israel is going to have to address the demographic issue with the utmost seriousness and resolve. This issue above all others will dictate the solution that we must adopt. In the absence of a negotiated agreement – and I do not believe in the realistic prospect of an agreement – we need to implement a unilateral alternative… The formula for the parameters of a unilateral solution are: To maximize the number of Jews; to minimize the number of Palestinians; not to withdraw to the 1967 border and not to divide Jerusalem.

G- Benjamin Netanyahu

This is the land where our identity was forged; this is our homeland; here is our country which was reborn. And the Palestinians must accept this. Otherwise, what we are being asked to do is allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state which will continue subvert the foundation for the existence of the Jewish state, which will try to flood us with refugees, which will advance irredentist claims from within the State of Israel’s territory, territorial claims, national claims… the most condensed version of the formula for a peace agreement with the Palestinians is a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state – a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. We do not want to annex the Palestinians as citizens of the State of Israel and we do not want to control them, but naturally the Palestinian state must be demilitarized. This means that certain markers of sovereignty will have to be limited. []

And half a year later while massacring hundreds of Palestinians in the besieged Gaza strip:

I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan. []

This is the fourth day of Operation Protective Edge. The IDF, the ISA and the security forces are fighting Hamas with increasing intensity. As of now, we have hit over 1,000 Hamas’, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations’ targets, and we are still busy… The pace of attacks in this operation is double that of Operation Pillar of Defense and the military strikes will continue until we can be certain that the quiet has returned to Israeli citizens… no terrorist target in the Gaza Strip is immune but it must be pointed out that Hamas’s leaders, commanders and activists are hiding behind the residents of Gaza and they are responsible for any injury to them. []

H- The next generation: Ayelet Shaked (supporting genocide from Electronic Intifada)

It is a call for genocide because it declares that “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy” and justifies its destruction, “including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.” It is a call for genocide because it calls for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.”

(a) Killing members of the group see FULL document here



Syria Speaks on Tour

July 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

left to right: Khalil, me and Khaled. photo by Khalil.

This was published at the National

For a week in June, Syrian writers and artists toured England, giving readings and workshops to promote “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline”, a book reflecting the country’s new revolutionary culture. British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab describes the experience.


In Bradford we met a woman who had tried as hard as she could to forget she was Syrian. We didn’t discover her original trauma, but we heard its symptoms over a British-Pakistani curry. She hadn’t spoken Arabic for years, and never told anyone where she was from. Once a policeman detained her for an hour because she refused to tell him her origin.

In Bristol, on the other hand, we met a little old woman who, with her red hair and flowery dress, we might have mistaken for English. But she was a Damascene, and she wept when I read a description of her city. Afterwards she came to introduce herself. “I’ve lived in England for thirty years, and I didn’t realise until the revolution that I had a fear barrier inside. Then I noticed I’d never talked about Syria. I’d tried not to even think about it. But those brave youths gave me courage; they gave me back my identity and my freedom.”

So the Syrian revolution is alive and well in Bristol if not in Bradford, for this is where the revolution happens first, before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations – in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words. Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’ in which public discourse was irretrievably devalued by enforced lip-service to the regime and its propaganda pieties. As a result, many Syrians describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, a kind of rebirth. In “Syria Speaks”, Ossama Mohammed’s story “The Thieves’s Market” concerns a woman who attends the state’s official demonstrations, until her friend is murdered for participating in an oppositional one. “I grew up,” she says, “came of age, abandoned someone and was abandoned, on a march that finished yesterday.” When that coerced march ended and a thousand new ones began, Syrians found unprecedented liberation simply by expressing honest opinions in the presence of their neighbours, by breaking the barriers of fear.

Producer Itab Azzam describes the old cultural dispensation: “In Damascus, if you want to be a recognised artist, you have to be part of the system. The system is based on you being, or you being able to pretend to be, sophisticated enough.” In 2011, many of the established sophisticates took the side of the regime, from pop singer George Wassouf to state intellectual par excellence Bouthaina Shaaban (a translator and writer as well as regime propagandist); but many others – from poet Rasha Omran to actress Mai Skaf – stood publically with the savagely repressed protestors. More importantly, artists were now judged not by their position or prestige but by what they could contribute to a rapidly transforming society. ‘Ordinary’ Syrians no longer sought permission to speak; they no longer craved entry to the Arab Writers’ Union or other institutions of the state’s official culture. Instead, culture exploded from the bottom up, through slogans, cartoons, dances and songs, through endless debate and contestation in the liberated areas, through free radio stations and independent newspapers produced and distributed even in beseiged and constantly bombarded neighbourhoods.

Our tour of England was to promote “Syria Speaks”, a book based on the assumption that the cultural revolution is indistinguishable from the political. It contains a broad range of genres to reflect the growth of engaged art, both highbrow and low, in revolutionary Syria.

There is work by Ali Farzat, the internationally celebrated cartoonist (whose fingers were broken by regime thugs), as well as by the cartoonists and poster-makers of Kafranbel, the media-savvy village in southern Idlib province which almost nobody had heard of before 2011. There are agit-prop posters from the Shaab as-Soori Aref Tareeq group and photographs from the Lens Young collective (anonymous and cooperative production have flourished in the constrained security environment), alongside haunting canvases from Youssef Abdelke and Amjad Wardeh. Text by Sulafa Hijazi accompanies her nightmarish images – a woman giving birth to a gun; a weapon which is itself pregnant; a rosary of human heads – commentary on the cyclical aggression provoked by the state’s repression.

Music is represented by the text of “Come On, Bashaar, Get Out!”, the song sung in Hama by Ibrahim Qashoush before the regime ripped out his vocal chords and dumped his corpse in the River Orontes, and in an illuminating essay by rapper Hani al-Sawah on facing the new criticism. “The street is not an ignorant listener,” he writes. “It can distinguish the good from the bad.”

There’s poetry by Aboud Saeed, the provocative, defiantly working-class Facebook poet from Manbij (complete with date and number of ‘likes’), as well as by more established figures Golan Haji, Rasha Omran and Faraj Bayrakdar. Bayrakdar spent fourteen years in regime prisons, and prison literature (most notably “The Shell” by Mustafa Khalifa) became a well-established Syrian genre even before the revolution. “Syria Speaks” contains an extract from Dara’a Abdullah’s memoir “Loneliness Pampers Its Victims” as well as Fadia Lazkani’s account of a search for her detained bother which is really a journey towards accepting the reality of his death. Yara Badr, who as a child was robbed of her powers of speech when her parents were taken from their home, contributes a text. And the political thinker Yassin al-Haj Saleh, imprisoned for sixteen years, is interviewed on the role of the revolutionary intellectual. “I believe that the new culture will take shape around the experience of resistance to the Assads’ tyranny,” he says, “but also … resistance to the emerging forms of domination.”

What else? Much more, including script from Masasit Maté’s “Top Goon” puppet shows – a runaway internet phenomenon. And an interview with Assaad al-Achi, procurer of equipment for the citizen journalists of the Local Coordination Committees. Plus activist Mazen Darwish’s “Letter for the Future”, smuggled out of Damascus Central Prison in place of an acceptance speech for the 2013 Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights. And cultural activist Dan Gorman’s fascinating discussion with critic miriam cooke on dissident arts from popular debke to Emergency Cinema.

It was Dan, as director of Reel Festivals, who organised our book tour around the English regions, starting with a full house at Rich Mix in east London. Khaled Khalifa, Syria’s most accomplished novelist and one of the most important in the world, began the evening by reading from his new novel “No Knives in the Kitchens of this City”. He read in Arabic, and then I read the same passage in English translation. Malu Halasa, co-editor of the book and author of several others, read an irreverent flash fiction piece by Rasha Abbas. Artist and writer Khalil Younes read from “Chicken Liver”, a compassionate account of his relationship with a childhood friend, an Alawi he calls Hassan, who now fights for the regime.

The next day we headed west to lunch in uncharacteristic English sunshine on the River Avon, and then to Bristol, once a key port in the trans-Atlantic slave triangle, where we met the aforementioned little old lady, recently liberated.

Throughout the tour, we delivered workshops on behalf of English PEN (the writers’ defence organisation) to a variety of audiences. I gave one at an east London Sixth Form College (the students, several of them Muslim, were well-versed in Syria’s Islamic dynasties but knew little of its modern history – and none knew that Syria produced the world’s first alphabet). Khaled Khalifa delivered his workshop to an audience of migrants at Bristol’s Malcolm X Centre. Like Khaled, some came from rural Aleppo – there was a man from Afreen and another from Manbij. “They asked me about the olive trees and the seasons,” Khaled grinned afterwards. “I love these people.”

Khaled usually lives in Barzeh, a devastated Damascus suburb. In the tour’s quieter moments he directed a puzzled gaze at the placid English trees, the well-ordered streets, their well-fed pedestrians, and gasped at the surrealism of it all. I remember coming out of Palestine after a three-week visit, at a time of cold tension. As I arrived in Jordan, I noticed parts of my brain untensing, and understood just how much attention I’d been paying to the towers, checkpoints and armed men. How much stranger, then, for Khaled, who’s spent three years in the hottest of wars.

Our event in Oxford was at the Ashmolean museum, amongst the ancient Levantine statuary. That night we slept in Keble college, where I was once a student. The hot weather broke in a violent storm which lit the sky blue and cast furious thunderbolts. Again I thought of Khaled, and of the planes which hover above his house to fire missiles south at Qaboon. A bewilderment or exasperation breaks across his hands when he speaks of it. “Every time I leave the house I look at my things for the last time… But what can I do? It’s my country, my revolution. My situation is no different to any other Syrian’s. As a writer, it’s important to stay and to reflect the reality of what is happening.” The cost, however, is high. “I go home at night now.” He widens his eyes in wonder. “I never used to. This has changed me. I’m discovering a new Khaled.”

I set off to deliver a workshop in Wigan, setting of “The Road to Wigan Pier”, George Orwell’s investigation into the predicament of the 1930s working class. The participants were teenage writers, bright and eager, but also reflecting the general lack of knowledge of Syria. One boy was surprised to learn that the country contains cities; another believed “it had always been war there.”

From Wigan on to Liverpool, a proudly northern city revived and bustling after the death of its industry, and Khaled’s favourite stop of the tour. “It’s a different culture here, stronger,” he winked to a backdrop of hen parties and street musicians. The “Syria Speaks” event was part of a larger Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. Afterwards, there was a performance of Sarmada, a play based on the 2011 novel by Syrian writer Fadi Azzam.

Zaher Omareen, “Syria Speaks” editor and essayist, was on our panel in Liverpool. He spoke about growing up in Hama, scene of the terrible 1982 massacre, and how he’d never dared to look up at the statues of Hafez al-Assad. People believed there were cameras hidden in the stone eyes. In 2011 the statues came down and donkeys were paraded on the empty plinths.

Our first sight of Bradford was a white woman in shocking pink hijab and shalwar qamees, probably the wife of a British Pakistani. The Bradford trend more reported in the media is towards ethnic ghettoisation, though in the cosmopolitan city centre we didn’t notice it. The faded architectural magnificence, the crumbling mills and warehouses, made it feel like Lahore circa 1800 – a place immensely wealthy until recently, with a definite edge in the air. Our lovely tour bus driver Rasha Shaheen described it as “a living Ken Loach film.” The audience here was fully engaged but also the smallest of the tour. We were competing with the annual Bradford Festival. Bhangra and Reggae music drifted through the doors of the Fuse Art Space.

Khaled spoke about his ‘fathers’ – Dostoyevsky, Marquez, Faulkner. Do Syrian writers have Syrian fathers? Khaled mentioned a writer of an older generation, in negative terms – “A father must respect his children.” The conversation turned to relations between fus-ha, standardised literary Arabic, the preserve of the educated, and a‘miya, the dialect of the street.

Then Khalil Younes discussed his short film “Syria”, in which a needle is pushed repeatedly through skin, provoking an appalled response to mirror an expatriate Syrian’s nauseous experience watching war videos from back home. He also showed his pen and ink drawings, some of which have become revolutionary icons. The picture of Hamza Bakour, the child whose lower face was blown off by a regime shell, seeks to remember, mourn and celebrate this boy, otherwise a single flash in an endless stream of martyrs. “Comb” – a bloodier version of an amputation instrument from the American Civil War – and “Our Saigon Execution” are attempts to universalise the Syrian predicament by linking it to struggles in other times and places.

Next morning we travelled further north to Durham, a green, river-fed, cathedral town, where we were joined at our university reading by British-Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir. She read from her new novel “Willow Trees Don’t Weep”, and expressed powerful solidarity with the Syrian people.

Finally the long drive back to London and our final event, at Waterstones bookshop in Picadilly. Tonight we were in the company of the fearless Samar Yazbek. She read from “Gateways to a Parched Land”, an account of a regime assault on Saraqeb, and of a meeting with resistance fighters, which depicts the strange coexistence of terrible violence with “tolerance, altruism and dialogue”. Characteristically, Samar gives over half the piece to her interviewees. Such is her method in the much-translated “A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution”, a personal narrative which nevertheless includes the perspectives of defected soldiers, grassroots activists, the tortured and detained, the refugees.

Her approach is an antidote to ubiquitously lazy coverage of Syria’s revolutionary trauma. Far too many journalists, academics and politicians stick to the pre-existent narratives they feel comfortable with. They twist and bend reality to fit their discourses; in doing so they sometimes find it necessary to make stuff up. As a matter of course they ignore, or fail to see, lived experience on the ground. In this way they missed the miracle of Syria’s non-sectarian freedom movement, the dominant trend throughout 2011 amongst poorer and ‘religious’ classes as much as among elites. They ignored this sure sign of Syrian political maturity, long before the rise of Salafist militias, in favour of the Orientalist story of eternally and causelessly warring sects. Others cleaved to the Islamophobic story, with its overgeneralising urge, or to the various conspiracy stories, or to the simplistic chess-game-of-states story, in which America is bad, so Russia and Iran must be good. In every case, the Syrian people are written out of the story.

Seldom are they permitted to represent themselves on the world stage, as agents of history, as architects of their own destiny, as contradictory, imperfect, struggling human beings. “Syria Speaks”, in a small way, aims to remedy this imbalance.


Beware the Game of Shadows in Syria

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am a signatory to this letter published by the Guardian.

'Hamza Bakour' by Khalil Younes

As supporters of the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy, we are concerned by the British government’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran in response to the crisis in Iraq(Shortcuts, G2, Iran, 18 June).

There is a grave danger that the Iranian government will see this as a licence to extend its already substantial intervention in Syria in support of its client – the Assad regime – which could not have survived this long without Iranian support.

Thousands of troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia are actively fighting in Syria on the regime’s side, as are Iran’s proxies,Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias. To ally with Iran in order to combat Isis is deeply ironic, since there is considerable evidence that the Syrian regime has been colluding with Isis: Assad’s air force bombs civilians, schools, markets and hospitals without mercy but declined to attack Isis’s massive headquarters in Raqqa until the Iraq crisis erupted.

The Syrian regime has been playing a game of shadows in which this covert collusion with the growth of Isis has been used to undermine the democratic opposition and strengthen its own claim to be a bulwark against “terrorism”. To accept Iran – and by implication Bashar al-Assad – as allies in the fight against Isis is to fall for this deception.

Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, Haytham Alhmawi, director of Rethink Rebuild Society, Reem Al-Assil, activist, Adam Barnett, journalist,James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward, Mark Boothroyd, International Socialist Network, Sasha Crow, founder of Collateral Repair Project for Iraqi and Syrian Refugees, Naomi Foyle, writer and coordinator of British Writers in Support of Palestine, Christine Gilmore, Leeds Friends of Syria, Bronwen Griffiths, writer and activist, Juliette Harkin, associate tutor, University of East Anglia,Robin Yassin Kassab, author and co-editor of Critical Muslim, Tehmina Kazi, human rights activist, Maryam Namazie, Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation and Equal Rights Now – organisation against women’s discrimination in Iran, Fariborz Pooya, Worker-communist party of Iran UK, Mary Rizzo, activist, translator and blogger, Christopher Roche, Bath Solidarity, Naame Shaamcampaign group, Brian Slocock, political scientist and blogger on Syria, David St Vincent, contributing writer and editor, National Geographic Books, Luke Staunton, Merseyside Syria Solidarity Movement – UK


Raging with the Machine: Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh and Syria

April 25, 2014 § 5 Comments

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer who spent 16 years in the regime’s prisons. In this exclusive for PULSE, Saleh, who has been described as the “conscience of Syria“, discusses the distorted lens through which most people are viewing the conflict.

In the West, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh are considered critical journalists. They occupy dissident positions in the English-speaking press. Among Syrians, however, they are viewed very differently.

The problem with their writings on Syria is that it is deeply centered on the West. The purported focus of their analysis – Syria, its people and the current conflict – serves only as backdrop to their commentary where ordinary Syrians are often invisible. For Fisk and Hersh the struggle in Syria is about ancient sects engaged in primordial battle. What really matters for them are the geopolitics of the conflict, specifically where the US fits into this picture.

On the topic of chemical weapons, Fisk and Hersh, completely ignore the antecedents of last summer’s attack on Ghouta .

A reader who relies exclusively on Fisk/Hersh for their understanding of Syria would never know that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons several times before the August 21, 2013 massacre in Ghouta. I was there at the time. I saw victims of sarin gas on two occasions in Eastern Ghouta and I met doctors treating them. The victims were from Jobar, which was hit with chemical weapons in April 2013 and from Harasta, which was hit in May 2013.

It is shocking that investigative journalists such as Fisk and Hersh know nothing about these attacks. They write as if Ghouta was the first time chemical weapons were used in Syria. Their credibility and objectivity is compromised by these omissions.

For these renowned commentators, the entire Middle East is reducible to geopolitical intrigue. There are no people; there is only the White House, the CIA, the British Government, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the Emir of Qatar, the Iranian regime and of course Bashar Assad and the jihadis.

In Fisk’s myriad articles, one rarely reads about ordinary Syrians (the observation also applies to the late Patrick Seale).

Robert Fisk was once a scourge of American reporters embedding with US forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he saw no irony in himself embedding with Syria regime forces as they entered Daraya in August 2012.

More than 500 people were killed in a massacre at that time (245 according to Fisk). Who killed them? The rebels, determined Fisk based solely on interviews with regime detainees. Why should local fighters kill hundreds from their own community? Robert Fisk does not provide an answer. Had he spoken to a single citizen without his minders present, he would have learned that they had no doubts about the regime’s responsibility. Indeed, it was an American journalist, Janine di Giovanni, who established that fact shortly thereafter by visiting Daraya on her own.

At the same time when this was happening Human Rights Watch documented ten attacks on bread queues around Aleppo. Fisk did not mention a single one.

During this time Fisk visited a security center in Damascus where he was welcomed by a security official. He was given access to four jihadi fighters, two Syrians and two foreigners. Fisk made a point of mentioning that the prisoners were allowed family visits. As someone who spent 16 years in Assad’s jails and who has firsthand knowledge of these factories of death, I find this claim highly improbable. Fisk’s credulity is risible; he is assisting a shameful attempt to beautify the ugly polices of the House of Assad.

Why has Robert Fisk never attempted to contact people of Eastern Ghouta to ask them what happened there last August? It would have been easy for a person as well-connected as he to convince his friends in the regime, such as Assad’s media adviser Buthaina Shaaban, to facilitate his entrance to the besieged town. He could have met ordinary people for a change without the intimidating presence of regime minders and found out for himself who used the chemical weapons that killed 1466 people, including more than 400 children.

Ignoring local sources of information on the conflict in Syria seems to be a standard practice among many in the West, especially among left wing and liberal commentators. This speaks volumes about their ideological bias. Their dogmatic self-assurance with its veneer of professionalism is not substantively different than the obscurantist self-righteousness of the jihadis.

The Hersh/Fisk narrative unfolds in a historical vacuum: it tells you nothing about the history and character of the regime. You will not learn that the regime has used collective punishment as a policy since the very beginning of the Syrian revolt. That it has used fighter jets, barrel bombs and scud missiles against civilians to cow them; that it has invited foreigners from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and other countries to assist in the slaughter.

Nor will you learn about a flourishing death industry in the very places to which Fisk is a welcome visitor. Three months ago he penned an article about Assad’s systematic killing of the detainees in his dungeons, but Fisk reported on this topic in a way that gives us a biopsy of his professional conscience.

Fisk prefaces his report on the regime’s atrocities by warning readers about the horrors that may soon exist “if the insurrection against Bashar al-Assad succeeds.” For most, the significant fact about the photos was the industrial scale killings inside Assad’s jails that they evidenced. But Fisk appeared more obsessed with the timing of the photos, as they appeared a day before the Geneva 2 Conference. Fisk may have been reminded of Nazi Germany by the horrific fate of the 11,000 prisoners, but he still found occasion to expatiate at length about Qatar, whose “royal family viscerally hates Bashar al-Assad”, for funding the investigation. For Fisk, the atrocities were a mere detail in a larger conspiracy whose real victim was Assad’s regime.

To the uninitiated, Fisk’s article might convey the impression that those 11,000 were all that were killed by Assad’s regime and the 20,000 killed in Hama in 1982 were all that that were killed by his father’s. The actual number of victims is eleven times as many for Assad and twice as many for his father. Moreover, these figures ignore the tens of thousands arrested, tortured, and jailed, and the millions who have been humiliated by this regime

By methodically ignoring the Syrian people and by focusing on Al Qaeda, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh have done us all a huge disservice. The perspective on Syria portrayed by these writers is exactly the view of Syria that Bashaar Assad wants the rest of the world to see.

–  Yassin al-Haj Saleh (born in Raqqa in 1961) is one of Syria’s most prominent political dissidents. In 1980, when he was studying medicine in Aleppo, he was imprisoned for his membership in a pro-democracy group and remained behind bars until 1996. He writes on political, social and cultural subjects relating to Syria and the Arab world for several Arab newspapers and journals outside of Syria, and regularly contributes to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, the Egyptian leftist magazine Al-Bosla, and the Syrian online periodical The Republic. Among Saleh’s books (all in Arabic) are Syria in the Shadow: Glimpses Inside the Black Box (2009), Walking on One Foot (2011), a collection of 52 essays written between 2006 and 2010, Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian Prisons (2012), The Myths of the Others: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique (2012), and Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014). In 2012 he was granted the Prince Claus Award as “a tribute to the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution”. He was not able to collect the award, as he was living in hiding in the underground in Damascus.


The Muslims Are Coming!

the-muslims-are-comingAn edited version of this review was published at the Guardian. I like the Guardian’s books section and its G2 section, not least because they sometimes pay me to write. I also like some of their brave correspondents, such as Martin Chulov. What I don’t like at all is the idiotic, orientalist, conspiratorial, fact-free, and sometimes racist narrative against the revolutions in Syria and Libya which is so common in the Guardian’s comment sections. Blanket-thinking statist leftists like Seamus Milne and Jonathan Steele dominate, alongside ignorant polemicists like Tariq Ali. The last lines of my review target people like them, who are unfortunately influential in ‘liberal’ Britain. I am not at all surprised that the Guardian cut these lines from the review, although I name no names. These lines:  “….the new Islamophobia of sections of the left, the notion that US imperialism and ‘al-Qa’ida’ are in league to destabilise imagined ‘secular’, ‘resistance’ regimes. Those who defended Iraqi Islamists in the Blair years now point to the Allahu Akbar chant as evidence of an agenda far more benighted than that of the genocidal neo-liberal dictatorships.” (I just spoke to the good man who commissioned the piece. He says the issue was space in the print edition. Fair enough. But why cut the lines which apply to Guardianistas?)

Arun Kundnani’s “The Muslims Are Coming”, vastly more intelligent than the usual ‘war on terror’ verbiage, focusses on the war’s domestic edge in Britain and America.

Kundnani’s starting point is this: “Terrorism is not the product of radical politics but a symptom of political impotence.” The antidote therefore seems self-evident: “A strong, active, and confident Muslim community enjoying its civic rights to the full.” Yet policy on both sides of the Atlantic has ended by criminalising Muslim opinion, silencing speech, and increasing social division. These results may make political violence more, not less, likely.

The assumptions and silences of the counter-radicalisation industry end up telling us far more about particular ideological subsections of Anglo-American culture than they do about the Muslims targetted. The two dominant security approaches to Muslim citizens described by Kundnani – ‘culturalist’ and ‘reformist’ –focus on ideology rather than socio-political grievances.

Culturalism’s best-known proponent is Bernard Lewis, Dick Cheney’s favourite historian, who locates the problem as Islam itself, a totalitarian ideology-culture incompatible with democratic modernity. So Mitt Romney explains the vast divergence between Israeli and Palestinian economies thus: “Culture makes all the difference” – and decades of occupation, ethnic cleansing and war make none. Writer Christopher Caldwell believes residents of the Paris Banlieu rioted in 2005 because they were Muslims (although many weren’t), and not because of unemployment, poor housing, and police violence. Perhaps the silliest culturalist intervention was Martin Amis’s “The Second Plane”, where Amis breezily admitted he knew nothing of geopolitics but claimed authority nevertheless from his expertise in ‘masculinity’ – 9/11 was explained by Islamic sexual frustration. Such discourses are part of an influential tradition of silliness. In 1950s colonial Kenya, psychiatrist JC Carothers understood the Mau Mau uprising as “not political but psycho-pathological”.

More charitable than culturalism, reformism identifies the problem as a perversion of Islamic doctrine. With General Petraeus’s Iraqi ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, reformism came to dominate the post-Rumsfeld Pentagon; what started in counter-insurgency was soon considered as relevant to Bradford as Basra. It involved an accumulation of anthropological ‘knowledge’ through surveillance (David J Kilcullen describes counter-insurgency as “armed social science”), and it underlay the assumption of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech that positive recognition of moderate Muslim culture could solve political conflict. Quran-reading Tony Blair shared the notion that terrorism’s “root cause… was not a decision on foreign policy, however contentious, but… a doctrine of fanaticism.”

This focus on doctrine meant the state intervened in doctrinal affairs like a mufti, promoting correct belief. Muslims were categorised as ‘extremists’ or ‘moderates’, although no link has been proved between extremist ideas and terrorist violence. The clumsy binarism went further – Salafis were extremist, Sufis were moderate – although most Salafis are quietists and some Sufis fight jihad against America. Those labelled moderate were quickly reclassified if they spoke out on foreign policy.

The focus on ideology led to the criminalisation of certain ideologies, and to the new crime of “glorifying terrorism” (as opposed to inciting violence). Increasingly, young Muslims were imprisoned for their reading matter. Thus the more liberal approach ended by assaulting liberal freedoms, and culture was transformed into a battlefield. By turning comparatively new (and by no means universal) values such as gender and sexual equality into icons of superior Westernism, “liberalism became a form of identity politics.” (Reformism is heavy with bleakly absurd contradiction. For the sake of cultural sensitivity in Ramadan, hunger-striking Guantanamo prisoners are force-fed only at night.)

In one of several illuminating character sketches, Kundnani shows that the radicalisation of Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by drone in 2011, involved no psychological crisis or theological shift (as the reformist literature would have it), but only experience of the War on Terror, domestic and external, including his American-inspired arrest and abuse by Yemeni police. The preacher’s newly violent language mirrored not the Quran so much as War on Terror discourse itself.

This failure to engage with the real roots of violent alienation has ramifications going far beyond security. Both culturalism and reformism neglect what Kundnani calls “the basic political question thrown up by multiculturalism: how can a common way of life, together with full participation from all parts of society, be created?”

Those British Muslims who ‘ghettoised’ didn’t do so by choice but as a result of industrial collapse, discriminatory housing policies, and the fear of racist violence. Identity politics was promoted and funded by local government in response to a 1970s radicalism (for instance the Asian Youth Movements, modelled on the Black Panthers) which linked anti-racism to anti-capitalism. Home secretary Willie Whitelaw supported ‘ethnic’ TV programming on the grounds “if they don’t get some outlet for their activities you are going to run yourself into much more trouble.” Multiculturalism, then, was not a leftist plot but a conservative move bringing together the state and community ‘uncles’ against a much more subversive alternative. And in the last decade, while ‘anti-terror’ resources have flowed into Muslim communities, benefitting the usual gatekeepers and provoking the envy of equally deprived non-Muslim communities, young, alienated Muslims, as likely obsessed by the Illuminati as the Caliphate, are deterred from speaking – and being challenged – in public.

Kundnani provides detailed, well-contextualised accounts of the entrapment of vulnerable African-American Muslims as well as the criminalisation of the (already traumatised) Minnesota Somali community (for its opposition to the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia). Arab-Americans, who had either identified as white or as a ‘model minority’ (patriotic, bourgeois, less troublesome than Blacks or Latinos), suddenly found those options closing. In comedian Dean Obeidallah’s words, “I go to bed September 10th white, wake up September 11th, I am an Arab.” Anti-Muslim hysteria was whipped up by the media, the entertainment industry, and a state vocabulary which considered pipe bombs ‘weapons of mass destruction’ when used by Muslims. Anti-Muslim violence in America increased by 50% in 2010.

The book closes with discussion of the new European far-right’s embrace of Zionism and substitution of anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. In ‘creeping-shari‘a’ scaremongering, the tropes of classical anti-Semitism are clear. Rightists “…ascribe to Islam magical powers to secretly control Western governments while at the same time [seeing it as] a backward seventh-century ideology whose followers constitute a dangerous underclass.”

In Britain the EDL was born; in America a media-based Islamophobic campaign fed existent conservative movements. Both meet on varieties of the ‘Eurabia’ conspiracy theory, whereby a corrupt European political class has signed the continent over to Muslim domination through immigration, birth rates, and multiculturalism. At one extreme, this brand of ‘anti-terror’ politics soon arrives at its own, Anders Breivik-style terrorism.

Arun Kundnani is one of Britain’s very best political writers, neither hectoring nor drily academic but compelling and sharply intelligent. “The Muslims are Coming” should be widely read, particularly by those liberals who consider their own positions unassailable. “Neoconservatism invented the terror war,” Kundnani writes, “but Obama liberalism normalised it, at which point, mainstream journalists stopped asking questions.” He could go further to examine the new Islamophobia of sections of the left, the notion that US imperialism and ‘al-Qa’ida’ are in league to destabilise imagined ‘secular’, ‘resistance’ regimes. Those who defended Iraqi Islamists in the Blair years now point to the Allahu Akbar chant as evidence of an agenda far more benighted than that of the genocidal neo-liberal dictatorships.


Just because it isn’t happening here…


Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) Muslim Philosopher


Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑