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Talking Descartes with Syrian Refugee Children

 


Maysaloon Talking Descartes with Syrian Refugee Children

Posted: 18 Nov 2015 01:13 PM PST

There are a lot of things people might go and teach to Syrian refugee children in Turkey, but philosophy isn’t usually one of them. In spite of doing an MA in Philosophy at Birkbeck years ago, I felt hopelessly unqualified for the task at hand. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I was planning to accomplish. Tightly holding my copy of Peter Worley’s, “The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom” I travelled to Reyhanli, near the border with Syria, to meet the seven hundred and fifty children of the Ruwwad school. Housed in a commercial part of the town, the school was really a converted office that took over a whole floor, with a massive indoor hallway that the children could dash around in during their break. The classrooms were small and cramped, windows were optional, and going to the toilets was a horrifying experience. Sure, I thought, we could talk philosophy here, I mean how hard would it be once we got the discussion going? Harder than I thought, I would later discover.

Owing to the ongoing war in Syria, Reyhanli is full of Syrians, and as they don’t speak any Turkish, Arabic language schools have sprouted up to provide some form of education for the community. The children themselves come from a variety of backgrounds, but the fact that they are even in a school meant they were some of the lucky ones. For a lot of Syrian refugee families, life is too wretched and hard right now for them to worry about sending the children to school.

I started off my first sessions by hurriedly introducing myself to the classroom and, while apologising for my child-like Arabic handwriting, deliberately mis-spelling philosophy. Turning around, I could see some of the children already chuckling. I’d wanted to get the children to relax and so instead of “falsafa” I wrote down “fasfasa“, which literally means farting about. I’d do a mock cringe and apologise when one of the students laughingly pointed out the error, and then correct the word. In explaining philosophy, I used the duck-rabbit picture Wittgenstein liked, and they sort of got my point about being able to see things differently in philosophy.

Right, I’d ask as I turned around, who has heard of philosophy? I’m greeted with total silence, but only a few of the children would raise their hands. In the Middle East, parents usually scold their children when they try to get clever or give cheeky answers, telling them to “stop philosophising”. It’s basically an insult for someone who is being pedantic. None of them ventured to explain what they knew, but they all nodded and grinned when I explained how I thought they’d heard the term. So far we seemed to be on to a good start. Prior to the class, I’d written a few study cards for the topic of the day, and I thought it would be a brilliant idea to start the children on one of the exercises mentioned in Worley’s book, the story of the “Chair”. I started off by asking the children what they thought the chair was, they looked at me like I was crazy. “It’s a chair” one of them would say, and I’d say OK, we’ll see by the end of the session. As it turned out, this lesson was much tougher to get across to the children than I expected. I tried to ask open questions and trigger a bit of controversy but they would only smile back at me nervously, unsure of what I was expecting.  They just didn’t seem to “get” where we were going with this, and their answers were cautious and flat. If the more outspoken children used a particular answer, the next dozen children would all raise their hands and then say the same thing. 

In Worley’s book, he recommends that the children all sit in a circle in order to promote discussion. As soon as I saw the state of the classrooms I knew that this would be impossible. There were forty children crammed into the room, all facing one direction, and all used to only one type of teaching and to rote learning. Furthermore, the teacher, a kindly older man, stayed on, ostensibly to help “control” the classrooms. I was too polite to ask him to leave and that turned out to be a mistake. As I tried to get the children to respond to the story before each “discussion”, he would helpfully repeat what I said, sternly asking the children to sit up straight and “think carefully, then answer the Teacher’s question!”. I cringed inwardly. This was not going to work, and I was conscious of Worley’s recommendation to avoid “leading” the children to the answers they might think I want to hear. The same kind of problems occurred in the other grades, and by the end of the first day, my head was reeling and my confidence was in tatters. I began to have serious doubts about whether this was going to work. After all, my previous three volunteering trips with Karam were about running a “writing” workshop that I’d slowly built up through experience. This was totally outside my comfort zone, and I’d even picked the exercises to match all the ages for the classes. The book had made it seem so easy, and yet when it came to trying to have a philosophical discussion about our perception of objects, my mind seemed to draw a blank. There just didn’t seem to be any feedback.

Steeling my nerves, I decided to follow through the next day, as planned, with the next subject. This time, I threw politeness out of the window and point blank asked the teachers to leave me with the children. “No”, I’d reply, “I’ll manage to control them fine. Sit this one out, go have a coffee and I’ll see you in forty minutes. Thank you.” I closed the door and put on my “theatrical” hat. Building up the story with suspense and dramatic pauses, I finally managed to get the children’s attention and told them the story of the Ring of Gyges, transliterating his name in Arabic on the whiteboard. I stopped and stared at the classroom. “What would you do if you were walking home tonight, after school, and found this ring in the street? What would you do?” I asked them.

At first, they all answered uniformly that they would do good and “help people”. Very nice, I thought, but this isn’t what we’re here for. I could tell some of the boys were grinning mischievously. I walked up to one of them and asked him what he was really thinking. After seeing my enthusiastic acting, and enactment of the story, I felt like I’d broken the teacher/student barrier, and earned their cautious trust. “Well, sir, are you saying that nobody would know if I did something? Or catch me?”

I nodded and waited. “Well, I’d be in paradise. I’d go and smack the people I don’t like and get myself a fast car and all the things I’d want!”

From here, we got the ball rolling. The story “clicked” in the student’s minds far better than my “chair” story, and I felt like this was something they could relate with. A lot of the children in all four grades said they would use the ring to go and “kill Bashar al Assad” and I chuckled at that. I hadn’t wanted to bring Syria up in the workshops, but, as I would later find out, this was not only inevitable, but extremely useful. The girls were not so ready to accept the idea of actions without consequences. Within minutes, the first girl brought up the A-word, Allah. 

“Even if no body sees you, Allah sees everything, and He will punish us for any wrong we do”, she explained. OK, this was getting interesting, and I was aware the whole class was listening intently. Here, I used Worley’s “If” machine, and it turned out invaluable. In Arabic, “If” translated directly doesn’t quite carry the same meaning, in my opinion, so I used the word “Iftirad” – which can be loosely translated as “Assume”. I’m not an expert on this stuff, but I know enough Arabic to know when a word works and it doesn’t. I also quite liked the idea of being the first to introduce Worley’s “If Machine” to Syrian students as the “If-tirad Machine”. So I asked her, “If Allah said that anybody who wears this ring can do whatever they want, what would you do with it?”. She thought for a minute, and then replied that “yes but I would still know I did those things, and I’d be punishing myself”. A tough, but evasive answer. We ran out of time sooner than I expected, but we did get to ponder briefly Socrates’ question of why somebody should do good even if they suffer. Not many had heard of him, so telling them a bit about ancient Greece and how he’d been put to death for basically being “annoying” was the first time many of them had heard about the classical world. Still, I felt that the discussion rolled a lot easier from here, and though the children were still talking mainly to me rather than each other, I felt a lot more confident by the end of the second day that things were going to work out.

The third workshop I carried out with them proved to be much more successful. The children, even the older ones in grades six and seven, all remembered the story of Giges and the magical ring and were now interested to hear my next “story”. I introduced them to the old fable of the frog and the scorpion, and now the children were starting to get active. Differences of opinion were starting to emerge, and even the bashful children were feeling more confident in voicing their opinion. Even the ‘rebels’, sitting in the back wanted to have a say in the matter. I was now rolling with it, so I complicated the story by substituting it with people, again with appropriate theatrical flair. From here, the classes started to take a life of their own, but the discussion still wasn’t as active as I’d have liked. We talked about human nature and whether it was fixed, and asked for a show of hands to see what the children thought, then I told them what Schopenhauer, Sartre, and Aristotle thought. Surprisingly, most of the children changed their mind when they heard of Aristotle’s idea (which I mentioned last) that “habit” was what shaped our character. They nodded their little heads sensibly and asked to be moved to “his” side. Schopenhauer had a few die hard supporters who remained adamant that people can never change.

During my discussion with one of the grades, and through no prompting from me, the subject of “good” and “bad” people came up. I asked the children whether they thought people were inherently good or bad, and they all, unanimously, said that people are bad, and that given half a chance everybody would take advantage of you. After seeing war, exile and a hard life in a border town in the middle of nowhere, these children all had a firm idea of what human nature was essentially like. I took the chance to talk about Thomas Hobbes and his view that the life of man was “nasty, brutish and short”. The children shrugged indifferently. I felt at the time that maybe I hadn’t explained properly, and that that’s why they weren’t that interested in discussing this idea further. It’s only now, as I recall that class and sit writing about my experience, that I realise why that was the case. To them, this Hobbes chap wasn’t saying anything profound or controversial, it was just life. That this is the world they live in (at this very moment), that it’s all they know, is unsettling to me. It might as well be a million miles away from the brightly lit lecture halls in London where I read my masters.

On our final day, all the stops were pulled. My final “story” was the “Identity Parade” question: A criminal takes a pill to wipe his memory and gains a new identity, but the police arrest this new person who is law abiding and nice, and want him to go to prison for the crimes of the previous personality. The discussions were getting surprisingly sophisticated, and the children were starting to disagree with each other openly. Here, a fundamental problem with the size of the classes got the better of me, they were too big, and I went hoarse trying to make myself heard and to get the children to speak in turn. I watched with some amusement as one of the formerly disruptive boys turned around to a mate of his who was chattering in the background and told him to shut up because he wanted to listen to the discussion.

The discussion was flowing so smoothly that I had just enough time to broach the topic of identity, and that moved us nicely to Descartes and his famous thought experiment, “I think therefore I am”. I doodled a stick man with arms and legs outstretched, closed eyes and closed mouth, and wrote the phrase in Arabic after I’d acted out the thought experiment to them. At this stage, one really needs to have been in the room to see the light come up in their eyes. For some of the children, I could see them staring at me thoughtfully as they pondered the implications of what I was trying to explain. Then I gave them the counter argument from Locke, at the risk of being slightly more controversial. At this stage, the teachers were asking to sit in the classes, and seemed very interested in the topics we were covering.

On the final two days, an unexpected challenge came up. I was asked to do a workshop with the ninth grade, older boys and girls. So far, my style was geared more towards children. How would the Identity Parade go down? My “Frog and Scorpion” workshop went down quietly, unlike with the younger grades, and again I had to overcome the uncomfortable silences and uncertainty about what we were trying to do. I felt like they hadn’t been impressed with our earlier encounter. Sweating nervously, I walked into their class for the last workshop of the week. It was showtime.

To my surprise, they were now fascinated with what I had to say. It turns out my little whirlwind tour of philosophy in the Arabic and Islamic world, and its Greek origins, had fascinated them. The discussion kicked off in ernest, and the students started vigorously debating their ideas about whether the man should go to prison or not. What did it mean to be one person and then another? When was it right to ascribe the blame for something? In what conditions? What would they do if they were that person? The points flowed effortlessly and with little guidance from me. As I started to wind down the class, I noticed that many of the students were of the opinion that the “new” person in the Identity Parade story should not be punished for the previous personalities actions.

“OK”, I asked them “now imagine that the person who did those crimes was Bashar al Assad, and that he’d taken a pill and was now a completely different person with no recollection of his previous crimes”. The class literally erupted as most of the students said no, several making cutting gestures across their necks saying that they would still execute him. “Why not?” I asked them. I hadn’t planned on this little twist, but it just came to mind, and it seemed so right. Many sat silent and didn’t have an answer, but I could tell they were pondering the question extremely seriously now. Some of the students now started arguing bitterly with each other about whether the thought experiment still applied. With this small question, I concluded the class and explained to the students that philosophy was about asking the hard questions, the unsettling ones, that challenged our view of what was right and wrong, and that this is why it was as important today as it was two thousand years ago. I think I was talking mainly to myself, because I walked out of that class with unexpectedly new insights about what philosophy meant.

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Can the last person out of Syria please turn off the lights?

Thursday, September 03, 2015

It took a dead baby for the world to notice. Wait, I thought it took seventy refugees suffocating in a refrigerator with wheels for the world to notice? Or was it the pictures of babies floating face down in the water that did it? I thought we were at the tipping point when chemical weapons were dropped on the Damascus Ghouta in 2013, and politicians in the Western world wobbled their lower lips as they made their speeches denouncing Assad and calling for accountability. I don’t buy it, and I’m not getting swept away with the optimism and emotion. A few thousand refugees let in through the net aren’t going to fix this problem or make it go away. The refugee problem is mainly a Syrian refugee problem, and it stems from a dictator who continues to use barrel bomb attacks to depopulate towns and villages. Syrians aren’t fleeing because of Jabhat al Nusra or even ISIS. They’re fleeing because they can’t live safely in their towns and villages when there is a constant fear of airstrikes and barrel bombs – the most barbaric of indiscriminate weapons.

I’ve spoken to people in Syria, and they’ve told me they could put up with the odd mortar shell, sniper or tank fire. They could even put up with living in IS areas or living with Jabhat al Nusra, just about, but not a weapon that can flatten an entire building, turning it into a tomb for those unlucky enough to be trapped alive beneath it. Those who come to rescue any survivors become themselves victims with the regime’s “double tap” method, where a second barrel bomb is thrown down to get rid of the survivors. It’s diabolical, it’s perverse, and it is contrary to all morality and logic. This is what’s driving people to risk their lives and everything they have for a better one abroad.

The West lacks the political will to do anything while Assad’s allies back him to the hilt. Yes, foreign fighters have done a lot to undermine the Syrian revolution, but that pales in comparison to the material support given to Assad by Iran and Russia. It took two years for the Assad regime to realise that President Obama is actually doing everything he could *not* to touch Syria, and after that the Russians threw him a lifeline, a way out, from the corner of red lines that he’d talked himself into. The disarmament deal that was supposed to “punish” the Assad regime really just gave him a green light to use all other weapons to brutalise the Syrian people, including his airforce, which is nowhere to be seen whenever Israel conducts its airstrikes inside Syria.

Today Prime Minister Cameron might grudgingly agree to allow a few thousand more Syrian refugees into the United Kingdom, as will Europe, but what will the world do in six months? In a year? How long will these band-aid fixes continue to be applied while everybody shirks their international obligations and does nothing to stop the slaughter in Syria? By doing something, I’m not talking about the meaningless term “political solution”, but taking hard action to stop a dictator’s regime from tearing the entire Mediterranean apart so that he can stay on his throne. Sorry, the picture of a dead baby, however heart breaking, is not enough to sway the world’s conscience into action. People will keep risking their lives in the hope of safety and a better life, it’s human nature.

Made up of bloated corpses, blood, guts, stale semen, decayed food, sweat and petrol fumes, there is a stink rising from our Arab countries, and the world just wants to pinch its nose. The only thing this poor baby might have done is to awaken the fetid consciences of the Arab bourgeoisies, as they tweet their heartbreak over social media from across the Arab world’s glittering capitals. To them, I say shukran for your condolences and your Arabian hospitality. Oh, and can the last person out of Syria please turn off the lights?

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Somebody Interviewed Assad. Chill out.

Many people I know were quick to jump on Jonathan Tepperman’s throat because he interviewed Assad. The interview itself was remarked upon widely for the insane comments that Assad made, completely divorced from reality and quite clearly an attempt to portray himself as a reasonable, sensible man that the West can do business with against ISIS. The result of this interview, however, was very different; Assad simply came across as deluded or a pathological liar, something that was confirmed by Tepperman himself when asked about his impressions of that man. So the crisis is averted and we can all stop beating ourselves into a social media frenzy.

There’s a strong tendency amongst Syrians supporting the revolution for group think, and we need to stop that. It doesn’t help our case, it doesn’t help Syrians, and it just alienates people who might be trying to help us in their own way. Not everybody needs to have exactly the same view. We don’t all need to have the same friends, talk the same way, and use the same language. I myself find plenty of pro-revolution Syrians who use ridiculous terminology and say the stupidest things when referring to the Syrian conflict and I bite my tongue and shut up because it’s negative and counter-productive. That’s the price I’ve agreed to pay for supporting freedom of speech in Syria, I’m learning to deal with the fact that stupid people will say things and other people will agree with them sometimes. We all just have to have believe in each other a bit more. I want Assad’s regime to be dismantled, and while I do worry that the world is forgetting us and that it might even forget about the horrible things that his dictatorship has done to Syria, I also know it is enough that I won’t forget.

 

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Maysaloon @ refugees

SUNDAY, JUNE 22, 2014

 

SATURDAY, JUNE 21, 2014

The Reyhanli Diaries

You spend a week with displaced Syrian children and it gives you an insight into the Syrian crisis that is a million times better than anything Assad’s enthusiasts in the West can come up with. Child after child says the same thing, airplanes bombing their villages. Mothers, fathers, uncles and cousins killed by Assad’s snipers. Hunger, cold, fatigue. Fear and uncertainty as they cross fields and mountains to get to the relative safety of Turkey, and then a quick dash past the Turkish gendarmes and their patrol cars as they crawl down and then up the three metre ditches that have been dug along the border to prevent diesel smuggling from Syria, where it’s cheaper.

This was the second time I had been invited by the Zeitouna program for displaced Syrian refugee kids to run my workshop. Unlike last December, the children in this camp were mostly special cases and they were doing an intensive summer school program. A lot of these children hadn’t been in a proper school for over a year. I noticed that a higher number of the school children didn’t want me to read their diary entries than in December. When they did the stories were heart-wrenching. Their memories were about death, destruction and loss. They were nothing you’d want a ten year old boy or girl to ever have to know. But that is the reality that they and millions of other Syrians have had to face. Beneath the smiling cheerful facade and the noise of the playground everybody in the Salam school carries a terrible burden. That includes the teachers, who have the double burden of trying to help the children live a normal life whilst also carrying their own problems. One teacher told me of how he was held by the security services for over a month with regular beatings and interrogation. He had to hang from the ceiling by his wrists, with his toes barely touching the floor. He was kept like this for three days with no food or water or toilet breaks, and he was beaten by a thick cable. When he’d faint they would chuck a bucket of water on him and he would lick his lips to try and quench his thirst. When they took him down he couldn’t feel his hands for hours and thought he had lost their use forever. 

After that they made him hold his hands out so that they can hit him with the cables. He was told he would be hit forty times, and that each time he flinched and tried to pull his arms back they would add another five. The final count was ninety and his hands were hit so hard that his finger nails came off. When they finally released him he had lost forty kilograms out of ninety. The judge he was presented to ordered him to tell people that he had been on vacation all this time. He escaped to Turkey as soon as he had the chance. 

There is something perverse in hearing about the obscene celebrations in Assad’s areas that have been going non-stop since his sham elections, and the suffering these children told me about. I ask the girls in one class to write about the happiest day in their lives, and most of them don’t want to do that. They want to write about the saddest day in their lives. At first I’m adamant that they not do that, but then I give in. I tell them they can write about the saddest day in their lives if that’s what they want. They say they do. Then they volunteer to read to the class. They were so hungry to tell somebody – anybody – about what happened to them, and the realisation dawned on me that this was how they wanted to unburden themselves of this big weight on their chests. Far from bringing up painful memories, I felt as if we were giving each other the chance to release pent up hurt and anguish. One of the girls started reading her journal entry, and she started talking about how her cousin was killed fighting for the Free Syrian Army, and then how, a few days later, her uncle was also shot by a sniper. I was looking at the other students in the room and was also tired so I then stared out of the window. Then I realised she had stopped talking. I looked at her and she was quietly sobbing. The other students looked down, nobody said a word. Then one girl said, “May he rest in peace”, and I repeated that too. She sobbed, and then carried on reading, sharing her heartache with us in the room. It was a moment of commiseration for us all where we acknowledged our common humanity. We were grieving together. And when I think about it now maybe that is what the girls of that 12th grade really needed, somebody to grieve with and listen to how much they had been hurt. 

I asked another girl in the 9th grade to write about her last day in Syria and what she saw. She didn’t talk about planes bombing them, or about losing loved ones. She was a bubbly cheerful girl with a pink hejab and I liked her. She was one of my favourite students in the class. Then she started reading to us how she and her family were crossing cornfields and ditches to get to the safety of Turkey. I thought she was fine and she was smiling. Halfway through she started to sob and I choked up. She would give that beautiful smile and then start sobbing in between, as if the memory of her displacement was too much to bear and she was doing everything possible to keep up the facade of a happy girl in her early teens. I almost cried in front of everybody but I kept a straight face. My eyes burned. 

The stories came non-stop and it’s only now, a few days after I have come back, that I can write a little about this past week. It was beautiful, human and warm to be with the children and the teachers, and we all said tearful goodbyes on the final day. One boy came back to hug me three times, and I could feel his chest heave as he cried. I patted him on the back and whispered to him to stay strong and be patient. Inside I was dying. Last week, just briefly, we all shared something wonderful. Maybe in times of war that can make all the difference.

Self Reflection

We don’t know how the future will see what we did here. Whether we were right, or whether we will even succeed in building the life that we want. I felt despair, sadness and longing, but I didn’t let myself get swept by events this time – even though a lot of people did. I didn’t lose my head. I didn’t let the craziness get to me. Somebody has to stay sane to remind everybody what it’s like. I hope that somebody was me.

 .

A Split Second

The courtyard is chaotic because the children are on their break. I am sitting on the floor leaning against the wall. The bell rings and they are all climbing up the steps in front of me to get to their classroom. Amidst the chaos just one girl stands out for a split second. She has the most wonderful smile I have ever seen in my life. I didn’t have my phone out to take a picture. It was as if for a split second there was light only on this one little girl and her pigtails. She’s a little older than a toddler. Then she vanished back in the crowd. I closed my eyes to rest them for a few seconds before going to the next of my workshops.

 .

“This won’t take a minute”

They asked me if I have a moment and I said yes. I walked with the dentists to one of the classes and the kids were sitting “jalseh si7iyeh” – a healthy stance – behind their desks. I was asked to put on a fresh pair of rubber gloves for each child and then to apply fluoride coating to their teeth after the dentist had examined them. I remember that their teeth were so small.

 .

Moments

I have a mental image of a pretty girl with light brown hair wearing a white and blue dress. She’s skipping with her friend and her ponytail bounces up and down with each step. She was in my journal writing class and I hope that some of the exercises I gave her might have sparked an interest in writing.

Later we are on the bus driving back to the hotel. I’m tired and thirsty, I forgot to take a bottle of water from the caretakers fridge before we leave. It’s hot and dusty. I look out of the window, ignoring the chatter of my colleagues and looking forward to dipping into the cool pool in our mediocre hotel. I see the girl walking past the local Turkish graveyard on her way home. The blue and white of her dress stand out vividly from the dusty drab streets and the hard faces of other pedestrians. She is making her way daintily down from the high pavement and is looking to cross the street. I sit up in my seat and peer out of the window, I tap my hands on it but we’ve already moved on. We drive away and she is still looking to cross the road. A delicate flower in the middle of a drab dusty town in the middle of nowhere.

The next day I see her in the school courtyard. She smiles and recognises me. I say to her that I saw her going home the other day and she nods her head. I ask her name. She says it is Walaa. I think to myself what a coincidence it is that her name is the same as that other girl I met in Atmeh camp last December. They are almost the same age. They are both wonderful, both full of life. I’ve left them there. One is somewhere in a refugee camp in Syria, the other is somewhere in a border town in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a region that is going nowhere, in a maelstrom. They are lost in a sea of desperate humanity.

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Tell me More. Please…

Posted: 13 May 2014 10:49 AM PDT

Please, tell me more about your “Resistance” project, and how you are fighting the good fight against imperialism and occupation and cultural hegemony. About how you think the necktie is a remnant of the uniform worn by the old Knights Templar (it’s not but I like to see you keep bringing that up). Tell me more about how the freedom of the individual, this so-called negative and positive freedom you keep liking to invoke, is so, so, very important to the historic struggles of the brown man as he shakes off the yoke of his oppressor. Tell me about your amazing plan to liberate Jerusalem, for the dignity of all Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims (no dignity to any of them until then, of course). Tell me about your glorious leaders and martyrs, about “keeping your word” with a brutal dictator who has butchered the Syrian people just so that he can be a president like his Daddy.

You’ll only be happy to, I am sure. But right now there is something you’re not telling me. Right now the so-called “Zionist Enemy” has, through their courts and laws, imprisoned a former president on charges of rape, and that there is a former prime minister who will now serve six years in prison on charges of bribery. Maybe they’re not as good at picking their leaders as you are. And you definitely don’t want to tell me about how your torture chambers make anything the villainous “Empire” can think of, including Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib – yes, especially them – look like Disney land in comparison. You don’t want to tell me that your pet dictator and the militias you send to support him have killed more Syrians than everybody killed by US drone strikes since 2001. That they have displaced in three years more Syrians than the “Zionist enemy” ever did when it took part of Palestine in 1948, and then the rest of it in 1967. I guess these are things you don’t want to tell me about…

Maysaloon , Oh well…

Saturday, October 26, 2013

 

Should I really care if Abu Mohammad al Golani has been killed in a regime ambush? Probably not. The Syrian revolution isn’t about swapping an Alawite dictator for a Sunni one, it’s about fundamental rights for the citizen and for dignity. I’m not going to shed tears over somebody simply because he opposes Assad when his group openly calls for ethnic cleansing and has been accused of horrific human rights abuses. I’ve often heard Syrians telling me that they are “the only ones fighting Assad” and so we should turn a blind eye to their mistakes. I disagree.

Nobody asked for this war, Assad imposed it on the country in order to stay in power. The reason he did this was precisely for the kind of reaction that groups like JAN and ISIS are capable of. It is also to buttress his position internationally and domestically as some sort of champion for secularism. If we really think about it there are two things this regime has feared and avoided above all else, allowing peaceful demonstrations to take root in the country – coupled with a civil society movement – and foreign – specifically Western – intervention.

Both of these options seem a distant dream now, but if the killing is to stop, really stop, then we have to bring these back on the table. I don’t care who screeches to me about Iraq and imperialism, this is a matter of survival for an entire country. Assad and his allies are now presenting the world with two scenarios for Syria, and neither is acceptable. Either the country transforms into a version of North Korea, or it becomes Afghanistan. Both options would suit Iran, Hezbullah and Assad perfectly well for obvious reasons. But, and here is the important caveat, Iran, Hezbullah and Assad cannot impose their will on Syria. They’ve been trying to for almost three years and they can’t. That means a lot though it has come at a hell of a price.

Syrians can push for the third option, a country that respects the rights of its citizens and gives them the opportunity to try and make a better life for themselves. In order to do that they don’t have to feel compelled to clap and cheer for every madman who fires a Kalashnikov at the regime.

Posted by Maysaloon at 1:17 pm

The Myth of Dialogue with the Syrian Regime

Thursday, December 20, 2012


When Seumus Milne writes article after article lamenting the lack of ‘dialogue’ between the parties in Syria, he perpetuates a myth that the Assad regime, along with its Russian and Iranian backers, has been advocating a negotiated settlement all along. The truth could not be further from the reality, and there is a real danger that the story of the Syrian revolution is being re-spun into some nefarious Western plot to eliminate the ‘last bastion of Arabism’ as one anti-imperialist commentator described it.

Because of the failure of some movements and countries to unequivocally and consistently condemn the Assad regime’s brutality from the outset, the Syrian people were left to – rightly – seek assistance from anywhere they could receive it. They did not have time to listen to people such as Milne lecturing them about how necessary it was that they should die with their families in the thousands in order to reach some indigenous solution without involving the ‘White Devil’. Better, the likes of Milne were telling Syrians, to die for, and in doing so satisfy, the intellectual vanity of the Western Anti-imperialist vanguard.

Milne, rightly, warns of Western military adventures in the Middle East but he claims that Syria is next on the list. What he does not mention is that the West has, for over twenty months, sought every excuse _not_ to intervene in Syria. He is so eager to portray events as a NATO conspiracy that he conveniently ignores the fact that NATO’s Secretary General Rasmussen has become a Syrian joke with his steady stream of statements that NATO will not intervene in Syria. Therefore this idea that Syria will be the target of a mass invasion of the type we saw in 2003 with Iraq belies the completely different context and restraints that exist today. Yes, the West and the Gulf states are aiding the rebels, but the majority of these rebels are Syrians who have quickly become battle hardened through no choice of their own. It was the relentless killing by Assad’s war machine which prompted them to seek and carry arms, and to ask for help from wherever they could.

Where, one can rightly ask, was Milne when the revolution was still a protest movement, like the overnight sit-in protest occupying the former Homs Clock square which was brutally dispersed with live fire? Did Milne see those countless other unarmed protestors with their faces blown off by Assad’s snipers? Or was he too busy deriding the grainy mobile phone footage as unworthy of his attention?

Then there is the question of Islam in Syria – Sunni Islam to be specific. After writing many articles justifying ‘Muslim anger’ over Western foreign policy or episodes of Quran burning, he seems to  find it astonishing that some Muslims would be equally and perhaps even more so incensed at the brutality of Assad’s forces and the documented desecration of mosques and religious insults sprayed on walls.

He raises the spectre of sectarianism as if it will be a direct consequence of the rebels winning and not of Bashar losing. Where was he, we must ask again, when the same newspaper he is writing for reported on Syria’s regime encouraging extremist Muslim fundamentalists to go across to Iraq and wreak havoc, that same havoc that anti-imperialists then blamed the United States for unleashing. Did Milne, and those who share his outlook, stop to think about this?

Syrians should rightly be concerned with the extremist elements within the ranks of the rebels, but they do not need Milne to tell them that, and they certainly don’t need his instructions on the best way to remove the regime that has killed tens of thousands of Syrians since last March. They should, also, be very concerned with lawlessness and sectarianism, but unlike Milne they have recognised that a state which mobilises its resources for mass murder and terror over a population is far more disturbing and serious than the crimes of extreme elements who are,  after all, criminals anyway. Therefore, Milne has no right to claim some kind of moral parity between ‘two sides’, and he certainly has no right to paint the opponents of Assad, in all their colours and shapes, with the same brush as al Qaeda. For Iraq and Afghanistan he has always been alert enough to recognise the divide and rule tactics of an oppressor, or to know where one must lay the blame when extremism results in atrocities and instability. No such critical thinking appears to have been applied in Syria. In fact it does not seem to have occurred to Milne and other Western anti-imperialist writers that Assad, as an oppressor, is in the same boat as the imperialism they claim to oppose.

Posted by Maysaloon at 8:04 PM  

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