“Syria, Russia, etc.” – a dialogue between me and a friend

20 Dec

In response to : Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything:



“i agree with you that “no peace with assad” is bullshit rhetoric—even though, morally, i agree with it—but you’re right. and that kind of self-righteous sloganeering has really hurt the syrian opposition.”

Hurt them in the sense that it’s an ultimatum in which you get stuck and then can’t get yourself out of, even when an opportunity presents itself?  Because once you’ve issued that kind of statement, the all important “face-giving” becomes impossible unless you get exactly what you want?

“…but the phrase “i can see no great tragedy” in an assad/russia protectorate struck me as callous. i think perhaps because of that phrase “no great tragedy.” talk to the refugees. seek them out, they won’t be hard to find, and a lot of them speak english. you will see great tragedy, on a great scale, and you will see why leaving him in power is in fact a tragedy. (you’ve seen the caesar pictures, right? there’s a lot to say about the horrors of the regime, but the pictures pretty much say it all.) what will strike you, if you talk to the refugees, is that this is very much a sunni tragedy. Have you read Deb Amos’s book The Eclipse of the Sunnis? it’s a prescient look at the disenfranchisement of the sunni people (not leaders, that’s a different matter). she does a good job of setting the stage for the massive rage, displacement, and revanchism that’s happening now with isis. it’s really important to understand the rural poverty and genuine grievance of the sunni majority in syria. likewise, the supremacism of the minority elites, and how it expresses itself: through a sneering contempt for peasants, through disastrous economic policies—read Suzanne Saleeby’s Jadaliyya piece on the drought, it’s great—and through a kind of neoliberal bootstrap rhetoric from the regime, aimed at the sunni masses, that is truly savage and surreal.”

Really?  Did I really have to say “no greater, horrendous, nightmarish, tragedy” for what I wrote to not have been considered callous?  Do you think I don’t find and seek out refugees in Athens?  They’re everywhere here too — not just in Mytilene or Idomene – and that I don’t talk to them?  They’ve taught the vendors at the farmers’ markets some necessary Arabic: “Wahad euro, wahad kilo,” said one the other day, a farmer from Corinth, like a good Greek who will learn any language with lightning speed if it’s about making a buck, or just satisfying his curiosity about who this new foreign person is or where he’s from, to a hijabbed woman as she perused his stuff, adding, “κι αν δε σ’αρέσει πήγαινε αλλού,” “and if you don’t like it you can go somewhere else.”  To which she replied: “Θα  πάω αλλού” “I’ll go elsewhere” with a smile.  And then they bargained some more and she bought quite a bit of stuff from him and ended up being kinda chums.  OK, two Levantines who will immediately learn any language when it comes to a buck…  Talked to her afterwards; she’s learned that Greek in the month she’s been in Athens, Sunni from somewhere near Aleppo, estimates that nearly half her extended family, including her husband, is dead or scattered all over the world at this point.

I know she just wanted the war to end, with or without Assad was not important to her and I got the feeling it never was, and she swears she’s never going back.  No matter what peace they put in place, because her country “doesn’t exist anymore.”  And what I meant by “no great tragedy” is that the democraticness of Assad or the Russians might have to take a back-seat priority-wise right now.  You hear from everywhere, even from among the most passionately anti-Assad Sunnis, (“They are animals and they are animals; Syria go from bad to more bad…” said another Syrian kid I was talking to on the subway, echoing the Saddam-was-bad-but-this-is-worse you hear from so many Iraqis), that even leaving Assad in place at this point would be preferable to continuing to wage the war as it’s being waged by all sides.  If a Russian-backed Assad can bring a solid, frigid peace to that western, most populated, most urbanized strip of the country right now, do we have the right to be “choosers”?

I understand that this may be “very much a Sunni tragedy,” though I’d be terribly cautious about speaking like that – like Syria is any one group’s tragedy over another’s.  And “revanchism,” S., like the prefix “re-“ indicates, comes from somewhere.  Yes, I’m Greek, and technically Orthodox; yes, I have a special affinity for Shiism, for Turkish Alevis and Bektaşis and for minorities in the Muslim world everywhere, groups whose beliefs and their affective nature seem to undermine mainstream Islam’s arid legalism and moralism.  But when the Western media started explaining to an ignorant Europe and North America who “Assad’s” Alawites were, the first analogy that came to my mind were Lebanese Maronites, whom that same Western media, thirty years earlier, especially any left-leaning kind, had portrayed as the purest, most vicious and by far most responsible for the Lebanese Civil War group at that time — even as it was discovering these newly horrid Shiite “terrorists” in the south and their suicide bombers.  (Yugoslavia and Serbs still come to mind; choose a bad guy and run with it ’cause it’s a simple story that’ll sell).  And maybe if you had cut the 70s and 80s out of Lebanese history and spliced them into a specially edited documentary version of that history, then maybe Maronites do carry a special responsibility.

But you can’t look at an ethno-religious map of the Levant and Mesopotamia, find all non-Sunni and non-Muslim minorities concentrated in the safety of the region’s most inaccessible highlands and not wonder why.  Or find them suffering as a downtrodden, peasant – practically serf – population in the south of Iraq and the south of Lebanon and not wonder again.

And if members of those groups chose a different fate and gathered through history into the safety of numbers in cities, where, because they were excluded from access to other forms of power by the centuries of Sunni hegemony, they acquired the survival skills necessary: the mercantile and financial knowledge; the language skills; the ease with which one emigrates and leaves a city over an ancestral village where the ties are stronger, and knowledge of the broader world that creates and the émigré networks throughout the world it forges, which then reinforce your mercantile and financial strength back home…all of which generally make you more ready for modernity when it comes knocking at the door…  To accuse those groups, whether in Syria today, or Lebanon in the 80s, or in the Balkans and Anatolia in the Ottoman past, of ‘elite minority supremacism’ comes a little uncomfortably close to blaming Jews for anti-semitism.  Your explanation of why Christians don’t number among the refugees because they have a more accessible émigré network that takes them straight to Europe or North America may have sounded callous to me too — like leaving their country doesn’t hurt them.  And if they do — like Jewshave those networks, good for them.  It’s called survival.

In any event, you don’t even have to look so many centuries back, just at the vicious outbreak of Sunni anti-Christian violence, which first made “our sweet mother France” step into the Syro-Lebanese scene in the mid-nineteenth century, to see why an Aleppo Armenian or a Syrian Christian in Damascus is not thrilled with the idea of a largely Sunni revolt against Assad. And I don’t condone it, like I don’t condone it even in a poor, old, lonely Greek lady in Istanbul when she talks about the rural Turks who have taken over “her” city as barbarians, but I, you, we shouldn’t forget that there’s probably a DNA-inscribed fear of the rural “masses” written on these people’s genetic make-up.  ‘Cause when the killing came, it wasn’t the Sunni leaders or paşas or generals even sitting at their desks who did it; it was their neighbors.

And especially  — if all this is about Sunni anger at not being on top anymore, like maybe most Muslim anger in the 20th century is about not being on top anymore — I’m sorry, callous or not — my sympathies are limited.

“re: leaders, what about abdul-karim qassem? what about faisal? what about abdelkrim al-khattabi? what about rashid rida and the 1920 Syrian constitution? i would read libby thompson’s book on constitutionalism on the middle east (justice interrupted), and ali allawi’s biography of faisal (faisal of iraq) and anything on abdelkrim (not sure if there’s been a good biography of him, but if there isn’t there should be) before weighing in on this so definitively.”

I think when I say the Ba’athists that followed the Hashemites in Iraq, it’s clear I’m talking about Faisal.  Ok, maybe Ba’athists per se didn’t follow immediately on the Hashemites in Iraq.  But abdul-karim qassem, S?  Are you for real?  The general who deposed Faisal’s grandson or greatgrandson, had the royal family shot, played around with an attempt at a constitution that got nowhere and then essentially resparked animosity with the Kurdish north that the Ba’athists only took to the next level?  This is the model of the democratic leader who I’m supposed to think was going to bring true constitutionalism to Iraq?  abdelkrim al-khattabi, I don’t know that I can consider anything but the leader of an ethnic rebellion against the French, since he didn’t get a chance to do much else and I don’t know that if he had succeeded, his new order wouldn’t have involved a potent element of Berber “revanchism” against Morocco’s Arab-speaking population.  Rashid Rida I know nothing about, so I won’t cheat and assail you with Wikipedia info.  And yet Wiki calls him a Salafi.  Ok.  I’ll get Libby Thomson’s “Justice Interrupted” – it genuinely sounds like what I’ve always needed to read — and we’ll talk.

“also, finally: i would cool it with the “mesa girls” thing. i know exactly the type, and they bug the shit out of me too, but the phrase is bad because a: the phenomenon you’re describing is just as common among mesa men, if not more so, than women, and b. it makes you sound petty, like you hit on some mesa scholar, and she rejected you, and now you won’t let it go. I KNOW that’s not what happened, but that’s how it sounds, and it undercuts your knowledge and the point that you’re making.”

Point taken, S.  And I’m glad you “KNOW” that what happened wasn’t my hitting on some chick at a MESA conference and not being able to deal with the blow off.  Because what actually happened was far worse.  What happened was that people I was very close to and considered friends for life just severed ties with me, because after 2001 and/or 2003 I just wouldn’t fall in line with their party policy of finding “explanation” for any and all expression of Arab anger, no matter what form it took.  It shouldn’t have come as a surprise.  All through the years of our friendship, the sense that I wasn’t quite “correct” enough ran as an undercurrent of disapproval in their attitudes toward me.  And, like I say, these types weren’t even Middle-Eastern born, weren’t even ethnic-Americans who learned Arabic at home. They were super-assimilated types that discovered their “Arab-ness” as undergrads and had to learn the language in college.  I was more an Arab than any of them.  And when we all met in Istanbul because I was doing the fieldwork for a documentary on the Greeks of the city that never got anywhere, the one who was most obnoxious to me and suspect of my “Christian” academic interests was the only one regionally-born, but not even Muslim, but from a very prestigious Lebano-Palestinian intellectual lineage of Protestant converts who apparently had to treat me that way to keep her claim to her clan’s laurels fresh.  So when the early 2000s came around I had to either be silenced or cut off, and since I wouldn’t accept the former it was the latter.  And it made me very angry, in the vein of: “Look at us, you assholes, you can’t find a way to accept the differently inflected views of someone essentially on your side, and you expect any-body to be able to productively communicate in ‘our parts.’”  Plus, it hurt, personally, and I’m Albanian and a past master at keeping and nursing a grudge — an often violent one — and don’t forgive shit like that.  I might lay off the “MESA girls” stuff – but I’ll still be lying in wait.

“re: hezbollah, that’s a longer conversation. you’re right about their military prowess, but to say that they’re the only thing keeping lebanon stable is a statement i wouldn’t make.”

I don’t know enough about Lebanon to make a statement like that: “…the only thing keeping Lebanon stable…”  In fact, that’s not what I said.  I do kind of think that, as unfortunate as both phenomena might be or have been as the source of Lebanese “peace,” that it was the Syrian occupation on the one hand and Hezbollah’s very intelligent (or brutally intelligent) conversion of their military prowess into political hegemony that essentially stopped the ugliest part of the ugliness in Lebanon.  Answer that.  Isn’t that kinda what happened?  What the always creative Lebanese — a country and people I love with an unusual urgency though I’ve never even been there – did with those two — one north and one south – factors afterwards is another question.  But wasn’t it the two of them together that kind of put a stop to the the hellish laying waste of the place?

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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