The Cultural View from Within and Without

In addition to being a prominent Syrian leftist with a significant presence in the revolution, Michel Kilo is also a great short story teller. His anecdotes are found not in novels, but in newspaper columns, which Kilo calls "Stories from the World of Ghosts." These stories are multi-dimensional: funny, ironic, tragic, real, and autobiographical. Ahmad, a character from "Stories from the World of the Ghosts," published in a column in Asharq Alawsat, has a gripping story.

BY ELIE CHALALA

A great majority of Syrian and Arab intellectuals and artists have rallied to protest the abduction of Youssef Abdelke, one of the best living Syrian artists, whose life could be wasted like many others behind bars until their "natural" death in Syrian prisons. This happened recently to one of Abdelke's friends, Abdel Aziz al-Khair, an opposition figure who was arrested last year, and, according to unconfirmed reports, died or was killed in prison.

In the great tradition of Picasso's "Guernica," Abdelke's art carries visual memories of the Syrian Revolution. This is the message Ali Atassi want to convey through his post which was translated for Al Jadid.

"Before we go on holiday, we should all make a donation to humanitarian relief for Syria,” writes Los Angeles Times columnist Timothy Garton Ash ("No relief for Syria"). Do not allow this concluding remark to mislead you from Ash’s main point. Humanitarian relief alone will not solve the Syrian conflict. Syria needs a political solution, including some form of military intervention, to provide lasting relief for the Syrians. Sadly, none of which is forthcoming.

Exaggerate everything; progress not at all. "Exaggeration is a widespread epidemic in 'our country,'" writes Syrian director Haitham Hakki on his Facebook. I intentionally put "our country" in quotations, as I believe his reference goes beyond the national borders of Syria.

By Elie Chalala

Press reports claim that Qatari capital acquired Al Quds Al Arabi: if so, can Al Quds readers expect the same intellectual disrespect as Al Jazeera viewers got on June 30th? I must admit that I am not and never was a follower of Abdel Bari Atwan’s columns for Al Quds Al Arabi, especially his writing on Arafat, Kaddafi, Saddam and, of course, Osama Bin Laden.

Now that Mohammed Morsi has exited the stage, what will the students of Arab politics remember about his Islamic regime? The Brotherhood has violated a long tradition in Egypt of incorporating the intellectuals into the state; previous states either co-opted the intellectual class or opened doors for their political participation.

By Elie Chalala

Leaving the city of Qusayr in ruins, Hezbollah and the Assadist army revived memories of the debris of other battered cities: the destruction of Guernica, for instance, in the 1937 Spanish Civil War as well as the destruction of the Vietnamese city Huế in 1968—the Siege of Huế was one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. This is one of the many insightful reflections Syrian author Subhi Hadidi wrote in his regular column in Al Quds Al Arabi on June 6, 2013.

Qusayr is hardly a victory for a regime whose record is stained by the blood of close to 100,000 Syrians. A major concern for many Syrians remains the threats posed to the fabric of Syrian society before and especially after Qusayr.
The Assad forces destroyed the Suspension Bridge—or Al Jisr al-Mualiq in Arabic—last month. The footbridge, which was built in 1927 during the French Mandate over Syria, is a symbolic archaeological site. Located in Deir Ezzor Province, it connects the southern part of the Levant through the Euphrates River with upper Mesopotamia.

An essay, titled "No Shame in Apologizing," written by Lebanese columnist Hussam Itani, caught my attention a few months ago. I was reminded of it last Sunday, when I  read another lengthy essay in the Sunday New York Times by Iraqi-American scholar and intellectual Kanan Makiya. In this essay, Makiya does something different from many Arab intellectuals and politicians when he apologizes or admits miscalculations and errors of judgment he made regarding American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Some of the criticisms directed at major Arab media networks that support Syrian revolution are unwarranted. Critics argue that the stories of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are often politically motivated, influenced by the networks’ owners. It is no secret that they are alluding to Al Jazeera's Qatar and Al Arabiya’s Saudi Arabia. Since the onset of the Arab Spring, I have not stopped watching satellite TV networks like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and BBC.

I do not know why the debate with or about Adonis's attitude toward the Syrian revolution ought to be confined to intellectual approaches. He advances what has become popularized in Arabic to be a revolution in Alrou'ous and not in al-Kursi, which roughly means a revolution ought to be in the "heads" and not the "chair," meaning state or regime.

Those bemoaning the death of the Arab Spring must read what Hashem Saleh has to say. Unlike the apologists for Arab dictatorships who are reading the Arab revolts from ideological and political perspectives, Saleh is analyzing the Arab Spring from a philosophical perspective, according to Karam al-Helou. Those nostalgic for the reigns of oppressive systems like the one still destroying Syria like to spend their free time coming up with terms like “fall” and “winter” to substitute “Spring.”

The talk of the town—or rather the country—in Lebanon has fixated on the great influx of Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Sadly, such talk is not about their physical, social and psychological suffering, but largely about their very presence in Lebanon and what it means to a delicate demographic and sectarian balance.

In analyzing all of the discourse about the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution, the claim that seems to be most central is the breaking-down of the wall of fear. The evidence supporting this claim is overwhelming: the death of 80,000 Syrians, the disappearance and imprisonment of tens of thousands, the targeting of civilians by military aircraft, Scud missiles, cluster, phosphoric, and barrel bombs, to the displacement of close to four million people inside and outside of Syria.

Dima Wannous, a Syrian journalist and daughter of the late noted playwright Saddallah Wannous, has been providing exceptional coverage of the Arab art and cultural scene for the newly established Lebanese electronic newspaper, Al Mudon.

It was mere coincidence that I watched an interview with the late Syrian President Amin al-Hafiz (1921-2009), conducted by Ahmad Mansour as a part of his re-run series of Shahed Ala Al-Asr on Al Jazeera network. At the same time, the news of Bashar al-Assad's interview with the Lebanese-British journalist Hala Jabber in the Sunday Times had drawn a lot of attention. What caught my attention was the unashamedly low level of political knowledge and experience that was an overt presence in the statements of both men.

Sawsan Hakki, an architectural engineer, was killed in her car when Aleppo University was bombed from the air. (Yes, a university campus bombed!)  Many students of history might confuse what the Assad air force has done with attacks by an external enemy opposing a war of liberation.  But this thought lasted briefly! The target was Syria's second largest city, occupied (partially now) by Assad's loyalists, Shabiha and non-Shabiha.  Sawsan Hakki was the sister of Syrian director Haitham Hakki, and the sister-in-law of poet Hala Mohammad, Haitham's wife.

Between 2011 and 2013, Syria has experienced waves of migration unprecedented in the annals of its history. Some departed carrying their children and whatever belongings they could salvage. Others left carrying their fears and pain, and many, many more left carrying their nation's dream. In the diaspora, some died of the cold, hunger and pain. Others died out of humiliation, displacement, and separation. But many refused to die; they were kept alive by nostalgia and sorrow,  becoming specters, their frail bodies ever prey to the merciless winds of a most bitter exile.

 

We began to notice that the Syrians were being required to document and prove the identity of their killers, even while being driven to their own slaughter. How are we supposed to determine that the man who is tortured, insulted, and threatened with the rape of his wife, until he died from the horror of pain, was a victim of the regime's brutality? We wish he had found the time to record his testimony and send it to us via "YouTube" just before he died, so we could then verify it and examine the possibility of taking his side.

On November 17, 2012,  Al-Hayat featured an a peculiarly illuminating article written by Mohammad al-Sawi, about the Egyptian composer Riyad al-Sunbati (1906-1981), which should be of considerable interest to lovers of classical Arab music. Under the title "Riyad al-Sunbati: Philosopher of Arab Music," al-Sawi credits the musical compositions of al-Sunbati with a seminal classicism in both traditional and modern currents of the history of Arab music in the 20th century.

Much has been written about life under Arab dictatorship. Irrespective of what has been said about the pseudonym “Samir al-Khalil,” Kanan Makiyya’s book “The Republic of Fear” remains one of the most authoritative texts on Arab dictatorial regimes. Recently, I read Al Hayat newspaper editor-in-chief Ghassan Sharbel’s article, “The Confessions of a Dog,” from which the title of this piece is borrowed, and I was reminded once again of what life under the sword in Arab countries is like.

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