Friday, November 18, 2016

Burning Country

Yassin-Kassab, Robin and Leila Al-Shami. Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. London: Pluto Press, 2016. Print.
[T]he 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.
As our own national tragedy unfolds, it's easy to forget about the other disasters washing over the world. Yet the news continually reminds us that our struggles are connected. Just this week the Syrian "president" al-Assad referred to Donald Trump as a natural ally. Some sources look forward to better relations between the U.S. and Russia, especially as relates to the ongoing war in Syria. If you are interested in that war, in the expansion of ISIS, in the dangers of any alliance with Assad and Putin, or in the possibilities of revolution, you should read Burning Country.
This monumental work of journalism traces the Syrian Revolution's trajectory from peaceful protest though state sponsored slaughter to the rise of ISIS and the refugee crisis the world faces now. It indicts the Western world for studied ignorance and indifference to the Syrian people's suffering, for the the international rejection of those who dare demand democracy and freedom. But it also celebrates the resilience and creativity of people in an impossible situation, caught between imperfect revolutionary forces, a sadistic government, and merciless terrorists.
That the West largely accepted Assad's narrative--his supposed battle against terrorists and sectarian violence--should shame the pro-democracy forces for generations. This book details how Assad has manipulated terrorists into working with him against the revolutionary forces. Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami document also how the original revolutionary demands drew many sectors of society together to resist dictatorship. People of all religions, classes, educational levels, expressed their yearning for freedom in demonstrations which Assad's forces repressed with violence and torture. One early moment that sparked outrage involved fifteen schoolboys who were arrested and tortured after creating revolutionary graffiti. If you had any doubts about the regime's culpability, you should listen to these myriad voices from the ground attesting to its crimes, its brutal practices, its fundamental opposition to liberty.
Revolutions erupt when people cannot breathe.
As we face potentially the most repressive government in recent American memory, the example of Syria is well worth our attention. It seems unlikely that our protests and attempts to protect the most marginalized in our society will result in bloodshed--but that also seemed unlikely to the citizens of Syria, whose government proved much more willing to slaughter them than anyone anticipated. We have recently demonstrated that voting is not going to bring positive change (lots of problems with elections, with voter suppression, but also with the whole system of voting), and we are wise to hold our government under extreme suspicion. We must find other ways to breathe. In this book's more hopeful moments, we see Syrians claiming their creative powers to create poetry, slogans, music, street theater, and other artistic resistance. I hope to see a similar flourishing in the United States. Narratives matter. The narratives of power must be opposed at every turn.
A people who dared to demand freedom received annihilation.
This book is, indeed, a portrait of a burning country--certainly, there are literal flames destroying the place. But also the very notion of a country is at stake. Is the country a centralized, national government? Other nation-states want to recognize the increasingly illegitimate rule of Assad because it looks the most like their vision of government. Is the country a people? What about when a third of your population has left? What about when invading forces mingle with the local population? Is the country a set of ideals? What holds people together enough to continue imagining your community? The ties that remain in Syria are fragile. It turns out that the ties holding together the US are fragile too. I am no fan of nationalism, but the US does have some lovely national ideas about equality and justice that are currently threatened by those other national ideas about race and borders and "law and order."
I wish the Syrian people peace as soon as possible. I end with the authors' call for solidarity:
Creating workable alternatives would be a million times more useful for revolutionaries elsewhere than misinformed theoretical hectoring. And perhaps people here could learn from those cursed enough, or sufficiently blessed, to have experience the collapse of a system, those who have been thrown by necessity into the business of building something new. We hope this book has shown that there are Syrians inside and in exile who are more than worthy of support [...] We ask the reader, rather than applying the usual grand narratives, to attend to voices from the ground.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Easter Morning: An Ekphrastic Poem

The sun breaks bold on a mourning.
Three women wend their way
Wrapped in grief, mincing toward
the grave of love and mercy.
They study the ground.
Perhaps the sturdy mile marker
will prop the eldest as she totters
towards the sepulcher.

How rare for dramatic irony to proclaim comfort!
We know how soon their tears
will turn to smiles--we and the trees
Share assurance of coming joy!
For dawn declares the resurrection every day,
the elms assume a posture of praise
Their waving branches sprout hope of spring,
green sprigs that dream the frost is past,
the hoary reign of death can slouch off
and the women's drooping turn to dancing,
the weeping to waltzing
with the risen LORD!


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Murdering Principle

AKA Some Thoughts on Crime and Punishment after 4000 pages of Russian history

I am recently returned to the great northwest from a seminar on U.S.-Russian relations. This involved reading near-infinite amounts of Russian/Soviet history. But my inner Russophile is awakened, and I came home with a desire to gorge on the fabulous literary past of that great nation (or empire, or amorphous ethnic group, or linguistic community, or however else we want to define Russia). So I immediately downloaded my first, and still my favorite, Russian novel: Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment. I read it for the first time when I was a freshman in high school, and I wanted to see how differently it felt after sixteen years and a much better grasp of its creative context.

Most of you know the basic concept of the book. Raskolnikov, a law school dropout living in desperate poverty in St. Petersburg, decides to rob and murder an elderly pawnbroker in order to keep his sister from marrying for money. After he does so, he feels tremendously guilty and wanders the streets a lot until he decides to confess. Along the way he helps the family of a drunkard and attracts the love of his prostitute daughter.

The novel holds up. It still reveals the inner workings of a tormented young intellectual; it still conveys the corrupting power of violence on the soul; it still reminds us that prostitutes are just trying to feed their families and have hearts of purest spun gold. But on rereading I saw the novel as in dialogue with the nascent anarchist/nihlist political movements of the time, especially on this question of principled murders.

Raskinolkov comes to us from 1866, a moment of great social unrest. Five years prior to this, Tsar Alexander II decreed the serfs emancipated, and this disrupted the countryside and the cities alike. Fifteen years after this, anarchist resistance will culminate in the assassination of Alexander on much the same logic as that of our protagonist. Why should some have so much when others have so little? Why should women marry loathesome men for economic security (and why should less fortunate women take to the streets and provide sex for economic survival), when there is plenty of money around? Why should a bright young law student have no hope or future when an elderly woman, already near the end of her life, has the means to provide that future for himself and his family? While, of course, murder is wrong, one can see Raskinolkov's reasoning.

At one point, our anti-hero raves to himself, "I didn't kill a human being, I killed a principle!" But he did kill a human being, and the principles of exploitation still reigned--humans extracting every morsel of "value" from other humans, scavenging off those who are less fortunate than themselves. I am reminded of David Gilbert's excellent memoir Love and Struggle (which I reviewed here), where he admits that he struggled for years to recognize the humanity of the security guards whose death resulted in his life sentence; thought they were guarding capital, it was still not right to deprive them of their lives. Their deaths did nothing to forward racial justice. The death of the pawnbroker did not set Raskinolkov's life to rights

Recently I visited the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. One exhibit there forcused on the two assasination attempts directed towards him. Sara Jane Moore, one of the perpetrators, actually wrote him a letter apologizing for her attempt on his life while maintaining the righteousness of an assault on his office, an attack on the principle of a presidency which somehow overturns all the best hopes of good people who accept the role (like Obama and Guantanamo and drones). I sympathize with that desperation, that hope in one violent deed to overcome massive injustice.

But to stop us from feeling too much sympathy, Dostoyevski brings in the character of Lizaveta, sister of the pawnbroker. Raskinolkov killed her also when she interrupted him in his crime. A simple and devout woman, she prays with the prostitute Sonia, and her murder forces the audience to acknowledge the injustice of collatoral damage.

In these days when presidential candidates hope for "2nd amendment rights" to stop opponents and take over elections; when our nation threatens to kill the families of terrorists; and when we know that any potential leader (yes, even Bernie) will authorize death without trial to terror suspects and those standing around them when the bombs fall--we do well to remember that principles are not people. Killing people is easier than killing principles, but it will not have the desired effect. Christ shows us that we must take the violence rather than deliver it to change to the world. This is not the easy way out, but it is the only hope for building kindness.

N.B. Napoleon shows up all over Crime and Punishment, as in: If Napoleon can kill thousands of people without consequence, why can't I? Dostoyevski seems to suggest that we not worry about Napoleon but about the damage violence will do to our souls. I disagree. We must not glorify those who kill, regardless of whether that killing is state-sponsored or not.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Teaser: Henry VI, part 1

Why should you read Henry VI, part 1?

  1. Joan of Arc is the villain. That's right, the famed gender-bending Frenchwoman makes a foray into Brit lit! The English change their mind about her madonna/whore status every other line or so.
  2. "Submission, dauphin? 'Tis a mere French word. We English warriors wot not what it means."
  3. If you like the Republican presidential debates, you'll love the treachery and foolishness of medieval leaders!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Shakespeare in Snow and Sunshine

Former regular readers may know that I have recently migrated north. Having returned to a state of appropriate distance from Canada (like North Dakota, my home and native land), I am loving the snow and the cozy indoor time for more reading! Thus I have embarked on a quest to read all of Shakespeare, and, dear readers, today I propose to bring you with me on that journey.

A bit of background: I started reading Shakespeare when I was eleven. My mom had her college copy of the Complete Works prominently displayed in our living room, and L.M. Montgomery's characters (Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, etc.) all discussed the Bard so much that I wanted to join in that conversation. I read Much Ado about Nothing first, then A Comedy of Errors. The former I have read many times since; the latter, not for these twenty years. I ended up taking four Shakespeare classes in college and one in graduate school, so while I am by no means a professional scholar in the subject, I have tackled the plays quite a bit with help from those scholars.

In any case, this summer it occurred to me that, should I die without completing the canon, I should deeply regret it. I lucked into a good part-time job for the year that leaves my mornings open for quiet contemplation, so I have begun filling in the gaps in my knowledge with diligent study. At this count, I have read twenty-five of the thirty-seven canonical works. So I am beginning with the plays I had never read, and plan to re-read all the plays I have read with new lenses.

For one cannot embark on such a project with just one's own edification in mind. As an English teacher, I try to put myself in the shoes of my students by tackling difficult and unfamiliar works, then seeing what strategies help me to make sense of the text. Also, I wish to forge a way of interacting with text, of prowling about in it and devouring morsels of wisdom and humor and sagacity while vehemently responding to these aged words. Ultimately I want to create an anarchist approach to text, one that prioritizes liberation and personal experience and the humanity of story-telling.

With this in mind, I will be writing a series of three posts on each of the plays:

  1. A "teaser," describing why you should read each play
  2. An analysis of what I found surprising or brilliant
  3. A description of Shakespeare the Anarchist (you knew that was coming, right?) as revealed in the text
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I know that Shakespeare was not an anarchist in any practical sense of the word. He certainly prioritized order and authority. He generally was a fan of the monarchy and devoted much ink to its history. Politically, he could hardly be called even a small-d democrat or small-r republican. Fear of mob rule and chaos permeates his work. Yet his observations on the nature of power and his habit of humanizing even the lowest of characters lend his work to the Revolution, and I will be examining how these plays point to liberation even as they uphold the centralized power structure of their era.

This will function as a public journal of my readings. But should you be moved to read a play, I would be thrilled to host a guest blog post! I long for a world where we swap ideas about books freely and hilariously. And everyone needs more Shakespeare in her life.