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.