An interview with Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the role of culture in Syria’s struggle
Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer, intellectual and former political prisoner. In 1980, while studying medicine at Aleppo University, the 19-year-old Yassin was arrested by Hafez al-Assad’s government for his membership in the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau. He remained in prison for 16 years and 14 days. Since 2000, Yassin al-Haj Saleh has been writing on political, social and cultural subjects relating to Syria and the Arab world for several Arab newspapers and journals outside Syria. In addition, he has authored and edited four books about Syria, including one about his experience in prison. His fifth book is a critique of contemporary Islam and a critique of the critique.
When the Syrian revolution began Yassin al-Haj Saleh, then working in Damascus, went into hiding for two years in the capital. In 2013, he and his wife, the revolutionary activist Samira Khalil, moved to Douma to work for the revolution. Later that year he travelled to his family home in Raqqa where Da’esh was gaining control, and where two of his brothers had been abducted by Da’esh. His brother, Feras al-Haj Saleh is still in their hands. After living in hiding in Raqqa for two and a half months, Yassin was forced to flee to Turkey where he now lives. His journey is the subject of the documentary Our Terrible Country. Samira Khalil was abducted in Douma in December 2013, along with three other well known activists, Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamda, and Nazem Hammadi, and their whereabouts are still unknown.
In 2012, Yassin al-Haj Saleh was awarded the Prince Claus Award, as a “tribute to the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution.” He was unable to collect the award, as he was living in hiding. For the last two years he has been living in exile in Istanbul. He is one of the founders of the Syrian online platform Al-Jumhuriya (The Republic), established in 2012. He has also founded, with colleagues from Syria and Turkey, Hamisch, the Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul, a space for cultural debate with participants from Syria, Turkey and the world.
You said in an interview with the Boston Review that “Culture can be a strategic field for our struggle for freedom, both the Assad-ist and the Islamic version.” How do you envision this, and is it a strategy among Syrians, or between Syrians and the outside world?
Maybe it will be a burden on culture at large to affect the Syrian situation, now. The time now is for arms and armed people. It is a country where people have been being killed on a daily basis in terrible horrific ways, with the world watching. We have a lot of experience with arrests, torture, chemical attacks, barrel bombs, attacks by fighter jets, and of course exile — 4 million are living abroad, and more than 7 million displaced within the country. These are our experiences. Our culture could — our culture should be rebuilt on these experiences, and through culture we can rebuild our identity, our roles, and in a way our imagination, and our society. We don’t want to be fighters. I understand why people carry arms against the regime. But I don’t want to be a fighter myself. My tools, my arms, are words. And words can be a very powerful tool in our struggle, not only in Syria, but at the global level, because I think that the Syrian struggle is not something confined to Syria, it is a global issue. And because the world did not help Syria change for better, I think that Syria is changing the whole world for worse.
You’ve talked before about Syria as a “global metaphor” — is it connected to this? Do you think the reactionary change in the world a direct response to what is happening in Syria?
I think we cannot understand what is happening in Syria while we are focusing only on internal dynamics and processes and structure. I’ve lived my whole life in Syria — almost my whole life. I’m now 54, and I’ve been here [in Istanbul] two years. I was concentrating on analyzing the structures, political, social and economic structures in Syria from a historical perspective. But now I feel — actually, even before the revolution — this was not enough. Syria is in the Middle East, and the Middle East is one of the most internationalized regions of the world. Our fates were not determined by us alone.
Which is why when the Americans say they should not intervene —
Exactly, the world has been intervening all the time! Not only in structural ways. They were engineering the situation. You know the American and Russian deal after the chemical massacre. This is why Syria is a global metaphor, because what is happening to Syria is not because Syrians made this mistake or that one. Of course Syrians committed mistakes. But our situation now is not the pure outcome of our decisions as Syrians. I have information that since 2012 the US pressured Saudi Arabia and others to stop fighters in the neighborhoods of Damascus, and got them not to fight. Everything would have changed if it was not the case. So, this is Syria as a “global metaphor.” It shows how politics is severed from values and a sense of justice. “Stability” is considered the goal, not “freedom” or “justice.” The Syrians struggled bravely, for seven or eight months peacefully, and then with arms. But since mid-2012, it has not longer been Syrians against Syrians. The national framework of the struggle collapsed, and we have all the world in the country now.
I want to go back to this idea of culture as a strategic field for struggle for freedom against fascism, both the Assad-ist and Islamic version. What is its role in the struggle against each of them?
One reason why culture is such an important strategy for our struggle is that we have a religious problem. We have a big problem related to Islam. Some people, and I am one of them, talk about religious reformation in Islam. The problem is very complicated. Now Islam, in our modern experiences, has been in many instances a tool of resistance against colonialism, against Western hegemony, and this prevented many of us from fighting against the problems within Islam, things related to the inequalities between men and women, for instances, between Muslims and non-Muslims, and things related to legitimizing absolute power and tyranny. My work, for instance in my book about Islam (The Myths of the Latters: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of its Critique) is about how to develop a radical criticism of Islam, while doing radical criticism of the injustices in the modern world. To racism in the world. While I am criticizing Islam I have to criticize some other criticisms of Islam. Many Muslims, many Islamists, are essentialist. But many critics of Islam are essentialist in their own way. Even though some of them are thinking about Islam on the basis of modernity or secularism, there is nothing radical about their critiques — they are not interested in human dignity, equality, freedom, or justice. Islam is not only interesting because of questions of values, it is important also because of its relation to identity in our society. So you have to deconstruct this, and to rethink it, to open this identity to criticism and ethical thought. This is what I am trying to do.
Culture is also an important strategy against the Assad regime, because this is a regime that has suppressed intellectuals, suppressed critical thinking, has not allowed people in the universities or the media to discuss issues of religion, sectarianism, of tyranny. Though the regime is modernist in a way, and Assad is the fascist with a neck-tie, it is against culture, no less than the Islamists of Da’esh. Actually we have three monsters in Syria, three inhuman creatures. One, the Islamic monster, second, the monster of Tyranny. And third, the Western Imperialist monster. And culture can be our weapon to remake these monsters into human energies, human politics, human actors. Culture is a humanizing field to transform these monsters to human-scale powers.
When you were working in Syria, how did you exercise this power of words, and of culture?
We practiced the politics of writing. Especially when you are writing about politics, you have to practice the politics of writing — I mean you have to practice some political maneuvers to express yourself. There is a saying in Syria, ألشرطي الداخلي shurti dakhili — the internal cop. We have a policeman inside our heads, watching us while we are writing. And we cannot call things by their proper names. So we have many tricks. So instead of speaking of the Syrian regime specifically, we speak of the Arab regimes, or the Third World regimes. Instead of speaking about specific security apparatuses we speak about suppression in general. But this was something humiliating, and something that makes our writing without subject. These were ways of cheating the regime, but we were cheating ourselves while practicing them. I would try to challenge this. Censorship in Syria, and everywhere I think, is not something rigid. It is something you can push, something you can negotiate. But it is always playing with danger and risking arrest.
You’ve said in the past that Syrians for the last half century have been in solitude, and that the monologue has been the default mode of interaction. How do you now open this up to dialogue?
Well, now we must open up to the international community. It has always been true, but it is even truer after the war. The regime was built on excluding and isolating us from the world. Any of us who had, especially Western friends, was under the suspicion of being a spy. The concept of nationalism in Syria has always been used to install high barriers between Syria and the world, and we need to break this. But first of all the dialogue must be among Syrians. Because under Assad it was impossible for us to even be in a private house like this and discuss public issues. Is it strange to you? I mean it literally. It was impossible for ten or twenty people to meet in a private house — of course you can do it in secret, but then this is a monologue. It only becomes a dialogue when you can make it somehow public. We need a dialogue between ourselves to meet and rebuild our society. Society is composed of these interactions between people. When they are isolated from each other, in many ways, even from discussions, you don’t have a society. You have families, you have sects, you have local groups, but you don’t have a society. The regime worked hard to isolate us from each other. It worked to separate those who are interested in public issues from the public. The regime was built on isolation, and preventing people from meeting, and in the end they were successful.
What was produced in Syria in the last four years? The concept of the Horrible. We have a word in Arabic, الفظيع fazee’, which means something that you draw back from, something very painful and very dangerous. When you see a human body crushed, or a neighborhood destroyed. The moments that you draw back from. You try to avoid the places, even the country where you had these experiences. This is why more than 4 million have left the country, and why 7 million have changed their place within it. Because the horrific, the الفظيع fazee’ is a daily experience for them. And our culture must now be built on these experiences. Maybe this experience is more important than politics or religion as a source of a new humanist culture.
When you say a “new humanist culture” do you mean for the world? That the horror of what is happening in Syria necessitates a reconsideration of the culture of the world, not just of Syria? That what is happening is Syria requires a radical reimagining of the way the world functions?
In Arabic we have a nice etymological link between suffering and meaning. The root is the same. Suffering is معاناة — mu’anat, and meaning, معنى: ma’na. So if I want to sum up what I am trying to do it is to derive meaning from suffering. Meaning which is culture, values, from suffering, from these terrible experiences we lived through. My feeling in relation to Europe and the West now is that for seventy years they have been living in good conditions, there were no tragedies, big tragedies. Of course they caused big tragedies for others, but no big tragedies for themselves. And in a way they have lost the sense, even the leftists and some of the philosophers that I like. They speak about the Holocaust as if it was the end of human pain. I like the work of Giorgio Agamben, but it is always this. And I liked in the past the work of Slavoj Žižek. But I think he is becoming a clown, a charlatan.
Finding meaning from suffering — how do you do this?
It is not only a matter of knowledge and experiences. I think they are centered on concepts a lot in the West. There is a logic of practices, and a logic of feeling. They know a lot, but they feel nothing. It is to rethink and to rebuild a culture where there are open channels between feeling and understanding, and meaning, and knowledge.
First of all, we have experiences. You know that I was in prison for a long time, that I was tortured. But I don’t mean that one should suffer himself to know. And even when you suffer yourself, it is not easy to transform your experience to meaning and to culture. And this is a challenge to me, because I’m trying to do things that I don’t have reference for. But at least you have to, in your writing — I’m a writer, so I’m not speaking about film-makers or painters — you have to at least describe your experiences, to give examples about the suffering of the people. To give some information about what is happening. You can find a lot of information, photos, footage, maybe not a lot of written materials, but I am interested in this because the meaning of cultural revolution — Syria is a part of the Arab world, and a part of the Muslim world. And I feel that this world is in need of cultural revolution that challenges religion, but is not only obsessed with religion, in a way that you can see in the West every day. Not like this. In an emancipatory and liberatory direction. The cultural revolution is necessary. It is important for us to liberate the minds and imaginations and memories. But this applies also to the world. We, Arabs, Muslims, are 1/5th of the world. And we participated a lot in making the world bad. So we need to also participate in making it better. And to do this, cultural revolution, suffering, the experience of those who have been killed, crushed, suffered, are an important basis for this. And you can challenge the religious authorities, the powers, in the name of this suffering. This is the real basis for a new humanity, and hopefully a new thinking, a new culture. This is what I am trying to do.
Is part of the challenge the diasporic nature of the Syrian community now? That there is no center?
This could also be a good chance to have partners in the countries we are now in, because we lived in an isolated country for decades. It is difficult because the struggle is still going on in Syria and we have our friends and families there, and every day people are being killed. And it is a new situation for us. Only for a few years, and with so many challenges and difficulties facing us. But in the long term it could be a chance for us. We were a provincial people, talented, intelligent, yes, but the scope of our experience was limited. I have a theory that we Syrians, my generation, when I was young, we had concepts, books, but we didn’t have experiences. But since I was young we’ve had terrible sufferings, and we are learning how to make these experiences transmittable to others. Through films, paintings, articles, books. So now we are writing with our two eyes. To write with two eyes, the eye of experience, and the eye of concepts, wisdom.
To those outside Syria, how do you transmit these experiences of the horror? In the news we are given the horror, but without meaning. The enormity of the horror leads to inaction.
This is what is happening now. I don’t know what to do. We are overwhelmed. Because the experience, the scale of these experiences is horrible, and the organizing efforts are limited. So, I don’t have an answer to this. But, as a writer, I still have some metaphysical hope, that some day this suffering that I am an agent in expressing and transmitting to others, will have some effect. The problem is I write only in Arabic. Actually, that is not true, I want to write in Arabic. My addressees are Syrians and those who can read Arabic. But I feel we are trying to do has a human need, and it addresses the people in Chile, and in Japan, and in South Africa, and in New York. I don’t have systematic solution. We cannot build a new International for instance — although I think there should be something on this level. I mean, a new global movement to develop a new sensitivity, a new imagination, new theories and new thinking. Maybe.
The enormity of what has happened and is happening seems to call for something of an equal enormity in response. If Syria is a global metaphor, then the fact that something like this can happen in the world means there is something fundamentally wrong with the world.
Exactly, and no country is so far from the other as not to be neighbors. You are not isolated, we are not isolated. You think you can build walls around your castle. Maybe. But someday someone stronger than you will come and knock them down, and we are back to barbarism. So I think we must imagine a new moment, a new global movement. If we are not extremely mistaken in what we’ve been talking about this evening, then others are thinking the same way in India, in Brazil, and I hope so and we will find each other in the coming years.