Breaking free in the great Syrian prison – by Michael Young
In an interview in 2004, the Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh described the last of his 16 years spent in Hafez Assad’s prisons for being a member of the Communist Party-Political Bureau.
“After I completed my 15-year sentence they sent me to [Palmyra] prison, a place that literally eats men, that was worse than the ‘house of the dead’ described by Dostoyevsky,” Haj Saleh recalled. “Fear is a way of life in [Palmyra], where every day primitive and vengeful torture is carried out at the hands of heartless people. That was in 1996. They released me at the end of the year. I was 35.”
A French translation of Haj Saleh’s writings on his prison experiences has just been published, titled “Récits d’Une Syrie Oubliée: Sortir la Memoire des Prisons” (Accounts of a Forgotten Syria: Bringing Memory Out of the Prisons). I read it the same week I watched “Our Terrible Country,” a film by Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi. It describes Haj Saleh’s departure in 2013 from Douma, near Damascus, for his hometown of Raqqa, before he went into exile in Turkey because the city had fallen to ISIS.
Haj Saleh’s book, by deconstructing the life of political prisoners in Syria, provides a commentary on the repressive, suffocating order put in place by the Assad family, marked by omnipresent and subtle informal institutions of domination and cruelty. Atassi and Homsi’s film takes us to the heart of the devastating war the Assads have declared on their own people, showing their willingness to annihilateSyria rather than allow their authority to be contested.
The parallels between Syria’s security state and the conflict today are many. Just as the regime devised a vast system to perpetuate its absolute power, it has used the war to defend the vile edifice it put in place. In a passage from his book, Haj Saleh describes the regime’s strategy before the uprising against Bashar Assad: “By burning the social ground so that no party, no independent organization, could emerge, Hafez Assad’s regime managed to confiscate political life and banish Syrians from the public domain.” That describes well the reasoning behind the regime’s murderous suppression of the revolt.
“Our Terrible Country” is a stunning documentary, which shows how war is a monster overturning life in traumatic, prodigious ways. The film begins with images of Haj Saleh and his wife Samira Khalil in aDouma devastated by regime bombardment. Both had fled there from Damascus to escape the security services. As conditions inDouma worsen, Haj Saleh decides to head toward Raqqa, on the understanding that Samira would join him later by taking a less dangerous route. Homsi accompanies him on the trip through the desert, filming as they go along. Once in Raqqa, where two of his brothers have been abducted by ISIS, Haj Saleh concludes that he has no option but to move on to Turkey. His exile begins, and we later learn that Samira, trapped in Douma by the deteriorating situation, has been abducted, along with the human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouni and two others. To this day their fate is unknown.
This is a microcosm of Syrian society caught in war. On the one side is the brutality of the Assad regime, on the other that of ISIS. In the middle is a valiant population whose fate has provoked desperately little outrage in the world. The Syrian uprising has indeed been an “orphaned revolution,” to borrow from the title of Ziad Majed’s book on the subject. It is a horrific stain on the international community and on any aspiration for a rules-based global order.
Someone should offer Haj Saleh’s book and the Atassi-Homsi film to those leaders in the West who, by action or omission, continue to tolerate the Assads and their Iranian backers. Haj Saleh sensed their perniciousness long ago, stating that liberty was not possible in the Middle East, partly because “regimes are exempted from the human and political obligations faced by the modern state because they satisfy what the world hegemon, the United States, wants of them.”
But it’s also true that had Haj Saleh been completely persuaded of the impossibility of freedom, he would not have become active in the Syrian uprising. Yet what do we have today? An infinite horizon of sorrow and ruin, a shattered society, over 200,000 dead in just four years, millions of refugees both inside and outside the country, and all for what? So that the malignant Assads and their sordid clique can remain in power? So that Iran can build up a satrapy on Israel’s border to advance its project of regional hegemony?
How can one fail to admire a people that has been through such desolation? Haj Saleh himself has faced unspeakable hardship: the abduction of his wife and brothers, 16 years in regime prisons, the denial of his youth. That is why it is strange to read him describing his prison years as “an experience of change and emancipation. A second childhood. We suffer, and we struggle against suffering.”
As many who have lived through war know, such reactions are, oddly, common. When we are engulfed by monumental events, no matter how horrifying, sentiments of euphoria can accompany those of revulsion. One has a feeling of having lived an overpowering, grand experience, an exhilarating wave of hyperreality.
This force, allowing psychological rebirth, will harden the spirits of Syrians against the depravities of Assad rule. It is why Assad’s enemies refuse to surrender, even as their conflict takes myriad turns into darkness. And it is why Iran will likely never triumph in Syria. In their search for emancipation, for a second childhood, Syrians will suffer, but they will also struggle against suffering.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.
date : 27/03/2015