Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Turkey’s Taksim Carnival Commune

June 10, 2013 1 comment
Revolutionary flags on the Taksim monument

Revolutionary flags on the Taksim monument

[This post written on 10 June, the day before the 7am police intervention that took control of Taksim Square, the Atatürk monument and the Atatürk Culture Centre. On 16 June, the police took control of Gezi Park as well. For the aftermath, see below].

I still couldn’t believe my eyes as I wandered this weekend round Taksim Square, along with thousands other visitors who thronged there this weekend to take in this extraordinary moment in Turkey’s political life. Even a few days ago there were just a few people camping out in what was once the small, unfrequented park, from where Turkey’s protests over the uprooting of a few trees blossomed into a national protest movement. A carnival atmosphere has now spread out from the park to include most of the square itself, a fair in which an alphabet soup of often little-known Turkish organizations have set up shop. There are revolutionaries, Marxists, Kurdish insurgents, anti-capitalist Muslims, environmentalists and many, many more.

Like all new-borns, a rush is on to name and define the wave of protests. Are they “a few looters”, in the inimitably dismissive comment of Prime Minister Erdogan? But if not that, then what? A Turkish Spring, a poll tax turning point, an “occupy” movement, Piraten or indignados? A political earthquake, sure, but on which of Turkey’s many fault-lines: secular-Islamist, rich-poor, new urban vs old urban, left-vs-right, Kurdish nationalist vs Turkish nationalist, Sunni Muslim vs Alevi, authoritarian vs anarchist, environmentalist vs shopping mall builder? Of course, the answer is all of the above and all of no one of them. As some leading lights of the small old leftist opposition parties put it, the demonstrators themselves probably have as little idea as the government about what  exactly the protests are about. Whatever the final judgment of history, there is already a “revolution museum” in a commandeered hut from the now suspended roadworks around Taksim. And while they wait, protestors take time out at “The Looters’ Cafe and Reading Room”,  stock up on supplies at the “Brigand Market”, and get their souvenir stickers from the “Taksim Commune”.

"Don't bow down" T-shirts being advertised by a penguin on Taksim Sq (a national symbol after Turkish TV news channel aired a penguin documentary instead of the peak of the protests).

“Don’t bow down” T-shirts being advertised by a penguin on Taksim Sq (a national symbol after a Turkish TV news channel aired a penguin documentary instead of the peak of the protests).

A “Taksim Solidarity Platform” has built a stage in the heart of the park for hosting groups like the “Looters’ Chorus” and is trying to rally its disparate members to agree reasonable demands – 35 groups mid-week, 80 groups now – and its officials rush about in union-style printed overshirts. Merchandising is putting its mark on proceedings: Turkish flags with secular republican founder Ataturk superimposed are popular; a T-shirt saying “don’t bow down” is everywhere; there is also a a scarf demonstrating unity in protest between all three of Istanbul’s main rival football clubs. There are many references to the “looters”, or çapulcu, including a T-shirt with the Turklish phrase “Everyday I’m chapuling”.

This is a rare time in which international media are interested in Turkey as Turkey, not as part of the usual effort to pigeon-hole the country as part of the Middle East, Europe, or the Islamic World. The only other time I can remember this happening is during the massive 1999 earthquake around Istanbul, when more than 40,000 Turks were probably killed and the outside world forgot its prejudices about the country and real empathy was on offer. Similarly, visitors from Europe say the “Occupy” atmosphere is suddenly making Turkey looking very European. Unfortunately, the muzzled way Turkey’s national media initially covered the events was a reminder of the non-European limits Turkey’s places on freedom of expression.

Something in the scene reminds me of the liberated atmosphere in 1996, when the UN’s Habitat Conference was held in Istanbul and Turkey’s non-governmental organisations were allowed to gather in an Ottoman barracks opposite the Hyatt Hotel . The idea of anything being allowed to organise legally outside direct state supervision was then very new (Turkey is still digging its way out from being so long the West’s own East bloc government). It was the first time many of the NGOs were really aware of the existence of other such groups, and all derived a great sense of solidarity as they met and talked. Another comparison would be with the first political chat shows in the early 1990s, when Turkey stayed up until dawn to watch people debating their way out of the country’s old black-and-white, enemy-or-friend view of life.

Today, the whole country is now talking about the protests, the new generation of  students who are its leading element, and the way there is a sense of happy, humorous liberation in the air. If only for this reason, I hope the authorities take a European view of this and continue to let this outpouring of democratisation run its natural course in Taksim Square – and that the protestors do find a consensus to take down the barricades, open the square up to traffic and allow all normal municipal functions to resume.

Still, nobody knows how this will end, only that how it ends will define much of the next decade. There are hardline revolutionaries among the protestors’ groups who do want to smash the Turkish establishment in the name of various ideologies. Still, they are far from the mainstream of the protestors, and it seems inconceivable that the security forces should launch sudden violent action against the currently large group of people in the square; yet everyone knows that one day the other foot will fall, perhaps not directly, but indirectly through the ongoing arrest-and-release campaign against social media ‘provocateurs’ or leaders’ public threats and intimidation of domestic and (openly now) foreign media.

The problem for the authorities is that now the protests are not just about Taksim, nor one small social class in Istanbul, nor even Istanbul itself. This movement has taken root all over the country. I was passed on the Istiklal Street pedestrian boulevard leading to Taksim by a band of young men who’d travelled all the way from the southern Taurus Mountains to march to Taksim to protest a dam being near them. And in the working-class dock district of Hasköy, I watched a squad of forty schoolchildren set off for the miles-long march to Taksim with matching blue flags and outfits.

So here are some more photos of the big party, even as we all wonder what form the hangover will take.

A line of stands in Taksim Square in front of the old Ataturk Culture Centre, now a corkboard of revolutionary slogans

A line of stands in Taksim Square in front of the old Ataturk Culture Centre, now a corkboard of colourful protest and revolutionary slogans.

Gezi Park on Taksim Sq is now full of people sleeping in tents, often students, and drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the city over the weekend.

Gezi Park on Taksim Sq is now full of people sleeping in tents, often students, and drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the city over the weekend.

Student activist networks from his tent. Gezi Park now has its own FM radio station too.

Student activist networks from his tent. Gezi Park now has its own FM radio station too.

A pick-up truck overturned in the first night of protests has become a wish-list of protestors' demands - typically, an end to the concrete covers up 98.5 per cent of the city.

A pick-up truck overturned in the first night of protests has become a wish-list of protestors’ demands – typically, an end to the concrete covers up 98.5 per cent of the city.

This group arrived from Antalya Province, 12 hours by bus, to protest a hydroelectric dam that will destroy their Tauros Mountain valley.

This group arrived in Istanbul from Antalya Province, 12 hours by bus, to protest a hydroelectric dam that will destroy their Tauros Mountain valley.


Sample slogans from the political fair on Taksim Square: “Damn the Wage-Slave Order” (from an organisation called ‘Sweat’); “Against the New Sevres [a 1920 Treaty carving up Turkey by the imperial powers] – Long Live Our Second Liberation War” (from the People’s Liberation Party); “Long Live Revolution and SOCIALISM”; “Political Status to the Kurdish People [unreadable]…Mother-Language [Education]” (from the Freedom and Socialism Party); Hope is in You, the Organization, the Revolution; Forward for Revolution, Socialism or Death” …

The Museum of the Revolution

The Museum of the Revolution

The Kurdish nationalist movement has carved out its own corner of the square, where flags showing the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) are waved as here from an overturned police car.

The Kurdish nationalist movement has carved out its own corner of the square, where flags showing the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are waved as here from an overturned police car and activists dance in long lines.

Left-wing groups are rushing to show their relevance by handing out free copies of their hard-to-read publications against capitalism and shopping malls - here delivered to the Taksim Square in a doubtless liberated supermarket trolley.

Left-wing groups are rushing to show their relevance by handing out free copies of their hard-to-read publications against capitalism and shopping malls – here delivered to the Taksim Square in a liberated supermarket trolley.


Merchandising the revolution: The “We are looters but we feel good about it” scarf scores points off Prime Minister Erdogan’s dismissive labelling of the protestors

The square is 'defended' by numerous but pretty flimsy barricades put up by protestors.

Taksim Square is ‘defended’ by numerous but pretty flimsy barricades put up by protestors.

Paper hot air balloons lit with big candles float into the air each evening from Taksim Square, here seen rising over the 19th century bulk of Istanbul's Russian Consulate-General.

Paper hot air balloons lit with big candles float into the air each evening from Taksim Square, here seen rising over the 19th century bulk of Istanbul’s Russian Consulate-General.


The day after these photos were taken, on June 11, the police pushed the protestors off Taksim Square. The protestors responded with stone throwing, fireworks and in the case of one small group, Molotov cocktail throwing. The police then used high-pressure hoses and tear gas and tore down flags and banners. The police said they wouldn’t intervene in Gezi Park itself, but eventually, on the evening of June 16, they pushed them out of there too. Both sides accused each other of bad faith – the government saying protestors gave into radicals who only wanted a fight and refused to leave the square, and protestors who said they needed more time and commitments from the government. Once again, the police used force and tear gas in overwhelming measure. Protestors tried to win back the square on June 17, when the photos below were taken, but the police took strong measures to prevent that happening.

A tough column of protestors from the Turkish Communist Party moves through Nevizadeh restaurant street after a confrontation with police.

A tough column of protestors from the Turkish Communist Party moves through Nevizadeh restaurant street after a confrontation with police.

Middle-class girls fix their gear as they try to find a way past police lines to recover Taksim.

Middle-class girls fix their anti-gas gear as they try to find a way past police lines to recover Taksim.

Police in control of Gezi Park

Police in control of Gezi Park

Gezi Park and Taksim Square, back under government control

Gezi Park and Taksim Square, back under government control

Fixing the Gezi Park flowerbeds, the morning after the Taksim Commune was ejected.

Municipal gardeners fixing the Gezi Park flowerbeds, the morning after the Taksim Commune was ejected.

The debris of the revolution

The Taksim Commune RIP


The Turkey protests – aftermath or interlude?

June 5, 2013 Leave a comment
Chestnut seller to the protestors, on Istiklal St. on 1 June.

Chestnut seller at the height of the protests, on Istiklal St. on 1 June.

The world’s media has descended on Istanbul to find out more about our Turkish unrest, an extraordinary long weekend in which the secular middle class lost its complacency, overcame its fears and discovered political protest. A new sense of humour joined the usually stern-faced national narrative, people are somehow walking taller and it is amazing to hear great, spontaneous waves of clapping spreading among pedestrians walking up and down Istiklal St outside my house. Everything changed, even if the baleful music from the music shop opposite unfortunately emerged from the day of rioting stuck the same gloomy rut (Ol-muyooor, ooool-muyor, “It just isn’t happening…”).

The analysis is flowing fast. Here are just some good pieces in English I saw flashing past: Frederike Geerdink in Diyarbakir excellently explained why Kurds feel detached from the Istanbul excitements – a perspective that shines light on where Turkey as a whole really is today. Piotr Zalewski gave a fine account of the big day on Taksim. Henri Barkey pointedly noted how much he thinks this is about Prime Minister Erdoğan and his “yes men”, and the sharp wit of Andrew Finkel laid out how the PM needs to open up to local involvement in local decisions. Claire Berlinski’s acid take is a bracing antidote to mainstream news on Turkey. Nadeen Shaker had a fascinating interview with a perceptive activist, Ozan Tekin, about what the Taksim Square protests do and do not share with Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

At Crisis Group’s Istanbul office, we couldn’t resist adding our voice to the hubbub, putting together what we hope is a balanced distillation of how we find ourselves answering questions from the sudden inrush of new and regular visitors. You can find our “Turkey Protests: the Politics of an Unexpected Movement” on the Crisis Group website here. I also did a commentary for Bloomberg urging Mr. Erdoğan to engage the protestors. Watching the novel, calm, empathetic outreach of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç at a news conference on 4 June, I felt that if Prime Minister Erdogan can execute one of his famous U-turns and do the same, it would do much to absorb the tensions.

I also attach some images from the scene on Taksim Square and Gezi Park, mostly from Monday 3 June. The upbeat mood was much the same in most places in Turkey. The country is an amazingly resilient place that actually enjoys a good crisis – it’s normality some people have trouble with! Still, ordinary folk are almost competing to get things ‘back to normal’ wherever they can by cleaning up and fixing the few broken shopfronts.

Still, nightly police-protestor confrontations that last for hours on the front lines have been frighteningly violent at barricades in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district near the prime minister’s office, and in central Ankara. The new slogan rolling up from my street last night was a boisterous one: “Tyrant, Resign!” So for now we wait for the prime minister to return from his north African tour, and to discover whether we are now looking at the aftermath of an emotional outburst of popular sentiment, or whether the current precarious stand-off is just an interlude.

Where it all began - the corner of Gezi Park on Taksim Square, where an excavator's work on May 27 to clear space for a new pedestrian pavement brought a group of environmentalists to protest - and where, when police intervened by burning their tents and tear-gassing them, a national movement was born. (The plan to build a shopping mall on the park is real but was not actually why the trees here were going to be uprooted).

Where it all began – the corner of Gezi Park on Taksim Square where an excavator’s attempt on May 27 to clear space for a new pedestrian pavement brought a group of environmentalists to protest – and where, when police intervened by burning their tents and tear-gassing them, a national movement was born. (The plan to build a shopping mall on the park is real but was not actually why the trees here were going to be uprooted).

While protestors in Taksim largely avoided looting and vandalism, they did target the work machinery for the new underground tunnels in Taksim Square, a first stage in the government's top-down redesign of modern Istanbul's most important public space.

While protestors in Taksim largely avoided looting and vandalism, they did target the work machinery for the new underground tunnels in Taksim Square, a first stage in the government’s top-down redesign of modern Istanbul’s most important public space.

Still, there's going to be quite a lot of clearing up to do on Taksim Square!

There’s still quite a mess to clear up on Taksim Square.

An overturned police car on Taksim Square. However, I don't think more than a dozen vehicles were damaged in the first days at least.

An overturned police car on Taksim Square. Not many vehicles were wrecked like this one in the first days, but Interior Minister Güler said on 6 June that by that time a total of 280 workplaces, 103 police cars, 259 private cars, one house, a police station, 11 AKP political offices and one CHP political office had been damaged.

Another overturned car on Taksim Square, quite a contrast to a typical group of well-brought-up girl protestors, wearing the signature black of the protests.

Another overturned car on Taksim Square, quite a contrast to a typical group of well-brought-up girl protestors, wearing the signature black of the protests.

This group of high-school students skipped class for the third day (and didn't tell their families where they were off to either).

This group of high-school students in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park skipped class for the third day to follow the ebb and flow of protest (and didn’t tell their families where they were off to either).

University students moving off to man the barricades after meeting, singing and dancing under the trees of Gezi Park.

University students moving off to man the barricades after singing and dancing under the trees of Taksim Square’s Gezi Park.

Turkey is a resilient country and people quickly sought to take advantage of any new opportunities - here a man finds a new market in surgical masks protestors use to protect themselves from tear gas.

Turkey is a resilient country and people quickly sought to take advantage of new opportunities – here a man finds a market for surgical masks protestors use to protect themselves from tear gas.

The big clean up by the shops on the central pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St. was particularly swift and impressive. The biggest problem was graffiti everywhere - some of it injecting an unusual sense of humour: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (a dig at mainstream media failure to cover much of the protests), "This country is beautiful when It gets angry", or "I've been a faggot for 40 years, but I've never seen [unprintable]".

The cleanup by shops on the central pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St. was particularly swift and impressive. The biggest problem was graffiti everywhere – some of it injecting an unusual sense of humour into Turkey’s often self-important politics: “The Revolution will not be televised” (a dig at mainstream media failure to cover much of the protests), “This country is beautiful when it gets angry”, or “I’ve been a faggot for 40 years, but I’ve never seen [unprintable]” (More here).

Istanbul’s demonstrators celebrate victory in Istiklal and Taksim Square

June 2, 2013 12 comments

At dawn of the morning after the night before, a flock of pigeons was picking on the debris from an amazing 48 hours outside my home on Istiklal St, the pedestrian boulevard through the heart of Istanbul. It was littered with trash, broken beer bottles and the odd ornamental tree yesterday’s protestors dragged into the middle of the road to act as a barricade against police forces. A few stragglers were still drifting away from a boisterous all-night celebration in Taksim Square of what they see as their victory over the police and government. Protestors and police apparently have clashed again briefly in at least one place elsewhere in the city, Beşiktaş, but for now things are quiet here, although a tang of tear gas lingers in the air.

By 10am this 2 June, municipality cleaning trucks had got most of the street clean. Vans are coming to restock shops – or perhaps to see if the shops survived. Every few minutes in the blue sky above us, as they did even when clouds of tear gas billowed down the street during the battles yesterday, passenger planes make their final approach to Istanbul airport. But absorbing what happened on 1 June – and getting back to business as usual – is going to take a while longer than that.

What are the long-term implications of having the heart of Turkey’s touristic, commercial and cultural capital captured by young people walking up and down most of the night shouting to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “Tayyip, Resign!”? How impressive is it that these demonstrations spread to half of Turkey’s 81 provinces? Is this the beginning of a new democratic era of brave youth confronting an inflexible authority, or should we focus on an early taste of some frightening anarchy and looting? How much real political water is there behind this dam burst of secular sentiment in Istanbul, a flood which swept the flags of innumerable marginal and not-so-marginal left-wing groups to the heart of Taksim Square? How did a polls-obsessed government misjudge the mood so much? Does an ideology that consists in part of turning Turkey into a country in shopping malls linked by dual-carriageway highways not satisfy the people?

I’m not yet sure about all these big questions, except to note once again that the government still won power in 2011 with 50 per cent of the vote, that it did not order its own probably far more numerous supporters out onto the streets of this city of more than 10 million people, that its cementing over of green spaces is nothing new in Turkish urban planning, and that under this administration, the parks and roadside flowers have looked better than anything previously. And for once in the first three days of the demonstrations themselves, the security forces and police, however excessive their use of tear gas and despite more than 100 people injured, miraculously killed nobody.

So while thinking about those big unknowns, I think I’ll just share some pictures from the Istiklal St scene at about 11pm last night.


The party at the central Taksim monument in Istanbul

Protestors celebrate in front of a Taksim Square flower stall

Protestors celebrate in front of a Taksim Square flower stall

The beer stand

The beer stand

Party time on Istiklal St - many people carried Turkish flags

Party time on Istiklal St – many people carried Turkish flags

The mess

The mess

Amid plenty of superficial damage and cracked display windows, the only shop on Istiklal that was truly pillaged was the pastry shop owned by Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş

Amid plenty of superficial damage and cracked display windows, the only shop on Istiklal I saw that was truly pillaged was the pastry shop owned by Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş

This prortestor wore her riding cap to the demonstration - for all the left-wing party flags, most of the protestors seemed to be middle class folk.

This prortestor wore her horse riding cap to the demonstration – for all the left-wing party flags, most of the protestors seemed to be middle class folk.

Many ATMs close to Taksim were vandalized.

Many ATMs close to Taksim were vandalized.

Protestors seemed particularly focused on attacking and breaking up the worksite for putting Taksim Square traffic into tunnels.

Protestors seemed particularly focused on attacking and breaking up the worksite for putting Taksim Square traffic into tunnels – presumably seeing it as part of the shopping mall complex that the government is still intent on building in some form on the Gezi Park in Taksim.

The door of the French Consulate-General near Taksim. Here a slogan in French declares "Poetry in the Street - 1 June 2013"

The door of the French Consulate-General near Taksim. Here a slogan in French declares “Poetry in the Street – 1 June 2013”

Smiley vandalism

Smiley vandalism

Group claps as an old man draws a picture on the wall of the Paşabahçe glassware shop of republican founder

A group of protestors clap as an old man draws a picture on the wall of the Paşabahçe glassware shop of republican founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Many left-wing slogans have appeared on the Istiklal St. shops - here 'Death to Fascism, the only way is Revolution. (Signed:) The Bolshevik Party"

Many left-wing slogans appeared on the Istiklal St. shops’ blinds – here ‘Death to Fascism, the only way is Revolution. (Signed:) The Bolshevik Party”

Zara hosts graffiti of a slogan with "Istanbul, Byzantium, Constantinople: Istanbul is Ours!"

Zara hosts graffiti: “Istanbul, Byzantium, Constantinople: Istanbul is Ours!”

About a dozen shops had their fronts or display windows broken; remarkably few - I only saw one - had been seriously looted (the one belonging to the mayor of Istanbul)

About a dozen shops had their fronts or display windows broken; remarkably few had been seriously looted (I only noticed one, which belongs to the mayor of Istanbul)

And to end with - the statue of Ataturk on Taksim square, holding a lemon to help him deal with the tear gas

And to end with – the statue of Ataturk on Taksim square, holding a lemon to help him deal with the tear gas

A ringside seat as Istanbul protests

June 1, 2013 21 comments

Living right on Istanbul’s main pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St, 1km south of central Taksim Square and the now legendary Gezi Park, has given me a ringside seat to the wave of unrest that has gripped the city over the past 48 hours.

Police clear street with gas on Istiklal St. near Tunel, c. midnight 31 May, 2013

Police clear Istiklal Street with gas near Tunel, c. midnight 31 May, 2013

At times everything seemed normal, even if the passers-by were fewer than on a usual weekend. Until late last night the music shop opposite was still churning out its usual Istiklal St. dirges. Then a group of protestors entered stage right, retreating from Taksim (slogans included: “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk]”, “You’re all sons of whores”, “Government Resign”, “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism”…), the first of several waves usually  pursued with a strange theatricality by a group of police with an ugly water cannon truck — water from its high pressure hose scattering people like the whip of an angry mythical beast – and a posse of riot squaders. A few explosive pops from the tear gas launchers, and gas would stream out of canisters where they landed, the smoke unfurling in ribbons down the street. At our third-floor height it usually only burns the eyes and nose. We closed the windows for a few minutes before opening them up again for a better look at the next wave of attack and counter-attack.

Police drive back crowd on Istiklal St south of Galatasaray, 11:45 on 1 June

Police drive back crowd on Istiklal St south of Galatasaray, 11:45 on 1 June

Early this morning, all seemed quiet. Municipality cleaning trucks had left the pedestrian precinct immaculately clean, the vans that restock the Istiklal St. shops turned up, and middle-aged north American tourists wandered down in new white sneakers & their pink, plum, and orange cottons, taking in the sights. But there was an odd silence in the street that did not bode well for the day ahead.

At 10am, a first group of protestors came running  down the street, chased by another police patrol spraying water left and right, popping off gas canisters and chasing demonstrators into side-streets. One group who took refuge in a shop got a special, almost casual gassing by passing police. At 10:30am, small groups of demonstrators gathered again. One came from the south, built a barricade outside our building to try to stop the police vehicles chasing them, and then headed off for Taksim. Throughout this, the seller of Turkish simit sesame bagels from a little red nostalgic ‘Beyoglu’ cart remained firmly at his post – doing steady business just meters from where the skeins of gas fumes were floating around. But even he fled at 1:15pm, when the police charged more strongly and fired a dozen gas canisters, some aimed high and sent spinning down this late 19th century boulevard like javelins on a battlefield. Everyone scattered into sidestreets. (My wife Jessica Lutz filmed it, here). Ten minutes later, they were back with even more people filling the pedestrian district, with even more scornful slogans about “Killer AKP” (the ruling party). At 2pm, the police counter-attacked, even more dramatically. The crowd regrouped, its slogans turning into low howls of anger; at 2.45pm the police pushed back again from behind a thick screen of gas. This time they also faced a barrage of stones from some protestors, among the very front lines of which could be seen the red flag of the Turkish Communist Party and even a lone flag of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

At 4pm, after a last flurry of gas canisters near Galatasaray, the police reportedly received orders to allow demonstrators through to Taksim. Gradually the crowd – mostly cheerful, ordinary folk with no obvious political affiliation who filled the breadth and length of Istiklal St’s southern half – moved forward to Istanbul’s central square in celebratory mood.

So what’s new in all this? Social media, for a start. Many of my Turkish friends are glued to their Facebook accounts, sharing pictures of the worst police outrages – a remarkable one shows a policeman dousing a protestor with a device like an insect spray gun, as the protestor holds up a sign saying “Chemical Tayyip” [Erdogan] — and spoof posters like an ad for the “Istanbul Gas Festival”, “We can’t keep calm, we’re Turkish” and so on. The spontaneous look of the small groups of protestors coalescing and dispersing in the street outside is quite unlike the usual formal protests organized by unions and political parties, and lacks the angry, violent edge to the pop-up parades by radical left-wing groups. Mostly young and middle class, they include people in shirts for all Istanbul’s big rival football clubs, young women in headscarves, groups of white-coated medical volunteers, and a young man with a big bag of lemons, selling them to the crowd as an tear gas antidote.

On the other hand, Turkey had the same banging of pots and pans in anti-government neighbourhoods in the 1990s, which was widespread on the Asian side of Istanbul last night; and in my district of Beyoglu, every year or two a big issue brings angry demonstrators and policemen with gas weaponry that is used to clear people away. While the government is clearly rattled this time round, after four days, perhaps the only obvious long-term political consequence I can predict so far is that all this will be remembered when Prime Minister Erdogan launches his expected quest for the presidency in an election next year.

The demonstrations are already about a lot more than sympathy for condemned trees in a street-widening scheme at the Gezi Park, and have taken on a distinctly anti-government tone. Reasons for the protests I’ve heard from friends over the past 48 hours include: a reaction to the ruling party’s focus on building shopping centers everywhere, even in Istanbul’s last patches of green, like the future mall planned for Gezi Park; how the half of the population that didn’t vote for the government resents what it sees as its increasingly high-handed, majoritarian, we-know-best style; among secularists, a sense that the ruling party revealed a Islamist agenda that could infringe its lifestyle with sudden new regulations this month on alcohol consumption (my blog on that here); among the 10 per cent Alevi minority, anger at this month’s choice of Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim’s name for a third bridge over the Bosphorus, since he killed many Alevis; the general feeling that there is little transparency in what the government plans and does, and that the media is under great pressure not to discuss real events or who benefits financially from projects (one mainstream TV program during last night’s was about radiation on Mars!); and above all, a sense of powerlessness, and frustration at the inadequacy of the main political opposition parties, which have left the bulk of secularists of Istanbul with a feeling that they’ve had no real political representation for years.

There’s a lot of talk among my Turkish friends of the Gezi Park demonstrations being a “turning point”, and today it feels that way, with growing numbers of demonstrators in the streets, many cities in Turkey protesting in sympathy, and the unscripted nature of proceedings. Normal patterns have been drastically changed in recent days, not just in  traffic but also in many peoples’ lives. Phone calls with friends in the center are often about “my street is all mixed up now, can’t talk for long”. If anyone gets killed, rather than 100 or so already injured, that will sharply escalate the situation. Here’s hoping the government manages to handle the next 24 hours more sensitively than the last. A good first move would be to get some traction by letting state television give a full version of events – currently, people are consuming a diet of wild rumors and partial views on social media, which can only add to the current escalation.

Turkey’s anti-alcohol cocktail of intrigue, dodgy licenses and moral rectitude

May 23, 2013 6 comments

I got a surprise yesterday at lunch at the restaurant round the corner from my office, where I’d agreed to do a book talk for half a dozen of the city’s journalists from Spain. The surprise was not so much that each of them graciously bought a copy of Dining with al-Qaeda. (This makes Spain my country of the week!) Rather, the shock was caused by what suddenly was not on the menu, in one of the touristic hubs of Istanbul.

The pavement tables are back, but the booze has gone.

The pavement tables are back, but the booze has gone.

“Beer?” asked a Spanish TV correspondent, newly arrived in Turkey from China.

“Maalesef (sorry),” said the waiter.


“Can’t do it.”

“But here …”

“It’s the new law.”

So the axe has fallen at last. Or has it? I could see the Spanish reporter looking at the menu in puzzlement, not yet used to the way that in Turkey, what you see is not always what you get. I think I’m accustomed to that after 25 years in Istanbul. When I read in the papers that parliament in Ankara is talking about new laws, for instance, I assume it will make little difference to my daily life, or at least not anytime soon. Yes, the new law said that alcohol can’t be sold within 100 meters of a mosque or educational building. But I thought there had been an ordinance like that since Ottoman times, and that it was evidently unenforceable.

This latest edict has got the bar and restaurant crowd running scared, however.

“I paced the distance myself,” said the son of the establishment’s owner. “We’re 70 meters from a mosque that way, and less than 100 meters on the other side.”

“Did you get a written order to stop serving drinks?”

“No, we saw it on TV. We’re trying to work out what to do … This will mean quite a loss.”

Indeed, it’s not just this restaurant under the Galata Tower that may suffer losses from the new law now awaiting approval by the president, and which also foresees a ban on shop sale of alcohol between 10pm and 6am and a complete ban on advertising (see Today’s Zaman on its acceptance by parliament on 24 May, here). It looks like being in Istanbul may — officially at least — really get a bit more bracing and clear-headed for everyone.

Dov Friedman's map of the district of Beyoglu, with the 100m from a religious establishment and school shown in red

Dov Friedman’s map of part of downtown Beyoglu, showing in red which streets are less than 100m from a religious establishment and school

Pro-government newspapers disingenuously present the change as the adoption of either European rules or a 100-yard law that New York apparently has too (see Sabah, here); apparently the law will only apply for new licences. But just because the late leader Turgut Özal gave Istanbul a 212 dialing code two decades ago doesn’t make the two places the same. New York is a place designed on entirely different scale to the jumbled maze of inner Istanbul. Perhaps some spots in the historic central mahalles are more than 100 meters from a school, mosque, church or synagogue, but these look like pretty obscure dead angles on a map speedily drawn up by Turkey pundit Dov Friedman here.

I hardly ever drink anything at lunch, and I don’t want to be defined by alcohol consumption. But I’d certainly like to have the right to order a beer if I wanted in this multinational heart of Istanbul. (Postscript: I should add that many parts of Turkey today don’t have the European culture of drinking alcohol in public places, and most people in the country don’t drink it anyway – the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development says Turks drink one seventh to eighth the average intake of Americans and Europeans!) I also wondered too whether the new law was also the reason that my local supermarket recently ran down its stocks of wine, which new taxes and exploitative wineries have been making steadily more expensive in recent years.

“We’ll fix the problem”, the owner’s son said, in that vague tone of “it’ll all be fine” fatalism that plagues so many projects in the country. After all, the law’s regulations will probably exempt tourism areas. Turkey may be a religious-minded place, but there are limits to how much damage any government can do to business. Also, at a next-door-neighbour restaurant – still serving alcohol, but worried about the effects of the new ban – the head waiter thought that in fact my usual restaurant had never had a full alcohol licence, hence its owners’ extreme caution now.

Whatever the exact truth of this particular case, the anti-alcohol drive is unquestionably gathering momentum. I accepted a serving of my delicious foamy yoghurt-and-water ayran, the age-old Turkish refreshment that the prime minister recently announced is now Turkey’s national drink. This new title was a clear swipe at the heady old aniseed liquor, rakı, the lions’ milk beloved of republican founder Kemal Ataturk and the national drink for many other secular-minded Turks.

Camel owners in western Turkey toast each other on the eve of a camel wrestling tournament. Photo by George Simpson

Camel owners in western Turkey toast each other with rakı on the eve of a camel wrestling tournament. Photo by George Simpson

Devout Muslims, of course, believe alcohol is banned by the Qoran. But one of the endearing characteristics of the Turks is that many would take offense if someone said that occasional indulgence in it made them any less Muslim than the rigorously abstinent.  Indeed, I told the group from Spain that when I wrote Dining with al-Qaeda I tried to minimize using the word “Islam”, preferring the more individual “Muslim”, since interpretations of what Islam means vary so much between persons and countries. But the arrival of the anti-alcohol campaign on our street corner may mean that a decade after the Justice and Development Party came to power, I may at last have to start conceding that the government does sometimes have an Islamic religious agenda. Indeed, justifying the government’s measure to his party on 28 May, Prime Minister Erdoğan said there was no question of banning alcohol but asked “why do people respect a law made by two drunkards [presumably, republican founders Ataturk and Inonu], but feel the need to reject a law ordered by religion?”

As my new Spanish book club and I philosophized over fine lentil soups, spicy kebabs and soft Turkish pide pizzas, however, I wondered again. Maybe this anti-alcohol gambit is just a clever political smoke screen to hide new Byzantine intrigues. Presidential elections are in the offing, a daring constitutional change is in the air, and the government’s Syria policy has provoked much unease. The opposition is gaining a little traction. At similar junctures in recent years, the prime minister has briefly distracted the national agenda and made gestures to his core constituency with “Islamic” initiatives about divorce, abortion, headscarves and the like. He seemed in similar form in support of the anti-alcohol campaign, waxing rhetorical about saving a generation from being one that “drinks day and night and wanders around in a haze.”

A couple of years ago, after all, the government banned outdoor tables from the pavements of Beyoğlu, despite scuffles with angry restaurant owners. Now, as if nothing had happened, the tables that don’t get in pedestrians’ way are back on the street, including outside my local restaurant. It’s democracy, Turkish style: the government shoves, the people push back and the state re-adjusts — but only so much. With small steps those at the top can keep advancing a cause, and ten years in power, after all, is a long time.

Other informative stories on this question can be found here, focused on the drop in Turkish beer companies’ outlook by Bloomberg’s Benjamin Harvey, and here, by the Wall Street Journal’s Emre Peker about reactions to the ban. 

POSTSCRIPT: The restaurant mentioned at the top of this article did in fact finalise its alcohol licence a few months later – despite it’s proximity to a mosque – under a provision to encourage touristic establishments. So all’s well that ends well there, especially since it now serves draft Guinness. But farther from the touristic beat, I suspect that the new puritanism is still spreading.

Lawrence of Arabia – the Lost Critic and the Legend

February 28, 2013 Leave a comment
A poster of Lawrence's portrait defaced on an Istanbul street with the words "English Spy"

A poster of Lawrence’s portrait (advertising an Orientalist exhibition in Istanbul) defaced with the words “English Spy”

The one thing I couldn’t persuade the publishers of Dining with al-Qaeda to change as we edited the text was their leading phrase in the jacket-sleeve blurb, which referred to the author as “Following in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia …”

In January, for the magazine The Majalla, I finally got to write down the full reason why I felt a reference to Lawrence wasn’t appropriate for a book like mine, which is in large part about how difficult it is to set facts straight about the Middle East. I’ve complained about modern journalists who claim to be strictly reporting what happened and yet do not always stick to the non-fiction high road (more here). “Faction” is of course not uncommon – some books of Ryszard Kapuściński were so light-footed they were dubbed “magical journalism” (more here). To be sure, both Kapuściński  and Lawrence appear to have told their friends that they were not trying to recount plodding facts. But the problem for me remains that most people don’t realise that, and most publishers are not in a rush to tell them.

Lawrence of Legend

The lost critic and the legend of Lawrence of Arabia

Hugh Pope’s discovery of a long forgotten book; Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry by Richard Aldington unravels the hype and fabrication behind the Lawrence story.

The Majalla, 28 January 2013

T.E. Lawrence (left) and American publicist Lowell Thomas

T.E. Lawrence (left) and American publicist Lowell Thomas

When I was spending summer afternoons copying Arabic lettering off the blackboard at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, I would often catch myself staring out of the dull, aluminum-framed windows. Where were the sweeping skylines pricked with minarets, the romantic deserts, the bustling bazaars of my imagined Middle East? Where were the clash and drama of newspaper coverage of wars and revolutions? Much of the Arabic syllabus seemed to peter out around the time of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and their takeover of the Arab World soon thereafter. Strangely, it seemed to me, even Britain’s extraordinary twentieth century moment in the Middle East was almost never discussed in my university classes.

In those days, soon after the publication of Edward Saïd’s Orientalism, our teachers were also determined to avoid the Orientalist label. Sweeping vistas were out. The fashion was for minute, detailed study of manageably small events and narrow themes—and, for me, those impossible-looking curves and dots scratched in chalk on the blackboard. One result was that I began to nurse a secret love of the breezy memoirs and letters of the British who passed through the history of the East and could write well about it: Lady Wortley Montague, dragomans and ambassadors; or officials like John Bagot Glubb (dubbed “Glubb Pasha”), Sir Mark Sykes and Sir Harry Luke, even a glossy vision of Iraq that leaped from the pages of the 1955 yearbook of the London-based Iraqi Petroleum Company, a treasure I discovered on an upper floor of Baghdad’s old book market.

The most glamorous of them all, of course, was T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—and his voluptuous literary feast, theSeven Pillars of Wisdom. This promised and delivered “the sweep of the open spaces, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight and the hopes.” Before going up to Oxford I had bought a copy of this account of the 1916–1918 Arab Revolt. I thrilled to his desert guerrilla raiding as a semi-amateur British army officer, his seamless acceptance into a different world to which I aspired to belong. I admired his promotion of the oppressed Arabs’ cause, and the selfless sacrifice of his status when London betrayed their promises of Arab independence. This work seemed to be considered almost pornographic by the Oriental Institute dons, but since we never studied the period or discussed the book in any depth, I never learned why.

Actor Peter O'Toole studying for his part in the film Lawrence of Arabia

Actor Peter O’Toole studying for his part in the film Lawrence of Arabia

Then one recent day in Edinburgh, I came across the plain black cover of the first edition of Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, a book I had never heard of. Here, in the folds of what I judged was measured prose, was concealed a jeweled dagger of a polemic. It led me into a whole world of debate about the Lawrence story—the great film, the (lack of) sex, his genius, his psychology—of which I am no scholar. But Aldington’s arguments did ring startlingly true as he portrayed Lawrence as one of my bugbears, a writer who exploits the confusion and magical reputation of the Middle East to play fast and loose with the facts.

Aldington was ambitious, seeking to deconstruct “the legend of Lawrence,” and to prove that key parts of his work were “heightened, exaggerated, faked, boastful and sometimes entirely without foundation,” making the British hero “at least half a fraud.” Even Lawrence’s trade-mark blowing up of Hejaz Railway trains, he said, was just “a wartime intensification of a constant peacetime nuisance,” and what other British and French officers equally proficient in such guerrilla actions lacked “was literary skill to write up their achievements.”

Aldington acknowledges that Lawrence’s lyrical description of the march to capture the Red Sea anchorage of Al-Wajh is “one of the admired set pieces of Seven Pillars,” with much singing, bouncing camels and barbaric splendor. But he then notes that Lawrence brought his men up two days late for the fight, during which British navy ships and men did the real fighting while the Bedouins hung back or looted. As for the ramshackle capture of the Red Sea harbor town of Aqaba—“another Gallipoli,” according to Seven Pillars—it had been done twice before in the war.

Later, the final British race through Palestine to Syria in 1918 was won thanks to old-fashioned bludgeoning by General Edmund Allenby’s main army columns, with Lawrence and his light raiders at most slightly distracting the Ottoman-German command with skirmishing on the desert flanks. It is sickening to read Aldington’s indictment of the massacres of retreating Ottoman and German troops by Lawrence and his Bedouin irregulars, even if Lawrence admitted the slaughter. As for the great price on his head that Lawrence suggested was offered by his enemies, Aldington can find no evidence for it—nor indeed any mention of Lawrence in any of several accounts published by German or Ottoman officers who served in the Arabian peninsula.

Aldington also challenges a central pillar of the Lawrence legend. Lawrence told one of his biographers, Basil Liddell Hart, that “since about sixteen years of age [he had been] filled with the idea of freeing people and had chosen the Arabs as the only suitable ones left.” Later, Lawrence said he resigned from government service because Britain betrayed promises forwarded by him to the leaders of the Arab revolt, or as he puts it in Seven Pillars, “an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia.”

An indisputably great photo by Lawrence of the Arab army on the march

An indisputably great photo by Lawrence of the Arab army on the march

Perhaps Lawrence was torn between a pro-Arab commitment and official instructions, but Aldington finds no proof that any authority ordered him to make any promises. Surprisingly, he even finds evidence that Lawrence’s Arabic was far from fluent. While Lawrence and the British faction to which he belonged may have had sincere sympathy for the Arab cause, Aldington believes “these causes were in the main British camouflage for . . . excluding the French.” As Lawrence put it in one letter, British policy should be to “biff the French out of all hope of Syria . . . won’t the French be mad if we win through?”

Aldington shows too the extraordinary degree to which Lawrence—not known to public opinion during the First World War itself—was catapulted to fame due to a delayed-action trick of US wartime propaganda. An American team out to boost morale, reporter Lowell Thomas and photographer Harry Chase, had tried the Western front but there, as Aldington puts it, “the drab butchery . . . did not lend itself either to thrilling photography or to eloquent narrative.” The pair then hit upon the idea of the Arabian front, where they found a ready and photogenic Lawrence.

Poster shotThe resulting show, eventually entitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, was only ready in 1919, after the war was over. After a modest beginning in New York, the lecture tour became a sensation in the English-speaking world, with two thousand performances over four years. It was a true feast for the Orientalist imagination. In London, the promoters borrowed a “Moonlight on the Nile” scene from an opera set, a Dance of the Seven Veils was performed, and an Irish tenor off-stage sang a musical version of the Muslim call to prayer. Aldington says this was irresistible to a British public still in shock from the war:

What was now wanted was a success story, and who could give it better than an American, for whom success is a national duty? The technique was hardly understood at all in England, where advertising seldom rose above a flat monotony of uninventive mendacity—‘Ponsonby’s Picklesare the Best’ . . . Anyone who has seen a Japanese judo expert throwing hundredweights of London policemen about a stage will realize what Lowell Thomas did mentally and emotionally with those naïve British audiences.

The spectacle’s focus on Lawrence went so far as to include an inaccurate film subtitle stating that Lawrence dynamited the Hejaz Railway while other British officers remained at base. Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom followed, published in various public editions from 1926 onwards. In the introduction, Lawrence strikes a modest pose:

My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy. In reality I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them.

But for all Lawrence’s later denials, Aldington painstakingly shows he was deeply involved in helping Thomas create the show that put him front and center. As Lawrence told Thomas, “History isn’t made up of truth anyway, so why worry?”

Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 22.10.30

Richard Aldington

Aldington says he began his commission with no particular feelings about Lawrence. Aldington was a minor poet of the 1910s imagist school, dedicated to replacing romantic abstractions with exact observed detail and apt metaphors, and one of sixteen First World War poets commemorated in London’s Westminster Abbey. He had also edited a literary magazine, written a successful novel based on his grueling years in the trenches of the Western Front, and published a prize-winning biography of the Duke of Wellington.

Yet publication of his unexpected findings about Lawrence gravely damaged Aldington’s reputation, book sales, and health. Britain was not ready to see its only hero to emerge from the morass of the war toppled, and many disapproved of his revelation of Lawrence’s probably “humiliating and painful” feelings about his illegitimate birth. When Aldington died in July 1962, seven years after publishing his Lawrence book, his obituary in The Times said he was “an angry young man of the generation before they became
 fashionable; he remained something of an angry old man to the end.” It called his attacks on British middle class values “shrill” and suggested that his Lawrence of Arabia book would be “better forgotten.”

And forgotten it was, a mere footnote now in the Lawrence legend industry. For a few—Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale, by Fred Crawford—it proves how hard it is to attack a national idol. More usually—as in John Mack’s Prince of our Disorder, which won a Pulitzer in 1976—Lawrence remains “a great man and an important historical figure . . . [who] strongly influenced the [war’s] military outcome and the political aftermath.” Mack allows that Lawrence was at times “less than completely accurate” and “had some tendency to exaggerate his role and importance.” But Aldington’s work, he says, was a “flagrant example of the use of psychology . . . for denigrating purposes.”

Michael Korda, author of the most recent biography Hero, says Aldington was “obviously” wrong to dispute Lawrence’s claim that he was offered the prestigious top British job in Egypt after the war. But the proof of this is missing—indeed he implies Aldington was right in a way, saying any such offer was not serious—and Korda exaggerates in saying that Aldington’s “whole case” rests on this “idée fixe.” Nevertheless, Korda dismisses Aldington’s findings as “minor stuff” and a “sad object lesson in the perils of obsessive self-righteousness.”

Still, even Korda allows that “somebody was bound to come along and correct the balance” after the previous biographical “panegyrics . . . without any serious effort at independent research.” And Aldington does not accuse Lawrence of treachery, as one of Lawrence’s loyal fellow officers has suggested. He just draws attention to grandiose misrepresentation of Lawrence’s role, partly due to Lawrence’s own efforts, partly because everyone wanted to believe it.

Some writers on the Middle East have always doped up narratives, shaped up stories for audiences, or appropriated others’ work as their own. Such self-serving sensationalism is hard to expose, since normal people want to trust colleagues, newspapers and government figures—especially those heroically caught up in great events. Fact-checking is also difficult in this tumultuous region, and few in the Western audience can compare what they read with personal experience. It is precisely these generations of repeated inaccuracies that have widened the gulf of understanding between the region and Western public opinion.

Aldington was bravely ready to show that reality counts, and paid a great price for showing that a fabulous legend was an extraordinary but hyped-up story. No wonder those Oxford academics preferred digging up matters that are buried in a deep and less sensitive past.

Categories: Musings

La Syrie de la famille Assad dans ‘Rendez-vous avec al-Qaeda’

April 23, 2012 2 comments

Benoit Léger

Benoit Léger, qui traduit Rendez-vous avec al-Qaeda (Dining with al-Qaeda) en français, m’a envoyé cet extrait de son travail en cours. Benoit a déjà traduit de manière spectaculaire mon livre Fils de conquérants : Le monde türk et son essor qui a apparu l’an dernier (cliquez ici pour le voir sur, ou ici pour la maison d’edition, Presses de l’Universite Laval).



Chapitre 13.

Républiques royales et monarques démocrates

extrait traduit par Benoit Léger (en cours, avril 2012)

Je retournai en Syrie un an plus tard, en 2001, dans l’espoir de donner aux lecteurs du Journal des nouvelles du printemps de Damas. Le docteur Bachar avait fait fermer une tristement célèbre prison du désert et libéré six cents prisonniers politiques; il avait aussi autorisé l’ouverture d’une première école privée. Le parlement avait voté de nouvelles lois qui légalisaient les banques privées et protégeaient le secret bancaire. Des mesures étaient prises pour libéraliser les règlements douaniers et celles portant sur les devises étrangères qui étouffaient le commerce depuis si longtemps. Les antennes paraboliques envahissaient également le paysage urbain de Damas.

L’un des symboles de cette période était un hebdomadaire rempli de caricatures du nom de Al-Doumari (« L’Allumeur de réverbères »). À son apparition en 2001, il se vendait en une heure à plus d’exemplaires que les trois indigestes journaux d’État réunis. Les Syriens n’avaient rien vu de tel depuis l’interdiction de la presse privée, trente-huit ans auparavant.

Je m’adressai à un vendeur de journaux en regardant prudemment derrière moi :

— Vous n’avez pas peur de vendre ça?

— Les gens n’ont plus peur. Nous voulons entendre des critiques et avoir finalement quelque chose de bien. J’en ai commandé cent exemplaires cette semaine, mais j’en ai demandé cinq cents pour la semaine prochaine.

Même si, dans les pages de ce pittoresque magazine, la satire n’était pas des plus féroces et s’en prenait essentiellement à la corruption la plus évidente, l’idée même d’une publication échappant complètement à l’autorité de l’État était inconcevable. Je trouvai les bureaux d’Al-Doumari dans un quartier riche habité par la classe moyenne. Ali Farzat était à la fois le propriétaire, l’éditeur et le rédacteur en chef. Vêtu d’un jean soigneusement repassé, il arborait une épaisse barbe et affectionnait les gros cigares cubains. Farzat affirma que c’était Bachar Al-Assad lui-même qui l’avait encouragé à créer son hebdomadaire sept ans auparavant, mais, même si Bachar était alors le fils du président et était désormais chef d’État depuis un an, les lois concernant la presse n’avaient changé que tout récemment.

— Quand le premier numéro est sorti, j’ai appelé le docteur Bachar, raconta-t-il. Il était très heureux de la nouvelle; il aime ce genre de choses.

— Mais le gouvernement tient encore le pays par la peur! insistai-je.

Farzat s’enfonça dans son fauteuil et mit les bras au-dessus de sa tête comme pour se protéger des coups qu’on pourrait lui donner, puis il éclata de rire.

— Nous vivons dans une nouvelle ère. Bachar aime les initiatives, il les respecte. Il aime les arts et les sciences. C’est un homme jeune. Il a un plan en tête et il le met en place, étape par étape. Les réformes finissent par s’imposer d’elles-mêmes, c’est comme avoir besoin de respirer.

Trois mois après que Bachar eut pris le pouvoir en juin 2000, quatre-vingt-dix-neuf personnalités influentes lui avaient écrit pour demander plus de libertés publiques. En janvier 2001, ce furent mille politiciens et réformateurs qui allèrent encore plus loin en exigeant que l’état d’urgence en place depuis quarante ans soit levé. Pendant cette période, affirmaient-ils, « la société a été profanée, ses richesses ont été pillées et son destin, mis entre les mains de tyrans et de gens corrompus ». Il semblait que quelque chose était bel et bien en train de se passer en Syrie, mais plus je creusais, plus je découvrais que les choses n’avaient guère changé.

Le régime avait étouffé dans l’œuf le mouvement des forums formés d’intellectuels de tendance gauchisante. Le docteur Bachar, qui avait donné le feu vert à la tenue de ces forums de dialogue national, les avait soudainement dénoncés comme étant des « exercices intellectuels stériles » en expliquant à un quotidien arabe qu’il fallait que les Syriens « évitent de donner l’occasion à ceux qui cherchent à devenir des leaders d’exploiter ces forums » et que « la stabilité et l’efficacité sont plus importantes pour le développement du pays que la vitesse ». Une dame de la bonne société avait été prise à faire circuler un courriel représentant le chef de l’État dans une union inconvenante avec le président libanais et avait été incarcérée.

Dans le premier numéro de l’Allumeur de réverbères, Farzat avait évoqué la possibilité d’un remaniement ministériel, ce qui, en Syrie, constitue une manière détournée de se débarrasser d’anciens ministres corrompus. En privé, il me confia que ces gens-là « profitent de la peur, comme des pillards après un tremblement de terre. » Pourtant, la une du numéro suivant avait fait preuve de plus de réserve en publiant un article sur l’éducation mixte dans une lointaine province située au bord de l’Euphrate. « Est-ce que cela constitue de l’autocensure? » demandai-je.

Devant nous, le dernier numéro montrait le dessin d’un homme qui marche dans la rue en regardant nerveusement derrière lui et qui se rend compte avec inquiétude que l’agent des services secrets armé qui le suit n’est que sa propre ombre.

— Nos articles n’ont jamais été interdits, mais il y a des règles à respecter. Nous ne pouvons pas nous en prendre à l’armée, ni nous lancer dans attaques personnelles. Comme partout, il y a des limites à ne pas franchir. Les secrets d’État, par exemple.

À ce moment-là, un Libanais en uniforme arborant une épaisse barbe noire passa la tête dans la porte. Je remarquai qu’il portait un pistolet à la ceinture. Il embrassa Farzat sur les deux joues; les deux hommes causèrent comme de vieux amis, puis il s’avéra que le Libanais cherchait en fait quelqu’un dans le bureau voisin.

— Qui était-ce?

— Aucune idée! fit Farzat en riant. Mais c’est exactement ce que notre magazine signifie. Nous représentons la rue, la rue syrienne. Nous nous en prenons à des aspects des traditions de notre société, par exemple quand un invité s’installe et reste trois jours et qu’on ne demande pas d’explication et qu’on ne sait pas pourquoi. On ne peut pas vivre de cette manière en permanence. C’est dans notre propre société que se trouve la cause de notre oppression, pas dans le gouvernement.

C’était pourtant de l’oppression du téléphone que Farzat souffrait (à l’instar de nombreux bureaux syriens, le sien n’avait pas de secrétaire), tout comme son frère qui venait de l’appeler de l’imprimerie appartenant à l’État. Tout avait été payé d’avance, mais les ouvriers avaient stoppé les presses. Farzat négocia, tenta de les amadouer en promettant un gros pourboire et les presses redémarrèrent.

Il y eut un autre visiteur : un jeune collaborateur de l’hebdomadaire qui avait fait des heures d’autocar pour venir toucher son salaire de quinze dollars. L’homme accepta de me parler, mais dans la rue et tout en marchant. Nous parcourûmes donc le quartier qui embaumait le jasmin et dont les fières demeures aux angles arrondis remontaient aux toutes premières années, après que le pays eut obtenu son indépendance de la France, en 1944.

— Notre pays est en train de s’éveiller en matière de culture, mais nous avons encore peur, m’expliqua-t-il en s’assurant qu’il n’était pas suivi par un policier. Pour les intellectuels, l’Allumeur de réverbères est aussi léger qu’une bulle de savon. C’est un symbole qui montre que le gouvernement parle beaucoup, mais ne fait rien.

Les censeurs du Ministère de l’Information ne semblaient pourtant pas des plus menaçants. Leurs bureaux se trouvaient au haut d’un immeuble vieillissant connu sous le nom de « Palais du Baas ». La façade était en travaux depuis des années et, à l’intérieur, les rénovations progressaient de manière irrégulière. Les fils nus pendaient dans les couloirs et le faux plafond avait perdu certains de ses panneaux. Sur les armoires, les piles de dossiers poussiéreux étaient maintenues ensemble par de la ficelle. Les bureaux des censeurs étaient recouverts de montagnes de journaux et de magazines. « Du thé? » fit l’un d’eux.

Ils avaient tous étudié dans une région ou l’autre de l’ancien bloc soviétique et se réjouissaient d’avoir l’occasion de bavarder et de partager leur conviction quant au complot américano-israélo-sioniste qui empêchait la Syrie d’avancer. Deux des censeurs venaient de familles qui avaient perdu leur maison dans la Guerre des Six Jours, lorsqu’Israël s’était emparé du plateau du Golan, soit une importante portion du pays que l’État hébreu occupait encore, au sud-ouest de Damas. L’un d’eux avait participé à la plus récente manifestation devant l’ambassade des États-Unis.

— Le seul problème, c’est que n’avons pas trouvé de pierres à lancer, fit-il avant d’ajouter pourtant : J’espère que L’allumeur de réverbères va prendre des forces et devenir quelque chose d’important, mais pour l’instant il a l’air un peu démuni.

Les censeurs n’étaient pas sans savoir que le magazine, tout comme les entreprises syriennes, ne jouissait d’aucun droit. Farzat n’avait que gagné une faveur individuelle et provisoire auprès du chef de l’État. Tout le monde semblait connaître sa place dans le pays. Les rares partis politiques autorisés, pris dans un « front » contre le Baas depuis des décennies, avaient été autorisés à publier leurs propres journaux, mais leurs combats semblaient n’avoir pas changé depuis qu’ils avaient été tous fermés en 1963. Dans le nouvel organe du parti communiste, l’éditorial se résumait à un exposé à valeur didactique portant sur la lutte des classes et qui s’étalait sous le slogan simpliste de « Travailleurs du monde entier, unissez-vous ». La renaissance du journal The Unionist, relique de l’éphémère union de la Syrie avec l’Égypte dans les années 1960, était encore plus incroyable : il faisait sa une d’une photographie de Gamal Abdel Nasser, le légendaire président égyptien mort depuis 1970.

Il était donc normal que les censeurs s’en soucient peu. Les vrais opposants, eux, s’en tiraient beaucoup moins bien. C’était le cas de Riad Seif, le politicien syrien le plus critique envers le régime. En ce printemps de 2001, nous pûmes encore nous voir dans son bureau moderne. Les yeux de ce franc-tireur brillaient; il avait tout récemment tenté de briser le monopole que la famille Assad exerçait sur le très lucratif secteur de la téléphonie cellulaire.

— C’est dangereux! Ils m’ont mis en faillite, raconta-t-il.

— Qui ça, « ils »?

— Les baasistes! Il n’y a pas de concurrence, pas de vitalité; ils n’ont pas d’idéologie avec laquelle se défendre. Dans les années 1950, les membres du Baas étaient tous des idéalistes, maintenant ce ne sont que des opportunistes. Leur cerveau s’est encroûté au point qu’ils croient leurs propres mensonges.

— Comme quoi?

— La sécheresse dure depuis deux ans; les fermiers n’arrivent pas à rembourser leurs prêts, il n’y a pas de travail dans les provinces et le chômage est un problème très grave. Contre tout cela, l’Allumeur de réverbères ne vaut pas mieux qu’une aspirine. Il n’y a toujours pas de base politique en mesure de s’attaquer aux véritables causes de la corruption; il n’y a pas d’organisations populaires, pas de véritables syndicats, pas de partis d’opposition. La séparation des pouvoirs n’existe pas, ni la liberté de presse.

— Qu’est-ce qu’ils vous ont fait pour avoir parlé ainsi?

— Ils nous mettent le couteau sous la gorge et le laissent là. Les gens qui me soutiennent sont très discrets; personne ne veut courir de risques. Certains de mes amis ne m’appellent même plus. Je suis devenu isolé, mais ça ne veut pas dire que je n’ai pas de soutien. Les intellectuels sont bien décidés à continuer. Ces quelques mois où nous avons joui de certaines libertés, où nous avons pu nous exprimer en nous débarrassant de certains tabous, nous avons vraiment aimé cela. C’est difficile de réapprendre à être discret. Nous ne sommes plus en 1980 : il y a Internet, la télévision satellite. Les Syriens ne font que semblant d’être des moutons.

Sauf que Seif se trompait en prédisant que les Syriens allaient sérieusement se révolter. Ils avaient peut-être raison d’être prudents, compte tenu des quatre décennies où le pays n’a pas connu de véritable vie politique. L’exemple de l’Irak allait plus tard montrer les périls qui attendent un pays lorsqu’une dictature est renversée, mais que la population n’a aucune idée de la manière de profiter de sa liberté. De toute façon, le régime syrien n’avait manifestement pas l’intention de procéder à des changements autres que cosmétiques. Après avoir discuté de ma semaine passée dans le pays, Bill Spindle et moi-même en arrivâmes à la conclusion que rien n’avait assez sérieusement changé en Syrie pour justifier un article dans le Wall Street Journal.


En 2002, deux ans après la prise du pouvoir par Bachar, Damas avait meilleure allure : les magasins semblaient mieux approvisionnés en produits importés, les restaurants étaient mieux éclairés, les gens étaient mieux informés et même les vieilles colonnes et les rues du souk Al-Hamidiyeh, le plus important de ville, faisaient l’objet de délicates restaurations. Les autorités répétaient que, si tout le monde faisait preuve de patience, les choses allaient vraiment changer. En janvier de la même année, dans son discours sur l’état de l’union, le président Bush avait classé la Syrie parmi les pays de « l’axe du mal »; j’étais convaincu qu’il avait tort. Je retournai voir Ali Farzat dans ses bureaux pour voir comment la lente lutte de son magazine pouvait symboliser un possible réveil du pays.

Je m’assis en compagnie de Farzat qui agita une feuille de papier : le gouvernement avait décidé que l’Allumeur de réverbères ne pouvait plus vendre que 14 420 exemplaires, et il lui fallait désormais passer par le réseau de distribution de l’État. Il s’emporta :

— Je dois vendre trente-cinq milles exemplaires pour rentrer dans mes frais! Il devrait y avoir des règles pour nous permettre de fonctionner comme une maison d’édition privée. Ils nous envoient ça sans prévenir, sans discuter. Ils se contentent de dire que la distribution doit passer par eux et ils exigent quarante pour cent des profits. Comme si le secteur privé travaillait pour l’État! Et en plus ils forcent toute la publicité à passer par l’Organisation de la publicité arabe qui appartient au gouvernement et qui prend vingt-sept pour cent des bénéfices! Ces gens-là ne font absolument rien et le gouvernement ne m’achète pas de publicité non plus.

— Vous ne pouvez pas vous plaindre? Vous adresser au docteur Bachar?

— Même le ministre de l’Information refuse de me parler au téléphone.

— Je connais ce genre de problème…

— Je ne sais plus quoi vous dire. Ce que nous publions a une influence sur les gens et nous visons les responsables, alors les gens qui craignent d’y perdre trouvent des moyens de lutter contre la nouveauté. Nous devons trouver de nouveaux moyens de faire avancer notre culture. Ce journal n’est pas que notre réussite, c’est celle du pays; c’est un symbole de développement. Il n’aurait pas dû s’arrêter si tôt…

Je poursuivis ma tournée, hésitant que j’étais à renoncer. J’appris ailleurs que, six mois plus tôt, Riad Seif, le courageux politicien de l’opposition, avait organisé une rencontre réunissant quelques centaines de militants prodémocratie. Il avait été ensuite jeté en prison et allait y rester plus de quatre ans. Un diplomate américain expliqua que le régime n’était plus mené par « l’homme fort », mais plutôt par le « grand mensonge » : de l’extérieur, le pays semblait l’endroit le plus stable de la planète, mais à l’intérieur, le régime se débattait chaque jour pour se maintenir.

Bien sûr, à l’instar de toutes les dictatures du Proche-Orient qui carburent à l’or noir, la Syrie ne changeait pas vraiment, entre autres parce que le pétrole représentait soixante-dix pour cent de ses revenus d’exportation. Il en allait de même en Iran : tant que le régime aura les moyens d’acheter le soutien de sa base politique, il pourra se maintenir en place. Les chefs d’État toléraient la corruption, car, en l’absence de toute légitimité populaire, ils pouvaient se fier à la loyauté des ministres corrompus. Tout comme en Union soviétique, qui fonctionnait grâce à une économie de ressources semblable, la dissidence était tolérée tant qu’elle ne représentait pas une menace directe. Inversement, un pays tel que la Turquie qui dispose de peu de ressources naturelles, n’a d’autre choix que d’être plus pluraliste, plus ouvert et plus démocratique puisqu’il lui faut chaque semaine emprunter sur les marchés national et international.

Je rendis visite à Haïtham Maleh, un vieil avocat qui, de son appartement remontant à l’époque coloniale dans le centre de Damas, s’obstinait à demander des comptes au régime. L’une des caractéristiques de la dictature syrienne était le fait que peu de jeunes songeaient même à lutter pour les droits de la personne. Sans plate-forme à l’échelle nationale, Maleh menait son combat en rencontrant des diplomates ainsi que les correspondants venus des pays arabes ou d’ailleurs. Il faisait parvenir à Bachar des missives soulignant les contradictions entre ce qu’affirmait la constitution et l’application des lois d’urgence. Il me montra la copie d’une ordonnance secrète selon laquelle les fonctionnaires n’étaient redevables que si leurs supérieurs l’autorisaient. Maleh était assis sous la tapisserie élaborée qu’il avait tissée en prison. L’idée que les États-Unis pourraient un jour réellement aider quelqu’un comme lui à faire avancer la démocratie en Syrie (ou ailleurs au Proche-Orient) le fit rire :

— Tous nos dictateurs sont des produits des États-Unis. C’est parce que les Américains ont intérêt à n’avoir qu’un seul interlocuteur pour régler leurs affaires. Dans notre cas, ils nous ont fabriqué un puissant dictateur fasciste, alors qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire?

Effectivement, au cours des mois qui avaient suivi le 11 septembre, la rhétorique américaine à l’égard de la Syrie était redevenue menaçante. Je passai devant une boutique qui proposait le damas si élégamment tissé; j’y allais souvent à l’époque où j’étais étudiant et c’est là que j’avais acheté la soie turquoise et scintillante dont ma femme avait fait sa robe de mariée. Je me souvins des balles et des rouleaux de tissus qui s’empilaient dans les années 1980 et formaient de véritables cascades d’or, d’argent et de vermeil, mais il n’en restait plus que quelques pièces. Le propriétaire, un Kurde, se plaignit que son commerce était moribond puisque les agences de voyage réduisaient au minium leurs arrêts dans ce pays réputé difficile et corrompu et que les touristes n’avaient plus le temps de faire les boutiques.

Sept ans plus tard, en 2009, l’importun Riad Seif ne serait toujours pas autorisé à sortir du pays pour faire traiter son cancer de la prostate. En fait, il avait été renvoyé en prison. L’état d’urgence décrété en 1963 était toujours en vigueur et des centaines de prisonniers politiques croupissaient en prison, dont plusieurs de ceux qui s’étaient fait connaître au cours du printemps mort-né de Damas. L’Allumeur de réverbères avait lutté pour sa survie pendant trois ans avant de finalement disparaître en 2003; l’histoire aurait pu donner lieu à un papier dans un autre quotidien que le Wall Street Journal qui ne croyait pas que les Américains souhaitaient entendre parler d’un autre échec. Les rédacteurs en chef préféraient les histoires optimistes. Après avoir fait le tour en ma compagnie d’une autre semaine perdue à faire des entrevues, Bill Spindle trancha : « On laisse tomber la Syrie, Hugh. Ça ne marchera pas. Ce n’est pas ta faute, mais le pays n’a pas changé alors il n’y a pas d’article à écrire. »


En février 2003, trois ans après le grand changement qui n’avait jamais été, je traversai une fois de plus la Syrie sur le chemin de l’Irak. Il me fallait me présenter au bureau de contrôle des frontières des moukhabat, les services secrets de « l’Intelligence » syrienne, oxymore qui fait les délices des mauvaises langues dans l’ensemble du Proche-Orient. Mon chauffeur me déposa au bout d’une longue file de barricades qui menait à un complexe entouré protégé par de hautes murailles de béton. Il était impossible de savoir quels services secrets syriens, de tous ceux dont le pays dispose, étaient logés à cet endroit. À la guérite, j’expliquai ma mission à un agent en civil, kalachnikov à l’épaule. À l’époque où j’étais étudiant à Damas, on voyait de tels gardiens devant les demeures des membres de l’élite et, le soir, une arme se pointait parfois vers moi avec méfiance quand je passais trop près.

— Vous connaissez le chemin? demanda le gardien.

Il aspira une autre gorgée de maté grâce à la paille de cuivre. Cette boisson est devenue particulièrement populaire auprès de minorités telles que les Druzes et les Alaouites depuis que certains de leurs membres ont immigré en Amérique du Sud pour fuir la pauvreté et les persécutions de la part de la majorité sunnite. Boire du maté est désormais un signe d’émancipation.

— Bien sûr que non, rétorquai-je.

Il m’indiqua le chemin d’un ton péremptoire et me lâcha dans le complexe des services de sécurité. Je cherchai mon chemin dans les rues envahies par la verdure de ce qui, à l’époque coloniale française, avait dû être un charmant alignement de villas. Elles étaient désormais plus ou moins laissées à l’abandon et la végétation était en voie de reprendre ses droits. La maison banale que l’on m’avait indiquée n’avait qu’un étage et semblait dans le même état de délabrement. À l’avant, l’eau s’écoulait du bassin d’une fontaine à la céramique verte et sale. Les ailes de la villa semblaient sur le point de s’écrouler et les carreaux de plusieurs fenêtres étaient brisés, mais, en arrivant dans la cour, je vis les signes d’une restauration en cours. Trois camions militaires russes se trouvaient là, ainsi qu’une camionnette dont un essieu était cassé. J’eus l’impression d’arriver chez le commandant d’une unité rebelle qui venait tout juste de s’emparer d’un poste avancé au fin fond d’un pays du tiers monde et non d’une branche de l’exécutif d’un gouvernement en état de marche. L’idée qu’un pays aussi délabré puisse préoccuper les stratèges américains me parut tout à coup complètement absurde.

Du haut des marches, quelqu’un cherchait à attirer mon attention. À l’intérieur, deux salles avaient été aménagées pour l’homme que j’étais venu rencontrer : le colonel Suleyman, à l’éclatante veste bleue à carreaux et à la molle poignée de main. Dans un coin, deux adolescents assis sur un canapé (l’un d’eux était le fils du colonel) jouaient avec un téléphone cellulaire Samsung dont ils tiraient de temps à autre une musique exaspérante qui résonnait dans la salle. Le colonel leur jetait alors un regard indulgent. Il fit servir du café, puis nous nous attelâmes à remplir les papiers. Il se fit une joie de m’expliquer que je me trouvais dans sur une base des services de renseignement militaire. Il s’empressa également à m’annoncer qu’il était un chrétien appartenant à l’Église syriaque. Je connaissais bien le cœur de cette ancienne religion qui se trouve en Turquie et je fus frappé du paradoxe : la Syrie était l’ennemie de Washington, essentiellement à cause des coups bas qu’elle avait portés à Israël et à l’Occident et à cause de sa dictature; la Turquie, elle, était l’alliée des Américains, et ce, pour différentes raisons, dont son caractère démocratique et ses liens avec Israël. Pourtant, en Turquie, un chrétien comme le colonel n’aurait jamais pu parvenir à un tel poste d’autorité. En fait, grâce aux efforts déployés par Ankara depuis près d’un siècle pour arriver à la pureté ethnique et religieuse, il ne reste pour ainsi dire plus de syriaques en Turquie. Le colonel chrétien illustra encore mieux le paradoxe : selon lui, c’était à l’idéologie arabe, nationaliste et laïque du Baas qu’il devait sa réussite, alors qu’elle était tant vilipendée par les États-Unis. La Syrie, avec sa mosaïque de groupes ethniques, était selon lui la société du Proche-Orient qui était restée le plus fidèle aux usages d’autrefois dans la région. Il est vrai que la première fois où j’ai vécu à Alep, je passais régulièrement devant la boutique d’un Arménien d’âge moyen qui pressait encore dans ses lourds moules de métal cet antique symbole de l’époque ottomane : le fez rouge et sans bord, orné d’un gland.

Puisque je me rendais en Irak, pays dirigé par un autre parti Baas et que les États-Unis s’apprêtaient à envahir, je demandai au colonel Suleyman de m’expliquer la différence entre un baasiste syrien et son cousin irakien.

— Oh, il y a une énorme différence, rétorqua-t-il comme s’il s’agissait de comparer le Nigéria et la Suisse; ils sont de droite, nous sommes de gauche. Nous sommes plus ouverts d’esprit. Et notre chef est Bachar Al-Assad!

Il me fit remplir d’autres formulaires. Le paradoxe du prénom apparemment masculin de ma mère fit encore une fois nos délices; l’éducation de son fils nous donna du souci. Le colonel prit également le temps de répondre à un appel, se contentant de décrocher, d’écouter, puis de raccrocher. J’attendais poliment d’être relaxé. Le temps s’était arrêté.

Mes yeux tombèrent sur le téléviseur posé sur un meuble ornementé, devant une bibliothèque dépourvue de livres. La télévision syrienne diffusait en direct depuis le parlement où Bachar s’adressait aux députés et à la population. Nous le vîmes se lancer dans la série de commentaires spontanés caractéristiques du style « proche du peuple » qui lui donnaient l’allure d’un patriote radical, ou potentiellement d’un populiste.

Normalement, les affiches syriennes montrent cet ophtalmologiste formé en Angleterre dans la pose d’un Hamlet considérant l’état du monde d’un regard attristé, courroucé par les injustices et, peut-être (et seulement peut-être) fourbissant ses armes. Le colonel avait plutôt opté pour un portrait inhabituel de Bachar dans la pose d’un cruel tyran : complet noir, lunettes sombres et visage de marbre. Ailleurs, ceux qui n’étaient pas convaincus par l’ambigüité du président oscillant entre être et ne pas être, lui joignaient un portrait de son père, Hafez, qui, bien que mort, n’en affichait pas moins un air dur et résolu. Ou encore un portrait militaire du dauphin présumé de Hafez, Bassel, mort lui aussi, mais décédé bien avant son père, dans un accident de voiture alors qu’il roulait à tombeau ouvert afin de prendre l’avion. Grâce à ce sinistre triumvirat formé du père de la Syrie, du fils et de l’esprit, le régime cherchait à donner l’illusion que le pays était mené par les durs à cuire de cette région du monde. Il s’agissait ainsi de mettre en garde quiconque aurait l’idée de comploter contre la tribu Al-Assad ou contre son pays. Suleyman montra l’écran du doigt : « Regardez le docteur Bachar, fit-il avec admiration. Il parle sans même un discours écrit d’avance. On voit qu’il est intelligent. »

Je songeai que Bachar était lui aussi un prisonnier, un peu comme tout le monde en Syrie, mais me tins coi. Les Syriens, y compris le colonel qui me congédiait gaiement d’un geste, voulaient encore croire que le passage d’un Assad à un autre signifiait que les choses allaient s’améliorer dans leur vie politique si mise à mal. Mais il était indéniable qu’il faudrait du temps.

The Assads’ Syria: one year on, ten years on, thirty years on …

April 20, 2012 4 comments

Buy from

Syria was the first country in the Middle East I got to know well more than three decades ago. I loved much about it. But my experiences – retold in the first chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda – seem fully part of the continuum being acted out today.

For instance, on my first visit in March-April 1980, I was trapped in the northern city of Aleppo when Syrian troops ringed the town and started searching for regime opponents quarter by quarter, house by house. For three days gunfire echoed through the night and in the mornings truckloads of frightened citizens, sometimes still wearing their pyjamas, could be seen crowded helplessly in open trucks on their way to impromptu interrogation and torture centres in half-finished buildings on the outskirts of town (Dining with al-Qaeda, pp 1-10).

Then followed the Assad crushing of the Hama in 1982 with some 10,000 dead; Lebanon’s problems from the Syrian occupation of part of that country; and finally the controversy over Syrian links to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Given the impunity Syria mostly enjoyed, I’m not surprised that the Assad family thinks it hasn’t used up its nine lives yet, even if I remain amazed at how Syria has for so long seemed to live all its many lives simultaneously.

The way time stands chaotically still in Syrian matters reminds me of the early 2000s, when I was a reporter who kept trying to find a story that would illustrate the idea (then thought possible) that Syria might be turning the corner towards a more open, pluralistic society. One possible subject for the story was Ali Farzat, a notable caricaturist in Damascus. The story didn’t work out – nothing much was going forwards in Syria. But ten years later, I was shocked see that this same turbulent stasis had sucked in Farzat, when thugs beat him for perceived disrespect for President Bashar al-Assad. Luckily he mostly recovered, as CNN tells here.

Syrian caricaturist Ali Farzat tells CNN attackers beat him for 45 minutes "so that you don't challenge your masters ... Bashar's foot is on your head ... one said, 'beat his hand so that he can't draw'"

Here’s how the Syrian world of Ali Farzat appeared to me – by turns tragi-comic, brutal and charming – in some excerpts from Dining with al-Qaeda’s Chapter 13: REGAL REPUBLIC, DEMOCRATIC KINGS: Syria, Jordan and the dimensions of dictatorship. (pp 202-210).

I was back in Syria a year later, in 2001, keen to update Journal readers on the fate of the Damascus Spring. Dr. Bashar had closed a notorious desert jail and released six hundred political prisoners. He had allowed a first private school to open. Parliament had passed new laws to introduce private banks and to protect banking secrecy. Steps were being taken to liberalize the currency and customs regulations that had choked Syrian business for so long. Satellite television dishes spread thickly across the Damascus skyline.

One symbol of this era was a caricature-filled weekly magazine called al-Dumari, the Lamplighter. When it appeared in 2001, it outsold the entire print run of the three turgid state-run daily newspapers in an hour. Syrians had seen nothing like it since thirty-eight years before, when private newspapers were banned.

“Aren’t you scared to be stocking this?” I asked at a newsstand, looking over my shoulder.

“There’s no fear anymore. We want to see criticism, something good at last,” the newspaper seller said. “I ordered one hundred copies this week, but I’ve asked for five hundred for next week!”

Ali Farzat, 2001

Even though the colorful Lamplighter’s satire was light, and mainly directed against obvious corruption, the idea of a publication entirely outside state control seemed unbelievable. I tracked down the magazine’s offices to a well-off middle-class neighborhood. The owner, publisher, and chief editor, Ali Farzat, had a full beard, neatly pressed jeans, and a taste for big Cuban cigars.

Farzat said he’d been encouraged to found the weekly by Dr. Bashar seven years before, but even though Dr. Bashar was then the president’s son and had now been president for a year, the press laws had only just changed.

“I rang up Dr. Bashar after the first edition hit the streets. He was very happy,” Farzat said. “He loves this kind of thing.”

“But Syria is still ruled by fear!” I insisted.

Farzat hunkered down in his chair with his head under his arms as if protecting himself from being beaten, then laughed.

“There is a new period that has started. Bashar loves initiative, he respects it. He loves arts and sciences. He is young. He has a map in his head and he’s implementing it step by step. Reform is something that imposes itself, like the need for oxygen.”

Three months after Dr. Bashar took power in June 2000, ninety-nine opinion leaders wrote to him asking for more civil liberties. The following January, one thousand politicians and reformists went farther and demanded an end to four decades of martial law during which they said “society was desecrated, its wealth plundered, and its destiny commandeered by tyrants and corrupt people.” It seemed like something was on the move in Syria. But the more I looked into what had re- ally changed, the less I found.

The state nipped in the bud a movement of left-leaning intellectual home discussion groups. Dr. Bashar, who had given a green light for these National Dialogue Forums, now suddenly criticized them as “futile intellectual exercises,” telling an Arab newspaper that Syrians should “avoid the possibility that the process of advancement is exploited by seekers of leadership. It is more important for development to be stable and effective than to be rapid.” When a society lady was caught distributing by e-mail a caricature of the Syrian leader in unseemly union with the president of Lebanon, she was detained. In the first issue of Lamplighter, Farzat suggested that there might be a cabinet reshuffle, which, in Syria, is discreet code for getting rid of corrupt old guard ministers. In private, Farzat told me these people were “profiting from the state of fear, like thieves after an earthquake.” Still, his next issue’s front page was more careful: an article on coeducation in a distant province on the Euphrates River.

“Does that count as self-censorship?” I asked.

On the cover of the latest issue in front of us was his drawing of a man walking down a darkened street, looking nervously over his shoulder and worriedly realizing that the armed secret service agent on his tail was his own shadow.

“None of our stories have been stopped. But there are conditions for the newspaper. There can be no opposition to the army, no personal attacks. Like everywhere, there are red lines, like state secrets,” he said.

Just then, a Lebanese man in uniform with a thick black beard put his head around the door. I registered that he had a pistol tucked into his belt. He kissed Farzat on both cheeks and they chatted like old friends until it turned out he was looking for someone next door.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“No idea!” Farzat laughed. “But this is exactly the kind of thing the magazine is about. What we are representing is the street, the Syrian street. We criticize things about the traditions of our society. Like when you get a guest who stays for three days and you don’t ask why, and you don’t know why. You can’t spend your time that way. The oppression we suffer is within our society itself, not the government.”

Farzat was constantly being oppressed by the telephone—as in many Syrian offices, there was no secretary—as was his brother, who was on the line to the state printing house. Although everything had been paid up front, the printers had stopped the presses. He wheedled and negotiated. A big tip was promised. The presses started rolling again.

Another guest was one of his young contributors who had traveled for hours by bus just to pick up a pay packet of $15. The man would talk to me only while out- side and on the move. So we strolled through a jasmine-scented district whose confident curved houses dated back to the first flush of Syria’s 1944 independence from France.

“Syria is waking up culturally. But we are still frightened,” the contributor said, looking around to see if his shadow was a policeman. “For intellectuals, the Lamp-lighter is as light as a soap bubble. It’s a symbol of how the government is talking a lot but doing nothing.”

For sure, the censors at the Ministry of Information didn’t feel much of a threat. Their office was on a high floor of an aging office block known as the Palace of the Baath. Work on a new façade had been proceeding for years, and renovations were in fitful progress inside. Wires dangled loose in the corridors and the false ceiling was missing slats. Metal filing cabinet doors hung open. Stacks of dusty files on top of cupboards were tied together with string.

“Some tea?” one censor asked me from behind one of half a dozen desks piled high with papers and magazines.

Everyone in the room had studied somewhere in the former Soviet bloc, and all welcomed a chance to chat and communicate their convictions about the Zionist-Israeli-American plot to hold Syria back. The families of two of them lost homes in the Six-Day War when Israel captured the Golan Heights, a significant chunk of Syria that Israel still occupies southwest of Damascus. One had taken part in the latest demonstration outside the U.S. embassy.

“The only problem was that we couldn’t find any stones to throw!” he said, but confided, “I hope the Lamplighter strengthens into something special. But right now, it looks a bit weak.”

The censors knew that the magazine, just like Syrian business franchises, was not exercising any right. Farzat had merely won an individual and temporary favor granted by their ruler. Everyone seemed to know his or her place. Syria’s few legal political parties, locked in a “front” with the Baath Party for decades, had been allowed to start publishing their newspapers too. But they seemed to be fighting the same battles as before they were all closed down in 1963. An editorial in the new organ of the Communist Party was a didactic exposé of class war under the Rip Van Winkle–esqe motto “Workers of the World Unite.” Even more amazing was the reappearance of the Unionist—a relic of Syria’s short-lived political union with Egypt in the early 1960s—featuring a front-page news photograph of legendary Egyptian leader Jamal Abd al-Nasser. He died in 1970.

No wonder they gave censors little trouble. Real opponents fared much worse, men like Riad Seif, Syria’s most outspoken opposition politician. That spring of 2001, we could still meet in his modern office. He was bright eyed then, a maverick who had just dared to challenge the Assad family’s control of lucrative cell phone licenses.

“It’s dangerous. They bankrupted me!” he said. “Who’s they?” “The Baathists! There’s no competition, no vitality, no ideology with which to defend themselves. The Baathists in the 1950s were all idealists. Now they are opportunists. Their brains have calcified. They believe their own lies.”

“Like what?”

“There’s been a drought for two years, farmers cannot pay back their loans, there are no jobs in the provinces, and unemployment is a huge problem. Against all that, the Lamplighter is just an aspirin,” Seif told me. “There is still no basis for fighting the roots of corruption, there are no popular organizations, no real unions, no opposition parties, no separation of powers, no free press.”

“What’s happened to you for speaking like this?”

“They put the knife on the neck and leave it there. My supporters are very silent people. Nobody likes to take a risk. Some friends don’t phone me anymore. I became isolated. It doesn’t mean I’m not supported. The intellectuals are determined to go on. These months of breathing some freedoms, expressing ourselves by getting rid of some taboos—we enjoyed it. It’s difficult to go back to being humble. It’s not 1980. There’s the Internet, satellite TV stations. The Syrians are just playing at being sheep.”

But Seif was wrong that the Syrians would rise up in any significant way. Perhaps they were wise to act cautiously, given the country’s forty-year absence of political experience. The subsequent example of Iraq showed the danger of knocking out a dictatorship when a population had no idea how to exercise freedom. In any event, it was clear that the Syrian regime had no intention of anything more than minimal change. Bill Spindle and I discussed my week’s reporting and decided that there was too little change to justify publishing anything in the Journal.

Ummayad mosque from the Souq al-Hamidiyyeh

Back in Syria in the spring of 2002, two years after Dr. Bashar’s takeover, Damascus felt better. Shops seemed fuller of imported goods, restaurants were more brightly lit, people were better informed, and even the ancient columns and street of the main Souk al-Hamidiyeh were undergoing a sensitive restoration. Government officials insisted that if everyone would only be patient, change was now really on its way. In his State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush had categorized Syria as part of an “axis of evil.” I felt this was wrong. I went back to Ali Farzat’s office to see whether his magazine’s slow struggle might now epitomize a possible reawakening in Syria.

When I sat down with Farzat, however, he waved a piece of paper in front of me. It informed him that the government had decided that the Lamplighter could sell no more then 14,420 copies. And all had to go through the government distribution system.

“To cover our expenses I have to sell thirty-five thousand copies! There should be rules to allow us to work as a private press. They issued this with no warning, no discussion. They just say: We have to distribute it. And they want to take a forty percent cut. It’s as if we, the private sector, are producing for the state. Then they have ordered all ads to go through the government’s Arab Advertising Organization, which takes a twenty-seven percent cut. They do absolutely nothing, and the state gives me no advertising at all!”

“Can’t you complain? What about Dr. Bashar?”

“Even the minister of information refuses to see me or to talk on the phone.”

“I know how that feels.”

“What can I tell you? Our research affects people, hits those responsible. People who fear their interests will be damaged find ways to fight innovation. We need to find a new way to push our civilization forward. The newspaper isn’t a success just for us, but for the country itself. It is a symbol of development. It should have gone farther.”

I continued on my rounds, reluctant to give up. I learned that six months before, Riad Seif, the brave opposition politician, had organized a meeting of a few hundred democracy activists. He was thrown into jail, where he would remain for more than four years. An American diplomat told me the regime was no longer about the Big Man, but the Big Lie: Outwardly the most stable place in the world, inwardly scrambling to save itself every day.

Of course, like all the oil-fueled dictatorships of the Middle East, one reason for the lack of change was that oil supplied 70 percent of Syria’s export income. The situation was similar in Iran: As long as the regime had enough money to bankroll its support base, it could survive. Leaders tolerated corruption because, in the absence of popular legitimacy, corrupt ministers could be relied on to be loyal. As in the Soviet Union, which had a similar resource-based source of funds for the regime, dissidents could be tolerated as long as they mounted no direct challenge. On the other hand, a country like Turkey, with few natural resources, is forced to be more pluralistic, open, and democratic, since it has to borrow money every week from domestic and international markets.

Haitham Maleh, 2002

I paid a call on Haitham Maleh, an elderly lawyer who still insisted on holding the regime to account from an old colonial-era apartment building in the heart of Damascus. It was a feature of Syria’s dictatorship that few young people bothered fighting for human rights. In the absence of domestic publicity, Maleh pursued his cause meeting with diplomats and Arab and international correspondents. He sent Dr. Bashar letters pointing out the contradictions between Syria’s constitution and its emergency laws. He waved a copy of a secret ordinance showing that civil servants could be brought to account only if their superiors permitted it. Sitting under a piece of elaborate embroidery he had done in jail, Maleh laughed at the idea that the United States would ever really help someone like him promote democracy in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.

“All our Arab dictators are made in the USA. It’s because the U.S. just wants one person to talk to, to get their business done. Here they’ve made us a very strong, fascist dictator. What can we do about it?” he asked.

Indeed, in the months after September 11, the rhetoric from the United States toward Syria had grown threatening once again. I passed by a shop that sold elaborately woven Damascus fabrics, which I used to visit often as a student, and from which I bought the sparkling turquoise silk that my wife used to make her wedding gown. I remembered in 1980 how the bolts of cloth formed a rippling wall of golds, silvers, and scarlets. Now just a few rolls remained, and the Kurdish owner complained that his business was nearly dead. Tour agencies minimized their stays in difficult, corrupt Syria and the tourists no longer had time to shop.

By 2009, the opposition gadfly Riad Seif was still not being allowed out of the country to have his prostate cancer treated. Instead, he was sent back to jail. The 1963 state of emergency was still in force and hundreds of political prisoners remained confined, including many who came to prominence in the stillborn Damascus Spring. The three years of difficulties of the Lamplighter, which collapsed under all the pressure in 2003, might have made a story in another newspaper. But the Journal did not think that Americans wanted to dwell on failure as usual. The editors preferred upbeat narratives.

“Let’s just drop the Syria story, Hugh. It’s not happening. It’s not your fault,” Bill Spindle said after we’d talked through another wasted week of interviews. “Syria hasn’t changed, so we just won’t write a story about it.”

In February 2003, three years after the great change that never was, I was once again passing through Syria. I was going to Iraq and had to report to the border base of the mukhabarat, Syrian Intelligence, that apparent oxymoron that wagging tongues savor all over the Middle East. My driver dropped me at the end of a long series of barricades leading to a compound sealed off by high concrete walls. I had no idea which of Syria’s many secret services this actually housed. At the guard hut, I explained my mission to a Syrian plainclothes agent with a Kalashnikov rifle on his shoulder. When I was a student in Damascus, such guards stood outside the houses of the elite, and at night sometimes suspiciously trained the barrel of the gun on me as I walked by.

“Do you know the way?” he asked me, taking another sip on a brass straw of South American maté, beloved of Syrian minorities like Alawis and Druze. Their communities had picked up the taste after migrations there to escape from past poverty and persecution by the Sunni Muslim majority and now consumed it as a badge of empowerment.

“Of course not!” I said.

He gave some peremptory directions and sent me off alone into the intelligence compound. I wandered through overgrown streets of what in French colonial days must have been a delightful row of villas. The buildings were in various stages of collapse, and vegetation was running riot. The nondescript one-story house pointed out to me had the same tumbledown appearance. In front, water overflowed from the bowl of a fountain with dirty green tiles. The outside wings of the villa were falling down and had many missing windows, but toward the center of the building I saw signs of renovation.

Next to where I stood were three Russian military trucks alongside a white van that had collapsed with a broken axle. I felt that I was visiting the commander of a rebel unit that had just captured some far-flung third-world outpost, not the executive arm of a working government. The idea that such a tumbledown country should ever trouble the strategic vision of the United States seemed absurd.

Somebody was trying to attract my attention from the top of the steps. Inside, two rooms had been fixed up for the man I had to see, Colonel Suleyman. He sported a loud blue-checked jacket and a very soft handshake. Two teenage boys sat on a sofa to one side, one of them his son, playing annoyingly with a Samsung mobile phone that produced irregular, loud bursts of reverberant music. The colonel looked on indulgently. He called for coffee as we began to go through the paperwork. He happily volunteered that I was in a Military Intelligence base.

He also made clear that he was a Christian, a Syriac Orthodox. I knew the ancient center of this faith in nearby Turkey well, and I was struck by a paradox. Syria was Washington’s enemy, mainly because of its below-the-belt kicks at Israel and the West, and partly because of its dictatorship. Turkey was America’s friend, for all kinds of reasons including its democracy and its cooperation with Israel. But it struck me suddenly that no Christian, like this man in Syria, would ever be allowed into a position of authority in Turkey. In fact, there were hardly any Syriacs left in the country thanks to Ankara’s century-long drive for ethnoreligious purity. Taking the paradox one step farther, the Christian colonel believed he owed his luck to the secular Arab nationalist ideology of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, the target of so much U.S. criticism. Syria and its surviving ethnic mosaic could seem the society that had remained truest to the old ways of the Middle East. Indeed, when I first lived in Aleppo, I used to pass by the shop of a middle-aged Armenian who still made that symbol of Ottoman times, the red and tasseled fez, a brimless hat pressed in heavy metal molds.

Fez maker, Aleppo, 1982

Since I was going to Iraq, which was ruled by another Baath Party and which the United States was about to invade, I asked Colonel Suleyman what the difference was between a Syrian and an Iraqi Baathist.

“Oh, very different!” he said, as if we were talking about Nigeria and Switzerland. “They’re rightist. We’re leftist. We’re more open-minded. And our leader is Dr. Bashar!’

We filled in more papers. We savored the paradox of my mother’s apparently male name. We worried about his son’s education. He took time off for a phone call in which he only picked up the receiver, listened, and replaced it. I waited deferentially to be released from my penance. Time stood still.

My eyes drifted back to the television on the ornamental display case in front of a bookshelf with no books in it. Syrian state TV had gone live to parliament, where Dr. Bashar was addressing the deputies and the people. We all watched him launch into a series of off-the-cuff remarks, his trademark I’m-one-of-the-people style that seems to show him to be a radical patriot, or potential populist.

Normally, Syrian posters of the British-trained eye doctor showed him striking the Hamlet-like pose of a man deeply pained by the state of the world, angry at the injustice of it, and possibly, or just as possibly not, gearing up to take revenge. On his wall, Colonel Suleyman preferred an unusual picture of Dr. Bashar in a cruel tyrant pose: black suit, dark glasses, unflinching expression. Elsewhere, people who were unsatisfied by Bashar’s to-be-or-not-to-be ambivalence added a picture of his father Hafez al-Assad, who looked undeniably tough and decisive, even if dead, or a militaristic pose struck by Hafez’s first heir apparent, his son Basil, also dead, killed long before in a car accident while speeding to the airport to catch a plane. With this spooky triumvirate, Syria’s father, son, and holy ghost, the regime wanted to maintain the illusion of being led by the toughest thugs on the block, a warning to any who might plot to take on their tribe or their country.

“Look at Dr. Bashar,” said Colonel Suleyman, admiringly pointing at the TV. “He’s speaking without a written speech. That shows he’s really got brains.”

I thought that Dr. Bashar was a prisoner, a bit like everyone in Syria, but politely said nothing. The Syrians, even Colonel Suleyman as he cheerily waved me off, still wanted to believe that the change from the old Assad to the new Assad meant that something better was on the way in their politically blighted lives. But it was surely going to take a terribly long time.

P.S. The maté straw plays an enigmatic role here in this spoof video example of black, deadpan Syrian humor, mocking the failure of Arab monitors to spot the tanks whose shelling was part of the awful violence in Homs. When activists hacked into Dr. Bashar’s email account, they found that the Syrian president had forwarded the skit to an aide.

Take my money or die

November 3, 2011 1 comment

Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.

The mind boggles at the $63 billion US effort Van Buren describes as he and other Americans of good will and otherwise “helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck”. Arabic translations of American classics are dumped behind schools, bureaucratic programs live and die in fashion cycles of a few months, and short-term photo-opportunities usually beat the occasional focus on long-term problems. And in 2009-2010, Van Buren happened to be there with the cool and independence of mind to note the nonsense down, even as his desert outposts were mortared by insurgents who scorned the “so-called Awakening, a program through which we paid money to Sunni insurgents to stop killing us.”

Van Buren doffs his hat first to the Vietnam-era Dispatches by Michael Herr and to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from the Second World War. There is not the same epic depth to We Meant Well, but van Buren gets close. Chapter after chapter details narcissistic, ill-adapted and commercially impossible American schemes: stillborn facilities supposed to commercialize milk marketing in a country that lacked refrigeration, projects that wish bees on unwilling Iraqi widows and a Potemkin chicken-processing factory that only worked when putting on a show for visitors.

One triumph of absurdity is Van Buren’s team’s efforts to improve something as basic as water supplies and sewage treatment, until, as usual, the project stumbles over a vital but unbudgeted extra item. After all, how would Japanese and Belgian planners and funders know that an Iraqi sewage plant needs machine-gun nests to stop people stealing everything as soon as it is installed? He continues:

“The old saying ‘Any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going’ seemed to apply. Our efforts, well-meaning but almost always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect local work with national goals. Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together (monkeys typing might produce Shakespeare) … You don’t know what you don’t measure, leaving much of our work to have all the impact of a cheap direct-to-DVD martial arts movie.”

Along the way, dissidents like Van Buren were quickly apprised by their peers and superiors of an unspoken rule that they should believe that “you can’t really tell, but we’re winning”. Failing that, they should “stop making a fuss. No one cares about the money, we have lots of money, and not spending it angers people. We all know we are not going to really change much in Iraq, so just do your year in the desert.”

Much of the US effort was hobbled by America’s wish to believe its own preconceptions, formed by high-minded ideology and a willful disinterest in what mattered on the ground. Van Buren finds that Americans running the war effort aimed to “hide the US role and make it seem like all the projects were local efforts, something we made ourselves believe while no one else did”, had the illusion that “Iraqis want to be like us”, and were unwilling to face the possibility that “some people became insurgents not because they lacked fast-food jobs and iPads but because they hated the presence of a foreign invader in their country.”

I found this fascinatingly similar to the problems of US journalistic coverage of the Middle East, which in my book Dining with al-Qaeda I try to show can often be an artificial and misleading hybrid between reality and what Americans want to believe. Van Buren watches a visiting reporter fail to see that the U.S.-funded project he has come to inspect is fake, noting dryly that “it turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story.” The soldiers, of course, are always dutifully upbeat about their duties when speaking to reporters on hand to witness hand-outs to Iraqis. Afterwards, Van Buren reports, the soldiers reveal their real feelings in between spitting chewed Skoal into empty Gatorade bottles: “fuck these people, we give ‘em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.”

The Iraqis had their reasons to be upset. The 2003 US invasion made several aspects of everyday life worse for Iraqis than when Saddam was in charge – at the same time as the US had taken over many of Saddam’s palaces, secret police outposts and jails. Power supplies remain completely inadequate, although the U.S. found solipsistic ways to pretend they had improved; few kids attend rural schools, and even then only for half the previous amount of time, because in the new Islamic Iraq “boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime”. A veterinary doctor points out that “under Saddam we at least got medicines once in a while. Now we are free, but we don’t have medicine.” Or clean water. All this, eight years after the American-ordained era began.

Most interestingly of all, the book gives a deeply satisfying account of what it is like to live on Forward Operating Bases in the Iraqi desert. Unsentimental passages describe the life and language of soldiers (for instance, when frozen shrimpette served in the canteen makes it appropriate to say “we suck less tonight”); how an occasional random project to help Iraqis actually worked (an aging American lady who helped Iraqis with their cows, and the founding of a boy scout troop); the understated companionship of soldiers when one of their number commits suicide; and how the American bases’ sharia-like bans on sex and alcohol were often violated (a graffiti message in the Sri Lankan-cleaned latrines advertises ‘eight-inch cut dude needs rough sex tonight behind gym’.)

Peter Van Buren

Van Buren takes a quietly naïve approach, making his points about the real Iraq through acutely observed detail with a minimum of ideological finger-wagging. But in the acknowledgements, he does drop his guard, a moment of bitterness from a Japanese- and Chinese-speaking foreign service officer who feels profoundly let down by the policy choices of the George W. Bush presidency. In a comment that is, as usual, applicable to matters well beyond those of his professional purview, Van Buren gives in his acknowledgments “not thanks really, but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned it there.”

Tea with the Taliban

November 27, 2010 2 comments

When I was wondering what to call my new book on the broader Middle East, I went to Homer’s bookshop in Istanbul to check out the many shelves full of competition. I soon decided I didn’t want my title to be heavy with dry theorification about Islam, democracy, politics, or terrorism. It also seemed a bit soft to join the romantic set, beckoning readers with images of Persian nights, caravans, deserts, marshes and mountains. But I didn’t want to go to the other extreme with gory high drama. In just recent years, the sanguinary sub-class alone has included dozens of titles like Holy Blood; the Blood of Lambs; the Blood of the Moon; Blood, Sweat and Steel; Blood and Oil in the Orient; and my favorite, The Land of Blood and Honey.

Middle East book titles have to struggle for attention: about 300 come out every year in the U.S. alone. I wanted something that conjured up multiple dimensions, like Stephen Glain’s Dreaming of Damascus (actually about the economics of the front-line Arab states), or Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? (about the Kurds). When I gave up on my first title idea — Mr. Q., I Love You — and settled on Dining with al-Qaeda, I was pleased that I’d featured the Q-word, but in an unexpected way that might draw in a reader seeking the back story. What better way to symbolize the human side of things than breaking bread together? Little did I realize that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that there were already volumes called Dining with Terrorists, The Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Tea with Hezbollah. They have now been joined by Tea with the Taliban: war reporting for beginners.

Actually it’s Thee met de Taliban, since it’s written in Dutch (De Geus, 2010) by Deedee Derksen. It’s fresh and topical, the fruit of Derksen’s past four years living and working in Afghanistan, mostly reporting for the Dutch left-leaning newspaper De Volkskrant. I was particularly interested to see that in some ways she shared my own confusion about the country, especially about the Taliban and women.

Derksen meets women who tell her that life was actually o.k. under the Taliban, and that things had gone downhill since they were driven from power. The bigger problem in women’s lives was violence and chaos. Schools for girls were all very well, but rights were not much use without honest courts to enforce them. As Derksen says: “I would hear from rural women that there was no change in their lives before or after the Taliban” and that, compared to deeper problems like unemployment and power cuts, “Western concerns with cultural matters just poured oil on the flames.”

Derksen’s mission to Afghanistan took flight when her new posting was announced at a public event, at which her Volkskrant editor was challenged about the lack of coverage of the ‘other side’ by Joris Luyendijk, an ex-journalist Dutch commentator known for his iconoclasm about Dutch coverage of Middle East news in his book Het Zijn Net Mensen, recently published in English as Hello Everybody. But she soon finds herself wrapped up in the expatriate whirl of Kabul.

“The crazy thing is that as a war correspondent in Afghanistan it’s not at all easy to get to the war,” she says, despite the fact, as she details, the Pentagon spends an annual $4.7 billion on public relations and employs 27,000 people to supply upbeat pictures and stories for the press corps. One of the Pentagons front-line media handlers digs up Derksen’s file in their computer, along with her picture and an evaluation of her reports. If a reporter is judged to be “negative”, this handler says, the Pentagon will cut him or her off.

She’s judged to be neutral and gets to see a terrifying part of the American side of the war in a distant mountain valley: “that’s it, people: bombs, grenades, and fear so pure that you begin believing in God on the spot”. But she’s frustrated that she can’t hear at first hand what Afghan villages think of what is being done in their name, and worries that maybe she’s giving a one-dimensional, Hollywood rewrite of what people already think the war is. She gets hooked on the idea of getting to the bottom of it all, and of not being like the Westerners in their “luxury jail” in Kabul, who speak about what Afghans think without ever speaking to Afghans. “The more often I went [to Kabul], the more often I wanted to go. It was a sort of gold rush fever.”

Panning for this gold was tough. Travel proved dangerous and the risk of  kidnapping great. Afghan militants targeted Westerners, be they journalists, aid workers or diplomats. Reporting was a juggling act of managing fixers, telephone calls to Taliban commanders, swapping information with local journalists, opportunistic interviews in Kabul with provincial visitors, and occasional sorties into the countryside. Western soldiers appear as almost accidental actors. One Dutch lieutenant studied to be a hotelier and tells Derksen “and then I went and did this.” An American “Major B”, who only “lives in the world of Major B”, gives her bibles to study admits that he is busy trying to proselytize the Afghan population – and then advises her to read Tolkien, “an author at home in the Christian tradition”. She attends a painstakingly arranged town-hall meeting between the American troops and Afghans, at which the Americans rush away before listening to anybody. And, of course, editors all want it summed up in 700 words, with villain and victim clearly identified.

She admits that sometimes, the more she hears about the real Afghanistan war, the less she understands. Reporting one story, “every Mohammad says the other Mohammad is a murderer, which the said Mohammad admits, while pointing the finger straight back. At Mohammad.” There are tales of head-hacking cruelty by the Taliban, for sure, but she attacks the myth of any ideological divide between Taliban and non-Taliban, says non-Pashtuns do not necessarily rule out cooperating with the group and that the Karzai government is in a semi-permanent negotiation with them about its own survival. Above all, she notes that no Afghan faction is necessarily more ‘Islamic’ than another, all having shared in an upsurge in religious extremism and violence during the past decades of war.

Among ordinary Afghans, she finds farmers have little incentive to cultivate more than poppies for opium, since there are no refrigerated stores or roads to transport vegetables or other normal crops. During an attempt to track down the financing of an aid project, she finds that everyone believes a different sum of money is involved. Afghans feel Koran schools are preferable to no schools at all; yet ignorance means that young, poor, illiterate Afghans are susceptible to anything, from acting as suicide bombers to believing that American soldiers’ sunglasses mean they can see straight through you. She reaches one Afghan village to find its conservatism a façade, with everything for sale in secret, from whisky to opium to prostitutes, be they young or old, women or men. “All very hypocritical,” the phlegmatic local Afghan governor tells her.

She shows again and again how the chief ingredient of the Afghanistan war is village feuds, sometimes magnified by Western arms and support into province-wide conflicts that are mistakenly interpreted as being struggles about the fate of the Kabul regime. She finds that storied gunfights between American troops and the “Taliban” can also be described more simply as clashes between the Americans and “armed men who hate the Americans”, fueled in part by a high rate of civilian Afghan casualties rarely admitted to by the Pentagon press machine. Between Afghans, the role of victim and killer has switched so often that everyone is performing in both roles, all waiting for their chance of a sign of weakness to “hold the other’s head under the water.”

Derksen’s strongest criticism is of the Western governments, who ignored Afghanistan for too long and still give it far less support for reconstruction than other post-conflict situations. (In East Timor, she says there was one international peacekeeper for every 65 people; the figure is one for every 5,380 in Afghanistan). The US is blamed for storming in like cowboys in 2001, shooting for al-Qaeda and hiring anyone who would help, however corrupt. “The US and other NATO countries pretend that there is a properly functioning government, but there isn’t”, she quotes a disillusioned American aid worker as saying. “It’s a band of criminals who are raping the country. We pretend that we’re not responsible, but we are.”

Looking at the four-year Dutch misadventure trying and failing to bring peace and development to the province of Uruzgan, she asks whether The Hague had ever thought through what it meant to take their mission into a place where the US was arming and supporting a regional faction that was clearly oppressing many local people – and on whose support the Dutch also relied for their lifeline of convoy-borne supplies. Or was The Hague in fact fully aware of the situation, sending in its troops simply to be a good U.S. ally, and never mind about the fate of the Afghans? The whole disaster, she reckons, was a bad piece of theater that could only be called “War For the Wrong People Against the Wrong People.”

I read much of Tea with the Taliban on a transatlantic flight, and on arrival in the U.S. I did some occasional testing of its findings. Indeed, judging by my straw poll of experiences and conversations over a week, America still seemed to be both aware of and disconnected from the Afghan reality. Shawn, my driver from the airport to a lecture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, knew a thing or two. His best friend was serving on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border, and had just been back home to tell of his experiences. The poor friend was apparently strung out as taut as the trip-wire of an IED, drinking heavily as he told of his ‘seven confirmed kills’, of being administered military drugs to stay awake on night duties, and, in a telling irony, of being unable to see as much from his base watchtower with state of the art night-sight equipment as his Afghan army companion could see with his bare eyes. On top of that, as Derksen often points out, he was utterly sealed off from the Afghan civilian population.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

On the first morning of my visit, the hotel’s complimentary copy of USA Today had just one page of foreign news. Half of it was a story called “Afghan villagers stronger against Taliban” (here). The US general in charge of a province, perhaps in charge of Shawn’s friend, was claiming that a new strategy aimed at making Afghan villages defend themselves was working. This was an interesting claim, given that Derksen shows in her book that it is precisely in the villages that the Afghan war starts and Western influence ends. And, illustrating another of Derksen’s complaints, there wasn’t a single Afghan voice in the piece, let alone a quote from the Taliban, or any sign that the reporter had been able to go to an Afghan village to check out if indeed its inhabitants felt stronger. Instead the report was just assertions by the military, accompanied by a few vague ‘to be sure’ paragraphs, which, if taken seriously, would actually contradict the military claims, and, indeed, the whole point of writing the story. As International Crisis Group says in its new report on Afghanistan: “An alluring narrative of a successful counter-insurgency campaign has begun to take shape, but the storyline does not match facts on the ground.” Or, as a recent call by some of the best writers on and aid workers in Afghanistan put it, “the military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” The only verified new fact in that USA Today report appeared to be the obituary notice naming two more young American soldiers in their early 20s killed by an IED in Kandahar.

Photo: David Gilkey/NPR

(The coverage is not all like this, of course. Much more to the point was another piece done around the same time for National Public Radio’s intrepid Quil Lawrence (here). Jumping from helicopters perilously perched on cliff-edges, Quil laconically reveals the mindlessness of the war and how little communication there is even within the various U.S. groups trying to get a grip on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – let alone between the Americans and the Afghans themselves.)

My other conversations in America did not encourage me to believe that much was about to change. Amherst, I was told by the generous professorial hosts of my visit for an evening lecture about Turkey’s new strategic choices, is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States, with 8000 candidates for 400 places every year. Yet not a single student showed up for a brown-bag lunch organized to discuss journalism and the Middle East. In Washington DC, a highly placed former US official informed me that there was no chance of the US leaving Afghanistan in 2014, as is being publicly suggested. Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not even feature in the recent mid-term election campaign.

If anger about these expensive and damaging conflicts was being expressed anywhere, it was in worsening sentiment blaming all Muslims for the trouble. The Moroccan immigrant who drove me away from Amherst was sanguine about his personal safety, but said that the real enemy was ignorance, the problem that writers like Derksen and I are trying to combat with books about Middle Eastern realities on the ground. “I came to the U.S. to be a guide to the Moroccan pavilion at Disney world, and that’s the kind of place where you really find out how little people know about what goes on outside America,” he said. “One person looked at me and asked if in Morocco we lived in the trees.”