Fresh Apricots – A Prison Story

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Saydnaya prison, Damascus, Syria

Nancy Lindisfarne writes:

For forty-six years the Assad regime has ruled Syria with murderous brutality. A measure of this brutality was the quelling of a popular uprising against the regime in the city of Hama in 1982. Assad (the father) bombed and killed some 20,000 Syrian citizens. Or perhaps 40,000 – the violence was so comprehensive and effective that it has never been possible to establish exactly how many perished.

The massacre in Hama and the violence of the Assads’ secret prisons served to terrify the population and kept people quiescent. Until 2011. In the Arab Spring hope was contagious. Syrians rose up to rid themselves of a tyrannical regime.

Internationally, the massacre and prisons were well known. But they were ignored by the US, the Russians and the other international players who found that the Middle Eastern dictatorships served them well. [1]

Horrific photographic evidence of the extent and horror of Assad’s prisons came out in 2015. A former Syrian military photographer known only as Caesar had copied thousands of photographs of the tortured, starved and burnt bodies of prisoners held in Bashar al Assad’s jails. The photographs, the results of Caesar’s heroism, got widespread coverage, including Garance le Caise’s Long Read in The Guardian in October 2015.[2]

What happened then was extraordinary. The photographs – there were thousands of them – were shown to the EU, to US congressmen, and to the UN Human Rights Council, but they were quickly forgotten by the politicians and the mainstream media. Others – outright regime loyalists, and even Bashar al-Assad himself in a long interview published in January 2015 in the American magazine Foreign Affairs, dismissed the photographs as fakes. This tale was spun by others too, like the ‘radical’ magazine Counterpunch, which supported the Russian military intervention on the side of the regime.

Indeed, at a time when the United States, and Russia, the Brits and others, all in their different ways, were supporting the Assad regime, the heart-stopping photographs of dead Syrian torture victims were just plain inconvenient. As Caesar himself commented, ‘The politicians want to turn the page and negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. How did we get to that point?’

Two years further on, after six years of civil war, Aleppo has been destroyed. Close to half a million people have died, the majority killed by Assad’s forces and Russian and American bombers. Among the living, five million are refugees abroad, and many more have been driven from their homes but remain inside Syria. Now, Caesar’s photographs have been rediscovered, and other humanitarian voices are again allowed to be heard.

As Garance le Caisne wrote when Caesar’s photographs were published, ‘When Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, ruled Syria, more than 17,000 detainees disappeared in the late 1970s and the early 80s. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimates that more than 215,000 people have been detained since the start of the civil war, and that in almost half of the cases, none of their relatives have the slightest information about them. By December 2014, the SNHR had succeeded in drawing up a list of 110,000 names.’

The latest ghastly news is from Amnesty International: ‘As many as 13,000 opponents of Bashar al-Assad were secretly hanged in one of Syria’s most infamous prisons in the first five years of the country’s civil war as part of an extermination policy ordered by the highest levels of the Syrian government … Many thousands more people held in Saydnaya prison have been killed through torture and starvation.’

As Caesar said earlier, ‘Before the uprising, the regime tortured prisoners to get information; now they were torturing to kill.’[3]

In 1997, Mamdouh Adwan, the Syrian poet and playwright translated into Arabic a collection of short stories I hd written after my year of fieldwork in Damascus. Al Raqs fi Dimasq was published in Syria before an English version, Dancing in Damascus, came out in 2000.[4]

From day one in Damascus I saw the tyranny of the regime.  But I knew the whole time I was in Syria, and then again when I tried out the stories on friends in Damascus, that for their sake, I could only hint at the fear everyone felt.  As you can see here, the most politically explicit of the stories, ‘Fresh Apricots’, is little more than a bare whisper about a prisoner who has been fortunate enough to be released from the same Saydnaya prison that is in the news now. But though a bare whisper, I also knew every Syrian reader would absolutely understand what I was trying to say.

Caesar’s comment speaks to that fear: ‘Before the civil war, there had been torture in Syrian prisons. Prisoners talked about it after their release. The regime intended these accounts to be told and retold; they wanted them to serve as a warning, so that terror would seep into every household.’ Here is the story:  Continue reading

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A Poem: Good Morning Fortress Europe

By Rouba Mhaissen

My alarm woke me up
It’s 2017
Good morning Fortress Europe
Today is another day
I’ll get randomly checked
At an airport nearby.

Trying so hard to fix my turban
To hide my inherited racial and religious dysfunction:

Not too Muslim
Post-Modern from the sides
Not too Arab
Civilized color to say:
I studied at your universities
That taught me about rights
Exclusive to your peoples.

Not too Syrian
To have fitted on a boat
Not too Migrant
To be stealing your jobs
But silky enough
To have been made by dark hands
In your new-age slave factories

The reception rings: taxi here ma’am
And my bad hijab day
continues
I can’t fix it, goddammit!
It’s 6 am
Try again
And I heard the
Oppressed
Repressed
Depressed
Arab submissive woman in me say:

F* you, I’m Muslim.

As I wrap my hijab
Tight enough for a Syrian
Dark enough for a Muslim
Traditional enough for a barbaric Arab
Thick enough for your prejudices

And if one racist episode
If one Islamophobic feeling
Can turn my morning prayer to a curse
Don’t ask me why
Angry Muslim men
Raised in your systems
Isolated by your fears
Colonized by your whiteness
Liberated by your tax payers money
Flying with bombs over kites
Unemployed by your recessions
Guilty until proven innocent
by your silent-to-tyrants courts
Will turn your colorful
Open minded
Civilized
Modern fortress
Into a nightmare

This morning
And every morning.

Thank you Ma’am, I’ll be right down.

–Stockholm, Feb. 3, 2017.

Are Syrian Men Vulnerable Too? Gendering the Syria Refugee Response

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Syrian refugees in Jordan, 2016

Lewis Turner writes about Syrian refugees in Jordan, He argues that ‘a person is not vulnerable because they are a man or a woman, but because of what being a man or a woman means in particular situations. A refugee response that automatically assumes that women and children are the most vulnerable will do a disservice to the community it seeks to serve.’

(This article was first posted by the London Middle East Institute here: http://www.mei.edu/content/map/are-syrian-men-vulnerable-too-gendering-syria-refugee-response .)

Many humanitarian actors in the Syria refugee response assume that households headed by Syrian women are economically more vulnerable than households headed by Syrian men. Yet the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (U.N.H.C.R.) data belie this claim. The 2015 Vulnerability Assessment Framework Baseline Survey[1] for Jordan shows that a male-headed household is just as likely to be living in poverty as a female headed-household. This example is just one part of a broader trend. Syrian women and children are consistently assumed to be ‘the most vulnerable,’ and therefore become the focus of humanitarian attention in the refugee response. This assumption is so widespread that it is rarely deemed to require justification, and therefore typically goes unchallenged.

This essay examines the place of Syrian men in the refugee response, with a focus on the situation in Jordan. It questions the prevailing understandings of vulnerability, and outlines how the assumption that women and children are ‘the most vulnerable’ affects the distribution of aid and services. The essay demonstrates that, contrary to the perceptions of many in the humanitarian sector, work with refugee men is not only necessary, but can be extremely successful. Syrian men can be vulnerable too. Continue reading

WTF?

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Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write:

Trump’s win this morning has left many of us in despair. To prepare ourselves for what is to come, here are some things we need to understand about class struggle, racism and climate change.

First, this vote is a victory for the far right and for racism on a global scale. Second, it is also partly a class revolt against the consequences of neoliberalism. Trump’s appeal to class anger through racism is a tragedy and an obscenity.

Trump’s racism and sexism matter. In this respect, Clinton was the lesser of two evils. Trump’s victory will unleash a right wing backlash on abortion, and it will be a license to arrest, beat and kill unarmed black men. Government repression of every kind will follow. So will persecution of Muslims, immigrants and refugees. Things will get easier for those who would harass, rape and torture.

Trump’s victory will give heart to authoritarian governments and far right racist parties around the world. It will shift the world to the right.

Trump’s victory is also a class rebellion. Almost every bit of mainstream commentary for months has been class blind. But forty years of increasing inequality has created a very considerable economic and cultural class division in the United States. On the one hand there are those who have done well. They are women and men, black and white, gay and straight. They are the head teachers and police chiefs, the fund managers and Soccer Moms, the college educated managers and professionals. Continue reading

Technology and Inequality

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Nancy Lindisfarne writes – We live in a world mad drunk on technology and political stupidity. Bob Hughes’ new book, The Bleeding Edge: Why Technology turns Toxic in an Unequal World (Oxford: New Internationalist. 2016) says more about this poisonous combination – its causes, consequences, and possible cures – than anything I have previously read. This is an ambitious and important book. The questions Hughes addresses about the relation between equality and creativity – and the converse, why inequality is so stifling of innovation and so destructive of the environment– are extremely pressing.

And they are questions that haunt us. Thinking hard about technology is frightening. Our world is so full of things that most of us don’t understand, perhaps it is better not to look. Continue reading

Don’t Bomb Mosul: The Reasons Why

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American planes bombing Ramadi in October, 2015

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

An assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul by the United States, Iran, the Iraqi government, Kurdish forces and Shiah militias looks imminent. We can expect massive bloodshed and the destruction of most of the city.

Mosul is now held by ISIS. Different estimates suggest that between 600,000 and 1,500,000 people are still in the city. In the last year Iraqi and Iranian forces backed by the US bombs have retaken the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah from ISIS. In both cases, the whole city was flattened by American bombs, and almost all the people became refugees. Those two cities remain destroyed, and almost empty.

Because ISIS holds Mosul, every reactionary power in the world will welcome the bombing. On present form, almost the whole of the European and North American left will do nothing to protest the bombing, and many leftists will support the assault.

The position of most of the left makes us sick at heart. Do Muslim deaths not matter? Continue reading

Abuse Inquiry – Something Smells

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Dame Lowell Goddard

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

Update on 30 September 2016. Yesterday the lead lawyer for the official British inquiry into historic child abuse was sacked, after protesting internally about changes to the workings of the inquiry. So we are recirculating a post we wrote last month. In hindsight, our post is too trusting of Dame Goddard, who now appears to have been trying to narrow the scope of the inquiry. But the general context we provide is still useful. Continue reading