Protestors in Cairo, one of the places featured in Asaad al-Saleh's book. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
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In the Arab Spring, revolution was made by everyday people

Sophie McBain reviews Jonathan Littell's Syrian Notebooks and Voices of the Arab Spring by Asaad al-Saleh.

Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising
Jonathan Littell
Verso, 247pp, £12.99

Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions
Asaad al-Saleh
Columbia University Press, 272pp, £15.95

In March 2015, four years on from the start of the Syrian uprising, researchers at Wuhan University in China published night-time satellite images of Syria taken from 500 miles above earth. In 2011 an arch-shaped constellation of lights connected the cities of Damascus, Homs, Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa and followed the line of the Euphrates River into Iraq. One by one, these were extinguished. Today, 83 per cent of Syria’s lights have gone out. Viewed from the sky, the once-great cities are pinpricks of brightness in a pitch-black land.

It is estimated that over 220,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war and 11 million have fled their homes. Syria is now beyond the reach of most western journalists or outside observers; much of its citizens’ suffering will go undocumented. The story that used to be told about Syria – of how a people rose up against a dictatorship and was crushed – has been obscured by the rise of Islamic State (IS), a group that thrives on lawlessness and glorifies brutality.

IS had not yet formed when Jonathan Littell, a novelist and former aid worker, wrote his Syrian Notebooks. They cover a three-week period from 16 January 2012, when he was smuggled in to Homs, once considered the “capital of the revolution”, by members of the anti-government Free Syrian Army. In the narrative of this war, events of three years ago can seem like ancient history, but Littell wants to “remind the reader that before the nightmare, a nightmare so intense and opaque that it seems to have no beginning, there had been the dream”.

His writings capture a beleaguered but defiant resistance movement that would be crushed within weeks. A few days after Littell left, the Syrian government launched a heavy-weapons attack on the working-class suburb of Baba Amr, on the south-western edge of Homs. It killed roughly 700 Syrian civilians, as well as the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and the French photographer Rémi Ochlik, who died when their makeshift media centre was hit. After one month of bombardment, the Free Syrian Army announced its “tactical retreat” from the district, now reduced to ruins.

It is hard to imagine that the fighters, activists and desperate civilians Littell meets would soon be in some deeper hell. Already, the city of Homs is traversed by shuwar’a el-mout (“streets of death”), in which the Assad regime’s snipers target unarmed adults, children and even unlucky neighbourhood pets. He visits underequipped underground clinics where doctors risk their lives in an often futile attempt to treat the injured, and joins demonstrations and martyrs’ funeral processions populated by “dead men on probation”. The mobile phones of activists are “museums of horrors”, displaying footage of the dead and dying, torture victims and decapitations.

Yet many of the Syrians Littell meets are still motivated by “the dream” – of a country released from dictatorship and free from state brutality. “The political movements are running to catch up and climb on the people’s shoulders,” he notes. He witnesses the first stirrings of the movements that would overpower the people’s revolution: rising sectarian tensions that he believes were stoked by the Assad regime, and a growing jihadist grouping.

His Syrian Notebooks are immediate and vivid, intended as “a document, not a work of literature”. As in any battle, there are lulls – in which Littell describes his dreams or discussions with fighters about the existence of God – followed by bursts of terrifying violence. He has an eye for small, heartbreaking details: the ultrasound scan still in its envelope on the floor of an abandoned flat, the “infinite tenderness” with which a boy strokes his dead brother’s face.

Like the many activists who whip out their smartphones to record each gruesome killing and who risk their lives accompanying him, Littell hopes that documenting the war can serve some greater political purpose. He wants to demonstrate that “all this did not have to be . . . without our callous indifference, cowardice, short-sightedness, things might have been different”. But to what use can we put that knowledge now?

A similar instinct underpins Voices of the Arab Spring, a collection of personal stories from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen gathered by Asaad al-Saleh, an assistant professor at the Middle East Centre at the University of Utah. Al-Saleh grew up in a small town in eastern Syria and left his home country in 2000 after the secret police began harassing him for not having sufficient “security clearance” to teach English literature at the University of Damascus. He hopes that individual, first-person narratives “might force us to rethink certain of our ideas about social, political and cultural change in the Arab world”.

The writers recount their experiences of the first anti-government uprisings in 2011. Al-Saleh wants to show why and how so many individuals, from diverse backgrounds and in various countries, engaged in collective rebellion. Many are motivated by abstract ideals – freedom, dignity, social justice – but are not affiliated with any group or ideology. The political movements are still “running to catch up”. Perhaps, like Littell, al-Saleh wants readers to understand that “things might have been different”. Maybe he wants those who lazily conclude that the Middle East is inherently unsuited to democracy to consider how basic the demand for protection from state brutality and for individual freedom is. In any case, his impulse to focus on human stories is understandable: it is easier to write off a nation as a political basket case than it is the people who compose that nation.

The collection suffers from a few weaknesses that al-Saleh acknowledges in his introduction. He struggled to find writers who had opposed the Arab spring uprisings, as they often feared that their views would be too unpopular. Now that Libya, Syria and Yemen are at war, and a new authoritarian regime is entrenching itself in Egypt, I suspect that al-Saleh would have less trouble finding outspoken reactionaries.

“Revolutions are not hatched in smoke-filled rooms or by activists armed with Twitter and Facebook accounts: rather revolutions are made by everyday people who are no longer afraid,” writes Adel Abdel Ghafar, a 32-year-old activist from Cairo. The moment people overcome this fear is so astonishing, it feels magical; at least that is how it seemed to me, observing the demonstrations in Libya in 2011. How else can I describe the realisation that close friends – who had never discussed politics, who had been raised on government propaganda, whom I still mostly remember with a shisha pipe or a cup of moonshine in their hands – would spontaneously throw themselves in front of gunfire to defend some vague ideal?

Small wonder that many of the writers feel their participation in the uprisings, as protesters, doctors, citizen journalists, has changed them irreversibly. “Today is the reason for my existence,” one of them writes. “It activated a part of me that had been dormant for the 37 years I have been Egyptian,” says another. Can this part of a person ever be “deactivated”? In Cairo, where I live, so many people are tired of revolution; so many activists are in jail. On the edges of Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the uprising, barbed-wire barricades stand ready, in case the army needs to block access. In the centre is the square’s newest public monument: a multi-storey car park.

“I am liberated, I am no longer just a single number in the population of Syria,” writes Odai Alzoubi, a 34-year-old philosophy student at the University of East Anglia. It is almost too sad to read the sentence, because in Syria many of the dead will never even become numbers. Their lives, dreams and deaths will disappear in the darkness. Littell and al-Saleh don’t offer any solutions to the crisis, but their humane and sensitive storytelling can at least start to convey just how much has been lost.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.