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

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war