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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity