Inside Al Jadid - Editor's Notebook

Former Lebanese Prisoners of ‘Tadmor’ Reenact Dark Days Within Assads’s Medieval Dungeons

The name Tadmor Prison evokes images of one of the cruelest prisons in the world, with its gory history of torture and intense suffering. The prison, which ISIS seized briefly in May 2015, and was retaken a year later by governmental forces under questionable circumstances, holds a dark place in the memories of those forced to live in it during the 1980s under the Hafez al-Assad regime.

Recently, Tadmor has appeared in the news due to a documentary about a group of its former Lebanese detainees. These men have come forward in an act of healing and confrontation, hoping to allow their past to come to terms with their present. Lokman Slim, a Lebanese writer and publisher, and his German wife, Monika Borgmann, a director and journalist, created an intense, eye-opening documentary with their world premiere of “Tadmor.” The film recounts the terrifying torture that took place within the walls of the prison, which, according to Syrian poet Farag Bayrakdar, functioned as a “kingdom of death and madness.” Bayrakdar remains a leading witness to life in the Assads’ prisons, where he spent more than 14 painful years.

The documentary, however, does not focus on the Syrian prisoners, who currently number in the hundreds of thousands, but rather concentrates on 22 former Lebanese prisoners still haunted by their horrific memories. Slim and Borgmann adopt a special format in the film that uses theatrical staging rather than a traditional interview style, with the former prisoners playing themselves in a reenactment that not only testifies as an indictment of the crimes committed against them, but also allows the men to stand together, confronting their past. “Ultimately, the men chose to reenact it,” says Director Borgmann in the film’s Director’s Note, “They wanted to relive it.” In fact, the survivors stepped once more into this dark period of their lives, playing both victims and victimizers for each other, in order to tell their story—a story with which they believe others, like themselves, still struggle to cope. Their performance serves as a form of therapy rather than entertainment.

(The above are edited excerpts from a longer Editor’s Notebook essay to appear in forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016).

In Photos: Left: Directors Monika Borgman and Lokman Slim; Right: A dormitory at Tadmor – the writing on the right reads “To preserve the dignity of citizens.” (Source: BBC)

‘The Morning They Came for Us’: Untold Stories of Syria's Most Vulnerable Victims

Ms. Janine di Giovanni, one of Europe’s most respected reporters, chronicles the hardships inflicted upon adults and children alike, telling tales both gruesome and emotional in her new book, “The Morning They Came for Us” (Liveright, 2016). From her visits to Syria in 2012, di Giovanni gathered stories, speaking with a diverse group of people including pro-Assad nuns, regime doctors, and civilian activists...“The Morning They Came for Us” provides rich content that can be difficult to find in daily news coverage alone. The tales paint a complicated, sometimes counter-intuitive picture. Often times, those suffering do not wish to discuss their situations, whether out of pride or shame...As such, the details of actual victims remain well hidden or outright ignored. However, di Giovanni tirelessly uncovers some of those stories, exposing a reality filled with violence and cruelty….The different accounts, as heartbreaking as they are gruesome, feature people such as Nada, a young woman who grew up near Qardaha, and fell prey to the depredations of the secret police. After her capture, she suffered humiliation, beatings, and whippings, before ultimately being raped….Another man, a student named Hussein, explained how his participation in a peaceful demonstration led to his being horrifically shot, captured, tortured, and then left to die after they cut open his abdomen. The young man claimed that he only survived because a pro-regime doctor took pity on him, declared him dead, and then allowed him escape from the morgue. (The above are excerpts are from a longer Editor’s Notebook essay to appear in forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016).

In photo: Author Janine di Giovanni from (www.france24.com).

Behind Palestinian Museum Delays: Bureaucratic Quarrels and Discordant Visions

With an initial investment of $24 million funding the Palestinian Museum, many attending the opening on May 18th felt surprised by the institution’s lack of art exhibits. The Museum directors had originally scheduled the opening on May 15th to honor Nakba Day, a memorial to the Palestinian “nakba” or catastrophe, and had advertised the opening exhibit, the “Never Part” for almost a year. Thus, the lack of Palestinian embroidery, traditional folk crafts, vintage photographs and collected memorabilia sparked confusion among many of those who attended the event.

With the inauguration of the Palestinian Museum missing its exhibitions, the world media focused on the resulting controversy with headlines such as these: “Palestinian museum opening without exhibits, but creators say that’s no big deal” (Washington Post); “New Palestinian museum missing one thing: all the exhibits” (USA Today); “Palestinian Museum Prepares to Open, Minus Exhibitions” (The New York Times); “New Palestinian museum opens without exhibits” (BBC). Two issues explain the lack of exhibitions and which seem to have fanned the flames of the controversy. The first centered on the political and bureaucratic struggles of groups supposedly dedicated to building a Palestinian state with modern private and public institutions, rising above parochial interests. The second issue which separates the management from the former director concerns two different visions of the museum, one more traditional and the other futuristic, geared toward future generations of Palestinians. Mr. Jack Persekian (the Museum’s previous director and head curator), the original coordinator of the “Never Part” project, planned the exhibit to display personal belongings collected by Palestinian refugees. Mr. Omar al-Qattan (chairman of the museum) represents a more traditional approach, desiring exhibitions to focus on the cultural meaning of martyrdom and the debate over which people inhabited the area first.

Playing politics versus arts and culture does not benefit either group. Museums must have room for both, since the Palestinian people – like every other people – cannot be compartmentalized solely into either the political or the cultural. The totality of the Palestinian experience consists of a plurality of realms which include politics, history, culture, and arts, among many other areas. The immediate question then is how to reconcile or balance between the disparate elements of the Palestinian experience in the new Museum. Museum directors should have supported Persekian in his desire to develop and curate themes and cultural tools successfully adopted by other peoples who fought for their independence from colonial powers. Apparently, they did not. Leaving aside personal bickering as an underlying rationale for the rejection of Persekian and his approach, the possibilities narrow down to the type of traditional thinking that downplays the importance of culture and the arts in changing attitudes and policies.

(The above text is from a longer article in Al Jadid’s Editor Notebook section by Elie Chalala, which is scheduled for Al Jadid Vol. 20, No. 71).

Credits: On the left (Photo and caption from the New York Times): Visitors at the new Palestinian Museum in Birzeit in the West Bank. It will open its doors on Wednesday despite being empty.” On the right (Photo and caption from the Washington Post and Abbas Momani/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images): “Journalists visit the Palestinian Museum in the West Bank town of Birzeit on May 17, on the eve of the museum’s opening to the public.”

Editor’s Notebook in Al Jadid 71/Elie Chalala

“Tadmor”: Film Bears Witness to Survival in the face of Inhumanity’; ‘Palestinian Museum Opens Without Exhibition, Focused Approach’; ‘‘Children of Monsters’: Doomed by Nature and Nurture?’