A Review of Yassin Haj Saleh's Revolutionary Thought
“We do not gain a reality if we lose a dream.” With those words the Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh ends his sad analysis on the destruction of Tadmur, Palmyra, at the hands of Daesh, or I.S., (the Islamic State) in late May 2015. Although known as the site of a famous ancient city, and a popular tourist destination, Palmyra, or Tadmur as the Arabs know the place (Palmyra will be used from now on), holds different associations for the locals. Rather than thinking of archeological ruins, they tend to think of it as the location of a prison, which the Islamic State slowly and brutally destroyed.
In 1980, Hafez al-Assad ordered the massacre of 1500 prisoners there, and since then, Palmyra has symbolized the kind of nightmarish hellhole that forces Syrian and Lebanese tongues into silence. When I traveled to see the ruins of the ancient city for the first time as an adult, I hallucinated the wailing of prisoners, and, after a short hour, could no longer tolerate the oppressive August heat that pressed itself on my imagination. Still, my touristic paranoia cannot compare to al-Haj Saleh’s horrific experience in Palmyra. Unlike me, he spent his first visit to Palmyra incarcerated in its penitentiary for one year out of the 16 he languished in Assad’s prisons.
Al-Haj Saleh confesses to a “great and private sadness” when he heard news that the Islamic State destroyed Palmyra prison soon after they took over the town. This sadness, which al-Haj Saleh likens to the destruction of his own home, provides a good entry into examining the location of the political in today’s Syria. Against Assad’s collectivization of the people as a “sha’b,” a folk, al-Haj Saleh has been seeking politics in highly personal experiences. After his release from jail in 1996, he has been using a combination of personal narrative and general observation to subvert the system. Since the outbreak of the revolution in March 2011, this idiosyncratic combination has become the hallmark of his political writings.
Syrians know Al-Haj Saleh as a consistent and subversive critic of both the cult of Assad and of political Islamic groupings. For him, these two political types have shared similar strategies, engaging in a campaign against the Syrian people consisting of violence, theft, silencing and bullying. Needless to say, his powerful critique has gained him enemies inside Syria, hell-bent on liquidating him.
By November, 2013, al-Haj Saleh no longer feels safe living in Douma, in the Ghouta of Damascus. He leaves the city and makes his way to his hometown Raqqa on the northern border with Turkey, which, at this time, has been liberated from the regime. His wife, Samira al-Khalil, stays behind, intent on following him upon his safe arrival.
On his way to Raqqa, a journey movingly captured in Mohammad Ali al-Atassi’s documentary film “Our Terrible Country,” al-Haj Saleh receives news that an emerging Islamist group, the Islamic State, recently installed in Raqqa, has kidnapped his brother, Firas. With Raqqa no longer a viable place to live, the refugee intellectual reroutes his journey towards Istanbul. In Turkey, the news reaches him that his wife Samira has been kidnapped in Douma, together with the human rights lawyer and journalist Razan Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hamadeh and colleague Nazim Hamadi. Al-Haj Saleh suspects an Islamist group, The Army of Islam, led by Zahran Alloush (who died in regime attacks last year) to have kidnapped them.
Since then, al-Haj Saleh has reformulated the autobiographical elements in his life, in their poignant particularity, into a political space that he shares with other Syrians. This has personalized the space for politics and made it the primary strategy of struggle. This personalization has created a truly radical process of thinking about political relations in the global age of mass human movement – of refugees, but also of migrants.
Using personal narrative as a subversive weapon that resists Assad’s undiscriminating war machine, al-Haj Saleh fosters a pressing Syrian need to resist the reality of Syria as patchwork of mass-graves crammed with human anonymity. Personal narrative defies anonymity. As the intellectual writes in his superbly elegant recollections from his life in prison, “We are the family of the deceased.” This means “we” have no choice but to assume the responsibility of identifying “the corpse of the deceased.” This desolate metaphor for considering the struggle in Syria has become more explicit in his more recent work. In his article on Syrian exile, al-Haj Saleh demands that political struggle in Syria must be “formed through its sensitivity to the condition of persons and their choices and the catastrophes of their lives. It must be human.”
In his book, al-Haj Saleh tells readers that he never saw the faces of his jailers in the Tadmur prison. There, they would torture prisoners for the offence of trying to meet their jailers’ eyes. Above, from the ceiling of each overcrowded cell, a hole circulated the air as well as provided the jailers with a Foucauldian pan-opticon (1) from which to terrorize their victims. Doomed was any prisoner who dared to look up. Palmyra embodies the dehumanization that al-Haj Saleh tirelessly resists. The inertia of the prisoner’s life and the abject conditions of bare existence has made him label the place a concentration camp.
In addition to the heat, the torture, the overcrowded cells, and the underground darkness, Palmyra completes the proliferating image of the “president” in public spaces. All pervasive, he always watches you, and any forgetfulness on your part can doom you to Palmyra. This mechanism of domination has long prevented the Syrians “from expressing the truth about almost every important case. It is not only that most of us have not lived a political life, but we also have not lived a moral life. Not only were we forbidden from doing what we believed in, but also many of us were forced to do the opposite of what we believed in.” In this world of deformation, gazing back in open defiance offers one form of resistance.
Through gazing back, al-Haj Saleh has achieved his greatest successes. The act of seeing, as he writes, provides, “not just the spoon for speech, but also a medium for communication, for acknowledgement, collaboration, and prediction; in short, for human relations.” Through his candid gaze, al-Haj Saleh has brought talkativeness back to the Syrians. The necessity for banter has, perhaps, been the most underestimated need of the Syrian revolution. We tend to forget that the revolution broke out in a regime that, for more than 40 years, thrived on the death of the word.
In al-Haj Saleh’s continued reminder of the importance of speech in political life, he has made it impossible to go backwards in time to a pre-revolutionary and silent Syria. His commitment to a more talkative Syria has embodied a principled position of liberal political thinking, as ancient as it is fragile. His position on speech recollects Hannah Arendt’s basic definition of politics, especially in her work on revolution. For Arendt, politics exists in the space between men. It consists of an “argumentative and talkative interest in the world.” Yet, whereas al-Haj Saleh has acted as a crucial figure in fostering such talkativeness, his self-reflexive position on intellectual power remains significantly radical. For him, the intellectual vocation does not rise above its function in the division of labor.
The online journal, Al-Jumhuriya (The Republic), which al-Haj Saleh participates in editing, has created a space that has made it possible for Syrians to share their experiences with other Syrians. After 10 articles written mainly by new writers, the dossier on exile has now come to a close, to be replaced by a new dossier, produced by, and about women. In the intensely talkative energy that al-Haj Saleh generates today for Syrians around the location of the political, the revolutionary potential lies in the auto-narrations of ordinary civilians struggling to find meaning in their terrible losses. Al-Haj Saleh, perhaps more privileged in his ability to write more often than most Syrians, nonetheless never allows his intellectual qualifications to transcend into elite credentials.
Through social media, he has managed to overcome Edward Said’s privileging of intellectual distance, which Said learns from Julien Benda. (2) In his uncontroversial, and completely ordinary commitment to the fate of his wife, al-Haj Saleh’s personal losses make the small privileges enjoyed by Said’s intellectual an impossible luxury. One need not be al-Haj Saleh to realize how narrow the privileges of intellectual work have become in a competitive cultural and academic universe. Nor need one be active on Facebook to realize that writing in the age of social media no longer constitutes the purview of the few. Al-Haj Saleh’s point, however, represents something more radical than attention to context, for he continues to contribute to a form of critical ethics that resists intellectual elitism.
Often embarrassed, al-Haj Saleh repeatedly thwarts any attempt at turning him into al-hakim, or the wise man, as many of his followers like to call him. Although to many of us, he stands as a sage, whose eyesight has been clearer than most, such a title encourages the suffocating reality that al-Haj Saleh daily struggles to change. And for that dream of change, his work in Al-Jumhuriya allows us to dare to think of Syria as a republic of letters, and of free speech. Al-Haj Saleh has championed the critique as a viable and productive weapon to be used by people facing great violence.
(1) In “Discipline and Punish,” Foucault uses the structure of the panopticon in a prison, where one guard controls all the prisoners, as a metaphor for the economy of surveillance.
(2) French philosopher and novelist known for advocating objective intellectual abstinence in dealing with the troubles of the world.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, no. 70 (2016).