Sarajevo

Francisco Goya, De qué sirve una taza? (What use is a cup?) Plate 59 from Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), 1810-1820

Francisco Goya, De qué sirve una taza? (What use is a cup?) Plate 59 from Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), 1810-1820

I remembered this poem today, though what it describes seems almost forgotten. If you do remember, and have read the newspapers, you’ll understand.

Sarajevo

Now that a revolution really is needed, those who were fervent are quite cool.

While a country murdered and raped calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.

While statesmen choose villainy and no voice is raised to call it by name.

The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself.

Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish because they are after all just barbarians killing each other.

And the lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the starving.

It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.

And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only nothingness, and they will be led once again like cattle to slaughter.

Let them tremble and at the last moment comprehend that the word Sarajevo will from now on mean the destruction of their sons and the debasement of their daughters.

They prepare it by repeating: “We at least are safe,” unaware that what will strike them ripens in themselves.

— Czesław Miłosz, “Sarajevo,” from Facing the River: New Poems, 1995

Enterrar y callar (Bury them and be quiet), plate 18 from Disasters of War

Enterrar y callar (Bury them and be quiet), plate 18 from Los Desastres de la Guerra 

 

Deport me!

gallery_1238284997So they’re going to deport gay foreigners from Egypt. My phone started ringing a few mornings ago, reporters wanting comments: solicitous but always with a subtext of What’s going to happen to you?

I don’t know. The case involves a Libyan student whom police expelled from Egypt in 2008, after a complaint that he was gay. From back in Libya, he sued. This Tuesday, after seven years – the alacrity typifies Egyptian justice — an Adminstrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior did the right thing, under its power to”prevent the spread of immorality in society.” In fact, then, this isn’t a new policy. The court reaffirmed authority the state always had. Two years ago, for instance, a Polish citizen was vacationing on the North coast here with his Egyptian partner. The Pole grew seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. The nurses found their relationship suspicious and called the police. After several days under arrest, the Egyptian was freed; police deported the Pole, who was still in agonizing pain. I heard all about it at the time, but there was nothing we could do.

Things are much worse these days under Sisi. I sometimes seem insouciant about threats in Egypt, but I’m not. iI’s just that the atmosphere of threat is general here. It affects every corner of your personality, yet it’s hard to take it personally, so wide is the danger spread. Here’s a story. Yesterday, talking with a reporter in the usual seedy Cairo café — a place I’ve always considered safe — I saw a well-dressed man at the next table listening intently. Finally he interrupted. He gathered I was interested in human rights, he said. What did I do? Did I work for Freedom House? Freedom House is, of course, a banned organization, its local office raided and shuttered by the military regime back in 2011. I said no. He added, almost enticingly, that he himself had been tortured, and offered to show me his scars. I gave him my contact information and told him to call me. That was simple responsibility – you do not refuse a torture victim anything you can give; but afterwards I cringed inside. It’s how things are in Egypt. Other people, foreign passport-holders among them, have been arrested for “political” conversations in public places. You don’t know if the person who approaches you is victim or violator, survivor of torture or State Security agent; or both.

That suggests more clearly than any headline how Sisi’s regime is achieving totalitarianism – something Mubarak’s clumsy and inept authoritarian rule, his iron fist of five thumbs, never managed, perhaps never imagined or tried. I see now that totalitarianism is less comprised in how the state controls your private life than in how you do. Ordinary emotions such as sympathy or compassion cease to be modes of solidarity and become dangerous betrayals, self-revelations to be regulated with sleepless scrupulosity, as though they, and not the people you suspect, are the real informers. Mistrusting yourself comes first. Mistrusting others is merely the consequence. But the self-hatred self-suppression brings – and I hated myself for my fear – demands other objects, a wider field of play. To be foreign to yourself is to apprehend foreignness all around you, to fear the stranger in the land of Egypt.

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Still: this story, the deportation story, went viral abroad. It’s strange because LGBT Egypt has not been in the international news much for months. When you deal with the media, you get used to its collective movements, puzzling as tidal motions when it’s too cloudy to see the moon, or the startled shuddering of gazelles racing in unison through tall grass. But other terrible things happened here recently. A man acquitted on charges of homosexuality tried to burn himself to death in despair. Police arrested an accused “shemale,” splaying her photos on the Internet. Egypt’s government threatened to close a small HIV/AIDS NGO because it gave safer-sex info to gay men. None of these got such press. The contrast is striking.

I learn three things from all this. First: our attention span isn’t what it used to be.

The world is everything that is the case, said Wittgenstein. These days we can click instantly on every fact about the world. When everything is the case, nothing might as well be; the excess of fact turns fantastic, the surfeit of reality becomes unreal. The LGBT arrests in Egypt had their moment of fame late last year, but the spotlight moves on; nothing is ever serious enough to make it halt. I’m not complaining about the press. In fact, many reporters have written about LGBT Egyptians both repeatedly and well (Lester FederBel Trew, and Patrick Kingsley have helped keep pressure up, among many others). But the attention span of news consumers, and activists among them, shrivels; and that’s a problem.

I often think of the long international campaign throughout the 1990s to repeal Romania’s sodomy law. A few Romanian friends and I started researching the fates of people arrested under the law after I moved to the country in 1992 (it was some of the first human rights documentation ever on the persecution of LGBT people). Bucharest finally repealed the law in 2001. Over those nine years the Council of Europe and the EU exerted pressure; so did international groups like IGLHRC and Amnesty; and so did activist circles from Soho to Rome. The agitation was steady, so persistent that every time a Romanian politician visited Western Europe he was sure of facing a noisy protest somewhere. It would be simply impossible to keep a decade-long campaign like that going today. Nobody has patience. These days, if the law didn’t disappear after a single summer of sign-waving, the anger would evanesce like early frost.

Consider the transient 2013 furor against Putin’s homophobia: with its boycott calls and Stoli dumps, the campaign survived all of seven months. None of its self-proclaimed leaders even remember it anymore. Abstaining from vodka for a few weeks had absolutely zero chance of making the Russian state back down. Seasonal activist infatuations are doomed. Repression doesn’t cower before fads. Change takes work, and work means the long haul.

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Dec 2013

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia (while dabbling in transphobia) in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

There is of course the well-known malady of “compassion fatigue,” a multisyllabic way of saying boredom. There’s been so much news from Egypt since the 2011 Revolution, so many twists in the plot, that even the most rapt listener gets lost. And isn’t the Middle East mixed up anyway? Six months ago, the enemy was the demon ISIS in Iraq. Now it’s the demon Houthis (who?) in Yamland or somewhere. Even the demons can’t keep themselves straight.

In fact, the confusion of cable news feeds the wiles of statesmen. “Compassion fatigue” serves a political end. Empathy, souring into self-pity about how overstrained it is, ignores inconvenient crimes. Egypt, by publicly killing “terrorists,” has planted itself on the side of the West. It’s best for all concerned to have minimal publicity about Egyptian state terror. After all, ISIS is worse — though they may have slain fewer civilians than Sisi. The Houthis are worse — though don’t they sound like they’re from Dr. Seuss? (And the distinction between being killed in Tikrit and killed in Tahrir Square may well look like the narcissism of small differences if you’re the one dead.) You might possibly remember Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Activist, journalist, poet, mother, she was murdered by security forces in Tahrir in January, while trying to place flowers in honor of the now-expired Revolution’s martyrs. A photograph of her dying in a friend’s arms broke through the wall of indifference; the story briefly travelled worldwide.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Last month the state pressed criminal charges. No, not against her killers. Against the witnesses who testified to prosecutors about her killing — because they’d joined an “illegal demonstration.” They could face five years in prison, for being there when Shaimaa was shot. Did you know that? No. The story’s over; we’ve moved on. It’s better you don’t know, because after all, your compassion might get tired; wiser to tend your valetudinarian emotions than defend exhausted dissidents, or the memory of those already murdered and past help.

Another lesson is: some people don’t count. Sex workers, for instance. I hate to say this, because it seems to give the Egyptian government a pass – but the idea that governments can exert moral controls at the border is not a Middle Eastern peculiarity. The US still denies entry to anyone involved in sex work. The American immigration bar on “moral turpitude” uses almost the same language as the Egyptian exclusion. Most gay Americans have no idea of this: because the American gay movement couldn’t give a shit about sex workers.

And then there are trans people. Most of the Egyptians arrested in the crackdown since 2013 were transgender. The government explicitly says it’s going after “she-males,” sissies, mokhanatheen. Nonetheless, most coverage by Western media – or by Western NGOs – talks about an anti-“gay” crackdown, as though sex were everything, gender irrelevant, and trans folk distractions from the main event.

The Egyptian arrests that got the most publicity were ones that did involve cis men: working-class clients of a bathhouse, or respectable bearded types doing the gayest of gay things in Western eyes, getting wed. In Egypt, as a colleague of mine points out, these gained extra-large headlines because they showed “perversion” at its most dangerous, infecting people like us, not just the pre-emptively anomalous. But they became poster boys in the West for similar reasons, because these were people gay readers could identify with, muscular and married, “normal.” Trans people doing sex work are neither nice nor news. Who gives a damn? Getting arrested is simply their destiny, their job.

In 2013 the Western press started reporting that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – were going to test and expel “gay” people at the border. There was a storm of stories about how dumb this was. Silly Arabs, setting up gay detectors in airports! Then it turned out the targets weren’t gay people (or Western visitors) at all. Kuwait had proposed chromosome tests for migrant workers, to determine if their genes and their IDs conformed. They meant to expel trans people coming from countries like Nepal (a major exporter of exploited labor to the Gulf) that now permitted them treacherously to change their passports. This wasn’t silly; it was scientific, and a much worse invasion of privacy than an imaginary gaydar machine.

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days.  From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days. From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

And with that, the stories stopped. Nobody cared about trans people – or poor Nepalis. The Human Rights Campaign, the US gay behemoth now going international, still claims in a recent report that the tests were meant to keep out only “gay” people. This isn’t a mere mistake; HRC knows better. But their members’ empathy, and donations, won’t get revved up for trans Nepali domestic workers. Purely hypothetical Western gay businessmen facing persecution, blond boys flying first class and unfairly driven from Abu Dhabi like Sarah Jessica Parker, are way more likely to stimulate the cash flow.

Bad migrants vs. good: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); Sex and the City 2 girls in Abu Dhabi (actually filmed in Morocco; bottom, if you didn't guess).

Bad migrants vs. good ones: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); the Sex and the City II girls in Abu Dhabi (bottom, if you didn’t guess).

And that shows a third lesson. Some people do matter. Some stories do break through. There are more important travelers than migrants or refugees. This story has legs because it implies that tourists, innocent people from the West, can be swept up in Egypt’s series of unfortunate events.

Sometimes tourists are victims of rights violations, and that must be condemned. But the most effective condemnations draw connections. What Westerners endure can bring attention to what others suffer.

In mid-2013, after the Egyptian coup, queer Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and his colleague Tarek Loubani were arrested in Cairo. They were “tourists” in a broad sense, passing through on their way to work in Palestine. The paranoiac regime, which treats all real or imaginary opponents as terrorists, accused them of conspiracy. The international campaign to free them, politically astute, brought into focus the violent repression Sisi also inflicted on many others, including massacres of Muslim Brotherhood adherents. (A mark of how successfully Greyson’s and Loubani’s case illuminated Egypt’s whole human rights record was how they pissed off Canada’s equally terrorist-obsessed right wing.) And Greyson has passionately kept on doing so since his release.

On the other extreme, I have miserable memories of the embattled gay pride in Moscow in 2007. A flock of foreigners came, European politicians and minor celebrities, many hoping to garner a little publicity for the cause and themselves: get arrested briefly, spend an afternoon in jail, give a press conference. It was no more intrinsically offensive than taking selfies at Bergen-Belsen. They inadvertently drew the media away, however, from the young Russian marchers arrested at the same time, sent to jail in the Moscow outskirts with no cameras attending. They also monopolized the lawyers; the young Russians had none. I’m afraid the Moscow Pride circus is more typical of what happens when Westerners get involved than was John Greyson.

Nicholas Kristof, white-savior-in-residence at the New York Times, has written how nobody cares when he just describes foreign brown folks and their strivings. It takes a “bridge character,” “some American who they can identify with,” to “get people to care”:

It hugely helps to have appealing and charismatic characters … Often the best way to draw readers in is to use an American or European as a vehicle to introduce the subject and build a connection.

But it never works. Read Kristof and see: all the sympathy goes to the span itself, to the charismatic white connecting hero. Nobody’s attention makes it to the other side. Whatever happens to me, in Egypt or anyplace else, God save me from being a bridge to nowhere.

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

And here’s the heart of the matter. The context for this latest case is twofold. Egypt’s government has been cracking down on gender and sexual dissent for a year and half. But it’s also been whipping up xenophobia, fear of foreign influences, hatred of foreigners themselves. Now it’s figured out how to make those two kinds of incitement meet.

Westerners have been targets of Egypt’s xenophobic campaign, painted as conspirators against the country. Michele Dunne, an American expert on Egypt, was turned away at Cairo airport in December in retaliation for her criticisms of Sisi. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch was expelled last August. Last month the government announced it would stop granting visas on arrival to most Western visitors, requiring applications in advance instead. It was a move to keep unwanted critics out. But Egypt understands how vital its already-moribund tourist industry is, and how restricting visas might scare the last few pocketbooks away. The measure was “postponed.”

Although this deportation case dates back seven years, the way the government is publicizing it now – while it’s arresting alleged LGBT people on a massive scale – suggests they have new plans to put these powers to use. The truth is, though, that Western tourists won’t be the easiest targets. Those who’ll suffer most will be from poorer African or Arab counties, those who don’t spend dollars, whose embassies won’t lift a digit to defend them: or – still more defenseless — suspected trans or gay people from Egypt’s communities of refugees.

Some Middle Eastern states have been welcoming to refugees. Syria – though one of the poorest countries in the region – took in waves of displaced Palestinians from the nakba till now, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis after the Bush invasion. Egypt has not, on the whole, been on the hospitable side. The national identity inculcated since the 1950s is intolerant of ethnic difference and of influences from outside. The state has accommodated refugees – Sudanese since the 1990s, Iraqis and Syrians now – but reluctantly; it harasses them, denies them political rights or permanent status, and insists it’s only a transit point for loiterers who eventually must move along. And ever since Sisi took power, refugees have been vilified by state-promoted xenophobia. Syrians and Palestinians are especially singled out. But every refugee in Egypt lives in anxiety. There are plenty of LGBT folk among them. (Last fall a cohort of plainclothes security forces raided the apartment of a gay Syrian refugee I know. They searched his papers, computer, phone, and noted all the gay-related documents and photos. They didn’t arrest him. They just wanted him to know they were there.) This publicized decision will only sharpen their fear.

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

The fate of refugees in Egypt is not just abstract for me. It’s bound up with guilt. In 2003, working for Human Rights Watch, I lived in Cairo for several months. Two days after I arrived, police began arresting refugees, mostly African, in sweeping raids in neighborhoods where they clustered. Such harassment is recurrent; most were freed in days; but, covering the raids and talking to the victims, I got to know some of the community leaders. In the next months, they organized many meetings for me with refugees in Cairo, so I could hear their stories. I thought perhaps the documentation could push Human Rights Watch into reporting on the situation in detail.

Most of the people I talked to were South Sudanese, survivors of the civil war raging there for 20 years. We met in their cramped flats; in the dusty courtyard of All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, an asylum where police rarely intruded; or in rundown Coptic churches in Shobra, where fellow Christians had afforded the South Sudanese some space.

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo was and is one of the slowest in the world.  It could take UNHCR years — it still does — just to schedule an intake interview. Until the UN formally recognized them as refugees – three, five, seven years after their arrival – the displaced had no legal rights in Egypt at all; after that, they had to wait more years for the UN to resettle them in a third, safe country. Some had been in Egypt for well over a decade. Meanwhile, they endured constant harassment, joblessness, humiliation. Nobody outside the community had listened to them before. Women working for a pittance as maids told me about sexual harassment and rape. Some men sold their organs to survive. Police picked them up off the streets, beat them, ignored the UNHCR’s hapless interventions to protect them; there were stories that some refugees, randomly arrested, had been driven south and deported illegally back across the border, to Sudan and death. The waiting and fear drove some people mad. One courtly man of about fifty took me aside at a church meeting. He had been tortured in Sudan; he showed me a scar on his arm. He had many narratives of persecution, but most embarrassing now, he said was an unbearable rumor circulating all across Egypt that he had a tail. He showed me medical documents, testimonies elicited from doctors in English and Arabic, painfully certifying that he was tailless. He also gave me a typed personal statement, in English. “Among the many crosses I am compelled to Bear, in a long Journay and much Torture, the widespread libel that I am a Tail Wizard is completely Unfounded.” Others at the meeting treated him with deference, as if they envied the relief in his delusions.

I began to feel uneasy about these meetings. My presence was an implicit promise that I would do something, and there was nothing I could do. In February and March Egypt’s security state moved on to arresting and torturing hundreds of leftists opposing the Iraq war. I had to document that, and gradually my meetings with the Sudanese lapsed. Human Rights Watch, its refugee program stretched thin, never produced a report on these abuses (though in recent years they’ve documented, in harrowing detail, the monstrosities traffickers inflict on desperate African refugees in Sinai). I still think of my inability to provide some concrete assistance as one of the worst failures in my twenty-five year career, and I can’t remember it without shame.

Now there’s another basis, inscribed in law, for harassing some of them.

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Some refugees tried to speak up about their endless agonies. Two and a half years after I left, in September 2005, Sudanese started a sit-in before the Cairo UNHCR offices, demanding faster processing of their claims. The UN treated the protest with contempt; one staffer accused them of wanting “a ticket to go to dreamland.”

Three months passed; then UNHCR called in the authorities. On December 30, 4000 police surrounded and shot at the unarmed Sudanese. At least 27 died, including eight women and between seven and twelve children. Thousands were arrested; among those, hundreds who had not yet been given refugee cards by UNHCR faced deportation. The first dozen Cairo planned to deport included three women and a child. “Egypt has dealt with the sit-in of the refugees with wisdom and patience,” the country’s foreign minister said.

A Sudanese removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

A Sudanese man removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

Ten years later, this massacre is forgotten in Cairo. It never figures on the list of Mubarak’s crimes. Nobody bothers to remind UNHCR of its complicity in the killings. Refugees don’t matter.

The massacre did merit brief mention in a text that’s become a Bible for right-wingers warning about the Muslim peril. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West is a 2009 book by conservative American journalist Christopher Caldwell. Seemingly ignorant that the demonstrators were Christian, he uses the protest to press his case — distorting it, insulting the dead in the process:

3000 Sudanese camped in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo to seek refugee status. What was bizarre was that many of them already had refugee status in Egypt. So these were bogus petitioners in the sense that what they were really seeking was passage to some country more prosperous than Egypt. The sad ending to the story, though, shows that the line between “real” and “bogus” calls for help is not always easy to draw: in the last days of 2005, Egyptian riot police attacked the encampment, killing twenty-three [sic].

Bogus vs. real migrants: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

Bogus person vs. real one: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

That’s not true. Either Caldwell, who claims to be an immigration expert, doesn’t understand refugee law, or he’s just lying. I think he’s lying. Egypt doesn’t grant anybody “refugee status.” It has no national asylum procedures at all. It gives people whom the UN recognizes as refugees (the status most of the the protesters were still waiting for) a limited right to stay, but only temporarily, on the understanding they will eventually be resettled elsewhere. The dead Caldwell defames were not “really seeking” someplace “more prosperous.” They were asking the UN to do its mandated job, to find them a country that would give them the legal right to live.

Caldwell is a fool, but he’s right on one thing: this is all about the bogus and the real. It’s about belonging. Egypt’s government is now deciding who belongs or not, who’s a real or bogus person. The gays are fake people, void of the authenticity and weight that might entitle them to stay.

But isn’t that how we readers, sympathizers, citizens use these stories too, to separate the wheat from chaff? We winnow the fit objects of our concern from the unwanted ones, from those whose sufferings don’t ring true because we don’t recognize ourselves in them. Tourists count, not migrant workers. White travelers count, not brown refugees. Gay, yes; transgender, no. We each mistrust the incomprehensible stranger, you as much as I do. We were all strangers once in the land of Egypt. But we forgot.

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

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What to do about Syria

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

You would think that, having stayed in Cairo for much of the last year, I would feel closer than in New York or Boston to the Syrian catastrophe taking place only a few borders away. But it doesn’t work that way. Egypt has enough of its own problems: massacres, mass arrests, one dictator on trial, another one running for president; these aren’t as replete with murder but they fill the mind as blood fills the brain after a hemorrhage, and expunge thought. You imagine Aleppo for a second and flinch: There’s enough not to think about without not thinking about that. 

To be sure, Syria is here, in the form of thousands of refugees who have fled the killing. (The UN says there are almost 150,000 in Egypt; some estimates run double; in any case, Lebanon hosts many times that, more than a million.) But neighbors harass them, police persecute them, they stay out of sight. Many Egyptians are conscious of the influx mainly because of the Syrian restaurants that have sprung up here and there, succulent roast chicken splayed on the plate, mehshi and manakish that scarcely taste of dispossession. The food’s good; why isn’t everybody happy?

When I visited Cairo in 2011 I met and became friends with Razan Ghazzawi, the fierce feminist and Pasionaria of the resistance, who in a short time taught me a great deal about the revolution’s dreams. The war had been going on for just four months then, and already it had worn down everybody’s psyches; she’d come to Cairo for six weeks to meet Egypt’s own revolutionaries and replenish her energies, at a time when events on the Nile still seemed in the vanguard of change. Now my closest Syrian friend here is a gentle refugee who shares my house; I’ll call him Youssef. He supports Assad, not militantly but with the vague erasing nostalgia traditional to exiles, threadbare asperities who fled France with the Bourbons, beggared bourgeois on the run from Bolsheviks. He interviewed Bashar once for a Syrian paper, while Assad Senior still lived, and can go on at length about his unassuming manners. We don’t talk politics much, since I disagree with most everything he says. Still his affection for the regime — which isn’t ancien yet, rather quondam et futurusis barely political; rather it’s a memory of stability, secularism, and calm, and an amnesia about their foundations in blood. He and Razan wouldn’t abide each other if they ever met, but they have some things in common. Razan’s vision of what freedom meant was clear as if it were etched in fire, and very much a product of Syria’s splintered map: a place where people could realize their differences without shame or fear. Stability and calm were preconditions for that. Youssef’s gauzed vision of the placid days of old includes the notion that you were at liberty to be yourself then — with the unspoken caveats of privilege and discretion; but making sure everybody, not just the lucky, could live free of surveillance and enjoy the sweet seclusions of security and privacy also preoccupied the original revolutionary dream. The overwhelming violence has made their imaginations definitively incompatible. Violence breaks bodies, but it also murders dreaming.

The violence also stamps out efforts to imagine a solution. Increasingly the Syrian state’s violence is matched by the violence of political Islamists who oppose almost all the original revolutionaries’ democratic ideals. Syria has become “a magnet for jihadist recruits,” writes Peter Neumann. Like many, he blames Assad for fostering these movements, then allowing them to slip from his control. But it’s also clear that this burgeoning radicalism owes plenty to American policy, and American allies. For one thing, the United States’ left hand keeps unravelling what its right hand does. As Adam Shatz notes,”the American government is fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq, while its allies, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are arming the same Sunni extremists in Syria.”

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra ((Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

More broadly, though, every successive American intervention in the region has backfired, creating more of the violence it was supposed to stop.  And this makes it even harder for well-meaning Americans facing the Syrian horrors to figure out what to do.

The swashbuckling American military adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to counter the Russian invasion, helped create both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the former now controls large swatches of the country once again. The American incursion in Saudi Arabia in 1991, to roll back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, helped refocus the embryonic al-Qaeda’s attention on the US, while turning it from a regional annoyance to a global franchise. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified in part by lies that Saddam Hussein supported al-Qaeda, aimed to extirpate radicalism of all kinds from the Middle East; instead, eleven years later, a significant part of Iraq’s Sunni population has been thoroughly radicalized and supports al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is now fighting in Syria, in its new incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). On top of that, the American campaign in Libya failed to build a functional state; but, like the long American involvement in Afghanistan, it stirred up a spillover of arms and fighters that destabilizes surrounding countries, from Mali to Lebanon. (Seymour Hersh maintains that the US has been sending Libya’s spare weaponry to Syria’s rebels through Turkey.) Patrick Cockburn summarizes much of this grim history of incompetence:

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hardcore jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

Western interventions in the broader Middle East – from the Maghreb to Pakistan – have done nothing to stop extremism. Instead, they’ve created and spread it.

There are principled and abstract reasons for Western leftists to resist the cult of liberal interventionism. But this history furnishes a pragmatic and specific argument for opposing it in Syria. A moral consciousness, however — one not content to concentrate on the restaurant menus while ignoring the dead and refugees — still gropes for some kind of answer. It’s natural for leftists facing the naked reality of mass murder to want some scope for action, some space where the Enlightenment ideal of thought informing practice can recover its aptitude.

Hmm. Banner from the  sixth annual Marx Conference,  “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism," Tel Aviv, 2012

Hmm. Banner from the sixth annual Marx Conference, “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism,” Tel Aviv, 2012

It’s in this light that I read a new piece by Danny Postel, which is all over Twitter these days.  Its title promises “Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria.”

Postel contends that “The responses of most leftists to the Syrian uprising” have been “deeply disappointing.” The Left’s inadequacies “fall into three main categories:”

1. explicit support for the Assad regime
2. monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
3. general silence caused by deep confusion

But wait: there’s hope.

There is a fourth camp, however: a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp – it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.

The writings of this vanguard “directly challenge the dominant narratives on the Left about Syria and offer a critical alternative to it.” And Postel gives us a ladder of links: “collected in one place, some of the key texts of this dissident left camp.”

To call these leftists “dissidents” is self-congratulatory. Certainly there are some on the left who support Assad, but they’re hardly hegemonic; they strike me as marginal and devoid of influence.

Just as certainly there’s a larger body of leftists who are uncertain, after military intervention seems to have proven its uselessness but no other form of action presents itself. So when an “alternative” steps loudly to the fore, a Fourth Way, one plausibly expects that it will proffer a guide to the perplexed: that it will tell the hesitant what they can do to help.

What’s notable about the “body of writings and arguments” Postel presents is that it does nothing of the kind.

I’ve read almost all the texts he links to. Few of the writers outline strategies, or offer innovative ways to assist the revolution. For the most part they just describe how they feel, a repertory of emotion that runs the limited gamut from sympathy and solidarity to moral agonizing to self-congratulation. These are legitimate sensations, but more existential than political. It would be hard to call them constructive. Is this the new pathway for the left? In fact, I think the writings Postel posts do point out something about the left, but nothing as bold or hopeful as he imagines.

solidarity-of-labour

Walter Crane, “International Solidarity of Labour,” 1897

Postel links to almost no proposals that are both concrete and in any way practical. I count three exceptions. The admirable Gilbert Achcar opposes intervention but urges arming the (liberal) rebels (it seems, though, that the US has been doing this covertly for some time).  Mary Kaldor invokes international law: “The first step,” also the only one she mentions, “would be to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.” She notes that, since Syria never signed on to the ICC, this requires a vote by the UN Security Council. Russia has repeatedly voted no, but “the current context might change things.” Might. It’s also possible that Vladimir Putin might hand Crimea back to the Ukrainians and retire. It’s not very responsible, however, to make this kind of outcome seem easy.

Finally, the always-brilliant Richard Falk, after painstakingly dissecting the inadequacy of existing options, calls (but not optimistically) for a renewed commitment to negotiation.

Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, and for now politically impossible.

What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile up to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to  find preferable alternatives.

This is glum, but realistic.

But that’s it.  Nobody else has much to propose. The 2011 open letter from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy has a lot of well-known signatories (Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky) but I don’t know why Postel thinks it “challenges a dominant narrative.”

The Campaign for Peace and Democracy expresses its deep admiration for the amazing courage shown by the people of Syria, struggling for democratic reforms in the face of horrific repression. … We stand with the people of Syria in their remarkable struggle for democracy.

The open letter, often published in the New York Review of Books, used to be a distinct literary genre among the New York intellectuals; it’s no one’s fault if it seems dated as a Baroque eclogue. “Standing with” the oppressed and slaughtered is still a noble gesture. It’s churlish, but perhaps nonetheless important, to point out that while Syrians die, the standers remain standing.

But is there a plan beyond the posture? Two years later, Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy – the CPD’s co-directors, both peace activists with long and distinguished records – produced a personal statement, of which Postel also approves. I have huge admiration for the authors, but this text leaves more questions than answers.

The fate of Syria must not be decided by foreign powers or forces … Equally, we condemn the attempts by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states to manipulate the Syrian revolution by promoting reactionary Islamist forces within its ranks … Consistent with our strong opposition to any kind of military intervention in Syria by the U.S., or other foreign powers, we also oppose providing air cover or establishing no fly zones.

All right, but what are you for?

We stand for full democracy, an independent labor movement, and complete equality for women, sexual minorities, religions and ethnic groups everywhere.

And:

We will do everything we can to support Syrian groups and individuals who share this democratic vision, and we call on people throughout the world to do the same.

But what is “everything you can”? What are you going to do?

Are you sure?

Are you sure?

In some cases, the writers wrestle tangibly with their inability to find answers, and the result can be moving. Mohammed al-Attar, an exiled Syrian playwright, confesses:

During an open debate organized by London’s Royal Court Theatre at the end of August 2011, I was asked: “How can we support the Syrian people in their revolution without inevitably serving the interests of political agendas?” I was silent for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, before tentatively replying: “I’ve no doubt that it is still possible to separate the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause from the distortions of politicians and the media.”

Much has changed since then but the same question continues to be put forward, and I have no clearer answer than that my brief and improvised one which I provided at the Royal Court Theatre.

Al-Attar’s piece is well worth reading, but it is not clear why Postel regards it not as an analysis of the trauma of political commitment in a divided world, but as a clear prescription for action.

But more often the pieces Postel praises just read like leftists exalting their own superiority to other leftists, because they have deeper moral feelings. Thus Bill Weinberg accuses the left in general of

treason against our natural allies in Syria—the secular, progressive forces in the opposition to the Assad regime, now besieged by ruthless armed actors on all sides. … Our natural allies in Syria are in this democratic resistance (not in the dictatorship!), and they will need solidarity whether the US intervenes or not.

But what are we going to do for them? We don’t know.

Heeding these voices does not mean we have to support Obama’s intervention. But it does mean (at least) that we have to find ways to oppose it that do not betray and alienate Syrians who have for over two years been fighting for freedom and are now fighting for their very lives.

What ways? Apparently we’ll start writing a lot about our intense moral commitment, a strategy that probably won’t alienate anybody, except perhaps the few people who pay attention — but won’t help anybody either.

Then there’s Postel himself. He calls for a “New Internationalism.” This entails lots of rhetoric:

But for progressives, especially ones who profess the values of solidarity and internationalism, the story surely can’t end at America’s shores. Struggles around the world for justice and dignity matter to us. We believe that we have a stake in them and their outcomes. We take sides.

How do we take sides? By “supporting and sympathizing with popular struggles against authoritarianism and for human dignity.” Well, sympathizing, at least. We good leftists are not afraid to restate the tough questions; we’re just afraid to answer them.

Where does [the peace movement] stand on the struggle to topple Assad’s murderous dictatorship? How does it propose the bloodshed be brought to an end? What is to be done?

There are no obvious, clear-cut answers to these questions … These are vexing problems. … But only having a position on what shouldn’t be done, while avoiding the question of what should be done, is a copout – and a betrayal of the tradition of internationalism. The question of what should be done is much thornier, to be sure — it requires more thinking, analysis, reflection, even soul-searching.

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I'll change the world later

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I’ll change the world later

Postel never tells us what is to be done, but searching our souls is, in fact, an end in itself. Marx stands inverted: we may not be able to change the world, but we can think about it. “The point is to place the plight of the Syrian people front and center on the agenda and to think seriously about how to resolve it.” Postel concludes:

What if progressives devoted just a fraction of the energy and effort that went into mobilizing against a US military strike to the cause of bringing Syria’s nightmare to an end? It might not make a concrete difference – all the efforts to resolve the conflict thus far, including those of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have come to naught … But the effort would at least be an expression of solidarity and internationalism. Factoring the Syrian people – who have been largely absent from the progressive discussion – prominently into the equation would represent a welcome departure from the solipsistic, US-centric tendencies of the American peace movement.

We will not “make a concrete difference”; but we will express ourselves, and thus feel like the heroic internationalists of olden times. Postel seems unaware that this is not an alternative to solipsism, but an example of it. He gives no clue what you could do to end the “nightmare,” no suggestion how the “energy and effort” should be directed, just faith that we’ll be morally better if we expend it. Absent some proposal for a concrete solidarity more substantive than a warm, mushlike emotion, Postel hasn’t factored “the Syrian people” into an equation here at all, except as spectators of our own catharsis.

It’s easy to make fun of this Fourth Way, this brave alternative, which enters with a flourish of trumpets and exits with something between apology and sigh. But I don’t want to make fun. These writers are honest, and a lot of them are very smart, Postel included. Their failure to deliver what Postel promised is instructive.

The lesson they teach is that we on the left aren’t exempt from the diseases of the imperial ego. Leftists may opposite liberal interventionism, but its animating fantasies are ones to which they’re not immune. The basic idea that we in our powerful we-ness ought to be able to change the world; that our good intentions have the authority to make reality malleable; that injustice is friable before the force of our desires — that basic idea is pretty much the same, regardless of whether it’s armed with drones and aircraft carriers, or open letters and petitions. The brand of internationalism for which Postel feels such acute nostalgia was always predicated on a naive faith in morality combined with power. It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

You're sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010,

You’re sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010.

The spirit of disenchantment is more and more characteristic of our world. Geopolitics used to be so comfortably bi- or unipolar. Human RIghts Watch, where I worked, was founded in the confidence that there were few things you couldn’t fix by getting the United States government to act. Washington was the fulcrum of their advocacy for decades; this peculiar dispensation where Beijing, Moscow, and even Brasilia and Pretoria are independent actors has brought about a grating and harsh adjustment. Even for more uncompromising leftists, it was reassuring to think that opposing America could put you on the right side of most of the world’s wrongs. These days, responsibility is strewn too promiscuously around. And after Iraq, after Rumsfeld and his known unknowns, awareness of power’s limitations has become too general for comfort. Twenty years ago we were taught to say “never again” to Rwanda. But how can you cope with somebody like Alan Kuperman, whose detailed study of the Rwandan genocide found that, with utmost political will and celerity of action, the West could not have prevented more than a quarter of the deaths? The idea that our solidarity is not a cure for everything comes hard.

I hate to see moral solemnity go to waste, though. There are practical things that an earnest leftist could do about Syria, if she wants to, rather than sitting around expressing solidarity to the void.

Here are some suggestions.

1) Go to war. I’m serious. Everybody wants to be George Orwell these days, a fearless deflater of hypocrisies. Christopher Hitchens thought he was Orwell. Paul Berman thinks he is Orwell. Even young Jamie Kirchick dons the Orwell drag, though he ends up looking more like a cross between Enoch Powell and Evelyn Waugh. But if you ask these ersatz Orwells what they’ve done for their causes, they’ll sound more like Flaubert: “I stayed at home and wrote.”

Orwell didn’t. Is Syria the Spanish Civil War of our generation, a crossroads of profound moral choice? Then choose. Orwell went to Spain. So did Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Willy Brandt. So did Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim, 1937

That war is memorialized in poetry, more perhaps than any other of the twentieth century’s wars. Why? Because the Thirties really was a moment when individual choice took on a communal meaning — stopped being existential and became political.

The Anschluss, Guernica — all the names
At which those poets thrilled, or were afraid

— they still resonate, because history turned personal in them. That’s the burden of Edgell Rickword‘s lines, which every lefty schoolboy used to rattle off:

From small beginnings mighty ends:
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught in public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and Britain wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles.

Or there’s John Cornford, poet and Communist, killed on the Madrid front in 1936, at the age of 21. He wrote to his distant lover before he died:

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn’s near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

How different people were then! There are parts of that poem that an agonizing moralist or a muscular liberal, a fan of Hitchens or a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, might sympathize with. But they could never write the line “I am afraid of my fear” — because they’d feel it, too deeply.

I’m indulging in an excuse to quote poetry here: sentimental of me. But the poems say better than I can what I’m trying to say. Nobody on the left wants to put his own life on the line anymore. If “internationalism” requires a sacrifice, we expect the State to do the sacrificing for us. If comes to intervention, or policing, or punishing the guilty or protecting the good, the State will furnish the bodies, and they won’t be ours. When did we become so dependent on the powers we once wanted to overturn?

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Those damn fool romantics in the Thirties took things personally, instead. If their governments wouldn’t stand up and say no, if their polities or parties were run by those “Whose suave compliance sealed the fate / Of thousands left to Franco’s hate,” they stepped up themselves; they went to Spain. They took up a weapon like Orwell or drove an ambulance like Auden, they acted. “They floated over the oceans; / They walked the passes. All presented their lives.” More than 40,000 people joined the International Brigades in some capacity, combat or no.

What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.

The only ones who shoulder this kind of responsibility today are the jihadists, people still used perforce to thinking of principles outside the State’s compass. The secular leftists sit at home and express their solidarity from the sofa’s safety.

Of course, even setting aside the serious and principled pacifists, there are perfectly decent reasons not to go to Syria. For one thing, governments have cracked down harshly on the jihadists who travel there and on their allies who recruit; they call it terrorism. Moazzam Begg, for instance, the heroic survivor of Guantanamo, is now in jail in the UK, charged with trying to train people for Syria. The same officials might start confusing foreign leftists with foreign jihadists, a terrible mistake since the jihadists actually do something, or might apply the same provisions for consistency’s sake. For another thing, there’s no reason on earth to think the Free Syrian Army has any use for a bunch of volunteers who don’t speak Arabic, know nothing about modern weapons, and get their medical knowledge from studying Foucault.

So maybe I should expand my point a bit. Though violence in Syria has metastasized like a cancer, the struggle in Syria is not waged just through violence. And there’s work you could support or even participate in from outside Syria’s borders. I can name just a few Syrian organizations carrying on the fight on the front of human rights: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Violation Documentation Center (VDC), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCSyria), Syrian Women for the Syrian Intifada (SANAD); there are more. (Please add others in the comments if you like.) There are companion projects outside Syria which try to use the documentation such groups collect to raise humanitarian resources, like the #100000Names Oral Memorial for Syria. It is arduous to determine whether you can actually help any such efforts rather than getting in the way; it’s a terrible thing, the risk of realizing one’s own superfluity. That’s a danger you don’t encounter on the couch. But an individual commitment is better than an abstract solidarity.

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

2. Remember the refugee. A leftist who wants to cast off the shackles of the quotidian and go engage in meaningful action need not look for Syrians in Syria; that is one consequence of the war. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counts 2,700,000 Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. They calculate more than half of these are under 17 years old; 38% are younger than 11.

Those figures reflect only Syrians who have gone to the UN for assistance; hundreds of thousands more are unregistered and underground. Estimates for the total in flight go as high as 9 million, out of a total Syrian population of less than 23 million.

There is plenty to be done. A dedicated leftist might settle herself in Beirut, or in Cairo, or in Turkey near the southern border, and attach herself to one of the organizations working with refugees, whether in cities or in camps. In Egypt, Syrians face xenophobia and violence from a population propagandized into thinking they are allies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Police pick them up on pretexts; some are deported. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now number 30% of the country’s population. They suffer arbitrary curfews, police harassment, physical assault.

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

And if the exhausting labor of daily humanitarian work seems overwhelming, there’s advocacy needed as well, to change the hearts, minds, and laws of wealthy nations that don’t want to let refugees in. European and American migration policy — the politics of the closed door — means there is nowhere to resettle most of these people; they will remain in unsafe countries and conditions, in semi-permanent limbo. The West would much rather pay money to keep Syrians in tents than offer them a final destination in Detroit or Turin. Sweden, the most generous European state, has taken in just over 14,000 Syrian refugees, and given them permanent residency. France has accepted under five thousand. That’s still better than the United States. In August 2013, the US agreed to resettle 2000 Syrian refugees, though later in the year the Washington Post reported that “nobody’s actually been admitted yet, since they have to go through an extensive screening process for possible terrorist ties.” Already prejudice is at play. A right-wing US website warned, “Sure most people just see refugees, but Democrats see voters …  If the Muslim Brotherhood Jihadists lose in Syria, their leaders will flee to Europe and America where they will suborn, undermine and plan acts of terror. … Obama isn’t all that interested in Christian refugees.”

All these numbers are trivial against the appalling figures of three million people externally displaced. Even the UNHCR, confronting the recalcitrance of countries unwilling to accept supplicants, has set its sights absurdly small.

UNHCR is proposing that countries admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission, or other programmes by the end of 2014, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. However, in light of the growing needs of the Syrian refugee population, this goal represents only the first benchmark in securing solutions for this group. … UNHCR has called upon States to make multi-annual commitments towards a goal of providing resettlement and other forms of admission for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. [emphasis added]

That makes just 130,000 refugees the UNHCR hopes — with little likelihood of success — to resettle in the next three years, out of at least three million. Less than five percent.

Serious leftists are prone to dismissing humanitarian work as merely palliative. They imagine it’s a bandage not a cure, an evasion of the “real” issues within Syria itself. It’s not. Work with refugees gets to the heart of how states define citizens, how they value lives, how they decide who belongs and who is cast out. Leil-Zahra Mortada, an Arab activist living in Spain, writes:

There is so much to be done. And it is not charity we are talking about, nor the corrupting relief mentality. It is radical and revolutionary work that is needed. It is stepping out of the narrow Eurocentric vision of semantics into political action. It is not only Assad and the Islamists who are killing the Syrian people, it is international systems like the EU border regime and the international relief mafias to name but a few. This is not about Syria, and this is not “just a faraway civil war”. They are dying right here, on EU borders, and they are in EU immigrant detention camps. If it is not for Syria, and out of belief in the Syrian revolution, or even in the right for every people, wether they meet our shades of color or not, to rebel, it should be out of coherence with our political beliefs. Our fight on the EU front is needed. This is a people who has risen against a brutal dictatorship, only to see that they have a whole world to overcome. A world of international meddling, whether in the form of Islamist militias, or international relief, or leftist patronization. A world of closed borders and complicit governments that once again put their profit over life. A world of apathy. This is what the Syrians and the Palestinians in Syria are facing. Questions that are not only related to Syria, but related to international and intertwined local struggles.

3. FIght for diplomacy. Finally, if, for understandable reasons, you don’t want to lobby your government for military action, you need to fight to make a diplomatic solution possible.

If you don’t believe in war, diplomacy is the only way out left. And diplomacy these days is as messy as war, though less bloody. It’s messy because that unipolar world we used to live in, convenient as it was, is gone. It’s messy because Syria has become a vast playground of the polarities, a prone place where different countries pursue and divvy up their divergent interests. Obama funnels a few arms to the Free Syrian Army; Russia and China and Iran vocally and materially support Assad; the Gulf monarchies shower largesse on the jihadists.

A place at the table: Sign from Kaffranbel, Syria, 2013

A place at the table: Sign from Kafranbel, Syria, 2013

It’s not enough, then, to push the American administration or the EU to do this or that. Pressure needs to fall as well on the oil-soaked leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on Putin and Rouhani.

It’s hard to say what, for a Western leftist, this might mean. Effective advocacy for peace would be internationalist, but not in the easy sense of announcing prefab solidarities. It would mean listening across a lot of borders. It would mean trying to acquaint yourself with what’s left of the left in Russia or Iran, or with civil societies that aren’t of the left at all, and seeing if they have any practical concern with ending violence in Syria, or even ways to speak about it. It would mean reacquainting yourself with negotiation and compromise, which are always painful. It might mean recognizing your powerlessness, which is even more so.

That path lies beyond the scope of what I’m writing here. Our left critiques power, and is abstemious about engaging with it. That’s part of its genius, and its virtue. But something more is needed now, if you’re serious about Syria, than proclaiming sympathy or oneness. A more rigorous engagement requires putting something at risk — if not your life then your self-image at least, your private drama, your unquestioned faith in your purity and your efficacy. Action is dangerous. Hannah Arendt wrote:

Action … always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries … To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin.  It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.

This is different to but not incommensurate with what the poet said:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

"Syrian women, revolt against all authority!" Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

“Syrian women, revolt against all authority!” Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

 

The flight into Egypt

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

None of this will make sense.

You can’t make things make sense in Cairo these days. The curfew and the stir-craziness prevent it. If you speak Arabic, search for #اكتشافات_الحظر on Twitter; that’s “Curfew discoveries,” a new hashtag, for people to post all the things they’re learning from being housebound twelve-plus hours a day. Some discoveries indicate an observant, experimental mind: “The refrigerator shelf can fit up to 78 lemons, or 65 cucumbers stacked vertically, or 75 cucumbers stacked horizontally.” Or: “It takes six minutes and 40 seconds for the toilet tank to refill with water.” Other folk count the ceramic tiles on their kitchen floor, Tweet it, then re-count them. “Nobody can tickle himself” suggests, perhaps, a need to learn more about masturbation. But what can you make of “#CurfewDiscoveries: There are other people living in my house”?

A sort of Sartrean madness has possessed the citizens, a nausea born of nerves and boredom. Tonight I went downtown for the first time in almost two weeks. The curfew has been moved from 7PM till 9 PM; still, at 6:45 half the shops on Talaat Harb were shuttered, the streets dully dark, and only a fraction of the usual throngs scudded along the sidewalks. Yet it didn’t feel quiet; panic pressed on the crowd — not just in me — like a held breath. People’s eyes kept flicking back over their shoulders, to see who might be after them. The strictures are devastating the economy. Even doctors report they’re losing money: “their patients are too scared to be out on the streets.” But the military seems unworried by fiscal consequences. One man-in-the-street told the AP that “The curfew is not for security reasons. It is purely to make people feel that the army is in charge, for psychological reasons.” And a website developer had his own analysis: General Sisi, the new Jefe Máximo, is “imposing the curfew to make us all sit at home and watch TV propaganda aimed to make us all love him and hate terrorists.”

Protocols of the Elders of Ikhwan: Al-Ahram, August 27, warns of a new US-Brotherhood-media-business-politician plot

Protocols of the Elders of Ikhwan: Al-Ahram, August 27, warns of a new US-Brotherhood-media-business-politician plot

The love is made of fear. Arrests continue, slowed to a dribble now that few real Ikhwan leaders remain at large. But the press keeps whipping up sectarian paranoia. Islamists horrifically burned churches ten days ago. Yet even tangible atrocities see the circle of guilt expanding. Yesterday’s headline in Al Ahram blared that the US Ambassador and the Muslim Brotherhood had joined “politicians, journalists, and businessmen” in a “new plot” to destabilize the State. The story pointed to “some liberal parties” as conspirators. Plainly the military doubts the lasting loyalty of its erstwhile liberal allies. Time to send a warning: they could be next.


Video by a group of fresh-faced young Egyptians trying to expose media lies and challenge public gullibility: the refrain, Khaleek Mesadaq, also the group’s name, means “Go ahead! Believe!” H/t Arabist.net

Stories proliferate of attacks on Western journalists, no doubt because Western journalists write about them. These are terrible: two reporters shot and killed, two Canadian filmmakers imprisoned for nearly a fortnight now. Meanwhile, TV propaganda spews out endless stories about how CNN is in the paws of al-Qaeda. No one has bothered me even once, but I feel beleaguered just from everybody’s warnings.The other night, having overstayed the curfew, I had to walk across one of the bridges to get home, and on its empty asphalt expanse, with no way out except the Nile, I felt utterly exposed and doomed: caught between wall and barbed wire, like Richard Burton at the end of The Spy Who Came In From the ColdFor me the city is cheap melodrama. For others, it’s turned tragic. So much of the hate targets the least protected strangers in the land, the refugees.

Between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt since the civil war broke out. The myth now is that these refugees are all diehard militants for the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s support for the Syrian opposition had been one sticking point, perhaps fatal, in his relations with the generals. Barely two weeks before his ouster, he spoke to an Islamist anti-Assad rally, and seemed to urge Egyptians to build a private army and join the Syrian struggle if their own military would not take part. The idea of privatizing their preserve of violence enraged the officers. Some later told the press that Morsi was beyond rescue from that moment on. Revenge came almost immediately after he fell. The military government tightened visa terms for Syrians, barred them from attending schools, and made “security checks” compulsory. The media stoked fears — not just State airwaves but even the private ONTV network, once known as a citadel of liberalism. Tawfiq Okasha, a TV host and owner of the lunatic Fara’een channel (he’s sometimes called the Egyptian Glenn Beck), turned crazed marbled eyeballs on the camera and told Syrians, “We know where you live.” He gave them 48 hours to stop “backing the Ikhwan,” or their homes would burn.

The junta started arresting refugees, almost at random. They picked them out of microbuses at the checkpoints that have sprouted around Cairo. They seized them on the streets. They knocked on doors in the night:

On July 25, the night before Egyptians took to the streets to support military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror,” Qasim, who fled from Dara’a in southern Syria in early March of this year, [was] detained by Egypt’s Homeland Security forces. Along with his elderly father, he was taken from their home in [the Cairo quarter of ] Mesekeen Uthman by a security officer wearing civilian clothes. Qasim’s yellow card, which guarantees protection by the U.N. Refugee Agency, did nothing to help him. Waiting for them below their dilapidated apartment tower were five security cars and a troop of Homeland Security officers.

No one knows how many Syrians are detained without charge. The UN High Commission on Refugees says 160, but this reflects only those about whom police have deigned to tell them. Since hardly more than a third of Syrians in Cairo are registered with the UNHCR (the office’s snail-like lassitude means there’s little advantage in formalizing one’s status), this is probably a fraction of a figure rising to the hundreds or thousands. They face deportation back to a murderous war.

Revenge: Sandro Botticelli, Moses Punishes the Rebels Korah, Dathan and Abiram, 1481-2

Revenge on the resistance: Sandro Botticelli, Moses Punishes the Rebels Korah, Dathan and Abiram, 1481-2

Then there are the Palestinians. Immediately after Morsi’s overthrow, the junta issued an order: to prevent people with Palestinian identity papers from boarding planes to Egypt. In most cases, these were Gazans trying to return to their besieged enclave, which can only be entered from the Egyptian side. In some cases, they were residents of Egypt. Probably thousands were stranded abroad.

The media hawked the notion that Palestinians were “terrorist” adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Electronic Intifada has collected moments from the fearfest. Three days after the coup, a well-travelled host on Al-Youm TV told about watching as an airline offloaded a stunned Palestinian passenger trying to get to Egypt. She felt warm, she said, because “the army and the police forces are wide awake and acting properly.” FIve days after the coup, a speaker on another channel claimed repeatedly that President Morsi was “of Palestinian origin.” Nine days after that, the “liberal” ONTV reported that Hamas had sent 3,000 fighters from Gaza into Egypt, to restore their man Morsi to power. Many Palestinians fear to leave their homes. Two days into the curfew, the Palestinian roommate of a friend of mine was thrown out by their landlord. The neighbors had complained at having a “terrorist” in the building.

There aren’t figures for how many Palestinian nationals now live in Egypt: hundreds of thousands, probably. They encapsulate much of the country’s modern history. When they came, in 1948 and then in waves over ensuing years, they first were hoisted onto the triumphal vehicle of Nasser’s Arab nationalism, promised a common identity as the culmination of a common struggle. Later, under Sadat and Mubarak, a narrower and US-funded Egyptian national identity excluded them — though it still exploited their cause whenever it needed the illusion of a larger, more invigorating purpose.

Palestinian mother and children in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa'ab Elshamy, 2013

Palestinian mother and children in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa’ab Elshamy, 2013

An hour or so north of Cairo, in the reedy dust of the Delta, is a settlement called Gezirat Fadel, or Fadel Island. It’s not a real island, just an enclave circled by a mud wall that secludes it imperfectly from history’s flow. Almost four thousand people live in poverty there, mostly descendants of one clan of Beersheba (Bir al-Saba’) Bedouins, Palestinian families who fled to Egypt in 1948. They had life easier before Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Before then, they shared the benefits of Nasser’s socialism equally with Egyptian citizens. After that, the President’s breach with the PLO meant they were relegated to foreigner status, and their rights to education, health care and other benefits similarly shrank. They have no amenities such as sewage systems. They settled in the village because it reminded them of the sprawling desert back at home; they’ve stayed because there is nowhere else to go. Theirs is the largest single community of Palestinians in rural Egypt. One official estimates, though, that 40,000 Palestinian nationals live scattered across that governorate alone.

Sandro Botticelli, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1495-1500

Sandro Botticelli, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1495-1500

I visited Gezirat Fadel briefly about ten years ago. I remember goats and garbage — scavenging plastic for recycling moors the residents loosely to the cash economy. I thought of it today because it reminded me of the history of Egypt as refuge, a place for strangers. That history has never been easy, but now xenophobia and lies make the refuge dangerous. Nobody in her right mind would flee to Egypt. I wonder what’s happening to the people on Fadel Island now. Has anybody noticed them?

I thought today also of Zeitoun, which is maybe halfway between Gezirat Fadel and the center of Cairo. I passed through Zeitoun one bored day this past spring. Once a village, it’s been sucked up, like a bird into a jet engine, by the metropolis. It’s a very Egyptian neighborhood, nothing distinctive except the Coptic church, a larger shrine than the shabby suburban mediocrity would seem to merit. In Christian legend, the Virgin Mary sheltered on its site, when the Holy Family fled to the Nile to escape Herod’s persecution. The flight into Egypt: one waystation in a history of refuge.

In 1968, though, Egypt turned its eyes toward Zeitoun. It was a year after the huge defeat of the Six Day War. FIghting and massive Israeli retaliation continued along the Suez Canal. Sectarian violence sprang up — Muslims burned a church in Luxor. Strange, then, that it was a Muslim garage mechanic in Zeitoun who first saw the apparition, a wavering band of light atop St. Mary’s Church, which he mistook for a woman about to jump to her death. A crowd gathered, and though the police tried to displace the suicide rumor with the story that it was a reflection from the streetlights, a certainty grew: the Virgin Mary had appeared above her shrine.

April 2, 1968: Photo of the apparition above the church in Zeitoun

April 2, 1968: Photo of the apparition above the church in Zeitoun

Mary is almost as important in Islam as in the several Christianities. (The Qur’an mentions her more often than the New Testament.) Over the next three years tens of thousands of people flocked to Zeitoun to see the apparition; Nasser himself showed up. And while the Coptic and later the Roman Catholic churches certified it as an official miracle, the glimmering light’s popularity crossed confessional divides. More Muslims than Christians made the pilgrimage. Even among Copts, the national scope of the celebration was transformative. One worshipper told Cynthia Nelson, an anthropologist:

The most beautiful thing to do is to go to Zeitoun and watch the people of all religions participating in Coptic prayers. Imagine, this is the first time in history the Copts could sing their hymns in the streets of Egypt among all the Muslims and shout aloud, “Umm el Mokhalass (Mother of the Savior).”

In 1973, Nelson wrote:

The Virgin was seen as a collective symbol for all Egyptians. … [she] symbolizes for the Egyptians  — both Christian and Muslim alike — a succoring, protective mother, who has the power to banish chaos and restore the benign shape of the world. … [Thus] the apparition of the Virgin also symbolizes the conditions of modem pluralism in Egyptian society. By pluralism I mean a situation in which there is more than one worldview available to the members of society, a situation in which there is competition between worldviews.

Something lovely lingers about the Virgin’s appearance as unity in diversity. It reveals a deep capacity in society for finding ways to transcend difference, deeper than the daily violence. Still, it took a myth and miracle to do it. Turning that ecstasy back into reality is a harder matter.

If the Virgin really existed, though, she was no heavenly light. She was an ordinary woman, a Palestinian, one who herself migrated and became a stranger in Egypt. Could she have looked like this girl, the child of Palestinians from Gezirat Fadel?

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Young Palestinian woman in Gezirat Fadel: © Mosa’ab Elshamy, 2013

There’s a minor tradition in English literature of imagining the Madonna as a very normal woman burdened, and repelled, by the unwanted responsibility God gave her of tending to the world’s salvation. The Victorian Walter Pater saw this in Botticelli’s Madonnas. The painter, Pater says, shows us not extraordinary beings, but ordinary persons, “saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink.” Pater grows eloquent in projecting how those women feel, forced by history into an inhuman greatness from which their human self recoils. How can we bear the demands of others’ dreams? I want to quote him at length, because it is one of the most beautiful passages in English prose.

It is this which gives to his Madonnas their unique expression and charm. He has worked out in them a distinct and peculiar type, definite enough in his own mind, for he has painted it over and over again … Hardly any collection of note is without one of these circular pictures, into which the attendant angels depress their heads so naively. Perhaps you have sometimes wondered why those peevish-looking Madonnas, conformed to no acknowledged or obvious type of beauty, attract you more and more, and often come back to you when the Sistine Madonna and the Virgins of Fra Angelico are forgotten.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, ca. 1481

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, ca. 1481

At first, contrasting them with those, you may have thought that there was something in them mean or abject even, for the abstract lines of the face have little nobleness, and the colour is wan. For with Botticelli she too, though she holds in her hands the “Desire of all nations,” is one of those who are neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies; and her choice is on her face. The white light on it is cast up hard and cheerless from below, as when snow lies upon the ground, and the children look up with surprise at the strange whiteness of the ceiling. Her trouble is in the very caress of the mysterious child, whose gaze is always far from her, and who has already that sweet look of devotion which men have never been able altogether to love, and which still makes the born saint an object almost of suspicion to his earthly brethren. Once, indeed, he guides her hand to transcribe in a book the words of her exaltation, the Ave, and the Magnificat, and the Gaude Maria, and the young angels, glad to rouse her for a moment from her dejection, are eager to hold the inkhorn and to support the book. But the pen almost drops from her hand, and the high cold words have no meaning for her, and her true children are those others, among whom, in her rude home, the intolerable honour came to her, with that look of wistful inquiry on their irregular faces which you see in startled animals – gipsy children, such as those who, in Apennine villages, still hold out their long brown arms to beg of you, but on Sundays become enfants du choeur, with their thick black hair nicely combed, and fair white linen on their sunburnt throats.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate, ca. 1487, detail

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Pomegranate, ca. 1487, detail

William Butler Yeats read Pater, and wrote a poem, “The Mother of God,” about the fear the Virgin feels, as history and responsibility irradiate her body.

The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

Maybe we can barely bear the stranger, and can hardly survive the moment when his presence is real to us, when it enters into our blood and bones and makes the heart halt in recognition. Maybe we have to imagine a saint or virgin, someone better than we could ever be, who can live the generosity we would like to feel but cannot stand to know.

But all of us are ordinary people. There is no saint to save us. There is no heavenly light to absolve us. And this is no myth. The strangers are Syrians and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims. While the propaganda blares, the truth happens. They are here, and now.

Meister von Mondsee (the Mondsee Master), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1487

Meister von Mondsee (the Mondsee Master), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1487