Igor Yakovenko: The Anthropology of Death

741071a6-33e3-49e8-a47b-c5324a07c8ebThe funeral of Roman Filippov, a Russian fighter pilot whose plane was shot down in Syria on February 3, 2018. Filippov was buried in Voronezh on February 8. This photo was posted on the Russian Defense Ministry’s Facebook page. Courtesy of Delovoi Peterburg

Igor Yakovenko’s Blog
The Anthropology of Death
February 13, 2018

On the TV program Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, Russian MP Vyacheslav Nikonov suggested honoring Roman Filippov, the SU-25 pilot who was killed in Syria on February 3, with a minute of silence, the American expert [sic] Gregory Vinnikov retorted, “He quit his hut and went to fight for the land of Syria.”

This provoked Nikonov and Solovyov’s other guests to try and kick Vinnikov out of the studio. Ultimately, they were joined by Solovyov himself, who told the studio and home audience that there is a “respect for death” in Russia, and so Vinnikov had to leave.

When Dmitry Gudkov was still an MP, he tried twice, in February 2015 and February 2016, to ask his fellow MPs to honor the memory of Boris Nemtsov, assassinated a few steps away from the Kremlin, with a minute of silence. The MPs refused both times. The degree to which death is respected in Putinist Russia depends on the dead person’s political stance.

In recent years, the Putin regime has murdered over ten thousand Ukrainian citizens, and, in cahoots with the Assad regime and its accomplices, has murdered several hundred thousand Syrian citizens. No one on Solovyov’s program or in the Russian State Duma has ever proposed honoring these victims of Putinist fascism. The degree to which death is respected in Putinist Russia depends on ethnicity and nationality. The death of “one of our boys” is deserving of respect, while the death of a stranger or outsider is not.

Roman Filippov was a fighter pilot. He flew an attack aircraft in the skies of a foreign country. His objective was to “destroy ground targets,” which included killing people on the ground. We do not know how many Syrians were killed by Filippov, but he was an enemy of the Syrian people. When he was dying, Filippov cried out, “For the boys!” Neither Syria nor its people have attacked Russia. Filippov and his military buddies (“the boys”) attacked Syria and its people on Putin’s orders. The Syrians have been fighting a war at home against invaders (Russians, Iranians, Turks) and the puppet dictator Assad.

Putin awarded the title of Hero of Russia to Filippov, who was made an invader by his grace and was killed as an invader in a foreign country. Tens of thousands of people attended Filippov’s funeral in Voronezh. The media say the figure was thirty thousand. Judging by the photographs and videos from the scene, this is no exaggeration. I don’t agree with those who claim all those people were forced to attend. Many of them clearly believed a hero who had perished defending the Motherland was being buried. Television has a firm grip on them.

A few days after Filippov’s funeral, a number of Russian nationals, employees of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, were killed in a clash with the US-led coalition. These are the selfsame Russian servicemen whom Putin has camouflaged as “mercenaries.” It is more convenient if he can lie and say Russia has no troops there. It is not known for certain how many Russian soldiers were killed during the incident. Some sources have claimed that six hundred were killed, while other sources have reported it was two hundred. RIA Novosti News Agency reported that one Russian was killed, and he was a member of Eduard Limonov’s The Other Russia party to boot. Meaning that since he used to be in the opposition, we need not feel sorry for him.

Just like Filippov, these people died because Putin dispatched them to Syria. They were just as much invaders as Filippov. However, their “heroism” has for some reason been passed over in silence. The likelihood any of them will be awarded the title Hero of Russia is nill. They will be shipped home and buried in the ground quietly and anonymously. I can guarantee no one on Solovyov’s program will suggest honoring their memory. In Putinist Russia, the only “respectable” death is a death acknowledged by the authorities and confirmed on television.

The Putin regime has a flagrantly necrophiliac tendency. Even under Stalin, there was nothing like this savoring of death and pride in the fact that more Russians perished in the Second World War than anyone else. Nowadays, this corpse rattling has become the the country’s principal moral lynchpin.

Not all corpses can be rattled, however. The Putin regime differs in this sense from Hitler’s Germany and other fascist regimes, which divided people into superior and inferior races. The Putin regime also endows ethnic Russians with special qualities: a particular spirituality and other manifestations of an extra chromosome. Even amongst ethnic Russians, however, the regime has constantly differentiated. Suddenly, the descendants of Siege of Leningrad survivors were discovered to have special genes. However, these genes were not discovered in all descendants, but only amongst Putin and the members of his retinue. It now transpires the regime has a rating for Russian nationals who have perished in a foreign country, defining which of the dead deserves to be remembered, and which deserves to be forgotten.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Shilling for the Kremlin: Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, and The Rolling Stones Sell Their Souls to Putinism

This is a five-storey, eight-alarm nightmare.

It turns out Chris Hedges has a regular program on RT. On his program on the Kremlin’s propaganda channnel, he interviewed Noam Chomsky. The interview was dubbed into Russian and posted on YouTube on August 11.

Nikolai Starikov, “bestselling author,” conspiracy theory freak, and wacko Russian nationalist has highlighted this little act of treachery on his blog under the headline  “Conversation with an American Intellectual.”

How dumb do you have to be to work for RT? How dumb do you have to be to let RT interview you at length?

Do either of these formerly respectable people realize they are shilling for the Kremlin and stoking the infernal imagination of an utter creep like Starikov?

What in God’s name is going on in this world?

Red-brown alliance indeed.

Screenshot from Facebook

 

Meanwhile, the geriatric perennial musical rebels known as The Rolling Stones have done an advertisment for VTB24, a wholly owned subsidiary of VTB Bank, whose main shareholder is the Russian Government.

The ad’s copy reads, “Mastercard. Priceless cities. Win a trip to a concert by the legendary Rolling Stones. VTB24.”

The list of VTB Bank’s other shareholders makes for fun reading:

The main shareholder of VTB is the Russian Government, which owns 60.9% of the lender through its Federal Agency for State Property Management. The remaining shares are split between holders of its Global Depository Receipts and minority shareholders, both individuals and companies.

In February 2011, the Government floated an additional 10% minus two shares of VTB Bank. The private investors, who paid a total of 95.7 billion rubles ($3.1 billion) for the assets, included the investment funds Generali, TPG Capital, China Investment Corp, a sovereign wealth fund responsible for managing China’s foreign exchange reserves, and companies affiliated with businessman Suleiman Kerimov.

In May 2013 VTB completed a secondary public offering (SPO), issuing 2.5 trillion new additional shares by public subscription. All the shares have been placed on Moscow’s primary stock exchange. The government has not participated in the SPO so its stake in the bank decreased to 60.9% after the subscription has been closed. The bank has raised 102.5 billion rubles worth of additional capital. Three sovereign wealth funds Norway’s Norges Bank Investment Management, Qatar Holding LLC and the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOFAZ) and commercial bank China Construction Bank became the largest investors during the SPO after purchasing more than half of the additional share issue.

Source: Wikipedia

In October 2015, VTB chair and president Andrey Kostin went on CNBC to talk Syria, geopolitics, and the need to lift sanctions against Russia as quickly as possible.

It’s no wonder that Kostin was concerned about these issues, because VTB have been accused of acting as banker for the Assad regime. Curiously, WikiLeaks is alleged to have removed evidence of the relationship between VTB and the Assad regime from a 2012 trove of hacked emails.

Even worse, VTB have been on the US and EU sanctions list, imposed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, since September 2014. As a wholly owned subsidary of VTB, VTB24 should be subject to the same sanctions, as explained in a press release issued by the US Department of the Treasury on December 22, 2015, namely,

“Today, OFAC also identified a number of subsidiaries of VTB Bank, Sberbank, and Rostec as being owned 50 percent or more by their respective parent entities.  The two banks and one defense company were previously sanctioned pursuant to E.O. 13662 in September 2014.  The subsidiaries identified today were already subject to the same financing restrictions as their respective parent entities per OFAC’s Revised Guidance on Entities Owned by Persons Whose Property and Interests in Property Are Blocked (“50 percent rule guidance”), which can be found here.  These identifications will help the public more effectively comply with the sanctions on VTB Bank, Sberbank, and Rostec.”

According to a May 22, 2014, article in the Guardian, The Rolling Stones are music’s “biggest business.” Where is this business registered?* Is it exempt from the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on VTB Bank and its wholly owned subsidiary, VTB24?

I ask these questions to the wind, the Holy Spirit, and the inhabitants of other, distant galaxies, because I very much doubt that any of these niceties would bother the morally unimpeachable preacher Chris Hedges, the world’s greatest anti-imperialist Noam Chomsky, and those fun-loving seventy-year-old lads from London, just as long as they get paid on time and paid a lot.

Frankly, I doubt that this bothers you very much, dear readers, although in a nutshell it says a lot about how our fallen world actually works. TRR

* UPDATE. The Rolling Stones apparently pay their taxes in the Netherlands, which is not only an EU country in good standing, but a country that lost many of its nationals when the Russian army decided to blow Flight MH17 out of the sky over Donbass on July 17, 2014, one of the actions that triggered western sanctions against Russian companies and individuals connected to the regime in the first place.

But The Rolling Stones have bigger fish to fry.

What two of the other three Rolling Stones apparently learned, including Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, was that Mr. Richards’s near-death experience meant that it was time to think about their heirs. For that, the aging rockers turned to a reclusive Dutch accountant, Johannes Favie, whose company, Promogroup, has helped them minimize their tax bills for more than 30 years. (The fourth Rolling Stone, Ron Wood, handles his finances apart from Promogroup.)

And so, last August, according to details disclosed in documents maintained by the Handelsregister, the trade registry of the Netherlands, Promogroup helped the three performers set up a pair of private Dutch foundations that will allow them to transfer assets tax-free to heirs when they die. Other Dutch shelters that Promogroup has arranged for the three have already paid off handsomely; over the last 20 years, according to Dutch documents, the three musicians have paid just $7.2 million in taxes on earnings of $450 million that they have channeled through Amsterdam — a tax rate of about 1.5 percent, well below the British rate of 40 percent. (Lynnley Browning, “The Netherlands, the New Tax Shelter Hot Spot,” New York Times, February 4, 2007)

It’s hard to believable that a little over three years have passed since Russia downed Flight MH17 and what, all is forgiven and forgotten? Now the exemplary Dutch taxpapers Keith, Mick, and Charlie can promote a Russian bank that, I repeat, is still on the US-EU sanctions list, put in place after Russia’s violent actions against a neighboring sovereign country that threatened it in no way whatsoever? And how did the passengers on Flight MH17, over half of them Dutch nationals, threaten Russia?

P.S. In case you thought I was dreaming or had somehow photoshopped the Stones/VTB24 advert, it popped up again on my Facebook news feed this morning (September 9) as a “suggested post,” albeit with more details, namely:

suggested post-stones

The copy reads:

Win a trip to the Rolling Stones concert in Paris!
https://goo.gl/JBP379
Pay for purchases with the World Mastercard Black Edition card from VTB24 before September 15 and, perhaps, it will be you who makes it to the concert by the legendary rock musicians. The winner of the promotion will receive two tickets for special places in the group’s own box and the right to skip the queue, a meeting with members of The Rolling Stones, a keepsake photo, and a gift from the group.

The link leads to a page on VTB24’s own website, promoting its World Mastercard Black Edition Privilege Card and providing a few more details about the promotion, including the fact that you are eligible to win only if you spend 50,000 rubles [approx. 725 euros according to exchange rates on September 9, 2017] or more in purchases using the card between August 1 and September 15.

According to the Rambler news website, the average monthly salary in Moscow during the second quarter of 2017 was 49,900 rubles.

On April 21, 2017, popular Petersburg news website Fontanka.ru, citing Rosstat as its source, published a brief item stating the average monthly salary in Petersburg in February 2017 was 51,024 rubles [sic].

I won’t bother citing average monthly salaries in Russia’s eighty-one other regions. They would be higher only in the handful of regions where oil and gas is produced, and much lower in most regions that do not produce oil and gas. Most people in those regions live in what would be regarded as abject poverty in the west.

So, even in the so-called two capitals of Moscow and Petersburg, the actually nonexistent average inhabitant would have to blow an entire month’s wages buying things with a card she probably cannot afford to have in the first place in order to have a slim chance to win the promotion and see The Rolling Stones in Paris.

This still begs the question of whether The Rolling Stones, a highly profitable company that, at least until 2007 (see above), paid its bare minimum of taxes in the Netherlands, can do business with a Russian bank on the US-EU sanctions list.

 

 

 

Miru Mir (We Don’t Care)

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“Peace to the world.” Central Petrograd, December 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

Andrey Loshak
Facebook
December 25, 2016

I will perform my familiar role as Captain Obvious. The Alexandrov Ensemble, Doctor Liza, the ambassador to Ankara, and the two hundred and seventeen people flying back to Petersburg from Egypt over a year ago would still be alive if President Putin had not personally ordered our troops into combat in Syria.

It is impossible to calculate how many Syrian women and children were killed by Russian bombs, but nobody in Russia gives a shit about it. The Vesti TV news program said they were smearing their faces with tomato juice instead of blood, and everyone believed it, because it is easier that way. But it is odd that over the past year no one has bothered to ask Putin what higher purpose was served by the death of the twenty-five Russian children flying in the plane from Egypt that was blown up by Islamic State. It was possible to explain the Chechen terrorist attacks in Moscow by invoking the battle for Russia’s so-called territorial integrity. The hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine had something to do with Ukraine’s being our nearest neighbor and the so-called Russian world. (Although that would be cold comfort to the families of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, blown to smithereens by a Russian rocket.) But no one in Russia has any clue why our army has put itself in the middle of the latest bloodbath in the Middle East. Ask anyone on the street. They won’t know what to say: I have checked. No one believes in the fairy tale about fighting Islamic State.

People believe more in the spiel about supporting the vampire Assad, but it doesn’t come across as persuasive either. After all, Assad is not Yanukovych, who, at least, was right next door and bought natural gas from us. More people believe we are involved in a tactical war with America. We have supposedly shown the Yanks we know a few tricks ourselves. That was the explanation given to me by a guy in Michurinsk. Yet he felt no indignation whatsoever, by the way. Hundreds of Russians have been killed in this war, a war the country is fighting the fuck knows where and the fuck knows why. You have to be utterly brainless, of course, to know everything we know about Afghanistan and get bogged down in the same deal again. But that is the saddest part: no one could give a flying fuck.

On television, they ramble on about GEOPOLITICS. It is now the magic spell, the national idea, the new Russian god that has replaced hydrocarbons, which have proved unreliable. It works like a charm, because any crap on either side of the border can be explained in terms of geopolitical interests. The majority of Russians still imagine that geopolitics is something remote and boring, something Pyotr Tolstoy would discuss on his talk shows, but in fact it has now made itself at home in nearly every Russian household in the shape of incipient poverty, inflation, unemployment, deteriorating medical care and education, rising utilities rates, and, more and more often, the violent deaths of loved ones.

The most surprising thing, however, is that Russia’s so-called geopolitical interests, to which so many victims have been sacrificed, is a myth, a fiction, the latest of Putin’s simulacra. You and I have no interests in Syria, and neither does Russia. All of Russia’s major foreign policy decisions, from the annexation of Crimea to the war in Syria, have initially been made by one man on grounds known only to him. Were rank-and-file Russians terribly worried about whether Crimea was part of Russia or Ukraine until the president took care of the problem? This is not to mention Syria, whose existence was a mystery to many Russians until we launched military operations there.

There is no separating Putin from geopolitics. Putin is geopolitics, and Russia’s so-called geopolitical interests are mainly the interests of Putin, who is guided by a rationale known only to him. God knows what is going on in his brain, but after sixteen years of individual rule, anyone’s brains would warp. This is a typical problem of authoritarian regimes: the illusory reality in the dictator’s overindulged, fevered brain becomes everyone else’s reality, and real people die.

A dictator thinks a thought, and it immediately becomes the national idea. We know that our dictator has long been uninterested in anything except self-assertion in the international arena. At home, he has everything sorted out (he even erected a monument to Prince Vladimir recently), but when it comes to authority on the world stage everything has been totally fucked. He has played the big shot every which way to Sunday, but it has only made those sordid faggots in other countries frown even harder. They have got Putin stuck on the fourth rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the need for reverence and respect. He cannot move on to the highest stage, the stage of spiritual development, where a lonely Gandhi and the coveted Nobel Peace Prize have long been waiting for him.

Putin sees geopolitics as a gamble in which he has been trying to beat the West by desperately conning it. He sees us as bargaining chips. It is clear he will continue to solve his profoundly personal problems using the entire country as a hammer. Of course he claims to be acting in Russia’s interests, but the trouble is that after so many years of unchecked power it is hard to separate national interests from personal interests. Putin has so fused with the system, he has short-circuited so many public institutions, that you pull him out of politics now and Russia really would crumble. Putin does in fact now equate with Russia, and if you oppose Putin, you oppose Russia—in the shape in which it now exists.

So you won’t get any optimistic pre-New Year’s predictions from me. The Napoleonic tricorn, propped on the head of Little Zaches, will grow so large it will soon completely obscure his view. The quantity of insanity and victims will thus naturally increase.

Andrey Loshak is a well-known Russian journalist. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to a number of friends for the heads-up

******

UPDATE

Andrey Loshak:

“I wrote a post in which I said Putin was responsible for the crash of the Defense Ministry plane.  There was no malice or disrespect for the memory of the dead in what I wrote, just a take on well-known facts. A hour later, a hellish orgy kicked off in the comments section in which wishes for my immediate death were expressed. Who the heck knows whether they were trolls or not. Some of them were definitely real people. I think that if I had been tied up and handed over to them at that moment, they would have skinned me alive, ripped out my heart, and stomped on it. Such orgies had occurred before, as soon I would write something critical about Putin. You cannot imagine how many insults I have had to read, written by aggressive assholes who had never met me in real life but who nevertheless called me all the names in the book and dispensed idiotic jokes about my surname and my loved ones. I used to take such things ironically, but after my son was born, I have felt like personally smacking everyone in this pack upside the head. My ‘liberasty’ lasted for a long while. For almost eight years, my Facebook page was as open and pluralistic as the Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. I thought it was vital to maintain the possibility of interacting with people who held different views. Unfortunately, however, the absolute majority of them proved capable only of insults. This audience is, probably, what is pejoratively dubbed the vata: an aggressive, mentally limited pack, willing blindly to follow the alpha male anywhere, whether to the edge of the precipice or over the edge. Today I couldn’t stand it and acted liked Putin. I changed the comments settings: now only Facebook friends can leave comments. I must admit my little sociological experiment in establishing a dialogue with society has failed.”

Source: Facebook

Farouk Mardam-Bey: To “Leftist” Admirers of Assad’s Syria

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Farouk Mardam-Bey

To “Leftist” Admirers of Assad’s Syria
Farouk Mardam-Bey
Pulse
December 24, 2016

As a Syrian who has always identified politically with the left, I am particularly appalled by those men and women who call themselves left-wingers—and are therefore supposed to stand in solidarity with struggles for justice worldwide—and yet openly support the regime of the Assads, father and son, who are chiefly responsible for the Syrian disaster.

Following four months of intense bombardment by the Russian air force, Bashar Al-Assad’s army, along with Shiite militias hailing from everywhere and mobilized by the Iranian mullahs, have now finished “liberating” Eastern Aleppo. Liberated from whom? From its inhabitants. More than 250,000 inhabitants were forced to flee their own city to escape massacres, as had the people of Zabadani and Daraya before them, and as will many more Syrians if systematic social and sectarian “cleansing” continues in their country under the cover of a massive media disinformation campaign.

That in Syria itself wealthy residents of Aleppo, belonging to all religious sects, rejoice over having been rid of the “scum”—meaning the poor classes who populated Eastern Aleppo—is not surprising at all. We are accustomed to it: the arrogance of dominant classes is universal.

That Shiite mullahs stuck in another era celebrate the event as a great victory of the true believers over Umayyad disbelievers, or proclaim that Aleppo has been Shiite in the past and will turn Shiite again, can also be understood if one is familiar with their doctrine, as delirious as that of their Sunni counterparts.

Finally, that in the West politicians and opinion makers of the far right or the hard right reaffirm, loudly, their support for Assad is also quite natural. Such people have nothing but contempt for Arabs and Muslims, and they believe, today as ever, that these “tribes” must be led with a big stick.

But how could one fail to explode in anger when one reads statements in support of the regime of the Assads, father and son, issued by men and women who claim to stand on the left, and who should therefore sympathize with struggles for justice everywhere? How could one fail to become exasperated when one hears them praise the independence, secularism, progressive character, and even “socialism” of a lawless clan that took power in an army coup more than forty-five years ago and whose only concern is to keep exerting power forever? “Assad forever,” “Assad or nobody,” “Assad or we burn the country,” chant Assad’s partisans. And his “leftist” supporters nod approvingly under the pretext that there is no other choice: it’s either him or ISIS.

And yet the Syrians who rose in 2011 were the first to vigorously condemn the jihadi groups of all sorts and kinds, and in particular ISIS, that have infested their popular uprising after it was forced into militarization. Completely alien to the demands of liberty and dignity of the popular uprising, these jihadi groups focused their attacks principally on the vital forces of the opposition, whether civilian or military, and cracked down on the population in the areas that they managed to control. In so doing, they buttressed Assad’s propaganda inside Syria as well as internationally, allowing him to portray himself as a defender of religious minorities.

The same Syrians who rose in 2011 have moreover often expressed their distrust of those who have pretended, and continue to pretend, to represent them, and who proved to be incredibly incompetent. Hoping for a Western military intervention that was obviously never envisaged by the Obama administration, subservient to this or that neighboring country (Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey), divided among themselves and non-existent on the ground, these self-proclaimed representatives were incapable of addressing the world with a coherent political discourse.

But neither jihadi intrusion nor the shortcomings of the self-proclaimed representatives of the Syrian revolution, nor any argument used to justify the unjustifiable, can invalidate two fundamental facts: that the Syrians had a thousand reasons to revolt, and that they did so with exceptional courage, under conditions of near-universal indifference, countering the ruling clan’s limitless terror, Iran’s imperial ambitions and, since September 2015, a US-approved Russian military intervention that has already killed several thousand civilians.

Is this “Syria of Assad”—where Iran and Russia act as they please, together as well as separately, and whose future now relies exclusively on their agreements and disagreements—independent and anti-imperialist? Let left-wing admirers of the Assad regime read the unconscionable treaty that it signed on August 26, 2015, granting Russia exorbitant privileges as well as complete and permanent immunity regarding all damages caused by its air force.

How can anyone seriously describe as “secular” a regime that, since its beginning and in order to perpetuate itself indefinitely, has striven to poison relations between religious communities, held Alawis and Christians hostage to its policies, presided over the contamination of Syrian society by the most obscurantist form of Salafism, and has manipulated all sorts of jihadists, and not only in Syria?

How “progressive” is it to promote the wildest type of capitalism, impoverishing and marginalizing millions of citizens who barely survive in the suburbs of the main cities? These impoverished Syrians were the main social component of the revolution, and they became the main target of the regime’s heavy artillery, barrel bombs and chemical weapons. “Kill them to the last” demanded the Shabbiha (Assad’s thugs) from the beginning of the uprising, so that the new “progressive” bourgeoisie could securely plunder the nation’s wealth and pile up billions of dollars in fiscal paradises!

If the above is not enough, one can also remind Assad’s “leftwing” supporters of the crimes against humanity perpetrated with complete impunity by Bashar’s father, Hafez, during his thirty years of autocratic rule. Two locations summarize them: the city of Hama, where over 20,000 people, possibly 30,000, were massacred in 1982, and the prison of Palmyra, the equivalent of an extermination camp where the jailers used to boast about turning the men they tortured into insects. It is this same impunity that some on the left alas want to extend to Bashar Al-Assad, the principal culprit responsible for the ongoing disaster with over ten million displaced, hundreds of thousands of dead, tens of thousands imprisoned facing torture and summary executions in jail.

Until the executioners are defeated and punished, Syria’s endless martyrdom risks foreshadowing many others in the world — a world from which Syria will have vanished.

Translated from the French by Joey Ayoub. Photo courtesy of Publishing Perspectives. Thanks to Danny Postel and the rest of the Pulse team for posting this article and their invaluable work in general. 

About Farouk Mardam-Bey

Farouk Mardam-Bey is a Syrian historian, author, and editor who has been living in exile in France since 1965. He was Head of Arabic at the library for the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris (1972-1986), an editor and then director of a French journal of Palestinian studies (1981-2008), and a consultant for the Arab World Institute (1989-2008). Since 1995, he has been director of the Sindbad series, part of the publishing house Actes Sud, which aims at translating Arabic works into French. His co-authored/edited books include the two-volume Itineraries from Paris to Jerusalem: France and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (1992-1993), Being Arab (2007), and Our France (2011). He has also edited and published a number of historical, political, literary and bibliographical texts and translated the works of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish into French.

Idrees Ahmad: Russia Today and the Post-Truth Virus

a10Russia Today and the Post-Truth Virus
Idrees Ahmad
Pulse
December 15, 2016

A video is circulating of a woman revealing “the truth” on Syria that is being withheld from us by “the mainstream media”. The woman is introduced as an “independent Canadian journalist”. She is said to be speaking  “at the UN”. The date is December 9, 2016. The video has become viral.

Eva Bartlett, the woman in the video, writes for various conspiracy sites including SOTT.net, The Duran, MintPress and Globalresearch.ca. But more recently she has emerged as a contributor to Russia Today. And though her wordpress blog is called “In Gaza”, and though she has a past in Palestine solidarity work, unlike the people of Gaza, she is a strong supporter of Assad and she uses language to describe Assad’s opponents that is a virtual echo of the language Israeli propagandists use against Gazans.

Bartlett was recently a guest of the Assad regime, attending a regime sponsored PR conference and going on a tour of regime-controlled areas herded no doubt by the ubiquitous minders (the regime only issues visas to trusted journalists and no visitor is allowed to travel without a regime minder). On her return, the regime mission at the UN organised a press conference for her and three members of the pro-regime US “Peace Council” (The organisation has the same relationship to peace as Kentucky Fried Chicken has to chicken). In the press conference they all repeated the claims usually made by the regime’s official media SANA and by Russia Today: all rebels are terrorists; there is no siege; civilians are being held hostage; the regime is a “liberator” etc.

So a conspiracy theorist with a blog who briefly visited Syria as a guest of the regime is declaring that everything you know about Syria is wrong. That you have been misled by everyone in the “MSM” from the New York Times to Der Spiegel, from the Guardian to the Telegraph, from CNN to Channel 4, from ABC to BBC, from CBS to CBC; that human rights organisations like Physicians for Human Rights, Medicins Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch; that international agencies like the UN and ICRC—they are all part of a vast conspiracy to malign Bashar al Assad. And the truth is only revealed on “alternative” media like the Kremlin’s own Russia Today! (watched by 70 million people a week according to its own claims)

In normal times something like this would provoke derision and dismay—or at least the person would be asked to provide verifiable facts instead of anecdotes (virtually everything she said is verifiably false). But these are not normal times. Supporters of the regime, admirers of Putin, and sectarian propagandists have latched on to this video. Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today has promoted the video heavily. And, in the game of Chinese whispers, the story has morphed into “a UN press conference”.

There is of course a deep racism at play here. Besides great international journalists like Christoph Reuter, Janine di Giovanni, and Martin Chulov, there are also many excellent Syrian reporters on the ground. But we are supposed to dismiss them because the truths that eluded all of them were vouchsafed to a Canadian blogger with a column on Russia Today!

What is happening in Syria is not a mystery. The facts are crystal clear. They are corroborated by multiple independent organisations. People who deny these facts only do so because of a will to disbelieve. It’s willed ignorance in the service of an ideology. This ignorance has been reinforced by Kremlin’s premier disinformation service: Russia Today. The broadcaster has rebranded itself “RT” to conceal its origins and agenda. It has even spawned a neutral-sounding viral video outlet like “In the Now.” Their aim is to sow doubt, feed cynicism, and confound knowledge. They are pressing a narrative—Kremlin’s narrative. And as the major perpetrator of violence in Syria, Kremlin has every intention to muddy the waters. (And no Russia Today is not “just like the BBC”. Have you ever seen a Russian government official questioned on Russia Today the way Tony Blair is questioned on the BBC by Jeremy Paxman; let alone the way Jon Snow on Channel 4 questions David Cameron?)

So next time someone shares a stupid video like this, hit them with facts. If they want to challenge them, then they should bring something more substantial than rambling nonsense from a conspiracy nut.

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There is an old joke. A wife returns home to find her husband in bed with another woman.

“What are you doing in bed with another woman?” she screams.

“What woman?” the husband replies.

“The woman I just saw in bed with you,” says the wife.

“Who are you going to believe,” the husband replies, “Me or your lying eyes?”

There is no doubt that the Western media has often failed in its coverage. Its reporting on Gaza and the journalism leading up to the Iraq war was abysmal. But western media isn’t devoted to obfuscating truth with the kind of single-minded determination that Russia Today is. It is deeply ironic that many people’s often justified disdain for western journalists has led the into the embrace of a channel that has no commitment to truth at all. And it becomes most pernicious when pro-Kremlin propaganda is dressed up as criticism of “the mainstream media”, “the establishment”, or “Washington”. As I wrote elsewhere:

“There are few things more commonplace than an Oedipal disdain for one’s own government. In this solipsistic worldview, one need not have to understand the dynamics of a foreign crisis; they can be deduced remotely. If you hate your own government then, by virtue of being in its bad books, a Putin or an Assad becomes an ally.

“Conversely, if people elsewhere are rising up against their far more repressive states, their cause is tainted because of a sympathetic word they might have received from your government. And all the images of agony do not add up to a tear of sorrow as long as they are relayed by a hated “mainstream media”. Indeed, victims are reproached for eroding ideological certainties by intruding into our consciousness through their spectacular suffering.”

My heartfelt thanks to Idrees Ahmad for his kind permission to let me reprint his essay here. TRR

How to Tell a Skunk

Skunks. Photo courtesy of National Geographic
Skunks. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Here is how you tell a pro-Putin western leftist. If someone has not written word one of concern or anguish over the slaughter in Aleppo and Putin’s role in it, but suddenly expresses anxiety over NatWest’s closure of RT’s bank accounts, announced earlier today, they have outed themselves as a pro-Putin western leftist.

Apparently, the rest of the world should just watch as Putin and Co. lay waste to Aleppo and the rest of Syria that has not submitted to the mass murderer Bashar Assad.

And then, if Putin wants to move on from there, and stir up more needless trouble somewhere else, the rest of the world should just avert its gaze from his latest victims.

And so on.

After all, the world’s most enlightened white people, western leftists, have mostly been steadfastly ignoring Putin’s victimization of his own people for the past seventeen years—all those incinerated Chechens, murdered journalists, harassed, beaten, jailed, murdered, persecuted and exiled anti-fascists, leftists, environmentalists, opposition leaders, downtrodden truckers, farmers, factory workers and migrant workers, and on and on.

Here is a modest proposal. Since you feel so much anxiety every time Putin is criticized or mildly slapped on the wrist, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and move to Russia, where you can live the dream of dancing in ecstasy round the one true leftist leader left on earth.

Or is a dumb leftist tape, left over from Soviet times, spinning round and round in your head, keeping you from thinking straight?

I have a message for you: the Soviet Union is dead, and Putin is not a leftist. He is not trying to build socialism. He wants to stay in power for the rest of his natural life, enriching himself and his cronies, and making sure his other 142 million countrymen can never improve their own collective lot in life in any meaningful way, especially in a way that would involve his not being their supreme leader for life.

And just imagine this. When NatWest announced it was closing the bank accounts of the miserable Putinist propaganda channel RT, some of my actual Russian friends actually living in Russia actually rejoiced!

Why? Because their tax dollars pay the salaries of Margarita Simonyan and all the other well-coiffed liars at RT, and they would rather not have their hard-earned money wasted in such a flagrant, hostile manner.

Maybe they would rather that Russian doctors and teachers were paid better, or that pensioners had their pensions indexed for inflation (instead of frozen to pay for Putin’s war on Syria). Maybe they would want their country to stand for something else in the world than deceit, military showboating, corruption, and a hot and cold civil war against dissenters.

When are you godlike beings, ye western leftists, going to heed their mostly silent cries?

Or do you think some crap opinion polls “prove” that Putin is wildly popular in his country?

When are you going to wake up to the fact that your sheer stupidity, blindness, ignorance, and dogmatic stubbornness is destroying what remains of honest leftism? How can leftism pretend it represents a real alternative to capitalism when, time and again, it defends tyrants like Putin in the name of “anti-imperialism,” “stopping war,” or some other sheer nonsense?

The people of Aleppo know you are their enemies, because you vocally or tacitly support their destruction, and the people of Russia will also one day realize that you wish slavery and tyranny upon them as well, if they have not realized it already. TRR

Lina Mouzner: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria

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Lina Mouzner. Photo courtesy of tiszatajonline.hu

War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria
Lina Mouzner
Literary Hub
October 6, 2016

In the last few months, I’ve moved houses no less than 35 times.

I have been threatened, beaten, strip-searched, thrown in prison, tortured and made to watch as my mother knelt weeping at the dirty feet of tribal leaders to beg for any information about my kidnapped father. I have waited at countless checkpoints, praying that no one finds the bread, the money, the schoolbooks, the chocolates I have hidden in my bag, on my body, trying to smuggle them through to people on the other side. I have buried seven husbands, three fiancés, fifteen sons and a two-week old daughter I finally agreed to have at 42 for my husband’s sake, to bring life back to his tongue after we laid our two grown, handsome sons to rest, one after the other, and grief took all his words away. Our daughter did not die because of a bullet or mortar shell or carbomb, like my father, sister, brother, cousin, mother, neighbor, pharmacist, teacher. She died because the siege had cut off not only our food and electricity, but also our medicine and medical supplies. There were no child-size incubators to be found in our city. My husband rushed her slowly asphyxiating body from one hospital to another until he finally found one in the next town over. He left her with the nurses there and came home at dawn, exhausted but joyful in his relief. In the afternoon he went back to bring her home, and was led away from the small pediatric ward and down to the morgue, where her perfect blue body lay among countless others they had not yet found place enough to bury. Her name was Fatma.

In the last few months, I have watched my city, Maarrat al-Numan, burn, I have watched my city, Raqqa, burn, I have fled Aleppo from the increased fanaticism of the rebels, I have fled Aleppo from the chokehold of the regime, I have fled Aleppo to Turkey, I have fled Aleppo to Lebanon, I have fled Aleppo not knowing if I will ever return, or what I might find if I do.

All this I have watched from my living room in Beirut. Sitting on a worn gray couch with earplugs in, trying to block out the sounds of sheering metal from the construction site right under my window as I translate stories from Arabic to English for the Damascus Bureau, an under-project of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

I was tasked with translating mostly those dispatches sent in by women, first-person accounts of life under siege and war, written for the “women’s blog” section. Though they are as far from our understanding of “women’s blog” in marketing terms as Raqqa now is from Beirut, the degradation and exhaustion of waiting at borders and checkpoints factored into the physical distance.

The women, the writers, range in age from their teens to their sixties and seventies, come from all walks of life, all parts of Syria. They are teachers, activists, seamstresses, farmers, doctors, volunteer paramedics, housewives, writers, aspiring writers, students and revolutionaries.

My body vibrating, whether to the shattering of an earth drill or to the tension of what I read, I have witnessed them march in the streets calling for change, bury loved ones, resuscitate strangers, defy soldiers and snipers, wait in breadlines, pack their whole lives into vans and cars, undergo daily humiliation at checkpoints on their way to and from work, to and from university, which they have refused to leave or discontinue.

To witness, however, feels too passive a word. It is an action that is at its heart, inaction. Their writing is filled with crossings; they are constantly traversing borders both visible and invisible, and it makes me think about the one between these two languages, Arabic and English, each a landscape unto itself. I am also hoping that what I am allowed to smuggle through will survive the journey.

In Arabic, the root of the verb, to witness, is sh-h-d. Roots are important in Arabic. They are present, that is, known and recognizable, not obscure etymologies but immediate and close, giving life directly to all the words that bud and branch from them. From the three-letter root verb, you make the subject and the object, but also adjectives, adverbs and a whole host of other, more complex verbs, subjects and objects related to the first. Even these words—subject, verb, object—are more directly related in Arabic. Translated literally, the subject is the doer, the verb is the doing, the object the one it is done to. In English, a writer writes a book; a letter. In Arabic, al-katib yaktubu kitab; maktoob. All from the root k-t-b, to write.

From “to witness,” we get shahed, the one who witnesses; mashhad, the spectacle or the scene, but also shaheed, martyr; istishhad, to be martyred, to die for a cause.

As if the act of bearing witness, followed to the end of one of its branches, snaps under the weight of what is seen, and you fall to your death. As if to die for a cause in Arabic is to bear witness to something until it annihilates the self.

For the last few nights I have been glued to the news, unable to turn it off. Following the progress of the Kurdish forces as they fight the ISIS militants out of Kobane. Over coffees and drinks with friends in our local watering hole in Beirut, we go over headlines, possibilities, projections, trying to keep the quaver of hope out of our voices and words. Unable to allow ourselves to truly believe anymore, after all that we have lived and seen, that a people might be allowed to bear their fates in their own hands without outside interference bending the situation in favor of the hegemonic political agenda. And then it is confirmed: the battle has been won in our favor. The enemy has been driven out of our town. The town council invites us back to reclaim our homes. Immediately I pile into a bus with my mother and sisters for the long journey back to our village, singing and ululating all the way. All I can think of is my journal, with all the poems I have written over the years. Left behind in the rush to leave, I have mourned it every day since, cursing myself for forgetting it. We climb the hill together, a key buried in my mother’s pocket, that never once left my mother’s pocket, flying the last half kilometer over jagged rocks and dried clumps of earth that were once orchards and fields. I see my mother pull out the key, ready to open the door, only to find a pile of rubble where our house once was. My clothes my journal my needlework our photos shards of our treasured blue cups ground into the dirt. Everything everything gone.

I let out a sob then, breathless with anguish, standing on a hill in Tell Maarouf in a living room in Beirut.

* * * *

To translate a text is to enter into the most intimate relationship with it possible. It is the translator’s body, almost more so than the translator’s mind, that is the vessel of transfer. The mind equates words, expressions, deals with techniques and logistics; it is within the body that the real alchemy—mysterious, unnamed and inexplicable—takes place. That alchemy has to do with truth more than signification, that is, the animating force behind signification, which transforms it into meaning, into something that moves. Gayarti Spivak qualifies the act of translation as “erotic,” but there is something too gentle about that word to ring true for me. The word captures the act of surrender, and the abundantly physical communion with the text, but there is something messier and bloodier that is elided. More agonized and agonizing too. There is a violence in undoing someone’s words and reconstituting them in a vocabulary foreign to them, a vocabulary of your own choosing. There is a violence, too, in the way you are—for long moments—annihilated by the other; undone in return. Neither the translator nor the text emerges from the act unscathed.

I cry a lot while doing this work. It isn’t something I can control. Every time I think I have become hardened to these stories, a moment, an expression, a detail will throw me off the scaffolding of language, away from the structural safety of its grammar and rules and headlong into the wilderness beyond. There is always something unexpected, unimagined, no matter how used to the narrative of loss and displacement and violence I think I have become.

When I first receive one of these texts and sit down to read it, I can see her, the writer, clearly in my mind’s eye. She gets on the mini-bus. She emerges from a taxi. She calls the neighbors, asking when they last saw her brother. I am aware that this first-person voice is hers, and of how it conjures her up as vividly as the images she shows me through her eyes. And then I sit down to work, taking in her words, her voice, anew. And two contradictory things become true at once: that despite the fact I am attempting to reproduce her words as faithfully as I can, they must now re-emerge in words unavoidably my own. And that because of the fact that I am attempting to reproduce her voice as faithfully as I can, it must now re-emerge in a voice unavoidably my own.

“I get on the mini-bus,” I write. “I emerge from the taxi,” and then it is I calling the neighbors, and I am nearly hysterical with worry as I wait for their response. In the considered, deliberate act of translation, these I’s bump up into one another again and again until they are accidentally shattered, the various pieces of these commingled selves becoming, for long moments, indistinguishable from one another. Afterward, trying to pick them up and separate them out, I am left with a thousand cuts I can feel every time I move or breathe. Afterward I realize that there is a shard I have failed to remove, that it has entered my eyes and become lodged there, cutting into my vision always, digging into the form and content of my memories.

Translation is not just about transposing words from one language to another. But transplanting a feeling, a way of seeing the world, from one vocabulary of experience to another. I think of the verb, to transplant. A seedling from soil to soil. But also an organ from body to body. The procedure must be as delicate, as cognizant of the original conditions of creation in order to nurture and ensure a continuation of life.

In Arabic, the word for the action of transplantation is zare’. Simply to plant. There is no prefix implying movement from one place to another, an in-built warning of possible rejection. There is only the thing itself, planted, as if the process of its life begins all at once in this new soil, this new body. I prefer this way of thinking about translated words, and the possibility of their finding life. But the conditions of growth, for growth, remain the same. There are still no guarantees that anything will take root, or that the new body will not reject the new organ for being foreign.

* * * *

When my family and I washed up in Canada, carried out on the great wave of migration away from the civil war in Beirut, I found that I could no longer unlock the trunk in which I carried the words to explain where I had come from, what I had lived. When I did manage to force it open, what I found inside was soggy, useless. The words were all in another language, non-native to this new soil. I translated them as best as I could. Qazeefeh became shell. Msalaheen became militiamen, gunmen. Hajez became checkpoint. Malja’ became shelter. But the new words were strangely light. They carried none of the weight of what they truly meant. Qazeefeh was piercing and hot, abject terror, near-misses and direct hits. It was luck and unluck, it was what left the neighbor boy with melted clumps for hands and took away my grandmother’s hearing in one ear and what missed my father again and again as he crossed the border to Syria and back over four long years, on his way to the Canadian consulate, checking on the status of our visas. Msalaheen were those who held your life in their hands every time you passed through ahajez made of sandbags, militia flags and insignia fluttering above, the colors and shapes meaning the difference between friendly and unfriendly, sometimes life and death. Msalaheen scrutinized your papers and peered into the car with slitted, predatory eyes as you made yourself as small as possible, trying to pretend you couldn’t smell the stink of your parents’ fear. They were those who kept your neighborhood safe; those who made your neighborhood a target. Malja’ was long sleepless nights, the whole building crowded into one airless underground room, the dizzying smells of mold and other people’s bodies, listening to qazeefeh after qazeefeh fall all around you, the echoes booming in your chest as intimate and sure as heartbeat. But malja’ was also endless games of cards and forced sleepovers with friends caught at your place overnight, watching the way the old neighbor twitched as he snored and plotting to steal his dentures while he slept, your giggles luckily muffled by the sound of gunfire. Gunfire now the catch-all name for M16, Kalashnikov, 120, B7, Grad, Doshka, Katyusha, 155, Hawen; my skill in telling them apart by sound now rendered useless.

But once I had the words translated, I found that no one really wanted to hear them, be near them. They were light in English, yes, but also cumbersome and huge. Giant styrofoam shapes. When I carried them with me into the classroom or into the home of new friends, I had to struggle to fit them through the door. Their size dwarfed me, crowded me out; everyone stared. When I tried to put them down, they formed a barrier, setting me apart as so inconceivably other it became impossible to clamber over them, to find my way back to the world of school dances and mall outings, pop quizzes and notes passed back and forth about your crush this week.

In order to enter, then, to become one amongst the many individuals that made up my new world, I had to let go of that whole lexicon, repudiate it, as if it were a sort of shame.

For years I wrote stories about Jennies and Alexes and Melissas, about their suburban childhoods and private disappointments, about dreams and desires moved only by the eddies of a personal history, floating far above the undertow and tidal shifts of collective history. Trying to rewrite my past in an effort to not have to translate it.

I had become used to feeling light. I did not want my country hanging around my neck like a weight I must always carry; unable to take it off or put it down. I did not want to be buffeted about in the whirlpool resultant from the violent meeting of two currents, the personal and the historical, perpetually sucked down into the eye of the vortex along with the thousands upon thousands of other bodies carried there by the same riptide. And everyone around me drowning: how could I live with attempting to save myself alone?

It goes the other way, too. I remember how a student in one of my creative writing classes once handed in a story set in Beirut, about a college student like him pining over a girl who then rejected him in favor of another, richer and more muscular. A story he told us was based on personal experience. His characters were called Damien, Samantha and Brad. Not entirely unheard of here, but odd enough as a group to raise an eyebrow. While workshopping his story with the class, I asked him why he had not named them Salim or Dala or Bilal. His name, after all, was as Arab as they come.

“But Miss,” he replied, incredulous. “I’m not writing about war and bombs and tragedy. Why would I give them such names?”

* * * *

A bomb is a shocking experience. Even to one who feels they have become inured to it. Each heart-hollowing concussion is a redefinition of everything you ever thought you understood. It has nothing to do with fear. Fear is something you get used to, it becomes the new baseline from which your body operates. Quivering, animal, alert. You even come, in the dark malja’ of your consciousness, to accept the idea of your own death. But the breathless outrage of being reduced to utter insignificance—each bomb a punctuation of this idea—is not something you ever get used to. For it is not merely your interiority that is threatened with annihilation, but the entire surrounding world that grounds it in meaning. Parks, schools, streets, friends. Squares, alleys, journals, children. Rivers, parents, trees. Husbands, wives, orchards. Snatches of celebration and joy. Moments of silence and repose. The cat curled up on the garden wall. Stacks of old photographs, your grandmother standing ramrod-stiff for the cameraman in the first flush of her youth. The paintings carefully chosen and framed on the wall. The plants in powdered milk cans all in a row, their leaves tangled into one canopy. A brown egg on a blue plate one early morning. All the people, places and things of your life that you have stacked and shored up against nothingness, all flattened into a grainy, featureless landscape to the inhuman scope from above. All of them collateral damage.

English is the lingua franca of the media, and regardless of what I know of poetry or fiction, which has room enough to embrace foreignness, to break the audience-pleasing structure of introduction-crisis-resolution, I am aware always of the prevailing narrative of the media, because it is there that we, who are not of the predominant culture but who write in its language, who feel ourselves always implicated in two worlds, read about ourselves most. We know how language can be used to beat the rhythm of the war drum, mustering ranks upon ranks of public support. We know how language itself can wage war against us, by mimicking the same casual dehumanization of a bomb. Everyone you know and love: terrorists. Militants. Strategic targets. Collateral damage. The leveling of your neighborhood: an unfortunate mistake. The razing of your city: the birth pangs of a new Middle East. Seven dead, twenty wounded. Forty-one dead, ninety-three wounded. 1.2 million refugees. 2,000 migrants.

All the life squeezed out of them so that they fit into one headline. Sentences become coffins too small to contain all the multitudes of grief.

The trauma, recreated in words: countless particularities flattened and rubbled into one. In the mediatized narrative, your individuality, your personhood, is not a right you are granted by virtue of being human. To become a story worthy of unfolding in the small confines of the mass media, you must earn your individuality by lifting yourself up and out of collective circumstance, either by the exceptionalism of your life or the spectacle of your death. For the story to come to an end, you must serve the purpose of the story, not the other way around. As such, lessons are learned; resolutions are reached; audiences are comforted.

But there is no real resolution to the trauma of the collective. It lives on in all the stories you will ever tell from now on, in all the stories that will be passed down along the line of culture, even when they are about something else. It reshapes your vocabulary. It becomes part of your language. A barrel will no longer ever be a barrel again; shrapnel will always explode from it. The word mustard will forevermore carry a whiff of gas, rashing your skin, smarting your eyes. When you say Sabra, or Shatila, you are not referring to a place, but to a heap of dead bodies shot indiscriminately and tossed aside like worn rags. When you say the word catastrophe, no one need ever ask which one it is you mean. It is towns, cities in their entirety become past tense. These are things that can only ever be reproduced, retold, re-imagined, but never, never laid to rest or resolved. There is no end to the story, only the story.

When writing about war, I am often at a loss as to how to proceed. I want to make the writing as dissonant as I can, to recreate a sense of disruption, of an essential brokenness. I want to make the writing as unobtrusive as I can, to have it slip easily into the mind, mild-mannered and unassuming, before revealing that it has been wearing a vest of explosives all along. But these are theoretical questions, questions of technique, and ultimately ways of distancing myself somehow from a raw wound at the core that simply and only begs to be told, no matter how.

But told to whom? Who is the reader I’m addressing when I am writing in English? It is not my mother tongue, though I feel almost at home in it, though I love it as if it were my own. Like any language, I know it is a tool, as available to raw beauty as it is to hegemonic violence. And I know the only way to redeem it for all of us who it marginalizes is to fight our way out of those margins and insist on being part of the text. But my English is a war wound. It is a result of the roughshod amputation of my mother tongue. Because we were forced, or rather, allowed the privilege to flee at an age when I was first learning to use my voice on the page. But it is a wound from a war much older than that. Because even before we left, I read mostly in English, I was encouraged to read mostly in English, I was complimented on my English, I was told, in a thousand different ways, that it was superior to Arabic, more accomplished, more intelligent, more likely to be taken seriously. It has taken me a long time to allow myself permission to use it as I wish, to break it and retake it without the secret childhood hope that the highest compliment that should be paid to my writing is that I sound like a native speaker.

And I wonder, what is it that brings me to the page? What brings me back, again and again, to the war? To the site of that wound and the need to try and make sense of it through language? Is it the desire to know or the desire to be known?

* * * *

Now I am back inside my childhood, in the world of malja’ and qazeefeh and msalaheen. Stopping at hajez after hajez. Learning the names of the many hawajez that strike fear into the heart of the Syrians. The same way Hajez el Berbara was notorious among some Lebanese—spoken of like a dread portal with its own metaphysical logic, either allowing you through and past or swallowing you up and disappearing you—the Syrians have Hajez el Muqass, Hajez el-Conserwa, Hajez al-Khanaser and countless, countless others. These were once names of common places, squares or streets or bridges crossed without a second thought, now made otherworldly borders with that prelude. The word itself a portal into the uncanny.

I stop at these checkpoints every time with my heart carried in my mouth like contraband that might be dropped or crushed or lost at any moment, knowing I will pass through, because there is a story on the other side of that hajez, but not knowing in what shape; not knowing what distortions that portal might work upon my body.

I often wonder, while working, if I should add an asterisk, an explanation, context, use those translator’s tools at my disposal to broaden the world beyond the page. To drive home a certain urgency; to explain how everyday objects become sinister or meaningless or numinous during wartime.

Windows. Clocks. Mirrors.

A Note on the Translation: war changes the laws of physics, bending time and space to its will.

Sometimes I do add notes, small parenthetical asides that are no real elucidations at all, for words I am familiar with but whose permutations accumulate, and other, new words, their meaning created and destroyed in the same moment by the explosion of violence.

Hisbah, for example. Qualified as (ISIS religious police), other times as (ISIS morality police). Does the word strike the same fear in your heart as it does mine, reader; does it elicit the same disgust that such flesh-hungry men might dare invoke the name of God and his morals, the God I have spent my whole life serving in my heart and dressing modestly for? Does it ignite the same incandescent rage as I watch these blasphemers from Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan and sometimes Europe and America, snatch my revolution, my revolution from my hands and use it to whip my back? I, who was willing to alienate myself from my family to print pamphlets and distribute them, organize rallies and advise people on the best way to run from tear gas and live bullets, defying even the men in my cell who said that revolution is no place for women?

Shabbiha, for example. Sometimes left as is, but italicized, since they are so common to the landscape of the Syrian war, predating as they do the Syrian war. Sometimes qualified as (secret police), others as (regime thugs or collaborators). Have I described them well enough that you understand, reader, how they are a monstrous thing that haunts and shadows, even though I cannot explain the aural recall of the word shabah, ghost? How they are the hell-hounds of Bashar al-Assad, willing to rip your life apart for whatever scraps their master throws their way? How they are one of the reasons we revolted, and that shucking our fear of them to march in the streets with heads held high and sure was the first revolution we enacted upon ourselves?

When I tell you of how I smuggled in fancy chocolates and trendy shoes through the checkpoints at a risk to my life, are you disappointed in us for not being pristine in our victimhood, or must I add a note to explain how even in siege people might prioritize luxury over necessity to live as opposed to merely survive?

When you hear me exclaim, over and over, “Alhamdulillah!”—“Praise God!”—when I hear that my son or husband has been killed by a sniper or carbomb or left gutted on the side of the road by the shabbiha (though we now use the word martyred for all the war dead, including two-week old daughters who die because of a siege on medical supplies), do you think me so twisted into barbarism by my baffling religion that I might truly find joy in this news, or must I add a note to explain that submitting to God’s will is the only way I have not to go utterly mad with grief fighting it?

When I tell you how my nine-year-old cousin was martyred his first day fighting on the frontlines, do you think us monstrous to have let him go, or must I add a note to explain how we have come to accept that in war the desire to fight and its attendant risk of death is something that doesn’t respect childhood?

You understand at least that merely lifting my voice to tell you these things is an act of trust, of faith in your ability to understand. And that I, as a translator, must if nothing else respect and reproduce the faith inherent in those words. To excise my paranoia about the English-language reader’s judgment from all my work. In that way, I am learning too that even as I speak of death and destruction, my every word becomes a force shored up against them as soon as it is written

* * * *

Often I imagine these women one day waking up and realizing that this is it. The end of this chapter. One day they open their eyes after blinking away a sleepless night spent worrying over the future minutes, the future years, and decide that whatever gamble they will be taking to leave is better than the gamble of staying. And so, in the quiet dawn of a room, in the midnight roar of barrels falling from the sky, they pack up what they cannot imagine leaving behind. They gather their children close and call their husbands, they pick up elderly parents and arrange whatever bundles they have made, that they are able to make, tight. They leave in droves or as single families, they leave in worn-out slippers, in trendy, sparkling heels, on bare feet, leaning on canes, clutching infants to their breasts. They leave behind their houses, their streets, their cities, their countries, their dead. And they set off out into the unknown, carrying the memory of all that they leave behind in their hearts and on their tongues, even if they carry nothing else. These they will resurrect in stories, and these stories will be passed on, and so they will endure. This is what they carry, this is what they bear. They are bearing their witness.

And we who listen to their stories are also bearing witness. Carrying something whose significance cannot be described in language, but must nevertheless be contained within it.

A journalist friend tells me about being in Greece, reporting on the arrival of refugees in Lesvos, rising from the sea both resurrected and, like Lazarus, irrevocably transformed by death. On the backs of the trucks circling the town is the word “metaphoros.” A Greek acquaintance explains that this means transport, and she is struck by this, as I am too when she tells me about it. How going back to the roots of language can reveal something essential about a word’s purpose. How stories might be transformed and disguised to pass through the world more easily, but still smuggle with them the same truth. And how the perfect metaphor for the acts of reading and writing, and the witness you must bear to perform each, is translation, specifically its Latin root: to cross, to carry over. For they all require an active form of engagement that is at once, paradoxically, an active form of surrender. You must bear the words, no matter how heavy or foreign or grotesque or strange, you must bear them with their full weight and allow them to carry you where they will, carry you so far into yourself you finally emerge into an understanding beyond. Beyond the self, beyond language. A place where you might, for endless moments, imagine that you have become someone else entirely, and thus emerge transformed, bearing back with you into the world the knowledge that such a place exists, that such metamorphosis is possible. I am not entirely sure how one does this. There are no maps to these territories that lie beyond the borders of that which is explicitly voiced. But I do know that the only way to evaluate what must be carried over and how, what can be sacrificed or modified and what at all costs must not be lost, is to journey across that border

Translation is a symbiotic act. Between writer and translator, of course, but also between languages. In becoming its vessel, you carry over something of yourself but also something of the original language, because that is the way that language works. It is a communal heritage, but is also something entirely individual, entirely your own. And that is what gives it its transformative possibility: this inevitable commingling of self and other, of self and culture, of personal history and collective history. Language gives the individual the power and strength of the collective. And writing, speaking, telling stories—wielding language in narrative form—has the ability to transform the collective through the individual experience. To cross over from that which is felt, experienced, to that which is voiced—for the purpose of witness and being witnessed—is each and every time the declaration of a singular understanding of what it means to be alive in the world. This opens up new spaces, new imagined possibilities, and those, through language, become part of the collective heritage.

It is the best form of resistance I can imagine for a world scarred with forbidding, categorical borders. Between the self and other, between where you come from and where you end up, between the personal narrative and collective history, between genders and cultures and languages and countries and the similar calls for dignity and recognition contained in stories. The only way to make borders meaningless is to keep insisting on crossing them: like a refugee, without papers, without waiting to be given permission, without regard for what might be waiting on the other side. For when you cross a border, you are not only affirming its permeability, but also changing the landscape on both sides. You cross carrying what you can carry, you cross bearing your witness, you cross knowing that you are damageable, that you are mortal and finite, but that language is memory, and memory lives on.

Istishhad: to be martyred; to die for a cause.

It is an especially difficult word to translate, because it has been so marred by blood and violence, so disfigured by zealotry and malice. It is a word that has been ripped from its roots, those that connect it to something so emblematic of what it means to be human, to be driven always by the twin desires of wishing to know and wishing to be known.

Its root: sh-h-d, witness. In its most literal form, istishhad in fact means: to have been witnessed. Witnessed by God, who is nothing, symbolically, if not the omniscient reader—and writer—of the human condition. To be witnessed is what gives one’s life meaning; that is what gives death its cause.

* * * *

And yet, despite all this, there are times when I am wrung out. When I wonder if there can be any consolation in the exulting of our collective ability to use language to heal and bridge and repair in the face of such violent ruptures of meaning. What is the use of such abstract consolation in the face of the hard, physical realities of hunger, of fear, of being forced to flee home, of being unable to flee home, of being a teenage girl who goes down to the cellar to get her pyjamas and is then caught on the landing by a hail of sniper bullets as her father and I watch helplessly from above, unable to pull her out of harm’s way?

“In a few minutes,” she writes, “the bullets stopped falling and my father came down and carried me into the house. Two bullets had pierced my foot and I had shrapnel wounds all over my body. When I saw all the faces around me and all their falling tears, I tried to console them.

‘Don’t cry,’ I said. ‘I’m alive, alive, alive.’”

Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator living and working in Beirut. Her work has appeared in Bidoun, Warscapes, The Berlin Quarterly and Chimurenga, and her first short story was published as part of the anthology Hikayat: An Anthology of Lebanese Women’s Writing, published by Telegram Books. She has translated, from Arabic to English, short stories by Chaza Charafeddine and Mazen Maarouf and a novel by Hassan Daoud. Among other things, she is at work on her first novel.

Thanks to Sam Charles Hamad for the heads-up and everything else. TRR

Between the Ages of 17 and 25

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Since Putin couldn’t smash Aleppo with his pal Bashar Assad, he is now going to provoke all-out war with Ukraine. Or he is going to play at provoking all-out war. Either way, he is going to have some fun.

In 1939, the Finns likewise “provoked” Stalin into invading Finland. Meaning that Stalin pretended to be provoked, and then went in guns blazing, getting three hundred thousand Soviet soldiers killed or wounded in the process.

There are oodles of serious problems with the Russian economy, which Putin shows no interest in solving, because really solving them would involve the self-liquidation of the  current elites. Although pumping up defense spending and, hence, the military-industrial complex, which is what he has been doing in the past few years, has been a temporary patch on some of those problems, of course.

It is funny and sad that Russians themselves don’t get tired of this merry-go-round, but they seem to be sinking ever deeper into various species of emigration, internal or actual, or what they themselves call a “second childhood.”

It is even funnier that Jill Stein, presidential candidate of the US Green Party, could believe she was doing the work of peace or “anti-imperialism” or whatever she thought she was doing when she dined with Putin in Moscow or that she could imagine the “crisis” in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine was caused by anything other than domestic Russian politics or, rather, the snowballing contradictions spinning off the tiny, eccentric orbit inhabited by the country’s president-for-life in all but name and his retinue of oligarchs and FSB veterans.

Anyone who thinks the Kremlin’s policies are a rational or predictable response to the “international situation” or the bad deal Russia allegedly got when the Soviet Union broke up is a complete fool or a bought-and-paid useful idiot. You can be traumatized by the “bad things” your parents did to you (unless they really were bad things) for only so long.

When, however, you have reached the ripe enough age of twenty-five, as the new Russia has this year, it is time to stop telling stories about your bad upbringing or how you grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.

In other words, this is all about the dead end Putin and his pals from the FSB and the Ozero Dacha Co-op drove the country into when they decided they would run Russia like Tony Soprano and his crew ran whatever they were pretending to be running in the fictional TV New Jersey.

Putin has flagrantly and criminally misruled Russia for seventeen years as of August 9. That is one year less than Brezhnev reigned as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. But Putin, to all appearances, is fit as a cello, unlike Brezhnev was in 1981, the year before he died.

Ugh. Happy new year.

Thanks to Comrade MT for the felicitous line about the cello. Photo by the Russian Reader

Kirill Mikhailov: Sins of the Fathers (Chechnya)

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Kirill Mikhailov
Facebook
January 15, 2016

I have noticed that in the controversy that has ensued around Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov everyone from Konstantin Senchenko to his opposition sympathizers have proudly mentioned their fathers who fought in Chechnya.

The Chechen operation was a series of bloody war crimes by the federal forces (and by the insurgents, but what can we demand of them now, when some of them are gone, and the rest are in Aleppo?) When you take pride in the Chechen War, you are proud of the abductions and torture. You are proud of the Tochka-U missile that fell in the middle of the Grozny market. You are proud of the tens of thousands (only according to official statistics) of civilians killed.

You are proud of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya for telling the truth about the war. You are proud of the occupation regime established there on the bayonets of your fathers and funded by your taxes. You are proud of the “pacification” of Chechnya at the cost of Kadyrov’s terrorist dictatorship, which is quite similar to the most odious Middle East regimes, like that of good old Bashar Assad.

As long as the terrorist regime concerned only the Chechen themselves, you were barely indignant. You only squeamishly wondered that such a wild region bore the name of Russia. You did not ponder the fact the police chief’s teenage bride, Luiza Goilabiyeva, was actually a Russian citizen, and that your fathers had fought for her right to have a Russian passport. You did not think that Adam Dikayev, forced to humiliate himself by walking on a treadmill in his underpants, was just as much a citizen of Russia as was, for example, Vlad Kolesnikov, who was driven to suicide.

But now it suddenly transpires that Kadyrov’s terrorist dictatorship has been terrorizing not only the Chechen people but all of Russia. I hope now the time has come to realize what pride in the bloodiest war in recent Russian history has come to. It has come to the fact the proud son of a great father mutters something into a camera held by one of Kadyrov’s gunman, trying not to stray from the prepared text.

So this does not happen again, we have to realize, among other things, that Konstantin Senchenko and Adam Dikayev are in the same boat, and the Chechen War is not our pride but our greatest shame.

Translation and photo, above, by the Russian Reader

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Critic of Chechen leader Kadyrov ‘apologises profoundly’
BBC News
January 16, 2016

A Russian politician who criticised Ramzan Kadyrov, the Russian-backed Chechen leader, has made a “profound” apology.

Konstantin Senchenko, a local politician in Siberia, had posted criticism of Mr Kadyrov on Facebook.

However, Mr Senchenko then posted a grovelling apology, leading to widespread speculation that he had been forced to do so.

Mr Kadyrov also uploaded a video of Mr Senchenko apologising on to Instagram.

In it Mr Senchenko is seen to say: “I apologise profoundly.”

“I was wrong—I let my emotions get the better of me,” he adds.

‘Disgrace’

The row began on Tuesday when Mr Kadyrov, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, branded some members of the opposition “enemies of the people and traitors” and called for them to be put on trial.

Mr Senchenko then wrote a Facebook post critical of Mr Kadyrov, calling him a “disgrace to Russia” and saying he should “get lost.”

He also implied that Mr Kadyrov was corrupt and ill-educated.

Beneath the Instagram video of Mr Senchenko’s subsequent apology, Mr Kadyrov wrote “I accept,” and added five smilies.

His own incendiary statement on Russia’s opposition is still displayed on his official website, unaltered, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford reports from Moscow.

Mr Kadyrov took charge of Chechnya with Kremlin support in 2007, and continued a long fight against Islamist rebels.

In exchange for loyalty to Russia, the authoritarian Chechen leader has been allowed to maintain his own security force and has largely had a free hand to run the southern Russian republic as he sees fit.

Human rights groups accuse Mr Kadyrov’s security forces of abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killings.

Syrias

Here are four very different but complementary reflections on the dangers of Putin’s new Syrian adventure by, respectively, an electrician and veteran grassroots activist, a sociologist, a magazine editor, and a political scientist and leftist activist.

A video released on YouTube claimed to show Russian air raids targeting the ruins of al-Rabiyah and Shinsharah near Kafranbel
A video released on YouTube claimed to show Russian air raids targeting the ruins of al-Rabiyah and Shinsharah near Kafranbel

George Losev
October 1, 2015
Facebook

Russia pacified the North Caucasus just as the US pacified Afghanistan. The Taliban have disappeared from the news but not from life.

The US has started many wars, and the Russian Federation has already started two. The US has got into conflicts in the Middle East primarily for domestic political reasons, and the Russian Federation has done the exact same thing.

The US lies constantly, and the Russian Federation does, too. (As do the EU, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and everybody else.)

But is there even a single reason to support the dispatch of Russian forces to Syria? There are no such reasons, just as there were no reasons to support the NATO bombing of Libya or the [US/UK] bombing of Iraq.

And now, as in the case of the war in Ukraine, just watch carefully and take note of what you see.

P.S. That is, while there is no chance to do anything more substantial.

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Greg Yudin
October 1, 2015
Facebook

You would have to be Putin, of course, to support Assad by way of restoring order.

Assad is a man who, in the past four years, has:

  • let slip an armed grassroots uprising;
  • permitted a civil war with hundreds of thousands of victims;
  • used chemical weapons against his own citizens;
  • allowed the full-scale deployment of an international terrorist group;
  • and lost control of two-thirds of his country.

And this man, of course, is the man who will pacify all of Syria and calm everyone down.

It has often been said of Putin that he takes a cynical (i.e., “realistic”) approach to foreign policy. It is nothing like this. In the case of Syria, it is Obama, who says we should get together and appoint them a leader who can restore order, who has taken the cynical approach.

The approach of Putin and his elite, however, is not cynical but stupid. The point of this approach is that you should always support the current regime. Simply put, the boss is always right just because he is the boss. They arrived at this hard-won conviction through their own uncomplaining obedience. This belief is the basis of their power and their philosophy in life. For its sake they are even willing to entangle themselves in an international conflict.

________

Alexander Feldberg
October 1, 2015
Facebook

Until today, this business with Syria seemed strange to me in the sense that it would not be easy to sweep the Russian people off its feet with it. I understand about small victorious wars, but I imagined that this was not like Ukraine, which is next door, or Hungarian geese, which we could even fondle with our own hands until recently. And then, we are talking about a country that has lived through a war in Afghanistan, despite the incomparable scale of the conflicts and so on. But this morning I was riding the subway and saw this guy, an ordinary guy in his forties with a decent face, even, a guy who looked a little like actor Yevgeny Mironov. This guy was riding the subway and looking at something on his telephone. He was not just looking but literally devouring the phone with his eyes and putting it next to his ear from time to time to make out the sound over the roar of the subway. (For some reason he was not using earphones.) I peeped a little and saw that Sergei Ivanov was on the screen of the dude’s phone. This was when I got curious and a bit anxious, because, on the one hand, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a normal person would get so excited by a speech by Sergei Ivanov. On the other hand, in the morning I had heard on the radio about the Federation Council, which Putin had again asked for authorization, just like that other time, and that had made me a little queasy. So I broke down and gently asked the man what was happening.

yevgeny mironov
Russian actor Yevgeny Mironov

“Sy-ri-a!” he mouthed to me, clearly afraid to miss something important in the broadcast.

Then he briefly turned to me again and sighed, “We are going to bomb!”

He said it as if a weight had finally been lifted from his shoulders, as if the going had been tough, but now, thank God, it had been decided.

And at that moment I had the terrible desire not to be here, to disappear somewhere completely. I realize this was cowardice, a momentary weakness, but I felt it all the same. And I also remember a conversation I had with Bob when we were sailing down the Irrawaddy River, and thought that perhaps he had been right: “You may hate him, but you cannot get rid of him.” I don’t want to be responsible for these motherfuckers. I don’t want to think constantly about whom else they have taken it into their heads to crush or bomb. Let them build underwater chapels for scuba divers and invisible bus stops, but please, please, don’t let them bomb anyone.

invisible bus stop
Officials opening an “invisible” bus stop in the village of Körtkerös, Komi Republic, on September 22

Bob
Bob, an Australian who looked like a gray-haired Homer Simpson, spoke intermittently and passionately, now and then dipping his elongated head into his third glass of claret.

“Very well, I know you Russians have it hard. You always have someone to answer for, either Putin or Stalin. ‘He’s Russian? Very well, let’s ask him about Putin.’ It’s the same crap with the Americans. At the drop of a hat they get told, ‘It’s all because you made a mess of things in Iraq, fellows!” You guys are constantly confused with someone else, with some big, important motherfucker. We have it much easier in this sense. ‘Australia? Isn’t that the place where there are kangaroos ?’ We are just Aussies, you know, Alex? I travel where I wish, live where I can earn money, and nobody is going to torment me with your Putin.”

“I already told you,” I replied, “I don’t like Putin.”

“Bingo!” Bob roused himself. “You may hate him, but you cannot get rid of him. Although I know that things are even more complicated in Russia. You Russians hate yourselves most of all.”

Then, in keeping with the conventions of bad movies, Bob laughed heartily and, winking conspiratorially, said, “I’ve read Tolstoyevsky!”

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Ilya Matveev
October 1, 2015
Facebook

If I were in Putin’s shoes I would think hard about the following paradox. Of course, you can accuse America of “destroying sovereignty” everywhere from Libya to Ukraine all the time. But America cannot just up and destroy sovereignty. It can encourage the opposition. It can even drop bombs. But it is not capable of just up and destroying state institutions themselves. The problem is that wherever a state has collapsed, it had already been weak. And a state’s weakness lies in the absence of its autonomy vis-à-vis narrow group interests, be they elite clans, oligarchs, tribes, and so on. A weak state is also labeled “patrimonial,” meaning it has been “privatized” by particular interests. This weak state syndrome was typical of absolutely all the countries Putin thinks the State Department got to. The paradox is that the Russian state, the Putinist state, is weak. It has low autonomy vis-à-vis elite groupings, and its formal institutions are window dressing for backroom deals. The more Putin “immunizes” the state from the opposition, the “fifth column,” and so, the more he strengthens precisely these same elite groups, all those Sechins and other “friends of the president,” who have an interest in weak institutions. Thus, everything Putin does only weakens the state. The easiest way to illustrate all this is with the dilemma of his successor. Putin has built a state in which no one knows what will happen after Putin, including himself. Ukraine-scale chaos is quite possible at the very least; Libya-scale chaos, at the very most. But unlike Libya and even Ukraine, Putin will only have himself to blame for this. After fifteen years, there is nothing left of the government, the parliament or the courts. All that remains are Putin’s “friends” and his “manual control.” It is a sure bet that the State Department and American imperialism are not to blame for this. In this case, it is homemade.

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My thanks to George Losev, Greg Yudin, Alexander Feldberg, and Ilya Matveev for their permission to translate and publish their remarks here. Click on the links, above, to read their previous contributions to this blog. Images courtesy of the Telegraph/YouTube, Tochka.net, and Zvezdakomi.ru