The Testimonial Imperative

Alexei Kungurov. Photo courtesy of the New Chronicle of Current Events
Alexei Kungurov. Photo courtesy of the New Chronicle of Current Events

Amendment from “Yarovaya Package” Applied for First Time in Tyumen
FSB Asks Reporters to Help Prove Blogger Kungurov’s Guilt
Georgy Borodyansky
Novaya Gazeta
October 13, 2016

The FSB’s Tyumen Regional Office has asked a number of Urals region media to help it find evidence against blogger Alexei Kungurov, in particular, “to provide the investigation with articles of his that contain public insults to the authorities and other information worthy of the attention of law enforcement and regulatory authorities.”

The request could also be considered a demand. As Anton Yulayev, a reporter for Znak.com and one of the people who received the letter from the FSB, told Novaya Gazeta, the letter contains a reference to the legal norm obliging recipients to respond to it.

“Our lawyers are now trying to solve this dilemma: how to respond without harming Alexei, and in such a way that the FSB has no beef with us,” explained Yulayev.

The appeal made by the FSB’s Tyumen Region Office is a new legal norm [sic] introduced by the so-called Yarovaya package. Alexei Zyryanov, Kungurov’s attorney, explained the implications to Novaya Gazeta.

“Previously, you could ignore a letter like this, but now you can’t. Basically, the law has introduced criminal liability for the failure to inform,” said Zyryanov.

The liability is spelled out in Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 206.6, which entered into force on July 20, 2016. It says that “non-reporting of terrorist crimes” is punishable by a fine of 100,000 rubles or by up to one year in prison. If individuals know something about another individual who is planning to commit such a crime or has committed such a crime, but do not report their information to law enforcement agencies, they can be found guilty.

Blogger Alexei Kungurov has been held for five months in pre-trial detention facility on charges of “public justification of terrorism.” Investigators found evidence of such a crime in a post the blogger published on his LiveJournal page in October of last years. Entitled “Who Putin’s falcons are really bombing,” the post is still in the public domain.

On October 11, 2016, Tyumen’s Central District Court extended Kungurov’s arrest another two months, until December 15. Investigators motivated their request for the extension on the grounds that they had not managed “to carry all necessary [investigative] actions” over the previous four months. According to Zyryanov, they had not carried out any actions at all. They had been waiting the whole time for the outcome of the linguistic forensic investigation.

Why has the linguistic forensic investigation taken so long? Zyryanov surmises that the forensic experts were faced with a tough job: proving that Kungurov’s argument that Islamic State (an organization banned in Russia) “is hardly the most terrible and crazy [organization]” somehow justifies terrorism.

On October 13, the lead investigator informed the lawyer that the findings from the forensic examination had finally arrived.

“I haven’t examined them in detail yet,” said Zyryanov, “but the conclusion is predictable: there is evidence of a crime in Alexei’s article.”

It would have been difficult to hope for another outcome, because the forensic examination was performed by a bureau of the very same agency that has charged the blogger, the FSB’s Sverdlovsk Regional Office, rather than its Tyumen Regional Office.

The results of another forensic examination are still pending. It will determine the originality of Kungurov’s article that, allegedly, “justifies terrorism,” whether it was written wholly by Kungurov, or whether he borrowed it, wholly or partly, from someone else. Then the case will be sent to trial, apparently.

Why do the secret services need the media’s help? According to Zyryanov, investigators do not have conclusive proof of Kungurov’s guilt, and they are attempting the shore up their case. But it is also possible the FSB has decided to test the new law out on the journalistic community by forcing independent periodicals, which can be counted on one hand in the Urals (the others simply could not afford to publish Kungurov’s articles), into giving “testimony.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Alexander Verkhovsky for the heads-up

Facebook Is Fun! (Islamophobia in Russia)

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Oil on canvas, 491 cm x 716 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Oil on canvas, 491 cm x 716 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

My memories of kindergarten are fairly fuzzy by now, but I do seem to recall we did a lot of sharing. This, I think, explains why the dark satanic mill known as Facebook has become so indispensable and popular in our modern world. Like kindergarten, it’s all about sharing.

For instance, this morning I was feeling fairly glum about the ongoing slaughter in Aleppo, the apparently total indifference my Russian friends (and “friends”) feel about the role their armed forces have been playing in this massacre, and my inability to do anything about any of this, much less changing anyone’s mind.

Apparently, Facebook even has algorithms for detecting when you’re feeling blue, and like a cheery kindergarten minder in such circumstances, it gets you involved in some fun sharing to buck you up.

This was what Facebook decided to share with woebegone me this morning.

shared

“At Venice Film Festival, Sokurov Says European and Muslim Aesthetics Incompatible,” reads the headline on Newsru.com, an alarmist Russophone news website based in Israel.

When I clicked on it, the item turned out to be old news, an article, dated September 8, 2015, quoting controversial statements made at last year’s Venice Film Festival by the Petersburg auteur Alexander Sokurov, who was in Venice to debut his latest indisputable masterpiece, Francofonia.

Presenting his film Francofonia at the Venice Film Festival, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov said the European and Muslim aesthetics were incompatible. Calling for an end to “the endless and pointless incursions,” to immigration by an alien culture, Sokurov thus polemicized with the chair of the festival jury, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who earlier had suggested solving Europe’s rampant immigration crisis by organizing entry for the immigrants. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra reported on Francofonia and Sokurov’s statements.

Presenting what the newspaper called “a brilliant allegorical tale about the Old Continent through its museum symbol, the Louvre,” Sokurov said, “History teaches us nothing. Prudence and compassion are alien to history.”

“Europe, which has attained supreme achievements in art and philosophy, keeps making one mistake after another,” said the Russian maître, as quoted by InoPressa.

“What is happening, these endless and pointless incursions [or, invasions], seem like an indescribable nightmare, a humanitarian catastrophe in the face of which ordinary people are powerless, and politicians do nothing. And no one thinks to protect our culture, which will cease to exist quite soon,” the filmmaker continued.

[…]

The Italian periodical described the action of the film as follows: a ship that must bring European culture to a safe haven sails into a storm. If it sinks, its precious cargo will be irrevocably lost to all Europeans.

“Europe finds itself on The Raft of the Medusa, as in the famous painting by Théodore Géricault, exhibited in the Louvre. Just like the frightening boats, crowded with desperate people making their way to our shores.”

The article here refers to the numerous cases of the illegal delivery [sic] by sea (sometimes ending in tremendous loss of life) of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

During the presentation of his film, Sokurov called for “a stop to these migrations.”

“To really help these people, it is necessary to intervene in the countries from which they are escaping and try to solve the problems there. Instead, we pile them up together here, where they have no prospects, and try and impose our TV lifestyle on them,” he argued.

“The outcome will be catastrophic for both parties,” the filmmaker warned.

Sokurov was certain that “our aesthetic and the Muslim aesthetic are incompatible.”

“With all due respect, we must maintain a distance and protect our culture from the iconoclastic fury that is destroying it,” said the filmmaker.

He reminded the audience of the total destruction of unique landmarks in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, by militants from the terrorist group Islamic State, which is banned in the Russian Federation.

Recently, the extremists blew up three tombs of local patricians in the captured city. Earlier, they demolished the Temple of Baalshamin (2nd century BC) and the Temple of Bel, consecrated to the supreme Semitic deity [sic].

“Even the Nazis would have not dared to do what has happened in Palmyra,” said Sokurov.

I have quoted at length the day brightener Facebook chose for me, because it amply demonstrates a sad but irrefutable fact. Islamophobia is a perfectly common attitude and a perfectly respectable political “stance” in Russia, adopted and bruited loudly and publicly by well-read, highly educated members of the “liberal” Russian intelligentsia, as evinced here by one of their darlings, Alexander Sokurov.

This, in turn, explains the near-total silence of “liberal” and even “leftist” Russians on the destruction of Aleppo.

Let me put it as crudely as possible. Despite the court judgement handed down on popular blogger Anton Nosik the other day, a really large number of educated “white” Russians think Muslims are subhumans whom, if push comes to shove or your “civilizational project” has got bogged down and you cannot think of anything better to do, can be slaughtered with impunity and without blinking. In fact, it is better for one’s digestion, state of mind, and personal pursuit of high culture (per Sokurov) to put a mental wall between yourself and whatever is happening to the Muslims in your midst, or to the Muslim Crimean Tatars in Crimea, or to the Muslims in Grozny (back in the first years of Putin’s perpetual reign), or to the Muslims in Aleppo.

If you think I am exaggerating, I invite you to come to the Motherland and have heart-to-heart chats with a sampling of members of the so-called intelligentsia. In some cases (but not, happily, all cases) you will come away thinking you’ve just spent time with Trump supporters, UKIP cacklers, BNP bruisers or clowns from the KKK.

But the funny thing about Facebook is that it is not the only satanic mill on the oppressively vast World Wide Web. Nowadays, you can also ask something called Google whatever question your wicked heart can conceive—for example, how many Muslims are there in Russia?

“In Europe overall, however, Russia’s population of 14 million Muslims (10%) is the largest on the continent.”

Yikes!

Where did all those Russian Muslims come from? Did they immigrate to the Motherland from Syria and other majority Muslim countries?

No, despite the recent heavy influx of migrant workers from the Muslim Central Asian republics (once also part of Russia, in its guise as the Soviet Union), which has even more recently been waning due to the bad economy, among other factors, most of Russia’s Muslims were born and bred in the Russian Federation. Thus, to the outside world, they are “Russians,” if not to many of their fellow Russian citizens, who probably cannot get their heavily bookish heads around such funny facts as Moscow’s being the largest Muslim city in Europe.

You would think that, with so many Russian Muslims and post-Soviet Muslims sharing (there is our keyword again!) your cities, towns, and villages with you, you would not want to go out of your way to antagonize Muslims for no reason at all.

(Not because they are touchier than your average bear, but just because no one in this world enjoys being kicked around for years on end just because they’re different.)

But that is what the Russian government has been doing in Syria, and that is what significant numbers of Russia’s best and brightest have been doing for a long time now, if only rhetorically, if only at the Venice Film Festival, on Facebook or in their kitchens.

The consequences, both now and in the future, could not be more miserable, especially for the alleged “European” culture that only Russian intelligenty and European neo-Nazis seem to get so exercised about.

Thanks, Facebook, for cheering me up! I knew I could count on you. TRR

Crazy Train (In Praise of Boris Johnson)

Except for riding a bike to work when he was mayor of London, calling on people to go to Russian embassies and protest Russia’s sickening, brutal behavior in Syria may have been the only sensible thing Boris Johnson has done in his life, especially given what it has revealed not about him and his alleged hypocrisy (nearly all powerful politicians, even the ones we adore, are horrible hypocrites) but about the psycho-tactical dimension of the Kremlin’s otherwise unmotivated bombing campaign. The properly “hysterical” reaction to Mr. Johnson’s modest proposal by the Russian MoD and the Kremlin is a mirror of the deafening silence on what is happening in Aleppo from the (nonexistent) Russian public. Actually, this deafening silence and meek acceptance are also how the Russian authorities expect, in their “logical” mode,” “the west” and “the international community” to react to their Borg-like crushing of all living life in Syria. So, “logically,” they throw a tantrum and snort fire when anyone has the temerity, like Mr. Johnson, to notice what they’re doing and call it what it is. On the other hand, in their “irrational” mode, whose ultimate expression is rebranding a country that is coming apart at the seams infrastructurally, intellectually, educationally, politically, economically, aesthetically, environmentally, demographically, morally, religiously, ethnically, industrially, socially, etc., into a “reemergent super power,” not for any higher purpose such as “communism” or anything nice sounding like that, but only in order to keep Putin and Co. in power for the rest of their natural lives, the Russian authorities really do want literally everyone in the world to pay attention to what they are doing in Syria and to be awed, to be impressed. That is, to remonstrate, throw fits, descend on their embassies, send them poison pen letters, whatever. Naturally, they don’t want them to go much farther than that, though that might be “fun” too, given that the “development program” they have sketched for their country amounts to suiciding it every which way possible.

This is the only time in my life I have genuinely felt a wan bit of liking for Boris Johnson. If only for exposing what the Stop the War Coalition really are (“Stalinist running dogs” is the proper term, I believe), he deserves a knighthood or a year of free lunches at Subway. TRR

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Hero for a day. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

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

Talk of the Town

You would be forgiven if you imagined Russia’s liberal, leftist, technical, creative, conservative and other intelligentsias were abuzz right now with righteous anger or triumphant glee about what the country’s air force (now officially known, bizarrely, as the Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS) has been up to in Syria and, more specifically, Aleppo, these days.

No, many of them are terribly exercised, in various directions, about the controversy over an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges in Moscow.

This was borne out by the websites of some of the country’s leading dailies this morning.

vedomosti-syria

The liberal Vedomosti, a business-oriented newspaper, listed its top stories this morning. The top story was entitled “Faces in a Queue for the iPhone 7”; the second most-read story was about the Sturges show.

True, Vedomosti readers are serious lads and lassies, so the number three story was about Syria. It was headlined, “Five World Powers and EU Demand Decisive Steps from Russia in Syria.”

Earlier today, I posted a few bits from the bizarre article about yesterday’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, published in the country’s other serious, formerly liberal, business daily, Kommersant.

Similarly, Moskovsky Komsolomets could not figure out what its readers would find more titillating: reading about how the VKS’s top guns were bombing Aleppo to smithereens or how astroturfed patriots were threatening the God-given right of every self-respecting intelligent to implement Dostoevsky’s maxim that beauty would save the world.

mk-syria

By way of splitting the difference, this morning’s website featured a picture of a chap obviously meant to embody the most average-looking Russian bloke on earth, sadly contemplating one of Sturges’s blasphemous nudes, while a sidebar headline shouts, “Everyone [sic] Is Bombing: Churkin Thinks Peace Impossible in Syria.”

Izvestia has become a particularly noxious loudspeaker for the regime in the past years, so the front page of its website contained a fair number of articles and op-ed pieces chockablock with baldfaced lies about the bloodbath in Aleppo, but at least it had the dignity not to yield to the fake moral panic brewing around the Sturges show.

The relative paucity of Russian media coverage of the Syrian conflict and publicly accessible grassroots reactions was confirmed by the following completely unscientific Google search.

“Джок Стержес” (“Jock Sturges”) got 12,000 more hits than “бомбардироква Алеппо” (“bombing Aleppo”), even though, one could argue, the bombing of Aleppo by somebody or other has been a more topical item in the news for a longer time than Jock Sturges, whatever his longevity or virtues as a contemporary artist.

Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “Jock Sturges” in Russian, September 26, 2016
Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in Russian, September 26, 2016

When I did the same search (“bombing Aleppo”) in English, I got over a million hits.

Results of Google for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in English, September 26, 2016

Certainly, we immediately have to factor in the sheer numbers of Anglophone media and readers in the world. There are quite a few more of both than there are Russophone media and readers, and so one would expect to find more responses to particular topics of global interest in English than in Russian.

But what about the vox pop?

An even more unscientific survey of the Russophone segment of Facebook this morning (that is, the part of the segment to which I have access, amounting to several hundred people, most of whom could be identified as intelligentsia or quasi-intelligentisa) showed that quite a few people were up in arms over the Sturges show or coolly editorializing about it to their extended communities of invisible friends, while literally no one was writing anything about Syria.

This has been the case for the past year. Not only that, but I have shared a fairly large number of articles and opinions about Syria, including my own, over that time, and have elicited a total of zero likes and comments from my Russian Facebook friends.

Non-Russian friends, on the contrary, like and comment on these posts in the same numbers as they and their Russian counterparts usually react to the other, non-Syrian things I write about.

Maybe I have the wrong Russian friends, but my hypothesis is that “politically engaged” or “socially conscious” Russians are literally afraid to say or write anything in public about the Syrian conflict. They have the good sense to know that their president-for-life has sunken his teeth into this geopolitical chew toy and has no intention of unclenching them.

Hence, anyone foolish enough to comment on this catastrophic attempt to reassert an increasingly impoverished country as a super power might get themselves in trouble with the powers that be. Over the last year, they have been hauling in utterly ordinary people  on “extremism” charges in fairly large numbers for reposting or commenting on the most innocuous things on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.

Even more telling, there has not been a single public demonstration in Russia against Russian military involvement in Syria during the past year—to my knowledge, at least.*

Again, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. The current Russian regime has gone out of its way to make public demonstrations and pickets an unattractive pastime for all but the bravest of Russians.

Still, the war in Syria is the central international conflict of our time, and Russia’s best and brightest have literally nothing to say about it, even though their nominally elected government has not been merely a party to the conflict, but has come firmly down on one side, arguably, the wrong side, the side causing the most damage.

I find this deafening public silence about Syria more disturbing than anything else happening in Russia right now.

* After I posted this, Comrade BN wrote the following to me: “In Moscow last year there were some very small pickets protesting against the war in Syria, and the people who organized it attempted to set up an anti-war committee. As far as I know, though, the authorities pretty much intimidated them with varying degrees of extremity into giving up.”

“It’s Doomsday Right Now in Aleppo”

Late-breaking news from the Bizarro World:

Despite the fact the breakdown of the ceasefire achieved through the mediation of Russia and the United States was preceded by systematic ceasefire violations on the part of the opposition, to which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov drew the attention of his western counterparts, the initiators of the emergency meeting of the Security Council tried to emphasize violations on the part of Damascus.

[…]

Given the abruptly increasing pressure from the West, the opposition, which the West calls “moderate,” has also delivered a new blow to Moscow’s peacekeeping efforts. A communiqué by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which unites thirty groups, states that, “as a sponsor and partner of a regime committing crimes against our people,” Moscow’s further mediation is unacceptable.

In this situation, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, was forced to admit for the first time, during the Security Council meeting, that a return to peace in Syria had become an almost impossible task.

Source: Kommersant, September 25, 2016; translated by the Russian Reader

Meanwhile, back on our planet:

As the situation in Syria worsens, the White Helmets are risking their lives to save Syrians trapped and injured by airstrikes and fighting.

They’re a group of volunteers who act as first responders to bombardments.

Ammar Salmo is a spokesman for the White Helmets who says the situation on the ground is worsening by the day.

‘It’s doomsday right now in Aleppo,’ he says.

‘I want the people of the world to move, to make something for humanity.’

Source: “Breakfast,” ABC Radio National, September 26, 2016

Superpowers Unite!

screen-shot-2013-07-02-at-9-22-42-am-300x171

Wow! This sounds nifty!

Russia could be poised to become a super power again after agreeing with the US to launch what amounts to a joint air campaign against the two main extreme Islamist groups in Syria. If the ceasefire that starts at sunset on Monday holds for seven consecutive days and the UN is able to deliver aid to besieged people in Aleppo, then the US and Russia will establish “a joint implementation centre” that will organise joint military targeting by American and Russian aircraft directed against Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda which has relabelled itself – with al-Qaeda publicly assenting to a break with its affiliate – as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

But wait a minute. Isn’t the Independent, where this “wish a little wish for once-mighty Russia” was published, owned by Alexander Lebedev, a “former” KGB officer, and his dashing son Evgeny Lebedev?

I won’t even bother to ask the stupid question of why a “former” KGB officer was allowed to buy one of England’s leading newspapers.

In case you’re wondering why I’ve put “former” in quotation marks, I’m drawing on no less an authority on the subject than Vladimir Putin, who once famously said, “There is no such thing as a former KGB man.”

I’ll ask another question instead.

Does this sound like a “superpower” to you?

Pain and despair have seized the country. Russians are losing their jobs. They cannot pay back their debts and feed their children. Due to constant problems and the lack of apparent prospects, families are falling apart. Some make desperate decisions, finally putting an end to their lives. Russia is losing people.

Image courtesy of Susan Baroncini-Moe and MyFBCovers.com

The Life of Eygeny

Evgeny Lebedev, publisher of The Independent
Evgeny Lebedev, publisher of The Independent

While having a gander this morning at how Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s premier liberal newspaper, has been covering the Syrian conflict in recent months, I stumbled across this op-ed piece, essentially an open letter to the British establishment, dated November 6, 2015. Published in the (mostly nonexistent) “English version” of the paper’s website and headlined “Britain must make Vladimir Putin an ally in the disaster that is Syria,” the piece is attributed to “Eygeny [sic] Lebedev, Publisher, The Independent, London.”

To cut to the chase, Evgeny Lebedev (his actual name) who has dual UK-Russian citizenship, it transpires in the piece, wants Britain to make common cause with Russia against the Islamic threat, to wit:

“There may be up to 7,000 Russian nationals who are in Syria as a result of being radicalized. Moscow, not a multicultural city in the way that London is, and run by an administration that is much more militarily decisive because it doesn’t put all big decisions to Parliament [sic], is clear: these terrorists must be killed, before they return to Russia to wreak havoc.

“On that point, Britain and Russia should be of like mind. We, too, know that there are many British citizens who have been radicalised and, for unfathomable reasons, decided to flee to this anarchic region and fight against all the things readers of this newspaper take for granted: democracy, peace, civilization.

“We have common cause with the Russians [sic], a common enemy. The biggest threat to humanity today is cancerous, Islamist ideology that is growing fast right across the world—one that claims, with what truth we don’t yet know, to be behind the weekend’s tragic plane crash in Egypt’s Sinai desert.

“Not for nothing did the head of our [sic] security services say last week that the terror threat in Britain is the highest it has been in his 32-year career.

“Destroying this cancer, or plague, at source could hardly be more worthwhile or urgent; and yet, rather than work with the Russians [sic] to do this, we seem intent on cutting ties instead.

“Britain should not be leaving it to the French to mediate between Russia and the West. For all the greatness of this island nation, for all its hard and soft power, there is a laxity in our [sic] approach to the Syrian crisis.”

If you want to find out more about the exciting life of the fine fellow who penned this, avail yourself of Wikipedia’s bio of the man.

I think your eyes should pop out of your head when you realize that the son of a KGB First Chief Directorate spy and Russian oligarch is nowadays a respectable man about town and media mogul in London, the exact same place where his wealthy dad used to do his spying back in the bad old days. But then again, neither you nor I are as worldly as publisher Lebedev and his dad, so what do we know?

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The Two-State Solution (Racism and the Russian Intelligentsia)

Boris Akunin
Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin:

In Russia, two distinct, completely dissimilar peoples live side by side, and these peoples have long been bitterly hostile towards each other. (May the Byzantine double-headed eagle that Ivan the Third selected as the country’s emblem go to hell in a hand basket.)

There is Us and there is Them.

We have our own heroes: Chekhov, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Sakharov.

They have their own heroes: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and now Putin.

Members of the two nations recognize each other at first glance and experience a pang of acute dislike that selfsame second. We do not like anything about Them: the way They look, talk, carry themselves, rejoice and grieve, dress and undress. Their favorite singers, films, and TV shows make us sick. They pay Us in kind, and with interest.

Apart from Us and Them, there are just plain folk, who make up the majority of the population. We and They are constantly trying to win over this neither-fish-nor-fowl, to introduce them to our values.

What do you think should be done with this reality? Should we kill each other?

—Excerpted from Boris Akunin and Mikhail Shishkin, “Conversation between a Novelist and a Writer,” July 30, 2013

Our Swimmer

While there seems to be a fair amount of self-irony, in the comments, above, by the famed Russian detective novel writer Boris Akunin, I cannot help laughing when I read such exercises in self-praise by the so-called Russian intelligentsia and, at the same time, recall something that happened to me several years ago when I was running a summer study program in Petrograd for an American university.

Our students lived with Russian host families, and fitting student to host family was not always a snap, but it was mostly doable. That particular summer, however, more students had signed up for the program than ever before, and our limited resources were stretched thin. So I was taking recommendations from whomever I could get them, rather than relying only on the list of potential host families provided by our partners at the state university here in town.

That is how found myself visiting a couple in their flat somewhere in the city’s Central District. It was in a Stalin-era building, but the couple proudly informed me right away that Oleg Basilashvili, a well-known screen and stage actor and liberal intelligentsia icon, was a neighbor. They, too, were members of the creative intelligentsia. One of them was a theater critic, while the other had something to do with the Conservatory, I seem to remember.

The point, as I had already told them over the phone, was that I had one student left to place with a family, a male student. They, it transpired, had a teenage daughter. Would it be a problem for them to have a male student living in the same flat as their daughter? No, it would not be a problem, they told me.

Given the reputation of the university I was representing, they might have imagined I would be setting them up with a blond scion of a New England old money, so if their daughter was whisked off her feet over the summer or merely made useful connections in high places, what could be the harm?

As we were wrapping our conversation at their flat, having ironed out almost all the practical details, the couple thought to ask me what the young man’s name was.

“Diego,” I said.

My answer literally sent their eyes spinning in circles and smoke shooting from their ears. All it took was the “wrong” name for them to imagine a summer of their daughter basking in the glow of old American money with a patina of academic respectability turning into the constant threat of rape and ravishment at the hands of a “hot-blooded Latino.”

And they told me that in so many words, all the while denying that they were what they were—racists.

The funny thing was that Diego was gay in every sense of the word: fun to be around, a kind, sweet-hearted young man, and no “threat” to their precious daughter. But since Oleg Basilashvili’s neighbors had already outed themselves as racists, I did not want to hang around and find out whether they were homophobes as well.

I was more naïve than I am now. Although I had already had many encounters with “casual” racism and anti-Semitism Russian style, Petrograd had not yet arrived at the bad part of its mid noughties, when more proactive racists than my intelligentsia couple would ever want to be began assaulting and murdering immigrants, foreigners, anti-fascists, and members of Russian ethnic minorities in especially large numbers.

But I was not naïve enough to try and plead Diego’s case to these assholes. I immediately left their precious den of culture-vulturehood and hit the streets, cursing them out loud while also trying to think of a back-up plan.

That it is when I thought of our long-time acquaintance F.A., who had nannied the young son of a friend for years, and even had cooked for our family for a short while when we were in a bad spot. By no means was F.A. a member of the ballyhooed intelligentsia, which was not to say that she was uneducated or crude or anything but kind, loving, funny, smart, warm, and one of the best cooks I have ever met in my life. Besides that, she had worked in a factory her whole life, doing quality control, and she was Jewish.

When I telephoned her and told her what the deal was, she did not hesitate a second to welcome Diego into her home.

Needless to say, Diego and F.A. hit it off and had a great time in each other’s company that summer.

So when, a while later, I was asked to find temporary summer accommodation in Petrograd for another young gay Latino man, I could think of no better hostess than F.A. They also hit it off famously.

This is my roundabout way of saying something that has only been confirmed ten thousand times since by experiences both personal and vicarious: the liberal Russian intelligentsia is not all it is cracked up to be. It is often not particularly liberal or progressive, and is just as likely to be as Putinist or more Putinist than Putin’s mythical alleged “base” among industrial workers and peasants in the “Russian heartlands” or the “simple folk” in the big cities. If anything, my own experience has been that, on the contrary, these simple folk are not so simple and not so automatically inclined to putinize the world around them, much less racialize it.

There are just as many bigots and racists among the “Russian liberal intelligentsia” as there are among the Russian lower classes, maybe more.

Whatever the case, the fact that many Russian liberals have loose reactionary, racist screws in their brains has become apparent from the rabid reactionary discourse that has sprung up within Russia’s talking, thinking, and writing classes around the “refugee crisis” in Europe and the fresh clashes between Israelis and Palestinians..

Yegor Osipov and Kirill Kobrin’s attempts, below, to counter this utterly irrational discourse might seem mild outside of this context, but they are welcome contributions to a debate that it is most remarkable for its near-total absence from Russian public life.

Yegor Osipov
Yegor Osipov

Humanizing Palestinians
Yegor Osipov
October 21, 2015
Radio Svoboda

“Maybe Israel does not behave perfectly in the Occupied Territories, but this is no justification for terrorism.” This comment on Facebook is nearly the most moderate gesture of support for Israel in connection with the new wave of Palestinian terrorism. Despite the fact that nothing justifies terrorism, the situation requires clarification.

Unfortunately, Russian commentators often forget the fact that Israel occupies around 60% of the West Bank and has been building settlements there for its own citizens. (Despite the fact that the Oslo Accords stipulated this state of affairs was only temporary.) They forget the Jewish settlements are built so as to significantly impede the movement of Palestinians between their towns and prevent the expansion of these towns. They forget that between 2000 and 2012 Israel demolished over two and a half thousand Palestinian buildings, buildings for which it, as the occupying power, had not issued construction permits. They forget that Israel restricts the access of tens of thousands of Palestinians to water, forcing them to pay much more for it than Jewish settlers living nearby. They forget that the IDF keeps troops in the West Bank who are engaged only in maintaining the occupation: a noise grenade there, a noise grenade here, searches of houses (women to the right, men to the left), and so on every other night. This tactic is called “mak[ing] our presence felt,” and sometimes it leads to innocent victims. Without knowing this, you might think that Israel and the West Bank were different planets, but in fact both political entities depend on each other. The West Bank depends on virtually everything that happens in Israel, while Israel (and this becomes clear during waves of terror) depends on the social climate in the West Bank.

The situation with the Gaza Strip, about which Russians also do not know very much, is quite different. In 2005, after the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and military personnel, the Gaza Strip was declared territory to which Israel had no obligations because it had “ended the occupation,” although it continued to implement land, sea, and air control of the Strip. After Hamas came to power and began rocket attacks on the southern part of the Jewish state, Israel proclaimed the Strip a “hostile entity” and established a blockade of the area along with Egypt, essentially locking around 1,800,000 people in an open-air prison.

In July 2014, in response to the murder of three Jewish teenagers by Palestinian terrorists, Israel launched an operation in the Gaza Strip, killing more than 2,200 people. Last summer, Jewish terrorists tossed Molotov cocktails at an Arab house, burning alive three members of the family who lived there, including an 18-month-old baby. Israel has yet to indict the terrorists. Some people manage to include this in the “Jewish people’s struggle for survival.” I think it only plays into the hands of anti-Semites the world over. But anti-Semitism, according to a newly released US State Department report on levels of religious freedom in the world, is once again on the rise, and the bias of the UN Security Council and the world’s leading media in favor of Palestine [sic] has not gone away.

Whether Israel will cope with the current wave of terror is a big question, because what is happening is not an intifada, which involves the coordination of armed protest. Today, we are seeing one-off attacks by ordinary Palestinians in no way linked to terrorist organizations. This is desperation after nearly half a century of occupation and the continuing colonization of Palestinian lands by Israelis. Last Friday, Benjamin Netanyahu, who during the recent elections declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, urged Mahmud Abbas to negotiate. But it is very likely that, as Israel’s main partner (just compare Abbas and Arafat), Abbas will be unable to help calm the situation. According to reports by Israel’s security services, the leader of the Palestinian Authority has been trying to resist the current wave of violence as it is. All this only shows that the situation is critical.

However, for the Russian intelligentsia, Israel continues to be a place it prefers to discuss with eyes wide shut and using generalizations like the “clash of civilizations.” Divided, like Europe, over the issue of taking in refugees, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Russian intellectuals, with few exceptions, adopt an uncompromising pro-Israeli stance. Reposts of videos from Israeli hospitals showing “ungrateful” Arabs are accompanied by captions such as “Watch this!” or “Read this!” Others post pictures of the Israeli flag emblazoned with the slogan “Yes! I stand with Israel! Share if you do, too!”

​​The rising wave of support for Israel points to the Orientalist bent of Russian minds, with the classic traits of Orientalism. The eastern, Arab world of Islam is incapable, allegedly, of solving its own problems. This world must always be guided by an “intelligent” West, a role that is often assigned to Israel, because Arabs are fundamentally incapable of changing themselves and their societies. The great Edward Said writes in the preface to Mourid Barghouti’s book I Saw Ramallah that the novel’s translator has done her job excellently, and in the English translation “[t]he Palestinian experience is therefore humanized and given substance in a new way.” Russian intellectuals, however, are not yet willing to humanize Palestinians. Indeed, what difference does it make that Asraa Zidan Tawfik Abed, who tried to stab a soldier in Afula and was gunned down, is a mother of three who holds a degree from Technion University in Haifa?

It is unclear how the conflict will end. It is clear only that the conflict is likely to be another turning point in Israel’s history, the next step after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. What can the Russian intelligentsia do if it wants to help Israel deal with these as-yet-unclear new realities? At the very least, it should cease losing its self-control and speaking the language of the “clash of civilizations,” see, finally, what the Palestinian territories are like and how closely bound the West Bank is to Israel, realize the gravity of the situation in the Gaza Strip, and try and work out a positive agenda. In the end, it is this that has not happened the last twenty years. The occupation of and crimes against the Palestinians are, alas, not the problem. The problem is talking about the occupation and crimes of the Jewish state.

In his popular book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, Yossi Klein Halevi, once a member of the radical fringe of American Jewry, describes the process of his transformation from an ultra-rightist radical to a centrist. When Halevi’s first daughter, Moriah, was born in 1985, he moved all his books about the Holocaust (which had once played a key role in his life as a member of the second generation) onto the upper shelves of his bookcases. He noticed that he put away even books with no pictures. He writes that this was his way of saying to himself these books were no longer the center of his life. Just as Halevi put away books about the Holocaust, the Russian intelligentsia needs to remove the imaginary radio broadcasting news either about the Six-Day War or Yitzhak Rabin’s murder and replace it with two maps: a map of the Middle East and a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories. The old threats to Israel are ever fewer, while we have a hard time imagining the new threats.

Yegor Osipov is a Russian journalist living in the Netherlands.

Kirill Kobrin
Kirill Kobrin

The Intelligentsia and Racism
Kirill Kobrin
October 23, 2015
Current Time

Nationalism was born two hundred years ago. At first, it was the theoretical labor of the early Romantics, poets, folklore compilers, and forgers of nonexistent ancient epics of their own peoples. Only then was it put into practice: amidst the gun and cannon smoke of the Napoleonic epic, in the secret Carbonari societies, on the revolutionary barricades.

In the late nineteenth century, nationalism generated several new nation-states. They became more numerous after 1918, not to mention the post-1945 period.

The process of carving countries up according to ethnicity continued even after 1991. The further disintegration of big countries into small countries, and small countries into tiny countries, was just barely avoided. And yet, until recently it was thought that nationalism in today’s Europe was the bailiwick of football hooligans and political outsiders. However, as recent events have shown, many, many people think in terms of “blood and soil.”

It has transpired that there is no vaccine against nationalism and even racism not only for so-called ordinary people. Wordsmiths, intellectuals, and even liberals chronically suffer from them as well. Russian liberals have proven especially vulnerable, or rather, members of the educated class who consider themselves liberals. We are not engaged in political analysis in this column, but we will look at the ethnic mindset of current Russian liberals as a historic phenomenon.

Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has excited many people dissatisfied with the Putin regime, even those who resisted the Crimean temptation. For example, one well-known Internet figure, who has somehow passed for a political expert, shook the air with bloodthirsty calls to kill as many Syrians as possible, since they are Arabs and, therefore, enemies.

Whoever bombs Syria today, I very much welcome it, and if it is wiped off the face of the earth I won’t be the least bit disappointed. I will only say thank you.
—Anton Nossik

Many have voiced a slightly more restrained variation on this viewpoint, and one progressive media outlet has published an article that discusses, in particular, the indisputable superiority of Jewish men over Arab men in the sense of devotion to their families and courage. In connection with the influx of Syrian refugees, concern for the purity of European is voiced. The article in question is permeated with hidden and flagrant sexual motifs. The subtitle refers to “Raped Europe,” and in the opening paragraphs the author complains it is unfair that “girls love” starry-eyed defenders of refugees rather than defenders of European values.

Fear and loathing towards an alien tribe (the authors of such texts usually do not distinguish Arabs from Kurds, Kurds from Turks, and so on) and an alien religion, Islam (whose sense and essence they are too lazy to understand) have reached a fever pitch. Like all hysterics, Russian “racialist liberals” have been winding themselves up, and the noise level has been steadily increasing.

We are faced with a typical nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century mindset. Take, for example, the motif of the “raped motherland” (or “native culture”). Motherland and Fatherland had become a “mother” back with the Romantics, and later, Alexander Blok, a Late Romantic congenial to proto-fascist views, even proclaimed Russia his wife.

Oh, my Russia! My wife! Painfully / Clear to us is the long road!
—Alexander Blok

In this scheme of things, any outsider is seen as a threat to the mother’s purity, to her sexual serenity. But war and other hostile (or seemingly hostile) actions are attempted rape. Curiously, the identification also works in reverse. An ordinary woman belonging to “our” people is treated as the Mother, the symbol of the nation.

The further we go into the twentieth century, the clearer the purely ethnic and biological features in the countenance of the Woman/Mother become. She is sexually threatened by telltale-looking strangers: Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda was chockablock with depictions of handsome blonde beauties harassed by swarthy apelike creatures.

For current Russian liberals, the role of the Mother threatened by violence is now played by the whole of Europe. It is strange that these folks so rarely invoke the mythological motif of the rape of Europa, in which the maiden Europa is abducted by Zeus in the shape of a bull, who spirits her away—across the Mediterranean!—to Crete, where has his way with her. The discussions of the newfangled national-liberals about the “rape of Europe” naively retell the myth in the most unpretentious racist manner. The “rapist,” “alien” or “suspicious Muslim” crosses the Mediterranean and, once in Europe, rapes her, meaning he bends her to his will. Just imagine that not so long it was said that classic Freudianism and Jungianism were half-forgotten things of the past. But now it turns out that all these things (combined with Social Darwinism and racial theory about the “inferiority” of certain nations) are alive and dominant in the minds of people, moreover, the minds of people whose job it is to reflect on things and generate meaning.

You can, of course, seek out the historical parallels, for example, the steady rightward drift of the liberal segment of the first Russian emigration or the fascist sympathies of such champions of freedom and justice as G.K. Chesterton. But all historical analogies obscure the essence of the matter. And the essence of the matter is this. Suffocating nationalism, moreover, on both sides of the current Putinist divide, is the principal legacy of seventy years of Soviet rule. While preaching internationalism, the communist ideology and the communist regime were weaker than the primitive xenophobia and fear of outsiders that permeated the minds of the Soviet intelligentsia. The collapse of ideology has brought these sentiments to the fore. Aside from everything else, another thing has become clear. The Russian intelligentsia, which considers itself liberal, knows no more about the world than their predecessors from some Turgenev novel.

By the way, have you heard there was a decisive battle on the Danube? Three hundred Turkish officers killed, Silistra has been taken, and Serbia has declared its independence. Don’t you think that you, as a patriot, should be thrilled? As for me, my Slavic blood is just boiling! However, I advise you to be more cautious. I am sure you are being watched. The spying here is horrible! Yesterday, a suspicious person came up to me and asked whether I was Russian. I told him I was Danish.
—Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve

Everything was clear then: we were fighting for our “fellow Slavs” and wishing death on the “bloodthirsty Muslims.” The only difference is that today the names of the people we should be protecting from the villains are very different. We are witnessing a cynical pathetic remake of the novel On the Eve.

Kirill Kobrin is a writer, historian, journalist, and editor living in London.

The texts by Boris Akunin, Yegor Osipov, and Kirill Kobrin were translated by the Russian Reader.

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.

__________

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!”

__________

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.

__________

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