Yassin Al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer, former political prisoner of 16 years and author of several books. He also helped, with a number of activists, co-found the media platform Al-Jumhuriya. His latest book was translated into English as The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy and will be published in the US in September by C Hurst and Co Publishers. We had a conversation about his book. The majority of this interview was conducted in Arabic and later translated into English.
Thomas: First, it’s a huge honor for me to be conducting this interview. I’ve long been a fan of your work and was excited when I learned of the book being translated. If you could, first, introduce for our readers, more importantly the book, but also yourself. If you could just give a very broad overview of yourself, your work and the book.
Al-Haj Saleh: The book is composed of ten articles written over four years in four cities. Seven in Damascus, one in Douma, one in Raqqa and one in Istanbul. I was a political prisoner before for sixteen years. After prison, I immediately started writing and translating. The general essential field for the book is ideas and books and not direct political work. I lived in hiding in Damascus for two years, because I wanted to express what I was thinking with complete honesty and without any self-censorship. So, I wrote the first seven in Damascus as a way of contributing to the revolution. My way of contributing to the revolution was to write what was happening in Syria. Of course, I was writing a lot, most of which were not in the book. I had a weekly article published in the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. And I didn't put any of the weekly articles in the book, but only the long texts. I also did a lot of interviews. So, it was my contribution to the revolution was to write on it and on the ethical case against the Assad regime. The ethical case is the political case. What is the political significance of the Syrian struggle if not the ethical?
After two years, I fled to Douma. The idea was that it was just a transit, a stop on my way to the north. What happened was that I ended up there for about a hundred days. It was besieged. The situation was difficult. So, I wrote the eighth article in the book, "An Image, Two Flags and a Banner." The image being Hafez Al-Assads; the two flags, the Syrian Arab Republic of old, the second the flag of the revolution; and the banner being the black banner of ISIS and the Sunni Jihadists. By the way, at the time, the Kurdish Syria was not apparent, which is why I did not write about it in the book. I gave an interview and mentioned it, but it was not included in the book.
Then, after the one hundred days in Douma I moved to Raqqa in July, 2016. It was a very dangerous, perilous journey. 16 days on the road. I wasn't by myself. I was part of a group of fighters. So, I was forced to live in hiding again in Raqqa. And it was there that I wrote the ninth article "The Destiny of the Syrian Revolution" after two and a half years of the revolution. After two and a half months, I was forced to set out for Turkey. And in Istanbul, I wrote the tenth article, the longest one in the book, "The Neo-Sultanic State"
So, the book are the ten articles. They are an analysis of the make-up of the revolution through some factors like the shabiha (Assadist thugs) nihilism, and the fascism of the regime. What was hard was that it was not entirely clear how things would turn out.
But an important point is that these articles represent my identity. Because when I was in Ghouta, my wife, Samira, remained there. She is also against the regime and herself previously a political prisoner. Also, our friend Razan Zaitouneh, an activist, remained there. After a couple of weeks, the two of them were kidnapped. At that time, it was not for her to come, because the journey was dangerous. And we did not have any reports that they were in danger there. And we had a report that it would be easy for her to flee to Damascus. Then.... it wasn't successful.
Thomas: One thing I did want to ask you about was the compilation of the book. I know it's formed from ten articles, but these ten are out of the many articles you've written. I don't remember the exact number, but it was something like four hundred-
Al-Haj Saleh: Three hundred and eighty-something, I think.
Thomas: So, how did you choose these articles? Why did you choose these articles, and not other ones? I quite enjoyed the introduction, the way it set up the book, chronologically showing your journey from article to article. I thought it was a very unique set-up for the book.
Al-Haj Saleh: The important thing is that when I wrote the articles, I did not at all have it in mind to publish a book out of them. I did not write to them to be published, not in Arabic, not in English, not in any other language. I wrote them as an introduction into the Syrian context at that moment. Not a single one of the articles was written with the goal of being published in a book. As for what made me choose these texts and not other ones, I cannot come up with some rational, convincing excuse. But, it was not an attempt at covering, at least the shorter seven ones about what was happening at the time; none of those were of the articles I wrote on geopolitics-
Thomas: Right, they were much more of the sociological context, even sociological theory.
Al-Haj Saleh: Exactly. And they're connected to the structure of Syria and its society. It looks at the inside of Syria and its bases, because, and this is an important point, because Syria is an obscure country. Not just to the west, but to the whole world, with the exception, and indeed, almost to that of Syrians. There were no journals. You're not able to write a critical book and publish it in Syria. You can’t make public gatherings. Therefore, the idea is that focusing on social matters is Syrian domestic politics, the internal dynamics and the internal structure is not situational evidence. You have to try to see the situation from a more long-term perspective. This is the basis of what made me write these articles, because they throw light better upon the make-up of the regime, the make-up of the Islamists, the make-up of the revolution and the on-going dynamics.
Thomas: One thing you talked about in your article "Syria and the Three Impossibilities," you had this format where you said, first the revolution was impossible, second the way events occurred was impossible. No one thought it would come to this. This was not something possible. And, therefore, finding a just solution for what is happening now is also, in some ways, impossible. I think I would agree with that, but what I would say is that often the impossible is the tool of those who have power. For example, as you mentioned in the book, Israel when it determines the "realities on the ground." They control what is possible and what is impossible. So, how do we, we in the general sense of anyone who cares about the Syrian cause, still have hope in the impossible and do you think there's a role for literature in that?
Al-Haj Saleh: For once, the weak imposed themselves. For once, it happened. You will not allow for it to be on behalf of the vulnerable, the powerless, the impoverished. So, I wrote the article, and it's not the in book, to say that in this way the revolution was impossible. Saying the revolution was impossible is meant in a general sense. This was an impossible revolution. And it happened.
Then the revolution militarized. And by doing so, Syrians entered the field of politics to break this impasse. This was a miraculous action. Of course, some things were not very clear. To keep us from being in politics, they started the war. So, war became a mean to break the regime's monopoly on violence as a means. You have to own war to break the regime's monopoly on war. This opened the way for a number of dynamics, such as radicalization. Not just in Syria, but in general in the Middle East. And the Middle East is not a geographic location. The Middle East is a system. The one having sovereignty over this system is Israel. The greater sovereignty is America's, but because the solidity of that alliance, there is an important amount of space for its independence. It's not like what Chomsky says that Israel is an American tool. It's not true. America is the primary support, but Israel has an important independence because of the solidity of its location with America. The politics of this region is built on that. The only state that can wage war when it wants and against who it wants is Israel.
War. Who owns war in this region is Israel. We want it to not own war, so as to not own politics. Therefore, the war that broke out amongst us, and the dynamics of radicalization, Islamicization, secterianization, in excess to our existence in the region, the Middle East system. These are varied interventions. Not just Israel, but Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, before anyone else, Hizbullah. This, in excess to the Global Sunni Jihadism, most of them from Iraq. At first, the jihadists were coming from Iraq, and then later through Turkey. The ones coming through Turkey from various backgrounds, some from the West. But the first Jihadists came through Iraq. So, the totality of all these factors made the situation impossible in order to disrupt the impossible revolution and unleash an impossible amount of destruction on the country. The regime's benefiting from ceasefire agreements, the entrance of the Sunni jihadists, the crushing of the country and the crushing of the revolution, these were all thing that could not even come to one's mind. Impossible. Just impossible. Therefore, as long as the revolution was impossible, and the destruction and fighting inside was impossible; no one could imagine that Assad would remain this long; and that six million Syrians would become refugees, with five million in neighboring countries and about a million in Europe; and Jihadists from one hundred and forty countries. All of this was impossible. Therefore, there is no possible solution to an impossible situation. All of the solutions that are being tried now are possible. I cannot predict what will happen, but it is like what happened after Sykes-Picot. It was a peace that ended all peace, ended all possibilities of peace. There is a book by the American lawyer David Fromkin with this title. Maybe, perhaps this year or the coming year, there will be some political settlement for Syria. But it will be a peace to end all peace. After a few years, or fifteen-twenty years, there will be more fighting. Except, if, for once, the impossible works to the favor of the weak, and Bashar Al-Assad leaves and the building of a political system in Syria around a new political party.
Thomas: You mentioned Sunni Jihadism a little bit earlier, because the phenomenon of foreign jihadis coming to Syria, especially from Europe, was not that present in the book. Part of this is not so new, because there's long been a romanticization of the figure of the terrorist. But what is new for me is these groups using this romanticization, like jihadi swag and jihadi cool, the terms can get a bit ridiculous, almost like halal rock-stars, for recruiting. I wanted to get your comment on the phenomenon of westerners coming into Syria and if that is related to Orientalism or a longer tradition of this in the West.
Al-Haj Saleh: We can't talk about this in a few words. In one of the articles in the book, I used the term "nihilism." Why nihilism? It's a refusal of the modern world. It's not just a refusal of Europe, America, but a refusal of our modern life, a refusal of the lives of Muslims, also. In a way, Al-Qaeda, and Jihadism in general, is our alternative imperialism. We had an empire in the past and now we lack supremacy. It's an effort to control politics by means of war. They try to own war, and not just domestically, but even more importantly against America, against Israel, the "Jewish crusaders." This is their world-view. What's important, is that they are trying to own war. This is the meaning of JIhadism, the owning of sovereignty, the owning of war.
Then, also people have been forced out of politics. Now, is religion a tool of owning politics? A good number of people think to own politics through religion, through a religious language. And this doesn't haven't to be about romanticization. It's very attractive for marginalized young people in the West. There has not been a war against the global system under a leftist or nationalist project. There's a quote by Oliver Roy, a French researcher of Islamism. He says, and I think he is right, "It is not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamicization of radicalism." In a way, you can't be a radical against the global system, against the present world, without being an Islamist. One of the most radical positions to fight against the world system is to be an Islamist. That is why some many of those jihadists were not Muslims, not from Muslim families, they became Muslims to fight. They are not fighting because they are Muslims. They want to fight and they became Muslims to fight against injustices, many injustices. Of course, many of them are crazy and they cannot solve any of their problems. It is nihilism because they don't have any solutions for any of our social, political, economic problems. But we can understand their mindset because of this impossible situation.
Thomas: So, you spent sixteen years in prison and, as you know, there is something in Syria called "prison literature" as a genre of literature, one of the most famous being "The Shell" by Mustafa Khalifa, which was actually reviewed in the magazine. I think a book that's been important in prison literature in general and for a lot of people, including myself personally, in adopting a more radical view has been that of Malcolm X's Autobiography. You talked before about how when you were in prison you were just reading dozens of book and it seemed a very similar situation.
Al-Haj Saleh: No, I haven't read it. But allow me to differentiate between two different types of prisons and prisoners in Syria and the binary nature of the political system. In the last article in my book, I differentiated between the inner state and the outer state. The outer state is the administration, the bureaucracy, the government, the parliament. The inner state is Bashar Al-Assad, his family, the security apparatuses and the tools of power; those who exercise violence and exercise the real power, those who can arrest you, dismiss you from your job. We had at the same time two types of prisons, the outer prisons and the inner prisons. And I was in the outer prisons. We were not dealt with in the harshest way. We were tortured. But only a few us were killed during torturing. After a year and a half, we had books, dictionaries and I learned English there-
Thomas: You learned English in prison?
Al-Haj Saleh: Yeah. The prisoners in the inner prisons of the regime were the Islamists. So many of them were killed during torture, or were executed. And maybe 15,000 are still missing. It was only the last year I spent in an inner prison, in Tadmur. The prison is a torture facility. People there are being tortured every day for years. So, I was in one of the best positions in general. As someone who was in the outer prisons, and not the inner ones, our conditions were not very bad. I read. And this is what saved me in the end. For thirteen and a half years, there were books and means of learning. By the way, the stories Mustafa Khalifa wrote in the Shell were based on the Islamists. Of course, these details of a director in France, him being Christian, these are fictional and not real.
Thomas: So, I'm guessing it's fair to say that there were no books in the inner prisons?
Al-Haj Saleh: No, no. No books. Only fear and torture. It was one of the most horrible places on the planet, I guess. It was horrible even in the year I spent there. But we were not dealt with in the harshest way. I'm not saying "Oh our prison was good, and there was bad." Prison is bad. It's a crime. But our treatment was not, by a large margin, as bad as the Islamists, and that's not to even mention the Baathists who were close to Sadam Hussein. Even in the inner prisons, we were not treated in the harshest manner. That was reserved for the Islamists. This is important, because it explains for us why they are radicalizing, why they are crazy.
Thomas: One thing I did find surprising about the book was that the first nine articles were all written in Syria. I find that a lot of people find it difficult to speak during tragedies, they generally do so afterwards. You mentioned naivety as a reason for this in your foreword, and I am not even thinking so much because of naivety, but because you are currently in the middle of the event. How does one speak during tragedy? A lot of people as a very natural human reaction try to distance themselves from it.
Al-Haj Saleh: Perhaps, what helped me in this was that I had already lived through a tragic experience, which is prison. It was my protection against despair. It prepared me to bear Syria's condition. But I am not at all, at all, sure that I succeeded in describing the despair. Because I am trying to develop tools, methodologies and ideas to analyze our situation. But I am never, never sure that I was able to do so. What I tried to do is: I am a writer, there's a revolution in the country, and my contribution to it is as a writer. Did I succeed in presenting a desperate image of Assad?
But it remains important that a collection was translated into English. Few of us Syrians have written on our country, our societal agency is denied, even more than our political agency is denied. So, it's important that the articles were translated because we were struggling, and we were writing, and we were praying to represent ourselves and our stories, our lives and our deaths. We are still struggling in a way. We are still struggling with ourselves, with our tools to express ourselves. Why are we stilling to break the chains that bind us? It's clear that we lost the political battle. Hopefully, we do something to build the Syrian cause. It's not about Syria, it's about the world. As a globe, it is one of the biggest causes in a Syrianized world.
Thomas: That was one of my favorite phrases from the book.
Al-Haj Saleh: A friend of mine, he wrote a review of the book that said that "If the world is Syrianized, we all should be Free Syrians." I very much like his expression. In a Syrianized world, all those who are fighting to change this world are Free Syrians. We are from them, they are from us. We are Syrians, we are from the Syrianized world.
Thomas: You talked about translation and your book being translated. Translation is something I also find very important. We are going to have a new section in the magazine about books or authors that should be translated. So, I wanted to ask you if there is a book in Arabic, about Syria, maybe one of your own books or someone else's, that you think should be translated and English-speakers should read to better understand Syria.
Al-Haj Saleh: Yeah, I think my work should be translated. But I think so many people wrote interesting stories and articles in the course of the six and a half years of the Syrian struggle. I am not aware of books so far, but there are many articles and some of them are already available on our site Al-Jumhuriya. Some novels by Khaled Khalifa, Fawwaz Haddad, and Samar Yazbek are already translated. I think that what irritates me about how people perceive us is that they are not aware of so many debates in the Arab world. I think so of them are really great, probably I am biased, but mainly by Syrians. We are discussing so many things. But let people explore and find it for themselves.
Thomas: Now, for the final question of the interview. It's one we use a lot. What books are you reading now?
Al-Haj Saleh: Right now I am reading a Master’s thesis, "International Crimes in Syria: Options for Accountability and Prosecution" by an Italian young lady about the crimes of genocide, of war. There are some things I disagree with with her thesis itself, but what she said about the crimes is very interesting. She relied heavily on UN documents. I also read only a few days ago an important book The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency by Charles Lister, an American researcher of Syrian Jihad. It was a good book.