This is the (long overdue) associated blog post of the introductory episode of ‘Hummus For Thought, the Podcast‘. Apologies for being late, but both Sarah and I had university- and work-related priorities that had to come first. Several episodes are being prepared as we speak so stay tuned in the coming weeks!
The Personal As Political, released on April 22nd, 2018. In this first episode, Sarah Hunaidi and Joey Ayoub look at ‘the personal as political’ and reflect on the Syrian revolution, being a migrant or refugee and the right to narrate.
Sarah spoke of a recent encounter with a teacher from a class on social movements in the 20th and 21st century. Sarah, being a Syrian refugee who witnessed the Syrian revolution and subsequent brutal crackdown by the Assad regime and who had to flee the violence, did not know how to react to her teacher who kept on denying her reality because he ‘read an article’. She initially sought out his advice because she wanted to do an academic study of the Syrian experience as an uprising.
Sarah: My whole existence, my whole experience, was completely ignored because he was ‘explaining’ to me that the Syrian uprising was basically a lie, telling me that I’m delusional because he ‘read an article’ and kept on repeating that ‘I read an article and it made sense to me and I do not believe anything that the mainstream media in the US reports’.
But the reason this encounter sparked a conversation is because Sarah herself didn’t really think about it as a ‘problem’ at first. It’s only when Joey told her that ‘this is insulting to you’ that Sarah reflected on how ‘when discussing politics, we can’t really separate the traumatic outcomes of politics and politics itself’. What is deemed to be ‘objectivity’ is often used to erase lived experiences, thereby essentially standing on the side of the oppressors who write history. It took Sarah 2-3 days to ‘actually absorb’ this.
This was ‘more obvious’ to Joey at first than Sarah despite Sarah being the one who experienced it, or rather because Joey wasn’t the one who experienced it, and that he had a ‘relative privilege’ in being able to ‘take some distance’ as a non-Syrian. Joey also said that he ‘got used to these types of response that have become so common to the point where I sometime forget that they are still there’. He reflected on how when similar dynamics, in the sense of oppressed/oppressors, are discussed with regards to Palestine, then the narrative seems to be much more straightforward – ‘they don’t seem to have that big of a block in their mind’ – in Western left-wing academia and activism.
Joey: [Palestine] is a relatively simple story, and they’re even willing to go the extra mile and analyse things with some level of nuance. They can even say things like ‘we support the Palestinian cause without supporting Hamas or Fatah’. But you just ‘cross the border’ [to Syria], and you say the exact same thing, that this is actually what happened. The Syrian revolution and subsequent, you can call them regional wars at this point, are arguably the most documented ‘conflict’ of humanity because it’s the first real uprising that was almost every single day documented through social media. And the irony is that instead of producing a situation where things are very clear.. It’s almost like the relative simplicity of the narrative, that this is what actually happened in 2011, 2012 in the early phases of the mostly non-violent uprising and so on.. people actually went to the streets […] and the crackdown was what people are telling you it is. It was actual massacres, and bombings, and shelling, and tanks, and shabbiha.. it’s almost the fact that it’s that ‘easy’, that it’s that ‘obvious’, that therefore there must be something else.
It’s obviously much easier for me than it is for you because again I have the privilege because I’m not Syrian of having this relative ‘taking a step back’ sort of thing.
Joey: Yeah, distance. It’s become so difficult where you want to tell the person in front of you that ‘yeah it is very complicated right now, and there are lots of things to take into consideration, but we sort of need to agree on the basic facts here, and if we don’t agree on the basic facts then the whole notion of native agency, of Syrian agency… if you erase that, then you’re just not talking about the same thing.
Sarah doesn’t dismiss the notion that Syria right now can be too complicated for most people to understand without investing some time to do so. What she instead emphasis is that what is actually hurtful to the Syrian people, and to someone like me, is the dismissal of the actual start of the revolution. To those who dismiss it because it wasn’t as ‘organised’ as they ‘wanted’, Sarah had this to say:
Sarah: I do admit that it wasn’t well-thought out. It was a revolution. Something erupted in us. It’s not like we took our time to actually organise and think about it. It’s actually one of the criticisms of the revolution by many intellectuals in Syria which… I don’t forgive it that much because there was no space for us to organise. We didn’t have this luxury to organise and actually think it out. It had to happen this way, unfortunatelly. But this dismissing of the whole experience of how it started and why it started is what is [hurtful]. It doesn’t play well against the Syrian trauma, on a personal level and on a collective level.
You don’t get to change the history of Syria as an outsider, argues Sarah. She reflected on the power dynamic between herself and her professor. Whereas she’s ‘supposed’ to be learning from him, he did not live through the revolution. He was the middle aged old white man who lived most of his life in the US telling a Syrian refugee what did or did not happen in Syria.
Joey said that Sarah touched upon an important theme, namely that of politics as an abstraction. He said that there’s no excuse in the age of the internet to not even understand the basic facts.
Reflecting on the early days of the revolution not being ‘organised’ enough, he added: “Revolutions are supposed to be inconvenient. There’s no such thing as saying ‘this is going to happen and this is how it’s going to happen’, and if it happens in any other way, if anything diverts from this pure vision of what we have or should be then ‘me’, the entitled person, will dismiss that.”
“This plays into the exact same narrative that other forces in the West are thriving on”, Joey added.
Joey: There is genuinely no difference between a typical ‘leftist anti-imperialist’ and a typical far right fascist when it comes to Syria. In many ways, fascists are more honest about it. They tell us directly ‘we support Bashar al-Assad’. […] But when this takes the form of leftists who in under circumstances would say that they stand in solidarity with Palestinians against Zionist aggression […] I learned it the hard way that when these people, these same people who say ‘I support Palestine’ and then when it comes to Syria there is always one thousand ‘yeah, but’, then they’re not actually supporting Palestinians. This is actually about you. In your mind this is a conflict that you can understand. And it’s not the fact that they are struggling, or that they are under occupation. No it’s really the fact that you understand it, and that is enough. So if you get to the point where you’re talking about Syria where you had to, barely for a few moments of your time, think ‘well what if I’m wrong’. If they want to say ‘I support struggles against oppression’, well that actually means something. It means that you need to do your research then. You need to stop, shut up and listen, for once.
Joey then argued that those on the Left who say they support refugees without being willing to understand the country from which they fled is a sort of ‘cop out’:
Joey: As a leftist, you don’t get cookie points for saying you’re pro-refugees. That’s what’s expected of you, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. The next step is to actually talk to these refugees and ask them ‘why are you fleeing?’
He finally compared the comments he got when he was covering Israel’s 2014 bombings of Gaza by pro-Israel apologists to those now being said by pro-Assad and pseudo-anti-imperialists on the Left. “It’s extraordinary how similar they sound.” He then said that just as it is absurd and grotesque to say that there is an equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians its oppresses, it is as absurd and grotesque to compare the Assad regime with the Syrians it oppresses.
Sarah: It’s such a colonial mentality to tell someone who is not European what is best for them, that what happened to them doesn’t matter, that what matters is what you think happened to them. It’s such a colonial mentality and it’s really ironic that it comes from the Left who preach day and night about how different they are and how different they are. There’s a huge notion in the left that I see right now that everything that the US government or mainstream media ‘supports’, the opposite of that is true. And they claim this is critical thinking and claim that this is a rebellious act, but critical thinking is actually to check your sources, to ask people, to actually be critical, rather than just say ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.
It’s extremely problematic, she adds, and especially coming from people who claim to be progressives and thinking outside the book – “it’s completely inside the box” she adds. “Like you said, there’s no difference between someone from the Far Right and someone from the Left. It does the same damage to our cause.”
Joey then argues that an additional irony to how the Left has been responding to Syria is that they’re “not actually opposing their government here” as the “US government has not been pro-regime change for several years now”. The ‘Iraq scenario’, as in what happens when the state collapses, has been one of the main fears of Obama. The irony is that these leftists essentially agree with Obama (and now Trump) here. The main role that the US had when it comes to the geopolitics of it is ‘to block certain types of weapons – namely anti-aircrafts weapons that could have made the only difference against the Assad regime which dominates the skies – from reaching the rebels’ and one of the conditions is that they would not touch the regime and that they would focus their efforts on ISIS.
In the meantime, Assad was turning a blind eye to radical Islamists while he was eradicating civil dissent in any way shape of form, a policy then adopted by the Russian government when they intervened, only then turning their attention to ISIS when everyone else was crushed.
The logic was always fairly simple. Better to keep the extremists for last as no one on the global political stage would seriously oppose Russia’s attempts to annihilate it (and civilians) once the strongest rebel groups and the rest of civil society still operating in Syria were crushed. And indeed that is what has happened since. Assad has launched several mass rape campaigns, mass bombing campaigns, mass torture campaigns. We discovered that up to 13,000 people were hanged to death in Saydnaya prison alone between 2011 and 2016. By any objective measure, the Assad regime has sought extermination and genocide as the price to pay by civilians for him to remain in power indefinitely.
Since the episode was released, hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced in just two weeks from Daraa due to Russian and regime bombings in just two weeks, as Jordan and Israel close the borders they control to fleeing refugees. Along the Jordanian border, children have been killed by scorpion bites, dehydration, and drinking contaminated water.
Joey then reminded listeners that Assad happily cooperated with the CIA when it wanted to ‘outsource’ torture during Bush’s war on terror. He cited the infamous case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-Canadian citizen, who was kidnapped by the CIA, sent to Jordan and then to Syria to be tortured by the Assad regime.
He then listed the many times the Assad regime, whether Hafez or Bashar, sided with US interests whenever it was convenient for it to do so. He also gave the example of the regime’s ‘pro-Palestine’ credentials by citing the example of when Hafez Assad invaded Lebanon in 1976 to crush the PLO.
He also listed examples of western fascists who support the Assad regime. You can read a detailed article on his by Mariam Elba for The Intercept in her “why white nationalists love Bashar Al-Assad“.
Sarah then argued that politics lacks emotional intelligence. “When we talk about politics, we do not understand that we’re talking about people”.
We’ve attached a somewhat-related video by George Monbiot on the different types of intelligence.
She then highlighted the women of the revolution, those who were shunned by their families and their communities because they’re ‘not supposed to have their own opinions’ or are seen as the honor of the family.
She then went on to argue that our current expectations of politics essentially encourages immoral positions as the very concept of emotional intelligence is rarely taken seriously.
Sarah then asked Joey about his experience in London as a migrant. He had mentioned a story of being on the underground train shortly after the Brexit vote was announced. As he was minding his own business, he noticed that the old man sitting in front of him was reading one of the many typically anti-migrants headlines that appear on the Daily Mail, Daily Express, the Sun and so on. In a moment he described as similar to the ‘out of body experience’ Sarah mentioned, he realised that the migrants featured on these newspapers and described as existential threats to the UK “look like me”.
Joey: That could have been me if something happened to me, or if I was desperate enough to flee my home, and go through the exact same routes as Syrian refugees are forced to take. That could have been me on that headline.
Joey used his background as a Lebanese to remind listeners that the Lebanese have been refugees or migrants for a significant period of history, as recently as 2006. Through the many waves of migrations, there are now more people of Lebanese descent outside of Lebanon than in Lebanon. So if or when there would be a war in Lebanon. “I don’t know if things are going to be that bad that people would also go through these routes”.
Joey: It’s two ironies at the same time. It really took for me to leave and to be put in this position where at least theoretically that could have been me and might be me in the future or at least someone I know. The first is that it made me realise how bad things were in Lebanon because we were forgetting something that we went through recently. You know that many Syrians welcomed Lebanese refugees as recently as 2006 – it’s not that long ago. And at the same time, being in the UK now, [gave me a new perspective] as a ‘defacto migrant’. So I was on both sides at the same time.
In Lebanon, my neighbors and my relatives would be part of the oppressor class and then they travel just a few kilometers across the Mediterranean Sea and they might be one of those people who want to keep refugees out. Many Lebanese in the diaspora were refugees, became naturalised and now want to keep other refugees out. It’s a very sad assessment to make.
They both also agreed that one can argue that the majority of the people on the planet can’t really separate the ‘personal’ from the ‘political’ even if they wanted to. “People who have the privilege of separating the two should also be the ones to question what does it mean to be able to separate the two,” Joey said.
Sarah then gave the example of another professor who said ‘there is no truth. Truth is just a word. There’s actually no fact and that everything is subjective’. She then wondered whether that in itself is a sign of privilege:
Sarah: I can’t help but see that only people who are privileged enough can say these things, people who are already immune enough.
She then ended the conversation by reflecting on the idea of privilege.
“You can’t say that race and privilege do not exist just because you don’t want them to exist”, she said. That professor eventually told her, in a moment of honesty, that if what Sarah was saying was true that “that’s a tragedy. I don’t want to look at it that way. I want to look at it from a macro-level because it makes sense […] If you do not want to see privilege it’s because you have the privilege to not have to see privilege.”
Sarah: It still shocks us until today. I mean you (Joey) did not know what to do [on the train] because it caught you off guard. You lost your sense of safety right? Same thing for me. I did not realise how insulting it was. I was actually trying to prove to him with evidence that the Syrian revolution happened. I was trying to go out of my way to convince him, not paying attention to the trauma, to the emotional draining that it’ll cost me, just to ‘prove’ to the world that we suffered, ‘please see us’. Maybe it’s not even our job anymore. Maybe we should stop doing this to prove to someone. Maybe we should do this to heal, to do this for our own healing.