Artwork: Courtesy of Azza Abo Rebieh
Talks: Organized by Dar Al Jadeed, MPF, and UMAM D&R
HORROR AND ITS REPRESENTATION
A Conversation with Yassin Al Haj Saleh, moderated by Ziad Majed
On Friday, June 11, the MENA Prison Forum (MPF) hosted the third installment of the MPF Talks series, featuring writer, intellectual, and former political prisoner, Yassin Al Haj Saleh in conversation with political scientist and author, Professor Ziad Majed. The discussion focused on Mr. Saleh’s latest book “Horror and its Representation: Deliberations on Syria’s Destroyed Form and its Complicated Formation,” published by the MENA Prison Forum and Dar Al Jadeed in 2020/2021.
The session opened with comments by MPF Coordinator Mina Ibrahim, in which he articulately addressed his own personal experiences with cycles of trauma and horror in the form of targeted killings, focusing on the discovery of both Guilio Regeni and Lokman Slim on the same day, February 4, exactly five years apart. He reflected on the similarities of both murders, evoking Saleh’s assertion that those who write and those who archive, as Regeni and Slim did, never fully die.
In this light, Majed opened the session building on these sentiments, that in fact the title of the book can be applied to many countries in the Middle East undergoing periods of immense difficulty and amounting to representations of horror. Saleh’s personal experience of 16 years in Syrian prisons, his mother’s death while he was incarcerated, his brother's abduction by ISIS, his wife's abduction by another violent group in Ghouta and unknown location and condition, reverberates through his writings and accounts of horror in Syria.
Saleh summarized the contents and sections of his newly-released book, which is divided into two sections. The first of which dives into the production of the horrendous practices in Syria, which span the violent destruction of people, lives, bodies, and urban life: the use of violence in the country is focused on the disfiguring of bodies, spaces, and lives, he writes. The chapters in this section address the violation and crossing of lines of the torture and brutality used by the Syrian regime, and the routine nature of the brutality used. He then contrasts the language used by international organizations such as Amnesty International in their reports on tactics and treatments of the Assad regime, with the emotion and violations captured in the language used by Syrians themselves. He then dedicates a chapter to comparing the situation in Syria with other countries in which similarly extreme brutal tactics have been used, with a concluding chapter on the way that the brutality extends to the treatment of the dead. The second part of the book changed track, and explores how these experiences can be addressed and analyzed in ways that can allow for the development of larger theories and notions. In this part of the book, he tries to reconcile dialogue and words with what he lived and witnessed, to see if there is a way to develop a system of words and expressions that can accurately explain the experiences.
The discussion session after Saleh’s presentation focused on the “Palestine-ization” of Syria, as well as the silence or active ignoring of the atrocities being committed in Syria by global “leftist” and “liberal” communities. This second topic brought to the conversation the global loss in confidence or faith of leftist and liberal agendas, and a reduction of these international communities to their own countries and systems that are currently seen to be struggling. Another aspect that was addressed is the inability of audiences to understand, or their active ignorance, of the systematic brutality of the Syrian regime, similar to the inability to process or refusal to believe in the tactics used by the Nazi regime during WWII. Lastly, the audience and presenters addressed how elements of the securitization narrative that emerged globally after 9/11 prioritizes counter-terror activities and sees partnerships with states on combatting terrorism as paramount, even above all other considerations, including human rights violations or war crimes, thus limiting efforts to critically address state-sponsored violence.
Yassin Al Haj Saleh is among Syria’s most prominent and prolific contemporary thinkers and writers. In 1980, he was arrested under the regime of Hafez al-Assad for his membership in the Syrian Communist Party. He was detained for sixteen years, the last of which he spent in the notorious Tadmor prison—an experience he recounts in his 2012 book, "Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian Prisons" (in Arabic). Saleh has written five other books—including "Syria in the Shadow: Glimpses Inside the Black Box" (2009, in Arabic), "The Syrian Question" (2016, in French), and "The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy" (2017)—and edited three, among them "Conquered Imperialists: On the Islamic Question and the Emergence of Islamic Sects" (2019, in Arabic). He also writes for several Arabic-language newspapers and journals outside Syria, in which he analyzes and reflects on political, social, and cultural issues and developments taking place in Syria as well as the region more broadly. Saleh is a co-founder and contributing editor of the online publication al-Jumhuriya. In 2014, he established Hamisch Syrian Cultural House in collaboration with Syrian and Turkish writers, artists, and intellectuals. Located in Istanbul, Hamisch (“margin” in Arabic) seeks to foster critical dialogue and debate among Syrian refugees and those living in exile in Turkey, as well as to cultivate constructive cross-cultural exchange between Syrian academics and artists, and their Turkish counterparts.
Ziad Majed is an academic and activist specializing in the topics of political reform, democratic transition, electoral systems, and state-society relations in the Arab world, with particular attention to Lebanon and Syria. He teaches Middle East studies at the American University of Paris, and has authored books in Arabic, French, and English, including "On the Beirut Spring and the Unachieved State" (2006, in Arabic), "Syria: The Orphaned Revolution" (2014, in French), and "In the Mind of Bashar Al-Assad" (2018, in French), co-authored with Subhi Hadidi and Farouk Mardam-Bey. Majed has also written numerous book chapters and regularly contributes to Arabic- and French-language publications. In 2004, Majed founded the non-sectarian Democratic Left Movement in Lebanon, and participated in the 2005 Independence Uprising in protest of Syria’s military presence in the country. He is also a founding member of The Arab Network for the Study of Democracy, which tracks, measures, and promotes democracy in the Arab region.