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Reflections on Not Writing about the Syrian Conflict

[A civilian looks at a destroyed home in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, 3 January 2014. The area is immersed in a Syrian civil war that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 60,000 people since the revolt against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. AP Photo/Andoni Lubaki] [A civilian looks at a destroyed home in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, 3 January 2014. The area is immersed in a Syrian civil war that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 60,000 people since the revolt against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. AP Photo/Andoni Lubaki]

Friends and colleagues often ask if I am busy responding to Syria’s three-year revolution-turned-civil war, given that I have spent much of my career researching and writing about social and cultural life in Damascus. I reply with guilt-tinged evasion. This “expert’s” reluctance to intervene mystifies and disappoints them. Seemingly suspecting a lack of initiative, they suggest I compose op-eds and offer media contacts. I demur and change the subject, but I know I am not alone in my silence. While a few Syria scholars have entered the fray, most academics who work on Syrian culture and society have watched—discontentedly—from the sidelines. We know that our colleagues who focus on Egyptian culture publish compelling analyses of that country’s tumult. There are obvious reasons for not writing about the Syrian uprising; it is difficult to analyze a conflict in motion, and Syrian friends and sources may be compromised by association with our public positions. There is no neutral ground to stand on, and any space for critical distance has narrowed. The stakes are enormous; differences of perspective now feed into matters of life and death. We are faced with a preponderance of speculation but little verifiable information. It is a situation where all positions ordinary citizens adopt reflect a partial truth. All this was and remains true for Egypt specialists as well. Our paralysis, I argue, reflects an acute instance of a chronic quandary. I can only speak for myself, but I suspect my struggle will resonate with other academics who maintain close professional and personal links to Syrians.

Regime-instigated social and religious contestation was not born of the current conflict, as some Syrian activists, and recently-minted Syria specialists argue. A battle of narratives about past, present, and future long predated the resort to arms. It became obvious to me twenty years ago. I embarked on Ph.D. fieldwork in the early 1990s to look at the relationship between social distinction and consumption in Damascus. I was interested in class, regional, and sectarian divisions, yet unprepared for their power to shape perceptual worlds. Mere mention of projects to preserve the Old City unleashed a torrent of vitriol, not merely against the regime—understood as the ultimate culprit—but also towards the groups thought to most benefit from it.  This held true for those who supported restoration efforts and those who opposed them. I termed the bitter rhetoric a “poetics of accusation” (Salamandra 2004). The profound alienation expressed through and in response to popular culture forms dealing with Damascus and its people evinced the failure of Syria’s nationalist project.

Yet the quotidian experience of sectarian distinction did not appeal to an academic audience preoccupied with explaining the persistence of authoritarianism through analyses of state or regime policy. Nor did it fit comfortably into then fashionable theories of domination and resistance, as there was no easily identifiable oppressor among the vying groups. In a heated Oxford “viva” (defense), examiners found my dissertation to have overstated the significance of sectarianism, which I had presented as a complex intersection of class, regional, and religious distinction—engendered by decades of Ba‘th Party rule—rather than as a primordial essence. The degree of social discord I revealed was difficult for my examiners to believe credible. I had taken agonism too literally, they argued, and had not recognized the social agreement undergirding it. In my dark depiction of Syrian social life, they argued, I had failed in my anthropological duty of empathy, a quality then understood as accentuating the positive, of finding a social agreement mitigating invidious interaction. Friends gently suggested depression had colored my perceptions. The book that I published was criticized for inattention to “politics” in its failure to focus on the role of officialdom. Unlike most studies of Syria, mine did not focus specifically on—or even explore in depth—the role of the regime, state apparatus, or policy making. Critics failed to recognize that the discourses I explored comprise vernacular politics in Syria. I conveyed the flavor of everyday life, but many found its bitterness unpalatable. My more recent research among creators of Syria’s largest cultural industry, television drama, has not sweetened the picture.

Fieldwork’s Rashomon effect has haunted me throughout the uprising. I remember feeling slammed back and forth with competing truths. Among the elite groups with whom I had worked, there was no obvious victim or culprit. I was interested neither in the practice or intent of the regime, but rather in how these were experienced by cultural producers who wield no direct influence on political decision-making, yet possess other forms of power. I think it is safe to say that most of us who conduct research on Syria bear a longstanding antipathy towards the Asad regime; we have all, from various angles, documented its deleterious effects. We are most likely shocked but not surprised at the Syrian forces’ unflinching brutality. Despite our years of dedicated research and writing, our criticisms of the regime are now dismissed as “lip service” if they are followed by any attempt to understand rather than condemn loyalist perspectives. Questioning the opposition’s vision of Syria’s future is tantamount to complicity with the Ba‘thist dictatorship. Alternatively, unreserved support for the opposition invites accusations of naiveté, of denying the opposition’s atrocities and anti-democratic elements, and Islamic extremist elements. 

Syrian specialists span the spectrum from its black and white extremes to its ambivalent middle ground; our perspectives are colored, I believe, by our points of access. I have noticed, in rare published analyses as in more frequent social media posts and private conversations, that colleagues who work among Sunni Muslim clerics and Islamic institutions are less concerned by the Islamification of the opposition and, potentially, the post-Asad polity. Those whose research deals with minorities are uncomfortable with the possibility of Sunni dominance. Those exploring the work of young, secular, media-savvy activists see them as the core of a revolt against tyranny. 

My own work shows how mass cultural producers have worked through the state in an effort to reform the regime. I continue to view most of the drama creators with whom I worked as honest critics of dictatorship, given the high degree of dissatisfaction with the regime expressed to me in interviews and informal conversations. This criticism, often dismissed as a regime-sanctioned safety-valve mechanism, sincerely reflected the relatively progressive, secular politics of most TV makers themselves. The uprising has split the drama field, the majal al-fann; some artists have backed the opposition, others remain silent, and some support Bashar al-Asad. A handful of prominent actors—drama industry’s public face—have continually praised the leadership’s handling of the crisis. Yet most screenwriters and some directors—the industry’s “brains”—have embraced the opposition, or condemned the regime. Some have been arrested; at least one remains incarcerated. I disagree with those artists who advocate repressing the opposition, but I do not dismiss their fears as rationalizing weapons of the strong. I understand their various perspectives intimately and am unable to condemn them; I have mourned the death of friends who publicly backed the regime’s repression as I have those who fought against it valiantly.

Yet how to describe, let alone advocate, in a context where ethnographic empathy—understanding the Others’ point of view—feels inappropriate and appears unethical? Nuance invites accusations of complicity. To evoke a perception is to be associated with it. Merely acknowledging minority fears of post-Asad Islamization or sectarian retaliation suggests a reactionary positioning. Yet political diffidence is only a partial explanation. When leaders on both sides, or of many factions, refuse to negotiate without unworkable preconditions what then, is left for an anthropologist, or any other academic bound to Syria through profession and sentiment to contribute? I find no peg on which to hang my hat, as the uprising devolves further and further from its hopeful inception, engendering quiet despair.


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