Congratulations to the Syrian writer and translator Tha’ir Deeb. What is currently happening in Syria right now was a dream of his that landed him in jail back in 1987, which led to his being tortured and having his toes hacked off. The following is how he described the change for which he has “dedicated his life and work” in an online interview:
“I recognized that the need had become pressing to change the horrible existing reality. I used to wonder where this change was going to come from, always assuming that its epicenter was not going to be the cultural sphere and the intellectuals.”
In the interview, Tha’ir the intellectual talks about regimes that sowed fear in people’s hearts and stole away their humanity, about a people that has reclaimed politics by force, and about a people that has to make its own revolution without imitating the other Arab revolutions. He talks about himself, about his patriotic responsibility and the dangers that threaten his destiny at any moment, about his children and about his worry for them that the Syrian revolution is proceeding in the direction of dangers that include the survival of authoritarianism, sectarian conflicts, and foreign military intervention. Here is the text of the interview:
Mai Abu Zayd (MA): Did you ever expect for these revolutions to take place in the Arab world, at least, in our lifetime?
Tha’ir Deeb (TD): At the very least, I had dedicated my life and work to this kind of change. And at the very least, I recognized that the need to change the horrible existing reality had become pressing. I used to wonder where this change was going to come from, always assuming that it was not going to come from the cultural sphere or the intellectuals, in spite of their importance, their resolute position, and indispensable role. I had always thought it was unnatural for a regime controlled by security services to last. It is one that is characterized by unjust authority, in which tyranny, arbitrary rule, and corruption ran wild, where everyone was looked upon as criminals, and where what it meant for them to be human was destroyed by taking away their right to speak, write and, assemble.
I had always thought that modern political authority governed by security forces greatly resembled—by way of its infrastructure and how people experienced it—the older systems of tyranny: a system with nearly no legal infrastructure or that of political rights, which has no political order, except in appearance. This is because the true order that organizes everything is the lust for political power, not for its own sake but rather because in these societies political power is the source of wealth. This is such that you can transform the state into a wildly profitable investment project, whereby a mockery is made of every constituent part that has come to be known as forming the pillars of the modern state. In this kind of a society, the cycle of repression and surveillance is perpetuated by creating multiple forms of tyrannical power. The instrument of all this is fear. That simple, spontaneous reflex, which does not require any education, which does not discriminate according to any social or political criterion, which does not know any regulations or rules, and which does not even protect a newborn at the moment it wants to be born. Fear, fear, then more fear. This is what gives life to this bizarre regime. It is only natural for a regime like this not to last.
MA: Did you ever expect for the “contagion of revolutions”—if that is the right word, to spread to Syria?
TD: As soon as the Egyptian revolution broke out after the Tunisian revolution, it became clear that we were in the midst of an earthquake with reverberations from which no country in the region would be safe. In an article entitled “The Revolution in Syrian Writings”—which was published in the cultural supplement of al-Safir before the start of the Syrian revolution—I wrote:
“There are a lot of questions that can be asked about this understanding of Tunisia and Egypt’s revolutions as well as similar inevitable forthcoming Arab revolutions as a result of how worn out the dominant methods of rule have become, as well as the concomitant tyranny and corruption’s pushing of society to the brink of collapse if they were to continue in this manner.”
It was apparent that we were facing change that was going to encompass the entire region, such that it would never be the same again. It was no longer possible to continue with regimes of authoritarianism and corruption, including those that claimed to speak in the name of the national cause in order to take away freedoms as well as political and social rights. It is no longer possible to separate patriotic, democratic, and social issues. Rather, the authoritarian understanding of the problem of patriotism is an impoverished one. Patriotism is an effort that is dedicated to establishing an independent socio-economic infrastructure that is centered on itself and the interests of its people, void of any dependence or subordination. Waging war against an usurping enemy is of great importance and an indispensable necessity, but it is only part of this patriotic whole. This sort of definition of patriotism obviously does not distinguish between, on the one hand, accomplishments of development, social progress, and freedoms that guarantee the participation of the broadest possible segments of the population and, on the other hand, resistance to the occupation and rejection of foreign plots. In this sense, patriotism is the other side of the coin to democracy, civil liberties, and the protection and development of national resources. It is neither a pole opposed to all of this nor something you can separate out in a bogus arrangement of these priorities.
MA: What do the Syrian people have to do, in terms of escalation, in order to put an end to this regime, the most tyrannical in the Arab world? Put differently, when might this regime surrender?
TD: What the Syrian people need to do is continue the revolution, without violence, sectarianism, and asking for international intervention. This path, which seems long and heavy with casualties, is in fact the shortest and has the least casualties. What the Syrian opposition needs to do is to stop wasting time and jumping around from one place to another. It has to dare and put forward visions and practices right here and now in order to help dismantle the stumbling blocks of the Syrian people’s intifada. One stumbling block, for example, is the notion that the intifada is a “rural” one, meaning that it is “regional” and limited to certain classes and segments of society, that it needs to become more urban and adequately patriotic, with an acceptable platform and a clear program. The opposition also needs to stop imitating other experiences in spite of the importance of benefitting from them. A lot of people thought our trajectory was going to be similar to that of Egypt and Tunisia. However, with the exacerbation of this barbaric repression, they proceeded to pander to the Libyan model instead of standing first and foremost with the Syrian model—which has no equal.
The Syrian Model
MA: You mentioned distinguishing the Syrian revolutionary model and how it differs from the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan models. Can you elaborate on this?
TD: Contrary to what the regimes have claimed about the difference between each regime from the other, the suffering is one and the same in all of these countries. However, the infrastructures are different, and so are the moments in which each revolution took off. By way of example, the unity of Egypt is assured, and what is needed is freedom. But Syria requires both the unity of the country, which is not altogether certain, as well as its freedom, which is absolutely lacking. The revolution in Egypt began in the shadow of a modicum of civil society, with its political parties, movements, clubs, and so forth. Whereas the Syrian revolution started out well below zero as much as authoritarianism had completely destroyed any semblance of civil society. Additionally, there are a number of factors, not least of which is the geo-political situation and the matter of patriotism. We must take all of this into account if we want to adhere to a bare minimum of seriousness and not be satisfied with enthusiasm alone.
MA: Describe for us, as a Syrian intellectual, how you go about your everyday life in the shadow of this extreme repression, and how do other intellectuals live?
TA: I live the way a patriotic democratic intellectual must live.: with my people first of all; and secondly with the patriotic democratic movement I belong to—in public and for everyone to see. I live with danger, or I should say with dangers—the kind of which keep you from knowing what your destiny might be at any given moment. I would add to all of this a high level of anxiety resulting from the complications of the domestic Syrian situation as well as both the regional and international situations. The intellectuals are as divided and pluralistic as the culture itself. Contrary to what we would believe, neither is the culture one thing nor are all intellectuals of one type. There are authoritarian intellectuals and sectarian intellectuals, just as there are critical intellectuals and patriotic democratic intellectuals, and so forth.
MA: You find yourself in an unenviable position. You were arrested and tortured by this very regime in 1987, then you worked in the Syrian Ministry of Culture, and now the state is repressing revolutionaries in an extremely violent fashion. How do you respond to all of this, and does it affect your work?
TA: The total number of years that members of my family, including myself, have spent in jail because of their belonging to the opposition is nearly an entire century. As you say, it is not an enviable position for me to be in. In totalitarian regimes, there is almost no one who does not work in the institutions of the state. One must always distinguish between the regime and the state, otherwise we will discover tomorrow that ninety-nine percent of the Syrian people have been condemned. Opponents of the regime have always worked in the Syrian Ministry of Culture, in particular. Perhaps this is because of Antun Maqdisi, the liberal Syrian intellectual who took over the directorship of publishing and translation for a long time. He selected the cadres of his directorate on the basis of qualifications and merit. Among them was Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib, who offered me a job there on the same basis during the period of the Damascus Spring, which contributed to my accepting. My story is a lot like that of many other people who work in education, journalism, or other governmental institutions and ministries. This is a well-known Syrian and Arab phenomenon. Our commitments and our positions did not change one bit. Not an inch as far as I am concerned. I do not have anything to lose in this regard.
MA: Do you think the Arabs and the international community have let the Syrian people down? And that the Syrian revolution has not received sufficient media attention?
TD: I do not think so. More importantly, I am not expecting any attention from international institutions or Arab regimes beyond what is part of their private agendas. History teaches us that nothing scratches your skin like your own nail. I think what the struggle of the Syrian people has achieved thus far, without any help from anyone, is incredible by all measures. They have succeeded in reclaiming politics by force and at once. Demands have been raised that we never dreamt of even thinking about. It is certain now that there is no going back.
MA: Some people find that the revolutions in the Arab world are capable of inspiring countries all over the world, and that the reach of the revolutions is going to extend everywhere, including the countries of the First World. Do you believe this?
TD: Why not?! All indicators clearly point to that. As the Egyptian intellectual Samir Amin says, the poor and subaltern global South is now the region of storms and revolutions.
MA: You are considered one of the most important Syrian translators. In your opinion, are these revolutions likely to reproduce the relationship or draw a new relationship between East and West, something other than the one that has crystallized over the past few years, in particular, after September 11?
TD: There is no doubt about it. However, we have to wait some time in order for this to be realized. It will not be an immediate consequence resulting from the revolutions. This is the first time in modern history in which the Arabs have entered both civilization and history as active subjects revolving around their own axis and not around the axis of others. From the beginning, the Arab revolutions have succeeded in demolishing the hackneyed stereotypes about the Arabs as a first step towards changing both their position and weight in the relationship with the rest of the world.
Culture and the Intellectuals
MA: They say that culture takes a back seat in times of revolution. Do you believe that, or get that sense from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as Syria, Yemen, and Libya?
TD: Yes, I do get that sense a little bit. What annoys me most is the hastiness, or the one-upmanship, of some people to pass judgment on this entire cohort of writers and academics based on their current positions, without taking into consideration the significance of their achievements and their endurance. It is as if the present moment is history in its entirety. At the same time, mediocre journalists and retrograde writers are being put up on a pedestal just for their “revolutionary” squawking.
MA: Finally, you have two children. What do you most worry about for them, and how do you foresee their future in Syria and in the Arab world more broadly?
TD: Right now, what I worry most about for them is if the Syrian revolution continues down a path carved out by any of these lurking dangers: the survival of authoritarianism, sectarian conflicts, and foreign military intervention. Other than that, I am sure they are going to live a life that this unjust tyranny would never have allowed us to live, not one bit—a life that is being carved out even as we speak by the priceless blood of Syrians, and that was already being carved out by our blood as it flowed along the executioner’s whips.
[This interview was originally published in Arabic in al-Safir under the title "Tha`ir Deeb: Patriotism Must be the Other Side of Democracy and Must Defend the National Revolution." It was translated into English by Max Weiss.]