The Syrian revolution: Bearing witness to the impossible

We share below a reflection on and, in its own way, a testimonial of the Syrian revolution, by Catherine Coquio (Lundi Matin #137, March 12, 2018). This is followed by a more recent video recorded interview with her (in french), for the same collective (Lundi Matin #362, December 5, 2022).

On December 14 and 15, 2017, the symposium “Syrie: à la recherche d’un monde/Syria: in search of a world” was held at the University of Paris-Diderot. In order to continue the debate opened by our previous articles and in particular those of Sarah Kilani and Thomas Moreau, we publish the transcription of the brilliant intervention of Catherine Coquio, professor of comparative literature.

“Of what good is the world still?” nihilism, naivety, negation[1]

Only artists continue to believe in the world: the persistence of the work of art reflects the persistent character of the world. They cannot afford to be strangers to the world.

Hannah Arendt[2]

Behind the three grand words of my title, I would like to talk about the world as belief, but by going about it in reverse order, by talking about nihilism and negation. On “naivety”, and about the quotation, I will explain myself. I could have started with another quotation: “Do not waste the blood of martyrs”. This phrase, which I heard for the first time in 2014 in the film Homs, chronicle of a revolt, by Talal Derki, was pronounced by Abdel Basset Sarout, a young footballer who became an activist, then a warrior in the bombarded city of Homs. He utters this sentence repeatedly while he is injured on a stretcher amidst the rubble, with his foot torn up. It was in the spring of 2012. The young man, who was singing songs of freedom at the top of his voice alongside Fadwa Souleiman[3] at that moment, was sobbing.

To write of the ghetto

The quotation in my title, “Of what good is the world still?” is a sentence that I read a few years ago in an underground newspaper written by an Austrian Jew transferred to a ghetto in Poland, Oskar Rosenfeld: “Wozu noch Welt?” (“Of what good is the world still?” ).[4] He wrote this phrase one day in October of 1942, shortly after the majority of the children and old people of the ghetto of Lodz had been deported to the extermination camps; this roundup of the Jews preceded all the others that followed, one after the other, until the belated liquidation of the ghetto. In his diary, this man noted everything he saw around him: the accelerated decomposition of a society under the effects of terror, but also everything that tried to resist it, everything he saw being said and made anew, the disturbing, the sometimes unheard of, the never before seen forms of life. He planned to write a “cultural history of the ghetto”, and this history was thought of as a history of forms of resistance to annihilation. And in his notes, where he tried to give a human “face” to survival, the children’s gestures and words keep coming back.

In 1942, the “world” was in a terribly bad state: Nazism raged across Europe and had drawn the democracies into a world war. In that world, the Jews no longer had any hope; they knew that this war would not save them. But some like Rosenfeld perceived the ghetto as yet another, new and even “unique” world, whose history had to be told. They still believed in the idea of the world, and that living as humans was still possible. There were many, in Lodz and in the other Polish ghettos, writing in this way, clandestinely, documenting and archiving what was happening every day in this world, and some tried to convey it in the language of poetry. This story, the story of a moral war within the war, was told for the Warsaw ghetto by an American historian, Samuel Kassow, in a very good book published a few years ago entitled, Who will write our history?[5]

If I am speaking about it here, it is because I read this book while I was informed daily about what was happening in Syria, not only by the media, but also through social networks: I saw the people of Aleppo send their messages and posts to the “world” during the fall of East Aleppo. I also saw the photo that Delphine Minoui talks about in Les Passeurs de livres de Daraya, that of the underground library transformed by young civilians into a clandestine university: “a transgression through learning” she says.[6] This image gripped me, and even more so this book, which tells the story of an opening up of the world through the discovery of books in the midst of a disaster. This cultural resistance is distinct from political resistance, but it accompanies it. Ossama Mohamad said in Beaubourg during the first debate of this cycle,[7] that the 2011 revolution was a “cultural revolution”. For his part, Yassin al-Haj Saleh spoke of an existential experience, an experience he compares to the “experience of emancipation” that he had during his 16 years in prison under Hafez el Assad. And just as he calls for “freeing memory from the prisons”, he also calls for a bearing witness to the revolution and for it to be thought politically, by restoring its experience.[8]

The history of the multiple forms of resistance of civil society in Syria, that of the local councils of the insurgent regions, like that of the revolution’s coordination committees, will have to be written one day, with the same meticulousness and the same effort of immersive understanding as Samuel Kassow did for the Warsaw ghetto. And just as Kassow detailed the political significance that leftist and far-left Jews gathered around Emanuel Ringelblum gave to their archival effort in the Warsaw ghetto up to the uprising, this Syrian story will be the story of hope and not just defeat; of hope for the Syrian nation, but also for the world. It will be written on the basis of Syrian testimonies, those from the prison as well as those of the revolution and its repression, testimonies that constantly return to the idea of “world”. This story will of course be written quite differently: not from archives kept in boxes buried and unearthed, but from a digital memory and an exceptional abundance of materials and archives, visual more than written. This abundance is at first confusing and even overwhelming, because it shows that a crime against humanity can take place in the open, be announced a thousand times, shown and documented throughout the world, without provoking a decision to intervene by the powerful of this world, and this is bad news for this world, for all of us.

Of what good is the world still? The “bodies of children”

The documentation and writing efforts of Polish Jews in 1942 assumed, like those of the bombarded and besieged Syrians from 2012-2013 on, that despite the lost hope in nations, the prospect of a world exists, that a horizon of meaning is maintained. But is asking “Of what good is the world still?”, the man who by testifying affirmed the existence of this horizon is suddenly struck by nihilism: the witness suddenly no longer believes in anything, not even in the world. And this attack has to do with the disappearance of children from the ghetto, the brutal fact of being deprived of the presence of all of them, of being deprived of childhood, as if it guaranteed the world. Oskar Rosenfeld nevertheless pulled himself together, he resumed his work, until the end he observed and noted: the belief in the world persisted, but something had taken place which escaped from the story. In his diary, he returns several times to this event as if to a cosmic cataclysm and, each time he evokes it, it is as if it had just taken place. In fact, to witness the destruction of children plunges into a present that cannot transform itself into a past. As for the testimony of the children themselves, it always seems to be written in the future. “We come from the future”, says the film by Jalal Maghout, screened here, the day before yesterday.[9]

I am not comparing what has been happening in Syria since 2011 and what happened in Poland in 1942. From the point of view of events and experiences, the two stories differ very profoundly. But here and there the question is raised of a disappearance of the world, or its eclipse, tied to a type of political destructiveness that makes the child and childhood a crucial target. In the war against civilians waged by the Syrian regime under the cover of a “civil war”, the fury against children, the female body and family ties occupies a singular place, which assimilates the regime’s violence to genocidal violence, or rather, to a genocidal destructiveness, because genocide is no longer a matter of violence. It is always a matter of violation and of a crime against intimacy: the senseless acts of cruelty of the murderers who have been unleashed for seven years in Syria show the concerted objective of a programmed violation, a large-scale physical and psychological rape, a method of intimate offense erected into a system, which adds to the destruction of bodies the massacre of souls, or to what, in the soul, signifies hope for the future and the desire for freedom. This was demonstrated by the act of laying protesters on their stomachs and stomping on their backs while shouting: “You want freedom?”; a practice that became systematic after being inaugurated in April 2011, in the village of Al-Bayda, near Banias. To strike childhood and children is to nip in the bud this desire for freedom and a future. The fate of the children is the starkest image of what the violence of this regime is: an anomic violence, inflicted for its own sake, unmotivated, destructiveness in its purest form, which is accompanied by infinite cruelties. I think of Hamza and Tamer, the tortured child graffiti artists from Deraa, whose mutilated bodies were returned to their parents in May 2011 with the recommendation that the latter do the same to others, otherwise they would take care of them;[10] I am thinking of the little girls raped and tortured in the basements of the security services, spoken of by the women who testify in the documentary by Manon Loizeau and Annick Grojean, Syrie, un cri étouffé.

Several accounts also testify to the effects that this violence against children has on parents and adults, such as those of Jumana Al Maarouf, Samar Yazbek and Majd al Dik. I will quote here only a few passages from the latter’s own book, which testifies to events in Eastern Ghouta, À l’Est de Damas, au bout du monde. Le témoignage d’un révolutionnaire syrien.[11] At the beginning, about a massacre: “When I saw the families receiving their children covered in blood and boot marks, I thought that only the dead survived a massacre”.(p. 70) And later, about the chemical attack in August 2013: “I approached the bodies of the children. I asked them to forgive us for not being dead and photographing them in this state. My first tears flowed when I saw a man recognise his daughter. I photographed him as he took her in his arms. And I wanted it. I wished to die”.(p 132) To survive such a crime and to have to testify to it is to die in a different way, or to wish to die, because “only the dead survive a massacre”. What is aimed at, and attained, is something other than the body. By making people want to die, the murder of children affects adults’ capacity for hope. Just as by defiling and torturing the bodies of women, rape is also used to break men: it is not only a question of reigning by terror, but of tearing entire families apart and preventing any projection towards the future. By ruining sacred bonds, suffering is made material and an instrument of eradication. It is in this unlimited will to cruelty and destructiveness, in this mad limitlessness, that the “political nihilism” of the regime manifests itself most clearly.[12] This is the signature of the fanatical war waged by this regime, its own Jihad, a strict and non-messianic nihilism like that of Daesh – which has not prevented either of them from being objective allies, and to take the Syrian population hostage, trapped by their two mirror nihilisms, as Yassin al-Haj Saleh has shown.[13] And this encounter turned Syria into a trap for an entire people, transforming the country into a place of horror.

Nihilism and the “Source of Life”

If Majd al Dik often evokes children, it is because he had and has a particular interest in them and their particular fragility: he had created in Ghouta an association for the psychological support of children called the “Source of life”, while also assisting activist lawyer Razan Zeitouneh in his work of documenting crimes, hence the photographs he takes. This position halfway between humanitarian and educational commitment and political commitment is what makes of this book a burning interest, precious in more ways than one: it captures the decisive part of the desire for personal emancipation in the movement of March 2011, evoking the exaltation of the first slogans that we hear. Then he shows how, with the repression, the imperative of biological survival very quickly covers over the initial objective; the both revolutionary and educational ideal of life as a project is confronted by the unleashing of murder, which obliges activists to become the recorders, the registrars of the crime, so as to collect the proof of the destruction from which they must escape and survive, when it was originally a question of living differently. This evolution is experienced as a constant surprise by the young man. When the army fires on the crowd for the first time, he writes: “we did not want to believe that the army was murdering us”.(p. 77) Then each new weapon used by the regime creates disarray, undermining the resilience that had operated until then: at the end of the chapter on the chemical attack, a friend, member of the coordination committee of Zamalka, tells him that all their friends of the “media office” are dead except him. “He was in shock, and I could find no explanation for these mountains of corpses, for such a crime. (…) Nobody could sleep. We spent the night collecting the photographs and sending them to the news agencies. I had to watch the videos I had filmed, and transcribe their content on computers. The scenes of that day repeated themselves endlessly. I only saw the corpses, only heard the cries of the dying at the dispensary. (…) I had to work and bury my heart. We had no time to cry or the possibility of running away from the videos and photos. They had to be counted and recorded. (…) After several sleepless nights, I had nightmares while awake.” (p. 236)

The insomnia of the witness is the response to the destructive madness of the regime: the struggle of the survivor against his own madness, forced to bear the burden of a reality that has become hallucination. Referring to the project of a “medical report on the region”, Majd al Dik writes about the doctors then confronted with an average of 250 wounded per day: “These were the people exposed to the worst psychological conditions. As they confided to me during interviews, they were no longer able to live among humans. They lived in blood, saw bodies from the inside, entrails emerging from bellies, brains emerging from skulls. Their married life had come to an end. They no longer felt the same feelings as others, and no longer knew whether they loved or hated their fellow men.” (p. 260)

“I could find no explanation for such a crime.” A crime without explanation is a crime without reason: it has a logic, but it has no meaning.[14] It does not belong to the human world. The criminal no longer attacks the bearers of a cause, they speak the language of pure brutality to say only one thing: I will never yield or share power, even if it means burning the country and exterminating all those who persist in desiring the contrary. The fact that Bashar cannot rationally want to destroy the Sunni population since the latter constitutes 70% of the population,[15] is not an argument against the idea of a policy of extermination, because all political rationality has for a long time yielded to the exclusive objective of retaining power, unfit for any possible negotiation. In reality, this rationality never existed. What Michel Seurat wrote about Hafez el-Assad resonates painfully today: “As for Hafez el-Assad, he hardly cares about founding a regime (hence, by the way, the difficulty for his opponents to uproot him).”[16]

What to do in the face of such political violence, in the face of an irrationality which also reveals itself to be self-destructive: the regime has undermined its own bases by massively sending the Alawites to war and by subjecting them to blackmail, a perverse form of persecution, while its blind leap forward has alienated it from allied powers and foreign militias. Such mad logic is unfit for political debate, and Bashar is notorious for never engaging in any real diplomatic negotiation. Only a military force can stop violence of this nature, but it must be a force sure to win. However, a force guaranteed to win can only be international.

I often hear it said that the militarisation of the rebellion was a mistake, since the regime could only retaliate with the worst violence, without the slightest qualm – to which it is replied that the uprising’s arming of itself was a question of survival, of self-defence. I also hear it said that the revolution was itself “naive”, if not irresponsible. I ask myself a great many questions about what is meant by this naivety. What does this word and this grievance say about our own sick belief in the world? To speak of naivety with regards to this revolution, is it not to flaunt our own nihilism? But who is this “we”? We know that in criminal matters all the “red lines” have been crossed, so clearly and so often that this idea of a line is a global farce, as if with this consent to murder the international community had in turn raised the banner of nihilism: neither the children tortured since 2011, nor the chemical attacks, nor the bombings of hospitals and maternities, nor the mass rapes and disappearances will have been enough for this “international community” to be able or willing to declare war on this regime — one of those military wars which alone can prevent a mass crime taking place, as the Europeans know from reliable sources, and as we have seen again in Srebrenica, in Kigali, in Grozny.

In the absence of international intervention, the revolutionary momentum turned to all out warfare, to which the regime responded with an atrocious all-out war. What is striking about this revolution is its incredible persistence despite unprecedented repression. “I understood that the city would not turn back,” Majd al-Dik wrote of Douma in 2011, the day after a massacre. There is something heartbreaking and disturbing at the same time in this way of going to death to mark and stress the values of life. This extraordinary courage makes us take the measure of what had been experienced until then; but in doing so the revolutionary impulse takes on the allure of a sacrifice, the moral meaning of which is very powerful, but not its political value. The word “martyr”, used by both jihadists and revolutionaries, marks a continuum between the religious and the political, but it does not have the same meaning in both cases. “We were going to get killed,” said Majd al-Dik. “We arrived on Thursday, demonstrated on Friday, and on Saturday we buried the martyrs. It has become a real routine. The city has grown accustomed to dying at this rate. Every Friday the snipers were scattered on the tall buildings, and the army cordoned off the city. (p. 83)

Kafranbel’s Homo Sacer

This terrible mechanism was transformed into comic repetition in a short film made by the Media Center of the rebel town of Kafranbel, “The Syrian revolution in 3 minutes”,[17] where prehistoric men rise up, are repeatedly killed by others, and rise again and again, then are killed again and again. This humour is the most disturbing of all. It is as if “homo sacer”, the human being who can be killed but not sacrificed of whom Agamben speaks, was making fun of her/himself, as if her/his “bare life” had itself become a political language, as if a consented to sacrifice asserted itself as conduct that was still political, the only human response to the absolute violence of the regime, transforming resistance into tragedy that was also absolute. I see the Syrian revolution as a kind of collective repetition of the gesture recounted by Mustapha Khalifé in La Coquille, when surrounded by the hatred of Islamist prisoners in the prison of Palmyra, and threatened with death by the most radical, the hero decides to break finally his silence and to assume his atheism: “Here I am naked, standing in front of you, you want to kill me, go ahead, but I will not tell you that I am a believer.”[18] And when Basset, the warrior of Homs, sobs while shouting “Do not waste the blood of the martyrs”, one can think that he sobs because he knows that he betrays the absolute, from exhaustion.

This heroic language is not nihilistic: it is full of meaning, and in this it is still addressed to the world.[19] But what world is it and can we speak to the world without having an answer? Majd al Dik recounts the press conference that the survivors of the local committee of Zamalka, themselves intoxicated, organise live with the foreign media, thanks to an internet connection provided by the organising committees. “Everyone kept working, not because we still had energy, but because stopping meant collapsing and waiting for our death; all this in terror of a second chemical strike, since no international reaction had followed the first.” (p. 240) As for this, he draws the obvious conclusion: “During the chemical attack of August 21, 2013, the great powers gave the regime a license to kill.” (p. 295) In October 2016, listening to the speech given in the National Assembly by Brita Hagi Hasan and her interventions in Paris and on the radio, the President of the Council of East Aleppo or “the Mayor of East-Aleppo”, I wondered who could not be upset by such a call, which individual, and also which French citizen, could not be.[20] I still feel ashamed remembering some of his words – not the ones about 21 doctors for 300,000 people or the 90% of stocks consumed, but his appeal to the memory of the French Revolution. And I wondered what world was going to be able to answer him, because compassion is not an answer, and solidarity itself has been shown to be politically impotent. That same month of October, the Abounaddara collective published an article: “It is fashionable to feel compassion towards the Syrians.”[21] I would say that it is also fashionable not to experience any. But this formula of “good form” says something that is true: compassion does not guarantee any political action, as Hannah Arendt had explained in her text “On Humanity in Dark Times”, where she also says that solidarity between the oppressed generally does not survive liberation, and therefore has no “political relevance”.[22]

So what to do? To document crimes in order to write their history, but also to have them judged. I will not enter here into the discussion around the characterisation of the crime, which will take place this afternoon.[23] It poses specific problems, to be dealt with according to the rationality that dictated the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide; a legal-political rationality that is neither historiographical nor philosophical. The total war led by Bashar and his allies against what he considers to be his opposition, and which makes him target everything that tries to protect life, obeys a logic of annihilation, with territorial and sociological targeting of bombing operations, starvation and gassing. If these crimes are judged one day, their genocidal character will undoubtedly be difficult to establish in law, because clan, regional and cultural affiliations are at play here which do not fall under the four concepts which define the criteria for genocide: nation, race, ethnicity, religion. However, to dismiss the question of genocide a priori is to indulge in a form of denial that can only be interpreted as a denial of humanity. Denial of the crime and denial of humanity do not have the same sources, but these sources converge and produce impunity, and therefore the persistence of the crime and the abysmal feeling of injustice it inflicts on the victims.

The denial of the crime carries with it its negation and, in the political circles involved, the denial becomes negationism, a paranoid doctrine whose violence is proportional to the enormity of the crimes. In all rationality, there is no reason to be surprised by the fact that the Holocaust denial mechanism kicks in as soon as it comes to Assad’s crimes, nor when we hear the speeches of left and right, extreme left and extreme right enter the fray: remember Paul Rassinier and Pierre Guillaume, who agreed with the ratiocinations of Robert Faurisson about the gas chambers.[24] The current configuration puts into play, in inverted form, the old anti-imperialist thinking and gains in impact with the strike force of Russian propaganda, divides the left and the French extreme left in a way that has already been deconstructed several times, by Dominique Vidal, Julien Salingue, Sarah Kilani.[25] But deconstructing Holocaust denial discourse does not destroy it, because its strength comes from elsewhere than the logic it uses. And the analysis does not diminish the violence of denial, which is always an effort to drive the other mad: to the survivor it is explained that no crime took place, that his family was not exterminated, or that if it was, then this crime is not of a criminal nature.

This discourse on crime without crime has not only been that of Putin, but of the UN. Having entrusted Kofi Annan, in February 2012, with the task of being the special envoy of the UN and the Arab League in Syria, there was a whole programme put into place. “We could have hoped for the former secretary general of the organisation, Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, to have a little imagination, if not courage,” writes J.-P. Filiu.[26] But why should such things have been expected from the man who had been the under-secretary general of Boutros-Boutros-Ghali when the genocide in Rwanda took place?[27]  The sad truth of the very badly named “Security Council” of the UN, the institution on which the 1948 Convention on Genocide depends, was stated by Ban Ki-moon at the opening of the Council, in September 2016, when he spoke of a “shameful tragedy, a collective failure that should haunt all members of the Council”.[28] But shame is no more effective than compassion. Tragedy haunts and crime continues.

Negationism and orientalism

In terms of denial, negation, we must expect the same eternal sequences: a downward re-estimate of the number of deaths, a war of statistics; quibbles over words, disconnection from facts and their meaning; amplification of the contradictions of testimonies, refused as evidence; denial and/or justification of massacres in the name of war or the self-defence of a threatened state; relativisation of the facts, even inversion of the crime; recognition of massacres and denial of the intention to exterminate; request for evidence and documents together with their concealment or disqualification; refusal to endorse the false thesis of the victims, supported by higher interests or external powers; and therefore, guilt and demonisation of the victim.[29]

As for the denial of humanity, which relegates certain lives to non-value or absence, in this instance, it is to say that basically the Syrians do not belong to the world, or that the world can do without them. This is to say differently what the regime says. This non-belonging to the world, which today has become “acosmism”, to use Arendt’s word, is the effect of decades of a confining and paranoid politics, of the “wall” that the politics of the Assads have built around the Syrians, forcing them to withdraw into their “shell”, to use the image of Mustapha Khalifé. But it is likely that the denial of humanity concerns more broadly the Arabs or the Muslims, or as I would prefer to say, the peoples of the Middle East, who inhabit a blind spot of Western consciousness, as is also shown by their absence in memory studies, Western-style “memory work”. The non-belonging of Syrians to the world affects the relationship of the West to its “so Near East” (J.-P. Filiu), a relationship in which certain forms of Orientalism persist. We recall that Edward Saïd saw in Orientalism “a profoundly anti-empirical attitude”,[30] “a form of paranoia”, producing “a knowledge that is not of the same order as ordinary historical knowledge” ( p. 90): “truth becomes a function of learned judgment, not of the material itself which, over time, seems to owe its very existence to the Orientalist”.(p. 84) The failure of Orientalism, he said in the chapter on its “recent phase”, is both intellectual and human: it consists in not having been able to “recognise in this ‘other’ a ‘human experience’ as such”.(p. 353).

Saïd distinguished between a “manifest orientalism”, which often changed content, and a “latent orientalism”, which persisted in the use of certain constants and a “fundamental content”.(p. 236) Just as I hear a sort of nihilistic music when I hear talk of “naivety” about the Syrian revolution; similarly, when one hears talk of “Syrian chaos”, one has to put oneself in a floating listening mode and hear it as a residue of Orientalist discourse, even if it is above all a question of going quickly and thus displaying one’s distance or ignorance. And the two go hand in hand, just as there is a link between the fact that the historiographies of the Middle East are reserved for specialists in political science and the widely shared ignorance about the same among popular belief.[31]

I will add as a coda to Saïd the words of Jalal Toufic in, Le Retrait de la tradition face au désastre démesuré: denouncing Orientalist stereotypes is not enough, and even this denunciation contributes to their persistence, because the unconscious ignores negation.[32]

For the same reasons, we should stop using the term “despot” to talk about Bashar, because this word, which also smacks of Orientalism – a bit like the word “Asian cruelty” – seems to me euphemistic and inadequate. It would be necessary to grasp the notion of totalitarianism to speak of the regime of Bashar el-Assad, like that of Hafez: Michel Seurat himself wavered in speaking of a “state of barbarism”: the “primitive” elements, which naturalised the violence (esprit de corps, tribe, religion), drew the regime towards despotism.[33] However, it seems to me that from the end of 1979 and the beginning of 1980 – 7th Regional Congress of the Ba’ath Party – the Hafez regime was fully under totalitarian domination: from the coup d’état which enabled him to take control of power and the institutions in 1970, is added a complete stranglehold on the population: entanglement of opinion and unbridled propaganda, general surveillance, impediment of any civil society, control of organisations and corporations, organisation of denunciation, overhaul of the education, purging and sanctifying the army, construction of a semi-occult police state, clan militias assigned to dirty work and the more than obvious guarantee of impunity for the security apparatus. It should be remembered that Hafez was inspired on the one hand by Soviet expertise and on the other by that of the ex-Nazi Aloïs Brunner who, after having been seconded by Adolf Eichmann, became Hafez’s adviser from 1966.

This system has been cast in a sui generis political culture where the esprit du corps, multi-confessionalism and tribalism are combined, which are a priori the “negation of the State”, while the State is reduced to its function of domination and destruction. (Seurat, p. 19) The fact that a caste or a clan puts the entire society under regular control does not diminish this completeness of domination. The totalitarian politics becomes that of the clan or the caste; it is a politics of denominational cleavage and community monopoly, which nevertheless inherits the pseudo-secular and socialist modernism of the Baath party indexed to “absolute Arabism”. This mixture of elements led Yassin al-Haj Saleh to speak both of “fascism” and of the “neo-Sultanian state”. In La Question syrienne, his analyses of the “cultural and political causes of fascism” in Syria and even more of those of the regime’s “political nihilism”, conducive to the rise of a “warlike nihilism”, are presented as two deadly constructs that mirror each other.[34] The mixture of primitive (or archaic?) elements and political modernity does not invalidate the totalitarian character of the Assad regime, even before Bashar el-Assad embarked on his war of annihilation. And the fact that generalised terror also passes through the exhibition of cruelty and the hand-to-hand combat of the torturers with their victims, as much as through their disappearance, their erasure and their secrecy, does not contradict the totalitarian logic of the integral capture of lives and minds, nor the dynamics of extermination readable in operations, as if they were themselves slogans.

This all-or-nothing logic was already at work when Rifaat el-Assad, head of the Hafez Defence Brigades, considered it possible and desirable to “decimate” part of the population to “save the revolution”, a statement that appeared in the daily newspaper Teshrin, of July 1, 1980, just after the Palmyra massacre and two years before the furious shelling and carnage of Hama. Rifaat el-Assad’s philosophy was clear: “The Leader appoints, the Party approves and the people applaud. This is how socialism works in the Soviet Union. The one who does not applaud goes to Siberia.” (Seurat, p. 59) He liked to quote Stalin, but it is the Khmer Rouge that his rhetoric brings to mind – those Khmer Rouge who entered Phnom Penh five years after the Hafez coup. A few weeks before the Palmyra massacre, we read in this same Teshrin newspaper: “190 million workers alongside Syria in its fight” (May 13, 1980), a fight that mobilised “real socialism” so as to better repress the popular movement that was gaining strength at the time. This is the world as it was supposed to exist for the Syrians in the years 1979-1980: it is this world that we see closing in on people – on children and adolescents in particular – in the film Pas à pas, by Osama Mohammad. This world was a political fiction, as was real socialism wherever it believed it could dictate to the “workers” their struggle. This fiction was followed by that of Bashar, of conspiratorial inspiration, that of a country besieged by terrorism.

It is this world that the 2011 revolution “opened up”, and it is against this revolution that the most formidable forces of denial descend upon: either it was naïve, or it counts for nothing, or it did not even exist. The massive subject of “refugees” also seems to me intended to deny the event that took place, the revolution as much as its repression, to erase both the actors and the political witnesses of a Syrian history that concerns the world. There is a deep link between denial of crimes and denial of the revolution. Holocaust denial is also a kind of nihilism; it denies the possibility of an event that causes rupture: revolutionary rupture and rupture produced by a crime without a statute of limitations. It is a refusal to see the world open up with the revolution, a refusal to see the world shattered by crime without reason and a refusal to consider reparation. In each of these cases, there is a refusal of reality which passes itself off as realism. Jacques Rancière rightly situated this pseudo “political realism” among the “discourses of the end and of nothing”, under which he also included Holocaust denial.[35]


In one of his very first texts devoted to negationist logic, from 1962, “Le besoin d’interpréter”, Octave Mannoni analysed the philological practices of Robert Faurisson and showed that his maniacal re-readings of Rimbaud and Lautréamont in terms of “demystification”, demonstrated a refusal or an impossibility to conceive a poetic revolution and, more broadly, an event of a poetic order.[36] The Syrian revolution was most certainly such an event. It was first of all a major political event, of immense moral significance even in its tragic becoming, and from this event, we must draw political experiences, and not just a historical consciousness full of bitterness and anguish. However, it was also, in effect, a cultural revolution and an event of a poetic order. It already exists powerfully in poetry and art, and this is only the beginning; a nurturing existence that fully places this event in the world. One of the tasks that undoubtedly presents itself is, if not to work to link the fields of art and political reflection, to find the path of reality, to try out another realism, a non-positivist empiricism which takes fully into account past and present experiences, those that everyone has lived, and which leaves every chance open to the possible: to projections of thought, language, artistic form.

I am thinking here of the last pages of Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s book Sortir la mémoire des prisons, but also of the very first pages of his book Impossible révolution. He rightly claims “naivety” by revoking his old Hegelianism, for which the consciousness of the present is a naive consciousness that should give way to absolute knowledge.[37] It was the revolution, he says, that freed him from this Hegelianism, just as prison had emancipated him from any ideology, even prison ideology. The revolution made possible the naivety that makes it possible for everyone to think now from what they have experienced. To bear witness to what has taken place is to bear witness to the impossible that has become possible, to what has arisen in reality, but has been annihilated. Understanding this annihilation also presupposes understanding this possible upsurge, transformed into the impossible by nihilistic forces that work and shape our world.

Such a cathartic conception of thought and language rests on a belief in the world. Yassin Al-Haj Saleh professes this belief in each of his texts: it makes him write, in his perfectly relevant radical way, that today’s Syria is the world, and that the world is Syrian.[38] But this belief in the world is expressed in each of the works that the Syrians give us today. Belief in the world is not the same as hope for another world. This belief is “our only link”, Gilles Deleuze said in his book Image-temps, and he specified that a “conversion of belief” was needed to really take note of it.[39] It is perhaps to this conversion of belief that the Syrians invite us.

[1] Text delivered on December 14, 2017 during the colloquium “Syria: in search of a world”, organized by Catherine Coquio and Nisrine Al Zahre, December 14 and 15, 2017, Paris-Diderot University. These days were the subject of a video recording ( (subtitled version in preparation). They took place in a longer cycle, which ended on January 21, 2018 with a day at the Center Pompidou as part of the Festival Hors Pistes, which was also recorded: “Another Syria: revolution, nation, transmission” (https :// I thank Nisrine Al Zahre and Hala Alabdalla for leading this cycle with me.

[2] The passage is from Hannah Arendt’s manuscript notes. Cited in: Hannah Arendt, Qu’est-ce que la politique. Editions du Seuil, 1995.

[3] Fadwa Souleiman, actress and poet born in 1970 in Aleppo, had actively participated in the demonstrations from the beginning of the revolution in Homs. A refugee in Paris, she succumbed to cancer on August 17, 2017.

[4] Or: “Of what good is a world still?” This phrase became the title of Oskar Rosenfeld’s diary when it was published in Germany, Wozu noch Welt? Aufzeichnungen aus dem Getto Lods, edited by Hanno Loewy, Frankfurt, Verlag Neue Kritik, 1994. I evoked this diary and this question of the world about the Polish ghettos in “’Wozu noch Welt?’/‘Ce n’était pas un monde’. Le ghetto comme monde et fin du monde”, in J. Lindenberg ed., Premiers savoirs de la Shoah, CNRS éditions, 2017, p 37-76.

[5] Samuel Kassow, Who Will Write Our History?: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

[6] Delphine Minoui, Les Passeurs de livres de Daraya. Une bibliothèque secrète en Syrie, Paris, Seuil, 2017, p 82.

[7] “Quelle Syrie pour quel monde? ”, Centre Pompidou, 9 December 2017, opening debate for the cycle “Syrie : à la recherche d’un monde”, with Jean-Pierre Filiu, Muzaffar Salman, Nathalie Bontemps, Oussama Mohamad.

[8] Yassin AL Haj Saleh, Récits d’une Syrie oubliée. Sortir la mémoire des prisons, trad. M. Babut et N. Bontemps, Les Prairies oubliées, 2015.

[9] “We come from the future. Syrian animated films”. An evening organised by the Cultural Service Department of Paris 7, with Catherine Coquio and Hala Alabdalla, University of Paris-Diderot, the Buffon amphitheatre, December 12, 2017, in the presence of the directors Jalal Maghout, Samer Ajouri, Amer Albarzawi, Mohammad Hijazi , presented by Hala Alabdalla.

[10] In May 2011 Hamza Ali al-Khatteeb and Tamer al-Cherii were tortured and killed and returned to their mutilated and tortured parents. Friday, June 3, 2011 became the day of the “children of freedom”.

[11] Majd al Dik with Nathalie Bontemps, A l’est de Damas, au bout du monde. Témoignage d’un révolutionnaire syrien, Paris, Don Quichotte éditions, 2016. I mentioned this book within a constellation of other books relating to the Syrian revolution, and in particular the one that Justine Augier devoted to the lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, whom Majd al Dik quickly mentions since he worked with her in Douma: “La Syrie existe”, En attendant Nadeau, May 12, 2017:

[12] In Mustapha Khalifé’s testimonial novel, La Coquille, while the prisoner is in the antechamber of the Palmyra prison, he wakes up in a forest of feet and legs, raises his head and sees two children sleeping on large pipes above the heaps of bodies. “I’ve never slept so well,” said one of them (an expression reminiscent of the terrifying French song of Saint-Nicolas: “I thought I was in paradise”). Khalifé no longer speaks of the children afterwards: where have they gone?

[13] La Question syrienne, Actes Sud, 2017.

[14] On this notion of a crime without reason, I can refer to the book of the philosopher Philippe Bouchereau, La Grande Coupure. Essai de philosophie testimoniale, Paris, Garnier, collection “Littérature Histoire Politique”, 2018, certainly one of the most precious books today for thinking about the singularity of the crime of genocide and the phenomena of rendering-strange that it arouses both in the facts themselves and in the language that seeks to account for it.

[15] In 2012, 72.8 % (

[16] Micehl Seurat, Syrie. L’État de barbarie, Paris, PUF, 2012, Preface by Gilles Kepel, p. 18.

[17] “The Syrian revolution in 3 minutes”, Kafranbel Media Center, 2014, (Voir

[18] Mustapha Khalifé, La Coquille. Prisonnier politique en Syrie, trad. S. Dujols, Babel, 2007.

[19] At the end of the film, “The Syrian Revolution in 3 minutes”, the following message appears: “Death is death. Regardless of the way it was done, Assad killed 150.000. Stop him.”

[20] (October 18, 2017) (October 27, 2017);

[21] Abou Naddara, Collectif de cinéastes syriens, “Syrie. L’honnête homme et les communautés fratricides”, Libération, October 4, 2016 ;

[22] Hannah Arendt, “De l’humanité dans de sombres temps. Réflexions sur Lessing”, Vies politiques, Paris, Gallimard, 1986 (1974).

[23] Third session of the colloquium, “Syrie : à la recherche d’un monde”, 14/12/ 2017: “Détruire, effacer, nier”, with the participation of Yassin Al Haj Saleh, Jean-Yves Potel, Joël Hubrecht, Véronique Nahoum-Grappe, Frédéric Detue. Richard Rechtman, President

[24] On these names and on these phenomena, I refer to the work of Nadine Fresco, Florent Brayard, Valérie Igounet.

[25] See in particular, the work of Julien Salingue; Sarah Kilani ; Antoine Hasday

[26] Jean-Pierre Filiu, Le Miroir de Damas, Paris, La Découverte, 2017, p 256.

[27] The best thing that Annan did was to resign a few months later, after having been fooled by Assad with his “agreement on an approach” to an end to the violence.

[28] New York, 21/9/2016, cited by J.P. Filiu, op. cit. p. 262.

[29] I refer to what I wrote in “A propos d’un nihilisme contemporain: déni, négation, témoignage”, in Catherine Coquio ed., L’Histoire trouée. Négation et témoignage, L’Atalante, 2003, p. 22-89.

[30] Edward Saïd, L’Orientalisme. L’Orient créé par l’Occident, Paris, Seuil, 2004 (1980), p 87.

[31] Of which I am of course a part: what did I know of the “federation of Syria” invented by France in 1922 to consolidate its power and of its idea of an “Alawite State” alongside a “State of Syria”, with did Damascus and Aleppo joined? What did I know of Damascus pounded in 1925 by French General Maurice Sarail, of Joseph Kessel activating the levers on the small Syrian houses, and of the Senegalese soldiers who arrived as reinforcements to force the Syrians to salute the French flag on May 29, 1945? Almost nothing, I learned it like many other things by reading Le Miroir de Damas by J.P. Filiu (pp. 209-211 and 228).

[32] Jalal Toufic, Le Retrait de la tradition face au désastre démesuré, trad. Omar Berrada et Ninon Vinsonneau, Les Prairies ordinaires, 2011 (2009).

[33] He claimed that the regime’s reference to socialism and its alliance with the USSR were a matter of style, and quoted H. Arendt and Claude Lefort on the distinction between tyrannical power and totalitarian domination. (p.81)

[34] Yassin Al Haj Saleh, La Question syrienne, trad. Ziad Majed, Farouk Mardam-Bey, Nadia Leïla Aïssaoui, Sindbad, 2016.

[35] Jacques Rancière, “Les énoncés de la fin et du rien”, in G. Leyenberger and J.J. Forté ed., Traversées du nihilisme, ed. Osiris, 1994. See : C. Coquio, “A propos d’un nihilisme contemporain”, art. cit.

[36] Octave Mannoni, “Le besoin d’interpréter”, Les Temps modernes, mars 1962.

[37] Impossible revolution is the English title of the book La Question syrienne, but this text quoted from the English edition’s preface is not in the French edition.


[39] Gilles Deleuze, Image-temps, Paris, Minuit, 1985, pp. 223-224. “Seule la croyance au monde peut relier l’homme à ce qu’il voit et entend. Il faut que le cinéma filme, non pas le monde, mais la croyance à ce monde, notre seul lien. (…) Chrétiens ou athées, dans notre universelle schizophrénie nous avons besoin de raisons de croire en ce monde. C’est toute une conversion de la croyance”.  [“Only belief in the world can reconnect man to what he sees and hears. The cinema must film, not the world, but belief in this world, our only link. … Whether we are Christians or atheists, in our universal schizophrenia, we need reasons to believe in this world. It is a whole transformation of belief.” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 172.]

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