An interview with Yassin al-Haj Saleh on the role of culture in Syria’s struggle

The New Inquiry: Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer, intellectual and former political prisoner. In 1980, while studying medicine at Aleppo University, the 19-year-old Yassin was arrested by Hafez al-Assad’s government for his membership in the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau. He remained in prison for 16 years and 14 days. Since 2000, Yassin al-Haj Saleh has been writing on political, social and cultural subjects relating to Syria and the Arab world for several Arab newspapers and journals outside Syria. In addition, he has authored and edited four books about Syria, including one about his experience in prison. His fifth book is a critique of contemporary Islam and a critique of the critique.

When the Syrian revolution began Yassin al-Haj Saleh, then working in Damascus, went into hiding for two years in the capital. In 2013, he and his wife, the revolutionary activist Samira Khalil, moved to Douma to work for the revolution. Later that year he travelled to his family home in Raqqa where Da’esh was gaining control, and where two of his brothers had been abducted by Da’esh. His brother, Feras al-Haj Saleh is still in their hands. After living in hiding in Raqqa for two and a half months, Yassin was forced to flee to Turkey where he now lives. His journey is the subject of the documentary Our Terrible Country. Samira Khalil was abducted in Douma in December 2013, along with three other well known activists, Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamda, and Nazem Hammadi, and their whereabouts are still unknown.

In 2012, Yassin al-Haj Saleh was awarded the Prince Claus Award, as a “tribute to the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution.” He was unable to collect the award, as he was living in hiding. For the last two years he has been living in exile in Istanbul. He is one of the founders of the Syrian online platform Al-Jumhuriya (The Republic), established in 2012. He has also founded, with colleagues from Syria and Turkey, Hamisch, the Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul, a space for cultural debate with participants from Syria, Turkey and the world.

You said in an interview with the Boston Review that “Culture can be a strategic field for our struggle for freedom, both the Assad-ist and the Islamic version.” How do you envision this, and is it a strategy among Syrians, or between Syrians and the outside world?

Maybe it will be a burden on culture at large to affect the Syrian situation, now. The time now is for arms and armed people. It is a country where people have been being killed on a daily basis in terrible horrific ways, with the world watching. We have a lot of experience with arrests, torture, chemical attacks, barrel bombs, attacks by fighter jets, and of course exile — 4 million are living abroad, and more than 7 million displaced within the country. These are our experiences. Our culture could – our culture should be rebuilt on these experiences, and through culture we can rebuild our identity, our roles, and in a way our imagination, and our society. We don’t want to be fighters. I understand why people carry arms against the regime. But I don’t want to be a fighter myself. My tools, my arms, are words. And words can be a very powerful tool in our struggle, not only in Syria, but at the global level, because I think that the Syrian struggle is not something confined to Syria, it is a global issue. And because the world did not help Syria change for better, I think that Syria is changing the whole world for worse. [Continue reading…]

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