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September 2015

Meet James Salter

“I decided to write, or perish. It was like starting life from scratch.”

James Salter is a novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter. He grew up in New York City and was a career officer and air force pilot until his mid-thirties, when the success of his first novel (The Hunters) led to a fulltime writing career. Salter’s potent, lyrical prose has earned him acclaim from critics, readers, and fellow novelists. His novel A Sport and a Pastime was hailed by the New York Times as “nearly perfect as any American fiction.”

In this video, Salter speaks about his unforgettable experience of taking off alone in the pursuit of writing: “You suddenly feel a pair of wings on you. . . .”

Iyad el-Baghdadi – إياد البغدادي – The Arab Spring Manifesto

 29 oct. 2014

Iyad el-Baghdadi’s speech at the 2014 Oslo Freedom Forum. See more talks like this at and follow @OsloFF for updates.

Ghaib Tu`ma Farman: The Old Man’s Word


[Ghaib Tuma Farman. Image from unknown source][Ghaib Tuma Farman. Image from unknown source]

The Old Man’s Word

Ghaib Tu`ma Farman

Translated by Khaled Al-Hilli

[As a pioneer of contemporary Iraqi fiction, Ghaib Tu`ma Farman (1927-1990) may have been too geographically removed from the literary center to enjoy the critical acclaim offered to authors of his stature. Born in Baghdad 1927, he came of literary age in the 1950’s with the publication of his first short story collection in 1954 and formed friendships with other literary figures of his time such as Fuad al-Takarli and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati. He studied Arabic literature in Cairo and worked for several newspapers and publishing houses in Iraq and Egypt. After a number of perilous encounters with the state and its censorship, leading to his citizenship being revoked temporarily in 1957, Farman left to Moscow in 1960 where he spent the remainder of his life in exile until his death in 1990. While in Moscow, Farman supported himself by translating to Arabic the works of European writers such as Silone, Gorky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Pushkin.

Farman’s fiction is characterized by its brilliant artistic treatment of the turbulent and transformative years of the 1940’s and 1950’s. In their variegated portrayal of Iraqi society, his novels often feature the exiled, the downtrodden, and the poor, whose lives have been tragically and irretrievable shaped by social and political upheavals.

Very little of Farman’s work has been translated to English. The following is a short story from his collection, Ālām al-Sayyid Maʻrūf. This book, published in 1982, includes an eponymous novella and a number of other short stories written over a span of a few decades. Many thanks to Chris Stone, Beth Baron and Nova Robinson for their valuable feedback on earlier versions.]

The Old Man’s Word

He woke up at dawn; he was ready for them. He sneaked out of his bed leaving the twilight breeze behind him, and walked down the stairs leaning on the wall. As he crossed the bottom step, he raised his eyes to make sure he did not wake his wife. He walked across the rectangular courtyard, now under a waning cloak of darkness blending with old scents, and he brought a chair to the passageway and sat down to wait for them. Yesterday he stayed up and waited for them until midnight … but they never came. He did not hear their movement outside the door, nor their voices whispering. Today he was determined to be ready for them at dawn. He sat with his cheek resting on his palm. He listened attentively and waited. He would stay until he heard the rustle of their footsteps outside the door, and then he would pounce and clutch at their necks, and shout until he woke up all the neighbors. He’d show them who he really is; I’ll make them cry uncle

The air in the house was stifling and sultry, unlike the rooftop’s twilight breeze. He wrestled with sleep and dragged himself out of bed, and now drowsiness came back as he sat behind the door. He opened his heavy eyelids and raised his eyebrows defiantly. He placed his ears against the wood of the door and examined, under a canopy of darkness, the lower level of the courtyard, the narrow windows of the cellar, part of the clay water pot, the last three steps of the staircase, the lower part of the bathroom door, the kitchen, and the bottom part of the sink. Silence enveloped everything. Darkness was starting to dissipate gradually before his eyes. Inside his chest something was itching him, an unrelenting urge to cough, which he suppressed lest he might alert them to his presence. When he dozed off again and his eyes grew heavy, he shook off this unexpected drowsiness with a jolt of his head, and he coughed in spite of himself. He scratched his graying chest as if to pluck out something scraping inside of him.

A few minutes later, he heard the bellowing of a cow. He knew it was Sakina, the milk woman, leading her cow to the end of the alley where she sold her milk. But he hasn’t heard their voices yet; he hasn’t heard their hands scratching the door. Everything went silent except for his heart, which sounded like a pendulum of an old clock. Once again, the unshakeable urge to cough came back. He clenched his teeth and smacked his thigh. A moment later, the night-guard’s whistle broke through the silence. Then he heard the rustle of the sweeper’s broom and realized that morning had arrived and that they will not show up. 

The darkness in the passageway was like smoke with a smoldering glow. As he stood up, he clutched at his left knee, which was afflicted by rheumatism, and he noticed that light was starting to filter through from above. The green of the shanasheel on the upper floor appeared faded. He said to himself, “They’re not coming today. It is as if they knew I’d be here waiting for them. They know who I am. They know better than to mess with Abu Haidar.” Then he pondered to himself, “It was around this time that I heard the scratching yesterday,” and he imagined that he was hearing it now, but he could only hear his heart thumping in his chest like a broken drum. Then he heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. He knew it was his wife. As he turned around, he saw her heavy feet, then her black gown and plump body. When she came close she whispered, in a tone of gentle reproach, “You thought I didn’t notice when you woke up, did you?”

He coughed and said in a low voice, “I have to find out who they are.”

“But what’s the point? Who are you going to complain to?”

“I’m not going to complain to anyone. I have my own hands. An Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered. Fattouma, an Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered.”

Then he had a coughing fit. When he looked up at his wife again, he caught a glimpse of tenderness in her eyes. A broken old man? Never, Fattouma. He stifled another urge to cough and it burst through his throat. Then he was clam. He heard a car’s engine, then another one, and he knew for certain that they were not coming. He raised his head to the rectangular sky, which the rooftop balusters seemed to penetrate. It was a glowing blue, and this added to his certainty. Behind his door all was silent, while outside, beyond the little bend where his house was located, life was returning to its daytime pace.

He could hear the footsteps of passersby, the intermittent coughing, and even the softly whispered, “Allah Kareem,” God is Most Kind, which he had heard uttered everyday by the kubbah vendor. The courtyard lit up with morning light, and things returned to their former state. He grew tired of waiting. 

“So they’re not coming. All right, then. Tomorrow Allah Kareem, as Hassani, the kubbah vendor would say.” He came close to the door and glared at it with resentment. Its back with its geometrical concavities looked shaded now, with sharply defined lines. He lifted the latch with a squeak, stepped across its threshold and stared vacantly at it. With the light from the corner, he saw something occupying the upper part of the door. He moved closer and peered at it. It was a reddish smudge, the color of crimson blood. He dug his finger into it. It was still sticky. 

He yelled from his spot, “Fattouma, come see this!”

She came strutting, like an old woman brought back to a younger age. She said from the passageway:

“What is it? Did they put another cat?”

“Even worse. Look at the red scribble.”

The old woman stepped cautiously over the threshold. She stood next to him and saw the writing.

“What is written there?”

“How would I know? I’m as good as blind.”

The smudge stood before him like a curved tail. He stood there with his wife staring at it, as if with some long reflection they could decipher its meaning. It was puzzling and abrupt, reddish black, wavering between an incantation and a transgression. The old man regretted that his mother and father never taught him how to read and write. He regretted this now more than any other time in his life. And as his eyes grew tired of staring blindly and pleading to the walls around him in the alley, he walked out to the street, turning left and right, pleading like a confused supplicant while people walked by untroubled by the smudge, as if they had no knowledge of its existence. One young man looked at the old man’s long underwear and smiled kindly. He started to ask him, raised his hand a little, and then dropped it on his thigh. Words of entreaty died on his lips.What on Earth does this unsightly scribble mean? It was also written in red paint, which by itself is reason enough for much anguish. The old man headed left, to Hussein al Attar’s shop. He alone could read this ominous writing, and if there were something offensive in it, he would not embarrass him in front of other people. But the metal shutters were pulled down and the old man went back to his corner. He stood before the door and the red writing appeared in all its intensity.

“How did they write it?” He asked his wife, who was sitting on the chair now.

“They just did. You can’t wait for them all night.”

“Are they going to keep messing with us like that? 

“I hope they get what they deserve.”

“No, Fattouma, an Imam who doesn’t deliver will never be revered.”

Then he coughed as he labored to breathe. She said with anguish, “Water is boiling. Come inside and drink some hot water.” But he declined, preferring to wait for Hussein al Attar to open his shop so he could learn the meaning of this writing, before which he stood flustered, helpless and agitated. One time before they had hung a dead black cat, and then a mouse. Another time they smeared his door with something putrid. They did all of that and he understood the insult and was determined to catch them and take his revenge. But now he didn’t know what they meant by this writing, which they scribbled in brazen red paint that covered the upper part of the door. How did they write it, much less in the dark? His tiny eyes kept squinting at this wretched writing. 

His wife came with a glass of hot water. He sat to drink it. 

Then the old woman suggested, “Should I get you a cloth and hot water to wipe it off?”

“How can I wipe it off? I need to know what it says.”

“God Knows,” the old woman rolled up her sleeves, “it could be something obscene”

“No, I need to know,” he said with determination, “but al-Attar is late today.” “Where are you, Abu Ali?” he pleaded. 

His wife answered, “If our sons were here, they would have read it for us. They wouldn’t leave us in such confusion.”

The old man said with irritation, “They drove them all away, left a big empty void.”

He sank into a deep melancholy; he awoke from it at the sound of shop shutters wailing from around the corner. He stood up promptly and said with the eagerness of a child, “Hussein is here!” as he ran off leaving behind the water glass on the chair.

Two minutes later, he came back with a man of medium height, an oval-shaped face and grey hair. He bid the old woman good morning and inquired about her health, but was soon interrupted by the old man, “Let’s leave health aside for now. First, tell me what it says here.”

The man raised his head at the door and peered at the writing.

“So, what does it say?”

He moved closer to the door and pointed his finger at the writing, as if trying to spell it out.

“What does it say, Hussein?”

“What does it say? It says, ‘sheel,’ leave.”

“What … What?”

“It says ‘leave.’”

“That’s it? Just like that, leave?”

“Yes, that’s right. Leave.”

The old man fell silent, pondering to himself. Then, with a different tone, he said, “I knew it all along. They want me to leave.” 

Hussein’s eyes were still fixed on the door, as if trying to confirm one more time what he had just seen. The old man observed his face with eagerness and anticipation. Perhaps he would change his mind in the end. That’s it? “Leave,” just like that! It is inconceivable that one word could take up so much space on the door. Leave!

“Leave, that’s all?”

“Yes, ‘leave.’ It’s right there, clear as daylight. L E A V E.”

“Are they in their right mind? Leave the house where I got married? The house where my father and mother drew their last breath? Leave? Just like that? It’s absurd!”

No longer staring at the door, Hussein, whose aging face betrayed visible signs of distress now, answered, “It’s best to steer away from evil.”

The old man became irritated and said, “This is not steering away from evil. This is bowing to the devil and … and … and kissing his hand. What if someone came up to you tomorrow and asked you to leave your shop that you’ve had for twenty years. Would you leave it?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Why don’t you just go back to your work? What is this, the rule of Qaraqosh, or Hulagu?”*


Sensing that he might have offended him, the old man turned to Hussein. He had already started moving, his head sunk low, “If you excuse me now … I left the shop … It will all pass …” The old man did not say anything; he stood fixed in front of the door. He saw the red word mocking him, scoffing at his old age. I’ll teach them how to mess with Abu Haidar.

“Come inside, dear.”

“If I could just find out who wrote it,” he said through clenched teeth. 

“Come inside, dear. Your chest will act up.”

He entered the house following his wife. The sunlight shone with all its intensity on the courtyard, and through the green latticed windows of the upper floor. The old man and his wife climbed up the two stairs to the living room and he sat on a wooden daybed, while his wife chose to sit on the floor behind the tea heater, her same spot for almost thirty years. Back then, the living room was covered with carpets, and Hadi used to sit next to her. Then the kids came. They went to school, to college, and got jobs. Then chairs were brought into the living room, but the old woman had gotten used to sitting on the floor. She would sit cross-legged on the carpet for hours without her legs going numb. She would never think about sitting on a chair.

And it suddenly occurred to the old man to ask, “Fattouma, do you remember how many times we’ve painted the living room?” 

“I don’t remember.”

“More than four times. When we got married, that was the first time. When we circumcised the boys, that was the second time. When Haidar got married, that was the third time. When Shakir got married, that was the fourth time. And right before the boys left, that was the fifth.”

The old woman did not respond. She was busy pouring a cup of tea, which she then offered to him, and brought close to him a small bowl of walnuts soaked in water. The old man glanced around the walls as if trying to decipher them. One summer he built this wall from nothing. He brought a builder and for two days was at his heels observing how every brick was laid in its place. He would tell the builder, “I want this to endure for the children of my children … I want it to be sturdy.” And the ceiling? He looked at it mournfully. It was not covered with boards before Haidar got married. When Haidar got married he covered it with wooden boards of particular shapes and patterns and painted it light green. When sunlight filtered through in the morning, the entire living room would appear soaked in emerald green. Oh, and the wedding bed used to be here, the clothes cabinet there, and the toilet table with its big mirror. That night he was too shy to enter the room. Then, after a short period, otherwise known as the honeymoon, the bride and groom moved up to the second floor.

“I don’t want your tea to get cold.”

He left the daybed and walked down the two steps to the courtyard. The sun had descended on the latticed windows of the upper floor and touched the bannisters of the hallway leading to the room where Haidar and his wife once slept. This is where he once stood as he called out to Haidar on his wedding day, “When it was my wedding night, I didn’t take that long. Oh, young people today!” And he chortled in his joy. The earth itself could not contain his happiness. Then his second son got married, and he swore to marry off his third son before he would die. He swore on his grey hair. I would even cut off this rheumatic leg of mine, the root of all my affliction and misery. Then Haidar’s wife became pregnant, and when one morning his second son’s bride kissed him on his forehead asking for his blessings, he was about to say something inappropriate but felt embarrassed. His son was watching him. He wanted him to make a mistake. But I am your father, how dare you. It was the summer season and he was sitting on the chair in the very spot he is contemplating now, between the water pot and the stairs. Sunlight had also filled the courtyard, and he shouted at him, “Get up, your bride is coming down!” Now his old bride was coming down, with her hand leaning on her knee. 

As she came close to him and asked, “Is your chest going to act up on you again today?”

The water pot was still in the same place, green on both sides, and the stairs from which the bride descended were dusty, the wooden planks at the edge of each step corroded. On the other side was the bathroom.

“Fattouma, do you remember how hard I worked to build the bathroom?”

“Yes, very hard.”

“I didn’t want them to leave. The house is big enough to shelter an entire clan. They wanted a bathroom and I built them a bathroom fit for kings. I built it with these scruffy hands. I did it all with my hands. I did it all for them.”

Next to the bathroom, the kitchen was covered with floor tiles. At its center, there was the table where Haidar used to eat his lunch. Now it was deserted. For the old woman food always tasted better on the floor and the kitchen felt stifling. Here are the kitchen floor tiles, and the traces of smoke on the wall. There, on the west side of the house, where the traces were even stronger, he, Hadi al Hajj Rashid, used to cook harissa for the poor in a big cauldron that occupied the entire west segment of the rectangular yard. The house was always heaving, always bustling with its own people, and visitors would come in and out. He would stand like a chief of a clan, looming larger than life. He would say, God bless this house … I will make the smoke rise to the Seventh Sky… Astaghfirullah, God forgive me! They made me curse and it is not even morning yet. 

“Fattouma, it is one more month before it’s time to cook harissa, if God keeps us alive. And why wouldn’t He? What have we done to Him? Have we stolen people’s money? Fattouma, get it out of your mind – I’ll never leave this house. I will stay here, and this year’s harissa will be legendary, and everyone will swear by my name.”

“And they will.”

“Of course they will. Who’s not going to let me stay? What nonsense is this to leave my own home? Fattouma: one’s home is one’s country.” 

* In popular culture, these two names are associated with arbitrary judgement and despotic rule. The former was one of Saladin’s palace administrators who was later appointed as minster of Egypt at the end of the 12th century. He became a popular figure parodied in Arab folklore for his bizarre rulings and capricious behavior. As for Hulagu Khan, the destruction of Baghdad in 1257 earned the Mongol ruler his reputation for unbridled brutality.


[From GhaibTu`ma Farman, Ālām al-Sayyid Maʻrūf: Qiṣaṣ (Beirut: Dār al-Fārābī, 1982. Translated from the Arabic by Khled Al-Hilli]


Assad’s Strategy Is To Create Refugees

“They want to empty the country.”

Refugees wait at a bus terminal in Istanbul. Ahmet Sik / Getty Images

ISTANBUL — The 53-year-old father of two was convinced that Bashar al-Assad wanted him to flee Syria.

More than two years after he buried the bodies from a massacre in his village near Damascus by forces loyal to the Syrian president, he sat in an Istanbul park alongside dozens of other refugees, waiting with their life jackets to make the journey to Europe by sea.

“They want to empty the country,” he said, sitting with his wife and two children as he described how government soldiers had bombed the village of Jdeidet al-Fadel and then executed residents in their homes, suspecting them of rebel sympathies. Some, he said, were “beheaded like chickens.” After helping with the burials, he snuck his family into Turkey.

The refugee crisis isn’t just a by-product of the brutal civil war in Syria, according to many of those fleeing, as well as Western officials and analysts tracking the conflict. It’s part of a concerted effort by the Syrian government, which has killed the vast majority of civilians in a war that has left more than 200,000 people dead.

Assad has lost control over more than three-quarters of the country, and targeting civilians in those areas has been part of his strategy from the start of the four-year-old civil war. His forces work to make opposition-held areas unlivable for rebels and civilians alike — a tactic guaranteed to create masses of refugees. “The rationale behind [the government’s military] strategies is to leave no other choice to the populations: Either you come back to us and recognize our authority, or you will die,” said Pierre Desbareau, the emergency coordinator for Syria at Doctors Without Borders. “In many besieged zones, you really can see the level of brutality rising year after year. So, at the end there is no choice for the population in opposition areas. They have to leave the country.”

A city block in Aleppo destroyed by government bombings. Provided by Melad Shehabi

International attention on the conflict has focused on ISIS ever since it surged to prominence last summer, overrunning cities in Iraq and Syria and beheading Western journalists. ISIS is also the priority for the U.S., which is fighting the militants with airstrikes. Yet as refugees, most of them Syrian, pour into Europe in a growing humanitarian crisis, it’s Assad’s forces who have done the most to fuel the exodus. Refugees heading to Europe and the smugglers who send them — as well as Western officials and analysts — say the human tide promises to persist as long as the Syrian government continues attacking civilians.

“This is about the only reason for the refugees,” said a smuggler in Istanbul, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his work is illegal. Based in the refugee-crowded neighborhood of Aksaray, he guessed that 90% of the thousands of Syrians he’d sent to Europe were fleeing Assad. He’d arranged the journey for many of those huddled in the park on Tuesday night. Some were recent arrivals in Turkey, which hosts 2 million Syrians. Others were long-term refugees who had lost hope in the idea of returning home. Buses idled nearby. They are packed nightly with refugees before driving to the port city of Izmir, where the refugees board boats bound for Greece. “It will never end,” the smuggler said, his three cell phones ringing relentlessly with business calls. “People will keep trying to get out.”

“As long as Assad is in power and he continues to use these tactics, more and more refugees will be created.”

The Obama administration recognizes that Assad’s war efforts are driving the refugee crisis. “It’s fair to say that the regime is likely using indiscriminate attacks to make it very difficult for people to live in opposition-controlled areas,” said an official with the U.S. State Department, who declined to be named discussing the subject. “As long as Assad is in power and he continues to use these tactics, more and more refugees will be created.”

Yet the refugee issue is unlikely to change U.S. policy toward Assad, which has centered from the start on modest support for carefully selected rebel groups and strongly worded critiques. “The way it’s been teed up for the American public is that we’re not supposed to care and it doesn’t concern us,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The attacks on civilians continue: airstrikes against schools and markets, barrel bombs dropped from helicopters onto hospitals and homes, artillery barrages, sieges that choke off access and food to opposition-held areas, massacres like the one witnessed by the man on the park bench.

Destruction from government attacks in the province of Idlib. Provided by a resident, Abdulkader al-Husain

Assad’s attacks on civilians play into the sectarian war raging in Syria and across the Middle East, Tabler added. Assad’s government is dominated by the country’s Alawite religious minority, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. It is propped up today by its Shiite ally in Iran, as well as Russia.

Most Syrian refugees are from the country’s Sunni majority, often hailing from areas that have slipped out of Assad’s control. “That’s his intention: to move Sunnis from those areas and fortify his state,” Tabler said. “The more Assad holds on, the more he strikes civilian areas, and the more refugees we have.”

In a recent interview with Russian media, Assad blamed the West for the refugee crisis, citing its support for the opposition.

According to the U.N., there are now more than 4 million Syrian refugees, the bulk of them based in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Desbareau, of Doctors Without Borders, said that many are giving up on going home — and leaving their overburdened host countries in hopes of starting fresh in Europe. “It’s endless violence inside and no sign of a peace agreement, so they’re saying there is no way they will come back to the country,” he said. “And they’re in these camps for sometimes three or four years, with tensions around them from hosting populations that are saturated, and [they’re seeing] no future for their kids.”

In February 2014, the U.N. Security Council adopted a new resolution to increase humanitarian access in Syria and stop indiscriminate attacks. The government has ramped up its sieges on opposition-held areas since then, Despareau said, and its attacks on besieged zones have become “even worse.” Doctors Without Borders estimates that there are about 2 million people living under siege in Syria, he added, “and the level of intensity of bombing they are facing is just incredible.”

A video showing the destruction of Aleppo, mostly from government attacks, filmed by Syrian photographer Melad Shehabi. Via YouTube

In interviews from Syria — speaking by cell phone, Facebook, and Skype — civilian residents described Syrian government attacks.

In the northern province of Idlib, Abdulkader al-Husain, 28, said he was visiting his sister on Sept. 1 when he heard a helicopter hovering overhead. Then the ground shook under his feet as he heard an explosion “like the sound of the god of death.” The chopper had dropped a barrel bomb, a crude and indiscriminate explosive. Husain ran outside to see blood and bodies in the street.

There were five civilians killed and 20 wounded, he said, adding that more than two-thirds of the village had already fled as refugees due to constant government attacks. “The regime is trying to take revenge on the cities and villages that came out against him,” he said. “The strikes are almost daily.”

Yamma al-Sayed, 21, a journalist with an opposition TV station based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said he had seen three massacres in just the last month. The first was a notorious incident on Aug. 16, in which the government bombed a marketplace, killing more than 100 people, according to Human Rights Watch. “Most of them were women, children and the elderly, trying to secure food for their families,” he said. “I saw people turned into pieces.” Six days later the government attacked an apartment building, Sayed said, and two days after that airstrikes killed another 10 civilians in their homes.

The aftermath of a government bombing in the coastal province of Latakia, provided to BuzzFeed News by a local photographer.

In the southern city of Daraa, a young mother said her home had been destroyed this summer over the course of “daily” government attacks; a freelance photographer from the coastal province of Latakia recounted pulling bodies from the rubble of a market bombing last month. Melad Shehabi, 26, said the last bombing he witnessed in Aleppo came on Tuesday, when the government fired a rocket into an apartment building, killing four people and wounding 15. “It’s a scorched-earth policy,” he said.

The director of a hospital in the central province of Hama, Hassan al-Araj, said the latest attack on his village came on Wednesday, when four barrel bombs destroyed three homes. “The goal of the regime is displacement,” he said. “People are waiting for death.”

Mike Giglio is a correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in Istanbul. He has reported on the wars in Syria and Ukraine and unrest around the Middle East. His secure PGP fingerprint is 13F2 AD33 403F E72E 7C4E 5584 3E3B 2497 EEE9 DF7A
Contact Mike Giglio at
Munther al-Awad is a journalist based in Istanbul.
Contact Munzer al-Awad at


Godfathers and thieves, Part Five: How the Syrian revolution was crowdfunded


This is the final of five exclusive extracts relating the story of Mezyan Al Barazi, a Syrian expatriate living and working in the United Arab Emirates, and his efforts to support the revolution in his home country. At turns informative, tragic, and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, Godfathers and Thieves reminds us that the next revolution, like the last, will likely be crowdfunded. By ELIZABETH DICKINSON.

As violence spread across Syria in 2013, it seeped into humanitarian aid work. That fall, the Syrian government put the Palestine refugee camp of Yarmouk, a thriving suburb just miles from central Damascus, under siege. Syrian rebels had started using the neighborhood as a base to slip into the capital. With more than 150,000 people packed into a single square mile, it was easy to disappear – especially since a growing number of the residents were becoming sympathetic to their cause.

The Syrian army sent in soldiers. Government fighter jets bombed a school. The army set up a ring around the camp, preventing tens of thousands of remaining residents from leaving and stopping others from going in. Soon, Yarmouk began to starve.

Thousands of miles away in Abu Dhabi, Syrian businessman Mezyan Al Barazi — the unofficial head of a diaspora aid group — was scrambling to break the siege. At first, he thought the blockade would last just a few days. But it soon became clear that the troops were there to stay. Local clerics issued fatwas so that cats and dogs could be cooked to eat. Families chewed on grass or boiled it in water. By January 2014, at least 50 people had died from a lack of food and medicine.

Al Barazi reached out to a member of a charity run by Syrian doctors living abroad. Hospitals and medical personnel had been targeted by the Syrian government, and Al Siraj tried to fill the gap, smuggling in some 50 health workers to field hospitals, garages, and basements. Several of the doctors working with the charity had attended events hosted by Al Barazi’s diaspora organizing committee, or Tansiqiya, sharing harrowing stories from their mission.

Beyond their bravery and access, Al Siraj had resources. In December 2013, the group posted a photo of its monthly spending showing a total of $263,400. Indeed, the group had found donor support among some of Syria’s most prominent exiles, including two of the richest men in Doha: brothers Moataz and Ramez Khayyat, whose construction firm Urbacon International had won contracts to build facilities for the 2022 soccer World Cup. Their company’s Syrian offices, equipment, and land had been seized by the regime in 2011, and they claimed their loss to have been at least $200 million. Having relocated permanently to Doha, the brothers said they spent hundreds of thousands on relief work since the revolution had started. In 2014, when several businessmen provided a total of $5 million worth of flour and wheat to Syria, the Khayyats had paid $600,000 of it.

Al Barazi’s contact in Al Siraj said the group could smuggle supplies through the blockade, with payments to guards to look the other way. At first, the operation seemed to have been a success. Al Barazi confirmed that small amounts of supplies had reached their destination. But soon, friends and family members began to complain, claiming that Al Barazi’s intermediary in Yarmouk was mishandling the aid. He had made a list of beneficiaries and was delivering help only to them.

It was not easy to work out what was happening, and Al Siraj said it was unaware of the alleged favoritism. Yet Al Barazi knew that sorting through the tensions was vital. When aid made its way through the blockade, distribution points were at risk of being swarmed by desperate residents, scrambling for supplies.

In the meantime, word got around of Al Barazi’s success at running the blockade. Others in the diaspora began to harass him, asking him to put them in touch with his intermediary. The inquiries grew strangely aggressive. Once, he would have simply assumed that his fellow exiles wanted to send aid through the intermediary as well. Now, though, he was sure something else was going on. Did rivals wish to steal the aid? Or the money?

A few days later, Al Barazi’s phone buzzed with a message. It was a photo of the intermediary in Yarmouk, dead. There was nothing else – no explanation, no context. Since the beginning of the conflict, Al Barazi had seen plenty of pictures of the dead. But this was the first time that death had struck someone because of the work he was doing for Al Barazi.

For weeks, Al Barazi struggled with the implications. His contact’s death forced him to confront the growing ambiguities of the Syrian conflict. Had the murder been a warning from the regime to those trying to break the siege? Had it been carried out by corrupt aid groups or businessmen seeking a monopoly on supplies going into Yarmouk? Or, was it an accident? Al Barazi assumed it was all of these things and none of them. In the end, it didn’t matter because it was a reminder that every possible adversary could equally have pounced.

One day, several weeks later, Al Barazi pulled out his phone and flipped through his pictures until he found a picture of the dead man from happier times. When it was taken, the man was just 43 years old. He wore his brown hair artfully disheveled. Al Barazi kept the picture on his phone as a reminder that death could strike from any direction.

An effort that had started as humanitarian aid had become entangled in the war economy. Those struggling in Syria were no longer battling only for the future of their country; millions of dollars were at play, and the opportunities for greed, envy, and violence were endless. Reaching out to the wrong person at the wrong time with the wrong information could get someone killed.

But not reaching out seemed worse. On January 17 2014, Al Barazi posted an account from inside the blockade on his Facebook wall. “I asked my [friend] in the besieged camp Al Yarmouk yesterday: ‘Did you get any assistance?’ He said, ‘We got a barrel [bomb] that resulted in eight martyrs and 20 wounded,’” he replied.” Al Barazi’s next message was directed at Bashar al-Assad: “Damn your soul,” he wrote.

Yarmouk would prove only the beginning of how the violence tore apart the diaspora’s humanitarian operations. Each time they put together a shipment of food or medicine or clothes the Tansiquiya had to check and double check who, if anyone, was left to receive it inside Syria.

One recent container had been ready to go when Syrian government planes bombed its destination, the small town of Morek. The residents fled down the road, joining other displaced Syrians in a squalid makeshift camp, but as Al Barazi was preparing to redirect the shipment, the planes struck again. Having spotted the tents and roadside fires, they attacked, killing fifty-two women and children who had survived the destruction of their village. The aid intended for the village sat in a warehouse in Dubai, in need of a new recipient.

Getting cash to family and friends, meanwhile, had become nearly impossible. In order to limit the risks of terror financing, the UAE had shut down most money wiring services to Syria. One exchange house still conducted transactions, but sending money was risky. The Syrian government monitored the banking system for transactions that might indicate the recipient was an opposition liaison. In order to avoid detection, donations had to be split into dozens of smaller transfers and sent indirectly via people in cities and towns surrounding the final destination.

Businessmen could serve as unofficial brokers, but that was costly and difficult to arrange. “There are people fleeing the country, and they want to get their money out [of Syria],” explained Rani, an expat involved in a Tansiqiya in Dubai. “We say, ‘we’ll give you money here [in the UAE]’, and they release the [equivalent amount of] money inside.” By late 2014, the war had cost the Syrian currency, the pound, three-quarters of its value, and people outside Syria could disguise money for the rebellion as an opportunistic currency play.

Yet even as sending aid became harder, Al Barazi’s family in Syria grew more dependent on him, not just for help, but survival. Since the beginning of the conflict, 24 members of his extended family have died fighting the regime – and their sons, daughters, wives, and mothers turn to Al Barazi as a lifeline, fleeing to housing he arranges in planes or buses he pays for. A sister-in-law lives in an apartment he owns in central Damascus, a vestige from better days. Armed men recently came knocking on the door demanding she leave. Through a lawyer in Damascus, Al Barazi was able to forestay her eviction – for how long he can never be sure. “At any moment, they are waiting to take her,” he says, as if adding, that’s just how it is.

Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, the tension was beginning to rip through the diaspora. After watching four years of endless atrocities, some expats’ views about the war had radicalized or grown deeply religious. Others fell to more venal temptations. A member of the Abu Dhabi Tansiqiya was caught skimming. In order to preserve unity, the group expelled him – but quietly. “The man was a thief in Syria,” says Al Barazi. “And he is a thief now.”

Amidst it all, Abu Dhabi’s Tansiqiya is expanding as the existing diaspora absorbs hundreds of thousands more Syrians, fleeing to the Gulf and Europe, as well as millions in neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. In the UAE alone, expats estimate that some 100,000 Syrians have recently arrived. In countries like Jordan, the pre-existing Syrian diaspora has been outnumbered ten times.

Unlike the middle class businessmen who fled decades ago, the new arrivals are often destitute – and increasingly dependent on their more established relatives and friends. “Each one of us here is sustaining 50 people,” Abu Akhram of the Abu Dhabi group said. “The diaspora has been able to help the people and the revolution to survive.”


Every Friday afternoon, Abu Dhabi’s seaside corniche bustles with families picnicking in the sun. A few times a year, the Tansiqiya posts a call on Facebook for its ranks to gather on a shady patch of grass, where they dine on mezze and grilled meat and sip cool yoghurt drinks. Al Barazi shows up early; he pitches his chair toward the front of the lawn to watch the crowds arrive.

After everyone has accepted a glass of juice and eaten at least a handful of dates, the wallets snap open. A doctor from Dubai counts bills, pausing to tell his son not to ride his kid-bike across the picnic blanket. A mother of three hands over several hundred dirhams. Tansiqiya members collect the donations in unlabeled envelopes without ever saying a word about the bills changing hands.

The Syrian diaspora is fast running out of money. Fundraisers that once would have pulled in more than $10,000 now barely top a couple thousand. By some estimates the fighting in Syria has destroyed nearly half of the country’s economy, and attending to the accompanying suffering has cost the diaspora most of its accumulated wealth. Four years of neglect has driven Al Barazi’s company into the ground. Consumed with Skype calls to Syria and requests for assistance, Al Barazi failed to seek out new contracts, and one by one the old ones expired. Once again, Syria has claimed his life savings and destroyed the business he built. Where he once contributed $1,000 a month to the cause, he now struggles to send even $300. “This conflict is getting long,” he says.

Even if the fighting were to end today, the depleted savings of thousands of Syrian expatriates will slow down the country’s recovery. Four years ago, Al Barazi would have been well placed to expand his business back into a stable Syria; he could have invested in a showroom, re-cultivated abandoned farms, and helped resuscitate the country’s agricultural industry. Instead, he and fellow exiles spend their money shipping seeds to besieged areas of Syria, where subsistence farming is the latest survival strategy.

Al Barazi may have been bankrupted once again, but this time he got something for his money. The conflict in Syria has destroyed the country he came from, but in doing so, it created a community where there was none, built a nation – of exiles, yes, but a nation – that did not exist before.

These days for the Syrians gathered at the seaside, the funds being raised are of only secondary importance, says Al Barazi. In exile, the Tansiqiya can build an ideal of Syria that no longer exists back home. In the memories of the diaspora, the country takes on an a luminescence tinged with nostalgia: the recollection of a land foreign to war and violent death. That idea of Syria long existed in their imaginations, but only now, abroad, does it have ground to sit on.

For a few Friday mornings a year, Al Barazi lives in the country he always dreamed of. Sunnis, Druze, Christians – there’s even a family of Allawites – sit and eat together. They leave their bags unwatched and entrust their children to friends they have just met. Here on the corniche crowded with picnickers, there’s no trace of the conflict tearing apart their homeland. They are simply friends, enjoying lunch on a lazy afternoon. DM

Read Part One here. [link does not work, sorry]

Read Part Two here.

Read Part Three here.

Read Part Four here.

Godfathers and Thieves is published by Deca. Download the full story here.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New YorkerForeign PolicyThe EconomistThe Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle SingleWho Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.


Launched in June 2014, Deca is a journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices. The group’s members have authored acclaimed books and published magazine articles in such outlets as Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, GQ, National Geographic, and The New York Times Magazine. Deca’s writers include Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, Livingston Award, Kurt Schork Award, George Polk Award, Michael Kelly Award, and Frontline Club winners and finalists. Learn more

Photo: Syrian troops on patrol in the town of al-Mleiha, ten kilometres south east of Damascus 15 2014 during a government-organized trip for journalists. Syrian troops captured the town a day earlier from armed groups following five months of heavy fighting. EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI.

#Syria|n rebels say they’ve helped hundreds defect from Islamic State

Source : #Syria|n rebels say they’ve helped hundreds defect from Islamic State

“Disaster Capitalism”

The Lahore Times reviews

The following review of my newly released book is written by Robert J. Burrowes and appears in The Lahore Times:

In his just-released book, ‘Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe‘, Antony Loewenstein offers us a superb description of the diminishing power of national governments and international organisations to exercise power in the modern world as multinational corporations consolidate their control over the political and economic life of the planet.

While ostensibly a book about how national governments increasingly abrogate their duty to provide ‘public’ services to their domestic constituencies by paying corporations to provide a privatized version of the same service – which is invariably inferior and exploitative, and often explicitly violent as well – the book’s subtext is easy to read: in order to maximize corporate profits, major corporations are engaged in a struggle to wrest all power from ordinary people and those institutions that supposedly represent them. And the cost to ordinary people (including their own corporate employees) and the environment is irrelevant, from the corporate perspective.

Loewenstein spent five years researching this book so that he could report ‘the ways in which our world is being sold to the highest bidder without public consent’. In my view, he does this job admirably.

Taking as his starting point the observation of famed future studies and limits to growth expert Professor Jørgen Randers that ‘It is profitable to let the world go to hell’, Loewenstein set out to describe precisely how this is happening. He went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to explore the world of ‘private military companies’, Greece to listen to refugees imprisoned in ‘brutal’ privatized detention centres, Haiti to investigate its ‘occupation’ by the United Nations and ‘aid’ organizations following the earthquake in 2010, and Bougainville to understand the dilemma faced by those who want progress without the price of further corporate environmental vandalism (for which they have paid heavily already).

Loewenstein also checked out the ‘outsourced incarceration’ that now ensures that the US rate of imprisonment far exceeds that in all other countries, the privatized asylum seeker detention centres in the UK which are the end product of ‘a system that demonizes the vulnerable’, and the equivalent centres in Australia which ‘warehouse’ many asylum seekers in appalling privatized detention centres, including those located on offshore islands.

It is easy and appropriate to be outraged by some of the details Loewenstein provides, like the ‘three strike’ laws in the United States ‘that put people behind bars for life for stealing a chocolate bar’, but it is obviously important to comprehend the nature of the systemic crisis in which we are being enveloped by ‘disaster capitalism’ if we are to have any chance of resisting it effectively. So what are it’s key features?

In essence, predatory corporations (which usually keep a low profile) are financed by government money (that is, your taxes), supported by tax concessions and insulated from genuine accountability, political criticism and media scrutiny while being given enormous power to provide the infrastructure and labor to conduct a function, domestically or internationally, which has previously been performed by a government or international organization. If this happens at the expense of a nation truly exercising its independence, then too bad.

Moreover, because the corporate function is being performed ‘solely to benefit international shareholders’ which means that maximum profit is the primary aim, both the people who are supposedly being served by the corporation (citizens, refugees, prisoners…) and the corporation’s own employees are invariably subjected to far greater levels of abuse, exploitation, violence and/or corruption than they would have experienced under a public service equivalent.

Loewenstein provides the evidence to demonstrate this fact in one case after another. The ones that I found most interesting are the use of mercenaries in Afghanistan which provided further evidence that US policy, and even its military strategy and tactics ‘on the ground’, is being progressively taken over by corporations, and the ‘occupation’ of Haiti, post-earthquake in 2010, by the UN and NGO ‘aid’ agencies which forced locals into the perpetual victimhood of corporate-skewed ‘development’.

The use of private military companies (jargon for government-contracted companies that hire and deploy mercenary soldiers, ‘intelligence’ personnel, private security staff, construction teams, training personnel and provide base services such as food, laundry and maintenance) in Afghanistan has meant that there are far more US contractors than US soldiers in Afghanistan and ‘troop withdrawal’ means just that: troops not contractors. The occupation is far from over, Loewenstein notes.

Moreover, he asserts, the US mission in Afghanistan is ‘intimately tied to these unaccountable forces’. As many of us have been observing for considerable time, with control of US government policy now largely in the hands of the US elite (a select group compared with the military-industrial complex of which departing president Eisenhower warned us in 1961), its controlling tentacles reach ever more deeply into US actions at all levels. This is reflected in the way that military tactics are often designed in response to the development of weapons (such as drones) rather than, as should be the case, policy and strategy determining the nature of the tactics and weapons (if any) designed and used. It’s not so much that the corporate ‘tail’ is now wagging the government ‘dog’: the ‘tail’ is now bigger and more powerful than the ‘dog’ itself. In essence, the ‘US government interest’ means the ‘US corporate interest’.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not the only ‘horror story’ in Loewenstein’s book. I was particularly pained by his account of the multi-faceted violence that has been inflicted on Haiti since the devastating earthquake on 12 January 2010 that affected three million Haitians, killing more than 300,000. On 1 February 2010, US Ambassador Kenneth Merton headlined his cable ‘The Gold Rush Is On’ and went on to explain his excitement: ‘As Haiti digs out from the earthquake, different companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services.’ Merton’s lack of compassion for those killed, injured or left homeless by the earthquake is breathtaking.

Tragically, it isn’t just corporate exploitation of Haitians that exacerbated the adverse impact of the earthquake. The United Nations was horrific too. The evidence clearly pointed to its responsibility for a cholera epidemic shortly after the earthquake, which affected more than 700,000 people, killing 9,000. And given the responsibility of UN troops, allegedly present to enhance safety, for previous violence against Haitians, most Haitians simply regarded the presence of UN troops as ‘another occupation’ following the French colonization, which they overthrew in 1794, and the US occupation which led to the Duvalier dictatorships, that were resisted until their defeat in 1986.

But whatever damage the UN has done, it is the governments of the US, France and Canada, whose aid dollars via many corporations never reach those in need, NGOs like the Clinton Foundation, and the predatory corporations that truly know how to exploit a country. This is why the civil infrastructure in Port-au-Prince remains unrepaired nearly six years after the earthquake and the average city resident still lives in ‘rubbish, filth, and squalor’. Somehow, the corporations that were given the aid money to rebuild Haiti or provide other services were able to absorb billions of dollars without doing much at all. Although, it should be noted, company profits have been healthy. Are they held accountable? Of course not. Disaster capitalism at its best.

So can we predict the outcome for Nepal following its earthquakes earlier this year? We certainly can. The corrupt diversion of aid funds to corporate bank accounts. And ordinary Nepalese will continue to suffer.

I could go on but you will be better off checking out the book yourself. Loewenstein writes well and he has fascinating material with which to hold your interest. By the way, his personal website if you want to keep track of his journalism is here. He has recently been doing research in South Sudan.

So is there anything I didn’t like? Well, given my own passion for analysis and strategy, I would have liked to read more about Loewenstein’s thoughts on why, precisely, this all happens and how we can get out of this mess. He is an astute observer of reality and hopefully, in future, he will be more forthcoming in making suggestions.

In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding why many individuals have a dysfunctional compulsion to make profits at the expense of human and environmental needs, my own analysis is briefly outlined in this article: ‘Love Denied: The Psychology of Materialism, Violence and War‘. But there is much more detail explaining the psychological origins of violent and exploitative behaviours in ‘Why Violence?

And if you are someone who does not outsource your own responsibility to play a role in ending the elite-driven violence and exploitation in our world, you might like to sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘. The Nonviolence Charter references other documents for action if you are so inclined.

Anyway, apart from this observation, the main reason why I think this is such a good book is because it gave me much new and carefully researched information that got me thinking, more deeply, about issues that I often ponder. There is a good chance that it will enlighten you too.

Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?‘ His email address is and his website is at

The Ten Mythologies of Israel Ilan Pappé

Any attempt to solve a conflict has to touch upon the very core of this conflict and the core more often than not lies in its history.

A distorted or manipulated history can explain quite well a failure to end a conflict whereas a truthful and comprehensive look at the past can facilitate a lasting peace and solution. A distorted history can in fact do more harm, as the particular case study of Israel and Palestine shows: it can protect oppression, colonization and occupation.


The wide acceptance in the world of the Zionist narrative is based on a cluster of mythologies that, in the end, cast doubt on the Palestinian moral right, ethical behavior and chances for any just peace in the future. The reason for this is that these mythologies are accepted by the mainstream media in the West, and by the political elites there as truth. Once accepted as a truth, these mythologies become a justification, not so much for the Israeli actions, but for the West’s inclination to interfere. Listed below are these ten common myths that provided an immunity shield for impunity and inhumanity in the land of Palestine.

read full article here

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