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Pressing Done Here: Syria, Iraq and “Informed Discussion”

Photograph Source: Orhan Erkılıç – Public Domain

Yes, Iraq too again. Innocent Iraqis, most of them young, are being shot and killed now by the hundreds as they protest the corruption and incompetence of the current government. The title of Patrick Cockburn’s last article about Iraq is “Iraq is in Revolt” (CounterPunch, October 7, 2019). The US “liberation” of Iraq in 2003 is the gift that keeps on giving. The people who launched that war, wholly ignorant of Iraq’s history and Iraqi society, laid waste to the country. Names like Abu Ghreib and Fallujah are now repressed in the political unconscious of America. They make some Americans squirm. Others are indifferent. Old news. They’ve been fighting over there for thousands of years. Still others may—if they recall them—revel in the images the names summon.

An Iraqi friend was lamenting the lack of coverage given to the recent violence there. I told her that the only thing I could think of that might change that would be the death of an American there.

The news from Syria is also dismal, graver in its way for now, though with different particulars. It is the latest US betrayal of the Kurds, Trump giving Turkey the okay to assault them which may be a greater blunder and a greater crime than the invasion of Iraq. Despite the losses the Kurds suffered to defeat ISIS, another monster engendered by the US invasion of Iraq, they are undeserving of US loyalty according to the President because they weren’t even at D-Day like he was.

I write “latest” US betrayal of the Kurds because this is a story almost as old as those stories of the unfortunates who died in the Flood or the Egyptians killed by various plagues God inflicted on them for we can’t remember what—the list goes on.

On Sunday morning I watched what passes for informed discussion on the television news programs. Now those discussions are dominated by the Turkish assault on the Kurds and impeachment, and curiously one detected creeper vines beginning to join these two seemingly separate matters. With respect to events in the Middle East, these discussions are often like a food fight of the Three Stooges, except there are usually only two stooges on the news shows. A pro and a con. Every discussion must be balanced. Only a TV show about Auschwitz will not have the pro view represented—though we may yet be treated to that. Many of the Middle East experts brought on stage are retired military types who struggle to pronounce the names of towns and cities that they once struggled to subdue and now want to bomb. Their major rivals are purely academic warriors with PhDs in questionable fields like “political science” or “international relations,” supposedly rigorous disciplines which often turn out to be as scientific as the study of unicorns. To keep the taxonomy simple, we will add one more motley catch-all group of experts in these informed discussions. These include the beneficiaries of nepotism, think Jared Kushner, who have actually been to Israel several times and/or former political appointees who were once ambassadors to countries that are not in Europe. This is important. Europe is more familiar to Americans. Often they can name some European countries and even their capitals and a major tourist site e.g. the Leaning Tower of Pizza. Europeans, if they marry, usually only have one wife. True, sometimes they also have mistresses who are not even porn stars. But they are somehow still mostly comprehensible. But après l’Europe, le deluge. A flood of peoples in vast, poorly lit continents like Africa and Asia, many of them brown-skinned, and even if not, bearing weird names. The hope is that these experts, having served in such strange places and heard weird names, may have something to say about a place as strange and full of weird names as the Middle East. But for all the differences between these experts, they share one thing. They all scowl when they talk. This shows that they are Serious People.

This has long been the format for these programs, but lately a new star has risen and shines down on them from the electronic firmament above. A star of reality television—and who could deny the star’s brilliance with the great and unmatched wisdom that must follow from that?

Here a brief excursus on language and reality may be in order.

A few years ago a new student came unannounced to my office in the third week of fall classes. Could she talk to me? I gestured she should sit down. She told me her name and said she was from Syria. I said to her, “Marhaba fi Amrika—” literally, Welcome in America. An almost child-like greeting whose singsong rhyme and meter might amuse her.

It became clear she was dismayed by her experience at the university so far. She hadn’t found among the students or the faculty anyone she felt she could talk to. In hopes of finding someone to talk to, she searched “Arabic” on the university site and my name came up.

She described the residence hall where she lived, and I asked her where she was from in Syria. Damascus, she said. Her family lived on the eastern side of the city. Her house was only a few miles from the front and you could hear the shelling back and forth between the Syrian army and ISIS. Then she told me about her classes. Of one she said, “I’m also taking a political science course, but it’s not what I expected.” I said to her, “I know. No politics and no science.” Her face brightened with a smile. “Yes!” she said.

Her disappointment with some of the faculty at the university—what we might more properly call an “actually existing university”—her disappointment recalled to me a passage about philosophers in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. “What the philosophers say about Reality is often as disappointing as a sign you see in a shop window which reads: Pressing Done Here. If you brought your clothes to be pressed, you would be fooled. For the sign is only for sale.”[1] Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday. But never jam today.

Yes, we fucked over the Kurds again. But as anyone who has been paying attention knows, the US has been fucking over the inhabitants in the Middle East for about a century now. Up to WWII Britain and France took the lead in this enterprise. Now the US leads—if that is the term anymore for its latest statements, convoluted now like pretzels or yoga positions. The pretzel-like statements that begin with 4 am tweets issuing from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue end with verbal one-eighties and temporizing boilerplate at 4 pm press conferences at Foggy Bottom and Arlington, Virginia. The party line that informs these informed discussions is that the US has friends in the region, three of the major ones being Turkey, Saudi Arabia and of course Israel, and that it tries to lead these states in concert to their benefit and to the benefit of everyone else in the universe, from Putin and the Pope to street urchins kicking soccer balls in the grimy back alleys of Cairo and the Hamptons. Under the best of circumstances this would be an exercise in cat herding. These are not now the best of circumstances, and these particular friends have only marginal interests in common, but far more bitter antagonisms that divide them. To further complicate matters for the US all three of these states are now headed by leaders who are somewhat less than tractable than stray cats in grimy alleys: Erdoğan, Mohammad bin Salman and Netanyahu. With friends like that as they say…But the situation of the US, which from so many angles seems murky and impossibly complicated, is in one respect quite clear and simple. Its friends all actually despise the US too.

Most of what passes for informed discussion of recent events in Syria and Iraq—and indeed, as I said above, on events in the Middle East and elsewhere for what seems now a time antediluvian—much of that informed discussion in the mass media in America could fit the critique of Kierkegaard cited above or be inserted without much modification into Through the Looking Glass.

That discussion can only be carried on and marketed and sold as news because most of it comes from people who mostly have never lived in the Middle East, have no knowledge of the region, and—most especially—have no friends there. The words of those who speak usually have no reference to any lived experience. And the people who listen to their words have no experience or knowledge by which to weigh what they hear. So neither group has any real idea of the toll that US ignorance, bigotry, lies and violence exacts in human misery and blood in the Middle East. A real idea would not be simply an accurate good faith estimate of the number of people, say, who died in the assault on Fallujah or the bombing of Tal Abyad, words and numbers that float and vanish in the billows of the next commercial break. It would be words and numbers based on an experience that compels their speakers and listeners to consider what those words and numbers mean for the actually existing people in Fallujah or Tal Abyad. Lacking discourse of that seriousness, we can hardly be surprised that the leader of these people is a mentally ill moron whose “policy” is a 25 word tweet at 4 am that may result in thousands of more deaths by 4 pm.

In an interview on October 9 with PBS, the Secretary of State Pompous Maximus answered a question about the US responsibility for the Turkish assault on the Kurds in Syria with a four minute reply in which, in an astonishing rhetorical tour-de-force, he never used the words “Kurd,” “Kurds,” or “Kurdish.”

Pressing Done Here.

I have lived and worked in the Arab World and I have Arab friends I dearly love who, through no fault of their own, are in jams of another sort than those in Through the Looking Glass. Predicaments with which very few people in the States will ever have even a glancing acquaintance. Some of these Arab friends are here and don’t know when or if they might ever see their families again. They dare not leave for fear because, for good measure, they are on Trump’s “banned list.” Would they get back in? Yet even if they were to leave, going home is also impossible because the US has destroyed their homes. Only another place of exile might be found. No destination home. How does it feel?

The Syrian friend I mentioned graduated two years ago. She never took a class of mine—what would I have taught her? But we talked often and became good friends. She organized benefits, panels and things like that, to raise money for refugees, and I participated in them. Before she graduated she was able one summer to visit her family in Damascus—this was before the travel ban on “terrorist states” came down on Syria. When she came back in the fall to finish her studies, she had a gift for me, a volume of love poems by a famous Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani—he’s particularly known for his love poems. The book was a little dog-eared which in my eyes gave it even greater value. She is still in the States though not here. We write each other.

Notes.

1) Either/Or Vol 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1959), p. 31. I have made some slight changes in the punctuation.

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