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A Recently Translated Novel Lays Bare the Horrors of Assad’s Syria

July 14 2017

In his semi-autobiographical novel The Shell (originally published in Arabic in 2008), Mustafa Khalifa—who spent the years from 1982 to 1994 as a political prisoner in the notorious Tadmor prison—tells the story of a Syrian arrested and held prisoner on trumped-up charges. The book, writes Kyle Orton, is not only a powerful and moving account but also one that can be instructive to those in the West still enamored of the idea of partnering with Bashar al-Assad to defeat Islamic State (IS):

The notion that IS, a symptom of the war Assad started, could be treated with a narrow counter-terrorism strategy—in isolation from broader conflict—was always a fantasy. The recent collision between the coalition’s anti-IS war and the [Syrian] civil war is merely the intrusion of reality: it was one war all along. As the U.S.-led coalition was destroying the caliphate, it was parceling out territory to various contenders in Syria, changing the political and military balance in the wider war—mostly against the rebels, from which IS had taken most of its territory.

Still, for many Westerners, there is something that just doesn’t quite compute; Assad is a bad guy, [Westerners admit], but IS [is composed of] monsters! They drown people in cages and enslave Yazidis—medieval savagery that must surely be everybody’s priority. . . . The Shell helps break down this illusion [of a moral distinction] between a jihadist organization that revels in its brutality and a regime that proceeds in silence with a system of near-indescribable cruelty on a scale Islamic State cannot even dream of.

Khalifa’s protagonist, Musa, is living in Paris. Returning to his home country, he is picked up by the security services, tortured by being folded into a tire and caned on his feet until he passes out, and then thrown in a cell. Musa will remain in detention for the next thirteen years. Formally held, despite being an atheist of Christian background, as a suspected member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Musa will never be charged with any offense, and only finds out in the last few months of his captivity the trivial [crime] that landed him in prison.

Read more at Fathom

More about: Arabic literature, Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Politics & Current Affairs, Syria, Syrian civil war

Israel’s Success Has Surprised Everyone

April 20 2018

On the eve of Israel’s decision to declare statehood, 70 years ago, the CIA estimated that a Jewish state couldn’t hold off its Arab enemies for more than two years, while the famed Haganah commander Yigael Yadin told David Ben-Gurion that their chances of victory were fifty-fifty. Daniel Gordis describes just how wildly the country has managed to outpace expectations:

In 1948, there were some 650,000 Jews in Israel, who represented about 5 percent of the world’s Jews. Today, Israel’s Jewish population has grown ten-fold and stands at about 6.8 million people. Some 43 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel; this population overtook American Jews several years ago and is now the world’s largest Jewish community. . . .

Beyond mere survival, the other challenge that the young Jewish state faced was feeding and housing the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were flocking to its borders. At times, financial collapse seemed imminent. Food was rationed and black markets developed. Israel had virtually no heavy machinery for building the infrastructure that it desperately needed. Until Germany paid Holocaust reparations, the young state’s financial condition was perilous.

Today, that worry also feels like a relic from another time. Israel is not only a significant military power, but also a formidable economic machine. A worldwide center for technology that has more companies listed on the Nasdaq than any country other than the U.S., Israel’s economy barely hiccupped in 2008. The shekel, its currency, is strong. Like other countries, Israel has a worrisome income gap between rich and poor, but fears of an economic collapse have vanished.

Israel has become an important cultural center, vastly disproportionately for a country whose population approximates that of New York City. When the five finalists for the Man Booker literary prize were announced last year, two were Israelis who write in Hebrew: David Grossman and Amos Oz. Grossman won. . . . Today, Americans and Europeans alike wait hungrily for new episodes of Israeli shows like Fauda, while others (like Homeland and The A-Word) have been remade into American and British series.

On the occasion of Independence Day, Israelis are fully conscious—and deeply proud—of the fact that their country has exceeded the ambitions of the men and women who founded it seven decades ago.

Read more at Bloomberg

More about: David Ben-Gurion, Israel & Zionism, Israeli economy, Israeli Independence Day, Israeli literature, Israeli society