Story of a poet telling his fight against the Al Assad regime

By Juliette Rémond-Tiédrez

Being confined for nearly two months gave me loads of time to listen to podcasts and read more. Somewhat by coincidence my reading and listening started focusing on the ongoing Syrian civil war. This focus on Syria started with Omar Youssef Suleiman’s latest book Le Dernier Syrien, the Last Syrian. Omar Youssef Suleiman is a Syrian poet and journalist who has been living in France as a political refugee since 2012. More information on his biography and news can be found on his website, as well as here concerning his latest book Le Dernier Syrien, out in January 2020.

Today I would like to focus on his story, the story of a Syrian who switched from being an extremist Islamist Salafist to a pro-democracy activist fighting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

 

Picture available on Omar Youssef Suleiman’s website.

Omar Youssef Suleiman was born in 1987 near Damas in a deeply religious family. In interviews given at the end of 2015 on French radios France inter and France culture, he explained that religion governed every aspect of his life in Syria: his family would only talk about religion, and, at the beginning, he would only be reading religious texts or old Arabic literature. However, religion was important at a whole other level in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he moved when he was 13. He explained that he was in Saudi Arabia when the 9/11 terror attacks happened, and there, he saw people cheering. He admitted that he cheered as well. At the time he considered Osama Ben Laden as a hero, saving the Arab world from the United States and Israel. For him, being an extremist Islamist Salafist seemed like a normal thing to be in Saudi Arabia.

Soon after going back to Syria however, he started questioning his faith and Salafist ideas. This process began when he moved to Homs to study literature. After having always lived with his grand-parents, uncles, and aunts and then his parents, Homs was the first place where Omar Youssef Suleiman was alone and free to do whatever he pleased. He therefore started going to the mosque, but also to church to ask questions and do research about religions. He began questioning Islam but also Christianism and any other religion. After his research he concluded that he did not need religion anymore and decided to become an atheist. Being an atheist was tough in Syria as it was associated to being a liar and a thief. But Omar Youssef Suleiman stuck to atheism.

Another “religion” Omar Youssef Suleiman grew up with was the cult of Hafez, and later Bashar, Al-Assad. In the same radio interview, the poet explained how the Al-Assad propaganda would start at an early age. Indeed, already when he was 7-8 years old, he was taught to scream, every morning, at school “Long life to the Bath party, long life to Hafez Al-Assad” or “Death to Israel, death to the Muslim Brotherhood”. He abandoned this religion as well. Indeed, in 2011, Omar Youssef Suleiman organised one of the first peaceful protest against the regime, in his university city of Homs. He said to have dropped classes, and exams, everything, to dive in fully into the protests. The poet remembers thinking that the fall of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunisia, was like a dream for the Arab world, a dream that he wanted coming true in Syria. When the regime ruthlessly responded to the peaceful protests, Omar Youssef Suleiman started contacting important newspapers, like the BBC, to inform them of the situation on the ground. He began filming protesters being brutalised and even killed and shared it on YouTube. Through those videos, the young poet was screaming for help, but the international community didn’t react.

In 2012, protesting became too dangerous for Omar Youssef Suleiman and he fled to neighboring Jordan. There he met with the French ambassador who arranged for his transfer to France where he was granted political asylum. His first year in Paris was hard as he did not speak any French, was a foreigner and was poor. Later, he said that, even if he was living in poverty, his moving to France had given him his life and dignity back and that was enough. Today, he is fluent in French and even wrote his last book, the Last Syrian, in French. When asked why he chose France, Omar Youssef Suleiman answered that he had always been interested by French culture since reading Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon. Furthermore, France was known as the human rights and freedom country, the opposite of Syria. Although he was far from the war, fear didn’t really leave, “we left the war, but the war never left us”.

During this whole time, Omar Youssef Suleiman had been writing. He first started when he was in Riyadh, where he had no friends and felt very lonely. During the summer, when school was over, he wouldn’t go out but would read and write at home. The poet then enrolled in a literature university programme in Homs. Today, although he also writes novels, Omar Youssef Suleiman mainly writes poem collections such as Far from Damas. His writings are politically active. His favorite poet, Paul Éluard, said “the poet is not only a poet – he is a man of freedom, a man of humanity”. It was therefore only logical for Omar Youssef Suleiman to write about freedom and humanity, but also about war, Syria, exile, and memory.

His poems are in Arabic, sometimes in French, but luckily for us Ghada Mourad translated some of his pieces in English, including his Do Not Tell Anyone poem.

 

Do Not Tell Anyone

I

Do you remember our childhood fighting game?

What’s happened is that we’ve entered the screen

And God has taken our place

II

Between the wide front lines

The sniper lens stops

A victim falls apart in my heart

III

The father who spreads his hand

Is covering the sun

So it won’t get burned by the face of a dead child

IV

As we cross the borders

Fleeing from live bullets

Do not tell anyone that we are alive

I thought that this poem was a good one to share as, according to me, it is a good summary of Omar Youssef Suleiman’s life: the questioning of God, the Syrian war and fleeing. Furthermore, raising awareness, through poetry, about the crimes committed by the Syrian regime always seems necessary, especially as two former members of the Syrian military are currently being trialed in Germany for war crimes and crimes against humanity

Artistic and legal objects: Abu Zubaydah’s drawings depicting detention at Guantanamo

By Juliette Remond-Tiedrez 

Warning: this post contains sensitive drawings which some people may find disturbing.

What is art? Is Abu Zubaydah’s drawings of the torture methods used against him “art”?

As explained in an article published in the newspaper The New York Times on December 4, 2019, Abu Zubaydah is a Saudi national who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 by the USA suspected of being an Al Qaeda member. He spent 4 years in the CIA secret prisons before being transferred to Guantanamo bay in 2006, where he is still being held today. Allegedly, he is the first person to have been subjected to the CIA’s torture interrogation programme. This programme was created by two CIA psychologists and approved by no one else then the USA President at the time, George W. Bush.

Last December, his lawyer Mark Denbeaux released a report entitled “How America Tortures”. In this report, Denbeaux points out that “Americans may find it difficult to acknowledge that top officials […] orchestrated and poorly oversaw a terrific torture programme”. He therefore suggests telling the American people, and anyone reading this report about the crimes committed by the CIA in Guantanamo, and hopefully to raise awareness. A series of Zubaydah’s drawings portraying the torture techniques he was subjected to are included in the report. They were first published in 2018, on Propublica.

 

Referring to my earlier question: are these torture drawings art?

For the Cambridge dictionary, yes. Art is defined as “painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.” As for the literal meaning, Abu Zubaydah’s are therefore art. The Guantanamo penitentiary administration and the USA military seem to disagree. Indeed, even if the Guantanamo prisons offer “art” classes to captives, students are not allowed to artistically represent their life at the Guantanamo bay. Detainees can only draw and paint still life or do Arabic calligraphy. In addition, detainees used to be able to send their art works, such as drawings, paintings or even small boat constructions, to their relatives. The penitentiary administration would inspect it to make sure there would be no secret messages, but if that wasn’t the case, the artworks would be shipped to the inmates’ family members. However, since 2017 the USA military has decided that art pieces made by the detainees were no longer considered to be their property. Due to this decision, Zubaydah’s lawyer released his client’s drawings as “’legal material” rather than art, making the publication of those sketches possible.

As to whether Abu Zubaydah’s drawings are called “legal materials” or “art”, there is, in my opinion, no doubt his sketches are actual art. Granted, they are dark, depressing and terrifying pieces, but art nevertheless and consider Zubaydah to be quite gifted. Take for example the image below in which he represents one of the torture techniques: walling. As one can see in the drawing thanks to the red lines, walling is to bang the detainee’s head on the wall several times a day. No details are speared as the artist shows his scars on his left thigh, on his skull and on his chest, shows the suffering (his eyes are closed and his mouth seems to be screaming in pain), the nudity and the shackles which seem very uncomfortable as they oblige him to always have his hands stretched in front of his body.

Another example is the waterboarding drawing in which we can feel the pain of the inmate and learn a lot about the actual waterboarding technique. Indeed, the way Zubaydah portrays his right foot, right hand and head as shaking because of the pain and the blood coming out of his left leg makes the viewer feel actual chills when closely looking at the drawing. In addition, the terrible sketch shows us how the board would be lowered at the head’s level so that it would be closer to the ground than the rest of the body. This is done to make sure the water doesn’t actually go in the victim’s airways but still imitates the sensation of drowning.

Beyond theoretical considerations concerning the nature of Zubaydah’s drawings, they show an underlying story about torture techniques being used by the CIA in Guantanamo bay.

Recently, an American military commission investigating the role of five persons accused of having participated in the 9/11 terror attack heard the testimonies of the two psychologistswho had been in charged of designed the torture programme. The pre-trial however, revolves around 9/11 rather than Guantanamo or CIA black sites. The torture suffered by Abu Zubaydah and other inmates has therefore not been punished yet, and it seems important to continue raising awareness about those inhumane methods.

 

 

Unsung Heroes

By Juliette Remond-Tiedrez 

Since the beginning of October, the small Galerie Jospeh in the centre of Paris has been holding the exhibition Unsung heroes created by photographer Denis Rouvre and the NGO Médecins du monde, Doctors of the World. The exhibition gathers more than 60 portraits of women from all around the world.

As an international law student, the first thing that interested me was the stories of each woman, what had happened to them and what human rights abuses they had suffered. Some texts were very interesting as they reminded me of testimonies I had to read while doing my internship at the International Criminal Court. Indeed, most rape victims don’t dare to explain what happened to them, they don’t want to use terms like “penis” or “vagina”, they would rather say that the rapist “fell on them”. It was the same here.

After a while, however, I started focusing on the pictures themselves, after all I had also come for the portraits. I realised that the stories were actually as powerful as the pictures. Indeed, the women often pose proudly but one can still sense their pain. The fact that photographer Denis Rouvre manages to grasp their strength and sadness at the same time is quite impressive. Furthermore, nearly all of them look directly into the camera which gives the impression that they are making real eye contact with the viewer. This makes the pictures even more touching.

What I enjoyed about this exhibition is that it approached gender-based violence through different issues: some women talked about rapes committed by soldiers, family members, or employers, others testify about their experience as a maid in another countries. Other subjects such as homophobia, transsexualism, reproductive rights, migration or homelessness were also discussed. I thought that was well-made as it made the viewer realise that gender-based violence can mean a lot of different things.


Picture taken by Alexander Royall

This exhibition seems to come at an interesting time as France is currently debating whether the crime of feminicide, to kill a female because she is a female, should be included in its Criminal code. While on my way to the exhibition I actually walked by one of the numerous feminist tags on the Parisians building which stated “ni una menos” (not one woman less), the slogan used by Argentinian feminist protestors. As the exhibition guides you through different countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nepal and Colombia, a few portraits are from French women who criticise France’s legal system which does not seem able to respond to domestic violence. It was therefore a very up to date exhibition.

Finally, it seems interesting to note that a number of Congolese women referred to Doctor Denis Mukwege, the 2018 Nobel Prize winner. This is not surprising as Doctors of the World focus on rights to health such as contraception, abortion and AIDS and Doctor Mukwege, as a gynaecologist and activist, has played an important role in this domain in the DRC but also at the world level. To give an example, Denis Mukwege praised the exhibition saying he hoped it would “raise awareness, especially among men, that the elimination of gender based violence is not only a government and justice’s issue, it has to start at the individual’s level and begins with the awareness-raising and education from a young age”.


Picture taken by Alexander Royall

Sadly, the exhibition moved from Paris to Bordeaux last Friday, so Parisians won’t be able to go see Unsung heroes anymore. However, the good news is that a selection of nine portraits is available on Médecins du monde’s website, so all English, French and Spanish speakers can have an online glimpse of how the exhibition was.

 

The Ship of Tolerance

By Juliette Remond-Tiedrez,

In the middle of London, in between the Tate Modern museum and Saint Paul’s cathedral stands, or rather floats, the Ship of Tolerance, 14th edition.


Picture taken by Alexander Royall

The Ship of Tolerance is a patchwork of paintings made by schoolchildren with different ethnic and social backgrounds. In the case of the Londoner ship, the drawings were made by 8 to 12 year old children from the capital’s primary schools, hospitals and refugee camps in Birmingham, Leeds, Peterborough, and Calais.

As I quickly mentioned, this is the 14th edition. Ilya and Emilia Kabokov have been building Ships of Tolerance since 2005. They started in Siwa, Egypt, and then recreated the ship all around the world including in Cuba, Italy, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America. Another ship has also just been presented on the 16th of September in Chicago, USA.  

The construction of such a ship is divided into three steps. Firstly, the children participate in a workshop organised by local artists and draw or paint images of tolerance. Secondly, carpenters build the boat. This is a public process that is open for the children who participated in the drawings to join and watch but also the general public. Lastly, the completed ship is put on water and exposed. Events are organised around the ship such as concerts, discussions or even shows by the participating children.

According to artist Emilia Kabokov, the human race needs to communicate to survive. Therefore, the children should be taught to communicate with others even if they aren’t from the same culture or social background. She explains that in participating in this project, the children learn about respect of other cultures and tolerance.

It was kind of a coincidence that I saw this artwork. On my way to London for holidays I saw a picture of the ship on the ‘Week in pictures’ section of the BBC application. The caption said “The art piece […] is dedicated to educating and connecting children from different continents, cultures, and identities through the language of art” and therefore decided to write a piece about how art can be used to bring people together and create a space for tolerance.

This ship grabbed my attention for many reasons. First, the vibrant colours create a beautiful floating piece, which put alongside Thames and London was very picturesque, especially for a tourist like me. However, what I particularly liked is that “tolerance” is broad enough to include different issues in the drawings like the obvious themes of: