Looking for Terrors Beyond the West, Research Time, 07/07/2016

Last post, I spoke about a film project that some of my colleagues at the Syria Film Festival are working on. I consider it incredibly fortunate that I’ve met these folks, not only because they’ve become trusted friends as I establish myself in Toronto.

But also because they’re all such good people. And they’ve taught me a lot about the Arab world that I don’t think a lot of white people understand. I’m very grateful to my Syrian friends for enlightening me about the lives of regular people in this region.

Because we don’t often hear anything about the lives of regular people in the Arab world. Not Presidents, not diplomats, not insurgent leaders, but ordinary folks. Accountants, engineers, writers, and repair techs. 

A promotional still from Stars in Broad Daylight (Nujum
), Ossama Mohammad's feature film
masterpiece, called the greatest film to have come out
of Syria. At least, the greatest so far. Always the
greatest so far.
If all you learn about this part of the world is what you hear through mainstream Western media sources – actually, I’m not going to finish that sentence. Because you shouldn’t do such a stupid thing, as you’ll only learn a series of ridiculous racist stereotypes. 

And you shouldn’t just switch to alternative Western media sources, because you’re just as likely to hear conspiracy theories or praise for Stalinist dictators. I mean, fuck Russia Today. 

The real life of a region of the world that’s foreign to you is in how ordinary people live there. And you’ll likely only learn any of that by talking to people who have actually lived there. You shouldn’t take their word as gospel about what’s good and bad, of course. 

For example, if you meet someone from Iran whose family grew wealthy under the international sanctions regime, you probably won’t get a very critical view on the current state institutions. You should always have a critical eye, but you’ll learn different things when you simply make friends and talk with people. 

I learned about the weird racializing hierarchy of life as a foreign worker in the United Arab Emirates, for instance. Apparently, it’s very good to be Canadian (if you’re okay with having skeletally-paid servants). From another friend, I learned how recklessly fucking everybody speeds in the Saudi Kingdom, particularly Riyadh. 

Small, insightful details about everyday life. You don’t get that from sensationalist journalism. Even serious investigative journalism rarely pursues such everyday, quotidian details. Yet those details are the thick webbing of any society.

I spent some time last night before writing this entry preparing some social media posts as part of SYFF’s promotional partnership with TIFF. Toronto International Film Festival has a series of screenings at Lightbox come the end of August, of Syrian cinema. Particularly the films of Ossama Mohammad, probably Syria’s greatest auteur yet.

What must it do to a human subjectivity to grow up in a
political regime with the peculiar, insidious repression
as the Syrian state crafted by Hafez Assad and
maintained under his son Bashar? It's a testament to
the human drive for freedom that the desire for
democracy remains so strong for all that.
One of the films is Step By Step, in Arabic Khutwa Khutwa. It’s a short documentary, made in 1977, just under half an hour. It explores Hafez Assad’s programs of social engineering, his attempts to use the bludgeons of state power to rebuild the subjectivities of Syrian people across the country.

Thousands of people from rural farming villages were forcibly uprooted and forced to become manual labourers in the major cities. Many thousands more were conscripted into state armies, where they were drilled into a new kind of soldier – the citizen soldier. 

The philosophies underlying these attempts at mass social engineering are fascinating. But in these brief discussions of these films, they only appear in brief flashes. 

Part of what I want to analyze in my Utopias book is how social change goes wrong. One of the obvious ways is when state laws and police institutions take charge and march society in the direction a government’s leaders want. 

But I want the analysis to go deeper than these simple intuitions about humanity’s yearning for freedom. As it stands, I can’t get past the basic principles of the tradition of political theory that began with Spinoza and Machiavelli.

A good handle on the history of these massive state interventions to remake society will let me go beyond the too-simple analyses of the modern libertarian right-wing. And I don’t want to return to the well that those Hayek-influenced thinkers have drawn from so much – the Nazi and Bolshevik regimes.

They’re pivotal to the West, but they’re also the common examples that everyone goes to. So I want to examine the foundational philosophies of these twisted utopias that arose just outside the vision of Western eyes. Places like Syria under Hafez Assad, or Cambodia under Pol Pot. 

To find the original Ba’athist philosophers, and see what perversity and terror emerges. Stare it in the face, and grapple with its abyssal terror.

When I write Utopias, it’s going to be a very intense book.

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