Radiohead “Everything in its right place” or whether we can separate the artist from their Art.

Sean stretched his hand above his bed, humming to himself as he searched the wooden shelf for the CD case with the blue and white spine. Treating it with the type of care that I never seemed to be able to muster, he carefully unfurled its inner paper sleeve, handing it to Conor, then gently gripped the edges of the disc to release “OK Computer”. Admiring its artwork, he flipped it over, causing shards of reflected light to splinter the room where the five of us were huddled on his single bed. He pressed a button on his black Sony triple CD Hi-Fi and its tray whirred around twice, landing on the Disc Three slot. I could see the cover art of the Bends in Disc Two but was unable to make out what was in Disc One. Delicately propelling the CD by its sides –never touching its shiny underbelly- into the empty slot, he clicked PLAY and so began my first encounter with “Airbag”. . .

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Bathed in a late summer’s haze of red and orange light, Radiohead took to the stage 20 years after the release of “OK Computer” at Open’er Festival 2017 in Gdansk.  Watching them perform to the reserved Polish crowd, it struck me that Thom Yorke’s jolty robotic dancing was oddly redolent of Bez from the Happy Mondays. Granted, Yorke did not move with the manic fluidity that double-dropping a couple of doves undoubtedly gave the Mancunian, yet both seemed to feel the music on a refreshingly visceral level. The Mondays, serendipitous enough to be a young guitar band breaking through just as acid house took root in the British music scene, were hailed as the Madchester crossover band – but I always saw the Stone Roses as true carriers of that mantle. “Fools Gold” and “One Love” were for a long time the perfect exponents of this new hybrid. I have written before about how the Roses did not cut it live, struggling to incorporate their electronic and guitar sounds on stage. Radiohead prove that such fusion can work live, flitting in and out of each genre seamlessly at Gdansk. They are not an all-time great live band in the vein of, say, Queen or Springsteen but can make ambitious tracks like “Paranoid Android” sound great live.

Radiohead are The Beatles of this generation. The fab four remain the finest pop band ever. Oasis were touted as the temporary heirs to their crown before “Be Here Now” flopped. To be on the level of The Beatles, a band needs to embody a change in society, to genuinely progress whilst retaining their distinctive sound – something that rules out Oasis. Listen to “Please Please Me” and then “Abbey Road” (their finest hour, to this listener’s ears) and you hear a band experimenting with new sounds while taking their fans with them. “OK Computer” is not the best Radiohead record, just as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, released fifty years ago, was not the finest Beatles record.  Like ‘Peppers, “OK Computer” was pivotal in the way it changed their goals, direction and sound. In Radiohead’s case this meant them embracing electronic music.  “Kid A”, the LP on which they made their giant leap forward, remains one of the bravest records ever released by a mainstream band at the peak of their powers. Instead of treading the same path, they took a risk and dared their fans to embrace the change. Listen to “OK Computer” and “Kid A” back to back and you realise how momentous the shift was.  They would perfect the blend on their “In Rainbows” LP, symbolically released on a pay-as-you-like basis, and a perfect mix between both camps, displaying a dizzying array of electronic and guitar-based music meshed together by a band completely at ease with themselves and at the absolute zenith of their powers.

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I am uncomfortable judging musicians on their morals. We are imperfect by design. If you go through any music collection and do a little digging on the members of each group you will learn that they have committed some immoral acts. If you own rap music, does it follow that you legitimise misogyny? As Bell Hooks has sagely pointed out, rap music exists because there is a market for it. We as consumers demand music that is immoral so we need to change ourselves instead of judging the ethics of the rappers. The question is whether we can separate the artist from the Art?

If pushed, I would say that we cannot separate them: any time that I separate the artist from their Art, copious examples of egregious behaviour by artists spring to mind and I become uncomfortable enjoying the work of said artist. I am agnostic on the matter, yet I do not believe that the statement “The artist can be separate from their Art” can be proved, so I err on the side that the theory is unprovable.  The trouble is that we must either decidedly not judge any artists, meaning we consciously separate them even knowing that it is not a sound move, or we hold each artist to the same ethical standard.

This brings me to Radiohead and their non-conformity with the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement to compel the Israeli State to cease its military occupation of Palestinian territory. I am in favour of BDS but with reservations. The big drawback, as with any sanctions, is that it targets citizens who disagree with their government’s stance. There are many Israelis who are against the subjugation of the Palestinian people. Is it fair to target them? Unquestionably, I support Palestine’s right to self-determination. The only real question, then, is whether BDS is the right tactic to employ to achieve this goal? As Chomsky has pointed out, the Israeli support from the United States is the real reason it can continue to occupy the Palestinian territory, therefore maybe the focus should be on the USA. That is a valid criticism, yet what better strategy can I support that will help to end the brutality? There is no alternative at the moment. Furthermore, it is of paramount importance to listen to the Palestinian people in those territories so if they believe that BDS is the way to go, then I think we should support them. However, I am open to being wrong.  When Radiohead played in Israel in 2017, I disagreed with them and would not have played there in the same circumstances. That Israel were complicit in cutting the electricity to the Palestinians at the same time they played made it all the more painful. What recourse do the Palestinian people have? If BDS stymies the Israeli war machine in any way, then that is all well and good. If the only way we can help is to support BDS, then count me in.

That said, I respect Radiohead’s right to disagree with BDS. If they want to play in Israel, that is their right and I will not condemn them for doing it. This new-fangled rush to judge in modern society, enhanced by social media, saw Ken Loach become unstuck when he wrote an article condemning Radiohead before it was pointed out to him that his latest film “I, Daniel Blake” was playing at cinemas in Israel at the time. Thankfully he has subsequently stated that the profits of “I, Daniel Blake” will go to help the Palestinian people.  However, would this have happened had it not been pointed out to him? It proves that if you relentlessly judge people, you open yourself up to being relentlessly judged. This charge can also be levelled at Radiohead. When a piece of Art is political or moral then the artist has introduced their morality into the equation and I believe that we can say it is fair, in this instance, to assess the Art in this regard. Radiohead’s music is inherently political and Yorke’s lyrics reflect this, “Karma police arrest this man / this girl . . . her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill”. It rankled when Radiohead played Israel just as it rankled when Loach proselytised about Palestine while his movie was playing there. Radiohead’s reaction to the whole saga has been disappointing. Thom Yorke even allegedly gave the finger to a fan in Glasgow for waving a Palestinian flag. Would it not have been more sensible to pen an article explaining the rationale behind their decision? The statement they made was vague and insufficient. However, if I hold Radiohead to this standard, then I need to hold all artists that I admire in a similar regard. I’m a Nick Cave fan but he is about to embark on a tour of Israel. Do I stop buying his records? Do I look back at Bez’s pill-popping days and decide that he was supporting violent gangsters through his drug use? Where do I draw the line?

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Closing the apartment door behind me on the way to work, I zipped up my jacket and reached for my iPhone, blearily swiping into Spotify as a gust of cold air hit. I adjusted my AKG black headphones to protect my ears from the cold and thumbed RA into the white search box. Radiohead popped up on my screen and I selected, scrolled to Albums, then to “OK Computer” and tapped “Airbag”. Its tough imposing riff, similar in style to that of “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, blasted out. The science fiction theme on Airbag presupposed the band’s futurism. “I wish that they’d swoop down in a county lane …take me on board their beautiful ship” sings Yorke. Sonically, “Paranoid Android” was a more revealing glimpse of the direction that they were headed in, anchored by its giant guitars before drifting off into dreamy “Bohemian Rhapsody”-esque territory, the schizophrenic split symbolic of the break they were about to make.  “Admission makes you look pretty ugly… bam bam bam bam bamba bamba bamba bamba bamba baba bam” – the rhythm had me jerking my head side to side in Yorke fashion on the way to work. I have always been a fan of the murky trip hop underwater drums on “Climbing Up the Walls”. “No Surprises” foresaw “Kid A” with its synth and xylophones, while the driving rhythms on “The Tourist” serve as a reminder that their signature guitar sound was still their anchor at this stage. “Pack…before your father hears us” has echoes of “She’s leaving home” from “Peppers”.  Radiohead have always had the jangle in them and “Let down”, still my favourite twenty years on, makes me smile on my journey. It is Greenwood at his most melodic and Yorke at his expansive best, wailing angelically about being “hysterical” and having a “chemical reaction”.

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“OK Computer” is a seminal moment in Radiohead’s career.  They are the band of this generation. Just do not expect that they are “back to save the universe”. Admittedly, it is difficult not to judge Radiohead’s politics when Yorke opines that he wants to “Bring down the government, they don’t speak for us” on “OK Computer”.  However, should you feel the need to judge them on their politics, then hold all the artists in your collection to the same standard.  I will be liberal and give them the benefit of the doubt about playing Israel despite disagreeing with their decision to do it. The word “liberal”, like so many others in the political lexicon, is now devoid of meaning. To me, the definition of liberal is being open to different points of view and ideas, to being challenged, to exploring new concepts and being wrong about them. I need to be able to concurrently hold conflicting opinions: as Yorke sings, “There are two colours in my head”. I struggled with that lyric after hearing it at first, but it is an important one. I am wrong all the time. In fact, I love being wrong and learning from the process. If you think you are right and believe you have good politics, it is highly likely that you live in a vain echo chamber. In an era when people seem to be obsessing about being right all the time, we need to accept that we, like the musicians that we want to idolise, are fundamentally flawed and wrong all the time.  As soon as we begin to lionise musicians, or any human beings, we will be “let down and hanging around”.  It would be nice if Radiohead supported BDS. They do not.  Does that invalidate the Art that they have created? Not for me.

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Review: Fante, John “Ask the Dust”

“Los Angeles, give me some of you!” exclaims Arturo Bandini, the self-proclaimed genius and all-time literary great. “Ask the Dust” is a paean to the perfidious, seedy underbelly of the city of angels, a journey through its poverty-stricken streets and bars, the flip side of the American dream. Fante’s prose is honest, direct and disarming. He is a gritty Hemingway. One can draw a line from his 1939 novel to the oeuvre of Bukowski, who wrote a foreword to its reissue in 1980. “Thank God I had been born an American” muses Bandini, in one of his honest moments – and this despite recognising that “the illusion that this was paradise” is false.

“We don’t allow Mexicans at this hotel” says Mrs Hargraves. “Nor Jews” she follows up, an interesting comment in pre-Holocaust America. Many, such as Timothy Snyder in “On Tyranny”, have made the point that the United States was not immune to Nazism due to a lack of anti-Semitism. Far from it, and Bandini’s observations back this up. The key is to keep these forces in check and to minimise them.  “Ask the Dust” contains frequent references to race: consider how Arturo calls Camilla his little Mexican peon before she retorts “I’m American”. Class plays a bigger role in Bandini’s world, as racial minorities work the low-paid jobs in Los Angeles.

Bandini is Fante. A misogynist, he physically accosts Camilla, ordering her around in an aggressive and threatening manner. Camilla is mentally unstable and requires extra care and attention, yet Bandini is oblivious to this and is physically violent with her. Bandini uses Camilla’s mental health as an excuse for his misogyny and is derisive of other women in the same way. He tries to be cool but comes across as an asshole, albeit an honest one. He contemplates punching Camilla in another vile episode which results in Camilla being “forced to leave because I ordered her out”. Bandini’s emasculation when he cannot perform sexually for Camilla on the beach has shades of the husband being humiliated in Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”. Both artists explore the theme of how men react violently after their masculinity is vitiated.

1930s LA was secular but religion is a dominant theme in “Ask the Dust”. “You should have been a priest” Bandini scolds himself, clothed in generational guilt. He identifies as an atheist yet society constantly reminds him of the moral virtues of religion. When Bandini pilfers the buttermilk, he blesses himself in an act of confession.

Consider the names of some of the characters: Hellfrick! A drunk who rarely pays his debts and whose very name represents a route that Bandini’s life could have taken – the life, indeed, that Bukowski subsequently chose. It is revealing that Bandini chooses to visit Father Abbot for emotional support after believing he was a failure with women and as a writer. Bandini is emblematic of a society that wants to be atheist but still reverts back to religion.  After the earthquake, Bandini attends mass again, in another pointed nod to theocracy as his moral seabed. “I was a Catholic. This was a mortal sin against Vera Rivken” Bandini reassures himself. Bandini indicates Fante’s struggle to sever ties with his religious past, comparable to a Graham Greene novel.

There is some excellent, angular prose in “Ask the Dust”. “A cold wind sideswiped us. The jalopy teetered. From below rose the roar of the sea. Far out fogbanks crept towards the land, an army of ghosts crawling on their bellies” says Arturo of Camilla and his late night road trip through Beverly Hills. Writes Bandini of Hellfrick eating: “He sat before a plate of the food, his mouth bloated, his thin jaws working hard”.

Fante frequently refers to the pretentiousness of being an artist. Bandini labels himself a “genius”, the next great writer, and frequently refers to himself in the third person. He intersperses these opinions whilst expressing his doubts about how genuinely talented he actually is, articulating the neurosis of the artist. He chronicles the role of the artist as observer in society: “the world was full of uproariously amusing people” chuckles Bandini to himself at the huaraches that Camilla wore as she worked in the bar. One cringes when Bandini makes the fourteen-year-old Judy read his story aloud to him. There are several such moments in this vein, such as when Bandini muses on whether he caused the earthquake. It is affected and narcissistic, yet true to life.

Fante cleverly uses the third person narrative to perfect the conceit: “something had happened to Arturo Bandini” he thinks. This is a world that Fante/Bandini have created themselves. They make it happen: “The world was dust, and dust it would become”. The style that Fante writes with and the themes explored elevate “Ask the Dust” above that of ordinary bar-stool story.

I first read “Ask the Dust” in my early twenties and fell in love with the loose languid style and the earnestness of Fante’s effort, yet I was not as captivated the second time around. There are moments of brilliance and Fante’s honesty is admirable. However, writing about reality becomes tiresome: there are only so many times you can listen to Vera utter words to Bandini like “You are nobody, and I might have been somebody, and the road to each of us is love”. Still, Fante’s place in the pantheon of gritty urban authors is safe.

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Review: Flaubert, Gustave “Madame Bovary”

That Flaubert published this work as his debut novel hints at what a prodigious author he was. “Madame Bovary” remains as important today as it was in 1856. We are still grappling with the themes Flaubert wrote about: religion, class, love and feminism. Emma Bovary, who just “wished to live in Paris” and experience an exciting life outside of rural France, ended up committing suicide: this demonstrates that her immoral, largely atheist lifestyle (with its multiple extra-marital affairs and mountainous accumulations of debt) could not be tolerated in a French society which was just beginning to be liberated by the Enlightenment.  Her journey embodies France’s transition to a secular one. At the beginning of the novel, “Bovary preferred to sit in her room reading” and is rather virtuous and Catholic. By the end, having read Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers, she is a completely different person, one more in tune with a non-religious life. Most importantly, Madame Bovary is the extraordinary tale of the attempt at female emancipation in mid-nineteenth-century France.

 

Misogyny was so intricately woven into the tapestry of French society that Flaubert commented flippantly that “men always do better”. “If he asks for her I’ll give her to him” remarks Emma’s father, Monsieur Rouault, concerning Charles’ marriage proposal to Emma who is an object, a mere vessel in this society, something to be given away. It is this callous disregard for her as an individual that results in her rebelling and having an affair, representing the female struggle for equal rights.  Contrast her with Rodolphe, with whom she has an affair, who can have multiple affairs with society thinking none the worse of him. Women are not afforded this privilege.

 

Most revealing in “Madame Bovary” is how utterly commonplace the effects of the patriarchy were. Seemingly throwaway remarks like “the men, who were in the majority sat at the first table” typify how deep-seated this attitude was. Flaubert’s burgeoning realist style captured it perfectly. “A woman is always hampered” muses Emma as she pontificates about whether or not she should have a baby with Charles, in a further examination of Rouault’s perception of women as objects: Madame Bovary was viewed as a receptacle for bringing people into the world. The feelings, the emotions of women did not enter the equation.   Emma must reassure herself that she is “without remorse, without anxiety, without regret” when she looks back on her extramarital affair. On one level, this is an understandable human emotion, as anyone in a relationship should regret cheating on their partner – yet in Emma’s case, the line is even more revealing. Her affair with Rodolphe, who had multiple lovers, was instructive that a promiscuous man could function perfectly well and be thought respectable in society, while Emma had to poison herself with the shame of her infidelity and immorality. Despite her frequent attempts to gain her independence, she was still ostracised by society. “You are all evil” Emma says to Leon of men, going on to reveal of the horrible, lecherous Guillaumin that “this man oppressed her horribly”, objectifying Emma with an attempt to get her to have sex with him in return for eradicating her financial debt.

 

The wretched episode with Guillaumin reveals the extent to which class plays a role in Yonville.  Emma, disillusioned with life as a woman, takes to buying expensive goods on credit to make herself feel better, remarking that her “immense land of joys and passions” left her “confused in her desire for the sensuality of luxury and the desires of the heart”. Flaubert, through Emma, predated the materialism that was to become so rampant many years later. Gender seems more significant than class in “Madame Bovary”, in so far as it was Emma’s role as a woman in society that drove her to the immorality of buying expensive goods on credit and not paying for them. This does not justify such actions (we all need to live within our means), yet it seems important to connect her lavish spending habits to her profound unhappiness. Emma and Charles are wealthy, with a life of material comfort and servants, yet Emma destroys their standing in society and Charles becomes totally destitute after her death, desperately afraid to sell any item belonging to her. Madame Bovary senior even tried in vain to get Charles to relinquish some of Emma’s clothing after her death, only for him to refuse.  Emma tells her servant to “do as she pleases” towards the end of the story in an exchange designed to highlight how Emma had begun to free herself from her social structure and was consequently able to see how unfair it was to even have servants. Moreover, the interplaying roles of class and gender reinforce how Emma cannot fully escape her role as a woman, although she can change her class. This dynamic is still relevant today: in a global society, people can shed their social class, whereas biology is inescapable.

 

Madame Bovary is at its heart a love story. Reading it for the second time, Charles’s story is almost as tragic as Emma’s. He is devoted to Emma and dies of a broken heart upon learning of her infidelity. I read this as the Catholic society’s coercion of them to stay together resulting in both of their untimely deaths. The public shame was too much for both of them to bear. Whilst Emma took her own life, Charles’ fate is certainly no less tragic. “Good heavens, why did I marry?” Emma mused to herself. “The more Emma recognised her [extramarital] love, the more she crushed it down.” The weight of moral expectation in society forces Emma’s hand and ensures her conformity.  Despite this, “ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in darkness in every corner in her heart”, imploring her to break free. She did but still suffered the consequences in an unfree society. Flaubert articulated the whole matter wonderfully: “love, she thought, must come suddenly with great outbursts and lightning in a hurricane of the skies which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and seeps up the whole heart like an abyss”.

 

Flaubert is reputed to have agonised over every sentence he wrote, crafting, honing and perfecting them. “Lace trimmings, diamond broaches, medallion bracelets trembled on bodices gleaned on breasts” he wrote, in an attempt to portray life in France as he saw it. In some regards, Flaubert was the first realist and a line can be drawn from his work, through Hemingway’s, to that of John Fante. Unlike, say, Bukowski, Flaubert wrote with a genuine profundity of observation and not just for the sake of it. Take his casual observation of how we communicate as a species: “human speech is like a cracked tin kettle on which we hammer out tunes to make beats dance when we long to move the stars”. The description is beautiful but the ideas expressed are equally thought-provoking. “Speech is a rolling mill that thins out the sentiment” is also a most wonderful expression. I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” and this expression keeps rattling around whilst I do. Flaubert is not just grittily describing life: his ideas set “Madame Bovary” apart and propelled it into the canon. He was a good thinker as well as a brilliant writer. Emma describes how the opera singer that she witnessed “had outbursts of rage and elegiac gurglings of infinite sweetness and the notes escaped from his bare neck full of sobs and kisses”. Again, the language on display is simply stunning but it is also important thematically, as Emma’s discovery of Art reinvigorated her, keeping her alive to a degree, and she went on to bond with Leon over their shared appreciation of Art and literature.

 

Charles does not understand this sensuous, creative side to Emma and it is instructive that he diagnosed her as having a physical illness when she was emotionally unwell. With mental health not even a consideration in society at the time, the only solutions that were proposed to make her feel better were medicinal and religious ones. The priest told her to read some Catholic tracts which Emma briefly took solace in. However, critically, bare faith was not enough for Emma. She needed more. “My god is of Socrates…of Voltaire” says the chemist, proposing a radically different reading list. There were a minority of people who represented the emergence of the Enlightenment in rural French life when we learn that religion was, for some, “absurd (and) completely opposed to all physical laws”. Madame Bovary senior, representative of the older generation who disliked this new-fangled secularity, excoriated her son Charles for letting Emma laze around idly, reading what she described as “bad books against religion”. Binet also gets in on the act, advising her that her “immodest thoughts and impure temptations” may have come from the “mental libertinage” that she read about. There is a wonderful piece of symbolism when Leon meets Emma in a church, where he pictured her looking “like an angel” whereas the priest “petrified” her. Try as they might, they could not escape the clutches of the Church.

 

Flaubert enunciated how doctors in society were constantly learning new facts and disciplines that were improving the lives of people. When Hippolytes’s leg becomes infected with gangrene, the doctors work hard to find a solution, in contrast to the priest’s advice to him to simply pray! The ludicrousness of using faith to heal people, as was the custom, was laid bare. Yet, in some ways, Flaubert critiques this new reliance on the science. Think of Charles, a purveyor of the new belief system: he was unable to think outside of it and consequently failed to empathise with Emma’s emotional side, which was to have tragic results.

 

The debate continues to rage about religion and we now have new atheism replacing the original Enlightenment strain. Now that Europe has largely liberalised and become secular, Western atheists have turned their attention to the role of Islam in the Middle East. Indeed, Islam now appears to be a larger threat than Christianity to the secularism in modern French society so, to some degree, this is inevitable. Yet it feels somewhat counterintuitive. Give me Flaubert and the original spirit of atheism every day of the week. This vision of empowered women living in a free, secular society means that “Madame Bovary” remains a perfectly written masterpiece one hundred and sixty-one years later.

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Review: Kafka, Franz “The Trial”

It remains mystifying that Kafka was not writing about a totalitarian society when he penned “The Trial”. He did not have the benefit, like Orwell, of observing the Soviet Union. Yet, so perspicacious was Kafka that he imagined almost entirely just such a society in 1914, long before it had actually been implemented. The burden of oppression in “The Trial” weighs so heavily on every single character that it consigns them to a dangerous, unsafe existence. The rule of law completely breaks down and citizens exist in a permanent miasma of paranoia. “Nobody has the right to acquit permanently” in this world, with everyone being guilty to a greater or lesser degree. Moreover, the justice system has become so unreliable that people resort to sneering at the ludicrous notion that certain “people think the law should be accessible to everyone”. One would never know that “The Trial” was an unfinished novel, so prodigious a work is it. The language Kafka employs is always perfectly in sync with the overbearing atmosphere as evidenced by how K. “felt disgust at their absolute cleanliness”.

 

 

The use of the double-entendre and copious references to meaningless are seemingly endless in this parallel universe where “you are under arrest but not the way a thief is”. In a Macbethian sense, nothing is as it seems and to hold “influence” is the most valuable tool one can have. As a modern reader, it is inconceivable not to think of Stalin’s show trials when the court usher informs K. that, “generally no trials are carried out here unless there is some prospect of an outcome”. Leni advises K. to “confess…then you get a chance to slip through the net”. The system is set up in favour of the State and the only way to survive is to use any “inherited” contacts one may have and abuse any “secret rules” that are in place.

 

 

Mrs. Grubach gossips about Frauline Burtsner’s association with men, stating that, as landlady, she has a duty to look after the “morality” of her tenants, underscoring the fact that this is a society where prying on the personal lives of other people is seen as somehow a conscientious act. It is redolent of Maoist China where every other citizen was an informant or was forced to spy in some fashion. Anyone even half deemed to be a “rightist” had to dishonour them for fear of reprisal.

 

“To help me properly, one would have to be on good terms with senior officials,” says K. as he tries to comprehend the world he is in. At first, he does not understand that the rules have changed. There are constant references to the need to bribe people as being essential.  K. is unique in this utilitarian world where individual rights are unimportant, “For me there was a principle at stake” he remarks, raging against the fact that he just wants a fair system to make an objective judgment on his trial.  Things take a surreal turn when the three guards that K. “complained”  about say that they, in turn, will be “beaten” because of the very complaint that K. lodged with the court.  Principles and justice are irrelevant here.

 

The threat of violence is never far away as K’s uncle advises him that his whole family will be made to suffer if he does not heed his advice. “Personal contacts” become his only “form of defence”. When K. attempts to figure out who exactly these contacts would extend to, he deciphers that the “Hierarchy went on forever… (even to the) initiated”. “My innocence does not make the matter any simpler”, exclaims an exasperated K., further accentuating the inherent unfairness and corruption endemic in society.

 

As in all totalitarian States, the collective inevitably annihilates the rights of the individual. “It will always hang over your head” K. is informed, meaning that his trial will never end in any true sense of the word. This reminded me of a book I recently reviewed by Xu Hongci, a survivor of the labour camps in Mao’s China, who observed that, even if you were set free, the State still viewed you as guilty to some extent. Hongci was himself imprisoned for no good reason multiple times after his sentence had finished, a commonplace occurrence in communist China.

 

Attempting to gain a foothold in an insane world, K. tries to fire his lawyer but finds that this most basic of rights is nearly impossible.  By now he has been completely subsumed by the State but is still operating under the assumption that the society he is living in is logical and just, “the only thing I can do now is to retain my ability to think calmly and rationally”. Even before K. is inevitably murdered, he realises that the game is up. As his lawyer tries to warn him, “it is often better to be in chains than to be free”. A fact the billions of people who live, and have lived, in totalitarian societies understand all too well.

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Review: “Irish-Soviet Diplomatic and Friendship Relations 1917-1991” by Michael Quinn.

 

 

Umiskin press have published a timely account of Irish Soviet relations in this the centennial year of the wholly unnecessary Russian Revolution. Quinn developed this book from a thesis that he had submitted to earn his PHD.  Ultimately, relations between Ireland and the USSR were not especially close during the period in question so, despite some occasionally interesting dalliances, there was not a massive amount of material to work with. The writing is clunky with no flow to it and some of it is utterly superfluous, particularly the chapter on how Ireland first joined the original nine countries in the early version of the European Union. Nonetheless, the subject matter is beguiling enough to make the book relatively worthwhile.

 

The earliest link between the Irish and Russian revolutionaries remains the most intriguing one. Quinn recounts the astonishing story of how Ludwig Martens, a member of the early Bolshevik government, gave his counterpart in the Irish government diamonds from the freshly deposed and deceased Czar Nicolas II as collateral for a loan that the Irish government had given to the Bolsheviks, “(Martens) produced a cardboard box with a sixteen-carat diamond pendant and three sapphire and ruby brooches, saying that they formed part of the Russian Crown Jewels and were worth 25,500 dollars. The Czar’s possessions had been confiscated and were now deemed to be the state property of Soviet Russia”.  Michael Collins had the sense to acknowledge that these were the product of a violent putsch and insisted that Ireland “take these back they are bloodstained”.

 

Lenin wrote about the Irish rising before the Bolsheviks came to power, so there was, if not a relationship, a certain kinship, between two countries who were certainly anti-imperialist in nature.  Although Ireland’s deep historical and geographical ties with the United States complicate this simplistic perspective. Perhaps, we are somewhere in the middle, just like our stated position of neutrality. In “What is to be done?” Lenin had legitimised violence as being necessary when taking control of a country, “do not deny in principle violence and terror in relation to the class enemy without which no Revolution comes about”. Of course, Lenin had envisioned a global overthrowing of the Capitalist system and Ireland rebelling against the UK fitted neatly into his worldview. However, Lenin misunderstood the Irish Revolution. We revolted against the British to retake our own land, not because we disagreed with the economic system they employed. The Russian Revolution was an internal coup, so the question has to be asked: was it justified at all? I would say it was not. Lenin did not merely justify violence to take power, he also deemed it acceptable to hold onto power, an important distinction.

 

As Irish historians like Diarmaid Ferriter have pointed out, de Valera’s biggest achievement was ensuring that Ireland became a democratic country after our Revolution.  Thankfully, we never went down the communist route. It is an interesting thought experiment to ponder how many lives would have been saved had the Bolsheviks not seized power one hundred years ago. Future left-leaning 1945 Irish Presidential candidate Doctor Patrick McCarten had some interesting thoughts on the early post-Revolutionary Russia after a visit there, “though it is claimed that the present government is a dictatorship of the proletariat it is nothing of the kind. It is a dictatorship of the communist party, which represents less than one percent of the population of Russia”. This is the key point about communism. If you balloon the size of the state to control virtually everything, logically you bequeath a dangerous and inordinate amount of power to the government. A dictatorship of the proletariat is a nice way of saying dictatorship. Ireland gave its power to her people, Russia had it stolen from them by the Bolsheviks. While he was the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Garret Fitzgerald recognised this and remarked in a 1976 meeting with his Soviet counterpart Gromyko, that the Soviet Union had a “contempt for the common working people”.

 

The Soviet Union initially opposed Irish entry to the United Nations ostensibly for not promptly establishing diplomatic relations. Quinn believes it may have been due to our neutrality during World War Two. This provoked a minor diplomatic rift between the two countries as de Valera attacked the Soviet Union’s supposed peace-loving credentials. Soviet foreign minister Vyshinsky observed during his 1947 speech at the UN that “it is impossible to recognise as peace loving such states as Ireland and Portugal which supported fascism”. It took until 1972 to found genuine and lasting Irish Soviet relations in part due to serious issues that the borderline Catholic theocracy in the early Irish Free State had with the atheist Soviet Union. Any visits to the USSR were met with staunch political resistance in Ireland at the time.

 

You have to wonder how the Soviet government allowed their embassy in Ireland to be located on Orwell road!  Quinn describes how the seven-foot-high walls had to overcome objections from neighbours as it settled into the area and diplomatic relations between the two countries expanded. Simultaneously in the USSR, Irish ambassador Brennan took eight months to find a suitable place to set up the Irish embassy after he had turned down multiple options which Ireland had deemed too shabby and inappropriate. There was a point in time where we agreed to not take up residence at all due to the low standards of the buildings on offer before the USSR relented and gave us a workable residence.

 

Ambassador Brennan recorded any references to Ireland in the Soviet newspapers like Pravda such as the reaction when famous Irish communist Michael O’ Riordan visited in 1977 to be awarded the Order of the October Revolution (the second highest award after the Order of Lenin) by Brezhnev.

 

When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1980, it strained Soviet relations around the world and Ireland was no exception.  Reagan insisted that countries boycott the Moscow Olympics. Ireland condemned the Soviet aggression at the United Nations but the Irish government left the decision to attend up the Olympic Council who decided that we should participate, which we duly did.

 

The USSR remained staunch critics of the UK as tension in Northern Ireland escalated in the 1970s.  At the United Nations, Soviet diplomat Zakharov remarked that the UK had a duty to ensure the safety of Catholics while the United States had simultaneously deemed the matter an internal one in the UK. Quinn highlights how the USSR exploited the situation to highlight that Western democracies could be equally as violent and brutal as communist countries.

 

There are numerous chapters that explore official and unofficial cultural relations between the two countries.  Quinn writes how big Jim “James” Larkin “remained a lifelong champion of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s leadership”. This would be the Larkin still revered by many on the Irish left. It was not just Larkin who legitimised the brutality of the Soviet Union. Sean O’Casey remarked in 1950 that “I clapped hands in 1917 for the Revolution and I clap hands now for the USSR “. Given we knew the full extent of Stalin’s brutality at that stage, this was a shocking comment. Thankfully, there were more sensible Irish leftists such as our current President Michael D. Higgins, who in 1983 welcomed a group from the Soviet Union to Dáil Éireann and pontificated that “if we only could, in a civilised world, try to reconcile the genuine meaning of critical freedom and true equality”. Higgins knew about the repression meted out to artists such as Shostakovich, who had visited Ireland the year before his death in 1972 in a move that eased diplomatic relations at the time. It remains to be seen whether Joe Dolan had the opposite effect in the USSR during a tour of the country in 1978.

 

Despite the dullness of the words on the pages, Quinn has written a book about a unique area of interest, especially so in 2017. It made me think if only all Revolutions had ended with the countries becoming peaceful, democratic and neutral like Ireland’s did, what kind of world would we have?

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Review: Stephanie Conn “The Woman on the Other Side”

Conn’s 2016 debut book of poetry sees her employing somewhat of a scatter gun approach as she writes with a polychromatic range of styles about a kaleidoscope of different themes. In “The Woman on the Other Side”, Conn writes about travel, Art, the passing of time, family, Christmas and being a mother amongst a plethora of other motifs. Conn certainly has the gift of language and there are some sublime moments in this collection. However, I am left with the unescapable sense of there being more to come from this emerging talent. Conn has established herself as a poet and indicated her future promise.

 

“The Woman on the Other Side” deals largely with the sense of wonder that can be found in travelling to foreign countries, with Conn capturing that exuberant sense of soaking up the experience a new country has to offer. In “Sue is de Vrouw on de Overkant?”, she writes about learning Dutch and visiting the vowel heavy cities of Groningen, Maastricht and Utrecht.  In “Dutch bridges”, she articulates the awe of  a “simple thing” like taking shank’s mare, “across the canal to the market stalls”. This sense of getting deliberately lost in a different country is explored in “Wadlopen” when she articulates “how a fog can lead tourists, / like us, off course”.

 

Visual Art beguiles Conn. In “Maria Annastraatje, Leeuwarden”, she is mesmerised by how “Vermeer’s viewpoint draws the eye”. The Dutch artist is referenced frequently throughout. In “Vermeer’s Nether Land”, Conn reveals how inspired she is by his Art to go on and create Art herself. Conn clearly appreciates music too, elucidating her enjoyment of it in various poems in this collection.

 

Conn maps out some literary influences too, opaquely referencing Plath in “Blinking in the Dark”, “we were totally unaware of the instant we sent you ticking” is a nod to “Morning Song” by Plath. Her poems about motherhood are also similarly inspired by Plath. Elsewhere, her inspiration surfaces more directly as she writes about the Russian Bolshevik poet Marina Tsevtaeva on “The Metronome”.

 

Conn shows her creativity in “The Ds Have It” with an overuse of alliteration, “deltiology is best left / to holidaymakers.” I must admit I had to look up what deltiology is, what a fascinating pursuit!

 

The font and spacing of “Painting Light” give it a visual importance on the page. Conn very much considers how words look and not just how they sound. At times, this can come across as slightly gimmicky, if intriguing and experimental. Conn also writes poems that look like essays on the page. “Blinking in the Dark” and “Inca Ice Maiden” being prime examples. Furthermore, “Absconders beware”, is written like a text message.

 

Unquestionably, Conn is most convincing when she writes about the personal. “I hear their laughter from another room”, is the finest poem in this collection. Here, Conn tells us about a father’s interaction with his daughter, “rising in stature under her gaze. / His wine untouched / He will drink from her eyes”. The image is powerful and evocative. In “Canadian Christmas”, she combines her twin loves of travel and family.

 

Conn observes the passing of time throughout. In “Abacus”, she writes of, “June. Again. / There have been too many / birthdays and deathdays”. Direct and effective. In “Cutting lemons”, Conn catapults the reader into a strong memory, “thinking of nothing but the chop / I am suddenly back in my grandmother’s flat”. In “Eclipse”, Conn philosophises about time passing by, making her well up as the “tears came quickly”. A Similar event from her childhood is described in “Halley’s Comet” and the contrast between the two lunar events is notable.

 

Conn’s debut is a charming book of poetry with a vast array of different themes and writing styles on display. The use of so many varied approaches leads me to conclude that, in this collection, Conn has not completely found her own style. It is the collection of a budding young artist. There is more to come and I look forward to reading her next collection.

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Review: “The Crossing. My journey to the shattered heart of Syria” by Samar Yazbeck

Introduction:

 

 

 

 

“Death was so straightforward here, so close and intimate” wrote Yazbeck of her three trips through rebel held areas of Syria in 2012 and 2013. Yazbeck’s prose whilst addressing the post-Revolutionary Syrian landscape is elegant. She had personal access to areas that were beginning to be subsumed by Islamists and, in this regard, “The Crossing” is an excellent artefact of this very process itself. Yazbeck interviewed regional commanders of local Jihadi groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham before they had taken complete control in certain areas, although the majority of her trips were mainly within areas controlled by the independent and uncoordinated battalions of the secular Free Syrian Army, who receive an honest evaluation here. Too often, journalists and writers fail to acknowledge the genuine weaknesses of the rebels and the reasons why the Revolution failed. “The Crossing” is devastatingly accurate on why Assad remains a totally unacceptable leader for the majority of Syrian people. Reading it in 2017, after Assad has regained control over large parts of Syria makes for a poignant analysis . That this tyrant can be allowed to run Syria is a global travesty.

 

“I despaired that the outside world didn’t want to see the truth of what was happening. They wanted to see us as groups of savages who they could not bring themselves to describe as intelligent: they wanted to describe everything as religious extremism. And this meant that governments and people around the world could be content to let this dangerous savagery continue to play out between the rival parties”. There is probably no better summation of the Syrian civil war than this paragraph. Yet, Western “leftists” such as Blumenthal, Khalek etc. continue to smear the entire Syrian opposition as all being members of Al-Qaeda. It is vile and it has been left to the hawkish US Senator John McCain to defend the FSA these days. Had McCain have won the 2008 election, I wonder how many lives would have been saved in Syria. I highly doubt that the world would be having to deal with the prospect of Assad remaining in power after 2017. I am not advocating McCain in a wider sense but I do think that one particular thought experiment is an interesting one.

 

“The Crossing” is an example of why it is important to read authors who have been there and have spoken to ordinary Syrians on the ground. Yazbeck manages to capture the spirit of ordinary Syrian people, “They never stopped laughing these men, and it was as though they had inhaled laughter like an antidote to death”. The dignity that the Syrian people have shown, and continue to show, in the face of non-stop barbarity is humbling and admirable.

 

 

 

 

Violence

 

 

 

 

“The only victor in Syria is death: no one talks of anything else”, asserts Yazbeck of the continuous and unbearable suffering experienced by the Syrian people. No sooner had the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or al-Nusra “liberated” an area from the regime after the Revolution, then government jets would immediately began indiscriminately bombing said areas. A vile tactic which is in contravention of International Law. When Assad’s assorted henchmen, the Shabiha, blitzed through the town of Mastuma, “they massacred entire families”. This relentless bombing and massacring of innocent families, turned civilians against Assad and was also part of why we saw large busloads of people leaving Aleppo in December 2016. Ordinary inhabitants just absolutely refused point blank to live under Assad ever again. Reading Amnesty International’s report on what happened to the prisoners in Saydnaya, one can easily see why the Syrian people rejected any proposal to be ruled by him. If I had a family member tortured and killed like those in Saydnaya, or any of Assad’s prisons, I would be of the same opinion.

 

Yazbeck describes how government forces would cut out people’s eyes and cut their fingers off which had the effect of forcing people to move, literally, underground and culminated in what she described as “an unparalleled vision of hell”.

 

 

 

 

Islamisation:

 

 

 

 

Yazbeck recalled an encounter with a man during a frontline battle in Marat al-Numan who had recently learnt that his three children had been killed. Lost, desolate, and howling at the insane injustice in Syria, he shouted, “That’s Bashar’s reforms for you…we just wanted a few rights”.

 

Yazbeck first noticed the increased trend of Islamisation when she discovered that the beheaded statue of the Poet Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri had been chopped off by al-Nusra fighters who considered her to be an apostate and a symbol of a secular Syria.

 

It has been well documented that Assad released thousands of Islamists and Salafists that were in Syrian prisons after the Revolution began in April and May of 2017 to create a verisimilitude that Assad was exclusively fighting against the extremists. This was absolutely not the case at the time. For example, there were peaceful marches with up to one million people protesting the Assad regime. If you buy the Assad propaganda, you need to believe that millions of people were marching for a Jihadi society.

 

Yazbeck interviewed one of the founders of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Ahmed, who confirmed the narrative by detailing how another Emir, Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah, a founder of the group, was released after the Revolution began. Later, she interviewed Abu-Hassan of al-Nusra, whose brother was freed around the same time, “Salafists and Islamists were released by the regime during the months of April, May and June 2011… (While) peaceful activists were being tortured”. Definitive proof that the story that Assad projected, and continues to project, to the world about how the Syrian civil war was Assad’s peaceful, secular regime fighting against extremists was, and is, a gross lie. Assad’s strategy backfired to an extent, and he ended up with a civil war on his hands. Please, though, spare us the balderdash about the secular Saint Assad. You cannot release thousands of Islamists and Salafists and expect the world to believe that you are fighting them at the same time.

 

Yazbeck also detailed her first contact with Islamic State fighters in 2013 and identified that they all seemed to be non-Syrians, coming from places as far away as Chechnya. When ISIS and al-Nusra increasingly began to control Syrian territory, Yazbeck realised that she could not go out in public without a veil. In fact, men began to tell her that it was not safe to be outside at all. During her third crossing, she spoke to women who complained about how their children were only being taught the Quran in Islamist held rebel areas. Consider too the editor of the Zaytoun newspaper in Saraqib who said that the “most dangerous thing is the way the Takfiri’s, the Islamic extremists, are edging their way in, and controlling people’s lives”. Reading it in 2017, elements within Yazbeck’s book are horribly prophetic. Sadly, the Islamists and Salafists have all but taken over the last remaining strongholds such as Idlib. There are reports of Syrian citizens inside these areas fighting the Assad regime and the Salafists.

 

 

 

 

Free Syrian Army

 

 

 

I often wonder how neutral authors are when writing about the rival factions within Syria. Thankfully, Yazbeck is relatively objective and critiques the FSA throughout, identifying their failure to coagulate smaller battalion’s as a leading factor in the local group’s being forced to go to al-Nusra to protect themselves against the regime, again underscoring how violent and illegitimate the regime is. Syrians chose Salafists, whom they did not like or agree with, as the least bad option.

 

The tragedy is that the corruption and lack of joined up thinking in the FSA also resulted in people joining al-Nusra and other Islamist groups.  Local, organic battalions of the FSA defended people against the regime in 2011 and 2012.

 

Yazbeck documented multiple accounts of how soldiers in the Syrian army defected to the FSA, one especially brutal example chronicled here was when one soldier was told to rape a young woman in front of her family. He refused and was shot in the crotch. The commanding officer got another soldier to rape the girl in front of her family after the man had refused. He joined the ranks of the FSA the next morning. This is another crucial point. The brutality that Assad levelled at innocent people drove them to defend themselves. 

 

Similarly, Yazbeck tells the story of Hossam in Kafranbel, who wanted to be an Arabic professor. He was shunned when the government gave it to the daughter of a friend of the regime. There were countless examples of Assad sorting people close to him out. Hossam initially joined the FSA and then returned to civil activism due to their corruption. When he was first conscripted in the Syrian Army, a senior officer told him to detonate a car bomb in the middle of a square of innocent protestors. He deliberately rigged the bomb so that it would not explode, and defected to the FSA the next day.

 

Sadly, Yazbeck recounted multiple stories of corruption within the FSA which lead to a breakdown in trust between them and the civilians.

 

 

It was not just the FSA that was corrupt. During Yazbeck’s second crossing in 2013, “there (were) more thieves in the revolution now than rebels. It’s one family against another. Mercenaries against mercenaries”. The FSA was incapable of filling the gap left by the Syrian government.

 

 

 

 

Women’s rights in Syria:

 

 

 

As the rebel held areas became increasingly Islamised in 2012 and 2013, it became difficult for Yazbeck to travel freely, “whenever I travelled back to Syria, most men couldn’t resist mentioning the fact that I’m a woman”. During her second visit, they saw a house that had a “family matriarch” which sadly stood out as a beacon in an increasingly male dominated society.

 

Somewhere between 2012 and 2013, women were forced into wearing Khimars and not headscarves. Yazbeck encountered some truly awful misogyny. “I told Abu Waheed about Abu Mostafa stealing his wife’s aid money. He laughed. I could not laugh”.

 

Things took a serious turn for the worse when ISIS began searching houses in rebel controlled areas in order to abduct foreign journalists and crack down on any women who were out by themselves. Yazbeck wrote of a terrifying encounter when ISIS came to the door of a house she was residing in and nearly killed one of the men at the door. They were searching for people like Yazbeck and targeted any non-Muslims. ISIS seemed to be made up of mainly young non-Syrian fighters. Tragically, local families were so destitute after the ravages of war that they were forced to sell their daughters to ISIS fighters as slaves. During her third visit, al-Nusra have declared that “any interaction between the genders (is) prohibited”. The implementation of Sharia Law in certain rebel held areas was to have disastrous consequences for the women living there.

 

 

 

 

Art

 

 

 

 

Yazbeck does a tremendous job of highlighting how even a disastrous civil war could not stamp out the wonderful creativity of the Syrian people, “No sooner were towns liberated than their walls were turned into open books and transient art exhibits”. In 2013, the walls in Saraqib began to be covered with Ahrar al-Sham & al-Nusra slogans, highlighting the change in society.  In FSA controlled areas, houses and buildings that were virtually destroyed were slowly rebuilt with paintings that were lying around in destroyed houses. Frequently, songs were sung by the rebels to keep their spirits up under the grimmest conditions. One thing is for certain, when Syria finally gets a chance to become a democratic and secular country, it will be beautiful. I cannot wait to visit.

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

 

 

“We started the revolution and it’s being transferred to them” pleaded Ahmed, an artist in Idlib city, articulating how the Islamist militants had hijacked the Revolution since its inception in 2011.

 

“The Crossing” is Yazbeck’s peregrination through the rebel held areas in Syria in 2012 and 2013. Violence had become so endemic and normalised that it numbed the Syrian people, “Nothing meant anything anymore. My head felt like a nest of scurrying ants”. Human beings existed, like animals, only to survive, “The sound of humans screaming is the same as that of animals howling”.

 

Yazbeck is correct when she refers to the Syrian conflict as the “Greatest tragedy of the Twenty First Century”. The apathetic reaction in the rest of the world has been pathetic. Yazbeck, currently residing in France, is well placed to observe why this happened – we consume Syrian news and then discard it “like trash”. The US suffered from a form of confirmation bias. Having being disastrously wrong about going to war in Iraq, Obama did not want to engage the moderate rebels to a serious degree. This was a mistake and the vacuum was filled by Russia in 2013.  Published in 2015, “The Crossing” gets to the nub of the fact that “the political opposition didn’t care about equipping the armed battalions on the ground, and wasn’t interested in forming a unified command structure”.

 

So, whilst the US should have ousted Assad, the failure of the FSA to unify itself and create a viable political alternative to Assad was critical to why the Revolution failed. However, be under no illusions, the Syrian civil war is the fault of Bashar Assad, one of the great monsters of the Twenty First Century. The entire Revolution could have been prevented if he had of agreed to loosen his grip on power and transition Syria to a democracy. Moreover, if he had of kept the thousands of Islamists and Salafists locked up, it also would have stymied the Islamisation of rebel held areas.

 

It is tough to read Yazbeck write about the relentless and indiscriminate bombing of rebel held areas. The burden on anyone deciding to use violence is extremely high. In this case, it would have been justified. There were people in the West, Hillary Clinton for example, who called for a no fly zone. Yet, supposedly peaceful, anti-war leftists in the West branded her a “Warmonger”. Another hangover from her support of the Iraq war. A no fly zone would have saved thousands of lives. I am not suggesting that the US is in any way a benevolent State, they are not. Look at their record in 2017 in bombing Raqqa and Mosul. They employed virtually the same tactics as the Russians and broke International Law at every turn. The big mistake was letting the infamous “red line” to be breached. Once Obama let this go, Assad knew he could act with impunity. It also incentivised the Russians to begin supporting Bashar Assad. This will result in another Revolution at some stage in the future. No human has the divine right to rule over the Syrian people. The only way forward is for it to be a democracy.

 

The Syrian civil war also highlights the deep flaws within the UN. With Russia vetoing every anti Assad sanction, it rendered the assembly virtually useless. Allowing Assad to run his brutal dictatorship that tortures innocent people is doomed to fail. More than likely, it will mean that a future generation of Syrians will have to recount another tales of yet another bloody Revolution. I only hope that this does not happen. For an account of what happened in 2012 and 2013 Syria, look no further than the brave and writing on Samir Yazbeck’s “The Crossing”.

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