“The impulse to create begins – often terribly and fearfully – in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.” – Adrienne Rich
In ancient times, language followed a peculiar rule combining contraries. One word could have two opposite meanings; “strong” could mean powerful or weak. Also, two opposing words could be joined together to signify only one of their meanings: “strong-weak” could mean powerful only or feeble only. To express their intended meaning, spoken words would always be accompanied by a gesture.
We acquire concepts as contraries, then learn to separate meanings, and think of one without consciously comparing it to the other.
* * *
Zurich. Early 1917, in the weeks preceding the Bolshevik revolution.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin worked every day at the library in the old town of Zurich, except Thursday afternoons, when it would close. On March 15, he was sitting in his small apartment, not far from Cabaret Voltaire — the extravagant Dadaist bar established on Spiegelgasse 1 — when he heard the news.
The revolution had started in Russia. A few weeks later, Lenin, his wife, and 32 other subversive revolutionaries would cross Germany and Sweden on their way to Petrograd, to help complete the revolution in a near-mythic train journey that would become known as the “sealed train”. The German government, which was at war with Russia, not only facilitated and funded the railway car, it also provided the Bolsheviks with funds “through various channels and under varying labels” which would help build their main organ, Pravda.
Pravda, which meant ‘truth’, was a broadsheet publication that had roots in the 1905 Russian revolution. Starting as a journal of arts and social life, it would later become a mouthpiece of the Bolsheviks and subsequently the newly formed Soviet state. In the few years leading up to the revolution, the paper would change its name eight times and would be ‘overseen’ by over 40 pseudo-editors, in an attempt to circumvent incessant Tsarist censorship and harassment.
Pravda became Lenin’s obsession, short of the revolution itself. In the weeks before his departure from Zurich, he wrote a series of letters that would later be published under the title Letters from Afar. “The press is now the main thing,” he wrote to his comrade Alexandra Kollontai in one of the letters. “I cannot deliver lectures or attend meetings, for I must write daily for Pravda,” he wrote.
Following the revolution, one of the first acts of the Bolsheviks was to publish the secret treaties signed by the Tsarist and Provisional Governments with other powers. The contents of these treaties included plans to carve up the world once the First World War was over. On November 22, 1917, Leon Trotsky issued a statement on the Bolsheviks’ decision to make these documents public: “Secret military diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests. The next day, on November 23, 1917, the Sykes-Picot agreement – the most treacherous document in modern Arab history – would be exposed in Pravda.
These leaks were considered the largest publication of secret diplomatic records, in terms of size, until September 2011, when the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of US classified cables in what became known as Cablegate.
* * *
Moscow. The late 1980s. Gorbachev’s Glasnost.
Revolution Square, all of a sudden, turns into a giant market. Braving the cold with their thick Siberian woolen coats, old ladies sit behind stalls to sell books and leaflets.
There’s a lot of excitement in the air and a bit of fear.
People leave the square from its northwestern end, holding the books they’ve just bought very tightly to their chests. One old lady explains that they are selling Samizdat publications. In Russian, sam means “self” and izdatelstvo, “publishing”. Well-rooted in the Russian literary tradition, Samizdat refers to clandestine copying and distribution of publications in the Soviet Union and other formerly communist states.
Long before Stalin’s totalitarianism, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky had trouble publishing their books. Self-publishing was a way for writers to circumvent censorship and counter the government’s monopoly on the means of publication. Deprived of the printing press, writers published their own works themselves, with a circulation of five to 10 copies maximum, and in the form of typewritten or carbon sheets.
Workers in factories exchanged manifestos, the Russian intelligentsia circulated poems, and from time to time, everybody enjoyed the exquisite details of Russian erotica. Samizdats traveled far, covered a wide range of topics, and were authored by communists and anarchists alike. Artists and writers used hand painting, collages, calligraphy, and handwriting, drew shapes and patterns over typewritten texts, and produced miniature books that they sewed themselves, piercing every book page with a needle. The relentlessness of their practice defied totalitarian publication. Very frequently, they were caught and imprisoned. In Pravda, many of them would be casted as traitors.
The most famous of these underground samizdat dissidents was neurophysiologist and writer Vladimir Bukovsky. After expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1976, he would eventually receive funds from the US government, Albert Jolis, an American diamonds dealer, and other businessmen to setup an organization named Resistance International. With it, Bukovsky propagated a particular strand of freedom with the aim to “rollback” communism; A strategy that would become known as the “Reagan Doctrine”.
* * *
The Cyrillic script from which Russian derives is used in many Slavic languages. In Slovene and Serbian, izdat too means “publish”, but it also means “to betray”:
ìzdati pf (Cyrillic spelling ѝздати)
(transitive) to publish (book, newspapers, journal etc.)
(transitive) to betray
Juda je izdao Isusa Rimljanima.
Judas betrayed Jesus to the Romans.
* * *
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Here, some weeks ago, Chelsea Manning was transferred to solitary confinement both for attempting to take her own life and for the possession of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, an unmarked book found in her cell about the hacker group Anonymous.
Manning was a US Army intelligence analyst who, in 2009, was stationed in an isolated army base in Iraq near the Iranian border. Through this assignment, she would gain access to a vast number of classified records. Some of this information, including a video showing US soldiers shooting and killing unarmed civilians through a target screen eerily resembling a videogame, profoundly horrified her.
She would decide to collect thousands of secret records that included war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and classified cables from the US State Department. In 2010, she passed on these records to WikiLeaks, which published them in partnership with The New York Times and other media outlets.
Manning is now serving a 35-year sentence for, in the words her prosecutors, “betraying [her] country.” In her 2013 trial, Manny was charged with 22 counts, including espionage, theft, and aiding the enemy (a charge punishable by the death penalty). She would become known to US authorities and the world after hacker Adrian Lamo, who befriended Manning on internet chat, betrayed her by passing confessions she entrusted him with to the US authorities.
Their long and passionate chat logs were also leaked by Lamo and published by Wired magazine.
bradass87: i can’t believe what i'm telling you =L
bradass87: i've had too many chinks in my armor :'(
bradass87: im a broken soul =L
bradass87: i need to go eat, ill brb
bradass87: thank you :'( it means a lot
bradass87: im sorry
email@example.com : I have more messages than resources allocatable to action them. Please be very patient.
bradass87: im just… ugh
bradass87: my family is non-supportive… my boyfriend ditched me without telling me… im losing my job… losing my career options… i dont have much more except for this laptop, some books, and a hell of a story
bradass87: …im honestly, scared
bradass87: and i have no-one i trust
bradass87: i need a lot of help…
bradass87: i dont know if i can rebuild from here…
firstname.lastname@example.org: you can always rebuild.
bradass87: yes, but i cant KEEP rebuilding all the damn time… im exhausted
bradass87: i didnt get into my bout with homelessness across the country in ’06
bradass87: i drifted from oklahoma city, to tulsa, to chicago, and finally landed at my aunt’s house in DC
bradass87: im exhausted… in desperation to get somewhere in life… i joined the army… and that’s proven to be a disaster now
bradass87: i’ve done a lot of random stuff, that no-one knows about…
bradass87: its just such a disconnect between myself, and what i know… and what people see
bradass87: and now i’m quite possibly on the verge of being the most notorious “hacktivist” or whatever you want to call it… its all a big mess i’ve created… im sorry, adrian…
bradass87: im pouring my heart out to someone i’ve never met, and i dont exactly have a lot of proof of anything
bradass87: im shattered
bradass87: im so exhausted :'(
bradass87: im a real downer…
email@example.com: no apologies needed
bradass87: i wish i could explain the pain
In the trial where Lamo would meet Manning in person for the first time, he concurred to the defense laywer during questioning that “based on what [Manning] had seen he couldn’t let the information stay inside … that apathy was far worse than active participation … that he preferred the painful truth over blissful fantasy.” When asked repeatedly on his promise to treat their conversations as a confidential confession, Lamo also admitted that a reasonable person would conclude that their discussions “were never meant to be made public.”
* * *
Vilém Flusser, a Brazilian Czech mystic and philosopher, incriminated publication and praised it at the same time. His ominous prose was also filled with contradictions, such as making a case against publication in an essay meant to be published:
“[Betrayal] is a strong word. So are most of its synonyms, such as treachery or deception. But there is a near synonym that is less strong, namely, divulgence. To divulge means, of course, to betray a secret. But the word is used to mean something like publication. A scientist publishes an article in a magazine destined for the general educated public. That man is a traitor.”
Before Gutenberg, there were clerics who hid in monasteries perched on high, foggy hills. These clerics would write and copy manuscripts diligently. For centuries, they kept secret the alphabetic code, and ruled the illiterate masses. Then one night, on the eve of the Great Divergence, their secret could no longer be withheld. It would soon be divulged by the invention of the printing press, and the infinite numbers of reproduced books.
Publication thus divulged the secret code but the betrayal was Janus-like: while it ushered the secularization of the world and the Enlightenment, man’s ascent to knowledge was not entirely liberating. It led to the development of an ugly mass culture that culminated with the advent of fascism and totalitarianism, with their highest points being the formations of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
* * *
Hear no evil, speak no evil. Before the bus could reach the small town of Araya, the driver would make an abrupt right into a winding, narrow road. We, the children with our backpacks, lunchboxes, and gourdes, would slide rightward , our faces pressed firmly against the windows. As the bus made its way, I would always move my face from the window just in time to see it: the small boarding school for the deaf mute, run by a priest, that was right next to the imposing private Jesuit school I attended.
I took the bus to school every day for 13 years, but it wasn’t until much later that I became preoccupied with this boarding school, to a troubling extent. I had come across the story of Mary Rose Boulo—a blue-eyed, powerful, wonderful, woman—who broke all the hierarchies of Lebanese society and transgressed the social and religious expectations of her role as a Christian woman during the Lebanese Civil War. She left her well-to-do husband for a poor Palestinian doctor, moved in with him in West Beirut, volunteered in the camps, and crossed the Green Line back to East Beirut daily to tend to her job. She loved teaching and her students, and hated the war.
When Christian militiamen stormed her classroom, brimming with spite and prejudice, and took her away, Marie Rose blamed the Jesuits. They executed her in front of her students who could not hear her wailing and could not tell her story.
Etel Adnan did. A prolific Lebanese writer and artist, her book was banned in all Christian areas of Beirut. When was the last time you read a story as extraordinary as Sitt Marie Rose?
To write and publish is to understand, organize, and imagine a kinder and better world. To read women writers, young and old, is to explain the joys and cruelties of life, to imagine a better future, to change the ways we remember the past.
* * *
Beirut. 1960s. Abdallah Al-Kosaimi was an unusual intellectual, in his writing style (long, repetitive, ironic, and often trivial), his life-trajectory, and his will to say all that was forbidden to be said about the Arabs, their identity, history, and their religion. He also stood out amongst Beiruti intellectuals, not only because he was once a prominent Wahhabi sheikh “from the desert” who turned ardent atheist, but because he did not ride the two ideological waves that preoccupied many Arab intellectuals of that period: Marxism and Arab Nationalism. He became fervently and anti-communist, anti-religious, and in his descent into despair, even anti-Arab.
This trajectory starts in the 1920s, when he joins Al-Azhar in Egypt, the seminal religious educational institution in all the Islamic world. For the next twenty years, Al-Kosaimi was to engage in religious debates and publish several books, amongst them The Wahhabi Revolution which was a defense of the newly established Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and its Wahhabi doctrine. But by the 1940s, he entered what he described as a “period of doubt” which ended in disbelief. In 1946, he published These are the Fetters, which he dedicated to King Abdulaziz Al-Saud, then the supreme ruler of the Saudi kingdom. The book, which was his first public revolt against orthodox Islam, was considered by leading religious scholars in Egypt as a seminal reformist work, while it was attacked furiously by the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Kosaimi later on moved from Cairo to the quieter neighboring city of Helwan. There he met, befriended, and influenced many of the Yemeni students on scholarship; some of these students were to become later on central figures in the 1962 revolution in Yemen. Concerned about his influence on Yemeni students, Imam Ahmad, the ruler of Yemen, pressured the Egyptian government to expel Al-Kosaimi from Egypt. He was imprisoned by the Nasserite Egyptian government and then expelled to Lebanon.
When the plane carrying him landed on the tarmac of Beirut’s airport, he did not know which country he was in. He knew no one in Beirut either, except for one Saudi acquaintance working for the embassy. Through him, he was introduced to a circle of Beiruti intellectuals; one of which, the publisher Kadri Kalaaji, was soon to become a lifelong friend, mentor, and partner, and would help Al-Kosaimi publish numerous books and essays. Over a period of nearly 30 years, Al-Kosaimi would write hundreds of letters to this new friend. His letters were filled with the same emotional and repetitive style, which exemplified his writings:
“To a friend, a lover, the glory of my heart and thought, consciousness, and history … I want to fall and watch and listen and know and find and touch and seek comfort and confront and dialog … and get drowned/drowned in the heart and thoughts and love and vision and listening and energy and looks and hopes, my first/first human. I want, I want, I want … I am burning/burning…”
One of his most known and most tempered book, Arabs Are a Vocal Phenomenon, was published with the help of Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, the leader of the 1974 military coup that overthrew the regime in North Yemen. Al-Hamdi became president, tried to push for social reforms and closer ties with the Marxist-Leninist South Yemen, and was assassinated in 1977. That same year, the book was published in Paris, while Beirut was engrossed in civil conflict. Al-Kosaimi wrote in the introduction:
“… In all of Arab history, and in all of the Arab Nation, one never heard and will never hear from every pulpit — with all the courage, strength, freedom, and feelings of security and pride — except the voice of ignorance, hypocrisy, idiocy, and impudence. That is why I wish, in fact demand, that we write on the cover of each Arab book and the first page of each Arab newspaper and on each Arab pen and mouth the following recitation or glorification: ‘Oh moronic lies, oh shameless hypocrisy, oh ignorant stupidity, oh stupid ignorance, oh lowness, oh intellectual, psychological, moral, artistic, and expressive shame: all the glory and sovereignty to you!”
Al-Kosaimi was particularly perturbed by a certain Arab discourse that glorified bygone and nascent civilizations, and corresponding monologues promising the imminent Arab triumph over Israel. The antipode of Arab speech, “Arab silence”, became a household phrase relating almost exclusively the inaction of Arabs (and their regimes) to the atrocities committed by Israel. By extension, perpetual silence would become the predecessor of perpetual killing and not only its consequence. When Palestinians get massacred, Palestinian leaders often blamed the responsibility on Arab silence, not on Israel. In analogy, the expression, “Arabs are a vocal phenomenon”, which Al-Kosaimi coined, would become widely used among Arabs to refer to their noisy self-incapacity.
That is, a lot of talk but no action.
Al-Kosaimi’s self-flagellation and piercing, inexorable scream was so disturbing that many Arab intellectuals, including secular ones, wished that he kept quiet. In response to the accusation of being too grim, Al-Kosaimi wrote of himself:
“He is saddened and pained to the point he appears violent … his criticism is nothing but a lament of this world, and a lament of himself, in fact his criticism is nothing but a self-rupture.”
His despair—especially in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and eruption of civil war in Lebanon—was one filled with immense agony, and a hatred so jarring that it overcast any humanist intention. Despite assassination attempts, deportation, and the banishment of his books in almost all Arab countries, he continued to write and publish. At times, his text squeals as if written over a slaughter bench, into the ears of a people he believed descended into a state of hopelessness and stupidity resembling the silence of the lambs. He wrote in a language and for a people he considered sub-human creatures incapable of speech. They (the Arabs) were worse than the benign ‘hissing of bees’; their blabbering voices produced sounds that “kill or exile or silence everyone who can speak.”
* * *
Can intellectuals, writers, and artists really change the world? Either out of fear, or desire for power, they become loyal to order. They recycle their ruling classes’ mores and present them as those of everyone else. Intellectuals are “a dominated fraction of the dominant class”. They are dominant because they constitute the educated elite but are dominated by those who hold political and economic power.
And the rest of us? We keep silent. Do you think that there is a political function to this silence? Or is it, as George Tarabishi says, the expression of our collective trauma and insurmountable neurosis? We are silenced because we are alone, quieted because we do not hold the means to publish. We are persecuted, censored, gagged, and subdued because of the inconceivable and incomprehensible magnitude of the tragedy(-ies), because of the “nightmare of reality”.
Did we “kill or exile or silence everyone who can speak?” When Death falls from the sky in the form of barrels, or when an Egyptian judge brings imagination to trial, our present trumps all allegorical nightmares.
Publication has led to betrayal since its very inception. State funded propaganda, the divulgence of sensitive information, the meta-narrative of modernity, the cultural arm of conspiracies that would work to replace the dictatorship of the party with the dictatorship of the market, the whip of self flagellation and the forms of Orientalism and Orientalism in reverse.
But in propaganda there were facts; in sensitive information, crimes; in meta-narratives, trust; in conspiracy, hope for the oppressed; and in self-flagellation, a promise of redemption.
Vilém Flusser ends his essay on betrayal by saying:
“Consider the inner contradiction that pervades this essay. If you read it, you will find that it is an argument against any publication. But of course it is meant to be published. It is a conscious betrayal of a secret. Let me try to justify that treason. Erasmus wrote an essay in praise of folly. This is an essay in praise of media culture, which is a pernicious form of folly. Hopefully, this paper is treacherous in the same sense as are Erasmus’s writings.”
* * *
Hope and folly. In an old love letter I wrote you once, I told you about Omar Amiralay and how I had recently developed an obsession with his life and work. I had no explanation for it. Maybe it was his voice, or the first time I watched Flood in Baath Country. It made sense when everything else on Syria didn’t.
I was looking for something on Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous when I stumbled upon “There Are Many Things Left to Say”, the documentary Amiralay developed with a sick Wannous battling terminal cancer. One of Amiralay’s last appearances was in an interview that Beirut-based French artist Sandra Iché conducted with him in 2010. She asks him one simple question: “The year is 2030, tell us what do you see.” The video is dark and disturbing but it is precisely through this disruption that Amiralay sarcastically makes his point.
From the year 2030, and ‘his no man’s land’, he looks back and remembers Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. He also recalls his own works and that of others with cynicism. He talks about Hussein, the founder of the “Hippies Movement”, pioneer of modernity; a handsome man that strolled around in shorts and embodied democratic and republican values. A stunned Iché asks, “which Hussein?” I thought he would say Al-Sharif Hussein, Hussein Ibn Ali or even Hussein the King of Jordan, but he didn’t. He replied, “He is the son of Bismarck, the Bismarck of Islam.”
As Amiralay continues to remember the past, he points out the foolishness of the Lebanese, the despotism in Syria, and the senselessness of defending land in Palestine. His allegory of a giant bloody orange pressed down on Jerusalem is as absurd as Emile Habiby’s Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist in which Saeed finds himself abducted by aliens in occupied Palestine.
Every story Amiralay shares is tragicomic. Everything in his answers is dark and grim.
Because of the extent of the tragedy, it becomes impossible to express oneself in meaningful ways. When Iché asks him whether he’s recently been working on any new projects, he replies: “I always have something simmering and I might surprise you soon with a collection of poetry.” Stunned, she responds: “You’re going to write a collection of poems?!”
His pun on the French word “recueil” was premonitory, as always, the way his films were. In French “recueil” means “collection” (of poetry), but “recueillir” also refers to the prayers and meditation we perform in front of a loved one’s tomb. It is heart wrenching to realize that this interview was recorded only a few months before his untimely passing and the breakout of the uprisings in Syria. None of what Amiralay says makes sense without his concluding remarks. Like Al-Kosaimi, he preaches what is wrong in order to say what is right.
Hope is an aberration in the dark world he describes. “I’ve never done any cinema,” he tells Iché. There’s no doubt then that he has gone mad. “Madness is the only means for resistance’. That is his last message; premonitory as always, the way his films were. Wonderful discoveries are fortuitous and there are so many things still to say.
* * *
“But what about the dark times?
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
– Bertolt Brecht
1. See Sigmund Freud’s book The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words, (1910).
2. Von Kühlmann, the German minister of foreign affairs, would tell the kaiser, December 3, 1917 that “It was not until the Bolsheviks had received from us a steady flow of funds through various channels and under varying labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow base of their party.”
3. For a comprehensive selection, see Lenin, Vladimir. Zizek, Slavoj. Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917. Verso Books. 2002.
4. Küpper, Stephen. Präprintium. A Berlin Exhibition of Moscow Samizdat Books. Other Voices, v.1, n.2 (September 1998)
5. Flusser, Vilem. Betrayal. in Writings. Ed. by Andreas Strohl. University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis/London. 2002.
6. Term coined by Samuel Huntington to refer to the exponential growth and development of European civilization that would emerge from pre-modern times as the most powerful and most wealthy of all others.
7. الرسائل المتفجرة : مجموعة رسائل من عبد الله القصيمي لقدري قلعجي، 1954-1983 / اعداد وتحقيق جهاد قلعجي
9. Six stages of my life by late Syrian Intellectual George Tarabishi
10. Elias Khoury to the German site Qantara on “The nightmare of reality”