A long time ago I started writing my PhD thesis on the French thinker Georges Bataille, who was mainly known for his pornographic writings and his links to the French Surrealist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. But Bataille was also a political thinker, with a particular interest in the rise of fascism in Europe. He wanted to oppose fascism but by his own admission, did not know how to do it.
One of my preferred books by Bataille is a slim novel called Le Bleu du Ciel (The Blue of Noon) which is really quite despairing – the main character Tropmann is a suicidal drunk who journeys across Europe – London, Barcelona, Paris, Vienna, Trier – and sees a world about to go up in flames. He has lost his faith in left wing politics and sees the irrational appeal of its opposite, the deadly combination of a religious faith and political mission which constitutes the core of fascism. Impotent in every sense, Tropmann sees the rest of the decade (this was written in 1935) as a ‘rising tide of murder’.
I was thinking about Bataille and this book the other week, when I went to interview the Syrian writer Samar Yazbek. She is the author of The Crossing: A Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria. As soon as I started reading it, I realised that, like Le Bleu du Ciel, this was a rare and extraordinary book. One of the reasons for this is that, for all the millions of words devoted to Syria in the past few years, few writers have been able to understand and capture the human cost at the centre of the tragedy.
Samar Yazbek is a Syrian in exile who, risking her life, crossed over the Turkish border several times to revisit her broken homeland. Each trip was increasingly dangerous; but worse still for Samar was the slowly dawning realisation on each trip that the Syria that she had grown up in, a relatively tolerant and multi-cultural society, was now being lost forever in a never-ending spiral of massacre and counter-massacre. Along the way she spoke with ordinary people, mostly women, children, the elderly, who did not feel that they were caught up in history, but in a nightmare that was wrecking their lives.
I wanted to meet and interview Samar because her book struck me as more than reportage. This was a work of political literature, a work that bore comparison with Georges Bataille and also George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as an eyewitness account of a revolution in ruins. In person she did not disappoint – she was voluble, witty and above all, nervous. This was perhaps understandable as we were talking only ten minutes away by foot from the Syrian Embassy in Paris, where Bashar al-Assad’s flag is currently proudly on display, a marker of how he thinks the war is going in his direction. These are the people who would kill Samar Yazbek if they could.
Samar is an enemy of Assad but also ISIS, who she describes as ‘an occupying army of gangsters and thugs’. She has nothing but contempt for the western Muslims who have been flocking into Syria, turning towns like Raqqa and Dabiq, where she grew up, into a hellhole. She has particular scorn for western Muslim girls, who she accuses of ‘Orientalising’ the myth of the virile Arab warrior, and destroying the lives of ordinary Syrian women who have been displaced and terrorised. As a feminist she says that this has left her broken-hearted.
This piece generated a huge amount of interest on social and conventional media, and in several languages. It has aroused anger among those who see Samar Yazbek as part of the ruling Alawite elite in Syria (this is to misunderstand a lot of history) and those who see me as the mouth-piece of Baàthist revisionism. Nothing could be further from the truth in both cases. I wrote in The Observer that I think this book is one of the first political classics of the 21st century. It is a work that will be read a hundred years from now by anyone who wants to understand the horror of what is happening right now in the Middle East.
What I didn’t say in The Observer but which I also think is true, is that sometimes there seems to be a grim synchronicity about the things I was reading as a postgraduate and what is happening now. One of the most annoying and ignorant criticisms made against researchers in the humanities is that their work lacks ‘relevance’ in the real world.
Sometimes this is true and the recent REF has tried to address this with its emphasis on ‘impact’ as part of the portfolio. But there really is no need for the humanities to be disconnected from the world – arguably in the ‘new age of unreason’, the kind of world that Georges Bataille prophesied and Samar Yazbek describes, we need critical thinkers and critical thinking more than ever. It’s our own responsibility as academics to keep that thinking sharp.
Professor Andrew Hussey is director of the School of Advanced Study’s Centre for Postcolonial Studies. He is an award-winning author and one of the UK’s leading public intellectuals. An expert in European and North African relations, his most recent book, the critically acclaimed ‘The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs’, was published in 2013. His books appear on university syllabuses across the world, not only in departments of French but also history, urbanism and cultural studies. Professor Hussey also writes for national and international newspapers and makes documentaries for television and radio.