Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Heretical Game!

The recent mention I received in the Arabic version of Newsweek as one of 43 people making a difference in the Arab World was bound to raise eyebrows and generate some cynical, if not downright hostile, responses here. After all, I was the only Syrian on the list, yet very few people around here know me. So how could I be making any difference? – A very legitimate question indeed, and the fact that someone did indeed raise it in the Syrian press on Monday was not particularly surprising to me.

Putting the author of a “single novel” (at least in print-form) that did not appear in Arabic, and the director of a “Jihadist” website project on minority rights, in the forefront of people making a difference in Syria, while neglecting such seminal names as Adonis, Sadik al-Azm, among others, must have come, “at best,” as an attempt at “trivializing the more established names in other currents.” For “his achievements so far do not merit this kind of notice,” despite the fact that he tends to be a “lively and dynamic young man.”

I couldn’t agree more. But then I did not choose to have this kind of honor bestowed upon me. Indeed, I do believe it is premature, and I do believe that there are people in Syria who, at this stage at least, are more worthy of this honor than me. But, for some reason, Newsweek noticed me and not them. So the question is why? What is the reason behind my sudden visibility?

Because I am critical of the government? Can’t be. There are so many others, who are no less bold in their criticism than I, and they have been doing so for a longer time, some have even been jailed for it and for more years than they would like to remember, and yet, there are still out there, in the forefront of it all.

Because I speak and write in English? But there are many others who do speak this blessed language as well, and they, too, tend to write, occasionally at least, critical articles of the Syrian regime and culture. More importantly, all the big literary and intellectual names in Syria have works that were translated to English, among many other languages, and long before I appeared on the scene. So, this cannot be it the answer.

Is it a conspiracy then? Am I being prepped for something, with or without my duplicity? A superficial reading of the event might indeed suggest something along these lines. But, no, I believe the truth is more complex and subtle than this.

I believe the truth of the matter to go to the heart of our current identity crisis as modern day Arabs, our current position in the world today, and the very nature of the world we are living in at this stage, that is, the very nature of modernity and globalization, the very nature of this capitalistic American-dominated age, the very nature of the American Imperium.

How so? Consider for a brief while the people included in the list and the American identity of the compiler and the criteria they probably have in mind.

All the names on the list reveal remarkable openness to western, if not downright American, values and culture. Most are clearly committed to free market economics.

As such, the compiler is telling us that the people who are making a difference in the Arab World today are those who are attempting to bring it closer to the folds of American culture and interests. For, in our day and age, this is the norm by which things are measured.

When things are framed in such a manner, there might indeed appear a few nay-sayers on the list, or, at least, a few people who would opt to nuance this statement a bit. Still, the point remains that the people on the list have been selected because they are perceived as such by the compilers, regardless of whether they like it or not.

So, how many Syrian intellectuals and activists would qualify to be on this list, especially considering the fact that the compilers are looking for relatively younger names? More importantly,
how many of them would want to be included on such a list? Considering the anti-American tendencies of the predominant majority of our intellectuals, this comes more as a rhetorical question really.

The reality is I seem to have been chosen primarily because I was amiable to American culture, and even politics. And I said so on more than one occasion, and I have made some waves in this regard in certain significant circles when I was in Washington, DC. In times like these, when Syria and the US are at loggerheads, it is very hard for someone like me not to stand out, or even be made to stand out. No, not as part of a conspiracy, but as part of that tit-for-tat “game” that gets, inevitably perhaps, played in times like these.

Mind you, I have no objection to being “used” in this game. After all, I have a stake in it too. For I want my country to change, and yes, I wouldn’t mind seeing it more westernized, even Americanized, in certain basic respects.

Still, had I been asked to nominate someone from Syria, I would have nominated Riyad Seif, our former MP who might finally be released from imprisonment in a few weeks. He would have been the more reasonable and worthy candidate, had he not been forgotten, by us first and then the world. This world has a very short attention span, and the only way to deal with it would be to know how to play the media game well enough. In a country that has no free media, and that has not had any such media for so many decades, it is very difficult for people to play that game. That, too, gave me an advantage, albeit I was a rather unwitting player in this particular instance.

But, it would have been really quite difficult for the people at Newsweek to avoid someone who was featured in New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and the Chronicle for Higher Education in the span of a few short weeks, and who have been making so many "daring" and "defiant" statements to the international press throughout the last few months, and from Damascus itself of all places, at a time when the only other Syrians making headlines were our President, and his US-invented and -based opponent Farid Ghadri.

Ah! what did I get myself into?