Michel Kilo and the weakening of nationalist sentiment
babelmed - 03/07/2007
The book, My exile in the prisons of Syrian Intelligence by Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar helps us imagine how Michel Kilo must spend his days and nights in the various jails and prisons that where Bayrakdar spent some 41 years of life.
Naturally, we hope that Kilo has not had to go through any of the experiences described in the book: placed in a cell next to the torture chambers so that he spends sleepless nights trying to identify the man they are torturing from his screams alone. We pray that he has not fallen into the torturers clutches: the body of this 67 year-old man can no longer take the punishment it could some 52 years ago, when news reached us from Syria that Michel had been detained and arrested.
At the time we knew that charge he should have been facing was expanding the thin margin afforded to free speech, taking it over the limits patrolled by the authorities and their security agencies. In those days Michel Kilo would talk a lot, exposing the subjects the newspapers avoided or concealed. I remember one evening he sat recounting to us the names of streets, houses and individuals, attempting to convey all that he knew of those days of arrests and detention as surely and accurately as possible. Did we all realize, as each of us left to make his way home, that he was destined to fall into their hands? Almost certainly, he knew himself, since only a few days later this hunch of ours came true, and how likely is it that he, who knew better than most the line at which free speech must end, was not aware of it?
It was difficult for us to imagine him as a prisoner. He was a complete homebody, domesticated, more than was natural even for a politically active man such as himself, fussing around his seated guests like any host who loves company and companionship. There was nothing in his character that allowed you to imagine him confined in the prisons subsequently described by Faraj Bayrakdar. He seemed to be a father, a husband, a simple clerk… Yet we did not know, then, that courage can lie concealed behind the most unlikely looking covers and can arise in those that seem least brave of all.
Just prior to his latest incarceration, we met with him for a few minutes here in Beirut. He seemed more rational and wise than one would expect from a member of the political opposition threatened with detention and imprisonment. He spoke as though he wanted the true facts to appear free of the resentment and anger that burdened him, elevating rational thought above personal history.
In this, he is not alone. Syria’s opposition writers, whose articles we read in the press, also demonstrate an obsession with the security of their society and an awareness of the danger inherent in the rhetoric of violent protest. This is very different to the Arab protest culture of the past, which placed hatred at the forefront of its mobilization efforts without realizing that this hatred was entirely misplaced: i.e. directed against sectarian and social groups who suffered as much as anyone from the brutality of the regimes.
Michel, like other Syrian intellectuals, learnt from experience that the greatest trials stem from trying to hasten the moment of victory or imagining it to be absolute and complete, ignoring the inherited revenge complexes that stand outside all social systems categorized by political science. Some Syrian writers (including one who has spent more than 15 years in prisoner) have written that the new reforms should give the Baath Party a degree of political recognition and representation, something that never occurred to the Americans and others during the early days of their invasion of Iraq (at the time Sami Zubeida warned from his home in London against disbanding the Iraqi Army, an organization that Zubeida had little reason to love himself). In an interview published two years ago in the Al-Hayat newspaper, Kilo himself stated that language must change in accordance with our circumstances: “When it seemed as if a Turkish-American invasion of Syria was imminent in 1956, some 21,000 rifles were distributed to the 7,000 residents of my hometown of Ladakia. Every day for forty days, the residents would go down to the shore to guard their city. (…) After six months had passed, the state collected the weapons and impounded them and not a single bullet was missing. (…) If we handed out 21,000 rifles today in Ladakia, how many people do you think would still be alive after six months?”
Which takes precedence when it comes to change: language itself or mankind, as a military and political stand-by to be used when the need arises? These Syrian opposition authors have surprised everyone in Lebanon with their ability to devise a “fair”, albeit non-negotiated, language to condemn and expose the regime. They have shown how political rhetoric calls for precision, not enthusiasm (although caution must be accompanied by commitment and intent), as well as an awareness that current circumstances are part of an extended and continuous evolutionary process that needs to be recognized and understood in its own right. In other words, to follow the example of Michel Kilo when speaking about the political and societal transformations experienced by Syria in the modern era. As long as the authorities continue to exploit violence against society and its citizens as a tool of control, these intellectuals will caution against it. They have a similar attitude towards the monolithic and un-variegated discourse untouched by the changes and transformations mentioned above. A phrase like “weakening nationalist sentiment” still has the power to keep Michel Kilo locked up in prison for three years. During the Qatar Conference two years ago, Kilo responded to one security official’s nationalist rhetoric by asking, “Do we have god relations with Iraq? Do we have good relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon?” Kilo knew that “nationalist sentiment,” are words that belong to a language which, incapable of keeping up with life, has run its course. Neither explanation nor definition, those who use it prefer it as it is: a phrase empty of meaning and useless. Powerless it might be, but those who speak it can still use it to oppress real human beings, to rule a country or even to tar citizens of a foreign land as traitors.