IN THE SUMMER OF 2013, the Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh took a dangerous journey from the rebel-held city of Douma to his hometown of Raqqa, now the headquarters of the so-called Islamic State, across the border to southern Turkey and on to Istanbul. One of the foremost intellectuals of his generation and widely considered the sage of the Syrian revolution (hakim al-thawra), Haj Saleh had been in hiding for two years. When he won a Prince Claus Award in 2012, he delivered his acceptance speech—an eloquent response to the twinned questions: why revolt and why write—from an undisclosed location in Damascus. “I am trying to pay back the debt I owe to the books I read in prison,” he said.
Haj Saleh’s texts on criminality, corruption, and the meaning of real freedom speak to the ability of books to bring history, experience, and imagination to the remotest corners of a repressive state. In 1980, when Haj Saleh was twenty and studying medicine in Aleppo, he was arrested for being a young communist and imprisoned for sixteen years. Released in 1996, he was never allowed to apply for a passport. In 2004, he was barred from leaving the country (until then, he had been able to enter Lebanon and spend time in Beirut). Now living in exile, Haj Saleh is one of the founding members of Hamisch (Arabic for margin orfringe), a new initiative in Istanbul using art, film, and literature—among other cultural effects—to debate the finer points of living an active, magnanimous political life.
Our Terrible Country, by Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi, tells the tale of Haj Saleh’s dramatic escape from Syria. The film, which won the grand prize at FIDMarseille last summer and is now part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2015, pieces together a rueful portrait of a once-hopeful uprising, which began with nonviolent demands for reform and regime change before devolving into a grotesque, mercenary, multifactional civil war. It captures the moment when a man of words and ideas is propelled into a series of life-changing actions and events. And it offers a terrible early glimpse of the destruction wrought by four years of barrel bombs, gas attacks, and jihadi madness, all seen in the slow, panning shots of wrecked apartment blocks, a mangled chandelier, and a children’s swing set, blasted away.
Homsi, a photojournalist who fought for a time with the Free Syrian Army, catches up with Haj Saleh, on the run, and accompanies him into an exile he emphatically does not want. (“I wanted to stay not because my work was indispensable,” Haj Saleh says, “but rather because this is my place, and it is indispensable to me.”) Atassi, a documentary filmmaker known for his work on the elder Syrian activist Riad al-Turk and the Egyptian religious scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, joins them in Raqqa. Soon after Atassi asks him he’s ever killed anyone (he hasn’t), Homsi makes the sudden, reckless decision to turn back and return to Douma. Along the way, he is kidnapped by ISIS. A month later, he is freed, makes his way to Istanbul, and finds Haj Saleh and Atassi on Taksim Square. Together they retire to a teahouse, where they drink and tell stories and cry.
Epic in more ways than one, Our Terrible Country borrows as much from the poetic conventions of ancient Greece as from the ease and ubiquity of smart phones, selfies, and Skype. A prologue drops in on a battle unfolding in the heart of Ghouta, a wasted landscape, emptied of inhabitants, where only snipers remain. Homsi carries a gun, then a camera. A battalion of fighters poses, as if for a portrait, but instead of gathering, pausing, and dispersing, one of them begins narrating the story of the battle just passed, a Homeric account for the digital age.
In Douma, Haj Saleh plays a round of indoor badminton, remarks on the life-and-death proximity of a morgue and a vegetable garden, and tries, with limited success, to organize a municipal cleanup campaign: “Collect the rubbish voluntarily and I swear you’ll gain legitimacy,” he says to a group of listless young men. When Homsi asks him: “Is this the freedom you want?” Haj Saleh replies: “If we were free to choose, then no. I would have preferred a more chic and less costly freedom. However, it seems this is the price we’re forced to pay.”
Haj Saleh was smuggled from Damascus into Ghouta through a network of tunnels. When the next escape route opens, we see him fleeing on foot, in the back of one truck, and in the cab of another. In the extreme heat of August, we see him sleeping under a tarp pinned down by rocks to an unrelenting desert. We see him alone, among fighters, in the dark, without water, ground down, and exhausted.
In Raqqa, Haj Saleh spends two and a half months in hiding. ISIS has taken two of his brothers. “Daesh,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for the group. “A fitting name for a monster from one of the tales we were told as children.” Across the border in Turkey, he seeks out a friend, who tells him that compared with their counterparts in Eastern Europe, Syrian intellectuals have no place in their revolution. “We are outside the movement,” the friend says. Using his brother’s passport, Haj Saleh takes a short flight to Istanbul. He’s never been on an airplane before.
Extreme topicality is a potential liability. The temptation to call Our Terrible Country an important document more readily than an amazing film is symptomatic of that, faint praise holding a place for the critique of poor form or impatient storytelling. This is a common enough conundrum for contemporary art, where there is often the worry that war-torn material—all bombed-out, tragic, and besieged—will bulldoze over the aesthetic riddles and critical faculties that exist in a work to make it art, or not. Homsi and Atassi have an interview style that at times veers toward bullying and badgering. Major twists in the plot are mentioned in passing with little to no explanation. One has to be a very close observer of Syrian affairs to grasp the significance of certain details. Despite making terrific use of the fighters’ videos and Haj Saleh’s intricate voice-over, Atassi blurts out the premise of his film—to portray the vulnerabilities and contradictions of a man better known as a thinker—but never really pulls together the strands of the incredible story he is holding in his hands.
And there is something uneasy, maybe even undignified, about seeing a man of Haj Saleh’s stature in pain, in tears, in his underwear. He’s the Vaclav Havel of Syria, except that where the dissident Czech playwright became the respected president of a democratic republic, in Our Terrible Country, Haj Saleh is left to quibble over a bill in a café run by refugees, arguing with a man deranged by grief and debt over the price of a plate of broad beans. When a voice offscreen says: “When [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad goes, everything will be fine,” the man growls in reply: “Assad is merely an illusion. The disaster is inside us.”
Perhaps what’s happening in Syria, and to Syria, with more than 200,000 dead and the country in ruins, is too devastating to be squeezed into a coherent storyline. Our Terrible Country is flawed, fractured, volatile, overwhelming, and unresolved because Syria today is all of those things. The film shows the phases of Syria’s revolution—keyed to the stages of Haj Saleh’s journey—and raises crucial questions about authorship, cinema, art, the secular left, and the failure of democracy movements in the Middle East’s most despotic states. It delves into the dilemmas of a writer, his relationship to a place, and his role in a conflict that is much larger and harder than his work. Most critically, the film illuminates how sidelined intellectuals have become, not only in Syria but throughout the Arab world. Perhaps it does so harshly so that we, as viewers, might do something about that fact.
The problem with Our Terrible Country is that it offers so little context. In Douma, Haj Saleh was working alongside his wife, Samira Khalil, and a colleague, Razan Zaitouneh, both of whom are major figures of the Syrian opposition. We learn only from a postscript that they disappeared before the film was complete, presumably kidnapped by Islamic militants. A year later, they are still missing. Atassi tells Haj Saleh that his ideas are known; they can be found in his books. But in fact Haj Saleh is less known than he should be. Few of his books have been translated into English. None are widely available. Looking back at Syria, Haj Saleh is himself bewildered by “the extremely modest place for culture in the lives of the people. There is no culture,” he says. “There are no books.”
In Istanbul, a youngster with wild curls and a Hand of Fatima pendant around her neck says of Haj Saleh’s exile: “Isn’t this a form of surrender?” He is baffled but clearly impressed. He blusters through a response about the priorities of culture, literature, and knowledge. She cuts him off. “You told us, anyone over fifty, don’t listen to what they say about the revolution.” He laughs. He smiles. He is fifty-four. “Apart from me,” he says.
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