Book Review: Sabra Zoo

It is not often a debut novelist is able to take on weighty events such as wars and massacres. There are exceptions, of course.

Sabra ZooMischa Hiller’s debut novel, Sabra Zoo is one of those exceptions based on the events in 1982 inside the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut where millions of Palestinians lived after they were expelled from their homeland during the formation of the Israeli state. Following the siege of Lebanon where Israeli forces bombed Beirut and forced the evacuation of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (the PLO), Hiller provides a deep and real description of the daily lives of Palestinians inside the camps but more importantly, the events at the end of the novel, where right-wing Lebanese forces backed by the Israeli state, committed the horrendous massacre inside the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Ivan, a half-Danish, half-Palestinian son of PLO cadre stays behind in Lebanon after the PLO evacuates the country to live in exile in Tunisia. With most of the city recovering from the devastating siege, he spends his time moving secret messages for a PLO faction and translating for the doctors volunteering at the refugee camp’s hospital. It’s in the hospital that readers see the damage done by Israeli bombs, including to a cheeky teenage boy, Youssef, who Ivan befriends and helps to rehabilitate after his leg was blown apart from a cluster bomb.

Ivan spends a lot of time with a group of volunteers at the hospital as well as one of his father’s associates, Samir. We get a cursory glimpse of a bit of the context in which the events happen such as through Liv, a Norwegian Trotskyist who surprises Faris, a Palestinian friend of Samir’s with her knowledge of Lebanese politics when she explains who the new President, Bachir Gemayel is: “He’s a Phalange, a right-wing Christian. He hates the Palestinians, wants to expel them from Lebanon. He cooperated with the Israelis during the invasion of his own country.”

But it is only through the events at the end that you really see the true extent of what happened in 1982. After Gemayel is assassinated and the Israelis invade, Samir and Ivan with Bob, a Western cameraman, are denied access to the Sabra refugee camp by the Israelis who surround the camp. The next day, walking around with Bob, Ivan and Samir witness the after effects of the massacre in the Sabra refugee camp whilst looking for Faris, who’s disappeared.

The result of the massacre is described graphically through the eyes of Ivan, describing bodies piled in the street, beside mass graves and in one instance, an unborn child torn from the womb lying dead on a table still connected to its mother lying dead underneath.

Whilst some details of the context of the novel are explained, the novel is mostly a description of the graphic events and doesn’t go into a lot of the political issues between the different forces.

Sabra Zoo is a very different kind of ‘coming-of-age’ tale describing how a teenage boy grows up in a very different place to us living in Australia. It is worth reading to get a sense of the sheer brutality that is often described by Palestinians as ‘everyday’ life.

Libya: intervention, anti-imperialism and leadership

In 2011, the year of revolution it seems, events sweeping the Middle East often move quicker than you can keep up with and so it is in Libya, with the rebels battling to hold on as we speak and the UN debating whether or not to intervene with their ‘no-fly zone.’ So I begin my post on this debate around imperialist intervention with the preface that the events may change quickly and that we may indeed be debating something that has happened in the past, but will remain relevant to future debates and events.

Yesterday, in response to a number of left bloggers (including a brief reference to myself), Guy Rundle wrote two pieces for Crikey on the left’s position on imperialist intervention into Libya. One is behind a paywall which I have the privilege of not being able to read, but I’d like to respond to the more public one.

In Rundle’s post, he argues that the leadership of the revolution (a group of ex-Gaddafi officers) legitimately represent the revolution and that their support for Western intervention should be supported, and if we don’t then the left in the West are a bunch of ‘colonialists.’ The contention seems to be around who is able to make that decision and what that decision is.

But first of all, my position against imperialist intervention is based on principled anti-imperialist and Marxist politics. Regardless of what the contended leaders of the revolution in Libya call for, this will remain to be my position. It is perfectly within the right of people to debate this position and disagree with forces inside of Libya. Rundle seems to make out as if a bunch of bloggers on the Internet have the power to undemocratically enforce our position.

I’m against imperialist intervention on the basis that imperialist forces will never intervene on any humanitarian basis, that they will always intervene in their own interests, in this case to steer the revolution toward their own aims, secure gas and oil reserves and to poison the revolution from spreading. A resulting intervention, like other ‘humanitarian interventions’ in the past may stop the bloodshed initially but will likely result in more bloodshed from their own guns and the installation of a pro-Western dictator that will return the Libyan people back to where they started.

It is incredibly naive to think that the same forces that invaded the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti or numerous other states, can suddenly switch off their own sinister motives. There is a clear history that shows that the role of the US or other Western powers has had an adverse effect on humanitarian disasters and that their stated aims are just a cover for them going in for other means, i.e. political or economic control of a region. And the colour of the helmet changes nothing so it doesn’t matter if it’s under the guise of the US, the UN, NATO or whatever.

When I wrote my initial piece that Rundle’s response mentioned, even the assumed leaders of the revolution were against intervention. This has of course changed and those ex-Gaddafi officers are calling on the UN to institute a no-fly zone. But as others state including in the comments to his article, these leaders cannot be assumed to represent the views of all the Libyan people fighting against Gaddafi.

As with the situation in Egypt, there are opposing class forces involved in the uprising including former members of the regime that have turned on Gaddafi, as well as workers and the poor. These groups have different aims. The middle classes and those at the top may want to quell the ‘instability’ by getting rid of Gaddafi, changing the regime’s image and name and then restore it essential back to the way things were with perhaps some political or civil rights won. But the workers and the lower classes want fundamental change, are demanding economic reform and union rights that will drastically improve their standard of living. Those two positions are at odds and can shape whether or not they support intervention. In Egypt, we are seeing the army and middle classes trying to get people to go home now that Mubarak is gone when workers continue to strike to push the revolution forward.

There is a history of leaders or upper and middle class sections of oppressed nations or groups selling out the majority in order to achieve their ability to control a state of their own, to maintain the class divisions within that group or support reforms that benefit them but no one else. Leaders of the Palestinian authority were shown through The Palestinian Papers to be willing to sell out the cause in order to have control of a tiny Palestinian state whilst most Palestinians remain in poverty and where refugees will have no right of return; Indigenous figures like Noel Pearson are known as sell-outs amongst indigenous people for supporting the intervention. He’s doing pretty well for himself whilst most indigenous people live in dire poverty; Is Rundle then arguing that we should support wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor or any other nation where imperialist powers can find a handful of those at the top to support it because they’ve been bought off?

Finally, I clearly state that I’m against imperialist intervention. That is, intervention from imperialist states such as the US, or Europe or a whole bunch of imperialist states through things like the UN and NATO. It is a whole other question with places like Egypt and Tunisia. As well as the need for strikes in Libya to spread, it is crucial to the survival of not just the revolution in Libya, but in Egypt, Tunisia and all the other revolts in the Arab world that they show solidarity with each other. There is a need for the revolutions to spread, for the armed forces in those countries to turn against their officers and side with the revolution and fight as one united revolutionary force. This can be key to a victorious revolution in Libya, not involvement from imperialist forces that can only act in their own greedy interests.

These questions, about the role of imperialist powers and how to win a revolution against such massive violence from a state are crucial to not just Libya and the rest of the Middle East but future revolutions to come.

Clutching onto gold as the city burns…

We barely emerge from one disaster before we’re hit with another one. You can’t predict them, though there are arguments to be made about being more prepared. Measuring the scale and the impact on people’s lives seems impossible and surreal and I always feel like it’s understated yet I’m often unmoved by the hysterical way in which the media covers it as if it’s not genuine.

So it’s in this light that I can’t quite make full sense of what’s happened in Japan and what is yet to happen. It begs the question why I’d want to blog about it then if I don’t have anything conclusive or coherent to say.

The one point I do feel like making is that I find it greatly disturbing that there are people out there who aren’t even flinching from defending nuclear power as a ‘safe alternative’ in the wake of people’s lives being ruined or put at risk by building nuclear power plants on a fucking fault line.

I remain firmly against nuclear power. It is never safe despite ‘experts’ trying to reassure us that the technology is much safer than it was during the Chernobyl disaster. There are other options that the profit-motive excludes us from considering and so in the interests of the miners, the energy companies and the weapons manufacturers we’re forced down this apocalyptic road.

If the slide into global warming tells us anything, it is that those in power are deliriously blind to the road ahead in their own interests, they’ll be clutching onto the gold as the city burns. I’m fond of how Rosa Luxemburg warned if we didn’t fight for socialism; the world would descend into barbarism. She was right on the brink of World War I and it would be right to say it now. I have no doubt that the bastards at the top will drag us all down with them, unless we take power from their hands.

The real definition of revolution

‘Revolution’ is one of the most misused and abused words in the English language, and probably other languages too. From vacuous and superficial advertising slogans to coups and individuals taking power, none of this compares to true revolutionary action where the masses take centre stage, are no longer spectators to their own history and create it themselves.

The events in the Middle East have revived this definition, made it relevant again to people other than revolutionaries. It’s no longer an old historical definition taken over by it’s use to sell you iPods or new shoes. It’s always bothered me when advertising used the word ‘revolutionary’ or ‘revolution’ to sell something. “A revolutionary new way of taking your money to sell you something that isn’t that different anyway” isn’t quite the same as “Millions of people in the Middle East rise up in a revolutionary upsurge to overthrow decades old dictators.” They don’t mean the same thing even if the dictionary says so.

Coffee revolutionIt bothers me even more when the advertisements take on the whole image of mass revolution as if we can change the world as consumers by buying their commodity made on the backs of exploited labour. Though a lot of the imagery is quite reminiscent of Stalinist Russia, which makes it less of problem, except for the fact that revolutions are often associated with another misnomer: coups and minorities in power.

It seems like whenever some leader gets up and gives some passionate speech, when they’re a popular opposition in some election, the media attaches a colour or cute mascot and calls it a revolution; the orange revolution, cedar revolution. And it gets more ridiculous when people like Abbott and the Liberal party appropriate the term. I would cherish the moment I saw Abbott’s face when Australia was in the grips of a real revolution. The difference between the events in the Middle East and some of the political changes recently called ‘revolutions’ is that the masses aren’t passive now, they aren’t just clapping on the sidelines, but they’re the ones on the field, running things for themselves, and the working-class is playing a pivotal role in all of this, which is often overlooked. It is now the ruling classes trying to play catch up, slotting in their own leaders (mostly unsuccessfully) to take control and steer it in a more moderate direction.

Revolutions also aren’t led by minorities, like guerrilla fighters in Cuba, they’re not voted in, they’re not taken by force by military generals, and they’re certainly not sold to us. Revolutions are carried out by us, the workers and the masses and you only need to switch on the television now to see evidence of the real definition.

Update: As a point of clarification, I say that the use Stalinist imagery when using the word revolution in advertising is less of a problem because capitalism and Stalinism are very much similar things and both equally divorced from the true meaning of revolution. A revolution in capitalism is just as phoney as how Stalin used the language of Marxism to dupe workers into being exploited just like their brothers and sisters in capitalist states overseas.

Libya: why Western intervention is counter to democracy

The wave of revolution across the Arab world continues to spread faster than most of us can possibly keep up with, with protests continuing in Tunisia and Egypt as well as Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, among other countries – and even beyond the Arab world. Even states in the US like Wisconsin are fighting their governments and citing inspiration from Egypt.

But one of the key fronts in the battle for mass democracy is Libya, where Gaddafi’s hold on power is being defended with some of the most extreme violence we’ve had reports of; he’s even used helicopters and fighter jets to bomb and mow down demonstrators, but it’s a testament to those who are fighting that not even this will stop them and it is their actions that will inevitably decide Gaddafi’s fate. It will be them, and not some outside force. I wanted to respond to some of the calls for US (or UN, Western, or any outside) intervention into Libya and why this would be a grave mistake for anyone who supports the Libyan revolution.

US Secretary of State (and no friend of mass democracy) Hilary Clinton has indicated that the US is leaving open a number of options in dealing with Libya as if it’s their fight, and the Navy have positioned aircraft carriers and other military vessels in the Red Sea and other locations around Libya. With sanctions now in place, the UN, NATO and other imperialist forces are discussing what to do. And I am opposed to any involvement from them whatsoever.

There are supporters of the revolts on Twitter that support intervention from these forces, but it is a grave mistake to support such things. Iraq is a clear example of what ‘democracy’ from the US means and it does not mean an end to violence. Have people forgotten about Iraq? Did they forget the millions killed by US troops? Did they forget that as soon as the US invaded it actually resulted in a surge of support for Saddam’s regime as people united against the US? There have even been protests in Iraq in the last few weeks that have been put down by US troops still stationed in the country, despite Obama’s façade of a withdrawal.

There is a very stark difference between ‘democracy’ in Iraq via the US military and democracy in Egypt by the masses of Egyptians themselves. It is the masses that can only liberate themselves. And an intervention from the West would not only destroy that, but also more lives instead of saving them. Egypt proved that the people of the Arab world don’t need the US, that they can do it themselves, and do a damn better job. This is because of the power of mass struggle, as well as the working-class halting production, but also because their fight for democracy is genuine. The kind of democracy the US promises is a joke. The US has backed and continues to back dictators in the region such as Mubarak, have armed police and army forces trying to put down revolts, and only seem to remove their support when it looks like their ‘bastard’ is losing. When there are images of Egyptians holding tear gas canisters reading ‘Made in the USA’ you really have to wonder how anyone can think they’re a benevolent force in the region.

And this applies to not only the US, but other Western powers like NATO and the UN as well. The colour of the helmet or the banner the troops fight under changes nothing about the role they play, and foreign troops will always go into a country based on the interests of those powers not the people they claim to be saving. The fact that America’s mission in the Middle East failed, but Egyptians got rid of a dictator in just over two weeks makes the US not only irrelevant but counter-productive to any progressive change in the region, and so any attempts to back or support revolts after changing sides is an attempt to restore the false image of the US as a force for good.

Rather than the US, a much stronger force to end the violence and bring down Gaddafi quickly, is the power of the working class. After the people occupied Tahrir Square for two weeks, it was the workers in Egypt that dealt Mubarak his final blow. After three days of striking and production grinding to a halt, Mubarak could not hold on any longer.

In Libya, moving the struggle into the workplaces could be decisive not only because it would halt the flow or profits to the regime, but suppressing the struggle becomes much harder. It’s easy for them to mow down demonstrators in the streets, but if the struggle is inside factories and infrastructure owned by the Libyan state critical to the running of the economy, Gaddafi can’t exactly just bomb those to the ground or it would hurt himself.

It is clear that the Libyan people want and need no involvement from the outside. The people of the Middle East want no such thing either. The US and its allies need to remove all support for dictators in the region and get out of region completely. This fight is not theirs, it is the fight of the people using the power of the masses to turn the world upside down and the role of the working-class in the Arab world is the key to bringing down these tyrants quickly and in the least violent way possible.

Hundreds of Thousands in Tahrir Square
Democracy Arab masses style – Egyptian revolution, 2011 (Photograph By: Mona Seif)

Highway of Death "Kuwait Basra" 26 February 1991
Democracy US style – Gulf War, 1991 (Photograph By: samdaq (AT) hotmail)

Update: Socialist Worker (UK) reports on the leaders of the revolution stating emphatically that they are against any foreign intervention:

“We are against any foreign intervention or military intervention in our internal affairs,” said Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga in Libya’s second city Benghazi last Sunday.

“This revolution will be completed by our people with the liberation of the rest of Libyan ­territory.”

Many factories and key installations are under the control of their workforces. Others are controlled by employers who are sympathetic to the revolution, or even actively supporting it.

The revolutionaries’ military strategy has not been to call for Western airpower, but to convince the soldiers sent to crush them to change sides.

Time and again lightly armed or unarmed rebels have won over conscripts.

This happened most recently when regime forces attempted to retake the key city of Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital on Monday.

The soldiers sent in to attack switched sides or surrendered, handing over their weapons to the revolutionaries.

Elsewhere military forces have declared for the revolution after receiving delegations of students and youth groups.

On the fall of a dictator

A dictator has fallen. Actually, two have fallen – just in 2011 alone and it’s only February. More significant is that they fell because of popular mass revolutions, not by coups or maneuvers from small cliques of individuals or groups. So to all the cynics that ever told me being a revolutionary was a waste of time, that revolutions never happen or they’re out-dated, I calmly point you toward Tunisia and Egypt. I told you so.

The fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, after the stubborn bastard vowed time and time again that he wouldn’t, is the most significant of the two. A strong ally of the US and Israel and a major player in the region, I don’t think the significance can be stated in a mere blog post. A lot of the ramifications won’t be seen for months, maybe years to come. But at the moment, other countries in the Middle East are full of millions fighting for a taste of freedom too, in Yemen and in Algeria to name a few.

There are of course questions to be resolved such as what kind of society and political system will emerge and how far the protesters can take it. They need to get rid of every last remnant of that regime. There are of course other interests vying for control such as the military and the United States. and Socialist Alternative have the best coverage and analysis on those questions.

But now it’s also a time for celebration. The mood amongst a crowd of Egyptians and the Left was ecstatic yesterday outside the State Library. Egypt has deposed a dictator, put revolution and mass struggle back on the agenda and inspired the rest of the Middle East and the world.

Solidarity to Egypt from Melbourne!

Tonight I was with around 500 people gathered at the State Library in Melbourne to express our solidarity with the ongoing revolts to oust the US-backed dictator, Hosni Mubarak. The crowd was mostly Egyptians and socialists and the crowd was so impassioned and excited by the events, chanting “Down, down, Mubarak, down,” “Down, down, with the whole regime,” and “One solution, revolution.”

We marched down Swanston Street to Federation Square and about half way down, it began to absolutely pour down with rain. There were a lot of us that kept marching on and I was absolutely soaked. I felt that with people putting their lives on the line in Egypt, the least we could do was put up with some rain. There was a sense of defying the weather to show our support. And despite the rain, the march was much more enjoyable than the eight hours I’d spent at work in my dry boring cubicle following the news and itching for something to happen here even a tenth as momentous as the hundreds of thousands pouring into Tahrir Square in the ‘Day of Departure.’

We are watching history being made and the people of Egypt are showing the world that ordinary people can take power into their own hands and run society for ourselves.