Yassin al-Haj Saleh – Hope through culture

Amid the destruction of the Syrian civil war, writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh never lost his belief in human dignity. And also as a refugee in Istanbul, he believes that culture and an open debate will be able to defy oppression and sectarianism in his country. ‘I write to create hope.’

Yassin al-Haj Saleh lives in the Turkish metropolis Istanbul. When he first arrived there as a refugee, in 2013, he didn’t want to stay. But now he says: ‘Istanbul has a big Syrian community. Here I can cooperate with people who want to get involved. I think it is useful to be here.’

In 2012, the Prins Claus Award was awarded to Yassin al-Haj Saleh. It helps him to support himself in Istanbul, as does his writing for several Arabic and English language media outlets. With like-minded people in Istanbul, he founded the Syrian Culture House in early 2014, called Hamish, Arabic for ‘Margin’. They organise debates, they show films and as soon as they have enough funds, they will start publishing books.

Culture, he believes, will eventually save the Syrian people: ‘Culture is different from politics. It is interested in human values, in ethics, in matters of justice. Traditional politics is not.’ And debate is crucial, he believes: ‘In Arabic there is an etymological connection between the words “suffering” and “meaning”. At least 200,000 people died in the Syrian civil war. We need to somehow dignify our suffering. How? I don’t have a clear answer to that. I write to create hope.’

He talks about France after the Second World War, and how intellectuals like Sartre helped save the dignity of the French people. Then: ‘IS is not a logical result of our culture, but at the same time it is also not totally alien to our culture. We have to explain where it has come from. This one of the topics I’ve worked on the last year and a half.’

The need to express himself culturally has now become linked to the direction the Syrian war has taken. He explained: ‘It has become sectarian. We have to resist sectarianism, because it is not something natural to a society but a war strategy of control. It makes ordinary citizens and intellectuals invisible because they don’t express themselves in sectarian ways. That is why Hamish, the culture house, is important. With limited resources we provide Syrians with an area of open debate. We have to remain visible.’

By Fréderike Geerdink