Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Issue 13 / April 2018

Letter from Berlin: Articles to Samira (5)

Love, Torture, Rape … and Annihilation

by Yassin al-Haj Saleh

It may seem that no two things could be more divergent than love and torture. Love unites us with others and makes us stronger; torture separates us from ourselves, rendering our frailty and vulnerability more intense. In love, we come out of our inner beings toward our beloved ones to become suffused with them; and in torture, an enemy chases us deep into our inner beings and keeps emptying and hollowing us. Apart from the fact that love and torture are both bilateral relationships, or so they seem at first glance, they appear to be at odds in every other aspect.

But there is something common to both relationships and brings them into one light: the removal of boundaries between the two immediate sides of the relationship. In love we give up our boundaries; we allow the beloved to cross boundaries to reach us and get into our world, and in turn they allow us to cross and reach them in their worlds. I am speaking of physical boundaries, but also of personal space. Love is this blur of both kinds of boundaries and is our re-formation with our lovers into one entity, often manifested in living in one house. The more the difference between the two of us disappears, the more the difference between us (the two/One of us) and everyone else grows, including our previous families. We become one after we were two, and we simultaneously separate ourselves from our previous entities, or if we had already been separate we come out of our solitude. One of the daily amusements of love is the gossip the two lovers share about their acquaintances, and even about family members, including their mothers and fathers, which wouldn’t otherwise be shared even with close friends. And one of the painful pitfalls of love is to have these little secrets disclosed or exploited by one of the lovers against the other, once their relationship breaks down and new boundaries are re-demarcated. One notable strain of love is when we fear the demise of our boundaries vis-à-vis our lovers lest we appear weak, which makes us blow hot and cold about crossing boundaries, or only cross them for certain moments, during sex for example, rendering these moments symbols of the presence rather than the absence of boundaries. Such fear of love, or hate of love, is common.

One of the highest peaks of love relates to what is often frequently described in Arabic love songs as dhawaban “dissolution”, the complete demise of boundaries between lovers. This isn’t limited to sexual unison, but is also characteristic of long life shared between the two loving partners. In any case, love is this mutual transcending of boundaries and eradication of otherness. In modern times, when people carry their boundaries wherever they go, like turtles (though typically hasty ones), carrying their shells on their backs, and when love is often compromised in favor of rational contractual relationships, what many of us may fear falling into is exactly “dissolution”, the forfeiture of control and loss of boundaries. We, hasty turtles, want love and we fear dissolution.

Torture also involves the demise of boundaries, as torturers cross the lines of the tortured in a way that undermines these boundaries along with the physical integrity of the victim. A torturer chases his victim into his inner being, trying to empty it, occupy it, or destroy it.

The diminishing of boundaries in torture is a violent and potentially fatal violation. Victims die when they lose all of their boundaries and when every boundary between them and the world of things vanishes. This violation is not only coercive, occurring against the will of the victim, it is also non-reciprocal. A tortured person isn’t a partner in the torture relationship; this makes it a non-relationship, so to speak, or a counter-relationship, a bond of destruction. With his body being a battlefield, a tortured person is subjected to extreme vulnerability and placed on the verge of losing his or her ownership of himself. S/he resists, tries to protect her/his boundaries through endurance. S/he can hardly believe s/he is there, but s/he has to believe in order to fight, and perhaps to survive and salvage as much of her/his body and his inner being as s/he can. S/he knows that as soon as s/he “collapses”, allowing her/his boundaries to fall apart, s/he loses her/his psyche and may never recover it again.

In love, two individuals lose their entities and become one whole. In torture, a tortured person may lose his or her entity and is rendered utterly assailable by one or more individuals, who may think their integrity hinges on the absence of their victim’s integrity.

Based on the Syrian experience, one can distinguish among three types of torture and violation: interrogatory or investigatory torture, humiliatory-retaliatory torture, and genocidal or exterminatory torture.

Interrogatory torture plays on the boundaries of the tortured person, violates them, and aims to provoke civil war within his internal world, a conflict between his instinct of survival as an individual and his higher obligations as a social being. It provokes a civil war in the psyche, one whose outcome ranges between simply sacrificing the higher and altruistic for the sake of the lower and selfish (survival), on the one hand, and sacrificing the self for the sake of protecting what we call in Arabic sarīra, the locus of secret (sirr) within his psyche, on the other hand. This was the inner conflict experienced by members of Syrian opposition groups, which the regime wished to exterminate as organizations without necessarily exterminating their members. The crime of the tortured persons here is their declared political position opposed to the regime, not any specific thing they did. The apparatus of detention and torture, which are in fact one, is therefore separated from the facility of jail. After interrogation, detainees subjected to only interrogatory torture (I was one of them in the 1980-90s) were transferred to prisons with limited corporal punishment.

The goal of the torturer, or rather of the “program” that regulates his work, is to prevail upon the tortured person, to cross his/her boundaries, reside within his/her interior and wander around freely, emptying his/her psyche and taking over his/her innermost being. Meanwhile, the tortured person’s only goal is to prevent that, that is, to protect his/her individuality, his/her most critical interior.

Another type of interrogatory torture seeks to exterminate the victims both as organizations and members. In my generation, this was the case with Islamist victims, where torture went as far beyond provoking civil war in the tortured persons’ interiors as to permanently enslave those who survived death among them. The boundaries between interrogatory torture and humiliatory torture are blurred here.

Most of the torture we have experienced in Syria is of this type: humiliatory-retaliatory torture, continuous and indiscriminate raids with little care for the boundaries, interiors, or fates of victims. These are placed in a permanent “state of exception”. They can neither expect what will happen to them, nor does the torturing apparatus expect anything from them. The tortured person’s crime here isn’t a specific thing s/he did, or his/her political position, but rather her/his affiliation or beliefs (a decree issued in July 1980 stipulated the execution of any member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whatever they did or didn’t do). Nothing is useful to the detainee here, and no surrender would help. Detainees will be subjected to daily arbitrary torture for several years, the entirety of the last two decades of the past century, without having the opportunity to give up and end their torment; and during this time, the torturing apparatus shows a wide tolerance of deaths under torture. Torture in “torture camps” like Assad’s Tadmor Prison in Hafez’s era (1970-2000) and Saidnaya Prison in his inheritor’s era, is of this type. Its purpose, I tend to believe, is to create an unforgettable memory, addressed so far beyond the tortured person himself as to deter and intimidate the entire population. The body of the tortured person and his words are like a billboard that speaks to whomever sees him and makes any identification with him impossible.

In this sense, torture is a political relationship in which tortured persons are only its direct victims. This is the case at least in Assad’s Syria, which has been a state of detention and torture since its consolidation in the early 1970s, requiring that the bodies of its subjects be boundlessly brutalized and assailable. The “program” is to overstep the limits of society that Syrians had felt up until the late 1970s and early 1980s, before overstepping the limits became normalized and whatever was once considered a gross violation gradually ceased to be repugnantly abhorred.

I’m speaking of torture camps because basically this is what happens there. Syria didn’t know labor camps like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Neither did it know screening and filtration camps, where people are gathered in one area before the authorities keep those they want to kill or torture, as happened in Chechnya in the second half of the 1990s. But Assad’s torture camps can be likened to the Nazi concentration camps in that the concentration of prisoners may pave the way for their immediate or delayed killing. Saidnaya Prison is both a concentration and a killing camp. The same applies to Tadmor Prison in the last two decades of the last century.

In both cases, despite the spatial separation between the two, there still is a continuum between the detention apparatus with its interrogatory torture, which is in itself excessive, and the torture camps, in which detainees sometimes spend more than 20 years. Torture doesn’t stop after the investigation, but rather continues until the death of detainees or their release as devastated beings after prolonged years.

The question that arises here is: why torture and humiliate those who are likely to be executed after a while? This paradox has drawn the attention of some genocide scholars, and it appears that torture in such conditions is aimed at the torturers, intended to implicate them in complete detachment from the tortured persons and in full identification with the murderers. The likely purpose is “to condition those who actually had to carry out the policies. To make it possible for them to do what they did”, according to Franz Stangl, the commander of the two Nazi camps of Sobibor and Treblinka, quoted by Eva Fogelman in her research on “Rape during the Nazi Holocaust: Vulnerabilities and Motivations” (Rape: Weapon of War and Genocide, ed. Carol Rittner and John K. Roth, 2012, p.25). In other words, the purpose is to ensure that the torturers become pure torturers, torture professionals, competent in torture, so exhaustively practiced that they excel at nothing else, which will further bind them to obeying those who provide them with the bodies necessary for doing what they are entitled to do. Fogelman quotes a description by Primo Levi about the same issue: “The victims must be degraded, so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt” (ibid). The (non-) relationship of torture is therefore not limited to stripping the tortured persons of their own individuality; it is also meant to hollow out the torturers, reducing them to a force for torturing and cruelty.

However, torture can be a testament to strength and boldness, which cannot be carried out by sissies or “faggots”, as we, left-wing detainees in Tadmor Prison, used to be told in 1996. It is a manly act, a triumph over other men (albeit unarmed and defenseless ones, which says a lot about how degenerate the machine of Assad’s rule is), and an affiliation with the strong and inevitably triumphant party, whose opponents committed a grave sin/crime and must pay for it. This is often emboldened by other torturers who relate their adventures and exchange jokes about how horrified the tortured persons appeared and how their bodies eluded them, not to mention the rewards, tributes, and promotions the torturers receive from the public torture agency: the state.

In all cases, torture is a trilateral (non-) relationship: the torturer, the directly tortured person, and the torture agency, which may be a state, an army, or a militia. Still, the above characterization of torture as a political (non-) relationship addressed to the general population remains paramount, justifying characterizing “Assad’s Syria” as a torture state.

The third type is exterminatory or genocidal torture, where tortured persons are killed en masse and are placed in extreme conditions of hunger, disease, overcrowding, terror, humiliation, and air pollution in stifling and stinking cells that make them wish for the comfort of death. Genocidal torture is carried out by a torture machine that combines arresting, torturing, murdering, transferring victims and burying them in unknown mass graves, and then documenting and reporting to higher authorities. The exterminatory machine includes security branches, hospitals, and prisons, whether newly established or old, and is one aspect of the Syrian regime’s genocidal mutation after the revolution of 2011. Here, investigation and humiliation fall within a broader annihilation that goes beyond them. The tortured person’s crime is what he or she is, not what he or she thinks or what she or he did. In many cases, it suffices to hail from a rebellious area to be arrested, tortured, and possibly murdered.

One characteristic of genocidal torture is that it is organized and continuous, and isn’t left to the decision-making of direct torturing agencies. These agencies will likely have instructions to work in all ways to exterminate revolutionaries and suspects, and they have a mandate to know no limits. Numbering, photographing, and documenting the bodies of the victims, as we know from the Caesar report (53,000 pictures leaked in 2013 by someone who had had orders from higher authorities to photograph the numbered bodies) indicate an organized killing industry.

While the interrogatory type of torture oversteps the tortured person’s boundaries, and the humiliatory type oversteps those of society, genocidal torture oversteps the boundaries of humanity and challenges human standards. This torture is part of an exterminatory complex, which is what we call “genocide”. If “everything is possible” to happen to the detainees in a concentration camp, as Hannah Arendt argues, then what is behind the camp is the absolute freedom enjoyed by the genocidal state, its unlimited liberty to engage in torture and murder. Violation of the detainees’ boundaries requires that the detention and murder agency know no limits.

It is perhaps pertinent to recall Samantha Falciatori’s distinction between death under torture and death by torture. The Italian researcher suggests that in the first case death is a side effect of torture, while it is its intended outcome in the second (see her MA thesis entitled: International Crimes in Syria: Options for Accountability and Prosecution, 2016). Torture in this second case is a method of killing, like massacres, barrel bombs, and sarin gas, all along the genocide continuum. Killing under torture doesn’t necessarily mean extermination. A shift seems to have taken place from humiliatory torture under Hafez al-Assad to genocidal torture under Bashar, and from death under torture to death by torture. There was sectoral genocidal torture in the years of the father (Tadmor Prison, and several massacres, notably Hama in 1982), but this became generalized in the years of the son. Genocidal tendencies have been accompanied by guaranteed impunity since the chemical deal in September 2013 (between Russians and Americans, and with Israeli inspiration, stipulating destroying the regime’s chemical arsenal without any reservation about its killing of Syrians by other means, including chemical attacks, as has repeatedly been shown recently). There is a strong international dimension to the Syrian genocide that is almost unmatched in history and that could be linked, with further investigation, to emerging Islamophobia as the most prominent form of racism in today’s world (Ghassan Hage’s Is Racism an Environmental Threat?).

In its three types, torture destroys the language through which the tortured person recognizes and expresses him- or herself. It is replaced by screaming, a quality we share with animals when we’re reduced to agonized bodies. Linguistic expression is connected to a safe distance between us and those we speak to, and to the integrity of our bodies and the delineation between our physical entities and those we address; it is thus conditioned by the absence of torture. We cannot speak when someone is trying to violently break into our bodies. Victims may lose speech forever, even after the end of their torture, or even after their release: they silently withdraw into themselves, and perhaps lose the ability to speak even to themselves.

There is no torture that isn’t humiliating, although not every torture is humiliatory. Rape, however, is pure humiliation. What makes rape the most heinous crime is that it is torture wearing the mask of the most intimate relationship. A rape victim finds herself in a state of violation that is associated with the removal of boundaries between herself and her partner, if she previously had a love life or sexual life, or with what she’d imagine as her intimately boundary-free and barrier-free unison, if she didn’t. During rape, her boundaries are violated, and her body eludes her not only without her consent or initiative, but also violently and against her will. She finds herself in a state of extreme vulnerability. In words reminiscent of Jean Améry, the Jewish Austrian Holocaust survivor who once remarked that the first slap under torture causes the total breakdown of trust in the world (At the Mind’s Limits, 1980), Nour, a Syrian rape victim from Daraa, says in Manon Loizeau’s documentary The Stifled Cry: “When the first tip of hand reached out and touched my body, I felt something was collapsing.” Collapse is the interior boundaries falling apart, albeit toward the inside. It goes far beyond the demise of boundaries, multiplying and dispersing women’s entities and boundaries, as Nour adds: “I was scared (...) my thoughts aren’t my body’s, my body isn’t my soul’s, my soul is somewhere and my body [is somewhere] in the arms of beasts. My thoughts were in another world. Something in my body was coming off. Everything was being separated from everything. My mind, my memories and my soul had all left my body.” As if by her dispersion into multiple entities (thoughts, spirit, memories, and body) she were protecting the remainder of her individuality, keeping something of her inner being inviolate.

Rape, more than torture, reveals the essence of the latter as a violation of the boundaries of the tortured person and as an attempt to get into his/her entity, as much as the perception of torture as a violation of boundaries highlights the reality of rape as essentially torture. Insofar as, in the eyes of torturers, torturing men is an act of manliness, raping women is an act of virility. Virility is the sexual face of manliness, which is in turn the general social face of the competency of a strong, bold, mature man. But here we are faced with degenerate manliness and potency, as those being tortured are unarmed and unable to defend themselves, and those being raped are terrified women detainees.

Through violent and coercive penetration into the body of the victim, the torturer puts his hand on her interior, her individuality, her “thoughts, memories, and souls”. The most precious possession of a woman is the same as of a man, “thoughts, memories, and souls”, that is, individuality. This shatters or disintegrates when she is raped and when her interior is invaded by a strong aggressive outsider.

On a similar disintegration, Ms. Fawzia Hussein al-Khalaf, a native of Houla, says: “I had been in a world, and once he raped me, I entered a whole different world.” Perhaps in one of the two worlds she remained her own mistress, even if she was subdued in the other. Fawzia tried to redeem her daughter without success, and the girl was raped and killed in the Houla massacre of May 2012.

The condition of the rape victim is similar to that of the torture victim: the body is open to the assaults of torturers. But rape goes further than that, snatching away the fantasy of removed boundaries with a beloved one at the enemy’s hands and for his benefit. This is an elimination of boundaries that amounts to desecration, objectifying the rape victim and robbing her of her entity.

Rape is first and foremost an act of possession: women are to be possessed, and, like objects, they don’t have a say in how to be used. When a rapist forcibly penetrates a woman’s intimate bodily domain, i.e., her interior, she ceases to have an interior, a “soul, thoughts, and memories”. She becomes an object. She herself leaves her body, is separated from it and sent to “another world”, as Nour said, or “a whole different world”, as Fawzia put it. She does this in an attempt to prevent the rapist from taking away “the most precious thing”, her inner being, just as tortured persons try to prevent their torturers from occupying their interior.

But the torturer wants a woman without individuality, without freedom, decision, or choice. As a mixture of subjugation and sex, rape evokes in the rapist’s imagination the phantasm of the bondmaid, the female slave from whom he doesn’t expect recognition. According to Eva Fogelman in the aforementioned research (p.19), by raping a woman in a position guaranteeing him an overwhelming superiority, the rapist tries to alleviate his sexual anxieties. He gauges his masculinity and reassures himself of it, without having to worry about being recognized by the woman deprived of speech, of motion, and even of scorning looks. He cannot bear a woman who is not this drastically robbed of her freedom, a woman who hasn’t lost her individuality. It is also a non-relationship here, a destructive counter-relationship. In the history of genocides, killing men in concomitance with raping women (Srebrenica, followed by Darfur in Sudan, Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar being among the most recent examples) prompts the conclusion that rape is a type of murder or a complement to it. Men are tortured and killed because they are competitors for women, over whom the killers wish to take exclusive possession.

Rape is also an act of power: a show of dominion, of who is in control and gets to have the final say, who gets to have the look, and who is being controlled and subjugated, silenced and disgraced, who is the potent man and who is the maid, who gets to occupy the body and who gets to be displaced into “a different world”. When Nour’s fourth rapist told the fifth, “Keep going, it’s okay,” while she was bleeding profusely, he meant that she had no entity, that her bleeding didn’t forestall the violation of her hemorrhaging boundaries, and that her being alive mattered only for her rape.

The combination of power and possession creates a master/slave relationship: the master has the right to rape his slave girl(s). The difference between the Assadist master and the Da’eshi master is a difference between two systems of sexual slavery. In addition to the “theology” that religiously legitimizes rape, Da’esh’s (the Islamic State’s) system allocates one or many slave girls for one master, who can rape them at will, and sell them at will, whereas the Assadist slavery isn’t regulated, and a woman may be deemed assailable by five or more rapists, as happened to Nour, or may have two sessions a day: torture in the daytime and rape at night, as Maryam Khlaif, one of the women portrayed in The Stifled Cry, said.
Da’esh opened a market for enslaved Yazidi women, i.e., sexual slave trade (having killed the men of fighting age, which is most typical of genocide). Women were sometimes sold several times in this market in which Da’eshis set the women’s prices. On the other hand, markets opened by Assadists were limited to looted furniture, albeit with a strikingly genocidal name: the Sunni Market.

The relationship here is also trilateral or quadrilateral. The rapist, the rape victim, the rape agency that needs to guarantee the rapist’s uncompromising loyalty, and finally the victim’s group and larger community, which is wanted/occupied and with a devastated sense of self. Maryam Khlaif said: “I am alone, I am here [in an unspecified neighboring country] and I have no one by my side.” Because she was raped, her husband divorced her and her mother “kicked her out” (perhaps to protect her, as Maryam herself hinted). It seems that the intention of the rape agency is this ultimate aloneness and isolation, if not simply murder as happened with Alwa, a rape victim from Daraa. The patriarchy that reduces women’s individuality to their sealed bodies facilitates its work. The late virgin Alwa was doubly murdered when Assadists raped her and her father subsequently killed her.

Apart from the two aspects of sovereignty, possession and control, rape isn’t even ultimately sexual. Sex is an essentially intimate act, as unsatisfactory to women or to men as it may be in our societies within the framework of marriage or love. Women may even be compelled to engage in it under pressure or even coercion from their partners. But rape isn’t merely a coercion to having sex. It is rather an act of assault, in which victims are sometimes subjected to repeated rapes. This happened to Bosnian women at the hands of the Serbian army and militias, as to Tutsi women in Rwanda at the hands of the army and the Hutu Interahamwe militia, and in Darfur at the hand of the Sudanese Arab Janjaweed militias. All these acts of genocide are precedents to the atrocities of Assadist prisons recounted by the interviewed victims in The Stifled Cry. Rape is a common weapon of war witnessed in many wars and acts of genocide, where women are used for sex and for serving the combatants who had destroyed their communities and possibly killed their families. The rape victim’s susceptibility to assault exceeds sexual coercion in a frightening situation, and goes as far as the involvement of many rapists in the act of violating her boundaries and occupying her body. This seems to create an association between rapists, ensuring their loyalty to each other, as much as it is aimed at devastating the victim’s community.

The genocidal nature of rape is more apparent in the rape of men than women. Here there is no test of personal masculinity taken by men in convenient positions. Genocide appears all the more naked when men are raped with objects. Mazen Hamadeh’s testimony in Ossama Mohammed’s film Silvered Water (2014) is one personal account of this; and the film also shows a video of a child being assaulted with a stick. The declaration of power and possession here appears blatant, completely detached from the rapists’ sexual pleasure or show of masculinity. Taking pleasure in raping a boy or a man is thinkable, but there are no personal accounts in this regard, and what is available refers to the desire to devastate and to murder. Nothing apart from these two is evoked by the stories of forcing detainees to sexually violate each other. This unfathomable behavior reached the extent of physical extermination, as investigated by Amnesty International in their report on Saidnaya Prison, Human Slaughterhouse. Primo Levi’s statement about degrading detainees before killing them in order to lessen the guilt feelings of killers is worth reiterating here.

As an act aimed at devastating communities, and as an act undertaken and maintained by a public rape agency, which is the state, rape is an act of extermination that amounts to genocide. Exterminatory torture and rape of women are complementary aspects of genocide insofar as the end of raped women’s family lines, which is often the outcome of rape, contributes, hand in hand with the killing of men, to the destruction of the group concerned. Rape is an act of killing time, intended to disrupt women’s reproductive activity, that is, to keep the group from biologically reproducing itself.

Bodies and Body Politics
Love, torture, and rape all have in common the centrality of the human body. We love with our bodies, we are tortured because we have bodies that feel pain, and we are killed by having bodies destroyed. Our bodies are violated during rape, which seriously affects our ability to love, have sex, and reproduce. What we may call genocide is a mass destruction of bodies, which takes several forms other than torture and rape, including blockade and starvation, gassing and bombing with explosive barrels, and summary executions in prisons and security centers.

The torture state of the kind we have seen in Syria for half a century is a power directly exercised over bodies, expropriating them from their owners and handing them over to the agency of “monopolized legitimate violence”, which has no other aspiration than to stay in power “for all eternity”. In Arabic, there is a derivative relationship between abad “eternity” and ibada “extermination” or “genocide”, as if the former cannot be attained without the latter. The politics of eternity, to borrow Timothy Snyder’s expression, is extermination.

The political history of Syrian bodies is yet to be written, and the meaning of brutalizing these bodies in such various ways is yet to be reflected upon. There is discussion of the hijab, and what the Islamists call “Islamic dress”, which can range from covering women’s hair, face or entire body and can go as far as preventing them from leaving their home. Almost no one fails to note that Syrian or Arab urban women at the university, in the workplace, and on the street had unveiled their faces and names in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, whereas most of today’s Muslim women are veiled. While it is hard to disregard the historical correlation between the evolution of the state’s torturing tendencies and the veiling of women in Syria (and more broadly in the Middle East), there are hardly any serious studies looking into this correlation. In such a vacuum, it may be said impressionistically that the relationship between the hijab and the familial control of the body, especially the female one, on the one hand, and torture and rape, on the other, may not inevitably be a causal one, but the co-occurrence of insane forms of religiosity and veiling bodies and insane forms of governance and violating bodies is indisputable. Control of women’s bodies became the last bastion of the power of fathers and brothers who were losing power over themselves in public spaces. Religiousness is necessary to control girls (and wives and children).

In any case, it is inconceivable that there is a way out of either of the two facets of body politics, torture and hijab, apart from escaping both of them. Overstepping our boundaries as bodies or society or humanity is a governance method of a junta that rejects any temporal, institutional, or constitutional limitations to its rule. Imposing limitations on the powerful and habeas corpus for the vulnerable would give the Syrians struggle sense and scope. We must feel safe about our bodies, free from torture or rape, with the dignity of our bodies protected, if these are to overpower the veil and obtain public recognition. Our bodies must not be threatened with fragmentation if they are to act as wholes and have decisions. We must be able to mourn to remain a society and to let the past pass.
To have a history and come out of eternity.


Translated from the Arabic by Yaaser Azzayyat

Images:© Maurice Weiss