|Yassine al-Haj Saleh (top) and part of the jacket of his book on 16 years in Syrian jails|
“In all my 50 years, I have never held a passport. Other than visiting Lebanon, I’d never left Syria when, in the fall of 2004, I was barred from leaving the country. I tried many times afterward to get a passport, but to no avail.”
The words are by Syrian public intellectual, prolific writer/author and political activist Yassin al-Haj Saleh. They appeared in an essay translated from Arabic for The New York Times and published on April 11, 2011.
Still living underground in Damascus since the onset of the Syrian revolution in March last year, Haj Saleh remains without a passport. He will surely miss collecting his Prince Claus Award in December either at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam or at the Dutch embassy in Damascus.
Saleh told AFP he could have tried to pick up the Prince Claus award from the Netherlands embassy in Damascus. “But I am happy the embassy is closed.”
“What is amazing ... is that the government of this country considers such a tribute an insult,” he said. “It makes me happy that this prize humiliates the murderous regime.”
The Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development prize is “actually a tribute to the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution,” said Haj Saleh, a 1961 native of al-Raqqa who was jailed for 16 years, beginning in 1980 when he was a 19-year-old medical student at Aleppo University. He took his final examination as a general medical practitioner in 2000, but never practiced.
The Prince Claus Fund was set up in September 1996 as a tribute to Prince Claus's dedication to culture and development.
It supports artists, critical thinkers and cultural organizations in spaces where freedom of cultural expression is restricted by conflict, poverty, repression, marginalization or taboos.
Annually, the Fund grants 11 Prince Claus Awards to individuals and organizations for their outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development.
Four of this year’s 11 Prince Claus laureates are Arab.
- Syria’s Yassine al-Haj Saleh, who the fund’s website says is “a voice of reasoned analysis in the midst of the current Syrian crisis. He provides crucial insight on a wide range of political, social, and cultural subjects relating to Syria, the Arab world and their international geo-political relations.”
- Algerian Habiba Djahnine (1968, Béjaia), “a respected writer and filmmaker whose main focus is documentary cinema directed to an accurate portrayal of Algerian realities. Returned to her country to transmit her knowledge and skills, Djahnine is an educator, mentor and a dynamic force in the Algerian cultural scene.”
- Tunisian Sami Ben Gharbia (1967, Tunis), “an innovative cyber-activist who works mainly through social media. He is the co-founder of the popular web portal Nawaat.org, a Tunisian blog collective on news and politics that played an important role in the Tunisian revolution. He is dedicated to the freedom of information: essential for both culture and development.”
- Jordanian collector Widad Kawar (1931, Tulkarem), whose “passion and commitment rescued and preserved important cultural heritage that otherwise would have been lost forever. Her superb collection consists of more than 2,000 examples of the textile artistry of Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian, Bedouin and other Arab cultures.”
In his latest published remarks, Haj Saleh was highly critical of British journalist Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent for The Independent, who has been taking a lot of flak lately for a series of articles undermining the Syrian insurgency while embedded with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Haj Saleh told AhramOnline in remarks published September 4 “Fisk is indoctrinated by the Syrian regime.”
Alongside innumerable articles and essays, Haj Saleh has published three books:
- “Syria from the shadow: Glimpses inside the black box”
- “The Myth of the Others: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique”
- “Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian prisons”
You can read English texts of some of Haj Saleh’s think pieces on the Syrian revolution courtesy of the Free Syrian Translators here.
Also, find time to assimilate his masterpiece on Assad’s Shabiha militia for The Heinrich Böll Foundation.