Why I Refuse to See Of Fathers and Sons

The 2018 Doc NYC festival included a film named Of Fathers and Sons. Known for Return to Homs, Talal Derki was allowed to capture the life of a jihadist family over the course of 2 years. The trailer depicts a stark existence with the children forced to learn fighting skills at the expense of the education they wished to receive instead. As the introduction is so worded, the trailer visualizes the “all-consuming and, ultimately, dead-end consequences to radicalization”. 

While meant to give a realistic view of Abu Osama’s family, there is no objectivity here. How many viewers will have the balance of knowledge to process why families like his exist? Sundance Jury winner or no, this film was sold to the gullible without religious philosophy or tribal culture to process what is left unsaid. 

In 2015, Nicolas Henin drafted a masterpiece of a book with the unlikely title of Jihad Academy. He lightly references his hostage experience and his perception of Islamic State’s psychology but the point to his writing is to detail the political situation and complicity of the regime with IS. In the narrative today of “choose Assad or Isis”, what makes the book particularly pertinent is the story of how religion and nationalism were used to manipulate factional fighting talent to satisfy political convenience. 

Armed with a minimum of knowledge, a viewer of this film would then understand the stark lifestyle and poverty witnessed. It is not entirely by choice as implied. The human cost of belonging to bottom-of-pyramid is to create a class of disposable people. Extrapolate that concept to its universal sense, and one can readily see how being locked out of the mainstream creates a sub-culture without capability to exit. 

When the Ba’ath Party rose to power in the early 1960s, Hafez Assad brought with it an intense cronyism. Abu Osama would be of the age to well know that Sunni life in Syria has been one of limited choices. His children know even less of the peace and freedom necessary to pursue a normal lifestyle, be it fundamental or moderate. The middle-class to which this family might once have belonged is gone and, with the addition of Iranian privilege above them, it is unlikely they will regain a place. 

I cannot say if Abu Osama cares how his story is represented or if he even knows. I feel that the uneducated viewers, pun intended, will buy into Derki’s narrative that religion and war are cause-and-effect. There is enough misrepresentation on the instructive role of Islam in media. Do we really buy into the concept that local fighters who have nothing left to lose must be exterminated before they wage war across the oceans? Landlocked into Syria, they fight for Liberty just as do the remnants of the Free Syrian Amy that were the first to defend the general populace. 

So what is fair? Nothing. While people may be good at making war, there comes a time when peace is preferred. Can we say that education is the answer? Will it create that fair society in Syria for which the revolution began? Don’t fool yourself into thinking that a non-secular life is anachronistic nor that civil activism was hijacked. Look around you – both are alive and well. 


About With… Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis looks like a Main Line type of guy but appearances can be deceiving. He has a unique background straddling the Middle East and America that makes him well suited for his role of political analysis. His experiences, developed from being in the region at crucial points in time, give a long-line perspective that is respected in academic and political circles.

Marshall Plan monies was fueling economic recovery and markets opened across the Middle East. Joshua’s father, Kendall, stepped into this realm for Citibank opening branches in Jedda and Riyadh. Beirut, the period’s capital of banking, was a “golden ghetto” of sorts. Kendall and Joan landed the family in this East-meets-West hub for a lengthy association with the American University and crafted close friendships in the expat community. Joshua remembers those times as idyllic – the region was more traditional, more forgiving and much less anger simmering under the surface. There was a level of predictability and courtesy anchoring the Arab way of life that fell away as tensions edged the country toward civil war.

The return to America settled his parents into academic careers and Joshua expressed appreciation for completing his youth in a collegiate atmosphere. There was a lot of academic freedom, and immersion into the literature and art that had been a backbone of the family. Ultimately, he returned to AUB after a decision to follow into academia for his own career. Would he have considered an alternate path? Not really was the answer. He had considered the State Department but his stories of Lebanon and his observations on life in Syria indicate no regrets. Mom, he felt, was the one who gave the best advice on determining his life path. Be a contrarian, follow your heart to be happy… And he is happy with the impact he has made at the University of Oklahoma running the center for Middle East Studies and introducing students to the culture and history of the area.

In 1981, a Fulbright grant took him to the University of Damascus. It was intense place to be, he said, culminating with the Hama uprising and Israeli forces staking in Lebanon. Tensions inside Syria had risen to provide a palpable split within society. Gulf monies flowing into the country brought with it a sweep of Islamist undercurrent that pushed back against secularization. The cultural effect was quickly evident with the rapid building of Arab-styled mosques and other influences on dress and mannerisms identified with Muslim Brotherhood. Joshua recalls the time as that of “a thousand little tells” delineating who was on what side.

For an educated outsider, it was a ripe environment for a societal commentary that was quickly recognized for its authenticity. His access to the student population, to hear news shared by families and friends of events in Hama and other areas, created an information source within an official void. One needs little reminder of the effect when the moral outrage against the Mukhabarat, the street members of the military intelligence, bubbled up. The results of the 1982 Hama massacre were thousands killed and the repressed anger that was unleashed again as the Arab Spring protests spun into an open revolution.

With the war now in its eighth year, we see those slogans and attitudes yet as the counter-intuitive suspicions remain present of the CIA’s role both for and against the Assad regime. The generic consensus against “being played” allows mixed messaging of fighting Western imperialism and the implementation of a Westernization agenda. Into this environment has arisen a large wave of Western activists. The promotion of secular Left philosophy has given rise to a separate twist that, ultimately, has confounded the anti-war movement across the Middle East. Domestically has imploded as result of in-fighting with leaders like Sarah Flounders being both anti-Sisi but pro-Assad. Solidarity of convenience has become the rule leading to ineffective actioning aimed at curbing US foreign intervention.

So, what does a political analyst do? In 2004, Joshua formalized his writing into a regular blog, Syria Comment, essentially on a dare from a colleague. In recalling the time periods spent in Lebanon and Damascus, he reminds us it is not an easy task to deconstruct regional complexity – and that personal experience in seeing how people adapt to conflict is quite helpful in gaining perspective. In re-telling the story of an early experience as firing occurred near the AUB campus, it created a bond with the students as the new professor learned what they had accepted as a daily occurrence. Learning not to be scared but to be pragmatic, I think, is also a key ingredient. Despite how similar we may be, both cultural and selfishness differences play a role in politics. Syria Comment provides a forum for give-and-take for “snapshot” daily aspects of Syria, but it also maintains a profile of providing higher-level context. Tying together history, trends and patterns, personality studies into a cohesive whole gives a deeper understanding that offers a panorama to those making cross-policy decisions in non-profits and government.

In thinking ahead, Joshua is not sure how he wants Syria Comment to evolve. It is a matter of a time and energy trade. All wars end and he would like to explore some student ideas on the blog’s evolution. He likes the balance of academics and social media presence – the daily stimulation, as he calls it –  of what external opinions bring. Although he likes the aspect of an uncensored spectrum, he does not like how contentious it has become. Syrians were absolutely hungry for free expression, to have open exchanges and that has been drowned out by the discordant volume one finds present on social media now. After the upswing of rebel success in 2013, the field of analysis exploded with journalists and open-source groups such as Bellingcat joining in. As the war has ground onward, the geographical give-and-take has created a blow-by-blow instant history that is more violent and much less productive. In terms of social media, it is a less attractive medium to have a thoughtful exchange.

In contemplating a personal future, he’d like to see Lebanon again rise to the cosmopolitan level it had in its heyday. He misses the old Arab hospitalities and fun that made Lebanon special. He would like for his children to experience Beirut in-depth, to make their own connections and deepen their understanding of the Arabic language. The bucket list? He’d like a house in the Washington DC area and more time in Italy. He says it was rather a surprise to him how much he enjoyed the year-in-residence at OU in Arezzo. And, yes, he could envision himself in Tuscany for the longer-term as finding new spots off the beaten was a great adventure for the whole family.

Anyone who knows me can tell you of my admiration for Twitter. Admittedly chaotic, it is an amazing source of free news and connectivity to the world. Sometimes it is a comfortable circle with the people you interact with regularly and sometimes it is attack by troll and foul language. Joshua fits into the former category for me and what impressed me was his broad perspective and restraint that comes from real life experience. It will be interesting to see what comes next.

Response to Twitter @AlisaaGail, 9 Apr 17

The saying that one man’s rebel/terrorist is another man’s hero is very appropriate here. There is much to say about the Syrian Revolution but, for brevity, I will address your specific points with my opinion.

Are these men terrorists? 6 months ago I would have agreed with you. It is after intensive study to educate myself on the many facets of the war that I changed my mind. Westerners and fundamental Islamists are radically different groups but, if you can try to understand their world view,  there is an inherent morality and logic present.

The choice to fight an armed revolution brought with it the commitment to fight to the end, to death if need be. The withdrawal from East Aleppo was accomplished, I felt, as gracefully as it could have been. There were so many complaints of men (true civilians)disappearing at the transition zones between East/West Aleppo and in the travel corridors that even the UN became involved. Here is a post to get started reading if you are interested.  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38260388 With facing the Iranian militias and the high tension, I would have chosen a suicide belt as an option too.

I feel sorry that you think the solution is to kill them. I can understand your repugnance but I do not understand that level of anger. There is a universal Libertarian principle that applies here: live and let live. How do these men threaten you? Why do they deserve your enmity?

As an American, there is a parallel I think about. Our Founding Fathers had to make these choices – to risk all, to give up country and family in order to take the risk to make the country I love. So our ethnocentricity complex that has grown over the years blinds us to other ways of life that are valid for other groups of people. Must everyone be like you to be moral, to have a quality life?


In Paris

Karam Eiffel

Cold, grey stares back at me as I awoke

Six hours ago you faced the same sky

A strange, quiet place I hope you will love

In odd ways not unlike Daraa, not unlike Raqqa, not unlike Aleppo

Will you trade the animosity and contention of the city left behind

For the lack of call crashing across the skyline as light breaks

Will you adapt

Do you miss it as I do

6 hours ahead always, I’m behind you

Staring at the tall silhouette

Never to catch you in new glory and sadness and memories and hope

Perfectly poised between physics and biology and beauty

Not falling only for God’s grace

My heart broke once

For you in the black abyss

I begged you to leave and you arose

Like angel, not once or twice but three times

My heart broke twice

To think your heart torn and soul at risk

For in that moment, as in this one

There is power

Steadfast as Abu, just as hard of nature, stern

And I wonder now, I wonder often, I wonder wistful……

If there is a third time or if you will turn back


Maria S Bell

7 March 17    

For Mohammed

img_7987For Mohammed


I had dreams, simple fantasies of flying through the sky

Of Angels soaring to bring messages out of light

Of my ten years…

Thoughtless ones, taken for granted that life was Heaven intertwined

Why am I more valuable now in my silence

I cannot be seen but am I missed

For when I kicked a ball in the street and pleaded for chocolate

Why am I more loved for purity than for substance

Do you never cry, never feel empty space, never feel too free

Are you joyful to say I keep you company

In mind, in spirit, in essence

That I am just me


Maria S Bell

31 Oct 16



0710161907I love- for to love is to be happy

I give -for to give is to be complete, to have as much as one can hold

I care – as I cannot exist if filled with self


Your presence is near, behind me

I am in expectation of the loss

It no kinder, no meaner, no more, no less


Tears keen like the cold swirling on my ankles

Strike through my chest to pierce you

Fragment you into a pile of cells, a little invisible heap


Cross legged in the water

In concentration, I pull you up one microscopic part at a time

And blown from my hand


Release you into the air to float

Around me, to engulf me, to become my life

Never to part, never to need to say… anything….


Maria S Bell

18 Oct 16






of what am I in possession

for which I otherwise would hide myself,

cover my soul





these trinkets like bracelet sparkling charms

tempt me with life and lift

so that arising should be real, not a dream state

into which





I expect to awaken into a black void

full of nothing





and so with nothing I have no expectations, no

desires, no disease of spirit

just purity of breathing and floating in space

in between exisiting and being alive


Maria S Bell

15 Oct 16