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  • R. Shareah Taleghani (a1)

Connecting the stories of human rights violations perpetrated by the Syrian regime against the children of Darʿa in March 2011 to decades of writings about political detention in Syria, this article argues that particular works of Syrian prison literature (adab al-sujūn) articulate a poetics of recognition that both reaffirms and challenges the foundational dependency on political recognition in human rights theory. By focusing on narrative scenes of recognition and misrecognition, I contend that these texts, much like the stories of the children of Darʿa, depict different forms of acute human vulnerability. In doing so, they offer a mode of sentimental education that evokes readers’ empathy and awareness of human suffering. Yet such texts also demonstrate, in allegorical form, how the foundational reliance on political recognition in human rights regimes can limit their efficacy.

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Author's note: I thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors of IJMES for their valuable comments. I am grateful to Allison Brown, Silvia Marsans-Sakly, and Leena Dallasheh for their constructive input and discussions during the writing and revision process. I am also grateful to the Spring 2016 CUNY Faculty Fellowships Publications Program for the opportunity to workshop a version of this article. Finally, I thank Phil Kennedy and Elias Khoury for their critical feedback on my earlier analyses of the short stories discussed here.

1 For a journalist's description of the events in Darʿa in March 2011, including the detention of the children, see, for example, Ghassan Saʿud, “Darʿa Madinat al-Ashbah: Rihla fi Thawra Lam Tulid Baʿd,” al-Akhbar, 25 March 2011, accessed 30 April 2016, See also Pinto, Paul Gabriel Hilu, “Syria,” in Dispatches from the Arab Spring: Understanding the New Middle East, ed. Amar, Paul and Prashad, Vijay (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), Kindle edition. For details on the protests leading up to the same events in Darʿa, see Yassin-Kassab, Robin and al-Shami, Leila, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (London: Pluto Press, 2016), Kindle edition.

2 Faraj Bayraqdar, “Awal Thawra fi al-Tarikh Yaqdahu Shararatiha al-Atfal,” al-Hiwar al-Mutamaddin, 10 June 2011, accessed 30 April 2016, For examples of poems dedicated to Hamza al-Khatib, see selections on the website of the Rabitat Kuttab al-Thawra al-Suriyya, accessed 30 April 2016,; and YouTube videos such as “Qasidat Hamza al-Khatib,” 2 June 2011, Multiple testimonials about and from the children of Darʿa can also be viewed on YouTube. See, for example: “Ahad al-Atfal Alladhina Katabu Awla Shiʿarat al-Hurriyya ʿala Jidran al-Madrasa fi Darʿa,” 18 March 2014,, and “15 Tilmidh Sabab Indilaʿ al-Thawra al-Suriyya Haqiqa La Tusdiq,” 30 January 2012,

3 All translations are my own unless otherwise noted. Mudawwana Muwatina Suriyya, 29 May 2011, accessed 30 April 2016,حمزة-الخطيب-طفل-عذبه-النظام-السوري-حتى/

4 Local and international human rights organizations have published dozens of special reports on the Syrian state's systematic human rights abuses and violations under the rule of Hafiz al-Asad (1970–2000) and Bashar al-Asad (2000–present). See, for example, Middle East Watch, Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991); Human Rights Watch, “A Wasted Decade: Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Asad's First Ten Years in Power,” 2010, accessed 30 April 2016,; and Amnesty International, “Annual Report: Syria,” 2011, accessed 30 April 2016, For a special report on the detention and torture of school children after the beginning of the uprising, see Human Rights Watch, “Syria: Stop Torture of Children,” 3 February 2012, accessed 30 April 2016,

5 Though literary works addressing the experience of detention were published prior to the 1970s, the earliest work of criticism on a genre identified as “prison literature” (adab al-sijn) that I have read or seen referenced is an article by Syrian writer and critic Nabil Sulayman. Sulayman, Nabil, “Nahw Adab al-Sijn,” al-Mawqif al-Adabi 1/2 (1973): 137–41.

6 The definition of prison literature used for the purposes of this article is deliberately inclusive and necessarily contingent given the debates about the parameters of the genre and authors’ discussions and views on whether their own works are part of it. See, for example, the author's introduction to Salih, Yassin al-Hajj, Bi-l-Khalas Ya Shabab: Sittin ʿAman fi al-Sujun al-Suriyya (Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2012).

7 miriam cooke, “The Cell Story: Syrian Prison Stories after Hafiz Asad,” Middle East Critique 20 (2011): 169–87, accessed 29 August 2015, doi: 10.1080/19436149. See also cooke's examination of prison literature, including the work of al-Jabaʿi, Ghassan and Samuʾil, Ibrahim, in miriam cooke, Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), Kindle edition.

8 Middle East Watch, Syria Unmasked: The Supression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991), 9. A Committee for Human Rights was established by members of the Syrian Bar Association after two lawyers, Tariq Haydari and ʿAdil Kayali, were killed in detention.

9 See al-Faysal, Samar Ruhi, al-Sijn al-Siyasi fi al-Riwaya al-ʿArabiyya (Tripoli: Jarrous Press, 1994 ; and Nidal, Nazih Abu, Adab al-Sujun (Beirut: Dar al-Hadatha, 1981).

10 See Harlow, Barbara, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (Hanover, Pa.: Wesleyan University Press, 1992); Schaffer, Kay and Smith, Sidonie, Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2004); Slaughter, Joseph, Human Rights, Inc. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007); and Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg and Alexandra Schultheis Moore, eds., Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature (New York: Routledge, 2012).

11 Sakr, Rita, “Anticipating” the 2011 Arab Uprisings: Revolutionary Literatures and Political Geographies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Kindle edition.

12 It should be noted that a number of other texts of Syrian prison literature could have been incorporated into the analysis forwarded in this article but were not due to space limitations. Additionally, in using the term “sentimental education” to indicate the generation of recognition and empathy through the reading of prison literature, I am drawing on Cohen, Margaret, The Sentimental Education of the Novel (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002); Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc.; and Hunt, Lynn, The Invention of Human Rights: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007). Slaughter has rightly problematized the need for “sentimental education” to implement human rights regimes, particularly as formulated by Richard Rorty. He highlights that the “sentimental model of reading has a tendency to become a patronizing humanitarianism that is enabled by and subsists on socioeconomic and political disparities.” Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc., 325; see also 324–28. For more critiques of Rorty's contradictory positions on human rights and sentimentality, see Baxi, Upendra, The Future of Human Rights (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002); and Robbins, Bruce, “Sad Stories in the International Public Sphere: Richard Rorty on Culture and Human Rights,” Public Culture 9 (1997): 209–32.

13 Samuʾil, Ibrahim, Raʾihat al-Khatw al-Thaqil (Damascus: Dar al-Jundi, 1990), 34 .

14 Ibid., 17.

15 Ibid., 18.

16 Cohen, Margaret, “Sentimental Communities,” in The Literary Channel: The Inter-National Invention of the Novel, ed. Cohen, Margaret and Dever, Carolyn (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 108 . In this article, I follow Cohen's definition of sentimentality as the “narrative situation” portraying “a spectacle of suffering that solicits the spectator's sympathy.”

17 Although it cannot be addressed in detail in the scope of this article, it should be noted that until the mid-2000s, the most common forms of Syrian prison literature were first, memoirs, and second, short stories, which is an indication of the prevalence and continuing popularity of short fiction in Arabic literature more generally. In my forthcoming book manuscript, I draw on Julio Cortazar's analysis of the short story as a photograph to consider Samuʾil's and other authors’ short stories as forms of “prison portraiture” and “humanizing snapshots.” These short narratives depict the experience of detention in discreet and selective moments and thus differ, especially in the representation of temporality, from memoirs, novels, and the reports of human rights organizations.

18 Cave, Terence, Recognitions: A Study in Poetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).

19 Ibid., 2.

20 Ibid., 2, 33.

21 As Joseph Slaughter has noted, in drafting the UDHR's preamble, the UN “deduces the need for a speech act of recognition that identifies human rights as inherent and inalienable, and it declares this declaration to be that speech act of common recognition and understanding.” Slaughter, Human Rights Inc., 64. Emphasis in the original.

22 In her critique of human rights, Hannah Arendt observes that despite the “best intentions” of international human rights declarations, a “sphere that is above the nation does not exist.” Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1976), 298 , Kindle edition. Therefore, the implementation and enforcement of international human rights law becomes problematic, if not impossible, in the face of the self-interests of sovereign nation-states. For additional discussion of the nation-state as both principle violator and essential protector of human rights, see Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003), 3437 .

23 Turner, Bryan S., Vulnerability and Human Rights (State College, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), Kindle edition.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 43 .

27 Ibid.

28 Likewise, in describing the ways in which an “ethics of recognition” functions in human rights discourse, Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith observe: “Whether or not storytelling in the field of human rights results in the extension of human justice, dignity, and freedom depends on the willingness of those addressed to hear the stories and take responsibility for the recognition of others and their claims. In the transits of multi-vectored space there are many flows, but also many detours, undercurrents, dams and blockages.” Schaffer and Smith, Human Rights and Narrated Lives, 5.

29 As Barbara Harlow has noted, “recognition scenes” in prison writings usually counter any form of narrative or ideological restoration or closure. Harlow, Barred, 72–73.

30 Jauss, Hans Robert, “The Identity of the Poetic Text in the Changing Horizon of Understanding,” in Reception Study: From Literary Theory to Cultural Studies, ed. Machor, James L. and Goldstein, Philip (New York: Routledge, 2001), 728 .

31 Ibid., 7.

32 Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, 61.

33 Ibid., 9.

34 al-Jabaʿi, Ghassan, Asabʿ al-Mawz (Damascus: Wizarat al-Thaqafa, 1994); Fletcher, Angus, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970), 2 . Fletcher also notes that literary analysis of allegory must always be aware of the “political overtones” rooted in the Greek understanding of the term because “censorship may produce devious ways of speaking,” a point that is highly relevant to interpreting texts about political detention, such as al-Jabaʿi's short stories and other works of Syrian prison literature. Fletcher also considers irony as a form of “condensed allegory.” Fletcher, Allegory, 230.

35 Shawqi Baghdadi, introduction to Asabʿ al-Mawz, by al-Jabaʿi, 13.

36 Tambling, Jeremy, Allegory (New York: Routledge, 2009), 92 .

37 Al-Jabaʿi, Asabʿ al-Mawz, 59.

38 Butler, Precarious Life, 33.

39 Al-Jabaʿi, Asabʿ al-Mawz, 77. Ellipses in the original.

40 Hutcheon, Linda, Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (London: Routledge, 2005), Kindle edition, 4, 10.

41 Al-Jabaʿi, Asabʿ al-Mawz, 115. Quotation marks and ellipses in the original.

42 Ibid., 123. Quotation marks and ellipses in the original.

43 Ibid., 128.

44 Turner, Vulnerability and Human Rights.

45 As Hutcheon notes, irony is “an interpretative and intentional move” in that the reader as interpreter must make or infer “meaning in addition to and different from what is stated, together with an attitude toward both the said and unsaid.” The presence of irony in the narrative thus adds to the forms of recognition a reader undergoes. Hutcheon, Irony's Edge, 11.

46 Butler, Precarious Life, 34.

47 al-ʿUjayli, ʿAbd al-Salam, Majhula ʿala al-Tariq (London: Riyad al-Rayyis, 1997).

48 Turner, Vulnerability and Human Rights.

49 Khalifa, Mustafa, al-Qawqʿa (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2008).

50 See, for example, Amnesty International, “Torture, Death, and Dehumanization in Tadmor Military Prison,” 18 September 2001, accessed 30 April 2016,

51 See, for example, Bayraqdar, Faraj’s Khiyanat al-Lugha wa-l-Samt (Beirut: Dar al-Jadid, 2006); and Daghastani, Malik’s novel Duwar al-Hurriyya (Damascus: Dar al-Balad, 2002).

52 Samuʾil, Raʾihat al-Khatw al-Thaqil, 34.

53 Bakhtin, Mikhail, Problems of Dotoevsky's Poetics (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 6 .

54 Samuʾil, Raʾihat al-Khatw al-Thaqil, 34.

55 Ibid., 34–35.

56 Ibid., 37.

57 Ibid., 37–38.

58 Ibid., 38–39.

59 Ibid., 39.

60 Turner, Vulnerability and Human Rights.

61 Camille, Michael, “Simulacrum,” in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Nelson, Robert S. and Shiff, Richard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), Kindle edition, 35.

62 Cave, Recognitions, 1.

63 Turner, Vulnerability and Human Rights.

64 Samuʾil, Raʾihat al-Khatw al-Thaqil, 38.

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