Assad Speech: Lost in Translation

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A photo released by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows government troops carrying the coffins of two comrades killed in the ongoing fighting across Syria during their funeral at the Tishrin military hopsital in Damascus on 4 June 2012. (Photo: AFP PHOTO / SANA )

By: Amal Saad-Ghorayeb

Published Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Mainstream media coverage of Assad’s Sunday speech has surpassed its usual level of distortion, bias and disinformation as exemplified by the following two excerpts from the news wires.

Associated Press: “In a speech delivered Sunday, his first since January, Assad appeared unmoved by scathing international criticism of his ferocious response to the 15-month-old revolt against his rule, which has killed up to 13,000 people, according to activist groups.”

“Syrian President Bashar Assad has defended his government's crackdown on opponents, saying a doctor performing messy emergency surgery does not have blood on his hands if he is trying to save a patient.”

Reuters: “Assad has rebuffed criticism of the carnage in his country.”

Both news agencies then followed both of their interpretations with this quote from Assad’s speech: "When a surgeon in an operating room ... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood?" Assad said in a televised speech to parliament. "Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"

Noteworthy, is how Assad is described as being “unmoved” by criticism of his “ferocious response” in the first quote above. The subtext, is that Assad’s refusal to respond to charges that his regime was behind the Houla massacre with an emotional outburst of indignation, must mean that he is guilty by way of emotional aloofness. Needless to say, had Assad engaged in the required show of self-righteous rage, he would have been psychopathologized as conspiracy-minded, delusional and paranoid as he usually is.

Also striking is how both the AP and Reuters reports depict Assad’s surgery analogy as his attempt to rationalize his bloody “crackdown”( presumably on innocent protesters) and “carnage” (the Houla massacre), respectively. Such terminology is particularly insidious when one considers both Assad’s choice of metaphor and his very evident intent.

In drawing an analogy with the performance of surgery on a wounded patient, the Syrian leader was clearly alluding to the surgical – as opposed to random or chaotic – nature of the violence that his regime was compelled to resort to, in order to treat a body-politic infiltrated by hostile external forces. How this was misconstrued to mean that he was justifying brutal massacres and repression of his people, defies the most elemental logic.

The message could not possibly have been lost in translation considering that terrorism and the need for a security solution to root it out were leitmotifs in Assad’s speech. Nor could the discrepancy between original intent and interpretation be attributed to a misunderstanding on the part of the media. No, this was nothing less than a deliberate misinterpretation of an otherwise unequivocally straightforward defense of the regime’s war against the foreign sponsored terrorists and insurrectionists.

In that sense, the relationship between the Syrian regime and the information warlords, is not merely a case of what French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, would call “mésentente” (political disagreement) which presupposes “two speakers who either use the same words but in different senses, or with the same word do not designate the same thing as referent.”

Here, the debate is the “most radical misunderstanding” that occurs between two different “genres” of discourse, what French thinker, Jean-François Lyotard calls “differend”.

As defined by Lyotard, “differend [is] the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim. A case of differend between two parties takes place when the regulation of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom."

In other words, the dominant power not only defines the terms of the debate, but also the language or jargon in which it will be articulated, thereby leaving the weaker party both figuratively and literally speechless and incapable of defending itself. Unlike the “subaltern” subjects of western liberal “tolerance” who are allowed to speak but not be heard, those subjected to “differend” are not even “given voice” with all the vertical-power connotations implied by the term.

Although these concepts have customarily been applied to weak and oppressed communities, they easily lend themselves to gross imbalances of power governing international relations. As with individuals and communities, depriving subaltern states and political actors of the right to speak and be heard obviates the need for dialogue or debate with them.

“Differend” is further defined as a case “when the first [speaker]cannot understand the second because, according to him, words do not belong to articulated language, to logos, but rather to an inarticulate voice, to phôné. That voice, which, according to Aristotle (in Politics), humans have in common with animals, can only express feelings, pleasure or pain, in the form of a cry, contentment or hate, and by cheers or booing in the case of a group. If some people cannot consider others as speakers, it is simply because they do not see them, because they don’t have the same share within the political partitioning of the sensible”.

It is important to recall in this context, the surprise (or disappointment) implicit in AP’s claim that Assad “appeared unmoved by scathing international criticism of his ferocious response..” Like phôné , Assad’s voice is one which isn’t entitled to speak let alone be heard, it is only permitted to cry or rant or yell, but never to reason or persuade, or even to own a narrative which can be retold, as in the case of the subaltern.

Assad has no narrative to begin with, his enemies hold the sole right to a narrative and a discourse in which to frame it. If and when he communicates, his words will be heard as an incomprehensible utterance which will require filtering through the medium of the dominant idiom and then re-communicated as a confirmation of the meta-narrative, even if the original content was a rejection of that narrative.

The reasoning is circular: if his regime is accused of repression and war crimes, then even the counter-argument which asserts that it is merely fighting terrorism, will only be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement of this on his part – that he is indeed committing war crimes and repression.

The state of “differend” which characterizes the relationship between the Assad regime and the Western media, not only serves to deny it its place in the “international community”, but also to deny its supporters – who constitute at least half the Syrian population – the right to speak and think, and hence, to be.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is an independent Lebanese academic and political analyst. She is author of the book, “Hizbullah: Politics and Religion”, and blogger at ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.


IRAN IS TRYING TO NUKE ISRAEL AND THE USA!!1 They are enriching uniraum to 20% which is beyond what they need for energy or medicine2 They continue to work on space missiles so they can make an ICBM to reach the USA3 They are ran by religious extremists4 Muslims believe that their reward for killing non believers is to go to heaven aka suicide bombers5 Most muslims hate the USA and Israel6 They burn US flag everyday in Tehran for last 30+ yearsNUKE IRAN BEFORE THEY NUKE THE USA

There is no 'surgery' involved in rocketting civilian neighborhoods.
Shabiha unleashed on occupied opposition neighborhoods only use the knives to cut throats of any unfortunate they should find there.
Enough apologies for butchers and murderers, already!

The writer joins the sectarian hypocrites of the "mumana'a" camp, Amal and Hezbollah, the Iranian regime, and the Assad mafia with her brazen hypocrisy on takhween and she pathetically justifies the collaboration Hafez al-Assad with the Americans in Gulf War I at her blog:

Pulling an obscure quote from a book to pathetically defend and excuse the Assad regime, forgetting that it was rewarded with the re-occupation of Lebanon, something which benefitted it in reasserting its control of Lebanon and billions that went to the Assad regime and it's cronies. Also, stop hypocritically using the cause of Palestine when it was well-known what the Assad regime and its army did to it's Palestinian opponents like Tel az-Za'tar and the War of the Camps.

"Really? Do you speak Serbian?"

He/She most likely no, but I do. He/She is reading the Guardian - the most despicable ("leftist") imperial newspaper.

That language used to called Serbo-Croatian. Since "democracy" arrived and meaningless principalities which they call themselves "independent states" have been created we have now five/six forms of the same language. So, yes I "speak and read" them all.

The reference and comparison with Bosnia is the worst than silly, the propaganda in its worst and sleaziest form, especially when is used to defend Milosevic and his regime as a victims of NATO. And justify R2P elsewhere. It is favorite theme of West's liberals and Tarik Ali.

Nato and Milosevic are one of the same.

And, lastly, an excellent article.

'The reference and comparison with Bosnia is the worst than silly, the propaganda in its worst and sleaziest form, especially when is used to defend Milosevic and his regime as a victims of NATO. And justify R2P elsewhere. It is favorite theme of West's liberals and Tarik Ali.

Nato and Milosevic are one of the same.

And, lastly, an excellent article'

LOL Milosevic was not NATO...where do you ever get that idea?
there was no 'Milosevic and his regime' there was the government of Yugoslavia..a far better entity than the balkanised regimes we see today created by NATO..ironically the formation of the EU (meant to end inter european war) led to war and the balkanisation of Yugoslavia

Tariq Ali did not defend Milosevic in any way. He simply critiqued the obsessvie western interpretation of the Balkan wars as a simplistic story of evil Serbs versus everyone else, pointing out criminal elements on all sides, particularly among the Croats. In a talk he gave at Zagreb, Croatia this year or last year, he condemned both Tudjman and Milosevic as scoundrels and thugs. Chomsky and Herman, on the other hand, did apologize for Milosevic, perhaps inadvertently or intentionally, I could never say for sure.

And yes, Yugoslavia (under Tito anyway) was a far superior option to the present day Balkan republics. Its actually my sincere hope that in the long run, the former Yugoslav countries come back together in some form (and I'm not talking about the EU, where they willl still be different countries under a failing neoliberal regime). I think this new hypothetical union would possibly also include other Balkan states like Albania, Greece and Bulgaria - a Balkan federation which would be democratic, as opposed to the dictatorships of yesteryear. Just my thoughts.

Good article.

What's this? She surpasses Sharmine.

Indeed she does


Assad has murdered thousands of political dissidents and families. His public assertion is that this loss is necessary to "save the patient." Who is the patient? His corrupt regime is the patient, not the Syrian people.

Hence, his medical analogy deserves to be made fun of: he's not out to save anything except his own control of power, like other dictators would do.

president Assad has not murdered anyone let alone families...its these sort of big lies that are used to demonise and mark the owner out as someone not to be trusted.

You are exactly the victim of the NATO media this whole article is written to showcase. The prejudice based on mainstream media fed to you without applying your common sense if you had any left, unless you are a beneficiary from any crisis or the downfall of the entire government & the fail of the state in Syria

Keep drinking your Ad-Dunya koolaid, where was your "mumana'a" when Bashar's grandfather was a stooge for the French colonialists, praising the Zionists as "lovely" and blaming the Palestinians for refusing to become refugees in their own land or when Hafez al-Assad was collaborating with the Americans in Gulf War I.

And you are exactly a fool on the other spectrum. While there is truth that the NATO media has manipulated much of the events in Syria for its own agenda, to deny that this government hasn't committed crimes is a sad delusion on your part. Neither Assad regime nor the SNC is what the Syrian people deserve.

I guess this is what Milosevic felt too, each time he had a speech "translated" in the NATO press...

Really? Do you speak Serbian?


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