What the Holocaust Can Teach Us About Syria Today

Maziar Bahari is director of the film 82 Names: Syria, Don’t Forget Us. It is the story of Mansour Omari, a Syrian Human Rights Activist who was jailed in a military prison for 364 days and tortured by the Assad Regime. 

The following interview between Bahari and Shamila N. Chaudhary, Director of The Big Picture, talks about the making of 82 Names; the importance of memorializing the victims of conflict; and how to confront historical conflict. It has been edited for flow.

Bahari is an Iranian Canadian journalist and filmmaker. He was a reporter for Newsweek from 1998 to 2011. During the 2009 Iranian Election Protests he was arrested without charge, and detained for 118 days. Bahari wrote the memoir Then They Came for Me, which was published by Random House in June 2011. The book was made into a film by Jon Stewart called Rosewater in 2014. 

Bahari will speak at Johns Hopkins SAIS on September 25 after a screening of 82 Names. To attend, RSVP here.

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Maziar Bahari (left) and Mansour Omari (right) in Italy.

CHAUDHARY: Tell us why you decided to work on this film with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum?

BAHARI: When I heard about Mansour’s aspirations from the museum, that he wanted to make a memorial similar to the museum for the victims of the Assad regime and other groups in Syria, I thought it could make a very powerful film. We’ve heard people mentioning the Holocaust when talking about atrocities in Syria, but we’ve never seen any study of the tragedy of Syria in the context of the Holocaust. The film is also about the importance of memorials, and the Holocaust museum. We don’t appreciate how important it is that we have survivors among us now, and before long the survivors will be gone. There is so much to learn, there is so much to study.

CHAUDHARY: The parallel drawn between the Syria conflict and the Holocaust is very striking and makes an impression. We’re so familiar now with the Syria conflict in a news context, but not as much in terms of stories of real people and real experiences.

BAHARI: I think it’s very important to make the stories relevant to you. Whether you’re talking about the Holocaust, Cambodia or Rwanda, it is very important to make it relevant to people. We translated the film into Arabic, into Persian, so people in the Middle East have a better idea of the Holocaust. Millions of people who have grown up with denial about the Holocaust to gain a better understanding of the story and identify with the victims. And to see that it’s not a myth, it’s not something, as their governments tell them, fabricated by Jews to establish the state of Israel.

CHAUDHARY: And in that way, the film is a tool for various forms of conflict resolution, not just one form of just focusing on the Syria conflict, but really broadening it out. Which makes me wonder, who do you hope watches this? It’s clear that your intended audience is part of the Arab world, but who else do you want this film to reach?

BAHARI: What we wanted to achieve in the film is to somehow discuss what’s happening in Syria, the Holocaust and the Holocaust museum. And to raise many questions for people. I would like the film to be watched by as many people as possible. Of course, I like the film to be watched by the Muslim and Arab audiences around the world who care about what is happening in Syria, but I also think it’s very important for people who care about the Holocaust. Because it was the Holocaust Museum’s idea to have an exhibition about Mansour and Syria. It was very important for the museum to show those pieces of fabric and make this film as well. The Museum doesn’t regard the Holocaust an not an isolated moment in history that has no relevance today. The museum is a living institution for this generation and future generations.

CHAUDHARY: You’re getting in to some very controversial topics, and I just wonder if you could talk about any pushback you’ve faced for doing this kind of work?

BAHARI: When I was imprisoned in Iran, one of the charges they had against me was spying for 4 different agencies: the CIA, MI6, Mossad, and Newsweek (which they thought was an intelligence agency). Also, I was a member of an Anton Chekhov fan club on Facebook, and my interrogators thought because Chekhov had a Russian name, he must be Jewish and naturally a Zionist spy! That’s something that some of the supporters of the Iranian government as well as some members of the opposition to the regime still accuse me of – being an Israeli agent, or a Jewish sympathizer.

CHAUDHARY: What would you tell people who want to use storytelling to shape social or policy change?

BAHARI: Policy change is hard, but it’s much easier in democracies than in authoritarian regimes. People in democracies have to appreciate that they can vote, and that they can use their votes to improve their lives. Artists and storytellers can also shape policies, and even change them by telling stories that are relevant to people. For example, if we talked about Syria and the Holocaust in a way that was alien to people in our film, I don’t think many people would be attracted to the story of Mansour. But we are talking about a subject that is important now. It’s a powerful story that also has all the elements of a good drama.

We should also remember not to preach to people. Our film doesn’t tell you that you should think this way or that way. We are juxtaposing different realities, different images and it’s up to people to come to a conclusion themselves. That’s very important. Even though there have been thousands of films and books about the Holocaust, we still need to produce thousands more books and films about the Holocaust. Just look at what happened 50 miles from where we are now, in Charlottesville, last year. There are many, many people, fortunately not in the majority, but a big minority who have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust and need to be educated.

CHAUDHARY: Growing up in the United States, we were exposed to so much about the Holocaust in many ways, through pop culture, films, and books that we had to read in high school even. So when I saw people in Charlottesville lacking a concept of that history, it was so jarring because it showed how much we exist in these parallel universes even though we are in the same country. I suspect that the same dynamic is replicated all over the world.

BAHARI: All over the world, you’re right. We need to constantly expose people to these historical realities. These memorials, these museums are very necessary for people, so they don’t forget the past. The Holocaust museum is necessary, of course, but it’s also very important for people to confront their own histories, like the lynching museum in Alabama or the Museum of Civil Rights in Atlanta. It’s is very important to take students to these museums and let them confront their own history. Many of those people who were in Charlottesville who were chanting “Jews cannot replace us,” most probably, had never met a Jewish person in their lives. What they knew was just this caricature of Jews that’s been fed to them, the same ways that caricatures of Muslims have been fed to them. And, interestingly enough, many of those who were chanting “Jews cannot replace us” in Charlottesville, had pictures of Bashar Assad as well. For some reason Bashar Assad is a very popular figure in American ultra-right.

CHAUDHARY: Is that right? I can see how that would translate in their minds because he’s this kind of strong man.

BAHARI: Yes, a strong man confronting Israel.

CHAUDHARY: Even though the war in Syria is reportedly winding down, it’s still very much an ongoing conflict and will be hard to start a conversation about memorializing the conflict before its even over. What is the right time for to initiate a conversation about memorials?

BAHARI: The situation in Syria is getting worse. The Assad regime, from what we are hearing, is continuing to make people “disappear” in underground prisons and tell some of their families that they died “accidentally.” But when can you memorialize? It’s a difficult question. I was talking to someone in Rwanda who’s involved in the Genocide Memorial Museum there, and he was telling me that they just didn’t know what to do after the genocide in 1994. Whether they should build a memorial right after the genocide or wait for five or ten years. It took them six years to start buidling the Memorial. I think you need a bit of distance between the time you build a memorial and the tragedy in order to study all the people involved; the victims, definitely, but also the culprits. It is very important to preserve artifacts as soon as possible. That’s why I think what Mansour did with his those five pieces of cloth was so important, so heroic. Future generations of Syrians will appreciate what Mansour and his friends did in that dungeon, in that military prison in Syria.

CHAUDHARY: What should an ordinary person do about all this conflict happening in the world?

BAHARI: I think the first step is to think about this issue, and then read Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. It’s one of the most important books that’s been published in recent years. Snyder is a Holocaust historian, so knows the way that the Nazis, and many other dictatorial regimes came to power. The book divides what people should do into 20 categories, like “do not obey in advance”, “defend institutions”, which by the way is very important for the people in the United States and other democracies. There is so much that they can do with their voice, with their media at their disposal, with the power of their votes, with the power of campaigning, demonstrating, raising their voices. It’s very difficult to tell people what should they do, but reading Snyder’s book is a very good first step.

CHAUDHARY: Some of your own personal experiences are similar to Mansour and some are very different. How was it like working on this film, having been a political prisoner in Iran yourself?

BAHARI: I am an accidental activist. I was an accidental political prisoner. I was a journalist and documentary filmmaker. I never wanted to be an activist. I don’t regard myself a political activist now, but I guess since I am a human rights activist, and everything is politicized, I am somehow a political activist as well. It was very important to talk about what happened to me immediately after I came out of prison. That’s why I wrote a 10,000-word article in Newsweek, three weeks after I came out of prison in Iran. Because I had seen my friends who had been really traumatized by their experiences when they didn’t talk about it. So, in a sense it was a selfish act for me to talk about my experiences .

CHAUDHARY: You’ve called yourself an optimist. How can you be an optimist after you’ve gone through, after seeing what Mansour has gone through?

BAHARI: But I also think people who go through such extreme experience, that most people around the world, fortunately, do not experience, we have a responsibility to talk about this and share this experiences in order for people to understand what many other people are going through, and appreciate the freedoms that they have. After working with Mansour, who had gone through a much more intense experience that I had ever gone through (He was in a much harder situation than I was. He was disappeared. No one knew he was a prisoner. His family thought he was dead) I understood better that these testimonies need to be recorded and told.

CHAUDHARY: You are an optimist because active storytelling could be personally cathartic and politically impactful?

BAHARI: Especially in democracies. It’s so depressing to see the low percentage of people who vote in democracies, especially in the US. If I were an American educator, that would be my first priority, to teach people use the freedom they have and vote.

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