Unforgotten Wounds: Remembering Ali Mustafa

So it was with Ali himself. To be sure, he was one of the great photojournalists and videographers of the Egyptian Revolution. But, equally, Ali was a warrior against the forgetting of wounds. And that, at least in part, is what drew him back earlier this year to Syria. Camera in hand, he would show the world why it could never – should never – forget both the suffering and the courage of the Syrian people.

“We so often see images of the violence, death, and destruction in Syria today,” he told Stefan Christoff in an interview last year, “but it is important to remember that despite this reality, in the areas away from the frontlines, people still try as best they can to live a normal life. People still walk the streets, vendors still sell goods, kids still go outside to play.” He then described a daily ritual he observed in Bustan Al Qasr, which is divided between government and rebel forces: “Everyday, amid sniper fire, people from one side cross over to the other because they have to go to work, visit family, or transport goods. They call it ‘the crossing of death’.”[2]
But, of course, Bustan Al Qasr is not unique. Much of Syria today is a system of crossings of death, thanks to the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. It was at one such crossing that Ali Mustafa lost his life on March 9th 2014. Hurrying to the Hadariyeh neighbourhood of Aleppo after the dropping of a barrel-bomb by Assad’s forces, Ali and seven others worked feverishly to find survivors, only to perish when government troops unloaded another bomb on the same site.

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It was as a faculty supporter of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) at York University, and of its predecessor group, that I first met Ali in 2006. Like so many others, I was immediately drawn to his shy, captivating smile, his unflagging commitment to global justice, his awkward enthusiasm. To some, Ali’s bashful demeanour might have suggested uncertainty. But the shortest of conversations would set you straight. Ali carried about a ferocious hatred of oppression and injustice, and an infectious joy in solidarity and resistance. To spend time with him was to feel the burning fires of rebellion.

Yet, there was more than a simple spirit of rebellion to Ali. He knew that any meaningful anti-capitalism required serious study and strategic thinking; he was aware of the profound difference between rebellion and revolution. Reflecting on his own imprisonment in 1912 for anarchist activism, Victor Serge observed in his novel, Men in Prison, “We have committed great errors, comrades. We wanted to be revolutionaries; we were only rebels.”[3] For Serge, this meant devoting one’s energy to a disciplined process of amassing the political forces necessary to overturn a system. By the time I got to know him, Ali was already thinking in these terms. He was frustrated with a self-satisfied radicalism largely focused on one’s small social circle. He wanted to be part of a mass movement dedicated to dismantling the total system of global domination that we call capitalism – in all of its multiple forms of oppression. As he organized, read, listened, discussed and argued, Ali’s world view became increasingly general and global. He saw the inherent interconnections among Palestinian solidarity campaigns, landless workers movements in Brazil, mobilizations against war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and struggles against poverty in his home city of Toronto. He increasingly recognized them as distinct fronts in a single world-wide struggle for human liberation. As much as that understanding inspired Ali, it also haunted him, for the politics of global revolution can be a very lonely thing in these neoliberal times.

Indeed, having been around the left for more than a few years, I have become accustomed, especially during the long night of neoliberalism, to student radicals who soon find their comfortable niche and quietly shelve their youthful enthusiasms. Whatever the personal failings involved, I know that this trajectory also reflects a social reality. It signals the great weight of a long period of historical retreat for the socialist left. No one committed to the overthrow of world capitalism can ignore it.  Yet, from the start I sensed that Ali was a “lifer,” someone who would never make his peace with capitalist society. That can be an angry, lonely, brooding place to inhabit. And it frequently was all those things for Ali. But it never turned him into a bitter crank or sectarian. If anything, rather than diminishing his love of comradery and human connection, it made these utterly precious to him. And it was one of the reasons why he sought out connections with activists around the world – from Brazil and Palestine, to Egypt and Syria.

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In the winter of 2008-9, Ali joined the New Socialist Group (NSG). This was not something he did lightly. He engaged in hours of discussions with people he respected on the Toronto left, both members and non-members of the NSG, before making his decision. He understood many of the group’s shortcomings and would continue to be frustrated by them (a frustration we often shared). Yet he became a consistent participant in the group’s meetings, as well as an editor of and contributor to New Socialist Webzine. At the time of his death he was one of its editorial associates. In discussing this, I am not trying to “claim” Ali for the NSG. Ali’s work and his commitments were much too generous and sweeping for anything of that sort. At the same time, I do want to celebrate Ali’s revolutionary socialism as one integral part of his life and work.

As with most of us in the group, the NSG never composed the whole of Ali’s political activism, not by a long-shot. But also like most of us, he felt the need to be part of a group that was trying, however feebly, to develop revolutionary socialist politics that might contribute to the formation of the next radical left. Without at all reducing Ali’s politics to these elements, I think it is worth acknowledging four things in particular that figured in his decision to organize with the NSG.

First, Ali clearly felt the need for the left to project a systemic alternative. He felt profoundly that we don’t want to spend the next fifty or one hundred years merely protesting the next imperialist war, resisting the latest incident of police racism, organizing to preserve beds in a homeless shelter, and so on. As vital as all these struggles are, Ali knew we needed to think about how to overturn a system that breeds racism, heterosexism, poverty, ableism, homelessness, sexism, class exploitation, colonialism and war. He wanted not merely to mouth the slogan that another world is possible, but to act on it. And he felt this required developing a socialism that speaks to its historical moment and the struggles of the day.

In addition to identifying with the project of developing socialism for the 21st century, as Venezuelan comrades have put it, Ali supported the NSG conviction that any relevant revolutionary politics for our times has to deeply absorb the lessons, both practical and theoretical, of the most vital anti-oppression struggles of our era. Too much of the left has a tendency to stake out an unchanging orthodoxy to be defended against all challenges. Of course, there are major inheritances of past struggles (including struggles over theory) without which any revolutionary today would be utterly ill-equipped. But in a dynamically changing social system – one in which capital, work, technology, culture, forms of colonization, modes of life and identity are being constantly transformed – it is ludicrous to imagine that revolutionary socialism can be packaged into a largely fixed doctrine. For this reason, historical materialism needs an inherent openness to experience and to the future. And in recent decades, this has required its systematic reworking in relationship to anti-racism, feminism, queer struggles, environmentalism, new forms of work and new practices of resistance. In the NSG we have tended to describe this as a necessary process of socialist renewal. This too was something that Ali thoughtfully embraced.

Thirdly, the NSG’s advocacy of socialism from below was extremely significant to Ali. For, if the left is to be renewed and recomposed, it will have to radically distinguish itself from the crimes of Stalinism. This is impossible without disavowing the bureaucratic statism that runs as a powerful current throughout the history of the left. Socialism from below insists that the only defensible socialism is one rooted in the democratically-organized struggles of masses of oppressed peoples to emancipate themselves. In so doing it dramatically distances itself from authoritarian projects on the left. For Ali, this was not just a lesson from the past. He was well aware that some left currents, with historical roots in Stalinism, are defenders of the murderous Assad regime in Syria. He knew that they are part of left traditions that have justified the mass murder of workers and peasants by self-styled “progressive” states. Indeed, individuals from such currents shamed themselves in calling Ali a “liar” at a meeting in Toronto where he exhibited photos of the violence that the Syrian government commits against its own people.

Finally, Ali deeply identified with what the NSG has called the principle of left recomposition. The crucial insight here is that no small group, no matter how dedicated its members, can possibly be the primary basis for a genuine mass party/movement of the left. Too often, left currents suffer from an ultra-vanguardism which imagines that recruiting to their tiny grouplet comprises the key to building a mass socialist organization. The NSG explicitly repudiates such a perspective, calling instead for a process of left recomposition, embracing diverse currents of the non-sectarian left while also reaching out to people new to socialist politics.  Moreover, at the moment when Ali joined the NSG, it looked as if such a project might have wind in its sails. First, the Popular Education and Action Project, created by five radical groups in Toronto, started to generate new forms of collaboration. Then the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly looked for a time as if it might create a space for building “a multi-racial, anti-capitalist, working class movement” in Toronto. Ali was deeply committed to the Workers Assembly project in its initial stages, serving on its Coordinating Committee. As time went on, however, the Assembly’s inability to deliver on its early promise made him increasingly impatient with its direction.[4]                       

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Yet, discouraged as he often was by the state of the left in his home town, Ali was deeply inspired by the mass struggles of oppressed peoples elsewhere. In 2008, he journeyed to Brazil where he worked with sections of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), while also participating in the local Palestine Solidarity movement. Energized by the struggles of the MST, he often talked with me about bringing local activists for a tour in Canada.

By 2011, he was in Palestine, where he beautifully documented aspects of daily life under occupation. There then followed a life-changing trip to Egypt. One cannot understate what direct contact with a mass revolutionary process meant for Ali. For the first time, he genuinely felt the living pulse of revolution.

Anyone who has lived through a period of substantial social mobilization will know the intensity of such moments. Every day, sometimes every hour, seems urgent and vital. News arrives that the people have assembled in their tens or hundreds of thousands and seized the square. Then comes the call that police have attacked and are driving them back with bullets and tear gas. Supporters hurry to the conflict zone and join in the pitched battle. Suddenly, the police lines are broken, the cops are in retreat! Workers are walking off the job and occupying workplaces. Women are defying old taboos. The army is in the streets, but the soldiers are refusing orders to open fire on the people.

These are the sorts of scenes Ali experienced. No more a theoretical proposition or an image from history books, revolution was all around him. He breathed its intoxicating atmosphere, risked his life documenting it, and anguished over its reverses. Crucially, he felt alive, more truly alive than ever before.

Having experienced a revolutionary process, Ali also felt even more distanced from the often petty politics of so much of the left at home. He hungered for reconnection with mass action. He wanted to feel that his activism – including his writing and his photography – were actually contributing to what we once called, without any embarrassment, the world revolution.

And so, to Egypt he returned, while also visiting Syria for the first time. There, too, he felt the pulse of revolution, and marvelled at its courage and stubborn persistence in the face of state terror.[5] So inspired was Ali by the capacity of the Syrian people to resist in the face of overwhelming adversity that he ventured again across the Turkish-Syrian border earlier this year. My hunch is that he especially hoped to document (and to participate in) the revolution’s third-anniversary celebrations on March 14th. Alas, he was not to have the opportunity, dying five days before the anniversary.

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For every one of us who loved Ali Mustafa, our memories and our grief are deeply individual. Each of us remembers, agonizes, laughs and cries in our own way. Notwithstanding the partiality of my friendship and comradeship with Ali, there is one thing upon which I feel obliged to comment. This is the view that Ali was a broken soul, devastated and despondent at the time he died.

Without for a moment wanting to deny his sadness – something of which many of us were well aware – I also want to insist that this was not the whole story. Furthermore, I want to urge that a large part of what was troubling Ali was his understanding that the “Arab Revolutions” of 2010-12 were in retreat – although for how long we do not know.[6] Ali’s moments of despondency were, at least in significant part, rooted in a worry that the revolutionary process that had so filled him with hope might be ephemeral. Having tasted the exhilarating joy of revolutionary upheaval, he was downcast at the thought that the counter-revolution might be ascendant. The idea of life returning to the sheer dominance of capital, empire and generals made him truly sick at heart.

But this was not the whole story. Ali knew that resistance and opposition continued, and he sought out ways to document and celebrate them. In fact, shortly before he returned to Syria, Ali submitted proposals for presentations at the Toronto Historical Materialism conference, very much looking forward to the opportunity to engage many friends and comrades in spirited discussions of the revolution in Syria. And until the very end, Ali continued to glory in companionship and comradeship. Three days after his death, this short and lovely message arrived on my Facebook page from someone who had met him in Turkey a few weeks earlier: “I’m so shocked to hear this. I met and had a lovely time with Ali last month in Istanbul. I’m so, so sorry to hear this. Love to Ali. Such a beautiful happy man.”

And that too is the Ali many of us remember. To be sure, he was often lonely and sad. But so was he also “a beautiful and happy man.” It is a signal message of blues music that happiness and sorrow often live very close together, something I think that Ali powerfully felt. Rather than one negating the other, it is because we know how much heart-wrenching suffering and sorrow there is around us that we revel in the opportunities for friendship, comradeship, solidarity and basic human decency. And this, it seems to me, was fundamentally true of Ali.

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It is now over a month since Ali was killed in Aleppo. It has taken me some time to be able to write about him (outside of a bit of poetry written in the depths of grief). Ali was a true revolutionary socialist and internationalist. He was an outstanding photographer and journalist. But for those of us who considered him our friend, he was also a kind, caring, generous, thoughtful person.

In a recent conversation with my sister, I commented that Ali was the sort of person who sustained my confidence in the capacity of the oppressed to remake the world. That is something we too often underestimate in our organizing work on the left – the necessity of capturing in our solidarity and our comradeship the odd intimation of how, relieved of the burdens of capitalism, people might relate to one another as human beings. No, we can never fully prefigure the new society while struggling to survive within the old. But we can try to build solidarities that defy the spirit of this society.

“Forgotten wounds cannot be healed,” observed Emad Burnat. And so, in the spirit of Ali Mustafa, we remember, we resist, and we organize for a better world.
David McNally is a member of Toronto New Socialists and the author of books including Global Slump and Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism.


[1] See http://alimustafa84.wordpress.com/five-broken-cameras-film-review/

[2] http://alimustafa84.wordpress.com/reportingfromtheinside/

[3] Victor Serge, Men in Prison (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. 250.

[4] In particular, Ali saw the drifting away of women, youth and activists of colour from the Assembly as a reflection of basic problems in its political orientation.  For one (undoubtedly partial, as well as controversial) assessment of the Workers Assembly experience see Alan Sears, “Organizing Against the Flow”

[5] For Ali’s views on the Syrian Revolution, see his interview with Stefan Christoff. Also see the recent analysis by Joseph Daher, “Three Years of Revolt in Syria.”

[6] Gilbert Achcar, among others, has insisted in a number of places recently that the “Arab Spring” is far from over, even if its complex trajectory is full of reverses – which is frequently the story of revolutions. See Achcar, The People Want: A Radical View of the Arab Uprisings (2013). Ali interviewed Achcar for New Socialist Webzine in early 2011. In a similar political vein, see Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Chicago: Haymarket 2013), especially Ch. 7.