Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of your Fist: In Memory of Ali Mustafa

Irina Ceric and Élise Thorburn

I know you are still standing in Tahrir,  where I saw you last. Tahrir was your address.
- Rachel Gee

On Sunday, March 29, 2014, Syrian regime forces dropped a barrel bomb in Hadariyeh, a rebel-held civilian area of Aleppo in Northern Syria. As rescue crews, firefighters, and journalists rushed to the scene, the helicopter hovering overhead dropped a second barrel bomb that killed nine people, including our comrade, friend, people’s journalist, and former UTA editor, Ali Mustafa. Barrel bombs are simply old oil barrels packed with explosives, shrapnel, and sometimes an incendiary device. Pushed out of a low-flying helicopter and detonating on impact, barrel bombs are arbitrary killers – the cruellest armament in an increasingly cruel war. They are cheap, lethal, and extremely effective as a weapon of terror, especially when dropped in residential neighbourhoods; their use against civilians has aptly been deemed a war crime. The initial impact of the barrel bombs dropped in Aleppo that day has reverberated in Toronto and beyond, driving home the inhumanity of Syria’s civil war.

Ali travelled to Syria to document the devastation of an all-too-invisible war that has swallowed the country, tearing apart families and communities. He was driven by a need to tell the stories of ordinary people caught in the middle of the conflict, of activists struggling to maintain the ideals that had originally motivated their rebellion, and of those attempting to organize sustained collective projects amongst widespread suffering and chaos. Although Ali had struggled with frustration and feelings of despair when he returned from Syria (as well as Egypt) in the past, he continued to share – through his photos, interviews, and public talks – the myriad ways Syrians have worked together to resist Assad’s terror regime and build a new and better society. He described the Soviet-like popular assemblies and Paris Commune-styled projects that have sprung up in liberated areas – stories rarely told because so few journalists attempt to enter these parts of the country, and because mainstream media has little interest in the mundanity of collective resistance when compared to the spectacle of total war. Ali is remembered as a photojournalist and a reluctant war correspondent, but he was so much more: a comrade, a radical, and an internationalist to the core.

Syria has become the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist: at least 63 and perhaps as many as 110 journalists have been killed since the civil war began in 2011. Many of those killed are freelancers without the protections, insurance, or logistical support of journalists with corporate media backing. This freelance status liberated Ali to tell the stories he wanted to tell; in so doing, he forged profound bonds with the Syrian people. On February 7, 2014, Ali wrote, “Syrians: the best people I could ever know, the worst fates I could ever imagine.” Such was Ali’s heart – big enough to encompass an entire nation and its people. A few hours later, he posted three more tweets: “I feel sorry for all the idealists, purists, dreamers of the world – those who never bend, but easily break. This world was not made for you. In the end, it will devour you whole. A heart is a terrible thing to break…”

Ali’s roots ran deep in the Toronto left. As an undergrad at York University, he was one of the strongest supporters of the teaching assistant and sessional faculty strike in 2008, and he was involved in a lengthy occupation of the York President’s office. Ali was a co-founder and driving force behind the York University Free Press, a radical campus newspaper; the paper was published through a democratic, non-hierarchical organizing structure that built an anti-oppression analysis into its mandate. A member of Students Against Israeli Apartheid and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, Ali organized countless demonstrations and teach-ins on the Occupation, while also contributing to annual Israeli Apartheid Week activities in Toronto. He travelled to Brazil to learn organizing skills from the Movimento dos Trabalhadoras Rurais Sem Terra (MST), skills he put to use on the Coordinating Committee of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly. Ali participated in – and was arrested during – the massive traffic -stopping demonstrations organized in 2009 by Toronto’s Tamil community in an effort to bring renewed attention to the costs of Sri Lanka’s civil war. And, for a short time, he was a member of Upping the Anti’s editorial committee.

This is what we mean when we say that Ali was a true internationalist – and he did not document struggles abroad as though they stood separate from his life in Toronto. He made the connections between struggles at home and afar real and inescapable. After returning from a trip to Egypt, Ali put together a show of his photographs at Beit Zatoun, a Palestinian cultural centre in Toronto. Although he was completely broke and unable to fund his planned return to Egypt and Syria, Ali gave all of the proceeds from the sale of his photographs to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). He did this without fanfare, and the decision should come as no surprise: Ali’s ability to connect the struggles of Egyptians with the fight against austerity and poverty in Canada was a marker of his consistently principled approach to political work and a good example of his solidarity, which consistently went beyond rhetoric and empty gestures. Whether supporting the peoples’ struggles in Toronto, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, or Brazil, or standing in solidarity with OCAP or local Tamil communities, Ali’s instinct was to struggle alongside the oppressed, no matter the cost to himself.

Ali took no shortcuts; his politics were never knee-jerk or purely ideological. He used to identify as an anarchist, even appearing in a short video explaining anarchism and anarchist politics made by Toronto activist Caitlin Hewitt-White. But a dogged critique of strategy and a persistent curiosity about how we can and do effect change in the world led Ali to leave anarchism behind and join the New Socialist Group. He was thoughtful and studious in his politics, asked hard questions and demanded answers, or at least a suitably rigorous engagement with our lack of solutions. Sometimes his questions frustrated other organizers because they challenged past allegiances, but they were examples of his persistent search for a political approach that felt true to him. Ali was not afraid to change his mind or lay bare evolutions in his thinking, qualities poignantly reflected in his work in and about Syria. Initially only sympathetic towards the revolution, upon his visit to Syria he became a full-fledged partisan while remaining openly cognizant of the complexities and contradictions of the Syrian conflict. Ali grew as a journalist during his time in Syria, and his photography began reaching new audiences through major outlets such as the Guardian and the New York Times; but as was his way at home in Toronto, Ali needed to do the work of struggle, not just report on it.

The end of Ali’s life incites cause for reflection not only among his friends and comrades, but for the radical Left as a whole. In recent years, much debate has arisen about the meanings of community and the politics of care; some question whether community can even be said to exist at all amongst and within our dispersed political networks. It’s less debatable that this phase of capitalism – globalized, mechanized, and all-encompassing – is crushingly destructive to our bodies, our minds, and our relationships. So too is our seemingly fruitless struggle to cohere constituent movements. Our ability to care for each other and create communities of nurturing social reproduction seems to be at an all-time low.
Ali resisted the impulse to give in to the cruelty, cynicism, and anger that too often seep into our daily lives. The young man who gave his life doing search and rescue in Aleppo also made time to consciously enact an ethic of care that is often sorely absent in radical circles. Ali did childcare so that others could attend meetings; he welcomed newcomers and outsiders into our movements; he was patient with people who, through ignorance, laziness, or honest confusion did not understand his politics;  and he developed genuine relationships with people and communities far outside his own immediate experience. He did the heavy lifting, probably more than any of us realized. Ali lived his politics. They live on, and so does he.

In hindsight, it is striking to realize that the impacts Ali had on those around him were probably unknown to him, that the dysfunction of the radical Left meant the powerful elements of Ali’s politics went almost entirely unspoken. Ali should have been told that his life mattered, that what he did and the way he did it were important to our struggles. In fact, we all need to be told this – to tell this to each other. This is how we build community, this is how we build lasting movements: networks of resistance based on our relationships with one another, day after day, year after year. Quotidian, but radical.

Ali taught us so many things, but one of those things, the quietest thing, is this: when the struggle for a better world seems long and arduous, we need to tell each other, loudly and often, of the ways in which we impact each other, to speak our interdependence and our love.


In the Bowl of This World

In the bowl of this world
look at the rose of our passion my friend

even if we don’t eat together
even if we don’t sit together
we can at least dream together my friend

even if we don’t drink together
even if we are strangers
at least look at the color of our wine my friend

the sun is setting on the lanes
the river is almost at my door
at least look at our restless hearts my friend

- Rifat Abbas, Translated from the Siraiki by Nukhbah Khan and The Poetry Translation Centre