Yassin al-Haj Saleh (born 1961) is a Syrian writer, intellectual and former political prisoner. In 1980 and while studying medicine in Aleppo University, the 19-year-old Yassin was arrested by Hafez al-Assad regime because of his membership in the Syrian Communist Party-Political Bureau. He remained in prison for 16 years and 14 days (7/12/1980–21/12/1996). In 1994, the State Security Court, without witnesses or defence, sentenced him to 15-year imprisonment. When his time was up, the security forces asked for his cooperation as a condition of release. He refused and was sent for an additional year to the notorious Tadmur prison. He returned to medical school upon his release, graduated in 2000, but never practiced medicine, instead he turned to writing and is now one of Syria’s leading and most vocal writers.
Since 2000, Yassin al-Haj Saleh has been writing on political, social and cultural subjects relating to Syria and the Arab world for several Arab newspapers and journals outside Syria. He regularly contributes to Al-Hayat and Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspapers and the Syrian online periodical al-Jumhuriya. In addition, he has authored and edited five books about Syria. Together with a group of Syrians and Turks he established “Hamisch”, a Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul.
In 2012, Yassin al-Haj Saleh was awarded the Prince Claus Award, a prize supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs that recognizes intellectuals who make an impact on their societies. He was unable to collect the award, as he was living in hiding in Damascus.
A word from yassinhs.com
In an interview with the Reason magazine in 2005, Yassin al-Haj Saleh says:
My first 18 months of incarceration, which followed a week of investigation and a day of torture, were difficult. I do not like that period. It was a time of pure imprisonment, by which I mean there were no tools that could help one to tame the monsters of prison. Later, we were allowed books and dictionaries. For thirteen-and-a-half years we had books. I learned English on my own there. Books saved me physically and mentally. If it were not for the books, I would have most certainly have been crushed. Now I live on what I learned in prison.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh is one of Syria’s most important intellectuals and political dissidents; during the Syrian uprising, Yassin al-Haj Saleh emerged as the ‘conscience of the revolution’. Being a former political prisoner of Assad himself, his brother, Feras al-Haj Saleh, still detained by ISIS, and his wife, Samira Khalil, still held a captive by Islamist factions in Douma, Yassin al-Haj Saleh has personally endured all faces of tyranny and fascism existing in the Syrian context and is yet resolute in his struggle to uphold and defend the original values of the Syrian uprising. His views are very influential among a wide sector of Syrian youth because his rational analysis and moral compass were never affected despite all the extraordinary circumstances he went through.
During the Syrian revolution, Yassin al-Haj Saleh spent almost two years and a half hiding in Damascus where he was writing on the unfolding uprising until he felt that his residence in Damascus no longer provided him access to the actual scene. Thus he decided to move to Syria’s ‘liberated areas’; in early April 2013, he moved to Douma City in Eastern Ghouta, where he was writing on-ground analyses and articles. He spent two months in Douma before he headed towards Raqqa, his hometown, in a 19-day perilous journey. On his way there, Yassin was informed that his brother, Feras al-Haj Saleh, was kidnapped by ISIS and that it was extremely dangerous for him to even walk in his hometown’s streets. After spending two months in hiding in Raqqa, he moved to Turkey. In Istanbul, Yassin co-founded Hamisch, “an independent space-in-exile for critical debate, exchange and communication of ideas, and experiences and practices in the field of culture”.
With his deep analyses of the Syrian society and politics, and his personal experience, Yassin al-Haj Saleh is an asset to understand the Syrian struggle, but more importantly an example of independent intellectuals and activists who uphold the universal values of the Syrian struggle, justice and freedom.