Friday, November 24, 2006

Updike's Terrorist

John Updike, upon whom I would bestow grand titles such as, possibly, Greatest Living Writer in English (now that Bellow is dead), has written a topical novel called ‘Terrorist.’ The terrorist of the title is eighteen-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Molloy, the confused and bitter American son of an Irish-American mother and absent Egyptian father.

Ahmad starts the novel as a schoolboy, and then is guided by a malign imam to give up his studies to become a truck driver (ignoring the more wholesome advice of guidance counsellor Jack Levy, a worldly, unbelieving Jew). Before long Ahmad drives his truck into a terrorist plot.

Updike, in his usual present tense, observes acutely and describes intensely. His beautifully rhythmed prose balances psychological analysis and social comment, the internal and the external. His digressions are eloquent and well-placed. Updike criticises in passing the black and white solutions of fundamentalist Christianity and the Black Muslims as well as al-Qa’ida style Islam, and diagnoses as the cause of these fundamentalisms the loss of direction and hollowness of a hedonist, consumerist society. Although Updike doesn’t speak directly. We find his position in the midpoint between his ironising distance from and sympathy for the perspectives of the characters through whom the narrative is focalised. His easy shifts between these perspectives is done professionally. There is a professional’s handling of detail too. For instance, Ahmad feels his beloved Excellency truck is a part of him, and responds badly to the ugly truck he will drive on the day of the ‘operation.’ It looks, like him, dispensable.

But there are flaws. In the second, more plot-driven half of the book the characters have a tendency to collapse into mouth pieces for set opinions. An example is when Ahmad’s unreligious, unintellectual mother pontificates (forgive the pun) about Vatican 2.

Everything falls a little too easily into place. As the novel (and Ahmad’s truck) rushes towards its climax, Hollywood gets a look-in. The book is transformed from psychological and political commentary to thriller, and I’m not sure the transformation works.

For one thing, there is an accumulation of false notes. For his last breakfast the Imam of Ahmad’s mosque, Shaikh Rashid, leaves him a special bread made by Shiites for the mourning day of ashura. A militant Sunni jihadist like Shaikh Rashid would want nothing to do with Shia ‘superstition’ and ‘innovation.’ And another bin Ladenist (the technician) would never have approved of Qaddaffi, even before he changed his tune, or Arafat. These faults reveal a strange laziness in a novel which is otherwise so well researched (the Arabic and Quranic references, though limited by the fundamentalism of the characters, are generally accurate). I suppose Updike assumed that his American audience wouldn’t notice, and this is a shame (on two levels).

More disturbing is the novel’s reliance on sub-Hollywood stereotypes. Ahmad is born and bred in New Jersey, but he’s still an easy target for grooming by sinister Arabs. The exploitation of an innocent has no realist value for understanding anti-US terrorism. The September 11th hijackers were all educated men with their own opinions. In Iraq and Afghanistan gullible youngsters may be convinced by older men to sacrifice themselves, but the imams there wouldn’t be quoting Shakespeare. And I find it hard to believe that a Shakespeare-quoting imam would make such harsh interpretations of the Quran as Shaikh Rashid does.

In “Terrorist” there are a couple of token ‘good’ American Muslims - a CIA operative and a man who thinks Guantanamo Bay and the invasion of Iraq are just wonderful. There are also glimpsed ghetto Muslims, the unlucky inheritors of Islamic culture. Otherwise, it’s the cabal: dark of aspect, in dirty gellabiyas, scheming, sneering. There is no sense that in the range of Muslim (and specifically, Arab American) opinion there are intermediate positions between flag-waving pro-Americanism and explosive puritanical fury.

Ahmad’s racism (he uses the archaic Arabic term zanj to refer to blacks) is not entirely convincing. Neither is his formal eloquence. More fundamentally, his terrorist motivations are supect. A suicide bomber, however much religious vocabulary he may employ, is driven by political anger. The September 11th bombers (I mention them again because the novel is clearly written in the shadow of that day) were Saudis, Lebanese and Egyptians. Despite being comfortably well-off, they had direct experience of Middle Eastern (US-backed) tyranny, and were neighbours to war and occupation. But Ahmad rarely reads the newspaper. So terrorism is to be understood only as a symptom of a religion obsessed with cleansing the unclean and purifying the impure. It’s a pathology of the Arab Muslims, not something arising from societal failures and the horrors of imperialism. In this respect Updike does no better in helping Americans to think about where their empire has led them than does Fox news.

It’s a tribute to Updike that all this doesn’t manage to ruin the book for me. It would have been better if it had avoided the thriller genre, but even so it reminds me of the best philosophical thriller writing, of Graham Greene if not Dostoyevsky. And the final five pages go some way to redeeming the failings. Ahmad’s change of heart comes as he remembers a few of the names of God: “The Beneficent, the Merciful, the Living, the Patient, the Generous, the Perfect, the Light, the Guide. He does not want us to desecrate His creation by willing death. He wills life.”

But there isn’t a happy ending. Even without blood and thunder, the world around Ahmad, in the novel’s last paragraph, is a purposeless hell of consumption and struggle. I felt this wasn’t only Ahmad’s point of view. Something is rotten, that much is apparent, that much is the near-consensus which still doesn’t quite declare itself.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Gemayel Assassinated

Now here’s a tricky one. When Rafiq Hariri, the erstwhile ally of Syria but latterly a quiet but effective opponent, was assassinated by a huge car bombing in central Beirut on Valentine’s Day 2005, I was convinced that Syria was not the guilty party. I knew the regime could be brutal and stupid, but I didn’t think it could be quite that stupid. As expected, the assassination of Lebanon’s best-connected multimillionaire (and the man who, as prime minister, had rebuilt Beirut after the civil war and 1982 Israeli invasion) led to massive anti-Syrian protests in Beirut and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

There were also massive pro-Syrian demonstrations, called by Hizbullah, which were not covered in nearly as much loving detail by the Western media. But in any case, it was a good thing that Syria pulled out. Although the Syrian presence had been one of the factors preventing an Israeli-Phalangist takeover of Lebanon, and although Syria had contributed to ending the civil war and reconciling Lebanon's warring factions, its clumsy militarism, corruption and police state interference naturally alienated many Lebanese, probably the majority. What was so damaging to both Syria and Lebanon was not that the withdrawal happened but that it happened like this, like a particularly bad-tempered divorce.

If the assassination of Hariri was ordered by Syria, the regime had scored a historic own goal. But I was gradually persuaded that this is just what happened. The inexperience of the president, gangster-style jockeying for influence and money within the regime, sectarian tensions between regime Alawis and Sunnis, underestimation of the Lebanese Sunni response: all of these seem to have contributed to the decision to kill Hariri.

I'm still, of course, not sure. America and Israel were the big winners from the realignement following Hariri's death, and a network of Israeli-sponsored agents was recently uncovered in Lebanon. But, most probably, I was wrong when I presumed Syrian innocence.

So it's with a certain lack of confidence that I make the following claim: Syria just could not have been so stupid as to assassinate Pierre Gemayel this afternoon, not now, not again. The failure of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians to build a functioning democracy, and Israel's failed war against Lebanon this summer, had given the advantage back to Syria's Lebanese allies. An alliance of Hizbullah, Amal, and the popular Christian General Michel Aoun is about to start a peaceful protest movement to change the unpopular pro-Western government. Everything has been going Syria's way. If Lebanon shapes up as a Syrian ally, but independent of Syrian interference, and also stable and at peace with itself, this would be the best outcome for both countries. It would also complete the total failure of Israeli-American plans for Lebanon. But the Gemayel assassination, at a time when sectarian tensions are already high, threatens civil war. This was the thinly disguised aim of Israel's (and America's) war this summer. So I'm pointing the finger at them. But as I've said, I may be wrong.

Friday, November 17, 2006

To a Christian Zionist

I have recently been discussing Middle East issues with an American colleague who I would describe as a Christian Zionist. Although I like him personally I find some of his ideas (on Palestinian history, and Lebanon, and the wider Middle East) pretty offensive, and I have told him so. So as not to start an argument, I told him so in writing. He replied, saying that although he disapproves of collective punishment of the Palestinians he believes that the Bible clearly states that the Holy Land belongs to the Jews, and that the rebuilding of Israel prophesied in the Old Testament has happened since 1948. Hmm. My first response is anger. I understand Jews with memories of European anti-Semitism being attracted to Zionism, however wrong I think they are, but Americans? People who are not oppressed, who think Palestine is a Cecil B Demille set, who think real human beings (Arabs) are less important than their own narrow interpretations of scripture. It makes my blood boil. But I think responding intelligently to this kind of thing is important, because there are millions of Americans (with power) who see the Middle East through a Biblical prism. Anyway, here is my latest letter:


When I first read your letter I thought, this is Christian fundamentalism. There's nothing to be done when your opponent has a fixed idea of a religious text. What's the point? Letting it brew in my mind for a few hours, however, I find I have arrived at what may be a glimmer of light, a point on which we may be in some kind of partial agreement. (I'll get to that at the end.) And that's the benefit of communicating by letter: it allows for emotional reactions to subside into something more constructive.

I must say I take some exception to your comment about my limited Biblical knowledge. I have read the Bible and have read about the different interpretive traditions in Christianity. Of course I am aware of the scriptures which say God promised the land to the tribes (the Quran tells the same story), and I know about the prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel who foretold the doom and then re-establishment of Israel. However, to go from here to the political belief that we should support a 20th century ethnic cleansing and the establishment of a state in the 20th century definition of the term is an interpretation, and not 'the Bible.' I think it is important to recognise this, even if you believe the interpretation is the right one. It seems to me that the followers of all religions fall into trouble, even into immorality, when they can't distinguish between the word of God and their own interpretations. I know that the pro-Zionist interpretation is prevalent in the United States, but I continue to assure you that it is not nearly so prevalent in Europe. Many European interpretations of Old Testament prophecy have been symbolic, understanding the reestablishment of Israel to mean the establishment of the Kingdom of God with the coming of Christ. Of course, the Palestinian and Syrian Christians I have spoken to about this are horrified and deeply confused by American Christian support for Zionism. Still more to the point if we are discussing Biblical texts, the preaching of Christ according to the New Testament does not seem in any way to support exclusive nationalism or violence. I can't imagine the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount manning a checkpoint, firing artillery at residential areas or firing missiles from warplanes.

I feel a little dishonest discussing scripture with you because I do not believe the Bible is the literal word of God as you do, although I can accept that it may well be divinely inspired, in part at least. Modern textual analysis of Biblical texts as well as archeology have shown that not all the events in the Bible are literally true. I expect that for you faith will trump science in this case, and I respect that. I should stress here that, in my opinion, a lack of literal truth does not equate a lack of truth full stop. I believe that reading ancient religious texts (Islamic as well as Jewish) in search of literal historical truth misses the point somewhat, and says more about our contemporary preoccupations than it does about the texts themselves. The people (or God) composing the texts sought not to give a scientifically verifiable account of the world and history but to warn and to inspire, to teach lessons. Anyway, what I am saying here is that even if you are able to prove that the Old Testament calls specifically for the establishment of a Jewish ethno-state with all the 20th century machinery of state (and I don't believe you can), I still would not support Zionism. Likewise, even if a Wahhabi is able to prove that the only possible interpretation of certain Quranic verses is that all societies at all times should stone adulterers to death (and I don't believe he can), I still would not support stoning adulterers. I work on this principle: as soon as my interpretation of a text makes me do something immoral, that will unjustly and counter-productively hurt others, I know that I have gone wrong somewhere. Before God gave me religious texts to struggle with, he gave me reason, conscience and compassion. It is not possible that God could be less moral and compassionate than me.

To reemphasise (and I know I'm being much too longwinded about this): I think this is a universal problem. Muslims very often squash their own conscience in order to believe, say or do things which they have been brought up to believe are Islamic. Christians do unchristian things in the name of Christ, and Jews do unjewish things in the name of Judaism. It goes beyond religious communities. Socialists hurt society in the name of society. Democrats do undemocratic things in the name of democracy. Atheists hold unreasonable positions in the name of reason.

I also disagree with your statement that Biblical narratives of return to the Promised Land are the foundation of Israeli culture and beliefs. Of course, the Torah is one crucial element of Jewish and Israeli identity, along with the Talmud, modern nationalism, and secular European culture. The first Zionists were European secularists and, in many cases, atheists. Their motivations were nationalist and defensive, and not Biblical. Herzl was a secular Jew who was prepared to establish a state in Uganda or Argentina if Palestine was too politically difficult. Many Western European Jews before the 30s were socialists and internationalists. The European Jewish bourgeoisie produced Marx and Freud. As for Orthodox Jewry, they believed that the return to Israel would not happen until the coming of the Messiah. Some of them understood the return to be symbolic of a spiritual state, some understood it literally, but all thought it would not and should not happen until the Messiah came. They considered Zionism to be blasphemous. A minority of Orthodox Jews, including the Naturai Karta people, still hold to this position. It was the rise of Fascism which changed the minds of most Jews. Anti-semitism, not religion, made Zionism attractive to the Jews.

I'm glad that you don't approve of collective punishment or of the Sabra and Chatila camp massacres in 1982. Sharon also holds responsibility for the blood of 29,500 Lebanese and Palestinians who were killed in the summer of 1982, 40% of them children. In 1953 Sharon helped direct the massacre of 69 civilians in the Palestinian village of Qibya. In 1956 he played a role in the massacre of 270 Egyptian prisoners of war. This mentions only Sharon, and only some of his crimes. Some of these crimes could have been avoided, but it was inevitable that crimes would have to be carried out on a large scale for a state with a Jewish majority to be established in Palestine.

Now here is the point on which, possibly, we will find some slight grounds for agreement. I said in one of our discussions that I don't have a problem with diaspora Jews coming to live in Palestine per se. I have a problem when they seek to drive out and oppress the original inhabitants of the land (who have been there since Canaanite times). In fact, relations between the Palestinians and Jewish immigrants were generally good until the Palestinians realised that Zionist plans were being made to dispossess them. Interestingly, it was the more secular Jewish immigrants who often came in with racist attitudes to the Arabs, rather than the religious, who came with a spiritual love of the land which the Palestinians could understand. (Both Martin Buber and Ahad Ha-Aam have written about their more spiritual, less military and statist approaches to Zionism). Now, I understand that one reason why Christian Zionists support the establishment of the Jewish state is that they believe Jewish return is a prerequisite for the return of Christ. Christ the prophet of love and compassion. Well, about a third of the Jews have settled in Palestine (along with quite a few Russian Christians to make up numbers), but there is no sign of Christ yet, and no sign whatsoever of love and compassion guiding Israeli ideology and behaviour. If the Israelis could find a way of recognising that the birth of their state caused tremendous suffering for the Palestinians, and if they could find a 'Christian' way of living in peace with them, without (inevitably temporary) apartheid or military solutions, then the Israelis could indeed be a light unto the nations, and the rule of Christ on earth would be a lot closer.

With best wishes

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Another Massacre

News is coming in that Israeli shells have killed 19 Palestinian civilians, most of them children, as they slept this morning, Wednesday 8th November. This follows a week-long attack on the Gaza town of Beit Hanun in which 60 Palestinians were killed. Many of those were civilians too, but most were young men carrying guns. I must say that I don’t consider young men fighting to liberate their land as equal to occupation troops, who seem to me to be fair military targets. All Beit Hanun men aged between 16 and 45 have been rounded up and taken off to join the Israeli gulag. There are already nearly 10,000 Palestinian prisoners (or hostages – that’s what the Western media would call them if they were Israelis) in Israeli jails.

This week a 700-year-old mosque was destroyed in Beit Hanun. Destruction of Palestinian heritage, of the environment, of sewage and irrigation systems, and of residential buildings, continues unabated. None of this is new to Gaza. Most of the population are refugees from the lands stolen in 1948, from the villages of central Palestine that were ethnically cleansed and bulldozed then. The Gazan refugee camps have witnessed sporadic massacres ever since.

More have been killed in the past week than in the London tube bombings. Gaza is now worse than any pre-Nazi Jewish ghetto in Europe, and perhaps as bad as a Nazi-era ghetto. It's closed from the land and sea – when fishermen try to fish they are shot at by Israeli boats. There are continual sonic booms from the air, which smash windows and traumatise children. The power is still intermittent at best – the only power station was bombed a few months ago. Even without major incursions, the average number of Gazans murdered by Israel since the summer has been eight a day. I don't notice expressions of horror from the 'international community.' I don't notice Bush or Blair frothing about 'civilisation' and 'barbarism.' In fact the ‘international community’ – meaning the US and the EU and the client Arab regimes – is directly participating in the throttling of Gaza by imposing extreme sanctions on the already impoverished Palestinian territories because the Palestinians voted for a resistance government. Most of the weaponry used to murder in Gaza is American built and supplied. Bush describes Israeli killing sprees as 'self-defence.' After all, one Israeli soldier was killed this week, and the crap Qassam rockets have killed 8 people over the last six years.

Is anybody still surprised when Arabs and Muslims scorn official Western bleatings about law for the farce that they are? Is anybody surprised that many Muslims believe this kind of violence must be met by violence?

There is plenty that needs to be negotiated between Israelis and Arabs, such as the future of the millions of refugees who live in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and how European Jews can be integrated peacefully into the region while keeping their cultural and religious rights intact. Whether there will be a Palestinian state or a unitary state, and what kind of unitary state, needs to be negotiated. But on the brute fact of the brutal occupation, there is nothing to negotiate. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is every bit as unlawful and criminal as Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. If this occupation was imposed on Western Europeans or Americans for even a day there would be an outcry. There must be (but won’t be) an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces, and an immediate end to the siege.

The slogan says, No Justice No Peace. This is not a threat but a statement of what is obvious and inevitable. Oppression breeds hatred, and reaction. Of course, the people in charge, in every country, are far more interested in in conquest and wealth than in peace and justice. There has to be change from below. Real change. Swapping Democrat for Republican imperialists won’t make any difference.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

What's Wrong With Travel Writing

I’ve recently read “Cleopatra’s Wedding Present” by Robert Tewdwr Moss, a well-written account of travels through Syria in the late 1990s. Moss is an evocative and sensuous writer. His sense of place and time is highly accurate: I immediately recognised the streets he described, and wanted to tell him how things have changed. (But it’s impossible to tell Moss anything now. He was stabbed to death by a rent boy in London shortly after finishing this book).

The strength of characterisation – of Syrians and foreign tourists – in the book suggests that Moss would have made a great satirical novelist. There are also strong set pieces on some of the archeological highlights of Syria, such as Queen Zenobia’s desert city of Palmyra, Saladin’s castle in the green Lattakian mountains, and the ‘dead cities’ around Aleppo – Byzantine settlements which were suddenly and mysteriously vacated, leaving mosaics, churches and olive presses for archeologists to puzzle over.

Moss is particularly good on death and decay. Whether he is describing a crumbling old city hara or a Mesopotamian tell with its layers upon layers of ancient habitation, he captures the weight of history that can be felt as a burden in Syria. (The Prince’s long monologue on the endlessly colonised dry landscape of Sicily in di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” does it even better). And the particular series of deaths that Moss most illuminates are of those killed in the Armenian holocaust, when Turkish authorities force-marched civilians into the Syrian desert, where they starved and shot at them until there were a million corpses to stuff down wells or into caves.

He is good with atmospherics in general. There is a sustained expressionism in which, for example, an old printing press bucking and screeching like a chained animal in the room beneath his hotel bed becomes emblematic of the fettered Syrian spirit in thrall to dictatorship, the secret police, and the forces of history. The fact that Moss was gay throws stranger light onto this mood. He relates cruising anecdotes that will be as eye-opening to many Syrians as to foreign readers. Moss tends to meet misfits, not only because of his sexuality. A fellow Englishman, also gay, tells Moss that he feels he belongs in Syria because it is a land of misfits, a land of victims, a land of the weak. Moss seems to agree, but by the end of the book these are the reasons that make him want to get out of Syria and not return.

Anyone closely connected to Syria will find this difficult reading. Moss’s dark vision of the country’s political tyranny and its numberless private tragedies is accurate enough, but it shows only one aspect of Syrian life. Moss misses the genuine national pride of Syrians away from the inanities of official discourse, and Syrian intellectual vigour, and the irrepressible Syrian sense of humour. (When he is told a joke about the president on a bus into Syria, Moss notes that the joker quickly grows serious as the bus arrives in Damascus, and that this is absolutely the only president joke he has heard. In fact, there are hundreds of jokes about the president and the regime. Joking about the dire political situation is a Syrian speciality). Moss talks about the Turkish massacre of Armenians but doesn’t dwell on the Syrian hospitality which allows for the presence of a million Armenians and half a million Palestinian refugees. (A million Iraqis have arrived since Cleopatra’s Wedding Present was written). He is wrong when he suggests that the Armenians don’t have their own schools (they do) and that most Armenians converted to Islam (they didn’t). He makes the incomprehensible statement that Syrian food is boring (granted restaurant food in poor villages isn’t exciting, but city restaurants and homes provide a wonderful variety), and generally fails to recognise the Syrian love of the good life.

What else? Not all Syrian hospitals are as dirty and badly organised as he claims. For a third world dictatorship, Syria has remarkably good medical care and some top flight doctors. The private hospitals are in much better shape than the state hospitals, but that’s the case in Britain too. And…Arabs don’t swig unhygenically from shared botttles. They pour from bottle into opened mouth without touching the bottle with their lips. And…Muslim men have a taboo about wearing gold, but not about working with it. The fact that most of the gold merchants in Aleppo are Christians doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of Muslim gold workers in Syria too.

Now I’m working up a heat. Moss consistently refers to his Palestinian lover as an ex-terrorist, because he had been an anti-Israeli fighter in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion. Sleeping with a ‘terrorist’ may have given Moss a frisson of subversion, and certainly feeds the stereotype that any Arab with a gun is a terrorist, but you have to twist definitions very far to describe fighting an invading army (which was beseiging refugee camps and organising massacres of civilians at the time) as terrorism. Moss also follows the neo-cons’ favourite orientalist Bernard Lewis in connecting contemporary Syrian ‘terrorism’ with the medieval terrorism of the Ismaili ‘Assassin’ group. Suddenly history – and context, motivation, politics – loses its weight and becomes very light indeed.

Finally, I can assure you that Moss is wrong when he tells us that sex amongst Arabs is always a heartless transaction. That must have been his experience, and that’s a great shame I’m sure, but I wish he wouldn’t generalise to include all sexual encounters between all 300 million of us.

Moss pretends to speak Arabic, but whenever he includes an Arabic word it is unrecognisable. This is the problem. He’s in a country which he can’t understand, surrounded by people speaking, as far as he’s concerned, gobbledygook. Sadly, most people who read his book will have read none other about Syria. They’ll have learnt what they ‘know’ about the country from CNN or some equally blind source, and so may take Moss’s assertions as the only truth. And that’s problematic for Syrians for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that Western audiences hold a degree of power over Syria. Put simply, they decide through their assumptions whether to allow their leaders to bomb or sanction Syria.

I thought of an equivalent travel book about Britain for British people to read, and realised that there isn’t an equivalent. There are books about Britain written by foreigners who speak English as a first language and who share most of Britain’s cultural assumptions. But what the travel writing market needs – and what I would most definitely commission if I were a publisher – is accounts of Britain written by people entirely wrapped up in the perspectives of their African or Asian villages, people who would find ordering a meal in English a challenge.

These comments don’t invalidate Cleopatra’s Wedding Present. It’s still a great read which gives a sharp if one-sided picture of Syria. My top two travel books for the Middle East are Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, for which Thesiger lived and travelled and starved with Beduin of the Empty Quarter, and The Marsh Arabs, about the tribes of Southern Iraq. Both books read as a lament for the days before state machineries, oil and superpower machinations wrecked the region. Thesiger spoke very good Arabic. He never ‘goes native’ and is never sentimental. At the same time, his obvious sympathy and respect for the ancient ways of life he discovers is the motor of his writing.

I’ll add to the list From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple, which traces the steps of a Byzantine monk from Mount Athos through what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, focusing on contemporary Christian Communities in those countries.