Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I haven't used this blog for activism before, and I may not again. But for now, there is information below on how to demonstrate, donate, and write letters. The Zionist propaganda machine has won as usual in the West: Hamas are portrayed as the aggressors; western governments justify the slaughter; nobody talks about the root of the problem: Zionist apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Can you do anything except work up to a heart attack? See below. Please send this information on to others.

This site has information on demonstrations: http://www.palestinecampaign.org/index2b.asp

and on boycotting Israeli goods: http://www.palestinecampaign.org/Index7b.asp?m_id=1&l1_id=4&l2_id=24&Content_ID=192

These demos will happen in LONDON:

Tuesday 30 December, 2 - 4pm outside Israeli Embassy, Kensington High Street, London, W4. Nearest tube Kensingston High Street (turn right out of tube station and walk along the main road.

Wednesday 31 December, 2 - 4pm outside Israeli Embassy

Thursday 1 January 2 - 4pm outside Israeli EmbassyFriday

2 January 2 - 4 pm. Outside the Egyptian Embassy, . 26 South Street, London, W1K 1DW. Call for Egypt to open the border immediately.

SATURDAY 3 JANUARY. DEMONSTRATION AND RALLY. Assemble 2pm Parliament Square, W1. Nearest tube Westminster.

If you would like to donate money, Interpal is a good charity. You can sponsor an orphan or a family in Palestine: http://www.interpal.info/ Medical Aid for Palestine is also good: http://www.map-uk.org/

I expect letters have only a small effect, but they only take two minutes to do. At least give those in charge the sense that somebody cares. Here are addresses, below. There’s also an open letter from Jews for Justice for Palestine which you could email to the PM, foreign secretary, your MP, etc, with a line saying that you endorse it. It may be important to point out that Hamas did not break the ceasefire; Israel did, by beseiging and staging incursions into Gaza, and that all talk of ceasefires is anyway a diversion. We should be talking about liberating Palestine, either according to the one state or two state solution.

If you are in the UK, you can find your MP's details on this site: http://www.writetothem.com/ Just enter your postcode.

If you are in Europe write to your MEP http://www.europarl.europa.eu/members.do

If you are in the UK you can Write to:

(a) the Labour Party using this online form:http://www.labour.org.uk/contact

(b) the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron camerond@parliament.uk (You could mention you are appalled that he has been on the BBC calling for restraint on all sides when nearly 300 Palestinians have been killed.)

British Consulate Jerusalem+972 (02) 541 410010. British Embassy Tel Aviv+972 (02) 3510 1167 / +972 (03) 527 1572 Call them.

Fax the office of the UK Prime Minister - Gordon Brown -on +44 20 7925 0918

The Jews for Justice for Palestinians letter, which you can use:

Dear Prime Minister

At the time of writing, almost 300 Gazans are dead, hundreds more wounded. The air strikes appear to be aimed indiscriminately at both civilian and military targets. Israel is using its extensive military power to wreak carnage on innocent civilians. This is a condemnable act of mindless violence, and we call upon you and the international community to intervene immediately.

Claiming that this is an action to stop rocket fire is a wholly unpersuasive argument. The six-month ceasefire has been squandered by Israel . The populations of Sderot, Ashkelon and southern Israel have been left unprotected by their own government, which has failed to either build shelters or make a more lasting agreement. The Israeli government is exploiting the understandable fear of their own citizens as an excuse for today’s strikes.The Israeli government steadily sought to break down the ceasefire, not just in Gaza since early November, but also in the West Bank . Israeli forces have carried out an average of 33 incursions, 42 arrests or detentions, 12 woundings and 0.84 killings a week in the West Bank during the ceasefire. The tactic has been to continue attacking Hamas and other militants in the West Bank, provoking responses in Gaza , and to use the responses as the pretext for the massive attacks of the last 24 hours.

On 23rd December Hamas offered to renew the ceasefire if Israel would undertake to open border crossings for supplies of aid and fuel, and halt incursions. For those of us appalled at the collective punishment involved in the ongoing siege, and concerned that Israelis should not fear death or injury from Qassam rockets, that seems a truly reasonable response. For Israel to reject it bespeaks a bankrupt body politic especially since the army and the politicians are acting against the wishes of the Israeli public. It is after all the civilians on both sides who will bear the brunt of this dangerous folly.You regard yourself as a strong friend of Israel . When a friend crosses acceptable lines of behaviour as Israel has again done, one has a responsibility to intervene.

Yours sincerely

Sylvia Cohen, International Liaison
Diana Neslen, Campaigns Co-ordinatorfor Jews for Justice for Palestinians

Shift the framing of Israel's actions in the media by phoning into a talk show or writing a letter to the editor.

Sign the petition in support of UN General Assembly President Father Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/IJAN_Brockmann_BDS/ He has spoken out to condemn Israeli Apartheid and called for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Palestinians - It's time to build a new PLO, as elected as possible, to represent both Islamist and secular Palestinians in the lands stolen in 48, the lands stolen in 67, and outside. The PA should be abolished; and the Oslo/Road Map farce officially abandoned. Then Palestinians have to decide what their aims and strategies will be. All Palestinians should agitate for the new organisation.

And the Arabs: it’s easy for me to talk big from my workstation in the UK, but it’s a fact that nothing is going to improve for the Palestinians until the more disgusting client regimes are shaken. If there were a regime like Syria’s in Egypt (surely not much to ask) Hamas would have support, as Hizbullah did. What has Mubarak’s gangster-capitalism client state done for anyone, in terms of economy, public health and education, culture, rights, or anything else?

Everybody, it is important to speak truth. Hadeeth: A true jihad is a word of truth spoken to an unjust leader. Here is what the writer and critic John Berger has to say:

"We are now spectators of the latest - and perhaps penultimate - chapter of the 60 year old conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. About the complexities of this tragic conflict billions of words have been pronounced, defending one side or the other.

Today, in face of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, the essential calculation, which was always covertly there, behind this conflict, has been blatantly revealed. The death of one Israeli victim justifies the killing of a hundred Palestinians. One Israeli life is worth a hundred Palestinian lives.

This is what the Israeli State and the world media more or less - with marginal questioning - mindlessly repeat. And this claim, which has accompanied and justified the longest Occupation of foreign territories in 20th C. European history, is viscerally racist. That the Jewish people should accept this, that the world should concur, that the Palestinians should submit to it - is one of history's ironic jokes. There's no laughter anywhere. We can, however, refute it, more and more vocally.

Let's do so."

John Berger
27 December 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008


This morning’s assault on Gaza and the massacre of 205 Palestinians (so far) was easy to foresee. First came the official lapse of the six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Then an Israeli incursion, and the Gazan response: firing dozens of home-made Qassam missiles at southern Israel. A little bit of damage was done to property as a result. Meanwhile, Hamas leaders said they’d be pleased to work out a renewed ceasefire deal. According to Haaretz, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin understood this clearly enough: “Make no mistake, Hamas is interested in continuing the truce, but wants to improve its terms. It wants us to lift the siege, stop (IDF) attacks, and extend the truce to include Judea and Samaria (the West Bank),” he said.

Extending the truce, and letting the Gazans live, seem not to be on Israel’s agenda. It’s election time, and the mood for stamping out resistance has taken Israel in its arms.

In other circumstances it might seem strange that a population on the Mediterranean coast is being besieged and starved without a murmur from the rest of the world. But this is Gaza, Palestine, and the victims suffer alone. Reports say Mubarak had given his assent to a ‘limited blow’ before today’s blood; he’s been keeping the Egyptian border with Gaza sealed, keeping the ugly oppressed in their cage very effectively since they briefly broke out last January. Tony Blair – who should be in prison but is instead poncing about in Ramallah and Jerusalem ­– has been winking to Israeli journalists about necessary change in Gaza. No response to today’s crime is likely in Lebanon, or Jordan, or Egypt. The peoples of Europe and America are, by and large, silent.

This, in the land of Crusades, is a medieval siege. Gaza is walled in. Nothing passes in or out. More than fifty percent of the population are officially unemployed. The banks have closed. The strip’s only power station has shut down. The people are starved quite literally: most bakeries have closed for lack of heating oil. A Red Cross report describes “progressive deterioration in food security for up to 70 per cent of Gaza’s population.” It goes on: “Chronic malnutrition is on a steadily rising trend and micronutrient deficiencies are of great concern.” Which means, amongst other things, that this generation of children in Gaza are not receiving the nutrients they need for healthy brain development.

I quote from the Independent: “The report paints a bleak picture of an increasingly impoverished and indebted lower-income population. People are selling assets, slashing the quality and quantity of meals, cutting back on clothing and children’s education, scavenging for discarded materials – and even grass for animal fodder – that they can sell, and are depending on dwindling loans and handouts from slightly better-off relatives. In the urban sector, in which about 106,000 employees lost their jobs after the June 2007 shutdown, about 40 per cent are now classified as “very poor,” earning less than 500 shekels (£87) a month to provide for an average household of seven to nine people.

This is a deliberate, cruelly organised crime. And nobody notices.

This morning, with children in school, people on the streets and in offices, policemen at a graduation ceremony, the sky screamed and roared. There are reports of general panic, and of roads clogged with corpses.

I know the writing becomes a whine when these simple sentiments are expressed: but, again; imagine you are living, or dying, with your children, in such a place. And imagine that the world ignores you.

The Second Intifada was valiant, and to start with showed signs of succeeding. Like the First Intifada it was a spontaneous mass movement in which all sections of society participated. Not provided with any organisation from the top, the Intifada was self-mobilising, rapidly generating new organisations, leaders and methods of resistance. Marwan Barghouti proved himself a principled and intelligent leader, a more-than-worthy successor to Arafat. (Like the best of Palestinian leaders who are still alive, Barghouti is now held in an Israeli prison).

I don’t condemn the Palestinians for militarising the Intifada. In many respects, the armed struggle had become, again, inevitable. The Oslo ‘peace process’ had, according to its careful design, eaten up still more of Palestine and made a genuine two-state solution unviable. In the first weeks of protest after Sharon’s visit to al-Aqsa, hundreds of stone-throwing youths (and other civilians not throwing stones) were gunned down. The US media, meanwhile, wondered why Palestinian mothers didn’t love their children. What would you expect the shot-upon to do? Passive resistance doesn’t get you very far if neither the oppressor nor his friends have a conscience.

And attacks inside Israel brought the war to the enemy in a way that had never happened before. Whatever the morality of attacks on civilian targets (and I rankle at the moralising against the Palestinians, when Israel murders vastly higher numbers, when the Palestinians, the aggrieved party, have tried peace), and whatever effect calling these attacks ‘Islamic’ may have on Muslim and non-Muslim perceptions of Islam (AbdulAziz ar-Rantissi hinted at this when he said “In this conflict many red lines have been crossed, by both sides”), the attacks did what they intended to: Israel became, for a year or two, a country ‘occupied’ by fear. Many Israelis left; many avoided restaurants and markets; the economy slumped. Tourism stopped.

Globally, the Intifada sparked a new generation’s interest in Palestine. In the Muslim world this fed into the growing Islamist passion, and also into popular initiatives to boycott American goods. There were huge demonstrations in support of Palestine even in places where demonstrating was a new and illegal activity. In the West blogs and websites like the Electronic Intifada became alternative news sources for activists, and new Palestinian diasporic figures like Ali Abunimeh arrived on the scene. The Intifada at first shifted opinion in Europe, where there was a sense that something at last had to be done, that the contagious wound of Palestine had to be doctored.

Then came September 11th, then Afghanistan and Iraq, and the specific issue of Palestinian dispossession was overshadowed by the generalities of the ‘war on terror’. Israel and its friends worked very hard to transfer the medieval-Islamic-terror label to the Palestinians and Lebanese, to cast the struggle against ethnic cleansing, expulsion, occupation and apartheid as an atavistic spouting of anti-freedom bile.

Wahhabi-nihilists obligingly played their part: A non-client in power in Riyadh would have dramatically changed the balance in Palestine’s favour, but al-Qa’ida atrocities kept the al-Sauds in power after the invasion of Iraq. Massacres of commuters in London and Madrid, and the mindless barbarism of sectarian warfare in Iraq, convinced the mainstream European media of the Israeli narrative: Muslim violence has no relation to political causes, but is culturally inherent. Civilisation can only enwall and frighten these people.

Europe like America has accepted this now.

Israel destroyed the Palestinian Authority and fought its way back into the cities it had vacated during the Oslo years. It conducted mass arrests and made travel between West Bank villages not much easier than travel beyond the solar system. It built a huge barrier through communities on the West Bank, and entrenched the settlement system.

The Second Intifada was defeated, but not comprehensively. In its wreckage Palestinian society is poorer, less educated, more traumatised, more splintered. A collaborative class polices the West Bank on Israel’s behalf, thousands of young men are locked in Israeli prison camps. And Gaza starves.

The paradoxical victory is in Gaza; not much of a victory of course, perhaps just a hint at the possibility of victory. A popularly-mandated resistance organisation has kept control of the territory in the most difficult of conditions, and has started to transform itself into a guerrilla organisation, taking Hizbullah as its model. It remains to be seen if Israel will attempt a full ground invasion. If it does, it will be interesting to see how Hamas holds ground.

And if Israel reoccupies Gaza, what then? It was resistance that made it leave before, and resistance will be more ferocious now. Hamas, meanwhile, is constantly developing its missile capacities. The resistance may fall. If it doesn’t, it will grow in strength. Then both sides will be beseiged, the Israelis by time.

Malnutrition: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/chronic-malnutrition-in-gaza-blamed-on-israel-1019521.html

Sara Roy on the seige: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n01/roy_01_.html


Monday, December 15, 2008

Shoes and Bullets

George Bush has had shoes thrown at him in Baghdad. As he threw the first, Muntadar az-Zaidi shouted, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog.” As he threw the second, he added, “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq.” It was gratifying to see the Iraqi journalist’s human response to one of the destroyers of his country, even if it was woefully inadequate. In a just world, Bush would be imprisoned for the rest of his life (I oppose capital punishment even in the most deserving of cases).

Meanwhile the empire’s top criminals continue to spout self-justifying vomit. What do you say about a Condoleezza Rice? In an interview with the Wall Street Journal she says her regime removed the Taliban, but doesn’t say that America helped bring the Taliban to power in the first place, nor that the new Taliban is now winning against the occupation and its warlord/ druglord Afghan allies. She doesn’t say that Pakistan’s previously peaceful borderlands are controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, that hundreds of thousands have been displaced from these areas, that there are regular bomb attacks in Pakistan’s major cities, or that Pakistan faces the real possibility of collapse.

She gloats that the Palestinian intifada has been defeated, noting as if it’s a victory “that last year Bethlehem was the site of a huge investment conference, hosted by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad, aided by Israel.” Fayad is an unelected moneyman. The West Bank is governed by collaborators, and split from the flawed but elected and independent government in Gaza. There is no end in sight to the unbearable apartheid reality of the West Bank, and Gaza is, quite literally, starving. This is how the empire likes things.

Most grotesquely, Rice describes ethnically-cleansed, sectarian, splintered, brutalised, cholera-ridden Iraq as “a multiethnic, multiconfessional democracy that isn’t threatening its neighbors.” The woman needs a lot more than shoes in her face.

Multiethnic? On the last day of Eid, Arab and Kurdish leaders were meeting in a Kirkuk restaurant to negotiate the future of the city. A bomb killed 55 of them. Throughout northern Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga jostle against Turkman and Arab militia. Throughout the country, Gypsy villages have been burned to the ground.

Multiconfessional? All major political forces in Iraq are sectarian. The Arab tribes, and even families, have split into Sunni and Shia components. Walls and barbed wire divide Baghdad neighbourhoods. Sectarian murder is at nothing like the level it reached in the apocalyptic days of 2006 and 2007, but the few families who dare to return to their homes in areas controlled by the other sect are most likely to be murdered. Millions of Iraqis are internal or external refugees. The fires of sectarian hatred, fanned by America’s Arab clients, threaten to burn the entire region. At least half of Iraq’s ancient Christian community is now in Syria.

Democracy? Well, that’s a quarter true, but no thanks to the American occupation. The original US plan was for US-appointed caucuses to elect a government. It was Ayatullah Sistani’s mobilisation of the street that put paid to that idea. There is perhaps greater freedom of expression than there was under Saddam Hussein, and the potential for future democratic developments, but democracy is not much use to people who are scared to cross the nearest bridge, who can’t afford to buy more than bread.

Not threatening its neighbours? Saddam’s worst external crime was his attack on Iran and the bombardment of Iranian cities with poison gas. All through the long Iraq-Iran war, the Ba’athist regime was supported politically, funded and armed by the West. US ambassador April Glaspie gave a green light for Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Today Iraq is in no position to threaten its neighbours by war because Iraq is no longer a coherent power, but Iraq’s terrorists and militias, its sectarianism, the prostitution and drugdealing its impoverished people are forced into, do indeed threaten its neighbours. And the occupying forces use Iraq as a springboard for aggression into neighbouring countries; the American terrorist attack on Syria in October is a case in point.

I wonder what Rice would say to my very good Iraqi friends M and F, who now live in exile. These are the kind of Iraqis the country needs if it is ever to stand on its feet again – highly educated, moral people who firmly opposed Saddam Hussain and what he represented. Both of them lost family members in Saddam’s torture chambers; both believe that ‘liberated’ Iraq is immeasurably worse than the Saddamist police state. M is Sunni; F is Shii. It would be dangerous for him to live in her home area, and dangerous for her to live in his home area. It would be dangerous for him to return to his job as a professor of Arabic. Before they left, academics – Sunni and Shia – were being regularly and professionally assassinated, by sniper bullet through their windscreens and cleanly into the brain.

Many people blame Iran for the assassination campaign. I don’t know, of course, but I find it unlikely that Iran would want to kill pro-Iranian Iraqi academics as well as those who oppose Iran. Some might say that Iran will find it easier to dominate Iraq if Iraq’s educated class has left. Again, I don’t think Iran is so stupid. The clerical regime probably does want a pliable Iraq; I’m sure it doesn’t want a permanent state of explosive chaos on its border. Much more likely is an Israeli-US effort to keep Iraq, and the entire region, in turmoil.

More to come in part two.

Mossad hit squads?: http://www.williambowles.info/iraq/2006/0506/mossad_hit_squads.html
The shoe event: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNlqPH1NEvY
The Rice interview: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122904339882300339.html

Saturday, November 22, 2008

At The Empire’s Edge

Here’s a piece I wrote for the National about Arabs on Hadrian’s Wall. Here’s the link:

Beyond the fleeting days of summer, Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England is a cold place to be. I stood on a high ridge looking down the line of the Wall at black cloud building over the ruins of Housesteads fort. I was fully exposed to the wind, which carried small seeds of rain, and the mud covering my clothes seeped slowly towards my heart. For a moment I dreamt myself into the skin of an ancient soldier, one come here from warmer climes to serve his empire, and I shivered to my frozen toes. Then my son grinned, turned towards the fort, and with a delighted scream charged downwards, slaying imagined barbarians as he went.

We had set out early in the brisk morning from our home in south west Scotland, over bridges and past floods in low-lying fields. Streams gurgled in roadside ditches; pond-sized puddles occupied town centres. There’s enough water here to produce the illusion of hopping island to island through a vast archipelago.

We crossed the invisible border into England near Carlisle, and drove east through the county of Cumbria, the Lake District to the south, into Northumberland. At Greenhead we left the main road and joined the old Stangate, originally a Roman road, running alongside the Wall as it rises and falls over crags. Livestock is more suited to this rugged, sunless landscape than crops, and we progressed through field after field of fat sheep and lazing oblivious cows. We continued until our well-signposted destination on the mid-point of the wall.

What remains of Housesteads, one of 12 permanent fortifications built to guard the furthest frontier of the Roman empire, are the foundations and drainage systems of baths, granaries, a hospital and a commanding officer’s house, all surrounded by a wall which in turn meets the great Wall constructed by order of the emperor in 122AD. Hadrian’s Wall was Rome’s most heavily fortified border, garrisoned by up to 10,000 soldiers from Germany, Spain, and even further afield. (The empire’s eastern border, contested by the Persians, was in the unwalled deserts of Arabia.) The Wall’s purpose was to guard against raids from the unconquered Pictish north, to tax goods passing through the frontier, and to symbolise imperial power. It stretched for 73 miles, from the mouth of the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west, and today it is the largest ancient site in northern Europe, dotted with forts, museums, youth hostels and country hotels. The Wall is an easy day trip from Newcastle, Edinburgh or Manchester.

The Housesteads visitor centre has a basket full of imitation Roman clothing to help children imagine themselves back through the millenia, and Ibrahim had soon transformed himself into a particularly excited legionnaire. His costume, and perhaps something in the blustery wind, made play-fighting with ghosts and even slipping repeatedly in the mud seem like sensible things for me to be doing. Housesteads is built on a sweeping escarpment which offers a typically extensive view of raw, weather-bitten countryside: coal-coloured earth, sinewy grass clumps, brief patches of forest. Walking out along the Wall stirred the imagination.

I was walking in the steps of ancient Syrians. A tombstone found at Housesteads depicts an archer armed with an oriental-style recurved bow. Texts found elsewhere show that a cohort of 500 bowmen from the Syrian city of Hama served in Britain, and spent some of their time on the Wall, perhaps shooting game for the garrison to eat.

To me, this was of more than academic interest. We moved only recently to this area from Oman, and we still lack a sense of belonging. Castle Douglas, our damp little town, seems very monocultural, and my family, being multicultural – my wife is Syrian, from Damascus and perhaps originally Palmyra, and I am an Anglo-Syrian mix – seem correspondingly out of place. Yet all those centuries ago there had been Syrians here, and north Africans, and Europeans of all descriptions. I wanted to learn more, so after crisps and coffee at the Housesteads café we drove on to visit the Roman ruins at Corbridge, where Barathes died.

Before my grandfather died he told me that a Syrian soldier was buried on the Wall. Clutching at straws in my Scottish isolation, I trawled the internet for information on this lost countryman. I didn’t find a soldier but an itinerant Syrian merchant, Barathes, entombed just south of the Wall in Corbridge. My wife was particularly pleased with my discovery, for Barathes was, like her, originally from Palmyra. The presence of a Palmyran at this northern fort means the Syrian archers were not alone; there were Syrian businessmen and even Syrian religious officials in Roman Britain. An altar dedicated to Syrian Goddesses has been excavated at Catterick in Yorkshire, bearing the inscription: “For the Goddesses of the city of Hama, Sabinus has made this.” And in some strange way in cold Castle Douglas, Barathes’s proximity made us feel that we too were not alone.

It took half an hour from Housesteads to Corbridge. The old Stanegate road used to end here, at the fort built in 79AD when Emperor Agricola was campaigning into Scotland. But Corbridge was more town than fort; there were temples, markets and an acqueduct as well as a barracks.

And Barathes the Palmyran would have been here for trade, even if his white hair (he was 68 when he died – a venerable age in Roman times) qualified him for a restful retirement. He was a trader of ensigns, a flag salesman, and apparently a wealthy man. A fragment of his gravestone, enough to tell his name, age, origin and occupation, was found recycled as building material in the wall of a nearby house. Today it’s on show in Corbridge’s museum.

I pitied this lonely Arab who had so narrowly escaped historical oblivion. What must it have been like for Levantine men to work at what was then the remotest edge of the earth? Although Phoenicians from Carthage (in modern Tunisia) had come to buy British tin in the fourth century BC, until the Roman invasion many in the ancient world refused to believe that the misty isles of the far north west even existed. I remembered standing on the Wall beyond Housesteads, looking into the raw, dark moorscape of crag and rock and black water, and feeling to my bones how the British frontier was a bad luck posting. The kind of fabled land a Syrian would have used to scare his children into obedience. Finish your soup or we’ll send you to northern Britain!

After exploring the ruins we sat in a café in modern Corbridge and looked through the window onto the elegant village houses, wondering how many chunks of Roman masonry had gone into their construction. As I drank my soup (tomato, and tasty) I read the Corbridge guidebook, and learnt there had been more to Barathes’s old age than icy winds. He had commissioned the tombstone of a British woman called Regina, who was buried at Arbeia, the easternmost fort on the Wall.

This was too good to be true. I had to visit Arbeia.

So we drove on, past farmhouses and walls whose stones I now suspected had been plundered. But the traffic thickened after Corbridge, and soon we weren’t any longer in the wild countryside. Our route took us into the high stone centre of Newcastle, bridged the River Tyne to Gateshead, and then led all the way to the sea at South Shields. Along the road are signs of a more contemporary Arab presence: halal butchers, kebab restaurants, women in hijab. There’s been a community of Yemenis in South Shields since sailors recruited from British Aden started settling here in the 1890s. In 1977 the American boxer Muhammad Ali Clay – he had come to raise money for a boys boxing club – had his third marriage blessed in a local mosque.

And here, overlooking the mouth of the Tyne, stood Arbeia. The low, bare ruins of the fort are bordered by redbrick terraced houses and a school. There is an impressively reconstructed Roman gateway, and down the road a little is a view of the sea.

The name Arbeia means ‘place of the Arabs’. In the site museum I was surprised to discover that these Arabs weren’t Syrian but Iraqi – “boatmen of the Tigris” to be precise. In a strange historical reversal, Iraqis serving a global empire once helped to police North Sea shipping, as the British Navy patrols the Shatt el-Arab today. The Iraqis were in charge of sea supplies for the garrisons stationed on Hadrian’s Wall. The Semitic goddess Astarte (or Ishtar) was worshipped here, beside the gods of Spanish soldiers. There was even a maghrebi presence: the museum contains the tomb of 20-year-old Victor, a freed slave “of the Moorish nation”.

But it was Regina’s story that crowned the visit. At a very young age Regina became a slave, and at some point she was purchased by Barathes. Later he declared her a freedwoman, and then married her. Regina died at the age of 30, and her grieving Palmyran husband spared no expense on her tombstone. She is sculpted holding her spinning and a jewellery box, and wearing a Romano-British dress. As well as the Latin, there is an inscription in Aramaic, the language of Barathes which is still spoken in a few Syrian villages today. It reads, simply and poignantly: “Regina, the freedwoman of Barathes, alas.” The tombstone is in fine condition except for Regina’s head, which has fallen away; she has a name and a sketchy biography, but no face.

I was delighted by this: a multicultural romance predating that of my parents by eighteen hundred years. But I can’t claim that Regina was an English woman like my mother; she lived centuries before the Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded from Germany, driving the British natives into the highlands of Wales and Scotland. She was a member of the Cattuvellauni, a tribe of southern Britain and of similar stock to all the Celtic tribes of north west Europe.

Ironically, the very fact of a Syrian-British marriage on Hadrian’s Wall shows walls and frontiers to be infinitely malleable things, and national definitions to be partial at best. It’s reasonable to imagine Barathes and Regina having children; in which case, some little quantity of Palmyran blood may run in the veins of northern Britons today. Arbeia is next to Gateshead, where my mother’s family are from. Perhaps my ancestors on that side too have a touch of Syria.

So I have had to revisit my description of our adoptive home as monocultural. My neighbours are the descendants of Picts and Gaels, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and of the hidden progeny of Barathes and Regina too. British multiculturalism clearly isn’t as shockingly recent as some believe. In Newcastle and South Shields today mosques coexist with churches, the English language with Bengali and Urdu. And two thousand years ago, Celtic languages babbled alongside Latin, German, and Aramaic.

Many British people are surprised to learn that Syria was ever part of the Roman empire, and many Arabs have no idea that Rome’s influence stretched this far west. Perhaps this matters, because to know yourself you have to know the other. As we drove back west and north through the long autumnal evening, into the Pictish lands, with dusk slowly turning the high trees at the roadside into ghosts, I considered this.

I tend to assume that my multicultural family is unusual, at least up here in our northern exile, but of course it’s not as simple as that. Everywhere there are secret histories and strange ancestries to be uncovered, if only you sniff about enough. Put in historical context, my family isn’t unusual at all. I wish somebody would tell this to the people who think my wife’s features and hijab are too foreign for Scotland.

As strategists trumpet the clash of civilisations – as if a civilisation is something which grows in a box – as Europe bristles against immigrants, as new walls are built between Baghdad neighbourhoods or to separate Palestinians from ‘Jews-only’ roads, it’s good to remember that barriers always fail in the end. Hadrian’s Wall was never impermeable. And today the Picts visit it for a pleasant day out with their families, in whose veins runs the blood of all the world.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

At All Costs

A short story published in Five Dials. It's only the second short story I've written, and I don't know if I should be proud or ashamed of it. Here's the link. It includes an interview with Noam Chomsky:

Abdu, masterful and charismatic, was holding forth above a long table which supported a debris of pastes and salads, when he registered, like a disturbance on a radar screen, a burst of cruel hilarity erupting from a couple of the younger guests. Abdu didn’t slow down; instead he increased his volume and amplified the movements of his hands. It was important that as few people as possible noticed the teenagers’ disrespect, and that nobody noticed that he had noticed. To notice it was to grant it value, and that he must not do.

This was his 60th birthday meal. At the climax of his life, after decades of sustained effort, he’d won the right to celebrate birthdays, like Europeans do, and also to be considered a right-living patriot. That is, an embodiment of modern success. No woman at the table wore a headscarf, and neither, of course, was any alcohol served. His young dyed-blonde wife presided quietly at his side. She wore a cream-coloured jacket and trousers from Paris. He wore a new, blue suit. All eyes were upon him. This was essential. If they didn’t recognise him correctly now, he would be ruined in his own eyes.

So the teenagers made his stomach lurch with the shock of impending disaster, but he breathed it away, and kept on talking. Perhaps he had interpreted wrongly. Perhaps his loss of control extended only to losing the boys’ attention, and they were only giggling at something private and inconsequential, not at the jinn story he was relating with so many careful insinuations and suggestive gaps. Continuing to talk gave him time to observe and analyse and, if need be, to limit the damage. Already he was making evasive manoeuvres so retreat could be more smoothly effected, subtracting mystery from his face and voice and adding light irony in its place.

The change in tone made it necessary to revise the story itself. Specifically, the old man of his tale, the one he’d consulted on the means of communicating with the jinn, would have to be a more ridiculous figure, and the punchline would be a joke at this primitive’s expense. He’d spend more time describing the poverty of the shaikh’s surroundings, his wheezy breathing, the rottenness of his teeth. He wouldn’t end, as he always had before, with the implication that he, Abdu, had become proficient in jinn lore. He wouldn’t refer to the jinn as ‘our friends’ and then lapse into abrupt and evocative silence.

Silence. Behind the strain of performance, Abdu remembered the years of his poverty. Remembered the silence of death that inhabited his mother when she fell to the floor at the climax of her trance. Little Abdu ran forward from the shadows to tug at her dress, but was restrained by the other women. “Leave her, boy. Leave her, habibi. She’ll come back now and be well.” And his fear receded, for he knew it was so. It had happened before. She had fallen like this, and after a few shivery moments she had risen again, happier than she’d been for weeks, crying happy tears, a phoenix rising from ashes.

In the days before they went to the zar she was ashen-faced and shuffling. She wept steadily as she swept the floor or made the bread. She didn’t reply when Abdu or any of his brothers or sisters spoke to her. To their father she only responded yes or no, and he, understandably, spent even the little time he had for resting out of their rooms, elsewhere. Abdu’s mother would occupy this depression for such long stretches that Abdu couldn’t remember its beginning. Her happiness was like his babyhood, a clouded dream. But when she gathered him, the youngest one, and walked with the neighbour women to the place of the zar, he knew that relief was about to rain upon them.

At the zar there were too many women for him to count, and some round-eyed, world-shocked infants like himself too tired to bother shouting. But the women did shout, though not in their usual directed fashion. They began in a circle, each woman swaying and twisting, moaning the name of God, making their voices plunge and rise like beaten drums, like waves beating on rocks, like blood in your ears when you run too hard towards home, and two or three of the women would strike at the daf, the homemade tambourines, and then more would beat at their breasts, the chant rising, becoming screams and wails and tremors, until the circle broke, women clawing the cloths from their heads, hiding their eyes with their arms, and his mother trembling, shrieking and falling. “What’s happened to her?” he cried. “What’s happened to mama?” And after he’d asked six or seven times a panting woman would tell him, “akhath-ha al-haal, habibi – the trance has taken her,” and then, “Leave her, habibi. She’ll come back. She’ll be well.” And always she did come back, as if she had died and then been resurrected. Brought back to life, given a fresh, smiling face.

The memory was an embarrassment. People nowadays were so much more grown up. These days, only drunkards and hasheesh smokers would allow their inner feelings to overspill so promiscuously. But back then it was as if everybody drank and smoked; they were weak vessels containing huge emotions. In Lebanon during the passion plays Shia villagers would lynch the man playing the murderer of Hussain, if they managed to get their hands on him. Not a popular role for the actors. But people progressed and developed. By the late 60s, by the time Abdu was an engineer and a respected man, people’s understanding of role-playing had developed so far that film baddies became superstars. There was a cinema in every city, and only the dying generation wept and wailed at the zar.

Abdu talked, and grinned a grin of well-kept teeth. His eyes glanced beadily across the faces of his peers, from police officer to doctor, from businessman to party official, and across the white and painted expanses of their wives’ faces, and returned again to the young people, the children of his own upwardly mobile generation, children who could take it all for granted. Who hadn’t had to struggle. Their heads were pointed towards him but they couldn’t quite look into his eye. They were smirking still; it was quite clear. On closer examination, they were older than teenagers, probably already returned from foreign studies. In fact, it was possible they owned import licenses and car dealerships, mobile phone franchises, land development rights. These were the men he should be establishing relationships with if he didn’t want to slip from the place he had climbed to. New men. Smirking, complacent, too comfortable. Dangerous.

He remembered a fairground game he’d played once in England. A white woman was holding his shoulder, taller than him, and the air smelled of rain and fish and chips deep fried. The game itself involved smirking plastic rabbits popping out of holes, and him wielding a plastic hammer to bang them back in place. All the teeth and the spinning lights and English people expecting him to be confused and clumsy; and the rabbits speed up, as he remembers, until sooner or later, but inevitably, you can’t keep them all down any longer.

“Ha!” He finished off the anecdote with a flash of noise and a triumphant bucking of his forehead. “The man didn’t have any people to talk to, but he did have the jinn! His friends the jinn! Ha!” He was a little breathless, and glad to have finished. With the hand kept concealed under the table’s surface he clutched and crumpled a serviette. Tears of sweat were pooling in his eyebrows. As soon as somebody else began speaking he would mop his brow. For now the guests were laughing, and nodding at him as they did so. Everything as it should be. He felt his wife’s grateful simpering.

What had disgusted him most in England was the London Carnival that a woman had made him visit – its single surging communal body – and all the whites and blacks losing themselves in reggae music and smoke. In that mire of limbs and colours and odours he lost the woman for a few minutes. When he found her again she was delirious, forgetful of herself. But Abdu, he’s done so much work on his self, he will protect it at all costs.

The laughter went on, and Abdu wiped his nose, looking graciously outward. But the two that concerned him most were laughing at a different pace to the others, too slowly, and for each other’s benefit, not his. One swarthy and snake-thin; the other plump and pale, with a brownish fuzz of beard around the mouth in the style they called sek-sooki, like the English word sexy. They disrupted everything. Abdu’s fixed grin fell, bringing relief to his cheeks and throat but an immediate tension to the table – which perked up the older guests. Their laughter scattered and stopped, Abdu’s temporary allies still enacting appreciation with nods and smiles and wrinklings around the eyes, collaborating with him, keeping it going. But what would they say to each other in their cars as they drove home, in their offices, on the telephone?

“And do you talk to them too, Uncle, the jinn?” The swarthy one with slicked-back hair had spoken. The sneer in his tone was unmistakeable.

What do you do to reply to this? He’d like to reach over and slap these two, show them the strength he had left. He’d like to shake them until they whimpered for him to stop. He’d like to squeeze their necks. He felt great power stirring. But it wouldn’t be safe. He realised suddenly that he didn’t know whose sons they were. Their names escaped him. They must be someone to be here at the table. He should have taken more care of these things. Had he relaxed too much? Had he fallen asleep?

Whoever they were, he had to restrain himself. Screeching in abandon is not religion. The country had built schools and hospitals. Those willing to work hard had become educated. Abdu especially had become an educated man, looked up to, a pillar of respectable society. He wasn’t rubbish. He wasn’t people in the slums plugging their toilets against rats, sharing meals with cockroaches.

Nevertheless, he felt himself angering, like bubbles and fizz escaping from a half-uncorked bottle. He heard cracks, buzzes, whinings in his head, air squeezed through tiny skull tubes, traffic through hidden tunnels. He bit back on it. This kind of emotion is better kept indoors, better targetted at the children. Better a door or two away even from the socially advantageous wife. Come, gather yourself, for he’d done well until now, negotiating party men when the Resurrection came to power, negotiating the sects and each individual’s prickliness, dominating those he could and submitting when he’d had to. He’d developed a good technique in garrulousness, and he understood the codes of success. Live a sedentary life. Make yourself likable. Know the rules.

A certain amount of deception was necessary, it went without saying. It was true that isolation was the price of control. And it was also true that, out of necessity, he had returned to that world which still nobody denied, not even the petty boys before him, the realm of the beings of fire, which the Qur’an, after all, describes. Let them deny the jinn, and publicly prove themselves unbelievers! Abdu, even if he knew it was forbidden to seek their company, he had learnt to deal with the jinn. He wouldn’t be ashamed. The jinn became his friends. His servants, really, for he didn’t go to them moaning and shaking, but as one in command. His order for them was always the same, just applied to different people: “Show me x’s true face. Tell me what is in his inner heart. What his body hides.” What he’d been shown had given him an edge.

Yet now, in the restaurant, Abdu realised with mild shock that he had lost the struggle. He was on his feet, and his throat was open. “Do you know who I am?” he roared. “Do you know what I have achieved?” Anger unleashed contradictory currents, of domination and submission both at once. He frightened the world; he gave in to himself. His fist struck the table so the pillaged dishes jumped. Masks flopped from the guests’ faces. Some of them, too, showed anger – a clean and righteous anger targetting Abdu, because rules had been broken. The wives shrank into expert disdain.

Abdu’s voice, now wordless, bellowed louder. He screamed. He sounded like his mother at the zar before the silence. His voice sounded distant, further and further away. He saw his body from afar and forgot that it was his. Yet he didn’t mind. For once, bodies didn’t matter, and inside he was blank.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Hair for the Observer

Here is an unedited version of an article published in the Observer Woman magazine. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/nov/02/8

When I first saw my wife she was seated in the middle of a crowded room, she had her eyes fixed on me, and she had a luxuriously unruly cascade of hair. We started talking, and from then on her hair’s startling blackness seemed emblematic of the force of her character.

I enjoyed seeing her hair fanned out around her moonsliver face. I enjoyed touching it, either its natural curliness or its hair-dryered straightness. In a city where half the women covered their hair in public, and just because she had such beautiful hair, Rana’s hair became for me her sign, the feature by which I’d pick her out at a distance, my symbol for understanding her and what she meant to me.

So when, five years into our marriage, Rana decided to cover her hair, I was somewhat bothered. In the meantime we’d moved from Syria via Morocco to Saudi Arabia, we’d had children, and Rana had worked as a teacher and TV presenter. She’d always been an elegantly modest dresser, but here, amid the compulsory dress codes of Saudi Arabia – which annoyed both of us – she’d decided to introduce something new. I grasped for a response.

The hijab bothered me not just for the personal, tactile reasons hinted at above, and not just as a result of me being only slightly religious: I didn’t necessarily agree that it was Islamically required. While most Muslims have interpreted Qur’anic guidance on women’s dress to require head covering, the text itself is open to interpretation. “And tell the believing women,” it says, “to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” In my favourite translation, Muhammad Asad notes that the directive is to cover bosoms, not heads, because in Muhammad’s Arabia both men and women wore head coverings anyway. Beyond that, “what may decently be apparent” is deliberately vague and flexible, to fit various times and social contexts.

I thought the principle of the hijab more important than the piece of cloth, and the principle – of modesty and respect – wasn’t always practised in Arab Muslim society. It often seems that the Muslim woman plays the role of clotheshorse of honour. So long as she wears a hijab, all is good, even if Muslim men, who are also required to “lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity”, dress sexily and leer at women in the street. Why would Rana want to go along?

Nevertheless, I bristled when I heard the negative stereotypes of hijab wearers. I knew enough Muslim women to know that the hijjabed were no more nor less likely than the non-hijabbed to be intelligent or outspoken. But supporting the abstract right of my cousins and neighbours to wear hijab was not the same as seeing my own wife put it on. What did it mean? What did it make of me?

My father had been through this with my sisters. He’d spent his life climbing socially and economically, from impoverished coastal Syria to bourgeois comfort in the capital, right to the upper social ranks where girls of good family flaunt big hair at least until they’re married. But when they were still students my sisters chose to cover their charms. It bothered my father. He worried that his daughters sent the wrong class signal.

What really bothered me was people thinking Rana wore it because I forced her to. Like the nice, liberal Englishwoman who nodded empathetically at Rana’s suffering before asking me, carefully, tolerantly, how I would react if she ever dared to take it off.

As in my father’s case, the problem was mainly other people.

The hijab or its absence are symbolic of many different things in the bigger world out there. The cloth has become a flag waved by Islamists and Islamophobes to define each other. A Western-dressed Muslim woman may be stereotyped as a heroically uncaged virgin, or alternatively as the key sign of Muslim cultural loss. A veiled woman may be seen as authentic, or, more usually in the West, as ignorant, backward, repressed and oppressed. To some, Muslim women in headscarves look like unity, power, cultural pride. To others they look like abused cattle. The hijab is compulsory in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and actively discriminated against by the regimes of Tunisia and Turkey. In some Middle Eastern countries, women’s veils have been forcibly removed, quite literally, by soldiers in the street. Removing it, and putting it on, are loaded political acts.

It was all very complex, but Rana, simply put, thought she would feel comfortable wearing hijab. She felt comfortable and proud to be identified as a Muslim woman. So, rather than worrying about other people, I started to listen to her. Now I feel comfortable too. And her hair is still there underneath, and freeflowing in the privacy of our home, as luxurious as it ever was.

Rana's Opinion

Sometimes I feel sorry for my husband. He would prefer it if I didn't wear the hijab. But what can I do? It is my wish. I started thinking about wearing a headscarf after we were married and had my son, our first child. When Robin and I met I was not religious. I did not fast for Ramadan - in fact, whenever my father asked me if I had, I would lie just to please him. I drank alcohol. If I saw someone reading the Koran, I presumed they were superstitious, narrow-minded.
But when my son was born I felt a need to protect him, to believe in something stronger than me. I felt the need for a connection with God. I started reading the Koran and I began to pray regularly.

What amazed me was that I didn't suddenly change my personality. We have all sorts of friends - gay, atheist, Christian, Muslim - and I discovered that I could still be friends with all of them. I didn't become weak or anxious or afraid. In fact, it was a wonderful liberation. I felt I could live without fear in my life.

I don't believe my head is a sexual object, that a man who sees it will be sexually aroused. But I do think that when you believe in God you have to believe in a superior power that knows better than you do.

First I started to dress differently. I stopped wearing short sleeves; I wore more modest clothes. Then one day when Robin was in the UK and I was still in Saudi Arabia I decided. I thought: 'Believing what I do, it will be hypocritical if I go outside without my head covered.' My fear of being a hypocrite far outweighed any embarrassment I felt, or fear of what my husband or friends would think.

For a while my Arab friends changed towards me. They wouldn't tell a dirty joke in my presence - even though they knew I loved dirty jokes. I had to sit them down and say, 'I haven't changed just because I look different.'

Most of all Robin worried that I would suddenly become narrow-minded. To be honest, I feared that, too, deep inside. But when he said: 'I'm not going to allow our daughter to wear a headscarf until she is 18,' I replied: 'Neither will I! She won't be wearing one when she's 50 either, if she doesn't want to!' For me this wasn't about being made to do something I didn't want to do. Over time he's realised that this is what I want and he's given me the freedom to do it.

I usually wear the kind of hijab that women in the Gulf wear - one that covers my head and ties around the front. I have all colours and patterns to match what I'm wearing. Everyone makes a big deal about the head being covered but for me it's not about being covered up, it's about modesty, being humble.

It's been six years since I began wearing the headscarf and it has been liberating. I had not realised how much I had used the way I looked to get me places, be it in a job interview or at a party. The headscarf means I've had to develop my personality instead - my sense of humour, my ability to listen - in order to socialise. It's made me more confident.

We live in Scotland now but it still feels comfortable to wear it. After the 7 July bombings in 2005 I was worried that, when I went to London, people would think I was a terrorist. But in fact it was fine. I realised any fear was more to do with my own paranoia.

• Robin Yassin-Kassab's novel, The Road From Damascus, is published by Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Plague on Both their Houses

The great thing about the forthcoming American presidential election is that Hillary Clinton won’t be the winner. The lamentable thing is that either Barack Obama or John McCain will be.

I have detested Hillary Clinton since she led a New York demonstration against ‘Arab terror’ in the first days of the second Intifada. This was before the Intifada became militarised, when it still centred around stone-throwing crowds and peaceful demonstrations, and when the zionist occupation was murdering dozens of Palestinians every day. This year her campaign website stated: “Hillary Clinton believes that Israel’s right to exist in safety as a Jewish state, with defensible borders and an undivided Jerusalem as its capital, secure from violence and terrorism, must never be questioned.” Just run your eyes over that again. Hillary Clinton doesn’t just believe that the citizens of Israel should be safe, but that Israel “as a Jewish state”, as an apartheid state for Jews only, not for its citizens or for those it has driven out, should be safe. She believes that illegally occupied and illegally colonised east Jerusalem, an ancient Arab city originally built by Canaanite Jebusites, should remain under eternal zionist occupation. And she believes not only that her immoral and stupid positions are right, but that they should never be questioned. Such is the weight of zionism on American political life – as heavy a taboo as God is in the east.

Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq invasion, which has killed a million Iraqis, destroyed Iraq’s social fabric, flooded Syria and Jordan with refugees, vastly expanded the power of Wahhabi-nihilist groups, and led to atrocities in London and Madrid. She also voted for the Kyl-Lieberman Resolution which categorises the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard is the Iranian army, not a shadowy non-state actor, and its role is to defend the second most democratic (after Turkey) society in the Middle East – a society which, unlike the zionist settler state, has never attacked its neighbours. Here is Clinton’s open hand to seventy million Iranians: “In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.” When Ahmadinejad expressed the opinion that the zionist regime would one day be wiped from the page of history, he was mistranslated and misinterpreted as calling for the obliteration of five million Israeli Jews. The western world collapsed into rolling orgasms of righteous fury. But Clinton threatening to “obliterate” the Iranian people, that’s fine.

The Republican McCain’s claim to decency and manliness arises from his participation in the American imperialist massacre of 2 million Vietnamese men, women and children. He chose for his running mate Sarah Palin, a Christian Zionist who believes that creationism should be taught in science classes, that ungodly books should be banned from public libraries, and that environmentalism is a leftist plot. When Obama won the Democratic nomination, Palin allegedly reported the news thus: “So Sambo beat the bitch.”

Why would anyone vote Republican this year? Bush is, as Gore Vidal predicted, the least popular president ever. Under Republican rule America has galloped towards economic, military and diplomatic disaster. For anyone with faith in the American democratic theatre (not me), voting for Obama is the only logical option.

So the Republicans must rely for their votes on deep wells of illogicality and hatred. Hysterical racism has passed largely unchallenged at Republican rallies. Sarah Palin has encouraged it by talking about how “different” Obama is. McCain was praised for bringing an end to this when a supporter described Obama as an Arab, and McCain responded, “No, Ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen.” This is bringing racism to an end? If a supporter had shouted “Obama’s a Jew!” would McCain have said, “No, Ma’am. He’s a decent family man” ? Today McCain is saying that Obama attended a “neo-Nazi” meeting with tame Palestinian-American academic Rashid Khalidi.

America is probably about to experience its first black president. Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice have already reached very high office. There are black millionaires and executives. This shows that there is greater social mobility in America than before, and that the ideological overhang of an obsolete economic model – slavery – has lost most of its relevance for most people. Nevertheless, America is still sick with racism. Black people are still much more likely to be poor, imprisoned and badly housed than whites. And there are new-old targets to fit the new imperial age.

A month or so ago 28 million copies of an Islamophobic and racist DVD called “Obsession” were distributed free with 74 newspapers in American swing states, presumably to encourage votes for the ‘security-conscious’ Republicans. The DVD was sponsored by the Clarion Fund, a neo-con and zionist front. Neo-conservatives and zionists, and the potently ignorant Christian Zionists, have shaped and developed American racism for their own ends.

Then there’s Obama. I have to admit Obama excites me. He’s not only very intelligent but, unusually for an American presidential candidate, he’s not afraid to show it. He knows how to use language to good effect. And he’s black, with all the sad knowledge that entails. The world needs a black president of the USA, because it’s difficult for a black American to have a simplistic view of his own country or, therefore, of the world. That Obama is aware there are human beings walking around in Kenya and Indonesia also helps.

Obama once had a meal with Edward Said. He once attended an interesting church (the Reverend Jeremiah Wright does look like a man worth voting for). He didn’t vote for the Iraq war. He once said something favourable about negotiating with Iran and Syria (but not with the democratic representatives of the Palestinians). He’ll close Guantanamo Bay.

Another thing in Obama’s favour is that he isn’t Hillary Clinton.

Or is he?

Obama said the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had “rightly been labeled a terrorist organization.” He’s promised $30 billion in military ‘assistance’ to Israel. And he told AIPAC “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

He described last year’s unprovoked Israeli raid on a Syrian military site as an “entirely justified” attempt to stop Syria’s “weapons of mass destruction” program – although anybody who knows anything knows the US-Israeli story about a North Korean reactor in the desert is pure fabrication. The IAEA’s preliminary reports from the bombed site confirm this. No word from Obama on Israel’s real nuclear weapons.

Obama could have fought it over Iran and empire if he’d wanted to. He could have linked the Bush administration’s lies about Syria to its lies about Iraq. Just as he’s managed to reclaim some religiosity from the Republicans, he could have someway reclaimed patriotism from aggressive imperialism. People say Israel and Arabs are subjects too touchy to discuss honestly in America, that Obama has to go through the motions, say the right thing. But what, ultimately, is the point of a democratic election if not to have an honest, informed national conversation?

And Obama hasn’t merely toed the (decadent) imperial line on the ‘War on Terror’; he’s pushed the line rightwards. Obama recommended bombing Pakistan before McCain agreed and Bush made it policy. Does he know what he’s playing with? Shaky, angry, collapsing Pakistan, with its hundreds of thousands of displaced and dead. A vote for Obama is a vote against the concept of national sovereignty. What kind of a system makes decent, progressive people invest energy in a man who wants more war?

People say the man has to do what it takes to be elected, then he can be himself. But what kind of system is it when we have to assume a man is a good liar in order to elect him? And even if Obama is lying through his teeth, that’s not how it works. Obama has made his promises, he’s chosen his friends. Like Joe Biden. Here’s a quote from the running mates’ debate:

Biden: No one in the United States Senate has been a better friend to Israel than Joe Biden. I would have never, ever joined this ticket were I not absolutely sure Barack Obama shared my passion.

Palin: But I’m so encouraged to know that we both love Israel, and I think that is a good thing to get to agree on, Senator Biden. I respect your position on that.

Passion and love, you see. The American-Israel relationship is something quite beyond geo-strategic.

Whether McCain or Obama wins, foreign policy will be about the same: a drawdown of troops from Iraq but no end to the occupation, an expansion of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The key to the development of American foreign and military policy in coming years is not the man at the top but what happens to American economic power relative to China, Russia and others.

I wouldn’t use the word ‘democracy’ to describe American society, but America is dynamic, fluid, and has great democratic potential. It may be that the energies unleashed by the Obama phenomenon will have long term positive effects. Still, if I were an American, I would vote for Ralph Nader, on the basis that every vote for Nader means a hundred more people have engaged in real conversation, actually thought about the system that enthralls them. I’d vote for Ron Paul too, if he were to run as an independent.

I may just be too cynical. I may be pleasantly surprised. I’ll finish with what Angry Arab (see link top left) imagines we’ll hear in Obama’s acceptance speech:

“My real name is Hasan Husayn Obama, and I am really a Muslim Arab, but did not want to admit that because I would not have been elected. I hereby announce that William Ayers shall be appointed as Director of FBI, and Dennis Kucinich will be appointed as Secretary of Defense. As for Rev. Wright, he shall serve as director of CIA. I would also like to appoint Angry Arab as my special Tsar for the Dismantlement of the Zionist Entity. And Immanuel Wallterstein will serve as Secretary of Treasury. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I have been a committed Marxist-Leninist all my life. Good night.”



Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Terrorists Strike Syria

America has already killed a Syrian border guard during its disastrous occupation of Iraq. And now it has sent four helicopter gunships eight kilometres into Syrian territory and killed at least eight Syrian citizens.

A reader of Syriacomment.com sent in this post, which is the best information I’ve heard yet on the raid itself:

“I just spoke on the phone with a doctor in ABou Kamal- He confirmed that the attack happened around sunset. The 4 helicopters came from the East of the township, he saw them coming. The soldiers debarked and shot people who were working in a building under construction on the periphery of the township. 9 people were pronounced dead on arrival to the hospital- Two more are severely wounded and are being operated on right now [he does not expect them to survive]- He has not read the papers (there are none to read at this time of the night) nor listened to the news and there is no internet there….His report was completely spontaneous. I was not able to get the details on the ages of the injured but he described them as poor simple people (Masakeen)from the town.”

And this is from the Guardian:

“Intriguingly, Farhan al-Mahalawi, mayor of the nearby Iraqi border town of Qaim, told the Reuters news agency that the targeted village had been surrounded by Syrian troops.”

It isn’t clear if those killed were a farming family, a family of smugglers, or labourers on a construction site. The Americans, having had a day in which to work out their story, claim that an al-Qa’ida militant was targetted. The sentence from the Guardian (although one wonders how the mayor of al-Qaim would know) suggests the Syrians may have been aware of a militant presence in the area and were keeping their own eye on it. It doesn’t necessarily suggest the people killed were the same militants. (As one would expect, most of the western media have taken American claims more seriously than Syrian reports. In fact, the US military’s description of the attack as “a warning to Syria” was anticipated by western headline writers by 24 hours.)

Even if it turns out that the dead were Wahhabi-nihilists, which I very much doubt, America’s action remains what it was: an unprovoked terrorist attack on a sovereign state. An act of war.

The Syrian-Iraqi border area has often been a zone of confrontation. When I travelled there in the late 90s I found the remains of ancient fortifications along the banks of the Euphrates, sites such as Dura Europos, a Macedonian city garrisoned to hold the line against Sassanid Persians. In more recent times the border was the frontier between two rival wings of the Ba’ath Party, and it was usually closed. Still, car bombs and smuggled goods passed through, because all borders are permeable and this more than most – the people on both sides belong to the same tribes. I saw the border itself from a distance, from a high waterside outside Aal Bukamal, and it was nothing but a tiny Syrian checkpoint, a half kilometre of scrub, and then a tiny Iraqi checkpoint.

There was an obvious mukhabarat presence in Aal Bukamal, watching out for Iraqi infiltrators. My friend and I, like almost everyone else in town, wore gellabiyehs. But we weren’t wearing the known faces of the Bukamal tribe, so we were called over to present our papers and introduce ourselves. I handed over the British passport and explained my strange ancestry. The plainclothes man looked hard into my eyes, then slowly said: “Manaatu…anta shawi min ingeltra.” – “This means…that you’re a Beduin from England.” Everybody laughed and slapped their thighs and the plainclothes man offered tea.

Further north, the dusty souq of Deir ez-Zor, a souq which Damascenes would scorn, was full of swooning Iraqis not believing the luxury, the variety, the quality. By then the Iraqi middle class had been destroyed by sanctions.

Syria had joined the American side in the Kuwait war of 91. This was an enormously unpopular move inside Syria, but it paid off. Syrian troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia, so they didn’t have to shed Arab blood. In the war’s aftermath a Syrian peace prevailed in Lebanon, and Israel was dragged to the negotiating table in Madrid. (This rare moment of American pressure on Israel, applied by George Bush the father, made many Arabs imagine that Bush the son would be a friendly president).

In the last years of the Saddam Hussain regime Syria opened the border. There was a sense at the time that, as far as Iraq was concerned, enough was enough. It was one thing for the Syrians to have their old enemy cut down to size, but quite another to watch a neighbouring Arab society collapse under the brutal sanctions regime.

Syria opposed the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. All the leaderships in the region claimed to be against the invasion, but all except Syria, Turkey and Iran actively aided it. If Syria was on anything like equal military terms with the invader it would have fought to defend its neighbour, just as Britain would defend France or Russia would defend South Ossettia. But Syria could do nothing more than make clear its abhorrence and refusal of an imperialist occupation of Iraq, however bad Iraq’s leader (an American client for years anyway) might be.

And Syria was of course right. Talking about yesterday’s raid, an American military official said, “We took things into our own hands.” Since Americans took things into their own hands in Iraq a million Iraqis have died, and the ancient social fabric of this country that gave the world writing has been ripped to bloody shreds.

As a result of America’s war Syria has had to take in up to two million Iraqi refugees. House prices and rents have rocketed. Prostitution and drug dealing have exploded. Resurgent sectarianism threatens the future.

When ‘shock and awe’ descended on Baghdad, enthusiastic Syrian shabab crossed the border to fight. That’s how shocked and awed they were. I have a friend who joined the general rush. At the time, Syrian border officials were allowing anyone with a valid passport to pass. Fortunately, my friend didn’t have a passport, and returned home before his family realised he was missing. Many like him – with basic military service under their belts – did get through, and found work to do in Iraq. And most of them had nothing to do with al-Qa’ida. My friend was religiously observant but by no means fanatical; he opposed sectarianism and Saddam Hussein’s regime as much as he opposed America and Israel. He says he wanted to fight for nationalist reasons, to defend Syria as much as Iraq, because America would come to eat Syria once it had eaten Iraq.

So Syria didn’t fight America, but it allowed people who may have been fighters to cross the border fairly easily, in both directions. Most of these fighters were indistinguishable from anyone else, because they were also in many cases refugees, or members of the tribes which straddle the border. And there was a point of principle which the people wanted the regime to uphold: why should Syria hold itself responsible for the security of the occupier?

As the war continued in Iraq, however, Syria made much more strenuous efforts to police the border, to the extent that in some places mukhabarat and soldiers outnumbered the locals. Why the change in attitude? Certainly American pressure had a role, but also Iraq had degenerated into civil war, and American policy and Gulf money had made al-Qa’ida a huge threat to everybody in the vicinity. Now there’s a sand barrier for much of the long desert plain frontier. General Petraeus says the Syrian measures have dramatically cut insurgent flow into Iraq, down from 100 a month in 2006 to 20 a month today.

Most of the al-Qa’ida types entering Iraq are Saudis, but America doesn’t bomb its best Arab friend. Britain is watching Salafi nihilists in Birmingham and Manchester, but America doesn’t bomb Britain to deliver “a warning.” Syria’s crime is that it hasn’t yet surrendered to the imperial order (or chaos). So the empire must bomb.

America is said to be specifically upset because Syria won’t resume security cooperation. Syria wants the Americans to send their ambassador back to Damascus first. It’s surely a good thing for human rights in Syria for this standoff to continue; ‘security cooperation’ often meant the Americans subcontracting the torture of unfortunates like Maher Arar to Damascus. On the other hand, Syria provided the US with plenty of usable information on Wahhabi-nihilists after September 11th 2001. It was America that rejected the cooperation.

Perhaps the attack outside Aal Bukamal was ordered by Bush himself, perhaps to help McCain in the election, perhaps in a fit of impotence and spite. Perhaps the attack was carried out by a secret command, some Rumsfeld-dreamed-up unit accountable to none. Perhaps it was designed to kill an initiative (I’m imagining) due to be announced by the Syrian and British foreign ministers after their meeting today. In any case, what is clear is that the empire has given up all pretence at recognising national sovereignty. Very worryingly for those looking forward to an Obama Whitehouse, it was Obama who first called for American attacks on Pakistan. I’ll be very pleasantly astounded if he condemns the raid on Syria.

America’s war is now murdering and displacing civilians across a great swathe of Afro-Asia, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia.

So why do they hate us? The people of Aal Bukamal have some fresh new answers to that question.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bomb in Damascus

This morning a car bomb exploded in Mahlak street, Damascus, at a junction with the airport road and not far from Sitt Zainab. Seventeen are dead and 14 injured. That sounds like a powerful bomb, killing more than it maims.

In 1997 I found myself walking over what appeared to be blood and oil stains in the Victoria area of the city. There were soldiers gathering shards of glass and hosing the street down. Bystanders were subdued, not meeting your eye. I asked someone what had happened and he mumbled something about a gas leak. In fact a bus had been blown up minutes after leaving the old station at Baramkeh, and nine people had been killed. Afterwards there were whispers about Lebanese Maronites (the Lebanese Sunnis still supported Syria) being behind it, and of course Israel was a suspect. But the whole thing was kept as quiet as possible. The deal the regime has made with the people is: allow us corruption and thuggishness if we give you in return a foreign policy which doesn’t shame you and, most fundamentally, a guarantee of security. Exploding buses are a message from whoever sends them to the Syrian people, and the literal translation of the message is: the regime can’t protect you.

In the early eighties the extremist wing of the Muslim Brothers, backed by Ba’athist Iraq, the imperial client in Jordan, and others, fought anyone they considered to be connected to the regime – by family or politics or sect – in the streets. The regime gave as good as it got, or worse, and the Brothers were defeated. In recent years there have been political assassinations and shoot-outs between Wahhabi-nihilists and the security forces, but today’s horror is the first random act of violence targetting civilians in Syria since 1997. Given its position between Palestine, Lebanon, Turkish Kurdistan and Iraq, and given its delicate ethnic and sectarian composition, Syria has indeed remained reasonably secure and stable.

On July 17th 1981, Israel murdered 300 civilians by bombing residential tower blocks in Beirut which may or may not have housed PLO offices. On March 8th 1985, the CIA failed to kill Ayatullah Fadlallah with a car bomb in Beirut, but succeeded in killing 80 of his neighbours. So today’s attack could well have been inspired by the US or Israel – Imad Mughniyeh was killed by a car bomb, and if there was a specific target this morning we will never hear of him if he hasn’t been killed. So close to Sitt Zainab – the shrine of Hussein’s sister venerated by the Shia, and the home of tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees – the target could have been a Sadrist leader, an Iranian official, a Hizbullah man. This means the power with the motive could be the Hakim group, or the CIA, or March 14-linked Lebanese Salafis, or al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia. Continue the list for your own amusement.

I certainly hope it was Israel, because then there will be some sort of political economy to the violence to come (though 17 dead is pretty damn expensive). I fear that the Salafi connection is more likely, and I dread this. The al-Watan correspondent in Damascus says the car exploded on the way to its target. What if the shrine itself is hit? It would be a catastrophe. If there is a concerted attempt to bring Iraq’s sectarian war to Syria, the near future is going to be very bloody. Allah yastoor.

It could of course be some kind of grand Saudi-Israeli-Salafi plot. Or anything else. This is all speculation – but let’s have a good speculate, friends, because we’re not going to get any closer to the truth than we are now.

And there's one positive note: Syrian TV reported the explosion almost immediately. This is a change from the usual security silence.

Syria was silent on the Israeli attack of September 6th 2007, long enough to allow Israel and America to build their narrative of events. Now early results of an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into the site bombed say that there is no sign of the North Korean-built plutonium-producing reactor the Americans had imagined.

Why then, if Syria had nothing to hide, did it bulldoze the area? Because the Syrian regime saw the rubble as a visible humiliation which it wished to erase. And because the Syrian regime doesn’t possess even the concept of public relations.

The nuclear explanation was always absurd: if there were any real intelligence that Syria had a nuclear weapons programme you can bet that America and Israel would be making a lot more noise than they are. If Syria did have ambitions to score a strategic balance with nuclear-armed Israel – which wouldn’t be wrong by conventional moral standards – it would make much more sense to have Iran, with its huge spaces and high capabilities, make the bombs. But the Syrians aren’t stupid. They can’t afford nuclear weapons politically or financially. Isn’t Hizbullah much more effective a deterrent anyway?

It seems most likely that the raid on Syria had something to do with Israeli preparations for Iran (the Guardian says this week that the US refused to back Israeli war plans for Iran) – to send a message certainly, and to test Russian warning systems which may be stationed in both Syria and Iran.

Incidentally, Syria's contact with the IAEA, Muhammad Suleiman, was mysteriously assassinated on the beach last month.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings. Khair, insha’allah.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Remembering Chab Hasni

This was written for the National:

Disturbing a sleeping box of old cassettes the other day, my hand brushed an album by Chab Hasni, and memories rushed in as fluent as music, of the Algerians I’d known in Paris in the early nineties, particularly my friends Qader and Kamel.

In Algeria these two had been ‘hittistes’. That’s a real Algerian word: a French ending tacked onto the Arabic ‘hayit’ meaning ‘wall’. The hittistes were the youths who spent their time leaning against walls, bored, angry, and stoned. They had no jobs and no housing – those young men who did have jobs often slept in their workplaces. They spent their time dodging the fearsome police force.

Life as ‘clandestin’ illegal immigrants in France was not much easier. There too they had to negotiate checkpoints. I remember Kamel spending a fortnight in prison for being stopped ‘without papers’. When at liberty, they peddled hashish on Pigalle and sold the cassettes they lifted from shops. (Still, there was honour amongst thieves. Qader once knocked down a fellow Algerian for stealing from an old man on the metro. “So what if he’s French?” he growled. “He could be your grandfather!”)

We socialised in their attic room too low to stand up in. It contained too many bodies, a haze of smoke and the steam of endless cups of tea. There was a tape deck always playing one of three musicians: in third place, the Walrus of Soul Barry White; in second, the swinging voice of international protest, Bob Marley. And first and foremost, the singer who would bring these tough men to sweet nostalgic tears, Chab Hasni. That’s the French spelling of ‘shab’, as in ‘shabab’ – the lads, the boys. So who was the Boy Hasni?

He was born Hasni Chakroun, one of seven children in a working class home in Gambetta, Oran in 1968. In the extreme harshness of the political environment which dominated headlines after 1992, Hasni’s long, soft face and open smile, and more exactly his inimitable crooning, became representative of another side of Algeria.

In the opinion of Qader and Kamel, Hasni was the supreme, the true and authentic, voice of Rai music. ‘Rai’ is a word meaning ‘opinion’ or ‘perspective’ (several Arab newspapers use the word in their titles), but in colloquial Algerian it also means something like ‘Yes, man!’ or the hip hop ejaculation ‘Word!’ The music’s roots are in the centuries old Maghrebi ‘malhun’ tradition of sung dialectal poetry, but Rai proper sprouted in Oran in the 1920s. This was a time of rapid urbanisation as Beduins displaced by European colonists moved in to the city, where their rural music met Spanish and French genres, especially cabaret and flamenco. Another element in the mix was Gnawa from nearby Morocco, with its drum-based sub-Saharan origins. The Oranaise singers who rose to give their ‘opinion’ fused all these influences. Rai achieved its contemporary form in the seventies and eighties, as producers like Ahmad Baba Rachid incorporated synthesiser and drum machine beats from western pop. The resulting melange of driving rhythms and plaintive voices is one of the most danceable sounds in the world. In recent years, Rai has demonstrated remarkable flexibility in its various crossovers and collaborations with jazz, rap, funk, reggae and rock.

Socially, Rai is similar to Egypt’s populist Sha’abi music, exemplified in the 1970s by Ahmad Adawiya and now by Shaaban Abdurrahim. It uses city slang and word play in the same fashion, and is satirical in tone, providing humorous street commentary on the events of the day. Specifically, Rai’s language is ‘durija’ – Algerian dialect – incorporating Berber expressions, plus literary Arabic, French and some Spanish. This Orani brew reflects North African modernism and cosmopolitanism.

Drawing on both the Sufi madih tradition, in which women sang to other women at shrines and weddings, and the more ribald heritage of the zindani bar songs long associated with prostitution, women singers have always been prominent in Rai. The ‘grandmother of Rai’ was gravel-voiced Cheikha Rimitti, a remarkable woman who soared, during the second world war, from living rough to national stardom, and then to international repute in the 1960s. As an old lady she recorded with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and was still making records in her eighties. Chaba Fadela and Chaba Zahouania are the biggest female stars of Rai’s younger generation.

In terms of its lyrics, Rai is a bipolar genre, of party highs and innercity lows. It is the Algerian theme music for hedonism, for mixed dancing, for the mahshasha (hasheesh den) and the bar. Many verses praise these ecstatic escapes, and many more bemoan the real world which deserves to be escaped, in a blunt blues that has always been, directly or not, political. So in the 30s Rai sang of typhus epidemics in the new slums, in the 50s of the national independence struggle, and in the 70s of corruption. Like the Calypsos of the Caribbean, Rai is a rich resource for popular historians.

Predictably, Rai has made many enemies. These include most notably, and in chronological order: the colonial French, the Marxist-nationalists of independence, the regime in its later ideology-free stage, and Islamist extremists – all of whom sanctioned and threatened Rai musicians. At various times, recording, distribution of cassettes, and performances had to happen ‘underground.’ In one hamfisted attempt to stop Rai recordings, the government confiscated all blank cassettes entering the country. The music remained banned from national radio and television until 1985, when French Culture Minister Jack Lang persuaded the regime that Rai was good for Algeria’s image.

During the 1988 riots over the sorry state of the economy, the sound of the barricades was Chab Khaled’s al-Harba, Wayn? (To Flee, But Where To?), which encapsulates that generation’s sense of having no good options, suffering between the rock of a corrupt military regime and the hard place of intolerant Islamism. In either direction lay the state, whoever managed to grapple control of it. Either way: le pouvoir.

“Where has youth gone?
Where are the brave ones?
The rich gorge themselves,
The poor work themselves to death,
The Islamic charlatans show their true face...
You can always cry or complain
Or escape...but where to?”

This was the charged atmosphere in which Chab Hasni pursued his brief career. Instead of politics, he focused on love, or lust. “Why, my eye, have you left me alone?” he plainted. “Your absence has lasted too long, my gazelle!” With such sentimental lyrics and a lush instrumentation, he carved out his niche as the Julio Iglesias of Rai. His catalogue of 400 recorded songs forms the canon of ‘Lover’s Rai.’ And soppiness doesn’t faze a hittiste audience: the hard men of Algiers and Paris were wild for it.

Hasni’s titles and lyrics were in Franco-Arabic. Like: Jamais Nensa Ana les Souvenirs, or I’ll Never Forget the Memories – two words in Arabic and three in French. To Islamists, such speech mockingly celebrated the depth of French cultural penetration, as much as the message of the songs was immoral. Hasni could certainly be transgressive. In his breakthrough 1987 hit al-Beraka, he sang a duet with Chaba Zahouania about drunken sex in a hut. Most of his output was more syrupy gentle, but he also sang about family breakup and, in el-Visa, about migration. The nihilistic voice of that song wants a visa to see his girlfriend, and threatens if he doesn’t get it: “I’ll drink myself stupid and smash everything up.”

But if Islamists saw Rai as an Arab-Muslim surrender to alien values, the cultural pollution was two way: France was borrowing from Algeria too. The cous cous restaurant is to France what the Indian restaurant is to England or the Gulf: an essential part of the scenery. French people of Arab descent, les beurs, had brought Arab food, music, and words to the previous colonists. You could hear Hasni’s cassettes playing in Barbes and Belleville, in the HLM blocks of Marseille and Lyons, in the parks and taxi cabs of Lille and Le Havre, as well as on mainstream French radio.

Chab Khaled and Chab Mami became huge stars in France. Khaled’s Didi was an international hit in 1992. His 1996 song Aisha was France’s first number one sung in Arabic. And Mami won a large Anglo-Saxon audience after collaborating with Sting on Desert Rose in 2000.

Meanwhile in Algeria, social unrest led to the end of one party rule and then elections in December 1991. When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) convincingly won the first round, the military stepped in, cancelling the next ballot and banning the FIS. At least a hundred and sixty thousand were killed in the civil war which ensued, very many for no apparent reason. Girls were killed for wearing the hijab and girls were killed for not wearing it. Journalists of all stripes, and policemen, and cleaners, and teachers, and nurses were killed. Whole villages were massacred and burnt in the dark, including villages right next to military bases. And the political chaos provided a cover for other forms of violence. Gangsters and feuding families were able to take life without fear of investigation. “To kill your neighbour is the easiest thing to do in Algeria,” said my friend Kamel. “Either the government or the Islamists will be blamed. Nobody will ask about it.” Qader told me that in the first couple of years of the war he had lost “tens of people, on both sides.” That’s why Kamel and Qader were ‘clandestin’ in France: they thought being illegal was better than being dead.

Chab Hasni performed abroad, but he continued to live in Gambetta. When he received Islamist death threats, he sent his wife and son to France. Yet he still chose to stay in the streets he’d grown up in, and he paid for his choice.

On September 29th 1994 Hasni was shot twice in the head at close range. He was walking between his family home (despite his star status, he still lived in his father’s house) and the local cafe when he was killed. He was 26 years old.

It seems very likely that he was assassinated by the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, a more savage successor to the FIS. Not everybody believed this, though; it’s a measure of the confusion of 90s Algeria that my friends thought it more likely that the regime, le pouvoir, had killed Hasni as a sort of double bluff, to make the Islamists unpopular. “Nobody knows who killed Hasni,” Qader darkly announced. “Only God knows who does what in Algeria. God have mercy on his soul.”

150,000 people attended Hasni’s funeral. The great Rai producer Ahmad Baba Rachid was assassinated the following year. Today Algeria is still not prosperous, but it’s much more peaceful. Rai flourishes there, to the extent that Paris-based singer Rachid Taha complains that censorship of political songs is now worse in the West than in the Arab world.

The last I heard of Kamel he had vanished by night over the Swiss border. And Qader was trying to work out a way to get to Britain. “It’s almost impossible to get in,” he said. “But if you manage, there’s no more trouble with papers and checkpoints. You can just disappear over there.”

I wonder what became of them. They were good men. As I relax and listen to the late Hasni, I know I won’t forget any of it. Jamais nensa ana les souvenirs.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Two Reviews

Two reviews, one harsh and critical, one brief and bright. Very unfairly.

I met Nadeem Aslam in Southampton, and spent an evening and a morning having wonderful conversations with him. When I told him I’d written a bad review of his latest book (half of it is bad) for the National (in Abu Dhabi) he was not in the least bitter, not even for a moment. I am not such a successful human being. I would have been convulsed with rage and venom for at least three hours, and then ill with it for weeks. He just wanted to know why I didn’t like the book. Well, it’s partly the politics, and quite a lot to do with characterisation. Then my review may be fierce precisely because I think he’s a major writer, and therefore fair game. (But I don’t think he’s fair game after meeting him, such a lovely man he is; I hang my head in shame). The negativity of the review may also have something to do with me responding to my own perceived failures as a writer.

And damn, they pay you to squeeze out an opinion, so opinionate is what you do.

The problem with writing a book review after you’ve had a book published is that it seems as if you’re suggesting you could outwrite the writer you’re criticising. Ironically, now that I should be more qualified to write about novels, I feel less qualified. Or at least worried that I’m setting myself up. Anyway.

The National gave me lots of words. Then tonight I heard that Metro / Amazon Book Club wants an immediate review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. As I had three minutes to do it, and as it was unpaid, I hacked away at a post I’d done on this blog last December, until I had 250 naked and cheery words. Here’s the original post: http://qunfuz.blogspot.com/2007/12/reluctant-fundamentalist.html

And here’s the 250 words:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Many treatments of the post-9/l1 situation focus only on Western self-absorption. Not so ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid, which engages with the darknesses and resentments of the world beyond our narrow conceptions of it.

It is a confessional narrative, told by a Pakistani to an American in a Lahore restaurant. The anguished self-revelation of Hamid’s Changez is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes From Underground’, but Changez is a fundamentally balanced character. It’s the times, and the empire, that are out of joint, and Changez’s story is of righting himself by retreating from America. Educated at Princeton and working for a company which values businesses due to be sold off and stripped, Changez finds himself smiling when he sees the twin towers falling. This prompts a deepening examination of his identity, his allegiances, and his relationship with America and his depressed and ‘devoutly glowing’ American girlfriend. Parallels are implied between Muslim countries and the doomed employees of the companies Changez values. The key here is not religion, but traumatic economic change. Changez’s boss Jim says, “We came from places that were wasting away.” He means, on the one hand, Pakistan, and on the other, old industrial America. The title is not very apt. There is very little theology in the book. By the end of the story Changez is not at all an Islamist, but discovers he has to oppose the corporate American empire in order to remain mentally and morally healthy. Provocative, clarifying and immensely readable, this is a book that shouldn’t be missed.

And now here’s the savagery, for which I crave forgiveness:

The Wasted Vigil

“The Wasted Vigil”, the latest novel by acclaimed British-Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam, is concerned with Afghanistan, that vast human tragedy representing the moral and practical failure of all concerned, Muslim and Christian, Arab and Pakistani, Russian and American. War-torn and occupied Afghanistan is enough to enrage anyone. A novelist, however, must produce more than rage.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, planned by al-Qa’ida leaders in Afghanistan, affected Nadeem Aslam personally. He told the Independent of his feelings of guilt: “I asked myself whether in my personal life and as a writer I had been rigorous enough to condemn the small scale September 11s that go on every day.”

Detaching 9/11 from its political context, Aslam understood all crimes committed in the name of Islam to be subsumed into one category, and so saw patriarchal bullying within the family or the overbearing social pressure of a suspicious neighbourhood as forms almost of Islamist terrorism, mini September 11s. His highly praised second novel had dealt with precisely these prosaic atrocities. “Maps for Lost Lovers” is a portrait of a tortured and self-tormenting Pakistani community in the north of England. The community calls itself Dasht-e-Tanhaii or Desert of Loneliness; it’s working class and inward looking, bound by secrets and taboos, fearing and hating the white world beyond its walls. The atrocities enacted include an honour killing, a brutal ‘exorcism’, paedophilia in the mosque, and wife beating – each episode based on real events culled from the newspapers. Yet the threat of violence in Aslam’s Lonely Desert is ultimately incapable of holding lovers back from the passion of life. Here is the novel’s great beauty: in the exuberance of individual desire and the capacity of characters to break out of their cages, as well as in the poetry of moths and flowers that cloaks Alsam’s post-industrial town with an Urdu-tinted mantle of transcendence. Elegant and agonising, the novel was perhaps unbalanced in its unrelenting focus on crimes of honour, and failed to show how the meanings of Islam are contested within Muslim communities by liberal, fundamentalist and traditionalist Muslims, by feminists and misogynists, leftists and rightists, but it was written with love and the deep knowledge of an insider. He writes about parents and children in the way we all probably think of our own parents and children – with simultanous compassion, admiration and revulsion. The characters are complex and sympathetic even when their behaviour is cruel, and their cruelty is always subtly contextualised. Each is a breathing individual, deeply human, credible on their own terms whatever the writer’s message may be.

In the same Independent interview, Aslam spoke of the visceral sense of responsibility he felt as a Muslim for the murderous excesses of other Muslims: “We moderate Muslims have to stand up,” he said. “I feel that a game of Hangman is being played on an enormous scale in the world, and that sooner or later I’m going to be asked certain questions, and if I don’t give the right answer somebody is going to get hurt.”

“The Wasted Vigil” concentrates on the murderous excesses of Afghanistan, a land where Muslim violence reaches out of private homes and into the enormous scale of the skies.

What made this violence erupt? The CIA began funding and arming right-wing Islamists in Afghanistan even before the Soviet invasion in December 1979, in an effort to “increase the probability” that the Russians would intervene. In the resulting war perhaps two million Afghans died and up to five million fled the country. Afghanistan lost its infrastructure and its educated class. The Russians were eventually driven out, only to be replaced by squabbling ‘mujahideen’ warlords who terrorised the population in the course of their private vendettas. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with the approval of the United States, backed the Taliban, who made the roads safer and stopped opium cultivation, but at a huge cost. In a perverse marriage of the worst of the Deobandi and Wahhabi theological traditions, the Taliban’s boy commanders declared an Afghan year zero. Men were imprisoned for having ‘unIslamic haircuts’. Women were forbidden to leave the house unaccompanied. All ‘ungodly innovations’, from kite flying to television, were banned. After 9/11, American policy shifted 180 degrees. A new set of warlords were brought to power and the Kabul bourgeoisie was partially liberated.

Today Afghanistan remains mired in war, corruption and poverty. The latest foreign occupation wants to educate the Afghans out of their barbarism, but doesn’t recognise that every prior foreign occupation has dramatically increased that barbarism. The Taliban, almost universally hated a few years ago, are resurgent in the guise of a national liberation movement.

Nadeem Aslam presents this outrage through the eyes of foreigners whose lives are painfully tied to the country. Marcus Caldwell, an Englishman aged and bearded like “a prophet in wreckage”, welcomes a succession of wounded characters to his house near Tora Bora. These visitors are both connected and divided by bitter secrets, shared loss, and burning questions. What has become of Marcus’s Afghan wife, his daughter, and most brutally, his hand? What of the Russian woman Lara’s brother, a missing Soviet soldier? Or of ex-spy David’s brother, or his lover, Marcus’s daughter, Zameen? And what of David’s son, Marcus’s grandson? The sad answers to these mysteries are revealed gradually throughout a narrative of flashbacks, on a canvas stretching as far as Islamabad, New York and Saint Petersburg.

At its best, “The Wasted Vigil” is a lament for what has been destroyed: the traces of Afghanistan’s Buddhist and Sufi past, its tradition of miniaturist art, its myths and stories, its delicate intermingling of histories like the scents in a blended perfume. And Aslam is at his best when generating startling images and extended metaphors. Perhaps the novel’s key character is the house itself, Marcus’s house in which the art and architecture of each room represents one of the five senses. Books fall in a random literary rain from the ceilings, to which they were nailed by Marcus’s tragedy-maddened wife to save them from the Taliban. The walls are covered in paintings which in turn are covered with mud, to protect them from fundamentalist vandals. But some are visible:

“Several of the lovers on the wall were on their own because of the obliterating impact of the bullets – nothing but a gash or a terrible ripping away where the corresponding man or woman used to be. A shredded limb, a lost eye.”

This blurring of art and reality works well in a context where cultural violence and murder jog hand in hand – the Taliban’s attacks on the Bamyan Buddhas and Sufi shrines, the American tanks crushing the ancient walls of Ur in Iraq. In the lands of America’s wars, genocide is indistinguishable from historicide.

The house hides a secret Buddha underground as Afghanistan hides its Buddhist past. Afghanistan itself is figured as a collapsed building in which “everyone’s life now lies broken at different levels within the rubble.”

Aslam excels in the poetic crossing of borders, whereby the senses leak into each other and an idea may be conveyed by the beating of a butterfly’s wings. (It may be that this fundamental writerly strength of his also causes the category errors of his political thought, in which bombs leak into beatings and honour killing spreads into mass terrorism). He presents the synaesthesia of a stare so strong it verges on sound, a character with “skin the colour of violins,” and the “weather” of people’s souls. The book bubbles with imagery, from the obvious (caged birds) to the inspired (a camel carrying a car’s burnt-out shell).

But “The Wasted Vigil” is handicapped by characters that are not quite fully imagined, not quite precise enough to convince. Almost interchangeably, the three non-Afghan characters speak and think about gemstones, perfumes and the classics of world literature, sometimes apparently only to give Aslam further opportunities to be poetic. Their voices are not distinctively enough individual. All three can sometimes sound suspiciously like post-9/11 Aslam with his committed anti-Islamist hat on.

There is one major Afghan character: Casa. In his horrifyingly wrongheaded interpretations of Islam, this fundamentalist seldom rises above stereotype. His religion is animated by hatred, for non-Muslims of all varieties as well as traditional Muslims, women, blacks and intellectuals. Such bitter, monomaniac characters doubtless exist in the real world, but Aslam (unlike in “Maps for Lost Lovers”) shows us not much more of their inner lives than we see on the TV news. Casa is partially offset by the walk-on Dunia, a spokeswoman for a more liberal Islam. Other minor Afghan characters include two warlords, a wife-murdering cleric and a duplicitous suicide bomber. The reader is told that ordinary Afghans despise the fundamentalists, but rarely sees these people up close in their daily struggles.

“There’s no message in my books,” Aslam told the Independent, but here he appears to have broken his rule. The free indirect style – by which the narrator experiences the world through his characters – breaks down, and the author breaks in, sometimes with thoroughly questionable generalisations (“The religion of Islam at its core does not believe in the study of science”) and orientalist falsehoods (Syria and Egypt suffered cultural collapse when the first Muslims arrived) – although some characters do temper their opinions as the novel progresses. The book’s final act of violence points to how interconnected western and eastern guilt are in Afghanistan, and how mutual the suffering, but the general approach is unbalanced, not allowing enough voices to challenge either fundamentalist or Western stereotypes.

The style can slip to become an overblown parody of itself. Not every image or beautiful phrase fits snugly in place. It seems that Aslam occasionally chugs these out without reason: why call work ‘work’ when you can call it ‘the labours of the world’? A clunky sentence rhythm is sometimes ruined entirely by repetition, and there is at times floweriness without a restraining economy, so that even explosions and executions lose their impact. The novel should make the reader experience Afghanistan as if it is immediately present; all too often it offers an unchallenging exoticism.

Our times call for fiction which challenges the simplistic assumptions of religious fundamentalists and imperialising secularists alike. Novel writing is always an excruciatingly difficult process, much easier to get wrong than to get right. The difficulty only increases when the novelist seeks to represent Muslims to a non-Muslim audience in an Islamophobic climate. It may be here that Aslam has tripped up, disabled by his strange sense of cultural guilt for 9/11 and by the resultant pressure to rail against the easy target of right wing Islamism. He is an immensely gifted writer, capable of great artistry and feeling, who has already won a large audience. It is a shame, therefore, that this novel remains on the shimmering surface of things. Its reportage feels a bit like CNN with poetry added, or like those technically brilliant Iranian films that seem made for Western film festival judges rather than for a real public. As such, “The Wasted Vigil” is a wasted opportunity.

Here, I wrote on this blog in February, more kindly, about Maps for Lost Lovers: