Thursday, January 31, 2008

Visiting Syria

I’ve just given up smoking, again, after a relapse in Syria and Egypt. I mean, what can an ex-smoker do, returning to Sham? In Oman very few people smoke. Abu Dhabi airport, where I spent an hour in transit, is of course smoke-free. But in Damascus airport the passport officials were smoking, and the police, and the baggage handlers, and the passengers. So it continued in the taxi, and in the house, and almost everywhere else. I’m not complaining.

I spent a too-brief ten days in Syria, mainly shivering. It was minus seven one night. Coming out of the hot mineral-water baths (men stepping into the pools clutching their cigarettes) at Jbab and waiting ten minutes for a micro to the city, I froze. My hatless brother-in-law said it’s because I haven’t done military service. He started his in the winter time, standing at attention in his underwear on subzero mountainsides, assaulted by insults and buckets of cold water. “Great days!” he mused. “Happy memories!” So it was cold, but the Syrians grumbled that it hasn’t rained enough this year. There was a big snowfall just after I left, and there’s been another one today.

Damascus in the wintertime: men hunched against the weather in leather jackets and wooly hats. Pale eyes under dark brows and tall foreheads. The distinctive mixture of harsh and gentle in the people, and in their environment. It looked to my pampered eye like chaos on the roads, but I didn’t see any accidents. The city is hazed with diesel fumes. Six million people (or is it more now?) burning mazote to keep warm. And it’s ever more urban. Close packed stacks of flat in brown and grey, the colours of poverty. Buildings erupting like warts from the earth’s dry skin, stained orange, exhausted yellow.

The airport road is being worked on in anticipation of the Arab summit and Damascus’s year as the Arab cultural capital. The taxi driver laments the death of Arabism. “Before the invasion of Iraq we had it in name at least. Now it isn’t even mentioned. Now it’s all parties, tribes, sects, ethnic groups, regions..” Outside there is a winter sky of a kind that Oman has never seen. These days I’m not used to the cold. I accept a cigarette. West of Damascus, what I remember as fields seems to have been transformed into mounds of rubble.

I visit the Old City. I hear the heart-jumping exhilaration of the azan called by the four muezzins of the Umawi Mosque, one from each minaret. I have a meal in the courtyard of Bait Jabri, huddled close to a stove. Nearby there are streets full of new cafes and restaurants. The Old City now boasts two five-star hotels in restored Damascene houses. A garden and café have been built beside the citadel walls.

It’s old news to say that everybody now has a mobile phone, and that there are far more cars on the roads since taxes have been eased. People worry about social divisions caused by the liberalising of the economy. More than once I’m told that it costs 600 lira for a cup of coffee in Waleed bin Talal’s Four Seasons hotel. On the ramshackle outskirts of the city I notice a large supermarket, a furniture saleroom, a car showroom.

At Hijaz station the track has been ripped up and a deep hole dug. The plan was to build a new station underground, but the finance didn’t come through so it remains just a hole, an absence. The café in a train carriage where a decade ago my wife and I used to drink coffee has gone.

I saw Larijani, previously Iran’s nuclear negotiator, in the shrine of Sitt Ruqqiyeh. He pulled away his hand when an Iranian pilgrim tried to kiss it, and then sat quietly contemplating, only one bodyguard crouching beside him. He doesn't need more security; Syrians express appreciation of Iran, even those Syrians who don't like Shia.

On my last day I visited Sitt Zainab, the shrine of Ali's daughter. The ten days of Ashura were not yet finished so the shrine and its surroundings were unusually crowded, with Iranians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, and especially Iraqis. Many of the refugees have returned to Iraq (and property prices are falling again), but there are still more than a million and a half Iraqis in Syria, and there are evident signs of their tragedy around Sitt Zainab. This is the only place in Syria where ragged children, shoeless in the crisp cold, beg for coins. There’s a young man missing a leg. There’s another with no legs. The atmosphere in the shrine is thick. People are kissing the door, the step, weeping and shuddering at the grille of the tomb, mourning the oppression of the Prophet’s family, and the failure of the Muslims to realise Islam, and the string of disasters permitted in the world by darkness, persecution and injustice.

In the Iraqi restaurant the cashier wears a green turban. A video of al-azza wal-latm ritual plays on the screen suspended from the ceiling. Bare chested men are red over the heart where they strike themselves in rhythm. The same ritual will start outside the shrine this evening, but I have to go to the airport. Next door there’s a café with a screen showing al-Furat TV, the channel of the Hakeem dynasty, and serving Iraqi men thin-waisted glasses of strong, Turkish-style tea. In the street, too much traffic, and stalls and hand-pushed carts selling the earth of Kerbala, prayer beads, and keyrings and badges and engravings of Ali and Hussain, of Sistani and Nasrallah, and plastic sandals and dolls and toy guns. Scarves illustrated with Ya Hussain! in letters dripping blood, or with the Iraqi flag. Sweets and biscuits. Qur’anic verses. Women push through it clutching their chadors closed at their noses, and others with hair in waves or tied in ponytails.

I heard Muhammad Habash, Member of Parliament, give a Friday sermon in Mezzeh. I liked his fine, quiet language, his comments on the Prophet’s migration, and his criticism of some migrating Muslims today who give Islam a bad name in their adopted countries.

I spent a night in a village on the edges of the Golan. There are still some basalt buildings among the concrete and red soil and rubbish. Electric-white Jebel esh-Shaikh floats above the expanse. The Israelis are up there on the further peak. In 1973 their forces reached as far as this village. Now there are gypsies camped among the olive groves in patched white tents distinct from the more beautiful goat-hair black of the Beduin camps. They’ve come to sell trinkets and pull teeth.

The villagers I spend the night with don’t like Shaikh Habash because of his liberal fatwas – for instance that it is permissible for a woman to travel without a guardian – and because his is, according to them, the Islam of the Sultan. They don’t much like the Shia either. Or the Sufis. They talk religion and politics and tell obscene jokes. Endless glasses of tea and coffee, and cigarettes. At dawn there is ice in the streets. We pray in the village mosque where men wear kuffiyehs and wool-lined cloaks.

A character in Ahmad al-Aidi’s (Egyptian) novel ‘Being Abbas el Abd’ says:
“You want us to progress??
So burn the history books and forget your precious dead civilisation.
Stop trying to squeeze the juice from the past.
Destroy your pharaonic history….
Try to do without the traffic in the dead.
We will only succeed when we turn our museums into public lavatories.”

I have some sympathy with this exaggerated point of view, although the idolised history in Syria is Islamic rather than pharaonic. At another gathering, in Midan, a series of self-validating, optimistic, and absurd statements are made. Like: Arabic is the origin of all languages. Like: Europe will have a Muslim majority within twenty years. Like: nobody has ever converted from Islam to another religion. The uncles speak and everybody nods. It’s not that the uncles are tyrants. In most cases they are the best of men, kind and well-meaning. You confirm their statements for social reasons, and their statements acquire truth status. Comfort and solidarity and identity are evoked and made tangible in this harsh environment. Many of these men have three jobs, and live in boxes. The same discourse that restricts thought makes life bearable, and more than bearable. Where else would you find such hospitality, such manly gentleness, such generosity and dignity?

The problem with turning religion into repeated legends and tales of the ancestors, with unreflective and near-masturbatory veneration of the Prophet’s companions and the rulers of old and the ulama, is that the universe is bigger than the Arab zone, time is longer than 1400 years. Too much religion and too much certainty can domesticate the real and smother the spirit.

Syria reminds you of variations in electric current. The dimming of the lights. Waiting for the water to come.

And simple pleasures. Food, for instance. Not just the recipes but the quality of the raw materials. I swear a Syrian chicken doesn’t taste like the usual dry blandness; nor do Syrian eggs taste like any other eggs. The rich sweetness of a Syrian mandarin is unrivalled. (For all my British childhood it was a burdensome duty to chew fruit. I didn’t understand how fruit should taste until I came to Syria). The traditional Syrian hammam – and I don’t mean the traditional hammam as-souq, wonderful though that is, but a normal bath at home, with mazote dripping into the fizzing stove, and steam rising around you, and hot water splashing in the plastic basin for you to scoop out in cupfulls and pour over your body.

We watch a Yasser al-Azmeh sketch about a blind man in a café complaining about the economy and the citizenry’s hard life. A spy reports him to the mukhabarat, who arrive to make arrests. Such criticism is no longer taboo on Syrian TV. The trend continues, excrutiatingly slowly, towards greater individual rights and freedom of expression.

People say that Syria will survive. Despite the refugees, the Israeli raids, the American threats, the sectarianism, the poverty, despite the smoke, Syria will survive. Did not the Prophet say that God has blessed the lands around al-Aqsa? Did he not pray ‘Allah yubarik shamina,’ God bless our Sham, our Syria?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Dysfunctional State – Dysfuntional World

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, although it happened across the Gulf of Oman, feels remarkably close, for both personal and public reasons. On a personal level, the event strikes up sparks of memory. As a very young man I worked for The News, an English-language paper, on the Murree Road in Rawalpindi. I loved that office and all the great people in it, the long late chaotic nights through which we typed and laughed and drank tea. I remember Liaquat Bagh just a little down the road, the park named after Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated there, and where Benazir was killed last December 27th. I remember People’s Party supporters firing shots into the sky outside the office on the night when Benazir was appointed prime minister, for the second time, in 1993. When I read about bombs and sectarian mayhem in Karachi, Islamabad, Swat or Gilgit I remember the immense beauty and carnivalesque energy of Pakistan, the music I heard there, the Sufi festival I visited, the wealth and poverty I saw, and the intelligent, enthusiastic people I met.

The assassination feels close in a public sense because it contains ingredients which are present globally, and which are particularly apparent in the current Islamic world.

Firstly, the collapse of socialist politics and of any clear analytical approach to problems of wealth concentration and imperialism. The trajectory of the Bhutto-led Pakistan People’s Party illustrates this collapse. Tariq Ali writes: “The People’s party founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was built by the activists of the only popular mass movement the country has known: students, peasants and workers who fought for three months in 1968-69 to topple the country’s first military dictator. They saw it as their party, and that feeling persists in some parts of the country to this day, despite everything.” That ‘everything’ refers to the way the PPP in government became no more than a gang of thieves. The Bhutto family, landowning aristocrats from Sind, ruled for themselves and their hangers-on. Benazir’s husband Asif Ali Zardari, also known as Mr. 10 per cent, was the most notoriously corrupt pig at the public money trough. People’s Party administration led to precisely zero steps towards social justice, but to a good many extra-judicial executions – including, perhaps, that of Benazir’s brother Murtaza. As in so many countries, an initial surge of popular struggle was co-opted, and then fizzled out in a sea of gangsterism.

The second ingredient, facilitated by the first, is near-absolute military or family control over entire nations. The Bhutto dynasty, or that part of it loyal to Benazir’s will, has proved its arrogance by appointing her nineteen-year-old son Bilawal as leader of the PPP. The real power in Pakistan, however, is the army, which runs hotels, insurance companies and supermarkets as well as state violence. The struggle for social justice having failed, politics is merely a lucrative career for the successful. In Pakistan’s case, the big families send one son into the army, another into the Muslim League, and one into the People’s Party. Most of the rural poor vote for the candidate their feudal lord tells them to vote for. And why not? Voting isn’t going to change anything. If we replace the miltary and big families with corporations, the analogy of single-interest tyranny can be extended not just to Africa and the rest of Asia, but to the West as well.

The third ingredient, as a bitter response to the second and in the void of the first, is the rise of extremist nihilist ideologies. In Pakistan, that means variations on the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, probably the people who pulled the trigger on Benazir. Extreme Islamist-nihilists win only three to ten per cent in Pakistani elections, but provide a home to the desperate. More significantly, some high-up army officers sympathise with the Islamist-nihilist agenda, or at least have important contacts in these movements that they are not shy to use. Again, the nihilist trend is not limited to Pakistan. Everywhere around the world, some form or other of escapism or nihilism can be found as a false substitute for serious liberation politics. In America, right-wing Christian fundamentalism forms a huge vote bank and lobby group. In Europe, right wing anti-immigrant parties are increasingly popular and Islamophobia is going mainstream. In the West in general, there is hedonist consumerism, the cult of manufactured popular ‘culture’, celebrity, and so on.

The fourth ingredient, also common across the continents, is Western interference. The Pakistani army has always been an American client and its larger movements (leaving some small space for manoeuvre and deception) have always followed American orders. Zia ul-Haqq’s military regime helped run the so-called American-Saudi ‘jihad’ against the leftist Afghan government and its Soviet backers, flooding Afghanistan with weaponry and Wahhabi ideology. A lot of the weaponry and Wahhabism flowed back into Pakistani cities, along with rivers of processed heroin. (One of the most distinctive aspects of upper-middle class Pakistan, and of journalism, at the time I worked there was the number of hopeless smack addicts crashing through their lives and begging a few more rupees.) After the Soviet retreat and the failure of ‘mujahideen’ warlords to build a stable Afghan government, Benazir’s administration loyally followed Washington directives and supported the Taliban’s rise. Following the blowback attacks of September 11th, Musharraf led the army 180 degrees into its present role of enforcing imperial law against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. (The change is total only in relation to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida; the army’s enforcement of imperial law is the same as ever.) But since the ‘War on Terror,’ Pakistan has effectively been at war with itself. The Pushto-speaking North West Frontier Province and the Tribal Areas are ethnically and culturally identical with most of south and east Afghanistan. According to tribal codes of honour, those seeking hospitality must be defended to the death. The process that unfolded was inevitable – refusal by the tribes to surrender Taliban or al-Qa’ida forces, followed by army bombing of civilians, followed by revenge attacks, leading to the present situation in which suicide bombing has become almost as common in Pakistani cities far from the tribal frontier as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Pakistani collaboration with the ‘War on Terror’ has been the crucial destabilising and terror-producing factor.

If elections are held in Pakistan the country will again be representative of global trends, in that it will epitomise false democracy. Democratic procedures will be in place, but they will be void of all democratic substance because they will be controlled by, and designed only to serve, vast inhuman interests.

Tariq Ali on Benazir’s assassination:,,2232700,00.html
And William Dalrymple: