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:

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:

My Absence, and a Sad Marriage

I apologise from my absence. I’ve been very busy. I’ll be back soon, but for now I’ll post something from Conflicts Forum. I'll post it because it clarifies the already clear truth that Salafism, whether the Salafis know it or not, has an inherent opposition to genuine resistance in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Below you’ll read about the marriage of Wahhabi nihilism and Arab fascism, and how its purpose is to deepen the Empire's control by encouraging the people to hate each other. And there is further clarification of how very unlike this twisting, thrusting couple (Mr. Salafi and Mr. Fascist - it's a same-sex partnership) are organisations like Hizbullah and Hamas.

The honeymoon after the wedding was remarkable for its dog-gnawed corpses, and for the smiles on the faces of fat businessmen and kings.

(I've added a link to Conflicts Forum at the top left of the screen. I recommend its intelligent and detailed articles. The three-part report on how Hizbullah defeated Israel in 2006 is fascinating.)

Summary of Salafist web sites
September 16, 2008

Salafist websites this week launched a barrage of stinging attacks on Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Predominantly these attacks came from sites linked with Saudi Arabia.

At the same time that these web sites are attacking these movements, large financial resources are being channeled to the Salafists from Saudi Arabia.

Commentators on the internet suggest that the motivation for this campaign, possibly encouraged by western agencies, is the attempt to divert Sunni Arab anger away from Israel – and to re-direct it to an alternative “enemy”, Iran and its “allies”. “Moderate” Arab leaders are concerned that the growing hostility to Israel undermines their domestic situation by exposing their support for President Abbas as tantamount to collaboration with Israel in oppressing Palestinians living in Gaza. As popular Arab hostility towards Israeli actions directed towards Gaza grows, so street anger towards these regimes rises – and the popularity of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah increases: This makes “moderate” leaders feel vulnerable.

Commentators on Islamist sites also see this web campaign as an angry reaction to the recent political achievements of Iran, Syria and Islamist movements that have sidelined Saudi Arabia and Egypt and damaged their prestige as traditional regional leaders. President Mubarak has repeatedly warned of growing Iranian influence within the Arab sphere. The denigration campaign is perceived as part of a wider “moderate” programme to contain Iran and all those who are outside the “moderate” camp.

After the First Gulf War, Saudi Arabia spent heavily on expanding Wahabbi-oriented Madrassas throughout the Sunni world in an earlier (failed) attempt to contain Iranian Shi’i influence. The attacks of the Shi’i and Sunni movements with links to Iran reflects also a concerted attempt to rally Sunni forces in places such as Lebanon where Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned at the repercussions at the defeat of the March 14th forces, and the possibility of fragmentation of the Sunni coalition there – with its possible electoral consequences in the 2009 elections. In Lebanon and elsewhere they are attempting to forge a Sunni “revival” forged from this inspired hostility to the Iranian–Syrian “axis”.

Ibrahim Alturki on Al-Mokhtasar site wrote, for example: “Well Done Hezbollah!”. In this piece, focused on the events of May in Beirut when Hezbollah took over a part of the city, Alturki argues that Hezbollah had revealed the true face of its hostility towards Sunnis after long years of deceit and hypocrisy. He concludes that Hezbollah had demonstrated that its objective was never to fight Israel, but to establish a proxy state in Lebanon belonging to Iran, to remove Sunni control, and to subordinate Sunnis. The author has congratulated Hezbollah in his title, because after the events of May, he seems to think that he needs no further proof to show that Hezbollah is working against the Sunni sect in Lebanon. It has incriminated itself, he asserts.

He invites Sunnis to take basic steps to protect themselves from Hezbollah: Sunnis to unite around the Sunni sect, to commit to the principle of Shura (governing council) to provide a unified leadership. Pursue military preparedness, and to establish Jihadist armed fighting units – as the army had failed to protect them.

He concludes his article by demanding that Arab states act and not hesitate to support the Sunnis in Lebanon militarily, politically and financially - before Iran acts to eliminate them via its Hezbollah proxy.

In a second article by Ibrahim Alturki, entitled “Facts about the Iranian-American Conflict”, he lists twenty two “facts” to show what Iran and America have in common is greater than what separates them. The media accounts of American hostility towards Iran are just a disinformation ploy, he claims, that conceals the truth of a strong alliance between the West, America and Israel to undermine Sunnis, who represent the true target of this coalition. He hints that of the three, Iran poses the greatest danger to Sunnis.

Ahmad Ajaj on Al-Rased attacks Hezbollah over its accord with thirteen Salafi movements. He argues that it was exposed as nothing more than an attempt by Hezbollah to penetrate and weaken the Sunnis. It failed – no thanks to Hariri’s Future movement that demonstrated its weakness – but through the resolve of some Salafists who showed a greater control of the Sunni community than that of its nominal ‘leader’, Sa’ad Hariri.

Al-Hisbah, a site close to al-Qae’da, is focused on the confrontation with Hamas. The site contains a series of articles criticising Hamas’ “abandonment” of resistance in favour of participation in the Palestinian Authority. These essays give “facts” about this “deviation” by Hamas. It points to Hamas attacks on Salafists in Gaza and on its confrontation with Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as reminding its readers of what signing on the Oslo Accords requires from Palestinians.

There is significant new targeting of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah by the Salafist websites (the jihadist Salafist websites and the pro-Saudi Salafist websites), but the pro-Saudi websites focus more on Iran and Hezbollah. In addition, there are numerous studies, books, essays and analyses available over the internet – a number hosted from Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia - warning against Iran, Hezbollah and the Shi’i generally, and exhorting Sunnis to confront these “dangerous projects” everywhere.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Fracturing Authority

I had great sympathy for Chechnya when it was twice destroyed by Russian forces. The Chechens have been fighting for their independence for more than a hundred and fifty years. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown had no sympathy for Chechnya because, he says, Chechnya is officially part of Russia. The Chechen issue is a matter of Russian ‘territorial integrity.’ I admit that Brown’s position here makes sense. However brutal Russia’s treatment of Chechnya, it isn’t Britain’s business. (It may be the business of concerned British people, but that’s something else).

I don’t have much sympathy for Georgia, however, and none at all for the bleatings of the US, Britain and Germany, including Brown’s ridiculous bleatings in the Guardian. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia relinquished its control of eastern Europe and allowed independence to Caucasian and Central Asian nations. But instead of independence several of these countries became absorbed into the American empire. The fear that some of them had of their huge neighbour was understandable and deeply rooted (though not in Georgia, which had participated in Soviet rule from the Georgian Stalin to the Georgian Shevardnadze). The real fault was the West’s, to so stupidly exploit this fear, and to extend, by hubris, NATO membership and American missiles right to Russia’s borders. Russia in 1991 was too weak to do anything but let power slip, but its tolerance of Western expansion also showed a naivety, an overly-optimistic trust in Western capitalism. The very memory of that naivety is a humiliation to Russians.

The current fighting started when the Georgian president (he is also an American citizen) decided, Milosevic-style, to seize back the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Thousands were killed in the Georgian bombardment, including Russian peace-keepers. South Ossetia, and the province of Abkhazia, have just as much right to secede from Georgia as Kosovo from Yugoslavia. Russia defended them, and took the opportunity to roll back American influence in the Caucasus.

The Monroe doctrine – that no major foreign power can install military bases in Central or South America because this is the United States’ sphere – has stood for 200 years. When the Soviet Union briefly shipped missiles to Cuba in 1962, the world shivered on the brink of nuclear war. But America has been pouring arms and military expertise into Georgia. So too has Israel. The torturers and murderers of the Shin Bet helped teach Saakashvili how to intimidate his opponents. In return, Saakashvili sent 2000 troops to participate in the dismantling of Iraq. He certainly expected more help from the West when his attack on South Ossetia rebounded on him.

In the event, Georgia was very similar to Gaza and Beirut. Despite all the US-Israeli arms, training and money, Georgia-as-client collapsed in hours. It is a sign of the times, these pockets slipping out of the empire’s grasp, one after the other. Imperial authority is fracturing.

Bashaar al-Assad exploited the moment beautifully. He immediately expressed his support for Russia, reminded the Russians again and again of the Israeli role in Georgia, and offered Russia a naval base in Tartus. It is unlikely that the strengthening relationship will give Syria weapons that threaten the Zionist state, but it may help Syria build its air defences against Israeli aggression.

But back to the idiots. In the Guardian, Gordon Brown says: “Twenty years ago, as the Berlin Wall fell, people assumed the end of hostility between East and West, and a new world order founded on common values.”

That was the mistake the Russians so gullibly made, until they discovered what ‘common values’ meant. To people like Brown, they mean American missile batteries in Georgia and the Ukraine. The rape of the Russian economy by anarcho-gangsters (it all happened under the direction of Western economic ‘experts’) brought Russia into the glorious new world order. Russian life expectancy plummeted.

Brown goes on to ask: “How can we best create a rules-based international system that protects our collective security and safeguards our shared values?” He has one answer: “We should continue to strengthen the transatlantic relationship.” Do I need to point out the irony? You’d think not, not after Iraq and Afghanistan, not after Lebanon and Palestine, not after Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. But obviously, yes, I do, because Brown’s audience does not immediately laugh or vomit when he says such things.

The idiot Miliband insists on extension of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. So does the idiot Cameron, leader of what passes for an opposition in this undemocratic society. If Georgia had been a member of NATO when it attacked South Ossetia, all NATO members, including Britain, would have found themselves at war with Russia. As a Briton, I’m not amused. As a human being, I am a bit: NATO is already losing a war in Afghanistan. What does it think it could do against Russia?

Brown bleating: