Book Review: A Grim Portrayal of Syria at War

DESTROYING A NATION
The Civil War in Syria
By: Nikolas Van Dam
Published by I.B. Tauris, London, 2017

The blurb of this new book on Syria presents the author, Nikolas Van Dam, as an experienced Dutch diplomat with a direct knowledge of the Middle East.

Having served as Holland’s Ambassador to Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, Van Dam also had a stint (in 2015-16) as his country’s Special Envoy for Syria. In that last assignment Van Dam monitored the situation from a base in neighboring Turkey.

Van Dam’s diplomatic background is clear throughout his book as he desperately tries, not always with success, to be fair to “all sides” which means taking no sides, while weaving arguments around the old cliché of “the only way out is through dialogue”.

Thus he is critical of Western democracies, which according to him, deceived the Syrian opposition by making promises to it, including military intervention, which they had no intention of delivering. He is especially critical of former US President Barack Obama who launched the mantra “Assad must go” and set “red line” which the Syrian despot ended up by crossing with impunity.

The first half of the book consists of a fast-paced narrative of Syrian history before the popular uprising started in the spring of 2011. The picture that emerges is that of a Syria in the throes of instability and frequent outburst of violence including sectarian conflict. Van Dam then juxtaposes that with Syria as it was reshaped under President Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970, and his son and successor Bashar al-Assad.

“Under Hafez and Bashar, Syria experienced more internal security and stability than ever before since independence,” Van Dam asserts.

But isn’t Van Dam confusing terror with security and stagnation with stability?

Leaving aside the past six years that, according to Van Dam, have claimed almost half a million Syrian lives, the previous four decades of rule by the two Assads were anything but a model of security and stability. In all those years, Syria lived under Emergency Rules while thousands were imprisoned and or tortured and executed. The absence of genuine security and stability meant that the Ba’athist regime was unable to build the durable institutions of a modern state. That’s why Syrian society at large saw its creative energies stifled, something that none of the previous dictators, from Hosni a-Zaim onwards, had managed or, perhaps, even intended to do.

In other words, contrary to Van Dam’s assertion, the two Assads destroyed chances of Syria building the political, not to mention the ethical, infrastructure of genuine security and stability.

Van Dam tries to portray Syria as a society that had always been ridden by sectarian violence, and frequently refers to “the killing of Alawites” by Arab Sunni Muslims. However, the only example he cites is that of the mass murder of Alawite military cadets in Aleppo which took place during Hafez al-Assad’s rule. The biggest “mass killing” of that epoch was the week-long carnage of unarmed civilians by Assad’s troops in Hama in 1982 which, according to Van Dam, claimed up to 25,000 lives, almost all of them Arab Sunni Muslims.

Those familiar with Syrian history would know that while sectarianism did play a role in almost all events in that unhappy lands it was never the dominant factor.

What Syria experienced, and to some extent is experiencing today, is a war of sectarians not a sectarian war.

The fight today is not between Syrian Sunnis and Alawites and it would be wrong to see the Assad dictatorship as ruled by the Alawite community as such. The fight is between the mass of disenfranchised Syrians of all sects against a despotic regime determined to go to any length to preserve its hold on power, or as we increasingly note, the illusion of power. To that end the Assad regime has focused on dominating the coercive organs of power, the army, the police and at least 15 security organizations, with the appointments of individuals loyal to Assad rather than any particular sect or even the supposedly ruling Ba’ath Party. Van Dam cites estimates of the number of Alawite officers in the Syrian army at around 86 percent. However, the key in that was loyalty to the Assad clan rather than adherence to a religious sect the tenets of which are kept secret even from its followers.

Van Dam estimates support for the Assad regime at around 30 per cent of the Syrian population. This roughly coincides with the percentage of Alawite, Christian, Ismaili and Druze communities in that country. However, to translate the statistics of a census, and even then one based only on estimates, into facts of political support for a regime requires a giant leap of imagination. One might prefer the estimates offered by Sami Khiyami, one of Syria’s most experienced diplomats now in exile, whom Van Dam quotes as well. According to Khiyami the Assad regime and its armed opponents together enjoy the support of no more than 70 per cent of Syrians, the rest disliking, even hating both, for different reasons.

According to Van Dam, the demand advanced by the Syrian opposition and more than 100 countries that Assad must go was a big hurdle on the road to a negotiated end of the conflict. Instead, Van Dam argues, the opposition and its Arab and Western democratic backers ought to have demanded Assad’s cooperation in forging transition. Van Dam may not know this but this is precisely what was attempted in 2012-13 when a Track-II plan under which Assad would “step aside” rather than “step down” was advanced with European and, to some extent, American support. It failed because Assad refused its basic tenets while Obama, even believing that Assad would fall in any case, also withdrew US support.

One may wonder about the book’s title and sub-title. What is happening in Syria is not about “destroying a nation”, nor is Syria likely to be destroyed as a nation. In fact, one may argue that, once the dictatorship is brought down, Syria may emerge from its current ordeal stronger as a nation than ever. The theme of “destruction” is used by Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers as a prop in a campaign of psychological terror to cow the Syrian people into submission. The slogan “Either Assad or We Shall Burn the Country” is openly used by diehard pro-Assad thugs including the Shabbihah.

The description of the conflict in Syria as a “civil war” may also be problematic. From ancient times in Rome, say between Marius and Sula or Caesar and Pompey, the term civil war applied to armed contest over power between two local camps of roughly the same strength at the starting point. This is not the case in Syria where the conflict was initially one between unarmed demonstrations and heavily armed security machine controlled by Assad. The parallel conflict that later developed between anti-Assad armed groups and the remnants of the regime’s army did not morph into a civil war either if only because foreign elements, and powers, became heavily involved on both sides.

Van Dam cites estimates that put the current strength of what is left of Assad’s army at over 65,000. At the same time, General Qassem Soleimani, the man who leads Tehran’s “exporting the revolution” campaign, has just boasted that he has over 60,000 men in Syria, including “volunteers for martyrdom” from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. In other words almost half of those fighting to keep Assad safe in his last hideout in Damascus are not Syrians. At the same time, it is clear that without carpet-bombing by the Russian air force, Assad would have had no chance of making even a symbolic return to such places as Aleppo.

On the armed opposition side, too, foreign intervention is significant. According to Western estimates, more than 30,000 non-Syrians, many of them European passport-holders, are fighting on the side of ISIS, the various militant groups and even Kurdish armed bands in Syria. The financial, political and training support given by more than 50 countries to the Syrian opposition may be “too little, too late”, as Van Dam asserts, but it makes it difficult to underestimate the non-Syrian element of this tragic conflict.

In other words, the proxy aspect of this conflict, something that Van Dam acknowledges, vitiates its descriptions of a classical civil war.

Despite its obvious shortcomings, Van Dam’s book is a welcome contribution to the international debate on the Syrian crisis if only because it offers a glimpse into thinking in European diplomatic circles.

What some of us might find hard to accept is Van Dam’s deep pessimism as to the future of Syria.
He writes: “There is no good future for Syria with Bashar al-Assad in powers, but without al-Assad, future prospects (sic) for Syria do not look promising either.

However, regardless of what happens next the Assad terror machine has been broken and, even with Russian and Iranian support, cannot be restored to its previous strength.

If only for that, “future prospects” need not look so grim. Well. We shall see.

A Rainbow That Makes the Heart Leap

Centres of Cataclysm: Celebrating Fifty Years of Modern Poetry in Translation
Edited by Sasha Dugdale, David Constantine and Helen Constantine
Published by Bloodaxe Books, London, 2016

In his seminal study of translation, “Mouse or Rat?” the late Italian linguist and novelist Umberto Eco argues for the Latin proverb according to which translating a literary text is always tantamount to a betrayal. He even hints at the possibility that Eve decided to devour the forbidden fruit because of an inadequate translation of the injunction not to do so.

On a more mundane level, translation could cause confusion and even conflict in many walks of life even within the same family of languages. For example, in British English the verb “to table” means “to put forward a text or a resolution” while in American English it means “to withdraw a text.” As Eco notes, a mouse is a cuddly creature while a rat is a revulsive pest. On a different level an “orchard” isn’t a “grove” and an epistle is somehow more than a letter. A “gate” is somehow more than just a “door” and you would take a “damsel” for a “wench” at your peril.

In Nabokov’s black comic novel “Pnin”, a misunderstanding of the trains’ timetable leads the eponymous hero, a Russian exile in America, into boarding a different train and ending up where he didn’t want to go and into a story he hadn’t imagined.

If translating even the simplest text, say a manual for your made-in-China washing machine is difficult, you can imagine how much more difficult translating poetry it. You have to be either heroic or reckless to attempt it.

I did so when I was a reckless teenager, working for “Ashna” (The Acquaintance), a literary magazine in Tehran edited by the poet Ahmad Shamlu. I translated dozens of poems, mostly by modern German and French poets until I hit Edith Sitwell’s celebrated poem “Still Falls The Rain” which took me a week to complete and undermined my health, also ending my ambitions as a translator.

So you can imagine how I felt when faced with this amazing object of bravura that is an anthology of 250 modern and post-modern poems in translation from more than a dozen languages.

The poems are chosen from the many issues of the magazine “Modern Poetry in Translation” (MPT) founded by the late Ted Hughes, England’s most celebrated Poet Laureate, in 1965. The fact that the magazine has enjoyed such longevity is a tribute to England’s status as one of two or three countries where poetry is still regarded with keen interest, and even a certain deference.

The anthology shuns any particular order; a fruit of Catholic, not to say chaotic, tastes of the translators. The translators, many of them poets themselves, wanted to share with others what they liked. Inevitably, perhaps, the bulk of the poems offered here are from European languages, including some like Irish and Franconian German, which thrive in very small communities.

There is also no chronological order, perhaps because poetry, or at least good poetry, is timeless. Instead, the editors have tried to erect a thematic structure. Again, inevitably, the themes chosen are those that reflect the existential reality of the past century or so- an age of revolutions, wars, genocides, oppression, betrayals, but also of struggle, hope and, occasional triumph of good over evil.

Lovers of poetry would appreciate the fact that the anthology has not been limited to well-known poets like the Russian Osip Mandelstam, the German Bertolt Brecht, the Spanish Federico Garcia Lorca, the Italian Cesare Pavese, or the Iranian Forugh Farrokhzad.

The volume offers much opportunity for happy serendipity as the reader discovers poets he hadn’t heard of before. Examples of this include the Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov and his superb poem “My Mother Reads Poetry”, the Armenian Zahrad and his short poem “Sentence”, and the Chinese poet Yu Jian with his long elegy “Event-Digging”. Other surprises include the poems “Entertainment” and “Liberation” by Hochi Minh, the father of Vietnam’s independence, both written in prison.

Several modern Arab poets are also present, including the Iraqi Fawzi Karim and his tongue-in-cheek ”The Usual Story”, the Sudanese Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi with his short ode “Nothing” and the Iraqi Fadel Assultani and his Larkinesque poem “A Tree”. The Palestinian poet Samih Al-Qasim is present with an excerpt from his long poem “An Inquest” as is Mahmoud Darwish with two of his longer poems.

Some poets of Arab origin who write in European languages, are also included although, notably the Moroccan Tahar ben Jalloun, a renowned novelist in French. Another Arab poet writing in French is Ridha Zili who is included with two excellent short poems.

The anthology includes some of my favourite Iranian poets who are better known abroad than at home, notably Mimi Khalvati and Ziba Karbassi. There is also the translation of a Persian poem “Dear Fahimeh” addressed to a young woman executed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Intriguingly, we are told that the author is “unknown or concealed”, presumably because he or she is in Iran and thus in danger of being executed by the mullahs.

Some of the interesting later Iranian poets like Hashem Shaabani, executed in Ahvaz under President Hassan Rouhani, or Fatemeh Ekhtesari sentenced to be caned in public, are not included presumably because their work appeared in translation in the West after the anthology was put together.

The poems chosen are of varying lengths. Ernst Jandel’s German poem “Time Flies” consists of only one word ”Lustig” (lusty) written several ties to form a visual pyramid. The Serbian poet Vasco Popa’s “Cape of Good Hope” contains only 49 words. In contrast Pascal Petit’s “At the Gate of Secrets”, after the Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhasz, runs into more than a thousand words. Juhasz’ own fascinating poem “The Boy Turned Into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets” is offered in a shortened version.

Some of the most interesting poets of recent times, at least in this opinion, are either not included or presented with just one poem. Among them are the simply divine Polish Wislawa Szymborska with a short poem ”Innocence” and Eugenio Montale who isn’t included along with Jorge Luis Borges who has had great fun with the art of compiling anthologies.

Because the poems are translated by many people, some of them poets in their own right, the anthology reflects a rich variety of styles, tones and sensitivities, providing a real treasure for lovers of poetry everywhere. The publisher Bloodaxe is itself some kind of a miracle and a credit to England, being one of a handful of publishing companies in Europe, still surviving and to some extent even prospering solely by mass-marketing poetry.

This anthology is a veritable literary rainbow of the kind which Ernst Jandl said your heart leaps in the sky when you behold it.

Aleppo: A City That Refuses to Die

Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City, Philip Mansel, 238 pages, I.B. Tauris, London, 2016

In a bizarre coincidence, this fascinating portrayal of Aleppo, one of the Middle East’s most fascinating cities, came out exactly on the day that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of his forces from Syria. One stated objective of the Russian intervention was the “liberation” of Aleppo from “terrorist groups” and its handover to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

It is possible that the book’s subtitle, which includes the word “fall was chosen in anticipation of Aleppo’s fall to the combined forces of Russia, Iran and Assad. If that was indeed the case, I.B. Tauris editors were not alone in expecting Aleppo to fall after suffering six months of carpet-bombing by the Russian air force and artillery attacks by Iranian units plus Lebanese, Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries recruited by Tehran.

In a symbolic gesture earlier this year, the King of Bahrain, Hamad Bin Issa, even presented President Putin with a Damascene sword, recalling a tradition that started in 1260 when the Mongol Khan Hulagu entered Aleppo and razed it to the ground after receiving a Damascene sword as a sign of submission to the conqueror. (In Islamic tradition the infidel conqueror gets a Damascene sword while the Islamic warrior or ghazi is presented with an Indian scimitar known as muhannad.) However, though inflicted with numerous wounds, Aleppo did not fall to the Russo-Iranian invaders, manifesting, once again, its amazing resilience.

Aleppo is one of a dozen or so ancient cities that, in one form or another, seem to have been there from the very beginning of time. Mansel dates the city’s origins as far back as 2500 years BC, making it one of the oldest urban settlements anywhere in the world. In its long history, Aleppo has also been a melting pot of peoples and civilizations. It has been home to Chaldeans, Assyrians, Hittites, Hebrews, Elamites, Persians and, more recently Kurds, Ottomans and Arabs. According to Jewish and Arabic legends Abraham the grandfather of the Monotheistic religions, “milked his goats there and dispensed the money from its sale as alms, hence the name of the city Halab, Arabic for milk.” Mansel writes.

To outside observers, Aleppo today appears like a battleground for the latest version of religious wars that have marked the history of the Middle East of millennia.

This time the Alawite (Nusayri) minority is trying to regain control of the city with support from Lebanese Shiite militias recruited by the region’s main Shite power, the Islamic Republic in Iran. The city’s Sunni Muslim majority and Christian and Druze minorities are fighting to frustrate that ambition.

Long before that, however, Aleppo was a prize in constant wars between the Roman and Persian Empires, changing hands several times. Later, during the Crusade, Aleppo became a battleground between Catholic mini-kingdoms established by the Franks and Orthodox, including Armenian, statelets often allied to Muslim emirs and khans fighting against the invaders from Europe. Still later, Aleppo became a key base for the Sunni Caliphate under Ottomans in wars against Shiite Iran under the Safavids.

What is amazing in all this, as Mansel demonstrates, is Aleppo’s success in also acting as a cradle of culture and civilization. It has been home to several Sufi tariqas (paths) and, in more recent times, a focal point for modern political ideologies including socialism and nationalism.

While Damascus was the capital of the desert, Aleppo was the heart of the fertile plain; the two forming what is Syria today.

The first part of Mansel’s book, 67 pages to be exact, is written as an obituary of Aleppo. The tone is somber, not to say funerary. The writer narrates how the Assad clan, under Hafez and Bashar, tried to crush the city’s creative and, necessarily, rebellious spirit. He even argues that Bashar purposefully created the so-called Islamic Caliphate or ISIS (Da’esh in Arabic) in order to persuade the Aleppans that their choice was limited to tyranny under the Assads or slavery under the self-styled Caliph.

Mansel writes: “States and religions are killing Aleppo. People and monuments are dying….In the twenty-first Century, Aleppo has entered in dark ages.” The second part of the book, 137 pages, is a sheer delight to read. It consists of travelogues and/or letters by western visitors spanning several centuries and portraying the city and its rich and diverse experience from different angles.

Some of the travelogues deal with the seemingly endless miseries that history has handed out to Aleppo: from earthquakes to droughts and wars among rival powers, some of which were doomed to disappear in the sand of oblivion that is history.
However, the cumulative effect of Mansel’s masterly selection is one of optimism about and hope for Aleppo’s future. It seems that Aleppo has always enjoyed the blessing that Nietzsche coveted: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger!”
Many tyrants tried to kill Aleppo and failed. Bashar and the boyars and the mullahs who keep him alive are only the latest.

Aleppo is wounded, deeply wounded, but it is still alive, and fighting back.

The Crossing

The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria

By Samar Yazbek Rider Books, 280 pages London, 2015

“The world has abandoned us!” This is the tragic message that comes out of Samar Yazbek’s fascinating reportage from what she describes as “the shattered heart of Syria.”

But how accurate is that message?

In a sense, it is wide of the mark.

Syrians have not been abandoned. Their story is all over the place. Millions are taken care of in refugee camps in neighboring countries. The many thousands who manage to arrive on European shores alive and in one piece are stared at in endless television footage. Western leaders make commerce of empathy by talking about “the sufferings of the Syrian people.” President Barack Obama draws “redlines,” forms “coalitions,” and, above all, makes finger-pointing “make-no-mistake” speeches around and about them.

The Crossing

Syrians have not been abandoned for other reasons as well.

The Mullahs of Tehran sign checks to finance Bashar Al-Assad’s war machine, regularly equipped and upgraded by the neo-Tsarists in Moscow. Mercenaries from various Hezbollah branches, notably Lebanon under Iranian command, pour in to kill Syrians while, at the other end of the spectrum, throat-slitting jihadis from 80 countries have come to indulge in killing sprees of their own.

The world is ready to shed crocodile tears for Syria, organize diplomatic ballets, and make passionate speeches about its sufferings. But it is not willing or able to stop the jets that bomb defenseless towns and villages, often with chemical weapons.

No, the world hasn’t abandoned Syria.

Syrians would have been better off had the world abandoned them rather than using their country as a battlefield by rival powers engaged in a proxy war.

The book’s blurb presents Yazbek as a novelist. However, the book we read is not fiction but excellent journalism. Yazbek has been true to the three golden rules of journalism: “Assume nothing; believe no one; check everything!”

Her skill as a writer of fiction comes in handy in portraying the people she meets and in capturing snippets of life—such as a mother playing hide-and-seek with a pro-Assad sniper in a tower facing her window, or women insisting to go to the hairdresser amid all the mayhem, presumably to thumb their nose at “the butcher Assad.”

Yazbek’s reportage paints a grim picture. Three themes stand out.

The first is that although the Syrian revolution started as a people’s uprising against a despotic regime, it has now splintered into numerous factions with different, often contradictory, agendas. The impression left is that the only thing that a majority of Syrians agree upon is that they want Assad to go.

The second theme is that sectarianism is in the ascendancy. “The Alawites have killed us, and we shall kill them,” a young jihadi emir tells Yazbek in an interview.

“The real danger is no longer the lack of money or even bombing but the takfirists,” says a young man who edits a rebel magazine in Idlib.

“The arrival of Hezbollah and the Iranians was the best help for ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria],” says another anti-Assad fighter.

Another “emir” from a supposedly moderate faction unveils a program to offer Christians, whom he calls “Nasara” (Nazarenes), the choice to convert to Islam or pay the jizyah (poll tax) while the Alawites and Druze will be kicked out of Syria.

These neo-sectarians even hate the Muslim Brotherhood, which they claim is corrupted by compromise.

Yazbek records a mass of other observations and anecdotal evidence, such as the sudden appearance of a new kind of niqab (full face veil), known as the khimar, among Syrian women, and special forms of beards among men, as signs of growing sectarianism.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Yazbek’s account indicates that reconstituting Syria as a unified nation-state may no longer be possible at least in the short-run. “Jihadis have no home; their home is their faith,” Yazbek notes. A Syria effectively under occupation by the Russo–Iranian coalition on the one hand and the takfirists on the other means that “one cannot talk of one Syria now.”

A commander in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) puts it thus: “Every little community has become a state in itself.”

Yazbek’s account, covering vast chunks of Syrian territory, depicts scores of towns and villages that have been turned into piles of rubble. Many people, bombed by Assad out of their villages, live in caves. At least half the population has been turned into internally displaced people, refugees in neighboring countries, or mere survivors in their ruined villages.

Yazbek shows children rendered mute as a result of shell-shock and old people dying of hunger and lack of medical attention. A landscape of bombed villages, burnt farms and orchards, charred carcasses of factories, and even “graveyards of tanks and armored vehicles” conjure a Syria that is more scarred than it was after the Mongol invasion in the Middle Ages.

Yazbek claims that all armed groups, including ones she sympathizes with, are engaged in stealing and looting. The takfirists claim that looting is a firm principle of Islam, which they say allows the ghazi (holy warrior) to take booty. In some cases, fatwas authorizing looting operations are issued by sheikhs attached to fighting units. Some foreign jihadis, Chechens for example, come for brief stints of fighting and looting before returning to their homes in Russia with a small fortune. Looting has a major role in financing ISIS, as does the holding of hostages, especially foreign ones, for ransom.

Some fighting groups deliberately prolong battles to get more money from their foreign benefactors, Yazbek reports.

There are some surrealistic touches as well. The mobile telephone network is kept in working order, even for anti-Assad groups, because the company that provides it is owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Bashar Al-Assad. The rebel fighters, even the most reactionary, are computer savvy to a fault; they use GPS to target Assad’s forces in battle.

In the midst of all that mayhem there are people who are trying to maintain aspects of ordinary life, including some schooling for children. A project known as the Karam (Generosity) Bus brings books, films, and videos to people living in destroyed villages, often in the teeth of opposition from ISIS.

Yazbek, basing herself on testimonies she collected, makes a number of assertions that merit further investigation. For example, she says that at the start of the revolution, Assad released takfirist prisoners while organizing mass arrests against secular and liberal opponents of the regime. This must have been because Assad wanted to claim that he is fighting not ordinary Syrians who want more freedom but violent Al-Qaeda-type groups.

Yazbek also asserts that the regime organized a series of terrorist attacks against civilians, like explosions in a bazaar in Damascus, to frighten the middle classes into accepting Assad’s “protection” against “Islamist terrorist groups.”

I have to disagree with Yazbek on two points.

The first is her belief that Sufism represents “moderation in Islam” while Salafism transforms religion into a political ideology. The truth is that any use of religion as a vehicle for achieving political power leads to violence. In that context Sufism is no exception; history includes instances of savagery conducted by Sufi rulers.

The second point of disagreement is Yazbek’s assertion that Syria’s salvation is possible only through secularism and Arab nationalism. But doesn’t the Assad regime, indeed the whole Ba’athist movement, claim to be secular and Arab nationalist?

What Syria needs is not any “-ism” but a plain, even bland, minimum of security and freedom. Real people should not be required to conform to a political system built on an arbitrary abstraction.

Secularism and nationalism are ideological abstractions just like takfirism in the Sunni Muslim world and Khomeinism in Iran. Applied to real people, such abstractions and other “-isms” bring nothing but dictatorship and death.

Yazbek’s final assertion sends the chill up our spine: The only winner in Syria today is death!

Between the Ayatollah and the Marquis

Khomeini, de Sade, and Me

By Abnousse Shalmani Grasset, 177 pages Paris, 2014

If we are to believe Abnousse Shalmani, being a woman is hard work even in Western democracies boasting of gender equality and human rights. It is even harder in contemporary Iran where a sectarian regime rejects the concept of individual freedom even for men let alone women.

Born in Tehran in 1977, two years before the Mullahs seized power, Ms. Shalmani was faced with “the precarious nature” of her existence when, aged seven, she was first sent to school.

She found the rite of passage terrifying.

Suddenly, she had to wear special clothes, cover her head, and wipe the smile off her face. She was advised to look grim and as ugly as possible. Looking in the mirror, she felt she now looked like a raven. On the way to school she began to notice that there were countless ravens, women wearing the dress imposed by Ruhollah Khomeini, the dour-faced octogenarian Ayatollah who marketed himself as the sole authority on right and wrong.

Abnousse Shalmani

So, one day, having suffered and cried in secret for weeks in and out of school, the seven-year-old Abnousse simply lost her nerve. She decided to cast away her Khomeinist clothes and run around the school courtyard naked.

You could imagine the scandal, and the dangers that such behavior posed for her parents. While her mother tried to reason with her, urging a secular form of taqiyah (dissimulation), Abnousse’s father decided that the only way to save her was for the whole family to leave the Islamic Republic. The Shalmanis ended up in the French capital in 1985 at a time when many in the West regarded the Khomeinist regime as the epitome of evil.

Abnousse’s mother tried to protect the family by claiming to their French neighbors that they were Armenians. Abnousse’s father, however, insisted on advertising their Iranian identity with the argument that it was Khomeini and his cohorts who had discarded Iranian-ness in favour of an invented Islamist–revolutionary identity.

Shalmani’s book is a mixture of autobiography, literary, and philosophical musings, and novelistic anecdotes narrated with passion and humor.

Once in Paris, Shalmani decided to devote her life to fighting Khomeinism.

In time, perhaps without being conscious of it at first, she started doing this by looking for those who represented the extreme opposite of Khomeini’s worldview. If Khomeini was obsessed with forbidding this and that, Shalmani looked for someone who allowed every excess in human behavior.

She found a point of entry in European, especially French, erotic literature. La Merteuil, the manipulative heroine of Les Liaisons dangereuses became a role model, while Pierre Louÿs’ femmes fatales offered glimpses into a world of freedom through defiance.

Interestingly, Shalmani does not know that Iran itself has a huge wealth of erotic literature, starting with the One Thousand and One Nights right up to Sadreddin Elahi’s novel of the 1950s Our City Blonde, in which a ruthless beauty plays with powerful men of the world like so many pathetic puppets.

French erotic literature is a slippery slope that leads Shalmani to the Marquis de Sade, the 19th-century aristocrat and novelist who died of syphilis in a lunatic asylum.

Shalmani adores de Sade because he forbids forbidding. For him whatever human beings do, including the worst deviations from moral and ethical norms such as incest, must be accepted.

Shalmani thinks that because he permits all, de Sade is the antithesis of Khomeini, who forbids everything. In reality, however, Khomeini and de Sade are two faces of the same coin. Khomeini likes to dissolve women into nothingness by dressing them beyond recognition. In contrast, de Sade transforms women into naked mannequins by undressing them. His heroines, Justine and Juliette in particular, are one-dimensional caricatures of women caught between sadism and masochism.

(Incidentally, Pierre Loti may have hit the point when he said: “Dressing up a woman could be more erotic than undressing her!”)

Unwittingly, Shalmani exposes the amazing sameness of de Sade and Khomeini.

Both men write passionate but ultimately empty prose. Khomeini hides too much, de Sade reveals more than is necessary for good taste. Both are too earnest, devoid of irony, and lacking a sense of humor. Their style could be described as heavy-handed lightness. Khomeini’s uses violence, even torture, to impose his version of virtue. De Sade uses the same methods to impose his version of vice.

For reasons that are hard to fathom, Shalmani thinks that European, especially French, literature and cinema treat women better than Iranian literature and Islamic culture in general. This is not always the case. Women get a poor deal on both sides of the divide, if only because literature reflects the abiding anti-woman prejudice built into the very DNA of most cultures.

Manon Lescaut, the heroine of Abbé Prévost’s novel, and the various mistresses of Diderot’s hero Jacques le Fataliste and Émile Zola’s Nana and L’Assommoir, all get a rough deal, not to mention François Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux. Kathleen Winsor’s Amber St. Clare (from Forever Amber) does assert her claim to a place in a male-dominated world but only after untold sufferings. John Cleland’s eponymous Fanny Hill is a resourceful whore but ends up more of a victim. Lola Montez has men dancing to her tune but only for as long as she is young and sexually attractive. And Mata Hari, another “strong, self-contained” woman, ends up in front of a firing squad.

In some Hollywood movies—Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce, for example—women take control of their destiny and succeed, up to a point, before being brought down and destroyed. In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s character is certainly a strong woman, but she is also a murderer.

Looking for “liberated women,” Shalmani goes on to admire the Japanese geishas, the medieval European courtesans, and even “hermaphrodite types” like Colette and Virginia Woolf.

Shalmani is rightly angry at the Khomeinist belief that women should be “kept covered, controlled, and pregnant” so that they won’t cause mischief. But she fails to see an echo of that same mentality in the German dictum, “For women: children, kitchen, and church.”

Because of her hatred for Khomeini’s treatment of women, Shalmani even goes on to imply that the maternal instinct is an invention of men to keep women on a tight leash. Needless to say, that instinct and its corollary, paternal instinct, are easily observable in most human beings.

Shalmani’s adoration of some iconic figures of Western culture, Voltaire for example, is naïve, to say the least. To be sure, Voltaire was a major philosopher and a passable writer. But he was also full of disdain for women, and hatred for Muslims, Jews, and homosexuals. He was also on the payroll of Russian Empress Catherine the Great.

The point is that one’s dislike of a man like Khomeini should not make one forget that real life isn’t black or white but proceeds in the chiaroscuro of our cultural habitat at any given time.

Allowing one’s life to be dictated by hatred for Khomeini, or Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein or any other monster, is to give them a victory they do not deserve.

It is possible to have a good love life without Khomeini or de Sade or erotic literature, or indeed any literature.

I also feel sorry that Shalmani’s experience under Khomeini has left her with deep bitterness about Iran itself. (She says she even hates pomegranate juice because it reminds her of Iran!) Well, that’s her choice: the bird chooses its tree; the tree never chooses its bird.

Anxious to put as much distance as possible between herself and Iran, Shalmani praises the French Revolution but condemns the Iranian one. However, the truth is that all revolutions are prompted by human failure leading to greater tragedies.

Shalmani’s narrative is at its best when she writes about the wretchedness of exile with its petty problems and big lies, and its false hopes and real disappointments.

Khomeini, de Sade, and Me has already been translated in Italian, Dutch, and German.

It merits being translated into other languages also.

The Russian Novel is Back—with an American Accent

[inset_left]The Persian
Alexander Ilichevsky
610 pages
Moscow, 2015[/inset_left]

Ever wondered what happened to those thick Russian novels with dramatis personae large enough to populate the whole of Siberia?

Well, decades of revolution, terror, war, and semi-chaos left little time for Russian novelists to produce such monumental tomes. Now, however, the big fat Russian novel may be making a comeback with Alexander Ilichevsky’s fascinating page-turner The Persian. Using the matrix of thrillers the novel has an American accent and an Iranian hero.

Coming in 610 pages, Ilichevsky’s novel is still 500 pages shorter than Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, not to mention War and Peace. Nevertheless, it is based on the same ambition: capturing as much of the universe as possible within the confines of a broad outline.

It is as hard to say what The Persian is about as any brief description of War and Peace would be. Well, if War and Peace is about the invasion of Russia by Napoleon, Ilichevsky’s novel is about the invasion of the contemporary world by a mightier conqueror: globalization. Just as Napoleon’s incursion affected the lives of millions even in the remotest of villages, globalization is shaping and reshaping the lives of virtually the whole of humanity, and not always for the better.

Alexander Ilichevsky - The Persian - Cover

Ilichevsky’s novel is partly autobiographical. Like him, his hero Ilia Doubnov, a young ethnic Russian born in Soumgait, the oil city of the then-Soviet Azerbaijan, is a graduate of the most select scientific academy in the USSR when his life is turned upside down by the fall of the Soviet Empire and the end of Communism. (Ilichevsky spent years working for an oil company in the US.) Suddenly left rootless, Ilia becomes a citizen of the world in an age in which hundreds of millions of peoples live like global Bedouins, traveling to and working in wherever chance and opportunity land them. However, having embarked on more than one gravy train and tasted more than one forbidden fruit he is struck by an incurable longing for “identity” and “roots.” He wants to be somebody, not just anybody, and belong to somewhere specific, not just to anywhere—which in most cases means ritzy hotels and glitzy casinos.

Seizing the opportunity of a job offer by a multinational oil company operating in the newly independent Azerbaijan, Ilia returns to his native land and renews contact with his childhood friend Hashem.

However, the Hashem he now finds is not the shy, terrified refugee boy who had fled his home in neighboring Iran after the mullahs seized power in Tehran. Hashem has absorbed the shock of his escape from the terror of the mullahs and, perhaps more importantly, freed himself from nostalgia, the opiate of the vanquished in history. He has been reborn as a citizen of the universe, beyond and above nation-states and even the global system itself. His sense of belonging to “something much larger than anything imaginable” is in sharp contrast with the seeming narrowness of his ambition: to save the last remaining “houbara” birds hunted with falcons for fun.

Ilia wants to use science and technology to tame nature; Hashem looks to poetry and music to harmonize human life with nature. Thus in a dualism that reminds one of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Ilia represents the material aspect of existence while Hashem stands for the spiritual. The traditional East–West division is introduced as a pattern for creative conflict.

The two friends clash, collude, and conspire to give meaning to an existence that, each in his manner, finds difficult to cope with.

However, lest you imagine that Ilichevsky’s novel is simply about a curious friendship, we have to report that The Persian evolves across a much larger canvas. In fact, one might say the novel is about everything; you name it and Ilichevsky talks about it. Want to know how the Rockefellers made their fortune from oil in Baku? Are you interested in the study of falcons and their surprising diversity? Are you interested to know how bankers and traders have taken mankind for a ride? Perhaps you want a concise history of the oil industry, the “curse of mankind,” or an account of the two world wars in Europe and the Middle East? What about an account of an imaginary trip to Azerbaijan by Osama Bin Laden to hunt ”houbara”?

The Persian contains numerous stories within its main narrative, ranging from Stalinist terror to Nazi spy operations in the Middle East, not to mention a tender May–September love affair between an Azeri teenage girl and an ageing American oil engineer.

This novel is also full of threatening shadows, including ecological disaster, Islamist terrorism, economic meltdown, mass movements of refugees across continents, and a growing cynicism about man’s ability even to understand his tragic predicament.

Ilichevsky’s implicit theme is that we live in a world in which every incident, even the most minute—the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon—affects everyone’s life across the globe.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to see Ilichevsky as another Tolstoy.

The great master of the big fat Russian novel interspersed his narrative with essays and pontifications on a range of philosophical observations regarding faith, love, ethical behavior and even the organization of rural life. Some editors take all those essays out of Tolstoy to produce concise versions of War and Peace or Anna Karenina without upsetting many readers.

Ilichevsky, however, is no essayist and interjects his digressions in the form of mini-stories and anecdotes suitable for dinner-talk. In that sense his technique is closer to that of Shahrazad in The One Thousand and One Nights than to Tolstoy. Even if you are tempted to jump the digressions to return to the main story, you cannot—the tale-within-the-tale is almost always as captivating as the main story. Worse still, if you skip the interjection you may find out later that it was the key to an important aspect of the narrative as a whole.

Ilichevsky’s poetic prose creates an atmospheric music that exploits the lyrical potential of the Russian language to the full. This is a beautiful, confusing, annoying, strange, and ultimately enjoyable read.

An American Scenario for Taming the Mullahs of Tehran

[inset_left] Taking on Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Threat
By Abraham D. Sofaer
Hoover Institution Press, 182 pages
United States, 2015 [/inset_left]

With the future of the much-advertised nuclear “deal” between Iran and the six major powers still uncertain, the debate about how to deal with the Khomeinist regime in Tehran continues.

Abraham Sofaer, the author of this new book, has good credentials for taking part in this debate. For five years he was the US State department’s legal adviser focusing on relations with Iran, a position that enabled him to meet many Iranian officials and semi-officials and have access to confidential reports on US relations with Tehran. His book gains additional authority thanks to a lengthy forward by former US secretary of state George P. Shultz and blurb endorsements by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Abbas Milani, a prominent Iranian–American expert on the Islamic Republic.

Sofaer’s argument is that successive US administrations have had Iran policies largely based on wishful thinking. Some have pursued the dream of “regime change” in Tehran without really providing the necessary instruments for achieving it. As a result they further antagonized the mullahs while allowing them to crush their domestic opponents. Others toyed with the idea of accommodation with the mullahs in the hope of persuading them to change aspects of their behavior. That scheme also failed because, once assured that they are not threatened, the mullahs became more rather than less aggressive. Whenever the mullahs felt really threatened they put on a “reformist mask” and fielded “a smiling mullah” like Mohammad Khatami in the last century or Hassan Rouhani today.

Taking on Iran

Sofaer admits that even Reagan had “wasted three years” in secret talks with then-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Tehran to help the latter’s faction defeat the rival faction led by Ayatollah Montazeri. Once Rafsanjani had achieved his goal he ordered a resumption of hostile operations against the US, including the capture of more American hostages in Lebanon.

Under President Barack Obama, the US adopted a policy of accommodation regardless of the cost. To sell that policy to an American public that is suspicious of the mullahs, Obama narrowed the choice between full-scale invasion of Iran and granting it what it wants. Obama also limited the whole Iranian conundrum to the nuclear issue, leaving aside such issues as Iran’s role in exporting terror, and its systematic violation of human rights. Since the American public is in no mood for another land war in the Middle East, Obama was able to trigger the process that produced the Vienna nuclear “deal.”

Sofaer argues that all those policies were wrong and, in some cases, even counterproductive. He suggests that the US should abandon the idea of regime change in Tehran along with any dream of “internal reform” within the Khomeinist set-up. At the same time he suggests, the US should regard the Islamic Republic as a much more complex problem, beyond the nuclear issue. It is against those assertions that he tackles the issue of “Taking on Iran.”

The question is: how?

Sofaer’s solution is simple. The US should judge and hence treat the Islamic Republic based on what Tehran does at any given time. If Tehran threatens Washington’s interests anywhere then the US should reciprocate by attacking Khomeinist interests. Whenever used, the method has worked, Sofaer claimed.

For example, at one point in Iraq, the Americans found out that many of their soldiers who died were victims of roadside bombs supplied by Tehran. The then-US commander, Gen. David Petraeus, sent a message to Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general in charge of “exporting revolution”: Stop or we will come and get you!

The deadly supplies stopped within days.

Another example was in the1980s when Khomeini ordered his forces to target Kuwaiti oil tankers. President Ronald Reagan ordered the US Navy to sink the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s navy in a day-long battle (April 18, 1988). Khomeini instantly stopped targeting the tankers and even agreed to halt the war with Iraq.

In contrast, Sofaer claims that when the US decided to turn its face the other way, Iran was encouraged to do more mischief. He says: The FBI had all the evidence anyone needed that the attack on Khobar in which American personnel were killed was carried on orders from Tehran. However, President Bill Clinton decided to hush things and thus encouraged Iranian hostility.

Sofaer also claims that Iran had maintained a working relationship with Al-Qaeda and that Washington had intercepted a letter from Ayman Al-Zawahiri thanking the Khomeinist leadership. He further claims that Iran supplied some of the bases maintained by Al-Qaeda in Yemen, presumably through the Houthis.

Sofaer cites another attempt by the Rafsanjani faction to “neutralize” the US. In May 2003, Tehran sent a proposal, ostensibly written by Sadeq Kharrazi, Iran’s former ambassador to the United Nations, offering Washington a “grand bargain.” Though President George W. Bush was not keen on the exercise, he took it into consideration and reduced pressure on Tehran.

Sofaer claims that there is “solid legal basis” for taking punitive action, including punctual military strikes, against the Islamic Republic, with reference to the right of self-defense under the Charter of the United Nations.

Taking punitive action in response to mischief-making by Tehran does not exclude diplomatic negotiations, Sofaer asserts. The most important point is for Tehran leaders to know that every one of their actions will have consequences. The author even suggests some specific targets for US punitive “strikes,” including the islands of Farsi and Abu Musa, and Revolutionary Guard command-and-control centers in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

It is unlikely that President Obama would buy Soafer’s scenario. However, Obama’s successor might find the Sofaer thesis intriguing, to say the least.

Sofaer’s book suffers from poor editing. Several long paragraphs are repeated on different pages and too much space is given to the settling of scores by Shultz with his colleague Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s former defense secretary.

There are also numerous mistakes. Obama’s first secretary of defense was Robert Gates, not William. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was not “the leader of the Taliban” but head of Hezb-e Islami finance first by the CIA and then by Iran. The woman assassinated by Khomeini agents in Washington was Mrs. Nayereh Rafizadeh, not Narea.

Rafsanjani sent his son, Mehdi, for secret talks with the Reagan administration. Then-prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi had his own separate channel with Washington.

And dialogue between the US and the USSR was not started by Reagan. The two had been allies during the Second World War and, later, with one exception, held summits. (The exception was during the brief premiership of Georgy Malenkov, who succeeded Stalin but was quickly eased out of office by Nikita Khrushchev.)

Whether or not one agrees with Sofaer’s exposé, his take on “Taking on Iran” is original.

A Symphony of Parallel Tragedies

[inset_left]Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and Nakba
Rabee Al-Madhoun
Arab Institute for Publication, 267 pages
Beirut, 2015[/inset_left]

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The subtitle of this new novel by Palestinian writer Rabee Al-Madhoun describes it as “a concerto in four movements.” However, the reader would soon conclude that what Madhoun is offering is more of a symphony woven around the themes of individual and collective destinies, love and hate, and the utter randomness of events that affect our lives while we have little or no control over them.

Composed like a prose version of the Russian Matryushka dolls, with the smaller dolls nesting in the larger ones, the novel narrates the stories of four characters that, at first glance, have as much in common as strange ships passing at night and in fog.

First, there is Ivana Ardakian, an Armenian–Palestinian who comes of age during the British mandate in Palestine. Breaking rigid local traditions she elopes with a British medical doctor and has a daughter from him before they flee to Britain at the end of the British presence. We don’t know whether Ivana’s Armenian family name, which means “a fragile plant,” contains a symbolic message. But her life certainly symbolizes the fragility of the human condition.

In a sense, Ivana’s story could be seen as a long monody of loss, longing and, mercifully, also love.

In a point–counterpoint style Ivana’s story is then related to Jenin Dahman’s narrative in what could be regarded as the second movement of the symphonic expose.

Jenin Dahman, who may sound to some as an alter ego for the writer, is writing a novel of her own with the provocative title of “Stupid Palestinian” (Falastini Tais). This is designed to tell the story of one Mahmoud Dahman who flees with his family from Ashkelon to Gaza during the 1948 convulsion that led to the emergence of Israel as a nation, the event known to Arabs as the Nakba (Catastrophe). For murky reasons, partly related to fear of being arrested by the dreadful Egyptian secret police, Dahman abandons his family in Gaza and moves back to Ashkelon (Al-Majdal in Arabic).

What Dahman had hoped would be a brief sojourn turns out to become a life sentence when he finds out that a ceasefire-line between Israel and Gaza, now under Egyptian rule, would not allow him to be reunited with his family.

Discovering reserves of stoicism in himself, Dahman marries another woman and settles in Israel as if embarking on a strange ship heading for unknown shores.

While telling Dahman’s story, Jenin’s narrator bifurcates into telling the story of her own love affair with Bassem, a West bank Palestinian who has emigrated to the United States. Here, we are dealing with triple exiles creating chasms that only love might bridge.

The loving couple settles in Jaffa, now a suburb of Tel Aviv, and settle in an old castle, maybe hoping to capture some of a past that they never knew but still hope to see as their future.

In the third movement, the direction of exile changes. This time we see Ivana’s daughter Jolie returning to Israel with her husband Walid Dahman to fulfil her mother’s wish for her ashes to be taken to either her native city Acre or Jerusalem. The two visitors, who now lack any personal attachment to the disputed land, visit Haifa, Acre, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Ashkelon as foreign tourists. Because they see the place with fresh eyes, not affected by two generations of conflict and hatred, they are able to fall in love with the country, regardless. They plan to move to Israel and start a new life which they have no means of predefining.

In the fourth and final movement of the symphony we are again back to a prolonged monody, woven around Walid’s visit to Jerusalem where he spends some time in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, which provides a glimpse of the tragedy that struck the European Jews under the Nazi domination of 1932–1945. The couple meet Jenin, the struggling novelist in Jaffa, where she reveals to them the sources of her novel and the fate of her characters, providing an unexpected denouement.

Madhoun does not wish to equate the Holocaust with the Nakba; such an attempt would have been rather kitsch. What he is trying to do is understand the collective tragedies through their effect on reshaping, and sometime destroying, individual lives. A proverb says that one may not see the forest for the trees. The moral of it is that focusing on individual realities may make us lose sight of the broader reality.

Madhoun believes that we cannot really see the forest, the real forest, except by seeing the individual trees.

If not related to and understood through individual human narratives, both the Holocaust and the Nakba are little more than abstractions. As collective concepts, Israel and Palestine are shibboleths in political, nationalistic and even pseudo-religious wars, the ultimate aim of which is power. But when we see countless individual human beings with their memories, aspirations, fears and hopes and capacity for both hatred and love, covered by those concepts we realize that only going from the particular to the general may help us understand the so-called “big picture.”

This, of course, is the principal task of literature, especially of the novel in its modern version as developed in Europe from the 19th century onwards.

Those who read Madhoun’s previous novel The Lady from Tel Aviv had no difficult seeing him as a promising novelist. In this second novel, Madhoun delivers on part of that promise with more deft characterization, a fast-paced, almost Hemingway-esque prose, and greater control of rebellious passions.

It would now be worth waiting for his next novel.

When Israel vetoed a plot to kill Khomeini in Paris

[inset_left]A Bazaar Life: The Autobiography of David Alliance

By David Alliance with Ivan Fallon

The Robson Press, 448 pages

London, 2015[/inset_left]

According to conventional wisdom, Iran and Israel are mortal foes locked in a deadly struggle to the bitter end. However, David, Lord Alliance, whose autobiography A Bazaar Life has just been published in London, does not share the conventional wisdom.

He recalls the history of close ties between Iran and the Jewish people, going back more than 25 centuries, when Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, freed the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to their original homeland. Cyrus’s successor Darius even financed the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem that was to be destroyed by the Romans centuries later.

In more recent times, Alliance tells us, Iran has been one of the few countries in the world where Jews could live in relative security. And when Israel declared itself a state in 1948, Iran was the only Muslim country to recognize it. (On that, Lord Alliance is wrong because Turkey, too, granted Israel recognition.)

Alliance, a member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords and one of Britain’s most prominent industrialists in the past 50 years, makes an even more interesting assertion: Iran is the only country that can succeed where everyone else has failed by “solving the Israel–Palestine problem.”

“Only Iran which knows cultures on both sides has the great capacity to negotiate and the clout to mediate peace between two regional neighbors Israel and Palestine,” he writes. Notwithstanding the rhetoric from Tehran and Tel Aviv, Iran is Israel’s best hope.

david alliance 2

He also claims that “mullahs are experts in the art of negotiation,” always looking for profit, just like the merchants in the bazaars of Tehran and Kashan where Lord Alliance spent his early years as an Iranian-Jewish shop assistant to his father and uncles.

A man of the bazaar, Lord Alliance knows that nothing is ever done for nothing. So, what reward would mullahs get in “negotiating the end of the Israel-Palestine conflict”?

Lord Alliance’s answer is that Israel should “offer Iran joint guardianship of the holy Islamic sites in Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.” Interesting thought, you might say.

There is no doubt that at least part of the Israeli leadership elite is persuaded that the mullahs of Tehran could be useful allies against hostile Arabs. This is why Israel lobbied the US in 1985 to smuggle arms to Iran, needed to stop Saddam Hussein’s armies and then force them into retreat in the Iran-Iraq War. In secret talks held between a US delegation sent by President Ronald Reagan and the Khomeini government in Tehran, Israel was represented by Amiram Nir, then a rising star of Mossad. Hassan Rouhani, the future president of the Islamic Republic was an interpreter with the Iranian delegation led by Ayatollah Dorri Najafabadi, then a close aide to Rafsanjani. Tehran repaid Israel by creating Hezbollah to evict PLO forces from southern Lebanon close to the demarcation line with Israel.

However, the solution proposed by Lord Alliance, who has close relations with Israeli leaders and the Rafsanjani faction in Tehran, would mean a double exclusion of Palestinians not to mention 85 percent of Muslims who do not subscribe to Iran’s brand of Islam especially in its Khomeinist version.

Alliance relates his encounter with Khomeini in Paris just weeks before the ayatollah returned to Tehran to seize power. Accompanied by his son Ahmad, the ayatollah came to George V, a luxury hotel in the heart of Paris for the meeting to reassure the Jewish community through Alliance that the coming “Islamic regime” would do nothing against them or Israel. A few weeks later when Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah’s last prime minister, asked the Israelis to assassinate Khomeini in France, the Mossad rejected the idea out of hand.

Alliance left Iran aged 16, almost penniless but with great dreams. Over the years he became the owner of the biggest textile empire in the world, based in Manchester, and one of Britain’s wealthiest men. With wealth came social recognition and, as is the British custom, membership of the House of Lords.

The book includes several fascinating chapters on wheeling and dealing in a major capitalist economy where fortunes could be made out of nothing and then unmade because of a mere slip. Though he does not tell us whether or not he plays cricket, over the decades Alliance became a fully-fledged Englishman, hobnobbing with the great and the good in British society. Among the people he hired at different times were a number of senior former Cabinet ministers and leaders from all the three major political parties. He offers delicious prose caricatures of some of them, notably George-Brown, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party.

At one point he notes, tongue-in-cheek, that in a capitalist society, a man with big pockets could go wherever he likes.

Alliance is cryptic about his contacts with the current leadership in Iran, although in the 1990s he reportedly introduced Rouhani, then Iran’s nuclear negotiator, to several senior members of the British establishment.

Although the Iranian part of his life was brief, Alliance’s memoirs show that coming out of Iran may be easy, but getting Iran out of oneself is not. Some of the best pages of this memoir consist of nostalgic ruminations about Alliance’s boyhood in Kashan, an ancient oasis city on the edge of the great Iranian desert.

The Iran that Alliance loved was the one where the Shah reigned. This is why Alliance felt the fall of the Shah was a personal tragedy, for which he blames everyone from President Jimmy Carter to the state-owned BBC radio network.

Iranian, British and Jewish, Alliance is an interesting example of the complex identities that our globalized world could produce. His book is also a hymn to the openness and generosity of British society that gives the frailest of saplings from faraway lands a chance to root and grow.

The Poet’s Dilemma: Spirit of Culture and Body of Language

[inset_left]Child: New and Selected Poems 1991–2011
Mimi Khalvati
Carcanet Press, 170 pages
Manchester, 2011[/inset_left]

By all accounts, poetry is the most intimate form of literary self-expression.

So, it is no surprise that poets constantly look for a cultural “backbone” around which to build an identity; it is this and only this that allows intimate self-expression to be possible.

But what if you happen to be in one place while your cultural backbone, what Mimi Khalvati calls “chine,” is somewhere else? This is the problem that many poets in exile have faced across cultural frontiers.

One of the most interesting poets writing in English today, Khalvati is not comfortable with being described as a “Persian poet,” and, in a sense, she is right because, as far as we know, she does not write in her mother tongue. And, yet, anyone who journeys through her five collections of verse, published by Carcanet, is inevitably struck by her Persian-ness.

KhalvatiCover

Her mental landscape, her imagery, the core of her cultural references, and even the literary devices—not to say clichés—overwhelmingly belong to the Persian universe.

To be sure this is not a question of nationality or ethnic origin. Nor is one concerned here with the complex concept of home—mihan in Persian. In fact, in one long poem written in Iowa, a state in the American Midwest, Khalvati cries: “England, London, I am homesick for you.” This is not surprising, if only because Khalvati spent much of her childhood and, later, many decades of her life in England. I have a feeling that if she were to return to her native Tehran—a city which she had to flee—she would feel an outsider.

This is how she expresses her feeling of dividedness:

Without my love there is no song
Without my love there is no silence
A carousel without a pole
Two apple halves without a whole
No center, no circumference.

These lines echo, almost word for word, a ruba’i by Athireddin Axsikati, a Persian poet who wrote almost 1,000 years ago.

Khalvati’s poems are populated by images of her childhood and scenes of Iranian life over may decades. She writes of cherry rice and meatball dinners, saffron, roses, hubble-bubble pipes, carpet shops, polygamous households, the “stone of patience,” and the symphony of mountains, deserts and forests that shape the Iranian landscape. There are chenar trees, Persian blue skies, birds of the high plateau and walled-in gardens. She sings of grand-dad “baba Mostafa,” the servant “Ma’mad,” and the taciturn Persian mother keeping her daughter’s letters for years, unread, but as talismans.

Khalvati offers what looks like a self-portrait of a little girl from a middle-class Tehrani family:

There is nothing I like more than childhood
In viyella, scarved in a white babushka,
Frowning and impenetrable childhood
Swing your little bandy legs, take no notice
of worldliness.

Khalvati’s Persian-ness is best manifested in a number of ghazals and ruba’is she has composed in English over the years. Although not all her attempts at composing Persian ghazals in English are successful.

The adventure is not new. Many Western poets, starting with the great Goethe, have tried their hands at writing ghazals. As for ruba’i, Edward Fitzgerald’s reworking of Omar Khayyam remains a reference.

However, Khalvati deserves praise because her ghazals are more than clever imitations of Saadi, Hafez, Khaju, and other masters of the Persian genre. In several ghazals she even manages to use classical Persian meters such as “bahr–raml” (The Sea of Sand) and observes strict rules of refrain (radif) and rhyme (qafiayah). Thus, one has the impression that one is reading Persian poems written in English words.

In many cultures and at different times, many poets have composed verse that belongs to one language in literary and cultural spirit and to another in terms of language and vocabulary.

What were Ovid or Virgil doing? They wrote poetry that was Greek in cultural spirit but Latin in vocabulary.

I also think that some Elizabethan poets, for example, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Sir Philip Sydney, wrote Latin poetry in the English language. Lovers of Sir Thomas Browne’s work, for example The Garden of Cyrus, may also wonder whether they are reading French literature in the English language.

In 10th-century Iran, poets such as Asjodi, Muezzi, and if I were not afraid of being lynched by Iranian nationalists, I would add even the great Manuchehri, wrote pre-Islamic Arab poetry with a Persian vocabulary. The words and the syntax they used were quintessentially Persian, but the spirit was the Arabic of the glorious Jahiliyah poetic tradition.

There were, of course, poets who worked in the opposite direction: writing poems that were Arabic in body and Persian in spirit. One notable example is the great Abu Nuwas, not forgetting the unjustly underestimated Mahyar Al-Daylami.

Khalvati is not alone among poets who lived away from her spiritual home in Iran. Jalal Al-Din Rumi, one of the greatest of all Persian poets, spent most of his life in regions where Persian, though lingua franca, was a minority language. And what about the great Persian poets of the Indian Subcontinent such as Amir-Khosrow of Delhi, Ghalib, and, more recently, Muhammad Iqbal. I was surprised to find, thanks to Iqbal’s son, that the great poet of Lahore had never set foot in Iran.

A few years ago when I interviewed former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I was also surprised to find out he wrote a number of ghazals in Persian, a language he could read and write but did not speak.

We know of quite a number of Arab poets and novelists who belong to the sphere of Arab literature in spirit but to English, French, Russian, Dutch, and, more recently, even Danish in terms of language. And that is not to mention imitators and plagiarists.

In other words, language alone cannot explain a work of literature. For me Khalvati is a Persian poet writing in English.

But let us not get entangled in problems of identity. Anyway, who but the police are interested in identity?

Well, then, Khalvati is a great poet; to miss out on her work would be a great loss for lovers of poetry.