Syrian novel expresses distrust of storytelling

Maha Hassan
Dar Al-Tanweer, 192 pages
Beirut, 2014[/inset_left]

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In her most recent novel, Al-Rawiyat (Female Narrators), published last year, Syrian novelist Maha Hassan explores the esoteric realms of oral and written storytelling through a set of female characters, who are not necessarily connected, but are all obsessed with the art of narration.

From the book’s dedication to the unpublished “female raconteurs [who] . . . lived and died in darkness” to the last sentence highlighting the “emancipatory” powers of writing, a celebratory, almost naive tone dominates the novel.

The first narrator, Abbadon, says she lives two lives: A superficial, “typical” one concerned with the satisfaction of mundane day-to-day needs, and a “rich and dense” one centering on fiction writing. “[I was] born to tell tales,” she says, echoing the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir.

“Telling tales is the only entertainment and pastime she has to pass the days in peace,” the narrator says. Even when someone steals the manuscript of her debut novel and publishes it under their name, she does not seem too bothered.


“What’s the harm? What is important is that my characters have a chance to come out to the world, that tales come out for people to read. What is important is the novel not the novelist.”

Rama, the last of the narrators, lives in a parallel, imaginary world, overflowing with fictional characters. Concerned about Rama’s sanity, her mother tries to “suppress” her imagination by exhausting her with all sorts of physical activities. Rama, who was born in India, inherited from her grandmother “the magical ability to tell stories.” Compared to her peers who find in bedtime stories a passageway to sleep, Rama waits for her grandmother to end the story so that she can deconstruct and reconstruct it from scratch. When she grows up, her relationship with her husband reaches a dead-end when she confesses to him that “the only moment I feel ecstasy that resembles orgasm is when I tell tales.”

There are many similarities between these two narrators: both derive sexual pleasure out of storytelling. Abbadon says: “A sexual energy is generated inside me when I write.” But it would be a mistake to think that this is what Al-Rawiyat is all about, that the female protagonists are the 21st century version of Scheherazade, who tamed Shahryar after One Thousand and One Nights of storytelling. Al-Rawiyat is deeper than just a cry against patriarchy, or a manifesto calling for a feminist revolution. Beneath the bluntly “revolutionary” surface of the novel, there is a complex narrative structure threatening to subvert it.

Each of the book’s stories culminates with a twist in the plot that contradicts the narrator’s expectations and thus raises questions about their credibility and familiarity with the stories they tell. While Abbadon finds in Sabato the man of her dreams who does everything in his power to help her write her first novel, we discover at the end of their story that he has been using her for purely utilitarian purposes.

The same is also true of Rama, who realises—albeit too late—that Aravind, the musician whom she thought would liberate her repressed soul, is nothing but “an idiot who lacks imagination.”

“To tell a story is to claim a certain authority, which listeners grant,” writes American critic Jonathan D. Culler in his Literary Theory. Faced with the narrators’ celebratory tone about the ability of storytelling to undermine patriarchy, readers have no choice but to take what they say at face value, and thus submit to their narrative authority.

However, following the disappointments the characters/narrators face, we start to doubt that they are worthy of our trust. The dramatic twists in the novel implicitly raise questions about the credibility of the narration and whether or not the narrator deserves the authority that the reader grants. Unlike One Thousand and One Nights, which highlights Scheherazade’s mastery of the art of storytelling, Al-Rawiyat sheds light on the narrators’ failure to have control over the stories they tell. The novel does exactly the opposite of what it preaches. Hassan’s female narrators give a fake impression of Scheherazade.

In what seems to be a diversion from the plot, Alice—a PhD candidate in “philosophy and its relation to art,”—visits Cairo, having been “possessed with the spirit of Pharaohs.” The chapter overflows with references to the success of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Alice says she “has trust in the Egyptian people. Those who toppled Mubarak are capable of toppling the Muslim Brotherhood, and will not accept a new dictatorship.”

For all the failure that the Arab Spring has proved to be, such remarks—which we now find as either cynical or naïve—are said by Alice with the utmost seriousness. Based on what has been written about Al-Rawiyat in the Arab press, there seems to be a consensus about the chapter’s irrelevance to the rest of the novel. In fact, the chapter is highly significant in that it underlines the discrepancy between reality and narration.

Alice, the narrator, is merely offering her “narrative” of the Arab Spring, which stands in stark contrast to reality.

We all heard about the events in Tahrir Square on television, or in newspapers and magazines. In other words, what we know about the Egyptian Spring is nothing more than “narratives” that express the views of their authors. We are surrounded by narratives. Take newspapers, magazines, TV channels, YouTube and social media; they are all platforms for multiple voices and narratives. But do all of them reflect reality? Al-Rawiyat answers in the negative.

The structure of the novel is confusingly divergent, with the frame narrative resembling a Matryoshka doll that encases four stories. The multiple and overlapping narrative voices mean readers never stop asking: “Who is speaking?” and “What are they talking about?”

Added to this confusion is Hassan’s tendency to give several names to each of her characters. Abbadon is both Miriam and Maha, while Sabato can be Ernesto or Franco. “Our names have no significance  . . . We are mere virtual creatures.”

A similar uncertainty surrounds the place in which the novel is set. It is “that big city which resembles Cairo, New York, Tokyo, Paris, London or Beirut.”

Al-Rawiyat is a well-crafted work whose turbulent form gives it the uncertainty and ambiguity of great works, such as Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and Ulysses by James Joyce, novels that raised more questions than they offered answers.

When the Muslim Brotherhood Wins Power in France

By Michel Houellebecq
330 pages
Paris, 2015[/inset_left]

For more than a decade novelist Michel Houellebecq has been the bete-noire of politically correct elites in France. With provocation woven into his DNA, he has angered almost everyone across the board, from left to right, so it is no surprise that his latest novel Soumission (Submission) has raised a storm of protest among the chattering classes in Paris.

Published on the day that Charlie Hebdo was attacked, the novel offers a glimpse of the malaise that has affected part of the French intellectual, political and media establishment for a decade and, in turn, encouraged those, including jihadists, who insist that Western democracy is doomed. (In its last pre-attack issue, Charlie Hebdo carried Houellebecq’s caricature on its cover.)

Initial reviews of the novel, often produced by those who hadn’t read it or at best skimmed through it, labelled it as another piece of “Islamophobia” because it envisages what an Islamist government might do to France. However, the novel could also be read as an apologia for an Islam that, having ceased to be a religion, has transmuted into a political ideology and, as such, become an alternative to the Enlightenment, pretending to save Europe from historic decline and eventual “civilizational suicide.”

soumission novel front coverThe central character in the novel is an unnamed professor of literature at the Sorbonne who specializes in the writings of J.K. Huysmans, a novelist who lived during the so-called Belle Epoque, when France was at the zenith of power and prosperity, a period that was to come to a close with the First World War and the worst carnage in European history.

Huysmans was a pessimist–realist in an age of optimistic idealism. He had a sense that the Titanic was going to hit the iceberg, but didn’t know what to do about it. All he could do was to express his love and admiration for every part of the doomed Titanic that was Europe, including the glitzy bordellos of Brussels. He was in no way prepared to jettison any fragment of a civilization that had produced the first space ever in which human beings could live in relative freedom and security. Huysmans believed that all alternatives to Enlightenment were bound to be worse.

Though he emulates Huysmans’ pessimism, the “hero” of Submission, however, does not share the 19th century novelist’s passionate love of an imperfect Europe which, despite its shortcomings, remains the best option for those who cherish human freedom.

Houellebecq’s “hero” does not regard the death of European civilization as a tragedy. In fact he insists that Europe has already committed suicide. He notes that the French, and Europeans in general, have abandoned their Christian heritage, destroyed family by legalizing abortion and gay and lesbian marriage, allowed women to get “ too cheeky” in the name of the fight against patriarchy, and turned themselves into robotic consumers. Patriotism, the professor notes, is gone because the elites are dissolving France into an amorphous European mass.

Democracy itself is a scam that allows two power-hungry camps of Right and Left to rule in alternance. At times democracy is used as an excuse for invading other nations. So, what is to be done? Houellebecq depicts Islam as a plausible, if not necessarily ideal, alternative. In any case, the little that is left of European traditions of deference for the sacred is now reserved only for Islam, which is exempted from critical scrutiny in the name of “tolerance” and “respect.” Even when Muslims do something intolerable, Europeans have to tolerate it in atonement of past colonial and imperialist sins. Victimhood is an inexhaustible capital that Muslims in Europe could profit from for generations. The fact that the killers of Charlie Hebdo staff had never even visited Algeria did not deprive them of their ancestral capital of victimhood because of French colonial presence there decades before the two killers were born in Paris. Even acts that are clearly not worthy of respect, such as female genital mutilation, must be respected in the name of multicultural understanding.

Houellebecq’s “hero” admires the erotic fable L’Histoire d’O in which the heroine achieves “absolute happiness” through absolute sexual submission to men. Houellebecq’s narrator thinks that Islam is capable of offering the same “absolute happiness” in political terms. “Islam has the merit of being an optimistic religion, content with the world as created by God,” he notes. This is in contrast with other religions. Buddhism, for example, sees the world as “dukkha” (inadequate) and life as a saga of sorrows. In Christianity, the world is a vale of tears, at least until the Second Coming of Christ.

The narrator quotes Tariq Ramadan, a grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of Muslim Brotherhood, and an advisor on Islam to various European governments, as saying that the Islamic Shari’a offers an “innovative and revolutionary option for Europe.”

Far from portraying the seizure of power by the French Muslim Brotherhood as a catastrophe, as many Egyptians did in their country, Houellebecq’s narrator sees it as an opportunity for a new departure for Europe. Mohammed ben Abbes, the Obama-like Muslim politician who becomes president is a graduate of Polytechnique, France’s most prestigious school and “a moderate” with a vision to revive the Roman Empire under the banner of Islam. His supporters call him the Islamic Augustus, after the great pre-Christian Roman Emperor.

Under Islamic rule, all, including professors, who covert to Islam, even if they don’t genuinely mean it, are given full opportunity for advancement plus higher salaries. Male professors are helped to acquire up to four wives, recruited from among their female students.

Houellebecq’s narrator also recalls that many illustrious French figures, including the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the philosopher René Guénon, the essayist Michel Chodkiewicz, and the choreographer Maurice Bejart converted to Islam because European Enlightenment no longer satisfied them.

Contemplating the changes that Islamist rule could bring to France, the first thing that Houellebecq’s narrator notices is the backside of a black girl, “beautifully sculpted in her tight jeans,” which is bound to disappear as women are pushed into purdah. The narrator is tempted by a return of a patriarchy that might put an end to his serial, and always unhappy, sexual experiences with a string of female students. Each time, the woman ends up abandoning him with a terse “I have met someone.” “Am I not someone?” the narrator laments when this happens. The liberated Western woman, insisting on equality with men, is a veritable curse to Houellebecq’s narrator. She could be as promiscuous as men, does not need men for financial support because she works, and could come out with pseudo-psychological utterances such as “I still love you but am no longer in love with you!” Under Islamist rule, however, women are kept in a state of perpetual childhood devoted to the happiness of fathers, husbands and, when they become mothers, sons. They don’t ask for a share of political power and economic wealth and are content with gifts of negligees and baubles.

Houellebecq’s “hero” is as much a caricature of Huysmans as Louis Bonaparte was of his uncle. It is, of course, possible to read Submission as an exercise in tongue-in-cheek provocation. The trouble is that the self-loathing it portrays is real. Many Frenchmen see their society as drifting in uncertain waters without an anchor. They are concerned by increasingly powerless elected governments, distant bureaucrats who intervene in every aspect of people’s lives, and an economic system that promises more and more but delivers less and less. Advocates of the view that the West is in “decline” claim that Europeans no longer believe in anything and are thus doomed to lose the fight against home grown Islamists who passionately believe in the little they know of Islam.

The novel partly answers the question that many French are asking these days: What do jihadists want? The answer is that they don’t want anything in particular because they want everything. They want to seize control of your life and dictate its every aspect to the last detail. In exchange they offer your security and a share of whatever cake there may remain. Houellebecq’s novel ends without its hero specifically accepting the bargain, although he clearly tilts towards doing so. In other words, the French, even seven years from now (the novel is set in 2022), still have a choice. My guess is that the overwhelming majority of the French will not feel the same temptation felt by Houellebecq’s narrator.

From Father to Son: How American Politics Changed in a Generation

[inset_left]41: A Portrait of My Father
By George W. Bush
The Crown Publishing Group,
304 pages
New York, 2014[/inset_left]

Puzzled by the strange ways of American politics, outsiders often wonder how such a superpower can function without an elite group to ensure continuity. In most countries one can distinguish the elites, dynasties, families, and even tribes that provide the system with a degree of predictability. Conspiracy theorists refer to such elements as “the deep state,” a coalition of occult forces exercising real power regardless of who smiles on the facade.

Does the US have its own “deep state” too? Some would say yes, pointing to country clubs, big business interests, well-funded lobbies and a variety of secret or semi-secret movements. But when it comes to families—not including family businesses where a few dynasties have been prominent for more than a century—only a handful have made a mark on American politics.

One could cite the Adams family that provided two presidents, father and son, John and John Quincy. Then we had the two Harrison presidents: grandfather and grandson William and Benjamin. The Roosevelts, too, produced two presidents, uncle and nephew Theodore and Franklin. The Kennedys had their own dynastic ambitions but were stopped after just one president, John F., because his most likely successor Robert was assassinated.

bush biography

So right now, the Bush family, with two presidents, father and son George and George W., come closest to an American political dynasty with growing talk of a third with hopes pinned on former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. (Jeb may face Hilary Clinton, in a tangential attempt at dynasty-building.) The Bush clan also includes congressmen, senators and governors in its earlier history.

Politics aside, George W. Bush’s book is a paean to his father and, in a sense, to fatherhood in general. Having sifted through his father’s numerous letters, the older Bush being an old-style epistolerian, plus log interviews with other family members, notably with George W.’s formidable mother Barbara Bush, and panoply of friends, George W. offers an intimate portrait of a man who played a major role in US politics for more than half a century. Those interested in sensational political revelations will be disappointed with this book which steers clear of controversial issues and decisions.

The book is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it reveals the older Bush as perhaps the last non-partisan, or at the very least only mildly partisan, US president since Howard Taft. We see the older Bush as a consensus-seeker almost by nature. For him, understanding “the other side,” going for fifty-fifty deals and almost always preferring a good compromise to a confrontation were quintessential American values.

Contrast that attitude to Barack Obama’s rivalry with George W. Bush or, right now the vitriolic hatred that some Republicans have for Obama, and you will notice how much American politics has changed, perhaps for the worse.

George H. W. Bush was the only Republican leader to attend the farewell ceremony of outgoing Democrat President Lyndon B Johnson. Bush senior also befriended Bill Clinton, the man who denied him a second term as president. In fact, Bill Clinton is now regarded as a “Bush brother from different parents,” as George W. notes. Bush senior has also maintained cordial relations with Obama. (In 2012 I watched the two of them huddling together, perhaps sharing a joke, during a lunch at the University of Texas in College Station. In the lunch speech that followed Obama waxed lyrical in his praise of Bush senior.)

The second reason why this book is of interest is the contrast between Bush senior’s politics, both in substance and style, and that of the Tea Party, a conservative movement that grew out of the Republican Party. We don’t know where George W. himself stands. However, his record portrays him as a synthesis of the traditional Republicanism of his father and the Tea Party’s crusading commitment.

The book reminds us that the central question regarding American politics right now and, perhaps for some time to come, is whether bipartisanship of the kind that Bush senior promoted could be revived, at least in foreign policy.

The image of Bush senior has been fixed as one of a cold and distant patrician with little understanding of, and even less sympathy for, the lives of “ordinary people.” George W. recalls an episode in an election campaign when the older Bush was asked by someone whether he had ever had “any experience of ordinary life.”

We don’t know what Bush senior might have thought at the time. George H. W. did not have an ordinary life in so far as he was not yet twenty years old when he traveled 6,000 miles away from home to fight in a war against the Japanese. Back from war, and before he could taste “ordinary life” he was married and soon landed with the responsibility of a fairly large family by current standards.

George W.’s book contains some surprises with the degree of attention paid to various topics. For example, Bush senior’s time spent as chief of the liaison office to China, a crucial post in its time, receives little attention. The years during which George H. W. served as US Ambassador to the United Nations are also flown over, although he played a key role in consolidating the policy of détente with the USSR as a slow prelude to the end of the Cold War. Instead, George W. spends some time on his father’s role as Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal that led to the demise of President Richard Nixon. The selection of content is likely aimed at the American reader, who may be less interested in international politics than in the to-ing and fro-ing of domestic affairs.

This winnowing down is compensated for with numerous anecdotes that shed light on the Bush family. George W. asks his parents why they didn’t call him George H. W. Junior in the American style of emphasizing one’s filiation. “There would not have been enough room on application forms,” his mother Barbara, replies.

Despite its occasional lapses into syrupy lyricism, this book reveals George W. as a talented writer. Here his prose is less dense, faster-paced and clearly comes more from the heart than his political memoirs Decision Points. Just a week after its release, 41: A Portrait of My Father was climbing up to the top of bestseller lists in the United States, indicating that millions of Americans are still interested in the two Bushes. Since his departure from the White House, George W. has been trying his hand at both painting and writing. Having seen his paintings, I think he would do better as a writer.

The World and the ‘Imminent’ Iranian Bomb

A file photograph showing technicians of the IAEA inspecting the site of the uranium conversion plant in Isfahan, central Iran, on 3 February 2007. (EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh)

[inset_left]Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State
David Patrikarakos
IB Tauris, London
30 August 2012[/inset_left]

With talks about Iran’s nuclear program postponed until the end of June, opinion remains divided on whether or not the Islamic Republic is trying to a build a bomb. In the past six months, this reviewer has received a dozen books on the subject, their authors divided between those who insist that Iran is pursuing a clandestine scheme and those who assert that the Islamic Republic is victim of “American and Zionist” propaganda.

The author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, British scholar and journalist David Patrikarakos, seeks a median position. As the title of his book shows, he believes that Iran is an “atomic state” already.
Having looked into a mountain of documents, he writes: “No serious observer can believe that Iran’s nuclear-related activities are solely for the purpose of building and maintaining nuclear power plants for civilian uses. There are just too many unanswered questions with military connotations.”

In other words Iran is either close to or has already reached the so-called “threshold” stage at which it has “all the technological obstacles to a bomb without actually proceeding to the final stages of weaponization, which could be achieved quickly if the need arose.”

Leaving aside the author’s conclusion, the book is worth reading if only because it offers a rapid narrative of the history of nuclear pursuits in Iran. Such pursuits started in the 1950s with no clear vision as to why Iran might need a nuclear capability.

The Shah believed that Iran, trying to regain part of its ancient prestige, could not script itself out of the then global fascination with “the atom.” The United States encouraged the Shah and presented Iran with its first nuclear reactor while offerings scholarship to Iranian students to study nuclear physics at American universities.

Between 1956 and 1979, before the mullahs seized power, Iran developed a budding nuclear industry, signed accords with the US, Canada, Germany and France, invested in an international consortium with France and Spain to produce uranium and unveiled plans for building 22 nuclear power stations by the year 2000.

The Shah never stated whether or not the nuclear program might have a military dimension. The mullahs who succeeded him had no such qualms over public perception of the program.

The first Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini states in his book Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist that one of the duties of such a government is “to provide all the instruments needed for the defense of the Islamic state, including nuclear arms.”

His successors Ayatollah Ali Khamenei echoed the sentiment by suggesting that “a nuclear arsenal would serve as Iran’s deterrent in the hands of God’s soldiers.”

One important feature of this book is the author’s interviews with some of those involved in the Iranian nuclear quest from the time of the Shah to present day. Sometimes, those interviews muddy the waters, often in the service of personal agendas. For example, almost a fifth of the book is based on interviews with Akbar Etemad, the man who headed the Iranian nuclear project under the Shah for a few years.

Exploiting Patrikarakos’ unfamiliarity with how things worked under the Shah, Etemad builds up his own importance to comical proportions. He claims that he lectured the Shah on nuclear sciences for months, with the “King of Kings” taking notes like a good pupil.

Etemad also promotes himself to Deputy Prime Minister whereas his actual title was Assistant to the Prime Minister for nuclear affairs. (The prime minister had 11 other assistants for a range of other things including the environment, the religious endowments, tourism etc.)

In one particularly comical scene we see Etemad castigating the visiting French President Giscard d’Estaing at a banquet given by the Shah in Tehran for allegedly trying to deny Iran the right to “full nuclear knowledge.” Anybody familiar with the strict protocol of those days would know that such a scene was impossible. No Iranian official dared speak in the presence of the Shah without permission, let alone criticize a visiting foreign head of state.

In contrast to Etemad’s self-aggrandizing enterprise we learn much of substance from interviews with some other officials including Reza Amrollahi and Reza Khazaneh.

Khazaneh’s sober, learned and non-political testimony is particularly interesting because he was involved with the nuclear project both before and after the revolution.

Perhaps to convince us that he has no beef against the mullahs, Patrikarakos is anxious to show that he doesn’t like the Shah. Thus, when the Shah launches the nuclear project he is accused by the author of “hubris”. The Shah’s palace is labelled as “lavish” whereas those who actually saw it remember it as a larger than usual villa in need of a new coat of paint and working washrooms. Patrikarakos has the Shah summoning the American ambassador to Sa’dabad Palace in the 1970s. However, the Shah never lived there and stopped using it even as an office in 1969. The Shah’s ski chalet in St. Moritz, Switzerland, was far from “palatial”. Patrikarakos can’t be serious when he gives an account of the Shah’s “mahogany desk cluttered with gold pens and bejeweled letter-openers.” And the Shah would certainly not go shopping in Champs Elysees in Paris. At the very least he would rather shop in Rue de Faubourg St. Honore where the exclusive boutiques are located.

Another person that Patrikarakos doesn’t like is Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh who headed the nuclear project during part of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Aghazadeh is labelled “a Khamenei appointee” and a dimwit. However, those familiar with the project know that, good or bad, it was Aghazadeh who put the programme in high gear. To suggest that Aghazadeh was “pro-Russian” is too ridiculous to merit rebuttal.

More rigorous editing would have spared the book many errors. For example, Dhofar, where the Shah sent troops to crush a Communist uprising, is in Oman not Somalia. Iran did not join CENTO in 1955 because it did not exist at the time. Jean- Bernard Raimond was never France’s Finance Minister. President Carter did not send National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to meet Khomeini’s Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan “several times”. They met only once, in Algiers for 22 minutes. Michel Poniatowski was Interior Minister of France, not Foreign Minister. Iran was not a member of the Non-Aligned Movement under the Shah. The Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard was Mohsen Rezai, not Muhammad. Obama’s decision to talk to Iran was not the first US attempt in 30 years. All US administrations from Carter onwards did talk to Iran.

Such errors might merely provoke a smile. One error that does not is Patrikarakos’ claim that Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) without knowing what was in it.

In fact, Iranian diplomats, among them Manuchehr Zelli, Manuchehr Fartash, Sadeq Sadrieh and Jaafar Nadim were involved in drafting the treaty from the very start. Ardeshir Zahedi, then ambassador to London, initialed the draft to indicate Iran’s willingness to join. But the process of approving it took a further 18 months during which the treaty was examined at the foreign ministry, debated by the Cabinet, widely commented upon in the media, and eventually passed by the two houses of the parliament. It was in its position as one of the founders of the NPT that Iran was given the chairmanship of the United Nations’ disarmament committee for eight years. In 1971, when Iran launched its proposal for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, it did that on the strength of its “leading role in creating the NPT.”

Despite its faults, Patrikarakos’ book succeeds in fixing the contours of the subject with some objectivity. And that, on an issue that arouses partisan passions, is no mean feat.

Kahil: Cartoonist for the Complicated Orient

Are you puzzled by what is going on in the “complicated Orient” these days?

There’s the continuing tragedy in Syria, the bloody struggle in Iraq, a multi-layered civil war in Yemen, and a power vacuum in Lebanon, not to mention daily terrorist attacks in half a dozen countries and the never-ending flow of refugees in all directions.

The question is: how do we cope with so much suffering or, at least, make some sense of it?
One way is to reach for time-worn explanations, if not outright apologies. Well, what does one expect from a deadly cocktail of tyranny, poverty, fanaticism, colonial nightmares and intellectual cowardice?

[inset_left]According to Kahil:
1980 to 2000 Political Cartoon Selection

Nazda Limited, 278 pages
Beirut, 2014[/inset_left]

But, how would Mahmoud Kahil have drawn this unfurling tableau of desolation in the Middle East? Kahil, who died in 2003, is now universally regarded as one of the Middle East’s top caricaturists of the twentieth century. A decade after his death a collection of his work has just been published in his native Lebanon with the intriguing title According to Kahil (Arabic: Hakaza rasam Kahil). The book also includes a brief introduction and captions in English.

The fruit of collective efforts by Kahil’s family and close friends, the book is a veritable gem both for the quality of its production, a credit to Lebanon’s printing industry, and, more importantly, for the wide range of cartoons selected mostly by Kahil’s daughter, the documentary film-maker Dana.

As far as Asharq Al-Awsat is concerned, Kahil had, and will always continue to hold, a special place at the newspaper. For more than two decades, he was the pan-Arab daily’s principal political cartoonist. At the same time, he was a regular contributor to Arab News, Asharq Al-Awsat’s English-language sister daily and the weekly Al-Majalla published by the same company.


Leafing through According to Kahil, you come across numerous cartoons published by Asharq Al-Awsat and Al-Majalla, which provide a unique chronicle of world events, with the focus always on the Middle East as seen by a man of great perception and compassion.

Looking at the cartoons today, one has the eerie feeling that Kahil drew them this week, even today, not five, ten or twenty years ago. Are you looking for ISIS’s throat-cutters (zabbahoun in Arabic)? Well, they are already present, under other names, in Kahil’s cartoons of the last century. Are you angered by the cynicism of world leaders such as Barack Obama? You will find their predecessors in Kahil’s cartoons in the form of Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr.

You wonder why Arabs behave the way they do? Again, Kahil offers an answer that you might not like, but can’t dismiss. To that end he created a generic “Arab,” rejecting the “towel-heads” favored by Western cartoonists. Kahil’s generic Arab is round, apparently well-fed and sports a sumptuous moustache. However, that is only a mask; on more careful scrutiny he is shown to be confused, and above all, deeply suffering. He is a victim of rulers who impose regimentation, if not worse, intellectuals who lie, journalists who doctor the news in exchange for “brown envelopes” of cash, and clerics who claim that religion is only what they say it is. In some cartoons we see the generic Arab having his head filled with propaganda and lies through a pump that represents state-controlled media.

Kahil draws the Arab League, a grouping of Arabic-speaking nations created under British influence in the late 1940s, as a modern version of the Tower of Babel with inhabitants divided by the language they are supposed to share. Worse still, the building’s signs are in English.

Though primarily commenting on the so-called Arab world, Kahil was far from parochial. His cartoons provided acerbic comments on many key events of the second half of the twentieth century: the Cold War, the seizure of power by mullahs in Tehran, Glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet empire, the Iran-Iraq war, the two Gulf wars, the end of Yugoslavia, the rise of neo-capitalist China, the decades-long war in Afghanistan, frequent famines and bloody conflicts in Africa, the civil wars in Algeria, Sudan, and Yemen, and the revolt in Chechnya.

Kahil’s work includes a gallery of portraits of men and women who had their moment of fame in the increasingly fast-paced carousel of modern politics. All American presidents from Carter onwards were featured in Kahil’s work, along with the Soviet Union’s club of geriatrics and the new China’s enigmatic dramatis personae. In a special gallery of rogues one finds Kahil’s portrayal of “baddies” such as Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, and the Ethiopian tyrant Mengistu Haile-Mariam. Kahil was also the first cartoonist to draw Osama bin Laden, the man who won eternal infamy as Al-Qaeda’s mastermind.

Some characters Kahil obviously liked, among them Bill Clinton. Even before Clinton was first nominated as a candidate for presidency, Kahil asked me to present the future president with a cartoon he had drawn of him. The cartoon showed the young Governor of Arkansas emerging from a bottle like a genie, getting larger and larger. “That should do it,” Clinton commented when he received the cartoon. “It means we are going to win!”

Kahil also had a soft spot for Boris Yeltsin who was always presented with a bottle, presumably too drunk to do any real harm. In contrast, Kahil had an intense dislike of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, often portrayed as a vulture, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shown as an egomaniac who liked to multiply his own image.

Some commentators have described Kahil as “cynical.” I don’t agree. A cynic surrenders to his perception of the inevitable. Kahil, however, never surrendered. He was a fighter, always armed with dozens of pens of different shapes and sizes with a full store of black and color inks. (His cartoons for Al-Majalla were in color.) More importantly, he was a man of great sensitivity and almost totally devoid of bitterness, a far cry from cynicism.

Though he prided himself on his “Libanite” roots, Kahil was also a Londoner, having spent a good chunk of his working life in the British capital. One of his favorite characters was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, often portrayed with a mixture of admiration and unease. Even then, Kahil is best described as a citizen of the world, with his work published in more than one hundred newspapers and magazines across the globe, including The Times, the Wall Street Journal and Le Monde.

Kahil liked to work on his own, and never attended editorial meetings. His editors quickly understood that they couldn’t tell him what to do and what not to do. To keep abreast of what was going on Kahil did a great deal of reading and often held discussions with journalists who covered the events. In his work he always left a little bit of the curtain unopened and introduced a small raven (ghurab in Arabic) on the margins, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reminder that “the worst was yet to come.”

A Portrait of a Progressive Pope

In a curious coincidence, the list of candidates for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize included two religious leaders. The Argentinian parliament nominated Pope Francis for his “efforts to bring peace in Syria.” Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of most of Iraq’s Shi’ites, was nominated by a group of intellectuals for his role in preventing full-scale sectarian war in Iraq. The two nominations indicated that the boundary between religion and politics, always thin, may have become even paler in our times. In the end it was Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl campaigning for education for Muslim girls that was chosen. Again, the relationship between politics and religion was a factor.

[inset_left] Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio: His Life in His Own Words
By Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin
Penguin, 304 pages
New York, 2013[/inset_left]

Thus, readers of Pope Francis should not be surprised to find this a political rather than theological tome. Based on long conversations between the new Pope and two journalists—one Argentinian, the other Italian—the book provides a biographical sketch of Francis, along with an expose of his political views. Francis emerges as a modern, center-left, political figure committed to the usual “good things” such as peace, sharing and caring, solidarity and progress.

Because Francis is the first Jesuit priest to become Pope, it is not surprising that, true to his evangelist mission as a “soldier for Christ,” his emphasis is on securing the largest possible audience for the Catholic Church rather than defending doctrine in an age of cultural relativism.

He has learned a great deal from the experience of his most recent predecessors: Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The former emphasized the political dimension of his mission, especially in the struggle to help central and Eastern Europe bring down the Iron Curtain. When the Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, John Paul II was among history’s victors, his doctrinal conservatism conveniently pushed aside. In contrast, Benedict XVI, a theologian by training and temperament, put the emphasis on doctrinal issues in a brave attempt to save the Catholic Church from the ravages of political correctness and multiculturalism. As a result, many Catholics did not warm up to him while non-Catholics found him anachronistic.


Francis appears to have decided to look to John Paul II rather than Benedict XVI as a model. The difference is that John Paul II was a political Pope on the right of the center while Francis intends to be left of center.

That has encouraged some of Francis’s critics on the right to portray him as a fellow traveler or even a communist. Francis admits that he was attracted to communist themes, if not actual policies. In fact, the only political book he cites is Our Word and Proposals by the Argentinian communist writer Leonidas Barletta. “It helped my political education,” Francis says.

Francis deepens his “progressive ” profile with a list of his favorite authors, including German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Belgian mystic Joseph Maréchal, and, last but not least, Argentina’s own literary icon, Jorge Luis Borges. Interestingly, with the exception of Maréchal, a Thomist priest, all of Francis’s favorite writers were either agnostic or atheists.

Francis’ “progressive” profile is deepened with reference to his taste in cinema; he loved Italian neo-realism and made sure to see all films with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi. He also cites the film Babette’s Feast, a critique of religion as an oppressive ideology, in which a French “fallen woman” played by Stéphane Audran injects some life into a Danish community of Calvinists.

Francis regards “liberal capitalism” as immoral and finds some sympathy for the “liberation theology” of the Latin American guerrilla-priests of the 1960s, while insisting that he was “never a communist.” In fact, he includes communism, along with unbridled capitalism, Nazism and liberalism in his list of totalitarian ideologies. And, yet, he points at secularism as the principal enemy of faith. “There is a denial of God due to secularism, the selfish egoism of humanity,” he asserts.

The trouble is that Francis confuses secularism with atheism, which is the outright denial of the transcendental. However, secularism simply means keeping the public space open to all religions, protecting the weak against repression by the strong.

Regarding religion as a matter of individual belief, secularism does not deny God in whatever metaphysical form people wish to promote; all it does is to oppose the use of the resources of the state in favor of one religion against others. There are countless examples of secular writers and political figures who were sincere believers at the same time.

A fascinating part of the book deals with the “social issues” that have dominated the public debate in the West in recent decades, among them abortion, birth control, divorce, gay and lesbian marriages, and celibacy for priests.

Here, Francis faces a real difficulty. If he simply reaffirms the traditional positions of his Church—as Benedict XVI did, for example—he would weaken his claim of being a “progressive.” If, on the other hand, he adopts the “progressive” position, he would antagonize many, perhaps a majority, in his flock.

Francis deals with this dilemma in the classical Jesuit style of seizing the bull by both horns. He asserts that what really matters is the core narrative of Christianity, the technical term for which is kerygma. Beyond that we have what Francis calls “catechism,” which, in the sense he deals with it, concerns behavior and social organization. Interestingly, he does not mention dogma, the bridge between kerygma and catechism. Thus, issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the Eucharist for divorced individuals, do not affect the kerygma. As for celibacy for priests, it is “a discipline, not a matter of doctrine,” he asserts, and thus could be abandoned in the future.

In addition to being a “progressive,” Francis is also an optimist. “The moral conscience of different cultures progresses,” he asserts, reminding us how such “evils” as incest, slavery, exploitation, for example, were once, in different phases of human history, tolerated by all cultures and even religions but are now rejected with revulsion by all.

But is human “moral progress,” if it exists at all, as linear as the Pope seems to believe? Francis himself reminds us that slavery continues to exist in different forms. In fact, the United Nations’ estimates put the number of slaves today at over 27 million, and that does not include human trafficking for sexual exploitation. As for incest, right now, Germany is debating a law to decriminalize incest between consenting adult sisters and brothers. If slavery was banned in the 19th century it was not due to “moral progress.” The Industrial Revolution had made slave labor largely uneconomical.

Francis’ intellectual landscape is dominated by ideas that could be traced back to ancient Athens rather than Jerusalem. He is more comfortable in the company of Aristotle than the Church Fathers. The only one he quotes is the quasi-Aristotelian St. Augustine, ignoring the contrasting positions of Jerome and Tertullian, among others.

Is the church, indeed any formal religious organization, necessary for salvation? Francis cannot but answer with a resounding “yes.” However, he weakens that “yes” by recalling that, as a young man, he dreamed of becoming a missionary to Japan, where Christianity had managed to survive and to some extent even prosper without any priests and no organization for over two centuries.

I don’t know whether the Pope has read Japanese novelist Shūsaku Endo’s fascinating novel Silence, which deals precisely with that subject. Endo shows that, even under the worst conditions of torture and despair, human beings look to religious faith for a measure of certainty about right and wrong, good and evil.

Today, the problem is that religion, in most its forms, is trying to imitate philosophy, which is the realm of doubt, or replace ideology as a means of organizing political action.

Francis repeats the assertion by André Malraux, that the 21st century will be “religious or it will not at all.” The question is: religion in which of its many forms? There are those who see kerygma as poetic conceit, focusing on catechism, or its Islamic version the Shari’a, as a means of social and political control and domination. Then there are those who, having asserted the kerygma, allow the elastic to be pulled in opposite directions as far as possible.

The problem is that, at some point, the elastic might snap.

Panetta fails to lift the lid on Obama

In their early days, American tabloids often ran stories called “kiss and tell.” These were devoted to sensational confessions and juicy revelations by Hollywood starlets—and sundry other gold-diggers—about their dangerous liaisons with rich and powerful men, including movie moguls. Over the years the genre was adopted by others with some degree of name-recognition, who took to publishing their memoirs in the hope of making a fast buck. Today, in most bookshops, in the West at least, whole shelves are devoted to the genre overlapping with biographies and autobiographies.

[inset_left]Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace
By Leon Panetta (with Jim Newton)
Penguin Press, 512 pages
New York, 2014[/inset_left]

However, one category of “famous names,” consisting of senior political and military officials, observed a certain restraint in jumping on the gravy train. The idea was that a senior official should wait years before spilling the beans, so to speak. Some antediluvians still stick to that tradition (for example, John Dean, an official in the Nixon White House has just brought out his “revelations,” after more than 40 years). Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and secretary of defense under President Barack Obama, does not belong to that category. A year after he left the administration, he has come out with hefty volume of memoirs written with the help of Los Angeles Times star reporter Jim Newton.

book cover

Panetta is not alone in his unusual move. Before him, Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state, and defense secretary Robert Gates, had published memoirs, each in her or his own way puncturing the Obama myth. Of the three books, Mrs. Clinton’s is the most cautious in bashing Obama. This may be due to electoral calculations because Mrs. Clinton is clearly preparing to seek the presidency next year and knows she might need Obama’s help. Gates’ book, already reviewed in this paper, is the most outspoken and yet the least surprising because its author, a lifelong Republican, had never been a fan of Obama. That leaves Panetta’s book as being the most outspoken and the most damaging to Obama since the author is an iconic figure of the Democrat Party with five decades of experience from the Jimmy Carter presidency to the Obama era.

As far as I am concerned, the best part of the book is about Panetta’s family history as a narrative of a family of poor Italian peasants arriving in the New World in search of the “American dream.” The poor peasant boy was able to study up to the highest academic level, win a seat in the US Congress, and join the elite of decision-makers, something still rare in many countries including in advanced Western democracies. Panetta also offers a glimpse of how Washington’s byzantine political machine, built around the Congress, the Senate and the White House, works.

The least interesting part is that of Panetta’s brief passage through the CIA, if only because the ex-director has tried to conceal rather than make any revelations. As expected, he makes much of the coincidence of his directorship with the “execution” of Osama Bin Laden in the latter’s hideout in Pakistan. But since Obama has already claimed that laurel for himself, Panetta can’t insist on his own role. After all, the man who shot Liberty Valance in John Ford’s classical Western was not the man who got the credit.

Not surprisingly, the part of the book likely to attract most attention consists of Panetta’s tenure as secretary of defense. He clearly shows that Obama is unfit to be Commander-in-Chief in any normal sense of the term. Indecisive, not to say fickle, Obama is incapable of focusing on any issue long enough to understand it. He is like a butterfly, jumping from one flower to another, each time making some noise and then forgetting the visit.

Panetta also portrays Obama as a man who, being intellectually lazy, compensates the shortcomings in his analyses with a generous dose of rhetorical flourish.

Obama likes to dance around the issue, always hoping that things will sort themselves out. Panetta cites several examples of this, most notably on the burning issues of Syria, Iraq and the Middle East in general. Rightly, he points out that Obama deliberately sabotaged an agreement between Washington and Baghdad to keep a few thousand American troops in Iraq as a vote of confidence in the future of the newly liberated nation. The president did not want Iraq to succeed, perhaps because that would have amounted to a delayed justification of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, something that Obama had opposed from the start.

Panetta is also critical of Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis, especially his finger-pointing threats against Bashar Al-Assad followed by humiliating retreat. In other words, to a great extent Obama is responsible for the mess the Middle East finds itself in today. Obama was “fully informed” of the rise Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq but dismissed them as “junior university” activists. He vetoed a joint plan by the Pentagon and the State Department to help build the Syrian opposition’s military capabilities as “pure fantasy.”

There are at least two questions that might trouble us with regard to Panetta’s fascinating and highly readable work. The first is that one might find it surprising that Panetta, like Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, did nothing to persuade or, if necessary, force Obama to change course. They remained loyal to him, repeating his eloquent but hollow clichés, until the very last moment. We must assume that even in private discussions they did not deem it politic to challenge the president and pull him back from the abyss of his errors.

The second question is, perhaps, more important: How do we know that Obama does not have a grand strategy to end the United States’ global leadership which he might regard as unnecessary, unprofitable and ultimately self-defeating? After all, in 2008 half the American electorate voted for him partly because of his promise to fashion a lower profile for the US. And what if, Obama secretly believes that by intervening in international affairs in a big way, the US has done more harm than good?

Obama is not the Manchurian candidate, as his most ardent critics claim. But he remains a mystery. Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and, now, Leon Panetta have recorded aspects of that mystery without getting to the heart of it.

A War that Produced Only Losers

In terms of its length, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 was one of the longest in modern history. It was also one of the costliest in terms of casualties, claiming an estimated one million lives on both sides, plus twice as many injured or permanently disabled. It was also a costly war, inflicting more than 1 trillion US dollars in infrastructure damage and economic losses to the two belligerents.

[inset_left]The Iran–Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History
Williamson Murray and Kevin M. Woods
Cambridge University Press, 409 pages
Cambridge, 2014[/inset_left]

As this new book, published by Cambridge University Press shows, the war, which ended over a quarter of a century ago, had a number of other evil features. It provided the set for the use of chemical weapons on a large scale. Nearly 30,000 Iranians, military and civilian, were killed as a result of the chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein’s armies. Worse still, for the first time in modern history, Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people in the city of Halabja, killing more than 5,000 ethnic Kurds.

However, the war may have had at least two other unique features that the authors of this new study seem to ignore. The first is that this was, perhaps, the first modern war that had no clear objectives. To be sure both Saddam Hussein and Ruhollah Khomeini, the mullah who ruled Iran at the time, cited a number of objectives including regime change against one another.

iran iraq war

Saddam toyed with the idea of annexing the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan which has significant Arabic-speaking communities. However, it is not at all clear that Saddam would have welcomed such a development that would have added another 2.5 million Shi’ites to the population of Iraq at a time that the Sunni-Tikriti minority had difficulty maintaining its own hold on Baghdad. Khomeini launched the slogan “The road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad,” pretending that his aim was to conquer Iraq and then move on to recapture Jerusalem and destroy Israel.

However, it is unlikely that Khomeini took his own rhetoric seriously. Nor did the Israelis who helped smuggle enough American arms to Iran to first stop the Iraqi advance and then turn the tide against Saddam’s armies. Both Khomeini and the Israelis knew that a Middle East dominated by Sunni Arabs would leave little space for either Jews or “Persian” Shi’ites.

The second peculiar feature of this war concerned the character and position of the two men who were ultimately in command. Both Saddam and Khomeini had egos as big as Everest and, in secret at least, believed that they were geniuses in all fields of human endeavor. Both were praised by a sycophantic entourage and media as larger-than-life figures with a messianic mission. Saddam was to be the new Saladin, styled after the Kurdish fighter and Sultan who fought the Crusaders, not always with success. Khomeini, who claimed to be a descendant of Hussein, the third Imam of Shi’ism, was supposed to be on the verge of avenging his ancestor’s tragic death at the hands of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid.

The trouble was that neither of the two partners in this tragic dance had the faintest idea about military matters. Saddam had learned to fire a pistol, but only for an assassination attempt against Abdel Karim Qasim and, later, to murder his rival within the Ba’ath leadership. Khomeini, too, had received some training with hand-guns during his brief membership of the Fedayeen Islam terror group in the 1940s. However, like Saddam, he understood nothing about actual warfare and had shared a deep suspicion of things military.

By sheer coincidence, the publication of this book coincides with leaks about the Iranian side of the war—leaks that show how Khomeini bungled everything and how tens of thousands of Iranians died as a result of his poor leadership.

Murray and Woods’ book is almost entirely based on secret documents seized from the Iraqi archives after the fall of Saddam in 2003. Thus, it is focused only on the Iraqi side of the tragedy. Nevertheless, by gauging Iranian reaction to Saddam’s moves, one would also catch a glimpse into the way the leadership in Tehran handled, or mishandled, the war.

Both Saddam and Khomeini feared their military more than their officially identified foe. Saddam knew that if the Iraqi army won the war, or at least seemed to have won something, it could turn against him by projecting one of the victorious generals as the new “savior of the nation.” The authors show how Saddam had worked out a system in which generals could not directly communicate with each other even in nearby battlefields. In the Battle of Hamid, for example, Iranians trapped two Iraqi divisions and annihilated them while two strong and fresh Iraq divisions remained inactive a few miles to the north. The reason was that the commanders there were waiting for permission from Saddam in Baghdad to join the battle and relieve their trapped brethren. Permission came, but hours after the battle had been lost.

For his part, Khomeini had started his rule by executing thousands of Iranian army officers and non-commissioned officers and imprisoning thousands more. To make matters worse, Rear-Admiral Ahmad Madani, Khomeini’s first defense minister, had reduced the length of national service from 18 months to six, which meant that virtually all conscripts at the time could immediately return to civilian life. When Iraq triggered the war by invading Iran on September 22, 1980, the Iranian army had all but ceased to exist as an effective force.

Part of this fascinating book is devoted to an analysis of the Iraqi mind-set and how it changed during the eight-year long conflict. Saddam started by posing as a modern war leader in possession of the most advanced weapons of war, much of it supplied by France and the Soviet Union. Initially, French President Francois Mitterrand even allowed France’s own Super-Etendard heavy bombers to be repainted in Iraqi colors and, flown by mercenary pilots from Belgium, used for surgical operations against sensitive Iranian targets. The substance needed for chemical weapons came from West Germany while the Soviet Union delivered tanks and warheads. Soon, however, it became clear that this was not to be a modern war and that Khomeini and the mullahs around him did not care about the human and material losses.

In some battles, Iraqi commanders became physically sick when they saw how wave after wave of Iranian teenagers and children, brainwashed by the mullahs to seek “martyrdom” and “hours in heaven,” were sent to blow themselves up in front of tanks to slow down the Iraqi advance.

In the following phase, Saddam tried to re-cast himself as a classical Arab warrior and advised his military to seek victory through personal courage and sacrifice. However, that attempt, too, proved abortive if only because Saddam was, at heart, a coward, a fox who tried to roar like a lion.

In the final phase of the war, Saddam had understood that he could not win the war either as a modern commander or as a classical Arab warrior. It was then that he started begging his Arab neighbors and the major powers, notably the United Sates, to help get him off the hook through diplomatic means. He had miscalculated across the board, especially by not realizing that his adversary Khomeini was as mad as he himself was and as unmoved by the loss of Iranian life as he was about the loss of Iraqi life.

As Murray and Woods show this was a war that ended with no winners—producing only two losers. The borders did not change and the two regimes remained in place. Later, Saddam’s government was overthrown as a result of his other mistake: invading Kuwait, where he picked a fight with bigger boys.

Iran would do well to grant Murray and Woods, and other scholars, access to the Iranian archives so that the other side of the story is also examined and told.

Resistance, Perseverance and Hope

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In 2011, award-winning Canadian photographer and filmmaker Afzal Huda was commissioned to take photographs of Palestine’s separation wall for a book entitled, Love Wins: Palestinian Perseverance Behind Walls.

[inset_left] Love Wins: Palestinian Perseverance Behind Walls
By Waleed Abu-Ghazaleh, Afzal Huda, Phyllis Bennis
Olive Branch Press, 224 pages
Massachusetts, 2014[/inset_left]

Growing up in the hustle that is Karachi, he was already committed to inspiring change through his work. He went to Palestine with cameras and a map of the areas most affected by the wall. The initial concept was to visually demonstrate to the world how Palestinians’ lives are affected by living in a closed-off, constricted environment. As he started on his assignment, Huda had assumed that his brief was to play up the unacceptable face of the wall and depict the hardship and misery of people trying to live and work under military occupation.

However, instead of overpowering suffering, his work has revealed the unexpected and contrasting realities he witnessed. In images of people of different ages and backgrounds, their faces and body language for the most part reveal emotional resistance rather than endurance, creativity rather than hatred, hope not despair and, maybe, above all else, perseverance, in order to maintain optimism, sanity and even laughter.

Love Wins

Waleed Abu-Ghazaleh, a Kuwaiti–Palestinian designer, conceived and designed this remarkable, heart-warming book using Huda’s photographs. Abu-Ghazaleh found this revelation of resistance, perseverance and hope remarkable, especially as it contrasted with the usual images in mainstream media of downtrodden, angry and violent Palestinians—which is, in fact, the other devastating effect of the wall, which also cannot be denied. Deprived of their land, their rights, their livelihoods and even their family members by this inhumane barrier, it’s small wonder there are so many negative media images of Palestinians.

Phyllis Bennis’ foreword to Love Wins is a cogent, heart-rending history of the wall and its effects on Palestinians. Bennis is the author of several books including Understanding the Palestinian–Israeli Conflict (Interlink Books, 2002) and others relating to the region and US foreign policy towards it. She writes about how the wall was built in 2002, and how the Israelis said the separation barrier was “to keep Israelis safe; and to keep Palestinians out.” But it didn’t follow the Green Line, the internationally recognized division between Israel and the West Bank. Only 15 percent of the wall is built on the Green Line, according to the United Nations. Some 85 percent of it snakes through the West Bank, stealing more than 15 percent of the already tiny Palestinian territory. The result is that not only have the most important water resources ended up on the Israeli side (83 percent according to the UN), but all the major Israeli settlements housing the vast majority of the more than 600,000 settlers live in Jewish-only areas built on Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

It quickly became dubbed the “Apartheid Wall” by Palestinians and people around the world concerned with international law, human rights and equality. What’s more, indigenous Palestinians and Israeli settlers are governed by two completely different legal systems. Israeli citizens are governed by Israeli civilian courts; Palestinians existing under Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip face military courts for anything to which Israeli soldiers object. Thousands have been taken by force to disappear in jails inside Israel in direct violation of international law.

As Bennis points out: “The Wall doesn’t just divide Palestinians from Israelis, it divides them from each other.” Villagers are cut off from nearby cities that provide doctors, markets, schools and jobs. Entry and exit to most of Bethlehem and all of Qalqilya, which are completely surrounded by the wall, is permitted or forbidden at the whim of Israeli soldiers. Ambulance travel time has increased by 1,100 percent, and there have been at least 40 (recorded) infant and maternal deaths in ambulances at checkpoints. The Foreword celebrates that “one of the extraordinary accomplishments of this book is its depiction not only of the wall’s impact on Palestinian life, but how Palestinians have responded to this huge threat to their land, their families, their rights.” They have created admirable strategies of resistance to their occupation, such as weekly non-violent protests, which have attracted international solidarity; they have also brought lawsuits to Israeli courts, challenging the land and water thefts; and professional and amateur artists, as well as children, have used the Wall as a backdrop for highly creative protest.

Love Wins contains four parts: ‘Faces of Walls,’ ‘Faces of Life,’ ‘Faces of Support’ and ‘Faces of Hope.’ Each starts with brief statistics from United Nations sources, such as for the first section, ‘Faces of Walls,’ which tells us how unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza is at 26 percent, that 500,000 olive trees were uprooted to build the wall, and that 41,525 acres (165,921 square meters) of land were confiscated to build Israeli-only roads in the West Bank. Each section has a short introduction in English, Spanish, German, French and Chinese.

‘Faces of Walls’ shows images of how the wall, crowned with armed watchtowers, is a physical barrier, carving through heavily populated Palestinian towns, villages, farms, and even homes. Bleak photographs show arid, stony ground that was once fertile agricultural land. Other images of metal gates, barriers, checkpoints and endless coils of barbed wire show how ties to the outside world have been severed except for a few menacingly controlled exits, for which permits are necessary.

The photographs in ‘Faces of Life’ show how the Palestinians are coping with the resultant poverty, frustration and stress of living in the wall’s shadow—4.3 million of them are under house arrest. Today they inhabit only 12 percent of pre-1948 Palestine. Yet one photograph shows a boy determinedly doing his homework on a piece of cloth on the sand; several others are of mothers with children and shopping bags walking stoically past soldiers bristling with weapons, and looking them over; a young woman vigorously shouts her protest.

The third section, ‘Faces of Support,’ consists of images of solidarity from international artists who, along with local Palestinians, have covered sections of the wall with murals and graffiti, which are both inspirational and moving as well being great popular art. Messages come across loud and clear, such as: “The whole world is watching,” “History is on our side,” “A just peace means peace and security for Israel too,” “Stay human,” and “Love is the Liberator.”

The last section of the book is ‘Faces of Hope,’ whose initial statistics seem buoyant. Among them we are told that 80,000 olive trees have been planted in place of the 500,000 destroyed by the wall; that 95 percent of the Palestinian population is literate; that 29 births in ambulances were delayed at checkpoints (though compared to 40 deaths). The images in ‘Faces of Hope’ include a teacher grinning at her class, two women and a child enjoying seesawing on a plank in the midst of a sea of rubble, and an old lady laughing with her chubby grandson.

A charming tale of perseverance and hope came to light just as Love Wins was close to publication. A couple was engaged to be married in 1994, but the groom was imprisoned by the Israelis days before the wedding. As the years passed, the bride resolutely refused to meet other suitors or to give up on her love, saying that she knew he would be released one day. Eighteen years went by and he was released. They married a few days later.

Love Wins is a unique human story needing to be told—the humanity of a resilient nation. It is a stirring homage to their persistence and optimism in the spirit of a traditional Palestinian concept known as “sumud” (steadfastness). Graffiti on the wall says it all: “The Palestinian spirit is stronger than any wall.”

The Story of a Misunderstood War

This year thousands of ceremonies across the globe will mark the centenary of the First World War, an occasion that has already inspired hundreds of new books and countless essays. While in military terms the Middle East was regarded as a sideshow in the Great War, one could argue that it is there that the conflict still continues with the greatest intensity.

[inset_left]The First World War in the Middle East
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Hurst Publishers, 320 pages
London, 2014[/inset_left]

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s fascinating book is one of the best military histories of the Middle-Eastern “sideshow.” It introduces the reader to the inside world of the military strategists and political leaders who ran the war effort and tried to shape its aftermath. In the process, the author also corrects some of the misconceptions that Westerners have about the how and why of the war in the Middle East and its geopolitical outcome.

Like other wars, the First World War has been the subject of numerous narratives, often contradictory. That is no surprise because, as the famous adage has it, the first casualty of war is the truth. It is also a fact of life that the victors always end up writing history, while the vanquished nurse their chagrin in silence.

the first world war book

Even before the guns had fallen silent, the First World War also inspired a number of myths, some of which continue to this day in a variety of contradictory versions. Some of those myths have for decades exercised significant influence on public opinion and policies in many countries, especially in the Middle East.

One myth was that of a new world of nation-states living in peace and harmony in the context of world governance. That myth was concocted by US President Woodrow Wilson, who turned the concept of “self-determination” into an almost absolute value of international life. Had his romantic vision been realized, the war would have ended with the emergence of more than 100 new nation-states.

However, that process was to take a further half a century that included countless other conflicts, not to mention a Second World War.

As the guns fell silent, Wilson boasted that “at last the world knows America as the savior of the world!” His promise was to help “nations” build a new life on the debris of shattered colonial empires. In the Middle East, many minorities started calling their newborn sons “Wilson” in tribute to the US leader and his promise of “statehood for all nations.”

However, Wilson soon fell victim to US domestic politics and was scripted out of events. The US did not even ratify the Versailles Treaty. It took Americans some time to realize that empires do not bow out of history so easily. This is how Edward Mandell House, a diplomat and political ally of Wilson, put it before leaving for Washington: “I am leaving Paris, after eight fateful months, with conflicting emotions. Looking at the [Versailles] conference in retrospect, there is much to approve and yet much to regret. It is easy to say what should have been done, but more difficult to have found a way of doing it . . . Empires cannot be shattered and new states raised upon their ruins, without disturbance. To create new boundaries is to create new troubles.”

Another myth directly concerning the Middle East is known under the label “Sykes-Picot.” In fact, in any discussion of Middle-Eastern affairs, in order to appear knowledgeable as well as chic, one must bring up “Sykes-Picot.” It refers to a draft agreement by Britain, France and Russia, to carve out the Ottoman Empire which, having sided with Germany and Austria, was to end up among the losers in the First World War. The text of the secret agreement was published by Leon Trotsky, Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the post-revolution government in Russia, and used as a prop in the new Bolshevik regime’s anti-Imperialist propaganda.

In reality, however, the Sykes-Picot agreement was not even formally ratified by any of the signatories, let alone implemented, as anti-West propagandists have claimed for the past century. Instead, the fate of the Middle East was decided during a stroll by French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and his British counterpart David Lloyd George on the margins of the Versailles conference.

As a result, the way the Ottoman Empire’s Middle-Eastern possessions were eventually carved up turned out to be even worse than what the Sykes-Picot agreement had envisaged.

The new borders were to receive some form of legal expression in a set of treaties, including those of Sevres, Monteux and Lausanne, some of which did not reach the final stage of ratification by the parliaments concerned. For its part, Turkey, a new state emerging out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, signed a separate peace treaty with Bolshevik Russia in Brest-Litovsk.

Another myth that also concerns the Middle East is built around the so-called Balfour Declaration. The declaration consists of a brief note written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, on November 2, 1917. It runs: “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The text had not even been discussed let alone approved by the British Cabinet. It was later incorporated in the Treaty of Sevres signed with the Ottoman Empire.

However, contrary to common perceptions in the Middle East, the British never interpreted the declaration as a document committing them to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In fact, after the Second World War, when the idea of creating a Jewish state came up in a conference that included the Arab states, Britain and the United States, the British dismissed the Balfour Declaration as “of marginal importance.”

According to Bartley C. Crum, President Harry Truman’s envoy at the conference, the British believed that what was left of Mandatory Palestine should be declared an Arab state (part had already been used to set up the Emirate of Transjordan).

Crum writes that Harold Beeley, the Foreign Office man and Britain’s top Middle East expert, was “frankly and forthrightly pro-Arab.” Crum continues: “The Palestine issue, Beeley said, must be seen in the framework of strong Soviet expansionism . . . The United States would do well to join Britain in establishing a cordon sanitaire of Arab states. If Palestine were declared an Arab state, it would be a strong link in that chain.”

The result of London’s opposition to the creation of a Jewish state was the bitter guerrilla war that Jewish armed groups launched against British forces in Palestine.

Paradoxically, it was the US and the Soviet Union that supported the creation of a Jewish state against British designs.

Just as Sykes-Picot did not create Iraq and Syria, Israel was not created by the Balfour Declaration but by the United Nations.

Another myth, again concerning the Middle East, is built around the legend of T. E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia as he became known, according to which a British adventurer led a few hundred Arab fighters, defeated the Ottoman Empire and created “the new Middle East.”

From the early stages of the war, the British had toyed with the idea of inciting a Muslim revolt against the Ottomans and their German allies in the Middle East. In 1915, John Buchan, a diplomat and author, penned his novel Greenmantle in which a British nobleman working for the intelligence service masquerades as a holy man and leads an Islamic revolt against the Ottoman Caliph (The book was published in 1916).

At the time Greenmantle appeared, Britain, in terms of Muslim population, could be regarded as the world’s largest “Islamic” empire, because it ruled India, Egypt and parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Germans, too, had their Islamic fantasies. They spread the rumor that Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam, and distributed photos of his pre-war visit to Jerusalem where he took care to arrive on foot and without armed escort. The Germans also had their version of Lawrence in the shape of Colonel Gustav Wassmuss, an intelligence officer sent to Iran to organize anti-British guerrillas ordered to cut oil supplies to the Royal Navy.

The Germans also published their own version of Greenmantle under the title of The Red Dawn, a part memoir-part fantasy about an alliance between Germany and Muslims to destroy the British Empire, liberate India and set up a global Islamic caliphate.

Well, the myths survive in different versions because the reality that fostered them continues to affect the lives of so many people in so many parts of the world, most notably in the Middle East.