An Author’s Search for the Kuwait of Old

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—For Mai Al-Nakib, a Kuwaiti writer who spent large chunks of her life away from her home country, writing fiction is “a way to open a space to kind of remind myself of the different kind of place Kuwait used to be.”

[inset_left]The Hidden Light of Objects
By Mai Al-Nakib
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 224 pages
London, 2014[/inset_left]

Speaking at the launch of her much-celebrated debut work The Hidden Light of Objects at the Mosaic Rooms in London on Thursday, Nakib described the book as a collection of loosely connected short stories held together by a series of vignettes that act like a “visible wire” weaving through the book. Each of the ten vignettes is narrated in the first person by a character who reflects on what happened.

hidden light cover

Nakib, 43, was born at a defining moment in Kuwait’s history and was only a few months old when her family left to London, then Edinburgh, before eventually settling in the US.

The short story collection is set against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. But the book steers away from directly engaging with political turmoil in the region, instead tackling the lives of ordinary people and their relationships to the everyday objects that shape their memories of past places.

In conversation with British–Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh, Nakib said her book does not overtly deal with the region’s politics. Instead it emphasizes “the everyday lives of the people who live there.” The work is a celebration of and an attempt at conjuring up Kuwait’s past, the Kuwait that her generation, and that of her parents, are familiar with.

After returning to Kuwait, where she now teaches comparative literature at the University of Kuwait, Nakib was shocked by the dramatic transformation that had occurred in society. Kuwait used to be “more open, more heterogeneous and more cosmopolitan,” Nakib said at the launch.

“When I came back to Kuwait after a long time away, it was no longer the place I had known or grew up with. I look around me and see everybody has fallen into a state of amnesia. Nobody else seems to remember the Kuwait I was growing up with,” she added.

It is this state of collective “amnesia” that The Hidden Light attempts to reverse. Jinan, the protagonist in one of the short stories, laments the fact that after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait “nothing, not a thing went back to the way it had been. New people in the country, new food, new habits, new language.”

The stories are set inside and outside the Middle East, in countries ranging from Kuwait and Lebanon to Greece and Japan. The collection traces transient moments in the lives of people who do not have much in common in terms of their linguistic and national backgrounds. In this respect, the book often reads as a reflection of Nakib’s lack of a sense of belonging.

In an interview with The National newspaper Nakib said: “I do feel living in this part of the world there is always a feeling of instability lurking somewhere. That, perhaps, your home is never quite your home.”

When asked whether she thinks in Arabic, Nakib said English is her—and her mother’s—first language. It is the language she “thinks and dreams” in, she said.

In fact, the English language may prove to be the book’s Achilles’ heel, as far as Nakib’s ambition of reminding Kuwaitis of their country’s past is concerned. Translation will never do justice to the book. An Arabic translation of The Hidden Light will definitely lose the luster of the original.

Will Nakib speak to the present generation of Kuwaitis and succeed in reviving the memory of their country’s “golden” past? Perhaps not in this book, but I am sure she will when she starts “thinking” in Arabic.

Global Capitalism and the Financial Earthquake

One feature most politicians have in common is their penchant for blaming their predecessors and sneering at their successors. Typically, it goes something like this: “When I took over, things were in a mess. When I left, things couldn’t be any better. After me, things reverted to the mess that existed before me!”

[inset_left]Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises
By Timothy F. Geithner
Crown Publishing Group, 580 pages
New York, 2014[/inset_left]

There is, therefore, no reason why a partial memoir by a former United States Treasury secretary should be any different.

And, yet, Timothy Geithner’s Stress Test, which is built around his stint as President Barack Obama’s Treasury secretary, is something more than a mere exercise in self-aggrandizement and the disparagement of others.

Unless he used a ghostwriter of talent, Geithner reveals himself as a gifted author especially in the autobiographical segments of the book. We see him grow in a middle-class German–American family anchored in traditional conservatism while, at the same time, aspiring after liberal values. Geithner soon becomes exposed to the realities of a globalized world in which the metaphorical flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon could trigger storms at the opposite end of the world. Twists of fate take young Geithner to faraway places, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, India and Thailand where he undertakes some of his education. Exposure to foreign—and to some Americans, exotic—cultures encourages young Geithner to learn a number of foreign languages, among them Chinese and Japanese.

Geithner starts his public service career under the patronage of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger as a researcher. However, as a budding economist Geithner became a protégé of Lawrence Summers, the liberal economist who served as deputy secretary of the Treasury under Robert Rubin during the Clinton presidency. It is quite possible that Rubin’s influence played a key role in persuading Obama to pick Geithner as Treasury secretary.
Stress Test
Nevertheless, Geithner’s book does not portray him as a typically liberal economist, in the American sense of the term. To be sure, he comes across as a neo-Keynesian with a firm belief in the utility—not to mention, necessity—of state intervention when and if required by the circumstances.

However, one cannot be sure of Geithner’s true ideological colors for two reasons. First, he was part of a team led by Obama, a politician who, in the American context, comes closest to being a socialist in the sense that he believes in the role of the state as the ultimate arbiter of fairness in a nation’s economic life. The second reason is that Geithner became Treasury secretary at a time that the American economy, indeed Western capitalism as a whole, was passing through what some commentators have described as the worst financial crisis since the Great Crash of 1929.

Geithner’s central claim in this book is that without intervention by the federal government the entire American economy might have collapsed, producing a much bigger meltdown than Black Tuesday. The collapse of one major investment bank and the possibility that at least four other giants of American banking were wavering on feet of clay, made it imperative for the federal government to ride to the rescue. Geithner invented his famous “Stress Test,” as a means of assessing the health and strength of the banking sector. When a bank failed that test, the federal government would step in with “adequate cash infusions” to prevent bankruptcy. In time, the state-sponsored scheme came to be known as Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), costing the US treasury over 350 billion US dollars.

In the old times—good or bad, according to one’s ideological position—such huge expenditure by a government in an ailing business would have led to nationalization, at times even without compensation for recalcitrant owners. The Geithner–Obama scheme, however, maintained the rescued businesses, including General Motors and Chrysler, under private ownership with the excuse that not doing so would lead to “something worse, much worse.”

If one regards the saving of US banks, some of them badly managed and ridden by corruption, as a success, Geithner’s stewardship must be rated as a success. The trouble is that the former secretary tries to claim something more.

That claim is based on two assertions. First, Geithner insists that the financial crisis of 2009 could have been deeper than that of 1929. However, the truth is that we don’t know whether that would have been the case. Today, we have the tools and the knowledge necessary for dealing with financial crises, something that was not the case in the 1920s. More importantly, perhaps, our options are not limited to classical Keynesianism or Chicago school supply-side remedies.

Secondly, Geithner asserts that the fight against the financial crisis has ended with victory for America. However, that too is not as certain as the former secretary wants us to believe.

A few facts would indicate that Geithner’s self-congratulatory stance may well be premature. Today, US annual gross domestic product is growing by a statistically problematic 1 percent. Compared to pre-crisis average annual growth rates, the US economy has, in fact, shrunk by almost 1.5 trillion dollars while median family income is 2.2 percent lower. In 2014, US national debt is expected to rise above 18 trillion dollars, which is higher than the annual GDP.

True, headline unemployment is marginally lower. That, however, may be partly due to an estimated 2.8 million people who, having become tired of looking for jobs, have dropped out of the labor market.

The US economy emerges from the financial crisis badly damaged, a fact that Geithner tacitly acknowledges. However, obliquely he puts the blame on Obama who would not shy away from asking his cabinet to “massage” the facts to suit his political narrative. Geithner also extends the blame game to the Republican members of the Congress whose principal aim was to “get at Obama” rather than turn the economy around.

If only because of its highly readable and authoritative account of the crisis, Geithner’s book remains a valuable contribution to the study of a crisis that gave global capitalism a really bad shake, its ripples still felt across the world.

Four Women’s Stories at a Time of Turmoil

Over the past four decades, many Muslim-majority countries have suffered from conflict, revolution, war and terror while trying to face the challenge of finding their proper place in a modern world they find both attractive and repulsive. While everyone has had a share of the suffering, it is possible that women have suffered more than what might have been their share.

Several new books put the focus on that point in a different, often complimentary, manner.

[inset_left]The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
by Fatima Bhutto
Penguin Books, 2013[/inset_left]In The Shadow of The Crescent Moon (Penguin Books, 2013), Pakistani novelist Fatima Bhutto starts by telling the story of three brothers in the village of Mir-Ali, in the lawless nether lands of Waziristan, the stronghold of the Pakistani branch of the Taliban. However, by the time the narrative has reached its cruising speed two female characters, the beautiful Samarra and the feisty Mina, steal the show and provide the novel’s dramatic engine.

Though Mir-Ali has always been a real dump, its inhabitants, including the three brothers, had regarded it as home and planned to spend their lives there. With the rise of religious terrorism, that position becomes increasingly difficult to sustain. Because of suicide attacks, people are no longer even prepared to go together to a mosque to pray. The brothers, for example, visit three different mosques so that if one is killed in a suicide attack by radicals the other two would survive. At the time the novel starts, Mir-Ali has become a dead end that those who can would want to escape as fast as possible.

Bhutto tries to build some kind of a plot around a conspiracy to assassinate a visiting politician. However, the real interest of the book is as a well-written reportage of the tribal, cultural, religious and political aspects of life in a region that does not wish to be absorbed into Pakistan.

Bhutto’s power of observation and spruce prose make her an excellent reporter. A short book, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon could be read at one go.

A granddaughter of Pakistani leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Fatima is no stranger to personal tragedies caused by politics. This is reflected in the book’s sub-plot about the disappearance of a father into a fault-line of history that threatens to suck in the whole of Pakistan, and indeed even the Muslim world.

[inset_left]Willow Trees Don’t Weep
by Fadia Faqir
Heron, 2013[/inset_left]In Fadia Faqir’s Willow Trees Don’t Weep (Heron, 2013), the theme of missing father is at the center of the narrative. Here, the narrator travels to Jordan to search for a father who has abandoned her, presumably sucked into the fault-line of history that is Islamist radicalism. A gifted writer, Faqir manages to mix social and philosophical observations with a fast-paced narrative that hooks the reader from the start.

The heroine, Najwa, must find her fathe,r because without him she cannot live in a society in which women cannot build an independent life. To be considered “normal,” a woman must have a father or a husband. The search takes Najwa to Jordan and thence to Afghanistan, very close to where Fatima Bhutto’s novel is set.

The beauty of Willow Trees Don’t Weep is that it steers clear of the temptation to offer yet another account of how religious fanaticism leads to intolerance and thence to terror. In a sense, Faqir has written a Bildungsroman, narrating the slow and painful shaping of a young woman’s character. Both Najwa and her father have embarked on their respective journeys for different reasons and with different destinations in mind. Both end that journey profoundly changed.

Faqir’s palette is large enough to allow for a good dose of humor, or at least black humor, and challenging accounts of the “clash of civilizations” in a minor mode.

[inset_left]Prisoner of Tehran
by Marina Nemat
John Murray, 2007[/inset_left]The sufferings of Samarra and Mina in Bhutto’s novel and that of Najwa in Faqir’s book pale in comparison with Marina Nemat’s experience as a political prisoner in Tehran under the Khomeinist regime, which she writes in Prisoner of Tehran (John Murray, 2007).

Nemat’s troubles started when, as a secondary school pupil in Tehran, she had the temerity to protest against the Khomeinist decision to cut the weekly course of mathematics by one hour to give religious education an extra hour. She was arrested and charged with “waging war on God” and locked in the dreaded Evin Prison. Although aged only 16, she was sentenced to death. Days before the supposedly scheduled execution, Ali, one of the Hezbollahis in charge of the prison, offered Marina a Faustian bargain: become my “temporary” (muta’a) bride and you shall live!

Marina accepted the bargain and became Ali’s secret bride in a special cell only to find out that she had chosen a slow daily death over an instant one by firing-squad.

In a further twist to this tale of woe, Ali is killed by a rival Khomeinist faction. That enables Marina to benefit from a partial amnesty and secure her freedom. However, decades later she is still unable to free herself from the “Evin” inside her.

What renders Prisoner of Tehran even more chilling is Nemat’s cool and dispassionate prose. Nemat takes us where no one would want to go and, yet, everyone ought to go, through her account, to catch a glimpse of what millions of Iranians have suffered and continue to suffer under Khomeinist terror.

In all three books reviewed above, current religious radicalism and its most ardent forms in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are major themes.

[inset_left]An American Bride in Kabul
by Phyllis Chesler
Palgrave, 2013[/inset_left]However, the fact that women’s current negative experiences are not a recent aberration is reflected in Phyllis Chesler’s An American Bride in Kabul (Palgrave, 2013). Now a leading figure of second-wave feminism, fifty years ago Chesler was a young Jewish student from New York in search of love and adventure. She found love in a handsome Afghan named Abdul-Kareem, and the two were soon married. The adventure part came when Abdul-Kareem suggested that the couple move to Afghanistan, where he claimed his family was of some consequence. Once in Kabul, however, the new bride quickly realized that she has made a bad bargain. The dapper and apparently Westernized Abdul-Kareem revealed his true identity as an Afghan “male chauvinist” who believed that a woman’s place was behind the purdah.

Ironically, the 1960s was a decade during which many young Americans and Western Europeans travelled to Afghanistan overland in search of love and freedom, which in most cases simply meant free sex and hashish.

The young Western visitors, including thousands of Hippies, found Afghanistan a haven of peace and freedom because they did not step inside the décor. They enjoyed the fantastic climate, the cheap food and lodging and the natives’ benign neglect. Afghans did not judge the visitors, believing that non-Muslims had to be weird. Chesler, however, was inside the décor where she was treated as an Afghan and constantly reminded that duties were more important than rights and that freedom was a vastly overrated value.

Chesler’s book, part memoir, part reportage and part feminist reflection, contains a tragic message: In the 1960s, though they had a rough deal, Afghan women were better off than they were under the Taliban or even now, when they live under the shadow of Taliban terror attacks.

The Game of Carving up a Nation

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki speaks during a news conference in Baghdad. (Reuters)
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki speaks during a news conference in Baghdad. (Reuters)
With the latest crisis pushing Iraq back onto the world’s headlines, it is no surprise that a number of books examining Iraqi politics and history have appeared or reappeared in bookshops across the West. These books could be grouped in three categories.

In the first category we find books that treat Iraq as an issue in US and West European domestic politics. In recent decades, no issue has divided Western elite opinion more than the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. To some, the despot’s downfall was a political version of the Christian concept of “original sin.” To atone for that “sin,” some say, we all have to do what we can to make sure that Iraq fails to build itself a better future for itself.

Some books in this category regard the Iraq war as the fruit of a conspiracy by American neoconservatives who wished to destroy Saddam’s supposedly “socialistic” regime in Baghdad. The latest vehicle for that theory is Charles E. Coyote’s Iraq War 2003: What Really Happened Behind The Scenes (The Coyote Report, 2013), which is based on a mountain of official papers and quotes from senior figures in the George W. Bush administration.

A couple of other books offer an even more limited compass. One is Richard Bonin’s Arrows of the Night (Anchor Books, New York, 2012), in which Iraqi politician and longtime Saddam opponent Ahmed Chalabi is credited with single-handedly pushing the US to war. Here, too, the reader will detect a note of nostalgia for the fallen dictator.

In these and other books with a similar theme, the authors try to support their thesis that toppling Saddam was wrong by predicting a dire future for Iraq. The standard prediction is that Iraq is going to fall apart into at least three separate Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish mini-states. The subtext of that analysis is that only a ruthless dictator ruling with an iron fist would be able to hold Iraq together.

In the second category are books that approve of the 2003 war but still predict a bleak future for post-Saddam Iraq. The best of these is Toby Dodge’s Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism (Routledge, Oxford, 2012). Dodge admits that getting rid of Saddam was a good move but warns that the despot’s successors, notably Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, are trying to build a new dictatorship. Dodge warns that Iraq may well be heading for disintegration.

The possibility of a division of Iraq is also a central theme in The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy, or Division? (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005) by Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield. The message runs like this: Iraq is splintering into its three historic provinces; the break-up can be managed, but it cannot be avoided.

In the third category we find books that trumpet the 2003 war as an American victory that is being squandered by Barack Obama’s “reckless insouciance.” The best of these is The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (Vintage Books, New York, 2013) by Richard Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, a hefty tome of 832 pages. Here, too, the authors approve of the “liberation” of Iraq but warn of its looming division.

The theme of disintegration also creeps into books about the Iraqi oil industry. Here, the strongest case is argued by Greg Muttitt in his Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Vintage Books, London, 2012). Here, the subtext is that major oil companies might find a divided Iraq easier to deal with because “the ideal oil country” is one that has a lot of oil but few people. In 2003, many anti-Americans claimed that the US had toppled Saddam to “steal Iraq’s oil.” Muttitt shows that this has not happened. In fact, American oil giants have carefully avoided getting involved in Iraq. Is it because they are waiting for it to be carved up into mini-states?

The “Iraq carve-up” lobby uses three arguments in support of its case. The first is that Iraq is an “artificial” country. Stansfield claims that the British “created” Iraq in 1921 as a buffer against both Turkey and Russia. “Iraq’s new centralized structure made sense only from the perspective of the British,” he asserts. Moreover, the British even “imported” a king for Iraq along with much of the new ruling elites.

The argument that Iraq is fit for carve-up because of its artificiality is too glib to merit extensive rebuttal. All nation-states are artificial creations; none fell from the skies fully formed. The US, for example, started with a breakaway chunk of the British Empire and gradually shaped itself by seizing land from the natives, buying territory from the French and Russians, and capturing chunks of the Spanish and Mexican empires.

That the new Iraqi state was created with help from the British is also no excuse for delegitimizing it either. France played an active role in the creation of the United States as a move against British enemies. French secret services supplied American rebels with arms and money while the French navy helped them break the British naval embargo. French generals such as Archambault and Lafayette helped train and organize American rebels.

France also played a role in creating Italy in 1870. The unified Italian state was put together from disparate chunks of territory with help from the French, the British, and the Pope to counterbalance the newly created German Reich.

When the British-sponsored state started in Baghdad, Iraq’s total population did not exceed 1.2 million. Today, Iraq has a population of 32.5 million. As in the case of every other nation-state, what matters is Iraq’s existential reality as a homeland for people who, when all is said and done, feel that they are Iraqis.

The last argument in favor of carving up Iraq is the most bizarre: without division, Nuri Al-Maliki could transform Iraq into another dictatorship. However, the truth is that even if Maliki—or anyone else—wanted to create a new dictatorship, they would not have the means necessary to do so. Iraq’s problem, as illustrated by the fiasco in Mosul, is that it is still a weak and vulnerable state. The problem is not that the current Iraqi government is too strong; the problem is that it is too weak and chaotic to fight back against domestic foes and external enemies who, each for a different reason, want Iraq divided into several mini-states.

My guess is that the sense of “Iraqiness” is strong enough to weather the current tsunami of sectarianism, corruption, incompetence and terror. Iraq can bounce back and reclaim its proper place in the Middle East. Those who predict the disintegration of Iraq or dismiss it as a viable nation-state would do well to dismount from their high horses, for Iraq may well continue to plod along on its way to developing a better political system for itself.

To remember Iraq’s amazing reserves of moral strength and capacity for survival, I would recommend Hugh Kennedy’s magisterial When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World (Da Capo Press, Boston, 2005). I must confess that I am a huge fan of Professor Kennedy for his unrivalled sense of history. However, it would be better if you read his book for yourself.

Iran and Germany: A 100-year-Old Love Affair

As the deadline for P5+1 group nuclear negotiations with Iran is extended by 4-months until November, commentators assume that the four Western powers involved, the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany, are united in their determination to curtail Iranian nuclear ambitions. However, in this fascinating book, German scholar Matthias Kuntzel argued that Germany’s position on this issue may be closer to that of Russia rather than the United States.

[inset_left] Die Deutschen und der Iran. Geschichte und Gegenwart einer verhängnisvollen Freundschaft

The Germans and Iran: The History and Present of a Fateful Friendship
by Matthias Küntzel
WJS Verlag, 2009[/inset_left]

The reason, according to Kuntzel, is the “special relationship” that Iran and Germany have built since 1871 when Germany emerged as a nation-state. Two years after Germany was put on the map as a new country, Nassereddin Shah of Iran arrived in Berlin for a state visit of unprecedented pomp.

It is not hard to see why the two sides warmed up to each other. For over a century Iran had looked for a European power capable of counter-balancing the Tsarist and British empires that had nibbled at the edges of Iranian territory in pursuit of their colonial ambitions. In 1871, Germany looked like a good ally. As for the Germans, they saw Iran as their sole potential ally in a Middle East dominated by Britain and Russia. The friendship was put to the test in the First World War, when Iran refused to join the anti-German axis and suffered as a consequence. With the advent of the Nazi regime, Kuntzel shows, a new dimension was added to the Irano–German relationship: the myth of shared Aryan ancestry. In the Second World War Iran again declared its neutrality, but was invaded by Britain and Russia after refusing to sever relations with Germany.

Iranians had always regarded themselves as heirs to an Aryan identity, asserted in bas reliefs dating back more than 2,500 years. The Achaemenid King of Kings, Darius, describes himself as “Aryan, son of an Aryan.” The very name of the country, Iran, means “the land of Aryans.” The idea of Germans as Aryans, however, dates back to the 19th century and the rise of nationalism in Europe. Then writers such as Herder and Schlegel claimed that Germans were descendants of original Aryan tribes somewhere in Asia, splitting into several groups moving into India, Iran and Europe. (Much later, the Irish also claimed they were Aryans and named their newly-created republic “Eire,” which means land of Aryans.)

In the 1930s, Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler’s philosophers, published The Myth of the Twentieth Century, a book in which he claimed that the torch of Aryanism had passed from Iranians to Germans. The reason was that Iranians had been “corrupted” by Islam and mixed with “inferior races,” such as Arabs, Turks and Mongols. Thus in 1936, when the Third Reich wanted to publish its official list of “superior” and “inferior” races, there was some debate regarding the place to be assigned to Iranians. In the end, raison d’état prevailed and Iran was declared an “Aryan nation.”

However, that was not the end of story. The Iranian government demanded that the Reich recognize all citizens of Iran, including Jews, as “Aryans.” That demand provoked anger among Nazi officials charged with the elimination of Jews.

Kuntzel shows that Adolf Eichmann insisted that Iran’s Jews, numbering over 60,000 at the time, be listed and rounded up by the Iranian authorities. Tehran rejected that demand and even went further, issuing visas to hundreds of German Jews who wished to leave the Reich. (The Iranian embassy in Paris did the same for hundreds of French Jews.)

The “Aryan” myth was a source of major misunderstanding between Tehran and Berlin.
To Iranians, the term “Aryan” was cultural, not racial; anybody who partook of Iranian culture could claim to be Aryan. One of ancient Iran’s most famous queens, Esther, was Jewish. The maternal grandfather of Rustam, the mythical hero of Iran’s national epic Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), was the Arab Zahhak. The late Ayatollah Khomeini boasted of his partially Arab ancestry by claiming to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

To Germans, however, Aryanism was a racial concept linked to blood and biology. The Nazis published supposedly scientific texts about the shape of the heads of “superior” and “inferior” races, the color of hair and eyes, and the various shades of skin tan.

The misunderstanding continues even today. In 1986, Rafsanjani, the mullah who served as President of the Islamic Republic, wrote a letter to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl emphasizing “our common Aryan roots.” Kohl’s foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, liked to speak of “our joint heritage and a 100-year alliance.”

In 2009 in a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that the Irano–German “alliance, broken by the Allies in 1941” should be revived. Remarkably, in their response the German leaders did not bother to disown Hitler and distance themselves from the murderous myths spun by Nazis.

In the past 50 years or so, the “special relationship” between Iran and Germany has been highlighted in numerous ways. The first German industrial fair held in a foreign country after the Second World War was hosted by Tehran in 1960, with Economy Minister Ludwig Erhard leading a delegation of over 100 German businessmen. After that, all German chancellors, starting with Konrad Adenauer, made a point of visiting Iran until the fall of the Shah. Even after the mullahs seized power, Germans pursued the special relationship through high-level visits, including that of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The only time the federal German parliament approved a law unanimously was when it enacted legislation to guarantee investments in Iran.

Some critics claim that the Germans are attached to Iran for purely economic reasons.
Kuntzel shows this not to be the case. As the world’s number-one exporter, Germany has little need of Iran, which represented less than half of a percent of all German exports in 2013. Nor is Germany a major importer of oil or anything else from Iran.

According to Kuntzel, German leaders have at least two other reasons for helping Iran defy the United States. The first is German resentment of defeat in the Second World War followed by foreign occupation, led by the US. That resentment cannot be publicly expressed if only because Germany is a member of NATO and needed US protection against Russia, an even more dangerous enemy, during the Cold War. If Iran thumbs its nose at the US, so much the better.

The second reason is that Iran is one of the few, if not the only, country where Germans have never been looked at as “war criminals” because of Hitler. For over a century, Germany has been the favorite European power of most Iranians. Germans return the sentiment by having a good opinion of Iran. Kuntzel cites a number of opinion polls that show a majority of Germans regard the US and Israel, rather than Iran, as the biggest threat to world peace.

Kuntzel also asserts that Germans are fed up with being constantly reminded of Hitler’s crimes and beaten on the head with what Martin Walser, one of Germany’s most famous writers, calls “the Holocaust cudgel.” Walser says: “The motives of those holding up our disgrace stem not from a desire to keep alive the idea of the impermissibility of forgetting but rather to exploit our disgrace for their present purposes.”

That the Holocaust never attracted popular attention in Iran is a relief to many Germans. “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have repeatedly asserted that the Holocaust never happened. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has disputed the figure of 6 million Jews killed by Hitler, putting the number at “around 20,000.” Former President Mohammad Khatami claims that “the facts of the situation have not been independently verified and established.”

Finally, the Iranian nuclear dossier provides Germany with an opportunity to play in the diplomatic big league. In economic terms, Germany is a bigger power than Britain, France, Russia and China. And, yet, it has no place in the Security Council. The P5+1 formula creates a parallel Security Council in which Germany has a decisive say. The exercise could become precedence for other international initiatives in which Germany is treated as a member of the “big power club.”

Germany’s foreign minister, Joshcka Fischer, described his country as “a shield for Iran against America.”

Kuntzel cites another possible reason for Germany’s attempts at helping Iran maintain its nuclear program with a minimum of modifications. In the 1990s, Germany tried to develop a clandestine nuclear program, very much like what Iran had been doing, by developing two sites closed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. At the time, President Bill Clinton forced the Germans to shut the program by threatening them with sanctions, a similar tactic used against Iran so far without success.

With the United States global retreat under President Barack Obama, Germany is beginning to assert its independent personality. It is not in either the Western or the Eastern camps, Kuntzel shows. It is at the centre of a new “political pole” in Europe.

Kuntzel’s book is of special interest for the glimpse it offers into what many German politicians and scholars feel and think in silence. A recent official German report states: “The Federal Republic has no evidence showing that Iran’s nuclear program has a military aspect.”

Out of Place in Morocco

[inset_left]The Arch and The Butterfly
By Mohammed Achaari
Translated by Aida Bamia
324 pages Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, Doha: May 2014[/inset_left]It is a rather disappointing beginning: the narrator, a middle-aged, Left-leaning Moroccan journalist, receives a one-line letter asking him to “rejoice, Abu Yacine. God has honored you with your son’s martyrdom” in Afghanistan. The frustration and shock emanating from the radicalization of one’s child is not the most unique fiction theme, nor does it necessarily promise very much in terms of form and style. But the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction joint winner, The Arch and The Butterfly, quickly dissipates that initial skepticism by tackling a broad network of themes that keep building to a point where motifs of terrorism and trauma simply cannot hold on their own.

While it is tempting to portray Mohammed Achaari’s first novel as a family saga spanning three generations, narrated by Youssef—Mohamed Al-Firsiwi’s son and Yacine’s father—the book soon spirals beyond the perimeters of the genre. Achaari’s novel is suffused with mundane characters and mythological figures—Bacchus, Medusa, Hercules and Orpheus—and is rife with references to cities from Rabat, Marrakesh and Casablanca to Havana and Madrid. In fact, readers will—like Youssef—find themselves “thinking about all that at once [while unable] to concentrate on one specific detail” and constantly “assailed by various details from contradictory topics.”

The Arch and The Butterfly is—to the dismay of those seeking pure entertainment—a demanding book. It is a difficult read—almost inaccessible to those not expecting a novel tackling an array of topics in a poetic, sometimes aphoristic, style.
arch and butterfly

A wasteland

When he receives the tragic news of his son’s death in Afghanistan, Youssef’s perception of his physical environment changes almost immediately. He “steps for the first time into a wasteland,” so arid and “desolate” a place that he soon feels “no trace of pain or pleasure or beauty.” Youssef’s sensory impairment takes hold of him. His dilemma now lies in his failure “to make my inner self react.”

The news also takes its toll on his relationships. Youssef avoids making new acquaintances and limits himself to having only two friends. His marriage collapses. But the tragedy earns Youssef a new companion: his dead son’s ghost, “with whom I would share the details of my daily life . . . talking with him for hours” about everything from road works, demonstrations and beautiful women to “revolutions, betrayals and the death of illusions.” People in the street who see Youssef “caught up in conversation” with his new invisible friend soon spread rumors that the bereavement has driven him to the verge of madness.

In their first walk around Rabat, Yacine’s apparition complains to Youssef about the “huge cranes, bulldozers and cement mixers . . . blocking the street” and the capital’s rapidly changing landscape. Before his death in Afghanistan, Yacine “had dreamed of placing a giant steel arch across the [Bou Regreg] river,” an aesthetic architectural touch aimed at giving the impression that the river “ran through the fingers of [Salé and Rabat],” and thus connected the center of Morocco with the periphery.

Morocco’s fast-changing urban landscape dominates Achaari’s novel, and real-estate scandals in Marrakesh and Rabat are one of Youssef’s main concerns as a journalist. He feels betrayed by his friend, Ahmad Majd, a socialist turned tycoon who is involved in one of these scandals. Majd’s biggest project is a nine-floor butterfly-shaped building he believes will “free [Marrakesh] of the spirit of the distant past and bring a bit of frivolity into the city.”

But Majd’s ambitious and “provocative” architectural endeavor faces a legal snag: buildings in Marrakesh cannot be more than four stories high in order not to block the view of the High Atlas Mountains from the center. Of course, Majd manages to circumvent the law, arguing that “the city was a city and the mountain was a mountain,” unable to understand why anyone would “drink their coffee in the street as their sleepy eyes roamed over the High Atlas.”

It is the architectural audacity of the building and its contrast with the restive Marrakesh that Youssef has issue with: “People were struck by this building with its provocative shape, located in the heart of the Medina.” The Butterfly’s interior is more provocative—even “vulgar,” at least to Youssef and his friend Layla. It is an architectural pastiche of British and Asian sculptures, Byzantine mosaics, Persian miniatures, Turkish glassware and a kitsch statue of Bacchus, among others: it “felt like a museum.”

Compared to Yacine’s steel arch—an objet d’art linking Salé with Rabat—the butterfly-shaped building is not just a “vulgar” edifice erected in the middle of a city with a rich history; it blocks the view of the High Atlas, one of Marrakesh’s authentic landmarks. If similar buildings continued to sprout in the heart of the city, Marrakesh “would be like a tramp’s trousers, made up of different coloured patches from various times.”

Youssef’s attack on the transformation of Morocco’s urban identity can at times be overly direct. He criticizes the “palaces’ mixed architectural styles,” concluding that “Marrakesh had, in fact, literally and figuratively lost its authenticity.”

In the novel’s last chapter—the most dramatic and most absorbing—Youssef roams the labyrinthine streets of the old city of Marrakesh, playing the role of the flaneur: “I stared at the faces of the passers-by, almost certain they could not see me, as if I had become a mere vision checking the conditions of the city.” Contrary to his expectations, in the old city Youssef “felt calm and free,” although he admits to being unable to take part in the “tenderness bursting from the sleeping city.”

In this chapter, Youssef’s integration with his surroundings increases and Yacine’s ghost vanishes. The son’s disappearance is contrasted with Youssef’s increasing interaction with passers-by and his physical surroundings. At the entrance of the old city, Youssef comes across two men having a petty argument over olives. Although “unnecessary and useless,” the conversation, Youssef says, “cheered me up . . . and the alley would have been desolate without it.”

Almost immediately a child approaches Youssef, asking him a random question to which he has no clue as to how to answer. Still, he says, he was “pleased by the child’s curiosity.”

A blind tour guide

But it is not only Youssef who has a troubled relationship with his environment: Mohammed Al-Firsiwi, Youssef’s father and Yacine’s grandfather, shares his son’s defective sensory perceptions. Redolent of the image of Tiresias of Thebes, Firsiwi is a blind tour guide and the clairvoyant prophet of the Roman city of Walili (Volubilis).

Firsiwi immerses himself in the history of the area and is often “seen constantly excavating the site for something, though no one knew what.” Firsiwi breaks off his contact with the present and instead “spends his days chasing Hercules, Antaeus, Bacchus, Orpheus, Hylas, Venus, Medusa, Ariadne, Juba and Ptolemy.”

For Firsiwi, the death of his grandson threatens to end the family line. He urges Youssef to have another child—a plea his son shrugs off. In one of his angry fits, Firsiwi castigates Youssef for being “unconcerned about what will happen in the centuries to come because he lives in the present, in restaurants, bars and airports . . . [and] works on fleeting stories and novels that wilt as soon as they are picked up.”

Firsiwi is hard to work out. When asked by Youssef why he buried the statue of Bacchus in the courtyard of an obscure mosque, he simply answers: “I can just imagine the puzzlement of archaeologists in a few centuries’ time asking themselves what Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, was doing in the courtyard of the twenty-first century mosque.” This blind grandfather stands apart from the rest of Achaari’s characters. He can be both mundane and otherworldly. His life remains shrouded in ambiguity. His words are inexplicable and his actions paradoxical and inconsistent.

The Arch and The Butterfly is a reflection on place, identity, authenticity and loss. The protagonists find their habitat in the past: Youssef in the old town of Marrakesh, and Firsiwi in the Roman ruins. As for the present, they feel as out of place as a statue of Bacchus in a mosque.

Awakening to Pluralism after the Arab Spring

[inset_left]The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism
by Marwan Muasher
Yale University Press, 232 pages
New Haven, CT, 2014[/inset_left]
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—For a couple of decades, the societies of the Middle East and North Africa seemed relatively stable, if not necessarily open and democratic. Authoritarian regimes maintained the status quo, handling periodic unrest with oppression or pseudo-reforms. Nobody expected so many countries in the region to implode quite as spectacularly as they did in 2011, and neither did anyone anticipate the wide-ranging changes that followed: ousted regimes, wars, refugee and humanitarian crises, and so on.

Instead of dictators, the Arab Spring countries are now characterized by instability and in many cases violence. Syria is witnessing some of the worst acts of violence committed by a head of state against his own people in living memory. Libya is largely lawless, with tribal structures replacing state institutions. Egypt has been in a transitional phase marked by unrest and street violence for over three years. Even the relative success stories, Tunisia and Yemen, are still struggling to address deep-seated social problems and stagnant economies.

The optimism many people expressed at the start of the uprisings has now largely been replaced by caution, and even outright despair. But Marwan Muasher, former deputy prime minister of Jordan and now vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has retained his optimistic vision of the region’s future. In his latest book, The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism, Muasher argues that the 2011 uprisings were staged, in part, by the region’s youth in the hope of building democratic, plural societies.
second arab awakening
With a fierce commitment to liberalism and pluralist values, The Second Arab Awakening can read as almost naively optimistic. It is an accessible text which hardly strays from making the point that, if the new generation of Arabs chooses inclusion over elitism and commits to civil rights instead of despotism, they can build the societies they aspire to. Critics, however, will say that Muasher’s account is overly optimistic, perhaps even utopian in its unlikelihood. Other scholars have repeatedly pointed out that the entrenched political culture and economic problems could (and, in their view, likely will) lead to further chaos and instability. Some, such as Mohammed Ayoob, even go so far as to largely discount the agency Arabs have to effect change in their societies.

The Second Arab Awakening also sets itself apart from other Arab Spring literature in its forward-looking approach, examining possible future scenarios instead of focusing on the role of historical factors in the current instability that grips the region. Indeed, Muasher could have given more attention to the impact of events and processes like the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916 and the challenges the states it created face in building pluralistic societies. Instead, he chooses to emphasize pluralism as “necessary to lay the foundations for democratic institutions.”

One of the most marked features of the period immediately following the acute unrest of 2011 was the election of Islamist governments in several Arab countries. This was remarkable not only because there were largely free elections for the first time in the histories of these countries, but because these Islamist governments illustrated the nature of the existing political systems. Muasher adopts what is arguably the most commonly-held account of the Islamist groups’ success, writing that, pre-revolution, the political culture of these countries had allowed Islamist groups to gather momentum by filling the gaps in the former regimes’ sporadic social services. Arab publics had responded to these efforts, contrasting them with the unaccountable and corrupt governance of the ruling elites.

In The Second Arab Awakening, Muasher writes that this example shows that “if the system is not opened up, only the Islamists can garner mass support.” But in many Arab countries, the Islamist parties moving from the opposition to positions of power after 2011 did not result in an embrace of pluralism, inclusive policies, and respect of individual rights, and nor did it secure the peaceful rotation of power. The commitment of both Islamists and secular forces in the Arab world to democratic norms is only “skin-deep,” he writes, taking Egypt as an example. Although the book had gone into production by the time Egypt’s July 3 revolution was unfolding, in the foreward Muasher argues that this second revolution demonstrates the importance of embracing pluralism at all levels of society: In Egypt, both the Islamists and the secular opposition were behaving in a majoritarian, winner-takes-all manner. While the Islamists under Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi used their time in power to push through a constitution that did not enjoy widespread support, now that some secularists are in power they are suppressing the Islamists’ rights as political actors.

While his optimism about some other countries in the region—including Jordan and Morocco, which both witnessed small-scale protests in 2011 followed by a series of peaceable reforms—is understandable, the degree of optimism he expresses for the future of countries such as Egypt cannot go unnoticed. Despite all the challenges to pluralism and inclusive socio-political systems exemplified by Egypt’s two transitions, the author argues that this “Second Arab Awakening” is a historical turning point—hence his positive outlook. True, some events have been historic: multi-party elections, the establishment of independent electoral commissions to monitor those elections, and the growing acceptance of political parties, which he writes were “formerly regarded as an irritant at best.” But alone even these substantial political reforms cannot transform these countries’ political cultures.

While perhaps not as critical as most, Muasher does devote a good portion of his book to exploring the changes needed to entrench pluralist values in these post-Arab Spring societies. Having devoted an entire chapter to educational reform, he tells Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Arab world today needs an education system that develops a strong value system, encourages critical and constructive thinking, and teaches the importance of tolerating and accepting various points of view.” As an extension of this, he also describes how many of the intellectual trends that emerged from the events of 2011 have not yet developed the means to promulgate and entrench their ideals.

But it is in Muasher’s skepticism about foreign—and especially Western—involvement in (and interference with) the region since 2011 that his voice becomes more critical, and more in sync with mainstream thinking and attitudes to the Arab world’s turmoil. Many observers jumped to use the term “Arab Spring” to describe the first stages of the uprisings, and many have been equally quick to adopt the phrase “Arab Winter” to describe the subsequent stagnation. But “democratic processes do not unfold in three years,” he tells Asharq Al-Awsat. “It took centuries for the West to develop democratic institutions. It would be nonsensical to expect Arab countries to become democratic overnight, in a region that has not known democracy.”

Rogue States and the Appeasement Industry

An unidentified woman walks under an anti-US graffiti painted on the walls of the former US Embassy in Tehran, Iran, on Saturday, November 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

[inset_left]Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes
By Michael Rubin
Encounter Books, 426 pages
New York, 2014[/inset_left]

Just a few months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was praising “our Russian partners” for their role in making a second “Geneva peace conference” on Syria possible. Having spent more time with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, than with any other colleague, Kerry promoted the illusion that Russia and the United States were teaming up to resolve a number of issues, including the Syrian war and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

And then, all of a sudden, we had Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine by breaking the sacrosanct rule that said European borders could not be changed by force. Lavrov and his boss, President Vladimir Putin, were violating not only the emblematic Helsinki accords of 1975 but also a set of treaties that guarantee Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. In a military–political blitzkrieg, Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in less than a week. In other words, Russia had gone rogue.dancing with the devil

But what is a rogue state? According to Michael Rubin’s new and extensively researched book, a rogue state is one that ignores international law and accepted norms of behavior whenever and wherever it serves its policy objectives. A rogue state may make promises, sign treaties and join international organizations, but will always reason like a lone wolf that abides by no rules—even while extending the hand of friendship with extra warmth while holding a knife at the ready behind its back. “Rogues are proactive rather that reactive,” Rubin writes. “They simply do not accept international norms.” Thus, in dealing with them, “limiting strategy to the normal tools of diplomacy will fail.”

Rubin, a former Pentagon official, argues that rogue states are able to act roguishly because those capable of reining them in succumb to the temptation of securing a settlement through diplomacy. Even before he was elected president, Barack Obama insisted that the US “talk to its enemies.” In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, he offered “a hand of friendship” and proposed a one-on-one meeting with then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Implicitly, he blamed previous US administrations for three decades of tension in its relations with Iran.

However, Obama is not alone in the belief that he could do better than his predecessors. Rubin writes: “[Former US president Jimmy] Carter never gave up hope that he might broker peace.” That was because he had “uncritical trust in his own power of persuasion” and believed that “if past diplomacy had failed, it had to be the fault of his predecessors not of America’s adversaries.” Rubin shows how successive administrations refuse to learn from the experience of their predecessors.

Take Syria, for example. Sometime in 1970, and for reasons that remain a mystery, the US State Department adopted the shibboleth that in the Middle East there could be no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria. Thus, an annual “summit” of the US president and the Syrian despot Hafez Al-Assad became part of US diplomatic ritual. For almost three decades, Damascus became the most popular destination for US secretaries of state. George Shultz went there six times and James Baker doubled that number. Warren Christopher more than doubled that again by traveling to Damascus 29 times. Interestingly, no one took a moment to assess the results of so much attention being paid to a tin-pot tyrant. Every new secretary of state taking the road to Damascus claimed he was having success where others had failed.

Measuring success in Dancing with the Devil is in itself an exercise in obfuscation. Among the claims made to justify wooing rogues is that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” Here, the trick is to narrow down all options to just two: talking to the enemy or invading his territory. Often the trick works because most people don’t have the time or the information to realize that war is not the only alternative to sterile negotiations. The rogue-wooers also claim that talking helps with “confidence building” or the establishment of “parameters for future engagement.” They claim that “modest progress” has been made or “constructive dialogue” is under way and that “encouraging signs” could be detected. When none of those claims sound convincing, the rogue-wooer asserts that things might have been worse without engagement.

The rogue states have one crucial advantage over their democratic adversaries, including the United States. Rogue leaders have much longer tenures than their democratic adversaries. Iranian “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has been a central player in the power structure in Tehran since 1979 and has dealt with six US presidents. President Hassan Rouhani has been a key figure in the Khomeinist security services since 1980, long before Obama was old enough to nurture political dreams. The Kim dynasty in Pyongyang has been in charge of North Korea’s destiny for more than six decades. The Assad clique has dominated Syria since 1970. Even Putin is now in his third decade in power, first as prime minister and then as president of Russia.

The rogues know that their democratic adversaries are only mildly interested in tackling complex issues. US policymakers come and go, write their books, launch a second career in think-tanks or boardrooms and have little or no desire to complicate their lives. Rubin provides the names of many former politicians and diplomats who have recast themselves as freelance peacemakers. Among them are such distinguished figures as Lee Hamilton, Thomas Pickering, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Haass. Such individuals are not as harmful as professional appeasers if only because they lack consistency in their analyses. Nevertheless, they help perpetuate the illusion of peace, thereby helping rogues buy time in which to make more mischief.

Because the US cycle of elections does not coincide with the diplomatic cycle, any change of administration or personnel in Washington could mean restarting the “engagement process” from zero. The outgoing officials become critics of the incoming ones, claiming they would have handled the engagement better than their successors. Those who are too old to think of a second career, people like Kerry and US Vice President Joe Biden, favor engagement even if it leads nowhere, in the hope of being cast as peacemakers and ending up with a Nobel Peace Prize.

Rubin writes: “Elite Washington society often treats engagement with rogues as chic and sophisticated.” Anyone who suggests that some rogues will not stop unless they hit something hard is labeled “warmonger” or “cowboy.”
US policymakers and/or implementers know that whatever the outcome of “engagement” with rogues, their personal risks are minimal. The interlocutors on the “rogue” side are in a dramatically different situation. The slightest mistake could mean loss of power, imprisonment, exile and even death.
Promoting engagement with rogues has nurtured a vast appeasement industry keeping thousands of former officials, real or self-styled experts, op-ed crusaders and “Track II” fixers busy.

At the very least, the appeaser is rewarded with visas to visit the rogue state and granted access to powerful figures there. In a growing number of cases, appeasers have also benefited from lucrative business deals and consultancies for those on the lookout for a fast buck. In time, engagement becomes an end in itself, not a means to an end. The rogues welcome engagement because it removes the threat of military action or genuinely hurtful sanctions against them. Kerry’s engagement with Lavrov has enabled the Russians to keep Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in power in Damascus and to launch a new phase in Putin’s plan to at least partially revive the Soviet Empire. Engagement with Iran has enabled the mullahs to continue their nuclear program while Obama acts as chief lobbyist for them to prevent the US Congress from imposing new sanctions.

This is how Hossein Mousavian, a former Khomeinist security official, assesses the outcome of a previous round of negotiations with the US and other Western powers: “During two years of negotiations we made far greater progress [in uranium enrichment] than North Korea.” The technique was simple: Keep talking, but continue doing exactly what you were doing! Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, a spokesman for former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, is more specific: “We had one overt policy: negotiations and confidence building and a covert policy which was the continuation of our [nuclear] activities.”

As part of the appeasement strategy, successive US administrations overlooked crimes committed by rogue states against America. For example, since 1979 the Islamic Republic in Tehran has always held a number of US hostages without losing the sympathy of the appeasement lobby. Today five US citizens are held hostage in Iran. Former US president Bill Clinton chose to ignore the murder of 19 US servicemen by Iranian Hezbollah agents in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and even apologized for “the wrongs my civilization has done” to Iran. The Kim gang in North Korea has pocketed billions in US aid, supposedly in exchange for stopping its nuclear program, but is busy expanding its deadly arsenal.

North Korea, Iran and Russia are not the only rogues to come under Rubin’s scrutiny. He shows how “engagement” with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Libya and, more recently, the Muslim Brotherhood produced the opposite of the results that the appeasers had promised. In every case, the rogues or their apologists knew how to hoodwink the gullible Americans. Here is Tariq Ramadan, a grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan Al-Banna: “I must speak in a way that is appropriate for the ear hearing me.”

It is not only misguided idealists and opportunists who preach and peddle engagement with rogues. At times, there are US officials who show reluctance to deal as firmly with such rogues as might be desirable. Rubin cites as an example the case of several officials of the Carter administration, among them the analysts Richard Falk and Richard Cottam and National Security Council aide Gary Sick.

Rubin has a sober lesson for anyone who cares to learn it: “The first casualty of engagement with rogues is moral clarity.”

Did the BBC help overthrow the Shah?

[inset_left]Persian Service: The BBC and British Interests in Iran
By Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh
I.B.Tauris, 226 pages
London 2014[/inset_left]

“It’s all the work of the English!” Even when said in jest, for many Iranians this popular adage still has a special resonance. Dating back to the 19th century, it reflects the belief that Great Britain, known to Iranians as Engelestan (Land of the English), is the deus ex machina of international politics. “Even the sun does not rise without the say-so of Engelestan,” says Uncle Napoleon, one of the most popular comic figures in modern Persian literature.

Since the British Empire has faded into history, with Engelestan’s military machine no longer capable of exerting meaningful pressure on anybody, the question is: how could the old “Master of the World” impact events beyond its borders?

To many Iranians, including the late Shah, the answer comes in three letters—BBC. In this context, the three letters do not refer to the BBC as seen and listened to by Brits in their own country. The BBC that arouses so much suspicion among so many Iranians is the World Service, a distinct section of the pubic media conglomerate.

Until recently, the World Service was directly financed by the UK government and fell under dual supervision of the Foreign Office and the Treasury. And since the secret services were also “supervised” by the Treasury, it was often assumed, though not always accurately, that British Intelligence also had a say in how the network operated.

PersianServiceIn this fascinating and well-researched book, Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh try to shed light on the role played by the Persian language service of the BBC World Service in key events in Iran’s modern history. They divide their narrative into several historical segments. The first starts with the creation of the BBC Persian Service soon after the start of the Second World War. At the time Iran’s ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was trying to keep the country out of the war by adopting a neutral profile. However, it was obvious that his sympathies lay with the Axis powers, especially Germany.

Reza Shah had worked his way up the ladder of power, as war minister and prime minister before becoming Shah, by easing out Sayyed Ziauddin Tabataba’i, the man London had backed as leader of a putsch against Qajar Ahmad Shah in 1921. A former commander of the Cossack Brigade, set up and equipped with Russian help, Reza Shah had always been disliked by the British. Their dislike intensified in the 1930s as Reza Shah played the “Aryan” card while refusing to expel some 4,000 German technicians, and possibly spies, from Iran.

Thus, as the book reveals, the key task of the new BBC Persian radio was to vilify Reza Shah, encourage opposition to his autocratic rule and, over time, prepare Iranians for an invasion of their country by Britain and its Soviet allies.

Sreberny and Torfeh implicitly admit that it is hard to gauge the actual impact of the BBC broadcasts. In those days, there were no more than a few thousand wireless sets in Iran and even fewer were able to receive shortwave signals beamed from India. So the fact that Reza Shah was toppled was more due to a full-scale Anglo–Soviet invasion than propaganda from the BBC.

Having defeated the Iranian army, the Anglo–Soviet alliance split over Iran’s future. The British forced Reza Shah to abdicate and tried to return the Crown to the Qajars who had been on the UK’s payroll for decades. The Soviets refused and insisted that the Pahlavis continue, with Crown Prince Muhammad Reza sworn in as the new king. Again, the BBC played a minimal role at best. In the Tehran Summit of 1943, then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to call on Iran’s new Shah. In contrast, Soviet leader Josef Stalin paid his respects to the young Shah.

Fast forward to the second segment in the BBC Persian Service saga, where Sreberny and Torfeh deal with the oil nationalization crisis. They show that the British government clearly used the BBC Persian Service as a propaganda tool against Muhammad Mossadeq, appointed by the Shah as prime minister with the mandate to implement the nationalization of Iranian oil. The Foreign Office instructed the BBC to portray Mossadeq as a demagogue and fanatic who was leading Iran to disaster. In the end Mossadeq fell from power, largely thanks to his own political mistakes rather than BBC propaganda.

The third segment deals with a long spell between 1954 and 1978, when the BBC Persian was almost forgotten. Because of the close ties between London and Tehran, the service was not needed to exert any pressure on Iranian leaders. The few Iranians who worked there were not allowed to produce any remotely political material on their own and were mainly used as translators of texts sent to them by the World Service in English. Once a year, on the Shah’s birthday, the Persian Service played the “Hymn to the Shahanshah” in homage to the Iranian monarch.

The fourth segment covers the period between September 1978 and the seizure of power by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1979. Initially, the Persian Service tried to hedge its bets in well-established BBC tradition of giving “all sides” a voice in the name of objective journalism. (Jean-Luc Goddard calls the practice a formula whereby both Hitler and the Jews get five minutes each when discussing the Holocaust.) Very quickly, however, the Persian Service adopted an increasingly sympathetic position towards the anti-Shah groups.

The authors say: “BBC Persian has probably never been as popular as it was in the year leading to the revolution. Yet it has also never been seen as so partial in its news reporting as it was during those years, at times even seen to be overstepping the line.”

As an example of “overstepping”, the authors quote at length a report written and read by journalist Baqer Moin, which is clearly favorable to Khomeini and his group. Moin tells the authors that he was sympathetic to “the revolution.” However, it might be unfair to imply that he acted as a rogue and against the policies of the BBC or the British government. That this was not the case was borne out later when Moin was promoted senior producer and eventually even head of the BBC Persian Service.

At the time, then-Foreign Secretary George Brown tried to fudge the issue by claiming that the BBC’s foreign-language programs, including Persian, reflected the view of those who worked there, not of the British government. Brown wrote that such programs were “staffed by émigrés, refugees from those countries who are hostile to the regime in the country, that is why they are émigrés in the first place.”

However, none of those working for the BBC Persian Service at the time were either émigrés or refugees. One staffer, the highly respected Lutf-Ali Khonjis tells the authors that he and 80 per cent of the Persian service Staff were sympathetic to the 1979 revolution. Andrew Whitley, the BBC chief correspondent in Tehran at the time, also tells the authors that he was sympathetic to the revolutionaries because “they had justice on their side.” He also claims that BBC broadcasts helped speed up the victory of the revolution, in other words the side he supported.

The authors quote Chris Rundle of the then-Foreign & Commonwealth Office Research Department [now Research Analysts] admitting that more time was given to opposition activities. They also show that attempts made by supporters of the Shah to put their side of the story led nowhere. None of the Shah’s supporters inside or outside Iran were interviewed. Even when the Shah’s then-finance minister visited London, he was interviewed by the privately owned ITV television but not by the BBC. Seyyed Hussein Nasr, a respected Shi’ite scholar and at the time head of Empress Farah Pahlavi’s office, tried to persuade the BBC to give the Shah’s supporters a chance to be heard, but failed.

Having established that the BBC was increasingly drawn to the anti-Shah camp, the authors said: “There does not seem to have been any intention on the part of the British government to destabilize the Shah.” They then say that the BBC Persian Service adopted the position for noble motives. David Perman of the BBC World Service, says: “Most of us did not know what an ayatollah was, could not even imagine he (Khomeini) would one day be leader of Iran. We wanted democracy for Iran.”

The authors show that the BBC staff could not have operated as loose cannons. Britain’s policy towards the Shah changed as it became clear he was no longer capable of keeping his power. Nicholas Barrington, the Foreign Office man in charge of supervising BBC external services at the time, advised against “short-term expediency” such as pleasing the Shah. The rationale behind foreign-language broadcasting was “to operate in the medium and long-term, influencing those who might one day form an alternative government,” he suggested. Barrington then asked: “Is there not some kind of national interest [in making Iranians] accustomed and sympathetic to Western democratic traditions, particularly when the opposition has no local voice?”

That Barrington was not speaking through his hat was soon demonstrated when he was knighted and given top ambassadorial assignments.

In the four or five crucial months of the revolutionary turmoil, the BBC Persian Service was able to play an important role for two reasons. The first was that it became virtually the only radio station to cover Iranian events in Persian. Iran’s own radio and TV networks were shut down as a result of anti-Shah strikes which also stopped almost all newspapers and magazines from being published. At the time, only three other foreign powers had radios broadcasting in Persian: the Soviet Union, Iraq and Egypt. But all three had adopted supportive positions vis-a-vis the Shah, reflecting the policy of their respective governments. The BBC Persian Service gave the Shah’s opponents a platform&8212;programs from Cairo, Baghdad and Moscow either ignored the anti-Shah groups or minimized their importance. The second reason why the BBC Persian Service achieved a special position was the common Iranian belief that “the English” knew how to shun losers and pick winners.

The fifth segment deals with Iran under the mullahs. After 1979, the BBC again faded into the background. It observed strict neutrality towards the Khomeinist regime and was in turn allowed to maintain an office in Tehran. Relations with the new regime remained cordial, if not especially warm, during the eight-year presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani whose faction succeeded in keeping the presidency under one of its members, Mohammad Khatami. The BBC Persian Service was clearly enthusiastic about Khatami and his promises of reform and liberalization. It was no mystery that during Khatami’s presidency, the BBC Persian Service reflected British government policy which was based on support for the “reformist” president. Tony Blair’s second Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, visited Tehran five times, more than any other capital, and publicly praised Khatami as a friend of the Western democracies.

With the advent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s new president, things changed again. After defeating the Rafsanjani faction, Ahmadinejad started dismantling the network of contacts that Straw had created over the years. Naturally, reflecting the British government’s dislike of Ahmadinejad, the BBC Persian Service adopted a critical tone towards the Islamic Republic. During the disputed presidential election of 2009, the BBC Persian Service strongly sided with the anti-Ahmadinejad faction and won a vast new audience among supporters of the so-called “Green Movement.”

London retaliated by setting up a BBC Persian television channel with an annual budget of 22 million US dollars and a staff of more than 150. Many new staffers were recruited from Iranian journalists close to the Rafsanjani-Khatami faction. As Ahmadinejad purged them, they came to Europe and North America, helping to create a network of support for the Rafsanjani-Khatami tandem abroad.

Several prominent members of the Rafsanjani faction became regular commentators and panelists at the BBC Persian Service, among them Khatami’s chief communications officer Ali-Asghar Ramazanpour and Rafsanjani’s presidential assistant for parliamentary affairs Ata-Allah Mohajerani.

Hassan Rouhani’s election as President last June has kindled new hopes for a revival of the UK’s network of influence in Tehran. Diplomatic relations, suspended under Ahmadinejad, have been restored and a UK parliamentary delegation has visited Tehran. The UK has strongly endorsed Rouhani’s attempt at easing tension with the major democracies, notably the United States.

That there is much sympathy towards Rouhani is indicated by the authors’ assertion that he had won the presidency “an astonishing first ballot victory.” However, the fact is that, with the exception of Ahmadinejad’s first electoral victory in the second round, all the six previous presidents of the Islamic Republic also won on the first ballot. (Ahmadinejad won his second presidential term in the first round.) Rouhani’s victory was, in fact, the weakest. He won with just 50.7 percent of the votes in an election with the lowest turnout.

Nevertheless, goodwill towards Rouhani has meant overlooking his record so far, including the dramatic rise in the number of executions, political arrests, closure of media outlets and distribution of posts among members of the Rafsanjani faction.

The authors say: “It is to be hoped that president Rouhani will open up the media environment in Iran” and allow the BBC to operate inside Iran as “just another useful media channel.” Sreberny and Torfeh assert that the BBC started as “state-orchestrated propaganda” but developed into “subtle advocacy of fair and balanced journalism as the best agent of British values and influence.”

If BBC staff helped the opposition against the Shah, and then against Ahmadinejad, it was because they were “on the side of democratization—not necessarily of the British.” Since it is hard to imagine the British spending money on propaganda against democracy, the inevitable conclusion is that BBC external services, including the Persian one, reflected and would continue to reflect the strategic goals of the British government.

The Deconstruction of a Hero

T. E. Lawrence. (AP)

[inset_left]Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
By Scott Anderson
575 pages
Atlantic Books, London 2014[/inset_left]The narrative goes something like this: The British sent one of their spies, T.E. Lawrence, to incite the Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans. Thus the British seized control of the Middle East, which they then carved into pieces in a deal with the French known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. On the margins of the main events, the British also issued the Balfour Declaration, which gave Palestine to the Jews who created Israel.

The crucial point in that narrative is to obtain a proper understanding of its central personage: Lawrence.

If you thought you knew all you needed to know about “Lawrence of Arabia,” if only thanks to David Lean’s epic film, think again. Scott Anderson’s magisterial new book retells the story in a way that challenges some aspects of the Lawrence myth.

Put briefly, the myth is about a young English eccentric who lands in the Ottoman Levant during the First World War and succeeds in leading the Arabs in a revolt that helps knock the Sublime Porte out of the game, ensuring the Allies’ victory. Over the past century, the Lawrence myth has been used for conflicting purposes. Some have used it to underline the supposed English penchant for heroism. Others have presented it as an example of British “imperialist” deviousness, especially when it comes to stabbing friends in the back.
17book "Lawrence in Arabia" by Scott Anders.
Anderson starts challenging these views by choosing to call the book “Lawrence in Arabia” rather than “Lawrence of Arabia,” thus putting the mythical hero into context. This is not a mere semantic pirouette. By no stretch of the imagination could we attach the sobriquet “Arab” to Lawrence. The young adventurer did know some Arabic, although it is not certain how much. He also had read some books on Arabs and had been involved in several archaeological excavations, mostly in what is now Turkey, that tangentially concerned Arabs.

Anderson then uses long shots, rather than close-ups which—while keeping the spotlight on Lawrence when necessary—to help the reader appreciate the historic and cultural elements of the setting. At times, his insistence on depicting the setting becomes a bit irksome. For example, Anderson describes the type of stone used in this or that building or the kind of moustache this or that officer was sporting. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect creates a sense of reality.

Next, Anderson fields a cast of “supporting” characters that help the drama move towards its denouement. Some, like Curt Prüfer, the “German Lawrence,” or William Yale, the American oil-man and spy, even manage to steal some of Lawrence’s limelight. Others, like the Zionist militant Aaron Aaronsohn or Bedouin warlord Auda Abu-Tayi, cling to memory as tragic/heroic figures.

Anderson then deconstructs elements of the Lawrence myth. He shows that the idea of an Arab revolt was not Lawrence’s invention. In fact, before the war started and before Lawrence arrived in the Middle East as an apprentice archaeologist, Abdullah, one of the sons of Sharif Hussein, the nominal governor of Mecca, had raised the idea with General Kitchener, the British ruler of Egypt in Cairo. Kitchener dismissed the idea but, presumably to keep options open, put Hussein on the payroll. Arab nationalist groups such as Al-Fatat (The Knights) and Al-Ahd (The Pledge) had also sought the support of Western powers, especially Britain, in their struggle against the Ottomans. What we had was not “imperialism” trying to expand on the back of native freedom movements; it was a case of native movements trying to use a distant “imperialism” against near oppressors.

The idea of an Islamic jihad against the infidel had also been in circulation before the war. The Germans wanted to use it against the British Empire, which, at the time, included more than half of the world’s Muslims and thus could be regarded as the largest “Muslim power.” The idea of European colonial powers using Muslims as a weapon had even inspired a novel, Greenmantle by John Buchan, published a year before Lawrence started marketing his “Arab revolt.”

If anything, Lawrence, often a confused man, muddied the waters by emphasizing Arab nationalism as the main ideological ingredient of the revolt. Even then, he made the mistake of equating the interests of “Arabs” with those of Hussein’s cosmopolitan family. Years later, Lawrence had to admit that the concept of an “Arab nation” had been “just a mirage.”
Despite his genius for mise-en-scène, including dressing up as an Arab sheikh, Lawrence had little contact with Arabs. Apart from his stint as an archaeologist in Carchemish, an Assyrian village, where he met Ali Salim, possibly the love of his life, Lawrence spent little time in Arab towns apart from Cairo, where he lived in luxury hotels. His “Arabia” was a small portion of the Red Sea coast known as Tehama, where Lawrence visited Jeddah and later a string of smaller ports on several occasions, but then only for a few days.

Anderson also puts the military aspects of the Lawrence myth in more modest proportions. The bands he helped organize carried out a dozen or two sabotage attacks, mostly against the Hejaz railway, but seldom encountered Ottoman troops. The six Red Sea ports that fell to Lawrence’s “Arab army” had a total population of around 10,000. The population of Dera’a, the largest town that Lawrence and his “Arabs” captured, had a population of 7,000. Aqabah, where the Lawrence legend reached its peak, had a population of no more than 2,000.

Lawrence was able to pursue his shenanigans because the Ottoman governor, Jamal Pasha, known by Arabs as Al-Saffah (the Bloodsucker), was, in fact, reluctant to use the iron fist. He offered a prize for Lawrence’s capture, but then did nothing to find him. And when Lawrence was accidentally arrested in Dera’a, nobody bothered to check his identity. He was released after a few hours in which he claimed he had been sexually assaulted by the local Turkish governor. The “Arab army” actually fought the Turks on only four occasions, and with mixed results. In the end, the Ottomans were militarily broken by a regular British army operation under Gen. Edmund Allenby.

At times, Anderson repeats the usual clichés about that period in the Middle East. One example is his seething hatred of Sir Mark Sykes, the British politician who negotiated the notorious Sykes–Picot Agreement with France and Russia. A caricature artist in his spare time, Sykes could not have known that he would himself end up as a caricature of the British “imperialist.” Although he stabs Sykes with his pen, Anderson shows that the Sykes–Picot Agreement was never implemented. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, Trotsky published the secret text of the agreement to denounce “imperialist plots.”

Sykes, as Anderson explains, believed that Arabs would do well to accept colonial rule for a while. He wrote: “Ten years under the Entente (i.e. Britain and France) and the Arabs will become a nation. Complete independence now means Persia, poverty and chaos.” In the end, however, Britain and France did not adopt the Sykes–Picot Agreement. The fate of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces was decided in a 10-minute walk by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and his French counterpart Georges Clémenceau in 1918. “You keep Syria and we shall have the rest,” the British leader told his French companion, as they shook hands on the deal. Sykes had wanted only a 10-year rule over the Arabs, but the two leaders fixed no limit.

Anderson’s work is also interesting when it deals with the Balfour Declaration. This was a hand-written note of three sentences from the British foreign secretary to Jewish financier Lord Rothschild. It was not even discussed in the Cabinet and, as Anderson makes clear, the British never decided quite what it meant. After the Second World War, the government of Clement Atlee did all it could to prevent the creation of Israel, and when the Jewish state was announced did not recognize it for 18 months.

The idea of a mass return of Jews to Palestine did not start with the Balfour Declaration. Nor was it the fruit of efforts by a handful of British Zionists, notably William Ormsby-Gore. It had been part of the literary and political buzz of the times in Europe since the 19th century. Disraeli’s novel Coningsby and George Elliot’s Daniel Deronda toyed with the idea, while the Hungarian writer Theodor Herzl’s Neulatenstadt (New–Old City) tried to give it an ideological depth. The assumption was that Arabs and Jews, supposedly being “cousins,” would live and work together to create a new model of human society in which modern materialism was tempered by ancient spiritualism.

Lawrence in Arabia is a marvelous depiction of British incompetence, confusion and constant factional feuds. It also puts the spotlight on the cupidity of Arab leaders who held their people in contempt and spent their time amassing, sometimes even stealing, as much gold as they could. Lawrence used that jumble of a backdrop to promote his own image and feed the monster that was his ego. He himself admitted that what he was selling was “a sideshow in a sideshow.” At the time, Britain and its allies needed a morale-boosting myth to provide relief from the Western front, where millions waited to be butchered in a meaningless war in the trenches.

Years later, Lawrence, recalling his meeting with Allenby, wrote: “Allenby could not make out how much [of me] was genuine performer and how much charlatan.”

Well, what if it was a genuine performance by a charlatan?