The Life and Times of the ‘Arab Simón Bolívar’

[inset_left]By Ali A. Allawi
Yale University Press, 672 pages
New Haven, London, 2014[/inset_left]In Baghdad a while back, a conversation with friends turned to the question of who could be regarded as the best leader of Iraq since its emergence as a new state in the 1920s. It was obvious that everyone found it hard to suggest even one name; the adjective “best” could hardly fit any of the eight men who ruled Iraq until 2003. Then someone suggested Faisal I—the first monarch of the new Iraq’s history—inspiring some consensus, although none was able to spell out why he should be chosen.

Ali Allawi’s new biography Faisal I of Iraq is designed to answer that question and, perhaps, to even go further by suggesting that Faisal deserves the title of “The Great.” In fact, Allawi describes Faisal as ‘the Arab Simón Bolívar.’

According to Allawi, “In the modern history of the Arabs it would be hard to find an equivalent figure that combined the qualities of leadership and statesmanship with the virtues of moderation, wisdom and essential decency.”

Allawi goes further by insisting that “realistic, purposeful and constructive Arab nationalism died with Faisal,” to be replaced with “strident, volatile, angry nationalism,” presumably of Nasserist or Ba’athist persuasion.

Allawi is clearly smitten by his idealized image of Faisal. However, he is enough of a serious scholar not to turn Faisal’s biography into a 672-page-long love letter to the object of his adoration. This is why, regardless of Alawi’s romantic vision, this biography is the best researched and documented work on Faisal this reviewer has seen.

Allawi bases the legitimacy of Faisal’s claim to leadership, not only of Iraq but of an undefined “Great Arab Nation,” on a number of factors.
faisal I of Iraq
The first is Faisal’s genealogy, traced back to the Prophet Muhammad through his grandson, Hasan. However, neither the Prophet nor his descendants claimed the right to rule with reference to their family tree. In fact, Hasan resisted attempts at forcing him to claim the Caliphate and made a deal with Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. In historic terms, it was only in 1827 when Muhammad Ali Pasha, Egypt’s Ottoman viceroy, installed Muhammad bin Aun as the Sharif of Mecca and launched the dynasty to which Faisal belonged.

The whole thing was an accident of history. Accidents of history were to play a role in shaping other aspects of Faisal’s life. Because of family feuds and intrigues in the Ottoman court, Faisal spent a good part of his childhood and youth in Istanbul, where he was educated by European, Turkish and Armenian tutors, learning several languages including French, Turkish and Persian. Far from developing as the typical Arab, Faisal became a cosmopolitan youth at home in a variety of cultures.

The next accident of history came when in 1917, when the British adventurer-cum-intelligence agent, T.E. Lawrence, decided that Faisal alone among the four sons of Sharif Hussein of Mecca could be marketed as the public face of an “Arab Revolt” he was planning against the Ottomans.

Lawrence found the eldest son Ali “moody and unreliable.” The second son, Abdullah, appeared too full of himself to be controlled by Lawrence. He had a habit of putting apples on the heads of his slaves and then shooting the fruit to provoke laughter from spectators. The last son, Zayd, from a Turkish mother, had no interest in Arabs anyway and was focused on making as much money out of the British as he could. That left Faisal.

The trouble was that Faisal was not really a “man of the desert.” Even when travelling with his army in desert areas he insisted on having modern furniture and cutlery brought along. Always anxious to look smart, he ordered his clothes from Rome, Paris and London.

Worse still, Faisal was not a warrior and abhorred the shedding of blood. At one point, having heard that a Turkish force was moving towards his position on a tiny Red Sea port, Faisal sought refuge in a British warship until the crisis was over.

Nor was Faisal easily marketable as leader of an Islamic “jihad.” Although he performed his religious duties, Faisal was attracted to humanist ideas. He was a lifelong admirer of the French anti-religious writer Anatole France, whom he later met when he was king.

But the biggest accident came when, having been driven out by the French as a flash-in-the-pan “King of Syria,” the British decided to install him as King of Iraq, the new state they had carved out of Mesopotamia. Even that decision had come after much hesitation. Initially, the British wanted to create two states in Mesopotamia, one in the north under Zayd and another in the south under Abdullah. After some bickering they toyed with the idea of turning the new Iraq into a republic. Winston Churchill, the colonial secretary, insisted on a monarchy, vetoing the republic idea. But that was not the end of the story. Different segments of the British establishment had different candidates for king of Iraq. These included Abdul-Rahman Al-Gilani, the Naqib of Baghdad; the Aga Khan, a great-grandson of Persia’s Fatah-Ali Shah; Sheikh Khaza’al, governor of the Port of Muhammarah in southwest Iran; and the Ottoman Prince Burhan Al-Din. In the end, thanks to an energetic campaign by Lawrence and his allies, including Sir Percy Sykes, Faisal emerged as winner of the Iraqi throne.

Faisal must have felt happy to end up with something. But he never warmed to Iraq and, as Allawi shows, his heart remained in Syria. Until the end of his life he was campaigning, plotting and praying for a return to Damascus. At one point he even tried to promote a merger of Iraq and Syria under his kingship. Faisal’s obsession with Syria may have been rooted in his love of the sea and dislike of the desert. He was a child of Tihamah, the Arab Peninsula’s coastline on the Red Sea, and had grown up in Ottoman palaces on the Marmara Sea. In virtually landlocked Iraq, he felt boxed in. (Iraq has a small coastline of 47 miles on the Gulf.)

Unable to warm to Iraq, Faisal tried to promote pan-Arabism, surrounding himself with a cast of characters from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. At one point he even made outlandish claims such as this: “The Arabs were Arabs before Moses and Jesus and Muhammad. We are Arabs before all else.” However, he never took time to define “the Arab” of his imagination.

What was sure was that the label did not fit the Iraqis. He wrote: “The Turks departed, and we are now as children. We have no government, no army, and no education system. The huge majority of our people have no understanding of patriotism or freedom or the meaning of independence.”

Compared to other Arab countries, Iraq was in an even worse position, he claimed. Faisal wrote that Iraq “lacks the essentials of a cohesive social unit, namely a people united by common ethnicity, set of beliefs and religion.”

He also wrote: “It is my belief that there is no Iraqi people. There are only diverse groups with no patriotic sentiments. They are filled with superstitions and false religious traditions. There is no common ground among them.”

The absurdity of such a view is all too apparent. How could Iraqis have “patriotic sentiments” when their monarch, appointed by a European colonial power, denied their very existence? And what would they think when their king made a habit of calling in the British Royal Air Force to fly over tribal areas to terrorize the tribes into obedience?

Before becoming king, Faisal had never visited Mesopotamia even as a tourist and knew almost nothing of Iraq. During his reign he spent little time travelling in his kingdom. In fact, he spent more time on foreign visits and holidays in Europe than in Iraq. He knew Interlaken in Switzerland better than he knew Basra. He died in Berne, not in Baghdad.

Faisal’s reign was dotted with tensions, including tribal revolts, urban protest movements and, at one point, even the first-ever general strike in Middle Eastern history. It is to Faisal’s credit that he often managed to negotiate a peaceful end, restraining the oppressive tendencies of his aides, especially the formidable Prime Minister Nuri Al-Sa’id Pasha and Interior Minister Muzahim Al-Pachachi.

Towards the end of his life, as the dream of regaining the Syrian throne receded, Faisal tried to provide a roadmap for Iraq. This came in the form of an eight-page memo sent to the movers and shakers in the ruling establishment. Allawi makes too much of that memo. However, on close reading this is a hodgepodge of nostalgia and desiderata. He suggests reviving the Ottoman system of millet by giving Iraqi provinces (the liwa) greater autonomy. He also urges the creation of an army strong enough to fight two insurrections at the same time. Interestingly, he does not suggest how to prevent insurrections from happening.

Allawi dexterously depicts Faisal’s diplomatic efforts during the peace negotiations in Paris and, later, the end of the British mandate on Iraq and the country’s admission as a member of the League of Nations. Faisal's other achievements include the forging of good relations with Iraq's neighbors, especially Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Sadly, the first major event in independent Iraq was the massacre on Faisal's orders of Assyrians by the newly created army. After a brief hesitation, he decided to use force against the protesters and claimed that the rebellious Assyrians were not Iraqis but "invaders" from Turkey and Iran. Apparently, he did not know that Mesopotamia had been the heart of the Assyrian–Chaldean Empire for over 1,000 years. By standards set by other, later Arab leaders, including Saddam Hussein and the Assads (both father and son) the massacre of the Assyrians was on small scale, claiming the lives of 341 men, women and children.

Thanks to the easy flow of his narrative, Allawi offers us both a work of historical scholarship and an enjoyable read. This book is full of anecdotes that shed light on the personage and his entourage. One anecdote I especially liked was when Faisal and Abdullah, always engaged in sibling rivalry, almost came to blows about who was the greatest Persian poet. Abdullah preferred Saadi; Faisal insisted on Hafez.

A man who appreciates Hafez cannot be bad. But “Great”? That is another story.

A president’s effort to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

[inset_left]Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
By Robert M. Gates
Knopf, 640 pages
New York, 2014[/inset_left]

If asked, we could all imagine an impossible job. However, few of us are likely to run into the experience in real life. One man who did is Robert M. Gates, one of the longest-lasting bureaucrats the US political machine has trained and deployed over more than half a century. Most of Gates’ career under eight successive presidents took shape in the shadows, as deputy director and then director of the CIA.

Although a protégé of President George H. W. Bush, Gates managed to maintain a non-partisan profile, earning the sobriquet “a man for all seasons.” In 2009, Gates appeared to have left all that behind to concentrate on his long-time dream of serving as college dean in his native Texas. It was not to be. Newly elected President Barack Obama, a man who owed much of his success in the 2008 presidential election to an almost indecent hatred of President George W. Bush and the Bush family in general, called Gates, their most loyal associate, with a strange invitation. Obama wanted Gates to become Secretary of Defense. duty robert gates

Gates’ new book: Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War is an account of the experience that unfurled when he accepted Obama’s invitation and entered the new Democrat administration. Gates does not say, but it is a sure bet that he obtained Bush Senior’s approval first. This was not the first time that a new and inexperienced Democrat president would invite a leading Republican to serve as Secretary of Defense; Bill Clinton had done the same with Senator William Cohen. The interesting thing is that almost all of America’s wars since the 1940s were started by Democrat presidents and ended by their Republican successors. Obama was an exception: he was a Democrat trying to end two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, started by a Republican President. Obama wanted Gates to supervise the ending of those wars for him.

There are, of course, many different ways of ending a war. One could simply run away or even surrender to the enemy. One could also end a war by winning it. What was original about Obama was that he did not favor of any of those options. He wanted to make the two wars appear to have been “tragic mistakes,” confirming his presidential campaign theme, but in a way that would enable him to claim victory nonetheless.
Without saying so directly, Gates portrays Obama as a hypocrite, if not an outright charlatan. Here was a president who would make all the right noises about the less important aspects of any issue but was utterly in the wrong about the essentials. “I never doubted Obama’s support for [our] troops, only his support for their mission,” Gates writes. This is a strange statement if only because, when translated into plain language, it means that Obama sent the troops that he supposedly supported into harm’s way while all the time secretly hoping they would fail.

Gates illustrates Obama’s bizarre bent of mind with a narrative of a crucial conference attended by the president and General David Petraeus, then commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. “As I sat there,” Gates writes, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghan President] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his.” Obama was more interested in neutralizing Petraeus as a possible Republican presidential candidate and putative rival in 2012. That meant Petraeus should not be allowed to claim a military victory in either Iraq or Afghanistan. At the same time, Obama hated Karzai because he regarded the Afghan president as a “creature of Bush.”

Running in filigree throughout this absorbing book is a sense of outrage. Those who know Gates closely know he is a cool and composed man, expert in hiding his emotions in the manner of the proverbial, now-extinct Englishman from the Victorian era. In his book, however, Gates sounds more like an angry young idealist who has had his illusions shattered.

One such illusion was that someone who was elected President of the United States should at least likethe United States. It is clear that Obama does not. Another illusion was that policymaking in Washington was all about advice and consent. Under Obama, however, decision-making is concentrated in the person of the president as never before. Vice-President Joseph Biden emerges as a political version of Iago, whispering suspicions into the ear of the president. “Beware of the military,” Biden keeps whispering. “Don’t trust the military.”

That tendency has only been reinforced by the departure of the few heavyweights, including Gates, that Obama attracted during his first administration. Today, the Obama administration consists of a quartet of former senators with absolutely no remarkable achievements to their name. Biden’s case is especially interesting. He has been involved in foreign policy issues for almost 40 years, and has been consistently wrong on everything, from his support for the Khomeinist uprising in Iran to his opposition to pushing the Soviet Union’s back to the wall in order to end the Cold war.

In Duty, Gates is not gentle towards the American congressional elite. He describes members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, then headed by John Kerry, as “rude, nasty and arrogant.” He gives us the spectacle of corrupt and cynical US politicians lecturing Iraqi or Afghan politicians against corruption and mismanagement. One issue leaves the reader’s curiosity less than satisfied. It considers the massive reorganization of the American military machine launched in the final years of the Bush administration and speeded up under Obama. Gates offers only a sketchy account of the rationale behind the massive cuts in the defence budget, including the technological scaling-down of the US Air Force and growing dependence on remote-controlled drone operations favored by Obama.

Dutyalso offers a mass of anecdotal material regarding Obama’s strange behavior as president and commander-in-chief. But it does not tell us why Obama is behaving in the way he does. Obama himself has offered some clues in his countless speeches. The latest clue came in Obama’s speech during a memorial service in Johannesburg for South African leader Nelson Mandela. In it, Obama said he first thought of seeking the US presidency after learning about Mandela and his “struggle for freedom.” In other words, Obama never believed in the mythology of “the American dream” and its attendant folklore of freedom and equal opportunity. For him, the US and South Africa under Apartheid were cut from the same cloth. Such a country has no business going around the world preaching freedom and democracy, let alone using its military might to topple vicious regimes such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Saddamites in Iraq. Gates reports that Obama was never interested in showing the slightest support for the Syrian people’s pro-democracy uprising. Instead, Obama was pursuing his dream of reaching an accord with the mullahs in Tehran. While Bashar Al-Assad was massacring Syrians in their streets, Obama was busy writing his five unanswered letters to Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Leader” of the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.

Obama believes that the US has done wrong to many nations, including Russia that lost its Soviet Empire and superpower status because of American perfidy. What the world needs, therefore, according to Obama, is the taming of the US rather than letting it claim new victories in Iraq, Afghanistan, or for that matter, Syria.

The Mixed Legacy of Ariel Sharon

[inset_left]Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon
By David Landau
Alfred Knopf, 656 pages
New York, 2014[/inset_left]How history judges a political leader has always depended, at least in part, on the timing of his departure from power or death. In that context, Ariel Sharon might be an exception; he did not leave center-stage in any of the usual ways that such a momentous event happens in politics. Nor did he die in the way most people do. In fact, he had been dying since January 2006. Kept biologically alive but in a coma, the former Israeli prime minister was an illustration of the adage that old soldiers do not die, they just fade away.

However, having now finally ended his days, Sharon’s memory, and in some cases his fingerprints, will not fade away from Israel’s stormy politics. The last member of the founding fathers of Israel to serve as prime minister, Sharon was also among the first to take up arms, initially against the British and then against the Arabs, to realize the Zionist dream of a state for the Jews. Thus this new biography, though focused on Sharon, is also a narrative of Israel’s emergence as a state and the dramatic events that have marked its six decades of existence.

David Landau is well placed to tell that story. An Israeli journalist of British origin, Landau is enough of an insider to understand the mindset of people like Sharon. At the same time, he is sufficiently an outsider to be able to regard Sharon, and indeed Israel as a whole, from enough distance to be objective.
Leafing through the album of Sharon’s political portraits that Landau provides, one encounters a remarkable degree of diversity within sameness. We first encounter Sharon as a Kibbutz boy, the son of immigrant parents from present-day Belarus in search of a better life and a surer measure of security. Ariel is a fat, quarrelsome, but ultimately obedient son with no easily attestable talents. Next, we see Sharon as a young man who joins clandestine armed groups to fight for an Israeli state while all the time dreaming of becoming a farmer. Turn the pages of the album and you find Sharon fighting in the first war against the Arabs in 1948, an event that convinced him of his vocation as a professional soldier. By 1956, Sharon is already the rising star of the Israeli army with a “brilliant performance” in the war against Egypt over the Suez Canal. Next, according to Landau, Sharon played a “decisive role” in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel’s Arab neighbors. Following the example set by other Israeli generals, Sharon entered politics and rose to become Minister of Defense, and thus the man in charge of invading Lebanon in 1983.

Landau shows that, all along, Sharon’s political profile was depicted in chiaroscuro. At one level, he was always the brilliant general capable of exploiting the slightest opportunity. At the same time he also had a darker side that made many Israelis uneasy. It is obvious that Landau did not like Sharon personally. The best he could offer was a grudging admiration for a man who wrote an unexpecteddenouementfor the drama of a checkered career.

Consider just two facts. Sharon was the only Israeli senior general to have enjoyed the support or admiration of almost all the top figures of Israeli history. Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, intervened on more than one occasion to enhance Sharon’s career and protect him from his rivals. Prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir loved Sharon, while another prime minister, Menachem Begin, was even ready to overlook Sharon’s penchant for ignoring many rules. Politician Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were among the older generation of Israeli top brass who had a soft spot for “fat Ariel.” Those who ran into Sharon ended up calling him by his diminutive name, Arik, as a form of endearment. To them he was the chubby, not to say cuddly, teddy bear with the abrasive manners of a hedgehog when it was required.

How and why Sharon managed to seduce so many wily politicians and generals remains a mystery that Landau is unable, or unwilling, to explain. Nor does he tell us how and why so many Arab leaders started by hating Sharon but ended up liking him, to say the least. Sharon forged a half-hidden friendly relationship with the Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad. He believed that the fact that Assad was in control of Syria in 1973 was “a golden chance for Israel.” Sharon started by calling for the transformation of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan into “the Palestinian state” that everyone asked for. However, he ended up abandoning that mantra and developing very close ties with King Hussein. The Egyptian President Anwar Sadat also liked Sharon despite the fact that in 1973 the Israeli general had led an expeditionary force to the western bank of the Suez Canal. As Minister of Agriculture, Sharon made frequent visits to Egypt, where he was always greeted personally by Sadat.

Sharon committed what to most Israelis was akin to the crime oflèse majesté by publicly declaring that, if necessary, Israel should go to war without consulting the US. “No nation can survive if it kowtows to others, even a superpower,” he said. And, yet, Sharon was the darling of the American political establishment and, as prime minister, developed exceptionally close ties with President George W. Bush.

For decades, Sharon was arguably the most controversial and, to put it mildly, the least liked Israeli politico-military figure. Not all Israelis bought into Sharon’s image as “the dedicated soldier” or “guardian of Jewish interests across the world.” Josi Beilin, a protégé of veteran Labour Party leader Shimon Peres, had this to say: “Sharon is the ugly Israeli, a dangerous man.”

Even Sharon’s friends were uncomfortable with what they perceived to be his lack of scruples. This is how one of Sharon’s closest friends in the Likud Party described him: “Sharon is a man without principles, without human feelings, without any moral norms whatsoever.” When news of the massacres in Sabra and Shatila hit the headlines, more than 400,000 Israelis assembled in Tel Aviv to call for Sharon to be tried for “war crimes” after the Kahan Commission ruled that, as Minister of Defense, he bore “personal responsibility.” Sharon’s critics even doubted his sincerity as a Jew. After all, he made no fuss about his food being kosher, cared little about religious rites and had only a fuzzy notion of who was who in Israeli mythology. Nevertheless, Sharon always managed to land on the right side of things. The conclusions of the Kahan Commission were dismissed by Israel’s highest judicial authorities. Attempts at dragging Sharon into corruption scandals that hit other prominent Israeli leaders, among them Rabin, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, led nowhere.

Many Israelis regard Sharon as the father of the Jewish settlements that have transformed the West Bank into a geopolitical version of Swiss cheese. As Minister of Housing, Sharon literally bulldozed his way through Palestinian lands, speeding up a process that has led to the settlement of half a million Jews in what he called “the disputed territories.” And yet, Sharon never stopped surprising friend and foe. He jettisoned Likud, the party that had been his political nursery, to form the Kadima (Future Party), now buried deep in the past, to pursue a new policy that he named “disengagement.” This was to lead to a gradual but amicable geopolitical divorce between Israel and the Palestinians. The first phase of the plan was implemented in the Gaza Strip when all Israeli settlements were dismantled. Much to everyone’s surprise, the scheme did not provoke an Israeli civil war even on a small scale in Gaza. Landau provides ample testimony and evidence that Sharon was serious about applying the same scheme to the West Bank, albeit by preserving some of the Jewish settlements plus East Jerusalem.

Casting himself as a man of peace, the quintessential Israeli “warmonger” became the darling of peaceniks who staged a 150,000-strong demonstration in support of his “disengagement” strategy. By telling the story of one man, Landau offers us a detailed and highly readable story of one of the world’s newest nation-states, and possibly the only one whose right to exist is still questioned by many across the globe. Sharon’s personal life was full of colorful anecdotes, depicted by Landau against the sepia background of Israel’s political history.

The Rise of the Urban Guerrillas

[inset_left]Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla
By David Kilcullen
Published by Hurst & Company
368 pages
London, 2013[/inset_left]On September 21 this year—the International Day of Peace—David Kilcullen arrived in the United Kingdom to give a series of talks to promote his new book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. Little was the Australian former solider and military strategist to know that as he travelled into London, a dramatic situation was beginning to emerge in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, that would speak to the heart of his most recent work.

Kilcullen’s reputation in academic/military circles was cemented by the double whammy of being part of US General David Petraeus’ team of advisers who skilfully managed the “surge” in Iraq and his authoring of a powerful peace about modern warfare, The Accidental Guerrilla, that helped countless others better understand the framing of modern conflict.

His latest book is a macro-level and wide-ranging narrative examining the future of global conflict. Kilcullen’s starting point is four “megatrends” that he predicts will act as drivers of future life and death on the planet: rapid population growth, accelerated urbanization, littoralization (populations and activities being concentrated in coastal regions), and increased connectedness. Out of this collision of human tectonic plates emerges the kind of urban guerrillas who entered the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi on September 21 and started shooting people.

I was fascinated to read Kilcullen’s latest piece, having spent time myself living in Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East, and visiting large sub-Saharan African cities and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. All these locations fit into the Australian’s story of a new global urbanity defined by the existence of over 200,000 slums and what he describes as “feral cities.” Mass urbanization has seen the world’s population double from 3 billion in 1960 to 6 billion in the year 2000. At current medium rates of projection for growth, there will be 9.5 billion people by 2050, and this spiraling population is increasingly urban. In 1800, 3 percent of the world’s population lived in a city of 1 million or more; by 1900 this figure was 25 percent. In 2008, we crossed the 50 percent mark. Kilcullen points out that 180,000 people per day are making the move from rural to urban lives.out of the mountains

Kilcullen sees cities as “living, breathing organisms” that have in many parts of the world broken down under these population pressures. The urban metabolism in cities like Mumbai, where there is one toilet per 600 residents, or Lagos, a city of 18 million people that has 68 working traffic lights, have been failed by organized urban management and planning and left to fend for themselves. Obvious consequences in the form of public health are well known: more than one million people, two-thirds of them pedestrians, cyclists and passengers, are killed in road accidents in the developing world each year. Minibuses in Lagos are known as “flying coffins.” Slums like Sadr City in Baghdad witness regular hepatitis and typhoid epidemics. Across the world, there are millions of preventable deaths through infectious disease. The author makes multiple references to Mike Davis’ book, Planet of the Slums, which talks about the death of the “formal city” and emergence of mass peri-urban poverty. Where Kilcullen goes further than your average urban geographer is in his understanding of the military consequences to this shift. To underline his own personal experience in this regard, he slightly gratuitously starts off with story of how he was ambushed in Afghanistan. Personal kudos aside, Kilcullen skilfully explains how the urbanization of world poverty has produced the urbanization of insurgency.

Looking at the next 30 years, he sees an environment of future conflict that is not defined by the political priorities of any one US president, but rather is reflective of the deep structures of a globalized connected world made up of large numbers of under-governed “feral cities.” He points out that Obama is the seventh president who has pledged but failed to end the US’s role in long-term counterinsurgency. There are several high-profile examples of this dangerous type of urban environment. Most famous, perhaps, is the 1997 operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, where slum militias inflicted 60 percent of the casualties sustained by elite US Army Rangers. These events were dramatized in the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down, but more importantly they led the journal of the US Army War College to declare that the future of warfare lies in the “streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of the world.”

Another case study that is thoroughly explored is the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Kilcullen describes the attacks, where 10 attackers arrived by boat and launched a three-day spree that killed over 160 people as “state of the art in urban littoral terrorism.” The author warns of the “democratization of technology” demonstrated by the attack, which showed how non-state armed groups could field capabilities once the sole preserve of nation-states. Kilcullen rates the attacks as vastly more technically difficult than the 9/11 attacks, pointing out in particular how the attackers used Twitter as a command and control device to stay ahead of the Indian authorities’ response.

The subject of connectivity is crucial. The book points out that today, 6.5 billion people across the world have cell phones—2 billion more than have toilets. Mobile phones, the internet, GPS navigation and a host of other communications networks have enabled and empowered “motivated, mobilized and connected populations.” Nowhere was this truer than in the Arab Spring, where multiple uprisings showed how increased connectivity is affecting urbanized conflict.

In the case of the Syrian conflict, Kilcullen explores examples of the manifestations of a connected conflict. For example, he tells of how Syrian rebels built a homemade armored vehicle that used a videogame controller to manipulate a remotely mounted machine gun. He also spoke of how the rebels use iPads and Google Earth to prepare mortar attacks and how they discuss tactics over Skype while comparing YouTube clips. He quotes academic Suzanne Saleeby, who explained that “Syrian cities served as junctures where the grievances of displaced rural migrants and disenfranchised urban residents meet and come to question the very nature and distribution of power.”

By managing a balance between the future macro, the present micro, and his own invaluable personal experience, Kilcullen has again proved himself as a thought leader of considerable caliber. The grayer areas lie around how he goes beyond academia, as well as questions about what exactly are the solutions offered by his own company in Washington. In a sense, it is important to have clarity about his professional intentions to better understand his academic work. That aside, Out of the Mountains is a fascinating analysis of the challenges of urbanization in the modern world.

The Tug of Two Identities

[inset_left]The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran
By Hooman Majd
Published by Allen Lane
252 pages
London, 2013[/inset_left]
Though presented as a travelogue, Hooman Majd’s new book is, in fact, an account of one man’s identity crisis. It is interesting because today millions of people across the globe face similar predicaments. Born in one country and, having spent time in other countries, they have ended up in yet another country and culture in a process unfurling at dizzying speed.

Majd’s family hails from Ardakan, a village on the edge of the great desert of central Iran. Part of this family of peasants and mullahs ended up in Tehran and thanks to hard work and luck moved up the social ladder provided by Reza Shah Pahlavi’s modernizing project before World War II. One grandfather, a Qur’anic scholar, became an ayatollah while Majd’s father ended up a diplomat under the second Pahlavi Shah. (Incidentally, Majd’s father, Nasser, an able diplomat and a great Iranian patriot, was a friend of mine for decades.)

The dramatic break with the past was highlighted when Majd’s father decided to name him Hooman, a version of the pre-Islamic Vahouman, a figure in Zoroastrian mythology. Because of his father’s job, Majd spent much of his life outside Iran, but he never forgot his roots.

When the mullahs seized power in Tehran in 1979, Majd happened to be in the US, where he stayed and became a citizen. As far as Majd was concerned, the mullahs’ revolution had a silver lining. Several of his relatives used clerical connections to jump on the new political bandwagon. Later, one of them, Mohammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, even became the President of the Islamic Republic. Majd abandoned a career in music to become a political operator, acting as interpreter for Khatami and, later, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during annual visits to New York, and he wrote on “Khomeinist” Iran. As a sideline, he also worked as facilitator for American TV news stars visiting Iran. Over a decade, Majd felt that he was being drawn deeper into Iran and all things Iranian. In 2010, he decided to test his Iranian-ness by spending a year living in Tehran. By then he was in his late 50s, and he had just married a blonde vegetarian from Wisconsin and become the father of a boy he named Khashayar, a diminutive version of Xerxes, the Achaemenian shah who burned Athens. Later, Khashayar was shortened to Khash, as is the American habit with names.

Much of the book is an account of Majd’s travails and tribulations in Tehran, where even simple matters such as renting a flat become complicated or even dangerous. He was living with the constant fear of being charged with espionage and held hostage, remembering that the mullahs have not let a single year pass without holding at least one American hostage. (Right now, they hold five American hostages.) Having entered Iran with her Iranian passport, the Wisconsin-born American wife was also worried. However, baby Khash was an instant success, as Iranians love children and cannot resist hugging and playing with them.

To make sure that the family would not run into any trouble, Majd took other precautions. He grew a beard, not too long to frighten the horses but not too short to anger the mullahs. The wife did her bit by adopting the obligatory hijab and, on occasions, even “going native” and adopting the Islamic regime’s political narrative.

the minstry of guidance invites you not to stayOther precautions Majd took included renewing contact with influential family members and friends. Cousin Ali, a brother of former President Khatami, proved a great help in a number of ways, including driving the Majd family through Tehran’s congested streets. A friend, Sadegh Kharrazi, was useful in shielding Majd against rough treatment by the authorities. Kharrazi is related to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and runs a think tank for him. Some in Tehran regard Kharrazi as Khamenei’s “shadow foreign minister,” although one might also suggest that the official foreign minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, is the shadow.

Related to the Khatami clan and, through them, to the family of Ayatollah Khomeini, the mullah who created the Islamist regime, Majd clearly sympathizes with the faction led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. The book was written when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, regarded by Majd as something of a usurper, was president. The book came out when the “usurper” was gone and another mullah, Hassan Rouhani, had regained the presidency, which the mullahs regard as their right. Despite his close ties to the mullahs, Majd is fair enough to acknowledge that Ahmadinejad’s populist brand of politics might have won him support from some segments of the population. Majd goes even further by suggesting that Ahmadinejad, having publicly defied Khamenei on two occasions, may prove to be “the spark of change” needed to transform Iran from a theocracy to an ordinary republic.

On Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two imprisoned leaders of the “Green Movement” of 2009, Majd says no one is concerned about their incarceration and there is little demand for their release. According to Majd, the Islamic Republic has become a “security state” marked by brutality and corruption since 2009. He accuses Khamenei of having a hand in the cookie jar and claims that the supreme leader is now “richer than the Queen of England.” The regime has lost much of its legitimacy because Khomeini lied to Iranians and Iranians retaliated by lying back to him. The “fascist impulses of the regime” prevent it from allocating any space even for loyal opposition groups. The result is that no one—not even a man like Majd, who is well connected with the mullahs by blood ties and who has been an advocate for them in the US—could feel safe in Iran.

Majd reserves some of his bitterest attacks for General Hassan Firuzabadi, the man who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Iranian—or, as Majd puts it, the Khomeinist—armed forces. Majd says Firuzabadi, who is generally referred to as “Fatso” because of his bulk, is an exceptionally cruel man, ready to crush the slightest sign of dissent.

The book includes passages that shed light on the inner workings of Iran’s murky regime. Majd shows that the mullahs have effectively divided Iranian society in two segments: those related to the clergy and the rest. Those related to the clergy enjoy immense advantages and are allowed a measure of dissent denied to the rest of society. Others are dealt with through a variety of repressive organs with the emphasis on mass arrests rather than massacring people in the streets. Majd believes Iranian dissidents are too dispirited and disunited to pose a threat to the regime, and that the mullahs are likely to continue ruling Iran for the foreseeable future. This is why he urges the US and other Western powers to make a deal with the mullahs.

One surprise that Majd offers is about Major-General Qassem Suleimani, the man who commands the Quds Corps, a military unit in charge of “exporting revolution.” Suleimani, who runs the Hezbollah in Lebanon, has recently been identified as the chief strategist behind Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s fight against opponents. Majd shows that regime insiders in Tehran think highly of Suleimani. Majd’s friend Kharrazi, for example, says, “I’d give my blood for him.” Former President Khatami goes further by describing Suleimani as “the most knowledgeable and professional official” he came across during his entire presidency.

Majd writes that Khatami “depended more on Suleimani than the Foreign Ministry or the Iranian embassies in the region.”

Majd’s depiction of the clash of identities is masterly. A nexus rooted in thousands of years of historical memory, the Iranian identity is not easy for outsiders to acquire even with the best of intentions. In contrast, anyone can become American by simply willing it. Better still, the American system allows an individual to develop a designer identity with double- or triple-barrel designations. In the US, Majd could easily be an Iranian–American. In Iran, however, such a stratagem could only cause trouble. Clearly, Majd would love to live both his assumed identities, spending part of the time in Tehran and the other part in New York, crossing from one world into another as post-modern man is supposed to do.

But in the end, the pull of the American identity proves stronger. Majd does not cease to love Iran, even passionately. However, while in Iran he suffers from the loss of freedoms he took for granted in the US. A cup of Starbucks coffee becomes his version of Proust’s madeleine.

The last chapter in the book has the title “Home.” It is set in New York. Majd has made his choice.

Nasser through the eyes of his wife

[inset_left]Nasser, My Husband
By Tahia Gamal Abdel Nasser
Published by the American University of Cairo Press
224 pages
Cairo, 2013[/inset_left]When the Arabic version of Nasser, My Husband came out in early 2011, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s family would have hardly imagined that in two months’ time, pictures of the “just dictator” would be raised by Egyptians demanding the fall of the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.

Two and a half years into the January 25 revolution, a sense of inflated nostalgia for Nasser can be more strongly felt in the Egyptian society, with the public becoming desperate to have a leader as charismatic as Nasser.

Many of the country’s Nasserites believed the days of the nationalist legend were back when the chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, announced the removal of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi on July 3, 2013.Comparisons were drawn between Sisi and Nasser, who both hail from the country’s military institution, with some viewing the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood as tantamount to the abolition of the monarchy by Nasser on July 23, 1952.

Mursi came to power through the ballot box. Could it be that the Egyptians were looking for a leader who forcefully seized power after all? In other words, would they prefer a Nasser-like military figure to a democratically elected civilian president?

That Nasser still appeals to Arabs, young and old, is not in question. What is in question, is why Nasser still enjoys a legendary status out of all of those who have ruled the various Arab countries since their independence. There is probably no account of Nasser’s life that could answer these questions more fully than the one written by his wife.

In Nasser, My Husband, Tahia Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s first lady for almost 14 years, offers an interesting account of the private life of the man whose influence on Arab politics has been unrivalled for 50 years.

The book is 224 pages long, of which 110 are occupied with black-and-white and colour photographs chronicling Nasser’s life, from childhood to his final moments.

"Nasser, My Husband" by Tahia Gamal Abdel Nasser (Photograph courtesy of the American University of Cairo Press)
“Nasser, My Husband” by Tahia Gamal Abdel Nasser (Photograph courtesy of the American University of Cairo Press)

Tahia’s detailed report veers from the political to the personal, documenting key episodes in Nasser’s political career as well as offering penetrating insights into his character as a husband, teacher, freedom fighter, father and, most importantly, president.

Tahia admits that it was not at all easy to write about her life with Nasser and that only after the third attempt could she muster the courage and power needed to embark on such a project.

In fact, early in the book she makes it clear that what made her take the decision to write the memoirs is her youngest son Abdel Hakim, who encouraged her and insisted that he wanted to know everything about his father’s life. Due to his young age when his father died, Abdel Hakim did not have the chance to listen to all of his father’s speeches, many of which were delivered before he was born.

In the foreword, Nasser’s daughter, Hoda Gamal Abdel Nasser, highlights that “because the prevailing political mood was hostile to Nasser in Egypt under the Sadat regime and to a lesser extent during Mubarak’s rule,” the publication of the book was delayed until only two months before the January 25 Revolution.

On the political aspect, the book generously provides inside information about almost 26 years of Nasser’s life—from the time he spent volunteering in Palestine, to the hours he spent planning and discussing the 1952 revolution with his comrades, and the smuggling of weapons used against the British in the Suez, down to the very last moments building up to the 1952 revolution that overthrew the monarchy.

On the personal side, Tahia manages to paint a vivid picture of her husband’s character, never holding back the tiniest of details. After reading the book, we know that, for example, white cheese was Nasser’s favorite food, Naguib El-Rihani his favorite actor and Umm Kalthoum his favorite singer.

Contrary to the legendary status her husband enjoys in public culture, Tahia successfully presents a new image of Nasser—namely, that of the young lover who came to ask for Tahia’s hand from her older brother, Abdul Hamid Kazim.

The book also covers the life of the newlywed couple in their flat in Cairo and how they used to live off the small salary Nasser earned from his job as a teacher at the military academy.

She dedicates a large section of the book to exploring the presidential duties and the visits she accompanied her husband on, such as their trips to Yugoslavia, Georgia and Russia. In fact, Tahia admits that she did not accompany her husband on his travels very often, because he considered such trips a luxury and thus preferred that she stay at home.

Gamal, so Tahia tells us, was careful not to spoil their children, insisting they have a meal without meat at least once a week, considered a delicacy at the time in Egypt.

“Once a week, we had a meal without meat or poultry. The president believed that one day our children would have a life of their own and would not be able to afford to buy meat.”

Equally important, the book offers us the opportunity to know about the first Egyptian first lady, who was not as socially active as her successors, Jehan Sadat or Suzanne Mubarak.

Tahia says she never broached a political topic with her husband, nor understood politics, preferring to be the wife keen to provide her beloved husband with the love and care he needed.

Tahia admits that she was in the dark regarding the meetings taking place in her house, not really aware of her husband’s intentions to topple the monarchy. She writes: “The atmosphere at home was secretive and worrying, but I did not understand the objective. I only knew I should be careful and reserved.”

She only learned of her husband’s activities when she heard the news of the military coup on the radio. Nasser left home on the night of the 1952 revolution, telling his wife he would be staying late to correct students’ papers at the military academy.

However, when the attack at the king’s palace took place and she heard the exchange of fire, she was afraid that her husband was involved. She says: “‘Those shots . . . they are from the palace! Gamal is surely one of those attacking the palace!’ And I cried. The shots continued for around ten minutes, and then there was silence . . . and then the shots started again, and I was in tears.”

Tahia was confused that night, not really believing her husband was among the attackers until she was assured by her brothers-in-law that Nasser’s endeavors had come to a successful end. She writes: “And then, in the midst of my tears, I understood that it was a military coup.”

The book is written from a purely female perspective, in the sense that three women of Nasser’s family contributed to its making: his wife, Tahia, his daughter, Hoda, and his granddaughter, Tahia Khaled Gamal Abdel Nasser, who translated Hoda’s foreword.

Surprisingly, Tahia completely omits some key episodes from her husband’s life, such as the removal of Mohamed Naguib, the primary leader of the 1952 revolution, and the North Yemen Civil War (1962–1968) in which Nasser mobilized approximately 70,000 Egyptian troops in support of Abdullah Assallal, who was fighting the royalists.

Despite these obvious shortcomings, the book remains a valuable resource, shedding light on the life of a figure that continues to be deeply admired by Arabs of all generations. At this juncture of Egyptian and Arab history, the life of the man who shaped the consciousness of past Arab generations and generations yet to come, cannot be more worth visiting.

Literary Review: Why are the Kuwaitis so depressed?

A customer shops for books at a shopping mall in Kajang outside Kuala Lumpur September 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad)
File photo of a customer shopping for books. (REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Kuwaitis appear to be depressed. This is the thought that will no doubt strike readers after spending a few days with an anthology of Kuwaiti fiction—short stories and extracts from novels—published by London’s Banipal magazine.

On the surface, of course, there is no reason for this Kuwaiti depression. The country enjoys more political freedom than many others in the region and offers its citizens a fairly comprehensive welfare system. And, yet, the country’s contemporary fiction portrays a society with little joie de vivre, to say the least. Kuwaiti fiction portray a people who appear to be satiated but not satisfied, moneyed but not rich, free but with few liberties. Here, everything is a case of almost but not quite; the cup is close to the lips but does not quite touch it.

Many characters do not feel free to expose their inner self until they are out of Kuwait. They are modern Bedouins, migrating with the seasons. Take, for example, the heroine of Fatima Yousif Ali’s short story Return from a Honeymoon that depicts a group of young Kuwaiti women visiting Cairo where they feel free to hit the town with no fear of the disapproval of their relatives and neighbors. But even then, the heroine feels truly happy only when she ends up sleeping alone and dreaming of catching a flight to an unknown destination.

Or take Bothayna Al-Essa’s heroine in the novel A Soundless Collision. She travels to a remote Swedish city to meet a “Bedouin hippie” who asks her how Kuwait is doing. This is the reply: “You asked how was Kuwait, as though inquiring about a friend with whom you have lost touch. You may well have asked: Is she married? Or single or in love? Does she receive unworthy suitors as always? What is she up to, this saintly sinner? Does she abuse you and love you all in one go? Does she go nowhere and everywhere at the same time? Perhaps she has simply remained herself, captivating but impossible. How is she, my dear Kuwait?”

Tiba, the anti-heroine in Mona Al-Shammari’s Black Kohl, White Heart is doubly alienated. Although still a child, she is imported from Al-Sharqiyah province in Saudi Arabia as a “toy wife” for a fat, mentally retarded scion of a rich family whose relatives think the young woman is a miracle cure for him. Al-Shammari succeeds in creating an atmosphere of oppression and terror that recalls the best of the American “hard-boiled” crime fiction. In this atmosphere no one is happy because even the oppressors in the family are themselves oppressed by tradition, superstitions, and bigotry.

Quite a few of the characters in Banipal 47: Fiction from Kuwait are foreigners working in the country. Some, like the Egyptian teacher in Taleb Al-Rifai’s Welcome to Abu Ajaj Construction Company have fallen for the myth of Kuwait as an Arab El Dorado. His mantra is “Kuwait, petrol, money and work!” Very soon, however, he is overwhelmed by bureaucracy, sharp practices, swindles of all kind, and a solitude that gnaws at his soul. He is also struck by the fact that he hardly meets any native Kuwaitis. “I might as well have been in India, not Kuwait,” the Egyptian migrant remarks to himself. As for what he dubs “the bitter distress of exile,” Al-Rifai creates a Borgesian atmosphere in which moments of black humor alternate with a narrative of depression caused by disillusionment.

Other exiles, like the Iraqi hero of Ismail Fahd Ismail’s novel It Happened Yesterday leave Kuwait to return home in pursuit of their lost childhood and youth. In this case, the returning exile succeeds in finding his old aptly named “Gate of Desire” neighborhood in Basra along the Shatt Al-Arab only to end up with a machine-gun pressed on his forehead. Having left Kuwait to escape his depression, the only solace he obtains is a brief moment in which he hears frogs croaking. He notes with some pride that there are no frogs in Kuwait.

Ismail’s rich prose and his mastery of the twists and turns of fiction writing enable him to juxtapose his hero’s story with that of Iraq as a whole through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Hameady Hamood also takes up the theme of exile in his Refugee, a short story written with the terseness of a police report. The refugee in question is a writer who sees his life, with all his hopes and ambitions, reduced to a file on the desk of an interrogator who must rule on his application for asylum or even turn him into a “criminal.”

In Sulaiman Al-Shatti’s short story A Voice from the Dark the heroic image that a comfortable bourgeois has built for himself is shattered when somebody rings his door-bell at night calling for help. The moment of truth about the protagonist’s cowardice comes after a soliloquy in a dream in which he sees himself making a speech about the need to return to the virtues of the desert.

“This desert was empty save for the voice of Man who filled its space with the noblest of ideas: assessing the needy, camaraderie, generosity, even social solidarity found an undeniable place on our list…”

That, however, is the past. What about now? The now is dominated by fears of being burgled or even murdered; one had better barricade oneself in hoping that others will attend to the man calling for help. While he sleeps, the anti-hero shouts, “Wake them up, Wake them up!”

In Love at First Call Suleiman Al-Khalifi writes two characters—a man and a woman—who think they have fallen in love with one another through a series of telephone conversations. Not having physically met, each creates an ideal persona for the other. Eventually, they agree to meet, by driving to a certain point. Unknowingly, they become involved in a road-rage fueled incident, each driving in a way almost designed to kill the other.

Al-Khalifi’s Hemingwayesque prose produces a chilling effect and leaves a bitter after-taste by showing that in Kuwait’s almost-but-not-quite system love, too, must be kept within strict limits.

Since it is difficult for unmarried men and women to meet in public in Kuwait, telephone love affairs appear to be popular.

In Saud Al-Sanousi’s Prisoner of Mirrors a full-length novel based on Kuwait’s nightmarish experience during the 1990-91 Iraqi invasion, the protagonists grow fond of each other through a series of phone calls.

“Was I in love with your voice?”, the hero Abdul-Aziz, son of a martyred resistance fighter, asks. “I felt a strange urge to listen to it.”

Love at first sound is quite understandable. Because women are covered and you cannot see them, a voice becomes a bridge between two beings in search of love. In this case, the two tele-lovers end up meeting, discovering that their fathers had been comrades in “resistance” against Iraqi “hyenas”.

However, even love cannot save the protagonist from his depression. His life is a story of repeated losses—losing his father, mother, and even country. Even when Kuwait is regained, things can never be the same again. Sitting in a restaurant, Abdel-Aziz wonders whether his father’s death had been in vain as “heroes have gone the way of mammoths and dinosaurs.”

He observes that “Even though most of the people there were around my age, we had nothing in common. The guys with their trendy clothes, the girls with full-on makeup- the whole restaurant was like a catwalk, the smell of perfume outperforming the smell of food.”

In a context such as this, love is all but impossible.

In her Ladder of the Day, Fawziya Shuwaish Al-Salem demonstrates the same impossibility of love by breaking as many taboos in Arabic fiction as she dares. Using a set of Western clichés, a red scarf around a woman’s hip, gypsy flamenco music, and a kind of striptease starting with casting off the hijab, she depicts an erotic tableau that recalls the best love scenes of One Thousand and One Nights. The heroine is in heat by “Love snatched from time, from the eyes of parents and the judgment of the tribe, love where pleasure rubs against danger…”

Basima Al-Enezi’s Black Shoes on a Sidewalk is a mordant satire about some Kuwaitis’ fascination with all things Western. Its anti-hero, Dr. Fayez—well, Arabs do love love their titles—is said to have a PhD from MIT, an expensive American university. Al-Enezi suggests that Kuwait, with a native population of half a million, may have more than 20,000 PhD holders, possibly a world record. Fayez is a business strategist and expert in “downsizing”, which in practice means firing people. Yet, he goes around making speeches about the need for Arabs to create 50 million new jobs by 2020 to retain the present level of unemployment. A global vagabond, he seldom stays in a country for more than a week. His world is populated by luxury brands of which Al-Enezi gives an impressive list. The “doktor”, as he is called, is proud of his Rolex watch because if a man does not have a Rolex by the time he is 50 he must be regarded as a failure. While the private space of the “doktor” is defined by luxury, the public space is a scene of desolation, polluted with heaps of rubbish.

Enezi draws an impressive set of characters against a background of office intrigues, flings, and heartaches. One memorable character is the tycoon Abu-Tareq who tries not to lose his humanity by breeding race horses.

Fascination with the West is also the theme of Ali Hussain Al-Felkawi’s novel Clouds Beneath String. The narrator is a travel agent who hates traveling but “visits” every nook and cranny of the globe through travelogues, brochures, TV documentaries and—when all else fails—his own dreams. The recluse is taken out of his world when he has to guide a group of Kuwaiti tourists on a grand tour of Paris and the French Riviera. The tourists are not interested in much apart from exotic drinks, sex, shopping and coded gossip. Most things are judged by their price, and, towards the end, the narrator offers the price-list of baubles bought by his group before returning home.

Like some other writers introduced in this anthology, Al-Felkawi is heavily influenced by American prose styles, reinforcing his theme of superficial Westernization.

Laila Al-Othman is one of the rare writers in this anthology who regards traditional life as still dynamic enough to sustain a plot. In her short story The Abaya of Al-Kadhim, a traditional woolen mantle (abaya) becomes the symbol of a vanishing life-style. What starts as a traditional love story develops into a reflection on one’s relationship with the past. The heroine is visiting the shrine of Mussa Al-Kadhim, a medieval Shi’ite Imam, in Baghdad when she is asked by a guard to wear an abaya before entering. “I hate abayas, I never wear them,” she shouts at the guard. But then “He pulled one out from a pile in an old chest and instructed me to put it on. I recoiled in disgust. It was threadbare, the edges tinged with green from age and frequent use. A repulsive smell wafted from it”

Ending in a cliffhanger, Al-Othman’s short story depicts the stark choice that Arabs face: Wrap yourself in the past or bequeath it to the sea of oblivion?

While most writers in this anthology deal with the Arabs’ encounter with the West, Thuraya Al-Baqsami takes the theme of encounter with the East in the form of the now defunct Soviet Union. In Her novel The Time of the Red Reed Pipe she introduces us to a number of Arab students in the Soviet capital. Adopting a deadpan tone, Al-Baqsami shows how the young Arabs, their leftist postures notwithstanding, bring traditional practices and prejudices with them to the heart of the Soviet Empire. One character, Ayesha, finds herself a victim of blackmail by her husband. Al-Baqsami writes: “Ayesha was a victim of her heritage, which stretched back centuries; a woman who was trampled on every moment, by a man who was happy to ride the steed of virility.”

The status of women, the sufferings of the Bedouin, fascination with the West’s material opulence, exile as both a threat and a relief, and a schizophrenic pressure from a past and a present in perpetual conflict, provide the main themes of the current Kuwaiti fiction.

Against that grim background, Waleed Al-Rajeeb’s short stories provide some comic relief. His Morning of an Ordinary Day is a comic-strip of the written word.

Readers might also enjoy Yousef Khalifa’s twitter-length “short stories” or verbal caricatures. Here is one entitled A Feeling: After twenty years of being a wife, and a mother to five children, a man looked at her from afar and smiled. And she remembered she was a woman.”

But, let’s leave the final word to Basima Al-Enezi who declares her love for Kuwait, despite the fact that it has no frogs and peas don’t grow there: “Love which allows you to love one thing above all else, not because it is more beautiful, but because you love it and that makes it beautiful.”

Well, this anthology is enough to make us all love good old Kuwait, warts and all.

Banipal 47, Fiction from Kuwait is published by Banipal of London.

Philip Larkin: Poet of Solitude and Old Age

Front cover of Philip Larkin An Outsider Poet: Transcending Solitude Sex and The Ordinary by Fadhil Assultani. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Front cover of Philip Larkin An Outsider Poet: Transcending Solitude Sex and The Ordinary by Fadhil Assultani. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The pre-eminent English poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) is not unknown in the Arab world. A few years ago Cairo’s Supreme Council of Culture published an anthology of Larkin’s poetry; this collection is translated and forwarded by poet and critic Dr. Mohammed Mustafa Badawi, professor at St. Antony’s College Oxford.

Several of Larkin’s poetry volumes have also been translated into Arabic by Adel Slama, Osama Farhat, and Maher Farid Shafik, among others. While Egyptian critic Dr. Nihad Saleha wrote an article entitled ‘Larkin: Poet of Western Sadness’ published in Al-Ahram on December 20, 1985.

Today, Iraqi poet and scholar Fadhil Assultani has devoted an entire book on Larkin entitled Philip Larkin An Outsider Poet: Transcending Solitude Sex and The Ordinary.

In the book’s foreword, Iranian writer and journalist Amir Taheri points to the commonalities between Larkin and Assultani, saying that both are “products of cultures in which poetry is still of great importance.”

“From the start I saw Larkin’s work as a poetical version of chamber music. He is the poet of small touches, fleeting moments and flashes of insight. For his part, Assultani, especially in his poems written in the past decade or so, has distanced himself from the epic ambitions of many Arab poets of his generation and moved closer to what Rene Char  called ‘the small music of life,” Taheri said.

According to Taheri, Larkin distanced himself from “Auden’s hybrid leftism,” and “Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism.”

In his introduction Fadhil Assultani writes: “From the beginning, he [Larkin] held his own existentialist views on life, art, society, sex, solitude, self-hood and otherness, belonging, uncertainty, self-realization, anxiety, and undecidedness. Viewed from this perspective, we can’t find contradictions in his various stances, but, on the contrary, his work forms one protracted poem, on which he meditates on these big issues occupying humanity in the twentieth century. ”

In the first chapter of the book—’Transcending Solitude’—Assultani claims that Larkin used to say that D. H. Lawrence was important for him in the same way that Shakespeare was important to Keats, namely because the main message he sought to deliver is that everyone is alone.

Even his two novels—Jill and A Girl in Winter— are about alienated outsiders. Furthermore, Larkin’s Mr. Bleaney is about a penniless and homeless man with no family or identity whom Assultani deftly likens to the hero—or anti-hero—in T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, who says:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

According to Assultani, Larkin reminds us of the French Novelist Henri Barbusse’s protagonist in Hell who spends his time watching the world through a hole in his room’s wall.

Assultani also draws an insightful comparison between Larkin’s characters and Ivan Turgenev’s nihilist protagonist ‘Bazarov’ in his Fathers and Sons.

In the second chapter ‘Transcending Sex,’ Assultani discusses Larkin’s High Windows. This five-stanza poem is one of Larkin’s most significant works, summarizing his view on love, sex, old age, solitude and deprivation.

To analyse the poem Assultani utilizes Immanuel Kant’s concept of “The Sublime.”

While in the third and last chapter of the book, ‘Transcending the Ordinary,’ Assultani critically evaluates Here and Absences which echo the works of the French Symbolist poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as Stephane Mallarme, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Valery.

For Assultani, Larkin’s poetry makes use of the literary concept of ‘defamiliarization’ which is at odds with that of the New York school poets, such as Frank O’Hara.

The impression one gets after reading Assultani’s book is that Larkin and Ted Hughes are the greatest poets in post-war Britain.

Larkin was a member of The Movement, a literary school founded in the 1950s in Britain in response to the Romanticism and Surrealism echoed in the poetry of Dylan Thomas and others.

Larkin published seven collections of poetry: The North Ship (1945); XX Poems (1951); Poems (1954); The Less Deceived (1955); The Whitsun Weddings (1964); High Windows (1974); and Collected Poems (1988).

Assultani highlights the solitude of the modern man that characterizes most of Larkin’s poetry especially Talking in Bed in which he says:

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Nevertheless, Assultani needs to reconsider some of his analysis. For example, on p. 52 he maintains that Larkin’s poetry is “no less ‘intellectual’ and sophisticated than that of Eliot or Pound.” In fact, even those who know little about these three poets can tell that Eliot and Pound are more sophisticated than Larkin.

What is more, the comparison Assultani draws between Larkin’s poetry and that of the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas appears unconvincing to me, particularly given that Thomas was devoutly religious while Larkin was secular.

Assultani writes: “Many of Larkin’s themes are analogous with those of Thomas than with any other British poet in the second half of the twentieth century…. Waiting, Absences, death, failure, suffering, echo and shadows are very common vocabularies in their poetic discourse.”

Nevertheless, Assultani’s book remains, as Taheri puts it, “a scholarly probe shedding new light on aspects of Larkin’s poetry beyond the pseudo-biographised stories to which he has been subjected for decades.”

Philip Larkin An Outsider Poet: Transcending Solitude Sex and The Ordinary by Fadhil Assultani is published by Mira Publishing House.

Disraeli and the Myth of the Oriental Sage

File photo of cover of 'Disraeli: or, The Two Lives' by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo of cover of ‘Disraeli: or, The Two Lives’ by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—There are men of action who fancy themselves as writers—one example is Julius Caesar. Then there are writers who dream of action—Lord Byron, for example. More interesting, perhaps, are those who live the action imagined in their writings.

An outstanding example of this is Benjamin Disraeli, the leader who dominated British politics for a significant part of the 19th century. A novelist by aspiration, Disraeli rose to become leader of the Tories and, in a sense, can be regarded as the effective founder of the British Conservative Party. He subsequently used that position to move up the ladder of power, becoming one of the Victorian era’s longest serving Prime Ministers. Interestingly, the ideas expressed in at least five of his novels provided the basis of the political program he promoted and, as prime minister, put into effect. A third layer can be added to Disraeli’s literary work and politics: his own remarkable development.

That is the subject of a new biography by former British Foreign Secretary Douglas (now Lord) Hurd and co-author Edward Young.

Hurd and Young assert that Disraeli had two lives, and in fact was two men blended into one.

Disraeli was born into a family of Jewish immigrants who had moved from Palestine to Maghreb, then to Portugal and Spain and on to Venice before ending up in England where Benjamin was born. Since the family was not very religious, although it did not totally relinquish its Jewish heritage, the generations born and bred in England had little personal difficulty in adopting Englishness. In fact, young Benjamin could have been regarded as a perfect model of an Englishman. The trouble was that at the time a good part of English society did not think so. English identity, always deeply tribal, was even more so in the 19th century when the British label was not yet used as an umbrella for subjects of Her Britannic Majesty. In Disraeli’s time, Jews were not the only minority to be denied citizenship rights; even Catholics could not vote or stand for public office. Scots and Irish Protestants were tolerated often in subaltern positions in England’s empire-building adventures.

So, it was no surprise that young Benjamin, feeling he could not bear the anti-Semite taunts of schoolmates, decided to storm the citadel of Englishness from without.

He first did this by creating a persona as a dandy. He started wearing clothes that would make the most eccentric of Englishmen blush. Crimson and yellow waistcoats, flowery cravats, baggy trousers and, more shockingly, the tarbush or fez. Having no idea of what an “Oriental” looked like he also grew his hair long with tresses for good measure. Benjamin was not alone to try attracting attention by shocking the bourgeois; Beau Brummel and, later, Oscar Wilde, also practiced the art.

The tactic worked and won Benjamin a reputation in London society. This persuaded society ladies to invite Benjamin to their salons as a dinner-table companion adding a dash of color to often dull events.

Benjamin soon learned an important secret: women are less racist than men.

In a society where women were consigned to the “cackling room” while men smoked cigars and discussed matters of substance, he started treating women as human beings. That approach was to stand him in good stead throughout his life. In fact, towards the end Disraeli admitted that he owed part of his success as leader to women. This does not mean that he was a skirt-chaser let alone womanizer. In fact, he loved his wife Mary-Anne, widow of one of his closest friends, and remained faithful to her to the end.

In his novel Endymion a young politician achieves success thanks to help from women who recognize his talents. At first hostile to Disraeli, Queen Victoria ended up as one of his devotees, bestowing on him honors she extended to no other.

Next, Disraeli decided to tackle the issue of his Jewish origins.

Immigrant Jews in liberal European societies often adopted one of two strategies. The first consisted of creating an invisible ghetto by limiting themselves to certain trades and professions, avoiding politics and adopting a low profile. The second strategy was assimilation. This meant taking non-Jewish names, sending their children to expensive schools, steering clear of the synagogue or even converting to the local brand of Christianity. Disraeli’s family adopted the second strategy and, starting with his father Isaac, could be regarded as more English than Jewish.

However, Benjamin soon learned the limits of that strategy. A Jew is often defined more by how others see him, often with barely disguised hostility, rather than how he sees himself. So, he decided to assume his Jewishness, although his family had converted to Anglicanism and had had him baptized into the English Church. To find a way of asserting his Jewish heritage without rejecting his Englishness, he spent two years of his youth traveling in the Middle East—from Constantinople to Cairo via Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem, learning the rudiments of Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew.

Hurd and Young show that the trip had a profound effect on the future Prime Minister. However, they miss some of the complexities of the inner identity Disraeli developed for himself. He saw Judaism, Christianity and Islam as versions of the same Abrahamic religion and assumed the freedom to move across their boundaries as he wished. To the end of his life, Disraeli often used the Muslim slogan “Allah Akbar” (Allah is the Greatest) to conclude a discussion or an argument. In 1868, the day he was appointed Prime Minister, he told his friend James Kelly: “As we say in the East: Allah is the Greatest.”

To Disraeli, the Orient, a semi-historic semi-fictitious cosmos, was the source of wisdom, especially when it came to matters pertaining to organizing a society. He believed that though the ascending power in a world reshaped by the Industrial revolution, the West still had much to learn from his “Orient.”

That theme is present, either starkly or in filigree, in his literary work, starting with his first novel Vivian Grey. In Tancred, his most accomplished novel, a kind of Oriental wise-man teaches a young Englishman the secrets of good society. In Coningsby his most popular novel, Sidonia, an Oriental character speaking for the author, develops the theme of a union between “young” England and the “old” East. His other novel The Rise of Iskander is even more “Oriental” in theme and tone.

In Sybil: Or the Two Nations the theme is that of a union between the English landed gentry and the “people”, the mass of proletarians created by the Industrial revolution.

Even in Lothair, where he developed his vision of English national-imperialism, the theme of East-West dialogue is present.

Disraeli’s interest in “Eastern wisdom” and his own Jewish identity was influenced by the growing popularity of those themes in Europe at the time. In her magisterial novel Daniel Deronda, for example, George Elliot tells the story of a young English aristocrat who tries to deal with the consequences of his discovery that he has Jewish origins. Disraeli’s writings also influenced the emergence of Zionism as a new brand of Jewish nationalism. In his book Altneuland (The Old-New Land), for example, Theodor Herzl, one of the fathers of Zionism, developed some of the themes launched by Disraeli including the dream of a new type of society in which the old “ East” and the new “ West” are blended to produce a new Utopia. Disraeli thought that such a Utopia could take shape in England; Herzl wanted it to be built in Palestine.

Not surprisingly, Disraeli’s opponents, notably William Gladstone, did not resist attacking his “Jewishness”. Gladstone called him “the Hebrew juggler.” Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle went further by branding Disraeli as “that absurd monkey.”

Disraeli dreamed of a spiritual aristocracy in a nation of new middle classes. He used his conservatism to preserve and strengthen key institutions such as the monarchy, the parliament, and the Church of England. However, he also knew that for any conservation to succeeded social reform was needed. Thus, he initiated measures that could portray him as more of a socialist than a conservative. These include the legalization of trade unions, the reduction and fixing of the working day, the introduction of holidays, and contracts for workers.

Disraeli could also be described as an Imperialist, not least for his role in the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 in which European powers delineated their respective colonial empires. It was also Disraeli who bought the controlling share of the Suez Canal from the Khedive with four million pounds borrowed from Rothschild and then named a banker friend as effective ruler of Egypt. Since the 1950s when anti-colonialism and post-colonialism became fashionable ideologies the Berlin Conference has been regarded as symbol of imperialist perfidy. However, in that conference, Disraeli helped stop Europe from being plunged into what would have been the First World War, thus buying decades of peace. And that was achieved without a single bullet being fired.

Hurd and Young make a great effort to show that Disraeli’s image as developed over the past 150 years does not always correspond to his reality. For example, they insist that Disraeli should not be regarded as the ideological father of “one-nation” conservatism. One wonders what the point of such efforts is. All historic figures are, at least in part, products of popular imagination. The greater the historic figure the more likely that he becomes the center of memories and myths, often contradictory, that end up producing a synthesis that fixes his or her persona. In that sense, the myth-based Disraeli is as much real as the actual political figure as established by stark facts. At a crucial moment in the development of their society, many Englishmen and women projected their own hopes and fears on Disraeli’s image.

Hurd and Young spent some time proving that some of the famous quotations attributed to Disraeli were not his. However, here is one that is not in dispute: “Don’t act under the pressure of public opinion or you shall become its slave!”

Politicians everywhere would do well to ponder that piece of “Oriental’ wisdom.

Disraeli: or, The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 2013.

A Washington insider grinds axes

[inset_left]The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat

By Vali Nasr

Doubleday, 2013[/inset_left]The Dispensable Nation is a frustrating book. It offers some valuable insights into some of the recent history and current trends of American foreign policy, but the person who picks it up expecting a thorough, consistent and objective assessment of Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East should beware that the insights it offers are interspersed with long sections in which the author uses to grind axes.

Nasr’s experience at the senior levels of Washington’s foreign policy apparatus forms much of the first half of the book, the more valuable portion. Nasr served as an aide to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the State Department diplomat who held the Afghanistan-Pakistan brief, and much of the material here discussing the behind-the-scenes machinations of the US foreign policymaking apparatus rings true and there is interesting material to be found here.

This is also true of his description of Holbrooke’s meetings with diplomats from other states, particularly the officials responsible for Afghanistan-Pakistan issues, all of whom seem to have advised the US to buy their way to a graceful exit from Afghanistan by bribing their enemies. This comes as a refreshing moment of candour, which confirms much of the suspicion the public hold about the conduct of international diplomacy behind closed doors.

The Dispensable Nation by Vali Nasr
The Dispensable Nation by Vali Nasr

However, these sections also have their flaws, flaws that arguably expose the author’s ideological and institutional loyalties. Holbrooke, Hilary Clinton and the efforts of the State Department are presented positively, while Obama’s national security and foreign policy aides in the White House are drawn in more negative terms. Nasr’s accuses Obama’s inner circle of being obsessed with spin, focused only on the short-term, and unwilling to listen to anyone but the Pentagon.

While there is a grain of truth in this description—struggles between the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House to shape policy have a long and complex history in American politics—the divisions Nasr draws are too stark. Rather than a reasoned analysis of the pros and cons of US policy and its formulation, his account seems to be tinged with the bitterness of someone who found himself on the losing side of a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic power-struggle.

Additionally, Nasr takes a rose-tinted, uncritical view of the ability of the US and its diplomacy to influence events in other countries, one that seems over-optimistic in a post-Iraq, and soon to be post-Afghanistan, world. While Nasr argues, perhaps rightly, that the US approach to Afghanistan has been dominated by the military, with little scope left for diplomacy, he does not seem to consider that the US will have very little at stake—and perhaps even less leverage—in Afghanistan once the American forces are pulled out of the country. This leaves the reader with a nagging feeling of a question left unanswered—when the US leaves Afghanistan, why should Afghanistan, Pakistan and other neighboring states listen to US attempts to influence their policy? Nasr rightly takes the Obama administration to task for its diplomatic failings in Afghanistan, but does not make a convincing case as to how it might exert influence effectively.

Finally, there is another inconsistency in the work as a whole, a seeming contradiction that does not seem to trouble the author. Nasr, rightly, highlights the trend in Washington towards threat inflation—the tendency to allow interest groups to stampede lawmakers and pundits into blowing the danger posed by minor threats to US interests out of all proportion to the real danger they pose. However, at the same Nasr fails to acknowledge the political limits on the power of President Obama, whom he levels a laundry list of complaints against. This may be only natural—he was, after all, an employee of the State Department, and agency that relies on being able to capture the president’s attention to influence policy. Nonetheless, while the president is the most powerful actor in the shaping of American foreign policy, his powers are still constrained by the need to take account of a host of political and economic factors, including Congress, which is often much more willing to listen to warnings of dire threats on the horizon, however outlandish.

The final section of Nasr’s book follows in the footsteps of others, and is of less interest. The recent “pivot” of the US and its vast military/national security establishment towards Asia has been viewed in many quarters as a deeply unwelcome development. This is often accompanied by warnings of the rise of Iranian or Chinese power to fill the perceived vacuum left by the “departure” of the US. The Dispensable Nation re-treads some of this ground, warning of the consequences of American indifference in key regions like the Gulf and the threat posed by an emboldened China.

Nasr’s warnings are not based on any new or particularly penetrating insight or analysis. Moreover, no convincing evidence of either is offered. Instead, Nasr simply assumes a lower-profile role for the US and a growing economic stake for China in the stability of its energy suppliers are in and of themselves bad. Bearing this in mind, it is difficult not to view his warnings as an attempt to plead for the continuing relevance of his field of study to policymakers.