Camus and the Algerian Revolution

[inset_left]Algerian Chronicles

By Albert Camus, Translated by Arthur Goldenhammer

Belknap Press, May 2013[/inset_left]Soon after accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Albert Camus was confronted by a young Algerian at a press conference and challenged to speak in favor of the ongoing revolution. (Camus was born in Algiers and his family still lived there.) Camus replied: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” In the account, published in Le Monde and translated around the world, his reply was shortened to become: “Between justice and my mother, I choose my mother.” Camus’s original words questioned the idea that terrorism and justice can ever go hand-in-hand. However, the version he is remembered for is more chauvinistic: forget justice, because only the tribe matters.

Camus regretted the way his words were reported so much that he published a short book entitled Algerian Chronicles in 1958. It has now appeared for the first time in English, in a time when the bloodshed in the Middle East had never been uglier. The slim volume, translated by Arthur Goldhammer for Harvard University Press with an elegant foreword from Alice Kaplan, represents Camus’s personal selection of writings on Algeria, covering a period of twenty years, along with a new preface and epilogue.

It includes a speech delivered at a 1956 peace conference organized by Camus, in which he relates how his father’s family arrived in Algiers after Alsace, their homeland, was surrendered following the Franco–Prussian War. Camus’s father fought and died in the Battle of the Marne 45 years later. To Camus, these incidents speak of his family’s identity as French citizens of Algeria. They were poor: his mother was a maid, and an uncle who shared their small Algiers apartment was a barrel-maker.

Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus
Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus

By the 1950s, French Algerians numbered over a million and, according to Camus, eighty percent were manual workers and shopkeepers, not the wealthy colonialists of popular imagination. When he delivered his 1956 speech, Camus was still hoping for a solution that retained a place for these French Algerians. Within two years his hope had died; Algerian Chronicles came with a vow of silence. Camus writes: “Finding it impossible to join either of the extreme camps, recognizing the gradual disappearance of the third camp in which it was still possible to keep a cool head . .  . I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent.” He adds, “The only actions that interest me are those that prevent the pointless shedding of blood.” Camus’s vow of silence was his way of mourning the death of his “third camp,” as much as it was a precaution to say nothing that would put his family in danger.

Today, most of us feel obliged to take sides: for or against rebels, for or against military coups, for the government or for the revolution. At the same time, too many people know their families are at risk if they speak too openly. Camus’s “third camp,” the space for “cool heads,” does not exist anymore. Perhaps it never did. There has never been much space for open and free debate in the Middle East. Yet remaining silent feels like surrender—or worse, petulance.

When Camus speaks of a “third camp,” he is referring to the 1956 peace conference. It took place at a hotel in Algiers and Camus’s fellow speakers included a number of religious figures, as well as a prominent Algerian leader Ferhat Abbas. The aim was to call for an end to targeting civilians: women, children and the elderly. The Battle of Algiers was in full force, with massacres and torture taking place by the French army, and widespread terrorist attacks by the revolutionary Front de Libération Nationale (FLN, National Liberation Front). Camus hoped that a lessening of the tension might provide space needed for new solutions—solutions that he believed should stop short of an independent Arab Algeria. Camus had thought it unimaginable that a million French citizens would simply desert a country that had been home for a hundred years. Yet when independence came in 1961, the French vanished almost overnight.

Camus never regarded himself as reactionary or anti-Arab: he was a journalist in Algiers in the 1930s and his anti-colonial politics led to him being blacklisted; Algerian Chronicles includes his newspaper account of a famine in Kabylie. Unable to find work, he left Algiers and became a journalist in the underground resistance to Nazism and later on, after the war, the author of an astonishing series of novels including The Plague and The Outsider. By the late 1950s, Camus no longer knew Algiers. He was surprised when the crowds outside the hotel in 1956 chanted for his death. The irony was that the protestors came from the poor, French Algerians that Camus hoped to save. The security inside the hotel was provided by the FLN (though Camus was unaware of this). Later that same year, his “third camp” colleague, Ferhat Abbas, was forced into exile by the French and finally joined the FLN in Cairo.

Camus’s plan for a peaceful solution shows just how out of touch he had become. His preferred scheme was a complex bi-national state in which the French and the Arabs would be self-governing, yet intermingled. They would be equal-yet-different, and though Arab Algerians would be denied French citizenship, they would send delegates to a French parliament. Camus’s blind spot, as Algerian Chronicles shows, was that he recognized a French Algerian political identity, but no equivalent Arab Algerian identity. He masks his chauvinism with casuist arguments, arguing that it makes no sense to speak of Algerians because no independent Algeria ever existed, while an Arab nationality is a new invention of General Nasser, cooked up in partnership with the Soviets. In such a way, Camus hoped logic would dissolve both sides of an Arab Algerian identity and cause the nationalist’s demand disappear.

Today, one hears equally bizarre bi-national formulas offered as solutions to the Israel–Palestinian conflict. Indeed, Camus might be the patron saint of everyone who believes goodwill and an active imagination can offer solutions that the people, truly involved on the ground, have somehow missed. Camus’s retreat into silence does not look principled, but appears as an attempt to give dignity to his failure to fully engage.

Yet in one respect, Camus continues to offer a challenge: he insists that all violence is equivalent whether it is committed by rebels or the government. For Camus, violence always breeds more violence. Camus is arguing against another French outsider, Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born philosopher. Fanon was a propagandist for the FLN who argued that if you make a moral equivalence between the powerful and the oppressed, you make justice impossible. Fanon swung the opinions of many French intellectuals in the 1950s and, today, many of us would tend to agree with him.

Nevertheless, we also recognize how appalling post-revolutionary states can be. Revolutions unleash monsters as well as destroy them. After Algeria won independence, Ferhat Abbas was imprisoned by the FLN, a dictatorial force, intolerant of voices that challenged their own paranoid idea of a unified Algeria, and incapable of reaching out to the France it had rejected. This sacrificed not only the benefits of Western technology and capital, but also ordinary community-minded people like Camus’s mother, who knew nowhere but Algiers. In a violent situation, it can seem impossible to imagine different communities living together in goodwill, yet this is what justice demands.

A Biography of the Islamic Republic

[inset_left]Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic
By Michael Axworthy
Published by: Allen Lane
495 pages
London, 2013[/inset_left]

From the first pages of this book, Michael Axworthy, a former diplomat who headed the British Foreign Office’s Iran Desk for two years, establishes himself as passionate about all things Iranian. His admiration, including for the way Iranians cook rice, provides thematic filigree throughout the book. In a sense, the book could be regarded as a long love letter to Iranians, including some of the least loveable ones among the country’s current rulers.

That aside, the book is of great interest for two reasons. To start with, it is a detailed, well-researched and informative account of the key events of the past three decades since the mullahs seized power and created their Islamic Republic.

In that context, Axworthy makes ample use of Iranian sources. Thanks to a working knowledge of Persian and his familiarity with political and cultural trends in the country, on many issues he is able to understand the Iranian point of view, a rare virtue among Western narrators of the saga of Iran. As the author of two other books on Iran, including the highly enjoyable Empire of the Mind, Axworthy is able to tackle his subject with sympathy.

Having narrated the main events of the past 34 years, Axworthy also provides a fairly accurate account of the Islamic Republic’s principal structures, the Iranian economy, social undercurrents in the country and aspects of Iranian foreign policy.

However, the second reason why this book is of interest is the light it sheds on how an important segment of the Western intelligentsia sees its own civilization and its relationship with the rest of the world. In other words, this book is, perhaps, more about a certain Western vision of the world than Iran under the Khomeinist regime.

Axworthy rejects the established idea in the West that all humanity aspires or should aspire to the Western model of liberal democracy and free market economics. In that sense, Axworthy is at the antipode to Francis Fukuyama and his prediction of the “end of history” and the triumph of the Western democratic model.

9781846142918HAxworthy writes: “Since the rise of the Iranian revolution, European and Western attitudes to the rest of the world have been forced to change. Previously, we tended still to think in terms of linear development in the Middle East and elsewhere towards a Western economic and social model, a Western idea of modernity, away from the traditional patterns of life of those countries which were perceived as backward and outdated.”

Axworthy hammers in his message by forecasting possible “predominance” for “other models,” including the Chinese and the Indian in a globalized world.
“The Western model is no longer the only option,” he says, echoing a claim frequently made by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

In a highly revealing analysis, Axworthy compares the Khomeinist revolution with the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He asserts that the French Revolution ultimately failed because of its radical secularist—not to say atheistic—ideology. What it offered was alien to the mass of French men and women who had remained faithful to their Christian culture and belief system. The Bolshevik Revolution failed for similar reasons. It, too, was out of tune with the Christian culture of the Russian people. The Khomeinist revolution, however, is in sync with the Iranian people’s Islamic traditions, and thus more likely to sustain the regime’s stability.

In that analysis, Axworthy echoes a lecture given by Muhammad Khatami, a former president of the Islamic Republic, at Florence University a decade ago. In it, Khatami argued that the Western model of development had failed because, under the influence of the Enlightenment, it had abandoned religious beliefs. “The Enlightenment led to endless wars and tragedies for humanity,” he said.

Even more intriguing is Axworthy’s assertion that it is easier to pose fundamental moral question in the Islamic Republic than it is in the West.

Axworthy recalls that as “Sartre once wrote that the French were never so free as they were under Nazi occupation, in the sense that moral choice and the seriousness of consequences were never so sharp as they were at the time. That too is true in Iran. In Western countries, for many of us, we have it easy and have become morally lazy, relativistic and cynical. In Iran, the essentials of right and wrong, freedom and repression have been everyday matters of discussion and choice.”

In other words, the estimated 150,000 highly educated Iranians who flee the country each year, creating the biggest “brain drain in history” according to the World Bank, do not know what a good thing they are leaving behind in Iran. (Let us also remember that under Nazi occupation, Sartre continued to live a comfortable life of philosophical meditation while thousands of French men and women took up arms to drive out the occupier.)

Dealing with Iran’s relations with the outside world, Axworthy dismisses claims by US and European governments that the Islamic Republic is a sponsor of international terrorism and a threat to its neighbors and beyond. Iran is badly misunderstood, Axworthy asserts, though it has helped create new proto-democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iran’s nuclear program, Axworthy notes, is a cause for concern. And, yet, Axworthy assures us that Iran “will never use nuclear weapons against Israel or anyone in a first strike.” Iran, he continues, “wants a nuclear weapon as a deterrent.” How he could be sure of all that is not clear. Western powers, especially the United States, are to blame for poor relations with the Islamic Republic. In some cases, personal considerations by Western decision-makers helped create a negative approach to relations with Iran. For example, President George H. W. Bush rejected rapprochement with Iran because he did not want to “take a risk with foreign policy” before his re-election campaign. President Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, was “especially hostile to Iran,” equally for personal reasons.

Axworthy has an even more interesting revelation regarding US policy on Iran. He writes: “After the fall of the Soviet Union there was an unemployment problem within the US state system: former Kremlinologists were looking for a job. Some found it in Iran policy; but unfortunately they carried over too much of their previous thinking too uncritically, slotting Iran into the role of the former Soviet Union and labeling the Islamic Republic therefore as totalitarian, expansionist and, of course, doomed; none of which was ever necessarily the case.”

This is exactly the analysis offered by a number of theoreticians in Tehran, including Hassan Abbasi, a lecturer on strategy at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard colleges.

Axworthy echoes the view of US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel that Iran is “a sort of democracy.” To be sure, Iranian democracy is not perfect, Axworthy admits. But the same could be said about British democracy. He writes: “For example, some said Britain was no longer a democracy since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, because large numbers demonstrated against the invasion, and opinion polls suggested a majority were opposed to it.”

Axworthy forgets that in a democracy, such as Britain, decisions are taken in an elected parliament, not by crowds marching in the streets or based on opinion polls. Even then, in Britain people are free to demonstrate against the government, something not allowed in the Islamic Republic. Also, in Britain, anyone could conduct opinion polls, while in the Islamic Republic people could go to prison for doing so.

Axworthy writes: “There are genuine reasons to dislike some of the consequences of the Western model—some of the outcomes of the Western idea of modernity. Drug abuse, family breakdown, the collapse of traditional moral values, the homogenization and stultification of international culture through consumerism…”

However, the fact that Axworthy could freely criticize the Western model without being tortured in prison and/or forced to flee into exile is itself a sign of the superiority of the Western model over the Khomeinist model, which deals with its critics the way all totalitarian regimes do. In the Western model, one is free to choose, but need not choose “drug abuse,” “family breakdown” or “consumerism.”

Reflecting a fashionable trend in the West, Axworthy expresses concern about freedom of choice. He writes of “the problem of liberalism and the ideal of political freedom generally, that affects us all: people may end up choosing things that they really ought not to choose, to the detriment of society.”

This is not new. All totalitarian ideologies use abstractions such as class, the nation, the community of the faithful, or society to set limits on personal freedom and choice. In Iran, the Khomeinist system tries to do that through the so-called velayat-e faqih (Custodianship of the Jurisprudent) under which, in the name of Islam, a mullah has the final word on all issues and is, theoretically at least, able to prevent people from abusing their freedoms in the way Axworthy is worried about.

In the Soviet Union, the Politburo and its strongman performed that function in the name of “the proletariat.” In Nazi Germany, the fuhrer prevented the abuse of personal freedoms in the name of the “Aryan” race. In Italy, Mussolini chose the concept of a mythical “Roman” nation for the same end.

I may be wrong but, unlike Axworthy, I believe there are quite a few Iranians who wish to have the freedoms available in the “corrupt and declining West”. They wish to be able to make their own choices, commit their own sins and pay for those sins. Under Khomeinism, they are forced to pay for the sins of their self-imposed rulers.

The Mullah Who Could Melt A Snowstorm

Mourners during Azizullah Khoshvaqt’s funeral. (AAA)
Mourners during Azizullah Khoshvaqt’s funeral. (AAA)
Until just a month ago few people had heard of Azizullah Khoshvaqt. Most of those who had heard knew him as just another of the 200,000 or so mullahs spread across the spectrum of Iranian life. To a smaller number, Khoshvaqt was an advisor to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. The two also had family bonds. One of Khoshvaqt’s daughters is married to one of Khamenei’s sons.

Now, however, a book presented as Khoshvaqt’s biography claims that he was more- much more. “Hidden Pearl” was published last year amid general indifference. Few people read it and no one reviewed it (It had a print run of 1,000 copies, according to the daily Kayhan).

Last week, however, there was a rush to buy the book with all available copies snatched up within 48 hours. Following this, Kayhan, published under Khamenei’s supervision, urged the book’s author Abbas-Ali Mardi to rush new editions onto the market. That Khoshvaqt enjoyed special favor in Khamenei’s household was highlighted when the “Supreme Guide” personally led the man’s funeral procession.

Mardi’s book depicts Khoshvaqt as the favorite disciple of the late Ayatollah Muhammad-Hussein Tabataba’i who died in 1981. Shi’ite scholarly folklore represents Tabataba’i as heir to Mullah Sadra of Shiraz often acknowledged as the last great Iranian religious philosopher.

Tabataba’i was a charismatic figure and, in his private life, a model of purity. To describe him as a philosopher, however, would be off the mark if only because religion, the realm of belief and certainty is quite distinct from philosophy which is the domain of doubt and speculation. The chief function of philosophy is to pose questions while religion’s chief claim is that it has the answers.

Attending Tabatabai’s lessons, especially those held in the evenings at his home, was always a pleasure even for those whose interest in religion is only cultural. His elegant language and his tremendous ability to conceptualize elements of his faith appealed to a wide range of scholars, including the French scholar of Iranian Shi’ism Henry Corbin. Known as the “Allameh” (The All-Knower), Tabataba’i even included among his fans no lesser a personality than Empress Farah, the wife of the Shah. Another enthusiastic follower was Hussein Nasr who headed Empress Farah’s office and who has done more than most to popularize Shi’ism in the United States.

I interviewed Tabataba’i in 1970 regarding the manner in which a grand ayatollah emerges as “Marja’a Taqlid”. He dismissed the question by suggesting that there were “more important issues to consider”, his deep blue eyes and ringing Azerbaijani accent barely hiding his humor.

With all that in the background, readers of “Hidden Pearl” (ad-Dorrat al Maknouna) would be surprised by the assertion that Khoshvaqt was Tabataba’i’s favorite disciple and rightful successor.

“Hidden Pearl” provides little evidence that Khoshvaqt enjoyed a special position in Tabataba’i’s household. Khoshvaqt is presented as an Ostad (master) of Ethics and a grand ayatollah and a Marj’a al-Taqlid (Source of Emulation). Overall, however, the image that emerges is one of an apparatchik theologian with barely hidden messianic pretensions.

According to the book, Khoshvaqt regarded the scientific vision of existence as one that doomed mankind to destruction. People like Galileo and Copernicus were guilty of trying to destroy “the sacred quality of the cosmos”. Other scientists depicted the limits of perfection for mankind, thus mocking the religious concept of “The Perfect Man” (al-Insan al-Kamil).

“Hidden Pearl” claims that Khoshvaqt possessed “super-human qualities” that enabled him to melt down a snowstorm,” and also to “feel” the true intentions of the “Hidden Imam.” It was because of those qualities, if not Khoshvaqt’s actual communication with the Mahdi, that Khamenei regarded him as something of a last resort on theological issues. Khamenei has described Khoshvaqt passing as “a great tragedy for Islam”.

He is also quoted as advising the Iranian leadership to “when facing a storm, cling onto Khoshvaqt’s robe.” Clearly, Khoshvaqt was something of a guru to Khamenei.

Another mullah, Kazem Siddiqi, goes further by claiming that Khoshvaqt was “far above what humans could imagine.”

“He was one of Allah’s owlya (confidants) who are offered cups of knowledge by Imam Ali himself,” Siddiqi is quoted as saying.

The book depicts Khoshvaqt, who died in Mecca during Haj al Umrah last month, as a man who believes he is living at the end of times. What he sees coming is “the decisive battle” between the “armies of the Imam” on the one side and “the forces of kufr” (unbelief) on the other. One event that could hasten the coming battle “at the End of Time” is the Islamic Republic’s success in developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

According to the book, Khoshvaqt believed that what people did in their daily life affected the way nature was “modulated by the Creator” to provide a response. For example, if Iranian women became lax about their hijab, Tehran could be hit by an earthquake that could kill millions of people. Women who tanned their skin made the pillars of Islam tremble with incalculable consequences.

The book offers only glimpses of Khoshvaqt’s political life, clearly trying to build his image as a great theologian preparing Islam for the return of the Mahdi.

Khoshvaqt, however, is known to have played an influential political role behind the scenes. He was one of three mid-ranking mullahs who were elevated by official propaganda to the position of “grand ayatollah.” Another was Mujtaba Tehrani who died just weeks before Khoshvaqt. Now only one of the three is still alive: Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.

The trio built a reputation as pillars of Khamenei’s position as “al-Faqih al-Wali” (Theologian-Guardian) and “Supreme Leader of Muslims” throughout the world. Khamenei has used the trio to issue fatwas (religious edicts) against his political enemies. Twenty years ago, Khoshvaqt issued “fatwas” ordering the assassination of several Iranian intellectuals during Muhammad Khatami’s presidency. More recently, Khoshvaqt, Tehrani and Mesbah-Yazdi described the leaders of the opposition Green Movement as “infidels” with “no place in Islam.”

The three had vastly different scholarly backgrounds. Tehrani was the product of the Qom hawza (seminary) and a traditionalist mullah. Khoshvaqt dabbled in philosophy by attending Tabataba’i’s classes. Mesbah-Yazdi was a part-time pupil of Ahmad Fardid, Iran’s best-known disciple of Heidegger.

The trio played a crucial role in creating an alliance of mullahs and elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Six years ago they helped propel Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into the presidency. Over the past two years, however, the trio turned against Ahmadinejad, suspecting him of harboring secret designs to push the mullahs out of politics.

“Hidden Pearl” provides a partial, though no less instructive, glimpse into the mindset of a coterie that, for the time being at least, dominates Iranian politics in the name of the “Hidden Imam.”

I wonder what Tabataba’i would have said had he read this book about his supposed disciple.

Dorr Maknun (Hidden Pearl)
The Life of Ayatollah Azizullah Khoshvaqt
By; Abbas-Ali Mardi
234 pages
Published by Amir-Kabir in Tehran, 2012

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

IRAN’S REVOLUTIONARY GUARD By: Steven O’Hern Published by Potomac Books, United States, 2013 271 pages For more than 30 years the Islamic Republic in Iran has been waging a low intensity war against the United States and its allies in the Middle East. This undeclared war has claimed the lives of hundreds of Americans, including many Marines and GI’s killed by roadside explosives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran’s principal arm in this war has been the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary organization created in 1979 with the help of Palestinian guerrilla groups. Since then the IRGC has developed into an alternative army with its own navy, air force and special units. Charged by the late Ayatollah Khomeini with the task of “exporting” revolution, the IRGC has created a special unit, known as the Quds (Jerusalem) Division to conduct asymmetric operations against the Khomeinist regime’s enemies across the globe.

Steven O’Hern’s new book is dedicated to a study of the IRGC and the Quds Division with special focus on their operations against US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. A retired military intelligence officer, O’Hern, is able to write this subject with some authority if only because he had personal experience of trying to the IRGC in Iraq.

O’Hern makes three important assertions.

The first is that the threat from the IRGC, though debatable as to its extent and effectiveness, is a fact that the outside world would ignore at its peril. Determined to de-stabilize and, when possible, help overthrow pro-West regimes, Iran’s current leaders have no qualms about using the IRGC in an increasingly aggressive manner.

Next, O’Hern asserts that the United States, the principal though by no means the only, target of the Iranian campaign is unable or unwilling to appreciate the extent of the threat. In fact, O’Hern’s book has this as subtitle: The Threat that Grows While America Sleeps.

The subtitle recalls a slim book written by President John F Kennedy about the rise of the Nazi threat while Europe slept before the Second World War.

O’Hern’s third assertion is equally interesting. He rejects the conventional wisdom’s belief that classical Shi’ite-Sunni divisions in Islam prevent the Khomeinist regime from forming alliances against their common foes.

He then proceeds to suggest that Iran has been helping Al Qaeda with training, tactics and supply of weapons for a number of years and may well have been indirectly involved in the attacks against New York and Washington on 9 September 2001.

According to O’Hern, Iran used the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah to establish a link with Al Qaeda.

He writes: “Hezbollah opened classrooms to Al Qaeda operatives who traveled to Lebanon for training. Al Qaeda purchased a guesthouse in the Bekaa Valley where its members lived while being trained by Hezbollah experts in using explosives used to bring down large structures.” That Shi’ite Hezbollah should help train Sunni Jihadists may seem surprising. However, the IRGC itself had been partly trained by Palestinian groups that were Sunni, Christian or Marxist-Leninist. Because of their common hatred of the United States, they had little difficulty ignoring religious and/or ideological divisions.

According to O’Hern, Imad Mughniyah, a senior military commander of the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah visited Al Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden while the latter lived in Sudan. Mughniyah’s brother-in-law, one Mustafa Bad red-Din also played a role. A captured Al Qaeda fighter who had been in Sudan at the time witnessed the fateful meetings, O’Hern reports.

According to O’Hern, the Lebanese branches of Hezbollah, like its branches in other countries, is an integral part of the Iranian government’s military-security structure. Mughniyah was recruited by the Iranian intelligence service in 1982 and remained on its payroll until his death in Damascus more than a quarter of a century later. Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is also an Iranian government employee and directly controlled by the IRGC.

While O’Hern hints at the ideological roots of the IRGC he does not study them in detail. Had he done so he would have paid greater attention to reasons that could bring together people from a widely different religious, ethnic and political background in a common fight against the American “Great Satan.” In fact, among the 11 men that O’Hern names as the original founders of the IRGC at least six were US-educated and at least four, including Mostafa Chamran and Ibrahim Yazdi were naturalized US citizens.

Tehran’s anti-American message has also won it a number of allies in Latin America where a number of new left-leaning regimes have helped the IRGC establish bridgeheads in what used to be Washington’s backyard. The IRGC now has “operational assets” in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, and maintains a political presence in Argentina and Venezuela and Cuba. In most cases, the IRGC has used ethnic Lebanese and Syrian groups in those countries as a cat’s paw.

As far as the US position is in this low intensity war, O’Hern’s tone remains pessimistic. However, at the end of the book he devotes a chapter to how the US could prevail. The first step in that direction, according to O’Hern, is to explain to the American public the threat that the Khomeinist regime in Tehran poses to the US. O’Hern rules out outright war against the Islamic Republic and questions the effectiveness of economic and other sanctions to change Tehran’s behavior.

What he suggests, in effect, is for the US to give Iran a taste of its own medicine, that is to say low intensity war against it. In other words, this may prove a long struggle that would not, indeed could not, end without regime change in Tehran.

Book Review: A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution By Samar Yazbek
A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution By Samar Yazbek

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution

By Samar Yazbek

Published by Haus Publishing, July 2012.

London, The Majalla – In a steamy University of Damascus classroom, Arabic language students attempt to translate Samar Yazbek’s novel Cinnamon. Heads are buried inside dictionaries: Ta-ra-ha-la, to be flaccid. Giggles erupt across the room as sentences are decrypted.

The book is a rather racy choice for the government-sanctioned Arabic language department. The story follows two dispirited Damascene women, one upper-class and the other impoverished, as they find solace in their dreams, infused with lesbian eroticism and the scent of cinnamon.

The author, Samar Yazbek, is one of Syria’s bright, reasonably young, literary talents. Aged forty-two, she is as old as the Al-Assad regime; born in 1970, the same year Hafez Al-Assad came to power. During her lifetime, Syria has known no other leadership than that of the Assad dynasty.

By all accounts, Yazbek should have grown up to become a Ba’athist party loyalist. She was born into an Alawite family, the same clan as the ruling family. Yazbek’s hometown of Jableh is located on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, deep in the Alawi heartland, only a half-hour drive from Hafez Al-Assad’s birthplace.

Instead, Yazbek rejected her birthright to political and material privilege and chose to stand with the persecuted and aggrieved in Syrian society. Like much of her work, Cinnamon is a biting social critique of both gender and class inequalities.

Since unrest first broke out in Syria in February 2011, Yazbek’s preferred refrains have been put on the back burner in favor of more politicized literary non-fiction on the Syrian uprising. Her most recent book, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, was translated from the original Arabic and published in English in July last summer. The book is an intimate and disturbing testimony of the early days of the Syrian uprising from her vantage point in Damascus.

When you have become immune to the headlines on Syria, the rising death toll, and the graphic images, Yazbek’s Diaries puts a much-needed face on the conflict. She humanizes a struggle that has long been stripped of all emotion by mass media bulletins. Yet human does not mean humane.

This book is not for the faint hearted; the dairies communicate the tormented existence of a woman who knows what it is to become an enemy of the Syrian state, in raw and upsetting detail. Yazbek sided with the opposition and suffered the subsequent threat of arrest, torture, and even death at the mercy of Syria’s security services.

“The sounds of screaming and torture rang out somewhere, somewhere both far away and nearby. I was tembling. I had never heard such sounds of pain, coming from some place deep inside the earth, burrowing into my heart.”

In Diaries, the author makes the uneasy transition from novelist to journalist. Her writing style reflects this shift, landing somewhere between the two, a combination that does not always work. Real-life interviews are awkwardly stuck between metaphor and illusion. Yazbek’s traditional writing style is flowery and at times surreal; marrying this technique with hard facts results in an often-disjointed narrative. The book is packed with eye-witness accounts of demonstrations and interviews with opposition members, but all intertwined with lyrical fantasy. The continual back and forth between reality and imagination can become exhausting.

Yazbek herself admits this collision of fiction and non-fiction, journalist and novelist, the personality crisis that is really at the heart of this novel—and its author. “I want to go back to my solitude that is crowded with novel characters,” she writes.

If you find the first few chapters hard work, persevere, because Yazbek’s writing becomes more fluid after the opening entries. Indeed, it is when the blend of literary non-fiction works that Yazbek finds her moments of brilliance: poetic prose and gritty reportage successfully combine to create a terrifying picture of a woman whose body and soul are tortured by her experience of the uprising. The most vivid example of this is in her retelling of her interrogation in a prison on 10 May 2011. The account contains the most horrific and moving passages in the book.

Yazbek can be excused for her, at times, disjointed writing style in a time of such mental and bodily distress. For Yazbek, the conversion to journalism was not so much a choice but a duty. She makes clear that Diaries is her contribution against apathy and disinvolvement from the uprising, “I will not just sit by and watch everything going on all around me” she says. The courage and strength to pick up her pen and record the psychological (as well as physical) warfare she experienced is no less than heroism in a context where dissent costs lives. Yazbek was acknowledged for her bravery in October last year, when she was bestowed the Writer Of Courage Award presented by the charity English PEN, which works to defend freedom of expression in literature.

Throughout the book, the novelist in Yazbek cannot be extinguished; fiction is her survival mechanism. In the darkest moments she imagines she is a character in a novel:

“I would pretend I was a character on paper, not made of flesh and blood, or that I was reading about a blindfolded woman forcibly taken to an unknown location, to be insulted and spat upon because she had the gall to write something true that displeased the tyrant. At this point in my fantasy I would feel strong and forget all about how weak my body was, about the vile smells and the impending unknown.”

Before the uprising in Syria, Yazbek still enjoyed some clan protection; the government largely turned a blind eye to her more uncomplimentary works. Cinnamon was readily available in any Damascene bookshop in the spring of 2011 (when Arabic language students bought them up). That immunity is long gone; Yazbek was forced to flee Syria in July 2011, fearing for her life and the safety of her teenage daughter. Her increasingly outspoken criticism of the Syrian government and activism amongst the opposition branded her a traitor and placed her fate in the hands of Syria’s security apparatus. She is now living in Paris. It is rather unlikely that Cinnamon is still being taught at the University of Damascus.

Trial or execution: That is the question


Nuremberg, 9/11 and the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

By: William Shawcross

Published by: Public Affairs, New York, 2012

256 pages

During the US presidential election campaign of 2008, Democrats’ nominee Barack Obama made much of his claim that President George W Bush had mistreated Al Qaeda suspects held in Guantanamo Bay. Obama promised that, if elected president, he would arrange for terrorist suspects to be tried in ordinary US courts. The idea, he argued, was to bring them to justice, not to decide their fate in ad hoc military tribunals. The first Al Qaeda suspect to be thus submitted to ordinary American justice was to be Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an ethnic Baluch and a citizen of Pakistan who had been captured by Pakistani police and handed over to the US.

Sheikh Mohammed, known with his initials of KSM, had told interrogators that he, and not Osama bin Laden, had been the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Bin Laden’s role had been largely limited to providing the money needed for the operation. Because most victims of the 9/11 attacks had been in New York, it was there that KSM was to be tried in public.

The prospect of an Al Qaeda master terrorist being tried in an ordinary American court was provocative enough to persuade William Shawcross, a distinguished British author and journalist, to pick it as the subject of a new book.

Very quickly, however, Shawcross realized that he was dealing with a far more complex question, one that his late father Lord Shawcross had also faced as a prosecutor during the trial of Nazi leaders in Nuremberg after the Second World War. The question was: how to judge an enemy that recognized no rules and fought in total rejection of the laws of war as approved by the international community over the past two centuries.

In the event, the KSM trial, as promised by Obama, never took place. The very idea of allowing a master terrorist to use the niceties of US law to escape punishment was enough to scandalize a majority of Americans. Very quickly, Obama changed his tune. Instead of trying to put Al Qaeda suspects on trial in ordinary courts, he decided to kill as many of the as possible. Over the past three years, American drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have claimed the lives of at least 3000 individuals suspected of links with Al Qaeda.

This month, a new book by one of the men who took part in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden punctured Obama’s claim further. The book shows that the mission was to kill bin Laden, not to capture him for a possible trial in New York. When he saw that the game was up, bin Laden apparently wanted to surrender. But no one wanted to capture him alive.

Thus we have three American approaches to terrorist suspects.

The first is that of former President Bush. Under it, terrorists are kept outside the United States and ultimately tried by special military tribunals modified to allow the suspects legal assistance. The method has not been very successful. Hundreds of suspects have spent years in Guantanamo camps without being formally charged. Many have been freed for lack of evidence. Some of those freed have quickly returned to terrorism and managed to do more killing.

The second approach, promoted by Obama during the 2008 campaign, has proved to be a sham. Obama’s promise of “fair trial” for Al Qaeda had been a demagogic ruse to fool his supporters on the radical left. After the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the German weekly Der Spiegel criticized Obama for the operation. Obama should have “put bin Laden into the deck of an international court.”

The third approach, practiced by Obama in opposition to what he had preached is to kill the suspects, thus obviating the need for any trial, fair or unfair. However, that method, too, has not worked as there seems to be no reduction in the number of terrorists recruited by Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other similar terrorist groups.

Shawcross’s book is of great interest because it probes the possibility of a fourth approach.

Could the Western democracies that now hold hundreds of terror suspects develop a code of conduct that applies to dealing with this new kind of “enemy”?

“Democracies must be self-confident and strong enough to defend themselves against the forces of tyranny,” Shawcross writes.

The question is: how?

Shawcross believes that many lessons could be learned from the Nuremberg trials. At the time, Churchill wanted the Nazi leaders captured by the allies to be simply hanged without trial. For his part, Stalin insisted that up to 50,000 Nazis, often picked up at random, be shot to set an example. As often in history when a more civilized protagonist faces a barbarous adversary, the Western democracies faced the risk of being dragged into the behavior pattern of their Nazi enemies. Largely thanks to American rejection of both Churchill and Stalin’s proposals, the allies avoided stooping so low. They agreed that the Nazis belonged to a special category of criminals and thus could not be tried with rules that applied to cases of ordinary criminality.

Shawcross believes that a similar approach to crimes committed by Al Qaeda could go a long way in building on Nuremberg’s jurisprudence.

However, this book is not just a dissertation on terrorism and the law. It also provides a fast-paced introduction to the ideology that has produced Al Qaeda and its imitators. According to Shawcross, that ideology is designed to set Al Qaeda terrorist in a category different from numerous other terrorist groups of the extreme left and extreme right that have caused murder and mayhem in more than 100 countries across the globe.

The debate regarding what to do with this new type of enemy is likely to go on for some time yet. What is surprising is that so far we have seen little effort to develop those parts of international law that could help deal with the problem in a resolute manner and in fairness. Shawcross’ book is a timely and important contribution to persuade the major democracies to take up the issue.

New Voices of Arabia

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—For the past half a century at least, Arab poetry has found its principal abodes in Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. Anyone interested in contemporary Arab poetry would know the names of at least one poet from one of those three nations. Now, however, a fourth nation may be claiming a place in that galaxy: Saudi Arabia.

That Saudis should be interested in poetry is no surprise. The peninsula has been the home of one of the oldest poetical traditions in the world, dating back to the pre-Islamic era. In my frequent visits to Saudi Arabia over the past four decades I have attended many poetry recitals drawing decent crowds even in sparsely populated and remote areas. In almost every case, however, the fare on offer consisted of exercises in classical forms, especially the ageless qasidah.

The anthology presented by Saad Al-Bazei, an Emeritus Professor of English in Riyadh, has the distinction of introducing the kingdom’s modern poetry. Yes; you heard right: modern poetry.

The anthology, in a beautiful edition, is published by I.B. Tauris, one of the best publishing houses specializing in the Middle East. The standards of editing and production maintained by I.B. Tauris are a credit to British publishing which has been in steady decline since the 1970s.

Presented are forty-one poets, and poetesses, working in different styles, from neo-classical to surrealist. These poems clearly show that, at least as far as this branch of literature is concerned, Saudi Arabia is very much a part of the modern world. This modernity is not confined to form, although that is the feature that immediately catches the eye of the reader. The real modernity of these poems could be found in their themes. They reflect many of the anxieties, hopes and fears of contemporary humanity plus, on a more individual level, such preoccupations as the meaning of love in an uncertain world, the crisis of identity, and the rites of passage in multiple, and at times contradictory, cultural contexts.

What is interesting is that all these universal themes are evoked in distinctly Arabian voices. And that voice is further reinforced with the presence of colloquial Saudi expressions and terms of reference related to aspects of life in the kingdom.

Although these poets have their roots in the cultural topos of the kingdom, their poetry is never parochial. Their experience could resonate with readers from anywhere in the world. Many of the poets included have a direct experience of the outside world either because they studied in the west or thanks to frequent visits to the Middle East, Europe, North America and Asia.

Thus, they could receive a muse in Houston, Texas or Paris, France as warmly as they would in Bureida or Dhahran.

In a short review such as this it is hard to do justice to all the fine poets and poetesses included. One has to be content with mentioning just a few. Among them would have to be Ibrahim Al-Wafi whose poem “Fever!” is a veritable tour de force. I also liked Ashjan Hendi, especially for her gentle humour, and Mohammad Khithr whose poem “Freedom” is a perfect synthesis of form and content. Then there is Abdullah Al-Washmi’s string of haikus that, taken together produce a qasida. I must also admit that I feel moved by Huda Al-Daghfag’s poems dealing with the status of women and their quest for greater freedom and equality. I also enjoyed Hamid bin Aqeel’s “Conflagration” and tis twin “A field for a blue conflagration”.

As far as themes and tones are concerned, modern Saudi poetry is overwhelmingly urban. It leaves the desert, the mythical barra, with images of sand dunes and prancing camels to traditional poets to concern itself with life in congested, fast, and constantly challenging new cities and town in the kingdom and beyond. Love remains an important theme, although its expression differs from traditional poetry. Here, the lover does not shed bitter tears over a beloved who remains eternally beyond reach. The more frequent concern is that love might fail to deliver its promise and that time and life might marginalize or even totally eliminate it.

Yet another popular theme is the rejection of rules for restricting individual freedoms in the name of traditional cultural values. Ahmad Al-Wasil’s “Oil condolences for the women of the Gulf”, Abdullah Saikahn’s “A Myth”, and Hussain Sarhan’s “An Idea” are arrows shot into the heart of prejudice.

Lampooning the nouveau-riche penchant for ostentation is another popular theme. One excellent example is Ahmad Kattua’s poem “Aimless”.

Contrary to many of their contemporaries in other Arab countries, Saudi poets are free of nostalgia, the opiate of the defeated in history. Nor are they interested in easy and cost-free “heroism” associated with regional and international conflicts. Free of political demagoguery, most Saudi poets can deal with the deeper issues of human existence.

Dr. Al-Bazei opens the anthology with an essay introducing the new voices that he traces back to the period from the 1930s to the 1950s when classical and romantic traditions developed side by side. According to him the current modernist trend started with Muhammad Al-Ali in the 1970s when a distinctly Saudi voice began to take shape. That was when younger Saudi poets learned Western languages and came to know the works of modern European and American poets including T.S. Eliot.

With few exceptions, the translations are simply excellent. Some manage to provide meter and rhyme while others are content with a prose rendition. For shortage of space, one cannot name all the translators here. But big thanks are due to them all.

“New Voices of Arabia” offers a mere pip into the rich world of modern poetry produced by a new generation of Saudis. At least half a dozen of the poets presented in this volume deserve fuller introduction to the English-speaking world. Al-Bazei back to work, again!

New Voices of Arabia

The Poetry

An Anthology from Saudi Arabia

Edited by Saad Al-Bazei

336 pages

Published by I.B.Tauris, London, 2012

Asharq Al-Awsat book review: Patriot of Persia

Patriot of Persia

Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup

By Christopher De Bellaigue

300 pages

Published by Harper, New York and London 2012

When writing of non-Western societies in the past century or so, many Western European and North American historians and chroniclers adopt one of two attitudes.

The first attitude could be described as “the Imperialism of arrogance”. Here, we are told that whatever good that has happened in non-Western societies is due to the generous action of Western powers whose mission was to civilise export “ civilisation.” The people of those societies, referred to as “ natives”, could not have anything good on t heir own.

The second attitude, let’s call it the “Imperialism of guilt” claims that whatever bad happened to the “ natives” was the fault of the Western powers. The “natives” could never do any harm to themselves.

For decades, the debate on Iran in the United States and Western Europe has been dominated “ the Imperialism of guilt”. At the heart of this is a legend in which an elderly aristocrat plays the central role. The legend is that in August 1953, a couple of CIA operatives organised a coup d’etat that toppled a democratically elected government and paved the way for the seizure of power by the mullahs 26 years later. The hero of the legend is one Dr. Muhammad Mossadegh who had been appointed Prime Minister by the Shah for a second time in 1952.

The legend was born almost a decade after the events when the CIA, its reputation in tatters after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, was desperately looking for some success story.

However, the British intelligence service would not let American spooks claim all the glory. De Bellaigue tries to satisfy both sides. The American edition of his book bears the subtitle:” A Tragic Anglo-American Coup.” The British edition, however, has a more succinct subtitle: “ A Very British Coup”.

The point man for the coup was one Kermit Roosevelt who, if De Bellaigue is to be believed, was a genius in black arts. He arrived in Tehran on 19 July and overthrew Mossadegh just a month later before travelling to have lunch with Winston Churchill in London. To assist him, the CIA had a few assets, including the New York Times reporter Kenneth Love and an unknown UPI stringer of Iranian origin.

Mossadegh’s Iranian opponents get a thorough thrashing from De Bellaigue. While Mossadegh’s supporters are described as “the people” or “popular masses”, his opponents are labelled “slum-dwellers and thrash rising against a Cabinet of ministers with French PhDs.”

De Bellaigue cannot imagine that at least some ordinary Iranians might have disliked Mossadegh. Only “ goons and mobsters” marched against the “Doctor”.

When they burn buildings and shops, Mossadegh’ supporters are merely “showing popular anger.” But when Mossadegh’s opponents march against him, De Bellaigue calls their action “sedition.”

When supporting Mossadegh, Dr. Mozaffar Baghai is described as “a young nationalist”. But when the same Baghai turns against Mossadegh he gets a different adjective “rabble-rouser”. (In fact Baghai was Professor of Logic at Tehran University, a Member of Parliament and leader of the Social Democratic Toilers’ Party).

Mercifully, the Mossadegh legend, and its anti-American addendum, are as full of holes as Swiss cheese and De Bellaigue cannot ignore all of them.

Let’s start with the claim that prior to the supposed CIA intervention Iran had been a democracy.

The truth is that Iran was not a democracy but a constitutional monarchy in which the king, known as the Shah, had the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister. By 1953, the Shah who had acceded to the throne in 1941 had appointed and dismissed 10 prime ministers, among them Mossadegh.

And between 1953 and 1979, when he left for exile, he was to appoint 12 more. None of those changes of prime minister was described as a coup d’etat because, fully constitutional, they did not alter the substance or the form of Iran as a nation-state.

Interestingly, Mossadegh himself never challenged the Shah’s right to dismiss him as prime minister. During his trial he claimed that he had initially doubted the authenticity of the Shah’s edict dismissing him. Nor did Mossadegh himself claim that the Americans had played a role in ending his tenure as prime minister.

De Bellaigue is at pains to portray Mossadegh as “one of the first liberals of the Middle East, a man whose conception of liberty was as sophisticated as that of anyone’s in Europe or America.”

The trouble is that there is nothing in Mossadegh’s career, spanning half a century, as provincial governor, Cabinet minister and finally prime minister to portray him even remotely as a lover of liberty.

Here is how De Bellaigue quotes Mossadegh on the ideal leader who is “that person whose every word is accepted and followed by the people.”

De Bellaigue adds: “His understanding of democracy would always be coupled by traditional ideas of Muslim leadership whereby the community chooses a man of outstanding virtue- and follows him wherever he takes them.” Word by word, that could be the definition of “the ideal leader” by the late Ayatollah Khomeini who would have felt insulted had he been described as a democrat.

During his premiership, Mossadegh demonstrated his dictatorial tendency to the full. Not once did he hold a full meeting of the Council of Ministers, ignoring the constitutional rule of collective responsibility. He dissolved the Senate, the second chamber of the Iranian parliament, and shut down the Majlis, the lower house. He suspended a general election before all the seats had been decided and announced that he would rule with absolute power. He disbanded the High Council of National Currency and dismissed the Supreme Court. Towards the end of his premiership almost all of his friends and allies had broken with him. Some even wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations to intervene to end Mossadegh’s dictatorship.

During much of his premiership, Tehran lived under a curfew while hundreds of opponents were imprisoned.

But was Mossadegh “a man of the people” as De Bellaigue claims? Again, his account provides a different picture. A landowning prince and the grandson of a Qajar king, Mossadegh belonged to the so-called 1000 families who owned Iran. He and all his children were able to undertake expensive studies in Switzerland and France. The children had French nannies and when they fell sick would be sent to Paris or Geneva for treatment. (De Bellaigue even insinuates that Mossadegh might have had a French sweetheart, although that is improbable.) On the one occasion that Mossadegh was sent to internal exile he took with him a whole retinue, including his special cook.

Dean Acheson described Mossadegh as “ a rich, reactionary, feudal-minded Persian inspired by a fanatical hatred of the British.”

However, even his supposed hatred of the British is open to question. His uncle Farmanfarma was Britain’s principal ally in Iran for almost four decades. In his memoirs, Mossadegh says that in his fist post as Governor of the province of Fars he and the British consul “worked hand in hand like brothers.”

As a model of patriotism, too, Mossadegh is unconvincing. According to his own memoirs, at the end of his law studies in Switzerland, he had decided to stay there and acquire Swiss citizenship. He changed his mind when he was told that he would have to wait 10 years for that privilege. At the same time, his uncle Farmanfarma secured a “ good post” for him in Iran, tempting him back home.

Mossadegh’s name is associated with the nationalisation of Iranian oil in 1951. However, he was not even a member of the parliament that passed the nationalisation act. The Shah appointed him Prime Minister to implement the act and, plagued by indecision and always a prey to the demons of demagoguery, he failed in that mission.

De Bellaigue tries to build the 1951-53 drama in Iran as a clash of British colonialism and Iranian nationalism. However, that claim, too, is hard to sustain. Iran was never a British colony. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was present in five remote localities that did not amount to even half of one per cent of the country’s territory, in one of Iran’s provinces. At its peak the company employed 118 British nationals. Thus the overwhelming majority of Iranians had never seen a single Brit in their lives. However, De Bellaigue labels Iranians as “natives” or “Orientals” facing “ the white world”. (Iranians, of course, do not consider themselves as “blacks” or even worthy oriental gentlemen!)

Sadly, De Bellaigue seems to know nothing of the hundreds of books and thousands of essays that provide the Iranian narrative of the events. The assumption is that, mere objects in their own history, Iranians cannot offer a valid narrative.

Mossadegh’s career spanned more than half a century. History may end up seeing him as a spoiled child who refused to grow up. His brand of negative populism may have been attractive many decades ago. Now, however, it sounds bizarre, to say the least.

Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize

Have you heard of Fritdtjof Nansen? Well, what about Miread Corrigan or Carlos Lamas? No surprise if you haven’t heard of any of them, although they are all winners of the “most famous and most controversial prize in the world.”

Jay Nordlinger’s book on the Nobel Peace Prize is both a joy to read and a fascinating account of how this most peculiar of prizes was created and has been awarded for more than a century. That few of the winners have remained in our collective memory is a function of the transience of worldly glories rather than the intrinsic worth of the prize.

Nordlinger starts by posing the key question: what are the criteria for choosing Nobel peace laureate?

The answer is that there is none, that is to say apart from the opinion of the Norwegian committee that chooses the winner. Norway and the Scandinavian countries in general, see themselves as “the conscience of mankind” and are thus influenced by their view of the world. Small and prosperous, the Scandinavian nations have managed to avoid involvement in most of the wars that tore Europe apart for centuries although Denmark and Norway were invaded and occupied by the Nazis between 1940 and 1945. The Scandinavians also largely stayed out of the great colonial scramble that led to the creation of various European empires in the 19th century. Looking for a role to play in international affairs, the Scandinavians cast themselves as bridge-builders in a world divided by conflicting national, ethnic and economic interests and ambitions. In a sense, therefore, the Nobel Peace Prize could be seen as a political beauty pageant in which the winner is picked according to Scandinavian tastes.

Although these tastes have changed with time, two constants remain. To win, a candidate needs to be politically to the left of centre. He or she also needs to be in the news for doing something “good”.

Whether or not the candidate is an actual peacemaker is beside the point. Joseph Stalin was nominated because he was supposed to be on the side of the downtrodden. (Mercifully, he didn’t win). And no stretch of imagination would turn Barack Obama, who won the prize just weeks after taking office, into a peacemaker. Another laureate, Mother Tersea of Calcutta, had an original view of war and peace. “The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” she said in her acceptance speech. “Because it is a direct war, a direct killing- direct murder by the mother herself.”

In some cases, pretending to be the maker or of keeper of peace may be enough. In 1988 the prize went to the United Nations’ Peacekeeping Forces. Accepting the prize, UN Secretary General Javier Peres de Cuellar mentioned William R. Higgins, a US Marine colonel who had served in the peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Higgins had been kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Hezbollah without provoking any retaliation from the UN.

And in 2005, it was the turn of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to win, although for years it had erroneously claimed that Iraq was in pursuit of nuclear weapons. That claim had helped make the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Some choices have been either comical or outrageous. Al Gore, an American politician, was awarded the prize for a TV documentary he had produced on global warming. Jimmy Carter was named a laureate although he had acted as an apologist for China and North Korea in their repression of dissidents. And, Rigoberta Menchu, who won in 1992, was subsequently exposed as a Communist militant falsely claiming to be a poor peasant victim of military rule in Guatemala. And what about the trio of Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres who won for a peace that is yet to be made?

One is also bound to feel uncomfortable with the choice of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo as the laureate in 2009. He may well be a great artist and a courageous dissident. But what has done for peace? One may also wonder why the Dalai Lama was chosen as a laureate. He may well be regarded as something of a divinity by his supporters in Tibet but could hardly be credited for services to peace.

In contrast, many people who helped build peace in their time never won the prize. One example is Chancellor Helmut Kohl who led the movement for German reunification and thus the end of Europe’s division into rival military blocs.

Nordlinger accuses the Norwegians of “moral arrogance” and asserts that they “lecture, preach and scold as well as guide.” The Nobel peace Prize is Norway’s, indeed Scandinavia’s principal means of having a claim to international attention. And, on balance, even Nordlinger, his well-reasoned criticism notwithstanding, admits that the Nobel peace Prize is worth preserving.

By: Jay Nordlinger

439 Pages,

Price: $27.99

Published by: Encounter Books, New York 2012

A reporter’s odyssey in Assad’s Syria

Ask any reporter worth his salt where he would wish to be these days and you are likely to hear: Syria.

Journalists know that they have to deal with two kinds of happenings: events and undercurrents.

Events are things that happen in a moment, as it were, within a specific frame. An election is an event, as is a big fire, an earthquake or a memorable concert.

Undercurrents are made of sequences of events that, taken together in the medium and long-term, form a coherent pattern. Unlike events that are readily visible to anyone with enough curiosity, undercurrents often go undetected until they give birth to big events.

On rare occasions, events and undercurrents present themselves concurrently, providing the enterprising reporter with a smorgasbord of journalistic opportunities.

Experiencing its own version of the “Arab Spring”, Syria is furnishing one of those rare occasions.

It is there that history is in the making as a nation fights over the shape of its future. That is the undercurrent. There are, however, events galore as well, with President Bashar al-Assad’s private armed groups trying to conquer rebel cities such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, among others.

Sadly, Syria remains closed to almost all journalists from the outside world while local journalists are either parroting official propaganda or languishing in Assad’s prisons.

The Syrian ambassador to London managed to arrange for two BBC reporters to secure visas, for a few days. However, once there, one was kept a virtual prisoner in Damascus while the other had to hide in a building in Homs under fire from Assad’s forces. Last month, things took a turning for the worst as far as covering the Syrian revolution is concerned. Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent with the London Sunday Times, and Remi Ochlik, a French news photographer, were killed in yet another bombing raid by Assad forces on Homs.

One could imagine the frustration of the media that have to rely on Youtube and chat-room messages to guess what is happening in Syria.

With such a backdrop, one could imagine the excitement that an eye-witness account of the Syrian drama by a professional reporter could inspire among media people.

Precisely such an account is presented by Ghadi Francis, a young Lebanese journalist working for Al-Jadid television and writing for the Al-Akhbar daily in Beirut.

Published by Al-Saqi in London, Ms. Francis’ account comes in the form of a book with the title: “My Pen and My Pain: Hundred Days in Syria.”

From the start it is clear that, though having some sympathy for the Assad regime, Ms. Francis is too much of a professional to fall for the Ba’athist regime’s propaganda. Meticulously, she reports the position of the regime’s supporters, whom she estimates at around 20 per cent of the population, without endorsing it. At the same time, she tries to shed some light on the opposition which she claims is more divided than many assume outside Syria.

Pieced together, her interviews with a number of opposition leaders could help put the puzzling jigsaw together.

Francis’s account is chiefly interesting because she is not one of those “return-ticket” reporters who fly to a capital city, talk to the tax-driver between the airport and the hotel, meet a few officials, and return with pretensions of being an expert in the affairs of the country concerned. In contrast, Francis pretends to know nothing about Syria, a student always keen to learn from people with as many different backgrounds as possible.

From Francis’ account, President Assad emerges as a megalomaniac surrounded by bootlickers intent on fanning the fires of hubris. He may even be a prisoner of a sinister Star Chamber of security chiefs, Alawite sectarian leaders and barons of corruption.

The dialectics of the Syrian drama, according to Francis, is formed by a regime that is prepared to destroy the country in the hope of ruling over the ruins on the one hand and an opposition determined not to give up even if such destruction takes place.

Because the book has no rigid structure, Francis is able to offer numerous anecdotes that shed light on the darker side of life in Syria. Her account of how the security forces operate recalls the KGB’s modus operandi. And that is no surprise since the KGB helped found and train the Syrian intelligence services from the 1960s onwards.

We also meet technocrats and officials who had not bargained for Assad’s “rule by massacre.” These are basically apolitical individuals who joined public service in the hope of securing a good job, a decent salary and a secure future without, however, getting implicated in bloodshed. Today, they cannot abandon the regime if only because the opposition would not wish to embrace them.

Francis’ experience underlines what many of us have always known: the Assad regime cannot tolerate anything resembling independent reporting, even from a potentially sympathetic journalist. Francis ended up being arrested by Assad’s security forces and then expelled from Syria and declared persona non grata.

Well, the good job she has done was worth her troubles and tribulations.