Asharq Al-Awsat Book Review: Cockroach

Asharq Al-Awsat Book Review: Cockroach
Asharq Al-Awsat Book Review: Cockroach

What is the most loathsome creature you could think of? To Franz Kafka, the Czech novelist, the answer was: a cockroach.

Now, imagine the whole world as a desolate back alley with row after row of dustbins brimming with putrefying rubbish inhabited by hordes of ever-hungry cockroaches. This is the décor that Rawi Hage, a Lebanese writer living in Canada, has chosen for his second novel “Cockroach”, planting it in Montreal and peopling it with immigrants from the four corners of the world.

The narrator is a petty thief who is supposed to have fled from the decade-long Lebanese civil war during which he dreamt of nothing but escape. However, having made his escape to far-away and “frozen” Canada, he immediately wonders about the wisdom of his flight.

“Where am I?” he asks. “And what am I doing here? How did I end up trapped in a constantly shivering carcass, walking in a frozen city with white cotton falling on me all the time? And, on top of all that, I am hungry, impoverished, and have no one, no one.”

Unreliable if not downright duplicitous, Hage’s anti-hero reminds one of the narrator in Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” It is simply impossible to know which part of the story he is telling at any given time is true and which it is not. And, in the end, it matters little where truth ends and imagination begins. What matters is the comic tragedy that is life to a whole host of engaging and broken rogues clinging to existence as immigrants on the margins of Canadian society.

Among them is Reza, the Persian sitar player whose fingers were broken by Khomeini’s Islamic Guards. There is the Algerian self-styled “professor” aping French café intellectuals and dreaming of doing great deeds while waiting for his next welfare cheque. There is the beautiful Shohreh who has been raped by Islamists in Tehran, and the flirtatious Sehar who wants to forget her origins and become a true Canadian, whatever that means.

The supporting cast includes the native Canadians appearing as bleeding-heart do-gooders, pale-faced vegans, Jehova’s witnesses, welfare officers, and, of course, the sexually alluring psychotherapist assigned to the narrator after his attempted suicide.

In Hage’s world, east and west can never meet except in mutual suspicion, derision and, ultimately, hatred and violence. Like other Western countries that have admitted large numbers of immigrants from the Third World, especially Muslim countries, Canada is unable to absorb let alone assimilate its new citizens. Nor is it capable of offering them anything but the crumbs of its “indecent prosperity”.

The immigrants live in a limbo formed by an archipelago of solitudes.

Having lost their original homelands they are reminded daily that the new one they hoped to gain is forever closed to them.

The back-stories of the various characters provide a series of glimpses into the violent politics of the Third World nations that have triggered the biggest waves of refugees the world has ever known. (More than 80 per cent of all refugees in the world are from Muslim countries.)

Hage shows how small our world has become. Tragedies in places like the Middle East, find almost immediate consequences in such places as Canada, thousands of miles away. The reason is that refugees from distant tragedies try to find a safe haven in countries that have not yet closed their borders to the “damned of the earth.” The ocean, the distance of thousands of miles, the cold climate and language and culture cannot protect the Canadian from vicariously suffering the consequences of the Khomeinist revolution in Iran, the Islamic terror in Algeria or the sectarian killings in Lebanon.

Because of the title of the book, Hage’s novel may remind some readers of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two takes. Kafka’s anti-hero, Gregor, is metamorphosed into a cockroach without knowing and/or wanting it. He is a victim of a cruel fate beyond his control. Hage’s anti-hero, on the other hand, builds the cockroach aspect of his persona willingly and as an element of a mechanism of self-defence in a hostile world.

In Hage’s first novel, De Niro’s Game, a cockroach is transformed, and thus elevated, into a hunchback.” In this novel, the albino cockroach has a “hunched back”. Hage writes: “I saw the gigantic striped albino cockroach standing on two of its feet, leaning against the kitchen door. It had grown to my size- even bigger, if you were to measure the antennae that touched the ceiling.”

In the dialogue that ensues, the narrator is taken to task by the cockroach for being an “escapist”, presumably because of his attempted suicide.

“We are ugly,” the cockroach says.” Nevertheless, we always know where we are going. We have a project. A project to change this world.”

The cockroach ends up by reminding the narrator that he is at least “part human”, thus shouldering a greater responsibility than a mere cockroach.

A cockroach’s existence is the lowest, the most degraded, form of life.

Thus, Hage’s message is an affirmation of life, even in its lowest form. Kafka’s cockroach has things done to him while Hage’s cockroach always keeps the imitative. In other words, despite appearances, Kafka’s pessimism, dressed as black comedy, has nothing to do with Hage’s profound and life-affirming optimism, triggered by the simplest gifts of daily existence:

“At the first sip of beer, the first fries, I forget and forgive humanity for its stupidity, its foulness, its avarice and greed, envy, lust gluttony, sloth, wrath, and anger. I forgive it for its contaminated spit, its valued feces, its rivers of piss, its bombs, all its bad dancing. I also forget about the bonny infants with the African flies clustering on their noses, the marching drunk soldiers on the way to whorehouses. I forget about my mother and my father, the lightless nights I spent with my sister playing cards, dressing up toy soldiers, and undressing dolls by candlelight, reading comics.”

Hage’s novel may at times frustrate or even annoy the reader. In the end, however, “The Cockroach” is an unforgettable good read.

Grass: Untold Stories

The latest political crisis in Iran has highlighted the difficulties of covering a country that is both anxious to open itself to the outside world and afraid of doing so. These days the authorities are expelling the foreign media because they do not wish television cameras to record the anger on the streets. In 1925, the authorities of the time were suspicious of the crude cameras used for making the first documentaries because they did not wish the outside world to see the abject poverty that reigned in the land.

One such camera belonged to a trio of American adventurers who recognized the power of film to record, present, and ultimately impose the changing vision of reality even in the remotest parts of the world.

The trio in question were two documentary film-makers Merrian C. Cooper, an air force pilot, and Ernest Shoedsack, an army cameraman, and Marguerite Harrison, a pioneer among women newspaper reporters.

Toying with a vague idea of looking for “lost tribes and forgotten cultures”, the trio traveled to the Middle East, scouted large chunks of Anatolia in the wake of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and reached the newly liberated Iraq without encountering any lost tribes or forgotten cultures. At each stage of the journey, the trio was told that the object of their quest could be found further to the east. It was in Mesopotamia that they first heard of a “mysterious tribe” whose life-style had not changed since the dawn of history.

The tribe in question was, in fact, a confederation of clans that, though unified by ancient blood ties, represented a galaxy of different life-styles and traditions. Known by the generic name of Bakhtiari, the confederation had carved itself a living space on the two sides of Zard Kuh (Yellow Mountain), an offshoot of the Zagross, a mountain range that begins in southern Turkey, passes through Iraqi Kurdistan, and continues in central-southern Iran right to the border with what is now Pakistan.

Having made contact with the tribal chiefs, the American trio succeeded in securing permission to accompany the confederation in its annual movement from winter to summer quarters.

The result was one of the first great film documentaries ever made, a veritable classic that ranks with Robert J. Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” as a masterpiece of the genre.

In this fast-paced and absorbing book, Bahman Maghsoudlou, an Iranian cineaste now living in the United States, devotes the first half to introducing the trio against a background of war and global turmoil. The second half of the book is devoted to the making of the documentary itself, its passage through decades of oblivion, and its rediscovery as a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.

The second part of the book that tells the story of that most astonishing of journeys could be read on three levels.

The first level is a narrative of the journey itself with all the excitement and danger that marked it at every stage. In the process, one learns much about the personality of three travelers. Cooper and Shoedsack were to become famous filmmakers, offering the world of cinema such classics as “King Kong.” Harrison, who had worked for US Intelligence in Germany and Russia during World War II, was to build a new and distinguished career as roaming reporter.

On its second level, the book, based on the documentary, now also available on DVD, is a masterpiece of ethnographical reportage. In that sense, it is all the more valuable today because the nomadic life that it records has become part of history. The Bakhtiaris are still around in south-central Iran, and some of them are still engaged in annual migrations in search of grass needed to keep their sheep and goats alive. However, all that is left is a shadow of the tribe’s past glory. The Bakhtiaris, as Mohsen Makhmlabaf’s beautiful film “Gabbeh” shows, have become a decorative motif, a folkloric ornament rather than a dynamic culture.

The book’s third level is the insight it offers into Iranian history at a crucial juncture. The country had just experienced the 1921 putsch that had brought a new reformist government to power under Prime Minister Sayyed Ziauddin Tabatabai. The new government included a single military figure: Reza Khan, commander of the Cossack Brigade, as War Minister.

At the time the documentary was being made, Reza Khan had moved up to become Prime Minister, having elbowed out the dapper but ineffectual Ziauddin. One of Reza Khan’s top priorities was to create a strong central government based in Tehran. And that required an end to the ancient system of tribal loyalties.

At the time the trio were making their documentary, Reza Khan had already subdued the Lur, a sister tribe of the Bakhtiaris, and was preparing to move against the latter. The irony in all this was that the Bakhtiaris had helped Reza Khan come to power, not knowing that he would prove to be their nemesis.

A filmmaker himself, Maghsoudlou offers his narrative in a distinctly cinematic fashion with close-ups, flashbacks and traveling shots. The Bakhtiaris’ quest for grass may be long gone, but the record of the tribe’s epic struggle for survival remains.

GRASS

Untold Stories

By: Bahman Maghsoudlou

348 pages

Published by: Mazda Publishers, California, 2009

The Lady from Tel Aviv

If you leave aside its modern setting, Rabai al-Madhoun’s new novel would read as a tale out of the 1001 Nights. There is a narrator, not always reliable and often mischievously determined to put us on the wrong track, relating a story of love and separation. But then, we also have other tales nested within the broader narrative, like so many Russian Matryushka dolls. Without knowing it at first, we are taken for a ride in a fantasy world where Shahrzad would have felt at home.

On the surface, the story is about a Palestinian author, now in exile in Britain, telling the story of another Palestinian exile, this one an accountant in Germany, who returns to Gaza to look for a girl he once loved 30 years earlier. During those three decades the beloved is married to her cousin, while the smitten accountant takes a German wife and supposedly settles down to a comfortable middle class life in the West. After a decade of marriage, both former lovers lose their respective partners. The girl left behind in Gaza becomes a widow when an Israeli sniper kills her husband. The lovelorn accountant experiences the more mundane crucible of a Western European divorce.

The novelist working on this apparently banal tale of love and separation, sees the whole episode as a scene from the Chinese theatre of shadows. This is perhaps why the novel he is supposed to be writing bears the title of “Land of Shadows.” It is, perhaps, to inject a dose of reality into his tale that the novelist decides to step into the world of shadows by embarking on his own trip to Gaza after almost four decades of exile. This leads to a fantastic reversal of roles between the novelist and his hero. On his way to Gaza, the novelist meets an Israeli actress who tells that she is the holder of a secret about the son of a prominent Arab leader. Suddenly we are propelled on a third trajectory from fantasy to reality. In Gaza the shadows come to life, perhaps a metaphor for the Palestinians’ dream of one day returning to their homeland, leaving behind the unreal life of exile.

Apart from telling his hero’s story, the novelist succeeds in leading him to his lost life. In other words, the novelist not only writes about what might be reality but also actually creates reality.

Back in London, his mission apparently complete, the novelist receives a phone call from the actress, demanding a meeting during which she promises to reveal her “secret.” Our appetites whetted, we wait for the meeting. But this never happens. The novelist disappears on his way to the meeting.

At one level, Madhoun’s new novel may reads like an Arab exercise in the style of the French nouveau-roman (new novels), fashionable in the 1960s. The games that Madhoun plays with the concept of time, reminds the reader of Michel Butor. And, the eerie atmosphere of reality interacting with unreality recalls the best of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Nevertheless, the novel’s tone of bitter nostalgia and its constant play with the chiaroscuro of loss and recovery distinctly mark it out from the clinical coldness of the nouveau-roman.

The most remarkable feature of Madhoun’s novel, at least for this reader, is his success in showing that, whether they like it or not, Palestinians and Israelis now share a single landscape in their supposedly mutually exclusive existential realities. By spreading the events of the novel, and the novel within the novel, in two continents and several countries, Madhoun broadens his horizon beyond he narrow confines of Israel-Palestine and the bitter struggle that has written its recent history in blood and tears. The reader is transported beyond the Manichaean narrative in which the Palestinian is the victim and the Israeli the oppressor. Is it not possible that both are victims of larger forces in history that we, lesser mortals, find hard to identify? Or, what if they both are authors of their own tragedies?

Many readers may not find it necessary to concern themselves with such political and/or philosophical musings. They would be content with a story well told and a narrative as griping as a well-made thriller.

Madhoun’s new novel is shorter, and yet denser, than his previous autobiographical novel, “A Taste of Separation” published eight years ago. ” The Lady from Tel Aviv” shows that Madhoun, now in his mid-60s is at the height of his narrative abilities.

“The Lady from Tel Aviv” is full of laughs and tears. It is also a joy to read.

The Search for Al Qaeda

The Search for Al Qaeda
The Search for Al Qaeda

A visit to most bookshops during the past few years may well have convinced you that we now have all the books that anyone might want to read on Al Qaeda. Well, apparently not.

Many of the books on the subject turn out to be little more than a re-collaging of previous oeuvres dealing with the terrorist group that earned an eternal reputation for infamy by organizing the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. There are, however, some exceptions. Bruce Riedel’s slim book (only 180 pages) is one. In a fast-paced narrative, it offers the reader much of what he might want to learn about Al Qaeda.

Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser on the Middle East to three past presidents, draws on his personal experience and access to the most confidential sources to offer a narrative rich in facts.

However, it is the analytical part of the book that would be of special interest both because Riedel tries to be innovative in making policy recommendations and, more importantly perhaps, because his views have found a great echo in the new administration of President Barack Obama.

Riedel argues that former President George W Bush was wrong to speak of “the war on terror” rather than a war against Al Qaeda. Riedel also criticizes Bush for ordering the invasion of Iraq rather than focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan where al Qaeda was, and it seems, remains rooted.

Three policy recommendations stand out in Riedel’s book.

The first is that the United States should help counter Al Qaeda’s discourse by encouraging, and whenever possible supporting, forces within Islam that offer a different perspective of their faith and its place in the world. Riedel cites the condemnation of Al Qaeda and its methods by several fundamentalist Sunni theologians in Egypt and elsewhere as examples. In other words, the US has many potential allies within Islam, who could offer support in a common struggle against extremism.

The second recommendation is that the US should devote greater energy to the Palestinian issue. Riedel endorses President Bush’s “two-state” formula as the basis of US policy in the Middle East but criticizes the previous administration for having done little to achieve that goal.

The third policy recommendation is the development of a strategy for the whole of southern Asia where Riedel believes “the future of Jihad” lies. He wants special attention to Pakistan where, he claims, successive US presidents have failed because they backed military dictators who could not mobilize popular support for a genuine fight against extremism.

With the Obama administration apparently adopting Riedel’s analysis, we should soon know whether these recommendations would produce the desired effects.

As always, however, a note of caution may be in order.

For example, some of the Islamist “moderates” who are supposed to help the US against Al Qaeda are as anti-American as Osama bin Laden. Their differences with the leader of the Al Qaeda are tactical rather than strategic. Would it make sense to sacrifice the few democratic forces that exist in the Muslim world to an alliance with “moderate” fundamentalists, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian sheikh operating from Qatar?

As for the “two-state” formula on Palestine, it is clear that neither Israel nor the Palestinians have been interested, at least until now. There is no way the US could impose such a solution on unwilling partners. Even then, the creation of a Palestinian state is unlikely to transform Al Qaeda wolves into lambs. Palestine would become just another Arab states and, as such, another target for Al Qaeda. It is naïve to think that Al Qaeda is fighting for a Palestinian state. Al Qaeda, as Riedel himself shows earlier in his book, is seeking world conquest.

Finally, a strong case could be argued against further American involvement in Afghanistan where US and allied forces have been fighting a variety of radical groups few of which have ever had a specifically anti-American agenda. In Afghanistan, the US has crushed forces that were fighting Russia, China, India, Uzbekistan, The Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Algeria, Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Al those countries benefited from the American sacrifice of blood and treasure but did nothing to help the US in Afghanistan.

Riedel’s book would have benefited from more careful editing and fact checking. Many of the Arabic terms used, are wrongly transliterated or translated. The writer gets the names of the presidents of Afghanistan and Iraq wrong. The book repeats legends fabricated by bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, about their non-existent participation in Afghanistan’s war of liberation against the Soviet Union.

Written before the Pakistani general election of last year, the book claims that Bush has arranged the whole exercise to perpetuate the status quo. The election, however, produced a resounding victory for President Pervez Musharraf’s political enemies and led to his forced resignation.

Since the book was written before the recent successes in Iraq, Riedel’s view of that newly liberated nation remains somber throughout. Riedel says that Abu-Masub al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Al Qaeda in Iraq at the time, has been “spectacularly successful.” However, Zarqawi died soon after Riedel’s manuscript went to the press and, today, most observers agree that Al Qaeda has been spectacularly defeated in Iraq.

Equally problematic is Riedel’s claim that Al Qaeda’s leadership remains virtually intact. However, a review of the Al Qaeda leadership as established by experts and intelligence services in 2003, reveals a different picture. Of the 25 men on the leadership list, only three are beloved to be still alive and operational. All others are either dead or under lock and key in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Riedel asserts that bin Laden wanted the US to invade Afghanistan, and become bogged down there, bleeding for years. This is a strange assertion. To start with, it is not at all certain that the US would have invaded had Bush not been the president. After all, Al Qaeda had already attacked the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, killing seven people. President Bill Clinton had responded by firing a few missiles at an empty animal shed in Afghanistan. Had Al Gore been president in 2001 he might have sent Bill Richardson on yet another of those rather pathetic diplomatic missions to Kabul that Riedel recalls from the old Clinton days.

Riedel makes a number of brief but tantalizing assertions that leaves the reader thirsting for more. For example, we are told that since 9/11 hundreds of similar conspiracies have been found and nipped in the bud. However, no detail is offered. We are also told that there are more than 5000 Algerian terrorists in France. This is a huge number and most readers would have been interested in more information regarding its source. Riedel says that an Al Qaeda attack on Tel Aviv, using weapons of mass destruction, could claim 125,000 lives. Again, one would lie to know what kind of WMD and, more importantly, how that figure was determined.

Some of Riedel’s assertions are equally intriguing. For example, he excludes even a tactical alliance between Hamas, the Palestinian radical group, with Al Qaeda. However, he does not say why. In fact, since both Hamas and Al Qaeda sprung from the Muslim Brotherhood, there is every chance that they might, at some point, pool their resources together against a common enemy.

The chief merit of Riedel’s essay is that it promotes, and sometimes provokes, fresh thinking and polemics. Even in that sense alone, it is a valuable contribution to the public debate.

Khomeini’s Ghost

Khomeini's Ghost
Khomeini’s Ghost

As the Obama administration prepares to engage Iran diplomatically, one question is paramount: Who are the men with whom the White House hopes to reach accommodation with?

Con Coughlin’s new book “Khomeini’s Ghost: The Iranian Revolution and the Rise of Militant Islam” is designed to answer that question. He identifies the “Supreme Guide” as the final decision-maker in the Islamic Republic and thus the interlocutor for Obama. “The powers entrusted to the Supreme Guide.. compare favorably to those claimed by Europe’s fascist dictators… with the added benefit of claiming divine inspiration.” Next to the “Supreme Guide”, Coughlin suggests the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (Corps), the parallel army created by the mullahs, as the key element in shaping Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.

One of Britain’s best-known Middle East correspondents, Coughlin draws on years of direct contact with Khomeinist movements. He shows how Khomeinism, a radical doctrine based on Shiite Islam, has influenced and, in some cases, rejuvenated militant movements within Sunni Islam as well. Coughlin rejects the claim of many self-styled Iran experts who insist that militant Shiism cannot enter into even tactical alliances with Sunni radicals. According to Coughlin, by the time 9/11 happened “the links between Al Qaeda and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards went back nearly a decade, and there was evidence that Iran might have had some involvement in the September 11 attacks.” Moreover, Imad Mughniyeh, the chief terror mastermind of the Lebanese Hezbollah ” accompanied the 9/11 hijackers on their flights between Iran, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and had meetings with Saudi Hezbollah which had links with the hijackers the majority of whom were Saudis.”

Coughlin then goes further by asserting that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force created by Khomeini to protect his regime, was responsible for training Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda fighters in special camps set up in Sudan. These camps were run by the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards set up for the purpose of “exporting revolution.”

Coughlin writes: ” Apart from continuing to build Hezbollah’ operational infrastructure in south Lebanon, one of the Quds Force’s most notable early successes was to establish an alliance with the Sudanese regime of Hassan al-Turabi. A Sunni Muslim Turabi was keen to develop links to any radical Islamic government even a Shia regime like Iran. Soon afterwards, Osama bin Laden moved to Sudan and contacted the Iranians through Turabi. “Iran and Al Qaeda were prepared to pool their resources cooperating in terrorist operations,” Coughlin claims.

The 9/11 Commission’s Report had already suggested contacts between Tehran and al Qaeda without offering any specifics. Coughlin broadens those suggestions by providing a detailed narrative of the deadly alliance against the United States.

Coughlin’s account depicts Khomeinism as a movement that has been at war against the United States from day one of the mullahs’ rule 30 years ago. He dismisses claims that diplomacy could persuade the Khomeinist regime to change its behavior on any of the key issues that has led it into conflict with all its neighbors not to mention the Western powers. Coughlin writes: “From Khomeini through to Ahmadinejad, Iran has maintained its uncompromising devotion to its unique expression of revolutionary Islam, no matter how much hostility from the outside world. And so long as the heirs to Khomeini’s revolution maintained their iron grip on power, the Islamic republic of Iran would continue to uphold the banner of radical Islam and proclaim its defiance of the rest of the world.”

The only way to appease the Khomeinist regime is to surrender to it. Even then, it is almost certain that the more radical elements in Tehran, people like President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who dream of world conquest in the name of Islam, would demand more.

While the historical background of the Khomeinist regime takes up more than two-thirds of the book it is the part dealing with current issues that deserve special attention. (In fact, he gets many details of Khomeini’s biography wrong. For example, Khomeini was not “a poor student from a remote area of southern Iran” but hailed from a reasonably well to do family in Khomein, a small town in north-central Iran some 120 miles from Tehran.)

Coughlin refutes some popular misconceptions about the regime. For example, apologists for the Islamic Republic claim that it never had a strategy to develop nuclear weapons or that, even if it did, the whole program started after Khomeini’s death. Coughlin, however, shows that Khomeini personally ordered the launch of the nuclear program after some of his commanders, backed by Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman-cum-mullah who acted as the ayatollah’s advisor at the time, argued that they needed the bomb to win the war against Iraq as the first phase of a grand plan to conquer the Middle East.

“In 1983, a special unit devoted to nuclear research and technology was set up by the Guards and located in a suburb of north Tehran… Mohsen Rezai, who had assumed overall command of the Revolutionary Guards in 1981, revealed that the regime had allocated a budget of $800 million for the bomb program. “Around the same time, Rezai told an Iranian nuclear scientist who later defected to the west that Iran needed to “arm itself with anything needed for victory, and we need to have all technical requirements in our possession to even build a nuclear bomb, if and when needed.”

Tehran is determined to develop a nuclear arsenal and would not hesitate to use it when and if it deemed necessary for advancing its strategy of global domination, Coughlin avers. The message to President Obama is clear: the mullahs would never abandon their nuclear ambitions in exchange for any “carrots” that Dennis Ross, the president’s newly appointed advisor on Iran, might imagine.

Coughlin also portrays the ayatollah as the godfather of Islamist terror and directly responsible for scores of kidnappings, assassinations, suicide attacks and a range of “low intensity operations” against the U.S. and its allies.

The author links the Khomeinist regime to virtually all terrorist operations in which Muslims have been involved in the past 30 years. Broadly speaking, this might well be true if only because the Khomeinist revolution and its tactics, especially suicide attacks, have inspired radical Islamists of all persuasions. In some cases, however, Iran’s involvement is less than certain. The Lockerbie tragedy of Pan Am flight 103 is one example. Coughlin asserts categorically that the operation was “commissioned” by the mullahs in Tehran. However, years of British and American investigations, followed by a trial that also took years to complete, identified Libya as the guilty party…

The new U.S. administration would, however, benefit from Coughlin’s account of Khomeinist involvement in the insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Coughlin writes: “Tehran took the view that its own strategy of fueling the insurgency {in Iraq} by all means at its disposal was working. The longer the United States and its allies were bogged down in Iraq, the less likely they were to act over Iran’s nuclear program.” He adds: ” By the spring of 2007 senior NATO commanders found compelling evidence that the Revolutionary Guards had set aside their traditional antipathy towards the Taliban and were supplying them with roadside bombs and rockets to attack NATO positions, particularly British forces deployed in southern Afghanistan.”

As Coughlin shows, the real question is not whether or not to go to war against Iran but how to end the war that Iran has been waging against the US for three decades.

Iran’s Longest Night in History

Iran's Longest Night in History
Iran’s Longest Night in History

For thirty years, the regime in Iran has been a puzzle to most Iranians and a mystery wrapped in an enigma to the outside world. It has rejected almost every single tenet of Iranian culture, denied the best part of the Iranian history, and tried to remould an ancient nation into a new force for global conquest in the name of ideology. It is no surprise that many Iranians regard the Khomeinist system as alien to their culture and history.

However, in this seminal study of over 400 pages, Amir Taheri shows that Khomeinism is an almost natural product of the Iranian reality as it has taken shape over the past 14 centuries.

Taheri argues that Iran and Iranians have suffered from a split personality for centuries. They could not abandon their pre-Islamic past but were equally unable to become totally Islamic. Thus, two Irans developed, living side-by-side, but never fully reconciled. One can find the two Irans in every aspect of Iranian life, in fact within every single Iranian. Over the centuries, attempts have been made at blending the two together or eliminating one in favour of the other. All those attempts have failed. This is why Taheri believes that the current attempt by the Khomeinists to kill the Iranian Iran will also fail.

Taheri’s analysis is of special interest to policy-makers. He argues that a regime that is not at peace with its own people cannot promote peace with other nations. As a nation-state, Iran has no quarrels with others. As the embodiment of the Khomeinist revolution, however, Iran cannot but be at war against its neighbours and other countries further afield.

Taheri argues that the Khomeinist revolution needs tensions and crises in order to survive. Like other revolutions in history it generates war.

“The Persian Night” offers the most detailed explanation of Khomeinism as a proto-fascist ideology vaguely based on Islamic traditions. Taheri identifies the areas in which Khomeinism borrowed from Western totalitarian ideologies in their crudest form.

Part of the book is devoted to the study of structures of power in the Islamic Republic. We learn about the facade as well as what the author calls “the deep state”, the parallel organs of rule that constitute the real government of Iran today. Understanding this duality is important in assessing the way the Islamic Republic behaves on major issues of foreign policy.

At the other end of the spectrum, Taheri studies the forces that he thinks are capable of closing the chapter of Khomeinism and leading Iran away from revolution and back on the path of nationhood. The author is persuaded that change in Iran is both possible and inevitable, although he refuses to spell out a timeframe for its accomplishment.

Addressed to an international audience, “The Persian Night” devotes much space to a study of relations between Iran and the United States. Taheri is critical of the policies of successive US administrations, including the latest headed by President Barack Hussein Obama.

For all its seriousness as a political study, “The Persian Night” is an enjoyable book written in a witty and easily accessible style. It contains a wealth of anecdotes about a wide range of issues, from the different types of beards to the various categories of mullahs. There are passages that no reader would get through without a smile, to say the least.

“The Persian Night” could also be treated as a primer on Persian literature and mythology. It introduces many of the key themes of Persian culture in relation to political issues.

This year, marking the 30th anniversary of the Khomeinist seizure of power in Tehran, has inspired dozens of books on Iran and its recent experience. Taheri’s book is by far one of the best both in scope and in style. A must read for all those interested in Iran, the Middle East, Islam and international politics.

THE PERSIAN NIGHT

Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution

By Amir Taheri

413 pages, $25

Published by: Encounter Books, New York and London

2009

Behind the Dam

Since the fall of the Baathist regime in Baghdad in 2003, hundreds of books have appeared on Iraq and the tragedies it has suffered over the past six decades. One frequent assumption in those books is that Iraq under monarchy was something of a terrestrial paradise and that its destruction in the 1958 military coup d’etat triggered the nation’s descent into an infernal spiral of violence and counter violence.

Abdullah Sakhy’s short novel, just 160 pages, offers a different perspective. By telling the story of a number of poor Iraqis who leave their native villages in the marshlands of the south in search of a “new life” in Baghdad, Sakhy starts with what could be described as the prologue to the Iraqi tragedy.

The 1954 floods in central and southern Iraq destroyed many villages and uprooted tens of thousands of families, marking a major shift of population from rural to urban areas.

When these ruined peasants arrive in Baghdad, the tract of land they begin to occupy has no name. It is, in fact, a no-man’s land, a kind of wasteland, on the edge of the capital that gradually eats its way towards the heart of the city. In time, it is baptized Madinat al-Thawra (The City of the Revolution) which turns out to be a grandiose insult as nothing is done to transform this hellhole into anything resembling a habitat fit for humans. Later, it is re-baptized Madinat al-Saddam, after Saddam Hussein, the Baathist despot whose megalomania who put his name on almost everything. Again, however, nothing is done to give the sprawling slum a minimum of urban structure. The name change continues in 2003, when the slum, now home to perhaps two million people, is renamed Madinat al-Sadr after a Shiite cleric murdered by Saddam Hussein.

The slum, taking shape between two dams built to protect Baghdad against annual floods, grows around two thoroughfares forming a giant cross, and is divided into segments named after Arab tribes or associations mourning Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Imam of Shiism. The events of Karbala that led to Hussein’s death in battle provide the backdrop of a tragedy masquerading as life in the slum.

Sakhy, a short-story writer before he embarked upon his first novel, writes in what could be described as a sure-bullet style with short, almost telegraphic sentences, bared to the bone for greater effect. The effect is almost electric, as Sakhy avoids the tendency of many Arab writers towards grandiloquence.

His style resembles that of Ernest Hemingway with the difference that unlike Hemingway who wrote about rich idle Americans getting bored in Paris, Sakhy portrays poor and oppressed Iraqis trying to extract some life out of death in Baghdad.

At one point, one of the slum-dwellers effaces the thin frontier between life and death with a short sentence: Here is my home; here is my tomb!

Sakhy depicts a landscape of desolation with dust, heat, mosquitoes, buffaloes, dead-water pools, donkeys, malaria, floods and, of course, hunger providing the themes of a symphony of poverty and terror. Palm trees, eucalyptuses and tamarinds provide some shade and the green promise of a solace that is always denied.

Reading the book, this reviewer at times felt physical pain as if Sakhy were transmitting the sufferings of those Iraqis to his readers thousands of miles away.

Sakhy’s writing is effective precisely because it is not sentimental. It is its clinical coldness that best conveys the horror he intends to communicate to us. Sakhy is also a natural storyteller in the ancient tradition of the One Thousand and One Nights, with one tale nesting within another and giving birth to a third. Starting to read “Behind the Dam” is like embarking on a carousel: you cannot stop until the wheel stops. And, when it does stop, you wish to re-embark.

Please, please, will someone translate this gem of a book into English or French or any other Western language to show the world that modern Arab literature is very much alive, and at least as far as Sakhy is concerned, kicking too!

Comedy of Divine Love

Comedy of Divine Love
Comedy of Divine Love

According to an old proverb, there are three cities in the life of every man or woman: the city of birth, the city of residence, and the city of which one dreams. This trinity of real and imagined existence means that we are all exiles, driven from one city to another while dreaming of a third. Initially, of course, man had only a single abode: the celestial paradise where life had reached perfection. Then, came man’s loss of innocence and transgression, triggering the fall that made the earth a home in exile in a transient life.

Using the theme of fall and exile in filigree, Louay Abdulilah, an Iraqi writer so far known for his fast-paced and spruce short stories, narrates the story of several Iraqis who came of age in the 1950s, when that unhappy nation was sucked into a spiral of events one more tragic than the other.

For these characters, starting with the colorful Abdul, a rogue and a saint rolled into one, London is the city of residence while the dream city is Baghdad. This is a reversal of the story of the Fall in which man falls from the perfect to the imperfectible. Here, Abdul is in London, the image of paradise for millions in search of a good life throughout the world, but longs for Baghdad that resembled hell on earth under successive despots.

Right from the start, Abdul had somehow decided to surf above, and beyond, good and evil. His penchant for pilfering as a child persuades his father to change his name from Abdul-Wahhab (The Slave of the Bestower) to Abdul-Nahhab (The Slave of the Looter). In the end, however, his mother manages to negotiate a compromise with his outraged father: they would just call the boy Abdul. It is with this truncated identity that he flees to London, a paradise in material terms but a hell for someone constantly home- sick for Baghdad.

Abdul’s story is then woven into the stories of other characters.

In fact, we have four books here.

One is presented as an echo of Ibn Al-Arabi’s famous “Meccan Conquests” ( Al Fotuhatal-Makkiyyah) in which he speaks of the Possibilities of Being (Mumkenat al-Wojud), a symbolic tale in which the Andalusian philosopher offers a juxtaposition of Divine Names. Then we have the stories of Abdul, Shahrzad, Beida, Haya, Abdul-Raouf and Saleh, all exiles, each in his or her own particular way. The third book consists of a mysterious novel that Saleh is writing, but never managing to finish. Finally, we have the overall narrative that weaves all those strands together in a complex tapestry of love, betrayal, sex and death of a rich cast of characters.

These are characters whose lives are dramatically altered, or simply cut short, because they are too early or too late, in making the one move that could save them.

It seems that Abdulilah believes this to be the fate of all Iraqis, starting with a young King Faisal whose brutal murder continues to haunt Iraq to this day. The young king had had his suitcases packed, ready to fly to London for a longed-for reunion with his betrothed Fadila. However, he was delayed in Baghdad for a few days to sign a bill passed by the parliament. It was July 1958, and those few days meant that Faisal was never able to leave Baghdad.

Then we have Saleh who arrives a bit late, moments after the secret service goons have raided his home and kidnapped his new bride. He manages to flee with his life. However, the life he manages to flee with is nothing but the corpse of a lemon squeezed out of the last drop of its juice.

For the characters in this novel, Iraq, or at least the abstract idea of an idealized and stylized Iraq, is what keeps them alive while the reality of Iraq kills them, in both physical and spiritual terms.

They have all come out of Iraq. However, nothing can take Iraq out of them. Being Iraqi is both a blessing and a curse; it gives their life a meaning the intense beauty of which people from other countries with less tragic stories, could never appreciate. At the same time, however, being born Iraqi, at least for that generation, amounted to being born with a death sentence that even when not immediately executed would hang over one’s life like a thick cloud of foreboding.

All of Abdulilah’s characters are damaged goods, as many Iraqis were under the string of dictators who ruled over and ravaged that country. Many have passed through the horrific prisons of the Baathist regime, and some have been tortured and raped.

Being Iraqi means feeling and doing everything with more intensity than the run-of-the-mill humanity. You hate more intensely, love more madly, cheat more unscrupulously, have sex more violently, sacrifice yourself more totally, and betray more shamelessly. Not for them the kind of peace and stability that produces something like Switzerland: chocolates and the cuckoo clock.

Woven into the overall pattern of the story, thanks to the technique of stream of consciousness, are snippets from the history of the Middle East, specifically Iraq. There is the nephew of Saladin, the Kurdish warrior who has become an almost mythical hero for Arabs, laying siege to Damascus while Jerusalem, liberated a generation earlier, is about to be handed back to the Crusaders. Then there is Gertrude Bell, a British adventuress-cum-Orientalist, who has been dubbed “The Mother of Iraq” as a modern state. We see two faces of Baghdad, the traditional one steeped in a torpor that recalls the effects of narcotics, and the modern one plagued by political sado-masochism. One particular moment of madness comes when the Ba’athist security chief, Nazim Kizar, a sadistic lunatic, kidnaps several dignitaries of the regime, including the ministers of defense and foreign affairs, and tries to flee to Iran, then engaged in a low-intensity war against the regime in Baghdad.

The fact that London provides the narrative backdrop for all this, sharpens the contrast between the violent and unpredictable life of Baghdad and the bland and quotidian existence offered by the English megapolis.

Two features of Abdulilah’s new novel are especially interesting.

The first is the writer’s success in creating believable female characters, something that Arab novelists seldom achieve. Shahrzad, Haya and Beida are fully developed personages rather than mere types deployed to represent certain emotional strands. Haya is especially convincing, if only because of her exemplary self-reliance and shock absorption capacity.

The second interesting feature is the polyphonic approach, in the sense of developing several stories that touch one another at certain points but ultimately pursue different trajectories. In this , Abdulilah puts blue water between himself and most Arab novelists of his generation who opt for linear modal narratives. Abdulilah’s model is Shahrzad, the narrator of the One Thousand and One Nights, and her technique of a story within a story, resembling the Russian Matryushka dolls.

Ibn al-Arabi wondered if animals had a life in the hereafter. Beida has no doubt that they do. This is why she wants a dog for her dying son in the next world.

E.M. Forester once noted that starting a novel is easy while ending it is difficult. “The Comedy of Divine Love” endorses that view. We see Abdulilah wondering how to wrap things out, and, caught in a vortex of impossible dreams and intoxicated by irrational hope, fail to offer either the Hollywood happy-end or the devastating denouement of Greek tragedies.

Is this because he does not know? Or is it because he does not dare? The former may be closer to the truth. After all, we are dealing wit Iraq. And, with Iraq, one never knows.

The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad

The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad
The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad

Over the past decade or so, as the conflicts in the Middle East and the growing challenge of radical Islam have moved up the agenda of American foreign policy concerns, a new breed of analysts, born and raised in the region, has appeared o the scene. Walid Phares is one of the leading figures among new breed of American geo-politicians with a Middle Eastern background. He is also among the most outspoken in his defense of “American values” and his opposition to forces that try to challenge the United States’ global leadership position in the name of religion and/or ideology.

In an emotionally charged introduction, Phares tells us that he regards himself as a victim of Jihadism. In 1990, he was forced to “pack and leave for freer land” to escape a Middle East in which brute military force and despotism appeared to set the tune.

Once installed in the United States, however, Phares quickly realized that America, and the West in general, were “missing the picture.” He says he noticed “Western understanding of the nature of the Salafist and Khomerinist ideologies and agendas was almost nonexistent. Even worse the Jihadists were also winning a second war of ideas.”

Phares cites no reason for this Western failure to appreciate the threat it faced. However, one reason may have been the West’s habit of measuring everything in terms of economic and military power. By the early 1990s, with the Soviet Empire no longer in existence, the West appeared to face no further challenges in balance of power terms.

Phares says he thought it his moral duty to warn the West of the dangers ahead. Thus, he became “a voice in the wilderness, heard by audiences but not listened to by decision-makers.” Then came 9/11 and the attacks on New York and Washington. The spectacular attacks, forced the Americans and the West in general to pay attention. Suddenly, people wanted to hear and listen to Phares was soon emerging as something of a media star.

The bulk of Phares’s new book consists of a historical background to the rise of radical Jihadism in the Middle East and behind. In that sense “The Confrontation” is probably the most complete handbook one could find in English on the subject.

Policymakers, however, would be more interested in the chapters dealing with what Phares presents as a strategy for “winning the war against future jihad.”

To start with, Phares asserts that what we are facing is , indeed, a war between two diametrically opposed visions of the world and man’s place in it. Terrorism of the kind conducted by Al Qaeda and its imitators, and the Khomeinists, is a war that has o be fought both on the battleground and in the field of ideas and values. In other words, this type of terror is not just a form of crime that ought to be handled by the police.

Phares also rejects the notion that this new form of terrorism is caused by poverty and/or economic underdevelopment. Thus, it would be foolish, not to say suicidal, to think that economic aid, better terms of trade and other routine methods of dealing with underdevelopment would remove the threat. Phares is not against economic aid and all that. What he says is that Jihadism cannot be tamed by money alone.

Equally important is Phares’s rejection of the fashionable view that all of the Middle East’s problems stem from the Palestine-Israel issue. He shows hat the Palestinian issue, which ahs its own merits, is one of the many causes of the current crisis, and not necessarily the most important either.

Phares says that “revolutionary change” are needed if the ” Free World’ is to win this war. Since the menace is global, it would be wrong to assume that Jihadism targets only the Western democracies. Almost all Muslim countries are also threatened. This is why a range of alliances is needed to face up to and ultimately defeat “the common enemy.”

Phares is critical of aspects of the way the war in Iraq has been conducted by the Bush administration, but continues to believe that removing Saddam Hussein from power was just and necessary. He also insists that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should remain in Afghanistan until that country is fully stabilized and the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda totally defeated.

According to Phares, the consolidation of democracy in Lebanon should be a major goal of the Western powers. In that context, he also supports regime change in Syria, though not by direct US military intervention. He blames Syria for a good part of the violence in Iraq since the liberation, and claims that the Syrian leadership hopes to “meet up with an Iranian advance and open a path between the two regimes via an Iraqi radical partner.”

Possibly the most important threat looming on the horizon may be the Khomeinist regime’s plans to create an empire in the Middle East. According to Phares, the Islamic Republic in Tehran is trying to “export its influence to eastern Arabia, central Iraq, and Central Asia, as well as consolidating power in Lebanon.” Ultimately, the aim is to extend Khomeinism to the Mediterranean, turning Iran into a player in that sea for the first time since the 7th century.

Although, the Jihadists have failed to organize another attack against the US homeland in the past seven years, Phares believes that the main battles in this war will be waged on American soil. The Khomeinists and Al Qaeda and its imitators regard the US as “the main threat to their agenda.” Phares writes: “In their view, it is on US soil that world confrontation can be affected.” This is something that Americans might wish to ponder in their current electoral season.

The Persian Night

The Persian Night
The Persian Night

London, Asharq Al-Awsat- An anatomy of one of the most secretive regimes in the contemporary world, this essay traces the historic, religious, cultural, and ideological roots of the Khomeinist revolution.

It dissects a regime that has mobilized the resources of a major Muslim country and hijacked a nation of 70 million people for global “holy war” against the United States and its allies.

From Ayatollah Khomeini’s “historic mission” to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s messianic campaign in the name of the “Hidden Imam”, the author depicts a trajectory that is certain to lead to war.

Who really rules in the Islamic Republic? How are decisions made in Tehran? What are the actual links between the Islamic Republic and terrorist networks, including Al Qaeda and Hezbollah? What is the reality of the Iranian nuclear programme? What are the Islamic Republic’s war making capabilities and strategies? What are the origins of the three Khomeinist phobias of women, Jews and the United States?

These are some of the key questions the book answers in some detail.

It shows how successive US administrations, and most European governments, refused to understand the reality of the Khomeinist regime and, at times, even helped it in its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear arsenal.

More importantly, perhaps, the book deals with the vital question of how to deal with Iran, and provides a set of imaginative answers.

Taheri was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan, Iran’s largest newspaper, for more than six years before the mullahs seized power. He has been a syndicated columnist since 1980, and writing a column for Asharq Al Awsat since 1987.

Scheduled for publication on 10 November, the book is already on pre-sale through more than two dozen outlets on the Internet.