Arena:The 50 Year Argument The New York Review of Books

July 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Martin Scorsese’s documentary film charting literary, political and cultural history as per the New York Review of Books, America’s leading journal of ideas since 1963.

Syria Speaks on Front Row

June 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

I spent the last eight days on tour with Syria’s greatest novelist Khaled Khalifa, artist Khalil Younis, and writers Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen. We were promoting the Syria Speaks book, a collection of art, cartoons, essays, short stories and novel extracts from revolutionary Syria. It felt useful to approach the subject through human stories rather than banging the head against the tired old political discourses. I’m writing about the tour and book for a piece which should be published next month. In the meantime, here on BBC Radio 4′s Front Row, Khaled, Malu and I discuss the new culture, Khaled’s experience under bombs, and the ISIS phenomenon.

First There Was the Word

May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

I and lots of other writers participated in this BBC radio 4 programme on ‘British Muslim writing’. The programme is written and presented by Yasmin Hai. Those interested in this may also be interested in Clare Chambers’s book “British Muslim Fictions“.

James Scott: The Art of Not Being Governed

March 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

The author of several books including Seeing Like a State, Professor Scott’s research concerns political economy, comparative agrarian societies, theories of hegemony and resistance, peasant politics, revolution, Southeast Asia, theories of class relations and anarchism. We talk with Professor Scott about his newest book, The Art of Not Being Governed. It is the first-ever examination of the volumes of literature on state-making that evaluates why people would deliberately remain stateless.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am reading Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. It is not only the best book in the space exploration genre, it is one of the best book’s I’ve read generally. On the nature of dreams, determination, wonder, and commitment, there are some wonderful insights. Despite his extraordinary achievements in space, Hadfield remains down to earth. He has wit, a wonderful sense of humor, and a real knack for telling stories. He also delivers his insights on life without sounding didactic. I’m only a quarter of a way in and so far it’s been a pleasure. Check it out: you’ll enjoy it.

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Dubious Wisdom

December 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

monsterI wrote this review of Bente Scheller’s book for al-Jazeera.

Syrian poet Rasha Omran once told me that Bashaar al-Assad is “not a dictator, just a gangster boss.” But really he’s not even that. What he is, is what his father looked like in all those statues – one element in the managerial class, a (dysfunctional) functionary. Syria is a dictatorship which lacks an efficient dictator.

Hafez al-Assad – the father – was an entirely different matter. Born in a dirt-floor shack, he clawed his way to the top by brute cunning, deft flexibility, and strategic intelligence. The careful manipulation of sectarian tensions in order to divide and rule was one of his key strategies, yet he was also attentive to building alliances with rural Sunnis and the urban bourgeoisie – both constituencies now alienated by his son. Bashaar’s great innovation was supposedly economic reform. In practice this meant an unpleasant marriage of neoliberalism with crony capitalism. It succeeded in making his cousin Rami Makhlouf the richest man in the country. The poor, meanwhile, became much poorer, the social infrastructure crumbled, and unemployment continued to climb.

The thesis of former German diplomat Bente Scheller’s book “The Wisdom of the Waiting Game” is that the Syrian regime’s approach to its current existential crisis follows a “narrow path consistent with previous experience,” and she focuses on foreign policy to make this point. When the regime found itself isolated on Iraq after the 2003 invasion, for instance, or then on Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the Syrian army’s precipitous withdrawal, it waited, refusing to change its policy, until conditions changed, its opponents were humbled, and it was brought in from the cold. In his book “The Fall of the House of Assad”, David Lesch points out that Bashaar al-Assad felt personally vindicated by these perceived policy victories, and grew in arrogance as a result. Today, with the West handing the Syrian file over to Russia, and seemingly coming round to Bashaar’s argument that Islamism poses a greater threat than his genocidal dictatorship, it looks (for now at least) as if the refusal to budge is again paying off.

The most interesting parts of Scheller’s book are not actually dedicated to foreign policy, but describe – accurately and with balance – the causes of the revolution and the nature of the regime’s response. The most direct link she’s able to posit between domestic and foreign policy is that, in both, the regime’s only abiding interest has been self-preservation. In Scheller’s words, “regime survival … defines what is perceived as a security threat.” This chimes well with the shabeeha graffiti gracing Syrian walls – “Either Assad or we burn the country.” In regime priorities, Assad always stood far above the people, the economy, the infrastructure, and even the integrity of the national territory.

For both father and son, ‘Arabism’ was never anything other than a propaganda ploy. Notwithstanding its nationalist rhetoric, the regime stymied a Palestinian-leftist victory in Lebanon in 1976, before proceeding to slaughter Palestinians in the Lebanese camps. It supported Iran against Arab Iraq, and joined the US-led coalition to drive Saddam Hussain from Kuwait. All of these decisions were taken in the face of Syrian and Arab public opinion and ran counter to the regime’s own declared aims. In each case, regime-strengthening came first.

To drive home her point, Scheller provides a series of illuminating summaries of relations between Syria and its neighbours since 1990. These have been characterised by Machiavellianism and self-serving relations with non-state actors (such as on-off support for the PKK’s war against Turkey, supposedly to win Kurdish rights, while Syrian Kurds remained oppressed and in many cases stateless).

But despite Scheller’s argument of regime continuity from father to son, something which comes through very strongly is Bashaar al-Assad’s inability (unlike Hafez) to respond flexibly to emergent conditions. The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, shortly before Hafez’s death, undermined the legitimacy of Syria’s military presence there and called for a new policy. Bashaar was unable to deviate from his father’s old roadmap, however, despite its obvious irrelevance. As a result, Syria’s influence had shrunk dramatically in Lebanon and the region by 2005. Hizbullah, once a subservient client, grew to fill the vacuum (and now, according to reports from Qusair, Hizbullah even commands Syrian forces inside Syria).

Syrian control of Lebanon provided a safety valve for the regime. Cross-border smuggling boosted the sclerotic economy; Syrian workers found jobs in Lebanon, easing the unemployment crisis; the regime was able to wave the banner of resistance by association with Hizbullah’s struggle against Israeli occupation, while imprisoning teenage girls who dared to blog about Palestine, and without firing a shot across the occupied Golan; even Beirut’s nightclubs offered a release for the frustrated Damascus bourgeoisie.

The Lebanese case seems to prove Scheller’s contention that Syria’s foreign policy is indistinguishable from its domestic policy, that in effect there is no foreign policy, perhaps not even domestic policy, but simply, again, policies aimed at guarding the  throne.

But Scheller fails to highlight the profound discontinuity between Assad père and fils. In retrospect, the stupidest move of Hafez’s career was to hand power to his son, not the first son Basil who had been groomed for the post but then most unfortunately killed himself in a car crash, but the second son, Bashaar, who showed no interest in or aptitude for politics before his brother’s death, and who now, as Scheller herself points out, has “neither the power, nor the strategic mind, to exercise all of the options his father had at his disposal.”

Scheller’s  proclaimed focus on regime rather than personality is therefore very wise. Bashaar is too insubstantial to bear the weight of responsibility for the slaughter in Syria. His name represents the collective decision making of an elite whose relations are governed by mutual fear and distrust. The composition of this elite is obscure; analysts debate the relative influence of Bashaar’s mother, or his brother Maher, or the various heads of the security agencies. What is clear is that no individual is absolutely in charge, and that there is thus no possibility of imaginative thinking breaking a failed mould. As it did in Lebanon, the regime can only follow the dead father’s script. Hafez was able to contain a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982, and by killing somewhere between ten and forty thousand people, to quickly crush it. 2011 was a very different historical moment. Protesters came from every political and religious background, were spread throughout the country, and had access to cameras and the internet. Yet Bashaar still applied the techniques of the eighties, and squandered the considerable reserves of goodwill felt for him personally (if not for the wider system) by the populace. His blundering violence provoked an armed revolution from a peaceful reform movement.

For Hafez al-Assad, the stubborn refusal to compromise was an occasional choice; for Bashaar’s inflexible circle, inertia became fate, a matter of inevitability. Because he was answerable to nobody, Hafez was capable of dramatic shifts. Scheller’s study starts in 1990 because this marks the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time when Assad Senior rapidly and effectively recalibrated his regional and international relationships.

For now, Bashaar may be winning, but not due to his own strength or popularity, and least of all to his wisdom. For his good fortune he should thank the hard work or failures of other actors: the solid support of Russia and Iran (the latter organising his military fight-back); the West’s silent complicity; the incompetence of opposition political elites; and the growth of Salafism and the consequent fears in minority communities. If and when he does finally conquer the revolution (still an unlikely prospect), it will be a pyrrhic victory for two reasons. First, the  monopoly of power and violence established by his father has been irretrievably lost. From now on the regime will be in hoc to the foreign powers and domestic sub-state militias which have rescued it. Second, with the economy, infrastructure and social cohesion of the country entirely destroyed, there will be nothing left to loot.

“The Wisdom of the Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads” by Bente Scheller. Hurst & Co. London. 2013

Qaddafi’s Harem

November 10, 2013 § 1 Comment

qaddafi-2This review of Annick Cojean’s book was published at NOW.

*

Today is the beginning of the end of the era of harems and slaves and the beginning of women’s liberation within the Arab nation.” Muammar Qaddafi. September 1981.

The Arab world is still crammed full of tyrannies self-labelling with terms such as ‘popular’ and ‘democratic’, sectarian regimes pretending to be secular, reactionary regimes describing themselves as progressive, and ‘resistance’ regimes which resist nothing but their subjects’ life and freedom.

The current post-revolutionary chaos in Libya provokes two orientalist responses: the crude (statist-leftist) version, that the uprising was a foreign conspiracy; and the subtler (because it’s never quite made explicit), that the Libyans made a terrible mistake by rising, because their fractious ‘tribal’ society can only be held together by a strong man of Qaddafi’s calibre. After him, goes the implicit argument, the inevitable deluge.

“Gaddafi’s Harem” by French journalist Annick Cojean provides a fact-based corrective to those fooled by Qaddafi’s illusions, specifically those impressed by the radical feminist image evoked by his once highly visible – and sexily transgressive – corps of ‘Amazon’ body guards. It will change the minds too of those who saw the dictator from a distance as a lovable buffoon.

His regime was capricious, yes, at times even darkly comedic, but it was based on undiluted sadism. The cramping stagnation it imposed for 42 years, and the fact that it refused to budge except by force of arms, are the prime causes of today’s anarchy. The means of domination it employed – psycho-social as much as physical – tell us a great deal about the universal megalomaniac personality, as well as certain cultural weaknesses in the Arab world and beyond.

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Colonizing the Mind: Israel’s Assault on Palestinian Education

August 29, 2013 § 3 Comments

Yesterday, I stumbled across a title in Ma’an that shook me to the core:

Palestinian schools switch to Israeli curriculum in Jerusalem

To anyone who knows the Israeli curriculum, this is one of the most chilling statements anti-colonialists can imagine. The Israeli school curriculum is what allows millions of Israelis to enlist to the army, to cheer on as it slaughters Palestinians en-masse, and to be OK with being “a little bit fascist” .

I want to make a very important stop here, before we continue examining the article and the questions which it raised in my mind, so my readers, who didn’t grow up through Israel’s public school indoctrination, can get a basic idea of how it works. So sit back for 28 minutes and get to know the incredibly important research of Nurit Peled-Elhanan about the colonialist racist discourse in Israeli textbooks:

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A Curse on Dostoevsky

August 25, 2013 § 2 Comments

Andrey Volkok's Dostoevsky

Andrey Volkok’s Dostoevsky

This review was published at the Guardian. As so often, in places it’s been edited so it makes little sense and becomes clumsy. (Not a Guardian-specific problem, but a general problem with subeditors. I’ve never worked out why writers are paid to write, then non-writers are paid to mess up the writer’s writing.) Anyway, the unedited version is below.

As its title suggests, Atiq Rahimi’s “A Curse on Dostoevsky” puts itself in conversation with the great Russian writer, specifically with “Crime and Punishment”. Instead of Saint Petersburg, the action unfolds in Kabul. In place of Raskolnivok, Rassoul (though in his solipsism and misanthropy he may bear more resemblance to Dostoevsky’s underground man); in place of Sonia, Rassoul’s fiancee Sophia, a character who never quite comes into focus; and in place of the detective Porfiry, a series of commanders and militiamen. The murderee is, like Dostoevsky’s, a pawnbroker, also a landlady and a madam. Rassoul doesn’t know why he kills her, but potential motives include saving Sophia from her clutches, theft, and justice.

The text justifies its relationship with Dostoevsky’s novel thus: “This book is best read in Afghanistan, a land previously steeped in mysticism, where people have lost their sense of responsibility.” The murder of the pawnbroker sparks an investigation of crime and punishment (and law and lawlessness, sacrifice and vengeance) in Afghan society. Dostoevsky claimed that if God didn’t exist, everything would be permitted. Yet in Afghanistan God exists not to prevent sins but to justify them. Sophia’s father poisoned the director of the National Archives with counterfeit alcohol, a punishment for selling documents to the Russians. “These days,” he says, “any idiot thinks he can take the law into his own hands, with no investigation and trial. As I did then.” (The setting seems to be the period after the Russians and before the Taliban, when Islamist warlords struggled for power.)

According to the novel’s logic, Rassoul’s motto – “I’d rather be a murderer than a traitor” – could just as well be Afghanistan’s: “You can kill, rape, steal… the important thing is not to betray. Not to betray Allah, your clan, your country, your friend.” Yet the pages brim with real or perceived traitors, those who desert their friends for ideology or material gain.

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The Wall

April 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

wallThis review was published at the Independent.

Joshua lives in a brand new town called Amarias. He shares his brand new house with his mother who, since his father’s death in battle, has been “like a pane of glass riddled with cracks that was still somehow sitting there in the frame,” and also with tree-killing Liev, the “anti-father” whose cloying unpleasantness is a great pleasure to read.

One day, chasing a lost football and propelled by an overbearing curiosity, Joshua discovers a tunnel which leads under a wall to an entirely different world – one containing both danger and kindness, and a beguiling young girl. As storytellers from CS Lewis to Philip Pullman know, there’s something archetypal about holes in walls opening onto entirely unexpected realms; and tunnels to wonderland have been evoking rebirth since ancient cave painters squeezed through crevices to make their sacred art. William Sutcliffe employs all this rites-of-passage symbolism with a very light touch, and crafts his novel with sustained suspense.

The new world is not named (not until page 80 is it called “the Occupied Zone”; and the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ are never mentioned) – in this way the book avoids being self-professedly ‘political’ – yet the place is described with great accuracy and atmospheric precision. An “aftertaste of violence is hanging in the air, like a bad smell.” The houses are close-packed, unpainted, unfinished. The shops spill onto cracked streets which are “both enticingly alive and strangely depressing.” Those who know will recognise “the mournful wail of a solo voice backed by violins” as the Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum, but Joshua doesn’t know. He doesn’t even speak the language, though the inhabitants speak his.

Amarias, on his side of the wall, with its lawns and pools and rows of identical houses, is clean and fresh “as if a magic spell has conjured it up out of thin air.” Once Joshua has tasted forbidden knowledge, the town, and the fact that no-one around Joshua seems to recognise the absurd ephemerality of its situation, become darkly surreal.

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