July 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the third.
At this year’s Karachi Lit Fest, Hanif Qureishi asserted that the purpose of such festivals was “to give writers a social life.” I concur wholeheartedly, but still I admit I was a little scared to go to Beirut and socialise there. This is because several Syrians had advised me to avoid speaking about the revolution while in the city, and to watch my back in areas controlled by Syrian regime allies. “They know who you are,” they muttered darkly.
But I was fine. At no point did I feel under any threat. I presume the warnings tell us more about the fear so successfully planted in Syrian hearts than they do about the capacity of the flailing regime to hunt down obscure writers. True, one Syrian slit another Syrian’s throat outside the Yunes Cafe just a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel one night. Reports varied as to whether the killing was personally or politically motivated. And true, writer Khaled Khalifa’s arm was still in a sling after being broken by regime goons during the funeral of murdered musician Rabee Ghazzy back in May. Khaled, whose most famous novel ‘In Praise of Hatred’ is about to be published in English by Doubleday (I’m writing the introduction), is a warm and gentle man who smiles irrepressibly despite it all. He spoke fearlessly during his event at the Hay Festival. He’ll be back in Syria now. In Beirut I asked him why he didn’t stay outside, in safety. He said he can’t, he becomes scared for his friends and family when he’s outside.
July 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the second.
When a Scottish-based writer, an escapee from the perma-gloom, visits Beirut for a mere four days, he must prioritise his activities very carefully. As previously stated, I aimed first of all to immerse myself in the sea.
A small group of us hailed a cab to take us southwards down the coast to Jiyeh, where a beach had been recommended. Jiyeh wasn’t very far – we could still see Beirut jutting into the sea behind us – but it was still a good third of the way to the South and the troublesome border with Israel-Palestine.
Lebanon is a small, closely-packed country chopped again into still-smaller zones. Our driver (he was called Abdullah) inched us through the snarled traffic of central Beirut and past Tariq Jdaideh, a Sunni area loyal to the Hariri family, whose posters were prominent. Then along the edge of the Shi‘i southern suburb which was hit so brutally by Israel’s assault in 2006. Here Hizbullah controls one side of the road, with its pictures of Nasrallah and the late Ayatullah Fadlullah; the Amal movement rules over the other, shabbier side, where the pictures feature Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament. As the building density eased, banana plantations alternated with churches and seaside resorts. We sped up past Khalde, which had housed an illegal Druze port during the civil war fragmentation, and then Ouzai, which had housed an illegal Amal movement port. Inland, the Shouf mountains rose, the Druze heartland where the Junblatt family predominates. In this country, it seemed, everyone fitted into their specific box.
July 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the first.
On the plane from Heathrow I sat next to an Armenian lady. She was born in Aleppo, Syria’s most cosmopolitan city, has lived in New Jersey for years, and is visiting Lebanon for a week, for her nephew’s wedding. I asked why she wasn’t staying longer; it’s such a long flight from the states after all. “Why not?” she replied. “Relatives and politics: these are two reasons not to stay long in the Middle East.”
Politics, which tends to suck in relatives, especially if you’re Armenian, or Palestinian, or any variety of Lebanese. We talked about her grandmother’s sister, a victim of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Turkey, when somewhere between half and one and a half million people were murdered, either by massacre or by forced marches into the heat of the Syrian desert. Armenians call it ‘the Great Crime’.
June 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
Donna Shalala suffers yet another indignity. The former Clinton administration official, who had been collaborating with the Israeli government to undermine BDS, had her comeuppance when according to YNet, she was ‘was held for two-and-a-half hours at Ben Gurion Airport during which she underwent a humiliating security debriefing because of her Arab last name ‘. Despite her services for the Israel lobby, she was recently invited to deliver the graduation speech at the American University in Beirut. Here is how she was greeted:
March 8, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Nada Bakri discusses the life and work of her late husband Anthony Shadid.
November 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The first issue of Critical Muslim, a quarterly magazine in book form co-edited by Ziauddin Sardar and me, will be in the shops in January. More on that at a later date. Today I’m finishing off a long essay on Syria, Iraq and sectarian hatred for Critical Muslim’s third issue. Amongst the books I review in the essay are Fanar Haddad’s indispensable “Sectarianism in Iraq” and Nir Rosen’s “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World,” which is also indispensable, in a different way. As a taster, here’s the section on “Aftermath.”
For a mix of contextual analysis and gripping reportage, the reader will find no better book than Nir Rosen’s magisterial “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s wars in the Muslim World”.
Most Western correspondents were flown into Iraq unable to speak Arabic, largely ignorant of the context, to pass their time attending coalition press briefings or embedded with the US military. Their reports were heavy with simplistic labels (‘the Sunni triangle’, for instance) and ignored non-sectarian nationalism and class issues. Rosen’s writing on Iraq is the polar opposite of such parachute journalism. He speaks Arabic for a start, and blends in physically as a result of the “melanin advantage” bequeathed by his Iranian father. More to the point, he is courageous and energetic, going where few outsiders would dare, whatever their skin tone. He’s a reporter of the best kind, capable of locating pattern behind the copious detail. So he doesn’t merely report the mosque sermons he attended, or his encounters with militiamen and their victims, but accurately interprets and reads between the lines. His descriptions of time, place and personality are vivid, with not an ounce of orientalism added. His lack of sentimentality combined with his obvious sympathy for the people of the region make him the perfect candidate to voyage into the sectarian heart of darkness.
October 28, 2011 § 1 Comment
The following is an excerpt from my latest article for Al Jazeera in which I discuss how the Israel lobby has taken over Republican front-runner Mitt Romney’s Middle East policy through its man with a shady past:
[Walid Phares] is a one-time member of the notorious Lebanese Forces – the sectarian Christian militia which played a leading role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre (though there is no evidence that he personally played a part). It is an experience he now wisely leaves out of his resume. Nor does he include his association with Etienne Saqr, the head of the Guardians of the Cedars, an outfit the Congressional Research Service described as “[a]n extremist Maronite militia and terrorist organisation”. Saqr played a prominent role in Phares’ World Lebanese Organisation long after he was exiled to Israeli-occupied south Lebanon for his crimes against the Lebanese and Palestinian people.
But it is not this association with the Lebanese Forces and Etienne Saqr that grants Phares his expert’s cache. He is an Arab with bona fide academic credentials who validates proponents of military intervention in the Middle East the same way that Ahmed Chalabi once did. Indeed, both once shared the same publicist, Benador Associates, a neoconservative favourite. Phares can make the aspirations of the Arabs and Iranians sound remarkably consonant with the interests of Tel Aviv. For someone who wrote papers for Israeli think tanks urging continued occupation of Southern Lebanon (“the only place in the world where Christian and Jewish blood is shed together for the defence of two Judeo-Christian nations”) this might not be too big an imaginative leap. But his capacity to divine the real yearnings of the Middle East’s Muslims is perhaps less certain.
August 6, 2011 § 2 Comments
One of my favourite chants from the Syrian uprising is the powerful and cleanly apparent illi yuqtil sha‘abu kha’in, or ‘he who kills his people is a traitor.’ It’s cleanly apparent to me at least – but not to everybody. Some kneejerk ‘leftists’ (a rapidly diminishing number) still hold that the Syrian regime is a nationalist, resistance regime, a necessary bulwark against Zionism, and that therefore it must be protected from its unruly subjects; that in fact it’s the unruly subjects, rather than those who murder them, who are the traitors.
Very sadly, Shia Islamists – Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the sectarian parties in power in Baghdad, and Iran – have repeated the same argument, not because they believe it but for tedious clannish reasons. Syrians aren’t very surprised by the Iraqi or Iranian positions; it’s Hizbullah’s betrayal which sticks in the craw. After all, until Hassan Nasrallah began propagandising on behalf of the regime’s repression, Syrians of all sects supported and admired Hizbullah. During Israel’s 2006 assault they welcomed southern Lebanese refugees into their homes. Indeed, the regime’s alliance with Hizbullah can in large part be credited to the Syrian people; the alliance was one of the regime’s only real sources of popularity. The Asad clique needed Hizbullah’s resistance flag to cover its own nationalist nakedness.
Sectarianism is the old curse of the mashreq, exacerbated in modern times by Sykes-Picot, minority dictatorships, Zionist meddling, and the invasion of Iraq. Lebanon’s political system, indeed the whole idea of Lebanon, is as sectarian as can be. Lebanese Sunnis and Christians are every bit as sectarian as Lebanese Shia, and usually worse. So perhaps Nasrallah can’t help himself. But whatever his excuse he is thoroughly wrong, strategically as well as morally, and his wrongness is public and blatant. Whether or not the Syrian regime falls, Nasrallah’s current position will do more damage to Hizbullah’s ability to fight Zionism, to carry the aspirations of Arabs and Muslims, than any number of Israeli assassinations and bombing runs.
June 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Maya Mikdashi writes at Jadaliyya on her personal experience with sectarianism in Lebanon:
When I say I am a “Sunni” this is what it means: it means that my father is a Sunni and that therefore, I am categorized as a “Sunni” Muslim by the Lebanese state. It means that if I have children with anyone other than a Sunni Lebanese man, those children will not be Lebanese Sunnis. It means that I can never be the Lebanese President, the Speaker of Parliament, or the Head of the Army. I suppose that my being a woman makes this point redundant. Being a Lebanese Sunni means that if I marry, I must (unless I marry a Christian abroad) receive my marriage certificate from the Sunni authorities. It means that I inherit according to the Hanafi code of personal status. It means I cannot (legally) adopt children, and that if I were to have political ambitions, I would be counted in the quota of “Sunni seats” for public office. The fact that I am a Sunni does not mean that I believe that ‘Uthman was the right man for the job, or that I pray without touching my head to a rock five times a day, or that I endorse, or gloat, over what happened in Karbala. It does not mean that I feel some sort of affinity with Sunnis in other parts of the world, or that when the Saudi King or Mufti speaks in my name I do anything other than laugh. It does not mean that I support the Bahraini regime’s brutal oppression of a democratic uprising, and it does not mean that I am “afraid” of those Iranians. It does not mean that I am anti-Hezbollah, or that I am part of a “culture of life.” Being a Lebanese Sunni doesn’t even require me to be abeliever in, and practitioner of, Islam. I am a Lebanese Sunni only because my father, and his before him, is a Lebanese Sunni from Beirut. The fact that my mother is an American Christian from a quiet tree-lined suburb does not matter. My ID and my census registration records say so.