The satirical website Karl reMarks has a hilarious, dead on accurate parody of the Angry Arab, “The Angry Arab interviews himself about Syria.” I so happened to read one of the Angry Arab’s recent Syria interviews—which was not uninteresting, in fact—and was awaiting with bated breath the one he announced he was going to do with himself. Don’t need to now, as nothing he does can top this one. Way to go, Karl!
Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category
I just read something that put me in a bad mood, indeed almost made me angry—though not as angry as the idiot who has put me in the bad mood. France 24 reporter (and personal friend) Leela Jacinto has a blog post on Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s new film, ‘The Attack’, which has been banned in Lebanon, as Doueiri—who holds a French passport—shot part of it in Israel. In her post, Leela discreetly hyperlinked to a critique of Doueiri’s film, which I happened to click on, and which turned out to be from a blog well-known in the academic MENA milieu. The blogger in question is an idiot, so much of one that I will not sully AWAV by mentioning his name, except to say that he is a fellow academic political scientist, hails from south Lebanon, did his studies at AUB and Georgetown, and teaches in the California State University system (for his tronche, see above image). Here is what he wrote about Doueiri’s film on his blog the other day
Ziad Doueiri: prostration at the feet of Zionists
This Lebanese filmmaker (I have not seen any of his films and won’t see any of his films) has a new silly film about a silly love story based on a silly plot by Yasmina Khadra (the latter told Haaretz in an interview that both Arabs and Israelis are mere victims and that the only culprit is the US and its love for Israel, which is bad for Israel). He shot the film in Israel and used Israeli actors. The dumb filmmaker (he really is very dumb, please see any of his interviews on youtube) said that he could not hire Arabs to play Israelis because that would not be proper. The dumb filmmaker does not know that we know that he worked on the silly Showtime series, Sleeper Cell (which contained the typical stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims and where the only good Muslim is an FBI agent, while the rest are all terrorists) hired an Israeli actor to play the main Arab (terrorist of course) role in the series. He had no objection at the time. It is shameful that the Lebanese state did not apply the law against Doueiri who is now rushing to Zionist media to claim that he is a victim of anti-Israel repression in Arab society. That claim always leads to awards in the West, especially for those without talent. Hell, any Arab or Muslim in the West can write a silly story about love between an Arab and an Israeli, and he/she would surely win Oscars, Nobel, and Pulitzer at the same time. And since this silly director is obsessed with awards and represents all that I mock about Lebanonese [sic] culture (he in fact claimed in an interview with BBC Arabic that “the president of Oscars” called him and told him to apply and told him that he has a good shot at winning. Kid you not), he should get the award for prostration before Zionists. You now can figure out what type of a person we are talking about. Look what he told this Israeli paper: ““I hated Israel’s guts during the 1982 war and the 2006 war, but I have done my questioning too. I’ve changed.”” So this buffoon has changed although Israel has not changed. He is willing to change some more in return for more Western awards from the Zionist white man.
What idiotic drivel. This idiot blogger, pour mémoire, has a Ph.D. in political science from a major American university. For someone with such credentials to engage in such asinine commentary on a film he has not seen—and by a director he refuses to see (and for what possible reason?)—is intellectually beneath contempt. He is intellectually depraved—though the intellectual depravity of the academic blogger in question has been known for many years, demonstrated daily on his delirious, unhinged blog. To get an idea of what a nutbag crackpot idiot he is, just take a look at the blog (no link, as it is well known; better known than mine, that’s for sure; though its regular readers, judging by the comments thread—which I followed a number of years ago—, are not academics, loin s’en faut).
Now the nutbag crackpot blogger is not stupid. He is actually rather smart. Really: one may be both smart and insane. As it happens, we both published chapters in an edited book two decades ago, and which the editor of the book told me at the time were the book’s best chapters. Anecdote: a fellow (Israeli) MENA academic recounted to me that he once participated in a Washington conference with the nutbag crackpot, who was flown to DC to give a talk. There were DOS and CIA people in attendance—and Israelis too—, whom the crackpot blogger academic regards as the enemy. But he was oh so polite, soft spoken, and serious (he was being paid for his services, of course, and is no doubt bien élevé on the personal level). Sort of like the schizophrenic drunks in Bryant Park in the pre-Giuliani era, who would rant and rave in public but, upon entering the NY Public Library next door to use the facilities, knew to behave themselves. Once back in the California central valley, one may assume the crackpot idiot academic blogger recommenced his ranting-and-raving against the DOS, CIA, and, of course, Israel. Voilà l’intégrité intellectuel! At the risk of sounding like a nutbag myself, I will end this here. One gets the idea.
In any case, ‘The Attack’ opens in Paris on May 29th. I will see it that day and review it illico.
So says Leslie Gelb in a column in TDB. The lede:
Obama is right not to rush to war, given our checkered past on the use of chemical weapons and the sinkhole of hatreds in Syria
On the question of chemical weapons, Gelb says
Of course, we Americans think it’s horrible for any nation to use chemical weapons—except when we don’t. And of course, we want to punish any user of chemical weapons—except when we don’t. And of course, many now screaming against Syria’s likely use of chemical weapons against its rebels didn’t do much complaining when Iraq hurled these internationally banned gases against Iran and its own Kurdish people in the 1980s. And of course, American interventionists now demand U.S. military action against the Syrian government. But America’s history on chemical weapons is littered with mistakes and hypocrisy, and Syria itself is a bottomless pit of hatreds that can’t be “fixed” by more and more outside military force.
In regard to America’s history, he reminds us that
The United States used Agent Orange against the North Vietnamese (and in South Vietnam). Agent Orange is a chemical herbicide. Washington excused its employment on the grounds that U.S. forces used it for purposes of “deforestation” and not against people. Incidentally, it killed and injured many, perhaps half a million of them. We’ve flushed memories of this incident aside; others remember it well.
Read Gelb’s column here.
Continuing from my previous post, Mark Perry has a fascinating investigative report on the Foreign Policy website on Hizbullah Über-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, who met his just desserts in a quiet Damascus neighborhood on 12 Feb. ’08. I normally find Perry’s writings dodgy but this one is good. Among other things, he says that we don’t know who was responsible for Mughniyeh’s killing, though rather strongly suggests that it may have been the Syrian regime itself. I suspected this myself from the outset—I didn’t believe the Israelis were responsible, as I doubted they were capable of pulling off such an operation in the heart of the Syrian capital—and said so to my (pro-Bashar) Palestinian-Syrian friend as we drove by the spot where Mughniyeh met his end (see pics below). She concurred, saying that it smelled like an inside job.
Whatever the case, the world is not poorer with the eradication of Imad Mughniyeh.
I have no idea. Except that—and as I’ve insisted more than once—the US should stay out of the conflict, as its direct implication can only make the situation there worse. But I’m not even sure about that now. Syria is on the way to Somalia-ization and I don’t know what can stop that process at this point—though I am open to being persuaded that US and European aid to the rebels would be preferable to doing nothing. But now we have Arabist Daniel Pipes arguing (h/t Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi) that the US should overtly support the Ba’athist regime, not because the Ba’athists are the less bad guys in the civil war but as a way of prolonging the stalemate in Syria, as the US “is best off with [the regime and rebels] continuing to fight each other.” In other words, for the slaughter in and destruction of that country to continue indefinitely, as such is in the US strategic interest. Pipes does takes pains to assure that he has “great sympathy and [his] heart bleeds for those who are suffering in Syria…” Yes, I am quite sure his heart goes out to the Syrian people in their hour of need…
It would be one thing if this came from some right-wing blowhard yahoo on Fox News or talk radio but Pipes is a bona fide, Arabic-speaking Middle East specialist. Now, his reactionary politics are well known, not to mention his numerous wacky positions and obsessions, e.g. flirting with Obama birtherism, trying to “prove” that Obama was a Muslim as a child, supporting a permanent Israeli occupation of the entire West Bank (Uzi Landau’s position in the 2006 Israeli elections, which was to the right of Netanyahu’s), promoting the Dutch Muslimophobe Geert Wilders (whom Pipes has called potentially a “world-historical figure”), et j’en passe. But this one is on another level altogether. To advocate a policy that would result in the destruction of countless lives and livelihoods, not to mention of an entire society—a policy that not even a Romney administration would have considered for even one minute—, is so morally reprehensible that I should probably not be wasting my time writing about it and giving it publicity. How even conservatives can accord Pipes’s views any consideration at this point is beyond me.
I haven’t had too many posts on Syria over the past year, partly because I don’t have anything particularly original to say about what’s happening there but mainly as I find the mass suffering and death in that country—not to mention the destruction of Syria’s cities and its cultural and historical patrimony—almost too painful to read about, let alone write and reflect on. But this ten-minute report the other day from the UK’s Channel 4 news, “Rape and sham marriages: the fears of Syria’s women refugees,” I have to post (h/t Martin Kramer). The report is from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, just over the Syrian border, which contains over 100,000 refugees (and with many more due to arrive), and focuses on the omnipresent threat of rape, not from Syrian men in the camp but predators from the outside: Jordanians but mainly men from Saudi Arabia—the Evil Kingdom—and the Gulf, who have descended on the camp to purchase temporary “brides,” i.e. disposable sex slaves. And this after many of the women fled Syria partly due to the danger of rape from one side or the other in the conflict. Heartbreaking and an outrage. Watch the report and weep. And be angry.
UPDATE: Lauren Wolfe, director of the journalism project Women Under Siege, has an article (April 3) in The Atlantic on the massive rape crisis in Syria. The lede: “All across the war-torn country, regime soldiers are said to be sexually violating women and men from the opposition, destroying families and, in some cases, taking lives.”
a.k.a. Saudi Arabia. Ali al-Ahmed, a US-based Saudi Arabian activist and writer—and opponent of the system there—had a piece in FP a week ago on the execution of the Saudi Seven and which I’ve been intending to post. Voilà the details
on the night of March 12… seven young men — all in their early twenties — were still alive and praying to God for some last-minute grace to save them from facing a firing squad outside the palatial offices of the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Aseer province, Faisal Ben Khalid, who ordered their execution.
Their prayers fell on deaf ears in the kingdom. The men, who were convicted of armed robbery, were executed on March 13, in a move denounced by Amnesty International as an “act of sheer brutality.”
Hundreds of people are executed in Saudi Arabia every year — because some executions are carried out in secret, no one knows the real numbers. In 2007, the newspaper Arab News reported that 400 people remained on death row in the province of Makka alone. There are 12 other regions in the kingdom, so the total number of people awaiting execution could easily reach several thousand.
The Saudi government runs one of the most backward and xenophobic judicial systems on the planet. There is no formal legal code. Judges must all espouse the government-approved Salafi version of Islam. Blacks, who make up around 10 percent of the population, are banned from judgeships — as are women and Muslims who observe a different version of the faith — because the monarchy’s religious tradition still views blacks as slaves, other Muslims as heretics, and women as half human. There is only one word to describe such a system: apartheid.
Apartheid…. Hmmm, unless I’ve missed it none of the numerous persons out there who have attached the apartheid label to Israel of late have also thought to do so to Saudi Arabia…
Continuing in this vein, al-Ahmed informs the reader that
The condemned men hail from the southern tribes of Saudi Arabia, which have been a target of the monarchy’s systematic discrimination. Since the foundation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, there has not been a single minister from the south, which composes 27 percent of the population and is inhabited largely by Sunni Muslims who follow the government-sanctioned Salafi doctrine. Before his death, one of the executed men, Saeed al-Shahrani, even refused to provide his photo for this article because he followed the government fatwas banning photos of live objects. That’s more than can be said of the members of the ruling family: The royals in the House of Saud are notorious for plastering pictures of themselves in every place possible.
The body of one of the men, Sarhan al-Mashayekh, was supposed to be put on public display for three days, according to the execution warrant. But because everything in Saudi Arabia is political, that did not happen. The government likely feared that such an act would attract international embarrassment, and possibly a violent reaction by the large southern tribes. The executed men came from five large tribes, and thousands of people gathered to protest when the men were killed — photos provided by an eyewitness showed hundreds of well-armed soldiers and dozens of armored vehicles protecting the scene of the execution.
The young men were sentenced for robbing several jewelry stores at gunpoint seven years ago. No one was killed, and the stolen gold was given back to the owners. Saeed, one of the convicted young men, who spoke to me daily since March 1 using a smuggled mobile phone, told me, “I was 15 and I did not carry a gun. I want to go to my family.”
Poverty was the biggest factor behind this crime. All seven were unemployed and came from poor families, reflecting the severe economic conditions faced by many in Saudi Arabia. The unemployment rate in the kingdom is among the highest in the Middle East — it runs over 40 percent among males and over 80 percent among females.
One gets the idea. Saudi Arabia is an evil, barbaric place. (I’m talking about the political system and socio-religious order, of course, not individuals; as for some of the fine individuals there, see the movie ‘Wadjda‘). The barbarism of those who call the shots in Saudi Arabia is demonstrated not only in the way they treat people but also their own historical patrimony. This is not exactly a recent development but the systematic destruction of the architectural patrimony of Mecca and Medina—of ancient mosques, buildings, monuments—is accelerating (see here, here, here, and here). The Saudis are hardly alone in this world—present and past—in taking bulldozers to their cultural and architectural heritage but still… What is happening in Mecca and Medina today would be akin to the French state razing the entire Île de la Cité—the Notre-Dame cathedral and all—to build a hotel and shopping mall complex. And brooking no discussion or debate on the matter. As when, e.g., the Saudis announced in 2002 that they were going to raze the 18th century Ottoman-era Ajyad fortress (Ecyad Kalesi) overlooking Mecca, to build a hotel complex. There were protests in Turkey over this but the Saudis told the Turks to f— off.
BTW, the above photo is from the 1980 docudrama ‘Death of a Princess‘, which is unavailable on DVD, that has practically never been shown on television (and never in a cinema anywhere), and that few have seen (though I did, from a video cassette several years ago). It is a very interesting film and document. At some point I’ll do a post on it.
[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]
There have been a number of good articles and retrospectives on the 10th anniversary of the invasion over the past few days. Here are a few.
John Judis has a good piece in TNR, on “What it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003.” This passage is noteworthy
I found fellow dissenters to the war in two curious places: the CIA and the military intelligentsia. That fall, I got an invitation to participate in a seminar at the Central Intelligence Agency on what the world would be like in fifteen or twenty years. I went out of curiosity—I don’t like this kind of speculation—but as it turned out, much of the discussion was about the pending invasion of Iraq. Except for me and the chairman, who was a thinktank person, the participants were professors of international relations. And almost all of them were opposed to invading Iraq.
In early 2003, I was invited to another CIA event: the annual conference on foreign policy in Wilmington. At that conference, one of the agency officials pulled me aside and explained that the purpose of the seminar was actually to try to convince the White House not to invade Iraq. They didn’t think they could do that directly, but hoped to convey their reservations by issuing a study based on our seminar. He said I had been invited because of my columns in The American Prospect, which was where, at the time, I made known my views opposing an invasion. When Spencer Ackerman and I later did an article on the CIA’s role in justifying the invasion, we discovered that there was a kind of pro-invasion “B Team” that CIA Director George Tenet encouraged, but what I discovered from my brief experience at the CIA was that most of the analysts were opposed to an invasion. (After Spencer’s and my article appeared, I received no more invitations for seminars or conferences.)
Judis’s last bit here reminds me of a well-known political science academic MENA/IR specialist, who had been frequently solicited in Washington over the years—and who happened to be a registered Republican—, telling me in the fall of 2002 that when his opposition to an invasion of Iraq became known, he stopped receiving phone calls from his contacts in official Washington. His explanation: “I wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear” (I remember his precise words).
I found this retrospective by David Frum—who was one of Bush’s speechwriters at the time (“Axis of Evil” etc) and not exactly an opponent of the war—to be interesting and worth reading. One important observation he makes—and which has been largely overlooked—is the central role played by Tony Blair and Ahmed Chalabi in winning over Democrats and liberals to the pro-war cause. This was before many of Blair’s early admirers had become cynical about him, so he had a lot of cred at the time in center-left circles. (Quant à moi, I remember listening live on the BBC World Service to Blair’s September 2002 House of Commons speech attacking Saddam Hussein and liking it, though he wasn’t overtly advocating war at the time).
Mother Jones’s David Corn has a good piece on “Iraq 10 Years Later: The Deadly Consequences of Spin.” And then there’s this MSNBC commentary from last night by the always excellent Rachel Maddow, on how the “Architects of [the] Iraq disaster [are] still running from history.” Please take 7 minutes and 56 seconds of your time to watch it. You won’t be disappointed.
Entre autres, Rachel M. examines the American Enterprise Institute’s current spin on the war. A bunch of pathetic SOBs they are. À propos, I note that The Weekly Standard and National Review Online have had nothing on the 10th anniversary. Nor has the prolific blogger and geopolitist Walter Russell Mead, who was a war cheerleader and Dick Cheney fan back then. Radio silence.
In thinking about that miserable time, I am reminded of the line attributed to Condoleezza Rice in the spring of 2003, “Forgive Russia, ignore Germany, punish France.” And of Bush displaying the New York Post’s infamous cover of the “Axis of weasels” (France and Germany). What a bunch of arrogant a-holes. Who do these people think they are? And to speak of a great nation and one far older than America—and that has always stood with America in its real hours of need—in this way? France was right to tell the Bush-Cheney administration to f— off.
University of Chicago historian Orit Bashkin has a good article in the lefty academic webzine Jadaliyya on “The Forgotten Protagonists: The Invasion and the Historian,” in which she discusses advances in the historiographical knowledge of Iraq over the past decade but also of what has been irretrievably lost with the looting and destruction of Iraq’s archives (National Library etc) and architectural patrimony (and which happened under the US’s watch).
On present-day Iraq the FT’s Roula Khalaf has a lengthy article on “Iraq: 10 years later.” And here’s a 23 minute report on Al Jazeera English on “The Green Train: A journey through the heart of modern Iraq – a country struggling to put itself back together.”
UPDATE: The Nation has two not bad articles: “The American Legacy in Iraq” by Patrick Cockburn, who was one of the best informed journalists reporting from Iraq over the past decade, and “The Iraq Invasion, Ten Years Later” by Jonathan Schell.
2nd UPDATE: Here’s a short, very good commentary by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker, on “How we forgot Iraq.”
3rd UPDATE: Mark Lynch has a good piece in FP on “What’s missing from the Iraq debate.” Answer: Iraqis.
4th UPDATE: The Boston Globe has a portrait of Kanan Makiya, who “has no regret about pressing the war in Iraq” (his views influenced those of certain liberal hawks). I was admirer of Makiya’s books Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence, but wasn’t on board with him in his 2003 war cheerleading.
5th UPDATE: Kathleen Geier of The National Memo has a very good article dated March 22nd—and praised by Paul Krugman—, “The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq,” in which she skewers some people who richly deserve to be skewered.
Here is the file of emails on I wrote on Iraq in 2002-03, that I was going to publish in the preceding post. As I didn’t have a blog at the time I wrote blog post-type letters (usually collective) to friends, family, and associates on Iraq. In 2005 I put a selection of them together in a Word file (ten pages), so I could look at them in the future and see if my analyses stood the test of time. Though I was wrong about a few things—who wasn’t?—I was right about a lot more. On the whole, my views have stood up pretty well if I may say so. I don’t expect too many people—or maybe anyone—to read through them—the file is long and there’s some repetition—but I’m using the tenth anniversary of the war to publish them, for posterity and the public record.
From: Arun Kapil
Sent: 10 August 2002 18:11
Re Iraq, the Vietnam analogy is not accurate (or won’t be, should the US intervene there). An eventual US military operation in Iraq will be relatively short in duration (i.e., nothing like the eight year engagement in Vietnam) and so won’t divide American society in the same way. I don’t think a war in Iraq would be undertaken for domestic political reasons, as a way for Bush and the Republicans to win re-election. This is not what’s going on. There are ideologically driven power centers in the Administration which want to intervene because they sincerely believe Saddam Hussein poses a mortal danger to the US and its interests. They have other geostrategic and economic reasons as well. I personally think “regime change” in Iraq is an (more…)
The tenth anniversary of the launching of the Iraq war is tomorrow and it seems that everybody and his uncle are weighing in on it, and with the inevitable question posed by mainstream commentators: “was it worth it?” (answer: for the US, a categorical NO; for Iraq, I would say categorically NO as well but only Iraqis themselves are qualified to answer that one). I have much to say on the subject—in short: the war was America’s biggest ever foreign policy disaster, caused the violent death of up to 200,000 Iraqis and suffering for millions, cost the American taxpayer over a trillion dollars and with upwards of 40,000 Americans killed or wounded—but will not get into a lengthy discourse. What I will do, though, is publish my analyses and views of the time, between August 2002 and September 2003 (more on this below). In the meantime, a few comments.
First, I was opposed to the war. Period. But I wasn’t opposed 100%. My tenacious hatred of Saddam Hussein and his regime—dating from the 1980s—was such that a part of me—say, one-third (33%)—was not opposed to the idea of a military intervention to free the Iraqi people from the yoke of the criminal Ba’athist tyranny. I 100% supported the 1990-91 intervention and war from Day One—from the moment I heard the news on August 2, 1990, that Iraq had invaded Kuwait (I was in France, the US, and Algeria during that period)—and somewhat regretted that the 101st Airborne didn’t go all the way to Baghdad at the end of that one (though knew it wasn’t realistic or in the cards; though I did condemn Bush 41 for allowing the Republican Guard to slip away and doing nothing while the latter crushed the Shia uprising). I likewise 100% supported the post 9/11 intervention in Afghanistan (but then, everyone in America and France outside the hard left did). These two interventions were no brainers IMO and I had little patience with those who opposed them (and who included numerous American leftist and Maghrebi friends, and with whom I had numerous arguments).
But the 2003 Iraq war—a war of choice and entirely fomented by the Bush-Cheney administration—was different. The notion that Iraq possessed actual weapons of mass destruction and ergo posed a threat to the US was bullcrap, as was its purported links to Al-Qaida and “international terrorism.” In 2002-03 Iraq did not even pose a threat to its neighbors, let alone to the US and Europe. IMO the only halfway legitimate argument for intervening was regime change and for the benefit of the Iraqi people (I emphasize IMO, as no intervention could have ever been justified—either legally or with American public opinion—on this basis alone). I could have gone along with an intervention if I had been certain that such would have been swift and relatively painless—with minimal death and destruction inflicted on Iraq—, and followed by a quick US withdrawal and smooth transition to a pluralistic political order. But, as I explicated at the time, I knew that it wouldn’t happen this way, that the war and its aftermath would be a fiasco, that the US had no justification in launching an unprovoked war, and was too arrogant, ignorant, and incompetent for anything good to come of it (and as a Lebanese friend rhetorically asked me at the time, what right did the United States have to drop bombs on Iraq and sow death and destruction, when Iraq had done nothing to provoke it?). So while a third of me was for an intervention—and that would momentary spike when seeing televised images of the imperious Saddam and his psychotic sons around a conference table, with government ministers or army generals dutifully taking notes like schoolchildren and while quaking in their boots—two-thirds of me (67%) was hostile to it. And since 67 is greater than 33, I was against. Period.
Though opposed to the war I did, however—and for the record—, feel satisfaction at the fall of the regime on April 9th, cheered Saddam’s capture in December, and gave the thumbs up to the termination with extreme prejudice of his wretched sons the following July. Sorry but no apologies for this.
My opposition to the war was fueled in part by revulsion at the nationalist hysteria in the US at the time, stoked by the Bush-Cheney administration and its shock troops in the media. Or its lemmings. While visiting the US in late ’02-early ’03 I watched Fox News every evening (Bill O’Reilly etc), to study the phenomenon, as it were. And I regularly tracked various right-wing organs on the web, notably The Weekly Standard and NRO. To get the kind of jingoism and militarism in France that was standard fare on the American right, one would have to go into Front National territory. And even then. I will say nothing more here about the chicken hawk commentators on the American right except that in their beating the drums for war—and denigrating and slandering anyone who disagreed with them—they couldn’t have cared less for the Iraqi people. It was all about America and nothing but America—of the need for America to, in the words of the unspeakable Michael Ledeen, “pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” (any takers on the American right for throwing North Korea against the wall? hey, that’s a little country! and why doesn’t America pick on a country its own size, like China or Russia? yeah, sure). As I’ve said before, if Bill O’Reilly and others of his American right-wing ilk—and including the women (Ann Coulter et al)—had been Italian in the early 1920s, they would have worn black shirts and carried black truncheons.
This being said, I was convinced at the time—and remain so—that the Bush-Cheney administration was not lying about the WMDs, in that they really believed their rhetoric on this. They did not knowingly recount falsehoods. There were enough reports in the years following the invasion (by Seymour Hersh, among others) that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al were certain that Saddam had CBWs and was trying to develop a nuclear bomb, and that if there wasn’t any clear evidence on this, they were going to find it. And in the post-9/11 nationalist hysteria, they easily swept up most of Washington—Congress, think tanks, MSM—in their alternate reality, and where discordant or dissenting views were dismissed or simply not listened to. It was groupthink. The phenomenon was as much psychological as political.
It was likewise on the link between Saddam and 9/11. In January 2001, the American Enterprise Institute published a book entitled Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein’s War against America, by Laurie Mylroie, which argued that Saddam had been behind every terrorist attack against America and Americans since the Gulf War. On the back of the book were plugs by Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and the book’s post-9/11 second edition carried a forward by James Woolsey. If one bought Mylroie’s argument before 9/11, it stood to reason that one was going to continue buying it after. I read Mylroie’s book in the month following 9/11 and found it compelling, even though I had had a generally low opinion of her (despite her government/Middle East studies Harvard Ph.D. she was, intellectually and academically speaking, not Harvard material). And a lot of her evidence was speculation, some of which she could have in fact verified (had she been a better social scientist). But in the immediate post-9/11 period I was ready to believe her argument. Why? Because I wanted to. My hatred of Saddam Hussein was such that I wanted to believe that he was in cahoots with Bin Laden and the 9/11 operation. But after running my views by a couple of DC friends in the know and continuing to read a lot, I dropped the Mylroie thesis (as has just about everyone who initially bought it; she was always regarded as a nutcase by the foreign policy establishment and was finally repudiated even by erstwhile associates on the right).
It was likewise with Saddam and CBWs, which I believed for a stretch, having listened to the categorical assertions of Thérèse Delpech in 2002 that Iraq was seeking to build up its stocks of chemical weapons—and the brilliant and intimidating Delpech, who had been France’s representative on UNMOVIC, definitely knew of what she spoke, or so I assumed. But then I read stronger evidence to the contrary; and in any case, possessing chemical weapons, which are not WMDs, is hardly a casus belli. (Delpech was, BTW, one of the few members of the French state elite who wanted France to align itself with the US on Iraq and tried to persuade the government that Saddam was acquiring CBWs; but Bruno Le Maire—Dominique de Villepin’s top aide at the time—, who received her at the Quai d’Orsay and heard her out on the subject, found her unconvincing, in large part because the French had near ironclad intelligence that Iraq had nothing in the way of CBWs or WMDs—and which they shared with the Bush-Cheney administration, but who wouldn’t hear of it).
And then there was Khidhir Hamza’s 2001 book Saddam’s Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq’s Secret Weapon, which I read with great interest soon after it came out. I basically bought Hamza’s core contention—that Saddam was hellbent on acquiring a nuclear device—, though found some anachronisms in his account, not to mention a portrait he painted of Saddam’s regime as being so crazy, nepotistic, and pathetically incompetent that the mere notion that Iraq could ever achieve the technological and organizational sophistication to go nuclear was simply laughable. So with time I scratched that one (and it turned out that Hamza was a fabulator and whose book was riddled with gross exaggerations and downright falsehoods).
I recount all this simply to underscore the point that if one wants to believe something, one will find credible-sounding evidence to back it up. And dismiss evidence to the contrary. And such was the case with the Bush-Cheney administration and its supporters on Iraq. Again: groupthink.
A couple more points. Though I detested and loathed the Bush-Cheney administration’s right-wing cheerleaders, I was somewhat indulgent toward liberal hawks who were willing to acknowledge the validity of arguments against going to war, to seriously debate the issue (so this does not include Christopher Hitchens or the editors of TNR at the time) (and I found the small number of liberal hawks in France, e.g. Romain Goupil, to be downright refreshing). There were those out there—liberals but also a few neo-conservatives (e.g. Robert Kagan)—who genuinely supported military intervention in Iraq to free the Iraqi people from the yoke of Saddam’s tyranny. The Wilsonian strain in US foreign policy is real and I am personally not unsympathetic to it. There were also longtime activists on the Kurdish issue who were not opposed to an intervention. To these may be added the small group of bona fide academic specialists of Iraq, a few of whom—e.g. Eric Davis, Phebe Marr—favored regime change and offered advice to the USG (notably the DOS) (though it should be said that the larger cohort of academic Middle East and international relations specialists were almost universally hostile to the invasion; and this included political science MENA specialists, who, it should be said, largely supported the 1990-91 intervention, not to mention Afghanistan in 2001).
(A note on the so-called neocons. They were obviously gung-ho for the invasion and for a variety of reasons but Israel was not one of them. Neocons thought regime change in Iraq would be beneficial to Israel but as a fortuitous byproduct; this was not the principal factor for any of the neocons, who are America Firsters above all. On this, John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt are full of caca.)
And then there were the Iraqi people themselves. In December 2002 the International Crisis Group published a report, “Voices from the Iraqi Street,” whose author—who had been in Iraq—informed the reader that
Attitudes toward a U.S. strike are complex. There is some concern about the potential for violence, anarchy and score settling that might accompany forceful regime change. But the overwhelming sentiment among those interviewed was one of frustration and impatience with the status quo. Perhaps most widespread is a desire to return to “normalcy” and put an end to the abnormal domestic and international situation they have been living through. A significant number of those Iraqis interviewed, with surprising candour, expressed their view that, if such a change required an American-led attack, they would support it.
ICG reports are not signed but I know the author of this was a well-known Paris-based specialist of Iraq—a French citizen of Saudi origin—, who had lived in Iraq in the preceding years, where she did field research for her doctoral dissertation. She knew her subject better than just about any non-Iraqi and was well-connected in Baghdad. And she was not an advocate of the US intervention (for the anecdote, she told me in 2003 that she had attended a closed conference on Iraq the previous year in Madrid, and was confronted in the hotel lobby by Ahmed Chalabi and Richard Perle, who, fingers pointed, accused her of being an Iraqi agent; a woman in her late 20s, she was sufficiently intimidated by these high-powered alpha males).
In this vein, France’s best-known academic specialist of Iraq, Pierre-Jean Luizard—who is on the left and was resolutely opposed to the invasion—, asserted during an interview-debate on France Inter in early June 2003—which I heard with my own ears—that the Iraqi people in their majority favored the American intervention and that, like it or not, one needed to understand this. It did, after all, make sense: the Kurds (20% of the Iraqi population) were for the invasion, which no one disputes; the Shi’ites (55-60%), who hated the Ba’athist regime in their great majority, were also not opposed; toss in a few Sunnis, do the arithmetic, and voilà, there you have it.
But despite the attitudes of Iraqis, the aforementioned 2002 ICG report did make this observation
It should not be assumed from this that such support as might exist for a U.S. operation is unconditional. It appears to be premised on the belief both that any such military action would be quick and clean and that it would be followed by a robust international reconstruction effort. Should either of these prove untrue – if the war proved to be bloody and protracted or if Iraq lacked sufficient assistance afterwards – the support in question may well not be very long sustained.
Nor does all this mean that another war is either advisable or inevitable. Even in the event some significant “further material breach” is established within the meaning of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, the costs of military intervention – in terms of loss of life, material and economic damage, regional spillover effects, hardening the attitudes of future generations of Arabs and distracting from and even complicating a war on terrorism that, as recent events demonstrate, remains unfinished – must be carefully balanced against potential benefits, with the impact of intervention or non-intervention on the credibility of the UN itself of course having to be part of the calculation.
Just because Iraqis may have wished for a foreign military intervention in no way justifies a said intervention, in view of both the costs of the intervention to the invading power—the United States—and the inevitable course the war would take. It is rather clear, IMO at least, that the Iraqi people would have been better off had the invasion not happened, Saddam remained in power, and with the sanctions regime ended (but with controls on CBW/nuclear technology maintained). As for what would have happened had the Ba’athists remained in power, who knows? Perhaps Iraq would have ended up like Syria today, but perhaps not. One cannot possibly know.
On Iraqis supporting the US intervention, this was very much akin to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which was—yes!—initially supported by a majority of Lebanese: clear majorities of Maronites and Shi’ites (and with the Druze neutral), who wanted the Israelis to eject the PLO from their country. They needed an outside power to do the dirty work for them, that they couldn’t do themselves. And also for the foreign invader to pave their own way to power—Bashir Gemayel in Lebanon, Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq—, after which the foreigners would pack their bags and leave—and maybe get a thank you but little more (if the foreigners were looking for gratitude, they were bound to be disappointed). If Lebanese supported the Israelis in June ’82 they were not supporting them in June ’83, needless to say, not to mention in subsequent years (and nowadays, of course, everyone in Lebanon hates Israel). Mutatis mutandis, it was likewise in Iraq. The Israelis got played by their (temporary) Maronite allies in Lebanon, just as the Americans got played by Ahmed Chalabi. The Middle Easterners were smarter than the Americans (and Israelis), or at least more wily.
A final point, or, rather, assertion. The principal actors in the Bush-Cheney administration and their Iraq war supporters in Congress, the MSM, and Washington think tank archipelago will unfortunately not be held to account. Leftists are using the anniversary to beat up on Democrats and the MSM for having supported the war (and the lefties are right, of course). And many are still demanding war crimes trials for Bush-Cheney or some indictment by the ICC but, for reasons that hardly need to be explicated, it’s not going to happen. What all those who uncritically supported the Iraq war—and who rubbished those who opposed it—should do to at least partially make amends with the likes of me is to prostrate themselves before and profusely apologize to two men who were dragged through the mud during those miserable months in late 2002-early 2003: Scott Ritter and Jacques Chirac. Scott Ritter because he emphatically insisted that Iraq had no CBW or nuclear weapons capacity and explained why to anyone who would listen. Ritter was, of course, speaking from rather extensive personal experience on the question and knew what he was talking about. That was he was not listened to—not to mention sullied and denigrated—in Washington was unconscionable.
As for Jacques Chirac, because his opposition to US policy was well-considered and based on principle, and for which he, along with the entire French nation, was subjected to slander and calumny in the US. Chirac did not exclude the possibility of joining the US in Iraq and told his military to prepare for it. But it became obvious to the French that the Bush-Cheney administration’s “evidence” of WMDs was bogus, that there was no casus belli. France needed the proof from Washington and never got it. After Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the UNSC—which the entire MSM pronounced a slam dunk, grand slam, blah blah—analysts in the French media pronounced Powell’s photos of mobile labs impossible to interpret (and that vial of white powder: was that really anthrax? did Powell actually carry a biological weapon on his person and bring into the UN? but if was just milk powder, then, as they say in these parts, les Américains se foutent de nos gueules, i.e. the Americans are taking us for fools). So the French could not but vote against a UNSC resolution authorizing war. If the Americans and Brits wanted to wage an unprovoked war in Iraq, they would have to do it without the green light from the United Nations. The French position was impeccable, ironclad, and irreproachable. The final demonstration of this: France suffered no lasting consequences for saying no to the Bush-Cheney administration, the latter of which had, by 2005, let bygones be bygones and started to make nice with the French. On Iraq, France was right. She really was.
I was going to publish my Iraq War file from 2002-03 here but seeing how long this post has become, I will do so separately, in the next post.
This is an excellent, wonderful, marvelous film from Saudi Arabia we saw last night. That’s right, from Saudi Arabia. It’s the first-ever film by a Saudi director and that was entirely shot in the country—in Riyadh—, where cinemas are all but non-existent. And moreover, the director, Haifaa al-Mansour, is a woman and the film is almost entirely about women—and not princesses but the middle-class. The main character, Wadjda, a spunky tween with attitude—and who declines to cover her face in public—, will melt every heart and be a front-runner to win every best actress award of the year. Here’s the review of the pic from Indie Wire’s critic, Oliver Lyttleton, who called it “a phenomenal debut from an exciting new talent,” “one of the best films of the year,” and gave it a grade of A
The title of “Wadjda” refers to its central character, played by 12-year-old actress Waad Mohammed. Wadjda is more rebellious than most around her; she makes mixtapes of forbidden music, wears battered Converse to her school, and, a born hustler, sells home-made football bracelets to classmates, all incurring the wrath of headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd). More than anything else, she wants a bike to race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) on, but the 800 riyal price of the bike she covets seems out of reach, until it’s announced that her school’s Koran-recitation competition carries a 1000 riyal prize. As she ekes closer to it, however, things start to fall apart at home, as her mother (Reem Abdullah), who’s unable to have more children, begins to fear that her mostly absentee husband (Sultan Al Assaf) is on the lookout for a second bride.
The word ‘bicycle’ instantly summons up images of a certain Italian neo-realist classic, and that’s certainly the kind of neighborhood that Al-Mansour is in here, with a simple pristine style that mostly gets out of the way of the story, and a touching humanism that’s reluctant to paint any of her characters as pure hero or villain (even the strict, humorless Ms. Hussa is given more texture than you’d expect).
There is one major hero, of course: Wadjda herself, who in the hands of Mohammed is one of the most memorable on-screen protagonists in some time. Essentially fearless, smarter than everyone else around her, and conning her way around Riyadh, it’s the showcase of a terrific performance by Mohammed (whose parents will apparently only let her act until she’s 16); the young actress owns every second she’s on screen. She’s not alone, though; while some performances are raw and a little rough around the edges, there are a few other standouts, not least from Abdullah. The two carve out a rare and complex mother/daughter relationship that feels entirely authentic, in both the conflicts and the moments of bonding.
It’s appropriate that the two are the film’s standouts, because it’s so much a film that’s about the role of women in a man’s world. Wadjda is constantly told what she can’t do — ride a bike, uncover her face, follow her own path. Her mother, focused almost entirely on pleasing her husband yet unable to bear sons, is forced to consider buying a dress she can’t afford to keep her husband’s attention. And at school, Ms. Hussa (who might have her own secrets) expels one girl for being caught with a boy, and reads too much into the friendship of two others. Al-Mansour never overeggs this stuff, but it’s omnipresent, constantly brewing away in the background, and in a world where an independent-minded 14-year-old girl can be shot by the Taliban, it’s a vital thing to be putting on the agenda.
This makes the film sound rather dry, and it’s not at all; there’s enormous warmth and comedy, and a fine observational eye of a world that’s pretty alien to Western audiences, which makes it consistently fascinating. Al-Mansour knows she has to play the audience like a fiddle (the Koran competition near the end is nail-bitingly tense), and yet it feels honest, rather than manipulative. As with last year’s “A Separation,” which it shares some surface similarities with, much of it is down to a watertight, hugely satisfying screenplay, written by the director.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat the situation in Saudi Arabia — far from it — but by the end, it makes clear in that in the likes of Wadjda, there are real hopes for progress and change in years to come. That it manages to do so in such a technically adept way (much of the production team are German), with such clarity of storytelling, and is able to do with humor, emotion and smarts, is something close to a miracle.
I entirely agree with this review (see this one too), though am not sure about the optimism for progress in the years to come. We loved this movie (and with my wife and our friend—both of part Algerian origin—saying that Wadjda reminded them so much of themselves at that age). A couple of observations. First, the film gives real insights into Saudi society and family life—which is opaque even to longtime foreign residents of the country—, as well as images of life in a residential neighborhood of Riyadh. On this level alone, the film is worth seeing. Secondly, the film is about the thirst for freedom among a few free spirits in a patriarchal culture in which the notion of the autonomous individual is non-existent. Everyone wears a cultural straightjacket, women above all but men as well. And there’s no escaping from it, even though a certain number wish to at least somewhat, particularly when they’re young. But it’s impossible, so they capitulate and then become patriarchy’s enforcers. As one critic observed in regard to Ms. Hissa, the school headmistress
Hissa is absorbed into a social system that over the years has developed into a second nature fed by assumptions. Even her lines are delivered in an emotionless manner, like a robot with an automated response system. Hissa and Wadjda are similar; one is a free-spirited young lady, and the other, a reflection of her future persona if boundaries are not challenged.
Wadjda pushes at the boundaries and then some, and has a few allies in her effort (and who, as it happens, are more male than female). And the bike becomes a (rather obvious) symbol of freedom. One of the nice things about the film is that it shows women unveiled when not in public. This unlike Iranian films, where women cover their hair at all times, including inside the home, even though women do not veil in private space. It is so because the films would not get past the Iranian censor otherwise (whereas in Saudi Arabia there is likely no censorship board, as there are no theaters to show the movies in). Director al-Mansour also clearly had backing in high places in Riyadh, as one notes in the credits at the end a special thanks to Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who’s kind of a big shot there, plus elsewhere—and is the subject of a lengthy profile in the latest issue of Forbes (he’s apparently unhappy that his net worth has been reported to be $20 billion, when he insists it’s more like 30 bil…).
The film has received stellar reviews in France and been a big success among the more highbrow movie-going public. We saw it in our neighborhood cinéma municipal, which likely programmed it on account of the buzz. Here’s the trailer of the film (French s/t) and a filmed interview with Haifaa al-Mansour.
One wonders what will happen to Waad Mohammed when she hits 16, if her parents keep to their pledge. A damned shame it would be for her to vanish from the silver screen.
UPDATE: The RFI website has an interesting article on the film and how it was made. Haifaa al-Mansour—who, we learn, is age 39 and married to an American diplomat—had this to say (my translation)
“Why the bicycle? I wanted to reconstitute my conservative universe, my school, my life… I wanted to show the tension between modernity and tradition. The bike represents modernity, speed, freedom of movement, the control of one’s destiny. Where I come from, this tension between the modern world and tradition is particularly acute. People are not conscious of it, as, at the same time, our country is rich. We have flat screen TVs, nice cars, beautiful buildings, but when you talk to a Saudi, you realize that he is very conservative, that his way of thinking is tribal. I wanted to show that this modernity is possible.”
Shooting the film on the streets of Riyadh took some doing, as not being able to mix with men in public, she had to direct the film from inside a van and by telephone.
BBC Arabic aired a 53 minute documentary of this title on January 21st, on the sectarian clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in Tripoli, Lebanon, and that may be seen with English subtitles here. The communities, which respectively inhabit the adjoining neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, have been fighting and killing one another on and off—and presently on—for the past three decades. And it can only get worse as the situation over the border in Syria worsens (the clashes in Tripoli presently being a pale image of what is happening there). One take away from the documentary is that Lebanon, like Syria, is not a nation, if one needed any reminding. The documentary is not too analytical and gives little background as to the origins of the conflict, but is an important document nonetheless. If one wants a sense of where Lebanon may be headed, this is it.
ADDENDUM: A remark: an outsider can hardly support one side over the other in this conflict—in which both parties have blood on their hands in no doubt equal quantities—but the mere fact that the Alawite women are not veiled—and that Alawites are less given over to religiosity than the Sunnis—provokes, for me at least, a slight bias in their favor. I know I shouldn’t think this way but I can’t help it. It’s visceral.
2nd ADDENDUM: I am reminded of a post on this blog from June 2011, in which I quoted the text of a memorandum sent by six Syrian Alawite notables—one the grandfather of Bashar al-Assad—to French PM Léon Blum in 1936, expressing fear of the prospect of Sunni domination. Absolutely worth (re-)reading.
In my January 27th post on France’s Mali intervention I linked to a tribune by a Senegalese academic, Bakary Sambe, who skewered Tariq Ramadan for his opposition to the said intervention, and where I referred to the celebrated Egyptian-Swiss philosopher as an “overrated bloviator.” I am not a fan of the très médiatique Ramadan, needless to say, though used to have a positive image of him, taking him to be a moderate, modernist Islamic thinker based on numerous op-ed type articles he published over the years in the French press, plus flattering portraits of him that appeared here and there (I never did bother to read his books, which mainly focus on Islamic thought, not a subject of great interest to me and who has the time?). I also did not (and do not) care for some of Ramadan’s high-profile detractors in France and the US (e.g. Caroline Fourest, Paul Berman, Daniel Pipes), who have been engaged in an obsessive vendetta against him for years. And I considered indefensible his temporary banning from France in the mid ’90s—over which I initiated a letter of protest by MESA to then interior minister Jean-Louis Debré—and exclusion from the US during the Bush administration.
But after seeing TR up close—for the first time some five years ago, in a classroom talk—and exchanging a few words with him, I decided that he is a slick, smooth-talking self-promoter, who wows audiences with his affability, eloquence—he can give a one-hour talk in flawless English, with no notes and without skipping a beat—, and dapper good looks but ultimately says little of substance. And his answers to questions on politics and social issues during a Q&A are for the most part langue de bois (e.g. I asked him to give his assessment of the AKP government in Turkey—which had been in power for five years—, to which responded something to the effect that “What is happening in Turkey is very interesting and we need to follow it closely and see where it’s going”… Not terribly deep or enlightening). He’s a friendly fundamentalist, adapting his discourse to the circumstance. He does not, however, merit the demonization to which he has been subjected by Fourest, Berman et al—he’s not significant enough—, but nor does he merit the celebrity he’s attained beyond his following among youthful pious European Muslim post-migrants (and notably by European policy makers anxiously seeking European Muslim interlocutors). Intellectually and politically speaking, TR does not impress me.
And I do find his apologetics for the Muslim Brotherhood disturbing, not to mention his views and equivocations on a host of other issues.
I bring all this up as I read just the other day a review essay in TNR, dated October 1, 2012, of Ramadan’s latest book, in which he offers analysis and commentary on the so-called Arab spring. Reviewer Samuel Helfont, a Near Eastern Studies Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, was not impressed, taking to task Ramadan’s “problematic views,” “sloppy analysis and inconsistencies,” and “contorted arguments and anti-imperialist platitudes,” all of which are quite simply “not serious.” Very good. Couldn’t have said it better myself, even though I haven’t read the book (and have no intention of).
While I’m at it, here is a tribune I also read recently, by the Franco-Tunisian intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb—a political and philosophical enemy of TR’s (the two have publicly crossed swords)—, “Towards A Global Network of Liberal Muslims,” that was first published three weeks ago in a Bangladeshi newspaper. Excellent initiative.
I mentioned Daniel Pipes as one of TR’s detractors. Pipes is no dummy when it comes to subjects of which he is a specialist but is politically reactionary and a crackpot on a number of issues (e.g. flirting with Obama birtherism, obsessively trying to “prove” that Obama is a Muslim, situating himself well to the right of Netanyahu on the Israeli political spectrum). I generally don’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Which is not to say I don’t read him every so often. The other day I came across an interview with him in the current issue of The American Spectator, on “Islam and Islamism in the Modern World,” and which is surprisingly unobjectionable for the most part. I give it the green light.
Continuing with the Evil Kingdom, a.k.a. Saudi Arabia—see previous post—, I just learned of this book by Qanta Ahmed, a British-born medical doctor of Pakistani origin who practices and teaches medicine in New York, and has written numerous articles and commentaries over the past several years on Islam, Islamism, the Middle East—and notably Saudi Arabia—, and related subjects. In this book, which came out in 2008, Dr. Ahmed writes about her experiences as a physician—and a woman—in Saudi Arabia, where she lived and worked in the late ’90s-early ’00s, of how the interpretation and practice of Islam there so brutally clashed with her own, and which both reinforced her Islamic faith and fueled her hostility toward Islamic obscurantism. What brought me to Dr. Ahmed and her book—she looks to be a most interesting person and I’ll be sure to read the book in the near future—was an op-ed she published this week in The Times of Israel, “Israel’s jihad is mine.” Talk about a provocative title and from a Muslim no less. I assumed that the sensationalist title was just a hook for the reader and would not figure in the text of the article—in which she expresses her dim view of Hamas and Islamism, and with which I do not disagree—, but, sure enough, it did. I would have perhaps left mention of jihad out of the piece but it is gratifying to see a believing Muslim publicly express the viewpoint that she does. And Dr. Ahmed is no Aayan Hirsi Ali (for whom I have rather less intellectual admiration). She had an interview last June, “Debunking the fallacy of Muslim victimhood,” that is quite good. She can be followed on Twitter here.
That’s how a friend—who travels frequently to the Middle East for work—referred to Saudi Arabia to me in an email the other day, after reading about the judicial murder there of Rizana Nafeek, the young Sri Lankan woman who worked as a domestic
slave servant in that benighted country. I responded with something I’ve been saying since early in the last decade, which is that the creation of Saudi Arabia in the 1920s—of the conquest of the Hijaz (civilized) by the Wahhabi tribes of the Najd (uncivilized)—was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. Now I’m not one to essentialize countries but there are two in this world that I consider to be particularly depraved and malevolent, and in almost every respect—politically, geopolitically, culturally, morally, you name it—, one being Russia, the other Saudi Arabia. And insofar as both countries are able to project power and influence beyond their borders, they are also dangerous, particularly in their respective regions. It is hardly a surprise that most of the peoples and nations that border Russia fear and loathe that country. Just to go to Warsaw and ask around (for the anecdote, some eight years ago a Russian student of mine—from a Vladimir Putin-supporting family and who was not particularly politicized herself—told me that Russia’s neighbors had good reason to fear her country). As for Saudi Arabia, just ask a few dozen people at random in Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Tunis, Casablanca, or anywhere else in the Arab world what they think of Saudis (not just the royal family but also as people). Answer: a significant majority will tell you that they’re barbarians (as the Muslim Sri Lankans in the photos here manifestly deem them to be). It may not be nice to essentialize a whole people in such terms—and it is certainly not reputable intellectually—but that’s the reality of how Saudis are viewed by those—mostly other Arabs and Muslims—who’ve had to deal with them.
I’m thinking about this at the present moment, having just read Indian-Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer’s commentary in The New Yorker on Rizana Nafeek’s beheading. Read it and fume. And if you want to fume some more, see the links in my post of 18 months ago on this same subject. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if Saudi Arabia could be broken into three parts?: an independent Hijaz restored to the Hashemites (and with Jordan becoming a Palestinian state—including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, of course); the oil-rich, Shi’ite-majority Gulf coast area a United Nations protectorate (and with the oil revenues used to fund the UN and its specialized agencies, the World Bank, and IMF); and the Saudis in the Najd left to fend for themselves, bereft of oil and the holy places. Just dreaming…
UPDATE: The web site Migrant Rights has an informative post on “Who failed Rizana Nafeek?,” which is severely critical of the Sri Lankan government’s handling of the affair.
Following from my last post, I just read another (somewhat) Egypt-related article, this one a review essay in the August-September 2012 issue of Policy Review of Ian Johnson‘s A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, a book that purports to reveal an apparent US collusion with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood going back to the 1950s, specifically a covert relationship between the CIA and Said Ramadan, MB founder Hassan al-Banna’s son-in-law and spiritual heir—and father of Tariq Ramadan—, who lived in exile in West Germany, then Switzerland, from the mid 1950s on. The notion that the US has long supported Islamist movements across the Muslim world has been out there since the 1980s and fervently believed by many—and fueled by the misconstrued, misunderstood US support of the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviet Union—but there has never been anything to it (e.g. it has been widely believed by secular Algerians—and more than a few French observers—that the US supported the FIS and its successors during that country’s tumultuous political conjuncture in the 1990s; the notion is pure fantasy, a complete figment of some collective imagination and which I have argued against for decades, but there is no refuting it for those who believe it dur comme fer). That the US could have actively cultivated the Egyptian MB, and at any point along the way, has never made sense to me. So I was skeptical of Johnson’s thesis—summarized here in the NYRB—, needless to say, but was willing to give it a look, so I got hold of a copy and read it en diagonale. Not convinced.
Reading John Rosenthal’s Policy Review essay confirmed my assessment. Rosenthal, who writes on security issues and is a German-speaker—thereby enabling him to look at Johnson’s original source material plus others—, pronounced Johnson’s supposed revelation of a CIA-Said Ramadan collaboration to be without foundation, that Johnson in no way proves it in his book. In his essay Rosenthal refers extensively to a book published in Germany (as yet untranslated into English) shortly after Johnson’s and on precisely the same subject, A Mosque in Germany: Nazis, Secret Services, and the Rise of Political Islam in the West, by Stefan Meining. This work, which carries more extensive documentation from American and German archives than does Johnson’s, comes up with no evidence pointing to a US-MB collusion. So for me at least, Rosenthal’s essay settles the issue.
What Meining’s book does do, as Rosenthal explicates, is document some of the liaisons dangereuses between German intelligence and Islamist movements over the decades—continuing from the extensive Nazi collaboration with Muslims during WWII (Haj Amin al-Husseini, the recruitment of Bosniaks and anti-Soviet Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia into the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, etc)—, and of a general German complaisance toward Islamists. So if one is looking for covert Western collusion with the MB & Co., look to Bonn and Berlin, not Washington.
As it’s still vacation for moi, I’ve been catching up on some reading, notably in trying to work my way through a mountain of articles I’ve printed out over the past year. One fascinating one I just read is this English translation of an excerpt of Eric Rouleau’s memoirs, published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Cairo Review of Global Affairs (of the American University in Cairo; the memoirs themselves were published in October by Fayard). Rouleau was Le Monde’s grand reporter, mainly in the Middle East, from the 1950s to the mid 1980s, after which he embarked on a second career as a diplomat (as French ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey, entre autres). In this excerpt Rouleau—an Egyptian Jew born and raised in Cairo (his veritable name is Elie Raffoul)—recounts his visit to Cairo in 1963 at the invitation of the Egyptian state—his first back there since his forced departure from the country twelve years earlier, when he was threatened with legal prosecution for “Zionist and communist activities” (though he had never adhered to either creed)—, his interactions with intellectuals such as Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Lotfi El-Kholi, and, above all, his audience with Nasser. Very interesting. Reading Rouleau’s account—and being transported back to that period—makes me want to read the book ASAP.
I regularly followed Rouleau reportages in Le Monde in the late 1970s-1980s and had the opportunity to see him speak, at a public talk he gave at the University of Chicago in 1984. Don’t remember much of what he said except that I was impressed.
On Nasser, this YouTube—of him making sport of the Muslim Brotherhood (in 1966)—has been making the rounds over the past year. Between Nasser—warts and all—and Egypt’s current president, my choice is clear.
TEDx Women Khartoum was one of 150 events taking place across the world simultaneously this past weekend, in which women with Ideas worth sharing, as the TED slogan goes, stood up in front of an audience and shared them on the same day, worldwide.
I found this passage in the post noteworthy
A glamorous Sudanese Ambassador, who is also a serious tennis player, novelist and mother, spoke of her multiple role as ambassador for all these things. She urged the audience, that if ever they did not like the way they were represented, to seek to find ways of representing themselves. Taking up the conference slogan of claiming our space, she told them to find their own voice to represent their religion, their culture, their values, their beliefs.
Disclosure: the glamorous ambassador (below) is a personal friend of many years. And in addition to being a fine novelist she is also the very fine mother of an impressive teenage son (and who will go places in life). Keep up the good work, Maha!
I’ve seen two good Egyptian films over the past couple of weeks. One was Yousry Nasrallah’s ‘After the Battle’, which is the first feature-length film to come out of that country on the revolutionary upheaval of 2011 and its immediate aftermath. Though the film is fiction it necessarily mixes in some documentary in view of its topicality. Nasrallah directed the excellent 2009 ‘Scheherazade Tell Me a Story’ (‘Femmes du Caire’), which was a devastating portrayal and critique of the status of women in contemporary Egypt, and in all social classes. Nasrallah, who co-wrote the screenplay for this one, really pulled it off, which was no sure thing for a mass appeal film on a contemporary and ongoing event. The film is engaging, absorbing, nuanced in its politics and depiction of gender and social class dynamics, and with great acting, notably by Bassem Samra—who plays the Mahmoud character; I’ve seen him in several films in recent years—and Nahed El Sebaï, who plays Mahmoud’s wife, Fatma. Mahmoud lives in Nazlet, the quarter next to the Giza pyramids, earns his living taking tourists around on his horse, and was one of the cavaliers who charged into Tahrir Square on February 2nd—nine days before Hosni Mubarak’s fall—, beating and whipping demonstrators. He’s a simple guy and claims he was put up to it, though that’s not totally clear. The movie is about his and wife’s relationship with an idealistic, headstrong do-gooder from the upper class named Reem—played by Meena Chalaby—, who is a reporter and member of the association for the protection of animals—and an activist in the Tahrir Square movement—, who takes in interest in Mahmoud while distributing feed to the horses as part of her animal protection work (the cavaliers now dependent on handouts with the drying up of tourism). Mahmoud—with whom Reem commits a minor transgression, but that seriously transgresses the social class chasm—has become an outcast: for those outside his neighborhood, because he participated in the notorious Tahrir Square assault; for his fellow horse riders, because he was caught on YouTube being pulled off his horse and beaten by demonstrators. So Reem tries to help him and his family. I won’t call the pic a chef d’œuvre, as one may detect an implausibility here, a contrivance there, and a few small doses of bons sentiments, but none of these are major or detract from the film’s quality. The film works. And the sleazy political kingpin in Nazlet, Haj Abdallah (or Hag, as Egyptians pronounce it), is brilliantly depicted by comic actor Salah Abdallah. Critics in Variety and Hollywood Reporter gave the pic the thumbs way up (here and here; also here). French reviews range from tops to middling (the latter may be ignored). If one is at all interested in Egypt, don’t miss it.
The other film is a documentary, ‘The Virgin, the Copts and Me’, by filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh, raised in France to Egyptian parents. Jay Weissberg’s review of the film in Variety last November describes well what it’s about. As it’s behind the wall, here’s the whole thing
Despite having gone through various incarnations, or perhaps because of it, “The Virgin, the Copts and Me” is a disarmingly honest, thoroughly winning personal portrait of family and heritage, grounded in religion but not dependent on belief. Tyro helmer Namir Abdel Messeh struggled long and hard to get this personal project made after being dumped by his French producers for not adhering to their vision; the last laugh’s on them, since the docu bagged $100,000 at Doha Tribeca and should easily find auds at fests and in Gallic theaters, as well as on TV.
It’s fair to say Abdel Messeh was unfocused when he went into the project with the partial support of French TV. The initial idea was to look into various apparitions of the Virgin Mary claimed by Coptic communities in Egypt over the last few decades. Though completely Frenchified, the helmer comes from Egypt, and his mother Siham’s family from Asyut, in Upper Egypt, where devotees claim the Virgin appeared in 2000.
In Egypt, his skepticism rubs the faithful the wrong way, and following the New Year’s Day attack on Copts in Alexandria this year, the producers pressure him to focus on Egypt’s religious tensions. Instead, Abdel Messeh heads south to his maternal family, despite Mom’s implacable opposition to her son filming her nearest and dearest. The reason is clear: The family members are dirt-poor peasants, and despite her love for them, Siham also feels some shame in her roots.
Reconnecting with his family inspires Abdel Messeh, but his producers aren’t pleased, and when he fails to incorporate the Egyptian Revolution into the mix, they ankle the project; the phone conversations, heard onscreen, straddle the line between painful and hilarious. Mom, an accountant, saves the day by flying to Egypt and agreeing to be the docu’s treasurer. She’s dropped her threats to sue her son, and quickly gets into the swing of things, despite not understanding how this is going to come together as a movie.
At the beginning, she’s not wrong, yet somewhere along the way, Abdel Messeh realizes the real story is his family, not merely as believers in the visions but as hard-working, good-hearted people who can’t be reduced to a stereotype. He decides to re-enact the vision with family and locals in various roles, and while this reps the culmination of the docu, the real meat lies in the process.
For Siham, too, there’s a transformation as she reconnects with her family and realizes her son’s interest is respectful rather than exploitative. Viewers are left to contemplate parallels between being a Christian minority in Egypt and being an Egyptian in France; he’s an outsider in his two worlds, yet very much a part of them both.
Visuals are strong in the off-the-cuff way auds expect from this kind of personal docu. Given constant changes during the production, the excellent editing warrants special commendation, finding a rhythm and keeping pace with it all.
The film is engaging, funny in parts—many parts, in fact—, and whose depiction of Coptic village life in Upper Egypt will be of interest to anthropologically minded spectators who don’t know much about the country. The Muslim-Coptic divide in the country is manifest in the film. No dancing around it. I saw the film a month after it opened and the theater—in the center of Paris—was packed, and with applause at the end. Word-of-mouth on the pic has been strong (and now I’m spreading the word too). For another review, go here. French reviews are here.
Egypt is such a contradictory place. On the one hand it’s a disaster and on so many levels; on the other, people are so nice and friendly in one’s personal dealings. A friend who travels there periodically—and who knows the Arab world—sent me this email not too long ago. The way he describes Egyptians is precisely reflected in the above films.
Heading out to hike around Cairo all day. While this place is so broken-down and dysfunctional, and its intellectual life so poisonous, I love Egyptians. Watching them…reminds me of those old black sit-coms like “Sanford and Son.” Egyptians are always hyperventilating, sweating, wheezing, gesticulating, belly-laughing, working themselves up into a lather over nothin, all overweight and unhealthy looking, you can always get a rise out of them, get them to kid around. Love it.
And then this follow-up a few days later, somewhat more equivocal
Wherever I travel, my days are filled with small encounters with strangers. Some are disagreeable, most are neutral, some are pleasant because the person en face exhibits an unexpected dollop of kindness, humor, or just positive liveliness.
France is the country where the largest proportion of such encounters are neutral. Once you play by their rules of civility they are almost never rude; but then again almost never fun or warm. The US is the country with the wildest variation. One guy is warm and familiar, the next is rude and vulgar. Egypt is the MENA country where these small encounters most often leave you with a smile or a glow.
But that good humor is about all Egypt has going for it. Otherwise it’s just a giant kitty litter box. Cairo is filthy, broken-down, dirt poor traffic-choked. Most expats who say they love living here wall themselves off from the other 99 percent. As I would too if I ever had to live here. Which is why I would never want to live here.
I lived in Cairo for part of a year in the mid ’80s. I loved the place and could have stayed longer. Don’t know if I would feel that way now.