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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

My friend Claire Berlinski has a post on the Ricochet blog, “Mass grave in the Mediterranean,” in which she favorably refers to Adam Garfinkle’s writings, on The American Interest website, on the Obama administration’s Libya intervention. Garfinkle was a strong opponent of the intervention and is feeling vindicated on account of his apparent clairvoyance as to how things would turn out there. I have a few issues with his POV, though, which I wrote to Claire in an email. But instead of sending the mail, I’m posting it here on AWAV instead, where others (e.g. Bob B.) can eventually weigh in:

On the Libya intervention, Adam Garfinkle has the satisfaction of saying he was right from the beginning—it’s always gratifying to be able to do that—but Libya was, in fact, a roll of the dice. Or a coin flip (a better metaphor). It was a 50-50 proposition (in terms of arguments for intervention vs. against). I wrote this four years ago almost to the day (here) and would write it again today.

There are a few things Garfinkle doesn’t consider, or maybe downplays (as I’m maxed out on my quota of free American Interest articles, I can’t go back and verify what precisely he said at the time or since). First, the Obama administration was divided on the wisdom of intervening in Libya but its hand was forced by Sarkozy and Cameron (in the same way as Clinton’s was by Chirac and Blair in Kosovo). But as it was clear that it would merely be a bombing campaign—no ground troops—the decision was relatively easy (and particularly as there was no objection from Russia or the Arab states, Algeria excepted; Qadhafi’s utter isolation in the Arab world, including in Arab public opinion, was striking; so the US had nothing to worry about in that department).

Second, there already was an insurgency/civil war underway and that would have worsened had the US not intervened. It is entirely possible—even likely—that the situation we’re witnessing in Libya today would have happened anyway (and with many more Libyans having been killed in the process). In other words, the US intervention may have merely hastened a possibly inevitable outcome.

Third, there is no reason to believe that Libya would be an island of stability today had Qadhafi prevailed in the civil war—with the inevitable massacres and exactions—for the simple reason that Qadhafi had always been a source of instability. A comparison with Iraq is useful here. Qadhafi’s regime was, in fact, far worse than Saddam Hussein’s; the internal repression and brutality of the two regimes were on a par—they were equally bad in both—but Qadhafi meddled in the affairs of other countries—in the Maghreb and West Africa—and generally wreaked havoc in a way that Saddam did not (with two big exceptions, of course, in 1980 and 1990, when he grossly miscalculated). And Qadhafi was a sponsor of international terrorism—targeting Americans and Europeans—in a way Saddam’s regime never was. No act of terrorism in Europe from the mid 1970s onward can be traced back to Baghdad (unlike to Tripoli, Tehran, or Damascus). So there is no a priori reason to assume that we would not be witnessing the current migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean if Qadhafi were still in power.

N.B. The disaster in Libya is due to the collapse of the Libyan state. But the collapse of the Libyan state was not brought about by the US intervention or events set in motion by this. It was brought about by Qadhafi. Qadhafi wrecked what existed of a state in Libya. Qadhafi patrimonialized the Libyan state—concentrating total power in the hands of his immediate family—to an extent unseen in an Arab country outside the Gulf. Ba’athist Iraq had a state. Qadhafi’s Libya did not. There was a small window in 2012 during which it could have been reconstituted (e.g. here). Unfortunately it didn’t work out.

One last thing. Garfinkle, in his post from this February, alludes to the mess in Mali and Nigeria as an unintended, but implicitly inevitable, consequence of the US invention. But did Garfinkle warn about this back in 2011? Did anyone? If so, I’d like the reference.

UPDATE: See the essay in Vox (April 5, 2016) by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, “Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure; they’re wrong.”

2nd UPDATE: Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, who directs the Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’École Militaire in Paris and has been an adviser to the French foreign ministry, has a must-read article in the Summer 2016 issue of The Washington Quarterly, “Ten Myths About the 2011 Intervention in Libya.”

3rd UPDATE: Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Micah Zenko has a piece in Foreign Policy (March 22, 2017) entitled “The big lie about the Libyan war: The Obama administration said it was just trying to protect civilians. Its actions reveal it was looking for regime change.” Which is what I thought from the very outset.

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IS fighters, Anbar province, Iraq

IS fighters, Anbar province, Iraq

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Politico Magazine has an interesting article (dated April 7th) by Emma Sky, “How Obama abandoned democracy in Iraq,” which is adapted from her new book, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. Sky, who’s British and presently a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, was the representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk in 2003-04 and political adviser in 2007-10 to US Gen. Ray Odierno, commanding general of the Multi-National Force–Iraq, so knows something about the subject and has much to say on it (and she speaks Arabic, which gives her extra cred). Sky—who says she opposed the 2003 invasion—essentially blames Iraq’s downward spiral from 2010 onward on the Obama administration—and particularly VP Joseph Biden and the US ambassadors in Baghdad (appointed by President Obama)—of their backing the wrong horse after the Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2010, i.e. supporting Nouri al-Maliki over Iyad Allawi. If the Obama administration had backed the right horse (Allawi), things in Iraq may have turned out very differently, Sky strongly implies. Subtext: If Obama had played it otherwise the Islamic State may have never seen the light of day and Iraq would possibly be a stable, democracy-consolidating polity at peace, and with Iranian influence kept to a minimum.

If Sky is right, then Obama botched this one big time, that’s for sure. Her argument is to be given due consideration but I’m not buying it. Ambassadors—even US ones—are simply not major actors in the domestic politics of any given country and at any given moment, and particularly in a country as consequential and complicated as Iraq—where ambassadors, for security reasons, hardly ever leave their embassies—and the utterances of a foreign leader on a lightning visit simply do not alter the course of history. But though I am skeptical of Sky’s argument, I have nonetheless put her book on my to-read list (expressing my best of intentions as to eventually reading it).

On the Islamic State—about which I read daily—the most interesting piece I’ve come across in the past few days is The Washington Post’s enquête (April 4th) by the paper’s Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly, “The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein’s.” Reporting from Turkey, Sly interviewed a former Syrian IS chieftain going by the name Abu Hamza, who

underscore[d] the pervasive role played by members of Iraq’s former Baathist army in an organization more typically associated with flamboyant foreign jihadists and the gruesome videos in which they star. (…) “All the decision makers are Iraqi, and most of them are former Iraqi officers. The Iraqi officers are in command, and they make the tactics and the battle plans,” he said. “But the Iraqis themselves don’t fight. They put the foreign fighters on the front lines.”

On the extreme cruelty of IS, this has an Iraqi Ba’athist pedigree

The raw cruelty of Hussein’s Baathist regime, the disbandment of the Iraqi army after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the subsequent insurgency and the marginalization of Sunni Iraqis by the Shiite-dominated government all are intertwined with the Islamic State’s ascent, said Hassan Hassan, a Dubai-based analyst and co-author of the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” (…)

At first glance, the secularist dogma of Hussein’s tyrannical Baath Party seems at odds with the Islamic State’s harsh interpretation of the Islamic laws it purports to uphold.

But the two creeds broadly overlap in several regards, especially their reliance on fear to secure the submission of the people under the group’s rule. Two decades ago, the elaborate and cruel forms of torture perpetrated by Hussein dominated the discourse about Iraq, much as the Islamic State’s harsh punishments do today. (…)

In the last two years of Hussein’s rule, a campaign of beheadings, mainly targeting women suspected of prostitution and carried out by his elite Fedayeen unit, killed more than 200 people, human rights groups reported at the time.

The brutality deployed by the Islamic State today recalls the bloodthirstiness of some of those Fedayeen, said Hassan. Promotional videos from the Hussein era include scenes resembling those broadcast today by the Islamic State, showing the Fedayeen training, marching in black masks, practicing the art of decapitation and in one instance eating a live dog. (…)

On the US role in unwittingly facilitating the current situation:

The de-Baathification law promulgated by L.­ Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American ruler in 2003, has long been identified as one of the contributors to the original insurgency. At a stroke, 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were barred from government employment, denied pensions — and also allowed to keep their guns.

The U.S. military failed in the early years to recognize the role the disbanded Baathist officers would eventually come to play in the extremist group, eclipsing the foreign fighters whom American officials preferred to blame, said Col. Joel Rayburn, a senior fellow at the National Defense University who served as an adviser to top generals in Iraq and describes the links between Baathists and the Islamic State in his book, “Iraq After America.” (…)

It was under the watch of the current Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that the recruitment of former Baathist officers became a deliberate strategy, according to analysts and former officers. (…)

The ex-Baathists could be lured away, if they were offered alternatives and hope for the future, [a former general who commanded Iraqi troops during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003] said.

“The Americans bear the biggest responsibility. When they dismantled the army what did they expect those men to do?” he asked. “They were out in the cold with nothing to do and there was only one way out for them to put food on the table.”

When U.S. officials demobilized the Baathist army, “they didn’t de-Baathify people’s minds, they just took away their jobs,” he said.

If one didn’t see it, the NYT’s Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt had a must-read enquête last August 11th on how “U.S. actions in Iraq fueled [the] rise of [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi],” to which may be added The Guardian’s Martin Chulov’s equally must-read December 11th report, “ISIS: The inside story.” The lede: “One of the Islamic State’s senior commanders reveals exclusive details of the terror group’s origins inside an Iraqi prison – right under the noses of their American jailers.”

Also worth the read is J.J. Goldberg’s commentary in the JDF (April 6th) on “How Bibi and Bush made a mess of the Middle East.” The lede: “Misplaced focus on Saddam’s Iraq tore region apart.”

ADDENDUM: Some ten days ago I attended a talk by Pierre-Jean Luizard, France’s leading academic specialist of modern Iraq, who has just published a book on IS, Le piège Daech: L’État islamique ou le retour de l’Histoire. He made a number of points in his dense, learned exposé, of which three may be mentioned: 1. The Americans bear considerable responsibility for the current calamity in Iraq, as they set out to confessionalize the Iraqi political system during the year the Coalition Provisional Authority ruled the country. But—and I’m extrapolating from Luizard’s analysis here—it was a near certainty that the imposition of a Lebanese-style system in Iraq would have deleterious consequences, as it would inexorably lead to a bid for hegemony by the Shi’ites and alienate the Sunnis, who had ruled the lands of Mesopotamia for centuries. If a confessional/consociational-type system is going to work—and this is my point, not Luizard’s—it has to be negotiated by the legitimate, recognized elites of the confessional groups themselves—as was the 1943 Lebanese National Pact—and all the groups have to be minorities.  2. IS is indeed heavily comprised of former Iraqi Ba’athists. The Saddam Hussein legacy is manifest. IS is the present-day political expression of Iraq’s Sunnis. The Shia-dominated Iraqi army will not be able to regain control of Mosul and other cities controlled by IS. If they manage to do so, massacres of Sunnis and/or mass pillaging of Sunni property will inevitably ensue—as witnessed in Tikrit earlier this week—as will permanent insurrection against the Iraqi state. In short, Iraq, as we have known it, is finished.  3. The US and its allies have neither the strategy nor the means to defeat IS. Bombing IS will change nothing, as there is no alternative force to take IS’s place—except, in Iraq, the Iraqi state as presently constituted (see point 2). As for Syria, Luizard stressed that the Ba’athist regime in Damascus will never again control Raqqa (not that it even seeks to). So, in short, the situation in Iraq (and Syria) is extremely bleak. Luizard ended on a very pessimistic note.

UPDATE: The Foreign Policy website has an appalling account (April 9th) by Qusai Zakarya—the nom de plume of Kassem Eid, a youthful Syrian-Palestinian activist—on “The starving of Yarmouk, then the capture.” The lede: “The Islamic State’s attack on the besieged Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus is highly suspicious. It could only have happened with Assad’s complicity.” Having visited Yarmouk five years ago and where I met kind, friendly people (here), what’s happening there has a particular resonance with me.

2nd UPDATE: Orthopedic surgeon Samer Attar, who volunteered in field hospitals with the Syrian-American Medical Society in Aleppo in August 2013 and April 2014, has an “Aleppo Diary” in the WSJ (April 12th) on “The carnage from Syrian barrel bombs.” Barrel bombs: If there’s one single thing that summarizes the evil of the Syrian Ba’athist regime, it’s this.

3rd UPDATE: Spiegel Online International has a lengthy, must-read report (April 18th) on the Saddam regime/IS link, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State.” The lede: “An Iraqi officer planned Islamic State’s takeover in Syria and SPIEGEL has been given exclusive access to his papers. They portray an organization that, while seemingly driven by religious fanaticism, is actually coldly calculating.”

4th UPDATE: The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who was the NYT’s Baghdad correspondent from 2003 to ’06, has a commentary (May 15th), “Did George W. Bush create ISIS?,” in which he revists decisions made early on in the Iraq war, notably the one to dissolve the Iraqi army, which Filkins calls “probably the single most catastrophic decision of the American venture in Iraq,” and from which the Sunni insurgency was launched. Ergo, Bush was at least partly responsible for the eventual rise of the Islamic State. But Filkins also points a finger in Obama’s direction, opining that “it seems possible that, if Obama had pushed [Nuri al-]Maliki harder, the United States could have retained a small force of soldiers [in Iraq] in noncombat roles.” Sure. As if the mere presence of a few US military personnel would have scared the IS away from seizing Mosul and everything else it has. Allez. And Filkins oddly neglects to mention the refusal of the Iraqi parliament to approve the SOFA, which gave the US no choice but to leave that blessed country to its own devices. So on this particular point, not convinced!

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american-sniper-poster-small

[update below]

I saw this three days ago, the day it opened in France. I made it a point to read nothing on the movie beforehand—either reviews or articles—though am aware that it is a big box office hit in the US—beyond all expectations—and particularly among conservatives. And I still haven’t read anything about the movie, though will, after writing this. My verdict: It is a reprehensible film. It is so because it makes a hero out of a man who is, in fact, not a hero and who achieved his heroic status—in the eyes of those who accord him this (and they are numerous in l’Amérique profonde, as one sees at the end)—in fighting and killing in a war that America had no business fighting. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is considered a hero because he killed 160 combatants and other irregulars who were out to kill American soldiers in a war zone. Bully for him. Soldiers protect their own in all wars, no? What else is new in the history of warfare? CPO Kyle, we learn, went beyond the call of duty to protect his buddies. He was a brave man, intrepid even. Bully for him again. One may understand why he was considered a hero within the US military—fellow soldiers called him “the legend”—but there is no rhyme or reason for him to be considered as such by any citizen outside the military.

It would be otherwise, of course, if CPO Kyle had been killing enemy combatants who were at war with America and posed a threat to America inside its borders. Celebrating his feats in the larger society would thus be comprehensible. But this was the Iraq war. The nagging (rhetorical) question that went through my mind throughout the film, in watching Kyle and his fellow soldiers engaged in urban warfare in Fallujah and Ramadi, was WTF were they doing there in the first place? What enemy were they fighting? Now it is established early in the film that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs following 9/11, as a patriotic reflex of an American whose country was attacked. Lots of Americans had that reflex (for the anecdote, in the days after 9/11 I let the US embassy in Paris know that my services were available—including to any intelligence agency—should they want them; I didn’t hear back). After completing SEAL boot camp the film jumps to Kyle in Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Iraq posed no threat to America. Now the US government of the time and all sorts of other Americans intoxicated by nationalist hysteria or Washington groupthink believed that Iraq was indeed a threat to the United States, but those who knew something about the Middle East and, more generally, how to analyze and think coherently—which includes myself, obviously—knew this was preposterous and argued it to all and sundry.

At one point in the film, Kyle tells one of his buddies that “we have to kill the enemy here so they don’t come and kill us in New York or San Diego” (approximate quote). That even an ignorant soldier could believe such bullshit by 2005 is breathtaking. The enemy that Kyle & Co were fighting is clearly identified: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Al-Qaida in Iraq (not once is Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist regime—the ostensible threat to America in 2003—mentioned in the film). Now Zarqawi and AQI were definitely not nice people. I will even agree with Kyle that they were Evil (capital E) (the notion that America is fighting Evil, and not just in Iraq, is evoked more than once in the film). But here’s the thing: America did not invade Iraq to fight Zarqawi and AQI. AQI, which posed no threat to the American homeland, did not even exist when America launched the Iraq war. The very existence of AQI—and its presence in Iraq’s Sunni triangle—was a direct consequence of America’s invasion. And Fallujah being reduced to rubble and its population driven from the city was directly caused by America being there (the scene in the house that the soldiers have stormed—with Kyle demanding to know what the family is doing there and why they hadn’t evacuated the city—is incredible, as if people should naturally abandon their homes and worldly possessions—to looters, criminals, terrorists, whoever—because a foreign army tells them to). None of this is examined in Eastwood’s film. America is in Iraq fighting the enemy because that’s what it’s doing. America is there because it’s there. Fighting Evil there, before it comes for us here.

Further contributing to the film’s reprehensibility is its backhanded celebration of America’s gun culture—and of militaristic values more generally (American society being the only one in the Western world, as Tony Judt observed in one of his later essays, that continues to exalt the military and its values). In the opening scene we see seven-year-old Chris in rural Texas bagging a deer on his first hunting trip with his father. Kyle père is teaching his son how to handle firearms. Now I can accept that rural people the world over and since time immemorial hunt and have rifles at home. I don’t relate to it but, for rural folk, that’s just the way they live and I pass no judgment on it. But the moral code that daddy Kyle seeks to instill in his sons around the dinner table—which is underpinned with violence and accompanied by stupid ass references to God and the Lord—is another matter. I’m sorry but Chris Kyle’s father—who was ready to whip his sons with a belt—was an asshole. And then there’s the scene toward the end, of Kyle at home with wife and kids—before he drives off in his pick-up and gets murdered—goofing around the living room and kitchen with a six-shooter, which may or may not be loaded (but if the gun’s not loaded, what’s the point of having it in the first place, if, acting with hair-trigger presence of mind, one can’t immediately neutralize a bad guy entering the house uninvited, or some shit like that?). Anyone who keeps a handgun at home, in proximity to children, and plays around with it in front of children to boot is a reprehensible SOB.

On ‘American Sniper’ as cinema, it’s okay. Bradley Cooper puts in an acceptable performance, though hardly deserves an Oscar nomination for it. Sienna Miller is likewise acceptable as Chris’s wife Taya—she’s certainly attractive—but spends too much of the film weeping over her husband going off on yet another tour with his beloved SEALs (for Chris Kyle, Iraq was a war of choice). And the scenes of their lovey dovey satellite phone conversations while he’s picking off enemy fighters from rooftops or heading into combat stretched credulity. One would think that any soldier who chats up his wife or g.f. on the phone while under fire would be reprimanded by his commanding officer, if not subjected to disciplinary action. Generally speaking and in view of its inescapable political parti pris, I don’t see how anyone outside of Jacksonian America—to borrow from Walter Russell Mead—can possibly adhere to the film and its message. But, as it happens, the early reaction in France has been positive, among both critics and Allociné spectateurs. The French love affair with Clint Eastwood continues. Every last Eastwood movie—including his worst and/or schlockiest—receives a rapturous welcome here and ‘American Sniper’ appears to be no exception. Hélas.

ADDENDUM: A further comment. Toward the end of the film Chris Kyle, in dealing with his PTSD, attends rehab sessions with Iraq war vets who have suffered serious injury (limbs blown off, etc). Some 40,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded in Iraq, many of the latter saved thanks to advances in military medicine, who would have died of their wounds in previous wars. What do Jacksonian, Fox News-watching Americans make of this? In fact, they almost have to uncritically accept the thesis of the film—that America was fighting Evil, no questions asked—as if one were to accept that the Iraq war was a catastrophic mistake—the most disastrous foreign policy decision in American history—then there would be no escaping the conclusion that Americans died or had their lives shattered for absolutely nothing. And then there is, of course, the number of Iraqis killed, which, since 2003, is heading upwards of 200,000 (if not more). Now most of those Iraqis were killed by other Iraqis. But if Iraq in 2003 was a Pandora’s Box of simmering sectarian hatred, America came in with a baseball bat and smashed that box open. The catastrophe in Iraq happened on America’s watch. And while there’s a lot of blame to go around, the catastrophic situation in Iraq today is ultimately America’s fault.

2nd ADDENDUM: One bit about the movie that caused me to jolt in my seat, but which slipped my mind while writing this post, was the final battle scene, where CPO Kyle finally terminates AQI sniper Mustafa with the golden bullet. The battle took place in Sadr City, which, as any halfway knowledgeable person knows, is the big Shi’ite quartier populaire of Baghdad. But AQI—which has since mutated into ISIS—is Sunni. AQI was killing Shi’ites when it wasn’t killing Americans. Sadr City at the time was Muqtada al-Sadr’s fiefdom, and he and his followers didn’t like AQI, to put it mildly. So on this level the scene makes no sense. Clint Eastwood and his team betrayed inexcusable ignorance here.

A correction: I wrote above that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs after 9/11. In fact, he did so after the 1998 Nairobi/Dar es Salaam bombings.

UPDATE: I’ve come across an excellent review/commentary on ‘American Sniper’, dated January 10th, by Ross Caputi, a former Marine who, like Chris Kyle, participated in the 2nd Siege of Fallujah. Caputi’s reaction to the film is similar to mine. His review is well worth reading. (February 28th)

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eau-argentee-syrie-autoportrait

These photos of Homs, “Assad’s trophy city in Syria,” graced the home page of Le Monde earlier today. Homs: Syria’s third largest city and with a pre-2011 population of some 700,000, large parts of which are now a destroyed ghost town. Last week I saw the 110-minute documentary, ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’, which premiered at Cannes and is presently playing in four Paris cinemas. Quoting from Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety, it is

A necessary, often unbearable documentary that bears vital witness to the horrors of Syria’s civil war.

It’s said that Syria is the land of assassinated filmmakers, since anyone with a camera or cell phone becomes an instant target for sniper bullets. Director Ossama Mohammed (“Sacrifices”), in exile in Paris since 2011, sifted through thousands of online videos documenting the daily atrocities in his country to make “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” a necessary, often unbearable documentary that bears witness to the horrors of the civil war. To this he adds footage by Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a young Kurdish woman in Homs who contacted Mohammed for advice on what to film around her. The combined results, given a structure by chapter-like intertitle headings, will leave no viewer unshaken…

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here. The film—which is mainly of Homs—did not leave me unshaken, that’s for sure. It’s devastating, the most powerful documentary one is likely to see on the Syrian civil war. The level of violence, mayhem, cruelty, and sheer destruction in Syria as depicted in the documentary defies belief and comprehension. Cela dépasse l’entendement. The film footage, taken by the “1,001 Syrians”—army soldiers included—who shot it on their mobile phones, does show armed jihadist brigades—likely the Jabhat al-Nusra—and who have their share of responsibility in the catastrophe, but there is no question whatever that the main culprit is the Ba’athist regime. But we all know this by now. For more on the film, see the review in THR and Paris prof Karin Badt’s piece in Huff Post. If you have the chance to see it, do so. Trailer is here.

On the general subject, here’s a 20-page enquête (PDF) by journalist David Lepeska in Al Jazeera Magazine (dated November 29th), entitled “Left Behind.” The lede: A generation of Syrian refugees have been forced to leave their childhoods at the border as they take on the responsibility of providing for their families in a strange country [Turkey].

And with this, I wish all a Merry Christmas.

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Banning the niqab

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Christopher Dickey, grand reporter for The Daily Beast, offers an excellent argument here for banning face veils in public space. In a post 3½ years ago I expressed my disapproval of France’s “burqa” ban—which had just entered into force—, though not out of high-minded principle or respect for religious freedom, as face veils are specific to certain cultures, mandated by no religion—not that this matters one way or the other—, and cannot be defended on these particular grounds. But I’ve changed my mind. The French law may have been enacted for the wrong reasons but that doesn’t mean it was wrong tout court. Now this is not to suggest that the police should stop every last niqab-wearing woman they see on the street; discretion can and should be exercised—e.g. to avoid causing a riot—, as the police generally do when witnessing persons in the act of committing misdemeanors. But they should still have the authority to stop and detain those who conceal their faces in public. So on the question of the niqab, I say ban the damn thing!

UPDATE: Omer Aziz, a writer and J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, has an op-ed by the title of “Banning the niqab harms an open society: So does wearing it,” which is one of the best succinct arguments I’ve come across on this question. (March 16, 2015)

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charlie hebdo no1163 011014

Voilà the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, which will hit the newsstands tomorrow (October 1st). For those whose French is not up to par, it reads:

IF MOHAMMED WERE TO RETURN…

“I’m the Prophet, idiot!”

“STFU, infidel!”

Charlie Hebdo nails it. Totally.

Somehow I think security will be reinforced outside Charlie Hebdo’s office in the 11th arrondissement.

ADDENDUM: For other irreverent CH covers I’ve posted on, go here, here, here, and here.

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Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya and correspondent for the Beirut daily Al-Nahar, had an excellent, must read essay in Politico last week (September 18th), “The barbarians within our gates,” in which he lucidly asserted in the lede that “Arab civilization has collapsed [and] won’t recover in my lifetime.” Money quote

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.

Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State? And that there is no one else who can clean up the vast mess we Arabs have made of our world but the Americans and Western countries?

The implosion of practically the entire Arab world east of the Maghreb—and particularly of its core states—over the past three years is breathtaking. It’s stunning. The future of Egypt—a state and nation crushed by its demography and in which there is no positive dynamic whatever (politically, economically, culturally, you name it)—is bleak; Syria, Iraq, and Libya are finished—shattered states and societies that will not be put back together for the foreseeable future, if ever; Lebanon—a fragile, weak state and whose most important social, political, and military actor acts independently of that state and is remote-controlled by a foreign power to boot—could descend into internecine bloodletting (Shia vs. Sunni) at almost any moment; Jordan is on the knife’s edge and likewise Saudi Arabia, which has nothing to offer the world or itself but oil and the holy places… And then there’s Yemen, running out of water and in a state of permanent tribal rebellion. As for the Palestinians, let’s not talk about them…

Melhem does mention Tunisia as a possible exception to all this. Tunisia—a small, confessionally and ethnically homogeneous country—has indeed not been doing badly—so far, at least—in its transition toward something that resembles democracy, but is in economically dire straits and is vulnerable to the chaos on its southeastern border. And if Tunisia is doing okay relatively speaking, this is in part thanks to its sizable French-speaking educated class, which has been influenced by certain French ways of thinking (notably in regard to republicanism and the relationship of religion and the state), and is oriented toward Europe. Which all goes to show that the legacy of French colonialism isn’t all negative (merci, la France). Algeria and Morocco have likewise benefited from this aspect of their French pasts, though all that stands in the way of Algeria becoming another Afghanistan or Somalia is its hydrocarbon wealth. Algeria is about as rentier of a state as one can get (whose state budget depends on hydrocarbon taxes to an even greater extent than in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states). As for Morocco, its archaic monarchical order enjoys legitimacy but if the corruption and inequalities there get any worse, who knows how long that will last?…

Another piece on the catastrophic situation in the Arab world read of late was by Daniel Williams, formerly of Human Rights Watch, in WaPo (September 19th), who informed the reader that “Christianity in Iraq is finished.” Williams, writing from Erbil, says that the West should not delude itself on this, that there will soon be almost no Christians left in Iraq (and probably not in Syria either, he could have added). The exodus of Iraqi Christians is being accelerated by ISIS, of course, but was boosted in a big way by events set in motion by the 2003 US invasion, he correctly asserts. In point of fact, though, Christians have been emigrating from the Near East to Europe and the Americas for much of the 20th century, e.g. the departure of Iraqi Chaldeans and Assyrians to the US (Chicago and Detroit) in the 1920s and ’30. It goes without saying that the end of the indigenous Christian presence in the Middle East would be a tragedy of major proportions (as I’ve posted on, e.g., here and here). An incalculable loss—culturally and economically—to those societies. And for which the sole response is for Europe, the Americas, and countries elsewhere to throw open their doors to the fleeing Christians.

À propos—and while I’m thinking of it—, here’s a question for Palestine one-staters: if the mythic one state were to somehow come into existence, does one honestly believe that Muslims, Christians, and Jews would live together in peace and harmony—or at least en bonne intelligence—, or would the Jews (and remaining Christians) eventually find themselves in the same situation as Christians in Iraq today? Poser la question c’est y répondre, je crois…

Like for Syria  لايك لأجل سوريا

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Obama & ISIS

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A faithful reader—my mother—asked me in an email the day before yesterday why I hadn’t commented on Obama’s speech on ISIS. I replied that I hadn’t paid much attention to it, being occupied as I was with getting my daughter set up in Istanbul, where she’s spending an Erasmus year. Now that I’m back in Paris, I’ve been able to take a few minutes to read into the matter. This commentary by CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook, “ISIS and us: No way to go to war,” gets it right IMO. The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch also had a worthwhile comment on “What Obama didn’t say.” And I will take the liberty of cutting-and-pasting journalist Craig Pyes‘s pertinent Facebook status update of two days ago

It’s appalling how so much of the press and pundit corps are so wrong in their criticism of Obama’s actions on ISIS (although there will be plenty of mistakes, little he can do, and a real danger of a prolonged war). Most journalists hunt in packs, and they follow each other rather than discern their own truths. This is true on the ground and in their thoughts. It’s why each newspaper reads like the others. Obama’s reaction has little to do with terrorism, and to draw up arguments of why it won’t be an effective CT tool, totally misses the point. Secondly, this is not Iraq in 2003, and marshaling the arguments against being overly credulous then — which you all were (Strobel and Landay exempted) — you’re, as they say, fighting the last war. Now is not then. Not only do these reporters think they’re right because their colleagues are writing the same critique, but it conforms to a pool of common sources, most of whom are no longer in the government. Very, very few of these reporters actually know anything about underlying realities of the Middle East, and so are captive to their sources.

The Middle East is unraveling — there are serious bad scenarios that can emerge — and for the US to do nothing about ISIS will insure that the political climate turns even more poisonous there than it is now, with thousands of innocents being butchered. The political reality is not good now, there is a huge possibility that the US will not be able to influence what it is becoming, but those aren’t arguments for sitting back and doing nothing. Nor are they arguments to put boots on the ground.

Affaire à suivre, évidemment.

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Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak in 'Four Lions' (credit: Magnolia Pictures)

Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak in ‘Four Lions’ (credit: Magnolia Pictures)

[update below]

Huffington Post UK political director Medhi Hasan has a delicious piece (August 21st) on two 22-year-old British jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who were convicted on terrorism charges in Birmingham last month—after Yusuf’s mum alerted the police about her son’s activities. As was revealed during the trial, they had purchased copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies (en français: L’Islam et le Coran pour les nuls) on Amazon before setting off to Syria to wage jihad. Sans blague.

In his post Hasan mentions the 2010 comedy satire ‘Four Lions‘, which spoofs a gang of low IQ jihadist wannabes from the English Midlands. The film, which I saw when it came out, is very funny and also spot on. There are certainly many dangerous, violent jihadists from immigrant communities in the West—recent ones including Mohamed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche, and the psychopath who murdered James Foley—who are out there, but for all of these there are no doubt as many, if not more, of the whack job losers depicted in ‘Four Lions’—and the two just convicted in Birmingham. If one is interested in the jihadist phenomenon and has not seen the movie, one should do so. Take it from one of France’s leading scholars on radicalism, as quoted by the NYT’s Robert Worth

When I asked Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French scholar and one of the most respected analysts of jihadi groups, whether anyone had really succeeded in capturing the everyday truth of their world in fiction or film, he ran through a number of novels on the subject and dismissed them all: too many were unconvincing or tied up in political agendas. Then, after a long pause, he said: “Seriously, the way most of them operate? I think ‘Four Lions’ said it best.”

Trailer with French subtitles (though English ones would also help) is here, NYT review is here, NPR interview with director Chris Morris is here.

UPDATE: Sophie Gilbert, senior editor of The Atlantic, has a piece (October 18th) entitled “The best film about Islamic terrorists is a comedy.” The lede: Chris Morris’ Four Lions, released four years ago, skewers the pointlessness and confusion of wannabe jihadists.

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ISIS fighters (image: Vice News)

ISIS fighters (image: Vice News)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Vice News has an incredible, absolute must watch 42-minute reportage, “The Islamic state,” on ISIS’s rule in the parts of Syria and Iraq under its control. Vice’s very brave reporter Medyan Dairieh managed to embed himself for three weeks with the ISIS fighter fanatics, mainly in their Syrian stronghold Raqqa, accompanying and interviewing them as they went about their business. ISIS is the Taliban times ten, totally inculte and fanaticized, and which will not be dislodged, if they are to be so, from the areas they control except by a stronger local force—Iraqis and Syrians—backed by serious outside, i.e. American, support. Bon courage.

As for where the responsibility lies for the ISIS disaster—and this is me talking, not the Vice News reporter—, culprit nº1 is the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies (and we know who they are), period, followed by the regional actors who poured weapons into the country and that fell into ISIS’s hands (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey et al). And, of course, the Nouri al-Maliki regime in Iraq. What a calamity.

On the question of the Americans and whether or not they should have materially aided the Syrian opposition when such aid could have maybe made a difference, political science MENA specialist Marc Lynch settled the question IMO in a must read WaPo Monkey Cage blog post dated August 11st, “Would arming Syria’s rebels have stopped the Islamic State?” Answer: Nope, no doubt not.

In the interest of fairness and balance, political science MENA specialist Steven Heydemann of USIP—who knows Syrian politics and history better than anyone I know personally—had an op-ed in US News & World Report, dated August 14th, arguing the opposite, that “Supporting Syria’s rebels is no fantasy.” I have not been in agreement with Steve on this issue over the past two years but if there’s anyone out there who has made a compelling argument for a more active US involvement in Syria, it is he.

Patrick Cockburn has a new book out, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, and of which The Independent published an extract a week ago.

On the ISIS fanatics, Iraqi journalist Shukur Khilkhal has a piece in Al-Monitor, dated August 12th, on how the organization “emerges from radical Islamic jurisprudence.” The culprit: Sheikh Taqi ibn Taymiyyah. Of course.

UPDATE: Sadik Al-Azm has an essay in the Boston Review (August 18th), “Syria in Revolt: Understanding the Unthinkable War.”

2nd UPDATE: New America Foundation fellow Brian Fishman, in a smart analysis on the War on the Rocks blog (August 20th), says “Don’t BS the American people about Iraq, Syria, and ISIL.”

3rd UPDATE: Gen. John R. Allen, USMC (Ret.), who led the Marines in Anbar Province and commanded the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, says, in a piece in the Defense Now blog (August 20th), that we must “Destroy the Islamic State Now.”

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Yazidis in the Sinjar mountains (photo: Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Yazidis in the Sinjar mountains (photo: Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Iraq is such a catastrophe—with the destruction of its Christian heritage, massacres of Yazidis, et on en passe—that I can hardly bear to read about it. But read about it I do. One essential article read recently—on August 10th, to be precise—was in the NY Times, by reporters Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt, on how “U.S. actions in Iraq fueled rise of a rebel.” The rebel in question is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed “caliph” of ISIS. As one learns in the NYT enquête, Al-Baghdadi was a nobody before the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and would have no doubt remained a nobody had it not been for that invasion and occupation. Iraqis—and Syrians, and everyone else—do have agency, of course, and are responsible for their actions, but what is currently happening in Iraq really is a consequence of US policy. What the US did in Iraq in 2003 was the original sin. There is simply no denying this.

A few other essential articles and papers read of late (all of which appeared before the destitution of PM Nouri al-Maliki):

The International Crisis Group published a 9-page briefing on June 20th—just after my last Iraq posting—, “Iraq’s jihadi jack-in-the-box.” The lede: The jihadi surge is the tragic, violent outcome of steadily deteriorating political dynamics. Instead of a rash military intervention and unconditional support for the Iraqi government, pressure is needed to reverse sectarian polarisation and a disastrous record of governance.

Peter Harling, the ICG’s senior MENA adviser—and no doubt the principal author of the above report—, had a piece in the July issue of Le Monde Diplomatique entitled “Taking Iraq apart.” The lede: Nouri al-Maliki’s incompetence and sectarianism have led to the disintegration of the Iraqi state—and now, unsurprisingly, the ISIL insurgents have declared an Islamic caliphate in the territories they control in Iraq and Syria.

Yezid Sayigh, the very smart senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, had an essay dated July 24th—that originally appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat—, entitled “ISIS: Global Islamic caliphate or Islamic mini-state in Iraq?” The summary: Unless Baghdad offers meaningful political reconciliation and reintegration, ISIS will tighten and deepen its rule of its mini-Islamic state in Iraq.

Stathis Kalyvas, the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University—and also very smart—, had an analysis, dated July 7th, on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog of “The logic of violence in the Islamic State’s war.” Stathis is one of the leading specialists in world social science of the subject of civil wars—and of war-related violence more generally—, so anything he has to say on it is worth reading.

And Patrick Cockburn, who knows Iraq comme sa poche, has a rather discouraging piece, dated August 1st, in the current LRB on how “ISIS [is] consolidat[ing].”

ISIS is, of course, as fanatical, indeed evil, as one can get, and with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi & Co making Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri et al looking like quasi liberals, but there has nonetheless been some nonsense recounted about them in this regard, e.g. the report late last month, and that went viral, of ISIS having ordered the cliterodectomy of all the women in Mosul. The report, emanating from a not-too-competent UN official, turned out not to be true, though which should have been apparent from the outset. I was immediately skeptical of the story and was surprised to see, via social media, that numerous persons who should have known better gave it credence. My reaction was that nothing should be put past the madmen of ISIS but that this one was particularly outlandish even for them. But even if it were true—even if ISIS had indeed ordered the excision of the one million-plus women in Mosul—, there is no way they could have carried it out. It wouldn’t be possible. In cultures where female genital mutilation is practiced, it’s women who perform the act, usually older ones with specialized cutting skills, as it were. Men have nothing to do with the operation. So who in Mosul would do such a thing, particularly as all the women there would be horrified, to put it mildly, by the very idea? And their menfolk too. So would the ISIS crazies enter homes to inspect vaginas? If so, the men of Mosul—every last one—would rise up and kill them, or try to. If ISIS were to seek quick, violent defeat, this would be the fastest way to do it.

So when one reads of some particularly lurid story of ISIS or other jihadist violence or gratuitous cruelty—one that stretches credulity—, make sure that it’s verified before taking it at face value and/or spreading it on social media.

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shatz-silverman-video-2014-05

Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and visiting professor at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University—and dear personal friend—, has a must read essay/personal reflection in the latest issue of The Nation (dated August 4th) inspired by his fifteen-odd years of reporting on the Middle East and North Africa. The essay is a revised version of the Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture, at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, that Adam gave this past May, and which he fraternally sent me for comments beforehand. It’s typically excellent. As for watching the lecture—as the above image indicates one may do—this will apparently be possible sometime this fall.

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isis-militants-wave-a-flag-in-iraq-data

[update below]

In my post of three days ago on the Iraq catastrophe, I made two simple comments/assertions. I want to make a third: ISIS won’t attack Baghdad, let alone take the city, and certainly not Najaf or Karbala. They may be crazy but they’re not that crazy. A fourth comment/assertion tant que j’y suis: In the hypothetical event that ISIS does pose a serious threat to Baghdad or to Iraq’s oil sector, the US will intervene—with bombers, drones, even some troops. The pressure on Obama to do so will be overwhelming—and there is no way that he will sit by while all of Iraq becomes a mega-terrorist state. Point barre.

Here are some worthy articles I’ve read over the past few days:

On a website called PandoDaily, the self-styled “war nerd” Gary Brecher—which may or may not be a nom de plume—has an interesting and original analysis (June 16th) telling you “everything you need to know about ‘too extreme for Al Qaeda’ I.S.I.S.” (h/t Dwayne W.).

Iraqi sociologist Sami Ramadani, who lectures at London Metropolitan University—and was a refugee from the Saddam Hussein regime—, has a fine and salutary tribune (June 16th) in The Guardian on “The sectarian myth of Iraq.” The lede: We coexisted peacefully for centuries, and need neither brutal dictators nor western intervention.

Scott Long, who has worked on human rights in MENA for many years—and notably on LGBT issues for Human Rights Watch—has a post (June 16th) on his blog on “ISIS in Iraq: Real atrocities and easy fantasies” (h/t Adam S.).

Posting on The New Yorker website (June 17th), Lawrence Wright examines “ISIS’s savage strategy in Iraq.”

Writing in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on analysis (June 16th) in which he asks “Who lost Iraq?” The lede: That depends on whether you ever thought it could be won.

Also writing in Foreign Policy (June 17th), Georgetown University doctoral student Nick Danforth correctly informs the reader that “There is no al-Sham.” The lede: Militants in Iraq and Syria are trying to re-create a nation that never existed.

In his piece Danforth links to an article he wrote for The Atlantic last September, in which he very correctly tells people to “Stop blaming colonial borders for the Middle East’s problems.” The lede for that one: Plenty of other countries have “artificially drawn” borders and aren’t fighting. Here’s the real problem with Europe’s legacy in the region.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Aaron Y. Zelin of WINEP has a piece (June 17th) in Politico on “The Massacre Strategy: Why ISIS brags about its brutal sectarian murders.”

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isis

A total disaster. I don’t even know how to think about it. The core states of the Arab world—Iraq, Syria, Egypt—are swirling down the drain. Imploding. And there’s not much outside powers can do about it. Just two comments. First, however the wars in Iraq and Syria play out there will not be a redrawing of borders or a formal breakup of those states. It won’t happen. Sykes-Picot is not dead. On this, I entirely agree with Gregory Gause’s post last month on the Monkey Cage blog. Second, I have zero tolerance for bloviators in the US who are using the Iraq catastrophe as a club to bash the Obama administration and its policy toward the region. Let it be clear: Obama’s Middle East policy can in no way be held responsible for what’s happening in Iraq. Or in Syria. If one wants to play the blame game, one needs to go back to those who committed the original sin in Iraq in 2003. On this, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy got it exactly right in a post on Friday, “The Iraq mess: Place blame where it is deserved.” Money quote

If Prime Minister Maliki, whom the United States eventually settled on as its favored Iraqi leader, had made a serious effort to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds, rather than acting like a sectarian ward heeler, the departure of U.S. forces might not have created the political stalemate and institutional power vacuum that the jihadis, first in Anbar Province and now in Nineveh and Saladin, have exploited.

None of these things happened, but the greatest mistake was the initial one. In invading Iraq and toppling Saddam, the Bush Administration opened Pandora’s Box. Given what has happened since 2003, it is almost comical to read the prewar prognostications of the neocons and paleocons for what would happen after Saddam was gone. There was talk of turning Iraq into a democratic model for other Middle Eastern countries—making it another Turkey, or even a Jordan, with a Hashemite restoration. Today it is faced with the prospect of a bloody dismemberment into three sectarian mini-states: the Sunnis in the west and northwest; the Kurds in the northeast; and the Shiites in the center and the oil-rich south. (It’s unclear where Baghdad, a city divided along religious lines, fits into this picture.)

The irony is painfully acute. Eleven years ago, in response to a terrorist attack by a group of anti-American religious fanatics, the United States invaded an Arab country with hardly any jihadis, or very few of them, to overthrow a secular dictator. Today, with much blood and money having been spent, northern and western Iraq is full of jihadis, and the U.S. government is figuring out how to prevent them from overrunning the rest of the country.

Also in The New Yorker are commentaries by Dexter Filkins, “In extremists’ Iraq rise, America’s Legacy” (June 11th) and “Wider war” (June 23rd issue). See also Filkins’ April 28th Letter from Iraq: “What we left behind.” The lede: An increasingly authoritarian leader [Nuri al-Maliki], a return of sectarian violence, and a nation worried for its future.

Now Filkins does pin some responsibility on the Obama administration for the failure to conclude a status of forces agreement with the Iraqis in 2011. But in a piece in Politico (June 15th), Colin H. Kahl, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East during the first three years of the Obama administration, asserts that “No, Obama didn’t lose Iraq: What the president’s critics get wrong,” and in which he explains why a SOFA could not be negotiated with the Iraqis.

Other worthy pieces I’ve come across over the past few days:

Marc Lynch, writing in Monkey Cage, “How can the U.S. help Maliki when Maliki’s the problem?” (June 12th)

The FT’s David Gardner, “Iraq’s implosion reflects Syria’s lost national narrative” (June 13th). The lede: Maliki’s sectarianism and corruption has enabled itinerant gangs to claw their way back.

LSE professor Toby Dodge, writing in The Guardian (June 13th), “Iraq doesn’t have to fall apart: It can be reformed.” The lede: The advance of Isis is the result of terrible decisions made since 2003. Iraqis themselves must chart a new course if the state is to survive.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan, “After Mosul: If jihadists control Iraq, blame Nouri al-Maliki, not the United States” (June 11th).

À suivre. Évidemment.

MoS2 Template Master

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my_sweet_pepper_land_omu

This is the latest film by Iraqi Kurdish/naturalized French director Hiner Saleem, who directed the well-regarded ‘Vodka Lemon‘—which I have yet to see—, ‘Kilomètre Zéro‘, and ‘Si tu meurs, je te tue‘—which I did see (both good). I greatly enjoyed this one. It’s a genre Western set in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I’ll let Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg, who saw the pic at Cannes last year, describe it

The opening sequence shows off Saleem’s deliciously picaresque humor, as independent Kurdistan’s first legal hanging is derailed by faulty equipment. If the scene feels like a Western set in a flea-bitten Mexican border town, the comparison is apt, since the helmer plays with parallels emphasizing the rudimentary infrastructure of the newly autonomous nation and the entitlements of regional warlords. Reluctant policeman Baran (intense-eyed, charismatic Korkmaz Arslan) wants to give up the force, but a brief return home to mother convinces him he needs to get away.

Baran is transferred to a godforsaken settlement near the Turkish frontier, where smuggling is the accepted way of life. Local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi) offers the lawman protection in exchange for looking the other way, but the upstanding Baran isn’t interested in dealmaking. While unsympathetic to the smugglers, he gives clandestine support to a team of female Kurdish freedom fighters trying to get medical supplies to needy comrades.

The romance angle comes courtesy of returning schoolteacher Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), back in town after convincing her family she’s not ready to be married off quite yet. Frozen out by local parents uninterested in having their kids educated, she’s also a target for Aziz Aga’s salacious crew, which looks to humiliate the independent woman. Baran comes to her defense and gets involved when word gets back to Govend’s father that his daughter is immoral.

The pic’s ungainly title is derived from “Pepper Land,” the name of the local saloon and the only gathering place in this one-horse town. For Saleem, telling his story in an oater format allows him to indulge in a fair amount of genre play along with the Western genre’s longstanding openness to upending gender stereotypes. Govend is the victim of a smear campaign, yet she’s also unwilling to forgo her independence — the joy of freedom beaming from her face while heading back to town and away from the family makes clear her self-confidence and unwillingness to compromise. Adding all-women freedom fighters furthers the femme-empowerment message.

Enjoyable storytelling and sympathetic performances run throughout the story, though for sheer laugh-out-loud absurdism, nothing beats the healthy self-mockery of the opener. A calculated sparseness in the setting acts as a unifying force, especially when scenes tend to have a self-contained feel that doesn’t always create a sense of flow. Visuals favor Sergio Leone-style closeups along with stunning landscapes featuring pink-tinged sunsets and ravines like Utah canyons, showcasing Kurdistan’s natural beauties. Music features a smile-inducing mix of tunes ranging from Elvis to Western twangs to rockabilly, tied together by the multitalented Farahani’s own playing on the steel hang.

Second degré absurdism underlies the whole film, e.g. “sheriff” Baran playing Bach and Elvis in his “one-horse” Kurdish village and the all-female detachment of Turkish Kurdish (obviously PKK) guerrillas. But the pic also takes on more serious themes, such as archaic codes of honor, patriarchy, and forced marriage, which is what the protag Govend resists. And, it should be said, the sublime Golshifteh Farahani is more beautiful than ever, rien à dire. Another theme: the determination of the intrepid, incorruptible Baran to impose the authority of the state and rule of law, here on the outlaw tribal potentate Aziz Aga. French reviews of the film are mostly tops (and particularly those of Allociné spectateurs), as is critic Deborah Young’s in The Hollywood Reporter. Trailer is here. So thumbs up to this one! À ne pas manquer.

While I’m at it, I should mention an Afghan film I saw last fall, ‘Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)’, directed by Barmak Akram, which also deals with patriarchy and archaic codes of honor, but not among tribespeople or villagers but in the educated, urban well-to-do class, here in contemporary Kabul. It’s a bleak, depressing film, and does not offer a very positive image of Afghan society—as I tweeted after seeing it—but is well done and may be seen. Hollywood reviews (good to mixed) are here, here, and here, French reviews (mostly tops) here, trailer is here.

Wajma-une-Fiancee-Afghane

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patrick seale

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

He died yesterday. At 84, from brain cancer. Patrick Seale was one of the premier Middle East journalists of the past five decades. I was, as I wrote in a post exactly two years ago, a decades-long admirer of his work, despite his decades-long apologetics for the Syrian Ba’athist regime and disagreement with a number of his views on and interpretations of Middle East geopolitics. His 1965 classic The Struggle for Syria: A Study in Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958 is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the Middle East (it’s unfortunately out of print; I liked this one so much that I read it twice, and then bought a copy when Yale University Press briefly brought it back in print in the late ’80s). And his weighty biography of Hafez al-Assad, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, is also up there with the best (this one is still in print). His massive biography of Riad el-Solh I haven’t read. Un de ces jours…

Though I admired his work I probably wouldn’t be writing this post if I hadn’t known Patrick personally. We first met in 2008, here in Paris, where he lived for many years. He invited me to his well-appointed flat in the 16th arrondissement and I invited him in turn to speak in a graduate-level class I was teaching on the modern Middle East. The students greatly appreciated his talk, so they told me, and found him engaging and amiable, which he was.

Seale was naturally best known for his writing and commentary on the Middle East but less so for that on France. À propos, he was a co-author of a book on the May 1968 events that I consider to be the best on the subject in English, and to which I have devoted a blog post.

The Lebanese journalist Michael Young, learning of Seale’s terminal illness, had a fine—though not entirely uncritical—tribute to him a week ago, that one may read here.

UPDATE: Historian Bruce Maddy-Weitzman posted this comment on my FB page

Young’s review pointed to an important point – Seale’s increasing penchant, as time went on, to emphasize conspiracy theories to explain events. One of the worst examples is in the Asad biography, where he explains the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war as a case of a brilliant Israeli deception by manufacturing a crisis to lure Nasser into Sinai so that his army could be smashed and Israel could grab territory. It was such a brilliant ruse, he said, that even the Israeli public believed that it was in mortal danger. This was the classic explanation in the Arab world after the war about what had happend – Arab governments have no agency and no responsibility for what happens.

It was indeed the case that Seale had a penchant for conspiracy theorizing, at least in regards to Israel. E.g. Michael Young mentions Seale’s suggestion that Abu Nidal may have been an Israeli agent, which, to put it mildly, didn’t make a lot of sense—and which no serious observer of the Middle East took seriously. À propos, Martin Kramer related an anecdote to me several years ago of Seale’s visit to Jerusalem circa 1995, during which Kramer asked Seale if he really, honestly believed what he wrote in his 1992 book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire, about Abu Nidal doing Israel’s bidding, to which Seale smiled and shrugged, indicating that he either didn’t take his speculation too seriously himself or had no evidence whatever to back up it—apart from what Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), his principal informant for the book, told him—, so wouldn’t insist. In 2008 I asked Seale himself about some of what he wrote in the Abu Nidal book but he had forgotten the details.

A particularly vicious, mean-spirited, mendacious “obituary” of Seale posted on a blog called Syria Promise has been making the rounds since yesterday, in which it is claimed, among other things, that Seale knew no Arabic. This is bullshit. Seale’s books on Syria each contain six pages of bibliographic references in Arabic. There is simply no way he could have written those books—and particularly The Struggle for Syria—without a good command of Arabic (reading at least). And he spent the first 15 years of his life in Syria—where, it stands to reason, he would have acquired at least some knowledge of the language—and was a student of Albert Hourani’s at Oxford, under whose stewardship he would have no doubt perfected his linguistic skills (on this, see the obits in Al-Arabiya and The Guardian). As for this Syria Promise blog, it has but one post—the nasty one on Seale—, indicating that it was created specifically for this purpose. And the blog’s author gives no hint as to his or her identity. What an abject, cowardly S.O.B.

2nd UPDATE: Martin Kramer has a remembrance in Commentary of “Patrick Seale in Israel.” As it happens, the anecdote I recounted above was a little off on the date and place.

3rd UPDATE: Adam Shatz has a remembrance of Patrick Seale, published in MERIP. (May 1st)

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ARTE aired another remarkable documentary last night (for the other one, see previous post), this on the uprising in Homs, Syria, and which was shot over a two-year period by Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki. It won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival (English title: Return to Homs). It may be viewed for the next week on ARTE’s website here (90 minutes, version française).

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#StopQatar2022

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France 5’s weekly news magazine “Le Monde en face” had a very good two-part documentary on Qatar two nights ago—on its transformation from an obscure patch of desert to a veritable regional power and with near global reach—, by investigative journalists Vanessa Ratignier et Pierre Péan, and which may be viewed on the France 5 website until next Tuesday: “Qatar: la puissance et la gloire – 1995-2008” (part 1) and “Qatar: trahisons et double jeu – 2008-2013” (part 2)—both 53 minutes and followed by a 15-minute discussion, “Faut-il avoir peur du Qatar?,” with two specialists of that accidental country and its megalomaniacal ruling family. The documentary touches on, among other things, the slave-like conditions afflicting the bulk of the mainly Asian labor force there, which was the subject of my post “Qatar: modern-day slavery” last September, in which I insisted on the utter unfitness of Qatar to be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

À propos, The Guardian reported this week that “[m]ore than 500 Indian workers have died in Qatar since 2012,” and to which may be added the 382 Nepalese workers who have died there during the same period. The Qatari World Cup organizing committee announced last week that workers building the stadiums—but not those building other infrastructure—would be held to higher standards, but with the kafala system remaining unchanged. This is BS to mollify foreign critics. When it comes to the conditions of migrant labor, nothing will change there. Qatar needs to be stripped of the 2022 World Cup. Spread the word on Twitter and everywhere else: #StopQatar2022!

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Al Zaatri refugee camp, Mafraq, Jordan, February 25 2013 (Muhammed Hamed/Reuters)

Al Zaatri refugee camp, Mafraq, Jordan, February 25 2013 (Muhammed Hamed/Reuters)

[update below] [2nd update below]

My Facebook and Twitter feeds have had numerous articles and other links of late on the catastrophic situation of Syrian refugees. I can hardly bear to read about this, as I find it so painful and heart-rending. And particularly as we know that the situation will only get worse, with the oncoming winter, the ongoing collapse of the Syrian state, and likelihood that the civil war will continue for years to come. There is already starvation, with a dispatch last week by Patrick Cockburn calling it “[t]he biggest emergency in the UN’s history.” Cockburn concludes with this

In rebel-held areas the situation is much worse. Food is in short supply and government salaries and pensions, however inadequate, are not being paid. A recent graduate from the University of Damascus, writing for IRIN, the UN news agency, said that there are few doctors in the besieged town of al-Hajar al-Aswad in south Damascus – and those that remain say that mothers are too undernourished to produce breast milk for babies and there is no powdered milk available.

One doctor said adults “are getting by on small amounts of seasonal stocked traditional Syrian foods like olives, thyme and marmalade – and in some cases cats and dogs”. He expected adults to start dying of starvation in the near future.

Dying of starvation in Syria…

And then there’s the effect of the war on education, with “Syrian children…suffer[ing] the ‘sharpest and most rapid’ decline in education standards in the history of the region,” according to a report released on December 13th by UNICEF, the UNHCR, World Vision, and Save the Children.

And, pour mémoire, there is the massive rape crisis afflicting Syrian women in the refugee camps, which I had a post on earlier this year

This post on the CNN website lists NGOs and their US 800 numbers for those wondering “[h]ow to help Syrian refugees.” And this video clip by Amnesty International cleverly publicizes the issue, skewering the leaders of the European Union, “The Apathetics,” in the process for their pathetic offer to resettle a whopping 0.5% of Syrian refugees within their borders.

On the question of resettling refugees from the Syrian war, there is a particular urgency for Syria’s half-million-odd Palestinians (e.g. here and here; my photos here), who have been there since 1948 but do not have Syrian citizenship, thus rendering them stateless. Syria treated the Palestinians better than any other Arab state, even more than Jordan. But at least Jordan gave the Palestinians citizenship—albeit second class—and thus a passport. Being stateless—not having a passport issued by a recognized state—is a disaster for those in that situation. As I have learned in recent years from Palestinian-Syrians who carry the Syrian issued Palestinian refugee travel document (below), most of the world is closed to them. It is almost impossible for Palestinians from Syria to obtain visas for any Arab state. Any. The Arab world  (plus Turkey) is, in effect, off limits, even for short visits. E.g. the brother of a Palestinian-Syrian friend works as an engineer in the oil sector in Algeria but it took him years to obtain a visa to enter that lovely country to take up his job with a US company there. And my friend, from a well-to-do family in Damascus and who worked herself for a European company in the city—so no money problems—, has never been able to get a visa from the Algerians to visit him. To comprehend how full of shit the Arabs are when it comes to the Palestinians, one may look no further than here: of their refusal to grant citizenship to even those who were born and raised in their countries and to refuse entry to Palestinians from elsewhere. The Egyptian MB government did open the doors to Syrian Pals but then treated them like dirt (e.g. here), and now they’re being pushed out. The countries that Syrian Palestinians may visit—that do not discriminate against them when it comes to visas—are the EU Schengen area (the UK, which is not in Schengen, is difficult), the USA, Canada, Mexico, and various Latin American states. The US is particularly generous toward the Syrian Palestinians, so I have been reliably informed.

In view of the disastrous situation of stateless Syrian Palestinians, it would behoove the European Union, US, Canada, Latin American states, Australia, Russia (which should feel a particular responsibility here), and whoever else to simply decide to absorb the entire Syrian Palestinian population, to settle all of them within their borders and with a fast track to citizenship, and with those with family ties in any of these countries going to where they have those ties. The situation is urgent and it would be almost unconscionable to do otherwise. Convene an international conference and just do it. With that, I wish all a Merry Christmas.

UPDATE: William R. Polk has an exceptional article, dated December 10th, on The Atlantic website, “Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad.” The lede: How drought, foreign meddling, and long-festering religious tensions created the tragically splintered Syria we know today.

2nd UPDATE: The Lebanese website NOW has a report (May 15, 2014) on how “New restrictions leave Syrian Palestinians trapped in Lebanon.” Outrageous.

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This is a 3½+ hour, four-part documentary on the history of Jewish-Muslim relations—from the 7th century to the present—by French filmmaker Karim Miské. Parts 1 and 2 aired on ARTE last night and may be watched here (for one week at least). The documentary is quite good and with an impressive number of francophone and anglophone academic and other specialists interviewed. I noted in the credits that the film received the support of the cultural services of the US embassy in Paris. Parts 3 and 4 will air next Tuesday (and which will be on ARTE’s website linked to above).

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