Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow – coda in Kabul

I once wrote that the twenty year war in Afghanistan was like the Hotel California:  you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Recent events have shown otherwise – or have they, really? I am recalling those lines from David Byrne’s dystopian song, Once in a Lifetime: “same as it ever was, same as it ever was”. But perhaps Burning Down the House is more apt.

Desperate people scramble to escape, over the borders and over the airport walls. Afghans from all walks of life, including officials, soldiers, and policemen, former employees of the allies, women, and human rights advocates, fear the worst, as do ethnic and religious minorities who suffered horrific abuses at the hands of Taliban 1.0. Governments, NGOs and concerned folk all over the world wring their hands in vicarious anxiety, and for some, in shame.  Europe. meanwhile, braces for another flood of refugees as displaced Afghans seek sanctuary

The US president declares that the America gave most of it’s all to save Afghanistan whilst the blame game as to “who lost Afghanistan?” commences, just as it did decades ago when the US ‘lost China” and then, Vietnam. The Chief Security Adviser says there’s no way of knowing how much American military hardware has been gifted to the Taliban, but it looks like a veritable bonanza.

America’s allies ponder the reliability of its erstwhile protector, fearing that the giant might have feet of clay  – in choosing to give up on Afghanistan in order to confront China, Biden might actually have undercut America’s position everywhere. .China and Russia, always happy to see America squirm, but always anxious about instability in neighbouring countries, eye up economic and strategic opportunities. And extremists all over the world, of all colours and creeds, are emboldened as yet another apparently rag tag militia humbles the world’s mightiest military power.

On the ground, and away from the besieged air[port, with the Taliban now well equipped and in control of the main towns and cities, many of the old politicians and warlords have chosen to work with them in the hopes of creating an inclusive transitional government. Former presidential aspirant and reconciliation council leader Abdullah Abdullah, disingenuous former president Hamid Karzai, and  that vicious and powerful old warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have formed a council that seeks a political settlement with the Taliban, rather than join any nascent budding insurgency.

The old Afghanistan, divided along tribal, ethnic and religious lines, and governed by deals, compromises and the divvying up of the spoils may even reassert itself. all that is old might be new again!

Meanwhile our mainstream and non-mainstream media is awash with coverage and commentary , including contributions from a good number of Afghanistan/Iraq hawks – the ones who brought us those twin disasters in the first place _ who have been called on by major media organizations to offer their sage assessment of the current situation. Whether it’s retired generals who now earn money in the weapons industry, former officials from the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations who in many cases are directly responsible for the mistakes of the past two decades, or war enthusiast pundits with an unblemished record of wrongness, we’re now hearing from the same people who two decades ago told us how great these wars would be, then spent years telling us victory was right around the corner, and are now explaining how somebody else is to blame for Afghanistan.

As a counterbalance to all this, In that Howling Infinite republishes below  two excellent pieces by commentators of repute.

Sarah Cheyes, a journalist and political adviser with long experience in Afghanistan, identifies four elements contributing to the failure of America’s Afghan Project: corruption at the highest levels of government which the US chose to ignore – it also ignored the many billions of dollars ended up in the bank accounts of American arms manufacturers and contractors (a recent government report found that between 2011 and 2019, the US spent nearly $100 billion on private contractors); the role played by Pakistan’s intelligence organization, the ISI, in creating and nurturing the Taliban – and the allies refusal to call out Pakistan encouraged its impunity; the dubious maneuverings of former America’s onetime-favourite and former president Hamid Karzai, who appears to have a foot in both camps ; and America’s self-delusions about these and other matters.

Commentator and counterinsurgency expert   is always worth reading – and below is his latest piece  for The Australian. Whilst Cheyes looks back to determine how it all  came to this., Kilcullen ponders where it will it will go. But first, he denounces the blame-shifters and buck-passers: “Those pinning the entire blame for the collapse on the Afghan military should hang their heads in shame. The Afghans have been fighting desperately to survive, losing thousands killed every month, ever since President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April kicked off the final campaign. They have been carrying the main combat burden of the war since late 2014, losing close to 70,000 casualties in that time against a few dozen on the coalition’s part”.

None of the elements identified by Cheyes and Kilcullen is new news. Old Afghanistan’s hands like Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, and many others have been saying this for decades. The big question, which I am sure will be answered soon is whether Taliban 2.0 will be an improvement on Taliban 1.0 vis a vis women, human rights and even modernity.

But Kilcullen does not see the war as a misbegotten  and forlorn hope. Far from it:

“Some will say the war was unwinnable, that it could never have succeeded. But deep down we all know that is not true. We were sustaining the effort with minimal expenditure and zero casualties, and could have continued it forever had we chosen to do so. We did not. The war was winnable, but we did not win it. Rather, we screwed it up and we have been defeated”.

That much is true.  And with an America smarting from humiliation and a China swaggering with hubris. What could possibly go wrong now?

Addendum

An old friend, Charles Tyler, wrote to me apropos this post:

“The last couple of weeks have certainly seen major shifts of power, but things are so very far from being settled, and probably never will be. Indeed. events as they unfold will defy all predictions, as they always do, and the commentary, informed and shallow, will continue as always. And all will need revision in the light of what actually transpires.

As several commentators have noted the US is now likely to become closer in military and strategic cooperation to India, while China and Russia will become closer to Pakistan and Afghanistan, with all the risks these shifts entail for every country involved.  But in this three-dimensional chess game the field of military and strategic action is just one layer. The layers of religion, tribalism, ethnicity, nationalism and plain human emotion – not to speak of even broader considerations like climate and demographic change and economic development – overlay and play into every other field, and can only be controlled or manipulated or predicted so far. So the consequences of moving any particular chess piece are unknowable”.

Well said, Charles!

 


For the history buffs, we also republish below an excellent history lesson from American academic and author Priya Satia; and  in In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Ghosts of Gandamak; The Devil Drives, and  One Two Three what are we fighting for?  

Taliban 2.0

Sarah Chayes, August 15, 2021

I’ve been silent for a while. I’ve been silent about Afghanistan for longer. But too many things are going unsaid.

I won’t try to evoke the emotions, somehow both swirling and yet leaden: the grief, the anger, the sense of futility. Instead, as so often before, I will use my mind to shield my heart. And in the process, perhaps help you make some sense of what has happened.

For those of you who don’t know me, here is my background — the perspective from which I write tonight.

I covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR, making my way into their former capital, Kandahar, in December 2001, a few days after the collapse of their regime. Descending the last great hill into the desert city, I saw a dusty ghost town. Pickup trucks with rocket-launchers strapped to the struts patrolled the streets. People pulled on my militia friends’ sleeves, telling them where to find a Taliban weapons cache, or a last hold-out. But most remained indoors.

It was Ramadan. A few days later, at the holiday ending the month-long fast, the pent-up joy erupted. Kites took to the air. Horsemen on gorgeous, caparisoned chargers tore across a dusty common in sprint after sprint, with a festive audience cheering them on. This was Kandahar, the Taliban heartland. There was no panicked rush for the airport.

I reported for a month or so, then passed off to Steve Inskeep, now Morning Edition host. Within another couple of months, I was back, not as a reporter this time, but to try actually to do something. I stayed for a decade. I ran two non-profits in Kandahar, living in an ordinary house and speaking Pashtu, and eventually went to work for two commanders of the international troops, and then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (You can read about that time, and its lessons, in my first two books, The Punishment of Virtue and Thieves of State.)

From that standpoint — speaking as an American, as an adoptive Kandahari, and as a former senior U.S. government official — here are the key factors I see in today’s climax of a two-decade long fiasco:

Afghan government corruption, and the U.S. role enabling and reinforcing it. The last speaker of the Afghan parliament, Rahman Rahmani, I recently learned, is a multimillionaire, thanks to monopoly contracts to provide fuel and security to U.S. forces at their main base, Bagram. Is this the type of government people are likely to risk their lives to defend?

Two decades ago, young people in Kandahar were telling me how the proxy militias American forces had armed and provided with U.S. fatigues were shaking them down at checkpoints. By 2007, delegations of elders would visit me — the only American whose door was open and who spoke Pashtu so there would be no intermediaries to distort or report their words. Over candied almonds and glasses of green tea, they would get to some version of this: “The Taliban hit us on this cheek, and the government hits us on that cheek.” The old man serving as the group’s spokesman would physically smack himself in the face.

I and too many other people to count spent years of our lives trying to convince U.S. decision-makers that Afghans could not be expected to take risks on behalf of a government that was as hostile to their interests as the Taliban were. Note: it took me a while, and plenty of my own mistakes, to come to that realization. But I did.

For two decades, American leadership on the ground and in Washington proved unable to take in this simple message. I finally stopped trying to get it across when, in 2011, an interagency process reached the decision that the U.S. would not address corruption in Afghanistan. It was now explicit policy to ignore one of the two factors that would determine the fate of all our efforts. That’s when I knew today was inevitable.

Americans like to think of ourselves as having valiantly tried to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Afghans, so the narrative goes, just weren’t ready for it, or didn’t care enough about democracy to bother defending it. Or we’ll repeat the cliche that Afghans have always rejected foreign intervention; we’re just the latest in a long line.

I was there. Afghans did not reject us. They looked to us as exemplars of democracy and the rule of law. They thought that’s what we stood for.

And what did we stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.

Is that American democracy?

Well…?

Pakistan. The involvement of that country’s government — in particular its top military brass — in its neighbor’s affairs is the second factor that would determine the fate of the U.S. mission.

You may have heard that the Taliban first emerged in the early 1990s, in Kandahar. That is incorrect. I conducted dozens of conversations and interviews over the course of years, both with actors in the drama and ordinary people who watched events unfold in Kandahar and in Quetta, Pakistan. All of them said the Taliban first emerged in Pakistan.

The Taliban were a strategic project of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI. It even conducted market surveys in the villages around Kandahar, to test the label and the messaging. “Taliban” worked well. The image evoked was of the young students who apprenticed themselves to village religious leaders. They were known as sober, studious, and gentle. These Taliban, according to the ISI messaging, had no interest in government. They just wanted to get the militiamen who infested the city to stop extorting people at every turn in the road.

Both label and message were lies.

Within a few years, Usama bin Laden found his home with the Taliban, in their de facto capital, Kandahar, hardly an hour’s drive from Quetta. Then he organized the 9/11 attacks. Then he fled to Pakistan, where we finally found him, living in a safe house in Abbottabad, practically on the grounds of the Pakistani military academy. Even knowing what I knew, I was shocked. I never expected the ISI to be that brazen.

Meanwhile, ever since 2002, the ISI had been re-configuring the Taliban: helping it regroup, training and equipping units, developing military strategy, saving key operatives when U.S. personnel identified and targeted them. That’s why the Pakistani government got no advance warning of the Bin Laden raid. U.S. officials feared the ISI would warn him.

By 2011, my boss, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban were a “virtual arm of the ISI.”

And now this.

Do we really suppose the Taliban, a rag-tag, disjointed militia hiding out in the hills, as we’ve so long been told, was able to execute such a sophisticated campaign plan with no international backing? Where do we suppose that campaign plan came from? Who gave the orders? Where did all those men, all that materiel, the endless supply of money to buy off local Afghan army and police commanders, come from? How is it that new officials were appointed in Kandahar within a day of the city’s fall? The new governor, mayor, director of education, and chief of police all speak with a Kandahari accent. But no one I know has ever heard of them. I speak with a Kandahari accent, too. Quetta is full of Pashtuns — the main ethic group in Afghanistan — and people of Afghan descent and their children. Who are these new officials?

Over those same years, by the way, the Pakistani military also provided nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea. But for two decades, while all this was going on, the United States insisted on considering Pakistan an ally. We still do.

Hamid Karzai. During my conversations in the early 2000s about the Pakistani government’s role in the Taliban’s initial rise, I learned this breathtaking fact: Hamid Karzai, the U.S. choice to pilot Afghanistan after we ousted their regime, was in fact the go-between who negotiated those very Taliban’s initial entry into Afghanistan in 1994.

I spent months probing the stories. I spoke to servants in the Karzai household. I spoke to a former Mujahideen commander, Mullah Naqib, who admitted to being persuaded by the label and the message Karzai was peddling. The old commander also admitted he was at his wits’ end at the misbehavior of his own men. I spoke with his chief lieutenant, who disagreed with his tribal elder and commander, and took his own men off to neighboring Helmand Province to keep fighting. I heard that Karzai’s own father broke with him over his support for this ISI project. Members of Karzai’s household and Quetta neighbors told me about Karzai’s frequent meetings with armed Taliban at his house there, in the months leading up to their seizure of power.

And lo. Karzai abruptly emerges from this vortex, at the head of a “coordinating committee” that will negotiate the Taliban’s return to power? Again?

It was like a repeat of that morning of May, 2011, when I first glimpsed the pictures of the safe-house where Usama bin Laden had been sheltered. Once again — even knowing everything I knew — I was shocked. I was shocked for about four seconds. Then everything seemed clear.

It is my belief that Karzai may have been a key go-between negotiating this surrender, just as he did in 1994, this time enlisting other discredited figures from Afghanistan’s past, as they were useful to him. Former co-head of the Afghan government, Abdullah Abdullah, could speak to his old battle-buddies, the Mujahideen commanders of the north and west. You may have heard some of their names as they surrendered their cities in recent days: Ismail Khan, Dostum, Atta Muhammad Noor. The other person mentioned together with Karzai is Gulbuddin Hikmatyar — a bona fide Taliban commander, who could take the lead in some conversations with them and with the ISI.

As Americans have witnessed in our own context — the #MeToo movement, for example, the uprising after the murder of George Floyd, or the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — surprisingly abrupt events are often months or years in the quiet making. The abrupt collapse of 20 years’ effort in Afghanistan is, in my view, one of those cases.

Thinking this hypothesis through, I find myself wondering: what role did U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad play? And old friend of Karzai’s, he was the one who ran the negotiations with the Taliban for the Trump Administration, in which the Afghan government was forced to make concession after concession. Could President Biden truly have found no one else for that job, to replace an Afghan-American with obvious conflicts of interest, who was close to former Vice President Dick Cheney and who lobbied in favor of an oil pipeline through Afghanistan when the Taliban were last in power?

Self-Delusion. How many times did you read stories about the Afghan security forces’ steady progress? How often, over the past two decades, did you hear some U.S. official proclaim that the Taliban’s eye-catching attacks in urban settings were signs of their “desperation” and their “inability to control territory?” How many heart-warming accounts did you hear about all the good we were doing, especially for women and girls?

Who were we deluding? Ourselves?

What else are we deluding ourselves about?

One final point. I hold U.S. civilian leadership, across four administrations, largely responsible for today’s outcome. Military commanders certainly participated in the self-delusion. I can and did find fault with generals I worked for or observed. But the U.S. military is subject to civilian control. And the two primary problems identified above — corruption and Pakistan — are civilian issues. They are not problems men and women in uniform can solve. But faced with calls to do so, no top civilian decision-maker was willing to take either of these problems on. The political risk, for them, was too high.

Today, as many of those officials enjoy their retirement, who is suffering the cost?

My warm thanks to all of you who have left comments, for taking the time to write, and for the vibrancy of your concern. A number of you have asked some excellent questions. Please have the kindness to stand by. I will try to provide what answers I can when I can.


Much as the Taliban may like to claim the war is over, it is far from finished. Afghanistan is collapsing in real time and a new bloodbath beginning. Now the world has a choice to make.

By Weekend Australian ,

Taliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15. Picture: AFPTaliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15. Picture. AFP

Afghanistan is collapsing in real time. Two decades of effort down the gurgler, trillions of dollars and many thousands of lives lost, and a new bloodbath beginning inside Afghanistan. US credibility – like that of every American ally, including Australia – is on the line.

Approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are back to square one. What happened? Describing the full debacle would take more space than I have, but let me try to answer some obvious questions: Why did we fail to foresee the fall of Kabul? What is happening on the ground and what does it mean? What will others do now, and what should we do next?

I promised a mea culpa, and here it is: I was dead wrong about the fall of Kabul. I am on record just weeks ago saying “it would be a stretch to imagine the Taliban capturing Kabul anytime soon”.

Of course virtually every other analyst got it wrong, too, but I can speak only to my own thought process. Thinking it over, examining my conscience, I realise my lack of imagination rested on a critical but flawed assumption.

I simply could not credit the possibility that the US government and the entire international community would just abandon Kabul overnight without a fight, leaving their own evacuation plan in disarray and surrendering both the Afghans and many thousands of their own citizens to the mercy of the Taliban. I took it as given that the US, UN and global institutions (all of which repeatedly promised ongoing support to Afghanistan) meant what they said. I mistakenly believed our major ally possessed a modicum of moral fibre and basic competence, and would muster the will to fight rather than see decades of effort down the drain.

I was wrong, and I apologise.

In the end Kabul fell as described in my last piece and the world’s response was to do – nothing. Not one airstrike; not a single attempt to blunt the Taliban offensive (even as guerrillas gathered in the open on Kabul’s approaches, presenting the juiciest target since 2001); not even a harsh tweet. Instead we saw excuse-making, blame-shifting and victim-shaming of the most nauseating kind from many (not all) American military and political leaders, and hand-wringing impotence from the UN.

A baby is handed over to the American army over the perimeter wall of the airport for it to be evacuated, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 19. Picture: OMAR HAIDARI/via REUTERS

A baby handed to the US  army on the perimeter wall of Kabul airport,  Aug 19. Omar Haiudari

Those pinning the entire blame for the collapse on the Afghan military should hang their heads in shame. The Afghans have been fighting desperately to survive, losing thousands killed every month, ever since President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April kicked off the final campaign. They have been carrying the main combat burden of the war since late 2014, losing close to 70,000 casualties in that time against a few dozen on the coalition’s part.

The Afghan forces – which the coalition built to our own specifications – were like a stack of Jenga blocks in which certain critical pieces, by design, could be provided only by the US. Principal among these were air support, intelligence, logistics and maintenance. Suddenly in early May, with no warning, we whipped away these pieces, having promised Afghans for a decade that this was exactly what we would never do.

Of course the Afghan army collapsed – it was designed by us to function only with the parts we provided. To quote British explorer and author Rory Stewart, blaming Afghans now is like removing the wheels from your car, then complaining that it can’t drive.

Once the air support, intelligence and logistics were gone, the Afghan forces rapidly began to lose ground in an accelerating collapse of control across the countryside. As each successive district garrison fell, the government grew weaker and more isolated while the Taliban gained weapons, vehicles, defectors and ammunition. More than 200 such garrisons were lost in May and June alone. The loss of assets was bad enough but the blow to morale was deadly – no more so than early last month when US forces bailed out of the vast Bagram air base without even bothering to tell their Afghan partners, who woke up to find the Americans gone.

By early this month, the first provincial capitals began to fall. Within a week multiple provinces were falling each day, and by last Friday Kabul was the only major city in government hands.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting politicians in June, scoffed at the need to evacuate at-risk Afghans who had worked with the coalition, saying: “We are not withdrawing. We are staying. The embassy is staying … If there is a significant deterioration in security, I do not think it is going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.”

He was right: it happened from Friday evening to early Sunday afternoon. That is cold comfort for the 86,000 at-risk Afghans now running a gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints to reach the sole remaining runway at Hamid Karzai airport (soon to be renamed, one would think) in downtown Kabul. That multi-runway air base at Bagram we abandoned last month would be nice to have right now.

Taliban enters the presidential palace in Kabul. Picture: AP

Taliban enters the presidential palace in Kabul. AP

Like many other veterans, I have received hundreds of mes­sages and dozens of frantic calls for help during the past few days from Afghan friends now stranded – some being hunted house-to-house by the Taliban. There will be time to be angry about this later. For now, it’s most important to share their perspective as objectively as possible. So, what is happening now across the country, and what does it mean?

In Kabul, a Taliban delegation in the presidential palace is negotiating with Hamid Karzai and other leaders, seeking to form a transitional government. On the streets, Taliban forces are securing government buildings and patrolling in green Afghan police trucks or captured armoured vehicles.

While Taliban leaders have announced that they seek no revenge, they have put the security of Kabul under the control of Anas Haqqani, known for his deadly 2018 attack on the Kabul Serena Hotel and other civilian targets.

Civilians are being disarmed, since according to the Taliban the war is over now so nobody needs a weapon. In fact, special Taliban units have been going house-to-house, “disappearing” former military, intelligence and government officials.

Some have been shot in the street, others tortured to death. Taliban checkpoints are stopping all Afghans, and witnesses say they have pulled special-visa holders from the airport queues and beaten them with chains. Remnants of the Afghan army and intelligence service are hiding from death squads or trying to make their way to the Panjshir Valley, 160km north of Kabul. Some stragglers, and a few formed units, are still fighting outside the city.

In the Panjshir, first vice-president Amrullah Saleh, citing the escape of former president Ashraf Ghani, has declared himself acting president and is rallying opponents of the Taliban to join a government in internal exile. (Ghani has appeared in the United Arab Emirates, living in an expensive hotel and claiming he was forced to flee to avoid lynching.) In the Panjshir a coalition of local militias and army remnants is forming to defend the valley. Their size and capability are still vague.

Afghan people line up outside the Iranian embassy to get a visa in Kabul on August 17. Picture: AFP

Afghan people line up outside the Iranian embassy to get a visa in Kabul, on Aug 17. AFP

Access to the valley is easy – for now. One Afghan officer, in plainclothes, made it from Kabul to the Panjshir on Monday carrying a message, then turned around and drove back to Kabul, unmolested by the Taliban. As any soldier knows, just because a district is Taliban-controlled does not mean there is a Talib on every square metre of it. In fact, Taliban forces have flooded into the cities, leaving parts of the countryside relatively open. Those cities will be a handful to control.

Already there have been deadly protests – met by brutal beatings and Taliban shooting of protesters – in several towns, and reports of 1000 trusted fighters from Helmand and Kandahar heading to Kabul to help secure it.

What this means is that, much as the Taliban may like to claim the war is over, it is far from finished. Afghanistan is still at war, and revolutionary regimes that are at war and facing potentially disloyal populations are legendarily lethal. It also means the international community has a choice to make.

This choice will strongly influence what others do now. Pakistan – despite a history of some elements in its intelligence service backing the Taliban – is looking warily at the potential for mass refugee flows or spillover of violence. Central Asian states such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are stepping up border security. Russia is working with these states, activating a military base in the region, but simultaneously attempting to shape Taliban behaviour by dangling the possibility of recognition, aid and trade if the regime shows moderation. China’s leverage is more economic, with discussions on trade and investment starting as early as Monday when the Taliban held a press conference calling for an international donors’ conference and foreign direct investment.

A Taliban fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city. Picture: AFP

Taliban fighters Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city. AFP

America’s European allies have been stunned and alienated by the speed of the collapse, and offended by Washington’s unilateral withdrawal, on which they were not consulted. French, German and British politicians have all criticised the US this week. The UN Security Council has strongly condemned the violence, calling for respect for women and human rights (presumably such harshly worded statements were what the UN meant when it promised “ongoing support”).

What, then, should we do next? Initially, the answer is crystal clear: save as many Afghans as can be saved. The evacuation is the critical activity of the moment and the only way to salvage some self-respect from this debacle. After a horrifically chaotic start, the airport is finally under control, though the Taliban maintains an outer cordon preventing civilians getting through. This is creating a massive logjam, with crowds surging around the airport perimeter and few getting through. Many evacuation aircraft have departed almost empty as a result.

More important, the crowds are a tempting target for terrorists such as Islamic State-Khorasan, the local ISIS group, which hates both the Taliban and Westerners, and deplores Afghans who have worked with foreigners. It is only a matter of time before a suicide bomber or a truck bomb gets in among the crowds and stops the evacuation in its tracks. Clearing the backlog is thus a humanitarian as well as a strategic necessity.

Inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III flown from Kabul to Qatar on August 15, evacuating some 640 Afghans from Kabul. Picture: AFP

Inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III  Aug 15, evacuating some 640 Afghans from Kabul. AFP

Allied commanders recognise this, but political constraints – the US government has promised the Taliban its troops will not leave the airport, according to sources in the State Department – have prevented them expanding the perimeter or pushing the Taliban back.

Creating landing sites away from the airport, from which evacuees could be flown by helicopter over the Taliban checkpoints, is another obvious military move that will likely be blocked on political grounds. Beyond the obvious humanitarian imperative, resettling refugees (many of whom initially are being flown to Qatar) will be a huge and protracted task, one for which many countries are stepping up to assist, though few seem prepared to take anywhere near the number of evacuees needed.

Bigger choices loom. Should the International Monetary Fund release Afghanistan’s funds to an interim government that will be dominated by the Taliban? Should the US support Saleh’s government-in-exile in the Panjshir and back his fighters, or accept defeat and deal with the Taliban? Should airstrikes (so conspicuously absent when they could have made a difference) now resume against terrorists and, if so, who on the ground is left to spot and designate targets? Should there be a post-mortem to analyse what went wrong and allocate (or evade) blame, or should we move on?

All this will become increasingly important in coming weeks, but for now the focus needs to be the humanitarian crisis – and potential bloodbath – unfolding on the ground.

Some will say the war was unwinnable, that it could never have succeeded. But deep down we all know that is not true. We were sustaining the effort with minimal expenditure and zero casualties, and could have continued it forever had we chosen to do so. We did not. The war was winnable, but we did not win it. Rather, we screwed it up and we have been defeated.

Last weekend, as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared Aug. 14, the eve of Indian independence from British rule in 1947, “Partition Horrors Remembrance Day”—a day to remember the violent Partition of British colonial India into the separate countries of India and Pakistan, which produced the largest migration in human history. Millions of people died or lost their homes, livelihoods, and ways of life and suffered rape and other atrocities in harrowing months of sudden displacement as Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew a largely arbitrary border dividing Punjab and Bengal. But Modi’s pronouncement, made with typical blindsiding precipitousness, was also deeply disingenuous.

It is lost on no one that Aug. 14—the day chosen for this gruesome remembrance—is the day Pakistan marks its independence. (Independence came to British India at midnight on Aug. 14, with India marking its independence on the 15th and Pakistan on the 14th.) Modi’s designation of Pakistan’s Independence Day as an anniversary for Indian mourning is calculated to deflect blame and serves to aggravate rather than heal old wounds. It elides the reality that the violence of 1947 was not the work of neighbors in villages and towns turning against one another but of well-armed paramilitary groups bearing the imprint of Western fascism—including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a group that Modi joined as a child and that remains a pillar of support for his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government.

His call to remember Partition’s horrors appears decidedly cynical against this historical reality. But its coincidence with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan created an unintended opportunity for more honest reckoning with one often forgotten aspect of this haunting past. 1947 marked not only the creation of a new border between Pakistan and India but also, equally disastrously, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As Afghans flee across borders today, remembrance of the dotted line from that past to our present, of the continued reboot of colonial-era partition, is essential for South Asians and for meddlers in Afghanistan, past and present.

Before the Radcliffe Line, there was the Durand Line. The British, having seized territory from Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-80 and annexed it to British India, dispatched Mortimer Durand to formalize those gains with a treaty in 1893. Afghanistan was not fully sovereign: The British controlled its foreign affairs in a semicolonial arrangement common to British practice in many parts of the world. The treaty was thus coercive (and possibly duplicitous under the cover of faulty translation), as was often the case with colonial-era British treaties. Indeed, the Durand Line was drawn just shortly after European powers had, with similar arbitrariness, etched borders across the map of Africa.

The line divided a large region inhabited by Pashtuns, many of whom Afghanistan had permitted to remain self-governing, with a western half included in an Afghan sphere of influence and an eastern half in the British sphere. The British took direct, formal control of the most eastward districts and informally influenced those abutting the line, like Waziristan, by providing tribes there with subsidies and arms. Since the line was not a physical border but a demarcation of spheres of influence, considerable freedom of movement persisted. But it was disputed by those on whom it was foisted, prompting an uprising in 1897.

After putting down this rebellion (a young Winston Churchill took part), the British reasserted control over disputed parts of the demarcated area and worked to stop the flow of arms into the region. In 1901, they incorporated the directly controlled eastward districts into the North-West Frontier province of British India. That year, a new emir came to power in Afghanistan and again questioned the British partition of the region, prompting the British to attempt to renegotiate arrangements in 1905. Still the line remained disputed. That year, the British also partitioned Bengal on India’s eastern frontier along religious lines with a view to undermining intensifying anti-colonial sentiment there. (By 1911, anti-colonial pushback forced the undoing of that partition—though Radcliffe would partition the region again in 1947.)

During World War I, Indian and Afghan affairs remained entangled, with anti-colonial activists establishing an independent Provisional Government of India in Kabul, plotting with the Turkish and German empires to free not only India but all Islamic countries from British rule. Its members worked with Bolsheviks, Pan-Islamists, Pan-Asianists, and other anti-colonial activists as far away as California, embracing humanistic ethics of internationalism and love. They saw this joint struggle as an end in itself, regardless of its political results.

Having encouraged these anti-colonial forces, Afghanistan also asserted its own full autonomy after the war and attempted to retake the disputed areas abutting British India, including Mohmand and Waziristan. The resulting Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, however, again left the issue unresolved. Anticipating the U.S. drone strategy of today, the British resorted to the new technology of aerial policing in the region, which Chief of the Air Staff Hugh Trenchard deemed suited to “the psychology, social organization and mode of life of the tribesmen and the nature of the country they inhabit.”

Indian anti-colonial activists with wartime ties to Kabul remained influential in the massively popular postwar Indian anti-colonial struggle. But while they dreamt federal dreams, the British practice of drawing hard lines to divide peoples acquired new force and purpose. Partition was asserted as a “solution” to political conflict between different groups across the empire—the division of Ireland in 1921 as the price of independence (Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom) became a template for recommending a similar “solution” for Palestine in the 1930s. By the 1940s, partition was a standard part of Britain’s decolonization toolkit. And the British justification for colonialism in South Asia—that its Hindus and Muslims constituted distinct nations requiring a mediating presence—had been built into the society’s political fabric in the form of separate, religiously based electorates that encouraged separate political movements as Indians incrementally wrested greater autonomy from the British. A push to partition British India into Muslim and Hindu states emerged, predictably, but struggled for support among many Muslims. These included the Pashtun Khudai Khidmatgar movement in the North-West Frontier, a nonviolent anti-colonial organization closely allied with the Gandhian Congress movement and staunchly opposed to partition.

When the plan for partition was announced in June 1947, the Khidmatgars—a word that means servant—feared that geography would automatically dictate their membership in Pakistan, whose creation they had vehemently opposed on principle. They pushed instead for an independent Pashtunistan, as did the Afghan government. After August 1947, as Punjabis and Bengalis fled for their lives across the new Radcliffe Line, the Pakistani government defended the ever contentious Durand Line, too, as Pashtuns and the Afghan government denied its legitimacy and rebuffed Pakistan’s claim to the Pashtun areas abutting it. Despite Pakistan’s strenuous efforts to crush the Pashtunistan movement, it survived, finding loyal support from Afghan President Daoud Khan in the 1970s.

Pakistan’s U.S.-backed support of mujahideen against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan was aimed, in part, at solidifying the border at the Durand Line. (The communist governments during the Soviet occupation refused to recognize the Durand Line as the border.) But even the agents Pakistan cultivated to intervene in Afghanistan refused to serve that end. The border was more or less moot during the conflict itself, but the mujahideen, recruited primarily among Pashtuns, maintained loyalty to the Pashtun position against the Durand Line. So it went with the Taliban: Pakistani backing didn’t trump the Taliban’s Pashtun loyalty to historic opposition to the Durand Line.

Pashtuns on both sides of the border deny the validity of the Durand Line, but the Pakistani government, in the hands of a Punjabi elite perhaps hardened by the violent partitioning of their own community in 1947, has relentlessly repressed the Pashtun desire for unity and autonomy. It has clung with increasing desperation to the principle of territorial integrity, especially after losing the Bengali half of the country, now Bangladesh, in 1971. The colonial U.S. presence in Afghanistan has abetted this effort. Of late, Pakistan is disrupting cross-border life by building up the frontier in a manner that is likely to rival the India-Pakistan border to the east—a border so fortified that it is one of the few man-made structures visible from space. In holding on to Pashtun land claimed by Afghanistan, the Pakistani government, with U.S. support, has extended the outlook of the past British colonial government toward the land and its people, twisting a knife in the wounds of 1893 and 1947. Meanwhile, the Modi government, in stoking the notion of the Muslim “other”—both inside and outside India—also twists a knife in the wounds of 1947.

In a region characterized by syncretic cultures that are the product of long intermingling, both colonial and postcolonial governments have engaged in endlessly destructive efforts to partition people into boxes defined by language, religion, and ethnicity, rather than afford them the freedom of coexistence fostered by the looser, federal structures that many anti-colonialists proposed. But the intermixing persists. Afghan refugees reside in Pakistan by the millions, and the specter of an undetectable Pakistani and Bangladeshi presence fuels the Modi government’s bigoted policies for proving citizenship. Who is Indian and who Bangladeshi? Who is Pakistani and who Afghan? The difficulty of answering such questions stems from the artificiality and violence of the hard lines that have been drawn between people entangled in what the Congress leader Maulana Azad called a “composite culture,” in which nonviolent anti-colonial struggle easily encompassed both Muslim Pashtuns and Gujarati Hindus.

India’s Punjabi farmers have been challenging the Modi government’s assertion of the central government’s authority for a year now in what has been one of the biggest protests in history. All around South Asia’s borderlands—from Kashmir to Kerala, from Bengal to Pashtunistan—we see resistance to the centralizing power that is a legacy of colonial rule and struggles for greater local governance, federalism, and layered forms of sovereignty promoting coexistence with the other, as envisioned by the anti-colonial thinkers and activists of the Provisional Government of India in Kabul, the Khidmatgars, and Mahatma Gandhi.

While the Cold War helped spur the federal unification of a Europe reeling from the horrors of nationalist violence, the neocolonialism it unleashed simultaneously abetted South Asia’s fragmentation into fortresslike nation-states sustained by the continual demonization of enemies within and without. Still, as the masses of farmers encamped at Delhi show us, alternative futures are never foreclosed. South Asians can still dream beyond those fortresses and promote enduringly composite cultures focused on the shared protection of water and land that is critical to survival in our time. As memory of the horrors of colonial partition fuel fascist Hindu nationalism in India and the Taliban’s expansion in Afghanistan, it has never been more important to remember and amplify the khidmatgars of anti-colonial coexistence.

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East and Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Her most recent book is Time’s Monster: How History Makes History.

Facing the music – no partying in Palestine

It’s a crash course for the ravers – it’s a drive-in Saturday!  David Bowie

Apparently, it’s party time in Dubai as the potentially impecunious emirate lowers its COVID19 guard and stands down its morality mukhabarat to lure champagne Charlies and Charlottes from plague infested England and its new-found Israeli tourists to raucous hootenannies in the casbah. Pandemic restrictions be damned! We’ll vaccinate the lot – well, most of them. The occidental groovers and grifters will get their shots before the lowly South and South East Asians who constitute the majority of the Emirates’ expatriate workforce.

Business is business, and why not? In our democracies, it is our right to hire a DJ, bring in the booze and throw a party, inviting all our friends and neighbours. We’re even willing to defy lockdowns and social distancing and risk hefty fines to assert our right, nay, need to be crowdy and rowdy.

Young folk in less liberated and licentious lands should be so lucky. As the story we publish below by Israeli-Arab writer and Haaretz editor Rajaa Natour illustrates, identity politics, cancel culture, and the right to take offence are not the exclusive preserve of the so-called “woke” leftists of the west and their particularistic adversaries on the right. When nationalism, secularism, religiosity, and identity collide the door is wide open for intolerance, misogyny and  ignorance.

When travelling through the Middle East and studying Arabic, there are two words that you learn quicksmart: mamnu’ and muharam, ممنوع و محرم. They both mean forbidden, prohibited, “don’t do it!”. The first is the voice of secular authority enforced by police, soldiers and officials; and the second is a religious edict determined by spiritual leaders and enforced by social custom and quite often, self-appointed vigilantes. Islam as a faith observes no separation between the divine and the secular in human affairs, and in Muslim societies, the dividing line is sometimes slim to nonexistent, the one reinforcing the other – with unfortunate consequences for perceived transgressors, as Palestinian musician Sama Abdelhadi found out when she organised a dance party in a remote location, and incurred the wrath of the straighteners, the patriarchy, and, so these would declare, the Almighty.

A crash course for the ravers

A video clip of a dance party hosted by a celebrated female DJ at a what is reputed to be a holy site quickly goes viral on social media, infuriating many Palestinians who claim that the party-goers are debasing and desecrating the sanctity of the shrine, of Word gets out in real-time and the party is gate-crashed by a posse of young Palestinian men who violently expel the revelers. Arrested by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, the DJ  is at first accused of desecrating a holy site, later with violating COVID19 regulations, and is remanded in custody for 15 days.

Natour writes: “When a prophet who is the earthly apostle of the divinity, religious taboos, and a misguided Muslim Palestinian crowd join hands, it’s a lost cause, becoming a Gordian knot. A desecration of a location is directly linked to a desecration of the divinity and, accordingly, as is always the case, the defilement and disgracing of the divine requires punitive measures. And so the second act begins as the wounded Palestinian-Muslim masculinity delivers its punishment. God and his defenders will not rest until blood is shed. This time it was the blood, or more precisely the freedom, of Sama Abdulhadi … But (the) arguments are fatuous. There is no link, historical or religious, between Nebi Musa and the defiled location – its desecration and the violation of the sensibilities of many Muslims, are all imaginary. The intent is to turn an  imaginary violation into something real, and a tool in the service of political-religious interests.

The Nebi Musa shrine, by the way, is named for the Prophet Moses – old Moshe is holy to all three Peoples of the Book – and he is reputed to be buried there. The biblical record – which was later borrowed by Christianity and by Islam is clear that Moses did not enter the Promised Land, but rather, expired on a high place overlooking Canaan on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea – the town adjacent to the archaeological icon of Petra is called Wadi Musa, ‘the valley of Moses’.

Palestinian political leaders (male) cooperate with the demand to issue a moral-religious condemnation of secularism in principle and particularly secular culture. The Palestinian Authority has even suggested a commission of inquiry – a roundabout way of kicking the can up the road. But what bothers the public, it would seem, is not the cultural gap between techno music and Palestinian culture, but rather, it neglects the Palestinian narrative and is therefore not legitimate.

Then Israeli Arab politicians (male) get involved, presenting the violent expulsion of the revelers from the Nebi Musa compound as a national act of heroism, turning the violence and the disqualification of cultural events that have taken over internal Palestinian discourse into a political issue, an oppositional and subversive one.  Palestinian secularism is framed as an enemy of Palestinian nationalism that must be silenced.

Then another change occurred in the Palestinian political-cultural discourse. Palestinian secularism, already labeled as inimical to Palestinian nationalism, became an agent of other agendas, in this case, the occupation. This wasn’t merely a struggle between secularism and religiosity, it was the disqualification of secularism as a political alternative before it became a cultural alternative. It was therefore necessary to portray it as a betrayal, to kill it so that religion could grow on its ruins.

Natour concludes: “The people who broke into the party at Nebi Musa represent the same masses who objectify and harass women, who persecute and mock the Palestinian LGBT community, who legitimize the murder of women. These are the masses who will soon burst in, wielding clubs, into the Qasr al-Thaqafa cultural center in Ramallah, without needing to resort to any religious pretext any more”.

Sama Abdulhadi (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP)

The Left’s Palestinian paradox

It is one of the great paradoxes confronting the Palestinians’ western, predominantly left-wing sympathizers. Whether these are advocating one-state or two-state solutions, they declaim that their preferred model, whatever or whenever this comes into being, will be democratic, pluralistic and if not entirely secular, then at least, tolerant, egalitarian and non-discriminatory, respecting human rights and social justice. This, alas, is wishful thinking.

Residents of the Israeli occupied territories and of Gaza are divided on the character and complexion of their hypothetical Palestinian nation state. A majority are long accustomed to authoritarian leaders, the traditional zaim (boss or strongman), and cleave to their Islamic faith, family and clan loyalties, and their conservative social structures and strictures. This is reflected in the ideological schisms between the secularist and radical elements of the Palestinian national movement and its more religious and indeed fundamentalist adversaries. And it would appear that among Palestine’s opportunistic, unelected, often corrupt and predominantly male political elite, nationalism has donned Islamic garb.

It was not always thus. Once upon a not too distant time, the national movement was predominantly secular. Western-style intellectuals and leftist groups played a preeminent role (as it was with most Arab nationalists back in the day, with Christians playing an influential part). Political discourse was premised on the idea that the conflict with Israel and Zionism revolved about territory, human and political rights and “the return” of refugees to their former homes and lands. The goal of the national struggle was to replace the “Zionist regime” with a democratic, secular state where Jews, Christians and Muslims could coexist in peace, or failing this, with the militarily powerful State of Israel unprepared to dissolve itself, a Palestinian State within the borders of the former Jordanian West Bank and onetime Egyptian ruled Gaza.

But the ascendancy of Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their I found on the Palestinian “street” transformed the debate, and the vision of a democratic and secular Palestine is challenged by calls to expel all Jews (the settlers, hundreds of thousands of them, and the IDF) and to establish a state based, ideally, on Shariah Law. And this appeals to an increasingly dispirited, disenfranchised, impoverished, conservative and religious Palestinian street.

Whilst the national movement increasingly abandons its former left-wing, democratic and secular ideals, there is nevertheless sustained broad support for the Palestinian cause among the western left – a broad constituency of mainstream socialists and social democrats, and also the acolytes, partisans and naïfs of the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Many on the left now tolerate developments in the West Bank and Gaza that are at odds with the liberal, enlightened world-view they ostensibly champion, including free elections, freedom of speech and association, religious freedom, human rights, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights.

There has been muted criticism of the actions and rhetoric of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and what could be interpreted as tacit support for their corrupt, incompetent and authoritarian rule. The rationale is that if it wasn’t for the occupation, things would be democratically and economically hunky-dory; and there is a tendency to blame only Israel when violence erupts whilst ignoring the dynamics at play in Palestinian domestic politics and the internecine conflicts that dominate them (again, if it wasn’t for the occupation etc.)

© Paul Hemphill 2021.  All rights reserved


For more on Palestine in In That Howling Infinite, see Visualizing the Palestinian Return – the art of Ismail Shammout; Children of Abraham; Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair; Castles made of sandand O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…On the Middle East generally, see: A Middle East Miscellany.

And so to the full story …

For Palestinians, only God is a DJ

Rajaa Natour  Haaretz , Jan 21, 2021 11:10 AM

The arrest of Palestinian DJ Sama Abdulhadi after she played a set at the Nabi Musa complex wasn’t merely a struggle between secularism and religiosity

Again and again the voices rose, decisive, mechanical, brutal, leaving no room or time for bewilderment: “Get out! Everybody, out, now.” Amid the shrieks, one young voice, angry and bellicose, stood out: “Get out or I’ll blow up the world.” The organizers countered the threats with a limp, apologetic response and stopped the party on the spot.

The shouters weren’t Trumpists invading Capitol Hillin Washington. They were ten young Palestinians from Jerusalem who violently broke up a party that took place on December 26 in the Nabi Musa complex.

The complex features a mosque and other buildings too and is located in the Judean Desert, south of Jericho and east of Jerusalem. These hotheads went there after one of the revelers posted young Palestinian men and women dancing, drinking and smoking on Instagram.

 Nabi Musa shrine, the West Bank Dec 2020. Ammar Awad Reuters

In the first act, a video clip was disseminated on social media, quickly going viral and infuriating many Palestinians, who claimed that the party-goers were debasing and desecrating the sanctity of the locale. Obviously, when a prophet who is the earthly apostle of the divinity, religious taboos, and a misguided Muslim Palestinian crowd join hands, it’s a lost cause, becoming a Gordian knot. A desecration of a location is directly linked to a desecration of the divinity and, accordingly, as is always the case, the defilement and disgracing of the divine requires punitive measures.

This is where the second act begins, in which the wounded Palestinian-Muslim masculinity delivers its punishment. God and his defenders will not rest until blood is shed. This time it was the blood, or more precisely the freedom, of Sama Abdulhadi, a popular 29-year-old Palestinian DJ who was mixing the music. She was arrested by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, at first accused of desecrating a holy site, later with violating Palestinian Health Ministry regulations. She was then remanded in custody for 15 days.

Abdulhadi was born and raised in Ramallah. Her musical trajectory began with the studying of musical production in Jordan. At the same time, in 2006, she started recording music, mainly light dance-pop. Towards 2008 she discovered the wonders of techno, and the genre became the focus of her musical work. The result was two techno albums, which she released under the label Skywalker. In 2011, she was accepted to the acclaimed SAE Institute sound academy in London and became a sound technician.

Abdulhadi was born and raised in Ramallah. Her musical trajectory began with the studying of musical production in Jordan. At the same time, in 2006, she started recording music, mainly light dance-pop. Towards 2008 she discovered the wonders of techno, and the genre became the focus of her musical work. The result was two techno albums, which she released under the label Skywalker. In 2011, she was accepted to the acclaimed SAE Institute sound academy in London and became a sound technician.

 

Abdulhadi has lived in a number of cities around the world and has performed at highly-acclaimed clubs in Europe, at festivals, and on the largest and most popular online techno music broadcasting platform of them all, Boiler Room. According to Abdulhadi, the party at Nebi Musa was part of a project designed to promote local tourism through techno music.

Nothing helped Abdulhadi, not being a Palestinian woman committed to her people’s struggle against the occupation, not her cultural contribution to the global techno scene, nor even her argument, backed by documents, that she had the approval of the Palestinian Tourism Ministry. The latter retreated after the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Affairs condemned the party, supported by widespread public pressure, and ultimately denied that it had approved the event.

The story didn’t end there. It was kept alive, mainly by male Palestinian leaders, who also capitulated and cooperated in turn with the demand to issue a moral-religious condemnation, which was primarily a castigation of secularism in principle, particularly secular culture as embodied in techno music.

One interesting argument used against Abdulhadi was that her techno music is not part of Palestinian heritage. But what bothered the public was not the cultural gap between this music and Palestinian culture, but the gap in narratives: this music doesn’t tell the familiar Palestinian narrative, therefore it is not legitimate.

Many Palestinian public figures condemned and denounced her actions. Among these were the Ministry of Tourism spokesman, Jarees Qumsiyeh, Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif Qanua, Jericho Governor Jihad Abu al-Asal, and others. Yet others did not make do with mere condemnation. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh promised to punish those responsible and immediately established a commission of inquiry. Many people were angry, condemning the event and demanding retribution, but their arguments focused on religious aspects.

But these arguments are fatuous, as there is no link, historical or religious, between Nebi Musa (i.e. Moses) and this location. Thus, the defiled location, the desecration that occurred and the violation of the sensibilities of many Muslims, are all imaginary. The intent was to turn this imaginary violation into something real, making it a tool in the service of political-religious interests.

And then came the third act, involving among others the Knesset member Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List. It was the most dangerous of the three acts in terms of politics and culture. Odeh and others presented the violent expulsion of the revelers from the Nebi Musa compound as a national act of heroism. They turned the violence and the disqualification of cultural events that have taken over internal Palestinian discourse into a political issue, an oppositional and subversive one. Moreover, they presented Palestinian secularism in all its aspects as an enemy of Palestinian nationalism, thus making it imperative to silence it. Regrettably, this discourse has taken wing on social media.

And then yet another change occurred in the Palestinian political-cultural discourse. Palestinian secularism, already labeled as inimical to Palestinian nationalism, became an agent of other agendas, in this case, the occupation. This wasn’t merely a struggle between secularism and religiosity, it was the disqualification of secularism as a political alternative before it became a cultural alternative. It was therefore necessary to portray it as a betrayal, to kill it so that religion could grow on its ruins. The people who broke into the party at Nebi Musa represent the same masses who objectify and harass women, who persecute and mock the Palestinian LGBT community, who legitimize the murder of women. These are the masses who will soon burst in, wielding clubs, into the Qasr al-Thaqafa cultural center in Ramallah, without needing to resort to any religious pretext any more.

 

Sawt al Hurriya – Egypt’s slow-burning fuse

Déjà vu

Last month saw the death in exile of former Tunisian strongman, dictator and kleptocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the resurgence on 20th September of Friday street protests in Cairo and smaller Egyptian towns – and around the world – against the corruption and oppression of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi and his military cronies. Predictably, some three thousand people have been arrested – protesters, prominent activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians, including Islamist and leftists alike and dissenters in general. These have now been added to the tens of thousands that have already been incarcerated on conspiracy and terrorism charges, largely without trial.

it appears to be an indiscriminate backlash, The Independent’s Bel True writes: “… according to rights groups and people I’ve interviewed, among those haphazardly rounded up are children who were out buying school uniform, tourists holidaying in Cairo, human rights lawyers going to court to represent clients, confused bystanders, young men popping out for evening strolls, visiting foreign students and street vendors. All are now swallowed up in Egypt’s notoriously opaque justice system”.

The protests have for the moment been contained, but with a third of Egypt’s population below the poverty line (and that’s a government figure – it’s very likely much higher), about one-third of the total under age 14 and sixty percent under 30, one can’t help feeling a hint of déjà vu. It is hard to keep one hundred million people down with just a strong arm up your sleeve.

Meeting with al Sisi in New York, US President Donald Trump praised him for restoring order to Egypt. At this year’s G7 summit in Biarritz, Trump had referred to the Egyptian president  as his “favourite dictator”, a comment that was met with stunned silence from American and Egyptian officials. Boris Johnson has likewise found a friend in Al Sisi. Tru quotes a British-Egyptian filmmaker: “There is a misconception that Sisi is a partner in stability which allows governments, particularly in Europe, to turn a blind eye to his behaviour: as long he keeps buying weapons and submarines and power stations”.

The Voice of Freedom

In our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, it is difficult to put ourselves in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of potentially heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

The courage of the of the Egyptian protesters – for brave they are indeed For having experienced six years of brutal and vengeful military regime, they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions – reminded me of an exhilarating song and video created by a young Egyptian and his friends, celebrating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of practically president-for-life Hosni Mubarak eight years ago last February. Sawt Al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom)), went viral on YouTube after its release on 11 February 2011, the day before Mubarak’s departure.

Bur first, let us revisit those heady days and the doleful years that followed.

Remembering Tahrir Square

The self-immolation in December 20111 of young Tunisian Muhammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for the pent-up popular outrage that led to the heady days of January and February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East.

The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality; for a society in which there were jobs and a decent living, where you could save up enough money to get married, where you didn’t have to bribe corrupt officials for everything from traffic fines to court decisions to business permits to jobs, where you could be arbitrarily arrested and/or beaten up or worse for speaking out against the government, the system, or just…speaking out.

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

When elections were held a year later, Mohammed Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by Abd al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Whereas Hosni Mubarak died in pampered confinement, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president, was held in solitary confinement for six years, and died in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power. See: Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi 

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of the new pharoah. Al Sisi and other US supporterd and armed Arab autocrats have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died  in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013

The Arab Spring failed because its youthful vanguard were not prepared for the next stage. In reality, it only occurred in Tunisia and in Egypt. Like the Occupy movement in the west, it lacked coherent leadership and purpose, and in the end, unity against the forces of the establishment that were mobilized against them. But the young, inexperienced idealists were no match for the experienced activists of the Muslim brotherhood, the apparatchiks of the established political parties, and the cadres of the mukhabarat, the military, and the “deep state” that were able to hijack and subvert the revolution.

The Arab Spring was effectively over once the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators had departed and the counterrevolution had already begun – in Egypt particularly with the electoral success and later putsch of the Ikhwan, and finally the “tamarrud” or “rising” of the fearful and conservative middle classes that ushered in military rule.

 The great unravelling

The Tunisian and Egyptian risings were followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These were more sectarian and tribal based, with less reliance on social media, and while media chose to consider them as part of the Arab Spring, in reality, they were not.

This was transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter., and eight years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.

And they led to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, extending southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Tunisia alone has held on to some of the gains of its “Spring”, but there it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. Nevertheless, the country is holding ostensibly free and fair elections as I write. Elsewhere, the misnamed Arab Spring entered into a cycle of protest and repression little different from earlier unrest, and also, as in the past, foreign intervention. And the story has still a long way to run…

Civil war and economic desperation propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

 The voice of freedom

Against this a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked, and betrayed, I share the song created by Seed Mostafa Fahmy and his friends and the video they shot in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations. “In every street in my country, the voice of Freedom is calling!”

Sawt al Hurriya

I  went (to go protest), vowing not to turn back.
I wrote, in my blood, on every street.
We raised our voices, until those who had not heard us could.
We broke down all barriers.

Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

We raised our heads high into the sky.
And hunger no longer mattered to us.
Most important are our rights,
And that with our blood we write our history.

If you are one of us,
Stop your chattering,
Stop telling us to leave and abandon our dream.
Stop saying the word, “I”.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

Brown Egyptian hands
Are outstretched amidst the roars (of the crowd)
Breaking barriers.

Our innovative youth
Have turned autumn into spring.

They have achieved the miraculous.
They have resurrected the dead,
Saying: “Kill me,
But my death will not resurrect YOUR country.
I am writing, with my blood,
A new life for my nation.
Is this my blood, or is it spring?
In color, they are both green.”

I do not know whether I smile from happiness,
Or from my sadnesses.
In every street in my country,

The voice of freedom is calling.

(Translated by Egyptian Seed Mariam Bazeed.)

Sout al-Hurriya
صوت الحرية

Nezelt We qolt ana mesh rage3
نزلت وقلت انا مش راجع
I went out and said I would not return

we katabt bedamy fe kol share3
وكتبت بدمي في كل شارع
And I wrote on each street with my blood

Sama3na elli makansh same3
سمعنا اللي ما كمش سامع
We heard what was not heard

we etkasaret kol el mawane3
واتكسرت كل الموانع
And all the barriers were broken

sela7na kan a7lamna
سلحنا كان احلامنا
Our weapon was our dreams

we bokra wade7 odamna
وبكره واضح قدمنا
And tomorrow was clear ahead of us

men zaman benestana
من زمان بنستني
We’ve been waiting a long time

bendawar mesh la2een makkanna
بندور مش لاقيين مكانا
Seeking but not finding our place

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

sout el houriya beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the voice of freedom is calling
……………….
rafa3na rasna fe elsama
رفعنا رسنا في السما
We lifted our heads high (in the sky)

we elgo3 maba2ash beyhemna
والجوع مبقاش بيهمنا
And hunger no longer bothered us

aham 7aga 7a2ena
اهم حاجه حقنا
What’s most important are our rights

wenekteb tarekhna be damena
ونكتب تاريخنا بدمنا
And to write our history with our blood

law kont wa7ed mnena
لو كنت واحد مننا
If you were really one of us

balash terghi we t2ol lena
بلاش ترغي وتقولنا
don’t blather and telling us

nemshy we neseeb &elmna
نمشي ونسيب حلمنا
To leave and abandon our dream

we batal te2ol kelmt ana
وبطل تقول كلمه انا
And stop saying the word “I”

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

Sout El-7ouria beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
……………..
spoken poetry at 2:14:
ايادي مصريه سمره
Dark Egyptian arms
ليها في التمييز
knows how to characterize (against discrimination)
ممدوده وسط الذئير
reached out through the roar
بتكسر البراويز
breaking the frams
طلع الشباب البديع
the creative youth came out
قلبوا خريفها ربيع
turned it’s fall into spring
وحققوا المعجزه
and achieved the miracle
صحوا القتيل من القتل
awakinging the murdered from death
اقتلني , اقتلني
kill me , kill me
قتلي ما هايقيم دولتك تاني
killing me is not going to build up you regime again
بكتب بدمي حياه تانيه لوطاني
I am writing with my blood another life for my country
دمي ده ولا الربيع
is this my blood or the spring
اللي اتنين بلون اخضر
both seem green
وببتسم من سعادتي ولا أحزاني
am i smiling from my happiness or my sadness
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling

 

 

 

The tears of Zenobia – will Palmyra rise again?

The National Museum in Damascus is a magical place.

It’s most amazing exhibits are its smallest, the tiny alphabet of the bronze age city of Ugarit from the 4th Century BC, said to be the world’s first alphabet, and its largest, the interior of second century synagogue from the Greco-Roman city of Dar Europa on the Euphrates.

The museum has not only survived Syria’s war unscathed, and for a long time closed to safeguard its contents, it has been reopened for almost a year. Whilst this is wonderful news, reflect on the memory of Khaled Mohammad al Asaad, renowned Syrian archaeologist and historian, and Director of Antiquities in Palmyra who was murdered by Islamic State in August 2015 for endeavouring to protect Syria’s archaeological treasures, and reflect also on the destruction of the World Heritage site for which he sacrificed his life.

Palmyra, the ancient and venerable ‘Pearl of the Desert stands in an oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus. This once great city was in its day one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, at the junction of trade routes between Europe, Asia and Africa. Although a vassal of Rome, it was the capital of the third century Palmyrene Empire, and of its famous queen, Zenobia. She led a revolt against the Roman Empire, expanding her domain throughout the Levant and conquering Egypt, and ruled until 271, when she was defeated by the Romans and taken as a hostage to Rome by Emperor Aurelian.

Palmyra contains monumental ruins from the 1st to the 2nd century, its art and architecture spanning several civilizations, combining Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. There are few remnants of the ancient world that compared wit it. Ba’albek, in Lebanon, maybe; Ephesus, in Turkey, possibly; and also, Apamea, in western Syria between Hama and Aleppo. Palmyra’s treasures hide in plain sight. For all the world to see and wonder.

When Da’ish captured Palmyra and Tadmor, the adjacent town (it’s name means ruin in Arabic) al Asaad refused to flee and though tortured for a month, refused to reveal where valuable artifacts had been moved for safekeeping. He was then publicly beheaded, his remains displayed amidst the ruins he has spent his life preserving for us, for humanity, for history. His murderers declared in a sign hanging from his body, that he’d did because he had overseen idols and had attended infidel archaeological conferences as his country’s representative.

Da’ish then proceeded to dynamite Palmyra’s monuments.

Four years on and the suffering of the Syrians continues unabated. The so called-civilized rulers of the so called-civilized world stood by and watched, first with fear and loathing, and then opportunistically and strategically as innocent Syrians were savaged by all sides in a war of all against all. For want of will and resources, and party to the proxy wars that are still being playing out between neighboring states and heat powers. Whilst the territorial Caliphate is no more, thousands of of the murderers and desecrators have melted into the Syrian and Iraqi deserts to carry on their atavistic struggle.

What is happened in Palmyra is no worse than what has happened in many Syrian and Iraqi towns and villages during the last nine years.

We now confront the fact that whilst the recent destruction of Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral encouraged a deluge of plutocratic philanthropy, the great and good of the western world, having expressed horror and outage at Islamic State’s destructive iconoclasm, are not demonstrating such open-pocketness when it comes to the reconstruction of Syria’s ancient and priceless archaeological heritage. The reason, it is said, is because the Assad government, victorious in its vicious and bloody reconquest of the country, is subject to international economic sanctions. Neither aid for the destitute and displaced nor the reconstruction of ancient monuments is forthcoming on the scale theses crises require.

Expensive, inspirational 3D representations of Palmyra’s lost monuments in London, Paris and New York are no substitute for for actually funding the reconstruction of the real thing.

We republish here a timely feature from the Sydney Morning Herald addressing this melancholy irony. It recalls many of the places we visited when we were last in Palmyra. We drove in from Damascus on a long desert highway that even in peacetime, had mukhabarat checkpoints and also boasted The Baghdad Cafe where we took refreshment, and departed a few days later on the Homs road. The feature photograph was taken from the breakfast room of our  hotel in Tadmor – which the author says is now destroyed. The picture below was taken from Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle above Palmyra. It was a magnificent vantage point for a panoramic view of the ancient city, and also for watching the most spectacular sunsets over the Syrian desert. It is now a military outpost.

In ages far beyond our ken,
These stones weren’t set by mortal men.
In friendly fields and foreign lands.
They say these walls were by giants’hands were raised.
But few, few remember when.
With mortar mixed with blood and soil
And leavened thence with sweat and toil.
The masons and the muscle
All are bones, bones, dry bones,
And nothing else remains.
Their histories are carved in stone.
Their mysteries are locked in stone.
And so the monuments decay
As lonely sands stretch far away,
And hide the stones.
Paul Hemphill, Ruins and Bones

The article follows our small photo gallery.

Read also, in In That Howling InfiniteRuins and Bones, a tribute to al Asaad, and to Palmyra, and all, The Rubble Of Palmyra by Leon Wieseltier, published in The Atlantic, 5th September, 2014.

And more on Syria in In That Howling Infinite:

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888). Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Palmyra – will she rise again?

Chris Ray, Sydney Morning Herald,

All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help.  Damascus museum archaeologist Houmam Saad 

Islamic State barbarians almost destroyed this World Heritage-listed site. Its wonders can be saved – so why is there such little international will to do so?

“Your heart will break when you see Palmyra,” says Tarek al-Asaad, looking out the window pensively as we cross the wide Syrian steppe on the road towards the ancient city. For Tarek, Palmyra represents a deep reservoir of sorrow that includes the public execution of his father Khaled, a renowned archaeologist and historian. Khaled had been instrumental in achieving Palmyra’s UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1980. The world stood by, horrified, while the fanatics of Islamic State, also known as IS, took to its majestic monuments with explosives and sledgehammers 35 years later.

We stop at a roadside store, where a young boy with old eyes is gathering aluminium cans to sell for scrap. Inside, soldiers of the Syrian Army guzzle sugary vodka drinks and beer. It’s May and the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when Tarek eats and drinks nothing from dawn to dusk, but the young conscripts are on leave and in a mood to celebrate. Tarek buys supplies for his first night in Palmyra since he fled the city in 2015 for the relative safety of Damascus, Syria’s capital.

Palmyra’s Temple of Bel in March 2014, and the same view two years later.
Palmyra’s Temple of Bel in March 2014, and in 2016. Getty Images 

Tarek’s father, Khaled al-Asaad, was 83 when he was beheaded by IS. He had devoted more than 50 years to uncovering, restoring and publicising the remnants of this historic Silk Road hub that reached its peak in the third century. Tarek, one of his 11 children, grew up in the modern town of Tadmur next to the site. “Every day I would rush out of school to ride in the wheel-barrows and buckets that carried the soil from the diggings,” he remembers. Khaled retired as Palmyra’s head of antiquities in 2003 but stayed on as an expert much in demand. Fluent in ancient Palmyrene, a dialect of Aramaic, he translated inscriptions, wrote books and advised foreign archaeological missions. Meanwhile, Tarek, now 38, a nuggety, full-faced man with a ready smile, ran a successful tourism business.

We’re travelling towards Palmyra from the western city of Homs, through undulating pasture sprinkled with crimson poppies. Bedouin herders, austere and watchful, graze flocks of long-haired goats and fat-tailed sheep. Soldiers hitch rides on passing trucks through concrete-block settlements edged with green rectangles of wheat and barley. Roadside military checkpoints mount extravagant displays of patriotism: the double-starred national flag is painted on concrete barriers, oil drums and blockhouse walls while banners depict Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad looking resolute behind aviator sunglasses, or waving to crowds. Sentries who inspect identity papers are relaxed and happy to banter. “I hope the fasting is going okay for you?” asks a driver. “We’re not fasting, we’re kuffar [non-believers],” jokes a guard,  alluding to the jihadist insult thrown at adversaries.

Further along, pasture gives way to stony ground studded with pale green tussock. Remnants of the war are more evident here; burnt-out trucks and tanks, toppled electricity pylons and fortified berms of rammed earth crowned with barbed wire. Near a military airbase ringed by radar stations the checkpoint is heavily guarded and businesslike.

A Russian tank transporter going our way is a reminder that IS still fights in the desert beyond Palmyra, where several Syrian troops were reportedly killed this month. While IS lost its last Syrian stronghold of Baghouz in March, small bands continue to mount guerrilla attacks. This is my first visit to Palmyra since a trip as a tourist in 2009, drawn by the mystique of its spectacular architecture beside a desert oasis. Two years later, Syria was torn apart by war. As we approach Palmyra through a gap in a low mountain range, one question is playing on my mind: has the remote and mesmerising site suffered a fatal blow, or can it rise again?

Palmyra’s Grand Colonnade suddenly emerges out of a sandy plain. It is the city’s still magnificent spine, a kilometre-long avenue of towering limestone columns that slowly turn from pale gold to burnt orange in the setting sun. We park near the ruins and set out on foot to take a closer look. At the Grand Colonnade’s eastern end, the great temple of the Mesopotamian god Bel lies in ruins – though its portico somehow survived IS’s explosives – and the ornately carved triumphal arch is a pile of massive blocks. The invaders also blew up the tetrapylon that marked the city’s crossroads and the Baalshamin temple, a richly decorated combination of Roman and indigenous building styles. The theatre’s finely chiselled facade is a pile of rubble along with several multi-storey burial towers that sat on a bare hillside.

On the crossroads of international trade, cosmopolitan Palmyra developed an unorthodox and pluralist culture reflected in its surviving art and architecture. That, along with its location between the Mediterranean coast and the Euphrates river, made it a tempting symbolic and strategic target for modern-day fundamentalists. Muslims lived at Palmyra for 13 centuries, establishing mosques in structures that earlier functioned as Byzantine churches and pagan temples, but the bigots of IS were scandalised by almost everything they found. Every act of vandalism was videoed for use in IS propaganda, its shock value aimed at attracting extremist recruits and intimidating opponents.

An Islamic State-released photo showing the destruction of Palmyra’s 1900-year-old Baalshamin temple.
Islamic State-photo of the destruction of Palmyra’s 1900-year-old Baalshamin temple. AAP

IS occupied Palmyra twice: between May 2015 and March 2016, and between December 2016 and March 2017. During its first takeover, Tarek escaped, but Khaled refused to leave. “I phoned my father and begged him, ‘Please leave; Palmyra has been lost to evil people and you are not safe,’ Tarek says. “He answered, ‘I’m glad you got away, but this is my home and I’m not leaving.’”

After six weeks of house arrest, Khaled was imprisoned in a hotel basement and tortured to reveal the location of hidden treasures that Tarek says never existed. After a month in the basement, the old man was beheaded with a sword in front of an assembled crowd. “He refused to kneel for the blade, so they kicked his legs out from under him,” Tarek says. An online photograph showed his corpse tied to a traffic pole and his head, spectacles in place, positioned mockingly at his feet. A placard tied to his body labelled him an apostate who served as “director of idolatry” at Palmyra and represented Assad’s government at “infidel” conferences abroad.

Before war broke out in 2011, tourism and agriculture supported more than 50,000 people in Tadmur. Only a few hundred have returned, burrowing into half-demolished buildings along streets that sprout giant weeds from bomb craters. Tarek is not among the returnees; he lives with his mother Hayat in Damascus, where he manages a cafe. Russian sappers have cleared Tadmur of IS mines and booby-traps and power and water is back on. Commerce has made a tentative recovery, with a bakery, a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy and a simple restaurant. Its owner, Ibrahim Salim, 45, grills chicken on the footpath under a banner portraying President Assad and his Russian patron Vladimir Putin. Salim says he fled Palmyra after IS killed his wife Taghreed, a 36-year-old nurse, for the crime of treating an injured government soldier. “Security is good, so I can sleep peacefully in Tadmur now,” he says. “We hope the school will reopen soon, so more families will return.”

UNESCO has extolled Palmyrene art – particularly its expressive funerary sculpture – as a unique blend of indigenous, Greco-Roman, Persian and even Indian influences. As IS battled Syrian troops for control of Tadmur in 2015, Tarek rushed to save the most valued examples in Palmyra’s two-storey museum. With him were his archaeologist brothers, Mohammed and Walid, and their brother-in-law, Khalil Hariri, who had succeeded Khaled al-Asaad as museum director. They packed sculptures, pottery and jewellery into wooden crates and were loading them into trucks when mortars exploded around them. Shrapnel hit Tarek in the back and Khalil took a bullet in the arm. They got away with hundreds of pieces, but left many more behind. UNESCO has praised Syria’s wartime evacuation of more than 300,000 exhibits from the country’s 34 museums as “an extraordinary feat”.

We walk to Palmyra’s museum. Khaled’s former workplace is a desolate shell, its walls pockmarked by bullets, windows blown out and the foyer roof holed by a missile. Galleries that showcased the accomplishments of millennia are bare save for a few statues and bas-reliefs. They are minus heads, faces and hands – desecrated by IS cadres enraged by “idolatrous” objects, Tarek says, adding: “They even pulled the embalmed mummies out of their cabinets and ran over them with a bulldozer.”

I find only one intact exhibit – a portrait of Khaled (pictured) by Sydney artist Luke Cornish, a work that I and Cornish assumed had been lost. Painted onto a steel door, the portrait is propped against a wall and covered in a protective sheet of clear plastic. Tarek doesn’t know how it survived or who put it in the museum. “Someone must have hidden it from IS, because they would have destroyed it for sure,” he says.

Tarek al-Asaad with the portrait of his late father, Khaled, by Sydney artist Luke Cornish.
Tarek al-Asaad with the portrait of his late father, Khaled, by Sydney artist Luke Cornish. Alex Ray 

No fewer than 15 employees of Syria’s museum network have suffered violent deaths in the eight-year war, but only Khaled’s murder made world headlines. The news prompted Cornish to pay him a remarkable tribute. Cornish makes art by spraying aerosol paint over layers of stencils. Twice a finalist for the Archibald Prize, his award-winning work achieves a near-photographic realism and carries strong humanitarian themes. In June 2016, he went to Syria to film a group of Australian boxers on a “hope-raising mission” led by a Sydney Anglican priest, “Fighting Father” Dave Smith, known for his use of boxing to help at-risk youths. Between bouts and training, Cornish held impromptu stencil-art demonstrations for children in war-ravaged places such as Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city.

“The kids were fascinated by the immediacy of the medium,” he told me in Sydney. “Most were very poor and had never known anything but war, so it was great to see them having fun putting stuff like [cartoon character] Dora the Explorer on a schoolyard wall or along a bombed-out street. Even with soldiers around and artillery going off, we always drew a curious crowd.”

Before leaving for Syria, Cornish prepared a stencil in the hope of painting Khaled’s portrait somewhere in the country. He got the chance when the boxers went to Palmyra. They arrived more than two months after a Russian-backed offensive first expelled IS from the city, and a week after St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra played a concert there to celebrate – prematurely, as it turned out – Palmyra’s liberation. The orchestra performed Prokofiev, Bach and Shchedrin in a Roman-era theatre that IS used as a backdrop for mass executions.

Cornish chose the door of the theatre’s electrical room to paint the man he calls “a hero who sacrificed his life for what he loved”. A YouTube clip of Cornish working on the painting led Tarek to contact him. “Luke’s painting was a beautiful gesture and a very kind gift to our family. We think of him as our friend and brother,” Tarek says.

But six months later, IS retook Palmyra, dynamiting the theatre and posting a gloating video of the damage. Cornish had assumed his painting was lost, too. “I’m used to having my work destroyed on the street, but having it blown up by IS is something else,” he says.

A beheaded and mutilated statue in a Palmyra museum.
A beheaded and mutilated statue in a Palmyra museum. Getty Images

Syria boasts six World Heritage cultural sites and all are on UNESCO’s endangered list. Normally, World Heritage funds would be released to protect the threatened properties. In Syria’s case, UN support has been limited to the restoration of a single Palmyrene statue, and training for museum staff. A UNESCO emergency appeal for $US150,000 ($222,000) to safeguard the portico of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel has failed to attract support from potential donors. At the national museum in Damascus, white-coated conservators have begun the exacting job of repairing hundreds of Palmyra’s damaged exhibits. It is an almost entirely Syrian effort, done on a tiny budget. “We hope for more international help because Palmyra belongs to the world, not just to Syria,” says Khalil Hariri, the Palmyra museum director. He says the fallen stones of the triumphal arch, theatre and tetrapylon are mostly intact and can be put back together, but the museum service can’t afford to employ workers and buy machinery. Says a Palmyra specialist at the Damascus museum, archaeologist Houmam Saad: “All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help.”

More than two dozen European and US organisations have sprung up to promote Syria’s imperilled heritage. They collect data, hold meetings and issue statements of concern. One such group spent £2.5 million ($4.1 million) to erect a two-thirds-scale model of Palmyra’s triumphal arch in London’s Trafalgar Square, then repeated the exercise in Washington, D.C. Money raised for Syrian antiquities would be better spent where the damage was done, writes Ross Burns, a former Australian ambassador to Syria and author of four books on its archaeology and history: “Putting money into faux arches and 3D models vaguely mimicking historical structures does little more than salve the consciences of outsiders whose nations have encouraged – even funded and armed, then walked away from – the conflagration that grew to overwhelm Syria.”

Syria is a nation of many faiths and ethnicities that emerged in its present boundaries only in 1945. Its rulers have popularised a shared history as a tool to promote national identity and social cohesion. In 2018, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay acknowledged this heritage as “a powerful force for reconciliation and dialogue”. She added a caveat: UNESCO would help rebuild Syria’s historic sites “when conditions allow”. That could mean a long wait.

The UN has banned its agencies from providing reconstruction aid until a “genuine and inclusive political transition negotiated by the parties” is achieved. The ban reflects the stance of the US, European Union and other nations which have imposed economic sanctions on Syria. The Australian government did the same in 2011 in response to what it called the “deeply disturbing and unacceptable use by the Syrian regime of violence against its people”. A year later, the Gillard government applied further sanctions and called for “intensified pressure on Damascus to stop its brutality”.

Luke Cornish ran up against the sanctions when he tried to send $28,000 raised for Syrian orphans to SOS Children’s Villages International last year. Sanctions have isolated Syria from global banking and payment systems, so the charity advised him to wire the money to its German bank account. However, his Australian bank declined the transfer, Cornish says, adding: “I made the mistake of using the word ‘Syria’ on the transfer description.” The UN Special Rapporteur on sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, says the restrictions have “contributed to the suffering of the Syrian people” by blocking imports ranging from anti-cancer drugs and vaccines to crop seeds and water pumps. Though not endorsed by the UN, the sanctions have had a “chilling effect” on humanitarian aid and obstruct efforts to restore schools, hospitals, clean water, housing and employment, Jazairy reported in 2018.

What, then, are the prospects for restoring Syria’s endangered antiquities, including Palmyra? Answers may lie in an ambitious Russian-funded project to rebuild Aleppo’s Great Mosque. It’s a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and symbol of the city, which lies north-west of Palmyra and lost one-third of its famed Old Quarter in fighting which ended in 2016. The mosque’s 45-metre minaret stood for more than 900 years until it collapsed during fighting in 2013. Today, it is a thousand-tonne pile of limestone blocks overlooked by a towering crane. Putting the minaret back up is the job of an all-Syrian team of architects and engineers, stonemasons and woodworkers. They must also restore the badly damaged columns, ceilings and walls of the prayer hall and arcades surrounding the mosque’s vast courtyard. Project director and architect Sakher Oulabi, who showed me around the site, says the workers feel a heavy responsibility: “We all understand we are doing something very important for the soul of our city and our country.”

Driving the rebuild is the Syria Trust for Development, chaired by Asma al-Assad, the President’s wife – so the project has considerable clout. Nevertheless, its technical challenges are almost as formidable as Palmyra’s. The minaret’s 2400 or so fallen stones must be weighed and measured, strength-tested with ultrasound and photographed from many angles so that photogrammetry – the science of making three-dimensional measurements from images – can help to determine where every stone fits. Materials and techniques must be as close as possible to the original: “An expert may notice the difference between new and old, but the public must not,” engineer Tamim Kasmo says. However, limestone that best matches the original is in a quarry outside government control, in Idlib province. As a senior US Defence Department official, Michael Mulroy, noted, Idlib harbours “the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world right now”.

The Grand Colonnade, built in the second and third centuries; noted by UNESCO as an example of Rome’s engagement with the East.
The Grand Colonnade, built in the second and third centuries; noted by UNESCO as an example of Rome’s engagement with the East. Alex Ray

 Palmya’s giant stones are as white as old bones when we leave the site one evening at dusk. Tarek joins friends for iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast and begins with dates and water in line with a tradition supposedly begun by the prophet Muhammad. Our driver, Ahmad, has put aside the pistol he’s been carrying in his belt. He insists there is no prospect of an IS comeback, but says he carries the weapon because local roads can be dangerous. All the town’s hotels are destroyed, so we bed down in a private home and hear artillery fire throughout the night.

At dawn, a steady wind blows cold off the mountains. A road runs past the wreckage of a luxury hotel, where guests once dined while overlooking the ruins and below which Khaled al-Asaad was chained for his last 28 days, to the high perimeter walls of the Temple of Bel complex. From here, having sought the blessings of temple deities, ancient camel trains made the long desert crossing eastward to the Euphrates, with merchandise destined for markets as far away as China.

At the temple entrance today, a young soldier is hunkered down in a guard-post made from ammunition boxes and corrugated iron plastered with mud. “I was here all winter, but at least it didn’t snow,” he says. He apologises for having to inspect our papers and invites us to wait on plastic chairs while he clears our visit with a superior. I ask about the night’s gunfire. “It was only the army practising,” he says, pointing to a nearby mountain with a medieval citadel on its summit. A decade ago, I stood on its ramparts to take panoramic photos of Palmyra, but now it is an off-limits military zone.

Tarek and the soldier discuss welcome news: the spring that feeds Palmyra’s oasis is flowing for the first time in 27 years. The source of the city’s historic wealth, it has watered settlements here since Neolithic times. The spring’s revival has come too late for Tarek’s family orchard; its olive and pistachio trees have withered and died. But he takes it as a hopeful sign that enough of fabled Palmyra can be restored, for the prosperity of its people and the wonder of the world.

Paradise Lost – Kashmir’s bitter legacy

Shalimar Bagh, the beautiful Mughal Garden on the shores of Lake Dal in Srinagar. Many of us who took the old hippie trail to India washed up on houseboats on this tranquil lake high on the edge of the Himalayas. The travellers’ grapevine had rendered Lake Dal a restful and recuperative retreat on homeward, outward and onward journeys. At the time, few of us were aware of Kashmir’s mournful legacy as a betrayed and battered paradise and an intractable remnant of Britain’s rapid and reckless retreat from empire in 1947, a descent from grandeur that left later generations to sort out subsequent conflict and enmity between the nuclear-armed inheritors of Britain’s Indian Empire and the inhabitants and neighbours of what was once the mandate territory of Palestine.

Nor did we know that there were actually two Kashmirs, geographical and cultural siblings bisected by the border war that almost immediately followed partition and the demarcation line that has since then separated the ostensibly autonomous state of Jammu-Kashmir, controlled by India, with Srinagar as its capital and from also ostensibly autonomous Azad (or free) Kashmir to its west with its capital at Muzaffarabad.

The long arm of history reaches from the partition to the present, and from the present into the future. It’s icy fingers reach deeply into the politics and societies of the Raj’s successor states and the relationships, often acrimonious, sometimes toxic, and at times deadly, between them. An unsettled and volatile armed truce exists between India and Pakistan in the wake of three wars, and Kashmir, the one-time “rose of British India”, is now an inextricable thorn. Their perennially fraught relationship is compounded by the reality that they are both heavily – and nuclear – armed, and passionately nationalistic, given to bouts of high anxiety, intense emotion, and easily-aroused popular excitement – not a very good place for nuke-up powers to dwell.

Kashmir is precious to proud and precocious India and Pakistan, a place of pleasure and pilgrimage, with places holy to Muslim and Hindu, Christian and Buddhist, and a summer refuge from the heat of the dry plains below. For both, it is a potent symbol of national identity and jingoistic fervour, inevitably exploited by populist and opportunistic politicians. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was so enamoured of Kashmir that he often compared it to a beautiful woman. He was, of course, referring to Kashmir’s exquisite valleys and mountains, but Pandit Nehru also has an eye for the ladies, as Edwina Mountbatten, spouse of the last British viceroy, discovered. But Nehru’s adversary, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League also had passion for the place. It is part of the acronym that gives Pakistan its name. Literally, and ironically, it means “land of the pure” in Urdu, but it is a composite of what were the five north eastern regions of British India: Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Sindh and Baluchistan. 

During the bloody Partition of 1947, faced with a devil’s bargain, the Hindu maharajah of predominantly Muslim Kashmir could not decide which one of the new states of India or Pakistan he would have his Muslim-majority state join. When militants entered Kashmir from newly minted Pakistan, he agreed to an accession treaty with New Delhi in return for India’s intervention to push back the Pakistani fighters. In 1948, the United Nations called for a plebiscite to be held after the region was demilitarized, to determine the province’s future status. This never happened, and Kashmir’s status remains unresolved to this day, a causus belli for three wars, many border clashes, terrorist attacks and military crackdowns. (Read a fair summary of the Kashmir conflict HERE, and of recent events, HERE )

Way back in another life, in the fall of 1971, I was present at the onset of one of those wars as hostilities were about to erupt between India and Pakistan, ostensibly over India’s belligerent response to the Pakistani army’s brutal and genocidal pogrom in East Pakistan – which in the wake of the war, become the independent Muslim state of Bangladesh. But Kashmir was where this war would be fought. 

The headlights of the army trucks broke the darkness on the opposite shore as I watched from a houseboat across Lake Dal. I resolved to get out of India to what was then the relative safety of Afghanistan before the balloon went up – a thousand miles and Pakistan away. Passing through railway stations as war was about to break out, I was rushing down the line as battalions of young soldiers were heading up the line.  years late, i recalled it in the opening verse of a song (see below):

Young men trained to kill and forced to fight
Convoys burning into the frightened night
On their armour their faith is burning bright
The revolution’s come 

Houseboat on Lake Dal 1971

Recently, in a highly controversial and potentially inflammatory move, India unilaterally revoked the special administrative status of Jammu-Kashmir that was set in place in 1948. Prime minister Rajendra’s Modi’s Hindu nationalist government argues that special status encouraged corruption, nepotism and injustice with respect the rights of women, children, non-Muslims, Dalits (Untouchables) and tribal communities”. “Today every Indian can proudly say ‘One Nation, One Constitution’l, he declared.

Kashmiri locals and politicians fear that the unilateral move to strip the region of statehood and special protections is designed to result in demographic and social change, flooding the picturesque, fertile and under-developed valley with Hindu settlers – a potential mass migration that can be likened to Israeli settlement in The Occupied Territories, Han Chinese in Tibet, and Javanese in Indonesian West Papua. One can be sure that where migrants go, property speculators and developers, patronage and payola will follow.

Modi vows that the change will restore Kashmir to its former glory, and India’s nationalist Hindus are firmly behind him. Pakistan’s government is beating war drums, with prime minister Imran Khan declaring his country would pursue the matter “to the end”.  The Pakistani street is vowing to fight ‘to the last drop of blood” to liberate Kashmir.

Imran Khan is endeavouring to internationalize the long-standing issue, but outsiders appear to harbour serious misgivings about Pakistan’s motivations, particularly the concern that Islamabad is doing this to distract attention from its domestic failings, and ought instead be focusing  on the development of a country which stands on the verge of bankruptcy as it negotiates yet another multibillion-dollar bailout from the IMF. What Pakistan has long resisted accepting is that the country’s most serious existential threat is not India; it is internal extremists – together with inadequately developed economic opportunities. The strategic fixation of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services on the perceived threat from India has been useful to them domestically – and maddening to its friends overseas; however, it has for far too long led governmental agencies to pursue the wrong priorities.

This is not To suggest that Modi’s motives are pure nor his tactics inflammatory. India has drawn fire for its heavy-handed tactics, placing Kashmir in lockdown to pre-empt the risk of a backlash and to maintain order. But the prolonged muzzling of dissent is unedifying for the world’s largest democracy, and the sooner that media and political freedoms can be restored, and daily life normalised, the easier it will be for India to explain and defend its actions. The fundamental calculation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made appears to be that by fully integrating Kashmir into India he can effect a reverse “triple talaq” (Islamic divorce) by improving security, enhancing prosperity, and unifying the nation state. Furthermore, there is a serious school of Indian strategic thinking that be,Ives that Modi’s government made its move in Kashmir because it expected the Pashtun Taliban to be triumphant in Afghanistan after a potential US withdraw (aided and abetted by Pakistan’s duplicitous Inter Services Intelligence agency), and that it’s allies would tenure their attention to Kashmir. Modi is therefore consolidating Indian power in the province  and clearing the decks for action.

As with any high stakes strategy, much will depend on the quality of the execution. Whilst India’s tactics may be questioned, its strategy of equalising the rights of all its citizens is difficult to fault, whilst fireproofing against Pakistani aggression is strategically sound.

At this time of heightened tension between the two important nuclear powers of South Asia, both countries would best serve their respective citizens by following Winston Churchill’s advice that “jaw jaw is better than war war” – and then focusing on internal challenges rather than on those posed by their neighbours.

Let us hope that my lyrics remain a memento rather than a new reality.

 © Paul Hemphill 2019.  All rights reserved

See also in In That Howling Infinite:

The partition of India …  is at the heart of the identity of two of the world’s most most populous nations, branded painfully and indelibly onto their consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence”. In That Howling Infinite.

Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.
Maya Angelou

Death in slow-mo

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died last week after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013. 

The old tyrant Hosni Mubarak whom Morsi had replaced in 2011 in the wake of the Tahrir Square protests, died in pampered confinement. Not so his successor, held in solitary confinement for six years – thanks to the hard hearted Pharaoh who followed him.

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of Egypt’s new rais and of the Arab autocrats who have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Veteran journalists Robert Fisk and David Hearst are among the few to have called out the deafening silence of the world when Morsi died in the dock (see their tributes below). It’s was like as if a tree falls in the forest – does anybody hear? Certainly not the pusillanimous, obsequious rulers of the so-called “free world”. “How useful it is”, Hearst wrote, “for Western leaders to shrug their shoulders and say, in true Orientalist fashion, that a regime such as Sisi’s is business as usual in a “rough neighbourhood”.” 

It was if he had never lived. And death in the dock was perhaps the only way he could escape – he had in a fashion been rescued and gone home to his family and to those who had supported him through his long travail. 

Sixty seven year old Morsi was imprisoned in 2013 after being toppled in a military coup by Egypt’s current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He was back in court facing a retrial on charges including espionage – part of a swag of cases that had initially seen him sentenced to death. 

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. These were the heady days of the brief “Arab Spring” and the fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak. It was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality.

When elections were held a year later, Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by And al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Morsi faced a number of trials, including on charges of spying for Qatar and of participating in prison breaks and violence against policemen during the 2011 uprising against Mubarak and was sentenced to death and multiple decades-long prison sentences. However, the death sentence and others were overturned by Egypt’s appeals court in 2015, prompting the retrial proceedings.

The conditions in which Morsi and tens of thousands of jailed dissidents were being held, as well as concerns raised by his family and supporters about his state of health, had long attracted the attention of activists and international human rights organisations. British MPs warned in March 2018 that Morsi was facing an “early death” because of the conditions he was being held in, which included 23 hours a day of solitary confinement, sleeping on a cement floor and being fed only canned food. He was reportedly suffering from diabetic comas and was losing his eyesight. 

Morsi collapsed on Monday inside the infamous cages in which defendants are held in Egypt’s courts, and was pronounced dead soon after. Egypt’s public prosecutor declared that a medical report showed no signs of recent injury.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Bob Dylan, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

Morsi’s mixed legacy

Safeguard the revolution. Safeguard the revolution, which we have acquired with our sweat and with the blood of our martyrs, as well as with our two and a half year march. You should all safeguard it, whether you are supporters or opponents. Beware, lest the revolution is stolen from you.  Mohamed Morsi’s last speech as president

David Hearst writes that for all his faults, Morsi was an honest man and a true democrat, but (that) for much of the year he was in power, he was not in control, caught up in a maelstrom that became too big for him.

Fisk adds: “ … it’s true that Morsi was a second-choice president – the man the Brotherhood originally chose was barred from standing on a technicality – and it’s correct to say that Morsi’s near-year in power was also second-rate, uninspiring, disappointing, occasionally violent and tinged by a little dictatorial ambition of his own … Trotting out of cabinet meetings to phone his chums in the Brotherhood for advice was not exactly running a government through primus inter pares. But he was not a bad man. He was not a terrorist and he did not lock up 60,000 political prisoners like his successor – who is, of course, regarded as “a great guy” by the other great guy in the White House”. 

The world today appears to be the play-pen of the ‘big man’, and of it’s Arab equivalent,  az-zaim, the boss: the autocrat with the big mouth and the large persona, with the power of patronage and the heft of the security services behind him – Tony Soprano bereft of all his redeeming features.

Morsi’s demise demonstrates to every ‘big man’ in the Middle East and beyond that their misdeeds will go unpunished and unthought of, that justice will remain unredeemed and history books unread. On the bleeding edges of the Middle East, the bin Salmans and Assads, the emirs of the Gulf, and the militias of Libya, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Sudan and Congo, will not be losing sleep. Nor, of course, will Abd al Fattah al Sisi. 

Hearst writes: “The Egyptian president stands above the law – beyond elections and parliament, out of any legal reach, or indeed that of the constitution. All of these are his playthings; soft wax in his hands. He will rule for as long as he lives, as absolutely as anyone in Egypt or the Middle East. Asked if he backed the efforts to allow Sisi to stay in power for another 15 years, Trump said: “I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he is doing a great job … great president.”

But whilst the caged Morsi died alone and unsung, he will be remembered.

He is mourned by many millions of Muslim Arabs the world over, a martyr for the faith and a symbol of what might have been. The grief is more a remembrance of what he stood for more and the brief flickering of happiness and hope that accompanied his ascension than for what he accomplished during his tenure. His presidency was brief and bewildered, caught between many rocks and hard places in th turbulent tides of the short-lived Aran Spring, between the seemingly irreconcilable demands of democracy and the deity, between what the Egyptian people wanted and needed, and between what his Ikhwan believed they needed, even if their conception of what was good for themselves and Allah was not what the youths of Tahrir Square, men and woman both, had fought and bled for.

Critics have argued that Morsi opened the door to the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood – and indeed, he appeared to dance to their tune – but it is his successor and el Sisi’s allies, financiers and armourers, west and east, who by their actions and indeed, inaction, who are stoking the fires of radical fundamentalism.

To borrow from Bruce Cockburn, keep millions of  people down down takes more than a strong arm up your sleeve.

There will be a reckoning.

There will be  hell to pay. 

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me
                                                                                      Leonard Cohen
See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

The KIng of the Hill

The West is silent over the death of a man it once called the great hope of Arab democracy

Robert Fisk, The Independent, 21st June 2019

The lack of comment from our heads of state is positive encouragement to every Middle Eastern leader who now knows their own misdeeds will go unpunished

Ye Gods, how brave was our response to the outrageous death-in-a-cage of Mohamed Morsi. It is perhaps a little tiresome to repeat all the words of regret and mourning, of revulsion and horror, of eardrum-busting condemnation pouring forth about the death of Egypt’s only elected president in his Cairo courtroom this week. From Downing Street and from the White House, from the German Chancellery to the Elysee – and let us not forget the Berlaymont – our statesmen and women did us proud. Wearying it would be indeed to dwell upon their remorse and protests at Morsi’s death.

For it was absolutely non-existent: zilch; silence; not a mutter; not a bird’s twitter – or a mad president’s Twitter, for that matter – or even the most casual, offhand word of regret. Those who claim to represent us were mute, speechless, as sound-proofed as Morsi was in his courtroom cage and as silent as he is now in his Cairo grave.

It was as if Morsi never lived, as if his few months in power never existed – which is pretty much what Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, his nemesis and ex-gaoler, wants the history books to say.

So three cheers again for our parliamentary democracies, which always speak with one voice about tyranny. Save for the old UN donkey and a few well-known bastions of freedom – Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-in-exile and all the usual suspects – Morsi’s memory and his final moments were as if they had never been. Crispin Blunt alone has tried to keep Britain’s conscience alive. So has brave little Tunisia. Much good will it do.

Yes, it’s true that Morsi was a second-choice president – the man the Brotherhood originally chose was barred from standing on a technicality – and it’s correct to say that Morsi’s near-year in power was also second-rate, uninspiring, disappointing, occasionally violent and tinged by a little dictatorial ambition of his own. Trotting out of cabinet meetings to phone his chums in the Brotherhood for advice was not exactly running a government through primus inter pares.

But he was not a bad man. He was not a terrorist and he did not lock up 60,000 political prisoners like his successor – who is, of course, regarded as “a great guy” by the other great guy in the White House.

It’s instructive to note how differently Morsi was treated after the coup d’etat that destroyed him. Banged up in solitary, unable to talk to his own family, deprived of medical help; just compare that to the comfort in which his predecessor Hosni Mubarak lived after his own dethronement – the constant hospital treatment, family visits, public expressions of sympathy and even a press interview. Morsi’s last words, defending his status as the still existing president of Egypt, were mechanically muffled by the sound-proof cage.

Our pusillanimous, disgraceful silence is not just proof of the pathetic nature of our public servants in the west. It is positive encouragement to every leader in the Middle East that their misdeeds will go unpunished, unthought of, that justice will remain unredeemed and history books unread. Our silence – let us be frank about it – is not going to have the Bin Salmans or Assads or the princes of the Gulf or the militias of Libya, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq shaking in their boots. Nor, of course, Sisi.

But yes, for many millions of Arab Muslims, Morsi was a martyr – if you imagine that martyrs have a cause. The trials and executions and mass imprisonments of the Brotherhood, “a terrorist organisation” in the eyes of Sisi (and almost in David Cameron’s until his security flunkeys told him it was a non-starter) will not destroy it. But are there any other Morsis around, willing to risk death in a prison cell as a price of their overthrow? Morsi himself told one of his senior advisers, Egyptian-Canadian physician and academic Wael Haddara, that if he could navigate Egypt towards democracy, he expected to be assassinated. Which, I suppose – given his ill treatment, isolation and unfair trials – was his ultimate fate.

The only western newspaper to give a friend of Morsi a chance to speak about him appears to be the Washington Post – all praise to it – which allowed Haddara the room to demand that Egypt must answer for the ex-president’s death. At a last meeting before he became president in June of 2012, Haddara asked Morsi to autograph an Egyptian flag.

And this is what Morsi wrote: “The Egypt that lives in my imagination: an Egypt of values and civilisation; an Egypt of growth and stability and love. And its flag, ever soaring above us.”

Would that a crackpot president or our own ignorant Tory masters were capable of such eloquence – or such honour.

People hold pictures of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi during a symbolic funeral ceremony on 18 June in Istanbul (AFP)

Egypt’s first democratically elected president met an end as dramatic as his one and only year in power. The man feted on social media as Egypt’s ‘martyr president’ will enjoy a status in death that he never achieved in life. The date alone on which it happened is significant. Mohamed Morsi died on 17 June, seven years to the day from the second round of his presidential election.

For all of his time in prison, Morsi was held in solitary confinement. He was allowed only three visits from his family in nearly six years. The state had ample opportunity to kill off a diabetic who suffered from high blood pressure in private, but if they wanted to convince the Egyptian people that their former president was dead, the job would have to be done in public, which is what Monday’s events were all about.

The cruellest pharaoh

We will never know the truth. Morsi’s nemesis, the man he handpicked to lead the army and who went on to depose him, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will never allow for an international investigation. Egypt is ruled by a pharaoh as absolute and cruel as any in its long history.

But even if Morsi died of natural causes, who are the people responsible before the court of history?

How easy and convenient it would be to place all the blame for Morsi’s death on Sisi himself. How useful it is for Western leaders to shrug their shoulders and say, in true Orientalist fashion, that a regime such as Sisi’s is business as usual in a “rough neighbourhood”.

Another variation on the same theme was former US President Barack Obama’s private reaction to the massacre at Rabaa Square in the weeks following the military coup. He reportedly told aides that the US could not help Egypt if Egyptians kill each other. That comment alone explains why the West is in decay: Obama’s reaction to the worst massacre since Tienanmen Square was to go back to his game of golf.

Morsi was held in solitary confinement for nearly six years. How many times in that period did Western leaders put pressure on Sisi to get access to him? None.

When State Department aides attempted to convince the former secretary of state, John Kerry, of the need to pressure Sisi to allow the Red Cross access to detainees in prison, Kerry rounded on him: “Give me a policy the Egyptians will not scream at me for,” a source with knowledge of the incident later told me.

Above the law

How many high-profile visits was Sisi allowed to make during the period of Morsi’s detention? He was feted on the international stage all over the world. France flogged him Mistral class warships. Germany flogged him submarines.

In Sharm el-Sheikh this year, Sisi was allowed to play host to world leaders from the EU and Arab League, purporting to uphold the world order. Far from taking lectures on human rights at the summit, Sisi gave them. Talking of the spike this year in executions, he told European leaders that executing detainees was part of “our humanity”, which is different from “your [European] humanity”.

“The global rules-based order is clearly under threat,” opined European Council President Donald Tusk. “We have agreed here in Sharm el-Sheikh that both sides will work together to defend it. Multilateral solutions remain the best way to address threats to international peace and security.”

What, Mr Tusk, has Sisi to do with the “rules-based” order? Who are you kidding?

The Egyptian president stands above the law – beyond elections and parliament, out of any legal reach, or indeed that of the constitution. All of these are his playthings; soft wax in his hands. He will rule for as long as he lives, as absolutely as anyone in Egypt or the Middle East.

Morsi rotted in jail, forgotten by all but a handful of human rights advocates, who found themselves screaming into an empty room. The world moved on and forgot all about the man to whom they had briefly flocked.

With the arrival of US President Donald Trump, Sisi’s suppression of his political opponents was not simply sidelined; it was lauded. Asked if he backed the efforts to allow Sisi to stay in power for another 15 years, Trump said: “I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he is doing a great job … great president.”

So who is responsible for Morsi’s death? Look around you. They call themselves the leaders of the free world.

Morsi’s legacy

Morsi did not die in vain, although it may seem like that today. I and my fellow journalist Patrick Kingsley were the last journalists to interview him, just a week before his ouster. Morsi struck me as a good man in the middle of events that were rapidly sliding out of his control. Even the palace in which we filmed him was not his main seat of power, from which he and his staff had been moved earlier. Power was slipping from his grasp, even as he proclaimed to me that he had absolute faith in the army.

He was better one-on-one than in public. He could communicate privately far better than he did publicly.

Morsi addresses Egyptians in Tahrir Square after his 2012 election (AFP)
                       Morsi addresses Egyptians in Tahrir Square after his 2012 election (AFP)

His speeches often failed to be understood, but he made two important ones during his time as president. The first was the day he was sworn in as president. Morsi wanted to be sworn in, in Tahrir Square, in front of the revolution that had brought him to power. He was told that it had to be in front of the Constitutional Court, packed full of the deep state, with members who vowed by hook or by crook to oppose him.

In the end, in true Morsi fashion, he was sworn in twice – once before the court and the deep state, the other before the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square.

What he said in Tahrir Square is worth repeating. “People of Egypt, you are the source of the authority. You give it to whoever you want and deny it from whoever you want,” Morsi said.

And he meant it. This is closely based on a verse in the Quran, which says that God gives glory to whomever he wants, and he takes it away from whomever he wants. But here was an Islamist telling the people that they were sovereign.

‘Safeguard the revolution’

His last speech as president bore an equally resonant democratic message.  He addressed future generations.

“I want to safeguard the girls. They will be future mothers who will teach their children that their fathers and forefathers were truly men who do not succumb to injustice and who never go along with the opinions of the corrupt and who would never give up on their homeland or their legitimacy.

“Safeguard the revolution. Safeguard the revolution, which we have acquired with our sweat and with the blood of our martyrs, as well as with our 2.5-year march. You should all safeguard it, whether you are supporters or opponents. Beware, lest the revolution is stolen from you.”

Which is exactly what happened. The revolution was stolen by more than just the army, which was never going to allow a Muslim Brotherhood president to continue. It was stolen by Cairo’s elite class of liberals, who decried Morsi as an Islamist dictator. It was stolen by the politicians who lied that Morsi had seized all power for himself and was incapable of sharing it.

As we know now, both journalist Hamdeen Sabahi and politician Ayman Nour were offered high posts by Morsi. Nour was told to form his cabinet as he wanted. It’s ironic that Morsi told Nour he had to include one post – that of Sisi as minister of defense. They did not say it then. They admit it now.

We also know now, from the participants themselves, that Tamarod, the grassroots movement founded to register opposition to Morsi, was a creation of military intelligence.

This is not to absolve the Brotherhood of responsibility for what happened. A Muslim Brotherhood president was in all probability doomed from the start. There were many points in which the Brotherhood abandoned Tahrir Square for the warm, treacherous embrace of the army. They made huge misjudgments, but those misjudgments were not, in and of themselves, the cause of what was to follow.

A democratic hero

Morsi himself was an honest man and a true democrat. For much of the year he was in power, he was not in control, caught up in a maelstrom that became too big for him.

Mohamed Morsi, confined to a courtroom cage

Who is responsible for Morsi’s death? We all are. There will only be two forces that profit from his death: Sisi and the military regime around him, and the Islamic State (IS) group, which “wished him hell and the worst of states”.

Morsi devoted his life to a people who abandoned him. If Sayyid Qutb before him became a hero for Islamists, both the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, Morsi’s legacy will be a democratic one.

Morsi quoted a poem  before his collapse :

“My country will still be dear to me no matter how much oppressed I’ve been treated, and my people will still be honourable in my eyes no matter how mean to me they have been.”

The man now feted on social media as the “martyr president” will enjoy a status in death that he never achieved in life. He vowed to his end never to recognise the military coup that overthrew him, and he stayed true to his word. That is Morsi’s legacy, and it is an important one.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is the editor in chief of Middle East Eye. He left The Guardian as its chief foreign leader writer. In a career spanning 29 years, he covered the Brighton bomb, the miner’s strike, the loyalist backlash in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Northern Ireland, the first conflicts in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in Slovenia and Croatia, the end of the Soviet Union, Chechnya, and the bushfire wars that accompanied it. He charted Boris Yeltsin’s moral and physical decline and the conditions which created the rise of Putin. After Ireland, he was appointed Europe correspondent for Guardian Europe, then joined the Moscow bureau in 1992, before becoming bureau chief in 1994. He left Russia in 1997 to join the foreign desk, became European editor and then associate foreign editor. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he worked as education correspondent.

Messing with the Mullahs – America’s phoney war?

“The Iranian regime took action today to increase its uranium enrichment.  It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level.  There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms”. Statement from the White House Press Secretary 1st July 2019

The White House has not subsequently explained how a country can violate the terms of a deal before that deal existed. But, as New York Times commentator Roger Cohen wrote recently, ”President Donald Trump has been all over the place on Iran, which is what happens when you take a serious subject, treat it with farcical superficiality, believe braggadocio will sway a proud and ancient civilisation, approach foreign policy like a real-estate deal, defer to advisers with Iran Derangement Syndrome, refuse to read any briefing papers and confuse the American national interest with the Saudi or Israeli”.

There is transparent angst and disappointment among many in the US Administration that that Iran’s Islamic Republic has endured for forty years with no sign of collapse (there are parallel palpitations and peregrinations with regard to Cuba and more recently, to Venezuela). Iran ‘hawk’ John Bolton might declare that the Islamic Republic would not celebrate its fortieth anniversary the Iranian Revolution. But the anniversary is upon us already. Iran is not going anywhere else soon.

Presently, it would appear that the administration is backpedaling on its bellicose rhetoric as it responds to Congress’ concerns about what is perceived as a lack of a unified US strategy. The dispatch of an American battle fleet to the Persian Gulf in response to unexplained and indeterminate Iranian threats and provocations has now been re-framed as having successfully deterred Iran’s hardliners from miscellaneous mischiefs and miscalculations. And yet, others in the US and elsewhere are attributing such follies to the US itself?

By ironic synchronicity, I am rereading historian Barbara W Tuchman’s acclaimed The March of Folly – From Troy to Vietnam. Her opening sentence reads: ‘A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than most any other human activity’. Her many definitions of folly include dangerous delusions of grandeur and “and obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals”. History has shown us – I refrain from saying “taught us” because we rarely learn from history – the consequences of single-minded determination amounting to a tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity. Charging ahead regardless only works for those who are stronger than all obstacles. Only those holding all the trump cards can ignore the other players at the table. With the US ratchetting up the pressure on Iran, the law of unintended consequences is in play with many observers perceiving the American leadership as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

In recent moves that recall the US’ lurch into Iraq sixteen years ago on the basis of nonexistent – or at the least very well hidden – weapons of mass destruction, war drums are beating across the Potomac as Iran hawks boost the potential for war with the Islamic Republic. Curiously identical damage to Saudi and Emiratis vessels in the strategically important Persian Gulf point to Iranian sabotage. rather than signally Iran’s provocative intent, it looks more like a clumsy false-flag frolic by the geniuses who gave us thrillers like “how to murder a dissident journalist in plain sight”, “let’s bomb one of the poorest countries on earth back into the Stone Age”.

This can be set against a historical record that the US has not initiated a major war – that is one with congressional approval – without a false flag since the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour in 1898, thus taking the US into a war with Spain that resulted in the colonization the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. This includes the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident 1964 escalated an ongoing “skirmish” in Vietnam into an all-out conflict, and those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that arguably brought us to where we are now.

Most folk who are into history like to draw parallels and identify patterns in the past that reflect upon the present. As I do also, albeit in a more ambivalent way. Cleaving to Mark (Twain, that is) rather than Marx, I am fascinated more by the rhymes than the repetitions. But “remembering’, as Taylor Swift sings. “comes in flashbacks and echoes”. Over to Bob Dylan:

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed
An’ here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again

The story of the Iranian Revolution is a complex, multidimensional one, and it is difficult for its events and essence to be compressed into brief opinion pieces of any political flavour, no matter how even-handed they endeavour to be.

The revolution began slowly in late 1977 when demonstrations against Shah Reza Pahlevi, developed into a campaign of civil resistance by both secular and religious groups. These intensified through 1978, culminating In strikes and demonstrations that paralyzed the country. Millennia of monarchy in Iran ended in January 1979 when the Shah and his family fled into exile. By April, exiled cleric and  longtime dissident Ayatollah Khomeini returned home to a rapturous welcome. Activist fighters and rebel soldiers overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah, and Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic republic on April 1st 1979. A new constitution saw Khomeini became Supreme Leader in December 1979.

The success and continuing durability of the Iranian Revolution derived from many sources, and many are not touched upon by commentators and pundits. Here are some of my own thoughts on disparate but intrinsic parts of the Islamic Republic’s story.

One can’t ignore the nature of the monarchy that preceded it – modernist on the one hand, and brutally repressive on the other; nor the unwavering and hypocritical support (including infrastructure, weapons, and intelligence) provided to it by western “democracies” since Britain and the US placed Reza Shah Pahlevi on the throne in 1953. And nor should we ignore the nature of the unprecedented regime and state that was established forty years ago – a brutal, theocratic, patriarchal, quasi-totalitarian system that endeavours to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives, its rule enforced by loyal militias like the ruthless Basij and by the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex more powerful than the regular army.

The support and succour that the US gave to the deposed Shah and his family and entourage, and later, to the opponents of the revolution, served to unite the population around a dogmatic, cruel and vengeful regime, which, in the manner of revolutions past and present, “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike. One of the ironies of the early days of the revolution was its heterodox complexion – a loose and unstable alliance between factions of the left, right and divine. History is replete with examples of how a revolution besieged within and without by enemies actual and imagined mobilizes it people for its support, strength and survival. Recall France after 1789 and Russian after 1917.  The outcome in both was foreign intervention and years of war and repression.

I fought in the old revolution 
on the side of the ghost and the King. 
Of course I was very young 
and I thought that we were winning; 
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing 
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen

Too often, in modern times, the US administration of the day has been called upon by a new and potentially radical regime to take sides, and indeed, to accept a tentative hand of friendship. And too often, for reasons political, ideological, economic, religious even, the US has made what historians of all colours would deduce was the wrong call – with disastrous consequences for the  newly freed nation and, with perfect if partisan hindsight, the world. Think Vietnam, Egypt and Cuba. In each, there was a pivotal moment when the US could have given its support to the new rulers and potentially changed the course of the revolution, and the freshly “liberated” people, and our world, might have been better off for it. And, so it was in 1979, with Iran.

The US’ steadfast support for the Shah during his reign, and its enmity towards Iran’s new rulers, predictably reciprocated by the mullahs and their zealous supporters, created “the Great Satan”, a symbolism sustained by the reality that many in US political circles actively sought to undermine and destroy the revolution (and still do, championing the late Shah’s son as their annointed one.

Time and folly have not softened the fear and the fervour.

Here are but a selection from a sorry catalogue: the long-running embassy hostage drama, and failed and ignominious rescue attempts; the subsequent and continuing economic sanctions; the moral and material support provided to Saddam Hussein during the bloody eight year Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) which cost the lives of over half a million soldiers on both sides; the years of wrestling and wrangling, politicking and posturing over Iran’s quest for a nuclear deterrent against perceived US aggression, and the western powers’ push-back; the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and beyond through proxies and patronage, subterfuge and subversion – often through those latter day sell-swords the Revolutionary Guards – a form of what strategic analysts now call “offshore balancing”, or, simply put, fighting your foes outside rather than within your own borders; and today’s quixotic tango in which a false move or miscalculation could have catastrophic consequences.

There have been moments of what reasonable folk might perceive as farce, such as when in February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, sparking violence and protests around the world. Or as tragedy, as in July 1988, when the USS Vincennes blew Iranian Flight 655 out of the sky above the Persian Gulf, killing 290 men, women and children. The ship’s captain was exonerated.

In February 2019, a Middle East Security Conference was convened in Warsaw by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It brought together sixty countries, including Arab states and Israel, ostensible to discuss a range of issues, including Syria and Palestine, but in reality, it was always about Iran. The Warsaw gathering was a strange beast – its very title was a misnomer, Vice President Pence making it quite clear Iran was the ‘greatest threat’ to peace and stability in Middle East that it’s transgressions be punished. He even implied that it was God’s will.

The conference was most notable for who wasn’t there – Russia, Turkey, China, and the EU leaders British, France and Germany, all of whom are opposed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. It is indicative of the US’ isolation with regard to Iran, and its inability to call the shots in a Middle East where Russian, Turkey and Iran hold all the cards. Pence and Pompeo meanwhile talk about regime change and democracy in Iran but ignore what is going on in the US’ lacklustre autocratic allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain – this and international reaction to the US’ alleged complicity a slow-motion, as yet unresolved and unconsummated “coup” in Venezuela only serve to remind the world of Uncle Sam’s not altogether successful track-record of hypocrisy and hubris, interference and inconsistency.

Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had initially tweeted that the conference was convened to discuss what he called the “war with Iran”. Although he amended his tweet soon afterwards, he was not exaggerating. There is indeed a war between Iran on one hand and Israel and the Gulf monarchies on the other with other countries lending their support to one side or the other. America and its Middle East allies have been at war with Iran for forty years, and Iran has reciprocated.

It is said, not without reason, that Iran has long been preparing for a war with the US, and that the US has psyched itself into a martial mindset that justifies Iranian fears. If push did indeed come to shove and the present cold war turned hot, Iran might appear to be at a disadvantage. Compared to the US, its forces are poorly equipped and lacking in battle experience, although they are indeed well-provided for by the sanctions-hit regime, whilst the Revolutionary Guard’s Al Quds brigade has been given real battlefield experience in Syria and Iraq’s civil wars. They would however be defending their homeland, which for Iranians is holy ground regardless of who rules it.

The American people are weary and wary of foreign military commitments, and doubtless confused by the administration’s mix of pullback and push-back. For all it’s manpower and materiel, it’s experience and equipage, after its problematic excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US armed forces cannot be said to be a uniformly committed, effective and high-morale fighting force. It would be dependent on allies of dubious intent and ability, and on free-booting contractors and mercenaries like Erik Prince’s hired guns and sell-swords.

As the Warsaw talk fest demonstrated, the US would have to act very much on its own against Iran, with Israel being its only potential partner of any value. And yet, even Israel appears to be reticent, having of late toned down its bellicose rhetoric.

Despite Bibi’s bark and bluster, Israel does not want anyone to go to war with Iran, and it does not want to be blamed if a conflict does erupt. Nothing focuses the mind more than the thought of thousands of Hezbollah’s Iranian-sourced precision missiles raining down on the Galilee. The Gulf states are tin-pot tyrants with meagre military skill and no desire to throw away their toys when the US (and Israel?) will do the fighting for them. Russia, Turkey, and, potentially, China, would be implacably opposed and would indeed run interference, and provide diplomatic, economic, military and logistical support.

Iran itself is not without the ability and the means to set up a multitude of diversions and distractions, whether it is playing with the US administration’s head, as it has been for forum decades, encouraging Hezbollah and Bashar Assad to make mischief on Israel’s northern border and the Golan, inciting its Palestinian pawn Islamic Jihad in Gaze, providing Yemen’s Houthis with the means to better target Saudi cities, or, perhaps counter-productively, initiating espionage and terrorist incidents on the US mainland and in Western Europe.

The US may opt for measures short of a “hot” war, as it doing right now with limited success, but the hawks are circling over Washington DC and may have the President’s feckless and fickle ear – and, as they say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.


Here are some recent articles on the latest Iran-US  tango:

For more on the Middle East in in In That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany 

Children of Abraham

The ancient and holy city of Hebron – al Khalil to Muslims, and named, like Hebron for the Jewish and Islamic patriarch Abraham/Ibrahim – is rarely out of the news; and the news is never good. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”.

In May 2016, we visited Hebron, a fault line of faiths and a front line of an old war still being waged for possession of the Holy Land. It is a hot spot, a flash-point, where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually followed by calamity, and bad things happen. It is the seemingly intractable conflict in the raw, a microcosm of the Occupation, and there is no denying the brutality of the place. Most western journalists and commentators give their readers an impression that Israel absolutely dominates this Palestinian city of some 200,000 souls. In reality, the area under military control, immediately surrounding the ancient Ibrahimi mosque, holy to two faiths, is very small. But in this pressure cooker of a ghetto reside some 700 settlers and thirty thousand Palestinians, segregated from each other by walls and wire, fear and loathing – and by two soldiers to every settler.

On our return, the e-magazine Muftah published the following article.

Children of Abraham and the Battle for Hebron

You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody – you were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain and my father’s hand was trembling with the beauty of the word.
Leonard Cohen, The Story of Isaac

I recently returned from Hebron in the occupied West Bank. The city is a fault line of faiths and a front line in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a “hot spot,” a flash-point, a place where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually followed by calamity. Hebron has been a key focus of the tension and violence that has characterized the troubled relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. Since October 2015, over 200 Palestinians and thirty Israelis have been killed across the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israel, in the latest flare-up in the decades-long conflict.

In March this year, an Israeli soldier was filmed shooting and killing a wounded twenty-one-year-old Palestinian, following a stabbing attack on Israeli soldiers. The soldier, just nineteen years of age, is now facing trial, amidst massive outcry on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.. In June, not long after we left Israel, a young Palestinian murdered a thirteen-year-old Israeli girl as she slept in nearby Kiryat Arba. Hours later, a Palestinian woman was shot dead by Israeli soldiers outside of the Ibrahimi Mosque. Later that afternoon, Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli car on a road just south of Hebron, killing a father and wounding his family. Local Palestinians gave emergency first aid to the victims and shielded the children from any further attack.

A Holy Land

Hebron has long been sacred to Muslims and Jews as the last resting place of the prophets Abraham and Isaac – the founding father of Judaism, and the son he had resolved to sacrifice until God ordered him to stay his hand. In the first century BC, Herod the Great, famed builder and bad boy, raised a mighty mausoleum above the cave where Abraham was laid to rest. Abraham’s wife Rachel, and his son, Isaac, Isaac’s wife Rebecca, and Isaac’s sons Joseph and Jacob – whose wrestled with an Angel to represent man’s struggle with God –  and Jacob’s wife Leah are also buried there.

As time went by, Christians and then Muslims revered Hebron as a holy place. Abraham was the founding father of both religions and his sons and grandsons, buried in the cave, are considered prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In time, a mosque was established on Herod’s edifice, and for a short while, during the hundred years of the Crusader kingdom, a basilica too.

In the thirteenth century, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars expelled the Christians from Hebron. A small community of Jews continued to reside in the town of Hebron, however. In 1929, amidst rising religious and nationalist tension in the British Mandate of Palestine, some seventy Jewish men, women, and children were killed by Palestinians who had been incited to violence by rumours that Jews planned to overrun the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam. Many local Palestinians also helped save Jewish neighbors from the bloodshed. Following the riots, Hebron’s Jewish community largely ceased to exist, until the an-Naksa, or ‘setback’, of 1967, when Israeli military forces occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.

In the early days of the occupation, Israeli authorities did not encourage Jews to return to Hebron. One of the first illegal Israeli settlements was established outside Hebron in what is now Kiryat Arba, and thereafter, a small settlement was built around the Mosque of Ibrahim. Beginning in 1979, some Jewish settlers moved from Kiryat Arba to the former Jewish neighborhood near the Abraham Avinu Synagogue which had been destroyed in 1929. Other Jewish enclaves were established with the Israeli army’s support and more homes were subsequently purchased or forcibly taken over from their Palestinian owners.

With the establishment of a Jewish presence in and around Hebron, the religious right-wing demanded that Jews be permitted to pray at the tombs of the patriarchs, and the 700 years old restriction on Jews praying here was lifted. Muslims and Jews were now obliged to share the holy place, although it was formally administered by the Muslim Waqf. Thus, even prayer became a focus of conflict and tension, and sometimes, violence, particularly during each faith’s holy days.

Tensions and Divisions

Since 1979, tensions have continued to increase between the small community of Israeli settlers living in Hebron (several hundred) and the tens of thousands of Palestinians whose lives have been turned upside down by their presence. These tensions reach boiling point in February 1994, when US-born Israeli doctor Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims worshippers during the dawn prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque. He killed twenty-nine people and wounded another 125 before he was overcome and killed by survivors. Hundreds more Palestinians were killed or injured in the Israeli military’s response to the ensuing violence.

Goldstein had been inspired by a boyhood mentor, the ultranationalist New York Rabbi Meir Kahane, and had belonged Kahane’s militant Jewish Defence League, founded ostensibly to protect Jews from antisemitism, but implicated in numerous acts of violence in the USA  and elsewhere. On emigrating to Israel, he joined Kahane’s right-wing Kach Party.

The Israeli government condemned the massacre and responded by arresting Kahane’s followers, and criminalizing Kach and affiliated organizations as terrorists, forbidding certain settlers from entering Palestinian towns, and demanding that those settlers turn in their army-issued weapons. It rejected a demand by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation that all settlers in the occupied territories be disarmed and that an international force be created to protect Palestinians.

UN observers came to keep the peace, but, after Israeli and Palestinian authorities could not reach agreement on resolving the situation, they departed. The Hebron Protocol was signed in January 1997 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat under the supervision of US Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Under its terms, Hebron was divided into in two. H1, 80% of the city, and home to over 120,000 Palestinians, was placed under the Palestinian Authority’s control. H2, which was home to nearly 40,000, was placed under the exclusive control of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in order to protect some 600 Israeli Jewish settlers who lived in the area. 

Jewish Israelis were barred from entering HI, whilst Palestinians found it nearly impossible to Access H2 unless they lived there. Palestinian residents of H2 experienced forcible displacement, restrictions on their movement, the closure of their businesses, IDF checkpoints and searches, and verbal and physical harassment by settlers protected by the IDF. 

In a surreal, sad parody, the mosque too was divided, with a separate mosque and synagogue. The IDF controls access, closing it to Muslims on Jewish holy days and to Jews on Muslim holy days. There are frequent bans on the call to prayer on the grounds that it disturbs the settlers, and likewise on exuberant 

Dual Narrative

We travelled to Hebron on a “dual narrative tour”. It was run by Abraham Tours, which operates out of the Abraham Hostel at Davidka Square in Jerusalem, and caters for independent and mainly young travelers on limited budgets. One half of the tour was conducted by a Palestinian guide and the other by a Jewish guide. They walked us though the streets surrounding the Mosque of Ibrahim, and gave us the opportunity to meet and talk with several members of each of the communities.

We visited the Muslim side of the mosque, which retained the wide prayer hall, the empty catafalques of Isaac and Rebecca, the qibla and minbar, and the beautiful dome; and the larger Jewish side, which was, once upon a time, the open courtyard leading to the mosque. Abraham and Sarah occupy the neutral ground between the two halves.

The area around the divided holy place is a ghost town. On one flank, a deserted street is patrolled by young Israeli soldiers in full battle gear, leading to the settler neighborhood. On the other side, past checkpoints and security screening, is Shuhada  (martyrs) Street, an impoverished souq with more shops locked up than open, a small number of Palestinian storeowners, and a bevy of children endeavoring to sell us souvenirs. Above the few shops that are still open, there is a wire mesh to catch rocks, garbage, and various unmentionables thrown at Palestinians from Israeli settler families who have literally occupied the higher ground, abutting and overlooking the souq.

Scapegoating the Other

The Palestinians we met told us that Jewish settlers have been trying to drive them out of H2, to claim it for themselves, and that they will resort to all manner of harassment to do so, including throwing stones, and assaulting Palestinian children on their way home from school. Indeed, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently confirmed that movement restrictions, along with on-gong settler violence, reduced income, and restricted access to services and resources, has led to a reduction in the area’s Palestinian population. 

It is a desperate, hard life for all the Palestinians who live there. They cling on, refusing to leave or sell their ancestral homes. Offers, some very large, have been made in the past, but people will not trade their birthright, even when they are faced with physical threats to their lives. One Palestinian whose home we visited told me that his late wife was shot by Israeli soldiers, while his children were attacked by settlers. Nowadays, he and his few neighbors have no choice but to remain or flee without compensation as the Palestinian Authority has forbidden selling property to the settlers. And so they remain, in poverty and punishment.

The rebuilt and refurbished settler zone is a mix of run-down apartments. waste grounds, new community buildings and playgrounds, and a street of shops that once served the settlers’ needs but are now locked and neglected in a dusty, empty street. Here, the settlers too play the victim card, claiming that they area harassed, insulted, and killed. We met the administrator of the small Jewish museum and library who told us of how her grandfather was killed in 1929, and how her father was killed by an assailant in his own home. 

Today there are two Israeli soldiers for every Jewish settler. They are youngsters, barely out of high school. Heavily armed and nervous. With the power to end or destroy the lives of the Palestinians they occupy, many of them youths just like themselves. 

“You who build these altars then to sacrifice these children, you must not do it any more”.

If only it was that simple on the fault line of faith and nation.

Below is a selection of photographs taken during our visit.

Read more in In That Howling Infinite on the Middle East : A Middle East Miscellany

You can read more about the pain and passion of Hebron here:
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/hebron-tombs-of-the-patriarchs
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli%E2%80%93Palestinian_conflict_in_Hebron

Author’s Note: 
Whenever I pen commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.

With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archaeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.

I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.

I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that folllowed –  Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.   

The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.

I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.

Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.

Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.

But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.

Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.

Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.

So what happens next?

I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”

One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.

October 8th 2017

For more posts on Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East, visit:
https://m.facebook.com/HowlingInfinite/
https://m.facebook.com/hf1983/

See also, my collection of posts about Jerusalem, and 

Hebron May 2016

img_5080

Hebron May 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

 

That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

Islam’s house of many mansions

Islam, the faith of some two hundred million souls, has a long and well-documented history of pluralism and tolerance, and indeed, learning. But in recent decades, the faith has been hijacked by the punitive and literalist proclivities of the Salafis, condoned, coopted and championed by the conservative, corrupt, brutal, patriarchal and misogynistic autocracies of Saudi Arab and other Gulf States and ostensibly Islamic states like Iran. If ever there were exemplars for the “religion of peace”, and followers of a “merciful and compassionate” God, these are certainly not. To borrow another faith’s noun, theirs’ is in so many ways a gospel of bondage. [read Alastair Crooke’s excellent article on the history of Wahhabism]

[This, by the way, is a book review and not a theological critique. I neither profess nor profane, although my personal opinions might occasionally intrude. I admit to a sound but not specialist familiarity with and knowledge of Islam and Muslims, and a wide but not expert knowledge of the Middle East]

In The House of Islam – a global history  offers the potential for a softer, kinder, spiritual  Islam.  Author Ed Husain, British-born of Indian heritage, wears his Sufi heart on his sleeve.  “Preoccupied with spiritual awareness and depth, Sufi Islam transcends the performative trappings of superficial appearances such as beards and head-coverings, fixation with the simplistic binaries of haram and halal (what is forbidden and not forbidden in Islam) and the state’s imposition of sharia law.”

Little wonder that in many rooms in the House of Islam, Sufis are suspect, sanctioned and silenced – often brutally. As are many “heterogeneous” offshoots of this one true faith, including for many,  more than two hundred million Shiah.

It is the authoritarian, mediaeval Salafi-Wahhabi Arabian Peninsula theology and culture that has become commonly adopted as a marker of Muslim authenticity and has assumed the status of the ideal religious identity – notwithstanding the historical preeminence of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad as centres of Muslim learning – and even though Arabs constitute a numerical minority in the Muslim world.

This “Arabization” and indeed, “Saudification” of Islam has colonized, distorted and, indeed, contorted and corrupted the spiritual message of Islam, and with the concurrent attractions and challenges of westernization, has, in Husain’s words, “disoriented the traditional Muslim equilibrium”, and brought forth jihadi abominations like al-Qaeda and Da’ish.

With the spread of ultra-conservative Salafi theology in many parts of the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, Muslims are expected to dress in accordance with “modest” traditional Arabic attire and women are under pressure to wear the headscarf and other more extreme coverings – the latter never sanctioned by either Qur’an or Hadith writ. The writ runs deeper than outward appearance, as exemplified by the subordinate status of women in most Muslim societies. Moreover,  Arab and non-Arab Muslims are also expected to abandon their pre-Islamic history and culture – derided as remnants from pre-Islamic ignorance. In its most extreme manifestation, this saw the destruction of humanity’s priceless heritage at Palmyra and Nineveh. Some salafis call for the razing of Egypt’s pyramids.

Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, multitudes have returned there, helped in no small part by their more atavistic coreligionists who see salvation, wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a medieval ethos and lifestyle of some golden age of faith which most scholars maintain never existed.

Islamists are intolerant of anything resembling a free exchange of ideas and information – the very concept of democracy is haram as the Prophet and his successors never thought of it – and possess a cultural antipathy, and iconoclastic rage for all things western, including, in some places,  western education (the derivation of the name ’Boko Haram’  for Nigeria’s ISIS franchise). The fundamentalist mindset in all its patriarchal intolerance, prejudice and misogyny is itself often embraced by the ignorant and the uneducated, the downcast and dispossessed, the bitter and the bigoted.

Husain points out that “not every Salafi is a jihadi, but every jihadi is a Salafi. Today’s jihadism, violating all the ethics of Islam, is nothing more than the continuation of the puritanism of the Salafi-Wahhabis“, which originated from the Saudi kingdom – guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most revered cities. There is no space for plurality and doubt in Salafi theology, rooted as it is in the discourse of yaqeen (certainty) and the propagation of an authoritarian one-dimensional piety.

This said, there are many more Muslim-majority states such as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and Tunisia – countries that were conceived as secular states, and have largely remained secular or quasi-secular) , and indeed, have and made considerable democratic breakthroughs via the ballot box. Indonesia (the most populous Muslim-majority country) and Malaysia (one of the most industrialised Muslim-majority countries) are not located in the Arab Middle East. And yet, as events in Turkey and Indonesia have shown, the lure of radical Islam and its cultural and moral strictures is an attractive one to would-be authoritarians and to governments fearful of rising populist and nationalist tides.

And herein lies another portend. Just as the Muslim world has its share of religious and political extremists, so do an alarming number of Western democracies that are dominated by populists and ethno-nationalists who often do not hesitate to use religion as a blunt instrument of groupthink. I am thinking here of Russia and its Othodox Church, and of Polish Catholicism, but even ostensibly democratic USA and Israel are subject to the overweening influence of powerful evangelical and Haredim interest groups that endeavour to stamp their moral code on the more temporal majority. As radical British playwright Dennis Potter once remarked, “religion is the wound, not the bandage”.

Academic Lily Rahim notes in he review, published below, that this calls for a systematic analysis of the economic, socio-political, structural and institutional factors that have fueled the ascendancy of all forms of extremism, intolerance and exclusion, often rooted in authoritarian beliefs and systems. And that is a huge, multifaceted project, taking in the economic and social inequality that persists in countries rich and poor, the gap between the few ‘haves’ and the many ‘have-nots’, the power imbalances between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’, the pernicious rise of sectarianism and ethnocentrism, the mirage of ‘manifest destiny’, and the historical habit of the strong to bomb the weak and the poor to blazes.

Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and co-religionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris and Brussels, Istanbul and Baghdad, Jakarta and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan, the longest war in the 21st Century, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to what Rudyard Kipling called these “savage wars of peace” a forlorn hope.

“In many respects, the House of Islam is a microcosm of The House of Human History”.

Two other reviews of Ed Husain’s informative and illuminating boo follow.

For other posts regarding the Middle East in Into That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany.  And, for a long view, read: A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West.

The House of Islam by Ed Husain.


The House of Islam by Ed Husain review – a powerful corrective

Boys prepare food for devout Muslims to break their day-long fast on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Mumbai, India.
         Boys prepare food for devout Muslims to break their day-long fast on the last Friday of  Ramadan in Mumbai, India ( Rajanish Kakade/AP)

Of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims a very large number – perhaps a majority – observed the Ramadan fast last month. This doesn’t simply mean abstaining from food and water during the hours of daylight (as well as sex and cigarettes), but in many cases involves a deliberate reappraisal of one’s relation to God and the world, with more prayers and philanthropy and less shopping.

Of all the obligations that define Islam, Ramadan arouses perhaps the most irritation among some outsiders. A practice that places such a strain on the body is surely an affront to reason. Nor does it seem to make economic sense for workers to be tired and unproductive while declining to perform their allotted roles as consumers with credit ratings. And yet the west has absorbed Ramadan, if uneasily, with supermarket promotions for dates (the Prophet’s favoured breakfast), school assemblies on the subject and “What is Ramadan?” features even in the Sun.

Knowledge about Islam may have improved, but the speed with which relations are changing between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between Muslims, necessitates a constant reassessment of different worldviews and the way they interrelate. Isis’s defeat in Mesopotamia has not led to any meaningful dialogue between cultures. On the contrary, with Gaza aflame, the Iran nuclear accord uprooted and Sunni-Shia tensions at an all-time high, the prospects for detente have rarely been bleaker.

An airstrike on Islamic State militants in Sirte, Libya in 2016.
                      Airstrike on Islamic State militants in Sirte, Libya in 2016 )Manu Brabo/AP)

It’s an illustration of the insincerity of many world leaders that more than 250 French public figures, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and three former prime ministers, recently demanded that Qur’anic verses endorsing the killing of non-Muslims be “struck down” – just as the Second Vatican Council expurgated elements of Catholic doctrine in the early 1960s. This meretricious proposal affects to assume that Islam is a centralised religion like Catholicism (it isn’t), that the Qur’an can be snipped and remain the Qur’an (it can’t), and that because they recognise the same holy book the Islam of the jihadi is the same as that of the Sufi or the Europeanised Muslim with his Qur’an on the top shelf and his bottle of burgundy on the bottom. When will someone put these contradictions of text, practice and culture into terms accessible to the layperson? Who will speak across the divides?

Enter Ed Husain. A Briton of Indian parentage, a Muslim whose bestselling book, The Islamist described his temporary embrace of the values of global jihad in the 90s, Husain retained his religious faith even after he became a government adviser on deradicalisation. Since then he has lived off the fat of the neoliberal establishment that ran the world before the age of Trump, working for Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation as well as several other well‑heeled thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic. The anti-extremism organisation he co-founded in 2007, Quilliam, is considered by many to be hopelessly compromised by its support for government efforts to squeeze Muslims into the corset of “British” values.

Ed Husain in Brick Lane, London, May 2018.
                            Husain in Brick Lane, London, May 2018 (Andy Hall, The Observer)

Husain’s politics and the company he keeps may be questioned, but they evidently haven’t stopped him from thinking productively about Islam as a force for good in the world. An account of the compassion, reason and wonderment that Islam has exhibited for much of its history, this book is a powerful corrective to the widespread perception, fostered by jihadis and Islamophobes alike, that it’s a belief system for misanthropes.

Ever since its inception Islam’s ethos had been contested, but a disastrous turn came with rejection of the printing press and the triumph of scholasticism over independent reasoning, exacerbated by a morale-sapping struggle against European expansionism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Husain rightly says that the root of much Muslim confusion is a sense that a glorious past has soured into defeat and humiliation, but fallen prestige is hardly the monopoly of Muslims. The West has also lost ground, particularly its white males; dealing with changes in status is a part of being human. In general, Husain is too apt to view Muslims and their dignity as qualitatively different from those of other people. His modern politics can also be sketchy. With justification he criticises Saudi Arabia for its promotion of bigotry – less understandable is his soft spot for the  Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan –  less a paragon of generous Islam than thuggish majoritarianism. His insistence that Muslim nations accommodate the tiny Jewish state in their midst is common sense but a suggestion of a Middle Eastern union including Israel reads somewhat grotesquely in the light of the recent carnage in Gaza.

For all that, Husain has written a valuable book, full of suggestions for Islam’s implementation from a position of magnanimity and love. Then the confidence will return.

 The House of Islam: A Global History is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Muslim pilgrims pray on the Mountain of Mercy during The Haj. Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, is where Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite.
Muslim pilgrims pray on the Mountain of Mercy during The Haj. Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, is where Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite ( Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

In The House of Islam, Ed Husain affirms the centrality of the pluralist foundations and principles of Islam. Pluralism has also been rooted in Husain’s “lived reality”. His book opens powerfully, with Husain affirming his plural identity: “I am a Westerner and an observant Muslim. Caught between two worlds, I have learnt to dovetail the two facets of my identity. This book is a reflection of that inner bridge between Islam and the West”.

Yet, as the inflections of this superbly written book suggest, Husain’s “inner bridge” extends beyond “Islam and the West” and incorporates “the West” (Britain where he was born and raised), Islam (his faith) and India, his ancestral homeland.

A Turkish Muslim woman prays inside Hiraa cave, where Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from God to preach Islam, on Noor Mountain, on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
A Turkish Muslim woman prays inside Hiraa cave, where Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from God to preach Islam, on Noor Mountain, on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.Photo: AP

Husain’s Indian heritage comes across in his whimsical ruminations of Mughal Sufi history, in particular the riveting narrative of Jahanara Begum – the complex and colourful Sufi-inspired daughter of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1592–1666), who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife.

Hussain’s Sufi proclivities are apparent in the chapter “Who is a Sufi”, arguably one of the most engaging chapters. Husain describes the Sufi as one who “seeks only to please God, and does so in secret as often as possible”, grapples with “the heart and soul of Islam” and strives towards “maintaining equilibrium while swimming in deep oceans of spiritual awareness, and the ways in which the human ego could be crushed”.

Preoccupied with spiritual awareness and depth, Sufi Islam transcends the performative trappings of superficial appearances such as beards and head-coverings, fixation with the simplistic binaries of haram and halal (what is forbidden and not forbidden in Islam) and the state’s imposition of sharia law.

In contrast to the rigid, punitive and literalist tendencies of Salafi Islam, as promoted by the conservative monarchies in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and supposed Islamic states such as Iran, Sufi Islam’s leanings are inclusive, compassionate and speak to the complex yearnings of the human soul.

These leanings are evident in Rumi’s message of learning, hope and redemption, as the renowned Sufi poet ruminated: “Come. Come, whoever you are./ Wanderer, worshipper, lover of learning./ It doesn’t matter./ Ours is not a caravan of despair./ Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times./ Come, yet again, come, come.”

Husain’s considerable insights on the house of Islam, made up of more than 1.5 billion Muslims, have been shaped by his lived incarnations as an Islamist, Salafist and current abode in mystical Sufi Islam. His destiny within Sufi Islam culminated after many years of study under the guidance of Islamic scholars and living in the Middle East.

Enriched by these experiences, Husain notes that he has the “rare privilege of being an insider both in the West and in the Muslim World”. Yet, it could also be deduced that his acute insights have been cultivated by his status as an “outsider” in both the West and the Arab Middle East – stemming from his minority Indian ethnicity in both domains.

The House of Islam is understandably concerned with authoritarian and Salafi-Wahhabi Gulf Arab theology and culture that has become commonly adopted as a marker of Muslim authenticity. This peculiarity has assumed the status of the ideal religious identity – even though Arabs constitute a numerical minority in the Muslim world.

Husain insightfully asserts that Arabisation as well as Westernisation has “disoriented the traditional Muslim equilibrium”, as manifested by the rise of Salafi jihadi groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda.

With the spread of ultra-conservative Salafi theology in many parts of the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, Muslims are expected to dress in accordance with “modest” traditional Arabic attire and women are under pressure to wear the headscarf and other coverings. Arab and non-Arab Muslims are also expected to jettison their pre-Islamic history and culture – derided as remnants from pre-Islamic ignorance or jahiliyya.

Husain reminds us of the paradox of the current Salafi dominance by noting that in the 1790s, Salafis were not even considered Muslims by the chief qadi (cleric) of Mecca; indeed, for several years Salafis were kept away from the holy cities and The Haj.

He highlights the theological ties between Salafi Islam and jihadi Islamists, such as Isis and al-Qaeda, by pointing out that “not every Salafi is a jihadi, but every jihadi is a Salafi…. Today’s jihadism, violating all the ethics of Islam, is nothing more than the continuation of the puritanism of the Salafi-Wahhabis”, which originated from the Saudi kingdom – guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most revered cities.

There is no space for plurality and doubt in Salafi theology, rooted as it is in the discourse of yaqeen (certainty) and the propagation of an authoritarian one-dimensional piety.

The House of Islam is a valuable read, particularly for those with some understanding of Islam and the Muslim world. Husain is a gifted writer and perceptive observer particularly of the Arab Middle East.

That said, the book makes minimal references to the more dynamic and democratising Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Tunisia – countries that were conceived as secular states (have largely remained secular or quasi-secular) and made considerable democratic breakthroughs via the ballot box. Instructively, Indonesia (the most populous Muslim-majority country) and Malaysia (one of the most industrialised Muslim-majority countries) are not located in the Arab Middle East.

Instead of pointing to Israel as a source of emulation for the Muslim world, Husain could well have highlighted these consolidating democracies. All three countries boast a vibrant civil society, coalition governments based on power-sharing and political systems based on secular constitutionalism.

Despite the penetrating insights in The House of Islam, Husain’s narrative of the myriad hurdles confronting the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and Israel’s role in this struggle, is somewhat disappointing.

Just as the Muslim world has its share of religious and political extremists, so does Israel and an alarming number of Western democracies that are dominated by populists and ethno-nationalists. This calls for a systematic analysis of the economic, socio-political, structural and institutional factors that have fuelled the ascendency of all forms of extremism, intolerance and exclusion, often rooted in authoritarian beliefs and systems. In many respects, the House of Islam is a microcosm of The House of Human History.

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-house-of-islam-review-ed-husain-on-the-history-of-a-welcoming-religion-20180809-h13r0w.htm

Lily Rahim is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where she teaches Political Islam and Southeast Asian Politics. Her more recent books include Muslim Secular Democracy and The Politics of Islamism. Ed Husain is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival (mwf.com.au).