Children of Abraham

The ancient and holy city of Hebron 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 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 archeology, 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 TheEthnic 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 Pasionaria, 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 calamatous 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 A Middle East Micellany

 

Hebron May 2016

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Hebron May 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

 

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).

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…

Poets and painters have long been drawn to Bethlehem, and to the birth that may or may not have taken place here some 2,018 years ago. Even agnostics among them have been moved by the myth and magic of the place: the advent of that auspicious “star in the east”, the fulfillment of prophecies of old, wise men journeying on camels’ back from the exotic and mysterious “orient are”, angels heard on high, shepherds watching their flocks, and the well-loved dramatis personae of the classic manger scene.

The Christmas Story, the Crucifiction and the Resurrection, is at the heart of the Christian creation myth. Like Jerusalem, its sacred. senior sibling, just ten kilometres away as the crow flies (and much, much longer by road due to the impositions of the occupation), the “little town of Bethlehem”  is as much a city of the mind and heart as one of bricks and mortar and of ordinary people with myriad preoccupations and passions.

British author and screenwriter Nicholas Blincoe has now written an affectionate and informative biography of a town that is as close to the heart of our culture as any town ever was, and yet one that is almost unknown. Whilst “the hopes and fears of all our years” abide with this town of some 27,000 souls, it has a story of its own that reaches back eleven thousand years.

Ballad of a border town 

Blincoe’s story is part history, part travelogue and memoir, the past intermingling with the present in informative and ofttimes entertaining anecdotes and interviews, memories and personal experiences, as he takes us on a journey from the stone age to the stone wall – one that is in places eight metres in height.

Bethlehem has since the beginning of recorded history been a border-town on a physical and metaphysical borderland.

A borderland between “the desert and the sown”, the Judean Desert with it’s sheep-herding nomads and Bedouin bandits, and the orchards and vineyards in the fertile wadis that for centuries had supplied world-famous wine and olive oil.

A borderland between the Christians who once constituted a majority, and who for generations have tended to the churches, shrines, and monasteries that were drawn to the holy ground around the Church of the Nativity, and the vast Muslim hinterland from whence over the centuries have come traders and invaders, missionaries and marauders, tourists and tanks. For two thousand years, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been one of the world’s preeminent destinations for religious tourism, and over two million tourists and pilgrims visit the town each year.

Bethlehem’s location has given it a social, political, economic, and strategic significance disproportionate to its size. It grew the confluence of the springs and aqueducts that have supplied nearby Jerusalem for millennia. “All ittakes to conquer Jerusalem is to seize its water supply…This is what every future invader did.” It was close to the historic trade route between the Kings Road that linked the Hijaz to the Hauran, Damascus and the north, and the ancient Palestinian ports on the Mediterranean.

Its importance as a Christian island in a sea of Islam saw it serve as a refuge for the oppressed and dispossessed of Ottoman pogroms and genocides and also of the Nakba, it has earned a reputuaion as a haven for the more secular and radical elements of the Palestinian national movement their struggle with more religious and indeed fundamentalist adversaries.

But over the last half-Century, it is town that is increasingly cut off and isolated by the Separation Wall, encircled and encroached upon by the ever multiplying and expanding Israeli settlements (forty one at the last count with well over 100,000 inhabitants), hostile and acquisitive settlers, and the daily impositions and injustices of the military occupation with its restricted roads, armed soldiers and border police, checkpoints and the Kafkaesque permit system.

 

A cultural caravanserai

For most of his historical narrative, Blincoe maintains a degree of scholarly detachment with regard to the serpentine history and politics of the region, and  crafts a captivating tale of warlords and adventurers, of soldiers and saints,  as a parade of foreign armies pass through. Egyptians, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, Arabs, Franks, and Mamluks, Turks, Brits, and finally, Israelis. There is a great picture of a group of Anzacs from the far side of the world in their winter coats emerging from the cave of the nativity in December 1917. Rulers and rebels have passed this way, and many, like mad, bad King Herod, Bar Kokba’s Jewish fighters, and the Shabab of the Palestinian Intifada-t have died nearby.

Given its religious significance, Bethlehem has forever been a focus and at times, a flash-point for events that have enmeshed the Holy Land and its Holy Places, from the fossicking of Emperor Constantine’ mother Helena and the self-imposed exile of estranged Empress Eudocia, through the Muslim conquest, the Crusades and Mongol raids to the Crimean War, the Palestine Campaign of WW1, and the Arab-Israel conflict. Bethlehem’s history has been one of civilization, colonization and conquest.

As a former scholar of philosophy, Blincoe seems particularly at home amidst the theological disputes of the early Christian, Byzantine period, and brings to life a host of passionate, idiosyncratic, adventurous, and infuriating men and women – the wandering saints and scholars, clerics and ascetics, wealthy widows and society matrons of the Middle Ages, and an unending caravan of pilgrims, tourists, evangelical adventurers and amateur archaeologists that have walked these hills and valleys for centuries. As with Jerusalem, seekers of the numinous could never get enough of the place.

He doesn’t shy away from the social, theological and political complexities of his chronicle, but his objectivity is severely tested in his final chapters when writing of Bethlehem and the occupation.

But then he does after all have a lot of skin in the game: he is married to Bethlehem filmmaker Leila Samsour, dividing his time between London and Bethlehem. He is quite embedded with Leila’s Christian Palestinian family, one with deep roots in the town’s history and politics, and has often been in the thick of the crises, protests, incursions and violent clashes that periodically embroil his adopted home.

He is not some desktop warrior, NGO apparatchik or “occupation tourist”. And whilst he deplores the actions of the settlers and the right wing politicians – Avigdor Leiberman and other nationalist MKs are virtual neighbours of his – and ascribes to revisionist Israeli historians like Ilan Pape and Benny Morris’ reading of the Nakba, he is not one of Israel‘s haters But he is disappointed, saddened, infuriated even by the Jewish state’s often cavalier and callous approach to its Palestinians who are its neighbours and also, its sullen, subject people.

Banksy’s Bethlehem Bouquet

Breaking the wheel

Palestine, and with it, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have always been under strangers’ dominion. But in the past, the rulers largely left the locals to live their own lives and manage their own affairs in accordance with their own social, political, and religious ways, and in the fullness of time, they departed, ceding the land to the next despot. Until, that is, the Israelis. In the words of Daenerys Targaryen: “ We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”

Year by year, Bethlehem’s economy shrinks. Over two million tourists and pilgrims visit “Royal David’s City” annually, but its economically stressed, and it has the highest unemployment rate (nearly 30%) in the West Bank.

Year by year, Bethlehem’s Christian population diminishes as people head overseas in search of a better life – and particularly its young folk. In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86% Christian, but by 2016, the Christian population was but 12%.

Year by year, the settlements grow, and settlers, encouraged by an extremist, nationalist government and a seemingly compliant IDF, become more emboldened in their expansion onto Palestinian land. Considered illegal under international law, Israel regards them as legitimate suburbs of Jerusalem- a territorial fait accompli that is tantamount to de facto annexation.

Year by year, Bethlehem becomes more and more cut off from the rest of the West Bank by walls, wire, and a web of “Israeli only” highways, and indeed from the world beyond the wall. Travel to Jerusalem and to the rest of the West Bank is severely restricted by roads, checkpoints and permits, whilst the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians that existed during the seventies and eighties, in workplaces, educational and health institutions, friendships and romances, ceased after the terrors of the second, bomb Intifada as israel and Israelis withdrew into their mental and physical fortress.

A generation of young people on either side of the old and ostensibly moribund Green Line have grown up with negligible contact with their peers on the “other side” – and this is most likely to be limited to military service in the Occupied Territories on the one hand, and confrontations with armed soldiers on the other.

Writing of the 1948 war, Blincoe notes: “From their future actions it became clear that both Jordan and Israel saw the term “Palestine” as an empty tag: it was the name of a piece of real estate rather than the home of people demanding self representation”, this is how he sees the future for Palestine and for Bethlehem, his adopted home. He argues that the settlement project is first and foremost about land and cheap housing for middle and lower class Israelis pressed by rising property values and a shortage of affordable housing to rent or buy in Israel proper. it is real estate developers, he argues, with friends in high places, who are calling the shots, rather than the more visible and vocal Zionist nationalists. As the Israeli historian and one–time deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti puts it, the settlements are a “commercial real estate project that conscripts Zionist rhetoric for profit”. The story of Jesus and the money-changers somehow comes to mind.

It is an intriguing argument that invites further research. it also echoes what would appear to be a similar patter in those parts of the West Bank that are under the direct control and administration of the Palestinian Authority, as we have reported earlier in Castles Made of Sand, an account of the land rush that is taking place in Area A.

With this and all the other pressures in play, from Blincoe’s perspective, the future prospects of Palestine and the little town of Bethlehem not appear to be promising. Bethlehem – Biography of a Town does not have a happy ending.

Synchronicity – a footnote

A few days after this post was published, an article by Hillel Zand appeared in the Matzav Review addressing the settlements and the real estate argument:  “Israel’s right-wing has strengthened in recent years because it has promoted heavily financing the settlement project as a way to compensate for the not insignificant negative side-effects of neoliberal economic policy, especially rising housing prices and increasing inequality and poverty…In Israel, the “losers” are being compensated by the advocates of these policies with incentives, subsidies and entitlements that allow them to maintain, or even raise, their quality of life by living in West Bank settlements”.

The Israel- Jordan collaboration referred to by Blincoe also raised its controversial head recently when Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked and her boss Naftali Bennett hinted, favourably, at the prospects of US’ impending “peace deal” that includes the West Bank being ceded to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt. Murmurings from US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also indicated support for such an idea.

Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem

Walls and wire define the brotherhood of man

 Some further reading about Bethlehem:

There are the PLO’s official facts and figures, and the National Catholic Reporter on the declining Christian population. And there is always Wikipedia. There are a series of posts in In That Howling Infinite about Jerusalem and Palestine in: O Jerusalem

Author’s Note: 
Whenever In That Howling Infinite posts 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 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 archeology, 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 followed –  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

The Church of the Nativity

Adele at the Church of the Nativity

Where Christianity began

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion

I was inspired to write this post on viewing the video below, a harrowing picture gallery of the Bosnian War, the bloodiest but not the last of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. I was reminded  of the iconic Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s poem, Pity the Nation,  a sardonic and incisive take on the politics of his time and his homeland. It is chilling in its prescience with regard to contemporary politics in the Middle East and indeed, much, much closer to home on in our liberal democracies where les mots de jour, and indeed, des temps are ‘populism’ and ‘post-truth’,  where allegations of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news are ubiquitous and duplicitous, and where, in a milieu of fear, anger and loathing, intolerance and ignorance appear to be on the rise.

Today, in America, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are best-sellers, and doubtless, as resignation and surrender sink in, Fahrenheit 451 and Catch 22 will catch on with intellectually and numerically inclined. The one is the temperature at which paper burns (“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading”), the other, the mother of all vicious circles. The 22 was meant to be 18, but Joseph Heller was gazzumped by Leon Uris’ holocaust melodrama Mila 18  (which I do happen to like).

I was also reminded of a book of the same name. In Pity the Nation, his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein (inspired by Gibran’s poem, and by the fact the he has been a resident of Lebanon for going on half a century), the redoubtable British  journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.

And that, is in essence, the underlying message of Gibran’s poem, published posthumously after his death in 1931.

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.

Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.

Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.

Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)

The following song, E Lucevan Le Stelle, encapsulates all this:

“And time, ’tis said reveals its dead, and we will speak what was unsaid. How he was wrong, and I was led – his song I sing who gives me bread. It wasn’t me! I kept my head – I had my kin and kind to serve. It wasn’t me – I kept the faith. It wasn’t me who lost his nerve”.

It charts the cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, and other “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in pain. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography, lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. “Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more betides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores: damnation takes no sides”.

Related posts In That Howling Infinite:

A House Divided – the nature of civil war
Pity the Nation
A brief history of the rise and fall of the west
Bombs and Babies
Solitudinem faciunt pacemappellant

Postscript

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American poet, painter, liberal activist, and co-founder of the legendary City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, wrote the following poem in 2007 as a tribute to Gibran, and as a sad testament to the aphorism “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

“Pity the nation whose people are sheep and whose shepherds mislead them.

Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced, and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as heroand aims to rule the world with force and by torture.

Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own and no other culture but its own.

Pity the nation whose breath is money and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.

Pity the nation – oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away.

My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.

The death of the singer will not kill the song

It is not Leonard Cohen about whom I write.

The passing of a beloved singer or poet is a sad affair, the initial shock on hearing the news segueing into bitter-sweet memories of songs and poems and how they provided a soundtrack or bookmark to significant events in our lives. We’ve had opportunities aplenty this year with so many of our icons knocking on heaven’s door.

But the murder of singers and poets on account of their words and their voices is sadder still. It diminishes our lives and indeed, it diminishes the world in which we live, and in its hatred and nihilism, strikes at the heart of the values we hold most dear.

So it was with Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, murdered in 1936 by Generalissimo Franco’s Nationalist soldiery at the beginning of the savage Spanish Civil War. So it was with Chilean folk singer and songwriter Victor Lara, slain in a soccer stadium in September 1973 by Augusto Pinochet’s thugs.

Rest In Peace, Amjad Fareed Sabri, acclaimed Pakistani maestro of Qawwali Sufi devotional music who was murdered in Karachi in June this year by Taliban militants.

Ajmat and his brother Maqbool were the acclaimed Sabri Brothers, two the most renowned qawwals – up there with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, muse and mentor of Jeff Buckley.

The Sabri Brothers

The Sabri Brothers

The songs Ahmad Sabri and his father performed are part of a Sufi tradition dating back to the 13th century. Known as Qawwalis, steeped in mysticism and sometimes based on mystic poetry, they are a key part of the spiritual life of millions of Muslims across south Asia and enjoyed by wider audiences of many faiths.

But both the music, and the shrines at which it is often performed, have long been a target for religious conservatives who shun all forms of music and consider the shrines unorthodox. Dozens of sites have been targeted in attacks, including a 2010 suicide bombing at one of Pakistan’s most popular shrines. Qawwalis have long been criticized by the Taliban and other hard-line groups that reject all music as un-Islamic, and particularly object to those songs which focus on the life of the prophet Muhammad.

The murder of a popular singer from a famous and well-loved musical dynasty was a clear warning to others trying to celebrate and preserve Pakistan’s indigenous traditions, and the  pluralism and diversity of religious practice and cultural expression in this tortured part of the world.

I recall seeing the Sabri Brothers perform in London in 1977, led in those days by Ajmad’s father Ghukam Farid, just before I departed for Oz. I still treasure – and play – these glorious songs of praise. their driving rhythms, exotic melodies, and spirited call and response, and enthralling and hypnotic,  Here are two of my long-time favourites, sung by Sabri Senior. Listen for yourself.

‘Bhar do Jholi’ is a praise song for the Prophet and for his companion Bilal and his grandson Hussein, (who with his father Ali are the founding martyrs of Shia Islam).  Read the translated lyrics here.

‘Balaghal bi Kamalihi’ tells the story of Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem on the horse Buraq.  Read the translated lyrics here.

For more on the Sabri Brothers and Qawwali, see:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qawwali

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amjad_Sabri

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabri_Brothers

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nusrat_Fateh_Ali_Khan

Read about Victor Jara and Garcia Lorca here:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/sep/18/victor-jara-pinochet-chile-rocks-backpages

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federico_Garc%C3%ADa_Lorca

Read also, David Kilcullen’s cogent piece on ISIS AND al Qaeda:

https://howlinginfinite.com/2014/12/15/one-two-three-what-are-we-fighting-for/