Archive for August 2007
Peter W. Galbraith’s book ‘The End of Iraq’ argues the initially persuasive thesis that Iraqis have already divided themselves into three separate countries roughly corresponding to the Ottoman provinces of Basra (the Shii Arab south), Baghdad (the Sunni Arab centre) and Mosul (the Kurdish north), and that American attempts to keep the country unified are bound to fail. I agree wholeheartedly with Galbraith’s call for America to withdraw from Iraq – America is incapable of stopping the civil war, and is in fact exacerbating it. (update: I stick by this. The civil war has to some extent calmed because of internal Iraqi dynamics, not because of the US ‘surge’ – the Sunni forces turned on al-Qaida, and also realised that they had lost the battle for Baghdad and national power. Some groups then allied with the US for a variety of reasons to do with self-preservation). The rest of Galbraith’s argument is much more debatable.
For a start, he minimises the extent to which the US occupation has contributed to the disintegration of Iraq. I do not wish to deny the sectarian and ethnic fractures which exist in Iraq and other Arab countries, but it is reasonable to expect that any country, having suffered dictatorship, war, sanctions, and then the overnight collapse of all its institutions, would enter a period of chaos and division. Galbraith accurately records Western support for Saddam Hussain throughout the Iran-Iraq war, when he was gassing Kurds, and the American refusal to intervene when Republican Guards were slaughtering southern Shia in 1991 (the massacres happened under the eyes of American forces occupying the south at the end of the Kuwait war). He describes the criminal failure in 2003 of the occupying forces to stop the looting and burning of every ministry except the oil ministry, of military arsenals and even yellowcake uranium stocks the Americans claimed to be so concerned about in the run-up to the invasion, and of the national museum and national library. (He doesn’t examine claims made at the time by Robert Fisk and others that masked men with Kuwaiti accents were bussed in to certain ministries to set fires professionally.) The attack on Iraq’s – and the world’s – heritage is of course a cultural crime far greater than the despicable Taliban destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues. Bombing and looting ravaged what was left of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure. The Iraqi state was destroyed within the first week of occupation, long before the sectarian killing began.
This summer my son and I spent a few days in the house of a friend of mine from university days, a friend from a very different background, but a very good friend, very intelligent and very funny, who has always treated me with respect and a great deal of generosity. It was wonderful to see him. The problem was his girlfriend. (Now ex-girlfriend, so I dare write this without jeopardising the friendship).
The first thing she said to my eight-year-old son, after “hello,” was, “Do you feel uncomfortable because I’m not all covered up?” Some minutes later at the dinner table she squeezed her eyes at him and then me, and asked, “What nationality are you?” I should stress here that I’m a native speaker of English, and that my son, although he’s never lived in Britain, has inherited my proper British accent. By now it was apparent that there was an obsessional block in this woman’s head.
A little later my friend (as he does) said something silly about gay people. The girlfriend cast worried glances at me, then my son, and said in the childish tone some people adopt when instructing children, “I think gay people are great!” These educative comments continued, quite irrelevantly. The most absurd, aimed meaningfully at my little boy, was “I really enjoy getting drunk sometimes!” Normally I would argue back, but I was in the very uncomfortable position of being a guest in my friend’s house. Anyway, my son was grown-up enough to understand that this strange woman had a strange agenda.
Last summer I spent seven days on a ten-day meditation retreat in England. With the background of the attack on Lebanon, it formed the matter of my first posting on this blog, called ‘Taking a Step Back from Taking a Step Back.’ (see
) Although I found the meditation itself fascinating and beneficial, the atmosphere at the retreat was poor, and the ‘teaching’ of the guru, Indian industrialist Goenka, was dogmatic, undemocratic and unintelligent. Even slightly cultlike: silence was demanded, but still we heard Goenka chanting on cassette as we tried to meditate; linguistic thought was bad, we weren’t allowed to make notes, read, or ask questions considered impractical, yet listening to Goenka talk for an hour and a half on video every evening was compulsory. Goenkaism makes a big deal of not being a religion, of Buddhism not being a religion, but in actuality it has the full set of taboos and set explanations demanding belief, from reincarnation to the leader figure, to qualify it as a religion in the worst possible sense. I wasn’t looking for a new religion, but for an opportunity to learn more about meditation in a supportive environment. So I left on the seventh day, and I’m very happy I did. I’m also glad I spent the seven days there, but Goenkaism left a bad taste in my mouth.
This summer my wife and I spent a week on a meditation retreat at Gaia House in Devon. It has left me questioning all tastes. I mean it was good.