Archive for April 2008
The metaphor most commonly used to describe terrorism and its backdrop is the one of the mosquitoes and the swamp, in which the mosquitoes are the bombers and the swamp is the much wider public which sympathises with and supports the terrorists, and from which the terrorists recruit. The metaphor is entirely accurate. It is not wishy-washy liberalism but cold logic to state that the only feasible method of defeating anti-Western Islamist terror in the medium to long term is to ‘drain the swamp’, by removing the grievances which inflame hundreds of millions of otherwise reasonable and tolerant Muslims against the West.
This does not mean surrendering Western values to an Islamist agenda but implementing common sense ‘do as you would be done by’ principles. Westerners too would be infuriated by foreign powers which occupied them, or which peppered their land with unwanted military bases, or laid siege to their elected governments, or propped up dictators who abused them.
If the West stopped violently interfering in the Muslim world, the Muslim world would stop violently replying. Certainly, a tiny hardcore of mosquitoes would continue to desire conquest of the infidels, but with their swamp dry, they would soon die off.
Damascus has been designated the UNESCO Arab cultural capital for 2008. This means different things to different people.
President Bashaar al-Assad, pointing to Syria’s role as the last remaining bastion of Arabism and its unashamed solidarity with Palestinian resistance, says “Damascus is the capital of resistance culture.” This interpretation, while unpopular with neighbouring regimes and the powers that dominate the region, is popular with the Syrian people – even if other aspects of the regime aren’t. And some international visitors this year will come primarily for a little resistance chic. This is the capital which welcomes Hugo Chavez and Hassan Nasrallah with equally widespread arms. Noam Chomsky will be giving a talk. Lebanese and pan-Arab diva Fairouz has already been, to the chagrin of some of her compatriots, to croon patriotic and revolutionary songs.
There will also be lectures and poetry recitals, architectural tours of the old city, theatre and ballet performances, art exhibitions, a film festival, and orchestral, jazz and traditional Arabic music concerts.
Damascus certainly deserves cultural capital status more than some cities that have held the title in previous years. After Beirut and Cairo, Damascus has the best bookshops in the Arab world. Syria has always boasted an impressive range of poets and musicians, and produces TV dramas which are of much higher quality than the Egyptian competition. Its taxi drivers can recite classical and contemporary poetry. Its pop singers sing Nizar Qabbani, the most influential and best loved modern Arab poet. Damascus is a city in which your host is likely to serenade you with his lute after dinner. And it is, as the tourism ministry likes to repeat, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.
Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.
For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the first Mesopotamian civilisations, the Sumerians (whose art, I think, has never been surpassed), Akkadians and Babylonians, but I didn’t have much of an interest in pharaonic Egypt before my recent visit. I’d seen the Pyramids five years ago, and they hadn’t done much for me – perhaps because Cairo has grown around them, or perhaps because I’d seen too many pictures.
But Luxor’s Temple of Karnak astounded me. Unlike the vast, inhuman pyramids, it gives you a sense of the scale and complexity of the people who worked and worshipped here three and a half to four thousand years ago. On the walls, ceilings, statues and obelisks there is plenty of realist depiction as well as the static, formulaic art I expected. In many of the buildings the roof, or at least the lower storey’s roof, is still on. Karnak is far older – and because of the truly ancient religion, it feels far older – than the equally intact Greek stuff I’ve seen in Turkey and Syria.
The architecture of Karnak’s Hypostyle hall must be among the most impressive in the world, and the impression of wandering through its forest of columns is entirely unphotographable. It feels fertile, like an organised swamp, and there are stars painted on the ceiling’s stone beams.
For the first time I saw a continuity between ancient Egyptian and Islamic architecture, the same focus on line, space and light.The arranged columns reminded me, for instance, of the Great Mosque in Fes, with its contradictory evocation of crowdedness and endless expanse. Like the great mosque complexes, Egyptian temple compounds functioned as schools, meeting halls, hospitals and libraries as well as places of worship. Karnak has a sacred lake, and its priests performed ritual ablutions before worship, as Muslims do.
We went out for dinner last night with Iraqi friends, refugees from Basra. Muhammad received a call from his family conveying some fairly typical Iraqi news: his sister’s son had made the mistake of walking in a public area. As a result, a random bullet became lodged in his lower leg. At the hospital they sent him away, telling him his wasn’t a serious case.
Our Basrawi friends describe the recent fighting as a war of vested interests, gangs fighting over turf and plunder, with one side backed by the greatest militia presence in Iraq: the Anglo-American occupation. They don’t recognise the mainstream Western media explanation, of the ‘government’ – as if Iraq were an independent nation – ‘clamping down’ – as if the attackers were a consensually accepted authority – on ‘militias and criminal gangs.’