Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category
A slightly edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.
Hassan Blasim, author of the acclaimed debut collection “The Madman of Freedom Square”, returns with fourteen more stories of profane lyricism, skewed symbolism and macabre romanticism. The qualities which distinguished the “Madman” are all here again in the opening pages of “The Iraqi Christ”: the sly self-referentiality of the frame – a story-telling competition hosted by a Baghdad radio station – the black comedy, the unexpected twists, and the sharp, disturbing images (a man “with no arms and a beard that almost reached his waist… deep in thought, like a decrepit Greek statue.”)
Like the “Madman”, this collection contains tales of war and migration, but these are more abstract, more difficult than the first, if possible stranger still. Treating casual cruelty, rape and murder, and common insanity, these sour cries from a land of generalised trauma don’t make easy bedtime reading. The processing of trauma, or the impossibility of such processing, is the collection’s central theme. Not only are stories dedicated to the dead, they are also narrated by the dead, concerned with death and the echoes of death in the souls of the living.
The subject matter is not exclusively Iraqi. Europe’s forests – with echoes of Grimm – loom as large as Baghdad’s broken streets. The title story, grimly ironic, is about a Christian soldier possessing uncanny powers of prediction who sacrifices himself so his mother may live. An extremist leader marches through with Purge The Earth of Devils tatooed on his forehead. Elsewhere, a narrator falls into a hole alongside a flesh-eating jinn who used to teach poetry in Baghdad. Another helps his brother bury a stranger alive. Characters slip into criminal perversity unwittingly, almost by accident, as spontaneously as the poisonous trees which, in “Sarsara’s Tree”, sprout from a bereaved woman’s gaze.
Blasim’s work is so unusual it’s hard to place. “A Thousand and One Knives”, as the title suggests, owes something to the heritage of the Nights and the ancient fantastic tradition of Arabic writing, now revived by the pains of Arab modernity, particularly in post-invasion Iraq. But “The Iraqi Christ” also seems to belong with the literature of Latin America, likewise struggling with contesting cultures, political violence and overbearing religion. Read the rest of this entry »
The first issue of Critical Muslim, a quarterly magazine in book form co-edited by Ziauddin Sardar and me, will be in the shops in January. More on that at a later date. Today I’m finishing off a long essay on Syria, Iraq and sectarian hatred for Critical Muslim’s third issue. Amongst the books I review in the essay are Fanar Haddad’s indispensable “Sectarianism in Iraq” and Nir Rosen’s “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World,” which is also indispensable, in a different way. As a taster, here’s the section on “Aftermath.”
For a mix of contextual analysis and gripping reportage, the reader will find no better book than Nir Rosen’s magisterial “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s wars in the Muslim World”.
Most Western correspondents were flown into Iraq unable to speak Arabic, largely ignorant of the context, to pass their time attending coalition press briefings or embedded with the US military. Their reports were heavy with simplistic labels (‘the Sunni triangle’, for instance) and ignored non-sectarian nationalism and class issues. Rosen’s writing on Iraq is the polar opposite of such parachute journalism. He speaks Arabic for a start, and blends in physically as a result of the “melanin advantage” bequeathed by his Iranian father. More to the point, he is courageous and energetic, going where few outsiders would dare, whatever their skin tone. He’s a reporter of the best kind, capable of locating pattern behind the copious detail. So he doesn’t merely report the mosque sermons he attended, or his encounters with militiamen and their victims, but accurately interprets and reads between the lines. His descriptions of time, place and personality are vivid, with not an ounce of orientalism added. His lack of sentimentality combined with his obvious sympathy for the people of the region make him the perfect candidate to voyage into the sectarian heart of darkness.
For those of you wondering what’s become of our informant in Tripoli, I’ve heard from a member of her family who lives here in Britain that she is physically safe but in a difficult emotional state – terrified and very tired. The internet is properly down now, and Human Rights Watch reports a wave of “arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances” throughout the capital.
To the west of Tripoli, the heroic city of Zawiya has fallen after Qaddafi’s forces bombed schools, hospitals, mosques and private homes. There are reports of random mass arrests there too. We can be sure that executions and torture are continuing on a massive scale. Further east, first Bin Jawad, then Ras Lanuf and now Brega have been reclaimed by the tyrant after heavy aerial bombardment. It seems that my earlier optimism was misplaced. The Libyan revolution risks drowning in blood. If it does, the larger Arab revolution may well grind to a temporary halt.
This worries me far more than the prospect of Western intervention, because the West is currently in no position to occupy or control Libya. The West’s economy is precarious to say the least, partly because of the adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the mighty American army was tied down and humiliated although no more than 20% of the people rose against the occupation at any one time, and despite the political incompetence and sectarian divisions of the resistance. In Afghanistan, NATO achieved the amazing feat of making the almost universally hated Taliban popular again. While the West squanders treasure and blood, China has signed the contracts to exploit Afghanistan’s resources.
How can imagination respond to a situation like Iraq’s, in which truth is so blatantly stranger and more horrifying than the darkest fiction? Perhaps by simply recording real stories, then sometimes allowing reality to slip a little further in the direction it’s already chosen.
“The important thing is to observe at length, like someone contemplating committing suicide from a balcony. The other important thing is to have an imagination which is not melodramatic but malicious and extremely serious, and to have an ascetic spirit that is close to death.”
Except this isn’t a formulation but a voice within a story. In another story there is a man who throws himself from a balcony – a man who clears blood and debris in the aftermath of explosions, then migrates to Holland, renames himself Carlos Fuentes, becomes a Hirsi Ali figure, more Dutch than the Dutch, and suffers nightmares. There’s a man who dreams a number which foretells not a lottery ticket but .. something else. I give away too much.
Blasim slips between first and third person narration, between realism and hyper-realism, fairytale and dream. Better than slip, he weaves, surefooted. The writing is tight, intelligent, urgent. It bears traces of Gogol and Edgar Allen Poe, plus ugly hints of the Brothers Grimm. It’s Gothic but it dispenses with the Gothic mode’s flagged sentiment. Too tough and wise for that.
There is symbolism. There are phantasmagoric tales of people-smuggling, of corpses displayed as public art, of cannibalism. But none of it is fantasy. All of it directly addresses the fate of people tortured by destruction and fire.
It’s important to remember that Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches consist of more than mere rhetoric. One of the reasons for Nasrallah’s enormous popularity in the Arab and Muslim worlds is that, unlike other Arab leaders, he says what he means and means what he says. Hizbullah is the only force to have defeated Israel – once in 2000, when the brutal occupation of south Lebanon was brought to an end, and once in 2006, when Israeli troops attempted to reinvade in order to dismantle the resistance, but bled on the border for five weeks instead. During the 2006 war Israel bombed every TV mast it could find, but failed to put Hizbullah’s al-Manar off the air. Nasrallah spoke on al-Manar of “the Israeli warship that attacked our infrastructure, people’s homes and civilians. Look at it burn!” As Nasrallah uttered these words, a Hizbullah missile did indeed disable an Israeli warship, forcing Israel to move its fleet away from the Lebanese coast.
In mid-February 2010, Shaikh Nasrallah made a speech which may well mark a fundamental change in the Middle Eastern balance of power. The speech, quoted below, should not be read as a string of empty threats, but a signal of new weaponry and fighting capabilities.
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.
I didn’t watch Blair’s performance at the Chilcot inquiry, for health reasons, but I did read that he mentioned Iran 30 times, as in ‘the same good case for war applies to Iran’. This comes in the context of America concentrating ships and missiles in the Gulf. It is unlikely that the US will attack Iran directly, but increasingly likely that Israel will provoke a conflict. Blair may be preparing the ground for this.
Blair felt ‘responsibility but no regret’ over the destruction of Iraq which has killed over a million, created at least four million refugees, and turned a fertile land into a diseased desert. He focused on Saddam Hussain’s monstrosity, but refrained from explaining how Saddam’s most monstrous crimes were supported by his Western backers. He was allowed to refrain. He didn’t entertain the possibility that Hussain could have been deposed in other ways. He blamed Iran and al-Qa’ida, neither of which had a presence in the country before its collapse, for Iraq’s problems, and again his illogic was not questioned.
This is the extended version of a piece published in today’s Sunday Herald.
A strange calm prevails on the Middle Eastern surface. Occasionally a wave breaks through from beneath – the killing of an Iranian scientist, a bomb targetting Hamas’s representative to Lebanon (which instead kills three Hizbullah men), a failed attack on Israeli diplomats travelling through Jordan – and psychological warfare rages, as usual, between Israel and Hizbullah, but the high drama seems to have shifted for now to the east, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Arab world (with the obvious exception of Yemen) appears to be holding its breath, waiting for what comes next.
Iraq’s civil war is over. The Shia majority, after grievous provocation from takfiri terrorists, and after its own leaderhip made grievous mistakes, decisively defeated the Sunni minority. Baghdad is no longer a mixed city but one with a large Shia majority and with no-go zones for all sects. In their defeat, a large section of the Sunni resistance started working for their American enemy. They did so for reasons of self-preservation and in order to remove Wahhabi-nihilists from the fortresses which Sunni mistakes had allowed them to build.
The collapse of the national resistance into sectarian civil war was a tragedy for the region, the Arabs and the entire Muslim world. The fact that it was partly engineered by the occupier does not excuse the Arabs. Imperialists will exploit any weaknesses they find. This is in the natural way of things. It is the task of the imperialised to rectify these weaknesses in order to be victorious.
In 2007 I read Peter W. Galbraith’s “The End of Iraq“, which suggests cutting Iraq into three mini-states, and then responded in two parts. The first part criticises Galbraith’s thesis, and the second part criticises the failures of Arabism. Both are merged below. More recently it has been revealed that Galbraith actually stood to gain financially from the dismantlement of Iraq.
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.
George Bush has had shoes thrown at him in Baghdad. As he threw the first, Muntadar az-Zaidi shouted, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog.” As he threw the second, he added, “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq.” It was gratifying to see the Iraqi journalist’s human response to one of the destroyers of his country, even if it was woefully inadequate. In a just world, Bush would be imprisoned for the rest of his life (I oppose capital punishment even in the most deserving of cases).
Meanwhile the empire’s top criminals continue to spout self-justifying vomit. What do you say about a Condoleezza Rice? In an interview with the Wall Street Journal she says her regime removed the Taliban, but doesn’t say that America helped bring the Taliban to power in the first place, nor that the new Taliban is now winning against the occupation and its warlord/ druglord Afghan allies. She doesn’t say that Pakistan’s previously peaceful borderlands are controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, that hundreds of thousands have been displaced from these areas, that there are regular bomb attacks in Pakistan’s major cities, or that Pakistan faces the real possibility of collapse.
Here’s a piece I wrote for the National about Arabs on Hadrian’s Wall.
Beyond the fleeting days of summer, Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England is a cold place to be. I stood on a high ridge looking down the line of the Wall at black cloud building over the ruins of Housesteads fort. I was fully exposed to the wind, which carried small seeds of rain, and the mud covering my clothes seeped slowly towards my heart. For a moment I dreamt myself into the skin of an ancient soldier, one come here from warmer climes to serve his empire, and I shivered to my frozen toes. Then my son grinned, turned towards the fort, and with a delighted scream charged downwards, slaying imagined barbarians as he went.
We had set out early in the brisk morning from our home in south west Scotland, over bridges and past floods in low-lying fields. Streams gurgled in roadside ditches; pond-sized puddles occupied town centres. There’s enough water here to produce the illusion of hopping island to island through a vast archipelago.
America has already killed a Syrian border guard during its disastrous occupation of Iraq. And now it has sent four helicopter gunships eight kilometres into Syrian territory and killed at least eight Syrian citizens.
A reader of Syriacomment sent in this post, which is the best information I’ve heard yet on the raid itself:
I just spoke on the phone with a doctor in ABou Kamal- He confirmed that the attack happened around sunset. The 4 helicopters came from the East of the township, he saw them coming. The soldiers debarked and shot people who were working in a building under construction on the periphery of the township. 9 people were pronounced dead on arrival to the hospital- Two more are severely wounded and are being operated on right now [he does not expect them to survive]- He has not read the papers (there are none to read at this time of the night) nor listened to the news and there is no internet there….His report was completely spontaneous. I was not able to get the details on the ages of the injured but he described them as poor simple people (Masakeen)from the town.”
And this is from the Guardian:
Intriguingly, Farhan al-Mahalawi, mayor of the nearby Iraqi border town of Qaim, told the Reuters news agency that the targeted village had been surrounded by Syrian troops.”
It isn’t clear if those killed were a farming family, a family of smugglers, or labourers on a construction site. The Americans, having had a day in which to work out their story, claim that an al-Qa’ida militant was targetted. The sentence from the Guardian (although one wonders how the mayor of al-Qaim would know) suggests the Syrians may have been aware of a militant presence in the area and were keeping their own eye on it. It doesn’t necessarily suggest the people killed were the same militants. (As one would expect, most of the western media have taken American claims more seriously than Syrian reports. In fact, the US military’s description of the attack as “a warning to Syria” was anticipated by western headline writers by 24 hours.)
From a Muslim perspective, I’m used to seeing Judaism, Christianity and Islam as episodes within the same religion (which is not to deny their differences) – a series of revelations emanating from the same cultural locus. But since so many of the Abrahamic stories are inherited from earlier civilisations, even from the very first to write down stories, it may be that my definition of one religion, or at least one civilisation, should expand to include the earliest myths. Stories so early that we can reasonably guess their roots reach deep into our pre-civilised hunter-gatherer past.
Myth doesn’t mean untruth any more than a great novel does. Myth is heightened truth. A myth is perhaps more ‘true’ than reality because reality unfiltered is unstructured and unexplained. The fact that God uses human myths to talk to humans need not perturb the religious. “wa tilka al-amthal nadribuha lil-nas la’alahum yatafakiroon,” says the Qur’an. “We rehearse these parables to people in order that they may think.” From a religious perspective, the rehearsal of myths in sacred text is proof of God’s understanding of human minds. And where do the myths arise from anyway? From unforgotten events, and from us, from our shared Godstuff.
Working in intolerably humid conditions clearing the salt marshes of southern Mesopotamia, fed on a poor diet of dates and semolina, frequently racially abused, the ‘Zanj’ - east African slaves in 9th Century Iraq - rose in their hundreds of thousands in a revolt which lasted for 15 years. They conquered large parts of Iraq, Iran and Bahrain, held the city of Basra for a decade, established their own capital, and even minted their own currency.
As labour intensive activities such as mining and plantation agriculture had expanded in the Muslim empires, so the slave trade had developed, especially the commerce in African slaves. Simultaneously, cultural justifications for the enslavement of Africans multiplied, with many classical writers depicting blacks as slow-witted and bestial. One writer who did not rehearse the stereotype was Jahiz of Basra, himself perhaps of African origin, who wrote: “Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth in whom generosity is as universally well developed as the Zanj. These people have a natural talent for dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine, without needing to learn it. There are no better singers anywhere in the world, no people more polished and eloquent, and no people less given to insulting language. No other nation can surpass them in bodily strength and physical toughness. They are courageous, energetic, and generous, which are the virtues of nobility, and also good-tempered and with little propensity to evil. They are always cheerful, smiling, and devoid of malice, which is a sign of noble character.”
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.’