Last summer I travelled in Morocco (where I used to live) in order to write an essay for the Maghreb issue of the Critical Muslim, which I also edited. This essay is available in full online (for free). To read the other essays, stories and poems (and there are some truly brilliant ones) you’ll have to buy the issue (available on Amazon) or subscribe. Please support the journal/ magazine by encouraging your local library/ college to subscribe.
Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken. Al-Maghreb al-Arabi refers to the entire Arab west – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara – but Morocco has no other name. It is al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the furthest west, the strangest.
The ancient Egyptians believed they spent the afterlife wandering ‘the Western Lands’. William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier, wrote a novel inspired by the notion. When I lived in Morocco, teaching English at the turn of the century, a Syrian woman of my acquaintance used to play on the word like this: la tustughreb, anta fil-maghreb or, Don’t be shocked, you’re in Morocco! On this return visit I heard the same phrase from the mouth of a Moroccan man in a train.
But shocked I was, a little bit, twelve years ago.
I’d been living in the mashreq, the Arab east, before I arrived, and (foolishly) I expected the maghreb to be similar. I found a much more liberal place, one much less subject to taboo. For instance, depending on class and region, a Moroccan girl with a boyfriend is not quite the social catastrophe it would be further east. Moroccan sleaze is not hidden away (which is perhaps, overall, a good thing). I once almost pushed my son in his pushchair past men engaged in a sexual act, not in a dark basement but among the trees at the side of a main road. Several times I walked past the same exhibitionist in central Rabat. There were police nearby but they ignored him. And I frequently saw ragged street children sniffing glue-soaked rags, more of a South American scene than an Arab one. (I didn’t see that on this recent trip). In addition to public taboos, Moroccans lack the softness and eloquence, the courtliness, of the eastern Arabs. But they also lack the airs and graces, the intense class resentments, the hypocrisies. You don’t feel everyone is judging everyone else as you can do in the east, at least not in the same way, not to the same extent.
Then there were the contradictions, or perhaps the diversity, better put, of language, ethnicity, culture and, most of all, class. Parts of the big cities were comparable to Europe in their lifestyles and aspirations. Some of my students went to French-language schools, spent their holidays in Europe, and spoke French at home. Meanwhile much of the countryside was consigned to illiteracy and grinding poverty. There was almost no modern infrastructure out there. The people didn’t speak French. Some didn’t speak Arabic either.
I return twelve years later to Rabat, once my home, a handsome capital surrounded by red walls and built in that distinctive architectural style which connects Andalusia to West Africa. Rabat’s ‘new city’ contains tree-lined boulevards, embassies and white villas, and the enormous Makhzen (royal court) compound. The madina al-qadima (old city) and kasbah (fortified settlement) are to the west. A necropolis lies west of the madina. Then comes the beach and its piers, the crab-crawling rocks, and the cold Atlantic. The madina is neither traditional nor modern: it’s contemporary, and Moroccan traditions are an integrated part of contemporary life. The glossy-artisanal rue des Consuls is designed to serve foreigners, in the past and the present, but it’s by no means an over-touristed souq. The flea market in the mellah (what used to be the Jewish quarter) deals in antiques, broken office machines, and books – classics and curiosities in Arabic, French and English.
My visit comes in Ramadan, whose rhythm has overtaken the madina. This means quiet mornings and bustling afternoons. As the maghreb prayer calls, the sunset is dispersed by light Atlantic cloud, then the streets empty and silence reigns while the fast is broken. A fat moon rises. An hour later boys are sitting on the steps of the kasbah beating drums and singing traditional songs, not for show but to amuse themselves. A couple break into dance as they walk past. More drums and picnics down on the beach. The mosques are full (of both men and women) for Ramadan taraweeh prayers, and the markets are crammed until two in the morning.
Terribly out of date (but it’s a snapshot of a moment so it doesn’t really matter), my 2011 essay on Egypt for Critical Muslim is now online. From today’s perspective March and April 2011 look like a golden age. Who would have predicted the wave of fascism currently overwashing the Sisi junta’s state?
Cairo felt different. Tahreer Square, of course, carried a new set of meanings. The traffic, the pollution, the Stalinist gloom of the Mugamma building – these had shrunk, and revolutionary grafitti, redignified national flags, and the endlessly various Egyptian people now dominated the eye. It didn’t feel the same either to walk over the Qasr el-Nil bridge, not after the glorious battle of January 28th. (I kept trying to work out where the police van was burnt.) And the streets were in fact cleaner, even that, in central Cairo at least. In ritual overcompensation for the years of filth, people had been observed during the revolution’s 18 days scrubbing the pavements with toothbrushes. A man in a café called Ali Jabr explained it to me: “The Egyptians used to hate their country just as they used to hate themselves. Anywhere you went in the world, the people thought the Egyptians were rubbish. And the Egyptians agreed. After the revolution we know we aren’t rubbish, so we pick our rubbish up from the streets.”
You know that something rare and powerful is occurring, something all-encompassing, not limited to a political or intellectual elite, when even a mobile nuts-and-seeds stall has ‘Social Justice’ stenciled on its side.
I visited in late March and early April. My plane to Cairo was a quarter full at best. The airport was almost empty.
The immigration guard peered long at me and asked if I was originally Iranian, prompting me to wonder if anything had changed at all. There were no pictures of Mubarak on the walls. That was a change.
Then the driver who took me into town. He addressed the revolution immediately. “Tell me congratulations!” he grinned. I did so. “We’ve finished with him!” he exulted. “We’re free!” Pictures of some of freedom’s martyrs swung from the rear-view mirror.
I asked who he wanted for president now.
“Whoever proposes the best programme. The personality isn’t important. The ideas are important, the policies. I’ll judge on that.”
Most of Egypt considered itself a potential winner, but the losers were visible too. There was the burnt-out frame of the National Democratic Party headquarters for a start, hulking over the river like a man shamed in the stocks. And the police, who I was told “are sulking.” Certainly fewer patrolled than when I had last been here, and those who did certainly seemed less sure in their swagger, as if they’d recognized themselves at last – poorly trained, underemployed, unloved.
The news on the cab radio as we drove from the airport: the Ministry of the Interior was burning, the fire blamed on police officers protesting outside for a pay rise and the prosecution of their corrupt commanders. But their undeclared demand was for respect. I saw a poster pasted anonymously to Nileside walls pleading for trust to be restored in the police “on the basis of mutual love, not insult… for there are many noble men in the police force.”
I was interviewed by ITV Border about my trip to the Turkish/Syrian border, where I was working with the Karam Foundation.
I’ve just returned from a brief visit to the Syrian/ Turkish border, to the Salaam School for refugee children in Reyhaniyeh on the Turkish side, where I was working with the Karam Foundation, and to Atmeh camp inside Syria, where almost 30,000 people are sheltering from the slaughter. Northern Syria is dotted with similar camps.
You can view pictures from the trip here.
Something that doesn’t come across in the pictures is how cold it is. Snow was lying on the ground in Atmeh the day before I arrived, and a child had frozen to death. I’ll be writing about my experiences and some of the stories of the people I met. In the meantime, here is the trip summed up by my Facebook status updates:
December 6th – the first stage of my trip to the turkish-syrian border involved being examined at edinburgh airport under schedule seven of the terrorism act (2000). To this the failed human beings of east and west have reduced the syrian people’s revolution.
drank tea and ate knafeh with the teachers of the Salaam School in Reyhaniyeh. very inspiring to see the organised hard work that’s gone into fitting new walls into a villa (and building an olive grove) to make a school which serves over a thousand refugee children. forget Assad, ISIS, and the Coalition – the future of Syria belongs to self-organised and committed Syrian women and men
December 7th – Assad forces backed by foreign Shia terrorists have executed dozens of civilians in Nabk. Watch the silence of the Western media, which seems to have no problem with terrorism and religious extremism when it seeks to preserve the status quo.
December 8th – there are the blue hills of syria, as ethereal as the future, so near and yet so far
December 9th – among the children’s chosen heroes in my storytelling workshop were Robin Hood, Batman, my brother the martyr, my father the martyr, and Sponge Bob. Among the problems to be solved were a dinosaur eating people, a car hitting a pedestrian, my house being shelled, and my cousin stuck in prison.
I wrote this review of Bente Scheller’s book for al-Jazeera.
Syrian poet Rasha Omran once told me that Bashaar al-Assad is “not a dictator, just a gangster boss.” But really he’s not even that. What he is, is what his father looked like in all those statues – one element in the managerial class, a (dysfunctional) functionary. Syria is a dictatorship which lacks an efficient dictator.
Hafez al-Assad – the father – was an entirely different matter. Born in a dirt-floor shack, he clawed his way to the top by brute cunning, deft flexibility, and strategic intelligence. The careful manipulation of sectarian tensions in order to divide and rule was one of his key strategies, yet he was also attentive to building alliances with rural Sunnis and the urban bourgeoisie – both constituencies now alienated by his son. Bashaar’s great innovation was supposedly economic reform. In practice this meant an unpleasant marriage of neoliberalism with crony capitalism. It succeeded in making his cousin Rami Makhlouf the richest man in the country. The poor, meanwhile, became much poorer, the social infrastructure crumbled, and unemployment continued to climb.
The thesis of former German diplomat Bente Scheller’s book “The Wisdom of the Waiting Game” is that the Syrian regime’s approach to its current existential crisis follows a “narrow path consistent with previous experience,” and she focuses on foreign policy to make this point. When the regime found itself isolated on Iraq after the 2003 invasion, for instance, or then on Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the Syrian army’s precipitous withdrawal, it waited, refusing to change its policy, until conditions changed, its opponents were humbled, and it was brought in from the cold. In his book “The Fall of the House of Assad”, David Lesch points out that Bashaar al-Assad felt personally vindicated by these perceived policy victories, and grew in arrogance as a result. Today, with the West handing the Syrian file over to Russia, and seemingly coming round to Bashaar’s argument that Islamism poses a greater threat than his genocidal dictatorship, it looks (for now at least) as if the refusal to budge is again paying off.
The most interesting parts of Scheller’s book are not actually dedicated to foreign policy, but describe – accurately and with balance – the causes of the revolution and the nature of the regime’s response. The most direct link she’s able to posit between domestic and foreign policy is that, in both, the regime’s only abiding interest has been self-preservation. In Scheller’s words, “regime survival … defines what is perceived as a security threat.” This chimes well with the shabeeha graffiti gracing Syrian walls – “Either Assad or we burn the country.” In regime priorities, Assad always stood far above the people, the economy, the infrastructure, and even the integrity of the national territory.
After provoking an armed uprising by his suppression of a non-violent protest movement (using rape, torture and murder on a mass scale), Syrian dictator Bashaar al-Assad lost control of large areas of the country. He then subjected those areas to a scorched earth policy, burning crops, killing livestock, shelling with artillery, dropping barrel bombs and cluster bombs from war planes, firing cruise missiles and sarin gas. Schools, hospitals and bakeries have been particularly targeted, alongside economic infrastructure. As a result a THIRD of Syrians, over seven million people, are now displaced. The Syrian winter is as cold as the Scottish winter, and this year millions of people will not be living in their homes but in half-demolished buildings, under trees, and in tents.
What’s the connection to the strange photograph of me? Well, I have shaved off my beard (the moustache and the central part of my monobrow will go on December 3rd). Such a traumatic assault on my facial hair, my very identity… Why? In the hope that you, dear readers, whatever your take on the conflict in Syria, will sponsor me, or in plainer terms, will donate some money. You can do so here. Every twenty dollars (or equivalent) buys blanket, coat and hat for a Syrian child. (If you remember, donate to Robin/ Wassim/ Team UK). I know the organisers of this charity and can vouch that they are absolutely honest, that every single penny will go to keeping a Syrian child warm this winter. Please do donate, and please share this page. We just have a few days to raise as much as we possibly can.
While I have your attention, please sign this petition to ask the British and French governments to boycott Rosoboronexport, imperialist Russia’s primary arms supplier to Assad’s genocide.
As the world celebrates the deal between the West and Iran, it should be remembered that Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme – and the sanctions which have so damaged Iran’s economy – were provoked by Israeli concerns, and that these are not existential but strategic. Iran doesn’t need a nuclear weapon but only the ability to enrich uranium to a level where it could quickly make a nuclear weapon. At that stage, the bullying power given Israel by its own nuclear arsenal vanishes. A sensible approach to the problem would have reduced Tehran’s nuclear ambition while disarming Israel. The West, of course, did not press for this, and Iran, despite its stale ‘resistance’ rhetoric, did not hold out for it.
In general, it’s good to see tension reduced between Iran and the West. The great shame is that while a deal is done over the nuclear programme, something that was never much of a threat, Iran has not been called to account for its pernicious intervention in Syria, a far greater threat to regional and international security. Iran’s intervention is on a far greater scale than any Saudi or Qatari interference. The Islamic Republic’s ‘revolutionary’ legitimacy is of course destroyed by its siding with a tyrant against a revolutionary people, and its Shia legitimacy will also be destroyed in the eyes of any thinking human being, for it has joined Yazeed in a war against a struggling Hussain. After Assad’s employment of sectarian death squads, ‘Shia’ Iran’s deployment of racist occupation forces to direct the tyrant’s fightback has been the single biggest factor amplifying the sectarian nature of the conflict. It has already dragged Lebanon back to the brink of civil war. Some argue that peacable relations between the US and Iran will defang Iran’s hardliners. That may happen eventually, but it will be far too late for usurped and shattered Syria.
I used to argue that the West and the Arabs should work with Iran. I used to repeat the line about Iran not having attacked another country in three centuries. (I made allowances for its pernicious role in keeping Iraq divided and sectarian; Iraq had after all attacked Iran in the past.) Unfortunately this is no longer true. The Arabs are now absolutely right to regard Iran as an aggressive, expansionist threat. This deal has by no means secured peace in the region.