This was first published at NOW.
In the Arab world, the public declaration of religious disbelief is as taboo as the open profession of homosexuality. Publically-declared atheists and agnostics can wave goodbye to social respect, marriage prospects, even legal recognition. Yet a 2012 poll in Saudi Arabia – a state whose legal system equates atheism with terrorism, and which potentially applies the death penalty to apostates – found that 19% described themselves as ‘not religious’ and a further 5% as atheists.
In his new book “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East” (soon to be translated into Arabic as ‘Arab bala Rab’) journalist Brian Whitaker interviews activist and quietist unbelievers from around the region, and investigates the pressures ranged against them. Most usefully, the book provokes a question – how can a revived Arab secularism (freed from the taint of the so-called ‘secular’ dictatorships) provide a future in which the rights of religious majorities as well as unbelieving or sectarian minorities will be respected and strengthened?
Demands to believe and submit go far beyond religion. Whitaker quotes sociologist Haleem Barakat, who noted that, like God, the Arab head of state and the Arab family patriarch require absolute respect and unquestioning compliance. “They are the shepherds, and the people are the sheep.” (This is why ‘rab’ – which means ‘Lord’ rather than only the monotheist God – is as apt a translation as ‘Allah’ for the book’s Arabic title). So intellectual atheism is perceived as an attack on family and state, and on community solidarity. The contemporary politicisation of religious identity makes unbelief akin to treason in some minds; for this reason minority sects, dissenters and atheists are frequently seen as fifth columnists, agents weakening state and nation on behalf of foreign powers.
Identity politics in the region took on its modern forms with the building of centralised nation states. Nationalism itself was an assertion of a politicised cultural identity, first against the Ottomans, then against the European empires. For the new rulers of post-independence states, a fear of disloyal communities turned to a generalised rage for homogeneity – ‘the good citizen’, depending on where they found themselves, was to be an Arab, or a Muslim, (or a Turk, or a Jew) as imagined by the state. Many states standardised dress, dialect and worship.
This review appeared at the Guardian.
In “The Outsider”, Albert Camus’s iconic tale of alienation, ennui and ruthless honesty, the anti-hero Meursault murders an Arab on the beach at Algiers simply because the sun gets in his eyes. “The Meursault Investigation”, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud’s first novel, winner of the Goncourt prize and from now on an indispensable companion to Camus, is narrated by the brother of the murdered Arab.
In a frame reminiscent of Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, the tale is told in a bar in Oran, “a city with its legs spread open towards the sea,” and addressed one-sidedly to a Western literature student. The narrator intends to construct his own story by using “the murderer’s words and expressions” like the “stones from the old houses the colonists left behind.”
According to him, the dead Arab in Camus’s book was “a brief Arab, technically ephemeral”; nameless, he “had the name of an incident”. But now we learn his name – Musa, a Moses bearing a text on his back (“The Outsider” instead of the Ten Commandments). The narrator, his brother Harun (Aaron), pays homage to, critiques, summarises, analyses, refutes, echoes, quotes and competes with “The Outsider”, and other Camus texts too. In reference to “The Myth of Sisyphus” Harun speaks of “the absurdity of my condition, which consisted in pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled down, endlessly.”
All this of course wields symbolic power. Harun is an ur-Algerian reflecting on colonialism, the legacy of thousands of Meursaults and their callous indifference to Arab life. In that sense the novel contains a definite element of the empire speaking back. Yet the narrator rejects simplistic anti-colonial allegorising. “A few decades ago,” he says, “I would have served you up the version with the prostitute slash Algerian land and the settler who abuses her with repeated rapes and violence.” But Harun has since witnessed “the post-Independence enthusiasm consume itself and the illusions collapse.” The liberated capital looks like “an outdated actress left over from the days of revolutionary theatre” (the novel overbrims with such unsettling female images).
This review appeared in the Guardian.
Emma Sky’s “The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq” is an very useful, eminently sensible “tale of unintended consequences, both of President Bush’s efforts to impose democracy and of President Obama’s detachment.” A critical insider’s account, it undermines the too-easy assumptions of left as well as right, realists as well as neoconservatives, exposing the achievements and (more often) stupidities of both administrations.
In 2003 Sky was a British civilian opponent of the war who nevertheless volunteered, arrived into chaos, and found herself governing the province of Kirkuk. When Saddam was a Western ally, a quarter of a million Kurds and Turkmen had been cleansed from Kirkuk and tens of thousands of (mainly Shia) Arabs moved in. Assyrian Christians and Yazidis add to the mix. Oil-rich, Kirkuk’s incorporation into Kurdistan would make that national project economically viable. “No group recognised the grievances of the others,” writes Sky, referring too to “the American tribe” who at first she railed against, “so out of place, running around in uniforms which looked like pyjamas, with their name tags on their chests.”
Sky witnessed the gallop from regime change to state collapse in the first days of occupation. The Coalition Provisional Authority and the Governing Council together institutionalised sectarianism. “The emphasis had been on identifying communal representatives rather than bridging communal divides.” Unelected Iraqi elites set about seizing the spoils, excluding Sunnis and the Shia working-class Sadrist movement.
This review was published at the National.
“The Kindly Ones”, one of the 21st Century’s great novels, is an epic inquiry into the intersection of state power and human evil. Its narrator is supremely civilised but also – and somehow without contradiction – an SS officer engaged in industrial-scale murder. The novel is set in the battlefields and death camps of World War Two.
The author, Jonathan Littell, previously worked for humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim in various war zones including Chechnya, in whose fate he sees Syrian parallels. In 1996 Chechnya won de facto independence. Then collusion between Russian security services and Islamist extremists weakened Chechen nationalists, made the country too dangerous for journalists, and drained international support. This facilitated Russia’s 1999 reinvasion and the total destruction of the capital, Grozny. The Russian strategy is echoed today in what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius describes as the “objective complicity” between Assad and ISIS.
There are World War Two parallels too. Aleppo is the most bombed city since that conflict. Syria’s refugee crisis is the greatest since 1945. And the Assad regime, like Hitler’s, produces “thousands of naked bodies tortured and meticulously recorded by an obscenely precise administration.”
Perhaps these commonalities explain why Littell chose to bring his clear sight to bear on Syria’s war. He went in, for 17 days in January 2012, with renowned French photographer Mani. The experience led to a series of reports in Le Monde in February, and now to a book: “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising.”
Reporting from Syria has been cursed by journalists who embed with the regime’s army or fall prey to regime-planted conspiracy theories. Littell mentions an article penned by Georges Malbrunot for Le Figaro blaming the Free Army for journalist Gilles Jacquier’s death “on the basis of an anonymous source in Paris citing an anonymous source in Homs.” Similar blame-the-victims hoaxes were retailed by Assad’s useful idiots after the Houleh and Ghouta massacres.
This review was published at The National.
“A man,” wrote the poet Shelley, “to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another.” The novel, if well-achieved, is the form offering the greatest opportunity to experience the world through another’s eyes, to escape the self by shifting perspective; a novelist could perhaps be defined as a person able to see his home as freshly as a foreigner would, someone unable therefore to take anything for granted. This is Saud Alsanousi’s successful conceit in “The Bamboo Stalk” – a plea for tolerance and 2013 winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction – a text supposedly translated from Filipino to Arabic, now really (and wonderfully) translated to English by Jonathan Wright.
When he’s in Manila, our narrator is called José, and sometimes ‘the Arab’. In Kuwait, he’s called Isa, and sometimes ‘the Filipino’. José/Isa is the product of a brief marriage between a migrant housemaid and a Kuwaiti of good family. He looks Filipino but has his father’s voice. It’s to him that the title refers – “a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular … the stalk will grow new roots if replanted.”
So Alsanousi, with great wit and lightness of touch, portrays the inner dynamics of not one but two families, and of at least two cultures. Half the book takes place in the Philippines, a tropical and entirely credible setting, redolent of mangoes and diesel fumes. Amongst the vividly drawn characters are a roguish, broken grandfather and Isa’s mixed-race cousin Merla, who has good reason to resent both men and Europeans. She looks to an unconventional love for solace, as well as to the “purely Filipino religion” of Rizalism, a deification of independence hero José Rizal.
The review below was published at the Guardian. Unfortunately the heart of the review was cut from the published version. I’ll put it here first of all, because it shows that Patrick Cockburn actually makes stuff up in order to defend Assad and Iran and to slander the Syrian people. Here it is:
“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.
And now here’s the whole thing:
ISIS feeds first on state dysfunction, second on Sunni outrage. In Iraq – where its leadership is local – Sunni Arabs are a minority displaced from their privileged position by America’s invasion. Their revanchism is exacerbated by the sectarian oppression practised by the elected but Iranian-backed government. In Syria – where most ISIS leaders are foreign – Sunnis are an oppresssed majority, the prime targets of a counter-revolutionary tyranny headed by mafias but claiming and exploiting Alawi sectarian identity.
Under other names, ISIS first grew in Iraq as it would later in Syria, by exploiting resistance to occupation, American in one case, that of a delegitimised regime in the other. Drawing on research by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov as well as their own, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how Syria’s regime collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist extremists, facilitating the passage of bombers to Iraq who would do more to precipitate civil war than to shake off American occupation. This was a message to America to leave Syria alone.
Popular disgust and the US-backed Awakening movement eventually drove al-Qaida out of Sunni Iraq. The jihadists waited; their moment returned when peaceful Sunni protests were repressed by live fire in 2013. Heading a Baathist-Islamist coalition, ISIS then captured huge swathes of the country and set about its reign of terror.
Weiss and Hassan have produced a detailed and immensely readable book. Their informants include American military officials, American, Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence operatives, defected Syrian spies and diplomats, and – most fascinating of all – Syrians who work for ISIS (these are divided into such categories as politickers, pragmatists, opportunists and fence-sitters). They provide useful insights into ISIS governance – a combination of divide-and-rule, indoctrination and fear – and are well placed for the task. Hassan, an expert on tribal and jihadist dynamics, is from Syria’s east. Weiss reported from liberated al-Bab, outside Aleppo, before ISIS took it over.
Cockburn’s book, on the other hand, is more polemic than analysis. While Weiss and Hassan give a sense of the vital civil movements which coincide with jihadism and Assadism in Syria, Cockburn sees only an opposition which “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy”. He concedes the first revolutionaries wanted democracy, but still talks of “the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011”. The label doesn’t account for (to take a few examples) the widespread chant ‘The Syrian People are One’, or Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman leading protests in Sunni Homs, or Communist Christian George Sabra leading the Syrian National Council.
This review was published at the Guardian.
“Arab Jazz” – already the winner of the English PEN award – is a brilliant debut, both from Karim Miské and the very capable translator Sam Gordon.
The setting – “between the Lubavitch school complex, the Salafist prayer room and the evangelical church” in north east Paris, home turf of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers – couldn’t be more topical.
And Ahmed Taroudant, the novel’s main protagonist, is in some respects a typical French Arab – religiously non-observant, confused about his identity, haunted by the past, and now set up to take the blame for murder.
Immensely likeable despite his neuroses, Ahmed aims “to lose himself by devouring the whole world in a single, uninterrupted story written by others.” The metaphor fits fundamentalists perfectly, but in Ahmed’s case it’s more literal: he’s a crime fiction fanatic who tries to buffer himself from reality with a wall of books. He’s reading on his balcony when blood drips down from the corpse of his upstairs neighbour Laura, whose love he might have reciprocated had he been clear-headed enough to notice.
Ahmed, of course, wants to understand what’s happening. He’s the book’s third detective; the first two are Lieutenants Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot, an atheist Ashkenazi Jew from the neighbourhood and a Breton of Communist heritage; both, like Ahmad, are well versed in crime fiction, and both are “intellectual, cinephile types”. Karim Miské, the French-Mauritanian author, is a film-maker himself; his book is crammed with genre, literary and film references. One scene is set in ‘Chaim Potok high school’, for instance; the title alludes to James Ellroy’s novel “White Jazz”; and – as if the book were already a film – there’s a playlist of songs at the back.
The characters are strong and various, from the young, second-generation Muslim and Jewish north African immigrants – the girls generally better adjusted than the boys – through such predictable figures as a Turkish kebab-shop proprieter and a Portuguese concierge, to the more surprising – an Armenian anarchist, for instance, or a Hasidic Rastafarian who produces a messianically-sanctioned MDMA-variant called Godzwill.
There’s an implicit commentary here on the new phenomenon of gangster-Salafism: “craving the validation of others … they were frequently tempted to reverse the feeling of stigma, to brand themselves proudly with the very religion which brought them such relentless contempt.” But the implicit critique of religion itself – of “those who clog up their depths, their inner space, with the concrete of certainty” – extends to political and social certainties too. Everyone’s been damaged by their heritage; everyone’s vulnerable to inner darkness and the explanatory narcotic of grand narrative.
“Arab Jazz” is a genre novel in the same way that “Pulp Fiction” is a genre film – superceding the form even as it pays homage. It’s a trans-continental identity novel, dramatising the painful contradictions and fertile syntheses of contemporary multicultural life, focussing on racial discrimination in Morocco as well as Paris. And it’s certainly a well-achieved literary novel, detailed with colours, tastes and flavours, sustaining a light and energetic comic tone even when the material is unrelentingly grim.
The settings are particularly rich, as Miské journeys confidently from his prime location as far as Crown Heights, Brooklyn, or to New York’s Watchtower, global HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and back and forth in time.
The dialogue can be somewhat clumsy, occasionally rendering the plot machinery too visible and the characters too obviously functional. In general there’s a little too much telling rather than showing – in the improbably self-revealing monologues of the police’s interviewees, for example, or the perfectly overheard street sermonising. Perhaps, as a detective story, the novel suffers a glut of too-easily-flowing information. This may irritate some genre readers, but it should be forgiven. “Arab Jazz” should be read charitably as a pushing beyond realism rather than a failure to achieve it. There’s something theatrical in Miské’s world; it’s as if the detective-readers witness performances, or discover texts, instead of teasing out meaning from an inscrutable and intransigent reality. Miské is a writer enjoying himself, playing on his scales, improvising sometimes, his subplots and walk-on acts fed deftly into the whole. The monologues are instrumental solos; the rhythms are propulsive. Like jazz, it’s complicated, but sounds beautifully simple.