Posts Tagged ‘Nir Rosen’
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.
The Syrian regime’s blanket ban on journalist access has some carefully selected exceptions. Robert Fisk, for instance, who seems to be compensating for the naive anti-Syrian and pro-March 14th line in his reporting of Lebanon over the last years by treating the statements of Syrian regime figures – professional liar Boutheina Shaaban is one – with great naivety. At least he didn’t apply the ‘glorious’ epithet to her which he used to describe Walid Jumblatt’s wife. Fisk’s book on Lebanon “Pity the Nation” is a classic, his account of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila remain fresh in the mind (the blood-footed flies clambering over his notebook), and for many years he was one of the very few English-language journalists with some real knowledge of the Middle East. Sadly, his knowledge doesn’t extend to a working familiarity with Arabic. In several recent articles he has informed us that that the slogan of the Ba‘ath Party – umma arabiya wahda zat risala khalida – means ‘the mother of the Arab nation.’ In fact it means ‘one Arab nation with an eternal message’. Fisk is confusing ‘um’ – mother – with ‘umma’ – nation. It’s a rather disastrous mistake. Someone ought to tell him about it.
Nir Rosen is an excellent journalist who clearly does speak Arabic and who makes the effort to talk to ordinary people rather than just politicians and PR people. His book “Aftermath” is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how the American occupation of Iraq catalysed an outbreak of Sunni-Shia sectarian hatred across the Arab world. His recent visit to Syria (see here and here and here and here) seems to have been both above and below regime radar. While he appears to have been smuggled in to certain locations he also interviews such regime figures as the state Mufti Hassoun – someone once known for his touchy-feely liberalism and his campaign against honour killing now making absurd threats about armies of pro-Asad suicide bombers lying low in Western countries. Unfortunately, Rosen sees Syria through the prism of Iraq’s sectarian war. He expects to find expressions of sectarian hatred, and he finds them aplenty. He can’t be blamed for making it up, because sectarian hatred certainly does exist in Syria, and because he honestly reports what people say to him. The danger of this method, however, is twofold. First, his selection of informants necessarily reinforces his bias. He does interview some pro-regime Sunni figures (like Hassoun) but chooses not to interview Alawi, Christian, Ismaili or secularist figures who support the revolution. He doesn’t consider such people to be representative of the revolution because he’s decided that the dynamic must be sectarian, even if the Ismaili town of Selemiyeh has been demonstrating for months and secularists like Suhair Atassi are very prominent in the revolution’s Coordination Committees. (Indeed, Burhan Ghalyoun, the head of the umbrella Syrian National Council, to which many demonstrations have proclaimed allegiance, is fiercely anti-clerical).