Archive for November 2006
John Updike, upon whom I would bestow grand titles such as, possibly, Greatest Living Writer in English (now that Bellow is dead), has written a topical novel called ‘Terrorist.’ The terrorist of the title is eighteen-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Molloy, the confused and bitter American son of an Irish-American mother and absent Egyptian father.
Ahmad starts the novel as a schoolboy, and then is guided by a malign imam to give up his studies to become a truck driver (ignoring the more wholesome advice of guidance counsellor Jack Levy, a worldly, unbelieving Jew). Before long Ahmad drives his truck into a terrorist plot.
Updike, in his usual present tense, observes acutely and describes intensely. His beautifully rhythmed prose balances psychological analysis and social comment, the internal and the external. His digressions are eloquent and well-placed. Updike criticises in passing the black and white solutions of fundamentalist Christianity and the Black Muslims as well as al-Qa’ida style Islam, and diagnoses as the cause of these fundamentalisms the loss of direction and hollowness of a hedonist, consumerist society. Although Updike doesn’t speak directly. We find his position in the midpoint between his ironising distance from and sympathy for the perspectives of the characters through whom the narrative is focalised. His easy shifts between these perspectives is done professionally. There is a professional’s handling of detail too. For instance, Ahmad feels his beloved Excellency truck is a part of him, and responds badly to the ugly truck he will drive on the day of the ‘operation.’ It looks, like him, dispensable.
Now here’s a tricky one. When Rafiq Hariri, the erstwhile ally of Syria but latterly a quiet but effective opponent, was assassinated by a huge car bombing in central Beirut on Valentine’s Day 2005, I was convinced that Syria was not the guilty party. I knew the regime could be brutal and stupid, but I didn’t think it could be quite that stupid. As expected, the assassination of Lebanon’s best-connected multimillionaire (and the man who, as prime minister, had rebuilt Beirut after the civil war and 1982 Israeli invasion) led to massive anti-Syrian protests in Beirut and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.
There were also massive pro-Syrian demonstrations, called by Hizbullah, which were not covered in nearly as much loving detail by the Western media. But in any case, it was a good thing that Syria pulled out. Although the Syrian presence had been one of the factors preventing an Israeli-Phalangist takeover of Lebanon, and although Syria had contributed to ending the civil war and reconciling Lebanon’s warring factions, its clumsy militarism, corruption and police state interference naturally alienated many Lebanese, probably the majority. What was so damaging to both Syria and Lebanon was not that the withdrawal happened but that it happened like this, like a particularly bad-tempered divorce.
Update: I wrote this in 2006. If I wrote it today I would do it a little differently. Specifically, I would point out that contemporary science has shown us that the direct descendants of the ancient Israelites are the Palestinians, not the Ashkenazi or Berber Jews who have colonised Palestine in recent years. Shlomo Sand’s excellent book The Invention of the Jewish People, reviewed here, summarises the science and undercuts the blood-and-soil aspects of Zionism which are so important to Christian Zionists and their ultimately anti-Semitic agenda.
I have recently been discussing Middle East issues with an American colleague who I would describe as a Christian Zionist. Although I like him personally I find some of his ideas (on Palestinian history, and Lebanon, and the wider Middle East) pretty offensive, and I have told him so. So as not to start an argument, I told him so in writing. He replied, saying that although he disapproves of collective punishment of the Palestinians he believes that the Bible clearly states that the Holy Land belongs to the Jews, and that the rebuilding of Israel prophesied in the Old Testament has happened since 1948. Hmm. My first response is anger. I understand Jews with memories of European anti-Semitism being attracted to Zionism, however wrong I think they are, but Americans? People who are not oppressed, who think Palestine is a Cecil B Demille set, who think real human beings (Arabs) are less important than their own narrow interpretations of scripture. Who think that ethnic cleansing, massacres, and apartheid are supported by God. It makes my blood boil. But I think responding intelligently to this kind of thing is important, because there are millions of Americans (with power) who see the Middle East through a Biblical prism. Anyway, here is my latest letter:
News is coming in that Israeli shells have killed 19 Palestinian civilians, most of them children, as they slept this morning, Wednesday 8th November. This follows a week-long attack on the Gaza town of Beit Hanun in which 60 Palestinians were killed. Many of those were civilians too, but most were young men carrying guns. I must say that I don’t consider young men fighting to liberate their land as equal to occupation troops, who seem to me to be fair military targets. All Beit Hanun men aged between 16 and 45 have been rounded up and taken off to join the Israeli gulag. There are already nearly 10,000 Palestinian prisoners (or hostages – that’s what the Western media would call them if they were Israelis) in Israeli jails.
This week a 700-year-old mosque was destroyed in Beit Hanun. Destruction of Palestinian heritage, of the environment, of sewage and irrigation systems, and of residential buildings, continues unabated. None of this is new to Gaza. Most of the population are refugees from the lands stolen in 1948, from the villages of central Palestine that were ethnically cleansed and bulldozed then. The Gazan refugee camps have witnessed sporadic massacres ever since.
I’ve recently read “Cleopatra’s Wedding Present” by Robert Tewdwr Moss, a well-written account of travels through Syria in the late 1990s. Moss is an evocative and sensuous writer. His sense of place and time is highly accurate: I immediately recognised the streets he described, and wanted to tell him how things have changed. (But it’s impossible to tell Moss anything now. He was stabbed to death by a rent boy in London shortly after finishing this book).
The strength of characterisation – of Syrians and foreign tourists – in the book suggests that Moss would have made a great satirical novelist. There are also strong set pieces on some of the archeological highlights of Syria, such as Queen Zenobia’s desert city of Palmyra, Saladin’s castle in the green Lattakian mountains, and the ‘dead cities’ around Aleppo – Byzantine settlements which were suddenly and mysteriously vacated, leaving mosaics, churches and olive presses for archeologists to puzzle over.