Archive for September 2009
Written five years ago, on the wonderful, appalling Bellow.
There are many reasons for loving Saul Bellow’s work, and some reasons not to. I was first directed to Bellow by a friend of mine who is Jewish, the English-speaking grandchild of Russian immigrants, and interested in his heritage. He therefore has one easy point of access to Bellow, whose protagonists are usually first or second generation Jewish immigrants, which I do not. My friend suggested I read “Ravelstein.” Because I trust his literary judgment, I dutifully struggled through. Not a lot happens in this slim volume, but a lot of details, a lot of memories, are accumulated around the eponymous professor, an opinionated neo-conservative flaunting his newly acquired wealth in Paris. There are many references to expensive brand names and other status symbols. Ravelstein receives updates on the 1991 Gulf War from a previous student who is now important at the Pentagon. (I later discovered that Ravelstein is a fictionalized Allen Bloom, one of Mrs Thatcher’s favourite thinkers, and his pentagon protégé is based on Paul Wolfowitz). None of this endeared the character to me. I get emotional about neo-conservatives. I spit when I hear Wolfowitz’s name. Although there is a great deal of irony – and serious comment on social mobility – in the treatment of these arriviste Jews (the transformation of the Turnbull and Asser clothing label into Kisser and Asser is only the most obvious of the gags), all the luxury in the novel irritated me.
Genre-specific readers be alerted: this is first draft fiction, not reportage – though its material is entirely factual. Twenty seven years ago today.
The Phalangists were already baying from east Beirut, howling revenge. Now Israel flew Haddad’s militia, la crème de la crème, up from the south. Both groups assembled at the airport, for General Sharon to ensure all were properly kitted out: with weapons, military rations, medical supplies; Israeli cocaine and Lebanese hashish; Mediterranean testosterone, bad breath.
Then he uncaged them.
At six on Thursday evening. In the first penetration, three hundred and twenty men were brought on thirty trucks. Four gangs invading from four approaches. These were the most blood-addicted, rape-happy, battle-addled of militiamen, men long ago surfeited on outrage, men who required ever more extreme atrocities to stir their glutted senses. Ever wilder, ever sharper.
Israel lit the sky for them. White phosphorus flares trailing and dancing. Fire above like a terrible sun in the ceiling, a sun switched on in anger, while the children are sleeping.
Syrian writer Muhammad al-Maghut was born the son of a peasant farmer in the dusty town of Salamiyah in 1934, during the French occupation. As a young man he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the second biggest mass party in Syria after the Ba’ath. Like the Ba’ath, the secular SSNP appealed to religious minorities – al-Maghut was of Ismaili origin. Unlike the pan-Arabists of the Ba’ath, it envisaged a fertile crescent state including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and even Cyprus. Al-Maghut was locked up on several occasions for SSNP membership. During his first imprisonment – in Mezzeh prison in 1955 – he met the influential poet Adonis and started writing poetry himself.
As a poet he deserves to be much more widely known. Along with Adonis and Nizar Qabbani he was a modernist, using free verse instead of the traditional Arabic forms. Like Qabbani he aimed to be accessible to the ordinary people, but his ‘lover narrator’ is perhaps better suited to our twisted times than Qabbani’s. Certain verses sum up the decadent atmosphere very well indeed. The following remind me of those Gulf Arabs and others who profit from the prostitution of refugee women from occupied Iraq:
Lebanon is burning – it leaps, like a wounded horse, at the edge of the desert/ and I am looking for a fat girl/ to rub myself against on the tram/ for a Beduin-looking man to knock down somewhere. My country is on the verge of collapse/ shivering like a naked lioness/ and I am looking for two green eyes/ and a quaint café by the sea/ looking for a desperate village girl to deceive.”
On a couple of occasions – that I know of – I’ve had my irises scanned. These in the airports where I get pulled over for the stupid questions. In theory, a computer link can now tie my iris to my bank account, credit rating, police record, driving license and passport details – all in the sharpest microsecond.
The town centre has been replaced by a shopping mall, owned and controlled. People take more interest in Angelina Jolie’s romantic life than in the course of political events. The politics on show are soap opera, and the soap opera is determined a ‘British value’. According to the new points system for migrants, access to Britishness can be speeded up by campaigning for a political party (I presume they don’t mean Hizb ut-Tahrir), while ‘active disregard for British values’ – which might or might not mean protesting against imperialist wars – will retard membership of the club.
The great Englishman Dr. Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” And on that sound note allow me to introduce a short story by the Syrian writer Ibrahim Alloush, translated by Domenyk Eades.
On Sunday, PULSE’s good friend Phil Weiss posted a sympathetic piece by Scott McConnell, editor of The American Conservative, on Christopher Caldwell’s new book about Islam in Europe. Here is the response by PULSE editors Muhammad Idrees Ahmad and Robin Yassin-Kassab which was published on MondoWeiss today:
There are two sets of population statistics about Europe, writes Eliot Weinberger in a post on the London Review Blog: ‘those of the Islamophobes and those of everyone else.’ Weinberger is commenting on the recent of flurry of books trading in the ‘Islamic threat’, among them one by neoconservative writer Christopher Caldwell. In his encomium to Caldwell, Scott McConnell couldn’t possibly have been referring to the statistics of ‘everyone else’. It would be hard otherwise to elevate a minority of 3.6 percent into a civilizational threat. So presumably he accepts the numbers of the Islamophobes. But he does more; he also echoes their assumptions. Small wonder then that he should consider ‘nuanced’ a book that describes Muslims as ‘conquering Europe’s cities, street by street’.
But before we get to Caldwell lets address McConnell’s own assumptions.
McConnell splits ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslims’ into opposing camps, and understands their relationship only in terms of harm. ‘Had I to weigh the extent to which the Islamic world is more victim or victimizer of America and the West’, he opines, ‘the scales would tilt decisively towards America as the more guilty party’. American crimes include the Iraq war and support for Israeli conquest of ‘the Arab sections’ of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Support for dictators, the proponderance of military bases, the exploitation of resources, Somalia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and support for the Israeli conquest of the ‘Arab sections’ of Tel Abib and Yaffa, clearly do not factor in McConnell’s narrow vision. But it’s fair enough in itself. Where logic fails McConnell entirely, or rather where he fails logic and turns to racism instead, is where he places Muslim immigration into Europe ‘on the other side of the ledger’.