Archive for July 2012
This review was first published at the Guardian.
“Surely” – a desperate character muses on his way to court – “there were a thousand other men like him who’d made mistakes enough to ruin their lives, their careers and their families, and yet surely those men had carried on, as had their families. There was room for everything in this vast, disordered place.”
The place is Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, depicted by celebrated crime writer Zoe Ferraris with sympathy and realism, and in all its complexity: through its text messages and mobiles, SUVs and shopping malls, its exorcist surgeries and women-only banks, plus the “forced meditation” of compulsory prayer. And the harsh worlds inhabited by immigrant workers. Migrant workers, female and male, constitute perhaps a third of the Saudi population, and they give this novel – Kingdom of Strangers – its title.
To start with, nineteen bodies are found in the desert. The carefully mutilated victims are immigrant women, Asians, and their corpes are arranged to convey a hidden message.
Enter Chief Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani, whose repertoire includes policeman’s intuition and Beduin trackers as well as forensic analysts and an American expert on serial killers.
Ibrahim is a liberal in his context, a rationalist, but he’s not squeamish, in his moments of pain, about applying violence to the deserving. His quiet suffering and basic decency would make him a figure of genuine tragedy if the plot didn’t rather unconvincingly spirit him out of danger at the close.
This was first published by London’s Evening Standard (second story on the page).
In important ways, the regime has been collapsing for a couple of months. The Free Syrian Army – hundreds of militias made up of defected soldiers and volunteers – has liberated rural territory in the north and centre of Syria and controls sections of Homs and other cities. A steady stream of defections, including such prominent figures as General Manaf Tlass, has swollen the opposition.
Significantly, the regime has lost its support base in Damascus and Aleppo, where the arrival of refugees from other cities, terrible economic conditions and news of the Houleh massacre have provoked a wave of strikes and demonstrations.
Battles have raged in the suburbs. Now Operation Damascus Volcano has entered the capital. It’s an impressive show of coordinated popular and armed resistance, met by helicopter gunships, artillery fire and roving bands of thugs. The escalation renders the deadlocked international management of the crisis entirely irrelevant.
One of my infantile leftist ex-friends recently referred to the Free Syrian Army as a ‘sectarian gang’. The phrase may well come from Asa’ad Abu Khalil, who seems to have a depressingly large audience, but it could come from any of a large number of blanket thinkers in the ranks of the Western left. I admit that I sometimes indulged in such blanket thinking in the past. For instance, I used to refer to Qatar and Saudi Arabia as ‘US client states’, as if this was all to be said about them. I did so in angry response to the mainstream Western media which referred to pro-Western Arab tyrannies as ‘moderate’; but of course Qatar and Saudi Arabia have their own, competing agendas, and do not always behave as the Americans want them to. This is more true now, in a multipolar world and in the midst of a crippling economic crisis in the West, than it was ten years ago. Chinese workers undertaking oil and engineering projects in the Gulf are one visible sign of this shifting order.
(My talk of ‘infantile leftists’ does not include the entire left of course. Simon Assaf of the Socialist Workers, for instance, understands what’s happening. So does Max Blumenthal. And many others.)
The problem with blanket thinkers is that they are unable to adapt to a rapidly shifting reality. Instead of evidence, principles and analytical tools, they are armed only with ideological blinkers. Many of the current crop became politicised by Palestine and the invasion of Iraq, two cases in which the imperialist baddy is very obviously American. As a result, they read every other situation through the US-imperialist lens.
I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the third.
At this year’s Karachi Lit Fest, Hanif Qureishi asserted that the purpose of such festivals was “to give writers a social life.” I concur wholeheartedly, but still I admit I was a little scared to go to Beirut and socialise there. This is because several Syrians had advised me to avoid speaking about the revolution while in the city, and to watch my back in areas controlled by Syrian regime allies. “They know who you are,” they muttered darkly.
But I was fine. At no point did I feel under any threat. I presume the warnings tell us more about the fear so successfully planted in Syrian hearts than they do about the capacity of the flailing regime to hunt down obscure writers. True, one Syrian slit another Syrian’s throat outside the Yunes Cafe just a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel one night. Reports varied as to whether the killing was personally or politically motivated. And true, writer Khaled Khalifa’s arm was still in a sling after being broken by regime goons during the funeral of murdered musician Rabee Ghazzy back in May. Khaled, whose most famous novel ‘In Praise of Hatred’ is about to be published in English by Doubleday (I’m writing the introduction), is a warm and gentle man who smiles irrepressibly despite it all. He spoke fearlessly during his event at the Hay Festival. He’ll be back in Syria now. In Beirut I asked him why he didn’t stay outside, in safety. He said he can’t, he becomes scared for his friends and family when he’s outside.
I spent one inspiring evening with a group of Syrian revolutionaries, supporters of the Free Syrian Army who confound the stereotypes propounded by the regime and picked up on by certain infantile leftists. Far from being Salafists and tools of imperialism, these were secular men and women (one of Christian background) sharing a flat and ideas, drinking whiskey and mate, reflecting on the surging movement of the recent past and checking internet updates on the immediate present. They were well-informed, intelligent, and nuanced in their thinking (at one point we discussed the nature of evil and the complex question of individual culpability). They had seen nasty things, yet talking to them made me surprisingly buoyant. They believed they were winning their fight.
I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the second.
When a Scottish-based writer, an escapee from the perma-gloom, visits Beirut for a mere four days, he must prioritise his activities very carefully. As previously stated, I aimed first of all to immerse myself in the sea.
A small group of us hailed a cab to take us southwards down the coast to Jiyeh, where a beach had been recommended. Jiyeh wasn’t very far – we could still see Beirut jutting into the sea behind us – but it was still a good third of the way to the South and the troublesome border with Israel-Palestine.
Lebanon is a small, closely-packed country chopped again into still-smaller zones. Our driver (he was called Abdullah) inched us through the snarled traffic of central Beirut and past Tariq Jdaideh, a Sunni area loyal to the Hariri family, whose posters were prominent. Then along the edge of the Shi‘i southern suburb which was hit so brutally by Israel’s assault in 2006. Here Hizbullah controls one side of the road, with its pictures of Nasrallah and the late Ayatullah Fadlullah; the Amal movement rules over the other, shabbier side, where the pictures feature Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament. As the building density eased, banana plantations alternated with churches and seaside resorts. We sped up past Khalde, which had housed an illegal Druze port during the civil war fragmentation, and then Ouzai, which had housed an illegal Amal movement port. Inland, the Shouf mountains rose, the Druze heartland where the Junblatt family predominates. In this country, it seemed, everyone fitted into their specific box.
I’ve just come back from the Hay Literature Festival in Beirut. Literature Across Frontiers asked me to write three posts on the experience. Here’s the first.
On the plane from Heathrow I sat next to an Armenian lady. She was born in Aleppo, Syria’s most cosmopolitan city, has lived in New Jersey for years, and is visiting Lebanon for a week, for her nephew’s wedding. I asked why she wasn’t staying longer; it’s such a long flight from the states after all. “Why not?” she replied. “Relatives and politics: these are two reasons not to stay long in the Middle East.”
Politics, which tends to suck in relatives, especially if you’re Armenian, or Palestinian, or any variety of Lebanese. We talked about her grandmother’s sister, a victim of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Turkey, when somewhere between half and one and a half million people were murdered, either by massacre or by forced marches into the heat of the Syrian desert. Armenians call it ‘the Great Crime’.
The grandmother’s sister, a very little girl at the time, survived the march, but was separated from her family. She ended up outside Mosul, in northern Iraq, where she married a Beduin (“a man in a tent,” the Armenian lady said). She forgot her language but remembered her name and her Armenian identity. Whenever he went to town, her husband asked people to let him know if any Armenian turned up. Many years passed, and eventually an Armenian did turn up, and was directed to the tent. So the lost child was at last put in touch with the remnants of her family, and came to spend a month with them in Beirut. Then she returned to the tent and her Beduin life. She didn’t fit in the city.