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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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The Arab of the Future

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This was my review for the Guardian of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir.araboffuture

The graphic novel has proved itself over and over. It already has its classical canon: Spiegelman on the Holocaust, Satrapi on girlhood in Islamist Iran, and (perhaps most accomplished of all) Joe Sacco’s ‘Footnotes in Gaza’, a work of detailed and self-reflexive history. Edging towards this company comes Riad Sattouf’s ‘The Arab of the Future’, a childhood memoir of tyranny.

Little Riad’s mother, Clementine, is French. His father, Abdul-Razak, is Syrian. They meet at the Sorbonne, where Abdul-Razak is studying a doctorate in history. Those with Arab fathers will recognise the prestige value of the title ‘doctoor’. But Abdul-Razak is more ambitious. He really wants to be a president. Studying abroad at least allows him to avoid military service. “I want to give orders, not take them,” he says. When humiliated, he sniffs and rubs his nose.

Abdul-Razak is a pan-Arabist who believes the people (“stupid filthy Arab retards!”) must be educated out of religious dogma. For reasons of both vanity and ideology he turns down an Oxford teaching post for one in Libya. The family takes up residence in a flat which doesn’t have a lock, because Qaddafi has ‘abolished private property’. Little Riad sees Libya all yellow, its unfinished buildings already crumbling. He sings the Leader’s speeches with kids in the stairwell and queues with his mother for food (only eggs one week, just bananas the next).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 3, 2016 at 8:35 pm

From Deep State to Islamic State

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deep1An edited version of this piece was published at Newsweek Middle East edition.

In 2011, according to the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, “living in a democracy” was the most important desire for 92% of respondents. A mere four years later, however, 39% of Arab youths believed democracy would never work in the Arab world, and perceived ISIS, not dictatorship, as their most pressing problem.

Powerful states seem to share the perception, bombing ISIS as a short-term gestural response to terrorism, re-embracing ‘security states’ in the name of realism – concentrating on symptoms rather than causes.

How did the bright revolutionary discourse of 2011 turn so fast to a fearful whisper? Jean-Pierre Filiu’s “From Deep State to Islamic State” – a passionate, sometimes polemical, and very timely book – examines “the repressive dynamics designed to crush any hope of democratic change, through the association of any revolutionary experience with the worst collective nightmare.”

For historical analogy, Filiu evokes the Mamluks, Egypt’s pre-Ottoman ruling caste. Descended from slaves, these warriors lived in their own fortified enclaves, and considered the lands and people under their control as personal property. Filiu sees a modern parallel in the neo-colonial elites – militarised elements of the lower and rural classes – who hijacked independence in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria (and, in different ways, in Libya, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 23, 2015 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Syria

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The Dictator’s Last Night

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gaddafiAn edited version of this review appeared in the Guardian.

Colonel Gaddafi – “the Brotherly Guide, the miracle boy who became the infallible visionary” – possessed a character so colourful it begged entry into fiction. Yasmina Khadra – pseudonym for Algerian ex-military man and bestselling writer Mohammed Moulessehoul – obliges here in “The Dictator’s Last Night”, a title to be fitted alongside such great dictator novels as Marquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch” or Vargas Llosa’s “The Feast of the Goat” (the latter set in the last hours of the Dominican strongman Trujillo). Although Khadra matches neither the epic scale nor the experimental virtuosity of those two, his writing here is compulsive, funny, powerfully emotional, and often sinuously intelligent.

For his last night, the “untameable jealous tiger that urinates on international conventions to mark his territory” is confined to a disused school in Sirte, the sky aflame with NATO bombs and rebel bullets, his generals either fleeing or collapsing from exhaustion.

Like Hitler in the bunker he rails against his people’s betrayal – “Libya owes me everything!” – against the West which so recently feted him and, with no irony at all, against his fellow Arab autocrats, those “pleasure-seeking gluttons.”

Khadra’s imagining of him is probably pretty accurate: bullying, mercurial, grandiose, containing an egomaniac’s contradictions – self-obsessed but craving approval, ruthless but oversensitive. It’s “my full moon, nobody else’s,” he declares, and “Everything I did worked.”

Gaddafi remembers his poor Beduin beginnings, fatherless and disturbed, and his struggles against “the barriers of prejudice”. He was spurned when, as a young officer, he proposed marriage to a social superior. The reader sympathises with the humiliation – until shown the nature of the dictator’s later response. Gaddafi’s voice careers from sentimentality to brutality and back, and at first the reader’s heart follows.

To read is to switch between extremes, for Gaddafi is “One day the predator, the next the prey,” and because that’s the way his mind works anyway. His massacres and sordid revenge dramas are interweaved with his romanticism, by the poetry of desert life. His belief in himself as “mythology made flesh” alternates with a fatalism in which he merely plays a role written by a forgetful God.

After his nightly heroin injection, Gaddafi remembers “the women I have graced with my manhood”. He evokes the “sublime illness called love” even as he recounts his rapes, his conquests “inert at my feet”. The writer chooses (perhaps judiciously) not to make too much of this aspect of the dictator’s personality. The facts recounted in Annick Cojean’s book “Gaddafi’s Harem” are far more lurid than Khadra is here.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 17, 2015 at 10:04 am

Posted in book review, Libya

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Qaddafi’s Harem

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qaddafi-2This review of Annick Cojean’s book was published at NOW.

*

Today is the beginning of the end of the era of harems and slaves and the beginning of women’s liberation within the Arab nation.” Muammar Qaddafi. September 1981.

The Arab world is still crammed full of tyrannies self-labelling with terms such as ‘popular’ and ‘democratic’, sectarian regimes pretending to be secular, reactionary regimes describing themselves as progressive, and ‘resistance’ regimes which resist nothing but their subjects’ life and freedom.

The current post-revolutionary chaos in Libya provokes two orientalist responses: the crude (statist-leftist) version, that the uprising was a foreign conspiracy; and the subtler (because it’s never quite made explicit), that the Libyans made a terrible mistake by rising, because their fractious ‘tribal’ society can only be held together by a strong man of Qaddafi’s calibre. After him, goes the implicit argument, the inevitable deluge.

“Gaddafi’s Harem” by French journalist Annick Cojean provides a fact-based corrective to those fooled by Qaddafi’s illusions, specifically those impressed by the radical feminist image evoked by his once highly visible – and sexily transgressive – corps of ‘Amazon’ body guards. It will change the minds too of those who saw the dictator from a distance as a lovable buffoon.

His regime was capricious, yes, at times even darkly comedic, but it was based on undiluted sadism. The cramping stagnation it imposed for 42 years, and the fact that it refused to budge except by force of arms, are the prime causes of today’s anarchy. The means of domination it employed – psycho-social as much as physical – tell us a great deal about the universal megalomaniac personality, as well as certain cultural weaknesses in the Arab world and beyond.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 9, 2013 at 11:49 am

Blanket Thinkers

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Yarmouk camp demonstrates

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.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Libya, Syria

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After 42 Years

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The great Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa reads ‘After 42 Years’ – his reflection on the fall of the tyrant.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 30, 2011 at 5:46 pm

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Benghazi: The Uprising

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Some very silly ‘information sheets’ have been doing the rounds on Facebook  and elsewhere. They purport to show how wonderful Libya was under dictatorship, how generous Qaddafi was in building a limited welfare state. The people who produce such propaganda are infantile leftists (that wonderfully apt phrase was first used by Lenin) – that’s why they don’t produce similar propaganda on behalf of the royal dictators in the Gulf, although the Gulf dictatorships have also built welfare states, much better ones, in fact, than Qaddafi’s. Libya is a vast lake of high quality oil. Libyans should be as rich as Emiratis or Kuwaitis. The reality is that much of Libya is poor, and that if a Libyan needed a major operation he had to travel to Tunisia, a much poorer country. And the oil wealth is a gift of God or nature, not of Qaddafi. The only thing Qaddafi gifted to the Libyan people was death.

It’s wise to be suspicious of Britain, France and Qatar and to resist the ‘humanitarian intervention’ propaganda. Every state acts according to perceived interests, not according to moral principles. But there’s nothing wise or intelligent in opposing a revolution and insulting a revolutionary people because they choose to accept help from outside rather than die. The more repulsive armchair revolutionaries (almost all of them Western) are calling the heroic Libyan people ‘quislings’ and ‘traitors’ and imagining an alternative reality in which the revolution was begun by Western agents provocateurs. The film below is a timely reminder of how the revolution started in Benghazi – with the blood of martyrs. (I wish the Iran regime-controlled Press TV was also capable of broadcasting sensible documentaries on Syria).

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 30, 2011 at 5:32 pm

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Blind Orthodoxies

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It’s always dangerous to declare generalised love for a movement or school of thought – including Sufism, because Sufism can be subdivided into spirit and tradition, into various orders and popular customs, into the sober and the drunk, the vocal and the silent, the revolutionary and the tame. Still, I’ll say I love it for its symbolic, illogical, individualist challenge to literalism and the obsession with rules, and because it smiles, and for its openness and tolerance, and its music and poetry; because, as Adonis says: “Sufism has laid the foundations for a form of writing that is based upon subjective experience in a culture that is generally based on established religious knowledge.”

My own Islam is closer to deep agnosticism than to literal belief; it’s more spiritual (when I manage it) than religious. As time goes by and political events unfurl I have less and less sympathy for rigidly exclusive forms of Islam, whether modernist or traditional, less sympathy for certainty, and more and more dislike for current Islamic political movements, which are state-obsessed, and divisive, and which seek to reinforce the stultifying, censorial aspects of Muslim cultures. So I happily defend those who shake and shout and dance as they pray, or who remember the names in silence alone, and I defend them more fiercely every time the orthodox tell me I shouldn’t.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 19, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Islam, Libya

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Libyans: Passive Tools?

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Reuters

Somebody said to me recently, “The Libyans will soon be doing business with Israel, whether they like it or not.” Here we go again: the assumption that the Libyans have no agency of their own, even after they’ve so dramatically taken the initiative to change the course of their own history. Yes, Libyans took help from NATO, Qatar, and the UAE when they found themselves with no other option. This doesn’t mean they are fated to be slaves of the West. Even Iraq doesn’t do business with Israel, and Iraq has suffered a full-scale US occupation.

Such easy assumptions about the Libyan people arise from racism, usually of the unconscious, ‘well-meaning’ variety. This racism consists, first, of indifference to the people’s plight under Qaddafi, or outright denial of their plight. The rose-tinted view of life under the dictator is reminiscent of the Zionists who assure us that Gaza has swimming pools and shopping malls and that Palestinian Israelis live better than any other Arabs. The rush to highlight the crimes of the revolutionaries (sometimes relying on Qaddafi regime propaganda) is accompanied by silence over the far greater crimes of the quasi-fascist tyranny.

Libyans (and, to a degree, Syrians) are seen as passive tools in the hands of the devilishly clever White man, as childlike people who don’t know their own best interests, as people best advised to shut up and enjoy being tortured for the sake of the greater ‘anti-imperialist’ good. The right of the Libyans to life and freedom, and to make their own decisions, becomes less important than the right of certain people to feel self-righteous.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 30, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Posted in Libya, racism

Victory in Tripoli

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After six months of struggle, the Libyan revolution has arrived (again) in Tripoli. There may still be a trick or two up the megalomaniac’s sleeve, but the news coming in at the moment suggests a precipitous collapse. Saif-ul-Islam al-Qaddafi has been arrested. The tyrant’s daughter Aisha’s house is under the revolutionaries’ control, as is the military base of the formerly feared Khamis Brigade. The brigade in charge of protecting Qaddafi himself has surrendered. (The foreign supporters of Qaddafi and his supposedly ‘loyal’ subjects must be feeling rather silly now). Inhabitants of Tripoli’s neighbourhoods are pouring into their streets to greet the revolutionary forces.

Much of the credit for this victory must go to the revolutionaries of Misrata and the Jebel Nafusa. While the Transitional Council in Benghazi was busy fighting itself, the people of Misrata fought their way out of Qaddafi’s siege and then liberated Zlitan. The fighters of the Jebel Nafusa broke the siege around their mountains and then liberated Zawiya – which has suffered so much – and moved towards the capital. Last night revolutionaries in Tripoli, who have been launching small-scale operations nightly for months, rose in Fashloom, Souq al-Juma’a and other areas. Today they were met by their comrades arriving from the west and east.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Posted in Libya

Blankets, Dazzlement, Slander

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This was published at Ceasefire Magazine.

The anti-imperialist left, in the West at least, is painfully divided over the NATO-led intervention in Libya. On the one hand, such commentators as Paul Woodward, Gilbert Achcar, Phil Weiss, and me, believe the intervention is the least worst option, that there was no better alternative. On the other hand, John Pilger, Mahmoud Mamdani and many others, are wary of a new Iraq and oppose Western intervention on blanket principle.

Both positions are legitimate. Although I disagree in this case, I’m very pleased that the general gut response – if we must work by gut responses – is against intervention. But unfortunately a number of lesser figures, emotional oppositionists of the sort who qualmlessly rearrange reality to fit their personal agendas, have wilfully ignored facts on the Libyan ground, and even stooped so low as to slander the revolutionary Libyan people.

Some say NATO is interfering in a civil war, that Libya is split between east and west, that Tripoli stands firm with Qaddafi. These people fail to understand the overwhelming unpopularity of Qaddafi’s capricious regime. In the first days of the revolution, the regime lost control of most areas in the west as well as the east, including suburbs of Tripoli. Protestors marching on Green Square (or Martyrs Square) were driven back by machine gun and artillery fire. Qaddafi is currently keeping the capital quiet by mass arrests, rooftop snipers, and roving jeeps of weapon-wielding thugs.

Some people describe the free Libyans are mere ‘so-called’ rebels. If they were real freedom-fighters, these people argue, they’d be able to take over the country without foreign help. Their acceptance of intervention proves them to be CIA stooges, agents of imperialism, traitors.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Posted in Libya

Who Will Survive in the End

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By Nafissa Assed

free Benghazi

As the 17th February commemorates the memory of the fallen victims of the Abu Salim prison massacre, when over 1200 prisoners were brutally executed, the 7th April is also known as one of those days that witnessed some of the worst abuses of human rights in Libyan history. On 7th April 1976, Qaddafi ordered the persecution and public execution of Libyan university students who were suspected of opposing the regime. The same month of the same year also commemorates Qaddafi’s physical liquidation campaign against Libyan dissidents inside and outside Libya.

Today I called a family member in Libya and she told me that the living conditions and the level of terror in Tripoli are indescribable. People go to the gas stations, wait for hours, and when their turn comes, they may be unlucky and find none left. There is no money in banks anymore. Every time she goes to the bank, they keep telling her the same thing: that there is no money. People barely go out, and what’s worse is that there are many elderly and babies who must receive weekly treatment in clinics. The critical living conditions of Tripoli are disrupting its economic life gravely, as Malta stopped a fuel ship on its way to west Libya, preventing it from making its delivery in accordance with the UN blockade.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Posted in Libya

Bad Luck, Worse Luck, Concrete Steps

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By Nafissa Assed

We all know that the western intervention in Libya is problematic, but it also remains the right decision that saved a countless number of innocent Libyans from Qaddafi’s brutal bombing and mercenaries. As the American writer Cormac MacCarthy says: “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”

Unfortunately, it took the UN Security Council over a month to finally authorize the necessary measures and impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians. At that time Qaddafi’s viciousness had grown, with bombings, tanks, high-caliber guns, helicopter shootings and callous mercenaries. Human rights monitors found that Qaddafi’s forces are using dozens of landmines on the outskirts of Ajdabiya.

Now air power is useful up to the point that it can dislocate Qaddafi’s logistics and stop the movement of his forces across the huge desert spaces between Libya’s cities, but it cannot take and hold ground, and that also is something that Libyans do not wish to happen. They do not want foreign ground troops.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 1, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Posted in Libya

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Prison of Terror

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By Nafissa Assed

On the 17th of March I headed to the airport, leaving Tripoli for safety reasons. The internet has been cut off in Libya since 3rd March, phone lines are very bad in all the cities, and some cities are totally isolated (no phone lines, no water, no electricity) – like Zawiya, Misurata, and now Benghazi’s too. God only knows what is coming next. After we lost the internet, Tripoli became a prison of terror.

Qaddafi’s thugs are celebrating all the time, and every day gunfire starts and stops all of a sudden, at any second. Out of a complete silence, we see cars passing by our building playing very loud music, songs for Qaddafi. At other times (usually between 2 and 4 am) we hear gunfire that gradually increases, with no celebrations or cars chanting his name around the streets.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm

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Introducing Nafissa Assed

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Our correspondent in Tripoli, who’s been sending us such stirring and terriying reports, is now safe in Morocco. She is finally able to renounce her anonymity. She wants me to tell you her name in capital letters, NAFISSA ASSED, daughter of a martyr, proud Libyan citizen. Read her self-description after the break.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Posted in Libya

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