The one thing I couldn’t persuade the publishers of Dining with al-Qaeda to change as we edited the text was their leading phrase in the jacket-sleeve blurb, which referred to the author as “Following in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia …”
In January, for the magazine The Majalla, I finally got to write down the full reason why I felt a reference to Lawrence wasn’t appropriate for a book like mine, which is in large part about how difficult it is to set facts straight about the Middle East. I’ve complained about modern journalists who claim to be strictly reporting what happened and yet do not always stick to the non-fiction high road (more here). “Faction” is of course not uncommon – some books of Ryszard Kapuściński were so light-footed they were dubbed “magical journalism” (more here). To be sure, both Kapuściński and Lawrence appear to have told their friends that they were not trying to recount plodding facts. But the problem for me remains that most people don’t realise that, and most publishers are not in a rush to tell them.
Lawrence of Legend
The lost critic and the legend of Lawrence of ArabiaHugh Pope’s discovery of a long forgotten book; Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry by Richard Aldington unravels the hype and fabrication behind the Lawrence story.
The Majalla, 28 January 2013
When I was spending summer afternoons copying Arabic lettering off the blackboard at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, I would often catch myself staring out of the dull, aluminum-framed windows. Where were the sweeping skylines pricked with minarets, the romantic deserts, the bustling bazaars of my imagined Middle East? Where were the clash and drama of newspaper coverage of wars and revolutions? Much of the Arabic syllabus seemed to peter out around the time of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and their takeover of the Arab World soon thereafter. Strangely, it seemed to me, even Britain’s extraordinary twentieth century moment in the Middle East was almost never discussed in my university classes.
In those days, soon after the publication of Edward Saïd’s Orientalism, our teachers were also determined to avoid the Orientalist label. Sweeping vistas were out. The fashion was for minute, detailed study of manageably small events and narrow themes—and, for me, those impossible-looking curves and dots scratched in chalk on the blackboard. One result was that I began to nurse a secret love of the breezy memoirs and letters of the British who passed through the history of the East and could write well about it: Lady Wortley Montague, dragomans and ambassadors; or officials like John Bagot Glubb (dubbed “Glubb Pasha”), Sir Mark Sykes and Sir Harry Luke, even a glossy vision of Iraq that leaped from the pages of the 1955 yearbook of the London-based Iraqi Petroleum Company, a treasure I discovered on an upper floor of Baghdad’s old book market.
The most glamorous of them all, of course, was T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—and his voluptuous literary feast, theSeven Pillars of Wisdom. This promised and delivered “the sweep of the open spaces, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight and the hopes.” Before going up to Oxford I had bought a copy of this account of the 1916–1918 Arab Revolt. I thrilled to his desert guerrilla raiding as a semi-amateur British army officer, his seamless acceptance into a different world to which I aspired to belong. I admired his promotion of the oppressed Arabs’ cause, and the selfless sacrifice of his status when London betrayed their promises of Arab independence. This work seemed to be considered almost pornographic by the Oriental Institute dons, but since we never studied the period or discussed the book in any depth, I never learned why.
Then one recent day in Edinburgh, I came across the plain black cover of the first edition of Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, a book I had never heard of. Here, in the folds of what I judged was measured prose, was concealed a jeweled dagger of a polemic. It led me into a whole world of debate about the Lawrence story—the great film, the (lack of) sex, his genius, his psychology—of which I am no scholar. But Aldington’s arguments did ring startlingly true as he portrayed Lawrence as one of my bugbears, a writer who exploits the confusion and magical reputation of the Middle East to play fast and loose with the facts.
Aldington was ambitious, seeking to deconstruct “the legend of Lawrence,” and to prove that key parts of his work were “heightened, exaggerated, faked, boastful and sometimes entirely without foundation,” making the British hero “at least half a fraud.” Even Lawrence’s trade-mark blowing up of Hejaz Railway trains, he said, was just “a wartime intensification of a constant peacetime nuisance,” and what other British and French officers equally proficient in such guerrilla actions lacked “was literary skill to write up their achievements.”
Aldington acknowledges that Lawrence’s lyrical description of the march to capture the Red Sea anchorage of Al-Wajh is “one of the admired set pieces of Seven Pillars,” with much singing, bouncing camels and barbaric splendor. But he then notes that Lawrence brought his men up two days late for the fight, during which British navy ships and men did the real fighting while the Bedouins hung back or looted. As for the ramshackle capture of the Red Sea harbor town of Aqaba—“another Gallipoli,” according to Seven Pillars—it had been done twice before in the war.
Later, the final British race through Palestine to Syria in 1918 was won thanks to old-fashioned bludgeoning by General Edmund Allenby’s main army columns, with Lawrence and his light raiders at most slightly distracting the Ottoman-German command with skirmishing on the desert flanks. It is sickening to read Aldington’s indictment of the massacres of retreating Ottoman and German troops by Lawrence and his Bedouin irregulars, even if Lawrence admitted the slaughter. As for the great price on his head that Lawrence suggested was offered by his enemies, Aldington can find no evidence for it—nor indeed any mention of Lawrence in any of several accounts published by German or Ottoman officers who served in the Arabian peninsula.
Aldington also challenges a central pillar of the Lawrence legend. Lawrence told one of his biographers, Basil Liddell Hart, that “since about sixteen years of age [he had been] filled with the idea of freeing people and had chosen the Arabs as the only suitable ones left.” Later, Lawrence said he resigned from government service because Britain betrayed promises forwarded by him to the leaders of the Arab revolt, or as he puts it in Seven Pillars, “an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia.”
Perhaps Lawrence was torn between a pro-Arab commitment and official instructions, but Aldington finds no proof that any authority ordered him to make any promises. Surprisingly, he even finds evidence that Lawrence’s Arabic was far from fluent. While Lawrence and the British faction to which he belonged may have had sincere sympathy for the Arab cause, Aldington believes “these causes were in the main British camouflage for . . . excluding the French.” As Lawrence put it in one letter, British policy should be to “biff the French out of all hope of Syria . . . won’t the French be mad if we win through?”
Aldington shows too the extraordinary degree to which Lawrence—not known to public opinion during the First World War itself—was catapulted to fame due to a delayed-action trick of US wartime propaganda. An American team out to boost morale, reporter Lowell Thomas and photographer Harry Chase, had tried the Western front but there, as Aldington puts it, “the drab butchery . . . did not lend itself either to thrilling photography or to eloquent narrative.” The pair then hit upon the idea of the Arabian front, where they found a ready and photogenic Lawrence.
The resulting show, eventually entitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, was only ready in 1919, after the war was over. After a modest beginning in New York, the lecture tour became a sensation in the English-speaking world, with two thousand performances over four years. It was a true feast for the Orientalist imagination. In London, the promoters borrowed a “Moonlight on the Nile” scene from an opera set, a Dance of the Seven Veils was performed, and an Irish tenor off-stage sang a musical version of the Muslim call to prayer. Aldington says this was irresistible to a British public still in shock from the war:
What was now wanted was a success story, and who could give it better than an American, for whom success is a national duty? The technique was hardly understood at all in England, where advertising seldom rose above a flat monotony of uninventive mendacity—‘Ponsonby’s Picklesare the Best’ . . . Anyone who has seen a Japanese judo expert throwing hundredweights of London policemen about a stage will realize what Lowell Thomas did mentally and emotionally with those naïve British audiences.
The spectacle’s focus on Lawrence went so far as to include an inaccurate film subtitle stating that Lawrence dynamited the Hejaz Railway while other British officers remained at base. Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom followed, published in various public editions from 1926 onwards. In the introduction, Lawrence strikes a modest pose:
My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy. In reality I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them.
But for all Lawrence’s later denials, Aldington painstakingly shows he was deeply involved in helping Thomas create the show that put him front and center. As Lawrence told Thomas, “History isn’t made up of truth anyway, so why worry?”
Aldington says he began his commission with no particular feelings about Lawrence. Aldington was a minor poet of the 1910s imagist school, dedicated to replacing romantic abstractions with exact observed detail and apt metaphors, and one of sixteen First World War poets commemorated in London’s Westminster Abbey. He had also edited a literary magazine, written a successful novel based on his grueling years in the trenches of the Western Front, and published a prize-winning biography of the Duke of Wellington.
Yet publication of his unexpected findings about Lawrence gravely damaged Aldington’s reputation, book sales, and health. Britain was not ready to see its only hero to emerge from the morass of the war toppled, and many disapproved of his revelation of Lawrence’s probably “humiliating and painful” feelings about his illegitimate birth. When Aldington died in July 1962, seven years after publishing his Lawrence book, his obituary in The Times said he was “an angry young man of the generation before they became fashionable; he remained something of an angry old man to the end.” It called his attacks on British middle class values “shrill” and suggested that his Lawrence of Arabia book would be “better forgotten.”
And forgotten it was, a mere footnote now in the Lawrence legend industry. For a few—Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale, by Fred Crawford—it proves how hard it is to attack a national idol. More usually—as in John Mack’s Prince of our Disorder, which won a Pulitzer in 1976—Lawrence remains “a great man and an important historical figure . . . [who] strongly influenced the [war’s] military outcome and the political aftermath.” Mack allows that Lawrence was at times “less than completely accurate” and “had some tendency to exaggerate his role and importance.” But Aldington’s work, he says, was a “flagrant example of the use of psychology . . . for denigrating purposes.”
Michael Korda, author of the most recent biography Hero, says Aldington was “obviously” wrong to dispute Lawrence’s claim that he was offered the prestigious top British job in Egypt after the war. But the proof of this is missing—indeed he implies Aldington was right in a way, saying any such offer was not serious—and Korda exaggerates in saying that Aldington’s “whole case” rests on this “idée fixe.” Nevertheless, Korda dismisses Aldington’s findings as “minor stuff” and a “sad object lesson in the perils of obsessive self-righteousness.”
Still, even Korda allows that “somebody was bound to come along and correct the balance” after the previous biographical “panegyrics . . . without any serious effort at independent research.” And Aldington does not accuse Lawrence of treachery, as one of Lawrence’s loyal fellow officers has suggested. He just draws attention to grandiose misrepresentation of Lawrence’s role, partly due to Lawrence’s own efforts, partly because everyone wanted to believe it.
Some writers on the Middle East have always doped up narratives, shaped up stories for audiences, or appropriated others’ work as their own. Such self-serving sensationalism is hard to expose, since normal people want to trust colleagues, newspapers and government figures—especially those heroically caught up in great events. Fact-checking is also difficult in this tumultuous region, and few in the Western audience can compare what they read with personal experience. It is precisely these generations of repeated inaccuracies that have widened the gulf of understanding between the region and Western public opinion.
Aldington was bravely ready to show that reality counts, and paid a great price for showing that a fabulous legend was an extraordinary but hyped-up story. No wonder those Oxford academics preferred digging up matters that are buried in a deep and less sensitive past.
Benoit Léger, qui traduit Rendez-vous avec al-Qaeda (Dining with al-Qaeda) en français, m’a envoyé cet extrait de son travail en cours. Benoit a déjà traduit de manière spectaculaire mon livre Fils de conquérants : Le monde türk et son essor qui a apparu l’an dernier (cliquez ici pour le voir sur amazon.fr, ou ici pour la maison d’edition, Presses de l’Universite Laval).
Républiques royales et monarques démocrates
extrait traduit par Benoit Léger (en cours, avril 2012)
Je retournai en Syrie un an plus tard, en 2001, dans l’espoir de donner aux lecteurs du Journal des nouvelles du printemps de Damas. Le docteur Bachar avait fait fermer une tristement célèbre prison du désert et libéré six cents prisonniers politiques; il avait aussi autorisé l’ouverture d’une première école privée. Le parlement avait voté de nouvelles lois qui légalisaient les banques privées et protégeaient le secret bancaire. Des mesures étaient prises pour libéraliser les règlements douaniers et celles portant sur les devises étrangères qui étouffaient le commerce depuis si longtemps. Les antennes paraboliques envahissaient également le paysage urbain de Damas.
L’un des symboles de cette période était un hebdomadaire rempli de caricatures du nom de Al-Doumari (« L’Allumeur de réverbères »). À son apparition en 2001, il se vendait en une heure à plus d’exemplaires que les trois indigestes journaux d’État réunis. Les Syriens n’avaient rien vu de tel depuis l’interdiction de la presse privée, trente-huit ans auparavant.
Je m’adressai à un vendeur de journaux en regardant prudemment derrière moi :
— Vous n’avez pas peur de vendre ça?
— Les gens n’ont plus peur. Nous voulons entendre des critiques et avoir finalement quelque chose de bien. J’en ai commandé cent exemplaires cette semaine, mais j’en ai demandé cinq cents pour la semaine prochaine.
Même si, dans les pages de ce pittoresque magazine, la satire n’était pas des plus féroces et s’en prenait essentiellement à la corruption la plus évidente, l’idée même d’une publication échappant complètement à l’autorité de l’État était inconcevable. Je trouvai les bureaux d’Al-Doumari dans un quartier riche habité par la classe moyenne. Ali Farzat était à la fois le propriétaire, l’éditeur et le rédacteur en chef. Vêtu d’un jean soigneusement repassé, il arborait une épaisse barbe et affectionnait les gros cigares cubains. Farzat affirma que c’était Bachar Al-Assad lui-même qui l’avait encouragé à créer son hebdomadaire sept ans auparavant, mais, même si Bachar était alors le fils du président et était désormais chef d’État depuis un an, les lois concernant la presse n’avaient changé que tout récemment.
— Quand le premier numéro est sorti, j’ai appelé le docteur Bachar, raconta-t-il. Il était très heureux de la nouvelle; il aime ce genre de choses.
— Mais le gouvernement tient encore le pays par la peur! insistai-je.
Farzat s’enfonça dans son fauteuil et mit les bras au-dessus de sa tête comme pour se protéger des coups qu’on pourrait lui donner, puis il éclata de rire.
— Nous vivons dans une nouvelle ère. Bachar aime les initiatives, il les respecte. Il aime les arts et les sciences. C’est un homme jeune. Il a un plan en tête et il le met en place, étape par étape. Les réformes finissent par s’imposer d’elles-mêmes, c’est comme avoir besoin de respirer.
Trois mois après que Bachar eut pris le pouvoir en juin 2000, quatre-vingt-dix-neuf personnalités influentes lui avaient écrit pour demander plus de libertés publiques. En janvier 2001, ce furent mille politiciens et réformateurs qui allèrent encore plus loin en exigeant que l’état d’urgence en place depuis quarante ans soit levé. Pendant cette période, affirmaient-ils, « la société a été profanée, ses richesses ont été pillées et son destin, mis entre les mains de tyrans et de gens corrompus ». Il semblait que quelque chose était bel et bien en train de se passer en Syrie, mais plus je creusais, plus je découvrais que les choses n’avaient guère changé.
Le régime avait étouffé dans l’œuf le mouvement des forums formés d’intellectuels de tendance gauchisante. Le docteur Bachar, qui avait donné le feu vert à la tenue de ces forums de dialogue national, les avait soudainement dénoncés comme étant des « exercices intellectuels stériles » en expliquant à un quotidien arabe qu’il fallait que les Syriens « évitent de donner l’occasion à ceux qui cherchent à devenir des leaders d’exploiter ces forums » et que « la stabilité et l’efficacité sont plus importantes pour le développement du pays que la vitesse ». Une dame de la bonne société avait été prise à faire circuler un courriel représentant le chef de l’État dans une union inconvenante avec le président libanais et avait été incarcérée.
Dans le premier numéro de l’Allumeur de réverbères, Farzat avait évoqué la possibilité d’un remaniement ministériel, ce qui, en Syrie, constitue une manière détournée de se débarrasser d’anciens ministres corrompus. En privé, il me confia que ces gens-là « profitent de la peur, comme des pillards après un tremblement de terre. » Pourtant, la une du numéro suivant avait fait preuve de plus de réserve en publiant un article sur l’éducation mixte dans une lointaine province située au bord de l’Euphrate. « Est-ce que cela constitue de l’autocensure? » demandai-je.
Devant nous, le dernier numéro montrait le dessin d’un homme qui marche dans la rue en regardant nerveusement derrière lui et qui se rend compte avec inquiétude que l’agent des services secrets armé qui le suit n’est que sa propre ombre.
— Nos articles n’ont jamais été interdits, mais il y a des règles à respecter. Nous ne pouvons pas nous en prendre à l’armée, ni nous lancer dans attaques personnelles. Comme partout, il y a des limites à ne pas franchir. Les secrets d’État, par exemple.
À ce moment-là, un Libanais en uniforme arborant une épaisse barbe noire passa la tête dans la porte. Je remarquai qu’il portait un pistolet à la ceinture. Il embrassa Farzat sur les deux joues; les deux hommes causèrent comme de vieux amis, puis il s’avéra que le Libanais cherchait en fait quelqu’un dans le bureau voisin.
— Qui était-ce?
— Aucune idée! fit Farzat en riant. Mais c’est exactement ce que notre magazine signifie. Nous représentons la rue, la rue syrienne. Nous nous en prenons à des aspects des traditions de notre société, par exemple quand un invité s’installe et reste trois jours et qu’on ne demande pas d’explication et qu’on ne sait pas pourquoi. On ne peut pas vivre de cette manière en permanence. C’est dans notre propre société que se trouve la cause de notre oppression, pas dans le gouvernement.
C’était pourtant de l’oppression du téléphone que Farzat souffrait (à l’instar de nombreux bureaux syriens, le sien n’avait pas de secrétaire), tout comme son frère qui venait de l’appeler de l’imprimerie appartenant à l’État. Tout avait été payé d’avance, mais les ouvriers avaient stoppé les presses. Farzat négocia, tenta de les amadouer en promettant un gros pourboire et les presses redémarrèrent.
Il y eut un autre visiteur : un jeune collaborateur de l’hebdomadaire qui avait fait des heures d’autocar pour venir toucher son salaire de quinze dollars. L’homme accepta de me parler, mais dans la rue et tout en marchant. Nous parcourûmes donc le quartier qui embaumait le jasmin et dont les fières demeures aux angles arrondis remontaient aux toutes premières années, après que le pays eut obtenu son indépendance de la France, en 1944.
— Notre pays est en train de s’éveiller en matière de culture, mais nous avons encore peur, m’expliqua-t-il en s’assurant qu’il n’était pas suivi par un policier. Pour les intellectuels, l’Allumeur de réverbères est aussi léger qu’une bulle de savon. C’est un symbole qui montre que le gouvernement parle beaucoup, mais ne fait rien.
Les censeurs du Ministère de l’Information ne semblaient pourtant pas des plus menaçants. Leurs bureaux se trouvaient au haut d’un immeuble vieillissant connu sous le nom de « Palais du Baas ». La façade était en travaux depuis des années et, à l’intérieur, les rénovations progressaient de manière irrégulière. Les fils nus pendaient dans les couloirs et le faux plafond avait perdu certains de ses panneaux. Sur les armoires, les piles de dossiers poussiéreux étaient maintenues ensemble par de la ficelle. Les bureaux des censeurs étaient recouverts de montagnes de journaux et de magazines. « Du thé? » fit l’un d’eux.
Ils avaient tous étudié dans une région ou l’autre de l’ancien bloc soviétique et se réjouissaient d’avoir l’occasion de bavarder et de partager leur conviction quant au complot américano-israélo-sioniste qui empêchait la Syrie d’avancer. Deux des censeurs venaient de familles qui avaient perdu leur maison dans la Guerre des Six Jours, lorsqu’Israël s’était emparé du plateau du Golan, soit une importante portion du pays que l’État hébreu occupait encore, au sud-ouest de Damas. L’un d’eux avait participé à la plus récente manifestation devant l’ambassade des États-Unis.
— Le seul problème, c’est que n’avons pas trouvé de pierres à lancer, fit-il avant d’ajouter pourtant : J’espère que L’allumeur de réverbères va prendre des forces et devenir quelque chose d’important, mais pour l’instant il a l’air un peu démuni.
Les censeurs n’étaient pas sans savoir que le magazine, tout comme les entreprises syriennes, ne jouissait d’aucun droit. Farzat n’avait que gagné une faveur individuelle et provisoire auprès du chef de l’État. Tout le monde semblait connaître sa place dans le pays. Les rares partis politiques autorisés, pris dans un « front » contre le Baas depuis des décennies, avaient été autorisés à publier leurs propres journaux, mais leurs combats semblaient n’avoir pas changé depuis qu’ils avaient été tous fermés en 1963. Dans le nouvel organe du parti communiste, l’éditorial se résumait à un exposé à valeur didactique portant sur la lutte des classes et qui s’étalait sous le slogan simpliste de « Travailleurs du monde entier, unissez-vous ». La renaissance du journal The Unionist, relique de l’éphémère union de la Syrie avec l’Égypte dans les années 1960, était encore plus incroyable : il faisait sa une d’une photographie de Gamal Abdel Nasser, le légendaire président égyptien mort depuis 1970.
Il était donc normal que les censeurs s’en soucient peu. Les vrais opposants, eux, s’en tiraient beaucoup moins bien. C’était le cas de Riad Seif, le politicien syrien le plus critique envers le régime. En ce printemps de 2001, nous pûmes encore nous voir dans son bureau moderne. Les yeux de ce franc-tireur brillaient; il avait tout récemment tenté de briser le monopole que la famille Assad exerçait sur le très lucratif secteur de la téléphonie cellulaire.
— C’est dangereux! Ils m’ont mis en faillite, raconta-t-il.
— Qui ça, « ils »?
— Les baasistes! Il n’y a pas de concurrence, pas de vitalité; ils n’ont pas d’idéologie avec laquelle se défendre. Dans les années 1950, les membres du Baas étaient tous des idéalistes, maintenant ce ne sont que des opportunistes. Leur cerveau s’est encroûté au point qu’ils croient leurs propres mensonges.
— Comme quoi?
— La sécheresse dure depuis deux ans; les fermiers n’arrivent pas à rembourser leurs prêts, il n’y a pas de travail dans les provinces et le chômage est un problème très grave. Contre tout cela, l’Allumeur de réverbères ne vaut pas mieux qu’une aspirine. Il n’y a toujours pas de base politique en mesure de s’attaquer aux véritables causes de la corruption; il n’y a pas d’organisations populaires, pas de véritables syndicats, pas de partis d’opposition. La séparation des pouvoirs n’existe pas, ni la liberté de presse.
— Qu’est-ce qu’ils vous ont fait pour avoir parlé ainsi?
— Ils nous mettent le couteau sous la gorge et le laissent là. Les gens qui me soutiennent sont très discrets; personne ne veut courir de risques. Certains de mes amis ne m’appellent même plus. Je suis devenu isolé, mais ça ne veut pas dire que je n’ai pas de soutien. Les intellectuels sont bien décidés à continuer. Ces quelques mois où nous avons joui de certaines libertés, où nous avons pu nous exprimer en nous débarrassant de certains tabous, nous avons vraiment aimé cela. C’est difficile de réapprendre à être discret. Nous ne sommes plus en 1980 : il y a Internet, la télévision satellite. Les Syriens ne font que semblant d’être des moutons.
Sauf que Seif se trompait en prédisant que les Syriens allaient sérieusement se révolter. Ils avaient peut-être raison d’être prudents, compte tenu des quatre décennies où le pays n’a pas connu de véritable vie politique. L’exemple de l’Irak allait plus tard montrer les périls qui attendent un pays lorsqu’une dictature est renversée, mais que la population n’a aucune idée de la manière de profiter de sa liberté. De toute façon, le régime syrien n’avait manifestement pas l’intention de procéder à des changements autres que cosmétiques. Après avoir discuté de ma semaine passée dans le pays, Bill Spindle et moi-même en arrivâmes à la conclusion que rien n’avait assez sérieusement changé en Syrie pour justifier un article dans le Wall Street Journal.
En 2002, deux ans après la prise du pouvoir par Bachar, Damas avait meilleure allure : les magasins semblaient mieux approvisionnés en produits importés, les restaurants étaient mieux éclairés, les gens étaient mieux informés et même les vieilles colonnes et les rues du souk Al-Hamidiyeh, le plus important de ville, faisaient l’objet de délicates restaurations. Les autorités répétaient que, si tout le monde faisait preuve de patience, les choses allaient vraiment changer. En janvier de la même année, dans son discours sur l’état de l’union, le président Bush avait classé la Syrie parmi les pays de « l’axe du mal »; j’étais convaincu qu’il avait tort. Je retournai voir Ali Farzat dans ses bureaux pour voir comment la lente lutte de son magazine pouvait symboliser un possible réveil du pays.
Je m’assis en compagnie de Farzat qui agita une feuille de papier : le gouvernement avait décidé que l’Allumeur de réverbères ne pouvait plus vendre que 14 420 exemplaires, et il lui fallait désormais passer par le réseau de distribution de l’État. Il s’emporta :
— Je dois vendre trente-cinq milles exemplaires pour rentrer dans mes frais! Il devrait y avoir des règles pour nous permettre de fonctionner comme une maison d’édition privée. Ils nous envoient ça sans prévenir, sans discuter. Ils se contentent de dire que la distribution doit passer par eux et ils exigent quarante pour cent des profits. Comme si le secteur privé travaillait pour l’État! Et en plus ils forcent toute la publicité à passer par l’Organisation de la publicité arabe qui appartient au gouvernement et qui prend vingt-sept pour cent des bénéfices! Ces gens-là ne font absolument rien et le gouvernement ne m’achète pas de publicité non plus.
— Vous ne pouvez pas vous plaindre? Vous adresser au docteur Bachar?
— Même le ministre de l’Information refuse de me parler au téléphone.
— Je connais ce genre de problème…
— Je ne sais plus quoi vous dire. Ce que nous publions a une influence sur les gens et nous visons les responsables, alors les gens qui craignent d’y perdre trouvent des moyens de lutter contre la nouveauté. Nous devons trouver de nouveaux moyens de faire avancer notre culture. Ce journal n’est pas que notre réussite, c’est celle du pays; c’est un symbole de développement. Il n’aurait pas dû s’arrêter si tôt…
Je poursuivis ma tournée, hésitant que j’étais à renoncer. J’appris ailleurs que, six mois plus tôt, Riad Seif, le courageux politicien de l’opposition, avait organisé une rencontre réunissant quelques centaines de militants prodémocratie. Il avait été ensuite jeté en prison et allait y rester plus de quatre ans. Un diplomate américain expliqua que le régime n’était plus mené par « l’homme fort », mais plutôt par le « grand mensonge » : de l’extérieur, le pays semblait l’endroit le plus stable de la planète, mais à l’intérieur, le régime se débattait chaque jour pour se maintenir.
Bien sûr, à l’instar de toutes les dictatures du Proche-Orient qui carburent à l’or noir, la Syrie ne changeait pas vraiment, entre autres parce que le pétrole représentait soixante-dix pour cent de ses revenus d’exportation. Il en allait de même en Iran : tant que le régime aura les moyens d’acheter le soutien de sa base politique, il pourra se maintenir en place. Les chefs d’État toléraient la corruption, car, en l’absence de toute légitimité populaire, ils pouvaient se fier à la loyauté des ministres corrompus. Tout comme en Union soviétique, qui fonctionnait grâce à une économie de ressources semblable, la dissidence était tolérée tant qu’elle ne représentait pas une menace directe. Inversement, un pays tel que la Turquie qui dispose de peu de ressources naturelles, n’a d’autre choix que d’être plus pluraliste, plus ouvert et plus démocratique puisqu’il lui faut chaque semaine emprunter sur les marchés national et international.
Je rendis visite à Haïtham Maleh, un vieil avocat qui, de son appartement remontant à l’époque coloniale dans le centre de Damas, s’obstinait à demander des comptes au régime. L’une des caractéristiques de la dictature syrienne était le fait que peu de jeunes songeaient même à lutter pour les droits de la personne. Sans plate-forme à l’échelle nationale, Maleh menait son combat en rencontrant des diplomates ainsi que les correspondants venus des pays arabes ou d’ailleurs. Il faisait parvenir à Bachar des missives soulignant les contradictions entre ce qu’affirmait la constitution et l’application des lois d’urgence. Il me montra la copie d’une ordonnance secrète selon laquelle les fonctionnaires n’étaient redevables que si leurs supérieurs l’autorisaient. Maleh était assis sous la tapisserie élaborée qu’il avait tissée en prison. L’idée que les États-Unis pourraient un jour réellement aider quelqu’un comme lui à faire avancer la démocratie en Syrie (ou ailleurs au Proche-Orient) le fit rire :
— Tous nos dictateurs sont des produits des États-Unis. C’est parce que les Américains ont intérêt à n’avoir qu’un seul interlocuteur pour régler leurs affaires. Dans notre cas, ils nous ont fabriqué un puissant dictateur fasciste, alors qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire?
Effectivement, au cours des mois qui avaient suivi le 11 septembre, la rhétorique américaine à l’égard de la Syrie était redevenue menaçante. Je passai devant une boutique qui proposait le damas si élégamment tissé; j’y allais souvent à l’époque où j’étais étudiant et c’est là que j’avais acheté la soie turquoise et scintillante dont ma femme avait fait sa robe de mariée. Je me souvins des balles et des rouleaux de tissus qui s’empilaient dans les années 1980 et formaient de véritables cascades d’or, d’argent et de vermeil, mais il n’en restait plus que quelques pièces. Le propriétaire, un Kurde, se plaignit que son commerce était moribond puisque les agences de voyage réduisaient au minium leurs arrêts dans ce pays réputé difficile et corrompu et que les touristes n’avaient plus le temps de faire les boutiques.
Sept ans plus tard, en 2009, l’importun Riad Seif ne serait toujours pas autorisé à sortir du pays pour faire traiter son cancer de la prostate. En fait, il avait été renvoyé en prison. L’état d’urgence décrété en 1963 était toujours en vigueur et des centaines de prisonniers politiques croupissaient en prison, dont plusieurs de ceux qui s’étaient fait connaître au cours du printemps mort-né de Damas. L’Allumeur de réverbères avait lutté pour sa survie pendant trois ans avant de finalement disparaître en 2003; l’histoire aurait pu donner lieu à un papier dans un autre quotidien que le Wall Street Journal qui ne croyait pas que les Américains souhaitaient entendre parler d’un autre échec. Les rédacteurs en chef préféraient les histoires optimistes. Après avoir fait le tour en ma compagnie d’une autre semaine perdue à faire des entrevues, Bill Spindle trancha : « On laisse tomber la Syrie, Hugh. Ça ne marchera pas. Ce n’est pas ta faute, mais le pays n’a pas changé alors il n’y a pas d’article à écrire. »
En février 2003, trois ans après le grand changement qui n’avait jamais été, je traversai une fois de plus la Syrie sur le chemin de l’Irak. Il me fallait me présenter au bureau de contrôle des frontières des moukhabat, les services secrets de « l’Intelligence » syrienne, oxymore qui fait les délices des mauvaises langues dans l’ensemble du Proche-Orient. Mon chauffeur me déposa au bout d’une longue file de barricades qui menait à un complexe entouré protégé par de hautes murailles de béton. Il était impossible de savoir quels services secrets syriens, de tous ceux dont le pays dispose, étaient logés à cet endroit. À la guérite, j’expliquai ma mission à un agent en civil, kalachnikov à l’épaule. À l’époque où j’étais étudiant à Damas, on voyait de tels gardiens devant les demeures des membres de l’élite et, le soir, une arme se pointait parfois vers moi avec méfiance quand je passais trop près.
— Vous connaissez le chemin? demanda le gardien.
Il aspira une autre gorgée de maté grâce à la paille de cuivre. Cette boisson est devenue particulièrement populaire auprès de minorités telles que les Druzes et les Alaouites depuis que certains de leurs membres ont immigré en Amérique du Sud pour fuir la pauvreté et les persécutions de la part de la majorité sunnite. Boire du maté est désormais un signe d’émancipation.
— Bien sûr que non, rétorquai-je.
Il m’indiqua le chemin d’un ton péremptoire et me lâcha dans le complexe des services de sécurité. Je cherchai mon chemin dans les rues envahies par la verdure de ce qui, à l’époque coloniale française, avait dû être un charmant alignement de villas. Elles étaient désormais plus ou moins laissées à l’abandon et la végétation était en voie de reprendre ses droits. La maison banale que l’on m’avait indiquée n’avait qu’un étage et semblait dans le même état de délabrement. À l’avant, l’eau s’écoulait du bassin d’une fontaine à la céramique verte et sale. Les ailes de la villa semblaient sur le point de s’écrouler et les carreaux de plusieurs fenêtres étaient brisés, mais, en arrivant dans la cour, je vis les signes d’une restauration en cours. Trois camions militaires russes se trouvaient là, ainsi qu’une camionnette dont un essieu était cassé. J’eus l’impression d’arriver chez le commandant d’une unité rebelle qui venait tout juste de s’emparer d’un poste avancé au fin fond d’un pays du tiers monde et non d’une branche de l’exécutif d’un gouvernement en état de marche. L’idée qu’un pays aussi délabré puisse préoccuper les stratèges américains me parut tout à coup complètement absurde.
Du haut des marches, quelqu’un cherchait à attirer mon attention. À l’intérieur, deux salles avaient été aménagées pour l’homme que j’étais venu rencontrer : le colonel Suleyman, à l’éclatante veste bleue à carreaux et à la molle poignée de main. Dans un coin, deux adolescents assis sur un canapé (l’un d’eux était le fils du colonel) jouaient avec un téléphone cellulaire Samsung dont ils tiraient de temps à autre une musique exaspérante qui résonnait dans la salle. Le colonel leur jetait alors un regard indulgent. Il fit servir du café, puis nous nous attelâmes à remplir les papiers. Il se fit une joie de m’expliquer que je me trouvais dans sur une base des services de renseignement militaire. Il s’empressa également à m’annoncer qu’il était un chrétien appartenant à l’Église syriaque. Je connaissais bien le cœur de cette ancienne religion qui se trouve en Turquie et je fus frappé du paradoxe : la Syrie était l’ennemie de Washington, essentiellement à cause des coups bas qu’elle avait portés à Israël et à l’Occident et à cause de sa dictature; la Turquie, elle, était l’alliée des Américains, et ce, pour différentes raisons, dont son caractère démocratique et ses liens avec Israël. Pourtant, en Turquie, un chrétien comme le colonel n’aurait jamais pu parvenir à un tel poste d’autorité. En fait, grâce aux efforts déployés par Ankara depuis près d’un siècle pour arriver à la pureté ethnique et religieuse, il ne reste pour ainsi dire plus de syriaques en Turquie. Le colonel chrétien illustra encore mieux le paradoxe : selon lui, c’était à l’idéologie arabe, nationaliste et laïque du Baas qu’il devait sa réussite, alors qu’elle était tant vilipendée par les États-Unis. La Syrie, avec sa mosaïque de groupes ethniques, était selon lui la société du Proche-Orient qui était restée le plus fidèle aux usages d’autrefois dans la région. Il est vrai que la première fois où j’ai vécu à Alep, je passais régulièrement devant la boutique d’un Arménien d’âge moyen qui pressait encore dans ses lourds moules de métal cet antique symbole de l’époque ottomane : le fez rouge et sans bord, orné d’un gland.
Puisque je me rendais en Irak, pays dirigé par un autre parti Baas et que les États-Unis s’apprêtaient à envahir, je demandai au colonel Suleyman de m’expliquer la différence entre un baasiste syrien et son cousin irakien.
— Oh, il y a une énorme différence, rétorqua-t-il comme s’il s’agissait de comparer le Nigéria et la Suisse; ils sont de droite, nous sommes de gauche. Nous sommes plus ouverts d’esprit. Et notre chef est Bachar Al-Assad!
Il me fit remplir d’autres formulaires. Le paradoxe du prénom apparemment masculin de ma mère fit encore une fois nos délices; l’éducation de son fils nous donna du souci. Le colonel prit également le temps de répondre à un appel, se contentant de décrocher, d’écouter, puis de raccrocher. J’attendais poliment d’être relaxé. Le temps s’était arrêté.
Mes yeux tombèrent sur le téléviseur posé sur un meuble ornementé, devant une bibliothèque dépourvue de livres. La télévision syrienne diffusait en direct depuis le parlement où Bachar s’adressait aux députés et à la population. Nous le vîmes se lancer dans la série de commentaires spontanés caractéristiques du style « proche du peuple » qui lui donnaient l’allure d’un patriote radical, ou potentiellement d’un populiste.
Normalement, les affiches syriennes montrent cet ophtalmologiste formé en Angleterre dans la pose d’un Hamlet considérant l’état du monde d’un regard attristé, courroucé par les injustices et, peut-être (et seulement peut-être) fourbissant ses armes. Le colonel avait plutôt opté pour un portrait inhabituel de Bachar dans la pose d’un cruel tyran : complet noir, lunettes sombres et visage de marbre. Ailleurs, ceux qui n’étaient pas convaincus par l’ambigüité du président oscillant entre être et ne pas être, lui joignaient un portrait de son père, Hafez, qui, bien que mort, n’en affichait pas moins un air dur et résolu. Ou encore un portrait militaire du dauphin présumé de Hafez, Bassel, mort lui aussi, mais décédé bien avant son père, dans un accident de voiture alors qu’il roulait à tombeau ouvert afin de prendre l’avion. Grâce à ce sinistre triumvirat formé du père de la Syrie, du fils et de l’esprit, le régime cherchait à donner l’illusion que le pays était mené par les durs à cuire de cette région du monde. Il s’agissait ainsi de mettre en garde quiconque aurait l’idée de comploter contre la tribu Al-Assad ou contre son pays. Suleyman montra l’écran du doigt : « Regardez le docteur Bachar, fit-il avec admiration. Il parle sans même un discours écrit d’avance. On voit qu’il est intelligent. »
Je songeai que Bachar était lui aussi un prisonnier, un peu comme tout le monde en Syrie, mais me tins coi. Les Syriens, y compris le colonel qui me congédiait gaiement d’un geste, voulaient encore croire que le passage d’un Assad à un autre signifiait que les choses allaient s’améliorer dans leur vie politique si mise à mal. Mais il était indéniable qu’il faudrait du temps.
Syria was the first country in the Middle East I got to know well more than three decades ago. I loved much about it. But my experiences – retold in the first chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda – seem fully part of the continuum being acted out today.
For instance, on my first visit in March-April 1980, I was trapped in the northern city of Aleppo when Syrian troops ringed the town and started searching for regime opponents quarter by quarter, house by house. For three days gunfire echoed through the night and in the mornings truckloads of frightened citizens, sometimes still wearing their pyjamas, could be seen crowded helplessly in open trucks on their way to impromptu interrogation and torture centres in half-finished buildings on the outskirts of town (Dining with al-Qaeda, pp 1-10).
Then followed the Assad crushing of the Hama in 1982 with some 10,000 dead; Lebanon’s problems from the Syrian occupation of part of that country; and finally the controversy over Syrian links to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Given the impunity Syria mostly enjoyed, I’m not surprised that the Assad family thinks it hasn’t used up its nine lives yet, even if I remain amazed at how Syria has for so long seemed to live all its many lives simultaneously.
The way time stands chaotically still in Syrian matters reminds me of the early 2000s, when I was a reporter who kept trying to find a story that would illustrate the idea (then thought possible) that Syria might be turning the corner towards a more open, pluralistic society. One possible subject for the story was Ali Farzat, a notable caricaturist in Damascus. The story didn’t work out – nothing much was going forwards in Syria. But ten years later, I was shocked see that this same turbulent stasis had sucked in Farzat, when thugs beat him for perceived disrespect for President Bashar al-Assad. Luckily he mostly recovered, as CNN tells here.
Here’s how the Syrian world of Ali Farzat appeared to me – by turns tragi-comic, brutal and charming – in some excerpts from Dining with al-Qaeda’s Chapter 13: REGAL REPUBLIC, DEMOCRATIC KINGS: Syria, Jordan and the dimensions of dictatorship. (pp 202-210).
I was back in Syria a year later, in 2001, keen to update Journal readers on the fate of the Damascus Spring. Dr. Bashar had closed a notorious desert jail and released six hundred political prisoners. He had allowed a first private school to open. Parliament had passed new laws to introduce private banks and to protect banking secrecy. Steps were being taken to liberalize the currency and customs regulations that had choked Syrian business for so long. Satellite television dishes spread thickly across the Damascus skyline.
One symbol of this era was a caricature-filled weekly magazine called al-Dumari, the Lamplighter. When it appeared in 2001, it outsold the entire print run of the three turgid state-run daily newspapers in an hour. Syrians had seen nothing like it since thirty-eight years before, when private newspapers were banned.
“Aren’t you scared to be stocking this?” I asked at a newsstand, looking over my shoulder.
“There’s no fear anymore. We want to see criticism, something good at last,” the newspaper seller said. “I ordered one hundred copies this week, but I’ve asked for five hundred for next week!”
Even though the colorful Lamplighter’s satire was light, and mainly directed against obvious corruption, the idea of a publication entirely outside state control seemed unbelievable. I tracked down the magazine’s offices to a well-off middle-class neighborhood. The owner, publisher, and chief editor, Ali Farzat, had a full beard, neatly pressed jeans, and a taste for big Cuban cigars.
Farzat said he’d been encouraged to found the weekly by Dr. Bashar seven years before, but even though Dr. Bashar was then the president’s son and had now been president for a year, the press laws had only just changed.
“I rang up Dr. Bashar after the first edition hit the streets. He was very happy,” Farzat said. “He loves this kind of thing.”
“But Syria is still ruled by fear!” I insisted.
Farzat hunkered down in his chair with his head under his arms as if protecting himself from being beaten, then laughed.
“There is a new period that has started. Bashar loves initiative, he respects it. He loves arts and sciences. He is young. He has a map in his head and he’s implementing it step by step. Reform is something that imposes itself, like the need for oxygen.”
Three months after Dr. Bashar took power in June 2000, ninety-nine opinion leaders wrote to him asking for more civil liberties. The following January, one thousand politicians and reformists went farther and demanded an end to four decades of martial law during which they said “society was desecrated, its wealth plundered, and its destiny commandeered by tyrants and corrupt people.” It seemed like something was on the move in Syria. But the more I looked into what had re- ally changed, the less I found.
The state nipped in the bud a movement of left-leaning intellectual home discussion groups. Dr. Bashar, who had given a green light for these National Dialogue Forums, now suddenly criticized them as “futile intellectual exercises,” telling an Arab newspaper that Syrians should “avoid the possibility that the process of advancement is exploited by seekers of leadership. It is more important for development to be stable and effective than to be rapid.” When a society lady was caught distributing by e-mail a caricature of the Syrian leader in unseemly union with the president of Lebanon, she was detained. In the first issue of Lamplighter, Farzat suggested that there might be a cabinet reshuffle, which, in Syria, is discreet code for getting rid of corrupt old guard ministers. In private, Farzat told me these people were “profiting from the state of fear, like thieves after an earthquake.” Still, his next issue’s front page was more careful: an article on coeducation in a distant province on the Euphrates River.
“Does that count as self-censorship?” I asked.
On the cover of the latest issue in front of us was his drawing of a man walking down a darkened street, looking nervously over his shoulder and worriedly realizing that the armed secret service agent on his tail was his own shadow.
“None of our stories have been stopped. But there are conditions for the newspaper. There can be no opposition to the army, no personal attacks. Like everywhere, there are red lines, like state secrets,” he said.
Just then, a Lebanese man in uniform with a thick black beard put his head around the door. I registered that he had a pistol tucked into his belt. He kissed Farzat on both cheeks and they chatted like old friends until it turned out he was looking for someone next door.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“No idea!” Farzat laughed. “But this is exactly the kind of thing the magazine is about. What we are representing is the street, the Syrian street. We criticize things about the traditions of our society. Like when you get a guest who stays for three days and you don’t ask why, and you don’t know why. You can’t spend your time that way. The oppression we suffer is within our society itself, not the government.”
Farzat was constantly being oppressed by the telephone—as in many Syrian offices, there was no secretary—as was his brother, who was on the line to the state printing house. Although everything had been paid up front, the printers had stopped the presses. He wheedled and negotiated. A big tip was promised. The presses started rolling again.
Another guest was one of his young contributors who had traveled for hours by bus just to pick up a pay packet of $15. The man would talk to me only while out- side and on the move. So we strolled through a jasmine-scented district whose confident curved houses dated back to the first flush of Syria’s 1944 independence from France.
“Syria is waking up culturally. But we are still frightened,” the contributor said, looking around to see if his shadow was a policeman. “For intellectuals, the Lamp-lighter is as light as a soap bubble. It’s a symbol of how the government is talking a lot but doing nothing.”
For sure, the censors at the Ministry of Information didn’t feel much of a threat. Their office was on a high floor of an aging office block known as the Palace of the Baath. Work on a new façade had been proceeding for years, and renovations were in fitful progress inside. Wires dangled loose in the corridors and the false ceiling was missing slats. Metal filing cabinet doors hung open. Stacks of dusty files on top of cupboards were tied together with string.
“Some tea?” one censor asked me from behind one of half a dozen desks piled high with papers and magazines.
Everyone in the room had studied somewhere in the former Soviet bloc, and all welcomed a chance to chat and communicate their convictions about the Zionist-Israeli-American plot to hold Syria back. The families of two of them lost homes in the Six-Day War when Israel captured the Golan Heights, a significant chunk of Syria that Israel still occupies southwest of Damascus. One had taken part in the latest demonstration outside the U.S. embassy.
“The only problem was that we couldn’t find any stones to throw!” he said, but confided, “I hope the Lamplighter strengthens into something special. But right now, it looks a bit weak.”
The censors knew that the magazine, just like Syrian business franchises, was not exercising any right. Farzat had merely won an individual and temporary favor granted by their ruler. Everyone seemed to know his or her place. Syria’s few legal political parties, locked in a “front” with the Baath Party for decades, had been allowed to start publishing their newspapers too. But they seemed to be fighting the same battles as before they were all closed down in 1963. An editorial in the new organ of the Communist Party was a didactic exposé of class war under the Rip Van Winkle–esqe motto “Workers of the World Unite.” Even more amazing was the reappearance of the Unionist—a relic of Syria’s short-lived political union with Egypt in the early 1960s—featuring a front-page news photograph of legendary Egyptian leader Jamal Abd al-Nasser. He died in 1970.
No wonder they gave censors little trouble. Real opponents fared much worse, men like Riad Seif, Syria’s most outspoken opposition politician. That spring of 2001, we could still meet in his modern office. He was bright eyed then, a maverick who had just dared to challenge the Assad family’s control of lucrative cell phone licenses.
“It’s dangerous. They bankrupted me!” he said. “Who’s they?” “The Baathists! There’s no competition, no vitality, no ideology with which to defend themselves. The Baathists in the 1950s were all idealists. Now they are opportunists. Their brains have calcified. They believe their own lies.”
“There’s been a drought for two years, farmers cannot pay back their loans, there are no jobs in the provinces, and unemployment is a huge problem. Against all that, the Lamplighter is just an aspirin,” Seif told me. “There is still no basis for fighting the roots of corruption, there are no popular organizations, no real unions, no opposition parties, no separation of powers, no free press.”
“What’s happened to you for speaking like this?”
“They put the knife on the neck and leave it there. My supporters are very silent people. Nobody likes to take a risk. Some friends don’t phone me anymore. I became isolated. It doesn’t mean I’m not supported. The intellectuals are determined to go on. These months of breathing some freedoms, expressing ourselves by getting rid of some taboos—we enjoyed it. It’s difficult to go back to being humble. It’s not 1980. There’s the Internet, satellite TV stations. The Syrians are just playing at being sheep.”
But Seif was wrong that the Syrians would rise up in any significant way. Perhaps they were wise to act cautiously, given the country’s forty-year absence of political experience. The subsequent example of Iraq showed the danger of knocking out a dictatorship when a population had no idea how to exercise freedom. In any event, it was clear that the Syrian regime had no intention of anything more than minimal change. Bill Spindle and I discussed my week’s reporting and decided that there was too little change to justify publishing anything in the Journal.
Back in Syria in the spring of 2002, two years after Dr. Bashar’s takeover, Damascus felt better. Shops seemed fuller of imported goods, restaurants were more brightly lit, people were better informed, and even the ancient columns and street of the main Souk al-Hamidiyeh were undergoing a sensitive restoration. Government officials insisted that if everyone would only be patient, change was now really on its way. In his State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush had categorized Syria as part of an “axis of evil.” I felt this was wrong. I went back to Ali Farzat’s office to see whether his magazine’s slow struggle might now epitomize a possible reawakening in Syria.
When I sat down with Farzat, however, he waved a piece of paper in front of me. It informed him that the government had decided that the Lamplighter could sell no more then 14,420 copies. And all had to go through the government distribution system.
“To cover our expenses I have to sell thirty-five thousand copies! There should be rules to allow us to work as a private press. They issued this with no warning, no discussion. They just say: We have to distribute it. And they want to take a forty percent cut. It’s as if we, the private sector, are producing for the state. Then they have ordered all ads to go through the government’s Arab Advertising Organization, which takes a twenty-seven percent cut. They do absolutely nothing, and the state gives me no advertising at all!”
“Can’t you complain? What about Dr. Bashar?”
“Even the minister of information refuses to see me or to talk on the phone.”
“I know how that feels.”
“What can I tell you? Our research affects people, hits those responsible. People who fear their interests will be damaged find ways to fight innovation. We need to find a new way to push our civilization forward. The newspaper isn’t a success just for us, but for the country itself. It is a symbol of development. It should have gone farther.”
I continued on my rounds, reluctant to give up. I learned that six months before, Riad Seif, the brave opposition politician, had organized a meeting of a few hundred democracy activists. He was thrown into jail, where he would remain for more than four years. An American diplomat told me the regime was no longer about the Big Man, but the Big Lie: Outwardly the most stable place in the world, inwardly scrambling to save itself every day.
Of course, like all the oil-fueled dictatorships of the Middle East, one reason for the lack of change was that oil supplied 70 percent of Syria’s export income. The situation was similar in Iran: As long as the regime had enough money to bankroll its support base, it could survive. Leaders tolerated corruption because, in the absence of popular legitimacy, corrupt ministers could be relied on to be loyal. As in the Soviet Union, which had a similar resource-based source of funds for the regime, dissidents could be tolerated as long as they mounted no direct challenge. On the other hand, a country like Turkey, with few natural resources, is forced to be more pluralistic, open, and democratic, since it has to borrow money every week from domestic and international markets.
I paid a call on Haitham Maleh, an elderly lawyer who still insisted on holding the regime to account from an old colonial-era apartment building in the heart of Damascus. It was a feature of Syria’s dictatorship that few young people bothered fighting for human rights. In the absence of domestic publicity, Maleh pursued his cause meeting with diplomats and Arab and international correspondents. He sent Dr. Bashar letters pointing out the contradictions between Syria’s constitution and its emergency laws. He waved a copy of a secret ordinance showing that civil servants could be brought to account only if their superiors permitted it. Sitting under a piece of elaborate embroidery he had done in jail, Maleh laughed at the idea that the United States would ever really help someone like him promote democracy in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.
“All our Arab dictators are made in the USA. It’s because the U.S. just wants one person to talk to, to get their business done. Here they’ve made us a very strong, fascist dictator. What can we do about it?” he asked.
Indeed, in the months after September 11, the rhetoric from the United States toward Syria had grown threatening once again. I passed by a shop that sold elaborately woven Damascus fabrics, which I used to visit often as a student, and from which I bought the sparkling turquoise silk that my wife used to make her wedding gown. I remembered in 1980 how the bolts of cloth formed a rippling wall of golds, silvers, and scarlets. Now just a few rolls remained, and the Kurdish owner complained that his business was nearly dead. Tour agencies minimized their stays in difficult, corrupt Syria and the tourists no longer had time to shop.
By 2009, the opposition gadfly Riad Seif was still not being allowed out of the country to have his prostate cancer treated. Instead, he was sent back to jail. The 1963 state of emergency was still in force and hundreds of political prisoners remained confined, including many who came to prominence in the stillborn Damascus Spring. The three years of difficulties of the Lamplighter, which collapsed under all the pressure in 2003, might have made a story in another newspaper. But the Journal did not think that Americans wanted to dwell on failure as usual. The editors preferred upbeat narratives.
“Let’s just drop the Syria story, Hugh. It’s not happening. It’s not your fault,” Bill Spindle said after we’d talked through another wasted week of interviews. “Syria hasn’t changed, so we just won’t write a story about it.”
In February 2003, three years after the great change that never was, I was once again passing through Syria. I was going to Iraq and had to report to the border base of the mukhabarat, Syrian Intelligence, that apparent oxymoron that wagging tongues savor all over the Middle East. My driver dropped me at the end of a long series of barricades leading to a compound sealed off by high concrete walls. I had no idea which of Syria’s many secret services this actually housed. At the guard hut, I explained my mission to a Syrian plainclothes agent with a Kalashnikov rifle on his shoulder. When I was a student in Damascus, such guards stood outside the houses of the elite, and at night sometimes suspiciously trained the barrel of the gun on me as I walked by.
“Do you know the way?” he asked me, taking another sip on a brass straw of South American maté, beloved of Syrian minorities like Alawis and Druze. Their communities had picked up the taste after migrations there to escape from past poverty and persecution by the Sunni Muslim majority and now consumed it as a badge of empowerment.
“Of course not!” I said.
He gave some peremptory directions and sent me off alone into the intelligence compound. I wandered through overgrown streets of what in French colonial days must have been a delightful row of villas. The buildings were in various stages of collapse, and vegetation was running riot. The nondescript one-story house pointed out to me had the same tumbledown appearance. In front, water overflowed from the bowl of a fountain with dirty green tiles. The outside wings of the villa were falling down and had many missing windows, but toward the center of the building I saw signs of renovation.
Next to where I stood were three Russian military trucks alongside a white van that had collapsed with a broken axle. I felt that I was visiting the commander of a rebel unit that had just captured some far-flung third-world outpost, not the executive arm of a working government. The idea that such a tumbledown country should ever trouble the strategic vision of the United States seemed absurd.
Somebody was trying to attract my attention from the top of the steps. Inside, two rooms had been fixed up for the man I had to see, Colonel Suleyman. He sported a loud blue-checked jacket and a very soft handshake. Two teenage boys sat on a sofa to one side, one of them his son, playing annoyingly with a Samsung mobile phone that produced irregular, loud bursts of reverberant music. The colonel looked on indulgently. He called for coffee as we began to go through the paperwork. He happily volunteered that I was in a Military Intelligence base.
He also made clear that he was a Christian, a Syriac Orthodox. I knew the ancient center of this faith in nearby Turkey well, and I was struck by a paradox. Syria was Washington’s enemy, mainly because of its below-the-belt kicks at Israel and the West, and partly because of its dictatorship. Turkey was America’s friend, for all kinds of reasons including its democracy and its cooperation with Israel. But it struck me suddenly that no Christian, like this man in Syria, would ever be allowed into a position of authority in Turkey. In fact, there were hardly any Syriacs left in the country thanks to Ankara’s century-long drive for ethnoreligious purity. Taking the paradox one step farther, the Christian colonel believed he owed his luck to the secular Arab nationalist ideology of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, the target of so much U.S. criticism. Syria and its surviving ethnic mosaic could seem the society that had remained truest to the old ways of the Middle East. Indeed, when I first lived in Aleppo, I used to pass by the shop of a middle-aged Armenian who still made that symbol of Ottoman times, the red and tasseled fez, a brimless hat pressed in heavy metal molds.
Since I was going to Iraq, which was ruled by another Baath Party and which the United States was about to invade, I asked Colonel Suleyman what the difference was between a Syrian and an Iraqi Baathist.
“Oh, very different!” he said, as if we were talking about Nigeria and Switzerland. “They’re rightist. We’re leftist. We’re more open-minded. And our leader is Dr. Bashar!’
We filled in more papers. We savored the paradox of my mother’s apparently male name. We worried about his son’s education. He took time off for a phone call in which he only picked up the receiver, listened, and replaced it. I waited deferentially to be released from my penance. Time stood still.
My eyes drifted back to the television on the ornamental display case in front of a bookshelf with no books in it. Syrian state TV had gone live to parliament, where Dr. Bashar was addressing the deputies and the people. We all watched him launch into a series of off-the-cuff remarks, his trademark I’m-one-of-the-people style that seems to show him to be a radical patriot, or potential populist.
Normally, Syrian posters of the British-trained eye doctor showed him striking the Hamlet-like pose of a man deeply pained by the state of the world, angry at the injustice of it, and possibly, or just as possibly not, gearing up to take revenge. On his wall, Colonel Suleyman preferred an unusual picture of Dr. Bashar in a cruel tyrant pose: black suit, dark glasses, unflinching expression. Elsewhere, people who were unsatisfied by Bashar’s to-be-or-not-to-be ambivalence added a picture of his father Hafez al-Assad, who looked undeniably tough and decisive, even if dead, or a militaristic pose struck by Hafez’s first heir apparent, his son Basil, also dead, killed long before in a car accident while speeding to the airport to catch a plane. With this spooky triumvirate, Syria’s father, son, and holy ghost, the regime wanted to maintain the illusion of being led by the toughest thugs on the block, a warning to any who might plot to take on their tribe or their country.
“Look at Dr. Bashar,” said Colonel Suleyman, admiringly pointing at the TV. “He’s speaking without a written speech. That shows he’s really got brains.”
I thought that Dr. Bashar was a prisoner, a bit like everyone in Syria, but politely said nothing. The Syrians, even Colonel Suleyman as he cheerily waved me off, still wanted to believe that the change from the old Assad to the new Assad meant that something better was on the way in their politically blighted lives. But it was surely going to take a terribly long time.
P.S. The maté straw plays an enigmatic role here in this spoof video example of black, deadpan Syrian humor, mocking the failure of Arab monitors to spot the tanks whose shelling was part of the awful violence in Homs. When activists hacked into Dr. Bashar’s email account, they found that the Syrian president had forwarded the skit to an aide.
Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.
The mind boggles at the $63 billion US effort Van Buren describes as he and other Americans of good will and otherwise “helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck”. Arabic translations of American classics are dumped behind schools, bureaucratic programs live and die in fashion cycles of a few months, and short-term photo-opportunities usually beat the occasional focus on long-term problems. And in 2009-2010, Van Buren happened to be there with the cool and independence of mind to note the nonsense down, even as his desert outposts were mortared by insurgents who scorned the “so-called Awakening, a program through which we paid money to Sunni insurgents to stop killing us.”
Van Buren doffs his hat first to the Vietnam-era Dispatches by Michael Herr and to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from the Second World War. There is not the same epic depth to We Meant Well, but van Buren gets close. Chapter after chapter details narcissistic, ill-adapted and commercially impossible American schemes: stillborn facilities supposed to commercialize milk marketing in a country that lacked refrigeration, projects that wish bees on unwilling Iraqi widows and a Potemkin chicken-processing factory that only worked when putting on a show for visitors.
One triumph of absurdity is Van Buren’s team’s efforts to improve something as basic as water supplies and sewage treatment, until, as usual, the project stumbles over a vital but unbudgeted extra item. After all, how would Japanese and Belgian planners and funders know that an Iraqi sewage plant needs machine-gun nests to stop people stealing everything as soon as it is installed? He continues:
“The old saying ‘Any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going’ seemed to apply. Our efforts, well-meaning but almost always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect local work with national goals. Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together (monkeys typing might produce Shakespeare) … You don’t know what you don’t measure, leaving much of our work to have all the impact of a cheap direct-to-DVD martial arts movie.”
Along the way, dissidents like Van Buren were quickly apprised by their peers and superiors of an unspoken rule that they should believe that “you can’t really tell, but we’re winning”. Failing that, they should “stop making a fuss. No one cares about the money, we have lots of money, and not spending it angers people. We all know we are not going to really change much in Iraq, so just do your year in the desert.”
Much of the US effort was hobbled by America’s wish to believe its own preconceptions, formed by high-minded ideology and a willful disinterest in what mattered on the ground. Van Buren finds that Americans running the war effort aimed to “hide the US role and make it seem like all the projects were local efforts, something we made ourselves believe while no one else did”, had the illusion that “Iraqis want to be like us”, and were unwilling to face the possibility that “some people became insurgents not because they lacked fast-food jobs and iPads but because they hated the presence of a foreign invader in their country.”
I found this fascinatingly similar to the problems of US journalistic coverage of the Middle East, which in my book Dining with al-Qaeda I try to show can often be an artificial and misleading hybrid between reality and what Americans want to believe. Van Buren watches a visiting reporter fail to see that the U.S.-funded project he has come to inspect is fake, noting dryly that “it turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story.” The soldiers, of course, are always dutifully upbeat about their duties when speaking to reporters on hand to witness hand-outs to Iraqis. Afterwards, Van Buren reports, the soldiers reveal their real feelings in between spitting chewed Skoal into empty Gatorade bottles: “fuck these people, we give ‘em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.”
The Iraqis had their reasons to be upset. The 2003 US invasion made several aspects of everyday life worse for Iraqis than when Saddam was in charge – at the same time as the US had taken over many of Saddam’s palaces, secret police outposts and jails. Power supplies remain completely inadequate, although the U.S. found solipsistic ways to pretend they had improved; few kids attend rural schools, and even then only for half the previous amount of time, because in the new Islamic Iraq “boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime”. A veterinary doctor points out that “under Saddam we at least got medicines once in a while. Now we are free, but we don’t have medicine.” Or clean water. All this, eight years after the American-ordained era began.
Most interestingly of all, the book gives a deeply satisfying account of what it is like to live on Forward Operating Bases in the Iraqi desert. Unsentimental passages describe the life and language of soldiers (for instance, when frozen shrimpette served in the canteen makes it appropriate to say “we suck less tonight”); how an occasional random project to help Iraqis actually worked (an aging American lady who helped Iraqis with their cows, and the founding of a boy scout troop); the understated companionship of soldiers when one of their number commits suicide; and how the American bases’ sharia-like bans on sex and alcohol were often violated (a graffiti message in the Sri Lankan-cleaned latrines advertises ‘eight-inch cut dude needs rough sex tonight behind gym’.)
Van Buren takes a quietly naïve approach, making his points about the real Iraq through acutely observed detail with a minimum of ideological finger-wagging. But in the acknowledgements, he does drop his guard, a moment of bitterness from a Japanese- and Chinese-speaking foreign service officer who feels profoundly let down by the policy choices of the George W. Bush presidency. In a comment that is, as usual, applicable to matters well beyond those of his professional purview, Van Buren gives in his acknowledgments “not thanks really, but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned it there.”
When I was wondering what to call my new book on the broader Middle East, I went to Homer’s bookshop in Istanbul to check out the many shelves full of competition. I soon decided I didn’t want my title to be heavy with dry theorification about Islam, democracy, politics, or terrorism. It also seemed a bit soft to join the romantic set, beckoning readers with images of Persian nights, caravans, deserts, marshes and mountains. But I didn’t want to go to the other extreme with gory high drama. In just recent years, the sanguinary sub-class alone has included dozens of titles like Holy Blood; the Blood of Lambs; the Blood of the Moon; Blood, Sweat and Steel; Blood and Oil in the Orient; and my favorite, The Land of Blood and Honey.
Middle East book titles have to struggle for attention: about 300 come out every year in the U.S. alone. I wanted something that conjured up multiple dimensions, like Stephen Glain’s Dreaming of Damascus (actually about the economics of the front-line Arab states), or Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? (about the Kurds). When I gave up on my first title idea — Mr. Q., I Love You – and settled on Dining with al-Qaeda, I was pleased that I’d featured the Q-word, but in an unexpected way that might draw in a reader seeking the back story. What better way to symbolize the human side of things than breaking bread together? Little did I realize that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that there were already volumes called Dining with Terrorists, The Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Tea with Hezbollah. They have now been joined by Tea with the Taliban: war reporting for beginners.
Actually it’s Thee met de Taliban, since it’s written in Dutch (De Geus, 2010) by Deedee Derksen. It’s fresh and topical, the fruit of Derksen’s past four years living and working in Afghanistan, mostly reporting for the Dutch left-leaning newspaper De Volkskrant. I was particularly interested to see that in some ways she shared my own confusion about the country, especially about the Taliban and women.
Derksen meets women who tell her that life was actually o.k. under the Taliban, and that things had gone downhill since they were driven from power. The bigger problem in women’s lives was violence and chaos. Schools for girls were all very well, but rights were not much use without honest courts to enforce them. As Derksen says: “I would hear from rural women that there was no change in their lives before or after the Taliban” and that, compared to deeper problems like unemployment and power cuts, “Western concerns with cultural matters just poured oil on the flames.”
Derksen’s mission to Afghanistan took flight when her new posting was announced at a public event, at which her Volkskrant editor was challenged about the lack of coverage of the ‘other side’ by Joris Luyendijk, an ex-journalist Dutch commentator known for his iconoclasm about Dutch coverage of Middle East news in his book Het Zijn Net Mensen, recently published in English as Hello Everybody. But she soon finds herself wrapped up in the expatriate whirl of Kabul.
“The crazy thing is that as a war correspondent in Afghanistan it’s not at all easy to get to the war,” she says, despite the fact, as she details, the Pentagon spends an annual $4.7 billion on public relations and employs 27,000 people to supply upbeat pictures and stories for the press corps. One of the Pentagons front-line media handlers digs up Derksen’s file in their computer, along with her picture and an evaluation of her reports. If a reporter is judged to be “negative”, this handler says, the Pentagon will cut him or her off.
She’s judged to be neutral and gets to see a terrifying part of the American side of the war in a distant mountain valley: “that’s it, people: bombs, grenades, and fear so pure that you begin believing in God on the spot”. But she’s frustrated that she can’t hear at first hand what Afghan villages think of what is being done in their name, and worries that maybe she’s giving a one-dimensional, Hollywood rewrite of what people already think the war is. She gets hooked on the idea of getting to the bottom of it all, and of not being like the Westerners in their “luxury jail” in Kabul, who speak about what Afghans think without ever speaking to Afghans. “The more often I went [to Kabul], the more often I wanted to go. It was a sort of gold rush fever.”
Panning for this gold was tough. Travel proved dangerous and the risk of kidnapping great. Afghan militants targeted Westerners, be they journalists, aid workers or diplomats. Reporting was a juggling act of managing fixers, telephone calls to Taliban commanders, swapping information with local journalists, opportunistic interviews in Kabul with provincial visitors, and occasional sorties into the countryside. Western soldiers appear as almost accidental actors. One Dutch lieutenant studied to be a hotelier and tells Derksen “and then I went and did this.” An American “Major B”, who only “lives in the world of Major B”, gives her bibles to study admits that he is busy trying to proselytize the Afghan population – and then advises her to read Tolkien, “an author at home in the Christian tradition”. She attends a painstakingly arranged town-hall meeting between the American troops and Afghans, at which the Americans rush away before listening to anybody. And, of course, editors all want it summed up in 700 words, with villain and victim clearly identified.
She admits that sometimes, the more she hears about the real Afghanistan war, the less she understands. Reporting one story, “every Mohammad says the other Mohammad is a murderer, which the said Mohammad admits, while pointing the finger straight back. At Mohammad.” There are tales of head-hacking cruelty by the Taliban, for sure, but she attacks the myth of any ideological divide between Taliban and non-Taliban, says non-Pashtuns do not necessarily rule out cooperating with the group and that the Karzai government is in a semi-permanent negotiation with them about its own survival. Above all, she notes that no Afghan faction is necessarily more ‘Islamic’ than another, all having shared in an upsurge in religious extremism and violence during the past decades of war.
Among ordinary Afghans, she finds farmers have little incentive to cultivate more than poppies for opium, since there are no refrigerated stores or roads to transport vegetables or other normal crops. During an attempt to track down the financing of an aid project, she finds that everyone believes a different sum of money is involved. Afghans feel Koran schools are preferable to no schools at all; yet ignorance means that young, poor, illiterate Afghans are susceptible to anything, from acting as suicide bombers to believing that American soldiers’ sunglasses mean they can see straight through you. She reaches one Afghan village to find its conservatism a façade, with everything for sale in secret, from whisky to opium to prostitutes, be they young or old, women or men. “All very hypocritical,” the phlegmatic local Afghan governor tells her.
She shows again and again how the chief ingredient of the Afghanistan war is village feuds, sometimes magnified by Western arms and support into province-wide conflicts that are mistakenly interpreted as being struggles about the fate of the Kabul regime. She finds that storied gunfights between American troops and the “Taliban” can also be described more simply as clashes between the Americans and “armed men who hate the Americans”, fueled in part by a high rate of civilian Afghan casualties rarely admitted to by the Pentagon press machine. Between Afghans, the role of victim and killer has switched so often that everyone is performing in both roles, all waiting for their chance of a sign of weakness to “hold the other’s head under the water.”
Derksen’s strongest criticism is of the Western governments, who ignored Afghanistan for too long and still give it far less support for reconstruction than other post-conflict situations. (In East Timor, she says there was one international peacekeeper for every 65 people; the figure is one for every 5,380 in Afghanistan). The US is blamed for storming in like cowboys in 2001, shooting for al-Qaeda and hiring anyone who would help, however corrupt. “The US and other NATO countries pretend that there is a properly functioning government, but there isn’t”, she quotes a disillusioned American aid worker as saying. “It’s a band of criminals who are raping the country. We pretend that we’re not responsible, but we are.”
Looking at the four-year Dutch misadventure trying and failing to bring peace and development to the province of Uruzgan, she asks whether The Hague had ever thought through what it meant to take their mission into a place where the US was arming and supporting a regional faction that was clearly oppressing many local people – and on whose support the Dutch also relied for their lifeline of convoy-borne supplies. Or was The Hague in fact fully aware of the situation, sending in its troops simply to be a good U.S. ally, and never mind about the fate of the Afghans? The whole disaster, she reckons, was a bad piece of theater that could only be called “War For the Wrong People Against the Wrong People.”
I read much of Tea with the Taliban on a transatlantic flight, and on arrival in the U.S. I did some occasional testing of its findings. Indeed, judging by my straw poll of experiences and conversations over a week, America still seemed to be both aware of and disconnected from the Afghan reality. Shawn, my driver from the airport to a lecture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, knew a thing or two. His best friend was serving on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border, and had just been back home to tell of his experiences. The poor friend was apparently strung out as taut as the trip-wire of an IED, drinking heavily as he told of his ‘seven confirmed kills’, of being administered military drugs to stay awake on night duties, and, in a telling irony, of being unable to see as much from his base watchtower with state of the art night-sight equipment as his Afghan army companion could see with his bare eyes. On top of that, as Derksen often points out, he was utterly sealed off from the Afghan civilian population.
On the first morning of my visit, the hotel’s complimentary copy of USA Today had just one page of foreign news. Half of it was a story called “Afghan villagers stronger against Taliban” (here). The US general in charge of a province, perhaps in charge of Shawn’s friend, was claiming that a new strategy aimed at making Afghan villages defend themselves was working. This was an interesting claim, given that Derksen shows in her book that it is precisely in the villages that the Afghan war starts and Western influence ends. And, illustrating another of Derksen’s complaints, there wasn’t a single Afghan voice in the piece, let alone a quote from the Taliban, or any sign that the reporter had been able to go to an Afghan village to check out if indeed its inhabitants felt stronger. Instead the report was just assertions by the military, accompanied by a few vague ‘to be sure’ paragraphs, which, if taken seriously, would actually contradict the military claims, and, indeed, the whole point of writing the story. As International Crisis Group says in its new report on Afghanistan: “An alluring narrative of a successful counter-insurgency campaign has begun to take shape, but the storyline does not match facts on the ground.” Or, as a recent call by some of the best writers on and aid workers in Afghanistan put it, “the military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” The only verified new fact in that USA Today report appeared to be the obituary notice naming two more young American soldiers in their early 20s killed by an IED in Kandahar.
(The coverage is not all like this, of course. Much more to the point was another piece done around the same time for National Public Radio’s intrepid Quil Lawrence (here). Jumping from helicopters perilously perched on cliff-edges, Quil laconically reveals the mindlessness of the war and how little communication there is even within the various U.S. groups trying to get a grip on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – let alone between the Americans and the Afghans themselves.)
My other conversations in America did not encourage me to believe that much was about to change. Amherst, I was told by the generous professorial hosts of my visit for an evening lecture about Turkey’s new strategic choices, is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States, with 8000 candidates for 400 places every year. Yet not a single student showed up for a brown-bag lunch organized to discuss journalism and the Middle East. In Washington DC, a highly placed former US official informed me that there was no chance of the US leaving Afghanistan in 2014, as is being publicly suggested. Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not even feature in the recent mid-term election campaign.
If anger about these expensive and damaging conflicts was being expressed anywhere, it was in worsening sentiment blaming all Muslims for the trouble. The Moroccan immigrant who drove me away from Amherst was sanguine about his personal safety, but said that the real enemy was ignorance, the problem that writers like Derksen and I are trying to combat with books about Middle Eastern realities on the ground. “I came to the U.S. to be a guide to the Moroccan pavilion at Disney world, and that’s the kind of place where you really find out how little people know about what goes on outside America,” he said. “One person looked at me and asked if in Morocco we lived in the trees.”
Having persuaded myself that America under President Obama is becoming more sophisticated in its approach to the Middle East — opening its eyes to the complications of Afghanistan and Iraq, questioning its blanket support for Israel, renouncing the legacy of the neocons — watching the film ‘The Hurt Locker’ was an unexpected reality check of how slowly some things change.
Within minutes, I was believing nothing that I was seeing. By half way, I was wondering why some intelligent friends could like a movie that seemed so absurd to me, and why there was such unanimity among top film critics to love it — “one of the great war films” (Time), an “unqualified triumph” (the Los Angeles Times) and uniquely “honest” (amazon.com). By the time the credits started rolling, I was furiously puzzling about why Hollywood granted six Oscars to what seemed to be a screenplay more suited for retooling as a clever parody of B movie war films. ‘The Hurt Locker’ clashes with almost all aspects of my experiences of Iraq, war zones and American soldiers, and, I believe, has an insidiously militarist subtext.
Take the opening sequence: it is unthinkable that an Iraqi would casually come up to an American unit engaged in high-tension bomb disposal to exchange peculiar pleasantries about California. A middle-aged man appears at a butcher’s shop fiddling clumsily with a cellphone. If he’s deliberately triggering the bomb, why does he come outside where he will be seen and is in direct range of the blast? Or if he is an idiotic butcher trying to make a call, which coincidentally triggers the bomb, then any cellphone could set off an explosion. Every house in that street would have had people busily phoning each other.
It gets worse when the hero, war junkie Sgt. James, appears on the scene. The first confrontation is again totally implausible: no Baghdad taxi driver would ever speed into an obvious area of tension and large-scale U.S. military operations. After that we are shown an Iraqi behind a balcony grill watching Sgt. James drag up seven booby-trapped 155mm shells with one hand (wish I could do that – that’s about 300kg, the weight of three big men). The implication is that this Iraqi laid the trap. If so, why doesn’t he detonate the blast? And when he comes face to face with Sgt. James, bomb-maker meeting bomb-defuser, why does Sgt. James, the wild man who has just shot up an apparently innocent taxi, do nothing except impotently wave the detonator in his face?
Then comes an emergency after a suspicious-looking car is abandoned at a UN building. Apparently, this is all about a suicide bombing that’s been aborted. I suppose this because Sgt. James finds a detonating switch next to the steering wheel, and an insurgent tries to blow up the car with a desperate shot from a balcony. This is an assumption, since the mumbled dialogue reveals little about the details of what we’re watching. A statue-like man menacingly films the action. Is he an insurgent readying a video for YouTube, as the soldiers plausibly debate? But that’s impossible, too. He’s too close and would have been incinerated in any blast, with his camera. A group of three middle-aged men, apparently co-conspirators, make obscure signals to the cameraman – from the balcony on top of a nearby minaret, exactly where no conspirators would have stood in full view of the Americans and in range of the massive bomb. And even if they were part of the plot, as the soldiers say they believe, why don’t they shoot them?
After Sgt. James has finished his dramatically mad bomb disposal, a senior officer appears. The commander’s crescendo of praise seems to be setting Sgt. James up to be slapped down for reckless behaviour, as would certainly have happened in real life. But no! The commander seems to be congratulating Sgt. James for 873 successful bomb disposals. The scene ends with a whimper of Sgt. James’ homespun wisdom that the trick of the game is all about not getting killed. Yet all we have seen so far is evidence that Sgt. James must have used up his nine lives ninety times.
Then comes the scene in the desert. Ah, the burning desert! We must be in Iraq, Arabia, the evil, hostile otherland. For some unlikely and unexplained reason, our heroes are out there all alone in this heart of desertness. Another amazement: they stumble across an SUV that has been carrying four fully armed Englishmen, who, by an extraordinary coincidence, not only have a seriously big machine gun in the trunk but have just that day captured two former top officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime! And they’re all alone too! They have a punctured tyre, but their wrench is out of action because one of them “threw it at someone”. Say again please?
No time to puzzle out this latest improbability: out of nowhere, the insurgents attack! An Englishman breaks cover to charge across open ground — where the unseen enemy has already shot dead one of his men — just to take pot shots at his two escaping captives. They’ve had a long time to get away, but he drops them nevertheless. Just as well, because this gives him the chance to hack away ruminatively at more of the wooden screenplay: “I forgot … it’s 500,000 quid dead or alive.” In the end the insurgents shoot dead three of the Anglo-US party, even though the film makes clear that they are 850 meters away and only have primitive equipment. Few trained snipers would be able to achieve such a result, even on a rifle range.
I’ve gone on long enough without even starting on Sgt. James’s impossibly bizarre solo mission into the back streets of Baghdad. Real veterans of the Iraq War have already taken issue with such details (here in the Atlantic, for instance). Of course the film is fiction, as it states. But it does everything to make us believe it is representing reality. The script, the film’s hype often boasts, resulted from work by an embedded freelancer who wanted to show the soldiers’ war. The shaky camerawork is supposed to make us feel that we are watching an edgy documentary. The extras are real Iraqi refugees, being filmed in Jordan, sometimes as close as possible to the Iraqi border.
This brings me to a point I try to make about journalism in Dining with al-Qaeda. Having an audience believe in the reality of a story is critical to triggering a strong emotional response. It’s the same whether telling stories round a camp fire or writing for the New York Times. And this is where the ‘The Hurt Locker’ does a real disservice to Americans. Although the film is shot with no overt politics or discussion among the soldiers about why they are in Iraq, there is a clear agenda behind all those brilliantly filmed slo-mo pressure waves, sinister improvised explosive devices and the jaunty, hips-thrust-forward gait of Sgt. James as he cockily lopes into action in his bomb suit.
Take the film’s portrayal of Iraqis, for instance. I can accept that ordinary American soldiers don’t have the access to ordinary people that I was lucky to have as an Arabic-speaking civilian, and I too witnessed some of the soldiers’ frustrated interactions with the ‘hajjis’. But nothing justifies the film’s total negativity towards the inhabitants of the country, and it does not match my experience of the overall U.S. military work with Iraqis. One by one, ‘The Hurt Locker’ portrays Iraqis as cowardly, poor, inadequate, base, stupid, treacherous, dangerous, wild, wily, living in filthy cities or most commonly just blank-faced and threatening. The only half-positive character is a cheeky DVD-selling boy on the base who is befriended by Sgt. James (note to casting director: when developing world kids pick up perfect jive-talk, they pick up perfectly fluent accents too). But other Iraqis, those inhuman nihilists, murder the boy or someone like him and then booby-trap his body.
Having thoroughly transferred this most primitive view of Iraqis to the audience, the film also trashes the idea that they understand anything other than the language of force. The vehicle for this is the unit psychiatrist, portrayed as an other-worldly ivy-league man who means oh-so-well but is utterly out of his depth. This ‘doc’ rides along with the disposal squad on a mission and is somehow left in the wasteland outside, mocked by the locals and the scriptwriter as he says absurdly ‘I love it here. This is a beautiful place.’ (Another military disconnect: never would four lone soldiers take on a vast, newly discovered insurgent base and bomb-making factory.) His naïve and wimpish approach no doubt represents the ideas of silly liberals like me who believe that engagement is better than the use of force. It earns him the right, immediately granted by the director, to be blown away by the very people he’s been foolish enough to try to be friendly to.
For any who think I’ve been touched by too much of the real Middle Eastern sun, read on. The scene with the suicide bomber clinches it. Here, the forces of jihadi darkness have encased an man in a bomb jacket and he’s begging to be defused, since, as he says, he’s a decent family man with children and just wants to go home. The good American, Sgt. James, decides to risk his own life to free him from his fate. For those uninitiated in the doctrines of American Middle East militarists, this is the gloss: at great cost to ourselves, we are ready to liberate you from Saddam Hussein, we are idealistically struggling to bring you democracy, we want to free you from the cage of your tyrannical and/or Islamofascist regimes. But here’s the problem: this Iraqi is locked into his bomb, and even Sgt. James’s miracles can’t release him. So on to the next step of the doctrine: ultimately, it’s all the Middle East’s fault. America has done its best to help, but the region is incurable. The bomb obliterates the Iraqi.
To ram home the point that violence is the only way to deal with the Middle Eastern labyrinth, the film then sacrifices the only credible main character, the African-American Sgt. Sanborn. Having rightly resisted and criticized Sgt. James’s antics for most of the film, Sgt. James’s act of lunatic bravery with the suicide bomber inexplicably flips Sgt. Sanborn from being the common-sense foil into the accomplice. The subtext here is the shared ground between war-hungry Republican neocons and Democrat hawks — the conceit that they are liberals “mugged by reality”. It’s the Bernard Lewis doctrine again: ‘hit those Muslims hard and they’ll soon obey’. This message also lies behind by the early scene where Sgt. James’s willpower and readiness to fire his pistol is all that forces a supposedly stubborn Iraqi to back down from a confrontation.
It’s possible that the film-makers have no agenda and were just mugged by common American prejudices about the Middle East’s troubles. These are the same misconceptions about the traumas of ordinary peoples trapped in extraordinary circumstances which, from my corner, I go to some lengths to try to defuse in Dining with al-Qaeda. The reason I find an innocent explanation of ‘The Hurt Locker’ hard to accept is that the reality that is doing the mugging here is so artificial. I have rarely seen a more undignified and unbelievable character progression as when the sensible Sgt. Sanborn suddenly salutes Sgt. James’s lethally mad “courage”. To add insult to injury, the director forces the face of the previously focused, four-square Sgt. Sanborn into an expression of dog-like devotion.
This is of course a film told from the point of view of the ordinary soldier, to whom the situation in Iraq did seem pretty baffling. There are moments where the film does ring a faint bell, when we see the hesitant team specialist’s terrors, or Sgt. James’s sudden kindnesses to his companions under extreme pressure. But that doesn’t go anywhere near justifying all the other distortions. And the film fails utterly as a story: the crazy and mostly repetitive events of the film work no change in the hero, his family’s needs do not melt him and he just goes back to the war. So the film ends more or less where it started, with Sgt. James doing his trademark I’m-the-king-of-the-hill walk, somewhere between keep on truckin’ and fuck-’em-all.
That’s because the film’s principal theme is that “war is a drug”, as journalist Chris Hedges put it in a compelling and self-critical book on his addiction to war reporting. Almost as if the director suspects that viewers won’t get the point, the quote is spelled out not once but twice right after the opening credits. Friends whose views I respect say that this exciting representation of a war junkie is what keeps them thrilled to the end. They dismiss as unimportant the idea that the Middle Eastern context is distractingly misrepresented, and wave away my argument that a similar dice-with-death film could never have won such praise if it was filmed against an unrealistic American backdrop. But even on these narrow terms, I question the artistic value of a continuum of unchanging illustrations of Sgt. James’s recklessness. There’s no subtlety about it. The director seems to feel this weakness towards the end. When the film’s quiet, nervous third main person is injured due to Sgt. James’s folly, the film suddenly has him scream super-sophisticated blame of the danger-seeker’s motives: “Looking for trouble to get your fucking adrenaline fix, you fuck!” That’s character development?
If this film is really going to be studied in 20 years time as “a classic of tension, fear and bravery”, as the New Yorker suggests, I hope the emphasis will be on finding out why film-directors, movie-goers and war-makers all seem to fall for such nonsense so easily.
If you enjoyed this rant, have a look at this splendid deconstruction of Katherine Bigelow’s subsequent film Zero Dark Thirty in the blog The Feminist Wire, where writer Sophia Azeb points out that the faceless brown hordes of Pakistan are often made to speak not their native Urdu, but Arabic.
One of my favourite chapters in Dining with al-Qaeda is Chapter Eight, ‘War, War to Victory’, set in and around the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. In this part of the book I try to show the reader how the Iranians’ sense of martyrdom for God and Iran is not that different from the blind volunteering to fight for God and Country that decimated my grandfathers’ generation in the First World War.
The chapter also refers to the mortification of the flesh practiced by some Shia Muslims each year in the holy month of Ashura, a ritual practiced by some as they mourn the ancient murder of members of the family of the Prophet Mohammed. My father Maurice Pope, making his way through the book, wrote in to make the point that there is nothing uniquely Muslim about the tradition of self-punishment.
There is a marvelous Latin rhymed hymn (anonymous but thought to be 13th century) in which the singer seeks to identify himself with Mary as she watches her son being crucified and works himself up into a frenzy of self-flagellation, first:
“let me share your tears”
fac me vere tecum flere
“no, let me share Christ’s own death, let me feel his suffering, let me feel the strokes of the whip”
fac, ut portem Christi mortem, passionis eius sortem et plagas recolere
“make the strokes cut into me, make me drunk with the cross . . .”
fac me plagis vulnerari, cruce hac inebriari . . .
Solitary self-flagellation within Christianity goes back a long way, I suppose at least to the Desert Fathers, but this kind of rejoicing in it or making it a kind of celebration seems a bit different. Is there a link between it and the Shia practice – and if so what and where?
Rarely am I able to have the last word with my classicist father, but in this case my answer would have to be: mortification of the flesh is an eternal strand of human nature. As usual Wikipedia has many other answers about the phenomenon in various religions here. And their picture of Christian flagellants (above) reminded me of one picture taken as a young reporter in Lebanon that didn’t make it into the book (below).
I moved to Turkey in 1987, somewhat accidentally, since opening a Reuters news bureau in Istanbul was the first job I found after claustrophobia got the better of me in Beirut. But I have never left the country for more than a few months since then.
Dining alone in Ankara one evening last week, I was reminded of one of the reasons why: the ocakbaşı, pronounced odjakbashy, and meaning ‘the head of the hearth’.
Some people love Turkey’s Bosporus-side fish restaurants and their mezze appetizers, drenched in olive oil. Others like Turkish pide pizzas, calorie-packed döner kebabs or choosing from great steaming trays of ready-cooked meals. What really accelerates my appetite, however, is the ocakbaşı’s aroma of charcoal-roasted meats, watching blue smoke curling up under great brass hoods, and above all, the warm fug of jovial closeness of waiters and waited upon. This is the kind of place where men relax, ties are loosened, and hardened hearts open up.
In Ankara that night, I had stumbled on an ocakbaşı a few steps from my new hotel. I knew I was ready to fall in love when offered an opening teaser of tender sweet onions bathed in pomegranate essence and delightful newly-dried thyme. I asked its provenance from the usta, or master chef, gleaming from his exertions behind the glowing mound of charcoal. The thyme came specially from Konya, he said, three hours to the south over the high, rolling hills of the Anatolian plateau. Then he dug me out a great handful of the herb and wrapped it in a newspaper for me to take home.
Next came the salad known as gavurdağ, or ‘infidel mountain’, a potent mush of closely chopped rocket, lettuce, tomatoes, pomegranate essence and, in this case, walnuts. Turks assert the name has nothing to do with its close resemblance to carnage on a battlefield. That seems about as likely a story as that of the high official I met earlier that day. He told me that, as Turkey continues its striking political-economic comeback across the Middle East, neighbouring states need not fear neo-Ottoman hegemonic intent. “We feel the imperial reflex,” he said, and then laughed. “But we don’t tell them about it.”
Soon came my main dish of Adana kebab, gently spiced mince roasted on a flat sword of a skewer. The meats in an ocakbaşı are so irresistibly salty, seared and fresh, that I can sometimes go on to order three or four different courses. I cleared my palate with another sharp sip of rakı, the Turkish version of the aniseed spirit popular round the Mediterranean. This too is of a new generation. Only ten years ago I visited a state rakı factory where the manager complained that he was really a beer brewer and hated his job. He despised his ten-times over-manned factory, the public sector workers who slept instead of keeping watch on liquor runs from the stills, and the farmers who with impunity delivered loads of aniseed that were outweighed by earth. He even admitted that the rough “lions’ milk” that Turks were so proud of back then was one third French grape alcohol. Now, the alcohol market has been de-monopolised and Turkish rakı can be as velvety as the Lebanese arak I love so well.
Plate after plate of extras arrived, roasted eggplant, a balloon of new-baked unleavened bread sprinked with sesame seeds, strained yogurt with spices and then … mysteriously … a roast quail.
I couldn’t possibly eat any more, but the usta whispered in my ear that it was a gift from Osman Bey, over there. I followed his eyes and saw a plump, cheery figure in a red jumper enjoying his meats side-by-side with a friend as they watched the football on a flat-screen TV on the opposite wall. I nodded respectfully. The man smiled back. No choice but to eat it now, and the little bird was gamey and succulent. The dish was then whisked away to make space for a panorama of sliced fruit.
Completely overstuffed, I surrendered. I called for my bill, paid up and stopped to offer my thanks to the man with the red jersey. He was smiling serenely as he and his boon companion took another pull on the stubs of their enormous cigars. Over the past year European bans on smoking have been imposed with success in most Turkish public places, and his friend registered my look of surprise.
“This is the owner,” the man explained.
“The quail was delicious. You have a wonderful restaurant,” I said.
“We want people like you here,” said Osman the owner, by which he meant, international-looking customers, coming to the point of his generosity with exemplary Turkish frankness. He took in the conspiratorial, male-dominated clientele: “I’d like to see more women here too.”
“The restaurant is just his hobby, actually,” the boon companion said slyly. “He’s really an arms dealer, you know, guns, military equipment.”
That was more disclosure than even I expected, and thought I should stake out my position.
“That’s odd. I work for International Crisis Group, the conflict-prevention organization. I’m here as part of our work to try to help solve the problems over Cyprus and around the region!”
“Don’t end them all!” Osman Bey cheerfully retorted.
We all laughed. Yet I couldn’t feel any hostility. He hadn’t roasted a white dove of peace and sent it over. The mantra of the Middle East is that a human connection can beat an ideological contradiction. Still, I wondered if I had betrayed my calling, or whether I had been too prim.
After all, it has been my job to eat with many kinds of people – Western intelligence agents, goons from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, Israeli settlers, and, as the title of my new book Dining with al-Qaeda records, a jihadi Saudi missionary from the Afghanistan camps where al-Qaeda’s 9/11 plot matured. I had once been in the pay of a newspaper that was high-minded and excellent, but also lost in the misguided pursuit of something quite wrong, the invasion of Iraq.
As I walked back to my hotel through the dry, cold Ankara night air, I contemplated the Middle East’s lack of moral clarity. I also thanked the stars for the culture of the ocakbaşı. Here at least there can be a temporary truce, where I need only nod in half-protesting happiness as an assiduous usta reaches over the bed of hot coals and presents yet another plate of charcoal-scorched heaven, sprinkled, if I’m lucky, with the best Konya thyme.