Among the various mementoes accumulated from many visits to Libya over the years, a massive broken padlock is the starkest reminder of the 2011 revolution. I took it from the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli shortly after the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Macabre on one level, it nevertheless seemed an apposite symbol of incarceration and liberation, a bolt of light after four decades of gloom and despair. The fact that it was made in Italy, the former colonial power and oppressor, only added to the symbolism.
Walking through the prison provided a brief, harrowing glimpse into the shattered lives of those who had dared to challenge the regime. The sickly smell of disease was overpowering. Bottles of medicine were scattered everywhere. We walked through the cells with a middle-aged Libyan man, a former prisoner who had come to revisit the scene of the crimes. He broke down in tears as we roamed through the complex, recalling the cruelty and injustice he had suffered.
Abu Salim occupies a prominent place in the hierarchy of atrocities perpetrated by the Qaddafi regime. It was here, in 1996, that 1,200 prisoners were killed in cold blood, mowed down by machine guns, forklifted into refrigerated trucks and driven away.
Libyans have long memories. The legacy of that massacre lived on, so much so that Abu Salim proved the touchpaper for the revolution. Street protests by relatives of those who had been killed swelled into a broader uprising that erupted in the eastern city of Benghazi in February 2011, fuelled by the arrest of one of the lawyers who represented the families. Then came Colonel Qaddafi’s blood-curdling warning of more massacres, a strategic miscalculation that drew in Nato, hastened the demise of the regime and cost him his life.
Abu Salim had other unintended consequences. It incubated a generation of religious extremists, nurturing over many years the narrow Salafist ideology that is a significant, but by no means the only, reason for the country’s current collapse into turmoil. In an intensely revealing chapter in The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, Mary Fitzgerald, an Irish Times correspondent who has spent the past year living in Libya, chronicles the bewildering internal battles between the various militant factions whose attempts to reconcile differences within an umbrella movement failed and fractured, a microcosm of the new post-revolutionary Libya.
It isn’t difficult to discern a visceral dislike of democracy among this constituency. Some sent death threats – the lingua franca of their political discourse – to members of the National Transitional Council, or what they called, in a play on its Arabic name, the Majlis Al Wadani – Pagan Council.
Death threats and executions have since proliferated in eastern Libya, the headquarters of both religious militants and separatists, notably the killing of the United States ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012. If anyone doubted that the jihadists of ISIL could extend their reach into Tripoli, the bloody January 27 attack on the Corinthia Hotel, long a redoubt for local politicians, diplomats and foreign businessmen, served as another reminder that when national politics stall, the terrorists move in.
The attack also revealed the deadly consequences of the Libyan state’s loss of the monopoly of violence. Once the conservative hardliners had suffered heavy defeats in last summer’s elections, they quickly revealed their true colours, refusing to recognise the results, forming the armed Libya Dawn Alliance and seizing Tripoli. The election winners relocated to the eastern city of Tobruk and took up the name Dignity. Hence the two parliaments, the two notional governments, the two leaders in two cities. A new Dawn in the West, Dignity in the East – with little prospect in the short term of realising either. Pity the ordinary Libyans, 400,000 of whom from a population of six million have been displaced.
So where did it all go wrong? How did we go from euphoria to dystopia so quickly?
These are questions this book seeks to answer and in doing so it provides the most complete picture we have yet had of the Libyan revolution and its aftermath. The contributors are an expert bunch, ranging from the academic and Libya historian Dirk Vandewalle to Ian Martin, the United Nation’s former chief in Libya. Peter Cole, the lead editor, was the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Libya in 2011-2012. All have significant recent experience of post-Qaddafi Libya.
At times some of the language can descend into academic or think-tanky jargon, such as “sub-national identities and narratives” and “state and nonstate actors”, but this is a minor cavil in an otherwise compelling and troubling read.
Libya has long had a troubled relationship with its minorities and Libyans frequently exhibit what, by western standards, would have to be judged racist contempt towards both the Tebu and Tuareg tribes of the south. Though indigenous to what is today Libya, both groups were deliberately marginalised by the Qaddafi regime – an explicitly Arab affair, as the country’s ludicrous then-name, the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, made clear. Tebu and Tuareg alike suffered discrimination with regards to housing, education, employment and even freedom of movement. Hopes that the revolution would redress these old injustices have proved bitterly wide of the mark.
“I’m not optimistic about getting what we dream for,” one Tebu tribesman says. “The stability of the south depends on Tebu rights,” warns another, “and Libya’s stability depends on the south’s stability.”
Instead, the south has become a dangerous place with Tebu and Tuareg among the protagonists in both legal and illegal trade – drugs, human trafficking, kidnapping and terrorism. The shock waves of Qaddafi’s removal have spread far beyond Libya into neighbouring Algeria, Mali and Niger.
To make matters worse, Al Qaeda and ISIL fighters have inserted themselves into the killing and kidnapping mix. It is little wonder that Bernardino León, the UN’s special envoy to Libya, is warning that the country is running out of time – not to mention foreign reserves. Oil production in the holder of Africa’s largest reserves is now below consumption levels. “The general impression is that the country is very close to total chaos,” León said after the Tripoli hotel attack.
Amid the current conflict, are there any reasons for optimism – an all too scant commodity in the Middle East these days? Donning the historian’s hat and taking a longer view, one could credibly argue that after 43 years of eviscerating dictatorship, it takes more than a couple of years for a country to recover. Revolutionary euphoria does not of itself a stable new country make. It will take time to rebuild after the annihilating Qaddafi dictatorship.
Yet the same historian could point to far earlier fault lines in Libya, noting the relative novelty of Libya as a nation state, with the three Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the south and Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic) to the east persisting into the 20th century and independence only coming in 1951. Of Libya’s 60 years as an independent state until the 2011 revolution, 42 were under Qaddafi.
With the dictator gone, previously suppressed identities have surged forth, many of them advanced by their own supporting militias at the point of a Kalashnikov. Ancient ethnic and cultural divisions between East and West, between the settled population of the littoral and desert Arab Bedouin, between Arabs and Amazigh Berbers, between Arabs and the Tuareg and Tebu minorities, have all resurfaced and been allowed to sharpen in the three years since Qaddafi’s fall. The creeping extremism in the East and the superimposition of ISIL onto this fragile terrain only darkens the outlook.
One of the strengths of this book is its accumulated analysis of the enduring strength of tribalism, regionalism and religious conservatism within Libya, together with the ethnic politics of the Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg, and how these centrifugal forces have stretched and strained an elastic Libyan national identity since 2011. It certainly challenges the view that Libya has a more or less homogenous society – it has no sectarian splits of the sort that are currently torturing Iraq and Syria – which in turn makes it more likely than most of its Arab Spring counterparts to make a successful transition from dictatorship to something more moderate and inclusive.
“If Libya can develop institutions that contain the political dialogue or disagreement between various strands, then a bright future awaits it,” the editors argue. By the end of this book, however, one feels less confident of such an outcome in the near term. The tragedy of the Libyan revolution and its bloody aftermath is that it didn’t have to be like this.
Justin Marozzi was an adviser to Nato and the NTC during the Libyan revolution, which he reported on for The National and other media. His first book, South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara, was an account of a 2,000-kilometre journey by camel and a history of the desert slave trade.
This book is available on Amazon.
[ Read more… ]» Mecca: The Greatest Paradox of the Islamic World
Mecca is the greatest paradox of the Islamic world. Home to the Kaaba, a pagan-era cube of black granite said to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, it is the lodestar to which 1.6 billion Muslims direct their five daily prayers. Mecca is the single point on the planet around which Muslims revolve — quite literally for those able to perform the once gruelling, now simply expensive, pilgrimage or haj.
Yet the prodigious, world-illuminating gifts of Islamic civilisation in the arts and sciences, from architecture to astronomy, physics to philosophy, came not from Mecca but from cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul. Where those metro-polises were cosmopolitan and open, melting-pots of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, of all faiths and none, Mecca has long been insular, closed and chauvinistic. It remains to this day a bastion of purity, forbidden to the non-Muslim visitor.
If one wanted to examine what is wrong with a certain strain of Islam in the 21st century — the patterns of intolerance, attitudes towards women, dismissal of other faiths, intellectual and cultural stasis, the rejection of modernity — one could do a lot worse than begin with a long, hard look at Mecca, exporter-in-chief of the doctrinally uncompromising Wahhabi brand of Islam.
Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim who grew up in the Punjab, is well qualified to do this. In the 1970s he worked in Jeddah’s Haj Research Centre, unsuccessfully attempting to steer the Saudis towards a more sympathetic architectural development of Islam’s holiest city.
Much of Mecca’s distinct character, to a large extent shared by its inhabitants, derives from its uniquely harsh geography. For the early Islamic poet Al Hayqatan, not quoted in these pages, Mecca was a place where ‘Winter and summer are equally intolerable. No waters flow… not a blade of grass on which to rest the eye… Only merchants, the most despicable of professions.’ Sandwiched between two barren mountains, it sits in an inhospitable depression scorched by the Arabian sun, 45 miles inland from the Red Sea port of Jeddah.
Lest we be too harsh on the townsmen (the history of Mecca is largely a male preserve), this ferocious environment of desolate mountains, desert and mind-warping heat explains, and perhaps excuses, the attitude expressed in the local saying: ‘We sow not wheat or sorghum; the pilgrims are our crops.’ Visitors have always been there to be fleeced. A pilgrim today, rich or poor, will need to find £3,000–£4,000 to fund his or her haj to Mecca. Already by the ninth century the extremist Qarmatian religious sect was attacking caravans to Mecca and ‘inflicting humiliation and bloodshed’ on the holy city. ‘What is it about visions of paradise that turns minds hellish?’ Sardar wonders.
Mecca’s moment in history came in 610 with the first of a series of divine revelations of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed. The subsequent birth of Islam, a radical restructuring of polytheistic life within the Arabian Peninsula, was a violent affair that set tribe against tribe, Mecca against Medina, with Mecca firmly on the (losing) anti-Muslim side. Once the Meccans had succumbed to Mohammed and converted to Islam, with the rebranded Kaaba as totem of the new Muslim faith, the city grew rich quickly. In the late eighth century it was the beneficiary of imperial largesse from visiting Abbasid caliphs from Baghdad. Tribute came from far and wide. Kings of distant Kabul and Tibet sent lavish gifts to honour Mecca.
A sacred sanctuary where feuding tribes set aside their differences long before the advent of Islam, Mecca nevertheless has been no stranger to violence over the centuries. One can only guess at what the Prophet Mohammed would have made of the extraordinary instance of cannibalistic fratricide in 1314. After the ruler Abu Nomay abdicated, his son Humaida, bent on preserving power in the teeth of rivalry from his brothers, killed one of them and invited the others to dinner. In a scene more worthy of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover than a family reunion in the holy of holies, they were horrified to find the body of their brother Abul Ghaith as the pièce de résistance — cooked whole and served well done.
The Meccans are not everyone’s cup of tea. Sardar considers them ‘narrow, enclosed and indifferent to the changing realities of the wider world’. Though they pray towards Mecca, many Muslims are much more favourably inclined towards Medina, the City of the Prophet, which welcomed Mohammed after his world-changing flight, or hijra, from Mecca in 622. Had it not been for this well-timed escape, Meccans would have assassinated Mohammed, whose insistence on monotheism and criticism of their long-established idol-
worship was bad for business. As Mohammed put it, ‘O Mecca, I love thee more than the entire world, but thy sons will not let me live.’
Sceptical about the Saudi regime, Sardar is less questioning of the traditional accounts of Mecca by early Muslim historians. He refers to ‘the sanctity and centuries of deference that must accompany Muslim readings of Mecca’ when a little less deference might be in order. Important revisionist histories of pre-Islamic and early Islamic Mecca by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, among others, which cast doubt on the city’s primacy as a centre of trade and pilgrimage, deserve more engagement than an endnote.
The Saudis quite rightly get it in the neck here. One does not need to be a historian to wince at their desecration of Mecca’s built environment. Sites of immeasurable historical interest and significance, such as the Bilal mosque, which dates to the Prophet’s time, have been bulldozed in recent decades. The house belonging to Mohammed’s most revered wife Khadijah is now a public lavatory, an apt symbol of the Saudi regime. Looming 1,972 feet over the sacred shrine in an unholy cross between Big Ben and Las Vegas, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower stands on an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical importance. Saudi clerics want to demolish the Prophet’s house for fear that Muslims could start praying to Mohammed rather than Allah. Anyone looking for the house of Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s closest companion and the first caliph of the Muslim empire, will find instead the Makkah Hilton, a garish edifice that has no business overlooking the Kaaba. But then business appears to be what it is all about. If the Hilton is full, incidentally, visitors can find additional accommodation on Airbnb.
Nor does the destruction end there. The exquisite, Ottoman-era section of the mosque is the oldest surviving part of the sanctuary. Its marble columns, resplendent with carved Islamic calligraphy dating back to the 16th- and 17th-century Sultans Suleiman, Salim I and Murads III and IV, are due to give way to multi-storey prayer halls 80m high.
This is not the rebarbative carping of an infidel reviewer. Many Muslims, not least Sardar, find the architectural destruction and transformation of Mecca profoundly troubling. ‘What the Saudis have done to Mecca is completely ghastly,’ a British Muslim told me recently. ‘It’s a retail extravaganza right up to the Great Mosque. During my haj, the last things I saw before turning towards the Kaaba were a Samsonite shop and Häagen-Dazs. They’ve turned Mecca into a shopping mall.’ The charge sheet against the Saud family runs much longer than this, of course. Official custodians of Islam’s holiest places, they have hijacked and perverted the religion they purport to define.
Yet for all the Saudis’ ruinous genius for kitsch and extremism, Sarda’s Mecca at least will remain ‘a place of eternal harmony, something worth living for and striving to attain. It has always been and it will always be.’
This is a captivating history and memoir, a hymn of love to a place sacred to the world’s Muslims, soured by a family wholly corrupted by petrodollars.
Mecca: The Sacred City Ziauddin Sardar
Bloom, pp.448, £25, ISBN: 9781408809204
[ Read more… ]» Corruption, incompetence to blame for Iraq’s failure, says author Zaid al-Ali
For much of the 11 years that have elapsed since the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq has been a cauldron of killing. Last year was the deadliest year since 2008, with an estimated 8,955 killed in raging violence, a monthly average of 746, or almost 25 a day. For those who live or have lived in Baghdad, the stomach-hollowing sound of a suicide car-bomber destroying an International Zone checkpoint has been a grimly regular feature of life in the city, together with attacks on Iraqi politicians, shoppers in crowded markets, Iraqis queuing to join the police or those trying to enter a government ministry, a foreign embassy or the offices of a humanitarian agency.
At times, the steady flow of young men ready to blow themselves up for the so-called jihad seems unending. Columns of thick, black smoke drifting across the skyline from the latest explosion are a common sight in the former metropolis of the Abbasid empire, known without irony as the City of Peace. I lived in Baghdad from 2004 to 2005 and spent long periods in the city until 2010. Sometimes I wondered how anyone could even contemplate, let alone perpetrate, any act of violence in such mind-bending, paralysing heat. At other times, the sheer brutality of the climate seemed the only explanation for levels of slaughter that were otherwise unfathomable. “The heat in Baghdad hits you like concrete,” an Iraqi friend said to me once. “Imagine what it does to your head.”
In recent years, Shia death squads and Sunni insurgents have reshaped a city of long-established Sunni–Shia neighbourhoods. In 2003, the majority of Baghdad was mixed, with a number of Shia majority neighbourhoods, including Sadr City, and Sunni majority areas, such as Adhamiya and Hurriya in the north, Washash, Karkh and Mansur in the centre, and Saidiya in the south. By 2005, when the Ministry of Interior was under the control of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Brigade, corpses were discovered daily, dumped in streets and rubbish tips across the capital. Overwhelmingly Sunni, their bodies carried the familiar signs of torture: cigarette burns on the skin, electric-drill holes in arms, legs and skulls and gouged-out eyes. Some had been garrotted; many had been shot in the back of the head. In 2006, when Iraq was in open civil war, the Mahdi Army of MuqtadaAl-Sadr, a firebrand from a distinguished clerical family, joined the fray, and Iraq grew ever more polarised.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. But then, Iraq has a long history of frustrating (often foreign) reformers’ good intentions. The early days of British Iraq were also full of promise. “We shall, I trust, make it a great centre for Arab civilisation and prosperity,” an excited Gertrude Bell wrote to her father in 1917 as British troops approached Baghdad. By 1920, as Iraq exploded into rebellion, a shattered Arnold Wilson, the civil commissioner for Mesopotamia, was describing himself as “a radical young man trying unsuccessfully to introduce radical principles into the wholly unfruitful and stony soil of a savage country where people do not argue but shoot”.
Optimism was again in abundance in 2003, for neocons and reformist Iraqis alike. “I came back with an idealistic and idealised vision of what life could and should be,” Samir Sumaidaie told me in 2012. In 2003, he had returned to Iraq from exile and opposition and taken up a string of senior political positions, the culmination of which was his appointment as ambassador to Washington. “I was soon disabused of that idealism and, in the last several years, I have become much more pessimistic and uncertain about the future.”
One suspects that Zaid al-Ali, the author of this brave, disturbing and excoriating survey of Iraq’s political cesspit, feels the same. A constitutional lawyer by training, he was a legal adviser to the United Nations in Iraq from 2005 to 2010. Like so many of the country’s returning exiles, he wanted to help build a new Iraq that could hold its head high after the horror of the Saddam Hussein years. (Let it also be said as an aside that there was no shortage of deeply venal returning exiles who treated the Iraqi treasury as a cash-cow.)
The Struggle for Iraq’s Future has an explosive beginning. Al-Ali describes how, even after it had been discovered that widely used British explosives detection equipment was completely bogus and ineffective – in 2013 the inventor was jailed for 10 years by a UK court. The prime minister Nuri Al Maliki flatly refused to accept this with a callous disregard for the truth and for untold numbers of Iraqi lives.
Much of this book, in fact, can be read as a passionate polemic against Al Maliki who, with the Americans, must surely take a great share of the responsibility for the unholy mess in which Iraq is now stewing.
Instead of seeking to build an Iraq that eschewed sectarianism, al-Ali writes, “his sole concern became to capture the state and to divide and conquer opponents, to remain in power for as long as possible”. By those limited, cynical criteria, so typical of Iraqi politics in living memory, and perhaps far beyond, Al Maliki’s efforts have been an unqualified success: parliament emasculated; armed forces shunted under his direct control; the judiciary nobbled; critics intimidated and silenced.
To be fair, the responsibility for Iraq’s current quagmire needs to be shared a little more widely than the current prime minister. Iraq’s political class is a wretched lot: criminally irresponsible, sectarian in outlook, corrupt beyond the average person’s most avaricious dreams, financially feckless and illiterate, intolerant of criticism, incapable of sharing power, blind to the national interest and, at the very highest levels of the state, murderously violent. Do not look here for the next winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“As politicians obsessed over their incessant and violent power struggle, they deprioritised virtually everything else, including a number of long-standing problems that were literally threatening the state’s existence,” al-Ali writes. “These included rocketing unemployment, the decrepit public services (electricity, water, education), a failing framework to protect human rights that was exacerbating security risks, corruption and environmental disaster.”
For a country with a small population that essentially sits on a lake of oil to be in such a parlous state is perhaps the most damning indictment of Iraqi politics. This is not the place, one is tempted to conclude, for a well-intentioned, western-educated Iraqi constitutional lawyer.
It is only natural that constitutional lawyers should set great store by constitutions. It is, after all, what they do. Al-Ali’s detailed and thorough critique of the Iraqi constitution and the highly flawed process that engendered it, is principled and compelling. The recent history of Iraq, though, suggests that constitutions, however dismal or dazzling, are less of a problem than the men – and it is always men – who choose either to observe or ignore them.
To many of us in the West, the rule of law is a concept almost sacred in its power. The same is not true of Iraq, a place where, for centuries, strongmen have seized power and acted ruthlessly to preserve it. If Saddam Hussein was the Butcher of Baghdad, he was hardly alone in the long pantheon of Iraq’s rulers. Al-Mansur, the Abbasid caliph who founded Baghdad 1,300 years earlier in 762, was surely an equal claimant to the title. On his death in 775, the staunchly Sunni leader left a crypt full of exclusively Shia corpses.
Iraq’s economic model is brutally simple and limited: approximately 97 per cent of the national income comes from the oil sector. Yet the Baghdad government regularly proves incapable of even the most basic administration required to sustain it, such as issuing visas to the executives of oil companies with Iraqi government contracts. Little wonder that some are now heading for the exit, and hardly surprising amid the chaos that many commentators openly question the very sustainability of the Iraqi state as presently configured.
Although al-Ali is to be applauded for somehow managing to retain a degree of optimism after his relentlessly gloomy findings, his final chapter, in which he sets out a way ahead for beleaguered Iraq, is the least credible. His appetite for Iraqi democracy remains undimmed, although many Iraqis today will tell you the country just needs another strongman to put a lid on the violence – and to hell with the western checklist of democracy, good governance, rule of law, gender empowerment, human rights and so on.
Topping his list of prescriptions for a new Iraq is, perhaps predictably, a new constitution, which will deal with the control of the armed forces, the regulation of political parties, the oil sector and distribution of revenues, decentralisation and corruption.
He talks of the need to “build a new narrative” for Iraq, which is national and nonsectarian. No one would argue with that, but easier said than done in the land that has been the fulcrum of the Sunni-Shia divide since the Battle of Kerbala in 680. He is certainly right to praise many of his country’s social values, including solidarity, hospitality and generosity, and the honest, hard-working midlevel civil servants who struggle on amid the turmoil, but is that enough to build a democracy on?
The best that can be said is that it will take time to recover from decades of dictatorship and war and in this consistently turbulent corner of the world there is no guarantee of a happy ending. For now at least, democracy as understood in the West seems to be as alien to Iraq as the American soldiers who poured in in 2003. Al-Ali’s is a sensible voice screaming into the desert wind to stop the madness. Perhaps one day Iraqis will hear him.
Justin Marozzi’s latest book is A History of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, to be published in May by Penguin.
[ Read more… ]» The Last Hurrah – The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
By Patrick Leigh Fermor
John Murray, pp.349, £25, ISBN: 9781848547520
Sound the trumpets. Let rip the Byzantine chorus of clattering bells and gongs, the thunder of cannons, drums and flashing Greek fire. Raid cellars and let champagne corks fly. Eighty years after Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic trudge across Europe, 20 years after the death of his long-suffering publisher Jock Murray, ten years after the passing of his wife Joan, and two years after his own death, the elusive third volume that so tormented him is published at last. The travel trilogy is complete. It is, as John Murray reminds us, the literary event of the year. But for those who admire Paddy’s densely beautiful prose, can this awkward, unformed orphan live up to its billing?
There is no need to rehearse the extraordinary genesis and gestation of its predecessors, A Time of Gifts, published in 1977, the small matter of four decades after the walk, and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), both classics of 20th-century travel writing. ‘To be concluded,’ were the final words of the second volume. Ever since, silence.
Fans of Paddy wondered what was happening in his sunlit writing-room in Kardamyli in the southern Peloponnese. ‘When might the final volume see the light of day?’, I asked him there in 2006. He was 91, and the question was unfair. It was ‘all a bit grim,’ he said. Writing was ‘rather difficult’.No wonder. He was suffering from tunnel vision, was unable to type, disliked dictation and had no assistant. Strangely, the early draft of this last leg of the walk, which he started to write in 1962 and was still editing a few months before his death, predated the first two books.
How to reconcile the parallel journeys of an 18-year-old walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (never Istanbul) in 1933 and the later literary travels of a much older man setting this great walk to prose? This was always the challenge — and a prodigious test of memory, for the notebooks had been lost. In the end it proved too much for him. It is odd to think that a man who reached the grand old age of 96 was outlived by the great walk of his youth.
The Broken Road finds Paddy, last seen at the Iron Gates on the Romanian Danube, tramping south east across the Bulgarian plains. Reassuringly dazzling set pieces abound. There are dreamy days exploring monasteries and forests with the frowning beauty Nadjeda, ‘a ravishing hybrid vision, half captured Circassian princess, half Byronic heroine’. And a charming cameo of the black dog that trots beside Paddy in the Great Balkan mountains, barking furiously at an enormous full moon (dog-lovers will appreciate the diminutive black quadruped adorning the handsome cover, designed by Ed Kluz in the style of John Craxton’s artwork for Paddy’s earlier books).
With Constantinople finally in reach to the south after almost a year on the road, Paddy suddenly embarks instead on a great northerly loop into Romania. After slogging up mountains and sleeping in swineherds’ huts and forest clearings, sophisticated, high-society Bucharest has him agog. He throws himself into it con brio, with ‘the zest of a barbarian padding wild-eyed with longing for luxury and corruption through the palaces and fountained courtyards of Diocletian, or of a Parthian in Antioch’. This is, after all, a man who proclaimed himself unboreable during the trans-Europe pilgrimage. ‘My mouth was as unexactingly agape as the seal’s to the flung bloater.’
This is vintage — and nascent — Paddy. Here is the fascination with foreign languages, folklore, history, genealogy, sartorial styles and, of course, pretty girls. Costumes of hook-nosed crones, dishevelled army officers, rain-soused shepherds, raki-soaked fishermen and buttoned-up diplomats are painted in technicolour splendour. Bishops and archimandrites officiate in copes ‘as stiff and brilliant as beetles’ wings’. The constitutional objection to almost all things Turkish is undimmed. Paddy reads his first Dostoevsky in these pages and takes his first steps into Greece, a country that would help define him in subsequent decades, not least after kidnapping a German general on Crete in 1944 and making his home in the Peloponnese in the 1960s.
The facility for procuring a bed for the night was always remarkable. ‘How often I ended up under some friendly roof scot free!’, writes the Anglo-Irish charmer, who seduced aristocrats, platonically and otherwise, the length and breadth of Europe.
Overshadowing all these pictures of pastoral happiness is the spectre of the forthcoming war and the knowledge that the Iron Curtain would separate him — and at the time of writing already had — from dear friends, many of whom were later annihilated.
Paddy was not given to much personal reflection and introspection in his books. It is an unexpected pleasure to find rather more of the man in The Broken Road. Perhaps later polishing would have culled these unusually revealing sections. There are frank passages on the black depressions that would recur during his life. The on-the-page wrestling with memory, confronting the distressing blanks that inevitably surge up from distant decades, exposes the tortured inner workings of the creative process. How is it, he wonders, that memory can obscure the most important aspects of a life-changing encounter but preserve crystalline irrelevances: ‘Daysprings veiled and epiphanies in plain clothes.’
The journey ends not in Constantinople but in mid-sentence. Hence The Broken Road. Bizarrely. Paddy never managed to write up the longed-for object of his pilgrimage. Did it not live up to expectations? The final section, altogether different in tone, is the unworked diary from 1935, rich in innocence and intellectual discovery among the monasteries of Mount Athos.
How fitting, for a man so young at heart, with such a boundless appetite for life, that his last published words should be those of a wide-eyed 20-year-old, embarking on what will be a lifelong love affair with Greece. His editors, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, have put this book to bed with skill and sensitivity. Friends and fans, acolytes, devotees and disciples can all rest easy. It was worth the wait.
[ Read more… ]» From Perfumed Arcadia to Dantean Hell – Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis
As a species, we do have a revolting fascination with war. Men – and it is mostly men – have been fighting, and writing about fighting, from the year dot. To the extent that a literary genre focusing so intensely on man’s destruction of his fellows can be called distinguished, war literature has a proud record. At the risk of getting completely carried away by Herodotus, who notched up an impressive list of firsts, from pioneering forays into history, travel writing and anthropology to début stabs at geography and tabloid journalism, one can argue that his masterpiece Histories, written in the fifth century BC, marks the first instance of page-turning war reporting. The trick of a good war book, lest the writer become too excited by all that blood and guts and killing, may be to bear in mind Herodotus’ maxim, ‘No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace – in peace sons bury fathers but in war fathers bury sons.’
From Herodotus and Thucydides’ time to the present day, the war book has been with us, an ever-present literary companion to the massacres on the battlefield. The twentieth century, that cauldron of slaughter, brought us All Quiet on the Western Front, Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Birdsong to mark ‘the war to end all wars’. For Vietnam there was Michael Herr’s visceral, free-styling Dispatches and, more recently, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and Patrick Hennessey’s The Junior Officers’ Reading Club to commemorate the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan respectively.
The Second World War’s outstanding book is surely Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis, whom Graham Greene considered ‘one of our best writers, not of any particular decade but of our century’. I took it to Iraq with me in 2004 and found its humanity, honesty and hilarity instantly compelling. During the darker days, it was strangely comforting to realise that there is little new in conflict. From ‘friendly fire’ and war profiteers to prostitution and petty bureaucracy, it has all been seen before.
Much of war is tragedy and farce, and Lewis has the reporter’s eye to observe it in
telling detail, matched with a writer’s ability to set it out in prose that is by turns laconic, angry and arresting. Naples ’44 finds him appointed an intelligence officer in the Field Security Service, having escaped ‘the drudgery of delivering army-style, pay-attention-you-fuckers lectures’ and joined the invasion convoy bound for Salerno, attached to the headquarters staff of the American Fifth Army. General Clark, ‘the destroying angel of Southern Italy’, has reduced much of the region to scorched despair, though the smaller towns have escaped bombing: ‘The only visible damage to most villages had been the inevitable sack of the post office by the vanguard of the advancing troops, who seem to have been philatelists to a man.’
Bureaucracy is one of the lead villains in these pages. The mystified Lewis marvels at the ever-expanding ‘Black Book’ of suspects, teeming with same-surname families – ‘Espositos and Gennaros turn up by the hundred’ – and ‘poetic idiocies’ galore. Like all good intelligence officers, he gets dirt under his fingernails and forges relationships with an extraordinary cast of characters. These include comic cameos like Professor Placella who has a profitable and unusual line in surgery. ‘He boasts that his replacement hymen is much better than the original, and that – costing only 10,000 lire – it takes the most vigorous husband up to three nights to demolish it.’
Lewis inspires confessions in friends, colleagues and acquaintances. As the confidant of an anxious British officer and his voracious Neapolitan lover he does his best to help with affairs of the heart – and of the bed.
She had made him understand by gestures one could only shudderingly imagine that her late husband – although half-starved, and even when in the early stages of tuberculosis from which he died – never failed to have intercourse with her less than six times a night. She also had a habit, which terrified Frazer, of keeping an eye on the bedside clock while he performed. I recommended him to drink – as the locals did – marsala with the yolks of eggs stirred into it, and to wear a medal of San Rocco, patron of coitus reservatus, which could be had in any religious-supplies shop.
More often than not, sex does not equate to romance in Lewis’s wartime Naples. Extreme poverty and near-starvation have reduced many women to prostitution. War corrupts everyone it touches. Among the many cinematic set-pieces is the ghastly scene in a vast municipal building where working-class housewives have gathered to offer their bodies in return for tins of army food.
The women kept absolutely still, they said nothing, and their faces were as empty of expression as graven images. They might have been selling fish, except that this place lacked the excitement of a fish market. There was no soliciting, no suggestion, no enticement, not even the discreetest and most accidental display of flesh. The boldest of the soldiers had pushed themselves, tins in hand, to the front, but now, faced with these matter-of-fact family-providers driven here by empty larders, they seemed to flag. Once again reality had betrayed the dream and the air fell limp.
Lewis’s Naples is an inferno of suffering. Unthinkable shortages of food and water carry off the weak, the young and the elderly. Families have lost their clothes and possessions in the indiscriminate bombings. Strange apparitions stalk the streets dressed in whatever comes to hand, ‘a man in an old dinner-jacket, knickerbockers and army boots’, women in dresses made from curtains. The Neapolitan aristocracy has been reduced to draughty, high-ceilinged apartments in their once grand palazzos. At best, furniture is a rickety table, a chair and a bed. Food is almost non-existent. Lewis gets to know Vincente Lattarullo, a penniless, unemployed lawyer who becomes a stalwart friend. He can only afford to eat once a day, ‘a little bread dipped in olive oil, into which was rubbed a tomato’. Even to pay for this he must double up as a Zio di Roma, acting as ‘an uncle from Rome’ to add patrician glamour to provincial funerals.
With their lives disintegrating, Neapolitans take refuge in superstition. They queue to implore the help of saints and worry that the blood of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, may not liquefy as it does every year. ‘Naples has reached a state of nervous exhaustion when mass hallucination has become a commonplace, and belief of any kind can be more real than reality.’
War brings out the worst in many of those in Lewis’s forensic field of view. Denunciations are a daily, diary-filling event. Many, perhaps most, are false and entirely malevolent. Official cruelty lurks everywhere. Lewis hears the scarcely credible news that American soldiers of the 45th Division have been ordered ‘not only to take no German prisoners, but to use the butts of their rifles to beat to death those who try to surrender’. Officers mull half-baked plans to send syphilitic prostitutes to infect customers in the German-occupied north. The pettiness, small-mindedness, inhumanity and corruption of the occupation are recurring themes.
Lewis has a gimlet-eyed appreciation of the futility of his work. Appointed as head of security for a number of small towns within the orbit of Naples, he notes that all fall within the territory of the deadly Camorra. ‘The task is a hopeless one, and it would be demoralising to take it too seriously,’ not least because military officers at the very highest level are up to their necks, in partnership with the Camorra, in the black-market racket.
Suffering falls on young and old alike. Empty-stomached boys jumping into the back of supply lorries to raid rations have their fingers hacked off by American bayonets. On 1 November 1943, contemplating a menu offering either disguised dogfish or horsemeat, Lewis watches a group of blind orphan girls enter the restaurant scavenging for food. Each child is sobbing.
The experience changed my outlook. Until now I had clung to the comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow. Now I understood I was wrong, and like Paul I suffered a conversion – but to pessimism. These little girls, any one of whom could be my daughter, came into the restaurant weeping, and they were weeping when they were led away. I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly. They would never recover from their pain and I would never recover from the memory of it.
Yet this nascent pessimism cannot undermine Lewis’s innate humanity. He is forever going the extra mile – sometimes literally – to help the beleaguered civilian population around him, bending rules to prevent the horrifyingly casual imposition of martial law death penalties, smuggling food to friends and always struggling against the miscarriage of justice.
In Naples ’44 we see the horrors of war, together with its dangerous allure and unrepeatable intensity. Perhaps it was this life-changing experience that helped propel Lewis into a lifetime of far-flung reporting from dangerous parts and an admirable career championing the underdog. In 1968, his coruscating Sunday Times article ‘Genocide’ exposed the Brazilian government’s criminal treatment of the country’s indigenous tribes – mass murder, torture, sexual abuse, land theft – and led, a year later, to the foundation of Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples.
The roots of this outrage at man’s inhumanity can surely be traced back to Lewis’s time in Naples, a ‘perfumed Arcadia’ reduced by war to a Dantean hell.
Justin Marozzi is writing a history of Baghdad, where he has spent much of the past seven years. He is still hoping to turn his hand to war satire one of these days. www.justinmarozzi.com
Norman Lewis, Naples ’44 (1978)
Eland • Pb • 192pp • £10.99 • ISBN 9780907871729
[ Read more… ]» Embattled Dystopia – Justin Marozzi sees years of sectarian strife ahead for Syria
Pity the modern dictator. Time was he could bump off a recalcitrant opposition figure, take out a dissident stronghold, massacre the entire population of a town and the world would be none the wiser. There might be a pesky reporter trying to get to the truth, but that could be taken care of, as President Assad’s security forces demonstrated earlier this year.
Yet the digital world has made it much harder to brush war crimes and atrocities under the kilim. Thanks to Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, surveillance states now find themselves under constant surveillance in turn. The spies are spied upon, lifting the lid — albeit only partially — on what is happening inside places like Syria. Factor in nosy- parkers like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, UN observer teams, ceasefire monitors and grandee envoys dropping by with television cameras, and the dictator bent on subduing a popular revolution with the gloves off has his work cut out these days.
To add to the intensifying scrutiny, four new books confront the revolution head-on, in a rush to publish that inevitably calls to mind Zhou Enlai’s possibly apocryphal remark that it was too early — in 1971 — to assess the French Revolution. They offer four distinct perspectives on contemporary Syria. Fouad Ajami is a Lebanese-born writer on the Middle East with a depth of cultural and historical knowledge that is largely missing from the western media’s coverage of a complex and little understood society. Samar Yazbek is a well-to-do Syrian novelist whose 2011 diaries plunge the reader into the dark immediacy of Assad’s Damascus. David Lesch is an American academic and Syria specialist who met Bashar al Assad frequently from 2004-2008, and Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who has lived in Damascus for several years.
The Syrian Rebellion begins by tracing the mass uprising to several instances of regime retribution, including the ghastly case of Hamza al Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of Deraa. His body was returned to his family a month later, knees and neck broken, penis cut off. Consistently illuminating in unexpected ways, Ajami reaches back to Ibn Khaldun to explain how the magisterial Arab historian of the 14th century envisaged asabiyah (solidarity or group consciousness) as integral to the rise of dynasties and the foundation of states. Alawite asabiyah, ‘the group feeling of a mountain people who had a jumbled mix of persecution and superiority hammered into them by history’, has always been the lifeblood of the Assad regime.
Ajami combines the historian’s appetite for research with journalistic reportage and an instinct for the telling phrase. Bashar is compared unfavourably with his hawk-nosed father Hafez, who would never have let Syria degenerate into a ‘satrap of the Iranian theocracy’. Assad Snr instituted the regime’s pre-eminent political creed of ‘Let them eat anti-Zionism’. The Lebanese politician General Michel Aoun is ‘an acrobat, true to the self-defeating ways of the Lebanese political class’. Ajami is essential reading to under- stand the complicated geography of the Syrian revolution, setting out the sectarian jigsaw from the majority Alawi coastal cities of Latakia, Baniyas, Jableh and Tartus, to the mixed, majority Sunni cities of Homs and Hama and ‘encircled’ Damascus and Aleppo, cities too large to have their demography altered by the regime.
Of the four writers, Samar Yazbek provides the most arresting, novelistic prose. In one of the most disturbing passages in her revolutionary diaries, written in the spring of 2011, she is questioned about her opposition writing, briefly blindfolded then taken into a series of rooms where she is forced to see men hanging in various states of torture and decomposition. Bodies covered in fresh and dried blood are suspended from metal clamps, ‘deep wounds carved all over them, like the strokes of an abstract painter’. Assaulted by ‘the smell of blood and piss and shit’ and the sounds of torture and screaming, she is shoved into a room where there is an unconscious young man ‘whose spine looked like an anatomist’s sketch’, his back split open ‘as if a map had been carved into it with a knife’. ‘Humans have become pieces of flesh on display, an exhibition of the art of murder and torture that was all for show.’
In its uncompromising reportage from a doomed capital, Yazbek’s book recalls the late Iraqi artist Nuha al Radi’s Baghdad Diaries, a searing chronicle of the disintegration of Saddam’s Iraq during the embargo of the Nineties. Today Yazbek lives in exile.
Who is the man who presides over this embattled dystopia? A good deal of attention has focused on Bashar al Assad in an effort to understand how the revolution may unfold. Might he slink off into exile in Saudi Arabia, the traditional graveyard of despots, or will he end his days murdered in cold blood like Gaddafi or be tried and executed like Saddam? Much, probably too much, has been made of Assad the ophthalmologist’s stint in London and his British-Syrian wife Asma as supposedly moderating forces.
David Lesch convincingly argues there are far more formative influences. Bashar is the son of Hafez al Assad, a man not known for his squeamishness in putting down uprisings, as the city of Hama can attest (up to 30,000 were killed there in 1982); he is a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, who grew up in the Cold War and lived through the tumult in Lebanon. ‘These are the relationships and historical events that shaped his Weltanschauung, not his sojourn in England.’ Since Lesch met Assad repeatedly to research an earlier book, we can perhaps forgive the boast that ‘this unique access meant that I got to know Assad probably better than anyone in the West’, although quickly flicking through The New Lion of Damascus (2005), one finds Lesch describing Bashar as ‘unpretentious and extremely personable’ among other compliments.
Unlike most western reporters who have written from Syria, Stephen Starr brings to bear a great deal of personal experience of the country, having lived and worked in Damascus for four years, including a spell with the state media. He’s the sort of man who notices the price of milk going up and the increased presence of security forces on the streets as the noose tightens. With a wide network of friends and contacts, he conveys the warp and weft of daily life with an admirably nuanced understanding of the place. ‘Many Sunnis cursed the regime, most Christians cursed the protestors and secularists cursed them both,’ he writes of the early days of revolution, when popular opinion was less polarised than now. If there is a criticism of Starr’s account it is the amount of material it includes on what other journalists are getting up to. Journalists’ fascination with journalists knows no bounds.
This quartet offers little in the way of optimism for Syria. Bleakness is the order of the day. Assad will not go quietly. The minorities are right to fear for the future. The fulcrum of Arab nationalism has become the site of a proxy war for influence between Sunni and Shia Islam. However soon he departs, whatever follows minority Alawite rule, it is surely difficult to predict anything but sectarian strife for years to come.
Spectator, 11 August 2012
The Syrian Rebellion: The Fall of the House of Assad
Fouad Ajami, pp.216, £14.95, ISBN: 9780817915049
A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution
Samar Yazbek, pp.258, £12.99, ISBN: 9781908323125
Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad
David Lesch, pp.280, £18.99, ISBN: 9780300186512
Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising
Stephen Starr, pp.214, £14.99, ISBN: 9781849041973
[ Read more… ]» The Wars No One Wins – Little America by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
One of the books that best encapsulated the delusional folly of the Iraq War was Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, an excoriating story of ideological arrogance and ignorance on a grand scale. This was American reportage at its most penetrating, a darkly comical account of hubris meeting with nemesis on the banks of the Tigris, graveyard of the neocon dream.
In Little America Chandrasekaran turns his unrelenting focus to Afghanistan, a country that has been the graveyard of so many empires for so many centuries one wonders why any political or military leader should think this time it’ll be different, no matter how many soldiers and gender advisors they deploy, irrespective of how many schools and medical clinics they build. If any foreign invader had the right approach to Afghanistan, it was surely the Turkic warlord Tamerlane, who swept through in 1398, rode across the snow-capped Hindu Kush in an astonishing march, banged heads together and then left immediately after a characteristic slash-and-burn campaign. He was right not to linger.
Obama’s 2009 surge was supposed to put everything right in a mission neglected after the Iraq War distracted Washington’s attention. Yet once again good American intentions foundered in the Helmand River Valley, where a previous generation of optimistic Americans had tried unsuccessfully to transform Afghan society with over-ambitious irrigation schemes in the Fifties and Sixties. To the horror of Afghan’s conservatives, women started throwing off the veil in what came to be known as “Little America”. Modernisers squared up against the mullahs in a conflict only put on hold with the arrival of the Russians in another ill-fated intervention of 1979.
Chief among Chandrasekaran’s culprits for this latest flop is the US military. Garlanded after his achievements in Iraq, General Petraeus was allowed to fight a counter-insurgency campaign on steroids, in tandem with an unrealistic nation-building programme, rather than concentrate on the narrower objective of smashing Al Qaeda and helping Afghans end the conflict. Internal rivalries bedevilled the mission from the start, exemplified by the clash between US ambassador Karl Eikenberry and General Stan McChrystal, a personal reflection of the age-old animosity between State Department and Department of Defence.
The military regarded the diplomats as lily-livered prima donnas who rarely ventured beyond the blast walls of the embassy and its “Duck and Cover” bar, squandering $340m a month of American taxpayers money in frequently corrupt USAID schemes that delivered little lasting benefit on the ground. The diplomats in turn considered the military crude, hard-charging grunts whose aggressive extension of military operations into new districts simply exacerbated the insurgency. The author notes the extraordinary occasion on which American forces arrived in a village so remote that the villagers spoke to them in Russian, unaware that the Soviets had left Afghanistan.
British readers will be particularly interested in the “Allies at War” chapter, in which Chandrasekaran charts the disintegration of relations between the British and Americans in Helmand. The Americans considered British restraint appeasement, the British thought the Americans far too gung-ho about dealing with the “bad guys”. Had the two allies communicated more effectively with each other and demonstrated a greater willingness to learn from the best aspects of the other’s counter-insurgency strategy, “The result almost certainly would have been fewer body bags draped with the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes”.
The enduring truth about Afghans is that they will fight any foreign invader tooth and nail until that army leaves and then, when the last Russian, American or British tank and helicopter is gone, spurred on by deeply venal and malevolent neighbours, they will fight each other. Little America should be required reading for anyone with an interest in foreign interventions, especially western politicians, soldiers and diplomats, if only to relieve them of the dangerous idea that we are any good at them. There is no arguing with Chandrasekaran’s pithy conclusion: “For years, we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans. We should have focused on ours.”
Mail on Sunday, 29 July 2012
[ Read more… ]» The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux
When I compiled a list of the top dozen travel writers of the past century for an American magazine the other day, it required some effort not to come up with an entirely British cast. Freya Stark, Norman Lewis, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris were musts. So too were V. S. Naipaul and Colin Thubron, still writing up a storm, and the Ibn-Battutah-mad Tim Mackintosh-Smith for a younger generation. Although there was no space for Byron, Bell, Thesiger or Chatwin, no great legerdemain was needed to squeeze in the brilliant Dutchman Cees Nooteboom, Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish master of literary reportage, the Irishwoman Dervla Murphy and Martha Gellhorn from across the Atlantic. That left one space.
In the end, it had to go to the American author of this fascinating little distillation of travel wisdom from around the world. Paul Theroux is a master of the genre who gave the then endangered travel-writing scene a fresh lease of life with the publication in 1975 of The Great Railway Bazaar, a high-spirited, four-month railway romp across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Now 70, he sets out to arrange his thoughts on travel and those of many others into ‘a guidebook, a how-to, a miscellany, a vade mecum, a reading list, a reminiscence’.
Anecdotes, vignettes and bons mots are so densely clustered that readers may well find themselves forever dipping in and out, lured from one entertaining diversion to another. In the ‘Perverse Pleasures of the Inhospitable’, Theroux rightly observes that unwelcoming places have always been a gift to the travel writer, from a friendless Ibn Battutah arriving in Tunis in 1325 (he ‘wept bitterly’) to Apsley Cherry- Garrard’s fearsome Antarctica and Stanley’s savage, cannibal-ridden Congo. There is nothing more tedious than a blissful vacation.
In ‘English Travellers on Escaping England’, he sums up the history of English travel as ‘the history of people in search of sunshine’. Our beloved Prince Philip pops up in ‘Everything is Edible Somewhere’ with his line on indiscriminate, insatiable Chinese appetites: ‘If it has four legs and is not a chair, has wings and is not an airplane, or swims and is not a sub- marine, the Cantonese will eat it.’ Armchair travellers will particularly enjoy the section on ‘The Things That They Carried’.
Interspersed between these miscellanies are a number of mini-chapters dispensing ‘travel wisdom’ from assorted literary luminaries, from Henry Fielding to Paul Bowles. Here is Dervla Murphy advising travellers to mug up on their history before heading off, and to consult guidebooks to identify those areas most frequented by foreigners ‘and then go in the opposite direction’. Then we have Robert Louis Stevenson who expressed one of the traveller’s age-old impulses in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879): ‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move’. In When the Going Was Good (1947), Evelyn Waugh made the sort of prediction that has hovered over travel literature for years, forecasting its imminent demise. You may as well anticipate the end of travel.
Theroux is exercised by whether the traveller travelled alone or secretly accompanied by spouse or lover. ‘Go alone’ is the second in his list of ten prescriptions. While there is a lot to be said for the solo expedition and the cultural immersion and necessary solitude it engenders, from a literary point of view the advantage is by no means conclusive. Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, a classic of the genre, relies heavily on the hilarious relationship between the author and Hugh Carless, his companion. Chatwin, as Theroux insists, was ‘compulsively gregarious’ during his wanderings, Paddy Leigh Fermor travelled both with friends and alone, and Rebecca West was accompanied by her husband in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, nothing short of a masterpiece. So although the purist traveller may prefer to go it alone, this has no automatic bearing on the quality of the literary fruits to come.
Nineteenth-century travellers, Burton not least among them, would have been surprised not to find a recommendation in Theroux’s essential checklist to learn the relevant language or languages before setting off. ‘Although ignorance of the local language thwarts exchanges of ideas, it’s unimportant on a practical level,’ he writes. In Burton’s case, of course, it saved his life.
Hours of pleasure await the hardened and armchair traveller alike in these pages.Theroux has done us all a great service with this handsome, amusing and impressively researched volume. I intend to plunder from it ruthlessly for years to come.
[ Read more… ]» Inside the world of Somalia’s pirates – Literary Review
Deadly Waters: Inside the Hidden World of Somalia’s Pirates
By Jay Bahadur
There’s nothing like getting your boots on the ground. Not if you’re a British, French or American soldier in Libya, perhaps, where we must hope there are as few foreign boots as possible, but if you’re a writer or journalist chasing a difficult story, there’s no substitute for dropping what you’re doing, telling the wife/husband you love her/him and will return with all sorts of exotic, possibly sparkling, presents, flying out there and getting on with it.
Hats off, then, to the 27-year-old Jay Bahadur who quit his job in market research in 2008, just as the Somali pirates story was commanding the world’s attention, and made his slightly tortuous way into Somalia to research the story for himself. Although six weeks in Garowe, the capital of the autonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia, does not quite constitute immersion – certainly not by the more formidable standards of the nineteenth century, when British travellers and explorers tended to be more diligent with their language studies and cultural research – it is nevertheless rather more time than your average journalist is able to spend on assignment in “Mog” or “The Dish”. As a result, Deadly Waters is a lively read, full of heartfelt insight and compelling detail into this little understood world.
Sometimes there’s not so much difference between the corridors of power in Washington or London and a remote corner on the Horn of Africa. It all comes down to connections in the end. When you’re investigating an issue that can be sensitive at the best of times, where an incautious question can have a fatal response, it’s no bad thing to team up with the son of Abdirahman Farole, Puntland’s recently elected president. The fact that said son Mohammed is also a journalist makes you think Bahadur lucked out from the start.
With two journalists at work, colour comes naturally to this portrait of Somali pirates. There’s gossip in spades, all manner of anecdotal observation, a window onto backroom dealings and daily life in one of the more unusual parts of the planet.
Somalis like Boyah, the first pirate we meet, refer to themselves as badaadinta badah, or saviours of the sea, sometimes translated as coastguard. Boyah is the self-appointed, headline-grabbing “Chief of the Coastguard, with a CV much like those of his fellow buccaneers.
Fourteen years ago, he was a lobster diver in Eyl. After foreign fishing fleets devastated the reefs with steel-pronged dragnets, he moved into kidnapping foreign fishing boats in the mid-Nineties, before moving onto less well protected commercial vessels. Boyah’s role is to recruit pirates, provide finance and command piracy missions. With 85-150 horsepower engines, the pirates’ skiffs are almost impossible to outrun. In any case, resistance is extremely rare. Once the captured ships are taken back into Eyl, ransom negotiations soon begin, the almost inevitable prelude to cash being parachuted onto the ship’s deck. Half of the loot goes to the hijackers, a third to the financiers, 20 per cent to the army of helpers with a dollop given as charitable donation to the poorest families in the local community.
Bahadur is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom along the way. He notes, for example, that the One Earth Future think-tank has come up with a figure of $238m for the estimated income Somali pirates earned in 2010, a statistic that others, including The Economist, have repeated. Bahadur unpicks the lazy assumptions that lie behind the calculation and comes up with $65m-85m, still more than you need for a takeaway curried goat but a third of the “official” figure. He takes a combative, mostly justified line, on received opinion on Somalia.
As for possible solutions to Somali piracy, however superficially attractive upping the ante sounds to outside observers, Bahadur is right to note that with a fraction of one per cent of all vessels passing through “pirate waters” being successfully hijacked, for the time being at least paying ransoms is “an economically sustainable solution for the long term”, the caveat being the spike in ransom sums demanded.
Since the problem of piracy lies on land, rather than at sea, it is there that any answer must be found. Some of Bahadur’s prescriptions, such as stepping up the security measures adopted by ships, are perfectly sound. Others, like financing “an effective and well-paid Puntland police force” and funding an expansion of Puntland’s prison system, look reasonable enough but do not sufficiently take into account the capacity of the international community to make a complete hash of anything it touches. It doesn’t take much imagination, for example, to envisage the palatial splendour of Garowe head of police’s new mansion, the endemic corruption of his officials, and the thoroughly ineffectual force that would result.
At the end of the book, Bahadur reflects on the fate of Boyah, the pirate who couldn’t quite retire. Arrested under pressure from the US, he looked likely to go down for life, a decision Bahadur applauds as “free of the nepotistic proclivities bred by Somali clannism”, since the miscreant was part of the president’s sub-clan.
This is all very well, and I have heard the same sentiments expressed by many Somalis in Mogadishu and Nairobi – usually from those clans with least power – but to expect Somali politicians to be able to operate without clan loyalties in the back of their minds, if not in the very forefront, is unrealistic. Above all, it goes against Somali culture.
Earlier this year, I remember a venerable Somali statesman, a former state governor of Mudug, tell me the best thing for the international community to do in Somalia was “get out of it altogether”. Rather than keep the clans out of the picture, he had a very different solution in mind. “Just get the clans together with their elected representatives. History shows they’ll take decisions by consensus and agree. Everything comes down to clan in Somalia. There’s no other way.”
After 20 years of the international community’s failed prescriptions, each one ending in domestic disappointment, perhaps it is time for Somalia’s clans to play the leading role in fixing the country’s deep-seated problems, of which piracy is but one manifestation. They could hardly do worse than the international “experts”.
[ Read more… ]» OUR LAST BEST CHANCE: THE PURSUIT OF PEACE IN A TIME OF PERIL by King Abdullah II of Jordan
When King Abdullah first started work on this political memoir two years ago, he can hardly have imagined how different the Middle East would look by the time of its publication. Change in this region, which prizes stability above all else, mostly occurs at a glacial pace, if it happens at all. Yet the region has been turned upside down so quickly, with the popular revolutions that began in Tunisia and Egypt, that one can reasonably wonder what other surprises may lie in store before this review is published. Change is no longer a political slogan voiced by a distant American president. It’s real. It’s happening now. Tunis and Cairo have proved to be only the start. Stability, all of a sudden, doesn’t look so stable.
If any family in the world can be said to represent stability, it is the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan. King Abdullah is a 43rd-generation direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. In the sixth century, his ancestor Qusai was the first ruler of Mecca. In the past few days, however, cracks have started appearing. On 8 February, a group of 36 tribal leaders, the traditional cornerstone of the monarchy, warned that, ‘Jordan will sooner or later be the target of an uprising similar to the ones in Tunisia and Egypt due to suppression of freedoms and looting of public funds.’ The virtually unprecedented criticism also broke an important taboo by linking Queen Rania to corruption. Crowds have taken to the streets. The king has sacked his government.
The title of this engrossing book refers to the pressing need, as King Abdullah sees it, for Israelis and the Palestinians to make peace. Substitute ‘reform’ for ‘peace’ and it would be even more timely. As toxic as the Israel-Palestine question undoubtedly is for the region, the West is starting to discover that a policy of supporting dictatorships while preaching democracy carries dangers of its own.
This is a book that avowedly mixes the personal with the political. Cyclical conflicts in the Middle East have taken their toll on the Hashemite family. In 1951, the present king’s great-grandfather, King Abdullah I, was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman belonging to the militant group, Jihad Muqaddas. According to t his account, there were 18 documented assassination attempts — all unsuccessful — against Abdullah II’s father, the late King Hussein, between the time of his accession to the throne at 18 and his 30th birthday.
Educated in Jordan, England and America, Abdullah represents a thoughtful, moderate blend of East and West. His role model, above all, is his father, who took serial risks for peace. He describes how, as a captain in the Jordanian army, following a punishing but defining stint at Sandhurst, he once accompanied King Hussein on a secret mission into Israel to discuss a peace proposal, entering the country on a 33-foot fishing boat under cover of night. A former director of Jordanian Special Forces, he takes particular relish in describing the hunt for Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al- Qa’eda leader who in 2005 perpetrated ‘Jordan’s 9/11’, in which three suicide attackers killed 60 in Amman.
Today, Abdullah continues the diplomatic push for peace, acutely aware of how prospects for a lasting two-state solution are receding with every new settlement Israel erects and every new terrorist attack. ‘One of the best weapons against violent extremists is to undercut their rallying cries,’ he writes. The best hope yet, as Abdullah argues, remains the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 — encompassing a full Israeli withdrawal to June 1967 boundaries, a just solution to the refugee question and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, in return for peace with all Arab states. He sums up the stark choice facing Tel Aviv as ‘Fortress Israel or a Fifty-Seven State Solution’.
It now looks as if Israel may yet find itself with even fewer friends in the Middle East, ruing the failure to strike the sort of peace deal advocated by Abdullah and his late father. As for Abdullah’s own future in a newly uncertain political climate, a line jumps out. He writes how he and his four brothers say they are like five fingers on a hand. ‘If you are well-meaning, we extend the hand of friendship; but when outsiders try to harm the family, we band together and become a fist.’
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