Current Stories


The Nile has no shortage of stories or storytellers, which might discourage most writers from undertaking “a biography of the world’s greatest river”. Not British travel writer and self-described adventurer Robert Twigger, who at the outset of his lively, zigzagging, often oddball tome, Red Nile: The Biography of the World’s Greatest River, declares his goal “to uncover the best stories, in all their light and darkness, the stories red in tooth and claw, the more bizarre the better, the blood and the guts of this river which spills into history”. If you’re going to write another book about the Nile – a river whose chronicles begin with the Pharaohs and whose history, whether ancient or modern, is always being rehashed and reiterated – how else could you do it? To his credit, Twigger brings some self-restraint and humility to this epic, acknowledging he is less an original storyteller than a curator, collecting and rearranging tales and characters in order to say something new.

Twigger’s Red Nile refers, initially, to the moment in early summer when, north of Khartoum, the sediment-rich Blue Nile, at the height of its flood, flows into the White Nile and clogs its clear waters, turning them briefly red. But this is only the most literal version of the Red Nile. As Twigger writes, “the stories that remain are always the most highly coloured, the most passion-filled or the most blood curdling. Naturally, their colour is red.” Often he leans on the latter; among the most bloody stories retold is that of the Delta town of Mansoura, where in 1250, Baibars, Egypt’s future Mamluk Sultan, slaughtered French Crusaders led by Louis IX, and their blood was said to clog the Nile south to the Mediterranean.

Read more at The National.

Egypt’s Conscience: The Genius of Sonallah Ibrahim


From a prison camp in Egypt’s western desert in 1963, a young dissident, Sonallah Ibrahim, recorded in his diaries that he “must write about Cairo after studying her neighborhood by neighborhood, her classes, her evolution.” A year later he was out of prison, having served five years of a seven-year sentence for being a Communist. He smuggled his diaries back to Cairo by copying them onto cigarette rolling papers. But Egypt’s capital was its own kind of prison, as the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser kept him under house arrest from dusk until dawn. He tried working on a novel of his childhood, but focused instead on a bleak, honest record of his days in a city browbeaten by Nasser’s omnipresent police. “The new reality consumed me,” Ibrahim later wrote, and so his work had to engage “the struggle against imperialism, the effort to build socialism, and all the difficulties these efforts brought in their train: terror, torture, prison, death, personal misery.”

The outcome was his first novel, That Smell, published and quickly banned in 1966. Its nameless narrator is a recently released political prisoner and writer living under house arrest. He roams Cairo when he’s not checking in with a police officer every night, visits old friends and family, smokes, spies on his neighbors, and otherwise fails at writing and sleeping with a prostitute. The book, devoid of much plot, captures the debilitating effects of police repression under Nasser, but also anticipates a mood of decline and looming disaster brought by Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, followed by Nasser’s death in 1970. State censors decried Ibrahim’s portrait of a listless Egyptian society, singling out its few brief sexual scenes. At a Ministry of Information interrogation, a zealous officer demanded to know why Ibrahim’s narrator fails to sleep with a prostitute. “Is the hero impotent?” he asked, taking more offense to the perceived insult to Egyptian masculinity and, it seems, national prowess, than to the book’s portrayal of torture.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast.

Beirut, Alive but Dead


“Beirut was, and is, a very real place,” journalist Samir Kassir wrote in his mammoth history of Lebanon’s capital, “whose playfulness and love of show and spectacle fail to conceal its inner seriousness.” Kassir was killed in a car bombing in June 2005, three and a half months after the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s own assassination, along with 22 others, in a massive blast along the city’s Corniche on Valentine’s Day. Uncertainty and terror followed Hariri’s death, as the United Nations launched a high-profile investigation while car bombs and assassinations persisted, and thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and security forces – and thousands of others rallied around Hizbollah and its sponsor in Damascus. The mood and psychology of this moment in recent Lebanese history is the nominal plot of The Mehlis Report, the English-language debut of Rabee Jaber, the 2012 International Arabic Fiction Prize winner.

Architect Saman Yarid wanders Beirut, investing hopes for peace and answers to his city’s turmoil on the release of the UN investigation led by the German judge Detlev Mehlis. Saman is the last member of his family left in their sprawling home in Achrafieh; his sisters have moved abroad, save for Josephine, who was kidnapped in the civil war, and never found. But his story – late nights, long walks, and different girlfriends – leads into an imaginative excavation of the city’s brutal past and present, and the toll of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, with 150,000 dead and an estimated 17,000 missing. In Jaber’s novel, Kassir’s “inner seriousness” of Beirut is, in fact, a parallel city of the dead, where those lost in the war wander a nearly empty city, always thirsty, and sit down to write their memoirs. And the “real” Beirut in the months after Hariri’s assassination, as the translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid told an interviewer, is really that “Beirut of the dead superimposed on the Beirut of the living”.

Read the rest at The National

Revising the history of Egypt’s regime

I have a review in The National on Hazem Kandil’s new revisionist history of Egypt’s post-1952 regime, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. The book explains Egypt’s evolution from a military to a police state from Nasser through Mubarak, and the internal rivalries over decades between the military, the various branches of police and security services, and the political apparatus. Kandil argues that this history explains the military’s quick support for the millions of Egyptians in the streets calling for Mubarak’s end and the fall of the regime (hardly realized yet). Here’s the opening:

In October 1972 Anwar Sadat met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) to discuss plans to retake the Israeli-occupied Sinai. The generals suspected Sadat was planning a limited war – to cross the Suez Canal and then dig in – rather than advance to retake the strategic Gidi and Mitla passes. The deputy war minister objected; it would be a military disaster. When he pressed his point, Sadat erupted, according to the minutes cited by Hazem Kandil in Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. “Make one more objection, and you will be asked to stay home,” Egypt’s president shouted. “Learn your place! You are a soldier, not a politician.”

Days later, Sadat dismissed those opposing Scaf members and purged a hundred other high-ranking officers. Sadat called the military council “a group of childish pupils, [composed of] a deceived leftist, an ailing psychopath, a mercenary, a traitor to Egypt, a conspirator.”

This is hardly the lofty rhetoric used to describe Egypt’s military, especially by a president who was among the Free Officers that seized power in 1952. But it illustrates the complexities and internal rivalries of the Egyptian regime that are the subject of Kandil’s bold, revisionist history, which disputes the “misguided belief that the Egyptian regime has maintained its military character.” To Kandil the regime is not a monolith but “an amalgam of institutions” – the military, the police and security services, and the political leadership – “each with its own power-maximising agendas”.

Read the rest here.

Waguih Ghali’s character, Ram, on old Cairo

“Font has two rooms behind the Citadel in old Cairo. His neighbors are barrow-keepers, servants, and sometimes beggars. It is the prettiest and most colorful part of Cairo and anywhere else the arties would have flocked to it, but not in Cairo. The Cairo arties, if not slumming in Europe, are driving their Jaguars in Zamalek. I would like to live in that part of Cairo; I genuinely would prefer to live there. But with me it would be gimmicky. There is a touch of gimmick in whatever I do.”

from Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, p. 31

The Faster Times – Young Le Corbusier in Istanbul

In 1911, the last decade of the Ottoman Empire, a young Swiss-French architect visited Istanbul. He sketched as much as he took notes there, in “Stamboul,” capital of the fading Islamic power. Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, went on to become the contentious, formative architect and urbanist of the 20th century, credited with ideas like the house as “a machine for living in,” and the primacy of “space and light and order.” Le Corbusier’s travel diary was the first book he wrote and, according to Ivan Zaknic, the translator and editor of the MIT Press edition, “the last he submitted for publication, only a few weeks before his death on August 27, 1975.”

Journey to the East is a catalogue of a pioneering modernist’s first encounter with so-called vernacular architecture, which shaped many of his future buildings – none more than his curving, concrete cathedral at Ronchamp. Which isn’t to say that it reflects the mosques of Istanbul but rather the spiritual power that the young Le Corbusier felt “upon the hilltops of Stamboul [where] the shining white ‘Great Mosques’ swell up and spread themselves out amid spacious courtyards surrounded by neat tombs in lively cemeteries.”

Read the rest at the Faster Times.

On flying through Dubai

Amit Chaudhuri writes for the LRB blog about flying through Dubai:

Two months ago, before the so-called (and oft-denied) crash in Dubai’s economy, I saw, rushing to catch a connecting flight, Western tourists gaping at, even photographing, the immense granite walls in the airport, with perfectly measured sheets of water cascading down them. I was reminded briefly of a Bengali proverb descended from colonial modernity: ‘To show a Bangal the High Court’. ‘Bangal’, in Bengali, means, strictly speaking, ‘East Bengali’ (someone from the region that’s now Bangladesh). But, just as north and south, east and west, have country-specific, often prejudicial connotations in, say, the US or in England, so too, in Bengal, ‘Bangal’ denoted a villager, or the opposite of a sophisticate. Calcutta was in West Bengal, and the East, for historical reasons, was seen to be agrarian, feudal, and less developed in ideas and institutions; notwithstanding the fact that a great deal of Bengali ‘high’ modernism was the work of East Bengali migrants.

To take a ‘Bangal’ to see the High Court, then, was to confront the oaf with modernity and power. While watching Western tourists at Dubai airport, I reflected on how many Europeans remain ‘Bangals’ at heart. Development generates its own simple but profound enchantment. I, on the other hand (and this too is an oafish anomaly), look out for old buildings and doors when I find myself in new cities. In Fribourg in Switzerland, I found versions of the specked mosaic floors we have in middle-class apartments in India; in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels there were red stone floors identical to those in my uncle’s (now destroyed) house in South Calcutta; in Cheltenham, noticing balconies, I couldn’t decide whether some memory of light among retired colonials had led to these (for England) unique additions, or whether the balconies themselves produced a special effect of light in Cheltenham. In turn, I’m surprised that more people who visit India – or Dubai, for that matter – don’t chance upon buildings, cornices, and windows that stir some buried, unlooked-for memory that tells them more about themselves and their histories than their guide books (which are about famous monuments) can. Dan Jacobson once told me that this was a habit of looking that migrants have: as we stopped to stare at an astonishing old bench on Hampstead Heath, he observed resignedly: ‘The locals don’t see this.’ In a few days, on my way back to Calcutta, I will be flying through Dubai. I can’t think that it will be any different from how I now imagine it.

Read the rest here.

The photo is by Martin Becka, from a recent exhibition “Dubai, Transmutations” at The Empty Quarter in Dubai, in which Becka used 18th century photo equipment and a view camera from 1857.

Sonallah Ibrahim

Sonallah400The new issue of Bidoun is out, its theme Interviews. In it is an interview with Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, by Ahmed El Attar. In 2003 Ibrahim famously rejected a literary prize funded by the Egyptian government, the Supreme Council for Culture’s Novelist of the Year. The then-66 year old, part of the “sixties Generation” of revolutionary writers, walked slowly to the stage of the Cairo Opera House, built by the Japanese in the eighties, where he gave a scathing, sober indictment of the government.

In his speech (reprinted in many papers), Ibrahim—darling of the leftist set that has dominated the Arab novel since the 1960s—said: “I have no doubt that every Egyptian here is aware of the extent of the catastrophe facing our country. It’s not just the real Israeli military threat to our eastern borders, the American dictates, or the weakness showing in our government’s foreign policy: It’s all aspects of life. We no longer have theater, cinema, or scientific research; we just have festivals, conferences, and false funds. We don’t have industry, agriculture, health, or justice. Corruption and pillage spreads. And anyone who objects faces getting beaten up or tortured. The exploitative few have wrested our spirit from us.”

But he left the pièce de résistance to the end: “All that’s left for me is to thank those who chose me for this prize but to say that I won’t be accepting it because it is from a government that, in my opinion, does not possess the credibility to grant it.” The hall, according to press reports, erupted in shock and support, as Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni was left trying to call to order a jubilant literary pack. [World Press Review]

I’ve been googling Ibrahim all evening, trying to read more about him and “the Opera incident.” A month after his’s rejection, Mona Anis wrote in Al Ahram Weekly of a “last act” in light of the evening’s late, last-minute dedication to the recently late Edward Said.

Ending what we had supposed was an acceptance speech with an indictment of the Egyptian government and its cultural institutions Ibrahim walked out, leaving the cheque and trophy on the podium, many of those sitting in the front rows angry, and at least half the auditorium applauding. It was a moment I would have wanted to write to Edward Said about.

In his interview, Ibrahim is asked about that night, and how such confrontation went against his usual stand away from the limelight, just writing. [The novelist wrote a short piece about his rejection of the prize, as El Attar says in a question: “You chose a clear political posture and social stance during the Opera incident, and then you wrote a small piece about it. When I read that piece, I wanted to cry. It was unprecedented. Intellectuals, artists, and writers tend to talk too much without really saying anything. Your words were so categorical and so precise. You simply said, “What’s going on?” PLEASE any help on where to find a copy.]

Why did Ibrahim confront the government that night? Long-serving Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, long gunning for the UNESCO head job, was on stage that night in 2003, and apparently had to try and hush applause, blue-faced. Ibrahim’s answer:

In the past, I was always putting off conflict. But I feel that the situation has reached a breaking point, and that we’ve been placed under an unbearable degree of stress. It has inspired rebellion in people for the first time, an emerging vitality of the “other” point of view. When I think back, it’s true I didn’t feel like I could go and receive the award and go through all those congratulatory formalities, which I can’t stomach very easily anyway — but at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity to speak my mind. So I decided not to decline. I went in order to let it out, to say and project all that people wanted to say but could not.I believe that i was a successful initiative from one perspective, from the perspective that my appearance was as surprise for them. They didn’t anticipate that I’d actually come. So they weren’t able to react fast enough, and that’s why I escaped arrest.


Pankaj Mishra says: No to Eurabia, Islamofobics


The writer takes on fear-mongers and hysteria, as always, in an excellent books article in the Guardian:

Is Europe about to be overrun by Muslims? A number of prominent European and American politicians and journalists seem to think so. The historian Niall Ferguson has predicted that “a youthful Muslim society to the south and east of the Mediterranean is poised to colonise – the term is not too strong – a senescent Europe”. And according to Christopher Caldwell, an American columnist with the Financial Times, whom the Observer recently described as a “bracing, clear-eyed analyst of European pieties”, Muslims are already “conquering Europe’s cities, street by street”. So what if Muslims account for only 3% to 4% of the EU’s total population of 493 million? In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Can Europe Be the Same With Different People in It? – which was featured on Start the Week, excerpted in Prospect, commended as “morally serious” by the New York Times and has beguiled some liberal opinion-makers as well as rightwing blowhards – Caldwell writes: “Of course minorities can shape countries. They can conquer countries. There were probably fewer Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 than there are Islamists in Europe today.”


The Novelist in Wartime

storyThanks to the ‘onceuponthenile’ GoogleGroup that daily floods my inbox with links and stories from Chelsey, Hanna and Paul, I just read this speech by Haruki Murakami given in Jerusalem in February. He was accepting the Jerusalem Prize.

Feb. 20, 2009 | I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies.

Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling lies. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies — which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true — the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies.

Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.


A monologue

Playwright David Hare recently published “Wall: A Monologue,” in the New York Review. It’s superb.

All right. Let’s be serious, let’s think about this.

Please, please: consider the state of affairs, consider the desperation, consider the depth of the despair. A country has reached a point at which 84 percent of its people are in favor of building a wall along its borders.

Have you ever known anything of which 84 percent of people were in favor? And yet there it is, over four fifths of a nation—can you imagine that figure?—saying something completely bizarre. The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in. This one, they say, is being built to keep people out.

You might call this an extraordinary state of affairs. Hardly a normal state of affairs. And that’s the word you hear all the time in the Middle East. “Normal.” The Palestinians ask, “When will we have a normal life?” And so do the Israelis. Indeed, the Israeli state was founded in 1948 with the principal ambition of being normal, of being a normal place like any other. The Palestinians call the foundation of the Israeli state the nakbeh: the disaster. And now sixty years later Israel believes itself, in the frequently expressed view of the majority, in need of a wall.

Except, of course, they don’t call it a wall. They call it a fence.

Listen to the reading of the monologue here. Read Hare’s play Stuff Happens.

Palestinian Animal Farm

George Orwell’s 1945 satiric novel Animal Farm was performed with a distinctively Palestinian flavor in a debut production this week at the Freedom Theater in the Jenin refugee camp, taking aim at internal politics and the alliance between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In scene one of the play, Farmer Jones assassinates the animals’ leader. In scene two, the animals – a few horses, a donkey, a crow, a chicken and some pigs – rally around a revolutionary sow named Snowball, who leads an uprising against their oppressive master.

“Intifada!” the animals scream, using the Arabic word for uprising. Strobe lights flash and heavy metal music blares as they chase Jones from the farm.


Globalization and the Messiness of Now

A conversation in the PEN America Journal between Amitava Kumar and Ilija Trojanow includes the following wonderful bit about the uselessness of Thomas Friedman and the 12th century trade routes of the Indian Ocean — brought up in a discussion of Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land.

Trojanow: … So I suppose I have learned from Indian writers the width of freedom that one has as an artist in this world, so long as you refuse to acknowledge cultural boundaries that other people build up.

Kumar: That’s beautiful. Ghosh’s book In an Antique Land is a great example of that. It follows two parallel narratives, both describing Indians in Egypt. The first begins in 1148 and the second in 1980. In the first, a slave from India is serving an Arab master and going to Arabia. Eight hundred years later this document about him is discovered in the Cairo Geniza, in a synagogue, because the man was Jewish. Of course, the document doesn’t become intelligible until someone takes it to Princeton after the Second World War. And then a young scholar at Oxford, Amitav Ghosh, finds it. He sees this Indian name and thinks he’s entitled to visit the Geniza to research its origins. In going there and in learning the Egyptian language, he meets these new migrants, devout Muslims who act as his guides as he, a Hindu, pieces together the journey of the slave from India to Egypt. These migrants later leave to work in Iraq.

This enormous mix of things confuses us because we don’t have a sense of history. Read, say, Thomas Friedman, who says that the world is flat, and you’d think that globalization was suddenly discovered by Thomas Friedman when he woke up one day. But globalization did not happen yesterday, and global exchange and global commerce and the sharing of goods and bodily fluids across all kinds of boundaries happened in other centuries too, often in easier ways.

Trojanow: That’s one of the myths of globalization. Samuel Huntington is ignorant beyond belief when he says that, in today’s world, suddenly cultures are coming together. The Indian Ocean, for example, was one big area of interaction, throughout many, many centuries. It was much easier for someone, say, three hundred years ago, living on the seaboard of the Indian Ocean, to have cultural exchange with someone else than it is today. For an Omani trader, or a Persian trader, or an Indian trader, or an Indonesian trader, there were certain highways—very seaworthy routes—defined by the monsoon. And today it’s quite difficult for a trader from Bihar to go to Mombasa, for example. He needs a passport, which in India is not easy. Then he needs a visa, which is even more difficult. And then he needs to save money for a plane ticket, which is almost impossible if he’s a small-town trader.

Worlds separate as they seem to come together; foreign students and young Syrians in internet cafes in Damascus talk to friends and relatives across the globe on Skype and we think communication is the key here — the two are more and more alike, dressing more and more alike, riveted by their online social networks, talking the world over. But in the livelihoods of the foreigner and the local disparties grow — the foreigner might leave Syria often, for weekend holidays, to Beirut or the Dead Sea, or even farther south, to the country whose stamp will deny you reentry into Syria — while the latter maybe never leaves, because he is harassed at the airport, or simply cannot afford it, and most certainly cannot enter Palestine. Travel eases for some while it constricts for others, and the world doesn’t flatten.

Hugh Kennedy reviews the Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights essentially reflect the world of Egyptian and Syrian urban culture of the Mamluk period (1260-1517) and the heroes of the stories are as often merchants as kings and princes, something that would be unimaginable in the contemporary world of Arthurian romance. There is lots of talk of commerce and money, the everyday life of the souks and ports from which the unsuspecting, but not unwilling, merchant can be lured to unimaginable adventures. Some of tales are set in clearly defined historical contexts. The most famous of these are the ones featuring the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), the vizier Ja’far the Barma kid, Harun’s wife Zubayda and the poet/court jester Abu Nuwas. These are all well-known historical figures but none of the stories in which they figure has any known historical basis, and the caliph’s night-time, incognito wanderings through his mysterious capital of Baghdad are no more than devices to introduce more fabulous events. In most cases the stories are set in a sort of never-never land, just far enough beyond the horizons of the familiar world to allow for marvels and wonders of all sorts.

It is fair to say that the Nights was looked down on, or more often simply disregarded, by the literary elite of the Arabic-speaking world. The simple narrative flow, the numerous marvels and wholly improbable events, the questionable morality and, perhaps most of all, the sex with which the “Nights” are, to use Robert Irwin’s expression, “suffused”, all combined to ensure that they were never part of the classical Arabic canon.

From the New Statesman. Via.

To and from West Beirut

Driving across the Biqa’ Valley:


As we reentered Syria from Lebanon yesterday, a friend had his copy of al-Hayat, the Lebanese daily, seized by a border guard. “Not allowed,” he said simply as he snatched it out of his lap, reaching into our taxi’s back seat. 

A few days earlier we had left Damascus in the early morning, trying to beat the Eid al-Adha holiday traffic. We were only half successful, still having to sit in lines of cab and car traffic at the mountain border between the two countries, the line between the dry desert hills that drop down to the former oasis of Damascus on one side, and the fertile Biqa’ Valley on the other, which you cross in 10 minutes of fast driving before climbing into the craggy mountains and fog and under-construction bridges that eventually drop you down to the Mediterranean and the concrete cityscape of Beirut, which was mostly caked in smog last weekend, before sea breeze and a bit of rain cleared things up. 

The disconnect between the two cities is startling and it goes far beyond the prevalence of French, English and Western cafes in Beirut. West Beirut, save for the “incidents” in May — how many Lebanese referred to Hizballah and Amal’s take-over of the city last spring — is in many ways student neighborhood now, the posh kids from AUB going to Starbucks or eating sandwiches across from campus talking in English mostly, with the errant Arabic exclamation. It’s hard to imagine the city’s past amid this, but perhaps this is the truth of Beirut: the disconnect from it dusty neighbor, Damascus; the always looking across the Mediterranean, at least in certain parts of town; and the absurdity of Italian coffees and French newspapers in section of the city that Yasser Arafat vowed to turn into a “the graveyard of the invader and the Stalingrad of the Arabs” when the Israelis invaded in 1982. 

I bought Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 on Rue Hamra in West Beirut. He writes in the opening pages:

The dawn made of lead is still advancing from the direction of the sea, riding on sounds I haven’t heard before. The sea has been entirely packed into stray shells. It is changing its marine nature and turning into metal. Does death have all these names? We said we’d leave. Why then does this red-black-grey rain keep pouring over those leaving or staying, be they people, trees, or stones? We said we’d leave. “By sea?” they asked. “By sea,” we answered. Why then are they arming the foam and waves with this heavy artillery? Is it to hasten our steps to the sea? But first they must break the siege of the sea. They must clear the last path for the last threat of our blood. But they won’t do, so we won’t be leaving. I’ll go ahead then and make the coffee.”

West Beirut:


Mohsin Hamid on Mumbai and the media


It has been widely reported in the foreign media that the gunmen in the current attacks in Mumbai are specifically targeting Westerners and Jews. Does this point to a higher likelihood that Muslims are behind it? 

Well they’re not Muslims … they just call themselves that. But it’s preposterous to focus on this.

Who is losing their lives? Over 100 brown people have been killed – Hindus, Muslims and Christians indiscriminately– but the media focuses on the white faces being killed. 

The vast majority are Indians, police, soldiers and so on. Clearly they want to attack foreigners they but have no problem with attacking locals too … this has been overlooked.

Mohsin Hamid interviewed by Al Jazeera. Last year he spoke at Vassar and talked to an English class before his lecture. I remembering asking him something related to the following quote, from an interview about The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

FP: What does your novel say about how the United States deals with Muslim immigrants and expatriates?

MH: It’s very complicated. Changez is not particularly discriminated against. Working in New York, he prospers. Yet inside him is this latent identity, a sense of pride in somebody else’s narrative. And that’s something that Americans often forget: These other narratives of people who are much less successful—on the metrics we can measure—are still equally proud.

Inside the United States, there is a disproportionate fear of Muslims and of terrorism generally. Three thousand Americans died on 9/11, another 3,000 or so have died in Iraq, and over 42,000 Americans are killed in automobile accidents every year. Yet when we see a Muslim, we feel fear. When we see an automobile, we don’t feel that fear. It’s this exaggerated fear that results in the sorts of behaviors toward the Muslim world that I think are the problem.

Interview here.

At the gate

You couldn’t siege a traffic circle today. 


The remnants of the Byzantine forces now withdrew to Damascus. The Muslims pursued them. The siege of Damascus became one of the set pieces of the conquest of Syria. To a remarkable extent we can retrace the progress of the siege because of the detailed descriptions of the sources and the preservation of the fabric of the city. The walls of old Damascus, Roman or earlier in origin and continually restored since, are still largely intact. Only at the western end where the city expanded in Ottoman times is the old circuit breached. All except one of the ancient gates survive and they bear the same names today as they do in the early Arabic sources: it is an astonishing example of the continuity of urban geography and architecture through almost fourteen centuries We are told that Khalid b. al-Walid was stationed at the East Gate (Bab Sharqi), Amr b. al-As at St. Thomas’s Gate (Bab Tuma), Abu Ubayda at the now demolished Jabiya Gate on the west side and Yazid b. Abi Sufyan at the Little Gate and Kaysan Gate on the south side. 

Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests, 79.

Zizek on the meltdown

“One of the most striking things about the reaction to the current financial meltdown is that, as one of the participants put it: ‘No one really knows what to do.’ The reason is that expectations are part of the game: how the market reacts to a particular intervention depends not only on how much bankers and traders trust the interventions, but even more on how much they think others will trust them. Keynes compared the stock market to a competition in which the participants have to pick several pretty girls from a hundred photographs: ‘It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligence to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.’ We are forced to make choices without having the knowledge that would enable us to make them; or, as John Gray has put it: ‘We are forced to live as if we were free.'”

If only it was accompanied by a podcast of Zizek reading aloud. From the London Review of Books.

On a day spent reading “The Damascus Chronicle”

            In the first decade of the twelfth century, less than ten years after the first Crusaders had arrived at the northern border of Syria, the new governor of Damascus set out to destroy a Frankish castle under construction near the Upper Jordan. Zahar al-Din Atabek had been appointed governor two years before by Shams al-Muluk Duqaq, king of Damascus, who was on his death bed, “seized by a prolonged illness, accompanied by digestive disorders.” It was the king’s mother who pleaded with him, as he lost all the water in his body, to name a successor. Zahar al-Din got dangerously sick immediately after assuming power, but recovered and was in good health in the fall of 1105, when he received news that the Franks were building “one of those castles which are described as impregnable.” He quickly set out with his army and surprised the Crusaders at their half-built base, slaying them “to the last man.” His army pillaged the Frankish stores, making away with weapons, animals, supplies, and something else. As Ibn al-Qalanisi wrote from Damascus in his Chronicle, Zahar al-Din “returned to Damascus with their heads,” accompanied by the few Franks taken as prisoners, plus “an immense quantity of booty.” It was Sunday, the 24th of December. The road to Damascus from the Jordan Valley must have been cold, with long desert nights the further north they rode. The heads would have stayed cold, then, but what of the prisoners? They likely didn’t have blankets. How much did they shiver at night?

            That same month – although it’s unclear if it preceded or followed the victorious march with booty and heads back to Damascus – a comet shot across the sky. Ibn al-Qalanisi thought enough of it to follow his account of the successful siege and slaughter in the Upper Jordan with a bit of star-gazing:

“There appeared in the sky a comet with a tail resembling a rainbow, extending from the east to the centre of the heavens. It had also been seen near the sun in the daytime before it began to appear at night, and it continued for a number of nights and disappeared.”

            The moon is visible in the Old City at night like it was for Ibn al-Qalanisi 900 years ago, but I haven’ seen a shooting star. School kids scream in the street before eight in the morning, they’re on their way to school, and they pick it up again in the early afternoon when they’re back. Miniature garbage trucks that run on some foul diesel or oil creep around the little street corner, barely fitting through, their engines sputtering, sounding worse than a lawnmower. Earlier this week my landlord’s son came over to look at the leaky toilet. He lingered afterwards with a few of us. Someone asked, “Where are you from in Syria, if not Damascus?”

“Well, where do you think?





“Latakia? Hama? Suwayda? Deir az-Zur?”


“Mar Musa?”

“No one lives in Mar Musa, only monks. It’s a relic place, also for tourists.”

“Then where are you from?”


            His family left the city, the capital of the Golan Heights, after it fell to the Israelis in 1967.

“Our house was between the hospital and the church.”

            On a visit to Quneitra, possible with an easily obtained government permit that allows a kind of disaster tourism, the hospital and the church are two of the few standing landmarks in a city otherwise leveled by shells and bombs. The family moved to Damascus and into the Old City where they lived for five years in the mid-70s in the small corner house that I now rent with a roommate. Some of the family returns to Quneitra when they can, although it all looks as it did after the war, in ruins. The site of the Crusader castle that Zahar al-Din sacked in 1106 can’t be far away.


The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades: Extracted and translated from the chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalanisi, by H.A.R. Gibb, pp. 62 and pp. 71-72, A.H. 497 (5th October, 1103, to 22nd September, 1105) and A.H. 499, (13th September, 1105, to 1st September, 1106).

in Lattakia

I’ve started reading William Darymple’s “In Xanadu,” which is a pleasure so far although his travels in the Levant, Bilad ash-Sham, end by the third chapter. Kublai Khan’s summer palace in China is a long way from all this. After leaving Jerusalem where he discovers that the oil burning in the eternal lamps in the Holy Sepulchre has been modernized (it’s no longer olive oil from the Mount of Olives, but sunflower oil from a box, siphoned into spare plastic bottle from the Body Shop in Covent Garden), he travels from Cyprus to Syria. He lands in Lattakia, the primary coastal city here, and opens his chapter with a most unfortunate line, that “Lattakia is a filthy hole… the town smells of dead fish: you can smell it three miles into the Mediterranean.”

Now perhaps much has changed here since the Eighties, but Lattakia does not smell like fish. In fact I think we’ll go each some nice catch for dinner tonight. His description doesn’t fit the current place: a rocky beach in a rented apartment (“chalet”) outside the city center, with Turkey wide in view up the coast, marked by a mountain, Jebel Akra, across the water and behind the remaining points of north Syrian coastline. It’s beautiful here, the water is warm like a tub, and after getting here on Tuesday, the night before the start of eid, we sat with a gracious family on their veranda, breaking fast with piles of salads, rice dishes, and meats, while twenty-one cannons went off between the muezzins’ wails of two neighboring mosques stationed at each end of the street. The cannons signaled the start of the holiday that ends Ramadan.