Sale of U.S. Arms Fuels the Wars of Arab States - NYT

Good report on all the possible upside of regional chaos for the U.S. arms industry:

American defense firms are following the money. Boeing opened an office in Doha, Qatar, in 2011, and Lockheed Martin set up an office there this year. Lockheed created a division in 2013 devoted solely to foreign military sales, and the company’s chief executive, Marillyn Hewson, has said that Lockheed needs to increase foreign business — with a goal of global arms sales’ becoming 25 percent to 30 percent of its revenue — in part to offset the shrinking of the Pentagon budget after the post-Sept. 11 boom.
American intelligence agencies believe that the proxy wars in the Middle East could last for years, which will make countries in the region even more eager for the F-35 fighter jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal of weapons. The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth capabilities and has been marketed heavily to European and Asian allies. It has not yet been peddled to Arab allies because of concerns about preserving Israel’s military edge.
But with the balance of power in the Middle East in flux, several defense analysts said that could change. Russia is a major arms supplier to Iran, and a decision by President Vladimir V. Putin to sell an advanced air defense system to Iran could increase demand for the F-35, which is likely to have the ability to penetrate Russian-made defenses.
“This could be the precipitating event: the emerging Sunni-Shia civil war coupled with the sale of advanced Russian air defense systems to Iran,” Mr. Aboulafia said. “If anything is going to result in F-35 clearance to the gulf states, this is the combination of events.”

Remember, this is what Obama recently made quite clear about his Middle East policy: it's about selling more weapons

Links April 4-17 2015

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Why Terrorists Weep

Thomas Hegghammer offers the text [PDF] of a recent lecture on in his recent research - sounds fascinating:

My lecture today has a fancy title, but it is basically about what jihadis do in their spare time. Before you sneak out the back door and tweet “underwhelming”, let me say that this is the most interesting topic I have ever worked on, and it is much more important than it seems. My main message today is this: the non-military activities of terrorist groups can shed important new light on how extremists think and behave. In fact, I’ll go so far as claiming that this topic is one of the last major, unexplored frontiers of terrorism research, one that merits an entire new research program. Although I’ll be talking mainly about the culture of jihadi groups, the perspective and concepts I present can be applied to any type of rebel group.

Egypt's Leaderless Revolution

This piece by David and Marina Ottaway in the Cairo Review is not about Mohamed ElBaradei per se, even if it is illustrated with a picture of him, but delivers this assessment of his failings:

Mohamed ElBaradei, who emerged at various time as the great hope of Egyptian secularists, stands out as an apt symbol of the old elite’s political failings. He refused to run for president on the ground that Egypt was insufficiently democratic, but did little to make it more democratic. Nor did he seem upset when his supporters tried unsuccessfully to convince the military to name him president, skipping elections. He launched the Destour Party but also did little to build it into a viable force. After the July 2013 military takeover, he readily accepted an appointment as El-Sisi’s vice president. But ElBaradei resigned six weeks later, after the military dispersed pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo at a high cost in lives—Human Rights Watch reports that at least 817 were killed—apparently appalled by the violence that had been predictable ever since his appointment. Whatever ElBaradei’s commitment to democracy in theory, he was never ready to lead secularists in the hard struggle to make it a reality and was all too ready to accept unelected high positions in government.

Worth reading in full, as a an argument that the dominant position of the Islamists and failure of leadership all-around doomed the Egyptian revolution, although I think it has a few blind spots – such as ascribing too much intent to what those who rose up against Mubarak in 2011 wanted. 

Omar Bashir, Iran's ally, woos GCC over Yemen

Contributor Paul Mutter writes about an overlooked participant in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen: President Omar Bashir's Sudan. The isolated regime has been happy to win some legitimacy through its token participation. Gulf countries meanwhile appear eager to move it out of Iran's sphere of influence. 

Compared with the Emirati and Saudi contributions to Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the Sudanese contingent is a mere token force. Yet the four Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-24 bombers now operating out of King Khalid Airbase carry weight well in excess of their bomb loads. Khartoum did not send over its ramshackle, barrel-bombing Antonov transports. It sent a full third of its most modern air assets to fly against the Houthis. Many of their victims will probably be civilians, as has been the case back home in the Nuba Mountains since the Su-24s were deployed two years ago, according to Nuba Reports and National Geographic.

Their presence serves little military purpose, given the firepower available to the GCC. Instead, by committing to the campaign, Omar al-Bashir’s clique has once again demonstrated the adaptability that has kept it in power since 1989. Focused on wooing their partner away from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi-led coalition has surely promised the ostracized president military, diplomatic, and economic aid in exchange for his assistance. Already, the Saudis have lifted banking restrictions against Khartoum, imposed in 2014. For the Sudanese regime, which seems to uncover coup plots within its ranks every few months, pours 25% of the national budget into fighting insurgencies it cannot decisively beat, and still cannot cope with the loss of most of its oil fields, such help is quite welcome

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Media in the Arab world

Northwestern University in Qatar has just released its latest survey on media use and attitudes in the Middle East. It finds, among other things, that: 

Egypt, the most politically tumultuous of the countries surveyed, is the only country in which there was an increase in support for tighter internet regulation.

People don’t necessarily think the “democratizing” effect of the internet is a good thing: People who think online activity can increase political influence are more likely to want tighter regulation of the internet.

Fewer people are comfortable expressing their own political opinions, especially in Egypt.

The survey is full of nifty graphics and has a lot of interesting findings. Folks say they support freedom of expression and internet regulation. They are increasingly worried about surveillance and hesitate to share their views online. Egyptians have a low opinion of their media, Emiratis think very highly of theirs. A majority of Saudis and Lebanese believe the international media is biased against them. The most in-demand content is comedy. The #1 media source remains television. (Unfortunately, given what  TV talk shows in the Arab world are). There is a section just on Qatar (in which citizens are asked if they are comfortable criticizing "powerful institutions" rather than, as with other countries, "the government" -- and of course forget about the emir). 

 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

American Qur'an

The artist Sandow Birk spent 9 years handwriting and illustrating an American Quran, featuring scenes from his native California. From the artist's site: 

At a time when the United States was involved in two wars against Islamic nations and declared itself to be in a cultural and philosophical struggle against Islamic extremists, American artist Sandow Birk’s latest project considers the Qur’an as it was intended – as a universal message to humankind. If the Qur’an is indeed a divine message to all peoples, he ponders, what does it mean to an individual American in the 21st Century? How does the message of the Qur’an relate to us, as Americans, in this life, in this time? What is this message that we have spent so much blood and treasure fighting against, and how can the message of the Qur’an be applied to a contemporary American life? In short, what might the Qur’an mean to contemporary Americans?

 I love this, and you can see it all here. HT Simon. 


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Translation: Egypt's double bind in yemen

The crisis in Yemen, coming just as a breakthrough in negotiations between the West and Iran over its nuclear program took place, appears to encompass the entire region's strategic dilemmas. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies see it as a direct expansion of Iranian power, via the Houthis, on the Arabian Peninsula, right on their border. Iran sees the Saudi-led offensive as further signs of anti-Shia rhetoric and militarisation of the Gulf region, and confirmed again its ability to extend its perceived infuence throughout the Arab world (whatever the reality of Tehran's support for the Houthis is). The US, which had blithely backed a deeply flawed Saudi-directed transition in Yemen while it focused on counter-terrorism, is caught in the middle of its desire for a deal with Iran and its strong backing of the Saudi offensive. This is nothing to say of Yemen's own internal dynamics: the remarkable rise of the Houthis, the return of the prospect of two distinct Yemens, the opportunism of deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh, the irony of the Yemeni Muslim Brothers now finding themselves on the Saudi side (alongside al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). One could go on.

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The Obama Doctrine

In Thomas Friedman's interesting sit-down with Obama about the Iran deal, this tidbit on US policy towards Arab countries:

Regarding America’s Sunni Arab allies, Obama reiterated that while he is prepared to help increase their military capabilities they also need to increase their willingness to commit their ground troops to solving regional problems.
“The conversations I want to have with the Gulf countries is, first and foremost, how do they build more effective defense capabilities,” the president said. “I think when you look at what happens in Syria, for example, there’s been a great desire for the United States to get in there and do something. But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done? I also think that I can send a message to them about the U.S.’s commitments to work with them and ensure that they are not invaded from the outside, and that perhaps will ease some of their concerns and allow them to have a more fruitful conversation with the Iranians. What I can’t do, though, is commit to dealing with some of these internal issues that they have without them making some changes that are more responsive to their people.”
One way to think about it, Obama continued, “is [that] when it comes to external aggression, I think we’re going to be there for our [Arab] friends — and I want to see how we can formalize that a little bit more than we currently have, and also help build their capacity so that they feel more confident about their ability to protect themselves from external aggression.” But, he repeated, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. Now disentangling that from real terrorist activity inside their country, how we sort that out, how we engage in the counterterrorism cooperation that’s been so important to our own security — without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ — I think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”

Let me translate that for you: our priority in the Arab world is selling them weapons and making sure that the regimes are stable enough so that they will keep buying our weapons, and don't act too embarrassingly either in terms of human rights and so on because it might make selling them weapons more difficult. Also, we would like to formalize as much as we can how we will sell them weapons.

Palestinian iconography

The Palestine Museum -- a new museum that should open in Birzeit in 2016 -- has created a collection of images that mash up contemporary photographs with Baroque religious paintings. (Another series, also at this link, juxtaposes photos from the refugee camps today and decades ago). 

The Deposition (c. 1507) Raphaello Sanzio da Urbino 

Photo: Israeli soldiers kill a Palestinian and detain others, downtown Ramallah. 31 Mar. 2002 

byAlexandra Boulat

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi on blasphemy, homosexuality, equality

In a new book, Au sujet de l'Islam ("Speaking of Islam"), Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahda party in Tunisia, give his opinions on a number of contemporary issues. Here are a few quotes translated from a press summary:

On blasphemy: "It's forbidden in Tunisia, although freedom of conscience and opinion are protected by the Constitution. You have the choice to be Muslim or not, but you don't have the choice to mock the beliefs of others." 
On homosexuality: "We don't approve it. But Islam does not spy on folks. It preserves privacy. Everyone leads his/her life and is responsible before his/her creator." 
On equality: "Inheritance does not reflect the value of women versus men. They are equal in terms of their human value, but don't have the same rights and responsibilities in society." 

 

I wonder if the seemingly liberal position on homosexuality is a reaction above all to the pervasive spying under Ben Ali and the way the intelligence services used people's private lives, including real or false sexual allegations, as ammunition against them. On the old Islamist chestnut that men and women don't need to be equal in everything, just to have an equitable distribution of obligations -- What about the many men who live off their wives' work, or systematically refuse to pay alimony? Shouldn't they lose the rights of "breadwinners" when they shirk their obligations? 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Reporting on Yemen

A Yemeni reporter for the Washington Post talks about a war that is not too close for comfort:

Increasingly, Sanaa is turning into a ghost town. The universities, once bustling with students, have closed. So, too, have many businesses. People are packing their belongings into their pickup trucks and sedans and driving to far-away villages, hoping to avoid the air raids that have turned the mountains surrounding Sanaa into fiery-orange ­volcanoes.
The campaign, with a coalition of Arab nations, is an effort to dislodge Houthi rebels sweeping through Yemen.
The evenings are what alarm me most. That’s when the bombings intensify.
With Sanaa increasingly deprived of electricity, the lack of lighting creates an eerie darkness that is punctuated by the flashes — and explosions that quickly follow — that briefly illuminate my home town.
I’m also increasingly away from my wife. I’ve moved her family into our home because of the air raids. To make room, I’ve been staying at my father’s house, which is across town. I think that the family is safer this way, but all I want is to be home with my wife.
I spend my evenings trying to sleep, but often I can’t. I think about how I’ll report on the following day’s events. Will the Houthis capture the southern port city of Aden? I then inevitably ponder my own mortality. Will my family be killed in the attacks? Will I wake in the morning?


Revamping the Nixon Doctrine

Kagan and Dunne on the restoring of full levels of military aid to Egypt:

Unfortunately the idea that Sissi will be an effective ally against Islamic terrorists is misguided. He has, in fact, become one of the jihadists’ most effective recruiting tools. The simple truth is that, since Sissi took power, the frequency of terrorist attacks in Egypt has soared; there have been more than 700 attacks over 22 months, as opposed to fewer than 90 in the previous 22 months. Harder to measure is the number of young people radicalized by Sissi’s repression, but we can assume it is significant and growing. A well-regarded Egyptian rights organization estimates that 42,000 political prisoners are being held; torture and sexual assault in the course of arrest or detention reportedly are rampant. There has been no accountability for the mass killings of 2013. Amnesty International listed Egypt as one of the top two countries issuing death sentences, with 509 people condemned in 2014.
. . .
In this environment, is it surprising that reports surface regularly about the trend of radicalization of Egyptian youth, including previously peaceful Islamists? Sissi’s brutal actions speak far louder than his few words about reforming Islam; to believe that he, or the religious institutions of his government, can have a positive impact on young people susceptible to radicalization is beyond wishful thinking. It would be laughable if it were not dangerous self-delusion.
. . .
We are back on the same old course in Egypt. It’s the Nixon Doctrine all over again, and we are falling prey to the same illusions that dictatorship equals stability, that brutal repression is the answer to radicalism. We lionize Sissi just as we lionized the shah, Mubarak and the other Middle East dictators before him. He is our guy, right up until the day his regime collapses. Geopolitical godsend? Try geopolitical time bomb.

The most important point they make is that unblocking the blocked portion of the military aid was not really necessary for counter-terrorism operations, as is frequently argued by the pro-Sisi crowd. Egypt already gets all sorts of counter-terrorism aid, it did not need the unblocked F16s and tank kits for that purpose. I suspect it's much more about the symbolism, especially in the context of many of the traditional allies of the US (the SADDAM - Sunni Arab Dominated Dictatorships Against the Mullahs) anxiety about the Iran nuclear deal. On the other hand, they do not mention the change in cashflow provisions in the way the aid is administered. In any case, I am not sure the aid levels matter as much as political measures – the most damaging thing the Obama administration has done is to embrace the new regime as building a democracy (as John Kerry, notably, has done.) 

By the way, you really have to read the Bret Stephens piece they reference as an example of the Sisimania in the US – it's a spectacular piece of brown-nosing.

Weekend read: Kamel Daoud's counter-investigation

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud's Meursault, contre-enquete is one of the best books I've read in a while. Inspired by Camus' The Stranger, it is a brilliantly written, sharp, sad, angry look at colonialism, religion, and the limits of "liberation." It is narrated by the brother of the unnamed Arab killed and quickly forgotten in Camus' novel. Adam Shatz has a great profile of Daoud, the city of Oran, where he lives, and the Algerian literary scene in the New York Times magazine.

After college, Daoud took a job as a crime reporter for a monthly tabloid called Detective. (“What made ‘The Wire’ so great,” he told me, “is that it’s a collaboration between a writer and a policeman, the dogs of the world.”) It was through traveling to small, remote towns, where he wrote about murder trials and sex crimes, that Daoud discovered what he calls “the real Algeria.” When Detective folded in 1996, he went to work for Le Quotidien d’Oran. While other journalists complained of the danger they faced from Islamist rebels, Daoud rented a donkey and went out to interview them. He reported on some of the worst massacres of the civil war, including the 1998 killings in the village of Had Chekala, where more than 800 people were slaughtered. His work as a reporter, Daoud told me, left him suspicious of “hardened positions and grand analyses,” and that sensibility infused the column he began writing for Le Quotidien. Daoud upheld no ideology, spoke in no one’s name but his own. To his new admirers, this was something to celebrate: the emergence of an authentically Algerian free spirit. To his adversaries, Daoud became the face of an Algerian Me-Generation: selfish, hollow, un-Algerian.

The New Yorker has also just published a short interview with Daoud and more importantly an excerpt from the forthcoming translation of his novel. 

Musa was my older brother. His head seemed to strike the clouds. He was quite tall, yes, and his body was thin and knotty from hunger and the strength that comes from anger. He had an angular face, big hands that protected me, and hard eyes, because our ancestors had lost their land. But when I think about it I believe that he already loved us then the way the dead do, with no useless words and a look in his eyes that came from the hereafter. I have only a few pictures of him in my head, but I want to describe them to you carefully. For example, the day he came home early from the neighborhood market, or maybe from the port, where he worked as a handyman and a porter, toting, dragging, lifting, sweating. Anyway, that day he came upon me while I was playing with an old tire, and he put me on his shoulders and told me to hold on to his ears, as if his head were a steering wheel. I remember the joy I felt as he rolled the tire along and made a sound like a motor. His smell comes back to me, too, a persistent mingling of rotten vegetables, sweat, and breath. Another picture in my memory is from the day of Eid one year. Musa had given me a hiding the day before for some stupid thing I’d done, and now we were both embarrassed. It was a day of forgiveness and he was supposed to kiss me, but I didn’t want him to lose face and lower himself by apologizing to me, not even in God’s name. I also remember his gift for immobility, the way he could stand stock still on the threshold of our house, facing the neighbors’ wall, holding a cigarette and the cup of black coffee our mother brought him.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links March 21-April 3 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Translation: Clinging to power with your teeth

The crack translation team at Industry Arabic brings us this week's installment of our In Translation feature, in which we translate a representative op-ed from the Arab pressThis column in the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper by its editor, Ghassan Charbel, blames the conflict in Yemen on former Yemeni president (and erstwhile Saudi ally) Ali Abdullah Saleh's unwillingness to step down and includes quotes from several previous interviews Charbel conducted with Saleh. The introductory paragraphs, on the discourse of false humility and sacrifice of leaders who can't conceive of relinquishing power, apply pretty  much to every ruler in the Arab world. 

The General Doesn’t Love the Palace

By Ghassan Charbel, Al-Hayat, 1 April 2015

The master of the palace embarrasses me when he tells me that he does not love the palace and that he awaits impatiently the date of his departure and that he suffers from a tortured conscience with regards to his family, since the concerns of the nation have distracted him from the First Lady and his children. He flabbergasts me when he tell me that he did what was necessary and will allow history to judge, that the decision to depart is final even if the masses cling to the hem of his jacket, and the time has come for him to have time to play with his grandchildren. The master of the palace disconcerts me when he says that power is a torment, and satisfying people an impossible task. He points out the white hair he has gotten from over-taxing himself for the needy and poor, and that he didn’t really intend to run in the last election but the people insisted. It disconcerts me that he says he remains in office based on election results. When he tries to portray the elections as free and fair, my mind immediately jumps to the intelligence chief and the vote-rigging factory in the Interior Ministry.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not a naïve enough journalist to believe all this. This profession has taken me to many capitals and I have interviewed many figures. Politeness forces me to suppress my chuckles so as not to jeopardize future interviews. Sometimes I have felt that the recording device itself will object to the expressions of humility voiced by a ruler who came to power on the back of a tank or the like.

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Two very good books

The finalists for the International Man Booker prize have been announced. Two names on the list have written wonderful books that have meant a lot to me. Amitav Gosh's In An Antique Land is a book I would place on my Ideal Egypt Reading List. I have just been searching my shelves for it and am distressed not to find it. This is a work of creative historical research and reconstruction and of deft and very amusing sociological observation. Gosh did doctoral research in two Nile Delta villages in the early 1980s (and then returned for a visit at the end of the decade). He memorably sketches the personalities of his hosts; his interactions with the villagers -- who mock him for his Hindu beliefs but call on him to fix their Indian-made water pumps -- are deeply funny. In his book he also imagines the life of a 12th century Jewish trader based in Egypt and his Indian slaves. He uses the Geniza documents, an incredible trove found in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo (since throwing away paper with God's name on it is forbidden, the Jewish community there had been using the space between two walls in the synagogue as a giant waste paper basket for centuries). To me In An Antique Land was a lovely, personal reflection on Egypt's layered, multi-cultural past and on its submersion (some would say erasure) by the modern nation state. It's told  by a writer with great empathy, insight and intellectual curiosity about folks around him and ones who lived centuries ago. 

The Libyan writer Ibrahim Al Koni is also one of this year's list. I read Al Koni's نزيف الحجر The Bleeding of the Stone when I was studying Arabic in Cairo in the Spring of 2008. A wonderful literature professor from Cairo University assigned it to us and it electrified the class. I have read a few more books of his in translation since, but none have struck me as much as this one. Like so many of al-Koni's books it takes place in the Libyan desert, where the writer is from. 

Elliott Colla, who has translated and written some of the best commentary I've found on Al Koni, writes:

Taking the Twareg aspect of Al-Koni’s writing seriously allows us to recognize a radically redrawn map of the world—one in which the Sahara is a full, rather than empty space; one in which the Twareg lie not at the edges, but the center of history. Al-Koni’s novels take place in a desert world that is, despite its desolation, surprisingly rich in the sense that everywhere there are living beings struggling to live. In Al-Koni’s fiction, the meaning of life is always tied to struggle. Thus, Al-Koni’s novels paradoxically suggest that only here—in the harshest corners of the desert waste—does life emerge in its richest sense.
While each of Al-Koni’s novels has a different focus, they invariably sketch a richly detailed Twareg landscape whose heart is located somewhere between Aïr and the Hamada Hamra, Ghadamès and Agadez, Sebha and Tamenrasset. Indeed, it is the Acacus range, Al-Koni’s birthplace, which forms the geographical center of this fictional universe. The inbetweenness of this geography is not accidental, for center of this world is deliberately situated between two diametrically opposing social and philosophical forces. To the South lies a world of myth, magic and superstition. It is the place where the caravans carrying blue cloth, slaves and gold originate. To the North lie the distant Arab cities of the coast and after that the sea—a place associated with mechanized technology and warfare. Truth emanates from neither—rather, it is in the struggle between them, the struggle in the Twareg center, that meaning is to be found.

The protagonist is the lone, simple Asouf, a herdsman who lives deep in the desert, in precarious and often dangerous balance with nature. Then evil hunters -- who have already wiped out the gazelles of the area -- arrive, on a hunt for the waddan, a nearly mythical mouflon (a horned wild sheep) with whom Asouf has already had run-ins. Everything about the book is strange and unique: the setting (the Arabic novel is generally extremely urban, just think of the relationship between Mahfouz and Cairo); the agency given to animals (when a late chapter is told from the point of view of a gazelle we are hardly surprised); the unique spiritual universe in which imagery and symbolism from many different religions is combined. This is a world in which nature is cruel, but human are much crueler. The original Arabic is also beautiful. I can only speak to the laborious pleasure I got, sentence by sentence (the labour added to the pleasure -- reading in a second language is often very close reading), but Colla points out how it harks directly back to early Arabic literary tradition. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Houellebecq's Submission

Adam Shatz reviews Michel Houellebecq's Soumission in the London Review of Books.

Soumission derives its name from the original meaning of the Arabic ‘al-Islam’ – voluntary submission, or surrender, to the will of God. In that sense, the novel is a faithful rendering of Islam’s meaning. François is under no compulsion to convert, other than the usual inducements of professional ambition and sex, the typical motors of the French novel. Ben Abbes’s arrival is greeted with relief, the war between theidentitaires and the jihadists is brought to an end, and Islamisation proceeds not so much by conquest as by persuasion. The national patrimony – the Sorbonne, the Paulhan hôtel particulier – now belongs to the Gulf sheikhdoms, and on campus the miniskirt has given way to the burqa, but otherwise France is unchanged. In fact it’s even a bit better off. As Houellebecq says, the entire novel unfolds in an ‘ambience of resignation’.
Is Houellebecq condemning the French for capitulating to Islam, or worse, accusing them of ‘collaboration’? His critics have pointed out that the structure of Soumissionresembles narratives about Vichy: a confused period of civil unrest; an exodus to the countryside; and accommodation to the new regime. But really, far from damning the French for embracing Ben Abbes, Houellebecq is suggesting that they could do much worse: indeed, that they are already doing much worse. And, as Houellebecq reminds us, ‘moderate Muslims are not Nazis.’
Perhaps this is all just a Swiftian stunt. Perhaps Houellebecq is saying that France has sunk so low that even Islam would be preferable to the state religion of laïcité. But I don’t think so. Soumission is too ambiguous to be read as satire – or, for that matter, as nightmare. There are strong indications, both in the novel and in interviews, that Houellebecq sees Islam as a solution, if not the solution, to the crisis of French civilisation. Yes, civilisation, that word evocative of the longue durée, religion, tradition, shared values and, not least, clashes with civilisational rivals. But the word is unavoidable. What has always made his writing so perverse is the way it jumps between microsociology and the aerial view of history. (His novels almost always take place at some point in the future, allowing the present to be depicted as a just vanished past.) Houellebecq has an unerring, Balzacian flair for detail, and his novels provide an acute, disenchanted anatomy of French middle-class life: TV dinners, petty intrigues at the workplace, tourism, sex. But since his characters are never more than sociological types, without much of an interior life, he needs to find another narrative for them: hence the role played by history. For Houellebecq, history is the story of the rise and fall of civilisations. The only lasting civilisations, as he sees it, rest on a solid foundation of shared religious values. Once those values disintegrate, a civilisation slides into inexorable decline, and becomes susceptible to what, in Atomised (1998), he called a ‘metaphysical mutation’, a sudden and decisive transformation of its values. These metaphysical mutations are the engine of history. Politics and economics – the stuff materialists get worked up about – are of secondary importance. (By any objective measure, France isn’t doing so badly: people work less and make more, and have a higher life expectancy than the OECD average. The ‘crisis’ of the French model is partly phantasmagorical.)

I'm reading this book now. It has some entertaining bits, some nice phrase assassines on French academia, politics and media. But generally it disappoints, mostly because of how much it repeats familiar themes and scenes. Once again there is the morose view of a culture corroded by individualism, materialism and humanism. Once again explicit, porn-like sex scenes meant to convey the opposite of intimacy. Houellebecq seems to have reached the point in his career where his style is becoming a pastiche of itself. As Shatz notes, "At the beginning of Soumission, Houellebecq says that while the style of a novel matters and ‘the musicality of phrases have their importance,’ ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books.’ He is distressingly present in Soumission."

Because Soumission came out the day before the Charlie Hebdo attack (the magazine featured Houellebecq on its cover) it has been treated as not only relevant -- the author is certainly gifted at hitting on nerves -- but somehow prescient. But the scenario it unfolds is political science fiction. This is not a book about Islam or Muslims at all; it is a book about a decades-long French malaise and, as usual, about Michel Houellebecq himself. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.