Friday, August 8, 2014

Palestine, The Myth Slayer

Palestine, we all know, is a heartbreaker. The homes wrecked, the lives spent, the hate fixed between neighbors, families and friends--and still she devours a century on.  

Through decades of bloodshed in her name, there have been a few---fools mainly—who have wondered what the fuss is all about. Juxtapose her, they keep insisting, against World War I and II and the hell they unleashed across continents, the millions they killed, the wholesale population transfers they provoked. What for, then, all this surely manufactured mayhem?

Others--fools, really—till this very day believe that if only the Palestinians had been nice, Palestine would have been saved a paradise for all her children, newcomers and millennium old alike. Here’s Woody Allen’s eye-popping recent thoughts on the subject:

But I feel that the Arabs were not very nice in the beginning, and that was a big problem. The Jews had just come out of a terrible war where they were exterminated by the millions and persecuted all over Europe, and they were given this tiny, tiny piece of land in the desert. If the Arabs had just said, “Look, we know what you guys have been through, take this little piece of land and we’ll all be friends and help you,” and the Jews came in peace, but they didn’t. They were not nice about it, and it led to problems…

And still Palestine confounds. Because she doesn’t just break hearts, she cuts down heroes, infects dreams, turning them into nightmares and—most consequential of all—she slays myths and mocks those who think they can, as masters would their slaves, possess her.

For the longest time, as Israel looked contentedly on, it seemed that only Arabs and Palestinians would fall at her altar. After all, we’re the fantasists who, through innocence or idiocy, could not keep her. But, of course, arrogance is its own kind of buffoonery. And would that it were just the government of Netanyahu’s, then Israel’s supporters might be forgiven for entertaining the faint possibility that her once magnificently woven script is still salvageable. But it isn’t, and the implications for Israelis are nothing short of earth shattering.

I refer here not to the clear breakdown in the European consensus on Israel, although that matters. Nor do I have in my sight American public opinion’s gradually less subtle questioning of Israel, although that matters even more. Nor am I focused on the progressively louder soul searching within the American Jewish community, although, eventually, that could well prove vital. I am not even hinting at the thorny debate occupying wider circles in the West—some earnest, others not--on how well Israel has done in finally laying the Jewish Question to rest.

I actually have in mind the disintegration of the extraordinary dichotomies that Israel, at conception, had so painstakingly constructed in order to impregnate herself against the damage wrought by her own actions. I speak of the notion that Israel, Western bastion that she is supposed to be, belongs in the Middle East but not to it; that in system and culture she stands apart from—blatantly superior to--the Arab Other; and with all the exceptionalism these extend her, that she could proceed to lay absolute claim to Palestine and crush the Palestinians.

It is understandable for Israeli leaders to have thought that they could get away with it, because they did up until 1967. It took such a unique turn of events, a story so finely tuned, to make 1948 and the “resurrection of a nation” so impervious to the catastrophe inflicted on another. Had a victorious Israel ceded the lands conquered in the six-day war, the narrative is almost sure to have held. But she didn’t, succumbing instead to her insatiable appetites--and, over 40 years, the tearing at, first and foremost, the very fabrics that knit Israel into such perfect shape for all her lovers.

You want it in photos? Then put Avigdor Lieberman against the legendary Abba Eban. You want it in the currency of hate? Try and argue the difference between “death to the Arabs” and “death to Israel.” Bloodshed? Then yours is the face of a dead child in Gaza right next to his twin in Aleppo. You prefer zealous beards and their gibberish uttered in the name of God? By all means, stop by the settled hilltops of the West Bank on your way to Zarqa in Amman.

Of all the divides that Israel had erected to convey an acute sense of her glorious, enlightened self, none stood grander than the one between her and us barbarians pressing against her ever expanding borders. More significantly, none, Israel believed, could be more effective in shielding her on the inside from the fallout of her misdeeds on the outside. But ironically, it is precisely this racist license that Israel had devised for herself (in the European colonial tradition, as it were) that tricked her into thinking that she could proceed, blessed and unshackled, to occupy, thieve and oppress without so much as a trace on her body politic, her culture, her character, her future.

Of this existential dilemma, the late Tony Judt wrote in 2003:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world: but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

You might be feeling the urge to widen the lens onto Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, for example, to provide kinder context for the Jewish state’s case. And I would, in turn, thank you. The mere fact that you feel compelled to draw attention to the bigotries of the neighborhood to dilute Israel’s makes exactly my point.
In the end, only fairytales withstand the ravages of time. And Israel is not one of them.

What now? Nothing--and everything. Beyond the immediate spectacle of balloons deflating all around the Middle East, the coming years are extremely hard to predict. Ours today is a wasteland of epic tales. There is something cathartic about the experience, and something devastating as well. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Bashar Assad's Presidential Elections

The Shenanigan in the Shenanigan

Looking for an angle in the recent Syrian presidential elections? You could marvel at Hassan Nassrallah’s pleadings (always in the style of I know everything and you’re an idiot) to fully appreciate, grasp, buy, and then eat up the full significance of a shenanigan.  

If that doesn’t work and you’re still desperate for some insight that you are sure is hidden deep inside this silly story, then to you père Assad.

Pick a day between 20 and 25, February 1985. A late afternoon chat in Amman. I was sitting mute (ok, and just a tad bit giddy) between a seasoned Lebanese journalist, who worked then for a French outlet, and a wily Jordanian politician. Across the border, Hafez Assad had just been reelected President of Syria with 99.4% of the vote in a referendum for which an impeccable 100% of voters turned out. Of course, it escaped no one that this routine constitutional exercise came on the blood soaked heels of the Hama Cleansing and years of civil rumblings encouraged by internal failures and external nemeses.

The journalist, obviously oscillating between amusement and bemusement, asked, “It’s bizarre this charade, no? How does Assad expect us to take these ridiculous results seriously?” To which the good politician answered with a wry smile, “ Ah, but that is precisely Assad’s point: that he could pull off something this ridiculous--and with such ease so soon after all the bloodshed.”

To one and all, the man was saying: I am in control.

I am paraphrasing, it goes without saying. And so is Bashar now. It has been 29 years since that plebiscite. In the throes of an existential challenge that has broken the son’s grip and the country’s back, presidential elections proceeded, as commentators, oscillating between amusement and bemusement, cried foul.

For Bashar this is nothing short of applause. He has just demonstrated that, even under extreme duress, he can pull off an absolute farce; to boot, that he can pull it off in an old, favorite fiefdom, rousing tens of thousands of “expats” to throng the Syrian embassy in Lebanon to do their duty for Bashar w bass—Only Bashar.  

But the mob scene in Beirut still needed a prop to deliver the full force of the stunt. In an arrangement that is signature House of Assad, the embassy lined up three boxes, one for each candidate in curtain free space, as if Bashar was giggling to one and all: I am still in control.

But the undeniable fact is that he isn’t. If Hafez’s referendum in 1985 was designed to show off his strength in a Syria united behind him, Bashar’s elections were meant to camouflage weakness in a Syria divided all around him.  

You’re about to say he’s done well—considering. And you would be right—kind of. Syria is gone, the man is but a fraction of his original size, but there is a growing sense that his will be a voice in any future settlement. Increasingly, you come across even the most anti-Assad die-hards who have quit because of the horrors of the chaos, because of the unbearable sight of a nation dying, the forbidding promise of Islamist extremism. And perhaps because they finally caught up with the long established consensus between enough of Assad’s friends and foes that the regime shall remain intact.

Alas, for all these “blessings,” Bashar owes a huge debt to a long list of others. Sitting alone in his office, he could blow kisses every which way the wind will take them. But no favor has been more consequential for him and Syria than that extended by Hezbollah and Iran, not only because it is the very one that saved his neck, but because it is the very one with the most intriguing implications for the geopolitics of the region.

How these implications will play out is, of course, an important question for which a number of intertwining, booby trapped files lie in wait, only one of which is titled The Arab Uprisings and the Dust They’ve Kicked Up From Sanaa’ to Benghazi. Others you should keep in mind? Let’s see, first the big regional folders: America Does Iran; Is This A Shiite Crescent I Behold Or An Ignis Fatuus?; (click on the link if this is the first time you come across this beauty); Regional Models Are For The Birds, with the very helpful subheading of Let’s Not Talk Turkey & Only The Southern Suburbs Want to Speak Farsi.   

As for the local dossiers, they all, regrettably if inevitably, end in a question mark: Please, Might Turkey Dump Erdogan? Who Will Keel Over First, Second And Third In The Saudi Kingdom? Will Iran’s Theocracy Die In Order To Live? Is Netanyahu The Gift That Keeps On Giving Or What?

Bashar, being Bashar, would have a mother of a file all his own, but I am not altogether sure it is of any comfort for this former leader of the former “pulse of Arabhood”: The Trials and Travails of A Master Turned Pawn.

While working your way through any of these recipes, here’s a piece of advice recently given to me by one of the sharpest cooks in this mess of a kitchen: think a whole lot of improvisation with only sprinkles of strategy. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Arab Women: "Delicate Souls, Not Chatelaines"

I can’t be sure, but I think it was Cinema Bassman in downtown Amman, or maybe The Rainbow by the First Circle that racked up all those dinars. Because if there was a blockbuster Arab style, it was I Want a Solution.

Faten Hamama and Rushdy Abaza (I never forgave this gorgeous man for playing such a repellent character) are at war in Cairo’s courts. She, a translator--urbane, educated, bourgeois--wanted a divorce. He, a diplomat---urbane, educated, bourgeois--would not grant it to her. And so, the law, the courts and their men lock hands and dance to the tune of Abaza’s wrath. For Hamama’s Durriyah, in the end, there was no solution.

It was 1975. I was too young to register the resonance in Durriyah’s plight. And, anyway, who in the lull of those leafy Amman days would have thought that the victims languishing in those corridors of prejudice spoke for the predicament of an entire gender? That’s why, for many an Arab woman, the movie’s message was just as disturbing as it was simple: pick a nasty husband and, in the flutter of an eyelash, all those buffers--education, money, career, a good family name…—that separate privilege from want could dissolve like so much froth. It’s not that women from all walks of life suddenly, in their aggrievement, become one, but that they, in that courthouse, become a sisterhood of a sort in the trenches.

It’s not surprising then that Arab feminists, in the shadow of a towering Arab state, would aim for the laws whose very effect (if not intent) is to strip them from those buffers. Back in those days it seemed like all the system and its courts needed to do is catch up with life. In spite of considerable societal resistance, by the early 1970s, Durriyah was a growing presence everywhere in the urban jungle. The reasonable bet was that if the statutes changed, so would society’s reluctance to make more way for her. 

Decades on, the bet is all but lost. Instead of successfully pushing for more space and breaking new ground, Arab women have spent the past half-century doing their bit for man, God and country on the battlefields of culture and identity, painstakingly negotiating their role in an increasingly hostile public arena.

To boot, you can scour the personal status laws of the entire region in near futile search of a real dent. All Arab countries have signed the UN’s CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), attaching to it riders designed to exempt precisely those laws that pack such discrimination. Every other Arab constitution contains clauses that enshrine equality between women and men, except where personal status laws apply.

Legal codes, from Morocco to Jordan, boast rape laws that offer an out-of-jail ticket for a rapist should he marry his “stigmatized” victim. As for honor killings, haddith wala tassal (don’t even ask)! Next to these loud injustices are the profuse divorce and child custody cases where actually fair Sharia laws (yes, they do exist) are regularly thwarted by courts that have abandoned all pretense of juridical independence and rigor. They don’t grab headlines but, around here, they don’t need to. Every other week, I am privy to the wretched tale of a woman I can easily call a friend struggling against a system whose contempt for womanhood seems to get progressively more visceral.

For samples of this truth, 2014 has been quite kind to us. In the span of two months, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon—each of which is home to a different type of governance—have revealed the drastic degree to which corruption, factional politics and parochialisms have eaten into the authority and integrity of the Arab civil state, mostly vitally the judicial institution.

From Jordan’s Higher Appeals Sharia Court: ruling number 348/4102-91837, dated March 2, 2014, which overturned a lower court’s verdict for the wife in a marital dispute. Reason? The testimony of the female witness is inadmissible because “she is not veiled.” In protest, The Jordanian Woman’s Association wrote:

The ruling…rejects the testimony of unveiled women because it deems them “lewd,” according to the fatwa on which the decision rests. But in spite of the ruling’s claim that it relies on the precepts of Islamic jurisprudence [Jordan subscribes to the Maliki school], the only evidentiary support it could cite was the preface of a book by Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi.

(For the uninitiated, the ever so whimsical Qaradawi is the religious scholar most dear to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood’s hearts.)

Thus, in one swoop, the good judge violates the constitutional rights of unveiled Jordanian women and opens the rule of law to the very colorful world of our dime a dozen Qaradawis and their fatwas.

From Iraq’s cabinet: the draft Personal Status Jaafari Law, dated February 25, 2014. Should it pass the soon to be elected parliament, here’s what Iraqi women can look forward to: a new legal female age for marriage of nine (article 16), down from 18 as set in the 1959 family law that still governs Iraq; the husband’s permission should they want to leave home (article 101); sex whenever the husband wishes to have it (article 101); no financial support if they are under age, as in sexually unready, or seniors, as in old hags (article 126); unconditional polygamy (article 104).

From Lebanon’ parliament: the Law Against Domestic Violence, dated April 1, 2014, after a six-year campaign and intensive lobbying by rights groups like KAFA, as in enough. No need to pick apart the key loopholes and amendments (among them the elimination of the marital rape clause) whose very purpose is to defang the law. A better way to appreciate the seriousness of our legislatures about the violence that threatens Lebanese women of all strata is to watch the parliamentary debate itself, starting with the words of Hezbollah member Ali Ammar: “Your excellency, Mr. Speaker, no human being in this chamber disagrees that a woman is a delicate soul, not a chatelaine.” The mulish sarcasm of a famously mulish man, to the echoes of his colleagues’ laughter! All in all, 71 parliamentarians, Christians and Muslims alike, who had publically committed to vote for KAFA’s proposed corrections to the statute, reneged on their vow out of deference to Lebanon’s traditions and the sensibilities of the church and mosque.

But what is so special or surprising about patriarchal interests coalescing to ensure prerogative and control in locales where they still act as ultimate arbiters of the forbidden and the permitted? After all, the world over, tensions remain between the demands for women’s rights and patriarchy’s willingness to cede them.

On the face of it, the sum of this gendered inequity may appear to be about the dissonance between feminist effort and achievement, between paper rights and real life protections. But in the case of Arab women, context tells much more. There is nothing fringe or sectional about our situation. And there is nothing uncommon about the threadbare defenses on which we can depend when seeking redress or fending against all manner of abuse. In an environment that is pervasively rigged against us, we may feel more acutely our quandary, but ours is, indeed, the quandary of all vulnerable segments of Arab society. In full sight of widespread economic malaise, bourgeoning unemployment and poverty, failing educational policies, a sprawling security apparatus and a crumbling rule of law, you can imagine the number of those who count among the vulnerable. Surely, three years into the 2011 revolts, you can just as easily imagine the newfound assertiveness of those, among them women, in pushing for their citizenship rights.   

Understandably, because many Arab regimes are in uprising mode, most analysts have quickly developed the habit of neatly splitting the fallen from the humpty dumpties still stubbornly sitting on the wall. Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon invite us to rethink such misguided divides.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Business As Usual in the Middle East?

We have an age-old Arab ritual come spring. Carpets dangle for dear life from balconies as women folk flog the dust before packing them off to the attic. A cleansing of a sort that announces the summer’s sun.

That’s what many thought Arabs were doing back in 2011. “Spring!” The status quo hanging on for dear life, a bit of a good whipping, a cleansing of a sort. Therein the biggest delusion began: that a hard beating would be more than enough to dust off an epoch of abuse and failure. Worse! That it would all be done to the euphoric crescendo of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Now we mourn, lamenting the sameness of it all, because, we are told, it’s that damned stubborn status quo. “Told you so!” This has become the mantra of the strangest of bedfellows. For Bashar Assad? “Told you so.” Against him? “Told you so.” Sissi, yes? “Told you so.” Sissi, no? Ditto that.

Judging by the surface collisions erupting across the region, the complaint is not entirely wrong. The battle today as before seems to be between the same old foes: the postcolonial state and Islamism. To each country its own circumstance and flavor, of course, but the standard line is that as much weakened systems gave way, the organized Islamists moved to share the chair if not altogether usurp it, while the so-called liberals, played by this side and that, aided and abetted, and now are content to revert to their time-honored habit of looking on.

The point being: a historical opportunity has been missed and here we are in the throes of a counter-revolution with regional and international forces taking up position as the status quo in one guise or another reimposes itself.

The very seasoned Patrick Cockburn goes further in a recent piece in The Independent. He argues that perhaps the single most instructive lesson from the Libyan experience is that “demands for civil, political and economic rights – which were at the centre of the Arab Spring uprisings – mean nothing without a nation state to guarantee them; otherwise national loyalties are submerged by sectarian, regional and ethnic hatreds.” Pretty much the case now in five different archetypes of collapse: Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, the last three courtesy of the recent upheavals.

But if, indeed, this has been the grievous error of Arab oppositions, the tragic reality is that it is but a continuum of the regimes’ own original sin. Dare we forget how much cruelty they inflicted in the nation state’s name and how many worthy causes were subverted under its banner? Or the success with which they made themselves synonymous with the nation state as they went about reducing entire national entities into family fiefdoms? In the end, this collapse of which Cockburn speaks is as much the precursor as it is the epilogue to the revolts.

And still, at least in the case of Syria, you could not help but marvel, during the very early stages of the unrest, at how resilient civil society proved in the face of Assad’s efforts to splinter a heaving nation along sectarian identities, swiftly deploying violence to fracture civic solidarities. Just as you could not but flinch as the Middle East’s most reactionary powers very quickly mimicked the worst of Assad’s bloodletting.

It’s a grotesque irony that, for both Assad and his external enemies, popular “demands for civil, political and economic rights” have been equally unnerving, and for both, counter-revolution has been the actual rallying cry. No less hideous is the fact that even the most radical early calls for change by Syria’s first wave of rebels did not envision, let alone plan, a regime change this bloody and this devastating to the very meaning of Syria.

How, then, the status quo might triumphantly hold forth against this blatantly infernal backdrop is one of those questions very few of us are interested in poking lest it interfere with the understandably simpler line of: “Told you so! Bashar is staying.”
So it goes for Egypt. You can almost hear history desperately dialing back in many people’s wishful thinking at the mere mention of Sissi. But how can it? Not only because too much has been broken to be put back together as it once was. But because neither the state nor the Islamists have the skills, let alone the will and the imagination, to tackle the profuse crises that finally unleashed the uprising. Regimes tumbled, in the final analysis, because the states over which they presided had long been slowly crumbling under them.

This is a region that is literally limping every which way in the face of wholesale failure of staggering proportions. By every quantifiable measure the state has been progressively recusing itself and the people simply can no longer make do with band-aids and bread crumbs. Every assumption has been turned on its head and every problem begs for an urgent and serious solution, from the disastrous effects of climate change on food security; to the technological disruptions that are undecipherable to our governments; to the growing chasm between countryside and city; to the ruling elites that simply cannot fathom the insistence of the times on more open polities; to the grinding poverty and unemployment that lock themselves tight, much like tree vines, around our political economies. Add to these the deep ruptures that portend, where ever they have occurred, the end of imperious centralized authority.

But this status quo has entered the 21st century with all the battered tools and used up tricks of the old one, and the dire consequences are literarily too painful to bear.

A vacuum is not a state of affairs that calls for celebration, but it is one that demands much more than the bowing of the head, arms up resignation offered by many an analyst, as if what we are witness to is little more than a cynical power grab. Indeed, even in Syria, from such melancholic conditions there may yet emerge an opening. In a sober take, Yazid Sayigh wisely sees in a much-diminished Assad clique hanging on for dear life a possibility.

Ironically, that survival may be the only thing capable of paving the way for serious dissent to openly emerge from the regime’s own social constituencies and institutional base. 

To date, the National Coalition has failed signally to generate a critical political opening of this kind. And it becomes more unlikely with each passing day that the coalition will be able to seize the opportunity presented by such an opening should it arise and draw a critical mass of rebel groups behind it. But in that vacuum, a more effective kind of Syrian opposition may just arise. 

There is a nexus of vacuums everywhere you tread in the area. Small mercies, I call them, borne out of the old order’s very inability to hold itself together against overwhelming trends and pressures. Underwriting these is a remarkably dynamic geopolitical map that is not likely to settle anytime soon. Neither Turkey and its Erdogan, nor Iran and its Khameini, nor the US and its allies and adversaries, nor Israel and its colonized Palestinians, nor Jordan and its Hashemites, nor the Gulf and its fractious sheikdoms are today what they were but three years back—inside and out.

Pray tell, where does “told you so! It’s that damn stubborn status quo” belong in this picture?