Saturday, November 17, 2007

Chapter Four: The Cacophony of Fear

Graduation Ceremony

Gripping…this hectic whirr in the Middle East! I don’t know on which corner to rest my eyes or to which frenzied shriek or dark whisper I should perk up my ears. It’s like the region is on speed, nervously wigwagging this way and that and yammering away about issues of extreme import but you can’t quite make out what it is trying to do or say exactly; until, that is, you step back--way back--to watch in silence and listen, and then it rushes through you like the brisk charge of a cold chill: the cacophony of fear. We are standing at the tail end of decades of so many things going so wrong in so many places, our timeworn problems are finally running out of patience and the frantic commotion is nothing more than the nervous scramble for cover.

Yes, it would appear the present is at the end of its tether and the future is up for grabs. And by the look of them, each master to a man, they are elbowing their way into the safest seat in the house while they try to figure out in which direction this land’s huffs and puffs will blow them.

Mind you, this is about politics and so much more. To the roving eye, yet another sexually fixated fatwa in Egypt may seem unrelated to the war-obsessed hyperbole that makes one of Cheneyesque aspirations and Nijadian reveries, but, to me, they are not strangers to one another: they play like previews of some sort of communal breakdown and indulge with equal zeal the latest newcomer to a long line of wicked agitators--fear.

You can glimpse fear behind the excursion to Annapolis, can’t you? The real possibility of a decent peace deal is dead, it has suddenly dawned on the high and mighty, and since it is political heresy to deep-six this poor sod of a peace, what better than yet another process to snuff out the stench. That’s the beauty of our peace processes: like a treadmill, they let you pretend that you’re really moving forward when you’re actually running in your place. Except that this old trick is not working its magic anymore. Two thousand and seven is not 1974, the facts on the ground have done most of their ugly work, the heart feels the sorry outcome all too well and dreams are collapsing on Israeli and Palestinian heads. You can’t detect the jitters in Condi’s energetic sprint because, well, she does not have them: she is too far away and ultimately much larger than all this. Besides, wherever her face lands after Annapolis, she knows that in two years’ time she will be heading straight to the roof of The New York Time’s Bestseller List. As for the rest of us, we haven’t an inkling towards which bottomless pit we will be freefalling. Which explains that Prozac smile and Dewar’s brood that keep exchanging places on Mahmoud Abbas’s face, betraying the erratic mood of a man who has not quite figured out whether he’s hammered out a solution or if he’s actually been clobbered by it. Ehud Olmert, who is not sure whether he should give just half an inch or throw caution to the wind and hand over the whole three quarters, has perfected the glazed look, but the sheer inanity of his propositions exposes the magnitude of demography’s defiance, the creeping inutility of Israel’s deterrence and the obvious fretfulness of his Zionism.

Of course, had Hamas played it right it would have been poised to reap the fruits of its adversaries’ failures, but it sits nervous instead, sweat very cold on its forehead and too generous under its armpits, before the jeering verdict of history, not sure how to harmonize its Hammasian threats of retribution with its Hammasi pleas for a reprieve. And the funny thing is that while many of Palestine’s so-called lefties are busy defending the conservative Islamist movement’s offensives in Gaza under the banner of a dazzling, hot-of-the-press resistance strategy called Yillan Aboukum (God Curse Your Father), Hamas’s own moderates have been unusually blunt in their denunciation of its “mistakes,” a slap delivered just as resoundingly by the Palestinian Cause’s most entrenched hardliners, from the relatively young Islamic Jihad to the very old PFLP. Go figure. Hamas is sinking in the polls as little more than a mimic of Fatah’s own catastrophic letdowns, its own cadre is questioning its flared nostrils tactics, other Palestinian parties are challenging its faits accompli, human rights organizations are publicly chronicling its many violations, but our own breed of neocons is steadfastly championing its policies. Search for the rationale in their harangues and you will end up with variations on the same theme: they’re bad, we’re good; they’re wrong, we’re right--and that’s all there is to it. (For details of Hamas’s masterful performance jump back one post.)


Luckily, Islamism’s story stays interesting well beyond Gaza’s borders. Where Hamas is heading Jordan’s own brotherly firebrands are almost sure to follow, so quick were they before to trade on its coup in Gaza, so shocked they are now by their own debacle in Amman. These are early days yet, but the heated debate between the party’s alarmed moderates and emboldened rejectionists has broken into a fight, the former look like they’re winning, the latter are preparing to take a hike and the party is patching up its very old friendship with the Hashemites; all while the people watch and ask themselves: What’s the difference between these nincompoops and the country’s other potato heads? At 17 percent, the Muslim Brothers’ popular base is where it has always been but the protest vote might just be looking for fresh faces.

Reality bites!

Go west to Egypt and you are witness to an embarrassing show of featherbrained Azhar Sheikhs issuing harebrained alerts and fatwas that are making a farce of Islam. (To the gentlemen out there who are too teased by that lady manning the desk next you at the office: just suck on those boobies five times--yes, it has to be five breast feedings--and you will have suckled her way from a fair maiden into a mother. Now that she is forbidden to you sexually she can remove her hijab and drive you into an even more lustful frenzy). As a friend of mine said last week, “This is all becoming positively pornographic.” Not to be outdone by Azhar’s officialdom, Egyptian Islamists’ petitions, death threats and lawsuits are hounding any poet, any thought and any gesture that wants to negotiate space with their diktats. Apparently, life’s inescapable encroachments on a harassed, confounded, wooden brand of Islam has scared the wits out of its guardians and now all they can do is fight back where it really counts: under the bed sheets, on the pages of a book, in the office…

Palestine is vanishing, unemployment has built for itself a mighty presence in our economies, poverty keeps welcoming new recruits, Iraq writhes, Iran and the US are coming to the unknowable end of their nasty song and dance, Lebanon might just be falling apart, every human right is in retreat, religion is in desperate need of a meaningful discourse with all things cotemporary and, like robots stuck in rewind mode, all these silly bearded buggers keep repeating is “Islam is the solution,” and then they proceed to tell their men which boob to go for and which poetry to let pass.

No wonder the ladies in the picture took the hint and turned the lights out. When you’re covered up like this in the office--and everywhere else, for that matter—who, in God’s name, would want to suck on anything or anyone hanging about. But, of course, these are not the women the suspended Azhar Sheikh-cum-lecturer had in mind when he was counseling pious men to shoot straight for the cupped ones. When night is your constant companion, there is no need, is there, for fatwas to make the days any darker.

I know that what is pitch black to me might be luminosity itself to another, and it is a given—for me, at least—that the black shroud is every woman’s right to wear. Each of our veils betrays a very specific choice, an arrangement—if you like--between the veiled woman and her religious convictions. In that style that barely conceals the hair, or that which tightly rings the head, or that which covers the face like a pall is that woman’s decision about how much of herself she wants to cede to her faith. This picture, you need to understand, is not about the right to choose, it is about the actual choice itself and what it wishes to communicate. In truth, between the juvenile vulgarity of these men and the very loud silence of these shrouded women is sinking the entire edifice of a sober, vigorous Islam. And perhaps this has been the intention all along because when even the most mundane happenings in life offend your religion, any conversation about them becomes unavoidably offensive; and under offensive in this age of contrived civilizational conflict falls every opinion that dares to disagree with yours. Misogyny becomes thus a matter of religious tradition, intolerance a quest for authenticity, rejection of diversity an embrace of purity. By the same token, arguments such as mine become culturally insensitive, women’s rights a Western conspiracy against Islam’s virility; a poet’s flirtatious verse a violation of Islam’s chastity and finally dialogue itself a total waste of time.

Needless to say, those who take their Islam seriously can still find hope in Lebanon’s highest Shiite cleric, Imam Mohammad Hussein Faddlallah, but he’s the guy who is constantly telling us, great or not, Islam has no business in politics. He is also the one who, in a fatwa a little while ago, banned honor killing as a “repulsive act,” while Egypt’s Azhar was insisting that if two actors get married in a TV show then, as far as the Islamic courts are concerned, they are actually married.

Alas, in this embattled arena, it has become devastatingly clear that Faddlallah and clerics of his persuasion, be they Sunni or Shiite, are like the good boy playing all by himself in the corner while the raving mad kids are wreaking havoc all over the playground. Had this idiocy been taking place in the margins of our lives, at the most it would have been mildly discomforting, at the least mildly entertaining. But political Islam is not a sideshow; to it belongs almost the entire expanse of the political vacuum long plowed and fed by our states, and its phobias are finding their way—unhindered if not aided--into our legal domain, our educational systems, our social fabric and our future. These self-appointed protectors of Islam are ensconced, practically alone, in our belly, and in the absence of genuinely strong counter-currents our societies have become frighteningly susceptible to the caprice of the most obtuse of men. This is why every time I look at the picture I purse my lips lest I cry my heart out: towards darkness we are all marching, and the protestations of our secularists and our Faddlallahs are as hushed as the still night caressing my window.


Let’s turn to the Iranian-American rumpus for a change of tempo. There, too, all I see is fear: a Cheneyesque fear that the US will never get its day with Iran that is just as intense as a Nijadian fear that it won’t either. And lurking under this fear is the much older apprehensiveness of a rising regional power itching ever so incessantly for its rightful place in the sun and a reticent superpower (and its Israeli friend) agitating ever so incessantly about it getting there.

America and its Iranian nemesis are swaying back and forth in the void between the two cliffs of peace and war because neither side can quite call it: too much has already been gained and lost in Iraq, too much is still hanging ripe for the picking and neither party is able to calculate the true risks of blood or negotiate the tangible windfalls from a handshake. And so, the tug between the yeas and the nays inside each camp keeps moving forward and backward while the rest of us watch in wonderment.

I say wonderment because the stakes are at their highest and American competence is at its weakest, and the sight of a superpower that neither knows, nor cares, nor cares to know is sending shivers up and down our collective Arab spine. It is not America’s imperial venture that is so disconcerting—this is an old story, much older than America, with which we are intimately familiar. It is its astonishing incompetence in steering this venture that is adding oodles of fear to our dread. I must admit I was never a sucker for America’s highfalutin morality tales, but in that yawning gap that separates its soaring rhetoric from the wrongs of Abu Ghraib, of football games with millions of dollars of Iraqi money, of a blatantly exploitive oil law, of Blackwater—all poignant symbols of a wayward occupation burdened by mishaps and bad intentions--reside many of us, now more than ever, in mortal fear of American’s next blundering adventure.

All this and we still have not even touched on the fear of the International Tribunal that grips Syria and shepherds its every move; or the fear of a resistance-free future that alarms Hezbollah and explains much (but certainly not all) of its machinations; or the fear of a ferocious Syrian comeback that paralyzes March 14th and guides much (but certainly not all) of its intrigues; or the fear of us Lebanese from the infantilism that afflicts our political class and makes a sorry joke of this pseudo-nation.

Fear! The cacophony of fear is what you’re hearing but cannot decipher, so don’t strain yourself by joining in the hue and cry. Sit back—way back—and listen in silence because the future is up for grabs and good predictions are just too hard to come by.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Last of My Heart-to-hearts with Israel

Of Facts and Truths (Part Four)

Lawain Raiheen, Baba? (As in Where To, Bro?)

“Electricity was disconnected 24 hours ago. Today they stopped both the electricity and water; tomorrow they will cut off the air…” (Umm Jabr/mother of Jabr, resident of Gaza/Al Hayyat Newspaper, August 21, 2007).

My thanks to Umm Jabr for this beeline to the Palestinian predicament. Sharru al Baliyyati Ma Yudhik (In that Most Distressing Part of a Catastrophe is the Comical) declares an Arab proverb, but Umm Jabr’s description goes one further. With one spur-of-the-moment quip, it distills for us the paradox that trusses like a chain the entirety of the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma: the futility of Israeli supremacy and the potency in Palestinian dispossession. Render it into fact and truth and you would come up with this mother of all combos: the fact of Israel and the truth of Palestine. Delicious, no? It leaps over the nitty-gritty and gets us where we want to go in a jiffy, for what better turn of phrase can there be for the confounding state in which Israelis and Palestinians find themselves close to a century into this accursed conflict. And the beauty of it is that it takes you to the essence of the problem today without having to quibble with any piece of its history. It allows you to stand whereever you want in this divide, wax rhapsodic about any myth you fancy, ignore all those facts that give you indigestion and flaunt others that make you sleep well at night, because, in the end, whichever way you choose to understand this hatred, you would still come face to face with the fact of Israel and the truth of Palestine.

So, as we waddle through this Palestinian-Israeli morass and contemplate the collective nervous breakdown in the region that may yet convert a decades-old stasis into a future of randomness and shockers—for all--it seems appropriate to ask: Lawain raiheen, baba?
I want to spend a few moments on the Palestinians and their Palestine. It is perhaps the saddest irony of their plight that at a time when frustrated ambition and unusually daring international criticism are sending Israel deep into a funk the Palestinian resistance itself has come down to a simple question of math: multiplication, to be precise. As if by foresight, the Palestinian people had long ago given up on their leadership’s ability to deliver liberation and so they began to deliver babies instead. Lots of them. So many in fact that today, even as Umm Jabr prepares to bottle up her air, whichever way the Israeli state calculates the numbers it keeps coming up with fifty-fifty—and, as time ticks, the odds against it are only getting worse. By just being and multiplying inside and all around Israel, the Palestinians have reduced its pursuit of a pure Jewish democracy into a pipedream. And if success or failure is measured through the narrow prism of that incessant Israeli quest alone, then the Palestinians have already won the fight. You might think this a hollow victory for a people in tatters, akin to a plucked-to-the-bone rooster crowing over his pile of garbage, but then you would be ignoring the paradox that explains the potency in Palestinian dispossession: because they are losers everywhere in this struggle except where it most counts for Israel, the hollow victory is not theirs, it is hers. True, as they appear to us, the Palestinians, noose around their neck, are teetering on the edge of a falling chair: very poor, very hungry, under siege, in the throes of a full-fledged suicidal paroxysm, as luckless in their hapless leadership as they are in their merciless enemy. But it is equally true that, in victory, Israel is no closer to salvation than the Palestinians are in defeat—if only because of those numbers.

This moral and demographic quandary in which Israel has put itself since 1967, because of its conviction that a biblical carte blanch and epical yearnings justify earthly conquest, is pretty much what it has to show for forty years of occupation in the name of redemption. Perhaps the most exasperating part of this journey for Israel has been its inability to write the post-1967 narrative in the spirit of the 1948 one. Neither its exalted conception of itself nor the world’s sympathetic conception of it proved immune enough to its blatantly predatory policies, and the unfortunate outcome is written all over the Israeli state’s current distress.

By any measure, the dismal health of the Palestinian resistance should be finding its reflection in a jubilant Israel, full of exuberance and confidence; and yet all we seem to be getting from across the border is a polity in serious need of therapy. It embraces peace in principle but concedes almost nothing for it in practice; it makes Abbas to order, proceeds to castrate him, then throws him in the bin as defective merchandise, only to take him out, dust him off and pat him on the back as partner; its people are torn, swinging between screams for messianic retribution and secular demands for the easy life; it scorns the Arabs for constantly playing the victim and falls reflexively into a me-against-an-anti-Semitic world mode every time somebody questions its actions; to the West it wants to play the underdog, with us it behaves as the big honcho and for its people it cannot help but be part democracy part Goliath, secular but viscerally religious, civilized and yet atavistic, liberal with a disturbing tolerance towards its fanaticism. A nation with a very open heart, you could say, or a very weird-looking hybrid.

And as Israel nervously paces this way and that, reeling from years of trying to square so many circles, this most forbidding of questions has been making its rounds among ever widening (and not a few loyal) crowds: If, as Israel claims, living by the sword is the only way it can survive amongst us barbarians, has it not then failed as the singular answer to the Jewish Problem? If Israel was born for a reason, it was to be a peaceful, safe, enlightened home for the eternally beleaguered Jewish people. But a military fortress is by its very nature a sanctuary only for the besieged, safety and security can have no credible claim on reality in a state of constant war and enlightenment cannot breathe in a Sparta. Hence, as the Jewish state swashbuckles its way through one debacle after another, the futility of its supremacy grows more obvious to the eye because at its heart resides the very reason for its weakness.

A mighty gathering for the Jewish Diaspora Israel may be, but to the Jewish Problem it has made of itself a most unconvincing answer.

Not your ordinary variety these Israeli doldrums, part of the usual ups and downs of our hectic Levantine existence. No, this is not the malaise that wafts through the living rooms of torpid Sunday afternoons. This one comes with frantic head scratching and sweat because the hours are refusing to stand still, the ailments are many, the wounds are festering, we are all out of band aids, the magic wand is out of commission and something tells us that tomorrow just does not want to look anything like yesterday. I guess in a very funny way Israel has finally gotten what it has always secretly wanted: it is one of us now; very near if not dear and certainly deep in this bleakness along with the rest of us.

All these heart-to-hearts with Israel and I am still tiptoeing at the gates of Palestine, aren’t I, as if the problem--purely a matter of Israeli waywardness and the world’s indifference--has nothing to say for itself. I do not want to attempt an anatomy of the tragedy of a people browbeaten by indigenous ineptitudes and externally cooked injustices, but I would like to visit for a while with their latest crisis, watershed that it is in Palestinian suffering.

Let me rewind to January 25, 2006, the eve of the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. By that day, the struggle against Israel, Fathawi or Hammasi in its methods, had managed inroads only into itself. Neither in its beseeching demeanor nor in its suicidal tendencies could it deliver for the Palestinians persuasive answers or happy results. After years of the peace of Oslo and the reign of Arafat the Territories were a shambles, despairing from their leaders’ abuses and drained by Israel’s. Shimon Peres might have been boasting when he once said, “At Oslo we were negotiating with ourselves,” but the statement spoke volumes about the costs of Arafat’s political insolvency before he had even set foot in Gaza and the West Bank. If the Intifadah of 1987 had revealed anything about Palestinian resistance is that it was infinitely more vibrant inside Palestine than it ever pretended to be outside. No wonder Arafat was just as rattled by the uprising as Israel--not a pretty sight, the father of a liberation movement playing catch-up with his own people.

Flip through the pages of Palestine’s trauma and you will come across many political misjudgments and moral failings but none compares to Oslo in the breathtaking incompetence with which a nation’s aspirations were laid to rest. The very sorry story of that agreement does not lie in the initial decision to negotiate, it lives in the maps that were never consulted, the lawyers that were turned away, the myriad intelligence agencies that were created, the Palestinians of the Diaspora who were put on the back burner, the Palestinians of the Territories who were told to step aside, the oppressiveness that whipped the strength out of the their civic vigor, the crooked deals that were struck between Arafat’s henchmen and Israeli businessmen, the monopolies that were signed over to front men, the corruption that diverted public funds into private pockets, the patronage system that preferred to buy loyalty rather than earn it.

Oslo is not first and foremost about how the Palestinian people were duped by a conniving Israel, a duplicitous US, a weak Europe and an uncaring Arab world, it is about how they were duped by their own leaders. For any resistance movement there are always choices to be made, most under severe duress in very unfavorable circumstances. How well it fares for its people is in how sincerely it marries between its interests and theirs, how carefully it weighs its limitations against its ambitions, how ready it is to revisit misguided strategies and bad decisions, how adept it is in anticipating the enemy, how quickly it can duck and how fast it can raise its head again.

Elementary, one would think. Apparently not.

Which brings me to Hamas.
Long ago, in the aftermath of 1967, Amis Oz told his country that

For a month, for a year, or for a whole generation we will have to sit as occupiers in places that touch our hearts with their history. And we must remember: as occupiers…Only in the twilight of myth can one speak of the liberation of a land struggling under a foreign yoke. Land is not enslaved…and there is no such thing as a liberation of lands. There are enslaved people…We have not liberated Hebron and Ramallah and El-Arish, nor have we redeemed their inhabitants. We have conquered them… (Cited in David Remnick’s “The Seventh Day,” The New Yorker, May 28, 2007).

It must have been a severe case of breathless anticipation that made Israel so resistant to this wise counsel, no doubt provoked by boundless euphoria, millennial musings, divine providence and, surely, just the lure of it all. That’s what happens even to the smartest of people when they surprise their wildest expectations. Even, as an Arab, I can imagine what it must have been like for so many Israelis the day after. What voice of doom could possible be heard in the buzz that trailed such an inspired performance?

I need you to indulge me for a minute here: I know that it is a real stretch to suggest that this rapturous feeling may well have been the one that overtook Hamas on the day of its supposedly shocking electoral triumph two years ago. Millennial musings were not involved but certainly divine providence was, not to mention the sheer lure of it all. Political Islam respectably bids for and wins power, Fatah’s 36-year-old dominance (if we use Arafat’s 1969 ascension as our point of departure) collapses at the polls and the Palestinian Authority--a much mocked obese, old fart--would have to accept its fate and welcome Hamas as its new mate. From the back alleys of Palestine into its corridors of power, from the other guys to the people’s choice: all those sleepless nights and all those years of toil had finally paid off for Hamas, and its joy was limitless. Who could blame it? What voice of doom could possible be heard in the buzz that trailed such an inspired performance? The Islamic Movement may not have been performing well against Israel but it was doing very well against the competition. Its discipline in contrast to Fatah’s self-indulgence, its very special relationship with the pulpit versus Fatah’s infidelity to everything but koussa mihshi (stuffed squash) and its no-frills social welfare networks that put to shame Arafat’s profligacy were more than enough to boost the ego and drown out the grim whispers.

But if you are a spoilsport like me, you would have smelled a stinker the day after the elections. For an ecstatic Hamas it’s as if the Resistance had completed the job, as if context had folded its cards, as if its victory had walked into a vacuum and it was up to the brothers to decorate and furnish the space and for the world to obligingly sit in it. Hamas, it would appear, did not quite understand that 42 percent of the popular vote—equal in fact to Fatah’s--does not a landslide make, and that the seventy-four seats it won in the one hundred and thirty-two-seat Council were not a reflection of the people’s unanimous endorsement but of how intelligently it played the rules of the electoral race. It somehow did not grasp that its command of office would actually demand a good deal more of it than it could ever ask of the international community on whose money and goodwill far too many Palestinians literally depended for half a decent living. It inexplicably forgot that the powers-that-be, true to form, were going to ask for everything under the sun, and the Hammasis, torn between the pull of dogmatism and the push of pragmatism, would be able to give only so much. But most mystifying of all is how a group whose rhetoric is obsessed with Israeli conspiracies could be so oblivious to the Israeli booby traps that would find the perfect hiding place in these same pitfalls of victory.
And hence once Hamas imprudently decided to form the government, it did not really take much Israeli effort to choreograph the sequence of events that turned the Movement into a parody of its old fearsome self, starting with a boycotted and isolated cabinet unable to deliver for its people and ending with the violent rift with Fatah and the coup d’etat in Gaza. Now Hamas stands all powerful in every corner of Gaza and yet pathetically vulnerable to every provocation from it—and with every taunt it loses more of its old cool and reveals more of its blemishes. Now it sits like a chump, where Fatah was before it, overwhelmed by the profusion of problems and the dearth of remedies. Now it waits, the easiest of marks for an Israel that will drill even bigger holes in it and for the raging currents anxious to build a house in each one of them.

Pray tell, What part of this nightmare in which Hamas and the Palestinians are living—delectable as it clearly is to Israel--did the Movement think it could outsmart once it took the decision to play such a role in it?

Whatever its calculations were, Hamas deemed the opportunity to lead too magnificent to miss, and lead it did: itself into a most unforgiving exposure and the Palestinians into an even more pitiless existence.

There is much fairness in the claim that, with an outright majority of seats in the Legislative Council, it was Hamas’s right to lead the government and the world’s duty to engage it. That the international community was demanding of it down-to-the-boxer-shorts elasticity from which Israel was predictably exempted was clear. That this was only the latest in a series of raw deals thrown like so much leftovers towards the Palestinians was no less glaringly obvious. But that was the stinker that Hamas should have seen coming, in a feud whose history is riddled with raw deals for its people. The excruciatingly one-sided rites of initiation into the “club of the civilized” have always been among the symbols of bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Hamas was not interested in performing them, then it had no good reason to seek the chair, let alone so blithely sit in it. It is one thing for Hamas to have been incensed by the West’s double standards, it is entirely another for it have acted as if they had no bearing on its options.

If by its audaciousness Hamas meant to show the world and the Palestinians that it can, through op-ed pieces, finger wagging and circuitous compromises (a la Arafat), negotiate its way into a modicum of understanding with the big boys—two of whom are none other than the US and Israel--the last two years are ample proof of the dangerously amateurish notions it was entertaining. When Hamas won the elections, all things did not suddenly become more equal: The will of 42 percent of the Palestinians did not become more compelling than the West’s, Arab regimes did not develop more sympathy, Iranian and Syrian backing did not daunt Europe and the US and it certainly did not intimidate a delighted Israel. You want to play the blame game, go ahead! God knows the culprits are many. However, if you are going to exclude Hamas from the running, then you’re still stuck at the first stop: The fact is Hamas did win the elections fair and square, but the truth is it lost—and it lost not because of an unyielding West, a hostile US, a nasty Israel, useless Arab brothers and “rogues” for friends, but because when it took its decisions it conveniently forgot that these were the givens.

Gringa, Amercaniah, some of you are murmuring, giving in to imperial dictates and Zionist commands. Yes, well, I know it’s infuriating to let an unkind world so rudely infringe on principle. But you’re letting your anger get in the way of some hard thinking.

Of course Hamas’s room for maneuvering was extremely tight in the aftermath of the elections, but it was there for it to crouch into had it chosen to be more wise than right. Almost immediately after the results were announced it had become apparent to everyone watching that neither Fatah on the inside nor a much-needed openness on the outside was going to give Hamas the chance to probe the possibilities of political evolvement. The Movement then and there should have opted to play the opposition in the Legislative Council and to make its political muscle felt through that body. It might sound absurd to suggest to a majority party in a wobbly, chocking democracy to content itself with playing second fiddle to a foul loser, but 56 percent of the Council is not exactly flimsy, a formidable military force on the ground is not small change and parliamentary cover would have gone much farther than the seat of power in giving Hamas the time and space and opportunity to weave for itself an intelligent exit from a very iffy situation.

But then much in its behavior over the years offered a plethora of strong hints that Hamas was going to be as rigid, as unimaginative and as unsubtle in the game of big politics as it has always been in the business of armed resistance. Its failure, coming that it does hot on the heels of Fatah’s, signals the crisis in which Palestine’s collective leadership finds itself in the daunting battle against Israel.

Curiously, over the past two months, some otherwise intelligent Palestinians have been blessing Hamas’s coup d’etat. “We are with anybody who is against Israel,” they keep repeating as if in a trance. Indeed! How distressed Israel must be at such ingenuous thinking. Yep, the entire Israeli enterprise is in its bunkers fretting about how it’s going to wiggle out of this one.

I say if you want to thank God for something, let it be for those numbers because if it were not for them there would not be any divine victories to celebrate.

What now? Well, now the Palestinian people can be happy with two jokers instead one. Or, better, yet ponder this Hollywood duo: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Two sisters, hideous, loony, inextricably wedded to a horrible eclipse and each other, their girlhood a near-forgotten fraction of a long-dead past, but the pain, the fury, the waste of it all, the sins that return with every flashback, are plastered on their faces and hover, like sentries of providence, over their doomed lives.

No doubt the images offend. And they are meant to. That’s the bittersweet thing about the passage of time: it knocks the wits out of youth’s hubris and clears some space for the thoughtfulness and humility of old age.

Or am I indulging now in my own silly wishful thinking?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Heart-to Heart with Israel/ Cont'd

Of Facts and Truths (Part Three)

Nini Nini Ka’ Ka’ (as in Ne Ne Nee Ne Ne)

As I was heading towards the Syrian-Lebanese border last August, three days after the ceasefire took hold, I received a phone message from a Palestinian acquaintance: Since you are the closest thing to a Shiite I know, I want to congratulate you on this victory. Allah yl’aan Abu Ammar (God curse Abu Ammar, aka Yasser Arafat). To which came my reply: Shiite? Humm… Victory? Really? Glad to inform you we are one on Abu Ammar.

Interesting how a congratulatory message from a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan secular man should unknowingly indulge one of this region’s worst habits: an ugly sectarianism that is constantly insisting it can make itself look pretty. He saw Hezbollah’s triumph as Shiite, he automatically assumed that I, as a Shiite by birth, would identify with it, he himself saw me as a Shiite but, as a Sunni Palestinian, he still took pride in this “Arab” deed, lamenting Arafat’s failure to claim for his people a similar feat.

So Israel, after all, did get its sectarian reaction but in reverse: For a moment there, when the debris had barely had time to settle over the wreckage, the spectacle of Arab parochialism cheering the war’s designated baddie—and a Shiite, no less—must have been a sorry sight for a dumbfounded Israel. The idea was to boost the stock of violence but to destabilize the stage upon which an overconfident Hezbollah and its Persian friends were so freely playing; to punch the whole silly and breathe fervor into its feuding parts. As I wrote in that letter to my American journalist friend towards the end of the fighting:

Bludgeon the country, [Israel] decided, and make it pay for cradling a boastful, cheeky ingrate. Kill it, it even thought, and let its orphans, including Hezbollah, fight over the charred bits and pieces. In either case, let Iran crow like a plucked rooster over the trash heap that would have become Lebanon.

But try as Israel might in thirty-three days of combat, events would not stir as scripted. Its indiscriminant strikes infuriated even those extremely unsympathetic to Hezbollah’s cross-border raid, Christian homes welcomed Shiite refugees, the Resistance’s performance shamed its detractors into enthusiastic (if disingenuous) endorsements, while Maronite Aoun’s alliance with it injected resilience into the country’s fraying national fabric.

Yes, for a little while there, the facts were laughing themselves silly at a fuming Israel. So many of us were overtaken by the hype and so very few felt the chill of the ill winds that were coming. Slow down when reading these next few lines because what transpires between them is far more telling than what occupies the surface: We forgot that Lebanon’s delicate constitution was not made for such pricy victories; that Hezbollah may have won this round but that Lebanon did not; that cunning on the battlefield is an imp without the support of grit in the political arena; that with the people’s sympathy Resistance is a hero but without it it’s a bully; that Hezbollah cannot pack such muscle and expect its envious sisters to stay so scrawny; that it cannot weigh itself in gold while the rest are trading in cents and dimes; that Arabhood is for our poetry books and sectarianism is for real; that arrogance is every smug victor’s Achilles’ heel; that deterrence against Israel involves much more than nini nini Ka’ka’.

Our victory, divine that it was, brought with it a time of reckoning: Scores had to be settled, chips were being called in, loyalties were being put to the test, choices were being called into question. Lebanon begged for foresight and magnanimity but instead, as our he-men were pounding their chests, the smallest of calculations by the pettiest of leaders were shaping the most momentous of happenings (details are always awaiting you in Piss and Hassounah).
Today, exactly one year after, from this balcony smack in the center of Beirut, this is the landscape that my eyes see: A Shiite-Sunni drift into a nasty rift, a battered South up to its ears from a life of endless sacrifice, around 20,000 Lebanese and foreign troops dotting a terrain where the Resistance alone used to have free reign, a Party of God which can’t seem to tell the difference anymore between a halo and a hula hoop. Meanwhile, our politics has become even more smarmy, our government is barely functioning, our parliament is shut down, our people cannot quite decide what kind of life they want to live, our sects can’t quite agree on the nation they want to be, our friends and foes can’t quite figure out the game they want us to play, graduates are booking the first flight out while Al Qaeda’s are slithering in…

Now tell me: Who do you think won last summer?

For some of this, of course you would be right to thank Israel (and while you’re at it send a note to the Syrians, the Americans, the Iranians…) but the make, I’ll have you know, is vintage Lebanese.

The fact is Hezbollah won last summer but the truth is it lost.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Heart-to Heart with Israel/cont'd

Of Facts and Truths (Part Two)

Nifsi Fi wi’ Tfou Aleh (I Want Him and I Spit on Him)

There is no better way to usher you into our house of mirrors and paradoxes, a mirthful abode where the rules giggle every time they are broken, where every absolute and its opposite may share the same bed and the most prudish of principles can turn playful at a moment’s notice.

Let me begin with the year 2000, right before Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Eight years into the end of our civil war, the country had become the incarnation of that wonderful Palestinian adage Min Barra Rkham w’ Minjouwah Skham (On the Outside Marble, On the inside Crap). In this most imperfect of democracies, as the charade of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction lulled the willing and the fatigued into a life of silver linings, fiefdoms thrived, corruption turned frogs into princes and villains and heroes ran around happily exchanging business cards. Lebanon was either flying or sinking, depending on the sect, the day, the issue and—it goes without saying--our pocket’s demands. Underneath it all, bad people with bad intentions kept their eye on the ball, and way above everyone hovered mother Syria, eyes fixed on every single one of her babies.

The South was occupied but so was the rest of the country. It would be sheer heresy for us to even insinuate a likeness between an Israeli offense and an Arab brother’s affront but, emotions aside, on the most practical level, the upshot for us was all the same: Decisions were made but none were made by Lebanon. Between Syria and Israel the dos and don’ts had been agreed, the deal had been sealed and the rough (sometimes bloody) haggling was fine tuned into hardheaded bargaining.

In this context soared Hezbollah, an unusually motivated Iranian-Lebanese Shiite endeavor provoked into life by Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and subsequent occupation of the South. Into the pundits’ bag of examples fell yet another illustration of how Israeli brutality suckles the very radicalism it pretends to detest, and into our Arab-Israeli predicament was woven another thread in the paradox that makes of Israel and Islamic fundamentalism the best of friends even though they are the worst of enemies.

There is nothing original about this proposition if you are under the impression that the friendship between the two is the unintended consequence of Israel’s stubborn attachment to physical force as a principal instrument of policy. If that is where you are, then you must be as flummoxed as all those who cannot quite fathom why Israel keeps resorting to methods that further radicalize its foes, or as certain as those others who believe that Israel pursues them merely because it is genuinely (if erroneously) convinced that Arabs understand only force. But if you dig deeper into psyches, if you dare ponder the exhaustively researched ways Islamism and Israel nurture one another’s raison d’etre, if you allow yourself the thought that both cannot survive without a life of stark, frightening contrasts, if you bring yourself to see how both cannot be without their ghouls and monsters, then you will have successfully crossed from the fact of Islamic fundamentalism and Israel as enemies into the truth of their friendship.

When Israel occupied Lebanon’s South it gave the most noble of meanings to Hezbollah’s quest. From the start, Hezbollah never really was much interested in our fratricide. There were violations here and there (kidnappings of Lebanese citizens, for one) but when every warlord was busy dipping his hands in Lebanese blood, Hezbollah was content to watch from the sidelines. Its interests lay elsewhere, its technique was different and its ambitions were grander than back-street fights.

By 2000, as Hezbollah, under the auspices of Syria and its active protection, progressed from a firebrand militant group into a flourishing resistance movement with a remarkably successful record against an otherwise unbeatable Israeli army, the cross-sectarian consensus behind its struggle in the South had blossomed into near-reverence. While still purposefully operating on the outskirts of Lebanese politics, it had become a full-fledged enterprise investing in everything from heroism to schooling for its children.

Suddenly Israel up and left, without so much as a goodbye. In some key people’s breath Ya, Habibi (roughly, Oh Dear) ran very close after Allah Akbar. Like clockwork, asinine questions began to be asked, and not only by the “collaborationists” and the “cowardly.” Absent an Israeli occupying army, to what end the arsenal of the Resistance? Absent an Israeli occupying army in a multi-confessional state, to what end a resistance in the exclusive hands of one sect? Absent an Israeli occupying army, to what end a resistance which refuses to cede its role to the state’s revived forces? And if in fact there was and is not much of a state to cede roles to, as Hezbollah claims, to what end then running in its parliamentary elections, taking ministerial portfolios in its governments, filling up quotas in its departments? If this activism actually demonstrated Hezbollah’s willingness to engage with the Lebanese state, then to what end the exclusion of the military from such noblesse oblige?

It did not matter that Hezbollah had (and still has) a myriad of answers for each of these questions. That they were being asked in the first place—and by many—signaled an imminent turning point. Now that the Resistance had no actual land to liberate, applause started to grow more faint. That the fellows (and Syria) clumsily latched on to Shebaa Farms (Israeli occupied 25 square kilometers of previously Syrian but now conveniently Lebanese land) to buy themselves an extension for the Cause only added to suspicions that they were not in the mood to rethink identities or rewrite mission statements. Still, things were not so bad: Syria was still in control, our political class was still beholden to it and Hezbollah was still basking in its shade.
And then, suddenly, Syria was chased out of town. The silent grew rowdy, the meek turned mean, questions developed into accusations and, like a trapeze artist on speed, Hezbollah’s ripostes swung between the perfectly reasonable and the downright nasty. Eloquence itself began to stutter.

Are you with me so far?

This is where friendships come to the rescue. Had Israel been the least bit interested in a peaceful resolution to the problem, had it been keen on depriving Hezbollah of its reasons—or showing them up for the excuses that they are—and undercutting Iranian and Syrian encroachments on the Lebanese state, this would have been the golden moment to strike through creative diplomacy. Neither the Farms nor the landmine maps are of any historical or strategic importance to Israel. It could have handed the two to the UN and released two of the three remaining Lebanese prisoners, leaving Samir Kuntar, who smashed four-year old Einat Hrat’s head against a rock, to rot for another thirty years in his Israeli prison. But as hard as the world’s emissaries tried, Israel just wouldn’t bite because, you see, creative diplomacy is for ninnies, war is for men. For Israel, the Lebanese state is only sovereign enough to take punishment for Hezbollah’s actions, for everything else it might as well keep twiddling its thumb--and, funnily enough, that is exactly what Hezbollah keeps saying.

Every time the Lebanese government broaches the subject of the Farms with the UN, Hezbollah comically accuses it of conspiring against the Movement, not realizing that, in its haste to defend the logic of perpetual resistance, it is tacitly offering us a most embarrassing revelation: By refusing thus far to return the Farms peacefully, Israel can only be serving the Movement’s interests.

But in the end, this is certainly not about a conspiracy of interests or treason, or of Zionism and Islamic currents in active cahoots—as the latter keep accusing their adversaries—this is about a meeting of mindsets, an intimacy of the most disturbing kind between two orientations.

With such like enemies who needs friends. For what fun would there be without a scarecrow with which to scare the children? What’s the point of rooting for the good guys if there are no bad guys to vilify? What’s the use of all that armor if there are no bogeymen to pound every once in a while? How can Israel keep shining if Lebanon stops looking so black? Now switch names in the last sentence, and you get yourself a ditto for Hezbollah.

More to come.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Heart-to-heart with Israel/ cont’d

Of Facts and Truths (Part One)

“Sometimes facts threaten the truth.” Amos Oz told me this two weeks ago in his Tale of Love and Darkness. True, I thought, facts, like the parents of an unwanted child, oftentimes just ignore it. Alas, we have so many unwanted children in these parts.

We can live with facts, however painful they are. We even collect and display them as trophies of grief to console a broken spirit or stoke dimming ire or justify indescribable cruelty. But the truth…the truth is something special. However mild its rebukes they can shatter the heart. If unshackled and allowed to walk free, it can suck the life out of age-old myths and puncture gaping holes into the steeliest pretensions. At its most kind, it can bring light into our night and cajole the humane out of the inhuman.

I know you’re getting antsy but if you stay with me for a few more lines, you will see the light.

The dance between fact and truth in Oz’s memoir first swings onto the page in the death of his grandmother: The fact is that she passed away while scrubbing herself in the bathtub, but the truth is that she died from a life-long obsessiveness with germs. Benign, isn’t it, and yet so seductive to the susceptible mind because from it spring a thousand different beats about this burning Arab-Israeli expanse. For practice, one can set the tone quickly with a couple of very simple ones: The fact is Gamal Abd al Nasser expired from an exhausted heart, but the truth is that he died from a twenty-year friendship between high promise and abysmal failure; the fact is Saddam Hussein was brought down by the US and Britain, but the truth is he perished from a twenty-year antagonism between his brain and sanity.

Once the oppressiveness of conventional wisdom recedes in the mind’s calculus, the trickier blends become easier to make: The fact is Israel and Islamism are real enemies, but the truth is they are good friends; the fact is Hezbollah won last summer’s war, but the truth is it lost; the fact is Hamas won, fair and square, in the last Legislative Council elections, but the truth is it lost. You get the rhythm now? If you are even slightly versed in our realities, the arguments implied in these combinations should not be unfamiliar to you. But stop at the facts and you are just looking in through the peephole, reach for the truth and you are stepping into the room with the door wide open.

To move from Hezbollah’s triumph to its loss, you need to understand the ground rule that delivered the former and chew slowly over the paradox that explains the latter. In the history of Arab-Israeli military face-offs, the ground rule has always been thus: If it is not an absolute, swift and resounding victory for Israel, it is a defeat; and if it is not an absolute, swift and humiliating defeat for the Arabs, it is a victory. Simple. For stamina, this peculiar formula has long depended on an unyielding, deeply entrenched temperament--that of Israeli arrogance and Arab defeatism. Whatever the score is at the end of every contest, it is this attitude that separates the victors from the vanquished.

Not surprisingly, with such a crude yardstick the bar becomes unsustainably high for the mighty and hilariously low for the little guy. Trip up the mindset of a triumphalist Israeli militarism that thinks squashing its Arab enemy is akin to twisting the life out of a spent cigarette and you’ve got yourself a winner. Economies wrecked long after the gunfire has stopped, death tolls, villages wiped off the map, entire neighborhoods flattened, killing fields torched and littered with cluster bombs, a childhood denied its innocence, whole generations heading for the door, are for the history books; for us, a slap on Israel’s red face will do just fine, thank you. You saw it in 1973, when the Arabs rejoiced over a victory that wasn’t; and you saw it last July, when 33 days of combat in Lebanon left Israel tongue-tied and fuming.

Hands down, Hezbollah won because it was never muscle that was going to win the fight, it was psychology. Over a million Israelis forced to hide for weeks on end in shelters, a stubborn barrage of Hezbollah rockets and katyushas that spread panic deep into Northern Israel, Israeli soldiers outwitted on the hills and narrow streets of the Lebanese South, a Hezbollah leadership that stayed alive and remained intact, and, lo and behold, we got ourselves an unqualified champ. Simple. Simple and also uninteresting because this is the least revealing part of the war. The more compelling bit is the one that most pundits—even the best of them—keep glossing over in fits and starts before their analysis finally sputters into a predictable stop.

In the first few days of the war, Ehud Olmert announced to the world that Israel’s objective was to devastate the infrastructure of Hezbollah, disarm it, expel it from the South and return the two abducted soldiers (see his speech before the Knesset on July 17, 2006). That Olmert’s goals, as the Israeli Winograd Commission concluded, were “over-ambitious and not feasible” is patently obvious. Dwell on it and you end up (like so many still are) running in your place. Digest it and then ask yourself this question, Why would Israel publicly set for itself a mission it knew it could not fulfill, and you might just be getting somewhere. After all, Israel was very well aware that Hezbollah, as a powerful and pervasive political presence above the ground but a stealth military force under it, would be far less vulnerable to air strikes that typically bring standing armies down. Of course it could be harmed, but it could not be devastated, nor disarmed, nor expelled, nor forced to return the two Israeli soldiers. Moreover, Hezbollah entered the latest round with a consistently impressive performance against Israel. As a disciplined, highly focused grassroots guerilla movement, it succeeded where Yasser Arafat and his band of pot-bellied, lewd, ersatz revolutionaries had always failed: It wrestled with Israel over Southern Lebanon for eighteen years and won in 2000, when Israel unilaterally ended its occupation of the South.

However, till this very day, in explaining Israel’s loss, both its critics and supporters skip over motive, as a given, and focus on malfunctions and miscalculations. Both expend all their energies over the nuts and bolts of failure because both have taken Israel’s declared objective at face value. Both believe Hezbollah was combatant and target. And both are wrong. The fact is Israel was fighting Hezbollah, but the truth is it was after Lebanon. Its arrogance was not directed at a well-tested Hezbollah, it was directed at the infinitely more fragile Lebanese polity. It did not think Hezbollah would break in the first few days of the war, it thought Lebanon would. But it did not (and you will be pleased to know that the reasons will make an appearance here soon). Therefore, it was poor, feeble Lebanon—and not majestic Hezbollah--that first tripped up Israel’s mindset.

Interesting? A tad bit over the top? Yes, but you haven’t read the last of it yet. And this is the juncture where you need to cross from the realm of basic ground rules into that of mirrors and paradoxes.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Heart-to-heart with Israel/ cont'd

The mad, mad, world of Palestine and Israel!

Disaster beckons an entire people, and they are all chuckling. Israel chuckles as its parameters burn. Hamas chuckles as it prepares to reign supreme over an oven—or a presto as we call our pressure cookers. And Fatah chuckles as it digs its heels into the glorified prison that is the West Bank.

Woe to Mahmoud Darwish, every Palestinian’s poet, for taking this so seriously. Lamentations, rebukes, regrets, eloquence teetering on the edge of befuddlement graces the front page of al Hayyat newspaper, and for what? For whom?

“The prisoner, who so wants to inherit his prison, hid the smile of victory from the camera, but he could not suppress the happiness trickling from his eyes, perhaps because the hastily prepared text was stronger than the actor. We have no need of narcissism, so long as we are Palestinian. And so long as we cannot tell the difference between the mosque and the university (al Ja’ami’ wa al Jamia’a) because they come from the same linguistic root, we have no need of a state…” (My translation).
For the first time ever Darwish declares his Palestine dead and, like a bouquet of white lilies, rests his shattered heart over its remains.
If you are in this neighborhood, wherever you are you must be stepping on blame everywhere you look. The blogs, the newspapers, the magazines, the news programs and talk shows, my street corner in Beirut, are throwing it around like sludge in a free-for-all mud fight. As a gesture of goodwill and, I suppose, in the interest of variety, warriors from both camps are graciously indulging a good number of apologetic malcontents. On the American-Israeli side, flanking the devotees who can only conceive of Palestinian violence as a vindication of their own chauvinism, we have a band of so-called free spirits who chide Israel for its naiveté or carelessness in giving license to Islamism in the late eighties as a tamable beast with which to harass Yasser Arafat. On the Palestinian side, running very near the diehards who plunk every mishap on Zionist-American laps, we have a group who, in typical lah-ya-habibi-hatha- al hakki-ma-bisseir (roughly, this won’t do, my brother) form, scold Hamas and Fatah for letting their dirty laundry dangle from the rooftops of Gaza.
The lines of defense thus secured, the word mistake, on both sides of the embankment, begins to do what it is so good at: recasting deliberate malice as a mere error of judgment. By way of example, we have: It was a mistake for the Americans not to engage an amenable Hamas after the Palestinian elections; and/or it was a mistake for Israel to ignore Mahmud Abbas and inadvertently strengthen Hamas; and/or it was a mistake for Fatah not to have accepted the choice of the people; and/or it was a mistake for Hamas to stoop to the level of a conniving Mahmud Dahlan on the frightened streets of Gaza… In each of these examples and their enumerable spin-offs, every premeditated outcome becomes an unintended consequence; in each of them, every indictment comes with its own built-in pardon. And it is in this way that disturbed psyches are transformed into ill-advised decisions. It is in this way that the sentence for murder is reduced, before the court of public opinion, to that of manslaughter. Now they can all go down in history as blameless victims of at best a bad calculation, at worst rudderless intentions.
You know that yawning, incomprehensible sound that emits from a scene being replayed for the thousandth time…?

So let’s reshuffle the deck. Let’s stretch this canvas of facts some and make it less comfortable for conventional wisdoms as they go about planting themselves all over its parched surface.
Since we are still in the middle of my heart-to-heart with Israel, I want to stay with it before turning to the Arabs and the Palestinians.
This is what I wrote an American journalist friend of mine towards the end of Israel’s war with Hezbollah last summer:

Why…would Israel opt, yet again, for brutal military force when much in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict tells it that, almost always, savagery will deliver plenty of what it presumably does not want and very little of what it allegedly craves? Why squeeze the life out of a whole people when, from this death, mayhem and unbearable distress and blind hate are sure to emerge? Unless—unless, of course—Israel’s declared objectives, more often than not, are only thin cover for an entirely more sinister ambition. Sixty years into this bloodletting, surely you and I can easily glimpse this fractured, devastated, radicalized Arab terrain emptied of its moderate voices and reasonable minds; a distraught, agitated landscape that cares only for those children born and bred in its own deathly image. And surely, on the fringes of this carnage, you and yours are meant to behold that lonesome lotus vibrating with life in our Eastern mud; that marvel of a nation that stands like an impregnable, fearsome military fortress on the outside and thrives like a precious Western democracy on the inside; that bastion of Western civilization in a very cruel, backward neighborhood inhabited by tyrannical halfwits and fundamentalist dimwits, a place and its people who, in their ferocity, explain the very reason for this glittering beauty that is mighty Israel.Creative chaos, whoever its real authors are, promises this: that from the rubble shall rise one of two equally wonderful Middle Easts—a chronically ill beast ravaged by social diseases and debilitated by internecine wars, or a lobotomized creature, stupid, biddable, and permanently silent. I remember the very first question that came to me only hours into this latest war: What have we wrought in this land of ours? I kept mumbling to myself… I shall leave [this country] and search for a shelter that can love me better and which, perhaps, will allow me to love it more. Where have I registered in anybody’s books as the prime casualty of this war? Where am I mentioned? And yet, all along, I have had this nauseous feeling that I am the one Israel was actually after…
The fire of heedless rage or the stillness of unquestioning submission. Hamas or Fatah. Militancy that derides dignified resistance as cowardly or obsequiousness that masquerades as genuine moderation. Do you see now why Israel chuckles, thinking deliverance at last? To neither adversary does it have to cede dreams, because of neither is it compelled to rewrite raison d’etres, for the sake of neither does it need to offer more than crumbs, yield more than inches.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Heart-to-heart with Israel

I want to take this Palestinian-Israeli story beyond the mind-numbing chatter about the details of hatred and violence. I am tired of debating the mechanics of malevolence close to a century into this conflict. Facts matter—they will always matter—but, whichever way our convictions choose to read them, they are mere foot soldiers in this bloodletting.

I want to travel further into the realms of psyche and implication, into those of mindset and devastating aftereffect, because when facts kill, they kill for them.

Dana Olmert, Yigal Arens, Avraham Burg and Avinadav Begin do not seal my last post as petty taunts. I do not float their names to state the very obvious: that dissent in Israel has reached the progeny of even its fiercest keepers. I am not embracing their rebellion the way I, in my younger college years in the US, latched on to Ahad Ha’am’s reservations about Herzel’s political zeal or marveled at Martin Buber’s spiritualism as evidence of a once tentative, self-questioning Zionism—if not self-questioning of its rights, then self-questioning of their impact on the rights and lives of others.

I mention these angry children of Israel because 59 years ago, when political Zionism declared itself triumphant over its spiritual and cultural adversaries and Arab enemies, Israeli euphoria would give in only to the seduction of happy dreams. The naggings of nightmares were for the losers. I mention them because 59 years ago, when Israel became flesh and blood and thought it had finally laid to rest that ageless “Jewish Question,” Palestinian exodus seemed—even for those Zionists who acknowledged the injustice of it--a reasonable sacrifice for “Jewish Return.” There was no room then for qualms and foresight. The horror of the Holocaust was too recent, the righteousness of the Cause was too intoxicating and the opportunity in Palestine too compelling. Fifty-nine years ago the future of a messianic, exultant Zionism was intangible, but now it has become the real past, and on its surface yesterday’s dire predictions have bloomed into these children’s scathing verdicts. That is why I mention them.

In protesting thus, are they not pleading with their country for more meaningful conversations about the possibilities of salvation for them and for this worn-out Middle East? Have we all not lived in this quagmire long enough to know that the misfortune of one people is not necessarily a windfall for the other?

But there stands a flummoxed Israel, so mighty and yet so frightened, still hanging on to the promise in hellish scenarios. Shall it be yet another Palestinian transfer, as Avigador Lieberman demands, or shall it be permanent dominion over them? Shall it be 50 little Bantustans or one quadriplegic, deaf and mute, tiny Palestine? Dare we ponder the comeback of the Jordanian flag over a mutilated West Bank and Egyptian care for a destitute and seething Gazan Hammastan?

Does Israel not see that Ze’ev Jabotinsky, that most fervent of Zionists, was right when he said of the Palestinians, “…they are not a rabble but a living people?” Do the raging fires of the past 60 years not tell it how wrong he was when he found his answer for Palestinian acquiescence written on an “Iron Wall?” Do they not understand that they cannot be in the Middle East but not of it? If a thriving IT sector, a robust economy and a healthy stock exchange brighten up the picture for Israel, don’t the people’s anxieties about the longevity of the state that permeate every poll and the fading sheen of military power as panacea make it a tad bit darker?

Not a history replete with damning evidence, not the voices within and not the clamor without seem to be making a dent as Israel’s leaders, politicians and generals alike, go about their business of audaciously dressing up bigotry and cruelty as workable solutions for their people and ours.

I am writing this as news trickles in about the killing of five UNIFEL Spanish soldiers in Southern Lebanon. Here’s one murderous act that exposes the mindsets meeting across divides to bring this country down. In identifying the guilty hands, one is at a loss between an Israel that has been agitating for another round to reclaim for the Israeli military its fading luster and help Lebanon and Hezbollah sink deeper into their morass; extremist Palestinian elements hitting in the South to spread the turmoil in the North; a Syria anxious to make the summer a very hot season for all of us.

Allah Yustur (God shield us). But I doubt he will.

More conversations with Israel, the Arabs and Palestinians in my next post.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Chapter Three: Finita La Musica

Waddi’, as in Say Goodbye!

Let’s make this a new chapter and move on as we go backward.

Beirut on a Sunday in June. A brisk, early swim—alone. None of the usual souls is at the pool four days after the assassination of Walid Eido, one of Sa’ad Harriri’s mps. I remember that line in The Year of Living Dangerously: “And so it begins.” Of course, it was a love affair these words were ushering in. No tentative whispers or fluttering butterflies here, just the footsteps of ominous beginnings.

Sure, the omens had long lit the way to this moment—if you care to look back, they dress every paragraph of Pieces of me In This--but now you can actually see societies, a battered culture, self-respect, delusions, about to shatter all over the floor. We used to live our outbursts, more or less, one at time, but catastrophe does not care for timid displays of its gifts anymore; it wants to parade them in full regalia.

Slow-motion collapse is eerie. The banal and the calamitous share the day’s space, blithely chatting away the ticking seconds, as people swing between routine and disaster. Soon, perhaps, soon the action may overrun us Lebanese in fast-forward—like Gaza this very minute, like Iraq three years ago.

Look around you! These are not landscapes of political devastation you glimpse—devastation is for the birds, for the editorial pages; it has been sitting amongst us like a nonagenarian grandfather muttering every once in a while incomprehensibly. What those eyes of yours behold is a panorama of Arab shame on which is etched every imaginable visage of indecency.

I am already well into a Tuesday. It is not the seventy-eight killed in a suicide bombing in a Shiite mosque in Baghdad that bespeak of an Iraqi nation in utter despair, it is those orphaned children with severe disabilities naked on the floor and chained to their beds (Al Hayyat, June 20, 2007). We can, with some persuasiveness, blame Iraqi fratricide on too many years of Saddam, or on foreign cabals in cahoots with local partners, but in front of the door of what Zionist or American conspiracy do we Arabs dump this humanitarian tragedy? Under what excuse do we shove such cruel behavior towards the weakest, the most helpless, the real innocents in this Iraqi family? What good is a country’s glorious past if its present finds it in such ignominy? Of what use are memories of greatness when, in the here and now, our conduct is so disgraceful? It is understandable that the Iraqi state is overwhelmed, that the Iraqi people are shellshocked, but is it fathomable that we collectively should succumb to such moral depravity? You’re not going to throw at me that Rumsfeldain gem, are you? “Stuff happens.” You’re not going to mention the street children of Brazil, or the child soldiers of Congo? That only adds to their dishonor but it takes nothing away from ours.

And it is not the gunfire between Hamas and Fatah in the streets of Gaza that exposes a Palestinian leadership oscillating between madness and idiocy, between perfidy and contemptibility; it is the sight of a pair of glazed eyes staring out of the face of a Palestinian child as he waits for his family’s turn to march away from Gaza into yet another exile—that eternal Palestinian exile.

Not so long ago, instability in our region was boring; unimaginative in its violence, predictable even in its surprises. But there is something of the capricious and unknowable in this bedlam. Not only the lame amongst us are feeling the punishing rewards of their stupidity, the smart ones who have long trifled with them are also facing the unintended afterclaps of their own cleverness. While the Palestinians agonize from the near-fatal wounds inflicted by their pathetic imitation of a resistance, Israel squirms from the terrifying corrosiveness of a colonial mentality that mocks its democratic Jewishness as it eats its way through the last of the two-state solution. While Hamas brings into full circle the incompetence, the fecklessness, the boundless cynicism, that started with Yasser Arafat, Israel ponders four million traumatized Palestinians whose multiplying numbers are the true and only measure of their hope for meaningful recognition.

How anachronistic is it for the Derchewitzes and Finklesteins to debate the right and wrong of Zionism, when on the ground are gathered millions of Palestinians irritating every Israeli fait accompli and breathing life into that most mortifying of possibilities: an Israeli-Palestinian bi-national state! How mystified Israel must be that the murder of one half-good idea—two people, two states--can so furtively bring birth to the ruinous notion of one post-Zionist state for all. Impossible? Sure. Now.

But what do you do with an occupied people who refuse to die or go away, crouching, furious and spent with barely anything to lose, at your doorstep? How many times do you pummel them, how many monsters do you breed in their midst, how many of their “moderate” leaders do you turn into straw men, how many of their God-obsessed fighters do you first feed and caress and then demonize, how many check points do you erect to humiliate them, how much of their land do you grab, how many of their resources do you confiscate, how many settlements do you implant on their expanse, how many settlers do you spread between them, how tall, how permanent, of a wall do you build to isolate them, before you realize that inhumanity kills both ways?

If all this pain is administered for survival, for security, for protection against a treacherous subhuman lot, why do I find you, Israel, in the throes of an existential crisis? Why the befuddlement and the nervous sweat? Why the harsh censure from Avraham Burg, the one-time head of your Knesset and Youssuf Burg’s son? Why such disillusionment in Moshe Arens’ son? Why the fury of Ehud Olmert’s daughter? Why the anti-wall protests by Menachem Begin’s grandson? You say this is proof that you are Democracy itself. They are saying, This is precisely because you are not.

Be patient! My thoughts are still in mid-stream.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Batikh Ykassir Ba’ado

Let Watermelons Break Each Other/as in A Plague Upon Both Your Houses

If you are disappointed that the rumpus in Nahr al Bared is settling into a monotonous rhythm, don’t be. We are still in the very early hours of this traggedia, as we like to call our misadventures in Franco-Araab. While information, good and bad, will keep seeping out of “anonymous” sources about Fath al Islam and the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism in our refugee camps, the real show is actually playing somewhere else—in the political arena. And since we all have a strong feeling that we are barely scratching the surface of this morass, it only makes sense to dip our heads a little deeper for a closer look at the evils breeding at the bottom of it.


The 12 refugee camps in Lebanon teeming with 425,000 of the wretched of Palestinian earth have long been home to every rent-a-cause kiosk conjured by our Arab brethren. For decades, they have been destinations for regional bullies in search of mercurial mercenaries and hideouts for roughnecks looking to change their footprints after every bad act. And why wouldn’t they be? There, people with no claim to any happy dream live in permanent tension with open sewage, overflowing garbage, overcrowded housing, promises unfulfilled, life not lived; there, people live as if on islands of oblivion, not quite visible to our leaders, not quite mattering to theirs.


Fath al Islam may be the criminal of the month but it is only one of many groups most of whose time is spent thinking up ever grislier interpretations of and commands by the Quran. With an al Qaeda-like obsessiveness with the sinfulness of others that is constantly itching for spilt blood, their willingness to unleash terror throughout Lebanon is as certain as the waywardness of their faith. Whether they have the capacity—the sleeper cells, the backup, the mobility underground—to do so is not quite as evident.


Hence even if the Lebanese army kills Fath al Islam’s ring leader Shaker Abbsi and every single one of his foot soldiers, Pandora might still be standing there with her box about to crack open. These largely foreign fighters may have been alien to Nahr al Bared but their appearance in it says much about both the Lebanese government (and Syrian efforts) that helped ease their way in and the Hobbsian conditions that tolerated their presence there. The question of the Palestinians in Lebanon—the destitution in which they live, the Palestinian Authority’s deteriorating influence over them, the mountain of arms in the hands of a sea of “liberators” of every non-religious persuasion or Jihadist motivation--has raced to the fore and the answers to it have become ever more pressing. Fath al Islam, as urgent as its specific case is now, is symptomatic of a festering malignancy that will not respond to our state’s favorite remedy: bazzi w lazzi’, spit and stick (remember that one from a very early Thinking Fits post?).

Moreover, just as this extremist group blew the lid off the indefensible autonomous status of the refugee camps, it made Hezbollah’s unilateral disarmament practically unachievable. For the Sunni fanaticism that breeds in these places is as grave a threat to the interests of Hezbollah and the safety of the Shiite community as it is to the authority and stability of the state—or so Hezbollah shall argue with much credibility. It makes absolutely no sense anymore to speak of Hezbollah’s arms when conditions inside these camps have grown from very inconvenient to out-and-out perilous.

It has thus become startlingly clear that whatever fixes the Lebanese government has in its bag they cannot be short term, they cannot be cosmetic, they cannot only involve firepower and they necessarily have to string together some mighty intelligence fieldwork and bold political moves.

And this is just the easy part.

This Lebanese crisis, like all the previous ones, is as much about regional intrigues as it is about internal maladies. The Rafiq Hariri international tribunal that has just passed in the UN’s Security Council under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, as critical as it is for the Syrians, does not swim alone in this region’s pool of peace-threatening problems. Although this country’s immediate quandary has its roots in Syria’s furious and bloody reaction to the loss of the only jewel in its crown, the exit from it will not necessarily lead us to salvation. The files in the hands of the powers which collectively, but very often competitively, preside over us are many and the issues packing them are complicated and thorny.

The short of it is that Lebanon is meeting this latest test at a time when those who hate it and those who could care less about it far outnumber and outmuscle those who feel sorry for it. Mind you, the players manning the first two fronts are the peripatetic type. Depending on the stakes, they switch sides without even a pause. They may hate each other but towards us—subhan al Allah (Goodness Lord!)--their feelings are disturbingly chummy.

Not coincidently, of course, the unkindness of those on the outside is playing footsie yet again with the feebleness of those on the inside: The near-paralyzed Lebanese government (whether it admits it or not) is grappling with the ramifications of breathtakingly irresponsible tactics that are making the plots against it easier to realize; the people are utterly demoralized; our educated youth is jumping this sinking ship; the state’s intelligence apparatus is less amenable to its orders than it is to the Syrians’; and our political class—the opposition and March 14th combined—has shown itself scandalously blasé about this country’s daunting challenges.

Are you depressed yet, or do you just hate me?

I cannot deny that this pretty much reads like a you-might-as-well-shoot-me-in-the-head scenario, but all I have done is set up the atmosphere for you; it is up to you to adjust the lights to your liking. For a happy thought, you might want to start with a Syrian-American deal that delivers to the tribunal two or three Syrian intelligence hoods, all arranged courtesy of Saudi Arabia and Iran. This deal is both conceivable and possible now that the court has been approved. Beyond this generous gesture, for a brighter picture you had better bring in those neon lights.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Oh, dear! What did I tell you? Pandemonium! The reports from Nahr al Bared and other corners of the capital are flooding in; the sober ones are few, the idiotic are aplenty. Who would have thought Counterpunch would become as painful to read as the editorial page of the New York Post. That poor sod Franklin Lamb, whoever he is. All this time we’ve been watching out for crap coming from the right; now we have to duck in all directions.

This Counterpunch man-on-the inside has been reporting from the womb of Nahr al Bared. There is little food, hardly any clean water, not a few innocent victims, too many Fath al Islam fighters, and the man clearly does not know from which end his take on the events is coming, no doubt too grateful that he’s been invited to the party to give sobriety a chance. This is sad—sad because that small space in his piece that does accommodate persuasive speculation about some of the reasons that brought us to this tumult suffocates from the much larger section that sinks into bluster, sensationalism and clichéd conspiracy theories; sad because I was not hearing it from Bill O’reilly on Fox, I was reading it in Counterpunch.

Lamb starts out sensitively enough. The tragedy that is this forever harassed and abused Palestinian people graces the first part of his May 26 article, (as it should every reporter’s) and then it’s bye-bye from there. Had he stuck to some variation of Seymour Hersh’s argument of unintended consequences, or blow back--as some refer to it—he would have remained on safe ground, still marching close enough to intelligent conjecture and fact. But he quickly attaches himself very confidently to one scenario (obviously the Americans did it), inexplicably dispensing with all the requisite qualifications that typically accompany explanations to very dark and nebulous happenings.

In his first post, he rambles on incoherently about the Welch Club (named after Assistant Secretary David Welch) and an American-inspired conspiracy against the Lebanese army, in the second he denies that there was a bank robbery or that Lebanese soldiers were beheaded. In neither does he tread carefully around the shadowy world in which Fath al Islam and like-minded extremists thrive or show appreciation for all the menacing (and often competing) forces that steer them within it. By offering only his own political predispositions and Fath al Islam denials to him as support for his suppositions, this very angry, if seemingly well-intentioned, American keeps himself in the dark and his hapless readers with him.

No sense in jumping to last summer’s war in the midst of this commotion is there? Old news, that sad episode and its residues, now that we are discovering that we have been standing waist-deep in an infinitely larger sewer, and much of it of our own making—as usual.

Who said stupidity is not fascinating to behold as it reveals itself in real time, mind-numbing in its willful ignorance, tragic in its self-deception? Are we not all mesmerized by the calamity that is about to give birth to its demonic offspring everywhere around us—all because, like the dimwitted midwife in those B-rated horror movies of yesteryear, we have obstinately cared for the pregnant beast, believing it against all evidence to be just the grouchy side of an essentially good woman?

You think me hysterical?

As the facts trickle out of Nahr al Bared, as the experts’ once tedious warnings suddenly become worthwhile reading, as once ridiculed investigative analyses about the naughty dealings of the bad boys parading as the good guys enjoy renewed respect, we begin to fathom the extent of the trouble ahead of us and the dearth of solutions.

Every which way you turn it, the drama of Fath al Islam and all those other groups with equally nifty names--Jund al Sham, Ussbat al Ansar, Ansar al Islam, al Ahbash,…--is all thorns, filth and bad odors. But I have to say, whichever way you actually do turn it, it tickles the senses. The facts have yet to line up naked before us, but they sure are stripping. And the details they are exposing so far--escorted, of course, by all the standard provisos--are these:

The Salafi Fath al Islam, a very recent (last November to be exact) offshoot of the non-religious Fath al Intifadah, a splinter itself from Yasser Arafat’s Fath, may well have been sponsored by the Saudis and the Hariris and cuddled by the Lebanese government which allowed it to roam relatively free between Palestinian camps. If those who accused the intrepid Seymour Hersh of being sloppy when he first revealed this in the New Yorker’s March 5th issue have not yet sent out their apologies, they should get on with it. Hersh was not right about everything, it is true--especially the very likely role Syria has been playing in this tawdry business—but he is close enough to the facts about Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s grand Shiite containment strategy sold last year to the Americans with a Saudi seal.

For Bandar, it would seem the main threat to the region’s status quo (i.e. Sunni Arab dominance) is the Shiite resurgence and the Persians’ bourgeoning influence. That both were offered by the Americans to their ecstatic recipients, like dhulma on a silver platter, was especially rankling to the dumb-struck Saudis, and hence Bandar’s obsessive pursuit of a bold plan to reverse what the Bush administration itself had set in motion. Bandar thought and thought, and then thought some more, until one morning it landed on his head: Let the Americans hit Iran, let us Sunnis firmly (but secretly, of course) join hands with Israel against Iran, Syria and Hezbollah and last, but certainly not least, let our Sunni Lebanese protégés sponsor al-Qaeda-like extremists in Lebanon to check Hezbollah’s hegemony and threaten its interests.

It is not clear whether Bandar, the maverick that he is, was playing solo all along, or whether King Abdullah, finally realizing that his dashing little prince had fallen face-down in his horse shit, abandoned him in mid-gallop. But all those in the know are speaking of the dimming star of a sidelined Bandar. King Abdullah reportedly was not too keen on Bandar’s proposition from the start, preferring a more creative and less combative approach. He, therefore, informed a surprised Dick Cheney that the Kingdom would not back a military hit against Iran, would not enter into an alliance with Israel and would much rather keep the doors open with Hezbollah. It is not that Abdullah is not nervous about the emboldened Iranians and Shiites in the region, especially in Iraq, he is—very—but let’s just say his spirit is not quite as adventurous as Bandar’s. Blame it on age and, thankfully, the bit of wisdom that sometimes comes with it.

So far, so good? Here’s where things go from moronic to downright dangerous. In those few months Bandar was left to stray, he signals to the Hariri crew to start feeding Fath al Islam as well as other guns for hire and facilitating their armed existence in Palestinian camps. The Hariris, longtime supporters of the similarly hideous Ussbat al Ansar and other Islamist radicals—a few of whom were arrested in the Diniyeh clashes in 2000, and then pardoned due to Sa’ad Hariri and other Sunni leaders’ intercession—begin looking after Fath al Islam, signaling to the Lebanese government to let these gangs trek unhindered between refugee camps.

This was more than a family affair; this was government policy apparently aimed at bolstering the Sunni community against a heavily armed Shiite Hezbollah. However, as mentioned in my previous post, these bridges between mainstream Lebanese Sunnism and the sect’s fringe elements are old constructions, and the Hariris were not the only active investors in this enterprise. From the outset, and long before this patronage morphed into a specific Saudi and Hariri-endowed political plan, it was obvious that the Sunni establishment was presiding over currents that make Hezbollah look positively angelic.

The trail grows much colder at this juncture. Three likely scenarios make their case for space. Either the plug was pulled (prompted by a Saudi-American change of mind) on Fath al Islam, provoking it to show its canines; or Syria, the ingenious trickster that it is, drills inroads into Fath al Islam, works them like no master can, and turns them loose on their old patrons; or a combination of both: An unruly Fath al Islam dampens Hariri’s enthusiasm for them and creates a door through which Syria walks in and plays its hand. Nice!

Whichever scenario is the closest to reality, Hariri and Saniora must be finding it very difficult to sit on their bums right about—oh, say-- this very minute because as we all know once you create a monster you can never be sure when it is going to turn around and bite you—hard.

This is what I have been able to gather and deduce from the reports and assessments of those with serious insight into and knowledge about the different pieces of this puzzle.

But, alas, as revelatory as all this is, it is not where the story may prove to be at its most meaningful—and unsettling.

Spooky, huh?

Al baqiyyah fi al adad al Qadem (roughly, more later)

Thursday, May 24, 2007


A long break? Unfortunately, work got in the way. Besides, this new entry required—I don’t know?—a bit of thoughtfulness. I realize that, in the midst of the violence in Tripoli and the changing tactics of terror that are bringing the seeds of conflict to the heart of Sunni Beirut, there might be more interest in insights that address the immediate crisis, but, if you bear with me, you might find my contribution not entirely unhelpful.

I need to dwell a little longer on, stretch a little more, this life of raw deals that we Arabs have been living, this choice we are constantly forced to make between evils. Had this dilemma remained squarely ours, today’s debate would echo yesterday’s. But there is a contagion making its rounds as of late—and not in these already afflicted parts.

As recently as September 10, 2001, Arabs like me who abhor that space between rocks and hard places would seek and find comfort somewhere in the perspectives of informed Western observers who knew enough about us to extract the repressed colors from a predicament dyed heavy for us in black and white. Even when they were very near they stood far enough to distinguish between issues fake and real. They could identify with the Arabs’ plight without buying into the professed credentials of its presumed defenders. They gave primacy to context when they met an apparent fact, and allowed nuance, however inconvenient, to intrude on absolute convictions.

But the ease with which we, terminally beleaguered Arabs, choose sides is attracting converts from well outside the usual circle of acolytes. In the aftermath of a tragic September 11 that devastated lives, brought consequence agonizingly close to cause and let loose the demons of a very disturbed politics, out there in the West hysteria is harassing sound judgment the way it chased it away in my East. Islam has become the villain, the West a hero, civilizations are colliding and Western enlightenment itself is fighting for its life. The brightest of minds, with such unseemly haste, have joined the fight, long-cherished principles have been dumped and old nemeses have become the best of chums. Clearly panicky and besieged, they have fallen into the worst of our routines: Their political persuasions, pumped-up on noblesse oblige and high on rage, are planting themselves like bouncers at the door of every discourse and arbitrarily picking their way through the facts desperately trying to enter the argument.

Still, truth be told, you cannot dismiss chagrin when it travels beyond its customary fringe quarters; when it is eloquent and only reluctantly hate filled; when it works so hard to justify and qualify if only to digest its own intolerance more easily. Similarly, you cannot embrace it simply because it cuts you all the slack you want, converts every fishy excuse of yours into a respectable reason and takes your obvious fibs for incontrovertible facts.

You cannot ignore Martin Amis, one of England’s literary talents and a recovering liberal, when, in a three-part essay in the British Observer back in September 2006, he pronounces the Age of Horrorism, spawned by a maniacal Islamism, upon us. You cannot walk away from his words, which mystify precisely because they come from his pen. As an acquaintance of mine wrote after she read his piece, “Why would a man with his pulsating intellect, a man who seems to know enough and know it well write as if he knows nothing at all?”

And then it dawned on her:

As I read through Amis’s opening act, I quickly realized how forbidding the terrene of Islamism can be to the uninitiated…Before September 11, the West, he tells us, "had no views whatever on Islam," that, before the cruel indecency of that day, Islamism’s immediacy for the West was "…unforeseeable, altogether unknowable." These are confessions that tempt a rueful nod. After all, before September 11, grotesque or not, political Islam spread its poison way over here and therefore invited little Western attention and merited even less of its thought. Before September 11, to the deciders in much of the West, in an even larger slice of the East, and, yes, in Israel, Islamism seemed like an ugly enough of a good idea, a homegrown pit-bull that could harass unwelcome intruders and keep genuine moderation and secularism in check. Before September 11, it was for the East to painfully live through and climb up the steep learning curve about Islamism.

How can I, then, not feel sympathy for Amis as he takes his first steps into the mind and purpose of Mohammad Atta; into the frightening message from that murderous day in a Madrid train station, that blood-dipped seventh of July in London? How can I not feel sympathy for him as he stumbles through the madness that is suicide-bombing Iraq into non-existence; through Palestinian suicide bombings that have sent a noble cause scampering to the moral low ground; through the blue burka and the black niqab that symbolize Islamism’s dire promise to us Muslim women; through the societies of "half-orphans" conceived by Muslim men given to polygamy and temporary legal pleasure? How can I not feel sympathy for Amis as he sits mortified through the rushes of an "anti-Semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualistic, anti-democratic, and, most crucially, anti rational…" Islam?...

…Because the monster is within Islam, the search for the external fiends that feed it, although duly noted by Amis, becomes a kind of appeasement. Because of its terrifying methods, of the promiscuity of its rage, Western transgressions and Israeli wickedness, although regrettable, become implicitly rational—a tolerable kind of malevolence. Death that comes in trickles from cluster bombs, death that comes in planeloads of reasonable justification or savvy rhetoric, death that eats its way slowly into its victim’s life, maybe be malevolent but it is certainly way short of "maximum." And moral equivalence in this apocalyptic conflict, relevant though it remains for Amis, does not in any way narrow the "vast and obvious" moral advantage of the West and does not render it any less superior.

I read and I marvel and I think this is all so sad and so neat…

Indeed! The Age of Horrorism, the way Amis cannot help but see it, is with us and it is horrific in its deathly beliefs, gruesome in its means. However, although my friend is right to feel sympathy for Amis even as she points up the intellectual—and, yes--moral lethargy that send large sections of his article into a deep snore, I am still wondering to myself, How is this any less silly than the paranoiac nonsense thrown on us daily over here? It’s like looking at ourselves in the mirror. We are told that, unlike us, the West, traumatized though it may be, is endowed with liberal traditions and democratic practices entrenched enough to help it withstand and eventually overcome the witch-hunt mentality and jingoism that befall a people in times of crisis. We are told that, unlike ours, the West’s core—its center if you prefer—is elastic enough to let its illuminati run wild on the edge of sensibility before pulling them back, tamed, into the fold. Lovely! It seems to me that we have all the excuses we need for wholesale acquiescence in intimidated, cowering thought. What are the West’s?

But, as I have just mentioned, this is not only about Amis and others like him who thoughtlessly sprinted to one extreme in search of incondite explanations for and defenses against a disturbingly aggressive strain of Islamic fundamentalism. This is equally about those who woke up on September 12, 2001, no less aware of our rich humanity than they were before Osama became a household name, and no less sensitive to our distress from a medley of incestuous wrongs: from colonialism; from an unforgivably callous American policy; from Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and people; from Israel’s pernicious meddling way past its borders; from our failure in building nations; from the ubiquity of authoritarianism in our region; from the pervasiveness of parochialism among our people; from our free fall to the bottom of that list of developing countries still struggling with illiteracy, shattered potential, lost youth, women’s rights, human right…you name it. I am actually lamenting those Western observers who (with the best of intentions, I am sure) have taken Amis’s jitters and turned them on their head: Incensed by the intellectual upheaval that has seen the defection of the dearest of colleagues and alarmed by a scandalously boorish American interventionism in collusion with unspeakably merciless Israeli practices, they are finding the light in the darkest of forces competing with them.

If backdrops and diversity, the vibrancy of life itself, were kept out of Amis’s hyperventilating, dark screed on Islam and the East, blind empathy and schmaltzy romanticism have smothered every nuance in the pseudo-Chomskian harangues defending these. If, for Amis, Liz Cheney (of all people) is a heroine and her supposed fight for Muslim women’s liberation is the one thing that counts, for many on the other team, the champ is Hezbollah and its so-called resistance to American and Israeli plans is the one thing that matters. A history rich with super power machinations; the vile nature and atrocious track record of oppressive regimes, the virulent ideologies and questionable agendas of extremist movements; the cynicism and shared interests that make secret friends of ostensible enemies--all these, as guideposts to motives, as paths to context, have fallen by the wayside for both groups as they, like a merry-go-round, rotate obsessively around their one-and-only issue: the terrifying specter of Islamism for this crowd, the unbearable sight of America and Israel for that.

Even those miserable labels, which were dragged into this chaos already exhausted from too much abuse and bankrupt because of too many thefts, have been indiscriminately deployed in the service of every warring faction across this divide. Moderate, radical, reformist, patriot, crony, terrorist, traitor, defeatist, stooge are embossed like stamps of approvals on supporters or fired like bullets at dissenters in confrontations and spats that are seeing new faces fighting it out with very old hands.

We all know what makes officialdom and counterfeit ideologues (what I call repeat offenders) everywhere so prone to made-to-fit principles and silly-putty logic that change depending on the issue or the circumstance or the identity of the protagonists and their antagonists. It is not entirely unreasonable for politics to demand from its aficionados a shameless flirtatiousness with inconsistency. In fact, such is the tendency of our human nature: to bend into pleasing shape facts that get in the way of a particularly dear belief or objective. But when such proclivities begin to manifest themselves in those on whom we depend for a measure of sanity and intelligence in momentous discussions about momentous happenings, well, then, where can we possibly go from here.

Take the recent eruptions in Tripoli’s Nahr al Bared and Syria’s decades-old reign over Lebanon. Welcomed though Syrian hegemony might have been for a very long time by our political class and the powers that be, Syria’s deeds in this country can with total ease and absolute neutrality be described as disgraceful and just as revealing of Syria’s ill-will towards Lebanon as Israel’s own rich record is. In fact, one can very persuasively argue—and many of the best scholars and analysts have with ample evidence in their support—that the two countries, oftentimes in perfect sync, have taken turns in smacking us down. One might even suggest—if one wanted to play with fire—that Syria’s misbehavior in Lebanon was and is infinitely more offensive than Israel’s, because one anticipates the worst of treatments from an enemy but expects the best of care from a sister.

But the story, as always, does not stop here. And not surprisingly, Islamism today serves as the best example of how labyrinthine and murky this region’s politics can be. Quite a few of those--including every self-righteous March 14th leader— who paint Syria now as a reactionary power presiding over every militant Islamic group, from the almighty Shiite Hezbollah to the Shiite-hating Jihadist Sunni bands, had in the past either actively endorsed or been perfectly indifferent to Syria’s spine-chilling activities. It is a fact that many a self-described moderate, democracy-loving Sunni chief has done his bit in cultivating a base among fanatical Sunni currents. Those of us who have not been living on lala land for the past 20 years did not need Seymour Hersh to tell us about the connection between mainstream Lebanese Sunnism and its radical fringe elements. Our Sunni bosses, from the late Rafiq (and now his son Sa’ad) Hariri to Naguib Mikati to Fathi Yakan to the Mufti himself, have been at it and in on it for a very long time. And so, contrary to March 14's blatantly self-serving contention, monsters in our backyard are not only Syrian created and sponsored. But contrary as well to Hersh’s clueless claim made recently on CNN that Syria is innocent of such relations because of its alliance with Hezbollah, which reveals astonishing ignorance about the exhaustively researched mode with which Syria pursues its interests, a considerable number of our monsters (and very specifically Fath al Islam) have, for some of their bread and butter, Syria to thank. I am not venturing an opinion here, I am stating a fact. Fanaticism may be the common denominator between all these gangs, but their paymasters are different, their loyalties may clash and their agendas may at times compete and at others meet.

For these very sinister reasons, it is absurd to position oneself reflexively on either side of this explosive fault line. However, in this tumultuous environment of post-September 11 invasions and occupations, unholy alliances, axes of evil, dizzying flip-flops and holier-than-thou rhetoric suddenly all this background fades to black. In the aftermath of every flare-up in the current Lebanese debacle, the same two narratives make the strongest showing. For Syria’s fans or America’s detractors, America and Israel are always to blame. Syria’s treachery in Lebanon, the brutal nature of the regime itself, its proven very intimate links to many of the country’s disruptive forces and, most significantly, its very palpable anxiety about the international tribunal are at best immaterial, at worst a concoction by unpatriotic American stooges. For Syria’s detractors or America’s fans, Syria and Iran are always to blame. America’s own dubious history in Lebanon, its current regional entanglements, Israeli designs and the very shady ambitions and resumes of most of March 14's heroes are at best irrelevant, at worst propaganda by unpatriotic Iranian-Syrian operatives. And, as we used to say back in Arabic class years ago, wa haluma jarran (and so on and so forth.)

Nary an effort is made, except by the quietly sane and sufficiently detached, to follow the dynamic of the event itself, to identify the players with the highest stakes, to patiently way different scenario, to give fact more weight than sentiment, to read up on matters as yet neglected or unknown, to zoom out for a good look at regional intrigues and zero in on furtive mischief in our back alleys, before making up one’s mind or placing a safe bet.

You want another example? Take Last summer’s war between Hezbollah and Israel. The rest of this segment in three days’ time—hopefully.