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.