Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Running to Catch the Bus (1)


Snaking across the gravel deserts of Syria and Iraq, Algeria and the old Soudan in the 1920s and 30s were lines of oil-drums. Crossing the Syrian desert they were a mile apart: after Adrar, going south across the Sahara, they stood every fifty kilometres, marking water depots, and neatly numbered. They indicated motor-routes, on which first heavy-duty cars and then huge custom-built buses roared across the hard surface of the desert, making unprecedentedly fast land-links across empires and for a couple of decades competing successfully with nascent air services on price (and occasionally on speed). The Sahara was conquered by French entrepreneurs and drivers, the Syrian desert by New Zealanders. It is a wonderful story – or pair of stories. I had been dimly aware of the Amman-Baghdad buses run by the Nairn Eastern Transport Company, but only recently at a lecture on the French forts of the Sahara did I see a photograph of a massive, air-conditioned Renault bus built for the Compagnie Generale Transsaharienne, running between Colomb-Béchar and Gao, and I wanted to know more. Both stories are old stories, and I re-tell them with pleasure but not originality.

overland_mail_posterThe Great War saw the Middle East and North Africa overrun with ‘modern’ transport, from aeroplanes to armoured cars and from motor-bikes to lorries. (I wrote a year or so ago about early post-war air transport, the disastrous Aerial Route Number One from Paris to Cairo, in a post called Biffy, the Bombers and Disorganised Morale.) Two of those left behind by the tide of war after fighting under Allenby in Palestine and Syria, with a fascination and an aptitude for motor mechanics, were a pair of New Zealand bothers called Norman and Gerald Nairn. Without capital but very determined, they set up and ran a transport business, first as a cross-country taxi route between Haifa and Beirut – in those days a very difficult journey of 19 hours with no road south of Akka, and stretches of driving along beaches and across ploughed fields – and later as a longer distance service running to Baghdad and eventually to Tehran. These last became the ‘Nairn buses,’ the famously safe and reliable express mail-coaches of the day which travelled off-road, for long stretches at 70 mph and more, mainly at night, across very hostile terrain and in the early days much attacked by Bedouin and Druze bandits for the gold they often carried – though as they liked to boast, they never lost a passenger.

Interestingly, both routes more or less coincided with projected (but unbuilt) railway lines. The British had planned a line from Haifa to Baghdad (the only other line into Baghdad was an Indian Army narrow-gauge line from Basra), but it was unfinanceable. As for the French, efforts to build a trans-Saharan line continued into the Second World War, when Jewish slave labour from Vichy France was used, but in the end the line consisted only of two stretches, Dakar to Bamako and Oran to Colomb-Béchar (1905) – with a big gap in the middle. Cars and trucks made better financial sense.

The Nairn business really got under way with an exploratory drive in April 1923, supported by the British representatives in Beirut and Damascus, the former, Captain McCallum, accompanying the expedition with his wife. Three cars – a Buick, a Lancia and an Oldsmobile – crossed in three days from Damascus to Baghdad, and the Nairns quickly tried more crossings, five that summer alone. The British authorities in Iraq were unwilling to support the service, though Nairn quite quickly won a five-year contract for delivery of Iraq government mail from the Baghdad Post Office, which underwrote a successful business between Haifa on the Palestine coast and Baghdad, a journey of 450 miles or so across some of the more hostile terrain on earth.

The route varied over time. To begin with their cars, carrying three passengers each as well as mail and sometimes bullion, crossed in convoy on a northern route from Damascus via Rutba to Baghdad, but after the 1925 Druze rebellion this anyway dangerous and bandit-infested route became unusable, and the longer southern route from Jerusalem via Amman, Mafrak and Rutba became standard for the Baghdad passenger service. By the end of 1923 the brothers had bought a fleet of six seven-seater powerful and indestructible Cadillac Type 63s, and quickly won the French government’s Damascus-Baghdad mail contract too. They then, over time, upped the stakes by buying larger and more powerful vehicles: six-ton, 16-seater Safeway buses in 1926, which drove at night and cut the time down to 20 hours. These were supplemented in 1932 by specially commissioned 70-foot double-decker Marmon-Herrington trailer-trucks which seated 38 and offered reclining seats, buffet meals and toilets. The buses moved fast, over 70 mph on firm gravel, mostly at night. Finally in 1937, the brothers commissioned two stainless steel Pullmans from Budd of Philadephia, air-conditioned, articulated and fast – they cut the journey time down to 18 hours. The Pullmans ate tires (they used 10 at a time), which had to be changed every 2,000 miles until Firestone developed special rayon-based tires for Nairn that could stand the heat much better than cotton-based tires, and lasted more like 18,000 miles each. These monster buses ran until the company closed in 1959, each clocking up, quite incredibly, over 2,000,000 miles. They were serious vehicles and even leaving aside the details of their mechanical excellence, they set new standards of luxury in surface transport, self-consciously imitating the airliners of the day. Here is a 1937  description of them by Edgar Jones:


The first trailer had luxurious accommodations for 19 seated passengers and the second for 14 travelers who would spend their long overnight journey in private upper or lower sleeping berths.

The plans incorporated Budd’s experience in building streamlined railroad car and auto bodies, with the Nairn need for an economical, speedy, lightweight, rugged bus which could travel the rough terrain with a minimum of difficulty. To guard against the extreme temperatures of desert night and day (zero at times and often as high as 140 degrees), complete insulation and conditioning of air were specified. Leg room to equal Pullmans cut passenger capacity to seventeen in the day bus and fourteen in the sleeper. Extra wide chairs limited double seats to one side of the aisle and singles to the other.

The new buses lop nine hours from former crossing time and make the six-hundred-mile trip over trackless waste in fifteen hours, while passengers comfortably sway on rubber cushions. Coach seats face the front, but the sleeper is divided into compartments with seats facing each other. At bed time, the seat backs swing up to form upper berths supported by tubular frames. The gap between the seats is filled with an extra cushion and the lower is made. Sheets, pillows, blankets and curtains make the berths ready for sleepy travelers. Lighting and adjustable outlets for conditioned air are provided for each berth.

bus-005b_fitzgibbondd2Following a formula akin to the hostess or steward plan on American airlines, an attendant throughout the trip comforts passengers with ice water, tea and coffee as well as box lunches with wrapped sandwiches and fruit. Lockers for storing blankets, pillows, clothing and miscellaneous equipment are in the front of the trailer, while the rear has a dressing room which also contains wash basins and toilet facilities.

In 1926 the Nairns took over their only rival, the Arab-owned Eastern Transport Company, forming the Nairn Eastern Transport Co. The ETC brought with it routes it had developed into Persia, continuing from Khaniqin through Kermanshah and Hamadan to Tehran, though with a rail link from Baghdad to Khaniqin because the road was terrible. This route was eventually abandoned after disputes with the Persian government.

The whole ethos of the company seems to have been one of courage, extreme efficiency and a cowboy swagger. The convoys rode armed, but didn’t normally fight when attacked, putting the safety of passengers first. In the whole history of Nairn they only lost one driver. The drivers were tough men from all over the world. Gerald Nairn described the early Cadillac-drivers as

… a great bunch, tough but good. They never let their passengers down, and their fidelity and endurance were known throughout the Middle East. We all packed a gun in those days. There were New Zealanders, Aussies, British, Americans and Canadians. Among the characters was John Reid, with one eye, who once, in a Cadillac, chased a cheetah down and shot it, and of course Ryan, the Aussie, who was very fond of the bottle. Passengers often complained he had been drinking, but I could never catch him or find liquor in the car. Finmally I discovered that his chargals (water bottles with straws) were full of arak … He had wealthy parents in Australia who wanted him to come home but he refused, and eventually drank himself to death in Persia. Sometimes a car would get shot up by the Arabs and to get drivers to go out with a relief car and bring it in, we would have to drag them out of hotels or brothels. So we gave them a house to live in and a girl each …

They drove very fast into the night following the light of their hugely powerful headlights, coping with appalling conditions (there were impossibly boulder-strewn lava-fields between Amman and Rutba, and in winter, regular floods and snow). They handled their huge vehicles with precision, after long apprenticeships on smaller cars and trucks, and didn’t have careless accidents. There are regular references in accounts of the company to their proficiency at the ‘Gilhooley Manoeuvre,’ which sounds obstetric, but was in fact the emergency control of a vehicle spinning through 360 and more degrees (often several times) at speed on a flat, wet surface – impressive, but it must have worried the passengers.

During the rainy months of January and February, water collects in the hollows of the desert. Puddles and mud, hundreds of yards wide and several miles long, spot the trail. As there is no telling the extent of this area, it is impracticable to detour. Drivers with an acquired Oriental fatalism on coming to mud, warn passengers, then drive at full speed to slide across on the belly of the bus. As a concession to this practice, the new trailers (turtle-like) have completely enclosed bottoms. Sandstorms force a complete stop (seldom over an hour or so). The tight fitting doors and windows prevent discomfort.

That must have shaken the iced water and dislodged the sandwiches.

Like the French in the Sahara, but on a smaller scale, they catered for passengers at their stopovers. But where the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne built a chain of hotels, known as bordj-es across the interior to cater for tourists on long trips, the Nairn Co. with its much shorter single route needed only one, at Rutba, which like its French counterparts attracted a mixture of spurious exoticism and travellers’ needs:

The one and only scheduled stop between points is Rutbah which is the nearest thing in real life to the movie conception of a desert outpost. Grim walls, radio towers, and detachments of soldiers remind travelers of Beau Sabreur and the Foreign Legion. The hotel, a large restaurant, and an ice-making plant do a thriving business at this meeting point for air and motor travelers. Possessing the only wells which do not go dry during the hot spell, Rutbah attracts the Arabs who camp outside the fort with their camels and livestock. 

Or, as Freya Stark described it,

…. the palace planted in the wilderness when Aladdin’s uncle rubbed the lamp; how else could it have got there? It is 200 empty miles from anywhere. It has beds to sleep in and waiters who spontaneously think of hot water. You walk into a room and dine on salmon mayonnaise and other refinements … the British, returning from summer leave, are all talking shop or shootings and look nice and clean …

nairn_bus_in_the_desert_smallEvery Arabian traveller from Gertrude Bell to Philby, every diplomat and businessman used the Nairn bus. Writing in the 1930s, Stark (Baghdad Sketches) described the journey, with its odd mixture of excitement and banality, though she was travelling “the cheap way, being poor and also democratic by nature,” and her Armenian taxi-driver “spends the twilight racing the Nairn down an open wadi.” into Rutba Wells. The convoy is large and miscellaneous, “the long grey chassis of the Nairn, travelling in respectable seclusion; and in and out of all the greater monsters, the indiscriminate crowd of small cars, Chevrolet, Morris, Fiat, Ford in every stage of smartness and dilapidation, but chiefly the latter …”

Even now the crossing of the desert is an everyday affair, and although the Nairn Motor Transport do what they can, and cook your breakfast-sausage romantically for you in the open desert over a fire of camelthorn, with an old paraffin box ready to help in case of need, they do not quite succeed, one must admit, in giving the true nomadic feeling to any except the most innocent travellers. In the place where the old Arabian singers saw the three blackened hearthstones of the Beloved in the deserted camp, we now pass derelict skeletons of cars …

The Nairns retired in the early 1950s, with pressure building to localise the company. Rather than surrender it to the governments of Syria and Iraq, they left it to their employees and it operated until 1959. They had, as one Beirut newspaper put it, “done more to unite Syria and Iraq in a year than all the politicians in Arabia and Europe had ever achieved.”


Just ash, floating


There’s a rather predictable trope concerning the destruction of cultural artefacts, which essentially asks why it is that we labour and mourn over stones, when human flesh is at risk. To my mind, the clearest symbolic answer to that is given by the death in 2015 of Palmyra’s 82-year old Director of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, who spent a lifetime working on, and writing about, the ruins of Palmyra and, having hidden from Daech as many of the city’s treasures as he could, died rather than reveal their whereabouts, hanged by barbarians from a pillar in the forum of his ancient city. Here was a man who needed no convincing of the centrality of symbolic cultural artefacts in the humane biosphere.

There’s something seductive but also silly in the ‘why-worry-about-buildings-when-people-are-dying’ argument. Of course, on the one hand, it’s true (a truism indeed): people, as all our mothers said to us as young children, are more important than things and faced with one of those artificial philosophical choices of the ‘Shall-I-shoot-this-child-or–smash-this-statue’ sort, few of us would answer ‘Waste the kid. ’ But the silliness comes from the false binary, the assumption that the world can indeed beruins-1 divided into ‘people’ and ‘things.’ Good enough for children, it won’t do for grown-ups, who understand, sometimes with pain and reluctance, that the two categories are inter-penetrating; that things draw their meaning from people, and people place some of their deepest collective feelings in things. Think of the intense emotional investment in regimental colours or a Roman Eagle; the Ark of the Covenant or the Kaaba; the relics of saints, the Stars-and-Stripes, the Crown of St Stephen or the tombs of ancestors. In all of these, people, blood and manufacture, not to mention God, are blended to make what we call material culture. It is this intense blending, this kneading of emotion, identity and history into the dough of creation that makes things with special power.

And these things are the things that those who wish to destroy whole peoples also destroy, because of the power that they have absorbed from the feelings invested in them, and the feelings they in turn catalyse, often over long periods of time. Destroy them, and you destroy the heart, perhaps even the coherent reality, of a people. Christopher de Bellaigue writes, when travelling in Iran, of a visit to Yazd. He asked a Zoroastrian priest, charged with keeping alight the eternal sacred flame, “what happens if the flame at Yazd goes out?” The priest replies: “Nothing. Except that the endeavours, toil and devotion of our forefathers will have come to naught.” George Clooney, in his otherwise embarrassingly schlocky film Monuments Men, puts it like this, and rather well: “You can wipe out a generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground, but somehow they still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed, just ash, floating.”images

This is one of the reasons why seeing unexplained objects in the abstract is so strange and disturbing: they are without their meaning. We can dig up quantities of Neolithic art, some of it clearly of vital symbolic importance, but we can only guess what these objects meant to their makers, because there is no one to tell us, and no one left whose sense of self and of the universe is wrapped up in it. The destruction of such objects is tragedy enough, but it is of a different order from the destruction of ‘living’ cultural objects – those whose meaning is still alive, supple and real, seeping across the permeable membrane between people and things.

As Robert Bevan has pointed out, this is why the original draft of the Genocide Convention, drafted by Raphael Lemkin, the tormented and eccentric Jew from Lemburg, wrapped the destruction of a people up, so urgently, with the destruction of their culture: they aren’t separable. It isn’t sufficient to say that without the people the stones have no meaning. Precisely the opposite is just as true: without the stones, the people have no meaning. This is uncomfortable, in an age fixated by the primacy of the individual, but true.

And loss of meaning is more than just a cultural loss, in the superficial usage of that word. The Chicago philosopher Jonathan Lear, in a wonderful book called Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, starts from the extraordinary remark of an Indian chief, Plenty Coups of the Crow tribe, looking back on the signing of the treaty which confined the Crow to their reservation in the 1880s. Looking back, decades later, on a long life, he said of that moment, apocalyptically, “After this, nothing happened,” by which he meant not that no events had taken place (he himself was busy and successful), but that they were without meaning – the meaning that is theirs in the society from which they sprang. The loss of this kind of meaning destroys the whole subjective world in which a people live, which Lear compares to the fate of a sentient chess-pieceplenty-coups which he imagines as reflecting, “humans get bored with playing this game, and the game of chess goes out of existence. My problem is not simply that my way of life has come to an end. I no longer have the concepts with which to understand myself or the world … the concepts with which I would otherwise have understood myself – indeed the concepts with which I would otherwise have shaped my identity – have gone out of existence.”

This destruction of significance is what cultural obliteration is all about. When Daech set about destroying the Yazidi temples and people of Sinjar, its black myrmidons knew what they were doing: they aimed to obliterate a people in the way that it was done in ancient Mesopotamia, by destroying every physical trace, killing its menfolk and enslaving its women. And when the tatterdemalion jihadis invaded Timbuktu in November 2011, they quickly began to do the same. In particular, they attacked the shrines of sufi saints, bulldozing and obliterating these ancient religious buildings as a way not just of imposing their iconoclastic, primitivist puritanism on the people of Timbuktu, but as a way of extirpating, as they thought, the cultural memory that they embodied. Attacks on sufi shrines are a widespread manifestation of salafi-jihadism, seen in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as well as northern Mali. Sheer venom apart, they represent a desire to cut a people off from its religious roots, the more easily to bully them into the bizarre Year Zero devotional habits of their new masters. To knock over the chess board and scatter the pieces.

What marks out Mali is that the commissar responsible for demolishing shrines and sites of more public importance like the 16th century Sidi Yahia mosque,  was not only captured but has been put on trial in the Hague. The International Criminal Court’s very first prosecution for the destruction of cultural heritage saw in the dock ‘Abou Tourab,’ the jihadist kunya of Mohamed Ag Mahmoud Al Faqi, a local salafi quickly drawn into the occupying government in which his own father was a beating-shooting-and-amputating judge of the sharia court. In one sense the trial was a bit of a let-down. Abou Tourab pleaded guilty and apologized. But the principle was established, publicly and declaratively: cultural destruction is a war crime.

The interesting thing is how much anger the trial has aroused. Some say and with justice that more important jihadists got away, some released to facilitate ‘reconciliation.’ That Abou T was by no means the worst. That anyway Abou T should be being prosecuted for the awful things he did to people, not to old brick and pisé walls. All this is no doubt true, but misses the point. The current trial of Mohamed Ag Mahmoud Al Faqi is the first great, public acknowledgement that cultural destruction is as much a war crime as killing. His old teacher wrote recently a rather sad defence of him as a ‘little fish,’ and ended by saying:

The cutting off of people’s hands and the executions that took place during Ansar Dine’s “new style” sharia for almost a year appear to be lesser crimes than the destruction, in which Al Faqi played a part, of Unesco World Heritage sites.

No: apples and pears, M le prof.  This is a point that needed making, and better to do it with a repentant little fish than a sly and unrepentant great shark. But just as important is the fundamental misunderstanding of why it is important. Not because what were destroyed were “UNESCO World Heritage sites,” though those sites are an inexact attempt to record and preserve what is important. What Abou T and his morality brigade did was not an attack on UNESCO, or Western priorities: it was an attempt to derail a set of values and religious practices that were integral to the people of the city – to destroy the embodiments of a collective memory and an ancestral religiosity. To knock the chess-pieces off the board and abolish the rules of the game.

So it is important and splendid that Abou T, a sad little man with unruly hair and a shallowly simplistic understanding even of his own religion, be condemned for this crime. And it’s very important too, that he publicly recognized his guilt. This is what the prosecutor said in her opening statement:


[Timbuktu] was, to be sure, the cradle of education, where enlightenment was nurtured for the benefit of generations of students, attracting scholars from far and wide. Some of these sages would be venerated as Muslim saints, and mausoleums would be erected on their graves to honour their memory as well as the notable contributions they made to the lives of the people of Timbuktu, and beyond. These mausoleums, which survived the ravages of time, have continued to play a fundamental, even foundational, role in both the life within the city’s gates and beyond the city’s borders. These monuments were living testimony to Timbuktu’s glorious past … But above all, they were the embodiment of Malian history, captured in tangible form, from an era long gone yet still very much vivid in the memory and pride of the people who so dearly cherished them. The mausoleums also testify to the historical role Timbuktu played in the spread of Islam in Africa and in the history of Africa itself. They are relics of a great chapter in humankind’s intellectual and spiritual development on the continent, which gave Timbuktu its standing in the world. This is particularly important in a society that is partly rooted in oral tradition. And it is notably for these reasons that they are so precious, and were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1988. What’s more, the mausoleums of Timbuktu played and continue to play an important religious role in the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants. Mausoleums are sacred places of worship. They are frequently visited by the city’s residents.  Pilgrims would also come from distant places to pay their respects and to pray.  Going to the mausoleums was and still is an expression of one’s faith and religious piety. It is specifically these deeply rooted religious practices and beliefs that Ansar Dine and AQIM wanted to annihilate by destroying these mausoleums. Through their brutal and callous acts, they made it impossible for the inhabitants of Timbuktu to devote themselves to their religious practices during the ten-month occupation of their city.

And the lawyer for this scraggly, banal little vandal, crammed into a suit and tie for the occasion said, in pleading:

He wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit the acts that he has committed. And he wants to ask at the same time for pardon from the people of Timbuktu and the Malian people. He regrets all the actions that he has committed.

This is progress.

Of books and bandits


There is an extraordinary and uncomfortably beautiful scene in Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu, in which a camel-herder kills a fisherman, both of them silhouetted at the end of a spit of land in a great inland lake. It is the seminal moment of the film, the moment when one man’s fate spins out of his control and places him at the mercy of the capricious ‘justice’ system of the jihadi-salafi terrorists from the north who have taken over his city with brutal disregard for its culture, history and people. Eventually the camel-herder will die, gunned down in a graveyard by the same foreign thugs, as his wife struggles to reach him, a symbol of lost innocence, goodwill and of the music he loved to play.

I had imagined him to be an emblematic, imaginary figure, and no doubt in many ways he is, but in Joshua Hammer’s new book, called (with a rather silly gonzo vulgarity) The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu, the author picks out a number of vignettes from the barbarian occupation that also appear in the film, including the fisherman’s murder, the fierce regulation of men’s beards and trousers and the spirited resistance of the market’s fishwives to being made to wear gloves and burkas to handle fish at their stalls. The emblematic figure whom Hammer himself chooses is a librarian, Abdel Kader Haidara, a man whose extraordinary story frames the book and provides a fine counterpoint of high civilisation to the barbarism of the semi-literate bandits who take over the town in the name of jihad and sharia.

Haidara was a reluctant bookman, almost dragooned into the book business as a boy and only slowly becoming hooked, until manuscripts became an all-consuming obsession. Deployed at first by the nascent Ahmed Baba Library, he spent years patiently travelling around northern Mali, persuading the owners of countless mediaeval manuscripts to lodge them in the safekeeping of the library. Later he founded another library – the Mamma Haidara Library – for his own family’s great collection, and encouraged the establishment of many other family libraries. He collected grants, built networks, studied and became expert, lecturing across Europe and the US on Timbuktu’s manuscript heritage. And in the city itself, hundreds of thousands of often decaying manuscripts emerged from wooden chests, sackcloth bags and holes in the sand to be restored and protected in climate-controlled environments. Timbuktu became again what it had once been – a City of Books.

When the jihadis seized Timbuktu in November 2011 there was an assumption that the rich heritage of Timbuktu’s manuscripts would be put to the torch, and indeed there were press reports that this had happened. This kind of cultural nihilism was typical of the sub-Wahhabi iconoclasts who bulldozed shrines, chopped off musicians’ fingers, banned the celebration of Mawlid an-Nabi and the famous Festival in the Desert. This was – or would have been – a tragedy of global proportions. Timbuktu had a quite extraordinary manuscript culture. An intellectual centre of huge importance, a pivot in the world of Islam, its scholars and universities had since the middle ages (though with an interruption caused by the annexation of Timbuktu, Gao and the ‘Soudan’ of the Songhay empire by the Moroccan Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in 1591) been a humming motor of international scholarship. To the ignorant modern European, for whom Timbuktu signifies simply the back of beyond, this can come as a surprise. But re-imagining the geography of North Africa encourages us to see the Sahara not as an obstacle but as a thoroughfare – a sea to be navigated in pre-modern times (until very recently) with swaying cargoes of salt, gold, ostrich-feathers, slaves – and manuscripts. Timbuktu, like Gao, Walata and Agades were ports on the southern shore of this ocean of sand, where it met the Niger river; and in our century the Tuareg and Islamist fighters in their 4WD pick-ups are simply desert-pirates who sail the sand-sea, with cargoes of cigarettes, weapons, migrants and drugs.

Books 2

Hammer tells two stories. Haidara’s is the first, a tale of immense personal bravery and obstinate determination in the service of history and culture. The second is that of Timbuktu, seized by barbarians, terrorized by whimsical Islamic courts, and saved by a French expeditionary force which arrived in January 2013 to prevent the invaders capturing Bamako, the capital, in the south of Mali. Hammer’s account of the final battle between French foreign legionnaires and Chadian troops, together attacking the terrorists’ last, remote, hiding place in the Adrar des Ifoghas hills is splendidly dramatic. However, the first story is the beating heart of the whole drama. As the jihadi invasion became inevitable Haidara instigated and supervised the removal of many of the manuscripts from the libraries to safer hiding-places in private homes. Later, when – after a surprising lull – it seemed clear that the city’s rulers would turn at last to destruction in preparation for their own retreat, Haidara ran an even more daring evacuation by land and by river, smuggling vast numbers of manuscripts to safety (in mysterious containers called ‘footlockers’) under the noses of the jihadis, organising armies of men and boys in trucks and pirogues and spending hour after hour himself on his red-hot telephones pleading, threatening, negotiating and paying for safe passage.

He saved 377,000 manuscript books and unbound bundles – and only 4,202 (just over one percent) were destroyed, burned in the courtyard of the Ahmed Baba library by the departing barbarians in a fit of spite. The silent librarians watched in horror, but all too aware of the climate-controlled store-room in the basement where the library’s greatest treasures were stored. The store was never found, and all its contents survived. Haidara has a claim to be the saviour of a large slice of civilisation.

It’s a very good story, and told with pace and enthusiasm; but it could have been much better. Couched in the laborious but careless cadences of middle-brow journalism, it elides and it patronises. To be told – to take only one example – that “Major General Horatio Herbert Kitchener” commanded the relief force at Omdurman, simply because Omdurman is one of many cities that Haidara visited, is irritating: we don’t need to know what Kitchener’s full name and rank were (since this information, like what he did at Omdurman, is the irrelevant accretion of nugatory research); nor the college and NFL football history of “General Charles F ‘Chuck’ Wald, the deputy head of the United States European Command, based in Vaihingen, Germany, on the eastern outskirts of Stuttgart,” (so what?)  nor the completely unmoored and irrelevant fact of one Malian character, Manny Ansar having a “family name that means ‘defenders.’” (Again, so what?) Sometimes, you find yourself wanting to shout that an author is allowed find something out without necessarily having to shoe-horn it into his book.

Perhaps more important is the journalistic sourcing – almost every reference is to an interview. This of course lends immediacy and in dealing with the immediate past of a still largely oral culture is vital; but there is a sense of much (particularly French) written source material having been unconsulted, and much vital background, like the history of Tuareg revolt and the role of the Algerian intelligence services, having been explored only very lightly, if at all. The same is presumably true of local languages and of Arabic – the first few pages offer the bizarre transliterations of tariq for history and fikh for a legal ruling, which suggests that either author or editor doesn’t know the Arabic alphabet and, worse, didn’t care enought to check.

But hey, it’s a good read and I enjoyed it. Though I still don’t know what was so bad about the librarians’ backsides.

AKH books

Coriander from a goat’s testicle and other farming lore

Scan_20160817 (5)

Last night I was walking along the Charing Cross Road and I saw in the window of a bookshop a little book I did not recognize, called A Moorish Calendar. I bought it, and it has proved quite enchanting. A tiny, beautifully illustrated, collection of extracts from the enormous Kitab el-Filaha of Yahya ibn al-‘Awwam al-Ishbili, much of this edition is an almanack, a catalogue of eloquent suggestions for farmers, divided by month. Yahya was a country squire, a gentleman farmer in the Wadi al-Kabir, today hispanicised as the Guadalquivir valley – al-Ishbili means ‘the Sevillean’. This is what he saw, looking out of his farmhouse window in the late twelfth century, in the present month of his own year, and how he reflected on the tasks his farm required of him and his men that long-ago Andalusian August:

In August the day’s heat declines, dews settle and in the depths of the night it is cold. On the twentieth day the Simoon wind ceases. Now  people of the coast begin the pressing of grapes and the making of wine. The nectarineScan_20160817 (6) and the downy peach are eaten in this month, and the acorn and the melon of Constantinople mature; the date and the jujube begin to ripen, and by the raising of dust you help the ripening of grapes. Cut timber after the third day of August and it will never be hindered by worms. It is time for harvesting rice and carobs, safflower seed and cress, indigo and coriander, sesame, water-melon, basil, melon and gherkin. Now you should see to the vine-shoots and those which are best you tend with extra care and those which are weak you ply with manure and water so that they may be revived. In Seville they sow orach and late gherkins and the long radish and the round.

Actually of course, I don’t suppose that Yahya thought in terms of Roman months, and the texts are therefore adapted, just as the charming woodcuts at the head of each section with the month’s name are modern and English. Some of Yahya’s old wives’ tales are a particular delight, though it is not quite fair to laugh at him. He has a stern way with trees that don’t fruit: “you may cure it in the following manner: let two men, one of them carrying an axe, approach the tree and let the one say ‘This tree shall be cut down.’ At which the other should plead for it, saying ‘No.’ Then the first must say ‘But it bears no fruit.’ To which the other shall reply ‘It will do so this year – and if it does not then you will be free to do as you please.’ Abu Khair and other writers say that this method has generally been found effective.” A gullible sort of tree, not to mention a credulous Abu Khair.

Scan_20160817 (4)

More usefully perhaps, if you take a goat’s testicles, “and plant them in the earth and water them … you will see coriander grow where no seeds of it have been sown.” Now there’s a thing. And should you be troubled by camels grazing on crops, Yahya recommends that you “sprinkle the leaves with a liquor made of dog’s droppings or (which is even better, for it will not be so readily washed away by rain) an emulsion from water and fat from a goat’s head, or the fat of boiled puppies. Sometimes the addition of human urine will be beneficial. Rags soaked in this mixture and tied to the trees will repel animals.” So I should imagine.

He tells us how to make roses grow in different and unexpected colours “according to a method contrived by HaScan_20160817 (7)j of Granada” by grafting dyes into their roots – saffron for a yellow rose, and indigo for a blue one; and how to make them give off unnatural but no doubt charming smells, of camphor, sugar or cloves, by inserting pellets of the substance just as the sap descends. He explains how to write on apples so that they reveal the secret messages as they ripen, and how to jolly along fading orange trees, “so that those leaves which have become yellow are restored and a red tint is given to the fruit. Do this by pouring hot goat’s blood on the roots of the tree, or even human blood …” and he warns that to allow unseemliness anywhere near a violet is to court disaster. All this I have passed on to my daughter, who is about to become an under-gardener at an ancient Cambridge college where practical tips and bookishness, well mixed, will perhaps catch the flavour of the place. I have no doubt she will protect the violets of her college garden from unseemliness.

As for the book itself, it is a delight. Published by the Black Swan Press of Wantage in 1979, it it translated and illustrated by the printer and his brother, Philip and Peter Lord, and introduced by Glubb Pasha. Peter Lord, who cut the illustrations in wood and scraper-board has provided an enchanting (if not entirely Andalusian) series of vignettes of plants and animals and implements. All in all, well worth the £6 it cost me. And now, only three days until the Simoon ceases, and I have nectarines and downy peaches (albeit from Saffron Walden market) for my lunch.



Einstein, Iraq and the Samsonite


Years ago in Cairo there was a joke: “What’s the definition of an expert?” to which the answer was “Anyone within a mile of Talaat Harb Square carrying a Samsonite.” One of the emerging themes of modern British political life seems to be a similar disdain for expertise. Michael Gove famously declared in the course of the referendum campaign that “People in this country have had enough of experts,” an unexpected remark on the lips of a Secretary of State. Amplifying his views, in the course of an attack on anti-Brexit economists (88 percent of 600 economists polled by Ipsos MORI thought that Brexit would damage economic growth) he added “Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong and his theories were denounced and one of the reasons, of course, he was denounced was because he was Jewish. They got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say that he was wrong and Einstein said, ‘Look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough.’”

If Mr Gove’s stock has fallen somewhat in the last fortnight, his hubristic scorn for expertise may well be a contributory factor. This scorn is of course a demotic affectation – but it is also a sign of something very disturbing in public life, a reluctance to countenance rational disagreement. Prof Brian Cox, with gentle understatment and no visible Samsonite, said in reflecting on expertise, “You are not necessarily right – but you are more likely to be right than someone who has not spent their life studying it.” We should all be seriously worried by the insouciant dismissal of anyone whose better-informed opinion doesn’t accord with the course of action on which a politician has already decided.

This week brought a chilling exploration of Govisme avant la lettre, in the Chilcot Report. There are many criticisms levelled by Chilcot against the then Labour government’s descent to war, but one of the more devastating is the almost complete failure to foresee developments in Iraq in the aftermath of an invasion; and the consequent failure to plan effectively – or at all – for eventualities that experts foresaw quite clearly. “Between early 2002 and March 2003 Blair was told that, post-invasion, Iraq could degenerate into civil war,” says the Guardian, summarising Chilcot. “In September 2002, Colin Powell predicted a terrible bloodletting of revenge, after Saddam.” Or Gilbert Achar: “You didn’t need a crystal ball. It was very predictable and what happened was exactly what was predicted.” Yet, to borrow the words of a famous 1897 letter from W S Gilbert to The Times about the London and North-western Railway: “In the face of Saturday the officials of the company stand helpless and appalled. This day, which recurs at stated and well-ascertained intervals, is treated as a phenomenon entirely outside the ordinary operations of nature, and, as a consequence, no attempt whatever is made to grapple with its inherent difficulties.” The invasion of Iraq seems to have been an acute case of Saturday morning.

There is a story told by Andrew Rawnsley about a briefing on Iraq early in 2002. Michael Williams explained the dangers posed by the ethnic and sectarian complexities of the country, and the intractable internal conflicts that would almost certainly be unleashed by war. “That is all history Mike,” Rawnsley reports the Prime Minister as saying dismissively, “this is all about the future.” Outside, in other words, the ordinary operations of nature.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this extraordinary statement. It is difficult to imagine Gladstone or Churchill, Pitt, Salisbury or Lloyd George dismissing the past with an airy wave of the hand; or even implying that an uninformed, bright-eyed, stern-jawed determination could somehow wrench history from its tracks and effortlessly set it off in a new direction. It wouldn’t pass muster in an A-level essay – indeed it’s a little hard to imagine how it could be expressed in an A-level essay without inviting ridicule.  It is what T S Eliot called the ‘provincialism of time,’ where “the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares.”

One irony of this strange, self-imposed blindness is that for a time at least the British were thought to be wise about Iraq. In the early days of the war, US officers often carried photocopies of Sir Charles Gwynn’s 1936 book, Imperial Policing, with a section on Iraq, which was imagined as containing treasures of distilled wisdom born of experience and history. Wisdom turned out to be in short supply  in a war governed by a dim presentism that largely denied the past and made quite inappropriate assumptions about the future. You can find photocopies of Gwynn on the web quite cheaply today.

A Baghdadi woman was quoted in the press this week as saying with poignant accuracy of the Allies who invaded her country, “All they needed to do was understand the society first.”



A Mixture of Spice and Salt

Hisham Matar, Author of 'In The Country Of Men'.

It is a Libyan-flavoured revolution, a mixture of spice and salt and light that smells like the blessings that come from the lanterns of saints. I find this lovely sentence, haunting in its sensual eloquence, scribbled down in my commonplace book, the first small footprint left there by Hisham Matar. I was acutely conscious as I read his new memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, that I hadn’t read either of his novels (an omission I am quickly mending); but I am also interested to find a series of glancing engagements with him, often starting in the columns of the TLS, which have left words copied, or cuttings pasted, into the little black notebooks that have served me for years as nets in which succulent fish are landed.

A year or two ago I published an essay on Libyan education. Not easy at all, the sources being very thin, the statistics very suspect, but as I researched, I came across a striking piece by Matar in which he described the founding of the University of Benghazi, and Qaddafi’s brutality there, culminating in the hanging of two students in the cathedral grounds in 1977. Scribbled down, once again and gratefully quoted. It recurs in this book, and coming across it is like meeting a familiar landmark. So too is a reference to Alessandro Spina (the pseudonymous Libyan novelist Basili Shafik Khouzam) and a quotation from him – but when I search for it in my notebook, I find not one but two chilling sentences which made enough of an impression to record, when I happened on them in a TLS review by Matar. The first recurs here, and is the words of an Italian describing colonised Libya, and Italy’s offering her up to our young men, so that they may vent the entire spectrum of their human, heroic, sadistic and aesthetic emotions. The second was, if anything, an even more sobering description of colonial ethics:

As an army officer at a high-society party in Milan puts it: ‘As soon as one reaches the other coast, one is ordered to do the exact opposite [to that] prescribed by God’s commandments.’ Italy will turn Libya, another Italian officer says, into a bordello.

I have learned more of real importance about Libya and its tortured history through this one short book than through anything else I have read about it. Filtered carefully through the muslin of his own and his family’s experience, the country becomes the background, symbol and heart of the painful but inspiring story of Matar’s life, a pure, deep red liquid in the glass, in which the light glitters softly and casts an eloquent pool of red luminescence upon the table.

The book is about exile and the love of a father, and it is extraordinary. Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, was a passionate Libyan, a leading anti-Qaddafi activist, a tireless organizer and financier of armed resistance to the dictator, who was kidnapped by Egyptian police in Cairo in 1990 and secretly ‘rendered,’ in a word that had yet to become familiar, to Libya. There he was imprisoned and tortured, before – perhaps – dying in the infamous Abu Salim prison massacre of June 1996.

Matar’s book is a beautifully interleaved reflection on the loss of country and father, in which the boundaries between the two are porous and sometimes indistinct, a synecdoche of poignant truth. The search, both in the world and the heart for a firm connection with these two lost foci of love and meaning is moving and beautifully written. The book has as it spine a long, segmented return to Libya after the revolution, a series of painfully raw meetings with family members he hadn’t seen for many years, and others he never knew. It is a journey of unexpected discoveries. Inveigled into a literary event that he didn’t much want to attend at a flyblown library, he is given a bound volume containing student magazines in which his father had published two short stories as a young man, of which he had never spoken; and he is told publicly a story of his mother’s heroism that was equally new to him. Relatives, alive and dead, throng his imagination.

The return itself, and the life of which it is a focus, form a serial unpeeling of history, national and personal. It is made the more poignant by the fact that it has for counterpoint the ignoble engagements of Britain, his adopted country, with the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, a sordid relationship which one British official describes to him as ‘leveraged engagement,’ while another glosses that phrase as meaning all ‘carrots and nearly no sticks.’ He watched Blair sup with Qaddafi using all too short a spoon – the infamous, if apocryphal, Desert Kiss – all bonhomie and hot air, while much of his Matar family rotted in Libyan gaols. He tells of all the punctuation marks in Anglo-Libyan relations – the murder of PC Fletcher in St James’s Square, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi’s insinuation into London society, his phoney PhD and his popularity as man-about-town with his carefully manicured air of being a modernist, a reformer. The revolution itself, and the discovery in Tripoli of documentary evidence that British security services had traded in Libyan exiles, rendered them to Tripoli and even informed their interrogations. All this punctuates the story giving it a horribly specific gravity.

But the core of the book is the exile from fatherland and father, and the way that double absence shapes Matar’s life. “Guilt is the exile’s eternal companion,” he writes, and there is much guilt in the complicated relationship with both that dominates so much of his life. The endless search for news of Jaballa, of confirmation of his death or survival, runs through it, and necessitates much repugnant supping with the devil on Matar’s part, in the shape of Seif Qaddafi and his myrmidons, who play endless games of deception and raised hopes, making small concessions but never the crucial one, knowledge of Jaballa’s fate. Seif, trivial, slick, vain and heartless, plays games punctuated with blackmail, emoticons and creepy wooing, constantly shifting the walnut shells one of which might – but doesn’t – contain a dried pea. Exile is physical, emotional. His mother’s anxieties for him

… were not only about the dangers my search for my father was exposing me to, or indeed what it might lead me to uncover, but about something else far more specific, concerning the daily restlessness such a search demands, the way it reverberates through your body and days and everything you do.

The question of Jaballa’s death is the lodestar. Matar knows very well that his father is almost certainly dead, but without the finality of fact cannot accept or digest it. There is a wonderfully poignant moment in a garden in Kenya, when an eagle flies overhead just as a branch falls from a tree, landing on the table between Matar and his brother Ziad, smashing Matar’s mobile telephone.

I wondered if the eagle above was our father. Perhaps this was why it sent a branch precisely onto my bloody phone. I didn’t tell Ziad this because I didn’t want him think that I believed Father was dead … The truth was, at that moment I didn’t believe Father to be dead. But the truth was also that I didn’t believe him to be alive either.

The return to Libya, and the book, end with a long-dreaded visit to Abu Salim prison, and the assembly of the clues, real and false, that have shaped his posthumous relationship with his father. For the relationship is as true, and supple, as fraught with love, fear and care, as any living relationship. As Matar puts it,

Disbelief is the right instinct, for how can the dead really be dead? I think this is because absence has never seemed empty or passive, but rather a busy place, vocal and insistent.

The last spoor in my commonplace book is only a week or two old – and is what sent me off to buy The Returna long piece in the Guardian which I wrongly assumed to have come from the book, concentrating on the vagaries of education and language. Matar describes beautifully his acquisition of English, which he began with at school in Cairo, and continued in England where “English was now everywhere and the same muscles that made me excel in Arabic began working in this new tongue.” The tensions that his life and his writing have embodied, though, are painfully symbolized by his father’s reaction when he wrote home in English: “I received no reply. Then a large envelope arrived. It contained my previous three or four letters with a note, written on the back of one of my envelopes: ‘If you wish to write me, write in Arabic.”

This wonderful book is of course a defiance of, as well as a homage to, his father: a long, filial and passionate letter to Jaballa Matar, it was written in English. But that is the contradiction thate exiles must resolve,

Ending up with a language other than the one I was born in is neither, as in an opera finale, redemption nor a falling off. The truth is elsewhere. I am a  Libyan who writes in English. I write in language my father did not wish me to write to him in … [but] even in the years when I struggled with this question of writing in a language that was not my own, or a language that had once not been my own, a language in other words that I had to make mine, I never worried about it when I wrote.

That is a small miracle, and we are the beneficiaries. It is the spice and the salt of exile.


Brexit: the most expensive tug of all

I am slightly off-piste, writing about Brexit – but it’s a hard subject for an Englishman to avoid today, and I’m returning to this blog after three months off. Reflecting this morning on the referendum result, I took down from the shelf George Orwell’s essay, The Lion & the Unicorn, in which he wrote of England: “At any normal time, the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond.” This is one way of looking at the Brexit vote in yesterday’s referendum, as a salutary tug from below with which the rude common sense of Old England pulls the locomotive back onto the rails, in what Orwell called this “land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly,” but owning an “emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis.”

The problem is that Britain, and England, have changed a great deal since Orwell wrote in the dark days of 1940 (“As I write,” he began, “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”). Politicians are younger, if no less silly. The emotional unity has gone (though it emerges occasionally, as the response to Jo Cox’s assassination fleetingly and poignantly demonstrated), and we are watching a moment of supreme crisis unfolding today with no indication at all that Britons feel alike or act together. A more or less even split over Europe demonstrates all too clearly that the country is now bisected. Marginal, hard-pressed, post-industrial, elderly England feels deeply hurt, and deeply alienated. “Taking back control” has been the theme of the Brexit campaign and of enthusiastic responses to it. This England is profoundly worried by immigration, though not always in quite the ways – or places – one might expect, and that worry has been adroitly massaged by unscrupulous politicians who know well the power of harnessing identity politics to personal ambition. But look at these maps – published last year. The lefthand map shows the percentage by area of the population born abroad: the righthand, the likelihood of support for UKIP. The fit isn’t perfect, but it is clear that outrage is on the whole strongest in areas with fewest immigrants. As an angry Out-voter said on the television news last night, “Well, there aren’t many here, but I’ve heard all about it.”


The division is not just geographical, not just a reflection of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South. The depressing thing about the map of England, coloured blue and yellow for the results, is that the blue extends to most of the country except for a few of the great cities. London, of course; Oxford and Cambridge, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Leicester, Cardiff, Bristol, Newcastle, York, all are islands of yellow in a sea of blue. In contrast, like much of rural England, Uttlesford in north Essex where I sit writing now, voted blue, (albeit marginally) to leave the EU. But almost everywhere, blue and yellow alike, there are large numbers of ‘Inners’ and ‘Outers.’ These divisions are horizontal, not vertical. Every place in England, on a range from Boston (76:24) to Hackney (22:78) and Lambeth (21:79) is divided into unseen communities with very different world views and mutual incomprehensions.

I have been thinking about this today, and about the fact that (consciously at least) I know very few people who have voted to leave the EU – and equally that those who did vote Out perhaps know very few who didn’t. We really are become two nations, two tribes. And the division is not about logic, or argument, or debate: if it was, we would not be teetering aghast this morning on the lip of the steep slope of national disaster. It is all about emotion – the emotional community that shapes identity – and the relentless chipping away of the self-respect and prosperity of half the nation, by globalisation, austerity and the policy choices made by successive governments, in a London that is morally as far away as Brussels. They have, many people feel, nothing to lose by leaving the EU; but as a prescient tweet said this morning, “Those who think they have nothing to lose, will soon find that really, they did.” And this is one strand of the national tragedy.

There is an overpowering sense amongst these people – the other England – of being left behind, excluded from the loud and brash national community, unheeded and unconsulted, unrespected and unnoticed. A sense that the elite, as transnational as it is British, with its offshore bank accounts, its trust funds, its public schools, its villas in France, its casual, asset-stripping profiteering, and its eyes turned south and west from London, has lost all contact with the less privileged. less ‘modern,’ half of Britain, has moved out of the range of tugs from below. And tugging from below is a crude but useful way of describing democracy (at least the slightly bizarre version of it that we cling to in Britain). When the tugging ceases to work, other measures are called for, and this is what the referendum campaign has been – a last, great, despairing tug-o’-war, a visceral statement from much of our own country that even the desperate occasional yanking from below that has long passed for democracy, is no longer effective. And with that comes a rejection of the biggest symbol of unaccountable power, so long held up for scorn by politicians who knew better but wanted a whipping-boy: the un-tuggable EU.

There is much muttering about a domino effect, of ‘Brexit’ beginning an unpeeling of Europe. Marine Le Pen has already demanded a ‘Frexit’ referendum across the Channel, and there will be more demagogues doing the same right across the EU. The problem is that there are so many dotted lines along which to tear, so many unheeded fractures in our societies that have been ignored and papered over, so many large groups of people left behind. The nations of the EU have become more illiberal, more dog-eats-dog, more red-in-tooth-and-claw. And, naturally, those at the sharp end of claws and teeth look for ways of expressing their dissatisfaction.

I finished by taking down another book from the shelf, Emmanuel Todd’s Who Is Charlie? (Qui est Charlie?), an alarmingly relevant examination of the way long-term divisions – and Todd starts with the multi-staged secularisation of France since the Revolution – poke through the skin of the present, like bones. He says of the Maastricht referendum in France in 1992 (and it is no coincidence that tensions over the European project are one of the more potent layers of division that he adduces), the French electorate approving the treaty by an uncomfortably familiar 51:49 percent. Todd continues:

The electorate’s approval of Maastrcht brought out a vertical dimension of position in the class structure and a horizontal dimension of geographical location in the centre/periphery axis. The referendum first and foremost highlighted the notion of social class. It brought to national awareness – one might even say it gave birth to – the now permanent theme of an opposition between the elites and the people. At the top of the social structure, 70 percent of ‘executives and superior intellectual [i.e. liberal] professions’ voted ‘yes,’ and in their wake 57 percent of the ‘intermediary professions’ were also positive. At the bottom, the poorer classes were spontaneously hostile to the treaty. Only 42 per cent of workers approved, and 44 percent of employees; the figure was the same for artisans and small shopkeepers.

The European project has been a powerful solvent of national solidarity.

There will be much analysis, and much more scientific than these musings, in the comings months and years, but what is very clear is that last night’s vote on Brexit was less about Europe than about Britain – a judgement that took Brussels as a proxy for the sins of a remote, blind and self-obsessed metropolitan elite.

But understanding brings no solace: the damage that has been done to Britain will last a generation, perhaps two, perhaps more. Those who brought it down carelessly on our heads are indeed, as Orwell put it, silly – and their silliness will cost us all very dear.

Lyautey’s whiskers and sexual predation

SDZ cartoon

Coming out of my hotel near the Ecole Militaire in Paris a few weeks ago week, I found myself directly behind a large bronze statue. From each side of its – his – face sprouted a luxuriant and wonderfully curly moustache, silhouetted against the sky well beyond each cheek. “That,” I thought idly to myself “looks like Maréchal Lyautey,” and walked round the front to check whose the statue actually was. It was indeed Lyautey’s, and I think I can now claim the only occasion in my life when I have recognized someone from behind by his moustache.

I was in Paris for a lecture, about ‘violent democracy,’ the notion explored by the speaker, Jef Huysmans, that there is a fundamental shift taking place within democracies as the conflicts which are negotiated and fought over in the democratic space become less about horizontal divisions, like class; and more about vertical divisions of identity. And with this compartmentalising shift, argues Huysmans, comes a new place for violence as intrinsic to the way we think about politics – a corollary of the vertical identities that make of fellow humans quite other categories of being. For those others, violence of vocabulary, violence of metaphor, violence of fact seem increasingly appropriate. One of the instances on which we dwelt was how violence is being injected into the way we look at migrants. Not just the way that violent episodes are stressed, and absurd inferences drawn about terrorists flooding in through the Greek islands, but more banal questions of language. Why, I wondered as I stood in line at the Gare du Nord, was my passport being examined by a ‘Border Force,’ rather than ‘UK Immigration’? It conjures up – as is intended – a firm and fierce corps d’élite committed heart and soul to fighting off unwanted intruders, rather than facilitating entry. A sort of liminal Dad’s Army on spinach.

The sexual harassment of hundreds of women by crowds of young men in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, or St Sylvester’s Night, has cast this violent rhetoric into high relief. It is clear that there are many people who are keen to tar migrants from the Middle East and North Africa with the brush of unbridled sexual predation: and it’s also clear that there are others who are so uncomfortable with this association that they freeze into silence rather than admitting it. This doesn’t look to me much like an evidence-based stand-off: the position you take is fairly predictable from your politics. Not long ago a former head of the French Foreign Legion, a septuagarian general with a moustache no doubt rather like the Maréchal’s, was arrested for refusing to disperse at a venomously anti-immigrant rally at Calais.  He didn’t go to the Pegida march wondering whether all this gossip about immigrants was true or not: General Picquemal knew it was true because he could smell it. And this is what violent democracy seems to me to mean in practice – the using of others whom you have no wish to understand, no desire to know, no hankering to like, as whetstones on which to sharpen the blade of your own preconceptions.

But nonetheless the question of sexual aggression is important, and needs to be discussed carefully. This doesn’t mean refusing to acknowledge it, nor does it mean glibly attributing to every young Muslim man a ravening, animal lust. First, remember that it is not just European right-wing commentators who comment with horror on the phenomenon. Here is the Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany describing the ‘Eid riots in Cairo in 2006 in his newspaper column:

More than a thousand young men gathered between Adli Street and Talat Harb Street and started attacking and molesting women at random for four full hours. Any female who had the misfortune to be passing through the area at that time – girls, women, young and old, with or without hijab or niqab, walking alone, with friends, or even with their husbands – would have met the same fate. Hundreds of sex-crazed young men would have would have attacked her and completely surrounded her with their bodies, and dozens of hands would have reached out to pull off her clothes and grope her breasts and between her legs.

But this kind of pack aggression, as al-Aswany puts it, “is not just an expression of sexual frustration. Sexual desire can often have buried within it despair, frustration, injustice, insignificance and futility, and all these are common among the poor in Egypt.” These young men “are the children of unemployment, impotence and overcrowding. They live crammed into tiny rooms in buildings without utilities …  They have lost all hope for the future, hope of work, of marriage, or even of emigration abroad. They live without dignity …”

This description of life at the very bottom of the Egyptian heap is chilling. It is from here that some of the wilder, less thoughtful energies of the Arab Spring came – and it is in this darkness that religious violence, so often subcutaneously sexual, brews too. Most of his columns (though not this one) al-Aswany ends with the short sentence, ‘Democracy is the solution,’ which echoes parodically the Ikhwan’s glib ‘Islam is the solution.’ He is probably right to avoid the facile in this context. There are many, many things that need addressing in this situation before democracy can have any traction – but the crisis is socio-political as much as it is sexual and behavioural. What is the solution to this toxic mess, and how are we to deal with its export to Europe? Because this is where – metaphorically at least – a proportion of the migrants comes from, the hopeless slums of the Arab world, without “hope for the future, hope of work, of marriage, or even of emigration abroad.” What does it mean to arrive in Europe from a Middle East where so much of the experience is of this sort, and where the whole nexus of women’s rights, of sex and of honour is so differently imagined from Europe’s own (often inconsistent and ill-applied) notions.

It so happened that I picked up Le Monde on the train home and found a long article by Kamel Daoud, the Algerian novelist whose Mersault Investigation was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, and won the English PEN award. Daoud is very clear about the background – as the headline in Le Monde has it, summing up the piece rather well, Welcoming refugees means admitting that giving them ID papers is not enough to heal them of the deep sexism that is rampant in the Arab-Muslim world. (An earlier but related article by Daoud was later published in the New York Times, here.) He puts it at slightly greater length:

So, is the refugee a savage? No. Just different. And it’s not enough to welcome him by giving him papers and shared accommodation and washing our hands of him. Certainly we must offer asylum to his body, but we must also convince his spirit to change. The Other comes from a vast, sad, frightening universe of sexual misery, of sick relations with women, with the body and with desire. Welcoming him is not healing him.

So what’s going on here? Daoud sees the woman in the Islamic world – and especially in the Islamist worldview – as endlessly depersonalised and owned, quoting himself as having written

Who does a woman’s body belong to? Her nation, her family, her husband, her eldest brother, her neighbourhood, the children of her neighbourhood, her father, the state, the street, her ancestors, her national culture, her taboos. The woman’s body is the place where she loses ownership of herself and her identity.

Focusing his anger not on Islam (though not sparing it) so much as on Islamism, to which he was himself attracted as a younger man, he writes that

Sex is the biggest misery in the ‘World of Allah.’ To such an extent that it has given birth to this porno-Islamism which Islamist preachers make use of to recruit their ‘faithful.’ Descriptions of a paradise more like a brothel than a reward for the pious, fantasies of virgins for suicide-bombers, the hunting of female bodies in public places, the puritanism of dictatorships, veils and burkas.

But essential to what Daoud is saying is that he is not condemning out-of-hand every young Muslim male. He tries instead to understand the ætiology of the profoundly unattractive relationship with sex that is displayed by a proportion of young single male migrants from Muslim countries. He believes that it is the result of terrible distortions in the Muslim world, focusing on the religious. One might add the political constipation of the last half century that has kept extractive Western-backed dictatorships in power, dictatorships that have had Islamist radicals on and off the leash whenever either tactic has seemed useful to the short-term political and security needs of the dictators; and has abandoned large tracts of the welfare realm to private – generally Islamist – providers with an ideological agenda based on a bizarre and destructive view of sexuality and woman.

And the corollary, in Daoud’s view, is that we need to think in moral terms about how we treat migrants. We have welcomed them to Europe, and it is not an adequate response simply to give them a roof and let them join the alienated pockets of European societies simply because we can’t be bothered to do more. Daoud concludes his piece:

Is Cologne a sign that we should shut our gates – or shut our eyes? Neither. Shutting the gates – that will ultimately constitute a crime against humanity. But shutting our eyes to the long, drawn-out work of welcome and assistance and all that that means in terms of work on ourselves and on others is also a lethal otherworldliness. Refugees cannot simply be reduced to a delinquent minority. But this raises the question of ‘Values’ to be shared, imposed, defended and made understood. And it raises the question of responsibility after the initial welcome – and who is going to take that responsibility.

Now you don’t need to agree or disagree in its entirety with his argument, to acknowledge that it is important, a serious attempt by an Algerian writer who understands the position of women in European societies to be central to European culture, and the position of many women in many Muslim societies to be dire, to analyse the meaning of St Sylvester’s Night.

So what was the reaction to his essay?

It was so aggressive, so negative that Daoud announced shortly afterwards that he was giving up journalism for good to focus on novel-writing. This was what a band of French intellectuals and New York bien-pensants managed to achieve – drumming the editor of an Algerian newspaper, Le quotidian d’Oran, out of journalism for his opinions. He was, said one, “feeding the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing part of the European population … more than just the usual colonial paternalism, he is effectively saying that the deviant culture of this mass of Muslims is a danger for Europe.” Which is not actually what he was saying, but hey, who cares about accuracy when there’s a snide polemical point to be made.

It goes to show how hard this business is to discuss at all, let alone to discuss intelligently. Accusations that Daoud is calling for re-education and indoctrination, displaying culturalist tendencies and so on, are designed to stifle discussion. Faouzia Zouari, a French-Tunisian writer, called the letter from French intellectuals “a secular fatwa.”

But it is not illegitimate to wonder whether guests invited into one’s home shouldn’t be asked to observe the customs of the house, and the ferocity of the response, often from those who understand – or should understand – perfectly well the predicament of the woman in many parts of the Muslim world, is fascinating. It seems to me that Daoud’s questions are right, and his analysis useful. His answers are uncomfortable, contestable and – certainly – prone to being misemployed by the malignant. But the basic message, that real hospitality demands more than a crust of bread and today’s equivalent of a Nansen passport, is right. It demands longer-term human engagement, and rather more than vapid moral outrage and cultural relativism. This, it seems to me, is what Daoud bravely gives it.

I find it very interesting that the two people I have read recently who give this nasty business serious thought (whether their conclusions are right or wrong) are novelists-cum-journalists, Daoud and al-Aswany. Perhaps it takes a novelist’s imagination to transcend the rigidities and the compartmentalisation of ‘Violent Democracy.’


Doormat cartoon

Several Lions and an Ottoman Miniature


A few years back, as part of a film package that was sent out from London to show in Rabat, we received Chris Morris’s funny, cynical Four Lions, and it went off for approval by the censors. Back came all the films, cheerfully approved, and it was only when my ambassador telephoned me a little anxiously to ask whether I was quite sure it was a good idea to show to a Moroccan audience a comedy based on Islamic terrorism, that I actually previewed it myself. Funny as it is (a merciless satire on jihadism) it would have played to mixed reactions at the Septième Art, and I withdrew it. I learned not to rely on the judgement of censors. It seemed that the censor hadn’t watched it either, and had been beguiled by the title and the large crow on the cover (the timer and dynamite strapped to its chest notwithstanding), into imagining Four Lions an Attenboroughesque nature film, and waved it through. I withdrew it, and the waters closed over an amusing and instructive incident.

I found myself thinking of it again this week, as I read the press coverage – sober and unexcited – in L’Economiste of a more recent but no less clumsy piece of censorship, though this time the ministerial razor was wielded positively, and with Sweeney-Todd-like enthusiasm. An issue of Science et Avenir (Science and the Future) devoted to God and the Sciences was banned from sale by the Minister of Communication. Not – perish the thought – because it was about God and science (“I find the text very interesting”), but because, went on the Minister, citing the Press Law and a UN decision on religious defamation, it contained reproductions of two Ottoman miniatures that the Minister felt to be disrespectful to the Prophet. What exactly did they depict? L’Economiste describes them thus: l’une des représentations  … illustre une sorte de chronologie sur trois millénaires. L’autre est consacrée au Coran, sa répartition en chapitres, datations de manuscrits anciens … Une œuvre réalisée par le calligraphe Lutfi Abdullah, suite à une commande du sultan ottoman Mourad III. Two miniatures, in other words, made for Sultan Murad III (1546-1595) which illustrate Islamic chronology and the internal organisation of the Qu’ran. They sound more like fine-art flow-charts than subversive documents – and in what sense they could be seen as defamatory is hard to make out. But as the minister sagely observed, “allowing the distribution of this issue of the magazine in Morocco would have been a legal and administrative recognition of images of the Prophet.” This seems to mean that although such images may exist in the sense that they are printed, published, marketed, distributed and put on the web, if we maintain “legally and administratively” that they don’t exist, then they don’t really exist. One can’t help recalling Wendy’s views on fairies, and the dying Tinkerbell.

As the newspaper comments drily, “this sort of decision is already creating a very negative buzz internationally and gives a poor impression of freedom of expression in Morocco.” It seems unlikely that the Moroccan authorities are actually alarmed at the possible impact of reproductions, in a French magazine, of sixteenth-century fine-art thumbnail portraits of the Prophet commissioned by the then Caliph. More likely is that an Islamist government is keen to avoid – as demonstratively as possible – being seen in any way to condone the representation of the Prophet, and keen to seize the opportunity for a flamboyant exhibition of this very contemporary orthodoxy – particularly at a time when overtures are being made by the government to salafists.


The Two Cultures and the Jihad


I published a working paper recently under the title Immunising the Mind: How can education reform contribute to combatting violent extremism in which I commented on the fact that the recruitment of jihadis in the Middle East and North Africa seems to correlate to some extent with their choice of subject at university. Diego Gambetta of EUI and Oxford University, and Steffen Hertog, whose excellent 2007 joint study I came across while working on this subject (and whose book, Engineers of Jihad, is coming out in May 2016) suggest that 48.5 percent of jihadi recruits at the time of his first researches were graduates, and about 44 percent of these were engineering graduates: hence his title. This is interesting, and although it is not the first time it has been noted, his analysis of the reasons for it is thorough and very intriguing indeed.

But I am even more interested by the dog that didn’t bark: there are virtually no graduates in the humanities and social sciences among the databases of jihadis that have been compiled. Since some 70 percent of students in the MENA region are in broadly defined H&SS, and since unemployment rates amongst H&SS graduates are very significantly higher than those amongst STEM graduates, and particularly amongst engineering graduates, this is highly counter-intuitive. I find myself wondering whether the humanities and social sciences may not have some subtle but powerful prophylactic effect on the mind.

Of course there are a wide variety of contributory factors on the one side (the dog that did bark) in the sociology of the engineering profession in MENA and the crisis of unmet expectations as the region’s governments scaled back public employment of engineers from the 70s onwards. There are also questions of prestige and selectivity – engineering, medicine and science tend to be limited (‘numerus clausus’) elite faculties, while H&SS don’t; and traditionally lead to good earning power – while H&SS have been the entry tickets for the now fast-shrinking public service.

But although there must be many reservations, it still seems to me that the question of how different disciplines form thought-processes and habits of mind is important in understanding the mental topography of jihad. Gambetta explores what he calls ‘the engineering mindset,’ and I summarised:

[he] picks out three traits that characterise the ‘engineering mindset’: monism, simplism and preservatism.  “Whether American, Canadian or Islamic, and whether due to selection or field socialisation, a disproportionate share of engineers seems to have a mindset that inclines them to entertain the quintessential right-wing features of “monism” – ‘why argue when there is one best solution’ – and of “simplism” – ‘if only people were rational, remedies would be simple.’” As for preservatism, “its underlying craving for a lost order, its match with the radical Islamic ideology is [sic] undeniable: the theme of returning to the order of the prophet’s early community is omnipresent in most salafist and jihadist ideology.”

I wondered whether the opposite might be true for sociologists, historians and anthropologists. Whether, in other words, the nuanced, hypothesis-based thinking that the social sciences require might not give the mind an inherent flexibility and questioning habits that make it very difficult for un-nuanced, black-and-white arguments to get a grip. What strikes me particularly is that even given the low-budget, high-volume and often low-quality teaching of H&SS across the region, there is very little overlap between Islamists and jihadis on the one hand, and students of the social sciences on the other. I began to wonder what really good teaching in these subjects, of which there is some but nothing like enough, could achieve. Hazem Kandil seemed to me to sum it up well in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood:

One look at members’ educational backgrounds reveals that highly educated Brothers (including 20,000 with doctoral degrees and 3,000 professors) come overwhelmingly from the natural sciences. He notes that there are clerics, lawyers and businessmen, and even a handful of literature students. Absent, however, are students of politics, sociology, history and philosophy. Kandil analyses the Brotherhood’s top leadership, finding veterinarians, agronomists, engineers, geologists and doctors, but virtually no social scientists. He quotes one former Brother as saying, In social sciences one learns that someone made an argument; another criticized it; and history validated or disproved it. Questioning received wisdom is welcomed. In natural sciences by contrast, there are no opinions, only facts. This type of matter-of-fact mentality is more susceptible to accepting the Brotherhood’s formulas which present everything as black or white.

And Marc Sageman says much the same: The elegance and simplicity of [Salafism’s] interpretations attract many who seek a single solution, devoid of ambiguity. Very often these persons have already chosen such unambiguous technical fields as engineering, architecture, computer science, or medicine. Students of the humanities and social sciences were few and far between in my sample.

Clearly a fine-grained study will look for the possibility of differentiation across the Islamist spectrum, violent and non-violent. (There is an intriguing aside in a Demos report of 2010: terrorists were more likely to hold technical or applied degrees – medicine, applied science and especially engineering. [Non-violent] Radicals, by contrast, were much more likely to study arts, humanities and social sciences, which gives abrupt pause for thought, though – or perhaps because – referring to the UK).

Anyway, the arguments need not be re-worked in this note (follow this hyperlink for the whole essay), but I was very intrigued by the possible significance of two rather different ways of thinking, and the impact of these different mindsets. It would be ingenuous to suggest that these are absolutes – very far from it, they are small phenomena on the margin – statistically, but not numerically, significant. Most engineers are of course not starkly ‘binary’ in this sense, though it is far from an unknown phenomenon.

What it does do is to make us think about education. If choice of discipline has this impact, we should be asking ourselves how to maximise the impact of the social sciences – how to raise their status, encourage the ‘valorisation’ of their approach to the world and improve their quality – all this in an environment where religious and political authoritarianism find them threatening. And we should be learning from the excellent work done in the UK and the US to broaden STEM curricula, to make sure that scientists have access to the destabilising questioning of the sociology and philosophy of science – as well as to the fullness of Popperian falsifiability, a parallel immunisation all too often lost in the torrent of fact.

And we should be looking closely at schools. Because it is very possible that it is not the university faculties that are driving out critical individualism, nuance and complex non-binary thinking – but the entire structure of schooling in the MENA region. Rather, it might be that a long tradition of passive education from the msid or kuttab (the koranic school) to the baccalaureate is creating the minds that feed and are fed by the binarism of simplistic science teaching when (and if) it is finally encountered. The classroom and the examination system in which young Arabs and Amazigh are intellectually formed may – perhaps – be a selection mechanism for what Diego Gambetta calls the ‘engineering mindset,’ and we might call the ‘uncritical mind.’ Whichever we call it, it seems to offer an increased degree of vulnerability to the ill-understood process known as ‘radicalisation.’


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