Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

“There’s no ‘Yo man’ any more. We’re into religion”

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Four days ago Niger surrendered to the International Criminal Court a Malian man called Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who has been indicted by the court for the destruction of religious buildings in Timbuktu. This man, who calls himself Abu Tourab, insists on being addressed in Arabic by the Court, though he was born about 100 kilometres from Timbuktu and is a Tamasheq-speaker. He is a leader of what were apparently called the ‘Manners Brigade,’ the benighted thugs who terrorised Timbuktu when it was under foreign Arab occupation, blowing up tombs, burning books and bullying the population into behaving as they imagined seventh century Hejazis to have behaved. This Ahmed is, individually, of no interest at all, just an example of the small man burning with resentment and self-loathing, looking for revenge through bullying and destruction on a world he doesn’t understand. But his indictment is interesting and important because it highlights the place of cultural destruction in today’s conflicts – and the newfound preparedness of the international community to confront and punish it.

By chance, the night before reading in today’s paper about the indictment of this man, I had sat up watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s fabulous new film Timbuktu, which follows the Manners Brigade as they attempt to impose their stunted culture on a small Malian town. The invaders are defiantly foreign, scorning the Malians’ attempts at Arabic but making not the slightest effort to speak Tamasheq themselves. They come from the north, the ‘Green Land’ of Libya, and have no interest in the rich culture of Timbuktu, a centre of learning and high Islamic culture for centuries. They help themselves to women, blustering that they are following the instructions of the Prophet. They punish mercilessly the singing of sacred music. They forbid a ludicrously predictable range of things from bare female hands (even on the wet fish stalls in the market where gloves are obligatory) to football, long trousers, smoking and shaved chins (there’s a barber’s placard, fleetingly in the background of one shot, on which the profile faces without beards are obliterated with red crosses). In fact, as one of them puts it, “It is forbidden to do any old thing.”

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There are no burned books or blown-up shrines in Timbuktu. In fact there are no public buildings or recognizable shots of Timbuktu: despite its name the film is set in an almost abstract Malian village-scape of ochre mud-brick alleys and metal doors, and in the semi-desert around it. In the alleys of the town Abdelkrim and his bully-boys swagger and punish; in the country they are much less confident, careering incompetently after gazelle in their pick-up trucks, sneaking off for illicit cigarettes behind the dunes and pestering Satima, the wife of the film’s central character Kidane, when he is away from his tent. They may come from the Green Land, but they are creatures of the town, comfortable in small bureaucratic huddles, dealing out ‘sharia’ punishments in gloomy rooms and scribbling in exercise books with sandy biros. They hunt down the strains of music caressing the night air, climbing on rooftops and entering private homes to find and punish those who are “singing praises to the lord and his prophet.”

The action of the film is personal, and gently symbolic. Abdelkrim, the lecherous bandit leader, says disparagingly to Kidane, “What do you know about inner strength and goodness?” – when of course it is Abdelkrim who knows nothing, and Kidane who in his very human way exemplifies both those qualities. Kidane is a herdsman, a singing idler who loves his family and keeps out of trouble. His wife Satima says of him “the reason he’s still alive is because he plays the guitar and sings. He’s not a warrior. Warriors die young.” When he forgets this distinction and takes revenge on the fisherman who has killed his prize cow, GPS, the fragile security of his little world unravels and he is led inexorably through cursory trial to execution. Kidane accepts his fate, yearning only for a sight of his wife and daughter before he dies. His is the noble role, his the inner strength.

Music is central. Kidane sings, and so does the girl whose voice draws the Manners Brigade through the night to her gentle gathering of friends. The boy who is reproved for his lack of conviction in denouncing to camera his rapping past (“There’s no ‘yo man’ any more. We’re into religion”) finds it difficult to forswear music with any conviction. But defiance is musical too, and the singing girl bursts into anguished song as she is lashed, her voice rising above the squalid scene in the market place in a sublime cadence of pain and endurance.

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Defiance is all. The girl sings as she bleeds. The man who is told to roll his trousers up because they are too long, takes them off entirely. The football-playing boys obey the letter of the new law by playing without a ball, in an exquisite ballet of mimed passes and shots at goal, while the puzzled thugs glide sulkily by on a motor-bike, unable to complain. Zabou, a statuesque eccentric driven mad by a long-ago earthquake, wanders insouciantly through the film in ragged turquoise finery, her hair uncovered, her hands ungloved and her tattered black train brushing the dust behind her. She takes no notice of the Manners Brigade, at one point stopping their pick-up truck by blocking the narrow alley with her arms spread wide: they have no vocabulary to deal with her, and Zabou glides on, unmolested.

Also defiant, though gently so, is the imam of the mosque, a quiet, measured man who reasons firmly and uncompromisingly with the jihadis about jihad and about their behaviour. Never aggressive, always civil, he makes them very uncomfortable and is never reproved for his impertinence: these jihadis are not good at confronting integrity, whether it is that of a saint or a madwoman. And finally there is the enigmatic figure of a water-seller whose face we never properly see, a Malian Everyman who threads his way through the film on his motorbike, delivering water in yellow jerry-cans to tents and houses, weaving from scene to scene in flashes of his green robe. It is he who at the end of the film brings Satima to Kidane for the last snatched glimpse of her face before they die together; and he who races away on his motorbike, like the gazelle at the beginning of the film, while a truckload of barbarians pursue the symbolic figure at speed, black banners waving, shooting their automatic weapons incompetently at his back.

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Timbuktu is extraordinarily beautiful, cutting from a village of browns and reds with painted swirls on the walls and moonlit nights full of distant music, to a landscape of dunes, lakes and small shrubs, through which cattle amble. The lake shots, great silvery panoramas, with silhouetted men like Indonesian shadow-puppets at the centre, are exquisite. The landscape cries out to be caressed, a cry that even reaches the dimness of Abdelkrim’s brain when, frustrated by Satima’s scorn for him, he spots a suggestive tuft of grass between dunes, a dark declivity which stirs some lecherous cupidity in his dull heart. He blazes viciously away at it with his Kalashnikov, mowing the grass into submission.

In appearing to ignore the destruction of physical culture – the shrines, tombs and libraries which offended the shrivelled souls of the puritanical jihadis – Sissako allows the oppression of the human inhabitants of his Timbuktu to stand for all. The culture that is oppressed is represented by music, love, compassion, normality. The destruction, by flogging, stoning, shooting and abusing. But there is one very telling scene of cultural annihilation, right at the beginning of the film: a row of traditional dark wooden carvings, of female figures with large breasts, is lined up on the sand and shot. We don’t see who is shooting, though we know at once; but we watch the material culture of an old and civilised society being shattered by unseen idiots in a parodic firing-squad, and we know that this lies in the background to the whole film.

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It is a delicately brushed and sensitively represented balance. In the last couple of years we have heard a lot about the choice between ‘people’ and ‘things’ – about the obscenity of concern about material culture when flesh and blood are at stake. It is right to worry at these questions as Palmyra trembles, Nimrud falls and eleven million Syrians flee their homes. But in the end, the two are not easily disentangled. A few weeks ago I wrote about Palmyra, and the problem of ‘people’ and ‘things,’ and I shall risk quoting myself and – more importantly – Robert Bevan, here:

In a particularly good article  in the Evening Standard, Robert Bevan, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, discusses this whole issue very wisely, writing that “until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and the fate of their culture are interlinked, there can be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.” He discusses the insights of Raphael Lemkin, the Byelorussian Jew who drafted and promoted the 1948 Genocide Convention (having coined the word). Lemkin linked the two voices of annihilation – against people and against their culture – in his drafting of the Convention, but the UN removed reference to the destruction of culture, with disastrous results. Not that Lemkin confused the two. Bevan quotes him as saying, luminously, “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.” 

Sissako’s balance is right, with every stick of dynamite and every blow by bulldozer fully implicit in the singing of the flogged girl and the shooting of the gentle Kidane. The tombs of Timbuktu’s saints have mostly been rebuilt since the relief of Timbuktu, and the books were largely hidden before the vandals reached them, so the material damage is all the more easily subsumed into the human. Now at least one of those responsible for the double destruction will appear before the ICC, a Touareg pretending only to understand Arabic.

As for Kidane, the representative Malian, “the reason he’s still alive is because he plays the guitar and sings.” Yo man.

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Millions of chickens coming West to roost


We are told with po-faced solemnity that there is a real danger of the Daech’s smuggling Islamic State terrorists into Europe in the vast column of refugees that is now knocking at our gates. I daresay this is true – it seems likely that amongst the million or so refugees entering Germany alone this year will be a few bad guys, as well as a lot of dentists, cameramen, street-sweepers, research chemists, hockey-players, games-programmers, pickpockets, graffiti artists and ney-players. So what? This is true of any mass movement of people, and it is plainly silly to think it possible to scrub a refugee population clean of all its murkier elements. But I rather doubt that there is a bearded mastermind in Raqqah co-ordinating the disguise and cover-story of suicide-bombers and arranging for them be pushed surreptitiously to Germany in wheelchairs. Why on earth would they bother?

Pause a moment to compare this curious (and frankly inflammatory) assertion with reports from Bangladesh last week that Britain is the source of much of that country’s daechi recruitment: “We have growing numbers of Bangladeshi diaspora guys coming here from Britain to recruit,” as a Bangladesh Intelligence source told the Guardian. “There are very large numbers of young men [in Bangladesh] who don’t have a job or any prospects. Their only experience is the madrasa and the mosque … when Bengalis from the UK come in, they are very easy to lead. The jihadi recruiters are coming from London, from Germany, from the US.” No need for cunning disguise here – you just buy an air ticket. Because the bad guys (as governments, in different contexts, are continually warning us) are already in Europe.

The refugee crisis, unfolding each day in new and often ghastly permutations, is morally as well as practically challenging: it is not easy, and perhaps not possible, to reach a fully-rounded reaction to it yet. Any well-functioning human being wants to help and welcome the river of humanity that stretches from Syria into central Europe, of people rescued from the immolation of Syria where so many of them began their awful journey. Equally, there is fear mixed with that generosity. One after another, transit-countries have thrown up their hands helplessly, unable to deal with the vast moving column of refugees marching north and west. The Macedonian-Greek border, the Serbian-Hungarian border, the Serbian-Croatian border, the Austrian and German borders have been closed, not necessarily out of malice, as often just overwhelmed by the demands on small countries and small border villages. This is perfectly understandable. But there are many commentators and political actors who by their choice of vocabulary and imagery (not to mention the solutions that they propose) clearly intend to push the popular view not to careful reflection, but to xenophobic rejection.

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This growing xenophobia, sometimes legitimised by governments, everywhere in the background, is most visible at the moment in eastern Europe, though not absent from the west. The Czech Republic has become almost hilariously paranoid, with chimney-sweeps and foreign footballers mistaken for terrorists. Even in Germany it seems that the bulk of anti-refugee attacks take place in the old DDR rather than the BRD. At Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border masked Hungarian border guards fire tear-gas and water-cannon through the fences, shouting at the thousands of refugees – it would in other circumstances be almost funny –  “Go away.” As George Szirtes points out, this is aimed at domestic audiences: the Hungarian government has put up hundreds of billboards telling the refugees that they will not be allowed to take Hungarian jobs. These billboards are, naturally, in Hungarian, a language which not one in ten thousand Syrian refugees speaks. And yet it is essential that we not forget the Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks who swim bravely against this tide and question the callously nationalist sludge running down Europe’s gutters.

What is particularly disturbing is to watch governments across Europe treating the refugee crisis as a domestic political problem. Reactions are trimmed to the electoral winds in each country, rather than to the gale of humanity blowing out of the Levant. Fearful of the growing chauvinism of the right, whether from Jobbik or Pegida, UKIP or the FN, Europe’s governments are rowing back. Germany and Sweden have been honourable exceptions (Mrs Merkel was keen to show “Germany’s friendly, beautiful face”: but Germany has now closed its borders, and the river of humanity has frozen almost solid. By offering asylum to all Syrians and then shutting the door again, Germany seems actually to have significantly contributed to the awful knockback of human tragedy along the Balkan corridor).

The rhetoric is often small-minded, and deals with what we can allegedly afford, with the ‘austerity’ under which we live, the sheer numbers of refugees that would overwhelm us, the cultural threat to Christian Europe and – as I noted above – the risk of importing terrorists. By way of antidote to that I shall quote (at length because it is so very clear and good an expression of another, and better, way of looking at this whole problem) a letter from a newspaper last week, written by Paul Anderton of Newcastle-under-Lyme, about the welcome that Britain offered to Belgians in the autumn of 1914:

Estimates of 100,000 Belgians, mostly in family groups, and overwhelmingly coming in the three months of September to November 1914 were welcomed throughout Britain as victims of a war their government did not seek, and ours did little to avoid. They crossed the Channel by ferry and fishing boat, crowded into Folkestone, and were distributed out of holding camps in London by a volunteer War Refugees Committee headed initially by Lady Lugard and Viscount Gladstone.

These families were welcomed in towns and villages by a spontaneously formed scattering of committees which raised cash, found empty houses, organised brass bands to greet them at railway stations.

Newcastle-under-Lyme, prompted by the mayor, entertained more than 100 Belgians and raised over £2,000 before November 1915 to support them in groups managed by various church congregations.

Leek housed more than 50 refugees in three different properties by Christmas 1914 and silk-mill workers led a fund-raising scheme which made over £2,500 by May 1916.

Congleton was the first place in Cheshire to receive Belgian families, on Tuesday 8 September. Their reception was an occasion of great excitement, with two brass bands to conduct them from the railway station to their accommodation, with large crowds applauding in the streets. There is much to learn about handling a refugee crisis from a contrast between three places.

One very obvious observation is that in 1914 the government was slow and clumsy in its response to the flood of humanity. Churchill flatly rejected any idea of receiving them, and the Local Government Board had no part in distributing the families. This was done by volunteers. In fact, it was the charitable and humanitarian instincts of all sections of society that ensured that scores of thousands of families fleeing from a war zone were found shelter, food and clothing when most arrived with nothing. This episode is not quite forgotten as an aspect of the first world war, but too few lessons have been learned from it because it has never been given the attention it deserves.

The population of England and Wales in 1911 was about 36 million; of Scotland another 4.7 million. So 100,000 Belgian refugees represented some 0.24% of the UK’s population. The same proportion of today’s population, 63.4 million, would be 152,000. This is a trifle larger than the 20,000 – 0.03% of the population – that the British government currently proposes to receive; but much smaller than Mrs Merkel’s 800,000 who would constitute 0.1% of Germany’s people. (Last week’s EU quotas, small as they were, are in the range of 0.01% to 0.04%.) Then, as now, it was left to citizens rather than government to lead the effort and make the moral weather: “Churchill flatly rejected any idea of receiving them,” but Britain got on with it.

The local newspaper in our corner of north-west Essex reports that our Conservative-controlled District Council has debated the reception of migrants, and voted unanimously in favour “of playing a  full part in the housing and support of refugees seeking asylum in the UK.” As one councillor put it, “On the whole, Uttlesford is a very rich area and I would ask the working group to think about the resources available and the willingness of the people of Uttlesford to help and contribute, and I would like to see us go above and beyond what is simply our duty.” I am proud of them. No mention of who – of religion, gender, age – just unconditional openness, as “a compassionate community, to welcome desperate people and to give them sanctuary.”

That openness is vital. Most pictures of refugees are of children, families, the elderly and handicapped. The images that have particularly stirred Europe’s conscience have been of a dead child on a Turkish beach, or a Hungarian journalist tripping up an old man carrying a child, for camera. But in reality most refugees reaching the EU, and about 80% of those reaching Germany, are young men, aged 16-20, less picturesque and in some eyes more threatening. How we welcome them – the (as yet untested) Uttlesford way or the (all-too tested) Roszke way – will define the outcomes. They have very significant contributions to make to our European societies if we welcome them, give them the opportunity to work, study and remain. But if we don’t – if we make them feel excluded, despised, shut out from work, study and friendship – there will be bitterness. Irina Molodikova, an analyst from the CEU in Budapest, wrote recently that “Refugees are with us, and around us in the neighbouring countries. If we do not help them, we will marginalise them. And then – further down the line – they will follow those who promise them a better life and they will believe in it.”

Which, come to think of it, is what is happening to those young Bangladeshis “who don’t have a job or any prospects,” and are susceptible to the Pied Pipers of Bethnal Green, Cardiff and Luton. Europe must be very thoughtful, and judiciously (but generously) open-armed: there isn’t a practically, or morally, viable ‘No’ option.

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Education in North Africa

An essay of mine on education in North Africa since Independence, entitled The Sheepskin Effect, appeared in Critical Muslim no. 15, an issue devoted to Education Reform. It is part of an interesting collection, edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Jeremy Henzell-Thomas. Critical Muslim is published by the Muslim Institute and Hurst, and is an excellent quarterly review, which I thoroughly recommend. The Sheepskin Effect begins: 

“The kingdom of Libya became independent of Italy under King Idris in 1951. Just over a decade later, Algeria finally followed after its long war of independence with France in 1962. Between this period, the five countries of the southern Mediterranean coast each in different ways took control of their own futures. Amongst a sobering battery of challenges, one of the more pressing for all of them was education. A large proportion of colonial civil servants, businessmen, skilled workers and teachers left at Independence, especially from the francophone countries where settler colonialism was particularly dense. In Egypt the 1952 Revolution, followed by the Suez War and the expulsion of the mutamassirun, resident foreigners (Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians), had a similar effect, though Egyptian capacity was already far more developed than that of the Maghreb. In late Protectorate Morocco, for instance, there were three times as many French fonctionnaires as there were British civil servants in India, with its population forty times the size of Morocco’s – quite apart from a large European commercial and artisan classes. Each country faced an urgent need for skilled manpower to fill the vacuum. Each country’s educated local elite was both much too small, and mostly unsuited, to fill that need itself, and at the same time largely unequipped to train the next generation. Each government faced a pent-up demand for the social escalator that education represented, and from which the vast majority of the Muslim population had been excluded under French rule. Constructing a new education system was for each an urgent and absolutely crucial area of national development.”

Read more …

English Tangier – ‘Our little Town, and narrow lines’


Sitting in a hospital bed I have been consoled by an excellent new book, English Colonial Texts on Tangier, 1661-1684, by Karim Bejjit of Université Hassan II, Casablanca. If that sounds dry, blame only the title, because the book itself isn’t dry at all. Prof. Bejjit (and I admit an interest in both senses of the word, Karim being a friend; and I, fascinated by his subject) has collected a series of a dozen and a half contemporary pamphlets about Tangier under the English occupation, edited them into a chronological narrative and provided a very useful, long introduction. I have read the book at a sitting (a luxury perhaps best available to readers who are confined to a bed covered with tubes and sticky electrodes) and enjoyed every page. Both Professor Bejjit and his pamphleteers write, in their different ways, English prose more elegant and muscular than many of those who have come between.

In 1662 Charles II received the city of Tangier, along with the seven islands of Bombay, as part of the dowry of his Portuguese Queen, Catherine of Braganza. If we reflect on the extraordinary imprint that Bombay left on English culture, commerce, empire and history, it seems necessary to ask why Tangier did not have the same sort of impact. Bombay remained British, site of the symbolic Gateway to India, until 1947; and, now renamed Mumbai, is one of the great cities of the modern world, as well as India’s financial capital. Tangier remained in English hands only until 1683-84 when the garrison slighted the walls, blew up the harbour mole, and sailed away, leaving a much reduced Tanja to Moulay Ismail’s army, and a long sleep. Budgett Meakin, the editor of the Times of Morocco, wrote of the post-English period, “Since then its history has nothing worth recording, even as a pirate harbour, the only events of importance being the removal to it of the foreign consuls in 1770, and its bombardment in 1844 by the French.” One might add that it has been a place of exile and pleasure for Moroccans and Europeans, an arm’s-length holding-pen for the European diplomatic corps, an international jurisdiction, a rather tawdry haven for those in search of pleasures frowned upon in Europe, a bête noire for King Hassan II and only today – 331 years after the English left – perhaps the focus of a real economic take-off. The obvious question is, why?

The answer lies in a complicated intersection of English politics and a new, effective Moroccan dynasty which asserted itself in the later seventeenth century. While Charles leased Bombay to the East India Company for £10 year, he kept Tangier as a crown possession, and tried to develop it as a colony. Bombay, for all its ups and downs, was a strategic entrepôt which attracted trade and investment, and turned John Company a massive profit. Tangier, close though it was to Charles’s heart, was a drain on royal finances at a time when there were many other financial drains much closer to Whitehall. But more importantly, it fell victim to the deeply antagonistic politics of the 1670s and early 1680s, the struggle around the Exclusion Crisis and the Popish Plot, which made raising money from parliament very difficult indeed. The king certainly had the vision. As another author (Mrs Routh, in 1911) put it, Charles

saw in imagination a busy and prosperous city, the capital of a Moroccan Empire, possessing a harbour which, in the hands of English engineers, would make Tangier one of the best trading stations in the Mediterranean, and would help England to maintain that command of the sea which is they keystone of her power; a city attracting to its neighbourhood numbers of English settlers and merchants, who would create a growing trade in the interior of Morocco, and who would ultimately make the King’s African dominions a self-supporting colony and source of strength and wealth to the mother-country.


But he did not, in the end have the means, and the sums were huge: by 1683 Pepys estimated that Tangier had cost the crown £1.6 million. The structure was wrong – the constant lobbying of the Tangier merchants prevented the establishment of a Morocco Company which might have had the kind of incentives for investment that the EIC had in Bombay; and so the economic basis of English Tangier was never solidly built. What Prof Bejjit shows admirably is how the pressures of English politics made it quite impossible to raise the necessary funding through parliamentary grant. Just as the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail began to put serious military pressure on the Tangier colony in the late 1670s and early 1680s, it became definitively clear that the money needed to defend the colony was not going to be available. The vision was lacking in Parliament, and the granting of supply came to seem simply another prop to a catholicising authoritarianism. In the end the King decided to do without parliament altogether, surviving on grants from his brother-in-law Louis XIV, which did not stretch to underwriting colonial adventure. It was this all-consuming conflict with parliament, and its financial implications, that squeezed English Tangier off the bottom of the royal priority list. There is a splendid note in Grey’s Debates from October 1680 (quoted in Annabel Patterson’s Long Parliament of Charles II) which illustrates this beautifully:

On the day the Exclusion Bill had been left with the Lords, his Majesty had by Message demanded a Supply for Tangier, without which, it was urged, that Place could not much longer be preserved. There was some truth in this, and some fallacy, as there is generally in all demands of the like nature. Tangier was indeed in some distress, but the king was in more, and whatever was given in relief of the first, would also have contributed to relief of the last …

Parliament was not just posturing, though there was a fair bit of that too: Tangier must really have seemed quite dangerous. The Tangier Regiment, the second of foot (later known after the Tangier Governor Sir Percy Kirke as ‘Kirke’s Lambs’), was only the second permanent regiment established and funded after the Restoration, and memories of Cromwell’s New Model Army, along with the King’s catholic sympathies, and his brother the Duke of York’s catholicism, made a standing army – which is what the Tangier garrison was – a very hot potato. On top of this, many of the troops were catholic Irish (there is a telling moment in May 1680, when soldiers called from fort to fort in the outworks to co-ordinate their withdrawal to the city, and in order that the Moors in the siege trenches not understand, they “spake to us in Irish”). At least two governors of Tangier were catholic: Lord Belasyse (one of the five lords impeached during the ‘Popish Plot’) and John Fitzgerald (who had commanded a regiment of Irish exiles in the Spanish service), while another, Lord Peterborough, was dismissed the Council during the ‘Plot,’ and converted to Rome in 1687. The explosive nature of the cocktail is clear. Tangier had a symbolic value in the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle over religion, absolutism and a standing army which hobbled it from the start.

One of the pamphlets in this book, anonymously written, laments the decline of Anglican practice in the town, and the rise of Catholicism. “Too many have cast off all respects due to the God that hath made them, and mind nothing but Debauchery and Lewdness: other have hearkened to the sollicitations of some Popish Priests, and make profession of that Religion, that they might, by means of their Absolutions, enjoy their Vices and filthiness without remorse of Conscience.” The religious antagonisms of London ran through the Tangier garrison.

Maintaining Tangier in a military sense was an uphill struggle. In Lord Peterborough’s garrison “the Souldiers were eaten up of wants, cowed with their frequent misfortunes, possessed with an opinion the Moor was invincible,” and Lord Teviot, his successor had to undertake “the restoration of a body to strength, and to secure it from relapsing, after some emacerating disease has reduced it to sort of breathing skeleton …” Conditions continued hard, the garrison often at odds with the town, while “the Souldiers diet being salt Meat, disposes them in two or three years to inveterate ill habits of Body, Obstructions, Scurvies, Fluxes, etc.” Pay was frequently two years in arrears, rotations of duty virtually unknown, recruitment difficult. It a wonder the garrison put up the brave resistance they did to Moulay Ismail’s assaults in 1680.


What comes across very strongly from the pamphlets is that Tangier never ceased to be an alien implant in a strange land. Long gone the days of the previous century when English foremen worked on the sugar plantations of the Souss: these tangerine Englishmen were for the most part ignorant strangers. “As men fallen in love with their prison, nothing by them seemed as feared as enlargement,” wrote one chronicler of the early days of the occupation. And as another anonymous writer lamented sadly in 1679, “it is our unhappiness that we know not what is done amongst the Moors; we live in Tangier within the Walls and Lines, and unless we send a Flag of Truce for some pittiful business, we scarce see the face of a Moor in a years time, but at a distance … we have never sent any to understand their Country, to search into their strength and dependancies, to examine their Interest …” They had little idea what was going on in Morocco at a momentous time of shifting power, with the fast-consolidating sultanate of Moulay Ismail at Meknes replacing the fragmented statelets that had already given them enough trouble in the 1660s. Rare were those like Colonel Percy Kirke – he of the Lambs – who went on mission to Meknes and Fes in early 1681, made a good impression on the Sultan, and kept his eyes open while observing military exercises. Kirke noted that Ismail’s military strength, particularly in gunnery and siege-works, was provided not by Frenchman as was generally supposed, but by renegades; he understood the superiority of Moroccan horses and cavalry, but also the possibilities offered by their indiscipline. He did not, though, underestimate them: “Our Ranged Armies, keeping their Squadrons firm, and relieving their Charge with loose Parties, after their own manner, must take their ground from them, and so consequently be Masters of the Field; but however they are a very Vigorous and Valiant Enemy, their Discipline proportionable to the confused and difficult passages of this Country, observing their Ambuscades with the greatest cunning and patience Imaginable …” This was in marked contrast with Lord Henry Howard who, in 1669, in a fit of abject cowardice refused to leave Tangier at all, to proceed on his mission to Fes, because he feared for his life.

By the time Kirke led his mission to Meknes and Fes, the game was already over. A brisk campaign between March and May 1680, commanded by Qa’id Omar ben Haddu Hamami, rolled up the forts that the English had worked so hard to establish in forward positions to command the environs of the town. Renegades ran artillery and mines (“One of our Men belonging to Henrietta Fort is turn’d Moor, and made Master Gunner,” comments a diarist), and very effective deep trenching works were dug between the forts. A truce was made in mid-May, but it was clear that the remaining forts were indefensible and that, as the same diarist put it, “The Moors grow a formidable Enemy, being improved in all the Arts of War, as Mining, Sapeing, Scaling, and Battering.” Without a serious financial and military commitment, English Tangier was effectively lost: there was no such commitment, and the King, recognizing realities, ordering withdrawal and demolition. The main slighting and demolition was done in November 1683, and the last English ship sailed away the following spring. A rather half-hearted adventure was over.

It could have been different, though it is Morocco’s good fortune that it was not. Henry Sheres, the Surveyor-General of the Tangier Mole, was in no doubt of the city’s strategic potential, overlooking “the greatest Thorough-fare of Commerce in the World; having in one view almost the whole Sea comprehended between the Four Capes of Travalgar, Gibraltar, Spartel and Ceuta … so that no vessel can pass in or out of the Mediterranean, unobserv’d from thence.”  This strategic stranglehold on the Mediterranean would be increasingly essential to England’s naval power and commerce; but in the end, Gibraltar proved an easier stronghold from which England could dominate the Strait. It was captured in 1704, and ceded by treaty in 1713 – remaining British at least half a century longer than Bombay, a continuing post-colonial presence on that “greatest Thorough-fare,” and a potent factor in the history of Morocco.


The Jew of Carlisle again


After writing last week about William Mountsey’s Persian inscription at the Dwarfie Stane on Hoy, I came across a short and interesting booklet about him by Charlie Emett, called William Mounsey and the ‘Jew’ Stone (Giggleswick, 1990). It adds something to the story of Mounsey’s life, gives a little context for his family, and tells the story of the re-erection of the Jew Stone at Outhgill in 1989. (I assume in fact that most of the information in other sources comes from Mr Emett’s essay, so ‘add’ is simply a matter of the order in which I happened on them.)

Captain Mounsey (the author doesn’t bother with the assumed ‘Major’) was an intriguing man. His family was a prosperous one, its fortunes made in ecclesiastical law (for the diocese of Carlisle), legal work for several of the great landowners of Cumberland, political agency and the calico-printing which was booming at Carlisle in the late eighteenth century. Mounsey & Giles was a imagesleading Carlisle solicitor’s firm; Mounsey, Lawrie & Co. a leading calico-printer. On the strength of this, William Mounsey’s father, who took on the family businesses, bought Rockcliffe manor and built a large villa, Castletown House, while cannily managing the enclosure of much of Rockcliffe’s common land.

William, born in 1808, was destined to be a solicitor like his father, but first had a fairly undistinguished military career in Persia of which nothing significant is known at all, other than that during it he clearly learned Persian and Hebrew, and began his fascinated exploration of Jewish culture and history. He bought commissions in three regiments (ensign in the 30th Foot, lieutenant in 15th and Captain in the 4th, King’s Own). He sold his captaincy in 1844, perhaps on his father’s death, and returned to England.

Back in Carlisle, William took over the family firm and maintained his antiquarian and linguistic interests. He wrote at least one article, on mazes, for Notes and Queries, the leading forum for scholarly antiquarian research (today, sadly, given over almost entirely to literature, reflecting the disappearance of the learned amateur antiquarian like Mounsey). But the traces he has left are concrete, cut into the landscape he loved. He walked widely in Cumberland, and carved his name in a variety of languages. In the Eden gorge near Armathwaite he chiselled in 1855 a mischievously amended verse by Isaac Walton as well, perhaps, as a number of curious faces.  At St Constantine’s Cells, also on the Eden, he added in 1852 to existing Roman graffiti a ninth century Welsh verse meaning This leaf which is being persecuted by the wind, let her beware of her fate: she is old though only born this year, and a verse of his own in praise of Ituna, the Eden. His inscriptions were full of cryptic, sometime astrological references, and he had a imagespenchant for reversing letters, and frequently his own name, which often (as on Hoy) became YESNOUM SUMELILUG or (at Wetheral) MHW.

He also had an interest in the mazes cut by shepherds on the Solway marshes, of which there were three in his youth (the illustration above is said to be of one). In Notes and Queries he wrote that “the herdsmen at the present day are also in the habit of cutting labyrinthine figures which they also call ‘the walls of Troy,’” and related this to the Welsh Caerdroia, the word for a shepherds’ maze in Wales. Quite what they were for is debated, and shepherds may have cut them and perhaps danced them by Mounsey’s time simply because their fathers and grandfathers had. They are found across northern Germany and Sweden, and may have been used as a way of enticing and trapping evil spirits  by leading them noisily into the maze and then leaving them trapped at the centre. Mr Emett suggests that foreign sailors may have brought the original pattern, but in fact the Rockcliffe mazes are only three of the twenty-nine listed in Britain by W H Matthews in 1922, ten of them having ‘Troy’ in their names. I am interested by this, living as I do within a mile of another turf maze on the common at Saffron Walden, with a similarly intricate path-pattern designed only to lead from the edge to the centre.

But the focus of Mr Emmet’s essay is the Jew Stone. Mounsey, as I noted in my last, was clearly fascinated by Jewish culture and adopted a costume and beard based on Jewish practice, presumably as he had seen it amongst the Jews of Persia. We have to imagine his walking about the country heavily bearded and perhaps dressed in robes of some kind – hence his name, ‘the Jew of Carlisle.’ There certainly weren’t any local Jews there in the mid-nineteenth century from whom he could draw clues. And to judge whm2 (2)by his inscriptions, although he was interested by Kabbala and Jewish scholarship, he remained an orthodox, if rather florid, Anglican. The Jew Stone was cut and mounted in a lonely spot on Black Fell Moss. Seven feet high and covered in inscriptions, it must have been an odd thing to encounter near the source of the Eden – odd enough to provoke a bunch of navvies engaged in laying the Carlisle-Settle railway to smash it in 1870. Inscriptions in Greek and Latin were supplemented with a Star of David – Solomon’s Seal – and a triple T sigil symbolizing the Trinity. The Greek inscription reads Seek the river of the soul – whence it springs, whence thou hast served the body in a certain order – when thou hast acknowledged thy duty to the sacred scriptures – thou shalt be raised again to the order from which thou art fallen. Let us flee with the ships to our dear native land; for we have a country from which we have come and our Father is there.

In 1989 a group of local people in which Charlie Emett was a moving force worked with an Israeli called Shalom Hermon to replace the stone with a carefully made replica. Hermon had been an artillery officer with Jewish Brigade, training at Catterick in 1945 and intrigued by the Jew Stone marked on his Ordnance Survey map, but not to be found where marked. By the eighties a minister in the Israeli government, Hermon was able to help with fund-raising, and attended the inauguration of the new stone on Outhgill village green, where it should be safer from vandals.  A curiously interesting story, which leaves one wondering what else William Mounsey did, read and thought about – and where else he carved his name.


Post-holiday miscellany

Brummie Qur'an
 Fresh back from a holiday in Orkney, where watery sunshine more or less staved off the cold. The extraordinary remains of the islands’ neolithic cultures mesmerised us, as did the ghosts of the German Imperial Fleet, scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919, just below our windows. Three short notes today, rather than an essay.


The TLS published on August 7th a fascinating article by Gabriel Said Reynolds (Variant Readings: The Birmingham Qur’an in the context of debate on Islamic origins) about the recently identified pages of an early Qur’an that may have been brought to Birmingham from Fustat in the nineteenth century. What is fascinating about the two leaves is their date – carbon dating places them between 548 and 645, earlier than any other known copy of the Qur’an with perhaps one exception – while the text is virtually identical with the standard text traditionally believed to have been assembled for the Caliph ‘Othman (644-656). Carbon dating, in fact, almost certainly places this apparently ‘Othmanic text well before Othman’s caliphate, upsetting the accepted history of the revealed text. If the dating is good (and it is said to have 95% accuracy) then this Quran was written when the revelations had hitherto been assumed to have been preserved in conflicting versions only on palm-leaves and the shoulder-bones of camels. It raises a whole lot of questions about textual history and textual variation (Reynolds reminds us that the text of the Quran as it now exists, the King Farouk Qur’an, was finalised and published in 1924 and revised in 1936), suggesting that the story of ‘Othman’s scholars agreeing a single text, and consigning bones and palm-leaves to the flames, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. “The dates,” as Reynolds puts it, “are not simply early. They are too early. Instead of rejoicing, the news about this manuscript should lead to head-scratching.” It poses some very fundamental questions. “The upshot of all these early dates is that the Qur’an may well date earlier than Uthman, possibly much earlier. It may be time to rethink the story of the Qur’an’s origins, including the traditional dates of Muhammad’s career.”


As sad coincidence would have it, one of the last generation’s most glittering and controversial Qur’anic head-scratchers, Patricia Crone, died in July. There have been many obituaries, that from the New York Times here. Its author quotes Fred Donner of Chicago as saying that she had “made it clear that historians of early Islam had failed to really behave as historians — that is, had failed to challenge the validity of their sources, but rather had accepted complacently what I call the ‘traditional origins narrative’ created by the Islamic tradition itself.” Her books caused much argument and not a little bitterness, and particularly Hagarism which questioned radically the origins and nature of early Islam: she wrote, as she said, as “an infidel for infidels,” meaning that she was not hobbled by sacred orthodoxies and had the privilege of an objective approach to the texts. I remember very well attending, as a postgrad in 1982, her undergraduate history class in Oxford, which she opened with a virtuoso performance, a scintillating hour on pre-industrial societies which formed the germ of her remarkable book Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (1989). I’d have loved to hear her on the Birmingham dating conundrum.



On the island of Hoy, off Orkney, there is an interesting trace of the Middle East in the form of a line of Persian cut into the granite of a neolithic rock-tomb. The tomb is 5000 years old, a chamber-tomb carved into a glacial erratic: it is unique in Britain, and known as the Dwarfie Stane, having gathered a trail of stories about its being the home, or the tomb, of dwarves or trolls. Among the other laboriously cut, and often well-lettered, Victorian graffiti, is the line of Persian which translates as I sat here for two nights and have found patience. It was cut by ‘Major’ William Mounsey, whose name is also carved, backwards, in Latin script, apparently in 1850. Some say that his patience was learned of the midges.

Mounsey was an intriguing and eccentric character, born near Carlisle in 1808, and returning there after a military career abroad. For a start, he almost certainly wasn’t a major, army lists giving him the rank of captain right up to the end of his career. He is said to have been an intelligence agent – a spy – for the British army in Persia and Afghanistan, though I can find no easy corroboration of this. He seems to have been easily competent in Hebrew, Persian, Greek, Latin and Welsh, and was an amateur antiquarian as well as a soldier and a solicitor. He wandered widely, cutting curious inscriptions into ancient monuments and hillsides, often in Welsh and frequently backwards. He may have been responsible for a series of five faces, various stars of David and a fish carved in rocks in the Eden valley. Later in life he wore a large beard and dressed, in a priestly costume he designed himself, based on his studies of Jewish history and culture, and was known as ‘the Jew of Carlisle.’ One venture was a walk (in full sacerdotal fig) along the river Eden from sea to source, cutting his name as he went. He commemorated the walk with a monument called ‘the Jew Stone,’ at Black Fell Moss which was destroyed by malignant navvies and survives in a facsimile standing at Outhgill. It reads, predictably in Greek, Hebrew and Latin: William Mounsey, a lone traveller, commenced his journey at the mouth and finished at the source, fulfilled his vow to the genius and nymphs of the Eden, on 15th March 1850.



One of the infinitely many personal tragedies of Syria took place last week, in the death of Khaled al-Asaad. He was the archaeologist in charge of the site at Palmyra: he had been there more than half a century, and knew its every nook and cranny, writing about it with incomparable authority. The Daesh were convinced, probably correctly, that he knew where Palmyra’s moveable treasures were concealed. They wanted them for loot and resale, and threatened al-Asaad with death if he did not reveal them. Al-Asaad refused to do so, and was killed, his decapitated body strung up from a pillar in the centre of Palmyra.

A personal tragedy certainly, but also a vignette of real nobility. This was a man who understood very well the way in which human and material culture are inextricably entwined, and how the destruction of cultural heritage is part-and-parcel of atrocity and genocide. Christopher de Bellaigue reports asking a Zoroastrian priest “what happens if the flame [in the Zoroastrian temple] at Yazd goes out?” The priest replies: “Nothing. Except that the endeavours, toil and devotion of our forefathers will have come to naught.” And that’s exactly it – the destruction of material culture is both everything and nothing, and those who sneer at concern with stones ‘when human beings are dying,’ fail to understand the intimate ties of past and future, of stone and flesh. Across Syria and Iraq ancient peoples whose bloodlines go back thousands upon thousands of years into prehistory are being slaughtered, enslaved and exiled by incoming Chechens, Arabs, Punjabis, Maghrebis and Europeans. Destroying and looting the warp and weft of their history and identity is part of the process of removing them as though they had never been.

In a particularly good article last week in the Evening Standard, Robert Bevan, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, discusses this whole issue very wisely, writing that “until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and the fate of their culture are interlinked, there can be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.” He discusses the insights of Raphael Lemkin, the Byelorussian Jew who drafted and promoted the 1948 Genocide Convention (having coined the word). Lemkin linked the two voices of annihilation – against people and against their culture – in his drafting of the Convention, but the UN removed reference to the destruction of culture, with disastrous results. Not that Lemkin confused the two. Bevan quotes him as saying, luminously, “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.” That early warning function is long past in Syria, but we ignore at our peril the systematic campaign by barbarians to extirpate any culture that is not their own poor, two-dimensional figment of one. And not just in Syria.



Finally a note that the recently published number 15 of the excellent Critical Muslim is focussed on Educational Reform, and is full of good things. I have an article in it on education reform in North Africa, called The Sheepskin Effect, and there is much more, all of it worth reading, intelligent, though-provoking and often important.

Tall, Nasty Stories and the Four Pillars of Wisdom


Auberon Waugh returned again and again in his later writing to ‘hamburger-gases,’ the toxic, greasy emissions from hamburgers that he affected to believe were responsible not only for global warming, but for the decay of stonework on ancient buildings, madness in humans and almost any other ill you care to imagine. Seductive as the theory is, it seems unlikely to be quite the universal explicator that Waugh hoped.

Today, discussion of the threat posed by salafi-jihadi terrorism is full of hamburger-gas. The modern equivalent of Waugh’s universal explainer is the ‘narrative.’ This word is used to mean the master-story, the worm-like account of the nature of the world that is purveyed by bearded Svengalis and burrows into the brains of young Muslims, seducing them into terrorism, or into the grey landscape of ‘Non-Violent Extremism.’ Put simply, the hamburger-narrative is a world view that believes Christians and Jews (and Shi’ites too) to be responsible for the world’s ills; sees Muslims as persecuted the world over, but particularly of course in and by the West; sees Western policy in the Middle East as an oil-fuelled crusade; views the mores and morals of the West as unutterably debased and corrupt; and calls for violent, pre-emptive action against the infidel as well as the oppressive sultans of the Muslim world itself.

This was what the Prime Minister was referring to when, in the wake of the appalling events at Sousse in which 37 people were gunned down, he talked of “the poisonous radical narrative that is turning so many young minds.” It certainly is poisonous nonsense, but tempting as it is to identify in ‘the narrative’ a single external reason for radicalization, doing so is rather like asserting that obesity is caused by Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. It is of course true, in a limited sense, but it is a small slice of a larger and more complex truth that includes chocolate Easter eggs, Turkish delight, fizzy drinks, potato crisps, lack of exercise, Camembert and spaghetti alla carbonara.  Of course the narrative is real. Of course it is largely rubbish. And of course it crystallizes in a number of young Muslims, with dreadful results, the rationale for violent action. But it isn’t a sort of airborne bacillus (like anthrax, for example) that lights on the shoulder of happy, balanced young men and women and turns them instantly into black-clad zombies.

Staphylococcus aureus is a bacillus that provides a different, and more useful analogy for narratives. It is silently and invisibly present in our noses and on our skins, where it is a normal part of the flora, but it “can cause a range of illnesses, from minor skin infections to life-threatening diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis,” and so on. Most of the time it doesn’t, but certain conditions encourage it to manifest itself malignantly, and then it is very dangerous. That’s how narratives work. They’re around us every day, sloshing through the bilge-filled scuppers of the internet and along the rows of puzzled faces at the café, but most of us – and crucially most young people – see them for what they are, and ignore them. Simply pointing fingers at ‘the narrative’ is not enough: the question is why some people are receptive to it, what changing conditions encourage its emergence, and how therefore the bacillus ceases to be a cheerful passenger in the human nose and becomes a killer.

And these conditions are not unique to Muslims. Every paranoid cult and groupuscule has its narrative, from Daech and the Hindu VHP to Aryan supremacism and Heaven’s Gate. The last was (past tense because it was a cult with a terminator-gene) particularly stark: its members were persuaded to believe that the Earth was about to be recycled. In an attempt to pre-empt, or avoid, being aboard the earth when this dramatic fate overcame it, the cult’s devotees group committed mass suicide in white pyjamas, in March 1997, believing that their spirits would be able to board a UFO hiding in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, which just happened to be passing fairly close to earth at the time. These narratives, Daech or Heaven’s Gate or Aryan Knights Templar, are intellectually worthless, self-pitying cock-and-bull backstories, which under stress seep like staphylococcus from the nasal cavities of Anders Breivik, Marshall Applewhite, Dylan Roof, Jihadi John, the Pompey Lads and many others, into their cruelly stunted, uncritical minds.

The narrative – and this applies to all of them – is dangerous for those whose resistance has already been compromised, and not for those whose resistance hasn’t. The brittle, the unhappy, the frustrated – and perhaps most dangerously, the simply confused adolescent – are the objects of a process of emotional and intellectual seduction that knows no credal boundaries. I commented a month or so ago on the fascinating parallel drawn by Professor Kate Cooper between the radicalisation of young Muslims today, and the radicalisation of young Christians in late antiquity – in both cases often amounting to grooming for martyrdom. It is that process that needs to be understood, how it uses the narative as a tool; how it fixes upon personal insecurities, crises and traumas; and how it is magnified by isolation, insinuating men with beards and the ubiquitous internet.

The attraction today of focusing on narrative to the exclusion of other drivers is clear. If hamburger-gas is responsible for the radicalisation of young Muslims, then other reasons adduced can be brushed aside. In his generally very constructive ‘Ninestiles’ speech on countering terrorism and violent extremism, the PM dismissed the three most often cited drivers of radicalisation – foreign policy, education and poverty: “Some argue it’s because of historic injustices and recent wars, or because of poverty and hardship. This argument, what I call the grievance justification, must be challenged.” How? Well, it can’t be Iraq, “because 9/11 … happened before the Iraq war;” it can’t be poverty “because many of these terrorists have had the full advantages of prosperous families or a Western university education.” So it must be the poisonous narrative itself.

It’s easy to see why blaming a factor outside the direct control of governments is appealing (and Mr Cameron did add, of the ‘grievance justification:’ “Now let me be clear, I am not saying these issues aren’t important”). Accepting the impact of foreign policy on violent extremism would change the whole matrix in which foreign policy is made, and endanger the notion of military intervention in the Middle East. So 9/11, coming before the invasion of Iraq, can’t be the reason. But really this is a straw man: Britain and the US invaded Iraq in 1991 as well as in 2003; and there is a smoking trail of consequences that have followed British (and French, Dutch, Italian and American) involvement in the Muslim world over many generations, right up to today.

By the same token, admitting poverty as a possible driver would open up difficult conversations. Quite how problematic is hinted at by this week’s report from the Runnymede Trust, which suggests that current welfare reforms will disproportionately affect “minority ethnic people,” with “with nearly 50% of Pakistani children and over 40% of Bangladeshi children living in poverty.” All those children are Muslim, so we must certainly hope that poverty isn’t a driver.

But this whole tenor of argument is very unsubtle. Reasons can’t be adduced and tested one at a time and dismissed in a sentence. Whatever else it is, the process that we call radicalisation isn’t simple, and there are many conditions that make people vulnerable. There is much to say about the relationship between education and radicalisation, and I’ll return to that in my next post. Two other example of weaknesses that seem to invite radicalisation are mental illness and prison conversion. Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley noted in front of the Home Affairs Committee last week that “about a quarter of terrorism investigations now involve ‘vulnerable’ people, including those with mental health issues, who are being targeted by the Islamic State.” (Think Waj, the simpleton in Four Lions – pictured below – who swallows the narrative like a sea-lion swallowing a mackerel: “Omar is disillusioned about the treatment of Muslims around the world,” goes the plot-summary, “and is determined to become a soldier. This is the most exciting idea Waj has ever heard. Better still it’s a no brainer because Omar does his thinking for him.”) Those whose intellectual immune system has been compromised are being targeted for infection.

Other vulnerable groups seem to include prisoners who convert to Islam (and bear in mind that “more than 70% of the general prison population,” according to the Social Exclusion Unit in 2004, “has two or more mental health disorders”, so the overlap with the last group is suggestive). This is interesting background to remarks by the former head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, Chris Phillips, who maintains that staff cuts in prisons of 30% between 2010 and 2014 have allowed a serious increase in radicalisation, especially of converts.

Of course the “poisonous narrative” has its place in this manipulative process, and it would be quite wrong to suggest otherwise. What Kate Cooper reminds us is that there are many such narratives, tailored for time and place over great sweeps of history. The narrative slips snugly and easily into the minds of young and adolescent men and women who have been destabilised in other ways. Mental illness and prison are two vectors, but the central feature of all of them is anomie, alienation, the sense that your wheels are spinning and have little traction on life, prospects and surroundings. As a recent report says of Iftekhar Jaman, who went to Syria with the Pomey Lads, he “was transformed from a part-time worker at a Sky call-centre with few prospects, to Abu Abdurrahman al-Britani, reportedly the leader of a ‘brigade,’ with an assault rifle, a cause and a following on social media.”

Pankaj Mishra, writing in the Guardian, talks of “humiliated rage and furtive envy,” the toxic package that drives the young and alienated, as characterising “Muslim insurrectionaries and Hindu fanatics today.” He means by this the awful conflicting pressures of feeling left behind, condemned by the way the world is ordered to exclusion, while at the same time aspiring to all the material goods and less tangible status that the world order seems to promise, without delivering. This driving condition was most aptly explored by Dostoevsky, who, in Mishra’s words, “saw most acutely how individuals, trained to believe in a lofty notion of personal freedom and sovereignty, and then confronted with a reality that cruelly cancelled it, could break out of paralyzing ambivalence into gratuitous murder and paranoid insurgency.”

We need the confidence to assert firmly that well-adjusted people with a strong sense of their identities, comfortable in their own skins, confident of their families’ love and unconditional acceptance, and of societies’ respect and esteem, and imbued with hope for the future, don’t become terrorists – whatever poisonous bilge is poured into their ears. The narrative, in other words, is not the whole answer. It is a part of the answer, of course, but it is a factor that comes into play like staphylococcus aureus only when other conditions have created vulnerability.

What worries me is one other feature of the staphylococcus: abuse of antibiotics has created a drug-resistant strain that is very dangerous indeed. The analogy here is very uncomfortable, and tells us to worry less about countering narratives, which will perhaps simply create resistant strains; and more about addressing, with painful honesty, the causes of the underlying vulnerabilities that let them in. These are the three missing pillars.



Syria: eating chocolate in gardening gloves


I’ve just spent two-and-a-half days in blazing sunshine at St Andrews, attending the Syrian Studies Centre’s biennial conference on Syria. I learned a lot, met some very interesting people, and was thoroughly depressed. Quite why I was depressed was summed up for me on the last morning by a speaker who said that he was conscious that the conference had not really succeeded in linking the two levels – the high level, strategic, conflict-resolving, power-sharing international level, and the people-on-the-ground level, the Syrians who are suffering abominably and endlessly in Syria or in exile. I’m not sure that the gap is culpable, and both levels were well represented, but it does highlight for me the terrible difficulty of keeping in mind the individual – the suffering, puzzled, desperate human being – when examining the moveable elements at a high level. How will Russia play its interests in Ukraine against those in Syria? Will Iran trade its land-bridge to Hizbollah via Damascus? Will the Assad regime acknowledge stalemate, and what will it do if it does? Will the Saudis even allow the Iranians to the table? And how does all this affect the distraught lawyer from Raqqah who was speaking on the screen as I left the conference on Friday, telling of the killing of his friends, the sacking of his office and his own torture by the regime – and of his brother’s execution by Daech.

It seemed to me, too, that there are two very different dramas playing out. On the ground, millions of Syrians are either in exile, sometimes well-heeled, more often desperately penurious (and many dying in the attempt to become exiles); or facing unimaginably bloody horrors at home, in places that were once safe. High above them in the empyrean, strategists try to work out the next move in the game of three-dimensional chess that might, just conceivably, help Syria inch towards a fragile peace, of some provisional and deeply unsatisfactory kind. Assad has got to be part of it, the Iranians and Russians have got to support it and be paid off with compromise. Well, as one speaker said with guarded desperation, of course an end to the violence is the overriding aim for everybody.

And of course this is true. An end to the obscene killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the enforced exile of millions is the most important short-term aim of all. The problem is that I didn’t hear much in St Andrews that made me optimistic that it is close. Or even in the middle-distance. Several eminent people of great integrity, closely involved in what passes for a peace process, on behalf of the UN, the EU, and individual European states, all talked eloquently of the problems. So did several impressive academics, closely involved in the porous borderland where academic conflict resolution bleeds into practical conflict resolution, men who spend patient hours, weeks, years trying to make infinitesimal degrees of progress towards a solution that may well, as they are all clear, be unattainable, and at best is still a long way off. I am lost in admiration for the commitment, the knowledge and the skill.

But as one of the experts in peace-negotiation and stabilisation said, after much talk of ‘an exhausted stalemate,’ the problem is not so much reaching one (which we probably have) but persuading both sides to acknowledge it at the same time. This seemed to me a rather gloomy conclusion to a conference called Syria: Moving beyond the Stalemate.

It isn’t possible to summarize a rich and complex tapestry of presentations and conversations, except to say that one risked becoming a little seasick in the tumbling between the two levels. Analysis of the possible strategic positions taken by the big outside players – Iran, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia – without which there cannot be peace, sat alongside fascinating insights into just how local government is being jury-rigged from scraps of the ancien regime and ad hoc sharia courts, and how much the form of such improvisation depends on exactly wher you are looking. In this vein, most interesting was a young scholar called Fouad Gehad Marei, whose talk, Governing in the Meanwhile, looked at this bottom-up governance-bodging through a year in Aleppo, and the brief phenomenon of the United Judicial Council which for a time administered pretty decent justice. But striking here is the time-lag inherent in scholarship: the UJC is two years gone, and however fascinating, isn’t dispensing justice today. In several talks about rebel factions, we ran up against the fact that the research had been done before the rise of ISIS, so that variants of “And then of course there’s ISIS but I’m not going to talk about them,” were all too frequent. Without in any sense doing down the quality of the work, the actual urgency of Syria’s plight made me feel a bit like a player in that old children’s party game where you have to cut and eat a large bar of chocolate with a knife and fork while wearing gardening gloves.

In between, there were some exceptional talks. The most fascinating of all was Dawn Chatty’s exploration of the history of migration in Syria, the way in which Syria has been a country of refugees since Ottoman times and before. She spoke of massive flows of refugees in the 19th century from the Ottoman borderlands, of Jews, Christians, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians and Caucasians. She explained the punctilious and surprisingly ‘modern’ Ottoman Immigration Commission set up in 1860 to manage immigration, and the French approach to citizenship and political division. And then onto this canvas she painted the very diferent migration  experiences of Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Clear above all is the fact that the refugee experience in Turkey is significantly better than elsewhere – that something of the old Ottoman code still shapes attitudes, with NGOs supporting refugees, temporary protection, shelter, healthcare and the right to apply for work permits. In Lebanon and Jordan the experience is less good, and Prof Chatty speculated that the cultural and social closeness of refugees with the people of those two countries makes for friction, while the greater difference, as well as (possibly) sufi-driven open-handedness, make Turkey a markedly less hostile destination. Other interesting papers dealt with the Kurds, the Alawis and the way nasheeds have developed and been used by jihadis in Syrian contexts to generate emotional empathy and attachment. Its author, Moutaz al-Khedar, came out with the obvious-but-surprising observation that singing, according to jihadi texts, really is heresy – haram – but is authorised for the strictly pragmatic reason that it works. Just like, as he said disarmingly, suicide.

The last morning saw a panel – which included Fouad Marei and Rana Jawad – on Alternative Governance and Voices. A bit of a rag-bag, it nonetheless came closest to shining a light on the real predicament of Syrians. Alexa Firat talked of the founding of the literary journal Awraq, in the midst of war, and its brave attempt to shape thinking for and about Syria’s future. Joshka Wessels looked at video activism, and while perhaps necessarily a little inconclusive, gave glimpses into the braveries, defiances and fears of those who are determined to witness (though not addressing the slew of false witness that is so routinely also borne, and which makes understanding events on the ground such a treacherous puzzle). This gave a sense of life’s continuing despite the surrounding madness – of people planning ahead for a future that they can only dimly see, but which they imagine, though tremulously, often with greater confidence than their politicians and those negotiating far above their heads.

What I missed was a sense of creativity, of actually touching the stuff of imagination. Amongst the books on the bookstands outside the conference were piles of works on politics and international relations, Syrian history, jihadism and military theory. But I didn’t see a single novel, play or book of poetry. Yes, it was an academic conference, but it was also much more, and would have benefitted greatly from a reading or two from, even by, Syrian writers. The closest we got was a small pile of Critical Muslim’s excellent volume 11, Syria, with its splendid mélange of creative writing and sterner analysis.

I’d have loved to see a film, too, and there are many Syrian possibilities, of course. Because of its British Council links (the Council helped to fund it) I thought of the wonderful film Queens of Syria, recently shown in London and Brussels as part of the Council’s Syria: Third Space exhibition. It is a documentary, but a documentary of a rather special kind, following a re-interpretative production by Georgina Paget of Euripides’s Trojan Women, acted entirely by women refugees from Syria, now in Jordan. None had ever acted before, and they didn’t find it easy. All were afraid. “Many of the women only decided to show their faces on the last day of filming; this is an example of the reality of negotiating with fear,” the film’s director, Yasmin Fedda is reported as saying.

The resonance of Euripides down the centuries is extraordinary, and like the Trojan women gazing on lost Troy and lost lives, one of the Syrian actresses says “We were all queens in our own houses. It is like us: we lost everything.” Art, after all, helps us say things that are otherwise very difficult, sometimes impossible, to say. As one actress said, “Since I started this project, my life has been renewed.”


Saints, jihadis and online Foxe


In a week when the PM and the Home Secretary have been making speeches in Slovakia about terrorist recruitment (at a wonderfully resonant conference called GLOBSEC), it’s odd and pleasing how serendipity stacks up complementary inputs into our thinking. This week I have been at an Open University seminar on Religious Violence and the Social Media, and then at another organized by the Islamic Studies Centre at Cambridge on Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes. In between the two, I saw Deeyah Khan’s fascinating documentary, Exposure: Jihad – a British Story. The three fit together to tell a powerful story that is amplified by thoughtful press coverage (though not necessarily by speeches at GLOBSEC, which seemed to be trying to turn the focus back onto the culpability of Muslim communities themselves).  In the background, this week has seen a family of nine, women and children from Bradford, slipping off to the ‘Caliphate;’ a teenager from Dewsbury murdering several Iraqis at Baiji with a bomb with which he also killed himself; and a convert from rural Buckinghamshire killed while taking part in a terrorist attack in Kenya. There has followed all the usual heartbreak, breast-beating and finger-pointing.

The question of ‘Why?’ is ever-present and urgent, but I don’t think we really begin to grasp the answer.  Answers are almost by definition simplistic, because the influences, pressures, perversions and deceptions that lead to mass murder, using oneself as a bomb – or to taking infants to a bloodthirsty, solipsistic enclave in the Middle East – can only be hugely complex. Furious rebuttals of each suggestion are even more simplistic, and generally focus obstinately on exceptions: the reason can’t be British foreign policy because lots of people who don’t like British foreign policy don’t join Daech. It can’t be poverty because lots of daechi fighters come from relatively comfortable backgrounds. It can’t be lack of education because many jihadis are well educated. Quite. Simple answers get simple rebuttals, and the whole conversation is pretty short on meaning.  There is presumably a kaleidoscope of reasons that form themselves into different patterns for each individual, a kaleidoscope that includes all of these and many more. In Slovakia the spotlight is being turned back onto Muslim communities and the shape of their religiosity. This too is one of the small pieces of glass in the kaleidoscope, but it isn’t in itself an answer.

One of the speakers at the OU workshop was the Manchester University ancient historian Professor Kate Cooper.  Her current field of research is the early church, and what she spoke about was martyrdom. What was the background to Roman kids – particularly girls – in Late Antiquity  going off and allowing themselves to be eaten by lions, chopped up, burned, dismembered, broken on the wheel?  She picks out three repeating scenarios: unjust suffering and moral heroism; inter-generational conflict; and ‘the marriage plot,’ and she calls these “key concepts to watch for in thinking comparatively about identity, idealism and religious violence.”  The first is about the charged nature of the stories of martyrdom, their readiness to go viral: this has always been so, as the carefully cultivated corpus of martyrdom stories shows. And not just within the Catholic church: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the only book other than the bible in most English churches in the 16th and 17th centuries, was a vector of such stories more than a millennium later.  Indignation, as Professor Cooper pointed out, is very powerful emotion and unusually communicable.  “The meaning of [the martyrs’] death,” as she puts it, “could be manipulated in memory.” Indeed so:  Daech has put Foxe online, and the slew of online video footage of brutality towards Muslims and the pathos of martyrs, is carefully calibrated for maximum viral effect.

As for inter-generational conflict, the sense that “my parents don’t understand me” is universal and  perennial; and it is instructive to be shown close parallels between the way ancient Christian ‘father figures’ and modern Muslim ‘father figures’ insert themselves into this gap. They use the implication that parents really don’t understand what it is to be young, nor do they ‘get’ the truth of religion. Adult Christian ‘handlers’ “use[d] ideas of eschatology and revelation to allow the younger generation to legitimately withdraw obedience from their (comparatively moderate) parents,”  writes Professor Cooper, and ideas like this are particularly easily spread among adolescents, going with the grain of classic – and normal – family tensions. As Daniel Koehler puts it, of jihadi recruiters: “Recruiters need to build a wall within families to distance [their targets] from their mothers.” Eschatology and revelation help here too.

And finally, ‘the marriage plot,’ the escape from pressure to marry in accordance with parents’ wishes and impersonal agendas, by submitting to the alternative parenthood of a more understanding mentor.  An age-old and powerfully motivating icon of conflicting inter-generational agendas, and today an endlessly repeated crisis for families and communities making the rapid zig-zag movement between tradition and modernity in a generation or two.

All three ring true down the ages, and tell us a good deal about what is happening today. It seems to me very useful indeed to take this frightening pattern of contemporary seduction, which can all too easily be read as uniquely evil, or uniquely a result of the social media age, or uniquely Muslim, out of any of those specific frameworks, and to see it as the outcome of careful manipulation (‘grooming’ if you like, but this choice of word is deliberately intended to draw sexual parallels which are probably a distraction) of young people at particularly manipulable moments in their lives. In both cases the intrusive mentor uses religion: but for a millennium and a half the first story has been read as good, while the second today is read as evil. The parents of the early Christian martyrs themselves would have had sympathy with the Dewsbury family, and seen their daughters’ unkempt Svengalis as unequivocally bad; but in neither case does this stop the children’s stroies being stirred ruthlessly into a viral whirlwind of propaganda and proselytism.

Deeyah Khan’s film built very clearly on this. She interviewed a small number of Muslims who had been radical, and in some cases fought jihad, under the influence of a single man, Abu Muntasir, who was a jihadi himself, a charismatic preacher and a recruiter in the 1990s. Tall, handsome and eloquent, Abu Muntasir is the ‘father figure’ that Professor Cooper was analyzing, and is described in exactly those terms by several of his one-time myrmidons. They talk of isolation, a sense of rejection by the society in which they lived as young men, of a lack of communication with their parents.  To this one of them added a physical deformity that he also felt set him apart. What they all describe is a sense of alienation from the family, local and social context in which they had grown up – were growing up – and the finding of an alternative family. The warmth of their memories was consistent. They talked of the emotional and physical embrace of a new family, of feeling valued, needed and understood. Interestingly, though disillusioned, they remembered this experience with what looked like wry affection.  Most were now imams, and – in this obviously self-selecting sample – of a peaceful outlook, working to prevent others making the mistakes they made. This involved talking openly to young Muslims about family, religious difference, marriage and sex (which one described unsurprisingly as the major preoccupation of Muslim boys who cannot in principle have any sexual contact before marriage).  Even Abu Muntasir himself talked with emotion and apparent candour about his own role, admitting clearly that he had manipulated the young men, just as they described some of the techniques of manipulation. There were tears, apparently of regret, from Abu Muntasir; but what came across, perhaps surprisingly, from all of those interviewed, was that these are normal, pleasant, even attractive people, able to talk with an accessible realism about the wasted years of their own lives.

They illustrate implicitly, and in one case spoke quite explicitly about, what one speaker at the OU called “double alienation.” A younger man, not one of Abu Muntasir’s protégés, said “When I’m in Britain, they call me a Paki: when I’m in Pakistan, they call me a Brit.” Said with humour, because as he explained, a strong new religious affiliation had drawn him away from a life of petty crime and given him a manageable and comfortable identity. He, like the older men, pointed clearly to a strong sense of not belonging, of lacking the stabilizing gimbals of family and society to help navigate through adolescence.  There was, and is, no implication that the family weren’t loving – just they didn’t understand, didn’t grasp the pressures and insecurities of doubly alienated children. And then, under the influence of the new family, the new father figure, came the poisonous insinuation that the parents “weren’t proper Muslims.”

The film focused on men, but it’s very clear that unprecedentedly many of those going off to join the jihad are women – and that women play a particular part in recruiting, publicising, stabilising and perpetuating the daechi ‘Caliphate.’ What’s less clear is why, and here my day in Cambridge gave me a clue. It was a fairly downbeat day in that it showed the routine, demoralising harassment that many Muslims undergo. What I hadn’t expected (perhaps naively) was that more than half of all recorded ‘religious’ hate crime is against women – and that 80 per cent of female victims were wearing hijab or niqab at the time of the incident. These figures are very rough (the British Crime Surveys reckon that under-reporting is well above 50 per cent), but the overall pattern is clear. Anti-Muslim hate crime is predominantly a white (73.6 per cent), male (83 per cent), young (54.2 per cent of perpetrators aged between 25 and 29) activity, generally in a public place and more often than not directed at Muslim women. Many Muslim women report being spat at as fairly routine. So, many stay at home, or in their communities, isolating themselves in homogeneous urban areas with homogeneous schools and services. It wouldn’t be surprising if some felt intolerably persecuted, and open to the suggestion that there’s a better life elsewhere. Particularly if home life in Britain isn’t all that great.

So it seems that dislocation, doubt about one’s identity, alienation from society at large and discomfort with the habits and persuasions of one’s parents open crevices in the integrity and solidarity of family life into which the determined outsider can put his jemmies and begin to lever it apart.  Arguments about ‘fault’ are often irrelevant: it’s clear that many of these families are loving and supportive. They simply don’t understand what is happening to them and their children. Like the pagan (or passively Christian) parents of ardent young converts in late Antiquity they represent a culture that their children are being induced to reject.  They stand at the lethal intersection of cultural change and malign manipulation – manipulation which employs those contagious, viral stories of suffering, martyrdom and victimhood that are so very effective.

One more factor makes this cocktail lethal: the availability of instant gratification. Most teenaged boys down the ages have fantasies about saving the world, being a hero, attracting girls, blowing away injustice at gunpoint. Most teenaged girls harbour somewhere in their minds a Heathcliff fantasy, a longing for the sort of man their parents would find totally unimaginable. In previous generations we shrugged these fantasies off and went back to our homework. One or two young daredevils ran away to join the circus, or the gypsies. A few went, in the 1930s, to fight in Spain. Today, though, there are siren voices on the internet in the privacy of a child’s bedroom, and a ticket to Gaziantep or Istanbul is half a dozen clicks away. Today you can run away to join this circus and cross the last border 24 hours later. Wish fulfilment fits inside a half-term holiday, and without a chance – perhaps ever – for second thoughts.

Serendipity continued with a very good short piece in the Guardian this morning by Sadakat Kadri. He writes that “forces other than faith are at play. One of them is the dynamic that draws young men elsewhere towards gangs. Growing up in isolated immigrant communities, they might be more likely to view the group’s macho hierarchy as a force for stability.” And of young women, “Isis blogs and Twitter accounts are filled with questions from women curious to marry fighters – because an eagerness among good Muslim girls to hook up with bad jihadi boys is a strong part of the group’s appeal.” And finally, he summarizes very usefully: “Isis offers a way of escaping stifling familial expectations, the low-level racism of wider society, and communal customs  that many British Muslims themselves don’t value. In exchange, it promises a godly cause – the defence of victimised Muslims – that draws similarly passionate people from all over the world. Troubled young men imagine a land where they can start anew, commanding respect as upholders of God’s law. Unhappy women dream of attaining happiness …”

Plus ça change …



Bavures and Shibboleths – language in Morocco

Morocco-school-MerzougaAs anyone who follows this blog knows, I am rather preoccupied with the question of language. Both the fus7adarija dimension, and the whole question of foreign languages. (And of course the matter of Tamazight.) To dispense with the first, I have little doubt that the very high levels of illiteracy (a recent op-ed in by Abderrahmane Lahlou L’Economiste quotes Ministry of Education figures for illiteracy as high as 76% at primary grade 4) are not going to be significantly reduced until the diglossia on which they rest is resolved.  This means some version of the Zakoura Foundation’s proposal to make darija the language of instruction at least in early primary, before converting to fus7a when pupils are ready. (Zakoura describes this process as building a passerelle, or footbridge, from the mother tongue to Arabic.) Champions of classical Arabic rest their arguments on Arab or Islamic solidarity, the price of which is widespread illiteracy, and Zakoura’s recommendations have been deliberately misrepresented by many who should know better.

There is no visible evidence that Arabic is well enough taught in Moroccan schools for there to be any hope of its prospering as the universal language of literacy. It is a discussion that needs to be conducted on evidence, but the scenes of emotional and histrionic disorder that break out in parliament whenever it arises suggest that the day of evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived. Parliament itself is not wholly qualified to handle the evidence: Houda Filali-Ansary wrote in La Vie Eco of the last parliament, si l’on trouve toujours des élus ayant le niveau d’études primaire, ils sont de moins en moins nombreux, tout comme l’élu totalement analphabète est une espèce en voie de disparition. Certes, dans un certain nombre de cas, il s’agit de députés d’un certain âge. In other words, a certain number of older MPs can’t read themselves, and others have only primary education. Well, it’s generally the old fellows waving their order papers and shouting.

As for foreign languages, which the King emphasized so strongly in his August 2013 education speech, French is becoming the language of an old elite. Demand for English is growing very fast, and that for French is not. A senior fonctionnaire said to me a couple of years ago “La francophonie, c’est une prison,” the language of a colonial and post-colonial elite which is of less and less currency in the world of ideas and research, let alone film, music and youth culture. Certainly there is much that is to be treasured in francophone Moroccan literature, and it will always be accessible, but English seems to be becoming the foreign language of choice for the younger generation. Willy-nilly.

As I said in response to a recent argument on Twitter on this subject, we may not like it – but complaining about it is a bit like complaining about the weather. I tweeted a link to an essay I wrote last year, towards the end of my four years in Morocco, called Bavures and Shibboleths: The Changing Ecology of Culture and Language in Morocco which I think adds something to the discussion, and I have added it to the masthead of this blog (or you can find it here).

Arab Hyphen

Arab Arts and Literature


Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one

L'édition au Maroc

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Maroc (im)pertinent

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

The Arabist

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Early Modern Whale

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Ahmed Benchemsi

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

London Review of Books

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Jadaliyya Ezine

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq


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