Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Coriander from a goat’s testicle and other farming lore

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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.

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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.’


Biffy, the Bombers and Disorganised Morale

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A year or so ago I was very struck by an account of the way aeroplanes navigated across the desert between ‘Amman and Baghdad in the 1920s. There was a furrow ploughed into the land surface all the way, and the pilot simply followed it. This struck me as quite funny, an unexpectedly primitive way to navigate, and I was reminded of a wonderful story told by the Police Attaché to the embassy meeting in a European country that had better remain nameless, of drug smugglers in a light aircraft desperately following the motorway system, road atlas in hand, while a cavalcade of police cars roared along the tarmac below like Keystone Cops, keeping up with the plane. But in fact, I simply didn’t know much about the early days of flight.

Recently I came across an interesting book called Airway to the East,[1] which deals with the very first attempts to set up an air route from London to Cairo, in 1919. The idea was simple enough. It was planned as a way of shuttling quite large numbers of Handley Page bombers, redundant on the Western Front after the Armistice, out to the Middle East where they were needed for action against the Arabs, who were unaccountably reluctant to fall in with Anglo-French plans for the future of the region. Bombing them seemed like a good idea (indeed Churchill, famously, went further: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes”) and planes were needed. The Handley Page O/100 was a monster, which when it first rolled out of the factory in late 1915 weighed twice as much as any aeroplane ever built, had a wingspan of 100 feet and a range of 400 miles. So wide was it that the telegraph poles in Colindale Avenue had to be sawn down for the prototype to reach Hendon aerodrome. Two years later a more powerful model, the O/400, could carry 2,000 lbs of bombs as against its predecessor’s 600 lbs. These were the machines that were destined for the Middle East

Aerial warfare was devastatingly effective against Turkish ground forces (and later, Arabs). A decisive attack on a Turkish column at Wadi al Fara’a by the RAF in September 1918 resulted in what the wonderfully named, if also wonderfully unattractive, Colonel ‘Biffy’ Borton described thus: “We bombed [them] incessantly for four hours, completely blocking the head of the column and creating the most appalling carnage. A length of road some five miles long was absolutely packed and you can get some idea of what it meant from the subsequent count – over 80 guns and 700 horses and motor transport were found in an inextricable mess on just this one stretch of road.” It is about as edifying as the American ‘turkey-shoot’ on the Mutla Ridge above Kuwait in 1991: overwhelming air superiority used to obliterate retreating infantrymen. Interesting that Biffy didn’t bother to enumerate the dead Turks, as he did the horses.

But the aeroplanes were very fragile. Made of flimsy doped cloth stretched over wooden frames, with propellers prone to warping and splitting in the heat and rubber petrol-tubes that disintegrated in sunlight, they had a short life-span at the best of times, and then only with very regular maintenance. The cloth peeled and split and needed constant repair. The whole machine had to be pegged down meticulously at night so as not to blow away. In the Mediterranean they suffered a terrible rate of attrition from natural forces. The HP’s wings were too heavy to support themselves, so they had to be kept up by wire rigging – and it was the business of the myriad riggers to re-rig – to check, tighten and replace the rigging wires – each day. On top of this, all controls were operated by physical wire-pulls which easily jammed, especially when thickened and roughened by rust which made them stick in their pulleys with disastrous results. With a theoretical range of 400 miles, the O/400 often managed only 200 into a headwind and sometimes much less (one flight into a strong headwind is recorded with an overland speed of 10 mph).

This meant that to get to Cairo, their destination, they had to be flown down a designated route with a great many landing fields for overnight stops and servicing; and a great many emergency fields for pilots caught short by a headwind or engine failure – or simply by getting lost. The route changed all the time, but a 1918 plan shows a start at Buc (outside Paris) and overnight stops at Lyons, Istres, Pisa, Rome, Barletta, Taranto, Athens, Suda Bay, and Mersa Matruh – which is to say an optimal ten days to Cairo, almost never achieved. The trans-Mediterranean leg, from Suda Bay to Mersa, was about 250 miles over water, and aeroplanes were supposed to be escorted by destroyers or sea-planes (“it had been discovered that there was no ferry service between North Africa and Crete”). It very seldom happened quite that way, and indeed “the escorting flying-boats were mostly mythical, and even when they did appear, could not carry passengers on the first half of the crossing because of the large amount of petrol they had to carry at take-off.” This would have rendered their ability to carry passengers on the second half of the crossing somewhat superfluous.

In fact the whole functioning of No. 1 Aerial Route RAF was an unmitigated disaster. It was badly planned, badly managed, and undermanned by officers and men whose main preoccupation was being demobilised. The crew on the landing strips were idle and often absent; the pilots were prone to taking time off to see the sights; the spare parts were never where they were needed; the escorts were almost always unavailable; the chain of command was incompetent; the availability of weather forecasts and wirelesses pathetic; maps were inadequate; there was no petty cash or expenses. So disastrous was the whole doomed enterprise that the very existence of No 1 Aerial Route was afterwards routinely denied by the RAF and the Air Ministry, and only dug out of the archives by the author of this book, whose father, stationed at Suda Bay in Crete, had kept press cuttings and photograph albums.

HP 1

The story told in this book, though it’s much too heavy on technical detail for anyone but a terminal aviation history buff to savour in full, would be very funny were it not for the young lives lost in crash after crash along the Route. “They changed propellers at Suda but the replacements, which were cannibalised from Liberty flying boats, had brass tips and were twelve inches too small in diameter. This meant they could not fly higher than 2,000 feet and had to fly round the west end [of Crete] to avoid the mountains” – “During the night a gale blew up and the plane was blown from its moorings. A sister machine was also blown on top of the petrol shed” – “One machine made a forced landing on the Greek coast at Amyro because it had run out of petrol. It was impossible to get petrol to it by lorry and so HMS Swallow was sent from Alexandria” – “D5418 came in to land at Pisa, but when only 400 feet from the ground, the elevators jammed and the machine crashed on its nose on the airfield” – “One engine ran out of oil and seized and they found the plane was unable to maintain height on one engine alone … the machine came down in a gentle glide on to the sea and the pilot, concentrating on the landing, forgot to undo his safety harness … the machine tipped up on its nose … and the pilot went under water with the cockpit” – “At Athens they were delayed for ten hours because the petrol supplied contained water and they had to empty all the tanks and strain the petrol through chamois leather” – “One of the replacement machines never even started the journey before it was wrecked. A gale blew up at Buc, outside Paris … and while the machine was being hurriedly wheeled into a hangar, the tail was blown off the skid trolley and the fuselage cracked” – “HP J2246 had five forced landings while it was crossing France … the pilot got lost and came down in the sea at St Aygulf.”

At the end of September 1919, the situation could be summarised thus: “twenty-nine machines were either in Egypt or more or less airworthy en route, and thirteen had been written off. That still left nine machines dotted about …” It constituted a 30 percent failure rate, and eleven deaths. The accidents alone had cost £110,000. The whole story was the subject of an RAF inquiry which was carefully manipulated by the high command resonsible in order to bury the scale of the disaster. The patronising, self-assured and self-protective incompetence with which very senior officers handled money, young lives and the truth is still shocking a century later.

One final aspect of all this that I found very revealing was the attitude of the aircrew to the Arabs. The author comments drily that “Each of the crew had been issued with a side-arm in case the machine made a forced landing along the coast of North Africa where the native Senussi tribesmen were hostile because they were in the pay of the Turks. Orders then were to destroy the aircraft and then shoot oneself before unspeakable things were perpetrated by the locals. Unsurprisingly the crews chose the northern Mediterranean route (via Crete) rather than the African one (via Malta).” Unsurprising indeed, though it suggests a slightly unexpected coyness from RAF aircrew (Biggles would have used the revolver to fight his way out: Biffy apparently not.) But much more unspeakable is this episode, in the course of Major Stuart McLaren’s flight to Delhi in a Handley Page in 1919, recorded by the insouciant pilot:

Soon after leaving Bandar Rig we had a little amusement at the expense of one of the natives of the country. We were flying at about 100 feet when we saw, a short distance ahead, an unlucky native who was attempting to bathe by the banks of a small stream and was consequentially not in a position to argue his point with us. We put the nose of the machine down and headed straight for this unhappy mortal, who, already petrified with fear, at once threw up his arms to Allah and called loudly for help. At a distance of 50 yards I fired a green Verey’s light at him which burst into flames in front of his feet. His morale became extremely disorganised and he fell flat on his face into the stream.

Well, in fact, of course it was McLaren’s morale – or at least his morals – that were extremely disorganised, and this little vignette tells us a great deal about the sheer, bloody arrogance of imperial power. And now the natives of the country are bringing down European aeroplanes with their own amusing explosions. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

HP 2

[1] Clive Semple, Airway to the East 1918-1920 and the Collapse of No. 1 Aerial Route RAF, Barnsley 2012.

Comets, eggs and haemorrhoids

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Several years ago I wrote a novella for Christmas about a series of rather fantastic happenings in Rome, which involved a long-dead astrologer, a papal election, the appearance of a comet, and five long-buried Philistine artefacts – the five golden haemorrhoids of the Second Book of Samuel, since you ask. (If you didn’t know that the Book of Samuel tells this unlikely story, you are not alone: I was of your number until it was told me with great relish by Margaret Atwood one day in Toronto, seven or eight years ago.) My book was absurd, and I think quite funny, a sort of cross between Dan Brown (avant la lettre as far as his wildly over-egged Angels and Demons goes) and Dornford Yates. If you are interested in locating a copy, it can still be had from this link: The Affair of the Emerods – though this isn’t the point of today’s post.

The reason it crosses my mind now is the delightful coincidence of finding a story, just as bizarre, about … rather fantastical happenings in Rome involving a long-dead astrologer, a pope, the appearance of a comet and a magical egg. Had I read this account at the time (it comes from the True Protestant Mercury, and is reprinted in James Malcolm’s Miscellaneous Anecdotes of 1811), the egg would surely have appeared in the Emerods. It goes to show how life follows fantasy at a healthy distance. The action reported by the Mercury’s correspondent took place in Rome in 1680:

We have many nights been surprized with the sight of that prodigious blazing phenomenon in the Heavens. But that which more amazes us, is, that since its appearance, a hen, in the house of Seignior Massimi di Campidoglio, in this city, laid an egg, in which there is very conspicuously seen the figure of this Comet, the inward part of the egg being very clear, and the shell transparent. In the greater end is the Star, whence a blaze or luminous beam shines very bright to the other end. It was first taken notice of by a servant of the said Massimi, who, with wonder, shewed it to his master; and it hath since been carried to be viewed by the Pope, who, as wise and infallible as he is, knows not what to make of it. The Queen of Sweden, and most of the Grandees of Rome, have likewise beheld it with admiration, and have ordered it to be carefully reposited, where it administers not a little matter of speculation to our Philosophers.

Another source, also quoted by Malcolm, illustrates the fabulous egg (above), and describes its production: There did appear here, about the middle of December last, a strange and wonderful Comet near the Caliptick in the sign of Libra, and in the body of the Virgin. At the same time a prodigious egg was laid by a young pullet (which had never laid before), with a perfect Comet in it, and as many Stars and in the same form, as the inclosed figure shews. … The Roman wits are now very busy guessing at what the Comet and Egg may portend!

In 1681 Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote a topical play called La Comète, “in one scene [of which] a countess was consulting her astrologer about a dreadful bearded star overhead when letters arrived from Rome bearing the awful news that a comet had been discovered in an egg! The countess, aghast, swore that she would eat no more eggs; she was seconded by her astrologer’s valet, who dared not devour an Omelette de Cometes.”

All of which simply goes to show that we should be careful what we write, for fear of getting egg on our faces.


“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.”

Timbuktu 6

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.

Timbuktu 2 (1)

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