Friday, February 12, 2016

Number 430

I am coming home

The World At War

I remember vividly Amman in the 1970s. The kind of city, the kind of time, made for storybook memories.

Quaint, quiet, snail paced, a collage of leafy gardens, single storey houses of stone, low rises so easy on the eye, middle class neighborhoods inches close to rich ones, poor ones still not tucked away in the crevices of vacuums and divides—Amman promised one long purr of a life.

If I had to summarize it all in one word, if I had to choose one place that evoked the temperament, the seeming possibilities of that era, faster than the flicker of an eye I’d pick il Madineh, The Sports City For Youth. And I suspect on the face of many Ammanis of my generation reading these words now there’s already the faint shape of a smile.

In summers that teased one’s yearning for eternities, the children of Amman’s rising middle class flocked to the sprawling compound, which opened its doors in 1971, to swim and play and chat and laugh. The pools, the squash and basketball courts, the long stretches of green lawns, the cafeteria on the right for hummus, hot dogs and French fries, the restaurant on the other side for adults, veal escalope and chocolamu. The Royal Culture Center by night, the immense football stadium for the big fights.     

 My 1972 Sports City Membership Card: no 430

Il Madineh is where my heart first fell hard in love, where I had my first kiss behind the diving pool. It’s where I learned my best strokes, perfected my ping pong ace, rolled on the grass every afternoon with a severe attack of the giggles and sunbathed every morning on the Roman amphitheater-like steps, giddy at the prospect that all will be well.

 The Olympic Pool and Green Lawns

A bubble? Nostalgic bourgeois  mush? After all, 1970-1971 was our bloody civil war. In the 1970s, Palestinian refugee camps, factories of despair and fantastical dreams, were no less a fixture of our landscapes than the ruins of old. These were also the years when the state and the Muslim Brotherhood had just come together openly to smother the leftist and secular pulse wherever it beat. This was the decade that came on the heels of 1967 and the loss of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Haram al Sharif. And so on and so forth.

We were not oblivious to politics. How could we be? It ran even more then than now in our veins.  It kickstarted the day in the kitchen and sealed it each evening in the living room.

But if il Madineh was a cocoon sown out of fibs and yarns, it didn’t feel like one in the ‘70s. It didn’t stand apart from the rest of the city, alone and lonely. It might have been an oasis, but in many ways Amman was too: efficient, ordered and orderly, breezy, unfettered, unaffected. Simple. Sure, barriers and boundaries separated constituencies and destinies, but they were less like walls and more like paravans.

The complex itself was patiently conceived, well thought out, beautifully executed. It exuded hope, implied vision. By way of ambitions, it was King Hussein at his most benevolent—certainly at his most intriguing. When he was approached, in 1961, by a group of Jordan’s well to do requesting to offer him a gift in celebration of his marriage to Princess Mona, he asked them to build a sports city for Jordan's youth. And so they did, after a concerted fundraising campaign within the business community.

The Diving Pool
il Madineh offered my generation a prototype of Jordan at its most open, spirited, accomplished. Looking back, it's very tempting to describe it as the bastard child of a fling between raw self-interests and grand intentions. But, in the 1970s, looking forward, its symbolism appeared innocent of such fly-by-night origins. What I mean to say is that none of it was inevitable or foreordained. None of it! Only in retrospect, as we add the pages of subsequent chapters, does it all come full circle for us. No, we were not deceived in the 1970s, it’s just that other priorities and their trajectories took hold and proceeded to lay waste to the promise of those years.

It’s all gone now, of course. Well, the edifice of il Madineh is still there, but nothing else. Not that vitality, not that Amman, not that Jordan, not that future as we imagined it. So, yes, History, alas, is as unkind as it deserves to be. Recently, on the hunt for photographs of the old hangout, I came across this cautionary note on one of the tourist websites:

This complex in northern Amman has an Olympic-sized pool…Note that women may feel uncomfortable swimming here…

I suppose that’s why those times have often come back to me. I think of them as the last installment of a century pockmarked with wrong turns, smothered opportunities and blithe disregard for the terrible consequences of terrible decisions taken in every corner of the Middle East.

I often say that a chronology of postcards is all it takes to grasp the devastation wrought by decades of Arab misconduct and mismanagement. Il Madineh is one such postcard.   


I hoard other precious relics from the 1970s. I remember Sah al Nawm, a brilliant satire of Kafkaesque Arab systems confounding the hell out of their subjects. I remember as well Martin Smith’s The World at War, still a documentary like no other on the Second War. I remember Hotel Philadelphia, a landmark erased for no good reason at all. The ease with which we walked in and out of Cinema Khayyam and Bassman downtown. Aqaba, a small, bare beachfront. The best moments were those a friend of mine and I stole in my older brother’s glassed balcony, listening to Santana’s Black Magic Woman and Otis Reading’s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, all while Bruce Lee stared down at us, chest bare and chiseled.

Forty years on, among the flood of images of war, from everywhere, on every continent, the photo hovering above this post still haunts me. Perhaps because it could have been me. Or because it evoked horrors not my own but still mine to mourn. That it appeared on the screen to Carl Davis’ powerful musical interpretation of the meaning of world war must have helped keep it dramatic and close.

I recall that the most affecting moments in the 26 episodes were the private diaries and letters to loved ones that betrayed the true sense of human loss—prose distilling meaning from mindless bloodshed. Now, we spectate, minute-by-minute, the pain unleashed by this century’s round of wrath and loathing. You first force yourself to keep watching and reading because your future literally depends on it. But the mind numbing noise and rush of visuals—a ton of photos, a ton of articles and experts with a ton of opinions—obscure what is actually a fathomable if unruly narrative.

So, I decided perhaps it’s time for some quietude; time to search much closer to home, where life is at its dearest and most personal, for humanity and context. And wouldn’t you know it, the first fragment to appear to my mind’s eye was il Madineh.

Farewell for now. And thank you for lending an ear throughout the past nine years.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Do it Yourself"

Towards a New Era in the Arab World

Not for the first time, The Economist picks a whopper of a headline. At once, the venerable British weekly ties up the era upon us Arabs with the one we’re staggering away from.

And it took the magazine’s Sarah Birke no more than a page to describe vistas of abject failure, all pregnant with consequence like this one:

Egypt is a glaring case. Take education: although public spending on schooling has risen in nominal terms, it dropped from 5.1% of GDP in 2003 to 3.6% in 2013, according to government figures. The World Economic Forum ranks Egypt’s primary schools as the third worst in the world. Too many students cram into dirty classrooms. Parents say teachers often do not bother to turn up, or demand bribes to give the children a passing grade when they do.

I would have chosen the even more evocative one of cats roaming public wards and feces everywhere in the bathrooms, but I like cats and the feces part has a way of laying siege to the imagination.

The short of this sordid tale is that the Arab state has become the plague: it still has enough strength to make life absolutely miserable for us in a rich variety of ways but little mind to deliver on the “bare necessities” and basic services that are essential benchmarks for its raison d’ètre. More than that, progressively it has all but thwarted the developmental struggles of its societies. When it comes to performing for the people, the Arab public sector creaks and leaks and spits out hooey; when it comes to smothering the fury borne out of chronic letdown, the state’s security apparatus snaps into attention, brandishes its tools of coercion and violence and proceeds to smother and silence.

But that the Arab public sector is at the end of its tether, and ipso facto so are we, is neither here nor there. For both fallen states and still intact ones, post-uprisings, the pressing question is to what end, because these breakdowns don’t just impact the quality of life, they actually dare to change the very fabric of it. If we were to take just those threads that bind people to polity, already the tears portend a demonstrably different relationship between rulers and subjects. Where the center has buckled, much authority and jurisdiction shall inevitably devolve to the limbs. Where the center holds, the trends, though quieter and shyer, point in the same direction. And as more responsibilities pass to regions and cities, the give and take between governors and governed necessarily becomes more organic, more direct, more fruitful.

Equally, the deepening inequities and multiplying service gaps have provoked a mixture of NGO interventions, civic activism and entrepreneurship (mostly youth inspired and social) whose responses cover the entire distance between band-aid relief and solution. The result is busy, freewheeling ecosystems, where old traditional setups (many donor led and far removed from supposed locales of interest) have had to give way to newer grassroots, community-based initiatives and high tech innovations that suggest a fundamental shift in expectation and prerogative.

There is nothing neat or synchronized or uniform about these multifarious challenges to business as usual. And, as street agitations by would be citizens in Lebanon and Iraq are showing, even in feckless systems the willingness to cede space is messy and painful. But such is the trajectory both in states made irreversibly feeble by civil war and those irretrievably spent by rapacious economic agendas, ineptitude and corruption.

It is far too early to weave an overarching narrative of this bottom-up action or envision the mechanics between rising city-states and contracting central governments, which, however weakened, can neither be neutralized nor circumvented. But as varied, scattered and disconnected as these shifts seem, there already is a continuum that, for example, connects youths fixing up neglected roads in fringe Jordanian towns with online educational tools like the Egyptian Nafham, with the composting innovations of Lebanese Cedar Environmental, with the Egyptian doctors who took and posted the pictures of their hospitals, with regional community development initiatives like Ruwwad al Tanmeya… An overriding approach to constituency advocacy is taking shape, enablement and facilitation are being tested as methods of slow disruption and change and technology is being deployed in the service of social ends. This at a time when the once omnipresent Arab governments are clearly unable to resist the pull of diffusion and decentralization.

Do it Yourself, in a sense, is graduating from motto to manifesto--one that is impatient with dogma, unimpressed with conventional wisdoms, solutions focused and inventive. It is true that the Arab world is upon a new era, many features of which have yet to take hold. It is true as well that to each country its priorities and pace. But of all the emerging realities that are proposing to define the new age, this is the one to watch.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Parting Shots & Random Thoughts on Islamism Now & Tomorrow and Other Some Such Delights

After the 1967 catastrophe, several particularly mean jokes started making the rounds about Gamal Abd al Nasser. Even we, nappies barely dry, would throw them around laughing, as if to usher in the post-Nasser era.

The meanest of the jokes went like this:

After the ’67 defeat, Nasser stood, chastened, on the presidential  balcony to deliver a speech to the throngs.

“The fundamental question is not the land,” he sang. "The main question is to be or not to be”—ann nakouna aw la nakouna. In Arabic, nakouna can be flipped into one nasty mother of a pun: a straight up “they f---- us.”

And the people, of course, chanted back: “Nakouna, nakouna, nakouna!”

From that infamous June onwards it was downhill for the champ. The rejection was not immediately perceptible. Millions turned out for Gamal’s funeral in 1970, a few dying crushed by the crowds. And the subsequent decades paraded various wanna be Nassers—Arafat, Saddam, Pa Assad, Qaddafi…--each terrible in his own way, all authors of wrongs infinitely worse than the big man’s. In these mimics, it seemed, was proof of the lingering appeal of the Nasser model: the military strongman-cum-daddy-cum-poet-cum-philosopher-cum-wizard-cum-ghoul here to make it all go away, even if it meant life itself. A Faustian bargain of a sort, if you like. For if the longevity of these despots has been a testimony to anything, it’s not their success in lifting up their struggling societies to soaring heights but in the efficacy of their tyranny in beating them to the ground.

So much so that 40 years on, the post-‘67 sharp pivot towards political Islam is the easiest takeaway from Nasser’s bequest; so easy, in fact, it’s the first thing experts blurt out, Pavlovian like, every time they’re asked about Nasserism. Were it not for the myriad disappointments with the bombastic Arab nationalist, pseudo secular, fake socialist promise, Islamism would not have stood such an attractive suitor at the Arab door.
This, needless to say, is a gross oversimplification of the factors—some grassroots and unbidden, others high-powered, moneyed and very purposeful--that implanted Islam at the heart of Arab life: our laws, our streets, our living rooms, pants, panties, bedrooms, bathrooms. But it works well enough for this post’s point: 20-30 years from now, when our grandchildren pick through the history nearest to them for clues about the demise of Islamism, it will be today’s jokes that will give the story away--the jokes, first and foremost, and then the frightening vistas, the loud anecdotes and the frantic whispers that, together, betray a narrative much larger than each on its own tells.

Rather idiotic of me—wouldn’t you say?--to venture such predictions in the boisterous presence of ISIS and the Nusra Front and Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army and Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, to mention only a few of the leading stars in this seemingly flourishing universe. Idiotic as well in full view of the swords cutting off infidel heads, machetes bringing down idols, girls being sold off as sex slaves and black flags running over government buildings while the tax man collects dues from the town’s dhimmis. Idiotic, no doubt, while we spectate a crude Iranian-Saudi joust presumably pitting Shiites against Sunnis in an apocalyptic fight; equally, when the three powers (Iran, Turkey and Israel) presiding over the region are each run by a paranoid and voracious politico-religious cabal.

Still more idiotic, when eight Middle Eastern states are either avowedly or officially Islamist, and when the other ostensibly secular outfits have all but incorporated the bulk of Islamist maxims into the fabric of their polities. Worse, when the only successful democratization process we have been experiencing is in the fatwa industry, giving every other turbaned and bearded fool the platform to issue forth…on boob sucking your way into blessed male-female office relations, the various hidden meanings of farts, the evilness of Mickey Mouse.

And, of course, Hazem Amin, in a recent al Hayat piece, is right. Much like its weaker—no, wait, which month is this?--siblings, ISIS lives precisely because of withering life in our wastelands: fringe towns and cities across the Middle Eastern expanse long ago abandoned by autocracies retreating in the shadow of their betrayals and failures. This applies to states still standing and those all but gone.

Ours is, indeed, a drama of collapse that stretches over decades. Invasions, civil wars and uprisings, these are only the last straws that broke this haggard camel’s back.

But herein stands a truth so glaring and yet so muddied by the orgy of extremist violence. Much lies in ruin in the region today--regimes, states, dime-a-dozen ideologies…--and Islamism is no exception. The vacuums that dot our landscapes may be multiplying but they’re not new and neither are the fundamentalists that have inhabited them like scavengers would swamps. The recent fury that is mesmerizing the crowds is not of an explosive idea that has arrived, but of a battered one that is finally dying.

Islam has, over the course of half a century, been mercilessly thrown into the public arena. The result is a religion that reigns over the masses, graceless, face a million scars, name sullied, hands bloodied, at once ridiculous and mystifying in its cruelty to followers and adversaries alike. Islam, thanks to Islamism and its patrons, domestic and foreign, has by turns become an ogre and a joke to its own flock.

Professor Asef Bayat, one of the scholars who first detected the creeping blowback in Iran in the mid-1990s, has bestowed a rather sweet label on the shifting trends.  Post-Islamism, he called the emerging mindset—the subtle, incremental pushback of the pious, partly in search of a middle ground between the dictates of increasingly invasive and suffocating strictures and the demands of modern life, and partly in an effort to extricate Islam (rescue it, really) from the political machinations and shenanigans of its enforcers.

But this! This is all out war within the Islamist family. They’re at each others’ throats: zealous states versus even more zealous non-state actors, Shiite versus Sunni paymasters, official Islamist parties versus Jihadi insurgent movements, Islamist presidents versus former darling mentors and preachers, firebrand grand ayatollahs versus reformed ex-prime ministers.  

And the fatwas? Pretty much like trinkets and firecrackers at the fun park.

There is more disruption ahead, to be sure. Ruptures, flight, tormented children, smothered youth, harassed minorities, blood and anguish, corpses and mass graves are often the stuff of upheaval, and ours is one on the grandest of scales.  But what makes this moment extraordinary is that, for the first time in practically a century, systems of life, deeply held beliefs, are passing and, as yet, there are no new petitioners anywhere in sight. It’s as if we’ve taken to the proverbial broom to sweep away every broken promise in the house. And no promise has proved more lethal than that of Islamism, especially to Islam itself.

It is foolhardy to underestimate the extent to which Islamic fundamentalism has managed to frame the terms of the debate on culture, gender and identity; the success it has had in peppering every aspect of the day with Islamist dos and don’ts and sensibilities; the determination with which it has vilified secularism as sheer heresy, labeling it the devil’s currency. There was never anything to be dismissive about when political Islam rose, and there certainly is nothing to be flippant about now that it is falling. When such mighty ideas crumble the damage is invariably severe and the pile up is guaranteed to be high.

So I take the Islamist fratricide very seriously--but the jokes as well. I take seriously also the quieter tales of dissent in conservative societies never more dumbfounded by the abuses and excesses of the Savonarolas in suits and ties. Aside from the obvious example of Egypt in 2012 (this is in reference to the street-level resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and not Sisi’s coup), I take seriously the current campaign by Jordanian educators against Islamist creeds that have long pervaded Jordan’s curricula. I take seriously the polls that show 75% of Iranians have folded the prayer rug. I take seriously the news coming out of Mosul about the faithful staying away from the mosque. Every episode that is a peephole into communities revisiting once unshakable convictions, I take seriously.

The dogmas that have shaped thought and dominated politics for 50 years are, one by one, crashing, and we are watching the wreckage in real time. True, there are regimes still standing, some even thriving, and authoritarianisms on the rebound, strongly suggesting that the Arab status quo is showing resilience and bounce. But this argument is premature and beside the point. The collapse need not be wholesale and indiscriminate for it to be catastrophic to the very precepts that underpinned and gave impetus to the old order. The fact is our slate has never been wiped this clean.

And the future?  For that, one has to stay close and stay tuned.

Monday, March 23, 2015


Landscapes, in childhood’s dream, were so vast and silent…[1] The avenue of Rumm…gorgeous in sunset colour, the cliffs as red as the clouds in the west, like them in scale and in the level bar they raised against the sky…Such whelming greatness dwarfed us, stripped off the cloak of laughter we had ridden over the jocund flats….[2]

It didn’t take much for T.E Lawrence to draw his florid pen, but, my God, when it came to Wadi Rumm, the man could play it like Carmignola’s violin.

And how I remember Wadi Rumm! Five years ago, on foot, towards our tents just about ready to enter its mouth and decamp in a past unsullied and hush-hush, the present roars by on a hollering four-wheel drive. Such is the harassed state of this magnificent patch of the desert, you have to trek long and deep before you’re able to fade into the clefts and sand.

But Rumm is not Sergio Leone’s parched wilds. In that desolate expanse of rolling balls of thorn, bad men, frightened village folks and women in constant fear of being raped, only the sight of Clint Eastwood reassures. In Rumm throbs a glorious medley of life. Just so, that master of masters, Ali al Jabri wrote:

A titanic apocalypse-geology of a collapsed volcanic system, granite and sandstone, the one chipped and slivered in smooth cliff-faces like polished metal edged in shimmery blues; the other a hallucination of brilliant orange/red/gold sculpted filigree, like Hindi temples rising out of the pink…floor. People call it the desert but it’s really full of life, vast horizons studded with positive/negative polka dots of vegetable growth, alternately darker or lighter as the sun makes his short solstice trajectory…[3]

To David Lean, of course, the world owes the first cinematic nod to the Jordanian Wadi. After all, how could he give justice to the high drama of Lawrence of Arabia if he did not release Peter O’Toole to play the hero among those same old sand dunes? But as deferential as Lean is towards Wadi Rumm and its moods, in the end, his film is a Western fable, much like the agent provocateur himself. The Bedouin and his dominion are backdrops here, as they were for Lawrence back in 1916.

When I watched Theeb, a Jordanian feat and an Arab production, at last year’s Venice Film Festival, I thought, finally, the native’s own ode to the land and its people. Because of all the narratives spun about those seismic times, Theeb gently eases into the shadows the larger context—the advent of the railway, the death of the pilgrimage caravans, war, imperial intrigue…--all the while languorously caressing the indigenous ways to which it was about to lay waste.

You could say, on the face of it—and what a face it is—that Theeb is a story about innocence lost, that very moment when the future, in all its strangeness, barges in and yesterday, with all its precious familiarities, folds. A budding son of Wadi Rumm and its tribes, Theeb (as in wolf), by sheer hard happenstance, is jolted out of his blissful childhood at a time when the Levant was being yanked out of its Ottoman induced stupor by forces much larger than itself. In Theeb, both the child and his desert grapple with intrusions that are near incomprehensible to them. We know that Theeb at the end of his journey beats down the odds. We know as well that, at the end of ours, we Arabs do not.

But this is just the theme that nudges along the essential storyline. If you want a chaperone, the writers of this original script (Bassel Ghandour and Naji Abu Nowar) oblige you with this one, as if to tempt you to let go everywhere else. And surrender you must, for—truly!—what unfolds is a poem of love: love of this inscrutable terrain, by turns stunning and frightening; love of the silence, the only sound it cares to know; love of the sky above and the stars that dress it gemlike as pearls would a black velvet gown; of the day as it crawls content towards the finish line; of “the lonely moving individual, the son of the road, apart from the world as in a grave.”[4] Love of the single breathtaking shot, fleeting and yet profound. Doesn’t the heart stop early in the movie as Hussein, Theeb’s older brother, clad in pure white, vanishes into black, ushering in the stranger and his life changing plot?

Theeb is the stuff of movie making at its most wondrous and audacious. Ghandour, as writer-producer, and Abu Nowar, as writer-director, drop anchor at home and, with little resources, put raw talent to work. Not only theirs. The brilliant cast of the movie comes to you courtesy of those landscapes, not a single one of them with a minute’s experience of acting before the two filmmakers came knocking.

And when they did, the Wadi Rumm of 1916 had all but disappeared. The progeny of that generation scattered in listless makeshift villages on the outer edges of the desert, a destination now for tourists like me desperate for a night of solitude among its ravines.

Theeb is currently playing in many Arab cities, including Beirut. North American rights have been acquired recently, but release dates have not been set.

(Disclosure, just in case you’re wondering: Bassel is my nephew. And for that act of providential kindness, I am eternally grateful.)

[1] Lawrence, TE, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, p. 351.
[2] Ibid., p.375.
[3] Letter from Ali al Jabri to his friend, Antonia Gaunt, January 14, 1979.
[4] Lawrence, SPW, p. 638.