Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Land of Promises Broken: What I Saw in Palestine

Having been up till the small hours the previous evening immoderately imbibing with an old friend in Amman, I found myself at the Abdali bus station at 06:30 am wondering for more than one reason what on earth I thought I was doing. I purchased my ticket for the ‘JETT’ bus that would take me to the King Hussein Bridge – one of Jordan’s three border crossings to Israeli-occupied Palestine – and took my seat in the waiting area, gulping furiously on a bottle of water. Everybody else in the station was Jordanian, and like most Jordanians, they appeared to be of relatively modest means. As a nearly lifelong resident of the UAE, it struck me how strange it was to see poor Arabs; that’s to say, dirt poor Arabs. In Jordan, the waiters are Arabs, the street sweepers are Arabs, and the peasants who harvest the olive trees in the beautiful countryside are Arabs. And as was to be made palpably apparent to me throughout the course of the day, there are plenty of Arabs in the region who are considerably more unfortunate still.

The first leg of my journey, from Amman to the King Hussein Bridge, passed by pleasantly enough, as we meandered through the mountainside overlooking the arresting landscape below – enormous dark-green valleys punctuated by islands of pearl-white rock. The air in Jordan has none of the haze one finds in the Gulf, and as my eyes followed the miles of cloud folding behind the pastel blue horizon, I felt closer to my mother’s native Scotland than to my apartment in Dubai three hours away. 

Arriving at the King Hussein Bridge, I alighted to have my passport and visa checked. After the first of what were to be many of the day’s waits, I was back on the bus, crossing the narrow stretch of no-man’s-land that separates Jordan from the West Bank. Thirty-odd seconds later, I felt the skin on the back of my neck churn as I laid eyes on that one sight for which no person who has lived for years in the Gulf can ever be prepared: the Israeli flag, speared defiantly into the desert, its Star of David flapping muscularly in the hot wind. Indeed, as the bus approached the drop-off point at the Israeli side of the bridge (known as the Allenby) and the IDF soldiers came into view, it struck me that I was setting eyes on Israeli citizens for the first time.

Israeli flags at the western side of the King Hussein bridge
Stepping off the bus, the apparatus of occupation unfolded before me. Those passengers with luggage joined a long queue of Palestinian families heaving and dragging their bundles of cargo to the security scanners. Invariably, these included several large cartons of water, and many families also carried shopping bags filled with inexpensive-looking snacks and juices. I was later to learn that due to perennial shortages of water in the West Bank, families frequently made the trip to Jordan – a country with substantial enough water problems of its own – to stock up. Carrying nothing but a backpack, I made for the nearby portakabin which acted as the first layer of passport control. Trying to ignore the soldier standing just metres to my left – a stone-faced young man of about 21; his eyes shielded behind reflective silver Ray-Bans; his fingers wrapped fondly around his machine gun – I focused instead on the customs officials behind the windows, whom I noticed were all women. Or, rather, I should say they were girls – not one of them looked a day older than me (23). Without exception they were strikingly pretty and as my eye caught one of theirs and I thought I detected the hint of a coy smile I began to wonder in my ignorance what on earth a girl like her was doing in a place like this, etc.

That ended very quickly once I reached the window. Handing over my passport with as much insouciance as I could manage, the girl’s facial expression turned first from Haughty Shop Assistant to Puzzled Mathematician. “What is this?” she asked brusquely, pointing to the entry on my passport under ‘Place of birth’. “Jeddah”, I replied. “Where is Jeddah?” Could she be serious? “Saudi Arabia”, I replied, trying my best to sound as though the question were entirely reasonable. Her look of shock couldn’t have been more pronounced if I had said Pluto. “Thank you, have a seat”, she said hurriedly, her radio already rising to her mouth. I did so on a nearby bench and watched as she left the portakabin with my passport through a door into the main building. Surveying my surroundings, I noticed the soldier had turned to face me, evidently intrigued by my detention. Between the two of us was an elderly Palestinian woman, hunched over a large plastic water container, driving it slowly across the tarmac in silent determination. I searched the soldier’s face for emotion: if he felt any, he hid it expertly. 

Five minutes later the girl reappeared and I was permitted to pass through to the main building, where I had my first of four rounds of questioning while my bag was emptied and scanned for explosives. What were my parents’ names? Why were they in Saudi Arabia? Where were they now? What did I do in Dubai? Did I speak Arabic? Was I married? Where was I going in Israel? (I quickly decided it would not have been worth my while to reply that in no sense was the West Bank actually in Israel.) Why was I going to Jerusalem? Where exactly within Jerusalem would I be going? Would I be meeting any Arabs? Was I going to visit any Arab towns? Where was I staying in Jordan? Who did I know in Jordan? Why was he not joining me in Jerusalem? Did he have a problem with Israel? (Again, I deemed it unwise to go down the factual route here.) In one question that seemed to me highly telling of the Israeli national fixation with ‘homelands’, I was asked “Why do you live in Dubai, when your [British] passport lets you work in the UK?” Clearly, the concepts of internationalism and globalisation are lost on some. 

Surviving the first round, I was again made to wait while my passport was taken elsewhere (presumably being screened by every search the Shin Bet computers could handle). This process was repeated with two more officials (both of whom, again, were women), with further highlights including ‘Are you carrying a weapon, or anything that looks like a weapon?’ Once again opting for the path of least resistance, I managed not to reply that I was just pleased to see her. After about an hour, I was allowed to proceed to the final hurdle, where my entrance visa would be approved and my passport stamped. I asked the woman to kindly not stamp my passport and instead stamp the famous ‘Form 17L’ that is routinely issued to tourists and businessmen travelling to countries that do not recognise Israel as a state. “Why?” she snapped. I told her that I worked in Dubai. As before, the radio came up, I sat down, my passport disappeared. A fourth and final interview was conducted with yet another woman and after a further fifteen minutes I was finally released – about twenty metres as the crow flies from where I had started an hour and a half previously. 

After changing my Jordanian Dinars into Israeli Shekels, I boarded a ‘service’, or shared taxi, to Jerusalem (or as I would call it to any Arab, Al Quds). My fellow passengers in this cramped minibus were exclusively Palestinian women, not one of them younger than 50, and not one of them without food and water packed into the boot for the families to which they were returning. As I removed my bag from the adjacent seat to accommodate the final passenger on board, she smiled at me graciously and thanked me in lucid, equanimous English. I asked her how she spoke the language so well and she replied that she was a teacher. At that point her phone rang and she raised her hand in apology, taking the call and leaving me to peer out the window at the protean Palestinian desert, which was at this point an arid amalgamation of sand and light brown rock – what Philip Roth called “the cratered moonscape of the Pentateuch”. So this is it, I thought. The Promised Land. As someone without any religious affiliation, the Holy Land has no metaphysical significance to me, but as a keen student of history and politics, I nevertheless felt what I have no problem describing as a spiritual frisson as I contemplated the millennia of pitiless tyranny and tragedy of which this tiny corner of the Levant has been the object. Ruminating on this macro reflection, I was brought back down to the micro by a tap on the shoulder. When I turned, another woman to the right of the teacher was holding out, as though to hand me, a small plastic cup of orange juice she had poured from one of the bottles in her shopping bag. Instinctively; Englishly; I spluttered, “No no, thank you very much”, shaking my head and smiling politely. Without blinking, the woman offered it to the woman next to me, and then to each of the remaining passengers in turn. Although I wasn’t the one sitting closest to her, it was to me – the visitor – that she had offered the cup first. 

Turning back to the window, I felt a hot flash of piercing anguish combined with acute fright washing over me, and it took me a second to realise that I was forcing back tears. There I sat, in my Covent Garden polo and my Italian loafers, and here was a woman with nothing offering me a portion of one of the few trifling comforts she was able to get her hands on. Never in my life had I been the recipient of so powerful a gesture of pure humanity. I shall not soon forget it.

Moments later, the engine screeched into life and we were off. At first there was little to see but barren rock and sand, but after about fifteen minutes I caught sight of what turned out to be an enormous walled-off residential complex high on a hillside to the left. Recognising the tell-tale sign of red roofs on beige walls, I instantly knew it to be the infamous Ma’ale Adumim settlement, illegally constructed by messianic Jews shortly after the 1967 conquest, and now home to at least 34,000 settlers (according to Peace Now). As I began taking pictures, the teacher asked if it was my first time in Palestine. I told her it was. For the remaining twenty minutes or so of the journey, especially once we had entered East Jerusalem (which involved stopping at a checkpoint whilst IDF men with machine guns climbed on board and demanded our documents), she pointed out, in a weary but not at all self-pitying tone all the residences where friends and relatives had once lived before being evicted to make way for Israeli settlers (who, thanks to a clause in Israeli law known as the ‘Law of Return’, were more likely to be from Brooklyn, Brisbane or Belarus than from Bethlehem). As she did so, I found myself at a loss for words. What do you say to such a person? Who has every reason to resent you, and yet treats you like an old friend? Who has every reason to suspect you, and yet invites you to her home when she disembarks, laden with as many bottles of water as she can carry? I felt immeasurably impotent, and viscerally sick. My regret compounds with every passing day that I never asked her name.

Ma'ale Adumim
Disembarking myself at the wall surrounding the Old City, I entered via the Damascus Gate. Shouldering my way down the narrow streets through the throngs of Arabs, Jews and tourists, it was in many ways like stepping back in time: the men in Ottoman hats burning frankincense; the Orthodox Jews in their 19th century clothing; the ancient stone pavements and archways. It was also much the same as any other major tourist attraction: novelty t-shirt stalls (“Guns N’ Noses” being my personal favourite); overweight Westerners talking too loudly; tawdry souvenirs sold at staggering prices (I think I paid over $30 for my black-and-white keffiyeh). I headed first for the Muslim quarter but was told by a soldier at the entrance that it was temporarily closed. When I made inquiries at a nearby shop, a Palestinian man told me that some Jewish extremists had made a nuisance of themselves there earlier and so the IDF had shut it down for the day. This was no small disappointment - the Dome of the Rock is the most iconic building in the City, and I would now only see it from afar.

The Dome of the Rock
Over the course of the next five hours I saw more or less everything else: the Al-Aqsa Mosque (of the eponymous 'Martyrs' Brigade'); the Western Wall; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; and dozens of other synagogues and churches. Whilst the place is unquestionably exhilarating, I couldn’t shake the feeling of continuous incredulity as I encountered each wall, stone, rock, or bone. Can this really be what all the anger and fighting and death are for? Granted, the architecture and history are rich and marvellous in the extreme – but is it really for this that bombs are dropped on children? For a wall, a stone, a rock, a bone?

Al-Aqsa mosque

Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall

Christians praying at the Stone of the Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
In the taxi back to the Allenby Bridge that evening, as I tried to make sense of the experience, the lapidary words of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani came back to me: “O Jerusalem, you city of sorrow/ A big tear wandering in the eye/ Who will halt the aggression/ On you, the pearl of religions?” As the first bomb to hit Jerusalem in six years killed a foreign citizen just days after my return, and as round after round of peace talks continue to scale new heights of futility, his is a question long overdue an answer. Until that day, though, the tears.

Candide, or Realism: A review of 'I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions Of An Angry Arab Woman', by Joumana Haddad

“The first reason for my immunity [to threats of violence] was that I’m the sort of person who refuses to be bullied. This might seem self-congratulatory […]”, writes Joumana Haddad, the author of this peculiar and protean (part polemic; part memoir; part poem) exploration of the Arab woman identity. As it happens, I didn’t find this particular claim to be self-congratulatory at all – that this book could have been written in the first place is evidence enough of a certain resilience of character, to say the least – but the compound word had found its way into my marginal scribblings from literally the first page, and in fact the very first paragraph:

Dear Westerner,

Allow me to warn you right from the start: I am not known for making lives any easier.

Well, neither was Edward Said in 1978, when he distilled and engraved the “Orientalist views” that Haddad scorns in the next sentence and throughout the ensuing pages, but leafing through my copy of that well-known text I don’t find him congratulating himself quite so warmly for it at the time. Thus begins the protracted throat-clearing of Scheherazade’s opening pages, which set about to break the shocking news to the “Occidental” reader that there exist some Arab women whose literacy exceeds that of a five-day-old bat; whose brothers do on occasion spare them the daily group sodomy routine and whose husbands have been known to take breaks from the fist-and-jackboot regime from time to time. It’s unfortunate that Haddad chooses to begin by insulting her reader (a crime for which she does apologise later on, saying perhaps too generously that “we Arabs generalise about Westerners even more than they generalise about us”), and I found myself forgiving her for this and other further discourtesies only on the grounds that she cannot possibly mean some of the things she says (such as, for example, alluding to the writing of The Satanic Verses, a Booker-shortlisted work of fiction, as a “violent provocation of Islam”. A what provocation of Islam? A violent what of Islam?).

Similarly, I find myself disbelieving that Haddad in reality can be as solipsistic as she sometimes reads on the page. We are told in the first chapter that the book is a “modest” reflection on the question of the Arab woman. If this claim survives scrutiny, it is not without strain. The young Haddad, in her own words, was a “precocious” and “unstoppably curious” girl whose “whirlwind of mental activity” could only be sated by the “devouring” of “thick books that were inappropriate for my age”. She saw through the inanity of John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Woman are from Venus “despite being in my early twenties at the time”. The first editions of her magazine, JASAD, were the product of “sitting tirelessly for hours and hours in front of my laptop” (as opposed to, say, in front of her fax machine, or her microwave). She isn’t even sure, apparently, that she isn’t “crazy”, a question that she “often” asks herself. Understatement, in other words, is not her trade.

Stylistic shortcomings of this sort can be overlooked only on the grounds of content. Haddad is able to rescue Scheherazade by the strength of her actual analysis, the fortitude of which derives from the candour and mercilessness with which she turns her critical eye, and pen, on her own, contemporary Arab society:

Being an Arab today means you need to be a hypocrite. It means you cannot live and think what you really want to live and think honestly, spontaneously and candidly. It means you are split in two, forbidden from speaking the blunt truth (and the truth IS blunt; such is its role, and this is its power), because the Arab majority depends upon a web of comforting lies and illusions. It means that your life and your stories must be repressed, clamped-down and encoded; rewritten to suit the vestal guardians of Arab chastity, so the latter can rest assured that the Arab ‘hymen’ has been protected from sin, shame, dishonour or flaw.

(Jasad, the name of her magazine, means ‘body’ in Arabic, and that ‘hymen’ above is an instance of her talent for deploying the body as a metaphor: the same trope, of course, which is the hallmark of her poetry.)

To her city of residence, Beirut, she is especially callous:

I grew up in a country that hates me, and that expressed this hatred in so many ugly ways. I do not want to belong to a place like that. No, I definitely do not belong to Beirut: I just live in it. The thought of belonging to such a monstrous, murderous womb terrifies me.

Her description of the city that was once dubbed ‘the Paris of the Orient’ as a place “where you can’t help but feel you are ‘sleeping with the enemy’ every time you go to bed. And that this enemy is you” calls to mind Azar Nafisi’s description of living in Tehran being like “sleeping with someone you loathe”. I must admit, as a long-term resident of Dubai with a good number of Lebanese friends, to great surprise at Haddad’s sangfroid. The Lebanese are a tremendously and enviably heterogeneous and diverse people but the one point upon which I thought they were all unanimously agreed was that not even the most concerted and ingenious efforts of human civilisation could in a million years produce a city that was the equal of Beirut. But then, none of my Lebanese friends is in the business of writing erotic poetry.

And Scheherazade is in large part a book about writing, or better say literature in general. At age twelve Haddad read the Marquis de Sade’s Justine “in a mixture of panic and disbelief, both hypnotized and in a numb fright, like someone who is afraid, yet fatally attracted to the object of her fear”, an experience to which she refers as her “baptism by subversion”. Then came Nabokov (the Nafisi connection again); Dostoevsky; Flaubert; and all the other aforementioned “thick books”, and a literature junkie was born. An underlying, - perhaps the underlying – theme of Scheherazade is the connection between literature and freedom, not only in the personal sense (on being a loner: “Amidst all those wonderful things to read, dream and write about, I profoundly enjoyed my own company, deeply convinced that each person is a crowd by him/herself”) but also in the political (“And I am convinced that reading is one of the most important tools of liberation that any human being, and a contemporary Arab woman in particular, can exploit”). She is contemptuous of the “young [Lebanese] women” who would rather “shop” or “waste a whole day tanning in the sun” than “devote one hour to reading a few pages of a good book (while they could do both perfectly easily)”. (I would argue that this criticism applies at least as well to Westerners, and at least as well to young men.) And she cites statistics of reading in the Arab world that could sober a hardened dipsomaniac:

According to [The First Arab Report on Cultural Development, published by the Arab Thought Foundation in 2008], I live in a region where fewer than 0.1% of its 270 million people read; where merely 40% of that depressing 0.1% read books; and where 9% of the 40% of that initial 0.1% actually read poetry.

That puts the total number of Arab poetry readers at 9,720, or 0.0036% of the total of 270 million. With such a microscopic readership, some might ask, why bother becoming a poet at all? “We write poetry to be free”, is Haddad’s simple answer. Fittingly, her first poem, written at age twelve, was entitled ‘Ma liberté’.

Literature; erotica; censorship; and the liberation of Middle Eastern women… well, we know where this is heading. Haddad at one point describes herself as an “Epicurean poet”. It has always been a pleasant irony, for those of us who take pleasure from ironies, that the Orthodox Jewish term for ‘apostate’ is ‘apikoros’, which translates simply as ‘Epicurean’. And since at least the burning of the books of the Jews and Greeks of Ephesus in Acts 19, there have been no greater foes of literature than the benighted and barbarous parties of god. The subtitle of Scheherazade promises us an ‘angry’ Arab woman, and Haddad does not disappoint in her most polemical (and estimable) chapter, ‘A Woman Unafraid of Provoking Allah’. I could have given you more or less any paragraph, but the following is perhaps the tersest summary of Haddad’s position:

This is how I have come to think of it: with all due respect to people who believe in fairy tales (and need them), what could paradise be other than a wonderful illusion invented by a few geniuses […] in order to control the masses, promising them in return a reward that they will never be able to grant? Or, at least, a reward with no guarantee of delivery? Can you imagine an easier, yet more Machiavellian trick pulled on millions and millions of minds, eager to be comforted in their fears and doubts and day-to-day challenges and cries? Do you really want to bet your life, and principles, and behaviour, and choices, on THAT? [Italics mine.]

Deftly anticipating the Christian chauvinist reader who assumes that by “paradise” she alludes only to the grotesque Islamic saturnalia, Haddad is scrupulous in her equal condemnation of Christianity, citing the misogyny of St Paul; the doctrines of eternal damnation and original sin; and the proscription of abortion, divorce and birth control (to which one could add the craven and contemptible commandment to love one’s enemy; the moral bankruptcy of vicarious redemption; the absurdity of ‘taking no thought for the morrow’; Christ’s Talmudic racism against Gentiles in general and Canaanites in particular; and the utter totalitarianism of his forbidding even the thought of adultery; inter alia) to argue that there is no “authentic, significant, definitive difference between the situation of the Muslim and the Christian Arab woman”: that “the injustice, double standards and prejudices are just more obvious and visible with the first one”.

Now might be the time to mention the courage of Joumana Haddad. It is controversial enough being an outspoken atheist in the West, even (or especially) in the most secular republic on earth, the United States. But to print the above words in Lebanon - a country where, according to the CIA World Factbook, 99% of the population is either Muslim or Christian; where law and order are maintained only at the permission of a theocratic Shia militia literally named the ‘Party of God’; and where a state visit to the capital city by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can draw crowds of thousands of jubilant supporters - is to risk something rather worse than ignominy or alienation. Haddad’s ferocious defence of the Enlightenment principles, in the face of the unimaginable horror of threats of acid throwing, puts to shame the tepid and fatuous notion of the ‘militant’ or ‘fundamentalist’ secularist propagated by Western critics of atheism (who, it goes without saying, have never had to spend a day of their lives worrying about freedom of conscience or expression), just as it annihilates the even more foolish argument that secularism has led to a ‘spiritual vacuum’ in the West, the filling of which can only be accomplished by ‘faith’. Haddad ennobles the rejection of religion in her life, as much as in her work. After all, dear reader, ask yourself which of the following poses the greater threat to our civilisation: Arab poets for atheism, or American politicians for Jesus?

An ‘angry’ Arab woman indeed then, and not without reason. Yet it would be in error to describe Scheherazade as a diatribe. Haddad’s is by no means a cold heart, and her prose glows with arresting tendresse as often as it sizzles with belligerence. Even if she does stray too far into saccharine and sentimental territory at times, in her vacillations between the two extremes she sketches for us a tantalising chiaroscuro:

I do not want to live my present life thinking of the afterlife. This is it for me, folks. This is all there is, these forty or fifty or maybe ninety years on this earth, with all the small joys and disappointments that come with them.

As for the errors I make, the only punishment I acknowledge for having made them is my awareness of those errors, and having to live with it: there is, there should be, no heavier penalty on a person’s soul, mind and heart.

And the only reward I want for my ‘good deeds’, if and when I do any, is to know that I’ve done them without expecting anything in return: no pat on the back, no bravos, no Saint Peter handing me the keys of the blessed kingdom. I am convinced that no recompense is sweeter.

Quietly beautiful passages such as these are worth more than all the ‘holy’ texts put together. This is the morality that cannot be found in religion: the morality that comes only from taking a long, cold stare into the abyss, and confronting the fear and loneliness that come with doing so. In short, it is the morality of an adult. 

As with the anatomical imagery, this facility for the moral is of course consanguineous with her gift for poetry, but I suspect it might also have something to do with her femininity. Femininity, indeed, is ever audible in Haddad’s prose. (Scheherazade is not an erotic book, but when Haddad writes of the “power” of her breasts “under a tight shirt”, or of her incessant teenage masturbation, or of “the little pieces of flesh torn from men’s backs”, she knows the male – and, I suppose, the female - reader is feeling a frisson of sorts.) Above all else, Scheherazade is an unapologetic assertion of womanhood. If any chapter outshines ‘An Arab Woman Unafraid of Provoking Allah’, it is the one that precedes it, ‘An Arab Woman Redefining Her Womanhood’.

Not so much a feminist as a post-feminist, Haddad reassuringly has no time for the “oily hair, messy clothes and hairy armpits” breed of man-hater, dismissing as “insulting” the presumption that she would support the presidential campaigns of Ségolène Royal and Hillary Clinton “just because all three of us wear bras before leaving the house in the morning”. Similarly, she decries the intellectual indolence of women “who rush to blame men for all their problems” without conceding that “the oppression and hardship a woman faces are sometimes her own responsibility as well”:

Plus, who said that men are women’s worst enemy? I’ve met women who hate women, ally against them and fight them harder than any man would – mothers who remain silent in front of a rapist father; who are eager to find husbands for their thirteen year-old daughters; who leave them without a proper education because ‘they are predestined for marriage anyway, so why bother?’; who raise their sons to be even more discriminative and disrespectful towards women than their fathers.

Of course, it would be disastrous to make too much of this point (and Haddad doesn’t). In a region in which the vast majority of the population practices an openly misogynistic religion – a religion whose penal code is in most cases enforced by the state – the hypothesis that women’s suffering is self-imposed is problematic at best. Nevertheless, it’s a further testament to Haddad’s refreshing intellectual candour that she refuses to pull punches or shy from criticism, even when that criticism may play into the hands of her real worst enemy.

And therein lies the strength of Scheherazade. For though at times Haddad may, as I have said, be slightly too quick to award herself a pat on the back, she is never at any moment self-pitying. Despite her clumsy “Dear Westerner” opener, the bulk of the ‘anger’ in the book is directed inwardly, at her fellow Arabs (astonishingly, for a writer whose childhood and adolescence were so blackened by the wars in Lebanon, she makes not a single mention of Israel). By obstinately sticking to her scruples, even at the risk of alienating the friends she may need most, Haddad sets an example to intellectuals the world over, and produces a work that warrants attention from non-Arabs at least as much as from their Arab counterparts.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Christopher Hitchens' Shameful Silence on Syria

As anybody who has had the dubious pleasure of conversing with me for more than fifteen minutes can tell you, if you hazard to steer the topic of discussion even vaguely in the directions of religion, politics, literature, travel, drink, or even sex, I cannot be relied on to make it as far as the end of my next sentence without bringing up Christopher Hitchens. I beg your pardon, did you just speak favourably of Mother Teresa? Please refer to The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, esp. pp. 41-42; p. 57. There isn’t an argument with a religious believer of any kind that can’t be triumphantly closed with his dictum that “what may be asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence”. And every time I hear another fitness freak or health bore pontificating about the perils of the true and blushful Hippocrene, I give them Hitchens’ considered and learned medical advice: “Not just the occasional drink – the daily drink. Not just red wine – any alcohol is better than none”. Like “a mother discussing her new child”, to steal another one, I am “unboreable on the subject”. I haven’t quite read all of the books, but his hundreds of articles on the Slate, Vanity Fair, Atlantic, Nation and of course Guardian websites (inter multa alia) have seen me through incalculable hours of what would otherwise have been chronic workplace tedium, and I confess that more than once have I cut short my evening at the club or house party to return home and watch him on YouTube, utterly alone but for the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black (did you know it’s his favourite?).

But just as the first step into adulthood is realising the faults and limitations of one’s parents, so one cannot claim intellectual maturity without subjecting one’s seniors to sustained and dispassionate criticism. I have in the past found occasion for minor disagreement with Hitchens – perhaps most substantially on the French burqa ban, which he welcomed – but not once until now would I have described any aspect of his work as truly shameful. That, however, is precisely the word that must be used for his total silence on the massacres currently taking place in Syria.

Hitchens is justly renowned for the prolificacy of his output, and his ongoing entanglement with his particularly malicious cocktail of cancers has had no apparent diminishing effect on the “thousand words of printable copy” a day of which he believably boasted in Hitch-22. Nor has he exactly been reticent about the Arab Spring. On January 17th, three days after Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia, his ‘Fighting Words’ column on Slate featured an entry entitled ‘Tunisia Grows Up’, wherein he wrote warmly, albeit cautiously, about the enticing possibility of “grass-roots movements in other states of the region”. Two weeks later came his note of approbation for the kindling Egyptian uprisings, again in a Slate piece, which was sub-titled ‘When will dictators learn not to treat their people like fools?’ On February 25th, he decried Obama’s “pathetic, dithering response to the Arab uprisings”, and made the beginnings of what was to become his case for regime change in Libya, a case that was to be refined and reiterated in subsequent columns on March 7th (‘American Inaction Favours Qaddafi’, Slate) and March 14th (‘Don’t Let Qaddafi Win’, Slate) and was to escalate into a direct call for Qaddafi’s assassination by April 25th (‘Go After Qaddafi’, Slate).

Yet this Thursday will mark four months since Hasan Ali Akleh emulated the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi by setting himself on fire in Al-Hasakah, triggering a once-unthinkable chain of events that has seen the Assad crime family murder more than 1,000 of its ‘own’ civilians, many of them children, many of them killed for the mere act of burying and mourning those already killed, or even trying to retrieve their leaking corpses from the streets. Despite the ban on foreign journalists, the internet abounds with amateur video footage of thousands of protestors being pitilessly repressed with methods so uncannily similar to those used in Tehran in 2009 that Iranian involvement in the matter is no longer seriously disputed. And Hitchens apparently deems all this to be of less import than the banal discovery that a second-rate politician may or may not have sexually assaulted a housekeeper (‘Beaucoup B.S.’, May 18th, Slate).

This is at least as incomprehensible to me as it must be to those ‘leftists’ who indolently label Hitchens a neoconservative. After all, his contempt for the Syrian regime is long-established. Indeed, in the aforementioned article of January 31st, he referred to it as one of the two “most conspicuously authoritarian despotisms” in the region (the other, of course, being Saudi Arabia), and added that he hoped it would no longer be “spared the challenge of insurrection”. That challenge has now arrived with more determination than he could possibly have dreamt of in January, yet with every passing week, he continues to write as though there isn’t a thing going on in the country worth mentioning. Astonishingly, in this week’s Slate column he actually manages to bring up Syria - citing an Israeli strike on a Syrian military site in 2007 “confirmed by the IAEA as a nuclear facility” – without, apparently, deciding that this has any relevance to the present situation!

Those readers who remember his arguments in favour of the Iraq intervention will find this doubly confusing. For those who missed them at the time, they were as follows: i) Saddam had committed genocide against rival sects both in Iraq proper and in Kurdistan; ii) Saddam had repeatedly threatened and then violated the sovereignty of neighbouring states; iii) Saddam had blatantly financed Islamist terrorism outside his ‘own’ borders (by, for instance, doling out $25,000 cheques to the families of suicide-murderers in Gaza) and harboured distinguished foreign jihadists such as the Jordanian al-Zarqawi within them; and iv) Saddam was attempting to acquire a nuclear arsenal. How many of these points, if any, don’t apply in Syria? The Israeli hit in 2007 takes care of the fourth point straight away. Assad’s open alliance with and sponsorship of Hizbullah in Lebanon ticks off point three. A case could certainly be made that the slaughtering by the exclusively Alawite Presidential Guard (led by Bashar’s psychopathic brother, Maher) of predominantly Sunni citizens constitutes a form of genocide. And as for the remaining second point, Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs has been a constant since independence, and the current chaos now endangers Lebanon in fresh ways. As many as 5,000 Syrian refugees have fled into the northern Lebanese town of Wadi Khaled, and while they have largely been welcomed for now, huge questions will naturally surround their fate if Assad is able to hold on to power. Meanwhile on Hamra St in west Beirut on Monday, the Lebanese Army had to be called in to protect anti-Assad demonstrators from the very same Syrian fascists who attacked and nearly abducted Hitchens himself two years ago (see ‘The Swastika and the Cedar’, Vanity Fair, May 2009). And this is to say nothing of the threat that Assad and his friends in Hamas pose against his other neighbours across the Golan Heights.

I bring this up not because I think troops ought to be sent to Damascus, but because it so palpably exposes an inconsistency in Hitchens’ politics. For about the last eight years, he’s spent much of his professional life trying to convince people that the cases for regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq (and now Libya) can be made on essentially liberal and progressive grounds. Living in Dubai, with a good number of Gulf and Levant Arab friends, I too have tried to sell the argument that the war on terror was not a war for oil. This becomes a lot harder to do when a premier advocate of that war watches Assad’s death squads slaughtering children – an example of terrorism if ever there was one - with arms indifferently folded.

Allons travailler

Yes, yes, I know, for as long as it's been in currency, the word 'blogger' has lived in approximately the same neighbourhood of my lexicon as 'douchebag': a designation slightly on the wetter side of 'wanker', and lacking the self-esteem or the strength of character - the amour-propre - to be a 'twat'. I'm perfectly aware, thank you, of what this looks like, and what it means. What it suggests. What it entails. All I say to you is, I have a blog now. I'm into blogging. I am a blogger. I blog.

Not that this is going to turn into some pathetic outlet for my neuroses, whereby I update you all five times a day on how I'm 'hanging in there'. On the contrary, I don't intend for this to be about me at all. Instead it will be in part a mock-column, in which any of you who may be interested will find my opinions on notable developments in religious and political affairs, and in part an archive of some at least semi-serious writing I've previously put together that has failed to find publication (i.e., so far, all of it).

To that end, then, I begin with a 1,300-word piece that would seem to meet both of these descriptions at once.