Sunday, June 26, 2011

Defending Dubai: The trendy diatribes against the emirate have become a lazy and trite cliché

Journalists, we are perennially being assured in the face of ever-compounding evidence to the contrary, strive as a matter of principle to avoid cliché. And despite their editors’ very obvious indifference to the actual attainment of this standard, for every couple of hundred Kafkaesque trials and Draconian measures and (the shibboleth par excellence) Orwellian government policies, it’s still possible to come across a maverick penman writing in a voice more or less of his own. It was largely in celebration of such an eccentric soul that I and many of my fellow long-term residents of Dubai welcomed the artillery of vitriol against our city that began with Johann Hari’s 2009 report in the Independent, ‘The dark side of Dubai’. It was high time, we thought, that an enterprising scribbler came along and upset the saccharine consensus of Dubai as a sun-doused El Dorado, a bubble blissfully immune to the banalities that besieged the rest of what we expatriates had long referred to as the ‘real world’. At last, inconvenient questions were being asked about the treatment of blue-collar workers; the parodic ostentation of the real estate developments; the rank hypocrisy of an Islamic state that jails marijuana smokers but permanently averts its gaze from a staggering prostitution pandemic. At last, the refreshing breezes of irony and humour were blowing over a philistine society congealed by kitsch.

Almost overnight, the enumeration of Dubai’s iniquities became something of a vogue, and columnists had great sport outbidding one another in venom and contempt for us avaricious mercenaries blasting around town in our chromed Lamborghinis, soaking the dance floors and our reptilian girlfriends in pre-war Pérignon, and cackling aboard our shimmering yachts at the abject servility of our housemaids. I think it was around the time that Vanity Fair published ‘Dubai on Empty’ that I began to get bored (though I barked with laughter at the author’s illiterate assertion that, of Dubai’s young professionals, “None are very clever”). And with the advent of last week’s slovenly piece in Slate (‘The New New World’) - whose scribe Anne Applebaum gravely informs the reader that “this apparently harmonious, multiethnic society has a dark side”, as though the phrase (and the point) were being set down for the first time - it’s no longer at all clear to whose account the hilarity is to be charged. I’m sad to say it looks as though the Dubai-bashing diatribe – born so recently, and of so noble a womb - has already become a tired and trite cliché in itself. 

As with all clichés, the image of Dubai put about in the Western press contains some truth and some originality, but what’s true is no longer original and vice versa. I don’t wish to acquit Dubai of any of the accurate charges made against it – on which more later - but to the charge that the city is nothing but a soulless ‘corporation’, devoid of any indigenous history or culture, I feel I must insist on some allowance for chiaroscuro.

Consider the following items of which you conceivably did not recently read in the pages of a Western newspaper. You are not likely to have heard of the local museum, cosily enclosed inside the Al Fahaidi Fort, a stone-walled military complex perched on the banks of the creek (known to the Ancient Greeks as the River Zara) that still contains the original cannons used over two hundred years ago to defend the townspeople of the old Bastakia district from hostile naval arrivals. As well as an impressive inventory of artefacts of general anthropological interest, from swords and shields to jewellery to pottery to musical instruments (including a set of goatskin bagpipes; a useful reminder of the Arabian origins of Scotland’s ‘national’ music) that trace life in Dubai back to the early Umayyad and Abbasid Islamic eras, also showcased are some truly remarkable archaeological finds that conservatively date civilisation in the emirate to at least 4,000 BC. (By contrast, the oldest of the three pyramids of the Giza Necropolis, which is also the oldest of the ancient seven wonders, was completed in c. 2,500 BC.) Intriguingly – at least to those of us who happen to be intrigued by such things – by far the most bountiful discovery of ancient settlement was made in Jumeirah, now the namesake of the multinational hotel brand and the wealthiest and most desirable of Dubai’s residential suburbs. Thus when A.A. Gill writes that “[t]wenty years ago, none of this was here”, at whose expense is the irony? Incidentally, I suspect the reason journalists are unaware of these modest but genuine treasures is that on the rare occasions that they condescend to travel to the city, they choose to stay in the very same five-star (or seven-star) hotels upon which they subsequently pass such righteous judgment.

Nor are you likely to have heard about the Emirates Literary Festival, the bringer of international names such as Martin Amis (who I pause to note is the author of a wonderful book called The War Against Cliché), Margaret Atwood and Michael Palin as well as regional notables such as Adonis to sold-out audiences in recent years. Exchanging a few polite words with my fellow attendees this year, it was heartening to see how tremendously heterogeneous a batch they were: a Marxist academic and a physician here; a children’s story writer and a psychologist there. After being jeered at a Q&A with the Lebanese poet Joumana Haddad (my question came down, as I had expected, too favourably on the side of America vis-à-vis the war in Afghanistan), a middle aged Arab woman approached me at the book signing to tell me she thought my question a pertinent one and she was sorry for the reception it got. Such encounters form the fabric of a cultural tapestry, and they plainly negate Ms Applebaum’s witless segregation of all Dubai expatriates into either ‘bankers’ or ‘workers’. 

Nor is it probable that you caught the news – though The Guardian did actually report it - of this year’s Art Dubai fair, which brought in more than 20,000 artists, curators, collectors and other visitors, including representatives of the British Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As well as what might be described as the more quotidian elements of an art fair, the organisers made space for an entire section explicitly dedicated to the Arab Spring, showcasing for instance an enormous canvas depicting the revolutionary scenes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by the Egyptian painter Khaled Hafez. The irony that this was unravelled in the same week that the UAE government sent forces to assist the Bahraini King Hamad Al Khalifa in his homicidal response to unarmed protestors was by no means wasted on the artists, who in the vastly more reactionary neighbouring emirate of Sharjah handed out the names of civilians murdered in Bahrain to attendees at their own biennial art fair, earning themselves some nervous questioning (but no arrests) from the local police. This, too, is material for the process of cultural embroidery.

Equally flourishing communities exist for musicians, as well as dramatists, dancers, filmmakers, photographers and architects. Yes, architects – whilst it’s true that the bulk of new real estate is a quaking, cacophonous Leviathan of vulgarity, there’s also the precious handful of exceptions – the Burj Khalifa; the Burj al Arab; perhaps the Emirates Towers too – that would hold their place on any skyline, and don’t seem to tire the eye no matter how many times they are beheld.

I reiterate: none of this is a whitewash of Dubai, or an apology for its many and various transgressions, in ethics or in aesthetics. While we’re on the subject of journalism, freedom of speech is a commodity still shamefully undersupplied in the country. Returning from a recent trip to Palestine, I tried to get a write-up of the experience published in the preeminent local paper, The National, only to be told by the travel editor that they did not accept copy from “Israel”. My response that in no internationally recognised sense were the Occupied Territories in Israel apparently made no difference. Note, then, one of the ways in which censorship defeats its objective: in refusing to even acknowledge the Palestinian territorial dispute, the most revered publication in the United Arab Emirates effectively departs from the consensus of international law and takes the side of the most fanatical and messianic elements of the Israeli religious-nationalist right wing!

Much room, in other words, remains for improvement, and the necessary task of criticism must continue, from without as well as within. However, that task is compromised, rather than complemented by the intellectual indolence of fifth-rate hacks who, so far from being critics (f. Gk. kritikos; capable of judgment), prefer to receive their judgments by decree, and who affect to dissent from public opinion only by restating the private opinions of those talented enough to have any.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sarah Paling: The freaks of today's Republican party make the Alaskan look respectable

It was a truly amazing (f. OE amasian: to astonish; confuse) day in 2008 when the Republican presidential nominee John McCain decided that, after eight years of George W. Bush, what the American voting public wanted most was an increased presence of the religious right in the White House, and selected the ostentatious Christian fundamentalist Sarah Palin to be his running mate. A virtual unknown at the time, it scarcely took twenty four hours for Palin’s fantastic ignorance to come to light and by now it is already, just three years on, the stuff of imperishable legend. Here was a woman who didn’t just despise the intellectual in general and the scientific in particular; ridiculing the established facts of evolution and climate change and noisily advocating the teaching of Genesis as truth in schools. She didn’t just wear her astounding incuriosity about the world outside of America – having only received her first passport a year previously - with pride. No, here was an authentic, five-star fruitcake, who for two decades belonged to a church whose attendees had a habit of speaking in tongues, and who believed that when the universe was created by God – a mere 6,000 years ago – Adam and Eve walked side by side with the dinosaurs. Alarming comments were dug up of her referring to the invasion of Iraq as a “task that is from God”, and only this week the Guardian revealed that during her tenure as Governor of Alaska she once literally asked for the Lord’s help in drafting the state budget.

Yet for those of us who found the will to keep up with the American right after this dispiriting low, the even more amazing spectacle has been the speed with which each successive emerging Republican figure has managed to outshine Palin in stupidity, demagogy and theocratic crackpottery. 

First there was Christine O’Donnell, a woman of such breathtaking political ignorance that she didn’t know – and refused to believe, when told – that the Constitution mandated a separation between church and state (a highly instructive glimpse of what an America under her stewardship would look like), and who made the career-finishing decision to unironically proclaim on national television that she was “not a witch”. Then came Michele Bachmann, the confirmed 2012 contender who despite being billed as a ‘Palin With Brains’ (whatever the point of that would be) nevertheless shares all of the ex-Governor’s convictions about Darwin and the environment, and has managed to add further statements of flabbergasting historical inaccuracy of her own, such as her claim that the founding fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery (abolished in 1865, eighty-nine years after the Declaration of Independence). She also speaks without embarrassment about her frequent contact with the Creator, having acted on His considered advice not only in marrying her husband but also in running for Congress in the first place – thus making the modest assertion that she, like the Pope, is God’s personal pick for the job. And by the time we were given Donald Trump, I began to seriously wonder if the whole charade weren’t an elaborate Democrat conspiracy.

But the most damning evidence of how radically removed the Republicans have become from reality is surely that the candidate currently leading the race to 2012 is a man who believes that when the Messiah returns – an event we can expect any day now – it will be to preside over the galaxies from the state of Missouri. His name is Mitt Romney, and if reports from Monday night’s assembly of Republican heavyweights are anything to go by, he will be the man nominated to contest the Democrats in next year’s election. 

Naturally, a religious extremist of even the most benign kind in the White House would be cause enough for consternation. But a strong case can be made that Romney’s Mormonism poses additional threats unique to the cult. The most obvious is that the Mormon Church already has a President of its own, regarded as a quasi-divine “prophet, seer and revelator”, and Romney’s statement in 2007 that “no authority of my church [...] will ever exert influence on presidential decisions” seems hard to swallow in light of, say, his fanatical homophobia (on the podium Monday he boasted warmly of his opposition to the repealing of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”). 

Another consideration, raised by - inter alia - Christopher Hitchens in the run-up to the ‘08 election, is that until 1978, the Mormon Church was “an officially racist organisation”. At the time he pointed to the story in the Book of Mormon of “the ancient battle of Cumorah” (upstate New York), in which

[T]he Nephites, described as fair-skinned and "handsome," fought against the outcast Lamanites, whose punishment for turning away from God was to be afflicted with dark skin. Later, in antebellum Missouri and preaching against abolition, [Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church] and his cronies announced that there had been a third group in heaven during the battle between God and Lucifer. This group had made the mistake of trying to remain neutral but, following Lucifer's defeat, had been forced into the world and compelled to "take bodies in the accursed lineage of Canaan; and hence the negro or African race.

As he went on:

Until 1978, no black American was permitted to hold even the lowly position of deacon in the Mormon Church, and nor were any (not that there were many applicants) admitted to the sacred rites of the temple. The Mormon elders then had a "revelation" and changed the rules, thus more or less belatedly coming into compliance with the dominant civil rights statutes. The timing (as with the revelation abandoning polygamy, which occurred just in time to prevent Utah from being denied membership of the Union) permits one to be cynical about its sincerity.

Witness, then, the double standard: while you can bet your house that if even a moderate Muslim were to announce his entrance into the presidential contest, the Tea Party zealots would howl themselves hoarse about anti-Semitic passages in the Qur’an and hadith, a man who makes no secret of his belonging to a mildly decaffeinated version of the Ku Klux Klan can stand tall in front of those very same people as the grinning crowd favourite. And this from the party of Abraham Lincoln...

There is of course a temptation to rejoice in it all, on the grounds that it makes an Obama re-election a near certainty. But then one remembers what a flaccid disappointment that character has turned out to be. I think most Americans, and indeed most Democrats would have liked to see the Republicans put forward at least a half-serious contender, if only to make Obama work that much harder for their votes. Instead, the GOP has decided to implode spectacularly in its own irrationality. For the next four years then, welcome to the paucity of hope.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Who can defend Hizbullah now?

The year 1982 was not a very good one to be a Lebanese civilian. Their infrastructure annihilated by seven years of civil war, their puny national army overwhelmed by sectarian militias and tribal warlords, they began to find themselves once more the unwilling hosts of the latest round of the war between Israelis and Palestinians that formally began in 1948. In June, following the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK by the Palestinians, the Israelis officially invaded. By August, having pitilessly and more or less indiscriminately bombarded their way north through Tyre, across the Litani and then into Sidon, the Israelis (and their brazenly fascist Christian Phalangist allies) had encircled Beirut itself. A full scale humanitarian disaster looked (and was) imminent. Even worse, every dwelling to the south of the city that hadn’t already been eviscerated by the IAF was enveloped within a military occupation that with each passing day looked increasingly indistinguishable from the ones established on the West Bank and in Gaza. Despite Israel’s declared intention to stay ‘not one minute’ longer than ‘necessary’, reasonable people could be excused for supposing that this was an arrangement with the potential to become permanent. 

Indeed, in Drs. Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky’s seminal 1999 book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, they make the disquieting observation that during the invasion (codenamed, in all apparent seriousness, ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’), 

[T]he military rabbinate in Israel [...] exhorted all Israeli soldiers to follow in the footsteps of Joshua and to re-establish his divinely ordained conquest of the land of Israel. This exhortation of conquest included extermination of non-Jewish inhabitants. The military rabbinate published a map of Lebanon in which the names of Lebanese towns had been changed to the names of cities found in the Book of Joshua. Beirut, for example, was changed to Be’erot. The map designated Lebanon as land belonging to the ancient tribes of Israel, Asher and Naphtali. (New Edition, p. 64.)

This crass reminder of Lebanon’s inclusion within the biblical Eretz Yisrael was supplemented by citations such as Deuteronomy 11:24, in which the ancient Israelites are told by God that “Every place whereon the soles of your feet shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the uttermost sea shall your coast be”. Put simply, the military rabbinate was calling not just for occupation but for the total annexation of Lebanon into a Greater Israel. 

Not many people at the time were prepared to prevent this outcome – not, for instance, Arafat’s PLO, who had been offered a choice between exile and extermination, and opted for the former. Nor could the job be entrusted to the laughable UNIFIL ‘peacekeeping’ force, who had been failing to enforce a mandated Israeli withdrawal from the country since 1978. The humiliated Syrian army had neither the will nor the ability to seriously confront the forces that had so comprehensively demonstrated their superiority. And it certainly wasn’t going to be taken care of by the Americans, whose broken promise of protection to the Palestinians in Lebanon was to lead directly to the infamous rape and massacre of thousands of unarmed men, women and children at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.

Instead the task was left to a then-obscure affiliation of Shia militiamen, who journalists suddenly noticed fighting with unusually fearless disregard for their own lives. Not coincidentally - nor immediately explicably - journalists also noticed amongst their ranks hundreds of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who spoke warmly and candidly about ‘martyrdom’, and the splendours of its associated divine rewards (a theme that I suspect the reader may have heard before). More ominously (as we now know), they spoke of the importance above all of emulating the recent events in Tehran elsewhere across the region, and of indoctrinating the Lebanese in particular with Khomeini’s idiosyncratic brand of Islamic morality. Here, for example, is an Iranian revolutionary guard encountered by Robert Fisk in the eastern Lebanese town of Baalbek:

We want to guide and inform the people of Lebanon. Our only goal is to Islamicise the place and, as the Imam Khomeini says, we have to export the Islamic revolution to the world. So, like any other Muslims, we have come here with the aim of saving the deprived Palestinians and the deprived Lebanese. [My italics.] (Fisk, R., Pity the Nation, Third Edition, p. 470) 

The successful infiltration of this Iranian fanaticism into the existing Lebanese Shia Amal ranks marked the germination of the party we now know as Hizbullah. Galvanised by their self-proclaimed ‘love of martyrdom’, the Shiites embarked on an unprecedented campaign of attacks on Israeli military targets that pushed the IDF steadily further from Beirut until finally, in February 1985, they withdrew from the southernmost town of Tyre. To be sure, many of these attacks targeted civilians, such as the disgusting 1983 suicide bombing of the US Embassy, and fully deserve the description ‘terrorist’. But then, the Israelis also routinely targeted civilians – or, at any rate, were indifferent to the existence of civilians within their targets – and on a scale that Hizbullah couldn’t have matched in its wildest fantasies. As Christopher Hitchens – hardly a friend of Hizbullah – put it:

I hate and despise Hezbollah and Palestinian suicide-murderers, as they ought to be called, but they’d have to work day and night for years to equal the total of civilians killed in Lebanon alone, or by Sharon alone.

Yet however impressive the achievement, or desirable the outcome, it’s a moral imbecile who can convince himself of Hizbullah’s (entirely self-declared) status as a ‘resistance’ movement. The plain fact is that it is an aggressor movement – and of the most totalitarian and theocratic kind at that. 

One way to see this is to consider the many and various policies of Hizbullah that would appear to have very little at all to do with ‘resisting’ Israel. My favourite example is their continuing effort to intimidate shop owners - invariably in the poorer parts of the country - into closing down alcohol stores, but any Lebanese could think of one for themselves without a moment’s pause. In Fisk’s monumental Pity the Nation, widely held to be the finest personal account of the 1975-90 wars in the English language, he finds the Islamicisation in full force as early as 1983:

[T]he reticent and bearded young men [...] closed off the streets of [Baalbek] for the Ashoura ceremonies commemorating the death of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet. Many Lebanese girls in Baalbek had been compelled to wear the chador and revolutionary guards walked the streets with rifles in their hands [...] [and] in one street a 35-foot mural of Iranian women shrouded in black robes urged Lebanese women to remember their modesty. (p. 469.)

What exactly is this ‘resisting’, other than the prevailing culture of pluralism and individual liberty for which the Lebanese had always been justly renowned? 

Another way is to consider the party’s open alliances with the ostentatiously murderous regimes in Iran and Syria. As well as exemplifying its embracing of, as opposed to its resistance to aggression, these egregious allegiances make an utter mockery of Hizbullah’s claims to represent ‘pan-Arab’ interests. In October 2010, while the blood was still drying on the streets of Tehran, Hizbullah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah welcomed Ahmadinejad to Lebanon as a “great and dear guest”, urging the crowd to “testify that the Iranian Islamic Republic is one of the greatest guarantees for an end to wars” and concluding that “[the Iranian] republic in its leadership, people and government is a grace from God".

And now in 2011 Nasrallah has managed to surpass this despicable combination of demagogy and despot-worship. Only last month, at exactly the first moment in modern history when Arabs truly are uniting as one against their common enemies of autocracy and corruption, Nasrallah chose instead to tighten the screws of repression; to stand by the Assad crime family and to insult the memories of the more than 1,100 Syrian dead by daring to suggest that “the majority of the Syrian people still support this regime and [believe] in President Assad’s ability to introduce reform”, and otherwise dutifully echoing the party propaganda:

We, in Lebanon and especially in Hezbollah, are highly grateful to Syria, its leadership, its President Hafiz Assad and President Bashar Assad.
[T]he Syrian leadership is convinced with its people [of] the need to implement reform, [fight] corruption and [open] new horizons in the Syrian political life.  We believe – I personally believe and this is not built on analysis but rather on direct discussions and declarations - that Syrian President Bashar Assad believes and is serious and determined about reform. I even know more. I know that he is ready to take very great reform steps but with serenity, care and responsibility.
In Syria the regime is not closed. On the contrary he is saying I am ready and I believe in reform and I am serious and I want to carry them.

Moreover, it ought to go without saying that no organisation that defines itself by any one, single religion could ever be said to represent ‘pan-Arab’ interests (it’s precisely for this reason that the old pan-Arab parties of the ‘50s and ‘60s were supposed to be staunchly secularist). In Lebanon alone, I can think off the top of my head of nine distinct indigenous faiths*, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the true figure were double that. And when that organisation not only defines itself by one faith, but actively partakes in the slaughter of rival faiths – as Hizbullah has been caught doing against Sunnis in Iraq – its claim to pan-Arabism becomes more ridiculous still.  

And this is the crucial point that needs to be made every time Hizbullah is mentioned in the same breath as ‘resistance’: above all else, Hizbullah is – as its very name gives away, for Christ’s sake – a religious fundamentalist party, whose interest in combating Israelis is entirely secondary to its primary ambition, which is – just like the messianic settlers on the West Bank, and their Christian Zionist sponsors in the USA – to run society in accordance with its particular holy texts and tenets. In the case of Hizbullah, this plan necessitates acting as the local chapter or subsidiary of the broader Twelver Shiite theocracy in Tehran. Not only the Lebanese, but the Palestinians too deserve better than this baneful and benighted barbarism. 

* Including, by the way, Judaism. On a recent trip to Beirut I went to see the Maghed Avraham synagogue in the Wadi Abu Jamil district, practically touching the Parliament building, its Star of David and Hebrew lettering newly restored after heavy shellfire in the war. Any guess as to which army was responsible for the damage? It was, of course, the IDF, which raises some interesting questions - does it not? - about their repeated claims to hit 'terrorists only', and to do so with 'pinpoint accuracy' at that.