Saturday, January 28, 2012

Things Falling Apart: The attacks in Nigeria remind us that faith is the problem

Jihadism, as any right-thinking liberal will tell you, is supposed to be in decline. The killing of the Saudi millionaire who financed it; and the withdrawal from Iraq of the American troops who fuelled it; and, of course, the unprecedented popular uprisings across the Middle East that now discredit it; have consigned it to the history books. To the extent that Islamists exist at all anymore, they are either legitimate ‘resistance’ guerrillas (Hamas, Hizbullah, the Taliban) or ‘moderates’ seeking to marry the Enlightenment with Oriental spirituality (Turkey, North Africa). And, as always, any violence perpetrated by Muslims is an essentially defensive, even ‘desperate’, response to the original sins of European and American imperialism.

I argued here a few days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that this was all perfect nonsense, and I now put it to my reader that subsequent events in Nigeria have found me in vindication. For those who haven’t been following, an outfit called ‘Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad’ (‘Group Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad’), more commonly known as ‘Boko Haram’ (roughly translated from the Hausa dialect as ‘Western education is religiously forbidden’), is currently waging an unrestrained campaign of violence against Nigerian civil society; bombing police stations, UN buildings, banks, alcohol vendors and, most recently, Christian places of worship in attacks that have killed 250 civilians in the first month of this year alone (and around 1,000 since 2009). Its stated aim since its formation in 2002 by the cleric Muhammad Yusuf has been to replace the pluralistic government in Abuja with a shari’a-based Islamist regime – a somewhat tough sell in a country whose population of 160 million includes over 60 million Christians. Yusuf, who was killed in an especially bloody week of clashes with security forces in 2009, was a man of unusually strong faith. The discrepancies between the claims of the Qur’an and the findings of modern science were for him a trifling matter to resolve: not only Darwinism, but the claim that the earth was not flat, and that rain was caused by evaporation, were abominable falsehoods that had no place in a pious and dignified society. His successor, Abubakar Shekau, appears to cut a similar figure: explaining earlier this month why exactly it was necessary to slaughter Christians, he placed the blame squarely on the victims: “Catastrophe is caused by unbelief, unrest is unbelief, injustice is unbelief, democracy is unbelief and the constitution is unbelief”. 

As against this broad-daylight fanaticism, I can almost hear Robert Fisk snorting. Don’t I know that Christianity was imported by the British colonialists, who enslaved Nigerians and killed them in a string of brutal imperial wars? As it happens I’m aware of this ugly history, about which far too little is known and said. And I’m an admirer of Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, in which the divisive and destructive effects of the white man’s religion are laid bare:

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.1

However, what Boko Haram calls for is not a return to the Nigeria described in the first half of that novel. Nor can it conceivably be described as an assertion of a national or cultural identity that is in any way Nigerian. Instead, it is a call for the culture of 7th century Medina – in other words, something at least as foreign as Anglicanism, and ten times as backward and fascistic to boot. Look again at the Yusuf/Shekau manifesto: anti-democracy, anti-science, anti-education. To imagine even for a moment that this is what ordinary Nigerians want for their future and their children is to both slander and insult them in the extreme (and see for yourself how vehemently, and courageously, they oppose it). You may of course choose to believe if you wish that the minority of Muslims who do support Boko Haram do so because of the especial poverty of the northern region and the extravagant corruption of the central government. But then you’d have to tell me first how the persecution of women and homosexuals and teachers will end poverty, and then how a leadership known for its “extreme wealth” and “lavish” lifestyle is in any position to combat the cancer of corruption. 

So it doesn’t look like any of the standard leftist arguments will do here. On the other hand, for those of us who say that religion is the radix malorum, the horrific events in Nigeria are quite straightforward to explain. I for one feel that I could face the families of murdered Nigerian Christians with a clean enough conscience. The Noam Chomskys, Norman Finkelsteins and Robert Fisks, however, should be asked how exactly the corpses are Israel’s and America’s fault this time, and how many more such corpses need to be created before they will cease to wipe blood off the hands of killers. 

1 Achebe, C., Things Fall Apart (1958, Penguin Modern Classics 2001 edition), p. 129 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Arab League plan could rip Lebanon apart

The dreadful collapse of a scandalously neglected apartment block in Beirut’s Ashrafieh district last weekend that tragically took 27 lives has, not without reason, revived fears in Lebanon about the major earthquake fault-line upon which the capital city rests. But it’s with seismological concerns of quite another sort that I address my dear reader today.

On Saturday, the Qatari emir Hamad al-Thani, who has suddenly gone from being a provincial businessman and petro-monarch to a swaggering, headline-hungry regional statesman of apparently grand geopolitical ambition – and whose pearls of wisdom in recent weeks have included his advising Western nations to embrace Islamismannounced a proposal to send Arab League troops to Syria to “stop the killing” of civilians. While I am, as I’ve said before, not opposed to military intervention under certain conditions, Qatar is among the very last nations I would nominate to undertake the course of action (whether robed with an official Arab League mandate or not). This is for the very simple reason that, by taking the brazenly fascist step of sending its troops to Bahrain to help crush the protests there, Qatar has made clear that its motives in Syria may be anything except humanitarian and democratic. Indeed, that both the Bahraini regime and the majority of the Syrian opposition share a common religious denomination with al-Thani invites one to speculate about a rather different dynamic altogether. 

It’s with this in mind that one ought to consider Saad Hariri’s endorsement of the Arab League proposal on Twitter. As the son of the assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, as well as an ex-PM himself and the current head of the Future Movement, Saad is one of the preeminent zu’ama, or chieftains, of the Lebanese Sunni community. The Lebanese Shia, on the other hand, are to a large extent represented by Hizbullah, a party which has by no means been reticent on the question of Bahrain, describing it as a “special injustice” and openly accusing the regime and its allies (such as Qatar) of sectarian bigotry (as I wrote here, this accusation is by no means unfounded). Lebanon is of course a tremendously fragmented society at the best of times, and though inter-communal coexistence of a sort does persist, its frayed and ragged fabric is always threatening to tear further: the recent past has seen the Salafi cleric Ahmad Al-Assir accuse the Shia of “insulting” the Prophet’s wife Aisha, while the Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gave an overtly sectarian speech on Ashura, in which he compared the party’s enemies to the Umayyads who killed the Prophet’s grandson Hussein in the Battle of Karbala (the event which triggered the whole Sunni-Shia split to begin with). 

Now, of course, the root cause of sectarianism is the very existence of sects in the first place, and all attempts to evade or deny this simple truth are doomed to fail from the outset. But I think it’s equally plain that what’s behind this recent fouling of the air is the question of Syria. It’s become very unfashionable to so much as mention religion in the same breath as the ‘Arab Spring’ – before you start, yes, thank you, I know that some of the regime’s bravest critics are Shia, while some of its most craven apologists are Sunni – but I for one find a few things difficult to ignore: the burning of Assad pictures and Hizbullah flags at a rally of thousands in the Lebanese Sunni stronghold of Tripoli (the only major city in the country to have witnessed such a spectacle); the vocal presence of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood on the front lines of the uprising; the sensationalist comparison of Assad to Hitler by the Sunni Islamist Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan; the lugubrious groans in support of the uprising from other sinister characters like the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi (who naturally had rather different things to say about the protests in Bahrain); and the withdrawal by the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (also known as Hamas) of administrative staff from its headquarters in Damascus. The regime probably has not targeted Sunnis in particular, but Syrian demographics are such that indiscriminate killing will by definition hit the Sunnis hardest, and this has dragged some of the more scrofulous elements of the Sunni world to the Syrian opposition, of which the Qatari dictator is only one example among many. 

So what has Hariri done by signing his name to this plan? He has managed to undermine legitimate and democratic channels such as the UN while siding at the same time with the perpetrators of rabid and naked sectarianism and tribalism. He has also left Lebanon’s Sunnis at the mercy of a Hizbullah that is being squeezed as never before. History tells us that Hizbullah doesn’t much like being squeezed: recall, for example, their storming of Beirut in 2008 with guns and grenade launchers blazing – a bloody tremor that had many Lebanese fearing a return to the darkest of days. That time, the provocation was comparatively minor: an attempt by the Hariri government to shut down part of Hizbullah’s private telecommunication network. This time, with the party’s chief arms supplier at stake, the threat is almost existential (don’t forget that Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Syrian National Council, said explicitly last month that if he replaced Bashar al-Assad he would end the relationship with Hizbullah). Combine these unprecedented political stakes with the sectarian metastasis outlined above, and the meeting of Qatari boots with Syrian soil could rip Lebanon apart. If this is to be averted, serious re-thinks of priorities and friendships will be required of both Hariri and Nasrallah.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bashar al-Assad has never been an Arabist

In contemplating the situation in Syria over the last year, few things have left me quite as cold and sick with contempt as those people who have suddenly ‘discovered’, and announced, after a lifetime of confidently assuring us otherwise, that Bashar al-Assad is in fact a liar, a murderer and a tyrant after all. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan, who in recent years went quite out of his way to weave new ties with his fellow Kurd-persecutor in Damascus, now compares him to Hitler and bellows for his ouster as if he were the first man to have arrived at the thought. A number of influential Lebanese politicians such as Walid Jumblatt, who had been perfectly happy to make common cause with Assad’s proxies in that country’s ‘March 8 Alliance’, have overnight become champions of Syrian liberty (though one notices that Hizbullah, the self-styled ‘Islamic Resistance’, has not wavered in its courageous solidarity with the despot). Even Hamas, perhaps Assad’s most notorious ally, appears to be reconsidering its loyalties – what with its fellow Sunni Islamists at the forefront of the Syrian opposition, to say nothing of the thousands of Sunni corpses now decorating Syrian streets – and has begun withdrawing staff from its Damascus headquarters. The Lebanese academic Elias Muhanna, author of the Qifa Nabki blog, wrote in the New York Times last month about the “many Syrian intellectuals, journalists and ordinary citizens [who] have steadily migrated from the pro- to the anti-government camp” in recent months, and I confess it brings me more joy than I can begin to describe to see that all the detestable pseudo-dissidents and laptop-Leninists who for so long were excusing and enabling Assad’s crimes – not to mention the plain suckers who actually bought the Hizbullah rhetoric about standing for the ‘oppressed’ and ‘downtrodden’ – have at last been exposed in the light of broad day as the fools they always were. 

But I’m afraid I can’t find it in me to summon the magnanimity of Muhanna, who writes of the bloggers now changing their mind about Assad that “a number of them have written compelling mea culpas”. How “compelling” can anything like this be? Or, to put the question another way, what exactly has taken them this long? Bashar al-Assad has always been a dictator, and a violent and imperialist one at that (on which more later). Most of the bloggers Muhanna cites claim that it was Assad’s Arabist pedigree that attracted them to him. But Assad has never been an Arabist. In his most recent speech of January 10th, he began by “salut[ing]” the crowd “in the name of pan-Arabism, which will continue to be a symbol of our identity and our haven in difficult times, as we will continue to be its heart beating with love and affection”. If this is the hand he’s betting on – a pose as the last remaining Arab nationalist; a Nasser with Yitzhak Rabin at the gates – then let’s by all means turn the cards over and see just how much they’re worth. 

“Who, more than Syria, has offered to the Palestinian cause?” he asks us. Never mind that the largest Arab forces in both the 1948 and 1967 wars were the Egyptian ones1. Never mind that ever since the 1960s Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had forbidden attacks by the Palestinian feda’iyeen against Israel from Syrian soil (bravely proposing the use of south Lebanon for that purpose). Never mind that in 1976 the Syrian army upheld the spirit of Sykes-Picot by entering Beirut at the request of the Maronites against the Palestinians and their Arabist allies; an intervention that was to lead directly to the Tel al-Zaatar massacre of some 2,000 Palestinian refugees. Never mind that Assad père took every opportunity to divide the Palestinians and thus contain Yasser Arafat: creating and sponsoring, for example, the Syrian-Palestinian al-Sa’iqa militia, perhaps best known for assisting the Lebanese Amal gunmen in their war on the PLO in Lebanon’s refugee camps in the ‘80s. Never mind that the old man implicitly recognised Israel – the ultimate betrayal of the ‘67 Khartoum Resolution – by entering into peace negotiations, first in Madrid in 1991 and then in a series of later bilateral talks, in which he pressed for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights but made no mention of occupied Palestine or Lebanon2. Never mind these and innumerable other capitulations - they were, after all, before Bashar’s time. 

What then has the ophthalmologist done for Arabism since inheriting the family dictatorship? Not so much as a pebble has been launched at Israel, neither by the Syrian army nor the Palestinians in Syria, the latter of whom continue to be forbidden from doing so. Assad fils has openly continued his father’s pursuit of a peace treaty, the most recent dialogue in 2008 only being interrupted by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu (the same obstacle, incidentally, that thwarted Hafez). At the same time, he has propagated the most rabid and fanatical strains of Islamism in his dealings with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas – which, again, constitutes a rank betrayal of Arabist principle, of which staunch secularism is supposed to be a sine qua non. As Assad is now discovering to his cost in Hama and half a dozen other cities, that omelette isn’t very easily turned back into an egg. 

Yet Palestinians are by no means the only Arabs viewed by the Assads as expendable subordinates to the Syrian empire. The Syrian occupation of Lebanon lasted seven years longer than the Israeli one, and brought with it not only the daily humiliations of a foreign military presence but a choking apparatus of fascism and intimidation. Bashar sustained this near-annexation of the country (whose legitimacy as a sovereign entity has always been rejected by the Syrian right wing) until as recently as 2005, when over a million Lebanese took to the streets to protest the assassination of their Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, in which Syrian involvement of some kind was and still is almost universally suspected. And in many ways, the consequent Syrian withdrawal (which was accompanied by the equally ‘mysterious’ assassinations of renowned critics of the Assad regime such as the Syrian-Palestinian-Lebanese intellectual, and genuine Arabist, Samir Kassir) was an occurrence in name only. Lebanon’s conspicuous abstention last year in a Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s violence against protestors, as well as its voting against an Arab League decision to suspend Syria’s membership in the organisation, led the Beirut-based journalist Hanin Ghaddar to write that “Now we can officially say that Syria has two governments, the one in Damascus and the one in Beirut” (disclosure: I am soon to become a colleague of Ghaddar’s at NOW Lebanon, of which she is the managing editor). And even if the mukhabarrat, or secret police, have formally left, the streets of Beirut’s bohemian Hamra district are patrolled around the clock by the shabiha, or ‘ghosts’, of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, an oafish satellite of the Assad regime that takes criticism of its leader extremely poorly, as these protesters discovered last August (and as Christopher Hitchens did in a different way in 2009). As well as a self-evident threat to Lebanese Arabs, this Damascus client is also anti-Arabist in the technical sense: at the time of its founding in the 1930s by the Syrian ultra-nationalist Antun Sa’adeh, the SSNP was a determined opponent of pan-Arabism on the sub-Hitlerite grounds that the Syrian “race” is not Arabic!3 Zionists, Islamists, tenth-rate racists – with whom else has Assad collaborated in his treason against the Arab nation?

Jihadists, as it turns out. Knowing as all imperialists do that in order to rule one must first divide, and fearful above all of the emergence of a democratic Iraq (what kind of precedent would that set?), when the American-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, Assad was content to grant the use of his lengthy border with his eastern neighbour to the Bin Ladenists of what became known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). According to Time’s Nicholas Blanford, “analysis of al-Qaeda documents seized by American troops in Sinjar in northern Iraq [in 2006] suggested that 90% of foreign fighters entering Iraq came from Syria”. This was of course being done in the full knowledge that his ally in Tehran was financing the other side of the civil war (the Shia ranks of Muqtada al-Sadr’s ‘Mehdi Army’) on the Kissingerian principle that neither party should be permitted to win. In so doing, the great pan-Arabist contributed far more than Bush or Blair ever did to the appalling Iraqi civilian death toll (if it should turn out that it was indeed al-Qaeda behind the recent suicide bombings in Damascus, as the regime claims, it would only be an instance of the famous causal relation between reaping and sowing). 

Yet, as events since 2011 have made plainer than ever, to no Arab people is Assad a greater enemy than to the Syrians themselves. Of course, we didn’t need the ‘Arab Spring’ to tell us this – take the following description of the country by Kassir in 2004:

Suffocated for forty years under a dictatorship that, although less bloodthirsty than Iraq’s, has still brutally run it into the ground, systematically bled dry by powerful mafias, and weakened by a culture of fear, Syria is now in a position almost without equivalent in the Arab world – apart perhaps from Libya, although it doesn’t have Libya’s oil – in that it combines the corruption of the former Soviet republics with a Chinese-style closed police state.4

To this abysmal record we can now add the slaughter of well over 5,000 Syrian men, women and children (and counting). What else needs to be said, other than to ask how a mass-murderer of Arabs dares to pose as the bastion and beau idéal of the Arab cause?

If Arabs are ever to ‘unite’ in any meaningful way, it will take a radical political and ideological re-think. The ‘unity’ and ‘liberty’ of the old Ba’athist slogans will not be found in the junk race theories of ethnic chauvinists; nor the petty sectarianisms of mediaeval mythologies; nor indeed the corruption and stagnation of self-interested dictators, monarchs and tribal chieftains. If the ‘Arab Spring’ is able to achieve any approximation of its promise of emancipation, it will not be by emulating but by categorically rejecting the example of Bashar al-Assad.

1 Bregman, A., El-Tahri, J., The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs (1998), pp. 38, 69
2 Ibid., pp. 256-272
3 Kassir, S., Beirut (2010 edition, first published 2003 in French), p. 486
4 Kassir, S., Being Arab (2006 edition, first published 2004 in French), p. 20

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Alternative Asset: A review of Nasri Atallah's 'Our Man in Beirut'

“I don’t want to turn into one of those pathetic creatures who are always homesick, always saying I wish I were still in Beirut. I don’t want to become like you, split between here and there. I know I’m not happy here, but why should I be unhappy in two countries?” – Asmahan in Hanan al-Shaykh’s Beirut Blues

At one point in Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia, after having blamed the European debt crisis on atheism and dared to defend the Christian mission in Africa (will we ever get an apology for Catholic crimes in Rwanda?), he more or less gave the entire game away by saying that the best argument for faith was that it enabled one to succumb to the happy idea that the Universe was created with us in mind after all:

Where does joy come from? How is it to be explained? Certainly, there are many factors at work here. But in my view, the crucial one is this certainty, based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted, I am loved.

Every ribbon of DNA within me revolts against this infantile talk of a ‘divine plan’. And yet, on some days, it can almost sound plausible. Thus in the same month that I quit my job as a financial analyst to move to Beirut to pursue a writing career, I find in my Christmas stocking a new book written by a man who has quit his job as a financial analyst to move to Beirut to pursue a writing career. Like me, it transpires, this man is British, and yet like me, also, he is a ‘Third Culture Kid’. Both of us have spent years living in London. When I tell you, dear reader, that we even shared the same supermarket in Holborn, where he once worked and I once lived in student halls, you will see, I think, why I had to write this review. 

Martin Amis once said of Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village that it “looks like a book and feels like a book but in important respects it isn’t a book”. Our Man in Beirut isn’t really a book either, being instead a collection of his blog posts, or “rants”, shuffled out of chronological order for reasons that don’t become apparent. Some of them are humorous, and some of them aren’t supposed to be humorous, but all of them are markedly, peculiarly readable.

I use the word cautiously; strictly in the sense that the book is easier to pick up than to put back down. This isn’t to say that the prose itself is a thing of particular beauty. We are told that Flaubert is a favourite writer of Atallah’s, but there is little evidence of any labour expended in search of les mots justes. The words “pretty much” find their way into far too many sentences where they don’t belong, as does the phrase “maybe, just maybe”. It’s claimed that our author has a “deep-seated hatred of the cliché”, and yet he can be found “running like a headless chicken”; “cast[ing] all caution to the wind”; “pulling the rug from under” things; “tak[ing] in the sights and sounds”; “enjoy[ing] a good party as much as the next guy” and solemnly telling us that his father has “travelled to the four corners of the earth”. Elsewhere, some things are “full to the brim” while others are “slim pickings”; people are “unsung heroes” and Lebanon is a “concrete jungle”. Every writer must be forgiven the occasional stale or lazy expression, but in a book that numbers fewer than 150 pages, one can only be so clement. Put simply, I’m not convinced that the man loves language. This is a terrible thing to make a reader suspect. 

It is left to his humour, then, to give life to the pages. That he has a gift here is undeniable, especially when it comes to dialogue. Try the following dilation on Lebanese driving:

People drive the wrong way down one-way streets, and they do this at full speed as if to cancel the illegality of their move by amplifying it. Boy racers zigzag in and out of traffic on battered scooters, ponytails flapping in the wind. Traffic cops urge you to ignore red lights: “Yalla! Arrib! Mfakarhallak bi Fransa?1

Or how about the ghoulish aunts gossiping in Gemmayze cafes about the errant niece who postpones marriage for a career:

“Yvette, you know I don’t like to talk, yaane I’m very discreet, bta3rfineh. Bass cette Maya, she’ll never find a husband like zis. She wants to be a banker 2al. Haram her parents, 3an jad. Bass ca reste between us!2

He mentions at one point that he is writing a novel: I hope very much that it will be a comic one. But I would urge him to be on guard against what one might call the Jon Stewart Syndrome – from which he is a slight sufferer – whereby a joke that could be funny if pitched intelligently is compromised by cheap recourse to the elbow in the ribs. Take this example:

When I was studying for a master’s in international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I always used to give my papers unnecessarily complicated names, casually sprinkled with words I didn’t understand, colons and subtitles. Things like “Pseudo Dualistic Dichotomies in Post-War Glasgow: How Factory Workers Overcame the Unicornification of Labour and Triumphed Over Plethorism.”

Contrast this with Jim Dixon’s coming to terms with a similar piece of intellectual bankruptcy in Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim:

It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. ‘Let’s see,’ he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: ‘oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485.

Amis’ title is funny because one really can imagine such chloroform actually existing somewhere. The person who laughs at “Unicornification” will, I’m afraid, laugh at anything.

Yet one of Atallah’s appeals is that when he is funny, he often makes a very unfunny point at the same time. Here is his summary of the Lebanese attitude to politics:

Choose one of a plethora of local petty leaders. Adore them. Place their pictures on your car, balcony and other visible areas that may come under your ownership. Follow these leaders blindly, regardless of how racist, irrational and frightening they may be.

Most of the Lebanese that I know could laugh at this. Yet it was precisely this factionalism that, barely a generation ago, dragged the country into a fifteen-year bloodbath that left well over 100,000 Lebanese dead. Indeed, in more than a few cases, today’s “petty leaders” are the very same warlords responsible. That this doesn’t appear to detract from their popular support is a paradox deftly caught by Atallah: “We’ve come to expect very little from our leaders, all the while bestowing them with demi-god status”. 

As for God himself, I was disappointed to find he gets conspicuously friendly treatment in Our Man. The satire of religion has of course been a staple of comic literature since at least the poetry of Omar Khayyam. For Atallah – a self-avowed atheist – to discard this exorbitantly bountiful stock of material is a great, and grave, sacrifice. (He does, I should say, get one jab in: “I had a Haitian cab driver in Miami once who recited a good portion of the New Testament as he was speeding down a busy highway, which I took to mean he was intent on sending us headfirst into the harbour”. Interesting that nobody has to have this joke explained to them.)

Atallah states no purpose or objective in his introduction, so an ultimate appraisal of the book’s ‘success’ isn’t possible. However, he does tell us at one point that “there are ambitions I have in Beirut. I want to be part of the generation that comes back and makes a difference.” His triumphs, from shaming Lebanese racism to extolling the pleasures of walking in Beirut to his passion for Lebanese theatre and architecture to his attacks on the “grotesque” plastic surgery culture mean that, whatever the book’s shortcomings, Our Man is a tangible first step toward that difference. 

1 "Come on! Go! You think you're living in France?"
2 "Yvette, you know I don't like to talk, I mean I'm very discreet, you know me. But this Maya, she'll never find a husband like this. She wants to be a banker, so she says. Her poor parents, really. But this stays between us!"