Sunday, September 30, 2007

No Beach

I never got to visit the sea in Lattakia, even though the Mediterranean was one of the major reasons for my visit. If I'd taken a taxi further north, I'd have found a beach but didn't fancy leaving town again.

As it was I was confused. The logic for my confusion was unassailable. Lattakia was on the sea side. They even had the requisite palmtrees lining the coast. I couldn't understand why I couldn't find a beach, so I caved into accepting what I'd begun to suspect.
The port, with all its cranes and cargo containers, boats, fences and general port paraphenalia - all of which had been annoyingly placed opposite my hostel - stretched along the entirety of Lattakia's coast, and blocked all access to the sea. Whoever was responsible for the planning of this city obviously didn't care much for sunbathing or sand. Nor did he recognise that he had the power to make the dream real and allow people to have a beer at one of Lattakia's lovely bars before rushing into the sea, as any sane being would want to do in this heat. Why didn't he put the port a bit further up the coast, where there wasn't a town, and fewer would be swimmers like me to frustrate? Very odd.

So I loafed around and had more coffee. Muhammad had lent me an English language academic manual from Damascus University so I read that, much absorbed. If this and other literary works I've browsed are at all representative of Arabic discourse, it seems the Arabic mind shares the Slovak love of the long sentence. Maybe Arabic thought is different when not translated, but in English a full army of subclauses and spiralling devices are employed. Personally I've always rather liked long, windy sentences but I know they're pretty unfashionable in the West.

The prose style, even in translation, was beautiful and hypnotic. It had a gracious subtlety that made me think of the moon, like so much does in Islam. Why that is and how that is I'm not quite sure, but that the crescent is a symbol of Islam must mean I'm not saying anything too controversial.

An overriding sense I get when I read Islamic authors is the presumption of the existence of a shared set of commonly held fundamental perspectives between writer and reader. Relativism, the chaotic multifacetedness of the Western post-modern condition, is not even glimpsed at, not reckoned a remote possibility. Not for Muslims has Thomas Carlyle's Sea of Faith begun to recede. Is this good, is this bad, is the Pope a Catholic, is Mecca the centre of the universe? Am I entitled to say? I see advantages and disadvantages. I see how those elements of Islam which I appreciate can be traced to its resolute defence of the homogeneity of its collective psychic, emotional and spiritual life. People in Islam know who they are, where they come from, where they're going. They know what life means, what death means, how the sun, the sea and the land fit together; they know exactly, in precise detail, what the relationships should be between subjectivity and objectivity, the private and the public, freedom and responsibility, men and woman, Man and God. It used to be like this in the West too, though differently I grant.

This gets to the heart of what I dislike about my own culture. No, not that we have the freedom to criticise and reject the package that those in authority establish for us to understand life and the universe by. On the contrary, I love and adore this freedom. This is why I could never be a Muslim incidentally- since at heart in so many ways I'm wild and anarchic. Just as I hate telling others what to do, I resent receiving commands and instructions I'm not allowed to question.

What I object to about my culture is its lack of any deeply felt set of ideas that can enable people to feel they're part of a transcendent, unified community - and not just individuals set adrift with their friends and families only, in a desparate drive to accumulate wealth and pleasurable experiences for no reason other than that accumulation.

Much can be argued against Islam being such a culture. But it is more of one than ours is. And I'm sure this is why Muslims are so much more friendly to strangers, which they certainly seem to be. A cynic might want to add they're like this only so they call sell us their carpets and other produce, but in my experience it goes deeper than that. It has to do with the fact that as individuals they feel their connection with other individuals more keenly than we do. This I'm sure is because their egos are less well fortified and demarcated. Their belief system, and cultural practice perpetually grounds them as individuals in the context of the larger world and universe. Obviously, Islam is not the only belief system to do this. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and other traditional systems of collectivist, inter-relational thought do the same - in their own particular ways. But ours does this significantly less so, and that is our sadness. Herein lies our inner emptiness, since as the existentialists correctly say the life of the self is only felt to be truly real, truly vivid, truly substantial in its genuine heartfelt interations with others. The Cartesian identity we've been persuaded to assume, that disemebodied phantom in the mind, which equates subjective thought with ultimate reality, can only lead us away from each other to a panoply of variously diverging privatised mythologies of our own devising. Yes, we can forge workable connections with each other, one universe to another, and we do so; but our unique reliance on linguistic utterances and humour to do so, our energetic search for people with similar interests and ideas, reveals that the connection is something that always has to be fought for, might at any time be lost and isn't just there as a de facto fact.

But that's me being hard on the West. I exclude everything that's wonderful about the utterly vast possibilites for tremendous good our highly individualistic culture allows for. It seems, in our current world system, we're faced with a choice between two options, both of which are imperfect, both of which cry out for synthesis with the other, both of which wait to be surpassed. On the one hand you have, putting it simply, coherence and belonging without individual freedom of behaviour and thought. On the other you have this in reverse.

Anyway, the instincts of defence for my intellectual tradition were raised when I read an article in the academic manual about Muhammad. At the end of this informative, albeit Islamically nuanced, piece about his life, it listed as a study aid a set of questions about what had been written. One question explored the possibility that Muhammad is the greatest man that's ever lived. But whereas in the west, if this question were asked at all, we'd ask something like 'Do you think Muhammad is the greatest man who's ever lived. If so, why?', this question leapt a step and just wanted to know 'Why is Muhammad the greatest man who's ever lived?' In that simple difference, I felt, lay so much about what differentiates us.

In Islam there is a presumption that the universe just is the way it is. Within that, rationality wants to understand how it's the way it is. Asking why might be perilous, however. You'd be examining God's motives which could question the whole construction. In the West we basically haven't got a clue. We just like to ask questions. Muslims know where they are and who they are, even though they might be living in a dream world. We don't know where we are, or even who we are, and satisfy ourselves with the consolation, conceivably very well grounded, that we're the less deceived. Whether that satisfaction is worth the disadvantages of a deracinated, fragmented collective psyche, however, is debatable. Especially since we might be wrong about the non-existence of transcendent truth, even if we're right to question, as I'm sure we are, the certain answers of Islam.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Morality and a Fine View

Aaron and Ahmed took me up a hill to their house for tea and some great sunset views over their sacred land. The women in Lattakia are much less veiled. It was nice to get a smile out of their sister.

Ahmed is soon to get married. He's redecorating his house and saving up. This reminded me of a conversation I had with a man in the ruins of Palmyra. He asked me if I was married. I get this question quite often in the Middle East. I said I wasn't and added for good measure that I didn't have a girlfriend either. I tried to carry this off with dignity, alluding with a chuckle to the liberating advantages singleness brings when contrasted with the formulaic template of togetherness. He smiled, so I think he understood. But who knows, maybe he thought these advantages included lots of free-spirited sex and intimacy with a fulsome repertoire of ladies, in which case he was very much mistaken.

The man at Palmyra was also unmarried. But in his case, from what I could gather, no personal difficulties with forming lasting relationships lay behind his status. I suspect there'd be a higher chance of encountering a Martian in the Islamic world than a man who, Morrisey style, would admit to existential difficulties with getting hitched. For one, this would be far too unmentionably unmacho. For another, it would perilously imply women had a real say in the type of personality they got together with. Finally it would imply, related to this, that matchmaking is a question of free choice, not a matter for parents and families and cool considerations of financial viability.

When I asked him why he wasn't married his response was simple, dramatic and very funny. His English wasn't great, so he mimed with his hands. He said that in England all you have to do, as a man, is buy a ring for your wife's finger (and he mimed putting a ring on his finger). But here, in Syria, you have to buy a ring for most of her fingers, and not just that but also bracelets and necklaces and heaven knows what else. I understood him perfectly and we laughed together against the rock, beneath the sun.

Ahmed wanted to talk about relationships and love in the West. Certainly I was interested to hear a Syrian perspective on the issue. However much his theology might be considered free spirited or novel, this cannot be said for his sexual morality, though when he spoke there was no malice or distemper in his bearing; nothing of that stone age thunderousness one typically associates with the religiously intolerant.

More than anything else it was innocence I discerned. I've seen this quite alot here. In many ways it's rather charming. Sexuality is strikingly absent in the Islamic sphere, in public anyway. This is no shattering revelation. Obviously, I sense this so much, however, because I come from the West. From a West which parades sexuality before the face of the world as if it's the Holy Grail itself, self-sprung from concealment, liberally presented triumphantly for all.
There seems to be two reasons for our Western sexual obsessions. Firstly, we're trying to reclaim sexuality as an integral part of what it means to be human, after having lived through centuries of sex slander under the regimen of shy and brittle neo-platonists, gentlemen we've revered as priests of a God who's always favoured spirit far above matter, despite the fact he's gone to the trouble to create matter. Secondly, we're being exploited by a media and advertising industry that knows all-too-well, at least as much as the priests did, that sex is something we're far from indifferent to, something therefore they'd do well to focus on as they manipulate us into harbouring desires and fascinations for products of the capitalist system that, left to our own devices, we might see through as cheap, tacky and crass, or at the very least not see as the objects of our true hearts desires which we're brainwashed into thinking they are.

Ahmed doesn't believe in sex before marriage. As a twenty two year old I suspect this hasn't been much of a burden for him, especially now that he's marrying soon. I wonder if he lived to be 36 and unmarried, he'd think the same way. That's an interesting thing, isn't it, about the no sex before marriage ruling. In the past people always married young so it was never much of a problem. Obviously, though, since 'God's law' is written in stone, it doesn't make the slightest difference that people now marry later and later, or that life itself changes and is not stone.

Adultery, as well as sex before marriage, is also horrible to Ahmed. He said God will punish it. That it is the worst thing you can do. I suspected he was being rhetorical. I hoped so anyway. Actually, I don't know if adultery is legal in Syria, in the eyes of the secular state. One thinks somehow it should be, if you're thinking in a secular way. But clearly it's unacceptable on the Islamic street. I told him that adultery isn't a crime in the West, though I wished I could tell him when it was legalised, but I didn't know. I didn't defend adultery. My opposition to adultery, and to infidelity for the unmarried, is simply based on the fact that it constitutes a lie, that it's deceitful. People in monogamous relationships say to each other that they'lll be faithful to each other, and they expect that from each other too; or at least they expect it from the other if not from themselves. If they're not going to be faithful, why did they say they would be in the first place.

Certainly I didn't agree that God punishes adultery. I don't understand God as a punisher. Mankind is the punisher, not God. Nature is the punisher, not God. Call it Karma if you will. Karma is the punisher. I agree with the Buddhists in this. But God, who obviously cannot be hurt by anything we do to him, operates outside of the system of retalliation. Moreover, it was to put an end to punishment, according to my theology, that God came to get punished on the cross.

Even though Ahmed had just said that nothing was worse than adultery, he revised his opinion, as I suspected he might, when I asked him about homosexuality. This now became the ultimately bad thing.

What could I say? I could have tried to rile him by referring to what I'd heard, correctly or incorrectly, that homosexuality is not as rare in the Islamic world as one might expect it to be, given the severity of the prohibitions against it. But I was enjoying my tea and their hospitality and didn't want to generate bad vibes. All I really said by way of trying to forge a connection was that I didn't really understand homosexuality. Which is true, I don't.

Ahmed wanted me to stay longer but I was tired. It was fascinating talking to him but I needed to be alone, so I waited for a bus to drive me back the 30km to Lattakia at an absurdly excessive speed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Morshedi near Lattakia

My train to Lattakia was the first I'd taken since travelling in Bulgaria between Koprivshtsitsa and Veliko Tarnovo. This bus-heavy trajectory had never been my choice but was a reflection of the greater availability of buses in these regions.

So I was looking forward to standing up again and walking around on my means of transport. Hopefully, if the train was better than the Bulgarian one, I'd go to the buffet for a coffee and look longingly, as I like to, over land disappearing behind me. I'd read that the views between Aleppo and Lattakia are really good so this further stoked my anticipation.

Actually, although I found and sat in the buffet, and drank two typically thick coffees, I didn't pay much attention to the views. Instead I spent my time in the immoderately joyful company of Amon Fawsley. I noticed him shortly after sitting down in the buffet, waving me over. Almost from the beginning he interweaved hearty laughter into his discourse - the non-sardonic, golden type that speaks of other realms and warms the heart and provokes similar laughter from others. From me anyway.

A student of law in Aleppo he was on his way home to his village in the hills surrounding Lattakia. He played me a song, quite a trashy one, on his mobile phone. I couldn't help being impressed. My phone is three years old and can do nothing fancy except take uselessly poor pictures. He'd been reading about his studies when I joined him. He has to study legal terminology in English, which I found pretty impressive. He showed me his list of political definitions for concepts such as 'democracy' and 'absolutism', and 'socialism'. Fairly good I thought, accurate, well-balanced, not biased as I expected them to be. Before long he invited me to see his village, even to stay the night if I wanted. I thought why the hell not but told him I wanted to settle into a hotel first. His English wasn't that great but good enough. If all else failed he would revert to his charming catchphrase, uttered with a broad smile: 'I have no money, I have no land, I have no wife, but I have a beautiful life.' I don't know if this is original to him, but I thought it was brilliant. Is this what Alawi Shia Muslims are like, I wondered. Transcendentally happy, all the time. But when I asked him if he was Shia, he shrugged me off amiably and mysteriously said 'only Muslim'. Intriguing.

Eventually I found a suitable hostel run by a Tintin lover called Muhammad. He had a big map on his wall of the expanse of the Islamic world, which I thought conveyed an indeterminate degree of pride in his religion. For the first time on this trip I accepted the offer of a mattress on a roof, and after deflecting his entreaties to visit Saladin's castle made my way to Amon's village.

When I arrived I was treated to tea and a great meal with his extremely hospitable family, sitting under a tree in his garden. So it transpired, all the people in the village are members of his family. But this was not the only strange thing, since the whole village appeared to embrace the same religion too, one I'd never heard of before and have since found no reference to on the internet. I'd define it as a twentieth century, localised, Syrian offshoot of Shia Islam, but that's me categorising. An extremely young revelation, it has yet to find a written expression, so only lives in the oral memories and transmissions of those who personally knew the religion's central figures. The impression I was given, and the one I went away with, was that I was a witness to a religion in a similar phase of incohate development that Christianity went through before the first gospels were compiled.

I'll try and summarise it, as accurately as I can. Amon's father knew the most but his brother, Ahmed, whose English was very good, conveyed the details. They call themselves 'Morshedi' and accept the basic truth of Islam, that Muhammad was sent by God. Within that broad stance, like other shia they also believe that Ali, the fourth Caliph, was a wonderful man, far more than the Caliphs that preceded or followed him. This is where the similarities with Islam end, however.

A major point of departure is over the question of Jesus. It is a regrettably unknown fact that all Muslims accept the providential role of Jesus Christ. But although Muslims will say he was a great prophet, was born of a Virgin, and will return again to the world before the last Judgement, Muslims have always carved a deep line in the sand between themselves and Christians by insisting that Jesus was not divine, that he did not die on the cross, and so in consequence did not rise from the dead.

Ahmed, however, told me that Jesus was the Son of God. Moreover, he did indeed die in the manner Christian tradition says he did. He was right to think that by saying this he would pique my interest. I wondered if he meant he was uniquely divine, as the orthodox say, or divine in a sense that we are all divine, or at least potentially divine, as does panentheism and the New Age. The latter, so he told me, though one must always wonder to what extent western, abstruse theological categories hold water in the Levant. With one stroke he dismantled the traditional Muslim insistence (shared by Judaism) that an unbridgeable abyss separates man and God. Perhaps this was why these Morshedi are all such jolly splendid people. They are not ashamed to revel in their own divinity!

So I asked about the Resurrection, something I tend to think is a crucial article of the faith if the remarkable claims of the uniqueness of the Christian message are to be credited. Yes, this happened too. Really I wondered? I was sceptical. There was something about his spiritualised way of speaking that made me wonder if he was thinking of a spiritual resurrection, in the manner perhaps of the Gnostics.
Yes, I was right. Although I had to struggle to get Ahmed to see the difference between a physical and a spiritual resurrection, he eventually clarified that, yes, Jesus' physical body did not rise from the dead, but only his soul. But what did that matter he maintained? It's the soul that counts, so he said. All of us are eternal and will live on after we die and lose our physical containers. Fair enough, and all well and good, and perhaps he's right, but I was glad to clarify that Morshedi disagrees with orthodox Christian thought on the events of the third day. But never before had I heard Muslims agreeing as much as these did with Christianity.

For Muslims is what they are, at least in their own understanding, whatever other Muslims might think. Ahmed teasingly reproved me for Christians' failure to accept Muhammad as a prophet, as if it was my fault, which I found very funny. He told me how Jesus had prophesied the coming of Muhammad. I told him this was a matter of Muslim opinion, not something that Christians believe, otherwise they'd be Muslims. I think he may have taken the point, but if he did he didn't do so enthusiastically. He was such a lovely man I couldn't get frustrated with his unwillingness to accept that Christians don't accept Muslim accounts of the Christian revelation, as expressed in the Koran; but surely this is vital if Muslims are to understand Christians and do more than just talk at them, however graciously.

Seeking common ground, as is my wont, I asked about Abraham's son Ishmael, the alleged spiritual and ethnic ancestor of the Arabs. He didn't know that he plays a minor role in Genesis, as someone blessed by God who then disappears from a biblical story which then focuses only on the children of his half-brother, Isaac. I wanted to edge towards my tentative hypothesis that whereas the Bible is a book about and for Isaac's children (at least the Old Testament), the Koran, though it refers in some depth to the history of Isaac's children (through Jacob), is intended for Ishmael's, and that through this understanding of the intended readership of the two books, harmony and mutual respect and comprehension between the Abrahamic religions might be established. He seemed to go, very intrigued, with the idea but didn't see, I think, its holistic, hopefully curative consequences.

Morshedi, a specifically Syrian, home grown development, has no more than 400,000 followers. It has had three principal spokesmen. The first was born in 1922 or 1923, I forget. His role was to prepare the way for the second, the most important figure, whose teaching the third individual spent his life promoting among his followers in Northern Syria. Alas, I cannot tell you their names because I can’t remember them and Ahmed said they were too sacred to write down. Both the first and second gentlemen were killed by the Syrian Government, something which didn’t upset Ahmed at all. Indeed, he was keen to stress that Morshedi has no argument with the Government and doesn’t involve itself in politics at all. I’d wondered whether this might be because they live in the prosperous Alawi area of Syria and so share the same Shia background as the Government, but I let that one lie. The second man began preaching as a twenty two year old in the early 50s but could only preach for two years before he was killed by the Government. The third man took up the mantle and lived until 1997, when he mysteriously disappeared. They are willing to accept that he died but say that they don’t know what happened to him.

The message of Morshedi struck me as very agreeable. I hope I get it right. They believe that all people who have good hearts and are loving towards their fellow men are Sons of God. As for the rest these are to be respected and honoured and never mistreated. So wonderfully, they really seem to have transcended the age-old human fascination with dividing people up into intrinsically good and intrinsically bad factions, a fascination we too often maniacally cling to; as well as to have embraced Jesus’ noble doctrine of the love of enemies in the face of persecution. Still, perhaps it helps them specifically that they don’t face persecution, possibly because of their beneficent, tolerant feelings towards others, if not their lack of interest in politics. As to why gentleman one and gentleman two were killed by the authorities, however, this was not explained.

I still wasn’t exactly clear what they thought about Jesus, particularly in terms of the Second Coming. And here things get really strange, as well as divergent not only from Christianity but from Islam. Apparently, although Muslims believe that Jesus is to return, he is to do so not in Jerusalem but in Damascus, and not just anywhere in Damascus but through the ‘Jesus Minaret’ on the south eastern corner of the Great Ummayad Mosque. Curious as such an understanding may be, at least Muslims believe, however, that Jesus is to return literally, in the same physical form he embodied when he was taken up into heaven to escape crucifixion.

Morshedi disagrees with Muslims on both counts. Not in Damascus was Jesus fated to return but rather to their very own sacred region of Lattakia. And not in the same physical form either but in the body of another man (the physical body is not that important in Moshedi, after all). And finally - maybe you’ve guessed this - not in the future is this to happen, but it already has. Sure enough, in the person of gentleman number two! So much for his return being seen by every eye, as the New Testament suggests, but anyway.

One thing, however, Moshedi does agree with Islam about. When Jesus returns (or rather when he did) his role is/was to convert Christians to Islam (or in this case to Morshedi). So there it was all wrapped up and revealed. Ahmed wanted to convert me - a Christian obviously, since I was European - to his super new brand of Islam, and claiming Jesus’ Second Coming for their own was a central tactic in his plan. Ingenious, Sherlock.

Oh well, I shouldn’t be cynical. It’s normal for religions that aren’t Jewish to seek converts so this is hardly a crime; obviously, it was no noxious creed they wanted me to join. They don’t even demand much of your time in ritual worship. Not only do Morshedi Muslims have no mosques, they only gather for collective worship once a year in specially constructed buildings. I'm presuming this is because they have a highly interiorised, direct understanding of God’s relationship with the individual. And when they do gather, they engage in something that has been called a ‘festival of sweets’. I imagine this involves some kind of ritual enjoyment of Syria’s marvellous delicacies, but now I’m only speculating.

A Meeting with Aram

Apart from the souq, Aleppo has an enormous castle, or the ruins of one, sat on the top of a large mound of earth in the centre of the old city, the views from which reminded me very much of Cairo.

One evening with Alfredo, I managed to talk to some French girls who were working with him temporarily. One of them was really gorgeous, though I'm sure I found her more gorgeous than I normally would. If I'd met her in the West, she'd have been only one of a number of lavish ladies - vivid of speech, alluring in appearance - that I might typically meet. But here, in the land of concealment, where mother nature's daughters are shy, she shone like a shepherd moon, like a spring in the desert, an oasis deep with water, surrounded by high class palm trees. The effect was agreeably hypnotic, while it lasted.

Unfortunately nothing developed between us but it was nice to be remineded that half of the human race existed, and had minds of their own. A pity, though, that these women weren't Arabic. Indeed, I have not spoken to a Middle Eastern women since the school teacher near Kahta in Turkey. If I didn't think this was totally normal for the region I'd think it was bizarre.

As long as they're happy, I tell myself. But happy is not what Alfredo suggested Syrian women were when he told me the suicide rate is high in Syria, especially for women.

I'd decided to go next to Lattakia, on the coast. I told myself I wanted to swim in the sea. I also wanted to see the area that Syria's ruling class (or should I say tribe), the Alawi sect, come from. A particular variant of Shia Islam, they constitute a mere 11% of the population but completely dominate political power in the country and have most of its wealth. Given that most of the country are Sunni (74%) and would probably, if you asked them, like to have some of that power themselves, the Alawi have a robust reason to ensure their grip on power doesn't falter. Not only might they lose their pre-eminence if things like democracy had a say, they might face vengeance and reprisals if their hegemony were eroded. Nothing like a solid dose of fear to make the ruling classses twist the knife one last time.

In an internet cafe which like so many boasted computers that intermittently crash because of power cuts, I met an Armenian twenty year old guy called Aram, who worked in the cafe. While we waited for the power to return, he walked me to the station and helped me buy my train ticket to Lattakia. He told me that there are 40,000 Armenians in Aleppo. That sounds like alot but its only 2.1% of Aleppo's population of 1.9 million. He told me, gloomily, that he didn't like the Arabs. Remembering Stephen's good relations with the Assyrians, I asked him if they were any better. Alas, they weren't. The Kurds?....actually they're ok. But didn't the Kurds kill your ancestors I innocently asked, not wanting to turn him into a Kurd basher. Well, ok, yeah, but the Turks (who he hated most of all) were to blame since they told the Kurds to kill the Armenians and to take their land. Through all this chatter I hadn't noticed the tattoo on his arm which said 'Jesus' in bold Gothic font. Are you a Christian I asked, by which I meant are you devout. No, he chuckled, I wear it to annoy the Arabs.

While we waited outside another internet cafe run by his Armenian friend - a cafe also suffering from power failure - I finally noticed the swastica hung around his neck. Wondering, hopefully, if he might possibly be an appreciator of ancient Indian philosopy, I asked him why he was wearing it. Because Hitler was a good man who knew what should be done with the Jews, he said. And what was that, I asked. He killed them 'one by one'. Apparently, he believes (as do many so it seems) that the 11 million Jews of the world control the wealth of the planet's six billion. Curiously enough, however, he later expressed a desire to go to Israel. Examining him on this apparent inconsistency, he said it was fine if the Jews were confined to their own country; it's only a problem if they're elsewhere. If this counted for a form of Zionism (does it?) its a pretty strange form, surely.

Standing up for my own and most people's aversion to the corporal from Linz, I told him that Hitler was an evil man and not anybody I thought anyone should admire. Possibly he was disarmed by the reasonable discursive tone I adopted. In any case, he didn't seem eager to fight for his hero, only pointing at some graffiti on the wall that said 'Hitler rules' (or something like that) next to a scrawled swastica. He said Hitler was aware of racial issues, implying that this was good. I conceded his point that Hitler was very race conscious but added that he was so in a diabolical way that, in fact, had the effect of rendering the whole question of race disreputable and too explosive to be mentioned. So in the long run, was he really a servant of race consciousness? I wasn't implying that race consciousness is good. In fact I find it morally neutral but think that it can be fascinating and insightfula topic, if your heart is a good one. But since Hitler any innocence it might have possessed has been rendered almost inaccessible, in popular western discourse anyway.

He seemed perplexed that I didn't seem to hate anybody, any ethnic group. The feeling of incomprehension was not reciprocated. I find it very easy, given the genocide and the population transfers, to understand why Armenians hate the children of their persecutors, even though I see no nobility in it. I partially explained my tolerant attitudes by saying I'm an Englishman and that we have no natural, serious enemies, never having been invaded, deported or wiped out by another people, being instead a dominant race whose role it has been to give others reasons to hate us. A curious advantage of being a top dog but surely an advantage nevertheless. What we have entertained have been insufferably pompous attitudes of condescending superiority. But we have never, I think, really hated the peoples over whom we have ruled becasue we've had no reason to.

I asked him if he knew Gurdjieff, a fellow Armenian. He hadn't so I told him, patronisingly but with conviction, that he would be a far better man to get enthusiastic about than Hitler. And of course he was Armenian too, so he could conjoin his patriotism with an esteem for his amazing thought too.

The internet cafe I eventually was able to use was attached to an Armenian youth centre, with sports and other recreational facilities. Everything about the place looked affluent. The Armenians also have their own schools and have carved out quite a comfotable niche for themselves. Why was this I asked Aram. Because, he said, unlike the Arabs, Armenians use their heads. Hmmm I thought, but let the matter lie.

He seemed keen to talk further so later we went for some pizza and then for a couple of beers during happy hour at the hyper air-conditioned Sheraton Hotel. Walking in from the heat is an exciting experience, as your body rapidly adjusts to the enveloping wall of cold air. Aram used to be a barman at the Sheraton's 'English bar'. We were also joined by another of his Armenian friends, Magar, who works for an auditing company. The money he said was rubbish, but compared to others he was doing ok. Top jobs in Syria apparently provide you with 400 dollars a month, no more.

We were isolated at the bar and it seemed safe to discuss politics, and they were happy to, though Magar looked around suspiciously at one moment when some people walked behind us.

Magar told me about a Finnish anarchist he'd once befriended in Aleppo who had gone around spray painting on pictures of the President. Worried that the police might associate him with this person's crimes, he confessed that he'd known him to an agent who was a vague acquaintance that he'd known him, but said that he'd only spoken with him and wasn't involved. He presumed the police had been watching him in the first place and he wanted to pre-emptively clear his name. I asked him about the political prison near Palmyra, and he told me about the torture equipment kept there, about one particular device used for stretching the back.

Then Aram said that he expected to be asked by the police the following day what he'd been saying to me. Until now, I'd suspected that I might have been followed, but they put all my doubts to rest. Presuming that their self-preservation instincts would assist them to be quiet, I told them when we spoke about Israel that I'd been there three times. I said that in a demonstrative hush-hushing gesture that I hoped was dramatic. They were shocked and laughed, yet nonetheless seemed impressed. Technically, I suppose, my being in Syria was illegal; though since nobody had asked me if I'd ever been to Israel I hadn't had to lie. They were even more shocked, however, when I told them I'd met someone in a bookshop living in Syria who actually went to Israel fairly often on a second passport by flying out to Greece first.

We exchanged emails and Aram said he'd write to me about what the Police said to him if they approached him, but I haven't heard anything yet. Hopefully, the allure of his beloved computer games have clouded his memory.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Islam with Alfredo

Alfredo knows alot about Islamic law. Like many law books, the one on his table initially looked appealing but after a page or two turned out to be ladened with the same rarified, stultifiying, inhumane jargon one might find in the legal language games of the West. What difference must there really be between the two spheres of Law I wondered.
Ok, in the West you don't get your hand chooped off for stealing, nor do public executions happen, as they still do in Saudi Arabia. In the West, thank God, you can even publically defy the bearded one in the sky, or even deny he exists, without losing your stride or your life. But not so long ago in the West you could be hanged for stealing an apple, so let's not rest too comfortably on our laurels.

In both systems of law the same sense of the sovereignty of an abstract, impersonal, inhumane 'other' is noted. In both systems the Law is a God, second only to the uber-God of all Gods, Money. But don't think I'm an antinomian anarchist, please. In both systems this Law is necessary because human beings (that would be you and I) cannot be trusted to live together, without our egos, in a blissful communion of illimitable love. The Law indeed is an old and sorry story. St.Paul's best efforts to transport us beyond its crushing vigour have apparently failed. Now we seem destined to languish forever, in varying degrees of unquestioning self-righteousness, in the arms of its accusatory zeal. And now, as we get rid of God, we don't even have the counter-weight of divinely instituted mercy to restrain the dark rapacity of dark hearts. A case in point is the so called 'criminal record'. Even though, granted, alot of our punishments are gentler than they were, because of this record, this branding on your soul, after you have been punished, you continue to be punished for a possibly permanent period of time thereafter, unless your conviction is deemed to be 'spent'. Even if it is 'spent', however, your past misdemeanour remains a source of shame you had better keep quiet about. Nobody will be impressed very much if you refer to your past crime, your own guilt, as a reason to be forgiving towards another, on the principle that you too are not 'without sin', as Jesus would put it, and so are not entitled to throw stones.
In case you're wondering, no, I don't have a criminal record. But so what if I did? Well, actually quite alot what, and that's the problem. That's what I'm saying. The unoffical, implicit stigma of the record hangs around like a stain long after the formal operations of state revenge have been exacted and laid to rest.

Probably I could have made quite a good lawyer. My fastidious, categorising mind, might have done well, picking over the bodies of the accused. If I'd become a lawyer, who knows, I might even be earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year by now. Ample money then to finance proper travelling, provided of course I had the energy to do interesting things with my miniscule allowances of holiday.

Actually, despite what I say, I've always found the law interesting, as a theoretical entity, anyway - even though the dead, flattening discourse it wraps itself up in always does its best to shoo me off to more fertile realms.

So I asked Alfredo about Sharia law. Sharia law is often in our newspapers. Its implementation in a state, one might want to say, is the defining characteristic of an Islamist state, as opposed to a state (such as Turkey for example) in which the prevailing cultural consensus is Islamic but which bases itself on a less stringent, less exactling interpretation of Islamic law, usually combined with legal traditions from the non-Islamic world. According to Wikipedia (the possibly trustworthy) unambiguously Sharia states comprise only Saudi Arabia and Iran, though Afghanistan, Libya and Sudan come pretty close. The rest of the Islamic world seems to operate what it calls a 'dual system', which separates the realm of the religious from the secular and has separate courts for each.

The basic question I wanted to put to Alfredo was whether you can dispense with Sharia law on the basis of the Koran, whether you can be a non-Sharia Muslim, or a non-Sharia Islamic state while still being loyal to the Koran?

Obviously, I am no expert. Alfredo basically said you couldn't and no doubt he would have many a Muslim applauding him. What he said was that the Five Pillars of Islam (Praying 5 times a day, giving money to the poor, going to Mecca, believing Muhammad is the Prophet of God, and fasting during Ramadam) are rooted in the Koran. Well, that indeed is no doubt true, but is the Koran identical with Sharia, does the Koran encapsulate the fulness of Sharia? One thinks not. And Wikipedia seems to agree:

'There is no strictly static codified set of laws of sharia. Sharia is more of a system of devising laws, based on the Qur'an (the religious text of Islam), hadith (sayings of Muhammad), ijma, qiyas and centuries of debate, interpretation and precedent.'

I won't go into the details of these exotic sounding words, about which I know little. But it seems to back up what I thought about how there has been much besides the Koran that has determined Sharia. One might want to call that simply history or culture or tradition, the unfolding of minds thinking about legal matters over many centuries, in various contexts.

Why was I thinking along these lines? Because to me, when I think about the Five Pillars of Islam (which are clearly, specifically Koranic) I think: Hmmmm, well, that doesn't sound too harsh, too exacting does it; but that when I think about the minutae of Sharia as an extended regimen, I go a bit giddy. And in my giddiness I think 'Phew, is all this really necessary, is all this really what Muhammad wanted? Are we sure?'

I am not a Muslim and as such you would be right to think this is 'none of my business', as the cliche goes. But the desire to live in a harmonious world in which all people love each other, don't judge one another, and don't heap extraneous burdens on one another under the liberal blessedness of the Sun - this I consider most certainly to be my business. That desire is my business, and I'm not sure why it shouldn't be other people's business too.

Obviously, if people want to live under Sharia and to know from it what they should do in multiple spheres in the privacy of their self-relations and their relations with others, this is their right and they surely have the freedom to do so. Lots of people, after all, join the army and a myriad of non-Islamic cults to get the same existential certainties against the gaping rigours of the void. But surely, it's something else to suppose, if you don't actually want to live like this, that you have to live like this because the creator of the Universe said so unambiguously through both his Archangel Gabriel and human articulator, Muhammad. If you think the latter, it becomes rather important, I would think, to be certain that Sharia is Koranic, and only Koranic, because the Koran is the only unambiguous text detailing that direct, monumental divine message. After all, even the Hadith, the life example and words of the Prophet, are open to interpetations. And additionally, how a man lived hundred of years ago is not the same as the voice of God, I am supposing. The Koran, after all, so it is believed, is the actual word of God, passively received by the mind of Muhammad, undoctored by any contributing, moulding shaping input on his part. Can the same, one might ask, be said for his behaviour?

You would not be misguided if you discerned echoes in my thinking of the Protestant cast of mind in the context of the Christian revelation. That too was rooted in the wonderment: Is all this tradition really what Jesus was about? They concluded no, and I was wondering with Alfredo whether a similar protesting, reforming turn of mind might be actionable within the broad framework of Islam as laid down in the Koran.

Of course, in a broad sense I don't care that much about this personally, since I'm not a Muslim. Alfredo, it seemed, cared even less, preferring to angle for a basic deconstruction of Islamic law altogether, along with the entirety of the religion itself. Such one would expect from an atheist after all, so there's no surprise there.

My concern, actually, is rooted in a curiosity to see if it's possible to reassure Muslims that compromise or negotiation with the 'forms of life' as Wittgenstein would put it, of the non-Islamic world, be that Eastern or Western, is not incompatible with their religion as understood by the Koran. It is after all tricky to liberate people from restrictive forms of life (if indeed they would like to be liberated, and therein may lie the rub) by criticising the foundational axiom -namely God - that underlies the religion that itself enshrines those forms of life. That has been the policy of the essentially materialistic influenecs that have entered the world of Islam in the past few hundred years. These were brought first by the West in its post 'Enlightenment' expansionist bossiness, then later from within the Muslim mind itself they were reproduced, in the secularist-nationalist, even communist-atheistic manifestations of the twentieth century.
I say it's tricky, of course, becuse it gets the believers backs up, since they feel, not without reason, that the most precious thing in their emotional life, namely God, is being marginalised if not less equivocably trashed. And the reaction to that is fundamentalism and the ossification of the mind in defensive forms of rigidity and fear, masquerading as condemnation of the 'other', undertaken in a spirit of self-preservation, of everything except the simplest, most foundational interpretations of Islam. From the earliest days of Wahhabism to contemporary Al-Quaeda, after all, what is fundamentalism if divorced from its fear of the West. I'm not sure that there is such a fundamentalism.

It would be less tricky to reconcile the Islamic mind to expansiveness and a freer interpretation of sanctioned behaviour if the God of Islam is not attacked at all, if one can present the idea that God never wanted all this restrictiveness in the first place. I'm not saying that this is either easy or that it can be done, I am just wondering if it can be done. And if Sharia is indeed extra-Koranic, or post-Koranic, then to my mind this would suggest that it would be more possible than it would otherwise be.

I suppose, broadly, what I think about Islam should be understood in the context of my globalist concern to attempt, however forlornly and hopelessly this may be, to somehow understand what the hell humanity in its relation to transcendent reality has been up to in the past three to four thousand years. I have various ideas, touching on Ancient Israel, Greek philosophy and the meditative spirtualities of the non-Islamic east, and the Christian orthodox and heretical churches. Particularly interesting to me is the significance of the so-called 'Axial Age' of the middle of the first millenium BC, when, as Karen Armstrong and others say, so much changed in the mental, spiritual life of humanity. My suspicion is that the aeon that was then introduced is crumbling all around us today and that this might explain the confusions and disparate, apparently incompatible ideologies of the contemporary world. But until now I've never really thought much about Islam and how it fits in with my working hypothesis.

Of course, it is a relatively very young religion (though you wouldn't catch a devout Muslim saying that, since he'd say Islam is the restoration of the pure Abrahamic faith that Judaism and Christainity were degenerations from). Its only 1,400 years old, after all.

Everything I write is not intended to offend Muslims. But I am interestd in what I read recently about the connection Islam may have with our glistening friend the Moon. Yes, the Moon, the spherical eye of beautiful, solicitous eeiriness that bedecks our sky by night. For one, Islam keeps a lunar calender, as does Judaism for that matter. Maybe they are both somehow lunar. But what I read more than this (and of course what I read could be wrong?) is that the Arabs, including Muhammad, that embraced Islam were formerly Moon worshippers, that the name of their God was 'Al-ilah' (similar to Allah) and that the enjoined practices of that Moon religion bear a striking resemblance to the Five Pillars of Islam. This is either wrong or it is right.

Beyond that I think about Ishmael, the older son of Abraham and the spiritual, if not literal ancestor of the Arabs. Jews and Muslims disagree starkly about who Abraham's most significant son was. Jews say it was Isaac, Muslims Ishamel. Muslims say that Abraham went with Ishamael to Mecca and blessed and made sacred the Kaaba, the rock that is now the most sacred shrine of Islam's most sacred city. Jews don't mention this in their Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament and which they call the Tannakh. This book, in Genesis, writes of Isaac and the promises he received to be a light and a blessing to the world.
What I'm thinking is why can't both accounts be true, even though they're different. Abraham got around, after all, he lived a long time. After all, Genesis is clear that Ishmael was not a bad egg. He himself gets a blessing, even though its not as good as the one that Isaac gets (well, the Bible is a Hebrew text after all).

Ultimately in a way I agree with Alfredo, and with John Lennon: it would be good to see the back of religion, though my argumentation would be different. I'd meditate on the ethical humiliations it has so often wrought on God's sacredness by making him so often an exquisitely partial, bigoted old man in the sky; on the ways in which it has been, yes, and still is far too often, a justification for cruelty and hatred, let alone the prohibiting of the free, joyful life beneath the Sun. But I'm not persuaded the Godlessness is either intellectually viable (God may well exist) or wise (Think Stalin, think Mao, think the tyranny of the machines).

To me it is precisely because God exists that religion is merely temporary. Religion is but a bridge across an abyss, as I have written before. And who needs the bridge when you've got to the other side, or if God has got to yours.

If you're a spy, I hope you find this interesting

When I was in Alfredo's room, which he keeps ice cool in a delightful manner, I showed him how to set up a blog, and warned him, as one must, of how temperamental Blogger can be with its fonts. Later Alfredo would tell me I could write about our chats but to keep his identity secret, since he was feeling a bit paranoid.

I'd earlier told Peter he could email me if he wanted. He worried the internet police would be able to trace him through his email. He hadn't heard of the possibility of calling yourself or something like that. He was excited to be enlightened. Still, I told him I didn't know how determined the snoopers would be, whether they'd go to the trouble of asking internet cafe managers who'd been using a specific computer at a particular time.

Maybe they're exaggerating. Or maybe they're not.

Was I having a Bath?

Between my first and second meeting with Alfredo something in the Arabian air did something to my mind. Something which made me do something I'd definitely never do in the Western World - buy a dress, not for daughter, mother, sister or girlfriend, but for myself.

Of course I'm being unfair. Only teasing, my Lord. Whilst it actually was is a 'dish dasha'. I was struck my the sumptious, creamy colour of the proffered item, paraded under my nose by a smiling purveyor of Arabian attire. A 'V-neck' single body garment, some have full length arms, some don't, stopping at the bicep. I had one of the latter. I put it on after having a bath at a Hammam and then wore it for the next two days all around Aleppo. Only some stubborn mud accumulating at its base, and an uncertainty as to how to wash the beast, prevented me from continuing to wear it. Certainly, it made for very comfortable attire in the intense heat of day.

Obviously, after I put it on I felt, self-consciously, like an international superstar and waited to receive suitably impressed smiles and exclamations from the surrounding community. Actually, the reaction was surprisingly muted, though I was glad some nods and smiles were noted. Later Alfredo, when he first saw it on me, shocked and impressed all at once, said people would surely laugh. I said they didn't and he confirmed this himself when we went out later. Previously, he'd only worn his dish dasha at home but now he might change his mind.

Before I'd only ever worn 'dress' arrangements at a fancy dress party in Durham and while kinkily dressing up in an idle moment with a girl. This was the first time I'd publically worn a item at least looking like a dress. Obviously, the fact that in Aleppo about 60% of the men were doing the same had encouraged me. I must say it can be particularly difficult running in this item, and when I caught myself picking up the material around the knees to facilitate movement I awkwardly felt exceptionally female.

Regarding the Hammam, I decided to opt against having the full body massage as I still remembered the pain of being roughly manhandled in Istanbul three years ago. Persuading them I didn't want the massage was pretty hard, nevertheless.

It's of course very agreeable to get wet and washed when you're out and about in the heat and dust of an Arabian day. But Hammams are not as good as Japanese Onsens, which I enjoyed with great dedication last summer. These allow you not only to wash more easily with a greater abundance of soap but to soak in pools of varying temperatures as well. Still, onsens don't have the same tradition of massage attached so they can't compete if a good body pummeling is what you're after. Another central difference is the erstwhile semitic body shame the Hammams defend and that the Japanese innocently know nothing of. In the Turkish baths you must be always covered up beneath the navel by an annoying white sheet that got in my way when I tried to wash.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


The second 'dissenting' voice was that of a European living and working in Syria. Since he's not a Syrian, perhaps I shouldn't call him a dissident, but I got the impression he was certain he knew what he was talking about even if he didn't.

Lets call him Alfredo and pretend he's Spanish. Over the course of two days I met up with him three times. Firstly, just moments after saying goodbye to Peter when I decided I'd continue enjoying the upmarket area. A book standing next to his wine caught my eye: Islamic Jurisprudence. He invited me to join him and we chatted with increasing degrees of warmth for the next two hours on a range of topics before walking back to his stunning apartment where I had my first taste of the local liquor, Arak (an aniseed concoction). To be frank, my experience with Peter had made me a bit paranoid. I was worried Alfredo might also be gay and put pressure on me too. But happily this was not the case. He spoke of a lady he'd met and wanted to assure me (as if he thought I didn't know?) that the pleasures and significance of a woman's sexual company can never be underrated.

By the way, I hope its clear I'm not a homophobe. As it happens, I have many gay friends and have always valued them. An inescapably non-coercive individual I've always found it next to impossible to tell anybody how they should or, heaven forbid, must live their life. This trait made me a very poor sub-prefect at school. I never rose any higher than a sub-prefect, gladly. I also controversially worry that it may partially explain my record of failures with women, or some women, those who want a strong, directing hand. It has meant, too, that I've shied away from all ambitions to be a manager or to achieve formal positions of power. It may therefore account for my relatively unimpressive purchasing power. All I'm saying about homosexuals who try to seduce me is that it makes me feel uncomfortable. I think this may be for two reasons. Firstly I find it embarrassing because I have to be a rejector, and I don't like being a rejector. Secondly it means I can't feel I can be as open and affectionate as I might like to be with them, for fear of giving the wrong signal and so encouraging them.

I later met Alfredo the following day when he invited me back to his flat in the afternoon. Being busy we later went out for a very nice meal.

I mainly remember our meetings for the things we spoke about.

He agreed with everything I told him Peter had said about life in Syria. He added that he thought the American assessment of the threat posed by Iran was pretty accurate, because of the insanity of their President, Ahmadinejad, whom he says 'wants the end of the world'. I'd read about this before. Apparently he is trying to provoke the reappearance of the Twelfth Iman, who went into hiding hundreds of years ago. Apocalyptic scenarios must be suitably loud for him to be awoken, so I understand. I reminded him that he's not as powerful as he would like to be and has opposition from within the ruling clerical clique. This didn't impress Alfredo much, though I hope its true that moderate hands can restrain the President. We spoke of 'regime change' in Iran. We agreed that this should never be attempted by the US, or by other outside forces (e.g Israel). Personally, I only think it an appropriate topic because of how unpopular the regime is inside the country. To me, it's clear this has to happen only from inside the country, if it's to happen at all. Obviously, it's up to the Iranian people. The regime is particularly unpopular amongst the young who happen to comprise a disproportionately high degree of the population. Its interestingly unfortunate, however, that because of Ahmadinejad's nationalist breast-beating rhetoric, seeds of a contradictory stance towards the regime have been sown. Yes, the regime is unpopular but the Iranians are a proud and patriotic people (with good reason, given their Persian achievements) and are reviled by the spectre of the interfering, crusading west, an image the President likes to inflame, presumably to some degree at least because it makes him more popular than he would otherwise be.

Regarding the Syrian undercover police, he said there were not as many as there had been under the former President and that we foreigners did not have to fear them. I hope he's right! He also qualified the degree of the threat they pose to Syrians by adding that political debate to an extent is permitted and does go on. The only really off limits issue is criticism of the President himself.

He said things were not as bad in Syria as they might be. If, for example, an Islamist regime, like Iran's or the Taliban, was in power; this much is clear, as we appreciated the alcohol we drank. The economy is also liberalising and this is reflected in the greater affluence of recent years, so he said, pointing at the upmarket cars on the street, which weren't there in the same numbers even five years ago. But he added that the vast majority of the wealth is limited to a very few and that the 'socialism' which is officially a part of the ruling party's platform is much reduced from what it was and that it doesn't do much to help the people. On the other hand, I would later read that some Lebanese come to Syria to take advantage of the better health facilities that can be found here.

Alfredo, like Peter, is an atheist, though in his case a militant one, despite his relaxed amiable bearing. He is also, interestingly, Jewish by ancestry (I wonder, oddly perhaps, if that will make some discredit his political analyses?), though no Zionist. Regarding Judaism, he said it was the best of the Middle Eastern Religions because it inculcates an attitude of questioning and criticising the religious authorities. Protestantism, I think, did this in its early heroic days, but then got slavish about its subservience to a book, when it didn't encourage people, after Newton especially, down a slippery road to the exaltation of human reason over every transcendence. I mentioned the great bits in the Old Testament where David (hardly a heretic!) is arguing with God, from a position that seems close to equality. Moses did the same, though less so. Since I'm a Christian, of a sort, I couldn't agree that Judaism is the best of the religions, though I certainly took his point. Obviously, because of his secular, atheistic mind, all these religious matters mean much less to him than to me.

Intrigued I imagine by my overly mythologising mind, he asked me what my beliefs were. I didn't come across as very sure. Beyond my personal attachment to Jesus, things become pretty vague. An important ingredient though, as I told him, is my qualified respect for Gnosticism, the counter-cultural tradition within Pre-Constantinian Christianity.

He seemed not to know anything about it. This I often distressingly find. The early heresy hunters did a through job, no doubt about it. One very rarely, even in these freethinking times, finds mention of Gnosticism in current religious debates, though it appeared last year when the 'Gospel of Judas' was published. I cut to the chase (to avoid complexity) and described it as an 'anti-wordly' creed, as opposed to a merely 'unworldly' one. Trying to explain the difference I said that while unworldy people might abstain from sex and booze or retreat to a desert, eschewing luxuries, to banish the temptations of the naughty sensuous life or the life of comfortable ease, anti-worldy people actually believe that the entire set up of the physical world itself, the very nature that covers the earth and is the earth, including our bodies and our minds, is fundamentally flawed, and has been flawed ever since its creation. That creation was either the intentionally malign doing of the 'devil' (whom some consider to be the God of Israel, and therefore Islam, since Islam acknowledges the religious pre-Islamic history of the Israelite God), or of a lesser, inferior deity who was led astray by his foolish ignorance and did a botched job.

Aware that this scenario looks decidedly bleak, the Gnostics would try to introduce some optimism. Luckily, when the flawed, or else malign, entity created this physical world he inadvertently allowed some genuine divine essence belonging to the true God above him to get mixed into his creation, where it now exists in a state of dormant self-consciousness in humanity. There it now resides as a 'divine spark' waiting, hoping, to be awoken and reunited with its truly divine reflection in the true heavens (the Aeons) which are safely far higher than and far distant from the counterfeit substitute heaven, wherein the false God (usually called Ialdaboath) resides and from where he manages the enslavement and exploitation of humanity through the ministrations of his army of Archons.

Whatever the orthodox Churches might want you to believe, you can be a Christian and a Gnostic. Well, at least if you suppose, straightforwardly, that to be a Christian means you think Jesus Christ is God and that he is the saviour of mankind. Admittedly, many Gnostics weren't Christians, but many were. The Christians ones believed, just as Christian Gnostics still do, that Jesus is a direct, primary emanation of the true God (the Pleroma - the fullness) and that he came to be the awakener of the divine spark in us all; though, unluckily for many, this spark is far more present and arousable in some than others. By believing in Jesus, one can be liberated from the yoke of the Law and the capricious demands of the standard God of Religion and ones spirit be let loose to freely roam, unrestrained, in the playing fields of ethereal bliss. The physical world is understandably downgraded in importance. Some Gnostics will even argue against sexual reproduction, seeing it as a tool for the propagation of the evil that is matter, the enchaining of spirit within flesh. Like in Buddhism, reincarnation exists and is a kind of hellish punishment that we all must suffer, as long as we're not set free from the physical world. Many have said that Gnosticism is the 'Buddhism of the West'.

Actually, I don't call myself a Gnostic. I can't help loving the physical creation, for all its annoying tragedies and screw ups. Nor do I feel it should be abandoned or ignored or escaped from. On the contrary, I believe the physical world should be understood as the very heart of the focus of God's love. But I do deeply respect the idea that, as Morpheus would say in The Matrix, a film described by some as articulating a Gnostic mythology, 'There is something wrong with the world' in a very fundamental way. I also share Gnosticism's compassion. Gnosticism sees sin and crime, as much as sickness and pain, as equivalent manifestations of the same operation of an evil world. I like the across-the-board, unqualified mercy that this leads to - even in its more exalted expressions to a mercy extended to the very evil deity, the demiurge, who set in motion the whole sorry story of the world in the first place. Gnostics, I'm suspecting, must have been gentle people. Abstracted, whimsical sure, but not persecutors, not pompous self-righteous institutors of religious cruelty. Of course in that it may have helped that they never had power. Maybe they'd have learned to take the physical world more seriously, in dark, oppressive ways, been corrupted, if they and not the orthodox had inherited the Roman Empire.

Descending from these lofty heights, which it was clear didn't interest Alfredo that much, he asked me directly, what kind of a world I wanted to live in. Actually, this flummoxed me. The kind of world I'd like to live in excludes so much of what is featured in this world that it's hard for me, being an inhabitant of this world (at least partially:)), to have a clear or distinct ideas about. I presumed he didn't need to be told that there would be universal love, of all people for all people, and no hatred. I'm a dippy trippy hippy in this regard, it's true. I presumed he wanted specifics. So I said there would be no money, no private property and no trade. That just kind of leapt out of me, without my thinking too much about it. I added that I supposed that made me a communist, though of a strange kind, a pre-Marxist communist, I wanted to say. He said Communism was 'a good idea' by which I presumed he wanted to imply, as he did, that it doesn't work in practice. So I said there has never been real Communism, if one is tempted to think that what happened in Russia and its satellites was Communism (or Communitarianism as I'd prefer), since it obviously wasn't. I made it clear, however, that I'm not a Communist revolutionary. I believe human nature and human consciousness has to change first. People must want not to be greedy and powerful over others. To effect that change is impossible without divine co-operation and involvement. Marx's atheism, therefore, did not bode well for the future.

Sometimes I call myself a Conservative Revolutionary. Only today I thought up the phrase Theocentric Communitarian. But these are slogans, and slogans can kill, as we know. So as God himself said about himself on the mountain, I am what I am, even though I'd add that I'm what I'm not too, in case people are tempted to get literal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I Forgot to Mention...

I forgot to mention that Peter is an atheist. I thought that was pretty strange, here in the heart of the Muslim world, but he didn't. I got the impression he thought people pretending to be Muslims while being nothing of the sort was fairly standard.

Luckily in Syria there are no religious police as in Iran or Saudia Arabia. This is because Syria, like Turkey, is officially a secular state. This doesn't mean one can feel at ease proclaiming one's atheism, however. Islam, like Christianity when its power was secure, does not possess the imagination sufficient to allow its magnanimous understanding of its tolerance of others to embrace those who think the bearded fellow in the sky is non-existent, if not distinctly malign.

When I say Syria is secular I mean only that the clerics are not in positions of executive power. I don't mean that Islam as a binding ordering cultural force of everyday life is not ever-present. This is even more so in Aleppo, which is one of the most conservative cities in the country, something reflected in the greater number of women in total body covering. Oddly enough, that conservatism didn’t stop Peter telling me it’s the homosexual capital of the country, shortly followed by Deir-Ez Zur. Do these things go together – for a reason I 'm not sure I can explain? Only last year I read Carmen Bin Laden, a relation by marriage of Osama, stating that there are more homosexuals in Saudi Arabia than the whole of Europe. That I find hard to believe but I got her point. Speculating randomly I might want to wonder, if this is true, if it might have something to do with the unavailablilty of women. You can't even, in these conservative areas, look at them in full sensual glory, except at home and only then if she's one particular person – your wife. But you can't get a wife unless you can afford one and have negotiated the various socio-economic hurdles required to convince her father that you're not impoverished or in any way disreputable. Might you want soulful, intellectual communion with that female body with whom you share yours? In a culture that limits the freedom and spirit of women, in order to protect their honour, (I don't understand this, not really), you might not be programmed to expect, nor her to provide, such a stimulus. So rather like boys in a boarding school you might want to look to shores able to provide a more accessible form of intimacy, especially if the available prostitutes are either too expensive or, like the rest of the women, lacking in interesting discourse potential.

I am not trying to insult Islam. I suppose, though, I may offend some Muslims. People must live as they wish, however much I feel that the way they choose to live, on the basis of my own perceptions, is disturbingly exotic. I am just wanting to call a spade a spade and wonder how to explain this connection – if it exists – between homosexuality in Islam and religious conservatism. If that connection doesn't exist, what I say is irrelevant, because untrue, so there's no reason to be offended, surely.

As it happens there is much I like about the culture that has been shaped by Islam. But this has to do with my general respect for its noble opposition to the dehumanizing forces of the consequences of reductive materialism, its stalwart defence of the spiritual side of man, a defence Christendom has unashamedly abandoned under the influence of its technological innovations and misconceived understanding of the scope and role of reason.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Different Voices

Speaking of names (see last post) I met two people in Aleppo who asked me not to be referred to by their real names. In both cases this is because of what they told me, either because they reasonably fear or are overly paranoid of the Syrian internet police.

In Aleppo, after seven days in Syria, I came across the first voices of outright political dissent, which made for extremely interesting listening. The second of these men I'll write about later. The first I met as I walked around the streets of Aleppo, visibly disorientated after having my head plugged into cyberspace for two hours. This can happen and often does, to me anyway.

Let's call him Peter. Rather like Stephen in Qamishle he came up to me and did all the running, taking me by the arm, enthusiastic to find a genuine Englishman. I agreed to go for tea with him and said I wanted a nargila pipe. I had in mind another of those classicly Arabic teahouses I'd enjoyed in Deir-Ez-Zur with Ahmed. This seemed to confuse him awhile but he responded anyway and led me to a bar that kept on being two minutes away for the next twenty. Pretty soon I guessed from his camp manner that he might be gay. Then when he suggested we go to a Hammam (a public Turkish bathhouse) I discreetly feared the worst. Later in an amiable way he clarified unambiguously both that he was gay and that he wouldn't mind trying to seduce me, which I tried, successfully as it happens, to not let worry me. Not perhaps having been in this situation as much as my vanity would like, I have nevertheless learnt how to deal with these situations.

He told me a number of very interesting things, moreover, which more than made up for my anxiety. When I said I wanted to go to Hama, a city directly to the south, he told me about the Government's February 1982 siege and massacre. As I would later find out, something between ten and thirty thousand people were killed. Luckily for the regime, the world's attention on this event was soon distracted into denouncing Israel for its role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of the following September, in which something between one and three thousand Palestinian refugees died at the hands of Christian militiamen. What happened at Hama is not an official part of Syrian discourse. If Syrians talk about it they do so in private. Since this clampdown, the Muslim brotherhood, the ringleaders of the revolt that sparked the Governmental reprisals (but who were by no means the only victims of it) have come to understand the severity of what they're up against. The same can be said of others who want to oppose the regime.

After we finally sat down at a classy alfresco restaurant in an upmarket area of town, I found it difficult for awhile to know what we should be talking about. Blithely ignorant at this time that undercover Syrian policemen are found throughout the country, to get things going I asked him what it was like to be gay in Syria. Shiftily looking around to see if anyone was listening, which he did whenever he said anything of substance, he said, somewhat shocked by my naivety, that obviously homosexuals have to be secretive. The parks and the Hammams are the prime meeting grounds. But homosexuality is strictly a crime and men seen kissing one another will be arrested.

That last comment may intrigue anyone who knows how in Arabic lands men will often walk hand-in-hand unashamedly and exchange 'air' kisses on each others cheeks when they meet. In fact I'd been kissed in this way by a waiter in Palmyra when I arrived at Muhammad's restaurant. Obviously, it was a more serious kind of kissing that Peter was talking about. To a Westerner there may seem to be a fine line, easily blurred, between holding hands and more explicit homosexual behaviour. I suppose this is because in the west, alas, heterosexual men are very sensitive about not exchanging more physical intimacy with other men than they need to, lest they be thought gay. But in the Middle East it's very different. One side of the line is ok and totally normal for heterosexual men (as everyone is considered to be), while the other is unambiguously sinful and wrong, if not horrific and criminal.

But Peter didn't only speak about homosexuality. In whispered, furtive tones he told me to tell Amnesty International that there are 3,000 political prisoners locked up outside Damascus. I presumed and hoped Amnesty International would know this already but I let that one lie. I asked if they were Islamic militants, or members of Al-Qaeda. Just intellectuals he said, liberal types, people like him. He then told me that the President had been illegally installed by his father in defiance of the Syrian consitution on 4 points. He was under forty when he became President and wasn't married, he is not a Sunni Muslim but an Alawite, and he hadn't studied for an engineering degree. Today, so he said, the first two conditions have now been met, but not the other two. How much is true about these remaining conditions, or indeed the rest of what he told me, I'm not that sure.

Then I was really surprised when I asked him what he thought about Israel. Thinking on the basis of what I'd heard from all Syrians so far that he too would hate Israel, that his homosexuality and dissident mind wouldn't get in the way of his Arabic solidarity, he actually said he was glad that Israel exists. If it didn't, the Government would not be distracted and would have more time and resources to oppress the people. Certainly a different take, anyway, on what I've speculated about earlier - that some Arab regimes might look to the evil, zionist enemy to help them control their people, by using it as a scapegoat around which to whip up a necessary subservience to the Government.

He still wanted to go to a Hammam with me and I still politely declined. He said he was interested in foreign coins and asked if I had any. As it happened I did and give him two Turkish Lira and two Slovak 10sk coins. He'd ordered some ice cream and chips for himself, while I'd had a beer and coffee. Expecting we'd go dutch at a venue plusher than I'd hoped to visit - me in one of my budgeting frenzies again - he nonetheless arranged with the waiter that I should pay for everything.

Feeling slightly irked by his presumptiouness for awhile I didnt let it bother me really. He'd only taken me for a three pound ride, after all, and I reminded myself how much poorer Syrians were than even British language teachers living in Slovakia. So I contented myself with feeling very satisfied and grateful at the frankness that he'd shown me.

Names in Aleppo

Aleppo is the second biggest city in Syria. It's most famous for its large citadel and marvellous covered souq (or market), noteworthy for the diagonal shafts of light it lets in from the roof.

Alan, Katka and I planned to stay together at the Al-Ghazali hotel near the central clocktower but there was only enough room for me. So this signalled the end of our time together. Oddly enough this was the first time we asked for each other's names, no doubt a major reason why I can't really remember them. I've always had to hear someone's name at least a million times before it sticks. Presumably this is because I don't think people are their names, even if they are.

Indeed, what's in a name? A sociological, arbitrary label or an occult branding granting destiny to the soul? The choice is yours. Personally I'm divided. I don't like to think, as some magical men do, that one's personality can be deternimed by ones name; but then, why is it I so often discern similarities and echoes between people with the same names? And from what I've gathered, I'm not the only one who does this.

Regarding my own name I'm going through a bit of a revolution. Since I was young I was usually known as 'Jon' or 'John' to people outside the family and this was how I introduced myself. The 'h' or not to 'h' question would often cause me confusion. People would tend to think I was a proper 'John' and not 'Jon'as short for Jonathan. How would they know if I didn't correct them and did I really want to correct them anyway? Basically no, probably because I've never felt that attached to Jon anyway. So let them Jon or John as they wished is what I thought, whatever perils that set in store for my sense of identity.

A name I felt more attached to was 'Jonny' or again sometimes 'Johnny', since I've always been called that by my family and some few, choice friends I've always adored and whom I presumed loved me back, or at least somewhat. Why not introduce myself as Jonny or Johnny then? A very fair question. Two reasons: mainly because as a public face to the world it seems a bit weak and pathetic - certainly more so than Jimmy or Eddy ot Tommy, though perhaps not as much, I grant, as Timmy. Secondly, Jonny I felt to be a kind of essence name, if you will. I got the concept of an essence name from Armenian hero Gurdjieff by the way. Jonny was something I wanted to reserve, perhaps defensively, only for people whom I knew wouldn't be indifferent to me or dislike me. If they dislike me, better than they dislike 'Jon'. Is that a kind of magical thinking, you may be wondering? Who knows.

As for Jonathan, I've never really been called that. I never used to introduce myself as Jonathan. I thought it was too heavy, had too many syllables, but also that it seemed pompous and stuck up, why I'm not sure. I would visualise a man in tweed and possibly a barbour jacket and summon up a voice that was plummy, aloof and perhaps too self-consciously erudite. Not nearly cool enough then. So you see, I never had a secure or certain name at all.

Now things are changing and I'm always introducing myself as Jonathan, sometimes with my right hand on my chest in the very endearing Arabic fashion. For this change I have to thank this Delightful Italian Lady whom I've met on the internet. Not only did she honestly intensify all my worries about how sweet and sickly Jonny is as a public moniker, she told me that Jonathan is noble and beautiful. Others have said similar things. And so Jonathan I have become, in practice as well as theory. Preumably now, the knotty range of my identity crises will miraculously be resolved:).

Our Paranoid Bus Driver Has an Experience

After waiting two hours to get a minibus to Homs we finally found one. I'd decided it would be nice to travel on with Alan and Katka since we both wanted to go to Aleppo. Still, I hadn't reckoned on this two hour wait and their determination, and that of another family who joined us, not to accept anything more than the lowest possible price for the 60km ride.

Still, I shouldn't complain. Sometimes i'm as tight as anyone, even though as a rule I disapprove of fastidiousness, especially when dealing with prices universally far lower than would be found at home, or even in Slovakia. It was only unfortunate that at this time I was eager to make progress. I was even tempted to blow prudence to the winds and head to Homs by taxi alone. But I'd decided to travel with my companions so that was that. I tried to get used to the phenonemon of sitting around doing nothing wondering when we'd leave. Usually, in these circumstances I'd be reading, but in company I didn't feel this appropriate. It would have helped if there'd been better places to sit, or perhaps a coffee to sip from. Conversation had also somehow dried up, as it can.

We had no problems on the journey until we reached the outskirts of Homs. Our driver was anxious because he hadn't paid the special tax drivers have to when they carry foreigners. He was terrified of running into the police and wanted only to drive on roads where he thought there wouldn't be any. Apparently, this didn't include most of those in the centre of town. We pulled up by another minibus onto which he tried to shift us. In the case of Alan, Katka and I this was ok since the bus driver agreed to take us to the station. But it wouldn't take the German family to their hotel. Alot of shouting and passionate gestures were flung around between the drivers. That this was happening on a main road didn't worry anyone. So it seemed, from what Katka told me, our driver wanted to just throw them onto the street. This made her furious and she asssailed him in Arabic with torrential reproach, asking how he could call himself a Muslim, being so inhospitable. I think this might have freaked him out. I'm not sure he was used to being talked at like that by a woman, or at least not in public. He relented and all was well.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Reflecting in the Castle

Crak des Chevaliers castle is more impressive on the outside than the inside. Not that this means going inside isn't a fine experience, however. The best thing is to walk around the outer of the two defensive walls and get as close as you dare to the edge. Oddly enough, I felt even more creeping vertigo here than I had at the much higher cliffs of Hasankeyf. Maybe I'd been disturbed by earlier noticing a loose rock that I'd almost vigorously stepped on. Any of those on the edge might have led to interesting consequences.

I had a coffee at the castle's cafe and began in earnest to do something perhaps noticeably odd, something I'd thought of doing three years ago in China - analyse my life in terms of what percentages of it I've been involved in particular phases. Maybe, in a fit of unbridled narcissistic obsession I will publish a comprehensive report at a later date. Here for now I'll give just three examples of the results I came to. Obviously, the results are rough and cannot be exact, but I do have a pretty good memory for things I've been up to and when and for how long. Clearly, all these percentages will change as I get older.

I) I have spent 8.4% of the past thirty six years of my life in a state of continuous unawareness*. Never having slipped into a coma, I am referring to the three years (at least) prior to my first ever memory. By the way, I'm pretty sure this was sitting on my Mum's bicycle seat, fixed between her handlebars, being cycled back from kindergarten to 69 Barton Road, Cambridge.

II) I have spent 26.1% of my life at 'school', excluding the school holidays. I put the school in quotation marks because I'm referring only to my education up to the age of 17, when I finished my A-levels. Many people, I know, follow the US example and include University or other Higher Education as part of 'schooling', but I, as an Englishman, do not. If University is added, again excluding holidays as well as those periods during which, for varying reasons, I suspended my studies, it rises to 34%.

The final astonishing fact is a little disappointing, given my love of the 'open road':

III) I have spent a mere 2% of my life engaged in the soul warming 'Odysseus-like' pursuit of solo travelling abroad. This rises to 5.3% if you include travelling abroad with others, including my family.

Actually, I'm almost persuaded to recommend this kind of quantative analysis of one's life to everyone. I imagine it's far more interesting doing this with your own life than it is reading (as you have had to) about someone else's.

Delphi's Oracle, after all, instructs us to 'Know Thyself'. Yet I wonder if we don't too often attach a too subjective, interiorised understanding to this. Maybe, more often than it should be, this is understood to mean you should reflect introspectively on your 'occult' or esoteric self, the perceiving I, that mysterious, possibly ungraspable 'me' that everyone - except the Buddhists - believes we all possess. Sometimes this search is avoided outright, because it can be a tortuous and perilous affair, putting us in touch with all kinds of uncomfortable, embarrassing revelations.
Questions might also be raised about what this 'self' is that we are trying to reflect on. Is it, for humanists, Freud's Id, Ego or Superego that we are talking about, and if all three then in what combination. Otherwise, looking at things spiritually, by the 'self' are we talking about the 'ego' or the 'true self', that aspect of our realities which by many is understood to be inseparable from the divine.

Undoubtedly there is more to us than we perceive ourselves to be from the inside, however we understand that. There is also us as we relate, bodily, to the objective, external world, peopled by other independently thinking, judging people who have no experience of that 'private' self of our own which only we can know.

Even though we are often counselled in these unhumble, self-assertive days to not give a camel's ass what otherse think of us, it's undeniably the case that all the people we meet and interact with, to degrees related to their powers of attention and basic interest in us, have an impression of how we come across to them. Unbiased by not being the person in question, they can see us from the outside in a way we never can, however worryingly enthusiastic ones self-videoing exploits might be. That public, embodied, exoteric 'I' is as much a part of who I am as anything I might suppose is the truth relating to my inner psychodramas.

Sure, their evaluations of us will be conditioned by a different set of biased lenses of perception. A Palestinian, for example, may be inclined to assess the behaviour of an Israeli, and an Israeli that of a Palestinian, with an additional ingredient of malignity, lacking in that of a Mexican or a Mongol for one another. But this doesn't change the fact that the ways we come across to others, as multifarious as those may be, depending on the observer, are integrally involved in any understanding of who we are.

The problem is that in order to get this knowledge of what others think of you, you may have to embarrass and demean yourself in potentially pathetic and deeply insecure ways. You can't accumulate the necessary data for this kind of self-analysis on your own.

So, maybe what you can do, more easily, to reflect on your public, embodied self is to do what I've done and take a look at what you've been up to, and for how long, in the theatre of the world. Of course I know that in a very limited sense we already do this through the very formalised procedure known as 'Writing your CV'. But this begs the question, I fear worryingly too often answered in the affirmative: 'Are we what we 'do' or 'have done' in the world of employment?'

Speaking personally, as one might expect on a blog, I don't understand my identity in terms of what I do for a living. Yes, this is partially because I don't particularly like being an English language teacher. But I hope, even if I loved my job, I'd accept that I'm not my profession, since work, evaluated as it is in terms of success and attainment, income and status, so often leads one to understand oneself in distinction from, and either above or beneath, others, as somehow set apart from our common, shared humanity.

Obviously, my ability to compile a really thoroughgoing analysis of my life's activities is limited. I cannot know, for example, what percentage of my waking life I've spent talking to single, available women that I have both found attractive and actually stood a chance with. Or, for example, the percentage of my life I've spent brushing my teeth or taking a bath, eating in restaurants or walking in the open air, reading books or spent lost, delightedly, in the arms of adequate seating before the giant screen of a multiplex.

Yet who knows, perhaps this knowledge is somehow out there, recorded by celestial clerks keeping assiduous records of my behaviour, and yours too. I can but hope so, and hope to find out so if and when I'm translated into ether. Being in this analytical regard a stereotypical virgoan, I must confess I'd find the findings fascinating.

Georgia and Jordan

Later on I had a proper chat with Alan and Katka, the French-Georgian couple I’d met on the bus. To be frank, I’m not sure his name is Alan and I’m certain hers isn’t Katka but she looks like a Katka and I’ve got to call her something.

They met in Jordan 18 months ago. He as a French traveller, she as a Georgian tour guide working in Petra (I think). Getting married required overcoming considerable hurdles. He needed to go to Tblisi, as well as negotiate the labyrinthine French bureaucracy. But now all is well at last and they are living in Paris.

I showed Katka the Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan Lonely Planet I bought in Goreme, which now pointlessly helps weigh down my bag. I learnt something I didn’t know about too, the Georgian secessionist drama surrounding Abkhazia which, so I read yesterday, threatens to kick off again with Russian approval if Kosovan independence is recognized without Serbian approval. Serbia doesn’t look likely to approve anything of the sort, and the US, at the very least, looks set to recognize Kosovo, with or without UN support. So we’ll have to see what happens.

I knew nothing about this sensitive issue before. This is what comes from living in ‘your own world’ as it is said, which I did for much of the 90s.

I asked her about Shevardnaze, a man in many of our headlines in the late 80s as the Soviet Foreign Secretary during the years of Glastnost and the death of the USSR. As I’d suspected, she told me Georgians hated this former President of their sixteen year old republic. But I didn’t know by quite how much. Apparently mired in all kinds of corruption, partiality and general incompetence, he inflicted on his country a period of stagnation and inertia that has only been reversed since Saakashvili took power in 2003. I’m not sure this would be quite how he’d read this, but it’s what she told me and no doubt she knows more about this than I.

I’d ignorantly thought Georgians were Slavs, just because I’d known they were Christians and were bang next to Russia. But they’re not, they’re apparently descendants of what the Greeks called the Colchians and the Iberians. The former group had the Golden Fleece taken from them by Jason, if you recall. As for the Iberians, I’m guessing this suggests a Spanish connection, geography posing no objection, presumably.

Katka speaks good Arabic, which helped us in our negotiations with drivers to get us to the castle cheaply and easily. She told me, too simplistically or not, that the Jordanians, with whom she’s been working, hate the Palestinians. Less of a burden since the PLO was ejected from Jordan in Black September in 1970, there are still nevertheless two million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan. She didn’t explain exactly why they're hated but I got the impression they’re just not trusted, and looked down on as rootless foreigners, which of course they are; though this being no fault of theirs. It is an additional burden that the displaced, stateless Palestinians must face; not only have they lost their ancestral lands over the past 59 years at the hands of the Israelis, they have hardly been given much of a welcome or helped much by the Arab regimes to which they have fled.

Whether this is because, and if so to what extent, the Palestinian refugees are deliberately being kept in a state of poverty and misery to inflame anti-Israeli feelings is an interesting question. Certainly, regimes that want internal security, to hold back the floodgates of internal dissent, would do well to find an external entity to hate, someone or something around which to encourage national unity and obedience in defiance of this diabolized other. For sure, if the exiled Palestinians had found a happy life for themselves outside their ancestral lands; if they didn’t have to live as so many do in refugee camps, a strong case could still be made against Israel, given the fact that Israel was the original cause of their leaving. But I’m sure it wouldn’t be such a strong case.

Naturally, I hope this is untrue. But if it is: ‘Why must the Palestinians still suffer so much, outside of as well as inside the occupied territories?’ is a question that springs to mind. It’s hardly that the Arabic world is not rich enough to help them, is it?

Might it be a question of Arabic pride? ‘The wound was caused by Israel. It is Israel’s to heal by rolling into the sea, or letting the refugees back, at least. If we, the rich Arab states help the Palestinians too much, this will lessen the wound and might work towards legitimizing Israel.’

What do I know, I’m just asking questions.