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Robert Neuwirth: The Third Way

Originally posted on Grand Hotel Abyss

From "The Silver Box", 2014. By Youssef Rakha

From “The Silver Box”, 2014. By Youssef Rakha

Nothing’s truer than fiction, and the crazier the fiction, the closer to truth it sometimes is.

The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, by Youssef Rakha (published in Egypt in early 2011, just after the Arab Spring brought down the Mubarak regime, and released in English this month by Interlink Books) is a fever journey through the streets of Cairo, with mad detours into the history of the Ottoman Empire, the grand heritage of Arab literature, and the nature of failed relationships. At once a love story (Mustafa Nayif Çorbacı leaves his wife and finds true love – and great sex, though it might only be in his mind – in the following 3 weeks) and a story of crackpot religious fervor (during the same period, Çorbacı, a Western-educated quasi-believer – the book never has him praying or embracing any particular religious positions – has a series of dreams and visions and transforms himself into a zombie with the mission of reconstituting the Ottoman caliphate), this is a work of zealotry that offers a vision of Islam that is broad and inclusive and lusty and fun.

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The Boy Jihadi: Guernica Magazine Short story

Paolo Pellegrin. Islamic Jihad militants at night in a safe house in Gaza city. Gaza 2014. Source: magnumphotos.com

And that He might know the hypocrites, unto whom it was said: Come, fight in the way of Allah, or defend yourselves. They answered: If we knew aught of fighting we would follow you. On that day they were nearer disbelief than faith…—Surat At Tawbah, Quran, 3:167

At first the boy jihadi showed up just once. Trailing a bright-red wheelbarrow with a formless load wrapped in a pillowcase inside it, he appeared at the threshold of our apartment building.

A slight figure, almost as short and thin as the ancient kalashnikov it cradled—and immediately we were incensed. How dare such a thing as this invade the living space of two dozen upstanding families, good citizens, and good Muslims, the pride and joy of their third-world country’s bourgeoisie? He wore a Pathan salwar kameezwith a camo jacket on top and a tight white turban wrapped like a cup, one loose fold coming down alongside his ponytail. We could tell by his beard that he was at most fourteen. The unshaved wisps wanted to hang down from his chin, but they were so soft and sparse all they could do was curl upward.

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Bare-bones Jihad: Three Remarks on Islamic Terrorism

1-There are at least two good reasons to disqualify jihad – including “the Islamic resistance” – from being a freedom fight (against colonialism/Zionism):

(a) in recent history jihad has been an instrument of these very forces; and

(b) Islam is in essence a religion of conquest.

Global wars were waged by early Muslims, not against them, with little or no regard for the spiritual dimension of the faith or even the nominal dictates of Sharia. To avoid giving them equal rights, for example, Al Hajjaj massacred non-Muslim subjects once they declared their conversion to Islam.

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My Unwritten Spoof

I had planned to write a spoof. I was to be a committed Islamist reviewing the first two years after 30 June. I would extoll the virtues of Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood. I would glorify their puppet president Mohamed Morsi (aka the Mandela of the Arabs). Remembering the Rabaa massacre and the number of death sentences issued in its wake, I would underline the extra- and quasi-legal excesses of the fascist junta currently in charge. I would decry xenophobia, leader worship and the coup d’etat status quo. I would cite concepts of revolution and human rights in which I do not actually believe (cf, freedom of belief). I would appeal to shar’iyah – democratic legitimacy and shari’ah – divine law in the same breath. I would accuse the Copts, the infidels and the deep state of such evils as sectarianism, violence and unfreedom, absolving all manner of jihadis, fanatics and fundamentalist lunatics of exploiting the potential for positive change, working with the same deep state and army when it suited them… the moral of the story being that, had there been no military intervention to cut short Egypt’s democratic transformation, we would have been living in prime Garden of Eden real estate.

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Who the F*** Is Charlie

The mere idea of contributing to the Charlie Hebdo colloquy is a problem. It’s a problem because, whether as a public tragedy or a defense of creative freedom, the incident was blown out of all proportion. It’s a problem because it’s been a moralistic free-for-all: to express solidarity is to omit context, to forego the meaning of your relation to the “slain” object of consensus, to become a hashtag. It’s a problem above all because it turns a small-scale crime of little significance outside France into a cultural trope.

Charlie Hebdo is not about the senseless (or else the political) killing of one party by another. It’s about a Platonic evil called Islam encroaching on the  peaceful, beneficent world order created and maintained by the post-Christian west. Defending the latter against the former, commentators not only presume what will sooner or later reduce to the racial superiority of the victim. They also misrepresent the perpetrator as an alien force independent of that order.

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Marcia Lynx Qualey: A Review of the Newest Arabic Novel (Remix)

Arab Muscle Dancers . Half of a stereoview, 1898, B. W. Kilburn
Arab Muscle Dancers, 1898, by B. W. Kilburn

Insert Title Here, by Our Arab Author, translated by So-and-so. Such-and-such publisher. $12.99.

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? We in the West hear about the Middle East all the time, but for most of us it remains unknown and unknowable. More complicated still is that, as I learnt at the weekend, forms like the novel and short story were alien to Arabic culture before the first decade of the 20th century: the genres are, themselves, imports.

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Angelus Novus: A Letter from Hilary Plum

Dear Youssef,

A few days after you proposed that I write you this letter, a man was killed, his execution public enough that despite the five thousand miles between us we both could look on. This man, a journalist, had once been captured in Libya, then released, then was captured anew in Syria in 2012, this captivity ending in death. He was American, from New England as I am, he and I earned the same degree from the same university, enough years between us that I did not know him, though we each or both passed years among the low mountains and rising rents of Western Massachusetts, the grave of Emily Dickinson (called back, May 15, 1886) that even if one never bothers to walk behind the hair salon and the Nigerian restaurant to visit it serves as heart, destination of a pilgrimage one imagines.

The video his killers posted online may or may not in fact include the moment of his beheading, but confirms beyond doubt its occurrence. Here, we call the group who killed James Foley ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or Iraq and al-Sham; or simply—months pass and the name grows more ambitious—the Islamic State. We’re told that the caliphate they envision stretches from the coast of Syria to Iraq’s eastern border. I had thought that Foley was taken from an internet café, but an article I just glanced at says something about a car being stopped, how men with Kalashnikovs forced him out of the car. If I were to tell the story in a novel, he would be in an internet café, sending as though it were nothing the story of one land and its wars to another, to a land whose replies are silent until the missile drops out of the sky.

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