We do not see the hut when the lights first come up, and then we see it. Its inhabitants are not interested in us, perhaps because their problems do not concern us. These women spend their days waiting for a man, and they know that one day he will come. Lights shine upstage from the front of the stage, illuminating a door in the back wall. Neither fully open nor quite shut, it swings gently on its hinges, creaking intermittently, as though the fitful wind outside the hut is knocking to make its presence known within. Then the light sweeps downstage and to the right: we see a flight of stairs rising to the princess’s room, mirrored by a flight on the left leading down to their larder. Centre stage is an old-fashioned, rectangular dining table—or rather, it is simply old: it has no identifiable fashion. Around this table there are four chairs, the back of one slightly higher than the rest. The chairs are not neatly arranged but are scattered about as though hastily vacated. Between them wend the backs of two women dressed in black, cleaning the shabby furnishings and complaining.
The men of this city make animal
sounds as if to say
I got a slaughter with your neck
on it now how
you gonna walk with your psst-psst hidden
all your psst-psst hiding
and my tick-tick pointing
pants how now you gonna walk two-legged
with my panting your
stiff sniffable neck and my smick-smack with my
bone back watching—
Blessed is he who lays a flower on a tomb or a palace or a breast, is he who is born in the seventh month or the twelfth, is the throat become gorge, is he who slaughters his only horse out of kindness. Blessed is he who sinks to his knees pleading forgiveness or overcome with lust, is he who bears a cross upon his back, is he who boils a porridge of cement to hoodwink his children’s hunger, is the sniffer become snout, is the time when a wife could gather together the pieces of her helpmeet’s corpse and he would live, are the truths cowering in the crevices of falsehood, is the nation that feeds on the chatter of the worthless, is the nation that feeds on the prattling of the powerful, is the gulp become gullet. Blessed is he who fashions an ear from clay and an ear from dough until his head is severed, is a sun that still rises in the East, is a star that shines through on a cloudy day. Blessed be this tale, which would not have be told of Mustajab VII were it not for that incident, revealed to the world by a wordsmith whose father laboured as a screenwriter, wherein Mustajab VII secretly murdered Mustajab VI, sold his body to students studying dissection and with the proceeds erected a sumptious pavilion replete with dazzling lights and microphones that resounded with proverbial wisdom, to outfox foes and keep in remembrance the glorious exploits of Clan Mustajab, ancient and modern, then stood at its entrance to receive the sincerest of condolences. This is a slander against the man, which lays the very heart of truth to waste and strikes at the crux of our tale, the point at which it joins with what took place thereafter, for which reason we set over this incident an upturned water jar, and kept it hid.
One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.
The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.
“Freud sees the collision between psychoanalysis and our penal institutions: ‘It is not psychology that deserves to be laughed at, but the procedure of judicial inquiry.’ Reik, in a moment of apocalyptic optimism, declares that ‘The enormous importance attached by criminal justice to the deed as such derives from a cultural phase which is approaching its end.’ A social order based on the reality principle, a social order which draws the distinction between the wish and the deed, between the criminal and the righteous, is still the kingdom of darkness. It is only as long as a distinction is made between real and imaginary murders that real murders are worth committing: as long as the universal guilt is denied, there is a need to resort to individual crime, as a form of confession, and as a request for punishment. The strength of sin is the law.”
“What do you reckon that is?” Abu Imad said, tapping the scope. He looked at me, rubbing his bushy beard thoughtfully. He wanted me to make the two-meter journey to take a look.
“I’m all right here to be honest,” I said, looking at Abu Imad’s powerful frame. In my experience, God creates two types who stay on for the long haul. Either the rugby player variety or the wiry knife wielding sort, used to taking down bigger opponents. Abu Imad belonged to the former.
“Come,” he insisted, “come.”
I didn’t really feel like giving him my opinion. I didn’t want to entertain the mad shit bouncing around his head. What’s it going to be? Either some mountain goat or a hardy plant that has somehow emerged out of this cruel valley where we’d been stuck for years. What new excitement could this brother show me? We hadn’t progressed against the enemy, not because we were weak but because the commanders were arguing sometimes over strategy, sometimes over tactics, most of the time over honour and on rare occasions about God. In spite of them, we held this crag. We were mountain lions in courage and mountain goats in stubbornness.
“Come,” he pleaded, “check it.”
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.