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Corona Diaries: a book for our time

April 24, 2020

As we in Britain lament the closure of garden centres, and the matrons of America sob because they can’t go to the hairdresser, this is not a bad time to remember that there still are people in other parts of the world who would be grateful for the quiet lives we are living.

In China, there are Uyghurs in camps. In Burma, the Rohingya continue to be harassed by government forces. And in India millions of Muslims are fearing for their lives in the face of an onslaught by Hindu nationalist thugs. Not to mention millions of displaced people in the Middle East: in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Yemen, all living in fear of diseases far more deadly than the coronavirus.

Which brings me to a book that seeks to provide answers to an agonised question asked all across the Middle East: “what happened to us?”

I’m recommending it because it’s probably the most eloquently written and concise study I’ve come across of how the world, not just the Middle East, has changed over the past forty years. It’s called Black Wave. It’s written by Kim Ghattas, a journalist who was born in Lebanon, one of the counties most affected by the political and social earthquakes that have shook the region since 1979.

She frames the events in the book in terms of the regional rivalry between two countries with ambitions way beyond their borders: Iran and Saudi Arabia.

For some of us, everything changed in the Middle East after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, followed by the oil shock which dramatically accelerated Saudi Arabia’s wealth. That event, together with the Palestinian uprisings and attacks on Israel and the West caused us to keep an ever-wary eye on developments in the region.

But for Ghattas, the starting point was 1979, when three key events, two well known and the other less so, took place.

The first was the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the establishment of a theocratic state under Ayatollah Khomeini. A country that had been an ally of the West suddenly became, in the eyes of many, a constant threat to the stability of the world order.

The second was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This triggered an insurgency, funded by the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf and aided by covert assistance from the West, that was a major contributing factor in the downfall of the Soviet Union.

The third was the armed insurrection in Mecca by a group of ultra-conservative Sunni fanatics who believed that Saudi Arabia – and especially the royal family – were straying too far from the strict religious principles on which the Kingdom had been founded. As the price for the clergy’s support in putting down the rebellion, any moves towards social reform in that country abruptly ended.

In Iran, decades of relative social freedom, especially of artistic expression and most especially among women, ended just as abruptly. It seemed that the two countries, divided by a narrow strip of sea, were competing for the honour of being the true keepers of the flame of Islamic purity.

There was a difference, though. The regime in Tehran was Shia. Saudi Arabia’s rulers were Sunni. Although in the past there had been tensions between the two main schools of Islamic thought, nothing in living memory prepared the region for the sectarian strife that the rivalry between the two counties triggered. And that rivalry, according to Ghattas, was at the heart of almost all the conflict that has burned in the Middle East and its immediate vicinity ever since.

She focuses on events in the countries most affected by the struggle for supremacy. Lebanon, her homeland, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and, of course, the two main protagonists.

There’s little doubt where her sympathies lie. Not with Khomeini, or Zia-ul-Haq, the brutal military dictator of Pakistan, who turned his country away from its rich tradition of cultural and religious diversity and imported the religious ethos and practices of its main sponsor, Saudi Arabia. Not with the conservative influencers in Egypt who had returned to their country fattened by the wealth of Saudi Arabia and inculcated with the same austere intolerance of diversity.

Not with Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s proconsul who sought to extend his country’s influence and power across Iraq, Syria and, through Lebanon, to the Mediterranean. Not with the Saudi ruling family, who sought to compensate for their military weakness through alliances with the West and, predominantly, with the USA. The same rulers who, while the West turned a blind eye, at the same time used their oil wealth to extend their influence throughout the Muslim world by funding mosques and schools which served to spread their fundamentalist ethos, even in countries that previously had no such narrow traditions of worship.

In Pakistan, Zia instigated the first instances of persecution by Sunnis of the Shia minority since Pakistan came into being. They were not to be the last. Fuelled by the wealth of Iran and Saudi Arabia and through well-armed surrogates, Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict became endemic. At various times in the past forty years Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt and Pakistan have been ravaged by sectarian bigotry and war.

The heroes for Ghattas are the free thinkers. Not necessarily those who sought to emulate the ways of the West, but people who celebrated diversity of thought, the spirit of reason, inquiry and creativity that has always coexisted with turbulent political change among Arabs and Iranians. Many of them have ended up dead – assassinated or caught up in conflict. Some are still alive, but exiled from their home countries. And others are mouldering away in jails like Evin in Tehran and Hair in Riyadh.

For me, this book is personal. I spent much of the eighties in Saudi Arabia. And in 2007 I returned to the region for five years, first once again in the Kingdom and then in Bahrain. I willingly experienced the austere norms that Saudi Arabia imposed after the Mecca siege, though for me, as a privileged Westerner, much of that life went on outside the walls of the compounds that were my home. In Bahrain I lived through the Arab Spring protests, heard the bullets from my apartment balcony and visited the square where thousands of protesters were gathered.

Over those years of interaction with the Middle East I have met many people of various nationalities who identify as Sunni or Shia. Few of them were bigots or fanatics. Nor did they harbour deep-seated hatred for their fellow Muslims. They were and still are people who love their families, their language, their poets, their food and the rest of their rich cultural heritage. Above all, they want to live in peace. Some I’m still proud to call friends.

It still amazes me that their fellow-citizens could condone or actively participate in the repression and slaughter. But there are many factors that cause societies to shatter into mayhem. Kim Ghattas eloquently describes them, not just through the events that have caused so much shock and despair, but through the lives of the people who inspired them, caused them or rowed against the tide.

Much of what we in the West read about the Middle East is written by observers from without. Kim’s is a voice from within.

Muslims are not the only victims in her story. Christians in particular have seen the destruction of their homes and places of worship. A religious tradition that pre-dated Islam has few protectors in the region. It has been reduced to small enclaves. Those shrines which survive are ones that even the fiercest fanatics would fear to destroy.

I don’t think of myself as particularly religious, though, as Tom Holland maintains in Dominion, his magnificent study of Christian belief and its legacy, I accept that my culture and values are profoundly shaped by religious thought. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t imagine living in a world without faith, and without the music, the art, the literature and the architecture that have been inspired by faith. And why my lukewarm feelings about religious dogma has never stopped me from respecting and often loving friends whose lives are defined by their faith.

In that spirit, at the beginning of a month that unites all Muslims, and as we all face a virus that doesn’t care a jot about which God we worship, I wish my Muslim friends Ramadan Mubarak.

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Hi Steve. I started my Arabic degree course in 1979….and we met briefly when I first arrived in Jeddah in 1986 – Arthur Sixpence, I believe.

    I had stayed with a Coptic family in Cairo in 1981 for a week during my 6 months at Alexandria University (a few weeks before Sadat’s exit), the father was a doctor and prescribed conflicting meds for my dysentery – I only discovered later that his PhD from Moscow was in Politics….I survived, obviously.

    At that first job with Tihama in 1986, I was 25, we had a large team of Lebanese, one from each religious fragment, Maronite, RC, Druze, Shia, Sunni. They all got along fine at work, fiercely united as “from Lebanon”. One Roman Catholic chap “religiously” converted his SR to Leb£ every month, while the rest told him he was daft, but he always argued it would come good one day…. The others stayed true to the dollar at 3.65SR then 3.75SR. When they went home, they went back to their enclaves, separated by checkpoints and hardened fighters, never to meet. We’ve lost touch, of course…. and I gave up Saudi Arabia in 2003…..having written guide books for the Chambers of Commerce of the regions….and tasted the grittiness of Qatif and Hofuf. Same-same but different.

    I’ve ordered the book…..Despite Hariri and Hezbollah, I’ll be interested to see if KG, even with “growing up during the civil war in Lebanon” is really a voice “from the inside” of the Al-Saud-Iranian ‘Revolution’ power conflict (Sunni-Shia if you like). That kind of hatred has a real flavour, with only those in charge stirring the pot.

    Ramadan Kareem.

    • Thanks Andrew. I called Kim a voice from inside, not so much because she has spent all her time in the region, which she hasn’t, but because she tells the stories of so many who did, as well as those forced into exile, Khashoggi being one of them. Yes, I had similar experiences of people from different sects working happily together in Saudi, and not just from the Middle East. Protestants and Catholics from Ulster at a time when the people in NI were ripping each other’s heads off. For expatriates, Saudi was, as you know, a safe haven in a region beset by conflict – a ring of fire if you like. Not surprised you left in 2003. You were one of many. I hope you like the book, and would be interested in your thoughts. Ramadan Kareem to you too! S

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