Across the Bay

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Headless in the ME

Reason magazine's Charles Paul Freund wrote a truly terrific piece for the Daily Star based on Mohammed Barrada's "The Story of the Severed Head."

Freund is a smart analyst of Arabic literature and pop culture, and has written several pieces on the subject in Reason and the DS. This one however is by far the most penetrating:

"The oppressive fantasies of Arab nationalism whose collapse Barrada was addressing when he wrote his story a quarter-century ago have again led their adherents into crisis. But where previous pan-Arabist crises took the outward shape of political and military problems, the current situation - whether measured by the reaction to events in Darfur, or to the chaos in Gaza, or to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, or indeed to the spate of beheadings and bombings in Iraq - is at its heart a moral crisis."

Freund puts his finger on the problem in a devastating critique, similar to Makiya's masterful Cruelty and Silence. It's worth quoting at length without commentary:

"Listen to Barrada's severed head as it hovers in mid-air and begins to address its astounded listeners. "O wretched, miserable, desperate, idle, deprived, scared, oppressed people! You, escapees from reality to words, you seekers of solace in fantasies while truth stares you in the eye. You lull yourselves with the legends of Antara and Abu Zeyd and dream of the lands of Waq al-Waq. You dream of buxom maidens who feed you their breast burning with desire and who promise you pleasures that conceal hunger, oppression and frustration."

Unfortunately, this striking speech could have been written yesterday. For too many Arab intellectuals, Saddam Hussein remains an admirable Antar. One Egyptian lawyer who has come forward to help represent Saddam at his upcoming trial has said on Iraqi television that to defend Saddam is to defend the honor and dignity of the Arabs, as if it were not possible to criticize the US occupation of Iraq while rejoicing in the overthrow of a butcher.

For too many pan-Arabist politicians, the possibility of foreign intervention in Sudan is a greater problem than the currently overwhelming humanitarian disaster in that nation - never mind the issue of whether Arab militias are actually fomenting genocide. Indeed, as Julie Flint wrote on this page, an audience recently offered Khartoum's ambassador in Beirut loud applause when he stated that allegations against Sudan were part of a worldwide conspiracy against all Arabs. Indeed, for too many Islamists throughout the world, martyrdom has become its own nihilist reward.

The seemingly permanent timeliness of Barrada's message, as delivered by the unhappily far-sighted invention of the severed head, suggests the circularity of Arab nationalist (and now also Islamist) politics. Its unwillingness to come to grips with its own failures only leads to greater failures. Yet each new crisis can be blamed on powerful actors intent on the destruction of Arab heroes and the victimization of all Arabs. That in turn validates anew the insecurities and frustrations that maintain Arab nationalism as a political force.

What happens when someone - or something - attempts to break this cycle? In Barrada's tale, the people react to the head's attempt to make them "call things by their name and embrace realities" in this way: They hurl abuse at the head. They speculate as to whether the head is a tool of a foreign power. They answer, "We don't have to put up with someone who insults us and reviles us."

The final judgment of the head is delivered at its state trial: Return the head to the corpse, orders a ghostly judge who has risen from the past, "and cut off the tongue."