dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Palmyra’s legacy to ISIS

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This carved block at Palmyra pre-dates the advent of Islam by four centuries, and is thought to show the world’s earliest representation of veiled women, top right. It is one of the countless examples of how practices we now consider Islamic were often traceable to pagan times.

The early Muslim armies captured Damascus in 636 just four years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and went on to make it the capital of their Umayyad Caliphate. It was the first encounter Muslims had with cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, cultures which were themselves the products of rich intermingling of Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian influences and which had in turn been under Greek and Roman influence for centuries. Commerce, as ever the driver of human inter-action, was thriving as new trade routes evolved, while religious and cultural trends co-existed.

The Umayyad Caliphate, far from seeking to ban or wipe out this multicultural heritage of earlier empires and civilisations, simply took over the existing infrastructure from the previous Byzantine and Sassanian rulers, going on to develop its own unique contribution to the art and architecture of the region. The Umayyads absorbed and adopted the customs of the cities they conquered. With the fall of borders, they unified the region thereby encouraging additional cross-fertilisation of ideas and artistic traditions. The results can be seen in all their buildings, from Jerusalem’s famous Dome of the Rock to the lesser known desert palaces like Mushatta (see photos below) and Khirbat Mafjar now scattered all over the deserts of Jordan, the West Bank and Syria.

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When it comes to the case of Palmyra, this rich cultural legacy is especially clear. The carved stone blocks carry motifs of flowers, including the famous Palmyrene Rose, ringed with acanthus and lotus leaves.

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The Palmyra drawings by English architects Wood and Dawkins went on to influence directly the classical revival of the 18th century, where Palmyrene roses are often to be seen on the ceilings of grand British country houses.

The Umayyad desert palace of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi which stands in the desert some 100km northeast of Palmyra, has a mosque which incorporates columns and capitals brought from the site of Palmyra. The architecture of its monumental gateway displays an eclectic mix of Byzantine, Mesopotamian and Persian styles, with many recycled Roman and Byzantine capitals. Its twin, Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, which lies in the desert  80km southwest of Palmyra, likewise boasted a monumental 8th century facade, now incorporated into the modern entrance of the Damascus National Museum.

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These fusions are clearly visible in the vine scrolls, the bunches of grapes symbolising wealth, fertility and prosperity in both the stone carvings of Palmyra and the decorative patterns of the Umayyad palaces, not to mention later Islamic tile patterns.

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Mythical creatures like griffins, together with birds like peacocks and eagles, animals like gazelles and lions are often found entwined in the Tree of Life, an ancient concept pre-dating Islam by centuries, yet all such motifs are still found on the borders of prayer rugs across the Muslim world. If ISIS claims that such things are idolatrous, it would also have to destroy most of the Islamic carpets and tiles of the Middle East.

And what of the many mosques across the Muslim world that were built on the foundations of earlier churches and temples, such as the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus?

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Would they too have to be destroyed, like these early Islamic mosaic visions of fantasised trees and palaces?

In the nihilistic vision of ISIS there is, it seems, no room for diversity. They have set their course on the total destruction of relics from earlier cultures, thereby denying the roots of the very Islamic civilisation to which they claim to be returning. By destroying Palmyra, they will be destroying their own roots, ensuring their own eventual downfall, since a caliphate devoid of culture cannot endure. What a perfect contradiction.

Palmyra’s Double Life

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Nothing sums up Palmyra’s split identity more than this ‘egg and dart’ motif, found repeatedly all over the ancient caravan city’s ruins. The egg represents life and the cycle of rebirth, while the arrow/dart represents war and death. The two live side by side in the endless pattern of life, repeated across the centuries.

This is what is now taking place at Syria’s most famous and magnificent classical site, known throughout antiquity by romantic titles such as ‘Bride of the Desert’ or ‘Venice of the Sands’. In recent days, since news broke on 14 May 2015 of ISIS’s surprise attack launched on Palmyra from its headquarters of Raqqa just 100 miles/two hours’s drive to the north, the site has received worldwide attention with outraged cries of horror at the prospect of ISIS smashing the ancient stones to pieces as they have already done in the Iraqi sites of Nimrud, Nineveh, Mosul and Hatra. Almost every media outlet in the world has carried photos of the spectacular 1st, 2nd and 3rd century Roman streets, its temples and its tombs.

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Standing alone in the middle of the desert, unfenced and unprotected, Palmyra is indeed vulnerable to attack. But take a close look at this photo below:

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A pair of camels sit awaiting custom in the shade of Palmyra’s monumental entry arch. Behind them is the Temple of Bel, one of the world’s most important religious sanctuaries. But just above the left-hand camel, notice the whitewashed simple building. Originally built as the residence of the Ottoman governor of Palmyra, it functioned in the heady pre-2011 tourist days when Palmyra welcomed thousands of visitors, first as a folklore museum with displays of traditional Bedouin costumes and jewellery, then as the Tourist Reception Centre complete with cafe in the courtyard.

But since 2011 this building has served as the regime’s intelligence (mukhabaraat) headquarters, and it is to here that Assad’s soldiers first fled, after being driven out of their local state security branch in the north of the modern town (known in Arabic as ‘Tadmur’). As fierce fighting raged round the northern security buildings and close to the infamous Tadmur prison in the east, the top regime officials cut their losses and escaped west by road, abandoning their men to the tender mercies of ISIS. Also in the east close to the fringes of the oasis is Tiyas (T4), the regime’s largest military airbase. This of course was the primary target of ISIS – the archaeological site of Palmyra is just a bonus, guaranteeing them maximum publicity as they threaten to destroy it.

Consider for a moment the irony of the situation. While the world’s attention is commanded by the international outcry over the threat to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, they will now learn too of the double life of Palmyra, its modern life under the Assad regime. Palmyra Prison, Syria’s most feared by its citizens, was home for years to men such as Yassin al-Haj Saleh (subject of a 2014 film ‘Syria Our Terrible Country’) and Bara Sarraj (‘From Tadmor to Harvard’ 2011), men who had done nothing to deserve the horrific torture they endured inside the prison. Bara’s unbelievable experience can be digested here:

http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3500/the-cell-of-survival_bara-sarraj

The prison was closed in 2001 but reopened in 2011 to receive new dissidents of the Revolution. Hundreds if not thousands are once again housed in the buildings originally built as military barracks by French Mandate forces. Once the prison is captured by ISIS, will the inmates join up in gratitude and swell their armies further?

Palmyra prison

The military airbase of T4 is marked off a little to the east. It boasts 54 concrete hangars and two 3km runways, not to mention some of the regime’s most advanced aircraft including MiG-29s and Su-25s. It is the launchpad for airstrikes including barrel bombs on rebellious civilian areas. ISIS will relish seizure of this airbase as much as seizure of ancient Palmyra.

Whereas Assad had hoped to gain kudos by presenting himself to the international community as a protector of Syria’s cultural heritage, the ISIS attack has instead exposed the ruthless accoutrements of his regime. Assad soldiers have been photographed running off with their own booty from the Palmyra site:

Palmyra looting Assad soldiers

They, like ISIS, have always seen such treasures as legitimate ‘spoils of war’, and no one has done more damage to Syria’s cultural heritage than the Assad regime. The difference is that while ISIS broadcasts its damage to the world, the Assad regime keeps it quiet and seeks to blame it on others.

Palmyra map

But thanks to the double-sided nature of Palmyra, the world will no longer be fooled.

Related articles:

http://www.apsa2011.com/index.php/en/provinces/homs/palmyra.html

http://www.wsj.com/articles/syrian-monuments-men-race-to-protect-antiquities-as-looting-bankrolls-terror-1423615241

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-32807858

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Middle_East/article1557098.ece

Two Women of Mardin v ISIS

mardin buildings

Mardin, a stone-carved historic hillside city in southeast Turkey whose buildings gaze south towards Syria and the Fertile Crescent, boasts two famous women.

The first is the colourful Shahmeran, half-woman half-snake, a legendary creature from the shared mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. Pictures of her bold green and red image adorn the streets.

sahmeran

The second is a much younger addition to the city’s history, the 26 year-old co-mayor, Februniye Akyol. Shy and self-effacing, dressed simply in a white jacket, she is the first representative of the ever-dwindling Syriac Christian community to govern one of Turkey’s metropolitan municipalities.

She has agreed to a rare interview, and we sit together on the elegant white sofa of her Mardin office.

Mardin mayor April 2015

Earlier I had watched her give a refreshingly brief speech to assembled bigwigs, marking the official rehabilitation of the city’s main street, a 9.2 million euro project funded by the European Union to promote tourism. Mardin, already part of a United Nations-backed scheme for a Silk Road cultural corridor, is nothing if not ambitious. Next it plans to become a “City of Peace”, hoping eventually for UNESCO World Heritage status.

As for Februniye, who had to change her Syriac name of Febronia Benno to a ‘turkified’ version to enter Turkish politics, her success was not so planned. “I never expected this career,” she tells me softly. “In the 1990s growing up as a child in this region, we experienced terrible times, persecution, the rape of women.  Our situation was very bad. My father was arrested. For 16 days we didn’t know where he was. It affected me deeply.”

As the first woman from the local Syriac minority to go into higher education, attending Istanbul’s Marmara University in the Faculty of Insurance, she has now become a role model. Most Syriac graduates use their studies as an escape route for emigration to Europe. Instead, Februniye returned home.

Mardin Artuklu Uni

Then, while she was doing an MA at Mardin’s Artuklu University in Syriac Cultural Studies, unique in Turkey, her political career was suddenly launched  when she was chosen, together with a respected Kurdish veteran, to run for the BBP or Peace and Democracy Party, in last year’s local elections. “It is BBP policy always to have a woman co-mayor in their municipalities,” she explains.

februniye akyol

In an overwhelmingly Muslim region of long-standing enmities between Turks, Kurds and Arabs, now further complicated by the ISIS threat on the doorstep, the task in front of Februniye is a daunting one.

“I had some prejudices against the Kurds,” she says, “but I realised I had to overcome them.” Now she is working alongside her former enemies and persecutors, promoting an ideology diametrically opposed to ISIS with its subjugation of women and violent intolerance of minorities.

“Isn’t this the same system the Syrian Kurds are using,” I ask her, “in their provinces of Kobani, Afrin and Jazira?”

Kobani Map

“Yes,” she replies, “We are from the same families, just separated by the border. We all work together, no matter what race or religion, and have an equal quota for women on all our committees. Like them we want cultural, religious and linguistic freedoms for everyone.”

“Do you have contact with them?” I venture to ask, knowing the Syrian border is within sight of Mardin.

“Of course,” she replies with disarmingly frankness, “They come across for meetings from time to time.”

“But the border is closed. How do you manage that?”

“It can be opened when necessary,” she says simply.

Behind her delicate almost fragile appearance, I sense a steely resolve. She hands me her card and I notice her title is ‘Mrs. ’

“You are married?” I ask.

“Newly married,” she replies fingering her wedding rings as if still getting used to them.

It gives me the excuse to ask the obvious question, in this traditionally male-dominated society, where ISIS is knocking at the door:

“And how do the men feel about women sharing power?”

“They realise it has to be,” she replies, “It was even their idea.”

Strolling later past the renovated shop-fronts of Old Mardin I see the Shahmeran everywhere, in the famous jewellery, on key-rings, cushions and mirrors. I ask the shopkeepers about her meaning.

They explain how their Queen of Serpents is a source of healing and wisdom whose image reminds people to mend their ways, to shun evil and avoid betraying each other.

Mardin’s two famous women – one ancient, one young – will need to conjure all such powers here, if they are to survive the ISIS onslaught and defeat it.

sahmeran redMardin mayor 2

Syrian Kurds and their democratic model of ‘Rojava’

Rojava Syrian Kurds Saleh Muslim PYD leader

Big moves are afoot in Rojava, northeast Syria, where the Kurds are battling ISIS on two fronts. It is a clash of ideologies and will be a fight to the death, as Saleh Muslim, the softly spoken President of the PYD, Syria’s most powerful Kurdish faction, told a full house in the Houses of Parliament last night. So many people came, myself among them, that a room treble the size of the planned one had to be found.

Syrian Kurds have been largely invisible and overlooked in the media so far, but this may be about to change. Saleh Muslim’s organization, the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party), was founded in 2003 to resist the Assad regime. Affliated to the PKK – the Kurdish resistance party in Turkey – the PYD is regarded as a terrorist organisation by the United States, so Saleh Muslim himself has never been granted a visa to visit and put his case. The jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, last week released a statement for Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, urging his followers to abandon their armed struggle in favour of a political solution. The UK government and the Foreign Office are as usual dithering and at least six months behind the curve.

For when the Assad regime’s army pulled out of the northeast in mid-2012, the Syrian Kurds were given a once in a lifetime chance to start afresh, creating an inclusive society in which all ethnicities and religions are involved – Kurdish and Arab, Syriac, Yazidi, Sunni, Alawi and Shi’a – a society uniquely based on trust. In November 2013 they declared the self-governing region of Rojava, incorporating the three cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Jezira.

rojava map

From their capital Qamishli they now rule through a series of committees all of which are made up of 40% women, with plans for this to rise to 50%. Women are represented throughout, alongside men, even in the fighting groups known as the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, a fighting force of some 50,000 fighters.

rojava female fighters

These are the same fighters who, without fuss or recognition, led the Yazidis to safety via a back route off Mount Sinjar in August 2014, the same fighters who defended their town of Kobani against ISIS. Their struggles against ISIS continue, but less reported, in the canton of Afrin north of Aleppo, and near the city of Hasakeh in Jezira.

rojava yazidis

An academic delegation to Rojava has recently returned, some of whom were also speakers at last night’s open debate. Without exception they declared themselves deeply impressed by what they found, despite the economic problems due to blockaded borders, the lack of electricity, the struggles with lack of medicine and healthcare. Rojava has established a unique democratic model in which all decisions are reached by consensus, in consultation with all groups. So far it is working remarkably well, without infighting, and frankly puts to shame the pretense of democracy in many western countries. The rich Assad regime flunkies ran away in 2012 when the Assad army pulled out, so their land and property has been redistributed.

But if this democratic pluralistic model is to survive in the region, with its emphasis on the inclusion of women at all levels, it will need help. At the moment it is succeeding in its battles against ISIS through sheer will-power and conviction. It is defending its homeland. But Saleh Muslim says he also sees their approach as the right model for the rest of Syria and indeed for the region as a whole. A massive re-education needs to go on, he says calmly, to convince people that this inclusive model is the only way forward, and the West and the international community needs to commit its support rather than standing on the sidelines dithering while thousands die needlessly. In short, there needs to be a coherent strategy, so far lacking in western governments.

rojava mourning deaths

Related articles:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2015/03/syria-pyd-kurds-federalism-middle-east.html

http://www.thenational.ae/world/middle-east/syria-kurds-struggle-since-battle-for-kobani

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/08/why-world-ignoring-revolutionary-kurds-syria-isis

 

 

 

 

 

Tunisia’s Bardo Attack and the legacy of Ibn Khaldun

In the heart of Tunis stands a statue of Ibn Khaldun, the world’s first sociologist philosopher. Born here in 1332, he stands with his back to the historic old medina, gazing out to the new city and beyond towards the sea.

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Ibn Khaldun understood that true power resided not in the cities but in the countryside, for it was always there that rebellions, revolt and reform began. He also knew that neither religion nor ideology were the real drivers of society and human behaviour; rather it was the strength of the tribal/family solidarity, their economic interests and their traditions. So when, to fund their lavish lifestyles, 14th century rulers all across North Africa failed to invest in agricultural infrastructure, land became unproductive. The rulers neglected the maintenance of springs, wells and irrigation canals, forcing up the prices of basic foodstuffs – popular unrest ensued.

So it was with Muhammad Bou Azizi, a young fruitseller in the impoverished southern agricultural town of Sidi Bou Zid, who first ignited not only Tunisia’s revolution but the whole ‘Arab Spring’, by setting himself on fire. Repeated battles with corrupt bureaucracy had left him in despair. Four hard years of turmoil, chaos and instability for Tunisia followed, from which it has been just now emerging, only to have its efforts and successes jeopardised by the 18 March Bardo Museum attack in which over 20 have been shot dead in broad daylight at one of Tunisia’s showcase sights, right beside the Tunisian Parliament building.

Tunisia Bardo

Up to that point, Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution had been doing so well – the new government and president elected, the constitution settled, with the loss of less than 400 lives.

Eager to discover how and why Tunisia was succeeding, while other Arab countries remained locked in chaos and conflict – and above all whether any of its lessons might be applied to Syria, so locked in the most tragic and intractable of conflicts – I traveled in late February all over Tunisia with my family. Picking up a hire car at Tunis airport, we drove from the Europeanised capital to visit the Roman sites of Dougga, Makhtar and Sbeitla in the remote mountainous interior, then further south to the desert oases of Gabes, Tozeur and Nefta.

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We crossed the Chott El-Djerid salt lake to ride on camels in Douz on the edge of the Sahara, lunched in underground courtyards of Matmata of Star Wars’ fame, then looped back to the coast at Sfax, and north to the coastal resorts of Monastir and Sousse.

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Throughout the trip I looked and listened closely, chatting to local people in Arabic and French and asking questions. I used to know Tunisia well, having authored guidebooks on it for Thomas Cook and the AA.

Here is a summary of what Tunisians themselves told me:

  1. The vital role of women

“Our women saved our revolution” was a refrain I heard regularly from Tunisian men. Tunisia’s women are strong and emancipated, believing strongly in their role in society as ‘equal’ to men. When the former Islamist government tried to change the wording of the constitution to ‘complementary’ – the infamous Article 28 – Tunisia’s women came out onto the streets in their thousands, blockading parliament till the government backed down.

Tunisia womenTunisia women topless

  1. Civil society, trade unions and taxes

Tunisia has long had a vocal and well-organised trade union system, the UGTT, which conducted itself highly responsibly since the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution in December 2010. They knew when to go on strike and when not to, for the sake of stability. This has given the working and middle classes a strong and coherent voice with which to challenge the government. “We think of it as normal to pay our taxes,” one businessman told me, “Of course the rich will always find ways to avoid it, but we realise it is like a contract. It gives us the right to ask for things in return.”

Tunisia trade unions Tunisian trade unions

  1. Tolerance and moderate religion based on Sufism

Most Tunisians are Sunni Muslims and have a natural affinity with mystical Islam or Sufism. Ibn Khaldun was himself a Sufi, in the tradition of Ibn Arabi (1165-1240). This tradition is personified by the poet and novelist Abdelwahab Meddeb, born in Tunis in 1946, who died in 2014 of lung cancer. In his landmark work La Maladie d’Islam (2002) he wrote: “If, according to Voltaire, intolerance was Catholicism’s sickness, if Nazism was Germany’s sickness, fundamentalism is Islam’s sickness.” He wrote over 30 books advocating an Islam of Enlightenment and a dialogue between civilisations. Tunisians have a uniquely tolerant Islamic heritage.

Ibn Arabi Tunisia Abdelwahab Meddeb

  1. Aversion to violence

The Tunisian psyche is stable and peaceful by nature, with a deep repulsion to violence and extreme behaviour. Compromise seems to be the preferred modus operandi.  In all my years of travelling in Tunisia I have never once witnessed any acts of aggression, bullying or bad temper.

For all these reasons Tunisia is different from many Arab countries, a guiding beacon. Europe and the West must give their full support and do whatever they can to help the country stay its course of moderation. The Foreign Office travel advice on Tunisia remains unchanged; travel insurance remains valid and I for one will be going back.

For if Tunisia fails, with its legacy of the moderate Ibn Khaldun and Abdelwahab Meddeb, there is little hope for all the rest.

 

Syria – death of a gentle giant

Yesterday as the Syrian uprising entered its fifth year, I learnt of the death of my dearest Syrian friend. I am still numb from the news. My gentle giant is gone.  Ramzi the Philosopher, his pseudonym in My House In Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, died not in fighting or in a bomb attack, but from brain cancer. A complex operation to remove the tumour was carried out last September, leaving him unable to speak, read or write. His mother and sisters nursed him in their simple Lattakia flat, interpreting his noises, doing their best to comfort him. But in spite of all their efforts, he never regained the power of speech.

Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker

I see a terrible symbolism here. Syria’s silent majority is silent due to pragmatism, due to fear of the repercussions of speaking out, and due to a realisation that no one is listening to their voice anyway. But that my wise and eloquent Ramzi should have had silence imposed upon him is the cruellest of fates. With his death, part of Syria has died, the best part, for Syria has lost one of its noblest sons. His deep soft voice will never be heard again and Syria is the poorer for it.

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

Maybe his death is for the best, an end to his horrible suffering – displaced from his home three times by fighting between rival factions, Ramzi’s life had become a nightmare. Twice his village home was looted right down to the window frames. He was never political, never took up arms and hated violence. As the eldest son, when his father died some years ago, he took on the role of breadwinner to support his aging mother and his unmarried sisters through his earnings as a professional tourist guide. All who knew him loved him, and he was the guide of choice inside Syria for the top-quality Martin Randall tour operator. His love of his country was so deep it was tangible, and he conveyed this love to all foreign visitors.

Aleppo's old souk,

When his country descended into civil war and he lost his livelihood, his heart was broken. From having been a healthy hearty man in his forties, he fell victim to cancer. What a waste. He was a silent victim, one of thousands whose deaths will never even appear in the official casualty statistics, yet unquestionably part of the unseen fallout.

All those who have the power to end Syria’s nightmare, wake up! – for the more people like Ramzi die, the harder it will be for the country ever to recover.

Deserted garden Damascus's National Museum [2011, DD]

Deserted garden of Damascus’s National Museum

How to resist the charms of ISIS – Lessons from Tunisia

ISIS bans all forms of merry-making, so what would it make of this?  – the Tunisian dunes, alive with the sound of music!

dunes electroniques 5dunes electroniques 6

On my first visit since the country’s  Jasmine Revolution, I have chanced upon Les Dunes Electroniques, a three-day festival of world music held in the Tunisian desert around the oasis of Nefta.

Parts of the original Star Wars film were shot here, but this is Episode 2 of the festival, building on the unexpected success of last year’s inaugural event, where over 3000 Tunisian and foreign visitors danced from noon till midnight in the vast open spaces of the Sahara. ISIS eat your heart out.

dunes electroniques 4Dunes Electroniques

Of course February in the desert can have its surprises, and this year the 7000 visitors had their commitment levels tested to the full, not by an ISIS attack, but by torrential rain turning the sand into Glastonbury-style muddy rivers, forcing cancellations as water and electronics mixed.

Even this could not dampen the spirits of Tunisia’s young at heart, as they padded good-naturedly through puddles wearing plastic bags on their feet.

They also enlivened the spirits of the hoteliers, restaurateurs and shop-owners of the region, for whom the drop in tourism over the last four years has been hard.

At the nearby oasis of Tozeur, traffic jams surround the famous Le Petit Prince restaurant, set on the edge of the palm groves.

tozeur oasis

 

Its surreal planetary interior is buzzing with custom, a total contrast to the previous night spent in Tunisia’s mountainous interior. Then I was the sole guest of the Hotel Sufetela overlooking the perfectly preserved Roman temples of Sbeitla. Four policemen had just been shot in an ISIS raid not far away. Yet even there, the hotel staff are positive:

“Just give us 100 days,” the manager said, “and you will see. Our new government and president will fight these crazy extremists.  Our period of instability is coming to an end, and tourism will return.”

sbeitla

Compared to other Arab countries with their still ongoing revolutions, Tunisia stands out like a bright light. Why is that, when there is clearly still economic hardship, unemployment and a big rich-poor divide?

Tunisians themselves from all over the country give me a remarkably coherent answer, which boils down to two things: women and trade unions.

In the capital, Tunis, most young women are unveiled, dressed so cosmopolitanly in jeans and jackets that it is hard to tell their nationality. Young men and women mix freely in the cafes of the souvenir souks in the colourful old medina, laughing and chatting comfortably in a blend of French and Arabic.

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“Our women saved our revolution,” was a refrain I heard regularly from Tunisian men.

When the previous Islamist government tried to change the constitution by making the role of women ‘complementary’ to men, Tunisia’s women, strong and emancipated, were having none of it.

They thronged the streets in their thousands and staged a sit-in in front of the parliament building, till the government backed down and the wording reverted to ‘equal’.

Tunisia’s middle and working classes – male and female – have long been unusually vocal, helped by the powerful trade unions who have played such a leading role in creating modern civil associations, instilling a sense of responsibility.

“We think of it as normal to pay our taxes,” a local shop-owner explains to me in Carthage, where the modern presidential palace overlooks the ancient ruins.

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“In most Arab countries the mentality is that only stupid people pay tax. Of course the rich will always find ways to avoid it, but here we understand that it is like a contract. It gives us the right to make demands from the government in return.”

All this would be lost were ISIS to gain a foothold, and everyone knows it.

In the heart of Tunisia’s poorer south at Sidi Bou Zid, a huge clay model of a fruit cart marks the spot where Muhammad Bou Azizi, a thwarted fruitseller, ignited the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire.

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I buy some bananas and watch a march of local people demanding the government speed up the anti-terrorism laws. “Don’t give up the fight,” says the graffiti on the cart.

Back at Tozeur’s oasis I visit Paradise Gardens  with its hands-on zoo.  The cheerful young keeper lets me hold the egg an ostrich has just laid.

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Then he puts Janet the scorpion on my hand, named after Michael Jackson’s sister, and introduces me to Angela Merkel, the horned viper, before draping a spaghetti of snakes round my neck.

“Are these called ISIS?” I ask.

“No,” he replies, “We don’t allow them here!”

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Tunisia snakes at Tozeur zoo

This text was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 ‘s From Our Own Correspondent on 5 March 2015:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0542zv0   (starts at 06.06 mins in)

 

The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Art

The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel

The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel, Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh University library

The Prophet Muhammad solving dispute over who should rebuild Kaaba and dedicate black stone - they do it collaboratively on cloth, so all together Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh Univ library

The Prophet Muhammad solving a dispute over who should rebuild the Kaaba and dedicate the sacred black stone – they do it collaboratively on the cloth, so all together, Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh University library

Detail of the Prophet Muhammad in paradise with houris

Detail of the Prophet Muhammad in paradise with houris, 18th century Ottoman, Topkapi Palace Museum

Muhammad carried by Gabriel arriving at gate of paradise guarded by angel Ridwan, 1360-70, Tabriz, Mi'rajnama, now in Topkapi Palace Library

The Prophet Muhammad carried by the Angel Gabriel arriving at gate of paradise guarded by the Angel Ridwan, 1360-70, Tabriz, Mi’rajnama, now in Topkapi Palace Library

The Prophet Muhammad flies over houris harvesting flowers, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad flies over houris in Paradise harvesting flowers, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq (upper right) visiting Paradise with the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below are camels ridden by fabled houris, 'virgins' promised to martyrs, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq (upper right) visiting Paradise with the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below are camels ridden by fabled houris, ‘virgins’ promised to martyrs, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq sees women strung up on hooks by their tongues by a green demon, punishment for mocking their husbands and leaving their homes without permission, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq sees women strung up on hooks by their tongues by a green demon, punishment for mocking their husbands and leaving their homes without permission, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a demon punish shameless women in hell (with Buraq and Gabriel) who have shown hair to strangers, and are strung up and burnt for eternity, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a demon punish shameless women in hell (with Buraq and Gabriel) who have shown their hair to strangers, and are strung up and burnt for eternity, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a red demon hanging up women by their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a red demon hanging up women by their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands, Persia 15th c

Since the Charlie Hebdou cartoons controversy in January 2015, and now the cafe attacks in Copenhagen on 14 February 2015, more attention has been focused on the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that do exist in Islamic art. They are not widely known: even on my Islamic Art and Architecture MA course at SOAS in 2008-9, they were never mentioned. Today there is increasing speculation that such images, as found for example in early illustrated Korans, are being steadily bought up by wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, specifically in order to be destroyed.

It is striking that the early images originate overwhelmingly from either Sunni Ottoman lands or from Persian Shi’ite lands, with almost nothing similar coming out of the Arab heartlands. In subject matter and style the drawings are reminiscent of saints’ icons, especially in their depictions of heaven and hell, complete with angels and demons.

Islamic art Algerian postcard from 1920s or 1930s showing Muhammad' Flight from Mecca in 622, entering the cave, pursued by the Quraysh

Algerian postcard from 1920s or 1930s showing the Prophet Muhammad’s Flight from Mecca in 622, entering the cave, pursued by the Quraysh on horseback

Islamic art German 1928 advert for meat extract (Bovril equivalent) showing Gabriel guiding Muhammad on flying horse to God

German 1928 advert for meat extract (Bovril equivalent) showing the Angel Gabriel guiding the Prophet Muhammad on his flying horse to God

These two final images from the 1920s are testimony to the fact that such images were evidently not seen as blasphemous a hundred years ago. The German Bovril equivalent did not have its factories blown up.

As Paul Chevedden, author of A New History of the Crusades, recently put it: “The great strength of Islam historically has been its ability to adapt itself to local cultures. Syncretism was one of its strong suits. Just think of all the pagan Arabian practices incorporated into the faith, not to mention its debt to Judaism and Christianity. Now it is only scandalized by syncretisms, and what passes for Islamic creativity amounts to ridding the faith of the accumulated traditions going back many centuries. If the trend continues, we will see a Salafī-Wahhābī wasteland. A richness and diversity of Islamic cultures replaced by a desert.” Too true.

With thanks to Paul Chevedden for sharing his thoughts.

Also thanks to the following:

Copyright � 2009 The New Criterion | http://www.newcriterion.com http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Yale—the-Danish-cartoons-4180

http://tarekfatah.com/images-of-prophet-muhammad-from-islamic-art-and-history-before-the-clan-of-ibn-saud-took-islam-hostage/

http://www.newsweek.com/koran-does-not-forbid-images-prophet-298298

 

On Arab cartoons and western hypocrisy

Arab's world most famed cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, drawn as St George killing Assad the lion, alias the dragon, by Ramzi Taweel

Ali Ferzat, drawn as St George killing the dragon, aka Assad the lion, with his sharp pen, by Palestinian cartoonist Ramzi Taweel

The Arab world loves satirical cartoons.  BBC Arabic’s current affairs TV show 7 Days even used to devoted the final ten minutes of each programme to a discussion of the week’s cartoons from the Arab press. So what is all this fuss about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

The Koran explicitly tells Muslims how to react when their religion is mocked, in verse 140 of Sura Al-Nisa:

“God has sent down upon you a commandment in the Book, that if you hear disbelievers denying and mocking the verses of God, do not sit with them until they change to a different topic, otherwise you will become like them.”

The Koran, regarded by all Muslims as the word of God,  is not open to dispute.

Why therefore does the mockery of Islam using cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad provoke such extreme reactions across the Islamic world?

The obvious answer lies in orthodox  Islam’s position on religious figural art, whereby images of God, the Prophet Muhammad and other prophets, though not explicitly forbidden in the Koran, are not permitted according to longstanding tradition: only God is permitted to create humans, not humans themselves. That is seen as idolatry and therefore blasphemous. Traditional religious Islamic art is therefore overwhelmingly composed of geometric shapes and designs through which it seeks to represent God’s infinity, beauty, all-embracing nature and much more.

Dome of Istanbul's Blue Mosque

Dome of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque

Dome of Isfahan mosque

Dome of Isfahan mosque

But there is another answer, behind the obvious, which has its roots, not in religion, but in socio-economic frustration and the perceived hypocrisy of the West.

All too often, when westerners look East, they see nothing but the chaos of the Middle East apparently created by Islamic extremism. A few, looking more closely, see the socio-economic inequalities fuelled by the rise of greedy dictators and their equally greedy cronies. They may even see how the rise in literacy across the region has led, not to better opportunities for employment, but to a massive dissatisfaction with the status quo among the under 30s who account for at least 60% of the population. Few realise that even in Saudi Arabia 60% are under 21 and far from rich.

Very rarely do westerners acknowledge their own  governments’ role in creating the conditions for such chaos to flourish; in the creation of artificial states whose boundaries were drawn to suit western political and economic interests; in the creation of mandates whose remits were supposedly to protect and lead local populations to independence after World War I, but which in practice exploited them and set the various religious groupings  against each other, sometimes in an expressly ‘divide and rule’ policy; and last but not least, in the creation of the state of Israel imposed on existing local populations without consultation.

Fake Ali Ferzat cartoon, doctored by pro-regime activists to add sheep holding 'Freedom' banners

Fake Ali Ferzat cartoon, doctored by pro-regime activists to add sheep holding ‘Freedom’ banners

When Muslims look West, they in turn see extreme, and in their eyes often hypocritical, reactions. Why does the West make so much fuss over the death of 17 people in France, four of whom were Jews, when over 200,000 Arab lives have been lost in Syria to apparent western indifference? Why does the execution of four western hostages trigger a massive wave of outrage, when the earlier execution of hundreds of Muslims by ISIS inside Syria and Iraq drew no reaction? Why does the plight of the Yezidi minority, escaping up Mt Sinjar in Iraq, attract worldwide attention and lead to US air strikes, when indigenous Muslims have already been killed in their thousands by ISIS?

Then on 19 January British Communities Secretary Eric Pickles sent a letter to 1,100 imams across Britain which, though well-intentioned, clumsily implied blame on the Muslim community for allowing Islamic extremism to flourish, as if it were in some way their fault and responsibility. The letter did not acknowledge that such a global phenomenon cannot be pinned on one community, that it is spread more than anything by savvy propaganda on the internet and social media.

Tragically, such faux-pas feed into a western perception that Islam cannot take criticism, and into a Muslim perception that the West is always setting itself up above Islam, taking the moral high ground. The many instances of Christian and Jewish extremism across history are somehow seen differently by their own adherents, as excusable reactions to unreasonable provocation. Guantanamo Bay sums it up. This is why the West’s ‘holier than thou’ approach often leads to accusations of hypocrisy from inside the Islamic world.

A recent slogan tweeted by the Kafranbel activists inside Syria gave their balanced reaction to the Charlie Hedbo massacres and the subsequent adulation across the West of the satirical magazine via the ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign:

“Magazines’ Self-Glory should be built neither by mocking religions nor by their employees’ skulls. Islam has nothing to do with terrorism.”

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Kafranbel’s own media centre satirising Bashar al-Assad, and its Radio Fresh broadcasting outlet was recently closed down by Jabhat an-Nusra extremists, on the pretext of it being against Islam: at the same time they closed down the Kafranbel Women’s Centre where local women trained as hairdressers, nurses and seamstresses, telling them they would be beheaded if they returned. The real reason for the closure was that the extremist group could not cope with being mocked, like all dictatorial regimes round the world. The widely circulated hashtag #We are all Hadi against Nusra (Hadi Al-Abdullah was the Kafranbel activist attacked by Al-Nusra) proved that Muslims will freely criticise other Muslims when necessary.

Kafranbel cartoon on ISIS v Free speech with a jihadi shooting the microphone of Radio Fresh at the Kafranbel Media Centre

Kafranbel cartoon on ISIS v Free speech with a jihadi shooting the microphone of Radio Fresh at the Kafranbel Media Centre, by Iman

Satire of political leaders has long been popular in the Arab world, much to the chagrin of autocratic dictators. Egypt’s former president Muhammad Morsi hated being mocked by the ultra-popular comic satirist Bassem Youssef on TV. The current President Al-Sisi was equally unable to handle it, and Youssef’s slick show, modeled on that of American comedian Jon Stewart, went off air.

The Arab world’s most famous cartoonist Ali Ferzat was allowed in 2000 to set up a satirical magazine called Ad-Domari, The Lamplighter, in Syria, the first such magazine since the Ba’athists took power there in 1963. The new president, Bashar al-Assad, had been his friend and encouraged him during what was called ‘The Damascus Spring’. Three years later, the magazine was closed down for its irreverent cartoons against the Syrian regime, and in 2011 Ali Ferzat was beaten up on a Damascus street, his hands broken to punish his satirical cartoons against his former friend.

On Ali Ferzat by Andreas Qassim

In support of Ali Ferzat by Andreas Qassim, Swedish cartoonist

Ali Ferzat cartoon from 2009 re leaders staying in safe places while fighters die

Ali Ferzat cartoon from 2009 re leaders staying in safe places while fighters die

 

The singer Ibrahim al-Qashoush who wrote a popular anti-regime song was found in the river Orontes with his vocal chords cut out.

Ali Ferzat cartoon re torturer emotional re TV romance but not re victim

Ali Ferzat cartoon re torturer’s empathy with TV romance but not with his victim

Torturers inside Assad’s prisons were known to force detainees to pray to a picture of Bashar and recite: “There is no God but Bashar”.

Defending free speech is easy if you like what is being said. But many Muslims feel damaged by the Charlie Hedbo media circus, misunderstood and unfairly vilified by the West. Islam’s absence of a conventional hierarchy also makes it difficult for moderate Muslims, especially Sunnis who account for about 85% of Muslims worldwide, to have a unified voice. While the minority Shia, largely found in Iran and Iraq, look to a handful of Grand Ayatollahs to guide them, Sunnis have no Pope or head of the church equivalent. No one Sunni group can speak for another and there are at least four main Sunni schools of law, each with their own theologians.

The West fears what it does not understand. But it must not allow distorted views of Islam’s nature to take hold. In the past, in its foreign interventions in the Arab world, the West has been driven by self-interest, despite its rhetoric to the contrary. Its own economic ambitions have been paramount, leading it to exploit the Middle East’s strategic location and natural resources.

If Western countries could honestly declare that their actions will in future also consider the interests of local populations, it might be a first step towards healing the misunderstandings which have led to so many of the region’s seemingly intractable problems. Respect between the West and Islam is essential.

Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker

Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker

Schizophrenia in Damascus

Nothing in Damascus was as expected. Convinced there would be food shortages, I had vowed to eat very little during my stay. Yet while the besieged suburbs are starving, the central food markets are overflowing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The fruit stalls of Sharia al-Amin boast bananas from Somalia, the Bzouriye spice markets are buoyant with top-quality saffron from Iran and walnuts from Afghanistan. Lebanese wine and beer are freely available. Prices are higher than before, but still largely affordable for most people.

Sandwiched between the heavily-armed checkpoints, street stands selling thick hot Aleppan sakhlab, a sweet white drink, are everywhere.

Cafes and pastry shops are bursting with sticky delicacies, the famous Bakdash ice-cream parlour is buzzing with people as ever.

Bakdash ice cream parlour, October 2014

To judge from the carpets of cigarette butts on the pavements, smoking rates, always high, are higher than ever. In the main thoroughfare of Souq al-Hamidiya all the usual clothes and flamboyant underwear outlets are still thronging with customers – not a single boarded shopfront – quite a contrast to the average British high street.

Sporadically, in the days as well as the nights, shelling is disturbingly loud, but strangely offstage.

President Bashar al-Assad’s artillery is fired from Mount Qassioun, directly above the city, towards the eastern Ghouta region – the scene of last year’s chemical attack, whose pockets of resistance are still a thorn in the side of the government. Villages there have suffered a food blockade for the last 18 months.

But by all accounts there is much less noise than there was a year ago.

Mount Qassioun, seen from DamascusMount Qassioun, seen across the rooftops of Damascus

From that point of view, very gradually, life in central Damascus is getting better. Yet from other points of view, just as gradually, it is getting worse.

Beyond the 3.5 million who have fled the country as refugees, a further 7.5 million have been internally displaced – added together that accounts for half of Syria’s entire population. Homes which are left empty, if they have not been flattened, are vulnerable to immediate seizure by others – usually the owners have no idea who has moved in and it is too dangerous to go back and find out.

Almost as often, but rarely reported, Syrian homes are taken by profiteers, exploiting the weak or the absent.

My own house in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Damascus, bought and restored in 2005, fell victim a few months ago.

It had been lived in for more than two years, from the summer of 2012 to the summer of 2014, with my consent by displaced friends whose homes had been destroyed in the suburbs. Now they had been evicted by my ex-lawyer and the previous owner conniving together to take it for themselves and split it 50:50.

Determined to get it back I recently returned to Damascus to throw them out and after 15 roller-coaster days, I succeeded. Things can happen surprisingly fast in Syria. You go to meet the judge one day, and he comes to inspect the house the next – without payment.

The old and the new doors to the houseA blacksmith made a new metal door to cover the smashed antique one.

Among the many moments of high drama were two break-ins, six changes of lock, the installation of two metal doors and the exposure of the bogus security reports which had led to my friends being evicted in the first place.

Bit parts were played by a fake general on a forged 25-year lease, and a Baathist single mother in the house with her newborn baby. It was with her that I felt most threatened by violence.

But in some ways life goes on almost as normal: dining with one friend in her 50s, whose car was lost in a random mortar attack, she explains how she now accompanies her 16-year-old nephew by taxi to play in the orchestra at the Opera House to make sure he is not picked up and enlisted into the army. At the checkpoints she clutches his cello between her legs so that the soldiers will not take it.

Checkpoints and road blocks in Yusuf al-Azma SquareCheckpoints and road blocks, such as this one in Yusuf al-Azma Square, are a common sight

Another friend works for the national electricity grid: his job is to repair electric cables damaged in the clashes. Over lunch at his home with his family, he tells me how one of his team stepped on a mine and was blasted to pieces in front of him – the man next to him had his eyes blown out.

He himself was lucky, escaping only with shrapnel in his intestine. He spent two weeks in hospital, two weeks at home recuperating, then went straight back to work. His attitude is simple: anyone who damages Syrian infrastructure is hurting the Syrian people.

The alleys of the Old City are full of children playing football. Many go to the school round the corner from my house.

Such is the overcrowding – some say Damascus’s population has risen from four to seven million because of internally displaced refugees – that their school-day is from 11:00 to 15:00, with one shift before them and another shift after them. They have 50 to 60 in their class but their enthusiasm to learn and to do their homework is undiminished.

The only other foreigners I saw on the streets were Iraqi Shia, men and women led round in groups to visit the shrines by a man wielding an orange lollipop sign.

When I met an old friend at the tourism ministry who still works at his office every day, he explained how this kind of religious tourism is now all they have left, some 200,000 pilgrims a year, after 8.2 million foreign visitors in 2010. He expresses no political views – he is just someone who has chosen to stay and do his job as best he can, like millions of others.

All over the country, even in ISIS-held Raqqa, I was reliably informed, government employees now draw their salaries direct from cash points on specific days, causing long queues outside the banks.

For the last two nights when I was finally able to sleep in my house in Old Damascus I experienced what everyone else has to suffer on a daily basis – scarcely four hours of electricity a day, no gas, no hot water, limited cold water.

It was tough, yet strangely invigorating, crossing the chilly courtyard to wash in a dribble of icy water, warmed by the knowledge I was surrounded by loyal neighbours who were looking out for me. Without them I could never have retaken my house: they protected me, helped me at every turn.

Bait Baroudi

A crisis brings out the worst and the best in people. What I found in Damascus was that a genuine kindness, a shared humanity and an extraordinary sense of humour are well and truly alive. Decent Syrian citizens are together doing their best to fight against immorality and corruption. Morale, in spite of everything, is high. Laughter keeps them sane.

Not once did anyone mention sectarianism. “DA’ESH” (the Arabic acronym for ISIS used across the Middle East) was universally condemned as beyond the pale.

How much longer, as the war approaches its fifth year and the number of greedy opportunists in society increases, such neighbourhood camaraderie can survive is an unanswerable question. But after this fortnight in Damascus I am more optimistic than before.

Diana Darke, Middle East cultural expert and Arabic speaker, is the author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, new 2015 edition now available as paperback and e-book from:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=11301

My House in Damascus

Related post:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30494989

 

 

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