Sunday, March 11, 2007

Bonfire of the Books

Even Arabs who don't read history know a thing or two about the Mongols. Just say Mongols and see what they'll say.
In Arab collective consciousness, the word "Tatar" conjures up images of terror and destruction. The fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 remains one of the most dramatic events in our history, superseded, perhaps, only by the Fitnas: the martyrdom of Ali ibn Abi Talib and years later his son, al-Husayn. We think of thousands and thousands of soldiers, uncouth and uncultured as all soldiers everywhere are, rummaging through this city of splendour, the seat of culture, the centre of Abbasid learning and civilization, and putting it on fire, killing and pillaging and burning. Ancient armies were customarily allowed three days of pillage: those got 40, we are told, after which probably nothing was left to destroy! One enduring image of the fall of Baghdad is the story that Mongol soldiers threw all the books of Dar al-Hikma into the Tigris making a bridge on which to pass with their horses. Survivors later recounted that the waters of the river ran black from the ink... Rivers of blood, rivers of ink... As a child, I found this image awe-inspiring: so many books, enough books to make a bridge for an army to ride on? So much hatred, enough hatred to destroy the whole product of human learning on a winter afternoon?

The comparison with the latest invasion and occupation of Baghdad was not late in coming. Since the 2003 siege the coalition has been compared to the Tatars. People were reading history in an attempt to find some consolation, not really to understand. But little did one expect the scenario of the occupation to turn so twisted. At least the Tatars had a name and an address.

The image of the manuscripts blackening the Tigris came back to my mind this week as another, slightly similar catastrophe took place. A bomb exploded in the book market of Baghdad: Shari' al-Mutannabi. With thousands (Iraqis and others) having lost their lives in vain since the mindless occupation, is it even ethical to mourn the loss of books?

But books are not simply paper with ink and writing, are they? They would wipe our history, our culture, our consciousness those who burn our books. And what is man if not consciousness? what remains when all else is gone?

Majid al-Sammara'i's article in Hayat, above, points out the symbolism of the site: both as a locus of culture and books and as an urban space with its own modes of existence and way of life. A double blow then: not just to the books themselves but to bookishness and the cultured life. The demons do not just come from "beyond the river" now, (Ma waraa' al-nahr or Transoxania) they also come from within. And they don't care for learning and culture, the demons. What do they care for, really? Which gods do they bow before? Which altars do they offer all those sacrifices to? The gods of oil, perhaps...

Let's hope someone lives to tell the tale...

WP's Anthony Shadid has a touching profile of Mohamed al-Hayawi, a bookseller on Mutannabi Street who died in last Monday's bombing.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Out on the balcony again

Apologies are in order.
To readers (apparently there are some out there); I haven't blogged in over a year: I lost faith in the medium and the message. I thought no one was reading when apparently there were comments that I should have "moderated" (duh!) So apologies are in order not really because I haven't written; after all, not much is missed in the world by my silence, but because readers' comments hadn't been posted and their writers might have assumed they were not appreciated, which they are. I will contemplate, reflect and write back, etc, etc.

Suddenly had an urge to blog today. "Procrastination?," asked my good friend who knows me too well. "It's Saturday," I blurted, as if that's excuse enough to flee from the magnum opus I'm writing. But there is so much to talk about and let me confess, the absence of a significant someone to talk things with is acutely felt. Not a certain someone, mind you, he's gone, but rather, as Meg Ryan had it "the idea of someone." Ok, so Someone isn't here but one can blog. Sounds pathetic? Not really, not when you think about it: there is something reassuring about the idea of a network of like-minded people being out there in the world.

The idea, item, that made me want to run and scream on the blogosphere is this:
Apologies to Mutannabi in al-Hayat by Ghassan Sherbel. Revisionism at its worst.
To summarize in case you haven't read it: we Arabs are finally revising, revisiting history. And how are we doing it? In a disgusting manner. That's the summary.
Arabs, and the Egyptian variety in particular, it is often said "do not read." Sometimes the common wisdom has it that "they don't read history." Have you heard the anecdote attributed to Moshe Dayan? I've tried to find it once online but failed. It might be apocryphal; it's certainly to good to be true. However, it goes along the lines of this: while preparing war plans for 1967 the Israelis were contemplating a move they'd used in 1956 (I forget which one). Some generals objected, reminding Dayan that a) they've used the tactic before and b) he'd written about it in his memoirs. Dayan, retorted "Ah, but Egyptians don't read history." (It sounds like something Heikal would quote in his books, forgive... )
And we all remember how 1967 ended, of course, and if we don't, well thankfully that's what Israeli Television is there for: to remind us. (More on that later, but meanwhile it turned out they weren't Egyptians, the POWs, but Palestinians: so that's ok. No harm done.)

So now we're doing history. History is, of course, continuously rewritten. That's the beauty of it, no one has the final say, no one has the last word. Every generation imagines the past in its own manner, in its efforts to shape its future. Revisionism, in western historiography, has had a lot to do with writing people into history who have commonly been left out (hence, women, minorities, the common people etc) and also questioning common held beliefs about the past. It also has had a lot to do with rewriting the history of great-men, questioning their glory and achievement. Revisionist history is generally against great-man history and some revisionists like to "deconstruct" (sorry, I had to use that word...) the history of great men and show them to be, after all, fallible and human and not so great, their achievements having relied on other, numerous "unknown soldiers" or larger forces of history beyond the great individual, usually, in fact always, a man. So that's fine. It's "good" even. But how do we do it? We question the sectarian identity of great men. No, it's not a joke. So in Beirut and in Baghdad they ask just what is the sectarian identity of the poet al-Mutannabi? Was al-Mutannabi Sunni or Shi'i? I mean, how sick do you need to be to even ask that question? Not very sick, apparently. And they talk of rewriting history textbooks. Now, that I understand. But I fear, I shudder to think how they will do it... wiping out one sect for another. Do we never learn? Will we never learn?

I know, I know: someone is bound to post a comment saying that the Nasser regime in Egypt did the same thing with the monarchy, rewriting their history or else excising it from textbooks and damning the king. Must we repeat the same mistakes again? And this time, it is not rewriting the history of a regime, gone and fallen or else happily in Switzerland or Italy, but of a religious sect, next door... crowds of them.

Religion is back in the ugly way, I'm afraid. Not in the spiritual contemplative manner. I yearn for my childhood days when my mother, herself a product of a combination of bourgeois provincial Egyptian Islam, Protestant missionary schooling, and secular state discourse, forbade me, forbade me, from asking people what their religion was or telling them what my religion is.
I came back one day from playing at the beach in Alexandria. I had made a new friend "her name is Marwa, and she's a Muslim too." That was it! How did I know she was a Muslim? and what difference is it to me if she hadn't been? When I went back to school the following year the girls certainly thought I was odd. In answer to the question: Are you a Muslim or a Christian (they had to ask...) I answered: "I am Egyptian." Quaint, I know... Would I even dare tell my child to answer similarly in the 21st century? Would I dare?

Besides, was al-Mutannabi Muslim to begin with?