A different look at Islam

| January 5, 2015 | 0 Comments
British cavalry charging against Russian forces at the Balaclava.

British cavalry charging against Russian forces at the Balaclava.

As Diplomat is published only four times a year, I have a devil of a time rooting out books that haven’t already been reviewed everywhere else but are nonetheless, I hope, ones of topical interest to our readers. The situation is made more complicated by what seems to me (though this may be middle age talking) the ever-increasing speed of world events. Permit me an example. When I began thinking about the column for this issue, the big news was the Russian incursion into Crimea. To me this looked like a promising subject, if only because it was one of those events that seemed somewhat familiar to us because it touched on the most important political concern of our own time: the conflict between Islam and the West.
DIPLOMAT_1-2-2015_0065Like so many other wars before and since, the original Crimea crisis (1853 to 1856) began as an argument over Jerusalem. The city was then under the control of the Ottoman Turks, who wished it to be even more Islamic than it already was. At that time, the modern Italian nation was still being assembled from various city-states and regions, and while it had the Vatican, of course, it didn’t yet have Vatican City. France considered itself to be the seat of Roman Catholicism rather than Italy. Catholicism would be the state religion of the French until 1905, and they wished to expand the Catholic footprint in the Holy Land, just as imperial Russia wanted to make it a bigger centre of Orthodox Christianity.
DIPLOMAT_1-2-2015_0066So the French and the Turks joined forces in a war against Russia. They had a little help from the Sardinians and a great deal from Britain, which didn’t really have a horse in the race, but felt that it hadn’t had a jolly good war since Napoleonic times. In the end, little was accomplished except for the death of several hundred thousand people and the waste of a great deal of money. (As I’m writing this, months after Vladimir Putin’s Crimean land grab, the British government has announced that it is finally buying back the bonds issued more than a century and a half ago to help finance its part in the Crimean expedition.)
Here’s another instance of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I once spent a lively afternoon with William L. Shirer, the American foreign correspondent who covered the ascent of Nazi Germany for the Chicago Tribune and later for the Hearst newspapers and later still for Edward R. Morrow of CBS. Out of these experiences came his landmark book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960). When I met him, he was almost 90 and had taken up study of the Russian language “to keep the cobwebs out of my old brain.” He told me how, once the United States entered the Second World War, he approached a key American official, offering his insights on the key Nazi leaders from Hitler on down, all of whom he had got to know quite well over the course of a decade or so. “I offered to be debriefed on how these people’s minds worked, believing that this might be useful intelligence.” But the answer he got was: “We don’t care how they think. We don’t give a damn for their culture. Our job is just to kill ’em, kill ’em all.”
DIPLOMAT_1-2-2015_0067Which is my roundabout way of suggesting that, though this column is not usually about literary matters, it might make sense to consider looking at the booming interest in Middle Eastern writing as one aid to understanding the ancient roots of cultures that are now at such hazard with our own. The best survey of the modern era is probably Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, edited by a big star in scholarly circles, Reza Aslan. This fat anthology (Penguin Group Canada, $43.50) covers a century’s worth of literature, from 1910 to 2010. Yet, at the same time, much attention is being paid to some of the classic works of the region, and some of this activity turns up interesting connections. In 1765, for example, Thomas Jefferson bought a copy of the Qur’an to learn about a faith he found distasteful. As he studied the book, his position began to soften. By the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was convinced Muslims could or would — one day — make useful citizens of the new American republic. The story is told in Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders by Denise A. Spellberg (Doubleday Canada, $14.50 paper).

Two often-misunderstood classics
Aside from the Qur’an, perhaps the two best-known Middle Eastern texts from long ago are One Thousand and One Nights, first translated into English in 1706 and known by variants of the title, and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam — which is also spelled various ways, as there are many different systems for transliterating Arabic into English. The Nights, a series of stories collected over a long period from Iraq, Persia, Syria, Turkey and other places, is by far the more interesting and also the more relevant to our view of the Middle East today. To be very brief, the nominal narrator of these stories, some of them a thousand years old, is a woman named Scheherazade. She is the latest bride of a king, a mad misogynist (that’s putting it mildly), who takes a new wife each evening and murders her the next morning. To save herself and all the other women who will follow, she must continue spinning yarns to keep the homicidal monarch distracted from his ritual of death. After a thousand and one nights of doing so, she wears him down and all is well.
There are many translations of the Nights, the longest and most famous being that of Sir Richard Burton, the Victorian adventurer and diplomat (whose most remarkable feat was disguising himself as an Arab and undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca and escaping with his life). Not surprisingly, two new works unravel the tangled history of the Nights and what it has to tell us today. Eastern Dreams: How the Arabian Nights Came to the World (Penguin Group Canada, $34) is by a Canadian, Paul McMichael Nurse. More detailed is Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (Harvard University Press, US$19.95)

Toronto author Lucia Jang, left, and journalist Susan McClelland wrote Stars between the Sun and Moon.

Toronto author Lucia Jang, left, and journalist Susan McClelland wrote Stars between the Sun and Moon.

As for the Rubaiyat (the term refers to a type of four-line poem), it has only one English translation that absolutely everybody remembers: the one by a very minor English literary amateur named Edward FitzGerald (1809–1883), who interpreted the work as one that praised drinking and the hedonistic life in general. The persistence of the FitzGerald version has made a mockery of (full name) Ghiyathuddin Abulfath, aka Omar Ibn Ibrahim Al-Khayyami — the last word means “tent-maker” and refers to the trade his father followed. Omar, a Persian, was certainly a drinker and a bohemian personality, but was also a mathematician, astrologer, philosopher and all-purpose intellectual, none of which you would know from reading FitzGerald. This point is made more than once in Hamid Dabashi’s book The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Harvard, US$35). Here in the West generally, “humanism” refers to the idea, central to the European Enlightenment, that all human knowledge is connected somehow and open to study (while, in the U.S., it’s also come to mean “irreligious” or “atheistic,” as in the term “liberal humanist”). In Dr. Dabashi’s view, the very masculine culture of the Arab conquerors ridiculed the less macho one of Persia for its personal freedoms and scientific advances — and so set me to thinking about a little halāl restaurant that I like in my rundown neighbourhood in Vancouver.
Like all other major religions, Islam is full of different sects, some of them quite small. I have no idea what the exact beliefs of my favourite restaurant’s proprietors are, but I notice that they serve liquor, wine and beer, but draw the line at coffee — which I first thought they must consider a slippery slope, leading who knows where. Then one day it came to me. They sell the three liquids that numb the brain but not the one that stimulates it. I’m not making a wise crack. I’m simply suggesting that we all need to try harder to understand one another better.

Some victims of the 20th Century
Annette Libeskind Berkovitz found a box of audio tapes left by her late father, Nachman Libeskind, and has used them as the backbone of her biography of him: In the Unlikeliest of Places (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, $34.95). Mr. Libeskind was a Polish Jew who survived the Nazis, was imprisoned by the Soviets, emigrated to the young state of Israel and ended up in the New World. He was a classic victim of the 20th Century. So is Lucia Jang of Toronto (and so many countless others, of course). Ms Jang was born and reared in North Korea during the time of Kim Il-sung and his heir, Kim Jong-il. Stars between the Sun and Moon by Ms Jang and the journalist Susan McClelland tells of the former’s escape to the West, but is most interesting for its horrid details of daily life in North Korea during the 1980s and 1990s (Douglas & McIntyre, $32.95).
In a way, Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy by Christopher R. Hill (Simon & Shuster Canada, $36) can be seen as a counterpoint and confirmation of the two books cited above. For example, during a State Department career that spanned the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations (he seems to have felt most comfortable with the first and the third), he served as ambassador to, among other places, Poland and South Korea. He was also America’s principal disarmament negotiator with the North Koreans.
The last of these tasks was especially frustrating. “For reasons I never quite understood,” he writes, “there had been persistent reports in the press, attributed to unnamed sources, that for months I had sought to go to North Korea, but had been blocked by Vice President [Dick] Cheney. I never made any such request, because I never saw the value in going. A trip to North Korea needs to pay off to overcome the added hostility back in Washington. Years after Secretary of State [Madeleine] Albright had visited and met with Kim Jong-il, she was still being subjected to criticism, as if she hadn’t known how to handle an encounter with a dictator.”
Outpost is a first-rate example of the type of book that public servants produce once safely retired, the kind that puts the author at the centre of important events and tries to settle old scores.

Fighting over crumbs in the ocean
Numerous books have been published about the South China Sea recently. One or two have been referred to in this space previously. Some of the authors view developments in that region as part of what they see as the huge forthcoming confrontation between a waxing China and a possibly waning United States: a contest to determine “who’s the biggest Mexican in the room” (as people in the illegal drug trade say, or so I’ve been told).
Bill Hayton, a BBC specialist in Asian affairs, plays down this scenario in The South China Sea: The Struggle for Peace in Asia (Yale University Press, US$35). Instead, he concentrates on the still largely untapped oil and natural gas beneath the ocean floor — and the fact that a huge percentage of the world’s energy resources, whatever the source, are shipped through the very same waters. As a result, Pacific Rim nations as far south as Malaysia and as far north as Japan, scramble and connive to assert their sovereignty over little islands off their coasts — often very far off indeed — in order to legally claim nearby sections of the seabed.
When many senior citizens think of standoffs on geographically trivial islands they remember Matsu, a tiny Chinese outpost, and its neighbour Quemoy, which is part of Taiwan. Ownership disputes brought the two nations close to war several times in the 1950s. In the 1990s, when I was exploring Quemoy, it was still possible to look out across the booby-trapped beaches through one’s binoculars and see members of the People’s Liberation Army staring right back through binoculars of their own.
DIPLOMAT_1-2-2015_0069Such Pacific property-line disputes have a long history but have become more intense in our own time. In the 1970s, the Philippines landed troops on Pagasa but were beaten back by the Taiwanese, who call the place Thitu — part of the Spratly Islands, a hodgepodge of about 750 little places, including atolls, reefs and such, spread out over 425,000 square kilometres, with various portions staked out by the Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Filipinos, the Malaysians, the Vietnamese — and, once in a while, the Indonesians. Altogether, the Spratlys and two other archipelagos in the South China Sea contain about 30,000 islands and lesser bits of land, coral reefs and large sandbars. In the 1980s, China, to keep the Vietnamese from taking a small island, placed a concrete block on it (much as European sea captains such as Richard Spratly would have planted a flag). “The main reason it wasn’t already occupied,” Mr. Hayton writes, “was that there was almost nothing there to occupy.” The place in contention measures only 27 by seven kilometres.
Sometimes, still other parties become involved. Senkaku is an island northwest of Taiwan, which calls it its own. The government on the more distant Chinese mainland also asserts its rights over the place, which calls it Diaoyu. Japan, which is more commonly seen dickering with one of the Koreas, also lays claim to Senkaku. For its part, Brunei defends its proprietorship of a piece of the Spratlys called Louisa Reef without having ever attempted to occupy it. Viewed from far away, these nationalistic shenanigans can take on a slight suggestion of the Keystone Kops, but they’re very serious matters, indeed.
Help for failing states
DIPLOMAT_1-2-2015_0070Lastly, and maybe most importantly, there is Terry Gould’s new book Worth Dying For: Canada’s Mission to Train Police in the World’s Failing States (Random House Canada, $32). Mr. Gould is a singular investigative journalist, more intellectual than most of his colleagues and certainly a finer writer — and a broader one. Until now, he has focused largely on the unusual combination of organised crime and human rights issues. This time he examines how, beginning in 1989, RCMP personnel have volunteered in CivPol — civilian police operations — in 25 troubled, corrupt and often dysfunctional countries, teaching advanced methods to local police and, in many cases, helping to wean them off systemic corruption and abuse.
He is the first outsider permitted to travel and live with these Canadian volunteers. While regretting Ottawa’s abandonment of peacekeeping, and regretting also the litany of scandals that have deflated the Mounties’ reputation, Mr. Gould sees a great deal to be praised and admired in the CivPol program, but for practical reasons, confines his book to three case studies: Afghanistan, Palestine and Haiti. We’re lucky to have a reporter such as Mr. Gould. Until Worth Dying For, his most recent book was Murder without Borders, documenting the many international journalists who have been killed in the line of line of duty. The book is no longer up-to-date, owing to the hideous beheadings we’ve seen reported recently —and are likely to continue seeing, possibly to the point, sadly, at which Mr. Gould’s book  may need to be expanded.

George Fetherling is a novelist and commentator.

Be Sociable, Share!


Category: Delights

About the Author ()

George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *