With the year winding down, Diwan asked several members of Carnegie’s Middle East program to recommend a book, film, documentary, or other form of distraction. This also gives us an opportunity to thank readers for their support during these early months of Carnegie’s Middle East blog. We would like to wish all of you a happy holiday season.
The Arab of the Future is a remarkable graphic novel series by French cartoonist Riad Sattouf. Sattouf, born in Paris to a Syrian father and a French mother, worked for a decade at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, leaving not long before two brothers of Algerian descent stormed its Paris offices and murdered twelve of his former colleagues.
The graphic novel revolves around Sattouf’s ironic but affectionate treatment of the relationship between his younger self and his father Abdul Razak, as the family moves between France, Libya, and Syria. Young Riad, who ages from two to seven years old in the first two volumes, uncritically adores his father while absorbing the vacuous sloganeering of Arab nationalism and the all-pervasive cult worship of Moammar Qaddafi and Hafez al-Assad. (“I didn’t like Assad as much as [Qaddafi]. He wasn’t as handsome or sporty. He had a large forehead, and there was something shifty-looking about him.”)
Abdul Razak is a good-natured and well-meaning but stubborn father, a pan-Arabist intellectual from Homs, Syria, who idolizes Gamal Abdel Nasser. But in Libya and especially in Syria his idealism is slowly ground down by pervasive corruption, social malaise, and religious intolerance. Young Riad’s mother Clémentine is the moral core of the family, but she becomes increasingly withdrawn amid social isolation and familial tensions.
Anyone trying to fathom how decades of authoritarianism and institutional stagnation contributed to the calamity of today’s Syria could do far worse than to turn to Sattouf’s perceptive graphic novels. But ultimately Arab of the Future is not political commentary or social treatise, it is a poignant and witty work of art about the trials and tribulations of a single family. Three volumes have been published in the original French, but only the first two have been translated into English.
If you will be in New York City during the holidays, one of the best gifts you could give yourself would be a visit to “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This carefully-curated exhibit, which ends next January 8, brings together precious religious and secular objects created in or for the holy city during a tumultuous three centuries, when it saw rule by the Fatimids, Crusaders, Ayyoubids, and Mongols. The objects themselves are gorgeous and some have never been displayed to the public before, having been borrowed by the curators from religious communities that kept them privately for centuries. The most important example is a set of stunningly expressive limestone column capitals carved in Nazareth circa 1180 and hurriedly buried as Saladin’s army advanced. The carvings show important scenes in the lives of the twelve apostles of Christ, with faces worthy of a graphic novel and physiques worthy of Gold’s Gym. The exhibit aims to show not only what happened in and near Jerusalem itself during the medieval period, but also the magnificent burst of artistic creativity that devotion to—one might say obsession with—the city inspired in Jews, Christians, and Muslims the world over.
The Met has arranged the exhibit into galleries not by time period but by locations in Jerusalem, such as the marketplace, the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Somehow the objects seem more immediate displayed in rooms that show the context for which they were created. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the exhibit was the illuminated video “windows” that appear above the displayed objects, providing current footage and sounds of the city. And the small gift shop at the end is not half bad if you still have holiday shopping to finish.
If you want to be affected emotionally, reading Yasmina Khadra would be a good choice. In The Dictator’s Last Night, the Algerian novelist tried to imagine what was going on in the head of Libya’s former dictator Moammar Qaddafi. In his latest book, God Does Not Live in Havana, Khadra doesn’t drift far from the impact of authoritarianism, but also goes in a completely different direction.
The story revolves around Juan Del Monte Jonava, alias Don Fuego, a Cuban Rumba singer in his late fifties who has spent much of his life giving audiences his best. But time has passed and his glory has faded, until the cabaret in which he worked closed. Looking for new opportunities, Don Fuego is transported by his moods through the streets of Havana, which readers discover with him page by page. The city’s splendor has long been lost, Havana has become decrepit under the blows of an authoritarian regime that somehow continues to survive.
As Khadra described Cuba in an interview, “It is a country from which personal initiative, ambition, is completely excluded, that is hostage to an ideology that is obsolete, yet always omnipresent.”
But not all is grim. One night, Don Fuego meets a beautiful young woman called Mayensi and falls in love with her despite the age difference and the fact that he ignores everything about her past. Mayensi brings back a passion and a vitality that Don Fuego thought were gone forever. The two enjoy a short period of intense happiness until the real face of the mesmerizing Mayensi emerges. Don Fuego’s world is turned upside down, yet two pillars in his life are unshakable: family, with his children, sister, and nephews all giving him the courage to accept his travails and Cuba’s situation; and music.
God Does Not Live in Havana is above all a hymn to love and optimism, despite the loss of youth, loved ones, and beauty in life. One sentence vividly encapsulates this sense of eternal revival: “We have to put an end to that which is over, if we want to reinvent ourselves elsewhere.” This message holds a great deal for those living in the troubled societies about which Khadra has written, for whom renewal is a constant struggle.
So you know everything there is to know about how the Islamic State split from Jabhat al-Nusra. You can recite the Abbottabad letters by heart. And you’ve read all 1,604 pages of Abu Musab al-Souri’s The Global Islamic Resistance Call … twice.
But what do you know about jihadi cooking?
A senior fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, Thomas Hegghammer is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on jihadi movements and their history. In his free time, he is also the proud proprietor of a Tumblr blog named The Bored Jihadi, which, Hegghammer explains, “is about what jihadis do when they’re not fighting: their pastimes, etiquette, dress codes, music tastes, humor, and pretty much everything else that seems inconsequential.”
On The Bored Jihadi, Hegghammer posts pictures and links to articles, books, and videos. Some recent entries include a piece about the importance of dreams to jihadi culture, a journal article examining how jihadi propaganda relates to the Arabic poetic tradition, a report on dress codes for women in Raqqa, and the story of a British extremist who named his cat “7/7” in honor of the bombing of the London Underground on July 7, 2005. As behooves contemporary social media, there are also lots of pictures of food.
“The idea is that we can’t really understand these guys without a sense of what their everyday life is like,” Hegghammer tells me. But you don’t need to be a researcher, or even an Al-Qaeda member, to enjoy a scroll down The Bored Jihadi this particular holiday season.
There have been so many television shows on the conflict in Syria focused mainly on the statistics of death over the past five years that it feels refreshing to finally recommend a politically profound and gripping two-part documentary titled Au nom du père, du fils et du djihad (In the name of the father, the son, and the jihad), which can be seen here and here.
Produced in 2015 and broadcast on the France 2 channel in October 2016, the documentary follows the story of Bassam Ayachi, who escaped the Syrian regime’s repression in 1968 and settled in France. His son Abdel Rahman returned to Syria to participate in the current uprising, before being followed by his father. Both are Salafi militants. The producer, Stéphane Malterre, who had extensive access to both men and travelled with them to Syria for long periods, does not seek to romanticize their radical rhetoric.
What the documentary does, however, is reintroduce the much-needed human factor into the debate over jihadism, and show the role that political emotions, longstanding narratives of grievances, and family identity can all play in fueling the dynamics of conflict. Behind the veneer of “jihad,” Salafi ideology, and neat distinctions between what is halal, or permissible, and haram, or what is forbidden, there lie many shades of gray—a netherworld of ambiguities and contradictions. It is to the Malterre’s credit that he was able to encapsulate so vividly, and so objectively, the nuances of the Ayachi family, whose fate brilliantly epitomizes the complexity and tragedy of the broader crisis in Syria.
If you can’t get away this holiday season, here’s an easy way to travel, in time and place. It’s not often that Lebanon interests film directors, particularly Western directors, but that was not always true. Decades ago Beirut was an exotic outpost for espionage films, particularly in the Eurospy genre.
The results were mixed. Most of the foreign films were at best average, but none is boring and all will reveal a more attractive country than the concrete jungle of today. Several are available on YouTube, while others you’ll just have to find yourself.
David Niven made a spy film in Beirut in 1966, titled, appropriately, Where the Spies Are. The full movie is not available online, but the film shows the mythical Beirut in all its, well, splendor. Three other recommendations are online, and while they won’t win any Oscars, they show a bygone country nicely: Secret Agent Fireball (1965) and Agent 505: Death Trap Beirut (1966), which opens at the Sporting Club beach. Lex Barker and Mickey Rooney also made it to Beirut for 24 Hours to Kill.
A French film, Richard Pottier’s La Chatelaine du Liban, with a youthful Omar Sharif, was taken down from YouTube this week. Jean Becker’s Echappement Libre, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, was never posted, but is readily available. So too is George Lautner’s La Grande Sauterelle, with Mireille Darc and Hardy Kruger. Several of these films share a passion for the pool of the Excelsior Hotel, the ruin of which remains today a surrealistic reminder of Lebanon’s trajectory.
In the 1970s and 1980s relatively little was shot in Beirut by foreign filmmakers, but there are exceptions. In 1972 Gordon Hessler filmed Embassy, with Ray Milland, Richard Roundtree, and Max von Sydow. It all ends at the beautiful Baabda Serail, a set too rarely used. And in 1981 Volker Schlöndorff filmed Circle of Deceit. There was a deep sense of irony there, for the film showed how Lebanon had been desecrated by war. The Phoenicia Hotel, a preferred location for so many films past, was a hulking, burned out presence in Schlöndorff’s film, a memento mori on celluloid.