I found some relief from depression about the coming kleptocracy and decade's long daily slaughter in a form of journalism nobody I know does better than Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the Independent (UK), He writes book reviews that are stories in themselves, soaked in the blood and history of the region in which he has been a resident and Arabic speaker for decades.
Whatever the wit and wisdom of that agonized region is, few Westerners seem to grasp it or care to. Perhaps the region's tragedy, above even the lethal, zooming drones and the equally lethal droning of zealots' cries, is only fully seen and felt by the old gods of the Greeks, who are perhaps immortal after all. The Arabs are more hospitable to Plato and Thucydides than are the lords of the Superpower, these days, who don't pause to wonder why the New Testament was written in Greek.
We will see in the end -- if the end of this war is not the end of all -- who has the better story. It will not necessarily be the story of the victors, but of those who survived with more of their human souls intact. If this is in fact a "global war of civilizations," as Professor Huntington informs it, instead of, more simply, a taking by brute force of the resources of another with racial and religious malice a forethought, then after SuperduperPower has destroyed enough layers of culture, history and civilization, perhaps even It will learn to see and hear again. It's a forlorn hope though, because no Bradley Fighting Vehicle could fit through the eye of any needle.
But, in the meantime, and these times are very mean, some people tell stories to keep souls alive in the desolation of wars with no end in sight. -- wmh
What one journalist’s time in an Egyptian prison tells us about the fight against Islamist jihad
On arrival in his cell, the Al Jazeera correspondent Mohamed Fahmy discovered that he was imprisoned with men whom he had interviewed only a few months earlier as members of the Morsi government
To interview a jihadi is one thing, to live among jihadis quite another. To share their prison cells and their jail trucks on the way to a dictatorship’s trials is both a journalist’s dream and a journalist’s nightmare. Which makes Mohamed Fahmy a unique figure: in a prison bus, he hears his fellow inmates rejoicing at the beheading of a captured journalist in Syria. “They won’t let us out,” a voice shouts at Fahmy in Egypt’s ghastly Tora prison complex. “We haven’t seen the sun for weeks.” And he hears the rhythmic voices of prisoners reciting the Koran.
Fahmy, who is an Egyptian with Canadian citizenship, is the Al Jazeera English TV reporter who spent almost two years in his native country’s ferocious prison system, as a guest of President al-Sisi, locked up with two colleagues for being a pro-Muslim Brotherhood “terrorist”, fabricating news and endangering the “security” of the state.
The charges were lies and the trials that followed were a mockery of justice. And when Fahmy was eventually released to travel to Canada, he took with him an extraordinary account of life among those dedicated to the West’s destruction.
I should say at once that Fahmy is an old friend of mine, and his story is not as straightforward as it may seem. He and his wife-to-be first welcomed al-Sisi’s military coup, which overthrew the elected Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, and Fahmy uses the word “terrorist” quite often – rather too much in my opinion – and when I last spoke to him this week, he was back in Cairo, preparing for a New Year holiday in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
But in the fastness of Canada, he has written The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom – a frightening account of his years of imprisonment, which should be a footnote in future history books on the jihadi struggle in the Middle East. (Why it has not been picked up in Britain or the US is a mystery.)
For Fahmy found himself both appalled by the self-righteousness of his fellow prisoners, but trusted and admired by them, because he too had fallen foul of the same cruel dictatorship. You can understand how this affects him. The Koranic recitations echo through Tora Prison’s verminous “Scorpion” section, and as Fahmy mumbles “half-remembered verses, my rational, Western educated mind rises up in protest – it is, after all, a group of incarcerated Islamists with whom I pray. I feel self-conscious. Silly almost... But a few of the prayers I learned as a young boy return and wash over me, drawing me along in their tide.”
On arrival in his cell, an army of mosquitos descending upon him, Fahmy discovers that he is imprisoned with men whom he was interviewing only a few months earlier as members of the Morsi government: Essam al-Haddad, Morsi’s executive aid who had met President Obama; Khaled al-Qazza, Morsi’s foreign affairs adviser.
But there are others. “I am Sheikh Murgan Salem al-Gohary,” a voice calls to Fahmy down the corridor. “I am a Salafist jihadist who fought alongside brother Sheikh Osama [sic] bin Laden against the Soviet and the American devils in Afghanistan, I have been married three times and I have many children. I don’t allow any of them to visit me to avoid humiliating them... This is all a play, a political performance by these pigs... Stick to the Koran.”
Murgan was a member of Islamic Jihad in Palestine with strong ties to the Taliban, twice sentenced to death by ex-President Hosni Mubarak. On an Egyptian television talk show, he had called for the destruction of the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx – a true follower of the Buddha-smashing Taliban and the antiquity-exploding Isis. Fahmy notes that Murgan is known as “an angry and murderous radical”. Fahmy is appalled. “What a nut! Now I am living with him and he is giving me advice, too.”
Much to Fahmy’s distress, a number of other prisoners shout their support, praising Al Jazeera which had, at the time – to Fahmy’s horror, because his own reports were subtitled and used without his knowledge on the same channel – been carrying pro-Brotherhood material on its live Egypt network broadcasting out of Cairo. “You journalists have been sent here to see the truth,” a man shouted. “There is a reason why God led you here!” And then Fahmy discovers that some of his fellow Islamist prisoners had been filming for the Al Jazeera live channel. No wonder he was in his cell.
The “Scorpion” unit of the prison is a “concrete tomb”. When Fahmy is taken for further interrogation, he finds himself in a police truck amid the Cairo traffic, and his companions whoop with delight when the driver’s radio tells of three policemen killed at a checkpoint. And they begin to sing: “Brandishing our guns along with our explosive belts... we will cut off the head of the snake.”
Fahmy’s neighbour, to whom he is handcuffed, is puzzled. “Brother, why aren’t you singing?” Fahmy manages to reply calmly: “I make jihad with my pen.” The man, Ammar – a boxer and bomb-maker, he admits – has just returned from Syria to make “jihad in Egypt against al-Sisi and his illegitimate regime”.
Fahmy meets Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman, the man appointed al-Qaeda’s leader after the assassination of bin Laden. “We are not bloodthirsty merciless killers,” he assures Fahmy. “We merely defend ourselves... demand our rights of establishing a governance based on Islamic sharia.” When Fahmy asks whether his connections in Sinai, where Islamists have been attacking police and troops along the Egyptian-Gaza border, might have led to his imprisonment, a man beside al-Zawahiri shouts: “What Sinai! Those are legitimate resistance fighters. Whose side are you on?”
Whose side, indeed? In August 2014, Isis released a video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley. In another prison truck, the radio news is greeted with a cheer from Fahmy’s fellow prisoners. Isis promises to kill another reporter, Steven Sotloff, if the US continued to bomb their positions in Iraq. Fahmy was a friend of Sotloff. “He must be a spy,” the prisoner handcuffed to Fahmy spits out. “Why would an American put himself in such danger otherwise?”
Fahmy knows why: risking one’s life to get the story, “to show the suffering, to try to make a difference, to stop the madness”. He listens, aghast, as another man says that “he’s just one American. What about the thousands of innocent Iraqis killed by the US?”
Then it is Sotloff’s turn. Fahmy sees the next video. “Steven, head and beard shaved, wears an orange jumpsuit... His small glasses, the round curves of his warm face, and the kind smile... are nowhere to be seen... He has the fortitude to hold himself upright.... I pray that his mind and heart were calm...” Fahmy is enraged “that this hideous man who killed Steven and I are being labelled with the same name: terrorist.”
But as Fahmy’s freedom draws near, he can barely contain his emotion at the thought of leaving his fellow prisoners – even though he will soon fly to Canada, marry his young Egyptian fiancee, take up a journalism professorship and then return as a correspondent to the Middle East. He shakes hands with a man under sentence of death. “For the past six months, these men, some of them jihadists who call death and destruction down on the world for an inhumane ideology, have generously shared their food and meagre possessions.”
Fahmy remains convinced that the torture and prison regimes of the Middle East are universities for future jihadis. He also fears for the future of his own profession. He quotes Adel Iskandar, a Canadian professor of Egyptian origin, on Al Jazeera’s coverage of Egypt during the military coup. “Al Jazeera picked a side in the conflict and ran with it,” he told Fahmy, “and when the station was unable to deliver coverage from the ground, they relied on footage and reports produced by Islamist opposition groups and armed militia factions. This technique became their modus operandi in Syria where the stakes and the costs are extremely high – particularly to journalists.”
Now what, I wonder, does that remind us of?
Robert Fisk: 'We remain blindfolded about Isis'
says the man who should knowBrian Keenan was held by Shia Muslims loyal to Hezbollah in Lebanon
Sinai, Beirut and Paris (and let’s keep the order in sequence here, since all those lost innocents, Russian, Lebanese and French, are equal as our brothers and sisters), I was beginning to think that our emotions were becoming as insane as the perpetrators of these crimes. An “act of war”, a response “without mercy” – the French response was straight out of the Isis vocabulary.
So immediately after the Paris massacres, I sought for reason, clarity and wisdom from a man who spent four and a half years in the hands of Muslim kidnappers – 54 months wearing a blindfold, always waiting for death.
Brian Keenan was held by Shia Muslims loyal to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Had he been taken by Isis in Syria or Iraq, we would by now have been able to watch his beheading on video – yet he kept his sanity to write the only literary work to emerge from a Western kidnap victim of Beirut in the 1980s, An Evil Cradling, a book that will live for a hundred years as a monument to humanity amid suffering.
It doesn’t take much of a commitment to kill people. What happened doesn’t surprise me.
Keenan sipped his coffee in rainy Westport in the far west of Ireland – he was born in Belfast – and spoke slowly, almost philosophically. He rarely gives interviews. The Paris slaughter had happened only 16 hours earlier. “The contagion has broken out of its confinement,” he said. “Someone has planned all this for a long time. There is a lot of organisation – but it doesn’t take much of a commitment to kill people. What happened doesn’t surprise me. What surprised me was that what happened in Beirut [24 hours earlier] spun to Paris. It’s as if the culture of victimhood which is rife in the Middle East … has risen to new levels, legitimising the worst horrors.”
It’s not difficult to see that Keenan’s own experience slides imperceptibly into his arguments, giving them an elliptical quality as well as a frightening immediacy. He talks as if he is still confined in a Beirut cellar.
“What do we need to do about this? In a global dimension, we all have to take some responsibility for this. My own thoughts – after four and a half years in captivity – is that the dispossession and the anger has to be acknowledged. These people have to be offered something more than revenge or Holy War or even this perverse Islamic apocalypse. I’ve seen too many times the map of the Middle East changing – many borders are irrelevant now.
“What worries me is that as these old borders and ‘international zones’ disappear, ‘security barriers’ become the new borders. We’ve seen this in the Middle East and they are rapidly being erected across Europe. These worry me more than the term ‘terrorism’. They create these kinds of conceptual contours – it’s not just a wall, it’s a wall that defines a lot of cultural beliefs and misbeliefs. We are damaging ourselves with these walls – we are damaging our ability to think, our ability to be creative.”
Keenan is a hard man. He has returned four times to Lebanon – on his own – since he was released by his hooded kidnappers, to discover what he calls “the stories lying about on the streets of Beirut if you just pick them up”. It’s a phrase used by the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, who insisted that there was more than just one narrative – the Israeli story – about the Middle East, and it led Keenan to return to those who were behind his kidnapping. To understand all this, he thought, “was the debt Lebanon owed me”.
So he feels extraordinary sympathy with those who lost their loved ones in Paris. “I acknowledge their right to be angry,” he said. “Even to put no restraint on their anger. But my own feeling is that anger can be healing if you use it in a meaningful way. Elie Wiesel has written of how he came back from the concentration camps full of anger – but he turned that into something creative.
“It’s not easy. He talked about the panacea for anger and violence – he said that a country that does not build on a foundation of love will ultimately wither away with the poison it feeds off.”
I’m about to tell Brian Keenan that all this is a bit flippant after an airliner has been blown out of the sky and a Beirut crowd blown to bits and 129 French citizens blasted and machine-gunned to death, all in two weeks, when he put a finger in the air. “Part of the problem with the Middle East,” he said, “is that war is diplomacy. That’s at the root of how you ‘justify’ and ‘meaningfully’ deal with the problem.
“The other thing to ask is: who are the war criminals? There’s a kind of skewed vision of what a war criminal or a war crime is. We need to honestly think about this if we are going to talk about justice – so that everybody feels that justice is being done. If the Nakba [the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their land by Israel in 1948] has now gone global, we need a different set of principles. I don’t know that people are ready to make that profound self-examination.”
I’m not sure that Isis cares about the Palestinians – Isis burned the Palestinian flag because it wanted a caliphate, not another national state – but Keenan talked about something far deeper.
“I wore a blindfold for four and a half years, and ‘Western democracy’ tells me that justice is blind. I’m not sure about this – because until we can un-blindly question how power is dispensed, then we’re all wearing blindfolds.”
The Hollandes and Camerons and Obamas of the world will not read these words, of course. Emotion, not reason, is the policy option. “Without mercy” is now our dogma as well as that of Isis. Which is why Isis is winning. But I guess you need four and a half years in a blindfold to understand that.
Robert Fisk: Dinner in Beirut, and a lesson in courage
Secrecy, an intellectual said, is a powerful aphrodisiac. Secrecy is exciting. Danger is darker, more sinister. It blows like a fog through the streets of Beirut these days, creeping down the laneways where policemen – who may or may not work for the forces of law and order – shout their instructions through loud-hailers.
No parking. Is anyone fooled? When the Lebanese MP Antoine Ghanem was assassinated last week, the cops couldn't – or wouldn't – secure the crime scene. Why not? And so last Wednesday, the fog came creeping through the iron gateway of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's town house in Beirut where he and a few brave MPs had gathered for dinner before parliament's useless vote on the presidential elections – now delayed until 23 October. There was much talk of majorities and quorums; 50 plus one appears to be the constitutional rule here, although the supporters of Syria would dispute that. I have to admit I still meet Lebanese MPs who don't understand their own parliamentary system; I suspect it needs several PhDs to get it right.
The food, as always, was impeccable. And why should those who face death by explosives or gunfire every day not eat well? Not for nothing has Nora Jumblatt been called the world's best hostess. I sat close to the Jumblatts while their guests – Ghazi Aridi, the minister of information, Marwan Hamade, minister of communications, and Tripoli MP Mosbah Al-Ahdab and a Beirut judge – joked and talked and showed insouciance for the fog of danger that shrouds their lives.
In 2004, "they" almost got Hamade at his home near my apartment. Altogether, 46 of Lebanon's MPs are now hiding in the Phoenicia Hotel, three to a suite. Jumblatt had heard rumours of another murder the day before Ghanem was blown apart. Who is next? That is the question we all ask. "They" – the Syrians or their agents or gunmen working for mysterious governments – are out there, planning the next murder to cut Fouad Siniora's tiny majority down. "There will be another two dead in the next three weeks," Jumblatt said. And the dinner guests all looked at each other.
"We have all made our wills," Nora said quietly. Even you, Nora? She didn't think she was a target. "But I may be with Walid." And I looked at these educated, brave men – their policies not always wise, perhaps, but their courage unmistakable – and pondered how little we Westerners now care for the life of Lebanon.
There is no longer a sense of shock when MPs die in Beirut. I don't even feel the shock. A young Lebanese couple asked me at week's end how Lebanon has affected me after 31 years, and I said that when I saw Ghanem's corpse last week, I felt nothing. That is what Lebanon has done to me. That is what it has done to all the Lebanese.
Scarcely 1,000 Druze could be rounded up for Ghanem's funeral. And even now there is no security. My driver Abed was blithely permitted to park only 100 metres from Jumblatt's house without a single policeman checking the boot of his car. What if he worked for someone more dangerous than The Independent's correspondent? And who were all those cops outside working for?
Yet at this little dinner party in Beirut, I could not help thinking of all our smug statesmen, the Browns and the Straws and the Sarkozys and the imperious Kouchners and Merkels and their equally smug belief that they are fighting a "war on terror" – do we still believe that, by the way? – and reflect that here in Beirut there are intellectual men and women who could run away to London or Paris if they chose, but prefer to stick it out, waiting to die for their democracy in a country smaller than Yorkshire. I don't think our Western statesmen are of this calibre.
Well, we talked about death and not long before midnight a man in a pony tail and an elegant woman in black (a suitable colour for our conversation) arrived with an advertisement hoarding that could be used in the next day's parliament sitting. Rafiq Hariri was at the top. And there was journalist Jibran Tueni and MP Pierre Gemayel and Hariri's colleague Basil Fleihan, and Ghanem of course. All stone dead because they believed in Lebanon.
What do you have to be to be famous in Lebanon, I asked Jumblatt, and he burst into laughter. Ghoulish humour is in fashion.
And at one point Jumblatt fetched Curzio Malaparte's hideous, brilliant account of the Second World War on the eastern front – Kaputt – and presented it to me with his personal inscription. "To Robert Fisk," he wrote. "I hope I will not surrender, but this book is horribly cruel and somehow beautiful. W Joumblatt [sic]." And I wondered how cruelty and beauty can come together.
Maybe we should make a movie about these men and women. Alastair Sim would have to play the professorial Aridi, Clark Gable the MP Al-Ahdab. (We all agreed that Gable would get the part.) I thought that perhaps Herbert Lom might play Hamade. (I imagine he is already Googling for Lom's name.) Nora? She'd have to be played by Vivien Leigh or – nowadays – Demi Moore. And who would play Walid Jumblatt? Well, Walid Jumblatt, of course.
But remember these Lebanese names. And think of them when the next explosion tears across this dangerous city.