Baghdad, Babylon, Brandeis

The Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who has been working with the State Department on Iraq’s “transition,” has started writing a “war diary” for one of the weeklies. In one entry, he reports that “there are hundreds—if not more—of Iraqis in America, Britain, and the rest of the diaspora who are quitting their jobs and boarding planes to help rebuild their ravaged country.”

It’s a noble notion—perhaps too noble. To gain just a bit of the flavor of what the encounter might involve, see the documentary film Return to Babylon by the Iraqi film director Abbas Fahdel. Fahdel left the country at the age of 18 for France, and returned last year after an absence of 25 years, to see what had become of his house, his town (Al-Hillah), and his childhood friends.

This place, in Babil (Babylon) province a short drive south from Baghdad, is remembered by Fahdel as a busy provincial capital, graced with movie theaters that filled him with wonder for the cinema, and lush parks and playgrounds. It’s now bleak and forlorn. The parks have turned to dust, the theater is a decrepit shell, where sullen young men watch old films recycled year after year. His friends—those who haven’t “disappeared” or died on some battlefield—have had their dreams dashed. In their sparse shops and homes, he hears of an entire generation lost, and marvels (with a mix of guilt and gratitude) at his own incredible luck. Fahdel has brought along a batch of old photographs; each poignant comparison of what was and what is evokes loss.

The smooth-shaven Fahdel, in his neat white jacket and sunglasses, looks like a tourist. In the marketplace, a boy mistakes him for a foreigner, and calls out “Mister!” I’m not a “Mister,” he replies in Arabic with hurt and embarrassment, I’m an Iraqi. One has a gnawing feeling that even the most patriotic Iraqis in exile will be mistaken for so many “Misters” when (and if) they do reappear.

Makiya quotes an e-mail he’s sent to Iraqi “democrats” living abroad, and it’s a sharp rebuke:

Some of you think you can lift your noses and ride into Iraq on American tanks, above the stink of it all, without having to wade knee-high in the shit that the Baath Party has made of your country. You cannot. That is a pipe dream. The Americans will be here for the shortest time that they can possibly get away with, and they will not understand during that time, nor even are they capable of imagining, exactly what it is they are dealing with, much less have they the stamina to move it all in the direction of the gentle and forgiving way of life (by contrast with Iraq) that we all have enjoyed for so many years in the West.

Makiya, who left Iraq 35 years ago, has been an adjunct professor at Brandeis University since 1997. He’s been on leave this year, to work on Iraq’s “transition.” But he won’t be among the returnees. Two weeks ago, Brandeis named him incumbent of the new Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Chair in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. “We look forward to his return to Brandeis,” said the president of Brandeis on the announcement.

I assume that Makiya is looking forward, too. “I am getting too old to be going on wading in the shit of Arab politics, as I have been doing for over 30 years now,” he wrote in his e-mail. “I am not sure how much more of it I can take.” No one can blame Makiya, and certainly the job description of his chair—to assist in “the development of a new Center for Middle East Study at Brandeis”—is as important a task as any in American academe. Somewhere there must develop an alternative to what now passes for Middle Eastern studies. I wish Makiya well. I advise him not to throw away his high boots. He’ll still need them.

FILMOGRAPHY: I saw Return to Babylon on La Cinquieme, but it was also broadcast in Canada in December. It’s distributed by an outfit in Paris, and there is a version with English subtitles.

Edward Said CRASSHes

Edward Said, celebrity professor and advocate for Palestine, has just ended a stretch at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities—acronym CRASSH—at Cambridge University in England. Between his lectures on “The Example of Auerbach’s Mimesis” and “Return to Philology” (serious people never left it), Said huddled in his rooms to settle an old score with the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya. The result is an emission that is truly breathtaking for its sheer hypocrisy.

The Said-Makiya feud is more than a decade old, and it’s not easy to map all its labyrinthine passages. So here is a crib note. Makiya, an Iraqi who first found politics in the bosom of the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, later went into exile and set about exposing the regime of Saddam Hussein. His book, Republic of Fear, shattered the complacency surrounding the Iraqi regime, bringing evidence that situated Saddam and his gangs outside civilization. A subsequent book, Cruelty and Silence, brought more evidence of Saddam’s crimes, and also served an indictment against Arab writers who either swooned before the Iraqi dictator, or didn’t see his misdeeds as sufficient cause for America to act. (For more, see my review of the book.)

Palestinian “intellectuals” beat loud drums for Saddam; some of them played shrill flutes against American intervention. Edward Said was the first flautist. In the fray, Makiya accused Said of sacrificing the Iraqi people to the unappeasable god of “Palestine first.” Said in turn denounced Makiya as a traitor to the mother of all Arab causes. The feud later subsided, but the current U.S.-led drive for “regime change” in Iraq, coming as it does in the midst of yet another Palestinian drama, has gotten Said stirred up again—and against Makiya. That’s because it’s hard to read a major newspaper, or listen to National Public Radio, or even thumb your favorite magazine, without bumping into Kanan Makiya. One reason: Makiya is prominent in the “Democratic Principles Working Group,” composed of some 30 Iraqis who belong to the State Department’s “Future of Iraq Project.” This has enraged Said to the boiling point; in his column in the Ahram Weekly, he boils over. Take a deep breath, and read it.

Makiya doesn’t need me to defend him, and I won’t. I’m more interested in the patent hypocrisy of Said’s charges. He hardly makes an accusation against Makiya that couldn’t be made—usually with more justification—against himself. I’d describe it as a suicide character-bombing.

For example, Said tells us that that before Makiya went into exile, he was “an associate of his father’s architectural firm in Iraq.” That firm did business with the regime. In the next paragraph, Said steals second base: Makiya was a “beneficiary of the Iraqi regime’s munificence.” By the end of that paragraph, Said has stolen home plate: “Makiya himself had worked for Saddam.” It’s a crude spin on a typical case of son-works-for-dad. And the irony here is that Said’s own father, a Cairene businessman, also kept his son in the office, and compromised him. In fact, according to Said’s own memoirs (p. 289), he signed a business contract for his father that criminalized him. “For the next fifteen years,” writes Said, “I was unable to return to Egypt because that particular contract, and I as its unsuspecting signatory, were ruled to be in contravention of the exchange-control law.” So shall we visit the sins of businessmen fathers on their sons? If we were to apply Said’s severe judgment of Makiya to himself, we would have to include money laundering among his past occupations. (On Makiya’s tortured relations with his father, see the chapter “Oedipus in Samara” in Lawrence Weschler’s Calamities of Exile.)

Said then announces that Makiya “never wrote in an Arab country…whatever meager writing he produced had been written behind a pseudonym and a prosperous, risk-free life in the West.” And just where in the Arab world would it have been safe for Makiya to have written and published Republic of Fear under his own name? Come to think of it, has Said ever written in an Arab country? Said told an interviewer in 1989 that even were a Palestinian state created, he wouldn’t live in it. “It’s too late for me,” he said. “I’m past the point of uprooting myself again.” “I could have gotten a job at Bir Zeit,” he later said. “But I realized this is something I cannot do. My fate is to remain in New York.”

Said’s “fate” at Columbia University in New York has been—well, prosperous and risk-free. “I get promotions, salary increases, all the perks,” Said admitted in that 1989 interview. Columbia has backed him to the hilt, and his politics have helped to make him a prize-class celebrity. So it’s frankly bizarre to see Said take Makiya to task for finding refuge in these United States, and seeking to work from this seat of unrivalled freedom, power and wealth to free his native country. Isn’t this exactly what Said claims to be doing? And it’s jolting to read Said’s characterization of Makiya as someone caught “between countries and cultures and with no visible commitment to anyone (except to his upwardly mobile career).” Said’s whole story (or myth) is that of a man “out of place,” caught between countries and cultures. (“Whether I’m with Americans or with Arabs, I always feel incomplete.”) And has anyone been more bent on upward mobility?

But the heart of Said’s complaint is Makiya’s role as an interlocutor between the US government and the Iraqi opposition, and Makiya’s effort to fashion a post-war vision for Iraq. Never mind that in the late 1980s, Said did the same sort of thing on behalf of the PLO, lobbying George Shultz’s State Department for US recognition. (In Said’s words, Arafat “used a number of people, including me, as go-betweens with the US Administration.”) What really offends Said is Makiya’s vision of Iraq’s future. Makiya believes that “federalism is a necessary condition of democracy and that it means devolving power away from Baghdad to the provinces.” And he believe that “a democratic Iraq has to be an Iraq that exists for all its citizens equally, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. That means a non-Arab Iraq.” Said’s scornful rejoinder: it would require “magic” to “de-Arabize the country,” the evidence that the Iraqis want federalism is “pretty negligible,” and federalism never works anyway. (“One would have thought,” writes Said, “that post-Tito Yugoslavia never existed and that that tragic country’s federalism was a total success.”)

Wait a minute. The last time I looked, Said was proposing precisely this for Palestinians and Israelis: a one-state solution for Arabs and Jews, who are supposed to downgrade their Arab and Jewish identities, and live as citizens in one de-nationalized state, based on “the idea and practice of citizenship, not of ethnic or racial community.” In this one state, which is now Said’s “solution,” Jews and Arabs would live in “federated cantons.”

So let me get this right, Professor Said: Iraqis can’t possibly be “de-Arabized,” but Palestinians apparently can; Iraqis don’t want federalism, but Palestinians do; and federalism hasn’t worked anywhere, but in Israel-Palestine it’s not only doable, it’s the only “solution.”

Have I found a contradiction here? You bet. It’s rooted in Said’s belief that the Palestinians are a chosen people among the Arabs, and that they must be the first to break their shackles. Who are the Iraqis to hope for more than Saddam? They’re more or less accustomed to the iron fists of dictators. It’s enough to insist that the Americans don’t bomb them. But the Palestinians? They deserve so much more: sympathy, solidarity, secularism, democracy—and, Said has decided, all of Palestine. A couple of years ago, an Israeli correspondent asked him: “So what you envision is a totally new situation in which a Jewish minority would live peacefully within an Arab context?” Said: “Yes. I believe it is viable. A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived.” Clearly we are dealing here with someone who really doesn’t know much about, say, Iraq. Introduce this man to an Iraqi Kurd.

My point here is not to defend Makiya’s vision of Iraq’s future, which I don’t necessarily share. My point is to demonstrate that Edward Said, as a master of self-awareness, is much overrated. He can’t see the obvious parallels between his predicament and Makiya’s; he sees only the differences, and naturally they all work in his favor. And he is so fixated upon Palestine that the rest of the Arab world is reduced to a blur. Now for Said-watchers, pro and con, there’s nothing new in all this, but it’s still disappointing. A few years ago, Said told the New York Times that his own circumstances had prompted him to consider writing a book on “late style,” about writers and composers “full of unresolved dissonances,” people who “go out with more complexity and more energy than they came in.” No one knows how late in the day it is for Said, but I see no new complexities here. All I see in this latest character-bombing (not just against Makiya, but against Bernard Lewis) is an attempt to score one last point before the curtain falls.

With Makiya poised to make a dent in history, and Lewis riding a runaway best-seller, I’d say it’s too little, too late.