Friday, July 31, 2015

David Foster Wallace by Michael Schmidt

For the 150th issue of Charles Eliot Norton’s Atlantic Magazine in November 2007, the editors invited contemporary intellectuals from various quarters to write briefly about“The American Idea.” Ten months before he hanged himself, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) wrote a characteristic piece that, by raising a series of Socratic questions, detaches readers from the reflexes instilled by the media, realigning their sense of the issues involved. For him the American Idea has to do with forms of liberty. The short piece has footnotes in dialogue with the main thrust of the essay or novel. “Are some things worth dying for?” he asks, things like “The American Idea", which in a footnote he shorthands: “Given the strict .  .  . space limits here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes – an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency .  .  . the whole democratic roil.” Back to the main questions, the “thought experiment “ he wants to put us through: “What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ‘sacrifice on the alter of freedom’?” (this phrase, a footnote informs us, is Lincoln’s) “What if we all decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life – sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but our personal safety and comfort?”  He continues with his needling questions for another three paragraphs.

His thinking outside the box is an example of what the American Idea is about. “What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice – either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?” All questions, no answer is provided: “In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea  as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and I, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.?” The final two questions nudge us with the real: “Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”

To speak of Wallace as a novelist is to put his secondary achievement first. He was an essayist whose three novels, The Broom of the System (1987, after Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49), Infinite Jest (1996), and (posthumous) The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel (2011), are uneven, only the second having a secure claim on the general reader. This is not to underestimate his importance as a writer, only that his value to other novelists is in the essays he wrote and the original easy he wrote them. He makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction. For his last novel he chose what anyone but Edmund Wilson or Franz Kafka would describe as the most boring subject available: the Internal Revenue Service, its nuanced and almost impenetrable regulations, its functioning.  Wallace’s own IRS agents in Peoria, Illinois, are bored. Some readers report themselves bored by the book, though they feel impious to say so.  It is as if Kafka had decided to ground The Trial and The Castle in actual procedures, so that metaphor and fact were in positive tension, rather than the value being metaphorical. The Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow is near at hand. When the IRS sends out gents with psychic powers, we remember the White Visitation research facility. The Pale King has not proved a success, though it was universally reviewed on publication.

Wallace’s essays entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres. He reinvents the form from within, using his own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with “impartial” journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire. He opened his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005 with a little parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over to the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” His essays recall us to the elements of our social, intellectual, and (he was a churchgoer, wherever he happened to live) spiritual environments. Adam Kirsch characterized Wallace’s “self-conscious earnestness,” his hostilities to reductive ironies)”Irony is the song of a bird who has grown to love its cage”) that impoverished an earlier generation. Kirsch’s ‘earnest” is not humorless.

Wallace “came of age” in the wake of the Vietnam War, a period in which discontinuity seemed a rule of life and the writers tat most mattered were DiLillo, Pynchon, and Robert Coover. He was a postmodernist with premodern values, with revolutionary values of the 1776 variety, and he was as straight talking as Hunter S. Thompson, but making more sense, trying to engage the concerns of the fiction of earlier times. Infinite Jest is over 1,072 pages vast, as the title adjective suggests, commensurate with Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Jests abound, not the least the novel itself, its footnotes, contradictions, idealism, disenchantment. Woven out of three ill-assorted plot lines – Canadian terrorists keen to secure a lethally pleasurable film, a recovering Demerol addict, and (himself?) a tennis prodigy with hang-ups – it is engaging. In eschewing conventional closure, it does not bring a conclusion to the satisfaction it offers.

Closure for Wallace’s ashes, or some of them, came by the agency of his friend Jonathan Franzen, entrusted by Wallace’s widow to distribute them on an island in the South Pacific where he went to bird watch, “to recoup his sense of identity after a grueling, bring book tour – and to allow himself to feel, by imposed isolation, the fullness of grief that he had been keeping at bay.” The “grueling, boring book tour” would have been to Wallace, a joke and a subject for research, or both. Franzen’s essay measures the distance between his late friend’s essayistic skills and is own.  Wallace’s pathological depressions balance his own manageable grumps and discontents. In the case of Wallace, economic and political upheaval did register. He engaged with the modern with a memory of the American dream and all its promises, which were inexorably reworded, reshaped, until it was impossible to bring them back into true.

Chapter 35, Essaying, pages 807-9

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Awful When You Think of It by Graham Greene

When the baby looked up at me from its wicker basket and winked – on the opposite seat somewhere between Reading and Slough – I became uneasy. It was if he had discovered my secret interest.

It is awful to think how little we change. So often an old acquaintance, whom one has not seen for forty years when he occupied the neighboring chopped and inky desk, detains one in the street with his unwelcome memory.  Even as a baby we carry the future with us. Clothes cannot change us, the clothes are the uniform of our character, and our character changes as little as the shape of our nose and the expression of the eyes.

It has always been my hobby in railway trains to visualize in a baby’s face the man he is to become – the bar-lounger, the gadabout, the frequenter of fashionable weddings; you need only supply the cloth cap, the grey topper, the uniform of the sad, smug, or hilarious future. But I have always felt a certain contempt for the babies I have studied with such superior wisdom (they little  know), and it was a shock last week when one of the brood not only detected me in the act of observation but returned that knowing signal, as if he shared my knowledge of what the years would make of him.

He had been momentarily left alone by his young mother on the seat opposite. She had smiled towards me with a tacit understanding that I would look after her baby for a few moments. What danger, after all, could happen to it? (Perhaps she was less certain of his sex than I was. She knew the shape under the nappies, of course, but shapes can deceive: parts alter, operations performed.) She could not see what I had seen - the tilted bowler and the umbrella over the arm. (No arm was yet apparent under the coverlet printed with pink rabbits.)

When she was safely out of the carriage I bent towards the basket and asked him a question. I had never carried my researches quite so far.

“What’s yours?” I said.

He blew a thick white bubble, brown at the edges. There could be no doubt at all that he was saying, “A pint of the best bitter.”

“Haven’t seen you lately – you know – in the old place,” I said. He gave a quick smile, passing it off, then he winked again. You couldn’t doubt that he was saying “The other half?”

I blew a bubble in my turn – we spoke the same language.

Very slightly he turned his head to one side. He didn’t want anybody to hear what he was going to say now.

“You’ve got a tip? I asked.

Don’t mistake my meaning. It was not racing information I wanted. Of course I could not see his waist under all those pink rabbit wrappings, but I knew perfectly well that he wore a double-breasted waistcoat and had nothing to do with tracks. I said very rapidly, because his mother might return at any moment, “My brokers are Druce, Davis, and Burrows.”

He looked up at me with bloodshot eyes, and a line of spittle began to form at the corner of his mouth.  I said, “Oh, I know they’re not all that good. But at the moment they’re recommending Stores.”

He gave a high wail of pain – you could have mistaking the cause for wind, but I knew better. In his club they didn’t have to serve dill water. I said, “I don’t agree, mind you,” and he stopped crying and blew a bubble – a little white tough one which lingered on his lip.

I caught his meaning at once. “My round,” I said. “Time for a short?”

He nodded.

“Scotch?” I know few people will believe me, but he raised his head an inch or two and gazed unmistakably at my watch.

“A bit early?” I said. “Pink gin?”

I didn’t have to wait for his reply. “Make them large one,” I said to my imaginary barman.

He spat at me, so I added, “Throw away the pink.”

“Well,” I said, “here’s to you. Happy future,” and we smiled at each other, well content.

“I don’t  know what you would advise,” I said, “but surely Tobaccos are about as low as they will go. When you think Imps were a cool eighty in the early thirties and now you can pick them up for under sixty .  .  . this cancer scare can’t go on. People will have got to have their fun.”

At the word “fun” he winked again, looking secretly around, and I realized that perhaps I had been on the wrong tack. It was not, after all, the state of the markets he had been so ready to talk about.

“I heard a damn good one yesterday,” I said. “A man got into a tube train, and there was a pretty girl with one stocking coming down .  .  .”

He yawned and closed his eyes.

“Sorry,” I said, “I thought it was new. You tell me one.”

And do you know that damned baby was quite ready to oblige? But he belonged to the school who find their own jokes funny, and when he tried to speak he could only laugh. He couldn’t get his story out for laughter. He laughed and winked and laughed again – what a good story it must have been. I could have dined out for a week on the strength of it. His limbs twitched in the basket; he even tried to get his hands free from the pink rabbits, and then the laughter died. I could almost hear him saying, “Tell you later, old man.”

His mother opened the door of the compartment. She said, “You’ve been amusing baby. How kind of you. Are you fond of babies?” And she gave me such a look – the love-wrinkles forming round the mouth and eyes – that I was tempted to reply with the warmth and hypocrisy required, but then I met the baby’s hard relentless gaze.

“Well as a matter of fact,” I said, “I’m not. Not really.” I drooled on, losing all my chances before the blue and bubbly stare. “You know how it is .  .  . never had one of my own .  .  . I’m fond of fishes, though .  .  .

I suppose in a way I got my reward. The baby blew a whole succession of bubbles. He was satisfied, after all, a chap shouldn’t make passes at another chap’s mother, especially if he belongs to the same club he would belong in twenty-five years’ time. “On me,” he was obviously saying now. “Doubles all round.” I could only hope that I would not live so long.

Monday, July 20, 2015

'Man' by Bengt Jangfeldt

 In the midst of the most hectic cafe period, In February 1918, Mayakovsky brought out his new poem, “Man”, under the imprint of ASIS (Association for Socialist Art) and with money from a few friends. The other, uncensored edition of “A Cloud in Trousers” came out at the same time and under the same imprint.

When at the end of January Mayakovsky recited “Man” at a private poetry evening on the theme “Two Generations of Poets Meet,” it caused a sensation. Those present included large sections of the Russian poetic Parnassus: Symbolists such as Andrey Bely, Konstantin Balmont, Vyacheslav Ivanov and Jurgis Baltrusaitis; the Futurists David Burlyuk and Vasily Kamensky, and some other poets who defied any such categorization, like Marina Tsvetayeva, Boris Pasternak, and Vladislav Khodasevich.  “Poets read in order of seniority and without much success,” Pasternak recalled: “When it came to Mayakovsky’s turn, he got up, curved one arm around the empty shelf at the back of the divan, and began reciting “Man”. Like a bas-relief  [.  .  .] he towered above the people that were seated or standing there. And now with one arm propping his handsome head, now bracing his knee against the bolster, he recited a work of uncommon profundity and exalted inspiration.”

Andrey Bely listened as if transfixed. When the reading was over, he rose, shaken and pale, and declared he could not imagine how poetry of such power could be written at such a time.  The reading at the Polytechnic Museum a few days later was equally successful. “I had never heard Mayakovsky read like that,” recalled Roman Jakobson: “He was nervous, wanted to get everything out and read quite exceptionally.” It was a recognition that Mayakovsky has long been waiting for.

“Man” was written during the course of 1917. Work on the poem began during the spring and finished sometime toward the end of the year, after the October Revolution. The almost one-thousand-word poem occupies a central place in Mayakovsky’s oeuvre from a chronological point of view: on the threshold between the old times and the new. But it has an almost equally central status thematically. Nowhere does Mayakovsky’s existential alienation find more desperate expression than here.

The structure of the poem is modeled on the life of Jesus, and it is divided into sections like “Mayakovsk’s Nativity,” “Mayakovsky’s Life,” Mayakovsky’s Passion,” Mayakovsky’s Ascension,” “Mayakovsky’s Heaven,” “Mayakovsky’s Return,” “Mayakovsky’ to Eternity.” The religious connection is emphasized by the typography of the cover, where the author’s surname and the title are intertwined like a cross.

Mayakovsky’s birthday – “the day of my descension”- was the most mundane of days. No one thought to notify a distant star that there was something to celebrate.  And yet it is an event of the same caliber as Christ’s birth. Every movement Mayakovsky makes is a miracle; his hands can enfold any throat, his tongue form any sound it wants; he possesses an intellect that sparkles like precious stones; he can change winter into summer and water into wine. Within his magic sphere everything becomes poetry –stout washerwomen are transformed into “daughters of the sky and the dawn”; the baker’s buns are bent into the necks of violins; the bootlegs that the shoemaker is working on becomes harps. Everything is the result of Mayakovsky’s birth; “It is I/ who hosted my heart like a flag. / A matchless wonder of the twentieth century!”  Faced with this miracle, pilgrims come streaming from Our Lord’s grave, and Mecca empties of the faithful.

However, far from everybody is equally impressed by the poet’s transforming power. The real world, represented by “bankers, tycoons and doges,” feels under threat and goes on the attack: If everything is “heart,” what have they accumulated heaps of money for? And who gave him permission to sing? Who asked the days to bloom in July? No, lock up the sky behind bars, twist the earth into streets, poison the tongue with gossip! Chased into the ”earthly pen” the man/poet drags along his “daily yoke,” his brain oppressed by “The Law” and with “Religion” like a chain over his heart. He is locked inside a “senseless story”; all fantasy is proscribed; everything is ruled by money. Everything, large and small, drowns in the golden maelstrom of money: geniuses, hens, horses, violins, elephants. On an island in the middle of this whirlpool lives the “Ruler of All,” the poet’s “rival” and “invincible enemy,” in “thin stockings with fine polka dots, elegant trousers, and natty tie that glided down from his enormous neck / over the globe of his belly.”

Although Mayakovsky’s enemy bears the clichéd characteristics of the bourgeois, it would be too simplistic to reduce the “Ruler of All” to a social or economic phenomena. In Mayakovsky’s poetic world the concept “bourgeois” is first and foremost a symbol – for stagnation, conservatism, repletion. “To be bourgeois / is not to own capital, / scatter gold coins around, / it is the mouth stuffed fill with fat,” as he defined the phenomena a couple of years later, in the poem “150,000,000.” The “Ruler of All” is “the universal bourgeois,” whose cheap and vulgar taste dominates and corrupts the world. The conclusion that Mayakovsky formulates in “Man” can stand as a motto for the whole of his work:

Revolutions shake the bodies of kingdoms,
The human herd changes drovers,
But you,
Uncrowned lord of the hearts
Not a single rebellion can disturb!

The Ruler’s power of attraction is so strong that even the poet’s beloved is seduced by it. He tries to stop her, but it is too late, she is already with Him. His skull shines; He is completely hairless; only on his final finger joint do three small hairs peek out from under a jewel. She bends over his hand, and her lips whisper the names of the hairs – one is called “Little Flute,” the other “Little Cloud.” In this way, not only Mayakovky’s love but his poetry too is vulgarized by the “uncrowned lord of the hearts.”

The woman is in His power, and the longing and sorrow call forth thoughts of suicide in the pet, whose ”heart longs for the bullet / and throat yearns for the razor.” During a stroll alongside the Neva his soul falls to the ice like a “frozen emerald.” He finds a pharmacy, but when the pharmacist produces a bottle market “Poison”, he remembers he is eternal, the roof opens of its own accord, and he climbs up to heaven. Once there, he shrugs off his “baggage / of things / and an exhausted body” on a cloud. The contrast between the high-flown theme and the prosaic tone is huge! To begin with he is disappointed. Hinting that the “invisible enemy” is also within himself, he complains that there is not a single corner where he can sit and drink tea and read the paper in peace. But he gets used to it; life in heaven turns out to be a mirror image of life on earth, and here too one’s existence is regulated from morning to night. Someone is repairing a cloud, another is shoveling coal into “the sun’s oven.” But what is he, the poet, to do? After all, he is “all about heart, / and where is the heart in those who lack a body?” When he wants to “stretch out the body on a cloud and watch you all,” he is given to understand that it will not do at all. Heaven too has no place for a poet.

His existence drags itself out; one year is just like another; in the end his heart begins to pound in his body again, and Mayakovsky wants to return to earth. Perhaps everything will be new, after ‘1,2, 4,8, 16, thousand, millions of years?” But when he tumbles down to earth like “a painter off the roof,” he soon realizes that everything has stayed the same; human beings are burdened by the same workaday tasks as before; it is ‘the same invisible baldhead / in charge / the chief choreographer of the earthly cancan” now “in the form of an idea, /now like the Devil, / now like God behind a cloud.” The enemy comes in many guises!

[ .  .  . ]

Mayakovsky fled the earthy scene because of a love that was impossible and when he returns to earth his love is no longer there. Where can he go? To which heaven this time? To which star? Mayakovsky has no answer to give. Everything is doomed to perish, he says, because “he / who controls life / will burn out / the last ray / of the last suns” He himself will die the love-death, “embraced by fire, / on the pyre of impossible love / that never burns down” – a variation on the closing lines of the first section of “A Cloud in Trousers”: “Moan / into the centuries / if you can, a last scream: I’m on fire!”

“Man’ is the culmination of the existential theme that characterizes Mayakovsky’s writing from the very beginning: the solitary I who battles against the enemy of poetry and love whose name is legion: “necessity,” philistinism, the triviality of everyday life, what in Russian is called byt – “my invincible enemy,” “The Ruler of All.” The Russian philosopher Lev Shestov talks of the “tragic souls” who are doomed to fight the battle on to fronts: “both against ‘necessity’ and against their neighbors, who have no trouble at all fitting in and who, without knowing what they are doing, thereby take the side of mankind’s worst enemy.” - daily life with its routine and insipidity.

Whatever the security organs were searching for, it was clear that they suspected there were more factors behind the poet’s suicide ( April 14th, 1930) than purely private ones – a perception share by Leon Trotsky, who refused to accept the official explanation that the suicide was “wholly unconnected to the poet’s public and literary activities” “That’s like saying Mayakovsky’s death had nothing to do with his revolutionary poetic works,” the former war commissar commented from his exile in Constantinople.  “ That is both untrue and unnecessary . . . and stupid! ‘[Love’s] boat was smashed against the reef of the everyday,’ is what Mayakovsky wrote about his private life. That means precisely that his ‘public and literary activities were no longer capable of elevating him sufficiently over everyday life [byt] to save him from his painful inner urges.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Aftermath by Nir Rosen

A FOREIGN MILITARY OPERATION is a systematic imposition of violence on an entire population. Of the many crimes committed against the Iraqi people, most have occurred unnoticed by the American people or the media. Americans, led to believe their soldiers and marines would be welcomed as liberators, still have little idea what the occupation is really like from the perspective of Iraqis. Although I am an American, born and raised in New York City, I came closer to experiencing what it feels like to be an Iraqi than most of my colleagues. I often say that the secret to my success as a journalist in Iraq is my melanin advantage. I inherited my Iranian father’s Middle East features, which allowed me to go unnoticed in Iraq, march in demonstrations, sit in mosques, walk through Falluja’s worst neighborhoods, sit in taxis and restaurants and look like every other Iraqi. My ability to blend in also allowed me to relate to the American occupier in a different way, for he looked at me as if I were another “hajji,” the “gook” of the war in Iraq.

I first realized my advantage in April 2003, when I was sitting with a group of American soldiers and another soldier walked up and wondered what this hajji (me) had done to get arrested. Later that summer I walked in the direction of an American tank and heard one soldier say about me, “that’s the biggest fuckin’ Iraqi [pronounced ‘eye-raki] I ever saw.” Another soldier, who was by the gun, replied, “I don’t care how big he is, if he doesn’t stop movin’ I’m gonna shoot him.”

I was lucky enough to have my American passport in my pocket, which I promptly took out and waved, shouting, “Don’t shoot, I’m an American!” It was my first encounter with hostile checkpoints but hardly my last, and I grew to fear the unpredictable American military, which could kill me for looking like an Iraqi male of fighting age. Countless other Iraqis were not so lucky enough to speak English or carry an American passport, and entire families were killed in their cars when the approached checkpoints.

 In 2004 the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that by September of that year, one hundred thousand Iraqis had died as the result of the American occupation, most of them had died violently, largely from American airstrikes. Although this figure was challenged by many, especially the partisan backers of the war, it seemed perfectly plausible to me based on what I had seen during the postwar period in Iraq. What I never understood was why more journalists did not focus on this, choosing instead to look for the “good news” and to go along with the official story. I never understood why more journalists did not write about the daily Abu Ghraibs that were so essential to the occupation.


The year 2008 ended with Muntadhar al-Zeidi reminding President Bush and the world for only a moment about the Iraqi victims. During a press conference on Bush’s last visit to the country, Zeidi spoke for the masses in the Arab world and beyond when he shouted, “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” as he threw his first shoe at the American president. Zeidi was a secular, left-leaning Shiite from Sadr City whose work as a reporter for Baghdadiya television had won him local acclaim because of his focus on the suffering of innocent Iraqis. He had been arrested twice by the American army and kidnapped once by a militia.

He remembered, as did all Iraqis, that the American occupation had not begun with the surge.  The story of the American occupation was not one of smart officers contributing to the reduction of violence and increase in stability.  That was only one chapter in a longer story of painful, humiliating, sanctions, wars, and bloody occupation.  Those with short memories, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, might remember the American occupation  “a million acts of kindness.” But to Iraqis and anyone else sensitive enough to view them as humans, the occupation was one million acts of violence and humiliation or one million explosives. There was nothing for Bush to be triumphal about during his farewell press conference. Even the surge had exacted a costly toll on Iraqis. Thousands more had been killed, arrested, thrown into overcrowded prisons, and rarely put on trial, their families deprived of them. The surge was not about victory. With a cost so high, there could be no victory. COIN (Counterinsurgency) is still violence, and the occupation persisted, imposing violence on an entire country. As Zeidi threw his second shoe in a last desperate act of defiance, he remembered these victims and shouted, “This for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq!”

 Millions of Iraqis had fled their homes. Tens of thousands of Iraqi men spent years in American prisons. The new Iraqi state was among the most corrupt in the world. It was often brutal. It failed to provide adequate services to its people, millions of whom were barely able to survive. Iraqis were traumatized. This upheaval did not spare Iraq’s neighbors either. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees languished in exile. Sectarianism increased in the region. Weapons, tactics, and veterans of the jihad made their way into neighboring countries. And now the American “victory” in Iraq was being imposed on the people of Afghanistan.


In 2005 the respected COIN theorist and practitioner Kalev Sepp – a former Special Forces officer and deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations capabilities – wrote a seminal article, “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” in Military Review. In the article Sepp claimed that a country’s political leaders (and not the military) must direct the struggle to win the allegiance of the people, that the “security of the people must be assured along with food, water, shelter, health care, and a means of living. These are human rights, along with freedom of worship, access to education, and equal rights for women. The failure of counterinsurgencies and the root cause of the insurgencies themselves can often be traced to government disregard of these basic rights.”

In addition, Sepp noted, Intelligence operations that help detect terrorist insurgents for arrest and prosecution are the single most important practice to protect a population from threats to its security. Honest, trained, robust police forces responsible for security can gather intelligence at the community level. Historically, robustness in wartime requires a ratio of 20 police and auxiliaries for each 1,000 civilians. In turn, an incorrupt, functioning judiciary must support the police.”

On each of Sepp’s criteria Afghanistan has been a study in abject failure. The civilian Afghan government is insignificant; it is the American military that is leading the war effort. The Afghan government does not provide and services or protect rights. Moreover the U.S. military regularly kills civilians with impunity, arresting many more and holding them without trial. The Taliban have not been penetrated. There is no honest or well-trained police force, and the American-led coalition will never come near to the ratio that Sepp calls for.

COIN was a massive endeavor, I was told by retired Col. Pat Lang, who had conducted COIN operations in Vietnam, Latin America, and elsewhere. There were insufficient resources committed to doing it in Afghanistan, but if the Americans didn’t plan owning Afghanistan, he argued, why waste time on it? It was worth the expenditure of resources only if you were the local government seeking to establish authority, or an imperialist power that wanted to hang around for a while. There were thirty million people in Afghanistan, and they were widely dispersed in small towns. “You have to provide security for the whole country,” he said, “because if you move around they just move in behind you and undo what you did. So you need to have effective security and massive multifaceted development organization the covers the whole place. COIN advisors have to stay in place all the time; they can’t commute to work. If you’re going to do COIN, it really amounts to nation building, and troops are there to provide protection for nation builders. Afghanistan doesn’t matter. The Taliban is not part of the worldwide jihadi community a war with the U.S. We need to disaggregate Taliban from Al Qaeda. The idea that Al Qaeda is an existential threat to the U.S., it’s so absurd that you don’t know how to deal with it.”

.   .   .   .   .

The American’s obsession with Afghanistan’s elections also resembled their Iraqi approach, which erroneously focused on landmark events. Just as in Iraq, when elections helped enshrine sectarianism and paved the way to civil war, so too in Afghanistan the election empowered the warlords, enshrined a corrupt order; and, in the case of the 2009 elections, completely discredited the government and its foreign backers.

Strategy in Afghanistan was put on hold so that elections could be held. Turnout in the south was less than ten percent, and zero in some places. There was overwhelming evidence of systematic election fraud and ballot stuffing. The Taliban managed to reduce the turnout compared to previous years. There were even thousand polling stations throughout the country, so the Taliban could not actually disrupted voting too much. It would have been bad PR for them to kill too many civilians. Their lack of operations might have shown that even they knew the elections didn’t matter and that nothing could better serve their ends than letting the elections take place and ending up with a deeply flawed result. Meanwhile, the Americans and their allies immediately hailed the elections as a success, merely because violence was low, thus further associating themselves with a corrupt government. How could Afghans take Americans seriously when they backed a corrupt government and were deeply implicated in corruption? The flawed elections were a message to Afghans that there was no hope of improvement or change.

In September 2009 Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the war in Afghanistan was leaked to the media. He had been advised by a team of experts, many of them celebrity pundits from Washington think tanks. Only one of his advisers was an expert on Afghanistan. When Petraeus conducted his Iraq review, he called on people who really knew Iraq to join his “brain trust.” McChrystal called in advisers from both sides of the political divide in Washington who already believed that population-centric COIN was the solution to everything. It was a savvy move, sure to help him get support in Congress. There was a cult of celebrity in the DC policy set. Many of the same pseudo experts who were once convinced that the war in Iraq was the most important thing in the world, even at the expense of Afghanistan, were now convinced that Afghanistan was most important thing in the world, and were organizing panels with other pseudo experts in Washington think tanks. They offered trending solutions, like an industry giving managed and preplanned narratives about was going on. COIN advocates from DC think tanks were connected to political appointees who came from DC think tanks. There was an explosion of commentary on Afghanistan coming from positions of ignorance, quoting generalities. McChrystal himself had been chosen because he could drum up bi-partisan support. He was another hero general like Petraeus, with an aura of infallibility – he was there to save the day. Fawning articles praised his low percentage of body fat, his ascetic habit of eating one meal a day, his repetition of simple COIN aphorism that had already become clichés in Iraq by 2007. He was another warrior scholar the media could write panegyrics about.

Supporters of McChrystal said  “he gets it,” as if there was a magic COIN formula discovered in 2009. But Afghans have a memory. They remember, for example, that the American-backed mujahideen killed thousands of Afghan teachers and bombed schools in the name of their anti-Soviet jihad. The Taliban atrocities had not arisen in a vacuum. Similarly, past American actions have consequences. Opinions were already formed. The Taliban were gaining power thanks to American actions and alliances. Warlords were empowered by the Americans. No justice was sought for victims. The government and police were corrupt. The president stole the elections. The message was that there was no justice, and a pervasive sense of lawlessness and impunity had set in. Afghans who had been humiliated or victimized by the Americans and their allies were unlikely to become smitten by then merely because of some aid they received. And the aid was relatively small compared to other international projects, like Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and East Timor. The Americans thought that by building roads they could win over opinion. But roads are just as useful for insurgents as they are for the occupiers. The Americans failed to convince the Afghan that they should be like them or want them to stay, and they certainly had not been convinced that Karzai’s government has legitimacy. You can’t win hearts and minds when you are an occupying force.

The Taliban was the most obscurantist, backward, traditional and despised government on earth. The fact that the Taliban was making a comeback was a testimony to the regime that the U.S. set up there, and to the atrocities that had been committed in Afghanistan by occupation troops and their Afghan allies. It was sheer arrogance to think that adding another thirty thousand or fifty thousand troops would change the situation so much that the occupation would become an attractive alternative.

There is little evidence that aid money in COIN had an impact. There was not a strong correlation between poverty and insecurity or between aid money a security. The more insecure you were, the more development money you got. The safer provinces felt as if they were being penalized for not having Taliban or poppy cultivation. The aid system raised expectations but didn’t satisfy them. Life remained nasty, brutish, and short for most Afghans.

Aid and force do not go well together. The Americans assumed that material goods superseded all other values. This was not true in Iraq or Afghanistan. Positive as the aid was, it did not outweigh the civilian casualties or the offensive and humiliating behavior of the past eight years. In Iraq it took the trauma of the civil war to make the Americans look good. There might be a new administration in Washington, but for Afghan it was the same America: the America of civilian casualties, night raids, foreign occupation, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib – the America seemingly at war with Islam.

The Pentagon propaganda machine, for instance, turned Marja from a backwater to a key strategic city, and the American media accepted it. But in fact there were only a few thousand people living in Marja. It took months and thousands of troops for the Americans to seize Marja, only to learn that the Taliban were popular there. And there were up to twenty thousand similar Marjas throughout the country. In Marja ANCOP too proved a failure, incompetent and dependent upon the Americans. Fighting remained frequent. The Americans were not effective in evaluation Afghan police units. Although hailed as an elite, the ANCOP annual attrition rate due to all causes ranged from seventy to one hundred and forty percent. Even by local standards they weren’t an elite.

The story of Marja was meant to be the first sally in a larger campaign to expel the Taliban from the southern heartland, especially Kandahar. The Americans thought if they could wrest it from Taliban hands, then it would turn the tide against the Taliban. But Kandahar meant little to anybody that wasn’t a Kandahari. It was part of the same focus on population centers that were overwhelmingly urban.

Violence was getting worse. How long would the Afghan people accept the presence of armed foreigners in their country?  Even a message of help can be humiliating, more so when it is backed by a gun. The Americans underestimated the importance of dignity and the extent to which their very presence in Afghanistan was deeply offensive.

In May 206 riots erupted in Kabul after a road accident with American forces, and the Americans shot at the crowd. The episode revealed an underlying anger that could explode at any moment. In September 2009 a British plane dropped a box of leaflets that failed to open, landing on a girl and killing her. Given that most Afghans are illiterate, it would not have been any more persuasive had it opened. Despite the lip service given to “protecting the population” in 2010 the American-led coalition killed far more civilians than previous years. In February a night raid by American special forces killed two pregnant women; the Americans attempted to cover it up. “Son of an American” has become and insult among Pashtuns the way “Son of a Russian” once was.

At any rate, Americans lacked the political will for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, regardless of whether it was right or wrong. Americans would bail on Afghanistan sooner or later. It would be tragic if it happened within Obama’s eighteen- month deadline or after five years. There was no way to “fix” Afghanistan.  In fact, the Soviets themselves never lost their war in Afghanistan; the puppet regime they installed had pretty much crushed the mujahideen until the Soviets withdrew support. The Soviets won their last battle in Khost’s Operation Magistal. But it made no difference. Only the rusting ruins of tanks and a few Russian-speaking Afghans remain. The Americans too weren’t losing, stressed a retired military officer working on security in Afghanistan. “Every time our boys face them, they win,” he said. “We’re winning every day. Are we going to keep winning for twenty years?”

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Pharisees by Amy-Jill Levine

He even said to some of those believing in themselves that they are righteous and despising the rest this parable:

“Two people went up to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing, by/to himself, these (things) prayed, ‘O God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the rest of the people, greedy unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast two times of the Sabbath [i.e. each week]; I give a tenth of whatever I acquire’
“But the tax collector, at a distance standing, did not wish to raise his eyes to the heaven, but he beat his breast, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’

“To you I say, descending to his house, this one is justified, alongside that one. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted”
                                                     Luke 18, 9-14

.  .  . Like the quest of the historical Jesus, there is also a quest of the historical Pharisees, for ironically the only self-identified Pharisee from whom we have written records is Paul of Tarsus. Thus, in order to understand the Pharisees we need to look at literature written by outsiders to their group, including Josephus, The Dead Sea scrolls, the later rabbis, Paul himself, and some of the early followers of Jesus with whom they were in competition for reception by the broader Jewish community in the land of Israel.

Since members of this group are most familiar to modern readers because of their New Testament portraits – the term “Pharisee” is still seen as synonymous with “hypocrite,” a connection made by the New Testament (see especially Matt. 23) – we start here. And we start, given our parable, with Luke’s portrait.

Unlike the invariably positive tax collectors in the Gospel tradition, Luke’s depiction of Pharisees is more ambivalent, albeit ultimately negative. Pharisees do have their good points. Some invite Jesus to dine with them (7.36; 11.37), and they do ask questions that need not be perceived as hostile (17.20). Their warning to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (13.31), can be seen as benevolent, although it could also be read as an attempt to prevent Jesus from entering Jerusalem and so to abort his mission. Finally, the Pharisees drop out of Luke’s Passion narrative so at least they are not directly responsible for Jesus’s death.

Pharisees are also pictured in Acts in a generally positive light. The Pharisee Gamaliel speaks on behalf of Peter and John after they were arrested by the Sanhedrin (5.34-39); Paul acknowledges his Pharisaic connections (26,5; cf. Phil. 3.5).At the Jerusalem Council, held to debate the requirements for gentiles in the church, Pharisees appear as members of the Jesus movement, albeit on the wrong side of the debate (15.5*1).

However, the majority of Luke’s references to Pharisees are not complimentary. Unlike the tax collectors, Pharisees reject John’s baptism and so God’s purposes (7.30). Jesus condemns them for greed and elitism (11.38-44; 16.15), and Luke adds the generic insult that they were lovers of money (16.14). Primarily they serve as negative foils who complain about Jesus’s dining with those tax collectors and their sinning friends (5.30; 7.39; 15.2); fuss over his claiming the ability to forgive sins 95.17-26); complain about his disciples’ picking grain on the Sabbath (6.1-5); condemn Jesus’s healing on the Sabbath (6.6-11); seek to silence his disciples praise of him (19.39); and attempt to trap him rhetorically (11.53-54; 14.1-6. *2)

For the majority of Jesus’s Jewish audience, however, the Pharisees would have been respected teachers, those who walked the walk as well as talked the talk. Josephus, a priest who found the Pharisees’ voluntary organization in competition with his own inherited priestly status, mentions their interpretations of the Torah designed to make the ancient teachings relevant to the society of their day: “On account of which doctrines, they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction; insomuch that the cities gave great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also.”

The New Testament’s comments on the “traditions of the elders” may have some connection to these Pharisaic up-datings. For example, Mark 7.3 states that the “Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.” Jesus rejects some of these teachings; instead, on what appears to be more an ad hoc than systematic basis, he develops his own interpretation of the Torah. We can see his own version in his comments on Sabbath healing (Matt.12.10-12) or in his extension of the commandments regarding murder and adultery to love of enemy and forbidding lust (5.27-28; 43-44 *3).

Pharisaic interpretations of Torah distinguish the Pharisees not only from Jesus, but also from the Sadducees, a point the New Testament also notes. Josephus explains:

The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are written in the word, but are not to observe what are derived from the traditions of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace favorable to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.

In Paul’s view, his being a Pharisee was a marker of distinction (Phil. 3.5 *4).

Following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, members of the Pharisaic movement, along with scribes and others, came to compose what has come to be known as rabbinic literature. The rabbinic texts, more or less contemporaneous with ante – and post- Nicene fathers, include the Mishnah, a compendium of Jewish law written down around 200 CE; the Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud, and the Yerushalmi of Jerusalem Talmud (commentaries on the Mishnah, finally redacted after the fifth century); and the equally late midrashic collections (running commentaries on biblical books, such as Genesis Rabbah and Ruth Rabbah).

There are connections between the first-century Pharisees and the later rabbis. For example, both groups are concerned with Sabbath observance, dietary regulations, ritual purity, and promoting correct understanding and following Torah. Thus the Pharisees could be seen as ‘proto-rabbis.” However, there are also distinctions, just as there are in every party that lasts for several centuries and faces new circumstances including, in the case of the rabbis, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the disastrous Second Revolt against Rome in 1323-35 and the growing presence of the rabbinic community in Babylon (present-day Iraq).

Nor can we go directly from the rabbinic literature to the earlier time of Jesus. Rabbinic literature is generally prescriptive – it details the way rabbis would like to see Jewish life lived – rather than descriptive – it is not a direct window into actual practices. Moreover, rabbinic literature is often a series of disagreements among rabbis rather than a definitive code; the rabbis debate everything, from circumstances under which divorce can be granted to the determination of what constitutes work on the Sabbath. Consequently, as we’ve seen throughout these studies of the parables, it is highly problematic to take a rabbinical statement, unsupported by any other text of the first century, and understand it to be representative of the practices at the time of Jesus.

We may be on safer historical ground by looking at rabbinic storytelling. Whereas laws must be adapted and should be debated for the health of a society, stories can remain stable over generations. Rabbinic parables may well reflect earlier views, especially since they tend to be connected to a biblical passage; the laws themselves are more likely to be adapted.

With regard to their sphere of influence, Pharisees were substantially village – rather than Temple-based. The Temple was the center of priestly power. Josephs recounts how the Pharisees sought to influence Temple practices: that is the meaning of  “and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction” in the earlier quote. We might compare attempts by lay Catholics to determine the celebration of the Mass. Thus the Pharisees were not on home turf, but they were in a place whose operation and leadership would have been of great concern to them.

Although some scholars suggest that the Pharisee of our parable was a “retainer” in the Temple system and that “through the network of synagogues, the Pharisee and his faction participated in efforts to enforce collection of tithes, the ancient sources do not support the claims. Tithes were collected by regional Temple representatives, not Pharisees. Second, Pharisees do not run synagogues; synagogue rulers do. Nor, by the way, do later rabbis run synagogues; rabbinic literature locates them primarily in the schoolhouse or academy.

Equally incorrect, albeit probably as popular, is the insistence that Pharisees “believed that God’s blessing, most notably ridding the land of Romans, was contingent upon their achieving a significant obedience among themselves and among the population as a whole,” that they were “very nationalistic and fueled an intense hatred of Gentiles”, or that they insisted that a “minute obedience to their detailed laws” was necessary in order to “stay saved.” Again, we do not have direct information on what the Pharisees believed. The New Testament portraits give no indication that the Pharisees were ultranationlists or that they fueled an intense hatred of gentiles.  Those who claim that Paul, the (former) Pharisee, was a political firebrand take their case from Galatians 1.14, where Paul says, “I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” However, to be zealous for his tradition does not make him a political “zealot” seeking liberation from Roman domination.

It is easy to compare them to whatever population is seen to be judgmental, parochial, bigoted, stuck-n-the mud, or otherwise unable to see the “newness” of the “good news”, as the pastor so understands it. The problem is that the “good news” should not be based on bad history; nor should the reaction of the congregation be, “Thank God, I’m not like those Pharisees (baa baa baa).”

Were Jesus to have told this parable to a group of Jews, they would have begun with the impression that the Pharisee was pious and righteous and the tax collector sinful and self-interested. It turns out, the parable would have confirmed these views. And yet it still provokes.

[.  .  .  .]

At the end of the parable, we are left without full resolution, which is what a good parable should do. Is the Pharisee praising God or praising himself? Is the tax collector trusting in the divine or not? Will he keep his day job and continue to sin, or will he make restitution for his sins and find another line of work? With whom are the readers to identify, the Pharisee who does so much more than expected, and perhaps is a bit self-satisfied in the process, or the tax collector   who, as far as we know, has done nothing for the benefit of the community (he is a Roman tax collector), but who at least seems sincere in his request?

We cannot fully identify either with the Pharisee, who will continue to behave in a righteous manner far beyond what most people will do, or the currently repentant tax collector, who may continue to do the wrong thing. Once we judge one better than the other, we are trapped by the parable. And if we dismiss them both, we are also trapped, for most of us are neither as supererogatory as the Pharisee nor as sinful as the tax collectors (who must need ‘farm’ the taxes he collects for his own benefit).

But we do see again through the parable ideas that we already, somehow, knew but did not want to acknowledge. We see that divine grace cannot be limited, for to limit this grace would be to limit the divine. This unlimited grace is something many of us find problematic. We are quote happy when we are saved; we are less happy when this salvation is extended to people we do not like, especially when our dislike is bolstered by seemingly very good reasons such as, “He’s a sinner.”

The type of generosity shown by a God who makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike, the type of generosity that allows the tax collector to tap into the collective repentance of the Temple system and the good deeds of the Pharisee, is what we want for ourselves, but what we don’t want others to have. And we know, deep down, that our sense of ‘justice” here is limited.

To give an up-to-date reading of how, and so the genius of Jesus’s teaching, we need a modern example. Here’s what the parable sounds like in a twenty-first century context.

The story of the tax collector’s ability to tap into the merit of the Pharisee and the encompassing, communal grace of the Temple system is the ancient version of the middle-school group project. This assignment, perhaps now more familiar through reality television, puts together, in classical terms, the smart one, the one who is good at art, the one who is able to provide provisions (e.g. coffee, donuts, Scotch), and the one who both literally and figuratively brings nothing to the table. Three do their fair share, and more, since they cover the fourth’s work as well. The project receives an excellent grade. The fourth, who may show up at the meetings, benefits from the work of others. In middle school, where I was the “smart one”, I found this system unfair. I was justified I got the “A”), but alongside me, indeed because of me, so was the slacker.

My sense of justice then was too narrow, my sense of generosity too constrained, my sense of self-import too great. But that fourth person believed in the system; that fourth person, whom we dismissed as lazy, as stupid, or as unable to contribute, may well have done what he could. He may have felt himself unworthy; indeed, we three others may have signaled to him that we were disappointed he was assigned to our group. He trusted in us, he trusted in the system. Had we been more generous with him rather than resentful, we would have learned more as well.

And what if he didn’t care at all? What if he depended upon us, even though we were fools for doing his work for him? What we do is still worthwhile. We can afford to be generous. There are other systems of justice (e.g. test grades, a final judgment) in which his contributions or sins will be assessed.

 We are all our brother’s, and sister’s, keeper, and living in a community is another form of group work. We all have something to contribute, even if what we give is the opportunity for someone else to provide us a benefit. If we take more seriously this necessary interrelationship, we might be more inclined to consider others, because our actions, whether for ill or for good, will impact them.  And if our good deeds aid someone else, rather than begrudge them, why not celebrate all who are justified?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Midaq Alley by Joseph Massad

Th           The first work of modern Arabic fiction to deal with the question of same-sex desire seriously is Naguib Mahfouz’s Zuqaq al Midaq (Midaq Alley). Published in1947, Midaq Alley is one of the Egyptian novelist’s earlier novels. Set in the early 1940s, while Egypt remained under British colonial rule and the confrontation between the Axis and the Allied powers was approaching at El-Alamein, the novel, a tragicomedy of sorts written in a realist style, opens with a romantic rendition of the history of Midaq Alley:

It is a wonder of epochs past. It soared one day in the history of Cairo like a flashing star. Which Cairo, do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamluks, or the Sultans? Only God and the archeologists know the answer to that, but at any rate, it is a relic, and a precious one at that. How could it be otherwise when its cobblestone road leads directly into Sanadiqiyyah Street? That historic cul-de-sac, and its famous café, known as Kirshah’s Café . . . Although this alley lives in virtual isolation from what surrounds it, it still clamors with its own distinctive life, one that is connected in its depths to the roots of life as a whole while still preserving a good amount of the secrets of the world gone by.

            The novel tells of the transformation that the alley would undergo with the encroachment of colonial modernity, which had already enveloped much of Cairo over the previous century, but to which the alley had somehow remained immune.

               As we will see, the change will not only be felt at the technological, economic and political level but also at a deep social and ultimately epistemological level. The entry of Western epistemology is signaled in the novel by the appearance of certain words and concepts in English.  It is in this realm that the opening scene in which a folk poet, who for the previous twenty years had worked in Kirshah’s Café, playing the Rababah (a one-stringed instrument played with a bow) and reciting folktales of olden days, was dismissed from his job by a popular demand among customers to be replaced by the radio.

               The Sufi ascetic Shaykh Darwish explains the transformation: “ Yes, everything has changed . . . the poet has gone and the radio has come. This is the way of God in his Creation. It was mentioned in the ancient days in tarikh [history], which the call in English ‘History’ and is spelled ‘H-i-s-t-o-r-y.’” Presumably, the invocation of “History” as an “ancient” European concept is ironical in this context, given Mahfouz’s enumeration of different historical periods through which Cairo passed long before Europe or the English language itself existed.

               Shaykh Darwish had been an English teacher at one of the religiously endowed schools. He, like other employees, was let go when this traditional school system was placed under the control of the modern Ministry of Education, which required higher qualifications. He took up a job as a clerk in the Ministry of Religious Endowments with a lower salary, which made him so unhappy that he became notorious as the most stubborn complainer in the Ministry. News of his bad disposition reached his superiors who, though sympathetic, docked his pay a day or two.  “ One day he decided to write all his official correspondence in English, and would say that he was a technical employee, unlike other clerks.”  About to be fired, he requested to meet with the deputy minister and informed him that “God had chosen his man,” referring to himself. He deserted his family and friends and began to roam the streets, wondering into “the world of God, as he calls it.” He lost all his money, and his house but seemed completely at peace. Everybody became his family. “If his gown wore out, someone would get him another; if his necktie got torn, he would receive a new one too.” Shaykh Darwish, as he came to be known following the Sufi tradition, was loved and considered blessed. “People feel that he brings them good luck and they say of him that he is a holy man of God who received Godly revelations in both Arabic and English.”

     It is noteworthy that while the march of the colonial modern state had already has its imprint of Dawish’s life, wherein he taught English, a language not taught previously, the further entrenchment of the colonial state transformed Darwish’s life at a deep institutional level, dismantling the school system of which he was a part and erected a new one. Unable to accept this modern transformation, which for him signaled not progress but regression in both his pay and his rank as an employee (he was reduced from grade six to grade eight), he opted out of the whole affair and chose an alternative that was familiar to him,  namely, that of Sufi asceticism. The alley and Kirshah’s Café became his makeshift home.

               Unlike Sheykh Darwish, Kirshah, the café owner, is of a different ilk altogether. A hashish dealer and user, he spent much money on his habit and on chasing after “his desires”. Kishah lived “in the embrace of the deviant life for so long that it seemed to him to be a normal life. As a narcotics dealer, he was used to working in the dark, a fugitive from normal life and a prey to deviance.” Kirshah resented the modern colonial government of the British Mandate and its local cronies, “which allows alcohol, which God has forbidden, and prohibits hashish, which God has permitted!  It protects bars, which spread poison, but cracks down on hashish dens, which are therapy to souls and minds . . . As for his other desire, he says with his traditional cough: ‘you have your religion, I have mine!’”  Here Kishah invokes the traditional tolerant impulse of folk Islam where each will be judged according to his/her religion or to his/her interpretation of religion.  This metaphorical posting of sexual practice as tantamount to professing a religion is important in that it signals Kirshah’s refusal of one uniform religious judgment of his sexual practice, and his refusal of one religious authority’s right to pass such judgment.

    While he had initially been private about his sexual practices with young men and would not invite them to frequent his café, “once his situation became known, and the scandal spread, he took the mask off his face and pursued his misdeeds openly. Tragic scenes would take place between him and his wife that became fodder for scandalous gossip.”

    When Kirshah’s wife mobilizes his son Husayn against him, Husayn was “not concerned with the misdeed [ithm] unto itself, but rather with the scandal that it engendered around them as well as the volley of curses and fighting it unleashed inside their home. The misdeed itself was utterly unimportant to him. Indeed, the first time he was informed of it, he shook his shoulders and said indifferently: “he is a man and nothing shames a man!’ Then he condemned his father along with the others when he found his family’s reputation in shreds by gossip.”  Clearly for Husayn, his father’s sexual practices are not the cause of shame or embarrassment at all if they remain within the realm of the private and are not advertised publically. People knowing about what his father’s practices are is one thing, while his father becoming open about them is another. The issue is not that people in the neighborhood know that Kirshah fancies young men (which in itself causes no embarrassment), rather it is that Kirshah thinks he can openly court such young men before the eyes of the community without censure. It is the latter that the community rejects and that Husayn condemns. It is this kind of stark publicity of such private intimate practices that society condemns, not the practices themselves.

              The novel is rich with characters derived from Cairene quotidian life. Take for example the character of Radwan al-Husayni. His biography is borrowed from the story of Job, as like the latter, he lost all his children but maintained his belief in God and His mercy and appeared always content.  He is the one to whom Kirshah’s wife, Umm Husayn turned in order to pressure her husband to end his affair with an unnamed young boutique salesman whom she described as a “profligate [fajir]”.  When she sent for her husband to have a word with him, Radwan thought to himself that this would be the first time he would allow a ‘dissolute” (fasiq) person to enter his room. Then, “he went on wondering about the devil’s seduction of man, and how he makes him deviate from the proper nature that God gave him [fitrat Allah].”Attempting to bring Kirshah back to the righteous path, Radwan asked him to let go of this “disreputable and profligate young man.”  He then instructed him to “leave this man, for he is an abomination of Satan’s handiwork.”

               It is interesting that Mahfouz has Radwan use this description, which is a direct Qur’anic quotation from a well-known verse.. Ironically the Qur’anic verse has nothing to do with homosexuality, but rather with alcohol and gambling, among other things.  In the Qur’an, other abominations include eating pork, blood, or dead meat but not same-sex practices among men.  Undeterred, Kirshah answered back, “ Man commits many bad deeds, of which this is only one; don’t be angry with me, instead ask God to  guide me, and accept my apology and my excuse. For what power does man possess over his soul?” Kirshah’s clever response to Radwan’s  Qur’anic reference marshals a modified Qur’anic verse about man’s limited power to do good or harm himself “except as God willeth,” therefore exonerating Kirshah’s own actions as predestined by God.

              Radwan al-Husayni’s failure in his mission on behalf of Kirshash’s wife left her with no recourse but to confront both her husband and his boy lover. She marched one evening to the café and began to insult and beat up the young man, calling him a “son of a whore,” and “a woman is man’s clothing.”  When the shocked young man asked her what he had done to her, as he did not even know who she was, she answered him with ridicule that she was his “co-wife.”  The bloodied young man slipped away in the mayhem of Umm Husayn’s confrontation with Kirshah, who in turn was appalled at her audacity. Once the pious Radwan calmed her down and asked her to return home, despite her threats of walking out on her husband, Kirshah began to swear up and down that he “will not submit to a woman’s will, for I am a man, free, I do as I like, let her leave the house if she wants.”

               Mistaking Kirshah’s desire for the young man as a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, desiring women, the, evidently non-essentialist, Sufi Shaykh Darwish lifted his head and addressed Kirshah: ‘Your wife is strong, and has within her such manliness that is missing in many men. She is indeed a male, not a female, so why don’t you like her?” Furious, Kirshah lashed back at Darwish to shut up and walked away. Shaykh Darwish proceeded to explain: “This is an old evil, which in English is called homosexuality and is spelled h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l-i-t-y, but it is not love. True love is only for the family and descendants of the Prophet.” For Darwish, the Sufi ascetic for whom love is always love of God and the Prophet, the opposite of homosexual love is not heterosexual love, but a much nobler kind.

              What is being introduced by Mafouz is not only a word but also a new epistemology that seems to define such acts outside Midaq Alley, among the literati and those with an English education, where the encroachment of colonial concepts was being felt more strongly. In the alley, the problem was not with Kirshah’s desires for young men but his open sexual practice, which caused a minor scandal, one that ultimately had little social repercussions for him and affected his wife more, but no more and no less than had he taken a woman as his mistress and flaunted her in public. Mafouz does not explore the situation from the vantage point of the young salesman whom Kirshah courted. The young man remains unnamed, an encroaching character that come from outside Midaq Alley, who seems to have a small role to play and then disappears upon being beaten up by Umm Husayn. As the young man is unknown in Midaq Alley, there is no scandal for him. He simply disappears from the novel. The next time Kirshah’s desires are expressed in the novel is when his own son moves back in accompanied by his young bride and her brother, whom Kirshah fancies.

               It is important to note that although Mafouz used the term shudhudh (deviance) to refer to Kirshah’s sexual practices with men, the term is not limited to homosexual sex, but to all non-normative sex, desires, excess, and general public conduct. Indeed, when Salim ‘Alwan, the owner of the sales company in Midaq Alley, expressed his dissatisfaction with his wife’s lack of responsiveness to his insistent sexual advances (he indulge in eating green toasted wheat with pigeons and much nutmeg baked and served in a pan, which he deemed an aphrodisiac and to which he attributed his virility), this is what the narrator tells us:

               His wife did not welcome the baking pan at first, even when she was a young woman in the prime of her life. She had a healthy instinct [fitrah] but was repelled by deviance from nature; still she bore what she considered to be exhausting out of respect for her insatiable husband, and out of pity that she might unsettle his mind.

               Deviance in fact seems to be the operative judgment not only of the sexual desires of Kirshah, Salim ‘Alwan, and Hamidah, but also of all socially unpleasant behavior. When Salim ‘Alwan returned to work weakened by his heart attack and deeply depressed, his hostility to his employees and the constant irritability that he now exhibited led them to conclude that he had become an “accursed deviant.”

               The novel however does naturalize heterosexual desire as that which is normative, insofar as the institution of marriage is linked to it definitionally.  The declaration is made by Umm Hamidah, the alley’s matchmaker, not only as a truism but also as an expression of economic necessity, for her livelihood depended on it.  She stated that “men love marriage in their depths” and that “a man wants a woman even if paralysis had crippled him, for this is Our Lord’s wisdom,” and “this is why God created the world. He could have filled it with men only, but God created the male and the female, and he graced us with reason so that we understand his aim; there is no deviation [mahid] from marriage.

     .   .   .  .  .
                Midaq Alley received critical acclaim by book reviewers of the period. Sayyid Qutb expressed his dissatisfaction with the novel on account of the abundance of “deviance” and “deviants” in it (understood as general social deviance). He proposed that Mafouz reduce the number of deviant characters from five to two. Nabil Matar, half a century later, misunderstood Qutb’s reference to deviance and perversion as a reference to same-sex contact and attributed Qutb’s dissatisfaction to those elements, which is a gross misinterpretation of Qutb and of the uses of the term “deviance” in the novel and by critics. Indeed, Matar strangely declares that the critics, Qutb included, received Midaq Alley with an “outcry against the novel’s homosexual characters.”  Besides Qutb’s review, Matar cites Lebanese critic Adib Muruwwah’s review of the novel as another example of a critic objecting to homosexuality in the novel, merely because Muruwwah stated that “no one among writers has been able to depict these [popular] classes as they are, as Mr. Mahfuz has done. He was utterly realist and faithful, even though this reality might have contained that which would on occasion offend proper decorum (such as the sodomy of Kirshah, for example).” Matar also cites Muhammad Fahmi’s review as another example, when all Fahmi stated was the he found “Kirshah’s deviance . . . somewhat strange for [someone] like him; perhaps had Kamil, the sweets seller, been afflicted with it . . . it would have added an atmosphere of joy to the story.: This is hardly an “outcry” against homosexual characters or anything remotely connected to it.

               Contrast this with the reception that Gore Vidal’s 1948 novel The City and the Pillar received in New York. The critical response was so violent that the New York Times refused to advertise the novel and, along with all the major magazines and newspapers, had a standing policy not to review any Vidal novels for the next six years merely because the novel depicted a homosexual encounter between two young, all-American athletic types, wherein one had an unrequited love for the other. In contrast to Vidal, Mahfouz continued to be celebrated by the Arabic press for the rest of is career despite continuing inclusion of characters who desire same-sex contact.

      In his discussion of Sa’dallah Wannus’s Orientalist play  Tuqus al- Isharat wa al- Tahawwulat (The Rites and Signs of Transformation), published in 1994, Massad  writes:

   The character of Mu’minah seems to conflate the body and its desires. She seems to posit that the truth of the body is that of desire. Her insistence on becoming a prostitute (though she is not compelled by poverty to do so), as she tells the Mufti, is unrelated to anger at her husband’s infidelity, the latter having provided her the opportunity to make the latent manifest. In undertaking her project of manumitting her body as part of the liberation of her repressed desire, a contradiction arises in Mu’minah’s logic (and in the logic of Wanna.)  If the play stresses the quest for individuality and individualism in a society that represses both, then desire cannot be the foundation of such a quest. As desire is always already social and not part of the individual economy, how is Mu’minah’s quest to release her desires from the shackles of traditional repression, and even oppression, to enter the social economy of carnal pleasure, a quest for modern individualism?  Wannus seems to posit Mu’minah’s quest as a Hegelian one, of transforming the being-in-itself into the being-for-itself and the being-for-another. But the Hegelian story is not only about the journey of self-consciousness into individualist self -realization but also that of a journey of self-consciousness into sociality, of being “in the world,” as Edward Said, echoing Heidegger, put it. When the response to her father’s horror at her sullying the family name and its honor by her action she responds that “what I do is no concern to anyone but me,” she is insisting on deploying the individualist project and exiting from society. Indeed, no less an authority than the Qur’an is marshaled to the cause of individualism by Mu’minah: “In the last instance, we do not know that no one carries the burden of others, and that each soul receives every good that it earns, and suffers every ill that it earns.” How is desire, which presupposes sociality, liberated in an asocial individualist world? The play provides inadequate answers at best to the very question it raises. . .

              While Arab intellectuals, following Orientalism and the colonial encounter, came to perceive the existence of the Arabs principally in terms of civilization and culture, there emerges in the literature they produced an elaboration and an occasional contestation of the place of sexual desires in wider discourses and practices of modernity. It is at these rarer moments when the impositions and seduction of Western norms fail that the possibility of different conceptions of desire, politics, and subjectivities emerge. My hope is that the critique that Desiring Arabs offers marks an instance of that possibility.