Saturday, August 21, 2010

Every Man In This Village Is A Liar by Megan K. Stack

Megan Stack was a national correspondent based in Houston who was vacationing in Paris on September 11. Although without any previous experience in reporting war she was never-the-less rushed to the scene in Pakistan and spent the next seven years covering 'the news' in various locations throughout the region. She acknowledges the debt she owes to Majeed Babar ( who “lightened my first days at war in Afghanistan and permanently impressed upon me the need to look for society's most vulnerable victims, even or especially in the midst of conflict.”

By 2005, American enthusiasm for Arab democracy was sinking back into silence. Every time Arabs voted – in Beirut, in Gaza City, in Karbala – Islamists grew more powerful. Hezbollah and Hamas were gaining sway. In Egypt, the most populous Arab country and the psychological core of the region, rippled with tension between Islam and democracy. There was only one source of serious political opposition to the Egyptian autocracy, a single party potentially strong enough to unseat the government – and that was the Muslim Brotherhood, a nonviolent Islamist movement with deep roots across Egypt.

Officially, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed, but the reality was nuanced. The government would pass through bouts of tolerance, then abruptly round up activists and raid party offices in crackdowns. Nobody stood to gain more from democratic reform than the Brotherhood, because no other force in Egypt had its legitimate popularity, the grassroots credentials, the air of moral authority. And yet the United States refused to speak with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is illegal, U.S. Policy went, and therefore we will not recognize it. Now there would be parliamentary elections, and I would watch the race from the battleground of Damanhour.

I'd hired Hossam, a bohemian city kid who moved among the intellectuals and expatriates of Cairo, as a reporter and translator. He was a stalwart socialist with a shamefaced penchant for lattes from Starbucks, music by Moby, and Scandinavian death metal bands. Sucking a ceaseless string of Marlboros, he waved his arms and rambled about how the left would eventually join ranks with the popular Muslim Brotherhood and form an overpowering opposition block.

The first night we rode the grinding road north from Cairo to Damanhour, I met the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Gamal Heshmat. On that sharp night, the Muslim Brotherhood had called a political rally, and Heshmat would speak to his hometown. The silt of autumn dark thickened on the square. From the front row, we had a good view of a towering Koran and a podium under pictures of crossed swords. Hossam and I stood and gawked. There were hundreds of people. No, thousands. You couldn't see the vanishing point where the faithful tapered into the night; their bodies faded down every side street and alleyway.

Hossam's eyes swelled huge enough to reflect the moon. His swagger had melted away. “I can't believe it,” he muttered. “It makes the left look like shit.”

“ How many people do you think this is? It must be every man in town.”

“Yeah,” Hossam said. “Shit”.

The secular, pro-democracy demonstrations we'd covered back in Cairo were nothing by comparison. A ragtag army of aging labor leaders, embattled human rights workers, scruffy bloggers, and rheumy professors would rally on a tiny scrap of stained pavement pavement. Now we were far from Cairo's hallucinatory concrete forests; stars gleamed in the black sky and there unfolded a subversive force on a scale we'd never seen in the capital. These men were factory workers, farmers, and fathers, not political activists. They turned up because the Muslim Brotherhood had invited them, and stood quietly, filling the streets and listening to their leaders. There were women, too, veiled, robed, and arranged in careful rows. Men and boys linked hands to form a human screen of segregation between the sexes.

A sheik from the ancient Al Azhar university warmed up the crowd, his voice rising a dropping in evangelical waves. He preached politics, preached Islam, preached divine intervention. He was calling down God, calling out the votes. He was magnetic.

“Corruption is a disease that has destroyed our country. Those who accept life without religion have accepted annihilation.”

“We will not compromise, we will not bow down. We've come to hate low voices. Every minute that passes is too much time.”

He steered his talk from heaven to earth and back again...They might mock us for it, but we'll pray to Gd to send his wrath. We will shout, 'God is on our side,' and he will compensate us for what his happening.”

When the candidate took the stage, a murmur passed through the crowd.

“Who are they, and who are we?” he demanded of the crowd. “They are the princes, the sultans, they have the money. They make shows with music. They play politics but all they're really good at is putting more brass on their shoulders.”

“The youth of this nation are just sitting in coffee shops, jumping into boats, trying to get to Italy,” he said. “Are we a country without natural resources? Are we a country without a professional class? Are we a country of politically immature people? Are we going to take that talk from the government? How dare they say that?”

A single voice rose like a wisp of smoke from the crowds.

Inshallah...” God willing.

The night exploded into voices. The men sprayed fake snow into the darkness, poked fingers into the sky, and hollered, “Victory is for Islam.” They spread out and marched aimlessly, as if it didn't matter where they went- as if they owned the whole town, as if the vast stretches of the country beyond had already fallen into their laps, a rich gift from God. The banners passed. “Islam, we are for you.” “May you make a staircase of our skulls and go high to glory.” “If your banner gets thirsty, our youth will give their blood.”

Such a thing seemed possible in this strange witching hour, that their skulls could pile one on top of the other, that they could clamor to the sky. I tried to imagine what they imagined; tried to feel the fire of faith when you had nothing else to hold.

Some people argue that the popularity of political Islam is exaggerated. Others say that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are only powerful because repressive rulers have shut down every single public platform except the mosque. But that night sowed a simpler truth: These people were profoundly religious. Poor and abused, they passed faith from one generation to the next because it was he only precious thing they could bequeath. They didn't trust the greedy, potbellied suits in the capital- those people meant corruption and sin. They rallied to the Islamists who came from their towns and mosques because they felt at home with them and recognized in their piety a reflection of their own moral values. The people weren't stupid; they knew these Brothers represented problems, too. But this was their life, the devil they new. I thought about the powerful Christian movements back home. Could Americans see nothing of ourselves here?

On voting day I wanted to cover an election, and instead I had to fight in the street. I thought about the teahouse diplomats who came to see but didn't bother to look; about how my own government pumped Egypt full of billions of dollars and then some, asking nothing in return but the maintenance of a frosty peace with Israel. I remembered the American human rights official who told me that Egypt, of all the Arab states, came the closest to having a modern-day gulag, and the U.S. officials who mostly stayed silent in the face of torture and arrest and misery. The pictures swam through my mind: soldiers beating people bloody to keep them from voting; four-course lunches with necktie-clad Americans at the embassy in Cairo; the knowledge that my own government lurked in the background, propping up this machine of greasy, perverted men, not seeing this because it was convenient not to see.

The election was rigged. Gamal Heshmat lost in his hometown of Damanhour.


  1. Here is the truth: It matters what you do at war. It matters more than you ever want to know. Because countries, like people, have collective consciences and memories and souls, and the violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who were are. We may wish it were not so, but action amounts to identity. We become what we do. You can tell yourself all the stories you want, but you can't leave your actions over there in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can't build a wall and expect to live on the other side of memory. All of that poison seeps back into our soil.

    And it makes us lie to ourselves, precisely because we want to believe that we are good, we do not want to interrupt a noble national narrative. But there are things we try to obscure by talking about terrorism: things we do to others, and to ourselves. Only the mos hawkish Israelis say that they are oppressing people in order to take away their land. There are other stories to tell; other ways to frame and explain military campaigns. Israelis are looking for security; they are fighting terror; it is ugly but they have no choice. Every nation needs its stories, never more than in times of war. And so Israelis tell themselves they are making the desert bloom, that they are the only democracy in the Middle East, a humane land that is sometimes forced to behave inhumanly, and we Americans tell ourselves that we are fighting tyranny and toppling dictators. And we say this word, 'terrorism', because it has become the best excuse of all. We push into other lands, we chase the ghosts of a concept, because it is too hard to admit that evil is already in our hearts and blood is on our hands.

  2. “Every Man In This Village Is A Liar; An Education in War” By Megan K. Stack; Doubleday, 2010

    “There is nothing further away from Washington than the entire world.”- Arthur Miller