Book Review: Kill Khalid

kill khalidIt happened quickly. On a lazy Thursday afternoon, somewhere in Amman’s Tla Al Ali district, Hamas leader Khalid Mishal saw nothing more than a blur of movement as he emerged from his car only to be faced with two unknown assailants. The sound of an explosion nearby, a tussle of activity as Mishal’s driver, Abu Maher lurched at the would-be attackers, and a whirling sound in Mishal’s ear, was all it took. One of the attackers hurled a coca cola can at Abu Maher before both fled the scene, heading for a getaway car a few meters away. Mishal’s men gave chase, and in what unfolded like the typical plot of a James Bond film, the amateur assassins were eventually pinned down. Initially believed to be a failed assassination, Mishal and his men would soon discover otherwise as the Amman-based Hamas leader grew suddenly sick only several hours after the attack. He had been poisoned. Mossad’s head, David Yatom rushed to Amman hours later, as Mishal lay in a hospital bed, to tell the late King Hussein one simple fact: “We did it. He’ll die in 24 hours. We sprayed him with a chemical. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

While such a scene may be easily mistaken to be the climax of this tale, war correspondent and Australian journalist, Paul McGough cleverly weaves together a story filled with intrigue that would rival the best of modern day thriller novels. The only difference is, this tale is true. In Kill Khalid, McGeough tells not only the story of Khalid Mishal’s brush with death in 1997, but that of his life as well. From his birth in Palestine to his upbringing in Kuwait and the rapid development of his political and religious beliefs during his university years, it is perhaps somewhat significant that Mishal’s life fit within the context of its single most defining event that could have meant his demise but, instead, became his power chip, elevating him to unprecedented stature in the Middle East political game.
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Book Review | “If I Were Another” By Mahmoud Darwish

mahmoud darwish poem poetry poet if i were another bookI read “If I Were Another”, a collection of beautiful poems by Darwish some time ago. The collection was released in 2009, and having purchased it in Beirut back in December, I thought today, the day that Darwish left us some two short years ago, was a symbolic day to retrieve it from my bookshelf and review it. Well, not really review it. I hate reviewing poetry books. My love for the art doesn’t allow me to do so subconsciously. And I have to much respect for someone like Darwish to dare slap that label on it. So call this more of an attempt to share a piece of his work.

To begin with, I’ve always found Darwish’s poetry in the original Arabic to be musical, but even in their English form they seem to resonate a certain honesty in his storytelling that made him such a rich writer. Fady Joudah, who translated “If I Were Another”, writes an interesting observation in the book’s introduction describing the work. Joudah writes:

“A consumate poet at the acne of innermost experience, simulteansously personal and universal, between the death of language and physical death, Darwish created something uniquely his: the treatise of a private speech become collective.”

I absolutely love that last sentiment: a treatise of a private speech become collective. That’s exactly what made Darwish’s poem speak so loudly to so many people, whether they were inherently part of the struggle from which he was born, or simply bystanders window-shopping on the avenues of an ongoing history. Darwish’s poems were like private conversations that one might whisper to oneself in a reminiscent state, but he gave these very conversations a collective voice.

“If I Were Another” brings together some of Darwish’s most interesting works from the past two decades, including the memorable Mural. Each poem is an epic unto its own, and the book illuminates short pieces like “A Music Sentence” simultaneously with the detailed prose of pieces like “The Tragedy of Narcissus”, all in one breath. Who am I? – the recurrent question in many of Darwish’s later poems is scattered throughout: “Who am I after the strangers night? / I used to walk to the self along with others, and here I am losing the self and others”.

But it is perhaps the lengthy Mural, written after his first encounter with death, that perhaps resonates the loudest on a day like today. A sad tale of self-exploration, Darwish tries to find some reconciliation in the journey to self:

Who am I?
The Song of Songs
or the university’s wisdom?
Both of us are me…
and I am a poet
and a king
and a sage on the well’s edge,
no cloud in my hand,
no eleven planets
on my temple,
my body is fed up with me,
my eternity is fed up with me,
and my tomorrow
is sitting on my chair
like a crown of dust.

Book Review | Samir Kassir’s “Being Arab”

On June 2, 2005, just weeks after the Cedar Revolution resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, prominent Al Nahar journalist Samir Kassir started his car at 10:30am and seconds later he was dead. An outspoken critic of the Syrian regime’s political and physical presence within Lebanon, Kassir’s assassination sparked an investigation that seemed to point all the fingers in one direction, yet, till today, it is an assassination that remains unsolved. Today, his office at Al Nahar remains untouched as he had left it, including the newspaper he last read, while behind the publication’s building, lies a square named in his honor, playing host to a single bronze statue of the fallen journalist, perhaps symbolizing his memory as a contemporary figure in Lebanon’s intellectual circles. For by the time Kassir was killed at the age of 45, he had already produced a volume of work to be reckoned with, in both French and Arabic, depicting his views on Lebanese history and politics as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; two topics he was well versed in. Indeed, by the time of his death, Kassir had garnered a reputation for holding opinions that not only rubbed many the wrong way, but the vocalization of which would likely cost a man his life. In the end, it probably did.

“So who murdered Samir Kassir?” asks world renowned journalist Robert Fisk in an article published in The Independent the day after Kassir’s death. It is this question that Fisk repeats throughout his analytical, yet angry piece republished in Kassir’s book as a relevant introduction. While Fisk and the rest of the world may have their valid suspicions, who murdered Smair Kassir remains an unanswered question, and more importantly, perhaps an increasingly relevant one in the context of Kassir’s book.
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Book Review | Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

One of my new year’s resolutions is to read a lot more. The problem is that I tend to make this resolution every year but life tends to get in the way. So this year I figured my blog could come in handy by providing me the space to review what I read; the good, the bad and the ugly.
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What can be said about Dan Brown’s follow up to the worldwide hit, The Da Vinci Code? Unfortunately, fairly little. It’s no secret that Brown is a fairly poor writer in literary terms. At the heart of his novels are a bulk of historical information that is interesting – like a national geographic documentary – and presented in the form of a thrilling story. It is usually the story that tends to fall apart, while the information remains fairly interesting. In the case of The Lost Symbol, Brown takes his key character, symbologist Robert Langdon, on a journey to one of the most secret-filled, conspiracy-laden cities in the world, Washington D.C.

This time, the story focuses on Freemasons, and Langdon’s attempt to rescue an old and influential friend (who is a freemason) from the murderous grips of a calculating man whose agenda is a mystery that unfolds slowly throughout the story. Langdon is tricked in to coming to D.C. to serve a purpose – deciphering a pyramid that has been held by Freemasons for generations and supposedly points the direction to a location in the city that is said to hold, well, whatever. Is it even important in a Brown novel? The story is as formulaic as one can imagine. There is always a strange villain with strange habits (an albino that himself or, in this case, a guy who really like tattoos), and there’s always a female character by Langon’s side who has absolutely no romantic connection to him, and of course, both of them can be found running from one location to another deciphering clues in the architecture of buildings all of which are in plain site. Rinse and repeat.
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Free Speech & The Prophet’s Wife In The Jewel Of Medina

Author’s Note: I decided to write this disclaimer after I finished writing this post for the sole purpose of encouraging anyone wishing to comment on the post or the subject matter that there is a need to read the post all the way through. It should also be noted that I have not read the novel but that is not the point of this post. Thanks.

Free speech is a difficult course to maneuver. The brewing controversy of the historical-fiction novel, “The Jewel of Medina”, depicting Ai’isha (ra), the youngest wife of the Prophet (pbuh), provides one of those moments where you have to sit back and ponder the philosophical aspects of free speech. It’s a timely query given that the world just marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression for every human being on this planet.

Everyone has a position when it comes to free speech. Everyone mentally draws arbitrary red lines and fights for them. What is considered permissible for one person to say may be a breaking point for another. We grapple with this issue from time to time in our own lives. What to say and what not to say in certain moments, in certain social settings, amidst a certain audience. Work, school, life. Even when it comes to designing a suitable commenting policy on this little blog, free speech is at the center of my own internal debate, and it is one that evolves until a certain compromise is reached. A social contract.

And therein lies the key word perhaps: compromise.

As human beings, our lives are lived based on a series of compromises we choose to make on a daily basis. Again, even this compromise has an arbitrary nature to it, but nevertheless, we draw lines in order to compromise; in order to find an unwritten, unspoken middle ground where most parties are satisfied with the end result. The exception to this rule is the metaphorical mad man who scream racist obscenities on the street corner as people pass him by. Outcast. Excommunicated. Exiled for the lack of willingness (or ability) to compromise.

We make compromises because, in short, as human beings, we would rather live a life where we don’t annoy one another. It is the only way to get along on this planet.

But the arbitrary nature of this alone must be a living nightmare for free-speech advocates. What do we fight for? Is it the right to speak? Ah. But what about what is being said? Who fights for that? Who fights for the unpredictable?

Enter “The Jewel of Medina”, a novel that has been generally categorized as historical-fiction, which depicts the life of Ai’isha’ (ra) rather exotically, with the Prophet (pbuh) not faring to well either. In an interesting New York Times book review, Lorraine Adams says of the author Sherry Jones:

…An inexperienced, untalented author has naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument. She has conducted enough research to reimagine the accepted versions of Muhammad’s marriage to A’isha, thus offending the religious audience, but not nearly enough to enlighten the ordinary Western reader.

Adams goes on to quote the author of “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A’isha Bint Abi Bakr”, Denise Spellberg, as saying of “The Jewel of Medina”:

“I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography.”

In a Wall Street Journal review, Spellberg is quoted as calling the book a “very ugly, stupid piece of work,” and more explosive than Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” or the Danish Cartoons.

Which begs the question of what compels someone in this day and age to produce such a work with the full knowledge that it is deemed offensive? The motives are questionable. Is such a work designed to inspire controversy (thus sales)? Or is it merely done to achieve the goal of irking the Muslim world? Or is their a pure and honest attempt at making something…innocent?

Attempting to dissect an author’s intentions is folly, so I’ll avoid doing so. Suffice to say, while I, as a Muslim, completely reject the decision to create something like this and the subject matter itself, I would not necessarily deny its right to be published. Emphasis on the world “necessarily” as this is, after all, a struggle with something philosophical in essence. Reading blogs and various publications, there are plenty of people who I not only disagree with, but whose opinions offend me and my beliefs on a personal level, as they do, deliberately, to many others. However, given the power, I would never look to shut them down. Some how, that decision becomes more debatable at the prospect of a book, intended to be read by millions in a western hemisphere that is already confused and generally ignorant about Islamic history and beliefs. The audience, changes everything. As do the intentions. As does the context.

However, my intention here is to grapple with the element of free speech itself in this specific context. Not in an American context or an Islamic context, but in a universally-declared human right context. Americans have struggled with the concept since independence and have managed to survive its various conundrums, while the Islamic world, depraved of the right to speak, is still learning to deal with the onslaught of work deemed religiously and culturally offensive that flows from the west in this post-911 world. The latter is a starved and tortured lion stuck in a circus cage. Constantly poked by his adversaries he lashes out between the bars while the crowd declares “look at the mad man”.

In that same review, Adams ponders:

Should free-speech advocates champion “The Jewel of Medina”? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don’t generally applaud them. If Jones’s work doesn’t reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art.

I am cautious of writing posts like these, preferring a mode of self-censorship in order to avoid the inevitable annoyance of cliche writings from commentators. The potential scenarios. Someone will ignore the heart of this entire matter and mention Ai’isha’s (ra) age, inciting someone else to retort. Eventually this will evolve in to some obscene clash-of-civilizations-type exchange of heated propositions. In the midst, the red lines get pushed further and further.

But this is the interesting part of free speech; what makes it such an exciting element -that volatile nature. The unpredictable (and sometimes predictable) nature of where and how a discussion will evolve. What will become of it. Based on my own observations, the results are sometimes positive and sometimes not. How this particular discussion may evolve (or if it does at all) will force me to sit and watch and wonder where to arbitrarily draw a line; where to declare “stop” and call a compromise. I’ll continue to wonder what free speech means in the philosophical context and in my own context; in my-side-of-the-world context.

I’ll continue to wonder if free speech is really just a series of compromises that are followed by a series of regrets.

A Post 9/11 World: The Graphic Adaptation

FP Passport has an interesting feature on what is best described as “graphical journalism”. The book, “After 9/11″, is essentially a graphical representation of the 9/11 Commission report. You can hear about the artists/authors on NPR.

The reason I wanted to post this is mainly because I am always fascinated, if not infatuated, with how information is being disseminated these days. It used to be such a monochromatic field: books, newspapers, radio, TV. Now it has expanded to new realms like the Internet, blogs, community radio, podcasts, and yes, even graphic novels of this sort. It is an interesting way to present information and in this case, I’m also wondering on how it impacts the historical relevance. In other words, if history is written by the victors, how will that change with more mediums and more players in the information game? How will it impact younger generations that didn’t live through the events, keeping in mind that the majority of undergraduate students at universities around the world can hardly remember 9/11?

If anything, I think there should be an Arabized interpretation that documents the post-9/11 world from our perspective (I know one Jordanian company that might be up to that task). Given the fact that this region and its people have been the most affected by 9/11 – whether economically, politically, socially or even in terms of body count – we should be making more use of these new and creative mediums to portray our own histories.

It shouldn’t necessarily be written by the victors, or, in this case, uhem, the liberators.

comic terrorism 9/11 iraq afghanistan book history war

comic terrorism 9/11 iraq afghanistan book history war

You can see the other pages here.