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العنصريّة العريقة

Wednesday, May 23, 2007
خالد صاغيّة
عدد الأربعاء
٢٣ أيار

ذات يوم، وبعد حرب أهليّة مديدة، ارتأى اللبنانيّون أنّهم إخوة. صافح بعضهم بعضاً، وأشاروا بأصابعهم إلى ذاك الفلسطينيّ الذي جاء ليفتن بينهم. سجنوه داخل بضعة أمتار مربّعة. أقفلوا المخيّم جيّداً، ومنعوا عنه الهواء.
ذات يوم، وبعد صراع سياسيّ حادّ، بدأت أصوات تعلو من أفاعي السلطة وصقور المعارضة لتحميل ذاك المخيّم الصغير مسؤوليّة وصول البلاد، مرّة أخرى، إلى حافة الهاوية. والفريقان لا يفتقران إلى شخصيات وأحزاب ذات باع طويل في التعاطي العنصريّ مع «الغريب»، ومع الفلسطينيّ خاصة.
ولم يخفّف من حماسة هؤلاء عدد القتلى المدنيّين الذين يتساقطون على أرض المخيّم البارد. ولم يسهم في كمّ أفواه دعاة «تنظيف البيت الفلسطيني» أنّ «فتح الإسلام» ليست إلا إحدى المجموعات الإسلامية المتطرّفة المنتشرة خارج المخيّمات، كما داخلها. ولم يحدّ من تلك التصريحات المعادية للفلسطينيّين أنّ تقارير عدّة تتّهم جهات لبنانيّة نافذة في تمويل هذه المجموعات. ولم يطرح أيّ من المستفيقين على عنصريّتهم العريقة قضيّة إهمال الدولة المتعمّد لمناطق لبنانيّة بأكملها، لتبقى مطيّة سهلة في المواسم الانتخابيّة التي كانت السلطة تديرها من أروقة الفنادق الفخمة.
إنّ للانقسامات السياسيّة الحادّة أثماناً باهظة في مجتمعات لا تكاد تجمع على شيء. وللسياسات الاقتصادية المسرفة في وحشيّتها أثمان باهظة في مجتمعات تغيب عنها التقديمات الاجتماعيّة. ثمّة إشارات إلى أنّ الفوضى في لبنان انطلقت. فتح ــــ الإسلام ليست سبباً. إنّها مجرّد قشرة طفت على السطح.ا

Not for commercial use. For educational purposes only.


A Court without the Law

Thursday, April 12, 2007
UN manipulates international justice
Lebanon: A Court without the Law

Le Monde Diplomatique. April 2007

A climate of distrust reigns in Lebanon, the scene of a silent civil war. The status of the international criminal court invented to prosecute the killers of the prime minister, Rafik Hariri, is part of the problem, further complicating the formation of a government of national unity.

The United Nations Security Council began an exceptional international investigation after the death of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in a bomb attack on 14 February 2005. It may lead to a special tribunal with extraordinary powers. There is nothing surprising about this; consider the jurisdictions established by the UN, or under its aegis, for former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia (1). But in the case of Lebanon there are no actual international crimes to prosecute. Several aspects of the investigation suggest that international justice is being manipulated. It is too fragile to endure such ill treatment.

We should be in no doubt about the political nature of the Security Council. The UN Charter established it that way. The council enjoys far-reaching discretionary powers, with few legal checks or balances on its actions. However, under the pretence of upholding the law, there have been serious violations of civil liberties, while nothing has been done to resolve the situation in Lebanon. This is particularly so with the Hariri investigation. The special tribunal is still no more than a project, yet it is already worsening tension.

The Security Council set up the international independent investigation commission (IIIC) at the instigation of Beirut. It was to be headed by a German prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis (2). UN Resolution 1595 of 7 April 2005 instructed the commission to assist the Lebanese authorities in “identifying the perpetrators” of the terrorist bomb that killed Hariri and called “for the strict respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence of Lebanon under the sole and exclusive authority of the government”. But it also noted that “the Lebanese investigation process suffers from serious flaws and has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible conclusion”.

On 3 June 2005, the UN and Beirut signed an agreement settling the terms for their cooperation. The IIIC would supervise the work of the Lebanese authorities, which were relegated to a secondary role. The commission would not restrict itself to independent fact-finding, but carry out a complete criminal investigation. None of the usual checks and balances applied. Lebanese authorities, especially the courts, could no longer act on their own initiative, their role being to answer the IIIC’s questions.

In Resolution 1636, adopted on 19 October 2005 after the IIIC’s presentation of its first report, the Security Council commended the Lebanese authorities for their full cooperation and congratulated them on “the courageous decisions they have already taken… upon recommendation of the commission, in particular the arrest and indictment of former Lebanese security officials suspected of involvement in this terrorist act.”

The Security Council considered that the crime and its implications were a threat to international peace and security, and so, for the first time, invoked chapter VII of its charter, which covers actions taken in response to such a threat. It required states to take measures against suspects identified by the IIIC. The first report alleged that there was plenty of evidence implicating high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese officials directly or indirectly in the assassination. The second report, submitted on 10 December 2005, prompted another resolution (1644, 15 December).

A new phase

The replacement of Mehlis, the controversial chief investigator, by a Belgian criminologist, Serge Brammertz, began a new phase, different from before. The IIIC became more cautious and less provocative in its behaviour in the field and the content of its reports. Resolution 1644 mentioned for the first time the creation of an international tribunal.

The IIIC presented its third report in March 2006. The Security Council then asked the secretary-general to “negotiate an agreement with the government of Lebanon aimed at establishing a tribunal… based on the highest international standards of criminal justice.” The document distinguished “the adoption of the legal basis of, and framework for, the tribunal” and “the gradual phasing-in of its components.” The start of its work would depend on progress with the investigation.

By doing that, the Security Council loosed a spectre that has since haunted both the enquiry and Lebanon’s internal affairs.

The affair became critical when the secretary-general sent a draft agreement to the Lebanese government on 10 November 2006, proposing that most of those who would serve on the special tribunal would be international judges; there would only be a few from Lebanon. The Office of the Prosecutor would be an independent body: a prosecutor appointed by the secretary-general plus a Beirut-appointed deputy prosecutor. The court would be empowered to judge those accused of involvement in the Hariri assassination, and of other murders committed after 1 October 2004.

A system of concurrent competence with the Lebanese courts would be set up to deal with the “other murders,” although the primacy of the international tribunal would be maintained. It would base its judgments on local criminal law. The agreement added: “Appropriate arrangements shall be made to ensure that there is a coordinated transition from the activities of the IIIC… to the activities of the Office of the Prosecutor,” confirming the IIIC’s criminal focus. It promised “the special tribunal shall commence functioning on a date to be determined by the secretary-general in consultation with the government, taking into account the progress of the work of the IIIC.”

The Lebanese government -- without its Shia Amal and Hizbullah ministers who had resigned -- approved the draft on 13 November 2006, but the court is still a long way from its first hearing. There are several legal and technical hurdles yet to be overcome. Unless the political situation in Lebanon changes, there will be no progress made with the internal constitutional procedure, which is delaying ratification of the agreement with the UN.

President Emile Lahoud, whose approval is required, is against the plan. Parliament must approve the agreement but its Shia speaker, Nabih Berri, has so far refused to do so.

A serious preliminary question

The particular powers of the tribunal raise a serious preliminary question. Under the terms of its draft statutes it will focus primarily on the Hariri assassination, referred to as a “terrorist act.” It can also prosecute other killings committed between 1 October 2004 and 12 December 2005, and even later crimes, if the Lebanese government and the Security Council agree. At least until now, the killings came under the jurisdiction of the Lebanese courts.

UN resolution 1595 originally qualified the attacks as acts of terrorism. Then resolution 1636 added that chapter VII of the UN charter applied to the Hariri assassination. Yet the laws of Lebanon still apply and its courts are still competent to judge these crimes. International conventions on acts of terrorism require states to condemn and prosecute such crimes, this being the preserve of national jurisdictions enforcing national law. Until resolution 1664 the bomb attacks did not count as crimes that needed to be tried by an international tribunal.

In fact, the UN has only previously taken such measures to prosecute the most serious international crimes. The courts set up to prosecute those responsible for ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia and the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda have competence over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. They are not competent to prosecute any other crimes, even those covered by international conventions but which fall within the competence of national courts.

The special tribunal for Lebanon would be the first international jurisdiction established exclusively to prosecute less serious crimes that are only international because the Security Council decided they should be so. It would be the only international court with the task of enforcing national law, with the addition of provisions excluding capital punishment. This measure emphasises the importance the UN attaches to prosecuting the murder of leading Lebanese figures. It is unlikely that this episode will enhance the image of the UN or of international justice.

Last summer’s fighting between Hizbullah and Israeli forces claimed 40 civilian lives in Israel and more than 1,000 in Lebanon. On both sides of the border several hundred thousand refugees had to flee their homes under extreme duress. People who came home to Lebanon after the conflict are still in mortal danger and will go on being endangered by unexploded anti-personnel mines and other munitions. The war caused massive destruction of civilian sites in Lebanon and substantial damage on the Israeli side.

Some of the deaths, injuries, population displacement and destruction were the result of serious violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Protocol on the protection of the victims of international armed conflicts. These violations were serious war crimes, ranking with crimes against humanity and genocide. But no UN resolution has recognised them as such, or condemned them. There has never been any question of setting up an international commission, let alone a tribunal, to investigate the violations of humanitarian law committed during the 33 days of fighting.

Are some deaths more important than others?

This is in stark contrast with the treatment reserved for Hariri’s assassins. It suggests that the international community thinks some deaths are more politically important than others. It damages the credibility of humanitarian law and gives the impression that political considerations drive international justice.

Undeniably, international criminal justice is a way of restoring and maintaining peace, and as such may serve the fundamental aims of the UN. Until now international criminal tribunals never appeared to serve other aims but this is no longer the case.

The attitude of the forces competing for power in Lebanon towards the tribunal has been partial and self-seeking from the start. The supporters of the current parliamentary majority, which backs the government of Fuad Siniora, believe that only an international court would dare rule that Syrian agents infiltrated deep into the Lebanese state were implicated in the assassination (3). They have the obvious support of the United States, France and influential Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia; and they are convinced that by denouncing crimes said to be carried out on orders from Damascus they will help Lebanon free itself from foreign domination.

The Security Council seems to have been a party to this, and to have decided to encourage the projected tribunal. It is easy to understand why the Syrian authorities should oppose what they see as a hostile move. The Lebanese opposition, especially Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic movement led by General Michel Aoun, support this view. The opposition groups see themselves as the true defenders of Lebanese independence, combating its real enemies -- the powers that enslave the peoples of the Middle East and want to disarm the Lebanese resistance led by Hizbullah. They are convinced the international tribunal is a tool in the hands of these powers and that talk of punishing Hariri’s killers is a pretext. They are afraid the UN might decide to extend the tribunal’s powers and have cited this as a reason for resigning from the government, which deprived the government of its legitimacy. (It now seems to be hardly more than a pawn moved by foreign powers.)

One side has always seen the court as a way of avenging the death of political figures while combating the Syrian regime; the other side saw it as a tool for the US, Israel and France. These views have mobilised opposing factions in Lebanese society, paralysed the country and triggered fighting. The court is a hostage in this conflict, having lost its way before it even had a chance to operate as a real court, prosecuting crimes.

Worse still, under the pretence of setting up the tribunal, rough justice has been meted out to the suspects taken into custody by the IIIC. They include four Lebanese generals, officially designated as the perpetrators of the attack on Hariri. The Security Council repeated this allegation in resolution 1636, intended to oblige the Syrian government to cooperate with the IIIC. Those in custody have been denied their legal rights, in violation of the most basic standards upheld by the UN, especially the international covenant on civil and political rights of 16 December 1966.

A succession of mistakes

As with the other prisoners, the predicament of General Jamil al-Sayed is the result of a succession of mistakes by the commission and the lack of an impartial independent court to which to appeal. The behaviour of the IIIC was reprehensible when Mehlis was in charge. Although al-Sayed said that he had no knowledge of the preparation and execution of Hariri’s assassination, he was pressed to name credible culprits -- that is, to give false testimony. The IIIC has proof, provided by al-Sayed, of this attempt to pervert the course of justice. The offer was made in relatively friendly terms before his arrest, then repeated more forcefully once he was in custody.

He was arrested on 30 August 2005, on a search warrant issued by the commission, which alleged that he was directly implicated in the planning and execution of the attack on Hariri. Not until three days after his arrest did a Lebanese prosecutor formally register that after a brief interrogation he had been taken into custody. The IIIC subsequently ruled that al-Sayed should not be released on bail; officially it was not empowered to make arrests or to take decisions on bail.

Brammertz, the chief investigator, has since made it quite clear in his letters to the defence that only the Lebanese courts have such powers. But abuses of this sort are part of the rationale beneath the Security Council’s decision to set up the tribunal.

No specific charges have been brought against al-Sayed or the other suspects. They have not been able to consult evidence submitted to the Lebanese authorities during the IIIC investigation. Hearings have been conducted with or without defence lawyers, who have never been allowed to talk to their clients in private. Al-Sayed, despite repeated requests, has never been confronted with the “witnesses” cited by IIIC reports, apart from one person who was wearing a mask.

After Mehlis left office, these abuses stopped, and the IIIC has not interrogated al-Sayed since. Its conduct of the investigation now seems acceptable. All the evidence cited in its first two reports has been checked and shown to be unfounded; the last four reports do not refer to the suspicions to which the Security Council unwisely reacted.

However al-Sayed and his fellow suspects have not been able to lodge any complaints. Officially it is up to the Lebanese courts to uphold the law of the land. Having hurriedly complied with the commission’s recommendations when Mehlis was in command, they are now refusing to assume any responsibility for those in custody. There is no higher authority to which those in custody may appeal.

All the talk about an international criminal tribunal seems to have been a cover-up for a travesty of justice at national and international level. The problem is the system invented by the Security Council in resolution 1595. The projected international tribunal is a key factor in the failure to uphold law and order.


(1) A distinction must be drawn between these special tribunals and the International Criminal Court, in the Hague, established in July 2002. It prosecutes genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed all over the world. Neither the United States nor Israel have recognised the ICC.

(2) Sami Moubayed published a good criticism ("The ball is now in Syria's court") of the report on SyriaComment.com, 27 October 2005. See also Robert Parry, "The dangerously incomplete Hariri report", Consortiumnews.com, 23 October 2005.

(3) See Georges Corm, "Lebanon, a cedar ready to fall", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, April 2005, and Alain Gresh, "Syria, a concerted offensive", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, December 2005.

[Translated by Harry Forster]

Géraud de Geouffre de La Pradelle is Emeritus Professor of Law at Paris University X-Nanterre; Antoine Korkmaz is a barrister in Paris; and Rafaëlle Maison lectures at the University of Picardie.

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The Native Informant

Monday, April 9, 2007
Adam Shatz. The Nation. April 10, 2003

Late last August, at a reunion of Korean War veterans in San Antonio, Texas, Dick Cheney tried to assuage concerns that a unilateral, pre-emptive war against Iraq might "cause even greater troubles in that part of the world." He cited a well-known Arab authority: "As for the reaction of the Arab street, the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation in Basra and Baghdad, the streets are sure to erupt in joy." As the bombs fell over Baghdad, just before American troops began to encounter fierce Iraqi resistance, Ajami could scarcely conceal his glee. "We are now coming into acquisition of Iraq," he announced on CBS News the morning of March 22. "It's an amazing performance."

If Hollywood ever makes a film about Gulf War II, a supporting role should be reserved for Ajami, the director of Middle East Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. His is a classic American success story. Born in 1945 to Shiite parents in the remote southern Lebanese village of Arnoun and now a proud naturalized American, Ajami has become the most politically influential Arab intellectual of his generation in the United States. Condoleezza Rice often summons him to the White House for advice, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a friend and former colleague, has paid tribute to him in several recent speeches on Iraq. Although he has produced little scholarly work of value, Ajami is a regular guest on CBS News, Charlie Rose and the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, and a frequent contributor to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. His ideas are also widely recycled by acolytes like Thomas Friedman and Judith Miller of the Times.

Ajami's unique role in American political life has been to unpack the unfathomable mysteries of the Arab and Muslim world and to help sell America's wars in the region. A diminutive, balding man with a dramatic beard, stylish clothes and a charming, almost flirtatious manner, he has played his part brilliantly. On television, he radiates above-the-frayness, speaking with the wry, jaded authority that men in power admire, especially in men who have risen from humble roots. Unlike the other Arabs, he appears to have no ax to grind. He is one of us; he is the good Arab.

Ajami's admirers paint him as a courageous gadfly who has risen above the tribal hatreds of the Arabs, a Middle Eastern Spinoza whose honesty has earned him the scorn of his brethren. Commentary editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz, one of his many right-wing American Jewish fans, writes that Ajami "has been virtually alone in telling the truth about the attitude toward Israel of the people from whom he stems." The people from whom Ajami "stems" are, of course, the Arabs, and Ajami's ethnicity is not incidental to his celebrity. It lends him an air of authority not enjoyed by non-Arab polemicists like Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes.

But Ajami is no gadfly. He is, in fact, entirely a creature of the American establishment. His once-luminous writing, increasingly a blend of Naipaulean clichés about Muslim pathologies and Churchillian rhetoric about the burdens of empire, is saturated with hostility toward Sunni Arabs in general (save for pro-Western Gulf Arabs, toward whom he is notably indulgent), and to Palestinians in particular. He invites comparison with Henry Kissinger, another émigré intellectual to achieve extraordinary prominence as a champion of American empire. Like Kissinger, Ajami has a suave television demeanor, a gravitas-lending accent, an instinctive solicitude for the imperatives of power and a cool disdain for the weak. And just as Kissinger cozied up to Nelson Rockefeller and Nixon, so has Ajami attached himself to such powerful patrons as Laurence Tisch, former chairman of CBS; Mort Zuckerman, the owner of US News & World Report; Martin Peretz, a co-owner of The New Republic; and Leslie Gelb, head of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite his training in political science, Ajami often sounds like a pop psychologist in his writing about the Arab world or, as he variously calls it, "the world of Araby," "that Arab world" and "those Arab lands." According to Ajami, that world is "gripped in a poisonous rage" and "wedded to a worldview of victimology," bad habits reinforced by its leaders, "megalomaniacs who never tell their people what can and cannot be had in the world of nations." There is, to be sure, a grain of truth in Ajami's grim assessment. Progressive Arab thinkers from Sadeq al-Azm to Adonis have issued equally bleak indictments of Arab political culture, lambasting the dearth of self-criticism and the constant search for external scapegoats. Unlike these writers, however, Ajami has little sympathy for the people of the region, unless they happen to live within the borders of "rogue states" like Iraq, in which case they must be "liberated" by American force. The corrupt regimes that rule the Arab world, he has suggested, are more or less faithful reflections of the "Arab psyche": "Despots always work with a culture's yearnings.... After all, a hadith, a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, maintains 'You will get the rulers you deserve.'" His own taste in regimes runs to monarchies like Kuwait. The Jews of Israel, it seems, are not just the only people in the region who enjoy the fruits of democracy; they are the only ones who deserve them.

Once upon a time, Ajami was an articulate and judicious critic both of Arab society and of the West, a defender of Palestinian rights and an advocate of decent government in the Arab world. Though he remains a shrewd guide to the hypocrisies of Arab leaders, his views on foreign policy now scarcely diverge from those of pro-Israel hawks in the Bush Administration. "Since the Gulf War, Fouad has taken leave of his analytic perspective to play to his elite constituency," said Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East scholar at Boston University. "It's very unfortunate because he could have made an astonishingly important contribution."

Seeking to understand the causes of Ajami's transformation, I spoke to more than two dozen of his friends and acquaintances over the past several months. (Ajami did not return my phone calls or e-mails.) These men and women depicted a man at once ambitious and insecure, torn between his irascible intellectual independence and his even stronger desire to belong to something larger than himself. On the one hand, he is an intellectual dandy who, as Sayres Rudy, a former student, puts it, "doesn't like groups and thinks people who join them are mediocre." On the other, as a Shiite among Sunnis, and as an émigré in America, he has always felt the outsider's anxiety to please, and has adjusted his convictions to fit his surroundings. As a young man eager to assimilate into the urbane Sunni world of Muslim Beirut, he embraced pan-Arabism. Received with open arms by the American Jewish establishment in New York and Washington, he became an ardent Zionist. An informal adviser to both Bush administrations, he is now a cheerleader for the American empire.

The man from Arnoun appears to be living the American dream. He has a prestigious job and the ear of the President. Yet the price of power has been higher in his case than in Kissinger's. Kissinger, after all, is a figure of renown among the self-appointed leaders of "the people from whom he stems" and a frequent speaker at Jewish charity galas, whereas Ajami is a man almost entirely deserted by his people, a pariah at what should be his hour of triumph. In Arnoun, a family friend told me, "Fouad is a black sheep because of his staunch support for the Israelis." Although he frequently travels to Tel Aviv and the Persian Gulf, he almost never goes to Lebanon. In becoming an American, he has become, as he himself has confessed, "a stranger in the Arab world."

Up From Lebanon

This is an immigrant's tale.

It begins in Arnoun, a rocky hamlet in the south of Lebanon where Fouad al-Ajami was born on September 19, 1945. A prosperous tobacco-growing Shiite family, the Ajamis had come to Arnoun from Iran in the 1850s. (Their name, Arabic for "Persian," gave away their origins.)

When Ajami was 4, he moved with his family to Beirut, settling in the largely Armenian northeastern quarter, a neighborhood thick with orange orchards, pine trees and strawberry fields. As members of the rural Shiite minority, the country's "hewers of wood and drawers of water," the Ajamis stood apart from the city's dominant groups, the Sunni Muslims and the Maronite Christians. "We were strangers to Beirut," he has written. "We wanted to pass undetected in the modern world of Beirut, to partake of its ways." For the young "Shia assimilé," as he has described himself, "anything Persian, anything Shia, was anathema.... speaking Persianized Arabic was a threat to something unresolved in my identity." He tried desperately, but with little success, to pass among his Sunni peers. In the predominantly Sunni schools he attended, "Fouad was taunted for being a Shiite, and for being short," one friend told me. "That left him with a lasting sense of bitterness toward the Sunnis."

In the 1950s, Arab nationalism appeared to hold out the promise of transcending the schisms between Sunnis and Shiites, and the confessional divisions separating Muslims and Christians. Like his classmates, Ajami fell under the spell of Arab nationalism's charismatic spokesman, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the same time, he was falling under the spell of American culture, which offered relief from the "ancestral prohibitions and phobias" of his "cramped land." Watching John Wayne films, he "picked up American slang and a romance for the distant power casting its shadow across us." On July 15, 1958, the day after the bloody overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy by nationalist army officers, Ajami's two loves had their first of many clashes, when President Eisenhower sent the US Marines to Beirut to contain the spread of radical Arab nationalism. In their initial confrontation, Ajami chose Egypt's leader, defying his parents and hopping on a Damascus-bound bus for one of Nasser's mass rallies.

Ajami arrived in the United States in the fall of 1963, just before he turned 18. He did his graduate work at the University of Washington, where he wrote his dissertation on international relations and world government. At the University of Washington, Ajami gravitated toward progressive Arab circles. Like his Arab peers, he was shaken by the humiliating defeat of the Arab countries in the 1967 war with Israel, and he was heartened by the emergence of the PLO. While steering clear of radicalism, he often expressed horror at Israel's brutal reprisal attacks against southern Lebanese villages in response to PLO raids.

In 1973 Ajami joined Princeton's political science department, commuting to work from his apartment in New York. He made a name for himself there as a vocal supporter of Palestinian self-determination. One friend remembers him as "a fairly typical advocate of Third World positions." Yet he was also acutely aware of the failings of Third World states, which he unsparingly diagnosed in "The Fate of Nonalignment," a brilliant 1980/81 essay in Foreign Affairs. In 1980, when Johns Hopkins offered him a position as director of Middle East Studies at SAIS, a Washington-based graduate program, he took it.

Ajami's Predicament

A year after arriving at SAIS, Ajami published his first and still best book, The Arab Predicament. An anatomy of the intellectual and political crisis that swept the Arab world following its defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, it is one of the most probing and subtle books ever written in English on the region. Ranging gracefully across political theory, literature and poetry, Ajami draws an elegant, often moving portrait of Arab intellectuals in their anguished efforts to put together a world that had come apart at the seams. The book did not offer a bold or original argument; like Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers, it provided an interpretive survey--respectful even when critical--of other people's ideas. It was the book of a man who had grown disillusioned with Nasser, whose millenarian dream of restoring the "Arab nation" had run up against the hard fact that the "divisions of the Arab world were real, not contrived points on a map or a colonial trick." But pan-Arabism was not the only temptation to which the intellectuals had succumbed. There was radical socialism, and the Guevarist fantasies of the Palestinian revolution. There was Islamic fundamentalism, with its romance of authenticity and its embittered rejection of the West. And then there was the search for Western patronage, the way of Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, who forgot his own world and ended up being devoured by it.

Ajami's ambivalent chapter on Sadat makes for especially fascinating reading today. He praised Sadat for breaking with Nasserism and making peace with Israel, and perhaps saw something of himself in the "self-defined peasant from the dusty small village" who had "traveled far beyond the bounds of his world." But he also saw in Sadat's story the tragic parable of a man who had become more comfortable with Western admirers than with his own people. When Sadat spoke nostalgically of his village--as Ajami now speaks of Arnoun--he was pandering to the West. Arabs, a people of the cities, would not be "taken in by the myth of the village." Sadat's "American connection," Ajami suggested, gave him "a sense of psychological mobility," lifting some of the burdens imposed by his cramped world. And as his dependence on his American patrons deepened, "he became indifferent to the sensibilities of his own world."

Sadat was one example of the trap of seeking the West's approval, and losing touch with one's roots; V.S. Naipaul was another. Naipaul, Ajami suggested in an incisive 1981 New York Times review of Among the Believers, exemplified the "dilemma of a gifted author led by his obsessive feelings regarding the people he is writing about to a difficult intellectual and moral bind." Third World exiles like Naipaul, Ajami wrote, "have a tendency to...look at their own countries and similar ones with a critical eye," yet "these same men usually approach the civilization of the West with awe and leave it unexamined." Ajami preferred the humane, nonjudgmental work of Polish travel writer Ryszard Kapucinski: "His eye for human folly is as sharp as V.S. Naipaul. His sympathy and sorrow, however, are far deeper."

The Arab Predicament was infused with sympathy and sorrow, but these qualities were ignored by the book's Arab critics in the West, who--displaying the ideological rigidity that is an unfortunate hallmark of exile politics--accused him of papering over the injustices of imperialism and "blaming the victim." To an extent, this was a fair criticism. Ajami paid little attention to imperialism, and even less to Israel's provocative role in the region. What is more, his argument that "the wounds that mattered were self-inflicted" endeared him to those who wanted to distract attention from Palestine. Doors flew open. On the recommendation of Bernard Lewis, the distinguished British Orientalist at Princeton and a strong supporter of Israel, Ajami became the first Arab to win the MacArthur "genius" prize in 1982, and in 1983 he became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The New Republic began to publish lengthy essays by Ajami, models of the form that offer a tantalizing glimpse of the career he might have had in a less polarized intellectual climate. Pro-Israel intellectual circles groomed him as a rival to Edward Said, holding up his book as a corrective to Orientalism, Said's classic study of how the West imagined the East in the age of empire.

In fact, Ajami shared some of Said's anger about the Middle East. The Israelis, he wrote in an eloquent New York Times op-ed after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, "came with a great delusion: that if you could pound men and women hard enough, if you could bring them to their knees, you could make peace with them." He urged the United States to withdraw from Lebanon in 1984, and he advised it to open talks with the Iranian government. Throughout the 1980s, Ajami maintained a critical attitude toward America's interventions in the Middle East, stressing the limits of America's ability to influence or shape a "tormented world" it scarcely understood. "Our arguments dovetailed," says Said. "There was an unspoken assumption that we shared the same kind of politics."

But just below the surface there were profound differences of opinion. Hisham Milhem, a Lebanese journalist who knows both men well, explained their differences to me by contrasting their views on Joseph Conrad. "Edward and Fouad are both crazy about Conrad, but they see in him very different things. Edward sees the critic of empire, especially in Heart of Darkness. Fouad, on the other hand, admires the Polish exile in Western Europe who made a conscious break with the old country."

Yet the old world had as much of a grip on Ajami as it did on Said. In southern Lebanon, Palestinian guerrillas had set up a state within a state. They often behaved thuggishly toward the Shiites, alienating their natural allies and recklessly exposing them to Israel's merciless reprisals. By the time Israeli tanks rolled into Lebanon in 1982, relations between the two communities had so deteriorated that some Shiites greeted the invaders with rice and flowers. Like many Shiites, Ajami was fed up with the Palestinians, whose revolution had brought ruin to Lebanon. Arnoun itself had not been unscathed: A nearby Crusader castle, the majestic Beaufort, was now the scene of intense fighting.

In late May 1985, Ajami--now identifying himself as a Shiite from southern Lebanon--sparred with Said on the MacNeil Lehrer Report over the war between the PLO and Shiite Amal militia, then raging in Beirut's refugee camps. A few months later, they came to verbal blows again, when Ajami was invited to speak at a Harvard conference on Islam and Muslim politics organized by Israeli-American academic Nadav Safran. After the Harvard Crimson revealed that the conference had been partly funded by the CIA, Ajami, at the urging of Said and the late Pakistani writer Eqbal Ahmad, joined a wave of speakers who were withdrawing from the conference. But Ajami, who was a protégé and friend of Safran, immediately regretted his decision. He wrote a blistering letter to Said and Ahmad a few weeks later, accusing them of "bringing the conflicts of the Middle East to this country" while "I have tried to go beyond them.... Therefore, my friends, this is the parting of ways. I hope never to encounter you again, and we must cease communication. Yours sincerely, Fouad Ajami."

The Tribal Turn

By now, the "Shia assimilé" had fervently embraced his Shiite identity. Like Sadat, he began to rhapsodize about his "dusty village" in wistful tones. The Vanished Imam, his 1986 encomium to Musa al-Sadr, the Iranian cleric who led the Amal militia before mysteriously disappearing on a 1978 visit to Libya, offers important clues into Ajami's thinking of the time. A work of lyrical nationalist mythology, The Vanished Imam also provides a thinly veiled political memoir, recounting Ajami's disillusionment with Palestinians, Arabs and the left, and his conversion to old-fashioned tribal politics.

The marginalized Shiites had found a home in Amal, and a spiritual leader in Sadr, a "big man" who is explicitly compared to Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim and credited with a far larger role than he actually played in Shiite politics. Writing of Sadr, Ajami might have been describing himself. Sadr is an Ajam--a Persian--with "an outsider's eagerness to please." He is "suspicious of grand schemes," blessed with "a strong sense of pragmatism, of things that can and cannot be," thanks to which virtue he "came to be seen as an enemy of everything 'progressive.'" "Tired of the polemics," he alone is courageous enough to stand up to the Palestinians, warning them not to "seek a 'substitute homeland,' watan badil, in Lebanon." Unlike the Palestinians, Ajami tells us repeatedly, the Shiites are realists, not dreamers; reformers, not revolutionaries. Throughout the book, a stark dichotomy is also drawn between Shiite and Arab nationalism, although, as one of his Shiite critics pointed out in a caustic review in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, "allegiance to Arab nationalist ideals...was paramount" in Sadr's circles. The Shiites of Ajami's imagination seem fundamentally different from other Arabs: a community that shares America's aversion to the Palestinians, a "model minority" worthy of the West's sympathy.

The Shiite critic of the Palestinians cut an especially attractive profile in the eyes of the American media. Most American viewers of CBS News, which made him a high-paid consultant in 1985, had no idea that he was almost completely out of step with the community for which he claimed to speak. By the time The Vanished Imam appeared, the Shiites, under the leadership of a new group, Hezbollah, had launched a battle to liberate Lebanon from Israeli control. Israeli soldiers were now greeted with grenades and explosives, rather than rice and flowers, and Arnoun became a hotbed of Hezbollah support. Yet Ajami displayed little enthusiasm for this Shiite struggle. He was also oddly silent about the behavior of the Israelis, who, from the 1982 invasion onward, had killed far more Shiites than either Arafat ("the Flying Dutchman of the Palestinian movement") or Hafez al-Assad (Syria's "cruel enforcer"). The Shiites, he suggested, were "beneficiaries of Israel's Lebanon war."

In the Promised Land

By the mid-1980s, the Middle Eastern country closest to Ajami's heart was not Lebanon but Israel. He returned from his trips to the Jewish state boasting of traveling to the occupied territories under the guard of the Israel Defense Forces and of being received at the home of Teddy Kollek, then Jerusalem's mayor. The Israelis earned his admiration because they had something the Palestinians notably lacked: power. They were also tough-minded realists, who understood "what can and cannot be had in the world of nations." The Palestinians, by contrast, were romantics who imagined themselves to be "exempt from the historical laws of gravity."

In 1986, Ajami had praised Musa al-Sadr as a realist for telling the Palestinians to fight Israel in the occupied territories, rather than in Lebanon. But when the Palestinians did exactly that, in the first intifada of 1987-93, it no longer seemed realistic to Ajami, who then advised them to swallow the bitter pill of defeat and pay for their bad choices. While Israeli troops shot down children armed only with stones, Ajami told the Palestinians they should give up on the idea of a sovereign state ("a phantom"), even in the West Bank and Gaza. When the PLO announced its support for a two-state solution at a 1988 conference in Algiers, Ajami called the declaration "hollow," its concessions to Israel inadequate. On the eve of the Madrid talks in the fall of 1991 he wrote, "It is far too late to introduce a new nation between Israel and Jordan." Nor should the American government embark on the "fool's errand" of pressuring Israel to make peace. Under Ajami's direction, the Middle East program of SAIS became a bastion of pro-Israel opinion. An increasing number of Israeli and pro-Israel academics, many of them New Republic contributors, were invited as guest lecturers. "Rabbi Ajami," as many people around SAIS referred to him, was also receiving significant support from a Jewish family foundation in Baltimore, which picked up the tab for the trips his students took to the Middle East every summer. Back in Lebanon, Ajami's growing reputation as an apologist for Israel reportedly placed considerable strains on family members in Arnoun.

'The Saudi Way'

Ajami also developed close ties during the 1980s to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which made him--as he often and proudly pointed out--the only Arab who traveled both to the Persian Gulf countries and to Israel. In 1985 he became an external examiner in the political science department at Kuwait University; he said "the place seemed vibrant and open to me." His major patrons, however, were Saudi. He has traveled to Riyadh many times to raise money for his program, sometimes taking along friends like Martin Peretz; he has also vacationed in Prince Bandar's home in Aspen. Saudi hospitality--and Saudi Arabia's lavish support for SAIS--bred gratitude. At one meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ajami told a group that, as one participant recalls, "the Saudi system was a lot stronger than we thought, that it was a system worth defending, and that it had nothing to apologize for." Throughout the 1980s and '90s, he faithfully echoed the Saudi line. "Rage against the West does not come naturally to the gulf Arabs," he wrote in 1990. "No great tales of betrayal are told by the Arabs of the desert. These are Palestinian, Lebanese and North African tales."

This may explain why Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 aroused greater outrage in Ajami than any act of aggression in the recent history of the Middle East. Neither Israel's invasion of Lebanon nor the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre had caused him comparable consternation. Nor, for that matter, had Saddam's slaughter of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. This is understandable, of course; we all react more emotionally when the victims are friends. But we don't all become publicists for war, as Ajami did that fateful summer, consummating his conversion to Pax Americana. What was remarkable was not only his fervent advocacy; it was his cavalier disregard for truth, his lurid rhetoric and his religious embrace of American power. In Foreign Affairs, Ajami, who knew better, described Iraq, the cradle of Mesopotamian civilization, a major publisher of Arabic literature and a center of the plastic arts, as "a brittle land...with little claim to culture and books and grand ideas." It was, in other words, a wasteland, led by a man who "conjures up Adolf Hitler."

Months before the war began, the Shiite from Arnoun, now writing as an American, in the royal "we," declared that US troops "will have to stay in the Gulf and on a much larger scale," since "we have tangible interests in that land. We stand sentry there in blazing clear daylight." After the Gulf War, Ajami's cachet soared. In the early 1990s Harvard offered him a chair ("he turned it down because we expected him to be around and to work very hard," a professor told me), and the Council on Foreign Relations added him to its prestigious board of advisers last year. "The Gulf War was the crucible of change," says Augustus Richard Norton. "This immigrant from Arnoun, this man nobody had heard of from a place no one had heard of, had reached the peak of power. This was a true immigrant success story, one of those moments that make an immigrant grateful for America. And I think it implanted a deep sense of patriotism that wasn't present before."

And, as Ajami once wrote of Sadat, "outside approval gave him the courage to defy" the Arabs, especially when it came to Israel. On June 3, 1992, hardly a year after Gulf War I, Ajami spoke at a pro-Israel fundraiser. Kissinger, the keynote speaker, described Arabs as congenital liars. Ajami chimed in, expressing his doubts that democracy would ever work in the Arab world, and recounting a visit to a Bedouin village where he "insisted on only one thing: that I be spared the ceremony of eating with a Bedouin."

Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Ajami has been a consistent critic of the peace process--from the right. He sang the praises of each of Israel's leaders, from the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, with his "filial devotion [to] the land he had agreed to relinquish," to Labor leader Ehud Barak, "an exemplary soldier." The Palestinians, he wrote, should be grateful to such men for "rescuing" them from defeat, and to Zionism for generously offering them "the possibility of their own national political revival." (True to form, the Palestinians showed "no gratitude.") A year before the destruction of Jenin, he proclaimed that "Israel is existentially through with the siege that had defined its history." Ajami's Likudnik conversion was sealed by telling revisions of arguments he had made earlier in his career. Where he had once argued that the 1982 invasion of Lebanon aimed to "undermine those in the Arab world who want some form of compromise," he now called it a response to "the challenge of Palestinian terror."

Did Ajami really believe all this? In a stray but revealing comment on Sadat in The New Republic, he left room for doubt. Sadat, he said, was "a son of the soil, who had the fellah's ability to look into the soul of powerful outsiders, to divine how he could get around them even as he gave them what they desired." Writing on politics, the man from Arnoun gave them what they desired. Writing on literature and poetry, he gave expression to the aesthete, the soulful elegist, even, at times, to the Arab. In his 1998 book, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, one senses, for the first time in years, Ajami's sympathy for the world he left behind, although there is something furtive, something ghostly about his affection, as if he were writing about a lover he has taught himself to spurn. On rare occasions, Ajami revealed this side of himself to his students, whisking them into his office. Once the door was firmly shut, he would recite the poetry of Nizar Qabbani and Adonis in Arabic, caressing each and every line. As he read, Sayres Rudy told me, "I could swear his heart was breaking."

Ajami's Solitude

September 11 exposed a major intelligence failure on Ajami's part. With his obsessive focus on the menace of Saddam and the treachery of Arafat, he had missed the big story. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers hailed from what he had repeatedly called the "benign political order" of Saudi Arabia; the "Saudi way" he had praised had come undone. Yet the few criticisms that Ajami directed at his patrons in the weeks and months after September 11 were curiously muted, particularly in contrast to the rage of most American commentators. Ajami's venues in the American media, however, were willing to forgive his softness toward the Saudis. America was going to war with Muslims, and a trusted native informant was needed.

Other forces were working in Ajami's favor. For George W. Bush and the hawks in his entourage, Afghanistan was merely a prelude to the war they really wanted to fight--the war against Saddam that Ajami had been spoiling for since the end of Gulf War I. As a publicist for Gulf War II, Ajami has abandoned his longstanding emphasis on the limits of American influence in that "tormented region." The war is being sold as the first step in an American plan to effect democratic regime change across the region, and Ajami has stayed on message. We now find him writing in Foreign Affairs that "the driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world." The opinion of the Arab street, where Iraq is recruiting thousands of new jihadists, is of no concern to him. "We have to live with this anti-Americanism," he sighed recently on CBS. "It's the congenital condition of the Arab world, and we have to discount a good deal of it as we press on with the task of liberating the Iraqis."

In fairness, Ajami has not completely discarded his wariness about American intervention. For there remains one country where American pressure will come to naught, and that is Israel, where it would "be hubris" to ask anything more of the Israelis, victims of "Arafat's war." To those who suggest that the Iraq campaign is doomed without an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, he says, "We can't hold our war hostage to Arafat's campaign of terror."

Fortunately, George W. Bush understands this. Ajami has commended Bush for staking out the "high moral ground" and for "putting Iran on notice" in his Axis of Evil speech. Above all, the President should not allow himself to be deterred by multilateralists like Secretary of State Colin Powell, "an unhappy, reluctant soldier, at heart a pessimist about American power." Unilateralism, Ajami says, is nothing to be ashamed of. It may make us hated in the "hostile landscape" of the Arab world, but, as he recently explained on the NewsHour, "it's the fate of a great power to stand sentry in that kind of a world."

It is no accident that the "sentry's solitude" has become the idée fixe of Ajami's writing in recent years. For it is a theme that resonates powerfully in his own life. Like the empire he serves, Ajami is more influential, and more isolated, than he has ever been. In recent years he has felt a need to defend this choice in heroic terms. "All a man can betray is his conscience," he solemnly writes in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, citing a passage from Conrad. "The solitude Conrad chose is loathed by politicized men and women."

It is a breathtakingly disingenuous remark. Ajami may be "a stranger in the Arab world," but he can hardly claim to be a stranger to its politics. That is why he is quoted, and courted, by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. What Ajami abhors in "politicized men and women" is conviction itself. A leftist in the 1970s, a Shiite nationalist in the 1980s, an apologist for the Saudis in the 1990s, a critic-turned-lover of Israel, a skeptic-turned-enthusiast of American empire, he has observed no consistent principle in his career other than deference to power. His vaunted intellectual independence is a clever fiction. The only thing that makes him worth reading is his prose style, and even that has suffered of late. As Ajami observed of Naipaul more than twenty years ago, "he has become more and more predictable, too, with serious cost to his great gift as a writer," blinded by the "assumption that only men who live in remote, dark places are 'denied a clear vision of the world.'" Like Naipaul, Ajami has forgotten that "darkness is not only there but here as well."

Not for commercial use. For educational purposes only.


All at sea over Iran

Sunday, April 8, 2007
The Economist. Apr 7, 2007

Iran is letting the British sailors and marines go. What did the whole affair mean?

In Britain, which says its servicemen were grabbed while going about their lawful business, there has been much harrumphing about the humiliation of a once great power. But, in truth, the decline of British sea power is a very old story. What is new in Iran's seizure a fortnight ago of 15 British sailors and marines is the message it sends about a new balance of power in the Middle East--and, connected to this, about the decline, or perceived decline, of American power.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has decided to cut the affair short, let the captives go and declare victory. But its original motives in this affair are hard to divine. It may have been a mistake, a deliberate provocation or an attempt to counter the pressure Iran feels from United Nations sanctions. Whatever the motive, one lesson is plain: Iran is hard to intimidate. Tweaking Britain is, admittedly, a safer bet than kidnapping Americans. Nonetheless, British forces operate inside Iraq and its waters in triple trust: as best friends of the United States, as supporters of Iraq's elected government and under a mandate from the United Nations. Iran's willingness to defy not only Britain but also the superpower, the government in Baghdad and the Security Council reflects its conviction that it is the coming power in the Middle East.

Iran's inevitable rise

And so it may be. Having been hemmed in by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iran has gaily watched George Bush remove both enemies in quick succession. Iran knows that its Shia co-religionists in Baghdad care more about good relations with Iran than with Britain, whose small force in southern Iraq is anyway on its way home. As for defying the United Nations, the Security Council has ordered the Iranians twice recently to stop enriching uranium. Despite the imposition of sanctions, the centrifuges spin on.

As Iran's standing rises, America's falls. No other country has America's power to smash an enemy, and none is close to acquiring it. But victories in Afghanistan and Iraq have not enabled the superpower to impose peace, let alone a Pax Americana, either in Iraq or the wider Middle East. America has not frightened Syria away from its alliance with Iran. Mr Bush has not achieved his stated aims of advancing the cause of Arab democracy or bringing peace to Palestine. Indeed, Israel itself disappointed America and boosted Iran by failing in last summer's war to demolish Hizbullah, Iran's Lebanese confederate.

A sure sign of changing times is the behaviour of Saudi Arabia. The Gulf Arabs have a long history of paying allies to ward off their Persian neighbour. Until the 1960s Britain was their protector; in the 1980s it was Saddam. After his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 the Saudis enlisted America to push him out.

And yet even the Saudis now question the wisdom of relying on the superpower. It is not only that America is unpopular on the street. Its dependability as an ally is in question as American voters turn against foreign adventures and the Democrats challenge the White House's control of foreign policy (Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, this week defied Mr Bush by meeting Syria's President Bashar Assad in Damascus). In Palestine and Lebanon, the Saudis have embarked on some freelance peacemaking of their own while distancing themselves from America. King Abdullah astonished friends in Washington when he told the Arab League that America's presence in Iraq was "an illegitimate foreign occupation".

Four years after the invasion, the Iraq debacle continues to bedevil American diplomacy everywhere. It is one reason for the resistance in parts of Europe to America's plans for missile defence. It also explains the tepid support Britain received when it asked the Security Council to "deplore" the detention of its sailors and had to make do with "grave concern" instead. The council's other permanent members--Russia, France and China--still resent America and Britain for ignoring their wishes in 2003, and are not desperate to help the Anglo-Saxons out of their trouble now. Though the Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran for its nuclear defiance, Russia and China have limited their scope. And though nobody would welcome an Iranian atomic bomb, not all countries agree that Iran's nuclear programme is the clear and present danger the Americans say it is. Didn't they say just that about Iraq?

And what to do about it

If the world is in two minds about Iran, so is America itself. That a militant, oil-rich Muslim theocracy of 70m people, with a Holocaust-denying president who yearns for Israel's disappearance and calls America and Britain the greater and lesser Satans, poses some sort of problem is not in dispute. Opinion divides on what to do about it.

One school says that since Iran will inevitably become a dominant regional power, an America bogged down in Iraq should seek an accommodation with it, just as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger reached out to China to cover America's retreat from Vietnam. The other cautions that an American overture would be read as weakness. Underlying this debate is genuine puzzlement about Iran's factional politics and true intentions. Is this a regime of realists that would be willing to forgo the bomb and moderate its stance on Palestine in return for American recognition of its legitimacy and regional importance? Or is anti-Westernism inscribed indelibly in its revolutionary DNA? The saga of the British sailors offers few clues, save that at least one of Iran's powerful factions is unafraid of defying the West. But even here, Iranian bombast and bad behaviour have been combined with a shrewd calculation of the point at which it is in danger of alienating world opinion.

Now that the British are being released, America should indeed be wary of actions that make its own posture in the region look even weaker than it is. It need not act the supplicant. With the rest of the world, it should continue to insist that Iran must stop enriching uranium. But why not explore the possibility of a bargain, provided Iran can prove its claim that it does not seek nuclear weapons and signs on for compromise in Palestine? That would not just test Iran's intentions. It might even help to swing the argument in Tehran the right way.

Not for commercial use. For educational purposes only.


Article Vault on Middle East Street

Saturday, April 7, 2007
Here I will post (old, recent, etc.) articles, analytical pieces, etc. -- in English, Arabic, Hebrew, or other languages -- that I find interesting, and which relate to the Middle East.

There will also be occasional references to articles which for one reason or another I cannot post here, as well as books, so that you can check them out if you are interested.

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