Thursday, July 31, 2008

patrick cockburn's book on muqtada al-sadr, the 'man riding a tiger'

The Western media often refer to Muqtada al-Sadr as a “firebrand”, “renegade”, “maverick” or “thug”. But the Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn gives a different and more complex picture of al-Sadr in his book “Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq” published recently in the US by Scribner. (In the UK, the book is published by Faber and Faber under the title “Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq”.)

Cockburn describes Muqtada as “the most important and surprising figure to emerge in Iraq since the US invasion. He is the messianic leader of the religious and political movement of the impoverished Shia underclass whose lives were ruined by a quarter of a century of war, repression and sanctions”. He has been the one Shia leader to openly oppose the US-led occupation since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

Far from being a “firebrand cleric”, al-Sadr has frequently proved astute and cautious. He generally sought compromise rather than confrontation, and learned from his mistakes. Since his battles with US forces in 2004 for control of Najaf, he has “always sought to avoid struggles he did not control and could not win.”

Cockburn considers that “one of the grossest of US errors in Iraq was to try to marginalise him and his movement. Had he been part of the political process from the beginning, the chances of creating a peaceful, prosperous Iraq would have been greater.”

But Cockburn also highlights the dark side of the Sadrist movement and the Mehdi Army. He examines the circumstances around the killing of Abdel-Majid al-Khoei in Najaf in April 2003 by supporters of Sadr. Abdel-Majid, son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, had returned to Iraq from London where he had been living in exile.

Cockburn writes: “If Muqtada did not know that al-Khoei was being done to death it may well have been because he did not choose to know”. An Iraqi judge Raad Juhi, issued a warrant for Muqtada’s arrest, saying two eyewitnesses had said they heard him order the killing, and the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer hovered for months on the edge of ordering Sadr’s arrest.

In the years that followed, it would be a “convenient excuse for the Sadrists... that they were not responsible for much of the violence carried out in their name”. Muqtada was always “a man riding a tiger, sometimes presiding, sometimes controlling the mass movement he nominally led. His words and actions were often far apart.”

Cockburn himself experienced the volatility and violence of the Mehdi Army in April 2004 when he and his Iraqi driver and translator were temporarily taken hostage by members of the militia at a roadblock near Kufa. One of the militiamen screamed that Cockburn was an American spy, and Cockburn is convinced that if he was not Irish, but had been carrying an American or British passport, he and his two Iraqi companions would have been killed.

Cockburn has covered Iraq for more than 30 years, and has since 2003 reported from Iraq for the London-based Independent newspaper. He is one of the few Western journalists to report from places far beyond the relative safety of Baghdad’s Green Zone. He won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2005 and the James Cameron Memorial Award in 2006.

Since the 2003 invasion, a considerable number of books on Iraq have appeared in English. But Cockburn says: “Many of them, when you actually read them, are really about the Americans in Iraq, and the Iraqis they knew or the Iraqis they dealt with. They are not really about Iraqis.” The footnotes of such books typically cite American authorities and American documents.

“This does not make them bad books, but it means they give a very particular, peculiar view of Iraq which is very different from the Iraq I have experienced or the sort of things that Iraqis really think about.”

In his book Cockburn wanted to write “not just about Muqtada al-Sadr, but about the Shia of Iraq, and the people who now came to power in Iraq, and their extraordinary history over the past 30 to 40 years – and indeed their history of the past 1400 years in Iraq.” He thinks that few people outside Iraq know much about the history of the Iraqi Shia.

Cockburn also wanted to quote directly from Iraqi eyewitnesses of the events depicted in his book. But it was difficult for him to carry out interviews himself, as many of the eyewitnesses lived in districts of Baghdad or provincial cities that he dared not visit. He was helped by intermediaries to whom he gave the questions he wished to ask. They would bring him back the answers from those interviewed. The numerous quotations from eyewitnesses add greatly to the vividness and insights of his narrative.

Muqtada was only 29 at the time of the 2003 invasion. But far from being the inexperienced young man whom his critics portrayed, he was “a highly experienced political operator who had worked in his father’s office in Najaf since he was a teenager.” His grasp of what ordinary Iraqis felt “was to prove far more sure than that of the politicians isolated in the ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad.”

Muqtada stresses that he is heir to legacy of his father in law, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (“Sadr I”), and of Muqtada’s father Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (“Sadr II”), both of whom were killed by Saddam’s regime. Muhammad Baqir and his sister Amina Sadr Bint al-Huda, were tortured and hung in 1980.

Muhammad Baqir had been among the young clerics who created the Da’wa Party in 1957. Many of the founder members of the Da’wa were executed, assassinated or tortured to death, but “half a century later the Iraqi government was dominated by the relatives and descendants of the men who had established the Da’wa Party”. Cockburn examines the rivalry among the great Iraqi Shia religious families. The al-Sadr rivalry with the Hakim family continues, as shown by the often violent power struggle between Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (the SIIC - formerly known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI).

After the Shia intifada of 1991, Saddam cultivated Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Between 1992 and 1996 Muhammad Sadiq appeared to cooperate with the regime, but he started a mass popular movement which blended Islamic revivalism with populism and Iraqi nationalism. In 1997 the regime allowed Sadrites to publish the magazine al-Huda edited by Muqtada, Muhammad Sadiq’s youngest son.

Saddam eventually realised his plan “to install his own candidate as religious leader of the Shia had spectacularly backfired.” On 19 February 1999 security agents ambushed and killed Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and his two elder sons Mustafa and Muammal at a roundabout in Najaf. Up to that time, Muhammad Sadiq was still being denounced as a collaborator with the regime by many of his Shia opponents.

The sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf war had led to a mass impoverishment of Iraqis, which hit the poorer Shia particularly hard. Cockburn says the failure or inability of the government to do anything about this was the essential precondition for the rapid rise of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr in the early 1990s, and Muqtada after 2003.

In the four years between the killing of his father and two brothers and the 2003 invasion, Muqtada kept a very low profile and was under constant surveillance by the security services. This may have marked his personality and made him wary and suspicious of those around him.

Muqtada’s opponents have “criticised him for his lowly place in the Shia religious hierarchy, implying that he lacked intelligence or academic ability.” Cockburn thinks Muqtada wished not to be the head of a huge, ill-disciplined militia, but to be a religious and political leader. In 2005 he replaced military with political action, and he took part in the elections of that year.

Muqtada has been keen to improve his religious credentials, and is currently studying in the Iranian city of Qom. In an interview with Al-Jazeera in late March this year, he said he had dedicated five years to society, and now wants to dedicate a few years to his studies so as to be of more benefit to society, and to progress in his knowledge and faith.

Cockburn examines the twists and turns in Muqtada’s relations with Iran. He writes: “It was bizarre that President Bush was to claim repeatedly over the next four years that Muqtada and the Mehdi Army were Iranian pawns when SCIRI and Badr, but now allied to the US, were demonstrably Iranian creations.”

The Sadrist movement was historically anti-Iranian. Cockburn said Muqtada could have gone on playing the anti-Iranian card, but “it was a measure of his growing skill as a politician that he did not.” In June 2003 returning from the hajj to Mecca he visited Iraq and met the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and reportedly the commander of the Qods Brigade, Qasim Suleimani.

Four years later President George W Bush would denounce the Mehdi army as an arm of the Iranian Qods Brigade in Iraq. Cockburn thinks much of this was paranoia. “Allegations of significant Iranian involvement in Iraq were seldom backed up by evidence, but Iran did provide a useful safe haven and potential source of supplies and money for the nascent Mehdi Army.”

Of course, the Iranians wanted to have influence within every Iraqi Shia organisation, religious or political. In 2005 Iranian intelligence did start to increase its influence within the Sadrist movement and Mehdi army. Muqtada strongly opposed this, but was unable to do so effectively.

In the waves of sectarian killings in 2005-07, “How far did the Mehdi army foster the Shia death squads?” asks Cockburn. “Muqtada decried sectarian killings and declared that the priority was to end the US occupation of Iraq, but did he covertly allow his movement to take the lead in sectarian cleansing as all Sunni were convinced he did?” Many of the militiamen who formally acknowledged his leadership had no intention of accepting his orders. Muqtada complained that “death squads that say they kill on behalf of the Mehdi Army are trying to destroy us and divide us and prevent us from raising arms against the forces of occupation.”

Muqtada saw that the surge in US troops announced in January 2007 was partly aimed at him, and announced that his militiamen would not resist US forces. He even supported negotiations aimed at easing US deployment in Sadrist strongholds. In August 2007 he declared a ceasefire after fighting between his followers and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). Sadr froze all actions of the Mehdi army for six months, and closed all Sadrist offices. His continuing ceasefire is seen as a major reason for the marked reduction in violence in Iraq during the surge.

The situation for Muqtada and his followers has changed dramatically this year as a result of the fighting and ceasefires in Basra and in Sadr City. The onslaught against Sadr’s militia by government troops backed by US forces was seen as an attempt to boost the SIIC and weaken the Sadrist movement ahead of the provincial elections, which had been due to be held in October. However, the provincial elections may not be held this year, given the dispute over the draft provincial elections law as it relates to Kirkuk.

Media reports from Iraq state that the Sadrists’ power has been greatly reduced. But some commentators think the Sadr Trend still has many supporters, and that the Mehdi Army has the ability to take back much of the area it previously controlled.

In a statement issued at the end of July, Muqtada offered to give the government his popular and political support if it did not sign the security agreement with the US. Much of his statement seemed designed to curb sectarian warfare, and it set limits to resistance operations against the occupation, saying civilians and government services should not be targeted and that such operations should take place outside cities.

It is difficult to forecast what lies ahead for Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement during the next crucial phases of Iraq’s political development. Cockburn’s book is of course controversial, and not all will agree with his assessment of Muqtada, but it is a valuable study of the Shia of Iraq and of a man who, to much of the West at least, has been shrouded in mystery.

Susannah Tarbush

Saturday, July 26, 2008

london magazine's anglo-arab issue

The London Magazine, which can trace its roots back to 1732, is famed as a publication that has featured many of the greatest names in English literature as well as encouraging new writers and breaking boundaries. Now, with the publication of an “Anglo-Arab” issue, it brings to its readers the work of Arab writers and artists.

The issue’s cover illustration is Gaza-born Palestinian artist Laila Shawa’s watercolor “Mirage”, a colorful array of geometric patterns. The freshness and vibrancy of the cover continues into the content of the magazine, which is a lively mix of poetry, pictures, stories, essays and reviews by Arabs and non-Arabs.

Some of the Arab writers featured in the issue are long-established names such as the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus and his compatriot Adnan Al-Sayegh, Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, Palestinian novelist and short story writer Mahmoud Shukair, and Moroccan writer Leila Abouzeid. The distinguished Palestinian critic Fakhri Saleh, the author of many books on Arabic literature, has contributed a feature on “The Arabic Novel at the Beginning of the 21st Century: the thematic thread of history”.

The Lebanese poet and journalist Joumana Haddad is particularly known for her sensual poetry of the body. “Cadaver”, translated by Marilyn Hacker, is a meditation by a woman gazing at her own corpse. The Jordanian medical doctor Fathieh Saudi, two of whose poems appear in the issue, has established herself as a poet and critic since her arrival in London. Her work has a questing, spiritual quality. In “Searching for a Language”, she writes: “Languageless I became / My paralysed feelings go on hurting me!” The witty and wise “Timeless” features a cancer patient, bald as a result of treatment, being fitted with a wig.

From the younger generation, there is 23-year-old French-Algerian novelist Faiza Guène (pictured), author of two bestsellers articulating the experience of Arab and African youth in combustible Paris suburbs. Guène’s innovative use of language is evident in an extract from the English translation of her second novel, “Dreams from the Endz”, published recently by Chatto and Windus.

The novel’s translator Sarah Ardizzone describes the challenges in translating the novel’s “backslang” or “verlan” in which words are spliced and reversed. Ardizzone enlisted the help of “slangsta” Cleo Soazandry, from LIVE! magazine of Brixton, south London, who is bilingual in the urban slangs of Paris and London. Ardizzone writes that in Guènes’ writing, “Maghrebi dialogue jostles with Mexican soap-operas, French rap and the couture of Agnes B.”

The Arab writers’ work often bears the legacy of oppression, war, exile and survival. Al-Sayegh’s (pictured) poem “Passage to Exile” begins: “The moaning of the train kindles the sorrow of the tunnels / Roaring along the rails of everlasting memories / While I am nailed to the window / With one half of my heart...”

Amjad Nassser’s writing is suffused with a wry melancholy. The brief story “An Ordinary Conversation about Cancer” is dedicated to the Saudi photographer and journalist Salih al-Azzaz, who died of a brain tumor in 2002. Nasser, managing editor and cultural editor of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, predicts: “I will die in London on a rainy day. (A rainy day in London, what a far-fetched prophecy!) And I decree at this very moment that I will be buried in Mafraq next to my mother who was convinced that no space will ever contain us both. Of course, she may be right, since as everyone knows, she is going to heaven.” Nassser’s second story, “Neighbours”, tells of “the only Englishwoman in our neighbourhood” of London.

Academic and writer Barbara Bridger gives an appreciative review to exiled Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer’s story collection “Breaking Knees”, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi and published by Garnet Publishing. Tamer “uses satire to critique religious hypocrisy and sexual repression. His tough message is underscored by a style which is consistently direct, economical and unsentimental.”

The issue includes exciting new work from non-Arab writers. Anglo-Irish-Indian poet John Siddiqui’s touching poem “Unintended Loyalty” imagines his parents asleep in 1969. “They have put their holy war / on to their nightstands, Islam on one table, / Catholicism across the room on the other.” James Wilkes’ poem “From ‘4096 Poems’” has an intriguing structure of repeated and shuffled images, including the line “Of tessellated squares the colours of North Africa”. Tim Cummings’ poems “Giza”, and “Mango” from his “Cairo Sonnets”, reflects his responses to Egypt.

Another poet inspired by the Arab world is Agnes Meadows, who has lived in the West Bank and Gaza. Novelist and editor Jenny Newman gives her “fine impassioned” collection “At Damascus Gate on Good Friday” a generally positive verdict, writing of Meadows’ “warmly reciprocal world”.

The Anglo-Arab issue pays attention to the Arab visual arts. There are reproductions of works by Laila Shawa, Tunisian Nja Mahdaoui, and Iraqis Maysaloun Faraj and Satta Hashem (all of whom have works in the British Museum’s collections). Two members of the London Magazine’s staff contribute probing essays on art. Sub-editor Nicki Seth-Smith writes with verve of her encounters with four Arab women artists in London: Shawa, Faraj, Yara El-Sherbini and Jananne Al-Ani. “If we are to fulfill Maysaloun Faraj’s dream of a world at peace, or approach Laila Shawa and Yara El-Sherbini’s vision of a public that questions and self-criticises, we would do well to pay attention to the creative minds speaking out from a part of the world that is so routinely and grotesquely misrepresented by the West,” Seth-Smith comments.

Editorial assistant Oliver J Dimsdale discusses Tate Britain’s exhibition of British Orientalist art, The Lure of the East, with the exhibition’s curator Nicholas Tromans and scholar and writer Robert Irwin, a critic of the late Palestinian professor Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”.

The London Magazine has been through several upheavals in its 276-year history. It closed down in 2001 after the death of Alan Ross, for 40 years its editor, but was bought and relaunched by Christopher Arkell with the poet Sebastian Barker as editor.

Barker resigned last year in protest at the cutting off by Arts Council England of the £30,000-a-year grant on which the magazine heavily depended. The Arts Council, financed by the government and the National Lottery, withdrew its funding as part of swingeing government cuts to the arts so as to divert funding to the ever-soaring cost of the 2012 London Olympics.

There was consternation in the arts world at the prospect of the magazine’s demise. Harold Pinter, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Melvyn Bragg and poet laureate Andrew Motion were among those who signed a letter published in the Times Literary Supplement deploring the cutting off of funding, but to no avail.

Christopher Arkell is seeking a new editor to replace Sebastian Barker. In the meantime, Sara-Mae Tuson, assisted by her enthusiastic team, is the acting editor. The high quality of the Anglo-Arab issue is testimony to the flair she and her colleagues are bringing to their task, and one can only hope that the magazine will before long find a way of putting its finances on a more secure footing.

Susannah Tarbush

Monday, July 14, 2008

henrietta rose-innes wins the caine prize

South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes’s powerful short story “Poison”, for which she has won the £10,000 Sterling (nearly $US 20,000) Caine Prize for African Writing, gives a vivid and disquieting portrayal of people fleeing Cape Town in the aftermath of a chemical disaster.

The story’s protagonist Lynn, driving her old Toyota away from the city, runs out of petrol and is marooned with other drivers at a petrol station that has no fuel left. The huge black oily cloud over Cape Town “boiled up taller and taller into the sky, a plume twice as high as the mountain, leaning towards them like an evil genie.” Other drivers and passengers use their initiative to find ways of moving on from the danger, but Lynn remains strangely passive.

In an interview with Saudi Gazette in London the day after the prize was announced last week, Rose-Innes said laughingly: “What has taken me by surprise is how just about everyone seems to have found the main character really aggravating”. She added: “She is based on large parts of myself.”

Rose-Innes’s prose style is precise, yet subtle and mysterious. Lynn’s observations of the interactions between the people waiting at the petrol stations, and of alliances unexpected to her, reveal shifts within contemporary South African society.

“Poison” won first prize in the 2007 HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award. The story’s new success, with the Caine Prize, is further recognition of the literary gifts of Rose-Innes, who was first shortlisted for the Caine Prize last year with the story “Bad Places”.

Asked whether she thinks “Poison” taps into the wider anxiety pervading the globe, while having a specific South African context, Rose-Innes replies: “I think it’s in the zeitgeist. There’s a trend towards apocalyptic images in popular culture at the moment...The world is a pretty anxiety-ridden place, although at the time of writing the story it felt like it was very much embedded in the South African situation specifically”.

Apocalyptic stories have “a weird attraction; part of me is drawn to the idea of everything being wiped away and starting again anew.” She was a fan of science fiction when she was younger and “it’s interesting for me that a lot of those classic science fiction scenarios seem to have been discovered anew by mainstream literary authors.”

The Caine Prize was awarded at a dinner in the medieval Divinity School at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. The award was announced by the chairman of the Caine judges Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre in London, and Chair of Culture, Ceremonies and Education at the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.

Kelly’s fellow judges were Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, Eritrean-born Guardian newspaper journalist Hannah Pool, South African poet, novelist and lecturer Jonty Driver, and Jamaican-born poet and critic Professor Mark McMorris of Georgetown University, Washington DC.

Kelly described Rose-Innes’s story as “a strange disorienting metaphor for leaving it too late...something is coming towards you and will destroy you. The narrative employed imagery that pushed the story forwards, and it showed a very sharp and rare maturity.”

This is the ninth year of the Caine Prize, established in memory of Sir Michael Caine who was Chairman of Booker plc, and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. The prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer of 3,000 to 10,000 words. The African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – Nigerian Wole Soyinka, and South Africans Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee – are patrons of the prize, as was the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

This year’s shortlist of five stories included three from the anthology, “African Pens” published last year by Spearhead, an imprint of New Africa Books, Cape Town. The anthology contains the prizewinning stories from the 2007 HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award, among them “Poison”. Malawian writer Stanley Onjezaeni Kenani was shortlisted for the Caine Prize with “For Honour”, and South African Gill Schierhout for “The Day of the Surgical Colloquium”.

The other two shortlisted stories were “Mallam Sile” from Ghanaian writer Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s anthology “The Prophet of Zongo”, and Nigerian Uzor Maxim Uzoatu’s “Cemetery of Life”,
published in Wasafiri magazine.

Rose-Innes was born in Cape Town in 1971. Although she wrote stories as a schoolgirl, it took her “quite a long time to come round to the idea of being a writer. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for a long time, and in a way I think writing kind of solved that dilemma for me. If you write, you can dip into anything that interests you, and don’t have to commit to one sphere of interest.”

At university Rose-Innes did a year of English Literature and she then did various courses before obtaining a BSc Honors in archaeology and anthropology. She then completed an MA in Creative Writing at Cape Town University under the supervision of J M Coetzee. Her first novel “Shark’s Egg” was published in 2000 (and nominated for the M-Net Book prize), and the second, “The Rock Alphabet” appeared in 2004 (the book was a Publishers Choice). The latter novel has also been published in Romanian translation. Rose-Innes is now working on her third novel, provisionally titled “Making Worlds”.

Summing up the experience of the being shortlisted for, and then winning, the Caine Prize, Rose-Innes says: “It’s been very valuable for me in term of discovering other African writers, and starting to access what for me are new networks of writers and publishers throughout Africa, as opposed to within South Africa.”

Although South Africa currently has a very vibrant publishing scene, “it’s not a huge reading market and it’s very difficult to make a living from writing. But if you want to do that, it’s almost essential that you access international markets.” Rose-Innes has an agent in London, Isobel Dixon of the literary agency Blake Friedman, who handles her international sales and non-fiction. Winning the Caine Prize should boost her chances of publication outside South Africa.

The Caine Prize will also give Rose-Innes a chance to devote more time to her writing. However, she plans to continue with certain commitments including her involvement in the University of Cape Town’s Creative Writing MA.

At the same time she is teaching a relatively new online writing course, for the South African Writers College (at which also has a New Zealand branch, and plans to expand into Australia. Rose-Innes was asked by the college to construct the “Write a Novel” course, for which she is tutor. “And it’s actually really fun.”

The burgeoning of Rose-Innes’s writing career has led to her being invited increasingly to literary events and writing residencies abroad. Last year she spent time on a scholarship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, in Stuttgart, Germany, which promotes and funds young artists. She will be returning there later this year. Also this year, as part of the Caine Prize, she is due to spend a month at Georgetown, with the position of Caine Prize/Georgetown University Writer in Residence.

Rose-Innes’s short stories have appeared in several anthologies, most recently “Jambula Tree and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 8th Annual Collection”. The anthology includes “Poison”, “Bad Places” and also “The Boulder” which was written for a Caine workshop held earlier this year in Noordhoek near Cape Town.

Rose-Innes edited the book “Nice Times! A book of South African pleasures and delights”, published in 2006. And for some time she has been working on a collaborative novel, set in a shopping mall, with three other Cape Town women writers: Mary Watson (winner of the Caine Prize in 2006), Diane Awerbuck and Lauren Beukes.

One aspect of South African literary life of which Rose-Innes speaks with particular enthusiasm is the springing up of websites such as, on which she has a page, and, which hosts lively discussions among its members. “On these sites I get a sense of real community of writers,” she says.
Saudi Gazette 14 July 2008