Talisman Gate

Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Jefferson Tile

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

October 28, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1280 words

HEADLINE: The Jefferson Tile

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


The Iranians are hard to understand and hard to like. Actually, let's insert Persians instead of Iranians in that first line. By the deft act of rephrasing, my approval rating jumped 50 points among Iranian citizens. See, Persians, as a race, only account for 50% of the population of Iran; the rest are Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkomans, Armenians, and Lurs.

But it is the Persians who run everything over there, and they have a habit of "Persianizing" anyone, or any idea, that rises to prominence. This happens because they are an overpowering civilization that is so complex and culturally self-assured that it immunizes them from adsorption into the norms of others.

The Sassanians were the last grand non-Islamic Persian Empire, and they had their winter capital in the milder climates of Mesopotamia, near modern-day Baghdad. They pretty much ran things over there for four centuries. Persian-Arab relations were going smoothly, with a number of Arab vassal states paying homage and dues to the Sassanian court. Once in a while, there would be a flare-up with the Byzantine Empire to their west and its own Arab vassal states. However, the Sassanian kings, who at the time were comfortably gazing at fires and being Zoroastrian, were quite startled when some ragtag Bedouin messengers waltzed out of the desert in the sixth century A.D. and confidently demanded homage (and dues) to the new religion of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. It was all very funny until a ragtag Bedouin army came back to occupy the winter capital and put an end to the Sassanian empire. The Persians, now subjects of a nascent and hated occupying Arab empire, begrudgingly paid their dues, and in their own distinctively Persian way humored the new set of powerbrokers for a couple of centuries until they calmly made their comeback.

The Abbassid Caliphate which more or less ran the Islamic world for seven centuries was a big deal in world history. By taking a few historical short-cuts, one can demonstrate that the Persians ran the show behind the scenes right up to the end, while the Arab rulers of the Abbassid court themselves became "Persianized." The same pattern gets repeated a few centuries down the line when the Turks produced the Safavids, and then the Qajars, who ruled the part of the Middle East that is roughly labeled today as Iran from the 15th century onwards. Even today, whereas the ill-tempered, green-baton-wielding ruffians who make up the rank and file of the Revolutionary Guard are likely to be Kurds, Turks, or Arabs of Iran, the leadership is totally and hopelessly inbred Persian or "Persianized."

How do the Persians do it? Well, I don't know, and one tends to dislike what one does not understand. The average rural family somewhere in the Persian Triangle, that is to say the Persian heartland marked on the map by the cities of Shiraz, Isfahan and Yezd (where the 1584 year-old flame of Zoroaster still flickers), spends two years sending a single thread of wool back and forth to weave a single Persian carpet to sell in the market hoping to make some extra cash. Of course, the product is aesthetically very beautiful (and by the time it gets to the West through tens of middlemen, very expensive) but spending two years on a 12-foot-by-8-foot canvas is a very long time.

That 100-square-feet average rug contains thousands of intricate knots; one has to be very patient and almost naturally conspiratorial for the challenge. Come to think of it, Persians are very calm and are almost naturally conspiratorial. Anyone who has ever dealt with the Iranian bureaucracy would understand that they have set a whole new standard to the "Come Back Tomorrow" ethos of management. Maybe that is why they always come out on top in the intricate workings of power and statecraft; they outlast all their overly eager and sloppy challengers.

Some quick travel tips should you ever find yourself in the "Persianized" Lurr/Kurdish city of Kermanshah, Iran, which at one point was the capital of the Sassanian Empire: What you should do is pretend to be a lost tourist in the old part of town and get directions to a mosque called the Muavenel-Mulk tekyeh, built in the 19th century by some philanthropic Qajari state official.

The outer courtyard has all the usual stuff you'd find in a Shiite place of worship, with gorgeous tiles depicting the battle of Kerbala that went on for five minutes some 1,400 years ago (yes, five minutes, there were 72 guys, including the Prophet Muhammed's grandson, pitted against an army of 2,000). When the epic battle is recounted every year in every Shia place of worship, it usually lasts three hours. In these depictions, the Semitic Arab heroes of the Quraish tribe take on Aryan Persian facial features much like a Semitic Hebraic Jesus Christ looks like a modern-day Swede.

But what is really interesting is the larger inner courtyard: There you will find tiles depicting the Who's Who of Iran over the course of 3,000 years, including Farhad the poet, the Grand Ayatollahs of the 19th century and of course, the Qajari philanthropist. However, having Zoroaster and several Zoroastrian Angels in a Muslim place of worship is like having a statue of Zeus at a church or the Golden Calf at a synagogue. And thus stood Zoroaster, alongside several Sassanian kings, staring back across the ages from a shiny glazed tile. Some habits never break.

A lot is out there in print making the argument that Iran is ripe for a revolution to topple the ayotallahs and all that it needs is some prodding from the West, and it is countered by a lot of arguments as to why that approach is unfeasible and why the West should adopt a go-slow technique of fostering change. As policy-makers in Washington ponder what to do about the Islamic Republic of Iran of "axis-of-evil" fame, they should contemplate the enduring and complex nature of Persian civilization. Maybe, democracy is just another religion that needs to be incubated and "Persianized" over time in order to take root in Iran. And then, some aging Persian artisan will flip open a door to a clay furnace and easily extract a fire-glazed tile bearing the likeness of Thomas Jefferson, but with Persian eyebrows.


Tuesday morning, in Baghdad, four bearded assailants riding in a white Opel shot and killed a man I had been privileged to know and come to admire. Subhi Al-'Ayish, 59, of Garma just north of Fallujah, died instantly in front of his home in the Al-'Amiriya suburb. In 1979, Subhi was a young officer in the Iraqi army who was purged from the ranks when his politically prominent uncle was accused of plotting against Saddam Hussein. Since then, he worked in a variety of roles to undermine the dictatorial regime, but luckily he was one of those who never get caught in the act.

Abu Ahmed, as he was known among friends and acquaintances, was a brave man with an almost merry disregard for fear and danger. Since the liberation of Iraq, his name appeared several times in the Arab press as the likely nominee to head Iraq's security apparatus. Part of his activities that are in the public record involved working with the De-Baathification Commission in the Sunni Triangle, which is not a small feat to accomplish. His other off-the-record activities contributed greatly in the very few success stories in battling the fundamentalist insurgents, the sort of freaks that Subhi particularly disliked. Abu Ahmed, my only consolation in your untimely murder is that you finally have an answer to the question that's been nagging you for most of your adult life about the existence of God, a subject you shared with me and others during endlessly merry conversations. Rest in peace.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Fallujah in Focus

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

October 21, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1060 words

HEADLINE: Fallujah in Focus

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


In another life, I came very close to bearing the distinction of being the first casualty in a long line of unfortunate souls who have misunderstood the Fallujah of our times. My harebrained plan got in the way of other hare-brained plans and was consequently, and thankfully, torpedoed. But in the process, I had joined a very small group of worldwide experts on the subject of Fallujah who could place it on a map prior to the liberation of Iraq.

No detail was left unstudied in the run-up; the tribes, the subtribes, the town notables, the access routes. Hours were spent pouring over a satellite image of the town trying to establish directions from a safe house to the nearest hospital, just in case. And did my unique expertise enable me to foresee a liberated Fallujah turning into the epicenter of worldwide jihad? Not at all.

It looked very pretty through the zoom lens of a satellite. Flanked from the east by the slow-moving and rain-fed girth of the Euphrates River, Fallujah looked new and shiny with all its well-engineered highways leading west towards nearby Baghdad. A city famous for its distinct fat and long kebabs favored by the truckers working the Amman-Baghdad route. But should you drive around it on one of those shiny highways, the horizontal profile of the city offers a whole different view, capturing the identity of this now notorious town of 300,000 residents: You would see a hundred fat and long minarets dotting its landscape. The City of a Hundred Minarets, that is how the Fallujahns refer to their town and that's what they would put on their license plates as their local slogan if given the chance.

How did this minaret-infested town arrive at a point in history when it can sway a heavily contested American presidential election? As on-the-ground Marine generals and White House micromanagers debate whether to strike before November 2 or after, Fallujah is looming large on President Bush's to-do list. Fallujahns would say that it all started when a dozen or so bystanders were killed by American fire during the summer of 2003.

The Americans would say it all started when Fallujah became a den of the "evildoers," playing host to the likes of Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi and Saddam loyalists. Arab nationalist historians would say that it all started in 1920, when Sheikh Dhari of Fallujah's Zoba' tribe killed Colonel Leachman and sparked the nationwide revolt against British occupation. And they are all right but miss the correct answer: It all started about 200 ago when Fallujah itself started. It all started when that bend east of the Euphrates River was settled and became a calling port for the pirates of the desert, the smugglers.

Smugglers are also fond of Fallujah's kebabs. One is bound to come across this fact when studying the tribal makeup of the Fallujahns. And how can one not be impressed by the exploits of the Albu Issa tribe? Sheep, drugs, firearms, and whatever your black-market heart desires find their way through the shallow canyons that stretch out of the parched deserts of Southwestern Iraq into nowadays Saudi Arabia.

Oh, those Saudis again. That explains it: Fallujah is the toe-hold of the desert onto the terrain of Mesopotamia, the ancient Greek name for the lands that lie between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, otherwise known as the cradle of civilization. And the desert gets to violently rock the cradle through its extended toe, Fallujah. Ideas and habits can get smuggled, too. That is why Saudi arms bearing the insignia of the Saudi Ministry of Interior show up there and that is why some very-Saudi and not-at-all-Iraqi cityscape themes like a Hundred Minarets get lodged, like an oversized splinter, near the very heart of Mesopotamia, the glorious cosmopolitan city of Baghdad.

There is a funny little footnote regarding Fallujah's great hero Sheikh Dari that those Arab historians fail to mention. He was at Leachman's office picking up his gold: a payment made for keeping the trade routes near Baghdad safe from marauding bandits, much like the payments made today by the Americans to tribal chiefs to keep the oil pipelines safe. And very much like today, those same sheikhs would stage attacks in order to raise their service fees on the gullible occupiers. Sheikh Dhari was doing well being both protector and pillager of the trade caravans. Leachman brought him in for a dressing down and in the ensuing quarrel, a shot was fired, the blond "Imperialist Exploiter" was killed, and a hero was born. So goes the story.

And a footnote to the footnote would add that the grandchildren and grandnephews of Fallujah's hero are now lending their intellectual Islamist heft to the insurgency and are in effect the "face" of the rebels. It should also be noted that they spent a considerable amount of time in exile living off the largesse of the Saudi state prior to the liberation of Iraq.

The British also built their most important military base near Fallujah, at Habbaniyah Lake, giving the residents of the nearby city a head start to become Iraq's premier construction contractors. They became the go-to guys to get the job done at the right price, which explains the smooth operation of Iraq's well-financed insurgency. Al Qaeda money is being well-handled by cando professionals. Only question is: How is the money getting in? Oh, those smugglers again.

Most critics now say that failure to bring about a decisive military victory back in last April's confrontation led to the cloning of several Fallujahs in Samarra, Ramadi, Ba'aquba, Beiji, and Latifiyyah, place-names that until recently were quite unknown to the American public. But such blissful ignorance has changed with mounting American casualties from places like Winkelman, Ariz., and Pleasant Mount, Pa., that remain unheard of by the Iraqi public. But does leveling the City of a Hundred Minarets with precision-guided missiles translate into victory among an Iraqi audience?

Maybe it is time for the satellite lens to zoom out and bring the larger image into focus. Maybe it is time to consider the trails leading from Fallujah into the desert and across the Saudi border. Just maybe, cutting off the toe at Fallujah will only leave a bloody mess in Iraq and minimal damage to the main body of the lurking monster somewhere out there in the desert that bred the Wahhabi creed of a Thousand Minarets and Counting.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Want a Slice of Saudi Pie?

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

October 14, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1282 words

HEADLINE: Want a Slice of Saudi Pie?

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Saudi Arabia was put together yesterday and can be unraveled tomorrow. Okay, I exaggerate, but only slightly. Some 80 years ago, the chieftains of an Arabian clan, who for a couple of centuries had been in the business of ruling others, picked off the remaining fiefdoms to their north, west and south and cobbled together a country and named it after one of their grand-papas. It is as if the Kennedys flanked out from Massachusetts and took over most of the New England states and fashioned a country called Kenneda. Of course, some enterprising Western intelligence officers (the Brits, who else?) were there acting as midwives to the new Arabian state, followed by the Americans, who nursed the infant through toddlerhood. And then, there was oil, followed by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Okay, I oversimplify, but only slightly.

Let's retrace some of these leaps. When one ponders the current affairs of the Arabian Peninsula, the bulk of which is called today the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one should go back to a point in time when a certain English gentleman physician, Charles M. Doughty, meandered about the land known as Nejd that lies at the heart of the aforementioned peninsula.

Doughty, deciding to do away with the usual dissembling of faith and identity employed by other European travelers into Arab lands, was a Western practitioner of medicine and a Christian wandering about in the heart of hearts of Wahhabi-Land. I would have advised against this back then (mid-part of the 18th century) and would advise against it now (check out the State Department report on world-wide religious freedoms). What Doughty encountered, and described in his "Arabia Deserta" masterpiece, was a bleak and ungenerous land inhabited by people who were xenophobic and mean-spirited, at least to European doctors. He had traveled the whole Middle East and never saw anything like it. Even the then Ottoman-controlled backwater of Hijaz with its Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, which he reached after his sojourn into Nejd, seemed in contrast like a shining beacon of humane and civilized society.

And he was very puzzled indeed. Those Nejdis, as the people of Nejd were called, were well traveled: trading horses in India, grain in Iraq, and textiles in Damascus. They had seen quite a bit of the world around them, and yet this is where the first seeds of Wahhabism took root and sprouted out into the Islamic world.

And Wahhabism itself was not much of an ideology. Its meager constructs of puritan wrath and militant xenophobia were a rough sketch of earlier and more sophisticated thoughts put forward centuries ago by the Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who is the ideological forefather of today's Salafists, who are not to be confused with the Wahhabis.

No, Wahhabism was the product of a preacher called Mohammed son of Abdul-Wahhab, whose father had disowned him. It came out from his own checkered and murky past. That son of Abdul-Wahhab was an angry man.

Can you blame him? There were no air-conditioners out there in the smoldering desert, and the locusts, those darn locusts, would show up whenever something, anything, green would thrust its way out of the caked sand and gravel. The Arabs, unlike the likes of Doughty and Colonel Lawrence, have no love of the desert. Whoever can get out of Arabia departs for the greener pastures of the nearby Levant and Mesopotamia.

And there was a man, in the early 19th century, who came to lead his clan, which was torn by problems of hereditary succession and past broken alliances. Ibn Saud was his name, or the Son of Saud. To overpower and rule, he needed muscle, and he saw that his best chance were the angry crazies still holding onto the legacy of the Son of Wahhab, who had been allied to the Son of Saud's forefathers. He struck east, and easily took over the Shiite oasis towns on the Persian Gulf. Then north against the Sultanate of the Son of Rashid and its capital of Ha'il, and then, exploiting the turmoil engulfing his part of the world after-World War I and the British grand experiments of ruling over the unruly, he struck west and captured the prizes of Mecca and Medina. Once in a while, the angry crazies got too angry and too crazy, and he had to bash them. Then oil, which the locusts can't digest, gushed from the ground and American companies were at hand to turn it into something green. And these new greener pastures made everyone very happy, except the angry crazies, who yearned for the adrenaline kick of Holy War.

But that was fixed too. The smart and well-groomed Sons of the Son of Saud found a formula that works: Afghanistan. Go East, Angry Crazy Young Man, for jihad, Stinger missiles, and martyrdom awaited you! And that worked for a while and everyone was also very, very happy.

Now, I keep hearing whispers that "North" is the new "East" for the current rulers of Saudi Arabia. Hushed plans were being circulated last spring in Washington by the Saudi prince/spook/diplomat who brought us the "Afghan Solution" in the first place and these plans entailed sending off the angry crazies to Iraq. This way, the pitch to the Americans went, the Saudis can plant infiltrators into the stream of jihadists heading north and uncover the workings of worldwide jihad. Hey, it worked in Afghanistan, right? No. Afghanistan gave us the Taliban and Iraq is yielding a tiny little Fallujah, so far.

Let us revisit the whole obscure Wahhabi-Salafist thing. The Wahhabis, being the angry crazies, are very good at smashing things, whereas the Salafists actually have plans for the Temple they seek to build upon the ruins. Osama is a Wahhabi, whereas Zawahiri is a Salafi. Before Al Qaeda and Taliban, those two didn't play well together, until the Salafists re alized what the Son of Saud did; they needed muscle to overpower and expand. And where do you find a Wahhabi when you need one? Well, incubating in the smoldering heat of Nejd, of course.

So, yes, we need to break up Saudi Arabia. The Sons of the Sons of the Son of Saud are not doing a good job containing or co-opting or combating the angry crazies. They still have some smart royal highnesses showing up to work, but they have yet to demonstrate that they are up to the task of confronting a serious challenge to Western civilization and not repeating the mistakes of their past.

Sooner or later, the Salafists will realize that it is easier to cut corners and set up their Taliban Plus in the Arabian Peninsula, propped up by the twin pillars of wealth (oil) and Islamic legitimacy (Mecca and Medina). And the world is running out of precious time. To deny them that would involve re-creating the five neat little states that preceded the conquests of the Son of Saud. First, Hijaz - the descendants of the Hashemites are plentiful, with plenty of experience managing Mecca. Second, Ha'il; the descendants of the Son of Rashid are also plentiful. Third, a 250-mile by 50-mile rectangle called the State of Eastern Arabia. This is where all the oil and the Shiites can be found. Fourth, Nejd. No problem there, almost 7,000 princely descendants of the Son of Saud. Fifth, 'Aseer, which is the topic for another column.

In an area of the world where identities need several centuries to take hold, the 80-year-old experiment of Saudi Arabia is a trifle. It is an idea that did not pan out, and there is little reason to avoid returning to the drawing board.

Thinking afresh about the Saudi mess is important because the frontline of the war on terror runs from Iraq's Fallujah to Buraida, which was the site of many of Doughty's unpleasant memories and is the current home to many of Osama bin Ladin's Nejdy ideological mentors, to Al-Baha, 'Aseer's main city.