Talisman Gate

Friday, November 26, 2004

Leave the Sunnis Behind





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

November 26, 2004 Friday

SECTION: EDITORIAL & OPINION; Pg. 11

LENGTH: 1240 words

HEADLINE: Leave the Sunnis Behind

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi

BODY:


Oh, how the tables have turned, times have changed, and history has repeated itself. These three cliched phrases fit Iraq very well as it approaches the nationwide elections for a Constituent Assembly. The elections are to be held, without delay, during the last week of January 2005.

Around this time some 82 years ago, Shia ayatollahs issued fatwas to the effect that any faithful Muslim would be excommunicated and would thus forgo the rites of proper burial should such a Muslim vote in the elections for the Constituent Assembly of 1923, under the auspices of a British Mandate. In our present day, Sunni clerics are beseeching the faithful to boycott the upcoming elections since they are being held under an effective American mandate, and may lead to the majority Shias taking the cake and eating it too. This time around, Shia ayatollahs are instructing the faithful to participate or else go to hell.

This all started when Iraq was created by highly skilled British bureaucrats schooled in empire. These were seriously top-notch people, nothing like their modern-day counterparts at State and the CIA, and they still got it wrong. One such bureaucrat who stands out among the crowd for her intellect and influence was Gertrude Bell, but she managed to screw everything up because genius is often wedded to behavioral eccentricities. During the year 1905, when Miss Bell was exercising her spinsterly, wealthy, and Victorian exploits through travel and adventure, she came upon a little Lebanese village near Ba'albek. There, her doggie, Kurt (the word for 'wolf' in Turkish, a language Bell had mastered as well as Arabic, Farsi, the usual European ones, and some unusual languages of the Indian subcontinent), was lost but later retrieved. It seems that a Shia peasant has stolen him. Since then, Bell hated the Shias and subsequently handed Iraq over to the minority Sunnis.

That last sentence should have jolted many of her biographers and admirers. But I am adamant that this was the case since I can find no other logical explanation for what she pulled off in Iraq. Incidentally, Bell herself apparently was also at a loss for an explanation for the mess she had created, and that is probably why she decided to take her own life via a lethal dose of barbiturates one hot Baghdad summer in 1926.

Some of her admirers survived as a cult in the State Department who deal specifically with Iraq and fit within the broader faith of the Arabists. They too believe that Iraq should only be ruled by Sunnis. Their argument goes that the Sunnis who ruled Iraq were experienced ex-Ottoman civil servants and officers; much like the ex-Nazis who ran the trains on time. The ex-Baathists are, by this argument, at least theoretically adept at intimidating, interrogating, and incarcerating the trouble-makers in nowadays trouble-ridden Iraq. Or at least more adept than the alternatives, as shown by the failings of the Fallujah Brigade and by the recent police cowardice in Mosul. The Shia underdogs, far removed from power and constituting the majority of the population, were simply not up to standard on such delicate matters as statecraft and oppression.

Many Sunni Arab governments, which are incidentally very friendly to the Arabists in the State Department, also agree with them. Furthermore, they all concur that democracy is a bad idea for Iraq. This is why these upcoming democratic elections in Iraq where the Shia are poised to win and in an overwhelming fashion are nothing short of the Worst That Could Ever Happen in their book.

Oh, the horror, for it gets worse. Everyone assumed that all the major players, namely the exiled parties, would end up on the same electoral list, but nobody thought that the ethnic and sectarian breakdown that held in the past during exiled politics and the current administration would be thoroughly revised. The Shias have formed their own formidable list (Allawi isn't welcome at this point) and they are ready for the bargaining to begin. They want to increase their share of the political pie to a minimum of 60% from the current 53%.The Kurds, sulking now because they usually got a head start back in the good old days in such negotiations by virtue of a unified Kurdish list, must compromise down to a measly 20% or 22% from 30%. That leaves the usual 5% for the Turkomans and Assyrians to wrangle over -the Turkomans usually win. Final tally? All you need to know is that Sunnis are ending up with 13% to 15%. Some Shia extremists even want to give them a paltry 9%. The Sunnis, after enjoying the magical figure of 100% for 82 years, are not happy at all.

So now, the Arabist diplomats and their Arab friends are counseling President Bush to consider a delay in elections until America can guarantee 30% for the Sunnis. Such a delay is what the Sunni-led uprising is all about, and would give them a victory in return for the sacrifice of Fallujah. The token Sunnis who are part of the current government set-up and whose fathers and grandfathers once led the Sunni elite and ran the country Bell had bequeathed to them are not taken seriously in the heartland - the Sunni heartland. Places like Ramadi, Mosul, and Tikrit and its RPG-totting youth look toward the swashbuckling romantics who regale them with tales of a not-so-distant 100% Sunni dictatorship. That is why they are fighting: for the throne, and nothing but the throne.

History is about to turn an important corner in Iraq and it would be disastrous for it to be impeded by an American roadblock. Iraqi politics and pie-slicing are on autopilot. At the end of election day, eight out of 10 Iraqis (six Shia and two Kurds) will walk away from the voting booths feeling as if they have a stake in the future. Two out of ten Iraqis, probably Sunnis, would be busily boycotting the whole election or desperately trying to blow up the ballot stations.

The Arab rulers should likewise be ignored: at this point, Ayatollah Sistani is far more important to American interests in Iraq than Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. And Ayatollah Sistani wants the elections to be held yesterday.

The Sunnis will soon realize that, unlike their grandfathers and fathers, they missed the opportunity to be part of a newly remodeled Iraq. It took the Shias until 1927, a year after Bell died, to realize that they had missed their own opportunity and to try to rectify their situation, but by then the Sunni dictatorship had closed off all avenues to power sharing. In this century, it may take another five years for the Sunnis to get back on board. Only an Iraqi-led democratic process that is not micromanaged out of Langley, Foggy Bottom, or Cairo will leave the door open for them to do just that. Leave the Iraqis to sort this out, and just maybe Iraqi children will quarrel over marbles and soccer rather than sectarian identity.

***

In last week's column, "The Saudi First Amendment," I argued that America should ask the Saudis to lock up the Wahhabi clerics on Saudi turf, such as Salman Al-Audah, who are issuing fatwas for jihad against Americans in Iraq. Well, last week, Mr. Al-Audah found a note from his son, Ma'adh, telling him that he was off to fight the Americans in Fallujah. Mr. Al-Audah made frantic calls to the Saudi authorities who managed to locate and detain the son near the Iraqi border and return him safe and sound to his father. It would have been a touching father-son moment if not for the hypocrisy and danger it exposed.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Saudi First Amendment





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

November 18, 2004 Thursday

SECTION: EDITORIAL & OPINION; Pg. 11

LENGTH: 1433 words

HEADLINE: The Saudi First Amendment

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi

BODY:


If the Saudis had an equivalent for the 'freedom of speech' bit in the Bill of Rights, it would stipulate that all free speech is prohibited, unless it calls for jihad against the United States.

On Friday, November 5,26 leading Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia issued an open declaration in the form of a religious promulgation, inciting the Iraqi people to fight the American forces. They state that the religious justifications for participating in a jihad are self-evident, and that it does not require an overall leadership to coordinate the efforts. They implore Iraqis not to inform on the insurgents or participate in the government's efforts to quell the terrorists. In this decree, the Saudi clerics beseech the Iraqis not to get embroiled in sectarian Shia/Sunni or Arab/Kurdish conflicts and to focus their wrath against the Americans and "the Jews who are infiltrating into Iraq." They call upon all Muslims to support the anti-American insurgency, and to provide alms and charity for "victorious" towns like Fallujah. Four of its 10 paragraphs read like a political memorandum to Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, imploring the guerrillas to project a civilized and civilian-friendly demeanor that would come in handy when administering the country once victory over the "occupiers" was achieved.

This is a very important document that highlights a turning point in how Al Qaeda, and the Wahhabi-Salafist alliance it represents, perceives the unfolding events in Iraq. Zarqawi was a punk and a flunky in the Who's Who of Worldwide Jihad. He was deemed so marginal that the Jordanians released him from prison in a now controversial move back in 1999. But Zarqawi, assisted with a little pre-liberation help from Saddam Hussein's secret police and postliberation American blundering, managed to turn Iraq into a success story for terrorism. Last winter, he apparently wrote a 17-page letter to Osama bin Laden describing the challenges of conducting holy war in a land populated by heathen Shias and laidback Sufi Sunnis. He was petitioning Al Qaeda to adopt his movement and take him seriously, which happened last month when he changed the name of his outfit to "Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Twin Rivers."

These latest religious edicts emanating from Saudi Arabia and Zarqawi's pledge of allegiance to Mr. bin Laden mark a dramatic shift in policy for the Wahhabi-Salafist alliance. Just a year ago, a Saudi medical doctor traveled to Iraq to scout possibilities for jihad, and he penned his observations is a 20-page pamphlet entitled "The Iraq We Hoped For...And the Road to Jerusalem." The author, Dr. Saud bin Hassan Mukhtar, laments the absence of Saudi money, preachers, and fighters from a scene exceptionally ripe for armed struggle against the Americans. Even Al Qaeda's theme song, which I use for my MP3-powered cellular ring tone as a constant reminder of its menace, maps out world-wide jihad in Egypt, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, India, Palestine, and Lebanon - but not in Iraq. But all the evidence indicates that Iraq is now the new Afghanistan as far as Al Qaeda is concerned.

And guess who signed the Saudi religious edict? Well, among the 26 names who all signed as "Sheikh and PhD" are Safar bin Abdel-Rahman Al-Hawali, 54, and Salman bin Fahed Al-Audah, 49.The activities and influence of these two as the ideological mentors of Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda have been well reported by the Western press. Both were arrested back in 1994 because they grew too hostile for the comfort level of the Saudi royals and were pardoned and released five years later by Crown Prince Abdullah. Mr. Al-Hawali has recently been useful to the royal family in acting as an intermediary with the terrorists on the government's own most wanted list to arrange their surrender.

But, it is highly hypocritical of Al-Hawali in particular, as a signatory to the "open call to the Iraqi people," to counsel the insurgents to refrain from antagonizing the Shia. Right after the liberation of Iraq, the Shias of Saudi Arabia were emboldened enough to petition the Saudi Crown Prince for greater political and economic participation, and it fell to Al-Hawali to author a vitriolic Wahhabi establishmentarian response as to why such reforms are not feasible because, simply put, the Shias are heathens and effectively must be exterminated, should one go by the Wahhabi book.

The attitude of the Saudi government is to enshrine the status quo at home, and send the troublemakers abroad. It is a dangerous double game that has been going on for two decades, but this time around, it is claiming both American and Iraqi lives.

To be fair, the Saudis have nudged the segments of the Wahhabi establishment that are still loyal to them into issuing several counter arguments against jihad. However, these arguments don't make the case that fighting the Americans is a bad idea since they are de facto allies and protectors of the oil-rich kingdom. Instead, they say that jihad is a bad idea at this time because America is too strong and vigilant and the battle is doomed to failure at this point. For their internal charm campaign during the just-ended holy month of Ramadan, the Saudis unleashed the inspector-general of the Ministry of Justice, Sheikh Abdel-Muhsin bin Nassir Al-'Ubaikan, on the Saudi-owned Arab press and satellite channels. He did a good job and made a good case against present-day jihad, as is the case with the after-thought fatwa issued by Saudi Arabia's top cleric instructing the Saudi youth against heading off to fight in Iraq.

Yes, the Saudis can point and say to the Americans, "we are doing something." But is it enough? President Bush should call his former guest at the Crawford ranch, Prince Abdullah, and ask him: Why are Mr. Al-Hawali and Mr. Al-Audah free to speak and incite against America in Iraq?

In academia, it is put forward that the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Prince Abdullah's father) switched his allegiances from British imperialism to American capitalism by preferentially offering oil concessions in return for American protection against the British-friendly and Saudi-hostile Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

Now that America is trying to establish a friendly democracy in Iraq, Mr. Bush should ask Prince Abdullah if the deal still stands. A positive Saudi response would offer bloodthirsty loudmouths like Messrs. Al-Hawali and Al-Audah another stint in jail.

***

It seems that I have to mourn yet another friend who was murdered by the forces of evil in Iraq. Wadhah Hassan Abdel-Amir Abu Deggeh, better known by his nom de guerre Sa'adoun, was gunned down in his car along with two bodyguards on a road near Khalis last Saturday. He was a member of the Political Bureau of the Iraqi Communist Party, and a parliamentarian in Iraq's National Assembly. He was also my friend and one of the best Iraqis I've met. Born in the early 1960s among the dispossessed of southern Iraq and built like a wrestler but shaped like a teddy-bear, he joined the ICP when he was in his late teens and fought in the Ansar Brigades against Saddam's totalitarian dictatorship in the Kurdish mountains. There, he married his Kurdish wife and learn to speak fluent Kurdish. In 1991,he swooped down from his mountain hideout - still called 'Sa'adoun's Mountain'- and liberated the Kurdish city of Shaqlawa.

It may seem odd to American ears, but the communists - oppressors elsewhere - in Iraq were allies against Saddam.

During the early 1990s,and in his capacity as head of the intelligence arm of the ICP, Sa'adoun moved into the very heart of Saddam's dictatorship in Baghdad to organize resistance to the tyrant. I stumbled upon his state security file that read, page after page, as a testimony to his bravery, humanity, and defiance. The secret police terrorized his father and brother into imploring Sa'adoun to hand himself over, but he responded in a letter I found in his file denouncing the type of evil that would use one's family as hostages.

Sa'adoun, do you remember our last meeting two months ago? You were counseling against an open confrontation with the Baathists permeating every level of the current government, and I asked you if the time for confrontation will come when they push you back to the mountains. I am sure one of their lookouts at a road block sent word that you were traveling on that highway to your death. You told me, "don't worry" as I fretted over your personal security and your dismissal of the flashy trappings of bodyguards and armored vehicles. I can't believe that we lost someone like you: What a terrible loss for me and for Iraq's future.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Usual Suspects





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

November 11, 2004 Thursday

SECTION: EDITORIAL & OPINION; Pg. 11

LENGTH: 1318 words

HEADLINE: The Usual Suspects

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi

BODY:


Who will succeed Abu Ammar? Will it come to be what the pundits are saying, a toss-up between Abu Mazen and Abu Ala'a, or will the outcome be settled after a protracted gang war between Abu Fadi and Abu Rami?

If that sounds like gibberish, here's a scorecard: The "Abu" stands in for "Father of," and Palestinian Arabs involved in politics usually adopt this form of social reference as their nom de guerre, traditionally deriving from the name of the eldest son. "Abu Ammar" is Yasser Arafat, who, unlike most Arab rulers, does not have any male progeny to bequeath the mantle of leadership to. "Abu Mazen" is Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and prime minister for a few months last year, and "Abu Ala'a" is Ahmed Qureia, who is the current prime minister. "Abu Fadi" is Mohammed Dahlan and "Abu Rami" is Jibril Rajoub, who are respectively the former security bosses of Gaza and the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.

And, just to further confuse matters, Arafat's real name is actually Mohammed Abdel-Raouf Abdel-Rahman Al-Qidwa. That is his given name at birth in a Cairo hospital on August 24th, 1929, but it is unlikely to be etched on his gravestone.

Ashraf Al-Kurdi, Arafat's longtime personal physician, was once a student at Baghdad Medical School, where my father taught him biochemistry in the early 1960s. He has declared in the Arab press that Arafat, now expiring in a Parisian hospital, is "not brain-dead," a statement he has had to repeat often within a closed circle over the past 30 years. Joking aside, what is happening is a seminal opportunity to head-hunt for a Palestinian leadership that can actually lead. And it may be squandered through short-term fixes by those who have most to lose from another 50 years or more of Arab-Israeli conflict - the Americans and the Israelis.

The Americans and Israelis trying to find a quick fix to this conflict are going to squander this historical opportunity because their policymakers are - with a few important exceptions - stupid, lazy, and racist. They are stupid because they think in terms of election cycles and Camp David photo-ops, and their strongly held belief that the battle to win the hearts and minds of Middle Easterners can be measured through instant polling and Nielsen ratings of Arabic-dubbed game shows. They are both lazy and racist because they postulate that a Palestinian democratic and liberal partner for peace does not exist and that they shouldn't waste time looking for such a political species in that neck of the woods.

When trying to sort out conflicting claims to 5,000-year-old property title deeds and turf squabbles over Jerusalem's square mile of stone, mortar, and Holy Spirit, one should be extremely patient. And one has to be extremely careful: the Palestinians and Israelis are ex changing blows against the backdrop of worldwide jihad, a holy war that seeks the destruction of Western civilization and the annihilation of the State of Israel. The attack on September 11, 2001, was part of the jihad. If this post-Arafat transition goes badly, it will further embolden the enemies of America and Israel and equip them with another enraging symbol of malice toward Arabs and Muslims. In other words yet another example of stupidity, laziness, and racism, and this was the subtext of bin Laden's broadcasted pre-election harangue of the West.

But Osama's message revealed a glaring weakness: he said that he is fighting for "freedom," fully realizing that this is what is going to win the hearts and minds of Middle Easterners.

President Bush won the election, which is good news for the Middle East and the war on terror, not because Fallujah is about to be leveled and FBI agents are camped out in Peshawer but because it is bad news for the keep things-the-way-they-are bureaucracies at State, Defense, and the intelligence community who handle the Middle East. For all their flank maneuvers to isolate Mr. Bush from the "revolutionaries" in their midst, or the ones they refer to as "neo-cons," the forces of the status quo have missed one important detail: Mr. Bush is fluent in "neo-conese." Mr. Bush speaks "neocon" and understands "neo-con." Freedom and liberation of captive peoples are personal articles of faith for this president, and no amount of rear-guard action is going to change the course on which he has personally set American policy toward the Middle East. Those petrodollar- driven loyalties and the inclination of the bureaucracies toward stale and unimaginative analysis are going to be challenged over the next four years by his freedom-oriented foreign policy.

Mr. Bush should constantly, actively demonstrate that America is fighting for freedom in the Middle East. There is plenty to get done in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and post-Arafat Palestine.

But I suspect that the bureaucracies are going to attempt to confuse Mr. Bush by offering up only four alternatives to Arafat: Abu Mazen, Abu Ala'a, Abu Fadi and Abu Rami. The first two are going to be interim caretakers who are incapable of filling Arafat's guerrilla boots since they cannot live up to Arafat's symbolism among Palestinians, and they can neither reach the power levers of Arafat's legacy: the vast sprawling kleptocracy of the thuggish Palestinian Authority, or rather the Palestinian Autocracy. Not to mention that for the past four years the Palestinian-Arab people have endured low-intensity warfare in their own backyards as bloody terror attacks unleashed bloody Israeli reprisals.

The West Bank and Gaza are a complete mess, and in such a situation, the CIA comes to the rescue, or as the Arabic proverb goes, "he came to apply mascara to her eyes, but mistakenly blinded her." The spooks, like their Israeli counterparts, only trust those whose loyalties they can purchase, oblivious to the hard fact that they can be outbid. And the CIA trust Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub.

Mr. Dahlan and Mr. Rajoub have the firepower to impose their will and those of their benefactors on the Palestinian people, whose own national will seeks, as is human nature, dignity and a better life. The Israelis are busily erecting their expensive Concrete Curtain across the West Bank to seal off "Area-B" Palestinian ghettos, and can't be expected to offer much by way of helping the Palestinians express their will. The Israelis see the Palestinians in their midst as a scenery-spoiling nuisance and not as a stark reality, but no number of Russians or Argentines making aliyah is going to change the fact that several million Palestinians exist in Palestine. Pending a nationwide paradigm-shift of Israeli soul-searching as to what exactly is the nature of their state, it is again America that must lead the way at this fork-in-the-road juncture unfolding in Paris.

The groundwork for elections is in place, and these elections will lend legitimacy to those who can offer their people a way out of this mess, if given the time, means and secure environment to articulate their message. Otherwise, the pragmatists will cower into the shadows and the more-of-the-same demagogues will carry the day.

The Palestinians are a talented and hardworking people, just the kind of success-oriented rags-to-riches crowd that incur jealousy and animosity in the lands of their Arab exile. In fact, the stereotype of Palestinians among hostile host populations like the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, or the Lebanese, corresponds to the same themes of anti-Semitic rhetoric throughout right-leaning Europe toward the Jews. Such a people can produce a democratic and liberal leadership that leads them into the future. And America, guided by freedom-loving Bush, can help foster such a leadership through patience and care.

The State Department and the CIA will round up the usual suspects and cobble together a quick-fix leadership, but Mr. Bush should demand more Abu-Somethings to chose from.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Follow the Mon(k)ey





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

November 4, 2004 Thursday

SECTION: EDITORIAL & OPINION; Pg. 11

LENGTH: 1051 words

HEADLINE: Follow the Mon(k)ey

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi

BODY:


Actually, the headline should be "Follow the Baboon." I hear that baboons consider the "m" word particularly derogatory. And to be specific, given the rigid social hierarchy of the ape world, it should be the Hamadryas Baboon, a creature worshipped by the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. These baboons are found all over East Africa and spill over across the Bab Al-Mandab straits of the Red Sea into Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Yes, Saudi Arabia, a land that usually conjures up images of bleak and parched desert landscapes that would be inhospitable to such hilarious and cuddly creatures as baboons. But in fact, there is a region in Saudi Arabia where these apes call home. It is called 'Asir, which roughly takes up the whole southwestern corner of the oil-rich kingdom. It is, incidentally, also the place that 9 out of the 15 Saudi September 11 hijackers used to call home. Another four hail from southern Hijaz, to the immediate neighboring north of 'Asir.

The baboons, like the terrorists, are aggressive and menacing. 'Asir is pretty much like Yemen, the land the ancient Romans called Arabia Felix, or the happy part of Arabia. The only difference seems to be that the steep and ragged mountains of the Sarawat in 'Asir are crystalline while the highlands of Yemen are volcanic in geological origin. Today, that southwestern part of Saudi Arabia is administratively broken up into the provinces of 'Asir (five of the hijackers), Al-Baha (four of the hijackers), Jizan (part of the thin coastal plain called the Tehama that stretches along 600 miles of the Red Sea coast and culturally belongs to Africa), and Najran.

Najran is a large oasis town that is well beyond the plateau of the 'Asiri highlands, but it is the only part of Saudi Arabia where pre-Islamic Arab pagan religious beliefs still linger despite the best efforts to eradicate them. It is also where some 250,000 of the much-persecuted Ismaili Shias of the Bani Lam tribe live, who are not even mainstream Shia or mainstream Ismailis for that matter.

These four provinces would neatly fit as one block of the proposed 'Five State Solution' for the break-up of Saudi Arabia that was discussed in an earlier column. Of course, they not homogenous communities, but their major cultural variations seem to be that some build their houses of wood, some out of mud and straw, while others erect stone tower-like structures. But the commonalities they share are still greater than anything that would bind them to other regions of the Arabian Peninsula. Typically, the governors of these provinces are royal princes of the House of Saud or their relatives, hailing from their distant province and power-base of Nejd. Their grandparents occupied the southwestern region in 1934.

Getting back to 'Asir proper, one would get the impression that it is an unlikely place to breed Wahhabi-inspired terrorists. Wahhabism's puritanical essence mirrors the harsh and unforgiving deserts from which it sprang. 'Asir, on the other hand is lush and green, with juniper and wild olive forests, and plenty of monsoon-like rainfall. It even snows occasionally on the 10,000-foot high peak of Mount Sawda. The mountain sides are full of blooming wild flowers and Saint-John's-wort, an herb that tends to soothe people. The people, who hail from numerous tribes, are as colorful as the land they inhabit and the interiors of their homes are resplendent with color. The men wear striped kilts - never call them skirts - of hot-palate colors of orange, red, ochre and green. These match with their shirts that seem to have been the inspiration for last summer's merchandise at the Banana Republic.

The men wear wild flowers and freshly-cut sprigs of basil, lavender and mint in their headdresses. It is believed that these aromatic botanicals can ward off the evil eye. The women wear all of their intricately-crafted silver jewelry throughout the day while harvesting the tiny terraced plots of land along the hillside or while milking the goats. Both men and women outline their enchanting and distinctive hazel eyes with kohl, the aesthetic and chemical equivalent of mascara. Such displays of flirtatious appearances are anathema to the austere Wahhabi dress uniform of all-white for males and all-black for females.

This is a part of Arabia where the tribes did not feel it necessary to pack up and leave to greener pastures and "Arabize" the other parts of the Middle East through successive migrations over the millennia. These tribes are obscure in origin and one of the major ones, the Qahtanis, carry the name of an obscure ancestor from whom all 'pure' Arabs supposedly descend.

So how did the land of happy Arabia, awash with vibrant color and monkeys jumping up and down, inspire the youth of 'Asir and Al-Baha to become the foot-soldiers and 'muscle' of Al-Qaeda and head-off to world-wide jihad? The ratio of 13 out of 15 hijackers who hail from southern Hijaz and 'Asir is mirrored in the composition of the Saudi contingents that fought in Afghanistan and those currently creating havoc in Iraq.

What is going on, and is anyone working on finding the answer? Some blame it on poverty and some others on the gradual cultural domination of state-subsidized Wahhabi concepts in the urban centers as more and more 'Asiris leave their colorful highland villages, grow unkempt beards, and adopt the Wahhabi uniform. There is very little out there in print about the 'Asir highlands, and if the CIA is currently having trouble planting agents in cosmopolitan Beirut, then we are all far off from figuring out this puzzle.

The report of the commission on the September 11 attacks is full of references to Saudi-based financiers of terror. It easily follows the money from middlemen in Dubai and Pakistan to the hijackers, but the origin of the money trail is lost as they follow it back across the Saudi border. The report also carefully tracks the Saudi 'muscle' hijackers leaving training camps in Afghanistan to head to the United States, but fails to address how they were recruited from places like 'Asir in the first place. The investigators and intelligence officers, whose work is still far from done, are wise to further follow the money, but someone on their staff should be following the monkey up the narrow hill trails of the Sarawat Mountains in 'Asir.