Monday, March 23, 2015

Why I Like Classics

Morocco is as spectacular in real life as it is in the movies and books, whether you visit the Mediterranean Coast, the Atlas Mountains, or the Sahara, or places in between.  It is nigh impossible to imagine that people in this gorgeous country where every house, door and window, every kaftan, bag and shoe is an object of art, and all of them in balance with the nature,  could be anything but content.  Indeed, nowhere have I seen so many warm, hospitable, helpful and smiling people in such a short time as I did in Morocco this year.  So why is this seemingly tranquil country the fourth largest provider of foreign fighters for Islamic State in Syria?

The only hint that things may not be as serene as they seem is the ubiquitous presence of the police and troops - even in the small mountain-pass trading posts - and the strict ban on taking photos of the uniformed personnel.  

After my return from Morocco I picked up The Spider's House, a novel by Paul Bowles, set in the city of Fes during the 1954 nationalist uprising. Its central character is Amar, an illiterate Arab boy, a son of a healer and a devout Muslim.  He believes that everything happening to him is God's will which makes it possible to bear his father's merciless beating or receive a huge amount of money with equal passivity.  Amar also possesses strong intuition and can predict how people will act in certain circumstances.  He does not have qualms about using this gift to manipulate people and situations to his advantage. 

Amar's thoughts as he interacts with the French, Americans and local Muslims offer an insight into what many Moroccans must be feeling today. He thinks the American woman is a prostitute because she wears a sleeveless dress and looks the man in the eye while they talk. He hates the French, and the Nazarenes (Christians) in general, but despises the Muslim freedom fighters even more for violating Islamic traditions.  

A boy in southern Morocco

Photos of the Moroccan royal family are displayed in public places all over the country.  King Mohammed VI and his wife Salma wear western clothes and her long wavy hair is not covered.  One wonders if all Moroccans condone that.  Protests in Rabat in recent years indicate that some content may be simmering under the smooth surface. 

The expressions of anti-American sentiment in The Spider's House were a surprising revelation.  The book was published in 1955 and set in the time when Morocco was still under the French rule. But in a scene set at an Istiqlal (independence party) meeting, which Amar is forced to attend by a set of circumstances, a student says: "France would like to leave Morocco, but America insists on her staying, because of the bases. Without America there would be no France.... All we need is one good attack on each American base." The American classic written more than 60 years ago clearly has some answers to our questions about North Africa and the Middle East today.

Years ago I saw the British movie My Son the Fanatic, based on a short story by playwright Hanif Kureishi.  The 1997 film is one of the earliest works I came across that made me aware of the radicalization of Muslims in Europe. I almost said "nascent" radicalization, but after reading Bowles, I am beginning to suspect these developments may have much deeper roots than most of us ever knew.  

At the time, I saw Kureishi's movie as a fun depiction of a perpetual conflict between teenagers and their parents, one that reverses the real-life situation in which the parents are conservative and the children progressive into a fictional one in which the father is trying to be progressive while the son wants to return to the family's Pakistani roots.  In his search for his true identity the son becomes a devout Muslim, or as his father says, a religious fanatic. Like Amar in The Spider's House, he is put off by what he considers corrupted western ways: drinking, smoking, prostitution, and secularism. But unlike Amar who believes that Allah will punish the sinners, Kureishi's young Muslim believes it is his duty to eradicate the sins (and the sinners), using violence if necessary.  If I had taken the work more literally when I first saw it, perhaps the 2005 London bombings would have been less of a surprise.

One question most of us ask today is why Muslims kill each other. Despite the anti-American and anti-western rhetoric, the vast majority of victims of the terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam are Muslims. Last week's bombing of two mosques in Yemen's capital were just the latest in the long series of horrifying examples.

Journalists report events and facts, pundits analyze them and offer interpretations. But it is the writers delving into people's minds that present their innermost thoughts and feelings and help us understand why people act as they do in certain situations. The thoughts may be fictional, but coming from a good writer, they get closer to the heart of the matter than most newspaper reports.

Take for example Tolstoy's Hadji Murad. The classic short novel is one of the best works I have read on the roots of the violence in Chechnya and Dagestan. Based on historic events and Tolstoy's own experience while serving in the Caucasus, Hadji Murad tells the story of an Avar rebel commander from the 19th century. Between 1811-1864 the peoples of Dagestan and Chechnya were fighting against the incorporation of their lands into the Russian Empire. A feud between Murad and rival leader Shamil led to a conspiracy to kill Murad. Alerted to the plan, Murad escapes, but his mother, wife and son are held hostage by Shamil.  

Interestingly, Murad's son admires Shamil, perhaps not knowing that he threatened to gauge his eyes out if his father does not return. Murad surrenders to the Russians and offers his experience to help defeat the rebels in exchange for arms and troops to rescue his family. The Russians admire the great warrior's mind and his physique, but also mistrust him. A Russian commander delays the decision about Murad, making the Avar realize he cannot count on help there.  So he flees the Russian fortress with the intent of gathering some loyal tribesmen for a desperate effort to save his family from Shamil's clutches. The Russians fear treachery and follow in hot pursuit, eventually killing Murad with the aid of many local tribesmen.

The Cossacks of Caucasus
Hadji Murad


Tolstoy's short novel brings home the point that political and other rivalries, as well as desire for revenge can quickly turn one tribe against another, and that a tribal leader may side with an enemy if his family is at stake.

Another Tolstoy story, The Cossacks, deals with the inability of a stranger to gain acceptance into an ethnic community in which he was not born.   Young Russian officer Olenin seeks relocation to a southern outpost where he hopes to find tranquility in a simple Cossack community.  He eats and drinks with them, wears their clothes, helps a young Cossack get a horse, and even wants to marry a Cossack girl.  Through Maryanka's attitude toward this outsider Tolstoy shows the impossibility of Olenin's dream.  The young girl toys with the man of "white skin" and "fine hands", but considers him weak and pampered.  Even if she mulls a union with him for a while, it all vanishes when her former admirer Luka, a village rogue and drunkard, gets severely wounded in a skirmish with the Chechens.  She cruelly rejects Olenin and sends him on his way because all her thoughts are now on saving or mourning a Cossack life. Like Bowles, Tolstoy conveys that in the time of crisis, people of different cultures ultimately fail to connect.

Great writers are great thinkers and great observers.  They have given me the best answers to the questions about people's behavior, culture and history. They have helped me understand the remotest of strangers. Good classical works deal with universal truths and that's what makes them as meaningful today as at the time when they were created.  And they make me worry about Morocco.  The attack on the museum in neighboring Tunisia is a loud wake-up call.
For my photos of Moroccan doors, please check this earlier post:

After posting this blog I learned that Moroccan authorities announced they had conducted raids in several cities, and detained 13 suspected members of an Islamic State-linked group.

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