Tuesday, 19 June 2007

The Middle Eastenders

Khaled Diab

This weekend I went to London for a mini trip to the Middle East for an encounter with Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian (not to mention Sikh!) intellectuals, as well as a reunion with old friends from Egypt.

After a massive delay on the Eurostar owing to a broken rail in one of the tunnels, I arrived in Hackney at around midnight. Hatem, one of my oldest and dearest friends, and I stayed up late into the night shooting the breeze, despite the fact he had to get up early to go to work, even though it was the weekend. We caught up on everything that had happened in the nine months or so since we’d last met, swerving and veering and flowing with the conversation – with Hatem puncturing the late-night silence with his rapid-fire fire and brimstone-style impassioned delivery. When he speaks, he can make an offer of coffee sound like a revelation.

The next morning we all got off to a late start, delayed by conversational congestion. We heard on the TV in the background that Salman Rushdie had been made a knight – and it disappointed me to learn that he’d accepted it. Why is it ageing radical rockers and novelists seem to go gooey at the knees in middle-age and allow the establishment they once pilloried to claim them as its own?

To my mind, the author of such daring and creative post-colonial literature as Midnight’s children, The Moor’s last sigh and The satanic verses, which mock, deride and sympathise with history’s human products and progenerators. For someone who was born, like the characters in Midnight’s children, the year of India’s independence, I would’ve expected him to turn down that ultimate symbol of empire and refuse to become a ‘knight of the realm’, particularly given how mocking he is of England.

But, then again, he has increasingly become an establishment figure in recent years, with his cheerleading of the American policy, etc. Despite his obvious talent and rebelliousness, elements of haughtiness and vanity bedevil his persona and his works. I also think his own condition must prey on him and this is reflected in the fact that the antiheros of his novels always seem to have fetched up in some degenerate cul-de-sac of the soul. Sir Salman, you’ve lost your edge.

As we discussed whether or not he should’ve worshipped the ground beneath the Queen’s feet, we thought London had been transformed into Baghdad as fighter jets flew overhead. Luckily, it was only the Red Arrows engaging in their acrobatic amaze and awe, rather than the Royal Air Force’s bloodier version, shock and awe.

Finding a break in the clouds and avoiding the pomp and ceremony around the palace, we headed for SOAS, where Manuela, Hatem’s girlfriend is doing an MA on Arab perceptions of their black minorities.

Would future immigrants have to attend trooping the colours ceremonies as part of their citizenship ceremony proposed by Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne I wondered, as I overheard SOAS faculty lampooning the Kelly-Byrne package in the student bar. My interest in all issues multicultural meant that I could not hold my tongue and joined the fray in mocking the proposals.

Political encounters
Later, I met Brian Whitaker, The Guardian’s Middle East editor, in what has become something of a tradition whenever I’m in London. We went for a drink in Islington and talked about a Middle East angle for the ‘summer of love’, honour killings, the situation in Gaza and how the future might pan out.

In the evening, I went to dinner at Linda Grant’s place in north London. The novelist and writer had started up a correspondence with me during my trip to Israel and Palestine and I had been invited for one of her Middle Eastern ‘diwans’.

To get to her house, I had to go via Finsbury park, the famous one-time home of Abu Hamza al-Masri, or ‘Captain Hook’, as the tabloids colourfully call him. With some time to kill, I stopped off for a cappuccino at an espresso bar which turned out to be run by Algerians. When I remarked that they were a long way from the normal Algerian destinations, they told me that everyone was looking for a way out of that den of extremism.

When they counted zena (adultery, i.e. pre-marital and extra-marital sex) as one of the issues bringing down the country. I was flabbergasted that he could put sex on a par with political and financial corruption, nepotism, extremism and violence. “What’s sex got to do with it?” I asked.

“Well, they’re enraging God,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“Let’s leave religion aside for a second.”

“No, we can’t do that!” he said, slightly offended.

“Please, just for the sake of argument.”


“When a young couple go off and make love to each other, who are they hurting?”

“It’s haram. They might have an illegitimate child – they’ll be hurting that child.”

“But they’re not hurting society. If they are hurting anyone, they are only hurting themselves, whereas a corrupt politician or a violent Islamist is hurting everyone.” He conceded that I had a point. Depressed by the state of sexual liberty in people’s minds, I cheered myself up by with the thought that I’d dropped a small sex bomb into their cosy bigotry. Ahh, when the sexual revolution comes, they’ll realise that making love makes the world a better place.

Linda had invited Palestinian writer Samir el-Youssef, Israeli photojournalist Judah Passow and Sikh journalist Sunny Hundal. However, Judah was stuck in Amsterdam airport and so was unable to make it.

The conversation also went to Gaza and what could be done there. Samir also recalled his spectacular debate with a Hamas politician at the Hay festival in which he professed his atheism. I noted my view that agnosticism was the most rational choice, since no one could prove conclusively either way whether or not a god existed. This sparked a lot of controversy and a long debate on comparative religion. Sunny provided us who came from the Abrahamic tradition with a lot of interesting insights into Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

After much food for thought, it was off, with Hatem and Manuela, to a Moroccan restaurant in Covent Garden for the birthday party of an old friend from the Cairo days, Jessica. Sunday was spent in true Middle Eastender style, kicking back and wondering around the markets of the Eastend and strolling along the Embankment.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.


TrueLeft said...

Sounds like fun! Maybe in a few years such a get-together will be possible in Gaza? Or at least in Ramallah? Maybe it's gotten bad enough now, that it might get better?

rina said...

I noted my view that agnosticism was the most rational choice, since no one could prove conclusively either way whether or not a god existed.

OK, I've dodged this argument with you in the past, but now I won't (drum-rolls, please...)

If by agnosticism you mean leaving open the possibility that the universe was somehow "created" by some unknown force unconnected to it, as opposed to developing spontaneously by itself out of nothing, big-bang style, then sure, I'm happy to join the agnostics.

If, however, agnosticism means not having an opinion on the abrahamic God, then you've lost me. Why is it rational to be agnostic about him, just because you cannot disprove his existence? You cannot disprove the existence of Thor or Odin either. Or Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Athena, and Co. Well, OK, bad example: any mountain climber who cares to reach the summit of mount Olympus can disprove those fellas’ existence (not Poseidon, though!!!) But how about Osiris or Hathor? How’s the biblical God any different, evidence-wise?

Not exactly the topic of your post, I know, but I haven't read the "Satanic Verses" and found "Midnight’s children" frustratingly impenetrable, so I’ll stick with what I don’t know (agnosco, that is) but have an unsolicited opinion about :D

Khaled Diab said...

TrueLeft, let's hope things will start getting better for a change. In the mean time, perhaps we should set up those refreshment tents at the checkpoints and invite Israelis and Palestinians to come together for a drink and a chance to talk directly. By the way, Linda remarked that she liked your comments on CiF so I told her that I knew who you were!

Rina, aren't you afraid that you'll be smitten down?! So, the gloves are off, are they. ;-) Unfortunately, you won't find much argument from me. The agnosticism you describe is the one I mean. I gave up even trying to believe in scripture a long time ago - it's just too full of holes. I also don't believe there is some god who intervenes in human affairs (i.e. to send us prophets, angels or even sons), who watches our behaviour and keeps divine accounts for Judgement Day. The only commandments we need to live by are the laws of nature and the universe. Now, how those laws came about is what I don't and can't know - were they designed or came about accidentally, I don't know. But beyond the philosophical 'Why are we here' fascination that causes, it really has no bearing on our existence.

Khaled Diab said...

Re Midnight's Children, I found that fascinating. It was The Satanic Verses which I found impenetrable - and very slow! It seems Rushdie was more interested in being obscure than readable in that one.