Category: Syria

The rash



InkSpot-main_FullDear editor:

After reading the rash of liberal letters recently that sympathized with the Muslims so much (while mocking the rest of us for being fearful of the Islamic jihadist terrorists), perhaps many of you might be much happier if you left America permanently and moved over to some Muslim country! You might fit in very naturally in Iran, Syria or Iraq, I would think.

Lloyd Hoffman
Hot Springs

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An embarrassing reflection of us


By Jacques, d’Nalgar, December 13 2015


the_donald2Why all the sanctimonious hand-wringing over Donald Trump’s latest bombastics?  Are we really that shocked when this unfiltered braggart harrumphs that the world’s Muslims must not be allowed to sully our exceptional, Christian America?

After all, isn’t that what most of us really want?  Sure, we may not say it in polite company, but eloquent mendacities are always lost in the cacophony of real-world actions.  And we’ve been loudly acting out our real feelings about Muslims for a long time now.  Almost a century of meddling in the Middle East to sate our unending addiction to oil.  At least two unnecessary wars that have now spawned ISIL and inspired world-wide terrors.  And at least seven decades of supporting colonial experiments and brutal regimes that scoff at quaint notions like human rights and egalitarian self-rule.  We don’t need Donald Trump to spell out how we really feel about this wretched, dusky refuse of a faraway teeming shore, these boogedy boogedy Muslims…

Fact is, our national pastime of fear and loathing isn’t limited to Muslims.  “Muslim” is just our latest code word du jour for any of the world’s homeless, tempest-tossed, huddled masses who aren’t lily-white, god-fearing good folk just like us.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve never liked any of them.

We don’t like those scattered remnants of our indigenous first peoples, who had the audacity to survive systemic attempts at wholesale extermination.  We definitely don’t like the descendants of all those Africans we brought over here, in chains, for slave labor.  To this day, we’re still trying to keep them from voting, and we routinely relegate them to second-class jobs, education, and justice.  And we sure don’t like those millions of brown-skinned people (with names like Jesus!) who routinely wander across our southern border to pick our crops, clean our homes, and patch our roofs.tattered_usa_flag

So let’s skip all the hypocrisy and admit that Donald Trump is just an embarrassing reflection of us, and of what we have allowed America to become.

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Beyond bomb, bomb, bomb

Max-Ginsburg-Torture-AbuGhraibA Brief History of ISIS

By , 12.3.15


In the wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris, much of the Left has linked the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the deepening imperialist violence in the Middle East.

War and imperialism, on one side, and the growing reach of jihadist terrorism, on the other, are said to be locked together in a mutually reinforcing embrace of violence and destruction. “Imperialist cruelty and Islamist cruelty feed each other,” the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) argued shortly after the Paris attacks. In order to break this nihilistic death grip, we need to oppose foreign intervention, put an end to imperialist violence, and halt the ongoing plunder of wealth from countries in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.

The basic logic of this argument is undoubtedly sound. But in terms of explanatory value, this kind of analysis does not go far enough. It suffers from too much generality and abstractness — telling us little about the specificity of this particular moment, or the nature of ISIS as a movement. By attributing a kind of automaticity or natural mirror between ISIS and imperialism, we can miss the all-important context and history that has shaped the remarkably rapid rise of the organization.

Why does the response to Western aggression and the calamitous situations in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere across the region take this particular ideological and political form? What explains the support that ISIS finds on the ground in both the Arab world and Europe? In short: why now? And why like this?

The real genesis of the Islamic State’s rise needs to be seen in the trajectory of the Arab uprisings that erupted throughout 2011 and 2012. These uprisings represented enormous hope, a hope that must continue to be defended. They were met with repression and reversal, unable to move forward in any fundamental sense. It was into this breach that Islamist groups stepped, their rise closely calibrated to the pushback against the revolts and the popular democratic aspirations that they embodied.

There was no inevitability to this. Rather, the difficulties the uprisings faced created a vacuum that was necessarily filled by something else.

ISIS’s worldview is an ideological expression of this new reality. To be clear, ISIS’s rise cannot be explained as simply an outcome of ideology or religion, as many Western commentators appear to believe. There are very real social and political roots that explain the organization’s growth.

But taking the ideological expression seriously helps us understand how various intersecting factors — the destructive spread of sectarianism, the devastating repression in Syria and Iraq, and the interests of different regional and international powers in the Middle East — have acted to incubate the rise of ISIS.

It is a dialectic of retreat: the growth of ISIS has reinforced, and has simultaneously fed off, an inability to achieve the aspirations of 2011 as the region has become mired in multiple, deepening crises. While ISIS’s ideological framing of these crises is obviously false, it is nonetheless one that appears for some to resonate with lived experience, a comprehension of the world that makes sense of the apparent chaos and destruction. The mutually reinforcing aspects of this process are what make the current situation so dangerous.

The Ghosts of 2011

The upheavals that began with the protests in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010 and 2011, and subsequently reverberated through the entire region, were the most significant revolts the Middle East had seen in over five decades. It is important to remember the initial promise embodied in these movements at a time when too many are quick to dismiss them as doomed from the outset — or worse, some kind of plot stirred by external conspirators.

These protests drew millions into mass political action for the first time in generations, seriously shaking established state structures and the grip of repressive, Western-allied regimes. Most significantly, that these movements were regional in scope pointed to the commonalities and shared experiences of people throughout the Middle East. Their impact on political consciousness and forms of organization continue to be felt across the world.

From the beginning of these uprisings it was clear that the issues at stake went far beyond the simplistic caricature of “democracy versus dictatorship” that many commentators assumed. The underlying reasons drawing people into the streets were deeply connected to forms of capitalism in the region: decades of neoliberal economic restructuring, the impact of global crises, and the ways in which Arab states were governed by autocratic police and military regimes long backed by Western powers.

These factors need to be seen in their totality, not as separate or divisible causes. Protesters did not necessarily explicitly articulate this totality as the reason for their anger, but this underlying reality meant that the profound issues facing the Arab world would never be solved through the simple removal of individual autocrats.

It was to prevent any such challenge to political and economic structures that elites, supported by Western powers and their regional allies, quickly stepped in and attempted to quash the possibility of change. This took place through a variety of means, with a range of political actors coming to shape the counterrevolutionary processes differently in each country.

At the level of economic policy, there was little alteration, with Western donors and international financial institutions insisting on the continuity of neoliberal reform packages in places such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan. Coupled with this economic continuity, indeed a prerequisite for it, was the rolling out of new laws and emergency orders that banned protests, strikes, and political movements.

Simultaneously, political and military intervention in the region rapidly expanded. The fracturing of Libya following direct Western military intervention, and the Saudi-led crushing of the Bahrain uprising were two key moments of this process. Egypt’s military coup in July 2013 also marked a critical point in the reconstitution of old state structures, and confirmed the pernicious role of the Gulf States in pushing back Egypt’s revolutionary process.

Perhaps most significantly, the social and physical devastation wrought by the Assad regime in Syria, including hundreds of thousands of deaths and the millions of people displaced across and within borders, further reinforced a region-wide sense of despair that came to replace the initial optimism of 2011.

ISIS and its earlier incarnations were basically irrelevant to the first phases of these uprisings, the massive demonstrations, strikes, and creative protest movements that rocked all Arab countries during 2011. Indeed, the only comment ISIS (at that time known as the Islamic State of Iraq) could muster following the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was a statement warning against secularism, democracy, and nationalism, urging Egyptians not to “replace that which is better with that which is worse.”

Yet as the initial aspirations for real change appeared to be increasingly thwarted, ISIS and other jihadist groups emerged as a symptom of this reversal, an expression of the apparent retreat in the revolutionary process and the growing sense of chaos. In order to better understand why this was the case, it is necessary to take a brief detour through ISIS’s ideology and worldview.

Authenticity, Brutality, Utopia

Islamic fundamentalism is often defined as the desire to bring back the ways of a magnificent past, supposedly modeled (in the Sunni account) on the first few generations of Islamic rulers that came after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. The Islamic State professes this goal, and in terms of social practice and religious law this is how it purports to rule.

But to reduce ISIS to a simple seventh-century irredentism would be a serious mistake. The organization takes seriously the project of state building, devoting much effort toward the establishment of various financial, legal, and administrative structures across the territories it now controls. Although the borders of these areas are in constant flux and there are differing assessments of what is meant by “control,” ISIS has an extensive territorial reach, by some estimates ruling over 10 million people.

As part of this very modernist project, the organization has placed a high priority on developing a sophisticated media and propaganda network, setting it qualitatively apart from other examples of Islamic rule such as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where television-adorned trees and the “execution” of computers remain lasting images of the 1990s and early 2000s.

One researcher has estimated that the ISIS media unit generates just under forty unique pieces of media each day, including videos, photo essays, articles, and audio programs in many different languages. This level of programming rivals any TV network, and stands in contrast to the older al-Qaeda model that relied on grainy VHS tapes smuggled from the mountains of Afghanistan to Al Jazeera, where they were held hostage to the vagaries of hostile news producers and intelligence agencies.

The decentralized network through which ISIS propaganda is disseminated is also unique, using an army of Twitter accounts and anonymous websites such as and to host their media. Abdel Bari Atwan, an Arab journalist whose account of the rise of ISIS draws upon well-placed insiders, claims that the organization controls over one hundred thousand Twitter accounts and sends a daily barrage of fifty thousand tweets. This and other forms of social media are the conduits through which ISIS both recruits and disseminates its messages.

ISIS’s tech-savvy side has been widely acknowledged, most recently in Obama’s facile description of them as “a bunch of killers with good social media.” But the Islamic State’s effective use of technology and social media needs to be seen as much more than an issue of technical skills, or simply a response to conditions of secrecy and constant surveillance. Rather, the high priority ISIS places on social media and technology points to the organization’s obsessive concern with performativity and self-representation.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of any other political or religious entity in the region that takes so seriously the question of “branding” and projecting a certain self-image to the outside world.

Within this ideological messaging, three key tropes stand out. The first of these is a self-evident feature of any fundamentalist movement: religious authenticity, or the need to continually claim and demonstrate fidelity to religious text. In this context, what constitutes “authenticity” is something that must continually be asserted, performed, and defended in front of rival perspectives.

There are many examples of ISIS’s preoccupation with this question. Several commentators, for example, have noted the group’s apparently strange emphasis on the small and rather insignificant town of Dabiq, located in northern Syria. Dabiq possesses no military utility or natural resources. Nonetheless, ISIS’s online magazine is named after the spot, and the group reported a large influx of recruits when it announced the battle to take the town.

The reason? Dabiq holds a particular position in Islamic eschatology, as the site of a future battle with infidel armies that will herald the beginning of the apocalypse. By taking hold of this small Syrian town, ISIS could project itself as faithfully following a path that had been foretold centuries ago. In a similar vein, the group’s announcement of the town of Raqqa as its Western headquarters resonated strongly among Arab Muslims. The town had been the home of Harun al-Rashid, the fifth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, which many view as a golden age of Islam.

The second core feature of ISIS propaganda is the well-known “brutality” meme: the live decapitations, executions, and other shocking content that have splashed the group across television and computer screens throughout the world. The deliberately horrifying material has guaranteed wall-to-wall media coverage and instant fame.

Compare this with al-Qaeda, which took decades and the September 11 attacks to become a household name. Brutality, however, is much more than just a headline-grabber. It is also intentionally used to generate fear.

This strategy has been incredibly successful — as ISIS approached the town of Mosul in June 2014, the Iraqi army simply stripped, dropped their weapons, and ran, allowing the jihadists to capture untold arms and military transport vehicles, as well as a reported $400 million from the Iraqi Central Bank (although this latter story has been disputed).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the application of excessive violence is a conscious element of what ISIS describes as its strategy of “polarization” — one aimed at exploding the bloody sectarian wars that underpin the expansion of ISIS across the region.

Nonetheless, in contrast to the stereotype propagated by Western media, the main content of ISIS propaganda is actually much more mundane than the violence for which the group is best known. This is the third of the group’s ideological tropes: utopic themes aimed at showing the supposed pleasures of civilian life in the “caliphate,” among them bountiful economic activity, beautiful scenery, and stability of life.

One exhaustive study that documented all media produced by the organization from mid-July to mid-August 2015 found that more than half of the material was focused on these themes of utopia. Similarly, the aforementioned magazine, Dabiq, is heavily infused with these subjects. This is the most misunderstood element of how the group projects itself in the Arab world, and arguably the most important. It is an orientation that seems particularly directed toward Arab audiences.

A glance through ISIS-related Twitter accounts in Arabic shows constant chatter aimed at emphasizing the seemingly inane, boring, everydayness of life in the Islamic State: water pipes getting fixed, markets bustling with colorful fruit and vegetables, fresh bread, and new dental clinics.

This observation points to the undeniable fact that ISIS consciously choreographs itself as an island of stability and peace amid a region of chaos, war, and upheaval. This is important to understanding the pull that ISIS presents to some layers of the population. In a moment of deep crisis, the promise of some level of security is part of what makes ISIS attractive (or, at the very least, a less-worse option).

Recognizing this utopic promise is an important clue to understanding how the organization has managed to expand over the past year. This is not to suggest that ISIS rule is not brutal or repressive, particularly for those at the receiving end of its sectarian violence, but rather that it is precisely in the hollowness of its utopic promise that some measure of hope can be found.

Managing “Savage Chaos”

This triptych of ISIS propaganda — religious authenticity, brutality, and utopia — is itself a reflection of a wider eschatology: a periodization of history and future based on the imminence of end times. It is a major difference between ISIS and other jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda.

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State tends to emphasize much more the sequential unfolding of historical phases associated with prophetical moments (the example of Dabiq is one illustration of this). This is why the question of authenticity figures so heavily in the group’s propaganda. Less obviously, however, this eschatology also provides an explanation for both the brutality and utopia tropes discussed above.

The clearest reflection of this can be found in a popular reference point for jihadist strategy: the book Administration of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through which the Islamic Nation Will Pass (AoS), first published on the Internet in Arabic in 2004, under the nom de guerre Abu Bakr Naji. The book should not be thought of (as it has been in some journalistic accounts) as a step-by-step playbook or strategy manual for jihadist groups; it is rather a text whose very popularity in these circles reveals something about the worldview that informs jihadist thinking.

Succinctly, the key goal of AoS is to explain the steps that they need to take in order to end the domination of “great powers” (principally the United States) over the region and establish a state in accordance with Islamic principles. AoS delineates two distinct historical phases that must be passed through before an Islamic state can be established.

The first, the phase of “vexation and exhaustion,” is the stage that the author believed the Arab world was passing through at the time of writing (early 2000s). During this stage, the task was to harass and destabilize the enemy through “vexation operations,” including actions such as bombing tourist resorts and economically significant areas (particularly those associated with petroleum).

These actions would force Arab governments to disperse their security forces across wide areas, an expensive undertaking that would inevitably leave new targets exposed. Moreover, the apparent ability of groups to undertake these actions with impunity would act as a kind of propaganda by deed and help attract new recruits.

The ultimate goal of these operations is to generate a situation of tumult and breakdown of state structures, which the author described as the phase of “savage chaos.” This period corresponds to a profound increase in individual and social insecurity, a lack of basic social provisions, and a rise in all forms of social violence. It is conceived as a natural outcome of the withdrawal and collapse of state structures; moreover, its arrival is viewed as positive for the jihadist group. By stepping into the subsequent chaos, the responsibility of jihadists would be to take charge of the situation and “manage or administer savagery.”

Concretely, this means the supply of services such as “food and medical treatment, preservation of security and justice among the people who live in the regions of savagery, securing the borders by means of groups that deter anyone who tries to assault the regions of savagery, as well as setting up defensive fortifications.”

This side to the “management of savagery” clearly mirrors how ISIS views its current role in the Arab world (particularly in Iraq and Syria), and helps us understand why the utopic theme is so prominent in its propaganda.

Moreover, within the AoS schema, the role of violence is also elemental. Echoing the ways in which ISIS employs brutality, AoS recommends that violence be deliberately excessive and highly performative. “Massacring the enemy and making him frightened” would serve “to make [enemies] think one thousand times before attacking.” This would include so-called “paying the price” actions, aimed at deterring enemies from attacking due to the fear of subsequent reprisals.

Likewise, all actions should aim to create societal “polarization” through the use of disproportionate violence. As the author of AoS notes:

Dragging the masses into the battle requires more actions which will inflame opposition and which will make the people enter into the battle, willing or unwilling, such that each individual will go to the side which he supports. We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away so that the two groups will realize that entering this battle will frequently lead to death.

There is an irresistible dénouement to this formula: the worse the situation gets the better it is. The author recognizes (and applauds) this self-fulfilling logic, noting that even if the jihadist group was to fail in the immediate administration of savagery, then the results would actually still be positive: failure, it is said, “does not mean end of the matter; rather, this failure will lead to an increase in savagery.”

There is established, in short, an inevitable teleology that thrives in profoundly negative situations, where the very existence of mutually reinforcing and ever-worsening cycles of violence become themselves the evidence for the correctness of the schema.

Sectarianism and Post-Invasion Iraq

The link between ISIS’s worldview and the disastrous rise in sectarianism throughout the region is clear. Although the author of AoS and the leaders of earlier jihadist groups were careful to avoid religious sanction for intra-Muslim violence, and condemned any deliberate targeting of other Muslims, this was to change with the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) during the mid-2000s.

Led by the Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, AQI came to understand the bombing of religious ceremonies and institutions as one of the most stunningly effective tools of polarization. In Iraq, Zarqawi consciously sought to ignite a civil war between Shi’a and Sunni through a methodical series of devastating attacks on Shi’a communities.

Such activities, coupled with the gruesome beheading videos that earned him the appellation “Sheikh of the Slaughterers,” provoked increasing anger among the older al-Qaeda leadership of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Indeed, the latter penned a famous letter to Zarqawi in 2005 upbraiding the Jordanian, in which he described the “the scenes of slaughtering the hostages” and Zarqawi’s attacks on Shi’a in Iraq as tactics that would alienate al-Qaeda from their necessary support base.

Nonetheless, despite Zawahiri’s protestations, a range of factors that had little to do with Zarqawi provided a fertile environment for sectarianism. First, the notorious de-Ba’athification policy implemented by US occupation forces following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to a profound marginalization of the country’s Sunni population. Under this policy, any person who had been a member of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party was summarily dismissed from their job, denied public-sector employment, and barred from accessing their pensions.

As many analysts pointed out at the time, this was a recipe for disaster. Ba’ath party membership had been an expectation for virtually any state job, so the policy led to the mass dismissal of thousands of teachers, doctors, police, and low-ranking civil servants. By eviscerating the state in this way, the United States virtually guaranteed a collapse of basic social services — a catastrophic prospect for a society emerging from over two decades of sanctions and war.

Sunni marginalization was not simply felt in the economic sphere. American forces frequently led attacks against Sunni-populated towns and villages, and tens of thousands of prisoners were locked away in US-run prisons where isolation, torture, and the “Taylorized bureaucracy of detention” were routinely used to bolster the occupation.

The most notorious of these prisons was the Abu Ghraib detention facility, which exploded into Western consciousness in 2003 following the release of photographs showing US military personnel torturing prisoners. In the wake of this scandal, many detainees were transferred out of Abu Ghraib to another prison, Camp Bucca. It was here that one detainee, later known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, came to establish a strong relationship with a coterie of former Ba’athist military officers who had spent time in Abu Ghraib.

Today, of course, al-Baghdadi is the leader of ISIS, and those same Ba’athist officers now serve as his closest deputies and advisors. In this manner, the experience of Sunni detainees at the hands of the US military not only further entrenched the country’s emerging sectarian divisions, but also, in a concrete sense, actually forged the Islamic State itself.

Sectarian rifts continued to deepen from 2006 onwards, as the US, in tacit agreement with Iran, came to institutionalize a Shi’a-dominated state backed by a range of Shi’a militias. This situation only worsened following the formal departure of US troops from Iraq in 2011. Coupled with unparalleled levels of socioeconomic insecurity, Sunni marginalization produced a real social base whose attraction to ISIS goes beyond religious or ideological factors.

A large proportion of the mid-ranking cadres of ISIS are former Ba’athist functionaries drawn to the organization partly through economic incentives. Financial rewards are also appealing at the rank-and-file level. Pay for an ISIS fighter, for example, is estimated to be around $300 to 400 per month, more than double that provided by the Iraqi army. The truck drivers and smugglers who today ship ISIS-produced oil from Syria to Iraq are motivated primarily by the chance to make a living. For all its religious pretensions, the ISIS state-building project has a very material grounding.

Many commentators writing about Iraq often chalk this outcome up to the stupidity and hubris of the Bush administration, and the succession of obvious policy errors made following the occupation. Such an approach assumes that the United States actually sought a stable and united Iraq.

Yet a non-sectarian, unified Iraq led by a government with strong popular support would have been a disaster for US interests in the Middle East. Without this possibility ever seriously in the cards, it is not hard to see that from the outset, the fragmentation of Iraq along sectarian lines was the most likely outcome of US occupation (particularly since this also coincided with Iranian interests). Divide and rule has long been a preferred method of colonial domination.

These are the actual material and political roots of the region’s current sectarian turn. Despite what ISIS, Saudi Arabia, or Iran might claim, sectarianism is not the result of ever-present doctrinal or ethnic schisms, existing since time immemorial and persisting unchanged into the contemporary era.

It has always been, as the Lebanese communist Mahdi Amel argued decades ago, a modern technique of political power, a means through which ruling classes attempt to establish their legitimacy and social base, while fragmenting the potential for any kind of popular opposition. Post-invasion Iraq and the subsequent rise of ISIS provide a tragic confirmation of this thesis.

Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic State

The utility of religion in shoring up earthly powers has, of course, a lengthy pedigree in the region. It is now widely acknowledged that the organizational roots of Islamic fundamentalist movements (including the progenitors of ISIS) have their origins in an alliance between the US and the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, through the 1960s and 1970s.

Faced with growing left-wing and nationalist political movements in the region, the sponsorship of Islamism was seen as an effective and disarming counterweight. By the 1980s, this policy was applied most systematically through US and Saudi support for Arab Islamist fighters in Afghanistan. It was here that preparations for armed jihad received their first practical boost.

This longstanding instrumentalization of Islamic fundamentalism has led some observers to argue that ISIS is a tool of the Gulf States. At first glance these claims would appear to make sense. Ideologically, there are close commonalities between the Saudi regime and the Islamic State. Both share a particularly restrictive interpretation of Islamic punishments (hudud). Indeed, the signature beheadings and amputations seen in ISIS-controlled areas are found nowhere else in the region except for Saudi Arabia. When ISIS was looking for textbooks to use in the schools they govern, the only appropriate versions were felt to be those taken from Saudi Arabia.

There is also undoubtedly sympathy for ISIS among large portions of the Saudi population, including those who contribute financially, or volunteer to fight. Yet — while weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia (and Qatar) to Syrian groups have likely ended up in the hands of ISIS through defections or capture — there is little convincing evidence that ISIS is directly funded, or armed, by Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf state.

At a rhetorical level, the relationship between the two is one of profound antipathy and hatred. ISIS considers the Saudi monarchy to be one of its most despised enemies, and the overthrow of the al-Saud ruling family is one of the group’s principal aims. The Saudi monarchy will countenance no other claimant to global Islamic leadership, and fears the threat ISIS presents to its own rule.

On the other hand, the growing strength of ISIS does have a clear link to the repression directed by the Assad government against the Syrian uprising. A few months into the uprising, Assad released hundreds of prisoners (among them well-trained jihadists), many of whom became leaders and fighters in Islamic fundamentalist groups. Former high-ranking Syrian intelligence agents have claimed that this was a deliberate attempt by the regime to stoke sectarian discord and paint the uprising in an Islamist light.

The Assad government has a long record of attempting to manipulate such groups, including a prisoner release in the early 2000s and the facilitation of thousands of jihadist volunteers across the border to join up with Zarqawi network in Iraq. Indeed, by February 2010, Syrian intelligence officials were attempting to market their infiltration and manipulation of jihadist groups as a basis for deepening security cooperation with the US in the region.

It is hardly surprising that when Syrian protesters were faced with the barrel bombs, tanks, and indiscriminate aerial attacks of Assad’s military, it was to the well-trained, battle-hardened jihadist groups that some began to turn. These groups included Jabhat al Nusra (JaN), an organization established after the Islamic State in Iraq dispatched fighters to Syria in late 2011 and which made its public debut in January 2012.

During 2013, as the violence and displacement worsened, JaN suffered a bitter split with its parent group over strategic direction: whether to focus on confronting the Syrian military and deemphasizing sectarian divisions, or to prioritize territorial control, based on Islamic law and the pursuit of a strategy of polarization against all other groups. Islamic State in Iraq chose the latter path, announcing the expulsion of recalcitrant JaN cadres on April 9, 2013 and the formation of the newly configured ISIS.

Reflecting these strategic priorities — and contrary to popular belief — ISIS has largely avoided direct confrontation with the Assad government. Instead, taking advantage of its control over smuggling routes and the border crossings that straddle Iraq and Syria (allowing it strategic depth and the safety of retreat denied to any other armed organization), ISIS has primarily sought territorial expansion.

In this endeavor, the military counsel of former Ba’athist generals from the days of Camp Bucca has been key to its success — the emphasis being on dominating access and supply routes that connect strategic nodes rather than an obsession with fixed points per se, securing oil fields, and controlling core infrastructure (particularly water and electricity generation).

This strategy has not only made the organization fabulously rich (holding at least nine lucrative oil fields in Syria and Iraq estimated to be worth over $1.5 million per day in oil sales). It has also made the rest of Syrian territory (whether government- or opposition-controlled) heavily dependent on ISIS for their energy and power needs.

Coupled with vast amounts of money amassed from kidnapping, extortion, the sale of antiquities, smuggling, and taxes, ISIS is unlike almost all actual states in the Middle East — independently wealthy, financially self-sufficient, and operating within borders that deliberately transgress the boundaries established by colonial powers in the early twentieth century.

More Intervention?

In these circumstances, calls to ratchet up Western military intervention in the region will only provide further sustenance for the organization. Precisely because war and occupation have laid such a fertile ground for Islamic State to grow, it is patently obvious that this kind of response will only worsen the situation. Indeed, in line with its strategy of polarization, the recent ISIS attacks have been explicitly aimed toward this outcome, and to drawing more Western intervention into the region as a means to deepen the sense of crisis and chaos.

Opposition to foreign intervention is not simply a demand that needs to be directed against the US or European states. Despite official claims of targeting ISIS, the Russian aerial bombardment of Syria that began on September 30 has largely avoided ISIS-controlled areas, focusing instead on areas where non-ISIS opposition groups are located.

These Russian attacks — supported on the ground by Hezbollah, Iranian troops, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and the Syrian army — have primarily sought to bolster the position of Assad in the lead up to what appears to be an emerging deal between the major regional and international players in Syria. In this context, the presence of ISIS actually serves to reinforce Assad’s claim to be “resisting terrorism,” a function that is clearly illustrated by the numerous Western states that have now swung over to supporting his government as a supposed necessary evil.

Of course, the Russian military orientation may change in the wake of the Sinai, Beirut, and Paris attacks, but the fact is that the longstanding unspoken détente between Islamic State and the Assad government has until now served the interests of both sides.

In these circumstances there are few easy answers for the Left. Yes, we need alternative, radical visions grounded in democratic demands, social and economic justice, and a rejection of sectarianism. But this also requires a sober assessment of the balance of forces and some kind of accounting of what went wrong over the last few years.

We need to be wary of analyses that attribute some kind of automatic reflexivity to the rise of ISIS and the machinations of war and imperialism. There was nothing inevitable about this outcome. It was in the reversals of the 2011 uprisings — and their failure to fundamentally challenge autocratic rulers — that ISIS found an ecosystem in which it could prosper and grow.

Politics abhors a vacuum, and with the setbacks for popular and democratic mobilizations over the last three years, the Islamic State was one of those forces that came to reap the fruits of retreat. In parasitic fashion, the organization has latched onto the explosion of sectarian violence deliberately cultivated by rulers across all countries in the region, finding a host first in Iraq and later in Syria. In both these states, the group encountered (and helped bring into being) a reality that macabrely fit its “administration of savagery” schema.

Yet despite the apparent bleakness of the situation, there are grounds for hope. Local forces are confronting the Islamic State in extraordinarily difficult circumstances — most importantly, Kurdish movements (simultaneously facing the Turkish government’s repression), as well as the non-ISIS opposition forces in Syria.

At the same time, courageous social and political movements in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere continue to defy the logic of sectarianism and demonstrate that the struggle for a progressive alternative remains alive.

ISIS may project a utopic promise of stability and prosperity, but this is far from the reality on the ground. We can be absolutely certain that it will experience its own internal revolts, as similarly declarative examples of Islamic “states” have faced in the past.

Moreover, if we understand the rise of ISIS through the prism of retreat, we can take some confidence in knowing that the organization does not offer any effective answer to the region’s current predicament. It does not represent any kind of anti-imperialist response, or plausible route to a Middle East free of domination or repression, whether foreign or local.

Despite all the setbacks of the last few years, the potential growth of a genuinely left alternative has not been extinguished and, most importantly, has never been more necessary.

Thanks to Laleh Khalili and Rafeef Ziadah for their comments.

Adam Hanieh is a senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and the author of Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East. or

Painting “Torture Abu Ghraib,” 46” x 32” oil on canvas, 2009, by Max Ginsburg.

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What if he’s right?

Barack ObamaWhat If We Really Are Defeating ISIS?

By Jeffrey Hutchins, 2015


As soon as the first big snowstorm of 2015 hit, there were people who said it is proof that “global warming” is a hoax. Of course, it’s no such thing. One storm, one cold spell, even one lasting many days, or even one brutal winter does not overturn a mountain of evidence that the globe’s climate is changing and generally growing warmer.

And so it is with terrorist attacks. President Obama has said that the Islamic State – Daesh, if you will – is “being contained” and has been “degraded.” Many conservatives, and virtually all the Republican presidential candidates have said that in light of recent Daesh violence, Obama’s remarks prove he is: a) “uninformed,” b) “weak,” c) “deluded,” and d) “dangerous.”

But what if Obama is none of those? What if he’s right?

As an aside, let me scoff at the notion that this president, or any president, who is briefed daily by our military leaders, our intelligence community (CIA, FBI, DIA, etc.), the State Department, and diplomats from around the world is “uninformed” or less informed on the facts than, say, Ben Carson or Ted Cruz. I am certain that Mr. Obama is quite well informed about everything that is known about Daesh and the situations in the Middle East. That is not to say his analysis or his judgment about those facts is infallible, but he has more facts available to him than all the Republican candidates combined. He is hardly “uninformed.”

So when the president said that Daesh is “being contained,” I take him at his word, and a few horrible, brutal, and sadly successful terrorist attacks do not prove otherwise.

There have always been and will always be people who are paranoid, angry, sick, scared, easily manipulated, or just plain evil who are ready and willing to commit horrendous acts in the name of some “cause” or as retribution for some perceived injustice done to them or their tribe. Whenever their tribe – whether it is people of the same religion or nationality or ethnic group or alliance of political outsiders – is threatened, they will react, sometimes as lone wolves, with unspeakable violence. A very small group of individuals can, with today’s technology and mass transportation, wreak terrible damage.

There is abundant evidence that the group of a dozen or so terrorists who killed over 130 people in Paris were barely connected to Daesh. Only one or two of them had been in direct contact with Daesh. Family members said that most of the terrorists never went to the mosque and were not at all religious. Nearly all of them had long criminal histories. In other words, they were not the core of Daesh. They were sociopathic outlaws who found in Daesh an outlet for their sadistic tendencies.

When groups like Daesh are under stress, losing battle after battle, they tend to strike out, to make it appear as if they are stronger than they really are. These behaviors are intended to mask the reality that they are in trouble, that they are losing.

I believe President Obama told the truth when he said Daesh is “being contained” and being “degraded.” There is no evidence to suggest they are growing stronger or bigger… only that they are growing more desperate and being forced to take action in other countries because they are weaker in the countries where they have tried to dominate.

In any case, “being contained” is not the same as “contained.” The war against Daesh by so many powerful militaries is a process, not yet completed. I do not believe that a few thousand mostly uneducated extremists can match the combined military might of Russia, the United States, France, England, Turkey, and Iran. It is folly to give these lunatics too much credit and ascribe to them too much power. When nations change their laws, policies, and principles in response to terror, then the terrorists win. Daesh is not winning; they are, in fact, degraded. A cornered animal will strike.

Do not assume that a few snowstorms mean the earth is getting colder. Do not assume that a few terrorist attacks mean the terrorists are winning. Most importantly, do not give them, through fear and political expedience, the victory they cannot win when we, their intended victims, refuse to be cowed.


Photograph of President Barack Obama at the Summit on College Opportunity, by Jacquelyn Martin (AP).

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Their own culpability

Demonstrators chant in support of the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as they wave the group's flag in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, on Monday, after the Sunni militants captured Tal Afar, another northern Iraqi town.

How the United States helped create the Islamic State

By Juan Cole, November 23


Did the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 lead to our current crisis over the Islamic State?

The question has been posed baldly in this campaign season, as when a young woman at a campaign rally said to GOP candidate Jeb Bush (using an alternate name for the militant group), “Your brother created ISIL.” It was not so much the invasion itself, however, as the policies implemented afterward that are mainly to blame for Iraq and Syria lying in pieces. What President George W. Bush’s administration did was to foster sectarian divisions and create a long-lasting insurgency.

At every point along the way, the Bush administration made choices that exacerbated sectarian tensions in Iraq and set the country on the path to break-up. The assertion by some observers that the country is riven by age-old hatreds, is ahistorical and incorrect. In previous decades, political passions centered on anti-colonialism or big landlordism and socialism. The vacuum of power created by the U.S. dissolution of the secular Baath Party encouraged Iraqi politicians to play on sectarian passions in unprecedented ways. Provoking a violent insurgency was likewise fateful. Once an insurgency comes into being, it typically does not subside for 10 to 15 years.

But Americans have difficulty recognizing their own culpability in the rise of the Islamic State for two reasons. First, the public (and the press) seldom understood or credited Iraqi social forces with the ability to act independently, focusing instead on the U.S. military’s campaigns. Second, Iraq became a football in partisan bickering, with dispassionate analysis abandoned for unsubstantiated blame games.

After the 2003 invasion, Bush administration officials deliberately pushed aside Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who had dominated Saddam Hussein’s regime, and favored a clique of Shiite operatives. The main vehicle of politics in Iraq, the secular-minded but sanguinary Baath Party, which ruled 1968 to 2003, was dissolved. Shiite Bush allies like the late Ahmad Chalabi and Nouri al-Maliki (who would serve as prime minister from 2006 until 2014) formed a “Debaathification Commission” that fired close to 100,000 Sunni Arabs from government jobs, even from teaching school. This was at a time when there were no private-sector jobs. Shiite Baathists went largely untouched.

Bush’s viceroy, Paul Bremer, a militant free-marketeer, at the same time dissolved most state-owned factories and threw the economy into a tailspin. Then Bremer dissolved the vaunted Iraqi million-man army, sending officers and troops away with no pensions and no prospects. Unemployment swept the Sunni Arab provinces the way bubonic plague swept medieval Europe. Idleness reached levels of 70 percent in Sunni Arab areas where insurgencies grew up. In contrast, the Shiite cliques the Americans brought to power made sure to get jobs for their coreligionists in the new government. The Bush administration and its Iraqi allies did everything the opposite of the way Nelson Mandela handled national reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. They also got the opposite outcome.

The administration’s vindictive targeting of Fallujah after four security contractors were killed in spring of 2004 reduced a proud city to rubble by the following late autumn and alienated Sunni Arabs in other cities, who refused to vote in the January 2005 elections. The resulting parliament was Shiite-dominated, and charged with crafting the constitution, a constitution all the Sunni-majority provinces rejected.

The mistreatment of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs drove many of them into guerrilla war against the United States. Some 50 major cells emerged in the Sunni-majority provinces. One of these, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was led by Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian former car thief. It attracted not only the religious-minded Sunnis who perceived a growing joint U.S.-Iran domination of Iraq, but also former Baath officers who knew where Saddam Hussein’s hidden arms depots were located.

After al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006 by an American airstrike, Iraqis took over the leadership of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. They created the so-called Islamic State in Iraq, which began holding swaths of territory. Many of the leaders of this group were former Baathist military officers, and some met and networked in Camp Bucca, where the United States warehoused 25,000 suspected insurgents. It is unlikely that these Baathists sincerely embraced Muslim fundamentalism, and many are likely using the Islamic State group in a cynical way to garner public support (an al-Qaeda emissary, after meeting with them, called them “phony snakes” betraying the real jihad).

When, in 2011, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad attacked the youth revolution against him militarily and turned it into a violent insurgency, Islamic State fighters went off to Syria to fight the remaining Baath regime. The militant group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, authorized a Syrian branch in 2012, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). It was manned in part by veteran holy warriors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including Syrians who had fought alongside al-Zarqawi. But over time, the Islamic State itself engaged in major operations over in Syria. It soon became apparent that the group is opportunistic: It would let other rebels do the hard fighting against the Syrian army and take territory. The Islamic State, however, would then sweep in and steal that territory away from its putative allies. In 2013, when the organization sought to absorb the Support Front into itself, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the planners of the 9/11 attacks, ordered Syrian al-Qaeda to break with the Islamic State, which he kicked out of his organization.

The Shiite religious parties that had come to power in Baghdad under American rule were continuing to exclude Sunnis. The Iraqi military came to be dominated by ex-members of Shiite militias, such as the Badr Corps originally founded among expatriates in Iran. In 2011 when youth protests broke out in Mosul and Fallujah, al-Maliki ordered them brutally repressed, ending any hope Sunnis had for political reform and inclusion. Having taken rural al-Raqqa province in Syria in 2013 and 2014, Daesh began intriguing with Sunni urban elites back in Iraq, in cities such as Mosul.

In June 2014, the world was startled when Sunni Mosul rose up against the largely Shiite Iraqi army. Crowds attacked police and troops and paved the way for Islamic State fighters to come into the city from Syria. Local Sunni Arab elites, sick of being marginalized and humiliated by Shiite Baghdad, decided they would risk an alliance with the Islamic State. The corrupt Iraqi Army could have held Mosul by simply standing firm. Both officers and their men ran away and delivered it into the hands of the militant group, which later extended its sway to 40 percent of Iraqi territory (but only perhaps 10 percent of its population).

Had the United States put its full effort into rolling up al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, instead of slighting that theater in favor of concentrating on Iraq, the organization might have been effectively destroyed in 2001 and 2002. Instead, by occupying Iraq the Bush administration gave a whole new generation of angry young men a cause to fight in and bestowed on al-Qaeda a new lease on life. Had the Bush administration not destroyed the Iraqi state and its army, these local institutions could have forestalled the rise of an al-Qaeda insurgency. That insurgency would never have learned tactics from the Marines it fought in Iraq, nor developed networks for munitions acquisition.

Without an organized, well-funded and experienced insurgency in Iraq that could be exported across the border into Syria, money and arms would not have flowed so easily to the hard line of the hard line among rebels in that country. The Free Syrian Army might have been able to hold together as a loose alliance of secular-minded Sunni Arabs with moderate Muslim Brotherhood fighters. Instead, the extremists, hardened al-Qaeda and other hard line veterans of the Iraq War, outflanked the FSA in Syria. The Bush administration’s patent favoritism toward Shiite religious parties and marginalization of the Sunni Arabs had created a powerful constituency for the Islamic State in Iraq.

Why Bush chose sectarian favoritism over South Africa-style reconciliation remains mysterious. The odd conviction among some politicians that a longer or more brutal American occupation of Iraq could have forestalled the rise of the Islamic State betrays a profound misunderstanding of the actual dynamics. The U.S. occupation created the conditions under which the group flourished.

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. or

Photograph of demonstrators chanting in support of ISIL as they wave the group’s flag in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, June 2014 (AP).

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Historians and other nincompoops

Whoa there, David Cameron! Haste and rhetoric is no recipe for peace

By Robert Fisk, Sunday 22 November 2015 19:28 BST


Eisenhower famously sent some brusque advice to Anthony Eden in 1956 when he decided that Britain’s deceitful war in Egypt should come to an end. “Whoa, boy!” were his words. And they should be repeated now to the politicians, historians and other nincompoops who regard themselves as the soothsayers of eternal war.

Each morning, I awake to find another Hollywood horror being concocted by our secret policemen or our public relations-inspired leaders. Germany’s top spy warns us of a “Terrorist World War” – I accept his expertise, of course, because Germany has itself proved rather efficient at starting world wars – while a perfectly sane and otherwise brilliant historian compares Europe’s agony to the fall of the Roman Empire. The Paris killings are now supposed to have “changed Paris for ever” or “changed France for ever”. I would accept that the collaboration of General Pétain with Nazi Germany changed France for ever – but the atrocities in Paris this month simply cannot be compared with the German occupation of 1940. That most tiresome of French philosophers, Bernard-Henri Lévy, tells us that Isis are “Fascislamists”.

Oddly, I don’t remember the same Mr Lévy telling us that the avowedly Christian Lebanese killers of up to 1,700 Palestinian civilians in the Beirut Sabra-Shatila refugee camps of 1982 – Israel’s vicious Lebanese militia allies – were “Fascichristians”. This was a “terrorist” act with which I was all too familiar. With two journalist colleagues, I walked among the butchered and raped corpses of the dead. The American-armed and funded Israeli army watched the slaughter – and did nothing. Yet not a single Western politicians announced that this had “changed the Middle East for ever”. And if 1,700 innocents can be murdered in Beirut in 1982 without “world war” being declared, how can President François Hollande announce that France is “at war” after 130 innocents were massacred?

Yet, now the poor and huddled masses of the Middle East, according to my friend Niall Ferguson, are the Goths flooding towards ancient Rome. Ferguson admits he doesn’t know enough about fifth century Roman history to be able to quote Romans on the subject. But the Romans endowed their newly conquered peoples with Roman citizenship; and Niall might at least have bothered to study the third century when the new Roman emperor, Caesar Marcus Julius Philippus Augustus, came from Syria. He was born about 30 miles from Damascus and was called “Philip the Arab”. But let’s not allow even modern history to get in the way of our desire for revenge.

Take Mali and last week’s killings. The French “intervened” there in January 2013, after Islamists took over the north of Mali and prepared to advance on the capital, Bamako. “Field Marshal” Hollande, as he was satirised in the French press, sent in his lads to destroy the “terrorists”, who were imposing their revolting “Islamic” punishments on civilians, without mentioning that the violence was also part of a Tuareg-Malian government civil war. By the end of January, reports spoke of France’s Malian military allies killing civilians in a wave of ethnic reprisals. The French defence minister (then, as now, Jean-Yves Le Drian) admitted that “urban guerrilla warfare” was “very complicated to manage”.

By September, the Islamists were murdering Malians who had co-operated with the French. Since France was already declaring victory against the “terrorists”, few paid attention to the spokesman for the very same Islamists when he announced that “our enemy is France, which works with the army of Mali, of Niger, of Senegal, of Guinea, of Togo, against Muslims … all these countries are our enemies and we are going to treat them like enemies.”

Which makes last week’s massacre in Bamako less incomprehensible. And for those who believe that European soldiers who go clanking around African countries are not going to provoke revenge from those of Malian origin, note how we virtually ignored the background of the Isis killer of the French policewoman and of four French Jews at the Paris supermarket last January. Amedy Coulibaly was born in France to Malian Muslim parents.

And now let’s read this report on Mali from early 2013: that French “warplanes are continuing their attacks on suspected rebel camps, command posts, logistic bases and ‘terrorist vehicles’ in northern Mali. In recent days, officials said, they hit targets in the Timbuktu and Gao regions, including a dozen strikes in a 24-hour period …” Replace Timbuktu and Gao with Raqqa and Idlib and this is the same soup we’re being served up today from Paris (and Moscow) about air assaults on Isis – and into which PR Dave himself now wishes to lead our miniature air force.

Our reaction? All rhetoric, of course, brought about by our ignorance, our refusal to understand the injustices of the Middle East, our idleness in addressing conflict with political plans and objectives. If we could apply the “whoa, boy” advice today, it must be with an entirely new approach to the cult mafia that exists in the Middle East. A world conference on the region, perhaps, along the lines of the 1945 San Francisco conference where statesmen created a United Nations that would (and did) prevent more world wars. And for refugees, an offer like the Nansen refugee passport for the millions of destitute and homeless after the 1914-18 war, accepted by 50 nations.

Instead we blather on about the apocalypse, terrorist world wars and Ancient Rome. To our very own PR Dave, I can only repeat: “whoa, boy!” or

Photograph of Eisenhower, by Richard Avedon: or or

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Zara’u fa akalna, nazra’u fa ya’kulun


Stories My Father Told Me

By Helen Zughaib with Elia Kamal Zughaib, November/December 2015



stories02Charity and Compassion

When Jiddu told my father this story, he prefaced it by saying his father had told it to him and he must never forget it, and that is how he told it to me.

Once there was an amir [prince] who owned a horse so strong and beautiful that it was known all over the land. Other amirs were envious and tried to buy the horse, but the owner always refused. Selling the horse, he said, would be like selling a member of his family.

One day a crook came to one of the envious amirs and offered, for a price, to steal the horse. The bargain was made.

The crook waited by the side of the road where the amir and the wonderful horse passed each day. When the amir approached, the crook began to
cry and wail. The amir stopped to inquire why, and the crook replied he was very sick and needed a doctor, and he was too sick to climb up on the horse. The amir dismounted to help him, and as soon as the crook was seated in the saddle, he took off at a gallop.

The amir called loudly, “Stop and the horse is yours.” The man stopped and returned, knowing that the amir would never go back on his word. “Do not say you stole this horse,” the amir said. “Say that I gave it to you. Do this so that charity and compassion will not disappear from our community.”

stories04Making Raisins and Drying Figs

In the summer, my sister and I loved to visit Jiddu’s and Teta’s house in the mountains. We were free to play in the garden, make new friends and ride on Jiddu’s donkey. But the best days were those that we spent in the kroum [vineyard]. We had to leave the house very early in the morning because Jiddu insisted that the grapes and figs should be picked when the dew was still on them.

To harvest the figs, Jiddu and I would climb the fig tree, fill our basket with ripe figs and then lower it to Teta and my sister. They spread the figs on cloth sheets, flattened them and then covered them with a clean cheesecloth to protect them from dust and insects. After about 10 days in the hot sun, the figs would be dried and ready to be put in storage for the winter.

Making raisins, however, was more complicated. Teta took the bunches of grapes and lay them neatly on white sheets covered with straw. My sister always wanted the rows of grapes to be separated by color in long neat stripes of purple, black and white. Teta humored her, even though once they were dried, they would be all mixed up together. After the grapes were lined up to my sister’s satisfaction, Teta sprayed them: She had dipped bunches of herbs, called tayyoun, that grew wild on the slopes adjacent to the vineyard, into a mixture she had prepared from ashes, water and other ingredients, and she shook the liquid on the grapes.

Every day we would return to the vineyards to check on the drying figs and raisins and to moisten the grapes. When it was time to return home, we always left with dried figs, raisins and new stories to share with our friends in the city.

stories06Planting Olive Trees

Visiting Jiddu and Teta in their mountain village was always a treat. Teta would have special sweets and my favorite food prepared for me. Best of all though was Jiddu taking me with him to the fields. Sometimes it was a brief trip to see how the plants were growing. But sometimes Jiddu would ask me to be “Jiddu’s helper” and assist with the small chores. During one visit, Jiddu told me that we would be planting olive trees. Because we would be staying in the olive fields all day, we had to bring with us a zuwaidy [picnic lunch], water and other provisions.

The next morning, Jiddu and I set out for the fields much earlier than usual, with a donkey carrying our provisions and small olive plants. We worked hard planting the young olive trees in furrows Jiddu had dug earlier. My job was to hold the plant straight while Jiddu would dig a small hole in the ground for each plant. Then I ladled some water from the water drum on each new olive tree.

During our break for lunch, I told Jiddu that next year I would return to help him harvest the olive crop. He smiled and said that would be difficult because olive trees take many, many years before they bear fruit. Disappointed, I asked him why we were bothering to plant olive trees if we would be dead before they would give us any fruit. He looked at me with a serious expression and said, “Zara’u fa akalna, nazra’u fa ya’kulun.” (“They planted so we would eat; we plant so our descendants will eat.”)

stories03abThe Show Box (sanduk al-firji)

Long before cinemas or television entertained Lebanese children, there was the sanduk al-firji. This was a brightly decorated, semicircular box that was strapped to the back of an itinerant entertainer. He would come into the village loudly chanting previews of the stories he had, going from hara to hara [street to street] and ending in the village square.

First he unstrapped the sanduk. It was about 18 inches high and had five or six glassed portholes equidistant from each other. On either end of the box were two small inner poles attached to a scroll with bright glossy pictures telling one or more of the fabled Arab stories such as “Antar and Abla” or “Abu Zayd al-Hilali.”

He placed the box on a stool and set up a circular bench facing it. The village children took turns handing him their kharjiyyi, spending money, and in groups of five or six, they peeked into the box and watched the story through the portholes. The entertainer rolled the screen, chanting about the beauty of the ladies, the courage of the men and the strength of their horses. Usually the lucky viewers would briefly give up their place to siblings or friends who did not have enough kharjiyyi.

When all those who wanted to see the show were accommodated, the entertainer strapped the show box to his back, picked up the stool and bench, and walked to the next village, chanting previews and enticing new viewers.

It was an amazement to me at the time how he synchronized the chanted story with the pictures on the rolling scroll. And the box, the beautiful sanduk, with its colorful pictures and many tiny mirrors, was a source of wonder, even without the stories.

stories07Walk to the Water Fountain (Mishwar’ a al-‘Ayn)

In the old days, the only water supply for the village was the communal water fountain. Young women, the sabaya, walked to the fountain at sunset, balancing large colorful water jugs on their heads. This walk to get water had become, over time, a much anticipated social event known as the mishwar (“walk”).

At the fountain, the sabaya would show off their fine dresses, chat and gossip. The young men of the village, the shabbab, would also go to the fountain at the same time to watch and innocently flirt with the young women. Occasionally a young man or woman would muster enough courage to say a word or two to a special person.

In time, the mishwar remained an accepted custom, as the young people in the village would take walks in the late afternoon, whether they now had running water in their homes or not. The sabaya and shabbab would meet, admire each other and flirt from a safe distance.


stories08Playing Basara in Teta’s Room

In Syria and Lebanon, Basara is one of the simplest and easiest card games. Older members of the family teach the younger ones how to play it. When everything else fails and you want the younger kids to quiet down and stay out of trouble, playing Basara is the answer.

My grandmother, Teta, was no exception. During inclement weather when we could not play outside, a Basara game would be proposed by Teta. Sometimes we would suggest a game knowing full well there would be treats after the game.

Teta would sit on the rug in her room. We completed the circle sitting around her. Usually she dealt the cards, though sometimes, to please us, she would ask one of us to deal instead.

We liked playing Basara with Teta. She overlooked minor cheating and made sure one of us won. To us, she seemed very old. At the time, we did not know of anyone older. Her colorful headscarf, her mendeel, trimmed with beads, was wrapped around her head. Teta wore several skirts, one over the other, with a bright apron on top. We were fascinated with the skirts. Under two or three of them, she had a homemade cloth bag, a dikki, tied around her waist with a ribbon. In this bag, Teta kept some change and keys. One key, the most interesting to us, opened a small wooden cupboard in her room in which she kept cookies and sweets. Another key opened a large enameled wooden box in which she kept her finer things, her valuables and any large-denomination money.

After the game, we would begin to pester Teta by asking her to show us what she had in her cupboard. When an indirect request to view the inside of the cupboard did not succeed, a united plea for sweets would be uttered. That demand, in various forms, ultimately succeeded, and sweets would be produced and passed around. If and when the sweets were not in abundance, small change we called nigl would be distributed.

stories09Evenings in the Kroum

Every summer I spent several weeks at my grandparents’ house, which was in Zahle, a mountain village in Lebanon. The best part of the visit would be a trip Jiddu and I would make to the kroum, or vineyard. There we would spend a week working, talking and just being together. During the day, Jiddu and I worked in the field. He would tell me what to do and explain to me why things were done in a certain way. Jiddu spent the day not just talking to me, but he would talk also to the trees and grapevines as if they were people visiting us. In a way, the kroum had become intertwined with the family, part of the community.

As he worked, he would tell me that this tree was planted when Uncle Jamil was born, or this tree was planted when Aunt Wadi’a was married. Every place and plant in the vineyard was connected to something. Sometimes it related to national events or world events, but mostly the connections were to family events. The fields and the kroum had become a diary of family history that he was passing on to me. Jiddu was also an authority on the wild plants and herbs that grew in and around the kroum. This is good for curing a cold, he would say. This is good for an upset stomach, and this is good to flavor a stew. We would collect many of these herbs and wildflowers and dry them to be used in winter.

Every evening after supper, Jiddu would light the kerosene lamp, brew some herbal tea over the charcoal fire and then begin telling stories about our family. He would tell stories about those who had gone abroad, those who did well and those who did not; the good sheep and the black sheep. And then, if he wasn’t tired, Jiddu would recite poetry or tell stories that usually had a moral or lesson to learn. He never preached to me, but he always made sure I got the message.

More than anything else, Jiddu loved to recite poems, and he loved to hear poetry being recited. Sometimes he would ask me to recite poems I had learned in school. I tried my best, but I could not satisfy his thirst for hearing one poem after another.

Once when I was about 13, he asked me to recite, but I could only remember one poem and part of another. When I stopped reciting, he turned the kerosene lamp off and we went to sleep. The next night he asked me to recite more poetry. I repeated the same poem that I had recited the night before. Jiddu protested that this was the same poetry that I had recited the previous evening. I confessed that it was all I knew. Jiddu looked at me for some time before saying that if after eight years of school, all I could remember was a poem and a half, then I was wasting my time and my parents’ money and that I had better quit school and start working.

After that, Jiddu never asked me to recite anything, though he continued to tell me stories and to teach me about various plants in the vineyard. Poetry, however, never re-entered our life in the kroum.

stories10abcdSubhiyyi at Teta’s House

This ritual was a morning routine that never varied. We grew up with the impression that we, the grandchildren, were not to interfere with the morning’s activities.

Usually, six or seven older women, all widowed, would gather at my grandmother’s house. In the fall, spring and summer, the gathering would take place in the courtyard around the water fountain. In the winter the meetings were held in the living room around the charcoal brazier. Two or three argillas [water pipes] were prepared, and the flavored tobacco mixed and dampened. I loved the smell of the tobacco being prepared because it was usually mixed with carob or grape molasses. The aroma made me hungry for a molasses and tahini sandwich, which we called arouss, the same word for a wedding.

At about 10 o’clock the women would begin to drift in. They did not knock on the door, which was always open anyway. My grandmother would be seated in her usual place, and each woman would sit in her same place. They all dressed the same: black tannouras [long skirts] over several slips, tied around the waist with a sash. On top they wore a black jacket over an embroidered vest, and a light blue or gray mendeel covering their hair. It would be coquettishly tied at an angle, a practice carried over from their younger days.

After they arrived, usually within minutes of each other, my grandmother would begin the coffee ritual. The coffee beans were placed in the mahmassi, a small steel pan with a long handle so that the hand holding it would not be burned. The slowly roasting beans were stirred with a long-handled spoon until my grandmother would determine the color was just right. They were spread on a tray to cool, and then one of the women ground them in the mathani [coffee grinder]. When my grandmother decided enough ground coffee had accumulated in the little wooden drawer in the mathani, she added it to the boiling water in the pot on the brazier and began to stir. When the coffee threatened to boil over, she removed it quickly from the heat, stirred it and returned it to the fire. This process was repeated three times, and the second time, a few teaspoons of sugar were added. Coffee was served in tiny cups, and the conversations began.

What impressed me at the time and until now was that the stories were always the same, told each day by the same woman, and yet the women never seemed to tire of telling or hearing them. They were almost always dated by some important occurrence they all seemed to remember, such as a flood or drought, epidemic or revolution. They recalled their birthdates in the same manner, almost always the time of some calamitous event. My grandmother was born during the tawshi [revolution] of 1865. After any of these events were referred to, there was a chorus of “tinthaker ma tin ‘aad” (“may it be remembered but never repeated”).

stories11The Hallab

As a small boy, living in Bab al-Mussalla in Midan, the old quarter of Damascus, I remember being fascinated by the various peddlers who wandered the narrow streets chanting about their products and services. Sellers of fruits, vegetables and sweets, as well as knife sharpeners, pruners and buyers of old items, all filled the air with their melodic chants. These rhyming chants never actually mentioned the name of the item being offered, but described in detail the color, freshness and taste. Buyers knew by the traditional chants what was being offered for sale, which also would dictate the day’s menu. The streets were crowded with loaded donkeys, pushcarts and peddlers carrying large trays (sddur) piled high with cakes and other tasty things.

Children playing in the street or on their way to school would keep an eye out especially for the sellers of sweets. These were mostly seasonal. Cooked, steaming sweet beets and popcorn were sold in winter. Ice with syrup called sweeq was sold in the summer. Kaak and manaquish were sold year-round, while tamari with molasses were sold only on feast days. Invariably the daily allowance was exchanged for a kaak with za’atar (bread with spices and olive oil), a tamari or a handful of hanblas, a tasty fruit that can be carried in the pocket without being damaged. Usually the sweets were shared or bartered with others, thus expanding the purchasing power of the daily allowance.

I remember the nicest of the peddlers was the Hallab who chanted about his fresh milk. The Hallab had a small flock of eight to ten Damascene goats. The goats were mostly brown, large and gentle. They had two dangling strands from their necks. The small children would stand eye to eye with the goats to pet and hug them on their way to school. The Hallab did not mind, and both the goats and the children loved the attention.

The Hallab carried a pail, a measuring can and a long bamboo stick. When the housewife opened the door and asked for milk, the Hallab would milk one of his goats right there. If she planned to make yoghurt that day, more milk would be required. If the goats began to wander, the Hallab gently guided them back to the herd. After the fresh milk was delivered and the Hallab was paid, he continued on his route, chanting about his beautiful goats.

The other peddlers could not compete with the Hallab, his wonderful goats and the pleasure of petting the gentle and loving animals. I remember that after powdered milk appeared on the grocery shelves, milk never tasted the same again.

stories12When a child is born

In the past, children were born at home with a midwife assisting. This was an occasion when the female members of the family actively participated. They helped the midwife by encouraging the new mother to “bite on a hanky,” to stop her screaming by telling her “sa’adi waladik,” to a certain extent meaning the equivalent of “push.” They also made coffee, tea, zhurat and yansoon drinks for the visitors who flocked in to participate or just to satisfy their curiosity.

As soon as the child was born, the midwife completed her professional duties by informing the father and menfolk of the successful birth and the sex of the child. This was an occasion to pay and tip the midwife. The size of the gratuity depended on the sex of the child and whether the family had desired a boy or girl.

After the midwife was gone, the new mother was dressed in a fancy silk bed jacket, and the baby was wrapped like a papoose in fancy swaddling clothes. The new father entered the room, and depending on his financial circumstances, he put a piece of jewelry on the mother’s pillow and one or more gold coins in the baby’s crib.

From the mother’s bedroom, the zalagheet would begin, which is a kind of chant they did on feast days and other special occasions. It was led by the grandmother, until all the neighbors and family had joined in.

Then for 40 days, the mother stayed in bed pampered and served, changing silk jackets as often as her husband’s wealth permitted. Neighbors, family and friends dropped in to congratulate the parents and to give unsolicited advice and gossip. During this time, the guests were treated to a dish called mughly, which was a mix of spices, powdered rice and sugar.

The mughly is followed by snaniyyi, which is served when the baby gets its first tooth. Snaniyyi is made from boiled wheat, sugar, sweet meats and brightly colored candy. It is piled high on a large tray with maward and mazahar [flowers and rosewater] sprinkled on top. It is beautiful to look at as well as to eat.

To protect against the evil eye and other misfortunes, blue beads, small icons and hijabs are pinned to the clothes and baby’s crib. Blue beads and hands of Fatima protect against the evil eye, while hijabs, amulets and talismans protect the child from illness, microbes and other calamities. The hijab is a sewn small package, triangular in shape, that conceals a talisman or written prayer with spiritual powers to protect the child. When the child grows up, the hijab can be sewn into the inner shirt, to keep the protective powers working. The hijab is never to be opened or disrespected in any way.

stories13Blind Charity

One day my father and I were chatting about everything and nothing in particular when he told me the following day he was going to Dayr Saydnaya, and I could accompany him if I wanted to.

The Dayr was a convent in the outskirts of Damascus, and it was his favorite charity. I accepted gladly, as this was one trip I enjoyed and looked forward to.

He asked me what I thought of charity. I replied that people appreciate good deeds because such acts meet their special needs. He then asked me about blind charity, where the donor does not know the recipient and has no idea what the need may be. He proceeded to tell me a story exemplifying this kind of blind charity, which he described as the most sincere.

Once there was a very rich woman, the wife of a governor of a prosperous port city. Once a week she would take a big basket and seal it with tar to make it waterproof. In the bottom of the basket, she would write a line from a poem, “Do charitable deeds even if they may be out of place, for no act goes unrewarded.” Then she would fill the basket with food, water and clothing and drop it in the sea to be carried away by the waves and the wind.

After some time, she and her family took a long boat trip to visit relatives in another port city. Heavy storms demolished their boat, and many on board drowned. She also would have drowned had she not clung to a plank of wood. In time, she drifted to shore where she collapsed with hunger, thirst and exhaustion.

She woke up in someone’s garden. The lady of the house told her the servants had found her on the beach and thought she was dead, but then realized she was still alive, and so they brought her to the garden. The lady of the house said she could stay with them as a washerwoman, and she gladly accepted.

One day the lady brought a big bamboo basket full of laundry and asked the woman to wash them. When the woman reached the bottom of the basket, she saw the line of poetry that she herself used to write in the bottom of those baskets before dropping them in the sea. She had recognized her own basket. She sat down and began to cry.

When the lady of the house came to check on the laundry, she found the woman sobbing. Asking her why she was crying, the washerwoman explained that the basket was one of hers, and she went on to describe how she would fill them with provisions and drop them into the sea thinking that some shipwrecked people would find the baskets and use the food and water to survive.

The lady of the house was amazed, and she told the woman that once she and her husband were shipwrecked. They had lost everything. Then a big basket drifted by, and they clung to it until they landed on shore nearby. When they revived, they walked to the city, found jobs and, in time, prospered. Out of sentimentality, they kept the basket and used it, thinking someday they would learn more about it and the line of poetry written on the bottom in praise of blind charity.

The lady took the washerwoman into her own quarters and, when her husband returned home, told him about the day’s events. He suggested the woman live with them as a member of the family. They also decided to continue to fill the baskets with provisions and drop them into the sea, in hope that someday a needy person would find them and survive.

stories14Saying Goodbye

After a very long wait, permission to travel to America had been granted. Reservations on a ship from Beirut to New York City were made, and a departure date became certain. The goodbyes began in the village. Relatives, friends and neighbors came to drink coffee and exchange stories about others who had emigrated.

Finally, two days before the actual departure, the entire family traveled to Beirut to stay in a hotel and say their final goodbyes. My mother could not believe that she was finally emigrating with her family to America. She got all the passports, tickets and whatever jewelry and money she had in a special handbag, which she held onto even in her sleep.

She also had to be certain that the suitcases packed with gifts for her relatives in America were safe. A large Oriental rug, purchased in Damascus as a gift for her sister, had been wrapped separately and was always kept in her sight. Hotel employees, relatives and I were all fully occupied on guard duty for two days.

On the morning of the departure, it was determined that the ship was too big to come to the pier. The passengers, suitcases, last-minute gifts and the carpet all had to be put in a large rowboat manned by four sailors. My mother insisted that she sit on top of the rug no matter what that did to the stability of the boat. When they were safely on board the big ship, she demanded that the sailors put all the suitcases and carpet in her cabin. They argued that everything not needed on the voyage must be put in the hold. It finally took an officer of the ship to intervene and guarantee that nothing would be stolen.

Today, that carpet rests in a place of prominence in my daughter Karen’s home.

stories15Coming to America

It was the end of the long sea voyage. During dinner the night before we arrived, we learned that the ship, the Vulcania, would be passing by the Statue of Liberty at about four a.m. the next morning. A spontaneous decision was made by some of the younger passengers to see the Statue of Liberty.

And so, 16 days after leaving the port of Beirut for New York City, an exuberant group of us, from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, stayed up all night to greet with the dawn the Statue of Liberty.

I remember it was a clear morning.


stories - HelenArtist Helen Zughaib ( was born in Beirut. She received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. Her most recent solo exhibitions were at the Arab American National Museum, which hosted the full original series “Stories My Father Told Me,” and at University of Maryland University College and the Mamia Bretesche Gallery in Paris, which showed “Conflict Within.” She lives and paints in Washington, D.C.


stories - EliaElia Kamal Zughaib studied at Syracuse University, and in 1959 he joined the US Foreign Service to work in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait and France until his retirement in 1978. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Art by Helen Zughaib.

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