Friday, June 29, 2007

Recommended Books, and Others

I knew little about the Middle East and Islam before I printed out the reading list for the IWF Conference. I take that back. When my daughter Caro and I went to Turkey two years ago, I did some reading for that trip. There I began to pursue an elusive subject that is becoming a bit of an obsession with me. Now I spend several hours a day online reading the Middle East news from sources large and small, trying to put together, just as if people and events were puzzle pieces, what's going on.

Each day begins with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Reportage in hand--literally, for I clip and save articles--I move on to the Internet to try to make sense of the morning's content. The stories in these two good newspapers seldom cohere. One reason for the muddles--aside from reporters doing the best they can with the limited information and perspective countries without free speech offer--is the scattershot nature of the attention. When the war in Iraq is the only Middle East story that the Times covers every issue, and when the Times has an aversion today (a different situation forty years ago) to covering religion per se, it is hard to follow everything else that is going on not only in the Middle East but in the Islamic world at large.

Here are some web sites I find useful, as of summer 2007:

Al-Ahram Weekly (

Al-Hayat (

Al-Jazeera (

Here are the books on the IWF reading list:

1. Leila Ahmed

Women & Gender in Islam (1993)

A Border Passage (1999)

2. Katarina Dalacoura

Islam, Liberalism and Human Rights (2003)

3. Khaled Abou El Fadl

Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (2004)

4. Maria Rosa Menocal

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of
Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2003)

5. John Esposito & John Voll

Makers of Contemporary Islam (2001)

Islam and Democracy: Religion, Identity & Conflict Resolution in the Muslim World


6. Kamal S. Salibi

The Modern History of Jordan (1993)

To this list, so far I would add:

7. Robert D. Kaplan
The Arabists (1993)

8. Karen Armstrong
Muhammad (1992)

9. Bernard Lewis
What Went Wrong? (2002)

10. Vartan Gregorian
Islam (2003)

11. Robert Fisk
The Great War for Civilisation (2005)

12. The Quran

A few comments on the list: Leila Ahmed and Esposito/Voll I can't recommend highly enough. Dalacoura and El Fadl are difficult reading, but necessary for any pondering of Islam and Human Rights. Ornament of the World fills in the missing links for medieval French poetry. (For the first time, I understand the Roman de la Rose.) However, even as she explores the things medieval Judaism and Christianity took from Islam, Menocal does not put forward much, if any, influence in the other direction. Surely, this is significant, but Menocal does not explore the one-way-ness of the influence.

On the books I recommend: Kaplan's book is all-the-more revealing for being dated. For example, two of the Arabists Kaplan struggles to like (and almost but not quite succeeds) turn out to be prescient years before 9/11. More importantly, his book describes America's good relationship with Arabs in the Middle East pre-Israel. Kaplan doesn't make sense of how things went wrong after that, but he does describe Kissinger's crucial role in the change. To begin to understand how America went so wrong in the Middle East, Fisk is a good, if lengthy (over 800 pages) read. Despite the annoying title of his book, Fisk, a British journalist in the Middle East for forty years, witnessed many of the crucial events there. He covered the Civil War in Lebanon. He was the last western reporter out of Afghanistan. He knew Osama Bin Laden back in the day.

I now know enough to be able to disagree with Bernard Lewis. But still he is a seminal western scholar and a must-read. I now know enough to realize that Edward Said is, too. Orientalism is on my beside table. And, of course, we must read the Quran. So far, I have not found a good translation. (Arberry's on order. Will report back.) This situation would seem to bear out what people who know Arabic say--namely, that the Quran is untranslatable.

The Quran is not a narrative, like many books of the Bible. In fact, the book is not linear. It jumps around from "submissions" (prayers to Allah, many of them beautiful and more sophisticated than anything in the Bible) to specific injunctions about caring for orphans, dividing property, keeping sheep and cattle, settling disputes, husbands and wives, and other elements necessary for a cohesive society. Here the Quran reminds me of the Judaic laws in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Surprisingly, much of the Quran is a commentary on Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels. The commentary is general and therefore not particularly insightful. But, obviously, given the times in which we live, the holy book of Islam is a necessary read. Now that I think about it, the Bible is, too.

On the subject of popular literature and "first person" books with Middle East settings: Read the classics. Mafouz. Rushdie. Hikmet. Pamuk.

The only "less than the first rank" book I recommend is Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo. This novel, set in the Sudan during the first decade of civil war between North and South, beautifully if sadly sets forth why westerners and aid organizations, with the best of intentions, fail to do much about ethnic cleansing. Also, Caputo is the only novelist I know who inhabits the skin and soul of a Muslim jihadist character and makes him human and sympathetic. A literary achievement. (The book did win the Pulitzer Prize.)

If you read some of the books on the above lists, you will see why the following popular books are not-so-good:

1. Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks. A first-person account all-the-more scary because the author is a journalist, for heaven's sake. She of all people should be able to inhabit the skin and soul of a contemporary Muslim woman and understand why so many such women have taken up the veil. Brooks writes fatuously about King Hussein and Queen Noor: "Behind the king's resolve, I was sure I saw the queen's quiet influence at work, and his world view gradually becoming identical with hers." Read Leila Ahmed to understand the veil. Read Fisk to get the real story on King Hussein. Brooks's account could hardly be farther from the truth.

2. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Generally speaking, if a book re-inforces impressions you already had about the Middle East, you should beware. As many Iranian women have pointed out, Nafisi indulges in easy stereotypes (the wife abuser, for example, whereas, as Ahmed says, the incidence of wife abuse is the same East and West). From Nafisi's book, a reader might assume all too-easily that for educated Iranian women novels originally written in English are their standard for literature, instead of the Persian writers who inhabit the current literary scene--women like Parsipur, Behbahani, and Danishvar. More importantly, it is all-too-easy to jump from an embrace of a writer's creation of imagination, here a reading group in Tehran, to an assumption that Iranian middle class women want a different society than the one they now have.

3. Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson. Afghani women have already challenged the veracity of this "memoir." Now it seems likely that Ms. Rodriguez fabricated some, if not most, of her stories--always a warning sign when the publisher notes on the copyright page that "some personal, place and organization names have been changed, and some chronological details adjusted." This is another popular work that gives American readers what they already believe to be true.

Since I'm beginning to sound like the book police, I will moderate my comments on the last two bestsellers because both are well-written and, frankly, I enjoyed them. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel is a compelling story of her Somali family and upbringing. Also, Ms. Ali makes clear why Holland and the rest of the EU are having second thoughts about their 14 million Muslim immigrants. On the other hand, even as we understand why Ms. Ali personally abhores Islam, her argument against the faith of her forebears does not withstand scrutiny. When she says that Islam is evil and perverting, for example, she does not account for the many fine people in the world who are Muslims and have good family lives within the Muslim faith. Again, I fear that she is "preaching to the choir" in much of her audience, who already are too disposed to demonize Islamists.

My last caveat is about Khaled Hussein's Kite Runner. He is a marvelous storyteller. In the end, however, his novel is not really about Afghanistan--it has a picturesque setting that happens to be Afghanistan. Hussein's sensibility is profoundly western in its appreciation of individuality, its vision of causality as a result of human choice, and its relegation of religion to the sidelines. If you want to read a novel with a non-western sensibility, read any of Orhan Pamuk's. Snow is my favorite.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Really Jordan

My friend Clare and I have been laying the groundwork for some Jordanian high school students to come over here to college. On the principle that the more positive interaction between East and West the better, I still believe in our plan, even though one of the assumptions impelling us has turned out to be false. For one thing, many Jordanian high schoolers don't need our help. In Amman, Jordan has six to eight private high schools, most with church origins but now secular, many offering the International Baccalaureate degree. Their graduates already go on to university in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. Amman also has six or so good private Islamic high schools. Furthermore, King Abdullah has enticed the headmaster of Deerfield Academy, a top American prep school, to Deerfield's new partner school, The King's Academy in Amman. And finally, Amman has some good public high schools. I now realize that Clare and I had succumbed to a bit of a rescue fantasy, whereas in fact Jordan has the best educational system in the Middle East.

There are students in Jordan who could use our help, but we will not be able to help them. Among the million-or-so Iraqi refugees now in Jordan, surely there are teenagers, well-educated back home in Baghdad, who would love to go to college in the United States. Mostly, these young people have no educational future in Jordan, for several reasons. First of all, Jordan, overwhelmed by this latest influx of refugees, will not allow Iraqis into Jordanian public schools. And the security service is cracking down on Iraqi students who have been going to school illegally, sometimes with a school's tacit consent. Furthermore, Jordan has stopped issuing temporary visas to Iraqis and has begun enforcing the monetary penalties on overstaying the old visa's thirty-day limit. Without a valid visa, even a wealthy Iraqi child can no longer attend a private school in Jordan. To meet this crisis, two Virginia missionaries opened a school for Iraqi refugees in Amman. The Grace School could have been a conduit for Clare's and my efforts; however, for reasons unknown (but on which we can speculate) the Jordanian government closed the Grace School in April. Therefore, even before any consideration of the U.S. visa problems Jordanian-Iraqi students would have, Clare and I can not help out with this surely overwhelming need.

The educational situation in Jordan is a paradigm for the country itself. Places are not always what they seem--and especially at first glance to a tourist. On the one hand, with its well-educated and optimistic populace, Jordan should be a good candidate for the western business investment that the Jordanian IWF-ers, in hosting the conference, were hoping to promote. On the other hand, the government of King Abdullah may fall, as some western analysts predict, if and when the U.S. leaves Iraq. In this scenario, the influx of Iraqi refugees, and the Jordanian government's refusal to recognize them as such, are harbingers of upheaval to come.

The Jordanian women of the IWF, like many of their countrymen, want to bring to Jordan not only western business but also western tourists. Again, this is a two-sided situation. On the one hand, Jordan is a haven for tourists: friendly, clean, inexpensive, and full of interesting places to visit that are delightfully uncrowded. A woman can walk around Amman at night and know that she will not be accosted, scammed, cheated, robbed, or mugged. This is the Muslim way of life at its best--zero tolerance for thieves and utmost courtesy for guests. On the other hand, we know that there are fundamentalist jihadists and (potential) suicide bombers in Jordan, in the way that we don't know quite that there are any in the U.S. right now. Less than two years ago, Iraqi refugee jihadists blew themselves up in three of the western chain hotels in Amman: the Radisson, the Days Inn, and the Grand Hyatt, setting for the IWF Conference. Several western embassy and business folk have been murdered in the last few years. Therefore, an American in Jordan, like in Turkey, knows that something happening is all or nothing. This dual consciousness is a strange travelling companion.

There is also the matter of the constitutional monarchy and King Abdullah. The omnipresence of the king's image (photos of him everywhere) seems, on the one hand, to reflect his popularity among his subjects. On the other hand, his government, like so many Middle Eastern bureaucracies, is tainted. One of my new Jordanian acquaintances, referring obliquely to her government's corruption, asked me if there were corrupt officials in America. When I said that "yes, of course, human nature is the same everywhere, and it is the rule of law that helps us deal with it where I live," she was intrigued. Unfamiliar with the process of holding someone accountable, she asked me to go through our justice system step-by-step. My friend's circumlocutory appraisal of her government is borne out by the Jordanian blogosphere, home to comments--sometimes humorous, sometimes grim--about the king's revolving-door and therefore ineffectual cabinet.

While Clare and I were in Jordan, King Abdullah was working, as he had been for some time, on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In fact, just as his country (without oil, or water reserves) is hoping to make its fortune as the regional middle-man, so Abdullah has staked his reputation and clout as peace broker. Since the IWF Conference, much has fallen apart. One minute all is quiet at the Allenby/Hussein Bridge, the major crossing between Jordan and Israel, in the West Bank. When Clare and I were near, Jordanians, with pride, pointed in the bridge's direction. Now, only weeks later, the U.S. State Department has warned Americans to stay away from the bridge. During my stay in Jordan, I wondered, in the back of my mind, if there was something more to King Abdullah's cancellation of a day trip to Ramallah in the West Bank than was reported. The Jordanian Times was torn between two stories: it was the weather; once airborne, the pilot realized the royal helicopter needed repair. Something didn't seem right. But what was I really seeing? Of course, now we know that Palestinian society was disintegrating, and as a consequence the King's day trip was just too dangerous.

The turnaround of Abdullah's helicopter and the turnabout with the Hussein Bridge show that the fortunes of Jordan could go either way, quickly. Thinking particularly of my new friends and acquaintances there, I hope that Jordan can maintain sovereignty and the middle way on which it has embarked. The risk is that Abdullah has staked too much on his relationship with the U.S. Human Rights Watch rumor has it that the new hillside headquarters of the Jordanian secret service is home-away-from-home for the C.I.A. Everything has a price--and our foreign aid budget for Jordan has quintupled over the last few years.

Rumor aside, Abdullah's political stance--moderating, mediating, secular, paying homage to western ways--is perceived as an American one. Abdullah does not seem to be the quintessential Arab his father was. King Hussein knew how to put on a red kaffiyeh and break bread in the eastern desert with his Bedouin constituents. Abdullah is less close to his nomadic roots. Despite the role he has taken on as peace broker, he does not have his father's masterful ability to balance his country between opposing forces. And now that Palestine has fallen apart, what will happen to Abdullah next door? Having stepped forward as a peace broker between his neighbors Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Abdullah is now weaker. Two days ago, the King of Jordan returned from Sharm El Sheik in Egypt much diminished, because Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, at the Sinai conference was unwilling to give Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority what he, presumably with the backing of Abdullah and Hosni Mubarak, came to the Red Sea to ask for. However, one would never know that Jordan's King Abdullah had suffered a setback, for the end of the Egyptian conference was quickly followed by a two-day visit of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Ben Abdul Aziz to Jordan. Hundreds of Jordanians lined the streets of Amman to cheer the royal progress, wave flags, and feast on sheep and camel.

What am I really looking at? Like I said several months ago at the beginning of my blog, in politics I am at best a sceptic and at heart a pessimist. Therefore, I'm going back to Jordan soon, and on to Syria, while I can.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Media, Islam, Negativity and A Piece of Work

Questioning from both IWF-ers and panelists about the negativity of western media coverage on Islam and the Middle East threaded the conference, as my previous Jordan blogs show. Since my return, I've seen many example of this. The May/June issue of American Interest, for example, reviews four new books about Islam in America--all of which would seem to focus on terrorism. The reviewer likes American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion best. The author, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, organizes his book into seven chapters, each on a different American Muslim: Khaled Abou El Fadl, the UCLA professor who was a no-show at the conference, a feminist from Mumbai, a Lebanese Sufi, and four men with ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Four out of seven with ties to terrorism? Is that balanced? What about a grocer in Houston? A Somali immigrant in Maine? An Iowa entrepreneur? An imam in Detroit who speaks for peace? A Jordanian exchange student at Westover High School? (The Ahliyyah School for Girls in Amman and Westover High School in Middlebury, Connecticut exchange students for a semester every year.)

Subtler negative coverage abounds. From the article "A New Cairo" by Christopher Dickey in the May/June issue of Departures: "Single-masted feluccas set sail in the twilight with families and lovers, some of the women wearing veils in that coquettish nod to Islamic modesty typical of Egypt, where the arts of seduction are older than the legends of Cleopatra." Haven't we had enough of fatuous orientalism? And amused condescension--as in the Wall Street Journal's front-page article (June 5) "For Jordanians, Shotgun Weddings Can Be a Problem." Out of all the interesting things going on in Jordan, over a three-month period the Journal chooses to cover King Abdullah's speech to the U.S. Congress (in an editorial called "Hashemite Hokum") and the Bedouin tradition of firing guns into the air as a way of celebrating weddings. The handful of deaths that occurs every year as a result says as much about Jordanian society as the handful of drownings every year in Yosemite says about ours.

Sometimes the problem is truth-in-balance, and here, as is often the case, the New York Times is an example. Although in the last week the Times has run several thoughtful retrospective pieces on the anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the paper's most prominent piece, showcased with a color drawing on the front page of the Sunday (June 10) Week in Review section, is "The Guidebook for Taking a Life." With its eye-catching format, the insouciance of its choice of bestseller terminology, this article (researched in Zarqa, Jordan, by the way) purports to set out the rules of jihad etiquette. Not only is this bit of journalism in questionable taste, lightly equating killing with social manners, but also it is false, for jihadists are not all on the same page when it comes to rules of engagement. This is an important issue, and underlying it is the opacity of the Quran, whose verses are open to very different interpretations. Instead of tackling this difficult topic, however, the New York Times opts for shock journalism, which, of course, draws in more readers.

These choices show how low our media has descended, even in arguably the two most prominent American newspapers. This corruption was also on display at the IWF Conference during our first lunch session. I had been looking forward to this program, which featured the U.S., Turkish, and Russian ambassadors to Jordan as panelists and Raghida Dergham as moderator. I shouldn't have been optimistic, however, because luncheon programs for ladies are often light fare, and male participants, like our ambassadors, usually pick up on the tone and deliver accordingly. Nevertheless, I was excited, because I had googled Raghida Dergham.
Born in Beirut, a graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh, now a New Yorker, Ms. Dergham is a columnist for Al Hayat, the London-based Arabic daily paper, as well as an analyst for NBC/MSNBC, and a member of The Council on Foreign Relations. A frequent guest on t.v. and radio talk shows, she has won numerous awards in journalism. Something of a Lebanese Barbara Walters, Ms. Dergham has interviewed all the major players in Middle Eastern politics for the last quarter century.

Media stardom has gone to the head of Raghida Dergham. She wanted the IWF lunch session played her way and no other. Disingenuously, she began, "let's keep this off-the-record." In a room full of strangers armed with digital audio/video cameras and Blackberries? With me blogging? As if! As if the three ambassadors took her seriously for a moment! Quickly, Ms. Dergham moved in for the kill with the kind of pointed questions that twist any response before it is even made. But Ms. Dergham was not interested in an exploration of possibility and truth; she was prodding for the "gotcha" moment. She wanted to make the three gentlemen squirm. And, of course, as public servants the ambassadors were used to this verbal thrust-and-parry, with its overtones of gamesmanship and sexual titillation. (Raghida Dergham is a very attractive woman.) Resigned, the men offered anodyne remarks about politics in the Middle East, which gave us women of the conference nothing to ponder. Grim-faced, surrounded by the Jordanian security service, David Hale, the American ambassador to Jordan, departed the minute lunch broke.

Since Raghida Dergham can never return to Lebanon, where she is under indictment for treason (something about a public debate with an Israeli), I cut her some slack. I can not begin to imagine what it must be like never to be able to go home. But, I have to say, she is a real piece of work. As the lunch quickly ended, we ladies were surprised that the meal had been only mezzes (appetizers). Later we found out that the waiters, trays aloft, lined up in the hall outside the ballroom, preparing to enter with our main courses, had been turned away. Word had come down from Raghida Dergham. She didn't like the clink of cutlery and the chink of china of competing with her own voice. Either the luncheon service came to a halt--or she would get up and leave. Now wouldn't that have been a shame?

Saturday, June 9, 2007


Here comes a break in my blog about Jordan, Islam, and the women's conference. I posted "Spoke-ified" on the afternoon of the conference's last day. That night our Jordanian hostesses treated us to a magnificent party at Kan Zaman, an Ottoman caravanserai that has been turned into a tourist restaurant-with-shops. We indulged in a final flurry of shopping, heaped plates of mezzes and shwarma, and dancing to the bagpipes. (I've since learned that the Arab Legion of the British Army introduced European music to its soldiers by setting up musical bands, and in 1929 bagpipes were incorporated into these bands. The bagpipes, which incidentally had been played in Persia thousands of years before they came to Scotland, were so popular in Trans-Jordan that the great-grandfather of the current King Abdullah had them played on his way to mosque every Friday.) Anyway, in honor of the occasion, the ladies of the IWF outdid themselves in ornament and dress.

An amusing and dramatic side-plot of the conference was the increasing display of jewelry from the Middle East. Every morning at breakfast I spotted new pieces on IWF-ers. One morning an American said that before her trip she had asked a friend who had traveled to Jordan what there was to buy. "Nothing," the friend had replied. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Jewelry, both costume and antique, silver and gold, is beautifully different and also inexpensive compared to what you find in the U.S. And the high-end clothing, such as the cross-stitched Bedouin jackets and the semi-sheer scarves and over-dresses made of camel's hair (not coarse, but soft and fine like silk), are lovely. Much of this clothing, especially hand-embroidered silk caftans, came out to Kan Zaman.

A coda to the evening is that the bus ride to Kan Zaman, on the outskirts of Amman, showed us the tight security I had been expecting and did not find at the conference. The attendees of the World Economic Forum were already arriving as we ladies were leaving, and the Jordanian army was out in force. (The forum was meeting at hotels along the Dead Sea, but many attendees were staying at hotels in Amman.) As we drove out of Amman, we saw a tank or police car parked athwart every side street. There were a couple of soldiers posted on every block. Every hill and hillock had its sniper. This display went on for miles and miles, presumably all the way to the airport.

Two days later, I was back in Rome--this time with my daughters, both of whom were suffering from jetlag and post-graduate school-year exhaustion. (Coincidentally, both Coco and Caro are getting their Ph.D.'s at Princeton--Mayhill Courtney in Russian history and Caroline in Byzantine/medieval art.) After a Fowler women weekend in the Eternal City, Coco flew off to Paris (treating herself because she just passed her orals) and Caro and I commenced a Toad's Wild Ride through Sicily. The ostensible reason for the trip was the medieval cloister at the Cathedral of Monreale outside Palermo, which Caro plans to write about in the coming year. But the real impetus, it seems to me, was Caro's love of the sun. We spent much of our week there checking out various beaches, and indeed we found a glorious one. Unfortunately, however, Sicily is still a bit internet-challenged, and it is only now, weeks later, that I can complete my thoughts about Jordan, Islam, and the Conference.

So I have two more postings: on the Middle East and the western media; and finally on what I have learned about Islam (and there I will include a list of the books I have found illuminating, the ones I have not, and the ones I have on my bedside table now, for I will pursue this subject further).

Next year Clare and I plan to return to Wadi Rumm; then I want to go on to Syria. Meanwhile it's back to American politics for Junehill, Owl and Green Dog. I did the Barack Obama Walk for Change this afternoon; I've been thinking about the "Faith Dialogue" that Jim Wallis persuaded CNN to host, with all the Democratic candidates. Watch for those next week.