Monday, August 24, 2015

Dana Hotel and the soul of the Lebanese south

„Settled by my forebears,“ Pulitzer prize winning reporter Anthony Shadid wrote in his book ‚House of Stone‘, „Marjayoun was once an entrepôt perched along routes of trade plied by Christians, Muslims and Jews which stitched together the tapestry of an older Middle East. It was, in essence, a gateway - to Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and Damascus, beyond Mount Hermon; to Jerusalem, in historic Palestine; and to Baalbek, the site of an ancient Roman town. This was a place as cosmopolitan as the countryside offered.“

On my day in Marjayoun, in Lebanon’s blue zone, south of the Litani river, nothing felt particularly cosmopolitan about it. There were more than a dozen tables ready for breakfast in the Dana Hotel, but only two of them were occupied. From the loudspeakers, old Fairuz songs in instrumental versions were playing over to where I was sitting. 

After breakfast, I met brothers Fouad and Najib Hamra, founders and owners of the Dana Hotel. Fouad and Najib were both born in Africa, in the Ivory Coast, from Lebanese parents. Their family moved back to Marjayoun and later the brothers studied mechanical engineering in the United States. While „things were bad“ in Lebanon they worked successfully in the Gulf and made some money there. 

„We didn’t want to just sit on the money“, the brothers told me, „we wanted to do something meaningful with it and invest it in the Marjayoun area.“ The Hamra brothers, self-made entrepreneurs in the best of Lebanese tradition, came back to the south of Lebanon, opened a variety of small businesses and finally built the Dana Hotel, their „affair of the heart“. 

„The idea for the hotel came in 1986,“ said Najib Hamra, lighting a cigarette after asking me if I would allow him to smoke. „At this time there was no real hotel, no resort, no recreational facility around here. Fouad and I wanted to expose the people of Marjayoun to new things.“

The Dana Hotel opened at Christmas of 1990, at a time when the south of Lebanon was still under Israeli occupation. In Marjayoun, UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, was busy trying to keep some kind of an order. UNIFIL’s original mandate, established in 1978, was to confirm the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. When this didn’t happen, UNIFIL’s role was reduced to humanitarian assistance. For the Dana Hotel, their presence was nevertheless a blessing. To this day the flag of Norway, head of the UNIFIL contingent at that time, flies at the entrance of the hotel.

While being stationed in Marjayoun, the Norwegians were able to win hearts and minds - so often evoked, but rarely achieved - of the local people. Quite naturally the rapture was mutual. Some Norwegians have married into families of the region, some keep contact through Facebook, some even have learned how to speak Arabic like a Southerner. Once every year a group from Norway comes back to the Dana Hotel to celebrate the good times they had when meeting the people of South Lebanon.

In the year 2000, after the Israelis finally withdrew from Lebanon, civilians started to flock back to the area. „The whole area was in shambles during the Israeli occupation,“ Najib Hamra said. But now people started to construct new houses or began to repair the damaged houses of their ancestors. 

„People need a place to belong to,“ the Hamra brothers told me. „For some this is Marjayoun and this area in southeastern Lebanon. After the Israelis had left, people had the chance to again belong to their region.“

the tapestry of an older Middle East: Dana Hotel

Many people don’t live in the area permanently; they live in Beirut and have made their houses in the south their second residences, for weekends or for longer periods during summertime. In winter there can be snow in Marjayoun and the area - as well as the Dana Hotel - is all but dead. 

To reach the land south of the Litani, foreigners need a permit from the Lebanese army. This is a big burden for the Dana Hotel. „It holds people back from visiting us and has a negative impact on the area as a whole,“ Fouad Hamra said. Some potential visitors just don’t feel like dealing with Lebanese bureaucracy in order to get the pass. 

Notwithstanding the hassle with the permits Dana Hotel has guests from all over the world. Only the Lebanese are mostly absent. For Najib Hamra southern Lebanon is the safest area in the world, but the Lebanese are nonetheless afraid to travel to the south. They rather stick to the tracks they know, in the traffic jams between Beirut and Jounieh. „It’s in their heads,“ Najib said.

Strolling through Marjayoun and nearby Ebl Saqi in the glaring light of a summer midday, I immediately understood Najib Hamra’s argument. The area is not only safe, but also peaceful. The tapestry of an older Middle East, as Anthony Shadid described it, is very much alive. Christians, Druzes and Shias live side by side, door by door. This land full of beauty has lots of substance and potential; its people are as soft spoken and hospitable as their houses are rock solid.

This is a place where the Chief of Police also drives the ambulance.

Besides welcoming and accommodating its guests, the Dana Hotel is also an enterprise to create jobs in a region with very poor economic opportunities. The hotel has 65 employees in summer and ten during the winter season. It also provides outside catering and organizes weddings for up to a thousand people. And since the brothers are always expanding - building new rooms, or a huge pool area for guests of the hotel and locals alike, or bungalows - Dana Hotel is an important source of income for the local construction business as well. 

„What are the effects of the war in Syria on your business?“, I asked Fouad and Najib Hamra.

„They are huge,“ said Najib, who lives in Abu Dhabi, but comes back to Marjayoun once every month. „Before the war, Arabs from the Gulf were sometimes driving their cars through Syria to Lebanon to spend time in the Dana Hotel. Of course this in not possible anymore. If the Gulf Arabs still come to Lebanon at all they fly to Beirut and stay there.“

With the state of Israel only a few kilometers away and its borders closed, with Beirut buried under trash, and living next to the ongoing war in Syria, the region sometimes feels like caught in a trap. The gateway has become a cul-de-sac.

„Israel is really affecting us a lot,“ Najib Hamra said. „And it has become almost like a rule that every year between June 10 and 15 Israel conducts some kind of operation to mess up the summer business in the south of Lebanon.“

„However,“ Fouad Hamra interrupted, „we don’t want to talk about politics.“

Like most successful ventures in Lebanon, the Dana Hotel is the fruit of efforts by private individuals. Lebanon is not a particularly business-friendly country. Fouad and Najib Hamra didn’t have any kind of support from the state when planning and developing the Dana Hotel. „Only now, when everything is working, politicians want to participate,“ Najib Hamra said. 

„How do you make money with the Dana Hotel,“ I wanted to know from the brothers, „in such a geopolitically challenged environment?“

„Actually we don’t,“ they said, and both of them were smiling. „The hotel is our fun area“.

And where do you see the hotel in 2030?“, I asked Fouad and Najib Hamra before we finished our conversation. Fouad was both pessimistic and enthusiastic. „I hope for a better future for this region,“ he said, „but I am not sure. As for the hotel, we will always strive to grow and improve.“


Against all odds, the Hamra brothers and the people of South Lebanon keep going. Because this is their character. Because this is their home.

This post was first published in Your Middle East online media, here



Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Iraq's Arab nightmare

„The land you know as Iraq is history.“ Falah Mustafa Bakir, the unofficial foreign minister of Kurdish Iraq, was very frank when he talked to a German journalist in May of this year. „There will be no going back to a situation before the summer of 2014.“

What had happened in Iraq in the summer of 2014 was the Islamic State (IS) taking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. One year later, the IS controls a territory that stretches from outside Damascus to the suburbs of Baghdad. Admittedly the land of IS is mostly desert, but so is Saudi Arabia. The land we know as Iraq is eaten up from the inside and the outside and the Islamic State is one of the scavengers.

After the devastating six days war of 1967 and the death of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, Iraq was the Arab and the Arabs’ dream; a country that was supposed to be the new beacon of Arab prosperity and power. Egypt and Syria had been crushed and humiliated by Israel’s military might. Now all hopes laid on Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. 

„What did 1967 do to the Arab world?“, I asked Bouchra Belguellil, a young researcher associated with l’Institut Prospective et Sécurité en Europe (IPSE) in Paris.

„In 1967,“ Belguellil said, „the military defeat against Israel was not only about material and territorial losses. It was also the defeat of a project that had intended to reunite the Arab world, to restructure their economic production base and to regain sovereignty over a region that had lived under an imperialistic yoke for a long time.“ 

Israel’s triumph was a shock for the entire Arab world. It led to a widespread auto-flagellation, asking for the reasons for such a failure. „The result was an Arab mind set that was isolationist and increasingly confined around small ethnic, sectarian and tribal identities,“ said Belguellil.

Iraq tried hard and for some time it seemed to fulfill the hopes of the Arab world. Saddam Hussein believed in a revolution that mostly focused on a development through education, investing in a health care system and strengthening the industrial capabilities. After the Iraq - Iran war of the 1980s and the first Gulf war of 1991, his revolution was all but dead. 

„The State of Iraq was a failed construction from its beginning in 1920,“ said Shakhawan, a doctor of Kurdish origin whom I had met to talk about Iraq. „The Kurds didn’t want to belong to Iraq and in the end, 18% of the population ruled over the other 82%. Such a state could never work.“

On a day of positive thinking, one might be willing to concede that the US, through invading Iraq in 2003, tried to push the country towards becoming a modern democratic state. Why did the Americans fail? To begin with, Iraq is a very complex country with a heavy historical baggage that prevents the establishment of a common national conception. Iraqis are not Iraqis but Arabs, Kurds, Muslim, Christian, Yazidis, and members of tribe A or clan B first. The loyalty to a central state is very low.

The main conflict in Iraq, overshadowing all other conflicts, is the ages old enmity between the Sunnis and the Shia. The conflict is like a sleeper cell: dormant for long periods of time but always ready to be activated. The Arab Sunnis are clearly a destabilizing factor for any political system in Iraq. They represent a minority in constant fear of being marginalized. Their numerical inferiority was one of the reasons why the Sunni dominated Baath party of Iraq resorted to an iron fist to rule over the majority Shia and the non-cooperative Kurds between 1963 and 2003.

As if sectarian or ethnic tensions were not enough, Iraq is also markedly fragmented by its tribal structure. To survive, tribes must follow rigorous rules and enforce a strict codex of values that render a central government far away in Baghdad irrelevant. 

These days Sunni tribes within the triangle Fallujah - al Qaim - Mosul openly cooperate with the Islamic State. They have submitted themselves to the law of the strongest and act as the sword of the IS when fighting the Iraqi army and the Shia militias. „The tribes carefully calculate their allegiances,“ said Bouchra Belguellil, „measuring possible benefits and potential losses. They also take into account the material and financial gains when working with the IS instead of Baghdad.“

In principle, things in Iraq should be different. On October 15, 2005, Iraqis made a step forward and voted in favor of a new constitution. The constitution was crafted based on the idea of a ‚consensus democracy‘; it’s a good paper, promoting a multi party system, a balance of power between legislation and the executive branch, and a two chamber configuration of the new Iraqi parliament to better represent the people and the different regions of Iraq.

„Did the Iraqis know what it meant when they said yes to the new constitution?“, I asked Shakhawan. „Did they understand that they were saying yes to pluralism and to the concept of an Iraqi state?“

„In a society without a political culture, primarily based on tribalism, the result of any vote must be questioned,“ he replied. „I’m not sure if the Iraqis understood the ideas behind this new constitution.“

„However,“ Shakhawan went on, „important parts of the new constitution haven’t been implemented until today. There is still no second chamber in parliament and there wasn’t a vote on the status of Kirkuk - Arab or Kurdish? - as it is written in the constitution. Iraq had needed a figure like Mandela, able to forgive and capable of unifying the country. Instead we got Maliki who definitely destroyed what hadn’t been destroyed before.“

a society without a political culture: Iraq

Iraq’s agony is a painful reality. So why not accept this reality and admit that the plan of an Iraq under one roof has failed? Why having Iraq go through an excruciating family therapy instead of helping it to get a clean divorce?

„Holding on to the status quo is totally normal,“ said Bouchra Belguellil. „The stakeholders of Iraq are in denial and are not ready to accept the collapse of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 which determined today’s border between Syria and Iraq.“

The Islamic State on the other hand is flourishing on Sykes-Picot and the line that had been arbitrarily drawn into the sand almost hundred years ago. The IS thrives on this bi-locality that allows them to duplicate and to give the impression that they are many and omnipresent. „Outside of this borderland, the IS cannot survive,“ Belguellil told me.

Shakhawan saw other reasons why Iraq can’t split up. „What to do with Baghdad where most people live, Sunnis and Shia alike?“, he said. „What to do with the Sunni regions in central and Western Iraq which consist of 90% desert? These regions don’t have natural resources like the Kurds have and the Shia in the south of Iraq have. An independent Sunni state is just not viable.“

Bouchra Belguellil didn’t entirely agree. „The Islamic State will not go away without the independence or at least the autonomy of the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq,“ she said. „This will be the price for peace.“

What is the Arab dream in 2015? What is the Arabs’ dream in 2015? Are there any dreams left at all between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf? Hardly. Young Arabs today don’t believe in the dreams of their parents anymore. The ideas of pan-Arabism and a proud Arab region are dead, identities are defined more and more in local terms; they have morphed into the petty notion of a local nationalism. 

The ‚Arab spring‘ in 2011 was a last flash in the pan. Young people nowadays are disenchanted and their only dream is to live in peace and have a decent job. They don’t expect anything meaningful coming from ‚their‘ state.

„In this region there is an enormous confusion between the concept of state and bureaucracy,“ said Bouchra Belguellil when we finished our conversation. „There were never real states, providing services and security as states are supposed to do, but very often stifling bureaucracies. People have given up on their capitals.“ And not only in Iraq!

Shakhawan couldn’t offer a more optimistic outlook. „In Iraq there isn’t any trust, only mistrust among its population,“ he said. The lack of trust between and within the different communities is indeed the biggest challenge for the future of Iraq. Today, the Kurds are fighting against the Islamic State and the Shia are doing the same. And tomorrow? „In the end, the Shia militias are a much bigger threat for the Kurds than the Islamic State,“ said Shakhawan.

„So is Iraq really history?“, I asked him.

„There need to be a separation from religion and the state,“ he concluded. „Only then, maybe, an Iraqi state could function. The Iraqis need enlightenment. Like in France before the revolution: the people didn’t know what were their rights and their duties. They didn’t know that ‚without you the king cannot rule and cannot be king‘. The Iraqis still need to learn this.“

Maybe then an Arab dream wouldn’t end in a nightmare.

This post was first published by Your Middle East online media, here

For more about Iraq, please read my two previous posts, "Saddam Revisited" and "It's atheism or die for Iraq".




Monday, August 17, 2015

It’s atheism or die for Iraq

„Maybe the only solution for Iraq and the Iraqis is to become atheists,“ said Sameer when I asked him about a way out of the mess Iraq finds itself in in 2015. 

„Many Iraqis were atheists before,“ Sameer continued. „They were atheists until the plane was about to crash.“

The Iraqi plane crashed in 2003, brought down by the shock and awe campaign of the American military and the subsequent regime of George W. Bush’s governor in Baghdad, Paul Bremer.

Sameer was born in Baghdad in 1972, but now lives in the UAE, working as a civil engineer and building skyscrapers. He has experienced the best and worst of Iraqi history. 

„How did the Sunnis of Iraq go from being Iraq’s elite to become today’s enemy of the state?“, I asked Sameer.

„For a long time, the Sunnis of Iraq felt protected by the Baath regime since Saddam Hussein was a Sunni,“ he replied. „After the Baath party was gone, the Sunnis of Iraq had to look for another shield to protect them. They felt targeted just because they were Sunnis. My faith seems to be the problem, they said, so they went looking for protection under the blanket of sectarianism.“

Feeling increasingly marginalized and threatened, the Sunnis of Iraq boycotted the political process forced upon them by the USA. They began to support militants who at first opposed the US occupation and then the new central government in Baghdad.

„Let’s play an analytical guessing game on Iraq,“ Sameer suggested. „Where would the survivors of the Iraqi plane crash of 2003 stand today? What could have been their fate in the past twelve years?“

„Sounds interesting,“ I said. „Let’s start with the pilot, let’s start with an Iraqi Baathist.“

„For a Baathist to the core,“ Sameer elaborated, „life was pretty tough since 2003. If they have found him in Baghdad, the Shia militias killed him, regardless of his faith or sect. Being a true Baathist, this man is still secular. Being a Baathist Iraqi Arab, his priority to this day is Pan-Arabism. Some of these people are nowadays protected by the Kurds, as strange as this may seem.“

„Did you read the recent article in Der Spiegel,“ I interrupted Sameer. „It claimed that behind the Islamic State there was a now deceased Baathist Iraqi army officer who gave them strategic directions.“

„If this is true, and the journalist seems to be well informed,“ said Sameer, „then I don’t think that this guy was a firm believer in Baathism. My guess is that this man had been a Baathist party member for the sake of the privileges that this would entail. If you had ambitions in Saddam’s Iraq, you had to be a party member. Baathists who now have joined the IS were only Baathists by name and not by heart.“

„Where would a young Sunni Iraqi born in 1993 be today,“ I continued the game, „considering the rough sectarian environment in which he grew up during his adolescence?“

„It depends if this young Sunni is from a secular or from a tribal family. Generally that kid,“ Sameer explained, „who was ten years old in 2003, began his teens feeling targeted and not knowing why. In 2015, he knows better. 

Now for this young adult in 2015, where to go? You have to chose sides. No Iraqi will say, I don’t give a fuck. There is always a side A and a side B in Iraq. And nothing in between.“

„I know a Shia girl born in the late 1980s,“ Sameer went on; „by her family name you would assume that she hails from a family of Shia extremists. But actually they were strong believers in the Baathist ideology. These days, this girl lives in Canada and she is a flat out atheist. Her mom lives in Jordan and she is still a Baathist. And her sisters have become firm believers of the Shia faith. Everyone chose a side.“

This game was very instructive indeed. „What are your ideas about a young Shia born in Iraq in 1993?“, I wanted to know from Sameer.

„My guess is,“ and his thoughts started to roam, „that this young man holds a grudge against the Baathists, the protectors of the Sunnis. He grew up hating Sunnis. Certainly some of his family members were killed in the Iraq - Iran war in the 1980s; his uncle maybe or his grandfather.“

„Unless,“ Sameer concluded, „this young Shia left Iraq at a very early age to study in the West. Maybe then he has a more balanced view of the Iraqi realities.“

atheists until the plane was about to crash: Sunni, Shia in Iraq

„How about a middle aged Iraqi Sunni born in 1960?“

„This man lived the golden age of Iraq at an early peak of his manhood.“ Sameer seemed to reminisce about his own upbringing in Iraq. „He lived a vibrant nightlife in Baghdad of the 1980s and early 1990s.“

„I know a person who was a party animal up until 2003,“ he kept going. „Then he somehow ended up in an American prison where he was brainwashed by al Qaeda fanatics. Out of prison, he joined al Qaeda. He was out to kill Shia. His only pride was in Islam and he called Baath a very bad project. For some reasons he left Iraq and he finally settled down in a Gulf country being a practicing, but liberal Muslim. Not secular anymore, but not an extremist either. How you end up really depends on the environment in which you live.“

„Last curriculum vitae,“ I said. „Tell me about the middle aged Iraqi Shia born in 1960.“

„If he was born in the south of Iraq,“ Sameer said, „chances are that he was born into an extremist Shia family; if he was born in Baghdad, his path is less clear. He could have been a practicing Muslim, but also hold secular views. 

Then he participated in the war against Iran. He witnessed comrades die and he was fighting a country that is the protector of his faith. That must mess you up in your head. 

In 2015, and after all that he has experienced in his life, this man is blindly pro Iran and he is blindly following the government of Iraq.“ Sameer was totally sure about this.

Historically, co-existence between different sects was the rule rather than the exception in Iraq and in the Middle East. The ‚original sectarian sin‘ of the modern Iraqi state happened in 1920. In their Mandate of Iraq, the British worked to check the Shia’s majority by keeping Sunni Arabs in senior positions in government and in the armed forces.

And still: „I remember Baghdad before the war - one could live anywhere,“ wrote ‚Riverbend', a Baghdadi computer programmer, in her then famous blog ‚Bagdhad Burning‘ in 2007. „We didn’t know what our neighbors were - we didn’t care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with was considered a trivial topic: are you a Sunni or Shia?“

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the vast majority of Iraqis were secular. Some of them even were swinging between secular and atheist, I learned from Sameer. Some didn’t have any God. The Iraqi police would monitor people going to the mosque. It was considered a threat to national security. 

And then came 2003 and its aftermath. „The sectarian war really started in 2006,“ Sameer said. „It took less than three years until Iraq became the unstable shithole the Americans had intended it to be. Car bombs went off nearly every day. No one knew who was behind these car bombings. Victims came from both sides. The feeling of sectarianism grew.“

Maybe it was all a misunderstanding, even an analytical failure. Paul Bremer and his men from Washington had bought into the narrative that Iraq under Saddam had been an entirely Sunni project when in fact it was not. Their solution, therefore, for a better, more democratic Iraq, was to reverse course and make it a Shia enterprise. Bremer saw Iraq trough a sectarian lens and started to plan his project under sectarian assumptions.

„Iraqis are emotional people, you know,“ said Sameer, before we ended our conversation. „This land was a well of wars throughout its history. I firmly believe that this tendency for violence and emotional instability has become part of our genes. It is the place that shapes the man!“

„Can the Arab identity unite the Sunni and Shia of Iraq? Can the Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew be a model for a future Iraq?“ I asked my last questions.

Sameer offered no hope. „A secular identity, paired with an Iraqi - not Arab! - identity will maybe unite Iraq. Baath was painfully Pan-Arab, at the expense of Iraq.“

But then: „I am an admirer of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. He successfully implanted the concept of ‚keep your religion at home and take your patriotism to the street’ in the minds of the Singaporeans. Saddam Hussein tried the same in Iraq, to a certain extent. However Singapore is different than Iraq.“

„What is that so?“, I asked Sameer. 


„Because they don’t educate their children to have resentments towards a certain race or religion.“

This post was first published by Your Middle East online media: here.



Revisiting Saddam

Geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan was very clear in his recent article for Foreign Policy. „It’s time to bring imperialism back to the Middle East,“ he argued, stirring the criticism of many who couldn’t see past the provocative headline. 

Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, whose regimes have either fallen or are in deep troubles, all had inherited rather vague geographical expressions, not functioning states, Kaplan wrote, where totalitarianism was probably the only way to control these post-colonial artificial entities. The totalitarianism’s collapse, Kaplan concluded, is now the root of Middle Eastern chaos.

In the West, Saddam Hussein is known as „the monster“ who fought a long war with Iran, attacked Kuwait, gassed the Kurds and finally was toppled and executed by George W. Bush. 

But who was Saddam Hussein really, behind the simple facts? Were he not dead, could he be the solution to the quagmire that is engulfing Iraq today? To find out more about Saddam, the personality and his system, I contacted Sameer in Dubai. Sameer was born in Baghdad in 1972. He now resides in the UAE, working as a civil engineer.

Sameer knows a great deal about Saddam Hussein because his father Thabit Aldulaimi was a personal friend of the president. Aldulaimi got the attention of Saddam when he published an article in an Iraqi newspaper entitled „the role of secularism in making Iraq an industrial power in the region“. Saddam contacted Sameer’s father and wanted him to join the Baath party but to Saddam’s astonishment he declined. He didn’t want to take sides in Iraq. However, Saddam Hussein and Thabit Aldulaimi remained in contact in the years that followed. 

„Saddam Hussein’s system is described as ‚Iraqi totalitarianism‘,“ I first asked Sameer. „How was this felt in daily life?“

„Of course Saddam’s Iraq was a dictatorship, a one man show,“ Sameer replied. „But when you just minded your business, going to the office every day, when you didn’t interfere with the political system, you were on the safe side.“

„But there were victims in Saddam’s Iraq,“ I said. „Who were they?“

„There were three types of casualties under Saddam,“ Sameer explained. „Firstly people who wanted him removed and replaced. Most of these people had ties with political entities outside Iraq, either in the West or in Iran.“

„Secondly people who agreed with Saddam’s course but wanted improvements. Barzan al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half brother, was such a person. He was an advisor to Saddam and brought a kind of Western point of view into the discussion. He asked for more democracy. However, Barzan's ideas were not welcomed by Saddam and he asked to be transferred to Geneva as Iraq’s UN ambassador.“

„And thirdly,“ Sameer went on, „people who already had a share of the Iraqi cake but wanted a bigger piece. Of course these people were seen as a threat to the regime as well.

„In the end, nobody dared to speak out anymore.“

Iraq under Saddam had everything going for it - except democracy. Saddam’s road map for Iraq was set on a reform path. Education became the top priority, and the discrimination against girls and women was eliminated. The results were so positive that Iraq was awarded the UNESCO prize for eradicating illiteracy in 1982.

These days, the education level has fallen dramatically in Iraq, Sameer regretted. „Even with a PHD an Iraqi cannot necessarily qualify as being educated.“

„When did Saddam turn bad?“, I then asked Sameer. „What was his breaking point?“

„Saddam Hussein broke bad after invading Kuwait,“ Sameer told me. „After the invasion of Kuwait, the south of Iraq turned against Saddam Hussein. He was surprised and very disappointed. Sleeping cells rose up against his regime. Shia militias entered Iraq from Iran and killed every Iraqi somehow related to the Baath party.“

„Saddam felt betrayed by his own people,“ Sameer continued. „Those sleeping cells were Iraqi Shia wanting Iraq to be governed by Ayatollah Khomenei. Saddam went into a shell. He basically quit practicing politics after 1991. He began to delegate and became very stubborn. Saddam started to threaten the USA, Israel, everybody.“

Some experts like Saïd K. Aburish, who has written extensively about Saddam, place his breaking point even earlier in time. „In the early 1980s,“ Aburish said in an interview with PBS Frontline, „the balance tipped. Saddam’s criminality increased and his ability to deliver to the Iraqi people and to the Arab people decreased. Eliminating people became more frequent, and imprisoning people became more frequent too.“

Aburish had business ties with Saddam Hussein in the 1970s. In his book about Saddam, he described him as methodical and organized. But for Aburish, Saddam was also a daydreamer.

methodical daydreamer: Saddam Hussein

„Methodical and organized: that’s true,“ said Sameer. „Saddam was always on time and he disliked when people were late. He was also regularly swimming and took good care of his health. Throughout his career, he maintained his weight.“

„Was he a daydreamer?“, Sameer repeated my question. „Saddam liked to drink tea; he always drank Lipton’s tea and always had extra bags in his pockets.“

I laughed. Regularly drinking tea doesn’t make you a daydreamer, I said. Half of the Brits would be daydreamers then.

„Yet I know for a fact,“ Sameer proceeded, „that Saddam was a daydreamer. Take the Israel - Palestine struggle for instance. Saddam truly believed that he could liberate Palestine during his term. Although the facts on the ground clearly proved that it was not possible.“

Another time when Saddam was dreaming was during the international embargo, in the 1990s. Saddam thought that the embargo would dissolve over time even if Iraq maintained its positions and its foreign policy. Iraq’s leader was betting on a global media coverage showing the suffering of Iraqi children. He was wrong.

Saddam’s infatuation with Palestine particularly resonated well on the Arab street. He sent money to Palestinian families in need, and in Iraqi universities, students from Palestine enjoyed a special treatment, favoring them over Iraqi students. Palestinians grew up loving Saddam Hussein. Iraqis began to hate Saddam for his love of the Palestinians. 

Surely the Kurds must detest Saddam, I thought. The Anfal campaign that the Iraqi regime led in 1988 against Iraqi Kurdistan had cost the lives of thousands of Kurdish people. It was during this operation that the chemical attack on Halabja took place. 

I called Shakhawan, a doctor of Kurdish origin who had left his home town of Erbil fifteen years ago. He now lives in Europe. Shakhawan’s assessment of Saddam was more balanced than I had expected. 

„Kurds don’t really hate Saddam,“ Shakhawan told me. „There were Kurds who were pro Saddam and there were Kurds who were against Saddam. But all Kurds love strong personalities, strong leaders. Saddam was portrayed as almighty and for us he seemed like God.“

„But he killed many of your people,“ I said.

„That’s correct,“ said Shakhawan. „However when Iraqi Kurdistan became an autonomous region in 1991, we dreamed of peace and security. And then it was the opposite! 23’000 people were killed in our civil war from 1994 to 1998, and 5000 persons are still missing. The Kurdish autonomy was a huge disappointment for everybody.“

„You know,“ Shakhawan explained, „violence coming from your enemy, that’s one thing. But violence coming from your friends, your fellow Kurds, that was a shock. Until today, many Kurds think that life was better under Saddam.“

With Sameer, I tried to enter even more into the psychology of Saddam. „According to some, Saddam had a split personality“, I told him. „One foot was in the 17th century in his home village of al Ajwa near Tikrit, the other foot was is in the 20th century making a nuclear bomb.“

„I have spoken to Saddam only once,“ Sameer answered. „When he came to our house, I wasn't scared. He was tall, charismatic, he would shake your hand and you’d forget that he was the president. He was not the monster as that he is depicted now.“ 

On a personal level, Saddam would listen to you. But don’t tell him to be softer with Israel, or to allow US oil companies investing in Iraq. That was non negotiable. Not even for his sons. „His eldest son Uday had a newspaper once and wrote an article in the mid 1990s that Iraqi children suffered from the embargo. He suggested that US companies should establish joint ventures with the Iraqi oil industry,“ Sameer remembered. „Saddam shut down the newspaper for three months.“

Saddam Hussein’s power base was where he came from: Tikrit, the family, the clan, the tribe. To his disadvantage, Saddam didn’t have personal ties with Western politicians. He was cautious and looked at them as being colonialists.

Today, Bashar al-Assad, educated in Syria and in the UK, speaks to the Western media with words that are familiar to a Western ear. Saddam, the man from al Ajwa, educated in Iraq and in Egypt, spoke to Western media as if speaking to an Iraqi from the countryside.

Shakhawan, the doctor, offered an alternative perspective of Saddam’s state of mind. „Saddam grew up with no father, only his mother and his stepfather. In school, he was bullied. This left him psychologically injured. I truly believe that Saddam’s narcissism was hurt.“

In his analysis, Kaplan made the point that the imperial borders of Syria and Iraq did not configure with ethnic or sectarian ones. „The dictatorial regimes of Saddam and Assad required secular identities in order to span communal divides,“ Kaplan wrote.

Like the Assad regime in Syria, Saddam’s rule over Iraq was a secular regime associated with a religious identity. However, the Sunni domination in a country that is majority Shia had started long before Saddam’s time.

The perception that the top positions in the government and the army were reserved for the Sunnis was greatly reinforced under Saddam. In 2003, Patrick Cockburn, Iraq correspondent for The Independent, reported about a meeting he had with Iraqi army deserters near Kirkuk. Although they came from different units, Cockburn wrote, not one of the soldiers had met a Sunni who was a private soldier or a Shia who was an officer.

„Was Saddam Hussein a secularist or a sectarianist in disguise?“, I asked Sameer. 

Sameer’s answer surprised me. „The notion that Iraq under Saddam was a Sunni project is wrong,“ he said. „Do you remember the US most wanted list in 2003, the playing cards? 38 persons out of 55 on that list were Shia! The fact that some Shia clerics were assassinated when Saddam governed doesn’t mean that Saddam’s regime was pro Sunni or anti Shia. His ideology was simply secular.“

„But the disaster in Kuwait made Saddam discover his faith,“ I insisted. 

„Prior to 1990, Saddam Hussein was a secularist,“ Sameer explained. „Quran is not my business, he would say, I evaluate the Iraqis based on Michel Aflaq’s Baath party book. But then came the aftermath of the Kuwait invasion and Saddam felt like having a near death experience. He had quit drinking alcohol before and now he started to pray. He tried to integrate Islamic values into the Baath ideology. He also started to build mosques. Nightclubs were shut down and nightlife in Baghdad came to a halt.“

For Sameer, Saddam’s motivation was obvious. „When you have limited options, you turn to God. This is the Arab nature. Saddam turned to God and hoped that God would come to Iraq’s rescue.“

„If you want to rule an Arab country,“ Shakhawan said, „you can only do it by ‚instrumentalizing‘ Islam. Islam is seen as a source of authority and legitimacy. Even communist politicians in Iraq quoted from the Quran so people granted authority to them. Being secular in the Middle East doesn’t work in the long run.“

„And that’s why Saddam turned more religious after 1991,“ Shakhawan finished his analysis. „After the Kuwait adventure Saddam had lost much of his authority. Now he wanted to regain his power by invoking Islam.“

„How would the situation in Iraq be today if Saddam had ruled beyond 2003, maybe even until today?“, I asked Sameer, starting to conclude our conversation.

„Saddam would not live in 2015,“, he said. „Saddam would have stepped down quite some time ago, physically worn out. Let’s suppose that Iraq had kicked out the Americans in 2003. Maybe he would have introduced reforms. Reforms like freedom of speech, sharing the cake, even trying a pluralistic system.“

„But fighting the Americans surely would have toughened his stance,“ I said.

„Let me quote Arthur Schopenhauer,“ Sameer said: „there is nothing like a near death experience that can humanize you.“

I was not totally convinced. But one thing became clear for me: Saddam must have been an unhappy person in his professional life. There were just too many near death experiences paving his road. There were just too many people who had disappointed him.

„I know that the Americans were in favor of having Qusay, Saddam’s younger son, as Iraq’s new face prior to 2003,“ Sameer kept going. „How things would have worked out I cannot say. Qusay’s older brother Uday was very intelligent, very determined and ruthless. I can’t imagine him to accept that Qusay would be the president.“

Three Iraqis - Saddam, Sameer, Shakhawan - one story: Iraq. Reflecting on their experiences made me realize once again that the truth is a beast with many faces.

Sameer grew up being influenced by his father who was an intellectual and a thinker, a secularist and a patriot. Sameer’s mother kept a photo of Saddam Hussein’s mother at home, as many Iraqis do with persons they are fond of.

Shakhawan grew up in Kurdistan in opposition to Saddam and yet admiring him in a way, while one of his brothers was a high ranking officer in Iraq’s army.

Saddam was a man of his world, he was outstanding, but neither an outsider nor an alien. He acted in the tradition of the unwritten rules of his society.

„The Iraqi mentality loves dictators,“ said Shakhawan when we quit. „There are no compromises in Iraq. It’s either this or that. Pluralism is unknown; cooperation, or even the offer to cooperate, is perceived as weakness.“


Sameer agreed with most of Shakhawan’s points. „Iraq is not ready for pluralism,“ he said before hanging up the phone, disillusioned. „Only a one man or a one party ‚show‘ will be able to unite the country, provided his or their program is secular and Iran stops meddling in Iraq. Unfortunately today, we are very far from this.“

This post was first published in Your Middle East online media: here


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sectarianism in the Middle East, or: the narcissism of small differences

Two weeks ago, my friend Alsajjad from Qatar posted the following on his Facebook account: „I would love to call my son Alhussain. But then he would become Alhussain Alsajjad. And this double name in a majority wahhabi population would earn him a considerable dose of discrimination for his entire life. And I don’t intend to damage the lives of my children.“

Here we go again, I thought, when reading my friend’s status update: sectarianism. So I called Alsajjad in Doha and asked him about the backstory of his post. 

„You know,“ he told me, „my own name, Alsajjad, is already a problem here. It put me into weird situations. People here assume that a person with this name must be a Shia. Of course I’m aware that it is unusual for a Sunni to carry that name.“

„Let’s say that I go to a government office,“ my friend kept on, „to have my driver’s license renewed. When reading my name, the Arab guy behind the counter is about to freak out; his look and his body language tell me that he wants to treat me like crap. Because he thinks that I am a Shia.“

While talking to my friend, I quickly looked up ‚Alsajjad‘ on Wikipedia. „There’s nothing wrong with your name,“ I told him, „Alsajjad was the son of Hussain, he was the fourth Imam of Islam. It’s a nickname, meaning ‚the prostrating Imam‘, the one who has performed the most prayers.“

„I know,“ Alsajjad replied, „it’s a very pious name. But nowadays it is simply filed under ‚Shia‘“.

„Now imagine if I would call my son Alhussain. That would make him a double Shia. Hussain doesn’t scare them, it’s very common here. It’s the ‚Al‘ that is the problem. Sunnis feel that the ‚Al‘ is the confirmation that this person is a Shia, as if Imam Alhussain bin Ali was only for Shia.“

There is a lot of talk about sectarianism in the Middle East these days. First it was the rise of ISIS, a fundamentally Sunni group that kills all the Shia, and some more, in their way. Now it is Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen against the Houthis, a Shia offshoot clan from the north of the country, that is applauded by some and condemned by others. Why didn’t the Saudi act against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but now operate in Yemen; and before that intervened by force in Bahrain to smother a (Shia based) movement that was asking for a better representation at the political level?

For centuries, coexistence of different faiths was the rule rather than the exception in the Middle East. With the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 things started to shift and religion became a political factor. Things definitely changed with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that pulled down all the walls that had held the Middle East together until then.

„People in Qatar knew nothing about Shiism until 2003,“ Alsajjad explained. „And suddenly they became aware of Shia militias roaming Iraq and a Shia government ruling in Baghdad.“

In an article for Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch argued that sectarianism is „political to the core“ and has very little to do with intrinsic religious differences. It’s a typical example of identity politics, Lynch wrote, „one in which sectarian differences happen to be the most easily available to politicians hoping to utilize them for cynical purposes“. It ripped apart the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and now it’s tearing apart the Middle East.

„Yes,“ said Karim Emile Bitar, Director of Research at IRIS, a French think tank, whom I interviewed by phone, „the sectarian conflict is much more geopolitical than religious. Sunnis and Shias are not fighting to settle old theological quarrels, to determine who was the rightful heir to the prophet, they’re not replaying the battle of Karbala.“

„What is it then?“, I asked.

„What we have is two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, engaged in a classical geopolitical rivalry. They are competing for political power, economic resources and regional hegemony. It’s good old machtpolitik, but for the sake of expediency and to mobilize the masses, some powers find it useful to play the sectarian card. A most dangerous game.“

It is a dangerous game indeed that everybody is playing. For Marc Lynch, it is far easier to generate sectarian animosities than to calm them down. Once mobilized, the masses are hard to contain. You can’t turn the hatred on and off as it suits the interests of the ‚identity entrepreneurs‘, as Lynch calls them. 

playing the sectarian card and its consequences

„But who is messing up the minds of the people in the Middle East,“ I wanted to know from Karim Bitar. „Who puts the ‚sectarian poison‘ in their brains?“

„To say it with Sigmund Freud,“ he answered, „it’s initially - and basically - the ‚narcissism of small differences‘. The small differences are cynically exploited by power-hungry local politicians and by regional powers.“

„Take Lebanon as an example,“ the analyst continued. „Notwithstanding their sectarian affiliations, all Lebanese are pretty much the same - they eat the same food, they listen to the same music, they speak the same language and have the same traditions. You had a significant number of mixed marriages and mixed neighborhoods. Even in the middle of the Lebanese civil war, while foreign-backed sectarian militias were slugging it out, many Lebanese of different religions refused to succumb to hatred and remained attached to national unity and coexistence, at times jointly protesting against the war.“ 

„But despite of many people wanting the civil war to end,“ I insisted, „it lasted for 15 years, resulting in an estimated 120’000 fatalities.“

„The problem was that those Lebanese were disempowered and marginalized during the war years, they were the silent majority. And the majority was unable to prevent the rise of the extremes, with local sectarian warlords playing the politics of fear and foreign powers using sectarianism to advance their own agendas.“

„Pluralism could actually be a blessing,“ Karim Bitar concluded, „but in a troubled regional context, where existential angst prevails, stressing the small differences can rapidly give rise to escalations. Then and now.“

Middle Eastern people are more aware of the small differences than during any other time in history, Alsajjad told me. There are thousands of videos on YouTube from both sides, Sunni and Shia, that preach hate speech.

Qatar naturally fears a sectarian threat coming from across the Gulf, from the Shia of Iran. The peninsula has a small Shia minority of about 10%, mostly of Persian descent. So far, they haven’t been vocal about any discrimination in Qatar. Firstly, because the Qatari constitution gives them rights, although Shia are not employed in sensitive areas such as the army or in intelligence services. And secondly because the Shia of Qatar are known to be very rich business families who don’t care too much about politics. 

„The Qataris have a smooth relationship with Iran and they don’t want to disrupt that,“ Alsajjad said. 

He too understands that faith is not the main reason for the many conflicts tormenting the Middle East. „Even a secular regime in Tehran,“ my friend noted, „wouldn’t change anything.“ The cold war in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran is an indisputable fact. 

Karim Bitar agreed. „The Iranian-Saudi rivalry fight for regional hegemony is the main factor. A conservative Saudi Arabia confronts a revolutionary Iran. Shiites being a minority in the Muslim World, it is not in the interest of Iran to use sectarianism overtly as a political strategy, at least not in a global context. They cannot really win playing the sectarian card.“

So rather than rely on sectarianism“, he went on, „Iran’s strategy plays on the nationalist and anti-imperialist chords. But still, Iran is a de facto sectarian power, with sectarian allies. And after the Iraq War, the Saudis attempted to counter the rapid rise of Iranian influence by stoking sectarian fears.“

The tool of sectarianism has evolved from a last resort to a weapon of premier choice in the Middle East. The noble cause of religion has been hijacked, bigotry reigns. „Democracy didn’t work, so I am pro al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State to fight the occupiers and the Shia“, one Yemeni citizen said in a BBC report from Yemen in march of 2015. 

Unfortunately there is not much reason for optimism that the weapon of sectarianism will cease to be used anytime soon. „The painful reality is,“ Marc Lynch wrote, „that sectarianism proved too useful to too many powerful actors, and too compelling a narrative in a violent, turbulent, and uncertain time, to be avoided.“


More to come.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.