Slouching Toward Annapolis

This morning, up the road a ways in Annapolis, MD, the Bush administration is hosting belated Mideast Peace Talks between Israel and Palestine. Maybe this is just a last race to save face for the Bush administration after all it has done to create havoc in the Middle East.  But still we all hope for the best.

Two op-eds in this morning’s Washington Post bring home what is at stake and how hard it is going to be—maybe not in the cushy confines of Annapolis but certainly back home in Palestine and Israel.  Richard Cohen describes the impasse between two mothers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, whose two daughters were killed when one of them set off a suicide bomb.

Beyond the Reach of Annapolis

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, November 27, 2007; Page A17

On March 29, 2002, an 18-year-old woman walked into a Jerusalem supermarket and blew herself up. One of her victims was a woman just a year younger than herself. The two women looked so much alike, Palestinian and Israeli, and their mortal wounds were so similar, that the pathologist had trouble reassembling the two girls. They had so much in common.

So it was perhaps understandable that the mother of Rachel Levy would try to contact the mother of Ayat al-Akhras because they, too, had so much in common. read more

Also on the Post’s op-ed page
, Maher Najjar, the deputy director of Gaza’s water utility, pleads with the west to help persuade the Israeli military to stop its collective punishment of Palestinians by cutting off electricity, fuel, and clean water whenever militants set of a Qassam rocket.  As the Israelis try to punish the Palestinians into policing themselves, the Palestinian reaction, as anyone would suspect, becomes more defiant.

The majority of the 1.5 million men, women and children living in Gaza do not fire Qassam rockets. Most of us want normal lives, starting with the ability to provide for ourselves. We want to live in peace with our neighbors. We hope that Israel will realize, before it is too late, that in Gaza, playing with water is playing with fire.

It’s going to take more than a couple of days eating crab cakes together in Annapolis for Israelis and Palestinians to get through these impasses and begin to forge some kind of peace.  Still, fingers crossed.

D’Souza: Dangerous or Wrong?

In his opinion piece in todays’ Washington Post, conservative author Dinesh D’Souza responds to critics of his new book, The Enemy at Home.

Why the onslaught? Just this: In my book, published this month, I argue that the American left bears a measure of responsibility for the volcano of anger from the Muslim world that produced the 9/11 attacks. President Jimmy Carter’s withdrawal of support for the shah of Iran, for example, helped Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime come to power in Iran, thus giving radical Islamists control of a major state; and President Bill Clinton’s failure to respond to Islamic attacks confirmed bin Laden’s perceptions of U.S. weakness and emboldened him to strike on 9/11. I also argue that the policies that U.S. “progressives” promote around the world — including abortion rights, contraception for teenagers and gay rights — are viewed as an assault on traditional values by many cultures, and have contributed to the blowback of Islamic rage.

No stranger to criticism, D’Souza says critics are calling him and the book dangersous because his book “exposes something in the culture that some people are eager to keep hidden.”

And what is that? It is that the far left seems to hate Bush nearly as much as it hates bin Laden. Bin Laden may want sharia, or Islamic law, in Baghdad, they reason, but Bush wants sharia in Boston. Indeed, leftists routinely portray Bush’s war on terrorism as a battle of competing fundamentalisms, Islamic vs. Christian. It is Bush, more than bin Laden, they say, who threatens abortion rights and same-sex marriage and the entire social liberal agenda in the United States. So leftist activists such as Michael Moore and Howard Zinn and Cindy Sheehan seem willing to let the enemy win in Iraq so they can use that defeat in 2008 to rout Bush — their enemy at home.

When I began writing my new book, this concern was largely theoretical, because the left was outside the corridors of power. Now I fear that the extreme cultural left is whispering into the ears of the Democratic Congress. Cut off the funding. Block the increase in troops. Shut down Guantanamo Bay. Lose the war on terrorism — and blame Bush.

D’Souza denounces the supposedly far left for casting 9/11 and the ensuing war in Iraq as a clash of fundamentalisms. But it is hard to see what D’Souza is offering other than more fundamentalism. The problem, he suggests, is that the Muslim world — both mainstream and radical — is appalled at the West’s wanton ways, ways that have been supposedly encouraged, fostered, and exported by “the radical left.” I’ll let slide the massive dubiousness of this claim — it was Wall Street and the Pentagon that were struck, after all, not SoHo or Hollywood Boulevard. D’Souza wants us to believe that if our values were conservative and not profligate that we wouldn’t be seen as a threat to the conservative-and-not-profligate world of Islam.

I applaud Dinesh D’Souza for looking anew at “why they hate us.” We as a society dropped that question and went to war without any real scrutiny. But it’s wrong, I think, to think that “they” hate us because we are moderns and they are traditionalists. Or that the contemporary Islamic world is as traditional as he thinks it is. Much of the Muslim world is quite modern indeed. Even in some of the most rigid countries, including Iran, the people themselves are rather casual about religion. If the French scholar of Islam, Olivier Roy, is right, Islamic extremists are often well educated young people unmoored or alienated or expatriated from their own traditions, cultures, families, and nations who are romantically longing for an impossible universal brotherhood. Whatever cultural threat we pose to these people on the margins of their own society is something of history’s making, of unresolved trauma, not of the makings of Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, or Cindy Sheehan. Please.

Time Collapse in Iraq?

In his book Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism published in 1997 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Vamik Volkan describes the phenomenon of time collapse. It happened during the Serbian-Bosnian conflict when Christian Serbs mistook Bosnians for Turks — or really experienced Bosnians as Turks — and gruesomely sought revenge for wrongs committed centuries earlier. I think that during the Baathist rule over Iraq as well as just before Saddam Hussein’s execution the same thing occurred — when he warned his compatriots against the incursion of “Persians,” people who in fact were not Persian but Arab Shi’ites.

This phenomenon of time collapse is fascinating. Vokan describes it thus:

“Under normal conditions, with the passage of time, individuals mourn losses — of people, land, prestige — associated with past traumatic events and work through feelings of fear, helplessness, and humiliation. Mourning and working through the effects of an injury signify the gradual acceptance that a change has occurred. The ‘lost’ elements — a parent, a country — no longer exist in the present reality; they can no longer satisfy one’s wishes.”

Volkan notes that in situations in which people who were once enemies finally meet there is a time collapse, the stinging sensation in which something that occurred generations or even centuries earlier is immediately felt. Describing meetings arranged in the 1980s between Arabs and Israelis, Volkan writes: “The traumatic events…sounded as though they had occurred only the day before. The feelings about them were so fresh it was clear that genuine mourning for the losses associated with these events had not taken place. Furthermore, representatives of opposing groups acted as if they themselves had witnessed such events, even though some had taken place before they were born.”

“This is an example of time collapse,” Volkan writes, “in which the interpretations, fantasies and feelings about a past shared trauma commingle with those pertaining to a current situation. Under the influence of a time collapse, people may intellectually separate the past from the present one, but emotionally the two events are merged” (these quotes from pp. 34-35).

I recognize this phenomenon immediately. My mother is Greek, and I grew up hearing about centuries of subjugation by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire. My mother’s land, Crete, freed itself in the 19th century, but the wounds were still fresh a century later when I was a college student. In my early 20s I hadn’t yet read Foucault or Nietzsche or any postmodern theory that would give me pause about the discipline of “history,” but I was already acutely aware that there was always more than one story about what had occurred in the past, even about what occured five minutes ago. So I decided to take a course on the Ottoman Empire. The class met around a small conference table. Across from me during that first session was a very demure, beautiful young woman with thick wavy brown hair. We all introduced ourselves. And she introduced herself as Turkish. This was the first Turk I had ever met in my life. And immediately, without any conscious bidding or will, I was filled with dread and horror that here just two feet from me sat my enemy. The feeling was cognitively shocking. What was I thinking? But the feeling overwhelmed me. I was, now I know, experiencing a time collapse. I had been walking around all these years carrying the trauma of my ancestors, a trauma never worked through, a trauma that afflicted me even though I had never experienced it first hand.

This makes me wonder about what our country has unleashed in Iraq. The Sunni / Baathist antipathy to Shi’ism, to the the majority of Iraq is now grimly exploding. The ancient Arab strand of Shi’ism is being conflated with the Iranian “threat.” The holy lands of Iraq, so dear to all Muslims, are now contested territory for Islam itself. Iran has an interest in it. Arab Shi’ite culture, including the majority of the Iraqi people, have an interest in it. Sunnis have an interest in it. And here it all goes, imploding, time collapsing upon itself.

Reflect on this BBC report of Saddam Hussein’s last moments:

Dressed in a white shirt and dark suit and overcoat, he was handcuffed with his hands in front of him and carried a copy of the Koran in his hands, which he asked to be given to a friend.

A judge then read out the death sentence.

Judge Haddad described what happened next:

“One of the guards present asked Saddam Hussein whether he was afraid of dying.

Saddam’s reply was that ‘I spent my whole life fighting the infidels and the intruders’, and another guard asked him: ‘Why did you destroy Iraq and destroy us? You starved us and you allowed the Americans to occupy us.’

His reply was, ‘I destroyed the invaders and the Persians and I destroyed the enemies of Iraq… and I turned Iraq from poverty into wealth.’

Who were these “Persians” he “destroyed”? The Iranians? The Kurds? The majority Shi’ite population? I don’t know the answer, but I find the question thoroughly fascinating, appalling, and sad. This world of ours has much mourning to undergo.

This work of mourning will not be accomplished through war. War is just an “acting out” of trauma, not a way to work through it. War — especially war that is decidedly not in self-defense — is a repetition compulsion. And often what is perceived as “self-defense” is an instantiation of time collapse. I cannot begin to fathom the overdetermined status of the war in Iraq, how many traumas are overlaid on other traumas. But I can perceive this much: in the 15th century the West began to colonize the Americas just as the Ottomans conquered eastern Europe. My dear (in time-collapse-time) city of Constantinopoli was conquered by Turks who renamed it Istanbul (the short-hand Turkish way for saying “to the City” i-stin-mpoli — Constantinople was “the city” — tin poli — of that day as New York City is “the city” of our day). The Battle of Kosovo gets replayed hundreds of years later after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. These schisms and traumas and wounds over centuries, between brothers (in Islam), between cousins (in Serbia), between peoples (Europe, Americas, Arab, Persian, East, West), even “peoples of the Book” are endlessly reenacted so long as we do not meet with each other, so long as we do not sit two feet across a table from each other and try to fathom together what our peoples have undergone.