Tag Archives: Middle East

Colin Brown: Bush threatens Iran with military action

George Bush has warned Iran that military action is still “on the table” if it fails to respond to tightening diplomatic pressure to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

The EU is planning to announce the freezing of all overseas assets of the main bank in Iran. Sanctions are also to be tightened on gas and oil exports by Iran.

But the US President’s remarks on the last leg of his “farewell tour” of Europe raised fears at Westminster that Mr Bush is determined to take action against Iran before he leaves office in January if the sanctions fail to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Standing alongside the President after more than an hour of talks in Downing Street, Gordon Brown surprised EU council officials by announcing that the EU intends to intensify its sanctions on Iran, including freezing the billions of euros in overseas assets of the Melli Bank of Iran.

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Robert Fisk: So just where does the madness end?

I am not sure what was the worse part of this week. Living in Lebanon? Or reading the outrageous words of George Bush? Several times, I have asked myself this question: have words lost their meaning?

So let’s start with lunch at the Cocteau restaurant in Beirut. Yes, it’s named after Jean Cocteau, and it is one of the chicest places in town. Magnificent flowers on the table, impeccable service, wonderful food. Yes, there was shooting at Sodeco – 20 yards away – the day before; yes, we were already worried about the virtual collapse of the Lebanese government, the humiliation of Sunni Muslims (and the Saudis) in the face of what we must acknowledge as a Hizbollah victory (don’t expect George Bush to understand this) and the danger of more street shooting. But I brought up the tiny matter of the little massacre in northern Lebanon in which 10 or 12 militiamen were captured and then murdered before being handed over to the Lebanese army. Their bodies were – I fear this is correct – mutilated after death.

“They deserved it,” the elegant woman on my left said. I was appalled, overwhelmed, disgusted, deeply saddened. How could she say such a thing? But this is Lebanon and a huge number of people – 62 by my count – have been killed in the past few days and all the monsters buried in the mass graves of the civil war have been dug up.

I chose escalope du veau at the Cocteau – I am sickened by how quickly I decided on it – and tried to explain to my dear Lebanese friends (and they are all dear to me) how much fury I have witnessed in Lebanon.

When Abed drove me up to the north of the country three days ago, bullets were spitting off the walls of Tripoli and one of the customs officials at the Syrian border asked me to stay with him and his friends because they were frightened. I did. They are OK.

But being from the wrong religion is suddenly crucial again. Who your driver is, what is the religion of your landlord, is suddenly a matter of immense importance.

Yesterday morning (and here I will spoil the story by telling the end of it), the schools reopened round my seafront apartment and I saw a woman in a hijab riding a bicycle down the Corniche and I took a call from my travel agent about my next trip to Europe – Beirut airport reopened – and I realised that Lebanon had “returned to normal”.

The roads were open again; the hooded gunmen had disappeared; the government had abandoned its confrontation with Hizbollah – the suspension of the Shia Muslim security chief at the airport (who bought me a bottle of champagne a year ago, I seem to remember – some Hizbollah “agent” he!) and the abandonment of the government’s demand to dismantle Hizbollah’s secret telecommunication system was a final seal of its failure – and I opened my newspaper and what did I read?

That George Bush declared in Jerusalem that “al-Qa’ida, Hizbollah and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognise the emptiness of the terrorists’ vision and the injustice of their cause”.

Where does the madness end? Where do words lose their meaning? Al-Qa’ida is not being defeated. Hizbollah has just won a domestic war in Lebanon, as total as Hamas’s war in Gaza. Afghanistan and Iraq and Lebanon and Gaza are hell disasters – I need no apology to quote Churchill’s description of 1948 Palestine yet again – and this foolish, stupid, vicious man is lying to the world yet again.

He holds a “closed door” meeting with Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara – a man stupendously unfit to run any Middle East “peace”, which is presumably why the meeting had to be “closed door” – but tells the world of the blessings of Israeli democracy. As if the Palestinians benefit from a democracy which is continuing to take from them the land which they have owned for generations.

Do we really have to accept this? Bush tells us that “we consider it a source of shame that the United Nations routinely passes more human rights resolutions against the freest democracy in the Middle East than any other nation in the world”.

The truth is that it is a source of shame that the United States continues to give unfettered permission to Israel to steal Palestinian land – which is why it should be a source of shame (to Washington) that the UN passes human rights resolutions against America’s only real ally in the region.

And what is Washington doing in the country where I live? It has sent one of its top generals to see the Lebanese army commander, signalling – a growing Fisk suspicion, this – that it has abandoned its support for the Lebanese government. The Americans promise more equipment for the Lebanese army.

Yes, always more equipment, more guns, more bullets to the Middle Eastern armies though – I have to say yet again (and I repeat that I do not like armies) – the Lebanese army saved us all this week. Its commander-in-chief, General Michel Sleiman, will become the next president and the Americans will support him and feel safe, as they always do, with a general in charge. “Chehabism”, as the Lebanese would say, has returned.

But I am not so sure. Sleiman gets on well with Damascus. He is not going to lead his soldiers into a pro-American war against Hizbollah. And the Lebanese are not going to join Bush’s insane “jihad” against the “world terror”.

There was a lovely moment in northern Lebanon this week – and here a big cheer for my brave friend Abed – when a Lebanese soldier at a checkpoint spotted me in our car and ran into the road.

“You are Mr Robert!” he shouted. “I have seen you on television! I read your book!” And he gave the thumbs-up sign. And I had to like this man. And I think he will fight for Lebanon. But I do not think he will fight for the Americans.

Robert Fisk’s new book, ‘The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings’, a selection of his Saturday columns in ‘The Independent’, is published by Fourth Estate

* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/news/fisk/robert-fisk-so-just-where-does-the-madness-end-829936.html

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Robert Fisk: ‘You become accustomed to the smell of blood during war’

I was in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron once, in 2001, and the Palestinians had lynched three supposed collaborators. And they were hanging so terribly, almost naked, on the electricity pylons out of town, that I could not write in my notebook. Instead, I drew pictures of their bodies hanging from the pylons. Young boys – Palestinian boys – were stubbing out cigarettes on their near-naked bodies and they reminded me of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, all arrows and pain and forgiveness, and so all I could do was draw. I still have the pictures. They are ridiculous, stupid, the work of a reporter who suddenly couldn’t bring himself to write the details on the page.

But I understand Hoyland’s picture, even if it is not my picture. After I saw the oil fires burning in Kuwait in 1991, an Irish artist painted Fisk’s Fires – a title I could have done without – in which she very accurately portrayed the bleached desert with the rich, thick, chocolate-tasting oil we tasted in the aftermath of the war. Sometimes, I wish these painters were with us when we saw the war with our own eyes – and which they could then see with theirs.

But John Hoyland’s Blood and Flowers quite scrupulously directs our eyesight on to the bright, glittering centre of gore that we – be we photographers or writers – look at immediately we enter the centre of that little Golgotha which we wish to visit and of which we never wish to be a part: the hospital. Blood is not essentially terrible. It is about life. But it smells. Stay in a hospital during a war and you will become accustomed to the chemical smell of blood. It is quite normal. Doctors and nurses are used to it. So am I. But when I smell it in war, it becomes an obscenity.

I remember how Condoleezza Rice, when she was Secretary of State, visited Lebanon at the height of the war – at the apogee of the casualties – and said that the birth of democracy could be bloody. Well, yes indeed. The midwifery was a fearful business. Lots of blood. Huge amid the hospitals. God spare us Ms Rice’s hospital delivery rooms…

I’m not sure how sincerely we should lock on to art to portray history (or war). I have to admit that Tolstoy’s Battle of Borodino in War and Peace tells me as much about human conflict as Anna Karenina tells me about love. I am more moved by the music of Cecil Coles – one of only two well-known British composers killed in the 1914-1918 war – than I am by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But this does not reduce the comprehensive, unstoppable power of great art to convince – just as a brilliantly made movie can do in the cinema.

I have to admit that I have a few worries about art and war. Can a painter who has never experienced war really understand the nature of the vile beast? Most of Britain’s First World War artists were in France, but that does not apply to Iraq. When I saw wild beasts – the desert dogs – tearing apart the corpses of men, women and children in southern Iraq (killed by the United States Air Force and, yes, by the RAF, whose pilots – God bless them – refused to go on killing the innocent) and running off across the sand with fingers and arms and legs, there was no art form to convey this horror. Film would have been a horror movie, paintings an obscenity. Maybe only photographs – undoctored – can tell you what we see.

Goya got it right. I went to see an exhibition of his sketches in Lille a few years ago – the irony of my father’s trenches a few miles away (he was a 19-year-old soldier in the third battle of the Somme) not lost on me – and was almost overwhelmed by the cruelty that he transmits. The collaborators hanging, near-naked, from the pylons seemed so close to the raped and impaled guerrilla fighters of Spain that art seemed almost pointless. What is the point of intellect when the brain will always be crushed by the body?

When the Americans entered Baghdad in April 2003, I ran into the main teaching hospital in Baghdad to find a scene of Crimean war proportions. Men holding amputated hands, soldiers screaming for their mothers as their skin burned, a man without an eye, a ribbon of bandage allowing a trail of blood to run from his empty socket. Blood overflowed my shoes. I guess it’s at times like this that we need John Hoyland.

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Johann Hari: Israel is suppressing a secret it must face

When you hit your 60th birthday, most of you will guzzle down your hormone replacement therapy with a glass of champagne and wonder if you have become everything you dreamed of in your youth. In a few weeks, the state of Israel is going to have that hangover.

She will look in the mirror and think – I have a sore back, rickety knees and a gun at my waist, but I’m still standing. Yet somewhere, she will know she is suppressing an old secret she has to face. I would love to be able to crash the birthday party with words of reassurance. Israel has given us great novelists like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, great film-makers like Joseph Cedar, great scientific research into Alzheimer’s, and great dissident journalists like Amira Hass, Tom Segev and Gideon Levy to expose her own crimes.

She has provided the one lonely spot in the Middle East where gay people are not hounded and hanged, and where women can approach equality.

But I can’t do it. Whenever I try to mouth these words, a remembered smell fills my nostrils. It is the smell of shit. Across the occupied West Bank, raw untreated sewage is pumped every day out of the Jewish settlements, along large metal pipes, straight onto Palestinian land. From there, it can enter the groundwater and the reservoirs, and become a poison.

Standing near one of these long, stinking brown-and-yellow rivers of waste recently, the local chief medical officer, Dr Bassam Said Nadi, explained to me: “Recently there were very heavy rains, and the shit started to flow into the reservoir that provides water for this whole area. I knew that if we didn’t act, people would die. We had to alert everyone not to drink the water for over a week, and distribute bottles. We were lucky it was spotted. Next time…” He shook his head in fear. This is no freak: a 2004 report by Friends of the Earth found that only six per cent of Israeli settlements adequately treat their sewage.

Meanwhile, in order to punish the population of Gaza for voting “the wrong way”, the Israeli army are not allowing past the checkpoints any replacements for the pipes and cement needed to keep the sewage system working. The result? Vast stagnant pools of waste are being held within fragile dykes across the strip, and rotting. Last March, one of them burst, drowning a nine-month-old baby and his elderly grandmother in a tsunami of human waste. The Centre on Housing Rights warns that one heavy rainfall could send 1.5m cubic metres of faeces flowing all over Gaza, causing “a humanitarian and environmental disaster of epic proportions”.

So how did it come to this? How did a Jewish state founded 60 years ago with a promise to be “a light unto the nations” end up flinging its filth at a cowering Palestinian population?

The beginnings of an answer lie in the secret Israel has known, and suppressed, all these years. Even now, can we describe what happened 60 years ago honestly and unhysterically? The Jews who arrived in Palestine throughout the twentieth century did not come because they were cruel people who wanted to snuffle out Arabs to persecute. No: they came because they were running for their lives from a genocidal European anti-Semitism that was soon to slaughter six million of their sisters and their sons.

They convinced themselves that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land”. I desperately wish this dream had been true. You can see traces of what might have been in Tel Aviv, a city that really was built on empty sand dunes. But most of Palestine was not empty. It was already inhabited by people who loved the land, and saw it as theirs. They were completely innocent of the long, hellish crimes against the Jews.

When it became clear these Palestinians would not welcome becoming a minority in somebody else’s country, darker plans were drawn up. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote in 1937: “The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.”

So, for when the moment arrived, he helped draw up Plan Dalit. It was – as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe puts it – “a detailed description of the methods to be used to forcibly evict the people: large-scale intimidation; and laying siege to and bombarding population centres”. In 1948, before the Arab armies invaded, this began to be implemented: some 800,000 people were ethnically cleansed, and Israel was built on the ruins. The people who ask angrily why the Palestinians keep longing for their old land should imagine an English version of this story. How would we react if the 30m stateless, persecuted Kurds in the world sent armies and settlers into this country to seize everything in England below Leeds, and swiftly established a free Kurdistan from which we were expelled? Wouldn’t we long forever for our children to return to Cornwall and Devon and London? Would it take us only 40 years to compromise and offer to settle for just 22 per cent of what we had?

If we are not going to be endlessly banging our heads against history, the Middle East needs to excavate 1948, and seek a solution. Any peace deal – even one where Israel dismantled the wall and agreed to return to the 1967 borders – tends to crumple on this issue. The Israelis say: if we let all three million come back, we will be outnumbered by Palestinians even within the 1967 borders, so Israel would be voted out of existence. But the Palestinians reply: if we don’t have an acknowledgement of the Naqba (catastrophe), and our right under international law to the land our grandfathers fled, how can we move on?

It seemed like an intractable problem – until, two years ago, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted the first study of the Palestinian Diaspora’s desires. They found that only 10 per cent – around 300,000 people – want to return to Israel proper. Israel can accept that many (and compensate the rest) without even enduring much pain. But there has always been a strain of Israeli society that preferred violently setting its own borders, on its own terms, to talk and compromise. This weekend, the elected Hamas government offered a six-month truce that could have led to talks. The Israeli government responded within hours by blowing up a senior Hamas leader and killing a 14-year-old girl.

Perhaps Hamas’ proposals are a con; perhaps all the Arab states are lying too when they offer Israel full recognition in exchange for a roll-back to the 1967 borders; but isn’t it a good idea to find out? Israel, as she gazes at her grey hairs and discreetly ignores the smell of her own stale shit pumped across Palestine, needs to ask what kind of country she wants to be in the next 60 years.

* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-israel-is-suppressing-a-secret-it-must-face-816661.html

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Robert Fisk: Silenced by the men in white socks

Shut them up. Accuse them. Imprison them. Stop them talking. Why is it that this seems to have become a symbol of the Arab – or Muslim – world? Yes I know about our Western reputation for free speech; from the Roman Empire to the Spanish inquisition, from Henry VIII to Robespierre, from Mussolini and Stalin to Hitler, even – on a pitiable scale – to Mr Anthony Blair. But it’s getting hard to avoid the Middle East.

When Egyptian women cry “Enough!”, they are sexually abused by Mubarak’s cops. When Algerians demand to know which policemen killed their relatives, they are arrested for ignoring the regime’s amnesty. When Benazir Bhutto is murdered in Rawalpindi, a cloak of silence falls over the world’s imams. Pontificating about the assassination in Pakistan, Shaikh es-Sayed, who runs one of Canada’s biggest mosques, expressed his condolences to “families of beloved brothers and sisters who died in the incident [sic]”. Asked why he didn’t mention Bhutto’s name, he replied: “Why? This is not a political arena. This is about religion. That’s politics.” Well, it certainly is in Syria. George Bush – along with M. Sarkozy – has been berating Damascus for its lack of democracy and its human rights abuses and its supposed desire to gobble up Lebanon and “Palestine” and even Cyprus. But I always feel that Syria had a raw deal these past 90 years.

First came the one-armed General Henri Gouraud, who tore Lebanon off from Syria in 1920 and gave it to the pro-French Christians. Then Paris handed the Syrian coastal city of Alexandretta to the Turks in 1939 – sending survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide into exile for a second time – in the hope that Turkey would join the Allies against Hitler. (The Turks obliged – in 1945!) Then in the Six Day War, Syria lost the Golan Heights – subsequently annexed by Israel. Far from being expansionist, Syria seems to get robbed of land every two decades.

On the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000 – it’s extraordinary how, like Sharon now that he is comatose, we come to like these old rogues once they’ve departed – we were told there was to be a “Damascus Spring”. I always thought this a bit dodgy. I’d experienced the Lebanon Spring and read about the Ukraine Spring and I’m old enough to remember the Prague Spring, which ended in tears and tanks. And sure enough, the Damascus Spring presaged no golden summer for Syria.

Instead, we’ve gone back to the midnight knock and the clanging of the cell door. Why – oh why – must this be so? Why did the Syrian secret police have to arrest Dr Ahmed Thoma, Dr Yasser el-Aiti, Jabr al-Shufi, Fayez Sara, Ali al-Abdulla and Rashed Sattouf in December, only days after they – along with 163 other brave Syrians – had attended a meeting of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change? The delegates had elected Dr Fida al-Hurani head of their organisation. She, too, was arrested, and her husband, Dr Gazi Alayan, a Palestinian who had lived in Syria for 18 years, deported to Jordan.

The net spread wider, as they say in police reports. The renowned Syrian artist Talal Abu Dana was arrested up in Aleppo, his studio trashed and his paintings destroyed. Then on 18 February, Kamel al-Moyel from the lovely hill town of Zabadani, on the steam train route from Damascus, was picked up by the boys in white socks. A point of explanation here. Almost all Middle East Moukhabarat men – perhaps because a clothing emporium has won a concession for the region’s secret policemen – wear white socks. The only ones who don’t are the Israeli variety, who wear old baseball hats.

Needless to say, the Syrian prisoners were not ignored by their regime. A certain Dr Shuabi, who runs a certain Data and Strategic Studies Centre in Damascus, appeared on al-Jazeera to denounce the detainees for “dealing with foreign powers”. Dr al-Hurani suffered from angina and was briefly sent to hospital before being returned to the Duma jail. But when the prisoners were at last brought to the Palace of Justice, Ali al-Abdulla appeared to have bruises on his body. Judge Mohamed al-Saa’our – the third investigative judge in Damascus, appointed by the ministry of interior – presided over the case at which the detainees were accused of “spreading false information”, forming a secret organisation to overthrow the regime, and for inciting “sectarian and racist tendencies”. The hearing, as they say, continues.

But why? Well, back on 4 December, George Bush met at the White House – the rendezvous was initially kept secret – the former Syrian MP Mamoun al-Homsi (who currently lives, dangerously perhaps, in Beirut) with Amar Abdulhamid, a member of a think thank run by a former Israeli lobbyist, and Djengizkhan Hasso, a Kurdish opposition activist. Nine days later, an official “source” leaked the meeting to the press. Which is about the time the Syrian Moukhabarat decided to pounce. So whose idea was the meeting? Was it, perhaps, supposed – once it became public – to provoke the Syrian cops into action?

The Damascus newspaper Tichrine – the Syrian equivalent of Private Eye’s Rev Blair newsletter – demanded to know why Washington was showing such concern for human rights in Syria. Was not the American-supported blockade of one and a half million Gaza Palestinians a violation of the rights of man? Had not the Arabs seen all too clearly Washington’s concern for the rights of man in Abu Ghraib and Guanatanamo? All true. But why on earth feed America’s propaganda machine (Syria as the centre of Hamas/ Hiz-bollah/Islamic Jihad terror, etc) with weekly arrests of middle-aged academics and even, it transpires, the vice-dean of the Islamic studies faculty at Damascus University?

Of course, you won’t find Israel or the United States engaged in this kind of thing. Absolutely not. Why, just two months ago, the Canadian foreign minister, Maxime Bernier, discovered that a confidential document sent to Canadian diplomats included a list of countries in which prisoners risked being tortured – and the names of America and Israel were on the list! Merde! Fortunately for us all, M. Bernier knew how to deal with such pernicious lies. The document, he announced, “wrongly includes some of our closest allies. It doesn’t represent the opinion or the policy of the (Canadian) government”. Even though, of course, the list is correct.

But M. Bernier managed to avoid and close down the truth, just as Mr Mubarak does in Cairo and President Bouteflika does in Algiers and just as the good Shaikh es-Sayed did in Toronto. Syria, according to Haitham al-Maleh, a former Syrian judge, claims there are now almost 3,000 political prisoners in Syria. But how many, I wonder, are there in Algeria? Or in Egypt? Or in the hands – secret or otherwise – of the United States? Shut them up. Lock them up. Silence.

* La Jornada
* http://www.independent.co.uk/news/fisk/robert-fisk-silenced-by-the-men-in-white-socks-796359.html

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Robert Fisk: Seduced by the power of historic books

There is nothing to match the smell of old books. “Musty” is the cliché that comes to mind but there is something more attractive, more refined about the perfume of ancient volumes. It’s the same kind of smell you find in Anglo-Saxon churches, the smell of wood pulp, of trees.

That we should still use the great forests of the world to disseminate our wisdom in the age of the internet is somehow appropriate, our love of books linking us to the prehistorical age of dinosaurs and pterodactyls, when the planet really was green.

I don’t care if the books are “foxed” – if pages are brown-stained by the damp of ages – and that’s just as well because Beirut is a dirty city, and in my seafront apartment, a mixture of exhaust fumes, industrial grime and the damp of the Mediterranean “foxes” even my newest books within a year. I once thought of moving them to Europe, then realised that their deterioration was part of their story, that they would always wear their history of Lebanon on their covers.

That’s one reason why I love the old second-hand bookshop that Habib Aboujaudeh runs on Bliss Street. It’s seen hard times – just like 75-year-old Habib. During the civil war, thieves stole thousands of pounds’ worth of books from his store in west Beirut. “I lived in Ashrafieh in the east and my books were being sold on the streets of Hamra,” he tells me. “I don’t know why they took them. They can’t have made much money.” In Khayat’s Bookshop – Habib inherited the name of previous owners – the smell of wood mixes with the odour of old stones. The store was once stables for the horses of the American University of Beirut, which still stands across the road, an academy founded by a 19th-century Quaker called Bliss.

Unlike Lebanon, Habib’s shop is a cocktail of religions and literary style. There are Bibles and treatises on Islamic jurisprudence, tawdry romances from the 1950s, science lectures and the works of Ayatollah Khomeini and children’s books and postcards of pre-war Beirut in which large American cars motor past 1930s hotels. Here you can find Alistair MacLean’s Guns of Navarone in French, and Albert Vulliez’s account of Churchill’s destruction of the Vichy French fleet in Mers el-Kébir on 3 July 1940. “A hateful decision,” Churchill called it in his own history of the Second World War (also in Habib’s shop), “the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned.”

Several shelves contain paperback volumes of mathematics conference lectures. It would probably need a mathematician to understand them, but the visitor may browse through Homotopy Invariant Algebraic Structures on Topological Spaces by Boardman and Voigt (1973) or the minutes of the Romanian-Finnish Seminar on Complex Analysis (Bucharest, 1976) or even Commutative Harmonic Analysis (Marseilles, 1974), which just might be the ancestor of a more modern paper on Geometric Properties of Musical Rhythms. Alas, my favourite title of a mathematics paper – Deflating the Pentagon, which must have caused missing heartbeats in the US Department of Homeland Security – is nowhere to be found in Habib’s shop.

But he does walk over to me with a massive volume, printed in 1890 and entitled Architectural Studies in Italy, number 49 out of only 150 copies, authored by William J Anderson, president of the Glasgow Architectural Association. “The Photo-Mechanical-Process and the printing are by Messrs McLure and Macdonald & Co Glasgow,” the reader is solemnly informed, and by God, they knew how to print. Not in the glossiest of architectural volumes have I seen such fine and detailed drawings. “How much do you think it’s worth?” Habib asks me quietly. I express my total ignorance. “Sometimes I sell a book and I regret selling it,” he says mysteriously. “The person who loves a book – I sometimes sell it to him at half price. If I don’t like him, I don’t sell it to him for any price.”

Habib sells me Ordeal in Algeria for £28. But written by Richard Brace, an American professor, and his writer wife Jane, two years before France’s frightful colonial war came to an end in 1962, it’s a snip for the wisdom it dispenses. It’s amazing how much the Bruces got right. They emphasised the shamefulness of torture – utilised by the French with the same scientific enthusiasm as the Americans have shown in “waterboarding” their own Muslim victims.

And here is the author’s prescient conclusion, in which readers may care to substitute America for France and think of another, even bloodier conflict: “Freedom from fear is the only environment in which people, particularly one lacking in breadth of political maturity, can express an honest voice. And how can this be obtained if one enemy … refuses to negotiate with the other? How, on the other hand, can the rebels lay down their arms? One solution seems as impossible to the philosophy of the partisans as the other. And France will not recognise the international voice, the world sentiment rising against her …”

Habib hopes, I think, that I will part with many more pounds for a far older and more precious tome which he hands to me. A View of the Levant: Particularly of Constantinople, Syria, Egypt & Greece by Charles Perry (dedicated to “the Right Honourable Earl of Sandwich, etc, etc”), was printed in 1743 for “T Woodward between the Temple Gates in Fleet Street and C Davis, near Middle Row in Holborn”.

I prowl through its parchment pages for the city in which I live today. And of course, I find it. “Bayrut (which in the Time of the Romans was not wanting, but rather abundant in magnificent Buildings, as appears from the great Quantity of Granite Pillars, which lie dispersed up and down) is delightfully situated by the Sea-side, at the South Point of a spacious Bay; and ’tis encompass’d to the Landward with delightful Gardens which extend Three or Four Miles from the Bank of it; which are intersperss’d with most delightful Avenues… and pleasant Rivulets of Water in different Directions.”

I am still considering a bid on this memory of a safer, greener Middle East. There is today only one garden left in Beirut and the “most delightful Avenues” are now canyons of traffic. True, the Roman ruins can still be seen downtown and my own flat is indeed “delightfully situated by the Sea-side”. But I bet that books never “foxed” in those days.

* The Independent
* http://www.independent.co.uk/news/fisk/robert-fisk-seduced-by-the-power-of-historic-books-780232.html

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Robert Fisk: A lesson in how to create Iraqi orphans. And then how to make life worse for them

It’s not difficult to create orphans in Iraq. If you’re an insurgent, you can blow yourself up in a crowded market. If you’re an American air force pilot, you can bomb the wrong house in the wrong village. Or if you’re a Western mercenary, you can fire 40 bullets into the widowed mother of 14-year-old Alice Awanis and her sisters Karoon and Nora, the first just 20, the second a year older. But when the three girls landed at Amman airport from Baghdad last week they believed that they were free of the horrors of Baghdad and might travel to Northern Ireland to escape the terrible memory of their mother’s violent death.

Alas, the milk of human kindness does not necessarily extend to orphans from Iraq – the country we invaded for supposedly humanitarian reasons, not to mention weapons of mass destruction. For as their British uncle waited for them at Queen Alia airport, Jordanian security men – refusing him even a five-minute conversation with the girls – hustled the sisters back on to the plane for Iraq.

“How could they do this?” their uncle, Paul Manouk, asks. “Their mum has been killed. Their father had already died. I was waiting for them. The British embassy in Jordan said they might issue visas for the three – but that they had to reach Amman first.” Mr Manouk lives in Northern Ireland and is a British citizen. Explaining this to the Jordanian muhabarrat at the airport was useless.

Western mercenaries killed their 48-year-old Iraqi Armenian mother, Marou Awanis, and her best friend – firing 40 bullets into her body as she drove her taxi near their four-vehicle convoy in Baghdad – but tragedy has haunted the family for almost a century; the three sisters’ great-grandmother was forced to leave her two daughters to die on their own by the roadside during the 1915 Armenian genocide. Mrs Awanis’ friend, Jeneva Jalal, was killed instantly alongside her in the passenger seat.

The Australian “security” company whose employees killed Mrs Awanis and her friend – “executed” might be a better word for it, because that is the price of driving too close to armed Westerners in Baghdad these days – expressed its “regrets”. The chief operating officer of Unity Resources Group claims that she drove her car at speed towards the company’s employees and that they feared she was a suicide bomber.

“Only then did the team use their weapons in a final attempt to stop the vehicle,” Michael Priddin said. “We deeply regret the loss of these lives.” He refused to identify the killers or their nationality. Westerners in Baghdad – especially those who kill the innocent – are once they are known, rich in regrets. But they are less keen to ensure that the bereaved they leave behind are cared for.

Karoon was sick and had papers allowing her to enter Jordan; the family assumed that her siblings would be permitted to enter the country with her. Mr Manouk, an electrical engineer in Co Down, said that he went to the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees in Amman and that they told him that the sisters had to come in.

“I also sought visas for them at the British embassy but the visa section said that the three had to be in Amman before they could do anything to help them. Karoon was told by the Jordanians she could come into Amman but that her other sisters could not. She would not leave her sisters. So all three went back to Baghdad the same day.

“I just could not believe this. At the airport I pleaded with the Jordanian security people to let me spend five minutes with my nieces – just five minutes only – but they refused.”

Mrs Awanis had two sisters in Iraq, Helen and Anna, who are looking after the girls until Mr Manouk – or anyone else – finds a way of rescuing them.

“I have a Jordanian friend who had at first arranged to enrol the two eldest girls in the university in Jordan, but it was of no use,” Mr Manouk says. “I had an awful evening at the airport. In my distress, I am writing to King Abdullah for his help. We are trying to get a settlement for my nieces with the Australian company whose people shot their mother. But they are not liable under Iraqi law. I want a proper settlement by law – through lawyers – not just a cash handout, which is the way Americans do things in Iraq.”

Like so many Armenian families, the Manouks are overshadowed by a history of mass murder. During the Armenian genocide of 1915, perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks, Paul Manouk’s grandfather – the three Iraqi orphans’ great-grandfather – was taken from his family by Turkish policemen in a line of other men and never seen again. His father, then just six years old, survived along with his mother. “But my father’s sister, we believe, was taken by a Kurdish man as his wife,” Mr Manouk said.

“My grandfather’s two other sisters had a terrible fate. Their legs had swollen on the long march south from their home in Besni, near Marash, and they could not keep walking, so my grandmother took the decision to leave them on the roadside and keep the son so that our ‘line’ would survive. The two little girls were never seen again.”

The family had almost reached the border of the Ottoman province of Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – on the long march of ethnic cleansing when, like tens of thousands other Armenians, they lost their loved ones through exhaustion and starvation. A million-and-a-half Armenians died in the genocide.

After the British occupation of Iraq in 1917, British troops escorted the remains of the Manouk family to Basra where one of the aunts looking after the three Awanis sisters still lives.

Their father, Azad Awanis, died after a heart operation in 2004. Mrs Awanis was driving her Oldsmobile taxi through the dangerous streets of Baghdad to earn money for her family after her husband’s death, little realising that her new job – and a bunch of trigger-happy mercenaries – would orphan her children.

Paul Manouk met his British wife in Edinburgh in 1974, when he was studying for a PhD in medicine. A normally imperturbable man, he describes himself as still being in a state of shock at the killing of his younger sister.

“I wonder what her face was like when she died. She wasn’t in a bad area. Marou was coming back from church when she was shot, along with her friend. Another woman, in the back of the car, was wounded.” A 15-year-old boy survived. According to Mr Manouk, his sister was “riddled with bullets from the chest upwards”.

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