In the Middle East, You Will Hear the Worst Story Ever Told

By Soueif, Ahdaf | New Statesman (1996), November 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

In the Middle East, You Will Hear the Worst Story Ever Told


Soueif, Ahdaf, New Statesman (1996)


For the award-winning Egyptian novelist AHDAF SOUEIF, the looming war in Iraq provides a tragic narrative of ancient enemies and bloody revenge, in which the most likely victims are her fellow Arabs.

The two musicians seated on the rug on the low platform could have come from an illumination in a mughal manuscript. A tall window opened on to a mild October night and the passer-by-outside would have heard, flowing out into the quiet Kensington street, the melody from the sitar, carrying with it the longings of all our hearts: English gents in black tie, and kids in jeans, a couple of dog-collars, white women in saris and Indian women in tailored suits. The book we were launching, William Dalrymple's White Mughals, tells a remarkable love story; a story of India before the Raj, an India where the newly arrived British mixed with the Indians. What today would be called "cultural exchange" took place until commercial interests got too big and politics took over; with them came segregation, rigidity and talk of "superior" cultures. In Leighton House, where the launch was held, Turkish and Persian tiles line the walls and paintings from the time of Burne-Jones hang companionably above them.

Later, we watched President George W Bush on television and my mother, from across the kitchen table, said, "All those cities that one associates with poetry, with art, now..." I let her sentence tail off. She's 75 and we're close to midnight. But the names loop through my head: Baghdad and Basra and Kufa, Kabul and Kandahar, Mazar-i Sharif and Jalalabad, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem.

In the morning, a Jordanian friend tells me a joke over the phone: "King Abdullah says to George Bush, 'You know, I watch Star Trekevery day and there are white people and black people, Spanish, Chinese, every sort of people. But no Arabs. Why are there no Arabs?' And Bush says, 'Because it's set in the future, stupid'." We have all feared--deep in our hearts--that it might come to this. It affects, infects, your every moment. My children are half Scots. Should I encourage them to forget their other half? My half? Forget Arabic, forget their family in Cairo and Alexandria? Forget Egypt and the Nile and Fairuz and 'am Ahmad in the grocery on the corner of our street? Should I plug them into MTV and save them?

In the streets of London, hundreds of thousands march against the war; peace demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco draw tens of thousands. Analysts and commentators analyse and comment.

What is a novelist to do?

Martin Amis, writing last June, questioned the relevance of fiction in the post 9/11 days: "After a couple of hours at their desks, on 12 September 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation." More than 20 years ago, Philip Roth observed that "the actuality is continually outdoing our talents".

I open my e-mail to an appeal from the children of al-Khalil (Hebron) to be allowed back to school, a letter from a friend trying to help with the olive harvest near Ariel settlement on the West Bank, describing "armed settler militias that are seemingly out of control", an appeal from Radio Tariq al-Mahabba ("Road of Love") in Nablus to help keep it on the air because it is people's only method of communication after 100 days of curfew, an interview with Archmandrite Dr Theodosios Attallah Hanna...

It is impossible to close your eyes to the black spectacle mushrooming before us and concentrate on making things up. But novelists work with patterns, with the logic of an unfolding narrative, with the motivation of characters, with the telling detail. It's all there: the dramatic curve, the characters, the context. It's being written, but we can't afford to wait. So, for what it's worth, here's one novelist s interpretation of the narrative unfolding before us now and where it's likely to end. …

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