We are All Homo Sacer Now?, part 2

I hesitate to even link to Jonathan Mark’s stunning “Just Torpedo the Next Flotilla”; the author of “The Flotilla & How Hamas Is Worse Than Hitler” is the sort of person who seems desperate to show that his thoughts can serve no productive function, so if you choose to click on those links, be sure to take a few minutes to cleanse yourself afterwords, spiritually and emotionally, in whatever way seems right to you. But it’s good to understand how easy it is for someone like him in somewhere like here to write that the appropriate response to civil disobedience is the unlimited use of deadly force.

Such as it is, his argument is that since the world has not given the Israeli IDF credit for their gentlemanly restraint (in only killing nine and wounding thirty unarmed civilians) it therefore follows that next time they should just blow the boat out of the water. Almost every word he writes is mendacious, of course — small blessings that people like him still have to lie — and you should read accounts from the people who were on the Flotilla to see how fantastical his framing of the account really is (especially since it’s the account which the American media has overwhelmingly used as its template). But an order of magnitude more horrifying is his underlying sense that the political failure of non-violence indicates the obvious appropriateness of massive and unchecked violence. After all, if not killing people doesn’t win you friends and impress people, what possible purpose could it serve not to kill people? If it doesn’t help you to not kill people — goes his tiny vicious thinking — then it hurts you to not kill them, so you shouldn’t bother. And the default is killing.

This is the endpoint of fighting a war against a concept, I think, and a war in which you are either with us or against us. Because when you normalize killing in service of that crusade, it should come as no surprise that life  will cease to register as anything outside that calculus, a calculus in which death is a positive value. And the Turkish Prime Minister, at least, gets how perverse this is; I don’t know enough about him and his party, but he understands the power of an appeal to the sanctity of human life:

“I am speaking to them in their own language. The sixth commandment says ‘thou shalt not kill’. Did you not understand?” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said in his harshest words yet since Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara on Monday. “I’ll say again. I say in English ‘you shall not kill’. Did you still not understand? So I’ll say to you in your own language. I say in Hebrew ‘Lo Tirtzakh’,” he said in a televised speech to supporters of his Islamist-leaning AK Party.

It’s telling, then, that you hear precisely the inverse of this from someone like Mark, whose underlying ethos isn’t so much “Thou Shalt Kill” as complete obliviousness to the idea that killing might be, in and of itself, a thing to desperately avoid. It is hard to think of anything less Jewish than that, as it’s good to read Amos Oz to remember:

FOR 2,000 years, the Jews knew the force of force only in the form of lashes to our own backs. For several decades now, we have been able to wield force ourselves — and this power has, again and again, intoxicated us.

In the period before Israel was founded, a large portion of the Jewish population in Palestine, especially members of the extremely nationalist Irgun group, thought that military force could be used to achieve any goal, to drive the British out of the country, and to repel the Arabs who opposed the creation of our state.

Luckily, during Israel’s early years, prime ministers like David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol knew very well that force has its limits and were careful to use it only as a last resort. But ever since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has been fixated on military force. To a man with a big hammer, says the proverb, every problem looks like a nail. Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip and Monday’s violent interception of civilian vessels carrying humanitarian aid there are the rank products of this mantra that what can’t be done by force can be done with even greater force…

But there aren’t enough Amos Oz’s in Israel (watch this if you want to see how vicious it’s gotten; crowds in support of the IDF are actually chanting “Death to the Arabs” and “Death to the Leftists”). If only there were enough here.

Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, click to look inside

Farzaneh Milani:

The figure of the trapped Muslim woman, which stands at the center of the ongoing national debate on Islam, contrasts sharply with her representation in medieval European literature, where mainly male writers depicted her as a queen or a princess, often larger than life. Tellingly, Don Quixote de La Mancha, first published in 1605 and considered by many to be the first modern novel, is also the stage for the arrival of a veiled Muslim woman in Western literature. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “harem,” which came to be understood as a domestic penitentiary, an extension of the veil and its architectural double, entered the English language in 1634. Earlier, “seraglio,” a derivative of the Persian word saray, meaning palace, was used for Muslim women’s quarters. Demoted from a palace to a prison, the forbidden space warded off as it seduced. It appalled as it lured. Simultaneously, it represented sexual abandon and incarceration.

The emergence of the Muslim woman as prisoner in Western literature coincided with a time when work spaces and living spaces were becoming more differentiated in Europe, and the ideology of a “public sphere” for men and a “private sphere” for women was gaining ascendancy. Even as more Western women found themselves thus constrained, the sex-segregated space of the harem symbolized an absolute loss of freedom of movement that appeared worse in comparison. Embellished with a certain charm and allure, the Muslim woman was invoked in order to demonstrate denial of civic freedom. She was an expression of the conflicts and ambivalences engendered by the processes of modernization, a projection perhaps of suppressed European self-doubt and self-criticism.

The recent spate of memoirs and autobiographies involving Muslim captors and their native or non-Muslim victims, a mutant category I call “hostage narratives,” puts a new and fascinating twist on the familiar theme of women’s captivity in the Islamic world. It is no longer mainly Western men who recount the tales of confinement, but women who recount them firsthand. This is no longer an image foisted upon women; rather, it is self-perception. It is authentic. It is women’s own longing to escape, their own urgent plea to be liberated. The hostage narrative relies on the authority of personal experience, shares an insider’s perspective and commands more trust and legitimacy. Written in English, addressing Americans directly and concerned with national and international security for good measure, this category of literature fetishizes the veil.

With that in mind, I’ve become fixated on this bit of the Boston Globe’s review of Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, which is prominently located on the first page of my copy:

Like Anna Karenina, Madam Bovary, and especially Middlemarch, this novel glories in the 19th-century arts of description, characterization and episodic detail. Like Leo Tolstoy, Flaubert, and George Eliot, Soueif exposes her heroine’s inner life to searing scrutiny. Unlike other Arab Muslim women writers, Soueif deals with Asya’s sexuality, and the complex sexual and emotional dynamics with the men in her life, in candid, even blunt terms. In the Eye of the Sun provides a sympathetic look from within at Egyptian Muslim culture and family life:  at the interactions of Egyptians at home with each other, and with Westerners on European soil.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s a good analysis or description of the novel at all; it’s not totally misleading, but neither is it particularly insightful. What it is is a nice demonstration of the discursive catch-22 the novel is both about and through which it’s also inescapably mediated. It is about things that are often not talked about, but the other kind of trap is speaking about things which are silenced without beings locked into simplistic and overdetermined fetish narratives of liberation and veils, and what’s marvelous about the book — one of the things that’s marvalous about the book — is how adeptly she manages it. Even if “unlike other Arab Muslim women writers” and “candid, even blunt terms” are very poor ways to describe what makes this book singular, there is something about how she does what she does, how she threads the needle, that is remarkable.

And at this point “remarkable” is the best I’ve got, but I’m beginning with that Globe review as a place-holder for the wrong way to describe the book: the thing that makes the novel brilliant is, it seems to me, something very different than its importation of the narrative engineering of 19th century realism, something much more like the ways it metaphorizes that very importation — not least in moments where a character says something like “this is real life, not a novel” — and the way, at some level, the incredible inadequacy of the realist novel as vehicle of liberation seems to be precisely the point. As the Eliot quote at the beginning powerfully underscores, sometimes that which is unsaid is unsaid for a reason, or at least, sometimes, saying the unsaid is precisely not the way to resolve the problem that silence represents.

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