Long Ago and Far Away

I have been reading and greatly enjoying Dorothy Dunnett's Legendary Lymond Chronicles and have arrived at book four, Pawn in Frankincense.Dunnett, who demonstrates a remarkable facility with medieval languages and cultures, has just landed her eponymous hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, in Algiers for his latest escapade en route to deliver a gift from the French king to the Ottoman Sultan.  While the characterization of the Turks does slip occasionally into cartoonish cruelty, exaggerated even in this cruel age, she does nevertheless paint a vivid picture of a world in which the Ottomans were the most powerful, wealthy, and sophisticated empire.  I haven't gotten far enough in the book to have a real appreciation for how Dunnett will develop her portrait of the leading power of the time, but whichever direction she takes promises to prove interesting, whether for depth of cultural understanding or depth of cultural misunderstanding has yet to be seen.

Vive la Revolution!

Along with much of the world, I am both excited and hopeful about the possibilities for Tunisia following the ouster of the Ben Ali dictatorship. My excitement is tempered by the fact that the seed of freedom has just been planted, and not every flower blooms.

Blogs and Black Sites

Some of the most interesting news about Morocco comes from the many blogs written by Peace Corps volunteers currently working in country. When I was in Morocco, the word "blog" had not yet been coined, laptops were largely an expensive proof of concept, and a cell phone the size of a brick cost $2,500. On the rare occasions when I wanted to make a phone call from Outat El Haj, I went to the post office and asked the operator to crank the phone and connect me in a scene reminiscent of American movies from the 1930's. Nowadays, however, Peace Corps blogs pour in with news from across the country, written by Americans who nevertheless are solidly ensconced in local communities.

On a recent perusal of one of these blogs, Amber Shiel's The Life and Times of Moroccan Amber, I came across an offhand comment that was both tantalizing and shocking. Ms. Shiel reports:

But Moroccans are not the only ones to have created and used secret prisons. There is a CIA blackout site in the middle of nowhere in eastern Morocco near the Algerian border between Outat el Haj and Guercif that was used to harbor suspected terrorists until 2006. Because it was conveniently located off US soil, many human rights laws were ignored. The site has been closed down, but it is scary reminder that the days of secret prisons are not as distant as history might make you think. Having an old secret prison in our own site is an even more insistent reminder of the past.

Now, for some people, Outat El Haj may be the "middle of nowhere." For me, it was home for two years. So I do find it shocking to hear of a CIA secret prison in my former back yard. While I lived in Outat, I used to laugh at the rumors that I was a CIA agent. What was I going to do, call in missile strikes on the desert? Somehow, the idea does not seem quite so laughable anymore, and the thought that our government might have planted an outpost of hell near my friendly little village, where I was so warmly welcomed, makes me grieve.

Why don't we profile Muslims?

For some reason, I found myself today reading a column by a Washington Times columnist who was furious that former CIA Director James Woolsey had suggested that profiling Muslims might not be the answer to airline security. Granted, I am not an expert on security or counterterrorism, although in light of the fact that our experts do things like posting their security procedures manual on the Internet, perhaps anyone is qualified to bring a little common sense to the issue. For the sake of argument, let's leave aside the quaint notion that Muslims are fellow human beings who deserve the same dignity and respect as anyone else, and focus purely pragmatic reasons why a policy of profiling might not be a good idea:

  1. Bigotry does not equal security. Stereotyping all Muslims because a tiny fraction have been involved in acts of terror against the United States is both a lazy and ignorant way to cope with the problem of terrorism. Lazy because it relieves one of the necessity for analyzing the problem. Ignorant because it makes an assumption that in the vast majority of cases is untrue and unwarranted. We've been here before: we made the same mistake with the Nisei in World War II.

  2. Humiliating people does not make us safer. Treating Muslims like cattle, particularly in countries like Iraq that we are trying to "help," has been proven to undermine our counter-terrorism efforts. There is nothing like an Abu Ghraib to recruit people to Al Qaeda. So why should we adopt a policy that humiliates and discriminates against Muslims generally?

  3. Profiling all Muslims is radically overinclusive. When approximately one in six people on earth is a Muslim, and a de minimis number of them pose a threat, then it is highly inefficient to try to screen all Muslims in order to uncover the few who may be terrorists.

  4. Profiling all Muslims is radically underinclusive. Two words: Oklahoma City. Profiling Muslims does nothing to catch the Timothy McVeigh's of the world. There are lots of people who hate us who are not Muslims.

  5. It's impractical and inefficient. Much as we like to think we have infinite resources in the United States, in point of fact there is no way we are going to be able to keep track of a billion people.

  6. It misjudges the threat. If Flight 93 had reached its destination, I might well have died in my office a couple of blocks from the White House on September 11, 2001. As it was, I left the office shortly after Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon across the river. My brother in law watched the twin towers fall in New York. Despite the unprecedented carnage and the shocking effect of an assault on American soil, however, there was never an existential threat to the United States. Unlike Japan or Germany in the Second World War, Al Qaeda had no ability to follow up. Before we turned the tide in the Pacific, Japan had not only bombed our main naval base but asserted control over a good part of the Pacific and invaded China. Germany, meanwhile, reigned supreme over the rubble of Europe, where England was a beleaguered holdout. While I agree we should treat the threat from Al Qaeda seriously and pursue it relentlessly, lest it develop the capability to do us greater harm, I do not think that our values, our liberty, and our privacy should all be mindlessly sacrificed in pursuit of the terrorist menace. Frankly, at present the average American is far more likely to die in an automobile accident than to be a victim of airline terrorism. And yet our cynical and cowardly public officials harp on our irrational fears and prejudices to the benefit of their own power and position.

  7. It's not the most effective use of our resources. Where is Osama bin Laden and why is he at large? A more effective pursuit of Al Qaeda (rather than the sideshows in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Yemen?) and a reexamination of the brutal Realpolitik that drives American foreign policy would, in my opinion, do more to reduce the terrorists threat than profiling every last Muslim could ever accomplish.

The Accidental Treaty

Last night's lecture at SAIS by Dr. Jerome B. Bookin-Weiner, sponsored by Friends of Morocco, described the origins of the United States' longest standing treaty, between Morocco and the United States, and the story behind Morocco's being the first state to recognize the independence of the United States on December 20, 1777. Recognition was more the result of Sidi Mohammed bin Abdullah's attempt to reform the fiscal underpinnings of the Moroccan state than of any direct exchange between the Sultan and the Americas. The Sultan was eager to conclude trade treaties with as many nations as possible in order to open an alternative to direct taxation as a source of revenue to the Makhzen (Moroccan state). From the time of the initial recognition of American independence, which coincided with recognition of a number of Italian city-states, it took several years for the Makhzen to get the attention of the Americans and conclude the famous treaty in 1786. The Americans, after all, were busy playing the French against the British for the sake of survival during the years in question, and Bookin-Weiner pointed out that, at the time at least, Moroccan and American interests were truly peripheral to each other. More information can be found in Bookin-Weiner's book, the Atlantic Connection.

More on Arabs and the Holocaust

First Arab Nominated for Holocaust Honor - washingtonpost.com

Khaled Abdelwahhab saved a group of Tunisian Jews by hiding them on his farm during World War II. Now, he iis the first Arab to be nominated as "Righteous Among the Nations" an honor bestowed upon non-Jews who saved Jews from the Nazis by Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust.

Abdelwahhab was nominated by Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S. think tank.

Satloff said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, he went to Morocco to research what happened during the Nazi genocide in hopes of countering Holocaust denial in the Arab world and tempering some of the sentiments he thought helped pave the way for the attacks.

While the recognition of Abdelwahhab is welcome, it seems sad to me that it has come so late to so few.

Note: Although Morocco was controlled by Vichy France and not the Nazis directly, the story notes the role of Mohammed V in saving Moroccan Jews. Nomination two?

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Interview With Condoleezza Rice - washingtonpost.com

Condoleezza Rice may be whistling past the graveyard, but she has encouraging words for reform and liberalization in Morocco.

But I think if you go to the Forum for the Future and you see these non-governmental organizations gathered together and being able to sit across the table from the most conservative Arab states like Saudi Arabia all the way out to reforming states like the states of the Gulf and Jordan, it's quite an achievement and I can list the achievements: they have women voting in Kuwait, the beginning of municipal elections in Saudi Arabia; but also if you look at places like Bahrain and Oman and Morocco and Jordan, the reform agenda is alive and well. And what will we say to those people who have staked their future on reform and democracy if somehow this word disappears from American foreign policy? And so to me this is at the core.

I actually agree that the United States should support democracy. I do not think we can do this through secret government, intimidation of the press, invasions, torture, clandestine imprisonments, suspension of habeas corpus, military show trials, and removing jurisdiction from courts. In addition, given the stark realities of the situation in Iraq, which Rice largely seems to play down, it seems hard to believe that the administration of which she is a part will somehow experience a revelation and begin to provide wise leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or even on reform in Morocco.

Arabs and the Holocaust

The Holocaust's Arab Heroes - washingtonpost.com

The Washington Post reports on Arab resistance to the Nazi occupation of North Africa and the role of Arab rescuers in saving Jews from the Nazis.

Arabs welcomed Jews into their homes, guarded Jews' valuables so Germans could not confiscate them, shared with Jews their meager rations and warned Jewish leaders of coming SS raids. The sultan of Morocco and the bey of Tunis provided moral support and, at times, practical help to Jewish subjects. In Vichy-controlled Algiers, mosque preachers gave Friday sermons forbidding believers from serving as conservators of confiscated Jewish property. In the words of Yaacov Zrivy, from a small town near Sfax, Tunisia, "The Arabs watched over the Jews."

The Lost Land

As Percy Bysshe Shelley recognized when he penned Ozymandias, there is nothing quite so Romantic as a lost civilization. The history of the Andalus is a poignant, if not melancholy, example. Not only did the Umayyad caliphate in Cordoba and the taifa kingdoms that followed its collapse represent a unique flowering of poetry, scholarship, and architecture, but they were also key conduits for the transfer of classical learning and Arabic science and culture to the West. In a remarkable display of short-sightedness and ingratitude, the West repaid the favor by conquering the Andalus and forcibly converting, exiling, or exterminating its inhabitants, setting the stage for the rape of the New World.

Richard Fletcher's is a straightforward but engrossing history of the Arab/Berber conquest of most of the Iberian peninsula and the civilization that flourished there until the completion of the Reconquest in 1492. The history is rich in fascinating anecdotes, such as the parallel careers of the Arabic poet and adventure Ibn Ammar and Rodrigo Diaz, El Cid. While Fletcher beautifully describes the cultural richness of the Andalus, he is skeptical about the extent to which Christians, Jews, and Muslims were able to live peacefully together.

Maria Rosa Menocal's is more interested in cultural history than Fletcher and spends more time on the cultural influence that Arabic science and poetry had on European thought, describing at some length the translation projects of Peter the Venerable and the scholarly impact of Arabic culture on Petrus, Peter Abelard, Boccaccio, and Geoffrey Chaucer. She is also fascinated by the phenomena of such figures as Samuel Ibn Nagrila, the leader of the Jewish community who also became the Jewish Vizier of the taifa kingdom of Granada in the early eleventh century. Little more than a half century later, the Jews of Granada were massacred in 1066, but their position in Granadan society contrasts remarkably with their expulsion after the Reconquest.

History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period

Jamil M. Abun-Nasr's is a finely detailed tapestry which sweeps from the early days of the Al-Moravids in Morocco to the post-colonial regimes in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. While the book is academic in tone, it is so well written as to be accessible to the casual reader, so long as one is willing to come to grips with the intricacies of Maghreban dynastic politics.

While I learned more from the first half of the book, which discusses pre-Modern Maghreban history; the second portion covering the modern era was particularly relevant in light of the recent rioting in France. Abun-Nasr vividly describes how the European powers — under the guise of bringing civilization — ruthlessly exploited their North African colonies. Although the fruits of their policies were most bitter in Algeria, it is clear that throughout the Maghrib the European powers' short-sighted pursuit of commercial gain had long-term repercussions for everyone involved.


I have started reading Jamil M. Abun-Nasr's A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. The book begins by setting up a number of dichotomies between the Arab conquest and the Berber resistance and urban centralization versus tribal allegiances.

Independence Day

I am reminded on Independence Day that the Sultanate of Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly independent United States in 1777.

Our Legacy in North Africa

Rick Atkinson has a chilling description at page 462 of of how British and American troops in Tunisia shot North Africans for sport, made children dance by shooting at their feet, raped women, and burned houses with the women and children inside. Atkinson states that the atrocities were perpetrated by a small number of soldiers, but he concedes that in at least some cases they acted with impunity. Having visited this terrible war upon North Africa, Europeans and Americans should be pleasantly surprised and gratified any time they receive a friendly reception there.

War and Remembrance

I have started reading Rick Atkinson's . It begins with the American and British invasion of Morocco and Algeria in Operation TORCH, which was perhaps the beginning of the end of French control in North Africa. The invasion of Morocco began with a fierce naval battle outside Casablanca, resulting in the obliteration of the French task force stationed there. Hindsight, and the perceptions of a few keen observers, concluded that the invasion only succeeded because the Allies faced the demoralized and poorly outfitted Vichy French, and that the real battle did not begin until the British and Americans encountered the Germans in Tunisia.

When he sticks to his military theme, Atkinson is perceptive, and he has vivid descriptions of the career beginnings of such legendary figures as George S. Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In these early pages, however, Atkinson seems to have little appreciation for the people in whose country the war took place. Atkinson's tone toward the Arab and Berber population of North Africa is largely dismissive or pejorative: "natives" largely figure in the story as forced labor, and he tends to describe Arabs as dirty and the Arab quarters of major cities as foul smelling.

One statement that particularly brings home the brutality of the war, the disregard for the Arab and Berber population, and the misery visited upon them is the observation that as a result of the vast numbers of military vehicles clogging the roads: "[t]o deal with the inevitable traffic fatalities a sliding scale of reparations was established, paid in the oversize French currency the GIs called wallpaper: 25,000 francs ($500) for a dead camel; 15,000 for a dead boy; 10,000 for a dead donkey; 500 for a dead girl." Id. at 168.