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» How to Survive a Kidnapping – Top 10 Tips

1. Make sure your wardrobe is up to it. If you happen to be nabbed in the Sahara, for example, think silk and linen to combat those sun-baked temperatures and impress your captors. Get the crumpled look going early on. Chances are you aren’t going to be changing your clothes much over the next few weeks anyway. As far as sensible footwear is concerned, I find carpincho loafers work well in North Africa. Crocodile loafers are likely to chafe with all that sand. A panama in the desert is a bit Little Englander. Go native with a pristine white shish, which can double up as scarf, handkerchief and sheet (see 2 below). Cold-weather kidnappings can pose more of a challenge sartorially. If you’re heading into freezing climes, pack some fur. It doesn’t hurt to cut a dash.

2. Don’t expect too much in the way of decent bed-linens. It’s unlikely your new hosts will be able to offer you vintage metis linen sheets, rinsed in lavender water, from Provence. Although this can be a cruel blow, lower your expectations and you may be pleasantly surprised. The damp quilt I had the good fortune to be lent during my recent, all too brief stay with the Touareg tribesmen of southern Libya did the job admirably. I took pleasure in the homemade patchwork and wayward stitching.

3. Be polite but firm. By all means suck up to your captors – but only up to a point. No one likes a toady. You don’t want to let the miserable people who have dared to capture you know that you are worth squillions – and therefore a stupendously large ransom. Nor, however, should you be so self-effacing that you come across as a feeble little nothingburger. They may just slit your throat and be done with it.

4. Travel light. Although I rarely like to be separated from my Globetrotter suitcase, life is a lot simpler if you don’t have too much on you when the hijackers jump into the road waving AK-47s in your face. They’re only going to steal it anyway.

5. Think about an escape. Initially I felt rather pathetic not taking my captors on, mowing them all down with a machine-gun and hightailing it back to Tripoli for a restorative cup of tea and apple-flavoured shisha. A growling Sir Wilfred Thesiger would surely disapprove of such inaction, I thought. Then I thought about it again. Sixteen armed young men with Kalashnikovs, who knew the desert like the back of their hands versus one Brit and his fortysomething Libyan friend, accompanied by wife and two-year-old son, who hadn’t got a clue where they were. The conclusion led to 6 below.

6. Enjoy the hospitality. Some people would pay extremely good money for an adventure like this. You’re getting all this for free. Soak it all in. Remember that unrepeatable sunset in the sand-dunes, that image of a crescent moon swinging into a star-filled sky. Join your new friends around the campfire, swap a few war stories and tell a few jokes to lighten the atmosphere. This could be your only kidnapping. Treat it as though it’s your last.

7. Ask your kidnappers if you can take notes – insist on it – and make sure you have a decent pen and writing paper to hand. A Moleskine notebook will do the trick. Fountain pens are preferable but will require a decent supply of ink that may not be forthcoming. Turn the whole thing into an extended interview. Think experience of a lifetime. Think life-enhancing adventure. Think book deal, talk shows and shameless publicity.

8. Get a good agent. See 7 above.

9. Learn some Horace. If you can reel off a few stanzas in Latin, you’ll bamboozle your captors and/or impress them beyond reason. Remember that lovely moment on 26 April, 1944 when the great warrior-writer Major Patrick Leigh Fermor kidnapped the German General Heinrich Kreipe on Crete. During the 18-day manhunt that followed, the general started murmuring his way through an ode by Horace. Paddy cut in and reeled off the remaining stanzas – in Latin. “We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.” Quite so.

10. Take a tip from Islam and come to terms with the fact that you are no longer master of your own destiny, if you ever were. It’s a liberating discovery. Your life is now in the hands of almighty Allah. He may let you off. He may not. You may be returned to your loved ones before you can say, “Call that a kidnapping? Is that it?” Equally, you may be for the cosh, in which case if you are male 72 doe-eyed virgins will soon be consoling you for your loss of life. It could be worse.

Justin Marozzi was briefly hosted by the Touareg in southern Libya. He is the author of South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara. His most recent book is The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus. He is writing a history of Baghdad for Penguin.; Follow him @justinmarozzi

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» The Long Read: Landmark History Gives the Middle East Perspective of the First World War

On November 11, 1914, Sheikh Al ­Islam Ürgüplü Hayri Bey, the supreme religious authority in the Ottoman Empire, posed a dramatic question in the Fatih Sultan Mehmed Mosque, one of the most venerable monuments on the Istanbul skyline. The question, and the emphatic one-word answer it generated, would affect the lives of millions of Muslims, as well as their adversaries, across the Middle East over the next four years.

“Question: When it occurs that ­enemies attack the Islamic world, when it has been established that they seize and pillage Islamic countries and capture Muslim persons and when his Majesty the Padishah of Islam [the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V] thereupon orders the jihad in the form of a general mobilisation, has jihad then … become incumbent on all Muslims and has it become an individual duty for all Muslims in all parts of the world, be they young or old, on foot or mounted, to hasten to partake in the jihad with their goods and money?

“Answer: Yes.”

Traditionally, historians have downplayed the significance of the ensuing German-orchestrated jihad against the Allies, to the extent that it has been branded irrelevant to the wider war effort. ­Certainly it did not have the devastating effect wished for by its architects and, on this purely military level, it can be contrasted with the more immediately effective British-sponsored uprising of the Arabs against the Ottomans, their co-religionists and long-standing colonial overlords.

Yet this explanation, says Professor Eugene Rogan, the author of a new landmark study – The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 – fails to take into account the effect the jihad had on the Entente Powers or Allies.

“I think it failed to provoke a global Islamic uprising, but the way it played on British and French war planners was very significant, right through to the fall of Jerusalem in November 1917. The British were preoccupied that defeats at the hands of the Ottomans might ­provoke uprisings by colonial Muslims in India and Egypt – and it really shaped a lot of their wartime planning. So to say the jihad was irrelevant needs revising.”

The uniquely western perspective of fighting on the Ottoman Front, long a neglected and underrated theatre of the First World War with the exception of the numerous works about Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, has been equally in need of revision. Just as for many Europeans, particularly the British and French, the Great War is popularly known almost exclusively as a Western Front affair, so with the war in the Middle East, European and especially British historians have tended to see the conflict through a British lens. Thus we have those hoary staples of “Churchill’s debacle” at Gallipoli; “Townshend’s surrender” at Al Kut, the most ignominious in British military history; “Maude’s entry” into Baghdad in March 1917, ending 383 years of Ottoman rule; “Allenby’s conquest” of Jerusalem in November that year. And, of course, that most enigmatic and quintessentially British figure, with a liberal sprinkling of Hollywood stardust, “Lawrence of Arabia”, long lionised by Brits as the leader of the Arab Revolt. Arabs, it hardly needs explaining, have consistently and vigorously contested this view, including most recently the distinguished Iraqi historian Ali Allawi in his 2014 biography Faisal I of Iraq.

This Eurocentric approach to the war in the Middle East tends to be parochial to the point of one-sided, a narrow perspective which Rogan is keen to widen. While David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace (1989) reflected the classic view from British archives, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s The First World War in the Middle East (2014) offered a broader canvas. With Rogan, Gallipoli, Kut and Gaza now rightly become hard-won, resounding Ottoman victories rather than heroic British defeats. Far from proving the key to a swift end to war through a lightning defeat of the “Weak Man of Europe”, as the Allies had anticipated, the Ottoman Front only succeeded in lengthening – and vastly broadening – the greater conflict, claiming millions of soldiers from the Entente and Central Alliances.

What is especially welcome in this study is the long overdue focus on the experiences of Turkish and Arab soldiers and civilians during the war, culled from a series of recently published diaries and memoirs. During the past 10 years, perhaps 30 Ottoman soldiers’ diaries have been published in Turkey, counterparts to visceral British works such as P W Long’s Other Ranks of Kut (1938). These are alternately harrowing, heart-rending, sometimes amusing, but always intensely human documents. Rogan says they were “the most exciting part of writing the book. They allow us for the first time to approach the common soldier’s experience of fighting, and what’s so exciting are the parallels between what they write and what western soldiers write – we’ve never had it from both sides of the trenches before.”

Thus we hear the voices of ordinary men such as Corporal Ali Riza Eti, a Turkish medic called up for military service to fight the Russians at Köprüköy, the first Ottoman battle of the First World War in November 1914. Eti transcribed the terrifying symphony of bullets as civ civ civ. “As it was my first day [of fighting], I was very afraid of dying,” he noted in his diary. “With each civ I broke out in a sweat from my teeth to my toenails.”

French and Ottoman soldiers’ diaries bear common witness to the terror of hearing the enemy digging under their lines. “The Turks wrote a lot of poetry too, much of it very bad, like that of the soldiers they were fighting,” says Rogan. “The experience was so big it seemed to defy prose so they resorted to poetry to do justice to it.”

Rogan charts how the emerging Arab movement pressing for rights for Arab subjects within the Ottoman Empire came under ever more severe Young Turk repression in the lead-up to the Great War. Tens of thousands were exiled for their political views and dozens were hanged in Beirut and Damascus in 1916. Increased Ottoman suppression, combined with the hardship of the war years, fuelled increasingly separatist views among the Arabs.

Though sensitive to the general sophistication of Ottoman rule, Rogan does not pull his punches on the Armenian genocide of 1915. The chapter detailing “the annihilation of the Armenians”, with systematic massacres of males who were 12 years and over, often within sight or hearing of their womenfolk, sounds an eloquent riposte to long-standing Turkish denial of these “crimes against humanity”.

T E Lawrence famously considered the Arab Revolt “a sideshow of a sideshow”. By contrast, Rogan demonstrates that the Ottoman Front writ large was unquestionably an international affair that transformed Europe’s Great War into the First World War.

Here the British made common cause with South Asians, North Africans and New Zealanders, Australians, Senegalese, Sudanese and the French to fight a polyglot Ottoman army containing Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and Circassians. The Ottoman Front was “a veritable tower of Babel, an unprecedented conflict between international armies”.

Much of the turmoil currently convulsing the Middle East can find its echoes on the region’s battlefields a century ago. “What we forget was that the war was fought in many areas of the Middle East,” Rogan says. “There was fighting that affected people’s daily lives in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, across the Hijaz, in Iran and in Turkey. The number of people touched by the war counted in the millions.”

Death came through disease, spread by the movement of huge armies, through famine and through direct conflict.

Another argument that comes in for intense re-examination concerns British wartime partition plans, which are typically considered “deeply duplicitous” in promising the same land to multiple parties. It is only by studying the series of different diplomatic agreements within their immediate military context, Rogan convincingly argues, that it becomes clear that diplomacy consistently was playing second fiddle to the overriding objective of winning an increasingly murderous war.

Thus the Constantinople Agreement of 1915, in which France and Britain promised Russia the prizes of Istanbul and the Dardanelles, reflected Allied confidence in a swift capture of the Ottoman capital. The protracted Hussein–McMahon Correspondence with the Hashemites in 1915-16 was engendered by Britain’s need for an Arab ally to counter the rabble-raising Ottoman jihad. Then came the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 to carve up the Ottoman Middle East, struck in anticipation of an imminent Ottoman collapse that then proved stubbornly elusive. The ominous and conflicting Balfour Declaration of 1917 was a belated effort to recalibrate Sykes-Picot and secure British rule for Palestine. In Rogan’s words: “Britain was not thinking about drawing up borders in the Middle East so much as defeating the ­Germans.”

With the war won, and the ailing Ottoman Empire on its deathbed, the Great Powers turned avaricious eyes on the post-war prize of the Middle East. To the victors the spoils. In the last years of Sunni Muslim Ottoman rule, from the Young Turks revolution of 1908, the mixed populations of the Middle East had been represented in Istanbul on equal terms. The traditional dhimmi status for Jews and Christians had been abolished. Now Muslim rule gave way to European imperialism. The new masters were determined to snuff out the aspirations for Arab independence they had ignited only a couple of years earlier.

For Rogan, the conflict has left a distinctly baleful legacy in the region. “I think the Middle East has suffered more from the enduring consequences of World War I than practically any other part of the world,” he says.

Although the British and French successfully created what proved to be a remarkably resilient state system in which borders survived virtually intact for a century, they also left a legacy of unresolved national issues, which have continued to destabilise the region. Stable on one level, the long-lasting borders have engendered multiple conflicts on the other, notably with Palestine and the Kurds.

In fact, the legacy of the Great War in the Middle East extends far beyond Israel, the Palestinians and the Kurds. Lebanon emerged with the seeds of sectarian conflict planted within its own borders, vulnerable to ambitions from a Syria that was never reconciled to its loss.

Perhaps nowhere, though, has been as bloodied and scarred by its modern history as Iraq, conceived by the British as a union between the three related but separate Ottoman vilayets or provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. After a brief period of hope under a fledgling monarchy that lasted from 1921 to 1958, Iraqis have not been able to break the ensuing vicious cycle of revolutions, coups, wars and dictatorship. They are now engulfed by a sectarian conflict that traces its origins back more than 1,200 years before the Great War, to the Battle of Karbala in AD680, the crystallisation of the Sunni-Shia division.

Last year, Europe embarked on a four-year commemoration of the First World War. In the Middle East the centenary has been met largely with silence rather than celebrations of victories or commemoration of losses. There are other, more immediate conflicts to concentrate on. “It’s the forgotten war because it’s seen as someone else’s war even though it was fought on their soil and it was their men fighting and dying,” says Rogan. The people of the region had not chosen to get involved in this war. “World War One was the misfortune that led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of European imperialism and it’s remembered as a period of tremendous suffering.”

This is a formidable narrative history, written with great verve and empathy. Through its meticulous scholarship and its deft weaving together of the social, economic, diplomatic and ­military history of this neglected front, The Fall of the Ottomans provides an engrossing picture of a deadly conflict that proved catastrophic for the peoples of the region.

Surveying the state of the Middle East a century after the conflict, Rogan argues the basic peacetime challenge of generating jobs and economic growth for a young and rapidly expanding population has been frustrated by numerous, currently overwhelming setbacks.

“What prevents the region from addressing those legitimate challenges are layers and layers of political problems and regional conflicts that seem to drive the prospects of a free and prosperous region deeper and deeper into the future,” he says. “With the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya – and with political volatility in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and Algeria – I think everyone is rational to be pessimistic about the prospects for the region. None of these problems have a short-term solution.”

• Eugene Rogan will attend the Emirates Literature Festival in ­Dubai on March 4. He will take part in a panel discussion ‘100 Years On: Continuing Reverberations in the Arab World’ as well as speak about his own work. For more information, visit

Justin Marozzi is the author of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.

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» The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath describes the fragile state of post-Qaddafi Libya

Among the various mementoes accumulated from many visits to Libya over the years, a massive broken padlock is the starkest reminder of the 2011 revolution. I took it from the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli shortly after the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Macabre on one level, it nevertheless seemed an apposite symbol of incarceration and liberation, a bolt of light after four decades of gloom and despair. The fact that it was made in Italy, the former colonial power and oppressor, only added to the symbolism.

Walking through the prison provided a brief, harrowing glimpse into the shattered lives of those who had dared to challenge the regime. The sickly smell of disease was over­powering. Bottles of medicine were scattered everywhere. We walked through the cells with a middle-aged Libyan man, a former prisoner who had come to revisit the scene of the crimes. He broke down in tears as we roamed through the complex, recalling the cruelty and injustice he had suffered.

Abu Salim occupies a prominent place in the hierarchy of atrocities perpetrated by the Qaddafi regime. It was here, in 1996, that 1,200 prisoners were killed in cold blood, mowed down by machine guns, forklifted into refrigerated trucks and driven away.

Libyans have long memories. The legacy of that massacre lived on, so much so that Abu Salim proved the touchpaper for the revolution. Street protests by relatives of those who had been killed swelled into a broader uprising that erupted in the eastern city of Benghazi in February 2011, fuelled by the arrest of one of the lawyers who represented the families. Then came Colonel Qaddafi’s blood-­curdling warning of more massacres, a strategic miscalculation that drew in Nato, hastened the demise of the regime and cost him his life.

Abu Salim had other unintended consequences. It incubated a generation of religious extremists, nurturing over many years the narrow Salafist ideology that is a significant, but by no means the only, reason for the country’s current collapse into turmoil. In an intensely revealing chapter in The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, Mary Fitzgerald, an Irish Times correspondent who has spent the past year living in Libya, chronicles the bewildering internal battles between the various militant factions whose attempts to reconcile differences within an umbrella movement failed and fractured, a microcosm of the new post-revolutionary Libya.

It isn’t difficult to discern a visceral dislike of democracy among this constituency. Some sent death threats – the lingua franca of their political discourse – to members of the National Transitional Council, or what they called, in a play on its Arabic name, the Majlis Al Wadani – Pagan Council.

Death threats and executions have since proliferated in eastern Libya, the headquarters of both religious militants and separatists, notably the killing of the United States ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012. If anyone doubted that the jihadists of ISIL could extend their reach into Tripoli, the bloody January 27 attack on the Corinthia Hotel, long a ­redoubt for local politicians, diplomats and foreign businessmen, served as another reminder that when national politics stall, the terrorists move in.

The attack also revealed the deadly consequences of the Libyan state’s loss of the monopoly of violence. Once the conservative hardliners had suffered heavy defeats in last summer’s elections, they quickly revealed their true colours, refusing to recognise the results, forming the armed Libya Dawn Alliance and seizing Tripoli. The election winners relocated to the eastern city of Tobruk and took up the name Dignity. Hence the two parliaments, the two notional governments, the two leaders in two cities. A new Dawn in the West, Dignity in the East – with little prospect in the short term of realising either. Pity the ordinary Libyans, 400,000 of whom from a population of six million have been displaced.

So where did it all go wrong? How did we go from euphoria to dystopia so quickly?

These are questions this book seeks to answer and in doing so it provides the most complete picture we have yet had of the Libyan revolution and its aftermath. The contributors are an expert bunch, ranging from the academic and Libya historian Dirk Vandewalle to Ian Martin, the United Nation’s former chief in Libya. Peter Cole, the lead ­editor, was the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Libya in 2011-2012. All have significant recent experience of post-­Qaddafi Libya.

At times some of the language can descend into academic or think-tanky jargon, such as “sub-national identities and narratives” and “state and nonstate actors”, but this is a minor cavil in an otherwise compelling and troubling read.

Libya has long had a troubled relationship with its minorities and Libyans frequently exhibit what, by western standards, would have to be judged racist contempt towards both the Tebu and Tuareg tribes of the south. Though indigenous to what is today Libya, both groups were deliberately marginalised by the Qaddafi regime – an explicitly Arab affair, as the country’s ludicrous then-name, the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, made clear. Tebu and Tuareg alike suffered discrimination with regards to housing, education, employment and even freedom of movement. Hopes that the revolution would redress these old injustices have proved bitterly wide of the mark.

“I’m not optimistic about getting what we dream for,” one Tebu tribesman says. “The stability of the south depends on Tebu rights,” warns another, “and Libya’s stability depends on the south’s stability.”

Instead, the south has become a dangerous place with Tebu and Tuareg among the protagonists in both legal and illegal trade – drugs, human trafficking, kidnapping and terrorism. The shock waves of Qaddafi’s removal have spread far beyond Libya into neighbouring Algeria, Mali and Niger.

To make matters worse, Al Qaeda and ISIL fighters have inserted themselves into the killing and kidnapping mix. It is little wonder that Bernardino León, the UN’s special envoy to Libya, is warning that the country is running out of time – not to mention foreign reserves. Oil production in the holder of Africa’s largest reserves is now below consumption levels. “The general impression is that the country is very close to total chaos,” León said after the Tripoli hotel attack.

Amid the current conflict, are there any reasons for optimism – an all too scant commodity in the Middle East these days? Donning the historian’s hat and taking a longer view, one could credibly argue that after 43 years of eviscerating dictatorship, it takes more than a couple of years for a country to recover. Revolutionary euphoria does not of itself a stable new country make. It will take time to rebuild after the annihilating Qaddafi dictatorship.

Yet the same historian could point to far earlier fault lines in Libya, noting the relative novelty of Libya as a nation state, with the three Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the south and Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic) to the east persisting into the 20th century and independence only coming in 1951. Of Libya’s 60 years as an independent state until the 2011 revolution, 42 were under Qaddafi.

With the dictator gone, previously suppressed identities have surged forth, many of them advanced by their own supporting militias at the point of a Kalashnikov. Ancient ethnic and cultural divisions between East and West, between the settled population of the littoral and desert Arab Bedouin, between Arabs and Amazigh Berbers, between Arabs and the Tuareg and Tebu minorities, have all resurfaced and been allowed to sharpen in the three years since Qaddafi’s fall. The creeping extremism in the East and the superimposition of ISIL onto this fragile terrain only darkens the outlook.

One of the strengths of this book is its accumulated analysis of the enduring strength of tribalism, regionalism and religious conservatism within Libya, together with the ethnic politics of the Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg, and how these centrifugal forces have stretched and strained an elastic Libyan national identity since 2011. It certainly challenges the view that Libya has a more or less homogenous society – it has no sectarian splits of the sort that are currently torturing Iraq and Syria – which in turn makes it more likely than most of its Arab Spring counterparts to make a successful transition from dictatorship to something more moderate and inclusive.

“If Libya can develop institutions that contain the political dialogue or disagreement between various strands, then a bright future awaits it,” the editors argue. By the end of this book, however, one feels less confident of such an outcome in the near term. The tragedy of the Libyan revolution and its bloody aftermath is that it didn’t have to be like this.

Justin Marozzi was an adviser to Nato and the NTC during the ­Libyan revolution, which he ­reported on for The National and other media. His first book, South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara, was an account of a 2,000-kilometre journey by camel and a history of the desert slave trade.

This book is available on Amazon.

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» Stop wasting money on aid, and start letting in more refugees

Pictures from Calais have returned to our television screens, showing desperate men and women trying to break into lorries bound for Britain. A Sudanese man died jumping from a bridge onto a lorry heading for Dover. Another perished after falling from the axles of a bus. The mayor of Calais has blamed Britain for being an ‘El Dorado’ offering aspirational benefits to migrants — but as she’d know, the Africans arriving in her morgues would never have qualified for welfare. They risked death due to a sense of desperation, and hope, that we can scarcely imagine.

The same is true in the Mediterranean, where 2,500 have died after embarking on unseaworthy boats heading for Europe. Corpses of Syrians, Egyptians and others now regularly wash up on Italian shores. Britain’s decision not to support any future search and rescue operations on the grounds that they encouraged North Africans to make the dangerous journey was greeted with disbelief in Brussels. ‘It is as if you walk by a river and see a child being pulled away by the current and think: “I’ll let the child drown because then the other kids will know that they shouldn’t fall into the river”,’ said Michael Diedring, secretary general of the European Council for Refugees.

For once, the man from Brussels is right. Those climbing onto these boats will have seen the news, and know the risks. Yet they still take their families on board the inflatable boats, the airtight ship containers, the refrigerated cargo lorries. They are part of a worldwide exodus of which, whatever Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail tell us (‘Asylum: you’re right to worry’ is a typical headline), those coming to Britain are only a tiny proportion. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, says last year was the worst for refugee crises on record, reaching levels not seen since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. The population of forcibly displaced people is now 51 million, twice the entire population of Afghanistan. Yet no one fights for them.

We are in the grip of immigration hysteria. Much of our panic about asylum seekers in Britain is strikingly self-regarding, not least the notion that our island is the destination of choice for most of them. The fact is, it isn’t. Below 1 per cent of the planet’s displaced people are in the UK. We Brits like to think we’re a decent lot, that we do our bit and stand up for the oppressed. We can hold our heads up high, we tell ourselves, exemplars of fair play in a cruel world.

Yet if we look at how other countries handle immigration and refugees, perhaps we would be rather less self-congratulatory. The truth is that we punch well below our weight. What do Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have in common — apart from being Muslim? According to the United Nations, they are the world’s top five hosts of refugees. Pakistan alone has 1.6 million. Earlier this year, the UNHCR called on countries to take in an additional 100,000 Syrians in 2015 and 2016. The UK’s response? The Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. As of August, the total number of Syrians resettled was 50.

How do we compare with our European neighbours, who are supposedly much less of a soft touch? Germany received 127,000 applications for asylum last year, France 65,000, Sweden 54,000 and Britain just 30,000 (Sweden’s population, for the record, is a sixth the size of ours). So not so much Floodgates Britain, Mr Farage, as Fortress Britain. And here it is worth remembering that we are signatories to the 1951 UN convention on refugees, under which asylum is given to those with a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ in their own countries. There is no shortage of these people, but we seem to have suspiciously few of them here. Statistics aside, this latest bout of British immigration fever reminds me of friends I have worked with during the past decade in the sort of conflict-ravaged countries that produce so many refugees.

When Fatima, my long-suffering Arabic teacher in Baghdad, decided it was time to leave Iraq, it was not the UK she chose, but America, to teach Arabic at a defence institute in California. Forced to seek asylum after raging violence in Baghdad, my Iraqi friend Manaf, a retired diplomat, scholar and Anglophile, found his way to Amarillo, Texas, with his wife. Where was Britain in Iraq’s greatest hour of need? Its approach could be best summed up in the refusal to give asylum to 91 Iraqis who had served as interpreters for British forces. During a visit to Afghanistan in 1996, Hazara warlords were reportedly staging ‘dead dancing’ shows, decapitating prisoners, cauterising the severed necks with oil and watching the corpses stumble around pour encourager les autres.

Eventually, like so many Afghans overcome by the conflict, my translator Arif fled the country. He won a Chevening scholarship and graduated from Stirling University with a Masters in communications. But this isn’t enough to guarantee residency — next year, he’ll learn whether he can stay permanently or be asked to leave. Given the government’s failure to meet its immigration target, it’s people like Arif — from outside the EU — who are at greatest risk of deportation.

If one good thing could come out of Britain’s latest fixation with immigration, it would surely be a long, hard look at the Department for International Development. Its dizzying growth contrasts awkwardly with our stinginess towards those seeking shelter in Britain. Whenever a crisis breaks out — think Syria or Ebola — Britain likes to donate more money than the rest of Europe put together. It is as if David Cameron believes a nation’s compassion can be measured by the size of its overseas aid budget. And how big that is.

A decade ago, the government gave £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money to charities of its choice, via Dfid. Now, it’s £11 billion and rising steadily. For civil servants, corrupt foreign governments and the army of consultants who feed from this largesse — and here I declare an interest having served as one — Dfid is the gift that keeps on giving. Compare this with the Foreign Office, once the parent of Dfid’s modest predecessor the Overseas Development Administration, now the poor relation with a budget of £1.7 billion. While no one would argue the UK has caused this latest global tide of migrants, we certainly had a hand in some of it.

The Iraqi Christians being turned away here were never singled out for elimination under Saddam Hussein. We have become good at deposing dictators, but bad at filling the resulting power vacuum. Our well-intentioned interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have led to population upheavals on a grand scale. The Afghans found in Tilbury Docks recently (one of them dead) were reportedly Sikhs, targeted by the resurgent Taleban. If we had left Afghanistan a stable country, would they have ended up in Essex? Where was Britain in Iraq’s greatest hour of need?

Our approach can be best summed up in the refusal to give asylum to 91 Iraqis who had served as interpreters for British forces. Yet in previous eras we opened our doors more readily to Sassoons, Saatchis, Hadids, Dallals, Auchis, Yentobs, Zilkas and Shamashes. History will remember another Iraqi-British friend, the former national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, a London neurologist, as the man who hanged Saddam. There’s a serious intellectual inconsistency here. Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron have insisted there is a connection between failing foreign states and domestic problems, such as terrorist threats and heroin on our streets — and used that argument to justify interventions abroad. Yet they have remained silent about the backlash from these decisions when waves of migrants flee these states. If we were all Libyans in 2011, as those who advocated the removal of Muammar Gaddafi put it, aren’t we all Libyans now?

Britain’s response is to the refugee crisis is to offer fewer than 1,000 ‘resettlement places’ a year. It’s pitiful. Of course we can’t house them all, but part of any nation’s moral duty is to shelter the genuinely persecuted — and Britain does disgracefully little, for a country that accepts 1,200 immigrants a day. Reallocating some of Dfid’s budget to help shelter those who arrive would be a start. And given that this problem will not go away, it is time to consider it properly. Somehow, a fixation with overseas aid budgets has broken the government’s moral compass. The public can be trusted to support overseas charities; it is the government’s duty to help refugees who arrive here needing shelter. For the Prime Minister to neglect that basic British duty diminishes us all.

Justin Marozzi’s latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.

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» Mecca: The Greatest Paradox of the Islamic World

Mecca is the greatest paradox of the Islamic world. Home to the Kaaba, a pagan-era cube of black granite said to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, it is the lodestar to which 1.6 billion Muslims direct their five daily prayers. Mecca is the single point on the planet around which Muslims revolve — quite literally for those able to perform the once gruelling, now simply expensive, pilgrimage or haj.

Yet the prodigious, world-illuminating gifts of Islamic civilisation in the arts and sciences, from architecture to astronomy, physics to philosophy, came not from Mecca but from cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul. Where those metro-polises were cosmopolitan and open, melting-pots of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, of all faiths and none, Mecca has long been insular, closed and chauvinistic. It remains to this day a bastion of purity, forbidden to the non-Muslim visitor.

If one wanted to examine what is wrong with a certain strain of Islam in the 21st century — the patterns of intolerance, attitudes towards women, dismissal of other faiths, intellectual and cultural stasis, the rejection of modernity — one could do a lot worse than begin with a long, hard look at Mecca, exporter-in-chief of the doctrinally uncompromising Wahhabi brand of Islam.

Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim who grew up in the Punjab, is well qualified to do this. In the 1970s he worked in Jeddah’s Haj Research Centre, unsuccessfully attempting to steer the Saudis towards a more sympathetic architectural development of Islam’s holiest city.

Much of Mecca’s distinct character, to a large extent shared by its inhabitants, derives from its uniquely harsh geography. For the early Islamic poet Al Hayqatan, not quoted in these pages, Mecca was a place where ‘Winter and summer are equally intolerable. No waters flow… not a blade of grass on which to rest the eye… Only merchants, the most despicable of professions.’ Sandwiched between two barren mountains, it sits in an inhospitable depression scorched by the Arabian sun, 45 miles inland from the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

Lest we be too harsh on the townsmen (the history of Mecca is largely a male preserve), this ferocious environment of desolate mountains, desert and mind-warping heat explains, and perhaps excuses, the attitude expressed in the local saying: ‘We sow not wheat or sorghum; the pilgrims are our crops.’ Visitors have always been there to be fleeced. A pilgrim today, rich or poor, will need to find £3,000–£4,000 to fund his or her haj to Mecca. Already by the ninth century the extremist Qarmatian religious sect was attacking caravans to Mecca and ‘inflicting humiliation and bloodshed’ on the holy city. ‘What is it about visions of paradise that turns minds hellish?’ Sardar wonders.

Mecca’s moment in history came in 610 with the first of a series of divine revelations of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed. The subsequent birth of Islam, a radical restructuring of polytheistic life within the Arabian Peninsula, was a violent affair that set tribe against tribe, Mecca against Medina, with Mecca firmly on the (losing) anti-Muslim side. Once the Meccans had succumbed to Mohammed and converted to Islam, with the rebranded Kaaba as totem of the new Muslim faith, the city grew rich quickly. In the late eighth century it was the beneficiary of imperial largesse from visiting Abbasid caliphs from Baghdad. Tribute came from far and wide. Kings of distant Kabul and Tibet sent lavish gifts to honour Mecca.

A sacred sanctuary where feuding tribes set aside their differences long before the advent of Islam, Mecca nevertheless has been no stranger to violence over the centuries. One can only guess at what the Prophet Mohammed would have made of the extraordinary instance of cannibalistic fratricide in 1314. After the ruler Abu Nomay abdicated, his son Humaida, bent on preserving power in the teeth of rivalry from his brothers, killed one of them and invited the others to dinner. In a scene more worthy of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover than a family reunion in the holy of holies, they were horrified to find the body of their brother Abul Ghaith as the pièce de résistance — cooked whole and served well done.

The Meccans are not everyone’s cup of tea. Sardar considers them ‘narrow, enclosed and indifferent to the changing realities of the wider world’. Though they pray towards Mecca, many Muslims are much more favourably inclined towards Medina, the City of the Prophet, which welcomed Mohammed after his world-changing flight, or hijra, from Mecca in 622. Had it not been for this well-timed escape, Meccans would have assassinated Mohammed, whose insistence on monotheism and criticism of their long-established idol-
worship was bad for business. As Mohammed put it, ‘O Mecca, I love thee more than the entire world, but thy sons will not let me live.’

Sceptical about the Saudi regime, Sardar is less questioning of the traditional accounts of Mecca by early Muslim historians. He refers to ‘the sanctity and centuries of deference that must accompany Muslim readings of Mecca’ when a little less deference might be in order. Important revisionist histories of pre-Islamic and early Islamic Mecca by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, among others, which cast doubt on the city’s primacy as a centre of trade and pilgrimage, deserve more engagement than an endnote.

The Saudis quite rightly get it in the neck here. One does not need to be a historian to wince at their desecration of Mecca’s built environment. Sites of immeasurable historical interest and significance, such as the Bilal mosque, which dates to the Prophet’s time, have been bulldozed in recent decades. The house belonging to Mohammed’s most revered wife Khadijah is now a public lavatory, an apt symbol of the Saudi regime. Looming 1,972 feet over the sacred shrine in an unholy cross between Big Ben and Las Vegas, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower stands on an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical importance. Saudi clerics want to demolish the Prophet’s house for fear that Muslims could start praying to Mohammed rather than Allah. Anyone looking for the house of Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s closest companion and the first caliph of the Muslim empire, will find instead the Makkah Hilton, a garish edifice that has no business overlooking the Kaaba. But then business appears to be what it is all about. If the Hilton is full, incidentally, visitors can find additional accommodation on Airbnb.

Nor does the destruction end there. The exquisite, Ottoman-era section of the mosque is the oldest surviving part of the sanctuary. Its marble columns, resplendent with carved Islamic calligraphy dating back to the 16th- and 17th-century Sultans Suleiman, Salim I and Murads III and IV, are due to give way to multi-storey prayer halls 80m high.

This is not the rebarbative carping of an infidel reviewer. Many Muslims, not least Sardar, find the architectural destruction and transformation of Mecca profoundly troubling. ‘What the Saudis have done to Mecca is completely ghastly,’ a British Muslim told me recently. ‘It’s a retail extravaganza right up to the Great Mosque. During my haj, the last things I saw before turning towards the Kaaba were a Samsonite shop and Häagen-Dazs. They’ve turned Mecca into a shopping mall.’ The charge sheet against the Saud family runs much longer than this, of course. Official custodians of Islam’s holiest places, they have hijacked and perverted the religion they purport to define.

Yet for all the Saudis’ ruinous genius for kitsch and extremism, Sarda’s Mecca at least will remain ‘a place of eternal harmony, something worth living for and striving to attain. It has always been and it will always be.’

This is a captivating history and memoir, a hymn of love to a place sacred to the world’s Muslims, soured by a family wholly corrupted by petrodollars.

Mecca: The Sacred City Ziauddin Sardar
Bloom, pp.448, £25, ISBN: 9781408809204

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» In Threatening Baghdad, Militants Seek to Undo 800 Years of History

IS leader al-Baghdadi has established a caliphate and seeks to undo the 13th-century destruction of Islam’s premier city, but they’ve got it completely backward.

Baghdadis have long memories. Talk to them about the extraordinarily turbulent history of the Iraqi capital as they contemplate their city falling to Islamic State (IS) fighters, and one date tends to crop up: 1258. Although this was certainly not the last time barbarians were at the gates — think Tamerlane, Sword Arm of Islam, Conqueror of the World, who comprehensively sacked the city in 1401, leaving 120 towers containing 90,000 skulls of his victims as a battlefield memento — the unparalleled devastation of the 1258 invasion, with its far-reaching consequences for the wider Muslim world, remains a bitter wound to this day.

The whirlwind blew in from the east. Hulagu Khan, founder of the Ilkhanate empire that encompassed Iran, much of the Middle East and Central Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Scourge of God. Riding west from Mongolia in 1253 on a self-appointed mission to rescue the oppressed Christian communities of the Middle East and Caucasus, he issued a warning to the Abbasid caliph Mustasim in Baghdad to surrender or face total ruin. Should the leader of the Muslim world refuse to acknowledge Hulagu’s sovereignty, the Mongol wrote:

I will bring you crashing down from the summit of the sky,
Like a lion I will throw you down to the lowest depths.
I will not leave a single person alive in your country,
I will turn your city, lands and empire into flames.

The caliph Mustasim was unimpressed. Writing back to Hulagu, he dismissed the wild ambition of a “young man”, advised the eastern invader to return home and prepared to resist.

History has not been kind to Mustasim. According to the historian John Saunders, he was a “weak, vain, incompetent and cowardly” leader. Others point to the caliph’s preference for the pleasures of his harem and hunting grounds over the hard-headed defence of his realm. He had neglected his army to the point where there were mass desertions and even defections to Mongol ranks. The parallels with Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who has seen the national army dissolve at the approach of IS right across northern, western and central Iraq, are irresistible.

On Jan. 30, 1258, Hulagu’s forces, who had began investing Baghdad from the east, launched an assault on the city with the full Mongol arsenal of siege engines. It was a terrifying bombardment of rocks, palm trunks and flaming naphtha. Pontoon bridges were laid across the Tigris both above and below the city, manned by 10,000 Mongols with siege engines, sealing off all escape routes by river.

Within days Hulagu’s forces had captured the entire length of the eastern wall, the key to taking control of the city. Mustasim sent a deputation to Hulagu, stalling for time, but it was too late to surrender on favourable terms. Suleiman Shah, the commander-in-chief of the caliph’s army, was seized and taken to Hulagu’s camp, where he and 700 members of his household were killed.

On Feb. 10, Mustasim and his three sons, together with 3,000 of the city’s most distinguished figures, including sayids (descendants of the Prophet Mohammed), imams, and qadis (judges), entered Hulagu’s camp to offer a formal surrender. Mustasim gave the order to cease all resistance.

Unlike the many scholars from the caliphate they purport to admire, IS doesn’t do free thinking or intellectual curiosity — let alone the long nights of wine, women and song so beloved by the caliphs of Baghdad.Promised mercy, Baghdad’s grandees trooped out of the city and handed themselves in to Mongol forces. They were hacked to death in cold blood, scholars, scientists, religious leaders “slaughtered like sheep”, according to Ibn Kathir, the fourteenth-century Syrian historian. Hulagu then gave his men licence to rape, kill and plunder with the caveat that Christians and Jews were to be spared. He had promised to turn Mustasim’s kingdom “into flames” and was as good as his word.

Baghdad was set alight. The great Abbasid palaces, envy of the world, were consumed in the blaze, together with mosques, law colleges, the tombs of the caliphs, markets, libraries, and street after street of homes. Baghdad, the most sophisticated civilization in the world, went up in smoke, leaving only a few simple houses standing. The chronicles said the Tigris ran red with blood.

The dead and dying lay piled in rising mounds across the city. Decomposing corpses led to a rampant plague so severe it spread to Syria. The stench forced Hulagu to move camp several miles away, where his generals had stashed the great treasures of Abbasid civilisation, proudly preserved for half a millennium.

What of the death count? In a letter to Louis IX of France, Hulagu claimed 200,000. Other medieval historians reported 800,000. One even suggested two million. Whatever the true figure, it was a massacre of twentieth-century proportions.

Mystery surrounds the final fate of Mustasm. According to the notoriously unreliable Venetian traveller Marco Polo, he was locked in a tower with nothing to eat but gold and “died like a dog”. More likely he was rolled in a carpet and trampled to death by horses to honour the Mongol tradition of not shedding royal blood. One of Hulagu’s final insults, after reappointing the Shia vizier suspected of treachery towards Mustasim, was to give the Christian patriarch of the Nestorian church one of the caliph’s palaces, together with a plot of land on which to build a church. The latest incarnation of that church still stands on Khulafa Street in downtown Baghdad.

For many Arabs and Muslims, the memories of 1258 remain a psychological sore. It is on a par with Alaric’s sacking of Rome in 410 or the fall of Byzantium in 1453, a date that still haunts Greeks almost 600 years later. In 2002, Osama bin Laden likened Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney to Hulagu for the damage they inflicted on Baghdad during Gulf War One. And when British General Sir Stanley Maude captured Baghdad from the Ottomans in 1917 — another humiliation for the Muslim world — he made specific reference to the trauma of 1258: “Since the days of Hulagu your city and your lands have been subject to the tyranny of strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunk in desolation, and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage.”

Hulagu’s storm of destruction marked the end of Baghdad’s ascendancy and, more important, heralded longer lasting disunity and decline for the Islamic world as a whole. During its long and glorious Abbasid heyday, which stretched from 762 to the catastrophe of 1258, Baghdad was the intellectual and cultural capital of the planet. The Bait al Hikma, or House of Wisdom, founded by the caliph Mamun in the early ninth century, was a translation centre cum royal archive cum library cum think-tank, translating, refining and republishing the texts of classical Greek, Hindu and Persian scholarship. This was the seed of the golden age of Arab science. Contrast that with the sobering Arab Human Development Report of 2002 which found that in the 1,000 years since Mamun’s reign Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in a year.

With Arab culture, politics, economic clout and prestige in such disarray today, it is little wonder that Islamists talk about restoring the Islamic caliphate, a supposed pathway to glory. They want to undo the carnage of 1258, when Baghdad, the peerless Islamic capital of world civilisation, was transformed into an ignominious corner of a fledgling empire. It was the most shattering blow the Muslim world had ever received, one from which arguably it has never recovered.

Yet the chauvinistic outlook and limited education of the latest generation of Islamists helps explain why they completely fail to recognise the caliphate was an outward looking, cosmopolitan, economically powerful, multi-faith enterprise from the start, with Jews and Christians alike playing influential commercial, religious and political roles. Unlike the many scholars from the caliphate they purport to admire, IS doesn’t do free thinking or intellectual curiosity — let alone the long nights of wine, women and song so beloved by the caliphs of Baghdad. Don’t bother asking an IS militant what he thinks of free trade, foreign investment, gender empowerment, civil society and so on.

We should not lose track of the irony that if the Muslim forces of IS were to capture the quintessential Islamic city that is the Iraqi capital, although they are unlikely to unleash as devastating an apocalypse as did Hulagu, it would be a catastrophe for Baghdad, Iraq and much of the Muslim world they delusionally aspire to lead to greatness.

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» Corruption, incompetence to blame for Iraq’s failure, says author Zaid al-Ali

For much of the 11 years that have elapsed since the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq has been a cauldron of killing. Last year was the deadliest year since 2008, with an estimated 8,955 killed in raging violence, a monthly average of 746, or almost 25 a day. For those who live or have lived in Baghdad, the stomach-hollowing sound of a suicide car-bomber destroying an International Zone checkpoint has been a grimly regular feature of life in the city, together with attacks on Iraqi politicians, shoppers in crowded markets, Iraqis queuing to join the police or those trying to enter a government ministry, a foreign embassy or the offices of a humanitarian agency.

At times, the steady flow of young men ready to blow themselves up for the so-called jihad seems unending. Columns of thick, black smoke drifting across the skyline from the latest explosion are a common sight in the former metropolis of the Abbasid empire, known without irony as the City of Peace. I lived in Baghdad from 2004 to 2005 and spent long periods in the city until 2010. Sometimes I wondered how anyone could even contemplate, let alone perpetrate, any act of violence in such mind-bending, paralysing heat. At other times, the sheer brutality of the climate seemed the only explanation for levels of slaughter that were otherwise unfathomable. “The heat in Baghdad hits you like concrete,” an Iraqi friend said to me once. “Imagine what it does to your head.”

In recent years, Shia death squads and Sunni insurgents have reshaped a city of long-established Sunni–Shia neighbourhoods. In 2003, the majority of Baghdad was mixed, with a number of Shia majority neighbourhoods, including Sadr City, and Sunni majority areas, such as Adhamiya and Hurriya in the north, Washash, Karkh and Mansur in the centre, and Saidiya in the south. By 2005, when the Ministry of Interior was under the control of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Brigade, corpses were discovered daily, dumped in streets and rubbish tips across the capital. Overwhelmingly Sunni, their bodies carried the familiar signs of torture: cigarette burns on the skin, electric-drill holes in arms, legs and skulls and gouged-out eyes. Some had been garrotted; many had been shot in the back of the head. In 2006, when Iraq was in open civil war, the Mahdi Army of MuqtadaAl-Sadr, a firebrand from a distinguished clerical family, joined the fray, and Iraq grew ever more polarised.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. But then, Iraq has a long history of frustrating (often foreign) reformers’ good intentions. The early days of British Iraq were also full of promise. “We shall, I trust, make it a great centre for Arab civilisation and prosperity,” an excited Gertrude Bell wrote to her father in 1917 as British troops approached Baghdad. By 1920, as Iraq exploded into rebellion, a shattered Arnold Wilson, the civil commissioner for Mesopotamia, was describing himself as “a radical young man trying unsuccessfully to introduce radical principles into the wholly unfruitful and stony soil of a savage country where people do not argue but shoot”.

Optimism was again in abundance in 2003, for neocons and reformist Iraqis alike. “I came back with an idealistic and idealised vision of what life could and should be,” Samir Sumaidaie told me in 2012. In 2003, he had returned to Iraq from exile and opposition and taken up a string of senior political positions, the culmination of which was his appointment as ambassador to Washington. “I was soon disabused of that idealism and, in the last several years, I have become much more pessimistic and uncertain about the future.”

One suspects that Zaid al-Ali, the author of this brave, disturbing and excoriating survey of Iraq’s political cesspit, feels the same. A constitutional lawyer by training, he was a legal adviser to the United Nations in Iraq from 2005 to 2010. Like so many of the country’s returning exiles, he wanted to help build a new Iraq that could hold its head high after the horror of the Saddam Hussein years. (Let it also be said as an aside that there was no shortage of deeply venal returning exiles who treated the Iraqi treasury as a cash-cow.)

The Struggle for Iraq’s Future has an explosive beginning. Al-Ali describes how, even after it had been discovered that widely used British explosives detection equipment was completely bogus and ineffective – in 2013 the inventor was jailed for 10 years by a UK court. The prime minister Nuri Al Maliki flatly refused to accept this with a callous disregard for the truth and for untold numbers of Iraqi lives.

Much of this book, in fact, can be read as a passionate polemic against Al Maliki who, with the Americans, must surely take a great share of the responsibility for the unholy mess in which Iraq is now stewing.

Instead of seeking to build an Iraq that eschewed sectarianism, al-Ali writes, “his sole concern became to capture the state and to divide and conquer opponents, to remain in power for as long as possible”. By those limited, cynical criteria, so typical of Iraqi politics in living memory, and perhaps far beyond, Al Maliki’s efforts have been an unqualified success: parliament emasculated; armed forces shunted under his direct control; the judiciary nobbled; critics intimidated and silenced.

To be fair, the responsibility for Iraq’s current quagmire needs to be shared a little more widely than the current prime minister. Iraq’s political class is a wretched lot: criminally irresponsible, sectarian in outlook, corrupt beyond the average person’s most avaricious dreams, financially feckless and illiterate, intolerant of criticism, incapable of sharing power, blind to the national interest and, at the very highest levels of the state, murderously violent. Do not look here for the next winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

“As politicians obsessed over their incessant and violent power struggle, they deprioritised virtually everything else, including a number of long-standing problems that were literally threatening the state’s existence,” al-Ali writes. “These included rocketing unemployment, the decrepit public services (electricity, water, education), a failing framework to protect human rights that was exacerbating security risks, corruption and environmental disaster.”

For a country with a small population that essentially sits on a lake of oil to be in such a parlous state is perhaps the most damning indictment of Iraqi politics. This is not the place, one is tempted to conclude, for a well-intentioned, western-educated Iraqi constitutional lawyer.

It is only natural that constitutional lawyers should set great store by constitutions. It is, after all, what they do. Al-Ali’s detailed and thorough critique of the Iraqi constitution and the highly flawed process that engendered it, is principled and compelling. The recent history of Iraq, though, suggests that constitutions, however dismal or dazzling, are less of a problem than the men – and it is always men – who choose either to observe or ignore them.

To many of us in the West, the rule of law is a concept almost sacred in its power. The same is not true of Iraq, a place where, for centuries, strongmen have seized power and acted ruthlessly to preserve it. If Saddam Hussein was the Butcher of Baghdad, he was hardly alone in the long pantheon of Iraq’s rulers. Al-Mansur, the Abbasid caliph who founded Baghdad 1,300 years earlier in 762, was surely an equal claimant to the title. On his death in 775, the staunchly Sunni leader left a crypt full of exclusively Shia corpses.

Iraq’s economic model is brutally simple and limited: approximately 97 per cent of the national income comes from the oil sector. Yet the Baghdad government regularly proves incapable of even the most basic administration required to sustain it, such as issuing visas to the executives of oil companies with Iraqi government contracts. Little wonder that some are now heading for the exit, and hardly surprising amid the chaos that many commentators openly question the very sustainability of the Iraqi state as presently configured.

Although al-Ali is to be applauded for somehow managing to retain a degree of optimism after his relentlessly gloomy findings, his final chapter, in which he sets out a way ahead for beleaguered Iraq, is the least credible. His appetite for Iraqi democracy remains undimmed, although many Iraqis today will tell you the country just needs another strongman to put a lid on the violence – and to hell with the western checklist of democracy, good governance, rule of law, gender empowerment, human rights and so on.

Topping his list of prescriptions for a new Iraq is, perhaps predictably, a new constitution, which will deal with the control of the armed forces, the regulation of political parties, the oil sector and distribution of revenues, decentralisation and corruption.

He talks of the need to “build a new narrative” for Iraq, which is national and nonsectarian. No one would argue with that, but easier said than done in the land that has been the fulcrum of the Sunni-Shia divide since the Battle of Kerbala in 680. He is certainly right to praise many of his country’s social values, including solidarity, hospitality and generosity, and the honest, hard-working midlevel civil servants who struggle on amid the turmoil, but is that enough to build a democracy on?

The best that can be said is that it will take time to recover from decades of dictatorship and war and in this consistently turbulent corner of the world there is no guarantee of a happy ending. For now at least, democracy as understood in the West seems to be as alien to Iraq as the American soldiers who poured in in 2003. Al-Ali’s is a sensible voice screaming into the desert wind to stop the madness. Perhaps one day Iraqis will hear him.

Justin Marozzi’s latest book is A History of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, to be published in May by Penguin.

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» The President’s Gardener

When I first met Sheikh Ahmed Mursal Adam, the Head of Presidential Gardens in Villa Somalia was a spirited man in his late seventies. He told me with evident pride of his 200 children and grandchildren, the prodigious progeny of 37 wives. A year later there was an unmistakable spring in his step. The fruit of the sheikh’s loins had swelled to 215 and he had just married a bride of 27. “I’m an old man now so I need more care,” he said with a chuckle. “One wife is not enough.”

At the time I remember thinking this venerable old boy was a striking contrast to the bearded lunatics of Al Shabaab, the local Al Qaeda franchise. While he had busied himself creating life with a dedication to procreation that took some beating, these young men were bent only on destruction and killing.

I bumped into the old man again this week, together with a son and two grandsons. He had just turned 82. Something had changed. On the one hand, he had married again twice, bringing the tally of wives to 40 (the 27 year-old woman had given him a son before they parted company), and twice divorced. The sheikhly family now stood at 257, a tribute to his stamina and ability to find romance in hard times. A tribute, too, to his many wives – long-suffering and short-lived alike. We greeted each other like old friends and then I noticed his left arm hung strangely from his shoulder.

He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a misshapen arm that was bulging in all the wrong places. On 12 February 2011, he told me, a month after I had last seen him, he was in a car driving along Maka al Mukarama Street minding his own business when all of a sudden there was a terrific explosion on the road just in front of him. It was a mortar attack by the insurgents. The driver of the car swerved wildly in shock, veered across the road and smashed into a tree. Three of the five men in the car were killed. Sheikh Ahmed was one of two survivors. He broke both arms and one leg. Doctors were able to fix one leg and patched up his right arm, which remains a little crooked. But the complicated fracture of his left arm beneath the shoulder was too much for the limited local hospital in Mogadishu. The doctors shook their heads and said he’d have to go abroad for treatment. Nobody in Somalia could do anything for him.

“Al Shebab just want to destroy everything,” he said. “I like to care for a woman, they want to attack them. I still pray to Allah, please let Al Shebab be finished.”

Something else had changed. The last time I saw him, Sheikh Ahmed sported a richly hennaed beard. There was a certain swagger about him. If not quite a Mogadishu dandy and Indian Ocean boulevardier of the greatest distinction, he was a well put together fellow. Today it was white stubble, sad eyes and the swagger had become a limp. He looked a little rueful when I mentioned the beard. “I haven’t got time to look after myself like that anymore,” he said.

I congratulated him on his great brood and wondered whether he had done his bit now to increase the world’s population. Perhaps, after that epic sowing of his seed, after creating almost half a battalion of his own followers, he had fathered his last child. He wasn’t having any of it. He certainly wasn’t ruling anything out, he said. “If Allah gives me more children, I would like that,” he said. His son and grandsons hooted with laughter. “He’s started so many families,” one said.

They were proud of the old man, who had obviously set an example that they wanted to emulate – in part at least. One of them, who was still a young man, had already fathered four children and was quite clear he wanted more. A family large by British standards would appear small by Somali.

Large families are useful in a pastoralist society to look after the herds – Somalis routinely boast they have more camels than any other country in the world – as well as representing security for parents in their dotage. Childbearing typically starts early for Somali women as a result, each child being welcomed as a gift from Allah. Birth control and family planning are noticeable only by their absence, so much so that it is not uncommon to find desperately poor women in refugee camps in Mogadishu with more children than they can look after. Thanks to this cultural and religious hinterland Somali women have among the highest fertility rates in the world, with more than six children each on average. When you rack up an extraordinary 40 wives, as Villa Somalia’s head gardener had done, that’s a lot of children.

Over the course of a long life, Sheikh Ahmed has seen presidents come and go in Villa Somalia, whose improbably elegant gardens he has done so much to maintain. He started work there in 1954 – he speaks fluent Italian, the language of the old colonial masters, in addition to Somali and Arabic – and is now on his eighth president. A resilient man, like his fellow Somalis, he has weathered some of the world’s most tragic and turbulent times.

“Praise God, I have had a good life and I am happy – but without money. After I was injured, I was planning to go abroad for treatment, but I haven’t got the power to do so.” He paused and then looked straight into my eyes. “I need help,” he said.

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» Mogadishu – First Impressions

One step out of the plane and you’re blasted by hot air and blinded by a fulgor of sunlight. You lose your bearings completely. Then, after a moment or two, your body and eyes begin to adjust. The hairdryer furnace softens to a seductive breeze. The dazzling clatter of white light settles into a cloud-free canopy of brilliant blue. A few metres from the runway the Indian Ocean sparkles and beckons outrageously beyond the millions of acres of white sand that stretch into the longest coastline in Africa.

The airport terminal buzzes with a friendly confusion over visas, paperwork and luggage. Women float by in multi-coloured splendour. Laughter amid the streaming heat is everywhere. The atmosphere intoxicates. Ah, Mogadishu! It’s good to be back after a few days away. There’s no place like it.

So different from the first time. Three years ago, I was moderately alarmed on arrival. Make that frightened. Ok, if you insist, terrified. As the plane from Nairobi made its final swoop down the wild coastline and dropped its nose towards the airport, I feared the worst. The Al Qaeda-allied insurgents of Al Shebab were running amok across the city. Bombs, mortars, suicide attacks, IEDs, the usual medley of twenty-first century warzone attractions, were the order of the day. As I stepped out gingerly onto the tarmac, I half expected to be taken out by a sniper for reasons which are about to be explained. Instead, the heartiest of welcomes from Somali and Ugandan colleagues and that blissful weather that greets all travellers.

Looking back on that initial fright, I blame the overexcited security officer who had briefed me back in Nairobi. Every Somali I met in Mogadishu would be downright hostile, he told me, not without a certain satisfaction, the seaport would be raining rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and if I ever fancied a trip to the presidential compound of Villa Somalia – slow shake of the head – God help me. Snipers would pick me off if a mortar didn’t get me first. My enthusiasm for Mog – the inevitable nickname – was fading by the second and I hadn’t even visited the place yet (was it too late, on the eve of departure, to change my mind?) but he wasn’t finished.

The weather was excruciating, he continued, the malarial mosquitoes a hideous and insuperable health risk, and the healthcare facilities so bad they would kill you. As for the flight I was going in on – exaggerated intake of breath – it was relatively safe only because Al Shebab terrorists commuted in and out on this airline so might not blow it up for the time being.

Something deep within me rebelled against this relentless armchair doom-meister. “I’ve heard the swimming’s fantastic,” I said with as much defiance as I could muster. “Good luck,” he snorted. “If Al Shebab don’t get you, the sharks will.” Mogadishu, in other words, was Armageddon on steroids.

And yet it wasn’t, of course. It was nothing like it. These sorts of places are never as apocalyptic as experts from afar tend to tell us. Certainly not for most foreign visitors, at least. For ordinary Somalis in 2010, the city was undoubtedly an inferno of random killing and grotesque violence. For the brave African Union soldiers of Uganda and Burundi, it was an especially deadly place. Beyond the airport perimeter fighting raged all around us that summer and the steady rise in casualties on both sides was unremitting.

Sometimes the ground beneath my sand-filled tent shook as artillery fire rumbled through the night. The odd mortar came over the wire to keep us on our toes. And the occasional bullet, nicknamed “Yusuffffff!” for the fizzing noise it made, did indeed whizz past when I travelled across town to spend a night or two in Villa Somalia (Somalis do a good line in black humour. They have had plenty of reason to hone this talent over the years).

Yet as one of the many unsoldierly expatriates holed up in Mogadishu International Airport behind Hesco barriers and barbed wire, you were more likely to be upset by slow internet than a suicide bomber. Drama was when the cookhouse had run out of bacon. No baked beans for breakfast was a crisis. In other words, the stark warnings bore little or no relation to the western expatriate’s daily life, which itself was completely divorced from everyday Somali life.

How is it that initial perceptions – and fears – so rarely accord with reality for the traveller? Mogadishu immediately revealed itself as shockingly, vibrantly green, not the sun-cracked dustbowl I had been expecting. Stretches of it, however run-down or destroyed, are surprisingly beautiful. Reality in turn became an exercise in unreality, a walk-on part in a satirical novel populated by self-detonating maniacs, self-important hacks, self-aggrandising politicians, the occasional rebranded mercenary and a splendid Ugandan major who used to entertain friends in a shambolic tent laughingly known as the Spokesman’s Palace. It was only when you visited the African Union hospital, full of wounded soldiers and civilians, that you saw the stomach-blanking horrors of war.

Three years on, that war is over in Mogadishu. After more than two decades tearing each other apart, Somalis have by and large stopped fighting in the capital. An occasional bomb or suicide attack is the exception now, not the norm. Peace, to a great extent, prevails.

Every day I meet Somalis who have come home from the diaspora, previously scattered around the world from Manchester to Minnesota, Stockholm to Sydney. They are opening new hotels, restaurants, cafés and any other businesses that spring to mind in a city that until a few weeks ago didn’t even have a single petrol station. Others are looking for work. Some have thrown in their lot with the government, many of them working as unpaid volunteers to help rebuild the country.

“I don’t really care what I’ll do,” a new friend said the other day. “The point is, after all the years living away, I’m finally home. I’m free. That’s all that matters for now.”

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» A Man and His Stomach

“They’ve done what?”

My colleague P looked aghast. Instantly haggard. Crushed. Ruined. He’d aged years in seconds. His eyes were wide as saucers.

“They’ve said they’re not going to supply us with any food anymore,” I replied. “We’ve got to make our own arrangements.”

There followed a string of expletives which suggested that P had not altogether lost his marbles. But he was still fixing me with a wild-eyed stare that was not encouraging.

The conversation took place after the best part of two months subsisting on goat, camel and rice. I had managed to get a daily piece of fish, always a godsend. P, working in a different office, hadn’t. Fruit had long since become a rarity, vegetables had vanished. Bread was an elusive, unspoken-of luxury.

In a flash I thought of the small band of British Army officers marooned in remote desert outposts across Somalia during the Second World War. Surrounded by endlessly feuding tribes bent on bloodshed, deprived of all but the most basic supplies, isolated for months at a time in thousands of miles of ferocious wilderness, hollowed out by solitude, harassed by malarial fevers, broken by introspection and desiccated by the African sun, a number of them had eventually succumbed to mental disintegration, raised a pistol to their temple and blown their head off.

I didn’t think P was going to do that. For a start he didn’t have a pistol.

Warriors tells the little known story of these hardy officers and the hardier Somali nomads among whom they soldiered. Written by Gerald Hanley, a tough Irishman who was one of the most resilient of their number, it chronicles their astonishingly testing tours and the harsh lives of the wandering Somali warriors. Hanley also offers an alternately humorous and disturbing examination of the psychological effects of prolonged cultural dislocation, isolation and wilderness.

Food supplies, or rather the lack of them, are often uppermost in his thoughts. Somalia shrinks into a “blazing yellow coast on which one… thirsted and yearned, and dreamed of onions and salad and bread and beer, and even of drinkable, living water.” A relentless diet of army rations, biscuits and bully beef, camel and goat when those have run out, do little to sustain morale or mental equilibrium. “We used to talk about lettuce and beetroot and fresh eggs in increasingly burning and passionate words,” he writes. “Nobody could remain sane in that arid world.” Distant Mogadishu, “headquarters of the vast insane asylum we had been lost in”, becomes an almost mythical oasis for R&R: women, bars, cold beer, fresh food, clean sheets.

I looked at P again. He was a broken man. Speechless. Immobile.

“It’s going to be all right. I’ll call Ahmed,” I said. This was Mogadishu’s best-known restaurateur, a charismatic Somali-Brit who had opened a number of restaurants and hotels and had weathered a number of recent terrorist attacks by Al Shebab suicide bombers.

Some of this was my fault. Lost in my own tortured reveries about food, during the past few days I had emailed P a series of photographs as a joke: petits fours from the restaurant at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, memories of a foray in Bordeaux last summer. Then there was a Full English Breakfast or two, a Caesar Salad, lamb chops, seared tuna and a particularly succulent venison casserole. It probably wasn’t a good idea, but it felt harmless at the time.

Years earlier, during an expedition in Libya with a friend, when our daily diet had diminished to tuna fish pasta and dates, conversations had often turned to imaginary feasts. Sometimes this sustained morale for a few minutes, at others it plunged us into silent moroseness.

In The Lost Oases, the high-spirited Ahmed Hassanein Bey, one of my favourite desert explorers, wrote hilariously of these epicurean cravings while travelling by camel across the Saharan wastes in 1923.

“As I stride along I imagine myself in Shepherd’s Grill Room in Cairo and I order Crevettes a l’Américaine with that subtle variation of Riz a l’orientale which is a speciality of the house. Or I am at Prunier’s in Paris ordering Marennes Vertes d’Ostende, followed by a steak and soufflé. Perhaps it is the Cova at Milan and a succulent dish of Risotto alla Milanese; maybe Strawberries Melba at the Ritz in London.”

These fond dreams were cruelly interrupted by the arrival of a tribesman bringing him a handful of wizened dates. Like Hanley, Hassanein Bey, an Egyptian scholar, spy, writer and Olympic fencer, was not a man to be unduly perturbed by hardship. He fitted out one of his camels with a tent to rest under out of the pitiless sun. It was quickly nicknamed “the Club”. Among his retainers “The Bey is lunching at the Club today” became a morale-boosting refrain.

“Don’t worry. We’ll sort something out,” I continued. “Ahmed can start bringing us some fresh food. It’ll be fine.”

There was a loud knock at the door. In came the ever cheerful Hersi, a slim young man carrying a pot. I looked at it with a demoniacal glare. What would it contain this evening? Surely some fresh fish at last? With trepidation and a heavy heart I opened it. A few scraps of fatty goat meat clung dispiritedly to a giant chunk of bone forlornly mounted on a mound of rice.

I smiled weakly at P.

“Dinner’s here,” I said. “It looks delicious.”

Warriors: Life and Death among the Somalis by Gerald Hanley is published by Eland Books

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