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The Arab Solzhenitsyn?

Aziz Salih Ahmad is the name printed on the innocuous looking index card. Ahmad was an employee of the General Service Organisation of Iraq. His profession is listed as fighter in the Popular Army and his job description is "violation of women's honour". He is an employee of the Iraqi regime, paid to rape women. The card was discovered in the Central Security Headquarters Building in the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya during the uprising against the Ba'athist regime in the aftermath of the defeat in Kuwait at the hands of the Coalition forces.

Talmour is a young Kurdish boy. He and hundreds of others from the area in which he lived were rounded up and herded into trucks like cattle. They were taken away and, in the ensuing journey to an unknown destination, three children died. When they arrived, they were ordered out of the vehicles, blindfolded and marched into large pits. Soldiers with automatic weapons opened fire. Talmour was the only one who lived to tell the tale - he managed to crawl out of the pit and hide nearby, as bulldozers arrived to cover the open grave.

These and other such incidents, according to the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, "are so grave and are of such a massive nature that since the Second World War few parallels can be found."

The horrors perpetrated by Saddam Hussein which are revealed by Kanan Makiya in his new book are indeed sickening. What is unprecedented is that these revelations are not being made by a spokesman for the Israeli Government, nor by a Western journalist, but by an Iraqi national; by a man who some have dubbed "the Arab Solzhenitsyn".

The depravation of Saddam Hussein was revealed for the first time in Makiya's earlier work "Republic of Fear", which was published under the pen-name Samir al-Khalil and has attained an almost legendary status. The book is a lucid expose of the crimes which have been committed by Saddam's regime.

When it was finally released in 1989 - it took almost two years to find a publisher - it received barely any attention. That all changed with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This prompted a surge of interest in the tyranny of "the Butcher of Baghdad" and the book became a best seller.

Pirate editions of the book appeared across the Middle East, from Egypt to Iran. But the identity of the author remained a mystery. Some accused Samir al-Khalil of being a Mossad agent. Indeed, prominent Palestinian academic Edward Said described the writer as "a native informant" serving the interests of American policy makers in the region, whilst others asserted that the publication was the work of a lackey of the Saudi intelligence services. What is certain is that even many of those who did not fall for such conspiratorial hype were horrified at the thought that an Arab writer was washing his people's "dirty dish-dashes" in public.

All of this wild speculation was subsequently proven wrong when, at a symposium organised at Harvard University soon after the end of "Operation Desert Storm", Kanan Makiya revealed himself to be the book's author.

Makiya was born in Baghdad in 1949. He trained as an architect and worked for a number of years in his father's practice in London. Ironically, some of his time was spent working on projects for Saddam Hussein, such as the developments planned for Baghdad for the summit of the Non-Aligned movement, due to take place in 1982. The project had to be aborted however, due to the outbreak of the Iran-iraq war. According to a profile which was published in The New Yorker last year, Makiya then moved to the United States as he was no longer willing to work for Saddam in his father's firm. Once in the US, he started to pen "Republic of Fear".

In "Cruelty and Silence", Kanan goes much further in advancing some of the themes which were merely touched on in his earlier work, as well as breaking new ground in a way that has led some to describe this book as "epoch making".

The first part of the book largely consists of the testimony of five of Saddam's victims - a Kuwaiti, a Shia from Najaf (the holy city where Khomeini spent his exile before being deported to France), a Sunnite Arab from a suburb of Baghdad and two Kurds, one of whom was Talmour.

The revelations are not simply a curriculum vitae of the litany of terror which has been perpetrated by one of the modem world's most pernicious rulers. For this book also deals with, and condemns, the atrocities committed by Shia and Kurds during the Anfal, or uprising, against Saddam Hussein, in the early part of 1991. Many of the tales told are sickening, and strike a chord of familiarity with those who are well aware of the horrors of Pol Pot, Stalin and other despots. Makiya himself wrote that "I found the cumulative effect of the stories unbearable, deadening to all rationality, a threat even to my own sanity".

Attention then turns to the Arab intelligentsia, who are seen as being morally bankrupt. The book notes that the contemporary generation of Arab academics appear to have made a leap into modernity, when compared to the thinkers and writers of previous generations. They write about such concepts as democracy and representation, in foreign languages as well as their own, publishing their works around the world. But when it comes to cruelty in their own backyard, committed by their own people, "they are more infantile than their predecessors. Ever increasing denial of ever growing cruelty has created an untenable gap between the way these intellectuals talk and the way their world really is".

Makiya charges that this silence is tantamount to complicity in the crimes of these regimes. Even worse are those who act as apologists for these regimes. Edward Said is cited as an example; he once wrote that "the claim that Iraq gassed its own citizens has often been repeated. At best this is uncertain".

The author is also critical of the knee-jerk anti-Westernism of many of these writers. When something goes wrong, they are quick to pin the blame on Israel or the United States. Such claims do little but gloss over the iniquities of governments in the Middle East.

The lack of impartiality of many Arab academics is also criticised. Those who are right to be swift to condemn Israeli actions are noticeable for their inability to highlight or condemn Arab brutality against Arab or Kurd. And when they do finally criticise, as some did after Iraq invaded Kuwait, it is "as though the brutishness of [Saddam] was all that had gone wrong in the Arab world in the past twenty years."

Makiya then turns his attention to the Palestinian movement. "At a time when South Africa was producing a Nelson Mandela, Czechoslovakia a Vaclav Havel, and Poland a Lech Walesa, Palestinians stuck to "their Yasser Arafat". In such choices, the failings of an entire generation are summed up. Are such a people as gifted as the Palestinians ... unable to improve on Yasser Arafat as their leader?"

He is also scathing in his criticism of the Palestinian centrality theory, whereby the Palestinian cause is set above all others. He mocks the theory that the roots of all of the schisms and conflicts in the Middle East can be blamed on the existence of the State of Israel, as if the elimination of this country would cause an end to all disputes within the region.

Not surprisingly, the publication of "Cruelty and Silence" has attracted much comment and controversy across the world.

There has been limited reaction in the Arab press, but then, as one commentator noted, although it is amongst the most prolific in the world, it is also the most dishonest as, almost without exception, it is at the service of political paymasters. In the United States, the book has been lauded by many. Those with a political agenda to pursue, predictably, were quick to grasp on the criticisms of the Arab world and intelligentsia. Writing in the International Herald Tribune and in his column in the New York Times, AM Rosenthal was quick to praise the book. He said it was vindicating what he and many other pro-Israel writers had been arguing for years.

But his political agenda is not quite the same as Makiya's, who wrote to the newspapers to point out that, "the harsh and brutal realities of Israeli occupation on the West Bank are not justified by the deaths of all those Arabs at the hands of their own dictators".

The Israeli media is traditionally liberal in its politics and the book therefore not simply been given an uncritical welcome. Certainly, many commentators were inspired that at last a few home truths were being made evident by an Arab writer.

It was favourably reviewed in the centrist Haaretz and David Green, writing in The Jerusalem Report called the book "a courageous work of great moral gravity". But its shortcomings, such as the fact that it does not examine the complicity of Western governments have been noted and commented upon.

More perplexing were the charges made by Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs. In a letter published in Ha'aretz, he claimed that the book merely repeated the contentions made by Fouad Ajami in his book "The Arab Predicament" which was published in 1981. No evidence was offered to support this claim.

"Cruelty and Silence" also received a mixed reaction in the United Kingdom. One of the most engaging reviews was written by Rana Kabbani, in the Independent on Sunday. Kabbani concedes that the book has forced her to "re-think my own inherited position".

But, echoing comments made elsewhere, she notes that even as Saddam gassed the Kurds, the West regarded him as an ally against Iran. "It was only when he was no longer exploitable as such that it became expedient to unmask him as a villain".

Leading author David Pryce-Jones penned an equally arresting critique in the Literary Review. in which he describes Makiya as probably the first genuine Arab dissident.

This important and often disturbing book is being published in Arabic and Kurdish as well as in English. Such openess and self-examination are a prerequisite before democracy can come to the Arab world. Kanan Makiya has made a start with this book but it remains to be seen if its message will be heard.
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Title Annotation:Kanan Makiya's book elucidates the tortures executed by Saddam Hussein
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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