Practical Tips for Skimming the Qur’an: Or, How to Study Islam without Rigour

In a world where media outlets are now plucking Middle East experts from the ranks of heavyset non-Arabic-speaking private military contractors (who have never interracted with people from “these cultures” unless they were heavily armed and travelling in up-armoured convoys), a few colleagues of mine over at the Australian National University have started a great new project called “Re-Anth”. Envisioned as a clearinghouse for popular, prescient scholarship in the social sciences, the general objective of Re-Anth is simple – to reintroduce anthropological thinking into the wider social and political discourse. As such, this will hopefully be the first of many contributions I can make to their new blog.

The first topic I’ve been asked to write about is the concept of “praxis”  one of those great buzzwords you will only ever come across in postgraduate anthropology seminars or in vaguely-meaningful but mostly arcane discussions of Hegel’s contributions to philosophy.

Praxis, in the context which anthropologists use it, refers to the process by which immaterial concepts and ideas (Aristotle’s theoria) are realised by action – the bridge between what Hannah Arendt saw as the two defining categories of human thought and behaviour – “vida contemplativa” (the contemplative life) and “vida activa” (the active life).

While the term itself suffers from a terminal case of jargonitis (in part because praxis is an import word from ancient Greek and in part because praxis is also the German for “practice” which has a separate meaning in English-language anthropology), the spirit of the praxis concept is as follows: there exists a process which connects the things people think about with the things people do and that mapping this contemplation-action algorithm is key to understanding how a member of a particular cultural group is likely to think and behave under a given set of conditions.

There is a huge body of theoretical muck out there to wade through in one’s search for a definition of praxis (from experience, this can actually lead to a reduced understanding of the concept) but since praxis, like anthropology itself, is practically-oriented (or indeed, praxically-oriented) a good way to grapple with the concept can be found by thinking about a religion like Islam not only as a “practice” (that is, something someone does) but also as a “process” (the contemplative and active steps which lead to the doing). By reflecting on the process by which religious texts like the Qur’an (a body of work that contains various theoria) are interpreted and then incorporated into the daily lives of individuals, for example, one can observe the praxis concept in the field.

As a student of Islamic societies, the process by which the Quran is brought into the material world is the textbook example of the praxical process and similarly, if one looks at a political project like “Marxism” – which Antonio Gramsci referred to as “the philosophy of praxis” in his Prison Notebooks  one can observe an analogous process (indeed, a revolutionary strategy) by which a utopian ideal is interpreted and then progressively introduced into society by the Marxist. Both the Marxist revolutionary process and Quranic exegesis-enactment (as a hermeneutic process) therefore, are examples of praxiin the wild”.

With praxis thus defined and with the title of this post suggesting that there is something lacking in how “Islam” is characterized in public discourse, it is now incumbent upon us to consider how the praxis concept might improve the way we think about Islam, re-injecting some intellectual rigor into the discussion.

As I’ve discussed previously, the “true meaning” of any text (especially a religious text) is ultimately interpretive. This should be self-evident to anyone who studied “the novel” in high school – especially if one’s English teacher was intent on extruding bizarre, hidden meanings from the most innocuous of sentences. Certainly, the fact that deciphering a text is an interpretive process (praxis) should be self-evident to anyone who is familiar with the way in which the law is interpreted by the courts. As Barack Obama said of the US Constitution in his final address as President: “it’s really just a piece of parchment.  It has no power on its own.  We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make.”

The “participation and choices” which Obama speaks of is, in this instance, a description of constitutional praxis – the process by which the law is interpreted, reflected upon, incorporated and then lived by “We the People”.

To Islamic scholars, the praxis concept is encapsulated by a process called ijtihad – the mental and physical effort which connects the Muslim vida contemplativa with the vida activa (to revisit Arendt). Ijtihad therefore, is the process (thus the praxis) through which interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence are constructed. It follows then, that because jurisprudential interpretation is ultimately subjective, sharia (the legal aspect of Islam) cannot be thought of as comprising a single codex and, much like constitutional opinion amongst American jurists, cannot be understood as a monolithic bloc that regulates Muslim behaviour in any single way.

For this reason – that is, because the ijtihad process produces many different interpretations of both sharia and Islam itself, it is uniquely artless to paint a literal “broad church” with such a broad brush stroke. Likewise and for the very same reason, it is equally artless for one to imply that ISIS’ worldview has “nothing to do with Islam” (this is often described as an “apologist” statement by those who themselves detest the label “Islamophobic”).

Having said that, I suspect that there are very few serious scholars of Islam who would claim that Islamist extremism has “nothing to do with Islam”. As both Shadi Hamid and Reza Aslan have argued – it’s not that ISIS’ ideology is “not Islamic” per se (because the very nebulous nature of religious praxis means that if one says it is Islamic then it is Islamic) but rather that using ISIS as a case study to inform a generalization about what it means to be a Muslim is inaccurate and unfair to Muslim minorities in the West.  As such, despite the shrill cries ringing out from the far-reaches of the internet that terrorist-sympathising “snowflake SJW apologists” are amassing in their “safe spaces” to measure just how little of nothing terrorism has to do with Islam, I’m yet to come across any serious peer-reviewed research that would a claim like “ISIS’ foot-soldiers are Muslims”. The critique, therefore, is probably a straw-man argument.

In many ways then, the greatest intellectual failure of “the anti-Islam school” (that is, the school formerly known as “Islamophobic” Prince logo.svg), lies not in its interpretation of Islamic text per se but rather in its refusal to include a discussion of praxis into how Islam is actually lived – that is, the inability to see Islam not merely as a set of practices but also as a process by which the practitioner interprets text and engages with the sacred.

Certainly, it is possible that one could conclude that the Qur’an is intrinsically violent or misogynistic if one selectively read (as ISIS does) verses like 9:5 or 4:34 to the exclusion of contradicting verses like 109:6 and 30:21 (even though, as the anti-Islam school will tell you, later-occurring verses are supposed to abrogate earlier verses). Yes, if you read the Qur’an like that you might find “Islam [monolithic]” guilty of many crimes.

But of course, in order to find Islam guilty of these crimes, one would also have to refute the role of praxis in producing human behaviour – discounting, for example, the possibility that Islam is a living breathing religion (defined by heterodoxy) or that Muslims are followers of a constantly-evolving faith, a community possessing of a diverse collection of doxa that oscillate from “asymptote to asymptote”. So yes, if one used such a myopic approach – that is, if one employed a textualist, literalist, atomistic, and wholly un-holistic approach to religion as an entire field of study, ignoring the fact that interpretation matters or dismissing the empirically-tested finding that diversity of religious opinion exists even in small-scale societies – you might conclude that Islam is, must be, has to be “bad”, “evil”, “antithetical to Western democracy”… as Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie seems to have concluded.

Naturally, if you use this approach, you’ll probably not find much intellectual backing for your work outside the various (group)think-tanks run by Daniel Pipes or Robert Spencer (or, indeed, Richard Spencer). But then, “left-wing SJWs on university campuses”, right?

Ultimately, the bottom line is this: giving credence to the praxis concept is absolutely critical to the study of Islam [not monolithic]. Moreover, if one actually goes out on the streets and talks to Muslims about how they interpret the Qur’an and how that interpretation influences their behaviour (note: this requires interacting with a sample size that is larger than the cellblock of Camp X-Ray or the mullet-wearing Lebanese teenagers hanging out in hotted-up cars down the road), one would probably conclude that diversity of opinion in a religious congregation which comprises more than a fifth of the world’s population might well be infinite; that praxis is really the only thing that counts when crafting generalisations about “Muslims”; and that ultimately, the Qur’an (regardless of whether or not it is the word of God) is simply a collection of words recorded on a sheaf of palm-fronds. To borrow again from Obama, the Qur’an exists but it is up to Muslims through their “participation and choices” to interpret it and live it.

It might seem bizarre that a religion which regulates its phases of worship according to incremental changes in the lunar cycle could have so much diversity of thought. Here though, it’s worth noting that, according to hadith, the notion of ikhtilaf (Arabic: إختلاف) meaning “difference” or “diversity” was seen as a blessing by Muhammad. Indeed, according to a comprehensive study of the subject by Musawaikhtilaf  al-fuqaha (“diversity of opinion amongst jurists”) not only existed as far back as the Abbasid Caliphate but was also respected as a necessary part of realising a truer, greater Islam.

A non-Muslim interested in thinking more about praxis might consider his own practices, and the contemplation-action algorithm that led him there. If, for example, one ascribes to the Christian faith and goes to church every Sunday, consider the following passage in Matthew 6:4-6:6.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Would one say then, that conducting the Sunday ritual at church is “un-Christian”? The answer, of course, is “no”. The only thing that matters here, beyond your self-identification as a “Christian”, is the praxis which underpins the religious choices you have made. In the end, the process of selecting the Sunday ritual and participating in the ritual itself, is the only bit that matters.

Down and Out in Squamish & Whistler

A version of this article was published in the Winter/Spring 2017 edition of Mountain Life.

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Illustration: Dave Barnes

Dirtbag (noun): English portmanteau of “dirt” from the Old Norse “drit” meaning “excrement”; and “bag” from the Ancient Greek “bastagma” meaning “load” – lit. therefore: “load of excrement”.

  1. A bag or sack with dirt in it.
  2. An unkempt or slovenly person; an undesirable.

~~~

Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course–but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless…” – George Orwell

~~~

We spent the first year and a half of our life in the Sea to Sky corridor sleeping in the back of a rusty red work van with the words “Ville de Montréal” tacked on the side. We’d driven the van from Québec across the continental US (where gas was cheaper), arriving finally in Squamish – the outdoor capital of Canada.

Of course, I say “sleeping” in the back of the van because all of our living was being done outside of it – climbing, hiking and skiing. Anyway, on day three in town, after we’d made some mandatory repairs to our ailing vehicle, my girlfriend Eleanor tallied up the finances and discovered that we had eighty-three dollars between us. Eleanor had lined up a cash job at a dog kennel so we figured – with a splash of cautious optimism – that the receipt of a paycheque was feasible within two weeks. This left us, if we divided eighty-three by fourteen, with a per diem of five loons and ninety-two cents. A share-sized pepperoni pizza from Little Caesar’s cost $5.85 which left seven cents a day for whatever our hearts desired.

The point is we were poor. Which didn’t matter because we were happy. Although, to be fair, if we were a little less poor it’s not unreasonable to think that we might have been a little more happy.

In the meantime, we parked out front of the Walmart to access wifi and since we also frequently stayed there for the night, we listed that lot as our address when we switched over to British Columbia driver’s licenses. It was also a good place for the essentials – ramen, oatmeal and energy bars – because even when you live under the breadline you still have to line up for your bread.

We were, in the colourful parlance of the outdoors, a couple of “dirtbags” – living a life divided almost exclusively between Walmart, work, and the walls of the Stawamus Chief – the great totem-like stone around which the climber configures his existence.

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The “dirtbag” of course, is less a species of outdoorsman and more a genus of outdoorsman – an umbrella term which describes a variety of different types of people who prioritise experience over possessions and adventure over stability. For example, during the summer, the dirtbag scene in the parking lot of the Stawamus Chief can be subdivided into three different social strata.

At the top of the dirtbag pyramid (and the closest this world gets to an aristocracy) are the Sprinter van dirtbags. Often, a Sprintocrat hails from outside the Sea to Sky Corridor, piloting vehicles with license plates from such far-flung places as California or Colorado. In the sense then that Sprinter dirtbags are usually holidaymakers or professional athletes (and often both) they tend to “eat cake”, so to speak, while the lower-tier dirtbags (les paysans) must use wit and cunning in their search for daily bread.

One tier down, the dirtbag middle class constitutes the only working class amongst the dirtbags. Typically, they are “local” in the sense that Squamish, Whistler or Pemberton are the listed towns of residence on their driver’s licenses. In the eyes of many well-settled, land-owning locals however, the inherent kinesis of the dirtbag sleeping quarters means that the middle class dirtbag can only ever be considered “drifters” or “freeloaders” – terms that both come with a history of social and political baggage.

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It’s a misnomer of course, as middle class dirtbags generally occupy all the lowest-paying positions in the modern industrial economy. Operating lifts, selling tickets, pouring drinks, manning checkouts and ferrying cartons of hamburger meat up and down scenic gondolas, the middle class dirtbag is the oxygen-transporting haemoglobin of the Sea to Sky service economy without which there would be no French fries and nobody to hate on.

To make matters worse, a working class dirtbag is also derided as a “granola” by the lower dirtbags stratums for his or her ability to financially access the more bourgeois of the cereal options. So, much like middle classes the world over, the granola dirtbag gets all the loathing that comes with privilege without actually being privileged.

The final class of dirtbag (the dirtbag in its purest form) is the species a naturalist might refer to as “homo dirtbag dirtbagius” but whom others might refer to as “the lowest of the low”. These are dirtbags in their natural state, lifers who typically reside beneath tarps and tents and if a car is even owned at all, it is rarely greater in size than a Honda Civic. Although usually male, they come from many different backgrounds – young, old, Ontarian, Quebecois, often Australian.

This lowest form of dirtbag, it must be said, does not work, but then as Orwell once quipped “what, indeed, is work?” The Sprintocrats work by uploading filtered images to the Instagram accounts of outdoor clothing companies, the granolas work by serving beers to hedge-fund managers with goggle tans and the true dirtbag woks by bin-diving for the curd gristle on a discarded plate of poutine or by hoovering up the remnants of a half-eaten sandwich in a day-lodge cafeteria – to keep away the bears of course.

Insofar as these bin-diving, pow-shredding, rock-scampering dirtbags are usually cognitively-functioning members of society, most are, at the very least, physically competent to commence work. This means that social mobility across the three dirtbag strata is fairly easy. The lowest dirtbag can become a granola simply by getting a job and the granola can become a member of the Sprinter-owning class, provided that he is happy to shoulder a lifetime of debt for an overpriced vehicle.

Thriftiness defines the dirtbag and so does mobility. He knows that twenty dollars of gas will get him from Squamish to Whistler and back in his beat-up gas-guzzler. But he also knows that he must factor in the very real possibility that his van might never restart when he makes for a tactical exit in the wintry pre-dawn from his illegal bivouac in the Lot 4 parking lot. Fringe-dwelling aside, he is a good enough fellow – grateful even of his mountain life.

Indeed, for the dirtbag, the mobility afforded by life in a car is better than paying somebody else’s mortgage. It gives one freedom of movement. Squamish in the summer, winter at Roger’s Pass and perhaps a trip to Indian Creek or Bella Coola in the shoulder seasons if he can skimp to together the gas money.

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Certainly, there isn’t much incentive for the dirtbag to sedentarise in today’s housing market. With a detached single bedroom likely to cost the dirtbag one thousand two hundred dollars per month, renting a place in Squamish or Whistler, share house or not, may as well involve speculating in Texan cattle ranches. So, for many, the time spent dreaming about living in a home is better spent cross-checking the calorie content of a can of tuna.

With the reasons for dirt-bagging being wholly rational then, the only question that remains is “why is the dirtbag hated?” Well, no one really hates the dirtbag. “Hate” is a word best saved for that moment when the Vancouverites cruise into Creekside at 7’oclock in the morning on Opening Day and find not a single spot available. The parking lot is full of dirtbags. They’ve taken on the Goretex-clad pelage of the dirtbag in winter form – the “ski-bum”… and they’ve slept there overnight.

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A working class dirtbag, on patrol

 

 

Post-Inaugural Review: “Crippled America” by Donald J. Trump

Trump, DJ. 2015. ‘Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again’. Simon & Schuster.

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There’s a great review out there from a well-known English writer on the life’s work of an equally well-known European politician. It is a short and succinct book review, one that neither holds its punches nor wastes precious words on unnecessary bluster.

For example, reviewing the politician’s appearance on the inside cover jacket, the reviewer describes “a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs” where “the initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at”.

To some, judging an author’s work by his physical appearance might seem a bit superficial, but in the reviewer’s opinion, this dog-like face is the key to understanding everything about the work itself. It is this same grimace, he argues – that ugly, angry, ever-present, ever-pernicious and eternally self-pitying grimace – which permeates the text entire. The world inhabited by this politician-author, it seems, is a world where “he is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds”.

The “odds”, of course, are not odds at all – they are “dragons made from mice”. And yet even despite all that, and despite knowing that the man’s cranium is merely the vessel of a brain whose only political vision is the creation of a “horrible brainless empire” the reviewer puts the book down feeling that somehow and for some bizarre reason, that same politician actually deserves to win.

The review was written by George Orwell and the book was written by Adolf Hitler and just as it is with the Hurst and Blackett’s edition of Mein Kampf, there is an equally awful portrait of Donald Trump on the cover of his own political treatise – Crippled America.

I never wanted to buy a copy of Crippled America nor, really, did I want to read it. Sure, I’d seen it in the airport bookshops and noted it trending in the top 10 on Amazon. One time, I even picked it off a news-stand and flicked through it while browsing for a gift for somebody I didn’t like. For mere amusement, of course. Not to buy. I didn’t dislike the person that much.

Certainly, my intention was never to read it – cover-to-cover. I didn’t need to read Crippled America because Trump wasn’t going to win was he? All that nonsense being played out on cable news was just nonsense after all wasn’t it? All that bluster was just bluster. And all that rhetoric – that divisive, callous rhetoric – was sure to secure Mr Trump a crippling defeat. Right? One needn’t bother with the campaign chargers of the political runners-up of the world.

Election day came however, and Trump won and I was wrong and so were all the polls and so here I am reviewing Crippled America by Donald J Trump – well, reviewing the front cover at the very least.

The term “angrily indifferent” best describes the President’s facial expression on the cover because though he is very clearly frowning, one also gets the feeling that the frown is anything but sincere – that Trump isn’t really angry at all – that really in the end, he couldn’t care in the slightest about anything beyond himself – including whatever is written in his own book.

His oft-remarked-upon hair-do and rouge-orange skin is conspicuously present in the photograph as well, and with a patch of white around the temples it is feasible to imagine that the photo’s subject is not a mannequin made from wax even if the cheeks have been touched up with foundation and Photoshop.

In his dark navy suit and blue tie Donald J Trump dominates the portrait – the flabby, ichthyic hands which others have remarked upon shrewdly kept out of frame. Of course, the blue of Trump’s tie clashes with his strong-man posturing, leaving the viewer with a strange mix-mash of confusing imagery – speaking to a depiction of a Republican war-horse trying desperately to leave the body of a New York draft-dodger wearing the political colors of the Democratic party.

Still, and to his credit, Trump is very present on that book cover of his – more present than were the crowds at his Inauguration anyway – and though there is a great deal about this portrait that hints of an individual who is secretly insecure, impotent and ultimately pathetic, the President is to be applauded for his tremendous tremendous, tremendously successful presence on the front cover of that book of his.

And indeed, just as Trump lords over the cover photograph, the title of the book, “Crippled America” lords over the book’s subtitle (“how to make America great again”) as well, such that one feels that the bit about America being crippled is actually the good bit and the bit about making it great again is only a campaign motto… A campaign motto designed only to win an election and continue on with the crippling.

The copy I have is a hardcover, so naturally it is hard and straight-edged, and the back cover features praise from such notaries as Robert Redford and Mark Cuban – both of whom have since disavowed him.

Then there is the smell. When one opens up the jacket of the hardcover one is met with that partially-familiar scent of new book. And perhaps Trump himself is best thought of as a fragrance – a fragrance hinting at substance but lacking it nonetheless. Because unlike the earthy smell of fresh-pulped wood, the smell of my copy was a wholly synthetic one – more chemical than ambrosial. Likewise, in 2012, when Macy’s released Success, Trump’s very own eau de cologne, the reviewers also noted that it smelled not like Indian vetiver and fresh bamboo (as promised) but rather like “soap”. Artificial, distasteful, toxic to children. That’s the fragrance of Trump – and his book.

The words themselves fare no better either and much of the book reads like the label on one of his fragrances. The phrase “everyone is eating our lunch” appears in the first paragraph while “that’s not winning” forms the basis of the very next clause.

That said, by paragraph three we are invited to an infinitely more pleasing prospect when Trump alludes to a potential way out for everyone with a stake in his Presidency (hot tip: that’s everyone). “If I ran my business that way [the non-winning way],” Trump says of superpowers that don’t do enough winning. “I’d fire myself.”

One can only hope that America’s lunches keep get eating by others because right now it seems like a multinational blitzkrieg of lunch-eating is the only way we can all be rid of the man.

In the meantime, I hear that since Trump has become President, Crippled America: How to Make America Great has been republished as Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America with the emphasis now put on the “great again” part. First impressions of the reprint – there are substantial improvements in the cover design. It’s a nice touch but the words are the same so it’s kind of like the gold drapes in the Oval Office – a flashy distraction to avert one’s gaze from the empty vessel of a man sitting at the desk.  I can only hold my breath for the next campaign book when Trump runs for a second term – impeachments notwithstanding. The title, I hear, will be called Dammit, Crippled Again but the President hasn’t thought of a subtitle yet***.

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Please don’t buy this

 

*** Note: I’ve had some great feedback about potential subtitles for the next campaign book. My favourite so far is “Dammit Crippled Again: But How About that Crowd Size?” In the spirit of internet collaboration, feel free to add your own in the comment section – even if you’re an alt-right troll.

Les Canadiens Errants

Last night, in Sainte-Foy, Quebec, a 27-year-old French-Canadian walked into a mosque and slaughtered six people as they knelt before the god of their choosing during evening prayers. Sainte-Foy sits at the edge of the Gulf of St Lawrence – that great expanse of water mapped centuries ago by the naval explorer Jacques Cartier. In mapping this shore, Cartier’s objective was to claim new territory for France – to light the way so that others might immigrate to a new world. In time, those others came. Ship after ship, family after family and eventually those immigrants created a new country and called it Canada.

And so Canada today is a melting pot – a land where “hopes are high”; a “model of how people of different cultures can live and work together” – a land where “diversity is our strength”.

Last night, however, a snow-covered suburb in sleepy Ste-Foy was the scene of unimaginable violence. Sainte-Foy is just a few hours from the farm where my father grew up, and for much of my upbringing in Australia, the far-flung province of Quebec had always seemed a distant second homeland – la patrie de mon père – my father’s birthplace. Canada and Australia are both Western countries, I was taught, and because of that they have shared values. Democracy, diversity, equality before the law. These were the values that both of my grandfathers fought for during World War II – one in the Australian Army and one in the Canadian Army.

But now, watching as incommensurable ideological changes sweep across the Western world, I wonder – do we Westerners value diversity and equality anymore?

“This was a group of innocents targeted for practicing their faith,” said Prime Minister Trudeau in a statement before the Canadian parliament, the morning after the attacks. Read that again. “Targeted for practicing their faith”. Targeted for kneeling on the floor in search of a spiritual connection with a higher being.

Is this acceptable now? Are there proscriptions on the gods we are allowed to pray to? Are there parts of the world where a Westerner is not allowed to be born in? Are there people on this earth who will never be allowed to count themselves among us simply because of the god they choose to pray to and the holy book they choose to follow?

“My worthiness stems from my faith and labor” reads the motto of the city of Ste-Foy and yet, yesterday, a young French-Canadian walked into a mosque and shot six people precisely because of their faith. The Islamic faith, by his reckoning, is unwelcome in the West – so violence was how he chose to welcome it. Six Canadians now lie dead – their bodies cold on a slab in some wintry morgue.

“Un canadien errant / Banni de ses foyers” sings the most famous Quebecois folk song. “A wandering Canadian / Banished from his hearth”. But it is not just one of us – the disturbed son of Ste-Foy last night – who is lost. We are all lost.

How did we end up here? Hate, of course.

Even as the smell of cordite hung heavy in the air of the Ste-Foy mosque, a member of my own family – an “ironic” supporter of the alt-right movement in the West– messaged me with “news” that the attacks had been committed by a pair of Muslim refugees who had entered Canada last week. Of course, it was just a “troll” he said and I had been “triggered”. That six people had just been shot to death was apparently lost on him but as we have learned in recent months trolling is the signature of the alt-right and the context never matters.

Elsewhere and everywhere on Twitter, on Facebook and sometimes even in the news media, the alternative facts were multiplying. The shooter was Syrian, no Moroccan, no d’origine Arabe… But then, when the details of the case became clear – that the shooter was not a refugee (nor even a recent immigrant) but rather a home-grown, born-and-bred citizen of Canada, the alt-right Twittersphere retreated, confused. “Canada attack doesn’t make sense,” tweeted Tommy Robinson, a leader of the far-right English Defence League. “Unless the Mohammed guy’s an apostate”.

It is true, that blame for the mindless slaughter rests solely in the hands of the young man from Ste-Foye. But just as an extremely selective, simplistic and not at all holistic reading of Islamic texts has produced the phenomenon we know today as jihadism, so too is it reasonable to deduce that the stereotyping, hatred and intolerance ubiquitous in the discourse of the far-right has created a set of conditions which allowed Ste-Foy to occur.

The Trump effect, it seems, has already gone transnational. Here, north of the border of all places, the consequences of his rhetoric are already being felt. The real “carnage”, it seems, is not the dystopian realm of rusted factories described by the President at his Inauguration. No, the real “tombstones scattered across the landscape” are those of the actual dead – those whose bodies lie riddled with bullets even as the President’s divisive rhetoric continues.

“This is Allah’s home,” said one Quebecoise woman, surveying the aftermath in Ste-Foy. “There was blood spilled on the floor.”

Of course, the president of a foreign country is not responsible for the attack that occurred last night in my father’s patrie. In this case, the blame rests firmly in the lap of a disturbed young man. Perhaps now though, even Donald Trump can see how hateful words can lead to violence. Perhaps now he can see how unfair it is to paint a whole people with a broad stroke of the same brush. How tragic that it would take the deaths of six innocent people for him to realize that.

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Donald Trump: “Syrian? Muslim? Leave!”

Jihadism on the Move in Mali

Last Wednesday, a suicide bomber linked to one of Al-Qaeda’s North African affiliates detonated a vehicle filled with explosives inside a military barracks in the Malian town of Gao. Jihadist violence is not uncommon in the country’s north but the death toll for this attack, at 77, was unprecedented – even amidst the current climate of insecurity.

Even though suicide bombers have hit Malian targets before, the January 18 bombing in Gao was demonstrative of a new trend in Malian jihadism: movement. While an identical attack would not be surprising if it had been carried out by a disaffected local in a Saharan border town further north, the Gao bombing is the latest in a series of events which indicate that jihadism is on the move in the country.

Spreading beyond its traditional base of support within marginalised Tuareg and Arab groups, the Malian jihadist movement is franchising and establishing new roots in ethnically heterogeneous areas – shifting the operational focus away from the sparsely-populated and largely-ungoverned Sahara and towards the semi-arable lands south.

This process has been nebulous and subtle, but the spread into central and even southern Mali has been ongoing for the last two years even if, for the most part, it has escaped much of the world’s attention. In recent months though, the movement’s footprint in the Gao and Mopti regions has increased and support for jihadist sentiment at the grassroots level is beginning to show.

On September 3, a platoon-sized group of jihadists riding motorcycles attacked and briefly occupied the village of Boni, the chef-lieu (seat of power) of an ethnic Fulani commune located south and west of Gao on the road to Mopti. The assailants were natives of the nearby hamlet of Sorma, and the attack was an attempt to kidnap or kill Boni’s mayor, Hamadoun Dicko. They failed, but on Wednesday – just hours before the explosion went off in Gao – Dicko was shot in the head as he exited Boni’s local mosque.

In this instance, the killing of a local mayor is not just local news. The Dicko slaying, as part of a textbook jihadist strategy that leverages propaganda of the deed from political assassinations, was only a supporting effort in a re-energised campaign to destabilise events in central Mali from the ground up.

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Mud mosque in the Mopti region

Everywhere on the road between Gao and Mopti attacks are increasing:

  • December 20: the livestock market in the town of Hombori was attacked by a group of jihadists.
  • December 24: a Swiss-French aid worker and longtime resident of Gao was kidnapped in broad daylight.
  • December 26: jihadists attacked a Malian National Guard convoy en route to Gao from the town of Gossi.
  • January 23: an IED attack against a Malian Army convoy travelling on the same road resulted in the deaths of three soldiers.
  • January 24: another Malian army convoy struck an IED while travelling between Douentza and Hombori. The number of dead is unknown but several of the wounded were evacuated to Sévaré in a critical condition.

The recent jihadist activity in the Hombori-Gao region, which seems now to have culminated in a massive attack against the joint-security base in Gao, is indicative of an increasing climate of violence in a part of Mali that until very recently was comparatively quiet.

Jihadism is no longer a metastasis which is endemic to a select few Arab and Tuareg clans dwelling in Mali’s northern fringes; it is on the move and it is “jumping” ethnicity, finding a home with new groups – Songhai, Fulani and others.

The Gao attack’s body count, though horrifically high, is not its most noteworthy aspect. Neither really is its location since we know from recent events in Istanbul, Jakarta, Ouagadougou, Brussels, Grande-Bassam, Orlando, Dhakar, Nice, Paris, Berlin, Sydney and Medina, that terrorism can happen anywhere – even, in the case of Medina, at the very heart of the Islamic faith.

What is most noteworthy about the Gao bombing is the identity of the bomber. In the Al-Qaeda statement claiming responsibility for the attack, the bomber was referred to as “Abdul Hadi Al-Fulani” – which is to say the man self-identified as an ethnic Fulani.

The growing Fulani vanguard in Mali’s jihadist insurgency is worthy of further attention. Indeed, with the recent emergence in 2015 and 2016 of a new group called the Front de Libération de Macina (FLM) – which aims to recruit Fulani fighters from Central Mali – this problem is likely to worsen unless it is treated.

The leader of FLM, Amadou Kouffa, a fiery preacher from the town of Konna (also located on the road between Gao and Mopti) has both a jihadist and a revanchist vision for Mali. Invoking the restoration of the “once great” Massina Empire – a Fulani Islamist state that ruled over the Niger River basin in the 1800s – Kouffa’s vision fuses the primacy of the tribe with the primacy of sharia in a way which is both highly dangerous and highly appealing to vulnerable Fulani populations. If the underlying causes of the spread of jihadism in central and southern Mali remain unexamined and untreated, the frequency of attacks like the one in Gao may increase.

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Fulani travellers pray with Malian soldiers at a post on the border between Mali and Burkina Faso.

The impact of such an invigorated jihadist insurgency in central Mali could be serious and have follow-on effects for regional security. Already, there are early indications of recruits from neighbouring Burkina Faso joining the movement in Mali. One country over, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram also continues to amass support and project power across territory in four West African countries.

A worst-case scenario would be the destabilisation of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Cameroon and the establishment of an African shadow caliphate resembling ISIS. This is some way off but the repercussions of such a prospect would be felt globally. The knock-on effects would include larger refugee populations, stresses on petroleum production and the establishment of a new sanctuary for jihadist training and recruitment. All of the above would have large in kind implications for citizens of Western countries.

We must do our best to address the structural problems and inequalities (whatever they may be) that are perpetuating jihadism at the micro-local level – even in the smallest of central Mali’s Fulani communes. We need to know more because if the problem is left unchecked, the jihadist spread in West Africa will continue to grow.

Melbourne Xmas Terror Plot: Enduring Anomaly

Earlier today, a multi-agency policing operation spearheaded by Victoria Police and supported by the AFP and ASIO, successfully averted a terrorist attack against targets in Melbourne’s CBD. Four of the five would-be attackers, it seems, are young members of the Lebanese-Australian community. They were born here, raised here and now they have been charged with preparing to detonate improvised explosive devices in a major Australian city.

This plot comes at the end of an extremely violent year which has seen salafi-jihadism predominating as the main driver of terrorism worldwide. At the same time, Australia’s Lebanese migrant community is also in the spotlight, often as a favourite case study for politicians to publicly examine the outcomes of immigration from the Middle East. Multi-culturalism is being challenged by very loud voices. Nativism is on the rise. Here the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton’s controversial comments in Parliament last month, which rightfully drew the ire of the Lebanese-Australian community, are particularly telling. Fear is rife in everyone’s analyses of the problem.

But while ISIS-inspired terrorist plots are on the rise in Australia, as I’ve written previously, the nativist movement which is sweeping the West – exemplified by Trump, Brexit, Le Pen and One Nation – is a phenomenon which is tied to “fear of small numbers” – an inflated perception of actual risk.

At first glance, Dutton’s comment that “of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second and third generation Lebanese-Muslim background” seems pretty alarming. In many ways it is pretty alarming. As a court statistic based in fact it shows that terrorism in Australia is fast becoming a disproportionately ethnic problem. There is a problem amongst Lebanese-Australian youth which police and community groups need to redress. Even still, we need not let the Minister’s alarmism colour our perceptions of the Lebanese community as a whole. If there are in fact 22 young terrorists out of a community of 203,139 (the number of Australians who claimed Lebanese ancestry in the 2011 Census) a better way to truly gauge the scale of the problem comes from appreciating the reality that only 0.0108% of Lebanese-Australians have demonstrable ties to terror***. If we restrict the sample size to the 37% of Lebanese-Australians who identify as Muslim, that still only leaves us with a percentage of 0.029% who have been charged with terrorist offences.

Of course, singling out entire groups of people because of the actions of a few is not novel in Australian political life. In 1915, when a pair of Afghan cameleers carried out Australia’s first mass atrocity event at Broken Hill, an angry mob descended on an Afghan camp seeking revenge. Later that evening, they burned down the local German club, blaming enemy aliens for agitating the assailants. 90 years later, the rioters at Cronulla were channeling a similar kind of rage. Both responses were executed in a fearful, post-fact environment – one which overlooked the fact that Afghan camel-drivers formed the backbone of the trans-continental transportation industry in early Australia or, in the case of Sydney in 2005, that Lebanese-Australians were major contributors to local economic growth in manufacturing and small business.

That said then, when Minister Dutton talks about “calling out” (that is, by discriminating against) the Lebanese-Australian community for its links to terrorism, he is not being “honest” at all. But this is frequently the problem with those who proudly wear the badge of “political incorrectness”. More often than not, they are simply incorrect.

As far as policy is concerned, a multi-generational, intra-communal crisis like the one currently effecting the Lebanese-Australian community isn’t something that governments can tempest-harden against with ham-fisted responses. The eventuality that a Lebanese refugee’s grandson would one day become involved with a terrorist group (ISIS) that didn’t even exist in the 70s is  what military planners would call a “second or third order effect”. These effects are often incredibly difficult to predict. In the above case, it was impossible to predict.

In the case of today’s terror plot, a moratorium on Muslim immigration to Australia isn’t going to end the hatred and alienation currently being felt and expressed by a vulnerable demographic of second-generation and third-generation Muslim-Australians. On the contrary, it will make the problem worse. Instead of “throwing out the poisoned Skittle bowl” as Donald Trump’s son crassly suggested during his father’s campaign, our counter-terrorism efforts should focus on selectively removing the poisoned Skittles from the bowl (that is, by adequately resourcing and supporting our police and intelligence agencies) and working with community groups to neutralise the poison entirely.

Beyond this, bandying about alarmist crime statistics during Parliamentary Question Time is only going to make the problem worse. As former Liberal leader and now-ANU professor John Hewson wrote of Minister Dutton’s comments in Parliament: “while the Government has recognised the desperate need to rely on the cooperation of the Islamic communities to out potential terrorists as an essential element of its national security and anti-terrorism strategy, Dutton has sought to name and shame a particular segment of that community: Lebanese-Muslims”.

Better understanding the causes of social alienation is the key to solving the problem – not closing the gates on the alienated entirely. In the case of Mullah Abdullah, one of the perpetrators of the Broken Hill attacks in 1915, his alienation began on “the day some larrikin threw stones at me” for wearing his turban.

The bottom line, therefore, is this. Responding to domestic terror plots by engaging in activities (legislative, on the street or otherwise) which go against our fundamental national values is not the solution. Permanently closing our borders to innocent people fleeing terrorism will not prevent Australian-born citizens from committing acts of terror in the towns they grew up in. Similarly, oppressing Australian Muslims on the street will not end the scourge of salafi-jihadism.  By choosing to wage a war against Christmas, the terrorists are doing this themselves. Eventually, support for their barbaric violence will dwindle. In the long run, no one likes a Grinch.

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*** Edit & author’s note: A commenter below rightly pointed out that the 2011 Census statistic is too broad for use here as it doesn’t differentiate between religious background (obviously Lebanese-Muslims are the central focus here) or between various waves of migration. There is relevant chat in there so I added the math for Lebanese-Muslims too. Of course, if it is true that the Census stat doesn’t tell us much about a topical demographic than Dutton’s statistic doesn’t really tell us much about the same demographic as a whole either. At least, no more than a statement like “52% of homicide in the US is committed by African-Americans whereas less than 2% of American Presidents have been African-American” tells us anything about where African-American community interests and values lie as a whole. This of course is the problem with quantitative data (and the reason I studied anthropology which relies more heavily on the qualitative kind) – stats can be twisted to give gross misrepresentations of the scale of the problem. There is a good post about the neutrality of crime statistics here.

Aleppo

On Wednesday, I surfed a quiet break on the southeast coast of Australia while the Syrian government, aided by Russian forces, closed in on the final rebel stronghold in eastern Aleppo. At the beach, the day was dark and rainy and a fierce cross-wind was sewing disorder amongst the waves. In Aleppo, I suppose, the skies would have been grey as well – that same dusty grey that accompanies the biting cold which blasts through during the week before Christmas.

As the bombs fell on that distant urban battlefield, I rode the same wave again and again, wondering periodically, between sets, what was happening to the town I’d called home for a few months before the war.

It was 2011 and a week or two after New Year’s. The day was cold and the skies were grey – that cold, lifeless grey that hovers over desert places in the winter. Beside the plaza beneath the Citadel, I sat on an open-aired divan in the warmth of a heatlamp, quietly taking in my surroundings. Our final Arabic exam was over and I’d gone out with some friends for shai and shisha to celebrate and even though I was outside and even though the hookah had been taken away by the waiter when the others had left, the air about me still smelled of apple-smoke.

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Above me, atop the sweep of stone and dirt that formed the castle mount and atop the stone walls of that very same mountain’s castle, a pair of Syrian army soldiers were stood, in view and a little apart from each other, on the ramparts looking down at the square. Assault rifles hung from their shoulders. There was a certain newness to this pair of Syrian Army soldiers and I noticed this newness because these soldiers had not been up on those walls during my previous visits to the square.

Still, while I remarked on the change, whatever that change might indicate, I thought very little of it, because down in the plaza everything looked the same. A young man in an ankle-length qamis sat by himself on an oblong bench beneath a lamp-post, his slippered feet flat and uniform on the smooth stone beneath him. Beside him, another man, apparently unknown to him, was quietly eating his lunch. A hundred or so metres away, at the Citadel’s entrance steps, an Iranian family was scattered in a photo-taking gaggle, smiling and trading places in the pictures. Meanwhile and aloof from both groups, on the far side of the square – a pair of Eastern European women with dyed white hair, powdered faces and form-fitting clothing (clothing which suggested their profession without explaining their profession) was stood next to the retaining wall, sharing a fume-cigarette between them.

They are Romanian or Bulgarian perhaps, I mused – though here in Aleppo, apparently, it didn’t matter because Syrians simply called all such women “Russi”. “Russi” meant “Russian” in Arabic though in this context it had a very different meaning indeed.

My time in this city was coming to an end and even though I’d had my ear to the ground just long enough to pick up a few of the above such colloquialisms I really knew nothing of Aleppo. I knew, of course, those humdrum factoids that every foreign visitor learns on arrival and that every Aleppan is quick to remind you of when you strike up a conversation about their hometown: that Abraham was supposed to have milked his herd here (from which the city gets its Arabic name “Halab” – as in “haleeb” meaning “milk”); that even though Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world Aleppo appears in the written historical record much earlier; or that the capture of Aleppo marked the final victory of the Arab Revolt and that TE Lawrence was known afterwards to enjoy a nightcap in the swanky lounges of the Baron Hotel.

I knew those little factoids. In truth though, I knew very little. So while my friends went back to the hotel to smoke those thick, heavy cigarettes which you can only buy in the Middle East, I decided I would linger a while, delay my journey home, for a final wander through the city – to feel its rhythms one last time.

I stood up and walked across the square and, finding the entrance to the Old Souq, I slipped down the steps and into the tunnel. It was late in the day and the market stalls were beginning to close up. The hawkers were still hawking but their hawking was more languid now – quieter, calmer, less desperate. One or two or three of them were drinking little shot-glasses of sweet tea, incuriously watching me from behind an over-stuffed rack of cheap toys from China.

I walked past the bath-house where some friends and I had had the best wash of our lives but the bathing time was later in the evening so the door was bolted shut. I moved on past a row of spice and fruit stalls remarking, as ever, the colourful arrangements of cinnamon, saffron and dates in their hessian baskets. The aroma of cardamom hung heavy on the air.

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I passed the little hole-in-the-wall that had become a favourite for an after-class snack. Freshly-squeezed juice (the unsweetened-but-still-sweet kind that leaves tassels of pulp between your teeth) with flatbread and a tray of humus dripping in olive oil. They’d finished making juice for the day but I bought a half-dozen circles of bread to go with dinner. The bread wasn’t fresh-baked like it was around lunchtime but even if it was a little hard and a little cold it would do for supper.

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Bagging the bread, I took off again with the ancient tunnel arches of the marketplace still overhead. Taking a side exit then, I wandered out into the open air – still cold and still grey – and past the Ummayad Mosque – the centrepiece of Aleppan Sunnism. The minaret, with its gingerbread stonework, towered above the street but the muezzin was not calling because prayer-time was over and the faithful were flooding out into the cold air as well – the women in their hijab, the men in their taqiyah – dispersing into the streets as they set off on their way home for dinner and rest.

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A few blocks and a series of side-alleys later (the exact route of which I cannot remember) and I stood before the big black iron-clad door that marked the language institute in which we’d studied. The door which led into our classroom – a medieval vault – was slammed shut now and Ali, my Arabic teacher, would be going home tomorrow. “This place is a powder-keg” was the last thing he’d say to me before he left.

I turned the alley-corner and passed by a grated booth in the wall, and though everything was closed now I knew that there was a government-run bakery inside – one which issued loaves of bread around lunchtime – a scene of daily subsidized chaos.

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I was halfway home now and turning the corner again, I wondered off through the local meat market – a vegetarian’s nightmare – cow’s heads on plates, dead chickens with hooks through their necks – and I passed out into the street again – past a take-away joint with a neon sign reading “Mr Chicken” in English and a line of backgammon halls, always teeming with coffee-sipping patrons, where Don and I had gone one afternoon to learn what all the fuss was about.

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The main street which led back into the Christian Quarter was teeming with traffic – old, smelly cars driven by leather-jacketed locals honking furiously in the grey-golden light of peak hour. I walked past the white-walled boundary of an international hotel – perhaps it was the Carlton, but I can’t quite recall anymore – and, stepping over the carcass of a dead street cat, made a decisive bid to cross the street. The cars weaved around me, the drivers adjusting their trajectories accordingly.

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Reaching the curb opposite, I mounted it and moved to a small shop where a man stood behind a counter stirring a giant vat of a viscous white something. For weeks I had frequented this little stop-and-shop on my way home, buying and drinking this viscous white something without knowing exactly what it was. The beverage they made here, I would learn long after I had made a habit of drinking it, was called sahlab – a sweet dessert made from the flour of orchid tubers. It was thick and milky-coloured and until I learned its actual name I had simply used a number of inappropriate English nicknames in everyday conversation.

Learning the name though, was of no real substance to me because the stuff was delicious. So, trading five pounds for a cupful of sahlab – whose name I knew at last on my second last day in Aleppo – I tipped it slowly to my lips, letting the aroma waft and steam beneath my nose, before draining the lot. It was warm and smooth and thick as it slid into my belly and, satisfied, I looked up and the grey sky seemed a little less grey.

I handed the cup back for a refill, and drinking my takeaway as I went, I crossed another road and plunged into the Christian Quarter with its cobbled alleys and ornate stonecraft. A block further and the day seemed to have fled from night’s black banners because the sky was black now and all the streetlights were turned on.

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I had bread in my backpack but I took the long way back to the hotel and visited the supermarket – a French chain called Monoprix – on the way home for extras. Meanwhile, seamlessly around me, Aleppans lived out their lives. Two blocks away was the university, bustling with students. A few blocks beyond that was the little resto owned by a pair of Iraqis. Best bread I’ve ever eaten.

A statue stood in my path on my way back to the hotel and even though I’d passed it many times on my walks about town, I realised then that it might be the last I’d see of this statue for a while so I concluded that perhaps I should expend a little extra time actually looking at the thing. The details are hazy now but I remember that the statue was dark and strong and prideful – standing tall and indifferent against the chill of a January night.

“Acacius,” read the plaque on the block at the statue’s feet. “Bishop of Aleppo”. There was something else on that plaque – a collection of dates, or places, or an elegy or a quotation perhaps. But I can’t quite recall any more.

Indeed, I’d be lying if I said that I will always remember Aleppo just the way she was during those few months I walked her streets. As the cold of that night grows more and more distant the details grow hazy – even if these memories in their present form are only five or six years old. Still, I remember what I remember and the Syria I remember was a Syria that I could live in even if a brutal dictator was in charge of it all. We used a proxy server to access many internet sites and the secret police were going through the garbage but still there was sahlab and humus and bread and for Syrians themselves there was something resembling normalcy even if that normalcy was not free.

There are, was then, always has been Syrians who wanted more than what Assad was offering. You could hear this sometimes in faint whispers, trailing at the ends of the occasional sentence. A sly joke about Bashar here and there; a one-time mention of what Bashar’s father Hafez had done to Hama in the 80s; but still, if you’d asked me, I never would have guessed what would happen in Syria just months after I left. What would eventuate in Syria would be a surprise to me even as I bore witness to the early tumult of the Arab Spring in Cairo.

It’s possible that there was a real “Spring” at some point during Syria’s civil war – a wellspring of hope injecting itself into a political system which had, for decades, stifled anything and everything resembling liberty. But the Arab Spring, the one I watched happen on TV during a cold Syrian December, had always looked to me like the beginning of an Arab Winter – a season of grey skies and political disquiet when a cold swell was washing against the Lattakia coast. A month when a cold frost clung to the cobblestone alley-ways in the side streets around the Ummayad Mosque. The beginning of the Long Cold.

Somewhere along the way it seems, a truly popular revolution was destroyed, either by Assad himself or by internal forces – jihadist or otherwise – who came into the picture at an opportune time to hijack both the message and the manpower. Things fell apart as, in hindsight, they were always going to. And in this instance, there was nothing that I nor anybody in the Western world could have done about it. To think otherwise would be foolish – and revoltingly ethnocentric.

I personally witnessed nothing of the Syrian Civil War as it happened, on the ground. I simply watched as Syrian friends went quiet on Facebook or as friends from other walks of life ended up in the midst of it all, dying there in circumstances still too complex and strange for me to fully understand.

All I know for sure is that the Battle of Aleppo was a loss, even if one side, as seems now to be the case, has claimed victory. Nobody won the Battle of Aleppo – least of all Aleppans. For who, really, could see success in the wholesale destruction of a living, breathing city? Who could read victory in the devastation of Aleppo’s Souq, its Citadel, its Mosque and its Inhabitants?

As I nosed my board through the trough of a towering breaker, emerging out the back a second later, I looked out to sea at the grey sky and the distant-falling raindrops on the long-forming swell.

Grey skies. Grey skies here. Grey skies there. Grey skies over Aleppo today, for sure. Grey skies everywhere.

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