Category Archives: end of oil

Wanderers of the Desert

A young teacher arrives at a village in the middle of the desert. His task is to, well, teach the children. Only problem is, the entire village is cursed, and the children disappear one by one to join a group of ‘wanderers of the desert’. Before leaving, a well speaks, urging them to break all mirrors in the village, and use the shards in an unexplained ritual. The story-telling of this beautifully shot film is both loose and low-paced, in step with recent Arab history. Torn between the mystical, anecdotal past, nostalgia for Andalusia -a paradise lost, and modernity in the guise of the wrathful police officer, the youth vanish into an aimless existence.

Tunisian director Nacer Khemir’s ‘Al-Haimoune’ or ‘Wanderers of the Desert’ perfectly captures the soul of the Arab World pre-revolution. Not in detailed exegesis, but as a broad metaphor for homelessness. A representative of the national state inspires confidence nor inspiration. The past offers a mere labyrinth of illusion, fairy tales, and unsubstantiated longing. The village itself, ruins of beautiful courtyards and crumbling arabesque walls, are reminiscent of so many abandoned villages formerly inhabited by Jews, the archetypal wanderers of the desert whose exile ended half a century ago but only in name, and not without displacing another people.

Whence from here? As the era of oil draws to a close, so must the Middle East’s subservience to the West that actually began long before the discovery of crude. The ballot box can only be the start of the end of wandering. Both Arabs and Jews have a long road ahead crafting a new symbiotic identity. Out of the desert and into a modernity that is not premised on the sword.

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Filed under Arab Spring, end of oil, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Palestine, Tunisia

Conspiracy of convenience

I just love me a conspiracy. Don’t you? I bet you do. I bet people who believe in conspiracies make up the vast majority of any population. Something THEY don’t want you to know. And if you don’t believe me, well, that just proves my point exactly, doesn’t it? Kanye West says “I know the government administers AIDS”. Just prove the man wrong if you can. In ‘Sinai’ wily old generals plot to take over from a democratically elected Egyptian government. Israelis scheme to get Moses’s old stomping grounds back while American evangelicals sing Haleluja to the Rapture. Far-fetched, right? Perhaps I’ve eaten too much humus in my life. On the other hand, as a man more eloquent than myself put it, the question is not are you paranoid, it’s are you paranoid enough?

Welcome to the Middle East, where nothing is as it seems. Conspiracy, by definition a secret action by at least two people to produce a tangible outcome, rules supreme. In this world Bin Laden is CIA, 911 was an inside job and all the Jews had mysteriously taken that day off. Fiction often sits on a comfy couch holding hands with fact. Sometimes one or the other even gets to second base. Of course, Bush and Blair did lie about Saddam’s nukes. Bin Laden really was on an American payroll at some point. And we don’t know why the American military was holding an exercise on that sunny September morning simulating an attack by means of hijacked airliners. I mean, what are the odds?

But sometimes another principle might be at work. Call it ‘laziness’, or ‘inertia’. I like to call it ‘convenience’. “As the Arab Spring remakes the fabric of the Middle East, Israel has been torn between support for democratic change and a surprising comfort with the established order,” write Josef Federman and Karin Laub for Associated Press. The Assads, while terrible tyrants, former hosts to Hamas and keeping Syria in an official state of war with the Jewish state, never fired a shot for close to forty years. Arab dictators were a known quantity, mostly weak and controllable. Again, that last word, ‘controllable’, implies evil schemers subverting the sovereign will of the people. And of course, governments wield all the instruments of power and rarely -I mean never- tell everyone about everything they’re doing.

Misanthropists simply deny that people are capable of dreaming up complex new arrangements and at the same time keeping everyone else in the dark. And yes, history more or less confirms this. At least partly. For instance, yes, American neocons toppled Saddam, but the place is a stinking mess today, oil has never been more dear, and U.S. oomph is on the fritz. The world is a dynamic system, and long-term change unpredictable as ever. It’s just a terrible place for even the ablest of conspirators.

However, people are very adept at coping with adverse situations. In other words, we make the best of things. Governments conspire after the fact. They don’t invent the new, larger constellations. They just deal with them. Israel’s coming into existence was fought tooth and nail by inept Arab governments. When the latter realized they were unable to change this new fact, not only did they accept it, they worked the ‘Zionist entity’ to their benefit. Domestic opposition was muzzled thanks to the external enemy. In turn the Israeli nation was forged -in the metallurgic sense- in the crucible of Arab hostility. During the latter half of the twentieth century a precarious power balance came to be. The setup turned out to be very beneficial to and in time actively nurtured by oil-consuming America and Europe. The conspiracy, in short, arose after the fact. Israel was not created to help bring about cheap oil. European anti-Semitism was not created to one day bring about Israel. But they did more or less.

Arab populations took so long to revolt against horrible leaders because revolting is a serious drag, and I for one can think of a million zestier afternoons than getting shot in the face by gas-masked shock troops. The revolution wasn’t planned. It took a single man to set himself on fire to ignite the hearts of millions, the outcome of which everyone is still grappling with, including said millions. Israelis sure weren’t looking forward to dealing with a bunch of angry revolutionaries in stead of the predictable pashas of yore. Western ‘security architects’ surely didn’t come up with the idea. Why spend an entire day doing serious thinking when you can copy-paste in the morning, and play racket ball in the afternoon. To put it more succinctly, people are lazy cunts. Prove me wrong why don’t you.

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, democracy, end of oil, Middle East, seismic changes

Everyone and their mummy.

Silly play on words aside, yes “Sinai” is an Egyptian story but no, there isn’t a pyramid in sight, let alone the wrath of their long-deceased occupants. “Sinai” is a tongue-in-cheek thriller set in post-Mubarak Egypt. It’s not for political scientists, orientalists, or folks who habitually tear through a Noam Chomsky in a week. It’s for you, and everyone, and their mum.

Linus hasn’t a clue, and nor should you. Kind of. Actually, he is looking for a pyramid or two. That’s about what we know of Egypt these days. Thank you Hollywood. To Linus’ credit he knows a fair amount of snorkeling goes on in the warm waters of the Red Sea too. He actually gets to dip in -to a lot more than he’s bargained for. As much as ‘Sinai’ features Islamists, brutal (secular) dictators, meddling Americans, Israelis, not to mention a maniacal, semi-mythical sorceress, the book pits the layman against a couple thousand Wikipedia entries. What are the chances of, forgive my French, the ignoramus in a world even specialists cannot agree upon?

A deluge of contradicting information makes it tough to make the right choice. 99% of us, in the parlance of our times, don’t have to make life-or-death choices. Luckily. The toughest deliberations are outsourced to the 1%. Which foreign ruler(s) best represents our own economic and political interests? That sort of thing. Specialist advisers whisper to elected ears, and all is well in the end. Right? That’s what Linus figures in any case. But lo as he might, he cannot escape the chaos closing in on him. With very little to go on, his fingers rest nervously on the switch at every turn. Visibility: zero. The outcome is very uncertain.

It could happen to you. Scant media attention is given to abducted tourists -lest it drive up the ransom. In 2003 a German adventure trek in Algeria got waylaid by extremists / entrepreneurial tribesmen (one does not exclude the other). They were released six months later. It is every government’s policy not to pay ransom to kidnappers. At the same time, every government pays ransom to kidnappers. We don’t get to hear what goes on in the background: frantic diplomacy, the threat of force, attempted freeing operations. As far as he knows, none of that is happening for Linus. Then again, he hasn’t been kidnapped, strictly speaking. Yet everything he does seems to take him further and further away from home.

It’s a small world. And shit, it’s shrinking by the minute. What happens in the Middle East, no longer stays in the Middle East. In a crude way, our governments’ actions there might impact whether some families are able to pay their heating bills this winter. Our governments’ wars means airport personnel gets to see your junk every time you fly. It means you, an innocent, moderate cool cat, are subject to more electronic surveillance than the average dissident in communist East-Germany. You have not been kidnapped. Your life is no adventure tale. And yet, it is happening to you. You don’t know how, but you feel that you’re entitled to a choice. There’s a right and wrong out there somewhere that’s graspable for you, and everyone and their mum. Or ought to be at least.

Sinai offers no shortcuts. It is not a ‘Middle East for Dummies’. In stead it zooms in and out, weaving broad strokes and intimate detail into a narrative of choice. Where do you stand? The story might have happened in Chili, Argentina, South-Africa, Northern Ireland, or Occupied Belgium. Do you stand your ground or, as the Dahab T-shirt salesman eloquently stated? “Just go with the flow, man.” 

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Filed under Arab Spring, Egypt, end of oil, Middle East, Revolution, Sinai, Uncategorized

Gadhafi, the Middle East, and Western interventionism.

Sinai is a tongue-in-cheek fictional thriller set to the backdrop of a chaotic post-Mubarak Egypt. Intrigue, bombs, and breathtaking vistas guarantee a riveting read for all. This blog burrows into the political context, a guide to the inscrutable Middle East, cradle of civilization, and yes, many a confused bout of head shaking.   

Even John Stewart couldn’t quite help himself. A measure of self-congratulatory glee got the better of the feted talk-show host as he painted “No’Amor” Gadhafi’s expiration a grand U.S. foreign policy success, much to Obama’s Republican opponents’ chagrin. A pinch of redemption came for Mr. Stewart in the cynical shape of a short historical overview of U.S.-Gadhafi relations that read like a Facebook timeline. Friended. Unfriended. Refriended. Unfriended. Refriended. Unfriended. Replace “unfriended” with “bombed” and “refriended” with “sold bombs to” and you get the idea more or less. Donald Trump, the gazelle-coifed tycoon, put it more succinctly. “Big deal,” opined the one-time presidential candidate. “What do we get out of it?” To reduce the Middle East to a playground and juice box of Western Powers, more or less since the slow wane of the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 17th century,  might be a slight exaggeration. And yet, the Arab Spring phenomenon -for phenomenal it is- should be seen as much as an assertion of national sovereignty as well as a popular emancipation against corrupt dictators. The two are inextricably linked.

Western interventions in the Middle East, regular as clockwork, started long before the discovery of oil. Back then, European nations were interested in expansion, one would almost be tempted to say, for the heck of it if by “heck” you mean “filthy lucre” i.e. trade and a territorial cushion to absorb fast-expanding populations at home. France and Britain pretty much carved up the Arab lands among them with some scraps left for Italy, the Giovanni-come-lately of colonialism. Germany, the Heinrich-not-only-missed-the-bus-but-locked-himself-out-wearing-slippers-and-had-to-wait-for-the-locksmith of the great scramble for land, attempted and failed utterly to gain any traction among the Arabs. Which is not to say the English and French had a jolly ride of it. Au contraire. Restive natives, rabble and rebel intellectual alike, required heavy policing, gunboats, and financial ‘tutelage’ to be subdued, again and again. The discovery of ‘Arab’ oil in the 1930’s only upped the stakes. However, European nationalism, now very much en vogue among its soon to be former subjects, necessitated a different model of control for the post WWII era. Direct rule was out. Divide and conquer was the new-old name of the game. Not to mention a fair and fun amount of whack-a-mole.

Countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, and others gained nominal independence long before national movements actually asserted the full array of their countries’ sovereign powers. They remained, in other words, puppet states until champions, more often than not army men, kicked out Western ‘advisers’, ‘administrators’, and army ‘trainers’, mainly in the 1950’s. Libya maintained a very close relationship with its former colonial masters, and hosted an American military airfield until a bloodless military coup brought to power Mu’ammar Gadhafi in 1969.

The new, real independence of Libya and other Arab countries didn’t last. The latter-half of the 20th century can broadly be charted as a reconquest of Western influence over Arab states. The naughty ones; colonels, generals, and presidents who didn’t ‘play ball’ were by no means spared the rod. Attacks on overly independent realms happened, and still happen, either directly or through local proxies. A balance was, and is to be maintained at all cost. Examples abound. Iraq clobbers Iran. Iran clobbers Iraq. Iraq clobbers Kuwait. The world clobbers Iraq. Syria clobbers the PLO. Lebanese Falange clobber Palestinians. Israel clobbers all. Egypt clobbers, then makes peace with Israel. Arabs ostracize Egypt for making peace with Israel. And so on and so forth. The Merry-Goes-Round. And round, and round. At the end of the day the oil gushes out of the Middle East. Dollars gush in. Dollars are then repatriated through arms purchases. A balance of payments is maintained as well as a balance of terror.

In the end Gadhafi had switched sides one too many times. As the Arab spring reached Libya French president Sarkozy and British PM Cameron quickly called for his ouster. But the tables turned as Gadhafi successfully employed all the weaponry sold to him by the west against his own civilian population. Embracing the man once more proved too cynical a prospect, even for Sarkozy and Cameron. The crazy man had to go. Better be very friendly to the new guys. Cut a deal. What’s in it for us? Fifty fifty on the oil? Rebuild infrastructure, replenish weapons stock piles? That way you’re set for the next round when the black gold once more reduces the minds of men to a viscous dark goo. The Merry-Goes-Round. And round, and round.

“Sinai” explores the dangers confronting a soon-to-be elected post-Mubarak Egyptian leadership. From wistful old regime elements, western powers’ attempts to claw back lost influence, to religious zealotry -no, not the kind that you think… 

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Filed under Arab Spring, Egypt, end of oil, Gadhafi, Libya, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai, Uncategorized

Tahrir is here

Sinai is a tongue-in-cheek fictional thriller set to the backdrop of a chaotic post-Mubarak Egypt. Intrigue, bombs, and breathtaking vistas guarantee a riveting read for all. This blog burrows into the political context, a guide to the inscrutable Middle East, cradle of civilization, and yes, many a confused bout of head shaking.   

Worldwide tens of thousands of people marched protesting governments’ austerity measures, unemployment, financial institutions run like casinos, public bailouts of those same financial institutions, ecological decay, war, and a host of other things no longer shrugged off cynically. “The banks got bailed out. The people got sold out,” was one of the recurring signs. “We are the 99%,” echoes Wall Street protesters indicating a silent majority awoken to the fact that 1% control most of the wealth to the detriment of the rest. Police counted 6500 people on the streets of Brussels yesterday. An avid music festival goer I was able to surmise at least twice as many.

Very few signs referred to the start of it all: the Arab spring that’s slowly but surely becoming a global autumn of discontent. “Tahrir is here,” read a lonely banner in a sea of criticism directed against robber-baron capitalism. But even though the protesters in Tunis, Cairo, and other Arab capitals aimed to remove sclerotic dictatorships as opposed to more diffuse sets of demands heard in Europe and the U.S., broad similarities exist. Democracy is first and foremost a technical means of granting everybody a say in what happens with everybody’s tax money. Bread and butter, in short. Disenfranchised Arabs didn’t rise up because they had suddenly read the collected works of Montesquieu. People simple aren’t getting by. The same thing is happening in Europe and the U.S. where voters no longer feel they have any real impact on policy. An increasingly opaque constellation of international institutions, global boardrooms and a maze of special interests trump nationally elected leaders. Arabs demand democracy full stop. Europeans and Americans want theirs back.

So “Tahrir is here”. In a way we are all Egyptians gathered at Liberation Square. And yet one was hard-pressed to point out any Arabs marching in Brussels. With unemployment among the Moroccan community many times the national average, rampant discrimination at the hands of employers and law enforcement, surely they are the most disenfranchised of all. Perhaps they are simply too far removed from the mainstream to feel part of something that’s only just started to outgrow a fractious intellectual movement. Not to confuse things even more I would venture to add a theme that should be part and parcel of an undertaking that extolls inclusiveness: Alongside austerity a class of politicians has risen to the fore that seeks to exploit racial and religious divisions for electoral gain. Fanning irrational fears, say, a sharia-based hostile takeover of the West, they divert attention from ultra-liberal economic policies that run counter to the interests of a majority of voters. Non-issues like head scarves or halal butchering are an easy look-away while Houdini makes pensions and savings disappear. Bread and games, in short.

Zooming out it becomes clear that Arabs’, Jews’, Europeans’, and Americans’ faits, and indeed all of the world’s, are linked. This goes beyond merely becoming emboldened by another revolutionary’s example. Our economic lots have become so entwined as to be indistinguishable. Western affluence derives from decades of artificially cheap energy. Arab dictators, co-benefactors of this greatest heist of all time, are on their way out. Not only is the era of cheap oil drawing to a close. The epoch of oil as such has started a slow but sure decline. The Arab-Israeli conflict will soon no longer be necessary to contain and divide a restive supplier base. At the same time, the discourse of the oil-wars era persists. As do many ‘facts on the ground’. A solution becomes more and more urgent even though most leaders haven’t yet read the memo. From Tunis, to Cairo, to Brussels, to New York, history’s creaky hinges shriek. Looking up one might notice these different hinges in fact move the same big door. It’s ajar. Nobody knows exactly what’s in the next room.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Brussels, Cairo, Egypt, end of oil, Islam, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai