Review: FAITH AT WAR
A political travelogue
By Dr Afzal Mirza
Faith at War:
A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu
Henry Holt & Company,
As the name indicates this insightful book of Yaroslav Trofimov, a Russian immigrant and journalist, is a political travelogue. Trofimov was born in Kiev, Ukraine, to a mixed family of Russian Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish lineages. About his early life he writes, "I spent part of my childhood living a happy colonial life on the African island of Madagascar where my father taught statistics at a local university. Having left Ukraine before it re-emerged as a separate country, I lived virtually my entire adult life first as a student and a journalist in New York City and then as a foreign correspondent based in France, Israel and Italy -- my new home country."
The book under review is based on Trofimov's experiences as a Wall Street Journal reporter on assignment in various Muslim countries. During the period between 1999 and 2001 he roved through the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. The book covers Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Yemen, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Mali and Bosnia.
The travelogue begins with the author's comments on the political systems of the countries he visited. "For most Muslim nations political independence has brought no reprieve. A glaring exception in the global embrace of democracy, the Islamic world -- outside a few happy enclaves remains a frustrated swath of the planet Earth where citizens chafe under brutal regimes, often propped up by the West and where mineral wealth developed by the foreigners is the main source of prosperity."
The first two articles of the book are about Saudi Arabia. Trofimov travelled into hitherto forbidden and undiscovered areas of the oil-rich kingdom meeting the common people. His first impression after visiting the office of a Saudi minister was that "the whole room badly needed fresh paint, and parts of the kitsch plasterwork on the ceiling had fallen off; one piece hung precariously by the wire. My tea glass was chipped too." He wonders where all the oil money is going if it is not being spent on the public buildings.
"Saudi International Airports, unlike the separate royal terminals used by the fleets of princely jets and hidden from public scrutiny, had become so dreary and drab that they wouldn't be out of place in the poorest parts of Africa. In the dusty back streets of Riyadh and under the decayed lattice windows of the old city of Jeddah the stench of open sewage gave off the unmistakable sign of an economy in a tailspin."
The author says that although slavery was formally abolished in 1962, the progenies of freed slaves were told to settle in a special part of Riyadh without any government assistance in obtaining education and jobs.
Of his visit to one such slum area the author writes, "As soon as I stepped out of the car a crowd gathered around me, men with wrinkled weary faces and pus-filled eyes, toothless women wrapped in black clothes. Several immediately started shoving petitions in my hands,'they are illiterate but they think you are from the government and can give them money,' the minder said."
As the people were complaining to the author a police car arrived and the officer dispersed the crowd and made the author leave the place.
A Saudi professor back in the hotel told him, "We are being robbed. Why is it that a barrel of oil costs US$20 like in the 1970s while a car that we buy from the Americans costs US$10,000 not US$1,000 like back then?"
The author tells that "as the protests against the American presence (in Saudi Arabia) grew in the mid-1990s the Saudi government dispatched to prison at least 400 dissident clerics, academics, and professionals". Among them were two fiery clerics, Salman al-Awada and Safr al-Hawali. Later, he maneuvered to meet Awada whose feelings the author conveys in these words: "While tepidly condemning the Sept. 11 attacks the Sheikh made it clear that he was no fan of America which was guilty of terrorism in his eyes. His bottom line was that Muslims are facing annihilation from massive attacks by the immoral and greedy West. It was again the familiar discourse of the battle of good and evil."
On the other hand another religious leader Mohsen al-Awaji was more emphatic in his talk with the author. While supporting the suicide bombing he claimed that he wanted to improve women's rights and eventually extend freedom of religion to the whole kingdom. He campaigned for freedom of press and Western-styled democratic elections. "We want a reasonable relationship with the Royal family, not the one of masters and slaves," he said.
About the Saudi ruling family, Trofimov says, "Like the Soviet Politburo in the 1980s 10 top rungs of the Saudi ruling family are hard for outsiders to scrutinize. The ones who know what?s going on in the family don't talk. And the ones who talk don't know."
In the meeting with Prince Talal bin Abdelaziz, a brother of King Abdullah, the author was told, "The family is divided -- we used to come together but now we see each other only on rare occasions."
About the reforms he had this to say, "The UN will ask us one day. Why are you not giving minorities their rights? Why do we always have to wait for pressure from outside? Our curricula are known to be backward. Is it plausible that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where there are no cinemas and the women can't drive?" The author says that after listening to Prince Talal he understood why he couldn't find a single Saudi who believed that Prince Talal would ever be a king.
Trofimov went to Iraq from Kuwait. He moved with the American army that advanced into Iraq. They were given to understand that they would be received with open arms in Iraq and would be garlanded and that was the reason why all the media was moving with the army. They were told that the Shia Iraqis were the worst affected during the Saddam regime and they would be the first to embrace the advancing American armies. All their hopes were dashed to the ground when they found that the Shia Iraqis gave more tough reception to the advancing Americans than the Sunni Iraq.
"My plans to install myself in Basra's Sheraton had to wait -- the city wouldn't fall to the British troops for almost three weeks. Fighting continued to rage just north of the Safwan clover leaf. This was the perception that from the first days of the invasion Iraqis would have of their liberators. Just as they did in Zubayr, American and British forces would later stand by and watch as looters destroyed and torched government buildings, hospitals, museums, and hotels across the land -- culminating in a April 9 2003 looting free-for-all in Baghdad," writes the author.
Among the people he meets a school teacher who tells him, "We are Iraqis and we will defend our country and defeat the aggressors." An engineer says, "The Americans are destroying our country. There will be fight."
During his long sojourn in Iraq, Trofimov found out that most of the US Marines were young men who had no war experience nor they knew how to handle alien people in a foreign land. Their behaviour on the other hand was that of occupation forces that was annoying for the local population.
"Our people have seen Americans in Hollywood movies and were impressed with how educated and polite the Americans are on the screen but now these people have seen your soldiers in real life. And they are very surprised that the Americans have turned out to be so rough and so rude?" said an Iraqi. By the end of his visit the author was fed up with the feeling of being an unwelcome intruder in a dangerous, disembowelled and yet boundlessly proud land.
During his visit to Kabul after the American invasion and installation of Karzai, the author met the dean of Kabul University, Professor Kazem Ahang, who summed up his feelings in these words, "The intellectuals feel now that America is colonizing Afghanistan and the rest of the people don't know why the Americans are here. They only see that more time goes by the more American presence is growing, so far nobody has seen where this American money is spent, whereas with the Soviets it was visible. The only thing we have seen from the Americans is their soldiers."
In his meeting with Noorzai, the chairman of Afghan Human Rights Commission, Trofimov is told that "the war is going on not because the Taliban are strong but because the government is weak; we all know that the Afghans need the help of friendly countries but also that the Afghans are culturally and religiously different from these countries. The conflict springs from these differences."
The author also writes of his short visit to Timbuktu in Mali and is surprised that it was the only country in the Muslim world where democracy is being practiced in its true spirit.
As a whole the book is a must read and could also be a source of enlightenment for the Bush administration itself.