Saturday, February 28, 2009

"We are better than Them"

"White smoke drifted up from a fog machine... A sound system played...anthems - deep male voices booming to a marching band's rhythms. The parents applauded wildly, the mothers ululating." (1)

We usually reserve the word
¨cult¨ for groups that commit mass suicide by drinking poison-laced purple cool-aid.

There is a view however that cult phenomena are much more pervasive in our lives. In the book 'Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat'
, Dr. Arthur Deikman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, explains how cult thinking affects almost all of us. In the Middle East, where group belonging and identity remain supreme totems, the effect of hidden cult behaviour may be especially marked. Understanding its effects there may be critical to moving the region to new and more constructive paradigms.

Deikman points out that cult behaviour has three main characteristics:

  • Dependence on a leader;
  • Devaluing the outsider; and
  • Avoiding dissent within the group.

Compliance to and within groups is a natural human phenomenon, necessary for survival. But group activity can vary greatly, from consensus building and open critical discussion to more cult-like closed systems that reject not only outsiders but also any intruding realities – ultimately much to the expense of the group and its survival.

Taboos and respect and fear for authority are strong features of many groups in the Middle East. From national identity, to religious systems to patriarchal families, respect for the leader, authority or ¨father figure¨ is unquestioned. The values of the society, especially religiously based ones, are taboos that do not sustain critical inquiry. Indeed, in this scenario, the ability to truly see an outsider at ¨eye level¨, i.e. equal, is simply not there.

In the Middle East, these matters are simply seen as "the way things have always been, and will always be". However, this is a method of group survival with potentially terrible consequences in an age of globalization and weapons of mass destruction.

Whether in Israel´s relations to its neighbours, its desperate desire to preserve its identity or assumptions among some about being somehow superior to others, or in Hizballah´s grip on its members, motivating them to higher purpose through sacrifice, even death, cult behaviour continues to grip the region, hidden in the veneer of tradition and references to longstanding cultures and civilizations.

"You are our leader... We are your men!" (2). Indeed, most seductive of all, according to Deikman, is when belonging to a group comes with a divine calling. It makes the mission of sublime importance and eases the ability to maintain the tightness of the group, calling on members to act blindly in its favour. By devaluing outsiders and feeling supreme, the group can provide members with a sense of mission and meaning.

The benefits of belonging to groups that act like cults are many: comfort, security, belonging, and, above all, a sense of higher purpose that the group and leader deliver, often at any cost. Indeed, it is when security and comfort meet higher purpose that the cult becomes an iron-clad contract between individual and group.

The cost of cults is massive. Deikman calls it ¨diminished realism¨. We see it every day in the Middle East:

  • 91% of Israelis supported the bombing of Gaza even though the results are profoundly uncertain, even possibly counterproductive (e.g. a post-war strengthened Hamas), and other methods of approaching the problem may not have been exhausted. 

  • Hamas is so sure of their ¨divine purpose¨ that there is little questioning of their goals or methods. All - rockets, bombs, terror – can be justified in the light of the group´s distant goals even if, again, the results are not there: Gaza remains under siege and in a profoundly abnormal condition despite Hamas's strategy. 

Certainly, the record of progress in the Middle East is testament to a state of ¨diminished realism¨. It may not be at all impossible for Israelis and Palestinians to come to terms if certain taboos are sacrificed, i.e. if cult behaviour is recognized and reduced.

Cult behaviour does not just apply to religious or Middle Eastern groups. It appears in a more subtle fashion in companies, organizations, and even between friends. The difficulty is that devaluing outsiders, avoiding dissent and blindly obeying leaders is often unrecognized for what it is. Furthermore, the reality is that breaking out of the group can be terrifying. Being thrust out, "excommunicated", a heretic in one's own "family" - however understood - can mean that the most basic instincts of life or death are triggered.

Yet, ironically, the word 'heretic' is derived from the Greek 'hairetikos', meaning 'able to choose'.
Indeed, many in the Middle East deny the possibility of choice and point to the dance of fate in their desperate destiny, where in fact longstanding and unconscious acceptance of cult behaviour may be at play. After all, no one really wants to be a heretic.

Developing awareness of the problem is not easy, but it is possible.
Recognition of one´s own cult tendencies may be the beginning.

"The musk oxen gather in a circle to defend against the wolves yet there may be only other oxen outside the circle."

(1) "Hezbollah Seeks to Marshall the Piety of the Young", New York Times, November 21, 2008
(2) Ibid.

All text and photography copyright (c) John Bell and John Zada

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Deputy

"He renounced honour, good, peace, the Kingdom of Heaven, as others, less heroically, renounced pleasure."

Not all Middle East personages inspire. For that matter, most are quite forgetful. Some, however, have gone down in history as the vilest of villains, the bastions of deepest infamy, cast as far down as Dante's frozen Seventh Circle of Hell. That is where the great Italian placed Judas, the betrayer of the Christ. With one kiss, the sinner signed up for an eternity of hatred, his very name - innocent enough in the original Hebrew (Yehuda) - became the very mark of betrayal.

An equally talented Argentinian writer suggested a different understanding of the great betrayer from the Middle East. In two short and incisive stories, Jorge Luis Borges leaves a trail where Judas ends up in a somewhat better light. In 'Three Versions of Judas', Borges puts forward the un-suggestable: Judas chose infamy as an ultimate act of respect for the divine. Braver and truer to the greater reality than others, Judas shunned all good as only suitable for God and debased himself into an ultimate ascetic, willing to pay a higher price than his Master in the cosmic drama: to become forever a criminal in order for the Passion Play to be complete.

In a second story, 'The Sect of the Thirty', Borges goes further. He suggests that in fact Jesus and Judas were the only two characters of the path to crucifixion who were aware of what was going on - the rest of the cast playing out out their roles in a desultory sleep. Roman soldier, Sanhedrin, even Mother Mary - all were oblivious, their consciousness barely dawning in comparison to the bright wakefulness of Judas and Jesus.

This means not only that Judas acted with conscious intent, but that he was also positively essential for the fulfilment of the Christ's mission. Indeed, Borges raises a question that has always baffled: "why the kiss?". Jesus would have been well known enough to be arrested without one. It may be that Judas intended his infamy in both method and timing, as Jesus also needed his doppleganger.

It is so that the great betrayer saunters into history, forever reviled, the ultimate anti-hero, in full and conscious compliance with the divine order. Together, Jesus and Judas, Yeshua and Yehuda, two men of the Middle East two millenia ago, created a story of friendship and betrayal, of suffering and redemption that resonates across the ages, continents and civilizations.

Indeed, at the Last Supper, it was Judas who was seated to the left of Jesus, the most honoured seat at the table in the Middle Eastern tradition of the time. I have always wondered to what degree the two men were in fact in league, and Borges suggests that they were more likely than not in very close collaboration. John Zada goes one step further and calls Judas, "Jesus' Deputy".

All text in this post copyright John Bell and John Zada

Monday, February 23, 2009

Desert Virtuoso

All text and images in this post copyright (c) John Zada and John Bell 2009

Ask Retired Colonel Ahmed al-Mestakawy - a man so obviously the product of a certain destiny - the “hows” and “whys” of it all, and he’ll just grin and shrug his shoulders in a gesture of amused bewilderment.

“At one moment you are moving in one direction, the next moment you are somewhere else entirely,” says the 56 year-old native of Alexandria. “How or why I got to where I am today, I have no idea.”

Al-Mestakawy is talking about his lifelong love-affair with the desert, which began without warning, when, after graduating officer school in 1977, it was decided that out of all the possible roads for a military man in Egypt, his should be with the Border Intelligence Forces along the Libyan frontier.

For 18 years al-Mestakawy, became the most feared and respected border patrol officer in Egypt’s Western Desert – one of the most treacherous and inhospitable regions on earth. It is an area known, among a few other things, for its smugglers and drug traffickers who risk life and limb moving their illicit cargo across well worn paths in the no man’s land between Libya and the Nile.

For al-Mestakawy, spectacular drug busts, surveillance missions and border skirmishes, some of which come straight out of fiction, all paled in comparison to his one true love - the desert. A man of action, he took the opportunity during his time in the army to learn the desert’s deepest secrets from three semi-legendary masters - all close friends - who would impart their entire lexicons of knowldge to him:

Samir Lama, an eccentric Egyptian-Jewish cinema actor and desert enthusiast, today regarded as one of the great contemporary Egyptian Western Desert explorers, fine tuned al-Mestakawy’s desert driving skills, and instilled in him a thirst for desert exploration. Suleiman Silmy, a Red Sea Bedouin tracker and soldier, imparted knowledge about camels, flora, tracking, and desert survival. Ghenewa Abu Balooza, a Bedouin guide and camel caravaneer from Sidi Abdel Rahman taught al-Mestakawy about principles and conduct in the desert.

“All these men today live inside of me,” he says. “They taught me everything there is to know about the desert. They live in my heart.”

But his life’s path would continue to meander. After turning down - with difficulty - consecutive work offers which he refers to as “the three big crossroads”, including a career as a diplomat, a political intelligence officer, and an army general, al-Mestakawy decided in the mid-1990's to pursue his dream of becoming a desert guide. Since then, in addition to organizing trips into the desert, he has helped plan and has partaken in desert race rallies, and has discovered a cave with prehistoric rock art – one of the largest in Africa - that was recently named after him.

“In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions that I ever made,” he says. “Had I not taken this path, I would probably now be a general. And generals do NOT go on patrols and travel into the desert.”

Today, al-Mestakawy works full-time as the co-owner and manager of Zarzora Expeditions, an Egyptian outfitter that takes travelers by jeep to the furthest reaches of the Western Desert. Here al-Mestakawy combines and employs all of his various skills and talents culled from three decades of desert work.

“The desert is like his bride,” says al-Mestakawy’s business partner and desert conservationist, Wael Abed. ”Getting to see him in action is like watching him in a beautiful and passionate dance with her. He is brilliant at what he does.”

And he is a pleasure to watch. Decked out in army fatigues, a beige keffiyah and Bolle’ sunglases, he can predict the weather simply by looking at the glare of the morning sun, can read tracks in the sand and tell you who or what made them, and can plot a course and drive through dune fields so menacing that they would overturn or swallow any other vehicle - all the while managing a crack team of driver-mechanic-cooks that preside over every aspect of the trip. His commanding physical presence and primal instinct for survival are softened by his French educated, gentlemanly manner reminiscent of characters from old Egyptian cinema.

“The desert is my home, my second home,” he says. “It’s the place where I found myself and discovered who I am.”

Al-Mestakawy’s website is

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


In 1991, two Palestinians, Nazmi Al-Ju'beh and Suad Amiry began thinking about their people's architectural heritage and its conservation. Eighteen years later, 'Riwaq' - or 'Arcade' in English - is the premier organization for heritage preservation and restoration in the West Bank. Its data and work today rival that of official institutions.

Nazmi Al-Ju'beh believes the secret of success lay in several practical premises which were effective on the ground and attractive for supporters.

The first goal set by the initiators was to fill the vaccum of dialogue regarding the very issue of cultural heritage. Palestinian society had not as yet put a value on this kind of effort.

Riwaq then aimed to create a registry of all heritage buildings in the West Bank. Today, that adds up to more than 50,000 sites and 103,000 drawings. Riwaq's staff knocked on 50,000 doors to gain this data.

This activity helped realize a new vision: It was not enough to restore the beauty of Palestinian heritage or support concepts of "identity", there needed to be socio-economic value in this work. For Nazmi, Palestinians need to draw on their heritage as an instrument of socio-economic development.

"Without the two domes" - the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - "what do we have?" he asks. "Cultural tourism is the core of our future economy."

For example, some renovation has taken place on buildings located on an old pilgrim's trail that ran from Ras El' Ein (today in Israel), and passed through Aboud, Bir Zeit, Jifnah and Taybeh in the West Bank, en route to Jerusalem. In better days, this route and its heritage may again become of interest and use to Western visitors.

With its work in the West Bank, Riwaq has aimed to enhance this cultural heritage in the "rif" - the rural lands - ultimately providing new sources of tourist income and employment in villages that are today made up of up to 50% heritage buildings.

The last, but not least important goal is job creation. "One hundred dollars can give us 2.5 days of labour and cover management costs and basic resources," Nazmi says. It is an important factor in a place where employment levels have been in the double digits for decades.

Riwaq is proud that it has managed to put the issue of cultural heritage in Palestine on the national agenda. With its 57 employees today, it has become the national reference for such work. Through this effort, Riwaq and its dedicated staff have managed to open up cultural awareness, assist socio-economic development, and provide employment and a future for many Palestinians.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cairo's Friday Market (al-souq al-goma'a)

All photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2009

In Cairo's Sayeda Aisha district, people flock in droves to take part in the weekly al-souq al-gomaa (the Friday market). This souq, one of the largest, busiest and most frenzied in the Middle East is a fusion of flea market, junk market, antiques market, animal market and textile market, and runs directly underneath a long highway overpass that bisects the city's southern cemetery.

The souq commences at the crack of dawn and is thronged by countless thousands of people who come early to find the best deals in anything and everything imaginable - from pairs of jeans, to new shoes, to pigeons, snakes, dogs and goldfish, new toilets, kitchen ceramics, and replacement carborators or spark plugs for one's car. Ad hoc gambling stands featuring forms of the 'three shell game' can be found here for those apt to trying their luck against seasoned shysters. Mounds of random junk, culled from households all across Cairo gather in the souq and remain in situ sometimes for years, or even longer..

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Perpetual Motion Machine

In the small town of Chtoura, halfway between Damascus and Beirut, in the Bekaa Valley, there is a string of shops stacked with the finest food products in the world: German biscuits, Italian mozzarella, French wine and Armenian sausages. The shop owners make their living because wealthy Syrians and other foreigners know that they can find in Chtoura what they cannot find in Damascus. Today, despite war and chaos, Lebanon remains a consumer dynamo.

The country remains corrupt, confused, still suffering from the traumas of war and the soap operas of its leaders, yet it still has an energy and vitality lacking in healthier nations. The Lebanese daylife and nightlife are varied, rapid and active. Goods from across the world pervade Lebanon's markets. Trendy nightclubs grace Monot Street and Gemayzeh, while traditional cafes line the Corniche serving up apple-flavoured tobacco waterpipes alongside Turkish coffee. Everything can be found in Lebanon: cappucino and carpets, Mercedes and mandarin oranges - it is a cornucopia of consumerism.

This basic vitality goes on and on despite profound political schisms and problems. The Lebanese perpetual motion machine spins around its troubles like a mad merry-go-round whose minder has gone home. It spins and offers rides to all comers, without apparent direction, rhyme or reason. The Lebanese move for two reasons: that is what they do best, and they are afraid of what they might find if they sit still.

Lebanon is fundamentally two hundred miles of port cities at the foot of some confounding mountains. East of those snowy heights lies the Arab hinterland and the desert - the deep and wide spaces from which conquerors have sprung for millenia. 

The Lebanese, whether Phoenician or Maronite, is wont to upkeep a certain distinction between himself and his cousin from the hinterland. Even though they share a similar culture, the Lebanese marks his distinction by the sea that speaks to him every day of new possibilities and new lands. Furthermore, the mountains, with their convoluted valleys, have served as a place for sects to hide and find refuge from the great hinterland. So today, the Lebanese has the knack for international commerce and cosmopolitanism spurred by the sea alongside the apparently contradictory drive for tight identity and ethnic distinction built up by the seclusion of valley or the cove.

As always, nothing is ever that straightforward. Many other Lebanese consider themselves today and forever much more tied to the hinterland. They perceive less of a gap with their neighbours and wish to be part of a larger current. Indeed, there is a record of Lebanese contributing and belonging to the larger sweep: Sidon built the Persian fleets that invaded ancient Greece, Tyre contributed Septimus Severus to the Roman Empire, and Lebanese intellectuals were seminal to the renaissance of Arab culture one century ago.

Yet, this Janus-faced life, one looking west to the sea, the other east to the desert, has a political manifestation which led to 15 years of civil war and continued schisms and strife today. The war and the continuing saga demonstrate a sharper and truer Lebanese character trait: a supreme individuality, fluidly defined according to the needs of the moment and circumstance. Although the war consisted of ´two sides´fighting, in detail it also broke into an endless permutation of every sect against the other, and fragments among fragments within sects.

The Lebanese demonstrated that their most profound allegiances were truly nowhere.They drifted between family, sect, feudal allegiance, city, faith, ideology, prevailing wind or richest buyer, their politics captivated by only one consistency: shifts and moves. The perpetual motion machine spun round and round.

With its dozens of sects and allegiances, Lebanon reflects the mosaic of the Middle East and the rainbow of nation states we see on our maps of the world. The wars in Lebanon are case studies of the dangers of ethnic strife that could plague the planet on a much larger scale. If the Lebanese could have stayed away from the fixations of their identities, from the machine of motion propelled onto the political-scape, their truer nature would have prevailed: the spinning wheel of mountain and sea producing trade for profit, enrichment and survival.

By moving goods, they can fulfil their nature. The shifts and moves are not only escapes or momentary power plays, but are also a basic and commendable drive: vital, energetic, resourceful, inclusive, varied, and thus (de facto) tolerant. When this great virtue is married to the politics of power seeking for its own sake, certain cataclysm is assured; when it is pursued without such hungers, nothing results but a rich diversity and a unique playground of the senses.