Urban legends

The War against Terror fulfilled the promise of the Gulf War, to which the implosion of the Soviet Union, a few months later, was practically an afterthought. History, rather like God, moves in mysterious and often sardonic ways. And as the vagaries of history would have it, it fell to George Bush Jr to complete the job that a complex web of historical processes had thrown his father’s way a decade before. Nearly in the Gulf, and conclusively in Afghanistan, America’s imperial hegemony — counterbalanced, contested and bitterly fought for a hundred years — was made absolute. The world after 11 September is one in which history’s first truly global empire stands, for the first time ever, totally supreme.

History can have its morbid jokes, and so a century of American imperial expansion is brought to a climax at the hands of a lacklustre, mediocre president and his intellectually challenged son. Of course, the paradox of an extremely powerful political office that can be filled by practically any Tom, Dick or Harry testifies to the complexity and sophistication of the American system of governance (after all, in other, less fortunate parts of the world, lacklustre, mediocre and intellectually challenged heads of state rule without benefit of an “office” in any real sense).

The real joke, however, is the “enemy.”

An “enemy,” it needs to be stressed, is an absolutely necessary ingredient in any and all imperial ventures, and especially in the case of the relatively young American empire, which took the path to world domination seemingly under protest, and requiring always the noblest, most selfless of motives: making the world safe for democracy, all the way to infinite justice and enduring freedom. Indeed, one of the fundamental features of American imperialism has been the apparent reluctance with which the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave has been “called upon” to don the mantle of “world leadership.”

All of this could be why the majority of Americans are so utterly clueless with regard to the devastation their ever-growing empire has wrought upon the world during its 100- year history — clueless, indeed, with regard to its very existence. “Why do they hate us?” “Because we’re so good.” And, naturally, because they’re so evil.

But it was not “Huns from Hell,” the Yellow Menace, Reds under beds or the Evil Empire that justified America’s ultimate domination of the whole “global village.” That privilege fell to “us,” aptly represented by such absurd figures as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. American global domination was born, moulded and massively expanded through two devastating world wars; it came to completion in the farcical military excursions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Which leads me to one of my favourite Egyptian folk parables. It goes something like this.

A long time ago, most Egyptian town-folk lived in haras, alleys or quarters. The haras had gates, which were shut at night. They also had fetewwas. The fetewwa (or tough guy, for want of a better word) provided protection for the hara‘s community — from robbers, other fetewwas and the like, and, in return, received protection money from the hara‘s residents. Not surprisingly, being a tough guy, he also lorded it over them, which was often not to their liking, but they had to put up with it — it was a dangerous world then.

Two other aspects of life in the hara need to be explained before we continue our tale. Haras invariably had kharabas. A kharaba was a ruin, the site of an old house, or bathhouse, whatever, which had fallen into disrepair, or merely a piece of wasteland that eventually became a sort of open rubbish dump, where discarded building materials, broken pieces of furniture and similar items would find their way. Kharabas, for some reason, were also the favourite haunt of afarit, which, again for want of a better word, we’ll call demons.

Now, we can proceed with our tale. At the time our story begins, the hara‘s residents were feeling quite content. There had been no attacks or incursions against the hara or its community for years. Naturally, people, probably at the urging of some trouble-maker (something like today’s anti-globalisation activists), started wondering about the worth of their fetewwa. The tough guy, as is the wont of his sort, continued to lord it over the community — and collect his protection money. Gradually, one and then another of the hara‘s residents started to fall back on their payments, at first giving elaborate excuses, but eventually giving none at all. Our fetewwa, naturally, was incensed.

One night, the hara‘s residents were awakened by a terrible noise. Shouting and screeching, banging and clanking: an enormous battle seemed to be going on within the hara. And it all seemed to be coming from the darkness that shrouded the ruin. Frightened out of their wits (the hara‘s residents were no warriors, after all; merely ordinary people, craftsmen and tradesmen with wives and children), they stood outside their homes, shuddering in their night attire. With dawn, however, the noise diminished, and finally disappeared altogether. The fetewwa, somewhat battered and disheveled, could be seen approaching from the direction of the kharaba. A demon had made an appearance there and he had been fighting it all night long, he informed them. From then on, nights were punctuated by similarly terrible noises. The hara‘s residents no longer left their beds, however; they knew that the fetewwa was having it out with the afrit. They certainly paid the fetewwa’s protection money, though.

All of which begs the question: why complain about the fetewwa when we are so willing to keep playing the role of the afrit?

Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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