Translator's note: Nizar Qabbani was the most popular and beloved Arab poet of the second half of the twentieth century. He was born in Damascus in 1923. He started out as a romantic poet, with daring poems of love and the heart’s adventures, but eventually he gravitated toward political subjects, and wrote unforgettable poems about the cultural and political maladies of the Arab world—he was a fierce opponent of dictatorship.
Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy. I. Last November a protester on the outskirts of Damascus held up to the cameras a placard that mocked the people of Aleppo: “URGENT! ALEPPO REBELS—IN 2050!” It was hardly heroic, the caution of Aleppo, particularly against the background of a rebellion that had scorched Deraa and Hama and Homs and Banias and so many unheralded Syrian towns.
“The lion doesn’t like it if a foreigner intrudes into his house. The lion doesn’t like it if a stranger enters his house. The lion doesn’t want his children to be taken away by someone else in the night, the lion won’t let it happen.” Thus spoke Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday to the loya jirga, his country’s traditional council of elders and notables. He warmed up to the theme and the image. “They should not interfere in the lion’s house: just guard the four sides of the forest. They are training our police.
Of the 19 young Arabs who struck the United States on September 11, the Lebanese-born Ziad Jarrah, who is thought to have been at the controls of the plane forced down by its heroic passengers in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, has always been of greater interest to me than the others, and for strictly parochial reasons: We were both born in the same country, but two generations apart. For me, the contours of his life are easy to make out. He hailed from a privileged Sunni family from the Bekaa Valley and was raised in Beirut.
President Obama is on the horns of a dilemma: Afghanistan was, by his reckoning, the good war of necessity, whereas Iraq was the bad war of choice. But he never took to that good war, and his drawdown of the surge troops that he had committed to Afghanistan in December of 2009 is the deed of a reluctant war leader. The surge troops are to be back home by the end of the summer of 2012—just in the nick of time for his re-election campaign. If this be war, this is war by the electoral calendar. No soaring poetry attends this burden in Afghanistan.
The U.S. war in Iraq has just been given an unexpected seal of approval. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in what he billed as his “last major policy speech in Washington,” has owned up to the gains in Iraq, to the surprise that Iraq has emerged as “the most advanced Arab democracy in the region.” It was messy, this Iraqi democratic experience, but Iraqis “weren’t in the streets shooting each other, the government wasn’t in the streets shooting its people,” Gates observed.
The war in Afghanistan is the revenge of the Iraq war. It was amid the great debate about Iraq that there was born the myth of Afghanistan as the good war of “necessity”—the September 11 war. We had erred, American liberals insisted; we had opted for the wrong war in Mesopotamia when we should have stayed the course in Afghanistan.
The German Mujahid By Boualem Sansal Translated by Frank Wynne (Europa Editions, 240 pp., $15) I. From the terrible Algerian slaughter, and its terrible silence, comes this small tale, told by an officer of the special forces who broke with “Le Pouvoir” of his own country and sought asylum in France. It is the autumn of 1994, deep into the season of killing. An old and simple Algerian woman, accompanied by two of her children, comes to the army barracks, to the very building where the torturers did their grim work, in search of her husband and her son.
The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace By Ali A. Allawi (Yale University Press, 518 pp., $28) Say what you will about the American experience in Vietnam, that war was well written. A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan had a character who could have stepped out of the pages of Graham Greene. John Paul Vann was an even more arresting figure than Alden Pyle in The Quiet American. "The odds, he said, did not apply to him," Sheehan wrote of the unforgettable man who embodied the war'shubris and the war's undoing.