“Why is there evil in the world?” the Zen Master was asked, and answered, “To thicken the plot.”
In Santa Monica I attended a Sunday evening Al Anon meeting. Al Anon is one of a spectrum of meetings based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and it’s specifically directed to those of us who are involved with either recovering or practicing alcoholics or addicts. One may be involved by family, marriage, friendship, work or other circumstance, but the involvement is what qualifies each of us for the meeting and brings us to it. It’s what we talk about, in a variety of ways as great as our numbers.
Lucille told me not to come in the kitchen. In my young days when I wanted to watch her slice vegetables and pluck chickens, she warned: “This is no place for the likes of you. I’m telling you, standing next to me at this counter won’t get you nowhere at all. As good as looking a blind cat in the eye. And you know you don’t want to do that.”
But I did. I wanted to see that blind cat all the way through, into her milky eyes and beyond. Sacred it was, that kitchen: the shiny surface near the sink covered in blood, the gizzards and neck put aside to be fried later and eaten—Lucille’s special delicacy—and her tidying up after the mess of flour and butter, her thick batter where she rolled chicken breasts and thighs before frying them in the skillet at dinnertime for the “white folks.” That’s what she used to say, with a grin and a nod, adding: “But we get the good parts.”
On my way to Andre Techine’s Being Seventeen, I stopped by Patisserie Claude for savory take-out and felt nicely sated as I found my seat in the theater, but the film stoked other appetites. (We cannot live by quiche alone, not even Claude’s.) Techine’s french lessons sky beyond “grub-first, then ethics” materialism. His scenarios feed your head and your heart, tuning every organ to desire’s pitch. I sensed Being Seventeen would be one of Techine’s full body-and-soul workouts early on when Thomas (Corentin Fila)—lovesome, bi-racial bully-boy (who’ll end up taking it like a man once he beats his fear of being gay) humps it up the mountain, past where his adoptive parents have their farm. The snow looks freshly fallen—perhaps it’s not that frigid?—and his secret brook hasn’t frozen over yet. He strips and dives in…
Ride the High Horse
Dear Mr. DeMott:
A friend of mine forwarded this quote on your website in response to a letter by Michael Robbins, and I am afraid I cannot let it go without response.
She also quotes a Nabil al-Tikriti. Mr. al-Tikriti may be a fine man, and he shouldn’t be judged by his name. But the name al-Tikriti is a fraught one. A more careful advocate than Robson would have stricken it from the witness list. A more careful writer would have paused to explain. For Robson, there’s no problem. She’s preaching to the choir, to her little coalition of the willing-to-believe-anything, to the guild of the gulled.
Here is the original quote by Eleanor Robson in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,979734,00.html.
Nabil al-Tikriti of the University of Chicago reported in May that the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs lost 600-700 manuscripts in a malicious fire and more than 1,000 were stolen. The House of Wisdom and the Iraqi Academy of Sciences were also looted. The National Library was burned to the ground and most of its 12 million books are assumed to have been incinerated.
FYI, please find attached the full text of the report which Eleanor Robson was quoting.
Now, my point. Before you start judging the legitimacy or illegitimacy of information based on the last names of various researchers, journalists, or writers, I suggest you contemplate for a moment the implications of such a narrow-minded — if not frankly racist — methodology. In addition, in the future, before impugning the ulterior motives of any writer based on such criteria, I suggest you at least make the effort to find out who they are, what they have done, and why any information they provide may be at least as trustworthy as that provided by those with more fortunate last names — according to your standards of evaluation, that is. While the name “al-Tikriti” may be a “fraught one” in your eyes, alas it remains my last name. While I suppose I could always change my name to Smith or Jones to satisfy bigots like yourselves and allow my work wider circulation, I would prefer to retain the name I was born with — if you don’t mind, that is.
An apology would be in order.
Department of History
New Orleans, LA
University of Chicago
Learn To Let Go
The sensitivities of Nabil al-Tikriti are no concern of mine. His letter, though, does show how wrong I was about Eleanor Robson, to be so lenient with her.
Imagine a trial of someone who actually stole something from the Baghdad Museum. Imagine further that Eleanor Robson were to testify about fingerprints. She would first have to be qualified as an expert. If her credentials (training, publications, current employment) were satisfactory, she might testify but if she went on to talk about, say, the motivations of the parties, she would have exceeded her mandate, and would be directed back to ridges and whorls.
Eleanor Robson’s article was flim flam. It was called “Iraq’s museums: what really happened”, and it was written by someone who really wasn’t there and didn’t really know. Instead it was offered as an account of “what really happened” by “a council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.” By all means, let us concede her some expertise. But what does that expertise allow her to say? She presumably knows something about some of the antiquities stolen. She may even Ð although it’s doubtful Ð know how much they could be sold for. But as to what happened, “what really happened”, she would have to go to school to a part-time security guard at the Museum. She knew nothing, and she brought that exact wealth of knowledge to the article. The article, her little blow for a Ba’thist restoration, was just this: she found a couple of Ba’thist functionaries to lie (not hard), and then she got a few losers in the West (starting with herself) to swear to it.
One of those losers, of course, was Nabil al-Tikrit. I was wrong about him. I wrote that he “might be a fine man.” He was entitled to the benefit of the doubt. How was I to know that he would hurry to resolve that doubt? “A fine man” is the last thing he is. He writes: “I’m afraid I cannot let it go without response.” Well, he could, of course, so that’s not true. He could have written to say that the name was a coincidence, he had no connection to, he was not one of the al-Tikritis of Tikrit, that he should not be confused with, that any confusion was the other guy’s problem. None of that.
He cannot let it go. Let what go? What I said (besides improvidently entertaining the possibility that he was “fine”) was that he shouldn’t be judged for his name. And I said that the name of al-Tikriti was a “fraught” one Ð and that it is. Mr. Al-Tikriti’s letter was sent on Nov. 14. I first saw it November 19. Earlier that day, I had seen an article in New York Newsday about graffiti, some pro-Saddaam, some pro-Bush. Among the pro-Bush graffiti quoted was this: “One thousand Americans, not one Tikriti.” The other day, I saw the deck of cards issued to American troops in Iraq. Of 52, 19 bore the name al-Tikriti. “Fraught” was polite.
Mr. al-Tikriti has a “point,” he says. He begins his point thus:
Before you start judging the legitimacy or illegitimacy of information based on the last name of various researchers, journalists, or writers
Now I specifically said that he shouldn’t be judged by his name. The very word “judge” he got from me, since his own prose favors such blocks of wood as “standards of evaluation.” But my simple sentence he finds elusive. If he is so spottily literate faced with a Word document on a computer terminal, what hope is there for any ancient manuscript that comes into his hands?
One must not “judge the legitimacy or illegitimacy of [his] information.” If he had looked, he would have seen I didn’t. I offered no comment on his “information.” I was writing about Prof. Robson, and he was marginal. It never occurred to me to make the effort to find out who he was, what he had done, and all about his “information.” If I had thought about it at all, I might have thought I was better off if I didn’t read his report. Now I know. He was better off.
His “information” is called “Iraq Manuscript Collections, Archives & Libraries Situation Report.” In it, Mr. al-Tikriti tells of such matters as his visit to the Ministry of Endowments. Did he see what he says he saw? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And wherever his plane set down, neither was he. He spent his whole Spring Break in that Neverland where Saddaam enjoyed 100% support from “his” people. Naturally, he holds the Americans “responsible” for the looting in Iraq and at least morally obligated to “compensate” Iraqis for what Iraqis stole. He also passes this along:
The [Museum] staff was convinced Ð as were most Iraqis Ð that Kuwaitis were behind this looting and burning. That such guides [Kuwaitis working with U.S. forces] or other Kuwaitis, were involved in the looting is a widespread assertion, but remains unproven.
Remains unproven! According to the Iraqi rumor mill, American soldiers wore x-ray goggles to look through ladies clothing, and air-conditioned underwear to cool down. And now, according to Mr. al-Tikriti, it’s worth considering that those characters you saw running down the street with a wooden door came all the way from Kuwait to get it. Mr. al-Tikriti’s idea of a reliable source is someone who can ravage a nation and then accuse it of thievery.
One paragraph in the report is of particular interest:
On 8 June, a British journalist named Mr. Cruickshank accused the National Museum staff of being entirely Ba’athist operatives who stole their own artifacts. He also cited U.S. soldiers who stated that the museum had been used as a defensive military position during the fall of BaghdadÉWhile Iraqi soldiers may have attempted to defend the National Museum from invading U.S. forces on 8 April, none of these Iraqi soldiers were present when museum staff requested protection from looting on 10 April. Although Mr. Cruickshank’s documents suggest that U.S. forces were not responsible for looting because they encountered resistance at cultural facilities, the Iraqi resistance faced on 8 April in no way justifies the U.S. absence of protection on 10-14 April.
We’ll come back to Mr. Cruickshank in a moment, but let’s look at a sample of Mr. al-Tikriti’s claims first. He allows that “Iraqi soldiers may have attempted to defend the National Museum from invading forces.” There are a few problems here. First, the term “Iraqi soldiers” is a little too bland. Somebody apparently turned the Museum into a military installation, but why should they be presented as good, patriotic “Iraqi soldiers”? Iraqi solders, in fact, refused to fight the Americans. It was only the worst Ð April 8! – that fought to preserve the old regime. Then, there is the phrase “defend the National Museum.” Well, no. With their souls, with their blood, as they keep saying, they defended Ð not the heritage of all mankind Ð they defended Saddaam Hussein al-Tikriti.. They imperiled the Museum (a war crime, as I noted earlier). Worst of all is the claim that they defended it “against invading forces.” Against the Americans? Who would do what? Loot it? Burn it? Whatever it is that’s trying to be said here, it is a scurrilous lie, and it comes with Mr. al-Tikriti’s implicit endorsement. He also endorses, expressly, the notion of Ba’thist/jihadi violence as “resistance.” Mr. al-Tikriti takes issue with “a British journalist named Mr. Cruickshank. Now nobody is named “Mr.” Cruickshank. The man has a given name. Mr. al-Tikriti, so touchy about his own noxious name, might have accorded the man something more than that dismissive “Mr.” A BBC author’s note says:
Dan Cruickshank is one of the country’s leading architectural and historic building experts, and a regular presenter on the BBC. He is a frequent contributor to The Architects’ Journal and The Architectural Review.
Not a journo in a flak jacket, in other words. Yet to Nabil al-Tikriti, apprentice academic politician, a graduate student at present, Mr. Cruickshank may be blown off as “a journalist named Mr. Cruickshank.” Either Mr. al-Tikriti didn’t’ bother to ascertain the man’s qualifications (so failing to meet the standards he would impose upon me), or he did know and opted for a lie. In either case, an index of how seriously Nabil al-Tikriti need be taken.
At any rate, having deigned to notice Mr. Cruickshank, he says this:
He also cited U.S. soldiers who state that the museum had been used as a defensive position during the fall of Baghdad.
If true, incomplete. See Mr. Cruickshank’s article. He’s seen the military position with his own eyes. We should also not ignore the phrase “the fall of Baghdad.” The Wehrmacht enter. That is the fall of Paris. The Free French enter. That is the liberation of Paris. Baghdad didn’t fall on April 9, and only a small minority of the city’s population would speak of a fall Ð only those with a nazi ethics to match Mr. al-Tikriti’s.
Mr. al-Tikriti writes that Mr. Cruickshank:
suggests that U.S. forces were not responsible for looting because they encountered resistance [sic] at cultural facilities, the Iraqi [sic] resistance [sic] faced on 8 April in no way justifies the U.S. absence of protection on 10-14 April
Allow me to suggest that U.S. forces were not responsible for looting because they didn’t loot; and to suggest further that ongoing violence, directed, inter alias, at foreign nationals, Iraqi civilians, U.N. officials, and Red Cross workers in some way justifies a U.S. absence of protection somewhere or other in Iraq on 10-14 April (still, officially, during major combat operations) and into the foreseeable future.
But it is Mr. al-Tikriti’s first quibble with Mr. Cruickshank that is of most interest:
Mr. Cruickshank, accused the National Museum staff of being entirely Ba’athist operatives who stole their own artifacts.
First, if anyone at the Museum thought that these were “their own artifacts”, what more can one say? Mr. Cruickshank’s opinion, though, matters here. It has been widely reported that some people at the Museum were involved in thefts. But nobody, until now — Mr. al-Tikriti’s version of Mr. Cruickshank’s version — has said that everybody was “in on it” — “entirely Ba’athist operatives who stole.” It would be an extraordinary claim: Most people in an office may take paper clips home, but it would be rash to say that everyone does it. Here’s what Mr. Cruickshank does say:
“[I]t does seem that some of the thefts were to some degree an inside job. In addition, it seems likely that certain items could have been removed from the museum years ago by members of the Ba’ath Party. Museum staff may not have been involved, would have been powerless to stop it, and could now be ashamed of their failure to protect national treasures. This could explain why many staff members give contradictory accounts of what has gone on — they are attempting to use the confusion created by the current history to disguise old losses.”
Mr. Cruickshank’s account is tentative, nuanced, plausible — and quite at odds with Mr. al-Tikriti’s rendition of it.
But if Mr. al-Tikriti has told us nothing about Mr. Cruickshank, he reveals quite a lot bout Prof. Robson. Look again at her article. There, she scoured barrels to prove that when Iraqis steal, Americans are guilty. To that end, she found a Ba’thist functionary to explain away the dissension among the Museum staff — which was real, and had been widely reported, and needed explaining away. Nabil al-Tikriti “of” the University of Chicago was mentioned briefly: not cited to, and not quoted. Two problems. First, when an unfamiliar name is offered as “of” a prestigious university, the assumption is that the name belongs to a faculty member. A student is only at the school. Had she made clear that Mr. al-Tikriti was not, say, a Distinguished Professor, but a student, with lots of discretionary income and toxic political opinions, her argument would have looked a little thinner. Second, had she quoted him or sent the reader to his “report”, we would have learned that Mr.al-Tikriti dealt with the matter of the dissension among the staff by denying it altogether. In his “report”, everyone is pulling together, one happy family. Those so inclined may believe al-Tikriti, or Robson, but not both. I said that a more careful advocate would have left his name off the witness list. So would an ethical one.
But back to Mr al-Tikriti’s letter. He claims — again, falsely — that I Judge[d] the legitimacy or illegitimacy of information based on the last name of various researchers, journalists, or writers
Again, I did not judge his “information” before. Having read it now, I find it unworthy of belief, not because of his last name, but because where his “information” touches on an independently verifiable world, it plays false. What did he see in Iraq? I don’t know. (I note, too, his phrase “researchers, journalists, or writers. He obviously considers himself all three. His “report” says that he is none.)
He goes on,
I suggest you contemplate for a moment the implications of such a narrow-minded — if not frankly racist — methodology.
Let’s take out the trash first. “Think a moment” might have been okay, but “contemplate for a moment”? If it’s only for a moment, it ain’t contemplation. The word is there to impress. So is “implications”. What implications? And so is “methodology”. He accuses me of a passing racist slur: that’s a methodology? What is he learning in school? “Frankly” is a small headache. It seems unlikely that he means “frankly racist”, i.e., openly, candidly, forthrightly racist. But who knows? He may mean “frankly, racist.” The word enjoyed a vogue about nine years ago, but when Newt Gingrich retired, so, effectively, did the word. Mr. al-Tikriti may not have heard, or else the word’s haut-en-bas flavor made it too hard to give up.
He calls my methodology “narrow-minded”. If I had done what he says I did, would that have been “narrow-minded”? Maybe so. But he doesn’t bother to say how, and he has not shown himself to be such a capacious intellect as to be a reliable guide.
And the core charge: he calls me a racist. (The haiku version of his letter consists of “racist”, “apology”, and 11 syllables of filler.) What provoked the charge? I said only that the name al-Tikriti — not Bishaara, or even Hussein – invited question. If he says that the interests of the al-Tikriti family and the interests of Arabs are identical, huh, I got millions of Iraqi Arabs ready to set him straight. But how did he come to deploy the word?
“Racism”, in a dictionary, would be an overvaluing of blood, with some suggestion of malice. A Martian, though, who wanted to know how to use the word wouldn’t care about the dictionary: So:
The word is not quite useless, but gamesmanship has debased it. And for Mr. al-Tikriti, it is all gamesmanship. His letter is addressed to Ben DeMott and lumps him among “you bigots.” Mr. DeMott cherishes dialogue, as I do not. He never mentioned al-Tikriti at all and gave him no occasion for his fake outrage. No cause needed. Moral superiority is his birthright. I am an Arab, and an al-Tikriti. I get to call people names.
What would real racism look like? We could go around the world and find it in many places. One region, though, offers some striking illustrations of the thing:
Mr. al-Tikriti continues:
While I suppose I could always change my name to Smith or Jones to satisfy bigots like yourselves and allow my work wider circulation, I would prefer to retain the name I was born with — if you don’t mind, that is.
Four points: First, can he really believe that I (or we bigots) want him to change his name? The toe-tag can say whatever it likes. Second, it is telling that he picks Smith and Jones, plebeian monosyllables. Sonorous, bodice-ripper names ending in -ton or -ham might be more appealing to him. He has an idea of who his social inferiors are. He wants you to know, too. That Mr. al-Tikriti’s is an anti-democratic sensibility is evident throughout. Here it is most obvious. Third, what is this pretense that his name is a disadvantage to him in an academic career? He makes a nice diversity hire: a faint tang of exoticism, with the assurance of more of the same. He will be wrongly presumed to bring insight into all things Middle Eastern. And unlike a Smith or a Jones, he is deemed immune to that imaginary malady. Orientalism. Fourth, it is not his name that stands in the way of his work’s wider circulation. His “report” is generic bureaucratic prose, the kind of thing that might be distributed at a department meeting, impeccable and unread. The public is not clamoring to read — to pick a sentence at random:
A courtyard on the ground level contained parts of office files, mostly accounting documents and administrative correspondence…
MAKTABAT KASHIF AL-GHIA Najaf: ca. 3000 MSS, reportedly OK [Naqshabandi]
If it’s wisdom you seek, Mr. al-Tikriti has pages on al-Bait al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom. (Reader, if the phrase makes you think of Paris Is Burning, you’re having way too good of a time. The House of Wisdom is…well in other lands, wisdom makes its abode in people’s heads, while in Mr. al-Tikriti’s Neverland, it gets quarantined.)
Let me, at last, respond to Mr. al-Tikriti’s demands of me. He wants me to stop “impugning his ulterior motives.” Impugn! I would never! I never even suspected him of ulterior motives, and I don’t quite believe that he has sufficient depth. Still, if he wants to announce to the world that he is rotten through and through, it’s none of my business. And last, before saying “Good day” – pure pomposity – he declares that:
An apology would be in order
A tip: Don’t stand on your dignity, don’t huff up, don’t bully, don’t say what’s in order, don’t demand apologies, without some sense of your interlocutor. If Mr. al-Tikriti had at least made the effort to find out who I was, what I had done, and why any information I provided might be at least (!) as trustworthy as that provided by those with more fortunate last names (and until a few months ago, al-Tikriti has been a very fortunate last name), he might have guessed correctly how apology-minded his interlocutor was. Instead, we leave Mr. al-Tikriti standing and waiting for that apology, standing, waiting, waiting: a fool into the bargain.