And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
—The Tragedy of Macbeth Act V, sc. 5
Right now the best writer on the Internet is one “Gary Brecher,” who composes a series called “The War Nerd.” The column began on the Russian-based, English-language magazine the eXile, and it’s about what you might expect: the subject of war from the point of view of somebody who’s read a lot about it. That might lead some readers to dismiss what “Brecher” has to say, except that not only has he read a lot, but he has spent a number of years teaching English in the Middle East—which is like writing about basketball from the vantage point of 64th and Stony Island Avenue. So it’s writing that’s sensible: like, for example, his piece about The Siege of Dammaj. What, you didn’t know about The Seige of Dammaj? Don’t worry, it’s not that important: it only explains just why both Al-Qaeda exists, but likely also why you haven’t gotten a raise in ever.
Dammaj is a small town, even by Yemeni standards, in northeastern Yemen, but it became important to many more people than the neighborhood farmers when, in the late 1970s, a local man named Muqbil al Wadi returned from his religious studies across the border in Saudi Arabia and opened a school to teach the Wahhabi (they’d prefer the term “Salafist,” or “pure”) brand of Sunni Islam taught in Ibn Saud’s kingdom. But Wadi was not exactly a simple educator. He’d split Saudi because he was hot: he’d been indicted and jailed in connection with the Mahdi Revolt of 1979, when an armed band declared their leader the Messiah and grabbed the Grand Mosque of Mecca, then held it for two weeks until the Saudis organized the inevitable counterraid that killed at least a few hundred hostages and militants.
Wadi however had the right connections, and soon enough had his school, the Dar al-Hadith, up and running, appealing to what Brecher calls “a cast of thousands of cheery kids from Minneapolis and Jakarta and other comfy, wealthy places.” Soon, as Theo Padnos put it in a story for NPR, “rumors circulated in the mosques across the West: In a village in Northern Yemen, Islam was as it had been in the time of the Prophet—pure, uncompromising, and gathering strength.” Wadi appreciated the entrepreneurial opportunities of education far ahead of the curve: he was selling “authentic learning experiences” way before education experts in the West were writing books about them.
What, presumably, wasn’t part of Wadi’s pitch was something that American universities, or the Peace Corps, also often leave off their descriptions of “year abroad” programs: the fact that Yemen is a nation divided, as a lot of nations are, between two different religions who more or less hate each other. Nor, likely enough, would any hypothetical brochure for the Dar al-Hadith have explained that while the sort of Salafist, Sunni Islam practiced at the school was also the religion of those in charge of the government in Sanaa, it most assuredly was not the kind practiced in Dammaj, which is situated in the slam middle of Yemen’s Shia Muslims.
As later events would demonstrate, Dammaj’s inhabitants did not much care for being told they were infidels, as the “Salafist” version of Islam does. Still, the scions of wealthy families from across the Muslim world Wadi attracted to their town spent a lot of jack down in the local souk, and as Brecher observes, “Many a town has put up with the local students because it loved their money more than it hated their guts.” For the most part then, the locals were content to take the cash and ignore the sermons—sensibly enough—while the students it seems (despite being, you know, students) were not interested in their surroundings enough to know that the guy who sold them their smokes down the way hated them both for religious and economic reasons. All in all, a typical town-and-gown arrangement.
Yet that isn’t the only way Dammaj was similar to the typical sleepy village in Ohio or Vermont that’s home to a liberal arts college. One sign of the similarity is a blog Blecher cites, called “Fear the Dunya,” written by a Salafist student in Dammaj calling himself Hassan as Somali. “Dunya” is Arabic for “the physical world”—0r, in other words, “reality.” And there’s something curious about Hassan’s blog, Brecher notices: so long as “Hassan’s blog deal with practical matters, he writes good, clear American English.” (Sample sentence: “The rooms are made of mud bricks and most of them have small bathrooms.”) But “as soon as Hassan starts talking religion … all that clarity and honesty vanishes.” (Sample sentence: “Before the da’wah of the Sheikh Yemen was plagued by tashayyu’ in the north and tasawwuf in the south and hizbiyyah.” These all refer to what a Salafist would regard as various heresies.)
In other words, there isn’t a hell of a lot of difference between the sentences written by these Muslim students from the back of beyond and sentences like this one, cited by philosopher Martha Nussbaum in an essay called “The Professor of Parody”: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure …” That’s not even the whole sentence, by the bye: the whole of which won its writer, professor Judith Butler, first prize in an annual Bad Writing Contest.
To Nussbaum, what’s really significant about this style of writing is that it demonstrates just how feminist “thinkers of the new symbolic type would appear to believe that the way to do feminist politics is to use words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness.” People of this sort, Nussbaum says, “have been influenced by the extremely French idea that one does politics by speaking seditiously, and that this is a significant type of political action.” Such a turn signals, Nussbaum says, a “virtually complete turning away from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women.” But what’s interesting about thinking about Nussbaum’s argument in terms of the story of Dammaj, is that what Nussbaum sees in the young feminist scholars she engages with actually doesn’t seem to be very tied to feminism, or gender, or even the West, at all: if young American women are attracted to “French postmodernist thought,” young Muslim men are attracted to schools like Dammaj—and, as Brecher notes elsewhere, to more sinister places.
The ones that went to Dammaj, at least the Westerners Theo Padnas met, were mostly “refugees from the urban ills of home”: “They’ve grown up in troubled neighborhoods,” Padnos writes in his story “A Militia, a Madrassa, and the Story Behind a Seige in Yemen,” “haven’t always succeeded in school, have lived through substance abuse issues, jail sentences, and have usually drifted a bit from city to city before coming to Yemen.” But what really unites them, Padnos thought as he interviewed students at Dammaj, was one particular element:
Over time [Padnos says] … I started to notice that in the background of these discussions there lurked an especially troublesome, impossible-to-ignore force. The name of this force was “dad.” The father-son argument fell out along these lines: The dads wanted the sons to get jobs, to respect authority, to give up the ridiculous pretense of Islamic scholarship, and to stop dressing like terrorists. If the sons couldn’t reconcile themselves to the West, they could get the hell out of the family. The sons told the dads to study the Koran.
In all of these senses, and not excluding violence, the students of Dammaj much resembled another group of young Islamic men who turned away from the West and all it represented: save the difference that the students of Dammaj shared something with the young Butler-influenced feminists described by Nussbaum. Over the course of Padnos’ stay in Dammaj, he gradually found that “the goal of a religious education in Yemen” was “to disassociate oneself from the things of this life”—just as the women Nussbaum writes about uninterested in political change of the direct sort. That was also a belief shared, and yet rejected, by another group of young Muslims, Brecher points out.
Whereas, in other words, according to Nussbaum the “new feminism instructs its members there is little room for large-scale social change,” and according to Padnos the students of Dammaj felt that they “were surrounded by a monstrous Other,” this group of young Muslims certainly believed in their capacity to cause widespread change—although they also shared a great deal with the other two. Look back “with a good cold eye at what Al Qaeda was,” says Brecher, “and you see that they only recruited well in one demographic: Middle/Upper-Class, Not-That-Bright, Middle Eastern Surplus Young Men.” There are, as he says, “a lot of those around, thanks to oil money and high birth rates, and they bounce … from prostitutes and cognac in Paris to cults in Denmark to one after another school.” That’s who Mohammed Atta and his buddies were, in case you weren’t aware: Atta for instance studied architecture and engineering in Cairo and then in Germany; Ziad Jarrah, for another, who piloted United Flight 93 and came from a wealthy Lebanese family, studied aerospace engineering in Hamburg.
Yet as Elena Lappin wrote in the magazine Prospect a year after the 11 September attacks, while Atta was an “upwardly-mobile young man, with a technical specialisation,” he had “no place to go” because his “personal advancement in Egypt was blocked due to his family not having the right connections.” In Egypt, and in many other places in the Middle East, “jobs, housing and decent wages were scarce,” Lappin says, and she cites Max Rodenbeck’s observation from his 2000 book, Cairo: The City Victorious, that by the mid-1980s “Even sex was effectively denied many, since Egypt’s strict conventions demanded marriage, and marriage required money for dowries and furnishings and apartments.’” The suggestion, in other words, is that September 11th happened because too many Arabic speakers couldn’t get laid—which might sound amusing, of course, until one considers just how serious a matter that really is.
What, after all, does the sort of academic study advocated by people like Judith Butler encourage, as Nussbaum says, but a denial of the bodily? One of Butler’s “strong claim[s],” Nussbaum says, “is that the body itself … is also a social construction,” and whereas feminists of an earlier age had their “eyes always on the material conditions of real women,” what characterizes the new generations of feminist scholars “is the virtually complete turning away from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women.” Not only that, but the “new feminism instructs its members there is little room for large-scale social change.” To whom else, Nusssbaum wonders, is this pedagogy aimed at but “successful middle class people” who would like to “do something bold”—perhaps like a number of young men who met in Hamburg around the same time—but “without compromising their security?” In other words, isn’t Butler’s audience simply Middle/Upper-Class, Not-That-Bright, American Surplus Young Women? That is, women, and other supposed intellectuals, who are specifically uninterested in improving the material lives of other women, or anyone else, in the United States. Which, just maybe, is why wages have pretty much been stagnant since 1974 or thereabouts.
At some point, one presumes, something will have to be done about the continuing production of these sorts of people; that time, it seems, is not yet. However that debate ultimately turns out, though, it’s a choice the students of Dammaj do not have any longer. Just before the end of the Siege, Brecher says, the students were outraged to discover that the leader of the Yemeni government, a Sunni Muslim, “finally cut a deal to try to save his doomed regime” and sold Dammaj out to his Shia opponents. “It was as if the sheer power (and money, and guns, of course) of the Sunni revival held Dar al Hadith in place against all logic for a third of a century,” Brecher writes, “until the start of the pushback we’re seeing now.” The students, it turned out, were right to fear reality: playing dice with nature never, despite what the professors or imams or the businessmen say, ends well.