Salem's Lot

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I attended a conference on democracy and free markets earlier this week in Doha, Qatar. Aside from being exposed to the Gulf?s splendidly amoral equivalent of Venice, the trip gave me a chance to meet Egyptian playwright Ali Salem?smoker, drinker and, as if one needed to say any more, unadulterated Arab liberal.

Salem is best known in the U.S. for having visited Israel a few years ago, and for writing a book on his trip (the translated version of which, by the way, earned him no royalties). The account provoked considerable opprobrium in Egypt, where today Salem finds it very difficult to stage a play, as well as expulsion from the Writers? Union. However, as Salem told me with a grin, his book sold very well indeed, with many readers stopping him to say how much they liked his writing, but disagreed with his ideas.

Salem is a satirist, and he allowed me to read several articles in his room after serving me scotch from a travel flask (Johnny Walker Red Label, ?Because it won?t be said you cannot get a drink here!?). However, it was his performance the day after, before a panel discussing human rights, which revealed his true quality.

After having had enough of hearing panelists argue that the Arab world was culturally specific, so that ?democracy should not be imposed on it from outside,? the bear-like Salem grabbed the mike, literally. He remarked that the world was no longer a global village, but a global apartment, and that if someone (read the undemocratic Arab world) wasn?t prepared to share in the common tasks of the apartment, it was best to take to the road. In indirect reference to 9/11 and the American reaction to it, he noted that when someone had a leak in the apartment above, it was only fitting that he should go up and fix it.

However, it was what he said next that was perhaps the more significant. He argued that one could not always hide behind cultural specificity, since there were such values as passion and freedom that were universal. For example, just as the West had thrown up Romeo and Juliet, the Arabs had their Antar and Abla. Democracy, he said, had moral value, it was not a cultural creation.

Salem told me a joke, which somehow seemed to say a lot about the Arab world that marginalizes people like him: Two men are condemned to death, and the first one is asked what his last request is: ?To see my mother,? he answers. Then the second man is asked his last request: ?That he not see his mother.?

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  1. I have nothing but respect for guys like Salem. It’s one thing to be a hyper-critical satirist stateside, but yet another in Egypt. Mubarak is better than Sadat and Nasser when it comes to jailing dissenters, but it’s still not a safe environment to be outspoken (his fame helps him a lot).

    Why note that he smokes though? In my experience, non-smoking Egyptian men are the exception, not the rule. This guy sounds like a younger version of my great-uncle, if he was a playwright.

  2. The problem with this kind of thing is that it seems to lack the power to sway western liberal opinion ie their counterparts and natural allies in the west, or has in the past. A few (well, 50,000) rampaging religious zealots are seen as truely representative of the region and worthy of empathy and “understanding” whereas the same number of liberal playwrights and perfessers, who by their very nature are unlikely to shoot & kill infidels in defence of Voltaire (arab equivalent of), are somehow less authenticaly indigenous. These are the same Liberals who would not tolerate any weakening of church and state, and correctly so IMHO, in their backyards.
    I remember reading about no less than two algerian liberal writers living in exile in France (for the usual reason that they would likely be shot on sight in Algeria) who were bitter that their warnings regarding islamic extremism had been taken less than seriously by French and Western european intellectuals, some of whom had actively dismissed their concerns.

  3. That reminds me of the old Russian joke. A peasant is constantly complaining to God that his neighbor has a cow, “He has milk, butter, cheese, and I have nothing.” One day the Archangel Michael appears to him, “God has heard your cries. He will give you a cow.”

    “Oh, no,” says the peasant, “I’m not selfish. Just kill his cow.”

  4. How was Qatar otherwise? I’m going in a week or so.

  5. For some reason, I’m reminded of a very different joke. Two Jews are caught by the Nazis and told to dig their own graves. The first starts to complain. The second one says “don’t make trouble.”

  6. Since we have reverted to jokes:

    Why do members of the Secret Police patrol in threes?

    One can read, one can write, and the third keeps an eye on those two dangerous intellectuals.

  7. About all this does for me is remind me of the Homer and Jethro ditty: “I crept into the crypt and cried.”
    I’m gonna forward the set-up for this topic to my buddy Abdul O’Paki in hopes he can translate for me.
    I’m blessed at my workplace with Abdul, a Zionist and a Ms. Poo from Shanghai. My steenking bases are flippin’ covered.

  8. What does the title of the write-up refer to (I should ask this query more often)?

  9. Jean Bart,
    No you should not ask this query more often.

    The title is biblical I think, but who cares?

  10. It’s a Stephen King story. No connection to the topic, afaik, except the name “Salem.”

  11. To further expand, the title is Stephen King’s second published novel, Salem’s Lot. It’s a vampire story about a Dracula-type who moves to a small town in Maine named Jerusalem’s Lot, and proceeds to turn many of the townsfolk into vampires. A handful of heroes battle the evil and try to stop it.

    It is, in my opinion, one of his scariest and best books. King readers have long hoped he’ll write a sequel, but so far he is not interested.

    The movie on which the book is based is a horrendous monstrosity that should be burned in the bowels of hell.

  12. Good scary movie, sez i.

  13. Democracy itself can be more evil that dictatorship, IF there is no guarantee of human rights. Before putting democracy in Egypt, Iraq or anyplace else there first need to be human rights guarantees a la the Constitution, so that the majority can’t vote to outlaw all non-Koran publications, use Coptic Christians as cooking fuel or some such monstrosity.

  14. Gadfly,

    I think that the only legitimist reason for government is to guarantee rights. If rights have to be earned they are not rights at all, but privileges, and the government is in control.

    garym:

    “Democracy is a means to the end of freedom, not a moral value in its own right.”

    Right, democracy can lead to tyranny for many and an expropriation of their rights and property by political majorities. That’s why republics with rules that severely and strictly limit what political majorities may do are to be preferred.

    There is a great book: Democracy ? The God That Failed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0765808684/reasonmagazinea-20/

  15. If the people of Egypt, which has a repressive regime with a still hideous abuse record, were to have their government emulate, at all, the Israeli government’s treatment of its Jewish citizens (I’m juxtaposing the 20% Palestinian Israeli citizens here, not the Palestinians in the occupied lands who’s treatment is even far worse of course) the Egyptian people could benefit greatly.

    So, if Ali Salem can get a book read in Egypt that might influence things in that in that direction, he is a hero.

    This is another tragedy of the occupation. All most all Arab governments could learn much from the Israeli government, as to how it treats its citizens (the Jewish ones, that is) but the brutal occupation puts self serving blinders on their eyes.

    (I read a freedom rating scale, where freedom for Israeli Jews is rated a (5) with (6) being the highest (US, Australia, some countries in Western Europe. Egypt was a (2))

  16. I think, Rick, that if you just took US service veterans and compared their “freedoms” to Israeli citizens (of whom most gave public service), they would compare favorably. There’s something about governments preferring citizens to earn their rights rather than being born into them.

  17. Salem does sound better than most, but it’s unfortunate that he focuses on “democracy” as a central moral value. In Moslem countries, democracy means control by the Shiites or the Sunnis, whichever outnumbers the other locally. Iraq’s new constitution has Islamic authority explicitly written into it.

    Democracy is a means to the end of freedom, not a moral value in its own right. This is a particularly important distinction in places without any tradition of freedom.

  18. Misery is a good scary movie from a Stephen King novel, but mostly because of Cathy Bates’ performance. It probably would have sucked without her.

  19. good scary movie based on a King work would be “the Night-Flier”.

    Too late — they already made a bad movie based on The Night Flier.

  20. I’m sure Salem and Arab liberals are sooo happy with the seeds of democracy the US military is raining on Iraqi cities.

  21. Agree with Eric.
    A good scary movie based on a King work would be “the Night-Flier”. Very underrated.

  22. If you are REALLY interested in bring democracy, freedom, tolerance, capitalism, etc. you have do one thing: Change the culture that shows contempt. You have to convince the Sunni’s, Shiites, Wahabee, etc. that the bigotries and superstitions that are the foundation of their civilization are dead ends and it’s time to abandon them for the sake of future generations.

    Of course, if you try they’re going to toss air liners into your major landmarks, killing thousands while western leftists scream about “cultural imperialism.”

    Hell, if Dubbya, Ashcroft, and most of the GOP are any indication, we might not be in the position to condemn the Muslim world for being ruled by “religious extremists.”

    In the end, I can only hope we find our oil elsewhere (providing our domestic environmentalists will let us drill for it) and leave that hell hole of a region alone.

  23. If you are REALLY interested in bring democracy, freedom, tolerance, capitalism, etc. you have do one thing: Change the culture that shows contempt. You have to convince the Sunni’s, Shiites, Wahabee, etc. that the bigotries and superstitions that are the foundation of their civilization are dead ends and it’s time to abandon them for the sake of future generations.

    Of course, if you try they’re going to toss air liners into your major landmarks, killing thousands while western leftists scream about “cultural imperialism.”

    Hell, if Dubbya, Ashcroft, and most of the GOP are any indication, we might not be in the position to condemn the Muslim world for being ruled by “religious extremists.”

    In the end, I can only hope we find our oil elsewhere (providing our domestic environmentalists will let us drill for it) and leave that hell hole of a region alone.

  24. Sorry about the double post. Not sure how it happened.

  25. Mark S.,

    It wasn’t oil that was the driving force behind this war. It was an “Israeli government first” mentality of the neo-cons who have been making a concerted effort on behalf of an attack on Iraq for years:

    http://www.amconmag.com/03_24_03/cover.html

    The neos are quite sure that a Likudnik agenda is what’s best for Israel and they have no compunctions about spilling American blood and spending American tax dollars in a series of wars toward that end.

    Reducing the governmental grip of our domestic environmentalists remains a great idea, however.

  26. What government that fails to respect majority preferences, is going to respect individual decisions? It is likely that over any period of time, representative governments are the surest guardians of individual liberties.

    Despots and minority cliques who can safely ignore majority preferences have little incentive to protect unpopular minorities…and majorities thwarted in their own preferences have little reason to cultivate a tolerance for minorities either.

    The same polity that would forbid you to display a christmas tree in the local public school, winds up telling you to remove it from your home also…perhaps because it might offend the neighbors, or something.

  27. (Does the fact that many Saudi royals are fond of good Scotch make them pro-democracy liberals? Who knew?)

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