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Hichem Karoui: Meeting the Minotaur
September 23, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Whatever the Arabs know about terrorist techniques, they learned it from the British. The story goes back to the First World War: (...) An old Arab woman asked him about the massacre. He said, “I explained.”

What could he have explained? That they were soldiers of a great cause fighting for freedom and that to gain it, even the slaughter of the civilian population was necessary?  Or that it was a pure accident that will never happen? (...)

Once they have finished the plunder, they loaded their camels with the booty and set off (...) They reached Rumm again wherein they spent the night. “It was a night to despair of movement.” Two days later, they entered Akaba victorious. The two sergeants hurried to Egypt where “Allenby gave them a medal each.” They would be grateful to Major Lawrence.

The train’s mining had worked as a genuine driving-idea upon the Arabs’ mind. Soon, all those who had not yet participated in these expeditions, claimed to take part in the next one. Were they started by some heroic feeling or attracted by the easy booty? It is hard to say.

Lawrence and Feisal thought then “to train in the technique of the work enough men for several parties.” Their first volunteer was Captain Pisani, the French officer at Akaba. Three young Damascenes were candidates to lead the raids (...)

Then, with a hundred and fifty men, Lawrence decided to work in the region of Maan. They buried their automatic mine under the railway and went hiding and waiting for the train. Obviously, Lawrence was almost depressed by his work in the same time that he was gaining more credibility among the Arabs. It was an odd situation, for as he explained, “They would listen to no word but mine.” On the other hand, he felt so guilty that he was “about to resign” himself and his pretensions, because “the fraudulence of my business stung me,” he said. He seemed really disgusted by his role (...)

That night, he was stung by a scorpion and by his own conscience. Which pain was more bearable? Have we some sound reason not to believe him when he said, “Pain of this quality never endured long enough really to cure mind-sickness?” Thus, the pain caused by the scorpion’s sting seemed to him banal compared with the pricking of conscience. His mind was torturing him and his turmoil was so tragic that for the first time he questioned himself and stated, “In such conditions the war seemed as great a folly as my sham leadership a crime.”

Never before had he felt such guilt. Soon, because he had not had the courage to desert, he turned what he lived into derision. His cynicism pointed out as a Turkish colonel fired at him from the window of the train they had just stopped. He was wounded; nevertheless, he said, “I laughed at his too-great energy (...) to promote the war by the killing of an individual.” We can observe the same cynicism in another scene: Turkish prisoners “weeping for the life which the Arabs had no mind to take.” For him, it sounded as though life has lost its sacred character and became so chip that sacrifice it or not meant nothing.

However, he acknowledged, with some pride, that his “pupils” have learned “the art of mining” and that they became able to teach it to others. Soon, “the civilian traffic nearly ceased,” and he returned to Egypt summoned by Allenby.

Such paradoxical behaviour would be properly understood only if we look cautiously at the reverse of the picture he gave us of himself, just as if we looked at the transparent negative of an original film. Then, the terrible question Dionysus put to Ariadne would spring before us: “Ariadne, you are a labyrinth. Theseus is being lost in you, he has no longer a thread; he has not been swallowed by the Minotaur, but what is the use of it? What is devouring him is worse than the Minotaur.” For as explained Nietzsche, the labyrinthine man comes back from the pain with “an increasing number of questions, deeper, severer, harder, more mischievous and silent.” However, he will never come back from the labyrinth. Only Theseus could get out in order to be lost in Ariadne, his new labyrinth.

The enigma of the labyrinth consists in answering the question: how can one go down to meet the Minotaur without losing the knowledge of his way? The thread can be knotted, entangled, but it remains the sole certitude. The labyrinth contains the way of the origin and the originate truth, the way that conducts to the last root, the radical truth. The reality of this root is expressed by the Minotaur or by Dionysus. However, the man has built up the labyrinth in order to hide, precisely, that reality.

Yet, in Nietzsche’s eyes, “a labyrinthine man never seeks the truth, but always only his Ariadne...what he would like to tell us too.” This quest of the radical truth would not be done, thereby, for the sake of the truth. Why? “Like all the women, the Truth requires also that his lover becomes a liar in regard to her.”

Now, how about comparing this allegory to the behaviour of those who call themselves “the loyal and pure,” (Ahl-al-walaa-wal-baraa) which is the title of an epistle written by Ayman Al Zawahiri to defend the “cause” of Al Qaeda? Are they not lost in a labyrinth, seeking an impossible truth, and incapable of getting out with even a simulacrum of it?

Yet, as a labyrinthine man, we cannot find a better specimen than T.E. Lawrence, seeking his Ariadne in full time of war, in the Arabian Desert, where all the prophets have sought their own Ariadne a long time before his arrival. But he was not a prophet. Confronted with a moral dilemma, he remained insincere and could neither admit nor deny it. He pretended to be fair to the Arabs while staying loyal to the British: an impossible mission. His post-Victorian idealism was confronted with the harsh reality of the imperialism in action (...)

(The previous are excerpts from a long essay I have written about T.E. Lawrence and the Arab movement, scheduled to be published in 2013.)

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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