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Book Reviews

Diary of a Journey and of Arab Encounters

Passion arabe, 2011-2013

Passion arabe, the latest book by Gilles Kepel, a professor at Sciences-Po and a member of the Institut Universitaire de France, is not the umpteenth essay on the Arab revolutions, nor is it a reportage in a strictly journalistic sense. It is, rather, an impassioned diary of a journey where the author communicates his impressions, gathered live along the stages of his journey from Tunisia to Egypt and from Yemen to Bahrain during a period of time that goes from the spring of 2011 to the autumn of 2012. The title of this work perfectly renders the tenor of this diary where the personal memories of the author – from the first study visit to Syria in the 1970s to his most recent scholarly experiences – are mixed with an inflamed reality that leaps to one’s eyes in all its contradictions, violence, hopes and fears. The passion that is thus evoked is at one and the same time that of the author in relation to the Arab world, which he has studied for four decades, and that, in a Christic sense, of these populations wounded by hunger and war.



In this work Kepel uses different registers: flashbacks, digressions and narrations of a quintessentially literary character are mixed, in an intertwining way, with a journalistic account of his meetings with Salafis, Muslim Brothers, Copts, military men, peasants, secular people and liberals, in which, in their turn, political analyses of a more scientific and academic character are set in motion, such as those on the reasons for the rise of the Islamists. A phenomenon which has been indeed at the centre of the interests of the author since his first book, Le Prophète et Pharaon (1984), in which he examined, thirty years before their rise to power, the Islamist students of the Egypt of Sadat.



But what makes Passion arabe really interesting is not so much the political aspect, however valuable it may be, but rather the evocative succession of both planned and chance meetings that the author narrates in a detailed way, communicating the atmosphere of such meetings not only through the words of his interlocutors but also with descriptions of their looks and clothing, their manners and their contexts, and from which it is possible to draw lessons that are more effective than a textbook. The problem of manipulated information, for example, is admirably summarised in the episode of the boy that the author met in Gournah who, forced to leave his studies and work for his family, which had been impoverished because of the absence of tourists following the attack of 11 September, describes what happened that day in America basing himself on what he had learnt about it at school, that is to say: ‘Jews and Christians has killed thousands of Muslims in some towers in New York’ (p. 78). Salafi extremism is well symbolised by the meeting at Luxor with Tareq and Abboud al-Zomor who had just been released from the prison in which they had been placed because of their involvement in the assassination of Sadat and who brought their followers together at the temple of Hatshepsut, a place where in 1997 tens of tourists had been killed. The sensation of the ‘double discourse’ of the Muslim Brothers, summarised in the ambiguous phrase dawla madaniyya (civic state), which means that the state will not be theocratic but it will also not be secular, and behind which is concealed, in the view of secular people and liberals, the proposal to anaesthetise their opponents in order to prepare for the installation of an Islamic State, is well reflected in the words of the taxi-driver encountered in Tunisia, who, in commenting on the statement of Ghannoushi according to which an-Nahda did not intend to legislate on female dress, exclaimed, with the air of someone deeply informed, ‘That’s so as not to frighten foreigners, but gradually it will be done!’ (p. 103).



What emerges is a rhythmic and living book which ably grafts the episodes that are narrated onto a very complex geopolitical background that is dominated by the fighting of ‘the tiger and the elephant between the gas of Qatar and Saudi oil’ (p. 305), with Qatar funding the Muslim Brothers and Saudi Arabia the Salafis, disputing between them the primacy of the Sunnis with the ambitions of Shiite Iran and Turkey.


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