Cruelty and Silence

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Kanan Makiya made his name, or rather his pen name, Samir al- Khalil, with a book originally published in 1989 with little hope of finding a wide audience. Republic of Fear, which Makiya published under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil, became a widely lauded best-seller in the wake of the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf crisis and war. The Times Literary Supplement called it “A sophisticated and brilliantly savage denunciation of Arab populist politics.” The New York Review of Books praised it as “An extremely subtle and erudite analysis of the way [the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein] actually thinks and functions.” Republic of Fear may deserve such praise; it is hard for someone who has not read it to judge. Cruelty and Silence, unfortunately, is another matter.

Several of Samir al-Khalil’s essays, and a review of his short book on Baathist Iraqi architecture, The Monument (1991), were published in the centrist New York Review of Books in the wake of the Gulf War. Readers received the (surely accurate) impression that the writer used a pseudonym for reasons of personal safety. Yet the pseudonym—and Makiya’s later dramatic abandonment of it—became a controversial part of his mystique and celebrity as a commentator on Arab and Iraqi politics. Lawrence Weschler’s long, helpful profile of Makiya and his architect father Mohamed Makiya appeared in the January 6, 1992, issue of The New Yorker.

Cruelty and Silence must not be read without reference to the controversy its author’s postures and opinions have aroused. By no means should it be a first source for readers seeking greater knowledge of Arab politics. To Makiya’s discredit, he has published what amounts to a confused diatribe against other Arab intellectuals; most unfortunately, he squandered a good opportunity to write a book that would interest and educate the general Western reader. One wonders why it was published in English. Is it uncharitable speculation to suggest that the book’s author and/or publisher wanted to profit financially from the name recognition of Samir al-Khalil and the possibly well-deserved success of Republic of Fear?

The introduction of the book under review begins by telling how the invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War made Republic of Fear, as Makiya puts it, “something as close to a best- seller as a specialist book on one country of the Middle East (barring Israel) can be in the English language.” He writes (self-servingly): “Strange as it may seem now, only a short while ago very few people were willing to believe that things were that bad inside Iraq. Many a reader or editor found the manuscript ’biased and one-sided,’ not scholarly enough, or excessively polemical.” He dismisses the notion, widespread in some circles, that the United States is to blame for the Gulf War. “The Gulf Crisis was never simply a matter of foreign manipulation or of the evil man playing the demagogue; it was at bottom an Arab moral failure of historic proportions.” In Cruelty and Silence he does not “claim to have fully explained what went wrong; my purpose is to acknowledge and describe it.”

Though it usually is not appropriate to fault an author for something he does not attempt, one must ask wherein might lie the value of a book such as Cruelty and Silence, especially for an English-speaking readership, if it does not explain. “The first part of the book… is by far the most important; it is a journey through that cruelty told in words of individuals who experienced it at first hand,” Makiya writes. “My role was to turn the words of the heroes of this book—Khalil, Abu Haydar, Omar, Mustafa, and Taimour—into stories, tales of the otherwise impossible-to-believe things that we human beings are capable of doing to one another.”

An admirable sentiment. Yet Makiya’s treatment of such searing material is aesthetically and intellectually sloppy. Disputing a harsh critic of Republic of Fear he writes:

How important is the fact that at least 100,000 innocent Iraqi men, women, and children were trucked from their villages to their deaths over a six-month period in 1988? How important is it that since 1975, no less than 3,500 Kurdish villages have been demolished by the Iraqi government in the name of Arabism?

The answer, to put it brutally, is: no more or less important than that Hitler slaughtered six million Jews in the name of racial purity, or that Burma’s military junta slaughters and enslaves its citizens in the name of central control over ethnic minorities, or that the United States destroyed villages in Vietnam in the name of democracy. Few...

(The entire section is 1941 words.)