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BOOK REVIEW / The Arabian mights: 'Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World' - Kanan Makiya (Samir al-Khalil): Cape, 18.99 pounds

FOR DECADES Arabs have debated Arab nationalism - sometimes at gun point. My generation, born after Nasser's revolution and brought up to believe in a pan-Arab dream of unity and consensus, gradually saw the writing on the wall for this ideal. Post-colonial Arab states aborted their promise of true independence from the West; wars with Israel brought defeat, refugees and a corrosive siege mentality; inter-Arab conflicts escalated until they counld only be resolved by the devastating Gulf war in January 1991, which is estimated to have cost the Arabs an obscene 625 billion dollars.

We remain unable to digest what that war meant. Those who, like me, were stunned by Saddam Hussein's brutal crimes were equally stunned by the blitz against Iraqis (which continues today in the form of sanctions), and by the greed and double standards of the Western allies.

The war and its aftermath hurt all Arabs. Out of that hurt comes this bitter book, like vinegar to our thirst. Cruelty and Silence is epoch-making - whether one can stomach what it says or not. It is about many things: about the uprising of Iraq's North and South against Saddam; about the horrible crushing of those uprisings, as a colluding world looked on; about the stultifying effect of Iraqi Ba'thism on Arab minds. It is an infuriating, edifying and cathartic book.

The author paints the most thorough picture to date of Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign against the Kurds in 1968. I shall remain haunted by the words of some of those Makiya interviewed - especially Talmour, a 12-year-old, whose monosyllabic account of his escape from a mass grave in which his mother and sisters died is unforgettably poignant. Makiya is right to acknowledge that it is such victims who, by 'breaking the barrier of fear', wrote his book for him; and he is right to dub 1988 'the Arab year of shame' if such crimes can be committed in the name of Arab nationalism. His thesis is an indictment not just of Arab nationalism but of all other nationalisms which plague our era.

In his exposure of the Iraqi gulag, Makiya is the Arab Solzhenitsyn. No one gets off lightly, neither Western powers nor Arab states. A Shi'a himself with a visceral link to the South's uprising, Makiya does not flinch from admitting that some Shi'a insurgents were sectarians as cruel and loathsome as their enemies. And as an architect by training, he is repelled by the grotesque structures - cultural as well as political - which he sees on the Arab landscape, and he dons a hard hat to dynamite their foundations. For example, he slams the hubris of Arab intellectuals who are quick to shout about Israeli brutality against Arab but slow to condemn Arab brutality against Arab or Kurd. The reaction to his book has proved that such Arab intellectuals have a mirror-image in certain Jewish intellectuals: for example, the New York Times columnist A M Rosenthal enthused about Cruelty and Silence in the International Herald Tribune, because it provided grist to his ideological mill. The praise of such dubious 'friends' has, from his compatriots, earned Makiya the label of 'self-hating Arab', laundering dirty dishdashas in public - a grave charge in a society that feels itself under siege.

Every Arab writer knows the price of telling unpalatable truths, and few, if any, can afford to pay it. An Egyptian or Algerian writer at odds with religious militants; a Palestinian confronting Israeli apartheid; a Moroccan or Syrian or Saudi preoccupied with exposing corruption or the exaggerated cult of the ruler: all will eventually think it more prudent to fall silent, or write in the hollow words of 'platform poets'. Freedom of speech remains an unaffordable luxury, even for Arabs who write in European languages from Western capitals. They, too, will find themselves practising varying degrees of self-censorship, all because of fear: fear that one might never be able to go home again; that one's relatives might suffer; fear of arrest, torture, even death; and a more ambiguous fear, common to victims of trauma, who, having for years internalised suffering and practised denial, shy away from the longed-for moment of truth.

Kanan Makiya is a subtle and skilful writer, whose attack on Arab prejudices has forced me to re-think my own inherited position. Makiya rightly denounces the dwarfs among Arab intellectuals, but in doing so he also knifes the giants. He tells us that he cannot abide 'a conspiratorial view of history', by which he means the tendency to blame Western powers for Arab woes. In this truculent spirit, he pounces on and travesties the work of Edward Said, whose Orientalism (1978) was crucial in helping Arabs to shed the dead wood of hostile Western descriptions, and so to describe themselves. The Arab generation that followed Said's (a generation to which Kanan Makiya and I both belong) found it possible to express itself mainly because Orientalism had pioneered a way.

In any event, saying that the West is responsible for many of our woes is not shirking our own political responsibility. It is stating the historically obvious, and defining a major hurdle in the Arab obstacle race. Even as he gassed the Kurds in Halabja, Saddam Hussein was considered a Western ally in the fight against Iran; it was only when he was no longer exploitable as such that it became expedient to unmask him as villain. Makiya is nave if he really believes that manipulative colonialism is dead. Indeed, Said and Makiya (although neither might like to think so, judging by their acrimonious exchanges in print) complement rather than contradict each other. To get the full picture of what has gone wrong with the Arab world, both writers must be read.

When I read Republic of Fear (1989), the classic account of Saddam's reign, I wrote to its author, describing the chastening effect the work had had on me. The pseudonymous Samir al-Khalil replied that my letter had special resonance because it came from a fellow Arab. Little did I realise, as I put his note away in a bowl on my desk, the irony of my gesture: that Khorassani bowl, with its calligraphic inscriptions, had been a gift from an Iraqi friend, Muhammad Makiya, who was none other, I later discovered, than the father of 'Samir al-Khalil'. The 'atmosphere of mistrust and personal isolation' had caused this fact to remain hidden, even from friends. Such is the legacy of cruelty and silence that Kanan Makiya abhors, and urges us to throw off.