BOOKS / Writers washed away by a desert storm: Rana Kabbani on two new books, and one new blacklist, thrown up by the Gulf war

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK, Abdallah Bishara, the Kuwaiti head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, issued a blacklist containing the names of many Egyptian intellectuals, whose alleged crime was to have opposed the Gulf war. These artists and writers, Mr Bishara's communique pronounced, must be banned from every part of the Arab media which is Gulf-owned - a qualification that means little, since the overwhelming part of the Arab media is Gulf-owned.

The blacklist was laughable for many reasons. It contained the name of a writer who was already deceased. It contained the household name of Mohamed Heikal, the grand old man of Arab journalism and the author of a fine new book (Illusions of Triumph: An Arab view of the Gulf War, Harper Collins, pounds 17.50). It was so crude in its wish to punish dissent that its vengefulness loomed large even in the habitually punitive Arab political landscape.

Even if one argued that this blacklist was the personal initiative of one particular Kuwaiti, and not representative of any Kuwaiti policy, one would still have to consider it in a certain context. It inevitably risks being read as consistent with other Kuwaiti reactions which have blown our way since Desert Storm.

A detractor might even compile, in angry response, a blacklist of little Kuwait's gigantic errors: its human rights abuses of Palestinians, biduns and other 'alien' workers; its dissolving of Parliament; its dictatorial clampdown on civil rights after liberation, its short-sighted over-pumping of oil which sabotages Opec and harms the developing world; its graceless grudge, which shows no sign of abating, against other Arabs - even against those who helped it most; its conclusion of defence agreements with Western countries which, in effect, return it to a colonial situation; its Emir's unfortunate preoccupation with replacing chandeliers . . .

Two things struck me regarding Mr Bishara's blacklist. First, it was not mentioned in the Western press, usually so keen to publicise incidents of censorship in the Middle East. Second, although the blacklist was issued from Riyadh, where the GCC is based, the Saudis were quick to distance themselves from it. The London-based, Saudi-owned magazine, al-Majalla, which toes a cautious, official line, ran a fiercely condemnatory editorial, written with subtlety and skill. This reflects a new and noteworthy sophistication on the part of the Saudis in playing the PR game, which is certainly a post- war phenomenon.

No one can doubt the colossal shock caused the Kuwaitis by Saddam's lunatic invasion of their country. But their country was returned to them, and at dizzying speed; so their continued reaction to an event set right at great cost to others can only be described as xenophobic and cruel.

Who, apart from fanatical Kuwaiti firsters and Norman Schwarzkopf, can still hold clear-cut, unwavering views about Desert Storm? Even its fiercest political defendants, even its military enthusiasts, even the pundits in the press, must have had their ideas tempered a little by the tragic consequences of that devastating undertaking.

Especially when they see an electioneering American administration looking around for more ass to kick - more of the same ass, that is. Slobodan Milosevic's rear end won't do, unfortunate as that is for Bosnia's Muslims. It's gotta be Saddam's.

At least today, unlike 20 months ago, it is harder to throttle the truth with impunity. Facts are beginning to emerge, and they go some way towards explaining what actually happened and why. Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Reader (ed. Phyllis Bennis and Michel Moushabeck, Canongate, pounds 10.95) is an admirable attempt to speed up this process, to offer information hitherto suppressed or ignored for reasons of state, and to explain underlying causes that aggravated the situation.

The book includes essays by Hanan Ashrawi (the telegenic passionara who has done more for the Palestinian cause, while we are on the subject of PR, in two years than Arafat managed in 20); Edward Said; Noam Chomsky; Barbara Ehrenreich. But quite apart from the contributions of these important voices, one should own this book simply for the excellent chronology at the end. This breaks down the woes of the region into easily digestible, comprehensible dates and events. The appendices also offers the full text of relevant United Nations resolutions, so that one will never again be in doubt as to what is meant exactly by the cabbalistic number, 242.

When Mohamed Heikal's book was sent to me many long weeks ago, I was unable to pen a word about it. I read it twice, each time feeling more confused and more oppressed. Not only because of its deadly picture of a divided Arab world, incapable of an Arab solution to an Arab crisis, unable to avoid what history will show to have been an avoidable war. Not only because that war cost the Arab world dollars 620bn which it should have used for better things. Not only because there would never be a convincing reason for the war crimes committed on the road to Basra, against fleeing conscripts who had never asked to be there at all; not only because Heikal quotes the chilling words of General Colin Powell about these poor devils, now a pile of bones in their mass graves: 'Our strategy for dealing with this army is very simple. First we are going to cut it off and then we are going to kill it.'

But because, when I was a little girl, growing up in the Arab heartlands, the grown-ups around me thought that a reasonable future would be won for them by Nasser, who bid them hold their heads up high and believe in their own freedom. Heikal, whose name is forever linked to Nasser's in the Arab consciousness, was part of that belief, which in my generation, came to nothing. Came to a name on a pernicious blacklist, summing up the failure of Arab independence.