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Despots in the Sand: A Quizzical Memoir

by Ihab Hassan

The Arab Spring, a blast of the hot, Khamsin wind. Spring, I said to myself, how many centuries then did the Arab Winter last? Or was that “Spring” merely an interlude, heralding yet another ice age? But give hope its due. A Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouaziz torched himself and the Middle East blazed.

Look what happened within a few months: the president of Tunisia fled; the president of Egypt sat in an iron cage; the Libyan dictator, dragged from a ditch, died of a bullet fired from his own golden pistol; and the Yemeni has just “resigned” after thirty-three years of misrule. Earlier, the ogre of Iraq had been hanged. And any moment now, the tyrant of Syria, sitting under the sword of Damocles, may find his head in his lap. Interestingly, only the kings of Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, though they spurn constitutional monarchies, have been spared.

Take Egypt, where I was born. When the youths of Tahrir Square evicted the latest pharaoh from his palaces by the Nile, I thought: groovy! Then I wondered: is this the land I left seven decades ago? Finally, I saw—saw even before the Muslim Brotherhood swept freely into the Egyptian Parliament, even before other generals continued to hold power with invisible hands—that this Arab Spring would be like no other spring: it would leave the landscape of the Middle East both verdant and sere.

So, what had this dubious season to do with any of us in our addled, interactive world? What, I needed to ask, had it to do particularly with me? Tectonic shifts have tilted many lands a fraction toward democracy. Were these changes relevant to me? Did the Arab Spring touch me deeper than the news of any other day? And what of those jihadists, broken-mirror images of the despots, how did they relate to me, kinsmen in a shadow world?

The answers, I fear, may be subject to the inevitable opacity of introspection. Who can strike clear through the mask? Opacity and, worse, indifference at this stage of my self-exile.


I start where I stand. The spirit of an American would cry out first against the nabobs—I nearly said monsters—who ruled across a vast crescent of sand. How did they come to misgovern for so long? Did they rise from the dragon teeth of tribalism, sectarianism, colonialism? Do they carry the memes of societies still yearning for the glory of the old caliphates, the magic of the Arabian Nights, the breath of the sonorous Koran? Or do they simply betray the deformities of nationalism in the postcolonial world?

Of course, one man’s despotism may be another’s divine right—le roi ne meurt jamais, l’état c’est moi—while still another may consider despotism a tax on tea. But we know them, those men who never heard of Max Weber’s definition of government as a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence” and who don’t give a fig for law and justice anyway.

I hear a cynic cry: what’s the big deal? They were always around, your monsters; black gold has just filled their coffers and loosed their paranoia on the world. And I hear another sneer: monsters, you mean like you and me? But those insights are facile. What, besides oil, empowers paranoia in all those lands? And if nothing human is foreign to readers of these words, how many among them would revel in the atrocities of a Gaddafi or Saddam?

Certainly, all autarchs are not the same; nor do they hide a cloven hoof or carry the mark of a slouching beast. Certainly, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the exemplary Arab strongman, stands apart from others in historical charisma—only the funeral of an incomparable singer, Um Kulsum, summoned larger crowds to the streets.

Still, I wonder if, beyond their rage for power, these men share some traits. Their domains stretch from the Maghreb to Mindanao and count two billion Muslim heads. Their people have no common language, race, or history; and in their time zones—all ten of them—flourish the mountain cedar and desert cactus, the scorpion and snow owl. Can all these Muslims constitute a single civilization, facing the mihrab at dawn, shouting imprecations at the West from the top of minarets at dusk? Step warily now, I enjoin myself: these queries carry stains of primal fears.


Focus on the Arabs again, ignoring for the moment Muslim nations like Indonesia and Iran. In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence spoke of “desert Semites” who lacked “half-tones in their register of vision,” people of “primary colors, or rather of black and white.” I expect that truth and falsity mingle in this statement.

I have known few desert Semites myself—my parents always said that, beside the indelible Arab inheritance, Turkish, Albanian, and indigenous Hamitic blood flowed in our veins, with a possible drop or two contributed by a roving Crusader. Be that as it may, I prefer to translate Lawrence’s perception into other words: what I find “primary” or apophantic is the rhetoric of Arab leaders, a smashmouth, delusionary language that recasts reality in odd, sometimes droll, ways. Call it the mother of all rhetorics.

This kind of bombast—a sort of verbal fundamentalism—may slake or inflame parched souls as whim and power dictate. What sustains it? We know that it inherits a florid literary tradition. We know that it cohabits with illiteracy. But we also know that it thrives where misogyny thrives. In its masculine bravado, its tumescence, so to speak, the rhetoric reverts to an earlier phase of civilization, when words possessed preternatural powers, women embodied assorted diableries, and the term modern had yet to roll off the English tongue. (Though some attribute all atavisms to Islam itself—a sad and costly error—the denigration of women thrives in the non-Islamic cultures of India, China, and Africa, a pathogen of violence in history.)

History moves not like an arrow but like a boomerang. (Tropes aside, we don’t know how it moves.) Current practices of women in Islamic societies would have scandalized my mother, my aunts, and my female cousins. To them, the un-liberated household was not only passé but also déclassé. To be sure, the attitude was rife mostly in secular, pseudo-Westernized classes, in which snobbery posed as an enlightened stance. Now enlightenment hides behind yashmak and veil, and the headscarf has become chic.

No veil, however, can hide racism. In the Egypt of my childhood, as elsewhere in the world, status shaded into color, if not exactly into “race”: the paler the skin, the higher the status. In this bent logic—sprung from ancient, nocturnal terrors?—the “white man” could claim to be king of the mountain though he only sat high on a wall. Willy-nilly, we’re back to colonialism, which, like slavery, compounds class, race, and gender in its abominations. But abominations were hardly unique to Europeans. Nearly everyone colonized, nearly everyone enslaved. The light-skinned Mamelukes ruled Egypt more barbarously than the ruddy British by expropriating the land and skewering the fellah on iron spikes.

I review this coalition of miseries because it helps explain the rise of dictators. With one ruthless blow, these men—men, of course—appear to abolish class, race, and colonial influence while retaining absolute power. Smiling or glaring down from their marble pedestals, they pretend to champion the oppressed while cramming chock-full their torture chambers and Swiss bank accounts. Nationalism, populism, Arab socialism, even Islamism, all accrue to their advantage: pleasure domes and infinity pools and irrecusable power for life. Till a policewoman slapped a vendor in Sidi Bouzizi; till Tahrir Square.

So, who made the despots necessary? They appear like jetsam on the strands of receding empires; they emerge from failed states or warring tribes; they arise in transitional societies lacking a civic tradition, lacking empathy and obligation beyond a particular clan. (The contrast between the dreck of public places and the bling of affluent, private spaces seems to escape most tourists.) Yet, for all their violence, the satraps pacified their people. As Stephen Pinker remarks in The Better Angels of Our Nature: “People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumb of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats. This gives us the more sinister sense of the word pacification….”

Around these squalid, latter-day Ozymandias, the “lone and level sands stretch far away”—above vast deposits of crude oil.


My instinct in this hybrid memoir is to interpellate myself rather than to accuse, exculpate, or discover under some mat the forgotten key of Arab history. If I go barreling in, what then do I find? I encounter a smoldering distaste for tyrants, yes, but also for their secret sharers, suicide bombers or jihadists with lethal belts warming against their skin. Who are these children of death?

In seeking an answer among the experts, I met bias, bemusement, and contradiction. True, the zealots tend to be male and young, often biddable but not always incult, seething with anger, vengeance, and humiliation, yet also altruistic—a nod here to Emile Durkheim’s concept of “altruistic suicide”—in their pact with eternity. Incandescent with faith, but as often with a sense of injustice, they seek to enter Paradise, redeem History, and recover Honor with one squeeze of the detonator. They will make “the other” pay—a Muslim bystander most probably. They will be remembered—vain hope.

And so, agog with havoc they go to God. Still, they leave their mothers behind, leave their kin, as did the Zealots in Roman times, as did the Assassins and kamikaze. How do they do it? Who runs those suicide academies, with stringent admission policies, grisly ceremonies of graduation, dead alumni? My mind boggles at these half-obscene queries, my feelings balk.

Neighbors in Milwaukee do not hide their perplexity. With muted voice and averted eyes, they take me discreetly aside and ask: why? (They think the answer lies encrypted in my name.) But what would I say? Go live their lives to know their deaths. What would I say? Extremism rarely discloses its motive to reason? Or should I philosophize about the urge for transcendence, the psychology of humiliation, the courage of despair? My tongue retreats.

I admit it: there were times, young and old, when I teased the idea of dying so that I might come to know Reality. It’s not just a Muslim thing. Empedocles on Etna considered the urge and Freud called it the “oceanic feeling.” In most of us, especially agnostics, the irrepressible desire for life overleaps the fact of mortality, and so we cry at the end: Is that all, is that really all? Or is death another door?

Regarding the jihadists, I said my feelings balked—did I also experience a touch of envy, a dab of shame?


I write about suicide bombers and dictators as if they were scapegoats for all the ills of the world. I write about them from the distance of America’s Dairyland, and the concerns I show now barely entered my awareness in youth, despite the tradition of student riots and activism in Egypt.

In Cairo, I lived on the cusp of British colonialism and native oligarchy. The gap between rich and poor was then unconscionably wide; it has shifted since without narrowing. A chauffeur drove our high-backed, metallic-gray Packard. I cycled six days a week to the Faculty of Engineering on my Raleigh and thought only of rankings in my class, of the next bully I might encounter in a bicycle fight, of vanquishing the Military Academy fencing team, and of choosing between films at the Roxy, the Strand, and the Metropole for the Friday matinee. Girls flitted in and out of my fancies but remained unattainable outside my daydreams.

As for politics, it reduced essentially to this: how throw out El Ingleez? The war was but the distant din of empires about to crash, even when the tanks of Rommel rumbled into El Alamein. What demands could a feckless student make on the mountainous King in Abdeen Palace or the Grand Mufti fingering his beads in El Azhar? What questions would he ask of his world or of himself? No doubt, questions that male adolescents, bulking with testosterone and illusions, always ask.


Here are some Qs and As, belated and sly, which may nudge us closer to the political theme:

Q: Why did the British occupy Egypt rather than the other way around?
A: Navies and a cool head. Anyway, the colonies have struck back: headscarves in Glasgow, curry in Birmingham, reggae in the London Underground, not to mention bombs.

Q: So where is the Arab Enlightenment and why did it fail to emerge?
A: The Janissaries of the Grand Turk took care of that, the Great Powers afterwards. We had our Enlightenment in the fourteenth century. Pity it didn’t last.

Q: But why is authoritarianism ingrained in all those countries? Even after Mubarak, the generals continue to rule Egypt by other means.
A: You want me to say we suffer from a Pharaonic Complex? You want me to cry Patriarchy and Islam? Why did Kissinger and his cronies long condone authoritarianism for the sake of stability?

Q: All right, then, tell me why have countries like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates contributed nothing to the world in five hundred years, beyond oil, terrorism, and domestic abuse?
A: It’s the best way to preserve the status quo when you have nothing else to contribute and have everything to lose.

Q: What about the intellectuals? Where’s their self-critical spirit? Not in Sayyid Qutb, the implacable voice of Muslim theocracy.
A: Intellectuals were in self-exile, like you, effendi. Otherwise, they languished in prisons or hung by the neck like Qutb. Besides, only recently has the West lent them an ear. What’s this sudden concern with our intellectuals?

Q: Okay, forget the intellectuals. When will you stop beating your wives?
A: Not right away. But Islamic societies will be feminized, never fear.

Q: Meantime, what? Nepotism and corruption—is that all you can manage in the Middle East?
A: Ha, ha, don’t you see? It’s our way of expiating colonialism and spreading meager resources.

Q: Honestly, now, will you and I live to see any real change?
A: Who knows? A struggling democracy here, a failed democracy there, a few police states here and there. Poverty, crowding, and pollution for sure. But also a new sense of worth, a new way of speaking to the world.

Q: The last question now, a humdinger. What about Israel?
A: What about it? Unspeakable. Inevitable. But think, what would we do without our bugaboo? Anyway, don’t take everything I say seriously. A word in Egyptian Arabic can mean itself, its opposite, or a camel.

I do not offer such exchanges as exercises in levity; I mean them to suggest the mood of many Arabs now. For even as they shake off memories of a humiliating and stultifying past, they share a present not of their own making. I say “share” as if Tahrir Square would henceforth provide all Arabs with a civic model. In truth, given their fissile temper, fractious politics, and religious divisions, Arabs find it hard to share anything. United only in their hatred of Israel and an aggrieved, postcolonial pride, they shout and bicker, pointing fingers at everyone, except themselves. It’s a habit friendly to violent stasis.


Explanations of the historical process, even when tentative and light-hearted, are notoriously partial; we interpret according to our needs, as Nietzsche knew. Nor is the principle of causality itself secure. (In the age of the phantom neutrino—speeding a whisk faster than light, the folks at CERN hint—cause and effect may come unstuck.) Still, I started this essay by puzzling: who or what made all those despots and jihadists possible, and why did they last so long?

Tyrants and suicide bombers, however different in character—I put them side by side but do not meld them into one—spring from a certain matrix of violence, a certain culture and history. To that matrix, I attributed, foremost, misogyny, poverty, illiteracy, rhetoric, irresponsible elites, the absence of a liberal, democratic consensus, the lack of a robust critical spirit, a tendency to see the world without nuances (fundamentalism), and a postcolonial mood, both vengeful and liberating—features, all, of acute nationalism in the “developing world.” But where, on the scale of nationalisms, would American “exceptionalism” fit?

No doubt, these factors are complicit, though none can say to what degree; and none can distinguish cause from effect in societies still groping for self-definition. In the end, the arrogant question is left still standing before us: why is a society what it is and not otherwise?

Perhaps the error, more than the arrogance, of the question derives from the nature of explanation itself. Why seek explanation instead of, say, empathy? How much do we need to understand in order to cohabit the earth with a strange culture, a different practice, an alien passion?

I know that empathy in Homo sapiens, though connatural, is also circumstantial. How could empathy fare better in the mixer and grinder of identities that the postmodern world has become? How can compassion trump the indurate egoism of human beings? True self-dispossession—the kenotic virtue—remains within the grasp only of mystics and sages. Most of us will find readier comfort in Pinker’s argument that violence and intolerance have declined dramatically since a stone arrowhead penetrated the skull of ?tzi the Iceman in the Tyrolean Alps five thousand years ago.

Still, we may rightly fret about the future. Couldn’t the decline of violence reverse itself with one apocalyptic blast? How much can we really extrapolate from the past? There’s still no alkahest to dissolve the evils of the world and no enchanted bullet to bring down every troll in his cave, every goblin in his tower.


Pinker sweeps magisterially through history; my task is to drill into my feelings about the Arab Spring. So why narrow my eyes and concern myself only with despots and jihadists? Their lives could hardly be the most meaningful in the Arab world. What’s to envy there? Indeed—given the spite of time—what’s to envy in the heroes who toppled tyrants? The brief, cathartic moment experienced by Wa’el Ghoneim, now listed among Time Magazine’s “One Hundred?” A chance to cry, as did a young parliamentarian called Basem Kamel, “I don’t want the Islam that preaches I am right and everyone else is an infidel”? The fleeting solidarity that millions of Egyptians achieved at Tahrir Square?

I detract nothing from these historic achievements when I ponder what meaningful life could have been mine in Egypt, given its legacies and prospects. The statement, admittedly self-serving, evokes for me an absurd incident that contains the gist of my self-exile.

One morning, a year or so ago, the phone rang in our house. When I picked up the receiver, I heard a garbled voice speaking Arabic. I explained that I did not understand. The voice rose a few decibels:

Consulate of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Just a minute, sir, just a minute.

Hurried whispers in the background. The voice faded and returned:

Just a minute, sir. We find the Consul General.

More minutes passed and I began to wonder why, though my umbilical cord had snapped long ago, I still held that phone line. I have no relatives in Egypt; I wanted nothing from the Consulate; I have learned that the world holds you by the throat of your needs. Before I could hang up, though, I heard a plummy voice, the Consul General himself:

Sabah el khair, Mr. Ihab. We ask for a small favor. We want proof that you are alive.

I beg your pardon?

A bank in Cairo wants proof positive that you’re still alive. They don’t tell us why.

You’re talking to me, aren’t you?

Yes, but how do we know you are you and not someone else?

He said this pleasantly and laughed, a joke between compatriots, between old-new friends. I hung up—and instantly regretted my rudeness. Why couldn’t I bring myself to laugh with the Consul? Suddenly, I saw the joke within the joke, which the Consul could not see: in Egypt, I was effectively dead—no loitering revenants wanted!—and this did not please me. But hadn’t I always been an alien there, a sort of changeling? Even Cairo beggars addressed me as khawaga (Mr. Foreigner). I looked at the dumb phone on my desk and chuckled mirthlessly, down the snout as Beckett would say.

Indeed, the joke had been on me. By hanging up on the Consul, I had expressed the phantom pain of my old rejection of Egypt, a mutual rejection, really. In that sullen, black object on my desk still lurked old ambivalences, and by lifting the receiver, I could have released them into the room. Coating all those ambivalences was a film of indifference. Indifference or despair, I asked myself sharply, despair of change? In any case, I had neither the right nor the wish to claim a portion of Tahrir Square.

No doubt suppressed memories color my sense of the Middle East today. But, as Lewis Carroll said, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”; the scimitar of recall cuts both ways. In closing, therefore, I ask a very different question, implicit throughout: is there no way to pass beyond the urgencies of the self and the constraints of history?


By tearing myself away from a certain culture, as countless immigrants had done before me, I joined inadvertently a fateful horde, traveling a distance longer than any Ötzi imagined his descendants would some day travel—a journey across millennia, of course, and across alps and seas, but driven always with the hope of breaking through to a different spiritual landscape.

Despots of the sand, despots everywhere in the world, will come and go; and Arab women may someday attain their full rights and majority. But until something else changes in the neocortex—in the brain, in the heart, or in the soul—the harsh Khamsin winds will continue to blow. Yet in the “vale of Soul-making” (Keats), a sleeping angel may someday spread her wings, and with every stroke blow humankind closer to its fate.


Ihab Hassan is a distinguished American literary critic and writer whose career spans the twentieth century from the New Criticism to Postmodernism and beyond. His work ranges from a pioneering study of postwar American fiction, Radical Innocence, to critiques of the mavericks and giants of contemporary writing, The Dismemberment of Orpheus; from explorations of travel and quest in Selves at Risk, to perceptions of his own life’s journey, in Out of Egypt and Between the Eagle and the Sun: Traces of Japan.  His The Postmodern Turn has become a classic reference on the subject. In the last decade, he has written and published fiction with Australian, American, and Egyptian backgrounds in such journals as AGNI, The Antioch Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Confrontation, and Notre Dame Review. He has also completed a novella and a collection of short fiction, The Changeling and Other Stories. (3/2012)

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AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI