Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is both something new and something very familiar in the genre of fantasy. Inspired as much by the fairytales of medieval Arabia and Persia as by the plot structures of high fantasy, the result is an engaging mixture. Featuring swashbuckling dervishes, powerful alchemists, and a ponderous ghoul hunter looking for retirement as the main protagonist, the book is as fast-paced and full of action as one might demand, and kept me up all night to finish it despite the present ravages of a bad cold virus. To be sure, Ahmed is unembarrassed about the use of classic fantasy tropes, albeit restructured into a loose allegory of the medieval Arab world – but what the book perhaps lacks in depth it more than makes up for in charm. The variegated characters are lively and engaging, although somewhat one-dimensional, and the writing achieves a surprising degree of emotional seriousness for what is a fairly unpretentious fantasy novel. This is aided by the emphasis on the religious dimension of life in the world of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, something traditionally underplayed in action-oriented fantasy. (The religion, of course, is an immediately recognizable adaptation of Islam.) Continue reading “Book Review: Saladin Ahmed, “Throne of the Crescent Moon””
There are many confused reports coming in about events in Libya, but so far things appear to be going in the direction of revolution, despite the widespread bloodshed committed against the protesters by the Ghadaffi regime. Some claim that the city of Benghazi, the second largest in the country, is in the hands of the rebels; other state that Tripoli itself is under siege. There have been reports that people have attempted to storm Ghadaffi’s compound and have been repelled with heavy losses. In the meantime, the weak position of yet another seemingly almighty regime is confirmed by the haphazard appearance of one of the Colonel’s many sons on state television, who bored his audience with a lengthy and incoherent rant blaming the circumstances on essentially everyone but the real culprit – the oppressive government itself. Needless to say, this will do nothing to stop the protesters nor will it convince anyone outside Libya of the government’s good will or competence. The fact that Ghadaffi, according to repeated information, has seen fit to send special forces and even mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa against his own people is an indication of the hollowness of his appeals to socialism or being a popular hero, and it reveals the absurdity of his ‘Jamahiriya, a state of all the people. Instead of distributing the oil income and developing his country, Ghadaffi protects the foreign companies and distributes bullets among the crowds. A government which has been ruling for 42 years, the longest period in the Arab world and one of the longest in the world altogether, is now teetering on the brink of destruction.
What does all this mean? In past years, the American establishment’s view of foreign policy was that if the hated ideology of Communism were able to take over just one country, it would soon topple all the others, one by one. This so-called ‘domino theory’ was the justification given for the brutal intervention in the Vietnam War by successive US Presidents. In reality, there was never much indication that it was true – self-proclaimed Communist leaders taking over in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Mozambique had no real effect on their surrounding countries. Now, however, a real domino effect seems to be taking place, and one that the United States finds as baffling as the one they originally feared. It is the domino effect caused by the rising of the Arab peoples, in particular their large proportions of young people. For decades on end, Arabs have lived under various petty tyrants of one stripe or another, often for entire generations under just one or two different rulers. These geriatric figures would claim now to be pan-Arabists, then to be defenders of Islam, sometimes friends of Palestine, sometimes modernizers, whatever suited their needs at the time. But the only consistent aspect of their rule, whether in Yemen, in Syria or in Egypt, was their corruption, their repression of all political independence, their fear of an informed populace, and their ruthless use of violence, torture, and intimidation against anyone who might appear as a challenger to their rule. These latter-day pharaohs are now being overthrown one by one, and not a single outside power is capable of preventing it. Pressured by the high youth unemployment, the lack of prospects, and the dropping living standards as a result of the crisis’ impact on food prices, the Arab peoples have woken up from their government-induced sedation and discover that they are strong. Mao said: ‘imperialists are paper tigers’, and by this he meant to strengthen the confidence and will of his people against the seemingly overwhelming might of the United States. And indeed, the United States, with all of its armies and all of its money and all of its power, was defeated by the armed people of Vietnam and had to evacuate its personnel by helicopter from Saigon. The Arab peoples are now discovering that their own dictators, the ones who have imperialized their own nations, plundered their peoples’ wealth, talked down to them with tales of pretend heroism while preventing any independent source of information or opinion to spread in their lands, are in the end paper tigers as well. Nobody seemed as firmly in the saddle as Hosni Mubarak, given 1.5 billion dollars a year from the United States and in charge of one of the region’s largest armies as well as one of the most feared security apparatuses – and yet, when the people rose, he was overthrown within two weeks.
For too long have the Arabs in the world been seen as weak and cowardly. The idea was always, explicit or unspoken, that in any part of the world popular resistance could become a reality except in the Arab world. Arabs, it was often proclaimed behind closed doors in foreign ministries and intelligence agencies, were people who were willing to put up with any dictatorship, who were willing to accept any misery, as long as they were spoon-fed stories of martial glory and religious fervor. The greater Middle East was the playground of absolute monarchs, petty generals, and armed fanatics, and behind all of them the strategic manipulation of the US and other Western nations, favoring and disfavoring them not unlike the Roman Emperors of old did to their vassals. But if this revolutionary movement succeeds and carries its task through to the end, this story will be forever known to be myth. For the Arabs have finally risen up, not just against their own rulers, but at least as much against the condescension of the world’s ‘opinion makers’ and pundits, against all the experts on their affairs, and have shown that they have a will to be free and a right to rebel as much as any Jefferson or Marat. Nobody had foreseen that this would happen, least of all that it would happen so fast, and right now, but such is the nature of all revolutionary events in history. Let us hope that this wave of revolt will sweep away more of the ‘muck of ages’ in this region: Ghadaffi, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Kings of Bahrain and Morocco, perhaps even the arch-tyrants, the House of Saud. But however these individual struggles may end, one thing is certain: there is now once again hope for the greater Middle East, and Arabs anywhere in the world can once again raise their head in confidence, no longer mocked.