Shiat Ali

Yesterday it was impossible to escape the main event. From “le prince enchanté” to “la bella ragazza”, from “una esplendida boda” to “o casamento do século”, all the western news channels babeled with royal hype and wallowed in royal trad. To the east, the news from Tehran, through the ineffable Press TV, devoted two static screens to the powers of the British queen, highlighting the capacity to declare both war and peace, mentioned the fact that some small social event was in progress, and it was back to business as usual.

Business in this case was the trad trio: Libya, Bahrain, and Saudi. News of Syria does not reach Iran. The governments of both countries are followers of the prophet’s son-in-law, they are Shiat Ali, the followers of Ali. At once submissive and brave, decimating his foes with his fork-tongued sword, he inspired the Shia to the cry: “There is no hero but Ali, and no sword but his Zulfiqar.”

It just so happened that the wedding of Lady Catherine of Cambridge was on a Friday, which has become the day of all protests in the Arab world. It almost rained on the prince’s parade; in Portugal rain is considered to bless the marriage (boda molhada, boda abençoada). I suppose by that token, pretty much all British marriages are blessed, given the weather, unless they take place in the London Underground.

In Syria, however, the government did rain on the parade, in this case in the southern city of Daraa. There are reports of splits in the Syrian army, soldiers being shot for refusing to fire on protesters, and of four hundred dead over the past month and a half. Britain reacted violently to this outrage by cancelling the Syrian ambassador’s invitation to the royal wedding.

In this game of Arab dominoes, two models have emerged over the first quarter of 2011.

The first  model shows regimes that collapsed with minor casualties, the cases of Egypt and Tunisia. The second is the increasingly violent entrenchment of the incumbent, and the subsequent split in the armed forces, illustrated by both Ghaddafi and Assad. In other words, civil war.

From 1936-1939 a civil war was fought in Spain, right next door to where I’m writing this. A few decades later a repeat event in the Balkans. In Spain the war was about politics, in the tradition of the fascist-communist struggle that besotted Europe for a good part of the XXth century. As in Libya, there was foreign interference: the International Brigades, where both George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway fought, the bombing of Guernica by Hitler’s Germany, a sort of WWII “warm-up” for the Luftwaffe.

In the Balkans, the traditional interface between Christians and Muslims, the war was religious. It must have been extremely surprising to the Serbs, long the bastions of the eastern frontier of Christendom, to find themselves unsupported by the West in an anti-Islamic purge so similar to those of past history.

Saudi Arabia has been pouring resources into the Bahrain conflict, and I’m sure Iran has too. The Shia minority in Saudi perform much of the hard work in the eastern oil fields, and get very little of the benefit in return. The Shia see themselves as traditionally oppressed, and come across as the segment of the Muslim world that has always done the hardest work for the lowest pay.

Distribution of Jurassic oil fields in the Gulf. Map from

In Saudi, the Shia have been distanced from all positions of power. A Shia will not be the foreman on an oil rig, a diplomat in the foreign service, or even deputy head in a local school. Their emblematic leader Ali was murdered during Ramadan in A.D. 661; he was killed because the Shia vision of the Prophet’s bloodline was regarded as idolatry by a rival faction. An early example of terrorism, classifying as kuffar, or infidels, those that did not strictly follow the word of God.

Part of the fun of writing these posts (and hopefully reading them) is the plethora of information that you come across. When I start writing, I’m usually preoccupied with a certain idea, but I have no clue where the text is going―it probably shows. The internet must take some of the blame, and particularly my fascination for this cyberspace version of Chinese Whispers.

So if I murmur kuffar in someone’s ear, is it possible that a few mouths down it becomes kaffir, the racist epithet used by the Afrikaners? After all, six hundred years ago the Arabs got as far as King Solomon’s Mines, as did Pero da Covilhã, the Spy in The India Road.  In my quest, a quick peek at some of the more esoteric sites yields the following quote from a Pakistani website:

I am Azam Tariq. I am Dead actually. My mission was to kill shias and ahmadees…
…I was One of the ISI’s greatest assets and the point man for lynching and murdering the country’s Christain, Shia and Ahmadi minorities.

True? I don’t know. If it is, then I hope all of it is. Thought-provoking? Certainly.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


One Response to “Shiat Ali”

  1. Frances Says:

    After their own civil war in the 1920’s, The Irish forged on to fight on both sides of the Spanish civil war – nationalists and socialists. The Irish folk song ‘Viva la quinta brigida’ shows up the writer’s poor language skills as the Irish fought in the 15th International Brigade and not the 5th!

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