Saturday, October 23, 2010

Carlos the Jackal

Here is an article about French director Olivier Assayas and his new film, "Carlos". The film sounds really interesting to me, in spite of (or because of?) its 5-hour-plus running time. It makes me think of two years ago around this time, when I was in Chicago for a month and a local art theater was showing Steven Soderbergh's 4.5-hour epic about Che Guevara. It was a really cool setup--with your ticket they gave you a program with all the film credits and a bunch of beautiful stills. As I settled into my seat I looked at my fellow filmgoers, feeling that we were in some sort of a fraternity that was going to embark on this long cinematic journey for the next few hours. There were no credits to open the film (that's what the program booklet was for), just an image of Cuba with an orchestral score played over it, and then the film started. There was an intermission mid-way, with more orchestral scoring.

Anyway, I haven't seen "Carlos", and probably won't for some time, given my geographic limitations. The local cineplex in our town shows mainly drivel like "Alvin and the Chipmunks part 8" or "My Neighbor is a Spy". Yesterday night, my wife and I went to see "The Box" with Cameron Diaz. I initially thought it was decent, much better than our theater's typical fare, but afterward my wife helped me realize that it was rambling, preposterous, and pretentious.

In fact, I didn't even know anything about Carlos the Jackal until recently. I had heard the name before, but I thought it might be a Bond villain or a semi-fictional figure. Only after hearing something about the new film did I do a quick wikipedia research on him. What I learned is that Carlos was an international assassin-for-hire in the employ of different Eastern bloc and Arab countries. He seems like a really interesting figure, because his rhetoric was along the lines of Marxist revolution, but he worked a lot with different Arab movements, many of them (like Saddam Hussein or the Sudanese government) anything but leftist or revolutionary. And it seems that before his capture in 1994, and to the present day, his rhetoric lines up more with Islamic revolutionaries than with Marxists.

This for me is fascinating, because Carlos represents sort of a missing link in my understanding of geopolitics. In the US we always talk about how the Cold War had a logic we could understand, and then one day it was over and we were in a world of just one superpower and a bunch of Islamist terrorists. No one seems to understand how it all happened, or how to deal with today's world. I took a class on the history of the Islamic world once, and even there it wasn't clear to me how the Middle East seemed to go from a bunch of secular movements (Nasserism, pan-Arabism, Baathism, Communism, Palestinian liberation) to sort of a political void with a bunch of Islamist movements bouncing around. There was an essential disconnect. Well now learning a bit about Carlos the Jackal, I feel I understand better how the political discourse of leftist insurgency didn't just dissolve and get replaced by Islamist insurgency, but rather that maybe the one merged into the other. This seems to be supported by the fact that certain Islamist insurgent heavyweights of today were themselves secular insurgents a generation ago.

This new revelation comes at the same time that I've gained a new interest in Afghanistan. In particular, I've become convinced that all the warlords and Talibans and insurgent groups in Afghanistan aren't so alien or hard to understand as I'd thought. Again, I feel like we in the States assume that Islamist insurgents are totally impossible to understand to a Western mind. We ascribe to them an almost superhuman purity and extremism, taking their discourse at face value. If they say they want to ban music and photos, then none of them must listen to music. If they claim complete sexual purity, they must really be more chaste than anyone we've ever met.

But a passage in a book I read recently really surprised me, and flipped some of my assumptions on their head. Apparently in southern and eastern Afghanistan, there is a high incidence of men having sex with men within armed groups. The seclusion of women is even more absolute in these areas than in the rest of the country, and insurgent groups and warlords can spend years on end in the field, fighting. So according to this book, many armed groups have an abundance of teenage boy soldiers that act effeminately, holding hands with their sweetheart companions and adorning themselves with makeup and flowers. There have even been fights and murders among warlords over a coveted young lover. All this in direct contravention of Islamic teaching forbidding homosexuality.

This all makes sense. Ostensibly heterosexual Western men take one another as lovers in certain situations like prison or at sea. This seems to happen regardless of any cultural or religious norms against same-sex relationships. So why wouldn't the same happen in Afghanistan? I guess I had always assumed that Islamic fundamentalists were somehow differently human from the people I know. Pakistan and Afghanistan are a long way away from anywhere I've ever been, so if I'd always heard that people there were somehow fundamentally different from people elsewhere, I guess I took it at face value. This quirky little anecdote about gay warlords somehow made me realize that even people so far away, with such different values, maybe aren't that difficult to understand.

Along the same lines, I've skimmed over some reports recently comparing narcotraffic-financed insurgent groups in Afghanistan with those in Colombia. Again, these would make it seem that armed groups in the Middle East aren't so different from things I'm more familiar with. Just as leftist groups in Colombia compromise their ideological purity by a cynical, nihilistic approach to finance and strategy, Islamist groups in Afghanistan are doing the same.

People aren't that different from one another. I've seen that the baddies in one place act a lot like the baddies elsewhere. And surely the good folk in one place could get along pretty well with good people in another place.

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