Iraq Is in His Soul

I just finished reading a long Washington Post article called “A Baghdad Bookseller, Bound To His Country.” It’s extraordinary. Usually, with articles of this length, I stop reading them somewhere around the middle, but this one had me riveted to the end.

Upstairs, the blue bedroom door of Nabil al-Hayawi’s only son was locked, sealing in the artifacts of his short life. Downstairs, the frail bookseller’s voice quivered as he recalled the car bombing that killed his son and his brother and razed his family’s bookshop on Baghdad’s storied Mutanabi Street. More than a year later, Hayawi has not entered the bedroom.

He, too, almost died that day. After five operations, he has trouble standing up. His left arm hangs limp. He takes seven pills a day to cope with aches and depression. Shrapnel is still lodged in his body, posing new threats.
In a country hobbled by a lack of basic services, high unemployment and scarce foreign investment, the family stands for a vibrant alternative. Violence has driven out more than 2 million people, draining Iraq of skilled professionals, but the rebuilt bookshop remains, an engine for fresh ideas and intellectual growth. Every day on Mutanabi Street, a Hayawi sells books, educating a new contingent of lawyers, doctors and computer programmers.

The Hayawis stay in Iraq out of nostalgia, nationalism and a sense of tradition, as well as economic necessity. When U.S. troops withdraw someday, Iraq will depend on families like theirs to rebuild itself, physically and psychologically.

“Iraq is my soul,” the bald, silver-bearded Hayawi said. “I go and come back. But I will never leave.”

Notice that nowhere in the WaPo article does one get the sense that Nabil al-Hayawi thinks Iraq’s history and culture make it inherently superior to other countries, or that Allah has blessed Iraq to the detriment of the rest of the world. He loves his country; he feels pride in Iraq and its people; he would not want to live anywhere else, despite how difficult life in Iraq has been for so long, and still is. But there is no suggestion that the rest of the world is “less” to Iraq’s “more,” or that Iraqis enjoy a special, privileged relationship with the Divine.

It’s hard to avoid contrasting the WaPo piece to this incoherent, almost deranged essay by one “Spengler” (unknown to me, but Michael Ledeen is familiar with his work and declares him to be a “dazzling … philosophical high-wire act“), who spends over 3,700 words arguing that God has singled out America for “special grace,” and that Sen. Obama hates America because he wrote in Dreams of My Father that the cultural traditions and ordered routines present in many traditional societies make the poverty in such societies easier to manage.

To ascribe a special grace to America is outrageous, as outrageous as the idea of special grace itself. Why shouldn’t everyone be saved? Why aren’t all individuals, nations, peoples and cultures equally deserving? History seems awfully unfair: half or more of the world’s 7,000 or so languages will be lost by 2100, linguists warn, and at present fertility rates Italian, German, Ukrainian, Hungarian and a dozen other major languages will die a century or so later. The agony of dying nations rises in reproach to America’s unheeding prosperity.
It may be outrageous, but it is not far-fetched, to speak of a special grace for America, because hundreds of millions of people around the world look toward such a special grace, in the precise sense of the word.
What is this special grace for America that, if it is not the Desire of the Nations of which Isaiah wrote, nonetheless has become the desire of so many nations?
For all its flaws and fecklessness, America remains in the eyes of its people an attempt to order a nation according to divine law rather than human custom, such that all who wish to live under divine law may abandon their ethnicity and make themselves Americans. The rights of Americans are held to be inalienable precisely because they are a grant from God, not the consensus of the sociologists or the shifting custom of a particular historical period. Ridiculous as this appears to the secular world, it is embraced by Americans as fervently as it was during the Founding. Even worse for the secularists, it has raised a following in the hundreds of millions in the Global South among people who also would rather be ruled by the divine law that holds their dignity to be sacred, than by the inherited tyranny of traditional society.
To those who despise religion and worship science, the idea of special grace is an outrage, for science is neutral with respect to all peoples and all times. Since Immanuel Kant’s boast that he could devise a constitution for “a race of devils, if only they be rational”, the professors of political science and sociology have wanted the authority to order the world’s problems according to their image of man: economic man, political man, anything but man in the image of God.
To love America is to acknowledge its special grace, namely that a nation founded not on ethnicity, language, or culture but rather upon the sanctity of individual rights will prevail, while the remains of traditional society are borne away by the current. Those who love America and seek to emulate her, including hundreds of millions of new Christians in the Global South, well understand her uniqueness. To demand success of every leftover of traditional society must succeed is an expression of envy against America’s special grace.

Abandon your traditions, ye who enter here:

The coherence of traditional society imposes a structure on life, a structure so rigid that such societies cannot adapt to change and must crumble before encroaching empire. In return for the sanctity of individual rights, Americans are freed from the constraints of traditional society and made responsible for their own actions. For an American presidential candidate to refer to traditional society as the model for the solution to American problems has no precedent. It is one thing to denounce American errors while upholding American principles. Never before has America considered electing a president who prefers the alternative, and that might just be the most dangerous thing to happen to the United States since its Civil War.

As for Al-Hayawi, well, clearly, he and his fellow travelers hate Iraq, just like Obama hates America:

Beyond shelves filled with history, philosophy and translations of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, another customer perused a book titled “Understanding Poetry.”

“When I finish my masters, I’m going to get a PhD,” said Mahmoud Khudr Juma, 34. “I am going to teach Arabic literature to serve my society. It is important to preserve our heritage.”

He bought the poetry book. But it won’t nourish just his mind. He anticipates lending it to at least a dozen classmates, who, in exchange, will lend him their books.

On a recent day, Nabil walked past the high, yellow stone wall of Cairo’s renowned al-Azhar mosque and headed into the Turkish Alley district. With more than 100 bookstores and colorful billboards, the bustling enclave evoked Mutanabi Street in its glory.

“I feel joy because I love this world,” Nabil said. “I also feel pain, for what has become of us and of Mutanabi Street, which was once a center for civilization.”

“It is as if I am shopping for my home, for my family,” he said.

Later that night, as always, Nabil called Mohammad’s son Ahmed, now 8, who is living in Damascus and still asks, “Where’s my father?”

“I have started planting in his mind, with the help of his mother, that he loves books and bookstores,” said Nabil, who has adopted Ahmed. “So he will carry on the history and glory of his father and his grandfather Hayawi.”

Recently, a top Cairo surgeon told Nabil that a nerve could be transplanted from his leg to try to heal his left arm but that he might not walk again. And his throat, inflamed by shrapnel, could not be operated on until he was stronger.

An influential cleric in Beirut offered to help him gain asylum in Europe, with its state-of-the art medical treatment and majestic bookstores on elegant, peaceful boulevards.

Nabil refused.

Obviously, this man believes community, tradition, and cultural values bring greater rewards than being the loneliest number. How sad.

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