Sunday, May 17, 2015

Undercover Muslim exposed

WITH Yemen in the news for arguably the all the wrong reasons, Theo Padnos' book, Undercover Muslim, a Journey into Yemen, takes on a whole new significance.

Published in 2011, just about the time US-Yemeni extremist Anwar Awlaki was vaporised by a drone, Padnos (formerly Peter Theo Curtis) takes us on a richly layered and personal tour into the heart of the real Yemen and its face of Salafism.

Almost no-one has succeeded in a first-hand English narrative account of the Salafi universe in the Arab world, one tempered by the austere, reductionist and extreme credo of the discredited Saudi scholar, Ibn Abd ul-Wahhab.

The story begins when Padnos, tutoring the inmates of a Vermont prison in poetry, shows them a YouTube video of John (Suleiman) Walker Lindh, the American Talib. This kindles in him the idea of seeking out the John Walker Lindh’s of the Muslim world.

He travels to Sana’a and as an English teacher, is able to get a job at a local government funded newspaper, the Yemen Times. His plan: instead of “wandering around in amidst religious feelings I could not understand” to learn Arabic and to study Islam.

Almost in the style of Richard Burton and others, who buried themselves in Muslim characters to avoid detection on their 19th century travels, Padnos “embraces Islam” and takers on the name, Thabit. He enters a madrasah where he encounters a community of youths seeking out their Islamic utopia.

There he meets “brothers” from Nigeria, France and England, and in the intimate living space of the madrasah, is quickly exposed to their idiosyncracies – and weaknesses.

An expedition with his friends in the upmarket sector of Sana’a looking for halal chicken (in a halal-friendly 99% Muslim country) becomes an understated, if not tragically side-splitting commentary on the kind of extremism that can so bedevil the Muslim world.

In another instance, his friend Said – inflamed with the Salafi notion that all images are forbidden – tears up an election poster of President Abdullah Saleh. In a matter of seconds both find themselves arrested and flung into jail.

On his release from prison, Padnos discovers that he’s passed some kind of credibility test. With his Thabit persona and the tribal acclamation of “Bani Mattari” (a kind of qat he used to occasionally chew) he could now travel to a madrasah in the town of Dammaj to the north. Dammaj had become a Salafi hub in the Zaidi-Shi’ah Houthi region.

With the Salafis regarding the Shi’ah as unbelievers, and the Houthis perceiving the Salafis as an ideological pestilence, their mutual antagonism was easy to understand. Funded by the petro-crat Saudis the Dammaj community was luring thousands of people from all over the world.

Padnos meets Jawad from Islington, a 14-year old banished to the Yemeni desert by his Yemeni refugee mother in England. Jawad had been dispatched to the “homeland” to quell his delinquent fires, but his adventurism and urban survival instincts are very much in evidence. 

Whilst Undercover Muslim is a personal journey, the author doesn’t intrude. Padnos allows his surroundings and his characters to tell the tale. Five years after Padnos’ departure from Dammaj, the Houthis would chase the Salafis out of town. And in another turn of irony, Padnos would be captured by Jabhat an-Nusra in Syria and held for six-months before being released.  

Although written in 2006, Undercover Muslim, a Journey into Yemen, is still very much a recommended read for those trying to understand why things in Islam are sometimes the way they are.

Undercover Muslim, a Journey into Yemen is published by Random House, London.

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