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Lessons for Trumpland: adventures with demagoguery in the Middle East

From a demo in Istanbul to the quiet racism of Israeli security, it's time for Americans to understand what modern authoritarianism looks like – and learn how to resist.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
14 November 2016
Kiriat Arba.jpg

The illegal Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, on the edge of Hebron.

On the flight to Istanbul, I read about Anthony Barnett's trip there a decade ago. I read about the trial of openDemocracy’s contributor Hrant Dink for ‘public denigration’ of Turkey. I read Dink's last piece for openDemocracy "the water finds its crack". Then I read the tributes written by Anthony and Isobel Hilton to the writer. He had been shot dead on the steps of the office of the Armenian/Turkish publication he edited.

When I arrived, walking with a friend through a transcontinental city of house-sized flags and skyscraper bling, we found ourselves passing a large demonstration of power from the youth wing of the ruling AKP. These were mostly cheerful, polite and smiley young people, with Turkey branded T-shirts and signs saying things like “we have Erdogan, they don’t”, “BBC! We can speak English too” and “don’t use the water from the cannon, use the bullets from the tank”.

We gradually overtook the demo and found, not far ahead, a smaller gathering of another group of protesters – this time, against the government. Specifically, they were opposing the closure of the TV station Channel 10, playing bağlama music and carrying pictures of doves. Worried that the larger crowd would attack the smaller group, Yoris warned a couple of protesters of what was coming before we retreated to the overlooking first floor of a bookshop to phone-film any action.

It wasn’t to happen. Soon, an advanced group of the AKP demonstrators arrived and formed a human chain to protect their quickly dispersing rivals and ensure their comrades didn’t attack. This, I suspected, is what the famous discipline of Mosley’s Black Shirts would have looked like.

That night, after a couple of hours of interrogation and waiting at Ben Gurion airport, I was in Jerusalem, with its invisible lines, roof-top snipers, and a presidential compound vigil, where women had been protesting for peace and justice, around the clock, for days. I interviewed the Church of Scotland’s man in the city and got a tour of the tunnels under the Western wall from an Israeli-Minnesotan in a Jewish National Fund cap who refused to use the word ‘Palestinian’. And then, squeezed in next to a uniformed teenager and his semi-automatic: the bus across the West Bank, to the Sheikh Hussein bridge, where I needed a retina scan, three special documents, eight passport checks and an hour and a half wait for a bus to cross the River Jordan.

Amman, and Nahid Hattar’s balcony

After a week of working, obsessively refreshing fivethirtyeight.com, babysitting my nephew, and hanging out with my brother in Amman, I wandered round the corner from where I was staying to another protest I’d heard about, outside the home of Nahid Hattar. Like our ill-fated Armenian commentator Hrant Dink, Hattar was a controversial writer in his country. A communist, Christian/atheist secularist and advocate of the Palestinian right to return, he was critical of the Jordanian government on everything from its approach to Syria to what he saw as the risk of turning Jordan into a second Palestinian homeland to its acceptance of neoliberalism. He wrote, as his widow was keen to point out to me, “around 19 books”, and he’s rumoured, at times, to have been a significant adviser to the government.

Like Dink, Hattar was murdered for expressing his beliefs.

I arrived early at the house, and there were only a couple of people there, one of whom invited me in to interview the family. Outside, about 200 of his supporters eventually gathered – to mourn his death and to protest against the failure of the government to officially mark the passing of this major national figure.

The writer's politics led him at times to positions which, though common on the Jordanian left, many on the left in Britain would be surprised or even horrified by. His 27-year-old son Moutaz complained about foreign media implications that he supported Assad in Syria: "many articles say ‘he is with the dictator Assad’. It’s about the Syrian army. It isn’t about a person. It’s about the Syrian army fighting the people that we see. Many people say the rebels want freedom, but they want freedom for what? For Muslim Brotherhood to rule the country… freedom for murderers". I decide not to have the argument: I am not talking to the father, but the grieving son.

After our first conversation, I was asked out onto the balcony where various family members and supporters, including Hattar’s mother, widow, siblings and children, watched, spoke, and waved Jordanian flags to the protesters below.

 

Their story has been told before, and is big news in Jordan: in August Hattar was jailed for 15 days for sharing on Facebook a cartoon depicting a bearded man lying in bed with two women, smoking, and asking god to bring him a drink. It had the caption "the god of ISIS". As Hattar arrived at his trial in September, he was gunned down on the steps of the Jordanian Supreme Court. Moutaz, who was with him, tried to save his life, while his brother chased after the gun man. He claims that the police stood by, and did nothing to help. You can hear his description of this to me below, with the sounds of the protest outside in the background.

Moutaz argues that the legal charges were all a front for something the government had wanted to do for a long time. The prime minister had previously sent men to ask Hattar to stem the flow of criticism in his writing. And it was the prime minister himself, Moutaz says, who ordered his father's arrest: a flagrant breach of the county's constitution. But there’s a strong case that the timing wasn’t coincidental: the whole process took place in the run up to Jordan’s elections this year, and Hattar was calling for a mass boycott.

"The government wanted to assassinate his character" Moutaz tells me "but they ended up assassinating his body". 

The West Bank, the White House and a bunch of bananas

The next morning I said goodbye to my brother, did my best to reassure against his growing certainty that Trump would win, and, five hours, nine passport checks and two Israeli border guard interrogations later, I’m in the oldest and lowest altitude city on earth: Jericho, in the West Bank, where I’d come to assess views of the looming US election. Wandering around the town’s central roundabout, and popping into its cafes and restaurants, I asked people a simple question: “Clinton, or Trump”.

Three things strike me. The first is that in the course of a couple of hours, three people give me a banana to eat as we talk. The second is that it’s pretty easy to find people who follow the whole thing closely: “The Democrats are better on welfare”. “Clinton is corrupt, but Trump is totally mad: I’m very worried about him”. “We prefer Democrats”. And the third is that most people think that the result is immaterial for them: US presidents always back Israel, people tell me. Nothing ever changes but that more and more Palestinian land is stolen by settlers.

This isn’t to say that there’s no Trump supporters. In an upstairs café overlooking the main square, I find a room filled solely with Palestinian teenage boys and young men. None of them speaks English, and they don’t understand my question: “Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump”. So eventually, one of the staff rings an Anglophone friend. He tells me to pass him over to one of the young customers, and, when the phone is handed back, he has a short for me: “they say Trump”.

Out at the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp, which has Russian flags down the middle of its main road because of the scale of the Kremlin’s financial support, I find an explanation. Abu Salah, who runs the backpacker hostel in the camp puts it simply. “Trump is honest: he hates Muslims. He says ‘fuck you’ to your face. The others think it, but they don’t say it to our face.” His friend, a long term American guest explains that he knows other Palestinians who hope that Trump wins, because they see the American state as totally corrupt, and think he will destroy it.

Mahmoud, though, returns to the main theme of the day. Sat outside as the sun sets with his young daughter and a group of friends he offers me a chunk of orange and a Turkish coffee and makes it simple. “Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Obama: they are all the same. They all promise change, but nothing changes.”

That evening, to mark Guy Fawkes night, I went with a couple of British friends who live in Jerusalem to a former mine-field overlooking Bethlehem, where we gathered up some dead wood, and burnt it. We decided, though, to be Guy-less. There’s enough religious intolerance in this land.

Hebron, Settler-facism, and gutting a camel

The following morning, I found myself in the heart of Trumpland. Kiryat Arba is a large, luscious illegal Israeli settlement on the edge of the Palestinian city of Hebron which feels like a suburb in the Southern USA, but with even more guns. I’d got there on the bus from Jerusalem, which was filled mostly with more semi-automatic wielding teenagers, one of whom had kindly told me which stop to get off at to find some cafes and people I could speak to.

In around two hours, I persuaded 26 people to express an opinion, and the scores were as follows: Trump: 17, don’t know/care: 7, Clinton: 1, “Je deteste les journaistes”: 1. One man had a big white beard, and I’d found him reading a story about the election. He started out by asking if I believe in Alex Jones, and went on to repeat a bunch of his anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about banks and bankers, before telling me that “not all Jews are like this”. As I eventually withdrew, he shouted after me “do you know who really killed Kennedy?”.

Trump supporters, on the whole, were enthusiastic. From those without much English, I got a number of smiley “Trump!”’s. Those who spoke English tended to say both that he was better for Israel (or, as a number of them put it “better for Jews”) and that they thought he had the personal qualities for the job “she’s too politically correct. He’s a straight talker”. One soldier saw it simply “he’s a man. She’s a girl”. “He’s strong… Clinton supports the Arabs” said one friendly guy, who kindly drove me up the road to find more people to interview.

From the settlement I walked into the city, past a number of run-down Palestinian buildings (some of which were bedecked in occupiers’ flags) through streets almost entirely populated by children, who directed me to the city centre, along an alleyway which led to a downhill path bisected by a large, green fence. One side was rubble-strewn with ruined Palestinian homes. The other, barricaded with Israeli soldiers guarding a city-centre settlement, which overlooked what must once have been the town’s central square and included the Ibrahimi Mosque, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are said to be buried.

The only people in the large square, other than a few Israeli soldiers, were three young Palestinian men, who greeted me in broken English. I told them I wanted to meet my brother’s friend, Emad Abu Shamsiya. “Oh, Abu Shamsiya!” they corrected my pronunciation, then one indicated for me to follow him. 

Hebron.jpg

The Old City in Hebron

My new guide led me through a complex of tunnel/passageways, past customerless traders who called out urgently in English, encouraging me to buy their wares, around cordoned-off corners inhabited by watching Israeli soldiers and under netting, which I later learned was to protect from stones thrown from occupied buildings above. Finally, we reached a silk-salesman who had studied in Manchester in the early 80s, and greeted me with a mock-Scots accent.

This man had Abu Shamsiya’s number, and explained that my guide couldn’t take me to his home as it’s in an occupied area and, being a young man, there’s a good chance he would be shot if he went there. And so instead, he rang and arranged for me to meet my brother’s friend at the bottom of his road. A further scurry through this warren-city past graffiti entreating against becoming a ghost town, and my guide was about to ring him, when a middle aged man stepped out of the crowd, announced he was Abu Shamsiya, and gave me a hug. 

Check point.jpg

The checkpoint at the end of Abu Shamsaya's street, which his family need to pass through to get anywhere.

Emad Abu Shamsiya is a Palestinian film maker whose footage of everyday life under the occupation has become prominent in recent years. He shot a famous clip of a soldier tipping a man out of his wheelchair and more recent footage of one of the IDF’s armed teenagers murdering an injured and handcuffed detainee in front of Red Cross paramedics, which led to serious questions even within Israel. He and his family live in the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood, which is blocked off by an Israeli checkpoint where a soldier through a pespex window checked my passport. His house is surrounded by mesh fencing to protect from stones thrown at his family by his settler neighbours, and the IDF often occupies his roof. 

Abu Shamsiya, outside his house, with a fence to stop settler-thrown stones.

Each month, the locals say, the Israeli soldiers in Hebron change shifts. When the newbies arrive, the departing troops take them round the town to ‘show them how it’s done’; finding a few Palestinian teenagers to beat up. Last year, Gilbert was staying with Abu Shamsiya and his wife Fayeza at this time of the month, and their oldest son stumbled into the firing line. My brother intervened, was arrested, and spent a day in the cells. As a result, he is now banned from the country.

After lunch, Emad took me to meet Badee Dwaik of Human Rights Defenders, another friend of my brother. He talked in good English about how the Middle East should use its oil as leverage for Palestinian rights and said he backed the Greens in the US election “at least they care about the environmental situation, and this affects us all”. Together, we went to chat to more people in the street, including some butchers who were gutting a camel, and a passerby who said that while Clinton would be no better for Palestinians, Trump was a fascist.

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Gutting a camel, Hebron.

In Bethlehem on the way home, after selling me the worst cup of sickly sweet coffee I’ve ever had, two men informed me that they would probably support Hillary Clinton, because they’d never heard of the other guy, and a Barcelonan on the bus to Jerusalem complained to me that the Catalan Greens are equivocal in their support for independence: “The Spanish state is fascist. They will never get eco-socialism without independence”.

The storm breaks on the way home

I watched the apocalypse arrive from my friend’s sitting room in Jerusalem, which felt appropriate. The night before he, like my brother, had told me that he had a lingering feeling that the polls were wrong; that Trump was going to win. I pointed him to Five Thirty Eight’s odds checker, which showed the chances of a Republican victory had dropped below 30%. It might happen. But it’d probably be OK.

It wasn’t. After the same glum-night held by half the world, I was walking, sleep-deprived, through Ben Gurion Airport. I was pulled aside for questioning four times, by people who had checked my passport and spotted my name – both “Adam” and “Ramzy” are Arab too. When I told one inquisitor I’d been staying with my friend Chaim Abrims, she asked me to produce a photo of the two of us together. When I did, she informed me that he “didn’t look like a Chaim”, consulted with her colleagues, and insisted on reading through our Facebook chat thread. At the next security point, they spotted in my bag a scarf I’ve bought in Nablus – the sort that would be used as a head scarf. After a long wait, they told me that they had information that my things had been tampered with, and said they’d have to remove my scarf, jumper, wallet, and book and send them to the hold.

On the Turkish airlines flight, the paper they were giving to first class passengers complained on its front page that the EU was turning a blind eye to Kurdish drug-dealing.

Chaim Abrims.jpg

"Which one's Chaim?" (points to second from right) "He doesn't look like a Chaim".

On fascism

In his magnificent final election thoughts, Anthony Barnett argued against the use of the word fascist, before making the exception for Donald Trump. Sometimes, it’s the precise and accurate term for a person and their politics.

Fascisms come in a number of forms. The term is often used as a label to silence or to dismiss, to shut up rather than to understand. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be considered, analyzed, and described.

I found fascism in the discipline of cheerful young Turks, forming a human chain to protect their rivals from riled-up fellow-AKPers and in their willingness to demand the murder of their countrymen. It oozed from the passionate Israeli settlers on an ideological mission to occupy all of Palestine, and it seeped from the grinding bureaucracy of an airport where every move and motive is questioned; where race and religion are always issues and arbitrary power allows mini-dictators to decide randomly that you aren’t allowed a jumper or book or bank card for your journey.

The Jordanian government isn’t fascist, it’s authoritarian. But it is learning the heat of the fire you play with when you denounce public intellectuals. And in the households of those public intellectuals; also not fascists, you find intelligent people whose experience has taught them to fear and oppose democracy, rather than to embrace it. And these, I worry, are the seeds of fascism.

Trump’s fascism will be its own blend: new in nature, but not entirely different. The flashy skyscrapers of Istanbul showed he and Erdogan may have in common a taste for showbiz fascist bling and a populist ringmasters’ willingness to channel the violence of the crowd. The targeted denunciations of journalists as traitors has been seen in both Turkey and Jordan, leading in each to bloody murderers when citizens took their leaders to their word. The logical conclusion of racial profiling, increasingly militarised policing and the use of walls to divide is on full display in Israel/Palestine.

America isn’t the Middle East. But the country has elected a demagogue as its president. And perhaps, as the left in the USA licks its wounds, it should see what it can learn from the region about how to survive, and how to organize resistance. Because now is the time to organise.

But first, here's my sister Sophie singing Anais Mitchell's Song of the Magi.

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