The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War

The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War

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by James Hider

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In his fascinating, terrifying and often very funny book, James Hider takes his doubts about religious beliefs straight into the dark heart of the world’s holy wars—from Israel to Gaza to Iraq—the birthplace that spawned so many faiths—and then back to Jerusalem. From hardcore Zionist settlers still fighting ancient Biblical battles in

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In his fascinating, terrifying and often very funny book, James Hider takes his doubts about religious beliefs straight into the dark heart of the world’s holy wars—from Israel to Gaza to Iraq—the birthplace that spawned so many faiths—and then back to Jerusalem. From hardcore Zionist settlers still fighting ancient Biblical battles in the hills of the West Bank to Shiite death squads roaming the lawless streets of Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam; whether it's the misappropriation and martyrdom of Mickey Mouse by Gaza's Islamists, or a US president acting on God's orders, Hider sees the hallucinatory effect of what he calls the 'crack cocaine of fanatical fundamentalism' all around him. As he meets terrorists, suicide bombers, soldiers, ayatollahs, clerics, and ordinary and extraordinary people alike, the question that sparked his journey continues to plague his thoughts: how can people not only believe in this madness, but die and kill for it too? This extraordinary and timely book takes the God Delusion debate onto the streets of the Middle East. It casts an unflinching yet compassionate eye on the very worst and most violent crimes committed in the name of religion, and then sharply asks the questions the world needs to answer if we are ever to stand a chance of facing our own worst demons.  

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A British journalist's firsthand account of fanaticism and bloodshed in the Middle East. In his first book, Hider, the Middle East bureau chief for the Times (London), loosely examines the ways in which radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity have continually warped and damaged an already difficult situation. In Iraq, writes the author, there has long existed a web of ludicrous superstition and delusion, nurtured by a dictatorship that cared little for objective reality. A lack of understanding about the many facets of Islam on the part of the invading American military, as well as the fog of its own myths, has resulted in a culture clash of terrifying complexity without a foreseeable solution. An atheist, Hider encountered the warring religious agendas of the Sunni, Shia, Jews and Christians as an outsider. He was a neutral recorder of the facts, albeit one with a wealth of experience, since he developed personal and working relationships with Iraqis of all descriptions during the course of several years. He shares stories of riding out with U.S. soldiers in a tank as they laid waste to cities, but also of interviewing leaders of the insurgency or gaining access to their camps, hair-trigger encounters that were tense and unpredictable at best, and which could turn menacing in an instant. Readers will marvel at the mix of resolve, purpose and just plain lust for adventure that made Hider return to the hellish carnage and turmoil. He and his girlfriend Lulu, also a British journalist, often chose to head toward danger rather than away from it. They traveled to Karbala for the massive festival of Ashoura because they anticipated-correctly, as it turned out-that large-scale violencewould erupt. The author's dense, vivid descriptions, frequently steeped in irony and humor, make for a slow but powerful read. For most of the narrative, Hider allows the nauseating, unbelievable events he witnessed and chronicled gnaw at the reader without overt analysis. Horrifying true tales intelligently told.
From the Publisher
“Thank God (although after reading this book you might stop believing in a higher power) for James Hider. After working as a reporter on all the major frontlines of the War on Terror, he has produced a masterpiece that strips away the propaganda and prejudice that blights analysis of the first global conflict of the 21st Century. It is a work of great authority written with wit and wisdom.” - Tim Butcher, author of Blood River

“James Hider offers a new voice in the literature of the Middle East: His is delightfully fresh and very funny. It takes a brave and confident writer to take on so many taboos, but Hider does it with the confidence that comes from years in the field and from a deep, authoritative historical and cultural knowledge of Israel, Iraq and the region.”—Matt McAllester, author of Beyond the Mountains of the Damned

“Studded with a fascinating set of characters in a human landscape both barbarous and beautiful journalist James hider has written an absorbing account of his exciting excursions into the Arab world.”—Jean Sasson, author of Princess and Mayada, Daughter of Iraq

With wry humor, the choicest human anecdotes and the vivid descritptive skills of a high-class jouranlis, James Hider succeeds brilliantly in bringing those jaded stories – Iraq and the Middle East – to life.”—Martin Fletcher, author of Almost Heaven

“Hider’s voice is incisive and rich in the human detailt hat only first-hand experience bestows. An essential work for anyone wishing to understand the swirling machinations of Iraq, its people and its war.”—Anthony Loyd, My War Gone By, I Miss It So

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St. Martin's Press
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The Transmitter of Hopes and Fears
For George W. Bush, the road to Jerusalem led through Baghdad. As a journalist following the latest tide of destruction rising in the Middle East, my road ran in the opposite direction.
In the spring of 2003, I stood on the crumbling sea cliffs of ancient Jaffa, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, where Jonah was said to have been swallowed by a whale. Behind me, elegant Ottoman storehouses converted into restaurants looked out over the flat waters of the Mediterranean. Next to the swanky fish restaurants I watched American soldiers set up Patriot missile batteries that looked like swivelling garbage trucks pointed at the sky. The batteries were to shoot down the Scud missiles they feared would come from the east, from the deserts and shimmering mirages whence, for so long, danger has emerged with terrifying speed, borne on sweating armies of camel-back riders or Russian-made rockets.
Among the crowd of Israelis watching the strangely placid scene that morning were two old men chatting in Hebrew. I started talking to them. They both spoke elegant English. They told me they were originally from Baghdad, and proceeded to reminisce about summer afternoons back in the 1940s when they would escape the heat by swimming under the bridges of the Tigris. They could still recall the cool sensation of muddy water on soft boyhood skin. The men smiled, happy and sad at the same time. It was late morning, and the fish restaurants were filling up with businessmen from Tel Aviv. As I departed, I wished them luck if the missiles should come. They smiled and waved, and didn’t look at all worried.
When the second Iraq war finally started a few weeks later, I was waiting for those missiles that never came. I used to sleep on a camp bed in my office at the end of Jaffa Road, opposite an empty plot of land that had been a bus station when I had first visited Israel fourteen years before, as a kibbutz volunteer. I lived at the other end of Jaffa Road, in a tiny cave-like apartment tucked behind the vast stone ramparts of the Old City. My rooms were freezing in the winter but pleasantly cool in the summer. The labyrinthine streets were mostly empty, the tourists scared off by suicide bombers. The men selling olivewood figurines of the Baby Jesus sat morosely on the Roman flagstones outside their miniature, cluttered shops. On Fridays, the mosques would crank up their call to prayer, one by one, until the cries from the minarets merged into a howling lament, an air-raid siren announcing the imminent wrath of god.
Every morning, I’d walk through the arch of the Bab al-Jadid, or New Gate, and head up Jaffa Road, always with the thought in the back of my mind that one of the parked cars might explode at any moment, or that someone would unholster his gun and start shooting. I once saw an old woman with hennaed hair, Sarah Hamburger, carried away from a bus stop on Jaffa Road, dying. As a child in 1929, she’d survived an Arab massacre of the Jews in Hebron, just south of Jerusalem; at that time, an Arab neighbour had saved the five-year-old Sarah. But on this day, she had been shot while shopping on Jaffa Road by a Palestinian man dressed as an Israeli soldier, who had started firing at everyone in the street. Laid on a stretcher, she looked pale and serene, perhaps unaware she was dying. She had been waiting for a bus in order to attend a lecture on mysticism. I wondered if she registered my face leaning down over her, my hand scribbling her death on a notepad, as she was carried away to die.
Such shootings were commonplace in the British colonial streets of new town Jerusalem: a boarded-up Sbarro pizza bar became a candle-smeared shrine to the fast-food customers cut apart inside by a man strapped into an explosives belt; policemen stood at the entrance to the old covered Mahane Yehuda market to stop people blowing themselves to pieces among the fresh cantaloupes, the piles of avocadoes and the dried apricots.
Jerusalem had reverted to what it had once been, thousands of years before, in the rough days of King David, the city whose walls still poked out of holes in the Old City floor — a jittery frontier town on the edge of a wilderness. Bearded settlers carrying pistols on their hips, their bewigged and hatted wives trailing a dozen sullen kids, stalked up Jaffa Road, ready to draw whenever the next Palestinian gunman appeared. In America, a shooting spree can last half an hour: in the English village of Hungerford, a deranged loner called Michael Ryan went on a three-hour gun rampage in 1987. In Israel, with a citizenry armed to the hilt, a berserk gunman could expect to last only a few minutes.
The settlers often had thick Brooklyn or French accents. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat in a minibus heading up the highway from Ben Gurion airport, outside Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem. I had just landed on a red-eye from New York, one of the last to leave before nineteen fanatical Muslim men took over the subsequent planes and rammed them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, whose towers I had watched twinkling in the dark during its last night on earth. The Tel Aviv minibus was full of American settlers and Yeshiva students with their harsh New York accents, some of them new arrivals talking about the religious schools they would be enrolling in. There were gasps of amazement as news of the attacks filtered over on the vehicle’s radio. They asked the driver to turn it up. Some of the men translated for those of us who didn’t speak Hebrew.
‘Thank Gawd,’ crowed one of the Brooklynites who had just heard of the Biblical catastrophe raining down on his native city. ‘Thank Gawd, now America will understand what we’re up against!’
These religious frontiersmen would stay at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near our office, where they guzzled herring and matzo at breakfast before returning to their neat little villages on the craggy hilltops of the Wild West Bank. They mingled with the black-garbed haredim in thick spectacles and curly side-locks bustling down to Jaffa Road in clusters, bobbing like confused and angry black birds whenever a bomb went off. As the police tried to herd them away from the blood and glass, they’d chant ‘Death to the Arabs’ before returning to Mea Sherim, a little slice of eighteenth-century Poland just off the main road, one of the last genuine Jewish ghettos left. The haredim, or god-fearers, didn’t believe the state of Israel should exist before the Messiah’s return, and spent their lives in poverty, studying ancient scripture and living on state subsidies in their stony ghetto, refusing to serve in the military or hold down regular jobs. Signs at the entrances to Mea Sherim warned women to cover their arms and legs, and for the nowscarce gaggles of tourists to stay out. On religious holidays, when the traffic stopped and the empty streets fell eerily silent, beautiful chants floated from their synagogues like rollicking sea shanties.
One Saturday morning, a shrunken man who spoke no English emerged from a temple and accosted me as I was walking to work. He beckoned to me to follow him into a darkened synagogue: by gestures, he asked me to turn on the light. When I obliged, I saw a group of men sitting in the room, waiting for the Shabbas goy as patiently as they’d waited for the Messiah. They were forbidden from operating any machinery on the Sabbath, even flicking on a light switch.

Occasionally one of the haredim would show up, dressed in black for the shtetl, in a gay club where a crowd of us used to go after a few drinks to dance, the only place that played halfway decent music in the city centre. Laila’s was located, rather incongruously, where Jaffa Road arced alongside Mea Sherim. The black-clad haredi would watch in fascination as a lithe Palestinian boy gyrated on the low stage. The Jewish man was married with ten children, and would discuss god and religion and being attracted to other men with Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, as the crowd of gay and straight dancers pounded the dance floor. Laila’s was one of the few places where Jews and Palestinians were still able to come together, the tug of sexual unorthodoxy briefly overriding the pressure of religious conformity.

On the walk to work I would often pass a table manned by two bearded men with tasselled prayer shawls round their waists, who asked me in bad English whether I was Jewish. They were collecting money to rebuild the Temple destroyed by the Romans 2,000 years ago. When they saw I was not Jewish, they would immediately ignore me. Their project faced many obstacles, besides the lack of my goyim contribution: the main one being that two huge mosques were already standing upon the stone-hewn Temple Mount. The day I arrived in Jerusalem to work as a journalist for the French press agency AFP, in July of 2001, a group of extremist rabbis tried to drive a huge foundation stone for a new temple on a flatbed up to the Wailing Wall. The day was called Tisha B’av in Hebrew, the day of the destruction of the temple. According to tradition, the day not only marked the destruction of both temples, the first built by Solomon and destroyed by Babylon in the sixth century BC, and the second razed by the Romans in the first century AD, but also the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the first operation of the gas chambers at Treblinka in 1942. That was a lot of grieving to be packed into one day.
The Palestinians praying above in the mosques rioted at the symbolic return of the temple founding stone, lobbing stones down on Jewish worshippers, who fled holding plastic chairs over their heads for safety. One of the praying haredim who had run for the cover of the Dung Gate was British, and explained to me that the rabbis were wasting their time trying to rebuild the Temple. I asked him why.
‘Well,’ he said in his north London accent, ‘according to the scripture there’s no point in men trying to build it.’
‘Why’s that?’ I asked.
‘Because when the time comes it will simply materialize out of the sky.’
‘And squish the Dome of the Rock?’ I asked, trying not to laugh at the Monty Python image.
‘Yes,’ he said. He smiled too, perhaps realizing how odd a flying 2,000-year-old Temple might sound to sceptical ears. But clearly he believed it to be true.

The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived through the first-century revolt against Rome that resulted in the temple’s destruction and the Jews’ expulsion from the land, wrote that in Biblical times, the Philistines had managed to capture the Israelites’ Ark of the Covenant during a battle. But when they took the wooden casket containing the law tablets given by God to Moses back to their city of Ashqelon — nowadays a neat little seaside town just north of Gaza, full of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants — their people started dying off mysteriously. A strange force was emanating from the relic, killing off the victors. The episode is echoed in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, when rats on the Nazi steamer carrying the purloined Ark start curling up and dying.
Sometimes I’d look at the vast mosque domes, ballooning on the high cliffs of the Temple Mount, and imagine them as transmitters of that same strange and dangerous force emanating from the hill, sending out unseen waves into people’s minds, the strange radiation of unquestioning faith. Why are the mosques built there? Because in the seventh century a man named Mohammed had a dream that he had flown from Arabia to Jerusalem on a winged horse, before ascending from the huge stone platform to heaven to meet the prophets who had gone before him. This journey on a flying steed, known as al-Isra, is believed by many Muslims to have been not a dream but a literal reality.
According to the rabbinical scholars, there was in fact a simcard at the centre of the baleful transmitter, the buried Ark itself. In 1981, a group of rabbis and students plotted out where the inner sanctum containing the Ark would have stood. Studying their scripture, they decided that Solomon — who had prophesied the fall of Jerusalem — must have buried the covenant tablets directly underneath the shrine housing the holy of the holies. The rabbis had secretly tunnelled to within thirty feet of the spot when word leaked out and the Palestinians started rioting, accusing the Jews of trying to sabotage the mosque compound. Dozens of people were killed before Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the tunnel sealed up, and it remains closed to this day.
There were, however, other tunnels leading into the very bowels of this vast global transmitter of hope and woe. Shortly after I arrived in Jerusalem, I was wandering around the streets of East Jerusalem, looking for the remains of that little cow town that King David had conquered 3,000 years ago from the Jebusites, a clan of the Canaanites who were suffering rapid genocide at the hands of the invading Hebrews. The ‘city’ of David is now largely occupied by a small neighbourhood of sandstone Palestinian houses clustered on an outcrop of rock at the foot of the ancient Temple. The land falls away sharply to the southeast into a ravine, and halfway down the steep slope is the Pool of Siloam. If there had been a metro in Biblical times, it would have looked something like this pool: a cut in the side of a hill, with stone steps leading down to a pool of murky water that disappears into a cavernous hole at one end. There are the stubs of Roman pillars stranded in the grey waters, and a raised stone platform to one side.
As I looked down, wondering what this strange opening in the ground might be, an overweight Palestinian boy came puffing towards me, shouting something. The sight of him put me on edge: I had recently been stoned by a gang of Palestinian kids while trekking through the hills outside East Jerusalem, forcing me to scuttle away as they lobbed rocks at me and squealed, ‘Yehuda, yehuda!’ The hue and cry had been taken up by every kid in the village where I had sought refuge, and I was just reflecting on the indignity of being stoned to death by a gang of eleven-year-olds when two young Palestinian men suddenly stopped their car on the road and offered me a free ride back into Jerusalem. It was an unnerving introduction into the abruptly revolving violence and courtesy of the Arab world.
But this kid was beaming as he approached me, and I guessed what he was thinking: a tourist in this godforsaken part of East Jerusalem in the middle of the intifada! Alhamdulla! He shouted out to me what turned out to be the only English he knew: ‘Pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed the blind man.’ Religious education had been dropped at my school halfway through my O-level course, which may have contributed to my lifelong atheism. The various miracles — dead men rising, lepers healing and blind men seeing — all tended to blur in my memory. But I saw the kid was desperate for a customer so I paid him a few shekels, took off my shoes and socks and took the candle and the plastic flip-flops he offered me. Then I plunged alone into the blackness of the tunnel, hewn from solid rock by men using only chisels and crude pickaxes some 3,000 years before.
The murky water rose to my knees and the light of the entrance was quickly swallowed behind me. The sides of the tunnel were barely wider than my shoulders, the roof forcing me to bend slightly in places. No one knows quite how the well was mapped so accurately by men digging hundreds of feet underground, bringing fresh water into the walls of the city above. Until the beginning of the last century, locals believed the ebb and flow of the water was caused by a dragon that dwelled inside and drank off the surplus. It only filled up again when the beast was asleep. All I knew was that it was a horribly oppressive place for a claustrophobe like me to be, with just the nub of a candle to light the way. As the tunnel curved away into pitch darkness, the candle guttered and went out. Feeling the walls closing in on me, I fumbled for the box of matches the Palestinian boy had given me and relit the wick with a shaking hand. I was inching my way along again when I heard a ghostly howl coming from ahead in the darkness. I stopped and listened for a while, reassuring myself it must be the distorted voices of other visitors further down the tunnel, unseen and perhaps heading back. But my candle flickered again and I desperately put my hand around it to guard it from the draught: it went out, and I turned tail and fled from that dank and suffocating hole.
Much later on, I learned that the tunnel had a key historical significance linked to the transmitter of contagious ideas hunched atop it. It was built around the time of King Hezekiah, ruler of the Biblical kingdom of Judah and heir to the throne of King David. Hezekiah’s reign coincided with one of the most significant episodes in the development of monotheistic faiths, an apparent miracle that secured Judaism, and its Christian and Muslim successors, as the dominant forces in the mind of millions of followers. Much of the world’s history spun on this obscure event.
It was the year 701 BC, and the Assyrian king Sennacherib was marching against a rebellious coalition of former vassal states, including Egyptians, Phoenicians, Philistines and Jews. Twenty-two years earlier, another unstoppable Assyrian army had destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel, laying waste its capital of Samaria and carrying off into exile ten of the twelve tribes of adherents of the still-crystallizing Jewish faith. The exiles lost their religion over centuries of serving Assyria deities in Nineveh, the ruins of which now languish under huge dirt mounds in the centre of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Even in my time in Jerusalem, I heard politicians lament the loss of those ten tribes, whose millions of descendants, if they could only be identified, would have helped modern Israel compete with the more robust Palestinian birth rate.
Nineveh’s military expansion was part of Assyria’s own religious ritual: war was the way in which this empire worshipped its militaristic gods, marking devotions not just in prayer but in feats of arms and territorial conquest. According to the American historian William H. McNeill, the Assyrian religious-military tide was rapidly displacing local gods and introducing the world to its first cosmopolitan, massive empire: a testing time for hick-town deities like Yahweh, whose enduring support rested largely on his ability to deliver his devotees from defeat and slavery. The embryonic empire was dislodging the old ways, creating a religious vacuum in the ancient Near East, as deity after deity failed the test of arms. Had King Sennacherib stormed Hezekiah’s Jerusalem in 701, Jehovah would probably be on the museum shelves next to Baal, Ishtar and Osiris, the Jews as forgotten as the Jebusites.
But Hezekiah took precautions, both spiritual and practical: he strengthened his city’s walls and ordered the excavation of more wells such as the one I stumbled along 2,702 years later. He also told his people to stop up the wells outside of the city to deprive the invaders of water in the arid hills of Judah. And he also purged the kingdom of false idols and centred its worship on the temple of Solomon in his capital, trusting that his god would live up to his boasts of omnipotence.
There was, according to Biblical scripture, a vigorous amount of psychological warfare between the two foes — what is now known as ‘psy-ops’. Rabshakeh, commander of the besieging Assyrian army, warned the Judeans not to trust in their Lord: ‘Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the King of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arphad? … have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?’
To steel the Jewish resolve, the Prophet Isaiah promised that Yahweh would send an angel of death to smite the mighty Assyrians.
‘He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shields, nor cast a bank against it …’ Isaiah promised. The stage was set for a clash of ideas — the one almighty god of the feeble Jewish city-state against the Assyrian war machine and its pantheon of pagan deities.
And then the miracle occurred, the event that secured the devotion of the Jewish people through 3,000 years and two long exiles: the Assyrians mysteriously dropped dead in their thousands outside the walls of Jerusalem. For the Jews, it was the promised deliverance of Yahweh. McNeill argues it was more likely due to the fact that having found the local springs stopped up, the Assyrian army ended up drinking contaminated water. Cholera bacilli were the likely angels of death.
But the psychological impact had been felt in the Jewish people’s consciousness — the Lord was all-powerful, the one and only true God. When finally defeat and exile came at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC, their faith had become so enduring that, far from being seen as a rout for Yahweh, the Jewish priests interpreted it as their all-powerful God simply using the Babylonian empire as a tool to punish the sins of the Hebrew people. The argument would be used by Muslim clerics following the devastating tsunami in southeast Asia in 2004, which they described as retribution for women not being assiduous enough in their modesty. When bird flu broke out briefly in southern Israel after the forcible eviction of the Jewish settlers in Gaza, fanatical rabbis said it too was divine punishment. And the stroke suffered by Ariel Sharon was seen by the religious right as God’s inescapable vengeance, rather than a medical complaint in a heavily overweight, overstressed man in his late seventies.
Exile also adapted the faith into a mobile one, no longer attached to a specific temple or place, laying the roots for its spread around the globe. The time of mere local deities was past: a new strain of ideas had been forged from the pestilence that laid low the Assyrian army before it could storm this dusty little parochial city on the edge of nowhere.

I met my first prophet at Gilad’s Farm, an illegal Jewish settlement on the stony hills clustered above the Roman city of Nablus, in the northern West Bank — whence the ten tribes had once been vacuumed up into exile. The prophet was heavily bearded but surprisingly young, in his late twenties. When he explained how things were ordained to be, he would close his eyes and adopt a beatific smile as the ancient Hebrew words flowed, oiled with divine certainty.
All around us, like lithe young beasts ready to pounce, a group of the infamous Hilltop Youth were mustered, rebuilding the farm after a battle with the Israeli police, who had tried to dismantle the settlement and had been repelled by rocks and Old Testament fervour.
The Hilltop Youth were the radical, second-generation settlers, the kids whose parents had reared them in the West Bank and Gaza on tales of Arab atrocities and Jewish virtue. While their parents, who in the 1970s had pioneered the settlement movement that is at the heart of so much woe, had built their townships into pretty little slices of American suburbia surrounded by guns and razor wire in the hills of the West Bank, their offspring were restless and out for their own conquests. They had developed their own fashion, the boys in baggy trousers and large loose-fitting skullcaps, the girls in shawls and with long hair.
The gathering on the rocky hilltop reminded me vaguely of the Glastonbury music festival, but a Glastonbury in a parallel reality. The kids here were celebrating being the Chosen People, on the land God had covenanted to them. Although to an atheist like me that sounds far less rational than something you might hear at a drug-addled hippie love-in in Somerset, they believed it implicitly and they were ready to die or to kill for it.
One of the younger ones wore a T-shirt that said ‘No Arabs, no terror’ as he sat at the entrance to the ‘farm’ — in fact, just a few jerry-built huts clinging to a rocky outcrop, with a metal shipping container painted with a Star of David serving as the wildcat settlement’s makeshift synagogue. In fact, the farm wasn’t a farm at all — it was the seed of what the settler kids hoped would be a new Jewish homestead, if they could just keep out the Arabs, the left-wing Israeli peaceniks and the police. The place was named after Gilad, a settlement security officer who had been shot dead on the nearby road by Palestinian gunmen. His kid brother was the prophet I was interviewing.
‘When all of the land of Israel is returned to the Jewish people, then peace will come to the entire world, including the Arabs,’ he smiled, eyes closed at the beauty of the vision.
‘What about the 120,000 Palestinians who live down there, in Nablus?’ I asked through my interpreter, a settler journalist at the moderate end of the movement (he lived in a settlement just outside Jerusalem, and was there as much for the government tax breaks as for the will of God).
‘The righteous ones can stay,’ the prophet told me.
‘How many is that?’
He paused, still with a slight smile creasing his thick brown whiskers towards heaven.
‘Maybe … four,’ he said finally, with great decision. The rest would have to leave the land of Canaan, by bus or car or donkey or on foot. His idea was what they referred to in Biblical days as an exodus, and what the Israeli right-wing these days refer to as ‘transfer’. It is normally understood in the rest of the world to be ‘ethnic cleansing’.
A beautiful evening embraced us, and the rays of the setting sun crept over the rugged hills where Israelites had battled Canaanites and all comers since, before being themselves booted out for 2,000 years. Now they were back, and for these people around me, the Bible had never stopped. God’s time never ends, even if the holy scriptures had petered out some time in the Middle Ages. The people around me were merely writing new chapters.
This was other face of the much-vaunted ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ that America and Britain were about to go to war to help secure. There was democracy in Israel for sure, far more than in any of the neighbouring countries. But it was a deeply chauvinistic democracy, like Athens in its glory days - great if you were an Athenian male, but not much cop if you were a slave, barbarian or a woman. It was also supported, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every year by American Christian groups. They also believed in the biblical prophecy being fulfilled by the Jews returning to their lands — many believed, however, that such an event would mark the beginning of Armageddon, the return of the Messiah and the final showdown between good and evil. To these Christian fundamentalists, the fate of the Jews was an irrelevance. Many would perish, others would have to convert to survive. It was a profitable, but clearly sometimes tense, alliance.
A fresh-faced girl of about twenty was looking down towards the sea, sparkling in the sunset a dozen miles away. I remarked on what a great view it was, but she was seeing it in purely strategic terms, like some Prussian general.
‘You can fire rockets on to Tel Aviv from here. That’s why we have to be here, to make sure they don’t start hitting our cities,’ she said, as resolute as Ariel Sharon with the eternal maps he was famed for carrying everywhere in his quest to dominate the land.
I left them to their brittle constructions and cold nights under the stars: my phone was ringing and I didn’t want a whole pack of them noticing there was a foreign journalist in the midst, a species that ranked in their eyes only slightly above Palestinians. It was my office telling me a Palestinian suicide bomber had blown up his car full of explosives next to an Israeli bus on the coastal road to Haifa. A dozen passengers were incinerated. The bomber may well have believed he was off to heaven to meet his maker. In fact, he was a lump of burned flesh fused to the steering column of his car. I got in the armoured jeep and drove off. I’d seen all I needed to see in order to get an idea of the fundamentalists: God and land and fuck the rest of you. It would prove a good grounding for my time in Iraq.

On Jaffa Road there was a bookshop called Steimatzsky’s. Browsing there one quiet morning between shootings and bombings, I found a volume entitled Secrets of the Exodus, which argued that the original Jews were actually ancient Egyptians. It pointed out that the Egyptians, who meticulously recorded every part of their history, made no mention of the catastrophic plagues catalogued in the Biblical book of Exodus, nor even alluded to a huge slave population of Hebrews.
They did, however, mark the rise of a dangerous monotheistic cult established by the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton right about the time in history that the Exodus is believed to have occurred: around 1350 BC. The pharaoh threw out the old pantheon of deities and declared there was only one god, Akhen, who would be worshipped in a new capital. Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti concentrated all their country’s wealth on this new capital, plunging the country into crisis — famine broke out, followed by plagues that killed the weakened populace. When Akhenaton died, his cult was erased, his fabulous city razed and his priests and their followers exiled to the Egyptian province of Canaan, where the new pharaoh granted them land so they could act as a buffer state against nomadic tribes raiding the outlands of the empire.
If true, the theory would mean the Jews were descendants of rogue Egyptian heretics, and that the Christian and Muslim faiths were mere spin-offs of a scrambled history. The vast majority of mankind’s history may well be based on a misconception. As I paced warily along Jaffa Road, I asked myself what ancient prophecy all these people around me were killing each other for. An ancient game of Chinese whispers, the garbled legacy of a Bronze Age sun-worshipper and the innate violence that seems to be in all of us.


But people apparently need to believe in a higher power guiding them. After the Enlightenment and the rise of science, many people have swapped ancient deities for the more modern alternative of aliens. The Church of Scientology, premised on the imaginings of the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, claims to have ten million followers. Three and a half million Americans believe they have been abducted by extraterrestrials (I imagine these groups must overlap at some point). And even eternal Jerusalem showed signs of moving with the times: the Raelians, who believe that what people understand as ‘god’ was in fact an alien race come to Earth to tinker with our genes, arrived in the Holy City with an offer to clone victims of suicide bombings, bringing the dead back to life — a speciality of Jerusalem since the days of Jesus Christ.
Raelism is an intriguing sect founded in 1970 by a French UFO enthusiast who believed the Jewish god Yahweh, or Jehovah, was in fact a spaceman who landed on Earth 25,000 years ago and experimented with our primitive Cro-Magnon DNA, turning us into what we are today. To explain this fully to the misguided Jews, the Raelians helpfully wanted to open an embassy in Jerusalem. In 2002, they said they had already started their cloning programme, although they refused to divulge the identity of the lucky recipient of a second shot at life.
So the circle appeared to be about to close: faith would kill and faith would resurrect in the Holy City. But there was a snag: the Israelis, bridling at their deity being misappropriated yet again by yet another upstart sect — and reduced to the status of mere astronaut to boot — sent the Raelians packing. Thus was the future of the Middle East made even more complex, as the Jewish state incurred the wrath not just of its Muslim neighbours but of other planets and species.
THE SPIDERS OF ALLAH. Copyright © 2009 by James Hider. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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