The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy Warby James Hider
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
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.
“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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The Spiders Of Allah
Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War
By James Hider
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 James Hider
All rights reserved.
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 now-scarce 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.
Excerpted from The Spiders Of Allah by James Hider. Copyright © 2009 James Hider. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
James Hider is The Times Middle Eastern Bureau Chief, currently based in Jerusalem. The Spiders of Allah is his first book.
James Hider is The Times Middle Eastern Bureau Chief, currently based in Jerusalem. This is his first book.
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James Hider's book "the Spiders of Allah should be on the "must read" list of any American who wants to be informed of what is really going on in the Middle East. Our troops are sent to fight a war they do not understand, and are sent in with little useful information from our military to help them survive. I have questioned soldiers returning from Iraq and they can't tell me why they are there without quoting President George W. Bush. This should frighten all of us. Mr. Hider gives you a closer look at the actual conditions in an area unknown to most of us, since our media coverage is heavily censored before publication. Mr. Hider moves among the everyday people and sees their world like it is, not as we Americans are allowed to believe. Also, since he does not follow any particular religion of his own, he can see with a clear eye and report truthfully without prejudice.. Mr. Hider is Times (UK) Middle Eastern Bureau Chief based in Jerusalem and understands the problems he reports from his personal experiences. Pass this one on to your friends.
Non-fiction, this book is written by an atheist journalist who spent many months in Iraq as well as Israel. In addition to his personal experiences in the war zones (everything from being in Fallujah during the US invasion to suicide bombers blowing people to bits), he also writes about his personal views towards violence based on religious beliefs. There is also a bit of history of the peoples of Iraq and Israel thrown in , as well. I'm agnostic with strong leanings towards atheism, and was excited to get my hands on this book. It did not disappoint. Hider's cynical views towards the conflicts and religion were interesting, and at times funny in a horrific yet honest way. The history parts of the book are enough to give you a little background, but not enough to bog you down.