Undercover Muslim: a Journey Into Yemen

Undercover Muslim: a Journey Into Yemen
Theo Padnos
Bodley Head, 304pp, £12.99

It's a well-trodden path. White man pretends to convert to Islam and goes off to the Orient in search of knowledge. He returns with tales of the quaint customs and outlandish ways of "the Muslims". The white man in this case is an American named Theo Padnos, who travels to Yemen to study Islam. Yet it is difficult to imagine that Padnos studied anything at all, given that most of his time in the country appears to have been spent chewing khat, the local substitute for amphetamine. He was probably manic and hyperactive most of the time, not to mention constipated.

He says he was following in the footsteps of the demented Yemeni-American preacher and internet imam Anwar al-Awlaki. But Awlaki, who does not shake hands with women but likes to fraternise with prostitutes, did not acquire notoriety until 2009. Padnos went to Yemen in 2005. So the explanation we are being offered for the journey turns out to be a rather weak post-facto rationalisation.

After a stint as a copy editor at the Yemen Observer, our man enters the Mahad Medina school in Sana'a, where the students are required to be Salafis. The Salafis renounce politics, idealise family order and love the Prophet in all things, we are told. However, they do not hesitate to impose their will on others, by violent means if necessary.

The curriculum at the madrasa is rather basic. The first requirement is reading and writing Arabic - the language of heaven. But the Arabic the students learn is a tongue that no one speaks. Having mastered this "classical" Arabic, they move on to jurisprudence, Islamic law and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. In between, they have to memorise the Quran.

They are taught that the only thing which matters is correct belief. There are true Muslims, who believe in God, and the kuffar, the unbelievers who deny Him. The aim of the teaching is to prepare the students to fight for the restoration of a pure, untrammelled Islam. This requires destroying the Arab plutocracies, killing all those who are considered to be deviants, such as the Shias, and establishing a purified Arabia as the abode of the true believers.

What kind of individual would swallow such toxic rhetoric? The students Padnos encounters are mostly black men from Virginia and pale-skinned converts from good schools and pretty suburbs in the west. There are also French Algerians from Lyons, British Muslims from Birmingham, Moroccan Dutchmen from Amsterdam and Yemeni Americans from New York. All of them are socially inadequate and most of them have sexual hang-ups, but they believe that the umma, the global family of Muslim believers, will provide them with a community and sort out their sexual problems. One could add that, like Padnos, they are not very intelligent, either.

Padnos tells us that these wretches go to Yemen to "seek happiness". They have an insatiable thirst for knowledge, he writes, a desire to learn about "true Islam". Unfortunately, the knowledge they acquire turns them into extremists. As social analysis, this is on a par with the graffiti - "Give piss a chance" - one finds in the urinals of Muslim seminaries. The converts and their fellow western-born Muslim "seekers" do not "turn" into extremists. They start off as extremists. They go to Yemen to pour Islam into their preconceived ideas. They wish to turn their violent and deranged fantasies into certainty.

These men imagine "the land of pure Islam" as a heaven of doe-eyed, submissive women, a place where drugs are plentiful and life is shaped by unambiguous rules. But they are seeking not so much knowledge as attention. They know that, in places such as Yemen, western Muslims, particularly white converts, enjoy a special status. Not only do other people look up to them, but they are regarded as figures with a special destiny.

Padnos does not tell us whether he acquired a "submissive wife". He does, however, find confirmation of what he is looking for. If you learn to pray in a proper Salafi way, memorise the sacred texts, and turn your back on reality and regard the world as a passing shadow, he tells us, you will have found real Islam. In other words, the madness of the Salafis is not "really such a remarkable departure from standard Islam". That's all there is to this great religion.

It is not just Islam that Padnos reduces to cheap orientalist clichés. The Yemenis are subject to their fair share, too. By and large, they are fools, have no sense of irony and live in "a wide rocky bin of zaniness". They like to wallow in poverty, degradation and turmoil. The national currency is third-world Monopoly money. All of which makes Yemenis quite incapable of fighting for democracy and standing up to dictators backed by the west.

Padnos's infantile orientalism adds nothing to our understanding of Muslim extremism. Perhaps it is time for the white man to forget the Orient? He can find all the knowledge he seeks in his own neighbourhoods. l

Ziauddin Sardar's latest book is "Reading the Quran" (C Hurst & Co, £20)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis