A Jewish American who converted to Islam, controversial Cairo journalist and pundit Abdallah (formerly Mark) Schleifer brings a critical eye to all sides in the festering dispute. Things have gone from bad to worse to horrendous, he tells SIMON HOUPT.
The past three years have been tough on Abdallah Schleifer. Call him a one man global village, driven by an internal version of the major geopolitical conflicts playing out across the world.
An American living in Cairo, he has had to defend his homeland from the Arab world’s reflexive anti-Americanism. A Muslim convert from Judaism, he has harshly criticized the Islamist terrorists fouling the name of his religion while prosecuting their so-called holy wars. A journalist who values objectivity, he has watched as the truth about America’s actions in the Middle East has fallen prey to the chauvinistic biases of reporters at outlets across the spectrum, from Arab news network Al-Jazeera to U.S. cable channels.
Since 1988, he has directed the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo, teaching a student body evenly divided into Egyptians and Americans about the need for truth.
This month, during a series of long conversations across a crackling transatlantic phone line from his home in Cairo, the 68-year-old Mr. Schleifer spoke with growing distress about the dangers of religious fundamentalism fuelling the multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and Chechnya, the horrors of Sudan and the American campaign in Iraq.
‘Things have gone from bad to worse to horrendous’, he says, referring to the seething emotions between the West and the Middle East. I’m appalled by the tremendous gulf. It’s almost like mirror images. There are forces in America today that are almost aching to take on one billion Muslims. And we know there are forces in the Muslim world, i.e. al-Qaeda, radical Islamism, that would love to see one billion Muslims take on America. And I’m appalled not just as an America, I’m appalled as a Muslim.
Mr. Schleifer is appalled because it was precisely the opposite impulses of traditional Islam, its abhorrence of xenophobia and political engagement, its focus on the individual relationship between man and God, its desire to embrace the worlds physical beauty, that drew him toward the religion in the first place.
It all began in the late 1950s. A few years out of school, his term of duty in the U.S. infantry safely behind him, Mr. Schleifer was working at the advertising firm Young & Rubicam in New York City, a short distance from where he had grown up on Long Island, and contributing articles to the Village Voice. An editor asked him to interview poet Allen Ginsberg for a profile. Ginsberg was extraordinary’, Mr. Schleifer says. ‘He was a mentor, and very seductive. I’m speaking in metaphorical terms, of course, although he was seductive for some people in other than metaphorical terms. And he was very flattering, you know? I mean, he took an interest. I’m a young poet, a young writer, and here’s Allen, who two years earlier had come out with Howl, the most extraordinary work of the decade. I was completely entranced, so I threw over my job at Young & Rubicam and joined his band of merry beatniks, and just started hanging out with the whole beat scene, which was New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, Parisو and Tangier.’
Shortly after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, Mr. Schleifer went to the island with some of his beatnik friends, who were enthralled by the revolutionary leader.
‘Every one of us was writing poems for Fidel’, he recalls, his memories kissed softly with a self-conscious overlay of historical irony. ‘You know, he had a beard, he wore a field jacket, I’m sure he slept around a lot, probably smoked hash, that was just our assumption. He was a very Rambodian figure. And some of us stayed with that, the fascination with him, even after a couple of months when he became a little unfashionable because of the firing squads. I was radicalized, like many people, by Fidel’s revolution, and came to see myself as some sort of radical Marxist, or whatever.
But Mr. Schleifer, with growing horror, watched the Stalinization of the revolution when Mr. Castro turned everything over to the Cuban communist party. He had read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and had seen the bloody Soviet crackdown of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. I said, ‘My God, that was all true. I could see it happening again.
He fled to Morocco, with no particular interest in the Arabs and Islam. ‘I was going there because I was a hippie disillusioned with the revolution and that was a beautiful place where we went, as part of my set,’he says.
Meanwhile, his fellow beatniks were dying like flies: either overdosing or bank holdups you know, because there was a certain romance with crime revolutionary activism, going off like Che did on some little thing.
And there in Tangier, having embraced a daisy chain of philosophical inquiry throughout his life that ran from the Beat-inspired drug experimentation through agnosticism and communism, he fell apart. IӒd just about pressed as far as you can press on the walls of Western thought, he says.
Still, Mr. Schleifer was soothed by the physical beauty of Morocco and the cordial and almost courtly behavior of the people. He hungered for their traditional sense of community. ‘Everyone was very polite, he says. ‘There was no religious xenophobia. No one would insult your Christianity or Judaism. This was traditional Islam. There’s a phrase in the Koran that says: ‘Don’t ridicule other peoples religion, or they’ll ridicule yours. I was deeply moved,’ he recalls. ‘I saw people who were at peace with themselves, in contrast to my disquiet and unhappiness.’
He was also deeply unsettled because he didn’t believe in God, so had no chance of embracing Islam. But one day in early 1965, back in New York, he had a startling experience. In the depth of despair, he called out to the heavens for some sort of sign. Opening the Koran, his eyes fell on a phrase that said, ‘Know that God is beyond your comprehension’. That was good enough for him. He changed his name to Abdallah and became a practicing Muslim.