Lee on Literature: The Spider's House

During the past 16 months, the "Arab Spring" in Syria has been met with brutal government suppression, orchestrated by "President" Bashar al-Assad and supported by Russian weapons sales. ---As recently as June 6, pro-government militias (shabiha) have continued to massacre villages and city neighborhoods, killing anyone (including women and children) who harbors a real or perceived threat to the established order. This current state of unrest has fundamental similarities to Morocco’s revolution for independence in the early 1950s, an event that American author Paul Bowles explores in his literary classic, The Spider’s House (1955).

Like Morocco, Syria was a French protectorate during the first part of the 20th century. The British and the French created a nation known as "Syria" after World War I, dividing the Ottoman Empire under the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Syria remained under French control until 1946, when it gained independence from France. A long series of political coups followed until Hafez al-Assad took control in 1971, a command that his son, Bashar al-Assad, assumed upon his death in 2000. Syria has been under "emergency law" since 1963, which suspends most rights for its citizens along with political elections, thus rendering the title "President" token, not earned.

The roots of turmoil currently blooming in Syria and other nations of the Arab Spring are carefully explored in The Spider’s House. Part I of the story focuses upon the character of Amar, an Arab boy who represents the true nature of Islam. Amar is raised in a strict Muslim household that slowly disintegrates under the rule of the French. Their poverty becomes so severe that the family can no longer afford Amar’s modest school fees. Awash in frustration, Amar’s father becomes increasingly orthodox and starts to support the jihad of a violent Muslim revolutionary faction known as Istiqlal “Freedom” movement.

Liberated from school, Amar is left to wander the walled city where he examines, first hand, all of the different revolutionary factions lined against the French, as well as the dissonance between his father's actions relative to genuine Muslim beliefs. The five pillars of Islam—faith, prayer, pilgrimage, fasting and charity—are shaken by economic and social disorder.

The Quran teaches Muslims not to kill others, especially for mere political gain. But the Arabs great desire for revenge against the French, a deeply imbedded Old Testament mentality, is not relinquished to the will of God’s judgment in The Spider’s House. A lifetime of ignored suffering spills over in Morocco with a critical mass of Islamic factions successfully overthrowing the French rule. “When the city fell, a thousand-year gap would be bridged in a single second.” 

Part II of The Spider's House focuses upon the American characters of John Stenham (an author), Alain Moss and Polly Burroughs. Bowles uses these characters to highlight the Western world's miscomprehension of Islam and the flaws of a nation-state model in the Arab world. The Western nation-state structure does not allow the Arab world's organic tribal nature to operate. Superimposed nation states need powerful macro-hierarchies to function, an anathema to Islam's micro level egalitarianism. Thus, as Arab nation-states become "independent," dictators fill almost every leadership void in the flawed political structure.

On a moral plane, Americans in Bowles' story continually search for individual "meaning," while the Muslims believe there is no significance save God's will for the group. In the story, the Americans grope to align with the next revolutionary faction that will seize the nation-state hierarchy, while ignoring their own role in the wholesale flaws of the geopolitical situation.

The Americans repeatedly deceive themselves through their power hedging and arms sales. They lie to themselves right up to the end of the story by claiming there “was no time to take Amar to Meknes,” a safe haven after the walled city falls. The truth, which Amar would have accepted, was that they did not want to take Amar because it was not in their self-interest.

The Quran states that “those who take protectors other than God can be compared to spiders building themselves houses—the spider’s is the frailest of all houses.” Thus, the “Arab Spring” shall be a very long season, until the influences outside of the Islamic world accurately comprehend the culture and religion presented by Paul Bowles in The Spider’s House.

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of Mrs. Sona Choudhury raising her orthodox family amidst the cultural revolution of 20th-century India.

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