Rhinoceros in the Middle East


(Photo courtesy of WWA)

In an allegorical interpretation representing France during World War II, the playwright Eugene Ionesco conceived of a beast that personified the ugly and fearsome qualities of Nazis and those who joined their menacing pack. 


While Vichy France, like much of Europe, succumbed to and collaborated with Nazis by conforming to their laws, ideology and culture of hate, Ionesco interpreted and responded, years later with drama.  He did it in a style that combined broad comedy with horror, creating the now modern classic representation of Theatre of the Absurd, “Rhinoceros.”


In the play’s very first scene, which takes place in a small provincial European town and where two men (Jean and Berenger) meet, there suddenly appears, out of nowhere, a rhinoceros trampling through the town. 


By Act II and after staunch resistance, Jean transforms and becomes one.   Eventually everyone in the town, except for Berenger, turns into a beastly horned rhinoceros.


This grey, dusty relic from 1959, (with now stilted, clunky language and an overly stylized film adaptation with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder), is nevertheless thematically apropos, given the so-called Arab Spring taking place in the Mid-East.


By seeing the world through this warped, upside-down prism, Ionesco portrayed human characteristics that are universally timeless, from cultural conformity to mass movements.  


Indeed, while much of the world, including the U.S. has welcomed and supported the Arab uprisings, the spark that was initially lit in Tunisia last December, when Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in protest, quickly turned into a radical Islamic movement overtaking the region.  Not a year after Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took off for Saudi Arabia (soon after the uprising), the Associated Press is now reporting that its recent election has the once-banned Islamist party leading in many constituencies in the country.


Moving eastward and on one side of Israel, Barry Rubin provides insight on Egypt, saying its revolution is “baying for Israel’s blood” and that “The Muslim Brotherhood — which we were told is weak and not Islamist — is now heading toward either a takeover or at least becoming the country’s most powerful force.”


On Israel’s starboard side, its other Arab ally, Jordan, which is seen by many as stable and secure, there are ripples of upheaval.  In July and amid “pro-reform” protests that clashed with police, several were injured with accusations that pro-reform protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood had provoked violence with the police. While King Abdallah II seems to be a calming influence to his people, his anti-Israel rhetoric has grown more extreme stepping up statements against Israel, to the point of threatening military aggression against it.


Earlier this month Abdallah said in reaction to talk about his country becoming a place for Palestinian refugees to settle, “We have an army, and we are prepared to fight for our homeland and for Jordan''s future.”


Using far more inflammatory rhetoric, Jordanian Senate Member and former information minister Saleh Al-Qallab, stated, “If Israel tried to set up an alternative homeland for the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, the kingdom would fight and defeat it: "I swear by Allah that we will fight Israel like nobody has ever fought it before. The Jordanians will give the Israelis a fight the likes of which they have never seen... and fight with [all their] might if the latter [even] think about an alternative homeland...”


With a wink and a nod, shouting anti-Israel lines like this assuages the extreme elements signaling a “we’re with you” to the Kingdom’s subjects.


Back over in Libya and not a week after Muammar Gaddafi was hunted down and killed, it’s now been announced Libya will be ruled by Islamic Sharia law. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Libya’s leader of the transitional government, told thousands of supporters that Sharia law will be the “basic source for all law.”


The ideology of Fascism didn’t sweep Europe overnight.  It slowly crept and evolved. It spread from one country to another like a plague with Nazis soon after physically rampaging, overtaking and destroying governments in its path (just like that beast of Ionesco''s.)


Note too, like today, there were a surprising number of early supporters of Fascism that included influential business leaders; William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Kennedy (JFK''s father), Charles Lindbergh, John Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon (head of Alcoa, banker, and Secretary of Treasury) and of course Henry Ford.


The question now becomes, will history judge supporters of the Arab Revolts in a similar way, given the rise of Islamic extremism?  To many of Fascism’s early supporters, it all seemed so promising in the beginning.


But if it looks like a rhinoceros, walks and talks like a rhinoceros, it probably is a rhinoceros.

Abe Novick is a writer and communications consultant and can be reached at [email protected]