Alexander Pope, al Qaeda, and the Cucumbers


One of the great troupes of English travellers who swarmed through the Orient in the 18th century included Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Mary’s Turkish Letters present her impressions of a flying visit to the Ottoman Empire in 1717, in the form of a Girls’ Own series of daring and salacious escapades in women’s spaces in Istanbul. Although Lady Mary disavowed the portrait of Turkish women painted by male tourists, she too packed Orientalist fantasies in her baggage, and embroidered on them. Indeed, she is partly responsible for the image of the harem as a place of indolent and lascivious sensuality.

Lady Mary was abetted in her embroideries by Alexander Pope, with whom she corresponded throughout her travels. In one letter to Lady Mary, Pope characterised the Ottoman harem as a "Land of Jealousy", in which "the unhappy Women converse with none but Eunuchs, and where the very Cucumbers are brought to them Cutt". This trope of the cucumber as erotic object forbidden to over-sexed women by Muslim men recurred in the low life of Orientalist literature right through the 20th century.

And into the 21st… In a recent short article that has been seized upon with great delight by bloggers of the Western world, the UK Daily Telegraph reported that al Qaeda had banned Iraqi women from buying "suggestively-shaped vegetables". The Telegraph report is helpfully accompanied by a photo captioned "An Iraqi woman buys some food at a market in Baghdad", showing a veiled woman choosing tomatoes from a stall while another veiled woman walks past an adjacent stall of cucumbers.

As Errol Morris has recently noted, you don’t need to use sophisticated Photoshop techniques to falsify photographic evidence, rather, "All you need to do is change the caption" on a photo. Or: change the narrative within which the picture appears. The source for the story of the suspect vegetables is noted in the Telegraph as "one tribal leader in the western province of Anbar".

Anbar is a big place, covering 137,808 square kilometres, and it is unclear just where "Sheikh Hameed al-Hayyes, a Sunni elder" was living when he told Reuters that "[al Qaeda]regarded the cucumber as male and tomato as female. Women were not allowed to buy cucumbers, only men."

The accompanying photo makes vivid this alleged perspective on the world, even though its caption claims that it shows a scene in Baghdad, and not the spot in Anbar where the Sunni Sheikh lives. The article’s narrative, in turn, directs us to interpret the photo as evidence of the "farcical" prohibition on women buying cucumbers.

The Telegraph report alleges that "Sheikh al-Hayyes" told Reuters about other "farcical stipulations" by al Qaeda, like an edict against selling or buying ice cream because it did not exist in the time of the Prophet. The Sheikh noted that al Qaeda bombed hair salons and cosmetic shops, and killed female goats "because their private parts were not covered and their tails were pointed upward, which they said was haraam [forbidden]". The Sheikh also reported seeing a young boy executed because his family did not pledge allegiance to al Qaeda.

It is this final claim, about the killing of a young boy, that gives the stamp of authenticity to the Telegraph report on the suggestive vegetables. That is, it seems heartless and cruel for a reader to question whether such a terrible event occurred, and hence the rest of the Sheikh’s story, including the part about cucumbers, seems plausible too. Bloggers who picked up on the Telegraph story make silly puns about cucumbers, but they also draw serious conclusions about the puritan fascism of Islam, in part I think because of the juxtaposition of the story with the account of the death of the young boy. One comment on Richard Dawkins’ blog ("A Clear-Thinking Oasis") notes, "You can’t make this stuff up".

Of course, it is entirely possible that a young boy was killed by al Qaeda in Anbar, but the farrago of lies and half-truths by which such a sad story is surrounded in the Telegraph report does nothing in the way of honouring his death. These tales of "farcical stipulations" about cucumbers and ice cream falsify the world, creating a condition in which people don’t know who or what to give credence to any more. In such circumstances, we end up believing anything, and knowing nothing.

What makes me doubt the Telegraph story about the forbidden cucumbers is the long history of the circulation of such fabrications from Alexander Pope onwards. What also makes me doubt the story is the more recent history of such fabrications.

It was not "Sheikh al-Hayyes" who put the most recent version of the cucumbers story into play, but rather an American journalist called Deroy Murdock. Murdock has achieved small-time notoriety in American right-wing circles for two articles he authored. The first, entitled "Set WMD Truth Free: The Iraq Record", was published in the National Review on 17 July 2006.

Murdock’s argument was that weapons of mass death had been discovered in Iraq, contrary to the widespread "liberal" view of their non-existence. The second article, entitled "Three Cheers for Waterboarding", was published in Human Events on 11 February 2007. Here Murdock argued that "Waterboarding is something of which every American should be proud". In short, Murdock is an enthusiastic supporter of the war on Iraq and of President Bush, with a long history of support for right-wing campaigns.

Of course, where a person stands politically is not an a priori argument against what that person says. But Murdock’s publicly articulated stands do indicate his form, and justifiably lead to some scepticism about assertions he makes without the citation of evidence.

It is another article by Murdock, published in the Abilene Reporter-News of 13 July 2008, that kicked off the recent circulation of the story of al Qaeda and the vegetables. The article asserts that "the surge" is working: "President Bush’s troop surge indisputably has crushed al Qaeda and other terrorists while Iraqi soldiers have honed their ability to hammer deadly insurgents." Murdock argues that it wasn’t simply superior firepower that did the trick, but Iraqis’ reaction to al Qaeda’s "religious decrees" — such as that in regard to vegetables. Murdock notes, "Islamo-puritans found the sight of cucumbers and tomatoes side by side sexually charged, so they ordered produce stands to keep them apart and told restaurateurs such as Khalaf Khalid to serve them on separate plates."

Now again, to be fair, it is possible that the repetition of the story of al Qaeda and the cucumbers since Murdock’s article was published might be taken to indicate its widely experienced truth, rather than its fabrication and circulation. But the story told by Murdock and that in the Telegraph are not quite the same in a crucial detail. Murdock accuses "Islamo-puritans" of enforcing the placement of vegetables in stalls and restaurants, whereas the Telegraph unequivocally points to al Qaeda as mandating who can buy what vegetables.

The last piece of the puzzle is that Murdock lifted most of the material in his Abilene Reporter-News article from another source, whom he does briefly mention in that article: Sahar al-Haideri, a reporter who was murdered in Mosul in June 2007. In an article published on the site of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting on 9 December 2006, entitled "Sunni Militants Issue Religious Edicts in Mosul", al-Haideri set out most of the stories used by Murdock to make his case about the success of "the surge".

Al-Haideri had however situated the stories in Mosul, which is north of Baghdad in the Governorate of Ninawa. Mixed salads of tomatoes and cucumbers had been banned in restaurants, argued al-Haideri, after "leaflets" were distributed by "extremists" (al Qaeda is not mentioned). These leaflets contained threats to restaurant owners like Khalaf Kalid about mixing female and male vegetables. But none of al-Haideri’s informants seemed to know who the "extremists" were or anything much about them. Mutaz Ahmed, a shopkeeper, is reported by al-Haideri as saying, "I don’t know where these groups came from." Azhar Abdul-Hamid, an assistant professor of education at Mosul University, told al-Haideri that "the extremists are largely poorly educated, ignorant people who don’t understand Islam or the Koran." Al-Haideri noted that Abdul-Hamid added, "They never read a book and use Islam to denounce good Muslim people".

After fellow writer Shakira Hussein pointed me to the Telegraph article and to the possible connection with Lady Mary and Alexander Pope, I spent an hour reading the sites of bloggers commenting on the article (google turned up over 30,000 hits for "Qaeda + cucumbers"). Not one of these wired and savvy techno-citizens raised any doubts about the veracity of the story in their comments. Indeed, its very absurdity seemed to be taken as an indication of its truth about that silly old religion of Islam: "You can’t make this stuff up." Many of the bloggers let their imaginations run free into psychoanalytic riffs on Islamic sexuality, with lurid speculations about Muslim men’s alleged fear of women and of sex.

But let’s grant for a moment that a leaflet writer in Mosul and a gunman in Anbar thought ill of some vegetables. That still leaves more than a billion Muslims for whom a cucumber is just a cucumber. And it still leaves millions of Iraqis for whom "the surge" is just a disaster, no matter how you spin it.

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