Sisterfucking up the Euphrates

by Sam Kriss

In German, the prefix ur- is used to indicate the now deeply unfashionable sense of an originary, primal form of a thing, which is also its end. Something ursprünglich is the first of its kind, so you’ll have the Uraufführung, or the début performance; the Urtext, the lost first draft of the Hebrew Bible that supposedly existed before all the various priests started fucking around with it; the Urwald, the dense dark forest that once covered the whole of central Europe. The word itself is of good Old Germanic stock, and it’s probably just a coincidence that this caveman’s grunt of a syllable is also the name of a city: that built by ‘Ara son of Kesed, where he made graven images and unclean simulacra, where evil spirits seduced him into wrong and sin, and where the sons of Noah first began to make war on each other. It’s a word from the oldest of the old histories, from when the world was still new; the brutal hoary infancy of civilisation. Before the Romans or the Greeks or the Persians or the Babylonians or the Egyptians, there was Ur, the city on the mouth of the Euphrates where Abraham smashed the idols of his father.

Freud tells a nice parable about the origin of the superego, what could be called an Ur-über-Ich. Once, among a band of squatting cannibal ape-men that would one day become the refined intellectual circus of Vienna, there lived a great and powerful father. This father had many wives, and he took many wives for himself: some were the captured daughters of smaller bands, some were his own daughters. Such was his power that his sons were left with neither food, nor loot, nor wives, and were reduced to contesting among themselves for what scraps they could gain. Eventually, in the face of his unbearable potency, the brothers grouped together, overwhelmed their father, and clubbed him to death. That night they held a great feast, at which their father was the main course. At this moment, the superego was brought into the world. The brothers were jealous of their father, but at the same time they still loved him; out of their guilt the rapacious greed of the father became internalised as a moral code, with its first commandment being a restatement of his paternal rights: Thou shalt not fuck thy sisters.

Like most myths of the land of Ur(-), it doesn’t really matter if any of this actually took place or not. Hobbes and Rousseau were both happy to admit that their states of nature never really existed; Marx was equally unconcerned by the historicity of primitive communism. Freud has a particularly good get-out clause – as he has his ‘exasperated reader’ exclaim, so it’s immaterial whether one kills one’s father or not! While some fathers might have a different opinion on the matter, Freud concedes the point: wanting to kill your father and actually doing so both produce the same psychological effect; the same guilt, the same internalisation. It’s in this context that the story of Abraham begins to make sense. When he lived with his father Terah in the city of Ur, the family sold graven idols; Abraham destroyed these unclean simulacra and went with his wife Sarah into the desert. It doesn’t matter that Terah died peacefully at the age of two hundred and five: the idols, rooted in the paternal totem of the victorious brothers, represent what Lacan calls the name-of-the-father; the Symbolic father that maintains the prohibition on incest. It’s possible to advance an alternate reading of Abraham’s flight to Canaan: when he lived in Mesopotamia he was married to Sarah but still he couldn’t fuck her, not in the house of his father. The book of Genesis explains their childlessness by claiming that Sarah was barren, but the book of Genesis was also written by men, who are always a little squeamish when it comes to male impotence. Sarah was the daughter of Terah by his second wife: she was Abraham’s sister.

Lacan’s concept of the name-of-the-father is a triple pun: le nom du père recalls le non du père (the ‘no’ of the father, the prohibitive function of the superego) but also les non-dupes errent (the non-dupes err). Those who refuse to be ‘duped’ by the process of castration and induction into the Symbolic order – the kind of person who might, for instance, take it upon himself to smash the idols of his father – are not in fact seeing the world as it really is; they’re stuck among the horrors of the Imaginary. The book of Genesis is full of hints towards Abraham’s singular neurosis. Several times in his journeys, as he comes across various unfriendly peoples, he has Sarah pretend to be his sister – in other words, pretend to be what she really is – so that kings and pharaohs will try to sleep with her. For this God punishes them with plagues and nightmares: none shall disrupt His holy incest.

All this is by way of approaching an understanding of the current instability in Iraq. The land of Ur is, for the Western powers that have been steadily clubbing it for the last century, a feared and hated father. All the paternal functions of society first sprung up in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates: alphabetical writing, codes of law, economic class, monotheism. In the pre-Oedipal stages of infantile psychology there is no recognition of sexual difference and the fantasy of anal birth is common, so it’s no wonder that the Iraq-Father assumes a hemaphrodite form. One vast leg stretches down the Arabian peninsula, the other is cocked between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Between these lie the damp muddy openings of the rivers, passages leading up into the womb of civilisation, while beyond their fertile banks the desert stretches for miles. An old, decaying parental presence that refuses to die. No wonder everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Winston Churchill felt the need to invade Iraq.

On the plane of grand strategy, nobody’s Middle East policy makes any sense. Saudi Arabia props up the secular Sisi regime in Egypt, and has threatened to blockade Qatar over the latter’s support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time Sisi supports the Assad government in Syria, which the Saudis have spent millions trying to overthrow, and is making friendly overtures towards Iran, while his deposed predecessor Morsi tended to align himself with the Saudi-Israeli anti-Tehran axis. The United States is now considering intervention in support of Iran against Islamist movements in Iraq, fighting the same people it’s armed and funded (through Saudi proxies) to fight Iran’s allies in Damascus. The ‘war on terror’ was never really a consistent programme: while Western imperialism made some efforts against Sunni salafism (Afghanistan in 2001, possibly Iraq now) it’s mostly been used to attack secular Arab nationalist governments (Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria from 2012). This is diplomacy as a dialectic. Its model isn’t the Nile, with its divisions along the axis of a straight line, but the swampy chaos of Mesopotamia. There are no fixed power blocs, not even Sunni and Shia, only a series of fluid phases successively subsumed in their own contradictions. It’s a grand process of decoding, the untethering of signification, the struggle against the Symbolic, the denial of castration, the murder of the father.

In 2003, the occupying US Army set up Camp Alpha, a huge military base in the ruins of Babylon. Helicopters buzzed around the ancient bricks, Humvees rolled through the Ishtar Gate, defensive trenches were dug through the strata of five millennia. As symbolic erasures of the name-of-the-father go, it ranks up there with Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols. Still, after the father is killed, it still remains to eat his corpse. Iraq must be consumed. In recent weeks a small armed outfit calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or of Iraq and al-Sham, or of Iraq and the Levant, or Daash – such signifiers tend to only refer to each other) has captured a string of cities in the country and is advancing, or at least making a feint, towards Baghdad. Reports in the Western media claim ISIS funds itself from the territory it already holds and doesn’t require any state support. They’re known to be selling oil to the Syrian government forces they’re supposedly fighting, and (this is a nice touch) are reportedly profiting from the sale of looted antiquities from archaeological digs. All this is pretty dubious, but in any case the Saudis seem rather nonchalant about the peril to the Iranian-aligned Maliki government. Even if ISIS aren’t receiving direct Western support it’s almost certain that arms supplied to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels are filtering through to them. The terrors and massacres in Mesopotamia are as Western-manufactured as Big Macs and banking crises. Of course, when imperial adventures cause chaos, the solution is more imperial adventure. There’s a growing clamour for intervention; aircraft carriers are heading up the Gulf, the hideous grinning hobgoblin that is Tony Blair returns to haunt the political discourse with its carefully considered opinion. There’s a very real chance that we might be about to enter a third Gulf War. In the face of this danger, it must be kept in mind that when imperialists press for action, all they really mean is that they want to be able to fuck their own sisters.