"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
LONDON — More bloodshed in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership under arrest and now Hosni Mubarak is about to be released from prison (wasn’t he supposed to be dead from cancer by now?) it seems like an entire nation has gotten into a wayback machine and returned to 2010.
But to gain a good overview of the turmoil you have to time travel back further, at least as far as 1991. And possibly further than that to 1967 when the conundrum that has faced the Arab world over and over first came into view:
Is it possible to reconcile political Islam with modern government? Can a revolutionary political movement shed its radical origins? Can it be given breathing space by the military — the permanent government in many Arab countries — to find its way?
The answers to these questions are urgent because, make no mistake, political Islam is a genuine popular force. In free and fair elections in most Arab countries Islamist parties will either win — as the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt — or be the largest opposition party.
The template for what is happening in Egypt today is Algeria in 1991. There a radical Islamist group, the Islamic Salvation Front, won the first round of democratic elections.
Although there is a certain amount of dispute, the ISF’s basic program was the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by sharia law. It was decidedly skeptical about continuing to practice democracy once it had achieved power through the ballot box.
The ISF was on course to win a second round when the army stepped in. Elections were canceled. The result? A civil war in which an estimated 100,000 people died.
But to get to the real beginning of the story you need to go back to 1967 to the crushing defeat of the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in a mere six days by Israel.
This was an epoch-ending event. In the decades after World War II, as colonial rule disappeared overnight in the Middle East, Arab identity had become the driving force in politics.
A dream took hold — pan-Arabism — a single, united Arab nation would replace the various countries created by colonial mapmakers. The men who tried to make the dream reality were all from the military. One of the things the colonial masters — the British and French — had done was take the best and brightest and train them at their own military academies. When they left the region, the most competent and best organized institution of society was the military.
Military coups swept away the puppet kings of the region from Libya to Iraq. Egypt’s Gamal-Abdel Nasser, a colonel, became the leader of pan-Arabists. He formed a United Arab Republic with Syria in 1958. It lasted three years.
The dream of Arab unity continued — and then came the catastrophic defeat of 1967 in the Six-Day War. It shattered the collective psyche of the Arab world.
Many of those who chased the illusion of a single Arab nation migrated naturally towards radical Islam. Just after 9/11 the story was explained to me by a Cairo lawyer, Montasser al Zayat.
In 1967, Zayat had been a student — a pro-Nasser pan-Arabist. He was devastated by the Israeli triumph. He turned to Islam for solace and found that in the mosque there was also political life. In fact radical Islamists’ practical solutions for society — central control, a welfare state, a strong dislike of Western interference and, most important, a unity of all Muslims were an echo of what he endorsed in Nasserism — with pan-Islamism replacing pan-Arabism.
Zayat went further: he became involved in the Bolshevik wing of political Islam. He was imprisoned after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, tortured, and shared a cell with Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is the surviving leader of al-Qaeda.
As the decades went by, the former military leaders who took over in much of the Arab world became corrupt. Political Islam in all its shades, from Bolshevik (salafism) to Menshevik (Muslim Brotherhood) to social democrat (Iraq’s Dawa Party), offered an underground alternative. 1967 was planting time for political Islam, the decades of stagnation that followed was the time to tend the crop and now it is being harvested.
Political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have a large, legitimate constituency. If you believe the practice of democracy is the only way for the Arab nations to live up to their human potential, then you have to accept the Ikhwan and similar groups will have a leading role. They will get the votes.
In Egypt, until the Brothers understand that democracy is not just about the act of voting, until the military gives Islamists a chance to make mistakes and learn from them, or until the people of the Arab world stop seeking utopian pan-Everything solutions to the problems of the mundane world, trips in the wayback machine will become common.
Actually, you don’t need to go backward, the future will just keep repeating the terrible and bloody dynamic we see unfolding today.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)