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Mahmoud al-Massad at the Frontline Club

post-card.jpgIn Recycle, winner of the World Cinema Cinematography Award for documentary at the Sundance Festival 2008, Mahmoud al-Massad returned to his hometown of Zarqa in northern Jordan. Zarqa, Jordan's second city and industrial heart is birthplace not only to the Jordanian/Palestinian film-maker, but also to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden's "Prince of Al-Qaeda in Iraq". On Sunday 15 June 2008, al-Massad came to the Frontline Club in London for one of the first screenings of Recycle in the UK, and to discuss the question at the heart of this work: what makes a terrorist?

Al-Zarqawi, ex-mujahid and notoriously violent leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was killed by a USAF air strike on 7 June 2006 near Baqubah. His track record of extra-judicial killings, terrorism, assassination, kidnapping and criminal violence was a long and inglorious one. As is common in the murky world of violent extremism it is unlikely that al-Zarqawi was responsible for everything with which he was charged, or that he claimed, but it is undeniable that this rabidly anti-Shia and anti-Jewish thug was a particularly unpleasant character. Osama bin Laden's public endorsement of al-Zarqawi may have been for the benefit of the media and foreign militaries but there is little doubt that al-Zarqawi's brand of extreme violence served the propaganda and operational intentions of the global jihad well.

In 1966, Al-Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh in a poor neighbourhood of Zarqa. Forty years later, al-Massad's film follows the daily life of Abu Ammar, himself a veteran of the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, who grew up in the same neighbourhood as young Ahmad Fadeel. Abu Ammar now scratches out a living as a cardboard recycler with his ever-present sidekick, his four-year old son, Abu Bakr.

None of Abu Ammar's friends seem to remember exactly what Ahmad Fadeel did as a young man. One claims he was a clerk at the town hall; another that "he worked on a bus". All wonder, "who would think a man from this place could aggravate the whole world?", and all agree that Ahmad was neither a particularly noticeable character nor a devout Muslim.

Ahmad Fadeel's conversion from a poor young man to religious zealot happened almost overnight. He went immediately to Afghanistan to fight the withdrawing Soviets, ending up as a journalist of sorts, before being jailed for his part in plotting to overthrow the apostate rulers of Jordan. The transformation into the feared and brutal al-Zarqawi baffles his contemporaries, but al-Massad attempts to show how the poverty and harshness of urban Zarqa goes some way to explaining this journey.

We see the relentless poverty through Abu Ammar's eyes, a man estranged from his father for his role as a mujahid, during which time he was a bodyguard to Abdallah Azzam amongst others. Abu Ammar drives around town in his small pick-up, collecting cardboard boxes wherever he finds them, taking them to the local recycling plant at the end of each day. He is accompanied by a changing cast of sons, in which little Abu Bakr is always present. The implication of the film is that perhaps Abu Bakr may himself grow up to be a mujahid, this possible evolution a function of his birth into poverty and squalor.

This social determinism is sharply contrasted with the views of Abu Ammar himself. It took al-Massad eight months to convince him to take part in the film, and no wonder, since Abu Ammar's views would land him in jail without trial, a place he has already been since his arrest after the Amman hotel bombings in 2005. Al-Zarqawi claimed responsbility for these attacks, which Abu Ammar neither had foreknowledge of, or part in. Abu Ammar believes in jihad, but for him it is a choice. When he went to Afghanistan it was because he believed in the fight against the Soviet Union, that his duty as a Muslim was to resist the invader. Years later, he still believes in jihad - an offence in Jordan - but not the one in which al-Zarqawi and bin Laden are engaged. He sees no reason why innocent people, Muslim or otherwise, deserve to be murdered in a global jihad for which there is no theological basis. Abu Ammar rejects bin Laden as a leader of Islam; Ayman al-Zawahiri as a theologian; and the global jihad as currently constituted is a violent sham. I asked al-Massad afterwards whether he also rejected the views of other ideologues informing the jihad, such as Sayyid and Mohammed Qutb, and Abdallah Azzam. The response was an emphatic 'no': Abu Ammar believes in jihad; just not this one.

Abu Ammar is a complex character. He has collected thousands of neat scraps of paper, tied up in rubbish bags, on which are written extracts from Islamic literature, and transcribed words of men he has met. With these as source material he will write his books, intent on changing the minds of Islamic youth for the better. What this means is not explained. He wants nothing more than to bring up his family - we never find out exactly how many family members he manages to squeeze into progressively smaller and more dilapidated housing. This evocative film ends with Abu Ammar abandoning his family, silhouetted against the sun as he leaves Zarqa for a new life in the West.

It's not clear exactly why Abu Ammar has decided to do this, and seemingly so suddenly. It appears to fly in the face of his desires and beliefs, but this is the economic reality of life in places like Zarqa. The pull of life in the West - the hope of a better life, the remittances home - drive many men to leave their homes and go to Europe, North America and Australasia. His decision is normal and understandable in this context, but we never hear him justify his decision in these terms, or any that I noticed.

As a documentary, Recycle is deeply affecting but ultimately unsatisfying. It provides no answers to the questions it poses, attempting to let the grinding rhythm of Abu Ammar's life provide insight into another man's life, that of al-Zarqawi. It doesn't work, save for showing us the staggering resilience of Middle Eastern communities, and some idea of the conflicting motifs of subsistence in a world of limited opportunity and ideological confusion. For me, Recycle is a beautiful portrayal of an unhappy man and his family, but says little about a broader world that both encourages and enables people to turn to violent extremism. We may never know why al-Zarqawi chose the path he did, and this film does little to explain it either.

In the film's defence, and this may be the most important message to be taken from it, there are shades of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem here. That the 'banality of evil' can arise from the most unprepossessing circumstances is not an answer to al-Massad's question, but it at least describes al-Zarqawi's destination - nihilism, expressed through bigotry and violence.


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