Lord Naritsugu is a terrifying, sadistic ruler. He enjoys grotesque violence and kills and rapes at will. He treats his citizens as private property, as his personal inheritance and fortune. He is a law unto himself, and no one can touch him. Elegant and insane, and always with a slightly suppressed smile, Lord Naritsugu does more than simply rape and kill his victims. He humiliates them. He plays football with their heads. He chops the hands and legs of those he rapes. Fear and terror stalk the land, and the dignified citizens have only two choices: submit to his brutality or commit suicide.

In Japanese director Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, Naritsugu personifies the extreme decadence of despotic power. He has a romantic notion of his own power and prestige. But things are about to change. The Edo feudal period (1603–1868) during which the film is set, when Japan was ruled by a single shogun family, is about to end. The Meiji restoration is around the corner.The change is to be speeded up by the thirteen assassins of the title, noble unemployed samurai who know well that times are changing and their own profession is about to be written out of history. The team, led by the aging and decorated samurai, Shinzaemon, with the supernatural hunter Kiga amongst them, set out to confront Naritsugu and his army, and end his reign of terror.

For the past half century, the Arab world has been steeped in comparable terror. Like Lord Naritsugu, the tyrants who ruled various Arab lands treated their people with similar contempt. The Arab world resembled feudal Japan, ruled by ruthless warlords who gloried in humiliating their own people. These despots regarded the state as their personal property, to use, abuse and loot as they wished, and as private inheritance to be passed on to their progeny. The main commodity they traded in their mafia states was violence—meted out to the citizenry by the triad over which they had total control: the police, the secret service and the military. With an exaggerated notion of their own power and importance, the regimes of the Arab world, some of history’s most oppressive totalitarian systems, reduced their citizens to abject poverty and despair. The Arab world was shrouded in utter fear as societies stagnated, religious establishments rotted, sectarianism flourished, and slums overspilled. The Arabs had no option but to submit to their oppression. Political conversations frequently ended with a raising of the brows and gritty rehearsals of the saying al-‘arab jarab: ‘the Arabs are scabies’.

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