Musings on Bob Dylan and the Middle East

By Daniel Williams

The year 2020 will not be fondly remembered by the world, that much is quite clear. However, one ray of light for many music fans in 2020 was the release of Bob Dylan’s 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. It was Dylan’s first batch of original songs since 2012’s Tempest.

The album contains the sort of extraordinary array of breath-taking intertextuality as well as historical and cultural references and illusions which have come to characterise much of the singer’s work since 1997. A couple of the references that jumped out most for me came on Goodbye Jimmy Reed, where Dylan references “Where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray” and My Own Version of You, in which Dylan sings of studying “Sanskrit and Arabic to improve (his) mind.” These references to the three Abrahamic faiths and the Arabic language drew my mind to the Middle East, a region which I studied closely as a postgraduate. These references made me think of some of the other times Dylan has referenced the Middle East and more specifically, its politics. And that is what I will be discussing here.

Sheikhs walkin’ around like kings

There can be little doubt that Dylan and the Middle East is a strange cross-section and one that not many people are aware of. There are two songs that most spring to my mind in which Dylan speaks explicitly and at any great length about the region.

The first of those comes on his first Born Again Christian album Slow Train Coming, released in 1979. On the song Slow Train, Dylan appears to bemoan the way in which countries like Saudi Arabia were able to hold the USA to ransom after the oil price crisis that came about earlier in the decade following the Yom Kippur War of 1973. “All that foreign oil controlling American soil/ Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed/ Sheikhs walkin’ around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings/ Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and Paris.”

Without doubt, the narrator takes a very definite and one-sided view of this situation. The lyrics paint a broadly economic nationalist or realist view of international relations. It could be argued that Dylan’s words are tinged with some degree of orientalism. However, it should be highlighted that Dylan is speaking about a very specific class within a specific set of Arab societies. The lyrics are not, as Yo Zushi refers to them in a New Statesman article from 2017, about “Arabs” as a whole group. The use of the word “sheikhs” demonstrates Dylan’s desire to show frustration the ruling class within the Gulf monarchies. Thus, it is not as simple as Dylan “punching down”. In fact, it might even be the case that one could place these lyrics within the long tradition of Dylan taking aim at those who are in positions of power.

On the whole, the lyrics perfectly portray a genuinely popular political perspective which questions US reliance on Gulf oil. However, let there be no doubt that these words, powerful as they are, pay no mention to what those countries exporting that “foreign oil” were trying to achieve through their actions. Dylan’s foray into the Israel-Palestine debate was to arrive the following decade.

Infidels’ Outlier

By far Dylan’s most explicit piece of work looking at the region came four years after Slow Train Coming, on the 1983 album Infidels. I have a strong affection for this record after playing it countless times in the music section at the Champs Libres library while living in Rennes. I think that seven of the eight songs on the record range from good to brilliant. Though, that leaves one outlier, Neighborhood Bully.

This is a controversial song, even by Dylan standards, and one which is seemingly dedicated to defending Israel. It’s a curious case for me, as it is for a great many Dylan fans. Here I should say I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for my friends and people in general who “don’t get” Dylan. The mere thought of not being able to appreciate Dylan’s work terrifies me. And yet, Neighborhood Bully is that one song that I just can’t get on. Suddenly, for almost five whole horrifying minutes, I become one of those people who just don’t get it.

For a little context, Infidels is commonly regarded as Dylan’s first “secular” album since 1978’s Street Legal and came on the back of three Born Again Christian records, the aforementioned Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and the criminally overlooked Shot of Love (1981). While some listeners claim that Infidels hasn’t aged particularly well, it received a decent level of praise at the time of its release with many music critics expressing their relief at Dylan’s supposed loss of interest in the Gospels.

Aside from Neighborhood Bully, there are a handful of other songs on the album which could be regarded as somehow political. Across those songs, some broad themes emerge, namely the corruption of political leaders, man’s greed and vanity, the old warning of a wolf in sheep’s clothing (or Satan coming as a man of peace), a profound scepticism towards neoliberalism and free-trade, warnings over American decline and even some supposed eye-rolling at trade unions in the USA. According to the understanding of many commentators, there is an underlying anger at the presidency of Ronald Reagan as well, especially on the opening song, Jokerman.

A great many of those other songs, however, are vague and couched in metaphor. Neighborhood Bully, on the other hand, is a straightforward defence of Israel’s right to exist and more so its right to defend itself. In many other articles touching on the song, a lot is made of Dylan’s connections to Israel and figures within Israeli politics. I have no interest in Dylan’s alleged political affiliations, so, will only be looking at the song.

Timing

Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the song is its timing. Infidels was released in 1983, just one year after the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, part of a wider operation in Lebanon in which the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) sought to eradicate the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. During the massacre, the IDF (at best) stood by and allowed a paramilitary group close to the Lebanese Christian Kataeb Party to slaughter hundreds (more likely thousands) of Palestinian refugees and Lebanese Shiites. The massacre received plenty of condemnation in Israel itself and marked something of a change in Western coverage of Israel’s foreign policy which up until that point had been largely unquestioned. Hence, when one acknowledges this timing, the song comes to feel ill-judged.

Though, it shouldn’t be seen as altogether surprising. Dylan is no stranger to the controversial. After accruing a legion of adoring folk fans during the early 1960s, Dylan distanced himself from the “protest” scene with the song My Back Pages (1964), before “going electric” during the Newport Folk Festival of 1965. He further angered significant sections of his core audience in 1979 with his decision to put out Christian music (Heylin, 2017). Then, in 1985 during the first ever round of Live Aid concerts, Dylan took to the stage and questioned whether a fraction of the money raised for those starving in Africa could be re-allocated to farmers who were struggling in rural America. In 1991, shortly after George H. W. Bush’s decision to go to war in the Gulf, Dylan performed a barely recognisable version of his 60s classic, Masters of War.

Neighborhood Bully

Turning our attention to the actual song, what is it like? Dylan uses sarcasm to address much of the negative press that Israel was receiving at the time and personifies the country as a neighbourhood bully in the region. Its snarling tone (which is common in much of Dylan’s best work), musical arrangement and even its (AABB) rhyme scheme are rather reminiscent of the superior Property of Jesus which appeared on Dylan’s previous album, Shot of Love. However, while I know some people would discount both tracks as filler, I feel that Neighborhood Bully lacks the conviction of Property of Jesus. And that’s the first problem for me. The usual passion and verve seem to be lacking. It’s probably worth noting here that, according to Dylan’s own website, he has never bothered to play this song live which may allow us to question the extent to which he rated the song, himself.

The second issue is that lyrically the song is some way off the rest of the album, especially the stronger songs, I and I and Jokerman. The lyrics are so straightforward, lacking in the way of Dylan’s usual use of literary devices and is also overtly political. This is the biggest disappointment for me, as if anyone could make a strong song either defending Israel or espousing its virtues, it would be Dylan. Of course, one doesn’t have to totally agree with a song’s message to appreciate its beauty. My former landlord, a very firm atheist, spent many an evening listening to Dylan’s Born-Again Christian music with me, which he regarded as some of Dylan’s best work. I’m no American patriot but as stated above, I have a great appreciation for Dylan’s ability to articulate a position on the Oil Crisis of the 1970s.

Equally, one doesn’t have to be of a certain land to appreciate the beauty of another person’s writing about it. A great many of my favourite songs explore a singer’s adoration for a land that isn’t my own, Dougie McClean’s Caledonia, La Complainte du Partisan (Anna Marly), This Land is Your Land (Woody Guthrie), Un Canadien Errant (Antoine Gérin-Lajoie), Petit Pays (Gael Faye) and any number of the subtle songs that Dylan has written depicting the wonder of his America. When one also considers the quiet beauty of the picture on the Infidels’ inner sleeve of Dylan examining the soil of Mount Olive with Jerusalem behind him, it feels as though the stage was set for him to put forward a subtler piece of art depicting his feelings towards Israel or the idea of a Jewish homeland. ****

However, what we get is a song that does not match the sweetness of the photograph. There are one or two instances where the song does a neat enough job of exploring the historical persecution of the Jewish people which it then seeks to tie into the fortunes of Israel. Indeed, for the most part, the lyrics of Neighborhood Bully take a scattergun approach to its defending of Israel, putting forward a plethora of talking points that one would associate with neo-conservative thinking. An article by Gabe Friedman in the Times of Israel recollecting the song states some of the lyrics sound like they could have been taken from a Benjamin Netanyahu speech.

The overarching narrative of the song is that Israel is a tiny country constantly under threat of being attacked by much larger neighbours (with little made of its military and technological superiority or its allies, “He got no allies to really speak of/ What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love”). At this point it’s probably worth remembering that Israel is the USA’s top ally in the region and currently receives around $4billion in aid annually. Even at the time Dylan composed the song, the level of aid per year from the US to Israel was into the billions.  The song also makes a further common neo-conservative argument, that Israel has performed something of a miracle by turning almost empty desert land into a near paradise while also generating incredible developments in medicine, “He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth/ Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health”. This is, of course, a feat that was made somewhat easier by the aforementioned levels of financial support.

However, as grating as some of these lyrics may seem, there is no explicit advocacy of offensive conflict by Dylan. Therefore, the lyrics when taken on their own don’t necessarily go against Dylan’s previous messaging. Rather, the writer bemoans what he sees as Israel being told that it doesn’t have the right to defend itself, “He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin/ He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in”. There’s no advocation of Israeli expansionism, the illegal settlements (as categorised by the UN) or occupations. Equally, they aren’t condemned or questioned, or mentioned at all, in fact.

The main point of contention, as I see it, is the issue of what Dylan refers to as “fighting back”. This actually gets to the heart of a lot of the debates on Israel’s foreign (and even domestic) policy. What is fair fighting back? This is where the historical context may be of some importance. Were Israel’s actions in Lebanon merely “fighting back”? For many people, many of their actions during the 1980s were disproportionate, as they were in 2014 siege of Gaza. Of course, there’s some irony in the fact that the IDF was involved in a great deal of doors being “kicked in” as it ravaged southern Lebanon and Beirut in pursuit of PLO fighters.

Last Thoughts on Neighborhood Bully

So, how does one look at this song? I’ve listened to it about half a dozen times while writing this article and it has actually helped me realise that it isn’t quite as hysterically pro-Israel or anti-Palestinian as I remembered it. A song defending Israel doesn’t necessarily have to be considered an endorsement of every policy of the most militaristic governments the country has seen, be they in the 1980s or the current administration. While there are refutable claims and significant factors ignored during the song, the lyrics in their own right seem to be about giving Israel a fair chance to defend itself militarily.

My unease with the song largely stems from its timing which can have a massive impact on how one interprets it. It has certainly led some observers, such as Nima Shirazi to question Dylan’s “progressive” credentials. I think it’s very misguided to try and box Dylan in politically as this will likely always push him to defy the conventional wisdom. Though, at the same time, Dylan’s contribution to progressive causes through song should never be doubted (whether they were intentional or otherwise).

From an artistic point of view, many Dylan fans struggle to relate to Neighborhood Bully. From my point of view, it isn’t focused enough and doesn’t have the romantic sensibilities or subtility which speak to me so profoundly when he writes about his own country. For those reasons, Neighborhood Bully is one of a handful of Dylan songs that I don’t consider to be good. Its convenient historical inaccuracies and its unwelcome timing are even enough to make it bad. That said, it doesn’t make a dent in what Dylan brought us with his words over the course of nearly six decades, it also shouldn’t detract from the strength of Infidels as a piece of work.

Neighborhood Bully

WRITTEN BY: BOB DYLAN

Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighborhood bully

The neighborhood bully just lives to survive
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in
He’s the neighborhood bully

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized
Old women condemned him, said he should apologize.
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad
The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, the chances are against it and the odds are slim
That he’ll live by the rules that the world makes for him
’Cause there’s a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac
He’s the neighborhood bully

He got no allies to really speak of
What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love
He buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease
Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep
He’s the neighborhood bully

Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon
He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand
In bed with nobody, under no one’s command
He’s the neighborhood bully

Now his holiest books have been trampled upon
No contract he signed was worth what it was written on
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health
He’s the neighborhood bully

What’s anybody indebted to him for?
Nothin’, they say. He just likes to cause war
Pride and prejudice and superstition indeed
They wait for this bully like a dog waits to feed
He’s the neighborhood bully

What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers? Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill
Running out the clock, time standing still
Neighborhood bully

I hope I can be forgiven if any words of mine offend.

References

Heylin, C., 2017. Trouble in Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years: what Really Happened. Lesser Gods.

Editors footnote: Because of past experience with comments on this song, I’m continuing the policy that comments which consist of political, religious or economic assertions without evidence will not be published.  That’s not the case elsewhere on this site, but seems to be necessary in relation to this song.

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8 Responses to Musings on Bob Dylan and the Middle East

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Good article….

    Elsewhere, Dylan also has the narrator thereof speak well of ‘John Wesley Harding’, and of ‘Joey’ .

    So how much the metonymical “Neighbourhood Bully” is out of place is a matter left up for the listener/ reader to decide.

  2. Jonathan says:

    The billions of dollars in aid that Israel has received from the U.S. comes in the form of loan guarantees which Israel must spend a percentage on for U.S.products ( military ) and which Israel pays back with interest. They have never defaultedon these loans. Hence perhaps the lyric “What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love”

  3. Marco Demel says:

    Dear Daniel,

    sometimes a song is rolled around with so many bubble-tape that ´the talking around is more painful than the song itself.
    First it´s helpful to define neighbourhood as own community and not as countries around. And the neighborhood bully is clearly one single man.

    Today’s Israel, then Palestine, was occupied by Rome. The Romans had chosen the city of Caesaria. as the headquarters and headquarters for their soldiers. Pontius Pilate was then the governor for Palestine during the time of King Herod.

    From the outside (with the special public relation effect) it was a merciless elimination of terrorist ringleaders by the Roman occupying power. From the point of view of the Romans, Jesus became a public danger over the course of about 4-5 years.

    As has happened x times in human history in a similar form and as when a superior force turns over the hourglass, things take the following course.
    An individual has a vision, tells friends about it, can inspire his closer environment of his ideas, a small circle of familiar persons develops, today one would call it movement. The concern of this grouping around Jesus, known as his disciples, is now to be presented publicly. One wants to enlighten the people and point out social grievances, chooses public (media-effective) places and thereby inevitably comes into the sights of power.

    At first, Jesus was a simple itinerant preacher and his mission was nothing other than to spread Judaism. On his rounds through Galilee he sees the poverty, the inequality between rich and poor and feels the urge to point out this grievance. The day comes when, through a special experience or a voice telling him something about God’s Son, he is lifted up on his mission. He radicalizes himself by, first of all, speaking publicly over and over again about the power assigned to him by being the Son of God and, above all, that he wants to re-establish the Kingdom of David.
    “I am the Messiah, I am a descendant of King David”.

    He demands the immediate change of circumstances, he says he has not come now to bring peace, but the sword. He prophesies to the powerful and the rich that the first, will be the last, that the times will change now and that if you would not give in, would simply sink like a stone to the abyss.
    Clearly a clear call for revolution. In this sense, one can also speak of a self-image that had as its goal the liberation of Israel from the Roman Empire, but precisely in order to make the society of Israel more just and this without the use of violence.

    With all the force of the declamation, one must not forget:
    Here speaks an individual, his weapon at best the tongue and his words, his “troop” a few simple people from the people. His problem, of course, is that within his own community, there is not necessarily support for giving away so much of one’s own wealth that the poor and the layers of society that have always been exploited receive compensation in the sense of a redistribution of material goods. Without support behind him, the full force of the system hits him and Jesus is accused of treason and declared public enemy number one.

    You go underground, you hide, you try to organize a resistance somewhere, but what can you do when one of your followers is bribed to betray your hiding place (keyword Judas). Bad cards for this young man in his early thirties, the elite of the country decides to look the other way in view of the threats from Rome and allows it to happen that a blameless man is nailed to the cross just for his ideas and opinions.

    Here ends the story of the rebel Jesus and begins the myth of the “Savior” who took upon himself all the sins of humanity and individuals and gave his blood for “us Christians.” And it is the pain and the openly recognizable injustice, the preservation of power at all costs, that will make Jesus rise again and again for the next 2000 years. At least for the Christians, for Mohammed Jesus was simply a “brother in spirit” and for the Buddhists not even a flap of a butterfly’s wings or in other words, should a sack of rice have fallen over somewhere in China in the hours before the crucifixion, then guaranteed without an effect on the events in Jerusalem.
    So if you listen again does it sound familiar ? -have a nice day-Marco Demel

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    Marco, your Jesus analysis works if poetic licence is granted that allows for “a gun at his back”.

    But still the ‘ neighbourhood bullyy” could taken as a personification of Israel.

    But then again neither the name ‘Jesus’ nor ‘Israel’ is mentioned outright.

  5. Pamela Brown says:

    It seems to me that there is an underlying theme to Infidels — namely, to reposition Dylan in regard to Israel and his being Jewish. It is possible he was even put under some pressure to do this. I agree that I don’t think Dylan’s heart was in Neighborhood Bully — though I don’t think he disagrees with it. But, as you say, it just doesn’t come alive like most of his songs. I also think the album shot of Dylan on the Mount of Olives is additional support for this possibility.

  6. Marco Demel says:

    Hi Larry,
    hi Pamela,
    in the first weeks of the lockdown back in April 2020 I found the time and power to release a book with the title “Tempest Under Control- With the moon in my eye”. (kindle/Amazon)
    An English version is expected to be released in late February.
    It kicks off exactly with the image of Mount of Olives from Infidels, so I thought you would like to read some lines.
    Here you are !

    Under the red moon

    Red earth trickled through his hand. Red sand, so much blood has been shed here over centuries and millennia. Once again, he was dressed much too warmly for this strip of earth. Boots, coat, sunglasses.
    In the land of his ancestors, which never comes to rest. He thought of his father and mother, who had built a good middle-class life for themselves in the American province. And apart from a small move, never left this region. Places where nothing happens, where nothing has ever happened.
    He thinks of his grandparents who were expelled from Russia by the Tsar at the beginning of last century, with one suitcase per person they had to leave one morning, probably it had to go fast, as so often, they had thought up a scapegoat for the problems in the country maybe they didn’t know where to go, maybe to the promised land, maybe to North America. Maybe the Promised Land at that time was simply the United States. Friends had left a few months before – into uncertainty.
    Depending on where they set out from, they had to take carriages before they took the train from Moscow to a larger European port like Hamburg or Rotterdam to check into a ship to New York. New York and then towards Minnesota, where it can easily be -40 degrees in winter.

    I don’t know what my grandparents found there, the little town had only 15 years on the hump but was already the richest village in the world at that time, because of all the iron. We can stay here, thought old Abe and squeezed his wife a little too hard to contain her doubts. Here we will rebuild our lives, here we are free.

  7. Houneyda says:

    This is brilliant, and I totally agree with you, “Neighborhood Bully” should not reflect his other amazing songs, I suppose it was his way of showing his position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
    Overall, your analysis is outstanding
    THANK YOU!

  8. Peter McQuitty says:

    Thanks for the article, It’s a good piece on an unloveable song. The song’s main failing for me is that it’s just an unmediated rant, and full of the prejudices and inaccuracies that tend to be part of such rants. Bob’s best songs are some steps removed from direct personal experience or belief, where the raw emotion has been filtered and shaped. “Ballad in Plain D” – on a totally different topic obviously – is another song that suffers because the writer/singer is too close to the source emotions.

    You reference in passing attempts by some to read “Jokerman” as a critique of Reagan. This interpretation is just as fanciful as attempting to read “False Prophet” as a comment on Trump. I think these readings are wishful thinking on the part of some Bob fans trying to reclaim him from views that they sometimes find troubling.

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