Saturday, January 31, 2015

the arabs: a history

There is this hunger within to learn about the peoples of the world, particularly those ones about whom I know so little. Almost ten years ago I got lost in Meredith's The State of AfricaIt changed me.

With my first visit to the Middle East looming in March, recent months have been devoted to Eugene Rogan's The Arabs: A History. I made it to the end, as evidenced by the 13 boarding passes interspersed through the 700 pages of the book.

Rogan tells the modern history of the Arab people, starting with the Ottoman occupation in 1516 and travelling all the way to 2011, with the Arab Spring. Not one, not two - but three collections of photo pages are a feature, as are the maps.

I'm wanting to live my life in a way which considers 1 Corinthians 12 to be true of the global church, not just the local church. Honouring those who may feel dishonoured. Treating as indispensable those that may consider themselves dispensable. Then when I come to Rogan - in his very last paragraph - he is quoting an Arab aspiration that they no longer be 'a lowly pawn on the global chessboard' (644) ... and I feel that I have found a companion for my life's journey.

As I reflect on how the book has impacted me, here are a handful of responses...

I feel sad
There is one sadness that stands out above all others. It is heard in the opening pages. It is heard in the closing pages. It is overheard in all the pages in between. Since 1516, 'the Arabs would negotiate their place in the world through rules set in foreign capitals' (24). Six hundred pages later, covering five hundred years, Rogan concludes that if there is any hope, it lies in these peoples being able 'to break the cycle of subordination to other people's rules' (625).

First it was the Ottomans (Istanbul). Then it was the imperialists, the British and French (London and Paris). Along came the Cold War (Washington DC and Moscow), before it gave way to the age of the 'unipolar superpower', the USA (Washington DC). Lest you scurry off to think otherwise, 'the rules of the unipolar age of American dominance proved the most disadvantageous to the Arab world in modern times ... the first decade of the twenty-first century is the worst in modern Arab history' (13).

By the way, how would you like to live your entire life with a sense that the destiny of your people is determined by some foreign power - and then not just your life, but also the lives of 500 years of your family ancestry? There is some serious sadness going on here.

This is partly why the recent Arab Spring has had so much momentum. It appears to be 'a new age of citizen action for human and political rights that (has) endowed the region with a new found sense of dignity and common purpose' (626). So when Mohammed Bouazizi 'doused himself with paint thinner outside the gates of the governor's office and set himself on fire' (629) in Tunisia - rather than pay a small fine - it set off a chain reaction that is still travelling.
An individual tragedy, a communal protest movement, a discontented nation, social networking websites, Arabic satellite television, and Wikileaks: it was the making of the perfect twenty-first century political storm ... (and) the Tunisian people, without outside encouragement or assistance, had toppled one of the Arab world's most autocratic rulers through a non-violence movement (630).
Against that 500 year backdrop, these 3 years have been remarkable - but where and how will it end? It seems the sadness continues to spread and to deepen.

I feel angry
I had no idea that the Arab world endured an unseemly imperialist land-grab, much like what happened in Africa. Once the Ottoman Empire started to break up (and the Gallipoli invasion, so sacred to New Zealanders like me, was aimed at facilitating that break-up), the British and French sat down and treated the lands of the Arabs like it was some sort of lunch buffet where they could help themselves to whatever they liked. For dessert they drew a few new borders before painting the map with pretty European colours. Men behaving badly. It is an appalling story, punctuated by a fair amount of foolishness.

And so Iraq was formed from three very different Ottoman provinces. How smart was that? As for Palestine, it was 'doomed form the outset' (245).
Palestine would prove Britain's gravest imperial failure in the Middle East, a failure that would condemn the whole of the Middle East to conflict and violence that persist to the present day ... (it was) a new country in an ancient land, cobbled together from parts of the Ottoman provinces to suit imperial convenience (245). 
I had no idea that the British bore such responsibility for the mess in the Middle East today. Let's just stick with the Palestinian story for a little longer. 'Palestine was a problem made in Europe' (348). The Balfour Declaration set itself to create 'a national home for the Jewish people' without prejudice to the 'rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine'. Impossible! Those who had lived in the land for millennia did not agree, but the British went ahead and tried to do so 'without consultation and without consent' (247). In fact in the Balfour Declaration, 'the British government had promised most of Greater Syria and Mesopotamia to at last two parties, and in the case of Palestine, to no less than three' (192). What?!

Rogan titles his chapter 'The Palestine Disaster' (311-348).

The Americans started so well in the Arab World (see President Woodrow Wilson's initiative below). Then, more recently, was anyone else electrified by President Obama's speech at Cairo University in the way I was? It seemed to make so much sense to me, but I am not sure much has changed...

In the intervening years, the Americans became so obsessed with 'the Soviet menace' abroad and so controlled by the Zionist lobby at home that it led to an increasingly faltering presence in the Arab World. They have this ability to 'turn a blind eye' to disproportionate Israeli aggression in the region.  In 1967 Israel went in and stole land and the USA, together with the international community, has just grown accustomed to the face of the Israeli occupation of lands that are not theirs.
As far as Western public opinion was concerned, the displaced Arabs of Palestine were no different than Arabs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or Egypt and would be absorbed by their host countries in due course (431).
The inconsistencies in the story are everywhere to be seen. Even Sadaam Hussein had a field day with them. At the height of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, he galvanized Arab opinion by asking how his action was any different from the Israeli occupation of Palestine?

What about today? With all the history that has gone before, Rogan concludes that to the Arab-on-the-street, 'the war on terror (looked increasingly) like an American-Israeli partnership to impose their full control over the Middle East' (621). Ouch. One of the questions that the USA has yet to sort out is that in trumpeting democracy as the way forward, are they willing for democracies that don't look how they want them to look?  'The inconvenient truth about democracy in the Arab world is that, in any free and fair election, those parties most hostile to the United States are most likely to win' (616). There are things more important than democracy.

I feel informed
I am embarassed by how little I knew about this region. But I've made a start and now I have a tiny bit of pre-understanding into which I can add new information as it arrives. And yes, Rogan is offering a single perspective - and history is always perspectival - and so there will be still more for me to learn.  But here is a taste of some of the things I enjoyed learning.

At the time of Napoleon's brief occupation of Egypt there was this fascinating clash at the level of worldview. What a case study it provides - from 200 years ago. The French sent 'learned men' with Napolean to civilise the Egyptians...! Revolutionary ideas and revealed religion. Enlightenment constitutions and Muslim monarchies. As the 'astonishing technology' caught the eye of the Egyptians, the French thought they'd puff out their chests and show off a bit. A huge crowd gathered for the launch of a hot-air balloon ... WOW ... and then it crashed.

The United Arab Republic (UAR) in the 1950s is another story that caught my eye. It is where Egypt and Syria kinda became one nation, on the way to an anticipated pan-Arab unity, which might 'break the cycle of foreign domination' (400). 'For one brief, heady moment' (400) it looked like the dream might be realised as Iraq - and even Jordan and Lebanon - considered signing-up. But when they backed away, it left Egypt and Syria to 'the mundane business of making their hybrid state work ... (only to find the 1960s) to be a decade of defeat' (400).

'The great wealth that oil confers makes a state more vulnerable to outside threats' (446-447) - and it took awhile for Arab states to figure how to make oil work for them. The way they made oil a 'weapon' is another absorbing section. It picks up my own earliest memories with the Yom Kippur 1973 Arab:Israeli War and then immediately raising the price of oil, leaving Western powers in such a pickle - and 'hey presto', all of a sudden Henry Kissinger is interested in the Palestinian question again! Even though they lived by foreign rules, again and again the Arabs learned to use the rules for their own advantage.

Osama bin Laden makes his appearance. It is one of the many places where this book of fact-filled history becomes like a page-turner novel. Rogan is a master of weaving personal story into regional history. I loved it. Bin Laden enters the story almost by stealth. The thing that so emboldened Bin Laden was the decision by Saudi Arabia to allow American troops to come onto Saudi soil on the way to liberating Kuwait - 'the biggest shock of my life' (563), he is reputed to have said. This is what 'rallied the country's Islamists into action' (562). Supposedly, Bin Laden had written to the Saudis and said he could mount an army from among those whom had driven out the Soviets in Afghanistan and they would drive Sadaam out of Kuwait - but 'the letter was ignored' (562).  Bin Laden called for jihad, committing his life to ridding the Muslim world of every vestige of an American presence - and we all know what happened next.

I feel inspired
I met some amazing people in its pages. There are at least a dozen movies in this book.

Where do I start?

What about a guy called Muhammad 'Ali, an Albanian who became 'master of Egypt' in 1805 - and then whose family line ruled until 1952! Or, Abd al-Qadir (nineteenth century, Algeria) - 'it is no exaggeration to say that he was a legend in his own lifetime' (142) in the way he outwitted the brutal French colonial power - at the age of 24, for more than a decade. Then there is Abd el-Krim (twentieth century, Morocco) who organised a five year rebellion from the Rif Mountains that led to 'the worst defeat of a colonial army in Africa in the twentieth century' (277).

What about Fatiha Bouhired in Algeria? 'Oh, hang on - they did make a movie about her.' It is called The Battle of Algiers. Women pop up more often than one might expect in a book about the Arab World. What about Huda Sha'rawi facing down the British in Egypt in 1919? More recently, there is Hanan Ashrawi (Palestine). 'A brilliant woman of great eloquence from a Christian family, Ashrawi was the antithesis of the stereotype of a terrorist that many in the West associated with the Palestinian cause' (587). She was just too smart for Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu.

The pages on Abdel Nasser (Egypt) are compelling. 'No Arab leader has exercised such influence on the Arab stage before or since' (363). One story stands out. The USA defaults on a loan
for the building of the Aswan Dam. Nasser needs cash - in a hurry. Within 24 hours he comes up with this plan to nationalise the Suez Canal and create a revenue stream. He is to give this speech in Alexandria. He instructs his Colonel Younes to walk in and take over the Suez Canal offices during his speech - but only if he hears the mention of the name 'Ferdinand de Lesseps' (architect of the Suez Canal) in the speech. That is the signal. Nasser electrifies the crowd with a speech dripping with nationalist fervour and talk of taking back the Suez Canal. 'Ferdinand de Lesseps' is mentioned a dozen times (some listeners wondered why someone Egyptians dislike figured so prominently in the speech!) - just in case the Colonel was sleeping, I guess. By the time Nasser reaches the climax of his speech, 'the canal was securely in Egyptian  hands' (378) and then the international community had an almighty fit, leading to the 'Suez Crisis'. In the end Nasser lost - but it is 'the classic example of a military defeat turned to a political victory' (382).

I also love the story of the (Henry) King-(Charles)Crane Commission organised by President Woodrow Wilson. [NB: King was President of Oberlin College, founded by Charles Finney, at the time]. It was a six week listening exercise which moved around the Arab World in 1919. Amazing. The British and French wanted no part of it. It is possibly the high point of the US involvement in the Middle East. They heard quite clearly that a Jewish national home in Palestine could not be reconciled with 'the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine' (201). And the Europeans' response (still the big geopolitical players)? The report was 'an inconvenient document ... shelved without further consultation' (201). It was not made public until three years later when Britain and France had finished helping themselves at the Arab land buffet. I want a movie.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali is another person I enjoyed. A Coptic Christian, with a wife from a prominent Jewish family - he was drawn into Anwar Sadat's inner circle in the staggering journey towards a peace treaty with Israel. The guy later became the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

What about the five people - three Palestinians and two Israelis - who met in secret to build relationships 'in the isolation of a Norwegian winter' (592) in 1993? Eight brief months later - and the 'Oslo Accords' which led onto the scarcely believable Rabin:Arafat handshake and the most promising period for some kind of resolution of the Palestinian issue. Amazing what investing in building trust in relationships, even at this global level, can achieve?! Then Rabin was assassinated by extremists and the hope has never been the same again.

I feel some hope
If we can find the resolve

to listen past the din of our own voices and tune our hearts to the cries of others;
to talk past the calls for democracy and address the deeper issues of justice;
to feel past the shallow empathy and on to the deeper experience of costly solidarity;
to walk past a self-interested patriotism and embrace the longings of other peoples;

there is hope - there always is for those who believe and live the gospel of reconciliation.

nice chatting


Saturday, January 17, 2015

a lovely sign of faith

At our age, an overnight flight leads to an afternoon nap. Once that was over, Barby and I wandered out onto the streets of Yangon. No map to follow. Nowhere to go, in particular.

From across the road we stumbled across this building. Just another church in all its faded glory? With more pigeons outside than people inside?

We drew near.

Having recently opened my head and heart to the horror of the massacre of the Armenian Christian community one hundred years ago (an event that gave our dictionaries the word 'genocide') which started the night before the Gallipoli invasion ... and then encountering John the Baptist again in our Bible readings just this week, I was hooked. 

We walked inside. Remember this is Yangon. A brutal repressive anti-Christian regime has been in power for a generation. But this is what we discovered...

A lovingly restored old church - and a reminder of how churches can be agents of restoration in Myanmar today. The simplicity of it all was beautiful, as was the medieval monastic music that filled the space. We lingered awhile, praying that all that was good inside would be shared outside, even in face of the resistance which so characterises the context.

We added our words to the book, but then left with someone else's words in our prayers - asking God to continue to preserve this 'lovely sign of faith'.

nice chatting


Monday, January 12, 2015

lyrics for living 3 (dews of quietness)

Last year my daughter Bethany asked me if she could cross-stitch some words that were precious to me.  It took a few seconds to make up my mind. And so it came to pass, over Christmas, that some wise words arrived from the east (well, more the south, I guess), simply framed and starkly beautiful.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness
'til all our strivings cease.
Take from our lives the strain and stress;
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of Thy peace.

It sits now in a prominent place on my desk. Just in front of the tissue roll that helps remove the 'strain and stress' from my far-too-frequent spillages of tea across my desk. Just behind the tangled web of cords that remind me of the 'strain and stress' in my life caused by technology. Just next to a picture of my other daughter (Alyssa) - and little Micah - who are coming to visit me in 15 days ... now, how's that for a 'strain and stress' reliever?

Sometimes we are led to believe that 'joy' and 'happiness' are somehow related to each other, maybe even synonyms. In reality, 'happiness' is a pathetic word, with its experience marked normally by something shallow and temporary. The experience is more thermometer (controlled by the environment) than it is thermostat (controlling the environment).

Far better, I think, to divorce joy from happiness and remarry it to peace. Because 'peace is joy resting; joy is peace dancing'. This is where oneness lies - maybe even synonymity. These lyrics speak about the beauty of God's peace and how God drops it like dew onto our lives - quietly, refreshingly, gently, daily - resting upon us in a way that takes away the strain and stress that comes with  living. And when the experience is rich and full, take another look - it might just be joy as well.

This verse gained some profile in the Dunkirk scene in the movie Atonement. I'll show it here, but it was far more impressive in the flow of the film where it took me so much by surprise:

There are many choral/organ performances of this hymn (Dear Lord and Father of Mankind) but here is a quirky version sung in an odd setting ... and yet with its own power (this verse is at 2.48).

nice chatting


Thursday, January 08, 2015

welcome and wapsi

About this time yesterday there was a tear in the eye. Barby and I were returning home after a 40 hour visit to Vizakhapatnam - or Vizag, for short. In expressing my gratitude to the couple who had welcomed us into their home, I became a bit misty. Here we were - so very different in so many ways which the world measures (age, ethnicity, income, education etc) and yet in a matter of hours we experienced such a bond together. I found myself going back into their home, after the prayers and goodbyes, to express this to them, in my own stumbling, fumbling way.

Two factors. One is the love we share for Jesus. There is this joy of salvation - and also the joy of service together. It creates such tight bonds among people who have so little in common - and it does so quickly. The other factor is hospitality. Barby and I experienced some of the sweetest hospitality known to humankind. It flooded into our lives. With so little to give (to our Kiwi eyes) in their little flat tucked behind and above their little church, they just gave and gave and gave.

My mind went to all those missional conversations back home. They need to be refreshed to recognise that this is family, this is home. Have we lived enough with the implications of what it means for the church to be 'the household of God'?

But here is the irony. This experience took place against the backdrop of a raging debate in the media here - every day, in every newspaper - over ghar wapsi. [NB: it is not wise for me to be too explicit about this in a public blog]. Literally, the phrase means something like 'home return'. My friend, Benji, helped me see that it is a bit like the story of the Prodigal Son - but in this case 'the far country' and the 'eating with pigs' is being a Christian and so we are talking about people returning home, or 'reconverting', back to the faith they once believed. It quickly becomes a fascinating discussion (with plenty going on behind the scenes which I'll leave to your own imagination - and internet research!).

My hunch is that one response lies in ensuring that this sweetest of hospitalities is being practised. One that breaks down the factors that keep people apart because it lives the gospel of reconciliation. One that breaks through the idolatry of the nuclear family, wherever it may be worshipped, because it lives to include those who are excluded. One that embraces the household of God, locally and globally, as family and as home.

nice chatting


PS... We loved Vizag. As a little boy with my love of maps, I was fascinated by this city on India's east coast with the long name that stretched out into the Bay of Bengal. This was my first visit. I was kinda excited. On 12 October 2014 Vizag was viciously attacked by Cyclone HudHud, as our visit to the fishing harbour made clear.

Friday, January 02, 2015

200 and 2000

It has been hard living so far from New Zealand during the two hundredth year celebrations of the arrival of the gospel - on Christmas Day, 1814. I've been following all the facebook chatter closely.

I've loved that space at Oihi Bay for a number of years, even taking a horde of friends on a pilgrimage to Marsden Cross to mark my fiftieth birthday. One of the delights of that day five years ago was to ask Ben Carswell to bring a short devotional, only to discover later that his family was from the very same village in Yorkshire as Samuel Marsden. Incredible. Then, earlier this year, I was able to visit Ben's family in that village and see the Marsden memorials over there for myself.

But in the week of the bicentenary celebrations of the gospel's arrival in New Zealand, I've made a visit to one of the key sites that marks the arrival of the gospel here in India almost two thousand years ago. It is the Little Mount Church in Chennai, with a history associated with the Apostle Thomas. The taxi driver had no idea where it was and so we arrived late, as the sun was setting and the moon was rising...

But to be greeted by a favourite phrase from a favourite chapter in the Bible was a thrill:

A plaque by the front door of the church added some historic detail, while the fuller history can be found in various places - with this blog post helpful.

I am a little torn in my response.

I can hear the skepticism about the authenticity of such tradition (although my hunch is that religious devotees are pretty good at getting these things right). I also find the way Christian 'stuff' in South India (churches, symbols, icons etc) morphs into looking like 'stuff' from other religions to be a bit disconcerting. It is the same over-contextualising in order to try and make things relevant that seems to afflict the church everywhere, especially in Western countries.

Having said all that, I am stirred by the tradition. Christian worshippers continually on this very site for almost two thousand years? The possibility of Thomas himself walking on these paths and rocks? That was buzz-worthy. It is always good to have these reminders of the need to shed the snobbery that so easily and so often forgets that the people of God have an early and deep and wide history far from the borders of Europe and its legacy to us.

nice chatting