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



Heather said…
Exciting stuff - thanks for sharing, Paul.  Your mention of the United Arab Republic reminded me of a fascinating pair of BBC documentaries which introduced me to its existence.  They're called The Rise and Fall of Arab Nationalism, and look at the history of the Arab world from the 19th century to today.  They're a half hour each - part one is here and part two is here, should you be interested.  I found them fascinating, although the material may all have been covered in your book.  They're narrated by Tarek Osman, an Egyptian who's produced a number of interesting documentaries for the BBC recently.
Paul Windsor said…
Thanks again, Heather. I'll definitely track down those documentaries.
Erica said…
Thank you so much Paul. I frequently feel bemused at our lack of knowledge about other cultures, religions, peoples, given the way we are bombarded by various media. It is difficult to know where/how to begin...then what to do?
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