For the Joy of Reading: Shifting Sands

This book began life as a series of talks at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014.   Nick Barley, the Director, was prescient enough to realise that the politics of the Middle East are incredibly important for the peace and security of the world in which we live.   So he asked Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson to edit this collection of essays as a way of helping us all to understand what is happening.   I can only hope that our legislators read it before they take any decisions that will lead us all further into war, destruction and revenge attacks.

The story begins one hundred years ago when two diplomats, one British and one French, met to consider how best to divide up the spoils between their respective countries, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.   There was no real indication at the time that this was going to happen, as the disastrous Gallipoli campaign made clear, but Sykes and Picot did not want their countries to fall out whilst they were allies in the war against Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.   So they drew a line in the map, the Sykes-Picot Line, from the E of Acre to the last K of Kirkuk and France was allocated what lay to the north-west while the British Empire gained the territories to the south-east.   Neither man cared what the indigenous peoples of these lands wanted for themselves.   They saw the deal as a way of preventing conflict between two imperial powers.   This is as good a place as any to start if you want to understand the politics of the modern Middle East.

The British were already playing with fire.   They were encouraging the Sharif Hussein, the ruler of the Hijaz and the protector of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, to rise in rebellion against his suzerain, the Sultan.   This was because the Sultan, in his role as Caliph, had declared holy war against the British, the French and the Russians.   The British, not understanding that their Shia Muslim subjects were not likely to take any notice of a Sunni Caliph, regarded this as a threat.   So they stoked the fires of Arab nationalism, hoping for a revolt throughout the Fertile Crescent.

The third stick of dynamite that the British threw into the fire was the Balfour Declaration, the promise of Palestine to the Zionists.   The French meanwhile were encouraging the ambitions of minorities, especially the Maronite Christians of what became Lebanon and the Alawi sect of Shia Muslims in Syria.   And so the stage was set fora century of conflict from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf

These essays look at the ways in which the politics of the region have been affected by the decisions taken a century ago.   Of course, the imperial powers were not responsible for all the tensions in the Middle East.

As Justin Marozzi notes in his essay, “A Long View from Baghdad”, the conflict between Sunni and Shia since the Ummayyads seized the Caliphate following the assassination of Ali ibn Abi Talib in the seventh century (CE).   Marozzi tells how on the death of the Abbasid Caliph Abu Jafaar al Mansur, his son and successor entered a locked room, expecting to find treasure and had found, instead, the dead bodies of Shia leaders and their families, catalogued so that they could be identified.   [The Abbasids had particular  reason to fear the Shia, having encouraged them to revolt in the belief that they would replace the Ummayyads with a descendent of the Caliph Ali, not another Sunni dynasty.]   None of this, as Marozzi points out, exempts the countries that have interfered in the affairs of the Middle East from their responsibilities.   It is a simple recognition of the fact that not all the troubles of the Middle East are of their making.

The heart of this book, however, is not the scheming of France and Britain, the two Imperial powers, nor the way in which the USA inherited what had been created.   Nor is it really about the way in which the USA, lobbied both by Zionists and the Oil industry, has intervened in the affairs of the region, usually to the detriment of the aspirations of ordinary inhabitants of those countries.   And it is ordinary people, in all their glorious diversity, in their incredible tenacity, in their day-to-day heroism, who are at the heart of this book.

The authors are at pains to make clear that the Middle East was an area of cultural diversity, in which many religions flourished, in which many languages were spoken and with a heritage stretching back thousands of years.   The epicentre of this story is the series of events that became know as “The Arab Spring”, and the authors look at the achievements and failures of that year.   It also looks at the fallout in the two non-Arabic speaking countries of the region, Turkey and Iran.

I am not going to attempt to summarise what the authors tell us about the region, because the complexities are enormous and, as is inevitably the case with fifteen authors presenting their views of events, they sometimes contradict each other.   What is clear, however, is that there are no simple answers, especially in the case of intervention in Syria.   The three essays in the section called “Syria in Crisis” should be essential reading for any decision-maker and, preferably, before they make a decision.   They should that there are no simple solutions to dealing with DAESH, ISIL or whatever you want to call it.   The fact that ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a European term for Bilad-al-Shams or Syria, is indicative of that complexity.   Of course, ISIL is also a European term, the Arabic being DAESH, and the significant point is Al-Baghdadi’s claim to be the Caliph, the Commander of the Faithful, the successor to the Prophet.

The one thing that we have to remember as we try to come to terms with what has been done by our governments and others in the Middle East, is that the people who live there are ordinary people, just like you and me, and they have ordinary concerns like eating, keeping warm and well, clothing themselves  and having occasional fun.   That is the essential point of this book.   The last essay “Palestine and Hope” by one of the editors, Raja Shehadeh, makes that point very well.   Raja Shehadeh was born in Ramallah in 1952, after the flight of his family from Jaffa in 1948.   He was a witness of the Israeli effective annexation of the West Bank following the 1967 war.   He still lives in Ramallah which was at the heart of both intifadas..   He believes in a peace negotiated through a recognition of the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.   It is a hope that may be very difficult to achieve at this juncture of history.   But it is a hope that people of goodwill throughout the world must work for, because that way lies the road to a lasting peace for the whole region.

It struck me that it is significant that this book is called “Shifting Sands”.   There is a New Testament story about a man who builds his house upon sand.   The sands shift in the wind, and the house collapses.   That is what will happen to any solutions imposed on the region that do not accommodate the aspirations of the ordinary people who live there.   It is a prescient title for a vital book.


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