Castles Made of Sand

A recent article in Newsweek noted:

“More than three-quarters of Palestinians feel their government is corrupt. Asked to name the biggest problem in society, a majority of respondents choose internal ones: poverty, unemployment, corruption and the political schism between Hamas and Fatah. Just 27 percent say the occupation is their largest concern, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the top pollster in the territories. The official unemployment rate in the West Bank is 16 percent, and roughly one in five families lives in poverty. (The actual figures are thought to be higher). Yet the streets of Ramallah are lined with billboards advertising million-shekel apartments. A tenuous middle class has loaded up on consumer debt, which soared from $1.3 billion in 2012 to $2.2 billion just three years later. All of this has served to make Palestinians more risk-averse. The way a CEO of a major bank in Ramallah sees it: “You’re not going to join an intifada when you have to make mortgage payments.”

Meanwhile, the economies of Israel and Palestine are effectively integrated. Israel controls trade The Palestinian market us captive one for Israeli products, whilst Palestinian goods have limited acess to the Israeli market. Al Jazeera has recently published an informative piece this subject.

The following is based on our own observations and knowledge, and these are informed by what we have seen and read, and what we were told by Palestinians we talked to during our travels through the West Bank. We do not profess to be experts – we are neither academics nor professional commentators. And accordingly, we welcome objective comments and contributions that both support and question our observations.

Castles Made of Sand 

Whilst the attention of the international media and of NGOs is focused on Israeli settlements, there is a land rush going on in the cities of the West Bank.

A big surprise in our travels through the Occupied Territories, was the residential construction boom going on in cities fully governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). We had been aware of this prior to coming to Israel, but not of its scale. To our knowledge, mainstream media has hardly  covered this at all, and when it does, more often than not it is PR rather than critical analysis (see links below). Our guides, for reasons of their own, were reticent about discussing it.

We often hear that development is held back by the Occupation, that buildings without official approval are subject to demolition, and that there is no land available for Palestinians to build on. Likewise, we hear about how the water supply to the Est Bank is severely restricted. Israeli settlements enjoy an abundance whist Palestinian homes endure meagre rations. Indeed, our guides would stand beneath hills covered in building sites and repeatedly tell us all this.

Most certainly, building by Palestinians is severely restricted in Area C (60% of the West Bank, and 4% of its Arab population) which is under Israeli control, and Area B, under the joint control Israel and the Palestinian Authority (22% and 41% respectively).  And water is indeed problem insofar as the aquifers are located in Israel itself, and supply is hostage  to logistical and political exingenices, and also, to an antiquated Jordanian distribution infrastructure vulnerable to regular breakdowns and leaks.

But billions of expatriate dollars are being invested in medium and high density apartment blocks in area A, the 18% of the West Bank controlled by the PA (and 55% of Palestinian Arabs) in Ramallah, the de facto capital, and in Nablus, Hebron and Jenin. It is a common practice throughout the Middle East for expatriates to remit funds to build a house or houses for their families, or to add extra storeys to the old family home (unfinished upper storeys are a familiar feature of Arab towns in the Levant). But since its establishment, the PA has actively encouraged Palestinians who have “made it” overseas to invest in their nascent homeland by repatriating their stash and putting it into the burgeoning property market. The national accounts prepared by the Palestinian Monetary Authorty show that remittances from overseas have risen steadily in recent years. But do not detail where it is ultimately invested

Where does the land available for development come from? Local commentators suggest that families sell their land to developers. There are suggestions too that speculators take advantage of Shariah inheritance laws, whereby a parcel of land or an apartment block is divided up between sons, by targeting the weakest link – the most needy for quick cash, or more easily intimidated by strong arm tactics – and then persuading the other siblings to sell. The PA is regarded by many as notoriously corrupt, and it is not unlikely that government land and land held in trust is transferred into private hands through cronyism, kickbacks and connections. And what better home for trousered cash that cannot be transferred into offshore bank accounts than bricks and mortar?

Whatever the mechanism, the slopes of the hills surrounding the larger cities are adorned with hectare after hectare of high rises. Most are works in progress, and much of those that are completed appear to be unoccupied. And, on the subject of water supply, we observed that the new buildings were not topped by the roof water tanks that are ubiquitous in most Palestinian towns and villages. No water shortages here, it would seem.

We were informed that a small apartment can cost between $60 and $100,000 before fit-out. Add another 10-20% for fixtures and fittings. Most Palestinians cannot afford these modest apartments. Those that do are in paid employment, mainly working for the PA or for UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) and the many NGOs that operate here. And they raise the finance through very un-islamic mortgages. Large billboards on highways offer financial advice and funds to affluent-looking young professionals.

imageimage

The irony is that most employed Palestinians depend upon the survival of the PA and indeed, on the continuation of the Occupation. UNWRA, the United Nations agency that caters exclusively for Palestinian refugees employs some 30,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian (only a few hundred are not), and as such, it is the largest single employer of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (by comparison, the UN High Commission for Refugees employs only 5,000 to 6,000 people globally).

Should the PA collapse or be abolished, should UNWRA be dissolved, should a Palestinian state be established in the West Bank, the government, and those businesses and agencies that depend upon it for contracts and custom could become insolvent, whilst there is always the possibility that international funding could be reduced or withdrawn. In short, the housing bubble could burst, the property market collapse, and those photogenic young professionals in the billboards, and their families, could lose their jobs and their homes.

The health of the Palestinian economy is also an perennial risk factor. The economy had been improving in recent years, with unemployment in the West Bank falling and and private investment in construction growing. The two might have been working hand in hand, coinciding with commencement of the building boom. But during the past three years, economic indicators have gone backwards owing to the political and economic uncertainty, with falling rates of growth, high inflation, and continuing high rates of unemployment and poverty. Economic recession, therefore, could likewise impact on the property market.

These are worst-case scenarios. But there are other economic implications.

For example, this property boom is speculative rather than productive investment in a Palestinian economy that is heavily dependent – some would argue almost totally – on Israel and on international aid. Whilst aid donors and agencies bankroll roads and essential services like schools, power, water, and the like, some say the money should instead be invested in business startups and entrepreneurial enterprises, developing the fiscal and human capital so that Palestinians can provide for their own welfare. National self-esteem should come from being economically sustainable and not from being an indigent state.

Also, there is growing economic inequality between the haves and the have nots. Before the establishment of the PA, we were told, things were more evenly balanced. Most of the population were on a more or less equal footing. There was a sense of “we are all in it together”. Now there is a palpable sense of every man for himself.

Author’s Note

Reiterating the forward to this post, this is based on our own observations and knowledge, and these are informed by what we have seen and read – we are neither academics nor professional commentators. But, as we sincerely desire to acquire and to present as accurate a picture as possible, we welcome objective comments and contributions that both support and question our observations. Any such insights will be incorporated into the post.

Much of what I have written is covered in this illuminating report by the Jerusalem Centre for a Public Affairs published in November 2015 (the picture gallery is an eye-opener): Luxury alongside poverty in the Palestinian Authority

See also: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Bank

Photographic Postscript: every picture tells a story

Palestinian developer and billionaire Munib al Masri, so-called “Duke of Nablus” built himself a mansion atop a hill overlooking Nablus. That’s his personal mosque up there. Some locals say he could’ve built one for them in the city instead.

Al Misri's mosque

Al Masri’s mosque

New high-rise buildings look down on a billboard honouring a young shahi-d or martyr.

Those who can, invest. Those who cannot, become martyrs.

Those who can, invest. Those who cannot, become martyrs.

Afterword : The Duke of Nablus and his kin

Relatives Municipal al Masri include his cousin and fellow billionaire, Arab Bank and Paltel chairman Sabih al-Masri, and nephews, developer Bashar Masri, and Jordanian former prime minister Taher al-Masri. The Masris would appear to be the Palestininian Authority’s development choice, and also, Israel’s.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/dream-of-a-palestinian-tiger-boom-times-in-the-west-bank-a-759046.html
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31154138
http://cnsnews.com/news/article/us-govt-funding-313m-mortgages-palestinians-west-bank
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munib_al-Masri
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bashar_Masri

 

 

Advertisements

The politics of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

In the wake of controversial production of Shakespeare’s play in New York’s Central Park,  here is an excellent exposition of the politics of this play by American screenwriter, novelist and producer Joseph Suglia. One forgets just how politically sophisticated and daring William Shakespeare was – potentially dangerous and, indeed, deadly during the unsettled and bloody times of the Tudor monarchs.

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

Caesar Anti-Trump

by Joseph Suglia

“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters.  It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency.  It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him.  It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992).  It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015).  It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007).  Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities.  All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living…

View original post 5,091 more words

Freedom at Midnight (2) – the legacy of partition

Seventy years ago India and Pakistan came into being, the first of the tumbling dice that were the longtime colonies of European nations. Over the next two decades, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium would retreat from their possessions in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. The importance August 15th 1947 cannot be understated, and its echoes reverberate still.

In an earlier post, Freedom at Midnight (1) – the birth of India and Pakistan, I discussed the process by which this came about. Below are links to two articles published today which examine the legacy of partition, a legacy that, as these pieces demonstrate, it still subject to much debate.

Writing in the New York Times, Pankaj Mishra deconstructs Jawahawal Nehru’s famous declaration of independence on 15th August 1947: “…one can, of course, mourn this August 15 as marking the end of India’s tryst with destiny or, more accurately, the collapse of our exalted ideas about ourselves. But a sober reckoning with the deep malaise in India can be bracing, too. For it confirms that the world as we have known it, molded by the beneficiaries of both Western imperialism and anti-imperialist nationalism, is crumbling, and that in the East as well as the West, all of us are now called to fresh struggles for freedom, equality and dignity”.

Anil Dharker, writing in The Independent, paints a rosier picture. India emerged from the trauma of partition and proposed. prospered. “Seventy years on, that’s something to be proud of. Even more is the fact that the idea of India as one country has survived, in spite of the country’s huge diversity and population, which makes it akin to a continent. Numbers confirm this amazing story: India’s population is now over 1.2 billion, spread over 29 states and seven union territories. There are 22 official languages and very many more dialects. Each state has its own language, culture and cuisine”.

And yet, he concludes, India has not yet realized the ecumenical promise of Nehru’s famous “tryst with destiny”: “Not even the most flag-waving Indian however, will claim that everything is perfect. The caste system refuses to die out; Dalits (the term used for untouchables) still face upper-caste persecution; they and minorities (especially Muslims) remain equal citizens only on paper; conservative and orthodox men still resist women’s fight for equality; the criminal justice system and the police still favour the affluent; reactionary religious elements still create tensions and face the future backwards”.

WH Auden composed a poem commemorating the events of 1947.

Specifically, he wrote of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer appointed by the British government to determine the borders of the new states. It was he who drew the fateful lines on the map of British India. An ironically objective narrative which recounts the story just as Collins and Lapierre tell it in Freedom at Midnight. It is, perhaps by design and intent, reminiscent of a celebrated poem by Dylan Thomas, and indeed, to paraphrase the Welsh Bard, “the hand that signed the paper” felled a city and bred a fever.

Partition

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

The Strange Death of Sam Cooke

Listening to my good friend Demitri and his King Street Blues combo inspired me to revisit the early soul standards of the late fifties and early sixties. Inevitably the journey took me to Sam Cooke.

Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964), born Samuel Cook, was an African-American recording artist, singer-songwriter and entrepreneur. He is commonly known as the King of Soul for his distinctive vocal abilities and influence on the modern world of music. His pioneering contributions to soul music led to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Billy Preston and popularized the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown.

Cooke had 30 U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, and a further three after his death. Major hits included “You Send Me”, “A Change Is Gonna Come”, “Cupid”, “Chain Gang”,  and “Twistin’ the Night Away”. And few remember that Herman’s Hermits “Wonderful World” was written and first recorded by Cooke.

He was also among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of his musical career. He founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

On December 11, 1964, Cooke was fatally shot by the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 33. At the time, the courts ruled that Cooke was drunk and distressed, and that the manager had killed Cooke in what was later ruled a justifiable homicide. Since that time, the circumstances of his death have been widely questioned.  Wiki tells the story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Cooke

Here are some of Sam Cooke’s timeless hits:

And check out King Street Blues at:  https://www.facebook.com/KingStreetBlues

Freedom at Midnight (1) – the birth of India and Pakistan

The partition of India, seventy years ago this month, is at the heart of the identity of two of the world’s most most populous nations, branded painfully and indelibly onto their consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence.

The paradox of Indian (and Pakistani) independence is that the long and torturous struggle for freedom was built upon nonviolence and civil disobedience (led by, and indeed personified by Mahatma Ghandi), and concluded with the peaceful handover of authority from an impoverished Britain that was downsizing its Empire, and yet ended with the partition of the Indian subcontinent into a majority Hindu state and a Muslim one.

The British army departed India with barely a shot fired and only seven casualties, and yet partition brought violent death to between one and two million souls, and the largest enforced mass movement of people in modern history – an estimated fifteen million people were uprooted as communities that had lived together for millennia disintegrated in bloodshed as Muslims fled to the new Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs fled from that Muslim state to India. The Partition was one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the 20th Century, a century that was replete with such.

Britain’s exit from India has been well-documented, and yet, is still subject to debate and disagreement. The recent film The Viceroys House, dramatizes the critical months leading up to August 14th 1947, and the countdown to “freedom at Midnight” the title of the celebrated book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (1975). The film is centered around Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, and his wife Edwina. It one of history’s great ironies that this aristocratic socialite, sportsman, and decorated war-hero, scion of European royals and cousin to the King of England, should be appointed by a Labour prime minister to bring down the curtain on “the jewel in the imperial crown”, ending over three hundred years of British rule, and to usher in a socialist Indian government and a brand-new Muslim state.

It is a story replete with depressing ironies. The atavistic poisons released by partition resulted in the assassination of the Mahatma at the hands of a Hindu fundamentalist. Mountbatten, who had his ship sink under him in the Mediterranean during WW2, and travelled unscathed through a dangerous and disintegrating India, died at sea at the hands of the IRA just over twenty years later. Chilling omens for the modern world – as Mark Twain reportedly observed, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Freedom at Midnight, a chronological narrative of that dramatic year, and cited as a source for the film, is an entertaining and informative account. It paints sympathetic yet critical portraits of the principal players – Mr and Mrs Mountbatten, the ascetic and quixotic Gandhi the aloof and shrewd Jawahawal Nehru, the subaritic, dying Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and other leading lights of the Congress Party and the Muslim League, the civil servants and lawyers who had to implement Mountbatten’s exit plan, and India ‘s five hundred and sixty five princes and maharajahs, often sordid, subaritic and picaresque, very occasionally, liberal and progressive, but by 1947, anachronistic and doomed.

Nehru, Mountbatten and Jinnah

A counterpoint to Freedom at Midnight, is another book also cited as a source for The Viceroy’s House: The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, by former aide to Mountbatten and longtime India civil servant, Narendra Singh Sarila. Whereas Freedom at Midnight sees HMG as virtually handing Mountbatten a free hand in extricating impoverished Britain from unruly and potentially ungovernable India, Sarila, like many Indian historians, sees the Brits as more clever and subtle than in fact they actually were. Perfidious Albion redux. It is as if ingenue  India, and Pakistan, the latter viewed by many some British policy makers as little more than an acronym, were set up to fail. And yet, they did not.

Bu the long arm of history reaches from the partition to the present, and from the present into an  uncertain future. It’s icy fingers probe deeply into the politics and psyches of the Raj’s successor states and the relationships, rarely harmonious, mostly acrimonious, and oftimes toxic, between them. The unrsolved armed truce that exists between India and Pakistan in the wake of two wars, with Kashmir, the one-time, much-beloved rose now a sharp and inextricable thorn. The bloody birth of Bangladesh as Muslim but culturally and racially different East and West Pakistan found that they could not share the same Muslim house. The long and brutal racial and religious civil war in Sri Lanka. The rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Hindu fundamentalism in India, which combined with political and military rivalry and atavistic hatreds, passed on from generation to generation, has exacerbated the already insoluble, seemingly permanent war-zone that is modern Afghanistan, another unfortunate piece on the confused battlefield of that old “Great Game”.

India for all its problems and paradoxes, remains the world’s largest democracy, and is today one of the world’s new economic and technological powerhouses (the so-called BRICs). Pakistan, which many predicted would not last its first decade, but would reunite with India, survived, and today, is regarded by many observers as a nuclear armed, potentially failed state, poised perpetually between rowdy democrats, “born to rule” dynasties, ambitious generals, and medieval mullahs.

Acclaimed historian and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple, concluded in a succinct review in The New Yorker:

“Today, both India and Pakistan remain crippled by the narratives built around memories of the crimes of Partition, as politicians (particularly in India) and the military (particularly in Pakistan) continue to stoke the hatreds of 1947 for their own ends. Nisid Hajari ends his book by pointing out that the rivalry between India and Pakistan “is getting more, rather than less, dangerous: the two countries’ nuclear arsenals are growing, militant groups are becoming more capable, and rabid media outlets on both sides are shrinking the scope for moderate voices.” Moreover, Pakistan, nuclear-armed and deeply unstable, is not a threat only to India; it is now the world’s problem, the epicenter of many of today’s most alarming security risks. It was out of madrassas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged. That regime, which was then the most retrograde in modern Islamic history, provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda’s leadership even after 9/11”.

The story of one-time Imperial South Asia still has a long way to run.

See also, Freedom at Midnight (2) – the legacy of partition. 

Postscript

In 1947, WH Auden composed a poem commemorating the partition.  Specifically, he wrote of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer appointed by the British government to determine the borders of the new states. It was he who drew the fateful lines on the map of British India. An ironically objective narrative which recounts the story just as Collins and Lapierre tell it in Freedom at Midnight. It is, perhaps by design and intent, reminiscent of a celebrated poem by Dylan Thomas, and indeed, to paraphrase the Welsh Bard, “the hand that signed the paper” felled a city and bred a fever.

Partition

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

Ottoman Redux – an alternative history

As a history tragic with many kilometers on the clock, I enjoy alternative history. “What if…?” and “if only…” are natural, if not instinctual responses to events around us – particularly the unpleasant ones. Hence the popularity of films like SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle (WW2 has always attracted us alternative history aficionados), and the current excitement (and panic in some politically correct quarters) about the prospect of a project pitched by Game of Thrones’ show-runners visualizing a USA in which the Confederacy won the Civil War and slavery endures still. But such history is an indulgence that serious historians ought not take seriously – unless they are branching out into historical fiction, that is, which many indeed do.

When we create alternative histories, we largely replicate a history we already know, often intimately. We replicate histories in which most of the same variables coexist, and the same historical trends prevail. Our motives are quite often as much to warn readers or audiences as to entertain them. Hence the tendency for such endeavours to drift into the depressing dystopian dramas that are so in vogue in these challenged times.

And yet, changing one or more of the players, removing or adding ingredients, hypothesizing different, even opposite scenarios, and imagining how events might have transpired differently, may not radically alter the result.

One surmises whether or not there is an iron law of inevitability that determines – predetermines, even – the same or similar outcome – a historical equivalent of Oedipus’ unsuccessful efforts to avoid his prophesied fate, affirming TS Elliot’s observation in Little Gidding: “And the end of all our exploring will be be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.

In an interesting if light-weight and indeed disappointing exercise in alternative history, with an absolutely meaningless title, The Sultans of Spring, The Economist recently pondered how events would have unfolded if the Ottoman Empire had sat out WW1 or joined the Entente of Britain, France and Russia instead of throwing in its lot with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary.  You may click on the above link, or page down to the full (and brief) transcript. But here, is my own argument:

So, what if?

Removing the Ottoman Empire from the strategic equation, or else placing it in the military scales against the Central Powers, would certainly have a significant impact upon the conduct and progress of the European war on both the eastern and western fronts. Russia and Britain would not have had to divert forces and materiel to the Middle East arenas. The Ottomans could have reaped the political and economic benefit of either neutrality or victory, with commensurate benefits for their own survival. The hypotheticals with respect to what may have happened next are innumerable.

The Economist surmises: “How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?”

But would things have turned out radically different if this had happened – notwithstanding the fact that three to five million Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Africans, Indians, and Europeans who lived in or soldiered through the Middle East theatre would have lived to die a natural death after fulfilling their own particular destinies or to perish purposefully or pointlessly in some other conflict.

The previous century had seen the steady decline of the Sultan’s Empire. It had commenced with Napoleon, and the rise of Muhammad Ali in Egypt, an Albanian “slave soldier” who in practical terms, seceded from the empire. Greece followed next, assisted by European states, and then, bit by bit, the Balkans. The Czar dubbed the empire the “sick man of Europe”, or so British politician John Russell misquoted him, and everybody wanted a piece. The European powers were circling hoping to pick up pieces as the Empire’s borderlands detached – Russia in the east, France in the Levant, and Britain in Egypt and the Gulf. The Crimean War was but one manifestation of “the Eastern Question” that had excited European Chancellories for a hundred years. France and Britain challenged Russia for power and influence in the East and went to war on the Sultans side (alliances have always been fluid in this part of the world, as today’s shifting allegiances demonstrate). Crimea ended in stalemate, but Russia kept encroaching, whilst France established its presence in the Levant. Britain, meanwhile, has its sights set on Egypt and the Suez Canal (the indispensable route to its African and Asian empires).

The Balkan states continued to decouple from the empire, and prior to 1914, engaged in several bloody wars with each other, drawing their neighbours deeper and deeper into the tangle. Hence the slow countdown to WW1 that accelerated with the Austro-Hungarian archduke being killed by a Serbian student. Gavril Princip’s “shot that echoed around the world” in Sarajevo in 1914 was but one part of a chaotic picture, igniting tinder that had long awaited a match. Russia, supported the Serbs, Germany, the Austrians, Britain, and France, the Russians. And the Ottomans, forever hard pressed by the Russians, French and Brits, had already moved into the German orbit. When the Ottomans entered the way on the side of the central powers, the cards were dealt.

The Empire was already on a revolutionary path with the Sultan’s desultory efforts with constitutional reform, the ascendency of Young Turks, a cabal of Turkish nationalist army officers, and the parlous state of the economy. Efforts to institute political and economic reform had faltered, and sooner or later, something was going to blow.

Arab nationalism had already taken root in the Levant, a secular creed spear-headed by Arab Christian intellectuals, to be brutally suppressed by the Young Turk triumvirate, Enver, Talat and Jamal. “Martyrs” were being strung up in Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem. Perhaps the Ottoman Middle East would have unraveled like in the Balkans (and Balkanised too? Most probably). The “wars of the Ottoman Succession” that we are witnessing today amongst the states created in 1921 would eventually have erupted.

The Zionist project was already underway at the outbreak of war, with settlements of Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia well-established in Palestine, often encouraged by the Ottoman authorities. The pioneers included many of the founders of modern Israel, including its architect and first prime minister David Ben Gurion. The pressures that drove Jews from eastern Europe and Russia in the first place (the discrimination and the pogroms paramount) were unlikely to abate given the atavistic nationalism of Holy Russia and just as Holy Poland. Sooner or later, Zionism and Arab nationalism were going to collide. We will never know how the Ottoman state and its Arab provinces would have coped with the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine. It certainly would have put the popular (but highly qualified) narrative of Ottoman tolerance of other faiths through a rigorous stress test. The Zionists had a pretty clear road map, and they weren’t sharing it with their new neighbours.

The British, French and Russians had been involving themselves in Middle Eastern affairs – that confounding “Eastern Question” – since the Napoleonic wars. , and Germany, seeking its coveted “place in the sun”, wanted in. German influence was already strong amongst progressive army officers – Prussian elan, ethos, menswear and weapons have exerted a powerful influence on wannabe juntas, the “men on horseback”, since the days Frederick the Great. The Kaiser’s government was very keen on expanding German influence in the east as a counter to British and French imperial power. Meanwhile, the industrial powers were already sniffing around the Gulf, Iranian, and Mesopotamian oilfields, he economic impetus behind imperialism having yet to run its course. The sea-lanes that preoccupied policy-makers in London, Paris and Moscow were soon to be joined by railways and pipelines, with the Germans making the running with its backing of the Berlin to Baghdad Bahnhof. Petroleum would soon join the fabled Great Game as a western imperial obsession. And this too, in time, would have to come up against rising Arab nationalism.

Would Ataturk and Ibn Saud’s ascendency in Turley and Arabia respectively have happened? Perhaps. The political instability in Anatolia and the Arabian Peninsula, and also, as we have described in the Levant, would have created conditions which could have brought these ambitious,  capable and charismatic men to power.

Mustafa Kemal was just one of many promising Young Turks. Whether he would have risen above his peers without his Gallipoli reputation is moot – he would still have had to shove aside the three amigos. His Turkish nationalism, like that of his Young Turk compadres, was not sympathetic to Arab aspirations. Nor was his agnosticism empathetic to what he considered to be a backward and suffocating Islam. Fezzes and face-coverings were amongst the first things to go once he established his secular republic. Whether he could have held the empire together is another question.

Ibn Saud was not the only kid on the Arabian block. The Hashimites (the descendants of Jordan’s King Abdullah) held the western edge of the peninsula, but also the most spiritually significant – the “haramayn” of Mecca and Medina, no less. The Hashimite princes has their eyes on an Arab Kingdom, but Ibn Saud had his eyes on them. The house of Saud, with its Salafi Wahhabi credentials of a cleaner Islam was way “out there” as far as Arab politics and religion went at the time. Apart from perennial outbreaks of intolerance towards and repression of religious and ethnic minorities and heterodox Muslim sects, Istanbul ruled its multinational and multicultural empire with a light if autocratic hand. But there was all that oil – and to British policy makers, that trumped loyalty to the Qurayshi wannabes in the west, for all their descent from the Prophet and their custodianship of the Holy Places.

How would British-controlled Egypt’s politics have developed? Resistance to Britain and its puppet monarchy (headed by the descendent of that famed Albanian schemer Muhammad Ali, who had caused the Europeans so much angst in the early days of the Eastern Question, was growing and would develop into a secular Egyptian nationalism on the one hand and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood on the other.

So: no Gallipoli campaign (Churchill would have had to find another project, and young Australia another patriotic shibboleth); no Arab Revolt – the Hashemites would have remained just another influential desert clan and TE Lawrence would not have become a legend; no Balfour Declaration or Sykes Picot agreement to distort and dismember the Arab Levant with two conflicting and irreconcilable nationalisms, so, no Syria, Iraq and Lebabon; no British (and Australian) advance on Gaza, Jerusalem and Damascus (General Allenby might have ended up on the Western Front instead of the steps of King David’s Tower in Jerusalem) and arguably, therefore no Mandate, no Palestine, and no Israel; no Armenian genocide to blight Turkey’s reputation and prefigure the Shoah that was to come; and no Turkey as we know it today (although President Erdogan is certainly acting out his inner sultan).

As former and unlamented Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice prematurely proclaimed in 2006, “a new Middle East”.

TE Lawrence, General Allenby, Ataturk, and Ben Gurion

Sultans of Spring – if the Ottoman Empire had not collapsed.

Imagine the mayhem that might have been avoided had the Ottoman Empire been saved rather than sunk. Blame, among others, Winston Churchill

When a Serb gunman shot an Austrian archduke in the summer of 1914, the nations of Europe tumbled into war with all the grace of bowling pins. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, whose ally Russia declared war on Austria, whose ally Germany declared war on Russia, whose allies France and Britain declared war on Germany and Austria. By early August the continent was in flames.

Much as it wobbled like the rest, however, one of those bowling pins could not make up its mind. Which way would Turkey fall? Should the fading Ottoman Empire join the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) or go with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary)

Turkey’s 500-year-old empire was shrinking. It had lost its territories in Africa, nearly all its Mediterranean islands and most of its Balkan lands as well as chunks of eastern Anatolia. It was debt-ridden, industrially backward and politically shaky.

Still, the sultan’s lands straddled two continents, controlling access to the Black Sea. His Arabian territories stretched beyond the holy cities of Islam to the mountains of Yemen and the Persian Gulf, where there were rumoured to lie vast caverns of the sticky black liquid soon to replace coal as the world’s chief source of power.

Confident of Turkey’s weakness, Britain, France and Russia could have clobbered the Ottomans and divided the spoils. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. At a secret conclave aboard a British dreadnought off the coast of Norway in late July, a far-sighted politician by the name of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, worked with French, Russian and Turkish diplomats to forge a treaty. The Turks drove a hard bargain for, as they coyly revealed, Germany too was proffering arms and gold in exchange for an alliance.

The deal that was reached proved immensely beneficial to all concerned. From France, Turkey received generous debt relief. Russia scrapped all claims to Ottoman territory, and made a limited goodwill withdrawal from parts of Anatolia. Churchill waived further payment on two warships that British shipyards were building for Turkey. And Turkey received assurances that its vulnerable extremities would not be attacked; for an empire that for a century had been preyed upon like a carcass this was a new lease of life.

The rewards to the Triple Entente were equally big. Granted exclusive access to the Black Sea, Russia’s allies could resupply the tsar’s armies when they faltered at the start of the war. With no need to defend its Turkish frontier, Russia moved thousands of crack troops from the Caucasus to shore up its front lines. Turkey signed separate agreements recognising British control of the Suez Canal, Aden and the Trucial sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, securing the sea lanes for Britain’s massive deployment of troops from the colonies to the Western Front. Turkey’s own army joined in a broad front against Austria-Hungary. Together, these Allied advantages are thought to have shortened the war by as much as a year; the Central Powers might not have sued for a truce as soon as America entered the war, but fought on instead.
Reprieved from collapse, the Ottoman Empire’s government pursued radical reforms. Challenged by growing nationalist tendencies from Arab, Armenian, Greek and Kurdish subjects, Sultan Mehmed V issued a historic firman or proclamation that recognised these as individual nations united under the Ottoman sovereign.

The sultan got to keep the title of caliph, commander of the Sunni Muslim faithful, which his ancestors had acquired four centuries earlier. This proved useful when the empire had to put down a rebellion of religious fanatics in central Arabia, led by a man called Ibn Saud who gained followers by claiming he would restore Islam to a purer state. But mostly the empire was seen as a tolerant place. When Nazi persecutions drove Jews from Europe in the 1930s, many took refuge there (as they had done when expelled from Spain in 1492), particularly in the province of Jerusalem.

If only…

Needless to say, none of the above happened. Quite the opposite. Turkey aligned with Germany in the first world war, and the allies did attempt to invade and divide its empire. Churchill, instead of handing over the warships that ordinary Turks had paid for by subscription, had them seized for the British navy. In 1915 he ordered a catastrophic attack on Turkey; the landing at Gallipoli cost the allies 300,000 casualties. British campaigns against Turkey in Iraq and the Levant cost another million lives.

Turkey’s casualties mounted, by war’s end, to 3m-5m people, nearly a quarter of the Ottoman population. This included some 1.5m Armenians, slaughtered because Turkish officials believed they might become a fifth column for a hostile Russia. And when Britain and France grabbed the Ottomans’ Arab lands, their suppression of uprisings cost thousands more lives.

How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?

Ataturk Monument, Istanbul

Here are other posts about Turkey past and present:

https://howlinginfinite.com/2017/03/01/sailing-to-byzantium/

https://howlinginfinite.com/2015/04/19/the-watchers-of-the-water/

https://howlinginfinite.com/2014/06/07/cha-cha-changes/

https://howlinginfinite.com/2014/05/27/people-watching-in-sultanahmet/