Islam’s house of many mansions

Islam, the faith of some two hundred million souls, has a long and well-documented history of pluralism and tolerance, and indeed, learning. But in recent decades, the faith has been hijacked by the punitive and literalist proclivities of the Salafis, condoned, coopted and championed by the conservative, corrupt, brutal, patriarchal and misogynistic autocracies of Saudi Arab and other Gulf States and ostensibly Islamic states like Iran. If ever there were exemplars for the “religion of peace”, and followers of a “merciful and compassionate” God, these are certainly not. To borrow another faith’s noun, theirs’ is in so many ways a gospel of bondage. [read Alastair Crooke’s excellent article on the history of Wahhabism]

[This, by the way, is a book review and not a theological critique. I neither profess nor profane, although my personal opinions might occasionally intrude. I admit to a sound but not specialist familiarity with and knowledge of Islam and Muslims, and a wide but not expert knowledge of the Middle East]

In The House of Islam – a global history  offers the potential for a softer, kinder, spiritual  Islam.  Author Ed Husain, British-born of Indian heritage, wears his Sufi heart on his sleeve.  “Preoccupied with spiritual awareness and depth, Sufi Islam transcends the performative trappings of superficial appearances such as beards and head-coverings, fixation with the simplistic binaries of haram and halal (what is forbidden and not forbidden in Islam) and the state’s imposition of sharia law.”

Little wonder that in many rooms in the House of Islam, Sufis are suspect, sanctioned and silenced – often brutally. As are many “heterogeneous” offshoots of this one true faith, including for many,  more than two hundred million Shiah.

It is the authoritarian, mediaeval Salafi-Wahhabi Arabian Peninsula theology and culture that has become commonly adopted as a marker of Muslim authenticity and has assumed the status of the ideal religious identity – notwithstanding the historical preeminence of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad as centres of Muslim learning – and even though Arabs constitute a numerical minority in the Muslim world.

This “Arabization” and indeed, “Saudification” of Islam has colonized, distorted and, indeed, contorted and corrupted the spiritual message of Islam, and with the concurrent attractions and challenges of westernization, has, in Husain’s words, “disoriented the traditional Muslim equilibrium”, and brought forth jihadi abominations like al-Qaeda and Da’ish.

With the spread of ultra-conservative Salafi theology in many parts of the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, Muslims are expected to dress in accordance with “modest” traditional Arabic attire and women are under pressure to wear the headscarf and other more extreme coverings – the latter never sanctioned by either Qur’an or Hadith writ. The writ runs deeper than outward appearance, as exemplified by the subordinate status of women in most Muslim societies. Moreover,  Arab and non-Arab Muslims are also expected to abandon their pre-Islamic history and culture – derided as remnants from pre-Islamic ignorance. In its most extreme manifestation, this saw the destruction of humanity’s priceless heritage at Palmyra and Nineveh. Some salafis call for the razing of Egypt’s pyramids.

Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, multitudes have returned there, helped in no small part by their more atavistic coreligionists who see salvation, wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a medieval ethos and lifestyle of some golden age of faith which most scholars maintain never existed.

Islamists are intolerant of anything resembling a free exchange of ideas and information – the very concept of democracy is haram as the Prophet and his successors never thought of it – and possess a cultural antipathy, and iconoclastic rage for all things western, including, in some places,  western education (the derivation of the name ’Boko Haram’  for Nigeria’s ISIS franchise). The fundamentalist mindset in all its patriarchal intolerance, prejudice and misogyny is itself often embraced by the ignorant and the uneducated, the downcast and dispossessed, the bitter and the bigoted.

Husain points out that “not every Salafi is a jihadi, but every jihadi is a Salafi. Today’s jihadism, violating all the ethics of Islam, is nothing more than the continuation of the puritanism of the Salafi-Wahhabis“, which originated from the Saudi kingdom – guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most revered cities. There is no space for plurality and doubt in Salafi theology, rooted as it is in the discourse of yaqeen (certainty) and the propagation of an authoritarian one-dimensional piety.

This said, there are many more Muslim-majority states such as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and Tunisia – countries that were conceived as secular states, and have largely remained secular or quasi-secular) , and indeed, have and made considerable democratic breakthroughs via the ballot box. Indonesia (the most populous Muslim-majority country) and Malaysia (one of the most industrialised Muslim-majority countries) are not located in the Arab Middle East. And yet, as events in Turkey and Indonesia have shown, the lure of radical Islam and its cultural and moral strictures is an attractive one to would-be authoritarians and to governments fearful of rising populist and nationalist tides.

And herein lies another portend. Just as the Muslim world has its share of religious and political extremists, so do an alarming number of Western democracies that are dominated by populists and ethno-nationalists who often do not hesitate to use religion as a blunt instrument of groupthink. I am thinking here of Russia and its Othodox Church, and of Polish Catholicism, but even ostensibly democratic USA and Israel are subject to the overweening influence of powerful evangelical and Haredim interest groups that endeavour to stamp their moral code on the more temporal majority. As radical British playwright Dennis Potter once remarked, “religion is the wound, not the bandage”.

Academic Lily Rahim notes in he review, published below, that this calls for a systematic analysis of the economic, socio-political, structural and institutional factors that have fueled the ascendancy of all forms of extremism, intolerance and exclusion, often rooted in authoritarian beliefs and systems. And that is a huge, multifaceted project, taking in the economic and social inequality that persists in countries rich and poor, the gap between the few ‘haves’ and the many ‘have-nots’, the power imbalances between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’, the pernicious rise of sectarianism and ethnocentrism, the mirage of ‘manifest destiny’, and the historical habit of the strong to bomb the weak and the poor to blazes.

Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and co-religionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris and Brussels, Istanbul and Baghdad, Jakarta and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan, the longest war in the 21st Century, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to what Rudyard Kipling called these “savage wars of peace” a forlorn hope.

“In many respects, the House of Islam is a microcosm of The House of Human History”.

Two other reviews of Ed Husain’s informative and illuminating boo follow.

For other posts regarding the Middle East in Into That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany.  And, for a long view, read: A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West.

The House of Islam by Ed Husain.


The House of Islam by Ed Husain review – a powerful corrective

Boys prepare food for devout Muslims to break their day-long fast on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Mumbai, India.
         Boys prepare food for devout Muslims to break their day-long fast on the last Friday of  Ramadan in Mumbai, India ( Rajanish Kakade/AP)

Of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims a very large number – perhaps a majority – observed the Ramadan fast last month. This doesn’t simply mean abstaining from food and water during the hours of daylight (as well as sex and cigarettes), but in many cases involves a deliberate reappraisal of one’s relation to God and the world, with more prayers and philanthropy and less shopping.

Of all the obligations that define Islam, Ramadan arouses perhaps the most irritation among some outsiders. A practice that places such a strain on the body is surely an affront to reason. Nor does it seem to make economic sense for workers to be tired and unproductive while declining to perform their allotted roles as consumers with credit ratings. And yet the west has absorbed Ramadan, if uneasily, with supermarket promotions for dates (the Prophet’s favoured breakfast), school assemblies on the subject and “What is Ramadan?” features even in the Sun.

Knowledge about Islam may have improved, but the speed with which relations are changing between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between Muslims, necessitates a constant reassessment of different worldviews and the way they interrelate. Isis’s defeat in Mesopotamia has not led to any meaningful dialogue between cultures. On the contrary, with Gaza aflame, the Iran nuclear accord uprooted and Sunni-Shia tensions at an all-time high, the prospects for detente have rarely been bleaker.

An airstrike on Islamic State militants in Sirte, Libya in 2016.
                      Airstrike on Islamic State militants in Sirte, Libya in 2016 )Manu Brabo/AP)

It’s an illustration of the insincerity of many world leaders that more than 250 French public figures, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and three former prime ministers, recently demanded that Qur’anic verses endorsing the killing of non-Muslims be “struck down” – just as the Second Vatican Council expurgated elements of Catholic doctrine in the early 1960s. This meretricious proposal affects to assume that Islam is a centralised religion like Catholicism (it isn’t), that the Qur’an can be snipped and remain the Qur’an (it can’t), and that because they recognise the same holy book the Islam of the jihadi is the same as that of the Sufi or the Europeanised Muslim with his Qur’an on the top shelf and his bottle of burgundy on the bottom. When will someone put these contradictions of text, practice and culture into terms accessible to the layperson? Who will speak across the divides?

Enter Ed Husain. A Briton of Indian parentage, a Muslim whose bestselling book, The Islamist described his temporary embrace of the values of global jihad in the 90s, Husain retained his religious faith even after he became a government adviser on deradicalisation. Since then he has lived off the fat of the neoliberal establishment that ran the world before the age of Trump, working for Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation as well as several other well‑heeled thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic. The anti-extremism organisation he co-founded in 2007, Quilliam, is considered by many to be hopelessly compromised by its support for government efforts to squeeze Muslims into the corset of “British” values.

Ed Husain in Brick Lane, London, May 2018.
                            Husain in Brick Lane, London, May 2018 (Andy Hall, The Observer)

Husain’s politics and the company he keeps may be questioned, but they evidently haven’t stopped him from thinking productively about Islam as a force for good in the world. An account of the compassion, reason and wonderment that Islam has exhibited for much of its history, this book is a powerful corrective to the widespread perception, fostered by jihadis and Islamophobes alike, that it’s a belief system for misanthropes.

Ever since its inception Islam’s ethos had been contested, but a disastrous turn came with rejection of the printing press and the triumph of scholasticism over independent reasoning, exacerbated by a morale-sapping struggle against European expansionism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Husain rightly says that the root of much Muslim confusion is a sense that a glorious past has soured into defeat and humiliation, but fallen prestige is hardly the monopoly of Muslims. The West has also lost ground, particularly its white males; dealing with changes in status is a part of being human. In general, Husain is too apt to view Muslims and their dignity as qualitatively different from those of other people. His modern politics can also be sketchy. With justification he criticises Saudi Arabia for its promotion of bigotry – less understandable is his soft spot for the  Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan –  less a paragon of generous Islam than thuggish majoritarianism. His insistence that Muslim nations accommodate the tiny Jewish state in their midst is common sense but a suggestion of a Middle Eastern union including Israel reads somewhat grotesquely in the light of the recent carnage in Gaza.

For all that, Husain has written a valuable book, full of suggestions for Islam’s implementation from a position of magnanimity and love. Then the confidence will return.

 The House of Islam: A Global History is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Muslim pilgrims pray on the Mountain of Mercy during The Haj. Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, is where Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite.
Muslim pilgrims pray on the Mountain of Mercy during The Haj. Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, is where Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite ( Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

In The House of Islam, Ed Husain affirms the centrality of the pluralist foundations and principles of Islam. Pluralism has also been rooted in Husain’s “lived reality”. His book opens powerfully, with Husain affirming his plural identity: “I am a Westerner and an observant Muslim. Caught between two worlds, I have learnt to dovetail the two facets of my identity. This book is a reflection of that inner bridge between Islam and the West”.

Yet, as the inflections of this superbly written book suggest, Husain’s “inner bridge” extends beyond “Islam and the West” and incorporates “the West” (Britain where he was born and raised), Islam (his faith) and India, his ancestral homeland.

A Turkish Muslim woman prays inside Hiraa cave, where Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from God to preach Islam, on Noor Mountain, on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
A Turkish Muslim woman prays inside Hiraa cave, where Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from God to preach Islam, on Noor Mountain, on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.Photo: AP

Husain’s Indian heritage comes across in his whimsical ruminations of Mughal Sufi history, in particular the riveting narrative of Jahanara Begum – the complex and colourful Sufi-inspired daughter of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1592–1666), who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife.

Hussain’s Sufi proclivities are apparent in the chapter “Who is a Sufi”, arguably one of the most engaging chapters. Husain describes the Sufi as one who “seeks only to please God, and does so in secret as often as possible”, grapples with “the heart and soul of Islam” and strives towards “maintaining equilibrium while swimming in deep oceans of spiritual awareness, and the ways in which the human ego could be crushed”.

Preoccupied with spiritual awareness and depth, Sufi Islam transcends the performative trappings of superficial appearances such as beards and head-coverings, fixation with the simplistic binaries of haram and halal (what is forbidden and not forbidden in Islam) and the state’s imposition of sharia law.

In contrast to the rigid, punitive and literalist tendencies of Salafi Islam, as promoted by the conservative monarchies in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and supposed Islamic states such as Iran, Sufi Islam’s leanings are inclusive, compassionate and speak to the complex yearnings of the human soul.

These leanings are evident in Rumi’s message of learning, hope and redemption, as the renowned Sufi poet ruminated: “Come. Come, whoever you are./ Wanderer, worshipper, lover of learning./ It doesn’t matter./ Ours is not a caravan of despair./ Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times./ Come, yet again, come, come.”

Husain’s considerable insights on the house of Islam, made up of more than 1.5 billion Muslims, have been shaped by his lived incarnations as an Islamist, Salafist and current abode in mystical Sufi Islam. His destiny within Sufi Islam culminated after many years of study under the guidance of Islamic scholars and living in the Middle East.

Enriched by these experiences, Husain notes that he has the “rare privilege of being an insider both in the West and in the Muslim World”. Yet, it could also be deduced that his acute insights have been cultivated by his status as an “outsider” in both the West and the Arab Middle East – stemming from his minority Indian ethnicity in both domains.

The House of Islam is understandably concerned with authoritarian and Salafi-Wahhabi Gulf Arab theology and culture that has become commonly adopted as a marker of Muslim authenticity. This peculiarity has assumed the status of the ideal religious identity – even though Arabs constitute a numerical minority in the Muslim world.

Husain insightfully asserts that Arabisation as well as Westernisation has “disoriented the traditional Muslim equilibrium”, as manifested by the rise of Salafi jihadi groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda.

With the spread of ultra-conservative Salafi theology in many parts of the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, Muslims are expected to dress in accordance with “modest” traditional Arabic attire and women are under pressure to wear the headscarf and other coverings. Arab and non-Arab Muslims are also expected to jettison their pre-Islamic history and culture – derided as remnants from pre-Islamic ignorance or jahiliyya.

Husain reminds us of the paradox of the current Salafi dominance by noting that in the 1790s, Salafis were not even considered Muslims by the chief qadi (cleric) of Mecca; indeed, for several years Salafis were kept away from the holy cities and The Haj.

He highlights the theological ties between Salafi Islam and jihadi Islamists, such as Isis and al-Qaeda, by pointing out that “not every Salafi is a jihadi, but every jihadi is a Salafi…. Today’s jihadism, violating all the ethics of Islam, is nothing more than the continuation of the puritanism of the Salafi-Wahhabis”, which originated from the Saudi kingdom – guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most revered cities.

There is no space for plurality and doubt in Salafi theology, rooted as it is in the discourse of yaqeen (certainty) and the propagation of an authoritarian one-dimensional piety.

The House of Islam is a valuable read, particularly for those with some understanding of Islam and the Muslim world. Husain is a gifted writer and perceptive observer particularly of the Arab Middle East.

That said, the book makes minimal references to the more dynamic and democratising Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Tunisia – countries that were conceived as secular states (have largely remained secular or quasi-secular) and made considerable democratic breakthroughs via the ballot box. Instructively, Indonesia (the most populous Muslim-majority country) and Malaysia (one of the most industrialised Muslim-majority countries) are not located in the Arab Middle East.

Instead of pointing to Israel as a source of emulation for the Muslim world, Husain could well have highlighted these consolidating democracies. All three countries boast a vibrant civil society, coalition governments based on power-sharing and political systems based on secular constitutionalism.

Despite the penetrating insights in The House of Islam, Husain’s narrative of the myriad hurdles confronting the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and Israel’s role in this struggle, is somewhat disappointing.

Just as the Muslim world has its share of religious and political extremists, so does Israel and an alarming number of Western democracies that are dominated by populists and ethno-nationalists. This calls for a systematic analysis of the economic, socio-political, structural and institutional factors that have fuelled the ascendency of all forms of extremism, intolerance and exclusion, often rooted in authoritarian beliefs and systems. In many respects, the House of Islam is a microcosm of The House of Human History.

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-house-of-islam-review-ed-husain-on-the-history-of-a-welcoming-religion-20180809-h13r0w.htm

Lily Rahim is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where she teaches Political Islam and Southeast Asian Politics. Her more recent books include Muslim Secular Democracy and The Politics of Islamism. Ed Husain is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival (mwf.com.au).

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O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…

Poets and painters have long been drawn to Bethlehem, and to the birth that may or may not have taken place here some 2,018 years ago. Even agnostics among them have been moved by the myth and magic of the place: the advent of that auspicious “star in the east”, the fulfillment of prophecies of old, wise men journeying on camels’ back from the exotic and mysterious “orient are”, angels heard on high, shepherds watching their flocks, and the well-loved dramatis personae of the classic manger scene.

The Christmas Story, the Crucifiction and the Resurrection, is at the heart of the Christian creation myth. Like Jerusalem, its sacred. senior sibling, just ten kilometres away as the crow flies (and much, much longer by road due to the impositions of the occupation), the “little town of Bethlehem”  is as much a city of the mind and heart as one of bricks and mortar and of ordinary people with myriad preoccupations and passions.

British author and screenwriter Nicholas Blincoe has now written an affectionate and informative biography of a town that is as close to the heart of our culture as any town ever was, and yet one that is almost unknown. Whilst “the hopes and fears of all our years” abide with this town of some 27,000 souls, it has a story of its own that reaches back eleven thousand years.

Ballad of a border town 

Blincoe’s story is part history, part travelogue and memoir, the past intermingling with the present in informative and ofttimes entertaining anecdotes and interviews, memories and personal experiences, as he takes us on a journey from the stone age to the stone wall – one that is in places eight metres in height.

Bethlehem has since the beginning of recorded history been a border-town on a physical and metaphysical borderland.

A borderland between “the desert and the sown”, the Judean Desert with it’s sheep-herding nomads and Bedouin bandits, and the orchards and vineyards in the fertile wadis that for centuries had supplied world-famous wine and olive oil.

A borderland between the Christians who once constituted a majority, and who for generations have tended to the churches, shrines, and monasteries that were drawn to the holy ground around the Church of the Nativity, and the vast Muslim hinterland from whence over the centuries have come traders and invaders, missionaries and marauders, tourists and tanks. For two thousand years, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been one of the world’s preeminent destinations for religious tourism, and over two million tourists and pilgrims visit the town each year.

Bethlehem’s location has given it a social, political, economic, and strategic significance disproportionate to its size. It grew the confluence of the springs and aqueducts that have supplied nearby Jerusalem for millennia. “All ittakes to conquer Jerusalem is to seize its water supply…This is what every future invader did.” It was close to the historic trade route between the Kings Road that linked the Hijaz to the Hauran, Damascus and the north, and the ancient Palestinian ports on the Mediterranean.

Its importance as a Christian island in a sea of Islam saw it serve as a refuge for the oppressed and dispossessed of Ottoman pogroms and genocides and also of the Nakba, it has earned a reputuaion as a haven for the more secular and radical elements of the Palestinian national movement their struggle with more religious and indeed fundamentalist adversaries.

But over the last half-Century, it is town that is increasingly cut off and isolated by the Separation Wall, encircled and encroached upon by the ever multiplying and expanding Israeli settlements (forty one at the last count with well over 100,000 inhabitants), hostile and acquisitive settlers, and the daily impositions and injustices of the military occupation with its restricted roads, armed soldiers and border police, checkpoints and the Kafkaesque permit system.

 

A cultural caravanserai

For most of his historical narrative, Blincoe maintains a degree of scholarly detachment with regard to the serpentine history and politics of the region, and  crafts a captivating tale of warlords and adventurers, of soldiers and saints,  as a parade of foreign armies pass through. Egyptians, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, Arabs, Franks, and Mamluks, Turks, Brits, and finally, Israelis. There is a great picture of a group of Anzacs from the far side of the world in their winter coats emerging from the cave of the nativity in December 1917. Rulers and rebels have passed this way, and many, like mad, bad King Herod, Bar Kokba’s Jewish fighters, and the Shabab of the Palestinian Intifada-t have died nearby.

Given its religious significance, Bethlehem has forever been a focus and at times, a flash-point for events that have enmeshed the Holy Land and its Holy Places, from the fossicking of Emperor Constantine’ mother Helena and the self-imposed exile of estranged Empress Eudocia, through the Muslim conquest, the Crusades and Mongol raids to the Crimean War, the Palestine Campaign of WW1, and the Arab-Israel conflict. Bethlehem’s history has been one of civilization, colonization and conquest.

As a former scholar of philosophy, Blincoe seems particularly at home amidst the theological disputes of the early Christian, Byzantine period, and brings to life a host of passionate, idiosyncratic, adventurous, and infuriating men and women – the wandering saints and scholars, clerics and ascetics, wealthy widows and society matrons of the Middle Ages, and an unending caravan of pilgrims, tourists, evangelical adventurers and amateur archaeologists that have walked these hills and valleys for centuries. As with Jerusalem, seekers of the numinous could never get enough of the place.

He doesn’t shy away from the social, theological and political complexities of his chronicle, but his objectivity is severely tested in his final chapters when writing of Bethlehem and the occupation.

But then he does after all have a lot of skin in the game: he is married to Bethlehem filmmaker Leila Samsour, dividing his time between London and Bethlehem. He is quite embedded with Leila’s Christian Palestinian family, one with deep roots in the town’s history and politics, and has often been in the thick of the crises, protests, incursions and violent clashes that periodically embroil his adopted home.

He is not some desktop warrior, NGO apparatchik or “occupation tourist”. And whilst he deplores the actions of the settlers and the right wing politicians – Avigdor Leiberman and other nationalist MKs are virtual neighbours of his – and ascribes to revisionist Israeli historians like Ilan Pape and Benny Morris’ reading of the Nakba, he is not one of Israel‘s haters But he is disappointed, saddened, infuriated even by the Jewish state’s often cavalier and callous approach to its Palestinians who are its neighbours and also, its sullen, subject people.

Banksy’s Bethlehem Bouquet

Breaking the wheel

Palestine, and with it, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have always been under strangers’ dominion. But in the past, the rulers largely left the locals to live their own lives and manage their own affairs in accordance with their own social, political, and religious ways, and in the fullness of time, they departed, ceding the land to the next despot. Until, that is, the Israelis. In the words of Daenerys Targaryen: “ We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”

Year by year, Bethlehem’s economy shrinks. Over two million tourists and pilgrims visit “Royal David’s City” annually, but its economically stressed, and it has the highest unemployment rate (nearly 30%) in the West Bank.

Year by year, Bethlehem’s Christian population diminishes as people head overseas in search of a better life – and particularly its young folk. In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86% Christian, but by 2016, the Christian population was but 12%.

Year by year, the settlements grow, and settlers, encouraged by an extremist, nationalist government and a seemingly compliant IDF, become more emboldened in their expansion onto Palestinian land. Considered illegal under international law, Israel regards them as legitimate suburbs of Jerusalem- a territorial fait accompli that is tantamount to de facto annexation.

Year by year, Bethlehem becomes more and more cut off from the rest of the West Bank by walls, wire, and a web of “Israeli only” highways, and indeed from the world beyond the wall. Travel to Jerusalem and to the rest of the West Bank is severely restricted by roads, checkpoints and permits, whilst the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians that existed during the seventies and eighties, in workplaces, educational and health institutions, friendships and romances, ceased after the terrors of the second, bomb Intifada as israel and Israelis withdrew into their mental and physical fortress.

A generation of young people on either side of the old and ostensibly moribund Green Line have grown up with negligible contact with their peers on the “other side” – and this is most likely to be limited to military service in the Occupied Territories on the one hand, and confrontations with armed soldiers on the other.

Writing of the 1948 war, Blincoe notes: “From their future actions it became clear that both Jordan and Israel saw the term “Palestine” as an empty tag: it was the name of a piece of real estate rather than the home of people demanding self representation”, this is how he sees the future for Palestine and for Bethlehem, his adopted home. He argues that the settlement project is first and foremost about land and cheap housing for middle and lower class Israelis pressed by rising property values and a shortage of affordable housing to rent or buy in Israel proper. it is real estate developers, he argues, with friends in high places, who are calling the shots, rather than the more visible and vocal Zionist nationalists. As the Israeli historian and one–time deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti puts it, the settlements are a “commercial real estate project that conscripts Zionist rhetoric for profit”. The story of Jesus and the money-changers somehow comes to mind.

It is an intriguing argument that invites further research. it also echoes what would appear to be a similar patter in those parts of the West Bank that are under the direct control and administration of the Palestinian Authority, as we have reported earlier in Castles Made of Sand, an account of the land rush that is taking place in Area A.

With this and all the other pressures in play, from Blincoe’s perspective, the future prospects of Palestine and the little town of Bethlehem not appear to be promising. Bethlehem – Biography of a Town does not have a happy ending.

Synchronicity – a footnote

A few days after this post was published, an article by Hillel Zand appeared in the Matzav Review addressing the settlements and the real estate argument:  “Israel’s right-wing has strengthened in recent years because it has promoted heavily financing the settlement project as a way to compensate for the not insignificant negative side-effects of neoliberal economic policy, especially rising housing prices and increasing inequality and poverty…In Israel, the “losers” are being compensated by the advocates of these policies with incentives, subsidies and entitlements that allow them to maintain, or even raise, their quality of life by living in West Bank settlements”.

The Israel- Jordan collaboration referred to by Blincoe also raised its controversial head recently when Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked and her boss Naftali Bennett hinted, favourably, at the prospects of US’ impending “peace deal” that includes the West Bank being ceded to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt. Murmurings from US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also indicated support for such an idea.

Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem

Walls and wire define the brotherhood of man

 Some further reading about Bethlehem:

There are the PLO’s official facts and figures, and the National Catholic Reporter on the declining Christian population. And there is always Wikipedia. There are a series of posts in In That Howling Infinite about Jerusalem and Palestine in: O Jerusalem

Author’s Note: 
Whenever In That Howling Infinite posts commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that followed –  Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.   
The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.
I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.
Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.
Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.
But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.
Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.
Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.
So what happens next?
I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
October 8th 2017

The Church of the Nativity

Adele at the Church of the Nativity

Where Christianity began

That was the year that was

Reviewing 2017, I am reminded of Game of Thrones‘ Mance Rayder’s valedictory: “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come”.

On the international and the domestic front, it appeared as if we were condemned to an infernal and exasperating ‘Groundhog Day’.

Last November, we welcomed Donald Trump to the White House with bated breath and gritted teeth, and his first year as POTUS did not disappoint. From race-relations to healthcare to tax reform to The Middle East, South Asia and North Korea, we view his bizarro administration with a mix of amusement and trepidation. Rhetorical questions just keep coming. Will the Donald be impeached? Are we heading for World War 3? How will declining America make itself “great again” in a multipolar world set to be dominated by Russia Redux and resurgent China. Against the advice of his security gurus, and every apparently sane and sensible government on the globe (including China and Russia, but not King Bibi of Iz), his Trumpfulness recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Jerusalem. Sure, we all know that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – but we are not supposed to shout it out loud in case it unleashed all manner of mayhem on the easily irritated Muslim street. Hopefully, as with many of Trump’s isolationist initiatives, like climate change, trade, and Iran, less immoderate nations will take no notice and carry on regardless. The year closes in, and so does the Mueller Commission’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election and the Trumpistas’ connivance and complicity – yes, “complicit”, online Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year, introduced to us in her husky breathlessness by the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson in a spoof perfume ad that parodies Ivanka Trump’s merchandizing.

Britain continues to lumber towards the Brexit cliff, its unfortunate and ill-starred prime minister marked down as “dead girl walking”. Negotiations for the divorce settlement stutter on, gridlocked by the humongous cost, the fate of Europeans in Britain and Brits abroad, and the matter of the Irish border, which portends a return to “the troubles” – that quintessentially Irish term for the communal bloodletting that dominated the latter half of the last century. The May Government’s hamfistedness is such that at Year End, many pundits are saying that the public have forgotten the incompetence of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and predict that against all odds, his missus could soon be measuring up for curtains in Number Ten.

Beset by devilish twins of Trump and Brexit, a European Union written-off as a dysfunctional, divided bureaucratic juggernaut, appears to have found hidden reserves of unity and purpose, playing hardball with Britain, dismissing the claims of Catalonia and Kurdistan, rebuking an isolationist America, and seeing-off resurgent extreme right-wing parties that threaten to fracture it with their nationalist and anti-immigration agendas. Yet, whilst Marine Le Pen and Gert Wilders came up short in the French and Dutch elections, and centrists Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel hold the moderate middle, atavistic, autocratic and proto-fascist parties have risen to prominence and influence in formerly unfree Eastern Europe, driven by fear of a non-existent flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa (these are headed for the more pleasant economic climes of Germany, Britain and Scandinavia), and perhaps, their historically authoritarian DNA. Already confronted with the Russian ascendency in the east, and the prospects of the Ukrainian – Donetsk conflict firing up in the near future, the EU’s next big challenge is likely to be reacquainting itself with its original raisin d’etre – the European Project that sought to put an end to a century of European wars – and addressing the potential expulsion of parvenu, opportunistic member states who fail to uphold the union’s democratic values. As a hillbilly villain in that great series Justifed declaimed, “he who is not with is not with us”.

The frail, overcrowded boats still bob dangerously on Mediterranean and Aegean waters, and the hopeful of Africa and Asia die hopelessly and helplessly. Young people, from east and west Africa flee poverty, unemployment, and civil war, to wind up in Calais or in pop-up slave markets in free but failed Libya. In the Middle East the carnage continues. Da’ish might be finished on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, with the number of civilian casualties far exceeding that of dead jihadis. But its reach has extended to the streets of Western Europe – dominating headlines and filling social media with colourful profile pictures and “I am (insert latest outrage)” slogans. Meanwhile, tens, scores, hundreds die as bombs explode in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with no such outpourings of empathy – as if it’s all too much, too many, too far away.

Bad as 2017 and years prior were for this sad segment of our planet, next year will probably not be much better. The autocrats are firmly back in the saddle from anarchic Libya and repressed Egypt to Gulf monarchs and Iranian theocrats. There will be the wars of the ISIS succession as regional rivals compete with each other for dominance. Although it’s ship of state is taking in water, Saudi Arabia will continue its quixotic and perverse adventures in the Gulf and the Levant. At play in the fields of his Lord, VP Pence declared to US troops in December that victory was nigh, the Taliban and IS continue to make advances in poor, benighted Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Africa will continue to bleed, with ongoing wars across the Sahel, from West and Central Africa through to South Sudan,  ethnic tensions in the fragile nations of the Rift Valley, and further unrest in newly ‘liberated’ Zimbabwe as its people realize that the military coup is yet another case what The Who called “meet the old boss, same as the new boss”.

This Syrian mother and her child were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.

In our Land Down Under, we endured the longest, most boring election campaign in living memory, and got more of the same: a lacklustre Tory government, and a depressingly dysfunctional and adversarial political system. Politicians of all parties, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Rome burns. All this only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with their representatives, warps their perception of the value and values of “democracy”, and drives the frustrated, disgruntled, fearful and alienated towards the political extremes – and particularly the Right where ambitious but frustrated once, present and future Tory politicians aspire to greatness as big fishes in little ponds of omniphobia.

Conservative Christian politicians imposed upon us an expensive, unnecessary and bitterly divisive plebiscite on same-sex marriage which took forever. And yet, the non-compulsory vote produced a turnout much greater than the U.K. and US elections and the Brexit referendum, and in the end, over sixty percent of registered voters said Yes. Whilst constituencies with a high proportion of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Chinese cleaved to the concept that marriage was only for man and women, the country, urban and rural, cities and states voted otherwise. The conservatives’ much-touted “silent majority” was not their “moral majority” after all. Our parliamentarians then insisted on dragging the whole sorry business out for a fortnight whilst they passed the legislation through both Houses of Parliament in an agonizingly ponderous pantomime of emotion, self-righteousness and grandstanding. The people might have spoken, but the pollies just had to have the last word. Thanks be to God they are all now off on their summer hols! And same-sex couples can marry in the eyes of God and the state from January 9th 2018.

Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we are still “going up against chaos”, to quote Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, as the last, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it continues to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn for the long, hot summer, but will return in 2018, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.

And finally, on a light note, a brief summary of what we were watching during the year. There were the latest seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. The former was brilliant, and the latter left us wondering why we are still watching this tedious and messy “Lost in Zombieland”. Westworld was a delight with its fabulous locations and cinematography, a script that kept us backtracking to listen again to what was said and to keep up with its many ethical arcs and literary revenues. and a cavalcade of well cast, well-written and original characters. Westworld scored a post of its own on this blog – see below. The Hand Maid’s Tale wove a dystopian tale all the more rendered all the more harrowing by the dual reality that there are a lot of men in the world who would like to see women in servitude, and that our society has the technology to do it. To celebrate a triumphant return, our festive present to ourselves were tee-shirts proclaiming: “‘ave a merry f@#kin’ Christmas by order of the Peaky Blinders”.  And on Boxing Day, Peter Capaldi bade farewell as the twelfth and second-best Doctor Who (David Tennant bears the crown), and we said hello to the first female Doctor, with a brief but chirpy Yorkshire “Aw, brilliant!” sign-on from Jodie Whittaker.

Whilst in Sydney, we made two visits to the cinema (tow more than average) to enjoy the big-screen experience of the prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien and the long-awaited sequel to our all-time favourite film Blade Runner. Sadly, the former, Alien: Covenant, was a disappointment, incoherent and poorly written.  The latter, whilst not as original, eye-catching and exhilarating as its parent, was nevertheless a cinematic masterpiece. It bombed at the box office, just like the original, but Blade Runner 2049 will doubtless become like it a cult classic.

This then was the backdrop to In That Howling Infinite’s 2017 – an electic collection covering politics, history, music, poetry, books, and dispatches from the Shire.

An abiding interest in the Middle East was reflected in several posts about Israel and Palestine, including republishing Rocky Road to Heavens Gate, a tale of Jerusalem’s famous Damascus Gate, and Castles Made of Sand, looking at the property boom taking place in the West Bank. Seeing Through the Eyes of the Other publishes a column by indomitable ninety-four year old Israeli writer and activist Uri Avnery, a reminder that the world looks different from the other side of the wire. The Hand That Signed the Paper examines the divisive legacy of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The View From a Balcony in Jerusalem reviews journalist John Lyons’ memoir of his posting in divided Jerusalem. There is a Oh, Jerusalem, song about the Jerusalem syndrome, a pathology that inflects many of the faithful who flock to the Holy City, and also a lighter note, New Israeli Matt Adler’s affectionate tribute to Yiddish – the language that won’t go away.

Sailing to Byzantium reviews Aussie Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire, a father and son road trip through Istanbul’s Byzantine past. Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion juxtaposes Khalil Gibran’s iconic poem against a politically dysfunctional, potentially dystopian present, whilst Red lines and red herrings and Syria’s enduring torment features a cogent article by commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen.

On politics generally, we couldn’t get through the year without featuring Donald Trump. In The Ricochet of Trump’s Counterrevolution, Australian commentator Paul Kelly argues that to a certain degree, Donald Trump’s rise and rise was attributable to what he and other commentators and academics describe as a backlash in the wider electorate against identity and grievance politics. Then there is the reblog of New York author Joseph Suglia’s original comparison between Donald Trump’s White House and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But our particular favourite is Deep in the Heart of Texas, a review of an article in The New Yorker by Lawrence Wright. His piece is a cracker – a must-read for political junkies and all who are fascinated and frightened by the absurdities of recent US politics.

Our history posts reprised our old favourite, A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West, whilst we examined the nature of civil wars in A House Divided. Ottoman Redux poses a hypothetical; what if The Ottoman Empire has sided with Britain, France and Russia in World War I? In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie, Deconstructing Dunkirk looked at the myths surrounding the famous evacuation. On the seventieth anniversary of the birth of India and Pakistan, we looked at this momentous first retreat from Empire with three posts: Freedom at Midnight (1) – the birth of India and Pakistan, Freedom at Midnight (2) – the legacy of partition, and Weighing the White Man’s Burden. Rewatching the excellent sci-fi drama Westworld – one of the televisual gems of 2017 –  we were excited to discover how the plays of William Shakespeare were treasured in the Wild West. This inspired our last post for the year: The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here, the title referencing a line from The Tempest.

Happy Birthday, Indiaekkent

Our continuing forest fight saw us return to Tolkien’s Tarkeeth, focusing this time around on fires that recalled Robert Plant’s lyrics in Ramble On: In the darkest depths of Mordor. The trial in Coffs Harbour of the Tarkeeth Three and the acquittal of two of our activists were chronicled on a series of interviews recorded by Bellingen’s Radio 2bbb, whilst other interviews were presented in The Tarkeeth Tapes. On a lighter note, we revisited our tribute to the wildlife on our rural retreat in the bucolic The Country Life.

And finally to lighter fare. There was Laugh Out Loud – The Funniest Books Ever. Poetry offerings included the reblog of Liverpudlian Gerry Cordon’s selection of poetry on the theme of “undefeated despair”: In the dark times, will there also be singing?; a fiftieth anniversary tribute to Liverpool poets Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, Recalling the Mersey Poets; and musical settings to two of our poems, the aforementioned Oh, Jerusalem, and E Lucevan Le Stelle.

And there was music. Why we’ve never stopped loving the Beatles; the mystery behind The Strange Death of Sam Cooke; Otis Redding – an unfinished life, and The Shock of the Old – the Glory Days of Prog RockLegends, Bibles, Plagues presented Bob Dylan’s laureate lecture. We reprised Tales of Yankee Power – how the songs of Jackson Brown and Bruce Cockburn portrayed the consequences of US intervention in Latin America during the ‘eighties. And we took an enjoyable journey into the “Celtic Twilight” with the rousing old Jacobite song Mo Ghille Mear – a piece that was an absolute pleasure to write (and, with its accompanying videos, to watch and listen to). As a Christmas treat, we reblogged English music chronicler Thom Hickey’s lovely look at the old English carol The Holly and the Ivy, And finally, for the last post of this eventful year, we selected five christmas Songs to keep the cold winter away.

Enjoy the Choral Scholars of Dublin’s University College below. and here are Those were the years that were : read our past reviews here:  2016   2015 

In That Howling Infinite is now on FaceBook, as it its associate page HuldreFolk. Check them out.

And if you have ever wondered how this blog got its title, here is Why :In That Howling Infinite”?

See you in 2018.

 

 

Rocky Road to Heaven’s Gate

And it’s oh, what a beautiful,        
Oh, Oh Lord, what a beautiful city
Twelve gates to the city, hallelujah!
Reverend Gary Davis

We all have a city or, if we are fortunate, cities of our heart. A place you see for the first time and say “I am home”.  It is intangible – a feeling, a sense of you belonging to it, and it belonging to you. You might call it a “spirit of place”. And whenever you return to your city of the heart, you feel that you’ve never been gone, that the years that have passed since your last visit, and the changes time has wrought on it and on yourself mean nought.

I felt this spirit the first time entered London with a bunch of Birmingham school mates on a spree. When I first saw Paris. And when I first crossed the Jebal ash-Sharqi from Lebanon and descended to the oasis that was Damascus.

And so too when first I set eyes on the Old City of Jerusalem, and walked through the Damascus Gate. This ancient gate was the portal to a city that has forever danced on the edge of my consciousness (for that it what these cities do).

I fear that I will not see Damascus again. Back in the day, I was drawn to it again and again. When i spent months in Jordan, I would travel by “service” taxi once a week to Damascus just to BE there. To eat bouza ice cream at Bakdash in the Souk al Hamidiyye. To sit quietly in al Takiyya al-Sulaymaniyya, the most beautiful little mosque I have ever visited. To walk into history along The Street Called Straight. The guards on both sides of the border knew me by name.

Damascus is beyond my reach today. but there is still Jerusalem, Yrushahlahyim, al Quds. the Holy, the Golden, the magical…

Back in the day, I would roll down from Ramallah or Mount Scopus to Jerusalem and stand before it’s faux mediaeval walls. I would walk through the Damascus Gate into the Old City, grab a felafel sandwich, some figs, or a plate of kanafah, depending on the time of day, and amble contentedly through the alleyways and souks down to the Via Dolarosa, and then up Daoud Street to Omar Ibn al Khatab Square and the Jaffa Gate beyond. Traveling back from West Jerusalem, I would retrace my steps, and always with the same sense of wonder and delight.

It was a journey of the senses – the call of the muezzin and the peal of church bells, the cacophony of the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, the colours of the markets and shops, the aromas of spices, sweets, and cooking meats, the infinite variety of dress and custom of the many faiths, tribes and communities that dwelt therein or, like me, were passing through. If I had time on my hands, I would sit for a while in the gardens atop the Haram ash-Sharif, or wander into the Dome of the Rock or al Aqsa to sit and ponder awhile, or else progress through ecstatic clamour of the Escher edifice that is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Occupation was relatively new then. I was not oblivious to it, but rather, very aware of its manifestations. I had crossed from Jordan, via the famous Allenby Bridge, and had watched my fellow bus passengers, Palestinians, endure the humiliating searches and questions  of the border police, whilst armed military patrols were commonplace. None expected it to endure, ossify, and drag on for fifty years. There was bitterness, shame, and anger, for the memory of an-Naksa of 1967 was fresh, and the wounds livid, but not the frustration and  hopelessness and the latent and actual violence that prevails today.

But, let’s return to the Damascus Gate.

Damascus Gate Thursday

Damascus Gate Thursday

It has been in the news a a lot of late. The recent and still ongoing Intifada Saki-niyeh – the Knife Intifada – has brought this venerable and famous gate into the world’s focus. It has been the site of many violent confrontations of between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security since  October 2015. Many Palestinians have been killed and wounded in the act of attempting to stab Israelis, and several  Israeli police men and women and civilians have been killed or injured.

In recent years, whenever the Israeli authorities, fearing unrest, prohibit access to the Haram ash Sharif for men under fifty years of age, the Gate has become a de facto place of worship as scores of Muslims pray in the open spaces in front of a gate that has now acquired nationalist and religious significance – most recently, the stand-off in July 2017.

Nazmi Jubeh, a professor at Birzeit University notes that the gate “has become a symbol for the Palestinian national struggle because of its accessibility to Palestinians and the main connecting point for both worshippers and for markets.” See Daoud Khuttab’s article in the Middle East newsletter al Monitor – the piece which inspired me to write this post.

Kuttab quotes Azzam Soud, a well-known Palestinian writer whose stories are often set in Jerusalem. The Damascus Gate, he says, is a recurring feature of Palestinian novels and short stories.

It is the Old City’s biggest, oldest, and most important gate, and the beginning of all roads to the north. Today, it stands beside the bus station that services East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and is the most direct access to the al Aqsa Mosque and the Khan Ezzat souk. Before 1948 and the division of Jerusalem, the gate competed with the Jaffa Gate which was the primary entry point for pilgrims. With the partition line running in front of it, the Jaffa Gate was unusable, but since 1967, has been the portal for tourists, pilgrims, and Jewish worshippers visiting the Kotel. The Damascus Gate remains the main entry for Palestinians.

And it will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, a focus and a locus for Palestinian expressions of faith, identity and resistance.

But as with most things in the Holy City, the Gate has a long historical pedigree that is worth recalling.

Damascus Gate in 1856

Damascus Gate in 1856

In antiquity, there were twelve gates to the city. These were destroyed when the Bablylonians razed the walls and the Temple of Solomon.in 587 BCE. Named for the twelve tribes of Israel, these are now best remembered in Revelations and in the Reverend Gary Davis’ song.

The gate we see today was built in 1537 during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But its existence is very much older than that, as reflected in its Arabic name, Bab al ‘a-mu-d, the Gate of the Column. That refers to a victory column erected by the Romans in honour of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century. It was Hadrian who ordered the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a Roman city in the wake of the city’s destruction by Titus’ legions in 70CE, during the Great Revolt that saw the razing of the temple and the expulsion of most of the Jewish population. The remains of the Roman gates have now been excavated, and we pass under the lintel of that gate, this being inscribed with the name the Romans gave to Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina.

The gate is situated in the northwest wall where the road leads to Nablus, and thence, in days long past, all the way to Damascus in Syria. Hence its name in Hebrew, Sha’ar Shkhem  or Nablus Gate, and in English, Damascus Gate. Imagine, travelers of old on foot or horseback and caravans of traders passing under that Roman lintel. And even before Hadrian, pilgrims like the biblical Jesus and his comrades would have entered Jerusalem the Golden through this gate to sacrifice at Herod’s massive and magnificent new temple, having journeyed from Galilee and places north. Saul of Tarsus would have set out from this portal on the fateful journey to Damascus that was to transform him into Paul of Tarsus, Christianity’s first and most celebrated missionary, and the catalyst who transmuted a breakaway Jewish sect into a world- wide religion.

The Roman gate was preserved and built upon during the Byzantine, Muslim, and Crusader occupations of Jerusalem, and was given its present form when under Suleiman’s orders, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt and seven of the eight gates used today were constructed. The eighth, the New Gate, was constructed in the mid nineteenth century to give Christian pilgrims swifter access to their Holy Places.

Imagine also then, Guy de Lausignan and Reynald de Chatilon at the head of twenty thousand crusaders setting out for their doomed rendezvous with Salah ad Din on the parched Horns of Hattin. Or Christian pilgrims and holy men walking the long miles through Anatolia and Syria to the Holy Places. Or Kaiser Wilhelm on his grand tour through the Sultan’s domain from Istanbul to Damascus and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the authorities opened the wall next to the Jaffa Gate so that he could ride through in state. In Damascus, he visited the tomb of Salah ad Din and considering it a little shabby, donated a new improved model. It is still there, in all its gaudy emptiness , alongside the real deal.

In an earlier post, I recounted the history of the Jaffa Gate, the westernmost of the Holy City’s eight gates. Over millennia, this was the pilgrims’ gate, the entry point for the faithful – for Jews come to worship and make sacrifice at the Temple of Solomon and later of that of Herod; and for Christians to walk in the footsteps of the Christ, and to worship at the oft-rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the many other Holy Places that have drawn pilgrims to Jerusalem over the centuries. It is named for the port at which so many of these pilgrims disembarked. See my posts Amazing Grace: There’s Magic in the Air, The Grand Old New Imperial Hotel,  and Messianic Carpet Rides.

Read Israeli Sarah Tuttle Singer’s wonderful  tribute to al Wad Street: My Street Has Two Names. It’s a gem.

© Paul Hemphill  March 2016

Postscript

Here is a brief description of each of the eight gates of Jerusalem, counter-clockwise from south to west:

The Zion Gate: Bearing Jerusalem’s earliest biblical name in Hebrew and English, this gate’s  Arabic name is the Gate of the Prophet David, as the Tomb of King David on nearby Mount Zion, is but a short distance away. This gate leads directly to the Armenian and Jewish Quarters. It is also known as “the Hurt Gate”, a reference to the damage it sustained during a vicious firefight in 1948 when Hagannah soldiers fought and failed to lift the Arab Legion’s siege of the Jewish Quarter. The Quarter was razed to the ground and its inhabitants expelled, and was rebuilt when the Old City was taken by Israel in 1967.

 

The Zion or “Hurt” Gate

The Dung Gate: Its name derives from the refuse dumped here in olden days where the prevailing winds would carry odors away. Nehemiah 2:13 mentions a Dung Gate that was probably near this one. The gate leads directly to the Kotel, the famous Western Wall, and the Southern Wall Archaeological Park.

The Gate of Mercy: This gate, in the eastern wall of the Haram ash Sharif or Temple Mount is also called the Golden Gate or the Eastern Gate, and has been blocked for centuries.  It is said that when Christ returns in glory, and the dead are resurrected, this gate will be miraculously opened.

The Golden Gate, viewed from Gethsemene

The Lion’s Gate: This is named for the pair of ferocious looking carvings that flank it. They are tigers, the heraldic sigil of the blonde, blue-eyed, Albanian 13th Century Sultan Beybars. It is also called St. Stephen’s Gate, after the first Christian martyr, who tradition says was stoned nearby. Lion’s Gate, which leads to the Pools of Bethesda and the Via Dolorosa became famous during the Six Day War when the IDF stormed through en route to the Haram.

Herod’s Gate: Notwithstanding the name, the infamous Judean King, builder and all-round bad boy had nothing to do with this gate. In Arabic and Hebrew this north-facing gate, which leads to the Old City markets, is called the Gate of Flowers. It is said that the name derives from a rosette carved over it. The north facing gate leads to the Old City markets, and is at the southern end of Salah ad Din Street, the main shopping strip of Arab east Jerusalem.

And finally, The Damascus, New Gate, and Jaffa Gates all which are described in this post.

Faces in the Street – images of the Damascus Gate and the ancient Muslim Quarter

Sultan Suleiman Street

Damascus Gate

Damascus Gate

Al Wad Street

 

Al Wad Street

Khan al Zait

 

Al Zait Street

Al Wad Street

Via Dolorosa

Via Dolorosa

Al Daud Street

Allah ud Din Street

Allah ud Din Street

Khan al Zait

Khan al Zait

 

 

 

A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

The great and the good, the wise and the weary, have all offered a definition of ‘history’. To Napoleon, it was “a myth that men agree to believe”. Historian Marc Bloch observed that it was “an endeavour towards better understanding”. His Nazi killers disagreed – their’s was a less nuanced, more zero-sum approach. Abba Eban, long time Israeli foreign minister, wrote that it “teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. Aldous Huxley wrote “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” And channeling Mark Twain and Karl Marx, Buffy Summers remarked, “You know what they say. Those of us who fail history are, doomed to repeat it in summer school”. But best is John Banville’s admission in The Sea that “the past beats inside me like a second heart”. Simply put, we like to see some pattern, some sense of order to it all. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented: “The passion for tidiness is the historian’s occupational disease”. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have ever been, and shall ever be, animated by the same passions. And thus they necessarily have the same results”. And yet, whilst seeking patterns, we cannot really use them to predict outcomes. And it is impossible to know what really happened. The past is another country and all that. All we can say for sure is that in the end, history will remember where we end up much more than how we got there. And, history takes time. All the time in the world.

As Mark Twain remarked sardonically, “history doesn’t repeat itself. A best, it sometimes rhymes”. A recent rhyme was evident when an opulent exhibition on the life and legacy of Alexander The Great of Macedon was brought from ‘old world’ St.Petersburg, the twice renamed city of Peter The Great of Russia, to ‘ new world’ Sydney, Australia. For all his ‘greatness’, young Alexander was, like Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, but with murderous psycho mixed in. In his ‘Inferno’, Dante had him standing in the river of boiling blood, along with war-mongers and murderers. Why don’t these people just stay at home! Well, what would you think? You are minding your own business down beside the rivers of Babylon, and then suddenly, there’s an army of 50,000 Greeks on the other bank intent on doing damage. Or there you are, beside the sacred Indus, just about to tuck into your chicken vindaloo, when a rampaging horde of homesick Greeks come charging over the horizon. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been massacred or enslaved by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” And there you are on the banks of the Tigris, minding your own business, and keeping out of the way of the Mukhabarat, when over the horizon in a cloud of dust and disco sweeps a column of armoured vehicles and hordes of ka-firi-n with rifles and ray-bans. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been bombed or strafed by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. Nothing much has changed, really.

Which brings us back perhaps, to what Basil Fawlty called ‘the bleeding obvious”. Beyond the scholars’ passion for patterns, and the dry dialectics of cause and effect, there is the personal dimension. Who were the actual inhabitants of ‘history’? What did they think and feel? The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past. We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Simply put, people who lived ‘then’ are not at all the same as we who live ’now’.

Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote:”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”. And so we do, for one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”.

So, let us walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, beginning with, yes, the usual suspects: power and pride, greed, and aggrandizement, and as accessories after the fact, dolour, devastation, and death.

Time: Year Zero of the Christian era. Place: The Mediterranean littoral

Often, with overwhelming political and military power and economic wealth come arrogance, decadence, and complacency. And with lean and hungry barbarians on the borderland, the geographical interface between the desert and the sown, and soon hanging around the gates, so the seeds of decline and destruction are scattered and germinate. The Pharaohs conquered and ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Indeed, the first historical record of a ‘formal’ set piece battle between two armies took place in 1468 BCE at Meggido, just south east of Haifa in present day Israel – some five thousand Egyptians took on and bested two thousand Canaanite soldiers of local city states. But Egypt was to fall to the ascendant and ambitious Greeks and Persians, and later, the Romans. And down went these mighty successors. Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Rome, Carthage, Byzantium, Constantinople. Grand names, but now bones, bones, dry bones. The Bard of Avon declaimed “The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve”. As Percy B Shelley intoned: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”.

It was the English historian Toynbee who suggested that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder”. They lose their “mojo”. The 14th Century Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, called it “assabiyah” – in short, they lose their élan, their sense of direction and their minds. His point was that the moribund Byzantine and Sassanian empires were broke and militarily overstretched, corrupt, venal and soft, and hence no match for the desert hardened, combat keen, tribally cohesive, spiritually zealous warriors of the one true faith.

At the dawn of the Christian era, the known world was divided up between the those Romans and Persians, who themselves had subjugated and subsumed the Greeks and Phoenician Carthaginians, and Hittites and Assyrians respectively (in the east, the Chinese and Indians boasted powerful, prosperous civilizations as old as The Pharaohs, but this is not their story). Anyhow, the Romans, who morphed into the Byzantines with the loss of the western empire (to nomadic rovers from out of the east) in the third and fourth centuries, and the Persians, were over extended and overspent, slave societies living off the land and labour of conquered peoples. Until they were challenged and defeated by another ascendant power. Those Arabs of Arabia and of the imperial marches.

For generations this lot had served as mercenaries and satraps of both empires, and fired up by the energy and unity of a new but hybrid faith, and muscled up with a martial spirit built upon generations of mercenary employment and privateering, stormed the sclerotic empires from within and without, and in the space of fifty years after the prophet’s death, built a domain that extended from Spain to Afghanistan. Modern genetic analysis has shown that the bloodline of these desert conquerors is as much a mosaic as most other overlords. Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Persian, Egyptian, Nubian, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Arabian, Hebrew. And whoever else may have been passing through. Many races came and settled, and many too were invaded and scattered. The ruins and artefacts endure still to remind us of their passage.

And this genetic calabash was stirred some more with the Arab conquests. As they surged eastwards and westwards, slaves were sent homewards as plunder and labour. This was the modus operandi of carnivorous empires throughout history. The Babylonians did it; the Romans too. They conquered and controlled though mass death and deportation, dragging their broken subjects in tens and hundreds of thousands across the known world. So too with the Arabs, therefore, as hundreds of thousands of souls from afar afield as the Pyrenees and the Hindu Kush ended their days in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Blue eyed blondes and redheads, sallow skinned Turkic and Chinese. You see their heirs today in Homs and Aleppo, Gaza and Hebron. In a fascinating post-classical irony, the European empires were likewise catalysts for ethic trans-migration. The suburbs of Paris and Marseilles, Birmingham and Bradford reflect the colours, cuisines, and conflicts of once-upon-a-homeland.

It is the view of some revisionist historians that whilst Mohammad and his revelations provided the impetus for the Arab “surge”, the religion that we know as Islam was actually retrofitted to the Arab adventurers’ ethos, a kind of ex post facto justification for what was in reality an old fashioned smash and grab. They suggest, therefore, that Islam and the role of Mohammad within it as the messenger and final word were cleverly constructed one to two hundred years after his death by Arab dynasties seeking legitimacy and heavenly sanction for their own aggrandizement. But then, wasn’t it always thus? As Jarred Dimond and others have written, this pandering to invisible friends and post-mortem insurance is part of our genetic baggage. It goes back to way back, to Neanderthals, and before them, to chimpanzees, our closest relatives).

Notwithstanding this, these parvenus ushered in the flowering of Arab culture in the arts, architecture, literature, and science as caliphs encouraged intellectual inquiry, and invited polymaths from across the known world to abide in their domains. Indeed, much of the work of the Greek and Roman philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and scientists was translated into Arabic and preserved for posterity when the Roman Empire was overrun by waves of barbarians, the beginning of what are called The Dark Ages.

One other ‘safe house’ for these tracts during these dire days was Ireland, in the monasteries of the far west, where monks would meticulously copy rare texts, often embellishing them with their own, ‘Celtic’ art work. The Book of Kells owes a stylistic debt to the monasteries of the Byzantine Levant. And whilst we digress on the subject of books, it is believed by some scholars that The Quran was not actually written in Mecca or Medina, but most likely in Baghdad, which did not exist whilst Mohammad breathed. Learned iconoclasts also purport that it was originally written in Aramaic, the language of the Levant at the time of Jesus, and that Arabic has not yet evolved as a written language. The Torah, the basis of Jewish law and custom, and of The Bible, was written in Babylon and not Jerusalem. And The New Testament? Well. that was assembled all over the shop: in cosmopolitan Athens, Rome, the desert solitudes of Syria and the Sinai. The Quran itself drew on both of these. Such is the power of foundation myths. There are always issues surrounding the literal ‘Word of God’.

Contrary to popular assumptions, these centuries were not that dark at all. The Islam tide was turned at Tours by the Frankish forces of Charles ‘the Hammer’’ Martel, named nostalgically for the Israelite rebel who defied and defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the Maccabee Revolt in the second century BCE. Charlemagne founded the French monarchy which endured until the unfortunate Louis the Last lost his head to the French revolutionaries in 1793. The Western Christian church established many fundamentals of law, politics and theology that endure to this day. There was, nevertheless, a lot of fighting, most of it between squabbling European potentates, and a major doctrinal rift in the Christian Church that saw it bifurcate, often with accompanying bloodshed, into the Catholic Church of Rome, and the Eastern Church of Constantinople. Between the Christian ‘West’ and the Muslim ‘East” however, there endured an armed peace interspersed with occasional warfare until the eleventh century. The Byzantine heirs of Constantine were reasonably content to maintain a kind of Cold War with the many fractious emirs who ruled the lands to their east, and to sustain their power and influence through canny diplomacy, alliances, mercenaries, and proxies (It is testament to the ‘byzantine’ skills of these emperors and their servants that the empire endured for a thousand years as a powerful political, economic, and military force until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453).

Things changed utterly for east-west relations towards the end of the eleventh century. The heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of those nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land, the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator. Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, conveniently colluded with another new power, out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out of the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire, and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. And when they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’.

It was always thus. The barbarians, usually horsemen originating from central Asia, surge in from the wild lands, devastate the settled lands, and take the cities. In Eastern as well as Western Europe, and the Middle East, they came, they saw, they conquered, and they moved in. Settled down, intermingled, and developing a taste for the good life, and gave up their roving, rampaging ways. We are their heirs and successors, us descendants of Celts and Saxons, Goths and Vikings, Vandals and Huns, as are French people, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, and Arabs.

Vaslily Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces .Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”.

The story of the Vandals is an epic in itself. From out of what we now call Sweden they came, ethnic kin to the Norsemen and Vikings. Scouring through the Baltic lands, and present day Poland, Germany, and France, they settled in Spain. Andalusia is Arabic for ‘Land of the Vandals’. And eventually they established a kingdom in Libya, challenging and then paying tribute to the ascendant Roman Empire.

But the Norsemen were not quite finished with the east. On a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica in Istanbul, there is some graffiti carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. One commander of this guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Contantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even travelled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalaberg (See Harald Went a ‘Viking).

“If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem!” The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Those aforementioned iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.

Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old

Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old

The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing, and have haunted the Arab historical memory to this day. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – it is also said that Varangarian derived from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a placename or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank). They fell to the Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ad Din Ibn Ayyubi, and were restored to the House of Islam. But even this renowned soldier and schemer could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?). He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Barbars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. And then, out of the east, came the aforementioned Mongols, and these brought the house down. They conquered, settled, assimilated, and then weakened and fell as they, in their turn, were supplanted by, yes, another nomad band, this time the Turkic Ottomans (and again, out of central Asia). That’s how assabiyeh works. Once you have it, you have to work on it. Lose it and you are done.

The Ottoman Empire inherited the Arab, Islamic patrimony and assumed the caliphate as the official ‘Deputy of God’. The Ottoman Caliphate, successor to the famed Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad, endured until its abolition in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey. It was restored in 2014 as ad Dawlet al Islamiye fi Iraq w ash Sham or Da’esh. We will get to that later, but meantime, the wars and plagues and famines that beset the Middle East brought an end to the golden age of Arab civilization, with all its ecumenical, martial, intellectual, artistic, and scientific adventurousness (the same wars, plagues, and famines scoured the western world too, but these had less far to fall). And so, time stood still for Islam and the Arab world, as the outlying, often neglected provinces of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. It is said of old, that before the advent of the Mongol lord, Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia.” The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam.

Meanwhile, the focus of our story shifts westwards with the crusader armies returning home, bringing with them a taste for the luxuries of the east, and scientific and philosophical ideas and inventions lost to the west during the Dark Ages (what they didn’t take home, however, was a tolerance for folk of different colours and creeds). The Islamic world settled into the backward looking atrophy that we see today. And in time, came the rise of the great European powers. To Western Europe came the social and economic upheavals of war and plague, and the social and intellectual unravelling that was to lead to the age of discovery. Came the power of the papacy, the questioning of that power, the end of the feudal system and the rise of absolute monarchy, and the invention of the printing press and with it, the dissemination of knowledge. All this set the stage for the next act.

Enter the Spanish and Portuguese, resource poor and priest-ridden, astutely patronizing the adventurers, and hence, made wealthy and powerful on the riches that then flowed in from the New World. Enter the inquisition and the straighteners of religious conformity, the bedrock of imperial power. And enter also, the mercantile nations who challenged their claim to the Americas (sanctioned and sanctified as it was by Alexander, the Borgia Pope) and papal supremacy: England, France, and Holland. The era of world empires thus began against a backdrop of trade and religious wars that would set the stage for the very gradual evolution of what would become democratic institutions. But that was way, way down the bloody track.

The wars of religion, between Catholicism and Protestantism morphed into great powers’ wars by proxy (for there is nothing new under the sun). These endured some two hundred years, giving us the renaissance and the reformation, and many, many people perished. And amidst the scramble for colonies and resources, and the ever-widening scope of scientific and intellectual inquiry, there ensued interminable blood-letting. Folk got much too close to the fire, literally and figuratively. Many were dragged there, and many were eager pyromaniacs. The Thirty Years War wasn’t called that for nothing, and unlike The Hundred Years War between France and England before that, which enjoyed a few time-outs between bouts, this was an interminable danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery. ‘Full on’ is the term we use today. It is said that it staggered to an end in 1648 because the combatants just collapsed with exhaustion.

And in its shattered wake, came the decline of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the ascendency of the English, the French, and the Dutch. Germany and Italy were still a profusion of principalities and oppressed satellites, Russia had yet to emerge out of an anarchic fog, and the USA had not even been thought of. Meanwhile, in the most populous parts of the planet, the Chinese and Indian empires carried on ever, in splendid isolation, narcissistic and ethnocentric, though not above trading profitably with the occident. The potentates that is – the lower orders were, and in many in many ways remain, in a state of repression and submission.

So came an era of religious and intellectual ferment and the mass movement of peoples across the known world and beyond it, to the Americas. Innovation in transport, communications, industry and warfare, and the trans-global transit of armies and of international commerce in goods and in humanity literally changed the face of the planet. Eleven million slaves crossed the Atlantic in four centuries. Over forty million migrants “went west” in less than one. The inscription on Our Lady Of The Harbour, a gift from the Old World to the New, still says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door”. And so indeed did folk travel, fleeing poverty and pogroms, powerlessness and persecution, seeking “a new home in the sun”. From the glens of the Gael, from the shtetl and the steppe, from Old Europe and Old Asia. The Great American Dreaming. Today, some 1,300 airplanes a day cross ‘the pond” (475,000 transits a year).

And the printing press and the bible in the vernacular changed the way men thought. Merchants and missionaries and military men, seekers and makers of fortunes, slavers and saviours, prophets and potentates, philosophers and pamphleteers, poets and painters. Enlightenment, revolution, and war. And in America, the creation of democratic institutions.

Royal France was a midwife to this American Revolution, and endured the ironic blowback when French armies returned home harbouring the virus of republicanism and the concepts of liberty and equality. Be careful what you wish for, for liberty wields a two-edged sword as the revolution devours its children. Mounting the scaffold, the doomed Girondin Manon Roland exclaimed “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk noted that freedom and liberty often had to crawl over broken glass.

And thence, the Nineteenth Century and the Age of Revolutions – political, industrial, and ideological, bountiful and bloody. And the rise of new empires – Russia, Germany, and the USA, competing with the old, and all extending their power and influence throughout the world, conquering and colonizing the oldest – India, China, and the Ottomans – and spanning the globe. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia, no place was beyond the reach of the empire’s military and mercantile power, and no indigene was safe from the depredations of these latter-day Medes and Assyrians. Diamond again: it was all down to “guns, germs, and steel”. The ‘discovered’ world was ripe for plunder. For land, for minerals, for food. And if the natives got fractious, we had machine guns and gun boats to back us up. For this was the era of militant and muscular Christianity and gunboat diplomacy, synergized in a divine plan to render the world a holier and happier place. Rudyard Kipling said it best: “Take up the White Man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed. Go bind your sons to exile to serve your captives’ need”. A new age of Empire had arrived wherein competing white countries seeking economic and political aggrandizement, sent their boys to die far away from home. The West, it seemed, had got its mojo back!

So far away from home

So far away from home

A little known facet of that century’s history is that contemporaneous to the western expansion of ‘These United States” and the spread of British red across the globe, Imperial Russia was moving eastwards. One outstanding volume of George McDonald Fraser’s rollicking, picaresque and quite political incorrect Flashman series sees the eponymous anti-hero fleeing eastwards out of The Crimea having precipitated the disastrous Charge Of the Light Brigade (Captain Nolan was fitted up), and making his way through the vast Asian hinterland, one step ahead of the invading Czarist armies, and of sundry Muslim warlords. In the Flashman books, the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” is roving and rogering his way through the late nineteenth century, somehow managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another, including Custer’s famous “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn, and the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842.

Amidst the humour and ribaldry is a poignant reminder of those ‘lost worlds’ that succumbed to the relentless blade of progress, a theme revisited in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Theodore Olsen’s Soldier Blue, set in the American West, and Vincent Cronin’s The Last Migration and James A Michener’s Caravans, set in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyyah’ is no match for modern weaponry.,

With trade and economic wealth creation came the rise of the middle class. The urban, mercantile elite who seek political power commensurate with their economic clout thus demand a say in how they are governed. In an age of mass production and the beginnings of mass communication, we see the emergence of the masses as a political concept, and of mass society in which rulers are responsive and reactive to the needs fears, and rages of the masses and their representatives. The times of Machiavelli give way to those of Marx. And the focus of history is as much on the ruled as on the rulers.

So passed the Nineteenth Century. The Old World ruled. The New had its own preoccupations, with civil war and western expansion. The east and the south were conquered and colonized. God (European and most probably, English-speaking) was in His heaven and all was good and right in the world. The old scourges continued as they has since time immemorial: plague and famine, drought and flood, economic boom and bust, migration and invasion, war and peace, and comme d’habitude, death and destruction on a large scale. Good times and bad times as ever, with little to impede the onward march of progress. A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” The Mahatma replied: “I think it would be a very good idea”.

In came the Twentieth Century. Same old, same old, but with markets and machines much more efficient, and likewise our capacity to create and destroy. A time of totalitarian regimes and total war, social change and technological wizardry. In 1905, the Imperial Russian Navy sailed eighteen thousand miles to the Korea Strait only to be broken by the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was a new boy on the block, and once the guns of Tsushima Bay had fallen silent, signalling that the white man could indeed be beaten, and thence, the decline of the colonial empires of old as the “our new-caught, sullen peoples” threw off their chains. In the political, economic, military and demographic spheres, balances of power changed, and changed again. In the wake of two World Wars, from Old Europe to the USA and the Soviet Union, and then, in these present times, to a totally new configuration that reflects the transitory rise and fall of nations. As I write, we see a hesitant America and a struggling Europe competing with a resurgent and belligerent Russia, and the rise and rise of its fellow BRICs, Brazil, India and China – an ascendency that is not however assured in this unstable and unpredictable world of ours. And in the post-Cold War, global financial crisis world of wide-open borders and the mass movement across them of people, goods, and capital, everything has a price and can be bought and sold. Immoral mathematics: “in these shifting tides, bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs, and more besides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores – damnation takes no sides” (from E Lucevan le Stelle).

And passing strange it is that whilst we can place men on the moon and machines on Mars, we still live in a world riven by superstition. We have come through the age of enlightenment, the age of revolutions, the age of machines, the age of mass society, mass war, and of mass communications, And yet, we are so, so ignorant. We thought that the rising tide of progress and knowledge would raise all the boats. But how wrong we were. The Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, we have returned there. Helped in no small part by their more atavistic descendants who see some wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a mediaeval ethos and lifestyle.

One thing is pretty certain. We are almost closing a circle. The history of the West, for the past two millennia has been dominated by the emergence and triumph of Christianity and of Islam. As the early Muslims saw it, al Dar al Harb and al Dar al Islam, the houses of war and peace respectively. A pretty good description if the terms are used interchangeably. Much of what has passed has been refracted through the prisms of these theologies. Call it crusade or call it jihad; or call it blow back on a grand scale. The legacy of two millennia of empire is coming back up the pipes. “Take up the White Man’s burden (or any conqueror’s burden, in fact) and reap his old reward: the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard”.

For surely, “by all ye cry or whisper, by all ye leave or do, the silent, sullen peoples shall weigh your gods and you”. Weigh them all and find them wanting. In compassion and loving kindness, in reason and rationality, in patience and peacefulness. And the greatest, saddest irony of all for all who have a passion for history and for charting the unbroken story of humankind, and for those with this passion who treasure the depths of their cultural lineage through all the fugues, follies, and fault lines of our heritage, is the dawning realization and regret, that after two millennia, the religion that kicked off so much controversy and conflict, schism and schadenfreude, brilliance and bigotry, bounty and bloodshed, that was the heir to ancient faiths and the progenitor of many more, is probably now doomed in the lands wherein it was born.

It’s as if over a millennium of painful, staggering, stuttering, blood soaked, inventive, and pioneering progress has meant naught, and that we might as well have remained in the dark, literally and figuratively. “It is written in the Book of Days where the names of God a wrought, where all our dead a buried and all our wars a fought”. We range through “the battlefields and graveyards and the fields our fathers knew”. The cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, to mention but a few of those “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and the foreboding for the impending armed peace. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography. The lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. And all this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. “Words carried far in time and space will topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”. (see In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul  Hemphill)

When Miranda exclaimed “what brave new world, with such people in’t!’, when the dismal Dane moaned ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving, how express and admirable’, was the Bard being singularly ironic? He was writing at the dawn of the Sixteenth Century when the wars of religion were well under way, and yet, the reign of Elizabeth had brought a degree of civil calm, and King James was determined to heal the schisms, using his translation of The Bible as his balm. Reasons to be cheerful, perhaps. The Thirty Years War had yet to devastate continental Europe, and the English Civil war had still to come. Sweden had not yet ravaged Eastern Europe (yes, the Swedes had indeed attempted world dominion before ABBA). The Pilgrim Fathers were not to set sail for a decade, the Inca and Aztec were already no more, and as the Plains Indians rode the range mounted on the descendants of the conquistadors’ horses, the American West had not yet been discovered let alone ‘won’.

Some digression, that! So, back to where are we now, in the first decade of the 21st century. A world of wonders, no doubt, of technological advances in medicine, machines, and mass communications. But the new millennium began with the destruction of the Twin Towers, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars in these sad states continue. Conflagrations now engulf Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and turmoil threatens Egypt and Turkey. These are all the battlegrounds of old. Alexander marched this way and back (he burned Persepolis and died in Babylon, and his body, embalmed in gold, lies waiting to be discovered). In 1853 Czar Nicholas I of Russia demanded the right to protect Christian shrines in Ottoman Jerusalem, setting in train the chain of events that led to the Crimean War, and thence to the dissolution of the once grand Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the long decline and eventual demise of what the ascendant Europeans called ‘the sick man of Europe”, accompanied by Europe’s cultural and political – and in the case of France, territorial – conquest of the Muslim Middle East and South Asia bred a bitterness that endures and manifests today. In June 1914, in Sarajevo, a former outpost of that empire, a wrong turn put Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the imminently moribund Habsburg Empire in pistol range of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. The sixth attempt on his life that morning sounded the first shot of “the war to end all wars”, which led, incidentally to the destruction of the long-declining Ottoman Empire, to the Balfour Declaration, and to the Sykes Picot Agreement that created the tortured Middle East that today is the sum of all our fears.

So, we are still paying the price as all these ghosts watch over a brave new world of asymmetrical, ideological warfare weaponized by the Lords of War who know no frontiers or ethics, and waged by rag-tag armies who likewise know neither. The sundered and sullied tribes of man are caught up in the dreams and fears of their fathers and grandfathers, all the old hatreds and habits, schemes and shibboleths, the ethnic, sectarian and partisan traps of their elders. “There rides the mercenary, here roams the robber band. In flies the emissary with claims upon our land. The lesser breed with savage speed is slaughtered where he stands, his elemental fantasy felled by a foreign hand” (from ‘Freedom Comes’).

Over to the good and the noble players of the new Great Game who wage those ‘savage wars of peace’ that are “the white man’s burden”. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes expounded gloomily, “I show in the first place that the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is none other than a war of all against all; and that in that war, all has a right to all things”. He had the English civil war on his mind, but, if he had slept for over four hundred and fifty years, and awoke today, he would cry “See! What did I tell you?” In the war of all against all, Homer’s blinded Cyclops is staggering around, endeavouring to catch the one who robbed him of his sight.

And he wages his savage wars of peace with weapons that would make the inquisition jealous. In his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein, the redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.

And meanwhile, back in the lands of the rich folks, economic recession and high unemployment, and political and social instability, financial graft and funny money dressed up in manufactured metaphors like derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and collateralised debt obligations. And in the lands of the poorer folks, those “faraway places with strange sounding names”, as The Springfields once sang, and of those who are climbing out of the mud, a sliding scale of prosperity and poverty, venality and violence. And threatening all of us, environmental degradation and climate change, with ice caps melting, low lands flooding, pasturelands turning to dust, and oceans becoming deserts. Fires and floods, and twisters and earthquakes, famines and plagues. As Joni Mitchell sang, paraphrasing Yeats, “Surely some revelation is at hand, surely it’s the second coming and the wrath has finally taken form” (the word ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek for ‘revelation’).

We are not on the ‘Morningtown Ride’ to Honalee, but are we on the road to Pichipoi? This not the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak but are we Israelites looking out over Canaan Land? We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to Paradise, but are we sliding down the road to Ragnarok? In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the poet begins his descent into Hell saying:”I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”. Journeying down and then back up through the seven levels of Hell, he finally returns to the surface saying: “And thence we emerged to see the stars again”. We yearn, to quote Nigella Lawson, “that blissful moment when the bagpipes stop”. But in all truth, the crystal ball is shattered. All bets are off. Everyone has a game, and all is now in play. And remember what Bob said: “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’, for the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin”’.

Epilogue
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014

Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014

Since I wrote this history, the final paragraph has effectively been mugged by reality. The heady days of February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East, had not yet transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter. Five years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.

The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality. It was followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Syria, Libya, and Yemen that have led, five years later, to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, that has extended southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

In the game of political ifs and buts, the world reaps the whirlwind of bad decisions by our owners and rulers. If “the Coalition of the Willing” hadn’t destroyed Iraq in the Third Gulf War; if the war in Afghanistan hadn’t been subcontracted out to warlords and private security firms; if the west hadn’t propped up tyrants and kleptocrats for decades; if it hadn’t turned a blind eye to its Saudi friends financing and inspiring the Salafi Killers; if the US had destroyed the Da’esh convoys as they crossed the open desert to capture and desecrate Palmyra; if the Russians had attacked IS rather than other Syrian militias; if the coalition had made as many bombing runs as the Russians. If so many events that had come before had not happened – the fall of the Shah and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (apparently given the nod by the US), and the wars that ensued; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed it; the rise of al Qa’ida. If, if, if. But, at the end of the day, Muslims pay the price, and yet, it will have to be Muslims who sort it out. Western boots on the ground will not fix it, but, rather, as in days of yore, it will create yet another whirlwind for us all to reap.

We are in midst of what could be described as the final phase of the Wars of the Ottoman Succession. The lines drawn on maps by British and French bureaucrats in the years after The Great War have been dissolved. The polities fabricated by Messrs Sykes and Picot, and manifested in the mandates that evolved into the present states of Syria and Iraq have effectively disintegrated. The future of the other former mandates, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is uncertain, as is that of Turkey, the country which rose out of the ashes of defeat and civil war to inherit the Ottoman Anatolian heartland. Indeed, new states could emerge from the maelstrom. A Kurdistan long denied; a partitioned Iraq; Ottoman redux: and the atavistic Islamic Caliphate.

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly.

Children of the Revolution

Children of the Revolution

© Paul Hemphill 2013, 2016. All rights reserved

The featured image: Timeless. A Syrian moment, in Foreign Policy 23rd July 2012. Paul Simon once sang “On the side of a hill in a land called somewhere”. Little changes.
The Destruction of the Temple, AD70, Francesco Hayes
So Far From Home, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak, 13th January 1842 (1898). The phrase ‘so far from home’ is the title of young Mary Driscoll’s 1847 account of her migration from Ireland to America.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus February 2014. Al Jazeeraz 26 February 2014
Babes in the Wilderness. Syrian children in the eye of the storm. Al Jazeera, September 2011

Some References

In addition to a multitude of Wiki and Google searches, and references to and quotations from many songs and poems, including my own poetry and verse , special note is made of the following books that I have read of late that have inspired this piece:

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood (Knopf)
Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization (Sceptre)
William Dalrymple, From The Holy Mountain (Harper Perennial)
William Dalrymple, Return Of A King (Knopf)
Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation (HarperCollins)
Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation (Andre Deutsch)
Vaslily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook (NYRB Classics)
Tom Holland, In The Shadow Of The Sword (Doubleday)
Robert D Kaplan, The Revenge Of Geography (Random House)
Amin Malouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Schoken)
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, The Biography (Orion)
Simon Winchester, Atlantic (HarperCollins)

 

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.

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion

I was inspired to write this post on viewing the video below, a harrowing picture gallery of the Bosnian War, the bloodiest but not the last of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. I was reminded  of the iconic Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s poem, Pity the Nation,  a sardonic and incisive take on the politics of his time and his homeland. It is chilling in its prescience with regard to contemporary politics in the Middle East and indeed, much, much closer to home on in our liberal democracies where les mots de jour, and indeed, des temps are ‘populism’ and ‘post-truth’,  where allegations of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news are ubiquitous and duplicitous, and where, in a milieu of fear, anger and loathing, intolerance and ignorance appear to be on the rise.

Today, in America, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are best-sellers, and doubtless, as resignation and surrender sink in, Fahrenheit 451 and Catch 22 will catch on with intellectually and numerically inclined. The one is the temperature at which paper burns (“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading”), the other, the mother of all vicious circles. The 22 was meant to be 18, but Joseph Heller was gazzumped by Leon Uris’ holocaust melodrama Mila 18  (which I do happen to like).

I was also reminded of a book of the same name. In Pity the Nation, his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein (inspired by Gibran’s poem, and by the fact the he has been a resident of Lebanon for going on half a century), the redoubtable British  journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.

And that, is in essence, the underlying message of Gibran’s poem, published posthumously after his death in 1931.

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.

Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.

Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.

Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)

The following song, E Lucevan Le Stelle, encapsulates all this:

“And time, ’tis said reveals its dead, and we will speak what was unsaid. How he was wrong, and I was led – his song I sing who gives me bread. It wasn’t me! I kept my head – I had my kin and kind to serve. It wasn’t me – I kept the faith. It wasn’t me who lost his nerve”.

It charts the cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, and other “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in pain. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography, lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. “Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more betides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores: damnation takes no sides”.

Related posts In That Howling Infinite:

A House Divided – the nature of civil war
Pity the Nation
A brief history of the rise and fall of the west
Bombs and Babies
Solitudinem faciunt pacemappellant

Postscript

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American poet, painter, liberal activist, and co-founder of the legendary City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, wrote the following poem in 2007 as a tribute to Gibran, and as a sad testament to the aphorism “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

“Pity the nation whose people are sheep and whose shepherds mislead them.

Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced, and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as heroand aims to rule the world with force and by torture.

Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own and no other culture but its own.

Pity the nation whose breath is money and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.

Pity the nation – oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away.

My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.

Sailing to Byzantium

“Byzantium, Byzantium, Constantinople, Kostaniniyye, Istanbul – The City has tangled with or represented an “idea” for so many, its influence has spun so far that her story, whether imperial, spiritual, cultural or political, frequently ends up being played out anywhere and everywhere other than in the city itself”.  Bethany Hughes , Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities

As we observe Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s apparent drive to reestablish Ottoman autocracy, those who take a longer view of history will assert that there is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing unprecedented about Erdogan’s apparent urge to don the imperial purple, and join the long cavalcade of colourful emperors and sultans that ruled the land that now constitute modern Turkey.

Richard Fidler reminds of this as he literally walks us through the streets of Istanbul.

Part father-son quest, part travel story, ‘Ghost Empire’ is at once a history, and a treasury of tales both true and far-fetched. The Australian author and broadcaster, and onetime member of the comedy trio, the Doug Anthony Allstars, has written a blend of popular history and meditation on the significance of history.

image

Although ‘Ghost Empire’ might in seem in parts overly breezy and lightweight, as an introduction to the ancient and wondrous city of  Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, it is an highly informative portal to weightier albeit less entertaining books. This is not to say it is without its more harrowing moments. Fidler dwells as much on the gory as on the glory. And indeed, for many, particularly the sons of emperors and sultans, confidants and conspirators, life could indeed be nasty, brutish and short.

Whilst Fidler’s primary focus is the story of the Byzantines, concluding with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he travels back and forth in Istanbul’s long and storied history, between the violent past and the tumultuous present, from Julius Caesar and Constantine the Great, and the power couple Justinian and Theodosia, through Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent, to Ataturk and Erdogan, and captures the magic and at times, mayhem of the fabled metropolis that inspired WB Yeats to write:

“Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come”

If Ghost Empire has whetted you appetite, i would recommend Bethany Hughes’ more substantial – “encyclopedic ” would a better description – IstanbulA Tale of Three Cities (Orion 2017). It is a lengthy, comprehensive and fascinating journey from the prehistoric past to the polarizing present.

There is also Simon Sebag Montefiore’s documentary, which personally, I found disappointing after his Jerusalem – The Biography.

 

Here are two earlier posts I have written about Istanbul, followed by a selection of photographs I have taken of this magical city:
https://howlinginfinite.com/2014/05/27/people-watching-in-sultanahmet/
https://howlinginfinite.com/2014/06/07/cha-cha-changes/

And here are some reviews of Ghost Empire: 

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/ghost-empire-review-richard-fidler-journeys-back-to-the-glory-of-constantinople-20160811-gqq6xo.html

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/richard-fidler-blends-the-historical-and-contemporary-in-his-new-book-ghost-empire-20160720-gq9js6.html

Istanbul, from Galata Tower

Istanbul, from Galata Tower

Cruising the Golden Horn

Cruising the Golden Horn

The Sulaymaniya Mosque

The Sulaymaniya Mosque

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

The Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque

The Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque

The Fortress of Europe

The Fortress of Europe

Valen's Aqueduct

Valen’s Aqueduct

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

Halfden the Viking's Grafitti in Hagia Sofia

Halfden the Viking’s Grafitti in Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

Aya Sofya

The Blue Mosque

Aya Sofya

Sulaymaniya

Sulaymaniya

Justinian's Cistern

Justinian’s Cistern

image

Apollo and Medusa

Apollo and Medusa

 

 

That was the year that was

As I contemplate my annual review of In That Howling Infinite, I am reminded, with clichéd predictability, of that well-worn Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”.

A torturous and seemingly endless US election campaign defied all the pundits by producing an colourful and unpredictable POTUS. In the UK, the unthinkable Brexit came to pass, dividing the polity and discombobulating the establishment. Next year is certainly going to be worth watching.

The slow and tragic death of Syria continued unabated with Russian and Turkey wading into the quagmire alongside Americans, British, French, Australians, Iran, Lebanon, Gulf tyrants, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Da’esh might be on the the ropes in Iraq, but the long term survival of the unitary state is doubtful. And the proxy wars of the Ottoman Succession have spread to Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle Eas as Gulf tyrants face off against Shia Iran’s alleged puppets, and, armed and abetted by British and American weaponry, South American mercenaries, and Australian officers, bomb the shit out of the place.

Whilst the grim reaper scythed through the world from Baghdad to Berlin, from Aleppo to Ankara, the Year saw the passing of a record number of icons of the seventies and eighties, two of whom who have provided a continuing soundtrack for my life, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. We shall not see the like of them again.

In our little corner of the cosmos, we endured the longest and most boring election campaign in living memory, resulting in an outcome that only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with a lacklustre Tory government, a depressingly dysfunctional political system, and politicians of all stripes who, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Roman burns.

Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we find that we too are “going up against chaos”, to quote that wonderful Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it proceeds to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn with only half of its proposed harvest completed. But it will return in 2017, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.

And yet, life on the farm remains pleasant and delightful, though dams are low and rain would be most welcome. The bird and reptilian life continues to amaze us, and an ironic corollary to the clear felling of the Tarkeeth Forest is that “refugees” are seeking shelter here. Wallabies rarely seen on our land are now quite common, whilst echidnas, and, we suspect, endangered spotted quolls have been sighted hereabouts

We took time out mid-year to revisit Israel and Palestine, and road-trip through the two countries was much an education as a holiday. We certainly got our history and archeology fix, and in travelling through the Golan and the Negev, we found respite in a stunning natural environment. But the answers to our many political questions merely threw up more questions. We have unfinished business in this divine but divided land, and will return.

In That Howling Infinite addressed all these concerns during 2016, and matters more eclectic and exotic.

And so, to the year in review:

The new year commenced with a reprise of our memorable journey to Hadrians Wall, and of the Victorian lawyer who helped preserve it for posterity, the saga of the viking Harald Hardraga and also, my subjective overview of world history. In a more lighthearted vein, I indulged in an unscholarly discussion of how film and fiction have portrayed or distorted history, and in a review of Mary Beard’s superlative history of Rome, I asked the immortal question “what have the Romans done for us?”

The Life of Brian

In April, in response to a discussion with a Facebook friend in Oklahoma, I wrote a trilogy of exotically-titled posts examining the nature of rebellion, revolution, and repression: Thermidorian ThinkingSolitudinem Faciunt Pacem Appellant, and Sic Semper TyrannisThe origin of these Latin aphorisms is explained, by the way, in the aforementioned Roman review.

Nightwatch

Our travels through Israel and Palestine inspired numerous real-time posts, and a several retrospectives as we contemplated what we had experienced during what was as much an educational tour as a holiday. Historical vignettes included a tribute to bad-boy and builder King Herod the Great, a brief history of the famous Damascus Gate, and its place in Palestinian national consciousness, and a contemplation on the story of King David’s Citadel which overlooked our home-away-from home, the New Imperial Hotel. Thorny contemporary issues were covered with an optimistic piece on the Jerusalem Light Rail, a brief if controversial post about  Jewish settlers in the Old City, the story of Israel’s ‘Eastern’ Jews, the Mizrahim, and what appears to be a potentially problematic Palestinian property boom. Th e-magazine Muftah published an article I wrote about the conflicting claims to the city of Hebron. And finally, there is a poem recalling our visit to the Shrine of Remembrance at Yad Vashem and honouring the Righteous Gentiles who saved thousand of Jewish lives during the Shoah.

Carnivale

Wintertime passed with our minds on the Tarkeeth Forest. I had the pleasure discovering the history of our locality, and connecting via Facebook with the relatives of the Fells family of Twin Pines. But the latter half of the year was very much taken up with enduring and bearing witness to the clear- felling of the forest to our east. “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.  If you go down to the woods today, you’ll never believe your eyes”. And you’d ask “what would JRR Tolkien have thought?”

Nothing quite prepares you for the devastation of clear felling. Joby, a Gumbaynggirr elder, surveys the Tarkeeth

The UK And US paroxysms fascinated and exasperated the mainstream and social media in equal measure, whilst the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the presidential election has initiated an a veritable orgy of punditry. Never have so many column inches and kilobytes been spent on loud sounding nothings as the sifting through the entrails of such events as Brexit, the US election, and the Australian senate! With half a dozen elections coming up in Europe, Trump’s inauguration and the triggering of Article 50 to take Britain out the European Union, we’re gonna have to endure a lot more. I confined my posts to two insightful pieces by respected right-wing Australian commentators, Paul Kelly’s Living in Interesting Times, and Greg Sheridan’s The Loss of American Virtue, and my own reflection on the right-wing media’s strange fascination with “insiders” and “outsiders”.

Finally, in comparison to last year, this year was very light on music and poetry. But American satirist Tom Lehrer got a retrospective, and murdered Pakistani qawwali singer Madhaf Sabri, an obituary, whilst an abridged and vernacular version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost told the tale of Lilith, the first and greatest femme fatale. In the words of the gloriously-named jockey Rueben Bedford Walker III says in EC Morgan’s magnificent The Sport of Kings, the subject of my first post for 2017, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”.

On that wise note,  I wish the world a Happy New Year – and may it be less interesting than this one.

In That Howling Infinite  is now on FaceBook. Check it out.  And just for the fun of it, here’s my review of 2015.

The Sabri Brothers

Dore Luciifer