The best thing one can say about 2021 is that it is not 2020. i guess we’ll all be glad when twenty one is done.
There were no bushfires to entertain us like last year, but the pandemic hung like a dark cloud over our everyday lives. In this, the second year of the pandemic, economies continue to struggle, livelihoods continue threatened or destroyed, many borders remain closed, and cities, towns and homes continue to be locked-down and isolated, and restrictions and precautions are ever-present.
There’s a sense that time has stood still, as if nothing much has really happened since the pandemic struck and that we’ve been treading water, awaiting wake if not rescue, them at least, release.
Things have changed, of course. The affairs of gods and men carry on above it all. But in our personal lives, there have been changes too – our behaviour and the nature of our interactions with others and the outside world, have indeed changed utterly. And our outlook on life, the universe and everything has changed too.
Most of all, we’re all feeling tired. Burnt out. Disengaged. Cynical.
I noticed it during the recent local government election when otherwise astute and active folk could not summon up the energy and interest to involve themselves with the issues at stake. The elections had been cancelled twice due to COVID19, and many had just lost interest. “When is the election again?” they’d ask apathetically.
A year ago almost to the day, we wrote in our our review of 2020, A year of living dangerously: “Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.
And a year hence, I would give much the same response. Compared to other folk here in Australia and overseas, we’ve had a “good” Covid – if that indeed is the most appropriate descriptor. We don’t have to earn a living and we live on a beautiful rural acreage that is totally stand-alone and off-grid – there couldn’t be a more congenial spot to self-isolate. But we’d love to be able to escape the padded cell – to exit the Australian bubble for a while, to visit friends and relatives in England and to reconnect with the history and geography that we love in the world outside. Perhaps in 2022, we’ll have that opportunity.
The title of this review is borrowed from the famous American baseball coach Yogi Berra. As we leave 2021, here’s another:
“Predictions are always very hard, especially when they’re about the future”
The World in review
It was for us personally the saddest of years. Our close friend, neighbour and forest warrior, Annette, departed our planet mid-year after what seemed like short, aggressive illness – although in retrospect, we know that it was a slow train coming for a long while. I wrote Farewell to a Tarkeeth Tigerin tribute to her. And in September, our beautiful, talented, wise friend and soul sister Krishna Sundari.
As for the world at large, COVID19 continues to dominate the news, with more contagious variants popping up all over the place lake a game of “whack a mole”. As does the ongoing struggle to reach global consensus on the need to confront climate change. Tackling both looks a little like the story of Sisyphus, the Greek King of old who was condemned by Zeus to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down as soon as he reached the top.
The year kicked off to a fine start with the January 6th Insurrection in Washington DC as Donald Trump endeavoured to cling on to office by inciting his supporters and sundry militias to storm the Capitol to stop the count of electoral votes that would cede the presidency to Joe Biden. Though he failed, and was impeached
for a second time, and the Biden administration sought to calm America’s troubled waters, the Orange One haunts The US’ fractious and paralyzed politics and the prospect of a second Trump term is not beyond imagination.
Trump’s bestie, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime’s minister, also got the push in the wake of the third election in just over a year. The unique coalition that emerged from torturous negotiations spanned the political, social and religious spectrum – left and right, secular and orthodox, Arab and Jew, and promised little more than maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo, that pertaining to the occupation and the settlements, illegal migrants, and the disproportionate influence the Haredim, none of which are morally, politically, socially or economically sustainable.
China under would-be emperor Xi Jinping continues to aggressively build its military and economic power, determined to take its rightful and long overdue place at the top of the geopolitical ladder, causing consternation among its neighbours and also other powers and fears of war in our time. With Xinjiang’s Uighurs and Hong Kong firmly under its autocratic boot, it continues to expand its nautical footprint in the South China Sea and signals loudly that Taiwan’s days as a liberal democracy are numbered. Its belligerency is increasingly meeting blow-back as other nations react in various ways to what they perceive as clear and present danger. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Russia under would-be czar Vladimir Putin continues to aggressively rebuild its military power and influence, determined to revive the glory days of the defunct Soviet Union, whist channeling memories of its former imperial glory. Whilst in no way as powerful as China, it is taking advantage of the the world’s preoccupation with the ascendancy of the Celestial Kingdom Redux to reassert its influence in its own backyard – including the veiled threat to reconquer Ukraine – and also in the world, particularly in Syria and through the use of shadowy proxies and mercenaries, in Africa. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Turkey under would-be Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to aggressively pull its self away from the west and towards some concept of a leadership role in the Muslim world.Its economy, meanwhile, is in free-fall, with unemployment and food prices rising and the lira tanking. At the heart of the problem is Erdogan’s attempt to take a sophisticated globalized economy and run it as an emirate does, replacing state institutions with personalized rule.You cannot run a sophisticated, modern economy on conspiracy theories and doctrines from the 7th century.But President Erdogan, having rigged the electoral system and cornered the religious and nationalist vote, and with no rivals in sight, isn’t gong anywhere soon.
America finally ended its “endless war” in Afghanistan, in a chaotic, deadly scramble that left that country’s forever unfortunate people in the hands of a resurgent and apparently unreformed and unrepentant Taliban. It’s over a 100 days since the last evacuation plane took off in scenes of chaos and misery, leaving behind thousands of employees and others at risk of retribution, and the new regime has yet to establish a working government. Meanwhile professionals, human rights workers, officials of the former regime, members if the old government’s security forces, and especially women and girls wait, many in hiding, for the worst. Meanwhile, winter is coming and the country is broke and on the brink of of starvation. A major humanitarian crisis is imminent. What happens next, everybody does indeed know. As St. Leonard said, “We have seen the future and it’s murder!”
Whilst the war in Afghanistan ended, there are still plenty to go around for the weapons manufacturers and arms dealers, the mercenaries and the proxies. The year began well for Azerbaijan when it emerged victorious from a vicious 44 day drone and missile war against Armenia for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave that saw Turkish and Syrian proxies engaged each side of the conflict. An old War was rekindled in Ethiopia as a Nobel Peace Prize winner sent his troops to rake pillage and conquer a fractious province which turned the tables and is now poses to seize his capital. Hubris extremis? Meanwhile, war went on in the usual places – Syria, Libya, Yemen, Mali, the Central African Republic, and places too obscure to mention.
Meanwhile, back home DownUnder, the story that dominated political news – apart from COVID19 and the shmozzle of the vaccine roll-out, was the delinquent behaviour of politicians and their staffers in Parliament House – commentators have likened the goings-on in there to a school yard or frat house, and more bluntly, to a Roman orgy, with tales of bullying and sexual harassment, drunken parties, mutual masturbation sessions, and even rape. The prime minister huffed and puffed and asked his wife how he should deal with the situation; commissions of inquiries were set up; and reports handed down. The motto is “we must do better – and we shall!” But as with most things these days, nobody believes what politicians say anymore.
And not just here in Australia, but all over the world. Trust is in short supply, and indeed, people’s faith in democratic traditions and processes is shaking as populism and a taste for autocracy spreads like … well, a coronavirus. The US was recently named a “backsliding democracy” by a Swedish based think-tank, an assessment based on the attempted Capitol coup and restrictions on voting rights in Red states. In the bizarro conspiracy universe, American right-wing commentators and rabble-rousers are urging their freedom-loving myrmidons to rescue Australia from totalitarianism. Apparently we have established covid concentration camps and are forcible vaccinating indigenous people.
In early December, US President Joe Biden held a summit for democracy, and yet his administration are still determined to bring Julian Assange to trial, a case that, if it succeeds, will limit freedom of speech. The conduct of the trial also poses a threat to the US’s reputation because it could refocus attention on the ugly incidents during the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were exposed by WikiLeaks. There is a strong humanitarian and pragmatic case to look for a way out of Assange’s Kafkaesque nightmare, but the bastions of freedom, America, Britain and Australia show no interest in doing so notwithstanding the harm it does to their democratic credentials.
I chose these invigorating times to stand as a Labor candidate for Bellingen Shire Council in those elections I referred to at the beginning of this review. What we thought would be a short, sharp two month campaign extended to an exhausting five month slog as the Delta variant necessitated delaying the elections for a second time.
Few in the Shire can remember the last time Labor candidate stood for council, so we began with a very low public recognition, but we ran a good, honest campaign and raised our profile.
But alas, we were outgunned, outspent and outnumbered by the well-funded, professionally organised chamber of commerce independents coordinated, advised and directed by the National Party, who played to a disengaged and cynical electorate by gas-lighting us with the claim that we were “infiltrators” from mainstream political parties, bankrolled by big party money, and dictated to by Macquarie Street (the NSW Parliament), and thence, with no entitlement to represent the Shire – even though we were long-standing residents well-known in the community. Progressives on council are now but two against five, and the Nationals have reclaimed the Shire for business, development and traditional values. Back to the future. There will be buyer’s remorse for many ho voted for them without checking their credentials. And meanwhile, I’m quite happy not to have to sit in the council chamber with a bunch of neo-Thatcherites.
And finally, on a bright note, in the arts world, there was Taylor Swift. Fresh from her Grammy award for the sublime Folklore, she released her re-recorded version of her copyright-purloined album Red. How can anyone improve on the fabulous original? Swift does! It’s brighter, shinier, sharper, bigger, beatier and bouncier (I stole the last alliterations from the Who album of yonks ago), and her mature voice is a pleasure. Released just over nine years ago, when she was 22, it feels as fresh today, and for all the gossip and innuendo that surrounded its conception and reception and endure to this day, even in the hallowed habitats of the New York Times, the Washington Post and Rolling Stone (the Economist hasn’t weighed in yet), I find it refreshing and encouraging to listen to an artist so articulate and audacious, precocious and prodigious for one so young. Tay Tay also delivered one of the pop culture moments of the year, beguiling us all with the adventures of her old scarf. It out that not only did actor Jake Gyllenhall take her innocence, but he nicked her scarf too, and for one weekend in November all the internet cared about was its whereabouts. Safe to say it was a bad 48 hours to be Gyllenhaal.
Our year in review …
True to its mission statement, In That Howling Infinite reflected the events of the year with an eclectic collection. But, curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstance, we published nothing about the plague that had dominated our lives.
A Celtic heartbeat inspired Over the Sea to Skye, the story of the famous folk song and of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald, whilst a continuing interest in The Middle East saw the completion of a log-standing piece, a contemplation on the Crusade: Al Tarikh al Salabin – the Crusader’s Trail. Our Israeli friend and guide Shmuel Browns explored the Anzac Trail in the Negev Desert and discovered a forgotten battle that had a direct connection to our own neighbourhood and the ever-evolving story of Chris Fell of Twin Pines: Tel al Sabi’ – Tarkeeth’s Anzac Story.
Our own Kalang River was the subject of the latest in the Small Stories series, Crossing the South Arm– how that wide river was first spanned back in the day. On Christmas Eve last year, a koala took up residence on our property and stayed for several weeks – the only koala we have actually seen in forty years (we do hear them often). This led to a historical and contemporary commentary on the parlous predicament of our much-loved marsupial: The Agony and Extinction of Blinky Bill. Last year, we exposed the alarming reality that Tarkeeth Forest wood was being chipped and used to generate electricity. Our earlier The Bonfire of the Insanities- the Biomass Greenwash was followed by The Bonfire of the Insanities 2 – the EU’s Biomass Dilemma.
The 25th April is Anzac Day, Australia’s national day of remembrance, honouring Aussies and Kiwis who perished in foreign wars from South Africa to Afghanistan. It takes its name from the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign – on this day in the spring time of 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed under heavy fire from Ottoman forces entrenched in the heights above what was later to be called Anzac Cove on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula.
The Anzacs were just part of a wider campaign devised by British Secretary of the Navy Winston Churchill to knock The Ottoman Empire out of the war with one decisive blow by seizing the strategic Dardanelles Strait and occupying Istanbul, the capital. It do not go well. The Ottoman soldiers commanded by Mustafa Kamal Pasha, the future founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Atatürk, held the high ground and fought stubbornly and bravely, and ultimately, victoriously.
The bloodshed ended in stalemate. The Allies withdrew eight months later leaving behind over eight thousand dead Australians and nearly three thousand New Zealanders (along with over thirty thousand English, Irish, and Frenchmen, Indians and North Africans, and close on ninety thousand Ottoman soldiers, Turks and Arabs, Muslims and Christians), without, historians say, having had any decisive influence on the course of the First World War.
Whenever we visit Israel, our friend and guide Shmuel of Israel Tours drives us all over tiny beautiful and vibrant country (travelling through the West Bank, we use Palestinian guides). During the pandemic year, most Israelis had been locked down three times and like in many countries, the all-important tourist trade barely has registered a pulse. When permitted to travel beyond his home in Jerusalem, Shmuel has spent the year exploring and learning, visiting places he has never guided to before. He believes that he has exited the plague year a better guide, and we are already making plans for our next Israel adventure, including recently excavated Herodian palaces and further travel in the Negev Desert.
Shmuel recently told me that he had visited Tel Sheva, Tel as Sabi’ in Arabic, in the Negev, five kilometres east of the city of Beer Sheva, a site inhabited since the fourth millennium BC. The ancient fortified town dates from the early Israelite period, around the tenth century BC. The walls, homes, storage warehouses and water reservoir system have been excavated and opened to the public. Today, Tel as Sabi’ s also known as the first of seven Bedouin townships established in the Negev as part of the Israeli government’s policy to plant the once-nomadic Bedouin permanent settlements.
It was from the foot of this stark desert hill that the Light Horse Brigade launched its famous charge towards the Ottoman lines at the strategic rail-head and wells of Beersheva on October 31st 2017.
Today, it is the ninth (not seventh) stop on The Anzac Trail which traces the route of the Light Horse Brigade from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast to Beer Sheva. For obvious reasons, it begins beyond Gaza’s wire and concrete encirclement and trail culminates at the Anzac Memorial Centre In Beer Sheva, inaugurated on the 100th anniversary of the battle.
Tel as Sabi’ to Tarkeeth
As we commemorate Anzac Day this Sunday, few folk in Bellingen Shire would know that there is a link between that hill in the heart of the Negev and Tarkeeth on the north bank of the Kalang River just six kilometres west of Urunga as the crow flies.
In A Tale of Twin Pines, the first of our Small Stories, I wrote of how researching the history of the Urunga area where we live, I came across Lloyd Fell’s story of the Fell Family Farm. This was located close to the present Twin Pines Trail, just east of Fells Road on South Arm Road, and west of the Uncle Tom Kelly motorway bridge over the Kalang River. Click here to access TwinPinesStory.pdf
Lloyd tells the story of how in 1926, New Zealand farmer, solo-yachtsman, and returned ANZAC Chris Fell first saw the land that became the family farm, purchasing it from a deceased estate for a thousand pounds. Chris was impressed by the two mature hoop pines that stood on either side of the track leading to a rough timber house that already stood there – and these gave the farm its name. He cleared the bush, felling and hauling timber until he had sufficient land and capital to run cattle. In time, he built up a prosperous dairy business and cattle stud where he and his wife Laura, a Sydneysider from a well-to-do Vaucluse family, raised their three children. The house has long gone, but the two magnificent pines are still there.
On October 31st 1917, Chris Fell and his comrades in the New Zealand Mounted Infantry fought on Tel as Sabi’.
The strong position the Ottomans had established on the hill was a key obstacle to the conquest of the town and the ANZACs had to seize it before storming Beersheva itself. The Ottoman soldiers fought valiantly, and it was only at around 3 p.m. that the fighters of the New Zealand Brigade, primarily the Auckland regiment, succeeded in capturing the hill in a face-to-face battle. Had these fortifications not been overrun, the Light Horse would have been prevented from advancing on the wells. Afterwards, the machine gunners and their Kiwi mates took part in a bayonet charge against the enemy.
“The New Zealand brigade was sent against Tel el Saba’, but this steep-sided hill with terraced entrenchments was formidable. The dismounted horsemen, with the limited fire support of their machine-gunners and the attached horse artillery batteries, had to slowly suppress the enemy defences and edge their way forward. Chauvel sent light horse to assist, but as the afternoon crawled on, success remained elusive. Eventually the weight of fire kept the defenders’ heads down enough that the New Zealanders were able to make a final assault. The hill was taken and the eastern approach to Beersheba opened, but nightfall was approaching”
Major-General Harry Chauvel, the ANZAC commander faced a dilemma. The light was fading and there wasn’t enough time to properly regroup to assault the town. An unsuccessful attack would mean withdrawing far to the south, whilst delaying ng the attack until morning would deny him the element of surprise and and also give the Turks time to destroy the town’s vital wells. He decided to attack, and assigning the the mission to the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade.
The 31 light horsemen who fell are buried in the Beersheba War Cemetery along with 116 British and New Zealand soldiers who perished in the Beersheba battle. There are 1,241 graves in the military cemetery, soldiers being brought in from other Great War Middle East battlefields. We visited it in May 2016. It is a tranquil, poignant, and beautiful place in the Negev Desert, where the bodies of young men from Australia and New Zealand and from the shires of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were laid to rest. “Lest we forget”
Of our elaborate plans, the end Of everything that stands, the end No safety or surprise, the end
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son. John 3:16
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 saw an end to four years of carnage on the western front and the end of of the First World War. The armies were demobbed and men went home to lives that were changed utterly: British and French, Austrian and German, Belgian and Italian, Serbs and Bulgarians, Turks and Arabs, and also, soldiers from across the ocean – Americans and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, South Africans and Indians. Friends and foes.
The victors retired to a restless peace, but the vanquished, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, descended into revolution and civil war for a time as gangs of former soldiers fought on the left and the right. In eastern Europe, the crumbling of empires, the Russian revolution, civil war and the struggle to establish the borders of newly established states meant that armed violence continued, leaving deep scars and bitterness that many ways set the stage for the autocracies of the 1930s and further bloodshed.
The Polish-Soviet war lasted until 1921. The Russian Civil War, ending in 1923, raged across most of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic region. British, Australian, American and French soldiers were dispatched to Murmansk and Archangel to fight the Red Army; Poles fought Ukrainians and Lithuanians, and defeated the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw; pogroms were perpetrated against Jews just as they had been for years, decades, centuries prior, accelerating , with subsequent consequence, Aliyah to Palestine.
The Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which saw the Greeks, with British and French support, endeavouring to seize Constantinople, led to terrible massacres, and a forced exchange of populations that uprooted one and a half million Greeks and Turks from towns and villages they had occupied for a millennium. Armies marched back and forth across the Great European Plain, bringing devastation and starvation and destroying millions of lives. Central Asia, the lands now covered by the once Soviet ‘’stans likewise became battlegrounds for Reds, Whites and local warlords.
And in ‘John Bull’s Other Island’, as expat GBS Shaw called it, a “terrible beauty was born” – WB Yeats’ exquisite words – the doomed intifada that was the rebellion of Easter 1916, launched, opportunistically yet quixotically whilst English eyes were elsewhere, led exponentially into open rebellion, a qualified victory, and a civil war and partition that rested, roused and then resurrected in Derry in 1968 and decades termed somewhat innocuously ‘The Troubles’.
For some, there was light at the end of the terrible territorial tunnel. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Finns, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, achieved statehood, or the restoration of nationhood, as did, fleetingly, Ukrainians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Poland reappeared on the map after over a century of having been carved up by empires. Hungarians lost two-thirds of their territory and more than half of their population. “Little” Serbia, which had ignited the Balkan powder keg in 1914, with Gavril Princip’s famous shot that ricocheted through complacent, twitchy and mightily armed Europe, was united with its Slav but religiously fractured Balkan neighbours in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – and we now know how well that worked out.
Beyond Europe too, a bitter ‘Peace’ sowed dragon’s teeth. Last year, we commemorated the centenaries of the infamous Sykes Picot Agreement, the first draft of a colonial dispensation that established borders that remained unchallenged until Da’ish assaulted the status quo in 2014, and the Balfour Declaration, which set in train the rise and rise of the state of Israel and the long descent of Palestinian hopes for a land of their own. Ironically, the most militant Zionist pioneers and later, soldiers, terrorists and statesmen, emigrated from Poland and the Tsarist empire. These many legacies resonate today.
The end of WW1 saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and left Britain in control of Palestine and Mesopotamia. The peace conferences that followed led to the creation of modern Turkey, and, though for decades under French and British colonial rule, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The Kurds turned up at the conference table but were denied a seat and thereafter, a state.
The war changed more than maps, frontiers and regimes. The needs of modern warfare brought women into the workforce, galvanizing the movements that won them the vote in many democracies. The pace of technological change already underway in industrialized countries was quickened by the demands of war, and advances in land transportation and aviation continued exponentially, as did the development of weaponry, together with the insatiable demand for fossil fuels. Economic privation precipitated the first successful Communist revolution and many failed ones, whilst the peace, resentments, reparations, and recession prompted many to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. The mass movements of populations helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus or Spanish Flu, which quietly killed possibly up to a hundred million souls – more than both world wars combined.
In the last decades of the Twentieth Century, historians would observe with the benefit of hindsight how the Second World War rose ineluctably from the ashes of the first, just as the division of Europe and the Soviet enslavement (and I say this as a lifelong leftist) of those Eastern European countries that emerged after 1918 led to the Europe of today, and as the peoples of the Middle East reaped the whirlwinds of both conflagrations. Many look back on the tumultuous decades that followed the Great War, and sensing signals and signposts in contemporary temporal tea leaves, advise is to be afraid, be very afraid.
We like to identify patterns in history that help us understand and explain our contemporary world. But we should exercise caution. To continue the hindsight riff, remember that things we see in the rear view mirror appear closer than they really are. The world is very much different today, as is our knowledge, our perception, our hopes and fears, and so also, our prognostications and expectations. If we can do it all over again, we’ll do it differently, and much more dangerously and destructively. Having learned so much, we have, one fears, understood so little.
As we remember that moment in Western Europe and the Levant when the guns at last fell silent, let us contemplate melancholy mathematics of the human toll poignantly described by American economist and academic Patrick Chovanec in a fine article in the New York Review of Books, which I have reproduced below:
“In the Great War itself, over sixteen million people died, including almost seven million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds … people would (tell) me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future”.
Four years ago, I went to war. Like many of the people whose stories I followed in my daily “live-tweets” on World War I, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What began as an impulsive decision to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s death at the hands of a Serbian assassin, in June 1914, snowballed into a blood-soaked odyssey that took me—figuratively and literally—from the rolling hills of northern France, to the desert wastes of Arabia, to the rocky crags of the Italian Alps, to the steel turret of a rebel cruiser moored within range of the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. And like the men and women who actually lived through it, now that the Great War is ending I find myself asking what, if anything, I’ve learned from it all.
In the American mind, World War I typically occupies an unimpressive place as a kind of shambolic preamble to the great good-versus-evil crusade of World War II, a pointless slugfest in muddy trenches for no worthy purpose, and no worthwhile result. Its catchphrases—“The War to End All Wars,” “Make the World Safe for Democracy”—evoke a wry and knowing chuckle. As if. But the war I encountered, as it unfolded day by day, was far more relevant, passionate, and unpredictable.
Posting daily newspaper clippings and photographs, found mainly in books and online archives, I began to see the Great War as a kind of portal between an older, more distant world—of kings with handlebar mustaches, splendid uniforms, and cavalry charges—and the one that we know: of planes and tanks, mass political movements, and camouflage. It snuffed out ancient monarchies in czarist Russia, Habsburg Austria, and Ottoman Turkey, and gave birth to a host of new nations—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan—that, in their struggles to survive and carve out an identity, continue to shape our world today. The British declared their intent to create a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews.
The needs of the war brought women into the workforce, and helped win them the right to vote. The huge privations it inflicted triggered the world’s first (successful) Communist revolution, and the frustrations it unleashed prompted many, afterward, to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. And finally—though many have forgotten it—the comings and goings of people caused by the war helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus, which quietly killed an estimated 50–100 million human beings in their homes and in hospitals, more than both world wars combined.
I also encountered a cast of characters more varied and amazing than I thought possible. Rasputin, the dissolute Russian mystic who warned Czar Nicholas that going to war would destroy his dynasty, and was murdered in part because he was (falsely) suspected as a German agent. The Austrian Emperor Karl, who inherited a war he didn’t want, and tried fruitlessly to make peace. T.E. Lawrence, a scholarly young intelligence officer whose affinity for the Arabs helped turn them to the Allied cause, and shaped the modern Middle East. Mata Hari, a Dutch-born exotic dancer who played double-agent, seducing high-ranking Allied and German officers for valuable information, until she was caught and shot by the French as a spy.
Some of the names are familiar, and offer hints of future greatness—or infamy. A young anti-war journalist named Benito Mussolini, sensing the way the wind blows, changes his tune and aggressively advocates for Italy to enter the war, before signing up himself. A young Charles De Gaulle is wounded at Verdun and taken prisoner for the rest of the conflict. A relatively young Winston Churchillplans the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and pays his penance by serving in the trenches, before making a political comeback. A young Harry S. Truman serves as an artillery officer on the Western Front, alongside (and outranked by) a young George C. Marshall (his future Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State) and Douglas MacArthur (his future general in the Pacific and Korea). A young George S. Patton develops a fascination with tanks. A young Walt Disney doodles cartoons on the side of the ambulances he drives, in the same unit as a young Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s). Another young ambulance driver, Ernest Hemingway, finds inspiration on the Italian Front for his novel A Farewell to Arms. A young Hermann Göring (later head of the Luftwaffe) becomes a dashing flying ace, while a young Erwin Rommel wins renown fighting at Verdun and in the Alps. Meanwhile, an odd young German corporal, who volunteered in the very first days of the war, is blinded by poison gas in its final days, and wakes up in hospital to the bitter news that Germany has lost. His name is Adolf Hitler.
The dramatic panoply of people, places, and events, however, only occasionally rises to the fore. For the most part, the war is a steady stream of ordinary people doing ordinary things: washing their clothes, attending a concert, tallying supplies, fixing a car. History books give us a distorted sense of time, because they fast forward to major events. A day may take a chapter, a month may be passed over in a sentence. In fact, there were periods where nothing much happened—plans were being made, troops trained, supplies positioned—and when you live-tweet, you experience that waiting. Sometimes, it led to intriguing surprises, like photographs of dragon dances performed by some of the 140,000 Chinese laborers brought over to France to lend muscle to the Allied war effort. Mostly, it was a matter of endurance. Each winter, the fighting came to almost a complete stop as each country hunkered down and hoped its food would last. The “turnip winter” of 1916–1917, when the potato crop failed, nearly broke Germany; the increasingly desperate craving for “bread and peace” did break Russia the following year.
The future president Herbert Hoover made his reputation by coordinating food relief shipments to German-occupied Belgium, and later as the US “food czar” ensuring Allied armies and populations were fed. The vast mobilization was effective: by 1918, the Allies were able to relax their food rationing, while Germany and its confederates, strangled by an Allied naval blockade, were on the verge of starvation. America’s war effort was accompanied by a vast expansion in the federal government’s power and reach. It nationalized (temporarily) the railroads and the telephone lines. It set prices for everything from sugar to shoes, and told motorists when they could drive, workers when they could strike, and restaurants what they could put on their menus. It seized half a billion dollars of enemy-owned property, including the brand rights to Bayer aspirin, and sold them at auction. The US government also passed espionage and sedition laws that made it illegal to criticize the war effort or the president. Some people were sent to prison for doing so, including the Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president for a fifth and final time from a cell.
Winning the war, however, was far from a sure thing. For three years, the Allies threw themselves against an evenly-matched enemy on the Western Front, without making any breakthroughs, while the Eastern Front gradually crumbled. An early Allied foray to take out Turkey, at Gallipoli in 1915, ended in bloody disappointment. Inducing Italy to enter the war on the Allies’ side, that same year, was supposed to swing the entire conflict in their favor; instead, the catastrophic Italian rout atCaporetto, in the autumn of 1917, put the Allied effort in greater jeopardy. When Lenin seized power in Russia, at the end of 1917, he took it immediately out of the war and ceded immense land and resources to German control. True, the US had by then entered the war, in response to Germany’s submarine campaign against merchant ships and its clumsy diplomatic scheming in Mexico. But with the war in the East essentially won, the Germans saw a window in which they could shift all of their armies to the West and crush the exhausted British and French before enough American troops could arrive to make a difference. Their spring offensive, or “Kaiser’s Battle,” in early 1918 drove deep into Allied lines, prompting the French government to evacuate Paris.
The Germans’ big roll of the dice failed. The Allies held, and the US mobilized much faster than anyone expected. By the summer of 1918, a perceptible change had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of American troops were arriving every month at French ports, and their first units were taking part in battles, piecemeal at first, to push the Germans back. Even in September, however, nearly everyone expected the war to continue into 1919. That was when a huge US army of 3 million men would be ready to take part in a big Allied offensive that would drive all the way to Berlin. It never happened. That fall, the German army—and those of Turkey, Austria, and Bulgaria—first buckled, then collapsed like a rotten log. By November 11, the war was over.
The fact that nobody saw the end coming, the way it did, highlights the value of going back, a hundred years later, and reliving events day by day, as they took place. What may seem obvious now was anything but so then, and we do the people who lived through it, and our understanding of them, a real disservice when we assume that it was. “Life can only be understood backwards,” the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “but it must be lived forwards.” The British historian C.V. Wedgewood elaborated on the same idea: “History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was like to know the beginning only.” We can’t entirely forget that we know what happened next, but when we at least try to identify with people who did not know, we shed new light on them, and on what did happen.
Take the Russian Revolution. We see it as the birth of a Communist superpower, and struggle to make sense of the seemingly half-baked, half-hearted effort by the Allies to intervene by sending troops, including Americans, to Russia’s ports in the far north and far east. People at the time, however, saw it almost entirely through the prism of the Great War. At first, the Allies welcomed the overthrow of the czar, and believed it would rejuvenate the failing Russian war effort. By replacing an infamous autocrat on the Allied roster with a fledgling democracy, it made “making the world safe for democracy” a more credible call to arms, and helped pave the way for the US to enter the war. When Lenin took over and made a ruinous peace with the Central Powers, he was seen as simply a German puppet. And when Bolshevik forces, augmented with released German and Austrian prisoners of war, attacked a unit of Czech soldiers crossing Siberia to rejoin the Allies on the Western Front, those suspicions blossomed into fear of a full-fledged German takeover of Russia. The Allies sent troops to key Russian ports to secure the war supplies stockpiled there and provide an exit route for the loyal Czechs. They considered trying to “reopen” the Eastern Front, but realized it would take far too many men. They assumed that when Germany was defeated, their proxy Lenin would eventually fall, and when the war ended, they naturally lost interest. It all makes sense, but only if you see through the eyes that people saw through at the time.
Did it really matter who won the war? In its aftermath, the Great War came to be seen as a colossal waste, a testament to the vanity of nations, of pompous older men sending foolish younger men into the meat-grinder for no good reason. War poems like “Dulce et decorum est” and novels like All Quiet on the Western Front have crystalized this impression. But this was not how people felt at the time. German atrocities in Belgium and on the high seas—some exaggerated, but others quite real—convinced many people that civilization, as they knew it, really was at stake. I was consistently and often surprisingly struck by the sincerity of support, not just on the home front, but among soldiers who had seen the worst of combat, for pursuing the war unto victory. The tone matures, but remains vibrant: these were, for the most part, people who believed in what they were fighting for. At what point the bitter cynicism set in, after the war ended, I cannot say. But at some point, that enthusiasm, and even the memory of it, became buried with the dead.
Though, in fact, in many places the war did not actually end. An armistice was declared on the Western Front, and the armies there were disbanded and sent home. But Germany, Austria, and Hungary all descended into revolution and civil war for a time, with gangs of demobilized soldiers fighting on all sides. In Russia, the Soviet regime and its multiple enemies would battle for several years, while trying to reconquer territory surrendered when it quit the war against Germany. The Greeks tried to reclaim Constantinople from the Turks, and would be massacred when the Turks succeeded in reconsolidating their country. The Poles fought wars with the Ukrainians and the Soviets to define the boundaries of their newly independent country. Jews and Arabs continue to fight over the new lands liberated from the Ottoman Empire to this day.
In the Great War itself, over 16 million people died, including almost 7 million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 percent and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds. Some of the most touching parts of my experience live-tweeting were the times when people would tweet back to me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future.
Bethlehem has captured the imagination of the world for centuries – we are culturally and spiritually drawn to this famous Palestinian town, and specifically, to an event that may or may not have happened 2,020 years ago. Many express doubt but we nevertheless embrace the myth and the magic it inspires: the appearance of a “star of wonder, star of light, star of royal beauty bright”, harking back to prophecies of old; stories of wise men journeying on camels’ back from the exotic and mysterious east, choiring angels, simple shepherds watching their flocks, and homely livestock; and an auspicious birth in the outhouse of a village pub – all the well-loved dramatis personae of the classic manger scene.
These moments in time have long inspired painters and poets, and are recalled by carol singers from the field mice of The Wind in the willows to the sentimentality of that famous book by the one they now hail as “the man who invented Christmas” to the songs that make shopping at this time of the year cruel and unusual punishment.
Poets have always been ambivalent about Bethlehem. It’s been invested with a symbolism quite detached from the geographic. TS Elliot’s magi we’re unsure what it all actually meant, whilst to WB Yeats, it might’ve been a place where bad things would happen. But then they hardly knew the place, and them and countless others, it is a place of myth and memory, most if it imagined.
And whilst “the hopes and fears of all our years” abide with this town of some 27,000 souls, it has a life of its own, a history, a society, an economy, and a political story that reaches back eleven thousand years.
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 JerusalemMeron 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 – Aida
Whenever I pen 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 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 archaeology, 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 folllowed – 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 inTheEthnic 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”.
Dhour al Choueir ( ضهور الشوير ), or Shweir, is a small town on the flanks of Mount Lebanon, looking down on Lebanon’s capital Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea, some thirty kilometres to the west. ‘Dhour’ means ‘summit, or top of a mountain. Illustrative of Lebanon’s diverse demography, half of it’s inhabitants are Eastern Orthodox and the other half Melkite and Maronite. It lay on the front line of during Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war (see Pity the Nation).
Today, it is one of Mount Lebanon’s favoured summer resorts where well-off Beirutis keep apartments and enjoy the cool fresh air during the hot summer months. It is called the city of skyscrapers, due to its many tall buildings and also because up there on the mountainside, these literally touch the sky. But in the last century, people from al Choueir migrated throughout the world – and they and their descendants have retained close ties with their hometown through family contacts and visits home. The town is now famous for its annual August carnival, honouring Lebanon’s emigrants.
Assid Abraham Corban was born in Choueir, then but a village, on 25 August 1864, the son of Abraham Hannah Corban, a vigneron from a family of stone masons and wine-growers, and Helene Hannah Bousader. In those days, there was no Lebanon. Predominantly Christian Mount Lebanon was a Mutasarrifat or governorate of the Vilayet of Beirut, a province of the Ottoman Empire. The empire had another fifty four years to run after which the mutasarrifat and the four others that were to become the Republic of Lebanon in 1943 became part of the French mandate of Syria. Young Assid worked principally as a stonemason, but he also pruned and ploughed the family vineyard. On 22 October 1887, he married Najibie Tanyus Ataia, the daughter of another respected local family. They had two children Khalil (1889-1975) and Wadiye (1891-1982).
In the winter of 1890 both of Assid’s parents died. Inspired by the tales of Lebanese emigrants of fortunes to be made in the New World, he set out on his own in 1891 for Australia, leaving his young family behind in Choueir. After waltzing through the outback as a pedlar, he crossed the Tasman Sea to New Zealand in 1892 where, still toting his pedlar’s pack, he travelled around the mining towns of the Coromandel Peninsula, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. After working for a time as a haberdasher in Waihi, and later in Thames, in 1895, he opened a shop in Queen Street, Auckland, advertising himself as an ‘Eastern Importer of Fancy Goods, Jewellery, Drapery, etc.’ In the same year he became a naturalized British subject, and in 1897 sent for Najibie and the boys to join him.
Aetearoa – New Zealand, on the far side of the world, became the new home of the Lebanese stonemason turned haberdasher. Three further three children were born whilst the family lived in Queen Street. They named their first childborn in New Zealand, Zealandia (1898-1993) to celebrate their new home, then came Corban (1900-1974), Zarefy (1901-1978), and Annis (who died in infancy in 1903).
In western Auckland, at at the foot of the North Island’s scenic Waitakere Range, lies the suburb of Henderson. The land once belonged to the Te Kawerau ā Maki, the mana whenua (people of the land) of West Auckland, a distinct tribal entity since the early seventeenth century when their ancestor Maki conquered and settled the Auckland isthmus and the land as far north as the Kaipara harbour. They sold much of their land of European settlers during the last decades of the Nineteenth Century.
And in 1902 Assid bought a scrubby ten acres of this land for £320 and planted a vineyard beside the O Panuku stream, on what is today the Great North Road. He named it Mount Lebanon Vineyards after the mountains of his birth. This became the celebrated Corbans Winery, one of New Zealand’s oldest. The property had a two-roomed cottage, an orchard and vines of the native American variety Isabella. Assid’s first 3½-acre vineyard was planted in a mix of wine grapes which included the classic red varieties Syrah, Meunier and Cabernet Sauvignon, and dual-purpose table grapes such as Black Hamburgh. It’s reputation was established swiftly. Romeo Bragato, government viticulturist from 1902 to 1909, was very impressed with Mt Lebanon Vineyards, praising it as ‘the model vineyard of New Zealand, and an object lesson to vine-growers’.
Assid, or AA as he was now known in the area, and his growing family first lived the cottage. work on a three-level wine cellar started in 1903 and was completed in 1907. The first grapes were crushed by hand with a wooden club, and an open hogshead was used as the fermenting vat. By 1908 Assid had a simple crusher and two small presses for his first commercial vintage. Wine-making, however, was an extremely precarious pursuit in early twentieth-century New Zealand. In those early days, the family supplement wine-making with other forms of income: vegetable crops and tobacco were planted between the vines. A produce stall sold from the front gate and a handcart went out to sell fresh goods around Henderson. The industry’s most formidable foe was the temperance movement. Henderson became ‘dry’ in 1909, possibly due to alcohol-related problems at the local Falls Hotel. Assid built a small brick building outside the railway lines bordering his land which formed the dry boundary, and he was able to sell his wine legally from the small whitewashed building that still stands today.
The Corbin Winery’s first recorded sale, in September 1909, was to James Cottle of Taupaki who purchased two gallons of wine in his own jar at 10 shillings per gallon. Recognition of the quality of Corban’s wines came swiftly. The company won first prize for unsweetened red grape wine at the 1910 Henderson show. At the 1913–14 Auckland Exhibition, competing against wines from other countries in the British Empire, it won gold medals for its sherry and port and silver medals for its claret and red wine.
The Corban holdings steadily expanded. In 1909 Assid bought a neighbouring 20-acre property, planting the first five acres in vines in 1912. Eight years later he opened a wine depot in Auckland city and in 1923 built a two-storeyed, 17-room family homestead on the Great North Road. By the 1920s the firm was called A. A. Corban and Company. In 1925 the Department of Agriculture’s vine and wine instructor, J. C. Woodfin, wrote that in the previous year ‘only twenty acres of vines were planted and one brave man was responsible for eight of these’. Corban’s had clearly become the largest winery in the country. It was also very much a family concern and in the 1930s became known as A. A. Corban and Sons Limited.
And there were indeed many sons. Four other children were born in Henderson: Annis (1905-1974), Annisie (1907-2002), Najib (1909) and Helena (1911). Other than Zealandia, all the Corban children lived in Henderson throughout their lives. The size of the family grew progressively as each of the children married and brought their spouses time to live in the homestead. Eventually some family members moved to other houses around the Henderson area. But they still maintained daily contact with the family, and the homestead remained a busy center for the family as well as for the wine business. The cooking of meals and other chores was shared, and all income was pooled. As the families grew, a system developed to fairly manage income and expenses. The costs were allocated with each adult counting as one unit, and with two children as one unit.
Although the arrival of a rotary hoe in 1934, and a caterpillar tractor soon after, greatly eased the vineyard toil, Assid Corban remained a patriarch in the Old Testament mould and a strong believer in the virtues of hard work. His work ethic inextinguishable, he never retired – every day of the year was a working day – except Sundays. His son Corban later described him as ‘well versed in the Scriptures and a staunch adherent of the Greek Orthodox Church’. He used to ‘bring out his treasured Bible and read to the family in Arabic’.
The end of an era came on December 2 1941when Assid suffered a stroke on his way home after a day working on a newly acquired property in Henderson Valley Road. He was in a coma for 12 days before finally passing away. His embalmed body lay in state in the homestead for a week whilst visitors filed past to pay their respects. In January 1943 work was completed on a classical tomb that had been erected in Waikumerte cemetery. And so, in a second funeral ceremony Assid Abraham Corban, villager, traveller, wanderer, immigrant, and pioneer was finally laid to rest. The respect this man commanded was evident in the large numbers who attended ceremonies in New Zealand and his hometown of Choueir where he still retained firm links.
Najibie became the head of the family, and just as her husband had been a powerful patriarch, she become the family’s powerful matriarch, leading it through some difficult times. The company continued to grow as the Corban family pioneered many new wine-making techniques. For much of the first half of the twentieth century the winery Corban founded dominated the New Zealand wine scene. When she passed away in 1957, the family had grown to include 32 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. As a mark of respect, on the day of Madame Corban’s funeral, the shops in Henderson closed for half a day.
The growth of the winery continued as the Corban family pioneered many new wine-making techniques. With the ongoing expansion of the family owned winery, other companies began to buy shares during the 1960’s and 70’s. The business became a public company in 1963 and passed out of the family’s hands in the 1970s.y 1978, the Rothmans Corporation owned 78% of the company and took the company over. It remains one of New Zealand’s wine-making giants. The sturdy figure of Assid Abraham Corban, with his magnificent walrus moustache and trademark waistcoat and chains, gazes sternly down from a wall in the entrance to the head office of Corbans Wines Limited.
The Corban Winery continues to play a vibrant role in the cultural life of Henderson. Many of the extended Corban family became key figures in the local community. Most notable is Assid Abraham’s grandson, Assid Corban (Junior), who became the Mayor of Henderson Borough from 1974 to 1989, and the first Mayor of Waitakere City in 1989. When the Corban Estate site was sold in 1992, it was purchased by the Waitakere City Council and by the end of 2001, the Waitakere Arts and Cultural Development Trust had taken on the lease for much of the estate and established the Corban Estate Arts Centre. The land and winery buildings have been converted into a large multi-disciplinary arts centre that is visited by thousands of Aucklanders each year. The homestead is currently home to the galleries and reception area. Members of the Corban family contributed to the formation and development of the arts centre, and Brian Corban remains the Chair of the Trust Board.
Adele and Elly amidst the wine vats at the Corban Estate Arts Centre
For other posts in our Small Stories series of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, see: A Tale of Twin Pines, the story of a Lebanese migrant to New Zealand, and The Monarch of the Sea, the rollicking tale of an unlikely “pirate king”.
On a dry note:
Whilst New Zealand’s iconic band Split Enz once sung “history never repeats”, an official Auckland strategy to minimize alcohol related harm saw predominantly working class “Hindersin” once again designated a “dry zone” in August 2016. The public consumption of alcohol is banned. Only the Waitakere Licensing Trust can operate pubs and bottle shops, whilst supermarkets sell no alcohol. The trusts, administered by publically-elected trustees, return surplus profits to the community through grants, rebates to clubs, sponsorships and other support for community activities. One of the West Auckland-based Waitakere and Portage Licensing Trust’s most significant investments in the “The Trusts Stadium”. It attracts events from fashion shows to rock concerts, community gatherings to local sporting competitions. The venue has hosted several million visitors since opening in September 2004, attracting 600,000 visitors a year, thus making it one of the most accessible stadiums in New Zealand.
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.
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 isDeep 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 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 ofthe 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.
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
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
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”’.
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.
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
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)
Great is the hand that holds dominion over Man by a scribbled name.
Dylan Thomas, The Hand That Signed the Paper,
Foreign Office, November 2nd, 1917
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
One wonders if, in the long, dark night of his eternal soul, Arthur James Balfour regrets the short letter he penned to Lord Walter Rothschild, of the international Rothschild financial dynasty, MP and Britain’s first Jewish peer. He remains a hero to Zionists and a villain to Arabs and their respective supporters. The brief document hat bears his name is seen the beginning of what today is widely considered the world’s most intractable conflict. On that, if on little else, Israelis and Palestinians agree.
The Sykes Picot Agreementof May 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the first, divvying up the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, the second, ostensibly laying the foundation stone for a Jewish state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, were effectively redundant by war’s end, as other agendas interposed. Yet, their misbegotten shots ricocheted through the twentieth century and on into the twenty first.
After 100 years, the two sides in the most closely studied conflict on earth are still battling over the past. Truth and reconciliation, let alone closure, are remote fantasies. Unlike slavery, apartheid, the Irish famine, and western colonialism – all, at least formally, consigned to the dust heap of history – the Arab-Jewish conflict between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan shows no signs of abating. Indeed, it remains as bitter as ever, stuck in a cul de sac of continued occupation and political deadlock.
Here, in this beautiful, ancient, tortured land, the past is not another country. History is alive, exhilarating, toxic, intensely political, and bitterly divisive – and it will be revisited with passion and anger on this resonant anniversary.
In That Howling Infinite presents here three quite different commemorative analyses of the Balfour Declaration and its legacy.
Ha’aretz discusses how Balfour’s legacy is toxic for both for Israelis and Palestinians, how it nourishes the idea that somehow the conflict between the sides was caused by external powers and can be solved by them. Palestinians maintain the myth that the Jews are somehow a foreign transplant that must be excised whilst Israelis persist in endeavouring to convince the world of the justice of our cause, as an alternative to actually making it in to a just one. “Lord Balfour did not give Palestine to anyone. Even if he had never written Lord Rothschild a letter, there would still be two nations with claims to this land. Their only hope of ever finding a way to share it is by letting go of these bankrupt historical myths”.
In The Original No – Why Arabs Rejected Zionism and Why it Matters, Natasha Gill examines the conflict from an original dispute resolution perspective. She argues that a viable peace process does not require either party to embrace or even recognize the legitimacy of the other’s narrative. It requires that both have an informed understanding of that narrative, and accept that it cannot be wished away, but must be recognized and acknowledged in the negotiation process.
Gill concludes: “Schoolyard choruses – “they started it” and “they are worse than us” – cannot serve as an interpretive framework for a 130-year-old conflict, or form the basis of national policy”. She is referring here to Israel, but it applies equally to the Palestinians..
A common thread of the three articles referred to above that of reversing out of the dead-end of competing and apparently irreconcilable perspectives and narratives – my story versus yours, my feelings versus yours, my hurt versus yours – and finding common ground to move forward. This is indeed an important aspect of conflict resolution per se. It is also about allaying assumptions and prejudices with regard to your competitor, opponent, or enemy, your mutual fears and suspicions.
Many would argue that the ‘peace process’ has been clinically dead for three years, and moribund for nearly three decades more. With Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition government contemplating the annexation of Area C, and ageing Mahmoud Abbas’ demise imminent, physically or polically, whichever happens first, time is running out for a just and equitable settlement that all sides can live with, no matter how begrudgingly.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven; Hands have no tears to flow
Dylan Thomas, The Hand That Signed the Paper
The following are some brief thoughts on the destructive aftermath of the Balfour Declaration.
The irony of the present Middle East is that so many many of its problems – its intractable conflicts, its porous and indefensible borders, its mosaics of coexisting, and at times competing and conflicting faiths and ethnicities, its artificially created states with shallow political and institutional roots, its unreconciled and conflicting allegiances to family clan, tribe, sect and country, its atavistic attachment to the ‘ra-is’, the big man – can be traced back to two documents initiated in the midst of a European war, the Sykes Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration .
Two documents that were driven and shaped by the exigencies of that war and the planning for the peace that would follow it – and influenced by the diplomatic, strategic and imperial interests of European powers engaged in a long and bloody conflict, with hardly a thought for the millions of souls whose fate they were deciding, people who were in the most part, totally unaware and ignorant of the waves that were about to break over them. Hence the quotation from Dylan Thomas at the head of this post.
There is a school of thought that holds that the Balfour Declaration, like the Sykes Picot Agreement before it, was the cynical, opportunistic, duplicitous and predictably disastrous outcome of imperial skulduggery that set the Arab Middle East on a fateful course. And yet, others hold that the die were already cast, and that HMG’s formal favour for a Jewish national home was aspirational rather than practicable, let alone realistic, designed to please the influential and wealthy Jewish diaspora – and particularly that in the USA, a late-entrant to the European war. Both, of course, has unintended consequences that led to a century of turbulence (see The Economist‘s articleof the centenary of Sykes Picot).
Zionism was already on its determined way. It had grown out of the circumstances that prevailed in Europe at the time when Theodore Herzl was working on his project. Pogroms in the east, the Dreyfus case in France, and the conviction that antisemitism was indelible in the European psyche: Jews would never be fully accepted anywhere, no matter how well they assimilated. Hence the need for a Jewish national home. But he and his early Zionists were not initially exclusively focused on Palestine – there were vague visions of Jewish settlements in Kenya and Latin America. But the old, atavistic – secular Zionists would not have used the term “messianic” – yearning for Jerusalem got the better of them. It was the historical itch that couldn’t be scratched. And the Ottoman government was, as the time, quite amenable to the idea of enterprising, tax-paying settlers.
But, the notion of an actual Jewish state was quite clearly in the minds of the politically-aware and motivated Eastern Europeans, however, and this, augmented by a socialistic fervour common to fin de siècle dissidents and refugees meant hat that there was little doubt about their intentions from the beginning. Regardless of the Balfour Declaration, the endgame was Eretz Israel – although those early pioneers hadn’t conceived a name for their ‘national home’, and indeed did not do so until the very last minutes of the Mandate when David Ben Gurion made an executive decision.
Balfour did not actually commit to doing anything substantive. “Best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object” was as far as he went. It was the qualifier that followed that has forever branded “perfidious Albion”: “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.
The Palestinians Arabs were wise to the Zionist settlers’ long game, raising their concerns with the Ottomans and, post-Balfour, the British Mandate authorities, and rising in revolt when those concerns were ignored – only to be subdued by British arms. During the tumultuous and violent Mandateyears, they were out-played, outwitted, out-gunned, never really having a chance against the well organized and determined Yishuvwith its shadow government, institutions, and, most critically, military forces. And they were badly let down by the quality of their own leadership, by the political infighting, disunity, and opportunism, and a patriarchal political system that stymied the development of a coherent national consciousness and institutional framework to match that of the Jews.
The British too were outplayed and our-maneuvered, both before the Second World War and during the years leading up to 1948. As with India through the thirties and forties, lacking a cogent policy and a clear vision, Britain hamfistedly endeavoured to please everyone and ultimately satisfied no one. “Best intentions”, and “muddling through” concluded with “cut and run”, resulting in duplicity, desperation, death and destruction. The vagueness of Balfour’s promise came back to haunt them with a vengeance.
As events in Germany gave added urgency to the Zionist project, Ben Gurion and his colleagues adopted a wise if opportunist strategy of siding with the British in the war against Hitler. Arabs, like the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, in Palestine, and the Iraqi military junta led by Rashid Ali al Gaylani and Egyptian military conspirators, threw their lot in with the Third Reich, and indeed conspired against Britain. A bad move, paralleling, as it did, the Shoah. World opinion, or more precisely, the opinion of those who in those days controllled the new-born United Nations – the USA and the Soviet Union – weighed in behind the Zionists.
The Palestinian people, as most commentators have agreed, were essentially abandoned. By the British, by their Arab neighbours, by their own leaders. When all attempts by Britain to resolve the matter of Palestine by partition failed, and the Atlee government decided to abandon its mandate (in much the same hurried and chaotic manner as it had departed India the year before : see my post, Freedom at Midnight), the Arab inhabitants of the towns and villages of the area destined to become a Jewish state were disunited, unarmed and unorganized, and easy prey for the well-trained and determined Jewish military forces tasked by the Jews’ political leadership with the mission of seizing, clearing, and claiming The Land.
By the time neighbouring Arab armies entered Palestine, in numbers too small to make any difference to the military situation, Arab suburbs of the coastal cities has beeen emptied, hundreds of villages erased from the map, and over half a million people had fled to Egyptian Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and what is today the West Bank. The Palestinian state envisaged by British and the UN was strangled in its crib by King Abdullah of Jordan who seized for himself those areas not claimed by the new state of Israel, including Jerusalem, his hearts desire.
Almost seventy years have passed, and the Palestinians are abandoned still, by the world, by their Arab neighbours, and by their own leaders. Meanwhile, Zionism has moved on and has morphed into something much more sinister. Who knows how it will all play out.
Paul Hemphill, October 2017
The Hand That Signed the Paper – Dylan Thomas
Never has as a poem been so precise in description of cause and consequence of great powers’ agreements, treaties, and declarations than that published by Dylan Thomas in 1936, a year replete with its own calamities:
The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.
The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor pat the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.
Counterfactual or alternative history had never gone out of fashion. As a history tragic with many kilometers on the clock, I enjoy such alternative history. “What if…?” and “if only…” are natural, if not instinctual responses to events around us – particularly the unpleasant ones. Hence the popularity of films like SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle (WW2 and the “Nazi victory” books they are based which on have always attracted us alternative history aficionados. There is currently excitement (and panic in some politically correct quarters) about the prospect of a project pitched by Game of Thrones’ show-runners visualizing a USA in which the Confederacy won the Civil War and slavery endures still. But such history is an indulgence that serious historians ought not take seriously – unless they are branching out into historical fiction, that is, which many indeed do. Popular English author Peter Ackroyd has said, the words “What if …” should never be on a historian’s lexicon. But writers of historical fiction have literary license to let their imaginations roam. Counterfactuals or alternative history is a fiction genre all of its own.
When we create alternative histories, we largely replicate a history we already know, often intimately. We replicate histories in which most of the same variables coexist, and the same historical trends prevail. Our motives are quite often as much to warn readers or audiences as to entertain them. Hence the tendency for such endeavours to drift into the depressing dystopian dramas that are so in vogue in these challenged times.
And yet, changing one or more of the players, removing or adding ingredients, hypothesizing different, even opposite scenarios, and imagining how events might have transpired differently, may not radically alter the result. In the case of the First World War, for example, if the conflict had not happened, the European empires may or may not gave endured. Often such multinational entities contain the seeds of their own demise – internal dynamics and contradictions, the impact of events in other countries. Whose to say what might have happened in say France, Germany, Russia, Türkiye or the US that might have upended the balance of power?
One surmises whether or not there is an iron law of inevitability that determines – predetermines, even – the same or similar outcome – a historical equivalent of Oedipus’ unsuccessful efforts to avoid his prophesied fate, affirming TS Elliot’s observation in Little Gidding: “And the end of all our exploring will be be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.
In this entertaining podcast, British historians Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland discuss many examples of what might have been if …
In an interesting if light-weight and indeed disappointing exercise in alternative history, with an absolutely meaningless but catchy play on the title of a fabulous song, title, The Sultans of Spring, The Economist recently pondered how events would have unfolded if the Ottoman Empire had sat out WW1 or joined the Entente of Britain, France and Russia instead of throwing in its lot with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. You may click on the above link, or page down to the full (and brief) transcript. Al-Sisi below, but preceding this is a brief précis of a a popular paperback historical novel published a short while ago which presented an imaginative if overcooked and totally different Ottoman history.
But first, here is my own argument:
So, what if?
Removing the Ottoman Empire from the strategic equation, or else placing it in the military scales against the Central Powers, would certainly have a significant impact upon the conduct and progress of the European war on both the eastern and western fronts. Russia and Britain would not have had to divert forces and materiel to the Middle East arenas. The Ottomans could have reaped the political and economic benefit of either neutrality or victory, with commensurate benefits for their own survival. The hypotheticals with respect to what may have happened next are innumerable.
The Economist surmises: “How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?”
But would things have turned out radically different if this had happened – notwithstanding the fact that three to five million Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Africans, Indians, and Europeans who lived in or soldiered through the Middle East theatre would have lived to die a natural death after fulfilling their own particular destinies or to perish purposefully or pointlessly in some other conflict.
The previous century had seen the steady decline of the Sultan’s Empire. It had commenced with Napoleon, and the rise of Muhammad Ali in Egypt, an Albanian “slave soldier” who in practical terms, seceded from the empire. Greece followed next, assisted by European states, and then, bit by bit, the Balkans. The Czar dubbed the empire the “sick man of Europe”, or so British politician John Russell misquoted him, and everybody wanted a piece. The European powers were circling hoping to pick up pieces as the Empire’s borderlands detached – Russia in the east, France in the Levant, and Britain in Egypt and the Gulf. The Crimean War was but one manifestation of “the Eastern Question” that had excited European Chancellories for a hundred years. France and Britain challenged Russia for power and influence in the East and went to war on the Sultan’s side, ostensibly to protect Christian rights in the Holy Land, but weightier matters were in play – alliances have always been fluid in this part of the world, as today’s shifting allegiances demonstrate. Crimea ended in stalemate, but Russia kept encroaching, whilst France established its presence in the Levant. Britain, meanwhile, has its sights set on Egypt and the Red Sea, (the vital route to its African and Asian empires), and when it was finally built, the Suez Canal, a strategic and commercial link that to this day concentrates the minds of foreign and state departments, military strategists and corporations worldwide.
The Balkan states continued to decouple from the empire, and prior to 1914, engaged in several bloody wars with each other, drawing their neighbours deeper and deeper into the tangle. The slow countdown to WW1 accelerated with the Austro-Hungarian archduke being killed by a Serbian student. Gavril Princip’s “shot that echoed around the world” in Sarajevo in 1914 was but one part of a chaotic picture, igniting tinder that had long awaited a match. Russia, supported the Serbs, Germany, the Austrians, Britain, and France, the Russians. And the Ottomans, forever hard pressed by the Russians, French and Brits, had already moved into the German orbit. When the Ottomans entered the war on the side of the central powers, the cards were dealt.
The Empire was already on a revolutionary path what with the Sultan’s desultory efforts with constitutional reform, the ascendency of Young Turks, a cabal of Turkish nationalist army officers, and the parlous state of the economy. Efforts to institute political and economic reform had faltered, and sooner or later, something was going to blow.
Arab nationalism had already taken root in the Levant, a secular creed spear-headed by Arab Christian intellectuals, to be brutally suppressed by the Young Turk triumvirate, Enver, Talat and Jamal. “Martyrs” were being strung up in Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem. Perhaps the Ottoman Middle East would have unraveled like in the Balkans (and Balkanised too? Most probably). The “wars of the Ottoman Succession” that we are witnessing today amongst the states created in 1921 would eventually have erupted.
The Zionist project was already underway at the outbreak of war, with settlements of Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia well-established in Palestine, often encouraged by the Ottoman authorities. The pioneers included many of the founders of modern Israel, including its architect and first prime minister David Ben Gurion. The pressures that drove Jews from eastern Europe and Russia in the first place (the discrimination and the pogroms paramount) were unlikely to abate given the atavistic nationalism of Holy Russia and just as Holy Poland. Sooner or later, Zionism and Arab nationalism were going to collide. We will never know how the Ottoman state and its Arab provinces would have coped with the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine. It certainly would have put the popular (but highly qualified) narrative of Ottoman tolerance of other faiths through a rigorous stress test. The Zionists had a pretty clear road map, and they weren’t sharing it with their new neighbours.
The British, French and Russians had been involving themselves in Middle Eastern affairs – that confounding “Eastern Question” – since the Napoleonic wars. , and Germany, seeking its coveted “place in the sun”, wanted in. German influence was already strong amongst progressive army officers – Prussian elan, ethos, menswear and weapons have exerted a powerful influence on wannabe juntas, the “men on horseback”, since the days Frederick the Great. The Kaiser’s government was very keen on expanding German influence in the east as a counter to British and French imperial power. Meanwhile, the industrial powers were already sniffing around the Gulf, Iranian, and Mesopotamian oilfields, the economic impetus behind imperialism having yet to run its course. The sea-lanes that preoccupied policy-makers in London, Paris and Moscow were soon to be joined by railways and pipelines, with the Germans making the running with its backing of the Berlin to Baghdad Bahnhof. Petroleum would soon join the fabled Great Game as a western imperial obsession. And this too, in time, would have to come up against rising Arab nationalism.
Would Ataturk and Ibn Saud’s ascendency in Turley and Arabia respectively have happened? Perhaps. The political instability in Anatolia and the Arabian Peninsula, and also, as we have described in the Levant, would have created conditions which could have brought these ambitious, capable and charismatic men to power.
Mustafa Kemal was just one of many promising Young Turks. Whether he would have risen above his peers without his Gallipoli reputation is moot – he would still have had to shove aside the three amigos. His Turkish nationalism, like that of his Young Turk compadres, was not sympathetic to Arab aspirations. Nor was his agnosticism empathetic to what he considered to be a backward and suffocating Islam. Fezzes and face-coverings were amongst the first things to go once he established his secular republic. Whether he could have held the empire together is another question.
Ibn Saud was not the only kid on the Arabian block. The Hashimites (the descendants of Jordan’s King Abdullah) held the western edge of the peninsula, but also the most spiritually significant – the “haramayn” of Mecca and Medina, no less. The Hashimite princes has their eyes on an Arab Kingdom, but Ibn Saud had his eyes on them. The house of Saud, with its Salafi Wahhabi credentials of a cleaner Islam was way “out there” as far as Arab politics and religion went at the time. Apart from perennial outbreaks of intolerance towards and repression of religious and ethnic minorities and heterodox Muslim sects, Istanbul ruled its multinational and multicultural empire with a light if autocratic hand. But there was all that oil – and to British policy makers, that trumped loyalty to the Qurayshi wannabes in the west, for all their descent from the Prophet and their custodianship of the Holy Places.
How would British-controlled Egypt’s politics have developed? Resistance to Britain and its puppet monarchy (headed by the descendent of that famed Albanian schemer Muhammad Ali, who had caused the Europeans so much angst in the early days of the Eastern Question) was growing and would develop into a secular Egyptian nationalism on the one hand and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood on the other.
So: no Gallipoli campaign (Churchill would have had to find another project, and young Australia another patriotic shibboleth); no Arab Revolt – the Hashemites would have remained just another influential desert clan and TE Lawrence would not have become a legend; no Balfour Declaration or Sykes Picot agreement to distort and dismember the Arab Levant with two conflicting and irreconcilable nationalisms, so, no Syria, Iraq and Lebanon; no British (and Australian) advance on Gaza, Jerusalem and Damascus (General Allenby might have ended up on the Western Front instead of the steps of King David’s Tower in Jerusalem) and arguably, therefore no Mandate, no Palestine, and no Israel; no Armenian genocide to darken Türkiye‘s reputation and prefigure the Shoah that was to come, or then again, perhaps never came; and no Türkiye as we know it today (although President Erdogan is certainly acting out his inner sultan).
As former and unlamented Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice prematurely proclaimed in 2006 too much ridicule from Arabs generally, “a new Middle East”.
TE Lawrence, General Allenby, Ataturk, and Ben Gurion
The Ottoman Secret
By Raymond Khoury
The Ottoman siege of Vienna of 1683 sees the city fall and the Christian forces annihilated. Western Europe is conquered soon afterwards and in 2019, an increasingly repressive Sultan still rules the continent (though Britain and Russia withstood the onslaught and remain independent nations). A lot has happened in the world since 1683, and as Christendom was vanquished, many things just didn’t happen. Russia is still ruled by the Czars, and America by a post-Mayflower Christian theocracy. Concepts like democracy, freedom of thought and expression, and gender equality are ideas still struggling against heavy odds to be born.
We are in Muslim Paris in 2019. Kamal Arslan Agha is a patriotic, loyal subject of the the Sultan and a special investigator of the Tashkeelat-i Hafiye, the secret police, on the front line of the empire’s harsh response to increasing political and economic turmoil throughout Europe. The Caliphate’s efforts to maintain law and order spare no one, and soon, Kamal’s own family attracts the Hafiye’s attention.
His brother and sister-in-law discover a secret so dangerous, the Caliphate must suppress it, and with the foundations of the Empire under threat, Kamal’s family have no choice but to run. Whether or not they can escape the pursuing Hafiye will determine their own fate, and that of the Caliphate itself – its past, its present, and its future.
Khouri’s vision of a world dominated by conservative, repressive regimes combining religious conformity with modern technology is not a pleasant one. Western democracy might have its faults, but as Churchill said, it’s better than most of the alternatives.
This is, of course, fiction, written by a novelist and not a historian. Its political, cultural and technical milieu is predicated on “what if? What if the Ottomans had expanded and prospered for three centuries instead of gradually transforming into the “sick man of Europe” to be dissected and defeated by western powers? What if through serendipitous and underhand means, the empire has acquired the military, industrial, scientific and technical wherewithal to build over four centuries a world that in many ways in not unlike our own? What if their had been no enlightenment, no French or Russian revolutions, no Hitler, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima?
Incidentally, the siege of Vienna in 1683 gives its name to ‘Gates of Vienna’, a fanatically anti-Muslim far-right blog. Its essential thesis is that this was only one battle in a long war and that Europe and its civilisation are constantly threatened by a Muslim invasion.
As Kurt Vonnegut’s avatar Kilgore Trout would say, “so it goes …”
Sultans of Spring – if the Ottoman Empire hadn’t collapsed.
Imagine the mayhem that might have been avoided had the Ottoman Empire been saved rather than sunk. Blame, among others, Winston Churchill
When a Serb gunman shot an Austrian archduke in the summer of 1914, the nations of Europe tumbled into war with all the grace of bowling pins. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, whose ally Russia declared war on Austria, whose ally Germany declared war on Russia, whose allies France and Britain declared war on Germany and Austria. By early August the continent was in flames.
Much as it wobbled like the rest, however, one of those bowling pins could not make up its mind. Which way would Turkey fall? Should the fading Ottoman Empire join the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) or go with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary)
Turkey’s 500-year-old empire was shrinking. It had lost its territories in Africa, nearly all its Mediterranean islands and most of its Balkan lands as well as chunks of eastern Anatolia. It was debt-ridden, industrially backward and politically shaky.
Still, the sultan’s lands straddled two continents, controlling access to the Black Sea. His Arabian territories stretched beyond the holy cities of Islam to the mountains of Yemen and the Persian Gulf, where there were rumoured to lie vast caverns of the sticky black liquid soon to replace coal as the world’s chief source of power.
Confident of Turkey’s weakness, Britain, France and Russia could have clobbered the Ottomans and divided the spoils. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. At a secret conclave aboard a British dreadnought off the coast of Norway in late July, a far-sighted politician by the name of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, worked with French, Russian and Turkish diplomats to forge a treaty. The Turks drove a hard bargain for, as they coyly revealed, Germany too was proffering arms and gold in exchange for an alliance.
The deal that was reached proved immensely beneficial to all concerned. From France, Turkey received generous debt relief. Russia scrapped all claims to Ottoman territory, and made a limited goodwill withdrawal from parts of Anatolia. Churchill waived further payment on two warships that British shipyards were building for Turkey. And Turkey received assurances that its vulnerable extremities would not be attacked; for an empire that for a century had been preyed upon like a carcass this was a new lease of life.
The rewards to the Triple Entente were equally big. Granted exclusive access to the Black Sea, Russia’s allies could resupply the tsar’s armies when they faltered at the start of the war. With no need to defend its Turkish frontier, Russia moved thousands of crack troops from the Caucasus to shore up its front lines. Turkey signed separate agreements recognising British control of the Suez Canal, Aden and the Trucial sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, securing the sea lanes for Britain’s massive deployment of troops from the colonies to the Western Front. Turkey’s own army joined in a broad front against Austria-Hungary. Together, these Allied advantages are thought to have shortened the war by as much as a year; the Central Powers might not have sued for a truce as soon as America entered the war, but fought on instead.
Reprieved from collapse, the Ottoman Empire’s government pursued radical reforms. Challenged by growing nationalist tendencies from Arab, Armenian, Greek and Kurdish subjects, Sultan Mehmed V issued a historic firman or proclamation that recognised these as individual nations united under the Ottoman sovereign.
The sultan got to keep the title of caliph, commander of the Sunni Muslim faithful, which his ancestors had acquired four centuries earlier. This proved useful when the empire had to put down a rebellion of religious fanatics in central Arabia, led by a man called Ibn Saud who gained followers by claiming he would restore Islam to a purer state. But mostly the empire was seen as a tolerant place. When Nazi persecutions drove Jews from Europe in the 1930s, many took refuge there (as they had done when expelled from Spain in 1492), particularly in the province of Jerusalem.
Needless to say, none of the above happened. Quite the opposite. Turkey aligned with Germany in the first world war, and the allies did attempt to invade and divide its empire. Churchill, instead of handing over the warships that ordinary Turks had paid for by subscription, had them seized for the British navy. In 1915 he ordered a catastrophic attack on Turkey; the landing at Gallipoli cost the allies 300,000 casualties. British campaigns against Turkey in Iraq and the Levant cost another million lives.
Turkey’s casualties mounted, by war’s end, to 3m-5m people, nearly a quarter of the Ottoman population. This included some 1.5m Armenians, slaughtered because Turkish officials believed they might become a fifth column for a hostile Russia. And when Britain and France grabbed the Ottomans’ Arab lands, their suppression of uprisings cost thousands more lives.
How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?
Ataturk Monument, Istanbul
Here are other posts about Turkey past and present: