Visualizing the Palestinian Return – the art of Ismail Shammout

The Key and the Return – Palestine as a metaphor

Palestinian poet , and indeed, Palestine’s national poet, the late Mahmoud Darwish, saw Palestine as a homeland but also as a metaphor –  for the loss of Eden, for the sorrows of dispossession and and of exile, for the diminishing power of the Arab world in its relationship with the west (Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine as Metaphor)

Palestinian Australian author and academic Nejmeh Khalil-Habib – and my Arabic teacher for many semesters at the University of Sydney – published a paper in Nebula magazine in 2008 examining how the “Return”  – al ‘awda العودة – a recurring theme in contemporary Arabic literature – has been dealt with in Arabic fiction, and how it depicted those who live the dream of “Return” and those who actually returned to Palestine after the 1967 war or after the Oslo Accords.

She writes: “The concept of “Return” throughout this literature manifests itself in various ways including the spiritual return (as manifested in dreams and aspirations); the literal, physical return; an individual’s return (a “Return” on the basis of family reunions); the “Return” as a result of the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank after the war of 1967; and the “Return” as a result of the peace process after the “Oslo Accords.”

Al Muftah, المفتاح, the key is an enduring symbol of al ‘awda. It is present in street art and in signs and posters throughout Palestine and in the refugee camps. It is a symbol, of a memory, of one day returning – to lost homes, villages, suburbs, towns, lives and livelihoods. As Nejmeh writes,“The Return” (Al-Awda) is deeply implanted in the Palestinian collective memory. It is rooted in their conscience like a faith that could not be denied, because denying it would mean uprooting the lynch-pin upon which modern Palestinian history and identity depends”.

Al Mufta مفتاح

But for many, it is something more than that. Nejmeh writes: “Whether exile happens voluntarily or under oppressive circumstances, the dream of returning home stays alive in the mind of the exiled person. It flares or fades from person to person and from one circumstance to another; however, the concept of “return” ceases to be about its basic meaning, but comes to be seen as a means of resistance and challenging oppression”.

She notes American-Palestinian author and activist Fawaz Turky assertion that “the right and dream of Return is the rock upon which our nation was established and the social balance that unites the nation in this wretched world”.

It is the dream, the hope that enabled tens of thousands of refugeess in camps throughout the Levant to perceive their situation as temporary and to resist the allure of assimilation and mainstreaming in their host countries – if this was indeed possible given that most hosts have steadfastly resisted granting Palestinians rights and privileges enjoyed by their own citizens. Whilst being much of the diaspora in the West has accepted inclusion and naturalization, these Palestinians connect with their people and their culture in Palestine, and still celebrate their national holidays.

Between seven and eight hundred thousand Palestinians fled their homes in present day Israel or were expelled during the 1948 war (on the other side of the ledger, a comparable number of Mizrahi or “Eastern Jews” were expelled from Arab countries during and after the conflict). Many Arabs remained in Israel either in their original homes or where they sought refuge. They became Israeli citizens, but even for these, the memories endure and many continue to refer to the towns and villages and localities by the names they had prior to the establishment of the state of Israel.

And yet, al ‘awda, and the Right of Return is a chimera, a dream dangled before their eyes by their leaders like a hypnotist’s show. And UN refugee status, a tired old delusion perpetuated by UNRWA to justify its existence and well-paid salaries, and the Arab League as a fig leaf for their pulsanimity. UNWRA’s definition and establishment was at fault from day one, and whilst creating generational refugeedom, it engendered false hope, unrealisable dreams, and a road-block to subsequent peace efforts  There is indeed a whole economy, a living, a lifestyle devoted to and dependent on managing the conflict and the refugee problem rather than solving it. The exile was unreasonable and unjust, but the past will never be undone – and most certainly never by UN resolutions.

The key, therefore, is a forlorn hope, a closed door that no amount of keys can unlock; and the reality is that of a lock-out, out of politics, out of society, out of the jobs and housing market. The refugees are a minority in Palestine. There are no keys for the new houses and apartments that are going up in and around the cities of the West Bank in a property boom that has been going on for several years now and accessible and affordable only for a growing middle class of employees of the PA and foreign NGOs and young professionals.

But for refugees, all this is paradox. They are locked out of the old Palestine of their parents and grandparent and forebears. But they are also locked out the new Palestine that is struggling to be born.

Poets like Darwish and novelists have internalized and reflected al Nakba and al ‘awda in their work. The dream of al ‘awda is reflected in their writing. As it is also do with to graphic artists – none as powerfully and poignantly as ismail Shammout, born in Lydia, Palestine in 1930. When last In Ramallah, de facto administrative “capital” of that part of the West Bank government by the  Palestinian Authority – Area A (for Abbas, joke the wits) of ththe Oslo dispensation, we visited the cultural centre Dar Zahran, a beautifully restored Ottoman house just south of the city centre (and its central square festooned with images af al Muftah).

By fortunate serendipity, Dar Zahran was hosting a small exhibition of paintings by the late Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout which told the story of al Nakba and of flight and exile.

I have republished below a concise biography of Shammout by the Palijounrneys blog.

https://www.paljourneys.org/en/biography/9727/ismail-shammut

The Art of Ismail Shammout

Ismail Shammout is remembered and celebrated for his depictions of everyday life in Palestinian villages before the Nakba, for his harrowing portrayal of flight and expulsion of much of Mandate Palestine’s Arab population, and his allegorical tableaux of the ensuing diaspora.

His Palestine is a timeless, almost dreamlike place quite out of time and place with its contemporary reality. Nostalgists and artists and poets of an earlier era would have described it as pastorale with its images of everyday life in the countryside, and its vignettes of young folk and old, men and women, children and babies. There are young couples in traditional costumes, young mothers with babes in arms, farmers in fields, and family groups of many generations. They are in lounges and kitchens, in yards and gardens, fields and orchards, and street markets as buyers and sellers. There are musicians and singers and dancers in myriad social settings – at parties and celebrations, marriages and festivals, parades and and processions.

 

 

And, celebrating the circle of life from cradle to grave and the rhythm of the seasons, there are scenes of harvest time and the gathering of the fruits of the fields and the orchards. There are grains and vegetable, olives, and water melons, apricots and pomegranates, figs and grapes, and the oranges for which Palestine was long famous.

Such bucolic scenes of a gone world – gone for us all, and not just for Shammout’s country folk- are juxtaposed with graphic images of al Nakba, and of exile, of expulsions and dispossession, of conquest and occupation, and of ongoing protest and resistance. And through, it all, are motifs of hope and of peace – flowers, songbirds and doves – and also, of conflict and resistance – flags and banners, rifles and rocks.

These include Shammout’s famous paintings of the Palestinians’ flight and expulsion, and the long hard road of flight on a trail of tears, the hostile sun beating down. His rendering of the heat, hunger, thirst and exhaustion recall of WH Auden’s harrowing poem The Shield of Achilles, with its contrasting and jarring snapshot images of joy and celebration and of bleak, almost monochrome desolation … “a plain without a feature, bare and brown, no blade of grass, not sign of neighbourhood; nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, but congregated on on its blankness stood an intelligible multitude, a million eyes, a millions boots in line, without expression, waiting for a sign”.

These images, the fair and the foul, reappear within larger paintings that depict the decades that followed, both the immediate – the camps and the scattering – and the contemporary – the occupation, the two Intifadat, ongoing resistance, and the perpetually stuttering  peace process. In the background are the symbols and icons of Palestine past and present – particularly of al Quds, Jerusalem the golden, with the holy places that are so precious to many faiths – its mosques and churches, its monasteries and madrasas, including the Haram al Sharif and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

There are images of refugee camps, the crowded tent-cities where the exiles first settled, of Gulf oil fields where expatriates laboured, and of the professions that expatriates entered into all over the world, from labourers to lab workers. There are school children at their desks and office-workers at computers, and crowds, always crowds of numberless, nameless, almost faceless people. There are  marches and demonstrations, and clashes with anonymous, faceless soldiers. There are youths throwing stones and facing off against armoured cars and troops bearing weapons. And there are political events like the meeting at Camp David between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin facilitated by President Clinton which fired up hopes and expectations rest were never realized.

One painting is a particularly potent and poignant. An elderly woman and her daughter hug their olive tree as a bulldozer approaches. Two young boys endeavour to block its relentless path – a scene that is not at all unusual, as the picture I have paired it with shows. “How shall we find olive branches when all the olive trees are gone?’

               

Ismail Shammout  – a brief biography

Ismail Shammout was born in the town of Lydda on 2 March 1930. His father, Abd al-Qadir Shammout, was a fruit and vegetable merchant. His mother was Aisha al-Hajj Yasin. He had seven siblings: Ibrahim, Kawthar, Jamil, Muyassar, Inam, Jamal, and Tawfiq. His wife was the artist Tamam Arif al-Akhal, who was born in Jaffa in 1935. His children are Yazid, Bashar, and Bilal.

In 1936 he started elementary school, and his artistic talent was spotted at an early age. His teacher, Dawud Zalatimu, took him in charge. Zalatimu served as an art teacher in Lydda from 1930 until 1948, and his drawings of historic events and nature decorated the school walls. Shammut was taught by Zalatimu to draw with pencil and ink, to paint with watercolors, and to sculpt in limestone.

After convincing his religious and conservative father that “art could be a profitable profession,” he started by decorating wedding dresses with flowers and birds and then opened his own shop, which was in fact his first studio. There he painted his first oils depicting natural scenery and portraiture before the Nakba of 1948.

Three days after the fall of Lydda and Ramla to the Zionist forces, on 13 July 1948, Shammout and his family (along with the inhabitants of the two towns) were forced to leave and go on foot to Ramallah and were not allowed to carry water. His young brother Tawfiq died of thirst before they arrived at the village of Nilin, near Ramallah. Shammout documented that march of death, exhaustion, and thirst in several paintings executed in the 1950s.  The family continued to move until it settled in the tents that eventually formed the Khan Yunis refugee camp.

Shammout sold pastry for one year and then volunteered to teach drawing at the refugee schools, which were set up in tents. This allowed him to resume his artistic career and to exhibit his paintings in a room in the Khan Yunis government school in 1950. That same year he joined the Fine Art Academy in Cairo and lived off his earnings, drawing movie posters.

Shammout held his first exhibition in 1953, having accumulated enough paintings for a large exhibition “but did not have enough courage” to hold it in Cairo. So he exhibited at the Employees Club in Gaza city jointly with his brother Jamil. At that exhibition Shammout presented some sixty paintings including his now famous Where to? and A Mouthful of Water. That exhibition was regarded as the first contemporary art exhibition in Palestine’s history by a Palestinian artist on Palestinian soil, as judged by its size, the number of works exhibited, the way it was opened, and the mass attendance.   

In 1954 he held an exhibition in Cairo called The Palestinian Refugee jointly with an art student at the Fine Arts Academy, Tamam al-Akhal, and the Palestinian artist Nuhad Sabasi. This exhibition was under the auspices of Gamal Abdel Nasser, at that time Egypt’s prime minister, and was attended by Palestinian leaders. His earnings from that exhibition encouraged him to travel to Italy where he soon received a scholarship to study at Rome’s Academia di Belle Arti, and he remained there for two years (1954–56).

Following his graduation he moved to live and work in Beirut with his brother Jamil at the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The brothers set up an office for commercial art and book design; the latter included a pamphlet for the Lebanese army entitled “Human Civic Education.”

In 1959 he married fellow artist Tamam al-Akhal and thereafter they worked closely together, artistically and professionally. They trained art teachers in Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip and held joint exhibitions in those localities.

Shammout and al-Akhal followed closely the creation of the PLO at the First Palestine National Congress in Jerusalem in 1964. In 1965 he set up the Artistic Culture Section of the PLO Department of Information and National Guidance (later known as Department of Information and Culture) and directed its activities until 1984. When the offices of the PLO in Jerusalem closed, the couple returned to Beirut in 1966 and resumed work with the PLO there, in addition to their personal work as artists. Shammout completed an innumerable number of posters and literary, political, and traditional projects and with al-Akhal organized tens of political and personal exhibitions in cities around the world, including Gaza, Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, Amman, Washington (plus twelve other US cities), Tripoli, Damascus, Kuwait, London, Belgrade, Sofia, Beijing, and Vienna, in addition to murals called The Path in Amman, Ankara, Istanbul, Doha, Sharjah, Dubai, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut. Among his most notable achievements is the hall called Dar al-Karama in Beirut where seasonal exhibitions by young artists from Palestinian refugee camps were displayed, as were other Arab and international solidarity exhibitions.

In 1969, Shammout and other Palestinian artists founded the first General Union of Palestinian Artists; he remained its secretary-general until 1984. He also participated in founding the General Union of Arab Artists in 1971 and was its first secretary-general, a position he held until 1984.

Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the departure of the Palestinian resistance and its leaders, and the closing of the PLO offices, Shammout (who had a heart condition that had worsened) was forced to move with his family to Kuwait in 1983, where they lived through the occupation of Kuwait in 1991 and the second Gulf War. After the liberation of Kuwait, the family was again forced to move in 1992, this time to Germany. In 1994, Shammout and al-Akhal finally settled in Amman, Jordan.

Shammout is generally regarded as a pioneer of contemporary Palestinian art. He was a committed artist whose style was realistic with some symbolistic elements. The Palestinian cause dominated his art, some of which was widely distributed in camps and houses and in solidarity with Palestine campaigns in the Arab countries and beyond. Some of his works can be regarded as iconic for the Palestinian people.

Shammout never ceased to depict the Palestinian exodus from Palestine in paintings that carried titles and meanings very much present in people’s minds and in his own experience; an example is  the painting he titled Where to? (1953). His paintings were inspired by camp life (such as Memories and Fire, 1956; We Shall Return, 1954; and Bride and Groom at the Border, 1962) and called for reflection on the meaning of a nation in waiting.

The PLO awarded him the Revolutionary Shield for Arts and Literature, the Jerusalem Medal for Culture, Arts and Literature, and The Palestine Prize for the Arts. The Arab Thought Forum awarded him The Creative Prize for Arab Painting. An annual prize in his name is awarded for excellent Palestinian painting. His works have been acquired by several Arab and international museums.

His heart condition forced him to undergo three critical operations, the third of which was performed in Leipzig, Germany; he died on 3 July 2006 and was buried in Amman.

In addition to his paintings, he wrote histories of Palestinian painting and crafts and produced a number of films, which were influenced by his artistic experiences. These include a film called Memories and Fire (1973), which won the Short Documentary Film Prize at the Leipzig Festival; Urgent Appeal (1973); and On the Road to Palestine (1974). Noura al-Sharif produced a short film called Ismail, which dealt with a part of his life during his first period as a refugee in the Khan Yunis camp. A website devoted to his work is available at http://www.ismail-shammout.com

From Palestinian Journeys

Read more about Middle Eastern politics and history in In That Howling Infinite in:  A Middle East Miscellany

As a COVID-19 lock-down diversion, In That Howling Infinite has translated the story of the life and art of Ismail Shammout into Arabic. It will be published very shortly.

Joy فرح

Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point

After months of waiting, President Trump finally unveiled his peace plan for Israel and Palestine on 28th January 2020, to the delight of Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, the disgust of the Palestinians, and the bemusement of many. Amid the sound and the fury, most commentators apparently missed the point – or willfully chose to to do so – that it is not a “plan” as such, but a “vision”. The word is used some sixty times in eighty six pages that contain the political and economic framework. The remaining eighty pages, with an executive summary and copious tables and charts, more resemble a business plan, complete with SWOT analysis, than an actual peace proposal.

But a proposal is exactly what it is – not a plan per se, nor a diktat, as some have labelled it ; nor is it a mediation – as some have inaccurately described it. Rather, its authors claim, it is a basis for further negotiation – should anyone ever get around to talking together. In an excellent piece in Times of Israel, When a vision gets clouded (which I strongly recommend reading) blogger Wendy Kalman gets right to the point:

Both Israelis and Palestinians have long-standing negotiating positions but also must recognize that compromise is necessary to move forward. It is inevitable that each side will support and oppose aspects of this Vision. It is essential that this Vision be assessed holistically. This Vision presents a package of compromises that both sides should consider, in order to move forward and pursue a better future that will benefit both of them and others in the region.

A peace agreement will be forged only when each side recognizes that it is better off with a peace agreement than without one, even one that requires difficult compromises….

The role of the United States as facilitator in this process has been to collect ideas from around the world, compile them, and propose a detailed set of recommendations that can realistically and appropriately solve the conflict. The role of the United States is also to work together with other well-meaning countries and organizations to assist the parties in reaching a resolution to the conflict. But only the Israelis and Palestinians themselves can make the decision to forge a lasting peace together. The final, specific details of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, must be worked out directly between the parties

I have read that many who object to the Vision because Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt did not consult with Palestinians. The PA cut ties with the White House after the Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel in 2017. In June 2018, US officials said they’d meet with PA officials if invited. They apparently had not been, and with this policy in place for over two years, Abbas refused to take calls from the White House even last month. So, if the Palestinians refused to meet with US officials, they could not have been consulted”.

So, as Kalman suggests, people really ought to read the document rather than barrack for or  against it sight unseen and text unread. To this end, we would hope that has been published in Arabic and Hebrew by a neutral third party which would render it accurately and not redact the parts the Palestinian and Israeli Street may not like.

At first glance, the Vision appears solid enough for friends of Palestinian and critics of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu to suggest that it is a start, at least, the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end. It ticks many boxes, holding out hope for lasting peace, a Palestinian State, normalized relations, and economic opportunity. But, considering the resources available to the authors, and the work that seems to have gone into the economic side of things, it is surprising for its lack of historical and political depth and indeed, accuracy, and for the number of elephants lurking mischievously and maliciously under the worn carpet. And it is these elephants that are disturbing – they whisper that all is not quite what it seems.

The Vision has a black heart insofar as it legitimizes Israel’s past actions, entrenches it’s control, and actually rewards its ongoing bad behaviour whilst giving Netanyahu the green light to commence annexations quicksmart – which he declared he would do until the US  pulled sharply at his reins, demanding that he wait the outcome of Israel’s elections in March – its third poll in a year.

The President has called his Vision a “win win”, but Israeli human rights watchdog B’Tselem has described the “Deal of the Century” as “more like Swiss cheese, with the cheese being offered to the Israelis and the holes to the Palestinians”, encapsulating a world view that sees Palestinians as perennial subjects rather than free, autonomous human beings.

On Al Jazeera on the evening of the White House presentation, Daniel Levy, President of the US/Middle East Project, former Israeli diplomat and veteran of past peace plans, pulled few punches:

“It is not an attempt to be viable or fair”, he said. “This is America taking an Israeli proposal and translating it into an American position. But it’s worse than that. It takes what ostensibly looks like what a model peace agreement might look like, and wraps into that an act of aggression, close to a declaration of war, on the Palestinians. It is not intended to advance peace. It’s intended to force the Palestinians to say no, to depict Palestinians as rejectionists, and to allow Israel to pursue, with greater pace and greater support, Israel’s unilateral plans. It’s a very dangerous, cynical and aggressive move”.

Regarding contentious but critical issues, like prisoners, refugees, and settlements , Levy continued, “Instead of putting it in the language of a peace agreement, they’ve put it through this supremacist, extremist and exclusivist grinder where there’s only one side that has to be paid attention to. It turns the entire logic of what peace should be on its head. Israel retains control everywhere. Israel agrees to take on itself not to do things it didn’t intend to do anyway, like this  question of Jerusalem … The Palestinians will be under increasing pressure. But bludgeoning them into negotiating won’t achieve peace. It’s taking a sledgehammer to peace efforts”.

He elaborated further 30th January in Don’t call it a peace plan in American Prospect magazine, adding: “In its outward appearance, the plan had such a familiar feel to it, like returning to a place of one’s childhood. But as I absorbed the words, nostalgia gave way to a feeling of having entered a topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland. The language of peace had been cut and pasted, then put through a grinder, delivering an act of aggression dripping with the coarse syntax of racism. A hate plan, not a peace plan“ … A peace plan has to be predicated on both sides saving face, on both sides being able to declare some kind of victory. The plan announced is a 180-page hate letter from the Americans (and by extension the Israelis) to the Palestinians. Until one reads the entire document (and unless one knows the history of the conflict), it is hard to convey the depth of contempt and scorn this text displays toward Palestinians. It oozes colonialist supremacism”.

There has been commentary aplenty from pundits and partisans on all sides of the argument, many of whom will not have read the document but rather “take their instructions” from their various positions and paymasters. But anyone with a serious interest in the matter, whether by position, profession, or amateur passion, and certainly all with skin in the game, ought to read it, faithfully translated and unredacted. Because It is illuminating – and possibly even hallucinating.

One thing is for sure, it is humiliating. For the Israelis who been promised all they they could wish for – they should by embarrassed by its bias. For the Palestinians who are invited to drop their longtime demands – some of them perfectly reasonable and others, unattainable shibboleths – in return for buckets of cash and international good will. For America’s allies – including its Arab “partners in freedom”, who, reluctant to upset the truculent Trump, gingerly but optimistically posit the that the “vision” is a perfectly good springboard, opening offer, ambit claim or whatever to get long-stalled negotiations going (meanwhile, they are ever wary of a hostile backlash from their sullen, captive citizenry). And for America, so blatantly and cynically giving the thumbs up to what amounts to the occupation and dominion of a powerful country over a weaker one.

Many outside and within the Middle East condemn it because it is one-sided, supremacist and exclusivist – and just plain unfair. And for all it’s worthwhile bits and pieces, it is all of these. Saying that Palestinians should grab a good deal because there won’t be a better one, that they have only themselves to blame for their leaders, and that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, is to occupy the low moral ground whilst simultaneously eyeing the exit.

It has also been condemned as actually endangering Israelis. The US President has given his blessing to a potentially explosive policy that is not even popular with the Israeli public: polls show that most Israelis are not interested in annexation. This ostensible Israeli “win” offers Israel control over areas of the West Bank that most Israelis have never heard of, let alone lived in (according to the Israeli NGO Peace Now, less than 5% of Israelis live beyond the Green Line). And the price will be paid by the Israeli exchequer, the Palestinians, assorted NGOs, and the soldier boys and girls who will have to maintain order and carry the scars for the rest of town lives.

Reading the Vision, I identified contradictions and cul de sacs that appear to signal it’s true intent – that dark heart I referred to above. David Levy and  Yossi Klein Halevi touch on most of them and well merit close reading – but here are my own thoughts.

Distorted Vision

The first pages set the scene. Whilst careful not to spook the horses from get-go, they are anodyne and, indeed, simplistic in recounting the origins and the contemporary status of one of the most intractable international conflicts since World War 2 – very much Arab-Israeli Conflict 101 from  a moderately informed albeit partisan and pro-Israel American perspective. But as it gets down to the nuts and bolts, and formulates proposals for a just, equitable and lasting solution (or I assume that this is the intent of all this), it is as if the authors have got all the words and got all the notes but haven’t quite got the song. Put more bluntly, to quote Daenerys Targaryen they have come not to stop the wheel but to break it.

A Capital Idea

An immutable Palestinian demand since the Six Day War of 1967 has been that Jerusalem be the capital of an independent Palestinian State. Notwithstanding the US recognition as Israel’s capital, there was an understanding that if and when such a state eventuates, its capital would be in East Jerusalem. The Vision now proposes that the run-down town of Abu Dis, on the Eastern side of the Separation Barrier (the proposed border between Israel and Palestine) should be the Palestinian capital – in “eastern” but not “East” Jerusalem. It suggests also that the Palestinians can rename it Al Quds and then continues thereafter to refer to the prospective capital as Al Quds, as if saying it makes it so.

This demonstrates either an ignorance of history and of Jerusalem’s significance in both the political and spiritual space, or, worse, a contempt for it. Or both. Al Quds means “The Holy” in Arabic. It has been used to describe Jerusalem for centuries, and indeed, by all Palestinians today and by Muslims the world over. It is not some made-up moniker that can just be attached to Abu Dis like some clever #tag. If it was merely just a location for an administration, Ramallah already boasts a modern parliament building, multi-million dollar presidential palace, and the mausoleum of Abu Amar (Yasser Arafat to us), not to mention a burgeoning middle class and an accompanying building boom.

Soul searching

The casual treatment of the idea al Quds is more than lazy etymology. It is indicative of how the Vision skirts the reality of the deep spiritual belonging and the atavistic yearning that lies at the root of the two competing historical and political narratives: the millennia-old connection with The Land, Ha’Aretz, that is held by religious and secular Jews, Zionist and nationalist alike; and the deep, centuries-old – roots of Arab, Islamic and Christian history and culture in the land of Christianity’s birth. These can’t be distilled down to real estate deals, the involvement of disconnected outside parties, be these brokers honest or dishonest, the chialistic urgings of American evangelicals yearning for ”the End of Days”, and Iran hawks pushing for a Grand Alliance against Shiah Iran and its Arab proxies.

No Going Home

This shallowness is evident also respect to its treatment of refugees, and its cursory dismissal of the Right of Return of the refugees of 1948 and 1967 and their successors. It is not so much that this perspective is a false one. The Right of Return is a chimera, a dream dangled before their eyes by their leaders like a hypnotist’s show. And UN refugee status is a tired old delusion perpetuated by UNRWA to justify its existence and well-paid salaries, and the Arab League as a fig leaf for their pusillanimity. UNWRA’s definition was at fault from day one and whilst creating generational refugeedom, engendered false hope, unrealisable dreams, and a road-block to subsequent peace efforts. But it ought to be addressed sympathetically and not summarily swept off the table in like manner to the matter of Jerusalem.  “The Return” (al Awda) is deeply implanted in the Palestinian collective memory – as is “the key’, a a symbol, of a memory, of one day returning – to homes, villages, suburbs, towns, lives and livelihoods lost in al Nakba. These are rooted in the Palestinian conscience like a faith that cannot be denied, because denying it would mean uprooting the lynch-pin upon which modern Palestinian history and identity depends.

According to the Vision, Israel does not deem it justified to foot the bill for the refugees of al Nakba and al Naksa, the generation and their successors who are also registered as refugees in perpetuity under UNRWA’s questionable criteria. The onus will be upon Palestine and neighbouring Arab countries who have refused to recognize their own Palestinian refugees as citizens to sort this one out – with some goodwill and financial assistance from the international community. For, why indeed should the world continue to pay for Palestinian refugees? By way of explanation, the Vision notes that the international community is struggling to find sufficient funds to address the needs of the over 70 million refugees and displaced persons in the world today. And what’s more: “the State of Israel deserves compensation for the costs of absorbing Jewish refugees from those countries. A just, fair and realistic solution for the issues relating to Jewish refugees must be implemented through an appropriate international mechanism separate from the Israel-Palestinian Peace Agreement”. So, “upon the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, Palestinian refugee status will cease to exist, and UNWRA will be terminated and its responsibilities transitioned to the relevant governments”. End of story.

Let My People Go

All prisoners in Israel jails will be released on signature of a peace agreement commencing straightaway with minors, women, and seniors, then all others who meet Israel’s release criteria – but all must first sign an undertaking not to say or do anything that annoys Israel. Then there are those who Israel won’t and will never release. There is no mention in the Vision, neither in the historical preamble nor the detail, of a policy of indefinite detention that has seen tens of thousands of minors incarcerated. It is as if the fifty year old occupation and its punitive system of passes and checkpoints, of demolitions and administrative detention, and the civilian population’s continuing resistance to it have occurred in some parallel dimension.

Moreover, the refusal to acknowledge the emotional and psychological influence of the prisoners issue – which has impacted on the loves of thousands upon thousands of people who have passed through the penal system or are still enmeshed within it, and their families and friends, much like the dismissal of al Quds and al Awda, could be interpreted as negligence bordering on contempt.

Borderlines

A territorial swap gives Israel what is already controls – the fertile, strategic Jordan valley in return for two arid and barren strips of land at the fag end of the Negev Desert, bordering on the bleak and unforgiving Sinai, and a chunk of unutilized desert south-east of Hebron. Sure, Israel has a well justified reputation for “making the deserts bloom”, and the many towns, farms and vineyards of the Negev is testament to that. But chucking a bunch of money and technology at a brace of “development” zones strung along a dangerous and well guarded border hardly seems like a fair swap. Nor does a neat new network of highways between scattered Palestinian towns and villages, and segregated access to two Israeli ports (Gaza’s historically famous harbour will not be resurrected). Meanwhile, international boarders are the sole business of Israel, with the compliant assistance Egypt and Jordan.

The Triangle

This is an area originally designated as Jordanian in 1949, but were retained by Israel for military reasons. These communities largely self-identify as Palestinians, and they can now be Palestinians. – notwithstanding the fact that very, very few Israel Arabs would want to live in an Arab state, even if that state was Palestine. And indeed, residents commenced their protests immediately the proposal was mooted.

Freebie

“Every country spends a very significant sum of money on its defense from external threats. The State of Palestine will not be burdened with such costs, because it will be shouldered by the State of Israel. This is a significant benefit for the economy of the State of Palestine since funds that would otherwise be spent on defense can instead be directed towards healthcare, education, infrastructure and other matters to improve Palestinians’ well-being”. So, “don’t  worry, be happy,”

Gonna Build a Lego House

The US and Israel will not accept the establishment of a state of Palestine until the Palestinians attain certain standards of good governance. These include a constitution or another system for establishing the rule of law that provides for freedom of press, free and fair elections, respect for human rights for its citizens, protections for religious freedom and for religious minorities to observe their faith, uniform and fair enforcement of law and contractual rights, due process under law, and an independent judiciary with appropriate legal consequences and punishment established for violations of the law. They include also: transparent, independent, and credit-worthy financial institutions capable of engaging in international market transactions in the same manner as financial institutions of western democracies with appropriate governance to prevent corruption and ensure the proper use of such funds, a legal system to protect investments and to address market-based commercial expectations, and meet the independent objective criteria to join the International Monetary Fund. Palestine must establish civilian and law enforcement control over all of its territory and demilitarize its population. And it must also end all programs, including school curricula and textbooks, that serve to incite or promote hatred or antagonism towards its neighbours, or which compensate or incentivise criminal or violent activity.

Once these fortuitous conditions are established to the satisfaction of the US and Israel, “The United States will encourage other countries to welcome the State of Palestine as a full member in international organizations”. Whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong and indeed everything right with this wish-list, this world’s best practice if you will, of good governance – and as the Vision indeed states, no country, least of all Israel wants a failed state on its doorstep – the sad fact is that most countries in the world would fail these worthy and worthwhile criteria, including the Arab countries the US is looking to for support for its project.

Lucky Old Jordan

Whilst matters of borders and security are to be managed by Israel and the US, in close cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, Jordan cops much of the burden of the nation building project: “By virtue of territorial proximity, cultural affinity and family ties, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is well placed to play a distinctive role in providing this assistance in fields such as law, medicine, education, municipal services, historic preservation and institution building. In a manner consistent with the dignity and autonomy of a future State of Palestine, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will offer long-term, on-the-ground assistance in designing relevant institutions and procedures and training of relevant personnel. The objective of such assistance will be to help the Palestinians build strong and well governed institutions”. As noted above, the irony is that cash-strapped, authoritarian  Jordan – and indeed most nations in the Middle East – would find it hard to reach the standards of good governance now demanded by the US and Israel.

The Company We Keep

On the subject of less than perfect enablers and abettors, we’d like to thank … “Much appreciation is owed to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its role in the creation of the Arab Peace Initiative, which inspired some of the ideas contemplated by this “Vision”. And acknowledgment too to Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE without whose cooperation and input, this “Vision” would not have been possible”. And yet, as the risk of bearing on a dead horse, none of these would seriously subscribe those qualities and qualifiers that would in the US and Israeli eyes render the prospective state of Palestine suitable to be admitted to the community of nations.

Who’s Country Is This Anyway?

And finally, after the prospective state of Palestine has met all the standards, criteria, qualifies and metrics (I did say the Vision read like a business plan), after neigbouring Arabs states have shouldered their various designated burdens, and the international community have coughed up much of the cash to pave the path to prosperity, all matters related to security and demilitarization, and based upon its own interpretation, Israel has the right to intrude, intervene, interfere, interdict, and otherwise involve itself in the affairs, interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the ostensibly independent State of Palestine.

I am reminded of what Hannibal Lecter says to FBI  Agent Starling when asking her what motivates serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’: “He covets”, Lecter says. “That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? … We begin by coveting what we see every day … And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?”

So, what now? 

A month has passed since that coopted corroboree in the Oval Room. To quote Rudyard Kipling, “The tumult and the shouting dies; the Captains and the Kings depart”. Israel’s elections are fast approaching, and are expected to be as inconclusive as the previous two, raising the prospect of a fourth – and continuing political paralysis. The world’s fickle focus has shifted to the coronavirus, China’s Belt and Road tilt at global  aggrandisement,  the bitterest of US elections, and Syrian Idlib’s cruelest of winters. The “deal of the century” has receded into the background noise. But it will not go away, nor will it’s apparent absence make hearts grow fonder.

Ha’Aretz nailed it with a headline: “Trump’s unreal deal: No peace, no plan, no Palestinians, no point”. And in Canada’s Globe and Mail, Israeli author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi wrote’: “The Trump plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace will almost certainly go the way of all the other failed blueprints to resolve our 100-year conflict. With leaders across the Arab world backing Palestinian opposition, the plan will likely remain an American-Israeli conversation about peace – a wedding without the bride. And yet the release of the plan has had one bracing consequence: It has exposed deeply held myths among both Israelis and Palestinians”.

Some say that this deeply flawed, one-sided and duplicitous Vision was designed to fail, and peevishly contemptuous and prejudiced comments about the Palestinians by Jarred Kushner immediately after their immediate repudiation of his Vision appear to hammer home that conclusion. But should it indeed join previous plans on the garbage tip of barren and broken hopes, it doesn’t warrant or deserve a second coming. Presently, with the status quo effectively frozen, the Israel determines the rules of play. But it does put a ball in the Palestinians’ court. They really do need to get something happening outside the dominant and dominating US-Israeli paradigm that doesn’t involve violence, useless rhetoric and impotent willy-wagging as this just plays into their detractors’ hands. If they, the Palestinians, were able to get their act together (including acquiring half-decent leaders and achieving some of the governance performance indicators highlights in the Vision), they could do what Hawkeye and Trapper did in the uneven football game in Mash, the movie : steal the ball – and throw in a new one.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

In That Howling Infinite, see also:  Jerusalem, and A Middle East Miscellany

Al Mifta مفتاح

Author’s Note

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 in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.   

The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.

I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.

Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.

Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.

But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.

Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.

Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.

So what happens next?

I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”

One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.

October 8th 2017

For more posts on Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East, visit:
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See also, my collection of posts about Jerusalem, and A Middle East Micellany

The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen

In the last of our posts commemorating 1968, we pay tribute to author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck who died fifty years ago this month.

Back in the day, The Grapes of Wrath was included in our GCE A level curriculum, nearly thirty years after its publication and its iconic status. It was, to our formative minds, a pleasantly surprising choice. In the mid ‘sixties, before Vietnam became the quagmire that sapped America’s blood and treasure and trashed its post-war reputation as a force for good in the world, the land of the free and home of the brave was also was a beacon of bright consumerism, great movies, and pop music. The idea of an American novel in English Lit, so long the preserve of Britain’s literary canon, wonderful though it was, has a certain excitement to it. It gave to us a new literary language, a different sensibility, a fresh perspective.

But Steinbeck’s America was new to us, an America far removed from of the hope and glory that we’d been accustomed to in the years following what was seen as the US’ triumph in World War Two (the costly and critical contribution of the Soviet Union, now our ostensible foe, was singularly downplayed during these years). The Grapes of Wrath was a revelation, an eye-opener, a primer, indeed, for a youthful awareness and politicisation that would be further nurtured by the escalating war in Indochina and the rise and rise of the civil rights movement in the US.

The inevitable examination question in the summer 1967 was exactly that: why were studying an American novel? Any discerning reader taking in the opening pages of chapter one can answer this in a trice. The simple beauty, the lyrical and descriptive power, the gradual but relentlessly unfolding narrative is such that I can recite parts of it from memory over half a century later.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

I have reproduced chapter one in full below. In a few short pages, it describes how the the last rains fell on Oklahoma’s cornfields and how the searing summer sun rendered the land to dust, creating the dust bowl so chillingly portrayed by filmmaker Ken Burns in his singular documentary of that name, and propelling tens of thousands of destitute ‘Okies’ “on the long, hard road of flight” (as Bob Dylan would describe it in Chimes of Freedom)  to California. As a literary record of an unfolding environmental disaster, it is without equal.  It is poetical, powerful, and profoundly unsettling, and there’s worse to follow.

There are few books that strike such a chord with me – books that I reread in whole or in part once in a while, often aloud, just for the verbal and lyrical thrill. Moby-Dick is such a one, Herman Melville’s classic treatise on seafaring, whales and obsession – from which this blog takes its name – particularly chapter forty one which brilliantly describes the demented and doomed sea captain’s descent into madness.

Whilst few writers can lay claim to have written the “great American novel”, Steinbeck and Melville cracked the code. My own personal contender would also be CE Morgan’s Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family – the “kings” of the title. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. Morgan’s debt to Steinbeck  is transparent in her descriptive power.

Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth. 

Following the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, I republish an informative essay from The Independent with regard to a new biography of Steinbeck on the anniversary of his death. He was a gifted, complex and at times, unpleasant man. His stories of the lives of migrants and workers during US’ Great Depression, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, and his short stories Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, resonate today, prefiguring as they do the mass migration of populations due to climate changes, infrastructure collapse, the heartless hypocrisy of trickle-down economics, the reluctance and even refusal of the powers-that-be to help those cast by the wayside or onto the scarp-heap, and the demonisation of those are forced to take to the roads and oceans of the world in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children.

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

“People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California. They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

I recall Tom Joad’s parting words in the 1940 film adaptation when he leaves his family to fight for social and economic justice:

“You don’t aim to kill nobody, Tom?”
“No. I been thinkin’, long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could — Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’ worry me now. Don’ worry me.”
They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one – an’ then -”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build –  why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

And now, let Steinbeck set the scene for why Tom Joad and his family abandon their farm, pile their possessions on on old truck and head into the west …


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rainheads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rainheads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.

A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.

When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.

In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning they knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break the children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the Watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves That no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the Day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and Little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Steinbeck, who will be the subject of a new biography in 2019. The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath was a complicated and controversial man, explains Martin Chilton in The Independent 20th December 2018 

New light was shed on the writer when interviews given by his second wife were found in a loft in Wales last year

“I have left a lot of tracks in my life,” said John Steinbeck, a giant of 20th-century literature, who died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 66. Novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden made him world famous, yet some of the truth about his past has taken half a century to come to light. Steinbeck was a complicated and contradictory man – and weirder than you might have thought.

Mad at the World is the title of a new biography to be published in 2019, and there is little doubt that Steinbeck was an angry man. He was outraged by injustice, poverty and prejudice, as his books make clear. He was also capable of more personal animosities, whether that was towards Adolf Hitler, his second wife or even book reviewers (“what lice they are”).

The quirkiness of his character was evident at a young age. Steinbeck was already dreaming about becoming a professional writer when he enrolled as an English major at Stanford University at the age of 17. He tried to sign up for a practical course in how to dissect corpses. “I want to learn about human beings,” he told a clearly unimpressed dean of the medical school. His application was rejected. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (1940), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).

Although he never got the chance to cut up bodies, he was to spend a lot of time in hospital, because illness and freakish accidents were a recurrent theme in his life. The pattern started at high school in Salinas, the Californian town where he was born on 27 February 1902. At age 16, Steinbeck contracted pleural pneumonia and came close to death. A doctor saved him by cutting through his rib cage to drain the fluid. Around a year later, he was seriously ill again and had to have his appendix removed.

Things were little better in adulthood. He had a serious kidney infection that required hospital treatment. He had an operation on a detached retina, an operation to remove varicose veins and another to repair a shattered knee cap after a balcony rail gave way on the second floor of his Manhattan home. In 1959 he suffered a stroke, in 1960 he had a suspected heart attack. At the end of his life, he was poleaxed by a back injury that required complicated surgery.

As fate would have it, an injury to a stranger was one of the decisive factors in pushing Steinbeck towards full-time writing. After leaving Stanford without graduating, he had spells working on farms and as a painter’s apprentice before moving to New York in the mid-1920s. In New York, he worked on a building site, ferrying wheelbarrows loaded with 100 pounds of cement, during the construction of Madison Square Garden. Six weeks into the job, a co-worker fell to a bloody death near where Steinbeck stood. The horrific sight made Steinbeck throw up. He quit his job that night.

His uncle helped him land a job as a reporter for the New York American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, but he quickly became disillusioned by journalism and returned to California. He worked as a tour guide and it was in that job he met his first wife Carol Henning. His wedding came shortly after the publication of his first novel, 1929’s Cup of Gold. It was the start of a career that would produce 16 novels and novellas, two sets of short stories, 11 non-fiction books, two plays, two screenplays and a large volume of letters.

Steinbeck sometimes played up to the image of a struggling writer whose upbringing was hard financially. Throughout the 1920s, however, Steinbeck was getting an allowance from his father, the treasurer of Monterey County, of $50 ($700 or £550 in today’s terms) a month. “Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants,” said his biographer Jay Parini in 1994. “His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris,” Parini added.

After a series of well-received novels, including 1935’s Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck won critical acclaim in 1937 for his novella Of Mice and Men, the moving portrait-in-miniature of 1930s California, seen through the friendship of oddball ranch workers George and Lennie. Two years later came The Grapes of Wrath, one of the defining novels of the 20th century, a work of rich descriptive power, in which Steinbeck showed his ability to summon poetry out of poverty in the lives of the “Okie” Joad family.

This deeply affecting story about the oppression of migrant workers, who were fleeing from the Dust Bowl states to California, struck a chord with an America reeling from the Great Depression. By February 1940, the novel was in its 11th printing, having sold nearly half a million copies. More than 15 million copies were bought in the next eight decades and around 50,000 copies are still bought in America every year.

The impact of Steinbeck’s work on the American people was momentous. When I met the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, he told me Steinbeck “was one of the people who turned my life around as a young man”, inspiring “a lifelong love of literature”. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, “I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.”

The 1940 film adaptation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda, is considered a Hollywood classic. Only a bitter legal dispute over the writer’s estate (between Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck) prevented Steven Spielberg from going ahead with his proposed remake of the movie in 2017.

Steinbeck rarely gave interviews, but in 1952 he spoke to the radio network Voice of America about how he had been “filled with anger” at the ill-treatment of migrant workers. “People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California,” Steinbeck said. “They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

Many years later, it emerged that the FBI file had begun to keep files on the writer at this time, justifying it with claims that “many of Steinbeck’s writings portrayed an extremely sordid and poverty-stricken side of American life”. Thankfully, more enlightened minds than FBI director J Edgar Hoover were in positions of influence when Steinbeck won literature’s most illustrious award. It is notable that the Nobel committee praised his “keen social perception”.

The Grapes of Wrath was making Steinbeck world famous just as the 41-year-old began to fall for a 22-year-old nightclub singer called Gwyn Conger, whom he married in 1943. Three decades later, as a divorcee in her late fifties, Conger gave a series of interviews in Palm Springs to a show business writer called Douglas Brown. These interviews remained unpublished for more than four decades, until they were discovered in a loft in Wales in 2017.

After they had two children together – Thomas, born in 1944, and John Steinbeck IV, born in 1946 – the acrimony became unbearable and she divorced him in 1948. “The impulse of the American woman is to geld her husband and castrate her sons,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend shortly after his marriage ended. “American married life is the doormat to the whorehouse.” He would exact his revenge a few years later when he based Cathy, the wicked alcoholic character in East of Eden, on Conger. He would also fight her in court throughout the next decade to avoid paying child support.

Steinbeck, a heavy drinker, was not blind to his own failings and mood swings. “I know of no sadder people than those who believe their own publicity,” he said. Steinbeck had suffered from bouts of depression in the 1940s and even after meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, he was frequently brought low by what he called his “what-the-hell blues”. Steinbeck said he “hit the bottom” in October 1953, a year after the publication of East of Eden, when he was treated at Lenox Hill Hospital by psychologist Gertrudis Brenner. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ,” he remarked.

In this period of mental health problems, he produced some of the strangest work of his career. In 1955, he published a short story called The Affair at 7 Rue de M, a horror-like tale about a child who is unable to get rid of a piece of bubble gum. Wherever he puts it, the gum keeps finding its way back into the boy’s mouth. In desperation, the father cements the gum to a dining table and it takes a week for the piece of gum to die. Steinbeck later burned dozens of stories from this period. He also abandoned a novel about a man who watches one too many westerns on television and then puts on a cowboy hat and heads out to be an urban vigilante.

Poet Ezra Pound once dismissed accounts of a writer’s life as a mere “laundry list” and Steinbeck shared this disdain for focusing on the personal life of an author. Perhaps he has a point. What can we ultimately conclude from the knowledge that Steinbeck preferred writing with pencils (using up to 60 in a day), that he liked jazz, enjoyed playing the harmonica, laughed at jokes by Bob Hope, preferred smoking small cigars and regularly snacked on tuna-covered crackers, washed down by red wine?

“The fact that I have housemaid’s knees or fear yellow gloves has little to do with the books I write,” he said. He derided the public’s need to “create a Steinbeck out of its own imagination” and insisted there were more important matters on which to focus. In 1938, for example, shocked by reports of the Nazi looting and burning of Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany, he was among a small band of writers, including Dorothy Parker, who sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging him to cut all ties with Hitler. Steinbeck became a war correspondent for The New York Herald during the subsequent conflict, reporting from England, North Africa and Italy.

Steinbeck was certainly a progressive in a backward era of race relations. He asked for his name to be taken off the screenplay for the wartime Alfred Hitchcock film The Lifeboat, because he was furious that the “dignified and purposeful” black character he had created had been “distorted”. He wrote to 20th Century Fox to complain about the addition of “a stock comedy negro”, blaming them for “strange and sly obliquities”. Not only did the Fox bosses deny his request, they actively stepped up a publicity campaign that highlighted Steinbeck as the screenwriter. The Oscar nomination he received simply added salt to the wound.

Despite these laudable actions, he was not above his own dirty tactics. In 1958, he was asked by Adlai Stevenson’s fixer, William McCormick Blair Jr, to write a novel that featured a corrupt version of presidential candidate Richard M Nixon. Steinbeck rejected the idea and instead suggested attacks on Nixon’s character, “kidney punch” zingers as he called them, such as starting rumours about Nixon and wife-beating. “All of these are dirty, but as I said, the man who tries Queensberry against gutter fighting is going to get the hell kicked out of him,” Steinbeck wrote to Blair.

John Updike said that for most Americans in the post-war era, Steinbeck’s reputation was as “a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent”, but during the 1960s Steinbeck’s politics moved away from the liberalism that had earned him a reputation as America’s social conscience. He became friends with President Johnson (helping him to write his acceptance speech) and reported sympathetically on the Vietnam war from late 1966 to early 1967.

Observers in Vietnam noted Steinbeck’s fascination for American weaponry, especially the Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It could fire a hundred rounds of 50-calibre bullets every second. The writer loved going target practice shooting with the same type of M16 rifle the troops carried. He even manned a US army outpost during a night of sporadic fire.

His sons Thomas and John were on active duty in the US army at the time of his visit. John later became a fierce opponent of the war, a stance that put him at odds with Steinbeck, who wrote publicly about how Vietnam peace protesters gave him “a shiver of shame”. Steinbeck derided the hippie demonstrators for their “dirty clothes, dirty minds and their shuffling drag-ass protests”.

It is a characteristically odd twist that the 64-year-old who was able to survive a night taking on the Vietcong – and an attack on a helicopter in which he was a passenger – did himself irreparable harm with the innocuous action of lifting some beer. In Hong Kong, travelling back from Vietnam with his wife Elaine, he helped a Chinese delivery man. As he lifted the case of beer, he ruptured a spinal disc. Six months later, still in agonising pain, he had a five-hour operation on his back. The last few months before his death from a heart attack at his East 72nd Street home in New York were deeply miserable.

Biographers Jackson Benson (1984) and Jay Parini (1995) have previously battled with the character of Steinbeck and that challenge has now been taken up by William Souder, whose biography Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century will be published by WW Norton & Company in 2019.

There is no shortage of fascinating material for Pulitzer finalist Souder to re-examine. As well as Steinbeck’s writing (the prize-winning novels and less-well known masterpieces such as Cannery Row, The Pearl and Sweet Thursday), there is his sometimes madcap life, such as his drunken treasure-hunting escapades in the Bahamas. Even his friend, the noted psychological novelist Sherwood Anderson, admitted that he couldn’t “figure out Steinbeck”.

With Steinbeck, the unexpected was the norm. When his New York house was burgled in 1963, for example, the police report listed the stolen items as “a television set and six rifles”. The writer enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of humans. When he was asked for his “rules for life” by a friend in Vietnam, Steinbeck replied with his four mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.”

Souder says he is excited by the challenge of writing about such a complex figure. “One of the things that attracted me to Steinbeck is that he was far from perfect – as a man, a husband, a writer, he had issues,” Souder told the website Steinbeck Now. “He had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He got side-tracked by ideas that were a waste of his time and talent. Some of his work is brilliant and some of it is awful. That’s what you want in a subject – a hero with flaws. Steinbeck was a literary giant who wouldn’t play along with the idea that he was important. I love that. He was mad at the world because it seemed somehow mad at him.”

Steinbeck wasn’t always mad at the world, though. Ten years before his death, this conflicted genius wrote a memorable letter to Thomas Steinbeck (the full version is available here), after his 14-year-old son revealed he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan.

“There are several kinds of love,” he wrote, signing the letter as “Fa”. “One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had … don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

These tender and optimistic words of advice remain, like Steinbeck’s best writing, an absolute joy, despite the flaws of the man.


Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Phil Och’s Chicago Blues ; and Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rockWindow on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club

When Freedom Comes

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
Bob Dylan, Chimes of Freedom

Hear the cry in the tropic night, should be the cry of love but it’s a cry of fright
Some people never see the light till it shines through bullet holes
Bruce Cockburn, Tropic Moon

When Freedom Comes is a tribute to Robert Fisk, indomitable, veteran British journalist and longtime resident of Beirut, who could say without exaggeration “I walk among the conquered, I walk among the dead” in “the battlegrounds and graveyards” of “long forgotten armies and long forgotten wars”. It’s all there, in his grim tombstone of a book, The Great War for Civilization (a book I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century – but it takes stamina –  at near in 1,300 pages – and a strong stomach – its stories are harrowing).

The theme, alas, is timeless, and the lyrics, applicable to any of what Rudyard called the “savage wars of peace” being waged all across our planet, yesterday, today and tomorrow – and indeed any life-or-death battle in the name of the illusive phantom of liberty and against those intent on either denying it to us or depriving us of it. “When freedom runs through dogs and guns, and broken glass” could describe Paris and Chicago in 1968 or Kristallnacht in 1938. If it is about any struggle in particular, it is about the Palestinians and their endless, a fruitless yearning for their lost land. Ironically, should this ever be realized, freedom is probably the last thing they will enjoy. They like others before them will be helpless in the face of vested interest, corruption, and brute force, at the mercy of the ‘powers that be’ and the dead hand of history.

The mercenaries and the robber bands, the warlords and the big men, az zu’ama’, are the ones who successfully “storm the palace, seize the crown”. To the victors go the spoils – the people are but pawns in their game.

There goes the freedom fighter,
There blows the dragon’s breath.
There stands the sole survivor;
The time-worn shibboleth.
The zealots’ creed, the bold shahid,
Give me my daily bread
I walk among the conquered
I walk among the dead

Here comes the rocket launcher,
There runs the bullets path,
The revolution’s father,
The hero psychopath.
The wanting seed, the aching need
Fulfill the devil’s pact,
The incremental balancing
Between the thought and act.

The long-forgotten army
In the long-forgotten war.
Marching to a homeland.
We’ve never seen before.
We feel the wind that blows so cold amidst
The leaves of grass.
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass

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.

The long-forgotten army
In the long-forgotten war.
Marching to a homeland.
We’ve never seen before.
We feel the wind that blows so cold amidst
The leaves of grass.
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On heaven and on earth,
And each shall make his sacrifice,
And each shall know his worth.
In stockade and on barricade
The song will now be heard
The incandescent energy
Gives substance to the word.

Missionaries, soldiers,
Ambassadors ride through
The battlegrounds and graveyards
And the fields our fathers knew.
Through testament and sacrament,
The prophecy shall pass.
When freedom runs through clubs and guns,
And broken glass.

The long-forgotten army
In the long-forgotten war.
Marching to a homeland.
We’ve never seen before.
We feel the wind that blows so cold amidst
The leaves of grass.
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass

© Paul Hemphill 2012

From: Into That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill Volume 5. See also: East – An Arab Anthology , and: A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

Throwing Abbas Under the Bus

You’re sposed to sit on you ass and nod at stupid things
Man that’s hard to do
But if you don’t they’ll screw you
And if you do they’ll screw you too
And I’m standing in the middle of the diamond all alone
I always play to win when it comes to skin and bone
Warren Zevon, Bill Lee

The details of US President Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal” for resolving the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict have been leaked, surmised or imagined – no one can be sure at this stage – for a while now. And it is one that the Palestinians would never agree to.

We provide below a selection of articles that discus the intimations, imperfections and implications of the plan that will ostensibly succeed where all other efforts have foundered because as Donald Trump has stated many times, “that is what I do”.

The US has lost its credibility as an “honest broker”, if it ever was one, that is. It is impossible to be a mediator in a conflict or develop a credible peace plan when one side refuses to even talk to you. Palestinian leaders have not met with senior U.S. officials for the past six months, not since Trump announced that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Move, it did! And now there are hints that the plan actually takes Jerusalem off the negotiating table.

The Palestinians are in a bind. If they reject the deal, especially one accepted by Israel, the Israeli government could once again argue that it has no partner on the Palestinian side, and move towards annexing large parts of the West Bank, which indeed a number of Israeli openly advocate, rendering the ever-receding prospect of the two-state solution impossible. The end result would push the sides even further apart.

The dice are loaded and the deal is rotten in what is a win-lose game. The nationalists and settlers would would be delighted, and the Palestinians on one hand and the Israeli opposition on the other would be simultaneously cut out and boxed in.

Veteran Middle East correspondent and long time Lebanese resident Robert Fisk pulls no punches. “Is there no humiliation left for the Palestinians?” he asks. Soon to be granted the ultimate deal that, in Jared Kushner’s word, “will give them and their future generations new opportunities, more and better paying jobs and prospects for a better life.” Is Trump’s son-in-law – “adviser” on the Middle East, real estate developer and US investor – delusional? After three Arab-Israeli wars, tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths and millions of refugees, does Jared Kushner really believe that the Palestinians will settle for cash?… How can he humiliate an entire Arab people by suggesting that their freedom, sovereignty, independence, dignity, justice and nationhood are merely “politicians’ talking points”. “ The Palestinians, he states, will not be bought for a fistful of dollars Saudi, US or EU.

Yes they can, and maybe, they will …Maybe the prospect of a quiet, normal life with jobs for young (important given the depressingly high youth unemployment) and old and brass in pocket, might persuade ordinary Palestinians to accept the political and economic normalisation of what would be occupation-lite.

Meanwhile, there are reports that”moderate” Arab countries are supporting the US’s diktat. The current US-Gulf-israel nexus was a work-in-progress during the Obama years and whilst Donald Trump was but a candidate, and now he has delegated carriage of the “ultimate deal” to his neophyte, demonstratively pro-Israeli son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The plan is to remove the Palestinian problem off the table so that they can concentrate on their real enemy, Shiite Iran.

As for those ostensible “Moderates”, the term is an oxymoron. Saudi and the Gulf emirs are tyrants, autocrats and complicit lick-spittles who’d sell out the Palestinians (and the Israelis too, if they could) if they could conscript American blood and treasure in their perennial Sunni grudge match with Shi’a Iran. King Abdullah of Jordan is wise not to trust this shady bunch. With domestic troubles of his own, and over half of his subjects of Palestinian descent, he has good reason to be careful. Dependent on foreign aid, however, he would be vulnerable to US and Saudi pressure. Pressure is also being exerted on Egypt’s dictator al Sissi. Whilst needful of US and Saudi cash, he is probably wary of stirring up further trouble at home with the economic situation still dire, the Islamist threat in the Sinai unabated, and Gaza presenting a clear and present powder-keg on the eastern border. He has enough stuff to deal with without buying into an anti-Iranian alliance and a deal that the Palestinian will not accept. Neither Trump, Israel nor the Gulf plutocrats are popular on the Arab street.

There is talk of Saudi Arabia pumping money into a resurgent, potentially Singaporean Palestine (they do gild this hallucinatory lily). But this doesn’t gel with reports that the kingdom is in financial straits and has enough trouble at the moment at home, with Yemen, and with an ascendant Iran. Overweening crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, however, often ventures where angels fear to tread. That he has peremptorily “summoned” King Abdullah and Abbas to Riyadh with no apparent success (much like that farce with the Lebanese prime minister), might suggest that he has less influence over his fellow Arabs than he or his American pals imagine.

Meanwhile, corrupt, coopted and ailing old Abbas and his very unpopular PA, watching the Kushner caravan bumping over the rocky ground of Middle Eastern politics, would perhaps be wise to hang out for a fairer deal – should that deal ever come along.

It’s going to be an interesting journey.

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/palestine-jared-kushner-ultimate-plan-israel-donald-trump-jerusalem-right-to-return-a8420836.html
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/18/donald-trumps-new-world-order
Kushner’s Peace Plan Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen
https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/jared-kushner-latest-middle-east-tour-180624111143134.html
Mohammed bin Salman Has Thrown the Palestinians Under the Bus

Read other posts about Israel and Palestine in In The Howling Infinite in A Middle East Miscellany:

https://howlinginfinite.com/eastward-aye-he-wandered-reflections-on-the-middle-east/

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

 

Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land

Winston Churchill defined the fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Celebrated Israel author Amos Oz argues against religious fundamentalism, political cynicism and wishful thinking, reflecting on the rise of fundamentalism, and how, in an increasingly complex world, we take cover in xenophobia, religious fanatic­ism, and isolationism. He argues against fanaticism and for the acceptance of differences of opinion, celebrating the Jewish tradition of disputation, interpretation and persuasion and discovering an “anarchist gene” that thrives on disagreement as the perfect antidote to dogma.

Some people argue that Israeli commentators like Amos Oz, David Grossman, Gideon Levi, Uri Avnery, Ari Shavit, and Sarah Tuttle-Singer are cliche-bound idealists who love the Israel they wish to see, and not the one of a real, mutable and dangerous world. Fanatics and zealots themselves, indeed.  It is a valid if over-the-top criticism, but does not detract from what they are telling us. They, like their critics love their country with all their hearts. But they and ourselves all have our idealized homeland, a Dreamtime of our memories and imaginations, and it is, in a way, a kind of “magical thinking”. The irony is that the outside, “western” world often appears to share the same, romanticized, idealized and unrealistic concept of what Israel was, is and ought to be, and harshly holds it to that lofty standard regardless of the fact that no nation , however heroic and  glamourous its creation story, is pure and innocent.

Nevertheless, Australian publisher Louse Adler distills perfectly the message of this timely, perceptive book:


Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, by Amos Oz
Louse Adler, The Australian May 26, 2018

Writing about the Middle East may be considered timely, given the latest battles between the Israeli military and the citizens of Gaza. Yet this impasse has been in urgent need of resolution for 70 years.

Whether you celebrate the establishment of the state of Israel or mourn it as the Nakba, what remains a tragedy is the lack of a just solution that brings peace to the region and recognises the equally rights of competing claims.

Dear Zealots: Letters From a Divided Land, the 40th book from Israeli writer Amos Oz, ­offers the slimmest hope that peace may be possible, and a dire warning about the unholy coalition of anti-democratic forces that may thwart progress. Criticism of Zionism and contemporary Israeli politics is de rigueur in ­Israel, often cited as a testimony to this democratic island isolated in the midst of a fundamentalist Middle East. It is a truism that debate in Israel is robust and that critics of the state are afforded the right to dissent.

Despite treason accusations and the issuing of death threats, writers and journalists such as Oz, David Grossman, Etgar Keret and Gideon Levy continue to identify the moral malaise infecting Israeli society while the occupation of Palestine continues and settlements increase.

But these longstanding and courageous oppo­nents of the government’s attitudes to its neighbours have had little impact, ­despite their oratorical skills, international visib­ility and credibility. Great writers continue to write, speak out, sign petitions and ­demon­strate to no avail. Paradoxically, beyond Israel it is almost impossible to speak about governme­nt policies without inciting the wrath of its loyal defenders.

Into this seemingly intractable quagmire Oz has lobbed his latest literary missile. He argues against religious fundamentalism, political cynicism and wishful thinking. In three powerful essays he reflects on the rise of fundamentalism and why, in an increasingly complex world, we take cover in xenophobia, religious fanatic­ism, isolationism.

Winston Churchill defined the fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Dear Zealots is an argument against fanaticism and for the acceptance of differences of opinion. Only Oz could include Israel’s “hilltop thugs”, Islamophobes, the Ku Klux Klan and Islamic State in one sentence; adding veganism, smoking and breastfeeding to this catalogue of zealotry. Against the rise of the zealot Oz celebrates the Jewish tradition of disputation, interpretation and persuasion. His discovery of an “anarchist gene” that thrives on disagreement is the perfect antidote to dogma.

Oz loves Israel. He tends to romanticise the place, pointing to the country’s eight million prime ministers, eight million prophets and eight million messiahs. However, a cacophony of voices­ and opinions doesn’t ensure­ a genuinely democratic state. A state that does not offer full rights to all citizens, a state in­extricably bound by religious authority, where there is no separation of church and state, imperils democracy.

The conflation of Israeli political practice and Jewish heritage makes it difficult to prise apart the state, the residual impact of its eastern European founders, religious influences and the challenging ethnic demographics of the polity.

Oz rages against Halachic Judaism, a form of religious piety demanding blind faith, investing God with supreme authority and believing the Torah protects Jews from assimilation. In Halachic Judaism, the history of the Jewish people is an unchanging story of sin, suffering and ­repent­ance. According to this logic, the innocent victims of the Holocaust, like those killed in Israeli military service, are martyrs sanctifying God’s name. Where else do we hear this today?

Who is a Jew remains a fundamental question. The answer delivers remarkable consensus. Everyone seems to agree that the most Jewish Jews are the “black hats”. Next are the settlers, then the trad­itional Jews who drive to synagogue but don’t eat prawns, then the Jews who are lost. The worst are the Jewish anti-Zionists, lefties who go on about human rights and peace.

Oz argues Jewish identity does not derive from holding fast to religious orthodoxy but is

amassed over generations, customs absorbed from outside which become part of the family, perhaps a certain type of humour, an inclination to be critical and sceptical, to be ironic, self-pitying and sometimes self-righteous, pragmatism tinged with fantasy, ecstasy diluted with scepticism, euphoria blended with pessimism, melancholy cheerfulness, a healthy suspicion of authority and a stubborn resistance to injustice.

The summation by Oz, often described as the secularists’ rabbi, of the commandments is the exhortation “to cause no pain”. That humanist ethos insists on the right of all to equal rights and a dignified life. That principle is disappearing from the fabric of Israel and the moral lacuna­ is being filled by pieties and pessimism.

Fundamentalism in Israel has brought ­together an unholy alliance between the ultra-Orthodox Haredim (anti-Zionist) and the (pro-Zionist) Messianic Jews of the settlements. Neither recognise the authority of the state of Israel. Fortress Israel is also the binding idea for Israel’s religious fundamentalists and political right; they perpetuate the myth of Is­rael being forever in conflict with the rest of the world.

The Israeli left’s attempts to resolve the conflict imply the terrifying prospect that Israel’s exceptionalism will evaporate, its identity will be lost, with assimilation an inevitability. Oz proposes instead that the focus should be on the future, forgetting the border fetishes of both the left and right along with the flags and holy sites.

In the final essay, Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon, Oz argues that Israel hasn’t won a war since 1967 and that, after 100 years of ­struggle, the Palestinian aspiration to self-determinat­ion has not been vanquished. There is justice and injustice on both sides in equal measure, and a two-state solution is the only way to ensure the continuation of a Jewish state and justice for the Palestinians. This will require compromise from both, and compromise is the antithesis­ of zealotry.

Dear Zealots is a passionate polemic against dogmatism and defeatism. Viscerally angered by the idea of irreversibility, Oz rejects as ­irrevocable the settlements and occupation. Religiou­s fanatics demand a theocratic state; the right continues to ignore international ­pressure; the left argues that the status quo is apartheid and the only solution is one state. Oz, a left-wing Zionist, opposes occupation but defends­ the historical right of Jews to statehood. He refuses to give up on democracy, on Israel or on justice for Palestinians.

Jews and Arabs are Semites, sharing more than they have chosen to remember, including a sensibility tinged with pessimism. Perhaps we should keep in mind the story of the Jewish optimist­ and the Jewish pessimist. The Jewish pessimist turns to the Jewish optimist and says: “Oy, things can’t get any worse for our people!” The Jewish optimist turns to the Jewish pessim­ist, smiles, and says: “Sure it can!”

It is the oblig­ation of all of us with a social conscience to wish Oz all power to his pen.

Louise Adler is chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing.

Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, By Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus, 224pp, $29.99)

See also, in In That Howling Infinite:  A Middle East Miscellany

Author’s Note: 
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 in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that 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 in TheEthnic 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 Pasionaria, 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 calamatous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
October 8th 2017
For more posts on Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East, visit:
https://m.facebook.com/HowlingInfinite/
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See also, my collection of posts about Jerusalem, and A Middle East Micellany

A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old

Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far away from home

So far away from home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014

Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children of the Revolution

Children of the Revolution

© Paul Hemphill 2013, 2016. All rights reserved

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

Some References

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

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

 

The hand that signed the paper

 


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.

Yours,

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 Agreement of  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.

The Guardian presents an historical overview in its “Long Read” essay, Britain’s Calamatous Promise. 

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 article of 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 Mandate years, they were out-played, outwitted, out-gunned, never really having a chance against the well organized and determined Yishuv with 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.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nehru, Mountbatten and Jinnah

A counterpoint to Freedom at Midnight, is another book also cited as a source for The Viceroy’s House: The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, by former aide to Mountbatten and longtime India civil servant, Narendra Singh Sarila. Whereas Freedom at Midnight sees HMG as virtually handing Mountbatten a free hand in extricating impoverished Britain from unruly and potentially ungovernable India, Sarila, like many Indian historians, sees the Brits as more clever and subtle than in fact they actually were. Perfidious Albion redux. The film juxtaposes a Romeo and Juliet tale of love across the religious divide against Britain’s alleged strategy of creating a friendly Pakistan as a buffer between newly independent and potentially socialistic India and an aggressive Soviet Union, and also, as a prospective British outpost close to the oil fields of Iraq, Iran and Arabia.

It is as if ingenue  India, and Pakistan, the latter viewed by many some British policy makers as little more than an acronym, were set up to fail. And yet, they did not.

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

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

Acclaimed historian and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple, concluded in a succinct review of Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies in The New Yorker:

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

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

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

Postscript

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

Partition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)

ارحم على الامة
ارحم على الأمة المليئة بالمعتقدات والخالية من الدين.
ارحم على الأمة التي تلبس ثوبا لا يحاك.
وتأكل خبزا لا تحصد.
أشفق على الأمة التي تعتبر المتنمر بطلاً ،
ويعتبر منتصرها رائعا.
ارحم أمة تحتقر الشغف في أحلامها
لكنه يخضع لها عندما تستيقظ.
ارحم على الأمة التي لا ترفع صوتها
إلا عندما تمشي في جنازة ،
وتفتخر فقط بين أطلالها ،
ولن تنقذ نفسها عندما توضع رقبتها
بين السيف والكتلة.
ارحم على الأمة التي فيها رجل الدولة وهو ثعلب ،
والفيلسوف مشعوذ
فنه من الترقيع والتقليد
ارحم على الأمة التي تستقبل حاكمها الجديد بصوت عالٍ ،
ويقول وداعا له بسخرية ،
فقط للترحيب بآخر من خلال الاحتفال الصاخب مرة أخرى
ارحم على أمة حكماؤها أغبياء السنين ،
وأولئك الذين لا يزال رجالهم الأقوياء في المهد.
ارحموا الأمة منقسمة ،
وكل قطعة تعتبر نفسها أمة.

خليل جبران

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

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

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

Related posts In That Howling Infinite:

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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