Ghayath al Madhoun – the agony of an exiled poet

Never in modern times – since the Second World War – have there been so many refugees. There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are fleeing from persecution or conflict. Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – including six million Syrians. Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield -. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. five million are Syrians. These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. [See below, The World Refugee Crisis in Brief]

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Somali poet Warsan Shire, Home

A million spaces in the earth to fill, here’s a generation waiting still – we’ve got year after year to kill, but there’s no going home. Steve Knightley, Exile

Historical and social memory, and indeed, remembrance and commemoration, and their opposites, forgetfulness and letting go, are intrinsic to our human story. Often our interpretation of history, and our historical narrative, is a version of what we want rather than what actually existed. And hence, the enduring, enthralling, captivating, and almost existential power of invention, if not quite myth, in the telling of our national stories. It is of particular potency amongst people who have for one reason or another left their native land and reside in another.

It is to varying degrees applicable to all migrants – myself included as a migrant to Australia in the Seventies, and my parents, as working class Irish immigrants to England in the late Nineteen Forties – but it is most poignant and melancholy with respect to exiles and refugees.

“We cannot imagine, us in our safe, comfortable, connected anglophone worlds the pain of exile. We cannot begin to imagine. No amount of empathy and Saint Paul’s exhortation to walk a mile on the shoes of The Other. For thousands, tens of thousands, hundred of thousands, millions even, there is no going home. For there is no home.  “Crying for home”, as Van Morrison so lyrically sung it, the idea of homecoming is a chimera, a forlorn hope. Van the Man could, can, and will forever be able to go home, just as I, an immigrant and the son of immigrants can go home. I can return to my father’s town, my mother’s town, my home town, and London Town”.  From In That Howling Infinite‘s No Going Home

I live in a our country town in northern New South Wales, and work as a community volunteer with Yazidis – mostly Iraqi Kurds but also Syrian. These were the ethnic and religious minority that suffered egregiously at the hands of Islamic State ( and indeed have suffered throughout history at the hands of Muslims who regarded their ancient religion and its rever bee for the mystical Melek Taus, The Peacock Angel, as akin to devil-worship. It is salutary to listen to their stories and to understand how they cleave to their history, faith and culture, and also, hold onto their pain as they adapt to living in Australia. I am conscious of their terrible homesickness, and the pain that they feel because for them, there is no going home – home for many of them no longer exists. I have Bosnian friends from once cosmopolitan Sarajevo who endured the Serbian siege and still have family in Sarajevo and Belgrade. They visit their relatives often but their Bosnia, their Sarajevo, their childhood and youth, indeed, are gone forever.

For the exile, the refugee, the involuntary migrant, their’s is a yearning, a longing, an absence of belonging – an existential homelessness and rootlessness, that is almost like a phantom limb. It is a bereavement, a loss, a spiritual and cultural death that could qualifies for descriptors drawn from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief: (Shock and disbelief), denial, anger, bargaining, depression, (testing) and acceptance.

One way the refugee can assuage his or her anguish is through writing. Chicago librarian and writer Leslie Williams notes: “The literature of exile encompasses bitter, impassioned indictments of unjust, inhumane regimes, but also includes wrenching melancholy for lost homes, lost families, and a lost sense of belonging. The pervasive feeling of rootlessness, of never being quite at home echoes across centuries of exile writing” (read here her The Literature of Exile).

It is from this perspective that we look at the poetry of Syrian Palestinian poet Ghayath al Madhoun. His work is the fruit of two exiles. His father fled Palestine for Syria  in 1967 after the Six Day War, known to Palestinians as al Naksa, ‘the setback’. and the occupation of the West Bank, and marrying a Syrian from Dara’a in southern Syria. He settled in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. Occupied by rebel militias and ultimately Syrian and Russian forces during Syria’s civil war, Yarmouk was devastated and Madhoun fled to Europe, washing up in Stockholm, Sweden, where he now lives and writes.

Yarmouk camp,.Refugees wait for UNRWA food-deliveries February 2014

Of his life as a Palestinian in Syria, he wrote:

How beautiful life would’ve been
if I had an ID card in my pocket.
I’d travel with it to my mother in Daraa
without explaining to the policeman from Idlib
the difference between the Palestinians of 48 and the Palestinians of 67 —
or I’d just lose it as my friends do.

In Sweden, he was a stranger in a strange land – “like an olive tree at the north pole,” he once said. However, the irony is that while he was struggling alone with the northern ice, he became, after the Syrian exodus, a host in the house of exile. In I Can’t Attend, he writes:

In the North, close to God’s boundary wall, enjoying a developed culture, the magic of technology, the latest achievements of human civilization, and under the influence of the drug that grants safety, health insurance, social security and freedom of expression, I lie in the summer sun as if I am a white man and think of the South, contriving excuses to justify my absence.

In an excellent overview of modern Syrian poets, Waeed Wahesh writes that for Madhoun, exile Is a personal war.

“Ghayath al Madhoun’s poetry is full of paradoxes, news, and scientific and historical information. It’s crowded with names. It’s a poetry with appetite for saying. It wants to argue, but it doesn’t want to do that immediately. It conjures more the tools of modern art, especially installation art. A poetic narration comes out of a cluster of vocabulary and miscellaneous meanings. This narration combines magic and real, eastern and western, question and answer.

al Mahjar – or émigré – poets carried on their shoulders a renaissance burden, and their poetry was characterized by nostalgia, but they didn’t present examples of the environments and the struggles they went through at these exiles. This is what we find in the writings of the author of “Each Time the City Expanded, my Room Became Narrower.” His poetry faces, especially in his two latest books, questions entangled with the idea of European centralism. We who followed him to the north can see the reality of this struggle. The stereotypes faced on this journey can be summarized as follows: Islamophobia; anti-Arabism; hostility toward Palestinians by Israel’s supporters; the hostility of citizens – who may not have animosity toward Islam or Arabs – toward immigrants; and the resentment of previous generations of immigrants regarding the new ones, based on fear of losing their privileges. Furthermore, if a person survived all of this, then there is the impassable bump: the hatred toward the eastern men. Being an eastern man in the west means you despise women and seek to assemble wives like slaves.

On the edge of these sharp blades, the poet stands in confrontation, and converts this conflict into poet material, inquiring about the Palestinian’s rights and condemning the Mediterranean Sea, which has turned into a “predatory animal.”

Despite all the political background, al Madhoun doesn’t write political poetry. He writes about a life he knows. It’s true that its trait is violence, terrorism, oppression and asylum, but it’s true also that he searches for a horizon of possible life”.

Madhoun’s entry in Wikipedia is unusually lyrical”:

“The central themes in al Madhoun’s poetry, which has been translated into numerous languages, are war and destruction, death and fight, exile and homesickness. The speaker is a witness to violence and demise and, as the only survivor, lends his voice to the dead … The protagonists of the poems are the victims of the Syrian civil war, the injured, people fleeing and seeking asylum, and those who remain in the war zone. The complex, prosaic poems are nourished by the rich imagery of Arabic poetry as well as the traditions of European poetry. “Cruelty, brutalization, and love are just as universal in al Madhoun’s texts as the language of poetry. They impressively demonstrate that the Palestinian refugee from Syria is much closer to us than many would like to believe” (Deutschlandfunk). »His poems are carried by graphic vividness, absurdity, and great stylistic sensitivity”.The FAZ wrote: “He is the great poet of a great catastrophe”.

We present I Can’t Attend in full below, in English and also in the original Arabic. We also republish two other poems by this excellent poet.

In the poem, we meet the exiled poet as a stranger in a strange land, enjoying all the benefits of an advanced, heterogeneous Scandinavian country but constantly thinking of his homeland and endeavouring to justify to himself why he cannot return. The exile can never shake off a pervasive feeling of rootlessness, of never being quite at home.

The obvious reason for his exile is the Syrian civil war, now in its tenth year, which has shattered his country and scattered its people across the globe – and which has killed many of his friends. He now has a a northern girlfriend who he suggests has caused him to forget, though but for a while, for the memory of his life in Damascus and his family there.. He gives us a pathetic excuse – who will feed his fish when he is away.

He is terribly homesick and suffers from grief and depression, and also, survivor’s guilt. He has this deep longing, a wrenching melancholy for his lost home, his distant family, his sense of identity and belonging. He feels guilty about his exile,  It is as if the line between what was, what is and what shall be is blurred, as if he has become a non-person, a living ghost indeed. He fears that he will lose his connection with home, that he will loosen and loose the threads that bind him to his home – his memories.

But the war is forever in his thoughts, Its imagery shapes his prose poem, and he feels the immense loneliness, dislocation and uncertainty that is part of being a stranger, a dark-skinned Arab stranger at that, in a Nordic Land. There is, after all no place like home, and but home is far, far away. He juxtaposes the two societies:“Slow rhythms, slow grief, slow death”. There is a paradox at the heart of a western society, a society that protects you from being killed by others but is unable to protect you from yourself.

The poem concludes with a litany of excuses as to why he is in Sweden and not in Damascus. These become more and more fanciful, more and more mystical, magical realism indeed. He no longer speaks his own language. His old self is disappeared. It is as if he has died inside.

See also in In That Howling Infinite on the theme of exile and loss: Songs for a wounded city – Beirut, Fairuz and Nizar Qabbani, Visualizing the Palestinian Return – the art of Ismail Shammout, and, in Arabic, تصور عودة الفلسطينيين – فن إسماعيل شموط

For Damascus

I Can’t Attend

In the North, close to God’s boundary wall, enjoying a developed culture, the magic of technology, the latest achievements of human civilization, and under the influence of the drug that grants safety, health insurance, social security and freedom of expression, I lie in the summer sun as if I am a white man and think of the South, contriving excuses to justify my absence. Emigrants, travellers, refugees go by me, genuine inhabitants, bogus inhabitants, tax-dodgers, alcoholics, the newly rich and racists, all of them crossing in front of me as I sit in the North thinking of the South, composing spurious stories in order to cover up my absence and explain how I can’t attend.

Yes, I can’t attend, for the road between my poem and Damascus is cut off for postmodern reasons: these include the fact that my friends are ascending to God at a rapidly increasing rate, faster than my computer processor, while other reasons relate to a woman I met in the North who made me forget the taste of my mother’s milk, and some are connected to the fishes in the fish tank, who won’t find anyone to feed them in my absence.

I can’t attend, for the distance between my reality and my memory confirms that Einstein was right and the energy produced by my longing equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.

I can’t attend but I can be absent, yes, I can be absent with great skill. I’ve become an expert in recent times and I’ve acquired a diary where I make a note of the times I have to be absent and I have memories that haven’t happened yet.

I can be absent as if I have never existed, as if I am nothing, as if air has never entered my lungs, as if I’ve never had enemies before, as if I’m concentrated memory loss, a coma transmitted like a contagious disease.

I can’t attend as I’m currently busy with the cold war I fight daily with isolation, with indiscriminate shelling by darkness, with systematic depression, with the attacks of loneliness that target the kitchen, the checkpoints that stand between me and summer, the bureaucracy caused by the separation of the legislative and executive powers, the routine procedures of the tax department. You’ve talked to me at length about the war, now let me tell you a little about the peace that I enjoy here in the North. Let me tell you about gradations of skin colour, what it means when people don’t know how to pronounce your name, about black hair, about the democracy that always favours the rich, the health insurance that doesn’t cover your teeth because they aren’t part of the body. Let me talk to you about the tasteless vegetables, the flowers with no smell, the racism masked by a smile. Let me tell you about the fast food, fast trains, fast relationships, slow rhythms, slow grief, slow death.

Will you believe me if I say to you that my shoes are tired, that inside me is a wolf I can’t restrain once he’s smelt blood? Will you believe me if you see on my body the marks of the bullets that have hit my friends there, while I’m sitting here in front of a computer screen? Do you believe in coincidence? My absence is a coincidence planned with extreme care, a well-considered random act. I’ve discovered by coincidence that it’s no coincidence that coincidences happen, and in fact the coincidence is when they don’t happen. The point is, will you believe me if I swear to you by music? I swear by music that a European residence permit prevents us from being shot but makes it more likely that we’ll kill ourselves.

Fine, I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll tell you why I can’t attend. It happened on a summer’s evening when I met a sad woman on my way home. In her hand she carried a forest and in her bag a bottle of wine. I kissed her and she became eleven months pregnant…

That’s not what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. Damascus caught me in bed with another woman. I tried to put things right, to say what happened was a spur of the moment thing, nothing more, and it wouldn’t happen again. I swore by everything, by the moon, fireworks, women’s fingers, but it was all over, so I fled to the North.

That’s not what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. When I was a child I didn’t know anything about the market economy. Now, after I’ve become a citizen of a first world country, I don’t know anything about the market economy.

This isn’t what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth. When I was intending to come, my suitcase collided with an item of breaking news and my language was smashed to bits, the passersby grabbed hold of the pieces and I no longer had a language…

That isn’t what is stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth, I’m dead, yes, I died several years ago.

That isn’t what’s stopping me attending. I’ll tell you the truth…

Translation: Catherine Cobham

I Can’t Attend

لا أستطيعُ الحضور.

غياث المدهون

في الشمالِ، بالقربِ من سياجِ الله، مستمتعاً بالتطورِ الحضاري وسحرِ التكنولوجيا، وبآخرِ ما توصلتْ إليهِ البشريةُ من أساليبِ التمدن، وتحتَ التأثيرِ المخدرِ الذي يمنحهُ الأمانُ والتأمينُ الصحيُّ والضمانُ الاجتماعي وحريةُ التعبير، أتمدَّدُ تحتَ شمس الصيفِ كأنَّني رجلٌ أبيض، وأفكرُ بالجنوب، مختلقاً أعذاراً تبررُ غيابي، يمرُّ بجانبي مهاجرونَ ورحالةٌ ولاجؤون، يمرُّ سكانٌ أصليونَ ومزيفونَ ومتهربونَ من الضرائب، كحوليونَ وأغنياءُ جددٍ وعنصريون، كلُّهم يعبرون أمامي وأنا جالسٌ في الشمالِ أفكرُ بالجنوب، وأؤلفُ قصصاً مزيفةً كي أُغطي على غيابي، وكيفَ أنَّني لا أستطيعُ الحضور.

نعم، لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فالطريقُ بين قصيدتي ودمشق مقطوعةٌ لأسباب ما بعد حداثية، منها أنَّ أصدقائي يصعدون إلى الله بتسارعٍ مُضطردٍ أعلى من سرعةِ مُعالجِ كمبيوتري، وبعضُها يخصُّ امرأةً قابلتها في الشمالِ فأنستني حليبَ أمي، وبعضها متعلقٌ بحوضِ السمكِ الذي لنْ يجدَ منْ يطعِمَهُ في غيابي.

 لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فالمسافةُ بين واقعي وذاكرتي تؤكِّدُ أنَّ أينشتاين على حقّ، وأنَّ الطاقةَ المنبثقةَ من اشتياقي تساوي حاصلَ ضربِ الكتلةِ في مربَّعِ سرعةِ الضوء.

 لا أستطيعُ الحضور، لكنَّني قادرٌ على الغياب، نعم، أستطيعُ الغيابَ بمهارةٍ عالية، وقد أصبحتُ محترفاً في الآونة الأخيرة، وصارَ لي أجندةٌ أرتِّبُ فيها مواعيدَ غيابي، وصارَ لي ذكرياتٌ لم تقعْ بعد.

أستطيعُ الغياب، كما لو أنَّني لم أكنْ، كما لو أنَّني عَدَم، كما لو أنَّ الهواءَ لم يدخلْ رئتي من قبل ولم يكُ لي أعداء، كما لو أنَّني فقدانُ ذاكرةٍ مُرَكَّز، كما لو أنَّني غيبوبةٌ تنتقلُ بالعدوى.

لا أستطيعُ الحضور، فأنا الآنَ مشغولٌ بالحربِ الباردة التي أخوضها يومياً مع العزلة، بالقصفِ العشوائيِّ للعتْم، بالاكتئابِ الممنهجِ وغاراتِ الوحدةِ التي تستهدفُ المطبخ، بحواجزِ التفتيشِ التي تقفُ بيني وبين الصيف، بالبيروقراطية بسببِ فَصْلِ السلطاتِ التشريعيةِ والتنفيذية، بالروتينِ في دائرةِ الضريبة، لقد حدَّثْتَنِي طويلاً عن الحرب، دعني أحدِّثك قليلاً عن السلامِ الذي أنعمُ به هنا في الشمال، دعني أحدِّثك عن تدرجاتِ لونِ البشرة، عن معنى ألَّا يعرفَ الناسُ أنْ يلفظوا اسمك، عن الشَّعر الأسود، عن الديمقراطيةِ التي تقفُ دائماً في صالحِ الأغنياء، عن التأمين الصحِّي الذي لا يشمل الأسنان لأنَّها ليست جزءاً من الجسد، دعني أحدِّثكَ عن الخضار التي لا طعمَ لها، عن الورودِ التي لا رائحةَ لها، عن العنصريةِ المغلفةِ بابتسامة، دعني أخبركَ عن الوجباتِ السريعةِ والقطاراتِ السريعةِ والعلاقاتِ السريعة، عن الإيقاعِ البطيءِ والحزنِ البطيءِ والموتِ البطيء.

هل ستُصدقني إنْ قُلتُ لكَ إنَّ حذائي متعبٌ، وإنَّ في داخلي ذئباً لا أستطيعُ كبحَهُ بعد أن اشتمَّ رائحة الدم، هل تصدقني إنْ رأيتَ على جسدي آثارَ الرصاصاتِ التي أصابتْ أصدقائي هناكَ بينما أنا جالسٌ هنا خلفَ شاشةِ الكمبيوتر، أتؤمنُ بالمصادفة، إنَّ غيابي مصادفةٌ مخططٌ لها بعنايةٍ بالغة، خبط عشواء مدروسة، ولقد اكتشفتُ مصادفةً أنْ ليس مصادفةً أنْ تحدثَ المصادفة، إنما المصادفةُ ألَّا تحدث. المهم، هل ستصدقني إنْ حلفتُ لكَ بالموسيقى، أقسمُ بالموسيقى أنَّ تصريحَ الإقامةِ في أوروبا قد يباعد ما بيننا وبين الموتِ بالرصاص، لكنَّه يقاربُ ما بيننا وبين الانتحار.

حسناً، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، سأخبركَ لمَ لا أستطيعُ الحضور، حدثَ ذلك في إحدى أمسياتِ الصيف، حين صادفتُ في الطريق إلى البيت امرأةً حزينة، كانتْ تحملُ في يدها غابة، وفي حقيبتها زجاجةَ نبيذ، قبَّلتُها فأصبحتْ حاملاً في الشهر الحادي عشر…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، لقد أمسكتني دمشقُ مع امرأةٍ أُخرى في الفراش، حاولتُ أنْ أُصلحَ الموقف، وأنَّ ما جرى نزوةَ ليس إلا، وأنَّها لن تتكرر، أقسمتُ بكلِّ شيء، بالقمر، بالألعابِ النارية، بأصابعِ النساء، لكنَّ كلَّ شيءٍ كانَ قد انتهى، فهربتُ إلى الشمال…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، حين كنتُ طفلاً، لم أكنْ أعرفُ أي شيءٍ عن اقتصاد السوق، الآن وبعدَ أنْ أصبحتُ مواطناً في إحدى دول العالمِ الأول فإنَّني لا أعرفُ أي شيءٍ عن اقتصادِ السوق…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، حينَ كنتُ أهمُّ بالمجيء، اصطدمتْ حقيبتي بخبرٍ عاجلٍ فانكسرتْ لغتي إلى قطعٍ وتناهبها المارة، ولم يعدْ لديَّ لغة…

ليس هذا ما يمنعني من الحضور، سأخبركَ الحقيقة، أنا ميِّت، نعم، لقد توفيتُ منذ عدةِ سنوات…

How I became…

Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it. We argued with the vendor over the price and he said he’d give us an angst dating from the sixties as a free gift if we bought the grief. We agreed, and I was happy with this unexpected angst. She sensed this and said ‘It’s yours’. I took it and put it in my bag and we went off. In the evening I remembered it and took it out of the bag and examined it closely. It was high quality and in excellent condition despite half a century of use. The vendor must have been unaware of its value otherwise he wouldn’t have given it to us in exchange for buying a young poet’s low quality grief. The thing that pleased me most about it was that it was existentialist angst, meticulously crafted and containing details of extraordinary subtlety and beauty. It must have belonged to an intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge or a former prisoner. I began to use it and insomnia became my constant companion. I became an enthusiastic supporter of peace negotiations and stopped visiting relatives. There were increasing numbers of memoirs in my bookshelves and I no longer voiced my opinion, except on rare occasions. Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.   

… كيف أصب.حتُ

سقطَ حُزنُها من الشرفةِ وانكسر، أصبحتْ تحتاجُ إلى حزنٍ جديد، حين رافقتُها إلى السوق، كانتْ أسعارُ الأحزان خياليةً فنصحتُهَا أنْ تشتريَ حُزناً مستعملاً، وجدنا حزناً في حالةٍ جيدة، غيرَ أنَّهُ واسعٌ قليلاً، كانَ كما أخبرَنَا البائعُ لشاعرٍ شابٍ انتحرَ في الصيفِ الماضي، أعجبَها الحزنُ وقرَّرنا أخذه، اختلفنا مع البائعِ على السعرِ، فقال إنَّه سيعطينا قلقاً يعودُ إلى الستينياتِ كهديةٍ مجانيةٍ إن اشترينا الحزن، وافقنا وكنتُ فرحاً بهذا القلقِ الذي لم يكنْ في الحسبان، أحسَّتْ بفرحتي فقالت هو لك، أخذتُ القلقَ في حقيبتي ومضينا، مساءً تذكرتُ القلق، أخرجتُهُ من الحقيبةِ وقلَّبتُهُ، لقد كانَ بجودةٍ عاليةٍ وبحالةٍ جيدةٍ رغم نصفِ قرنٍ من الاستعمال، لا بدَّ أنَّ البائعَ يجهلُ قيمتَهُ وإلَّا ما كان ليعطينَاهُ مقابلَ شراء حزنٍ رديءٍ لشاعرٍ شاب، أكثرُ ما أفرحني به هو أنَّهُ قلقٌ وجودي، مشغولٌ بحرفيةٍ عاليةٍ وفيه تفاصيلُ غايةٌ في الدقةِ والجمال، لا بدَّ أنَّهُ يعودُ لمثقفٍ موسوعيٍ أو سجينٍ سابق، بدأتُ باستعمالهِ فأصبحَ الأرقُ رفيقَ أيَّامي، وصِرتُ من مؤيدي مباحثاتِ السلام، توقفتُ عن زيارةِ الأقاربِ وازدادتْ كتبُ المذكراتِ في مكتبتي ولم أعدْ أُبدي رأياً إلا ما ندر، صارَ الإنسانُ عندي أغلى من الوطنِ وبدأتُ أشعرُ بمللٍ عام، أمَّا أكثر ما لفتَ انتباهي هو أنني أصبحتُ شاعراً.

Massacre

Massacre is a dead metaphor that is eating my friends, eating them without salt. They were poets and have become Reporters With Borders; they were already tired and now they’re even more tired. ‘They cross the bridge at daybreak fleet of foot’ and die with no phone coverage. I see them through night vision goggles and follow the heat of their bodies in the darkness; there they are, fleeing from it even as they run towards it, surrendering to this huge massage. Massacre is their true mother, while genocide is no more than a classical poem written by intellectual pensioned-off generals. Genocide isn’t appropriate for my friends, as it’s an organised collective action and organised collective actions remind them of the Left that let them down.

Massacre wakes up early, bathes my friends in cold water and blood, washes their underclothes and makes them bread and tea, then teaches them a little about the hunt. Massacre is more compassionate to my friends than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Massacre opened the door to them when other doors were closed, and called them by their names when news reports were looking for numbers. Massacre is the only one to grant them asylum regardless of their backgrounds; their economic circumstances don’t bother Massacre, nor does Massacre care whether they are intellectuals or poets, Massacre looks at things from a neutral angle; Massacre has the same dead features as them, the same names as their widowed wives, passes like them through the countryside and the suburbs and appears suddenly like them in breaking news. Massacre resembles my friends, but always arrives before them in faraway villages and children’s schools.

Massacre is a dead metaphor that comes out of the television and eats my friends without a single pinch of salt.

Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham

المجزرة

المجزرة مجازٌ ميتٌ يأكل أصدقائي، يأكلهم بلا ملحٍ، كانوا شعراءَ، وأصبحوا مراسلين مع حدود، كانوا متعبين وأصبحوا متعبين جداً، “يعبرون الجسر في الصبح خفافاً “، ويموتون خارج التغطية، إنني أراهم بالمناظير الليلية، وأتتبعُ حرارة أجسادهم في الظلام، ها هم يهربون منها إليها، مستسلمين لهذا المساج الهائل، المجزرة أمهم الحقيقية، أما الإبادة الجماعية فهي مجردُ قصيدةٍ كلاسيكيةٍ يكتبها جنرالاتٌ مثقفون أحيلوا إلى التقاعد، الإبادة الجماعية لا تليق بأصدقائي، فهي عملٌ جماعي منظم، والأعمال الجماعية المنظمة تذكرهم باليسار الذي خذلهم.

المجزرةُ تصحو باكراً، تحمّمُ أصدقائي بالماء البارد والدم، تغسلُ ملابسهم الداخلية وتعدُ لهم الخبز والشاي، ثم تعلمهم قليلاً من الصيد، المجزرة أحنُّ على أصدقائي من الإعلان العالمي لحقوق الانسان، فتحتْ لهم الباب حين غُلِّقتْ الأبواب، ونادتهم بأسمائهم حين كانت نشراتُ الأخبار تبحث عن عدد الضحايا، المجزرة هي الوحيدةُ التي منحتهم اللجوء بغض النظر عن خلفياتهم، لم يهمها وضعهم الاقتصادي، لم يهمها إنْ كانوا مثقفين أو شعراء، إنها تنظر إلى الأشياء من زاوية محايدة، لها نفس ملامحهم الميتة، وأسماءُ زوجاتهم الأرامل، تمرُّ مثلهم على الأرياف والضواحي، وتظهرُ فجأة مثلهم في الأخبار العاجلة، المجزرة تشبه أصدقائي، لكنها دائماً تسبقهم إلى القرى النائية ومدارس الأطفال.

المجزرة مجازٌ ميتٌ يخرجُ من التلفزيون، ويأكل أصدقائي دون رشة ملح واحدة.


The World Refugee Crisis in Brief

The Melancholy Mathematics

Like death and taxes, the poor and racism, refugees have always been with us.  But never in modern times – since the Second World War – have they been so many!

There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – that have been forcibly displaced from their homes – fleeing from persecution or conflict.

This doesn’t count economic migrants who have hit the roads of sub Saharan Africa and Central America fleeing drought and crop failure, economic recession and unemployment, poverty, gangs and cartels, seeking a better life for themselves and the families in Europe or the USA.

Three quarters of a million ‘economic migrants’ are on the move in Central America, whilst the UN estimates that at least four million people have left Venezuela because of its political and economic crisis in what has been described as the biggest refuge crisis ever seen in the Americas. There are refugee camps on the Colombian border. Most are in Columbia but others have entered Brazil and Peru.  But these are not by legal definition refugees – see below, The Refugees’ Journey .

Of those sixty nine million people over 11 million or 16% are Syrians. The numbers keep growing Thirty one people at being displaced every minute of the day. In 2018 alone, 16.2 million people were newly displaced.

Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – this includes six million Syrians and off our radars, some two million souls who once lived in the contested regions of eastern Ukraine.

Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. Some 57% of them come from three countries: Syria, 6.3 million, Afghanistan 2.6 million and South Sudan 2.4 million. The top hosting counties are Turkey 3.5 million, Lebanon, 1 million, Pakistan 1.4 million, Uganda 1.4 million and Iran 1 million.

Jordan shelters over three quarters of a million Syrians; during the Iraq wars, this relatively poor country sheltered a similar number of Iraqis, and still hosts tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who’ve fled persecution at home.

These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. The Lebanese government estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country.

Much of the focus these days is on the Middle East – Syria and its neighbours, on Libya and the frail boats crossing the Mediterranean, on the war in Yemen which has killed over thirteen thousand and displaced over two million.

But situation in Africa is as dire.

More than 2 million Somalis are currently displaced by a conflict that has lasted over two decades. An estimated 1.5 million people are internally displaced in Somalia and nearly 900,000 are refugees in the near region, including some 308,700 in Kenya, 255,600 in Yemen and 246,700 in Ethiopia.

By August 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo hosted more than 536,000 refugees from Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. And yet, there are over 4.5 million Congolese people displaced inside their own country and over 826,000 in neighbouring countries, including Namibia, Angola and Kenya.

Should the present situation in Sudan deteriorate into civil war, another tide of humanity will hit the road.

And closer to home, there are millions of refugees in Asia.

As of March 2019, there are over 100, 000 refugees in 9 refugee camps in Thailand (as of March 2019), mainly ethnic Karen and Shan. Refugees in Thailand have been fleeing ethnic conflict and crossing Myanmar’s eastern border jungles for the safety of Thailand for nearly 30 years.

There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis, and since August 2017, an estimated 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, had crossed the border into Bangladesh.

The top-level numbers are stupendous. The detail is scary.

Some 52% of the world’s refugees and displaced are children. And many are unaccompanied. Every hour, around 20 children run for their lives without their parents to protect them.

Children are the most vulnerable to disease and malnutrition and also to exploitation and lose years of schooling. Millions are elderly and are also face health problems.

And the problems facing young people and adults are all enormous. International aid is limited and host countries often unsympathetic. Work opportunities are few, some countries even forbidding refugees to take work, whilst unscrupulous employers exploit the desperate. Migrants are often encouraged, sometimes forcibly, to return to their countries of origin regardless of whether or not it is safe for them to return. There are reports that many have returned to Syria into the unwelcoming hands of the security services.

Refugees have lived in camps and towns in Pakistan and Thailand, Namibia and Kenyan for decades. Most refugee children were not born in their parents’ homelands.

And the camps are by no means safe havens. There may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.

Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable.

From In That Howling Infinite’No Going Home

Sawt al Hurriya – remembering the Arab Spring

Ten years ago, people across the Middle East and North Africa rose up in protest against their corrupt, autocratic and repressive rulers, demanding freedom and democracy. Tyrants were toppled or feared that power was being torn from their grasp as millions of demonstrators surged through the streets, chanting that “the people demand the fall of the regime”.  

Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oft-times forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of heroic failure.  We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

As Patrick Cockburn writes in a gloomy opinion piece in The Independent,

“There was nothing phoney about this mass yearning for liberty and social justice. Vast numbers of disenfranchised people briefly believed that they could overthrow dictatorships, both republican and monarchical. But …the dream of a better tomorrow expressed by herself and millions during the Arab Spring in 2011 was to be brutally dispelled as the old regimes counter-attacked. Crueler and more repressive than ever, they reasserted themselves, or where they had fallen, they were replaced by chaotic violence and foreign military intervention.

… none of the kleptocratic powers-that-be intended to give up without a fight. They soon recovered their nerve and struck back with unrestrained violence. … across the Middle East and North Africa, rulers used mass imprisonment, routine torture and summary executions to crush dissent. Repression not only affected places where the Arab Spring had been at its peak, but spread throughout the region, which is home to 600 million people, as frightened rulers sought to stamp out the slightest hint of dissent in case it could become a threat to their regimes …

… Could could the Arab Spring have ever succeeded against such odds? The question is highly relevant today because oppression by regimes, aptly described as “looting machines” on behalf of a tiny elite, is no less than it was in 2011. Even more people now live crammed into houses with raw sewage running down the middle of the street outside while their rulers loll on yachts anchored offshore.”

We published the following piece just over a year ago. Little has changed since them – if anything, with the world distracted by the pandemic and the US and its allies – and also  adversaries, indifferent if not complicit, the situation has gotten much worse. 

In Egypt, the grip of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi has tightened. Civil wars rage still in Yemen and Libya exacerbated by outside interference (see Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East). Syria’s misery continues with the regime almost but not quite on the verge of victory, and the Kurds betrayed by the Trump administration and defeated by Turkish forces and their Syrian mercenaries. Lebanon, which avoided the fate of other Arab countries a decade ago, although enduring the influx of millions of Syrian refugees, in the wake of a winter of protests, economic meltdown and political paralysis, and the explosive destruction of Beirut’s port and environs, is on the edge of an abyss (see our Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada).

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

Sawt al Hurriya – Egypt’s slow-burning fuse

In That Howling Infinite, 9th October 2019

Déjà vu

Last month saw the death in exile of former Tunisian strongman, dictator and kleptocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the resurgence on 20th September of Friday street protests in Cairo and smaller Egyptian towns – and around the world – against the corruption and oppression of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi and his military cronies. Predictably, some three thousand people have been arrested – protesters, prominent activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians, including Islamist and leftists alike and dissenters in general. These have now been added to the tens of thousands that have already been incarcerated on conspiracy and terrorism charges, largely without trial.

it appears to be an indiscriminate backlash, The Independent’s Bel True writes: “… according to rights groups and people I’ve interviewed, among those haphazardly rounded up are children who were out buying school uniform, tourists holidaying in Cairo, human rights lawyers going to court to represent clients, confused bystanders, young men popping out for evening strolls, visiting foreign students and street vendors. All are now swallowed up in Egypt’s notoriously opaque justice system”.

The protests have for the moment been contained, but with a third of Egypt’s population below the poverty line (and that’s a government figure – it’s very likely much higher), about one-third of the total under age 14 and sixty percent under 30, one can’t help feeling a hint of déjà vu. It is hard to keep one hundred million people down with just a strong arm up your sleeve.

Meeting with al Sisi in New York, US President Donald Trump praised him for restoring order to Egypt. At this year’s G7 summit in Biarritz, Trump had referred to the Egyptian president  as his “favourite dictator”, a comment that was met with stunned silence from American and Egyptian officials. Boris Johnson has likewise found a friend in Al Sisi. Tru quotes a British-Egyptian filmmaker: “There is a misconception that Sisi is a partner in stability which allows governments, particularly in Europe, to turn a blind eye to his behaviour: as long he keeps buying weapons and submarines and power stations”.

The Voice of Freedom

In our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, it is difficult to put ourselves in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of potentially heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

The courage of the of the Egyptian protesters – for brave they are indeed For having experienced six years of brutal and vengeful military regime, they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions – reminded me of an exhilarating song and video created by a young Egyptian and his friends, celebrating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of practically president-for-life Hosni Mubarak eight years ago last February. Sawt Al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom)), went viral on YouTube after its release on 11 February 2011, the day before Mubarak’s departure.

Bur first, let us revisit those heady days and the doleful years that followed.

Remembering Tahrir Square

The self-immolation in December 20111 of young Tunisian Muhammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for the pent-up popular outrage that led to the heady days of January and 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.

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; for a society in which there were jobs and a decent living, where you could save up enough money to get married, where you didn’t have to bribe corrupt officials for everything from traffic fines to court decisions to business permits to jobs, where you could be arbitrarily arrested and/or beaten up or worse for speaking out against the government, the system, or just…speaking out.

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

When elections were held a year later, Mohammed Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by Abd al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Whereas Hosni Mubarak died in pampered confinement, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president, was held in solitary confinement for six years, and died in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power. See: Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi 

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of the new pharoah. Al Sisi and other US supporterd and armed Arab autocrats have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died  in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013

The Arab Spring failed because its youthful vanguard were not prepared for the next stage. In reality, it only occurred in Tunisia and in Egypt. Like the Occupy movement in the west, it lacked coherent leadership and purpose, and in the end, unity against the forces of the establishment that were mobilized against them. But the young, inexperienced idealists were no match for the experienced activists of the Muslim brotherhood, the apparatchiks of the established political parties, and the cadres of the mukhabarat, the military, and the “deep state” that were able to hijack and subvert the revolution.

The Arab Spring was effectively over once the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators had departed and the counterrevolution had already begun – in Egypt particularly with the electoral success and later putsch of the Ikhwan, and finally the “tamarrud” or “rising” of the fearful and conservative middle classes that ushered in military rule.

 The great unravelling

The Tunisian and Egyptian risings were followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These were more sectarian and tribal based, with less reliance on social media, and while media chose to consider them as part of the Arab Spring, in reality, they were not.

This was transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter., and eight 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.

And they led 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, extending southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Tunisia alone has held on to some of the gains of its “Spring”, but there it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. Nevertheless, the country is holding ostensibly free and fair elections as I write. Elsewhere, the misnamed Arab Spring entered into a cycle of protest and repression little different from earlier unrest, and also, as in the past, foreign intervention. And the story has still a long way to run…

Civil war and economic desperation propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism 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 intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

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

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

 The voice of freedom

Against this a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked, and betrayed, I share the song created by Seed Mostafa Fahmy and his friends and the video they shot in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations. “In every street in my country, the voice of Freedom is calling!”

Sawt al Hurriya

I  went (to go protest), vowing not to turn back.
I wrote, in my blood, on every street.
We raised our voices, until those who had not heard us could.
We broke down all barriers.

Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

We raised our heads high into the sky.
And hunger no longer mattered to us.
Most important are our rights,
And that with our blood we write our history.

If you are one of us,
Stop your chattering,
Stop telling us to leave and abandon our dream.
Stop saying the word, “I”.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

Brown Egyptian hands
Are outstretched amidst the roars (of the crowd)
Breaking barriers.

Our innovative youth
Have turned autumn into spring.

They have achieved the miraculous.
They have resurrected the dead,
Saying: “Kill me,
But my death will not resurrect YOUR country.
I am writing, with my blood,
A new life for my nation.
Is this my blood, or is it spring?
In color, they are both green.”

I do not know whether I smile from happiness,
Or from my sadnesses.
In every street in my country,

The voice of freedom is calling.

(Translated by Egyptian Seed Mariam Bazeed.)

Sout al-Hurriya
صوت الحرية

Nezelt We qolt ana mesh rage3
نزلت وقلت انا مش راجع
I went out and said I would not return

we katabt bedamy fe kol share3
وكتبت بدمي في كل شارع
And I wrote on each street with my blood

Sama3na elli makansh same3
سمعنا اللي ما كمش سامع
We heard what was not heard

we etkasaret kol el mawane3
واتكسرت كل الموانع
And all the barriers were broken

sela7na kan a7lamna
سلحنا كان احلامنا
Our weapon was our dreams

we bokra wade7 odamna
وبكره واضح قدمنا
And tomorrow was clear ahead of us

men zaman benestana
من زمان بنستني
We’ve been waiting a long time

bendawar mesh la2een makkanna
بندور مش لاقيين مكانا
Seeking but not finding our place

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

sout el houriya beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the voice of freedom is calling
……………….
rafa3na rasna fe elsama
رفعنا رسنا في السما
We lifted our heads high (in the sky)

we elgo3 maba2ash beyhemna
والجوع مبقاش بيهمنا
And hunger no longer bothered us

aham 7aga 7a2ena
اهم حاجه حقنا
What’s most important are our rights

wenekteb tarekhna be damena
ونكتب تاريخنا بدمنا
And to write our history with our blood

law kont wa7ed mnena
لو كنت واحد مننا
If you were really one of us

balash terghi we t2ol lena
بلاش ترغي وتقولنا
don’t blather and telling us

nemshy we neseeb &elmna
نمشي ونسيب حلمنا
To leave and abandon our dream

we batal te2ol kelmt ana
وبطل تقول كلمه انا
And stop saying the word “I”

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

Sout El-7ouria beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
……………..
spoken poetry at 2:14:
ايادي مصريه سمره
Dark Egyptian arms
ليها في التمييز
knows how to characterize (against discrimination)
ممدوده وسط الذئير
reached out through the roar
بتكسر البراويز
breaking the frams
طلع الشباب البديع
the creative youth came out
قلبوا خريفها ربيع
turned it’s fall into spring
وحققوا المعجزه
and achieved the miracle
صحوا القتيل من القتل
awakinging the murdered from death
اقتلني , اقتلني
kill me , kill me
قتلي ما هايقيم دولتك تاني
killing me is not going to build up you regime again
بكتب بدمي حياه تانيه لوطاني
I am writing with my blood another life for my country
دمي ده ولا الربيع
is this my blood or the spring
اللي اتنين بلون اخضر
both seem green
وببتسم من سعادتي ولا أحزاني
am i smiling from my happiness or my sadness
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling

Tangled! – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

The paradox of piety observes no disconnect
Nor registers anxiety
As the ship of fools is wrecked
So leaders urge with eloquence
And martyrs die in consequence
We talk in last and present sense
As greed and fear persist
E Lucevan Le Stelle, Paul Hemphill

At a recent conference in Berlin, Germany’s prime minister Angela Merkel and and UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé managed, at least on paper, to cajole the external actors guilty of super-charging Libya’s misery to sign onto a unified agenda. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson, and Egypt’s pharaoh (and Donald Trump’s “favourite dictator”) Abdel Fatah el-Sisi,  joined a dozen or so others (with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo representing the United States) in declaring an intention to end foreign interference in Libya’s internal affairs: “We commit to refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya and urge all international actors to do the same,” states the communiqué, in language one hopes all participants endorsed in (what would be uncharacteristic, for some) good faith.

This corroboree of hypocrites acknowledged that the increasingly violent and globally tangled Libyan civil war could only be ended if outside powers backed off and ended their meddling. They made altruistic and totally disingenuous declarations about a conflict  that they themselves have incited, exacerbated and perpetuated for nine years. And yet, explicitly excluded Libyan participation, contradicting the 2012 UN Guidance for Effective Mediation and its insistence on “inclusivity” and “national ownership” as fundamental elements for peaceful conflict resolution. It’s focus at this point was on the on the external, rather than the Libyan, actors and for reviving the world’s attention on the Libyan conflict.

A follow-up conference in Munich was convened in mid-February to renew its pledges to quit meddling. Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya reported zero progress and declared the agreed-upon arms embargo to be a joke. A sick joke, indeed – plane after plane land in Benghazi loaded with weapons from the UAE and other arms-suppliers destined for self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar‘s self-styled Libyan National Army.

Unfortunate Libya is neither the first nor the last pawn to be used and abused by outsiders in the new Great Game as the following guide demonstrates.

But first, there’s this letter to a British daily from Aubrey Bailey of Fleet, Hampshire (where hurricanes hardly happen):

Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.

We (she’s talking if Britain and us generic “good guys”) support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State. We don’t like IS but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him. We don’t like Iran, but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS.

So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win. If the people we want to defeat are are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less. 

And this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out. Do you understand now? Clear as mud! 

It casts new light on that thorny old aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”!

A cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

Libya

We begin with  Libya, the “beneficiary” of the Berlin talk-fests.

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, Libya’s capital there’s: Not many … Italy (former colonial oppressor, in it for the oil, who’d just love to see an end to those refugee boats that wash up on its shores); Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor now ruled by a wannabe Ottoman sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and eager for offshore oil and gas leases); and potentially, Qatar (who fell out with Egypt, Saudi and the United Arab Emirates over its tepid support for the Sunni grand alliance against Shia Iran).  Turkish soldiers fly the government’s drones whilst Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries provide military muscle – Turkey would like to move them out of Kurdish Syria on account of their murderous behavior).  

On the side of the self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar, based in Benghazi in the east, whose sharp uniform is festooned in medals for this and that act of service and heroism), there’s: Egypt, (the US’ impecunious, brutal “partner in Freedom” – strange bedfellows in this amoral “new Middle East” that is just like the old Middle East); Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (see above, re. Qatar, whom they blockaded for several years); Jordan (perennially cash-strapped and dependent on rich Arab relatives), France and Russia (arms, oil, and influence); plus Russian mercenaries (plausibly deniable, capable and reliable, and familiar with the Middle East – see below); and Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed Arab militias (broke Sudan seeks Saudi favour).

And on the sidelines, a disinterested and divided UN, the UK and the US – although Britain, with France, helped wreck the joint by ousting longtime dictator Gaddafi; arguably, the US, although Donald Trump has confused matters by phoning Haftar and then saying that he’s a great bloke (he has a thing for dictators actual and potential, including Putin, Erdogan, Al Sisi, and the thuggish Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman); and in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.. 

As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.

Syria

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Damascus headed up by Bashar al Assad, there’s: The Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran’s Shia Muslims are related to Syria’s heterodox Alawi minority, whose elite happen to have rule the country for half a century, and Iran is consolidating it’s Shia axis across the Middle East); Russia (oil, pipelines, and restoring Soviet greatness); Lebanese Shia Hezbollah (de facto ruler of Lebanon) and its soldiers; the Iranian Quds brigade (the expeditionary arm of the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex that virtually runs Iran); sundry Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias beholden to Iran for cash, weapons, training and ideology); Russian and Chechen mercenaries (see above – deniable, reliable and capable); and, quite surreptitiously, Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor) which is ostensibly opposed to Assad, but needing Russian pipeline deals, runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds – but see below, and also, above with respect to Libya. As the song goes, “I’m so dizzy, my head is turning” already! 

On the side of “the other side”, which is not really a “side’ at all, but a grab bag of sundry rebels who were once supported by the US and are predominantly Islamist, with some indeed linked to al Qa’ida, which, of course, we all love to hate (Twin Towers, Osama bin Laden and all that), there’s: the US, Britain and France (why do they persevere so in what Donald Trump has called these forever, endless wars?); Saudi Arabia (Salafi Central and banker for all the bad guys) and the United Arab Emirates (also a financier for the foe); Israel (of course – mortal foe of Iran and of Hezbollah (“the enemy of my enemy” fair-weather friend – anything that distracts its perennial enemies is good for Israel); Hamas, the Islamists who rule the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and oppose the Alawi oppressor of Sunni Muslims and of Palestinian refugees in Syria; and Turkey (see above –  hares and hounds, on the outer with Saudi and the UAE and pals with outcast Qatar, and engaged in an ongoing blood feud with Syrian Kurds ostensibly allied with Turkey’s outlawed separatist Kurds), and as we write, ominously trading blows with the Syrian Army and its Russian allies; and Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries – erstwhile former rebels and al Qa’ida and Da’ish fighters who are in it for the money, for vengeance against the Kurds and the Assad regime, and, for many, good old blood-lust. 

And stuck in the middle: Those Syrian Kurds, of formerly autonomous Syrian enclaves Afrin and Rojava (betrayed by America, invaded by Turkey, and forever abandoned by the rest of the world, they have been forced to come to terms with the Assad regime which has discriminated against them forever; sundry Bedouin tribes who work to a code of patronage and payback; the scattered remnants of Da’ish which was at the height of its power a veritable “internationale” of fighters from all over the world, including Europeans, Australians, Chechens, Afghans, Uighurs, Indonesians and Filipinos – the remnants of whom are still in the field and hitting back; and sundry die-hard jihadis from constantly splintering factions. Da’ish and the jihadis have been dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from allegedly unknown patrons in the Gulf autocracies, as evidenced by those long convoys of spanking new Toyota Hi Lux “technicals” – which have now curiously reappeared in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (see Libya, above).

Yemen 

On the side of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, there’s: Saudi Arabia, the US, and Britain; plus sundry mercenary outfits from Australia and Brazil; and Sudan (its militias paid by Saudi, as in Libya). The UAE was formerly on this side, but now supports a breakaway would-be Yemeni government Opposed to the present one. On the side of Houthis, a rebel Shia tribe in the north of the country, there’s: Iran and ostensibly its Iraqi and Lebanese auxiliaries – see above, the Shia ‘Arc” of Iranian influence. And in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.

Afghanistan

Its America’s longest ever war – ours too …

On the side of the UN recognized government there’s: NATO, including the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, Denmark and Norway; and also, Australia and New Zealand – though why antipodeans want to get involved in the faraway Afghan quagmire beats me … Oh yes, the US alliance, and our innate empathy for the poor and downtrodden.

On the other side, there’s: The ever-patient, ever-resilient Taliban, aided and abetted by duplicitous Pakistan (an ally of the US – yes!), and al Qa’ida and Da’ish, both dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from Gulf despots. 

And on the sidelines,  miscellaneous corrupt and well-armed Afghani warlords who take advantage of the ongoing turmoil and grow rich on bribes, option and smuggling; and the rest of the world, really, which has long ago zoned out of those “forever, endless wars”. 

So, what now? 

More of the same, alas. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations. It is business as usual in the scattered killing grounds as a bewildering array of outsiders continue to wage their proxy wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Bombs still explode in Afghanistan and Somalia, and whilst Islamists terrorise the countries of the Sahel, and even distant Mozambique, warlords rape and pillage in Congo. As usual in these proxy conflicts the poor people are stuck in the middle being killed in their thousands courtesy of weapons supplied by the US, European, Israeli, Russian and Chinese arms industries.

As outsiders butt each other for dominance, and the Masters of War ply their untrammelled trade, we are condemned, as Bob Dylan sang in another time and another war, to “sit back and watch as the death count gets higher’. I am reminded of WH Auden’s September 1, 1939, a contemplation on a world descending into an abyss: “Defenseless under the night, our word in stupor lies’. All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

 © Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

In That Howling Infinite, see also; A Middle East Miscellany

A postscript  from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

‘What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, ‘was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus–race.’

‘What IS a Caucus–race?’ said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

‘Why,’ said the Dodo, ‘the best way to explain it is to do it.’ (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race–course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’ This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’

A House Divided – the nature of civil war

A house divided against itself cannot stand.  Abraham Lincoln
The North would not let us govern ourselves, so the war came.  Jefferson Davis
Perhaps it is the personal dimension that makes civil wars so attractive to re-enactors  in the U.K the US – the gloomy and yet paradoxically romantic concept of “a family divided” and “brother against brother”. When hundreds of ordinary folk meticulously don period garb and take up replica weaponry to replay Gettysberg and Shiloh, Worcester and Naseby, Towton and Bosworth Field, it is much, much more than a fun day out in the countryside. It might be good-natured play-acting, or participating in “living history”, but might it not also speak to some inner-need to connect with long-dead forbears who endured “the longest day” on those very fields in mortal combat with their own kith and kin.

This is just one of the many thoughts that entered my head on reading a recent article in the New York Review of Books. The review is reprinted in full below, but here are a few more of my own observations.

Notwithstanding the fact that civil wars are so devastating in terms of lives lost, the destruction wrought on the urban and rural environment, and the shattering of social and political institutions, fear of civil war and its consequences apparently does not deter belligerent parties from marching down that road. Often, one or another actually forces the issue, aware of the potentially disastrous consequences, but rationalizing it along the lines of national, ideological or sectional interest, and indeed, some concept of community, social, religious or ethnic survival, as happened, one could suggest, in England, in the US, Russia, Spain, and Bosnia. Sometimes, it is an accumulation of seemingly minor events, perceived slights, discrimination, actual atrocities, miscalculations, or overreactions that ignite pyres that have been building for ages – generations even. I think of Lebanon here, and Syria.

So often, causus belli that are in hindsight viewed by historians as pivotal, are not seen as critical to the participants, and indeed, many would protest that they had “no idea that things would come to this”, and that even then, there may have been a sense that wiser heads would prevail, that it would blow over or that it would be all over soon. Lebanon and Syria, again, and perhaps even the slave states that sought to secede from the Union, and the parliamentarians who challenged the royal prerogative. But one can be damn sure Generalissimo Franco knew what he was doing when he flew the Spanish Foreign Legion with its Moorish mercenaries to the mainland in 1936, as did Leon Trotsky when he unleashed the Red Army against the Whites.

A civil war can spawn from a wider, ongoing conflagration when factions or parties dispute the nature and terms of the post-bellum status quo and fracture along political and ideological lines. The Paris Commune after the Franco-Prussian War, for example, and Ireland after the Anglo-Irish treaty that concluded the rebellion against British rule.

The experience, cost, and legacy of civil war is often a powerful political and social disincentive to venture there again. It is this fear that probably prevents Lebanon from falling back into the abyss notwithstanding the many centrifugal forces at play in this perennially divided country. It most probably had a powerful influence on the political development of post-bellum England. The next and ultimate showdown between crown and parliament, and indeed “regime change” as we now call it, was a peaceful one, and indeed, was thus named the “Glorious Revolution”. The spectre of the Commune haunts still the French soul. The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for and as a solemn reminder of the bloodletting in much the same way as Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after his soldiers had slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.

There is a view that civil war can be retrospectively be seen as a crucible of nation, a fiery furnace through which the righteous must walk – an ex post facto rationalization  of the Nietzschean paradox of “that which does not kill us makes us strong”. Abraham Lincoln verbalized this in his Gettysberg Address on a battlefield where the fallen had been only recently interred. Franco made a similar play as he laid claim to the wreckage that was Spain in the wake of three years of carnage, but then petrified his riven, country in autocratic stone until his death many decades later. The Russian Civil War was not a accorded such a nation-building ethos as it was viewed by the Bolshevik victors as the crushing of a counter-revolution against a new world already being born?

 And finally, to conclude this conversation, lets briefly contemplate the article’s discussion of how and when protagonists actually define their internecine conflict as civil war. The American Civil War is a case in point, referred to at times as “The Rebellion” and “The War Between the States”. The American War of Independence, also know as The American Revolution was indeed a civil war as defined by the author, fought along political lines by people who had race, faith, culture and identity in common. The English Wars of the Roses, which staggered on for thirty years in in the  fifteenth century is largely viewed as a dynastic struggle between noble houses rather than civil wars per se. And yet, nearly thirty thousand Englishmen died on the snow-swept fields of Towton, near York, the largest loss of English lives on a single day (a third more than perished on the first day of the Somme in June 1916).

 The Syrian tragedy, as the author notes, is regarded by the concerned, and hypocritically entangled outside world, a civil war by any definition. But it is at present a harrowing work in progress, viewed by the Assad regime and its supporters as a rebellion and as an assault by extremist outsiders, and by the rebel forces, as a revolution, albeit a comprised and even hijacked one. Jihadis for their many sins, see it as a messianic prelude to Armageddon.

Once thing for sure, civil war, the Hobbesian “war if all against all” (Hobbes was thinking England’s) is undoubtably the saddest, bloodiest and most visceral of all conflicts. I leave the last words to WB Yeats:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   Are full of passionate intensity.

See also:

Now, read on…


What Gets Called ‘Civil War’?

Linda Colley, New York Review of Books, June 8, 2017
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas,  by David Armitage (Knopf) 

The end of the world is on view at Philadelphia. Hurtling across a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Together, Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War ravage the earth amid blood-red banners and what looks like cannon smoke. Warriors fall before their swords and spears, and women, children, and babies are slaughtered.

Benjamin West completed this version of Death on the Pale Horse in 1817, two years after the Battle of Waterloo. It is tempting therefore to see in the painting not only the influence of the book of Revelation, and perhaps the elderly West’s intimations of his own imminent mortality, but also a retrospective verdict on the terrible catalogue of death and destruction that had been the Napoleonic Wars. Yet West’s original inspiration seems to have been another conflict. He first sketched out his ideas for Death on the Pale Horse in 1783, the concluding year of the American War of Independence. Bitterly divisive on both sides of the Atlantic, the war imposed strains on West himself. Pennsylvanian born and bred, he was a supporter of American resistance.

But in 1763 he migrated to Britain, and he spent the war working as a historical painter at the court of George III. So every day he served the monarch against whom some of his countrymen were fighting, knowing all the while that this same king was launching his own legions against Americans who had once been accounted British subjects. It was this tension that helped to inform West’s apocalyptic vision. More viscerally than most, he understood that the American Revolution was also in multiple respects civil warfare.

Tracing some of the histories of the idea of civil war, and showing how definitions and understandings of this mode of conflict have always been volatile and contested, is the purpose of this latest book by David Armitage. Like all his work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is concise, wonderfully lucid, highly intelligent, and based on a confident command of a wide range of printed sources. It is also ambitious, and divided into three parts in the manner of Julius Caesar’s Gaul. This seems appropriate since Armitage roots his account in ancient Rome. It was here, he claims, between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, that lethal conflicts within a recognized society, a common enough experience in earlier eras and in other regions, began to be viewed and categorized as a distinctive form of war: bellum civile.

How this came to pass is the subject of Part One of the book. In Part Two, Armitage switches to the early modern era, which is here defined mainly as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and shows how elite male familiarity with classical texts encouraged Europeans and some of their overseas colonizers to interpret the civil commotions of their own times very much in Roman terms. Part Three takes the story from the nineteenth century to the dangerous and precarious present. Whereas the incidence of overt conflicts between major states has receded during the post-1945 “long peace,” civil wars have proliferated, especially in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The “shadow of civil war,” Armitage contends, has now become “the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.”

But why ancient Rome to begin with? Armitage attributes its centrality to evolving Western conceptions of civil warfare partly to this culture’s marked success in establishing and stabilizing the idea of a distinct citizenry and political community. “Civil War could, by definition, exist only after a commonwealth (civitas) had been created.” More significant, as far as perceptions in later centuries were concerned, were the writings and careers of two brilliant Romans, each of whom in different ways was caught up in the rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey and destroyed by the violence of their warring successors.

Cicero, an opponent of Caesar, is the earliest-known writer to have used the term “civil war.” He also employed it in a speech that he delivered at the Forum in 66 BCE, close to the spot where his severed head and hands would be put on display twenty-three years later, as punishment for his activism and his words. In the following century, the youthful poet Lucan completed a ten-book masterwork, De Bello Civile, on how, under Caesar, “Rome’s high race plunged in her [own] vitals her victorious sword.” Lucan dedicated his saga to Nero, the emperor who later forced him to commit suicide.

Their writings and the gory fate of these men helped to foster and perpetuate the idea that civil warfare was a particularly nasty variant of organized human violence. It is in part this reputation, Armitage contends, that has made the subject of civil war a more impoverished field of inquiry than inter-state conflict. Given that the English, American, and Spanish civil wars have all long been historiographical cottage industries, I am not sure this is wholly correct. But it is the case, and he documents this powerfully throughout, that the ideas and negative language that have accumulated around the notion of “civil war” have resulted in the term’s use often being politically driven in some way. As with treason, what gets called civil war, and becomes remembered as such, frequently depends on which side eventually prospers.

 At times, the term has been deliberately withheld for fear of seeming to concede to a set of antagonists even a glimmer of a claim to sovereignty in a disputed political space. Thus the royalist Earl of Clarendon chose in his history to describe the English Parliament’s campaigns against Charles I after 1642 not as a civil war, but as a rebellion. In much the same way, an early US official history of the Union and Confederate navies described their encounters between 1861 and 1865 as a “War of the Rebellion,” thereby representing the actions of the Southern states as a mere uprising against an indisputably legitimate government.

For Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863, by contrast, it was essential to insist that America was undergoing a civil war. He wanted to trumpet in public more than simply the rightness of a particular governing regime. Since its survival was still in doubt, he needed as well to rally support for the Union itself, that “new nation, conceived in liberty” as he styled it: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Of course, had the American Civil War ended differently, it might well not have been called a civil war at all. Later generations might have remembered it as a “War of Southern Independence,” or even as a “Southern Revolution.” As Armitage points out, when major insurrections break out within a polity, they almost invariably start out as civil wars in the sense that the local population is initially divided in its loyalties and responses. But if the insurrectionists eventually triumph, then—as in Russia after 1917, or China after 1949—it has increasingly been the case that the struggle is redescribed by the victors as a revolution. Partly because of the continuing influence of the ancient Roman cultural inheritance, “revolution” possesses far more positive connotations than the more grubby and ambivalent “civil war.”

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Rebel–held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo,  recaptured by government forces, March 2017

As a searching, nuanced, and succinct analysis of these recurring ideas, linguistic fluctuations, and shifting responses over a dramatic span of time, and across national and continental boundaries, Armitage’s account is a valuable and suggestive one. But as he admits, it is hardly comprehensive. This is not simply because of the scale of his subject matter, but also because of his chosen methodologies.

In dealing with civil wars he practices what, in an earlier work, he styled “serial contextualism.” This means that he offers detailed snapshots of a succession of discrete moments and of particular intellectual, political, and legal figures spread out over a very long stretch of time. The strategy is sometimes illuminating, but one has to mind the gaps. Most obviously, there are difficulties involved in leaping, as he does, almost immediately from ancient Rome to the seventeenth century. By the latter period, for instance, England’s “Wars of the Roses” were sometimes viewed and described in retrospect as civil wars. But at the time, in the 1400s, commentators do not seem to have resorted to medieval Latin phrases such as bella civilia or guerre civiles to describe these particular domestic and dynastic conflicts. Although classical texts such as Lucan’s De Bello Civile were known to medieval scholars, the impress of this ancient Roman inheritance on contemporary interpretations of fifteenth-century England’s internal wars does not appear to have been a vital one.

Why might this have been? The question could be rephrased. Why should it be imagined that language and concepts drawn from the ancient Roman past supplied the only or even the dominant ideas and methods for subsequent Westerners wanting to make sense of the experience of large-scale civil contention and slaughter? After all, in the medieval era and long after, most men and even more women possessed no direct knowledge of the Roman classics. Multitudes in Europe and everywhere else could not even read, never mind afford books. Yet in the past as now, it was precisely these sorts of “ordinary” people who were often the most vulnerable to the chaos and bloodshed of civil warfare, and so had little choice but to work out some ideas about it. What were these ideas?

A practitioner of intellectual history from the so-called Cambridge School of that discipline, Armitage barely touches on such questions. More international in range than many of his fellow scholars, he shares some of this school’s leading characteristics: its fascination with the long-term impact of Aristotelian and Roman republicanism, its overwhelming focus on language and on erudite elite males, and its comparative neglect of religious texts. It is partly this deliberately selective approach to the past and its sources that allows Armitage to venture on such an enormous topic over such a longue durée. But again, there is a mismatch between this methodology and the full extent and vital diversity of his subject.

To be sure, many of the impressive individuals who feature in his book were much more than desk-bound intellectuals or sheltered and austere political players. One of the most striking segments in Civil Wars is Armitage’s treatment of the multiple roles of the Prussian-born American lawyer Francis Lieber, who provided Lincoln with a legal code for the conduct of the Civil War. Lieber had fought at Waterloo and was left for dead on the battlefield. During the 1860s, he also had to bear the death of one of his sons who fought for the South, even as two others were fighting for the North. As he remarked: “Civil War has thus knocked loudly at our own door.” The fact remains, however, that most men caught up in civil wars throughout history have not been educated, prosperous, and high-achieving souls of this sort. Moreover—and this has a wide significance—civil wars have often been viewed as having a particular impact on women.

In harsh reality, even conventional warfare has usually damaged non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. Nonetheless, the idea long persisted that war was quintessentially a separate, masculine province. But civil wars were seen as taking place within, and cutting across, discrete societies. Consequently, by their very nature, they seemed likely to violate this separation of spheres, with women along with children and the old and frail all patently involved. This was a prime reason why civil warfare was so often characterized in different cultures not just as evil and catastrophic, but as unnatural. In turn, this helps to explain why people experiencing such conflicts have often resorted, far more avidly than to any other source of ideas, to religious language and texts for explanations as well as comfort.

The major holy books all contain allusions to civil warfare and/or lines that can be read as addressing its horrors. “I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians,” declares the King James version of the book of Isaiah: “and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour.” It was often the Apocalypse, though, as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s great canvas, that Christians mined for terrifying and allusive imagery. Such biblical borrowings sometimes crowded out references to the Roman classics as a means of evoking and explaining civil war altogether, as seems often to have happened in medieval England.

At other times, religious and classical imagery and arguments were combined. Thus, as Armitage describes, the English poet Samuel Daniel drew on Lucan’s verses on the Roman civil war when composing his own First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke in 1595, a work plundered for its plots and characters by William Shakespeare. But it is also easy to see in portions of Daniel’s text the influence of the Apocalypse:

Red fiery dragons in the aire doe flie,
And burning Meteors, poynted-streaming lights,
Bright starres in midst of day appeare in skie,
Prodigious monsters, gastly fearefull sights:
Straunge Ghosts, and apparitions terrifie,
…Nature all out of course to checke our course,
Neglects her worke to worke in us remorse.

It was never just Christians who turned to holy books and religious pieties so as to cast some light on the darkness of civil war. Unlike allusions to the Roman past, such responses seem to have been universal. Indeed, I suspect that the only way that a genuinely trans-continental and socially deep history of civil warfare could conceivably be written would be through an examination of how civil wars have been treated by the world’s various religions, and how such texts and interpretations have been used and understood over time. In particular, the idea that Samuel Daniel hints at in the passage quoted above—that civil war was a punishment for a people’s more than usually egregious sins—has proved strikingly ecumenical as well as persistent.

Thus for Sunni Muslims, the idea of civil war as fitna has been central to understandings of the past. But fitna in this theology connotes more than civil warfare. The term can evoke sexual temptation, moral depravity—once again, sin. The First Fitna, for instance, the war of succession between 656 and 661, is traditionally viewed by Sunnis as marking the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the true followers of Muhammad.

As Tobie Meyer-Fong has shown, the civil wars that killed over twenty million Chinese in the 1850s and 1860s, the so-called Taiping Rebellion, were also often interpreted as divine retribution for immoral, decadent, or irreligious behavior.* Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist commentators on all sides rationalized the carnage and disorder in these terms. Poor, illiterate Chinese caught up in this crisis seem also to have regularly turned to religion to make sense of it, and not simply out of faith, or as a means to explain apparently arbitrary horrors. By viewing civil war as punishment for Chinese society’s sins in general, they could also secure for themselves a strategy and a possible way out, even if only in spiritual terms. They could make extra and conscious efforts to follow a moral pathway, and hope thereby to evade heaven’s condemnation.

Analogous responses and patterns of belief continue today, and understandably so. As the ongoing civil warfare in Syria illustrates all too terribly, vulnerable people caught up in such ordeals can easily be left feeling that no other aid is available to them except a deity, and that the only alternative is despair. David Armitage concludes his book with a discussion of how the “long-term decline of wars between states” (a decline that should not be relied on) has been “accompanied by the rise of wars within them.” As in his previous book, The History Manifesto (2014), co-written with Jo Guldi, he also insists that historians have a duty—and a particular capacity—to address such large and recurrent features of human experience:

Where a philosopher, a lawyer, or even a political scientist might find only confusion in disputes over the term “civil war,” the historian scents opportunity. All definitions of civil war are necessarily contextual and conflictual. The historian’s task is not to come up with a better one, on which all sides could agree, but to ask where such competing conceptions came from, what they have meant, and how they arose from the experience of those who lived through what was called by that name or who have attempted to understand it in the past.

Certainly, a close reading of Civil Wars provides a deeper understanding of some of the semantic strategies that are still being deployed in regard to this mode of warfare. Thus President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters frequently represent Syria’s current troubles as the result of rebellion, revolt, or treason; while for some of his Russian allies, resistance in that country is to be categorized as terrorism.

But historians can illumine the rash of civil warfare that has characterized recent decades more deeply than this. Whereas Armitage focuses here on the making and unmaking of states, it is the rise and fall of empires that have often been the fundamental precipitants of twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century civil wars. At one level, the decline and demise of some old, mainly land-based empires—Austrian, Ottoman, and Soviet—have contributed to a succession of troubles in Eastern Europe. At another, the old maritime empires that invaded so much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East frequently imposed new boundaries and yoked together different peoples in those regions in ways that were never likely to endure, and stoked up troubles for the future. In these and other respects, Armitage is right to insist that history can equip men and women with a better understanding of the past and of the troubled present. It always has done this. But only when its practitioners have been willing to adopt broad and diverse and not just long perspectives.

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton. Her latest book is Acts of Union and Disunion: What Has Held the UK Together—and What Is Dividing It? 
. (June 2017)