Category Archives: Lebanon

New Arab Kingdoms after 1919

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 10019-10072:

It’s hard to imagine that any of this [alternative history] could possibly have produced a sadder history than what has actually transpired over the past century, a catalog of war, religious strife, and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world. That sad history began from almost the moment the negotiators in Paris packed their bags and declared their mission complete, leaving in their wake “a porcelain peace.”

Denied Lawrence’s assistance in the autumn of 1919, a desperate Faisal was forced to accept the few crumbs of compromise the French were willing to throw his way in Syria. When Faisal returned to Damascus, however, he found himself denounced as a traitor for selling the nation out to the European imperialists. Harnessing this popular rage, Faisal renounced his deal with the French and in March 1920 staged something of a palace coup by declaring himself king of Syria. That act, in conjunction with the San Remo conference the following month at which Great Britain and France formalized their partition of the region—Britain taking Iraq and a “greater” Palestine that included a broad swath east of the Jordan River, or Transjordan, France the rest of Syria—set Faisal on a collision course with the French. That collision came in July; after a brief and one-sided battle on the outskirts of Damascus, the French ousted Faisal and cast him into exile. By the close of 1920, the French at last had much of their Syrie intégrale (with the exception of the British mandate in Palestine and Transjordan), but they now faced a populace seething with rage. They also now confronted an external threat; in the deserts of Transjordan, Faisal’s brother Abdullah was massing his followers with the intention of marching on Damascus.

But whatever problems the French had at the end of 1920 were dwarfed by those of the British. In Palestine, tensions between Zionist immigrants and the resident Arab population had escalated into bloodshed. In Arabia, ibn-Saud was once again pushing to oust King Hussein. The worst crisis point was in Iraq. The previous year, Lawrence had predicted full-scale revolt against British rule there by March 1920 “if we don’t mend our ways,” but he had been off by two months; by the time the May rebellion in Iraq was put down, some one thousand British and nine thousand natives were dead. As Lawrence would explain in his 1929 letter to William Yale, at Paris, Great Britain and France had taken the discredited Sykes-Picot Agreement and fashioned something even worse; how much worse was evidenced by the myriad fires that had spread across the region almost immediately.

To combat these crises, in December 1920 Lloyd George turned to a man who had become something of a pariah in British ruling circles, former first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill. One of Churchill’s first acts upon assuming the position of Colonial Office secretary was to enlist the help of another recent outcast, former lieutenant colonel T. E. Lawrence.

At least initially, Lawrence had little interest in rejoining the fray. Immersed in writing his memoirs, and undoubtedly still smarting over his shabby treatment by Lloyd George’s government the previous year, he told Churchill he was too busy and that he had left politics behind. He only relented when the new colonial secretary assured him that he would have a virtually free hand in helping fundamentally reshape the British portion of the Middle Eastern chessboard at the upcoming Cairo Conference. As a result, the Cairo deliberations were little more than a formality, with Lawrence and Churchill having worked out ahead of time, as Lawrence told a biographer, “not only [the] questions the Conference would consider, but decisions they would reach.”

Iraq was now to be consolidated and recognized as an Arab kingdom, with Faisal placed on the throne. In Arabia, the British upheld Hussein’s claim to rule in the Hejaz, while simultaneously upholding ibn-Saud’s authority in the Arabian interior. Surely the most novel idea to come out of Cairo was the plan designed to stay Abdullah from attacking the French in Syria. At the close of the conference, Lawrence journeyed to Abdullah’s base camp in Amman and convinced the truculent Arab leader to first try to establish a government in the Transjordan region of Britain’s Palestine mandate. To Lawrence’s great surprise—and perhaps to Abdullah’s as well—this most indolent of Hussein’s four sons actually proved to be a remarkably good administrator; in the near future, Transjordan was to be officially detached from the rest of Palestine and made an independent Arab kingdom—today’s Jordan—with Abdullah as its ruler. By the time Lawrence returned to England in the autumn of 1921, his one-year service to the Colonial Office nearly over, he had quite literally become the unseen kingmaker of the Middle East.

But if all this brought a measure of stability to the center of the old Ottoman Empire map, it did little to improve matters to the north and south. There, the situation remained uncertain and bloody for some time to come.

In Anatolia, the former Turkish general Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, had refused to accept the dismemberment of Turkey as outlined by the Allies. Over a four-year period, he led his army of Turkish nationalists into battle against all those who would claim a piece of the Turkish heartland, before finally establishing the modern-day borders of Turkey in 1923. France’s turn in this round robin of war came in the autumn of 1921 when Kemal, soon to become better known as Ataturk, turned his attention to the French troops occupying the Cilicia region. Quickly routed, the French armies in Cilicia beat a hasty retreat back into Syria under the leadership of their commander, the unlucky Édouard Brémond.

At the same time, a bewildering arc of war extended from the Caucasus all the way to Afghanistan as various nationalist groups, Russian Reds and Whites, and remnants of the Young Turks battled for primacy, forming and reforming alliances with such dizzying regularity as to defy both logic and comprehension. Among the prominent aspirants in this crucible were both Enver and Djemal Pasha, and it was no more surprising than anything else going on in the region that Djemal Pasha should turn up in Kabul in the winter of 1921 as a military advisor to the king of Afghanistan.

And then, far to the south, it was King Hussein’s turn. With the British having long since tired of his mercurial rule and refusal to accept the political realities of the Middle East—in 1921, Lawrence had spent a maddening two months in Jeddah futilely trying to get Hussein to accept the Cairo Conference accords—he was all but defenseless when ibn-Saud and his Wahhabist warriors finally closed on Mecca in late 1924. Hustled to the coast and then onto a British destroyer, Hussein was first taken to exile in Cyprus, before finally joining his son Abdullah in his new capital of Amman, Jordan. The deposed king, who had once dreamt of a pan-Arab nation extending from Mecca to Baghdad, died there in 1931 at the age of seventy-six.

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Filed under Arabia, Britain, Central Asia, France, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Middle East, nationalism, religion, Syria, Turkey, war

The Head Heeb on the UN Peace Plan for Lebanon

The resolutely level-headed Head Heeb offers a positive take on the latest Franco-American UNSC resolution on Lebanon.

The compromise reportedly has the backing of all five permanent Security Council measures, which if true will make it virtually certain to pass. The Israeli and Lebanese governments have both been consulted, and although the IDF brass may be reluctant to give up on the planned push to the Litani and Lebanon is wary of an expanded French role, it would be politically unfeasible for either country to reject the United Nations’ terms. The real question mark is Hizbullah, which would have to accept three conditions that it had vehemently rejected up to today: a ceasefire with IDF troops still on Lebanese soil, an augmented international force south of the Litani, and the loss of its military presence in the border region.

The decisive vote in this respect may be neither the United States nor France but Qatar. Qatar is the sole Arab country currently sitting in the UNSC, and as such has spoken for the Arab world and been the focus of the Arab League’s crisis diplomacy. If the Qatari delegate votes in favor rather than abstaining or dissenting, then Hizbullah could only say no at the price of bucking the United Nations, its own national government and the Arab world. It might be willing to chance the first two, but probably not all three.

If all these hurdles are overcome, then the Israel-Hizbullah war will end on terms that allow everyone to gain something. Israel will have weakened Hizbullah and will get a stable northern border for the first time in more than 30 years, Hizbullah will be able to claim that it fought the IDF to the end, and the Lebanese government will obtain sovereignty over the entire country as well as a chance to resolve its outstanding disputes with Israel. France, as Lebanon’s once and future patron, will increase its regional influence, and even the United States will (against all odds) have played a critical role in brokering the settlement.

This means that the proposed resolution is, at this point, about the best possible end that can be imagined for the whole sorry mess. A war in which all parties can claim achievements is one that is less likely to fester and more likely to provide a foundation upon which the underlying issues can be settled. As Israel has learned from bitter experience, a draw that leads to a resolution of the root conflict is preferable to a victory that doesn’t – the Yom Kippur War ultimately resulted in peace with Egypt while the Six Day War led to nothing but an endless nightmare of occupation. If this war, like the war of 1973, leaves all parties proud but chastened, the not-defeat may have better results in the long term than an unequivocal battlefield victory.

UPDATE: The half-life of hope about anything that involves the combination of the Middle East and UN resolutions is about equal to that of ununoctium.

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TNR on the Cartoon Intifada in Lebanon

The latest issue of The New Republic shatters another common illusion about the cartoon offensive.

For the Western news media, always eager to revisit Lebanon’s bloody 15-year civil war, the Muslim rampage through a Christian neighborhood in Beirut on February 5 was a disappointment. A mob of predominantly Sunni Muslims threw stones at a Maronite Catholic church–a desecration most militias refrained from even during the civil war–and yet Beirut’s Christians turned the other cheek. A peaceful counterdemonstration that night felt like a Cedar Revolution class reunion: Young men and women milled around chanting desultory slogans, then went home. By nightfall, what was assumed to be a ham-handed Syrian attempt to stir up sectarian trouble in Lebanon had fizzled. “We will not fall in the trap,” proclaimed Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. “Our national unity is stronger than Syrian destruction.”

The cartoon intifada–as the sometimes violent protests over a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed have come to be known–has been portrayed in the Western press as an epic struggle between West and East, Christendom and Islam. The image of angry, stone-throwing Muslims assaulting the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh fit right into that clash-of-civilizations paradigm.

But, as the world tuned in to watch a classic Christian-Muslim image from Lebanon’s last war, it missed another picture: mainstream Sunni clerics frantically trying to hold back a bandana-wearing, brick-throwing Sunni mob that no longer respects their clerical robes. “I asked those troublemakers, ‘What do the people who live in Ashrafiyeh have to do with the people who published those blasphemous cartoons about our Prophet?'” lamented one Sunni cleric from Dar Al Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni spiritual authority. “I asked them, ‘Why were those men destroying cars and public property? Why did they throw rocks at a church, which is a house of God?’ Those people were not true Muslims. They had other agendas.”

In Lebanon and Syria, the cartoon jihad is not a battle between West and East. It’s a struggle by mainstream Sunnis to contain a growing network of radical Islamists. The Sunnis who burned Beirut’s Danish Embassy weren’t there to defend their Prophet from Lurpak butter or an obscure Danish newspaper. They weren’t even there, really, to assault Christians. They came to Ashrafiyeh–from Lebanon’s northern Islamist pockets, its Palestinian camps, and from neighboring Syria–to teach the mainstream Sunni establishment a lesson. Most of all, they were there to send a message to Saad Hariri, the Saudi- and U.S.-backed figurehead of Lebanon’s current parliamentary majority and the ostensible leader of Lebanon’s Sunni community. The message was this: You cannot control us. What’s frightening is that they might be right.

In a war between the Tolerant and the Intolerant, the Intolerant always have the tactical advantage–and never have as many enemy sympathizers in their midst. Fortunately, their tactical advantage can translate into strategic weakness, as their violent persecution of heretics alienates more and more potential allies.

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Orwell and Agee as Fieldworkers

David Denby’s review of the collected works of James Agee in the latest New Yorker contains an interesting comparison of Agee and Orwell as cross-cultural fieldworkers.

For Agee, … the point was not that these families suffered from atrocious social conditions. The point was that they existed. In an age concerned largely with the “masses,” Agee was impressed by the notion that other human beings idiosyncratically are what they are, in every ornery fibre. Flesh, bone, desire, consciousness–in almost every way, the farmers were different from him and therefore obdurate in their singleness and as capable of pleasure and misery as he. A young couple sitting on a porch and staring at Agee had in their eyes “so quiet and ultimate a quality of hatred, and contempt, and anger, toward every creature in existence beyond themselves, and toward the damages they sustained, as shone scarcely short of a state of beatitude.” [A little projection of self-hatred here, perhaps?–J.] Agee, born an Episcopalian, and deeply religious as a child, was no longer an orthodox believer. But he had a consciousness of the sacred in people and in ordinary objects that believers associate with God’s immanence. He loved, and took literally, Blake’s proclamation “Everything that lives is holy.”…

Agee’s lyrical gift set him off from other writers of liberal or radical conviction of the day. At almost exactly the same time that he and Walker Evans were in Alabama, George Orwell was exploring living conditions in coal-mining towns in the North of England, and it’s instructive to compare Orwell’s remarkable report, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” with “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Orwell boarded for a while in a little house that took in miners:

The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.

So often in Orwell there is a strong sense of the sordid–­the scandal of meanness, decay, filth. And he was appalled by sloth and inanition. When, with much greater sympathy, he describes the miners and their wives in Wigan and other towns he typically catches them not “creeping” but moving vigorously–working, washing, cooking, or searching a slag heap for usable coal. Orwell is a chronicler of man as actor, and the second half of his book is a call for action in the form of socialist reform. But Agee chronicles being. He evokes the farmers and their families not just in sleep but at rest, sitting on a porch, or staring shyly and saying nothing. And he was incapable of physical disgust. For him, there is only an endless variety of shapes, textures, and dispositions, none of them beyond redemption in words.

In “Famous Men,” Agee is not a political writer but a poetic and metaphysical writer, who wanted to honor reality, and also to abolish it. There is a trap built into his kind of intense receptivity. That a person or a thing is itself and nothing else, and is therefore worthy of notice and celebration, may be the beginning of morality, but it’s also the beginning of tragedy. As Agee sits on the porch or alone in a room in one of the houses, he tries to take in, all at once, everything that the family is, everything that exists in the house–­for instance, Mrs. Ricketts’s dress, which is shaped “like a straight-sided bell, with a little hole at the top for the head to stick through, the cloth slit from the neck to below the breasts and held together if I remember rightly with a small snarl of shoelace.” He stares at a pair of coarsely sewn and nailed work boots, or at a tattered doll, or at the worn-through oil cloth on an old table, and is amazed at how much life went into the making and use of that table, amazed by how much life is going on in similar households, unnoticed, unrecorded. The mood is one of Wordsworthian awe and submission, though Agee extended his sympathies to objects–­even mass-produced, industrial products–­as well as to nature. At the same time, however, he is stunned by how limited the families are. Being so vividly and absolutely themselves, they are unable to be so many other things, and some of the angriest, most eloquent pages of the book are devoted to the deformations wrought on the children by early work and poor schooling. They have been cheated out of the most elementary ways of teaching themselves–­and therefore cheated out of pleasure. When they grow up, and become similar to that disdainful couple Agee encountered on a porch, the fierceness of their pride will be created as much by ignorance as by anger. The rhapsodist of things as they are is necessarily caught in a position of infinite regret. That is why the book, for all its celebratory tone, never falls into bathos. No one could confuse the tenant farmers’ days with a complete mastering of life.

via Arts & Letters Daily

UPDATE: As much as I admire Orwell, I’m beginning to develop an interest in Agee (born in Knoxville, TN), whose works I am far less familiar with. Part of it may be a vague admiration for the chutzpah of Southern writers who manage to invade and colonize New York City on their own terms. Among those I’m most familiar with are Harper Lee, William Styron, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, and Richard Wright. (I must confess that I don’t much admire such purveyors of bald stereotypes–northern and southern, respectively–as Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Mitchell.) The beginning of a 1964 William Styron review in the New York Review of Books explains what they were up against.

‘There is a saying among the Negroes in Harlem,’ James Baldwin said recently, ‘to the effect that if you have a white Southerner for a friend you’ve got a friend for life. But if you’ve got a white Northerner for a friend, watch out. Because he just might be the kind of friend who decides to move out when you move in.’ This is a sentiment which may be beguiling to a Southerner, yet the fact does remain that a Southern ‘liberal’ and his Northern counterpart are two distinct species of cat. Certainly the Southerner of good will who lives in the North, as I do, is often confronted with some taxing circumstances. There was the phone call a number of years ago in the distant epoch before the present ‘Negro revolt,’ and the cautious interrogation from my dinner hostess of the evening: a Negro was going to be present–as a Southerner, did I mind? If I wished to stay away she would surely understand. Or much later, when Prince Edward County in Virginia closed its schools, the deafening and indignant lady, a television luminary, who demanded that ‘we’ drop bombs on ‘those crackers down there.’ (She got the state wrong, Virginians may be snobs but they are not crackers [you’re wrong, Bill; we’ve got all kinds!–J.]; nonetheless, she was proposing that ‘we’ bomb my own kith and kin.) Or quite recently, a review in The New Yorker of Calder Willing-ham’s [sic] Eternal Fire, a remarkably fine novel about the South which the reviewer, Whitney Balliett, praised extravagantly without knowing exactly why he was doing so, charging that the book was the definitve [sic] satire on Southern writing (through the book is funny it is anything but satire, being too close to the bone of reality), and polishing off Faulkner, Welty, Warren, et al. with the assertion that Southern fiction in general, in which the Negroes had served so faithfully as ‘a resident Greek chorus,’ had now terminated its usefulness. It is of course not important what this particular reviewer thinks, but the buried animus is characteristic and thus worth spelling out: white Southern writers, because they are white and Southern, cannot be expected to write about Negroes without condescension, or with understanding or fidelity or love. Unfortunately, this is a point of view which, by an extension of logic, tends to regard all white Southerners as bigots, and it is an attitude which one might find even more ugly than it is were it prompted by malice rather than ignorant self-righteousness, or a suffocating and provincial innocence. Nor is its corollary any less tiresome: to show that you really love Negroes, smoke pot, and dig the right kind of jazz.

Yes. Familiar types, all.

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Across the Bay on the Head Heeb on Lebanon

Lebanon-focused blogger Across the Bay offers a stirring endorsement and exegesis of a five-part analysis of the prospects in Lebanon by Jonathan Edelstein at the Head Heeb. I’ll just reproduce the combined conclusions here.

Jonathan’s conclusion is equally sober:

But all that will be decided in the future. In the coming months, Lebanon will begin to make the transition to its third republic. It will have to find a method of mediating inter-confessional relations that avoids the rigidity of the first republic and doesn’t depend on the artificial stasis of the second. The method it will choose is beyond prediction, and will be the product not only of the current crisis and the past five years’ political evolution but other factors that will emerge only as the post-Syrian order takes shape. This time, it seems that the Lebanese factions have both the experience and the will to find such a method. The path will be long and difficult, and there will be setbacks, but I’m optimistic about Lebanon’s new dawn.

Very well said. Finally, a level-headed article about Lebanon without the ideological bias, the venom, the contempt, the apologetics for Syria, and the thinly-veiled defense of authoritarianism. An excellent post all around.

And one that reflects the Head Heeb‘s wide coverage of the globe, with comparisons to Belgium, Canada, Fiji, Finland, and New Caledonia’s Nouméa Accord. Be sure to read the comments, as well.

via Belmont Club

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