Category Archives: Mediterranean

Rise and Fall of Chinese Silk Trade

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 97-100:

Not long after the time of Christ, the straitlaced Roman philosopher-orator Seneca voiced a frequently heard denunciation: “I see silken clothes, if one can call them clothes at all, that in no degree afford protection either to the body or the modesty of the wearer, and clad in which no woman could honestly swear she is not naked.” If salt was China’s premier domestic product, silk was China’s first international trade commodity. This remarkable textile gave its name not only to the route (the Silk Road) across which it was traded to the Near East and the Mediterranean but also to the Latin name for China (Seres or Serica). Silk was an ideal product for long-distance trade: high in value but low in bulk and weight, and not subject to deterioration in transit.

Before the time of Christ, high quality silk fabrics had made their way westward in sufficient quantities to motivate some of Alexander the Great’s campaigns and then, as we have seen, to become the subject of denunciation in Rome for their extravagance and for their sheerness. Large amounts of silk fabric were periodically exported to the rough nomadic peoples living north of China, as part of the price paid for peace along the Great Wall. From China, the technique spread to Korea in the fourth century and thence to Japan. India probably learned the technology at about the same time. Finally, around A.D. 550, Bombyx mori eggs were smuggled into the Byzantine Empire in hollow canes carried by certain Indian monks who had lived for a long time in the Central Asian oasis city-states on the Silk Road. But the mere possession of eggs did not assure the successful development of sericulture.

Silk has always been an elite product, amounting to less than 1 percent of cotton and 3 percent of wool production in the twentieth century. In world trade, it reached its peak in about 1920, when its major use was for women’s silk hosiery—perhaps the only mass use of silk in its history. Thereafter, artificial fibres—rayon, nylon, orlon, etc.—were developed and replaced silk in many of its previous uses. Although silk technology was developed in China, by the mid-1930s Japan was the dominant Asian and world producer, partly because of aggressive adoption of the best production methods, especially quality control, and partly because Chinese production was seriously disrupted by unrest, revolution, and Japanese invasion.

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Slavery in Mauritania

From A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, by Alexis Okeowo (Hachette Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 33, 38-39, 40:

In 1981, Mauritania’s government abolished slavery, becoming the last country in the world to do so. But the presidential decree offered no legal provision to punish slave owners. In 2007, under international pressure, the government passed a law that allowed slaveholders to be prosecuted. Yet slavery persisted, even as the government and religious leaders denied it. In 2013, the Global Slavery Index estimated that at least 140,000 people were enslaved in Mauritania, out of a population of 3.8 million. Women and children make up most of Mauritania’s slave class. When boys come of age, they sometimes manage to leave their masters’ families. Adult women are considered minors by Mauritanian custom, and female slaves face greater difficulty escaping. In the countryside, entire communities of slaves live in the service of their masters, on call for labor whenever they are needed….

Over the course of centuries, Berbers from North Africa and Arabs came to inhabit what is now Mauritania. They took black African slaves, creating an entrenched racial hierarchy. Over time, the bloodlines of the masters and the slaves mixed and they came to share a language—Arabic or an Arabic dialect—and cultural practices: As the masters imposed their traditions, the slaves lost their own. As a result, and disturbingly, slave owners often referred to their slaves as family. In modern Mauritania, people speak of the mingled Arab-Berbers as White Moors and the slaves as Haratin. White Moors, a minority, hold most of the country’s wealth and political power. Haratin, who have dark skin, are a permanent underclass, even after they are freed. Haby and Biram, the activist who freed her, were Haratin. Somewhere between these two castes are Afro-Mauritanians, ethnic groups also found in Senegal that have never been enslaved. People endured slavelike conditions in nearby countries, but slavery in Mauritania was unusually severe and persistent. Because of those extreme conditions, the antislavery movement in Mauritania had become among the most radical activist movements in Africa….

I arrived in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, in late January 2014 from my home base in Lagos, Nigeria. I wanted to see the place where, almost unbelievably, widespread slavery still existed, and to meet the man who was fighting back. It took two flights: one to Senegal, which lies just under Mauritania, and its seaside capital city, Dakar, where I stayed for a night with a photographer friend in her apartment that faced the sea. After a quick pancake breakfast the next morning, I boarded a Senegal Air flight to Nouakchott.

I was a little uneasy before going. I had been to North Africa just once, to Egypt, and, even though Mauritania was not considered wholly North African, the racism and xenophobia I had seen in Egypt against black immigrants made me wary.

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Aboard a Zeppelin to Africa, 1917

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6233-6255, 6268-6280, 6300-6317, 6404-6408:

L59, pushed by a tailwind from the direction of the German Reich, rumbled south from Jamboli in the freezing dawn of November 21, 1917, at speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour. The great lumbering airship cast her shadow over Adrianople in Turkey at nine forty-five a.m., and over the Sea of Marmara’s chop a short time later. At Pandena, on the southern shore, she picked up the railroad tracks to Smyrna, a steel ribbon barely visible after sunset. At seven forty p.m., L59 pulled free of the Turkish coast at the Lipsas Straits. Now the Greek Dodecanese Islands—Kos, Patmos, Rhodes—passed below, nestled like dark jewels in the black Mediterranean waters, notoriously stormy this time of year. But tonight, the Zeppelin surged forward beneath a clear sky and brilliant stars. [Lieutenant Commander Ludwig] Bockholt, who had made his life in the navy, had long ago learned to steer by them when necessary.

L59’s crew of twenty—excluding Bockholt and [medical doctor Max] Zupitza—included twelve mechanics to service the five Maybach 240-horsepower engines (one in the forward control car, two opposed on the belly one-third of the way back, and two aft, each driving a single, massive twenty-foot propeller); two “elevator operators” (the elevators, movable flaps at the tail, controlled the upward or downward incline of the nose cone); a radio operator; and a sailmaker, whose job it was to sew up tears in the muslin envelopes affixed within the belly filled with the flammable hydrogen/oxygen mixture that kept the massive airship afloat.

As in the seaborne navy, watches divided the day into four-hour increments. As L59 approached the island of Crete at eight thirty p.m., a quarter of the crew just gone off watch opened their dinnertime cans of Kaloritkon, a bizarre sort of self-heating MRE. These undigestible, oversalted tubes of potted meat literally cooked themselves via a chemical reaction when exposed to air—heating food over open flame and smoking being strictly verboten aboard the flammable airship. The Kaloritkons, which everyone hated, took much water to wash down, and water was scarce, with barely 14 liters allotted per man for the duration of the voyage. At ten fifteen p.m., L59 passed above Cape Sidero at Crete’s eastern extremity at 3,000 feet. Then the stars by which Bockholt had been guiding the Zeppelin to Africa suddenly disappeared, blotted out by a solid mass of black, churning clouds, shot through with bright veins of lightning. The Zeppelin headed into this cloud bank and, buffeted by thunderclaps and driving rain, was also suddenly consumed by a strange, vivid flame, cool to the touch, that seemed to dance across every surface of the doped canvas envelope.

“The ship’s burning!” called the top lookout—alarming, but no cause for alarm: This was St. Elmo’s fire, named after Erasmus of Formia, the patron saint of sailors. Technically a luminous plasma generated by coronal discharge in an atmospheric electrical field, it burned a vivid violet-blue and, in nontechnical terms, was entirely beautiful….

At five fifteen a.m., the sun cracked the rim of earth and the huge airship passed over the African continent at Ras Bulair on the Libyan coast. Miles of desert lay ahead; no Zeppelin had flown across such a landscape before. Now the level wastes of sand and rock stretched monotonously below L59’s keel, from horizon to horizon. Soon, the sun, blazing down, began to dry her canvas skin, still drenched and heavy from the storm. The airship grew lighter as the watery sheen evaporated; lighter still as fuel consumption continued apace. Then the gas in her envelopes, expanding with the heat, blew out the automatic valves into the atmosphere and soon, L59 became dangerously light and increasingly difficult to handle. To compensate, Bockholt flew her “nose down” throughout the day, shifting 1,650 pounds of ballast aft as a counterbalance.

In the late morning, hot desert air rose in bubbles of buoyancy, alternating with heavy downdrafts of cooler air. This caused a roller-coaster effect that made most of the crew violently airsick. Even the hardened navy veterans among them, used to storms at sea, were not immune to the stomach-churning sensation of weightlessness as L59 plunged into the downdrafts and precipitously rose again. Despite all this, L59 plowed ahead and made the Farafra Oasis around noon. This incandescent patch of green slid by below, its date palms rustling in the hot wind….

Flying a Zeppelin is a difficult undertaking under the best conditions: Gas expands and contracts according to changing temperatures; lift and buoyancy fluctuate; all must be counterbalanced ceaselessly by the release of ballast water, the measured shifting of cargo, the canting of nose or tail via clumsy elevator flaps—and all this becomes doubly difficult over the desert. Bockholt had lightened his airship by 4,400 pounds of ballast in the last full heat of day and had even tossed some boxes of supplies overboard. He knew the rapidly cooling temperatures of the desert at night would contract the gas, causing the Zeppelin to sink. To counterbalance this sinking effect, he had planned to fly the ship at four degrees “nose up” on her four remaining engines.

But he had not counted on the humid, dense air of the Nile Valley. Even at 3,000 feet, ambient temperatures had reached sixty-eight degrees by ten p.m.; they rose steadily after midnight and still L59’s lift capacity gradually diminished. Finally, at three a.m., L59 began to lose altitude precipitously. The engines stalled. Forward thrust gone, the Zeppelin sank through the atmosphere from 3,100 feet to just under 1,300, not high enough to clear a looming desert escarpment; a minute later, her main radio antennae sheared off upon contact with an outcropping of red rock.

Now Bockholt ordered his crew to lighten the ship even further. With all engines stopped, 6,200 pounds of ballast and ammunition went overboard. The crew watched cases of ammunition, much needed by the Schutztruppe, shatter and explode on the ragged slopes below. But this sacrifice had its desired effect: Gradually, the sinking super Zeppelin stabilized; slowly, she rose into safer atmospheres:

“To fly steadily at 4 degrees heavy at night can easily be catastrophic, especially with sudden temperature changes in the Sudan, as at Jebel Ain,” Bockholt later confided to L59’s war diary, “particularly if the engines fail from overheating with warm outside temperatures. . . . Ship should have 3000 kg of 4 percent of her lift for each night to take care of cooling effect.”

Clearly, it was a complicated business.

L59, now less than 125 miles west of Khartoum, had two-thirds of the perilous journey behind her. But presently, to the dismay of all aboard, Bockholt turned the great airship around and pointed her nose cone due north ….

At last, at seven thirty a.m. on November 25, 1917, L59 made her docking station at Jamboli. Her mooring ropes dropped, the ground crew drew her down and walked her into the long shed. China Show had ended in failure. The twenty-two aeronauts, wobbly-legged, nearly deafened by the droning Maybachs at close quarters, stumbled down the ladders to the ground in the gray Balkan morning. They had been in the air for almost four days and had covered 4,200 air miles—the longest distance in the shortest time of any airship to date.

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Afghanistan as “University of Jihad”

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 6410-6454:

The mujahideen struggle against the Soviets—a struggle that ultimately ended with a humiliating retreat for the forces of Moscow—filled Muslims around the world with pride. This glorious victory seemed to many a confirmation of what the Islamists had been arguing all along: with God’s help, anything is possible. (The Quran is replete with verses promising victory to those who are faithful to God.) The triumph of the Afghan jihad inspired Muslims in a general way, but it gave particular impetus to the more militant strains of Islamist thought. The full psychological impact is hard to quantify, of course. One of the most concrete effects can be seen in the later journeys of the non-Afghans who personally participated in the war against the Soviets. Garlanded by their participation in the glamorous Afghan jihad, the Afghan Arabs and their fellow Islamist internationalists personally embodied the message of armed resistance to the infidels and the apostates. Not for nothing would Afghanistan in the 1980s come to be known as the “University of Jihad.”

Inevitably, however, Azzam’s very success as a leader and religious thinker inspired competition. Another Arab who made the pilgrimage to Peshawar was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who arrived in Pakistan in 1985. Trained as a doctor and a religious scholar, he was an alumnus of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been imprisoned after the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though professing eagerness to help the Afghans in their jihad against the Soviets, he spent much of his time in Pakistan on Egyptian affairs. He soon became the leader of a new group of Egyptian radicals that dubbed itself the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Azzam was soon complaining to his associates that the Egyptians were gaining influence over his protégé Bin Laden, who was already becoming a lodestar of the jihadi movement. There is much speculation, indeed, that Zawahiri and his confederates orchestrated the killing of Azzam as part of a plot to take over control of his organization.

But the nascent al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were not the only ones bent on extending the Afghan war to the rest of the world. Another group of Egyptian radicals, mercilessly persecuted by the government at home, set up operations in Peshawar and in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in the mid-1980s. This was al-Gamaa al-Islamia, the Islamic Group, which had engineered the assassination of Sadat. One of the group’s most prominent figures in its exile was Mohammed Shawki Islambouli, the brother of Sadat’s killer. Its religious leader was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “blind sheikh,” who had also studied under Azzam and ultimately played a key role in the MAK after Azzam’s death. He established close relations with Bin Laden and Hekmatyar. In 1990 Abdel-Rahmen traveled to the United States, where his preaching inspired a group of young Muslim radicals to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Later in the 1990s, al-Gamaa al-Islamia launched a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks across Egypt that culminated in the Luxor attack of 1997, in which the group’s operatives massacred 62 people (mostly foreign tourists).

After Azzam’s death, Bin Laden and Zawahiri—the latter often characterized, with some justification, as the “brains” of al-Qaeda—presided over a remarkable expansion of global jihadist aspirations. Afghanistan-trained holy warriors dispersed to the four winds. They fought in Bosnia and Chechnya and lent support to the Islamist regime in the Sudan (where members of the Islamist camp had first joined the cabinet back in 1979). Muslim Filipinos returned home from the training camps in Afghanistan to found a revolutionary jihadi organization of their own, which they called Abu Sayyaf.

In Indonesia a veteran of the Afghan jihad named Jaffar Umar Thalib founded Laskar Jihad, a terror group that aimed to form an Islamic state in a far-flung corner of that sprawling country. Another Indonesian by the name of Riduan Isamuddin arrived in Afghanistan in 1988, where he also sought close ties to Bin Laden. Under the nom de guerre of Hambali, he later gained notoriety for his work as the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesia’s most prominent militant Islamist organization. Aspiring to create a caliphate unifying the Muslim populations of Southeast Asia, he orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks that included the notorious Bali nightclub bombing of 2002, which took the lives of 202 people. Veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan also played an incendiary role in the brutal Algerian civil war that scourged that country in the 1990s, after the secular government annulled the results of an election won by Islamists. As many as 200,000 Algerians died in the fighting, which dragged on for years.

In Central Asia, still other alumni of the “University of Jihad” joined forces with the Islamists in the former Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, fighting on their side against ex-Communist secularists in another bloody civil war that tore that country apart in the 1990s. One of the men who participated on the Islamist side in that conflict went by the nom du guerre of Juma Namangani. Born in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, he had fought in an elite paratrooper unit on Moscow’s side during the war in Afghanistan. The experience had radicalized him, transforming him into a zealous holy warrior. He was among the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, arguably the first transnational Islamist guerrilla group to emerge from the former USSR. His soldiers fought on al-Qaeda’s side in post-9/11 Afghanistan. In this way, too, Moscow’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan unleashed surprising demons.

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U.S. Bureau of Secret Intelligence, 1916

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 7212-7257:

The thirty-four-year-old [Leland] Harrison enjoyed a similar Yankee blueblood background to [William] Yale’s. After being educated at Eton and Harvard, he’d joined the U.S. diplomatic corps and held a succession of posts at some of the most important American overseas missions. His swift rise had been cemented when Secretary of State Robert Lansing brought him to Washington in 1915, where Harrison quickly gained a reputation as Lansing’s most trusted lieutenant.

Both fierce Anglophiles, Lansing and Harrison had shared a deepening disenchantment with Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to American neutrality in the war. Another source of Lansing’s favor for Harrison was undoubtedly his subordinate’s profound sense of discretion. One State Department staffer would say of Leland Harrison that “he was positively the most mysterious and secret man I have ever known.… He was almost a human sphinx, and when he did talk, his voice was so low that I had to strain my ears to catch the words.”

Where this became significant was that prior to American entry in the war, Lansing had acted as the leader of a virtual shadow government within the Wilson administration, a secretive cabal that quietly maneuvered for intervention on the side of the Entente. Just how secretive was indicated by Lansing’s creation of something called the Bureau of Secret Intelligence in 1916. In hopes of uncovering evidence of German treachery that would make the argument for intervention irresistible, the bureau’s special agents spied on diplomats and businessmen from the Central Powers residing in the United States, an activity that obviously undercut Wilson’s public vow of impartiality and would have infuriated other branches of government had they been told. But they weren’t told. Instead, Lansing had used State Department discretionary funds to create the bureau, enabling it to operate without the approval or even the knowledge of Congress or most of the rest of Wilson’s cabinet. Pulling Leland Harrison from the Latin American division, Lansing had placed his young protégé in charge of this “extra-legal” new office, tasked to overseeing “the collection and examination of all information of a secret nature.” While this element of conspiracy within the State Department had been somewhat mooted by American entry into the war, it provided Harrison with a precedent when, upon reading William Yale’s Syria report, it occurred to him that it might be very useful for the United States to have its own source of intelligence in the Middle East. The snag was that such an enterprise fell out of the purview of the existing domestic intelligence agencies and, with the United States not at war with Turkey, beyond the scope of the army intelligence division as well. The solution was to bring Yale in under the umbrella of the Bureau of Secret Intelligence; to that end, he was summoned to the State Department in early August.

At that meeting, Harrison put forward a remarkable proposition: Yale would return to the Middle East as a “special agent” for the State Department. At a salary of $2,000 a year plus expenses, his mission would be to monitor and report on whatever was happening that might be of interest to the American government—or, perhaps more accurately, of interest to Leland Harrison. From his base in Cairo, Yale would send weekly dispatches through the American embassy’s diplomatic pouch to Washington, where they would be routed exclusively to Harrison’s attention. Unsurprisingly, Yale quickly accepted the offer. On August 14, and under Secretary Lansing’s signature, he was named the State Department’s special agent for the Middle East.

After a brief trip home to see his family in Alder Creek, on August 29 Yale boarded USS New York in New York harbor for another transatlantic crossing. En route to Cairo, he was to stop off in London and Paris to take a sounding of those British and French officials most directly involved with Middle Eastern affairs. As Harrison cabled to the American ambassador in London, “[Yale] is to keep us informed of the Near Eastern situation and, should the occasion arise, may be sent on trips for special investigation work. He is favorably known to the British authorities, who offered him a commission. Please do what you can to put him in touch with the right authorities.”

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to fully grasp the utter provincialism of the United States as it entered World War I in 1917. Not only was its standing army one-twentieth the size of Germany’s, but it was dwarfed in size by even some of Europe’s smallest actors, including Romania, Bulgaria, and Portugal. In 1917, the entire Washington headquarters staff of the State Department fit into one wing of a six-story building adjacent to the White House, a structure it shared with the command staff of both the Departments of Navy and Army.

Those examples notwithstanding, perhaps more remarkable is this: for most of the remainder of the war, the American intelligence mission in the Middle East—a mission that would include the analysis of battlefield strategies and regional political currents, the interviewing of future heads of state, and the gathering of secrets against governments both friendly and hostile—would be conducted by a single twenty-nine-year-old man with no military, diplomatic, or intelligence training. To these deficiencies, William Yale could actually think of a few more: “I lacked a historical knowledge of the background of the problems I was studying. I had no philosophy of history, no method of interpretation, and very little understanding of the fundamental nature and function of the [regional] economic and social system.”

Not that any of this caused him undue anxiety. An exemplar of the American can-do spirit, William Yale also held to the belief, quite common among his countrymen, that ignorance and lack of experience could actually bestow an advantage, might serve as the wellspring for “originality and boldness.” If so, he promised to be a formidable force in the Middle East.

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Mark Sykes, Amateur at Play in the Middle East

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3104-3162:

His name was Mark Sykes—or, more formally, Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet, of Sledmere.

Few people in history have so heedlessly caused so much tragedy. At the age of thirty-six, the handsome if slightly doughy Sykes epitomized that remarkable subclass of British aristocrats of the late imperial age known as the “Amateurs.” Despite its somewhat derogatory modern connotation, the term derives from the Latin “for the love of,” and in this context denoted a select group of wealthy and usually titled young men whose breeding, education, and freedom from careerist pressures—it was considered terribly déclassé for such men to hold down bona fide jobs—allowed them to dabble over a broad range of interests and find all doors flung open to them. Raised on a thirty-thousand-acre ancestral estate as the only child of a Yorkshire aristocrat, Sykes, like so many of his fellow Amateurs, seemed intent on living the lives of ten “ordinary” men. Educated at Cambridge, he had traveled extensively throughout the Ottoman Empire, authored four books, been a soldier in the Boer War, served as parliamentary secretary to the chief administrator of Ireland and honorary attaché to the British embassy in Constantinople—and those were just the highlights up to the age of twenty-five. In the succeeding eleven years before his arrival in Cairo that autumn, he had married and had sired five children—a sixth would soon be on the way—won a reputation as an accomplished caricaturist, invented an early version of the overhead projector and, since 1912, served as the Conservative member of Parliament for Hull Central.

Sykes’s appearance in Cairo was a result of the most recent addition to his résumé. The previous spring, Lord Kitchener had appointed him as an advisor to the de Bunsen Committee, an interdepartmental government board designed to guide the British cabinet on Middle Eastern affairs. Unsurprisingly, Sykes had quickly emerged as the dominant member of that committee, and in July 1915 set out on an extended fact-finding mission to the region with the intention of imparting his firsthand impressions to the cabinet upon his return.

Lawrence and Sykes first met that August, during Sykes’s stopover in Cairo on the outgoing leg of his fact-finding mission. Like most everyone else, Lawrence took a quick liking to the charming and personable MP. He and others in the Cairo intelligence staff were also gratified to finally find someone in the senior branches of the British government who appeared to appreciate their ideas for unconventional warfare. That estimate was initially fortified upon Sykes’s return to Egypt in November; he had spent the previous two months meeting with officials in British India, a group vehemently opposed to the war-by-proxy plots emanating out of British Egypt, and the returned Sykes made no secret that his sympathies lay with the Egyptian approach.

Yet for all his astounding achievements, Mark Sykes exemplified another characteristic common among the British ruling class of the Edwardian age, a breezy arrogance that held that most of the world’s messy problems were capable of neat solution, that the British had the answers to many of them, and that it was their special burden—no less tiresome for being God-given—to enlighten the rest of humanity to that fact. Sykes’s special skill in this regard was a talent for bold and refreshingly concise writing, the ability to break down complex issues into neat bulleted-point formulas that provided the illusion of almost mathematical simplicity. He was a master of the PowerPoint presentation nearly a century before it existed. One example—there were to be many more in the years just ahead—was an analysis he composed during his August stopover in Cairo that purported to chart the various intellectual elements at work in the Middle East. After first dividing those elements between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns,” Sykes offered up subcategories. Thus, Class I of the Ancients were the orthodox (“hard, unyielding, bigoted and fanatical”), while Class I of the Moderns (“the highest type”) denoted “a person of good family who has entirely absorbed a Western education,” not to be confused with the Class II Moderns, who were “the poor, incompetent, or criminal who have received an inferior European education and whose minds by circumstances or temperament or both are driven into more sinister channels than the first class.” Not content to end there, Sykes proceeded to apply his formula to various regions of the Middle East, offering his British readers an easy-to-follow guide to their nation’s standing in each. It was not a pretty picture in a place like Egypt, frankly: from the Class I, II, and III Ancients, absolute hostility, benevolent apathy, and mild approval, respectively, joined to constitutional opposition and unforgiving enmity among the Class I and II Moderns.

It certainly wasn’t the first time such silly racialist formulas had been put to paper, but it spoke volumes to the British leadership’s own smugness—as well, no doubt, to their perpetually harried states in grappling with a conflict that spanned the globe—that such drivel, well organized and confidently stated, took on the flavor of wisdom. Upon Sykes’s return to London and a bravura performance before the de Bunsen Committee, the British government would essentially hand off to the thirty-six-year-old Amateur one of the thorniest—and from a historical standpoint, most profoundly important—assignments of World War I: sorting out the competing territorial claims of Great Britain and her allies in the Middle East.

Only belatedly would British leaders recognize another aspect of Sykes’s character, one that might have given them pause had they spotted it earlier. Perhaps to be expected given his frenetic pace and catholic range of interests, Mark Sykes had a very hard time keeping his facts, even his own beliefs, straight. Impressed by the last person he had spoken with, or the last idea that had popped into his fecund mind, he was forever contradicting positions or policies he had advocated earlier—often mere days earlier.

Lawrence began to get a glimmer of this in the time he spent around Sykes during that November stopover. There was something altogether disquieting about the cavalier way the young MP disregarded inconvenient evidence that didn’t fit his currently held view, often only to seize on that same evidence when his opinion changed. As Lawrence would later write in Seven Pillars, Sykes was “the imaginative advocate of unconvincing world movements … a bundle of prejudices, intuitions, half-sciences. His ideas were of the outside, and he lacked patience to test his materials before choosing his style of building. He would take an aspect of the truth, detach it from its circumstances, inflate it, twist and model it.”

But there was yet another side to Sykes’s personality that boded ill for the crucial role he was about to assume. It seems the man was something of a sneak. Whether due to a need to prove he was always the cleverest person in the room, or a con man’s desire to get one over simply for the sport of it, the young Amateur would make an art form out of bending the truth to suit his needs, of playing one side against another by withholding or manipulating crucial information. The result would be a most peculiar place in history for Mark Sykes: it’s hard to think of any figure who, with no true malice intended and neither a nation nor an army at his disposal, was to wreak more havoc on the twentieth century than the personable and brilliant young aristocrat from Yorkshire, havoc that a small group of his countrymen, including T. E. Lawrence, would try very hard to set right.

Which isn’t to suggest that Sykes uniquely possessed these traits. Indeed, when it came to duplicity, the Amateur had a lot of very accomplished competitors in the Middle East just then.

The highly credentialed professionals don’t seem to be doing any better.

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Berber Awakenings in the Maghreb

In the wake of the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, The American Interest published a backgrounder article headlined The Berber Awakening by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, who had just published a book on The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (University of Texas Press, 2011). Here are a few excerpts from the article.

North Africa has long been the neglected stepchild of Anglo-American Middle East academe and policy institutes. This region, commonly known as the Maghreb, was traditionally the near-exclusive preserve of European (mainly French) policymakers and scholars, owing to proximity, colonial experiences, linguistic familiarity and economic interests.

This neglect is now coming to end. North African studies have flourished recently in the scholarly realm, in English as well as French. On the policy side, the wake-up call came for some with the radical Islamist challenge and bloodletting in Algeria during the 1990s. For others, it came with the discovery of young men of Moroccan and Algerian origins in the ranks of al-Qaeda. For democracy and civil society promoters, Morocco under King Mohamed VI offered a model to emulate. But if any of these didn’t happen to grab your attention, there was Tunisia 2011, which provided the spark for the explosions of popular protest rumbling across the entire Arab world and parts of the Muslim world beyond….

Constitutionally, Algeria and Morocco are certainly Arab-Islamic states, with Arabic being the sole official language. Organizationally, they are both members of the 22-nation League of Arab States, as well as the largely moribund five-nation Arab Maghreb Union (along with Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania). Beginning in the 1930s, the ideologues of Algeria’s national movement proclaimed the Arabic language, along with Islam and territorial nationalism, as the central pillars of their challenge to a century of French settler-colonialism and incorporation into metropolitan France. Morocco’s urban nationalist elite had a similar Arab-Islamic orientation.

Upon achieving independence, both countries directed their educational and cultural nation-building efforts toward the east, toward the Mashriq, linking their societies’ roots to the rise of Islam and the spread of its Arabic-language civilization across North Africa beginning in the late 7th century. Both Algeria and Morocco had to work hard at “becoming Arab”, importing thousands of teachers from the Mashriq to instill a standardized version of written Arabic to replace French as the language of administration. This Arabic differed sharply from the North African dialectical Arabic (darija) spoken in daily life—let alone from the widely spoken Berber dialects. There are three primary dialects in Morocco, and two primary ones in Algeria, along with two additional ones spoken by smaller groups.

So who are the Berbers, and why are they worthy of attention? Simply put, the Berbers are North Africa’s “natives”, the population encountered by the region’s various conquerors and “civilizers”: Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arab-Muslims and Europeans. Berber social organization was classically tribal, and they spoke varieties of a single, mainly unwritten language classified today as Afro-Asian. Their encounters with foreign forces, which generally were more powerful, produced a variety of responses ranging from resistance and retreat to acceptance and assimilation. Overall, Berbers straddled multiple worlds, assimilating the “other” with whom they were engaged in one form of accommodation or another, but retaining distinct attributes of their own.

Inevitably, given their relative weakness, this collection of tribal groupings was branded by a derogatory term: “Berbers”, from the Greek and Roman appellations for “barbarians.” Subsequent Arab-Muslim conquerors quickly adopted the term, and it has stuck ever since. Not surprisingly, modern-day Berber militants reject such stigmatization imposed from the outside, and prefer to call themselves Amazigh, which translates into “free men.”

The Amazigh are worthy of our attention for several reasons, one of which is their underappreciated demographic significance. Speakers of one of the Berber/Tamazight dialects constitute approximately 40–45 percent of the population in Morocco, 20–25 percent in Algeria, 8–9 percent in Libya and about 1–5 percent in Tunisia. They total some 15–20 million persons, a number that exceeds the total population, for the sake of comparison, of Greece or Portugal. These numbers, while considerable, are significantly lower as a percentage than they were a century ago, thanks to complex processes of economic and political integration that have occurred throughout the region.

Indeed, it is this very decline that has helped spur the modern Amazigh identity movement, one which explicitly foregrounds a collective Amazigh “self”, complete with a flag, anthems, collective memory sites (lieux de memoire), a “national” narrative and ancient and modern icons. Thus the movement seeks to renegotiate the terms of Berber accommodation with various “others”: the nation-state, Islam and modernity. The movement’s central demands are recognition by state authorities of the existence of the Amazigh people as a collective and of the historical and cultural Amazighité of North Africa. The most immediate and concrete manifestations of that recognition would be to make Tamazight an official language equal to Arabic and to begin redressing the multitude of injustices which they say have been inflicted on the Berbers in both the colonial and independence eras through corrective educational, social and economic policies. More generally, the movement challenges the fundamental national narratives of these countries, which until recently consigned Berber cultural expressions to state-sponsored folklore festivals, complemented by National Geographic-type television programs on remote and exotic mountain villages, on par with the nomadic Touareg “blue men” of the desert.

In their efforts to fashion a “modern” ethno-cultural collective identity out of the older building blocks of their societies, the Amazigh activists are part of a more general trend that challenges hegemonic Arab-centered nationalism. Ironically, the ever-accelerating processes of globalization, which some thinkers have heralded as the harbinger of a long-awaited post-national age, are also generating an intensified “politics of identity.” The new politics of identity in the Muslim world is marked by the ethno-cultural assertion of formerly marginalized minority groups, combined with a demand for the democratization of political life. For some, like the Kurds, this has reached a critical mass, morphing into full-fledged nationalism. For others, like the Muslim residents of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, this kind of nationalism is forming fast. Berbers have not yet reached that stage, and they may never reach it. But they, too, have achieved a measure of recognition and self-definition that was inconceivable a generation ago.

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