Category Archives: Middle East

Collapse of Lebanon’s Second Republic

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. xii-xiv (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

But the main issue was that the war chiefs–turned–political leaders seized control of the government and public sector, in concert with the generals of the Syrian occupying forces, and together they developed a system of governance that was entirely based on clientelistic mafia practices. They took advantage of the huge public works program for the reconstruction of the country, and of the bountiful financial manna this generated, to shamelessly enrich themselves and to entrench corruption as a system of government and a way of life, with the culpable consent of a powerful caste of arrogant bankers. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of thirty years of renewed opulence, euphoria, creativity, and vitality, when the population shamefully closed their eyes to the actions of this noxious political class.

In 2005, the Sunni prime minister Rafic Hariri, the only politician who was not a former war chief and who showed himself to be extremely hostile to the Syrian control of the country, was assassinated by the Syrians with the help of Hezbollah. This sparked a huge insurrection, which forced the Syrians to withdraw. Those previously banished (Michel Aoun) or who were political prisoners (Samir Geagea) returned. But former allies of Syria, such as Berri, Jumblatt, and the Hezbollah chiefs, managed to stay in power. New alliances sprang up between them and those who had returned, which led to the persistence of the same clientelism and corruption in political practices as under the occupation. This finally brought about the collapse of the country in 2020—a disaster which the present diary documents from day to day.

Despite this tormented history, Lebanon really had been, and perhaps could still be, a laboratory for some important political and social experiments. The first of these experiments is the management of multiculturalism and religious coexistence, which have endured despite violent convulsions, and lead every day to new forms of acculturation and cultural diversity. This small country has also been the laboratory where the processes of transforming family, clan, and community affiliation into a sense of citizenship are repeated on a daily basis. In other words, it is like a small-scale reenactment under a bell jar of the very genesis of any democracy.

Unfortunately these experiments have been slow to be reflected in political practice. They have suffered from being subverted or misappropriated by the ruling class, whose poor governance, corruption, and clientelization of the citizenry on the basis of community affiliation might also serve as a test case. The crisis in Lebanon in 2020 showed the dangers resulting from hyperliberal economic policies and the absence of any regulatory authority or control over the country’s social or economic life, which have turned political leaders into mafia bosses in their dealings with the nation’s citizens. The Lebanese people were forced to endure this hyperliberalism and the transformation of the public sector into a mafialike structure. They were obliged, day in and day out, to invent original forms of social and civic regulation and transaction, in the absence of any higher authority doing so. For several decades, they thought that this might also serve as a model, before they understood that a world where the banks and the super-wealthy seek to manage the life of ordinary citizens by depriving them of any official recourse to government was a complete disaster on all levels—be it social, economic, urban, or ecological. In this way as well, Lebanon’s recent history and collapse might serve as a forewarning and alarm bell for the entire planet.

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Lebanon’s Civil War and Its Aftermath

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. x-xii (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

All this explains why the tensions between the large religious groups remained very strong, in particular because the constitution created in 1945 implicitly gave more power to the roles reserved for Christians than to those accorded to Muslims. The Muslims demanded reforms, but the Christians, fearing for their status and survival and continuing to believe that Lebanon was created for them, refused. Moreover, the Christians held great fears at the prospect of the rise in power and militarization of the Palestinian organizations that had sprung from the refugee communities in Lebanon in 1948, and that started demanding to play a role in internal Lebanese politics in 1969 and 1970. The strategy of these organizations consisted in giving their support to Lebanese Muslims. Faced with this coalition of Islamic-Palestinian interests, the Lebanese Christians took fright and armed themselves in turn, leading inevitably to the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

This was indeed a civil war, in that most of the fighting was between the Lebanese people themselves, but it was also very much a foreign war, because the Palestinians, Syrians, and Israelis were also involved. In 1982 the Palestinian militias were forced out of Lebanon by the Israeli invasion. But the Israelis had to evacuate the invaded Lebanese territories and confine themselves to the southern border regions adjacent to Israel. This opened Lebanon’s doors to the Syrians, who allied themselves with the Lebanese Muslims and Druzes, and with war chiefs such as the Druze Walid Jumblatt or the Shiite Nabih Berri, as well as with the Shiite Hezbollah organization, which was engaged in a war with Israel in the regions it still occupied. For their part, the Christians resisted the Syrians for years, under the command of men such as Bashir Gemayel and Samir Geagea. In 1989, the reckless and unruly Christian general Michel Aoun took it into his head to unite the Christian ranks, and threw himself into devastating wars against his rivals on the same side, notably Samir Geagea, which led to the collapse of the Christian camp in 1990 and to the entire country falling to Syrian control.

This marked the end of the civil war and the start of what is called the second Lebanese republic, which is divided into two eras. In the first, from 1990 to 2005, Syria dominated the country and its ruling class. The Muslim or Druze war chiefs, Jumblatt, Berri, along with the Hezbollah leaders, but also the less powerful Christian leaders who had pledged allegiance to the Syrians, all took over the controls. The other Christian leaders, such as Geagea and Aoun, found themselves respectively either in prison or in exile. The allocation of posts along religious lines was reinstated during this period, but with a notable difference: the dominant positions were given to Muslims and no longer to Christians.

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Foundations of Lebanon’s Exceptionalism

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. viii-x (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

This peculiar identity could undoubtedly be considered as the source of all the conflicts to come, but it also proved to be Lebanon’s defining characteristic for many years: a nation straddling the great cultures of the East and the West, a crossroads, a herald of coexistence, openness, cultural exchange and integration. For the thirty years from 1945 to 1975, despite a few minor jolts, Lebanon also figured as something of an exception among its neighbors. It was the only country in the region not to fall prey to a nationalist military dictatorship, like Egypt under Nasser and Iraq or Syria under the Baath parties. It was the only democracy of the Arab world, and one of very few in what was then called the third world. It also developed a liberal economy which has endured to this day, within a region entirely dominated by so-called socialist models—models which, in Nasser’s Egypt and in Syria and Iraq, led to disastrous nationalizations, to the disappearance of their middle classes and the impoverishment of their populations. Lebanon thus lived for thirty years in unbelievable opulence and enjoyed exceptional cultural and economic vitality.

It now seems clear that it was precisely because of the diversity of its population and the complexity of its human institutions that Lebanon avoided dictatorship and the so-called socialist models that beset the rest of the Arab world between 1950 and 1975. Religious affiliation, which in Lebanon is more cultural than strictly faith-based, underpinned all political relationships and balances. This was made manifest in the strangest political system imaginable, called “confessionalism.” All government posts were allocated approximately equally between religious communities. Every single employment position in the public sector, from the highest level in a ministry to its lowest echelons, was reserved for one or another community, depending on its presumed importance. The president of the republic had to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and so on. This political system prevented any single community or individual from controlling the government, and averted any possibility of hegemony or coups.

All this nevertheless created something like an oligarchic system, where the political leaders were systematically elected from the most important family clans within the large religious groups. They ruled the country collegially, on the basis of elections where the focus was always on the interests of the various religious communities, rather than on political issues. And yet the social classes that divided society were strongly intercultural. A real middle class had arisen from both Muslim and Christian communities, in the face of wealthy upper classes that also recruited from various groups, just as the working classes had members from both sides of the religious divide. However, social identity and affiliation never produced true class consciousness, but were always dominated by a very strong sense of religious, cultural, and community affiliation.

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Lebanon Before Independence

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. vi-viii (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

For centuries, the religious mosaic and cultural diversity thus introduced into the lands that would become Lebanon were more or less well managed by the central powers of the empires on which Lebanon and its neighbors depended. Of course, there were clashes and conflicts, but everything remained under the slightly manipulative control of the dominant powers, and notably, from the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries, of the Ottoman Empire.

When that empire collapsed in 1918, victorious France and Great Britain divided up the Middle East. It was France that secured the mandate over Lebanon, thus fulfilling the wishes of part of its Christian population, which sought to place itself under French protection and to avoid British rule. It should be noted that the Christians had long felt closely connected to France. Many had adopted the French language and culture well before the period of the Mandate, and had dreamed of the French taking control of the country to rid them of the Ottoman occupation. This privileged relationship between the Christians of Lebanon and the French also explains why the Lebanese never felt any hostility toward France. In the Lebanese worldview, France was never seen as an occupying power, but rather as an ally. Only the highly ideological left-wing discourse of the 1970s attempted to represent France as a colonial power, which it never really was in Lebanon, despite some instances of very transient irregularities. In fact it was with the assistance of the Christians, and on their advice, that the French determined the current borders of Lebanon in 1920: they adjoined a long band of coastline and the interior plain of Beqaa to the original Lebanon Mountains, along with the northernmost part of Galilee in the south. The overriding aim was to unite as many regions as possible where the inhabitants were Christian. The Maronites, the Eastern-rite Catholics and Greek Orthodox communities actively worked toward the creation of the new nation in its present form, and considered it to have been founded for them alone, even though part of its population was Muslim or Druze. During a relatively soft Mandate that barely lasted twenty-five years, the French successfully managed the antagonisms between the various communities. But when Lebanon acquired independence in 1945, the foundations for discord were already laid, notably regarding the definition of the country’s identity. The Christians still felt closely connected to the West, the Muslims for their part felt they belonged more to the Arab world. Nevertheless, the two communities both demanded and obtained independence together, then found a way of avoiding conflict by decreeing that the new Lebanon was not a Western country, but nor did it belong to the Arab world. This was the famous affirmation of national identity by a double negative.

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Silk Road Dangers Past and Present

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 151-152:

I can’t get last night’s adventures off my mind: have calamitous times finally come?

Crossing over the one-thousand-kilometer mark, the attempted robbery, and the intervention of the army are events that capture perfectly the dangers caravans faced for over two thousand years. Sitting on the second floor of Sivas’s caravansary, now converted into a salon de thé, I muse on the following five plagues that traders and camel drivers so feared: ill health, injuries, natural disasters, thieves, and war. The Silk Road is strewn with tombs. Death hung over the mountains and deserts, striking without warning. Is it any wonder that, when the Polo brothers and young Marco returned after having been gone for twenty-five years, they had been presumed dead and their estate divvied up?

It’s by way of the Silk Road that the plague arrived in Europe, spreading death in stopover towns along the way. Yesterday, I completed the one thousandth kilometer, it’s true, but who’s to say whether I’ll make it to the two thousandth? Aside from my sore feet, I haven’t had any health issues thus far. I’m fit as a fiddle. But there’s still a long way to go. And the conditions in which I’m traveling, sometimes in blatant disregard of basic nutritional or bodily hygiene, by no means guarantee that I’ll arrive in Tehran well rested and raring to go.

Theft was a constant threat on the Silk routes. My adventure yesterday proves that it still is. Gangs would lie in wait for the caravans at narrow passages, ambushing the merchants, steeling their bundles and animals, taking the gold and sometimes the travelers’ lives. The silk, spices, and precious merchandise that paraded by day in and day out right before their eyes aroused envy in the sedentary populations. I too, quite unwittingly, stir up those same desires. In poor villages like Alihacı, I look like a wealthy man from a land of plenty. From that perspective, perhaps it isn’t just a stretch to think that my pack conceals stores of treasure. No one actually did anything, though, until the tractor incident on the road to Alihacı. Although my watch is now tucked away deep in my pocket, it looked a lot like a portable computer, arousing envy. I’ve already been asked several times if I wanted to exchange it for a cheap bazaar timepiece. Two young men suggested I simply give it to them.

Bandits thought twice before attacking thousand-camel caravans, as they were accompanied by a hundred men practically looking for a fight. The lead caravanner also paid several armed men (usually Armenians) to ensure the convoy’s security. Inside the caravansaries—veritable fortresses—security was good. When there was a particularly serious threat, the paşas lent escorts, consisting of dozens of lancers, to accompany the travelers for a certain distance. Revenue from the Silk Road was the local lords’ chief source of income, so they had a vested interest in providing security; otherwise, the caravans would change routes: farewell, then, to all the taxes levied on those transporting precious bundles. Their concern for the merchants’ peace of mind was so great that the authorities of the day invented insurance. If, despite all the precautions, a traveler were robbed, he would submit to the paşa a list of the stolen merchandise and would be reimbursed, either by the paşa himself or by the Sultan. Today, of course, gangs of highwaymen are a thing of the past in Turkey. But alone and unarmed, I’m an easy, tempting target. It wouldn’t take fifty people to steal my “treasures.”

Since ancient times, war has been a permanent way of life on the Silk routes. It’s just as prevalent today, and the entire region of Central Asia is still in this day and age ravaged by local, violent conflicts. While I was preparing my journey, I had to bear this in mind in choosing my itinerary. I had the choice of several ancient routes. I would have liked to begin on the Mediterranean in the ancient city of Antioch and traverse Syria, Iraq, Iran, and then Afghanistan. They are magnificent countries; their peoples and lands are rich in history. But the dangers are all too apparent [in 1999].

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Parade of Nations in Katakana Order

I don’t remember how Japan ordered the Parade of Nations when it hosted the Olympics in 1964 (when I was in high school there), but this year the nations were ordered according to how their Japanese names sounded in katakana, the Japanese syllabary used to render foreign names. A full list of the nations in Japanese order can be found in the NPR report about the parade.

Katakana order was used even when names contained kanji (Chinese characters). So Equatorial Guinea (赤道ギニア Sekidou Ginia, lit. ‘Redroad [=equator] Guinea’) appeared between Seychelles (セーシェル) and Senegal (セネガル) because they all start with the sound SE, written セ in katakana.

Similarly, Great Britain (英国 Eikoku, lit. ‘brave-country’) and the British Virgin Islands (英国ヴァージン諸島) appeared after Uruguay (ウルグァイ) and before Ecuador (エクアドル) because the katakana syllabary starts with the five vowels in the order A I U E O (アイウエオ), then proceeds to KA KI KU KE KO (カキクケコ). So the E+I of Eikoku precedes the E+KU of Ekuadoru. (In Chinese, where the name 英国 originated, the character 英 sounds much more like the first syllable of England.)

The last of the vowel-initial names are those that start with the sound O: Australia (オーストラリア Oosutoraria), Austria (オーストリア Oosutoria), Oman (オマーン Omaan), and the Netherlands (オランダ Oranda < Holland). I’ve transcribed the long vowels here as double vowels.

The order of the consonant-initial syllables is KA (カ), SA (サ), TA (タ), NA (ナ), HA (ハ), MA (マ), YA (ヤ), RA (ラ), WA (ワ), N (ン). Most, but not all, of these consonants occur with each vowel. The YA series has YA (ヤ), YU (ユ), and YO (ヨ), but YI and YE have been replaced by the vowels I and E. As a consequence, Yemen is written イェメン Iemen, and its team preceded Israel, Italy, Iraq, and Iran in the parade, while Jordan was relegated to near the end of the parade as the only name starting with Y, written ヨルダン Yorudan. The WA series only has WA (ワ) and WO (ヲ), with WI, WU, WE replaced by the vowels I, U, E. The final sound, N (ン) only occurs at the ends of syllables, as in Iemen and Yorudan.

In katakana, voiced consonants are distinguished from their voiced equivalents by a diacritic that looks a bit like a double quote mark: KA カ vs. GA ガ, TA タ vs. DA ダ, SA サ vs. ZA ザ. The consonants with and without diacritics are considered equivalent for ordering purposes. So Canada (Kanada), Gabon (Gabon), Cameroon (Kameruun), Gambia (Ganbia), Cambodia (Kanbojia) are in that order because of what follows their initial KA/GA syllables (-NA-, -BO-, -ME-, -NBI-, -NBO-, respectively). On the same principle, Zambia (Zanbia) precedes San Marino (Sanmarino) (-NBI- > -NMA-), while Singapore (Singaporu) precedes Zimbabwe (Zinbabue) (-NGA- > -NBA-) among the nations whose names start with S/Z.

The same principle applies to the three-way diacritical distinction between HA ハ, PA パ, and BA バ. So Bahrain (Baareen), Haiti (Haiti), and Pakistan (Pakisutan) begin the series of names beginning with HA ハ, which also include Vanuatu (Banuatu) because Japanese has no syllable VA. (However, the V can be represented by adding the voiced consonant diacritic ” to the vowel ウ U, as in ヴァージン Vuaajin for the Virgin Islands.)

Nor does Japanese have a syllable FA, but the syllable HU (フ) sounds close enough to FU to substitute for F in foreign words. So names beginning with F sounds fall into the same group as those beginning with H, P, and B. Thus, the next countries to enter after Fiji (フィジー Fuijii), Philippines (フィリピン Fuiripin), and Finland (フィンァンド Fuinrando) were Bhutan (ブータン Buutan) and Puerto Rico (プエルトリコ Pueruto Riko).

The TA/DA (タ/ダ) series is at least as complicated. When pronounced, the syllables TA TI TU TE TO (タチツテト) actually sound like Ta Chi Tsu Te To and are usually romanized that way in English, while DA DI DU DE DO (ダヂヅデド) sound like Da Ji Zu De Do. So nations whose names start with Ch or Ts sounds are ordered among those whose names start with T/D. So the teams for Chile (Chiri), Tuvalu (Tsubaru), Denmark (Denmaaku), and Germany (Doitsu < Deutsch) entered in katakana order チツテト (TI TU TE TO, which sound like Chi, Tsu, Te, To), keeping in mind that TE=DE and TO=DO for ordering purposes.

Just as the normally syllabic フ FU can be combined with イ I (in フィ) to represent the foreign syllable FI, normally syllabic チ TI/CHI can be combined into チャ (TI+ya=) CHA, チュ (TI+yu=) CHU, チェ (TI+e=) CHE, and チョ (TI+yo =) CHO to represent foreign syllables starting with those sounds, as in チャイナ Chaina (China) or チェコ Cheko (Czech). Foreign words starting with J- can be represented using similar combinations starting with ZI/JI. So ZI+ya = JA in ジャマイカ Jamaica and ZI+yo = JO in ジョージア Georgia, which are sandwiched between ジブチ Djibouti and シリア Syria in katakana order. (Jordan is written ヨルダン Yorudan.)

It’s interesting that the Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei, and the People’s Republic of China all appear among the nations whose names start with T/D, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would too, if it sent a team to this Olympics. The official name of South Korea in Chinese characters is 大韓民国 (Great Han Republic), which is pronounced in Japanese as Daikanminkoku. This name places South Korea immediately after Thailand (タイ Tai), which starts the T/D section of the parade of nations. Chinese Taipei (Chainiizu Taipei) and Tajikistan (Tajikisutan) immediately follow, so the former is ordered as if it were Taipei, not Chinese Taipei.

Tanzania, Czech (チェコ Cheko) Republic, Chad (チャド Chado), and the Central African Republic (中央アフリカ共和国 Chuuou Ahurika Kyouwakoku) precede China (中華人民共和国 Chuuka Jinmin Kyouwakoku ‘Chinese [‘Middle Splendor’] People’s Republic’) because the official names of both the CAR and PRC start with 中 ‘middle’, which in katakana is written チュウ Chuu. The official name of North Korea in Chinese characters is 朝鮮民主主義人民共和国, pronounced in Japanese as Chousen Minshuushugi Jinmin Kyouwakoku (‘Korean Democratic People’s Republic’). It would immediately follow Tunisia (Chunijia) because チュ Chu precedes チョ Cho in katakana order.

Finally, because Japanese R renders both R and L in foreign names, and katakana RA RI RU RE RO come near the end of the syllabary, Laos, Latvia, Lithuania, Libya, Liechtenstein, Liberia, Romania (Ruumania), Luxembourg, Rwanda, Lesotho, and Lebanon come after Jordan (Yorudan) at the tail end of the parade, just before the current and future Olympic host nations.

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Long History of People Exiled

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle p. 67:

The driving out of unwanted peoples, to be sure, is a practice almost as old as recorded history. The Old Testament tells the story of numerous forced migrations carried out by the Israelites and their neighbors against each other, the Babylonian Captivity being the most celebrated. Philip II of Macedonia was renowned for the scale of his population transfers in the fourth century B.C., a precedent that his son, Alexander the Great, appears to have intended to follow on a far more massive scale. The colonial era witnessed many more forced displacements, often accompanied or initiated by massacre. Some of these bore a distinctly “modern” tinge. The Act of Resettlement that followed Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, for example, ordered Irish property owners in three-quarters of the island to remove themselves to the impoverished western province of Connacht by May 1, 1654, to make room for incoming English and Scottish colonists; those remaining east of the River Shannon after that date were to be killed wherever found. “The human misery involved,” in the judgment of Marcus Tanner, “probably equaled anything inflicted on Russia or Poland in the 1940s by Nazi Germany.” On a smaller scale, but proportionately just as lethal, was the United States’ forced relocation of part of the Cherokee nation from Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama to eastern Oklahoma along the so-called “Trail of Tears” in 1838; perhaps a quarter of the fifteen thousand men, women, and children who were driven out perished, most of them while detained in assembly camps. Extensive forced migrations occurred in Africa and Asia also. In what is today Nigeria the Sokoto Caliphate, the largest independent state in nineteenth-century Africa, practiced slavery on a massive scale—by 1860 it possessed at least as many slaves as the United States—as an instrument of forced migration, the purpose being to increase the security of disputed border areas. “Enforced population displacement … was supposed to strengthen the Islamic state, which was achieved through demographic concentration.” On the western borderlands of China, the Qing Empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “used deportations and mass kidnappings to build a human resource base.”

Contemporary scholars agree, though, that the twentieth century has been the heyday of forcible population transfers. The rise of the nation-state, in place of the dynastic multinational empires of the earlier period, was both cause and effect of the ideological claim that political and ethnographic boundaries ought to be identical.

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Finding Classics in Other Alphabets

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 81-83:

Arabic dictionaries also used nonalphabetical methods of organizing. The Mukhaṣṣaṣ, or The Categorized, by Ibn Sīda (d. 1066), was divided, as its title states, by subject or topic, beginning with human nature and continuing on to physiology, psychology, women, clothes, food, and weapons. Al-Khalīl Ibn Aḥmad (d. 791), in his Kitāb al-‘ain, The Book of [the Letter] ‘Ain, used sounds to organize his work: he listed entries in an order of his own, where each sound group was followed by subcategories based on how many consonants a word contained. …

These mainly nonalphabetical developments contrasted with the works of Hebrew scholars, who tended toward alphabetical order simultaneously with (and occasionally a little ahead of) their Christian contemporaries. At the end of the eleventh century, Nathan ben Jehiel (c. 1035–c. 1110) produced his Sefer ha’Arukh, The Set Book. Ben Jehiel, who had been born in Rome, spoke Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Persian, and Syriac, and he drew on his knowledge of these languages to produce an alphabetically ordered book of root words occurring in rabbinic literature. It became one of the best-known dictionaries of its type—more than fifty copies survive—as well as being one of the first Hebrew books to be printed, in Rome sometime before 1472.

Many of these works, both in Arabic and Hebrew, and the scholarship that had produced them, became accessible to scholars in Western Europe for the first time as these languages began to be more widely translated into Latin. … That so many of these works returned to the West via Arabic was significant, for earlier Arab scholars had frequently added substantially to the originals, including details of their own work, which was far in advance of much of Western thought at the time.

The Western rediscovery of the classics had two results, one somewhat abstract, one concrete. More generally, the awareness of how many great works had been entirely unknown before the lifetimes of these new readers, and of how many more had been permanently lost, produced a sense that the current generation needed to ensure that this recaptured knowledge, as well as all the works produced under its influence, were preserved for future generations. Further, it created a drive to ensure that the details contained in all these new works could be found easily—in other words, readers wanted not merely to read the books, but to refer to them: they wanted search tools.

These recently translated manuscripts also brought to the West other elements that are crucial for our story. Educated European readers now became increasingly familiar with foreign alphabets. In Italy and France in particular, Hebrew had routinely been transliterated into the roman alphabet when manuscripts were copied; in the rest of Europe, the Greek alphabet had sometimes been used, but less and less as time went on. In Europe, apart from Spain, where Arabic was in common use, Arabic too had been almost always transliterated into the roman alphabet. By contrast, some in the British Isles were familiar with Old English runes, known as futhorc, or with the Irish writing system known as Ogham. Many more would have recognized, and used in conjunction with the roman alphabet, the Old English runic letters such as thorn (Þ, þ) and wynn (Ρ, ρ). For these reasons, “foreign”-looking letters were more familiar and less unnerving in the British Isles, and so Latin and Hebrew letters were both used, as they were from the ninth century in Germany, a regular destination for highly educated monks from Ireland and Britain.

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World War I Spreads, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 297-298:

By the end of 1917 most of the world’s population had entered a state of belligerency. Even during the Napoleonic Wars this situation had no precedent. Two impetuses to the process came from the unrestricted submarine campaign and from American entry. The first threatened death and destruction to almost every country; the second made neutrality less attractive and joining the Allies more so. Yet the new belligerents made their own decisions, which were frequently contested. In China intervention led to civil war, and in Greece to something close to it; in Brazil it prompted civil disorder and repression of the German-Brazilians. In China, the issue became embroiled with the contests between Duan and Li and between the northern Chinese warlords and the Guomindang. Intervention became a gambit in a domestic struggle, with Duan holding the advantage. Brazilian public opinion was always pro-Allied in tendency, but it took the submarine sinkings to create a Congress majority for belligerency. Finally, in Siam the government had no legislature to contend with, and once the king insisted on intervention his foreign minister assented.

None of the four countries envisaged an all-out struggle, which makes their interventions easier to comprehend. So does US entry, which made the Allies more likely to win. Indeed, America also initially envisaged a limited commitment, but unlike the other new arrivals it subsequently expanded it. China, Brazil, and Siam were remote from the Central Powers and therefore ran little risk. Greece ran a bigger one, as a fighting front ran through its northern territory, and of the four it made the biggest military contribution. But the costs and risks should be set against the prospective gains. For Brazil these were primarily economic. For Siam and China the additional incentive was gaining traction against the unequal treaties, the Chinese being particularly focused on the Shandong lease. In Greece Venizelos wanted Bulgarian and Turkish territories that might support a glittering future in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. The prize all sought was a voice in the peace settlement.

These objectives would be satisfied unequally and tardily; and in Greece’s case scarcely at all. But the widening of the war through new interventions weakened European pre-eminence. Siam and China challenged the unequal treaties in a manner impossible before 1914; Chinese nationalism strengthened and became more anti-Western; Brazil and other South American countries turned away from Europe. China’s intervention was determined more by Japan than by the European Allies or the United States. Moreover, the war’s prolongation undermined not only informal European dominance in East Asia but also formal control elsewhere. This was most evident in the August 1917 Montagu Declaration, promising ‘responsible government’ in India, the grandest empire’s biggest possession. But if European control was under challenge in Asia, it was still expanding in the Middle East, and 1917 was the decisive year for establishing British authority over Palestine and Iraq. These developments too would figure among the lasting consequences of these crowded months.

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Filed under Brazil, Britain, China, Eastern Europe, Europe, Japan, Mediterranean, Middle East, nationalism, South Asia, Southeast Asia, U.S., war

Guarding Egypt’s Docks, 1941

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 47-49:

The only useful job we did in Alexandria was regular dock guard, which was not as dull as it sounds. Air raids were an almost nightly occurrence and there were other diversions as well….

Among our other duties in the docks we had to prevent the pilfering of stores. Local Australian ack-ack gunners were the worst offenders and since their officers seemed to condone it, we gave up handing over any men we caught and merely beat them up. The sailors from the merchant ships were also pretty bad. They would unload attractive stores such as NAAFI supplies during the day, then steal them at night and take them back on board. We caught several and they got quite stiff punishments from their captains when we handed them over. The Egyptian dockers were the other looters, but after we had shot one they became less of a problem.

For some reason the French sailors from the pro-Vichy naval ships that had been interned were allowed complete freedom to wander about Alexandria. Many had pro-Axis sympathies and frequently became involved in brawls, especially with our Spaniards, one of whom died of knife wounds.

During the evacuation from Greece most of the commando was on guard, not only to prevent unauthorised people from entering the docks, but to prevent any from getting out, whether civilians or servicemen. Most troops disembarked in an orderly manner with their arms, were entrained and taken off to camps; but we had a great deal of trouble with the Australians. They disembarked, luckily without any arms, with the one objective of getting into the town as quickly as possible to have a drink and a woman. They strongly resented our guards for preventing them from leaving the docks. ‘Yellow bastards, why weren’t you fighting in Greece?’ they taunted. ‘Why did you run away and leave all your weapons behind?’ countered the commandos. They soon came to blows and free fights started. More guards and military police were rushed to the scene to restore order. It was all very unpleasant.

The most impressive disembarkation that I watched was when HMS Ajax came in at high speed, made fast, and disembarked a battalion of New Zealanders with their arms in perfect order. She was speeding away again in under an hour, bound back to Greece to carry out further rescue work.

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Filed under Australia, Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Mediterranean, military, New Zealand, war