Category Archives: Arabia

Surviving a Sahara Sandstorm

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 4-6:

Like all successful caravan drivers, Ishrel was tough but just. Imposing and erect of bearing, the Arab leader had flashing eyes beneath an ample turban and a thick beard to his chest. He wore a long white haik of good cloth, befitting his status, drawn tight around his body and crisscrossed by red belts carrying his essentials: a large powder horn, flints, a leather pouch with musket balls, and his scabbard with a broad and burnished scimitar. He carried his musket night and day, always prepared for a sudden attack from the wild bedouins of the desert. His constant nemeses, however, were the terrain and the sun.

For six days, Ishrel’s caravan weltered in the deep drifts, the cameleers alternately singing to their camels and goading them with clubs, constantly dashing on foot here and there to square the loads. They gave violent shoves to bulges in woven sacks and tugged on ropes with the full weight of their bodies. For all their efforts, uneven loads were inevitable, causing strains to the camels’ joints and bones. It did not take long for an inattentive master to lame a camel, and a lame camel was a dead camel, a communal feast. In that way, Allah provided for them all. It was his will, and there was no compensation for the camel’s owner in this world. “We only feed you for Allah’s sake,” says the Quran. “We desire from you neither reward nor thanks.”

On the seventh day, the irifi roared in from the southeast, and the sand swirled. Sidi Ishrel ordered the camels to be unloaded and camp made. In a hurry, the Arabs stacked their goods—iron, lumber, amber, shotguns, knives, scimitars, bundles of haiks, white cloth and blue cloth, blocks of salt, sacks of tobacco and spices—in a great pile. They circled up the camels and made them lie down.

All around them the sand blew so hard that the men could not open their eyes, and if they did, they could not see their companions or their camels even if they were nearly touching them. It was all they could do to breathe. Lying on their stomachs, Hamet and Seid inhaled through the sheshes wrapped around their heads and across their faces, which they pressed into the sand.

They did not fear much for their camels, which have their own defenses: deep-set, hirsute ears and long eyelashes that protect against flying grit, collapsible nostrils that add moisture to the searing air they breathe, and eyes with lids so thin that they can close them during a sandstorm and still see. They did not worry about them overheating either, for camels have a unique ability to absorb heat in their bodies while their brains remain insulated and stable. They conserve their body water by not sweating or panting, instead retaining the heat during the day and releasing it later. On bitterly cold nights, their owners often took refuge in their warmth. As all good cameleers knew, these prized beasts were as impervious to the abuse of the desert as it was possible to be, and they were as long-lived as they were ornery, some reaching half a century in age. Many would outlive their masters.

For two days, sand filled their long-sleeved, hooded wool djellabas and formed piles on their backs until they shifted to ease the weight. Hamet and Seid and the rest of the traders and cameleers beseeched, “Great and merciful Allah, spare our lives!” When the wind at last halted and the sand fell to the ground, three hundred men lay dead on the desert. Hamet and Seid, who were strong, rose and joined the rest of the survivors in prayers of thanksgiving to Allah for saving them. They spent two more days burying the dead men, always on their sides, facing east toward Mecca, and topping their graves with thorny brush to keep the jackals away. All but two hundred of the camels had been spared. As the men dug them out, the beasts rose, grunting and snapping madly, weak-kneed, snorting out the beetlelike parasites that grew in their nostrils. There were no plants for the camels to eat where they had stopped, so the men watered and fed them from the dwindling provisions.

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Filed under Africa, Arabia, migration

Numerology of 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4676-4704:

Many of the events of 1979 are linked with the mysterious power of anniversaries. The Communist Party in Poland feared the incendiary potential of the nine-hundredth anniversary of the martyrdom of a saint. The thirtieth anniversary of the Communist takeover in China was shrewdly exploited by Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues to reinforce the sense of a new beginning. The forty-day Islamic mourning cycle proved a crucial dynamic for the revolution in Iran—as did the millennial expectations of Khomeini’s followers, whose habit of referring to him as the “imam” fanned a longing for the realm of justice promised by the reappearance of the Hidden Imam. Indeed, the Islamic calendar itself was one of the many issues that fueled the discontent of Iranian believers. The shah’s decision to introduce a new, non-Islamic calendar in the mid-1970s served as yet another bit of evidence to good Shiites that the monarch was an enemy of their religion—and gave Khomeini’s supporters yet another potent argument.

In the Julian calendar of the West, 1979 is not an especially evocative date. But this was not true for Muslims. In the Islamic calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon and takes as its start the Prophet’s exile from Mecca in 622, the Western month of November 1979 coincides with the dawning of the new year of 1400. According to certain traditions, that is the year that the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, is supposed to reveal himself to the faithful and usher in a new age of eternal justice. For Iranians, this is the moment when historical time and the forces of eternity coincide, and this apocalyptic expectation fueled the fervor with which Khomeini was greeted as the country’s new savior. Some demonstrators wondered whether he might, indeed, turn out to be the Imam of the Age himself; some of the faithful even claimed to have seen his face on the moon.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a group of provincial zealots came up with a particularly fateful reading of the Mahdi myth. Like the majority of Saudis, they were not Shiite but Sunni, and they hailed from a remote corner of the kingdom that had largely missed out on the new prosperity. In November 1979, as pilgrims were arriving for the annual hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, heavily armed members of the group took over the al-Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, and took thousands of pilgrims from around the world hostage. They then announced that one of their leaders, a young man named Abdullah Hamid Mohammed al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, the long-prophesied redeemer of Islam. All Muslims, they said, were religiously obligated to obey his commands. The Saudi authorities declined to do this and immediately set about the task of clearing the mosque. It took them weeks, covertly assisted by a team of commandos lent to the kingdom by the French government, to kill or capture the hostage takers. In the end, according to official Saudi figures, 270 people—hostages, hostage takers, and members of the assault force—lost their lives. Foreign diplomats who managed to get access to local hospitals concluded that the actual death toll was much higher, closer to 1,000.

The leader of the group, Juhayman al-Otaibi, was captured and executed a few weeks after the end of the siege. But his ideas would prove prophetic. He had categorically denounced the corruption of the Saudi regime and rejected the presence of infidel foreigners in a country that was supposed to be the undefiled home to Mecca and Medina, two of the three most holy places in Islam. (The third is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.) A subsequent generation of Saudi radicals—Osama bin Laden among them—would not forget.

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Filed under Arabia, China, Iran, Islam, nationalism, Poland

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