Empire versus nationalism


I summarize four additional sessions from my fall course on the introduction to the modern Middle East (the Arabs and Turkey) at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Below are entries for sessions nine through twelve. For earlier sessions, go here. As before, I round out each entry with an insight from the late Bernard Lewis.

Class Nine: How the Middle East Map Was Drawn. Up to the First World War, one could go from the European side of the Bosphorus to the shores of the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea without crossing a border. Upon the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, victorious Britain and France drew new borders through the vast expanse of Western Asia, cutting the great Ottoman carpet into pieces. Exactly how this new map came into being is the subject of the ninth session of my Shalem College intro to the modern Middle East.

There’s plenty of drama in the telling: the secret dealings of Sykes and Picot (1916), the parade of delegations at the Paris Peace Conference (1919), and the final Anglo-French carve-up of the region into mandates at San Remo (1920). Hovering over all this is a counter-factual: could the post-war have been handled in any other way? Were the “lines in the sand,” separating Iraq from Syria, and Syria from Palestine, inevitable? It’s a question my students often ask, to which I answer: how would you have done it? Would a unitary Arab state have been more durable, less arbitrary? Doubtful.

And as my students are Israeli, I emphasize the impeccable timing of the Zionists—first and foremost, Chaim Weizmann—who managed to do everything right. At a dozen points, the Zionist plan could have been derailed or just sidetracked. Yet time and again, Zionist leaders made perfectly timed moves. The Hashemites didn’t do badly—they came away with Iraq, Transjordan, and the Hijaz—but they’d dreamt of Syria and an Arab empire. The post-war left the Arabs with a burning sense of betrayal that persists to this day.

Bernard Lewis wasn’t a diplomatic historian, and I don’t think that he ever even mentioned Sykes-Picot. But he wrote a marvelous article entitled “The Map of the Middle East” where he explained the origins of the names of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, and so on. Many simply reflected Europe’s deference to Greco-Roman geography. Palestine was a case in point: Greece and Rome named it so in antiquity, Britain and France drew its borders in our time. Today it’s arguable whether it’s the name of a place (only Israel appears on the map), but it’s certainly the name of a cause.

In the nuttier corners of the internet, one finds ominous rumors of a “Bernard Lewis plan,” an MI6 scheme to divide the Middle East once again. It’s a conspiracy theory pure and simple, but it proves one of Lewis’s points: past grievances lend themselves to endless recycling.

Image: the original Sykes-Picot map versus the final distribution of the mandates.

Class Ten: The Surge of Nationalism. The establishment of British and French mandates didn’t go down well with the inhabitants of Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. And once the First World War had ended, the Egyptians, already ruled by Britain for forty years, also demanded independence. Those disappointed by the new order soon rose against it. Egypt broke out in rebellion in 1919, and Iraq and Palestine erupted in 1920 and frequently thereafter. The French drove the Hashemites from Syria in 1920, only to face a large-scale revolt in 1925. I focus on post-war nationalist resentment in session ten of my Shalem College intro to the modern Middle East.

Britain and France took their gloves off. “Bomber” Arthur Harris of the RAF planned the suppression of tribal revolts in Iraq. Arab and Kurd “now know what real bombing means,” he wrote: “that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines.” As I emphasize to my students, what’s telling about this statement is that Harris didn’t think he was confessing to a war crime: they were different times. (Harris later led the RAF’s strategic bombing of Nazi Germany.) In 1928, Sir Henry Dobbs, British High Commissioner in Iraq, wrote that the Hashemite monarchy installed there by Britain enjoyed “no respect,” but rested only on “the fear inspired by British aeroplanes and armored cars.”

In Palestine, some Brits had second thoughts about their commitments under the Balfour Declaration. About 100,000 Jews came and and stayed in the 1920s: enough to alarm the Arabs, but far fewer than the Zionists had imagined. In the 1920s, Arab increase alone exceeded the total size of the Yishuv. Not surprisingly, the Arabs thought they could kill off the whole Zionist enterprise, and the British began to grow erratic in its defense, grumbling at the cost of it all.

Yet despite the turmoil, the 1920s fostered a kind of liberalism. Islamism hadn’t yet come on the scene (the Muslim Brotherhood was founded only in 1928). British (and French) administration inculcated the practices of good government in educated elites.

But it wasn’t nearly as profound as in India. It’s a point made by Bernard Lewis: “British and French rule in many of the Arab lands was indirect, mediated through such devices as the mandate and the protectorate. Nowhere in the Arab world was there anything remotely resembling British rule in India in its extent, depth, duration, and enduring effects.” So to my students, I raise a provocative question: would the Middle East be better off today had colonial rule lasted longer? I leave them to answer it.

Image: Arab nationalist demonstration near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, 1920. Matson Collection at the Library of Congress.

Class Eleven: Imperial Apogee. When I cover the 1930s in my modern Middle East class at Shalem College (session eleven), I begin by pointing over the hill to Government House (known in Hebrew as Armon Hantziv, the “Palace of the High Commissioner”). Planned in the late 1920s, completed in 1933, it served as the seat of British government in Palestine. (There was a “Government House” at just about every outpost of the British empire, from Barbados to Hong Kong, Calcutta to Singapore.)

The massive scale of the Jerusalem complex made a clear statement: the British were in Palestine to stay. No one imagined that only fifteen years after its completion, an exhausted Britain would shut down its empire and leave Palestine in chaos.

The 1930s, we now know, formed the apogee of Western imperialism in the Middle East. The kingmakers, such as T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, were gone. They had been replaced by bureaucratic administrators and “advisers,” whose job was to run the region, as far as possible, from behind a curtain. Egypt and Iraq, in particular, had to appear to be independent. British newsreels doted on the Egyptian and Iraqi royals, as though they were as venerable as the House of Windsor.

And treaties were signed between Britain and Iraq, and Britain and Egypt. They were vastly unequal: the British kept for themselves the Iraqi airbases and the Suez Canal. “The presence of [British] forces shall not constitute in any manner an occupation,” read both treaties, as if this solved the problem. But on that basis, Iraq joined the League of Nations in 1932, and Egypt did so in 1937. (France concluded a similar treaty with Syria in 1936, but the French parliament failed to ratify it.) Such symbolic devolution couldn’t happen in Palestine, claimed by Jews and Arabs alike. Beginning in 1936, the Arabs passed into open revolt, which the British crushed. The plan to partition the country was floated, then dropped as unworkable.

By 1938, the prospect of a European war began to affect all imperial calculations. I save the implications to a later class on the war. But one became clear quite early: illiberal Arabs began to look at Nazi Germany as a possible liberator.

Bernard Lewis first visited the Middle East in 1938, at the age of 22, to work on his thesis. Very different times: it was too dangerous to visit Jerusalem, but Syria posed no problem. In his memoirs, he recalled that in northern Syria, “the local French political officer heard of my visit, but did not believe that a dissertation on the medieval Isma‘ilis was the reason for my presence. He suspected that I was a British secret agent engaged in nefarious anti-French activities.” At least the French officer let himself be persuaded otherwise.

Image: Government House in Jerusalem as it appeared in 1943. For the last 70 years, it’s been the seat of UNTSO, the UN Truce Supervision Organization, and totally closed to the public. Some in Israel think the UN should be relocated, and I agree. The building should be made into a museum, open to the public.

Class Twelve: The Saudi Exception. There is only one true instance of independent state-building in the Arab Middle East: Saudi Arabia. A century ago, Ibn Saud and his followers barely registered on the meter. But through a combination of grit, ferocity, and savvy, Ibn Saud conquered a kingdom for himself, comprising a huge swath of Arabia. He struck an alliance with Britain at a crucial moment, and opened the door to American oil companies at just the right point in time. Result: Saudi Arabia kept its independence and developed its own traditions of statecraft. It’s the subject of session twelve of my modern Middle East course at Shalem College.

The founder of Saudi Arabia is a subject of passionate attachment or fervent loathing, and I try to give my students a flavor of both. “A man of splendid physique,” wrote the British Arabist Gertrude Bell of Ibn Saud. “He has the characteristics of the well-bred Arab…. with slender fingers, a trait almost universal among the tribes of pure Arab blood.” The British explorer (and convert to Islam) Eldon Rutter called him “the most humane of Arabs.” For the other view, we watch a bit the biopic King of the Sands, which paints Ibn Saud as a treacherous extremist, lecherous predator, and British agent. (It even absurdly accuses him of signing off on the creation of Israel.) The same polarized vision persists to this day, as demonstrated by reactions to poor Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

One of the most amusing exercises in the course is the students’ dramatic reading of a dialogue from Abdelrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt (chapter 10 in Theroux’s English translation; this chapter has been translated into Hebrew). The inhabitants of a desert oasis go to a Saudi emir to complain that American oilmen have made themselves too much at home. “From the first day they came to our village,” complains one, “life has been camel piss.” The emir enjoins them to help the Americans, who will make them all rich: “You’ll have money up to your ears.” Not everyone is persuaded. It’s an excellent way to explore modernization and its discontents.

Bernard Lewis didn’t have a lot to say about Saudi Arabia, and he never set foot there. On principle, he’d never lie about his religion on a visa form. In his memoirs, he repeats the story that Saudi King Faisal once welcomed Henry Kissinger to Saudi Arabia “not as a Jew but as a human being,” to which Kissinger is said to have replied: “Your majesty, some of my best friends are human beings.”

Lewis had a habit of drawing an analogy between Wahhabis and the Ku Klux Klan, which can’t have endeared him to the Saudis. “Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas…. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.” I don’t think the analogy was particularly apt, but it still compares favorably to one used by Juan Cole: “Going to Saudi Arabia is kind of like going to Amish country.”

Image: Ibn Saud and the American oilman Floyd Ohliger on the king’s visit to an American oil installation in 1939.

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