Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami: two allies, now gone. In November, I appeared on a panel devoted to “The Enduring Legacy of Bernard Lewis” at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). There I speculated on how Ajami might have eulogized Lewis, had he not predeceased him by four years. There’s plenty to go on: Ajami said much about Lewis, as a mentor, scholar, and friend. Why choose this topic for ASMEA? Lewis and Ajami co-founded the association: Lewis served as chair, Ajami as vice-chair.
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.
I summarize four more sessions from my fall course on the introduction to the modern Middle East (Turkey and the Arab lands) at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Below are entries for sessions five through eight. For earlier sessions, go here. As before, I spice up each entry with an insight from the late Bernard Lewis.
Class Five: Islam (reformed) Then Joined Europe. The Tanzimat, the Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century, are the centerpiece of session five of my intro to the Middle East at Shalem College. Then as now, many in the West complained of misgovernment, corruption, and repression in the East. The Ottoman empire, on the doorstep of Europe, seemed like an affront to enlightened European values. Arbitrary government, a bureaucracy for sale, discrimination against non-Muslim subjects—the list was long. Sound familiar?
Was it that bad? Debatable. But one Ottoman sultan set out both to satisfy Europe and strengthen his own position by pushing through far-reaching reforms. This was Abdülmecid I, the first sultan to speak a European language fluently (French). He reorganized imperial finances, established a civil code and courts outside the Islamic framework, opened a university, formed an education ministry, and more. Abdülmecid announced his plans in two imperial edicts, in 1839 and 1856—promissory notes to European opinion—and he bought the empire time by aligning with the British, who came to his defense, first against an Egyptian invading force, later (in alliance with France) against the Russians in the Crimean War. When it was over, the concert of Europe admitted the Ottomans and recognized the empire’s territorial integrity—until it didn’t.
But the big reform the Europeans demanded was to equalize the status of non-Muslims with that of Muslims in the empire. As Bernard Lewis wrote, in his magisterial Emergence of Modern Turkey, most Muslims viewed this as an “insult and outrage,” and as “a triumph over Islam of the millennial Christian enemy in the West.” The resulting resistance would slow the pace of reforms, but there could be no going back.
It’s hard to interest students in old treaties, but the Treaty of Paris (1856), following the Crimean War, can’t be avoided, since it recognized the Ottoman empire as part of the European system, subject to and guaranteed by its laws (which we now call “international law”).
If you visit the palace at Versailles, you can view this huge painting (three by five meters) that captures the moment. The artist, the Frenchman Édouard-Louis Dubufe, depicts the negotiators of the treaty. The two Ottoman negotiators are here: Mehmed Cemil Bey (the smallish figure by the door in the back), and Ali Pasha (seated on the far right). Contemporary reports say they came well-prepared.
Class Six: Britain’s Veiled Protectorate in Egypt. Exactly one class session: in my course on the modern history of the Middle East, that’s all the time we have to cover Egypt from the British occupation in 1882 to the First World War. Talk about compression. So what’s a must-have for this (sixth) session of the class?
Looming large is Sir Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, who basically ran Egypt as British “agent” and “consul-general” from 1883 to 1907. To this day, he remains enveloped in controversy. He took a dim view of the Egyptian capacity for self-rule: “We have to go back to the doubtful and obscure precedents of Pharaonic times to find an epoch when, possibly, Egypt was ruled by Egyptians. Neither, for the present, do they appear to possess the qualities which would render it desirable… to raise them at a bound to the category of autonomous rulers.” And so he ran the country himself. He stabilized the economy, but couldn’t stop the tide of nationalism.
The pigeons came home to roost, so to speak, in 1906, when a party of British officers on a pigeon hunt clashed with villagers in a Nile delta village called Denshawai. An officer died in the altercation, apparently of heatstroke, but several villagers were tried and hanged, others were flogged and sentenced to penal servitude.
The perceived injustice caused a huge uproar. In class, we read the condemnation of Cromer by George Bernard Shaw, and the poem on the executions by Constantine Cavafy. And we read a manifesto by Egyptian nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel, as well as the warden’s report on Ibraham Wardani, the nationalist who in 1910 assassinated Boutros Ghali, by then Egypt’s prime minister, who’d been one of the judges in the Denshawai trial. The stage is set for the later eruption of nationalist revolt against all things British, good or bad.
(My Israeli students also need to hear that in 1903, Theodor Herzl tried to persuade Cromer to open up northern Sinai to Jewish settlement. Cromer feigned interest but eventually nixed the plan. Herzl called him “the most disagreeable Englishman I have ever faced.”)
We end by discussing a passage in Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958). True, he writes, Egyptians
need medical help or education before they can understand, or make use of, an increase in their freedom…. First things come first: there are situations in which—to use a saying satirically attributed to the nihilists by Dostoevsky—boots are superior to Pushkin… The Egyptian peasant needs clothes or medicine before, and more than, personal liberty, but the minimum freedom that he needs today, and the greater degree of freedom that he may need tomorrow, is not some species of freedom peculiar to him, but identical with that of professors, artists and millionaires.
But when is “tomorrow” today? It’s a question that much preoccupied Bernard Lewis. But more on that on another occasion.
Images: Above, the accused at the Denshawai trial; below, the assassinated Boutros Ghali in death. (Both, Wikimedia.)
Class Seven: The Last Ottoman Sultan Standing. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in salvage mode. It was bankrupt, its armies couldn’t stave off defeat, and its politics stagnated. But the once-glorious empire refused to give up the ghost. This was due, at least in part, to the resolve of its last effective sultan, Abdülhamid II, who reigned for almost 33 years, from 1876 to 1909. Session seven of my intro class on the Mideast at Shalem College revolves around this enigmatic man, who was controversial while he lived, and who remains so.
The last few years have seen something of an Abdülhamid revival in Turkey. He’s been the hero of a hugely popular television drama series, Payitaht Abdülhamid. High production values combine with a sharp disregard for the record of events (plus a dash of antisemitism), to paint Abdülhamid as a devout paragon of Muslim virtue. This perfectly suits the neo-Ottoman agenda of Turkey’s present ruler, who’s more of an Abdülhamid than an Atatürk. (That’s perhaps why it was persistently rumored that the new mega-airport just opened on the edge of Istanbul would be named after Abdülhamid. For now, it’s just Istanbul Airport.)
So who was the real Abdülhamid? You know the trope of the reform-minded prince who comes to power amid great expectations in the West, only to dash them by sliding into the authoritarian mode, or worse. (Sound familiar, Syria- and Saudi-watchers?) Abdülhamid’s first move as sultan was to promulgate a constitution and convene an elected parliament. Perhaps he thought this would prevent the amputation of Christian-populated provinces in the Balkans.
It didn’t, and a year later, Abdülhamid suspended the constitution and disbanded the parliament. It was his own show after that, and as “Turkey-in-Europe” dwindled, he fell back on the Muslim masses of Asia, to whom he promoted himself as savior-caliph. Massacres of Armenians and Assyrians eventually followed, and Abdülhamid became known as the “Red Sultan” in the European press. The later architects of secular Turkey similarly took a dim view of him.
It was Bernard Lewis, in his landmark Emergence of Modern Turkey, who first took a more favorable tack. “Abdülhamid was far from being the blind, uncompromising, complete reactionary of the historical legend,” he wrote (back in 1960). “On the contrary, he was a willing and active modernizer.” Railroads, telegraphs, schools, libraries, museums—he promoted just about any innovation that wouldn’t weaken his grip on power. No doubt, Abdülhamid deserved a rethink, and some historians have done it meticulously and fairly. But the present fad for him is over the top.
As I remind my Israeli students, Herzl met Abdülhamid in a futile attempt to extract some kind of charter for Zionism. It’s the stuff for another course, but we read Herzl’s verdict from his diary: “My impression of the Sultan was that he is a weak, cowardly, but thoroughly good-natured man. I regard him as neither crafty nor cruel, but as a profoundly unhappy prisoner in whose name a rapacious, infamous, seedy camarilla perpetrates the vilest abominations. If I didn’t have the Zionist movement to look after, I would now go and write an article that would give the poor prisoner his freedom.” It’s ironic, given the Elder-of-Zion treatment of Herzl in the current Turkish telenovela on Abdülhamid.
The Ottoman Empire outlasted Abdülhamid (he was thrown out in a revolution in 1909), but not by long. That it lasted as long as it did, may well have been to his credit.
(Image: Abdülhamid on his way to, or back from, Friday prayer. Herzl gives a vivid account of this spectacle in his diary. “Within less than an hour the most magnificent images rushed past us…”)
Class Eight: The War that Made the Middle East. It’s no small challenge to pack the entire First World War into one session (the eighth) of my intro to the Mideast at Shalem College. So I always fail, and end up running over into the next session. In large measure, the Middle East today is the product of that war, so it’s not remote history at all.
There’s the pre-war calculation that put the Ottomans into the war on the side of Germany. There’s the war itself, on multiple fronts, from Gallipoli to Mesopotamia, from Allenby in Palestine to the Arab Revolt (advised by Peter O’Toole… oops, Lawrence of Arabia). There’s the Ottoman-Russian struggle and the internal war on the Armenians.
In parallel, there’s the (double?) dealing: the British promises (such as they were) to the Arabs, the Sykes-Picot partition accord, the Balfour Declaration. Lots of maps to decipher, lots of texts to parse, and it can overwhelm the undergrad student. On top of that, part of the session gets eaten up explaining what the wider war was all about. That involves explaining why 20 million died, just as an aside.
In the end, I try to impress upon the students one major takeaway: the war tore up the old map, and the new one, based on a mix of great power interests and “national self-determination,” produced an endemic instability. But as I also remind my Israeli students, for the foresighted (such as the Zionists), the war provided a one-and-only opportunity to realize fantastic plans. The upset was total; no one in 1914 could have imagined what the Middle East would look like only 20 years later.
One aspect of the war was a source of grief for Bernard Lewis. He took the view that the Ottoman regime didn’t have a plan to destroy the Armenians, whose wholesale expulsion and massacre in 1915 didn’t constitute genocide. He said as much in an interview to France’s leading newspaper in 1993, and Armenian groups took him to court over it. It’s a complicated story; you’ll find Lewis’s side of it in chapter 11 (“Judgment in Paris”) of his memoirs.
His own final verdict is interesting: “If the word ‘genocide’ is to be used in its original and legal meaning… then the appropriateness of this term to the Armenian massacres of 1915 remains unproven. However, language changes, and looking at this again twenty years later it is clear that the word ‘genocide’ has developed a broader and less precise meaning today.” I suppose that meant Lewis came to acquiesce in the historicity of the Armenian genocide, in line with current-day usage. The question is, at what point does the term “genocide” become so elastic and ubiquitous in common usage that it ceases to move us? We may be past that point already.
Image: General Allenby, fresh from his conquest of Jerusalem, reads his proclamation to the city’s inhabitants, December 11, 1917 (Wikimedia).