Tag Archives: Syrian Christians

See “Родные” — “Close Relations” — at the MMI in Astoria

23 Sep

Bad translation.  “Pодные”…”rodnye” means intimate, familiar, related; by extension born-beloved, dear one, cared for, same root in Russian as parents, birth, homeland, Christmas…wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same Indo-European roots as “root”.

Rodnye Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky‘s documentary is being screened this coming weekend and the next at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.  (See schedule. It’s two train stops into Queens, guys.  Then you can have a nice dinner for half of what you pay in Manhttan at a good friend and koumbaro‘s place: Mar’s.)

“In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

Watch the trailer below.

Lots of moving, “disorienting” footage.  Also, lots of humor, which reminds us that so much of a certain ironic, sardonic take on the world — a viewpoint “from a certain angle”, as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy — that we in the United States think is particularly Jewish, is really just a trait common to all eastern Europe, even Greece, or perhaps just a trait common to the powerless everywhere:

“Crimea was a pity, but the Donbass…they can have it.” *

But I think the most important moment in terms of geopolitics comes at 1:15:

“So Ukraine decided to join NATO.  Isn’t that its own business?”

“Nyyyyyet!”

…comes the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Nyet” with its palatized “n” and final “t” is one of humanity’s great no-words.  Like “yok” in Turkish, it literally means “there isn’t” or “Il n’y a pas”.  But while “yok” has a kind of know-nothing passivity about it, “nyet” is an active “Halt!  No way you’re going further down this road.  There’s no access.” **

That moment in Mansky’s doc is why, despite widespread support for a Putin I find repulsive, I can’t get as angry at Russians as I get at Trump Americans and Türk-doğans; because Russians aren’t stupid.  They’re not as smart as they used to be in the old days, при коммунизме, when everybody knew not to believe any-thing.  They now believe all kinds of nonsense.  And they went and got religion on me too, which is one of my life’s greatest watch-what-you-wish-fors.  But they’re still pretty intelligent about the world.

I can’t get inside Putin’s head, like Ben Judah convincingly does in what’s still the best book on the Путинщина, the “Putin-ness” or the “Putin thang.”  Judah’s thesis is that Putin is really just a nebech apparatchik who others put in his place and who now — having trampled over so many people on his way up — is terrified of stepping down and that the macho persona he so tiringly projects masks mega insecurity.  It almost makes you feel sorry for him.

But this relative of Mansky’s and her coldly realpolitik “nyet” tell you why he has so many Russians’ support.  Because it means: nyet, you can’t tell me that the U.S. and NATO suddenly developed a major crush on Estonia and Georgia; nyet, you can’t suddenly tell me you’re interested in Ukraine too, because this was already starting to feel like a corporate raid on all the old girlfriends who dumped me, but Ukraine, especially, is like hitting on my sister; nyet, you can’t moan and groan about how we’re violating a basic credo of the European Union by changing borders, when neither Russia or Ukraine are part of the European Union and you wouldn’t even have considered Ukraine — with its resources, access to the Black Sea and huge Russian population —  a candidate if it weren’t a way to totally encircle Russia; and, nyet, you can’t tell us that you’re not still treating us with a Cold War mentality that you inherited from an Anglo tradition of Great Game power struggle that doesn’t apply anymore and is now completely counter-productive.

At least talk some truth and maybe we can get somewhere.  And then I’ll reconsider breaking up with Putin.

In the meantime, we can try to think of everyone as “close relations.”

For more on these issues see: The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia… from a couple of years ago, and more on the imperative to engage Russia in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

Putin Judah Fragle Empire

************************************************************************************* * The Donbass, the river Don basin is part of southeast Russia and the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is centered.  From The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia“:

“Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia…

“The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)”

“Новая Россия,” (Novaya Rossiya), New Russia, is not a Putinism.  It’s a name for these lands that goes back to Catherine the Great and the first serious subduing of Cossack rebelliousness and settling of Russians in the region in the 18th century.  It was part of the Russian empire’s most fertile grain-producing regions and then the scene of crazy industrialization under the Bolsheviks; maybe it was once a sort of “Russian Texas” but now it’s more like a sort of Russian Rust-Belt.  Hence, the “they can have it” comment.  The Soviet Army, decapitated by Stalin’s purges of its most talented and experienced, and ill-prepared and ill-equipped, only made the Nazi sweep through Ukraine grind to a halt once the Germans had made it this far east and after hundreds of thousands of Russian men had already been sent to a meaningless death and the Nazis had swept the old lands of the Pale clean of Jews through massive massacring and mass executions which were an integral part of the military strategy of the eastern front; many military historians believe that if the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union hadn’t been slowed by German troops stopping every other community to round up and shoot its Jews (a method/process that killed more Jews than the gas chambers did), they might have been successful in beating the coming of winter and more successful in their campaign long-term.  The region then became the scene of brutal attrition warfare, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad (now reverted back to its original name, Волгоград / Volgograd on map below).  This left the region seriously trashed and so huge numbers of Russian workers were settled there post-WWII, Russianizing the Ukrainian far east even further and setting the stage for today’s conflict.

Map of the Don Basin.  The grey line shows the border between Russia (РОССИЯ) and Ukraine (УКРАИНА) and the broken grey lines in Ukrainian east indicate the Lugansk (Луганск) and Donetsk (Донетск)

Don_basin

** “У меня денег нет” (“U menya deneg nyet”) in Russian is the same structure as the Turkish “Benim param yok” — “I don’t have any money.”  Though Russian has a verb for “to have” like other Slavic languages, these structures both mean, literally: “By me there’s no money” or “My money isn’t there/isn’t by me.”  Wondering whether it’s a construction Russian acquired through contact with Tatar.  There is apparently a phenomenon where languages effect each other and transmit certain properties between them, though there’s no large bilingual population to bring them together and though they’re not genetically related, at least not closely.  The absence of an infinitive, for example, in modern Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian/Vlach, though each are from different Indo-European families and more closely related languages have an infinitive, is one good example.  Also, Yiddish “by mir” (as in “By mir bist du shayn”) which is like the Russian по-моему (“according to me”) — for me, in my opinion.  Though German uses “bei mir” also to mean same thing.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything

7 Dec

syria

syria-11

I’m going to have to write this post in bullet points of varying length, that I guess reflect the tragic fragmentation of my subject matter in some way, because putting it all together into a coherent “opinion piece” is as hard as finding coherent policy to deal with the problem itself has been. I was against talking about Syria in the beginning of its crisis as if it were an inherently fragmented and “artificial” colonial creation, as it had become the fashion to speak of most of the Levant at some point or another. I particularly objected to Andrew Sullivan’s obnoxious Syria [or Iraq] is not a country declarations. But since then, that’s become the reality – an insistent enough discourse makes itself a reality — so it seems to be more useful to take on all the regions, factors and players involved one at a time…and if I can bring them together usefully at the end, I will.

Russia and Assad: It’s obvious that Russia is pursuing its own agenda in Syria, but frankly — isn’t everyone? — so that’s no great cogent or original observation, and to be very frank, shouldn’t play into our response to either Assad or Putin, given the point to which things have reached at this point, because the degree to which you or I can stomach either Assad or Putin is not the point. The point is that right now I can see no great tragedy in an Assad-run — for how long can be decided later, with Russia (see below) — Russian semi-protectorate that would run from the Latakya Alawite coast down the Hama-Homs-Damascus-Dar’a, corridor, that would provide security and stability for even the region’s originally anti-Assad Sunni population, and even attract Sunnis from the rest of the country who could make their way there: such – I would think – is the ethical questionability of the various Sunni groups (aside from just ISIS I mean) into whose hands the original uprising has fallen and the degree of their war-weary victims’ terror; and — because I think it’s important to declare your subjective affinities before you can honestly put forth your hopefully objective suggestions or propositions – I hope such an entity would also provide a safe haven for part of what’s left of Syrian Christianity as well. (Yes, MESA girls, you’ve caught me again.) It would also be a good idea if we learned a little bit about the Assads and the Alawite past in the region (as it would be equally good for us to know something of Turkish/Kurdish Alevis as well), not to exonerate Assad for anything, but so that we know what we’re talking about before we start unproductively babbling about villains just sprouted out of the earth – like we did in Lebanon in the past about the Gemayels and Maronites or the Jumblatts and Druzes or southern Shiites and Hezbollah. This is homework one would like to assign to the Levant and the Middle East’s Sunni majority as well: a request that it examine its moral conscience, if such a thing exists, and its treatment of minorities in the past, but I understand that that’s probably a tall order that we can’t wait for them to comply with in order to bring some relief to the current hellishness.

So let Russia go for what it wants for now; it’s in most everyone’s interest and let’s try to turn it to everyone’s advantage instead of attacking her for every move she makes. ENGAGE RUSSIA. I beg everyone. A plea I will make later as well and repeatedly.

The Shiite crescent or triangle: This is the very real alliance of Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, a largely Shiite entity that’s essentially what’s left of Iraq, and Iran. It’s not a product of Israel’s paranoid imagination, but only Israel thinks it has any real reason to be worried about it and therefore Israel should be promptly ignored on every point and aspect of those worries.

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Bashar al-Assad

Neither Iraq nor the Iraqi army are functioning entities, so we can temporarily remove them from our discussion. I think I’ve addressed the moral “problematicness” of Assad: that there can be no solution in Syria till he’s gone, though, is a moralistic pose and not a truly moral position — sadly, one even Obama is fond of striking — and is an excuse for doing nothing and a recipe for letting the current holocaust continue. As for Hezbollah: whatever we think of its origins or the nature of its religiosity or its political ideology, it’s a highly professional organization with a highly professional, well-trained and hardened army, and the only Arab or other force that has put Israel in its place twice – took a little longer the first time but was pretty snap the second – and has pretty much served as an Akritai line that has kept it there since and, whatever its political tactics are (I honestly can’t say), it seems to me to be the one force that has kept Lebanon relatively stable (yes, as had Syria) for the past twenty years or so.

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Of course, it does this with the massive organizational and material help of Iran. Which brings us to…

Iran: Get over Iran. It became a comforting cliché, with which the Middle Eastern Studies academic left aunanized itself for several decades: that the imperialist West had aborted every modern attempt at a democratic, civil society in the Muslim world and that that was therefore responsible for the rise of political Islam. Tell me which countries we’re talking about and who the leaders were who were going to lead them to this heavenly, secular modernity? The even more militaristic and fascist and statist successors of Kemal in Turkey? Look how that’s turning out and it’s still incomparably the best of the batch and, ok, there’s still hope recent setbacks can be reversed. Who else? Nasser and Egypt? Arafat or current Palestinian leadership?  The Ba’athist successors of the Hashemites in Iraq? Maybe in Jordan? Ben Bella and Algeria? Bourguiba even and Tunisia? The Saudis? Jinnah’s successors, further east, or even Jinnah himself? Maybe the Afghan royal family? Who?

The only country in the Muslim world that in my humble opinion seemed to have had many of the prerequisites for a secular, civil society, perhaps a constitutional, truly assembly-based government, and a leader with an appropriately intellectual, bourgeois background and education — and accompanying democratic inclinations — was Iran and Mohammad Mosaddegh. And the Anglo-Americans destroyed that experiment. And yet Iran still seems to be the country, which despite the powerful institutional obstacles, has, on a popular level at least, the temperamental prodiagrafes for the development of such society and is poll-wise the most pro-American in the region. What is the rationale behind continuing to villainize and sanction and isolate? Ok, maybe not “what is the rationale?” But I’m simply calling for the acceptance of the fact that allowing Iran to open up to the world would inevitably – no, don’t give me Russia or China as examples – lead to an internal opening up as well, and both Iranians and the rest of the world have only to gain, when, and not if, that happens. Let it happen faster. As fast as you can.

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Mohammad Mosaddegh

Turkey: There probably isn’t a country that, though never “officially” colonized, is a better object lesson in how to endure the machinations, infiltrations, exploitation, hypocrisies and pousties of Western manipulation – from the 18th century to this day – and how to then flip them to your advantage like a bad-ass judoka than Turkey.  In dismembering the Ottoman Empire, all the Great Powers did their best to make the process of our separating from our neighbours into independent nations as long and complicated and bloody as they possibly could. When after WWI, they realized the Turks weren’t going let them split even a remnant Anatolia into six or seven parts and give those away too…suddenly…Turkey…could…do…NO…wrong…and still can’t. It’s fabled “privileged geographical position,” which no Western power was able to grab for itself, allows it to do anything it wants: supress all and any pressures for democratic change; conduct a vicious decades-long civil war against – I dunno, can it still be called a minority when it’s one-fifth of your population – its Kurds; violently harass its supposedly Lausanne-protected Greek community till they all leave en masse, while invading Cyprus to protect its Turkish minority there…and on and on and on. And now that President-to-be-for-at-least-a-decade-I-figure Erdoğan has sat on the throne Turks themselves put him on, the anti-democratization process: the societal and governmental Islamization; the assassinations and imprisonments, the suppression of journalistic rights and other democratic voices; the bullying of neighbours and throwing around of irresponsible, expansionist language; the destruction of a painfully wrought peace process that Turkish Kurds showed remarkable maturity in struggling towards, and the unleashing of the formidable, American-backed and supplied power of the Turkish military on them once again; the probable aiding and abetting of the animals of ISIS in various ways, plus the shooting down of a Russian air force jet out of pure pissing-contest impulses; not to mention the ever greater and egomaniacal vandalizing of one of humanity’s greatest and most ancient cities – all continue. And the world breathes not a word. Obama did not even address the downing of the Russian jet: all I saw him do is rudely turn around in his chair at some banquet at the Paris Climate Change Conference and off-handedly say to some journalist: “Well, a nation has the right to defend its air space.” The next day six Turkish fighter jets flew almost two-thirds the way across the Aegean into northeastern Greek airspace , and we didn’t say a word and wouldn’t have had our call taken even if we had tried, since it happens on a practically monthly basis. NATO allies, you see…

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Nobody reported the story except the Greek press.

The Kurds: “I have a dream,” as they say, for Kurds: that they will recognize the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan with a capital at Erbil is already a de facto independent state and not complicate things in the neighbourhood by please resisting the urge to declare de jure independence.

Kurds

Kurdish-inhabited regions of the Middle East and Caucasus, according to tribal break-down.

This centrally located political entity can serve as the hub of a wheel of still-to-be-worked-for, autonomous, Kurdish regions encircling it, and by not insisting on independence and union, they will be able to put more resources and energy into developing what they have and not fighting to defend it forever. I don’t know; maybe the future of the world will involve the devolving of nation-states into affiliated groups of semi-autonomous units with perhaps overlapping or varying degrees of jurisdiction – Holy Roman Empire style – and the Kurds may be the first to experience this as a people and benefit from it: that is, to see diaspora (if that word really applies to a non-migrating group), or political “multiplicity,” as a finger in every pie and not as separation, and be able to reap the advantages of that. Plus, again, as vehemently secular-minded, it will hopefully remain what it has already become: another safe space for the remnants of Syro-Mesopotamian Christianity.

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The Christian village of Maluula in Syria

Saudi Arabia and the rest of them down there: I admit that for a very long time I didn’t get this one. The fear of Russian power and the resentment of the Iranian Revolution, the obvious reasons for catering to an obnoxious Israel’s every whim and demand and the kid-glove coddling of Turkey all make some sense, though my ultimate point here will be that they no longer do. But the Saudis…no clue. Did any-one need their oil in particular? Wasn’t the United States itself already energy self-sufficient? Why? That the West always does what it does because Jews control Washington and everyone wants Saudi oil seemed to me to be the political theories of Athenian taxi-drivers.

Yet I was just speaking to someone from the ministry of energy here in Greece the other night and it turns out that compared to that of other oil-producing nations, Saudi oil (and I guess other Gulf State oil as well?) is unusually high in quality, demanding minimal refining and easy drilling as well, since its gigantic reserves are all close to the surface. The price of oil can plunge to rock bottom and they will still have monstrous amounts of a desirable product with which they can undersell any other country in the world and that will keep them filthy rich into the foreseeable future. And capable of funding jihadism everywhere.  Including the spiritual “inner struggle” kind.

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So we’ve ended up here, with a nice neat circle drawn around ISIS territory because that is our major problem and that’s the entity we’re looking to eradicate plain and simple. And it can’t be done without a profound shift in how we – I don’t how we want to define “we:” the West, the civilized world, how about just humanity? – treat and engage each and every one of the players involved in the above scenario. Because while our objective is to destroy ISIS, almost all the above policies are based on either almost irrationally selfish and small-minded views, or even more so, on a Cold War logic that simply no longer applies, and that will do little to impede the danger ISIS presents, in almost anyway you take at it or from wherever you look at it.

First and foremost and again: let Russia in. ENGAGE RUSSIA. We all have everything to gain and nothing to lose if we stop treating Russia like a pariah nation. Russian power is not a threat and can instead prove massively useful to the world if we bring Russia into the fold instead of trying to desperately keep her out of everywhere and even foolishly try and fence her in. It may be a little more complicated than a simplistic “more flies with honey” theory but whatever it is we choose to describe as Russian aggression, Russia sees as defensive and that may not be an irrational response from a powerful nation that sees itself treated as an amoral being that is constantly excluded from all the West’s major moves.

And I’m talking about radical engagement: not just lifting sanctions and trade blocks and visa requirements. I’m talking about making Russia a part of the European family of nations, as laughably dysfunctional as that family may be looking right now. Why are Montenegro or Georgia on the list of candidates for NATO membership — Montenegro probably as some sleazy old promise offered to it if it seceded from Serbia; and Georgia, one of the oldest polities in the Russians’ sphere of influence (for better or worse and partly of its own initiative at the start) and with a complicated love-hate relationship between them – while Russia itself is not?  Too big to absorb. Well, yes, but my point is to stop thinking of her as an entity to control and absorb and start thinking of her as a political and especially military power that’s just too enormous to not have as an ally in the current struggle we’re engaged in.

ISIS (and Turkey to some degree) ticked off the Russians bad and they have already done more to weaken the “caliphate” in the past few weeks than all other Western actions combined. Is it escalating the conflict? There is no escalating this conflict: when your enemy is sworn to escalate it to the maximum, and there’s no reason to think they’re bluffing, you’re already there. Yes, there’s reason to fear that Russia – which uses Powell-Doctrine-type “overwhelming force” more than the United States ever has – will go too far and turn central Syria and Raqqa into a Chechnya and Grozny, but the best way to limit those kinds of excesses are to enter into some coordinated action with Russia and not just allow her to act alone. Because we’re going to need Russia when the air campaign needs to stop, when at some point it will. And that’s when I predict that Russia will also be willing to send in men on the ground and I don’t mean just a few special operations groups. While they’re certainly not eager to send their young men off to die in another Afghanistan or Chechnya, this has already – again, for better or worse – become a sort of Holy War for Russians and they will be far less squeamish about sending in troops than any other European society or even the United States at this point. And working with them on such an operation will not only increase its efficacy but limit the risks and excesses.

In the end bringing Russia in from the outside will also change it from the inside; as the nation itself feels less like it has to be on the constant defensive, then so will the Russian government adopt a more open and progressive attitude to its own internal political life.   This is what we saw happening in Turkey in the early 2000s when European Union accession was still a negotiable reality; much of what Turkey and Erdoğan have turned into since are a result of those cards being taken off the table. Do it for everyone then, for us and for them. Engage Russia; it’s a win-win proposition.

As for the rest…

I’m sorry to say this, since being or acting or thinking positively about Turkey and Greco-Turkish relations has been one of my intellectual and emotional priorities for most of my adult life. But something when I got to Istanbul the day after the elections this November felt like a massive internal, tectonic shift for me — like something had snapped.  Slap just half the sanctions and forms of isolation we’ve imposed on Russia and Iran on Turkey instead and let’s see how quickly Erdoğan’s tough guy stance lasts. And cut off military aid completely. As long as its going to a state that buys ISIS oil (which is the least we know of in terms of aiding them), as long as its being used, again, to terrorize its own Kurdish population into submission – cut it off completely. I would say take some of that aid and channel it into civil funding and assistance to Demirtaş and his HDP (Kurdish People’s Democratic Party), but that would probably be illegal, make them an even more vulnerable target and generally backfire. I would say do the same for Alevis in Turkey, whose agenda overlaps with both Kurdish and generally those of all democratic impulses there, but that would backfire even more horribly, since Alevis are a much, much more vulnerable target. (See: “Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange)

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Demographic distribution of Alevis in Turkey

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And distribution of Alawites in the Levant, which, aside from Syria, clearly shows major concentrations in Turkish Antakya and also northern Lebanon.

The Kurds: Give the Kurds EVERYTHING they need. They’re creating a society, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the internal socio-political life of Turkish Kurds that is nothing short of revolutionary in its civic-mindedness, democratic tendencies and secular steadfastness. Yes, nothing’s perfect there either but it’s by far the best we have. And the loose confederation of Kurdish regions that I spoke of earlier may have perhaps an even more strategically valuable position to offer the rest of the world than Turkey does. Beg Turkish Kurds to swear to abide by ceasefire terms despite all provocations by the Turkish state; insist that Iraqi Kurdistan not declare independence. And then give them everything they need, even if it means billions in aid. Because, along with the Russians, they’re the ones who’ll probably have to do even more of the ground fighting when the airstrikes campaign reaches its inevitable limits – and starts harming civilians, which it unfortunately already has — even though they now insist that they’re not spilling any more of their own blood for anything outside of Kurdish-inhabited regions.

The rest will – if it hasn’t already – cause the reader to accuse me of fomenting a Middle East wide Sunni-Shia war, with my sympathies, both personal and ideological, firmly Shiite and that I’m proposing Russia and the West join in on the Shia side. Perhaps it is. Slap down Erdoğan (for whom this is certainly a Sunni-Shia struggle) and keep doing so till his ego is under control or he becomes a lame duck political force. Hard, but not impossible, if Turks start to see the real price they have to pay for so stupidly supporting him. Ignore Israel for now and let the Saudis (for whom this is also certainly a Sunni-Shia Struggle) stew in their own juices and cut off oil purchases if they try anything more radical. And as part of the inevitable opening of Iran and the inevitable growth of its role on the world stage, let it, Hezbollah, the, yes, despicable Assad and the, yes, still dubiously motivated but driven and highly motivated Russians all go to work on ISIS, Da’esh, whatever, and its ridiculous, vicious “caliphate.”

Sound risky? Yes, I know it does. It is. Got a better idea?

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

More on Syrian art and archaeological destruction

19 Feb

Originally from The Independent, by Patrick Cockburn, February 11th, 2014.  Reblogged from Tom Sawford’s  Byzantine Blog: Making Byzantium Live for People Today :

 
Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque: the rubble is all that remains of its minaret, which was blown up during fighting last year (Getty)

by Patrick Cockburn

First published in The Independent 11 Feb 2014

Islamic fundamentalists in Syria have started to destroy archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues because their portrayal of human beings is contrary to their religious beliefs. The systematic destruction of antiquities may be the worst disaster to ancient monuments since the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 for similar ideological reasons.

In mid-January the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), an al-Qa’ida-type movement controlling much of north-east Syria, blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates. The official head of antiquities for Raqqa province, who has fled to Damascus and does not want his name published, told The Independent: “It happened between 12 and 15 days ago. A Turkish businessman had come to Raqqa to try to buy the mosaic. This alerted them [Isis] to its existence and they came and blew it up. It is completely lost.”

Other sites destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists include the reliefs carved at the Shash Hamdan, a Roman cemetery in Aleppo province. Also in the Aleppo countryside, statues carved out of the sides of a valley at al-Qatora have been deliberately targeted by gunfire and smashed into fragments.

Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, general director of antiquities and museums at the Ministry of Culture in Damascus, says that extreme Islamic iconoclasm puts many antiquities at risk. An expert on the Roman and early Christian periods in Syria, he says: “I am sure that if the crisis continues in Syria we shall have the destruction of all the crosses from the early Christian world, mosaics with mythological figures and thousands of Greek and Roman statues.”

Of the mosaic at Raqqa, discovered in 2007, he says: “It is really important because it was undamaged and is from the Byzantine period but employs Roman techniques.”

Syria has far more surviving archaeological sites and ancient monuments than almost any country in the world. These range from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus with its magnificent eighth-century mosaics to the Bronze Age Ebla in Idlib province in north-west Syria, which flourished in the third and second millennia BC and where 20,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered. In eastern Syria on the upper Euphrates are the remains of the Dura-Europos, a Hellenistic city called “the Pompeii of the Syrian desert” where frescoes were found in an early synagogue. Not far away, close to the border with Iraq, are the remains of Mari, which has a unique example of a third-millennium BC royal palace.

Unfortunately, many of the most famous ancient sites in Syria are now held by the fundamentalist Islamic opposition and are thereby in danger. Professor Abdulkarim says that it is not just Isis but “Jabhat al-Nusra [the official affiliate of al-Qa’ida] and the other fundamentalists who are pretty much the same”.

He emphasises at the same time that he approaches his job of trying to preserve Syria’s heritage during the civil war from a politically neutral point of view. The civil war has inflicted heavy damage, notably in Aleppo, where the minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque was destroyed along with seven medieval souks, or markets, with over 1,000 traditional shops burnt out.

Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque: the rubble is all that remains of its minaret, which was blown up during fighting last year. Homs Old City has suffered serious damage and is still held by the rebels, while the immense Crusader fortress of Krak des Chevaliers has been battered by government air strikes. The great church at St Simeon has been turned into a military training area and artillery range by rebels.

Syria’s museums are generally secure and moveable items have been taken elsewhere for safe-keeping. Museum staff say they saw what happened in Iraq after 2003 and moved quickly. A folk museum at Deir Atieh between Damascus and Homs was taken over, but the rebels were after old pistols and rifles on display that they intended to put to military use.

The most devastating and irreversible losses to Syria’s rich heritage of ancient cities and buildings are the result of looting. Much of this is local people looking for treasure, though in many cases they are obliterating the archaeological record by using bulldozers. Two looters were killed when they used a bulldozer to excavate a cave at Ebla, causing its roof to collapse.

What worries Professor Abdulkarim and his staff is that over the last year the looting has become large scale. He says that there is “a mafia from Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon hiring hundreds of people to strip sites”. Among what are known as the Dead Cities in Idlib province in northern Syria, once prosperous and then mysteriously abandoned 1,000 years ago, there are signs that thieves have brought in antiquities experts to advise them about the best places to dig, going by the orderly nature of the excavations.

Theft of antiquities is particularly bad in the far east of Syria at Mari where an armed gang  numbering 500 has taken over the site. An official report says that the looters have been focusing on “the Royal Palace, the southern gate, the public baths, Temple of Ishtar, the Temple of Dagan and the temple of the Goddess of Spring”.

Even worse is the situation at Dura-Europos where 300 people are excavating. A report by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums says that efforts by local communities to stop the digging here have failed and heavy machinery is being used. The report says that illegal excavations have “led to the destruction of 80 per cent of the site as perpetrators are digging holes that can reach three metres in depth”.

For some Syrians, often well-armed in war-ravaged, impoverished areas, the looting of antiquities has become a full-time job. In great stretches of the country outside state control there is total disorder with banditry and kidnapping common. Rebel commanders, even if they wanted to, are not going to give priority to protecting ancient monuments.

Professor Abdulkarim complains that he has received little international help in preventing the looting of Syria’s rich heritage. The deliberate targeting by Isis and other jihadist groups of mosaics and statues seen as profane will accelerate the speed of destruction. Antiquities that have survived invasions and wars for 5,000 years may soon be rubble.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

“Syria Is Not A Country” — Andrew Sullivan lets fly another one of his kotsanes and then rushes to cover his tuches

27 Jan

Sykes-Picot

He got enough flak for the post (read through all the ctd.’s too — very interesting) and I feel kind of bad giving him more after so many months, but it’s been in the back of my mind since the fall and the argument is so irritating that I had to put in my own two cents.

It seems that every Sullivan-type pundit rushed out in 2001, or more probably 2003 when they were making their Iraq predictions, and bought some book about the Paris Peace Conference: “Paris 1919” “The Peace to End All Peace” — it’s an entire genre in itself.  And there they found out about some magic secret, like in a Dan Brown novel, called the Sykes Picot line, that supposedly explains everything about the Middle East’s dysfunction, and like a little kid who realizes he’s said something that the adults have found smart or funny, they go around repeating it ad nauseum: “Sykes-Picot Line”…”Sykes Picot Line” … “this guy Sykes and this guy Picot”…”The Sykes Picot Line…”  Listen to Sullivan’s own pedantic tone:

“Syria as we now know it was created by one Brit, Mark Sykes, and one Frenchman, Francois Georges-Picot in 1920. Originally, it included a chunk of Iraq (another non-country), but when oil was discovered there (in Mosul), the Brits wanted and got it. With that detail alone, you can see how valid the idea is of a Syrian “nation” is.”

The whole point is that most of the nations of the present Middle East are artificial, colonial creations — arbitrary lines drawn on a map –and that explains everything.  First, these lines are not arbitrary.  Whatever you might want to say about Sykes or Picot, or Churchill or Lloyd George or Clemenceau — that they were gross imperialists (which is not even redundant really but simply a tautology: “The King is a gross monarchist…”) or anything else, they weren’t ignorant or anistoretoi.*  The units they put together corresponded, as so many of Sullivan’s readers point out to him, with regions with long, historically recognized identities.  Where you look at a map of the Middle East and do see straight artificially drawn lines, they were drawn through places where nobody lives.  Otherwise, within every one of those lines, there has always existed a shifting, changing, re- or de-centralizing identity, but one with clear continuities nonetheless.

(*Anistoretoi – ανιστόρητοι – is a Greek word that I like very much, because it literally means “un-historied” — historically ignorant, obviously, but there’s something about “un-historied” that just seems to me like a sharper condemnation of inexcusable lack of knowledge — no? — so you’ll see it on this blog here and there.)

Thankfully, no one says this about Egypt, because it so obviously has a longer continuous history of unified consciousness than even China.  But what Sullivan, so damn pompous — or just so gay and so Magdalen — dismisses as the “non-country” of Iraq, the flatlands of the Tigris and the Euphrates basin, even when semi-splintered into northern, central, and southern parts, as Iraq seems to be doing now, was always seen as a unit: certainly geographically but even culturally.  The two regions the Greeks called Libya and Cyrene may correspond to a west-east division that is still apparent in modern Libya (Tripoli and Benghazi), but their union is not necessarily artificial or inherently problematic.  The headland to the west of Libya we call Tunisia was the first region called Africa by the Romans, where their ancient enemy Carthage had once stood.  And the region where the northwestern section of the Fertile Crescent bends over and meets the Mediterranean has been called Syria since the Greeks and was probably seen as a recognized cultural entity far before them.  The mountainous Mediterranean littoral of this Syria — what’s now Palestine and Lebanon and maybe a new Alawite state waiting to be born — was always a space slightly apart and more heterogeneous, but Syria nonetheless.  (The arid plateau across the Jordan, inhabited by the Moabites and Edomites and Nabataeans and all those other peoples the Israelites are always defeating in the Old Testament because God loves them more, was also a region of a recognized coherence of sorts not just made up by the Brits when they decided to call it Trans-Jordan.)  Syria was the birthplace of Christianity as an organized religion.  Syria was the Romans-Byzantines’ richest and most sophisticated eastern province.  Syria was the prize catch for the Crusaders; the real studs among them who could, got themselves a piece of booty there, not the “Holy Land.”  When Zainab bears her lament to the people of Shaam (Syria or the Levant) in Agha Shahid Ali’s beautiful poem she cries out: “Hear me Syria…” addressing the people of the seat of Umayyad power in Damascus — the one in Syria — that had massacred her sacred family.  Sykes and Picot didn’t make this stuff up.

What Sullivan wants to say, and what’s truly problematic about his assertion, is that Syria is not a country because it’s not ethnically or confessionally homogeneous, and dismissing it as a state for those reasons is a far more eurocentric, and anistoreto, an idea than he may know.  Because if those are our standards for nation-hood, there are very few countries in the world.  By those standards, if Syria is not a country, then England and France aren’t countries either.  Because a polity called the Kingdom of England, or the Kingdom of France — both of which one could argue were “artificially” created by the powers that be of the time — had existed for far longer than Englishmen and Frenchmen have.  And the process by which a unified national consciousness was created to match these pre-existing political units — England or France — was a long and complex one and one that followed the particular course it did only in Western Europe and trying to force it onto the peoples of states in other parts of the world is impossible and extremely dangerous.  Forget what Sullivan thinks is the Machiavelian divide-and-rule politics of the colonizers that pitted ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq against each other; these colonizers were probably never as devilishly smart as we like to imagine them.  What Sullivan finds inconceivable is that one can be a Latakian Alawite or a Sunni from Homs or an Aleppo Christian or a northeastern Kurd and still function as a citizen of a legitimate country called Syria; that these groups have always had boundaries that fluctuated or were permeable; and, that though relations between them historically were better at some moments than others, they were brought together in this place called Syria by organic historic processes and not corraled together there by outsiders.  And by believing that it’s inconceivable they can all function as citizens of this place, he’s actually participating in the creation of a discourse that pits these groups against each other in a manner far more fatal than the supposed manipulations of the British or French.  He’s creating a poetics of sectarianism, pure and simple.  One only has to look at how reinforcing ethnic differences, often with the naive supposition that satisfying each group’s demands will lead to peace, only exacerbated the tragedy — the tragedies — of Yugoslavia in the 90s to see where thinking like Sullivan’s leads.

To his credit, Sullivan gives the Ottomans credit for maintaining a semblance of peace and stability in the region for several centuries.  But the Ottomans had molded, over the centuries, a complex and flexible system of negotiated corporatism and autonomy that recognized the different groups of their empire and yet that held them together in one unit successfully until modern nationalism started making that impossible.  What Sullivan is doing with blowhard statements like the above is just continuing that process: making it impossible for the peoples of the region that have to live together to do so peacefully and productively.

Finally, as a somewhat tangential but important aside, I’d really be interested in finding out why Sullivan doesn’t think that India is “not a country.”

And, folks, what is going on in Syria?  I’ve been in France for a month and my French isn’t good enough to follow the news and the American stuff on-line seems to have less and less coverage.  Has some sort of stalemate been reached?  Is some kind of compromise being forged?  Are people just tired?  Anyone want to enlighten me?

Vocabulary: “Frangoi”

2 Sep

I’ve used this term several times without giving a more specific definition of it and that was a mistake because some of those posts would have made more sense if I had.

Like: “Little Rock, Greece”  (May 26th, 2012):

“But an equal object of my bashing here is the European Union, which aside from proving itself to be a neo-colonialist endeavour masquerading as the Highest Achievement of Western Humanism Project, has also revealed itself to be a half-assed, thrown together mess on so many institutional and bureaucratic levels.  (Yes, neo-colonialist: the Frangoi** gave up their colonies after the war and then discovered the exploitable potential of Europe’s own periphery again.)”

And: “Russia and Syrian Christians, ctd”  (June 5th, 2012):

“Tying your survival to extra-regional players or regimes like Assad’s that are destined to soon make their exit is a losing strategy for the region’s Christians.  The threat of Islamist violence is probably real.  Iraq and even Egypt certainly seem to indicate that.  But their only choice is probably the tricky dance of fostering, or just going with, the flow of democratic change while keeping themselves as least vulnerable as possible.  Forget Russia.  And, as Constantine XI had to heroically face in the end, there’s certainly no help coming from the Frangoi.*  If you want to live in peace and security, look to your neighbor because, ultimately, he’s the only one who can provide it for you.”

And: “Un Verano en Nueva York” (July 13th, 2012):

“In Astoria I catch the end of vespers at Hagia Eirene.  This is a church that used to be the territory of fundamentalist, Old Calendar, separatist crazies but has rejoined the flock on the condition that it was granted monastic status (and I have no idea what that means).  But it has somehow got its hands on a great bunch of cantors and priests who really know what they’re doing.  I’m impressed.  I brought friends here for the Resurrection this year and for the first time I wasn’t embarrassed.  If I hadn’t invited them back home afterwards I would have stayed for the Canon.  Only one cantor now at vespers but he’s marvelous and the lighting is right and the priest’s bearing appropriately imperial.  It’s incredibly heartening to see our civilization’s greatest achievement — which is not what the Frangoi taught us about Sophocles or Pericles or some half-baked knowledge of Plato or a dumb hard-on about the Elgin marbles or the word “Macedonia,” but this, the rite and music and poetry and theatre of the Church – performed with the elegance and dignity that it deserves.”                  

So…when the Byzantines first encountered the West and the conglomeration of Germanic kingdoms that had sprung up on the territories of the western Roman Empire, or rather, when they first felt challenged by it and not just irritated, was when Charlemagne, previously just King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of the Romans in the year 800 by Pope Leo III, whose skin he had saved after Leo had been deposed and almost lynched by the mobs of Rome.  This, of course, was intolerable to us, because we were the Romans and we had an Emperor, with an unbroken line back to Constantine, if not Augustus.  This is close to impossible an idea for anyone today to understand; it’s even hard for modern Greeks to articulate and it’s at the core of our completely mangled identity.  It’s nearly impossible to speak definitively about consciousness or identity in the present tense, much less more than a millennium past.  But this is the simplest way I can put it: by the late first millennium, the Greek-speaking Christians of the eastern Mediterranean had a stronger sense of Imperial Roman continuity than the inhabitants of even the Italian peninsula.  Till well into the twentieth century our most common term of self-designation was “Romios” – “Roman.”  If you had asked any of my grandparents, all born Ottoman subjects, what they “were” — if they even understood the question — or even my father very often, they would’ve all answered “Roman.”  For the inhabitants of my father’s village in Albania, especially the older ones, who never had “Hellenes” imposed on them by the Neo-Greek statelet, the world is still divided into Muslim “Turks” and Orthodox “Romans,” and whether they speak Greek or Albanian is irrelevant.  The Greeks of Istanbul still call themselves “Romioi” for the most part; Turks still call them “Rum” too, out of simple historical continuity, while the Turkish state is still faithful to the appellation for partly more cynical and manipulative reasons.  I’m writing a piece with the appropriately pompous working title of “A Roman Manifesto” or “A Manifesto of Romanness” that will deal with this whole theme further.

The Frankish West (click)

So Charlemagne was a Frank, a Latinized Germanic ethnic group, and though the Pope’s primacy “inter pares” was recognized, he had no right to unilaterally crown this Frank emperor in an Italy that had become a ravaged provincial backwater from the Constantinopolitan point of view.  This didn’t end relations between the Empire and the various western European kingdoms.  They continued to trade and even contract dynastic marriages and all the rest.  But the tension, which had already been planted for quite a while before that, only went from bad to worse: power tensions; trade concessions to the Italian city-states that fatally mirror the ones the Ottomans had to make to the Western powers a millennium later; massacres of Italians in C-town that are equally mirror-like.

The West grew in confidence.  The Empire shrank.  They started bickering about theological issues, and eventually, in 1054, Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other over some nonsense about the division of labor among the Trinity that I’ve never bothered to try and understand.  Then came the Crusades — more growing Western confidence — which the Byzantines weren’t ever really enthusiastic about because I reckon on many levels they felt less animosity for and greater cultural affinity to their the Muslim/Arab neighbors than they did to the “Franks.”  Runciman, I think writes somewhere that a ninth-century Greek felt more at home in Arab Palermo or Baghdad and Cairo that he would’ve in Paris or even Rome.

Sometimes Wiki’s gets it perfect:

“The experiences of the first two Crusades had thrown into stark relief the vast cultural differences between the two Christian civilizations. The Latins (as the Byzantines called them because of their adherence to the Latin Rite) viewed the Byzantine preference for diplomacy and trade over war, as duplicitous and degenerate, and their policy of tolerance and assimilation towards Muslims as a corrupt betrayal of the faith. For their part, the educated and wealthy Byzantines saw the Latins as lawless, impious, covetous, blood-thirsty, undisciplined, and (quite literally) unwashed.”

Then came the Fourth Crusade, led by the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo.  The Crusaders fell into the internecine machinations of the some Angeloi  Emperors and I think ended up feeling betrayed on some promise made to them by one party in the Byzantine political scene, and they probably were, because our latter Emperors compensated for the diminishment of their real geopolitical power and the sapped strength of their once massive military machine by becoming major manipulative sleazebags and liars, initiating a long Greek tradition that persists to our day.  In retaliation, and, or, because that had been their real object all along, the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, captured the City – the first time Constantinople had ever fallen to anybody and destroyed it.

They destroyed her.  They massacred thousands, desecrated churches, including Hagia Sophia herself, and carried away what, in today’s terms, I’m sure amounted to billions in loot.  The Venetians got off with enough of a lump sum of capital to fund and run their mercantile empire for another five centuries.  But aside from the loot, which on some level is comprehensible, it’s the sheer mindless destruction of 1204 that betrays the sack as the action of thuggish, resentful provincials and their envy towards what had been the civilizational center of the Mediterranean and western Asian world for almost a millennium; it’s what an army of Tea-Partiers, NRA members or armed Texan Evangelicals would do to New York if they could.  Though pregnant already with the great traditions of this supposed thing called Western Humanism, this bunch destroyed more Classical texts and melted down or smashed more Classical sculpture into gravel than had been done at any other one time in history – far more than any fanatical Christians in any pagan city or any Arabs or Muslims in any conquered Christian city before them had.  More of the ancient world was lost to us in those few days than in any other comparable time span before that.  Just sheer idiotic vandalism.  There’s probably no more epic manifestation of Killing-the-Father in human history.

Speros Vryonis, a great historian but a seriously unpleasant man, Theos’choreston, made a career out of catalogueing the injustices done to Byzantine and post-Byzantine Greeks.  He was the great modern preacher of whining Greek victimology and one often felt that all his personal bile and biterness was poured into his work in that way; his book on the anti-Greek riots of Istanbul in 1955 is one thousand pages long; you’d think it was the most important event in twentieth-century history.  In any event, in Byzantium and Europe, he wrote:

“The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.”

The Fall of Constantinople, Palma Le Jeune — 16th-17th century (click)

The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople –Eugene Delacroix, 1840 (click)

And, in fact, the Turks — fast-forward two-and-a-half centuries – weren’t as bad.  Maybe ’cause there wasn’t much left.  Aside from a sizeable amount of slaves, most of the loot Mehmet had promised his suicidally brave Janissaries when they finally made it into the City in 1453 consisted of cheap silver frames pried off of personal or parish-sized icons — Cavafy’s “bits of coloured glass.”  The Emperor’s tombs in the dilapidated Hagioi Apostoloi — the Byzantines’ Westminster — had already been desecrated and robbed by the Franks.  They may as well have sacked Astoria.  The rest was in Venice.  (Even the crown jewels had been pawned off to Venice a century before by Anne of Savoy, one of the most meddling Frangissa bitches in Byzantine history, to fund her episode of the Palaiologan civil wars; that’s the actual historical reference for Cavafy’s “coloured glass.”  Christouli mou, can you imagine what the Byzantine crown jewels were like?)  But one good thing happened for Greeks on Tuesday, May Twenty-Ninth, Fourteen-Fifty-Three: when the Turks finally broke into Hagia Sophia, they smashed Dandolo’s sepulcher — because, after all of the above, he had had the shamelessness to have himself interred there – and finding nothing of worth, they threw his bones out into the street and let the dogs gnaw on them.  I don’t care what else the conquering Turks did at that  point or that Menderes’ thugs did the same to the Patriarchs’ graves at Balikli in 1955; I sleep better at night because they did it to Dandolo.  I’m as close to a chaneller of the Byzantine mind and soul as you’ll find (aside from Vryonis) and I can tell you that the sweet Balkan hard-on of vengeance that image gives me even now is indescribable.

The Greeks got Constantinople back in 1261, but the City never really recovered, as the Empire itself didn’t.  Like the South Bronx in the eighties, whole parts of the City were eventually given over to orchards and bostania or just wilderness.  Yet even after that, the Byzantines managed to plant further seeds in the womb of friggin’ Western Humanism in the form of an artistic wave of unprecedented dimensions and creativity. 

The “Franks,” thereafter, were the unforgivable villains.  But even before, when Byzantine writers felt like being professional, they referred to Westerners as “Latins.”  When not, and eventually in most cases, they were “Frangoi.”  Frangoi stuck as the word for Westerners, or for Catholics at least, because Protestantism was only a minor blip on the East’s screen.   But generally it came to mean the Western Others and the Eastern Muslim world between which Byzantine and post-Byzantine Christians came to feel themselves stuck between.

“Fereng,” “Ferengi,” “Ferenj” and other variations is also a word that eventually came to be used as far east as India, but I can’t be sure whether in Iran or India it means/meant Westerner or just foreigner.  For Arabs and Turks, “Frank” came to mean those Christians over there, as opposed to “Romans,” our Christians over here.  So if you were Roman Catholic, either back home in Europe or in the Near East, you were a “Frank;” if you were an Orthodox Christian, you were a “Roman.”*  It’s confusing.  And I hope I haven’t made it worse.

For Greeks, Frangoi continued to mean Westerner both in a negative sense and not, until the nation-sate convinced us into thinking we ourselves were Westerners.  When Greek peasant men, for example, started wearing Western clothes, whereas their women wore traditional dress well into the twentieth century in many regions, those clothes were “Frangika.”  Frangoi also meant, with no negative connotation, the small communities of Catholics in the Aegean islands that were leftovers of the Crusader principalities that had been founded there after the Fourth Crusade.

It’s not used any more in common Greek parlance, but most Greeks know what you mean when you say it – though this generation is so profoundly ignorant historically that I’m not so sure.  I, of course, use it in a spirit of historical irony, though that spirit is entirely hostile.  The worst enemy of our part of the world is the European West, and not because of imperialist interventions or the usual gripes, but because of the ideological and cultural chaos we allowed it to throw us into.

Yes, Frangoi are the enemy.  I like to say that.  But it’s not true.  We think we’re Frangoi.  Unlike the Byzantines described above, who understood that their natural civilizational context was and always had been the eastern Mediterranean, we are either ignorant of the peoples to our East or despise them.  We disfigured our own identity in an attempt to remake it in the Westerners’ image.  We threw acid into our own face and now still look longingly into Europe’s eyes, and pathetically expect to see our Classical glory reflected back at us.

*One of the most graphic examples is Lebanon/Syria, where Orthodox Christians, who have long and poignantly tried to bridge the above gap, were still “Romans” into the nineteenth century and were among the founders and then long among the most loyal adherents of Arab nationalism, whereas Maronite Christians were the locals with the most exemplary Frangika delusions, always looking to the Western outsider to bolster their interests, first their “sweet mother France” and then Israel, and bringing disaster down upon their heads and that of all around them in the process.  That’s why in many previous posts my humble outsider’s advice to and hope for Syrian Christians in the current crisis has been that they think and act like Romans and not Franks.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Syrian Christians: Confirmation

4 Aug

From The New York Times: “Syria’s Crumbling Pluralism”

Would be nice to have a little more information on the photo; doesn’t this feel like part of the indifference the opinion piece is about?  What is this?  From their generic “Syrian Christian” file…?  (Reuters)

“Syria’s 2.3 million Christians, constituting about 10 percent of the country’s population, have generally known a more privileged existence under the Assad dynasty than even the Shiite Alawi sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. Yet their allegiance to Assad was never absolute. Some Christians openly clamored for political change in the early months of the anti-government uprising. But as the rebellion became suffused with Sunni militants sympathetic to or affiliated with Al Qaeda, Christians recoiled.

“A churchgoing Syrian told me that he used to see himself primarily as “Syrian” and that religious identity, in political terms, was an idea that never occurred to him — until an opposition gang attacked his family earlier this year in Homs. “It’s a label they pinned on us,” he said. “If their revolution is for everyone, as they keep insisting it is, why are Christians being targeted? It is because what they are waging is not a struggle for freedom, and it’s certainly not for everyone.””

“As Saudi Arabian arms and money bolster the opposition, the 80,000 Christians who’ve been “cleansed” from their homes in Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan in Homs Province in March by the Free Syrian Army have gradually given up the prospect of ever returning home.

“The rebels’ conduct has prompted at least some Sunnis who had supported the rebels and once-wavering Syrians to pledge renewed loyalty to Assad. Many who once regarded the regime as a kleptocracy now view it as the best guarantor of Syria’s endangered pluralism.”

And the usual well-intentioned bullshit:

A Sunni shopkeeper in the impoverished suburb of Set Zaynab, which was partly destroyed in the clashes last week, no longer supports the rebellion. “I wanted Assad to go because he is corrupt,” he said. “But what happened here, what they did, it scared me. It made me angry. I cannot support the murder of my neighbors in the name of change. You cannot bring democracy by killing innocent people or by burning the shrines of Shiites. Syrians don’t do that. This is the work of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia,” he added, referring to the ultra conservative Sunni sect.”

Please see other posts under tag: Syrian Christians

And then this, which rankles my Shi’ite affections, especially for Zeynep:

Syrian workers clean broken glass inside the Sayyida Zeinab shrine after a car bomb exploded near the shrine, in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, Thursday June 14, 2012.

You have to be a real dog to dishonour Zeynep’s shrine.
 And some more of the usual good intentions that any observer of the region should be deeply suspicious about:
“A Sunni shopkeeper in the impoverished suburb of Set Zaynab, which was partly destroyed in the clashes last week, no longer supports the rebellion. “I wanted Assad to go because he is corrupt,” he said. “But what happened here, what they did, it scared me. It made me angry. I cannot support the murder of my neighbors in the name of change. You cannot bring democracy by killing innocent people or by burning the shrines of Shiites. Syrians don’t do that. This is the work of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia,” he added, referring to the ultra conservative Sunni sect.”

 

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Russia and Syrian Christians, ctd.

5 Jun

Shrine of St. John in the Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus, said to contain the head of John the Baptist.  The mosque was built on the site of a basilica dedicated to St. John, which was built on the site of a Roman temple to Jupiter, which was built on the site of an Aramean temple of Hadad-Ramman, god of thunder and lightning.  (Click on photo; also Google Image this magnificent building; it gets much less visual exposure than it deserves — a spectacular extra wide-angle shot of the mosque’s exterior.)

Walter Russel Mead reiterates what I’ve commented on in previous posts: What Russia doesn’t forget:

“The roots of Russia’s support for Butcher Assad go deep. This is much more than nostalgia for Russia’s last Middle East ally from Soviet days. This is about getting back in touch with Russia’s pre-communist foreign policy traditions, and about Putin’s relations with one of his most reliable and important bases of support: the Russian Orthodox Church.  The Church has historically exerted a strong pull on Russian policies overseas, especially in defense of Christian minorities in the Balkans and Middle East. Throughout the events of the Arab Spring, Russia has been reluctant — to put it kindly — to join the efforts to unseat dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad. Though these tyrants have often been brutal toward many of their citizens, Christian minorities have, by and large, thrived under their rule.”

Some commentators, like Andrew Sullivan, find this “a novel explanation for Putin’s intransigence.”  It’s not news to some of us.  That Eastern Christians have been stuck between a rock (Western manipulation and imperialist intrusion) and a hard place (Islam when it grows intolerant, often, but not always, in response to the former) for something like a millenium now, is a fact that one has to know very little about the region to not be aware of.  Mead’s historical run-down on the discomforts of that position is extremely thorough though pretty simplistic, but his post is full of good links if you want to check them out.

I have a substantial investment in being an Orthodox Christian: on one hand, because it’s simply a supremely intelligent and beautiful form of Christianity; on the other, because it’s simply the lesser of all Christian and, by extension, monotheist evils; Rebecca West’s observation that “The Eastern Church never forgot that the primary purpose of religion is magic” is at the heart of both those sentiments.  I guess I feel some sense of Orthodox solidarity too — warily (and phenomena like Greeks going off to help Serbs kill Muslims in Bosnia or Orthodox skinheads in Moscow killing Central Asian migrants always pop up to keep me wary).  But as I’ve mentioned before here and here, there’s no indication that Russia has ever done anything in the Balkans and Near East that was not in its own imperialist self-interest and that did not often end in disaster for those it was trying to “help.”

Even less, as Mead points out, should be expected from the West:

“Linked to that memory are memories of Western Christian treachery and betrayal. From the Fourth Crusade, ostensibly sent to protect Eastern Christians but turned into a piratical assault on Constantinople [“piratical assault”??  How about thorough and almost complete looting and destruction?], to memories of how the westerners made their help conditional on Orthodox submission to the authority of the Popes, a history of betrayal shapes the Orthodox political mind in many of these countries.”

The seed of this blog was a very early, indisputably emotional and personal, desire to heal Turks’ and Greeks’ feelings for each other, which I realized could only be accomplished by fixing Greeks’ warped sense of where they belong in the world (probably a hopeless project) and which later grew into a wider ideal of regional integration and community, so this issue is really one that goes to the heart of why I write here.  Pretending that you’re French or Ancient Greeks that need help in a rough neighborhood won’t cut it.  Islamophobic panic or seeing one’s self as the Christian frontier or bastion against the Saracens leads to the group pathology of Serbs or Maronites.  Greek and Armenian alliance choices in the early twentieth century almost immediately resulted in the complete eradication of Christianity from Anatolia.  Cultural emulation intended to garner support leads to the skewed self-image of contemporary Greeks.

Tying your survival to extra-regional players or regimes like Assad’s that are destined to soon make their exit is a losing strategy for the region’s Christians.  The threat of Islamist violence is probably real.  Iraq and even Egypt certainly seem to indicate that.  But their only choice is probably the tricky dance of fostering, or just going with, the flow of democratic change while keeping themselves as least vulnerable as possible.  Forget Russia.  And, as Constantine XI had to heroically face in the end, there’s certainly no help coming from the Frangoi.*  If you want to live in peace and security, look to your neighbor because, ultimately, he’s the only one who can provide it for you.

* I promised an explanation of this term but haven’t gotten to it yet; for now, let’s just say a derogatory term for Western Europeans.

The church above, which Read uses in his post, is the Church of the Savior in St. Petersburg, built in a Neo-Muscovite mediaeval style, which sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the Neoclassical elegance of the city, on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, modelled on the style of the church of St. Basil on Red Square below.  Both are routinely used to immediately signify “Russia!” and its exoticness or orientalness.

 

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