Tag Archives: Syrian Christians

X. doesn’t like my post on “The insufferable entitledness of bikers” — or lots of other things I’ve written

12 Nov

…or, how does one react to the tiring self-righteousness of certain left-dudes.

bikes

X. (I want to respect anonymity) is a journalist who I generally like personally, whose work I respect, and whose opinions and judgements about the Middle East I value and find extremely useful; he’s my go-to guy, especially about Lebanon, a country I find particularly fascinating.  But he’s called me a few times too many on what are supposedly my biases, which generally consist — sorry to be crude — of my not being “brown enough”, in a way I find not just a little offensive.

I call it “not-brown-enough” because though his criticisms seem to indicate that he believes I’m on the right side where the oppressed are concerned, he also seems to think that I’m not on the side of those he considers the really and truly oppressed.

For one, he’s patently impatient and irritated by my concern for Middle Eastern Christians — though that’s par for the course when dealing with post-Christian Western intellectuals who, at best, have only traumatic memories of growing up Catholic or Lutheran and see any defense of Christianity as a racist and irrelevant leftover piece of creepy reaction. So for X., someone worrying about the survival of Eastern Christianity seems to be tantamount to being Pat Robertson.  For my part, I don’t think that, being Greek Orthodox, I should have to apologize for caring about the losing battle that eastern Mediterranean Christians are fighting.  (I would take a guess and assume X.’s unspoken attitude basically consists of: “Oh, so many millions are truly suffering and displaced and dying and you’re worried about 60 old Greek ladies in Istanbul”; well, yeah, somebody has to worry about those old Greek ladies in Istanbul too, ok?  No apology).  Nor do I think that I should have to apologize for believing that that battle for survival is real — or apologize for believing that it’s an ancient battle that dates back to the glorious entry of Arabs and Islam into the Greco-Roman-Christian and Sasanian worlds — or apologize for believing that that “entry” was anything but an unalloyed good — or apologize for believing that sectarianism in the region has a long and bloody history way before any blood-letting was caused or provoked by Western colonial powers.  I should probably send him a copy of one of Walter Dalrymple’s early and brilliant books: From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East.

Holy Mountain

But in an exchange about this issue, he had the gall to refer once to what he calls “elite minority supremacism”.  Remember that phrase; it’ll come back to haunt us all.  This means that it’s racist, on some level, and politically incorrect of me, to care about the rights of minorities — Orthodox Christians, Maronites, Jews, Copts, Armenians, the Alawites of Syria, the Shiites of southern Lebanon and the Bekka — when it’s really the Sunni majority of the Levant and Iraq that are the true victims.

Sorry.  The Sunni Muslim majority of the region were the politically, socially and economically privileged majority group until the late nineteenth century and specifically 1918 — that tragic year when Turkey capitulated and the Ummah and Caliphate were humiliated by the boot of the kaffir West.  That tragic humiliation is what left us with the likes of Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, all so enraged and humiliated and boiling over with rancid testosterone.

Granted, not much sympathy from me there.  And the fact that the non-Sunni or non-Muslim minorities of the region might have found that “humiliation” to have been a liberation of sorts, after centuries of discrimination by said Sunnis, seems perfectly natural to me.  There’s a reason Maronites and Syrian Christians turned to France in the mid-nineteenth century and especially after 1860.  There’s a reason Syrian Alawites became the French Mandate’s mercenary force.  There’s a reason Serbs looked — somewhat ambiguously, with their typical wariness and sense that they don’t really need or think they should trust anybody else’s help — to Austria, and that Bulgarians and Armenians looked to an Orthodox Russia for most of the last two centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans and Anatolia.  They took a route that they believed, rightly or not, would give them protection from the ethnic and religious groups that had systematically marginalized and persecuted them.  So the result is that the 20th century and modernity come around and Syrian Alawites become the dominant military and therefore political force in that country.  The 20th century and modernity come around and most Maronites and other Christians in Lebanon are generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Lebanese Muslims.  And there’s a whole set of reasons that the 20th century came around and Ottoman Greeks, Armenians and Jews were also generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Ottoman Muslims except for a small elite.  Is the colonizing West entirely to blame for that too?

What fantasy world do intellectuals and journalists like X. live in, where everyone in the Near East loved each other and lived in harmony until the evil West and its divide-and-conquer policies showed up?  I would love to believe that but it’s just not supported by the historical record.  It’s a common academic trope of intellectuals from the region because it jibes with leftist anti-colonial discourse and it absolves regional players of any responsibility.  (See Ussama Makdisi‘s Aeon article Cosmopolitan Ottomans: European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab worldor Ottoman Cosmopolitanism and the Myth of the Sectarian Middle East, or any of his other work for classic examples of this fictional genre; it’s his forte; he’s made a career of the argument.)

Screen Shot 2019-11-12 at 7.35.58 AM“European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab world”

And wait a minute; let’s backtrack: you discriminate against a minority group; you bar it from conventional access to power and wealth; you confine it to the interstices and margins of your society, and in those interstitial niches they develop the skills and the talent that enable them to survive, and not only to survive, but to come out on top once they’re emancipated — and then that only makes you hate them even more — I’m sorry, but is that not the fucking textbook definition of anti-semitism??!!  Call it “elite minority supremacism” if you like.  It’s the same thing.  And just as nasty, racist and toxic.

Then there was a persnickety exchange about minorities — again — in Turkey this time.  X. disagreed with an eccentric but actually quite informed and smart Byzantinist Brit on Twitter, because he tweeted that “the state of minorities in Turkey is not a good advertisement for dhimmitude”.  “Dhimmi” in Arabic, or “Zimmi” in Turkish and Farsi pronunciation, is a term that specifically — and very specifically — means the non-Muslim subjects of an Islamic state.  X. thought that it was “epistemologically sloppy” of him to refer to the now practically vanished Christian and Jewish minorities of Turkey and ignore the intra-Muslim (for lack of a better word) minorities, like Kurds, Alevis, Zaza-speakers, or the Arabs of the south-east and Antakya (X. calls it Hatay, but I refuse to use the place-names of Turkish science-fiction nationalism).  Again, the Byzantinist Brit was supposedly being biased because he lamented the fate of Turkey’s non-Muslims and ignored its persecuted and more deserving of pity Muslim “minorities”.  But that’s his right to do and feel — and mine.  And, in fact, there was absolutely nothing “epistemologically sloppy” about his analysis.  By simple virtue of the fact that he used the word “dhimmi”, he made it unequivocally clear that he’s talking about Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities; he’s not using a “dog-whistle to mean Christians,” as X accused him of in one tweet.  He’s stating it very loud and clear that that’s what he’s concerned with.  But for X. that makes him biased and probably an Islamophobe, while all that he — and I — were doing was simply pointing out the fact that there was/is a qualitative and taxonomical difference between the status of non-Muslims in Turkey and sub-groups within the Muslim majority in Turkey.  And proof of that qualitative difference is born out precisely by the fact that the Christian and Jewish groups have practically vanished; “elite minority supremacism” apparently didn’t save them.  Tell me what X.’s objection was, because I can’t make heads or tails of it — talking about “epistemologically sloppy”.

Then we go to New York.  I post this piece: The insufferable entitledness of bikers :

“The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that helmets be required for all bicyclists in the U.S., but some advocacy groups say putting the recommendation into law can have unintended consequences.”
[Me]: How ’bout we let them crack their heads open, and then maybe they’ll think about how biking — in a city like New York at least, not Copenhagen — is a deeply ANTI-URBAN, elitist, yuppy phenomenon that makes our cities’ centers more and more inaccessible to borough dwellers who can’t afford to live there, to street vendors, to truckers, to commercial traffic, to theater-goers and to everything that makes New York New York and not Bruges, all dressed up in the pedantic Uber-Green self-righteousness of a bunch of rich vegan kids from Michigan?
Walt Whitman would be turning in his grave.
Blows me away that more people don’t see that.
I immediately get a response from X., because he’s one of those people who always has a pre-printed ravasaki in his breastpocket with an analysis and a supporting, supposedly proof/text for almost any political issue.  You’re concerned with Christians in Syria?  X. is right there on the barricades to call you an elite minority supremacist.  You suggest there seems to have been a shortage in the Arab world of leaders able to successfully create a solid civil society and functioning democracy, X. immediately has a long list of names for you, even if that list includes more than a few murderous dictators.  You wonder what suddenly caused Syrian Sunnis to stand up to the despicable Assad regime, X. tells you part of the issue is agriculture and water supply.  You accept the fact that environmental conditions might have been what literally and figuratively sparked the civil war, and then X. tells you water and drought have nothing to do with it.  You articulate an opinion on the mating habits of homosexual penguins in Antarctica and…well, you get the point.
Hey, maybe that’s what makes a good journalist, but it also leads to dizzying instant analyses and superficial opinions, without a single “well…” or “maybe…” or “Shit…I never thought of that” or any even remotely multi-facetted take on things.  Sorry to be channeling Sarah Palin — never thought it would come to this — but so many exchanges with X. immediately degenerate into “gotcha” discourse.
So, he responds, with lightning speed:
Actually most bicyclists are low-income immigrants. Which is why upscale white people love to shit on them.
Not everyone can afford first-world privileges like taking taxis. Even riding public transportation is too expensive for a lot of folks.
With an informative link attached:
Except, I don’t know any upscale white people who shit on bikers.  As far as New York is concerned, I don’t have statistics, but my visual gut observation is not that there are multitudes of immigrants riding bikes around, but almost exclusively young white guys — the “upscale white people” who supposedly shit on bikers.  ?
And here I think it’s important to point out that it’s a bit disingenuous of X. — if not just a total misrepresentation of facts — or maybe even a teeny-weeny bit of what we used to call lying — to send this particular article because it refers almost exclusively to Houston and totally exclusively to Sun-belt cities and southern California: all cities that are of radically lower density than New York, which is the city the discussion was about, and that, incidentally, have kinder weather.  Bikes there may not cause a problem or may be mostly for lower-income city-dwellers.  But in New York they’re a nuisance.  And I see and know very few poor people using them.
I wrote back:
“Very possibly low-income immigrants, ok, but do we have and how exactly do we get statistics about that?  [As it turns out we don’t; we only have statistics from Houston]  But even if that’s true, they don’t demand that a modern, industrial city, built and designed to be a modern, industrial city, change itself and cater to a mode of transportation that such a high-density city [like New York and unlike Houston] is not designed to accommodate.
“And as for taking taxis, or even the subway, I am and have always been a borough-boy, who couldn’t and can’t afford to take a taxi to get into Manhattan, nor could I tolerate a commute to and from a two-fare zone, which is what we used to call neighborhoods where you had to ride the subway line to the end and then pay a second fare to take a bus, like Whitestone, where I spent my teens and twenties.  I used to drive into Manhattan (20 minutes instead of 2 hours on public transport) and parking was easy to find even on a Saturday night in the East Village.  And while we’re on the subject of poor immigrants, have you asked a Sikh cab-driver how he feels about the pedestrianization of Times or Herald or Madison or Union Squares?  Or — while we’re weeping for the working class — have you asked a truck driver who has to negotiate backing his truck up into Macy’s loading platform with Herald Square blocked off and 35th street narrowed by a biking lane how he feels about that?
A superfluous number of pedestrianized zones, biking lanes, Citibank bike stops, farmers’ markets, happy piazzas for office workers to eat their $15 prosciutto sandwiches from Eataly, Bloomberg’s unsuccessful plan to put tolls on East River bridges — a flagrant fucking attempt to keep the non-rich out of Manhattan — because his constituency wanted less traffic and less noise in their neighborhoods, have all contributed to making Manhattan less accessible for me, because I, like your immigrants, can’t afford to live there.
“And even if there are more Mexicans delivering Chinese food on their bikes than there are entitled pricks from Indiana using bicycles, the Mexicans don’t give me attitude about how I’m not respecting their hobby.  They’re too busy working.  Plus it’s hard for me to imagine that taking care, storing, maintaining and protecting your bike from theft or vandalism in New York is cheaper than taking the train.
“You know that long passage between the E train at 42nd Street that connects to the 7 train?  Would you, at rush hour, let a toddler free there?  Obviously not.  Because you wouldn’t let a being of radically different size and speed go free in a space where he’s more likely than not to get trampled.
“Nor could you possibly ask NYers rushing to work to watch out for that toddler.”
Again, I’m progressive but not quite progressive enough for X.  Poor, brown immigrants should be entitled to ride their bikes anywhere at any time, though that’s a sociological type that barely exists in New York.  But a white, working-class, ethnic-American kid from outer Queens like me can go fuck himself (the implication that I was ever rich enough to take a cab into the city on a regular basis is infuriating) and I can be denied access to the pleasures and resources of Manhattan, even as Manhattan becomes a sterile playground for the rich on one end and and hip enough to let hipsters and X.’s poor immigrants ride their bikes supposedly on the other end.  No room for me, who falls in the middle of that spectrum.
Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.  If you’re from there you know that; if you’re not, it might make you a little nuts and you might long for parks and greenery and bike-lanes.  And it’s almost always non-New-Yorkers who are clamoring for these pleasantries that will remind them of Madison, WI.  Density; it means cars and street traffic too — and noise — things that give access to the maximum amount of people, cities you can get to easily and that let you in.  Not obnoxious, exclusive enclaves like Georgetown or Cambridge, MA, where you need to prove you’re a resident to even park on one of its streets.  Look at what pedestrianization has done to Istanbul, where Erdoğan has transformed Taksim, Tâlimhane and the upper Cumhurriyet into a concrete wasteland with all the charm of a Soviet plaza in a city like, let’s say, Perm’. 
A city needs to breathe, even in its crowded chaos.  That’s why I posted the Whitman poem in my response to X.:

City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!

City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede,
whirling in and out, with eddies and foam!

City of wharves and stores! city of tall façades of mar-
ble and iron!

Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extrava-
gant city!

“Mettlesome, mad, extravagant…” 

More later — maybe.  This gets exhausting.

4a08193u.jpgMulberry street, c. 1900 — “Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Macron: «᾽Ιδού ὁ νυμφίος ἔρχεται…» Not happy with his Balkan policy, but he’s the only man on the world political landscape today with anything even remotely resembling a redeeming vision.

10 Nov

The future of the EU — Emmanuel Macron warns Europe: NATO is becoming brain-dead

America is turning its back on the European project. Time to wake up, the French president tells The Economist

Macron20191109_eup502

During the hour-long interview, conducted in his gilt-decorated office at the Elysée Palace in Paris on October 21st, the president argues that it is high time for Europe to “wake up”. He was asked whether he believed in the effectiveness of Article Five, the idea that if one NATO member is attacked all would come to its aid, which many analysts think underpins the alliance’s deterrent effect. “I don’t know,” he replies, “but what will Article Five mean tomorrow?”

NATO, Mr Macron says, “only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States.” And America, in his view, shows signs of “turning its back on us,” as it demonstrated starkly with its unexpected troop withdrawal from north-eastern Syria last month, forsaking its Kurdish allies.

In President Donald Trump, Europe is now dealing for the first time with an American president who “doesn’t share our idea of the European project”, Mr Macron says. This is happening when Europe is confronted by the rise of China and the authoritarian turn of regimes in Russia and Turkey. Moreover, Europe is being weakened from within by Brexit and political instability.

This toxic mix was “unthinkable five years ago,” Mr Macron argues. “If we don’t wake up […] there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny. I believe that very deeply.”

Mr Macron’s energetic recent diplomatic activity has drawn a great deal of interest abroad, and almost as much criticism. He has been accused of acting unilaterally (by blocking EU enlargement in the Western Balkans), and over-reaching (by trying to engineer direct talks between America and Iran). During the interview, however, the president is in a defiant but relaxed mood, sitting in shirt sleeves on the black leather sofa he has installed in the ornate salon doré, where Charles de Gaulle used to work.

The French president pushes back against his critics, for instance arguing that it is “absurd” to open up the EU to new members before reforming accession procedures, although he adds that he is ready to reconsider if such conditions are met.

Mr Macron’s underlying message is that Europe needs to start thinking and acting not only as an economic grouping, whose chief project is market expansion, but as a strategic power. That should start with regaining “military sovereignty”, and re-opening a dialogue with Russia despite suspicion from Poland and other countries that were once under Soviet domination. Failing to do so, Mr Macron says, would be a “huge mistake”.

Dig Deeper

Cover leader (November 7th): “A continent in peril”
Briefing (November 7th): A president on a mission
Transcript: Emmanuel Macron in his own words

The Intelligence podcast: “He talked about Europe in almost apocalyptic terms”— Macron’s interview

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Churches and mosques in early mediaeval Syria” — Mattia Guidetti

29 Nov

Screen Shot 2017-11-29 at 5.55.20 PMScreen Shot 2017-11-29 at 5.56.07 PM

Before we get excited… Were Christians and Muslims both allowed to pray in a single building? That’s no great news. Still occurs. The Muslim world is full of churches and tombs of saints and “prophets” and Christian sacred springs, especially, where Muslims pray and come to ask for favors and blessings, though I’m sure the High Ulemate considers that stuff shirk or haram.  The mobs that descend on Prinkipo (Büyük Ada), one of Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands on St. George’s Day are huge and mostly Muslim…of course…in a city of 15 million where there are fewer than 1,000 Greeks left…  And a few years ago the Times ran an article — which I, of course, can’t find now — about how women from the posh C-Town suburb of Kuruçeşme take their children to be blessed by the priest at the local church of St. Demetrius because deep in a cavern under its foundations there’s a spring whose water is considered to have blessing and healing properties.

Anybody can just drop into a church or mosque, grab a corner and pray.  At least no one in any mosque I’ve ever been in has ever said anything to me.  I even cross myself upon entering a mosque or museum that was once a church and never had a problem.  Fact, I find the empty space and tatami-level perspective and silence of a mosque to be extremely comforting and nerve-soothing.

But were Christian liturgies and offices — meaning the theater and rituals and images and music of Christianity, which is what WORSHIP means to me — ever conducted in a building that also served as a mosque?  And “side by side”, meaning the same time.  Now THAT would be cool.  I just doubt it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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.  Assad remaining on as President of at least part of Syria is an ugly proposition.  But more resistance is a luxury for Western intellectuals at this point.

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.

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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?

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