A History of Significant Moments

How many Britons are aware of the British-Iraq war of May 1941? Not many. Yet such past wars are the producers of today’s reality. People in Iraq remember. If Westerners don’t remember the past they will inevitably fail to understand the present moment.

The urge to remind the reader so as to better contextualise the present is the laudable motive energising Eugene Rogan’s “The Arabs. A History,” which covers the last five hundred years.

The history starts in 1516 with the Ottoman defeat of the Mamluk slave-elite, the regime which in previous centuries had repelled Mongols and Crusaders from the Arab heartlands. The Mamluks weren’t Arabs, but they’d ruled from Arab capitals. Now power moved to Istanbul, which makes the moment a good place to begin. From the 1516 collapse in Cairo until the present day, many key decisions governing Arab life have been made in foreign cities. Rogan calls the process “the cycle of subordination to other people’s rules.”

In the early years, Ottoman rule “in the Arab provinces was marked by great diversity and extensive autonomy.” Sulayman’s perspicacious laws, public building projects and reasonable prosperity followed. But the global centre of gravity was shifting, and the long decline set in.

Rogan introduces the (frequently picaresque) local leaders who challenged the weakening empire, particularly the two who bequeathed long-term legacies. Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab founded the Wahhabi doctrines which have since sacked cities, offered ideological cover to the Saud family, and subverted resistance movements from Iraq to Chechnya. Muhammad Ali was an Albanian officer imposed on Istanbul by the people of Cairo as their choice for governor. He massacred the old Mamluk military caste and brought Egypt’s economy under his bureaucratic sway, thereby funding a national army. Then he drove Wahhabi forces from the Hijaz and  took control of Syria. Finally he overtaxed his subjects to rebellion and was driven back by British intervention. In retrospect his very modern challenge to the empire was thought of as a precursor to Arab nationalism. Subservient to outside powers, Muhammad Ali’s dynasty remained in Egypt until the 1952 revolution.

Losing Christian and Muslim territory to Europe, the Ottomans rushed to reorganise their administration on modern European lines. But Reform only hastened the fall. Again and again, in the Ottoman state itself, in Egypt and Tunisia, grand development schemes outstripped resources, plunging governments into debt and therefore foreign subjugation. Europe’s banks played a larger role than her armies in the conquest of the Arab world.

And the reforms came far too late. The granting of legal equality to non-Muslim subjects occurred in the context of a European business penetration perceived to have enriched Arab Christians and Jews while impoverishing Muslims. The reform provoked a backlash. There were outbreaks of sectarian violence, even massacres, in 1840, 1850, 1860. Sectarianism receded when it seemed real independence was on the way, between 1900 and 1967, but has surged again since. See Beirut and Baghdad for contemporary evidence.

Rogan covers the very different liberation struggles against European colonialism – Abdel Krim in the Moroccan Rif, Saad Zaghloul and then the Free Officers in Egypt, the FLN in Algeria – as well as the carve-up of Greater Syria and the inter-war occupations. He describes how the only serious attempt to canvas public opinion in the region – the American-led King-Crane Commission – recommended the unity and independence of Greater Syria and a curtailment of the Zionist project, and how its findings were ignored.

During their suppression of nationalists in Palestine the British introduced torture, home demolitions, mass imprisonment and the employment of civilians as human shields. Plus terrorism, such as forcing twenty men into a bus and then forcing them to drive over a landmine. During the Intifada of 1937 to 1939, “over 10 per cent of the adult male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned, or exiled.” I already knew that the British helped to train and arm Zionist militias; I was fascinated to learn that a few British soldiers remained to fight with the Palestinian resistance after Britain’s official departure in 1948.

Military coups throughout the Arab world were spurred by disgust at the fall of Palestine and hopes that “an Arab Prussia” (in Musa Alami’s phrase) would emerge to force unity on the post-colonial splinter-states. The first coup was led by Syria’s Husni al-Zaim, and, starting a pattern, was secretly backed by the CIA. (Al-Zaim had made secret peace overtures to Israel, including a promise to settle 300,000 Palestinians in Syria’s arid Jazira province. The offer was rejected out of hand by Ben Gurion, and Zaim soon fell victim to another officer.)

Through the ages of oil and Islamism, Rogan manages to juggle the struggles of the tens of Arab states with each other and with global powers into a narrative which somehow, almost miraculously, coheres. It’s a very readable, very considerable achievement.

The book does come slightly out of focus as it approaches contemporary events, however. By now the reader expects something sharper than a repetition of media complacencies: that the American troop surge (rather than internal developments) stabilised civil-war Iraq, for instance, or that Hizbullah’s 2006 hostage-taking of two Israeli soldiers was an “unprovoked attack” which precipitated an Israeli over-reaction. Hizbullah had indeed violated the border, but Israel had crossed from its side thousands of times, by air or land, since its withdrawal from most of south Lebanon in 2000. And Hizbullah took hostages in order to exchange them for the Lebanese held in Israeli prisons.

These are details, but important ones. Arabs understand the cycle of provocation and response differently. Arab anger towards Israel and the West, and Arab popular support for resistance groups, cannot be understood without recognising this perceptual gulf.

Perhaps a more serious ommission is the Israel lobby, which so grievously influences superpower policy in the region, often to the cost of superpower interests, and about which scarcely a word is said. The lobby’s absence leads Rogan into several illogicalities. His Cold War explanation of America’s unconditional support for the Zionist project is brusque and unconvincing, and fails to account for the intensification of support after the Soviet Union’s demise. He offers President Bush’s gullibility as the sole factor behind America’s identification of anti-Israel resistance groups with anti-American terrorists after September 11th. And he floats the usual oil excuse as motivator for the 2003 Iraq invasion, although Big Oil was against the idea, and the very well placed and organised Neo-Conservatives – unified by their love for an expansionist Israel – were very much for. After Mearsheimer and Walt’s important book “The Israel Lobby”, any serious treatment of the recent Arab past, even a superficial one, has no excuse for avoiding the topic.

Rogan usually writes well, presenting episodes as cinematic scenes. His description of the atmosphere in Aleppo and Cairo as the Turks advance is reminiscent of Gamal al-Ghitani’s novel “Zayni Barakat”. The bloody rivalry between Mamluk factions in 18th Century Cairo reads like a Naguib Mahfouz thriller. His evocation of Egypt’s brief interwar democracy, a Cairene Weimar destroyed by the British and Muhammad Ali’s descendant, the Egyptian king, is also excellent. From scene to scene, the book builds up into a history of significant moments. We see the Hashemite Faysal, for instance, crowned king of Iraq to the accompaniment of the British national anthem.

Rogan is able to dramatise his history so effectively because he employs Arabic sources so widely. The method is illuminating. For example, Barbarossa the pirate, as Europe knew him, is shown from an Arab perspective as Khair Bey, the restorer of rights seized by the ethnic cleansers of Reconquista Spain, as the protector of Mediterranean commerce. Rogan gives us the diary of Budayri the Damascene barber, al-Jabarti’s account of Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, al-Tahtawi’s reflections on the constitutional priciples he saw in France, and much more. To an extent Rogan succeeds in seeing through the eyes of his subjects, which makes his book infinitely more worthwhile than the usual Orientalist fare.

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