Sunday, 5 August 2012

Reading Books & the Arab Spring

In part one of our series on literature and the Middle East, we examine some of the political implications of the ways we read.

T.E. Lawrence hanging out with a camel
T.E. Lawrence, better know as Lawrence of Arabia, was a badass. This much is evident from any brief description of his achievements in the desert: uniting the Bedu tribes; devising guerilla warfare; overcoming a far larger Turkish army; crossing the Sinai Desert alone; getting into Magdalen College, Oxford (unlike yours truly).

Lawrence is one of those rare figures who seems to stand apart from the rest of their culture, figures who can influence the ebb and flow of history, rather than be merely buffeted to and fro like flotsam. He manages to resist not just the events around him, but the attitudes. The most remarkable thing about T.E. Lawrence was that, at the height of British Imperialism (if only in terms of landmass), at a time of Western political and cultural hegemony, of untrammelled racism and chauvinism towards all those who were not Anglo-Saxon, he managed to not be an Orientalist.

Orientalism is a complicated concept, and needs a brief pause of explanation. The Influential critic Edward Said devoted a whole book to it; I shall try to cram it into a few paragraphs. Roughly speaking, the Orientalist is the Westerner who takes an exceptional interest in the Orient – defined as 'not West', but usually referring to either East Asian or Middle Eastern cultures. Said argues that the interest of the Orientalist will always be somewhat chauvinistic, based on caricature and generalisation, on definitions of other cultures not in their own terms, but in opposition to the culture of the Orientalist himself. He goes further, and argues for a political dimension to Orientalism, with the Orientalist, in Said's conception, ideologically furthering the doctrines of Western Imperialism by justifying the subjugation and rule of Orientals by Occidentals.

Sinai Desert (from here)
Said's position is inflammatory, and not without its critics. Examples can be produced of various Orientalists resistant to the biases and epistemological pitfalls Said identifies. Lawrence is my favourite of these. His shimmering memoir of his desert-war years, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, demonstrates a profound respect for Bedu culture as a whole and the individual tribesman with which he interacts, and a profound shame for Imperial Britain's treatment of the Arabs.

This Western mistreatment of the Arab peoples is the subject (or one of the subjects) of James Barr's recent history of Anglo-French relations in the Middle East, A Line in the Sand. During the First World War, the British, in part inspired and assisted by T.E. Lawrence, convinced the Arabic populations of what are now Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria to fight against the Turks. The Middle East was, at that time, under the rule of the decaying Ottoman Turkish Empire, and the bait Britain offered to the Arabs, as price for their military assistance, was independence and nationhood.

James Barr's A Line in the Sand, showing the division of the Middle East (via

As Barr details, these promises were, unsurprisingly, broken. After the war, the British and the French divided the Middle East between themselves, giving Lebanon and Syria to the French and Iraq, Jordan and Israel to the British. Arab concerns were ignored. The attitudes that allowed for such a betrayal were Orientalist in the most extreme and obscene way. Arabs were not capable of self-governance, the British thought. It is our right to govern Syria, the French argued. The great powers of the West forged an agreement because both prioritised pleasing the other above pleasing the Arabs. When the war was over, the Arabs were dispensable as allies.

The motivation for the betrayal that Barr does not explicitly identify is even more sad. The reason the French and the British valued one another's allegiance so much in 1919 is that, following the Treaty of Versailles, senior government figures on both sides of the Channel considered another war with Germany an inevitability. The harshness of the terms imposed by the Allies on Germany, they feared, necessitated further conflict. Arabian self-determination was the first of many casualties of such a petty and vindictive Treaty.

It is perhaps ironic that similar harsh peace terms were offered to Turkey – terms so harsh that they instigated nationalist revolution, and created the kind of secular, self-governed state the Versailles terms precluded in the former Ottoman Empire.

The various imperial machinations of the 1920s and 30s do not make for pleasant reading, and Barr does not flinch from brutal honesty about the pettiness, self-interest and callousness of imperial officials. It is clear that Barr disapproves of how his own nation had behaved. And yet his history retains vestiges of the same kind of Orientalism that allowed for such behaviour in the first place.

The most obvious way in which Barr demonstrates his Orientalism is in his marginalising of Arab influence. It may seem unfair to criticise a history of British and French foreign policy for focussing too much on the British and French, but in this case it is reasonable. There is no sense of the effects of these policies on Arabs, and only a very limited sense of Arab agency in resisting or abetting European policy. The effect is to implicitly justify the cold pragmatism of European policy, to condemn the results and motivations, but not to condemn a policy of regional influence itself. It is the same attitude that condones the support of the Saudi or Mubarak regimes to enhance stability and protect European oil concerns.

Classic Orientalism:
Jean-Léon GérômePool in a Harem, c. 1876 (via wikipedia)
Barr's elision of Arab action is thrown more starkly into contrast in the later parts of the book, which deal with Zionist terrorism against the British in Palestine. He emphasises, as he does in earlier sections about Arab terrorism and uprising in French-controlled Syria, the role of Western backers in providing arms, money and intelligence. But he also emphasises the role of Zionists in attracting this support, and describes their degree of activity and success in far more detail than that of equivalent Arab movements. One comes away with the idea that Israel was won by the hard work, cunning and determination of the (mostly European) Jewish community, while Palestine was lost by the disorganisation and ultimate passivity of the Arab population. Said would note, with a disapproving but unsurprised shake of the head, that passivity was one of the most frequent of Orientalist stereotypes.

There are mitigating factors in Barr's differing treatments of Arab and Jewish resistances. For one thing, Jewish terrorism did actually produce its desired goal. To analyse in such a post hoc manner is not especially desirable. It assumes that all other conditions remained the same for this one factor to have determined the outcome, and it assumes, to an extent, that the final outcome was inevitable. My criticism, however, is more of Barr's writing than of his argument, though: the differences in descriptive treatment between the two groups is not excusable, even if a difference in argumentative force is.

The other reason for Barr's bias, perhaps, is that he does not speak Arabic. I cannot say this with certainty, but the bibliography provided in his book shows a very limited reading of Arab primary sources and of Arab scholars. Many Jewish sources were written by European immigrants, and written in French or German, and are therefore more accessible to the European scholar. Linguistic barriers, Said would wearily note, often result in deficient Orientalist scholarship, in the inability of Western scholars to fully understand Arab culture. (It should be pointed out that Said excludes a volume of influential European Oriental scholarship – including German, Austrian, Dutch and Italian work – from his own argument due to a lack of linguistic proficiency in those areas: it seems that language barriers apply in all cultural exchanges.)

Rebels have fashion sense too (via
The worry is that, while these may be mitigating factors in the skew of Barr's analysis, the central cause is somewhat more deep-rooted and pernicious than these scholarly weeds. There has not been a great development – in popular circles at least – in attitudes towards the Middle East. Orientalism continues to pervade, even if it has been modified. For many, the Middle East remains an Arabian Nights fantasia of camels and deserts and sultans and gemstones. Or, at least, they wish it were so, and acknowledge, with what I'm sure they'd dress as admirable pragmatism, that the cultural gems of Arabic culture are being eroded by pernicious, unifying forces. Islamism, perhaps. Or the Arab Spring. Or petro-dollars.

I'm often alarmed myself at how easily I slip into these modern stereotypes. Alarmed at how casually I have referred to the Middle East as an entity of relatively uniform characteristics, resting on the safe assumption that most anyone reading this will know sort of what I mean. I often find it a shock to see footage of the Arab Spring, to see young people in jeans and hoodies and iPhones, in apartment blocks that could be in Spain or Italy. Somehow it surprises me that a Syrian could own a smartphone, and yet I am completely unsurprised that the Syrian government own tanks. It seems that modern life only applies in some parts of my Middle East.

Tahrir Square (from
Even with a heightened level of self-consciousness, the best description I can offer of the existence of the average Egyptian, say, is very limited. I'm fairly sure most people aren't Islamic Fundamentalists, whatever that means. I'm fairly sure they worry about bills and unemployment and crime just like everyone else does. They probably think about getting laid a lot. They probably don't own camels. I know for a fact that it isn't sweltering desert heat all the time. (But when I imagine the scenes in Tahrir Square, it's always approaching 45oC.) I know Egypt are surprisingly good at football.

What is perhaps even more frightening is that those who do claim to be in the know don't seem to make things clearer. Take recent news coverage of the Egyptian elections. Mohamed Morsi (let's not go into transliteration issues), I am assured, is an Islamist of some sort. I don't really know what this means. As this article on the excellent blog The Arabist points out, most of these labels are nebulous. Pinning down what politicians actually believe is always a tricky business, but the whole process is made harder by obfuscating words and the lack of nuance they create.

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's current
president (via
Which brings us back to language. Thinking about the words we apply to things is one of the ways in which language – and, by extend, literature – can become politically significant. This is one of the advantages to be gained by approaching non-literary works like Barr's from a literary perspective. It can be attitudinally revealing. It can be somewhat dispiriting. But it can remind us, as we should often be reminded, to re-evaluate our own attitudes, and our own words. Above all, it should remind us that words are not enough, that the entirety of existence cannot be captured on the page. Barr tries heroically to represent thirty-five years of Middle Eastern history, but fails to represent the people who actually live in the Middle East; the West tries to represent the vast and varied change in the Middle East, and, again, leaves out so much that is essential, and leaves us with tunnel-vision.

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