Adam Curtis, archives, and the US in Syria, 1947-49

BBC documentary filmmaker and part-time blogger Adam Curtis went into the archives and returned with a timely reminder of what Americans mean when they talk about intervention. Or rather what they choose to forget. A chapter of Syrian history that is glossed in nearly all media coverage of the uprising since March:

Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite – and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that “the Syrian people are naturally democratic” and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites – and a new world of “peace and progress” would inevitably emerge.

What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today.

The archive interview with Miles Copeland reveals the CIA as it once was: dastardly, knowing, but also frank and direct in a way that American foreign policy and politicos aren’t anymore. Among the old BBC reels is footage of Hama in 1977. As Curtis writes, “They are labelled Stockshots in the BBC archive. But since 1982 they have become more than that. They are one of the few film records that remain of a city that was practically destroyed by Assad as he struggled to put down an uprising by the disgruntled Sunnis, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who dominated the town.”

You can practically hear the groan of the norias in the silent, washed out color stock.

Read the full post, and watch the various clips, at Curtis’s BBC blog.

Another good read on Syria

Reported pieces from Syria are few, so it’s great to read such a good one as Asne Seierstad’s piece in Newsweek, beautifully written and deeply reported. Most of all she captures the mood of surveillance and fear of the ever-present Mubkhabarat here:

Surveillance dominates every aspect of life. The secret police—the Mukhabarat—is divided into an intricate system of departments and subdepartments; no part of society is left unexamined. A network of agents spans Syria. Some have tenure; others work part time. Who could be a better observer than the greengrocer by the mosque or the hospital night watchman? Who can better keep tabs on a family than the schoolteacher who asks what Daddy says about the man on the posters?

And in the following scene of Friday prayers at the Umayyad mosque in the Old City:

This Friday the Umayyad Mosque is stage to a modern drama. The mosque is the only legal gathering place, and still strictly monitored by the security forces. Every word from the imam’s mouth is noted.

The bazaar is empty. The stalls are closed. Iron shutters protect glass jars and baskets. A whiff of cardamom rests over the spice market. The leather craftsman has left behind a faint tang of hide, the soapmaker a trace of lavender. The tourists have gone; only the locals are left, small boys on bicycles, grandfathers on their chairs. Police units on motorcycles have closed off several streets. Some plan a protest after prayers.

The silence is oppressive. The area teems with Mukhabarat. Everyone knows who they are, even though they act like normal men. They squat on curbsides, lean against walls, sit on benches or together by doorways. They’re dressed in shirts and trousers, like other men. Though they might be more broad-shouldered than the average Syrian, and certainly have a stronger proclivity for leather jackets, the clothes aren’t what set them apart. It’s their glance.

They possess a way of looking that is inquisitive but not curious. It’s one-way; they want to take, not meet. Their conversation, or lack thereof, is the other giveaway. Between most people there is at least a little chitchat. These men hardly talk, and when they do, they do it without facial expressions, without a jab in the side, a poke on the shoulder. They don’t talk like people really talk. They are on assignment.

Photo by Ed Kashi.

Rosier US-Egyptian relations

A 1953 “Report from the Near East” via the Travel Film Archive on “how Egypt, Jordan and Iran were working with the U.S. to stabilize the Middle East in the early 1950s.” Through the lens of Julien Bryan. I have a soft spot for these old propaganda reels. Americans like to imagine their rosier relations with Egypt and the Arab world in the 1950s, signaled most of all by US intervention in Suez in 1956. Oh for the halcyon days of postwar aid and development! (Paging Daniel Lerner).

If the 58 years of foreboding in this film are any indicator, the Hashemites should be nervous, though I’m sure they already are.

Watch out Aleppo!

Times readers are coming! First Damascus is chalked up as the next Marrakesh. Now Aleppo is plastered in the Sunday travel section, with the obligatory shill for vastly overrated Beit Sissi and some evocative prose about the souk. Though can’t hate too hard — I love Aleppo. As for whatever their writer has to bemoan about the bar at the Baron Hotel, the bartender is delightfully surly and the old leather chairs comfy despite the Euro-tourists.

Having contributed some stories of my own on the looming tourist boom in Syria, I can’t totally decry this cozy travel coverage. For a look past the souk and cherry kebab of Aleppo, though, might I plug my Syrian travelogue for the Faster Times one more time? A Syria roadtrip, seriously.

Avi Shlaim, Abraham Burg and Ian Black on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera English’s talk programs are so much better than CNN, among others. Too bad it’s barely available here in the United States. Here in this program of Empire, Shlaim, Burg and Black discuss whether Israel is involved in a colonial war, how quickly Obama has failed to live up to his Cairo speech vis-a-vis Israeli occupation and settlements, and other such topics that the US media would never touch. Have to say, the moderator Marwan Bishara still has to fill the void of semi-annoying host.

Nasser on TIME

I’ve been doing some research on foreign press coverage of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s trip to Damascus in 1958 and the declaration of the United Arab Republic. It was his first visit to Syria, and before his arrival the Syrians already declared him their new president. I looked in the archives of Time Magazine, which is available and free, including covers, back in the days when Time was, if not more serious, at least better to look at. The catalog of their covers of Nasser:

1101550926_400Sep 26, 1955

1101560827_400Aug 27, 1956

1101580728_400July 28, 1958

1101630329_400Mar 29, 1963

1101690516_400May 16, 1969

1101701012_400Oct 12, 1970

Mrs. Clinton’s statement was intended to clarify her remarks in Jerusalem, which had left some of her aides nonplused because she had not voiced the administration’s official position that settlements are illegitimate.

Though not a core subject in peace negotiations, Jewish settlements are a charged issue for Israelis and Palestinians because they involve building in areas that both claim as their ancestral lands.

How not to start the day: read bits like this in the Old Gray Lady, wonder why they go to pains to misinform. The words occupation, occupied land, international law, violation of international law, land seized in war, illegal annexation and the like were axed, because the Times doesn’t want you to think of the conflict like that. It’s about ancestral land claims and, in fact, colonies housing a half million Jews on the occupied West Bank (very much including East Jerusalem) are not a core subject in this nebulous thing called the peace process. No, they’re not.

Instead read this interview with Rashid Khalidi on He says very clearly what many others have on the need to negotiate confront the settlements:

The point is, though,that settlements were designed expressly to make a negotiated resolution of this conflict impossible. We have to accept this. They’re not just there because they happened to grow like mushrooms on hilltops. They were scientifically planned so as to cut Jerusalem off from its hinterland. They were scientifically planned to cut the West Bank into pieces. They were scientifically planned to prevent movement from point A to point B. As long as these objectives are achieved, there’s not a West Bank state. There is not sovereignty, there is not contiguity, there is not economic viability.These huge settlements have to either be removed or enormously shrunk or subjected to some other arrangement whereby the objectives for which they were established are defeated. I’m sure it would be hard for an Israeli government but otherwise you won’t have a deal, or you’ll have a deal that collapses immediately and then everybody will go back and say “well we told you so.” I’m telling you now, if you don’t deal with the root issues caused by the settlements you won’t have a viable deal.”

“Shadowland,” or how National Geographic went against the grain of cozy coverage in Damascus


National Geographic has a very good feature on Syria this month, “Shadowland,” focusing on Bashar al-Assad’s assumption, the lessons he’s taken from his brutal father Hafez, and all the other hot topics in journalism about the Assads and Syria today: economic reform, political grips, ancient cities, people needing jobs, a President well-spoken enough to mask the truths of his regime. It opens with a somewhat campy Godfather analogy, in which Michael Corleone comes home to take over the family business after hearing of his brother’s death, with the famous line: “Tell my father to get me home… “Tell my father I wish to be his son.”

If there was a moment like that for Bashar al Assad, the current president of Syria, it came sometime after 7 a.m. on January 21, 1994, when the phone rang in his rented apartment in London. A tall, scholarly ophthalmologist, Bashar, then 28, was doing a residency at Western Eye Hospital, part of St. Mary’s Hospital system in Britain. Answering the phone, he learned that his older brother, Basil, while racing to the Damascus airport in heavy fog that morning, had driven his Mercedes at high speed through a roundabout. Basil, a dashing and charismatic figure who’d been groomed to succeed their father as president, died instantly in the crash. And now he, Bashar, was being called home.

Fast-forward to June 2000 and the death of the father, Hafez al Assad, of heart failure at age 69. Shortly after the funeral, Bashar entered his father’s office for only the second time in his life. He has a vivid memory of his first visit, at age seven, running excitedly to tell his father about his first French lesson. Bashar remembers seeing a big bottle of cologne on a cabinet next to his father’s desk. He was amazed to find it still there 27 years later, practically untouched. That detail, the stale cologne, said a lot about Syria’s closed and stagnant government, an old-fashioned dictatorship that Bashar, trained in healing the human eye, felt ill-equipped to lead.

Syria is an ancient place, shaped by thousands of years of trade and human migration. But if every nation is a photograph, a thousand shades of gray, then Syria, for all its antiquity, is actually a picture developing slowly before our eyes. It’s the kind of place where you can sit in a crowded Damascus café listening to a 75-year-old story­teller in a fez conjure up the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire as if they were childhood memories, waving his sword around so wildly that the audience dives for cover—then stroll next door to the magnificent Omayyad Mosque, circa A.D. 715, and join street kids playing soccer on its doorstep, oblivious to the crowds of Iranian pilgrims pouring in for evening prayers or the families wandering by with ice cream. It’s also a place where you can dine out with friends at a trendy café, and then, while waiting for a night bus, hear blood-chilling screams coming from a second-floor window of the Bab Touma police station. In the street, Syrians cast each other knowing glances, but no one says a word. Someone might be listening.

The Syrian Embassy in the US is up in arms over the article. Perhaps because the writer, Don Belt, and photographer, Ed Kashi, were given access and didn’t reciprocate with overly fawning coverage . Ambassador Imad Moustapha wrote a long, windy letter to National Geographic accusing Belt of of being a neo-con and having his impressions of Syria fixed before he landed in Sham — “Shadowland” is certainly a suggestive title. Josh Landis has the letter on SyriaComment, and it’s too long to hash out and cite… and frankly it often confirms what Belt is getting at: that Syria, to no surprise, remains politically closed despite the advent of international chains, of privatization, of tourism, and a new reputation for reform supposedly embodied in the chic first couple, who are said to enjoy gallery openings and going out to dinner. There have been openings, for sure, but you could call them cosmetic.. especially when journalists favor citing trendy bars and hotels as evidence of a “new Syria.” Take this bit from Moustapha on Belt’s description of hearing screams from the police station in Bab Touma. I wonder about the accuracy of the scene myself, having lived near there for a year and never heard a scream late at night — and I was there often, since the fiteer shop in Bab Touma was open all night. Here is Moustapha’s rebuttal of that:

Bab Touma is the second most touristic place in Damascus (after the Omayyad mosque) and it is ludicrous to think that there would be such horrible interrogations taking place among the tourists and visitors of that area.  In fact, this area has underwent the most transformation in the city as the public and private sectors focused on reviving the old city, promoting it into a premier tourist destination by turning its old houses into boutique restaurants and hotels.  Thus, as one reads this awful depiction of screams, seemingly out of a thriller novel, we have to question whether there is any proof for such theatrical stories. I challenge you to find any Syrian who would confirm this woven tale.

First of all, find a Syrian who would confirm this, and they’d promptly be in jail, or a police station (presumably not the one in Bab Touma) dealing with the consequences. Willful expression of political truths are hardly common in Syria, the advent of so many years of authoritarian government built around the cult of a leader. When they do happen, they are spoken softly, even in the confines of an apartment — because who might be listening? It’s fairly absurd to think a Syrian would come forward to the regime, to its ambassador in DC of all people, and confirm that yes, they hear screams from police stations and, naturally, try and ignore them on their walk home. Also, it’s revealing that Moustapha uses development to change the subject: one wouldn’t hear interrogation screams in Bab Touma, because interrogations aren’t done there, because there are so many tourists there, because so many old houses have been converted into hotels and restaurants there, because the Old City is the heart of Damascus’ tourism push. Quite a progression of explanation.

Of course the National Geographic article is that of two visiting journalists to Syria — Belt and Kashi also did a feature on Arab Christians last spring that included reporting from Syria — and they favor quick details of metaphor like an old cologne bottle on Hafez al-Assad’s desk. Oliver August has a long story for Conde Nast Traveler that is not exactly a foil to “Shadowland,” but is sharper, written out of much more time spent living in Damascus. It opens with an excellent scene at the theater in Damascus. The President arrives, and the play — an adaption of Richard III — takes on some other meanings, since the King is sitting in the audience, continuing to support the arts. Later, August is talking students and Syrians at the Journalists’ Club, where the intricacies and truths of expression come out.. with a quote from Syrian writer Khalid Khalifa (Khalife), of course.

Does Bashar Assad’s surprise patronage signal new cultural liberties or rather the co-opting of the arts into his political machine? To be sure, a transformation of some kind is taking place. Assad is relaxing state controls on the once-Socialist economy. The arts seem to be opening up, at least a crack, and the Old City is turning into something of a party town. The fact that we can have this discussion in public is a clear sign of change, though nobody refers to the president by name. Nobody except Khaled Khalifa, a renowned novelist. He sits at the next table and seems to be celebrating the fact that his latest book—banned in Syria—was short-listed for the inaugural Arab Booker Prize.

“What? Bashar?” he says loudly between drinks. “Wish I had been there. I would have told him to let some of my friends out of jail.”

The ‘power play’ of Syrian relations

The National recently ran an analysis of improving Saudi-Syrian relations within longer talk of Damascus’s (shrewd?) handling of its various opponents and allies. There’s very little talk of Lebanon, strangely enough, and much more attention paid to Bashar and how he might mimic his father:

To survive the pressure and isolation, the younger Assad studied his father’s statecraft. Hafez Assad, wrote the British journalist Patrick Seale, “had always been a patient man, able to take the long view in conflicts with Arab rivals and in the contest with Israel. Believing that time was on the Arabs’ side, he counselled other leaders not to hurry, not to negotiate impulsively, not to make concessions from weakness.”

In the 1970s and 80s, Hafez Assad used Syria’s regional influence and its confrontation with Israel as levers to generate economic aid. Syria received billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment from the Soviet Union and hundreds of millions in grants from the Gulf Arab states. But Arab governments cut off aid in 1980, when Assad supported Iran at the start of its eight-year war with Iraq. Assad argued that Saddam Hussein was wasting valuable Arab resources by fighting Iran, instead of Israel. But the Gulf states were more concerned with their regional security, and they viewed Iran as a greater threat than Israel.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Assad deftly joined the US-led coalition that drove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait – and Arab aid once again flowed to Damascus. The foreign aid allowed the regime to avert economic collapse, but it was not enough to generate self-sustained growth in the Syrian economy. From Washington, Assad extracted an even more important concession: he was granted control over Lebanon as it emerged from a 15-year civil war.

Bashar Assad’s main goal today is to preserve the rule of his Alawite regime in a Sunni-dominated country. (The Alawites are a minority sect within Shiite Islam.) That may explain the regime’s history of tortured alliances and constant hedging. But the ultimate goal for Assad – as it was for his father before him – is to regain control of the Golan Heights, a strategic promontory that Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East war. Some western and Arab analysts have long argued that it is in Assad’s interest to remain in a perpetual state of war with Israel – this enables Syria to fall back on its rhetoric as “the beating heart of Arab nationalism” and last bastion of Arab resistance to the West. As a result, this line of thinking goes, Assad will be reluctant to make a deal with Israel.

Read Mondoweiss


An excellent blog on Middle Eastern politics and ideas. Recently, it posted this analysis of the lack of coverage and courage in leading American papers on the fallout of the Goldstone report and the continued legacy of Israel’s war on Gaza on the left in America (that is, its vaunted editors and writers don’t want to talk about it. One exception being Harper’s) :

The New York Times is covering the Goldstone Report. Where is it covering it? Well: the furor over the report among Palestinians. We’re pretty sure this is a good story. Neil MacFarquhar is on it. But it’s really not The Story, it’s just an angle of a hugely-important international story, and the only angle the Times is covering.

Here’s what the Times refuses to cover:

–the furor over the Goldstone report on the part of the Israel lobby in the U.S., and the pressure it’s put on the Obama administration, number one. Even J Street has been quiet about the Goldstone report, while it puts out a statement applauding an Israeli Nobelist.

–and what about the political jockeying over the report, the decision by the Obama administration to bury it and make the Palestinian Authority do the dirty work? Important story. Nothing. Mike Hanna of the Century Foundation said two weeks ago that the report’s troubling findings were going to be very “tricky” diplomatically for the Obama administration. He was right. He knows what’s gone down. Why isn’t the Times calling him for comment?

–the incredible discomfort that Goldstone, a Jewish judge who denounced apartheid, has created among liberal American Jews who know that Gaza was a horror but are afraid to face these facts. Nine dead Israelis, 1400 dead Palestinians: of whom the majority were civiilans. The Israelis destroyed the only remaining flour mill, destroyed chicken farms with bulldozers, and dropped white phosphorus on children. American Jews were never silent about napalm in Vietnam. Here they are tonguetied and helpless, and the Times is helping them to avoid this important question by suppressing the news.

–Nothing in the Times about the many Jews here who have supported Goldstone, including Jews Say No!

–No editorial yet in the Times.

This is about discourse suppression. It is related to the fact that the New Yorker, the leading cranial IV for the Establishment, has said nothing at all about Gaza in 10 months. No: Gaza and the persecution of the Palestinians there is an untidy embarrassment to  the liberal Establishment.

The New Republic has actually been more responsible than the Times and the New Yorker here. By publishing raving maniacs like Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi, it has at least informed its readers where it hurts, that this is ideologically disputed territory. The Times has told its readers, Only Palestinians care about this. More mush from the wimp.

One other point. Mainstream liberals are quick to call for people to speak out on Third World countries and once upon a time in Eastern Europe when human rights are suppressed. It’s easy to condemn the Soviet Writers Union or ministries in Africa for not speaking out against genocide. What’s hard is to report and speak out on issues that cause your own readers to squirm. The true measure of intellectual courage is, you go ahead and do it anyway. The Washington Post, the Times, the New Yorker and others have failed this test.

The photo is of posters in Gaza, which read “To the trash dump of history, o traiter Mahmud Abbas.” From Reuters, via the Angry Arab.

More about Hosni


There is another view, too, one that was published in English, allowing, perhaps for a degree of candor not found in the Arabic news media. Writing in the English-language Daily News, the chief editor, Rania al-Malky, suggested that Mr. Hosny might have done as well as he did because he was Arab and Muslim, not because he was qualified. His defeat, she wrote, should not surprise anyone.

“I will say this at the risk of being branded unpatriotic, but no matter where you stand on the political spectrum,” she wrote, “you must admit that the Egyptian administration did not deserve to win this bid. How can a 22-year minister of a country where culture, education, health and science have regressed to the Dark Ages become the head of Unesco?”

Daily News Egypt Editor Rania al-Malky wrote that a few weeks ago, and was quoted last week in the New York Times. More of the op-ed here:

The real question that few have attempted to answer was: Since when has Egypt been able to influence international opinion on any level, let alone the UN?

It seems that under the floodlit stadiums of the U-20 FIFA championship currently being hosted by Egypt whose young and vigorous team kicked off the tournament with a sweeping 4-1 win against Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday, our collective memory has blotted out our 2010 World Cup bid where we failed to secure a single vote.

For a long time, the scandal which came to be known domestically as “Sifr El Mondial” (The Mondial Zero), was used as a metaphor for all the government’s failings, whether in education, health care, fiscal policy, housing or urban development.

Despite priding itself for playing a key role in achieving Arab-Israeli peace and mediating between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, Egypt has been unable to influence the status of both protracted conflicts in any way. At best, the national administration has been able to fend off aggression against it, with the occasional loss of Egyptian soldiers following “accidental” shootings by the Israeli IDF on the border.

UNESCO’s possible censor-director

Farouk Hosni

Most of the flap about Farouk Hosni becoming Director General of UNESCO comes from anti-Semitic remarks about not allowing (no, burning) any Hebrew texts in the new library at Alexandria. (A curious position to take not only because the place could stand to house a few more books; current expansion plans reportedly revolve around a McDonalds). Reporters Without Borders has more reasons:

President Hosni Mubarak’s culture minister since 1987, Hosni has been one of the leading protagonists of government censorship in the Arab Republic of Egypt during this period, constantly seeking to control both press freedom and his fellow citizens’ right to freedom of information.

Any attempt to found a newspaper in Egypt has to be endorsed by not only the High Press Council, which is headed by the president, but also by the Cabinet and by the various security services. A newspaper can be closed at any time if it is deemed to have published an article posing a threat to national security.

At the same time, the government owns 99 per cent of the country’s newspaper retail outlets and has a monopoly of newspaper printing. This allows it to censor a newspaper at any time.

Even if privately-owned opposition and independent newspapers are on sale in newsstands alongside the government press, there are risks attached to being outspoken. A total of 32 articles in different laws – including the criminal code, the press law, the publications law, the law on state documents (which forbids journalists to access certain official documents), the civil service law and the political parties law – stipulate penalties for the media.

Hosni has been successful in bringing Egyptian writers and literature in general widely under the government fold. Festivals, prize and money from the government are a way, he’s proved, to cut out criticism from those, the literary set, who might offer the most eloquent and convincing. Another nod then to Sonallah Ibrahim, who said simply, while on a stage with Hosni as he rejected a government prize: “We no longer have theater, cinema, or scientific research; we just have festivals, conferences, and false funds.”

Mohamed Atta, preservationist


Slate this week published a very intelligent three-part story on Mohamed Atta, the architect. No reporter had really read his Masters thesis, written in university in Germany, to see how urbanism and preservation, the fly-over highways of Cairo and the courtyard houses of Aleppo, Syria, shaped his view of the part of the world where he was born and the part of the world he moved to and attacked. The story’s main argument is that Atta interpreted Aleppo as the same “Oriental-Islamic city” as European Orientalists and modern-day neocons: as a city defined by its formal and primordial disagreements with the West, and with Western architecture and urbanism, which encroached or destroyed traditionally Islamic space and functions. That ideology, it is argued, shaped Atta’s world view as a a defender of traditional society, an anti-modernist. By supposedly equating courtyard houses with the “abaya” or “burka” (an awkared metaphor by the author, since privacy and the traditional Arabic courtyard house was never exclusively Muslim), Atta became more than a formal preservationist and protector of Old Aleppo. He interpreted the formal assaults to Aleppo’s heritage as a reflection of the threats of the West on his interpretation of the ideal Islamic society, manifested in an old conservative neighborhood in Aleppo. Bab an-Nasr. Conveniently, Atta ignored the fact that Bab an-Nasr was historically diverse, never only Muslim, but rather also home to many Christians and Jews, the very picture of diversity and religious mixing that defined the Ottoman Middle East and still describes Syria and especially Aleppo today.

“While it may not be surprising that Atta’s interpretation of Aleppo’s history is deeply colored by ideology, the way in which he misinterprets the neighborhood’s history gives us insight into how Atta saw the world,” Daniel Brook writes. “Islamist ideology is based on restoring a supposed Middle Eastern golden age that existed before Western encroachment and secularization. Atta has written this arcadia into his thesis.”

The contrast of shoddy modernist government offices, each adorned with flairs of Ba’ath propaganda, against alleyways, monuments and most of all houses, hundreds-year old courtyard houses, mostly of limestone, that are Aleppo. The history is not just the concrete and the stone, but the human diversity of these historic neighborhoods and its shape on the city. Large stone houses that housed wealthy merchants ownd their existence to cosmopolitanism, to trade routes and movement across regions, for a range of Christians, for Jews, for Muslims that made Aleppo the busy commercial link between Ottoman Anatolia and Europe to points east, from Persia to China. It’s an accurate portrait of Aleppo and Syria’s history, one defined by diversity and an inherent and necessary mixing, which makes it a welcome change to the usual reporting of Syria today.

As Daniel Brook writes,

Thanks to its central location, however, the Middle East has never been cut off from outside influence. Over the millenniums, Aleppo was conquered by the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, and Arabian Muslims, to name just a few. While in the Orientalist conception the Middle Eastern city is shaped exclusively by Islam, in reality, both the pre-Islamic history of Aleppo and the significant non-Muslim communities of its more recent past shape the cityscape to this day. Walking through the souq Atta so loved, it seems a tangle of passageways. But viewed from above, it is revealed as perfectly rectangular. The souq was built into the Hellenistic Via Recta (Straight Street) leading from the city’s western gate to its center. Rather than a pure expression of Islamic civilization, the souq is evidence of a larger conversation between cultures. In a secular reading of history, the Arabian Muslims who conquered Syria in the sixth century are no more or less foreign than the Greeks who had conquered it in the third century BC. Even Aleppo’s courtyard houses, which Atta sees as a physical expression of Islamic doctrine, have roots in ancient Rome.

Rather than being a manifestation of Aleppo’s distinctive “Oriental” style, they are evidence of the city’s enduring connection to the West.

Read the rest here. The photo is Aleppo from its Citadel, from my Flickr page.

No peace with Totten journalism

Worse than leaving a year in Syria is reading the crackpot analysis and apparent journalism that is published about Syria and based on the tired theses and a neo-conservative view of the Middle East that’s unfortunately durable. Why else would someone like Michael Totten be read, let alone published, let alone funded by his readers? His recent piece for Commentary shows he knows nothing about Syria, and his editors couldn’t care less.

Most of Syria’s Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast, away from the Sunni heartland. They could, at least theoretically, be separated from Syria into their own Alawite nation. The Middle East would probably be a safer place if they were. They did have their own semiautonomous government under the French Mandate between 1930 and 1937, and again from 1939 to 1944, but their Latakia region has been a part of Syria ever since.

Such a nation almost certainly would make peace with Israel, at least eventually, if it wasn’t ruled by Assad and his thuggish clan. Arab nationalism would lose its appeal among a people that would no longer need to demonstrate belonging to an ethnic majority to make up for its status as a religious minority. The strident anti-Zionism of the Sunni “street” could likewise ease. A free Alawite state might even be a natural ally of Israel for the same reasons the Middle East’s Christians and Kurds tend to be.

Theoretically Mr. Totten, how would that happen? American genius or money will convince the political elite to give up their power and move back to the mountains? Except most Alawites, like the rest of diverse Syria, live in the cities — they moved to Aleppo or Damascus for school and work, are just as mixed up and a part of contemporary Syrian space and society as the Sunni Muslims, the Shia, the Christians — every sect, there are a dozen sects in Aleppo alone — and the Kurds, the Druze. The Arabist wrote very rightly that this is the silly “mosaic of the Middle East.. lets break it up” theory gone wrong, again, with the only real point to Totten’s dribble is that this imaginary Alawite nation would make quick peace with Israel.

Totten writes that Bashar al-Assad simply would not make peace with Israel because he doesn’t want to and couldn’t, anyway, since he’s Alawite and much of his country is Sunni. Why is analysis of Arab leaders who refuse negotiations with Israel always limited to, “well they don’t, because they don’t want to, they want to drive Jews into the sea, or either way, their people wouldn’t allow it.” Politics is more complex, and interesting than that, even dictatorships. To point: Bidoun last year published their excellent “Objects” issue. One of those objects was Hafez al-Assad’s Iron Bladder and its place in “bladder diplomacy.” Infinitely better analysis of Syria’s presidents. As Rasha Salti wrote:

The sport of bladder diplomacy consists of hosting diplomats, negotiators, and state officials for meetings that can last up to nine hours, regularly serving them beverages — hot to cold — until, beside themselves, they are forced to bring the meeting to a conclusion, capitulating to some or most of their host’s demand, just to get to the loo. When Henry Kissinger, then the American secretary of state, met Assad for the first time, their encounter took six hours and thirty minutes. Kissinger was equal to the task… Decades later, another secretary of state, James Baker, was treated to nine hours and forty-six minutes without a break…

… The magic of Assad’s negotiating style was not only his iron bladder. It was that he was always prepared to take no for an answer. In March 2000, when President Clinton presented Assad with Ehud Barak’s peace proposal in Geneva, the Syrian leader deemed it unacceptable. The round ended abruptly. All parties walked away empty-handed, the Americans furious.

Beyond cautious archaeology in Saudi Arabia


Saudi’s Petra, Madain Saleh, last year became the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. What few tourists there are in Saudi Arabia now head up to the north edge of the Hejaz for a glimpse into the ancient Arabian Peninsula, what was possibly the southern extent of the Nabatean kingdom at Petra. But the politics of digging in Saudi, where for some extreme conservatives the discovery of Jewish or Christian ruins is an affront to Islam and its holy geography, is another matter. The AP recently ran an excellent feature on the slow movement to excavate in the Kingdom, and the pitfalls of finding a cross, or a star, or a depiction of the Prophet, in a country whose ruins remain essentially untouched.

The sensitivities run deep. Archaeologists are cautioned not to talk about pre-Islamic finds outside scholarly literature. Few ancient treasures are on display, and no Christian or Jewish relics. A 4th or 5th century church in eastern Saudi Arabia has been fenced off ever since its accidental discovery 20 years ago and its exact whereabouts kept secret.

In the eyes of conservatives, the land where Islam was founded and the Prophet Muhammad was born must remain purely Muslim. Saudi Arabia bans public displays of crosses and churches, and whenever non-Islamic artifacts are excavated, the news must be kept low-key lest hard-liners destroy the finds.

“They should be left in the ground,” said Sheikh Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a well-known cleric, reflecting the views of many religious leaders. “Any ruins belonging to non-Muslims should not be touched. Leave them in place, the way they have been for thousands of years.”

In an interview, he said Christians and Jews might claim discoveries of relics, and that Muslims would be angered if ancient symbols of other religions went on show. “How can crosses be displayed when Islam doesn’t recognize that Christ was crucified?” said al-Nujaimi. “If we display them, it’s as if we recognize the crucifixion.”

Read the rest here.

Pankaj Mishra says: No to Eurabia, Islamofobics


The writer takes on fear-mongers and hysteria, as always, in an excellent books article in the Guardian:

Is Europe about to be overrun by Muslims? A number of prominent European and American politicians and journalists seem to think so. The historian Niall Ferguson has predicted that “a youthful Muslim society to the south and east of the Mediterranean is poised to colonise – the term is not too strong – a senescent Europe”. And according to Christopher Caldwell, an American columnist with the Financial Times, whom the Observer recently described as a “bracing, clear-eyed analyst of European pieties”, Muslims are already “conquering Europe’s cities, street by street”. So what if Muslims account for only 3% to 4% of the EU’s total population of 493 million? In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Can Europe Be the Same With Different People in It? – which was featured on Start the Week, excerpted in Prospect, commended as “morally serious” by the New York Times and has beguiled some liberal opinion-makers as well as rightwing blowhards – Caldwell writes: “Of course minorities can shape countries. They can conquer countries. There were probably fewer Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 than there are Islamists in Europe today.”


CNN explains the Islamic Revolution

I first saw this on the Angry Arab. CNN International is only marginally different than CNN in the States, and I’ve seen plenty of coverage of the Shah’s family here. As the last Shah’s exiled son said in DC on Monday, “The moment of truth has arrived… The people of Iran need to know who stands with them.” Indeed. Then CNN decides to explain how the man got to America.

Pahlavi has lived in exile since 1979, when his father, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was overthrown during the Islamic Revolution. Under the shah’s regime, Iran saw nationalization of its oil and a strong movement toward modernization. Still, his secular programs and recognition of Israel cost him the support of the country’s Shiite clergy, sparking clashes with the religious right and others who resented his pro-West views.

“Secular programs” and the recognition of Israel caused the Islamic Revolution in Iran, CNN explains… of course, the world being that simple. It wasn’t rampant corruption amid wretched and rising wealth gaps. Nor the repression of dissidents. Nor the SAVAK. Not the Jansen-designed “tents” and lavish menu to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian history at a cost of $200 million for the world’s royalty. And certainly not the guile and appeal of Khomenei. History is the first thing axed in media, and the world should be an easily composed picture on CNN.

Nikki Keddie’s book for one offers better explanations.

‘Like a war zone’


Bloody clashes broke out in Tehran yesterday as Iran‘s supreme leader said he would not yield to pressure over the disputed election. The renewed confrontation took place in Baharestan Square, near parliament, where hundreds of protesters faced off against several thousand riot police and other security personnel.

Witnesses likened the scene to a ­war zone, with helicopters hovering overhead, many arrests and the police beating demonstrators.

One woman told CNN that hundreds of unidentified men armed with clubs had emerged from a mosque to confront the protesters.

“They beat a woman so savagely that she was drenched in blood and her husband fainted. They were beating people like hell. It was a massacre,” she said.

From the Guardian. Photo near Azadi Square in Tehran on 20 June, 6pm, from Tehran Bureau.


From Reza Aslan at The Daily Beast again. Photo from the Economist.

Khamenei was chosen to succeed Khomeini because he was considered a safe bet, someone who would not rock the boat, someone who could be easily controlled by more powerful, more charismatic figures who chaired the various clerical subcommittees, like his fellow revolutionary Hashemi Rafsanjani (now an ayatollah himself), who was instrumental in Khamenei’s selection to the post of supreme leader.

Devoid of Khomeini’s charisma and his religious credentials, Khamenei dropped into the background. Throughout his term as faqih, he has consistently played the role of neutral interlocutor among the competing poles of power in Iran, always strenuously portraying himself as the above the fray of common politics. This hands-off approach resulted in the gradual diffusion of the faqih’s powers both to the subcommittees beneath him and, more disastrously, to the state’s military-intelligence apparatus, the Revolutionary Guard, which has become arguably the most powerful force in Iranian politics (see my piece on how the stolen elections represent a military coup by the Revolutionary Guard). At the same time, the ranks of junior clergy studying in Iran’s seminaries have begun increasingly to question the theological validity of the Valayat-e Faqih, especially now that Iraq’s more traditionally inclined (read: politically quiescent) clergy, headed by perhaps the senior-most ayatollah in the world, Ali al-Sistani, have become increasingly active in Iran.

Now it seems Khamenei wants his divine authority back. Yet by so enthusiastically—and, as even his confidants have admitted, inexplicably—inserting himself directly into the election controversy, he has destroyed his reputation as a “divinely guided arbiter.” Worse, by so forcefully backing the unpopular Ahmadinejad, he has tainted himself with an aura of corruption and scandal. In short, Khamenei has utterly, perhaps irreparably, damaged the office of supreme leader. That is why the very people who helped put him in power 20 years ago are now trying to get rid of him. (As I write this, Ayatollah Rafsanjani is currently in Qom trying to garner support from his fellow Assembly of Expert members to remove Khamenei from power.)