A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 24, 2014

What, if Anything, is the US Strategy in Syria? Is There One?

This report notes the US is moving ahead with the idea of creating a new Syrian resistance movement from the ground up to fight ISIS. This has been discussed for  couple of weeks now, and the decisioin seems to have been to address the problem of a fragmented, factionalized opposition by creating yet another faction. We're being warned it will take 18 months or more.

Meanwhile, in case no one noticed, just as we were stepping up air strikes in Syria, so was the Asad regime, reportedly striking 210 targets in just 36 hours, suggesting a sortie rate many would have thought the Syrian Air Force incapable of achieving. That probably includes barrel-bombs dropped from helicopters. But of course, many of the targets are Free Syrian Army targets, not ISIS, and it may be that while the world is preoccupied with ISIS, the Asad regime is doing its best to crush the rest of its opponents before the US can arm and train them (though we seem intent on creating a new force).

And the regime continues to portray itself as a de facto ally against ISIS: after those recent reports that ISIS had three operable combat aircraft, and the US said it was unaware of them, the regime announced that it had destroyed two of the ISIS aircraft in a raid. As I had noted last month, the Syrian regime has already been claiming that it is on the side of the anti-ISIS coalition and hinting at coordination.

I don't think the US is cooperating with Asad,  though I know serious analysts like Graham Fuller have urged it to do so; I tend to agree with other analysts such as Ambassador Robert Ford and Michael Young, that anything that strengthens Asad will backfire.

The problem is, I'm unclear what exactly the overall strategy is. It's not unusual to see US Middle Eastern strategy driven by myths, misconceptions, and a blindness to historicl experience of the countries involved. See Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq again (and now again). Despite Colin Powell's famous "Pottery Barn Rule": 'If you break it, you've bought it' (which Poetry Barn denied is its policy), we have a large responsibility for breaking Iraq. It was always a fragile construct, but from 1919 or so until now, a period a little short of a century, it somehow held together as a country. No more. Mideast policies have tended to be reactive, knee-jerk responses to unforeseen (though often foreseeable crises. In Syria we are fighting ISIS and claim to be opposed to Asad, but instead of strengthening the FSA we are talking about creating a new faction of our own, which prompted the estimable Rami Khouri to characterize it as "New hare-brained American ideas in the Mideast." 

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/81z%2B9u8sVwL._SL1500_.jpgForgive one of my rare uses of NSFW language in suggesting that the patch at right may prove to be an appropriate characterization of too much recent and current policy in the region. Once again.

General Suleimani Not So Shadowy Anymore

At Al-Monitor, Arash Kamani notes in "All Eyes on Soleimani," the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander of the al-Quds Force for overseas operations, Gen. Qasim Suleimani, was the darling of the Iranian media during a recent return to Tehran. Earlier his exploits against ISIS in Iraq had similarly received star treatment in the media. As Kamani Western media may have to find a new adjective to replace "shadowy" for Suleimani, now that he's a media superstar.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Khamenei's Shadow Has a Mind of its Own

This picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei appeared on the Facebook Page of al-‘Ahed News, one of Hizbullah's outlets:
Among the online commentary I've seen so far:

Ottoman Sultans used to style themselves "the Shadow of God on Earth," but I'm pretty sure their shadows pointed the right way.

Perhaps Khamenei is brighter than the sun? I will resist any "brighter than a thousand  suns" remarks while the nuclear talks continue, however.

Latest Issue of Dabiq Defends Enslavement of Yazidi Women

As Matthew Barber recently noted at Syria Comment, the Islamic State's English magazine Dabiq, which we've discussed here before,  has not only acknowledged enslaving Yazidi women, but has justified it. The article in Dabiq's issue 4 is entitled "The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour." Besides spending many paragraphs defending enslaving and selling women, they conclude, "May Allah bless this Islamic State with the revival of other aspects of the religion at its hands."

(If you must, you can find the issue many places online, among them here, with the slavery article on pages 14-17.)

The main theme is "The Failed Crusade," meaning the West's anti-ISIS effort. As you can see, the cover shows an ISIS flag flying over the Vatican.

If you're thinking that they're just messing with our minds at this point you're probably right. But the enslavement and sale of Yazidi women is real.  Meanwhile Lizbeth Paulat calls them out by citing the Qur'an, Surat al-Nur (XXIV), 33 (here in the Yusuf ‘Ali translation):
And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if ye know any good in them: yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you. But force not your maids to prostitution when they desire chastity, in order that ye may make a gain in the goods of this life.
Similar arguments against slavery by Muslim authorities can be found here.

It also says something about the times we live in that in almost six years of blogging, this is the first post with the tagline, "slavery." I'd like it to be the last, but . . .




Wednesday, October 22, 2014

1914: As War Between Britain and Turkey Loomed, the Anomalous Position of Egypt

By late October 1914, it was increasingly clear that the Ottoman Empire was going to join the Great War on the side of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria. Since the closing of the Straits to the Triple Entente Powers on September 26, the Ottoman Government was already in violation of treaties, but throughout October the Allies tread lightly in hopes that Turkey might not come in formally.

I will be dealing in coming days with the war plans and key strategic interests and objectives of each side. But I want to begin with a particularly quirky situation: the highly anomalous legal position of Egypt.

De facto, Egypt had been a British protectorate in all but name since 1882; British troops controlled the country, and defended the Suez Canal, while a British official with the innocuous title of "Consul-General" ran the country with the powers of a virtual viceroy.

Said Halim Pasha
De jure, Egypt was still a province of the Ottoman Empire, was run by a hereditary Khedive who paid annual tribute to Constantinople and who, as war was breaking out, was physically present there; what's more, the then Ottoman Grand Vizier, Said Halim Pasha, was a collateral kinsman of the Khedive and from the Egyptian Royal Family. Egypt still flew the Ottoman red flag.

And now the British and Turks were about to go to war. But they weren't at war yet.

The Last Khedive: ‘Abbas Hilmi II
Adding to the legal complications was the fact that the current Khedive, ‘Abbas Hilmi II, was anti-British. Though he had gotten along moderately well with the liberal-minded Consul-General Sir Eldon Gorst, but relations soured when Lord Kitchener replaced Gorst. He had supported the nascent Egyptian nationalist movement, and the British considered him pro-German and a supporter of the emerging Turkish-German alliance; it appears to have been a fairly accurate assessment, and when Kitchener went on summer leave in Britain he was already determined to depose the Khedive, though the outbreak of war and Kitchener's move to the War Office would intrude.

‘Abbas Hilmi was visiting Constantinople when, on June 25, 1914 (just days before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo), he was meeting with the Grand Vizier (his cousin) when an Egyptian student fired five shots at ‘Abbas Hilmi and severely wounded him in the hands. The Khedive is said to have suspected the Turkish government was involved, but remained in Constantinople during his convalescence. He would be deposed before he could return to Egypt; he was the last Egyptian ruler to bear the title Khedive.

PM Hussein Rushdi Pasha
With the Khedive abroad and Kitchener back in Britain, the British authorities in Egypt were dealing with the much more pliant Prime Minister, Hussein Rushdi Pasha. When Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914, Rushdi issued a decree that appears to encapsulate perfectly the anomalous and apparently illogical legal status of Egypt: Britain announced it did not propose to chnge Egypt's status as long as Turkey stayed neutral, but Rushdi declared that since Britain's war with Germany left Egypt open to attack by Britain's enemies, Egyptian companies could not conclude deals with or issue loans to nationals of countries at war with Britain; Egyptian vessels must avoid visiting ports of Britain's enemies, and British forces could exercise full wartime belligerent rights in Egyptian territory.

Like Egypt's entire "veiled protectorate" status since 1882, this made little sense in international law. It asserts neutrality but goes far beyond "armed neutrality," and the late Peter Mansfield noted that "Egypt was de facto, if not de jure, a belligerent." Neutral belligerency may be no more anomalous than a British colonial administration in an Ottoman province, but it also confounds logic.

This Gordian Knot would soon be cut. Once Turkey and Britain went to war in early November, Britain moved quickly; by December the Khedive would be deposed and his uncle, Hussein Kamel, made ruler with the new title of Sultan, and Britain would declare a formal Protectorate over Egypt. But until that time, Egypt remained in its anomalous status, a sort of limbo of sovereignty or at least suzerainty.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Century Ago: A Young Cartographer Reports for Work

On October 21, 1914, a hundred years ago today, a young, 26-year-old Oxford scholar, linguist, sometime archaeologist and former clandestine intelligence officer, reported for a new job in the Cartographic Section of MO4, the Geographical Division of the Imperial General Staff at Horse Guards, Whitehall. It was a civilian job and designed to be temporary, but it was beginning of his role in the Great War.

His name was Thomas Edward Lawrence.

He wouldn't stay long, and it is unlikely David Lean would have ever made an epic film called Lawrence of Cartography.

Though he entered as a civilian, when he was asked to brief a senior general the general reportedly asked for an officer, so the undermanned office proceeded to commission Lawrence as a Temporary 2nd Lieutenant/Translator within days of his arrival.

The job Lawrence was hoping for was as an intelligence officer in Cairo, and that was already in the works, but since Britain did not formally go to war with Turkey until early November, it was on hold.  
Lawrence had already done clandestine intelligence work with archaeologists Leonard Woolley and D.G.Hogarth; early the same year an "archaeological" expedition allegedly for the Palestine Exploration Fund had been a covert effort to create detailed maps of Sinai and the Negev, in the event of war with Turkey.

I'll be noting a lot more 100th anniversaries in coming weeks, as the centennial of Turkey's entry into the war arrives.

Perhaps This Explains ISIS

BBC map showing Tal Shair
I am brazenly stealing this from a comment by Professor Rex Brynen of McGill University. He has noted that while one of the key hills retaken by Kurdish fighters in Kobanê after much effort is called Tal Shair (see map), in the Star Trek franchise universe, the Tal Shiar is the elite Romulan intelligence agency.

Sure there's a slight spelling difference. But coincidence? I think not. ISIS are Romulans. It explains so much.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is Saudi Arabia (Indirectly) Signaling Approval of South Yemen Secession?

Since the Huthi (or Houthi) Zaydi movement took control of Sana‘a', they have moved steadily to occupy much of what was one (before 1990) North Yemen, recently taking the port city of Hodeida and other Sunni areas.

As a result, the separatist movement in what was once South Yemen, al-Hirak al-Janubi ("the Southern Movement," but usually just called Hirak) has been pressing for a separation. On October 14 (the date South Yemen launched its struggle against British rule in 1963) the movement held a big rally in Aden, demanding separation by November 30, the date former South Yemen won independence in 1967.

Many will recall that four years after unification in 1990, the former South Yemen ruling party, the once Marxist-Leninist Yemeni Socialist Party, launched an earlier attempt at independence, resulting in a civil war that saw the rebels defeated. At that time, and despite the Marxist credentials of the YSP, the northerners claimed Saudi Arabia was arming the southerners, mostly via more conservative tribal leaders.

Saudi Arabia considers the Huthis as surrogates of Iran, so it is hardly delighted to see their ascendancy in the North. Now it may be sending a subtle signal that it would not oppose the secession of the South.

Last Friday, the London-based Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat ran a column by Abdulrahman Al-Rashed called "The end of a Unified Yemen." The Arabic original is here. The same day the article ran in English on the Al-Arabiya website;   though based in Dubai, Al-Arabiya is Saudi-owned. And the next day Asharq al-Awsat's English website ran the English version. 

Now as it happens Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former Editor of Asharq al-Awsat, and the current General Manager of Al-Arabiya. Both positions assure that he is well-connected within the Saudi establishment, and the article specifically quotes a conversation with the late Prince Nayef, then Interior Minister, before Yemeni unification in 1990. (Nayef was Crown Prince at the time of his death.) So the article surely represents Saudi government thinking.

That said, it spends most of its time lamenting the prospect of Yemeni disunion and insisting the Saudis support a single Yemen. But it shifts to a sense of resignation that disunion may be inevitable; it concludes with:
In the event that the Yemeni government is pronounced dead, or if it collapses within the next few months but no such announcement is made, we will no doubt witness the South announcing its own independent state and the inevitable end of a unified Yemen. Yemen would thus begin a new chapter in its history. However, this history will almost certainly be just as rife with domestic disputes and foreign interference, while the biggest victims will be the Yemeni people who have yet to express an opinion over this putative division.
I think it worth considering this as a subtle, and with classic Saudi indirection, signal to Hirak that the Kingdom would not oppose a South Yemeni declaration of independence.

British Eccentrics in the Middle East: Umm Seti, Egyptologist and Reincarnation of a Priestess of Isis

Umm Seti in old age
During the pre-colonial and colonial periods, many Europeans who spent their lives in the Middle East displayed a certain amount of eccentricity. Sometimes this could reach a point verging on madness, as we saw in our series last summer on Lady Hester Stanhope, or steeped in fantasy like some pyramid cultists; often it was a quirky personal eccentricity, as with Gordon of Khartoum or T.E. Lawrence, who were functionally productive despite their quirks.

In the latter category falls Dorothy Louise Eady (1904-1981). Better known as Umm Seti (Omm Sety, etc.), she made serious contributions to Egyptology, was longtime Keeper of the Temple of Seti I at Abydos, a writer and draughtswoman who assisted a number of prominent archaeologists in their work, published contributions in her own right, and devoted her life to the study of Ancient Egypt and the survival of ancient folkloric practices in the modern Egyptian countryside.. But she also held  nearly lifelong conviction that she was a reincarnation of a priestess of Isis named Bentreshyt from the reign of the XIXth Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I (ca. 1290-1279 BC). She believed that she had been impregnated by the Pharaoh, was told by the high priests that Isis would not forgive her for violating her vow of virginity, and committed suicide, being reborn in the early 20th Century as Dorothy Eady.

After a fall downstairs at the age of three, she had become difficult with her parents and teachers, but on visiting museums claimed to recognize familiar scene in pictures of Ancient Egyptian temples. After some time in and out of sanitariums she moved to Egypt and married an Egyptian, becoming immersed in her study of Ancient Egypt. She named her son Sety, so the title of Umm Seti or Omm Sety was earned. Despite the Muslim prohibition of all forms of paganism, she was tolerated despite being the only known person in Egypt purporting to believe in the old religion, and her offering of gifts and prayers to Isis and Osiris on key feast days.

Umm Seti
Many found her fascinating; believers in reincarnation considered her case as prima facie evidence, while many skeptics nonetheless saw her as making genuine contributions to Egyptology. Much of the online material and many of the YouTube videos relating to her are from paranormal, fringe science, or similar sites.  You can read more or see more video at those sites, but the Wikipedia page actually gives you the basics.

And while skeptics of reincarnation, of whom I count myself as one, may dismiss her explanation for her fascination with Ancient Egypt, she learned hieroglyphics and spent a life preserving and interpreting the sites, particularly the Abydos temple. Bentreshyt may be a figment of her delusions, but Dorothy Eady made a genuine if amateur (assuming you discount her claimed memories) contribution to Egyptology.

Sadly, a 1980-81 BBC documentary on her is unavailable online, though I think this may be  clip from it:

"Jadaliyya's Top 50"

The essential Middle East Studies web magazine Jadaliyya, which provides decent scholarship as well as journalism and is multilingual, recently marked its fourth anniversary and, while I'm a week and a half late with this link, offered a list of  "Jadaliyya's Top 50 of All Time," a fine "best of" list and if, somehow, you know my blog but not Jadaliyya, which I suspect is uncommon, a fine introduction.

Yes, number one is Maya Mikdashi's 2011 piece on Aliaa Elmahdy. perhaps though the finest feminist take on that particular subject, and about seven of the top ten relate to sex or gender, but that's not Jadaliyya, that's the Internet. My audience isn't as big as theirs, but I have the same problem. Sex sells.

If you don't read Jadaliyya regularly, it's time to start. And start with these 50 articles. A few are in Arabic but most are in English.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Al-Ahram Apologizes to NYT in English, Attacks it in Arabic

I recently noted The New York Times' critique of al-Ahram's misrepresentation of its coverage of President Sisi's new York visit.

As MadaMasr points out in this piece, the English language Ahram Online apologized profusely:
Al-Ahram daily, Egypt’s oldest and biggest newspaper, has issued an apology and an explanation for having earlier misquoted, quoted out of context and selectively quoted a New York Times story on Egypt by its correspondent, David Kirkpatrick.
In its statement Al-Ahram regretted that such a grave error would occur at a time when the current editorial management of the newspaper and the organisation as a whole is bent on restoring its credibility and asserting the traditions of proper and ethical journalism based on the highest standards of the profession.
It also noted that these efforts are being made at a time when bad practice and low ethical and professional standards are rampant in Egyptian journalism as a whole, which makes reform an uphill battle.
In explanation, Al-Ahram pointed out that the published review of Mr. Kirkpatrick’s story was taken from Egypt’s foremost news agency, MENA. Other Egyptian dailies published the same review, distortions included.
This is no excuse, Al-Ahram said in the apology, adding that it should have checked MENA’s review against the original text of the NYT story. Whereupon, an editorial decision has been issued banning the use of any MENA story without rigorous fact-checking.
Sadly, apologies for mistakes have been lacking in Egyptian journalism for a great many years. In issuing this apology Al-Ahram not only corrects a mistake, but also hopes to set an example in restoring the traditions of editorial responsibility to Egyptian journalism in general. 
How refreshing. But, as MadaMasr noted, while the English website apologizes without qualification, the "explanation" offered at the Arabic site, while acknowledging mistakes and blaming it on MENA, also takes aim at the NYT's and David Lirkpatrick's coverage of Egypt, claiming they "reject Sisi's course after June 30" and continue to support the "terrorist organization," the Muslim Brotherhood.

Maybe things haven't changed all that much.

Is ISIS Learning to Fly Captured MiGs?

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) is reporting that the Islamic State has at least three captured MiGs and is yraining pilots to fly them. A report in The Guardian here and at the SOHR website here. The report claims that three aircraft, believed to be MiG-21s or MiG-23s, have been seen flying from the al-Jarrah air base east of Aleppo. The base is controlled by ISIS, which also has control of other Syrian air bases. The report says the pilots are being trained by former pilots of the Iraqi Air Force in the Saddam era.

There are also reports that the Israeli Air Force has raised its alert level.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Zahi Hawass and His Hat Are Heard From, and He's Right

I've been known to joke about the man's ego and self-promotion but he's right on target here: "Antiquities crimes should be a felony: Zahi Hawass."

The Man with the Indiana Jones Hat may be preparing his comeback.

Marc Lynch on Saving Syria and Iraq

A new report from Marc Lynch for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is called "The Tourniquet: A Strategy for Defeating the Islamic State and Saving Syria and Iraq." (The link is to the summary page: the full report can be downloaded here.)

Here's the summary:
The Tourniquet, authored by Adjunct Senior Fellow Marc Lynch, lays out a strategy for internationally legitimate and regionally coordinated large-scale but conditional assistance to Iraq and to Syrians. For Syria, the report argues for a "strategic pause" to allow the building of viable alternative governance in rebel-controlled parts of Syria, while rejecting the idea of partnering with the Asad regime against ISIS as both unrealistic and undesirable and acknowledging the constraints imposed by the absence of a viable Syrian opposition with which to work.  For Iraq, it argues for close support conditioned upon a commitment by Iraqi leaders to implement long-needed political reforms and by Kurdish leaders to remain within the Iraqi state. Regionally, it shows the importance of pulling back from debilitating proxy wars and warns against subordinating human rights and political reforms to the exigencies of a new war on terror.

NYT on Sisi at UN; Ahram on NYT on Sisi at UN

Egyptian Field Marshal President Sisi's speech to the UN General Assembly has been portrayed in the Egyptian media as ranking with Pericles' funeral oration, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches," and such like. The New York Times has taken its own account of Sisi's speech and compared it in double column format with the al-Ahram Arabic version of their report. I really don't think I need to comment further here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Iran has More US University Alumni than any Other Foreign Government

Great Satan, indeed. Via the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) headed by Trita Parsi, comes this photo showing the US degrees held by Iran's Cabinet.

Many are technocrats of course, and President Rouhani himself didn't study at a US university, though he's shown here as well. He went to Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, in the Secondary Satan..

Food Fights Revisited: Now, Egypt Aims for Biggest Plate of Koshary

Egypt, having no other problems to preoccupy it at the moment, is planning to break all records with an eight-ton dish of koshary;
The restaurateurs have invited a panel of judges from the Guinness Book of World Records to Egypt on November 22 to witness the creation of this record-breaking koshary dish.
According to the website of the Koshary and Egyptian Food Festival, the dish will be 10 meters wide, 1.2 meters high, and is estimated to weigh eight tons.
The signature Egyptian dish consists of pastas, rice, lentils, chickpeas and sauce and was traditionally a staple of street food carts, though now there are upmarket restaurants featuring it.

This follows a string of earlier efforts we've covered on this blog;

Back in 2009, Lebanon announced that it had broken the Guinness records for largest plates of hummus and tabbouleh, The following year the Israeli Arab town of Abu Gosh fought back with a hummus that beat the Lebanese. In no time the Lebanese struck back with 10 tons of hummus. (It was getting a little silly; Haaretz had a headline referring to the "peas process.") (Video link here.)

10 tons of hummus
Hopes that food fights would replace actual wars were disappointed.The Arab uprisings seem to have abated the silliness for a time, but sure enough, in 2012 Jordan raised the stakes: a 74.75 kilogram falafel.

Egypt is late to the party but it has one thing going for it: I don't think these other countries know how to make koshary.

Tunisia's Evacuation Day: The Last French Leave Bizerte, 1963

Today is Evacuation Day in Tunisia, marking the 51st anniversary of the withdrawal of the last French troops from Bizerte. With the Parliamentary elections coming late this month, it may be worth noting a somewhat forgotten crisis in Tunisian history (not forgotten by Tunisians, of course).

Bizerte in 1961 (Wikipedia)
When Tunisia became independent in 1956, France retained the rights to its naval base at the northern port city of Bizerte, controlling the city as well as the base. President Habib Bourguiba saw it as a remnant of colonial rule, one which France also used in fighting against the Algerian struggle for independence. In July of 1961, Tunisia declared a blockade of the city and ordered the French not to violate Tunisian air space. When a French helicopter did so, it was fired upon. French paratroops were sent in, and fighting erupted. By the time a ceasefire was declared, 630 Tunisians and 24 French were dead, and many wounded.

The result of the three days of fighting were negotiations that led to the final withdrawal of French troops on October 15, 1963. The videos below show the aftermath of the 1961 fighting.




Tuesday, October 14, 2014

20 Years Ago Today: Assassination Attempt on Naguib Mahfouz

Twenty years ago today, on October 14, 1994, a radical Islamist attempted to assassinate the great Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Naguib Mahfouz as he sat in his car. He had a slow and difficult recovery and suffered the effects until his death at 94 in 2006.

Stock with Mahfouz in the hospital
On the 100th anniversary of Mahfouz' birth in 2011, I interviewed Raymond Stock, who has translated several of Mahfouz' works into English and who is writing his biography. He discussed Mahfouz' recovery and the trial of the accused at some length in this post, which may be worth revisiting on this anniversary.

Profile of a Cairo Zabbal

Peter Hessler at The New Yorker has a piece that Cairo hands may find interesting (or may find infuriating): "Tales of the Trash: a neighborhood garbageman explains modern Egypt."

In itself it's a decent enough profile of the zabbal who picks up the trash in Hessler's upmarket Zamalek neighborhood, but who lives in one of the ‘ashwa'iyat or "informal" areas (the article uses the word in plural even when referring to a specific area). The problem I have is that reductionist subtitle, "a neighborhood garbageman explains modern Egypt."  Oh, after 40 years, I finally understand it now!

Perhaps it's meant tongue in cheek, but it reminds me of the sort of patronizing reductionism often found among those still trying to figure the place out. On the other hand he does quote David Sims, who actually can explain a lot about Cairo.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Holiday Notes

Today is the Columbus Day holiday in the United States, so I won't be doing regular posting today.

Let me also offer my greetings, a bit belatedly, to Jewish readers for Sukkot. That week-long festival began last week.

Friday, October 10, 2014

October 10, 732 (Maybe): The Battle of Tours

On this date (or close to it; see below) in AD 732, Charles Martel, Mayor of the Palace in the Merovingian Frankish Kingdom, and Odo, Prince of Aquitaine, won a battle with a Muslim force from Umayyad Spain (al-Andalus) between the towns of Tours and Poitiers in Gaul, after several days of maneuvering. Usually called the Battle of Tours (though sometimes Poitiers), the battle came to be regarded by Europeans as one of the most decisive in history. It has long featured in "Great Battles" type books, from Edward Creasy's 1851 Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World onwards, and a century earlier, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon had penned his memorable vision of a Muslim conquest of Europe:
A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.
Charles Martel became a hero not just to France but to all of Christian Europe, portrayed as having been the only thing standing between Europe and an Islamic conquest. For nearly 1300 years Tours has been a powerful symbol, and European nativists and Islamophobes have even adopted it as a symbol for their own hostility to Muslim immigrants.

But was Tours really that decisive? Though mentioned by most of the (relatively few) chroniclers of the era, both Christian Franks and Muslims (and one Mozarabic Christian chronicler living in Muslim Spain, author of the so-called Chronicle of 754, formerly attributed to  an apparently nonexistent Isidore of Beja), and by later chroniclers on both sides, the actual descriptions of the battle are fairly sparse. For a battle for which so much importance is claimed, we know little for certain, including the exact date and place, the numbers involved or the long-term intentions of the Muslim operation (raid?)(invasion?)(attempted conquest?).

The Date:
I am posting this on October 10 because this is the traditional date found in standard modern  European accounts; the contemporary and other early sources generally only specify that it occurred in October of 732. Two rather later Latin chronicles say It took place on a Saturday. On the other hand, the Arab chronicler Ibn ‘Idhari in his Bayan al-Mughrib fi Akhbar Muluk al-Andalus wa'l Magrhib dates the battle to Ramadan AH114. If we accept these two statements, which are not contemporary to the battle, it cannot have been on October 10, since October 10 was a Friday in 732 (a leap year in the Julian calendar), and it coincided (give or take a day or two for differences in sighting the moon in differing countries) with 26 Sha‘ban, AH 114. So not only was October 10 not a Saturday but it also was not in Ramadan. If we insist on meeting both conditions, the only date in October 732 that was both a Saturday and in Ramadan would be October 25, which was a Saturday and the first of Ramadan AH114. On the other hand the monkish annals mentioning Saturday date from the century after the battle and Ibn ‘Idhari from about 1312,  so assuming both are accurate is a leap of faith, but is still the best guess.

Where was the Battle? And Why was it Fought?
We can be a bit more confident here. The commander of the raid, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi, had been named the governor of al-Andalus by the Caliph Hisham two years before. The Berber governor of Catalonia (today Catalunya) allied with Odo (or Eudo) of Aquitaine to rebel against ‘Abd al-Rahman. After putting down the rebellion, ‘Abd al-Rahman crossed the Pyrenees, where Muslim rule in Narbonne and Septimania had been established since 719-720. The earlier invasion of Gaul had been stopped at Toulouse and remained limited to the area around Narbonne. This time, determined to punish Odo, ‘Abd al-Rahman raided farther north, taking and sacking Bordeaux and defeating Odo on the Garonne. Odo fled and sought help from Charles Martel, though they were old enemies.

The Muslim Army, probably mostly cavalry and of both Arab and Berber ethnicity, continued northward in the direction of Tours; the Christian chroniclers generally agree that the immediate goal was to take and sack the Shrine of Saint Martin at Tours. Martel reportedly took indirect routes to intercept ‘Abd al-Rahman.

They met somewhere between Tours and Poitiers, but then as now the two towns are about 100 kilometers apart. The battle almost certainly took place along the old Roman road between the two; the traditional Arabic name for the battle, balat al-shuhada'  (road or literally "pavement" of the martyrs) implies a paved road.  The exact location is uncertain, though the village of Moussais-la-Bataille claims the honor; it is a strategic position where the road crosses the Clain and Vienne Rivers near their juncture, though there are arguments against it (would Martel have fought with his back to a river with a single bridge for retreat?). You can find a rather detailed argument about the site here; another detailed account here; and you can reflect on what meticulously detailed maps people have drawn of a battle whose location is uncertain and so are the strengths of the Armies. Which brings us to:.

Numbers:.
The Christian sources agree that the Franks were badly outnumbered by the Muslims, and the victory was a miracle that saved Christianity. The Muslim sources agree that they were vastly outnumbered by the Franks, and the results were inevitable. Numbers range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands (the enemy always being bigger) and are totally unreliable. Casualties were high, and ‘Abd al-Rahman himself was among the dead.

What Was ‘Abd al-Rahman's Goal?
There is no real reason to doubt the assumption that ‘Abd al-Rahman.'s immediate goal was Tours and the rich pilgrim's shrine at Tours. Martel's victory certainly saved Tours. But did it also, as the conventional European narrative had it, save Paris, save France (which didn't exist yet), save Europe, and save Christianity? Was Charles Martel, the "hammer," all that stood between ‘Abd al-Rahman. and Gibbon's vision that:
the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.
Leaving aside the fact that the interpretation of the Qur'an is taught at Oxford and has been for at least the last couple of centuries, was the Battle of Tours all that prevented a Muslim conquest of all of Europe?

There is plenty of reason to question that. Most of the Arabic accounts spend less time on the battle itself but on the death of ‘Abd al-Rahman, who after all was governor of al-Andalus.The Arab historians clearly saw this as a raid on enemy territory (several note that ‘Abd al-Rahman died as a ghazi, the term used for the border raiders along the Byzantine frontier). In fact most of the Arab historians seem to portray this as a ghazwa or border raid, for plunder and retaliation against Odo of Aquitaine, remembered mainly for the "martyrdom" of ‘Abd al-Rahman and the other casualties; hence, balat al-shuhada'.

There is an old saying, "Amateurs talk about strategy; professionals talk about logistics." Tours is a very long way from the center of the Umayyad Caliphate, in Damascus. The width of Africa, the Strait of Gibraltar, all of Iberia, and the Pyrenees lay between. And distant Gaul was hardly the main priority of the Caliphs. In 717-718 the Second Arab Expedition against Constantinople had been beaten back; taking Constantinople was a far higher priority for the Caliphs.

Tours in the Arab chroniclers is a sidelight of the history of al-Andalus, mainly remembered for the death of ‘Abd al-Rahman. By contrast Martel's victory, and the much later victories at Vienna in 1529 and 1683, became enormous symbols of the defense of Europe.

And it probably didn't look much like this French Romantic painting from the Palace of Versailles, either (and no, I don't know what the partially unclad woman is doing right in the middle of the two armies, unless she represents France being rescued by Martel from a fate worse than death — a sort of proto-Marianne — nor do I know why the cross looks Celtic):
Steuben - Bataille de Poitiers.png
Charles de Steuben, La Battaille de Poitiers

Commercializing Peshmerga Uniforms as Trendy Fashion?

There are complaints that a new line of HNM jumpsuits are modeled on Kurdish female fighters' uniforms: "Radical chic? Kurds say H&M jumpsuits mimic fighter garb." See the link for illustrations.

I would comment "Only in America," except H&M is based in Sweden.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Third Anniversary of Maspero

Besides being Tawfiq al-Hakim's birthday, today marked  a much grimmer anniversary in Egypt as well: the third anniversary of the "Maspero massacre" on October 9, 2011, when a largely Coptic march to the Radio/TV building known as Maspero was attacked by security forces, including scenes of armored vehicles running down protestors. In the string of clashes during an since he 2011 uprising, from the "Battle of the Camel" to last year's carnage at Raba‘a, "Maspero" became shorthand for the bloodshed which seemed to specifically target Coptic Christian demonstrators.

Zeinobia comments on the anniversary here.

You can find a compendium of my many 2011 and 2012 posts relating to Maspero here (including one on the origin of the name), but see particularly here, here, here, herehere, here, and, on the first anniversary, here.

A video I ran at the time. Warning: the content and violence is graphic at times.

On Tawfiq al-Hakim's 116th Birthday

A Happy 116th Birthday to the late, great Tawfiq al-Hakim, born on this date in 1898. One of the true giants of modern Arabic literature, he was a pioneer novelist and playwright as well as a master of the short story.

Hakim was a pioneer in many fields of literature, but one of his innovations was also to introduce elements of colloquial Egyptian dialogue into his plays and fiction, seeking to reconcile the literary language with the spoken vernacular, in order to provide a more realistic dialogue.

He died in 1987, a few months short of his 89th birthday.

Multiple Takes, Including My Own, on The Conundrum of Confronting ISIS without Helping Your Rivals

Nobody likes ISIS, at least no recognized nation-state. Everyone wants to see ISIS defeated. Saudi Arabia and Iran agree. Iran and the US agree. The Sunni world and Asad's Syria agree. Turkey and the Kurds agree.

Or rather, they all agree that ISIS must be stopped. They agree on that, but they do not agree with each other. The US may look the other way at Iran's operations inside Iraq, but it will not openly coordinate operations, nor will Iran. Turkey wants ISIS destroyed but it wants to do so without strengthening the Turkish and Syrian Kurds, and its ultimate goal is to get rid of Asad, so in a position where it's perfectly placed to relieve Kobanê, it seems instead to be becoming the anvil that blocks escape from Kobanê, as the hammer of ISIS presses the PKK and YPG against the Turkish anvil. The conflicting interests of the anti-ISIS players is paralyzing normal military responses. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" has its limitations.

Several useful perspectives on this:
  • Mark Katz, who does both the Middle East and Russia, is reminded of a historical resonance at LobeLog: "ISIS and the Bolshevik Precedent." Every party inside Russia except the Bolsheviks, and all the outside powers, wanted to stop the Bolsheviks. You know what happened.
You know why. Though they're carrying the burden of the fight at Kobanê and elsewhere, their links with the PKK make them anathema to Turkey, and the West is more comfortable with the Iraqi Kurds. (Though of the two main parties in the KRG, the US seems most comfortable with the KDP, who aren't involved inside Syria, since the PUK's Iranian ties are awkward.) I may have missed it but I've yet to hear an American news channel even utter the word "Rojava," the Syrian Kurds' term for Syrian Kurdistan. They're invisible, and they're carrying the fight.

Not much can change, especially if the US, which keeps wishing for a ground force to cooperate with in Syria, sees the only one in the front line, the Syrian Kurds, go under.

And it seems somehow relevant to quote again the old joke about the Polish official who is asked, "If Poland was invaded by Germany and Russia at the same time [as of course happened in 1939], which would you fight first?" The Pole replies, "Germany, of course. Business before pleasure."

Priorities need to be in order.

Each party needs to calculate what its real interests are: defeating ISIS or achieving some local victory over a longtime rival. Without that, Katz's Bolshevik comparison could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Tunisia's Electoral Campaigns Underway

So much violence and disorder elsewhere has tended to distract attention from one of the Arab Spring's few success stories, but Tunisia has now begun campaigning for its Parliamentary elections on October 26, which will be followed by the Presidential election November 23.

These are the second elections since the Jasmine Revolution and the first under the new constitution.

Over five million Tunisians have registered so far, but there are reports that the proliferation of parties is causing confusion among voters. The Presidential vote will be more personality-oriented, though the number of potential candidates is large: out of 70 who applied, the electoral authorities approved 27 Presidential candidates, including incumbent Moncef Marzouki and many prominent figures.

While the vote will likely be interpreted as a contest between the Islamist al-Nahda (Ennahda) and the secularist blocs, the shifting alliances among the secular parties may affect their success. One controversial factor is the re-emergence, in some of the secular lists, of familiar faces from the Old Guard of the Ben Ali era's ruling RCD Party, now affiliated with various parties but likely to draw support from conservatives, the business establishment, and other sectors. Of the 27 Presidential candidates, five held Cabinet positions in the Ben Ali era. If voter confusion is widespread, the presence of Old Guard familiar names and faces may strengthen the chances of the veterans re-emerging.

Despite all that is happening elsewhere, I hope to offer more coverage and commentary on Tunisia's campaigns unfold.

Speaking of Endangered Antiquities

In Syria and Iraq in particular, but also in Egypt and Libya, there have been many losses of irreplaceable antiquities in recent years. But apparently it was ever thus: here's a man in 1875 just outright selling mummies on the  street in Egypt:

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On the Introduction of the Apaches

Up until the last couple of days, the US had relied on high-altitude bombing for its airstrikes in Syria, using a range of Air Force and Navy bombers (including the B-1 Lancer intercontinental bomber) in its strikes on ISIS within Syria. While carrying a lot of firepower, in the absence of forward observers on the ground,  bombing from altitude runs the risk of hitting friendly forces, especially since ISIS is no longer flying its black flags.[Correction: I originally posted they were used at Kobanê. They're being used nearer to Baghdad.]
Only in the last couple of days has the US added AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to the mix. The Apache is a powerful weapon capable of precision strikes at low level, but unlike the fixed-wing aircraft, which fly far above the altitude reachable by ISIS weapons, the Apache is vulnerable to weapons ISIS has, including shoulder-launched SAMs, anti-aircraft artillery, and (though it is well-armored) potentially even small-arms fire. The odds of US fliers becoming casualties is thus greatly increased, and there are reports that ISIS is already circulating information on how to bring down the Apache.

Kobanê on the Brink; Will Turkey Continue to Stand Aside?

The ISIS siege of the border town of Kobanê has intensified in recent days as the world quite literally watches from just over the Turkish border. Kurds within Turkey have been demonstrating, demanding at a minimum that Turkis Kurds be allowed to enter Syria to fight ISIS if the Turkish Army will not intervene. Some of the demonstrations have turned violent, leading to curfews in five provinces and a number of dead.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Erdoğan has said, during a visit to a refugee camp across the order in Gaziantep, that Kobanê is about to fall, and that airstrikes alone will be insufficient to save it,  but continues to stop short of Turkish military action, instead continuing to push for a Western no-fly zone over northern Syria, which would essentially have more effect against the Asad regime.

Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan has meanwhile set a deadline of October 15 for Turkey to act, or he will declare an end to the sputtering peace efforts between the PKK and Ankara. There are reports that Syrian jets bombed  Kobanê but were forced to turn back by Turkish missile fire.

Criticism of Turkey's Hamlet-like behavior is increasing, as ISIS prepares to take a major town (pre-war population over 40,000) amid widespread predictions of a massacre, literally under the eyes of  major NATO Army.