A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 31, 2014

The New Turkish Presidential Palace: Apparent Sultan's Palace Opens on Republic Day

You've no doubt already heard about the newly completed Turkish Presidential Palace.

It's 200,000 square meters, 1000 rooms. Buckingham Palace is 77,000 square meters and 775 rooms. The White House is 55,000 square meters and 132  rooms. The Elysee Palace is 11,000 square meters and 369 rooms including halls.. I won't even check 10 Downing Street. NATO should just concede to Erdoğan: OK, yours is bigger.

Erdoğan at his new digs
President Erdoğan will not be wanting for elbow room at the Ak Saray, or "White Palace," as it is called. He could host a whole NATO Summit in one wing and no one would want to go home.

(Before someone jumps in, yes, the Topkapı Palace complex is bigger, but it's a museum now and was built for Ottoman Sultans of an Empire spanning three continents, Caliphs of Islam, Shadows of God on Earth et cetera et cetera. Erdoğan likes grandiose projects, but he's the elected leader of a republic. In fact, in case he needed reminding, they showed the place to the world on Wednesday, October 29: Turkish Republic Day.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Day's Best Diplomatic Exchange About Furniture

It all started with Sweden's recent decision to recognize the State of Palestine.

That inspired Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman to comment:
It is too bad that the government of Sweden has chosen to adopt the measure that does a lot of damage and has no benefits. Sweden must understand that relations in the Middle East are much more complicated than self-assembly furniture at IKEA.
To this, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom reportedly told CNN:
I think it’s a sign of a sense of humor, and I will be happy to send him a flat pack of IKEA furniture and he will also see that what you need to put that together is, first of all, a partner. You also need to cooperate and you need a good manual. I think we have most of those elements if we want to use them also for the conflict in the Middle East. For peace you need two parties to actually sit down at the same table and discuss the future.
Both pretty clever but I think Wallstrom wins for the comeback.

And the Swedes do know a bit about peacemaking in the Middle East, though she was polite enough not to bring up Count Folke Bernadotte and 1948.

At least it wasn't Denmark. Then we'd have jokes about building peace out of Legos.

Tunisia: The Official Results

The overall outcome of the Tunisian Parliamentary election has been quite clear since Monday, but the slowness of the official count meant that the official (semi-) final numbers were only released early this morning.

Beji Caid Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes Party, representing secularists, the old guard Establishment, the UGTT labor union, etc. holds the largest bloc with 85 seats and 39.17% of the vote.; the Islamist Ennahda, which held the largest bloc in the former Parliament/Constitutional Assembly, won 69 seats with 31.79% of the vote. The remainder of the 217 seats are distributed follows: Free Patriotic Union, 16 seats; Popular Front, 15 seats; Afek Tounes. 8 seats; the remaining seats are scattered among eight smaller parties (including two seats for the party known as "Current of Love") and six independents.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October 29, 1914: Admiral Souchon Forces Turkey into the Great War

Since last summer I have been noting each of the dates marking the centennial of events that brought the Ottoman Empire into the Great War on the side of Germany and Austria a century ago. Divisions in the Ottoman Cabinet, despite the signing of a secret alliance in August, kept the Turks from fully committing to war. The Ottoman War Minister, Enver Pasha, was enthusiastic enough, but others were dragging their feet. Germany was increasingly exasperated with its putative ally's excuses. On this day a century ago, without Cabinet approval, including that of Minister of Marine Djemal Pasha, the Commander of the Turkish Navy simply started the war on his own.

Souchon and his staff in Fezzes
You may recall a key fact from our earlier discussions of the Goeben and Breslau (now the Yavuz Sultan Selim and Medilli), the ranking officer of the Turkish fleet was now Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, who despite donning the fez and raising the Ottoman flag, was very much still a serving officer of the Imperial German Navy.

During October, each of the German-crewed vessels (still called Goeben and Breslau by their crews) had made brief sorties into the Black Sea for gunnery practice or other excuses; these were officially protested by some in the Cabinet, who feared they were aimed at provoking Russia (which of course they were). But the Russians, not wanting a new front with Turkey, refused the bait.

By late October, the German Ambassador in Constantinople, Wangenheim, passed on instructions to "Turkish" Admiral Souchon to take decisive action. It's not entirely clear if Enver knew what Souchon was about to do. He may have assumed it was another attempt to provoke the Russians to come out. It wasn't. Souchon had decided to shell the Russian coast.

Yavuz, Medilli,  and other elements of the Turkish fleet steamed out of the Bosphorus on October 27. The next day, at sea, Souchon informed the other captains of their orders. The next day, October 29, Yavuz/Goeben, accompanied by the Mine Cruiser Nilofer and the destroyers (sometimes classed as torpedo boats) Tasoz and Samsun, would shell the major Russian naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea. Medilli/Breslau, accompanied by the Mine Cruiser Berk would lay mines in the Kerch Strait (between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov) and then proceed to attack Novorossisk. The Turkish light cruiser Hamidiye would attack the port of Feodosia (Theodosia), and the destroyers/torpedo boats Muavenet-i-Milliye and Gairet-i-Wataniye would attack Odessa.

Muavenet. Gairet  was similar
The plan assumed surprise, but something went wrong. Muavenet and Gairet reached Odessa well before dawn, apparently around 3 am. It was still dark, but they saw a line of old tramp steamers exiting the harbor.They were showing lights, and the Turkish commander decided to use the opportunity to enter the harbor, though the Yavuz and others were still hours away from their targets.

They spotted the old Russian gunboat Donets and several other ships in the harbor and after shelling her Gayret torpedoed her and she sank. In an engagement of only 15 minutes or so they also attacked the gunboat Kubanets, which fled, They attacked a minesweeper which burned and reportedly sank, shelled several merchant vessels in the harbor, and shelled shore installations.

The Odessa attack, coming hours before other ships reached their targets, alerted the Russians, and around 4 am warnings were sent out to other locations. By the time Goeben/Yavuz reached the big naval base at Sevastopol, around 6:30 AM, the Russian shore batteries were on alert. He shelled the base for about 20 minutes, firing 47 rounds (and hitting a naval hospital) but the Russian batteries were quite accurate and Yavuz/Goeben took three hits. None caused casualties but she chose to withdraw under cover of a smokescreen laid by her escorts.

Hamidie from the deck of Yavuz/Goeben
Meanwhile, at Feodosia, Hamidie had arrived to find little resistance, and gave the local population an opportunity to evacuate, before shelling the port facilities.

At Novorossisk, also after a warning, Berk began the shelling, being joined in late morning by Medilli/Breslau after she laid her mines in the Kerch Strait.
Said to Show Bombardment of Novorossisk by Medilli/Breslau

As Yavuz/Goeben was heading back to Constantinople she encountered an old Russian minelayer, the Prut, accompanied by three torpedo boats. They tried to defend her, but were driven away and one badly damaged by Yavuz' guns. The crew of the Prut, which was filled with a cargo of mines, opted to scuttle her rather than risk being blown to bits if their cargo was hit.

The German and Turkish crews lost no men, and suffered only minor damage, mostly the three hits on Yavuz/Goeben. Russian casualties are unknown but mostly occurred at Odessa.

But Souchon had done something more. Without official authorization from the Cabinet, he had started the war with Russia.

Russia declared war on Turkey November 2, joined by Serbia the same day and Montenegro on November 3. Serbia and Montenegro had other problems on their hands but were doing their Pan-Slavic duty.  Britain and France followed suit on November 5, and we'll be hearing more about them, especially Britain, than we will about Montenegro in coming weeks.. The Ottoman Empire was in the war.

Commemorative German postcard (painting?):

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sinai Terror Attack Leads to New Egyptian Crackdown, New Powers for Army

Last weekend's terror attack in Sinai, leaving some 30 Egyptian soldiers dead, is being met by a forceful and in some ways draconian response by the government, limited neither to the perpetrators nor to Sinai. The new measures include  a three-month State of Emergency, expanding the military's powers by declaring state facilities such as power plants, bridges, etc. as military infrastructure, banning Hamas, ending Egypt's mediation efforts with Hamas, closing the Rafah crossing into Gaza and evacuating inhabitants from parts of North Sinai, etc.

The terror threat in Sinai is a real one; radical jihadist groups have been active since the 2011 Revolution. charging "foreign" elements are supporting the Jihadis, and some analysts believe the Sinai Jihadis may now be identifying with ISIS. This theme is also part of the Egyptian media campaign.

Many are wondering, however, if the very real terror threat is being used to justify a tightening of control on domestic dissent.

The newest crackdown, however, comes in a context of major state crackdowns on student protests at universities, which began the new academic year on October 11 and have witnessed demonstrations by student supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted president Muhammad Morsi. These have been widespread and sternly dealt with by police, but today for the first time the Army rather than the police was used, storming the campus of Mansura University in the Delta. And the Prime Minister has announced that "student saboteurs" will be dealt with by Military Courts, not the civilian justice system.

And state propaganda glorifying the military is intensifying.

1914 Pre-War Maneuvering in the Gulf, Part II: Contesting the Shatt and the Dispatch of Force "D"

In part I of this post yesterday, I set the general strategic and political stage on which the British and Ottoman Empires played out an increasing confrontation in the Gulf in the weeks leading up to Turkey's formal entry into the Great War a century ago. In this post, I hope to detail those events. (I'm drawing on multiple sources, official and secondary.)

HMS Odin
On the day before the Ottomans (or rather the local German commander), closed the Dardanelles on September 26, the Government of India had already proposed that, with tensions rising with Turkey, a Brigade of Indian Army troops should be deployed to the Gulf to protect the Iranian oilfields and the Abadan refinery. On September 27, the local Turkish authorities declared the Shatt al-‘Arab in its entirety to be Turkish waters. HMS Odin at the time was positioned off Abadan Island, in what Britain insisted was international waters and in which a 1913 Anglo-Turkish agreement had permitted non-belligerent passage to the Persian side.

HMS Espiegle
Britain was not about to abandon access to Abadan or its right of innocent passage in peacetime, and on September 29 Odin was joined by another Navy sloop, HMS Espiegle, and an aging troopship, HMS Dalhousie. These did not constitute much firepower, but the Turks had few ships in the area, and they were a tripwire of sorts. They stayed on the Abadan side of the Shatt or in Muhammara (Khorramshahr), but also had orders to patrol that side of the Shatt to prevent any Turkish impediment to navigation.

HMS Dalhousie
From then until the end of October, the British and Turks exchanged demands and threats but each stayed clear of provoking hostilities. I'm going to tell the story of the maneuvering in the Gulf first, and then shift to what was happening with the Indian Army troops deploying for the Gulf. What needs to be kept in mind in what follows is that the British knew, and the Turks did not, that an Indian Army Brigade would arrive in the Gulf before the end of October. More on that momentarily.

In early October the Turks declared that the Shatt was inland waters and that "Guns at Fao will fire on any man-of-war disregarding prohibition"; a notice to this effect was delivered to Espiegle October 7 and the British ships were given 24 hours to leave the Shatt. The Royal Navy of a global Empire rather disdainfully replied that so long as the "Turkish Government does not intern the German War Vessels 'GOEBEN' and 'BRESLAU', His Majesty's Government will maintain a Naval Force in the Shatt-al-Arab." To this, the Turks responded with a threat to mine the Shatt. And the British fired back saying that would constitute a hostile act, and that the British would consider it as such.They alerted their three small vessels to report any Turkish activity that might be construed as minelaying.

That was on October 23. It is probably no coincidence that on that same day an old British battleship and four troopships arrived at Bahrain with the aforementioned Indian Brigade. Which brings us to the other part of this drama.

Meanwhile, Back at the Raj . . .

(Sorry, sometimes I can't resist.)

While the Government in London was treading cautiously to avoid pushing the Turks into war, the Government of India was advocating a more forward strategy. They had already endured jitters because the German light cruiser SMS Emden was loose in the Indian Ocean (soon to be sunk, but not yet), and fears that a belligerent Turkey might influence Indian Muslims. As I've noted, already in September they had proposed sending a Brigade to protect the oilfields, and this was authorized on October 2.

While Turkey's entry into the war was expected, it was not yet in the war, but Britain had the advantage of its colonies and protectorates in the Gulf region, including its informal protectorate at Muhammara, discussed yesterday. Still, the movement of ground forces to the Gulf was kept secret. to avoid a provocation.

Gen. Sir Arthur Barrett
It was decided to send one Brigade from the 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army. Its orders, kept rather vague, were to occupy Abadan and protect the oilfields, unless Turkey entered the war, in which case it was to move on Basra and was promised reinforcement by the remaining brigades of the Poona Division. The Division was commanded by General Sir Arthur Barrett, who would follow with the rest of the Division. The Brigade chosen for the mission was the 16th Infantry Brigade, along with associated units, under the command of Brigadier Walter S. Delamain. An Indian Army officer who had served in border wars and the Boxer Rebellion in China, Delamain was to command a force designated Indian Expeditionary Force "D". He received his orders on October 10 and the force was to sail from Bombay on October 16.

There were multiple Indian Expeditionary Forces given letter names: Force "A" was to serve on the Western Front in Europe, 'B" in East Africa where British Kenya, Uganda, and Zanxibar adjoined German East Africa (Tanganyika, with Zanzibar today's Tanzania), Force "F" for the Suez Canal.

Walter S. Delamain
Delamain's destination was secret and he was to open his orders at sea. For security reasons Force "D" was dispersed on troopships carrying Force "A" to Europe and Force "B" to East Africa, and sailed from Bombay on October 16. After three days at sea, he opened his orders. The fleet then rendezvoused with an old, pre-Dreadnought era battleship, HMS Ocean and Force "D", now concentrated in four troopships, headed to the Persian Gulf. On October 23, they arrived at Bahrain.

HMS Ocean
Still cautious about provoking Turkey and uncertain as well about the attitude of Qajar Iran, Delamain's force did not immediately proceed to Abadan. But as noted earlier, British statements on free navigation in the Shatt grew tougher.

On the very eve of Turkey's entry into the war, Britain had positioned several ships, including the aging battleship HMS Ocean, later sunk at Gallipoli, and several thousand Indian Army troops in the northern Gulf. Once they learned of the Turkish attacks on the Russian ports (October 29 : they seem to have heard on the 30th) they moved north and took position off the bar at the entrance to the Shatt on November 3. When Britain declared war on Turkey on November 5, they were ready: they landed at Fao (Faw) on November 6 and took Basra in late November.

We'll be looking at many of those events in more detail in the coming days and weeks. This map of the early days of the campaign may illuminate the geography:

Monday, October 27, 2014

Tunisia's Results

With nearly complete results in, Tunisia appears to have held a largely smooth, genuinely competitive election that is electing a new Parliament in which the plurality of seats will shift from Islamist to secularist, but with the other bloc still heavily represented.

With 214 of 217 seats decided,  (link in Arabic), the secularist Nidaa Tounes will hold 83 seats, while the Islamist Ennahda (al-Nahda) will hold 68. The remaining seats are scattered among a range of smaller parties, so coalition-building or a national unity government will be necessary. Ennahda has conceded.

Nidaa Tounes consists of a range of secular establishment elements. Some had criticized the presence of some figures from the Ben Ali era.

Early reactions from election observer groups via social media seem largely positive, at least so far

October 1914: Anglo-Ottoman Maneuvering in the Gulf, Part I

Throughout September and October, 1914, Britain and the Ottoman Empire were both preparing for Ottoman entry into the Great War. Despite having signed a Treaty of Alliance with Germany secretly at the beginning of August, Turkey's divided cabinet had continued to delay, and despite the arrival of the Goeben and Breslau at Constantinople in August and Turkey's closing of the Straits to the Entente powers in September, Turkey was still officially neutral and Britain and Russia were treading softly to avoid pushing it over the edge.

A century ago today, on October 27, German (though now officially Ottoman) Admiral Souchon took his flagship the Yavuz Sultan Selim (still called Goeben by her Fez-wearing German crew) and a small force quietly out of Constantinople and into the Black Sea. Two days later, he would deliver the fait accompli that would propel Turkey into the war.

But that will be a post for October 29. In the meantime, Britain had been preparing for war as best it could without openly violating Turkish sovereignty. This post will focus on its preparatory actions at the head of the Persian Gulf.

Britain had several key strategic concerns in the region. First of all was the "Jewel in the Crown," the British Raj in India. Since British India included what today are Pakistan and Bangladesh as well, and thus had a huge Muslim population, Britain was concerned that the Turks might try (as they indeed hoped to do) to raise a revolt in India. The key line of communication to India was the Suez Canal. The security of the canal was partly assured by the British occupation of Egypt since the 1880s. To increase that security it was decided long before Turkey joined the war to train the Dominion forces from Australia and New Zealand in Egypt. They were ostensibly destined for Europe but would be close at hand if needed (as they would be) against the Ottomans. We'll talk more about Suez in another post.

The other huge British interest since time immemorial had been sea power, as an island nation, and in 1914 the Royal Navy still ruled the seas. In the naval rivalry with Germany First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had committed Britain to convert the Navy from coal to oil, allowing faster and more efficient vessels. But its main sources of oil were Standard Oil in the US and Royal Dutch Shell. For all its "sun never sets" breadth, the British Empire produced little oil.

But in 1908 oil had been discovered in southwestern Iran under a concession controlled by British interests in what became the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). An APOC refinery on Abadan Island began producing in 1913, the same year Churchill negotiated a huge British Government investment in APOC which gave the government a controlling interest. The Iranian oilfields and Abadan refinery became a vital British interest.

Abadan Island was Iranian (Persian as the British would have said then) territory, but Turkey had long claimed that the whole of the Shatt al-‘Arab waterway (called Arvand Rud in Persian) belonged to them, while Iran had argued the border should be the Thalweg or deepest channel. In a 1913 agreement called the Constantinople Protocol, Iran had conceded most of the Turkish claim. So in a war, Turkey could claim to control the main access by sea to Abadan.

There was a further complicating factor. Britain, already controlling a number of protectorates in the Gulf, had extended its protection over two hereditary sheikhdoms at the head of the Gulf, one technically under Ottoman suzerainty and the other under Persian. Both were ethnically Arab.

One of these leaders was the Ruler of Kuwait, long a hereditary sheikhdom under the Al Sabah family though still nominally Ottoman (the origin of Iraq's claim to Kuwait). (In 1914, though, the Sabah ruler tilted towards the Turkish side.)

Sheikh Khaz‘al
The other, less formal quasi-protectorate was with the Arab ruler of Muhammara, the town since renamed Khorramshahr. This was Sheikh Khaz‘al bin Jabir al-Ka‘bi, hereditary sheikh of the Ka‘bi Arabs of the region. Khaz‘al (1863-1936) held multiple titles from the Qajar Shah and also received a Grand Commander of the Indian Empire and Knight Commander of the Star of India from the UK. By balancing these seemingly conflicting loyalties he managed to win control of a large part of southwestern Iran until brought to heel by Reza Shah in the 1920s.

As early as 1902 the British had offered Sheikh Khaz‘al (also called Khaz‘al Khan in Persian) assurances that they would protect his autonomy; this was reiterated in 1903 and yet again in 1908 just after the discovery of oil. Not entirely coincidentally, Khaz‘al's realm included both the mainland oilfields and the refinery on Abadan Island.

Muhammara, Early 20th Century (Lorimer's Gazaeteer)
The presence of a friendly ally and of British protectorates in the Gulf made it easy to begin a buildup even before the Ottomans entered the war. During September and October Britain began maneuvering towards an intervention. Part II, tomorrow, will discuss the buildup.

Sarah Carr's Superb Eulogy for the Egyptian Revolution

The inimitable Anglo-Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr has given us a superb little essay on the Revolution that appears to have failed.: "Still falling off that cliff." It deserves to be read in full, but  few excerpts will convince you, beginning with a paragraph that is brilliant writing:
The inevitable, painful, question is whether it was worth it, whether those lives shattered and destroyed have laid the groundwork for something or are just gone. This isn’t a question we (people who lived through it and supported it) can answer – not only because we perhaps don’t (yet) know but because of the impossibility of answering objectively. Wishing for a world where it never happened would re-animate the dead, return sight to lost eyes, unbreak shattered bones. It would free thousands of political detainees. But it would mean the death of those fleeting moments of untrammelled hope and happiness, of friendships, even love, found during the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud and then lost, of the possibility of a future we are now trying to un-see, of that tomorrow that never came but of which we got a glimpse. How can we wish for that never to have happened, when it has become part of those that lived it – even if today it is a hidden scar. That time we jumped off a cliff reaching for the moon.
That paragraph is a gem. But the last lines also deserve quoting:
The ghosts of January 25 are all still there, the faces painted on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street staring out accusingly at all their work undone. But there are times when the events of 2011 -  2013 seem almost apocryphal. It is only the regime’s revenge-driven torment of individuals associated with it that keep its memory alive. But that will stop eventually and then the embers will die out completely and the real revolution will live only in our heads, where perhaps it always was anyway.
But read it all.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Tunisia Votes for Parliament Sunday

On Sunday, Tunisia will go to the polls to elect its second legislative body since the Revolution and its first under the new constitution.That alone deserves attention. Though technically, Libya has already held two Parliamentary elections since Arab Spring, the second resulted in two governments,  one of which is on a ship in Tobruk. This election may be imperfect, but it offers hope,

The Al-Nahda (Ennahda) Islamist party held a plurality in the previous government but yielded power for new elections. As was not the case in 2011, the secularist sides that have dominated much of Tunisia's post-independence history are better organized to compete with Ennahda, which has lost some support to more radical groups (and Tunisia is reportedly the largest source of foreign fighters to ISIS). But the country is not as polarized as Egypt.

The downside (or perhaps hidden strength) for the secularists re the growing perception that many of the candidates are retreads from the ancien regime, survivors of the dominant RCD Party of the Ben Ali era and other establishment elements.

Another issue widely noted is that although the new constitution sharply curtailed the powers of the president and strengthened those of the parliament and Prime Minister, many Tunisians, long acquainted with an all-powerful Presidency, are paying more attention to the November vote for President than for this month's Parliamentary vote.

A few readings may help follow the results:
  • The International Republican Institute's Democracy Speaks blog has also run an extensive series of posts on the Tunisian vote, including profiles of the major parties. (Use the search function on the site to find them all.) (The rival National Democratic Institute doesn't seem to be as current.)
  • Finally here's a public service announcement against vote buying. The video called "Tunisian's can't be bought" is in Tunisian colloquial and says, as translated by Tunis Live (my Tunsi dialect is rusty but the translation sounds on target): “Who buys your vote and pays you a dinar, tomorrow will take your livelihood with two million dinars. Who buys your vote is a thief, a cheater, a traitor. He doesn’t care about you, about Tunisia, about the children’s dreams. He doesn’t care about the blood of martyrs. He will take your vote and leave you behind,”

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 decision 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 historical 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 change 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 a 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 Ghosh 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:.

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.