A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Full Circle in Egypt?

The verdict today acquitting Husni Mubarak on the murder and other serious charges that were facing him seems to drive the final nail in the coffin of the January 25 Revolution. But before one assumes that this is the end, note that there have been only limited improvements in the economy and the "stability" promised by the government is anything but in evidence. the next explosion may be far less peaceful than what happened in 2011, when most of the violence came from the Mubarak side. (Though now that everyone charged with killing protesters has had charges dropped, perhaps they all died some other way?)

I'm sure I'll have more to say in coming days.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Holiday Break

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, beginning a long four-day holiday weekend. As usual on holidays I won't be doing routine blogging, unless circumstances demand it.  (The big Islamist demonstration in Egypt Friday could prove to be a flashpoint.) Otherwise, I'll be back Monday.

In Other Lebanese Diva News, Haifa Wehbe Has Had a Busy Week

Having started the day with the news of the death of Sabah at age 87, it seems only appropriate to check in with the current generation of celebrity superstar Lebanese divas. Haifa Wehbe has been in the news at least three different ways in the past week or so.

  • Haifa also came under fire for wearing a revealing dress on the competition show Arab Star Academy. Parts of the dress appeared see-through under the bright studio lights. In fact, her strategic areas were opaque and she has worn far more revealing outfits in her concerts and movies, but this program is broadcast across the Arab World and so the dress seemed shocking in countries more socially conservative than Lebanon. (American actresses and entertainers routinely appear on television in more revealing outfits, of course.)
But in true diva style, Haifa Wehbe managed to appear in headlines for three different reasons in under two weeks' time. A clip of the Arab Star Academy broadcast is below.

Famous Lebanese Singer Sabah Dies at Age 87

Sabah in her prime
The great Lebanese singer and actress known as Sabah has died at the age of 87.  Born Jeanette Gergis al-Feghali to a Maronite Christian family in 1927, she was a prolific singer (reportedly 3,500 songs and least 50 albums), film actress (98 films, mostly made in Egypt), and bride (at least 7 and perhaps as many as 10 husbands, still a matter of dispute in the Arab celebrity tabloids).

She was one of the most senior singing divas of the Arab world, not equaling the late Umm Kulthoum or Fairuz, but certainly in the first rank. From the 1940s into her declining years she continued to entertain. (And marry: the dispute over the number of husbands stems from knowing at least one purported marriage was a publicity stunt and another perhaps an April fool's joke. Reports that she married her longtime hairdresser/caretaker in 2012 when she was 85 have been disputed. At least seven marriages seems undisputed. And there were rumors of affairs as well.

She is widely believed to have had frequent plastic surgeries,which combined with her marriage habit have led to numerous jokes, which I will not repeat. De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

In recent years she has been frequently hospitalized and there have been multiple rumors of her death. This one, however,does not appear to be a rumor. I'm no expert on her music, but for the true fans among you, one fan has a one hour and 40 minute collection on YouTube:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pope Francis and al-Sisi: Wait, Why Does That Ring a Bell? Or Two, Even?

The Vatican, yesterday. Leaving aside how this will make Muslim Brotherhood heads explode, note that Pope Francis chose his name after Saint Francis of Assisi. Wait: Assisi?

Don't tell the Egyptian State media, or they'll see it as proof positive that he's chosen by God. And I'm not referring to the Pope here.

And don't forget, the original St Francis of Assisi actually met  with the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil, in 1219 during the Crusades.

Fra Angelico's version:

If Essebsi Wins, I'm Going to Need Better Glasses

If Beji Caid Essebsi, who got 42% of the vote to Moncef Marouki's 34% in the first round in Tunisia, wins the December runoff, older folk like me may need better glasses when reading small print in Arabic newspapers.


President Essebsi: الرئيس السبسي

President al-Sisi:    الرئيس السيسي

See the problem? What a difference a dot makes.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tunisia's Presidential Election: Essebsi, Marzouki into Runoff

Early indications suggest that the results of yesterday's Tunisian Presidential election will see Beji Caid Essebsi of Nidaa Tounes and Moncef Marzouki will face each other in a runoff next month.

There were 27 candidates on the ballot (though five of these had withdrawn after the ballots were printed). Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes Party won the largest number of seats in last month's Parliamentary elections; Marzouki is the outgoing incumbent President of the transitional period.

Ennahda, the Islamist Party that won the first round of elections after the revolution and ran second last month, did not field a Presidential candidate. Marzouki is likely to try to win Ennahda votes in the runoff; he is likely to pursue the argument he used in his campaign, that one party should not dominate both the Prime Ministry and Parliament. He has also sought to portray the 87-year-old Essebsi as a symbol of the return of the ancien regime.

Leftist candidate Hamma Hammami ran third.

I should mention that the best campaign slogan, however, certainly  belonged to the only woman candidate in the campaign, judge Kalthoum Kannou:
Yes, She Went There

What May Be the Oldest-Known (Recently C-14 Dated) Portion of the Qur'an is Now Online

The opening page
Both the Early Islamic History field and elements in the Muslim world have recently been abuzz over the dating of what may be the earliest known fragment of the Qur'an. If the dating holds up it will be of enormous importance, and could undermine those Western revisionist historians who question much of the traditional narrative of the Islamic tradition and the dating of the Qur'an.  As the official press release from the University of Tübingen puts it:
A Koran fragment from the University of Tübingen Library has been dated to the 7th century - the earliest phase of Islam - making it at least a century older than previously thought. Expert analysis of three samples of the manuscript parchment concluded that it was more than 95 percent likely to have originated in the period 649-675 AD - 20 to 40 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. Such scientific dating of early Koran manuscripts is rare.
The Tübingen fragment was tested by the Coranica project, a collaboration between the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Paris and the Berlin-Brandenburgischen Academy of the Sciences and Humanities, sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and France’s Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR). The project investigates the Koran in the context of its historical background using documents such as manuscripts and information derived from archaeological excavations.
A radiocarbon date of 649-675 AD would put the fragment in the Rashidun or early Umayyad period.  The report is justly getting press (here for example), and at least one (presumably Shi‘ite-leaning) website has sought to suggest it might be linked personally to Imam ‘Ali.

Previously the oldest surviving texts of the Qur'an were considered to be the so-called Sana‘a' texts dated to 645-690 AD, and a Samarkand manuscript attributed to the reign of ‘Uthman (Caliph AD 644-656) but not carbon dated. the calligraphy in both cases suggests a later date.

This suggests one caution not raised in the initial reports of this case. I'm not trying to dampen the enthusiasm here as I do consider this an extraordinary discovery (the text has long been known: the news is the radiocarbon date), but popular accounts citing radiocarbon dates are often misleading (the same is true of DNA evidence, but that's a rant for another time), since most reporters in the history/archaeology field have only a superficial understanding of the science.

Carbon-14, the basis of radiocarbon dating, stops accumulating when the organic material in which it is found dies. Wood from an ancient house will not tell you when the house was actually built; it will tell you when the trees from which the wood came were chopped down. Similarly, the parchment on which this Qur'an was written will not date to the moment of writing, but to the death of the sheep or other animal whose skin was made into parchment. It's not unreasonable to assume that a venerated work like the Qur'an would be written on relatively fresh parchment, but it's still only an assumption.

Neither the Tübingen press release nor the secondary accounts comment on whether the calligraphy is consistent with such an early date, though I suspect that the shortage of other early, carbon-dated manuscripts makes that hard to verify. The script is early Kufic, without vowel points and in many cases with letters unconnected; I'm not trained in such early calligraphy or epigraphy but it's very early. Despite my words of caution  above, this is an exciting carbon date. (Not a new discovery, as the MS has been known but just undated.)

The Tübingen Coranica Project has a website here.

The surviving portions contain text from Suras 17:37 to 3657. Because the MS has been part of the collection but not previously dated, a digital version is online. You can find the index page here;  each link takes you to the first page off several; if you don't read German,  click on "Vollansicht" (full view) to see the section.

I've actually had to try to read unpointed Kufic MSS. many years ago, but unless you do this everyday I'd recommend having a modern Qur'an with vowel points in hand.

Disneyland Egypt? Egypt Says it's Talking; Disney Says No

Last week Egypt's Middle East News Agency (MENA, the official state news agency) quoted Egypt's Investment Minister as saying  "there are  discussions going on" with Disney about building a theme park in Egypt.

The story was widely reported since Egypt's tourism sector has been in decline. The story was widely reported, since Egypt's once-crucial tourism sector has been in a downward spiral since the 2011 Revolution, but unfortunately, Disney released a statement that, while calling Egypt "an attractive market," said "we have no plans for the region at this time."

So the Middle East is stuck with real Somali pirates instead of "Pirates of the Caribbean." Actually, I think Sarah Carr may have it right:

Cult of Personality? Certainly NOT!

Umm al-Dunya ("the Mother of the World," a proverbial name for Egypt), shedding a tear, and clad  of course in the colors of the Egyptian flag,  caresses ex-General Sisi (still in uniform though), and says "Thank you, you who returned my life and dignity to me." I think this came from Al-Yawm al-Sabi‘, an independent (but very pro-Sisi) daily (despite its name "Saturday"; it started as a weekly).

Friday, November 21, 2014

The British Take Basra, November 21-23, 1914

A couple of weeks back  I discussed the British landings in Mesopotamia and the "First Fights on the Road to Basra, November 6-12, 1914."  It's time for an update. On this day and the next two a century ago British and Indian forces occupied Basra.

After General Walter Delamain and the 16th Brigade of the 6th (Poona) Division of Indian Expeditionary Force "D" had secured their landings at Fao, Abadan and Muhammara, he was reinforced by the arrival of the another brigade, the 18th, and the Divisional HQ. General Sir Arthur Barrett, Commander of the 6th Division,  took command. Barrett arrived with orders to take Basra.

Fao to Basra, 1914
The Ottoman Army held a forward position at Saihan, only about four miles from the forward British position across from the Abadan refinery. British patrols estimated the Turkish force at 1200 men, three machine guns and four mountain guns. Delamain was assigned to dislodge this forward position and attacked on the 15th with elements of the 2nd Dorsets, 104th Wellesley's Rifles, and 30th Mountain Battery, with the 20th Punjabis and the 23rd Mountain Battery in reserve. They were supported by HMS Odin in the Shatt.

Delamain attacked the Saihan position on the 15th.  The Turkish force was actually some 3100 men, not the 1200 the British expected. The British turned the left flank of the Turks and then rushed the camp in force. The Turks withdrew and the British destoyed the supplies.

HMS Odin
Delamain's orders had been to dislodge the Ottomans, not occupy the ground, so he withdrew. His troops had 9 killed and 63 wounded; Turkish casualties were put at 160.

By November 17 all of Barrett's troops were ashore and it was decided to launch a full-scale attack towards Basra. The Turks had fallen back to a place the British referred to as Sahil, with the bulk of their forces in Zain and Baljaniyya. ("Balzaniyeh" on the map above, but Lorimer's Gazeteer shows it with a j and has the Arabic as well.) As the British forces advanced they found some 3500 Turkish troops and 1000 local Arab allies entrenched along a three-mile front from near Zain to Sahil, with 12 guns. The area was dense with palm groves and was anchored near an old mud fort. Under Barrett's overall command, the 18th Brigade under Brig. Gen. C.I. Fry advanced on the left of the three-mile position while the 16th under Delamain moved on the right, with covering fire from HMS Odin and HMS Espiegle in the Shatt.

A complicating factor was a heavy drenching rain which turned the ground to mud. Once the British artillery came up and found its range it poured heavy fire into the Ottoman lines, but the advance took several hours due to the mud, the Turkish resistance, and the fortified lines after some time the 16th Brigade took the old mud fort that anchored the left of the Turkish line, and with their line flanked the Turks withdrew. The British estimated total Ottoman casualties at 1500 to 2000; they lost four officers and 50 other ranks dead and 21 officers and 414 wounded. (The British casualty lists distinguish between British and Indian casualties. That seems a rather colonial approach and I'm combining the numbers here.)

Ekbatana Sunk in the Shatt
The Turks had sunk three ships in the Shatt near Dabba Island to block the passage, one of them the large Hamburg-American line steamer Ekbatana, but the ships went down in such away that it was possible to maneuver past them.

Investigating the obstruction on November 19, HMS Espiegle came under fire from a Turkish patrol boat and returned fire, setting her aflame. Then she was fired upon by the larger Turkish gunboat Marmaris, and retreated.

This map (from p. 488, "The Persian Gulf. Naval Operations in the Shatt al-Arab (Up to and Including the Surrender of Kurna)" in The Naval Review, Vol.III) shows the site of the Nov. 17th battle, the barrier of sunken ships, and Espiegle's sinking of the patrol boat on the 19th.

On the 20th Barrett learned from Britain's ally the Sheikh of Muhammara that the Turks had not just retreated to Basra but had also abandoned Basra. Odin and Espiegle and a smaller boat, the Indian Marine Vessel Lawrence, were sent to investigate and confirmed this. They put ashore a landing party to stop looting in the abandoned port, and then another. By the 22nd the naval landing parties had raised the Union Jack (or the naval ensign once the ships ran out of Union Jacks according to the Navy Review article) over public buildings. Basra notables asked for more defense against looting and the gunboats proceeded to ferry battalion each of the Wellesley's Rifles and 117th Mahrattas to Basra while the rest of the British force slogged through mud and palm groves overland.

On the 13th General Barrett and the British political agent, Sir Percy Cox, took formal possession of the city, with Cox reading a proclamation in Arabic.

Once again, the ease of taking Basra reinforced the British assumption that the Ottomans posed little challenge. But the taking of Basra alerted Enver Pasha to the threat, and the Turks would soon be reinforced.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

November 20, 1914: First Blood on the Suez Canal Front

I'll be tied up today with the MEI Annual Conference, but prepared this ahead of time because November 20 marks the centennial of the first shot fired on the Suez Canal Front in World War I, a minor affair, but an augury.

The Canal being Britain's lifeline to India, it had already been decided even before Turkey's entry into the War that Imperial forces (Indian, Australian, and New Zealand in this case) earmarked for France would train in Egypt. They would therefore be available to defend the Canal if it was threatened. Once Turkey joined the War, it was decided to station some of them there and deploy them for use in the region. A Territorial Division, the 42nd (East Lancashire) were sent out from Britain as well.

Gen. Sir John Maxwell
In September British forces in Egypt came under the control of Maj. Gen. Sir John Maxwell, a veteran of the Mahdist and Boer Wars (and later notorious for putting down the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916).
Zeki Pasha
Initially, the British were disdainful of the idea that the Ottoman Army could cross Sinai and threaten the Canal by land, though in January-February 1915 they would do just that. But although the Commander of the Turkish Fourth Army in Syria Zeki Pasha (later Zeki Baraz Kolaç Kılıçoğlu after 1934), had been ordered to prepare a campaign against the Suez Canal well before the declarations of war, he dithered and little was done. On November 18, 1914, he was relieved and the Ottoman Minister of Marine, Djemal Pasha, was designated to command the Fourth Army. Since Djemal (Cemal) was one of the ruling Young Turk Triumvirate, this indicated Enver's emphasis on the war with Britain.

The incident I want to talk about today occurred only two days after Zeki was transferred and well before Djemal had reached Syria, and it did not involve Ottoman regulars. On November 20, a small force of the Bikaner (or Bikanir) Camel Corps was attacked by mounted, pro-Turkish bedouin in the Sinai only about 20 miles east of the Canal.

Bikaner Camel Corps in Egypt
The Bikaner Camel Corps was an elite Indian force raised and commanded by the Maharaja of the Indian princely state of Bikaner in Rajasthan,

Gen. Maharaja Sir Ganja Singh
It had been founded as an elite camel cavalry by the Maharaja of Bikaner, General Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh, who would also serve on the Imperial War Cabinet during the war and attend the Paris Peace Conference. The Bikaners had served in Somaliland in 1902-1904 (against Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, "the mad mullah of Somaliland"), and was now one of the early Indian forces deployed to Egypt.

The actual clash on November 20 was a minor one, a patrol of 20 men of the Camel Corps attacked by about 200 mounted bedouin. Here's the account in the British Official History:
Meanwhile, on the 16th November, the Indian troops destined for the defence of Egypt reached Suez, and battalions were moved as quickly as possible to Ismailia and Port Said. Major-General A. Wilson, arrived from India, was appointed G.O.C. Canal Defences. The Sirhind Brigade was relieved and sailed on the 23rd to rejoin its division in France. At the same time Sir J. Maxwell was informed of Lord Kitchener's project of bringing the Australian and New Zealand contingents to Egypt for war training. The intention was to send them later to France, but temporarily they would be available as reserves in Egypt, where their appearance would undoubtedly impress public opinion.

On the 20th November occurred the first hostilities. A patrol of 20 men of the Bikanir Camel Corps, under Captain A. J. H. Chope, was attacked at Bir en Nuss, 20 miles east of Qantara, by 200 Bedouin, who approached it under a white flag. The party extricated itself creditably, though with casualties amounting to more than half its numbers. Unfortunately this affair proved that the loyalty of the camel troopers of the Egyptian Coastguard, several of whom accompanied the Bikanirs as guides, was extremely doubtful, since they allowed themselves to be made prisoners in a manner virtually amounting to desertion.
The map below shows the location of the attack at Bir al-Nuss, about 20 miles east of Qantara on the road to al-‘Arish.Though nothing more would happen on this front until January, the attack on British Empire forces just 20 miles from the Canal was a warning, and Britain began to strengthen the Canal defenses.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Iraq Says it Retakes Refinery

Iraqi Security Forces now say they have lifted the ISIS siege around the refinery at Baiji, having previously taken the town. 

This is the latest setback for ISIS on the Iraqi front. Juan Cole noted some of the others recently:"Top 5 Ways Daesh/ ISIL is Losing, as it lashes out like a Cornered Rat."

Blogging will be light due to MEI's Annual Conference.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Other Middle East War in 1914: The Bergmann Offensive in the Caucasus

In my recent preview of coming attractions for my centennial seties on the First World War in the Middle East, I noted that the front between the Ottoman and Russian Empires in the Caucasus was little known in the West. Yet some of the hardest fighting the Ottoman Army endured in that war was against the Russian Army in the Transcaucasus. If this Turkish Eastern Front has any resonance among Western readers it is almost exclusively due to the fate of the Armenians (which I have no intention of avoiding as we discuss the centennial of the Great War). But this part of Turkey's war lasted longer than the others, due to the upheavals in the Transcaucasus after the Russian Revolution. Now, as it happens, I read neither Turkish nor Russian. And while the British Official Histories often provide extensive translation of Turkish.. Before Turkey's entry into the war, Russia had been stripping the Caucasus front of troops to reinforce the Eastern Front with Germany, where things had gone badly since the Battle of Tannenberg in August.

As a result, Russian forces in the theater were outnumbered by their Ottoman counterparts. This did not dissuade Russia from taking the offensive since, like Turkey's enemies (and even its ally Germany) they had a low esteem for Turkey's military abilities. They would learn, as the British would at Kut and Gallipoli, that whatever the weaknesses of Ottoman leadership, the soldiers were another matter. Russia did not even wait for its own November 2 declaration of war, but crossed the border on November 1, 1914.

Let me note that the borders were not those of today. Russia had taken the Armenian areas around Yerevan (now part of Armenia) from Persia in the early 19th century and the area around Kars (now part of Turkey) after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

Georgy Eduardovich Bergmann
The initial Russian operations were commanded by the First Caucasian Army Commander, General Georgy Eduardovich Bergmann. (Also Bergman and, since the Cyrillic spelling is Берхман, it even occasionally appears as Berhman.) He has no English Wikipedia page but does have a Russian one. In Western histories the first Russian thrust tends to be known as the Bergmann  Offensive. His main base was Kars. He had little experience of field command.

Hasan Izzat Pasha
Opposing him, and commanding the Ottoman Third Army, was Hasan Izzat Pasha (modern Turkish, Hasan İzzet Paşa, later Hasan İzzet Arolat), a veteran of the Balkan Wars, based in Erzerum.

Wikipedia's article on the Bergmann Offensive has a decent map of the operation, though why a map on a campaign between Russia and Turkey is captioned in Spanish is a bit of a puzzle.Ofensiva Bergman.png
At dawn on November 2 the main Russian forces crossed the border. Bergmann was in command in the center, leading off from Sarakamish in the direction of Köprüköy, while a brigade under General Istomin moved on his right toward Id, and a Cossack force under Gen. Nikolai Baratov moved on his left. toward the Aras River.

After pushing through light resistance from Turkish border troops, the Russian advance reached a point 17 miles inside Turkish territory. But on November 5, Bergmann decided to push on towards Köprüköy.

As it happened, the Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha had ordered Hasan Izzat to take the offensive, and he counterattacked with elements of the Third Army's IXth and XIth Corps. They met the Russians on November 6. The next day the Russians took Köprüköy and the bridge over the Aras, but then encountered trouble. They were outnumbered and the Turks held the heights around the town in strength.On November 11 Izzat attacked with four infantry divisions and a cavalry division along both banks of the Aras, turned Bergmann's flank and recaptured the town.Bergmann retreated to the line he had reached on the 4th.

But after this the tables turned. The Russians reinforced and counterattacked, and the local Turkish commander decided he was outnumbered and decided yo retreat. The Turkish armies lacked telephone communications and neither side grasped the situation.  The Russians did not detect the Turkish retreat and did not capitalize on it.

The next major engagement would come at Sarakamish in December. By then the winter snows had arrived.

MEI Annual Conference on Thursday

In this week of additional violence and terror from ISIS to Jerusalem, let me remind those of you in the Washington area (and anyone arriving early for the MESA Conference this weekend as well), that MEI's 68th Annual Conference is this week. Though the Banquet tomorrow night and lunch on Thursday are paid events, the Conference itself  on November 20 has free registration. The theme this year is "Navigating the Storm: The Middle East in 2015." Full details and information here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Egyptian Navy Attack: The Plot Thickens and the Mysteries Deepen

The attack last week on an Egyptian Navy vessel off the coast of Damietta has been wrapped in mystery from the start, beginning with how far offshore it was (reports range from 10 nautical miles to 70 kilometers) and who attacked it. I noted in passing late last week that some Jihadist websites were claiming that it was really an attempted mutiny, but I dismissed that, considering the source. I may have been premature, and there are a number of other reports further muddying the waters.

The Beirut-based electronic newspaper Al-Modon has published an account which it claims is the true story, (link in Arabic), to the effect that an officer of the patrol launch 6 October, Ahmad ‘Amer, with five sympathizers he had smuggled board, took command of the ship and killed the crew; when the base radioed the ship, responded that it was a vessel of the Islamic Caliphate. Another boat, 25 April, was sent to intercept, its weaponry malfunctioned, and in the end the Air Force had to intervene.

The story seems far-fetched, but an account in the respected independent newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm reports that a Russian-flagged merchant vessel had been forced into Port Said and its crew were being interrogated to determine if they were involved, and then appears to corroborate at least the involvement of  Ahmad ‘Amer. Quoting Al-Masry al-Youm's English version, Egypt Independent:
Authorities are also investigating captain Ahmed Mostafa Amer, who was driving the navy vessel on the day of the attack in lieu of his supervisor Major Mohamed al-Fujairy, who was injured a week ago in a car accident.
Security services are also attempting to identify whether the car accident was intentional or not, Amer’s relationships at the Port Said navy base, Syrians and Turks in Damietta or others who have had relations with people from the two countries of Syria and Turkey. Another 32 suspects including Egyptians and foreigners are being questioned.
Meanwhile, Damietta port authority canceled a ceremony that was scheduled to honor Major General Mostafa Amer, former chief of the port authority, and father of captain Amer. The ceremony was to be held on occasion of his retirement.
This version does not explicitly say there was a mutiny but clearly seems to imply it.

Besides the aforementioned Russian vessel, which may have merely been in the wrong place st the wrong time, of the much reported 32 persons arrested, at least 16 have now been released, apparently having merely been innocent fishermen in the area..

As Daily News Egypt columnist Amr Khalifa notes,
Close inspection of every story, scenario and possibility indicates contradictions and a healthy dose of question marks in each. Cemented in fact is, 48 hours after Sinai Province declared itself an IS follower, a particularly brazen, well organised, terrorist attack targeted the Egyptian navy. No small feat, this is nothing short of a minor disaster for a regime struggling to earn its security stripes against multiple groups who have chosen the militant route against the army. A central part of the dynamic at play involves the dearth of information, generally, doled out by the security apparatus and more specifically in this terror at sea.
Credibility in all relationships emanates from truth. In this regard, the Egyptian army is failing Egyptians. This has, in turn, left many Egyptians and Egypt watchers wondering what precisely transpired off the north eastern coast of Egypt this week. Based on the wild stories of the past three days, no one will know, with certainty, who bears responsibility for this attack until a video emerges showing excerpts and claiming responsibility. Egyptian memories are laden with horrific imagery from a Sinai Province video , released on Friday, but with little trust because of nearly zero info, it is likely the public will believe nothing less.
Meanwhile, absent official details, confusion reigns and rumors run rampant.

Friday, November 14, 2014

ISIS Announces Coin Designs for the Caliphate's Coinage. Why Do Two of Them Look Rather, Um, Familiar?

The Islamic State, trying to seem credible as a state, has released a series of projected coin designs. (Also here.) They will (it is claimed) be minted in gold, silver, and copper and range in value from a few cents to several hundred dollars. The announcement in Arabic with the illustrations can be found here n PDF.

At least two of these coins look rather familiar. The first has been noted on social media; I'm not sure if anyone has commented on the second.

Some people have noted a certain resemblance between the copper 20 fils piece (at left), and an older Israeli 10 agorot coin (more recent Israeli coins also use palm trees), at right.below.

I know; it's the Middle East and you sort of expect palm trees. (And yes, I know conspiracy theorists and some Egyptian media say ISIS was created by the US and Israel, but then they wouldn't be stupid enough to model their coins on Israel's, would they?)

But then take a look at the gold one dinar coin at left. Wheat's another nice, generic symbol of agricultural production of course; heck, it's appeared on a lot of countries' currencies.

It's just that this one, too, may remind some folks of something.(Photo at right.)

I don't know who did the Caliphate's coin designs, and I'm not suggesting any conspiracies, but the designer might want to consider emigration if he's living under their rule and still has his head intact..

Admittedly, the design with the al-Aqsa Mosque has never appeared on Israeli coinage.

Did Attackers Lure Egyptian Navy with a False SOS?

Some Egyptian media are reporting that the attack Wednesday on an Egyptian Navy vessel involved the vessel being lured into a trap through a false SOS. (Additional details in the Arabic version of the same story here, which describes the vessel as a "launch" patrolling offshore to protect Egypt's oil and gas reserves in its exclusive economic zone, and that it belonged to the Coast Guard, which in Egypt is part of the Navy. The story did not identify the vessel.

Some radical Islamist websites have identified the vessel as the 6 October, which is the name of an Egyptian patrol craft, but these same dubious sites have tried to portray the incident as a mutiny with the mutineers wanting to join "the Caliphate," but none of these versions come from reliable media, and I prefer not to link and send traffic to Jihadi sites.

November 14, 1914: Ottoman Sheikh-ul-Islam Declares Jihad, Hoping Indian, Egyptian, Russian Muslims Will Join

The photo above, taken a century ago today, shows the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the Ottoman Empire, the senior religious authority, Ürgüplü Mustafa Hayri Efendi, proclaiming a fatwa (Turkish fetva) at the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, declaring in the name of the Sultan a religious duty of Jihad against the enemies of he Empire, and asserting that it was incumbent upon all Muslims, through the sultan's claimed authority as Caliph of Islam, and not merely those in the Empire's territory.

The key element is the last:
In this way, would the Muslims living under the sovereignty of Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro and their supporters deserve severe suffering if they fight against Germany and Austria, who are helping the Ottoman government, because it would be harmful for the Caliphate of Islam?

Answer: They would.
The ruling Committee of Union and Progress (the "Young Turks"), were not terribly religious nor believers in Jihad in the current sense of the term, but they, and their German allies as well, had harbored a dream that the claimed authority of the Sultan/Caliph (though he was now largely a figurehead) might be used to persuade the large Muslim population of British India, of British-protected Egypt, of Russian Central Asia, and of French North Africa, to throw off the colonial yoke. The quote above shows they were emphasizing that Muslims were not only forbidden to fight against the Ottomans, but against their German and Austro-Hungarian allies as well. (Despite the mention of Montenegro and Serbia, there was no hint that Bosnian Muslims should rise up against Austria-Hungary. A Jihad dependent on Christian alliances.)

Although Russia and Serbia declared war on the Ottomans on November 2, Montenegro on the 3rd, and Britain and France on the 5th, Turkey did not formally reciprocate until November 11, though by that time combat had begun in the Dardanelles, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and even Yemen. The declaration of war authorized by Sultan Mehmed (Mehmet) V did use the word Jihad, at least in the sense of a great struggle, but the religious sanction of the Sheikh-ul-Islam on the 14th was clearly aimed at the Muslim populations under British, French, and Russian rule.

Sultan Mehmed V
The Sultan/Caliph was really unable to exercise the powers of either office, Since the Young Turk Revolution he had been a figurehead, and Mehmed (Mehmet) V is something of a blank, except for declaring war and, technically, being the last sitting Caliph to authorize a Jihad. But the Ottoman claim to the Caliphate extended only about as far as the Ottoman realm (though there were some sympathizers in India).

Despite his lack of real power he was the symbol of Ottoman authority, as shown in this German (I presume as it's in German; it could be Austrian) celebration of the Drei Kaiser Bund," showing Wilhelm II, Mehmed, and Franz Josef. It's obviously meant to flatter the Sultan, who had far less power than the other two "Kaisers." (Only Wilhelm II would survive to see the end of his Empire.)

The Shaykh-ul-islam who formally proclaimed the jihad is even more ephemeral. Ürgüplü Mustafa Hayri Efendi (who signs the Jihad fatwa in an Ottoman Arabo-Persian form of his name, (Hayri bin Avni Elürgabi), (1867-1921) having taken over the religious post in March of 1914; he would give it up in 1916.I don't read Turkish, but for those who do, you can find biographies here and here.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Who Attacked the Egyptian Navy?

There are still a lot of open questions about yesterday's attack on an Egyptian Navy vessel yesterday, leaving five sailors injured and eight missing. The military claims that with the help of the Air Force four boats were sunk, four attackers killed and 32 arrested. Unconfirmed reports suggested that the Egyptian vessel, whose name and class have apparently not been disclosed, had caught fire.

The Egyptian state media is clearly blaming Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has been waging an insurgency in the Sinai; after 31 were killed three weeks ago, Egypt declared a three-month State of Emergency and began evacuating a strip of land to prevent infiltration from Gaza. Attcks on soldiers and police have continued in Sinai, and this week Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis announced its adherence to the Islamic State. But if the attack on the Navy ship was carried out by them, it marks a daring new tactic.

The Navy has clashed in the past with smugglers; both goods smuggling and human trafficking is increasingly a problem in unstable parts of North Africa, including Sinai. (Though this attack occurred in the Mediterranean off Damietta.)  But it seems unlikely smugglers would attack a Navy vessel if it carried armament. (Again, if the vessel has been identified I haven't seen it.) It could also be an attempt to smuggle radical Jihadis into Egypt.

Less serious, less lethal attacks continue in Cairo, including one this week in which a "sonic bomb" was detonated in the Cairo Metro. The blast did little damage but 16 people were injured in a stampede trying to escape the Metro station.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

If You're Arrested for Reading "1984," Does That Mean You're Living in It??

It may not be as memorable as the headline linked to in my previous post, but his one from Mada Masr is also great: "Police deny Cairo University student arrested for possessing Orwell’s '1984'."

They are not, however, ruling out using it in evidence against the student, who also had writings referring to the Caliphate. The media is, however, playing up the  1984 aspect, for the obvious ironic reasons. The charge sheet listed the book among his possessions and said it refernced "dictator and corrupt military regimes." 

George Orwell, please call your office.

About that Falafel...

It's been a busy day with Journal work, hence no blogging. But I can't resist this one: Lebanon's Health Minister says testing of samples from restaurants and supermarkets throughout the country has found traces of "human excrement and sewage water." Or as the Al-Akhbar English website puts it more colorfully, "Lebanese consumers learn they are eating shit."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Armistice Day/Remembrance Day/ Veterans' Day

Yakup Satar, last Ottoman veteran
Each 11th day of the 11th month since I've been doing this blog, I've marked the observance of the day known variously in the English-speaking world by the titles in the headline. You can read those posts here. This year of course we are marking (I will not say celebrating) the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of that war, and in recent weeks I've done a number of posts about the early days of the war in the Middle East. (Britain's war with Turkey ended before November 11, with the Mudros armistice; Turkey would continue to be engaged with Russian successor states in the Caucasus and with Greece for several more years.)

But this day has long since become a day to remember all who served in that war, and all wars, but particularly the one that ended on the Western Front on this date in 1918. In all the armies of that war, an estimated 65 million served. Over 16 million died and over 20 million were wounded, many permanently affected by mustard gas. My own late great-uncle lost the sight of one eye in a gas attack at Belleau Wood (he was a US Marine), but the US suffered less than most other combatants, entering the war only in 1917.

Wilson called it "the war to end wars." It didn't; but in remembering the losses and the horrors,  we at least remind ourselves that war is not glorious. So let us remember once again.

When I began this blog in 2009, there were still a handful of veterans of the Great War, all of them over 100. The very last, Florence Green, died in 2012, about two weeks short of her 111th birthday.

Since this is a Middle Eastern blog, I again run (above left), the photo of the very last survivor of the Ottoman Army of World War I, Yakup Satar. Born in 1898, he joined in 1915 and served until taken prisoner by the British in Mesopotamia in 1917. After the armistice he served in the Army of the Turkish Republic through the War of Independence. He died in 2008 at the age of 110.

In the US what we call Veterans' Day now has become for too many (but not veterans) just another day off. The British, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders still mark Remembrance Day (or Remembrance Sunday, the nearest Sunday). [Side note for any Kiwi readers: Blogger is spell checking and objecting to "New Zealanders." It suggests "Salamanders." I think you should complain.]

I will end with two items in keeping with Commonwealth traditions on this day, an excerpt from Laurence Binyon's 1914 poem called "For the Fallen," (also called "Ode of Remembrance,") and the mournful "Last Post," played at so many burials during the Great War (comparable to "Taps" for US military funerals.).
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Landing at Sheikh Sa‘id and Turba Fort: a British Landing in Yemen on This Day in 1914

As we've looked at the centennial of the beginning of the First World War in the Middle East, many posts have related to well-known theaters of the war: the Straits, Mesopotamia, the Suez Canal. But a century ago today occurred a British landing on Ottoman soil that is sufficiently obscure that I only recently learned of it: a landing inside Yemen, just outside the border of the Aden Protectorate.

The background: in 1903 and 1904, the British and Ottomans cooperated in a Boundary Commission to survey the Border between the Aden Protectorate and Ottoman-controlled Yemen. This led to the demarcation of the border which would survive the end of Turkish rule in Yemen in 1918, and even the British departure in 1967, and remained the boundary between North and South Yemen until unification in 1990.

Recall that British control in South Arabia was exercised in two ways: the Aden Colony, which consisted of the port of Aden and its environs, and certain key islands, including Perim; and the Aden Protectorate, which was a looser British protectorate over the local sheikhs in the interior. Aden Colony was governed, at the time, from India, and was a critical fueling port between Suez and India.

In November 1914, with Britain and the Ottoman Empire at war, the British became particularly concerned over an Ottoman buildup on the Sheikh Sa‘id Peninsula directly opposite Perim Island, which was controlled by Britain and covered the northern approaches to the Strait of Bab al-Mandab. The Ottomans had built a fortification called Turba Fort (turba usually means "tomb" and I assume there was one in the locality). This was considered a threat to Perim and thus to the British lifeline to India. The 1940s era-map at left shows the strategic setting.

The problem was, the Aden garrison consisted of only one Indian and one British battalion and a small cavalry force, though there were plans to reinforce; the Ottoman VII  corps was deployed in Ottoman Yemen. (By early 1915 it consisted of the 39th and 40th divisions; it isn't clear to me if that was the case in late 1914, and the British were unsure at the time.)

Armored Cruiser HMS Duke of Edinburgh
Lacking forces in the area, it was decided to divert one of the convoys ferrying Indian Army troops from India to Egypt and France, along with a Royal Navy escort. Accordingly, the armored cruiser HMS Duke of Edinburgh, and three transports carrying the 29th Indian Infantry Division (under Brigadier J.H.V. Cox)  were dispatched to Sheikh Sa‘id and the Turba fort.

Duke of Edinburgh shelled the fort on November 10 and largely destroyed it; three battalions of the 29th, along with elements of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers, landed and engaged the local Turkish force, which retreated.They were joined by a naval demolition party and destroyed the fort, artillery, and other equipment. It was felt that it would be difficult for Turkey to resupply these in wartime, and so after spending November 11 destroying armaments, the Indian forces re-embarked and continued to Suez.
This German map details the landing sites and ship positions, or purports to. The German caption reads, "The British-Indian landing force with the armored cruiser (Panzerkreuzer) HMS Duke of Edinburgh and three fast troop transports." As you can see, the Turba Fort lay just over the border (dashed-dotted line).

Here is the account in the official British History of the Great War - Naval Operations, Volume 1, to the Battle of the Falklands, December 1914 (Part 2 of 2) by Sir Julian S Corbett:
Simultaneously [with operations in Mesopotamia] an equally rapid, and unexpected blow was delivered in the mouth of the Red Sea. At Sheikh Syed, opposite Perim, and just outside the northern limit of the Aden Protectorate, a mixed force of Turks and Arabs was reported to be assembling. Here a strong work known as Fort Turba was in a position, if adequately armed, to command the passage between Perim and the mainland. The force which the enemy had assembled was also strong enough to threaten Perim itself, and Aden and the Indian Government thought it advisable to deal with it at once. The means were at hand.
Another large convoy with five infantry brigades and the Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade had left India for France and Egypt on November 2, under escort of the Duke of Edinburgh, Swiftsure and Northbrook, the Duke of Edinburgh being under orders for home to join the Grand Fleet. The troops were urgently required in France, but the assent of the Home Authorities was obtained for a detachment of them to undertake the operation on their way, provided it would not delay the convoy more than twenty-four hours Accordingly, on November 8, as the convoy approached Aden, Captain Henry Blackett in the Duke of Edinburgh, with the City of Manchester and two other transports, containing three battalions of Indian Infantry under Brigadier-General Cox, was sent ahead at full speed. At daybreak on the 9th he closed the fort, and after laying it in ruins without drawing a reply, he led the three transports to a point within the Strait, near Sheikh Syed. Here a landing was at once effected in the face of considerable opposition and a galling fire, and the Duke of Edinburgh was able to keep it under sufficiently for a covering position to be seized without much loss. The disembarkation could then proceed, and early in the afternoon, when half the troops were ashore, an advance was made, still in the face of opposition, to clear the enemy away from the vicinity of Fort Turba. The enemy, however, eventually made off before it, and by night all the surrounding heights were occupied. Then, the following morning, without any interference, Captain Blackett was able to land a demolition party at the fort. It was found to contain only five light guns. These were destroyed, the work itself was completely dismantled, and by 6 p.m. all the troops were on board again, and the transports hurrying on to rejoin the convoy after a very clean and rapid piece of work.

Friday, November 7, 2014

World War I +100: A Preview of Coming Attractions

By this time it's probably clear that I plan to note major events in the opening days of the Great War in the Middle East as we come to their centennials (with some leeway for weekends, holidays, and when several things happened on different fronts). I also plan to look at the interests, war aims, strategic calculations, and strategic planning of the various sides.

Since I have several posts in preparation  but none ready just yet, I thought I'd leave you for the weekend with a preview of coming attractions.

I hope to keep it interesting. For Monday, I plan to discuss a forgotten little operation in November 1914 so obscure  that even I didn't know about it. One hint: it's in Yemen.

On the war plans front, everybody knows that Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, came up with the strategic concept of the Gallipoli campaign, with far too well-known results. It's less remembered that his counterpart at the War Office, Lord Kitchener, championed a different concept: a landing of British forces at Alexandretta (İskenderun), to push inland and seize the Ottoman railroad connections, cutting the (still-incomplete) Baghdad railway as well as  cutting Ottoman communications with Damascus and the Holy Cities of the Hijaz. T.E. Lawrence became an early enthusiast for this idea, but nothing ever came of it. One of the great "What if?" questions is, could it have worked better than Gallipoli? (Let me amend that to "Could it have worked?," since Gallipoli didn't work at all.)

Be honest; if you're a Westerner or an Arab thinking about World War I in the Middle East, you think of fighting in an arid landscape. Maybe you think of films like Lawrence of Arabia or Gallipoli, or photos of the Mesopotamian campaign. You probably don't think of snow. The photo on the left is of Ottoman ski troops. Of all the fronts of the Turkish war effort, the long slog in the snows of the Caucasus may have been the worst. Turkish casualties, military and civilian, were high; the Russians suffered as well, and you know about the Armenian tragedy. Worse still, it began the day before the Russians declared war, and it continued even after Russia left the war with Germany after the Revolution, and after the Mudros Armistice as well. I'll deal with the opening moves of that campaign, the so-called Bergmann offensive, sometime next week.

So stay tuned.

Does Libya Still Have Two Parliaments, Just One (and if so, Which?), or None After High Court Decision?

Just when you thought things couldn't get much worse in Libya, yesterday's Supreme Court decision declaring the August inflection of a new House of Representatives to be unconstitutional,  may have muddled things even further. Since August, there have been two rival parliaments, or claimants yo be parliament: a  House of Representatives generally recognized internationally as the legitimate legislature, now meeting in Tobruk, and a rump of the former legislative body, the General National Congress, sitting in Tripoli under the aegis of the "Libyan Dawn" Islamist militias controlling that town. Since the Supreme Court is also in Tripoli, the Tobruk Parliament has rejected the Court's decision.

The problem is that the Supreme Court did not officially explain its reasoning for the ruling, adding to confusion and to some uncertainty internationally; only the Tobruk body enjoys international recognition, but the Supreme Court ruling calls that legitimacy into question, though the Court may have acted under the guns of the militias. Although it has said ti will release the full text of the decision, it reportedly involves the adoption of the Electoral Law by fewer than the two-thirds majority of the former General National Congress provided for under the country's Constitutional Declaration.

Meanwhile, the rump of the GNC in Tripoli has said the decision leaves it free to "resume its legislative functions," although, since it consists of members not elected to the new House of Representatives, it lacks a quorum of its original strength.

Most international and UN efforts to resolve the standoff have focused on opening talks between the two rival factions aimed at finding a way to form  a coalition government. The United Nations issued a statement reiterating the need to create a national consensus, but that seems more difficult than ever now.

This has revived old concerns that the eastern region around Benghazi might secede.

And in the deep south, tribal fighting around the Sharara oilfields led to declining production and, in recent days, a takeover of the oilfields and a shutdown of production, though it is claimed this will resume "soon."  Some are portraying the tribal conflict as simply that, an ethnic conflict between the Berber-speaking Tuareg and the Nilo-Saharan-speaking Tebou, while others claim the two sides are now fighting as proxies for the rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

First Fights on the Road to Basra, November 6-12, 1914

As i mentioned earlier in my posting of Kipling's "Mesopotamia," Britain's long and agonizing campaign in Mesopotamia (Iraq "Mespot" to the soldiers who fought there) began 100 years ago today.

Walter S. Delamain
I have already noted how even before hostilities began, Britain had dispatched Indian expeditionary Force "D" to the northern Gulf, consisting of the 16th Brigade of the Indian Army 6th (Poona) Division, commanded by Brigadier Walter S. Delamain, to the Gulf, ostensibly to protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company's refineries at Abadan, which were Persian territory but under an informal protectorate by Britain under an understanding with the local ruler of Muhammara (Khorramshahr), Sheikh Khaz‘al.

I've also noted that even before the British declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire on November 5, 1914, the British were moving, declaring martial law in Egypt on November 2 and bombarding the Turkish forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles on November 3. Those were the first British shots fired at Turkey (the Russians, who declared war three days earlier, were already inside Turkish territory in the Caucasus; I'll be discussing that soon.)

Fao to Basra, 1914
Delamain's 16th Brigade had been kept at Bahrain until war became imminent, but on November 3 proceeded to the mouth of the Shatt al-‘Arab its mission expended from protecting Abadan to seizing Basra to guarantee the security of Abadan. They spent the next days clearing mines at the mouth of the Shatt. Once the formal declaration of war came on the 5th, they entered the Shatt. The next day, hostilities began.

HMS Espiegle
I have already mentioned HMS Espiegle, the British armed sloop deployed in the Shatt to defend Abadan despite Turkish threats to fire on her. Once IEF Force "D" had crossed the bar, Ottoman troops opposite Abadan opened fire on Espiegle,  which returned fire to protect the refinery. She soon silenced the Turkish guns, with only two wounded British soldiers as casualties. Turkish losses in the exchange are unclear.

On that same November 6 a century ago, Delamain landed  a small force on the Fao Peninsula, to suppress the guns at and around the fort at Fao. This first British landing force  to set foot on Ottoman territory consisted of about 600 men, including one company each from the 2nd Dorsets (2nd Battalion, Dorsetshire Infantry), the 20th Punjabis (20th Duke of Cambridge's Own Infantry/"Brownlow's Punjabis"), and the 117th Mahrattas, along with some Royal Marines from the HMS Ocean, the only British battleship present but with too deep a draft to enter the Shatt, and at least two mountain guns. They landed a few miles north of the Turkish fort on the morning of the 6th, The small Turkish force put up some resistance and held out until the British brought up heavier artillery; the last resistance surrendered on November 8.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the landing force headed for Sanniyeh (Saniyya), more or less opposite the Abadan refinery (see map above). They encountered multiple problems: a lack of docking facilities, marshy ground, high winds, and no true landing craft, and it took two days, November 8-10, to land the troops. Fortunately they met no immediate resistance. The bulk of the Turkish forces in the region were in Basra, mostly scattered battalions from various regiments; this would soon change.

Gen. Sir Arthur Barrett
Delamain's orders were to take position and await the arrival of the 18th Brigade under the overall commander of the 6th (Poona) Division, General Sir Arthur Barrett, could arrive. But the Sheikh of Muhammara informed the British that a force of Turkish troops from Basra (usually reported as about 600 strong) was planning to attack the camp at dawn on November 11, the day after the landings were complete. With this warning and with further intelligence from the Sheikh that the Turks began moving at 3 AM, Delamain was ready and when the attack acme at 5:30 AM, the attackers were repulsed.

On the 12th, Barrett arrived in the gulf with another of Force "D"'s brigades, the 18th, and elements of the 6th Division divisional troops; on the 14th he took command, and Delamain resumed command of the 16th Brigade.

The first week of the Mesopotamian campaign had reinforced every stereotype the British held about the "Sick Man," the Ottoman Empire, and about "the East" in general (though the bulk of their troops were Indian Army). The Ottomans were unprepared to defend Basra and it, too, would soon fall, leading the British to assume it would be relatively easy to go on to Baghdad. (Do the British use the term "cakewalk?" Did they in 1914?) But they would find that Kut lay on the road to Baghdad.

For the Day the Mesopotamian Campaign Began, Kipling's "Mesopotamia (1917)"

In 1917, Rudyard Kipling, infuriated by the surrender of a British Army at Kut and the lack of accountability thereafter, as well as the overall debacle of the British campaign in Mesopotamia (or "Mespot", as the British Tommies nicknamed it), wrote his grim poem, "Mesopotamia (1917)," a far cry from his usual tone of celebrating Empire. The Mesopotamian campaign began a century ago today, with a British landing at Fao; I'll be discussing that shortly in a separate post.  But it also seems an appropriate time for Kipling's poem, which may have application to other, later or future, adventures in Iraq:

Rudyard Kipling
They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
    The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
    Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
    In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
    Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide—
    Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
    Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
    When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
    By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
    Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
    To conform and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us—their death could not undo—
    The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
    Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Overdoing Egyptian Patriotic Imagery

When Egyptian patriotic imagery goes a bit, um, overboard:

Sultan Qaboos Tells Omanis He Will Not Be Home for National Day

Sultan  Qaboos of Oman, who has been in Germany since July. has broadcast a message to Omanis expressing regret that he will not be able to join them for this month's celebration of the Sultan's birthday/Oman's National Day November 18. There has been considerable speculation and rumor about the almost 74-year-old Sultan's health, but little official comment or information available about the nature of his medical treatment. His gaunt appearance and generalized reassurance may or may not alleviate concern (video below):
The divine will has dictated that the occasion this year falls while we are outside the dear homeland for reasons you know. But, by God’s grace, He prepared the good results that
The Sultan, who is now the longest-serving Arab leader, has no children or siblings and no designated heir apparent, though he did institute a procedure under which the Royal Family might choose an heir.

November 5, 1914; War Comes to the Middle East

One hundred years ago today, Britain and France declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Russia had done so three days earlier, and its troops crossed the border in what became known as the Bergmann Offensive in the Caucasus, which I'll discuss soon.. As I noted yesterday, on November 3 Britain jumped the gun and anticipated its declaration of war by two days by shelling the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles. On November 6, it would land forces in Mesopotamia.

Authors writing from a western European perspective often would characterize the great War in the Middle East as a "sideshow" of the horrors of the Western Front, and outside the region itself few people know much about it. Everybody knows Lawrence of Arabia (or at least Lawrence of Arabia, the David Lean film), and thus something about the Arab Revolt. Australians and New Zealanders know Gallipoli, and the exploits of the Light Horse in Palestine, but only Turks remember the hard, slogging, snowy war in the Caucasus. Even British memory has tended to forget the mass surrender at Kut.

Yet every student of the Modern Middle East knows that this is the era that gives us the creation myth of most modern nation-states in "our" region. The postwar settlement, usually and incorrectly attributed to "Sykes-Picot" (whose map would be largely unrecognizable today) created the Middle East we know today. To quote David Fromkin's wonderful title of his book on the subject, "the war to end all war" ended with "A Peace to End All Peace." (The original joke was made in 1066 and All That, referring to Versailles, but Fromkin gets credit for applying it to the Middle East.)

In the coming days, weeks, and months (and given the opportunity, till 2018), I plan to take the "historical and cultural context" mission of this blog literally and (being a historian by training), retell or, when possible, tell mostly forgotten aspects of the war that forged the Middle East we know today. Since, except for the Caucasus and Mesopotamia, which we'll be discussing soon, the actual battle fronts took some time to develop, I'll also be looking at the strategic calculations and war plans of the various belligerents. Stay tuned.