A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Nasser Died 46 Years Ago Today

On September 28, 1970, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had just concluded a high tension Arab Summit in Cairo aimed at resolving the "Black September" conflict between Jordan and the PLO. On September 27, Jordan and the PLO signed an accord which essentially treated them as equal parties to the dispute. Nasser spent the morning of the 28th seeing his Arab VIP guests off at Cairo airport. Soon after leaving, he suffered a massive heart attack. He was taken ro his home, where he died later that afternoon.

Though only 52, Nasser was a heavy chain smoker and a diabetic with a family history of heart disease, and the stress of Black September and the Cairo Summit had taken their toll.

The juxtaposition of Nasser's death and the September crisis (which had included threats of US, and Israeli intervention in Jordan and Soviet intervention in Syria) led to shock throughout the region   and an outpouring of grief in Egypt. Five million people attended the funeral.

The Last of the Founders: Shimon Peres (1923-2016)

One of the last survivors of Israel's founding generation, Shimon Peres has died at age 93, two weeks after suffering a massive stroke. Peres held almost every senior position imaginable in a life that paralleled the life of Israel: Defense Minister, Finance Minister, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister (twice, or three times if you count a brief stint as Acting PM in 1977) and finally the most politically outspoken holder of the usual ceremonial post of President, a job he held until 2014. Born in 1923 in what was then Poland and is now Belarus, he was likely one of the last senior Israeli figures born in pre-WWII Eastern Europe.

There's little point in retracing all the details of a long and very politically active life. Everyone will be doing that today. Let me touch on the salient points. A key protégé of David Ben-Gurion, he followed the "old man" out of the Mapai (later Labor) Party to found Rafi, and returned when BG did.

He would be the rare Israeli Defense Ministers never to have served on the IDF or one of the pre-state military organizations. Like a later exception to the rule, Moshe Arens, he made his name in the civilian side of the defense establishment. In Peres' case, he created it. As Director-General of the Defense Ministry in the 1950s, the post in charge of defense production, he was the architect of Israel's defense relations with France, and the father of Israel's domestic defense industrial sector, today one of the most robust in the world. In the same period, he also served as the father of Israel's nuclear program.

1994 Nobel Peace Prize
Peres' terms as Prime Minister (1984-1986 in rotation with Yitzhak Shamir and 1995-1996 after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin) were in neither case elections in his own right. In the 1990s, as Foreign Minister under Rabin, he was involved in negotiating the Oslo Accords and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Yasir ‘Arafat.

In his last decades Peres was a strong supporter of a two-state solution and what he referred to as a "New Middle East": he would not live to see it. But he made the usually ceremonially role of President an advocate for peace, despite inevitable friction with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think he will be missed.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

September 22, 1916: The Ta'if Garrison Surrenders to the Arab Revolt

Sharifian Troops in Ta'if after the Surrender
Back in June, in discussing the centenary of the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, I noted that after the Revolt was proclaimed by Sharif Hussein at Mecca, the Sharifian forces soon occupied Mecca and, with British assistance, Jidda was also taken. Hussein's sons ‘Ali and Feisal attacked Medina and ‘Abdullah attacked Ta'if, the mountain resort town near Mecca.

The Sharifians were repulsed from Medina, where the Turks had a garrison of 10,000 and which, as railhead of the Hejaz Railway could easily be resupplied.
Ta'if in 1917 (H. St.John B. Philby)

At Ta'if, ‘Abdullah's troops quickly occupied the outskirts, while the Turkish garrison retreated into its garrison and the town fortifications. Lacking artillery, ‘Abdullah's forces decided on a siege rather than a full attack.

Meanwhile the British began transporting artillery through mountain roads to Ta'if. The artillery would be manned by Egyptian gunners, despite Egypt remaining nominally neutral. Sharifian sympathizers reportedly provided artillery spotters.

Ali Galip Pasinler
The siege eventually dragged on for three months, from June 10 to September 22.The Ottoman garrison was under Gen. Ali Galip Bey (later known as Ali Galip Pasinler). Finally, on September 22, Galip surrendered with his whole garrison. He had moved his headquarters several times after his original bunker was hit by artillery.

‘Abdullah remembered his conversation with Galip thus in his Memoirs:
 I found him in the large hall at Shubra Palace, the only general among seventy-five junior officers.
He seemed pleased to see me, and after several moments he said, “This is a great catastrophe . . . we were brothers and now we are enemies” I felt bolder in his presence now that our positions were reversed, but said as gently as I could, “The master has become the master again and is freed from slavery and the yoke of him whom he enlightened.”
His face became as white as a sheet, but he recovered himself and said, “I know that the Arab nation would separate from us one day, but I never thought that it would happen so quickly.” “You are right, “ I replied, “for speed was in our interest. If you had retained the absolute authority of the Caliphate, we would never have risen against you, but your party became despotic and dictated not only to your people but to the Sultan as well . . . However, recriminations now will do no good. Please come in to dinner. I hope you will enjoy that I have prepared for you after the rigors of the siege”
Ruins of Sharif Hussein's Palace in Ta'if after the siege (Philby)
Below is a postwar Turkish  map showing the siege of Ta'if:

More Geographically Challenged US Political Leaders

In the wake of the "What is Aleppo?" controversy one would hope that US politicians would spend a little time with a map before speaking in public. In the midst of the Senate debate over an arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which was opposed by critics of the Saudi air campaign in Yemen, two Republican senators who really ought to know better seem to have confused the Strait of Bab al-Mandab with the Strait of Hormuz. Senator John McCain of Arizona, former Presidential candidate and a specialist in national security issues, and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, defended the Saudi campaign by arguing that if the Houthis had been allowed to occupy all of Yemen, they could have posed a threat to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Strait of Hormuz, of course, runs between Iran on one side and Oman and the UAE  on the other; no part of Yemen comes anywhere near it. (And don't get me started on the notion that the Houthis are Iranian stooges, because, um, the Saudis say they are. I'm no fan of the Houthi movement, but it's a home-grown Yemeni Zaydi movement.)

Monday, September 19, 2016

On the Eve of Jordan's Vote

Jordan is far from being an ideal democracy, but it does have political parties and competitive elections, even if Parliament's power is circumscribed. Tomorrow, Jordan goes to the polls to elect a new Parliament. Curtis Ryan offers an overview at The Washington Post, and also POMEPS has a podcast with Ryan on the same subject. They provide a useful briefing before the vote.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What is Aleppo? Once One of the World's Great Cities, Until the World Abandoned it

The Citadel of Aleppo

"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography."
                                                                        —Ambrose Bierce

Five years of war in Syria may not have taught Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson what Aleppo is, and there is no doubt many other Americans who couldn't find Syria's largest city on a map. As another fragile ceasefire takes tenuous hold, I thought it might be a suitable time to talk a bit about a once magnificent city now reduced to rubble.

Before the civil war produced a huge outflow of refugees, Aleppo's population of over two million made Aleppo the largest city in Syria, larger than the capital, Damascus. In Ottoman times it was the third-largest city in the Empire, after Constantinople and Cairo.

Aleppo is an ancient city, very ancient. The Temple of Hadad inside Aleppo's spectacular citadel shows the site has been occupied since the Third Millennium BC, and perhaps much earlier. Archaeological exploration has been limited by the presence of the modern city, but like several other cities in the region it has a claim to being one of the earliest human settlements. It is mentioned as a key city in the tablets from Ebla and Mari.

The Arabic name for the city, Halab, is also very ancient, and seems to refer to whiteness. Its location at the curve of the Fertile Crescent, between the Euphrates and Orontes valleys, made it a center of trade from ancient times. With Antioch (and later Alexandretta) providing outlets for Mediterranean trade, and the evolution of the Silk Road to the East, on which Aleppo was a major entrepot, Aleppo became and until recently remained, one of the key trading centers of the Middle East. Its archaeological museum, now closed and with damage from artillery, was once a gem.

Like other ancient  cities, prewar Aleppo was a palimpsest of ancient cultures: Amorite, Hittite, Seleucid, Roman, and in the Islamic era Hamdanid, Seljuq, Zangid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk. The great Arab poet al-Mutanabbi wrote some of his best work at the Hamdanid  court of Saif sal-Dawla in Aleppo. In Ottoman times it was a richly cosmopolitan city populated by Arabs, Armenians, Turks, Turcomans, Kurds, and Jews.

In the early modern era, Aleppo became well known in Europe. The English Levant Company, one of the main Tudor trading companies, founded n 1592, had a headquarters at Aleppo. Shakespeare mentions the city at least twice:
Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him thus.
 Othello, Act 5, Scene 2 (just before stabbing himself)
 First witch: A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munched, and munched, and munched. “Give me,”
     quoth I.
“Aroint thee, witch!” the rump-fed runnion cries.
Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o' th' Tiger;
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.
Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3
Though politically eclipsed by Damascus, Aleppo was a major center under the French Mandate, and in independent Syria. Its most famous European hotel, the Armenian-owned Hotel Baron, boasted a clientele of almost every famous figure in 19th and 20th century Middle Eastern history, including various kings and Presidents from de Gaulle to Nasser, and had a framed unpaid bar bill of T.E. Lawrence's on display. Sadly, though it stayed open through several years of the civil war, I understand the Baron stopped taking guests in 2014, by which time it was almost on the front lines. I never stayed there, but I did once have a drink at the bar. Unlike Lawrence, I paid my tab.

The old city of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has suffered terribly. The famous Suq was burned several years ago; numerous mosques, the Archaeological Museum, and even the awesome Citadel have suffered damage. Perhaps the question should be, not "What is Aleppo?" but rather "What was Aleppo?"

Monday, September 12, 2016

‘Eid Greetings

‘Eid al-Adha greetings to all my Muslim readers.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Hizbullah Joins Iranian Hajj Boycott

Hizbullah has announced that its members will be forbidden  to attend this year's hajj, which begins this weekend. Earlier this year Iran announced that it would boycott the hajj, following last year's carnage in a stampede and the deepening war of words between Riyadh and Tehran.

After a smaller disaster left hundreds dead in 1987's hajj, Iran boycotted the hajj for three years.

Memo to Libertarian Candidate Gary Johnson: This is Aleppo

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Uzbekistan After Karimov: Now What?

I need to catch up on my blogging over the Labor Day holiday; as I'm still recovering from the latest surgery and there's a hurricane coming up the coast I'll be chair-ridden anyway.

The death of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in recent days raises a great many questions about the succession, but what struck me as particularly bizarre was that after days of rumors about his health, the first official confirmation came when the Turkish Prime Minister sent his condolences. That's right: news of the death of Uzbekistan's only President since independence was announced by another country.

Of all the autocratic "Khans" running the countries of Central Asia, Karimov was among the worst. Juan Cole presents the bill of particulars here. The succession is muddled. His own daughter was once considered a possibility, until he put  her under house arrest.