A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Apparently Neo-Ottomanism Isn't Limited to Erdoğan, and Other Talk of Empires Past and Future

When the New Zealander/adoptive British Imperial apologist J.B. Kelly author of Arabia, the Gulf and the West and other works, I called him "the last Imperial Briton" and treated him as an anachronism. But even then, American neocons were exulting in an American neo-imperialism of sorts, and one was already hearing  revisionist historians like Niall Ferguson in his books Colossus and Empire seemingly yearning for the good old Empire days. Now, much of the world will be surprised to learn that most Americans don't see ourselves as an imperialist people. Perhaps back in the days of Teddy Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan, but not today. We rationalize our global ambitions as bringing stability, order, and democracy, as France once rationalized its Empire as la mission civilisatrice.

But nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire is still, for the most part, limited to right-wing Turkish nationalists and to "Neo-Ottomanist" President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

At least until now. 

Robert D. Kaplan's piece at Foreign Policy, "It's Time to Bring imperialism Back to the Middle East," actually goes there. Kaplan has written a number of popular works. I never read his Balkan Ghosts so i won't comment on it here. I must confess that his Arabists: the Romance of an American Elite annoyed me, though giving the pleasure one gets from yelling at a book as one reads it, Since it dealt with many friends, teachers, mentors, colleagues, and former bosses (some of whom weren't even technically Arabists as they didn't know the language), I read it ay least twice.. (The cover shows the late Talcott Seelye, Ambassador to Syria and Tunisia, whom I was lucky enough to know well and whose daughter Kate is now my colleague as Senior Vice President of MEI.)

So I admit to some bias in judging Kaplan's arguments because, to use the academic terms, I consider them dangerous imperialist bullshit. Read it for yourself. His conclusion:
Thus, the near-term and perhaps middle-term future of the Middle East will likely be grim. The Sunni Islamic State will now fight Iran’s Shiite militias, just as Saddam’s Sunni Iraq fought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Shiite Iran in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. That war, going on as long as it did, represented in part the deliberate decision of the Reagan administration not to intervene — another example of weak imperial authority, though a successful one, since it allowed Reagan to concentrate on Europe and help end the Cold War.
Back then it was states at war; now it is sub-states. Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been. The challenge now is less to establish democracy than to reestablish order. For without order, there is no freedom for anyone.
Ah, yes, Ordnung supersedes democracy, human rights, and other frills. Notice how it's more sinister if I use the German word? I wonder why that is?

While Kaplan dosn't urge a reestablishment of the Ottoman Empire inn is original form, i rather exect he's going to have some 'splainin' to do with his Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian friends, if he has some.

In another area, the current anti-0Iran hysteria in the US, Israel, and the Gulf Arab states has led to much talk about Iran pursuing a "new Persian Empire," Professor Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University takes this apart very nicely at Al Jazeera in "Persian Empire, Anyone?"

I truly believe the age of empires is gone. We may have a (I believe false) nostalgia, for a (falsely?) remembered stability, and no one prefers the barbarity of ISIS, but Kaplsn's solution is to treasure an anachronism.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Three-Day Holiday Weekend

Today is the Memorial Day holiday in the US. Regular blogging resumes tomorrow.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Ironies of ISIS at Palmyra: What would Zenobia Say?

As I have said many times, expressions of concern over ISIS' destruction of antiquities in no way is intended to underplay or undervalue their toll in human lives; on the contrary, the concerns over their destruction of heritage sites help generate attention to the human toll.

A denarius of Zenobia
There is an irony in the Islamic State's latest conquest: that a movement not known for its respect for women finds itself in possession of a site associated with one of the strongest female figures of antiquity. Second in fame only to Cleopatra (but unlike her, not in the shadow of a Caesar or an Antony), Queen Zenobia of Palmyra challenged Rome, ruled both the Levant and Egypt until he Emperor Aurelian brought her to heel.

The Palmyrene Empire
When her husband King Odenathus died in AD 267, she became Queen Regent for her minor son. She then proceeded to expel Rome from Egypt and invade Anatolia, ruling over a short-lived but extensive empire until defeated by Aurelian and carried off to Rome in 273.

Renaissance interpretation by Michele Tosini
She seems to have fascinated the Romans, and in subsequent centuries would inspire paintings, sculpture, novels, operas,and much romanticization of her story. In Arab tradition she is Zaynab and remembered in folklore. I thought the Renaissance Italian portrait by Michele Tosini at right, believed to be of Zenobia, would be particularly upsetting to ISIS, so I chose it.
She was the last queen of Palmyra and ruled the city at the moment of its greatest splendor. She saw the very ruins ISIS threatens today before the city's fall. What, indeed, would she think of ISIS?

Personal photos from a trip to Palmyra in 1972, over 40 years ago. I haven't been back since, having assumed it would always be there:

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Egyptian Court Bans Internet Pornography. Yet Again. This Time Due to Alleged Friskiness at the Pyramids

Egypt's Administrative Court has moved to ban pornographic sites on the Internet this week, (link is in Arabic; English summary here).

This latest move should probably not be confused with a May 2009 ban on pornographic websites, nor with the state prosecutor's ban on such websites in 2012, nor with a separate case in the Morsi era that was adjourned, not to mention the fact that Egypt-based sites have long been illegal anyway.

The latest rebanning of something already banned seems to be a feelgood response to public outrage at two reported cases of pornographic films being surreptitiously made at the pyramids. The first case erupted in March when a Russian couple apparently filmed a partially explicit video at the pyramids.

Then at the beginning of May reports said that the Ministry of Antiquities had opened an investigation of reports that a porn star known as Carmen de Luz had posed for "indecent' pictures at the pyramids. She denied it, saying she visited the pyramids and posted modest pictures to Facebook, and a reading of the link suggests the Ministry is partly concerned that she was at the site after hours. Given the earlier Russian incident, the mere visit of a known porn star to the pyramids may trigger suspicion.

Need I note that even the first incident and its resulting video were not posted on an Egyptian website and presumably were already banned under existing law?

It's a good thing Egypt has solved all its problems of poverty, human rights, social violence, terrorism etc., and can now concentrate on the important stuff like pyramid porn, real or imagined.  Meanwhile, tourists, please remember, if you feel like getting promiscuous at the pyramids or sexy at the Sphinx, don't film it or post it to the Internet.

The Fall of Tadmur and the Threat to the Ruins of Palmyra

The fall of the Syrian town of Tadmur, adjacent to the ruins of ancient Palmyra, to the Islamic State, has drawn much attention because of concern about the UNESCO World Heritage Site, in light of ISIS' destruction of antiquities in and around Mosul. The spectacular Roman-era ruins have been in danger in earlier rounds of fighting in the Syrian civil war, but the threat there was collateral damage, not deliberate destruction.

Appalling as the threat to Palmyra is, some perspective is in order Tadmur is not a major town, except as a tourist site, though there are military bases nearby; it is not a major prize like Raqqa or Deir al-Zor, but the fame of the ruins and the recent fall of (the far more important) Ramadi in Iraq combine to create a sense of alarm in the media. I keep hearing that ISIS "now controls 50% of Syria." But it controls a lot of desert and few real population centers, and Tadmur doesn't change that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Personal Note

I'm still recovering from surgery 10 days ago and trying to get up to speed with both the Journal and the blog. Expect a more normal blogging pace soon.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Emad Shahin Death Sentence

Emad Shahin
 Over the weekend Egypt indulged in another round of multiple death sentences, including some 106 people in a so-called prison break case and 16 people in an alleged espionage case. The former group includes ousted President Muhammad Morsi, and convicts him in a case dating from before his election to the Presidency.

The second case is particularly outraging the scholarly community, as it includes a death sentence against Professor Emad Shahin, one of Egypt's most respected political scientists, normally based at AUC.

Fortunately, the sentence against Shahin is in absentia, as he is currently here in Washington at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. A respected authority on political Islam and the Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics.

Though some Egyptian media accuse him of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, studying a subject is not the same as supporting it.  The court apparently accepted the charges without investigating the evidence; as Professor Shahin notes in a statement on his website, " two defendants sentenced to death today had already been dead and one has been in prison for the past 19 years."

He has also given an interview with Al Jazeera about the case.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Good News and Bad News on the Cairo Bar Scene: El-Horriya Still Going Strong, but Cafe Riche is Closed for Now, Perhaps for Good

This blog has occasionally commented on the bar scene in Cairo, especially the baladi or local hangouts as opposed to those in five-star hotels. I bear both good news and bad news: El-Horriya is  apparently going strong after 70 years, but the Cafe Riche, which goes back a century, is closed and unlikely to reopen.

I imagine most people who know downtown Cairo will be familiar with both. CairoScene has a piece, "El-Horreya Cafe: 70 Years Strong," dealing with the enduring coffeehouse/bar off Midan Falaky in the Bab al-Luq neighborhood. Always a sort of cross between a classic qahwa with men playing chess or backgammoin over tea or coffee, and a bar inside,Though the story throws in words like "infamous" and "notorious," those aren't really deserved unless you're a temperance campaigner. Centrally located not far from Tahrir Square and the old downtown campus of AUC, it has long been a place that cut across divides of class. They interview a barman who has worked there since the 1960s.

According to a 2010 story in Egypt Independent, the bar closed for several months that year for renovation, including a new paint job, but it doesn't sound like it spoiled the place.

But the news is not so good about an even older and more famous venue. After the death of its owner, the Cafe Riche has closed, and may never reopen.

The legendary cafe and bar, which in recent years has been selling its legend, is a few doors south of Midan Tal‘at Harb on the street of the same name, deep in the beating heart of downtown Cairo.

In 2011 I posted about the Riche: "Cairo's Cafe Riche: a Classic or Living Off its Reputation?" 

When I first lived in Egypt under Sadat in the 1970s, it was more or less a daily hangout. On multiple visits in the 1980s, I stopped by whenever possible. It suffered serious damage in the devastating 1992 Cairo earthquake and was, I believe, closed for much of the 1990s.

The Riche I knew was an egalitarian, welcoming place. Literary types and intellectuals rubbed elbows with students and workers, as well as backpacking tourists. I haven't seen the reopened post-earthquake version, which reviews say capitalizes on its historical reputation (the Free Officers, .Naguib Mahfouz, etc.) and was selective in its clientele.  My 2011 post linked above, a great piece in The Economist the same year (unsigned but probably by Max Rodenbeck) and the Ahram Online piece linked above all allude to the changes that have occurred. My Riche from the 70s and 80s had put on airs.

The Ahram article holds out some hope that developers will acquire and reopen the Riche, but in the wake of its owner's death and uncertainty about its ownership, it's closed for now. Even if it is resurrected, it will probably resemble the post-earthquake version rather thsn the glory days.

Bibliographica Iranica

Bibliographia Iranica describes itself as "a predominantly bibliographic blog for Iranian Studies."

It seems to have a strong (but not exclusive) focus on pre-Islamic Iran, both historical and linguistic, and on Zoroastrian studies, though some of the works deal with later periods, It appears to be a great resource for those fields.

Nakba Day

Today is May 15, the date traditionally marked by Palestinians as Nakba Day, coinciding with the end of the Palestine Mandate on May 15 and the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, Israel celebrates its independence day according to the Jewish calendar date, so the two rarely coincide.

More posts coming soon; I'm still recovering.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Mulid of Sayyida Zaynab

Daily News Egypt
The mulid (celebration of a saint's birthday) of Sayyid Zaynab, the Prophet's granddaughter and one of he patron saints of Cairo, was this week, and Daily News Egypt has a photo gallery. Sayyida Zaynab's is probably the largest nd most colorful of the Cairo mulids, centered around the neighborhood around the mosque where she is buried. (She is also buried in a town south of Damascus, but she is a saint and the Prophet's granddaughter, and miracles happen.)

Daily News Egypt
One of the legacies of the Fatimid era in Egypt is the fact that several of Cairo's patron saints are actually ‘Alids, including Imam Hussein, Sayyida Zaynab and Sayyida Nafisa, though Egypt's few Shi‘ites are usually not allowed to conduct separate ceremonies, and the people celebrating the mulid are Sunni. (Another Cairo saint with a big mulid, Imam al-Shafi‘i, was a Sunni, but a legal scholar who didn't much approve of venerating saints. Now he is one.)

Daily News Egypt
Islamists frown on mulids as saint-worship, and during the swine flu hysteria of 2009 there was an attempt to ban public celebrations of mulids, but they remain a popular event, part festival, part carnival, part religious devotion; the Sufi orders come out in force, but so do hucksters, vendors, fortune-tellers and what-not.

Go take a look at the photo essay if you can't get to any mulids in person.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Kenan Evren, 1917-2015

I'm very much still recovering from my surgery and have not yet resumed work, nor is this a resumption of blogging at the full old pace. But I thought I should note the passing on May 9 of former Turkish President Kenan Evren at the venerable age of 97.

Evren led the 1980 coup and headed the military junta that followed. The coup was sparked by a period of political violence and anarchy, but the period of Evren's military rule responded with harsh repression and a suspension of political rights. After writing a new, more restrictive constitution, Evren was elected President in 1982, serving until 1989.

Though the Turkish military would continue to wield its power to put pressure on political leaders throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, it never again assumed direct military rule.

In 2012 Evren was brought to trial for the 1980 coup and in 2014 sentenced to life imprisonment, but ined hospitalized due to extreme age and illness.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Short Medical Hiatus

Tomorrow I am undergoing surgery that I have put off for years.  If there are no complications I should be home quickly but out of commission for a few days at least. After my hip surgery in 2010 I discovered that strong painkillers do not mix well with blogging in coherent English, so blogging will be light or nonexistent for however long that is. I hope only a few days, but I'll be working from home when I do resume.

Inshallah I'll be back here soon.

Houthi/Saudi Escalation, North and South

The Saudi-Houthi conflict in Yemen has been escalating, showing signs of tuning into a ground war at both the northern and southern extremes of the country. In the south, where troops loyal to the former Yemeni government are fighting to keep the Houthis out of Aden, there were reports last week of some Saudi ground forces, though perhaps only special forces, and that Sudan and Senegal had agreed to send ground forces. These could substitute for the troops Pakistan refused to provide, but like the Pakistanis could be a two-edged sword, seen by many anti-Houthi Yemenis as foreign mercenaries.

Meanwhile, on the northern frontier, border clashes have increased, and now the Houthis have reportedly fired mortars into civilian areas of the border town of Najran. Najran is a substantial town and provincial capital, and while the Saudis have confirmed some of their border guards have been killed, there are also reports of civilian casualties.

Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Egyptian Army learned some harsh lessons about getting involved in a ground war in a Yemeni civil war,  but the Saudi/Gulf intervention is threatening to enter a ground war phase,

At Last Possible Moment, Netanyahu Gets Narrowest Possible Government

Just an hour and a half before the clock was to run out at midnight Israel time, Binyamin Netanyahu was able to notify President Reuven Rivlin that he had succeeded in forming a government. The last minute deal, in doubt after Avigdor Lieberman balked at joining several days ago, is the narrowest possible majority, 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. It will be fragile and the member parties will be able to threaten to bring it down over any disagreement. It is arguably the most undiluted right-wing coalition yet, but also the weakest possible.

Likud won its victory by taking votes from its allied parties on the right, but they have had their revenge of sorts, by hard-bargaining for key portfolios, leaving Likud somewhat underrepresented in a Cabinet it leads. The exact details of the final deal with Naftali Bennett's HaBayit HaYehudi will not be finalized until next week.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

May 5, 1915: The ANZACs First Meet "Beachy Bill"

Soldiers like to name things on their battlefields. Not with the mapmaker's dry names like "Hill 904," either. The American Civil War was fought in a country full of cornfields, peach orchards, roads and ponds, but by its end "The cornfield" was at Antietam, as was the Sunken Road (also called Bloody Lane as Fredericksburg already had a sunken road), "The peach orchard" was at Gettysburg, as was Devil's Den, Little Round Top, etc., and Shiloh had the Bloody Pond.

The ANZACs who found themselves ashore at Gallipoli on April 25 soon realized that they were unable to get beyond the landing beaches due to strong Turkish positions on the ridgeline above, and they were subjected to constant shelling from artillery beyond the protective ridge.

Some ANZAC names (Wikipedia)
Stuck as sitting targets below, they named the hills and natural features around them. There were Gun Ridge, Battleship Hill, Baby 700, the Sphinx (remember they'd trained by the Sphinx) the Nek (an Afrikaans word, probably named by a Boer War veteran), and so on. One of the landing beaches was named Brighton Beach, presumably ironically.

One such named location was "the Olive Grove," in a plain near Gaba Tepe, where a well-concealed Turkish artillery position was set up in a place from which it had a clear view of the ANZAC beaches. It could shell the beachhead at will and regularly did so, also dropping shells and shrapnel offshore where the ANZAC troops regularly swam to escape the heat of the Aegean summer.

The Olive Grove position first came into action 100 years ago today. It would be a persistent threat to the beachhead right up to withdrawal months later, which  took place under its gunnery. The Australian and New Zealand troops not only named the Olive Grove, they named the gun.

They called it "Beachy Bill." 

According to the Australian National University website, "Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the A.I.F": 

Beachy Bill The Turkish guns emplaced in the Olive Grove (Gallipoli) which caused considerable casualties at Anzac, mostly on the beaches.
World War I. 1915 (Partridge). Attested in F&G and Partridge.
While Partridge does not note this as specifically Australian, ‘Beachy Bill’ clearly has special relevance to the Australian experience of the war.
There’s a certain darned nuisance called ‘Beachy,’
   Whose shells are exceedingly screechy;
               But we’re keeping the score,
               And we’re after your gore –
So look out, ‘Beachy Bill,’ when we meet ye.
1916 ANZAC Book, p. 96.
They never got to meet him up close, but certainly felt his presence. (They speak generally of a single gun, though other guns in the vicinity contributed.) "Beachy" presumably refers to its threat to, and nearness to, the beaches.

From a Turkish website about Gallipoli, quoting a British source:
According to the unknown author of a 1917 publication, The Story of the Anzacs, ‘ On an average, “Beachy “ is said to have accounted for twelve men a day.’ Whether ‘ accounted for’ meant killed or killed and wounded is not clear; but an average of twelve men a day over eight months, added to nearly 3,000 casualties, which was not a bad score even if it included wounded. B Depot made its contribution, most of the casualties being amongst the infantry fatigue parties who were men ‘resting’ from the front line.
"These Things Happened", (Melbourne 1975), F.F. Knight, p. 147
According to a letter to the Editor of the Western Mail (Perth), Thursday 28 December 1933, page 2, as cited by the Australian Light Horse Studies Centre, they tried quite hard to silence the position, including naval shelling. (The writer refers to the "Olive Grove" as the "Orange Grove," perhaps due to a trick of memory:)
Unless Australian soldiers' vocabulary has changed dramatically in 100 years, which I rather doubt, I would assume that "was seldom referred to in complimentary terms" probably means the name was usually preceded by some rather pungent adjectives particularly popular down under. Particularly the one beginning in "f" and ending in "ucking." (I believe someone once called it "the great Australian adjective," though it's hardly unfamiliar to Brits and Amricans.)

The Australian War Museum has a sketch, "View Southward from Anzac Position to Olive Groves" that shows the position with the Kilid Bahr ridge rising behind. The artillery concealed in the grove could shell the beach:
Perhaps easier to read with the contrast sharpened:

The 7th Light Horse Regiment revisited the battlefield in 1918 after serving in Gallipoli and Palestine, and the Australian Light Horse Studies Centre offers an excerpt from their official history about the Olive Grove and Beachy Bill:
Lieutenant Colonel John Dalzell Richardson produced a unit history published in 1919 called The History of the 7th Light Horse Regiment AIF which included a section specifically related to the battle of Beersheba and is extracted below.
Richardson, JD, The History of the 7th Light Horse Regiment AIF, Sydney, 1919, pp. 107 - 113:

The hill system of Anzac, which culminates in the height of Chunuk Bair to the north, slopes gradually downwards in undulating ridges almost to sea level at Cape Helles-the height of Achi Baba being the one outstanding feature, not far from the village of Krithia. But between the village of Maidos on the Straits and the headland of Gaba Tepe lies a level plain of no great width, and on the side farthest from Anzac is the famous "Olive Grove," from which Beachy Bill used to fire with such deadly results. The enemy position, known as Pine Ridge, on the right flank, looks down on this plain, and the gully held by the Turks at the eastern end of Lone Pine opens into it. If this gully and the ridge beyond, as well as Pine Ridge, could have been taken, the valley would have been open for an advance at any time as far as the Kilid Bahr Plateau without any natural obstacle.
Finally, a modern photo of the former site of a gun emplacement at the Olive Grove:

For Cinco de Mayo, Remember the Egyptian Troops in Maximilian's Mexico

Today is Cinco de Mayo, a holiday more widely celebrated in the United States as an excuse to drink Mexican beer, than it is in Mexico, where it's mostly confined to the state of Puebla. (I can't partake this year as I'm having surgery later this week and must avoid alcohol.)

It commemorates a Mexican victory over the French in 1862. The French, however, came back stronger and eventually installed the Emperor Maximilian. And that gives me an excuse to bring up once again the little-known subject of my 2012 post: "A Sudanese-Egyptian Battalion in Maximilian's Mexico." 

I repeat the original post here:
The caption on the illustration of military uniforms above, left, though it may be difficult to read, says "Egyptian Battalion in Mexico 1863-1867." This has to be one of the more curious expeditions in the history of European colonialism.

The strange French adventure in Mexico during the American Civil War, in which Louis Napoleon installed a Hapsburg Prince, Maximilian, as Emperor of Mexico, is a strange interlude, one that ended badly for Maximilian (in the firing squad sense of "badly"). Benito Juarez and Mexican Revolutionaries on the one hand, and the United States on the other (which, once the Civil War ended, decided to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and get rid of a European Emperor in Mexico) spelled the end of the strange adventure. But if a Hapsburg Emperor of Mexico installed by a Bonaparte wasn't strange enough, part of Maximilian's Army was a battalion of Egyptian troops (mostly Sudanese enlisted men with Egyptian officers), the bright idea of someone who thought Sudanese troops would be more easily acclimated to the Mexican heat than Frenchmen.

Said Pasha, Wali of Egypt 1854-1863
The Egyptian Wali Said Pasha agreed to provide an "Auxiliary Battalion" of 447 men in four companies. They sailed from Alexandria on January 9, 1863, aboard the troopship Seine. Said Pasha died nine days later, succeeded as Wali by his nephew Ismail. (The title Khedive, though in popular use, was not officially recognized by the Ottoman Sultan until 1867.)

Arrival in Veracruz
The expedition suffered severely from disease en route: a typhus outbreak aboard ship, a yellow fever outbreak after arrival in Veracruz, that killed the commanding officer, and other bouts with dysentery and pulmonary diseases. The force did see action against the Juaristas, and their French commander is said to have remarked that they fought like lions. The French used some Algerian troops as translators.

The Egyptian Battalion Arrives in Paris
In 1867, the 326 survivors of the Egyptian battalion sailed from Mexico after the fall of Maximilian. Louis Napoleon reviewed them in Paris before their return to Egypt.  Accounts of the Egyptian battalion here and here; a contemporary New York Times report here.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Does Not Compute: Hizbullah Swimsuit?

At first I thought this must be some kind of kinky hipster chic, but it has been pointed out to me that Lebanon has some all-female beaches and one is even known as the "Hizbullah beach," Who knew?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Saudis Restructure Aramco, Separate it from Oil Ministry

Saudi Arabia continue to make changes announcing it is restructuring Saudi Aramco and making it more independent of the Oil Ministry.

As you'll see at the link, some are speculating that  King Salman may be positioning his son ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Salman, who is Deputy Oil Minister, may be positioning him to succeed oil Minister ‘Ali Na‘imi, who is bout 80. The job is usually held by a technocrat, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Salman has held positions in the ministry for years.

A lot of analysis of this week's reshuffles has centered on talk about family factionalism, a "Sudeiri coup," and the like.  I have long felt there are three rules for understanding Saudi Arabia:
  1. Those who talk about the internal dynamics of the family don't know.
  2. Those who know, conversely, don't talk.
  3. The king is a real King, not a constitutional monarch, and can do what he wants.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Stereotyped but Funny

I know this is ethnic stereotyping but 1) an Arab forwarded it and 2) I'm Irish-American and I laughed at both America and Ireland.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Graphic Proof of Iranian Hegemony: They're Spending a Sixth as Much as the Saudis on Arms with Less than Three Times the Saudi Population!

OK, for those of you who question the idea that Iran is becoming a dangerous regional hegemon, let's run some numbers.Surely you won't doubt that numbers from the prestigious international Institute of Strategic Studies are worthy of attention.

Eek! Iran, with a population of 78 million, is rapidly overtaking Saudi Arabia (population 30 million): it's almost a sixth the size of the Saudi defense outlay! And the other regional hegemon, Yemen, has surpassed Bahrain!


To be fair, I know the Gulf is a dangerous neighborhood and lower population may mean greater vulnerability. But this graph does suggest the "Iran as new regional hegemon" meme might need some perspective.

The Saudi Succession Reshuffle

King Salman of Saudi Arabia continues to surprise, shaking up the line of succession yet again. The decision to remove Prince Muqrin as Crown Prince and name the former Deputy Crown Prince, Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef, as next in line, further strengthens the powerful Interior Minister, while the King's own son, Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman, was named Deputy Crown Prince, confirming that the leadership is being passed to the generation of the grandsons. By strengthening the power of the Interior and Defense ministers, the King also reinforces them at a time some have raised doubts about Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen.

In yet another surprise, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was relieved "at his own request," reportedly for health reasons. Saud al-Faisal, at 75, has been Foreign Minister for 40 years, the world's longest-serving. In another break with tradition, the new Foreign Minister will be Ambassador to Washington ‘Adel al-Jubeir, who is not a member of the Royal Family, but who has close ties to the United States.

In a Kingdom which traditionally changes slowly and with great caution, Salman has moved speedily and decisively in the months since he took the throne. These changes also appear to strengthen Saudi Arabia's activist new foreign and security policies in Yemen and regionally.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Arabic Translation Using Urban Dictionary and Other Topics in Translating Shidyaq

Marcia Lynx Qualey at the Arabic Literature (in English) blog recently attended the Library of Arabic Literature workshop at Oxford and has two posts relating to accomplished translator Humphrey Davies and his translation of Ahmad Faris Shidyaq's novel (or something), Leg Over Leg.

Both posts deserve a read. Brief samples:

"What Does It Matter If ‘Leg Over Leg’ Is the ‘First Arabic Novel’? " 
There was a moment during Saturday’s Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) workshop in Oxford that could’ve been called the “Humphrey Davies & Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq fan club” moment:
Leg_over_leg34Al-Shidyaq was swooned over — in an academic sort of way — for writing the pre-modern-post-modern, genre-bending, gender-bending Leg Over Leg (1855), while Humphrey Davies got his accolades for bringing the book’s insight and exuberance into page-rocking English, with French-English translator Richard Sieburth comparing Davies’ wordwork to Byron’s with its “jolting, jovial quality.”
"Humphrey Davies on ‘Representational Translation’ and the Uses of Urban Dictionary and Google Translate"
This was, he said, the lists of words that are like a “magical invocation” in Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s text, through which “an almost surreal affect is achieved.”
“In the middle of a sentence,” Davies said, “you may get a list of words with no definition. Obscure, arcane words; words he did not expect you to know.”An attempt to achieve a one-to-one correspondence of these words, Arabic to English, would be doomed to some kind of failure, Davies said. Indeed, researching the meanings of words and trying to map them to English just didn’t work. “Even if the English language has 248 words for pudendum, you can be pretty much certain that those 248 words will not map accurately onto the words you found in Shidyaq.”
“So I started experimenting with other approaches.”
In the middle of one list, where the narrator is speaking of the charms of women, he also gives antonyms, some of which Davies read off on Saturday: “runts, trolls, long-necked pinheads…”
“And I took these from the Urban Dictionary online,” he said.

Iran Seizes Marshall Islands Ship: Will US Respond?

I think the last time the Marshall Islands made it into this blog was over a year ago when they rescinded their move to name former Lebanese spymaster Jamil  El-Sayed as Ambassador to UNESCO, possibly a move aimed at giving him diplomatic cover in the Hariri assassination investigation. That suggested that the microstate of 29 Pacific atolls doesn't understand the Middle East very well. They do, however understand flags of convenience.

As you may know, a cargo ship, the Maersk Tigris,was seized by Iran today after apparently entering Iranian waters off Qeshm island. The Iranian Navy fired a shot across her bow (it did not "fire on" the ship as some reports said) and escorted her into Bandar Abbas.

Apparently there is an outstanding commercial dispute and Iran has a court order, but the issue drew international attention because of initial reports that she was an American cargo ship.

It isn't, and the US is reacting cautiously since this seems to be about a commercial dispute, The Maersk line is Danish owned, but the Maersk Tigris is chartered by a Singaporean firm, and flies the Marshallese flag.

The Marshall Islands Navy is not going to come steaming to the rescue, because they don't have one. The complicating factor is that the US is pledged to provide for the defense of the Marshalls under an agreement signed when the Marshalls became independent in 1986 and known as the Compact of Free Association; the Marshalls were previously a US-Administered UN Trust Territory. The US provides for defense of the islands, but does that extend to protecting ships carrying a Marshallese flag of convenience?

Obviously if either side is looking for a fight it could be a problem, but if this is really a commercial dispute, it probably ought to be dealt with as such.

Monday, April 27, 2015

"Sound like an Expert."

Karl Sharro (Karl reMarks) offers a lighter note: "Sound like an expert with these phrases about Middle East politics."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mythbusting in Yemen

I've said some of this myself before:

Saturday, April 25, 2015

ANZAC Day at 100: Gallipoli Begins

ANZAC Cove, April 1915
 A century ago today, Allied Forces landed at two location on the western coast of Turkey's Gallipoli Peninsula Australian and New Zealand troops in the north and British (actually initially Irish) battalions in the south. These two initial sites came to be known to the troops, in the first case, as ANZAC Cove (they had landed a mile north of their target), and the southern site at Cape Helles as Sedd el-Bahr. In August a third landing would be made to the north of ANZAC Cove, at Suvla Bay. The three names will endure in the annals of carnage and military folly.

From the first moments ashore it all went wrong. Landing in the wrong place, units disorganized and misplaced, and the landings confined to a narrow strip west of a ridgeline controlled by Turkish artillery.

The disaster at Gallipoli would grind on for months, haunt Winston Churchill's career for decades, and end in ignominious evacuation. Turkey marks it as a great national victory though usually marked on March 18, the date of the initial naval victory), but in addition to playing a formative role in the Turkish Republic, it also marks a turning point in the national emergence of two other great modern  nations, Australia and New Zealand. From their role as sacrificial lambs at Gallipoli emerged a growing self-confidence, that would lead in 1922, nearby at Chanak, to the refusal of the Dominions to automatically send troops when Britain requested, the beginning of real independence for the Dominions.
I reflected on those ironies in my post three years ago, "For ANZAC Day: Gallipoli, Chanak, and the Three Great  Nations Born From That Crucible."

And that offers me an opportunity to revisit other posts I have done through the years on Gallipoli. Just this March, I told the tale of the naval failure on March 18 (after which the failure of the land attack after Turkey had a month to build up forces should have been predictable): "Belated Centenary: March 8, 1915: Nusret Lays Her Mines," and "March 18, 1915: The British and French Navies Fail at the Dardanelles."

If, after March 18, the Naval defeat had doomed the landings, were there alternative strategies? Though Churchill and the Admiralty were wedded to Gallipoli, Lord Kitchener and the War Office preferred the idea of a landing at Alexandretta in Syria, and T,E. Lawrence became a champion of the idea. Earlier this year, I compared the plans and asked, "A Historical "What If?": Could the Alexandretta Landing in 1915 Have Worked While Gallipoli Failed?" That post contains links to several others on the Alexandretta scheme, and you can judge for yourself.

On the ground front, we met the ANZAC Commander in my post on "The Birth of ANZAC: 'Birdy' Birdwood is Ordered to Egypt, December 1914."

In the mythologies of competing nationalisms, Turkish nationalists often forget that the Ottoman armies came from all over the Empire. And Arab nationalists often portray the Arab provinces as solidly behind the Arab Revolt. But the future "Father Turk: himself, Mustafa Kemal, rose to fame commanding the 19th Division at Gallipoli, we forget that two of its three regiments were in fact raised in Syria: "Lost in the Dueling Nationalist Mythologies: The Forgotten Syrians at Gallipoli." They were Arabs and Kurds and Turkmen, and tend to be overlooked.

And for Armistice Day/Remembrance Day two years ago, I published photos of the Atatürk Memorials at the ANZAC Parade in Canberra (the only monument to an enemy commander) and the similar monument at Wellington, both of which bear the same quote as the Atatürk monument at Gallipoli:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
It's a fitting tribute to the men on both sides who fought for a barren peninsula a century ago because they were, as someone (attributed to numerous people) once said of British soldiers, "they fight like lions, but they are lions led by donkeys."  (You will notice in all this I have not discussed the overall British commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton. This is to avoid having to use four-letter profanity on a solemn day remembering those who died by his blunders.)

Now, the multimedia:

Here is a silent early Turkish film clip of troops during the Gallipoli campaign:

An ANZAC fim restored by New Zealand Director Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame:

And finally,a song I've used before, the Scots/Australian folk singer Eric Bogle's antiwar lament, "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," Bogle himself sings the audio; the first half of the pictures,  are of ANZACs a Gallipoli; the second half honors Canadian forces in more recent wars (I presume the clip was made by a Canadian):

Friday, April 24, 2015

April 24, 1915

Armenian deportees, April 1915 (Wikipedia)
"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation (Vernichtung) of the Armenians?"
—Adolf Hitler to the Wehrmacht on the eve of invading Poland, 1939

April 24, 1915, was a critical moment for the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Allied navies were gathered just outside the Dardanelles and on the next day, April 25, would land at Gallipoli. In the east, Russian advances into the Empire's Armenian region had already provoked an Ottoman crackdown in Van, which in turn led local Armenians to create self-defense forces to defend themselves. Fighting erupted in the city of Van, which the Ottomans  characterized as a revolt, on April 17. When the Russian Army sought to advance to relieve Van, this further convinced the Ottoman authorities that the Armenian population was what it a later war would be called a Fifth Column.

There is evidence that the decision to begin the arrest and deportation of Armenians had already been decided on before April 24, but that date, a century ago today, came to be identified by Armenians as the beginning of the agony. It was the date on which more than 200 Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople were arrested, removing much of the leadership of the Armenian community in thee capital; it became known as "Red Sunday."

The death of 1.5 million people as a direct result of state action seems to most people to meet the definition of genocide under international law, but the persistent refusal of the Turkish Republic to accept the use of the term, and to continue to protest its use by others, has kept a century-old wound still fresh in both Armenia and the diaspora. But Armenians have not forgotten.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The "G-Word": God Help Me, the Pope and Kim Kardashian (!) Agree on Something (and Barack Obama is Hedging)

Let's be clear. I have never seen Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I do not understand why, other than certain physical attributes and a notorious videotape, Kim Kardashian is famous or rich. I know more about the Cardassians on Star Trek than the Kardashians.

I also never thought I would begin a sentence with "Like Pope Francis, Kim Kardashian ..." but I am, in fact about to do so.

Here goes: Like Pope Francis, Kim Kardashian is not afraid to use the "G-word" for the Armenian massacres, but Barack Obama remains unwilling.

I'll probably catch flak from Turkish readers, but tomorrow is Armenian Remembrance Day, and the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians, large numbers of Assyrians, Anatolian and Pontic Greeks, and other minorities is a human tragedy of the first order. The Turkish Republic's persistent refusal to accept the term "genocide" has always struck me as a bit puzzling: why not just say "that was the Ottomans, not us"?

Anyway, as this website notes, "One of the world's most influential figures focused media attention on the Armenian Genocide of 1915 last week. The pope talked about it, too."

Kardashian, of course, is of Armenian origin and apparently is very popular in Yerevan. 

More tomorrow, on the anniversary of "Red Sunday."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Always Check With Someone Who Speaks Arabic Before Posting to the Internet or Getting a Tattoo

Actress Lindsay Lohan apparently posted the above  message on Instagram.

Anta Himar does not mean "You're beautiful," of course, but "You're a jackass."

Arguably making this even funnier is the fact that the image apparently originated on a website of suggested tattoos, so there may be folks out there with this sentiment permanently displayed on their persons.