New Age Islam
Tue Aug 11 2020, 11:08 AM

Middle East Press ( 22 May 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

The Women behind Sykes-Picot: New Age Islam's Selection, 23 May 2016

New Age Islam Edit Bureau

23 May 2016

The Women behind Sykes-Picot

By Ibrahim Al-Marashi

Life in the Shadow of an Empire

By Hamid Dabashi

Hezbollah, the Defender of Israel

By Turki Al-Dakhil

Preserving Our Architectural Heritage

By Hala Al-Qahtani

Egypt and the Aversion of Investors

By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau


The Women behind Sykes-Picot

By Ibrahim Al-Marashi

22 May 2016

British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot garnered most of the attention in the retrospective commentaries published around May 16, the 100-year anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Treaty.

Other pieces referred to their contemporaries, such as the British agent T E Lawrence, who led the Arab Revolt during World War I, or the influential oil broker Calouste Gulbenkian.

These Europeans sought to shape the Middle East, yet for every discussion of a European man who engaged in this endeavour, there is also a story of a European woman who both made this region, and was made by the region.

Jane Digby, Gertrude Bell, or Freya Stark, just to name a few women, led lives as illustrious as their male counterparts in the Middle East.

In terms of popular historical memory, we remember European men in the Middle East, such as archaeologists, spies, and diplomats concocting surreptitious treaties, but have forgotten the women who also engaged in such activities.

Jane Digby

The life of Jane Digby resembles that of Lord Byron, as they both flouted social conventions of their time.

Byron, remembered as the debauched, flamboyant, amorous, Romantic-era poet, travelled to the Ottoman Empire in 1809.

Today, he would be considered a foreign fighter on par with those leaving from Europe to fight in the current Syrian civil war. In 1824, he died in an Ottoman civil war, fighting on behalf of Greeks seeking independence.

Around the time of Byron's death, Digby was coming-of-age in Britain. She has been remembered for her love affairs, having had four husbands, and a variety of lovers, including a Greek general who fought in the war of independence that Byron died in.

Today [Lord Byron] would be considered a foreign fighter on par with those leaving from Europe to fight in the current Syrian civil war.

In 1853 she arrived in Damascus, travelling to the ancient city of Palmyra. Digby's journey was daunting given the risk of disease and attack from other Bedouins.

She was accompanied by Medjuel el-Mezrab, a sheikh from one of the smaller tribes of the Aniza confederation, who she eventually married.

She learned Arabic, lived half of the year in nomadic tents in the desert, and the other half in her palatial home in Damascus, spending the rest of her life in Syria with her husband until her death 28 years later.

Gertrude Bell

In light of the Sykes-Picot treaty, attention has been given to T E Lawrence and his interaction with the future king of Iraq, Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of the Arab Revolt.

However, it was a woman, Gertrude Bell, referred to known as the "khatun" or "queen", who was more instrumental in Faisal's career. It was this queen who was a kingmaker in Iraq, lobbying for King Faisal to rule, then becoming his personal adviser.

While Lawrence is memorialised, Bell had an equally illustrious career as an explorer and spy. Bell completed her studies in history at Oxford with honours.

During World War I, like Lawrence, she worked for the Arab Bureau out of Egypt and then in Iraq. She would go on to establish Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad.

In some respects, she is remembered along the lines of Sykes and Picot, Europeans who drew up the borders of the region.

In the words of the late journalist, Anthony Shadid: "Here, the new Iraq looks like the old one, imbued with politics that might be familiar to Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and adventurer who drew the country's borders after World War I."

Even Nicole Kidman, who plays Bell in the film Queen of the Desert described her along these lines: "She basically defined the borders between Iraq and Jordan that exist today, borders that she negotiated between Churchill and different Arab leaders."

Ironically, the most infamous border drawer, Mark Sykes, was not fond of Bell, calling her a "conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump wagging, blethering ass".

Portrait of the British explorer and writer Freya Stark [1893-1993], dressed in the traditional costume of the Hadramaut region of Yemen [Getty]

Freya Stark

In terms of World War II spies, Laszlo Almasy will be remembered in popular historical memory as the inspiration for the main character in the film, The English Patient.

In fact, he was a Hungarian spy who actively aided Nazi Germany in Libya and in their campaign to take Egypt. It was a female British agent, Freya Stark, who tried to prevent Egypt from falling into German hands.

Stark's journeys to the Middle East began in 1927, when she travelled to Beirut, making her way to Baghdad, in the Mandate of Iraq, and by 1931 western Iran, reaching the long-fabled mountain fortress of the Assassins in the Elburz mountains.

In 1935, she travelled to the Hadhramaut in today's Yemen. Few Western travellers, never mind women, had gone into these parts of Iran or Yemen, risking the dangers of not so much bandits, but the environment and water-borne diseases.

Like Digby and Bell, she was fluent in Arabic, a talent that served her well during the Second World War in the British Ministry of Information.

She worked in Aden in southern Yemen, producing Arabic news broadcasts to counter Axis propaganda, and travelled to northern Yemen to meet with its ruler, the Imam, as a one-woman propaganda team to keep the kingdom neutral during the War.

In Egypt, she contributed to the Ikhwan al Hurriya (Brotherhood of Freedom), a propaganda network to persuade Arabs to rally behind the Allies, particularly as the Axis military were massing near El Alamein.

Her expeditions continued after the War, and her last, in in her old age, were to Afghanistan. She died in 1993 at 100 years old.

Their Legacies

The feats of these three women were noteworthy given that they not only navigated patriarchal societies in the Middle East, but also Britain. Digby and Bell found freedom in the Middle East, escaping rigid Victorian social conventions.

Today, Digby would be horrified to witness the fate of Palmyra under ISIL control. Bell would be dismayed to see the museum she founded, sacked and looted after 2003, or the damage ISIL inflicted upon the ancient site of Hatra in Iraq, which she visited in 1911.

She would probably be more upset about the damage ISIL inflicted to Iraq's human heritage, particularly among the Yezidis, whom she had visited in 1905. Freya Stark probably could have never envisioned a group like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula establishing a presence in the Hadhramaut in Yemen, or the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the cases of Bell and Stark, these two women were agents of imperialism, perpetuating British colonial control over the Middle East. Yet this article is a lament of sorts, for many of the places these women travelled and meticulously documented, would be unrecognisable to them today, all for the worse.



Life in the Shadow of an Empire

By Hamid Dabashi

22 May 2016

On May 11, I joined a number of friends attending a performance of the 64th anniversary of Ballet Folklorico de Mexico at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

Founded in 1952, Ballet Folklorico de Mexico is the brainchild of Amalia Hernandez(1917-2000), a world-renowned choreographer whose lifetime achievement is this spectacular staging of various song and dance traditions from the pre-Columbian, Hispanic, and revolutionary eras of Mexican history.

Coming to Mexico City and watching this show after the ever nastier tones of the US presidential election in which Donald Trump has verbalised and personified the systemic mendacity of North American racism towards Mexicans and other people, a sharp contrast emerges between two overwhelming power of representation and marks the varied manners in which nations live in the shadow of an amorphous empire.

Donald Trump becomes gold mine of material for comedians

Racialised Delusions

In the United States, as these days best captured by Donald Trump and his followers, Mexicans and other people living in the US beyond its racialised delusions are the bete noire of enduringly nasty white supremacist fantasies.

Trump speaks of mass deportation of Mexicans, of building a tall and long wall on the southern border of the US, and of banning Muslims from entering the country in a manner that betrays the white supremacist racism that has always informed US imperialism - and he just utters it more bluntly.

Such bigoted portrayals of Americans of a different descent than Trump and his racist supporters are deeply rooted in a hateful ideology dominant in the US that wishes to belittle, denigrate, and demonise various segments of its own society to rule them more ruthlessly by the maddening logic of abusive capital and its unending need for cheap labour.

But beyond Trump's racist delusions, nations continue to live their lives on uncharted territories.

To combat the terror of US imperial racism at home and abroad, nations need to stage themselves from the depth of their despair to their most sublime aspirations.

Staging the Nation

The musical charm of Ballet Folklorico de Mexico is justly staged to celebrate the continued history of a nation's visual and performing arts.

But if such just and sweet celebrations are not to become mere eye-candy tourist attractions and thus gloss over much nastier realities, then they will have to be seen in conjunction with other forms of public staging that is not on any official stage but right in the streets and alleys of Mexico City.

Just over two weeks before I came to Mexico there was a massive demonstration in Mexico City against femicide and other forms of violence against the Mexican youth, about which Vijay Prashad wrote a detailed account for the Frontline in India.

"On April 24," Prashad reported, "thousands of demonstrators marched to the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City from the municipality of Ecatepec. People from all kinds of backgrounds marched with signs that had the requisite dose of humour and anger."

"Revolution en la Plaza, en la Casa y en la Cama" (Revolution in the streets, at home and in bed), announced one woman, while another wrote on her pregnant belly: "Quiero nacer sin violencia" (I want to be born without violence). A resonant chant went, "Ni sumisa, ni obediente. Soy libre, loca y valiente" (Neither submissive nor compliant. I'm free, crazy and brave).

To combat the terror of US' imperial racism at home and abroad (the two categories are now entirely meaningless to this amorphous empire), nations need to stage themselves from the depth of their despair to their most sublime aspirations.

The Zapatista movement shines a bright ray of hope on Mexico as their kindred souls do in Kobane and Palestine, sustaining a similar vision of liberation for a world devoured by state-sponsored violence, greed and corruption.

One has to come to Mexico and look at the emancipatory movements in Rojava and Palestine from the Zapatista's perspective and the map of our hopes will look entirely different.

A Nation in Defiance

The plague of ISIL in the Arab world has its counterpart here in Mexico, too. The Mexican drug cartels partake in Christian iconography almost identically as those mercenary thugs in Iraq and Syria sport their Islamist symbolism.

What I see here in Mexico is a nation in defiance against its own odds. Its corrupt politics, its drug cartels, and the under- and unreported systemic violence that bruises its souls are kept in balance by the sheer determination of a nation to live with dignity and teach the world grace.

Its hidden treasures, as in the magnificent Diego Rivera murals, are protected not by armed guards but by the rambunctious urbanity of its crowded markets teaching humility to its wide pretentious boulevards.

For Mexico as a nation, its drug cartels are a US problem, a narcotic market created by the supply and demand logic of the selfsame predatory capitalism it so adores.

US corporate brand junks - Starbucks and McDonald's galore - pour into the magnificent rambunctiousness of Mexico City through the same porous borders that drugs flow up through into the US.

Mexican drug cartels are the functional equivalents of US corporate greed and operate through the selfsame maddening logic of predatory capitalism.

Donald Trump is not an accident. He is the very logic of US imperial thuggery carried to its rhetorical ends.

But nations are not entirely defenceless against the US imperial politics and the barbarity it occasions. The example of Mexico shows how nations resist this ugly imposition by their creative and critical prowess far beyond the limited banality of a McDonald's joint here and a drone attack there.

Faces in the Mirror

Beyond the monumental vacuity of the globalised marketing of the commodities and brands it sells to sustain itself in power, from its military machinery to its material rubbish industry, this culture has nothing to offer the world.

No art, no industry, no ethics, no morality, no philosophy. Nothing. The US and its military allies form an amorphous empire with no hegemony - nothing to convince anyone of anything but the banality of brute violence.

Donald Trump is not an accident. He is the very logic of US imperial thuggery carried to its rhetorical ends. He does with ghoulish vulgarity what Barack Obama has done (and Hillary Clinton will do) with sleek salesmanship.

How do Mexicans resist that banality? Not just by staging in their opera house a loving tribute to their myriad traditions of delightful songs and dances, or else pouring into their street protesting against corruption and violence.

They celebrate life in every pleasant moment of their civilized gatherings - eating, drinking, and merrymaking - and there and then, they teach themselves to anticipate their own better angels. Millions of Bernie Sanders' supporters from one end of the US to another are the kindred souls of these Mexicans, yet trapped in their own corrupt and rigged "democracy".

How do we cross the fictive frontiers imposed between a beleaguered empire and the peripheral nations it wishes but fails to rule? A friend in Mexico City gave me a masked marionette of a Zapatista woman as a souvenir and shared with me the story often told when the Zapatistas are asked why they cover their faces.

"Look into the mirror," they respond, "that's who we are!"


Hezbollah, the Defender Of Israel

By Turki Al-Dakhil

22 May 2016

When former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, Hezbollah narrated strange theories calling Israel as the main culprit behind the crime. We remember Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah’s famous speech in which he showed maps and videos to back up the party’s theories. Whatever he showed, however, contradicted the cause and the sequence of events.

Nasrallah wanted to exonerate his party and the Syrian regime from the responsibility and wanted to distract people. He was attempting to end the controversy surrounding the car used in the assassination, which international investigator Detlev Mehlis said came from Beirut’s Dahiyeh.

However, when it has come to the assassination of some of its commanders, Hezbollah exonerates Israel. During his recent appearance on television, Nasrallah insisted that Mustafa Badreddine was the victim of what he called “Takfiri” groups. He excluded Israel from this whole narrative on Badreddine’s assassination.

Following the assassination of Hariri, Hezbollah always asked the question: “Who benefits from killing Hariri?” However when it comes to Badreddine, it’s asking another question: “Who is the enemy?”

The militias that exonerate Israel, or hold it responsible based on their own circumstances and interests are more dangerous than Israel

Double Standards?

Hezbollah’s militia is fighting the Syrian people and the moderate opposition. It is fighting a battle against the rights of the Syrian people. However, what is strange is that Hezbollah exonerates Israel from Badreddine’s murder but insists on involving it in the assassination of Hariri. This exposes its logic as conveyed via the story of Abu Adas and other futile media fabrications.

Days have gone by since the indictment was issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. People learnt that Hezbollah, its commanders and the Syrian regime were responsible for the murder of political figures just because they disagreed with them. But fate has its ways and Hezbollah is now drinking from the same cup as Gebran Tueni, Samir Kassir and Rafiq Hariri.

What is more dangerous than Israel are the militias who exonerate Israel or hold it responsible based on circumstances and interests.



Preserving Our Architectural Heritage

By Hala Al-Qahtani

May 23, 2016

While most European cities try to preserve their historical identity of which they are very proud, we see many Arab cities embracing modern architectural styles, totally ignoring their heritage.

A picture of any Italian city reflects Italians’ tremendous love for their ancient architecture and town planning. It looks as if they have copied the same style of architecture all over the country. They have also preserved old forts, engravings and pillars as well as the ancient Roman theatres and stadiums as they are proud of the great Roman history and civilization. They publicize Roman architecture through pictures, greeting cards and souvenirs, which are available at airports and shopping centres.

Islam has been successful in developing a great civilization and a unique architecture and town planning, quite different from other civilizations. The Islamic architecture and construction have been successful in accommodating previous styles.

Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy mosques, is honoured to host and serve millions of pilgrims who come to the country to perform for Haj and Umrah. I believe it will be impossible to preserve the built heritage in Makkah while implementing massive expansion projects. However, efforts must be made to protect the city’s architectural heritage such as porticoes, balconies, decorations and designs in some manner.

When we construct buildings we often ignore the identity of the place. When a visitor tours Riyadh for example he or she can witness the culture and civilization of Yamamah and Najd and the history of Daraeya fort, but when they pass by the main streets of the city they will be surprised to see western style buildings that do not reflect the identity of Riyadh or the Arabian Peninsula for that matter.

Even in Jeddah we cannot see the city’s beautiful architectural style and built heritage except in the historical region. Authorities should have preserved the city’s built heritage while constructing government buildings or public facilities to protect its identity.

The Kingdom’s southern region is distinguished for the Asirian architectural heritage that highlights the artistic capabilities of its people in constructing beautiful homes with wood, stone and mud works. The Eastern Province is also rich in built heritage. One can see attractive architectural designs in Al-Ahsa, Qatif, Saihat, Safwa, Al-Khobar and Dammam.

But no one now feels that he or she is on the eastern coast except during the Eid festivities. There is no objective planning for construction of buildings in the region to preserve its culture and heritage. The disorganized buildings will force you to think that the Eastern Province has no cultural identity.

Every region of the Kingdom has its distinct culture and heritage that makes it different from other parts of the country. But up till now no initiative has been taken to protect and project these identities. I believe that the work of an architectural engineer is not only ensuring quality of the building work but also projecting a city’s distinct identity.

Although we are incapable of forcing individuals to build their homes incorporating the city’s architectural heritage, mayoralties and municipalities can at least apply them on government buildings and other public facilities to preserve the heritage in different regions.

The built heritage should not be restricted to tourist villages. We need to revise our town planning policy to deepen our historical and heritage identity. We wish our streets and squares would be transformed into museums and exhibition centres that carry the city’s identity and add to its beauty.

We cannot see now any outstanding art works in our big squares. It is high time we decorate our streets by installing small models of historic forts and other monuments that reflect our heritage.



Egypt and the Aversion of Investors

By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

22 May 2016

Egypt’s number one enemy is neither terrorism nor the opposition – it is the economy. Successive governments in the country have promised reforms but hardly succeeded. It’s the enemy which can shake the pillars of the state again and creatie chaos – more than the Muslim Brotherhood and even the armed opposition groups.

Economy is also the only challenge that can be overcome as compared to other challenges staring Egypt in the face. It is an important battle but the situation can be improved. The government has spoken about a new phase of development and started its era with promises which it began to be implemented.

However, massive projects may not be enough to save the economy as burdens increase and difficulties continue to exist. Perhaps there’s a massive project which we are not aware of and which will build an economy based on the aspirations of its 90 million people.

We believe in Egypt because it has a huge market. It’s the second biggest economy in Africa after Nigeria. Yet, global companies are losing confidence in Egypt due to political propaganda, bureaucracy’s inability to open up or due to restraints imposed on the few investors who have taken the risk by going to work in Egypt.

This does not diminish the accomplishments made so far. The new Suez Canal was completed in one year. It was a massive construction engineering project and it was an important test of the government’s will - a test it passed. The second question is: does the government have new ideas?

All Egyptian governments have executed multiple projects but none of them proposed a plan to develop the country’s economy. All we’ve had for decades are promises for development.

We must exclude the first experience of change led by late President Anwar al-Sadat when he opened the economy as part of political change following the Camp David Agreement. Sadat was the first to adopt this approach. Socialist countries, mainly the Soviet Union, and the socialist eastern European countries followed suit.

Egypt can do better with its huge resources and capabilities but we fear that the state’s rivals will succeed at distracting its attention and keeping it occupied with political challenges

Journey of Reform

Egypt’s consecutive governments did not complete this journey of reform and development, unlike Poland, Bulgaria and other such countries. What slowed down this path of development is that Cairo focused on confronting political challenges. Former president Hosni Mubarak developed an ambitious reform transition plan; however it deviated from its path as a result of political and administrative tussles.

Mubarak focused on the game of political balances with the opposition in the street and with the political parties within the regime and leaders in governance. And so years passed until the government found itself incapable of fulfilling people’s livelihood needs. Meanwhile the political opposition was waiting to seize the moment for change and the moment came in 2011.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s era started with the talk of development, change and prosperity. This was the third such occasion since the end of the socialist economic system in the 1970’s. Egypt promised to attract international investments and this first required reforming legislations as well as developing a comprehensive economic plan that acts as a roadmap.

Egypt can do better with its huge resources and capabilities but we fear that the state’s rivals will succeed at distracting its attention and keeping it occupied with political challenges.

We know that the Egyptian opposition, regional struggles and administrative disputes are enough to consume the government’s energy and distract it from the more important promises. We cannot, however, underestimate the extent of harm which the opposition has caused to the country’s economy.

Tourism, which is one of the most important financial resources, has declined by 66 percent during the first quarter this year. There is no doubt that this has been due to terrorism. Oil price drop also affects Egypt as it has oil and depends on selling the commodity in return for hard currency. Egyptian laborers who work in oil-rich countries also depend on it.

Egypt’s situation will continue to be difficult if it doesn’t implement reforms which former governments have avoided. The most important step will be modernizing legislations which are the causes behind investor aversion. Egypt’s economic success will make the country better for its domestic constituents and make it a strong and influential state.