Ottoman machine gun corps, before the Second Battle of Gaza, which took place on April 19, 1917.
Amid present-day meltdown in the Middle East, many are looking back to past generations to try to understand the roots of the problems. This search is particularly notable around the centenary of the First World War, when the current strained regional order took shape as a range of nation states emerged from the rubble of the Ottoman Empire.
BBC journalist Roger Hardy’s book “The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East” (reviewed in HDN here), considers the half-century from 1917 to 1967 in 10 countries. Hardy spoke to Hürriyet Daily News about researching and writing the book.
What inspired you to write this account at this moment, what did you want to achieve with this book?
I’m a journalist rather than a scholar. I wrote the book out of a sense of dissatisfaction that everyday journalism doesn’t really explain the conflicts and crises of the Middle East we see today. To do that you have to go back in time, at the very least to a hundred years ago, to the period when Britain and France were dominant powers in the Middle East after emerging as victors in the First World War. In a sense, the book is what journalists would call the “backstory” of the contemporary Middle East, with all its appalling crises, tensions and conflicts.
The book is full of vivid sources, quotes from locals and eyewitness accounts rather than more academic accounts. Was it a deliberate choice to focus on the vivid human stories rather than more dry academic details?
It was a conscious choice. And it meant casting a very wide net looking for oral history sources, whether published or unpublished, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, letters and diaries. It meant talking to families if the key eyewitness was no longer alive. That is what journalists always do: We try to bring a story alive, even if it’s a historical narrative. That was easier with some chapters than others. For example, with the Palestine Mandate there’s an embarrassment of riches, an abundance of oral history and books. The chapter on Saudi Arabia, however, was very different. Saudis to this day are not really in the habit of writing diaries or publishing memoirs, and if there are biographies they are often very hagiographical or self-justificatory.
But for other chapters it was much easier and occasionally I’d make a discovery. I’d never before heard of a young American adventurer, or mercenary, called Bennett Doughty. He was a young American who couldn’t find a motive for life but joined the French Foreign Legion and found himself fighting in Syria against the Druze during the Great Syrian Revolt of the 1920s. He published a very vivid memoir that I stumbled upon, describing the wild men of the French Foreign Legion and the tough Druze fighters they were up against.
How did you conduct the research? Were you starting from scratch or did you build up the material over the course of many years?
The seed of the book was a radio series I made over a number of years for the BBC World Service called “The Making of the Middle East.” It was not a series about imperialism or its legacy, but it showed how each country had emerged as a modern state. I did a huge amount of interviewing, during the days of audio cassettes. Some of the people I interviewed for the program on the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic are no longer alive now, but they had personally known Atatürk.
Making the transition from a set of radio programs to a set of chapters for a book was not straightforward. For a book you have to do much more research. But the radio series was the origin of the book and the motive was broadly the same: How do we make sense of this complicated, difficult region?
Was there anything in particular that surprised you over the course of writing and researching the book?
I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years and I thought I understood some of the familiar crises like the end of the Palestine Mandate and the Suez debacle of 1956. But there were all sorts of complexities and nuances that I hadn’t realized. One thing that I learned and was rather humbled by, which might interest Turkish readers of the book, was the extent to which the modern Middle East, especially in the 1920s and 30s and even beyond, was still experiencing the legacy of Ottoman rule. Four centuries of Ottoman rule in Arab countries is a long time, far longer than 30 years of British rule in Palestine. The Ottoman legacy is in part political – the historian Albert Hourani referred to a kind of “style” of doing politics in the Ottoman way that was inherited by the early Arab nationalists. But beyond that the cultural and architectural legacy was also much more pervasive than the Arab nationalist narrative would lead us to believe. Politically speaking the Arabs threw off the yoke of Ottoman rule as a result of the First World War, but the legacy of the Ottoman period proved to be very long-lasting and significant.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “artificial countries” and arbitrary “lines in the sand” being at the root of today’s problems. You argue that those borders are less important than what goes on within them.
Obviously for any state in any period borders are important. Borders determine who you are, who you are neighbors are, and so on. So in that sense the infamous “lines in the sand,” drawn often in the most arbitrary fashion by British and French officials, are important. But the argument that they were artificial and doomed to fail has been overdone. Of course the borders are challenged now by jihadists and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. None of us knows what the outcome of those conflicts is going to be, but I’d be very surprised if ISIS or the Kurds – who also have an interest in changing borders – will succeed in any lasting way in changing the map of the Middle East.
The other thing about those borders is that although many of them were pretty artificial and unwanted by many, the fact is they have proven pretty durable. The peoples of the region, for the most part, have shown clearly that they’re ready to live within those borders. They feel that the borders may not have been great at the time they were drawn, but do we really want to open a Pandora’s Box by challenging them now?
Rather than direct imperial control, most of the Middle East was made up of nominally independent states that were effectively under the dominance of European powers. It was a more ambiguous state of affairs, and perhaps in some ways even more damaging. How would you say it compared to more direct rule?
Another thing is that these largely indirect forms of rule under mandates or other arrangements were pretty short-lived in historical terms. The Palestine Mandate lasted 30 years; British rule in Iraq in lasted about four decades; in Egypt it lasted seven decades. These are not long periods of time compared with the four centuries of Ottoman rule, for example.
But one illuminating contrast in the book is Algeria under the French. Algeria is always the exception in virtually every respect. There was the extraordinary length of time French rule lasted – more than 120 years – the depth and intensity of French rule, and the fact that the French settlers grabbed huge tracts of cultivable land, virtually destroying the indigenous institutions, Islamic institutions and law. There was also the war of independence which was very long, intense and ferocious on all sides. It’s hard to find any parallel with Algeria in other states. Even French rule in Syria and Lebanon – which was fierce, repressive and unsuccessful – doesn’t begin to compare with French rule in Algeria. France acted upon the notion that Algeria was an integral part of Mother France, and this had huge implications for the way they ruled it and the way they hung onto it until the bitter end. Only an extremely clever and politically courageous leader, Charles de Gaulle, managed to break this pattern of French thinking and relinquish control of Algeria.
One of the key negative effects of this era is the long-term memories it has created. People look to the time for evidence of inevitable Western duplicity and today it is used as justification for all kinds of authoritarian rule.
This sense of resentment of Western power, the feeling of personal and collective humiliation at the hands of Western power, has a legitimate basis. It’s based in a shared historical experience. It seems to me that people in the West would be much wiser to begin by acknowledging that fact, before noting how that feeling can be manipulated, exploited and exaggerated by political leaders – from nationalists like Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh and Egypt’s Nasser in the 1950s to Osama Bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini more recently.
Imperialism has provided a succession of rulers with a wonderful alibi to blame everything on the wicked Western imperialists. My book argues that the West shaped and misshaped the destiny of the Middle East in all sorts of important and lasting ways, but it doesn’t argue that you can blame the West for everything that has gone wrong. The evils of dictatorships or jihadists doesn’t let the imperialists off the hook, but the reverse is also true.
It’s also important that when we talk about outside powers we also include Russia. The pattern of interventions by Russia, from the Ottoman era until now, is impossible to distinguish from intervention by Western Europeans and Americans. Think of the disastrous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and the whole train of unintended consequences that led to, including the birth of Al-Qaeda.
My working assumption is that outside intervention is a given. It’s the rule rather than the exception. That’s a pretty grim conclusion, but the reason I reach it is that the outside world has such important interests in the region: Oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and more recently the whole question of radical Islam and extremism. The region is so strategic and of such importance to the outside world that outside powers cannot seem to resist the temptation to intervene, either directly or by proxies as we see in Syria.
Around a century after the events described in the book, the order that emerged in the period seems to be breaking down. There is a broad crisis of state across the Middle East. In Turkey, the government sees this as an opportunity to reassert Turkish hegemony in the region. What do you make of this new Turkish activism?
I can understand why President Erdoğan became very popular on the Arab Street a few years ago. He got a hero’s welcome when he visited Egypt and other Arab countries. He seemed to represent a politically and economically strong state that was ready to stand up to outside powers, including the United States and Israel, in contrast to the Arab states that didn’t seem to have any of those characteristics.
The situation now is very different. The whole situation in the Middle East has changed. Above all, we no long have the sense, as we did in those exciting early years of what we called the Arab Spring, that Turkey was riding the wave of the future. It didn’t seem such an unreasonable proposition when you had a group similar to the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt. You had the sense that a movement that Erdoğan and the AKP sought to ally itself with was the coming wave in the Middle East. We now know that the wave didn’t last long. The mainstream Islamist movements are on the back foot and considerably weaker than before. Turkey is now seen with mixed feelings. There are some in the Middle East who share the ideological trend represented by Erdoğan, but many others see Turkey as one of the powers stirring the pot in Syria, though of course there is no one single Arab view on all this.
One of the great tragedies of the region is that the hopes engendered by the Arab Spring have now ended in despair. Now there are very few people who think radical change of any kind is on the agenda. The agenda is of survival and dealing with the “crisis of the state” – a deep-rooted crisis that casts a dark shadow over all the Arab states. It’s hard to find an Arab state that is not in political, economic and cultural crisis. But I don’t see that crisis of state being in some simple way the product of Western imperialists. The imperialists set the region on what proved to be a very unhappy and difficult path, but the current crisis of the state is largely homegrown. It is the local political, military and economic elites who are responsible for what is largely a crisis of legitimacy. The postcolonial regimes have on the whole failed to fulfill the high hopes engendered by independence.