On November 11, 1914, Sheikh Al Islam Ürgüplü Hayri Bey, the supreme religious authority in the Ottoman Empire, posed a dramatic question in the Fatih Sultan Mehmed Mosque, one of the most venerable monuments on the Istanbul skyline. The question, and the emphatic one-word answer it generated, would affect the lives of millions of Muslims, as well as their adversaries, across the Middle East over the next four years.
“Question: When it occurs that enemies attack the Islamic world, when it has been established that they seize and pillage Islamic countries and capture Muslim persons and when his Majesty the Padishah of Islam [the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V] thereupon orders the jihad in the form of a general mobilisation, has jihad then … become incumbent on all Muslims and has it become an individual duty for all Muslims in all parts of the world, be they young or old, on foot or mounted, to hasten to partake in the jihad with their goods and money?
Traditionally, historians have downplayed the significance of the ensuing German-orchestrated jihad against the Allies, to the extent that it has been branded irrelevant to the wider war effort. Certainly it did not have the devastating effect wished for by its architects and, on this purely military level, it can be contrasted with the more immediately effective British-sponsored uprising of the Arabs against the Ottomans, their co-religionists and long-standing colonial overlords.
Yet this explanation, says Professor Eugene Rogan, the author of a new landmark study – The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 – fails to take into account the effect the jihad had on the Entente Powers or Allies.
“I think it failed to provoke a global Islamic uprising, but the way it played on British and French war planners was very significant, right through to the fall of Jerusalem in November 1917. The British were preoccupied that defeats at the hands of the Ottomans might provoke uprisings by colonial Muslims in India and Egypt – and it really shaped a lot of their wartime planning. So to say the jihad was irrelevant needs revising.”
The uniquely western perspective of fighting on the Ottoman Front, long a neglected and underrated theatre of the First World War with the exception of the numerous works about Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, has been equally in need of revision. Just as for many Europeans, particularly the British and French, the Great War is popularly known almost exclusively as a Western Front affair, so with the war in the Middle East, European and especially British historians have tended to see the conflict through a British lens. Thus we have those hoary staples of “Churchill’s debacle” at Gallipoli; “Townshend’s surrender” at Al Kut, the most ignominious in British military history; “Maude’s entry” into Baghdad in March 1917, ending 383 years of Ottoman rule; “Allenby’s conquest” of Jerusalem in November that year. And, of course, that most enigmatic and quintessentially British figure, with a liberal sprinkling of Hollywood stardust, “Lawrence of Arabia”, long lionised by Brits as the leader of the Arab Revolt. Arabs, it hardly needs explaining, have consistently and vigorously contested this view, including most recently the distinguished Iraqi historian Ali Allawi in his 2014 biography Faisal I of Iraq.
This Eurocentric approach to the war in the Middle East tends to be parochial to the point of one-sided, a narrow perspective which Rogan is keen to widen. While David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace (1989) reflected the classic view from British archives, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s The First World War in the Middle East (2014) offered a broader canvas. With Rogan, Gallipoli, Kut and Gaza now rightly become hard-won, resounding Ottoman victories rather than heroic British defeats. Far from proving the key to a swift end to war through a lightning defeat of the “Weak Man of Europe”, as the Allies had anticipated, the Ottoman Front only succeeded in lengthening – and vastly broadening – the greater conflict, claiming millions of soldiers from the Entente and Central Alliances.
What is especially welcome in this study is the long overdue focus on the experiences of Turkish and Arab soldiers and civilians during the war, culled from a series of recently published diaries and memoirs. During the past 10 years, perhaps 30 Ottoman soldiers’ diaries have been published in Turkey, counterparts to visceral British works such as P W Long’s Other Ranks of Kut (1938). These are alternately harrowing, heart-rending, sometimes amusing, but always intensely human documents. Rogan says they were “the most exciting part of writing the book. They allow us for the first time to approach the common soldier’s experience of fighting, and what’s so exciting are the parallels between what they write and what western soldiers write – we’ve never had it from both sides of the trenches before.”
Thus we hear the voices of ordinary men such as Corporal Ali Riza Eti, a Turkish medic called up for military service to fight the Russians at Köprüköy, the first Ottoman battle of the First World War in November 1914. Eti transcribed the terrifying symphony of bullets as civ civ civ. “As it was my first day [of fighting], I was very afraid of dying,” he noted in his diary. “With each civ I broke out in a sweat from my teeth to my toenails.”
French and Ottoman soldiers’ diaries bear common witness to the terror of hearing the enemy digging under their lines. “The Turks wrote a lot of poetry too, much of it very bad, like that of the soldiers they were fighting,” says Rogan. “The experience was so big it seemed to defy prose so they resorted to poetry to do justice to it.”
Rogan charts how the emerging Arab movement pressing for rights for Arab subjects within the Ottoman Empire came under ever more severe Young Turk repression in the lead-up to the Great War. Tens of thousands were exiled for their political views and dozens were hanged in Beirut and Damascus in 1916. Increased Ottoman suppression, combined with the hardship of the war years, fuelled increasingly separatist views among the Arabs.
Though sensitive to the general sophistication of Ottoman rule, Rogan does not pull his punches on the Armenian genocide of 1915. The chapter detailing “the annihilation of the Armenians”, with systematic massacres of males who were 12 years and over, often within sight or hearing of their womenfolk, sounds an eloquent riposte to long-standing Turkish denial of these “crimes against humanity”.
T E Lawrence famously considered the Arab Revolt “a sideshow of a sideshow”. By contrast, Rogan demonstrates that the Ottoman Front writ large was unquestionably an international affair that transformed Europe’s Great War into the First World War.
Here the British made common cause with South Asians, North Africans and New Zealanders, Australians, Senegalese, Sudanese and the French to fight a polyglot Ottoman army containing Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and Circassians. The Ottoman Front was “a veritable tower of Babel, an unprecedented conflict between international armies”.
Much of the turmoil currently convulsing the Middle East can find its echoes on the region’s battlefields a century ago. “What we forget was that the war was fought in many areas of the Middle East,” Rogan says. “There was fighting that affected people’s daily lives in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, across the Hijaz, in Iran and in Turkey. The number of people touched by the war counted in the millions.”
Death came through disease, spread by the movement of huge armies, through famine and through direct conflict.
Another argument that comes in for intense re-examination concerns British wartime partition plans, which are typically considered “deeply duplicitous” in promising the same land to multiple parties. It is only by studying the series of different diplomatic agreements within their immediate military context, Rogan convincingly argues, that it becomes clear that diplomacy consistently was playing second fiddle to the overriding objective of winning an increasingly murderous war.
Thus the Constantinople Agreement of 1915, in which France and Britain promised Russia the prizes of Istanbul and the Dardanelles, reflected Allied confidence in a swift capture of the Ottoman capital. The protracted Hussein–McMahon Correspondence with the Hashemites in 1915-16 was engendered by Britain’s need for an Arab ally to counter the rabble-raising Ottoman jihad. Then came the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 to carve up the Ottoman Middle East, struck in anticipation of an imminent Ottoman collapse that then proved stubbornly elusive. The ominous and conflicting Balfour Declaration of 1917 was a belated effort to recalibrate Sykes-Picot and secure British rule for Palestine. In Rogan’s words: “Britain was not thinking about drawing up borders in the Middle East so much as defeating the Germans.”
With the war won, and the ailing Ottoman Empire on its deathbed, the Great Powers turned avaricious eyes on the post-war prize of the Middle East. To the victors the spoils. In the last years of Sunni Muslim Ottoman rule, from the Young Turks revolution of 1908, the mixed populations of the Middle East had been represented in Istanbul on equal terms. The traditional dhimmi status for Jews and Christians had been abolished. Now Muslim rule gave way to European imperialism. The new masters were determined to snuff out the aspirations for Arab independence they had ignited only a couple of years earlier.
For Rogan, the conflict has left a distinctly baleful legacy in the region. “I think the Middle East has suffered more from the enduring consequences of World War I than practically any other part of the world,” he says.
Although the British and French successfully created what proved to be a remarkably resilient state system in which borders survived virtually intact for a century, they also left a legacy of unresolved national issues, which have continued to destabilise the region. Stable on one level, the long-lasting borders have engendered multiple conflicts on the other, notably with Palestine and the Kurds.
In fact, the legacy of the Great War in the Middle East extends far beyond Israel, the Palestinians and the Kurds. Lebanon emerged with the seeds of sectarian conflict planted within its own borders, vulnerable to ambitions from a Syria that was never reconciled to its loss.
Perhaps nowhere, though, has been as bloodied and scarred by its modern history as Iraq, conceived by the British as a union between the three related but separate Ottoman vilayets or provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. After a brief period of hope under a fledgling monarchy that lasted from 1921 to 1958, Iraqis have not been able to break the ensuing vicious cycle of revolutions, coups, wars and dictatorship. They are now engulfed by a sectarian conflict that traces its origins back more than 1,200 years before the Great War, to the Battle of Karbala in AD680, the crystallisation of the Sunni-Shia division.
Last year, Europe embarked on a four-year commemoration of the First World War. In the Middle East the centenary has been met largely with silence rather than celebrations of victories or commemoration of losses. There are other, more immediate conflicts to concentrate on. “It’s the forgotten war because it’s seen as someone else’s war even though it was fought on their soil and it was their men fighting and dying,” says Rogan. The people of the region had not chosen to get involved in this war. “World War One was the misfortune that led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of European imperialism and it’s remembered as a period of tremendous suffering.”
This is a formidable narrative history, written with great verve and empathy. Through its meticulous scholarship and its deft weaving together of the social, economic, diplomatic and military history of this neglected front, The Fall of the Ottomans provides an engrossing picture of a deadly conflict that proved catastrophic for the peoples of the region.
Surveying the state of the Middle East a century after the conflict, Rogan argues the basic peacetime challenge of generating jobs and economic growth for a young and rapidly expanding population has been frustrated by numerous, currently overwhelming setbacks.
“What prevents the region from addressing those legitimate challenges are layers and layers of political problems and regional conflicts that seem to drive the prospects of a free and prosperous region deeper and deeper into the future,” he says. “With the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya – and with political volatility in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and Algeria – I think everyone is rational to be pessimistic about the prospects for the region. None of these problems have a short-term solution.”
• Eugene Rogan will attend the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai on March 4. He will take part in a panel discussion ‘100 Years On: Continuing Reverberations in the Arab World’ as well as speak about his own work. For more information, visit www.emirateslitfest.com.
Justin Marozzi is the author of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.
[ Read more… ]» Stop wasting money on aid, and start letting in more refugees
Pictures from Calais have returned to our television screens, showing desperate men and women trying to break into lorries bound for Britain. A Sudanese man died jumping from a bridge onto a lorry heading for Dover. Another perished after falling from the axles of a bus. The mayor of Calais has blamed Britain for being an ‘El Dorado’ offering aspirational benefits to migrants — but as she’d know, the Africans arriving in her morgues would never have qualified for welfare. They risked death due to a sense of desperation, and hope, that we can scarcely imagine.
The same is true in the Mediterranean, where 2,500 have died after embarking on unseaworthy boats heading for Europe. Corpses of Syrians, Egyptians and others now regularly wash up on Italian shores. Britain’s decision not to support any future search and rescue operations on the grounds that they encouraged North Africans to make the dangerous journey was greeted with disbelief in Brussels. ‘It is as if you walk by a river and see a child being pulled away by the current and think: “I’ll let the child drown because then the other kids will know that they shouldn’t fall into the river”,’ said Michael Diedring, secretary general of the European Council for Refugees.
For once, the man from Brussels is right. Those climbing onto these boats will have seen the news, and know the risks. Yet they still take their families on board the inflatable boats, the airtight ship containers, the refrigerated cargo lorries. They are part of a worldwide exodus of which, whatever Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail tell us (‘Asylum: you’re right to worry’ is a typical headline), those coming to Britain are only a tiny proportion. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, says last year was the worst for refugee crises on record, reaching levels not seen since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. The population of forcibly displaced people is now 51 million, twice the entire population of Afghanistan. Yet no one fights for them.
We are in the grip of immigration hysteria. Much of our panic about asylum seekers in Britain is strikingly self-regarding, not least the notion that our island is the destination of choice for most of them. The fact is, it isn’t. Below 1 per cent of the planet’s displaced people are in the UK. We Brits like to think we’re a decent lot, that we do our bit and stand up for the oppressed. We can hold our heads up high, we tell ourselves, exemplars of fair play in a cruel world.
Yet if we look at how other countries handle immigration and refugees, perhaps we would be rather less self-congratulatory. The truth is that we punch well below our weight. What do Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have in common — apart from being Muslim? According to the United Nations, they are the world’s top five hosts of refugees. Pakistan alone has 1.6 million. Earlier this year, the UNHCR called on countries to take in an additional 100,000 Syrians in 2015 and 2016. The UK’s response? The Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. As of August, the total number of Syrians resettled was 50.
How do we compare with our European neighbours, who are supposedly much less of a soft touch? Germany received 127,000 applications for asylum last year, France 65,000, Sweden 54,000 and Britain just 30,000 (Sweden’s population, for the record, is a sixth the size of ours). So not so much Floodgates Britain, Mr Farage, as Fortress Britain. And here it is worth remembering that we are signatories to the 1951 UN convention on refugees, under which asylum is given to those with a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ in their own countries. There is no shortage of these people, but we seem to have suspiciously few of them here. Statistics aside, this latest bout of British immigration fever reminds me of friends I have worked with during the past decade in the sort of conflict-ravaged countries that produce so many refugees.
When Fatima, my long-suffering Arabic teacher in Baghdad, decided it was time to leave Iraq, it was not the UK she chose, but America, to teach Arabic at a defence institute in California. Forced to seek asylum after raging violence in Baghdad, my Iraqi friend Manaf, a retired diplomat, scholar and Anglophile, found his way to Amarillo, Texas, with his wife. Where was Britain in Iraq’s greatest hour of need? Its approach could be best summed up in the refusal to give asylum to 91 Iraqis who had served as interpreters for British forces. During a visit to Afghanistan in 1996, Hazara warlords were reportedly staging ‘dead dancing’ shows, decapitating prisoners, cauterising the severed necks with oil and watching the corpses stumble around pour encourager les autres.
Eventually, like so many Afghans overcome by the conflict, my translator Arif fled the country. He won a Chevening scholarship and graduated from Stirling University with a Masters in communications. But this isn’t enough to guarantee residency — next year, he’ll learn whether he can stay permanently or be asked to leave. Given the government’s failure to meet its immigration target, it’s people like Arif — from outside the EU — who are at greatest risk of deportation.
If one good thing could come out of Britain’s latest fixation with immigration, it would surely be a long, hard look at the Department for International Development. Its dizzying growth contrasts awkwardly with our stinginess towards those seeking shelter in Britain. Whenever a crisis breaks out — think Syria or Ebola — Britain likes to donate more money than the rest of Europe put together. It is as if David Cameron believes a nation’s compassion can be measured by the size of its overseas aid budget. And how big that is.
A decade ago, the government gave £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money to charities of its choice, via Dfid. Now, it’s £11 billion and rising steadily. For civil servants, corrupt foreign governments and the army of consultants who feed from this largesse — and here I declare an interest having served as one — Dfid is the gift that keeps on giving. Compare this with the Foreign Office, once the parent of Dfid’s modest predecessor the Overseas Development Administration, now the poor relation with a budget of £1.7 billion. While no one would argue the UK has caused this latest global tide of migrants, we certainly had a hand in some of it.
The Iraqi Christians being turned away here were never singled out for elimination under Saddam Hussein. We have become good at deposing dictators, but bad at filling the resulting power vacuum. Our well-intentioned interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have led to population upheavals on a grand scale. The Afghans found in Tilbury Docks recently (one of them dead) were reportedly Sikhs, targeted by the resurgent Taleban. If we had left Afghanistan a stable country, would they have ended up in Essex? Where was Britain in Iraq’s greatest hour of need?
Our approach can be best summed up in the refusal to give asylum to 91 Iraqis who had served as interpreters for British forces. Yet in previous eras we opened our doors more readily to Sassoons, Saatchis, Hadids, Dallals, Auchis, Yentobs, Zilkas and Shamashes. History will remember another Iraqi-British friend, the former national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, a London neurologist, as the man who hanged Saddam. There’s a serious intellectual inconsistency here. Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron have insisted there is a connection between failing foreign states and domestic problems, such as terrorist threats and heroin on our streets — and used that argument to justify interventions abroad. Yet they have remained silent about the backlash from these decisions when waves of migrants flee these states. If we were all Libyans in 2011, as those who advocated the removal of Muammar Gaddafi put it, aren’t we all Libyans now?
Britain’s response is to the refugee crisis is to offer fewer than 1,000 ‘resettlement places’ a year. It’s pitiful. Of course we can’t house them all, but part of any nation’s moral duty is to shelter the genuinely persecuted — and Britain does disgracefully little, for a country that accepts 1,200 immigrants a day. Reallocating some of Dfid’s budget to help shelter those who arrive would be a start. And given that this problem will not go away, it is time to consider it properly. Somehow, a fixation with overseas aid budgets has broken the government’s moral compass. The public can be trusted to support overseas charities; it is the government’s duty to help refugees who arrive here needing shelter. For the Prime Minister to neglect that basic British duty diminishes us all.
Justin Marozzi’s latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.
[ Read more… ]» In Threatening Baghdad, Militants Seek to Undo 800 Years of History
IS leader al-Baghdadi has established a caliphate and seeks to undo the 13th-century destruction of Islam’s premier city, but they’ve got it completely backward.
Baghdadis have long memories. Talk to them about the extraordinarily turbulent history of the Iraqi capital as they contemplate their city falling to Islamic State (IS) fighters, and one date tends to crop up: 1258. Although this was certainly not the last time barbarians were at the gates — think Tamerlane, Sword Arm of Islam, Conqueror of the World, who comprehensively sacked the city in 1401, leaving 120 towers containing 90,000 skulls of his victims as a battlefield memento — the unparalleled devastation of the 1258 invasion, with its far-reaching consequences for the wider Muslim world, remains a bitter wound to this day.
The whirlwind blew in from the east. Hulagu Khan, founder of the Ilkhanate empire that encompassed Iran, much of the Middle East and Central Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Scourge of God. Riding west from Mongolia in 1253 on a self-appointed mission to rescue the oppressed Christian communities of the Middle East and Caucasus, he issued a warning to the Abbasid caliph Mustasim in Baghdad to surrender or face total ruin. Should the leader of the Muslim world refuse to acknowledge Hulagu’s sovereignty, the Mongol wrote:
I will bring you crashing down from the summit of the sky,
Like a lion I will throw you down to the lowest depths.
I will not leave a single person alive in your country,
I will turn your city, lands and empire into flames.
The caliph Mustasim was unimpressed. Writing back to Hulagu, he dismissed the wild ambition of a “young man”, advised the eastern invader to return home and prepared to resist.
History has not been kind to Mustasim. According to the historian John Saunders, he was a “weak, vain, incompetent and cowardly” leader. Others point to the caliph’s preference for the pleasures of his harem and hunting grounds over the hard-headed defence of his realm. He had neglected his army to the point where there were mass desertions and even defections to Mongol ranks. The parallels with Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who has seen the national army dissolve at the approach of IS right across northern, western and central Iraq, are irresistible.
On Jan. 30, 1258, Hulagu’s forces, who had began investing Baghdad from the east, launched an assault on the city with the full Mongol arsenal of siege engines. It was a terrifying bombardment of rocks, palm trunks and flaming naphtha. Pontoon bridges were laid across the Tigris both above and below the city, manned by 10,000 Mongols with siege engines, sealing off all escape routes by river.
Within days Hulagu’s forces had captured the entire length of the eastern wall, the key to taking control of the city. Mustasim sent a deputation to Hulagu, stalling for time, but it was too late to surrender on favourable terms. Suleiman Shah, the commander-in-chief of the caliph’s army, was seized and taken to Hulagu’s camp, where he and 700 members of his household were killed.
On Feb. 10, Mustasim and his three sons, together with 3,000 of the city’s most distinguished figures, including sayids (descendants of the Prophet Mohammed), imams, and qadis (judges), entered Hulagu’s camp to offer a formal surrender. Mustasim gave the order to cease all resistance.
Unlike the many scholars from the caliphate they purport to admire, IS doesn’t do free thinking or intellectual curiosity — let alone the long nights of wine, women and song so beloved by the caliphs of Baghdad.Promised mercy, Baghdad’s grandees trooped out of the city and handed themselves in to Mongol forces. They were hacked to death in cold blood, scholars, scientists, religious leaders “slaughtered like sheep”, according to Ibn Kathir, the fourteenth-century Syrian historian. Hulagu then gave his men licence to rape, kill and plunder with the caveat that Christians and Jews were to be spared. He had promised to turn Mustasim’s kingdom “into flames” and was as good as his word.
Baghdad was set alight. The great Abbasid palaces, envy of the world, were consumed in the blaze, together with mosques, law colleges, the tombs of the caliphs, markets, libraries, and street after street of homes. Baghdad, the most sophisticated civilization in the world, went up in smoke, leaving only a few simple houses standing. The chronicles said the Tigris ran red with blood.
The dead and dying lay piled in rising mounds across the city. Decomposing corpses led to a rampant plague so severe it spread to Syria. The stench forced Hulagu to move camp several miles away, where his generals had stashed the great treasures of Abbasid civilisation, proudly preserved for half a millennium.
What of the death count? In a letter to Louis IX of France, Hulagu claimed 200,000. Other medieval historians reported 800,000. One even suggested two million. Whatever the true figure, it was a massacre of twentieth-century proportions.
Mystery surrounds the final fate of Mustasm. According to the notoriously unreliable Venetian traveller Marco Polo, he was locked in a tower with nothing to eat but gold and “died like a dog”. More likely he was rolled in a carpet and trampled to death by horses to honour the Mongol tradition of not shedding royal blood. One of Hulagu’s final insults, after reappointing the Shia vizier suspected of treachery towards Mustasim, was to give the Christian patriarch of the Nestorian church one of the caliph’s palaces, together with a plot of land on which to build a church. The latest incarnation of that church still stands on Khulafa Street in downtown Baghdad.
For many Arabs and Muslims, the memories of 1258 remain a psychological sore. It is on a par with Alaric’s sacking of Rome in 410 or the fall of Byzantium in 1453, a date that still haunts Greeks almost 600 years later. In 2002, Osama bin Laden likened Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney to Hulagu for the damage they inflicted on Baghdad during Gulf War One. And when British General Sir Stanley Maude captured Baghdad from the Ottomans in 1917 — another humiliation for the Muslim world — he made specific reference to the trauma of 1258: “Since the days of Hulagu your city and your lands have been subject to the tyranny of strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunk in desolation, and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage.”
Hulagu’s storm of destruction marked the end of Baghdad’s ascendancy and, more important, heralded longer lasting disunity and decline for the Islamic world as a whole. During its long and glorious Abbasid heyday, which stretched from 762 to the catastrophe of 1258, Baghdad was the intellectual and cultural capital of the planet. The Bait al Hikma, or House of Wisdom, founded by the caliph Mamun in the early ninth century, was a translation centre cum royal archive cum library cum think-tank, translating, refining and republishing the texts of classical Greek, Hindu and Persian scholarship. This was the seed of the golden age of Arab science. Contrast that with the sobering Arab Human Development Report of 2002 which found that in the 1,000 years since Mamun’s reign Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in a year.
With Arab culture, politics, economic clout and prestige in such disarray today, it is little wonder that Islamists talk about restoring the Islamic caliphate, a supposed pathway to glory. They want to undo the carnage of 1258, when Baghdad, the peerless Islamic capital of world civilisation, was transformed into an ignominious corner of a fledgling empire. It was the most shattering blow the Muslim world had ever received, one from which arguably it has never recovered.
Yet the chauvinistic outlook and limited education of the latest generation of Islamists helps explain why they completely fail to recognise the caliphate was an outward looking, cosmopolitan, economically powerful, multi-faith enterprise from the start, with Jews and Christians alike playing influential commercial, religious and political roles. Unlike the many scholars from the caliphate they purport to admire, IS doesn’t do free thinking or intellectual curiosity — let alone the long nights of wine, women and song so beloved by the caliphs of Baghdad. Don’t bother asking an IS militant what he thinks of free trade, foreign investment, gender empowerment, civil society and so on.
We should not lose track of the irony that if the Muslim forces of IS were to capture the quintessential Islamic city that is the Iraqi capital, although they are unlikely to unleash as devastating an apocalypse as did Hulagu, it would be a catastrophe for Baghdad, Iraq and much of the Muslim world they delusionally aspire to lead to greatness.
[ Read more… ]» A blue thread in Africa’s tangled web of violence – Sunday Times
When 16 Tuareg men burst onto the desert road with AK-47s pointing at our heads, pulled over our car, hurled us to the ground and cuffed and blindfolded us, I didn’t think this was the beginning of the blowback from the Libyan revolution. That’s not the sort of thing that goes through your mind at such moments.
Nor did it occur to me at any time during the next 24 hours, while I was held at gunpoint with a Libyan friend and his traumatised family. When someone is threatening to kill you within the next few hours unless his comrades are released from prison, geopolitical analysis isn’t the first thing on your mind.
Survival was the only thing. Every few hours we were moved to a different sun-baked hideout deep in the desert, as the Tuareg kidnappers, a gang of twentysomething desperados, made sure the Libyan security forces could not find us.
Nobody knows the desert better than the Tuareg. Time wore heavily as the appointed hour of our death approached. There was a horrifying moment when a couple of Tuareg jumped out of a pick-up and started digging our graves. I started saying my prayers — but there was no bullet in the back of the head. Eventually I was released into the night with my friend’s family. He was kept hostage for another three weeks, during which time he saw more young men from his home town kidnapped, stripped and beaten. He was subjected to regular mock executions.
Looking back on that terrifying experience of late 2011, it’s clear that the Tuareg kidnappings were one of the earliest signs of the fallout from the demise of the Gadaffi regime. This was the first tremor of a seismic shift that is now shaking Mali and Algeria and reverberating across the Sahara and the Sahel, the semi-arid belt immediately to its south. For David Cameron the region, rich in oil, gas and uranium, has become the new front line in the fight against terrorism. More than a decade after 9/11, the world is wearily familiar with al-Qaeda. By contrast, the Tuareg, who find themselves caught up in a tangled web of illegal trafficking, armed rebellion and imported Arab terrorism in a part of the world that is suddenly at the centre of global attention, are an unknown quantity. For most people the word means a four-wheel-drive Volkswagen.
If my kidnapping was one extreme, my other brush with the Tuareg was completely different: a peaceful encounter at the beginning of a 1,200-mile journey by camel across the Libyan Sahara in 1998-99. Then, a British friend and I travelled with a succession of Tuareg guides from Ghadames to Murzuk, both former centres of the Saharan slave trade from which the Tuareg had once profited handsomely. Here we learnt from past masters the skills that were dying out as the ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruiser replaced the trusted but plodding camel.
The Tuareg are ancient and nomadic desert pastoralists, estimated to number between 2m and 3m today. They are known as the Men of the Veil and the Blue People, after the stains left on their skins by the indigo-dyed tagilmus veils, traditionally the defining symbol of the Tuareg. “Almost all Tuareg . . . would as soon walk unveiled as an Englishman would walk down Bond Street with his trousers falling down,” wrote Francis Rennell Rodd, author of People of the Veil, a 1926 study. Sartorial standards have slipped since those days — my kidnappers wore filthy T-shirts and trousers rather than flowing robes — but a Tuareg man is rarely parted from his veil. Like the Kurds, the Tuareg are a people without a state, caught between the gaps of the Great Power scramble for Africa that began in the early 1880s and resulted in new states with borders that frequently made a mockery of realities on the ground. Like travellers in Britain, their nomadic way of life frequently conflicts with that of settled communities. They rove widely in the Sahara and Sahel, their territory encompassing a vast swathe of land from Libya in the northeast, through southern Algeria, northern Niger and northern Mali into Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Although they belong to the Maliki sect of Islam, compared with many of their Arab neighbours they are not especially religious — the word Tuareg means “abandoned by God” in Arabic. In 2011 I marvelled at their ability to pray one moment then poke me in the chest with a Kalashnikov the next. Unlike their menfolk, Tuareg women are not veiled, a rarity in the Muslim world. Equally extraordinary is that theirs is a matrilineal society with descent and inheritance coming through the maternal line.
Where once they were the masters of Saharan trade, running what would be called a protection racket today, offering their services as guides and armed guards to caravans travelling through their territory, now the Tuareg are more likely to eke out a living from drought-ravaged animal husbandry and tourism, which is why the crisis in Algeria and Mali will have such a savage effect on them.
More will be drawn into the lucrative smuggling business, trafficking people, drugs and cigarettes to the Mediterranean. A decade ago, trans-Saharan smuggling was worth about £850m a year, according to Jeremy Keenan, an expert on the Tuareg at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, with single convoys worth £10m travelling north from Mali or Niger into Algeria “not uncommon”. With the breakdown in security, this illicit trade is set to increase.
As the West tries to understand a complex and suddenly violent region, it is critical to distinguish between the Tuareg, who belong in the Sahel and Sahara, and the incoming fundamentalists of al-Qaeda, who do not. The travel writer Alistair Carr, author of a book on the Sahel to be published this year, worries that lines between the two will be blurred. “My first reaction when I heard the news about Algeria was concern that people would confuse the Tuareg rebellion [against the government of Mali], which is all about their marginalisation and struggle for political rights, with the fundamentalist Islamist factions responsible for the hostilities and destruction in Mali. They are distinct.”
Many fear French involvement will radicalise a new generation of Tuareg fighters and intensify the Islamic threat in the region. But the Tuareg and al-Qaeda are not natural bedfellows. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which took control of northern Mali last year in an attempt to forge an elusive yet long-wished-for Tuareg homeland, is generally considered a secular, nationalist movement that opposes al-Qaeda.
While many would criticise Cameron’s assertion that the war in north Africa and the Sahel may last decades, he is surely right to emphasise the need to confront the Islamists’ “poisonous narrative”. Having worked on a successful project for the African Union and United Nations countering al-Shabaab’s Islamist narrative in Somalia, it is difficult to argue with the power of such an approach.
For the Tuareg, however, any more strategic miscalculations, such as the alliance with Gadaffi and the current dalliance with al-Qaeda, are only likely to spell disaster for this tough, turbulent and marginalised people.
Justin Marozzi is the author of South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara; @justinmarozzi
[ Read more… ]» What to do about Mali? FT Comment
What to do about Mali? It is a question the international community is starting to ask in earnest, if not yet get to grips with entirely. Few policy makers in Washington or Europe may be able to point out the country on a map, but recent events in the fragile west African state have thrust it high up the international agenda.
First, some background. In March, President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown in an incomplete military coup. That allowed al-Qaeda- allied Islamists and rebels from the Tuareg, a native Berber people, to seize control of northern Mali. Since then, the insurgents have wasted little time implementing an agenda that is worryingly familiar to seasoned al-Qaeda watchers.
Rape, forced marriage and forced prostitution have been widely reported, together with the stoning to death of an unmarried couple and public amputations for thieves. Ancient Sufi shrines have been demolishedfor supposedly infringing sharia law. About 1.5m Malians have been displaced. The UN warns that war crimes may already have been committed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies.
After recent experiences in Afghanistan and Somalia, the international community is warier than ever of allowing another vulnerable country to descend into a failed-state haven for terrorists. Many fear that instability in Mali will exacerbate the effects of drought and food shortages and precipitate a full-blown humanitarian disaster.
Encouragingly, there appears to be some sense of urgency. On October 12, the UN Security Council passed a resolution paving the way for military intervention by Ecowas, the west African regional grouping. Detailed operational planning must now emerge from African organisations within 45 days. Lest there be any suggestion that the international community is overreacting, it is worth considering the Islamists’ response to proposed intervention. They pledged to “open the doors of hell” for French citizens in Mali and send President François Hollande pictures of dead French hostages.
If intervention is imminent, as seems increasingly likely, what sort of engagement can be expected? One model receiving increasing attention is Somalia, where African Union and Somali security forces have been fighting a vicious campaign against the foreign-led, al-Qaeda allied al-Shabaab insurgents since 2009. al-Shabaab has been driven out of Mogadishu, creating the space for politicians to come together to write their own political future. Long considered a basket case, Somalia is now on a trajectory toward economic recovery under a more democratic government.
There are parallels between Mali and Somalia. For al-Shabaab in Somalia, read AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in west Africa and other Islamist organisations that have come to prey on Mali. The nature of the international response in Somalia could also yield lessons for Mali, above all the shared responsibility and partnership between African nations and organisations, the UN and external funders.
It is instructive – and reassuring – that no one envisages sending US or other western forces to Mali. International intervention by proxy has become a more attractive option since the hard-won success in Somalia. This model enables western powers to commit money and materiel rather than manpower to a problem with ramifications that go far beyond Mali’s borders.
For the African Union and Ecowas, foreign financial, logistical and intelligence support enables the application of African solutions to African problems. It is an effective partnership, currently working in practice in Mogadishu, until recently, widely known as the most dangerous city in the world.
There is no question that any intervention in Mali will be hugely challenging. It is extremely doubtful that the 3,000 troops proposed by Ecowas would be sufficient to help recapture the 300,000 square miles of northern Mali seized by the Islamists. Amisom, the AU mission in Somalia, now numbers almost 18,000 by comparison. However many security forces are deployed, it will be imperative to deny al-Qaeda control over airports, military installations, training areas and arms caches soon, before they become harder to expel. A further Security Council resolution is also required to authorise action in Mali.
It is to be hoped that western backing and African manpower will now combine to drive out the toxic al-Qaeda alliance from Mali for good. On 19 October, when representatives of the UN, Ecowas, the AU, EU and neighbouring countries meet in the capital of Bamako to discuss next steps, they have the opportunity to demonstrate decisively that they mean business. The world will be watching.
[ Read more… ]» Mogadishu Notebook
Strange things happen in Mogadishu airport. Day 1 and a British national suspected of al-Qaeda ties is detained. Porn, suspicioussubstances and traditional Arab dress in his luggage. I hotfoot it down to the police station to discover a black man in white Lonsdale vest and blue tracksuit trousers. Only a British Islamist would dress so badly. He says his legal and human rights have been so badly abused in the UK that he has come to Mogadishu to look for a decent lawyer.Then he trots out a story about making his way down the East African coast,starting somewhere “peaceful and sunny”. In fact, he was haplessly trying to get to the port of Kismayo, headquarters of al-Shebab, the local insurgentsallied with al-Qaeda, “to help the Muslims”, as he later tells the cameras.
He appears not to have done his homework. First, 99 per cent of Somalis don’t like al-Shebab. In its latest report on Somalia, Human Rights Watch notes the group’s fondness for “floggings, summary executions and public beheadings”. Second, the authorities, who are currently waging war rather successfully against them with the robust support of African Union forces (Amisom), are hardly likely to wave him through to their enemy. He is quickly deported back to the UK — with an enforced stopover at the British Embassy in Nairobi.
Apart from wannabe Islamists, the airport has recently entertained other exotic creatures: the pair of lion cubs that a local smuggler tried to fly out of Somalia, only to be frustrated by an alert sniffer dog.Then there was a British team of hostage negotiators who arrived in two planes carrying $3.6 million cash for a captured Chinese ship. “They like to use a slower propeller plane from Mogadishu so they can drop the money on the deck,” says my local kidnap and ransom expert. Somali immigration arrested the Brits and relieved them of their dollars.
And don’t forget the two daily flights from Kenya bursting with sacks of qat, the mildly hallucinogenic stimulant that Somalis chew by the ton.
The last time I was here, a year ago, you wouldn’t dream of travelling across town unless you could hitch a ride in an Amisom Casspir armoured personnel carrier. It’s a sign of the times that these days you can hop into a car and hightail it to Villa Somalia, the presidential compound on a bluff overlooking the city, without so much as a second thought, bar the occasional IED. In the absence of al-Shebab, who were ousted last summer, new markets, street cafés and exuberantly decorated shops have sprung up and are doing a brisk trade. There are even traffic jams, a sure sign ofprogress.
On the journey from the new front line, three miles outside the capital, we pass scenes of utter destruction, misery and human squalor — it’s heartbreaking to compare them with 1950s photos of elegant, tree-lined boulevards, graceful fountains and broad-fronted palaces. Peace and an internationally recognised government have come to Mogadishu for the first time in 20 years. Can the politicians now step up to the plate and extend it nationwide?
Trying to find out, I have an appointment with Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, the Prime Minister. Mild-mannered, bespectacled and barefooted, the gentleman sitting in front of his laptop is more Mole of Wind in the Willows than Mogadishu warlord. A lot is riding on the shoulders of this Somali-American technocrat, economics professor and tax expert, ex-Harvard,Vanderbilt, World Bank and UN, who is steering Somalia through the Scylla and Charybdis of the final four months of transitional government to a new constitution and elections in August.
Parliament will be cut from 550 to 225 MPs, a sensible trimming of one of the world’s more venal assemblies. Every year since 2007, Transparency International has rated Somalia the most corrupt country in the world. Yet as Peter De Clercq, of the UN’s political mission, argues: “It’s more important than ever for the Somali leaders to be seen as credible and transparent.”
The PM sighs. Good governance and the fight against corruption are priorities. “This is a very difficult and thankless job. Sometimes it gets me down. But it’s rewarding. It’s a duty call, our generational responsibility to make Somalia better for our children and great-grandchildren. If I don’t do it, who will?”
Justin Marozzi is a senior adviser at Albany Associates and the author of The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus
[ Read more… ]» Kidnapped in the Libyan Desert – Sunday Times
It was instantly terrifying. One moment we were driving quietly down the final stretch of the airport road into the southern Libyan oasis town of Ghadames, then suddenly, out of the darkness, armed men rushed into the road and surrounded our car. A band of Touareg — immediately recognisable from the cotton tagilmus veils wrapped around their heads — ordered us to stop.
“Stop the car! They’re going to shoot!” I shouted, as the car slowed. I was convinced we were not going to stop in time and they were going to fire straight through the windscreen. We would be dead in seconds.
“Get out of the car!” they screamed. Whichever way I looked, I was staring down the barrel of an AK-47 into the adrenaline-charged face of a man who looked as though he was going to pull the trigger. The windless calm of a desert night became a maelstrom of panic. In the driver’s seat my friend Taher, whom I have known since 1998, was shouting not to shoot. Sitting on his lap, his two-year-old son Mohammed started crying. A shrill note of distress came from Taher’s wife, shrouded from head to toe in black, in the back seat.
Before I had time to think, the Touareg were pulling me roughly out of the car on the passenger side, pointing rifles in my face and ordering me to lie down. Taher and his family were hauled out on the other side. I held up my hands in surrender, fearing summary execution. More screaming and jabbing of rifle barrels. Unseen hands grabbed me and threw me to the ground on my stomach. My arms were pulled up painfully behind my back and tied tightly. I could no longer see what was happening to Taher and his family. Then my head was raised, a blindfold was pulled around my head and all was darkness and noise.
Hauled into the back of a pick-up, I was rammed down flat onto a thin mat while my legs scraped uncomfortably against metal. Kalashnikovs, hands and feet shoved me into the required position. I felt completely powerless. They had prepared me for a roadside shooting and there was nothing I could do about it.
“Please,” I began feebly in Arabic.
“No please,” came a curt reply.
I kept silent for the next 30-40 minutes as we tore off into the desert, rearranged like luggage every few minutes. No one would know where we were. My wife in London and a couple of friends in Tripoli would not be expecting to hear from me for another 24-48 hours. I prayed the four of us would be spared.
I WONDERED how it had all happened on this, the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Years earlier, I had researched the history of the Touareg and written a book on Libya. Now I was heading to Ghadames to look up old friends and investigate suggestions that bad things had been happening in this far-flung oasis.
Historically uneasy relations between the town’s Arab-Berber population and the Touareg had apparently fractured into all-out conflict in the wake of the revolution that had ousted Colonel Muammar Gadaffi. For the past six months Gadaffi had been using a Touareg militia as his enforcers.
They had suppressed the initial uprising of February 20 with the regime’s customary brutality, rounding up, imprisoning and beating numerous Ghadamsis. On August 28 the town had risen up and thrown them out. A friend spoke of reprisals. Touareg homes had been torched and bulldozed. I had driven straight into an unreported front line.
For centuries, the Touareg, an ancient desert people, earned their living by escorting caravans through the Sahara. Merchants were “encouraged” to retain armed guards for the journey through areas under Touareg control. Those caravans that eschewed the protection racket were frequently plundered by the same men who had offered their services. James Richardson, the British explorer and anti-slave trade campaigner who travelled across the Libyan Sahara in 1845, was among the first Europeans to come into contact with the “Touarick”. They showed “an excessive arrogance”, he reported, and treated Ghadamsis with “great disdain, considering them as so many sheep which they are to protect from the wolves of the Sahara”. Sitting astride their magnificent white mehari camels, they looked “splendid and savage”.
My Touareg kidnappers, the Toyota Land Cruiser generation, certainly looked savage. The ragged wardrobe of T-shirts, filthy jalabiya robes, camouflage trousers and unkempt tagilmuses was anything but splendid.
Around this time, blindfolded face down in the back of a pick-up with hands tied and heart pumping, I began the sliding descent into fatalism that must be a common reaction to this sort of situation.
After about 40 minutes, the engine stopped. Hands hauled me to my feet. For some reason I imagined I was about to be thrown off a cliff and felt ridiculous going to my end so meekly. Instead I found myself on the ground. My hands were untied, the blindfold was kept on and arms guided me into the cabin of the pick-up where I was ordered to keep both hands on a handrail.
For another 90 minutes I clung on with clammy hands as we drove deeper into the Sahara. We stopped several times. At regular intervals came the disconcerting metallic click of men loading Kalashnikovs. Questions began. What was I doing going to Ghadames? Was I a spy? Why was I travelling when there was a war on? Was I working for Nato? What did I know about the Touareg? We stopped several times as different drivers took turns to ask me the same questions.
I explained I was a historian and journalist who had travelled in the Libyan Sahara with Touareg guides who had become good friends — perhaps they knew Abd al Wahab Behi? I loved Libya and admired the Touareg and their eastern counterparts of the desert, the Tabu. I had written a book about my expedition across the Sahara and wanted to find out more about the current situation.
Finally we stopped, I was pulled out and the blindfold was removed. It was an unforgettable sight. We were not quite at the bottom of a slight basin surrounded on three sides by dunes curving softly in black silhouettes. One side ran out into an unfathomable plain lit by an almost full moon. Above, the overwhelming dome of an indigo sky tapered gently into a pale blue halo ringing the horizon. The stars, already brilliantly clear, grew brighter by the minute. I couldn’t help thinking it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful place in which to meet one’s maker.
Behind me, halfway up the slope, was a cluster of silent Touareg. In front of me were three pick-ups and the beginnings of an overnight camp. I counted 16 men, all with Kalashnikovs.
A Touareg handed me a damp quilt and ordered me to lie down away from the main group. There was no sign of Taher and his family but I was told they were with us. I wrapped myself in the quilt and tried to sleep, as the Touareg made a fire. A clear mind would be more use than one fuzzy with exhaustion.
Much later, a man approached and offered food. I declined and asked for some water, regretting the chance to establish a rapport with my kidnappers but utterly without hunger. Around the campfire, the twentysomething Touaregs gossiped into the early hours.
Before dawn broke, one of the group hustled me awake and we were off. With huge relief I glimpsed Taher and his family 100 yards away, but was told not to look. On we drove.
Eventually, we spilt out of the pick-up, and I was handed some water, a plastic carton of olives, three tiny tins of tuna, half a pack of La vache qui rit cheese and an armful of half-stale bread and motioned to join Taher’s group.
“If they want to kill us, there’s nothing we can do about it,” I said. “It’s up to Allah.” Taher nodded at this statement of the obvious. “Of course, our lives are in the hands of Allah.”
Looking at Taher, I remembered the passage in Ahmed Hassanein Bey’s extraordinary book The Lost Oases, published in 1925, when he described how the Bedouin, when lost in the desert with exhausted camels and dwindling supplies of water, having received no answer to his prayers, would finally sink down upon the sands and await “with astounding equanimity the decreed death. This is the faith in which the journey across the desert must be made”.
This was an altogether different, entirely involuntary journey, but I understood this very Muslim and ultimately liberating reaction, at the heart of which lies the understanding that one’s life is in the hands of a higher, irresistible force.
“They told me if the Touareg prisoners in Ghadames are not released by 12 o’clock, they will kill all of us,” Taher said.
This tested my newfound fatalism rather more keenly than I had expected.
The sun rose and poured down the paralysing heat of a late Saharan summer. Our tiny patch of shade grew smaller and smaller. We squashed together to keep Taher’s wife and brave little child as cool as possible. Three of our captors kept watch on the highest dune far above us. We fell in and out of sleep.
As the deadline neared, I heard a pick-up approach and out jumped a couple of Touareg with their AK-47s and a spade. One started digging and my stomach tightened. This was it. He was digging our graves. A bullet in the head and a desert burial. Instead, he pulled out a thin strip of cloth and a couple of bamboo poles and erected a Heath Robinson shade. Another reprieve.
Around the hottest part of the day I was taken off separately. More questioning. An Algerian translator ran through the usual Nato-spy-infidel stuff. I repeated the desert-loving, Touareg-admiring lines and mentioned that only recently I had been talking to the head of the United Nations in Libya about the difficulties in the south and the problems of the Touareg. I might be able to help, I hinted. One of the kidnappers stepped forward.
“We want you to tell the world what has happened in Ghadames,” he said. “For 800 years we have lived together. The desert came before the city, the Touareg before the Arabs. All Libya is desert. But the Ghadamsis say no, we cannot live in the city any more. They have burnt and bulldozed our houses, killed our camels, sheep and goats, stolen our money and gold.”
I asked if I could take notes and scribbled furiously in my notebook, hastening the transformation from hapless hostage to working journalist. Slightly irritated by the constant kuffar (infidel) remarks, I told them that as a Christian I was one of the Ahl al-Kitab, or people of the book, a Koranic reference to the Christian, Jewish and Sabian religions. Encouragingly, they started calling me modeer, or director.
Then it was back into the pick-up and a long afternoon twisting and turning through an astonishingly beautiful sand sea, moving from the dazzling blandness of the desert into postcard scenes of wilting palms, dollops of green scrub and an ancient fort in what I later found was the tiny oasis of Mougazem. In the late afternoon we stopped for the obligatory tea, a ritual as beloved by the Touareg as the British. One of my captors drew a finger across his throat and said the Touareg were honourable people. They would not kill me. Night came, the stars swung up into the sky, and I was put into another pick-up with a blindfolded old man and Taher’s wife and child. Taher was being held until the Touareg prisoners were released, they said. They would take us towards Dirj, the next town north of Ghadames.
A couple of hundred yards away from the desert road the Toyota stopped. My mobile phone was thrust into my hands, there was a brief farewell handshake and the pick-up disappeared behind a blur of sand. It was over.
AT the time of writing, Taher is still being held in the desert. For the Touareg kidnappers, desperate remnants of Gadaffi’s forces, it is a dangerous and ill-advised move. It has widened the existing fractures within Ghadames. Even before the kidnap, many of the Touareg, whom the local council says number 1,800 of the population of 12,000, had fled, intimidated by the reprisals. “The Touareg can never come back,” says one Ghadamsi. “Not after this.”
Abubakr Haroun, a member of the local interim council, strikes an almost solitary note of reconciliation. “People are very angry now, but the Touareg are a part of Ghadames,” he says. “Of course, of course, of course they’ll come back and they’ll be represented on the council when we have elections.”
In this isolated oasis is a microcosm of the many challenges facing the new Libya. Ghadames needs the urgent attention of Tripoli and its international partners. Reconciliation here, as across Libya, must be the order of the day.
[ Read more… ]» Libya After Gaddafi – The Spectator cover story
The question for Libyans, as they take their first momentous steps into the post-Gaddafi era, is whether they can now build a government and country worthy of their heroic struggle against one of the world’s worst tyrants.
For decades, conventional thinking about Arab nations, especially among the experts, argued that they were best ruled by ‘strongmen’, a western euphemism for pro-western dictators such as the deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his former counterpart in Tunisia Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. According to this line of thought, Arabs don’t do democracy. They are too tribal and fractious for such enlightened politics. For western leaders, it has been a case of better the devil you know, and hang the consequences for the Arabs.
Yet the success in Libya, hard on the heels of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and those so far frustrated efforts in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, suggests that Arabs from the Atlantic in the west to the Arabian Desert in the east are not willing to remain passive victims of dictatorships forever. We need to understand this new dynamic and support it. In the British media, however, there is a tendency to seek out the most pessimistic scenario, for Libya and the Arab world more widely.
Where Libyans talk of creating a new Dubai on the shores of the Mediterranean, sceptics mutter about another Somalia. Where optimists like the lavishly maned French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy pay tribute to the extraordinary breadth of interests represented by the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, cynics spot al-Qa’eda moving in to capitalise on the instability and point to the emergence of Islamists in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia. Instead of hailing the council’s success at maintaining security, we are supposed to believe that the single assassination in Benghazi of rebel commander General Abdul Fattah Younes invalidates the entire Libyan campaign. It doesn’t.
When David Cameron took the lead in pushing for a no-fly zone back in February, the doom-mongers were already queuing up to denounce what they considered yet another Iraq or Afghanistan. As the campaign progressed, they were quick to detect a ‘stalemate’. The rebels were inevitably ‘divided’. Nato’s campaign, they argued, was ‘running into the sand’. The Italians wobbled, the French faltered (peace talks, anybody?), but London remained resolute. The prime minister maintains it was ‘necessary, legal and right’ to intervene in Libya. He’s been proved right.
Admiral James Stavridis, Nato’s head of Allied Command Operations, says that the key components of success were the legality provided by the UN Security Council mandate, Nato’s ability to draw on a sophisticated command and logistic structure in the Mediterranean, a shared burden of responsibility among the allies and realistic goals (establishing a no-fly zone, introducing an arms embargo and protecting civilians). To these could be added strong regional support against Gaddafi and an increasingly effective and emboldened opposition.
No one would be foolish enough, however, to suggest that it is ‘mission accomplished’ in Libya. Stavridis tells me that challenges abound: ‘The keys will be the new regime’s ability to establish coherent security and basic services, cope with the return of hundreds of thousands of Libyans now in refugee camps across the borders, avoid bloodshed and retribution, create governance along the lines suggested by the National Transitional Council — which include dates and benchmarks to full democracy and elections — and get the economy up and functioning, principally the energy sector.’
That is a tall order for any established government, let alone a transitional council. There is no question that the challenges facing Libyans after Gaddafi are monumental. After 42 years of monomaniacal rule, it would be perverse to think otherwise.
Pessimists will have plenty to cheer in the coming weeks and months. The age-old differences between Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east will resurface from the very outset. Some politicians may prefer pistols to parliaments when vying for power or resolving a difference of opinion. Small tribes may feel disenfranchised by the larger, stronger ones. A predominantly command economy cannot be restructured overnight. Oil, that unrivalled lubricant of corruption, will test the mettle and integrity of Libya’s new leaders. It will also test to breaking point the patience of long-suffering Libyans, who have watched the Gaddafi clan plunder the national wealth for four decades.
Shukri Ghanem, the former oil minister, estimates it will take 18 months for Libya to get back to its pre-war level of oil production of 1.6 million barrels a day. That will be much too slow for all those Libyans who believe they have already waited long enough. A generation of Libyan leaders unaccustomed to addressing their fellow citizens will urgently need to communicate the scale of the challenges facing the country. Chaos is likely to loom on the sidelines. As Ronald Bruce St John writes in Libya: From Colony to Independence, after four decades spent studying the country, the post-Gaddafi era will be ‘a time of considerable tension and uncertainty, with numerous socioeconomic and political groups vying for power’.
So what reasons are there for cautious optimism? Well, so far the rebel leadership has barely put a foot wrong. With few resources, it has kept the peace across eastern Libya. The fact there has only been one high-level assassination to date is a remarkable success, not a telling indictment. Assisted by the UN, the UK and the US, the Council has drawn up a detailed stabilisation plan for the immediate post-Gaddafi era. More impressively, it has drafted a 37-point ‘constitutional declaration’ which, if enacted, moves Libya towards elections for a constitutional assembly within eight months. This body would appoint a transitional government, draft a constitution to be offered to Libyans for approval in a national referendum, and hold direct elections for a democratic government within 20 months. If, as is suggested, Jordan leads the international community’s transition to democracy team, with the West reduced to providing air cover, that is another encouraging sign. Fellow Arabs should make a better fist of it. No one wants another western boots-on-the-ground intervention.
So much for plans and political theory. What else of Libya and its people? If the rebels I met in my two recent visits to Libya are any guide, the omens are good. They were not vicious zealots or Islamists, but civilised and well-educated people intent on restoring peace and order as soon as they possibly could. Unlike Iraqis, who have been cutting each other’s heads off with gusto at least since the founding of Baghdad in 762, if not much longer, Libya is not riven by sectarian division. The tribes may have their tensions, but there is no Sunni-Shia split. As Guma al Gamaty, the UK co-ordinator for the rebel council, says, ‘We have no ethnic, religious or sectarian differences. We’re the most homogenous Arab society in the world.’ Libya’s Berbers might beg to differ, of course, but the point is well made.
Libyans have also been blessed with fortunate resources and geography. With even a half-decent government in place, the population of seven million should prosper from the black gold beneath the sand, 47 billion barrels of reserves and counting, together with 1.3 trillion cubic metres of gas. Given the immense oil reserves on one hand, and the tiny population on the other, the fact that a third of Gaddafi’s Libya has lived at or below the national poverty line shows the extent of his misrule.
Earlier this summer, I spoke to one businessman in Benghazi who told me, ‘I remember Sheikh Zayed of Dubai coming to Tripoli for an eye operation in 1978. He saw the city and said, “My God, I wish I could make Dubai like this.” Can you believe that?’
Since then Dubai has grown and developed, while Tripoli has stagnated. But now can Libya follow Dubai’s example? It might sound preposterous. There is no law which states that Libya must now descend into anarchy and civil war, nor is there any guarantee of freedom and democracy. Yet the chances of success here are higher than those in any other Arab country yet to take on its dictator. The truth, as every Libyan knows, is that the opportunity is theirs for the taking.
[ Read more… ]» The Longest Journey Will Always Lie Ahead
The last of the wartime travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, may have departed the scene, but the genre he graced is still thriving
The longest walk has finally come to an end. After the most dashing life of literary wanderings, in which he crossed a continent on foot, fell in love and ran away with a beautiful princess, galloped into battle in a Greek cavalry charge, secluded himself silently with Trappist monks, kidnapped a German general, became one of this country’s greatest war heroes, swam the Hellespont and built a sun-filled house in the Peloponnese where he wrote what may yet prove to be one of the finest trilogies in modern literature, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ultimate journey was the return home to die in Worcestershire at the age of 96, an Englishman to the last.
The death of Leigh Fermor — friends and fans called him Paddy — removes the last link to that generation of travel writers who fought with such distinction in the Second World War. The prospect of that elusive final volume, which would see our footsore traveller and philhellene complete his serendipitous, marathon-walking tour from the Hook of Holland to reach the city he insisted on calling Constantinople, sometimes Byzantium, never Istanbul, is little short of exhilarating. All his fans who cherish the densely beautiful prose of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) will be thrilled to hear the news from his biographer Artemis Cooper that an early draft “will be published in due course”. The posthumous gift cannot come soon enough.
The celebration of a life so well lived is likely to bring a renewed flash of interest in travel writing, a genre that has, almost from its very outset, been revered and reviled in equal measure. We may not know what sort of reception greeted the “publication” on clay tablets of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest forerunner of travel writing, if not of literature itself, but we are certainly familiar with the mauling received by the Ancient Greek Herodotus, the first great travel writer and historian, an exuberant pioneer of anthropology, geography, exploration, investigative journalism, tabloid hackery and foreign reportage in the 5th century BC. Within little more than a century, Cicero’s “Father of History” had become Plutarch’s “Father of Lies”, a classical harbinger of the suspicion which has bedevilled the first-person travelogue ever since. From Herodotus to Leigh Fermor via Marco Polo, John Mandeville and Bruce Chatwin, the hostile image of travel writer as self-indulgent fantasist and fibber has never been shaken off entirely.
In May, the doyen of American travel writers. Paul Theroux dropped in at the Hay Festival to promote his latest work, The Tao of Travel, an engaging distillation of travellers’ wisdom and a vade mecum worth popping into the Globetrotter suitcase this summer. The blaze of publicity surrounding Paul Theroux’s handshake that ended a 15-year feud with V.S. Naipaul, another writer who has excelled in the genre, suggests that contrary to many predictions, travel writing is in robust health. From one generation to the next it shrugs off with insouciance the obituaries that are written for it periodically by writers as diverse and removed from each other as Joseph Conrad and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Indeed the temptation must be to conclude that travel writing, like the poor, will always be with us.
In Britain, which has a proud heritage in this field, the ranks of great travel writers have been sadly thinned in recent years. The monumental Sir Wilfred Thesiger, author of Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, last of the latter-day Victorian explorers, died in 2003. The same year saw the passing of the magnificent, under-appreciated Norman Lewis, whose Naples ’44 is one of the classic literary accounts to emerge from the Second World War.
In 2006, they were followed by Eric Newby, best remembered for his brave and hilarious A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, a book that closes with the 20th century’s equivalent of the Stanley-Livingstone encounter. Newby and companion bump into Thesiger halfway up a mountain in Afghanistan, the formidable explorer trailing retainers and pack-animals bearing chests marked for the British Museum, bemoaning the declining standards of Savile Row and gleefully recounting his amputations of gangrenous fingers and removal of diseased eyes. They strike camp for the night. “The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.”
Profoundly different in their styles and interests, these three writers were bound nevertheless by the shared generational experience of war and their direct participation in it. Thesiger fought behind enemy lines in North Africa with the SAS, Newby was one of the earliest recruits to the Special Boat Section, as the SBS was then known, and Lewis was an intelligence officer in Naples.
Then there was Paddy. The last of his era was also surely the most admirable and admired of all, a Byronic incarnation of what Greeks call leventeia, defined in one of his most life-enhancing books as a “universal zest for life, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything”. His housemaster at King’s School, Canterbury detected “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”. Leigh Fermor was the leading literary light among that band of travel writers who fought in the war and were coloured by it, whose lives and writings bear, to some degree at least, the imprint of that vast, world-changing hurricane. The justly celebrated Jan Morris, who caught the closing years of the war as an intelligence officer in Italy and Palestine, is already at a generational remove.
War may not have defined Leigh Fermor or his writing entirely (it brought to an end the first of his two great loves, a dreamlike romance with the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene), but his quintessentially dashing, devil-may-care war record certainly underpins much of the affection with which his devoted fans view him today. In some instances, such as that of “The Greatest Living Englishman” blog that was published in his honour, it is a devotion that blossoms into outright adulation.
Meeting Paddy at his home in the Greek fishing village of Kardamyli in 2006, it was very difficult not to succumb entirely to hero-worship. My first sight of this unforgivably handsome man was sitting in what he called his hayati, a sun-bleached, south-facing winter chamber off what Betjeman called “one of the rooms in the world”, strewn with atlases, dictionaries, lexicons, icons, sculptures, lamps, flokkati goat-hair rugs, Turkish kilims and creased armchairs. He was clasping a Loeb edition of Herodotus. At 91, lunch remained unthinkable before two large vodka and tonics. Cigarettes were thoroughly approved of and an unstinting stream of retsina flowed alongside our conversation for hours. The polymath and oenophile was unstoppable. As the post-prandial ouzo shot to my head like a tracer-bullet, I had to pinch myself to remember that this debonair specimen of the literary man of action was the nonagenarian version of the 18-year-old adventure-seeking “tramp and pilgrim” who in 1933 had set out on his life-changing journey across Europe after a high-spirited farewell with friends in London: “A thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by streaming water, had become a submarine arcade.”
If the prose-poetry of his books is riveting, at times sublime, very occasionally purple, the narrative of his war record is scarcely less vivid. Its crowning moment came at 9.30pm on April 26, 1944, when he stepped out on to a road in the heart of the rough Cretan countryside, intercepted a German staff car and kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe with a team of Cretan resistance fighters and a fellow British officer in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). From a literary perspective, the glory of this episode had to wait until A Time of Gifts, the first instalment of his epic walk — a version was written in 1969 for the Imperial War Museum. In it Leigh Fermor described the terrifying, 18-day manhunt by German forces sweeping the island. At dawn one morning, surveying the crest of Mount Ida, the general started murmuring his way through a Horace ode. Recognising it as one of the few he knew by heart, the Englishman picked up where the German left off, reeling off the five remaining stanzas in perfect Latin.
“The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine — and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
Mani and Roumeli, which describe Leigh Fermor’s wanderings in southern and northern Greece respectively, were hailed by the FT as “two of the best travel books of the century” and contain numerous references to the courage, loyalty, humour and generosity of the Cretans among whom he fought. Artemis Cooper writes in Words of Mercury of the “unbreakable bond” war had forged between the Cretans and the SOE crowd. Typically, Leigh Fermor was not slow to acknowledge it.
In a touching tribute to the Cretan resistance, he translated the wartime memoirs of George Psychoundakis, his shepherd-guerrilla comrade-in-arms, and saw them into print. How many soldiers would have had the literary sensibility-or modesty-to recognise the value of an account told by a local resistance fighter, rather than a self-aggrandising story by yet another officer dropped behind enemy lines? In his introduction to The Cretan Runner, written in 1954, Leigh Fermor likened it to the Rualla Bedouin penning an Arab version of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the contrast with the self-promoting Lawrence, a very fine writer on the desert, is instructive). “For the roles were reversed, and the British officers and their signallers and NCOs, not the stage-mountaineers of most Resistance writing, were the foreign oddities; and it seemed to me that they were far better and more soberly appraised than their equivalents in English war books.”
Barnaby Rogerson, author and co-owner of Eland, a specialist publisher of travel literature classics, says war seared an indelible sense of place for this select group of writers. “I think the war gave the best of these travel writers a very intense relationship with one region, where their literary souls got mingled with a place apart, also a sense of writing for the dead others. This is obviously true of Paddy, who could sing, dance and drink as well as any Greek shepherd. I never could work out whether he was a reincarnation of Byron or Pan — probably both. Then there’s Norman Lewis with Naples and Sicily. Thesiger similarly bonded with Ethiopia in a totally passionate way as a boy and later as an adult soldier — and of course his best books are set in southern Arabia and Iraq.”
Thesiger was always more warrior than writer. It is only thanks to the persistent pressure of publishing friends, decades after his dramas in the desert, that we have his granite prose. He had seen wartime service under Orde Wingate in Abyssinia, served with SOE in Syria and then the newly-formed SAS in North Africa. In My Life and Travels, he wrote of his “passionate involvement with the Abyssinian cause”. Letters to his mother in 1943 describe how “bitter and discontented” he was not to have played a part at El Alamein. War was “exciting and exhilarating”.
During a lunch with Thesiger in the incongruous setting of his retirement home in the wastelands of Surrey suburbia, his misanthropic growl suddenly lightened into an animated purr as he spoke of his role in the Allied campaign in North Africa, having persuaded David Stirling, founder of the SAS, to take him on. “I said to him, ‘I hear you’re going to make a raid behind enemy lines. I speak Arabic and I know the desert. Three days later we were 150 miles or so behind lines. I came upon a tent packed full with people. Luckily there was no one on guard. I just raked it with machine gun fire a couple of times. It felt rather like murder.” The glacial blue eyes glowed.
The experience of war also formed a critical part of Lewis’s literary hinterland. He wrote in Naples ’44 of a decisive encounter that “changed my outlook”, shattering his “comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow”. On November 1, 1943, contemplating a menu offering either disguised dogfish or horsemeat, he watched a group of blind orphan girls enter the restaurant scavenging for food. Each child was sobbing. “I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly,” he wrote. “They would never recover from their pain and I would never recover from the memory of it.” His horror of the war, combined with its alluring and unrepeatable intensity, propelled him into a lifetime of far-flung reporting from dangerous parts. It led also to his championing of the rights of indigenous peoples in “Genocide”, a seismically shocking Sunday Times article that resulted in the foundation of Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples, in 1969.
War likewise left its mark on Newby’s writings. It also brought him love. He fought gallantly with the SBS and was awarded the Military Cross for his courage during numerous sabotage missions along enemy coasts. Love and War in the Apennines, another Newby classic, tells the story of his time on the run after one dramatic and abortive SBS expedition, when he was smuggled out of a prison camp and later rescued by a young woman, Wanda, his future wife.
The travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who has spent most of the past decade writing an on-the-road trilogy in the footsteps and footnotes of his hero Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Muslim traveller, says the war may have fostered a certain detachment among these writers. “War is death to, among other things, enthusiasms,” he says. “If you’ve been through it, nothing matters quite as much anymore. For someone writing travel, I think this may give a sort of lordly detachment to one’s observations, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m not sure that post-war generations can quite achieve this.” For John Gimlette, author of At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, war may have been an influence that “discouraged introspection and informality”. Today’s writers, he argues, have become less detached in their work, “using more humour and self-deprecation to place themselves amongst their subjects”.
The Second World War was only part of these writers’ stories. Theroux, who lists Leigh Fermor, Redmond O’Hanlon, Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Lewis, Thesiger and Chatwin among those travel writers he most admires, believes there was another more important literary influence. “It wasn’t just the war, it was also the colonial world that defined them. They were writing with an imperial confidence.” We are talking in the bowels of the Royal Geographical Society, Britain’s Mecca for explorers and travel writers, and for a moment he could be speaking of Sir Richard Burton, another soldier-scholar, who made the haj to Mecca in disguise in the 1850s. “The end of the war also brought an end to this colonial mentality. Somehow the sense of superiority was dented during the course of the war. The bloom was off the rose. Brits could no longer travel as lords and sahibs and colonial masters.”
As the metaphorical baton passes from Leigh Fermor to Thubron, a master of lyrical prose, we lose a literary connection to that all-defining conflict of the 20th century and the more heroic age it encapsulated. The memory of it lives on, recorded in the words of historians, poets, journalists, soldiers, generals, biographers and travel writers alike. It was precisely in order to ensure that the “great and marvellous” deeds of another, much more ancient conflict were not “forgotten in time” or “without their glory” that Herodotus wrote his landmark Histories of the Persian Wars, 2,500 years ago. It is surely profoundly important that the world’s first history book, a fizzing masterpiece of storytelling, relied so heavily on experiential travel. Thucydides needed to get out more.
Scanning the horizon, there appears to be little reason to fret for the future of travel writing. A genre that seeks to understand a constantly changing world, with recourse to history, geography, politics, economics, biography, anthropology, philosophy, psychology and reportage, among other disciplines, is in little danger of losing its relevance. If you want to know what life was like in late 1930s former Yugoslavia, it is hard to beat Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a meta-travel book (1,100 pages) of astonishing compass and vitality. For Iraq in the 1920s, who better than Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell to paint a many-layered portrait? The best travel writing opens up parts of the world that other disciplines can struggle to reach — and explain to a wider audience.
Consider the turmoil in the Middle East. While the breathless media rush to report the next dictator to catch Arab flu, leaving post-revolutionary countries like Egypt largely unreported in their wake, the field is left open for writers with more time and literary space on their hands to make sense of an irreducibly complicated society and situation. Digital communications, mass travel and the supposed shrinking of the world offer only the deadly delusion of a homogenised “global village”. News articles, foreign policy reports and jargon-filled government briefings on “failed states”, “post-conflict environments” and “stabilisation operations” pay only lip service to real-life complexities. What would Paddy have made of the Foreign Official who spoke to me the other day about “ground-truthing” in Benghazi? We should always beware of what Mauriac called “la tendance fatale à simplifier les autres”. Travel writing celebrates the world as it is, with nuance, shading and uncertainty.
William Dalrymple, who sped to fame in the late 1980s, after Theroux, Chatwin, Thubron, O’Hanlon and Jonathan Raban had blazed a renaissance trail of travel writing a decade earlier, points to the proliferation of fine writers of the genre far beyond these shores. It is parochial in the extreme to see this as a British or Western format. Among those with Indian roots alone Dalrymple lists Shiva and Vidia Naipaul, Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Pankaj Mishra and the novelist Rana Dasgupta, now working on a study of Delhi. Dalrymple says it will inevitably be a completely new take from his own City of Djinns, published in 1993, before Delhi and India had cast loose and surged forward at breakneck speed. “Each generation sees the world very differently,” he says.
Earlier this year, Kamal Abdel-Malek, Professor of Arabic Literature at the American University of Dubai, published America in an Arab Mirror, an anthology of Arab travel writing in the US during the past century that is at once unexpectedly illuminating and disquieting. OxTravels, a new anthology of writing co-edited by Rogerson, reveals a multicultural cast of 36 authors including Aminatta Forna, Oliver Bullough, Sonia Faleiro, Peter Godwin and Rory Stewart. “We could easily have added another three dozen, in a separate collection tomorrow, who would all be in the front rank,” says Rogerson. The compulsively readable Dutchman Cees Nooteboom would surely be among them. Ongoing translation of hitherto inaccessible foreign writers such as the fabulously curious, effervescent 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi, author of the ten-volume Seyahatname or Book of Travels, only confirms the universality of the genre.
For a final verdict from the man Jan Morris called a “transcendentally gifted writer”, I travel to West London, where the two tribes of Holland Park and Shepherd’s Bush collide. Thubron is the first travel writer president of the Royal Society of Literature, a tribute both to his virtuoso skills and, if this is not wishful thinking, the enduring significance of the genre. His latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet, was published earlier this year to a symphonic swoon from the critics. It thrust the reader into an enchanted world of sky-dancers and demons, landscapes of fearful majesty and “charged sanctity” that clung to Thubron’s plangent prose. At the Tibetan border “the ebbing waves of the Himalaya hang the sky with spires while ahead the land smoothes into an ancient silence”. Nearing the lung-shredding, wind-haunted summit of his holy pilgrimage, “the mountain valley closes unsoftened around our strange heterogeneous trickle of beasts and humans drawn up like iron filings to the pass.”
Beyond the cool, book-lined sitting room, French windows open on to the blinding clatter of summer: shades of MacNeice’s sunlight on the garden. At 72, Thubron sounds a confident note. Travel writing’s long history of successful adaptation over many generations stands it in good stead, he says. “The genre is very flexible. It will always meld itself to what is there and available, which is abroad, and whether it’s more familiar or less familiar, it’s still going to need a voice to tell us about it. I do think the world has to be reinterpreted constantly, the impetus to explain it is just a human impulse. I don’t think any other genre has that opportunity.”
From Babylon to Ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages and into modern times, history suggests this: that for as long as the world continues to change and human nature remains the same, this curious international tribe will continue to go out and travel and write and tell stories that people want to read, fuelled by what Baudelaire called “la haine du domicile et la passion du voyage”. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, “The great affair is to move.”
Paddy, of course, put it differently. One of his favourite sayings, which expressed his own creed as well as our preternatural need to travel, harks back to St Augustine. He personified it with élan: solvitur ambulando — it is solved by walking.
[ Read more… ]» After Gaddafi: A New Libya Emerges – Standpoint
Dr Rida ben Fayed, a Libyan orthopaedic surgeon back from Denver, Colorado, introduces his team like an announcer rallying the audience at a live Hendrix concert.
“We’ve got Ahmed on ground information, Walid on IT, Abdullah on medical supplies, Majdi on press, Ahmed on logistics, Colonel Farah on air defence, Colonel Sanusi on naval affairs…”
Midnight in Tobruk and the daily digital diwan is in full swing. Around 20 men, cross-legged on cushions, are gathered in a ground-floor sitting-room. There’s no one on drums tonight, but that doesn’t mean there’s no music. From a bedroom in Manchester a Libyan girl is singing live online about the Libyan fight for freedom. Smoke, laughter and revolution in the air. Tiny glasses of tea so sweet they remind you why diabetes is endemic in the Arab world. Surfing across satellite news channels.
These men are doctors, engineers, businessmen, human rights activists, military types, many from abroad, others entirely home-grown. Half have laptops. Facebook and Twitter to the fore. The familiar underwater jangle of an incoming Skype call regularly punctuates the hubbub. My neighbour is editing a video cartoon mocking a typical, fist-pumping Gaddafi harangue. Others upload and download photos, coordinate medical supplies, pass on information to colleagues across Libya. A former colonel is planning a dangerous 50-hour mission on a fishing boat to take weapons to opposition forces in the besieged city of Misrata.
“This is our digital operations room,” says Dr Rida with pride. “We’re all volunteers.” He thrusts a laptop and a pair of headphones into my hands. “Here, speak to Perdita in Benghazi. She can tell you what she thinks about all the reporting on al-Qaeda infiltrating the Libyan revolution. Her husband was killed three weeks ago by Gaddafi’s forces. She’s eight months pregnant.”
Perdita’s husband, Mohammed Nabbous, was the 28-year-old founder of Libya al Hurra (Free Libya) television station in Benghazi. He was shot in the head by Gaddafi’s forces on March 19, barely a month after the channel was launched, after transmitting videos and pictures of regime forces suppressing the uprising with indiscriminate brutality.
A young voice cuts through the ether, dignified and precise. How many more women have lost their husbands to the widow-maker since Nabbous’s assassination? Perdita’s first experience of life after Gaddafi, what it could be like in the future, was intoxicating. “When Benghazi was liberated, we started rebuilding our city. We started to live, to be free for the first time in our lives. Women have taken up positions in the media and are looked up to. We are living in a totally different atmosphere. For us to go back to how it was before is impossible.” She says the first time Gaddafi mentioned the al-Qaeda threat in Libya during the uprising, everyone laughed. Libyans are used to the lies of “The Great Thinker”. They have had to listen to them for 41 years, seven months and counting.
There’s fierceness in Perdita’s new-found freedom. Like thousands of her fellow Libyans since February, she has already paid a savage price for this challenge to the regime. “It was my husband’s dream that our son would be born in a free Libya. Now I’m going to do everything in my power to support the revolution and make this dream come true.”
Foreign visitors in eastern Libya, especially those from the UK, US, France and Qatar, receive daily, often exuberant, expressions of gratitude for their countries’ support. Travelling to Libya for more than 20 years, I have always been humbled by the hospitality of its people. In the 19th century, British explorers and campaigners against the Saharan slave trade remarked upon the same trait. I was constantly struck by this self-denying generosity years later, during a 1,500-mile journey by camel across the Libyan Sahara. The only sour note came from Gaddafi’s security thugs, uneducated, intimidating cowards who arrested us for a week in the storied desert oasis of Kufra. My father, who used to do business in Libya in the Eighties and Nineties, died a decade ago after introducing me to this fabulous country. A great Libyan family friend, whose family’s whereabouts and security in Tripoli are unknown as Standpoint goes to press, still calls my mother regularly to ask after my family. This is what Libyans are like.
Dawn in Tobruk. Under a sliding sky we plunge south on the desert road that leads only to Jaghbub, the remote oasis town, once impenetrable to foreigners, that was the former seat of the Sanusi Order. The Sanusi story — compelling, romantic, ultimately tragic — began in the Arabian desert, where in 1837 Sheikh Mohammed ibn Ali as Sanusi, known as the Grand Sanusi, established an Islamic revivalist movement, a fiercely orthodox order of Sufis.
It quickly spread to North Africa and seeped as far west as Senegal, through a network of zawias or religious lodges. The first zawia in Libya was founded at Baida in 1844. In 1856, the Grand Sanusi founded one at Jaghbub. In time it grew into Africa’s second greatest university, after Cairo’s Al Azhar. The Sanusis derived strength, respect and affluence from their role mediating tribal and trade disputes in the Sahara in the days of the desert slave trade, and for providing education for the unschooled masses.
The sun rises, blazes overhead. The road runs across the desert like a pasted ribbon, blurring off in the distance into a pool of steaming mercury. After an hour, a black smudge drifts in and out of sight on this sun-bludgeoned plateau. The tall, triple- barbed-wire fence, a surreally disfiguring structure amid these wide horizons, was constructed in 1931 by General Rodolfo Graziani, despatched by Mussolini to bring Western civilisation to Italy’s “Fourth Shore”. Libyans called him Butcher Graziani. Rome preferred Pacificatore della Libia. This was, in the Italian’s words, “una guerra senza quartiere”. Graziani herded tribesmen into desert concentration camps behind barbed wire and machine guns, poisoned their wells, condemned men to excruciating deaths in roasting salt pans, and dropped canisters of poison gas on to desert oases. Between 40,000 and 70,000 were killed.
Sanusi fighters led the heroic, doomed resistance to the Fascist occupation under their charismatic chief Omar al Mukhtar. He was captured in 1931 and, after a 30-minute show trial, hanged in front of 20,000 tribesmen. Today his face appears on flags, street hoardings and car stickers throughout eastern Libya, a symbol of the post-Gaddafi order. His call to arms: “We will never surrender. Victory or death.” The picture of a handsome old man in profile, with white beard and white skullcap, was taken by Mukhtar’s Italian captors.
Jaghbub is an unremarkable little cluster of concrete houses. Its heart is an extraordinary expanse of rubble laid bare beneath a pitiless sun. Shattered blocks of white stone, smashed slabs of marble, sections of date-palm trunks, ancient nails, rusting spikes of wire. This is all that remains of the great zawia, architectural jewel of the oasis, that Gaddafi razed in 1988. The local preacher, Sheikh Mohammed Sanusi, a follower rather than a family member, says it took bulldozers 11 days to destroy everything within a compound measuring 47,000 square metres. “Then they finished it off with 17 explosives.”
For Gaddafi, the Sanusi name was anathema, forever associated with the benign, if somewhat ineffectual, pro-Western monarchy of King Idris Sanusi, which he overthrew in the military coup of September 1, 1969. He had the body of the Grand Sanusi disinterred and removed to an unknown location. The sheikh says the body was miraculously preserved.
The interview with Sheikh Mohammed, a trim, slightly stooped figure of 76, begins awkwardly. He reprimands Christians and Jews for their supposed scriptural inconsistency, invites me to read the Koran, convert to Islam and earn my place in paradise. Some traditions live on. When the Egyptian diplomat, explorer and writer Ahmed Hassanein Bey travelled across the Libyan desert during an epic, 2,200-mile journey by camel in 1923, he described the order as “an ascetic confraternity […] intolerant of any intercourse with Jew, Christian or infidel”.
As Libyans ponder a future without Gaddafi, some wonder whether a constitutional monarchy might yet return, using the widely praised 1951 constitution as some sort of basis for a future settlement. This was the document, drawn up with the UN’s assistance, with which Libya declared independence as a democratic, federal and sovereign nation with a constitutional monarchy and bicameral parliament.
The sheikh shakes his head. “After King Idris, the Sanusi family involvement in politics is over. No more king.” The otherworldly veteran would rather relate famous miracles of the Grand Sanusi and the Prophet Muhammad than discuss the Libyan revolution. “I don’t care about Gaddafi or politics. I am only interested in God.” In Tobruk’s digital diwan, opinions range from an emphatic “No way” to “It’s up to the people to decide”, a line also taken by the exiled, London-based Crown Prince Mohammed Sanusi.
The next day we arrow fast down the coastal road towards Benghazi, headquarters of liberated Libya, along a shoreline that has seen a succession of foreign invaders come and go across the millennia. The Greeks were the first, Herodotus tells us in his swashbuckling masterpiece Histories, when a settlement was founded at Cyrene in 630 BC, following divine instruction from the oracle at Delphi. Berenice, the Benghazi of today, followed four centuries later, around 250 BC.
As Gaddafi has never tired of reminding his countrymen — one of the few things with which they would agree — the history of Libya is a relentless procession of colonial invasions and occupations. After the Greeks came the Romans and the foundation of provincia Tripolitania —province of the three cities of Sabratha, Leptis Magna and Oea (as Romans knew Tripoli) — created by the Emperor Diocletian in 284 AD. Then there were the Arabs who surged across North Africa in the mid-seventh century, whose Islamising influence proved longest lasting of any invader. The firebrands of Islam were succeeded in turn by the stultifying embrace of the Ottomans (1551-1911) and the wretched, blood-filled interlude of the Italians (1911-1943). During the fighting in the Western Desert in the Second World War, the Germans, French and British joined the fray until independence was achieved at last in 1951. After 18 years of monarchy, during which time Libyans of a certain age will tell you there was just one execution, the Gaddafi occupation began.
Canine carcasses line the road at intervals. I count five between Tobruk and Benghazi. Dead dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Mad Dog and his puppies snarl 800 miles to the west. The road winds through the astonishingly beautiful, verdant landscape of the Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountains, and at once one understands the invaders’ age-old, land-grabbing appetite, from ancient Greeks to the Italians who saw in Cyrenaica’s fine red soil and fertile fields a Tuscany on African shores. With rolling slopes, slanting cypresses and enchanted orchards and citrus groves, it is hard to imagine that such a gentle environment, with shades of pastoral Italy or carefree Switzerland, could belong to a dictatorship.
Through the city of Derna, piled on to the shoreline like a shipwreck, and the outpouring of roadside graffiti, daubed in English, French and Arabic: “We are freedom addicts not drugs”; “No to extremism”; “Yes to pluralism”; “Libya is a unified country, Tripoli is our capital”; “Our struggle is for democracy”.
At the next town of Baida a banner hangs from a partially burned-out former regime building on the far side of the square: “Tout le monde doit savoir que les insurges Libyens n’appartiennent pas à Al Qaida. Nous nous sommes sacrifiés pour la liberté.” Opposite is an open-sided crimson tent whose sides are covered with photos and stories of the many victims of Gaddafi’s serial outrages, from this latest conflict and the wars he sent Libyans to fight across the continent in exercises in lunatic adventurism. Here are the dead from Chad, Egypt, Algeria, Uganda and the ongoing revolution. Cartoons of Gaddafi strapped to a rocket, as devil-horned, forked-tailed monster. This is the beginning of the long reckoning ahead.
A group of young men Bluetooth me photos of the recent protests in quickfire succession. One plays a mobile-phone video which he says shows Khamis Gaddafi, who runs his own brigade of killers, training African mercenaries. Hapless black recruits approach a table where they are cuffed over the head and forced to eat large chunks of dog flesh. One by one, they grimace, retch and vomit. Then they are shoved across to the back of a truck and made to French-kiss the dogs’ severed heads.
Night-time in Benghazi. City lights twinkle, doubled in the dark waters of Benghazi Lake. Until a few weeks ago it was known as July 23 Lake, in honour of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 military coup in Egypt. Soon Libyans may call it February 17 Lake.
Precise details of the post-Gaddafi government to come are yet to emerge, understandable amid the chaos and Twitterfog of war in the west. The quietly spoken Mohammed Fanoush, former director of the National Library in Benghazi, is the local director of communications. He says the National Transitional Council (NTC) is working on a proposal for a new constitution, to be drafted by an elected committee and then submitted to Libyans in a future referendum. No one envisages a five-year government of national unity or anything so protracted.
“I used to be optimistic, even in the darkest days,” Fanoush says. “My brother was hanged in the streets. We were always determined to get rid of Gaddafi but we worried it would take 20 years or more. Now things are changing immensely, and quickly.”
Underpinning his confidence in the future is a demographic quirk, an unexpected consequence of dictatorship. “Unintentionally, Gaddafi did us a great favour by emptying the country of its people. We have 100,000 intellectuals, professionals and young people who left Libya to live and work all over the world. They have expertise in so many areas and now they’re coming back.” I recall a cigarette break on the road to Benghazi when a Libyan stranger offered to translate for an impromptu conversation with a rebel soldier manning a checkpoint. He was a PhD student studying biology from Sheffield.
To tread the corridors of provisional power in Benghazi is to encounter an inspiring corps of Western-educated doctors and lawyers, engineers, human rights activists, businessmen, former political prisoners. Unlike in Iraq, where fears of the returning diaspora’s venality were all too often justified in displays of brazen klepto-cracy, so far the attitude towards the stream of exiles appears overwhelmingly positive. If revolutions could be won on goodwill alone, this one would have triumphed already.
Dr Abdulkadr al Gnein, a hyperactive Danny DeVito lookalike, returned from Ottawa a year ago, sensing the end of the Gaddafi regime. Nowadays he’s busy helping fund the opposition, setting up a humanitarian NGO, arranging medical supplies and assisting the media.
He says Gaddafi crossed a “red line” with Iman al Obeidi, the law student who burst into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli and publicly declared she had been gang-raped by Gaddafi’s men. “Women and children are sacred here. This united everyone in Libya against Gaddafi. Every free city in the west accepts the Council is the legitimate government of Libya. We won’t be split.”
The unquestioned chief of the political prisoners, a godfather of the Libyan revolution, is Haj Ahmed Zubair Sanusi, the world’s longest-serving political prisoner. Now 77, he spent 31 years in prison from 1970-2001. His greatest crime was his surname. Libyans may not want another constitutional monarchy, but their respect for the family’s distinguished reputation endures.
We meet in a VIP suite in Al Fadhil Palace, where members of the NTC gather daily. Acres of white sheets on a kingsize bed. A tasselfest of sumptuous soft furnishings. Every bit of furniture in sight is covered in the sparkling decoration so beloved of Arab furniture designers. It is as far removed from his prison cell as possible.
Ahmed Zubair says his death sentence was never commuted during this unfathomable captivity. “Every time a door opened, I never knew if it was going to be someone taking me to my execution,” he says, unbowed in pinstripe suit and tie. The work ahead is immense. “Now we are trying to build a new country under the rule of law. We are united. Tripoli is our capital, Benghazi is our city. It will be difficult after 42 years of Gaddafi. It will take a long time. But the Libyan spirit is there. The people understand. They can wait.” A friend suggests that with his uniquely painful backstory, Haj Ahmed would be the perfect successor to Gaddafi. A Mandela moment in the offing?
Benghazis still smart from the violence meted out by Gaddafi’s forces on March 19, the final catalyst for Nato’s more muscular intervention. Adel Ibrahim, a Benghazi hotelier who owns the Al Fadhil Palace, has a ringside seat at the revolution.
“You know what Gaddafi told the soldiers before they attacked? ‘Kill every man under 50 and the women are yours. Do whatever you want with them’.” He describes a confrontation he witnessed on the streets. “Three men walked up to a machine-gunner with their arms outstretched. The first man said, ‘Shoot me’. The soldier shot him dead. Then the second went up and said the same thing. The soldier shot him in the knees, then the chest. Dead. Then the third man came up, arms open wide. The soldier dropped his gun, turned round and fled.”
At this stage, the al-Qaeda threat appears negligible. Gaddafi poses a far greater menace, both to his people and to the West, whose credibility diminishes with every day he is allowed to remain in power. Noman Benotman, a former senior member of the jihadist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, says al-Qaeda has no “real presence” and “few, if any, active operatives” in Libya. Dr George Joffé, Middle East and North Africa expert at Cambridge University, argues that fears of a significant al-Qaeda presence in Libya are “totally” overblown. “I think al-Qaeda has been completely marginalised by the recent upheavals in the region,” says the terrorism expert Peter Bergen, a programme director at the New America Foundation. “No one’s burning American or Israeli flags or carrying placards of Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda is losing the battle of ideas in the Muslim world.”
When Gaddafi is gone, it is only a matter of time before the enormity of the crimes his regime committed over four decades is revealed. History’s verdict will not set much store by former Labour Party MP Tam Dalyell’s 1993 prediction: “I believe that in the 21st century, Colonel Gaddafi’s government will come to be seen as one of the most effective ‘ecologically imaginative governments’ of the 20th century.” Nor will it agree with Gaddafi’s delusional braggadocio of 1987: “History should show that if there was any mould, I have contributed towards its destruction. If there has been any shackle binding the Libyan people, I have participated in its demolition until the Libyan people have become free.”
Instead, future historians, less distracted by his eccentricity and sartorial pomp, less seduced by Libya’s black gold, will elevate Gaddafi to the top tier of 20th-century tyrants. His regime vies with Saddam Hussein’s for murderous supremacy.
A new and very different Libya will emerge after Gaddafi. However great the uncertainty, whatever the risks of an east-west split, however vicious the predictable tribal disputes that will follow his departure, the prospect of any future government — or even governments if Libya became two Libyas — being worse than this regime is unthinkable.
The country has the potential to become a model for North Africa and the Middle East, open to the world after its traumatic removal from the community of nations. The foundations for success, which will be a tumultuous test of will, can quickly be discerned. Rich in oil, with a tiny population of seven million, Libya has been blessed by nature with favourable resources, demographics and geography, yet under Gaddafi a third of the population lives at or below the national poverty line. Libyans do not have the devastating Sunni-Shia divide, with the resulting bursts of bloodshed that have plagued Baghdad, City of Peace, ever since it was founded by the Abbasid caliph Mansur in 762. The flow of talented, highly educated Libyans returning from exile could become a stampede.
If the words of politicians in the liberated east of Libya are anything to go by as harbingers of a settlement emerging from the wreckage of Gaddafi’s Libya, the desire for national unity is formidable and the aspiration to build a modern nation sincere. That said, expectations, will be unrealistic and major disappointment is inevitable. Many Libyans isolated from the world since 1969 will equate more democratic governance with full employment and a short path to riches generated from the lake of oil on which the country sits.
At present it produces around 1.6 million barrels a day, though after Gaddafi’s attacks on eastern oil installations and the mass exodus of expatriate workers this has slowed to a trickle. Failure to see quick benefits will destabilise the fledgling state. Any new government will therefore need to communicate to its people a realistic assessment of the many challenges ahead. You do not quickly recover from the scorched-earth abuse that has been the hallmark of the Gaddafi regime. “As for the future, with no formal mechanism in place to ensure a smooth transition of power, the post-Gaddafi era, whenever it occurs, can be expected to be a time of considerable tension and uncertainty, with numerous socio-economic and political groups vying for power,” writes Ronald Bruce St John in his 2008 history, Libya: From Colony to Independence. It is difficult to counter such an argument. Ultimately what will be needed, both to remove Gaddafi in the short term and rebuild the country in the long term, is something Libyans have had to demonstrate for far too long already. A senior army officer taken prisoner in Benghazi, terrified for the lives of his family in Tripoli, puts it in one word: “Patience.”
By complete coincidence, my father bumped into Gaddafi on the day of the military coup in which he dethroned King Idris and seized power. It was a year before I was born. The then 27-year-old army captain eyeballed him and gave a brusque warning to get out of town. “You better leave Tripoli before you get killed,” he shouted. “This is a revolution!”
More than 41 years later, it is immensely moving to see — and share — the delight of the countless brave Libyans whose revolution is bringing this unspeakable regime to an end.
[ Read more… ]