Uncommon Catastrophes

Uncommon Catastrophes

Reconsidering how the Middle East was transformed by World War I.


After the traumas of the 2003 Iraq War, it seemed America had lost its taste for foreign intervention, but today the Obama administration is bombing Syria and Iraq. The mood this time may be more sober, but still the majority of Americans—watching the violent propaganda of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL—support air strikes on the jihadists.

The Islamic State, like the Middle East, is something we struggle to understand. Beheadings, a grotesque but effective way of stirring fear in the West, make even-handed, rational analysis difficult. One way to decipher some of the confusion is to turn back to history, to restore Arab voices, to do as so many Western scholars and commentators fail to do: take the Middle East on its own terms.

The challenge of successfully pursuing this approach is apparent in Leila Tarazi Fawaz’s A Land of Aching Hearts, a detailed account of the political and cultural events that occurred in the Middle East just before and during World War I. It concerns the way in which Arabs were caught up in Europe’s first major war of the twentieth century, and how this proved to be a turning point in Middle Eastern history, but one not of the Arab peoples’ own making.

A century before the recent wave of popular unrest that has unseated dictators across the Middle East, a similar fervor had swept the region. In 1910 and 1911, rebellions broke out across the Middle East, then largely part of the Ottoman Empire, a multiethnic Islamic dynasty that ruled from Istanbul. Arabs in Greater Syria and on the Arabian Peninsula rose up against their Ottoman rulers, some with a new sense of national awareness, others angered by leaders who concentrated power and bowed to the influence of foreigners. The tumult was short-lived, and amid military crackdowns the state and other supporters of the status quo prevailed.

In the 100 years that separate the unrest of 1911 and the recent Arab uprisings in 2011, the Middle East has been transformed by civil wars and military coups, the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the rise of new ideologies (pan-Arabism and political Islam) and the discovery of oil (Saudi Arabia in 1938), as well as by decades of Western intervention, a revolution in Iran, and the Cold War. But the greatest rupture, the one that closed an era and heralded the dawn of another, was World War I.

The Great War, as it was known, was twentieth-century Europe’s founding experience, a grueling and bloody encounter that drew in the world’s chief economic powers. Trench warfare in continental Europe introduced slaughter on an industrial scale, wiping out a generation of young men and dismembering centuries-old empires. As shown by the spate of recent histories reflecting on the centennial of the war’s beginning, its importance in Europe is rarely understated. But little has been said of the millions outside Europe who were also caught up in the fighting, and whose lives and histories were irrevocably changed as well.

The Middle East was seen as a sideshow to the main event. The Ottoman Empire was called the “sick man of Europe,” a failing dynasty where European powers scrapped for territory, resources and control of the Suez Canal, which linked the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. The Great War transformed the Middle East. In addition to redrawing the political map, it exposed Arab populations to social and economic duress on a scale never before known, altering relations with the West and between the various national groups within the Middle East. Since the mid-sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had maintained a level of peace and stability throughout the region. With its dissolution after World War I, conflicting claims to land and nationhood came to the fore.

Today, global attention is fixed on the militants of the Islamic State roaming Syria and Iraq. They have declared a caliphate and threatened to erase the borders the war helped create, returning it to the chaos that ensued in its aftermath. To trace the cause of today’s ills back to the 1914–18 conflict, as some are now doing, underestimates the impact of what followed, especially the American and British occupation of Iraq. It also ignores the historical tensions that actually preceded World War I, such as the split between Sunni and Shia. What is startling, though, is how so much of what World War I unleashed—struggles over identity, sectarian or otherwise, national border disputes, rights of minorities, the place of women in society—still reverberates to this day.

* * *

Most accounts of World War I in the Middle East focus on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret accord made by Britain and France in 1916 to divide the Arab territories of a collapsing Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. It was not until after the war, at the San Remo conference in 1920, that Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine—hitherto territories of the Ottoman Empire—came into being. To this day, Sykes-Picot remains a byword for what many Arabs view as a sequence of Western betrayals spanning the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In October, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, invoked Sykes-Picot in a speech about the crises that have beset the Middle East, arguing that “each conflict in this region” had been designed “a century ago.”

Other accounts of the era center on T.E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—the blue-eyed Welsh army officer, Arabist, archaeologist and fortress enthusiast who helped foment a revolt in the desert by Arabs against the Ottomans. A lengthy string of fawning biographers and David Lean’s 1962 film starring Peter O’Toole sensationalized Lawrence’s story, bringing him international fame. A recent book by Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia, gives that story a new spin by contextualizing him in a group biography of three other contemporary Middle East spies.

Where Arabs do feature in accounts of World War I, they are frequently seen as pawns, wild men with guns, swept up in imperial scheming beyond their control. They were men like Husayn ibn Ali, the grand sharif of Mecca, who led the rebellion with T.E. Lawrence under false assurances from Great Britain that he was securing an Arab nation for his Hashemite family; or Jamal Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Syria, a ruthless yet hapless reformer known among the local Arab inhabitants as al-Saffah, “the blood shedder.”

The portrayal of Arabs and Turks as victims of a war imposed on them is not altogether untrue. For two centuries, Europe had been chipping away at the Ottoman Empire’s sovereignty by tying merchants into monopolistic trade agreements, known as capitulations, and forcing economic concessions in return for the development of road, telegraph, port and railway connections to Europe. Men like Lawrence did not act in a vacuum.

In A Land of Aching Hearts, Lawrence warrants only a handful of mentions as a subsidiary character, valued for his lively descriptions of events rather than his influence upon them. Instead, Fawaz explores the war’s effect on the region’s ordinary people: fishermen, villagers, entrepreneurs, émigrés, soldiers and draft dodgers are woven into a rich tapestry. She takes us aboard ships and into train stations, along the lines outside bakeries and into crowded prison camps. These are the vantage points from which Fawaz observes the scope and scale of the war. In minute detail, she recounts the devastation it wrought, including the way common catastrophes of locusts, famine and disease were exacerbated by the exploits of Europeans, such as the prolonged Anglo-French naval blockade. Fawaz is always at pains to present the ingenuities and the tenacity of ordinary Arab people under these pressures.

Her witnesses are men like Jean Touma, a young mandolin player from Mount Lebanon who, in his diary, describes the great locust plague of 1915: “the sun is almost veiled.” Others recalled that children were sent “into the fields to rattle tin cans in the hopes of scaring away the locusts.” Badi’a Masabni was a belly dancer who opened the Cairo opera house in 1926 and courted an Ottoman officer who ensured she had a steady supply of grain during the war. Hanna Mina was a Syrian novelist from Latakia (Bashar al-Assad’s ancestral homeland) who was forced by extreme poverty into employment as a dockworker and later as a hairdresser. Then there is George Korkor, a middle-class Beiruti and the first importer of children’s sandals to Syria, who dabbled in palm readings at European fairs. Their diaries, postcards and handwritten journals convey very vividly the deprivations endured during the war. Special attention is given to the soldiers enlisted to fight for the German-backed Ottoman Empire against the British, such as the 7th Brigade, besieged in Mesopotamia, ravaged by scurvy, and forced to eat their horses and mules. Similarly, during the great famine of 1916, Beiruti children fought with dogs for scraps and died of hunger on the railway tracks while women foraged for edible weeds among the grass along the roadsides.

The war transformed the way Arabs lived but also their perceptions of who they were; in Beirut’s Cannon Square in 1915 and 1916, the people saw writers and intellectuals and other Arab nationalists, accused by the Ottomans of treason, being led to the gallows. Watching this, a nascent desire for independence took hold. Arabs, who had long viewed themselves as distinct from the Turks at least in racial terms, now began to consider liberation.

But even as some Arabs looked outward, considering new collective identities and political futures, the traumas of war led others to turn in on themselves, going back to the family, clan, village, town and sect. The settlement that Europe sought in the Middle East was one that mirrored its own organization of neatly divided nation-states. Arab political leaders began to think in nationalist terms, but internal squabbles and divisions still simmered under the surface. “Ethnic nationalism and religious reaction” confounded the democratic liberalism that Woodrow Wilson proposed for the Middle East after the war. Freya Stark, a British travel writer, would say of Syria, a state drawn up by Britain and France a few years later, “I haven’t yet come across one spark of national feeling: it is all sects and hatreds and religions.”

* * *

As the birthplace of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, the Middle East contains practically every variety and sect of these faiths, including Sunni Muslims, Alawis, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Mizrahi Jews, Circassians and Ismailis. For much of Middle Eastern history, these different religious communities lived and often thrived in relative peace with one another. However, since World War I, ethnic and religious relations have deteriorated, becoming more enmeshed in regional and international agendas. This history is not unknown. Nevertheless, Fawaz has difficulty pinning down the persistence of sectarian rancor, attributing it variously to European capitalism and the economic inequalities it wrought on the Middle East (forced dislocations, manipulative rulers, confessionalism), and also to European “wedge” policies in the first half of the twentieth century that gave advantage to certain sectarian groups. For her, sectarianism is less about the divisions in Islamic doctrine than the exigencies of European politics and its monetary ambition. She concludes that “just about any disruption of the status quo” by Europe “caused people to find strength in their traditional loyalties.”

Some histories of postcolonial states are beginning to offer a more nuanced portrayal of sectarian enmity, one that acknowledges the disruptive impact of imperialism on the newly independent nations but also their inherited baggage, such as the split between Sunni and Shia (a feud that began in the seventh century over who should succeed the prophet Muhammad). Emerging and receding through the centuries, this cleft in Islamic society has furnished Arab leaders, from the first caliphs to Bashar al-Assad, with a means to sow discord and engender loyalty within ruling cliques. Its latest incarnation appears in the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for political and spiritual leadership of the Muslim world.

Old ties and cleavages have proved powerful but not unchanging. Identity is not static. As Fawaz says, the relevance of a given identity (ethnic, sectarian, class or otherwise) tends to be situational and is often extremely subtle. The Middle East scholar Alasdair Drysdale explains this well: “A Syrian officer may act like an officer in a restaurant if he feels this will get him quicker service; he may be very conscious of his kin group when choosing a marriage partner; he may act as a member of a particular Alawi tribe during an intra-Alawi dispute within the armed forces; he may act as an Alawi, villager, peripheral non-Sunni or Ba’thi—or all five—during a coup d’état, as a socialist during regime economic policy formation and as a Syrian during a war with Israel.” It should not be seen as surprising that Arabs typically identify with subnational groups and their country of birth. If it is acceptable to be Bruxellois-Walloon-Belgecatholique-European, why should there be a problem in being a Damascene-Greek Orthodox-Syrian-Arab?

In 1989, the historian David Fromkin compared Europe’s political evolution to that of the Middle East. The length of time may be different, he said, but “its issue is the same: how diverse peoples are to regroup to create new political identities for themselves after the collapse of an ages-old imperial order to which they had grown accustomed. The Allies proposed a post-Ottoman design for the region in the early 1920s. The continuing question is whether the peoples of the region will accept it.”

A century after World War I, the West’s view of the Middle East remains paternalistic; we see the region as a colonial blunder, Arabs and their problems as somehow unique. Western nations, and Europe in particular, might be better advised to do as Fromkin does: look to their own geopolitical, and by no means tidy, evolution for guidance. In doing so, they will see the Middle East is hardly the Other it is often made out to be. Today, just as in T.E. Lawrence’s time, there are of course financial imperatives that keep the West involved in the Middle East. Historians cannot undo those obstacles, but equally they should not give the West a cover for post-imperialist behavior. Rather, as Fawaz does, they should draw on local sources, languages and experiences to restore the Middle East’s full complexity rather than reinforcing the blinkered, one-sided narrative of butchers and beheaders.

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