Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The question of Iraq

Encyclopedia Britannica XI (1910) s.v. Syria
(click to fit to screen)
When the invasion of Kuwait appeared suddenly on CNN, I found Kuwait on a map easily, and I knew from the excellent map in Henri Frankfort, The Art of the Ancient Orient, Pelican History of Art, 1954, to look for Babylon where the Rivers nearly met.  For that book had been my introduction to the subject.  In the meantime, I had learned that during the first years of the war beginning in 2003, Syria had received numerous refugees from northern Iraq.  True, I knew that Halaf, for example, was in Syria, and Mari and, of course, Damascus.  I mean, I knew bits and pieces but where the border had been drawn I really didn't know.  Being used to Europeans that I talked to on trains often knowing only New York, Chicago (gangsters) and San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge)— not much more and not necessarily where to look for them (for example, Hollywood was simply Hollywood), but that did not excuse me.  Or the makers of atlases. The great and good Bavarian Grosser Historischer Weltatlas had a beautiful ancient Mesopotamia and a detailed (color coded) modern Arabian Republics of the periods 1945–1961.  But I got it only in the 1960s, and I'm sure it's still in copyright.
But I had nothing for c. 1918.  T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars… had no map, and the movie with Peter O'Toole was filmed in Jordan.
This is an awful confession of ignorance but perfectly true, in so far as I knew nothing (unless you counted the Assyrian Empire in the back of my Sunday School Bible).
The 1910 Britannica was still very British.  It has a double page map in color of Ireland but no political map of Mesopotamia; as for Iraq, of course, the name had not yet been assigned to the country we know.  For some reason, it wouldn't say, or even index, Ottoman, and only later did I find Turkey in Europe, but less detailed than the Syria, above.  The Eleventh Edition  has become invaluable as the encyclopedia of the world before World War I, recording all its biases and assumptions, and its maps, engraved in Switzerland, I think, were great.  The Syria map I found for the area that I have had to read about for the last 25 years is perhaps an ordnance map and it is signed by Walker.

So much for my supplying the above half-page map of Syria to head this blog post.

The whole world would seem to be snowballing towards disaster of the senseless kind.  Though it was true that an almost predictable march back into Iraq from Syria was awful news, foreboding news, after watchers of CNN in 2003 had watched the Iraqi army dissolve through palm trees and across the Euphrates, and Syria had welcomed many Iraqi families, it was high time that we understood that it may not have been mere cowardice in the face of unbeatable invading forces; it might have been what they were instructed to do: cross the river and desert and regroup with their nearest ethnic relatives and train themselves in their own way.  Why would I think that?  I don't know.  I only could look back over the fluid and yet unchanging history of the truly middle Middle East.  And who could not reflect on the Kurdish people spread out across at least three modern nation states?  How can we expect that Iraqis will cling with deep pride to Iraqi identity?  To find their name on that Britannica map, you look for a people, but not a nation, and almost all the way down to the marsh arabs.  It may be enough to be glad if what was once Babylonia hangs together and what was once Assyria, for its part, too.  And Ctesiphon, of course, is not in modern Iran.  But we are still hung and bound and gagged by the insoluble problem of Palestinians and Israelis.
That is why I have no opinions, can form none, about the World.  I have known for decades how bitterly Ukrainians resent Russians and Russians hold them in contempt.  I don't know why, really, but when I lived in New York I heard it all the time.
I won't go through a laundry list to write an updated Merry Minuet, but I know how bitter and unhappy things feel.  I keep trying to tell myself that it's just an octogenarian's lack of √©lan vital.  Partly it is, but not primarily.  I find some solace in reading good spy fiction, like John le Carre.  Reading the tragic biography by Kai Bird of Robert Ames.  Even the patient rehearsal of my own youth and worst fears of  the Age of Edgar J. Hoover's FBI; my friends and I never dared even to speak of the FBI and that a lot earlier than Betty Medzger thought we did.  What is awful is the consolation afforded by this literature: none of what we hear today is new.  Small consolation.  It has taken most of my lifetime for civilization to put itself together again.  To me, civilized values and all the arts and all decency is what I love, or at least all that I flatter myself in believing.
That's inadequate and incoherent, but it's all I can muster right now.