Occasionally (not necessarily here) there’s an old-fashioned Trotskyist sound to Robin Yassin-Kassab’s posts on the middle east (stock phrases from 1970s polemic, “Zionist” sometimes replacing “capitalist”) which might stop some people reading.
Here are links to a few recent entries on his blog. Links are mainly his. Headings are mine.
Syria update, July 27:
“Hizbullah used to be wildly popular in Syria because it was perceived as an organisation dedicated to fighting for the oppressed. Now that it’s taken to supporting the Syrian oppressors against the Syrian oppressed, Hizbullah is widely despised in Syria. Its own stupidity achieved what decades of Wahhabi-Saudi, Zionist and Western propaganda could not. Here’s an article by Hamid Dabashi on that.”
“There is no danger for the Palestinian cause in the shadow of a democratic Syrian system. The Syrian people are closest to the Palestinian people, and they are more protective of the Palestinian cause, the Golan Heights, and Arab solidarity than the current regime whose leaders have made the country feudal and do not care for anything except for protecting their own interests and existence.” (Ghalyoun)
Syria update, August 6:
“Despite my disappointment with Hizbullah’s leadership, I still of course respect and admire their victories against Zionism. Look at this organisation, the first Arab organisation to confront and defeat the occupier: it succeeds because it is of its people, it fights for justice for its people, it arms its people. None of these things can be said for the Syrian regime, which arms against the people, and fears the people – which is why the Syrian regime will never confront and defeat the occupier.”
Hizbullah’s victory in 2006 was limited. He would like Muslims and Jews to live together with equal rights in a single secular state. In the meantime, the occupier is the Zionist regime.
“Iran banks all on Assad’s survival [...] It is entirely conceivable that any diminution of Alawite political power in Syria (let alone the downfall of Assad and the ruling clique) will re-orient Syria towards the Sunni Arab political order at the expense of Iran. Under this scenario, even if the Iranian-Syrian alliance endures in one form or another, the Islamic Republic’s position on the eastern banks of the Mediterranean Sea will become increasingly vulnerable.” (Abedin)
The Israeli flag falls in Cairo, August 21:
Attack on the Israeli embassy.
“I’ve often used Ali’s cartoons to illustrate online pieces. His work has been the perfect choice – its tone is tragicomic; he never minimises the pain of the contemporary Arab situation even as he laughs at it. His pen, and his blessed hand, draw the catastrophes of dictatorship and occupation, of misogyny and class oppression, of bureaucracy, hypocrisy and ignorance. Ali is a valuable friend of the Palestinian people: I hope those fools who still believe the Syrian thug regime is a ‘resistance regime’ will note this well.”
More, same day:
“On the radio I said that the Syrian regime isn’t trying to be popular at present. Escalating its attacks on Syrian cities in Ramadan, increasing the gunfire at the dawn prayer and at the break of fast: these are not moves calculated to win popularity. Likewise, when regime torturers force the detained to pray to a picture of the dictator, and to repeat ‘There is no god but Bashaar’, they are not seeking approval. It’s much more basic than that. The message is: We can do whatever the hell we like. We can outrage you as much as we choose. We can shock you with our barbarity and then shock you again, because we are unimaginably strong.
“But they aren’t strong. They are very weak indeed, as we will all soon – insha’allah – discover.”
Passive tools, August 30:
“Somebody said to me recently, ‘The Libyans will soon be doing business with Israel, whether they like it or not.’ Here we go again: the assumption that the Libyans have no agency of their own, even after they’ve so dramatically taken the initiative to change the course of their own history.”
Sufis, September 19:
“I love [Sufism] for its symbolic, illogical, individualist challenge to literalism and the obsession with rules, and because it smiles, and for its openness and tolerance, and its music and poetry [...]. [...] But when Westerners assume the Sufis are automatically cuddly or, alternatively, progressive, they make a blanket mistake. The ‘Sufi’ Barelvis in Pakistan cheered the murder of Salman Taseer as much as the purist Deobandis. And there’s nothing progressive about hereditary holy men, backward superstition, or the false structures of authority that have adhered to some schools like rust to polished metal. There’s nothing good about the Islamo-hippies who wish for peace at any cost with Zionism [...].”
Sectarianism in Syria, September 29:
“Alawis have a complex, esoteric religion that throughout history has been savagely denounced, and its adherents savagely oppressed. Ultimately it’s a matter of political interpretation whether or not Alawis are to be considered Muslims. The Ottoman Empire didn’t even consider them ‘People of the Book,’ which meant that unlike Christians, Jews, and mainstream Shiites, Alawis didn’t enjoy any legal rights. The ravings of the influential medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (who thought Alawis were ‘greater disbelievers than the Jews, Christians, and Indian idol-worshipping Brahmans’) contributed to their oppression and justified the theft of their lands around Aleppo and their forced retreat into the mountains. Until the 1920s, the Alawis were stuck in those mountains. Antakya (Antioch) was the only city where Alawis lived with Sunnis, and Antakya was gifted by France to Turkey before the independence of the modern Syrian state.” On which last point see my post about some recent Syrian history.
Malta, October 7:
“The language is Malta’s idiosyncracy: half Arabic in vocabulary, more than half in structure. The verbs, prepositions and pronouns are Arabic. The rest is mainly Italian. The air hostess asked us to store our bags ‘fowq raasikum’. When we landed she said ‘saha wa grazia!’”
The thousand lives and the one life, October 20:
Release of Gilad Shalit. “The Israelis are the ethnic cleansers and the occupiers. The Palestinians are the refugees and the occupied. Zionist propaganda constantly obfuscates these simple facts. The Palestinians are the first victims of the propaganda, but Israeli Jews are also its victims, as the future will demonstrate.”
Syria resources, October 29:
Links, including to a fully-annotated historical piece by Michael Provence and Jamal Wakim at al-akhbar.com, Colonial Origins of the Syrian Security State. Wonderful photograph at the beginning of that. But much more too.
After 42 Years, October 30:
The Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa reads After 42 Years – his reflection on the fall of Gaddafi.
Ahmz, November 1:
British-Syrian rap in both languages from Ahmz.
Marina Warner, November 12:
Review (positive) of Marina Warner, Stranger Magic, Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, about the Arabian Nights and its contexts, and its impact in the west.
“Warner quotes Jorge Luis Borges (a guiding spirit in her book) approving the belle infidele approach to translation. ‘I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.’”
Fadwa Sulaiman, November 15:
Translation by Laila al-Attar of an interview on Jazeera with the Syrian actress Fadwa Sulaiman. Since then the Arab League has come out, belatedly, against the Assad regime.
Archive for the 'Egypt' Category
Qunfuz on Shaikh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, a Syrian cleric and traditionalist. “Someone so sunk in stale books that he fails to notice the real world in front of him.”
“As such, he’s a lot better than the modernist Salafis who have recently proliferated in the hothouse made by Saudi money and rapid urbanisation, deracinated Muslims whose ugly, intolerant, rule-based version of religion strips away Islam’s history, philosophy, mysticism and morality. Salafists preach obedience to the wali al-amr – whoever is in power. As a result they contributed absolutely nothing to the struggle against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. But now that Mubarak has fallen, Salafis seek to profit from the new situation. Last Friday, along with the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, they hijacked a rally in Tahreer Square, where they chanted against a secular, civil state and emitted such diplomatic slogans as ‘We’re all Osama.’”
The sight of Mubarak on a bed in a cage today was shocking. So was the sight of his sons. I have met and listened to Gamal.
Not Al-Buti, but an Indonesian cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir. He looks as if he reads books too.
“I’m not in the least put out that my chariot wheel broke]
and I lost that silly race.
I’ll drink great wines the whole night long,
lying among lovely roses. Antioch is all mine.
I’m the most celebrated young man in town –
Valas’ weakness, he simply adores me.
You’ll see, tomorrow they’ll say the race wasn’t fair
(though if I’d been crude enough to insist on it secretly,
the flatterers would have given first place even to my limping chariot).]”
The Favour of Alexander Valas, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at cavafy.com. Spelling anglicised.
Alexander Balas was a humble-born native of Smyrna, but pretended to be the son of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Laodice IV and heir to the Seleucid throne. His claims were recognised by the Roman Senate and Ptolemy Philometor of Egypt. He married Cleopatra Thea, Ptolemy’s daughter. In 150 BC he defeated Demetrius I (Demetrius Soter, ie saviour).
As king, he is said to have abandoned himself to debauchery. In 145 his Egyptian protector and father-in-law betrayed him and, with Demetrius I’s son Demetrius II, defeated him near Antioch. Alexander Balas fled for refuge to a Nabataean prince, who murdered him and sent his head to Ptolemy, who had been mortally wounded in the battle.
Lying among roses. Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love:
“There I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle”
Elagabalus’s attempt to drown his guests in rose petals.
Painting in the National Galleries of Scotland by Botticelli of Christ sleeping by a rose bush adored by the Virgin.
Handel produced a quartet of patriotic or warlike oratorios after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion: the Occasional Oratorio in 1746, Judas Maccabaeus in 1747 and Joshua and Alexander Balus in 1748.
Alexander Balus is a condensation of chapters 10 and 11 of the first Book of Maccabees set in Egypt. It is thus partly concerned with the Greeks’ relationship with the Jews. Jonathan Maccabaeus (Jonathan Apphus, or the Wary) is the anti-Hellenic Hasmonean rebel leader after the death of Judas Maccabaeus. Alexander has courted him and the Jewish rebels. He is invited to Alexander’s wedding.
Ptolemy falsely claims that Jonathan is behind the plot to overthrow Alexander. At the end, Cleopatra receives news of both deaths, her husband’s and father’s. Jonathan winds up the story, reminding the living that those who trust in other than the true God will always meet their fate.
Demetrius II does not appear in the oratorio, but in the biblical story Jonathan makes his peace with him.
Hyperion CD notes: “Handel’s finale is, perhaps not so surprisingly in view of the calamities that have befallen Cleopatra, unusually muted in its minor treatment of the traditionally lively Amens and Halleluias.” Here are Jonathan’s final words and the finale; performers not stated.
The transit of the Far Eastern [Han dynasty] invention of paper across the conductive expanse of the Arab Caliphate [...] was impressively rapid. Reaching Samarqand from China in A.D. 751, the use of paper had spread to Baghdad by A.D. 793, to Cairo by A.D. 900, to Fez (Fas), almost within sight of the Atlantic, by about A.D. 1100, and to Jativa in the Iberian Peninsula by A.D. 1150.
It might pedantically be pointed out that Cairo was not founded until 969. But Fustat is in effect now old Cairo.
A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954
According to Woolley, Sir L.: Abraham (London 1936, Faber), chap. 6, pp. 234-5 and 244, the “jealousy” which is one of the outstanding characteristics of Yahweh the God of Moses was already characteristic of the nameless God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob with whom Yahweh came to be identified by Abraham’s deescendants in the Mosaic Age. In Woolley’s view Abraham’s God was the Family God that had been worshipped in every household in Ur, and it was of the essence of this Family God that “he could admit no alien worshippers and have no outside interests”. In persisting in the worship of this Family God when he left the city gods of Ur behind him, Abraham became, not indeed a monotheist, but at least “monolatrous”. It will be seen that the God of Abraham (if Woolley is right) resembled the God of Moses in the point of exclusiveness, but differed from him in not being tied to any particular locality. While the worship of Yahweh was bound up with Yahweh’s successive local habitations on Sinai, at Bethel, and in Jerusalem, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob was worshipped by his Nomadic votaries wherever they happened to pitch their moving tents.
A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)
“I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I didn’t want to stay
in Alexandria. Tamides left me;
he went off with the Prefect’s son to earn himself
a villa on the Nile, a mansion in the city.
It wouldn’t have been right for me to stay in Alexandria.
I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I live a vile life, devoted to cheap debauchery.
The one thing that saves me,
like durable beauty, like perfume
that goes on clinging to my flesh, is this: Tamides,
most exquisite of young men, was mine for two years,
and mine not for a house or a villa on the Nile.”
In the Tavernas, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at cavafy.com.
Though, in all persecutions, there are, no doubt, always many weaker vessels who [...] fail to stand the ordeal, the followers of the higher religions have been conspicuous, on the whole, for their steadfastness and courage when put to the test.
The Christian Church was put to this test by the Roman Empire; the Mahāyāna by the Chinese Empire in its avatar in the age of the T’ang Dynasty. Both churches responded by producing martyrs; but the Christians in the Roman Empire seem to have been more steadfast than the Mahayanian Buddhists in China in standing a more severe ordeal; and this apparent preeminence of the Christians in a common heroism is, indeed, what was to be expected. We should expect both the Mahāyāna and Christianity to shine in facing persecution, since the distinguishing mark of the higher religions is, as we have seen, their voluntary acceptance of Suffering as an opportunity for active service. At the same time we should expect the persecution itself to be sharper, and the endurance of it more heroic, in the western than in the eastern half of the Old World because the temper of life in South-West Asia and in the Graeco-Roman Society was more tragic and more intransigent than the temper in either India or China. In appraising both the comparative mildness of the T’ang imperial government and the comparative softness of its Buddhist victims, we must make the allowance for this general difference in psychological climate. It would be unwarrantable to assume that the T’ang régime was more virtuous than the Roman régime was, or that the Buddhist martyrs were less heroic than the Christian martyrs were.
The same difference in temper between the two halves of the Old World comes out in other historical parallels as well. For example, Christianity and Buddhism were, each, expelled from its homeland by a rival younger religion which had derived its inspiration from the older religion that it was opposing and evicting. Christianity was expelled from South-West Asia by Islam; Buddhism was expelled from India by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism whose philosophy bears indelible marks of its Buddhist origin. But the advance of Hinduism at Buddhism’s expense in India in the age of the Gupta Dynasty was accomplished as peacefully as the previous advance of Buddhism at the expense of a pre-Buddhist Indian paganism in the age of the Maurya Emperor Açoka. By contrast with this Indian record, the supplanting of Christianity by Islam in South-West Asia and Egypt in the age of the Arab Caliphate was a story of pressure and penalization – though, by contrast with the treatment of subject Jews and Muslims in Christendom, the treatment of subject “People of the Book” in Dār-al-Islām has been honourably distinguished by its comparative tolerance.
An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956
The Admonitions of a Prophet, written on a papyrus of the Twelfth Dynasty, recalled the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian history when “the land” turned “round as doth a potter’s wheel” (translated in A Erman, The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians, Methuen, 1927).
The dizzy motion of the Egyptiac potter’s wheel, which stands for the acme of disorder in the eyes of an Egyptiac poet whose imagination animates the clay that is helplessly spinning on this wheel’s whirling surface, is at the same time an example, on the mathematical plane of existence, of an orderly cyclic motion, while on the teleological plane it is an obedient instrument for impressing upon the clay the spiritual order that is represented by the potter’s will.
Said one among them: “Surely not in vain
My substance from the common clay was ta’en
And to this figure moulded, to be broke
Or trampled back to shapeless earth again?”
[Footnote: Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubāʿīyāt of ʿUmar Khayyām, Quatrain lxxxiv.]
In a similar way the disorderly motion of a rudderless ship, which stands in Plato’s eyes for the chaos of a Universe abandoned by God [a footnote refers us to an earlier reference to Plato’s Politicus], can be recognized, by a mind endowed with the necessary knowledge of dynamics and physics, as a perfect illustration of the orderly behaviour of waves and currents in the media of wind and water. [Footnote: It may be added that, in the Politicus, the simile of the ship adrift is one of only two elements that make up, between them, the picture which Plato is painting in the colours of myth. The state in which the Universe drifts at the mercy of Chance alternates, in an endlessly recurrent cycle, with a contrary state in which it is steered by the hand of God according to Plan.] When the Human Soul adrift thus apprehends that the force which is baffling it is not simply a negation of the Soul’s own will or caprice but is a thing in itself – albeit something that the Soul is failing to grasp or control – then the countenance of the unknown invincible goddess changes from a subjective aspect under which she is known as Chance to an objective aspect under which she is known as Necessity – but this without any corresponding change in the essence of this inhuman power’s nature.
A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939
This politically-debilitating belief-tendency is almost universal in the Gulf and Levant. Revisionism starts early there.
Most people (if you look at whole populations) think that forces are at work which are hidden from them. The question, most of the time, is only how incredible the conclusions are. The Princess of Wales was murdered. 9/11 was not conducted by Al Qaeda. Mubarak was not an ally of the US. The US is behind the disturbances in Syria. Osama bin Laden isn’t dead.
Egyptians are rather more realistic.
The maritime [trade route to India] was commanded by South Arabian middlemen until the first through-voyage from Egypt to India was made by Eudoxus of Cyzicus circa 120 B.C. [Cyzicus is in Mysia.] Eudoxus’s Greek successors gradually shortened the voyage – which in Eudoxus’s day was still made coastwise all the way – by cutting more and more adventurously across the open sea with the aid of the monsoons; and this process of shortening, which began circa 100-80 B.C., was completed circa A.D. 40-50 (i. e. on the eve of the precipitation of the story of Jesus in the Gospels) [the passage is about religious connections between Greece and India], when the Greek navigators of the Indian Ocean ventured at last to sail straight across the open sea from the Somali coast to the southern tip of India, without approaching Arabia at all. As a result of this Greek conquest of the Indian Ocean, pepper was obtainable in abundance at Athens in 88 B.C., and a Buddhist gravestone, erected before the end of the Ptolemaic Age, has been discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie at Alexandria (Tarn, op. cit., [ie Tarn, W. W.: The Greeks in Bactria and India (Cambridge 1938, University Press)], pp. 367-75, superseding eundem: Hellenistic Civilization (London 1927, Arnold), pp. 196-9).
A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)
“Huge ships, thrust out by the mad blasts, perched on the roofs of houses [...] at Alexandria.”
The most powerful earthquake ever recorded, off southern Chile on May 22 1960, caused a tsunami which killed 140 people in Japan.
The 1933 Sanriku earthquake, conversely, had been off Iwate prefecture and caused a tsunami which reached Chile.
The recent Sendai earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in Japan, also caused a tsunami which reached Chile.
Wikipedia on the 365 tsunami: “The sophist Libanius and the church historian Sozomenus appear to present it as either divine sorrow or wrath – depending on their viewpoint – for the death of emperor Julian.”
Wikipedia list of historical tsunamis.
Robin Yassin-Kassab: “Arabs never really achieved independence, for a variety of reasons. Corrupt elites in authoritarian Arab states have plundered the people’s wealth, obeyed the dictates of hostile superpowers against the people’s will, and entirely failed to build reasonable education or social welfare institutions. Civil society has been stifled. Now it seems that the Arab people are entering the power equation, and true independence may be at hand.”
There is a bigger picture here. After the Abbasid Caliphate, the Arab countries were to a great extent controlled by non-Arabs: Mongols, Mamluks, Persians, Ottoman Turks, Europeans and at the end by unrepresentative elites supported by the West. Libya has been a maverick, but the Berbers, too, had come under Ottoman and European control. This is, in a way, an attempt at a return.
When you know the faces and that emphatic, staccato, vehement Egyptian way of speaking, Egypt doesn’t feel like just another place in turmoil (clashes between supporters of X and anti-government protesters).
A friend who was in Tahrir Square emailed me on January 18:
“Things are boiling even more these days in Cairo. There will be some demonstrations on Jan 25 that people say will be a revolution, may be a civil war.”
Revolutionary years, not only in Egypt:
Egypt felt a reverberation from France. Napoleon invaded in person and was defeated by Nelson in person in the Battle of the Nile (1798). Afterwards, the reforming Ottoman viceroy Muhammad Ali (ruled 1805-48) had French military and scientific manuals and other works translated into Arabic. Much of the French infusion was managed by Rifa’a el-Tahtawi.
I have a post here (a sketchy passage by Toynbee) about French law and culture in Egypt. I can remember meeting a old Francophone Egyptian in Cairo.
1848 did not, as far as I know, have an impact on Egypt (though it happened to mark the end of the reign of Muhammad Ali), but it is a parallel to 2011 (and 1989) in the way revolution spread from place to place. The January trigger then was Palermo – not two hundred miles away from Tunis.
1919 had been a series of nationalist uprisings against the British, who had been in Egypt since 1882. In 1914 the British-occupied Khediviate became a British-protected Sultanate. Turkish influence was ended. In 1922, after the 1919 agitations, it became an “independent” kingdom. Even then, some British troops remained until 1936, and in the Canal Zone until 1954. It is hard, from these facts, to see how 1919 can have felt like a revolution, but it did to the Egyptians. I sketched the story of Egypt from Muhammad Ali to Nasser here.
The same year saw the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, the foundation of the Fascist party in Italy, the short-lived Bavarian and Hungarian Socialist Republics, the Amritsar massacre in India, police and other strikes in Britain, and convulsions in Ireland, eastern Europe and Russia, Turkey, Korea and China.
After the uprisings, the square, which had been called Midan Ismaileyya, after Khedive Ismail, who had commissioned the new downtown district’s plan, became popularly known as Midan al-Tahrir (Liberation Square). It was not officially renamed until the revolution of 1952. Other demonstrations have taken place there, including the bread riots in 1977 and the demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2003.
1952 was the revolution led by Nasser that removed King Farouk (seventeen years before Idris was removed in Libya) and installed the present military establishment.
(The first president was not Nasser but Muhammad Naguib. Farouk was not the last king: he was briefly succeeded by Fuad II.)
Between Nasser (died 1970) and Mubarak was only Sadat. Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel at Camp David and was assassinated.
Egyptian public morale collapsed in June 1967 (Six-Day War). It had been pumped up by Nasser and was high for good cultural reasons as well, and it was knocked back further in October 1973 (Yom Kippur War) and (though Egyptians are peaceful people) September 1978 (Camp David). Until January 25 2011 it had never quite recovered.
That’s what Americans fear, but no scowling demagogue got off a plane. Unless Yusuf al-Qaradawi is that.
Some educated Egyptians have a cultural fascination with Iran, the great or forbidden Other, and the only country in what Americans call “the region” which is similar to it in size of population. But Egypt has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979. Electronic alliances are being formed.
The sclerotic era of Mubarak began in October 1981.
From an old post:
“[People Power in the Philippines] was a T-shirted revolution before Twitter, a colour-coded revolution before mobile phones and email, a velvet revolution practically before fax. There had been peaceful protests and non-cooperation in India, but they were surely more manipulated and orchestrated.
“Since 1986, the Philippine example has been at the back of our minds wherever there have been large-scale, mainly peaceful popular protests. Václav Havel has said that it was in the minds of European demonstrators in 1989. The days leading up to the deposition of Ceauşescu in Romania reminded one very strongly of the Philippines. Was it in the minds of the Chinese students in the same year? It was in our minds this year  during the protests that began after the Iranian presidential elections.”
Before January 25 Egypt had lost its standing in the Arab world, which had been so high in the ’50s and ’60s. Qatar, as Robin Yassin-Kassab has said, counted for more.
Egyptians must be charmed now to think that at least a few young people all over the oppressed world, not only in the Middle East, are looking up to them.
The obvious, though very far from exact, precedent. The chain of revolutions got going in the second half. In Russia, two years later, a system collapsed with little pressure from below.
Egypt had transferred its loyalty from the USSR to the US before this, under Sadat.
Removal of Mubarak. Now the people are dealing with the military in uniform, face to face.
Nobody who witnessed this revolution at a distance will forget the moving words of Wael Abbas, Ahdaf Soueif, Khalid Abdalla, Wael Ghonim and many others, and nameless people.
Blair on February 2: Hosni Mubarak was “immensely courageous and a force for good”.
As always, there are those in the Middle East, the homeland of conspiracy theory, who are hinting at forces – America, Israel, other – controlling these events. Many others, especially the rich, are saying: “We are not ready for democracy, the West should stop lecturing us” and “Let the West dream”. They are right. But the revolution happened in spite of Obama’s ditherings and, thanks to them, Egyptians feel that Tahrir Square was their own achievement.
I had thought that the relevance of Facebook and Twitter to real politics had been exaggerated. I was wrong, but I was in no doubt from January 25 that it was over for Mubarak.
“The World Bank says escalating food prices have pushed 44 million more people into poverty since last June.”
The median age in Egypt is 24. More than a quarter of males under 30 with degrees are unemployed.
Egypt had been “growing” at 6% a year. It’s said that revolutions usually happen in countries which are growing economically. Energy which had been pent up is released and destroys the system which produced the growth. Russia in 1917? That kind of growth, in any case, can make things temporarily worse, and perhaps permanently less secure, for the masses.
Real revolutions aren’t gang warfare waged at state level. They are a return to truth. Will the energy produce a later wave of expansionist Islamism or be wholly dissipated in manoeuvring, compromises and renewed corruption?
Tahrir Square became a university in which different classes and types in Egyptian society met. That moment will not return.
Egyptians, such as Waseem Wagdi, not reporters, were the best exponents of their condition.
However it ends, Tahrir Square has changed the Middle East politically, geopolitically and psychologically. [Postscript 2013 11 28: Is that true?] The revolution was not Islamist or socialist or especially anti-American or even anti-Zionist. There was no utopianism, no desire for an absolute break with the past, except in one respect. No exaggeration. Not even a leader. No “nativist romanticism, sectarian distraction or religious obscurantism” (Robin Yassin-Kassab). These facts may, perhaps, offer some grounds for hope.
Egypt has minorities, but not deep sectarian divisions. Robin Yassin-Kassab: “The answer to sectarian hatred is democracy. The answer to Arab hatred of Israel is for Israel to change itself from a violent ethnocracy to a multicultural democracy.”
On the Muslim Brotherhood: “First, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is noted for its aversion to violence. Ayman Zawahri and the al-Qa’ida types broke away from the Brothers for precisely this reason. Second, the Brotherhood by its own admission has not led the revolution, no more than Muhammad al-Barade’i or any other leader. Third, the Brotherhood is part of the revolution like almost every other segment of Egyptian society, because it is part of society, a venerable institution and a mass movement. If the revolution has an ideology, it’s one of representation and dignity, of democracy in other words. The Brotherhood, like Barade’i, has called for an interim national government with no NDP presence, followed by elections. If the Brothers win elections, they will not be in a position to establish a new dictatorship. Fourth, the most retrograde elements of Islamism, those that lead to nihilistic terrorism and sectarian hatred, are nourished by the social stagnation of dictatorship. Finally, it is not for British or American chatterers to decide whether the Egyptians are ready for freedom. The Egyptians are demanding freedom, and are making the chatterers irrelevant.”
Few people outside Egypt even know the name of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader. It is Mohammed Badie.
Many Egyptians who before January 25 did not speak in political terms nevertheless showed a pre-revolutionary mood in the way they spoke about their personal lives. But nobody predicted the certainty which they found in themselves in Tahrir Square.
A comment on this blog on February 1: “Day after day people lost the value of their own lives and now they are willing to give these lives away [...].”
Robin Yassin-Kassab: “Arabs never really achieved independence, for a variety of reasons. Corrupt elites in authoritarian Arab states have plundered the people’s wealth, obeyed the dictates of hostile superpowers against the people’s will, and entirely failed to build reasonable education or social welfare institutions. Civil society has been stifled. Now it seems that the Arab people are entering the power equation, and true independence may be at hand.”
The best foreign reporting, aside from some blogs, was from CNN. Reporting, not analysis. The Egyptians will remember it. It was less naive than some about the role of the army. Al Jazeera was good, too. I am not an expert on Egypt, but many of the Western chatterers seemed to know nothing about it at all.
Egypt had been bursting for some kind of freshness in its politics for many years. Mubarak should have left in 2005. Cairo, too, in its planning. There is hardly a park or tree anywhere. There are little more than rough pavements by the Nile, next to noisy roads, along which people can stroll. Its physical charm has been squeezed out of it. This has happened in some degree in every old city on earth. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth, to judge from any account of the banks of the Nile, Cairo was a seductive place. But Egypt wasn’t a republic then.
Most of Tahrir Square has been a building site for as long as I can remember it and was not accessible by the demonstrators. You didn’t see it on the news. What you saw was a roundabout.
It isn’t clear what the work is intended to lead to. Paved area? Garden? The only thing that is clear is that the project has stalled because of corruption. Somebody, deserving or otherwise, has not been paid. Tahrir Square is a minor scandal of Mubarak’s Egypt.
Nearly all shots of the square show the giant Mogamma office building, a gift of the Soviet Union completed just before the 1952 revolution.
“[We] who were strong in love.”
Hieraconpolis or Nekhen was the religious and political capital of Upper Egypt at the end of the Predynastic period (c 3200-3100 BC).
The foundation, circa 3100 B.C., of a united kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt was achieved by empire-builders from the extreme south of the Egyptiac World of the day, in the neighbourhood of the modern Al-Kāb, [footnote] between Thebes and the First Cataract.
The nucleus of the “nome” (canton) which was the original domain of these Horus-worshipping empire-builders consisted of a pair of cities facing one another across the Nile: Necheb (Graecè “Eileithuia”) on the site of the modern Al-Kāb on the east bank of the Nile, and Nechen (Graecè “Hieracônpolis”, in allusion to the hawk (“hierax”) which was both the heraldic emblem of the city and the symbol of its god (Horus) on the west bank. (See Hall, H. R.: The Ancient History of the Near East (London 1911, Methuen), pp. 93-94; Meyer, E.: Geschichte des Altertums, vol. 1, Part II, 3rd ed. (Stuttgart and Berlin 1913, Cotta), pp. 80 and 111).
The passage continues:
The political union, from this base of operations, of the whole of the Lower Nile Basin between the First Cataract and the Mediterranean was immediately followed by a northward shift of the seat of power. The Hieraconpolite empire-builders established their imperial residence at Thinis, and their necropolis at Abydos on the opposite bank of the Nile, down-stream from their ancestral canton; and the de facto centre of imperial administration seems soon to have moved on still farther down-stream to Memphis. Thereafter, this ideally convenient site, at the point of junction between the mouth of the Nile Valley and the head of the Delta, remained the seat of government of the Old Kingdom to the end. The de facto capital of its spring-time became the de jure capital of its summer, when the Thinites were followed by the pyramid-builders of the Third and Fourth Dynasties; and, when [the Old Kingdom’s] summer passed over into autumn, Memphis was still the place from which the demonic pyramid-builders’ pious Heliopolitan successors attempted to exert their gradually diminishing authority.
Heliopolis was important during the Fifth Dynasty (c 2465-c 2325 BC), when the worship of Re became the state cult.
A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954
Kenneth Clark (last post) made some further programmes for television after his Civilisation of 1969. The last, in 1975, was an hour-long film about ancient Egypt called In the Beginning. I don’t know where it was shown, but it was produced by Reader’s Digest. From the second volume, The Other Half (1977), of his autobiography:
“On successive visits to Egypt, and especially to Sakara, I had grown more and more impressed by the suddenness with which civilised man had made his appearance. By evolutionary standards it should have taken millions of years for the primitive hunter, with low forehead and crunching jaws, to turn into the graceful, intelligent-looking man whom we find in the earliest Egyptian sculpture. In fact it took only about 500. Most people close their minds to this irrefutable fact, either because they cannot explain it, or because it smacks too much of special creation. It was on account of this second suspicion that I called my programme ‘In the Beginning’. I wanted it to make people reflect on what I believe to be the greatest miracle in history. By the year 2750 Egypt had developed nearly all the qualities that we value, or used to value, in our own civilization: a belief in the individual as moral being; pride in the merciful execution of justice, a well organised system of government, a sense of the beauty and dignity of man, who had a soul that would survive him after death; an awareness of animals as something very close to ourselves, which could be lovable as well as useful; geometry and its application to stone architecture; and above all an art that combined grandeur with humanity. All this emerged in what we call the Old Kingdom, which lasted over 700 years, and to which Egypt looked back for the next 200 years, rather as China looked back to the T’ang Dynasty.”
I think “earliest Egyptian sculpture” refers to sculpture in general, not a particular piece, but is he really saying that it took five hundred years for man to be transformed from an anatomically pre-modern to modern state? He is confusing art and anatomy. Anatomical modernity was achieved in some tens of thousands of years after the appearance of homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. Full behavioural modernity was achieved (perhaps) 50,000 years ago, after he had left Africa. Or did man really become more graceful with civilisation?
Some time before Civilisation, Clark had made a film for ATV about Luxor. “The Luxor film was my first introduction to Egypt, which I loved so much that I have been back many times, and have done another film [In the Beginning] about the earlier period [its main focus is on the Old Kingdom]. Working with a half-Egyptian crew, I have come to love not only Egypt but the Egyptians, and my dream of bliss, which I shall never now achieve, would be to go from Cairo to Assuan on a Nile steamer.”
Francis X Hartigan, The History Teacher (US), November 1980, of which I have accessed only part, reviewing In the Beginning:
“In Clark’s provocative view civilization came with ‘the suddenness of sunlight’ between 3000 and 2800 B.C., between the political order established by Narmer and the building of Sakkara, when Egyptian art achieved the sense of beauty, the dignity of man, the order, clarity, and inspiration that he defines as ‘civilization.’ Specifically, Clark places the cradle of civilization at Sakkara with its famous necropolis and step pyramid of Djoser, the earliest stone building in the world. Sakkara presents refinement, sophistication, and grandeur; the early elements of Egyptian art and design can be seen here.
“One may fault Clark’s criterion for civilization because it is exclusively that of an art historian. In his quest for the roots of civilization he all but ignores the greatness and primacy of Mesopotamian Civilization because comparatively little of its art and architecture survives. As an art historian Clark is understandably drawn to the unparalleled richness of the art and architecture of the Egyptians whom he regards as ‘a profoundly visual people.’ The Mesopotamians were more verbal than visual. Once in the world of Egyptian art Clark’s presentation is splendid. Two strong themes emerge: the refinement and confidence of the Egyptians and their unique love of nature and their determination to portray it as an integral part of their lives. Both themes receive their greatest expression in the Old Kingdom, the subject of Part One of the film. The audience is drawn into the freshness and vibrancy of the creative process as it unfolded in Egypt. Along the way Clark discards some old myths. The Giza pyramids were not built by slaves but were the co-operative enterprise of a dynamic and confident society. Egyptian portraiture was not static, but so sensitive that the statue of Khephren is ‘the noblest portrait of a ruler ever made.’”
Even if you look only at cradles of civilisation, and not the megaliths, Sakkara isn’t the “earliest stone building in the world”. But it depends on what ruins you are prepared to call buildings. Clark the anthropologist and archaeologist may be unreliable, but that is not what one reads him for.
Conquest of Upper Egypt by Lower c 3100 BC. Deposition of Mubarak today. Same geography, same faces even. There is some facial continuity between ancient and modern Egypt, which cannot honestly be said about Greece.
Eduard Spelterini, pyramids of Giza from a balloon, November 21 1904, Wikimedia Commons, scanned from Eduard Spelterini, Über den Wolken/Par dessus les nuages, Zurich, Brunner, 1928
The yokel in the aeroplane (old post).
America is uncertain about how and whether to change its role in the Middle East.
I miss the enthusiasm and the confidence that made the old revolutionary America irresistible. Lafayette pays a high psychological price when he transforms himself into Metternich. Playing Metternich is not a happy role. It is not a hero’s role, and not a winner’s, and the player knows it. But, in those early nineteenth-century years when the real Metternich was fighting his losing battle to shore up the rickety edifice of restored “legitimacy”, who in the World would have guessed that America, of all countries, would one day cast herself for Metternich’s dreary part?
America and the World Revolution and Other Lectures, New York, OUP, 1962
Some of Mubarak’s paid thugs. I took this picture on or before May 29 2006. They were standing opposite the apartment of the then-jailed opposition leader Ayman Nour to forestall a protest. Nour does not seem to be a serious candidate now.
Postscript, February 2: Mubarak splits the democracy movement.
I showed this picture earlier here.
I have heard a couple of the street protestors saying this. It must be an Arabic expression. I can’t find it in the Quran.
Does it come from a letter by Shah Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid Empire, to his Ottoman opponent Sultan Selim I in 1514?
“I know the Truth as my supreme guide,
I would sacrifice myself in his way,
I was born yesterday, I will die today,
Come, whoever would die, here is the arena.”
That is all I can find. Would a phrase by a Persian Shiite have gained such currency in the Arab world? Was what I heard a coincidence? Shah Ismail’s words are powerful and appropriate anyway.
“My kind old father
whose love for me has always stayed the same –
I mourn my kind old father
who died two days ago, just before dawn.
Christ Jesus, I try each day
in my every thought, word, and deed
to keep the commandments
of your most holy Church; and I abhor
all who deny you. But now I mourn:
I grieve, O Christ, for my father
even though he was – terrible as it is to say it –
priest at that cursed Serapeion.”
Priest at the Serapeion, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at cavafy.com.
Serapis was invented during the third century BC by Ptolemy I and was a version of the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis. He was shown as Greek with Egyptian trappings and combined iconography from various cults to do with abundance and resurrection. His worship was not confined to Egypt. There is a Serapeum at Hadrian’s Villa. The poem refers to the Serapeion in Alexandria, which was destroyed by a mob led by the Patriarch Theophilus in 389. The official abolition of paganism by Theodosius followed in 391.
As often with Cavafy, there is an extra force in the final line.
Serapeion: Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340
Ptolemy I failed, like Ikhnaton before him, to make an artificial religion produce the result that was his objective. This Macedonian Greek founder of an Egyptian successor-state of the Achaemenian Empire wanted to create a bond of feeling between the intrusive Greek and the indigenous Egyptian element in the population of his usurped dominions. [Footnote: This is the motive for the establishment of the cult of Osiris that has been attributed to Ptolemy by most Modern Western students of his policy, but there are some dissentient opinions (see Nilsson, M.P., Geschichte der Griechischen Religion, vol. ii (Munich 1950, Beck), p. 148).] He sought to achieve this politically desirable effect by Hellenizing the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis, in whose temple at Memphis, the ancient national capital of Egypt, the successive bull-incarnations of Apis were buried. This Memphite Egyptian god was given a new temple in Rhacôtis, the Egyptian quarter of Ptolemy’s new Greek capital Alexandria, and here he was installed under the name Serapis, in a Hellenized visual form in which he would be an acceptable object of worship for Greeks both in Ptolemy’s dominions and beyond them. Since, by Ptolemy’s day, the Greeks were beginning to be addicted to the religiosity to which the Egyptians had long since succumbed, this new Hellenic version of an old Egyptian cult did duly strike root. But, if this successful religious innovation of Ptolemy’s was really inspired by the ulterior political purpose of promoting a rapprochement between Greeks and Egyptians, then his policy was a failure. The old Egyptian cult of a Memphite Osiris-Apis and the new Greek cult of an Alexandrian Serapis lived on side by side for centuries without ever coalescing; so that the naturalization of an Egyptian god in the Hellenic World did nothing to bring together this common god’s respective Greek and Egyptian worshippers.
The Serapeion at Pozzuoli, near Naples (Naples was mainly Greek-speaking)
An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956
Though the discomfiture by British arms of a moribund Mughal Empire’s local viceroy in Bengal might do little to upset Islamic complacency, and might be regarded in the West mainly as an incident in a struggle over India between Great Britain and France, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Russia in the Great Russo-Turkish War of A.D. 1768-74 was taken everywhere as a portent; and, when in A.D. 1798 the French descended upon the Ottoman dominion of Egypt, and overcame all resistance there with ease, as a step towards reopening in India a contest with their British rivals which had been decided there against France in the Seven Years’ War, even shrewd observers took it for granted that they would live to see the Ottoman Empire partitioned between France, Russia, Great Britain, and the Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy. Yet this expectation, natural though it was at the time, was not fulfilled in the event; for the only parts of the Ottoman Empire, within its frontiers of A.D. 1768, which were in the possession of any of those foreign Powers in A.D. 1952 were the territories adjoining the north and east coasts of the Black Sea, from Bessarabia to Batum inclusive, which had fallen to Russia; Cyprus, which had fallen to Great Britain; and Tunisia and Algeria, which had fallen to France. As for the Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy, which had held Bosnia-Herzegovina from A.D. 1878 to A.D. 1918 and the sanjāq of Novipazār from A.D. 1879 to A.D. 1908, she had voluntarily evacuated Novipazār and had lost Bosnia-Herzegovina in the act of losing her own existence. [Footnote: The occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in and after A.D. 1878, and annexation of this occupied Ottoman territory in A.D. 1908, had, indeed, been nails driven into the Hapsburg Monarchy’s coffin by its own statesmen’s hands, since these Hapsburg acts of aggression against a moribund Ottoman Empire had had the effect of bringing the Monarchy into a head-on collision with a youthful Serb nationalism.] The lion’s share of the Ottoman Empire of A.D. 1768, from Bosnia to the Yaman and from Tripolitania [footnote: A “Libya” consisting of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fazzān, which had been conquered from the Ottoman Empire by Italy in A.D. 1911-12, and from Italy by Great Britain in the general war of A.D. 1939-45, had attained independence on the 24th December, 1951.] to Moldavia inclusive, had passed into the hands, not of alien Great Powers, but of Orthodox Christian and Muslim successor-states, of which the largest in area – apart from a mostly arid Sa‘ūdī Arabia – was a Turkish Republic stretching from Adrianople to Mount Ararat.
A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954
The historic areas and buildings of Istanbul may be about to lose their UNESCO World Heritage status: BBC. Hürriyet Daily News: A city unable to care for even its Muslim treasures. The Ottoman wooden houses, the quiet streets left to themselves, are being pulled down. The equivalent has been destroyed in other places, so why not here? Many had recently been left to rough rural and other immigrants. (Cairo is unable to protect its Van Gogh.)
The photogenic scaffolding in Hagia Sophia (a museum, not a holy building) was removed earlier this year after seventeen years. Istanbul (with Essen and Pécs) is a European Capital of Culture. Would it have come down otherwise?
An East Asian or Second Empire approach to London would be to demolish most of the boroughs of Wandsworth, Lambeth and Southwark and build a new greater South Bank (I hope like neither Dubai nor Poundbury) to balance the historic city on the north bank.
The Hellenic story of Odysseus’ return from Troy to Ithaca appears, in a variant form, in the Syriac story of the Chosen People’s exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. The attraction which undermines the resolution [and retards the progress] of the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness is not the present delight of a Lotus Land or a Calypso’s Isle, but a hankering after the flesh pots of Egypt, [footnote: Egypt seems like an earthly paradise to the Israelites in retrospect, when the memory of their past sojourn there acts as a foil to the current experience of their present ordeal in the wilderness. Yet when they had been living and working in Egypt – making bricks without straw under the task-master’s lash – they had realized as clearly as the Egyptian peasants themselves that in Egypt, as in other lands, it is ever in the sweat of his face that Man eats bread.] which may perhaps be theirs again to-morrow (sic) if only they turn back now. They have no sooner crossed the sea dry-shod, and seen Pharaoh and his host perish in the returning waters, than they begin to murmur in the wilderness against Moses and Aaron:
“Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the Land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. [Footnote: Exodus xvi. 3.] …
“Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? [Footnote: Exodus xvii. 3.] …
“Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely – the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic – but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all beside this manna before our eyes.” [Footnote: Numbers xi. 4-6.]
Even when they have crossed the wilderness as safely as they had crossed the sea, and stand at last on the threshold of Canaan, their thoughts fly back to Egypt as they listen to the evil report of their spies – their sight of the Sons of Anak, the children of the giants, in whose presence the spies had seemed and felt like grasshoppers.
“And all the congregation lifted up their voice and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would God we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?’ And they said one to another: ‘Let us make a captain and let us return into Egypt.’” [Footnote: Numbers xvi. 1-4.]
The Chosen People are unable to enter into their inheritance until this haunting and enervating recollection of the flesh pots has been effaced; and it is not effaced until forty years of purgatory – spent in wandering over the face of the wilderness which they have just put behind them in one straight and rapid trek – have brought the older generation to the grave and the younger generation to manhood. [Footnote: Numbers xiv. 26-35. [...]]
A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934
Moses in the wilderness encounters a benevolent numen, and receives an assurance of the kind of supernatural aid that Odysseus obtains from Athena. On the other hand, Jesus in the wilderness is fortified through being tempted by the Devil, like Job or Faust.
A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934 (footnote)
I remember Henri Frankfort criticizing me on a point [...]. I had apparently disparaged the ancient Egyptian civilization for being static. Frankfort said: Why on earth disparage it for that? Why isn’t the Egyptian ideal of keeping society static just as good as your wretched modern, Western idea of dynamism? And when we look at the world today we see there is a great deal in what he said, and we are beginning to think we must stabilize our civilization.
Toynbee on Toynbee, A Conversation between Arnold J Toynbee and GR Urban, New York, OUP, 1974
Recorded for the 1972-73 programmes of Radio Free Europe.
The organized and purposeful military campaigns of the Muslim Arabs were very different from the half automatic and barely conscious pressure of their ancestors against the yielding desert-frontier of a decaying Seleucid Empire in the second and the last century B.C. They are more comparable to the momentary Arab occupation of the Syrian, Egyptian, and Anatolian territories of the Roman Empire under Palmyrene leadership in the third century of the Christian Era. But they utterly surpassed both these anticipatory reconnaissances in the potency of their driving-force. [Footnote: This immense superiority, in potency, of the third of the three Arab offensives against the Hellenic World was almost certainly due to the most conspicuous of its distinctive features: that is to say, to the fact of its having been launched under the auspices of Islam. [...]] While the Arab encroachments in the last two centuries B.C. had got no farther than the line of the Lebanon and the Orontes, [footnote: See Jones, A. H. M.: The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (Oxford 1937, Clarendon Press), pp. 255-6.] and the momentary Palmyrene conquests in the third century of the Christian Era had come to a halt at the banks of the Nile and of the Black Sea Straits, the Muslim Arab conquerors penetrated as far as their Palmyrene predecessors towards the north-west, while on the south-west they left them far behind. In Asia Minor the Constantinopolitan Government succeeded – at the price of abandoning its commitments and cutting its losses on all other fronts – in pushing the Muslim Arabs back from the line of the Straits to the line of the Taurus and holding them there at the cost of grievously overstraining and fatally deforming the nascent body social of Orthodox Christendom. In Africa, however, the wave of Muslim Arab conquest swept on from the Nile to the Atlantic – meeting and overpowering and, carrying along with it the lesser wave of Berber aggression which was at that time breaking, likewise for the third time, upon the remnant of the African domain which Rome had inherited from Carthage.
Justinian had expelled the Vandals from the Maghreb.
The two earlier waves of Berber aggression had been, first, the Numidian intervention in the Second Punic, or Hannibalic, War and the Numidian King Jugurtha’s war with Rome (these are taken together) during the Hellenic “Time of Troubles” and, second, renewed pressure during the shorter crisis of the middle of the third century CE.
At the Straits of Gibraltar the united Arab and Berber wings of the Afrasian Nomad forces collided with the epigoni of the Visigoths, who had settled down in the Iberian Peninsula at the end of a Völkerwanderung which had carried them across the whole breadth of the Roman Empire from a starting-point on the Great Western Bay of the Eurasian Steppe. When these Gothic pupils of the Eurasian Nomads now encountered the Afrasian Nomad invaders of the Roman Empire at a point on the Empire’s extreme western verge which was almost equally remote from the original mustering-grounds of both the rival war-bands, it was the Afrasian Nomadism that was victorious; [footnote: The victory of the Afrasian Nomads over the Visigothic representatives of the Eurasian Nomadism at Xeres [modern Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia], on the Iberian threshold of Europe, in A.D. 711, has the same piquancy as the victory of the Indian over the African elephants at Raphia, on the Egyptian threshold of Africa, in 217 B.C.] for the united Arab-Berber forces were not flung back from the Straits of Gibraltar by Roderick in A.D. 711 as the Arabs were flung back from the Bosphorus by Constantine IV in A.D. 677 and again in A.D. 718 by Leo Syrus. Scattering the Goths like chaff, the Arabs and Berbers pressed on across the Pyrenees and reached the banks of the Rhône and the Loire before they collided with the Franks and fared as ill at their hands in A.D. 732 on the road to Tours as the ancestors of the Arabs’ discomfited Gothic adversaries had fared at the same Frankish hands at Vouillé in A.D. 507. It was characteristic of the heavy-footed gait of the sedentary North European barbarians that, at dates which were two hundred and twenty-five years apart, they should win their successive victories over their mobile rivals from the Ukraine and the Hijāz on battlefields that were something less than twenty miles distant from one another as the crow flies. [Footnote: The battle between the Austrasians and the Arabs which is traditionally known by the name of Tours seems actually to have been fought in the neighbourhood of Old Poictiers [sic], in the angle between the rivers Elain and Vienne.] Charles Martel allowed the Arabs to come that much nearer to the home territory of the Frankish Power in the basins of the Seine and the Rhine [footnote: Charles Martel’s sluggishness in marching to the help of the Aquitanians in A.D. 732 may be compared with the sluggishness of the Spartans in coming to the Athenians’ aid in 490 B.C. and again in 479 B.C.] than Clovis had allowed the Visigoths to advance in the same direction before marching out to defeat them; but the event was the same. At Tours in A.D. 732, as at Vouillé in A.D. 507, the immovable Franks remained masters of the field.
These Frankish victories over Goths and Arabs were a double triumph for the tortoise who had been content to crawl from the Rhine to the Loire during the time that it had taken one hare to sprint from the Ukraine, and another to sprint from the Hijāz, to the tortoise’s doorstep in Aquitaine. In this contest between the barbarians for the division of the Hellenic dominant minority’s territorial spoils the race was certainly not to the swift, though the battle may have been to the strong. [Footnote: Ecclesiastes ix. 11.] But this revelation of the relative strengths of the rival barbarian war-bands is not the main interest of the two battles in which they tried conclusions with one another. The outstanding historical event to which the battles of Vouillé and Tours bear witness is not the discomfiture of the Goths and the Arabs by the Frank, but the collapse of the resistance of the Roman Power which had been the common arch-adversary of all the three combatants. By the time when, in the heart of the Orbis Romanus, the war-bands from beyond one of the four anti-barbarian frontiers encountered and defeated – on derelict Roman ground – the war-bands from beyond each of the other three frontiers, it was manifest that the third of the three attempts of the external proletariat to take the Hellenic universal state by storm had been completely and definitively successful.
The four frontiers are defined in an earlier passage as
the front against the sedentary barbarians of Continental Europe from the North Sea coast to Transylvania; the front against the Eurasian Nomads (and the Nomadicized sedentary intruders upon the Nomads’ ranges) in the Lower Danubian bay and the Middle Danubian enclave of the Great Eurasian Steppe; the front against the barbarians in the interior of North West Africa (Nomads on the Sahara and highlanders in the Atlas); and the front against the Arabs beyond the desert-coast of Syria who constituted the Asiatic wing of the Afrasian Nomad forces.
The two earlier attempts to take the universal state had been, first, the series of attacks – by Sarmatians, Arabs, Numidians, Cimbri, Teutones, Suevi – in the last two centuries BC during the Hellenic “Time of Troubles” (he treats this as a single crisis) and, second, the attacks – by Goths, Arabs, Berbers, Franks, Alemanni – of the crisis of the middle of the third century CE.
Perhaps one could quibble with this by pointing out that, according to Toynbee’s own system, the first attempt was an attack on the society before it had had a universal state (the Roman Empire) imposed on it.
In the third attempt
the action opened on the Eurasian front, where the eruption of the Hun Nomads blew the nomadicized [lower case this time] Goths right off the Steppe into the far interior of the Roman body politic – as rocks and trees are uprooted and hurled through the air by an exploding shell. From the end of the fourth century to the end of the sixth the pressure continued to be heavier on this front than on any other, as the ebb of the Hun wave was followed by the onrush of the Avar wave, and the vacuum left by the violent propulsion of the Goths was filled by the gentle infiltration of the Slavs. It was only in the seventh century, when the onslaughts of pagan Huns and Avars were outmatched by the demoniac outbreak of the Muslim Arabs, that the main pressure shifted from the Eurasian front to the Arabian.
Charles de Steuben, Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732, Musée du Château de Versailles, Wikimedia Commons
A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939
Wikipedia list. Covers the world, but incomplete.
In the age of water-transport, the key pieces of the land-surface of the Oikoumenê were those that offered portages from one sea or from one navigable river to another. Egypt itself was a portage area, since the Nile debouches into the Mediterranean, and, from the Nile to the Red Sea coast, there is a short portage from the easternmost arm of the Delta to Suez via the Wadi Tumilat, and another via the Wadi Hammamat from Coptos, in Upper Egypt, to El Qusayr (Leukos Limen).
These portages are the points where the Delta/Nile is closest to the Gulf of Suez/Red Sea. The second of them is a little north of Luxor. The Wadis are dry river beds that are flooded during rain.
Indeed, the portage across the Isthmus of Suez between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean is part of a wider portage area that includes Egypt to the west and Iraq to the east. In this area the Mediterranean, which is a backwater of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, which are backwaters of the Indian Ocean, are separated from each other by the narrowest extent of intervening dry land, and the passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea via the Nile is duplicated by the passage to the Persian Gulf via the Euphrates.
If you look at a map, it’s obvious that the key city in the Mediterranean-Euphrates portage is Aleppo.
Two other portages have been of outstanding historical importance: the portage between the rivers debouching into the Baltic and those debouching into the Caspian and the Black Sea, and the portage across the North China plain between the lower courses of the Yangtse, the Hwai, the Yellow River, and the Pei Ho – a portage that has been turned into a waterway by the digging of the Grand Canal. However, the Chinese and Russian portages are on the fringe of the Old-World Oikoumenê; they are surpassed in historical importance by the central portage between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.
In the seventh century BC, the Corinthian tyrant Periander built the Diolkos, a paved track which allowed boats to be carried across the Isthmus of Corinth between the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf.
He had thought of building a canal. So did the Diadoch Demetrius (336–283 BC). So, according to Suetonius, did Julius Caesar and Nero. Nero actually began work, breaking the ground with a pickaxe himself and removing the first basket-load of soil. Six thousand Jewish prisoners of war started digging. The work stopped when Nero died. The modern Corinth Canal was built between 1881 and ’93.
Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous
“It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway –
the experience of years makes that clear.
Even so, Fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasure we gave our bodies.
An echo from my days given to sensuality,
an echo from those days came back to me,
something of the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
and I read it over and over till the light faded away.
Then, sad, I went out on to the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the street and the shops.”
In the Evening, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at cavafy.com.
According to Herodotus, Cambyses, after his conquest of Egypt, aspired to round off the Achaemenian Empire in North Africa by conquering the Napatan Kingdom up the Nile and the oases of the Libyan Desert and the Carthaginian Empire beyond the Syrtes. Operations against Napata and the Oasis of Ammon were actually attempted with disastrous results. Simultaneously, Cambyses “ordered the fleet to sail against Carthage; but the Phoenicians declined to carry the order out. They explained that they were bound to the Carthaginians by solemn pledges, and that they would be committing an atrocity if they made war upon their own colonists. The Phoenicians’ refusal was decisive, since the remainder of the fleet by itself was no match for the Carthaginian forces. Accordingly, the Carthaginians escaped the Persian yoke; for Cambyses shrank from coercing the Phoenicians, who had become members of the Persian Empire of their own free will and were the mainstay of the Persian Navy.” (Herodotus: Book III, ch. 19.)
The Persian navy today and its commanders since 1932.
A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934 (footnote)
“Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories.
“Now that the Polynesian islands have been smothered in concrete and turned into aircraft carriers solidly anchored in the southern seas, when the whole of Asia is beginning to look like a dingy suburb, when shanty towns are spreading across Africa, when civil and military aircraft blight the primeval innocence of the American or Melanesian forests even before destroying their virginity, what else can the so-called escapism of travelling do than confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our history? Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at the cost of corresponding ills. The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe. The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown in the face of mankind.”
Victorians and post-Victorians were always talking about vital, stimulating, diverse Europe and static Asia. In the previous post I quoted an opinion that the Victorian view of Hellenistic culture was sometimes coloured by racism.
There was generalised prejudice against Asian Hellenes, no doubt, but what specific culturally-Greek philosophers, artists or institutions in the Hellenistic era were denigrated or not given their due?
The simple passage below is not especially condescending.
Greek culture before this contact with the Middle East had covered a period of about eight centuries. It had developed maritime city states around and in the Aegean. It had spread round the Mediterranean and had begun the process of penetration which Alexander was to carry to its farthest limits. This penetration had been going on for two or three centuries before the critical contact with the Persian Empire. At Marathon and at Salamis the Hellenic world had repulsed this attempt at unity by the Middle East acting westward. Their success on this occasion was the greatest event in the building-up of their national self-consciousness. Then came the failure of their own internal efforts at unity, the Athenian Empire baulked by Sparta in the Peloponnesian war. The catastrophe of 431 B.C. was followed by a century of woe. The internecine struggles of the city states left the way open for the Macedonian conquerors, Philip and Alexander, who put themselves at the head of the Hellenic world. The conquering house then led the Greek advance on its crusade to the Middle East.
What do we know of the Middle East before its contact with Alexander’s advance? and in what state was it prepared to meet it? Our knowledge here, though less intimate, is far more extensive; it reaches from the fourth millennium to the fourth century B.C., i.e. for more than four times as long as our knowledge of the Greek world. And the civilization itself was of much longer date than the Greek. These eastern civilizations had conquered and occupied the great river-basins in the earlier part of their long evolution. This had been accomplished by the beginning of the second millennium B.C. In this phase the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian basins were separate unities. In the second millennium, and for a period of more than a thousand years after, these two unities had come into contact with disastrous shocks. The Assyrian wars were the culmination. The Greeks could look on, tertii gaudentes. In the interval that passed before Alexander’s advance the Persians had succeeded easily in uniting the Middle East, but the Greeks, as yet unable to permeate Asia Minor themselves, resisted the Persian fusion. The Middle East lay torpid, awaiting the Greek expansion as Persia decayed.
Let it be noted that at the time of the Greek expansion under Alexander both the attacking and the attacked were past their zenith. But the Greeks, though they had just experienced their first grave catastrophe in the Peloponnesian war, were still full of energy and initiative. The war had not destroyed the national vigour which produced a Thucydides and a Plato. The training in warfare prepared Philip and Alexander for their work. On the other hand the civilization of the Middle East was passive and inert. It seemed bound to run out to the end of the course set by an earlier initiative, unless deflected by an outside force. It had been rising for two millennia and had then passed through more than one thousand years of catastrophe and conflict. It now lay ready for attack and absorption by the more vigorous Greeks; and Greek civilization was to recover itself by assimilating this fresh material, and to move forward again with renewed strength.
There were many factors in the situation, for and against successful fusion. It was a favourable factor that the oriental had an older religious experience than the Greek. In the East was wisdom born of sorrow. Hebrew prophets had been expressing in the eighth and seventh centuries what Greeks began to feel in the fifth and fourth. This is the source and explanation of that long religious penetration proceeding from the East to Greece, the cults of Cybele and Isis, and the later religion of Mithra and of Hermes. Christianity itself shows abundant traces of the communion of the Greek mind with the East. Another favourable factor was the superiority and vigour of the city state contrasted with the mass society and centralized organization of the Oriental powers. Antioch and the cities founded by Seleucus and his house bear witness to the vitality of this development. They contain the agora, the theatre of the old Greek world, they nourished schools of rhetoric and philosophy which had continued life down to the advent of Islam.
But there were other feelings and forces which made against fusion.
There is a certain natural antipathy between Greek and Oriental, a different outlook, a different rhythm of life. How the Persians felt about one aspect of Greek life was pointedly expressed by Cyrus to the Spartan herald who brought him the warning and defiance from their city. Never yet, he said, did he fear men such as these, who had a place appointed in the midst of their city where they gathered together and deceived one another by false oaths. “These words Cyrus threw out scornfully with reference to the Hellenes in general, because they got for themselves markets and practised buying and selling there; for the Persians themselves are not wont to use markets, nor have they any market place at all” (Herodotus i. 153). The absence of the “agora”, the talking-shop, the Parliament of the West, is a significant mark of the old theocratic order. These free-speaking, free-thinking Greeks had lost most of that old religious prejudice which led the Egyptians (Herodotus ii. 39) to cast into the river the head of their sacrificial beast like a scapegoat with its imprecations. If, we are told, they found a Hellene at hand they would sell it to him and despised him into the bargain. And was not the “Abomination of Desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not”, only an altar of Zeus Ouranios?
But the Greeks also had feelings which made against fusion. They were intensely attached to their ancient homes, and this home-sickness showed itself even in the lives of the most distinguished and successful members of the Seleucid house. Seleucus himself was on his way back from Asia to his old Macedonian home when he met his death by the hand of Ptolemy Ceraunus. Antiochus Epiphanes preferred to build temples at Athens rather than at his own city of Antioch. All through, in fact, Hellenistic politics continued to cluster round the homeland of Greece.
With FS Marvin, Alexander and Hellenism, in The Evolution of World-Peace, Essays Arranged and Edited by F. S. Marvin, OUP, 1921
There is some evidence to show that, as a result of her annexation to the Roman Empire after the Battle of Actium, Alexandria lost, not only her perhaps rather nebulous primacy among the cities of the Hellenic World, but also some of the solid substance of her municipal self-government (see Jones, A. H. M.: The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (Oxford 1937, Clarendon Press), pp. 311-12). It must be added that, according to the same authority (pp. 304 and 471), the Romans were only carrying farther a process of Gleichschaltung which the Ptolemies had already begun. A civic council of Alexandria seems to have existed under the earlier Ptolemies, but to have been abolished by the later Ptolemies before the Roman conquest. No doubt the “totalitarian” structure of the Ptolemaic state and the “servile” character of native Egyptian social life under the Ptolemaic régime [...] made an unpropitious environment for Hellenic political institutions.
A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)
My mind flows back to a day in 1916 when I was standing [...] in front of a triumphal arch put up to celebrate the three hundred and eightieth anniversary of Calvin’s first arrival in the city. “Since that man came here,” said Monsieur Naville deliberately and emphatically, “this place has never been the same again.” “But anyway,” he went on to console himself, “that vulgar electric light along the lake-side has been cut off, thanks to this war.”
This war: it was the First World War, but Monsieur Naville’s war had been, and still was, the South African War, in which he had been an impassioned partisan of Great Britain. The only English newspaper that Monsieur Naville could read with comfort was the Morning Post; The Times was too Jacobin for him to be able to stand it.
He had served as a captain in the Swiss army during the Franco-Prussian War – I suppose when the French Army of the East was driven into neutral Switzerland (Neuchâtel and Vaud) in early 1871, and disarmed, imprisoned and repatriated.
Monsieur Naville was a Genevese aristocrat [I suppose Catholic], which made him an ultra-conservative. He was also an Egyptologist, and this gave him a true historical perspective. Calvin coming; the electric light coming: these were just two almost simultaneous instances of the recent deplorable vulgarization of Monsieur Naville’s home-town. And, for him, Calvin’s arrival was no more historic than the electric lighting’s arrival. A.D. 1536: the date of Calvin’s hijrah was recent indeed by comparison with the date of the Pyramid Builders, or even by comparison with the date of that ancient Egyptian Proto-Calvin Akhenaton. It was not an historic date, like those; it was a current event, and a disagreeable one at that.
Triumphal arch? I think Toynbee is misremembering this. The Reformation Wall in the grounds of Geneva University was erected between 1909 and 1917, but as far as I can tell never had a triumphal arch. 1916 was indeed the 380th anniversary of Calvin’s first arrival in Geneva: his hijrah, as Toynbee so aptly calls it. But a Geneva website points out that 1909, when the wall was inaugurated, was the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth and 350th of the foundation of the university: Calvin had founded it in 1559 as a theological seminary.
What was Toynbee doing in Geneva in 1916? Obviously intelligence work. McNeill, his biographer, tells us that he went on a month-long secret mission to Switzerland in 1917. Was Toynbee misremembering again? That passage was probably part of a travel dispatch to the Observer Foreign News Service in 1964. There may have been little time for fact-checking, or did McNeill not mention an earlier visit?
The secret mission was to try to persuade a secret military intelligence office known as “C” to share its reports about Ottoman affairs with him. He saw some of “C”’s political and economic reports, but was refused full access. On his return home, he asked his father-in-law Gilbert Murray (November 12 1917, less than three weeks after the start of the Bolshevik revolution) to intervene with “the grandees at the top” in the hope of persuading them “to take some action which would have a permanent effect”. “The Foreign Office has definite claims on ‘C’, and there seems no reason why these claims should not be insisted on.”
Maugham’s absurdly entertaining Ashenden stories, published in 1928 (one straggler in 1947) are inter alia about espionage in Geneva during the First World War. “At that time Geneva was a hot-bed of intrigue and its home was the hotel at which Ashenden was staying. There were Frenchmen there, Italians and Russians, Turks, Rumanians, Greeks and Egyptians. Some had fled their country, some doubtless represented it. There was a Bulgarian, an agent of Ashenden, whom for greater safety he had never spoken to, even in Geneva [...]. There was a little German prostitute, with china-blue eyes and a doll-like face, who made frequent journeys along the lake and up to Berne [...].” There was Count von Holzminden, the German agent in Vevey. The stories mention an English intelligence officer, not office, called not “C” but “R”.
What about the lights along the lake? Ashenden, crossing the lake after filing reports in Thonon in France, “looked in the direction of Geneva, could see no lights, and the sleet, turning into snow, prevented him from recognising the landmarks. [...]
“There were as usual two police officers on the quay to watch the passengers disembark and Ashenden, walking past them with as unconcerned an air as he could assume, was relieved when he had got safely by. The darkness swallowed him up and he stepped out briskly for his hotel. The wild weather with a scornful gesture had swept all the neatness from the trim promenade. The shops were closed and Ashenden passed only an occasional pedestrian who sidled along, scrunched up, as though he fled from the blind wrath of the unknown. You had a feeling in that black and bitter night that civilization, ashamed of its artificiality, cowered before the fury of elemental things. It was hail now that blew in Ashenden’s face, and the pavement was wet and slippery so that he had to walk with caution. The hotel faced the lake. When he reached it and a page-boy opened the door for him, he entered the hall with a flurry of wind that sent the papers on the porter’s desk flying into the air. Ashenden was dazzled by the light.”
Does that suggest a city, for whatever war-time reason, blacked out? The Toynbee passage is a digression, based on recollections while flying from Tripoli to Rome on April 22 1964, in
Between Niger and Nile, OUP, 1965
This was a Depression, not Crash, song, but it will do to mark the anniversary.
The market slid on Thursday October 24 1929, but the catastrophic collapse occurred on Monday and Tuesday, October 28 and 29.
Here sung by the little-known Charlie Palloy, with guitar and his orchestra, recorded in 1932. He gets the song’s grim tread better than its better-known exponent, Bing Crosby.
Bing Crosby. I’m not sure of the date.
“Said Myrtias (a Syrian student
in Alexandria during the reign
of the Emperor Konstans and the Emperor Konstantios;
in part a heathen, in part christianised):
‘Strengthened by study and reflection.
I won’t fear my passions like a coward;
I’ll give my body to sensual pleasures,
to enjoyments I’ve dreamed of,
to the most audacious erotic desires,
to the lascivious impulses of my blood,
with no fear at all, because when I wish –
and I’ll have the will-power, strengthened
as I shall be by study and reflection –
when I wish, at critical moments I will recover
my spirit, ascetic as it was before.’”
Dangerous Thoughts, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at cavafy.com. Spelling anglicised.
Egypt is said to have been the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. Had Greece depended on Egyptian grain? Did the Romans merely buy Egyptian wheat or did they also buy out or expropriate local landowners and manage Egyptian agriculture as a colonial ruling class? Today Egypt supplies no-one and is a large-scale net importer of wheat.
Nineteenth-century imperialists exploited Africa for copper, cotton, rubber, palm oil, cocoa, diamonds, tea, tin. In southern and east Africa there were European settlers who had their own farms. A few of their descendants are still there.
There must have been some direct foreign investment in agriculture in Africa over the past fifty years. But there was an intensification of interest in 2008 as a result of unprecedentedly high world food prices.
Countries that depended on food imports became conscious of their lack of “food security”. Countries that could only farm unsustainably (by reducing their reserves of water to a dangerously low level: the story in Saudi Arabia, which had engaged in an ecologically-disastrous programme of wheat-farming in the ’80s and ’90s) had a similar problem.
Could those countries improve their “food security” by outsourcing their farming to Africa? Africa was not productive or efficient enough to supply the world’s needs on the open market, and was further hindered by the protectionism of the first world, so why not invest directly there? If having one’s farms in another country was not, on the face of it, the most obvious strategy for improving “food security”, at least it was a hedge.
It would benefit Africa, too. Africa, which should be a major food exporter, buys about a quarter of its food on the world market, where it buys its clothes, and is a net food importer. (For world market, read, in many cases, China, which is about to overtake the US as Africa’s main trading partner. I’m surprised it hasn’t yet.)
African agriculture is inefficient. Education, logistics, distribution systems are poor. Pockets of lingering African socialism and outbursts of official anti-colonialism don’t help. Value chains are short. There has been little investment in food processing or packaging. Africa hasn’t been turned into a continent of consumers.
China was already being accused of rapacity with the world’s mineral resources. Now it is being blamed for agricultural neo-colonialism. (What, one might ask in passing and without prejudging its effect on Africa, is so wrong with Chinese agriculture that it can’t make the investment at home?)
I did a short post a while back on China in Africa, quoting from Prospect. Very few countries have relations with Taiwan now – the Vatican, a few Pacific islands, Paraguay, a few states in Central America and the Caribbean, and four countries in and off Africa: Burkina Faso, Gambia, São Tome and Príncipe, and Swaziland.
The latest African country to have made the switch is Malawi, at the beginning of 2008. A friend of mine who works there watched the Taiwanese government and NGO workers, whom he saw as a mainly beneficent influence, leave in short order. The mainland Chinese are not yet present in large numbers, as they are in Angola and Zambia. When they come, it will be for the sake of uranium and agricultural land. Whatever deals they do with the government holding company, Press Trust, he expects them to be the low-grade Chinese he has seen elsewhere, “floor-gobbing racists” in nasty suits, who will bring their own people along to do the work, because “African people lazy, no li’ wor’.”.
Which sounds racist itself. We all know that China, for the sake of oil concessions, supports the régime in Sudan that supports the militias in Darfur, but how do we compare the economic and political effects of its interventions across an entire continent?
There is already a significant anti-Chinese political movement in Zambia. The Chinese may find themselves reacting to Africans as they did to the Uighurs a few days ago. “We love your culture. How can you object to us when we are bringing so many improvements to your way of life?”
African governments are as sensitive about their farmers as governments anywhere else, and depriving smallholders of their land in the name of agricultural reform is, in most or all African countries, a political non-starter. But isn’t that what many of the projects now being discussed are threatening to do?
The mantra of “working with African smallholders to reform agriculture” is, according to my friend in Malawi, largely sentimental NGO talk. So how will foreign partners be engaged?
GRAIN is a “small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems” based in Barcelona.
“Today’s food and financial crises have, in tandem, triggered a new global land grab. On the one hand, ‘food insecure’ governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snatching up vast areas of farmland abroad for their own offshore food production. On the other hand, food corporations and private investors, hungry for profits in the midst of the deepening financial crisis, see investment in foreign farmland as an important new source of revenue. As a result, fertile agricultural land is becoming increasingly privatised and concentrated. If left unchecked, this global land grab could spell the end of small-scale farming, and rural livelihoods, in numerous places around the world.”
The second of those pages allows you to download a summary called The 2008 land grabbers for food and financial security. This is a list of projects announced or referred to in the media in 2008 up to October. It isn’t limited to Africa. The link to a page which is supposed to show us its sources doesn’t work.
GRAIN have also created a dedicated site about global landgrabbing. The word landgrabbing is obviously loaded. GRAIN has a point of view.
In the course of a work project, I extracted from The 2008 land grabbers for food and financial security everything about Africa. I’m reproducing those extracts below. I made some stylistic changes, added a small amount of new material, and tempered the language in the direction of caution where it seemed advisable to do so by inserting phrases such as “was reported”.
Much of this is hearsay. It is easy to turn these reports into alarmist headlines. Some people have suggested that large tracts of African land are being virtually given away. The list here is presumably not even complete. China is not the only grabber. Many of the projects promise to be on a huge scale, but how many are turning into realities? How new is all this? Is the pressure still as strong in 2009? (Cereal prices have continued to rise in 2009: Economist.)
Some of the investments were being made as a means of supplying the local African market or the world market, but the majority in the list are envisaged as a method of supplying the investors’ home countries with staple products.
Some of the projects were being considered at a government-to-government level. The majority depended on the technological expertise and financial commitment of the private sector. Many involve public-private partnerships and dialogue between governments and investors, with government-to-government discussions to prepare the ground.
“The government of Bahrain, working with private-sector investors, was reported to be seeking to lease farmland in Egypt and Sudan and contract out food production.”
“In the first half of 2008, it was reported that China’s Ministry of Agriculture was drafting a central government policy to encourage domestic firms to acquire (lease or purchase) land abroad, including in Africa, for farming purposes, especially to assure China’s long-term soybean supplies. Five state-owned firms were chosen to implement the plan.”
“In May 2008, the French television station TF1 produced a major report on how the Chinese businessman Jianjun Wang has acquired rights to 10,000 hectares of land in Cameroon to produce rice. The local farm-workers contracted to work the fields believe that the project is meant for rice to export to China.”
“According to a study by Loro Horta, the son of Timor L’Este’s President Ramos Horta, the Chinese government has been investing in infrastructure development, policy reform, research, extension and training to develop rice production in Mozambique for export to China since 2006. EximBank has already provided a loan of US$2bn and pledged an additional US$800m for these works, though more is expected. Some 10,000 Chinese settlers will be involved. G2G contracts and land leases are still under negotiation. Land cannot be owned by foreigners in Mozambique, so joint partnerships with ‘sleeping’ Mozambican entities may need to be formed.”
“According to China’s Economic Observer, the US Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, in which Chinese investors have a stake, has already invested heavily in sub-Saharan agricultural projects.”
“President Museveni of Uganda was reported to have provided Chinese investors with 4,046 hectares of land, to be farmed by 400 Chinese farmers using imported Chinese seeds. The project is being overseen by Liu Jianjun, a former Chinese government official and now head of the China-Africa Business Council, who also has contracts to build a cornflour-processing factory in Kenya and a farm in Côte d’Ivoire.”
“In May 2008 it was reported that China has received rights to farm 101,171 hectares of maize in southern Zimbabwe.”
“Egypt, one of the world’s largest importers of wheat, signed a contract with President Omar Al Bashir’s government to produce 2m tonnes of wheat a year in the north of Sudan for export to Egypt. Egypt is also eager to raise livestock there.”
“The Ugandan government was reported to have leased 840,127 hectares of land – a staggering 2.2% of Uganda’s total area – in various parts of the country to Egypt, so that Egypt’s private sector may come in and produce wheat and maize for export to Cairo. The deal was apparently struck in late August 2008 and would involve seven Egyptian agribusiness firms, according to Reuters’ discussions with Egyptian officials.
The details were denied by Ugandan ministers, as well as Egypt’s ambassador to Uganda, though he did confirm that a deal of this nature is under preparation; it will focus on wheat and organic beef for export to Egypt; they hope small farmers, not large, will be contracted for production; the Egyptians may build abattoirs in Uganda for the scheme; and it will be financed by the private sector.”
“In August 2008, three Gulf firms – Abu Dhabi Investment House, Ithmaar Bank and Gulf Finance House – announced the creation of AgriCapital, a new Islamic investment fund. The US$1bn investment vehicle will engage in land purchases in Africa and elsewhere to produce food for the region, through a separate investment bank specially created for this purpose, and to fund biotechnology research.”
“There are reports that some Gulf states have talked with the government of Somalia about allocating land for Gulf food production.”
“According to the Economic Times (India’s largest financial daily), Africa has been among the places targeted by India’s Ministry of External Affairs as a place where Indian agribusiness firms can go and farm for export to India.”
“In 2006, the governorate of Qena, in Egypt, granted 1,600 hectares of farmland to Kobe Bussan, a Japanese agribusiness firm, to produce food for export at a total investment cost of LE1.2bn (US$290m).”
“In March 2008, Jordan’s prime minister announced that his country would cultivate land allocated to it by the Sudanese government to produce food for Jordanians, and urged the private sector to get involved. Four months later, the agriculture ministry in Amman said that it was appointing a private company to handle the government’s overseas agricultural investments in the fight against domestic food insecurity and inflation.”
“In 2008, it was reported that the Kuwait Investment Authority, the country’s US$265bn sovereign wealth fund, may invest in food production, particularly poultry, in Morocco, Yemen and Egypt for export to Kuwait. The trade ministry was also seeking to change the statutes of the Union of Cooperative Societies, the government-run group which dominates food retail in Kuwait, in order to enable the union to invest in overseas farmland, possibly in cooperation with other Arab Cooperative Unions. That move is apparently on hold for now.”
“On 7 September 2008, Kuwait’s Minister of Finance was reported to have signed what his Sudanese counterpart called a ‘giant’ strategic partnership deal with the government in Khartoum. Under the agreement, the two will invest jointly in food production in Sudan, including cattle.”
“In April 2008, during the World Islamic Economic Forum, the government of Kuwait was reported to have launched a new US$100m fund called ‘Dignity Living’. The funds will be invested in food production and agribusiness development in Uganda, among other (unreported) countries, to supply the Middle East market.”
“In December 2007, Libyan African Investment Portfolio, a Switzerland-based subsidiary of Libya’s sovereign wealth fund, put US$30m into a rice project in Liberia through a tie up with a local NGO, the Foundation for African Development Aid. The Liberian government has granted the joint company, ADA/LAP Inc, land concessions of over 17,000 hectares to produce rice for the local and international markets.”
“The Qatar Company for Meat and Livestock Trading (Mawashi) has established a sheep farm in western Sudan and has signed a memorandum of understanding with the country for further expansion in livestock farming.”
“In July 2008, Qatar and Sudan announced the formation of a joint holding company which will invest in food production for export to the Arab markets. Zad Holding Company (previously Qatar Flour Mills), a state-owned firm, and QIA, the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund, are both involved.”
“There are reports that Saudi Arabian investors are exploring possibilities for land acquisition to produce food for Saudi Arabia in Egypt, Senegal and Uganda. There are also reports that Saudi Arabian firms are looking for Thai partners to jointly go into rice production in Uganda and Sudan.”
“In August 2008, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister told the Financial Times that he is eager to give Saudi Arabian investors access to ‘hundreds of thousands’ of hectares of farmland for investment and development.”
“In August 2008, the Saudi Fund for Development announced that it will set up a US$566m special investment vehicle for buying land abroad for domestic food production. Both the government and the private sector will invest in the fund. The priority crops are rice and wheat, and the first investment will be made in Sudan.”
“In June 2008, the Saudi Arabian ministers of trade and agriculture both visited Sudan to survey possible food project investment sites and push for further agriculture investment liberalisation, including for livestock.”
“Hail Agricultural Development Company (HADCO), a Saudi Arabian agribusiness firm, which has since been acquired by Almarai, leased 10,117 hectares for US$95m north of Khartoum to produce food and feed (presumably alfalfa) for export to Saudi Arabia.”
“In May 2008, President Lee Myung-Bak publicly declared his government’s plan to purchase land in Sudan to grow food for South Koreans, and invited President al-Bashir to cooperate with him.”
“In May 2008, the Sudanese government committed 690,000 hectares of land for Koreans to grow wheat to export home. Production will start later this year – through a joint venture between Korean, Sudanese and Arab firms – on an 84,000-hectare farm.”
“Al-Qudra Holding, an Abu Dhabi investment firm, plans to acquire land by early 2009 to produce wheat, maize, rice, vegetables and livestock in Egypt, Eritrea, Morocco and Sudan (to name only the African destinations). The land will be acquired through a mixture leases, concessions and outright purchases. Al Qudra have reportedly already acquired 1,500 hectares in Algeria (cattle and dairy) and Morocco. According to the CEO, Mehmood Ebrahim Al Mehmood, 40% of the total investment will go to maize, although no decision has been taken yet about whether to convert it to ethanol, with the first harvests expected in 2011 or 2012. The investment plan may expand to port operations, breeding and the manufacture of irrigation equipment.”
“The UAE’s Minister of the Economy is on record as saying, in mid-July 2008, that UAE intends to purchase farmland in Africa to ensure the emirate’s food supply.”
“The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development is seeking land in Senegal (to refer only to Africa) to produce food and feed for the UAE market.”
“The UAE government is investing in food production in Sudan to meet its own market needs. As of August 2008, it was reported that the UAE had invested in a total of 378,000 hectares of farmland in various Sudanese states, including a 16,000-hectare plantation for maize and wheat production. According to some sources, Khartoum is providing the land free of charge. It was also reported that the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development is hoping to set up a joint company with another Arab partner to develop at least 28,329 hectares in Nile State, northern Sudan, to the tune of ‘hundreds of millions of dirhams’, for the production of wheat, maize, alfalfa and possibly potatoes. Initial studies on this will be finalised in November 2008.”
“Cru Investment, a UK-based ethical fund, facilitates private investment in African agriculture for guaranteed returns of 30-40%. They already control more than 2,500 hectares of farmland in Malawi and operate another 4,000 hectares there through outgrower schemes. The produce is exported to the UK. In September 2008, Cru announced that in 2009 it will expand its Africa fund to the Middle East. This means teaming up with Gulf investors to address food security concerns in the GCC.”
“In September 2008, the IFC, the commercial investment arm of the World Bank, announced that it would greatly increase investments in agribusiness development because of new private sector interest in seeking returns through the food crisis. Part of its spending will be to bring ‘under-utilised’ lands into production. In 2008, IFC spent US$1.4bn in the agribusiness supply chain, of which US$900m went directly to agribusiness firms.”
“In October 2008, the Financial Times reported that Lonrho, a UK-based pan-African corporation, is putting together funds to acquire 20,000 hectares of productive farmland in Angola. This is part of a wider ‘aggressive’ strategy to acquire ten times that amount – 200,000 hectares – for the same purpose across Africa. The Angolan government is reportedly trying to attract US$6bn worth of new agricultural investments and is engaged in talks with corporations from Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Canada and the US.”
“Trans4mation Agri-Tech, a UK investment house, is involved in a joint venture with a Vietnamese company that will bring Vietnamese workers, scientists and technology to villages in the Niger Delta in Nigeria to produce food for the local and world markets. T4M, as it is sometimes called, has reportedly received loan financing from the UK government of US$36m, and the Delta villages are providing infrastructure, including land. A minimum of 10,000 hectares of fertile land has been assigned to the project for 25 years by Delta state officials. Stephen Liney, the project director, is in similar discussions with the Rivers, Abia and Ebonyi state governments.”
“At the G8 summit in Italy (July 2009), Japan advocated a set of principles to ensure smooth investment in agriculture in developing countries and to limit ‘land-grabbing’. Tamaki Tsukada, director of the economic security division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has said: ‘We feel there should be a code of conduct, a set of principles, for investment in farmland [...] for both producing and consuming countries. There’s a need to provide a scheme to ensure private sector investments are promoted while the interests of the producing countries are preserved.’”
“Painter and poet, runner and discus-thrower,
beautiful as Endymion: Ianthis, son of Antony.
From a family on friendly terms with the Synagogue.
‘My most valuable days are those
when I give up the pursuit of sensuous beauty,
when I desert the elegant and severe cult of Hellenism,
with its over-riding devotion
to perfectly shaped, corruptible white limbs,
and become the man I would want to remain forever:
son of the Jews, the holy Jews.’
A most fervent declaration on his part: ‘… to remain forever
a son of the Jews, the holy Jews.’
But he did not remain anything of the kind.
The Hedonism and Art of Alexandria
kept him as their dedicated son.”
Of the Jews (A.D. 50), Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at cavafy.com.
[The] twentieth-century integration of international relations all round the globe into a single system, centring on a Balance of Power that had originated in Western Europe and had then progressively brought the rest of the Earth’s surface within the field of its magnetic attraction, presented a striking contrast to the configuration of the field of force in earlier chapters of the same story. The overture (currebat A.D. 1494-1559) had ranged no wider than the areas involved in a competition for hegemony over Italy between nascent adjoining Great Powers in the Transalpine and Transmarine provinces of Western Europe [the Holy Roman Empire and France]; and even Flanders had then been only a secondary theatre of military operations, though the two Great Powers of the day actually marched with one another there, without being insulated on this front by any intervening political vacuum or buffer. The civil war between Catholics and Protestants in France (gerebatur A.D. 1562-98) went on its way more or less independently of the contemporary civil war between Dutch and Spaniards in the Spanish Hapsburg Monarchy (gerebatur A.D. 1568-1609). The civil war in England (gerebatur A.D. 1642-8) likewise followed its own course without becoming implicated in the contemporary civil war in the Holy Roman Empire (gerebatur A.D. 1618-48). The Americas and the Indies were drawn into the main vortex of Western warfare only in the course of the first regular cycle (currebat A.D. 1568-1672); and, though during the second regular cycle (currebat A.D. 1672-1792) the decisive military operations on Flemish and Lombard battlefields were usually accompanied by “side-shows” in North America and in Continental India in which the same belligerents were engaged, the synchronization of the local conflicts in the West European and the overseas theatres of war was still inexact. As often as not, the eighteenth-century campaigns on American and Indian soil would open later or earlier and close later or earlier than the corresponding campaigns in Western Europe, so that there were years in which France and Great Britain were at war with one another in Europe while at peace with one another overseas, or conversely at war overseas while at peace in Europe. [Footnote: For example, in the General War of A.D. 1672-1713 the respective war years were 1672-8, 1688-97, 1702-13 in Western Europe; 1690-7, 1702-10 in North America. In the epilogue to the General War of A.D. 1672-1713 the respective war years were 1733-5, 1740-8, 1756-63 in Western Europe; 1744-63, 1775-83 in North America; 1746-9, 1750-4, 1758-61, 1778-83 in India.
The synchronization of the local conflicts continued to be inexact in the third regular cycle (currebat A.D. 1792-1914). In the General War of A.D. 1792-1815 the respective war years were 1792-1802, 1803-14, 1815 in Europe; 1812-14 in North America; 1799-1805, 1816-18 in India. In the epilogue to the General War of A.D. 1792-1815 the respective war years were 1848-9, 1859, 1864, 1866, 1870-1 in Europe; 1861-7 in North America (taking account of the French expedition to Mexico, 1862-7); 1838-42, 1843, 1845-6, 1848-9, 1857-9, 1878-81 in India; 1839-41, 1853-6, 1875-8, 1882, in the Near and Middle East.]
To be continued.
A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954
SM emailed some interesting comments on my last Cavafy post.
“For centuries they hadn’t seen gifts at Delphi
as wonderful as those sent by the two brothers,
the rival Ptolemaic kings. But now that they have them,
the priests are nervous about the oracle. They’ll need
all their experience to decide
how to express it tactfully, which of the two –
of two brothers like these – will have to be offended.
And so they meet secretly at night
to discuss the family affairs of the Lagids.
“But suddenly the envoys are back. They’re taking their [leave.
Returning to Alexandria, they say. And they don’t ask
for an oracle at all. The priests are delighted to hear it
(they’re to keep the marvellous gifts, that goes without [saying)
but they’re also completely bewildered,
having no idea what this sudden indifference means.
They do not know that yesterday the envoys heard [serious news:
the ‘oracle’ was pronounced in Rome; the partition was [decided there.”
Envoys from Alexandria, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at cavafy.com. Spelling anglicised.