A Contrary Perspective on the Middle East

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W.J. Astore

How about a contrary perspective on the Middle East, courtesy of my old globe?  It dates from the early 1920s, just after World War I but before Russia became the Soviet Union.  Taking a close look at the Middle East (a geographic term that I use loosely), you’ll notice more than a few differences from today’s maps and globes:

  1. Iraq and Syria don’t exist.  Neither does Israel.  Today’s Iran is yesterday’s Persia, of course.
  2. Instead of Iraq and Syria, we have Mesopotamia, a name that resonates history, part of the Fertile Crescent that encompassed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as well as the Nile in Egypt.  Six thousand years ago, the cradle of human civilization, and now more often the scene of devastation caused mainly by endless war.
  3. Ah, Kurdistan!  The Kurds today in northern Iraq and southern Turkey would love to have their own homeland.  Naturally, the Arabs and Turks, along with the Persians, feel differently.
  4. Look closely and you’ll see “Br. Mand.” and “Fr. Mand.”  With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (roughly a larger version of modern-day Turkey) at the end of World War I, the British gained a mandate over Palestine and Mesopotamia and the French gained one over territory that would become Lebanon and Syria.  The British made conflicting promises to Jews and Arabs over who would control Palestine while scheming to protect their own control over the Suez Canal.  A large portion of Palestine, of course, was given to Jews after the Holocaust of World War II, marking the creation of Israel and setting off several Arab-Israeli Wars(1948-73) and the ongoing low-level war between Israel and the Palestinians, most bitterly over the status of the “Occupied Territories”: land captured by the Israelis during these wars, i.e. the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip (both not labeled on my outdated globe).
  5. Improvisation marked the creation of states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.  Borders encapsulated diverse peoples with differing goals. Western powers like Britain and France cared little for tribal allegiances or Sunni/Shia sensitivities or political leanings, favoring autocratic rulers who could keep the diverse peoples who lived there in line.
  6. Historically powerful peoples with long memories border the Middle East.  The Turks and the Persians (Iranians), of course, with Russians hovering in the near distance.  They all remain players with conflicting goals in the latest civil war in Syria and the struggle against ISIS/ISIL.
  7. Three of the world’s “great” religions originated from a relatively tiny area of our globe: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Talk about a fertile crescent!  Sadly, close proximity and shared roots did not foster tolerance: quite the reverse.
  8. Remember when Saudi Arabia was just Arabia?  Ah, those were the good old days, Lawrence.
  9. Nobody talks much about Jordan, an oasis of relative calm in the area (not shown on my old globe).  Lucky Jordan.
  10. The presence of Armenia in Turkey on my old globe raises all kinds of historical ghosts, to include the Armenian genocide of World War I. Today, Turkey continues to deny that the word “genocide” is appropriate to the mass death of Armenians during World War I.

My fellow Americans, one statement: The idea that America “must lead” in this area of the world speaks to our hubris and ignorance.  We are obviously not seen as impartial.  Our “leadership” is mainly expressed by violent military action.

But we just can’t help ourselves.  The idea of “global reach, global power” is too intoxicating.  We see the globe as ours to spin.  Ours to control.

Perhaps old globes can teach us the transitory nature of power.  After all, those British and French mandates are gone.  European powers, however grudgingly, learned to retrench.  (Of course, the British and French, together with the Germans, are now bombing and blasting old mandates in the name of combating terrorism.)

I wonder how a globe made in 2115 will depict this area of the world. Will it look like today’s globe, or more like my globe from c.1920, or something entirely different?  Will it show a new regional empire or more fragmentation?  An empire based on Islam or a shattered and blasted infertile crescent ravaged by war and an inhospitable climate driven by global warming?

Readers: I welcome your comments and predictions.

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17 thoughts on “A Contrary Perspective on the Middle East

  1. The hard lessons of empire are not learned because money and power supersede wisdom and judgment. What is best for a nation ultimately is a judgment call and unfortunately time and time again since the Vietnam War the two wayward political parties have failed the nation in chronic overseas interventions in the name of “national security”. They have misused public money in the $trillions of dollars in one quagmire after another. Our “free press” rarely, if ever, especially TV “news” shows and documents these failures for the American people becoming a shield and a prop for malfeasance in office. Malfeasance because the nation is harmed by creating chaos internationally and domestically for being unable to maintain fiscally sound programs for the citizenry: social security, medicare and health care system, national infrastructure and providing greater transparency in the legislative process because it is common that approved legislation is harmful to the nation but beneficial for a few. The list is long.

    The lives lost and destroyed in the march for dominance in Iraq and Afghanistan shows national leadership is driven by emotion bereft of wisdom and sound judgment. These are not the actions of a nation which will bear the fruit of success, but rather a nation of little men leading a great nation astray to economic and national decline and ruin.

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      1. Thanks for your comment. What I am amazed at is the lack of accountability in our system from Gulf of Tonkin Resolution lies to nonsense on Iraq’s WMD threat to the $43 million dollar gas station in Afghanistan which symbolizes a government run amok and etc………The two sole political parties in group think publicly fund failure for a living benefiting somebody but not the American people.

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      2. Don Henley has a song, “If Dirt Were Dollars,” with the lines: “These days the buck stops nowhere/no one takes the blame/but evil is still evil/in anybody’s name.”

        That about sums it up.

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  2. Well, surely America *must* lead in the Near East. Exactly as China must lead in the Southern regions of North America, and Uruguay is the indispensable nation when it comes to arbitrating the quarrels of Europe.

    But the really critical thing is that Washington should turn to Venezuela for advice on how to resolve its many problems. Perhaps the Venezuelans would begin by insisting on regime change – in which case, of course, it must happen.

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    1. Ah, the “Near East”! If the “Middle East” stretches all the way to Libya–for that region has been sucked into the current regional conflagration–then are Morocco and Algeria the “Near East”??? (Whatever became of Northern Africa?) And where does the “Middle East” give way to the “Far East”? India? Farther east than that?? I have no brilliant solution to propose, I am merely stressing that terminology has become a bloody damned mess on our globe!

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  3. I think a few corrections are needed here, Prof. Astore: 1.) I fear your old globe was already out of date when it was manufactured (a time lag in updating such things was not uncommon), unless it actually dates from c. 1914. By the 1920s I think you’ll find the “Great Powers” had already drawn the borders, or for the most part done so, that we see on the map today. [Having read the memoir of T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) is one of my prouder achievements of 2015, especially given the horribly garbled result of a cheap “scan job” that the tome was.]; 2.) “Syria” was considered Greater Syria, and extended all the way to the Mediterranean, i.e. the area now designated Lebanon and Israel; 3.) Lawrence makes references to Jordan (not merely to the river of that name), so it existed as an enclave, shall we say. These were all tribal identities, of course, with their own hereditary chieftains. Only after the post-WW I designation of (alleged) sovereign nations could someone claim to be the “King” of the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” Likewise for the rise of the House of Fahd and House of Saud to control Arabia; 4.) you left the Golan Heights of Syria off your list of illegally occupied-by-Israel territories; 5.) the “Western religions” all emanate from Judaism, of course. The first “Christians” were converted Jews, largely (with Samaritans, etc. in the mix). The authors of the New Testament carried forward the narrative thread from the Old, claiming that Jesus offered a “New Covenant” to the world. Just read the Koran, as I have, and you’ll know that the Prophet Muhammad was a very learned student of the “holy books” that preceded him. He made modifications to–we might say he “corrected”–the narrative of how the world came to be as he found it in the 7th Century. He recognized Christ as a prophet, but stated unequivocally that he was not born of a virgin impregnated by “God,” that such a thing could never happen. Humans being the wondrous creatures they are, untold millions of people have been slaughtered over the millennia, of course, for adhering to the “wrong” opinion on these fine points.

    Leaving the issues of the “Middle East” aside for a moment–or are we? see my other comment on the uncertainty of our very “definitions”–I found the presence of an apparently independent Eritrea on the old globe more interesting than that of Armenia or Kurdistan. Eritrea was absorbed into Ethiopia under the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie subsequent to this globe’s manufacture, fought a bloody war to regain independence in the 1970s, and I believe has once again merged with Ethiopia. National schizophrenia!

    I wonder, will there be anyone capable of forging a new globe in 2115? I don’t just mean the art of globe-crafting may have been lost or abandoned as too archaic. I am pretty confident–not joyful, understand–the human race will be a shambles by then. And I am extremely confident that the outlines of the continents, whether or not anyone is still capable of depicting them on a globe or map, will be significantly altered. Every low-lying coastal area will surely be under the global ocean. This will come to pass even if the world was to live up to the supposed pledge at the Paris climate gabfest to have 100% clean energy production by 2050–folks, are you naive enough to believe this will be achieved?!? Our best scientific minds, those not bought by Big Oil, have indicated this will come to pass even if the world was to become 100% free of polluting activities tomorrow. The genie is out of the bottle and no force, I say again, no force can chase him back into his little prison.

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    1. Hi Greg: The globe is definitely post-1918, since it reflects the falls of the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and other changes from WW1. It shows Russia, not the USSR, which suggests a date before 1924. So I’m guessing 1920 or 1922 or thereabouts. It also shows steamship and railroad routes, a nice touch and one that takes us back to an earlier world.

      I wish I had a globe from the 19th century, but those are both rarer to find and more expensive to buy. A globe from c.1810 that shows Napoleon’s Empire would be most interesting, since it would be all gone five years later. I think there may be a few globes that show Texas as an independent republic, which I’ve heard makes them especially valuable to Texans today, so eager are they to secede from the Union!

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  4. A “secular” definition of karma unrelated to mysticism beliefs or any other form of woo: Karma may be defined as experiencing the results of past actions, e.g. those which necessitate changes to existing maps and globes, while simultaneously sowing the seeds of future experiences. Which in their turn are virtually certain to manifest on future maps and globes.

    Prediction? More of the same until planetary catastrophe renders maps superfluous. How many years from now until this speculative “catastrophe” occurs, you ask? I am gratified to be able to answer your question. I don’t know. Given our current nihilistic proclivity, rather sooner than later, I suspect.

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  5. Clearly Greglaxer cannot have, as he asserts, read the Koran or have any knowledge of the prophet Muhamad (MHMD) or the recitation which would be placed in his mouth by Hashem Allah’a in Deuteronomy 1818, or that parthenogenesis was not an unheard of phenomena 2015 years ago, the miracle being in his case being that Jesus is the only male offspring born through female asexual self-fertilisation he says: “The authors of the New Testament carried forward the narrative thread from the Old, claiming that Jesus offered a “New Covenant” to the world. Just read the Koran, as I have, and you’ll know that the Prophet Muhammad was a very learned student of the “holy books” that preceded him. He made modifications to–we might say he “corrected”–the narrative of how the world came to be as he found it in the 7th Century. He recognized Christ as a prophet, but stated unequivocally that he was not born of a virgin impregnated by “God,” that such a thing could never happen. Humans being the wondrous creatures they are, untold millions of people have been slaughtered over the millennia, of course, for adhering to the “wrong” opinion on these fine points.
    Out of the four Gospels only two, Matthew and Luke mentioned the birth of Jesus. Both agree that birth was a miraculous event and that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary but in details the two accounts differ greatly. Matthew has described the birth briefly (I: 18) while in Luke (1:27-38) it is in more detail. Birth of Jesus in the Qur’an has been mentioned in two Surahs; Al-Imran (3:42-49) and Maryam (19:16-35). Qur’an agrees, adds, differs, corrects or criticizes Gospels account. Following is a description of events as mentioned in Gospels and Qur’an.
    1. Angel’s visit: Luke says that the Angel Gabriel was sent from God to a Virgin Mary. The Angel came to her and said : Hail thou art a highly favoured women And when she saw him she was troubled at his saying and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the Angel said unto her; Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour with God. And behold, thou shall conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son and shall call his name Jesus Then said Mary unto the Angel; How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the Angel answered With God nothing shall be impossible. (Luke 1:26-39)
    The same is Described in Qur’an: When the angels said; O Mary Allah has chosen you and made you pure and has preferred you above the women of creation. O Mary! Allah gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name will be the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and shall be one of those who are nearest to Allah. She said My Lord! How can I have a child when no man has touched me? He said Even so. Allah creates what He wills. When He has decreed something, He says to it only, “Be and it is” (Qur’an 3:42-45)
    Qur’an adds to the Gospel’s Account: According to Qur’an Mary had secluded herself into eastern part of the temple for prayer and devotion to Allah. It was in this state of purity that angel Gabriel appeared before her in the form of a man. Seeing a man in her privacy she became frightened (rather than being tempted towards a handsome man) and said I seek refuge from you to (Allah) Most Gracious: (come not near) if you do fear Allah. At this point angel introduced himself by saying I am only a messenger from your Lord to (announce) to you the gift of a righteous son. (Qur’an 19:

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    1. I have only this to say: the translation of the Koran I read is by N.J. Dawood, published by Penguin Classics, paperback, Fourth Revised Edition 1974. I just reviewed the section on the birth of Jesus, starting on pg. 46. I stand corrected. Allah (who is “dictating” knowledge of divine secrets to the Prophet Muhammad) states that he DID create Jesus in Mary’s womb. However, this is a mortal being, likened to Adam, “created from dust.” Was Adam a god? No, Adam was a mortal. On pg. 48, Allah instructs “This is the whole truth. There is no god but God. It is God who is the Mighty, the Wise One. If they [unbelievers] give no heed to you, God knows the evil-doers. Say “People of the Book, let us come to an agreement: that we will worship none but God, THAT WE WILL ASSOCIATE NONE WITH HIM, and that NONE OF US SHALL SET UP MORTALS as gods beside Him.” [Emphasis added, in upper case, since I lack access to boldface or italics.] Now, there are different translations of the Koran. But I interpret this passage as an unequivocal denial that Jesus is to be treated as a divine entity himself, as he is in the Christian Holy Trinity. He is a prophet of God, to be honored as such. Indeed, identified as he who was to be known as The Messiah. Only that act failed to convince the Established Order of the day, eh?

      I am always happy to engage in Biblical disputation! You’ll note above that I yielded on one point, but I stand firmly by my second contention.

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  6. Indeed, Jesus – Peace be upon him and his blessed mother – as with every Prophet and or Messenger were simply divinely inspired human beings. Furthermore the concept of a Tri-unity of Godheads constitutes polytheism and is entirely alien to the message revealed directly to Moses by the Almighty – being clearly at varience with the Decalogue and “Hear O Israel. The Lord, The Lord thy God is One Ehad/Ahad i.e. indivisibly one. The problem being that Paul of Tarsus – the Sicari Zelot hitman – hijacked the movement and reintroduced all the pagan practices which Jesus the son of Mary had been sent to eradicate, and, unfortunately, the original cannonicle gospels were proscribed by the council of Nicea in 325AD, by Constantine, or Constantcrime as he is sometimes referred to, the Gospel of Barnabas being a case in point along with the Laughing Gospel. Paul was described by the Ebionite followers of James the lord’s brother in Aramaic as a Daggala – an Anti-Christ / a sower of tares / a wolf in sheep’s clothing – Dajjal in Arabic. Here is an extract from the opening of this authentic Gospel:
    THE GOSPEL OF BARNABAS A True Gospel of Jesus, called Christ, a new prophet sent by God to the world: according to the description of Barnabas his apostle.
    Barnabas, apostle of Jesus the Nazarene, called Christ, to all them that dwell upon the earth desireth peace and consolation.
    Dearly beloved the great and wonderful God hath during these past days visited us by his prophet Jesus Christ in great mercy of teaching and miracles, by reason whereof many, being deceived of Satan, under presence of piety, are preaching most impious doctrine, calling Jesus son of God, repudiating the circumcision ordained of God for ever, and permitting every unclean meat: among whom also Paul hath been deceived, whereof I speak not without grief; for which cause I am writing that truth which I have seen and heard, in the intercourse that I have had with Jesus, in order that ye may be saved, and not be deceived of Satan and perish in the judgment of God. Therefore beware of every one that preacheth unto you new doctrine contrary to that which I write, that ye may be saved eternally. The great God be with you and guard you from Satan and from every evil. Amen”.

    The genius of Satan still resides in his ability to convince half the world that he does not exist, and the other half that they are not following him.

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    1. Yes, jolly good! When I read the New Testament during a hospitalization in 1976 this fellow Paul, nee Saul of Tarsus, struck me as downright perverse. His advice to men was that if they weren’t the type that could settle into a committed monogamous marriage, their most effective remedy against “the temptations of the flesh” was to castrate themselves!! I bet THAT made him real popular among his contemporaries! He’s an obvious opportunist-megalomaniac whose convenient “conversion” paved the way to gaining great influence over the still-developing church. I regret that I still haven’t gotten around to reading the “official” Books of the Apocrypha, but I have read about the related “Gnostic gospels.” We know that many a Christian has been slain by his/her fellow Christian in the religious disputes over the validity of the Trinity, whether Mary should be an object of worship, etc. These internal battles are well recounted in Gibbons’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” They’ve even been the target of Luis Bunuel’s caustic satire. As Mark Twain observed, in perhaps the most concise criticism ever of organized religion: “Man is the only animal to have discovered The True Religion. Several of them, in fact.” My Buddhist prayer for this occasion: MAY HUMANITY ONE DAY BE RULED BY REASON. That would be a refreshing change, eh what?

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  7. Reblogged this on Bracing Views and commented:

    I bought a new (used) globe today to add to my humble collection, which called to mind this article that was inspired by my old globe from c.1924. Globes often don’t have dates on them, since those dates would remind you of their obsolescence, especially in these days of rapid change. Still, as a historian I have a keen interest in old globes. I’d love to have one that shows the height of Napoleon’s Empire, say in 1810, before it all came crashing down.

    Nowadays, with GPS and Smart phones and all that, we take globes for granted. I’ve sometimes thought if you could take one thing of value back into the past, let’s say 500 years ago, would there be anything more valuable than an accurate globe? An interesting question to ponder …

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  8. “anything more valuable than an accurate globe?” I know of one man who thought an atlas was the most valuable thing in the most unexpected and dramatic of circumstances. He was a teacher among hundreds of thousands of Polish people deported to labour camps in the Soviet Union at the beginning of WW II.
    They had 15 min to pack some belongings and he took the atlas. It turned out to be the biggest treasure for the group of exiles he ended up with. There were children among them and this atlas served the grown-ups as a basis for teaching not only geography, but also history,biology etc (heaven knows when those people found time and strength to engage in such teaching after the exhausting labour they had to perform).
    When Germany attacked the Soviet Union and Polish prisoners suddenly became ‘allies’ of sorts and had a limited ‘freedom’ to move around the USSR, it allowed them to determine the shortest way back home.

    As for me, I sometimes travel though my brother’s (Dutch) school atlas from 1951. In Africa the colour codes read : Blue – French; Pink – English; Green – Portuguese, etc. Colonies, territories or ‘guardianships’. When 10 years later I went to highschool I also used it and of course believed that warped state of affairs was ‘normal’ and the mythical Dr Schweitzer really a enlightened hero.
    Indeed amazing insight from an atlas, which explains more – at a glance – than any history book.
    Maybe old atlasses and globes should be compulsary in highschool history classes, univerity political science curricula, military academies and political party HQ’s, as undeniable evidence of European greed and cynicism, which laid the foundations for the mess the world is in today. Including the present afflux of refugees which we refuse to acknowledge as our responsibility, because ‘we did not invite them here’. As if they had ever invited us to enslave their countries and call them ours.

    As for future maps, maybe we should let toddlers in kindergarten draw them for us?
    They might put their colour pencils to better use than their grown-up forefathers did.

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