Silent House – Orhan Pamuk

In the small coastal town of Cennethisar several hours from Istanbul there is an old house, one of the oldest in town. In this house there lives Fatma, a bedridden old Turkish woman who was forced to leave Istanbul years ago because of her husband’s actions, and with her lives Recep, a dwarf, one of her husband’s illegitimate children born to their maid some five decades earlier. For a week every summer the quiet tension of the house is broken by the arrival of her three grandchildren, the divorced historian Faruk, the leftist sister Nílgün, and Metín, a high school student obsessed with the exciting consumer luxuries of modernity. Rounding out this family drama is Hasan, a right-wing nationalist and Recep’s nephew.

The story unfolds over the course of a week as Faruk busies himself in the archives, Nílgün sunbathes and reads leftist publications, and Metín parties with his nouveaux ríche friends. Meanwhile Fatma and Recep are burdened with the memories of Selahattin, with the former being particularly concerned that Recep might be twisting her grandchildren against her. Despite how Fatma treats him, Recep is not threatening her legacy and the children are lost in their own little worlds. There is, however, imminent danger in the obsessions of young men.

Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, Silent House was published in Turkish in 1983 but only translated into English in 2012.  The core plot in Silent House is a variation on a family or dynastic epic, complete with each character representing a different group within the country and three children of different proclivities. At the same time, it differs from the classic examples of such a device (e.g. Hundred Years of Solitude and The Radetzky March), the conflict is compressed into the space of a week instead of dragging out over the course of years.

The style of Silent House is recognizably Pamuk. Each chapter switches between narrators, but interlocks to present a complete story. Silent House also broaches familiar themes, including that Turkey is torn between looking backward and envying countries they believe look forward, but his characters almost too bluntly embody the issues Pamuk wants to address. This is not to say that the characters don’t work for the story, but all of the younger people do not come across as particularly rounded outside what they stand for. The exception to this, and unsurprisingly the part of the part of the book I thought was the most successful, was the relationship between Fatma and Recep, both of whom exist in the present, but who also have the years of memories in which to round out and explain their characters. The younger people had lives outside of the week in the narration, but those lives are hardly explored with the result that their motivations fall back on their types.

All the hallmarks of a great Orhan Pamuk novel are already present in Silent House. The interlocking chapters, the insights about Turkey, and the interweaving of past and present are all there, but the execution is not as successfully realized as in his later novels such as My Name is Red, The Black Book, and Snow. If I had not already been a Pamuk fan I might have struggled with this book. Silent House is still worth reading, but fairly far down my list of favorite Pamuk novels and is certainly not one to start with.

ΔΔΔ

I am currently reading the second book in Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire. This is a book that has been on my shelf for some time, but I picked it up in light of recent events because it was originally written in Arabic.

Who needs nuance?

“But now, let’s talk about the bad guys,” Brian Kilmeade began on a Fox and Friends segment called “World on Edge” this week. His guest was Gillian Turner, a former staffer on the National Security Council and associate at Jones Group International, who spent the segment discussing concerns over terrorism in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East.

I first saw the clip in the gym without sound or subtitle, so all I knew about what Ms. Turner said was what the screen infographic said Ms. Turner said:

Turner: Turkey must defeat Assad, then ISIS.

I was so floored by this description declaration that I was fully prepared to dismiss Ms. Turner as an know-nothing hack drummed up by the Fox and Friends crew. Then I went back to the actual video. In fact, Ms. Turner give a short, fair summary of the security issues facing Turkey with regard to the refugee crisis and terrorism, noting that the Turkish government considers (and treats) the PKK as terrorists and that the Turks are accepting refugees with no financial support. The account is, almost by necessity, a bit anodyne, but she also dodges the segment’s premise in terms of the situation in Turkey leading to terrorism in the United States. Nowhere in this account does she actually mention Assad.

Now, I could be misled by a short segment, but nothing in this segment indicated that Turkey should do anything against Assad, let alone doing so unilaterally while Assad is supported by Russia. Turkey has enough of a strained relationship with Russia right now over the violation of airspace and subsequent shooting down of a Russian fighter (Pravda’s most recent coverage, or do a google search).

This sort of manipulation probably happens all the time on cable News shows and is a form of doublespeak where, not only is there vague and euphemistic language, but there can be two disparate statements that are being conveyed at the same time, as Stephen Colbert used to show on his “The Word” segment. Yet, there is one big difference. In my opinion, these cable news shows are not meant to be consumed as an all-encompassing experience. The noisiness of the on-screen information may “add” to the experience of someone listening to the show with the volume on, but is actually designed for gyms, airports, and other public screens that might be tuned to the channel. These screens frequently won’t have even a closed caption, so the shows rely on flashing icons and the movement of the hosts to draw attention to the screen where there is an easily-digested, if misleading, talking point.

As a final, tangentially related point, it sometimes amuses me to watch the Fox and Friends hosts fidget as they try to keep from checking their smartphones, which are set immediately next to them on the couch. Screens are addictive, it isn’t just a young-person problem.

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Berniéres

“Ah, yes,” said Iskander, “now I remember. The thing about stories is that they are like bindweeds that have to wind round and round and creep all over the place before they get to the top of the pole. Let me see…”

Birds Without Wings is the story of Eskibahçe, a (fictional) small town on the coast of Turkey in the early twentieth century. The story hinges on and builds to the climactic schism between Greece and Turkey that saw a brutal war and deportation of Muslims from Greece and Christians from Turkey. The transition was jarring for both sides, as the author points out, but particularly so for the Christians in Eskibahçe, who have their “Ottoman” identity stripped and, despite speaking Turkish, are declared “Greek” on account of their fluid religious beliefs. Birds Without Wings is marketed as a tragic love story between two characters, pretty Philothei (a Christian) and her devoted goatherd Ibrahim (a Muslim), but this is a deeply misleading characterization since their symbiosis is more symbolic of the town itself than a particularly strong plot.

I did not like Birds Without Wings. Ordinarily I would wait to put this opinion near the end of the post, but I want to put it nearer the front because the multitude of my complaints, ranging from the picayune to the overarching, the stylistic to the structural informs everything I am going to say. I actually found myself disliking the novel quite early on, despite its topic and setting being ones that I tend to gravitate toward, but kept reading less to see what would happen so much as to give it a fair shake. I want to do the same in this review.

The sleepy little town of Eskibahçe is Ottoman through and through, with a good lord, Christians living alongside Muslims, gendarmes who play backgammon, and a common agreement that they are all Ottomans. There are antagonisms between the two groups, but also friendships, including between the Priest and the Imam–it is even expected that a woman will adopt her husband’s religion at the time of marriage. As the book unfolds, the events of the wider world, largely recounted with a focus on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, slowly closing in and constricting life in Eskibahçe.

Birds Without Wings is a book with a myriad of small plots in order to give a panorama of the small town, picking up the threads at various points, but without continuously telling any of them. In order to do this, the chapters are told from a large number of viewpoints at many different points in time; the only repeated viewpoint that changes with the passage of time is that of Philothei. However, this technique is where my issues with structure started. It is not just that there are a variety of narrators and viewpoints, but rather that these are highly inconsistent, such that only some of them are actually told from point of view characters, while others are given as though in an interview with an unheard interlocutors, and others still are narrated by an unspecified, untimed, omnipotent narrator who frequently drops in strange, highly-opinionated comments. For instance:

The French are just setting into motion a petulant foreign policy which has remained steadfastly unchanged ever since, and whose sole object is to obstruct and irritate the Anglo-Saxon world as much as possible, even when that is against French interests.

This is just one example that I actually wrote down. Another memorable instance compared food Mustafa Kemal ate to that of a British boarding school, except without having anything else in the story offer a frame of reference for such a comment. Perhaps the year is 2004 and this omnipotent narrator is the author, but, mostly, these interjections were jarringly out of place.

Some of the characters in Birds Without Wings were compelling enough, and this carried over into some of the plots, including the relationship between the landlord Rustem Bey and his mistress Layla Hanim, the friendships between Karatavuk and Mehmetçik, Ayse and Polyxeni, and Ayse and her husband, the Imam, Abdulhamid. These little relationships, sometimes tainted by nostalgia, envy, or fondness, are the strength of Birds Without Wings. Note that I do not include anything about Philothei, the only narrator who changes, in this list. She is presented as a beautiful baby, girl, and woman, but basically a non-entity and therefore an entirely uninteresting metaphor for the town as a whole, which is a stand-in for the humanitarian disaster throughout the Aegean.

To make matters worse, I found the novel sort of stilted and overwritten. Some of this is affect, being winding, repetitive, and open-ended in the way oral stories and reminiscences can be and for that I can only express personal preference. However, the writing was also verbose and ran particularly toward big words–not a crime in and of itself, but liberally sprinkled, seemingly without purpose. Perhaps there is a case to be made that the words are meant to be archaic and obscure so as to highlight the rural setting, but it seemed to me more likely that the words fit instead with odd authorial choices such as the opinions and similes discussed above that are just out of place.

Another reader might be more sympathetic to Birds Without Wings, but I found little to like and a lot to loathe in this supremely disappointing novel.


Next up is Victor Serge’s Conquered City, which is a narrative account of the Red Army’s conquest of St. Petersburg in 1919.

Present, meet past

Let me begin with five loosely bullet points.

  • I am particularly wary of the adages that posit recurring pasts and arguments of immediate pecuniary or political value to studying the ancient past.
  • My dissertation is a regional history of of Ionia in fifth, fourth and early third centuries BCE. The project examines the position of these twelve majority Greek communities on the Anatolian coast and heavy islands in relation to each other and in relation to a series of imperial entities that exerted control over the region.
  • A couple of years ago I got the idea from another scholar on Twitter to set up a Google-alert for the subject of my research. Since then, I have been getting daily updates about bodies washing up on Chios and boatloads of refugees fished out of the sea around the island.
  • A few weeks back, I decided that I am going to dedication my dissertation and, if I reach that point, the resultant book, to the Syrian refugees passing through Ionia.
  • Yesterday, Turkish police raided an illegal factory that was making life preservers from non-buoyant material using child labor. Life preservers that do not float made by refugee child labor. Words cannot express how repellent this is.

Objectivity as a historian is a nice idea, in theory, but is quixotic in practice. One is always going to be influenced by whatever s/he is exposed to. This can be as simple as reading good prose improving the “ear” of the writer to more complex and subtle influences such as the theoretical framework one views the world or his or her moral universe rendering judgement. Frequently, the issues one holds close draws attention to particular details in a source that otherwise would have passed by.

When we think of the connections between the Ancient Near East and the Aegean, it is common to think of the maritime trade routes that ran from Egypt to Phoenicia, Cyprus, the Aegean, and then up to the Black Sea. These routes are critically important for trade and the spread of ideas, but (to my knowledge) were not the usual way to transfer people. Travel by sea was expensive and risky, unless transporting bulk goods. Thus people were often more likely to travel by land. Ambassadors, refugees, and people who aspired to overthrow the Persian King from both the Greek states and the Persian Empire frequently traveled from the Aegean to Syria or beyond and then back by one route: a path that took them from Ephesus or Erythrae (or sometimes another polis), which were connected by road to to the Lydian city of Sardis. There, they picked up the Persian Royal road, which took them the length of Anatolia and then across the Taurus mountains and into Syria, usually to Damascus and from there to anywhere else in the Persian Empire. My source material is usually more focused on people from the Aegean taking this path toward the interior of the Persian Empire, but the road ran both directions.

The constant updates have heightened my awareness and interest in population movements, which is a difficult issue to measure in ancient Greece, and in that it is easy to demarcate (falsely or otherwise) borders between countries or between east and west, but the people don’t care about that. Rostovtzeff described the Ionian communities as fragments of the Western World on the fringe of the Eastern, but that gives the impression of an actual difference on either side. The Ionians were peripheral to Persian and Athenian systems, but throughout the fifth and fourth centuries they also served to link the two together.

A spruced-up variation on these thoughts will appear in the introduction or preface of my dissertation.

The Surreality of Humanitarian Crises Online

It is depressing to watch on Twitter as humanitarian disasters unfold, again and again and again. It happened in the Tahrir Square protests (and counterrevolution) in Egypt, with Ansar Dine in Mali, the original civil war in Syria, and ongoing refugee crisis. And many more; those were only the ones that have been most on my radar the past couple years. The abject suffering makes the American political discourse, such as holding reviews of Planned Parenthood’s budget without anyone from Planned Parenthood seem like a joke, even as it threatens to pull even more medical care from poor women. These are both rancid fruits, but on different scales. In Syria, a nation that had about 22 million people, there have been about ten million people displaced internally and externally, or about the same number of people executed in the Holocaust. I am not casting judgment, just putting the numbers in context. In a recent fit of helplessness, I donated some money to an organization that is supposed to help bring supplies and care to refugees from Syria.

I have a set of Google Alerts set up for places associated with my dissertation topic, just so that I can stay abreast of what comes up. Ephesus alerts usually consist of Ephesus lighting and bible references or tourism, but updates about Chios for more than a year have brought back a steady stream of stories about refugees making it to Greece. Recently, though, there has been an uptick in awareness of the refugee crisis, in large part because of children drowning at sea, refugees suffocating in the back of trucks, and the Macedonian government tear gassing migrants, not to mention Balkan states closing their train stations to migrants, quota plans being pushed forward in Europe. This is just a snapshot, with other stories coming out about Australia and Canada and many other countries, including Lebanon.

Other people have done a much more thorough job than I can hope to do chronicling the conflict, including Thomas van Linge, a nineteen year old Dutch activist who compiles some of the best maps of the Syrian conflict currently available. However, I want to give just a bit of a overview in light of the news that Turkish tanks have moved into Cizre, a town in Turkey near the Syrian border. This will consist of nothing more than a list of groups involved and who they are ostensibly shooting at, and without the nuance of, for instance, differentiating between Syrian rebel groups.

Group : shooting at
USA : ISIS
France : ISIS
UK : ISIS
Australia : ISIS
Canada : ISIS [Civilians, accidentally and probably not in isolation]
Russia : ISIS, Syrian Rebels
Israel : ??? in retaliation for shelling the Golan. Possibly Syrian government forces of Hezbollah. The Syrian government says they were civilians, Israel says they were Iranians.¯_(ツ)_/¯
Syrian Government : Syrian Rebels, ISIS
Hezbollah : Syrian Rebels, ISIS [on behalf of Asad]
Syrian Rebels : Syrian Government, ISIS
ISIS : Iraqi Government, Syrian Rebels, Syrian Government, Kurds, everyone shooting at them
Kurds : Syrian Government, Turkey [at least the PKK is], ISIS
Turkey : ISIS, PKK

The refugees are not leaving willy-nilly, but are fleeing a brutal conflict that is literally tearing apart the fabric of their home. Not of the nation state, the ship for which has sailed, but of their homes. The reason I’m posting this now is that Turkey has just stepped up its attacks, amid warnings that it, too, is facing a civil war, and the ceasefire between the military and the PKK has dissolved. Meanwhile, the US has sent warnings to Turkey that their airstrikes have been too close to where US soldiers have been training Kurdish Peshmerga. To make matters worse, this is a conflict that includes not just small-arms fire and roadside bombs, but tanks, drone and aircraft strikes, and chemical weapons and is taking place in the space around what used to be considered the Iraq-Syria border, but now obeys only the lines on the map that are enforced through force of arms. Everyone is seemingly shooting at everyone and millions of civilians have been caught in the cross-fire. At this point I have been watching it all unfold on Twitter for years.

Review 2013, Preview 2014, in list form

Five favorite books I read in 2013

  • Magister Ludi, Herman Hesse
  • To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
  • Snow, Orhan Pamuk
  • Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon
  • Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

Three news stories I’m following going into this year

  • Civil war in Syria the devolution of the “rebel” forces
  • Ongoing violence and French foreign policy in Africa
  • Unrest in Turkey about Erdogan’s government

Two things that, in 2013, I discovered I no longer cared about

  • The NFL
  • Fantasy football

Four books I am particularly looking forward to reading in 2014

  • The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa
  • My Antonia, Willa Cather
  • Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  • The Plague, Albert Camus

Seven books I would like to reread in 2014

  • The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  • Catch 22, Joseph Heller
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John Le Carre
  • Bridge on the River Drina, Ivo Andric/li>
  • Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Four books I once started, but didn’t finish…that I’d like to give another shot

  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
  • Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Four “resolutions” for 2014

  • Write more, in a variety of places (including here)
  • Cook more often and more adventurously
  • Spend less time dwelling on things beyond my control
  • Smile more often

I did not like 2013; for everything that went right in the year, it seemed that two things went wrong. Flipping the calendar to 2014 is an arbitrary milestone, but I am optimistic about this next chunk of time all the same. Noted above, one goal I have for this year is to write here more frequently, and I have a few topics on the back burner, though the only post I have planned for the near future is to revisit my list of top novels, which could appear as early as next week.

November Reading Recap

It may be in the mid-50s and sunny here in mid-Missouri, but the Calendar says that today is December 1. Here is a review of the reading I did in November before I jump back into the craziness that is the end of the academic term.

  1. Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov – One of Nabokov’s early works, this novel follows the professor Adam Krug, an intellectual celebrity from a nation that espouses an ideology of militant mediocrity, as the leader of the country tries to seduce him into endorsing the state philosophy. There were some bitter and funny passages in Bend Sinister, but Nabokov writes like a pompous a…the book operates on a number of different levels that I sometimes found difficult to follow. This may have been that I was reading the novel as a night-cap during a week of frantic writing and I may need to read it again when I am less distracted.
  2. Snow, Orhan Pamuk – The book that took me most of a month to read because of the world beyond the book. The most common review of Pamuk’s work I have seen is that he is adept at spinning out hundreds of pages without character or plot development. I cannot totally disagree. Snow is the report of the novelist Orhan’s investigation into the death of his friend Ka, a Turkish poet who lives in exile in Germany. The bulk of the novel is a recounting of the events that took place in the frontier town of Kars in Eastern Anatolia during a three day stretch when a snowstorm cut the town off from the rest of Turkey and the local military officers staged a coup against the rising power of political Islam. Ostensibly, Ka had gone to Kars to write an article about the “headscarf girls,” young women who were committing suicide because the schools were forcing them to remove their scarves. But, as the reader quickly discovers, the article is an excuse to visit Kars–Ka has actually gone there hoping to take up with one of his former schoolmates, and the wife (now separated) of another schoolmate and current local politician with one of the Islamist parties in Kars. In Kars, Ka finds himself once more inspired to write poetry.

    This is the short and straightforward version of the plot. Usually I am a reader who needs to like one or more of the characters in a book to really find myself drawn in, but that was not the case with Snow. I didn’t really like any of the characters, but Pamuk’s prose invoked a dream-like state when I was reading it. I sympathized with individual passages and felt a connection with individual episodes, but, more than anything I connected with the setting. As in all of Pamuk’s work I have yet read, the Turkish identity crisis–between the Turkish communities in Germany, urbane Istanbul, and poor, hodge-podge remote areas of Anatolia–features prominently in Snow. I still cannot put my finger on exactly why, but I really enjoyed this novel, and it was a perfect prelude to the next book.

  3. Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation, Kerem Öktem – Reviewed here, Öktem argues that Turkey is a nation built upon a series of (often totalitarian) paradoxes, deep state actors, and ethnic tensions. He suggests that the people have largely been left out of the equation in Turkey, being manipulated by the various political actors rather than being served by the government, even when the elected officials have had the upper hand.

Next up, I am about a quarter of the way through Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and just received a copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Kerem Öktem, Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation, New York: Zed Books, 2011.

Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation is an installment in the series “Global History of the Present,” which is intended to introduce aspects of world history since 1989 and the end of the Cold War. Rather than trying to write an all-encompassing history of the past two and half decades, the series deals with limited subjects and buys into the premise that, more than ever, the world consists of multiple, overlapping, fragmented narratives that defy hegemony and polarities, while also connecting local developments to international trends. Angry Nation immediately predates the Syrian Civil War and the explosive protests in Gezi Park, but Öktem provides a lucid introduction to the contemporary issues.

Despite the purpose of the series, Öktem actually begins his narrative in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire when, in a desperate gambit to restore Ottoman power, the empire underwent a series of reforms that included bringing in European instructors to teach in military academies. As the empire broke up, Turkey was flooded by Muslim refugees from the Balkans, invaded by Greece, and targeted for colonization by European powers. At about the same time, the Ottoman Committee for Union and Progress conducted a genocide against the Armenians in eastern Anatolia. In the early 1920s at the height of the Greek invasion of Anatolia, a new state formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire when the leaders of the army, including one Mustafa Kemal, declared that the Sultan had no authority and formed their own de facto government. After re-securing territorial integrity, the military created a new Turkish Republic, abolished the Caliphate and, by totalitarian means, ushered in secular, national, “modernity.” During this period (1920-46) there came into being what Öktem refers to as “the guardian state” in Turkey, a coalition of bureaucrats, military commanders, and the judiciary that exists outside the influence of the elected officials.

Democratization of Turkey began in 1946 when, for the first time, candidates from multiple parties were allowed to stand for office. It was exceptional when the military-endorsed candidate won the election, which led to the primary tension in Öktem’s narrative: the authority and influence of the elected officials and the ability–and willingness–of the military to stage coups and to rewrite the constitution when they felt their position threatened. Öktem also reveals the military brutality, torture, killings, and propensity for staging communal violence in order to justify seizing power. Would that the situation be so simple, though. Öktem interweaves the Turkish claims to being a military nation, ethnic violence against and oppression of the Alevis and the Kurds, the latent and increasing Islamism, membership in the NATO alliance, attempts to join the European community, and the ruthless economic development programs. And all this before he gets to the year 1989.

Öktem convincingly argues that the Turkey of the past decade is not the same country as the Turkey of the 20th century. Turkey’s economy is more stable than it was in the 1990s, it has undergone a resurgence in both exports and tourism, and, Gezi park notwithstanding, has not had the same level of violence–sectarian or political–as it had in past decades. While the power of the Turkish military is waning, the deep state actors have not disappeared and the same underlying tensions between the illusion of a secular heritage and (moderate) political-Islam, Kurd-Turk, Muslim Turkey-Christian Europe still exist. The Arab Spring has since changed the political climate of the Middle East and made some of Öktem’s statements about Turkey’s position in the region obsolete, particularly with respect to Syria, but the basic threads spun out remain intact.

The one main complaint I can voice about Angry Nation, and one I had at several points, is that individuals from among the deep state actors, unless they end up also becoming public figures, appear in the narrative as the Wizard of Oz, only somewhat more sinister. This is likely by design. Öktem shows the genesis of these forces in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, but, almost a century later, the impression is that they remain a vague, menacing, and unchanging entity. And yet he indicates that there was a slow process of liberalization and a gradual loss of control over the bureaucracy and judiciary by the military. The narrative in Angry Nation is plenty complicated without broaching those institutions per se, but it sometimes seemed as though Öktem set them up as the boogey-man government in a dystopia. Not that that characterization is wholly unwarranted.

Angry Nation is a political history of Turkey designed to show the underlying tensions extant since the creation of the country and how those tensions shaped Turkey since the end of the Cold War. Öktem argues that these underlying issues, including the authoritarian nature of the state, have created a nation seething with discontent. He suggests that there are three main potential futures for Turkey: resurgence of the guardian state, replacement of the guardian state with the tutelage of Islam, or the development of a legitimate liberal state. Two years later, all these possibilities still exist. But in the wake of the Gezi Park protests, sparked by the Erdogan government’s plans to tear down a park and replace it with a shopping mall, where police used riot gear and tear gas to evict protesters and soldiers handed gas masks to the civilians, it seems that Öktem is correct about the frustration level of many Turkish people.

Myth of Egyptian Nationalism in the Arab Spring

In some ways the dominant legacy of colonialism is that the nation states formed since the withdrawal of the military and political attention of the colonial powers [1] are usually artificial constructions that more closely align to treaty boundaries between western powers than they do to any sort of natural boundary, be it geographic, ethnic, or otherwise. Despite ideological claims that democracy will create a peaceful and stable world, repressive military regimes in the Middle East actually created a more stable international scene. So the democratic revolutions in the Arab Spring were welcomed as the birth of democracy, particularly when it meant the overthrow of an anti-Western leader like Qaddafi.[2] Where the protests were against more stable (from the American point of view) leaders, the protests were more hesitantly supported.

In early 2011 the Arab Spring reached Egypt and interested peoples watched the demonstrations in Tahrir Square from streaming web cam. The protests ended with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and, eventually, Muhammed Morsi became the first civilian President of Egypt. Since that time a military coup has deposed Morsi, protests resumed, and violence escalated.

There have been some touching stories from the tragedies in Egypt, including neighbors of different religions helping each other out and the protection of Egyptian museums. I recall reading at the time that these stories and the reluctance of the military to fire upon protesters were indicative of Egypt’s uniqueness in the Arab world. Egypt was said to have a long tradition of “nationalism,” a national ride in Egyptian Heritage, and a geography that nullified many of the problems of tribalism possessed by other Arab states.

Of course this narrative could be exposed merely by pointing out that much of the Sinai is governed by Bedouin tribes and there is little to no government oversight of the peninsula. But that exception not withstanding, one need only point out that the Nile, even with its annual floods curtailed by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, is the constant thread between today, Napoleon trying to conquer the Orient, Crusaders facing ignominious defeat, Julius Caesar cavorting with Cleopatra, Alexander laying out the design for a massive city, the construction of the pyramids, and the settlement of a tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists from the Levant at the behest of one mythical Joseph. With the Nile as a foundation, the long national unity of Egypt is a seductive notion. The problem is that it is another myth of national unity, a fiction of uniqueness that obscures another country dominated by a military establishment.

The story in Turkey is that the military would overthrow elected officials who threatened the secular republican legacy of Ataturk, although their opposition to Erdogan has been limited. The stated motivations for coups in Egypt are not nearly so Romantic. The Wikipedia page for Tahrir Square says that the protests went on long enough that the military (presumably the establishment, people such as al-Sisi) an opportunity to remove Mubarak. There was a brief experiment with democracy, but for this second round of protests the army has not been as reluctant to use violence. It seems that the Wikipedia page is on to something. Perhaps the reason that Egypt under Mubarak did not more resemble Syria under Assad is that individuals in the Egyptian military wanted to remove Mubarak themselves.


[1] This is not to say a complete removal of imperialism since former colonial powers frequently maintain an economic presence and interest in the former colonies. This economic imperialism can quickly turn into military force, particularly if the internationally recognized government requests assistance, as was the case in Mali last year.
[2] One of my favorite moments in the pilot of “The West Wing” is when Leo McGary calls the editor of the New York Times crossword to yell at him about using Qaddafi as one of the answers. This is one of the ways in which the pilot, in particular, dates itself. For another, there are also multiple jokes and appearances of pagers.

Assorted Links

  1. Angry Panama– A feature in the Economist that looks at the unbalanced economic growth in Panama and the civil unrest that is taking place as a result.
  2. Atheism and Islam– An article in the Economist that uses a trial and riot in Indonesia against an atheist in order to discuss some of the other laws and prejudices against atheism throughout the Muslim world.
  3. How the Nazis Succeeded in Taking Power in Red Berlin– A feature in Spiegel that discusses Goebbels and his campaign to set the Nazis up in the Capital of Germany–a city labelled “the reddest city in Europe besides Moscow.”
  4. Turkey requested NATO missile defenses over Syria chemical weapons fears– Several weeks ago Turkey requested Patriot missiles to protect against potential Syrian air and missile strikes against their towns. Now it appears that there is intelligence that there has been an uptick in activity at Syrian chemical facilities and that the Assad regime is contemplating the use of ballistic missiles and chemical warheads against the rebels if traditional airstrikes do not work.