Commentary Magazine


Conqueror's Causeway:
Why the Levant Is Levantine

The fickleness of Arab political commitments, which has bemused many Western observers, is viewed here in historical perspective.

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North from Beirut, the Lebanon foothills leave only a crumpled ribbon of coastal plain; and after five or six miles even this is crushed out. The north-south road, which but for armistice lines would link Egypt and Israel with Turkey, creeps en corniche round the base of a spur, only a few feet above the sea, to cross the mouth of the Dog river, site of one of the world’s first stone bridges. River and spur together form what has throughout history been the major military obstacle on this vital route; and to mark their pleasure on overcoming it the commanders of more than a dozen armies—Pharaonic, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Mameluke, French, British, and others—have left inscriptions or commemorative plaques on the face of the rock. These inscriptions sum up the history of the region and highlight an important facet of the character of its peoples.

The coastlands of Lebanon and Israel, together with the Bekaa and Jordan valleys and the grainlands of southern Syria, form the western horn of a thousand-mile crescent of cultivation linking the Mediterranean with the Persian Gulf. This “Fertile Crescent” (the term is useful geographically, whatever one may think of its past political associations) and the valleys, desert tracts, and wedges of steppe abutting on it have made of the Near East’s Levantine heartland a unique intercontinental route-junction. Even the Syrian desert assists rather than resists travel: flat and relatively free from the drifting sand which hampers movement in the Arabian Nafud, 250 miles further south, it is passable even to light cars and is the scene of the nomadic wanderings of some of the largest pastoral tribes in the Near East.

The importance of this basic characteristic of the region has been accentuated by the obstacles nature has placed in the way of its unification. The Crescent owes its fertility to the mountains to the west and north—the highlands of Lebanon, Syria, Anatolia, and Kurdistan—which insure the precipitation that maintains the perennial flow of the rivers of Mesopotamia and the Levant, and waters the arc of grainland and steppe straddling the gap between them. But these very mountains have fragmented much of the Levant and northern Mesopotamia into a chaos of valleys and fastnesses inhabited by self-centered, generally endogamous communities, obsessively mistrustful of their neighbors and of whatever external authority circumstances may force them to recognize. Even on the flat grain growing steppe, there is a similar social result. Here human habitation centers necessarily on wells and springs. The wells, which predominate, are deep and their upkeep may be a communal task. For ease of access, and defensive purposes, villages tend to huddle compactly, jealously, around their precious water supply, dispersed one from the other and with their backs turned against each other. It is only along-side the great river systems of Egypt and central Mesopotamia, where surface water is abundant and imposes cooperation between neighboring communities in irrigation tasks, that natural conditions have consistently exerted a unifying influence.

The diverse, introverted sub-regions of the Levant might well constitute the Supreme Geographer’s lecture-room assemblage of specimen social and religious systems and topographical and meteorological samples. In Lebanon and Cyprus, in the early spring, it is possible to ski six or eight thousand feet above sea level in the morning and bathe on a warm Mediterranean beach in the afternoon. Mount Hermon’s ethereal snowcapped summit can be contemplated alike by Jewish fishermen sweltering in the subtropical heat of Tiberias and thickly-clad Druze and Maronite mountaineers in the Lebanese highlands; by Sunni and Shiite sharecroppers in the Hauran and Jebel Aamel, and Israeli cooperative farmers in Galilee; by Bedouin goatherds and Circassian peasants on the fringes of the Syrian desert, and Christian fruit growers and Mitwali smugglers in the Hasbani and Litani valleys. Yet between these neighbors there is only a bare minimum of civilized intercourse, and not always that.

Also within the shadow of Mount Hermon is a small village divided almost equally between Druzes and adherents of one of the lesser Christian sects: so little social contact is there between the two groups that they speak Arabic with slightly different accents, and an outsider can tell to which community a villager belongs merely by hearing him speak. Freya Stark once wrote of a fairly typical Lebanese village: “Here, if I ask about someone in the village, M. just says: ‘I don’t know her—she is Greek Orthodox,’ or whatever it may be. Or ‘the Mohammedans in Beirut pronounce such a word differently’. . . . Think what a capacity for hatred it must mean to live for centuries in the same village and still feel like this about the next door neighbor. . . . I haven’t yet come across one spark of national feeling: it is all sects and hatreds and religions.”1

Geographically a causeway between sea and desert, politically a vacuum, the Levant has thus lain open throughout history to migrants and conquerors from three continents. Something, at least, of the countless sieges, sackings, and massacres of Jerusalem and other major centers is known to every schoolboy; but innumerable less famous towns and villages fared no better. “During the Middle Ages the town passed from hand to hand, wrecked and pillaged, its fortifications dismantled, again and again. The Crusaders captured it in December 1098 and celebrated the birthday of the Prince of Peace by methodically massacring 20,000 of its citizens.” This is a fragment of the history of Maaret en-Numan, a small town in the heart of the Syrian steppe, between Homs and Aleppo, but it might be true of a dozen other localities. Maaret en-Numan now has under 5,000 inhabitants: the wonder is that after so many vicissitudes civilized life should have clung on there at all. There are, indeed, in this very district of Syria, the white bones of no less than one hundred dead cities scattered over the indefensible steppe; and in the Negev-Sinai hinge between Africa and Asia, Israeli archaeologists have mapped more than two hundred forgotten settlements.

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Two basic currents of migration were already flowing through the Levant in pre-historic times: westwards and southwest-wards from the highlands and steppes of Iran and central Asia, and northwards from the desert fringes of Arabia and the Nile valley. With the development of pastoralism, these migratory movements increased; when spring pastures on steppe and desert fringe failed because of insufficient rain, the nomadic tribes swept with their flocks toward more favored lands. The rise of powerful, highly organized states in Egypt and Mesopotamia—whose river-valleys, natural nurseries of civilization, gave rise to a cultural homogeneity and social cohesion the Levant could never aspire to—set armies marching where before only migrating tribes had drifted. Thereafter invaders were no longer merely tunneled into the area by its approach-routes but attracted by its resources. Egypt and Mesopotamia had both economic and strategic motives for seeking to dominate those parts of it which lay nearest them and to prevent the rise of an indigenous Levantine power. More often than not their natural magnetism was sufficient to accomplish this. Even after the Arabs overran the Fertile Crescent, its institutions and loyalties were quick to reorient themselves, with the stubbornness of a compass needle, along a Cairo-Baghdad axis. Mecca’s political influence was ephemeral. Only one other center of attraction, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, has been able to disturb these lines of force more than temporarily, and with the erosion of Western influence in the region in recent years they have reasserted themselves clearly.

In February 1955 a quarrel between Egypt and Iraq produced a split of classical pattern in the Syrian government: a third of its members sided with Iraq, a third with Egypt, and a third either couldn’t make up their minds or urged that Syria stay out of the dispute. Early in 1958 rumors of an Iraqi-supported “imperialist” plot against Syria (inspired by a Baghdad Pact conference in Ankara), coinciding with an internal crisis touched off by fears of a Communist take-over, drove the Syrian government of the day into an Anschluss with Egypt, and the Hashemite regime in Iraq reacted by forming a union with Jordan; a few months later, following the overthrow of the detested Iraqi Hashemites, Syrian opinion began to veer in favor of union with Iraq and a great many Jordanians were eager for union with Egypt.

Even when no invader or potential big brother was on the horizon, the inland towns and lowland villages were rarely able to relax their watch on two local sources of insecurity: desert and mountain. Not every encroachment by the desert on the town has been provoked by major droughts and massive tribal migrations. Local disturbances involving raids by desert nomads on farmland and villages on the periphery of grazing areas, and the consequent dislocation of urban food supplies, have followed relatively minor fluctuations of rainfall almost imperceptible to the average townsman; and some have had their origins merely in intertribal politics. Mountains may hold a dual menace for sedentary lowlanders: pastoral tribes which practice transhumance, pasturing their flocks at different altitudes according to the season, are no less ready than their Bedouin counterparts to seek by force what nature fails to provide; and turbulent ethnic and religious minorities (and sometimes outright bandits) who have found refuge in the hills are tempted in hard times, or when law and order break down under some other stress, to prey on the men of the plains. As recently as 1958 mountain-based clansmen allied with urban political dissidents, paralyzed the economic and administrative life of Lebanon for five months.

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Milennia of insecurity and political pawndom, of invasion and outside domination alternating with internal upheaval, have left their imprint on the Levantine character. There is a fatalistic assumption of the inevitability of foreign intervention in the region’s affairs—not least on the part of those who strike the most chauvinistic attitudes. It is taken for granted that a great many newspapers are subsidized by the embassy of at least one foreign power, and some newspapers by several. When a leading political or military (or, as is common nowadays, politico-military) personality is under discussion, one is apt to hear less of his political convictions, if any, than of his affiliations, real or suspected, with outside powers. “Kamel A is America’s man, of course,” one’s host will say, quite complacently, “and Omar B is Britain’s”; or “Colonel C used to be hand-in-glove with the French but now he has turned to the Russians.” This does not necessarily mean that Kamel A, Omar B, and Colonel C are thought to be in receipt of hard cash for their services, real or imagined, to the powers concerned, though such accusations are frequently made; but it is assumed that in order to protect their private interests or further their political ambitions they are willing to collaborate with the power whose influence seems to be most useful.

A shift in the regional power balance can provoke dramatic switches of allegiance. According to an official Iraqi statement, Syrian ex-Premier Sabri el-Assali accepted funds from the pro-Western Hashemite government of Iraq, to work for what would have been a Hashemite-dominated Syrian-Iraqi union, up to the Anglo-French debacle over Suez; thereafter he worked for a Syrian-Egyptian merger and was rewarded with the vice-presidency of the United Arab Republic. Between 1944 and 1958 the ebullient Syrian politician, many times minister, Khaled el-Azm, was successively pro-French, pro-British, pro-French again, and then pro-Russian. (He concluded his second pro-French phase in spectacular fashion in June 1955 by visiting Paris where he negotiated an agreement providing for French help in modernizing the Syrian army, made several declarations of Syrian affection for France, and promised to tone down anti-French broadcasts to North Africa by Damascus radio; then he went on to New York to a special session of the UN General Assembly where he called for the “liberation of North Africa from French tyranny”!)

Time and again, the practical problem Levantine notables have had to face has been not how to avoid invasion but how to minimize, and if possible exploit, its consequences, and many of them have come to regard themselves as authorities on big-power psychology and the intricate art of balancing would-be conquerors, overlords, protectors, and big brothers against each other. Their skill is not to be scorned. In both world wars, the Levantine and Arab leaders managed to maneuver themselves onto the winning side, and even to reap relatively greater political advantage from the postwar settlement than the nominal victors, without making any significant contribution to the Allied cause. In the first war, the major tribal leaders of Syria and Arabia were fairly evenly divided between those who were subsidized by the Turks and Germans and those subsidized by the British. But payment of a subsidy bought only its recipient’s neutrality: that of the late Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud, for example, cost the British taxpayer nearly a million dollars a year. To stir up a small tribal revolt against the Turks, such as that led by the Emir Faisal, a flood of gold sovereigns, arms (many of which were sold to the Turks), promises, remonstrances, and propaganda was necessary; and even so, as late as the summer of 1918, Faisal was still in touch with the Turks, offering to abandon his British sponsors for the right price, and Allenby’s army had the greatest difficulty in distinguishing between hostile and friendly Arabs as it advanced on Damascus. Its officers knew, moreover, that—as Lawrence’s companion Stirling wrote—”if Allenby’s push failed we should have little or no chance of escaping to the south: the Arabs would be sure to rise against us, for in this country only the successful are favored.”2 In the second war, most of the Arab governments joined the Allied camp just in time to qualify for UN membership—after Germany had been safely brought to her knees.

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The leaders concerned claim credit quite frankly—perhaps more credit than is due—for “using” the British to winkle the French out of Syria and Lebanon, for persuading the Americans to persuade the British to evacuate the Suez Canal Zone and terminate the Anglo-Iraqi treaty, for enrolling Russia to help make a mockery of the American-sponsored Baghdad Pact, and for rallying UN support in easing the British and French out of Port Said in 1956-57 and the Americans and British out of Lebanon and Jordan in 1958.3 Egyptian diplomats have enthralled Levantine dinner parties with their explanation of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser’s success in retaining the Indian government’s support in 1955-57 despite Mr. Nehru’s personal disapproval of his intrigues in Libya, Sudan, and Lebanon and of Egyptian terrorist raids inside Israel. This was done, Nasser’s own representatives have boasted, by means of a never-quite-formulated threat that the Arab League’s eight UN votes might otherwise support Pakistan on Kashmir, a threat kept alive by offering Pakistan membership in the Mecca Islamic Congress and by occasional, purposefully ambiguous, articles on Indian-Pakistani relations in the controlled Cairo press.

On October 1, 1955, the Lebanese paper el-Ahad defined Arab neutralism thus: “We will exploit the West as well as the East to our advantage. . . . We shall smile at the West for a price and at the East for a price. . . . Henceforth, there will be a price on our smile.” Only those totally ignorant of Near Eastern history and psychology could be surprised that Nasser based his foreign policy on precisely this formula, or could have oscillated between delight and anger as Nasser smiled first at the Americans and British (until he had assured himself of the Canal Zone base and their pactomania had become an embarrassment), then at the Russians (until he had exhausted their short-term diplomatic and economic possibilities and they had become a little too cocky), then ran a brief anti-Communist campaign in his press (until his financial agreement with Britain was ready for signature and the Russians were behaving more discreetly), and then smiled Kremlinwards again. (The Cyprus agreement is thought by some observers to have contributed to this latest tilt of the Cairo seesaw: in relieving the British government of a major embarrassment—freeing its attention and resources for imminent crises in the Persian Gulf and southern Arabia—and guaranteeing Britain possession of permanent military bases within sight of the Levant mainland, it heightened the value to Nasser of his Moscow counterweight.)

Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian journalists and officials with whom I was in daily contact when Stalin imposed his Berlin blockade and when the Korean war broke out, were delighted on both occasions at the prospect of seeing their countries’ bargaining power between the democratic and Communist blocs raised by what they frankly hoped would be lengthy conflicts. In contrast, the advocacy by Western liberals and socialists of negotiations with the Soviet Union on the Near East displeases them: Lebanese and other papers have objected that such negotiations “would rob the Arab states of the initiative.” It is significant that as the latest Berlin crisis took shape Arab diplomatic activity was stepped up, and the issue of Jewish immigration into Israel4 was revived as an invitation to the powers to bid for Arab smiles.

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Despite their fence-sitting virtuosity, Near Eastern leaders have frequently played into the hands of ambitious outsiders by calling in external support against some rival or potentially dangerous neighbor or against the occupant, overlord or government (even indigenous) of the day. In the first half of the 12th century the Crusaders were probably taken aback by the extent to which local Moslem chiefs were not so much willing as eager to make alliances with them against their (Moslem) neighbors. And the declaration of the then Christian townsfolk of Horns to the Moslem conqueror Khalid in 636 was typical of the accommodating outlook which made possible the replacement of Byzantine by Moslem power throughout the area: “We are confident in the superiority of your rule and justice to the oppression and tyranny under which we have been living.” Similar declarations welcomed Ibrahim Pasha, son of Mohamed Ali, Pasha of Egypt, when he marched into Syria and Lebanon in 1832, and to the returning Ottoman Turks when in 1840 they expelled him. Similar declarations would have been made to the Germans had Rommel’s Afrika Korps defeated the British at El-Alamein (home-made Nazi flags were hidden in many a Levantine cellar, ready to welcome them) and would be made to the Russians if ever the Red Army swept over the Caucasus.

The Syrians, in particular, as T. E. Lawrence wrote, have generally “looked outside for help and expected freedom to come by entreaty, not by sacrifice.” There can be few diplomats or foreign correspondents intimately integrated into the life of the Levant who have not at some time or other received hints, at the very least, that this party or group or that editor or politician would appreciate their embassy’s support. The nominal nationalists who make such approaches see nothing inconsistent in their attitude.

The devil outside the gate is traditionally preferred to the devil within. “We know the British and French,” I have heard Syrians say. “We don’t know the Russians. Therefore we prefer the Russians.” This sort of syllogism is encountered a great deal in local politics, particularly in the towns whose mercurial, largely discontented populations are generally willing to welcome any new master who seems likely to liberate them from their current debts and obligations. For as far back as anyone can remember, civic and political loyalties have lacked any constant focus. In Aleppo (Syria) I know responsible citizens whose dearest desire is to pass under Iraqi or Turkish rule; long before the formation of the United Arab Republic, Sunni Moslem merchants of Tripoli (Lebanon) were hoping for Syria to annex them; Christian landowners and businessmen in Beirut and south Lebanon told me in the early and middle 1950′s that their country’s only hope of sound government lay in a return of the French; and I have heard educated members of the effendi class in frontier areas of Lebanon and Jordan express a wish for incorporation in Israel.

Such confidences are not easy to gather. The constant need for attention to the whims of powerful outsiders and the intrigues of unreliable neighbors has inbred a tendency to political and social chameleonism even in circles in which, as a result of education or the exercise of authority, one might expect to find a fair degree of intellectual self-confidence and outspokenness. At its crudest, this may consist mainly in studying form, deciding who is going to win whatever conflict is brewing or in progress, and then wearing the colors and expressing the ideas most likely to appeal to the victor.

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In the late 1930′s and early 40′s, for example, pro-Nazism was the order of the day; but in 1942, after the British victory at El-Alamein, pro-Nazi “intellectuals” began to meet in British Council reading rooms—partly for cover but mainly for reinsurance. In 1949 the same unblushing Syrian notables, sheikhs, mudirs, professional men, and political leaders who had hastened to Damascus on the morrow of the first military coup d’état to assure Colonel Husni ez-Zaim of their undying loyalty flocked, man for man, five months later, to congratulate Colonel Sami Hinnawi on having liquidated him, and were back again, after an even shorter interval, to thank Colonel Adib Shishakli for overthrowing Hinnawi. When Shishakli, in his turn, was violently superseded in 1954, the same familiar faces were soon seen in the presidential palace, greeting the new incumbent, Sayed Hashem el-Atassi.

El-Atassi’s own record was revealing. In his youth he served both the Ottoman empire and the British-sponsored Arab revolt against it. A leading member of the Syrian General Congress, which was opposed to the establishment of French rule in Syria, he later collaborated with the French and, during their mandate, became president of the Republic. Subsequently he cooperated with the Vichy authorities and sent a message of encouragement to Rashid Ali during his anti-British revolt in Iraq in 1941; but he welcomed the British and Free French when they arrived in Syria two months later, and then attacked the French with mounting vehemence as the time for their final evacuation approached. He was president both before and after Colonel Shishakli’s first coup, working successively with the civilian politicians and the military officers who overthrew them; and he returned to the presidency after Shishakli’s removal.

El-Atassi’s successor, President Shukri el-Kuwalti, was equally versatile. During World War II he was a member of Haj Amin el-Hussein’s nine-man pro-Nazi committee to coordinate anti-British activity; from 1944 to 1948 he sought British favors, but in 1953, as Britain’s star sank in the Near East, he took once more to denouncing British imperialism; after championing Syrian statehood against those who advocated a union of Arabic-speaking countries, he co-operated with Colonel Nasser in bringing about, in the guise of the United Arab Republic, what was in effect an Egyptian annexation of Syria; after presiding over and, to most progressive Syrians, symbolizing the corrupt, nepotist “old gang” regime of 1945-48, he allied himself a few years later with a vaguely “leftist” coalition which proceeded to liquidate many of his former colleagues and friends. To cite another example, in April 1957, the Jordanian minister Samir Rifai was not unnaturally in favor of the American intervention which saved King Hussein and himself from a military coup and popular uprising; in October 1957, at a press conference in Amman, he denounced “Western interference in Arab affairs”; in July 1958 he was an advocate of the British landings in Jordan undertaken after Colonel Kassem’s coup in Baghdad.

British and French political officers in Syria and Lebanon between 1942 and 1946 who took the elementary precaution of getting together at intervals to compare notes were frequently entertained by the virtuosity of the Levantine personalities who visited them, not merely in expressing diametrically opposed views in the course of the same morning but in toning their views—depending upon whether they were visiting the French mustashar or the British—to just the right subtle shade most likely to match their hearer’s prejudices. British and American officials in cities where similar collaboration has been established in recent years have been able to observe the same phenomenon, though newly-arrived diplomats still tend to be shocked when they learn that the highly pro-British or pro-American officer or civil notable who recently gave them so reassuring a survey of local affairs has just expressed completely different views to a gathering of local xenophobes.

Three or four years ago the Lebanese businessman and politician Emil Bustani successfully sold himself, in the course of the same month, to a visiting British Labor party delegation as a socialist and to the American magazine Newsweek as “a convinced advocate of free enterprise.” In 1957 one co-founder of the Syrian Booth el-Ishteraki (“Socialist Resurrection”) party, Michel Aflak, told a British Labor Member of Parliament that he favored peace with Israel while the other co-founder, Akram Hourani, was declaring to an all-Arab gathering that “any hand extended to conclude peace with Israel should be amputated.”

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Western technology is enabling man to bulldoze and subdue mere geographical obduracy. Distances and natural barriers are shriveling in the Near East as elsewhere. But psychological mountains and deserts are not so easily overcome. Science has yet to find an antidote to atavism. It has made available weapons which naive or irresponsible Western statesmen have supplied to naive and irresponsible Near Eastern governments in hopes of laying their ancestral ghosts of domestic instability and regional insecurity; but these very weapons have often become instruments of deeper turmoil under the impulse of emotions, reflexes, and social forces no neat scientific formula can exorcise—which is one reason why Russia, too, is now peddling arms in the region.

The 20th century has also brought its own copious quota of invasions, intervention, and externally-fomented disorder to the Near East. As Halford L. Hoskins has written, every one of the Arabic-speaking states except Egypt “owes its present form and territorial limits more to the political maneuverings of Western European powers than to natural political evolution or to any designs or efforts of its own”—and the two world powers still warn the Near East periodically of each other’s aggressive intentions. In such circumstances the Levant’s age-old invasion psychosis is unlikely to atrophy, and the statesmen of the powers are likely to go on indulging for some little time to come in that Near Eastern version of “He loves me, he loves me not” of which they never seem to tire.

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Footnotes

1 Letters from Syria (London, 1942). In February 1959 the Lebanese government, spurred by a series of violent incidents, introduced the death penalty for murders committed in the course of communal or inter-village feuding.

2 Col. W. F. Stirling, Safety Last (London, 1953).

3 The American organization “Friends of the Middle East,” despite its efforts to acquire a “pro-Arab” reputation, was denounced as a pro-Zionist and anti-Moslem body when American influence in the Levant began to wane.

4 An issue worked to a shadow by anti-Zionist propaganda mills over the last twenty years and insignificant beside the problems raised by Egypt's 3 per cent annual population increase.

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