Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: “Frenchman, Go Home!”

Ray Alan tells a story of the political complexities and seductive voices of the Middle East. It is a story with a moral—for diplomats.

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Ten years ago, in Syria and Lebanon, Arab nationalists used to say to British officers and officials: “Get rid of the French for us and you will earn our eternal gratitude. Once they are gone it will be you who will hold the privileged position here. . . .” Shortly afterwards, of course, it was: “Liquidate this Zionist problem for us and there will be no more friction or misunderstanding. . . .”

And now it is the Americans—officials, oilmen, teachers, and others—who are being subjected to the familiar treatment: “The only cause of friction between us is Israel. Remove Israel and we will love you forever.” It is a heady and flattering refrain that seeps in most insidiously when the victim is most relaxed—over cocktails or arak and mezze or dinner on a balcony overlooking a moonlit Mediterranean—and it seems to be taking a heavy toll. Decisions to give what will apparently be—by Near Eastern standards—substantial American military aid to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, despite the violent and repetitive efforts of these states’ leaders to pour fuel onto the flames of Arab hostility to Israel, are symptomatic. So are the numerous anti-Israel innuendos in the Arabic handouts of the U.S. Information Service in the Arab capitals, and American subsidies to violently anti-Jewish Arabic dailies (in return for occasional ephemeral “anti-Communist” editorials which their readers know are paid for and which are sometimes even composed in a style that proclaims the writer had his tongue in his cheek).

The episode I recount below is, roughly, 90 per cent true, the other 10 per cent being a necessary concession to some of the tensions of life in the Middle East. The story goes back to the days when Arabs smiled upon the British and frowned upon the French. It may offer some indirect light on the dark byways of diplomacy in which so many Americans are now involved in their dealings with the Arabs.

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One of the people I always look up whenever I go to Beirut is a French engineer I shall call here Marcel Lagare. Marcel has devoted—I really mean devoted—most of his life to the Levant. Up to the liquidation of the French mandate over Syria he lived in Aleppo. It was there that I first met him, early in 1945, just before the great tidal wave of rioting that convinced not only the French but most of the local Jews and Christians that the city could hold no future for them.

That whole period was one of grievous embarrassment for any Englishman who knew a little more of his cross-Channel neighbors than that some of them eat frogs’ legs (a delicacy, incidentally, they taught the Syrians to appreciate), for the nationalists, eager to speed the French on their way and insure themselves against any last-minute hitch in the transfer of power, made every effort to embroil individual Britons on their behalf. Temporarily—momentarily might be more exact—we British were blue-eyed boys. The Foreign Office, its powers of discrimination already befuddled by the heady hashish fumes being emitted by Cairo pan-Arabists, tended to snap like a starving dromedary at the doped tufts of flattery and cut-rate popularity dangled in front of it. The British Army—it is not insignificant that the War Office occupies the sunny side of Whitehall—was less fickle in its sensitivity to the feelings of an old ally. French folks wishing to use its swimming pool (the only one in the city) were given an armed escort there and back. One British unit, consisting mainly of linguists, whose billets were in the center of town, gaily exposed itself to the risk of attracting a grenade by singing uproarious French drinking songs whenever it was in its cups—which was almost every night. My contribution to this wholly spontaneous effort to maintain the entente was to entertain a small circle of French officials and Marcel Lagare.

His wife and children had already been evacuated and had returned to France on the ill-fated Champollion. Most of his furniture had been stolen or sold. He lived alone, in a dusty wilderness of bare floors, uncurtained windows, naked electric lamps, and impatient-looking suitcases. Only the ghostly gaiety of the murals in the abandoned nursery recalled the light and laughter the house had once held. Nationalist bloods had beaten up the Armenian baker who supplied his bread, so the British Army sent him military loaves. Three evenings a week he was jeeped round to my flat and helped to forget the effondrement of his universe.

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On one such evening when tension was at its tautest, a long luxurious American car, with veiled side windows and blue charms on the bonnet to ward off the evil eye, came gliding silently to a halt outside my door. Two men got out. One was an influential local landlord-politician and nationalist leader whose first name was Selim; the other—a rich, slick, citified Bedu sheikh—represented one of the wilder and woolier tribal areas in the Damascus parliament. Both were always armed.

We were a party of five or six altogether, but Marcel, the only Frenchman present, stood out among us. There was no question of hiding him. He is a great inverted pyramid of a man—six feet five or six, with shoulders to match—and as my place was on the ground floor, with all shutters and inside doors open for coolness, Selim Bey and the sheikh would have noticed at once any attempt to spirit him away. Within seconds they had been announced and, since Selim was a frequent visitor, ushered in.

Marcel was introduced as a colleague of mine and addressed for the rest of the evening as Mike. He suffered, unfortunately, the tremendous handicap of knowing only four English phrases: “Yes, of course,” “Down the hatch,” “Manchester Gwardian” (pronounced with a w), and an Anglo-American military obscenity with which—thanks to Hitler—Lapps, Libyans, and Levantines are now equally familiar and which could not, therefore, be resorted to, to widen his conversational range, on this occasion. Selim’s English was good, though not embarrassingly so, but slow enough to give the rest of us time to divert the conversational current whenever Marcel seemed to be drifting towards the rapids. Occasionally we grinned toothily or frowned furiously in Marcel’s direction, a split second in advance of the occasion, to indicate that either amusement or solemnity was required, and since his face was invariably set in an inappropriate mold the reaction was generally violent. He looked like a Third Secretary picnicking with his Ambassador’s wife on an anthill. Anyhow, thanks to our prompting, his facial expression was rarely ambiguous, and it soon became obvious that the sheikh, who probably knew even less English than Marcel, was following his physiognomical lead in the intervals between Selim’s Arabic translations.

Selim Bey was—and is—an extremely witty man, with a wry sense of humor that seems, remarkably, to transcend linguistic limits. One of his remarks to the sheikh sent Marcel into a gust of laughter. They both looked at him quickly and asked if he spoke Arabic. While the rest of us sat in anxious bedside gloom Marcel took charge of the conversation and soon had the two Syrians open-mouthed in admiration of his command of their language.

After a while Selim Bey turned to me and said in English: “You know, I could swear he speaks Arabic with a slight French accent. Isn’t that odd?”

Someone else turned to Marcel and remarked rashly: “Well, you learned your Arabic in Algiers, didn’t you, Mike? That’s probably why.” Marcel, not understanding what had been said, merely grinned fatuously as if making a mystery of the matter—an attitude that somehow always seems to appeal to Arabs of Selim’s type—and the point was not pursued.

Selim’s favorite drink, after the incomparable local arak, was what he called “Jewish vodka,” a fiery liqueur made in Haifa. I used to tell him it contained a secret Zionist drug which had the effect of mellowing extremist sentiments when drunk by Arabs; and certainly, on this occasion, by his fourth measure of Haifa firewater, nationalist extravagance of expression had been toned down to something near statesmanlike equivocality.

There could be no doubt that Marcel was the star of the evening. When Selim left he shook my hand with especial warmth. “The English are very clever,” he said. “With men like your colleague over there, who can talk to us in our own idiom, you will dominate the East and yet be not unwelcome for another generation at least. The French have no men of that caliber!”

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Marcel himself returned to France in due course; but the Orient had him in its toils and within a year the Champollion had carried him, with his family, back to Beirut, where they have remained ever since. When I last saw him there, about two months ago, he told me rather sheepishly that only the previous day he had again been in trouble in Syria. No, he hadn’t actually been expelled, but the Syrian Sûreté had—

“The French,” I interrupted him, “are a not insensitive nation; but if they have a fault it lies in their inability to take a hint. Except in the small matter of Germany, the proverb ‘Once bitten twice shy’ has no meaning for them.”

This, of course, was what he had wanted me to say, and he grinned triumphantly. “Ah, but wait! I had gone there to meet one of your former partners-in-crime, Williams. He’s working for the IPC [Iraq Petroleum Company] now in Bagdad. He wrote and told me he had some company business to transact in Aleppo and suggested I meet him there for old time’s sake, which I did. Unfortunately, the local Syrian Sûreté, with unheard-of efficiency, looked Williams up in their files and discovered that he was once a British political officer in Lattakia or somewhere. An armed guard appeared within an hour of his arrival and escorted him straight back to the airfield. To me they said: ‘Monsieur, we are not going to expel you, but try in future to avoid associating on Syrian territory with suspicious characters!’ . . . There is another English proverb or something about the wheel turning full circle—how does it go?”

That ought to have been enough for the one day. But the djinn that presides over Near Eastern politics takes an even more malicious delight than his fellow sprites elsewhere in making monkeys out of those who stray onto his preserve. A couple of hours later I met Selim Bey—a grayer, thinner, more subdued Selim whose roseate nationalist dream had soured into a hangover. He too was now living in Beirut. When the departure of the French had failed to bring the Utopian golden age that Selim Bey and his friends had led public opinion to expect (it would have been unkind to remind him of this) the mob had become restless. New voices had begun to preach that the golden age could only come after the liquidation of landlordism. In two of his villages the peasants had even refused to hand over his share of their crop—Selim Bey quivered and his voice rose in pitch as he recounted this outrage—but the gendarmerie had, fortunately, brought them to heel. In the cities there had been uncertainty, unrest, intrigue. . . and then one coup d’éat after another. You had to be on good terms with your local military commander if you wished to avoid paying ruinous taxes; but you never knew when he was going to be court-martialled by the junta or chased out of office by his subordinates.

Selim Bey sighed. Only the fact that he was a millionaire kept him from throwing himself into the sea.

After making the standard complaint—“You British are to blame, really: we were too impulsive: you would have looked ahead and warned us what to expect had you not been so eager to exploit our impulsiveness”—he asked what had become of my former colleagues in Aleppo. We chatted of them for some time and Selim’s eyes brightened at the memory of the now unprocurable “Jewish vodka.” Then he asked me quickly, and his eyes were suddenly almost twinkling: “And that enormous fellow I met once in your flat—the one who spoke such wonderful Arabic—what’s become of him? He was the biggest Frenchman I ever met!”

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