Travelers, Wild and Tame

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

For over forty years (except for a brief interlude when she was married), Freya Stark spent some 40 years traveling by herself in the Middle East. I have just finished reading her first book, Baghdad Sketches (1932), consisting of columns written for the Baghdad Times plus some 8 pieces added later for the British edition.

I am amazed that she was able to not only survive traveling in a difficult part of the world roughly between 1928 and 1970, but she lived to the age of 100.

She is not the first to do so. Gertrude Bell (who died in Baghdad just a couple years before Freya arrived there), also covered much of the same ground. Still, I cannot imagine in this period of violent jihad and xenophobia that their travels could be duplicated without a military escort.

Freya had interesting attitudes about solitude and travel. On the former, she wrote that “solitude is the one deep necessity of the human spirit to which adequate recognition is never given in our codes. It is looked upon as a discipline or penance, but almost never as the indispensable, pleasant ingredient it is to ordinary life.” For the modern traveler, she felt with distaste that its purpose “is to give people a glimpse of the exotic places without the least bit of inconvenience to themselves.”

In Baghdad Sketches, she gives a picture of a much more diverse population than exists now in the era of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. Stark frequently visited among the Kurds, Yezidis, Shi’as, and Eastern Christians living in Iraq during the 1930s.

Among her books that I have read with pleasure, in addition to Baghdad Sketches, are:

  • The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934)
  • The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey to the Hadhramaut (1938)
  • Alexander’s Path: From Caria to Cilicia (1958)—about Turkey

Many of her books are still in print.



Twenty Years in the Middle East

Do We Know Our Way About the Middle East Any More Now Than in 1995?

Do We Know Our Way About the Middle East Any More Now Than in 1995?

North Africa, the Middle East—in fact, the entire Islamic world—remain a giant mystery to us because we prefer to continue with our deadly combination of naiveté and sophisticated weaponry. Are we culturally aware of the peoples of the Islamic world? Are we teaching Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi in our schools to the generation that will take up the burden laid on our shoulders by the Bushes, Cheneys, Rumsfelds, and their discredited Neocon advisers?

The problem is, we are babes in the woods … where there are no woods. They know all about us, but we still know squat about them.

We are not winning anyone’s hearts and minds with our ignorance and fecklessness. What we are doing is creating a war zone that looks to be getting worse each year, despite the much-vaunted Arab spring. Given enough time, perhaps the entire population of the countries between Morocco and Iraq will cross over the border into Europe. (Fortunately, it’s too difficult to sail a flimsy raft full of refugees across the oceans.) Then there won’t be a Middle East, just a Muslim Europe—which is certainly not where the nations of Europe want to be.

Macedonian Police and Syrian Refugees

Macedonian Police Holding Back Syrian Refugees

It’s difficult to predict what will happen, especially since all we seem to be doing is committing random mayhem in the name of combating “terrorism.”

So who is to blame? Everyone. The United States for being willfully stupid. The Arabs and North Africans for thinking that Islamic fundamentalism is the answer … to everything. The Europeans, for letting themselves be overrun. It doesn’t look good.



Hold That Line!

There Has Been Relatively Little Change Since WWI

There Has Been Relatively Little Change Since After WWI

Take a quick look at this map. Given that the Middle East is such a volatile and combative part of the world, it is amazing that so little has changed since the pacts after the First World War. At that time, there were quite a few changes: Several countries that formerly belonged to the Ottoman Empire were carved out of desert because the British and French wanted it so. The British and French are long gone, but the lines they drew still hold (as of 1:30 p.m. today anyway).

The biggest change on the map was the creation of all the independent “-stans” after the Soviet Union fell apart around 1992. Other changes include the creation of Pakistan in 1946 (though its eastern part is now Bangladesh) and the union of the former British colony of Aden with Yemen. Also Cyprus is now independent (but divided into Greek and Turkish halves).

Probably the only country whose boundary was not drawn by the European powers is Pakistan. Far from stable, however, the Islamabad government is currently facing three insurgencies: the Taliban, the Belochis, and in Karachi (from several ethnic groups). They also risk war with Iran because of the Belochi insurgency and with China over helping to radicalize in Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

Islamic populations in general seem to be divided into two groups:

  1. Apprehensive, politically ineffectual people who just want to get on with their lives, and
  2. Jihadists who want to conquer the world and introduce Sharia law everywhere.

In the near future, it seems that the Jihadists will be in the ascendant. That tendency will be reversed eventually because radicals who want to blow themselves up are generally not effective in creating a strong country. I suspect that soon the map boundaries will change until they are unrecognizable from the above illustration. Also, I suspect that there will be a lot more countries: several in Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria. Even tiny Lebanon is split between Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze, and Maronite Christian enclaves. Talk about Balkanization!

I think the best thing for the United States to do is to disengage from any military activity in the region: We always end up arming the wrong people. (It would have helped if someone in the Pentagon knew Arabic.) Although extraction of oil through fracking is dangerous, it would be nice if we were independent of the Middle East for our oil needs. Then we could just let them kill one another and go tsk-tsk while shaking our heads.

One exception: Look at what’s sitting right in the center of that map. The most stable country of the group is Iran. I think we should be friends with them and let bygones be bygones. But no military intervention, please!


How Our Era Will Be Remembered

Turmoil in the Middle East

Another Day of Turmoil in the Middle East

Clearly, Islam is undergoing a large-scale upheaval. Ever since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, most Muslims in the Middle East have been living in countries with ill-defined borders ruled by various strong men. There is a general feeling that all is not well with their part of the world.

Beginning in the peri0od between the two World Wars, American and European oil companies moved in on these strong men and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: unlimited wealth and power, if only they would sign on the dotted line. They signed, all right, but after almost a century, that money has not filtered down to the Arab man on the street. (Most of it probably ended up in offshore banking accounts owned by the strong men and their families.)

What to do about it? Well, first of all, one could riot and cause mayhem. Even if they topple one strong men, like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, there is always a Mohammed Morsi waiting in the wings to make himself and his family equally rich and powerful.

Or, another popular option is to blame the West for all their ills. “Ameriki” is the Great Satan and must be destroyed, along with its jackal partner Israel. If your country’s unemployment rate for young men is something like 75%, then blowing oneself up along with Islam’s enemies looks like a good career move. The Jihad Option is a popular one, especially the more the situation appears to be dire. The problem is, when all of Islam’s external enemies have been destroyed, then it will be necessary to move on the internal enemies, such as Shia, Alawite, or Sufi Muslims; Druzes; Baha’is; Copts and other Middle-Eastern Christians, and others. Other than filling graveyards, how does that solve their problems?

Islam has so very many enemies, and so few friends. If, by merely existing, Americans become enemies of Jihadists, what’s the point of trying to kiss up to them? The pity of it all is that, to quote Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

And the streets are teeming with the worst….