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Opinionista

Geopolitical Jenga and the making of chaos in the Middle East

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Mark Heywood is a social justice activist and former Editor of Maverick Citizen, a section of Daily Maverick. He is the former Executive Director of SECTION27 and has been a human rights activist most of his life.

Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, compresses 30 years of witnessing the endless wars of the Middle East into 300 remarkable pages in 'The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History'. Motivated not by ideology, ethnicity or religion, but purely by personal observation and knowledge of history, his book is a searing indictment of how Western meddling brought one of the world’s most ancient civilisations to rubble.

Paul Lynch, the winner of the 2023 Booker Prize for his novel Prophet Song, has explained that in an early iteration the novel was originally set in Syria and based on research he had conducted into the human costs of societies that collapse into authoritarianism and civil war. 

However, aware that it was missing something, one day he tore it up and started again, setting his story instead in Dublin, his home town and a city whose throb of life and death he could more easily actualise in his story: “The quickest route to the universal is through the particular, it’s through your own world, what you know. And so I write about what I know,” he told New Statesman.

Read more: A review of the 2023 winner of the Booker Prize, ‘Prophet Song’

I do not know if Lynch would have read Jeremy Bowen’s The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History, first published in 2022. But if he had he would have come across the non-fiction companion to his own story and a real-life source for much of its horror. I say this because mixed in with Bowen’s hard-nosed ethical reportage and his deep knowledge of the history and politics of the region are accounts of his personal experience of war’s cost to our humanity.  

One feature of the book is his ability to spot the moments of dark poetry that occur in a war.

His résumé of 30 years as a war reporter is replete with these observations, and they are what gives the book its conscience. 

For example, describing the liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, after four years of barbaric rule by Islamic State, Bowen records the sight of a father and his youngest daughter waiting for the army “to hand out armfuls of flat Iraqi bread and lentil soup from a steaming pail”. 

“The girl, who was around six or seven, was dressed in a mauve T-shirt with the word ‘Princess’ in the best Disney cursive. As soon as she saw our camera she struck a pose like an Instagram influencer, left knee bent slightly over the right, left hand on left hip, with a sweet in her chubby right fist.”

It brought back to mind a question I have asked myself as I look at footage from Gaza: How is it that children still manage to laugh and play, even when all around them is horror and loss? 

‘The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History’ by Jeremy Bowen. Image: Supplied

Colonialism then bust

Bowen has been the BBC’s Middle East correspondent since he was first sent to report on Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and the West’s response – the first Gulf War and the driving out of Saddam’s forces.

Since then it feels like the brave Bowen has been on the frontline of every conflict  – Libya, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Kurdistan – and has come to know the region, its monsters and its suffering people like the back of his hand.

But the strength of the book is in its understated but compelling political analysis. 

It doesn’t treat the wars and revolutions of the Middle East as disconnected fragments in the lives of a people with a proclivity for war and barbarism – the racist narrative that explains the omissions in much of Western thinking and commentary about the Middle East – but as part of a continuing and worsening chain reaction that starts with the decline of the Ottoman Empire and accelerates with the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the original sin of British and French colonialism in the region in the early 20th century. 

In his wry and ironic style Bowen puts it this way:

“The Middle East attracts outsiders, and the desire to control it has led to suffering and slaughter. It possesses resources as well as sacred and strategic territory. 

“Once the world entered the industrial era and craved carbon, the planet’s biggest reserves of oil and gas were impossible to ignore.”   

Bowen’s account of the region’s history shows how one conflict spawns another (Gulf War 1 to Gulf War 2; the 2011 invasion of Libya to the murderous stalemate of Syria; the Oslo Accords to the current war on Palestinians by Israel) and how, in this toxic broth, even popular revolution quickly turns to counter-revolution.

Thus, referring to the degeneration of the popular uprisings of 2010/11 (the so-called Arab Spring, a term Bowen says he does not use) into war and the brutal responses of cornered despots Bowen points out:

“The counter-revolution was on, and by the end of 2011, 30,000 Arabs were dead. The protesters in Cairo and Tunis who were swept up with joy about what they had done seemed not to notice, and nor did many in the West, who made a snap judgement that a happy democratic ending was on the way. It was the same illusion that liberal democracy was unstoppable that had followed the end of the Cold War.

“I had known the Middle East long enough to be horribly aware of the trouble ahead.” 

Read another book review by Mark Heywood: Echoes of Gaza — A review of Isabella Hammad’s ‘Enter Ghost’  

One big takeaway from the book is just how catalytic the West, the US and Britain in particular, have been to the chaos that has destroyed the ancient civilisation of the region, and is now spilling over into conflicts across the world. 

For example, as British legal historian Philippe Sands has detailed in his book, Lawless World, the UK and US’ ignoring of international law and the UN Security Council when launching the second Gulf War in 2003, became the premise for other states – Russia, Israel and others – to pooh-pooh the safety breaks built up carefully since World War 2. 

In March 2011, Western air strikes on Libya, after hapless Russian support for a UN Security Council resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, but interpreted as a mandate for regime change, became the basis for Russia’s drawing of a bloody new line to protect the Assad regime from something similar in Syria. 

Finally, this book is essential and accessible reading for anyone trying to understand the roots of the genocide currently being undertaken by Israel in the Gaza Strip and the risks of what commentators often glibly call “a wider regional conflict”. 

Although the book ends in 2021, the conflicts it describes do not. 

Its penultimate chapter is a heart-rending account of the human costs of Israel’s 11-day war on Gaza in May 2021. 

After 300 pages and 30 years it no longer requires great prescience from Bowen to write: “Without remedial action, the next war is always inevitable.” 

In fact, all the arguments we have heard since 7 October 2023 have already been rehearsed. Referring to one of Israel’s invasions of Southern Lebanon, in the 1980s Bowen shows how the argument that civilians are a legitimate casualty of war for a population guilty of shielding “terrorists”, now heard again in Gaza, is not a new one. Says Bowen:

“When Israel goes to war, two clocks start running. One counts the time needed by the military. The other is for the time left until the outside world demands a ceasefire, which Israeli diplomats worked hard to slow down.” 

In a chapter dealing with the earlier Israeli wars on Gaza he quotes Dr Eyad el-Sarraj, one of Gaza’s best-known psychiatrists who “like many of his countrymen, believed that Israel wanted to sow hatred in new generations of Palestinians, in order that they would always have an excuse not to make peace. ‘For Israel,’ he said, peace is the most dangerous thing, not war.’”

And so the catastrophic story continues into the present and the future. 

In what Bowen calls a “geopolitical Jenga” of the Middle East where “miscalculations and misperceptions could bring it crashing down”, Bowen ends with a simple appeal to “the meddling West” and others: 

“Powerful states looking in from the outside need to stop making it worse. Do no more harm. Then try to make things better.” DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Do middle easterners bear any of the responsibility for their situation or is it all down to the evil old west again?

    • John P says:

      Classic deflection technique there Mike.

      • Middle aged Mike says:

        Deflection of what exactly? The empires that dominated the middle east were in decline from around the 1700s and had fizzled by the end of the first world war. Attributing all that’s wrong with that part of the world to western meddling, of which there was plenty, is revisionist woke nonsense.

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        And so all of us … whiteys no doubt !

    • District Six says:

      Did you actually read the article? You must have missed the part,
      “Jeremy Bowen, of 30 years as a war reporter … in the Middle East… and knows the area as a first hand witness like the back of his hand…”
      And, “British legal historian Philippe Sands has detailed in his book, Lawless World, the UK and US’ ignoring of international law and the UN Security Council when launching the second Gulf War in 2003, became the premise for other states – Russia, Israel and others…”
      And, “it feels like the brave Bowen has been on the frontline of every conflict – Libya, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Kurdistan – and has come to know the region, its monsters and its suffering people like the back of his hand.”
      You should try to read for understanding.

      • Middle aged Mike says:

        I don’t see anything in that to change my view of the message in the article. It is of course possible that I struggled to read the post with the appropriate bias to understand it’s message. For interest, are you of the view that there’s nothing about the culture and traditions of the populations of the middle east that contribute to the chaotic mess it is?

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Isn’t it what they do, regardless of outsiders.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Right … just like the white tribes of Europe who produced world war one and two … and are on the precipice of the third … with American hubris (Peter Beinart) leading the way ! A tale of 10% of the world’s population (the west) trying to tell (dictate?) to the other 90% … what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ . About the likes of Beinart , Hariri and various professors … and any Jew critical of the regime of Israel … ‘they’ have invented the term “self hating” to wash their hands and not having to deal with issue. Like in SA … no one during apartheid voted for the regime … it just miraculously ‘manifested’ itself for about 5 decades … and in Israel for about 7 and still counting. Even after Vietnam and most recently Afghanistan (excluding all the other disasters in between) … the Americans still think hubris will win the day . And that excludes all the Zionist fanciers here in our midst.

  • Stephen Paul says:

    And so the demonization of Israel goes on in the Opinion pages of the DM.
    What is Heywood quoting Bowen quoting Gazans saying exactly ? That Israelis are genocidal brutal evil monsters who every now and then wake up in the morning and say just for sport let’s be cruel to the harmless gentle peace-loving Palestinians. That this slander of a nation is perfectly acceptable unbiased journalism. That Israeli policy has always been to look for excuses not to make peace. That historical analysis created in a vacuum with context denied is not historical revisionism, with Israel in the courtroom of The Trial. And then the Kafkaesque claim that Bowen and the BBC are neutral observers is frankly living in an alternative universe.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      war crimes committed daily by Israel against Palestinians (not Hamas) leaves anyone defending Israel look mentally challenged.

      • Dietmar Horn says:

        People with healthy empathy condemn every war crime, no matter who commits it. Those who are particularly mentally challenged are those who unilaterally point the finger where it supports their own ideological point of view – that is exactly hypocrisy. And that’s exactly what I observe in some posts that vehemently and without self-reflection make themselves advocates for one side, regardless of whether they are for or against Israel, Palestine, Putin, the West, or whatever.

        • Kanu Sukha says:

          Nice try at deflection or what some falsely call ‘objectivity’ ! Why are so many interested in the welfare of a hundred or so ‘hostages’ in Gaza … but no one asks about the thousands of ‘hostages’ in Israeli jails … over the past 70 plus years ? Many in ‘administrative detention’ sic as use to happen in apartheid SA ? 70 plus years of subjugation and humiliation (endorsed by the ‘west’) was bound to produce a reaction from the subjugated, like it did here with the emergence of MK ( not the current misnomered ‘political party’ !

          • Dietmar Horn says:

            So in your opinion, innocent lives don’t count when the perpetrators of violence act in the name of what you believe is a just cause? Murder, manslaughter, rape, kidnapping – do mitigating circumstances for the perpetrators depend on political motivation? Is this your “non-selective” definition of an “objective” view?

      • Stephen Paul says:

        And your ad hominem insulting Reply with wild propaganda language thrown in is I suppose an intelligent response ? Why don’t you attend to the perfectly reasonable points about context and bias. Your answer only reinforces not refutes the Comment

    • Troy Marshall says:

      A state that makes it official policy to oppress a race is evil.
      Those who chose to remain mis-informed, enable evil.
      Those who accept funding from pro-Israeli lobbyists, enable evil.
      Those who sell arms to Israel, enable evil.
      Those who use veto powers to shield Israel, enable evil.
      This one really “gets me” as I traditionally vote for them. A party’s high ranking representative can travel to the Ukraine to see the effects of Putin’s war, no issue made. A party member makes comments about Israel’s war in Gaza? Party member ordered “cease and desist”! This political party operates in a country where most of the population has strong memories about oppression. Talk about an own goal.

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        It’s called selective amnesia … and is followed by “whatabout” !

      • Stephen Paul says:

        Are the Palestinians a race ?
        If I keep repeating without any context Israel has an official policy to be evil oppressors, Israel is an evil oppressor, does that make it genuine ?
        If I keep repeating all muslims are terrorists, all muslims are terrorists, does that make it true ?
        No. Of course not.
        This is the value of Tik Tok comments such as yours.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Thank you Mark for a fresh and independent look at the matter .. free from the American hubris and Zionist propaganda .. who will no doubt ‘come after’ you … like those Jews they dismiss with the “self hating” label !

    • Dietmar Horn says:

      Even if you agree with someone else’s opinion, don’t you think it would be beneficial to both their credibility and yours to back it up with facts rather than a narrative whose truth does not increase by being repeated over and over again?

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    It is undisputed that global actors, including the “West”, do not interfere in regional conflicts without their own interests. The fact that the author focuses one-sidedly on the role of the “West” and cites other authors who support his thesis shows whose spirit child he is. However, the influence from outside is secondary; the core problem is that regionally competing groups are not able to achieve a fair balance of interests, peacefully and with mutual respect. The lines once drawn on the map by colonial powers do not change this (Sykes-Picot). Any external influence would be impossible if the regional actors could not be divided apart (principle “divide et impera”). In the case of the Israel/Palestine conflict, we are dealing with two hostile ethnic brother nations, both of whom make their irrational religious doctrines the standard for their actions (an eye for an eye, etc.). Peace efforts from outside are doomed to failure unless a profound paradigm shift takes place in both affected peoples. One-sided partisanship only makes things worse.

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