Tales From the Bazaar

As individuals, few American diplomats have been as anonymous as the members of the group known as Arabists. And yet as a group, no cadre of diplomats has aroused more suspicion than the Arab experts have. Arabists are frequently accused of romanticism, of having "gone native"—charges brought with a special vehemence as a result of the recent Gulf War and the events leading up to it. Who are the Arabists? Where did they come from? Do they deserve our confidence?
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PART I
Past and Present

Hume Horan speaking: "Here is the dilemma: God spoke Arabic. Oh, he may have delivered an earlier, flawed message in Hebrew, in the Old Testament, or in Greek, in the New. But he sure got it right the third time. The Koran is not history or biography, like the Bible. It is pure revelation. Arabic is coterminous with God. So, unlike English, which is a compost, a welcoming cathedral, the most catholic of languages, Arabic is a completely closed system, resistant to loanwords, a terrifyingly logical, well-oiled piece of machinery that just clicks, clicks away. Once you've got the infixes and the prefixes in your head, and the three-consonant root verbs you can construct any word you want. It's like gene-splicing. And the religious etymology is so intense, unlike English, where unless you've studied Greek or Latin, you can't really feel the original meaning of the word. Another problem is that Arabic is so beautiful to listen to. So you find yourself putting up with all kinds of crap from these people because of the crystalline way their language lays itself out in space. Just look at the Koran. The English translations are incompetent, I know. The first chapters should really be footnotes at the end: nothing but laundry lists, supplemental legislation—Leviticus. 'The Chapter of the Cow'—bah how dull! But later on, bang, the revelations come at you with a muzzle velocity of three thousand feet per second that just knocks you flat on your can."

Hume Horan, a boyish and gangly fifty-eight-year-old with close-cropped gray hair, is edging toward his theme, not pausing for breath. He has recently been in a bicycle accident, and is slumped back in his living-room chair, gesturing with his right hand and left crutch. His eyes are drinking light, focusing on some blank sheet of inner space, the kind a physicist might look at.

Arabic, Horan goes on, may be no more insulated a language than Chinese. Chinese, one could argue, is even more inimical to Western thought constructs. The Arabs are desert monotheists. Averse to graven images, they harbor, in T. E. Lawrence's words, a "clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation." They thus gravitate toward the abstract. Painting, sculpture, and other plastic arts are not Arab fortes. "The medium in which the aesthetic feeling of the Arabs is mainly . . . expressed," wrote Horan's mentor, the Oxford orientalist Sir Hamilton A. R. Gibb (a man fluent in several Near Eastern tongues), "is that of words and language—the most seductive, it may be, and certainly the most unstable and even dangerous of all the arts."

Horan picks up another strand: Islam was revealed in seventh-century Arabia, a world of political anarchy and social degeneracy. "Mohammed—unlike Jesus, whose mission could assume an ongoing classical order—had to propagate not just a religious message but a social and political one. So Mohammed, in effect, created a supertribe, based not on consanguinity but on a common belief. This social invention proved more practical than Mohammed's political one: his political system broke down with the assassination of the fourth caliph. From then on Arab regimes lacked legitimacy. They had only expediency to fall back on." Alienated from politics and gravitating for linguistic reasons toward the ideal and the abstract, the intellectual energies of the supertribesmen began focusing on religion and on shari'a law, "a universe," Horan says, "of splitting hairs and infinite refinements." Politics was ignored, so there are "no legitimizing precedents for political life as it is lived in contemporary nation-states." Socially, Mohammed's message "was progressive in the Middle Ages but not now." So the existence of a supertribe, stirred by the most idealizing and artistic of languages and employing a medieval social code, yet operating in a complete political vacuum—a real Darwinian universe of survival of the fittest—"makes the Middle East a dangerous place not only for Christians and Jews but for all nondominating minorities, even Muslim ones like Kurds and Palestinians."

Horan, who has served the United States in Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, is no romantic. He distrusts "the cultural remittance men and international groupies who fill out their personalities in exotic backgrounds." Here are his observations on Libya, where he and his wife, Nancy, lived for several years:

"We're dealing with the traumatization of the disadvantaged: the ultimate vacuity, settled at the last moment by the loser tribes kicked out of Egypt and Tunisia, who were then colonized by the Italians—rulers as nasty as they come. In World War Two, battles raged back and forth across the desert and the rape is complete. Afterward, it is the poorest country in the world, its biggest export scrap metal from the war. Then, bang, instant wealth and a coup that brings a true believer to the fore. The wealth goes to their heads, and of course they hate everybody."

Horan's maternal great-grandfather was a U.S. diplomat during the Lincoln Administration. The poet Stephen Vincent Benet was a distant cousin. And his father was Abdollah Entenzan, a Foreign Minister under the late Shah of Iran. His parents divorced, and Horan grew up with his mother and stepfather, who was a journalist and businessman, in Argentina. He returned to the United States to attend private boarding schools and Harvard, but should not be dismissed as merely the product of a good education. His fluency in French and German is self-taught. Hopping around his library, he pulls a German novel off the shelf with his crutch, turning the pages with it, proudly showing me his old vocabulary lists. He is a jumping jack of energy and meticulosity. Holed up for two weeks in the bullet-riddled U.S. embassy in Amman, during King Hussein's 1970 civil war with the Palestinians, Horan was limited to a quart of drinking water a day, of which he denied himself enough to shave and wash the collar and cuffs of his shirt. In Lebanon, Horan spent his nights translating an Arab novel. In Libya he audited courses in shari'a law at an Islamic university. In Washington he studied biblical Hebrew in order "to read Amos, my favorite prophet, in the original" and to "understand Israelis as Israelis, to know them through their own language, a language of boulders tumbling down mountains—wow, no wonder they can be so tough." Horan races on, his eyes swimming with enthusiasm and deep sensitivity. If only he had one more life.

Horan is the Foreign Service's equivalent of a Talmudist. "He's the real thing, a scholar-Arabist in the classic Bernard Lewis mold," says a former White House official who has rarely had a good word for Foreign Service officers. "When we do our job perfectly," says John Collier, of the Foreign Service Institute's School of Area Studies, "the result is a Hume Horan." Horan is as much revered inside the State Department as he is obscure outside it. A staple of diplomatic lore is the fact that he completed a twenty-one-month advanced Arabic course in twelve months, emerging with the highest language rating ever awarded to a Foreign Service Arabist.

A book published in 1837 by John Lloyd Stephens—Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land—helped fire Horan's enthusiam for his field. Stephens, a New York lawyer, later achieved fame as an explorer of Mayan ruins in Mexico. But he was also among America's first Arabists. Dressed in native garb and armed with guns he flew the American flag over his boat on a trip up the Nile.

"Stephens was a true Jacksonian," Horan says. "Early America's spirit breathes throughout his narrative." Horan cites the author's populist enthusiasm for both Arab and Jew in the Holy Land, his hatred of Turkish despotism and recognition of the suffering of African slaves, his interest in the practical improvements recently made in plague-ridden Alexandria, and his complete lack of paternalism and condescension. Horan was particularly taken with Stephens's determination to confront a desert sheikh who tried to cheat him.

I assured [the sheikh] that . . . I did not believe there was a worse Arab in all his tribe than himself; and finally, throwing open my trunk, I told him that I did not fear him or all his tribe . . . and added, turning my pistols in my belt, that they should not get it while I could defend it.

Keep cool is a good maxim, generally, in a man's walk through life, and it is particularly useful with the Bedouins in the desert; but there are times when it is good to be in a passion, and this was one of them.

Horan, too, has found that when dealing with Middle Easterners there are times when it is good to be in a passion. In late 1984 Horan, as ambassador to Sudan, played a key role in smuggling thousands of Ethiopian Jews, known as falasha, through Sudan to Israel with the tacit help of the Sudanese government. After the U.S. embassy's role in the rescue operation became public knowledge in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, there was hell to pay. Horan was accused in the local papers of being an enemy agent, and anti-American sentiment grew in intensity. Horan found himself living with several Sudanese bodyguards in his ambassadorial residence. But he decided not to play it "cool and low-key."

"At every reception I attended in Khartoum I told people I was proud of what we had done, and that they should be proud too. I told the Sudanese government that the departure of a few thousand hungry people was not going to alter the correlation of forces between the Arab world and Israel. I had found an issue to meet people head on with—so they knew that the United States stood for something."

Horan's habit of standing up for principles, combined with the treacherous nature of Middle East politics, eventually derailed his Foreign Service career. Saudi Arabia is more than America's principal strategic and financial ally in the Arab world. Its uncompromising desert is where the foundation stones of Bedouin culture and Islam were laid. For a State Department Arabist, therefore, no position is more exalted than the ambassador's post in Riyadh. In late 1987 Horan was just settling into this job when he and his staff, assisted by national intelligence findings, began to solve the latest riddle of the sands. In the desert south of Riyadh, Washington learned, Chinese technicians were installing medium-range ballistic missiles, easily capable of reaching Israel. The Saudis had secretly broken an understanding with Washington, and Horan was instructed to make clear to King Fahd just how distressed the United States was. Horan delivered a formal protest in writing to the King. The shamed King made it clear that Horan was no longer a viable interlocutor. Horan was recalled to Washington. He later was elected president of the American Foreign Service Association.

"Hume Horan and I belong to an elite club," says Richard B. Parker, a sixty-nine-year-old former ambassador to Lebanon, Algeria, and Morocco, "the Awhab Shubak—'Arabists Who Have Been Shit Upon by Arab Kings."' (Parker's tough reporting on Morocco caused King Hassan to demand his recall.)

A feeling persists within the Foreign Service community that Horan was done in not just by the Saudis and their powerful friends in Washington but also by senior bureaucrats within the State Department, for being too perfect an area specialist—that is to say, for understanding the Saudis better than they wanted to be understood. Horan brushes these suspicions aside. "There is a Kleenex quality to ambassadors. We're policy instruments, not policy-makers, there to take the blame, to be wiped away so the process can continue." That brings Horan to the subject of his fellow Arabist ambassadors. Making an arc in the air with his finger, he says, "You can plot Arabists on a curve, starting with the old hands and ending with the new generation. But I like to think that the top of the curve is my generation."

By his generation he means those who combined the intense interest in Arab culture and literature evinced by the old-timers with the cool and skeptical objectivity of the newer analysts. The origins of the profession lie deep in the nineteenth century, and Arabists today are marked by some of the qualities of their distant forebears. Their forebears influence as well which parts of the Arab world are deemed to be of central importance—and that, in and of itself, can be something of a trap.

An Atavistic Relationship

Talcott Seelye's home, more so than Horan's, holds the material effects of a lifetime spent in the Arab world: Oriental carpets, miniature paintings, lithographs of the Holy Land, old books about the Middle East. I remember what another Arabist told me about his colleagues' affection for exotic carpets: "Rugs are a form of nomadic furniture that a Foreign Service officer can carry around the world and that creates its own intimate space."

"I want to write about Arabists," I begin. Seelye, a lanky and balding seventy-year-old, smiles and answers with a question: "Have you read The Wilder Shores of Love?"

The Wilder Shores of Love, by Lesley Blanch, is a book about four Victorian women who, as Horan would say, "fill out their personalities in exotic backgrounds," accepting something that, Blanch wrote, "was vanishing from the West, something to which they were all subconsciously drawn." The book continues, "Repose: the Eastern climate of contemplation, of Kif, of nothingness, brought to its quintessential state of voluptuous, animal stillness was a state wholly alien to the West." Seelye is no escapist. But despite a sometimes stormy career that has brought him into head-on clashes with supporters of Israel, among others, Seelye seems to have reached his own state of Kif, and is at any rate willing to display a soft spot for romance.

Seelye's grandfather and great-grandfather were both Congregationalist missionaries who spent their entire adult lives in the Middle East. They were part of an insufficiently studied chapter in U.S. history which saw Americans, mostly New Englanders, fly the Stars and Stripes over mission outposts in remote regions of Mesopotamia, Kurdistan, Syria, and Iran as early as 1820—a time when the American West was still waiting to be settled. William Frederick Williams, Seelye's great-grandfather, was part of a missionary group that saved the life of Rabbi Sholoem of Mosul in 1853, after Muslim officials had arrested the rabbi on trumped-up charges. His grandfather, William Nesbitt Chambers, was an eyewitness to the Armenian holocaust and wrote a poignant memoir about it. Seelye's father, Laurens, was a professor at the American University of Beirut, in the city where Seelye was born.

As a youth, Seelye returned to the New England of his ancestors and attended Deerfield Academy and Amherst College. After military service in Iran during the Second World War, Seelye joined the Foreign Service. Following a tour of duty in Germany, in 1952, he switched to the Near East bureau, where he remained for the next twenty-nine years, generally going from one embassy job in the Arab world to another, ending with ambassadorships in Tunisia and Syria. Seelye's daughter is continuing the family tradition: not long after graduating from Amherst she moved to Jordan to teach, and subsequently she went to work as a staff aide to Queen Noor.

Seelye talks easily about the time in October of 1973 when, as ambassador to Tunisia, he sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a cable advising him not to send arms for Israel's defense after the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. He was, of course, ignored. Yet Kissinger was well enough aware of Seelye's skill as a hands-on Arabist to trust him to go to Lebanon as a special emissary in 1976, after the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Francis Meloy Jr. Though Seelye was criticized for utilizing PLO security men, he did manage to effect a low-key evacuation of U.S. diplomats and their families from war-torn Beirut. "I used the PLO simply because they controlled the area we had to pass through," he explains.

Later, when he was ambassador to Syria, Seelye's cables to the State Department's Policy Planning Staff—so seemingly understanding of Syria's actions—would cause Francis Fukuyama to scrawl in the margins, "Talcott Seelye is the Syrian Ambassador to Washington, not the American Ambassador to Syria." In 1981, upon his retirement from the Foreign Service, Seelye called reporters into his office in Damascus to disparage the Camp David accords and to call on the United States immediately to open a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Seelye insists on making a few things clear. "My boyhood in Lebanon was two thousand percent American. I resisted learning Arabic and had to learn it like any other Foreign Service officer. I had mixed feelings about serving in Germany after the war, on account of what the Nazis did to the Jews. I went into Arab affairs only because there were too many German-speaking officers and the Middle East was opening up as a career. But given my family history, I suppose my relationship with the Arabs is atavistic. In America we've lost the attribute of the extended family, while the Arabs have this in spades."

Despite the tenor of some of the high points in Seelye's career, he would probably describe himself as holding a perfectly balanced view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has visited Israel at least nine times. "Israel," he says, "is one of our highest priorities in the Middle East. But it's a matter of where we go from there." That there exists a mutual suspicion between many Arabists and friends of Israel is as hard to deny as it is easy to understand. Seelye recalls the time when he and a group of Arabists from the State Department were invited to a Jewish fund-raising dinner. "At the end of the evening, though, we [the Arabists] were all back at the same table alone together. I guess they felt uncomfortable with us and perhaps we with them. It was sort of a shame."

Seelye says he does not keep up with current literature about the Middle East. He goes back to "the old books," particularly George Antonius's The Arab Awakening, published in 1938, "a seminal book that had an impact like no other." The Arab Awakening is commonly regarded as the first book about the struggle between Jews and Arabs told from an Arab point of view. But its real significance, some would say, lies slightly afield. Antonius, a Christian Arab, was anti-British but poignantly pro-American, describing U.S. missionaries as the "foster-parents" of modern Arab nationalism. Seelye admits that this characterization is somewhat of an exaggeration. Yet it is a story that requires telling if the roots of his and the older generation of Arabists'—tortured attitude toward Israel are to be properly understood.

As Seelye explains, when his missionary forebears came to the Middle East, in the early nineteenth century, they quickly realized that the Muslim Arabs were not about to be converted to Christianity. But the missionaries discovered that they had something else to sell, which the Arabs did want: Western education. By 1860 American missionaries were operating thirty-three schools in the Middle East. In 1866 came their crowning achievement—the opening of the Syrian Protestant College, in Beirut, with a Vermonter, the Reverend Daniel Bliss, as its president. The school would later evolve into the American University of Beirut, commonly known as the AUB.

Whatever official monuments there may be, in truth there has never been a greater monument to Woodrow Wilson's vision of liberal internationalism—and the difficulties such a vision faces in the real world—than the AUB. Here we were in the sunny Levant, educating those less fortunate others who upon graduation were assuming leadership roles in their own new nations, carved out of a dying European imperialist order of which we were entirely innocent. And not only were we openly loved for this activity, but as a very consequence we were garnering political influence without having to dirty our hands in realpolitik. "We basked in being disinterested good guys," recalls Arthur Close, who comes from a Beirut missionary family. In 1945, at the charter meeting of the United Nations, there were more AUB graduates among the representatives than graduates of any other university. Eliahu Elath, a former president of the Hebrew University, and other members of the liberal Jewish intelligentsia in pre-Israeli Palestine were also AUB alumni. Daniel Bliss's stirring vision had indeed become a reality:

A man white, black or yellow; Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution . . . and go out believing in one God, or in many Gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for any one to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.

However, in the wake of the Second World War came the creation of Israel and the beginning of the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, with its corresponding turf battle in the Middle East. The old-time Arabists knew that with the vote on partition going against the Arab world, and with the United States sworn to uphold Israel, the days of a beloved American presence and an easy American influence were over. "In some of their minds," Carleton Coon says, "Israel spoiled it all."

In the 1950s, according to Terry Prothro, who was a psychology professor at the AUB from 1951 through the mid-1980s, the university "became a place where the Arab student body tried out all their political responses" to the challenge posed by Israel. Some of the American faculty openly sympathized. In an essay recalling those heady days, the late AUB president Malcolm Kerr wrote of "heroes," such as "Faisal I of Iraq and Nasser"; "villains," including David Ben-Gurion; "revered texts," among them The Arab Awakening; and "the problems of the Arab-Western relationship," including "the usurpation of Palestine by Zionists." Young Arabists could hardly have been unaffected by this climate. Prior to the start of the Lebanese civil war, in 1975, the Foreign Service field school for Arabic instruction was in Beirut (it's now in Tunis), and many an old Near East hand has idyllic memories of pre-war Lebanon and AUB friendships. Seelye told me that as a junior Foreign Service officer in Jordan in the 1950s, he'd had a special relationship with the Jordanian cabinet because "half of its members were ex-students of my father at the AUB." Horan observes that the AUB finally emerged as "the translation of a religious and educational calling into a political one."

The Vietnam War further radicalized the campus: students and faculty members saw America's support of Israel as an extension of its mistakes in Southeast Asia. Israel's capture of Arab lands in the Six-Day War of 1967, Prothro recalls, sparked the creation of a "pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian group made up largely of AUB people," called Americans for Justice in the Middle East. But campus radicals in the United States were never mugged by reality the way those at the AUB were: the onset of civil war in Lebanon made the faculty and student complaints of the 1950s and 1960s seem laughable. In the end, as the war dragged on and Western hostages were taken, and after Malcolm Kerr himself was murdered by Muslim extremists, "there was no politics among the Americans anymore on campus," Prothro says. "Staying alive was the only thing that mattered."

The violent, drawn-out decline of the AUB was, for those of Seelye's generation, symbolic of a wider catastrophe. It marked the destruction of what the Protestant missionaries had lovingly helped, to build over the course of a hundred and fifty years: an Arab political renaissance founded on American values that, as fate would have it, collided in the night with another idea grounded in Western liberalism—the birth of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Seelye's views regarding Israel may grow out of this collision. He belongs to a post-Second World War breed of U.S. diplomat that Peter Rodman, a longtime associate of Henry Kissinger's, labels "aggrieved area experts." This breed is perhaps best understood through the career of the late Loy Henderson. Henderson, along with George F. Kennan and Charles Bohlen, was a Kremlinologist whose reports from Moscow before and during the Second World War painted an extremely gloomy picture of Soviet life and Stalin's long-range intentions—a picture that ran counter to the rosy image of the Soviet Union entertained by many Americans back then. As a consequence, Henderson was ejected from the Soviet bureau at State. He wound up in the division for Near Eastern and African affairs, where he rose to become director at the time of Israel's creation—something he was dead set against. Henderson perceived Israel as an oil-less impediment to good relations with the oil-rich Arab world at a time when the United States was entering a long, difficult struggle with the Soviet Union. This was not anti-Semitism but just a cold-blooded exposition of what Henderson saw as U.S. interests. It happened to be a sentiment that fit snugly with the life experiences of Arabists of Seelye's generation. Older Arabists like to compare themselves to the Kennan-Bohlen-Henderson school of Kremlinologists. They argue that whereas those Soviet experts of yore were victimized for daring to report the negative aspects of the Russian reality, Arabists are victimized for daring to report the positive aspects of the Arab one.

A case in point: When Anwar Sadat came to power in Egypt, in 1970, Michael Sterner, one of Seelye's Arabist colleagues with experience in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt, predicted that, as Sterner told me in an interview, "the new guy will not be a facsimile of Nasser but will take things in a different direction"—a point of view that at the time was criticized by the Israeli government and many of its U.S. supporters. Sterner, whose opinion was based on a personal relationship with Sadat, continues to regret that neither the Israelis in the early 1970s, prior to the Yom Kippur War, nor, at first, the Nixon Administration trusted Sadat's overtures. He showed me a montage from a 1971 edition of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz (The Land), depicting himself, Murphy, and a handful of other State Department Arabists in Lawrence of Arabia costumes. "This is how the Israelis ridiculed us," he said with a laugh.

"But there really was lots of localitis back then," recalls Richard Parker, who was a contemporary of Seelye's and Sterner's. Parker admits that he refused an opportunity in the 1960s to learn Hebrew and serve in Israel, "because it might have had an adverse effect on my career as an Arabist." Parker is studying Hebrew now, however—in retirement.

Iraq and Syria: A Romance

Though the American public tends to view the radical states of Iraq and Syria with disdain, these two ancient lands represent the historical, literary, and linguistic core area of an Arabist's life work. "Syria is the apogee of Arabism," Horan says, "because the Syrians have everybody else's number and nobody has theirs. I always regret that I never got to serve in Syria. Syrian Arabic is the Arabic I most enjoy listening to. Iraqi Arabic, on the other hand, is less aesthetically pleasing, because it has a heavy admixture of Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish." This linguistic fact, however, is evidence of a different allure: Iraq, in addition to being an Arab urban center second only to Egypt in importance, is home to the Fertile Crescent's richest overlay of civilizations. For these reasons, Horan observes, Arabists exhibit "a certain weakness, a faiblesse," for Syria and Iraq.

This faiblesse merges with the Arabists' grasp of the modern histories of the two radical states, which is the result of reading, often in Arabic, and of actually living in Damascus and Baghdad. "Syria sees itself as the most mutilated descendant of the Ottoman Empire," says Richard Murphy, who became America's first ambassador to Syria after President Richard Nixon re-established relations in 1974. Indeed, when the great British Arabist Charles M. Doughty traveled in the Middle East in the 1870s, the region was divided into only two parts: the limestone plateau of the north, called Syria, and all the rest—a sandstone desert stretching south to Yemen—called Arabia. Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and the Turkish salient of Alexandretta were then all part of Syria, and each was taken away. Murphy explains that whereas most Americans see Syria only as a brutal regime of anti-Western peasant Alawites, Arabists have lived in Damascus, where the Sunni population is urban and instinctively pro-Western. Gene Cretz, who was an embassy political officer in Damascus in the late 1980s, recalls, "Syrians are sophisticated and quite at ease with Westerners, at least on a personal basis. I don't mean to sound Pollyanna-ish, but I never had a bad day in Syria. Dealing with my Syrian friends and acquaintances was as natural as breathing."

Whereas Syria is a bastard child of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq is the Arabists' very own Frankenstein creation. It was jerry-built by the British out of the forlorn Ottoman vilayets ("provinces") of Kurdish Mosul, Sunni Baghdad, and Shi'ite Basra, for reasons both base and altruistic: first, to have an oil-rich foothold at the head of the Gulf to buttress British India; and second, in the words of the linguist, archaeologist, explorer-traveler, and diplomat Gertrude Bell, to "make it a centre of Arab civilisation and prosperity."

Iraq became the experimental plaything for a band of British scholars-cum-imperial agents. They included a personage as well known as Lawrence of Arabia and ones as obscure as the Oxford don George Margoliouth. Their eloquence led H.V.F. Winstone, a biographer of Bell's, to wonder whether "the world might have been a more peaceful place for future generations if they and their like had not been such able and persuasive writers." Bell was the dominant figure of the group. "I read all of her books," says William Eagleton, who was the top U.S. envoy to Iraq in the early 1980s. "I rate her very high." Wealthy, well-connected, and passionate about the Orient, Bell once exclaimed, "When we had made Mesopotamia a model Arab state there was not an Arab of Syria and Palestine who wouldn't want to be part of it."

Bell, the most influential British official in Iraq, never did go back to Britain. She retired to a house in Baghdad and was referred to as Umm al-Mumminin ("Mother of the Faithful"). "I am an Iraqi," she declared. Before she died, she admitted that though the arguments she had used to promote Iraq were political and economic ones, the "keynote" of Iraq "is romance" (her emphasis).

Bell was soon followed at the British embassy in Baghdad by another prominent Arabist, Freya Stark, for whom Eagleton has much less enthusiasm. Stark combined a gift for romantic travel writing with one for wrong-headed analysis. A half century ago she saw a great future for democracy in Iraq. She also believed that pan-Arab unity would prove as easy as "child's play." Stark was part of a contingent of official Britons that dealt—or, rather, failed to deal—with a pro-Nazi coup in Baghdad in April of 1941. The British ordered their troops to stay on the sidelines while an Arab mob carried out a pogrom in the Jewish quarter—resulting in more than a hundred and fifty deaths—in order to allow time for King Faisal's soldiers, in Stark's words, "to win their own fight unaided."

Among the surviving Jews was a little boy, Elie Kedourie, who would grow up to write many books and articles critical of the old British Arab hands. Kedourie sees the 1941 Baghdad pogrom, known locally as the farhoud ("looting"), as the direct result of decades of amateurish meddling in Iraq by the likes of Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, who, having invented a country and a power base for an Arab Muslim population, should have assumed responsibility for the minorities henceforth threatened by those Arabs. In The Chatham Horse Version and Other Middle-Eastern Studies, Kedourie, now a University of London professor, writes,

The right of conquest [the Jews of Baghdad] could cheerfully acknowledge, for all their history had taught them that there lay safety . . . . It was not by the help of this experience that they would understand the strange, exquisite perversions of the western conscience: the genial eccentricity of Mr. Philby, proposing to make a thug who took his fancy the president of an Iraqi republic; or the fond foolishness of Miss Bell, thinking to stand godmother to a new Abbassid empire; or the disoriented fanaticism of Colonel Lawrence ["of Arabia"], proclaiming that he would be dishonoured if the progeny of the sharif of Mecca was not forthwith provided with thrones. Yet it was with such people that [the Jews'] fate rested.

The Philby mentioned is Harry St. John B. Philby, who converted to Islam in Saudi Arabia, acquired a slave girl for his earthly pleasures, and became a Nazi and Communist sympathizer. (His son, Kim Philby, would formally cross the line into treason, as a Soviet double agent.) In desert Arabia, Philby was followed in stature by Wilfred Thesiger, another British Arabist and a fearless explorer of Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter.

U.S. Arabists harbor a conflicted attitude toward these "sand-mad" adventurers. One former U.S. ambassador to several Arab countries remarks that "nobody in his right mind has nostalgia for these Brits." William Rugh, a former ambassador to Yemen, argues, however, that "one of the most interesting things in life is to cross a cultural barrier, and there are just not enough books by Arabs about themselves." He adds, "I therefore have no problem with Doughty, Philby, Thesiger. I've read all of Philby's books. I met Thesiger once in Jiddah—a real eccentric character he was. These books help take you inside [the Arabs'] heads." Rugh's point is that if you are a diplomat in Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Yemen and you want basic ethnographic information about such matters as tribal feuds and how geography has affected local mentalities, you cannot avoid the books written by the old British hands.

"Living in the Arab world," Horan says, "it is easy to become cynical if you just concentrate on the politics. So you need to broaden your base, to become interested in the local literature of a region." He mentions Charles Doughty, who traveled alone for two years in northwestern Arabia. Doughty had a "briar root quality" that even a self-declared nonromantic like Horan can admire. Doughty wrote, "The sun made me an Arab, but never warped me to Orientalism." It is the ultimate fine line that every good Arabist aspires to walk, Horan seems to suggest—and that not every one is able to.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

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Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

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Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

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Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

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The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

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