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What We Can Learn from the Middle East's Mid-Century 'Golden Age'

Many of my family and friends look back on the region's cultural glory days of the 50s and 60s with longing—but that era also contained the seeds of terror, war, and sectarianism.

by Sulome Anderson
24 November 2015, 4:10pm

A scale model of Beirut, Lebanon, built in 1968. AP Photo/Harry Koundakjian

As the daughter of a Lebanese mother, I was raised with a longing for the lost glory of the Middle East. Black-and-white Egyptian movies flickered in the background of my childhood. The women in my family would sometimes weep to the songs of Oum Khaltoum and Fairuz—classic singers from bygone decades—while they cooked and cleaned. "Ya haram," they'd sigh as I listened uncomprehendingly to the rise and fall of the music, wishing they would put on the Spice Girls. "What a pity."

As the daughter of a victim of terrorism, I was also raised with a personal understanding of how dangerous the Middle East has become. In March 1985, during the Lebanese civil war, my father, the journalist Terry Anderson, was kidnapped in Beirut by a radical Shia militia known as the Islamic Jihad. He was taken three months before I was born and held for almost seven years, after which I met him for the first time. His captivity almost destroyed my family, my childhood, and much of my adulthood; his trauma engendered my own. The resulting fallout until only recently completely engulfed my life. I've spent a good portion of my youth trying to repair the damage that the men who kidnapped him inflicted on my family, and have largely succeeded.

I'm now a journalist partly based in Beirut, just as my father was. My reasons for choosing this career are psychologically complicated, to say the least, but they include a desire to tell people about the part of the world that has shaped my life, for better or worse. I want to follow the thread of terrorism's evil to its genesis, so I spend much time studying the region's history, trying to find a way to comprehend what happened to my family as well as the pain and horror I see today—such as this month's terror attacks in Beirut and Paris.

Today it's difficult to imagine a hopeful Middle East. Too many angry men have committed acts of terrorism that resulted in reprisals and denunciations from the West. Too many conflicts have turned cities into war zones. Most Arabs I meet now have quietly resigned themselves to the destruction of their homelands—and being vilified for the acts of a vicious minority—with a befuddled sadness that's difficult for outsiders to understand.

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One way to try to understand, however, is to look back at what came before. Not to cast blame for the present woes—an exercise I find largely pointless—but to see how the actions of West and local actors shaped the region in unexpected ways. There are lessons to be learned from events as recent as 60 years ago, when the mid-century "Golden Age" of the Middle East that my mother taught me to cherish was in full flower. The era was an illusion, in many ways, since the stability she remembers with such fondness was never organic—it was the product of authoritarian rule, which the West had a role in creating. Still, compared to what's happening now, it's understandable that people of her generation would look back on that time with longing.

Growing up partly in Lebanon, it was clear to me that nostalgia is in many ways a defining feature of Arab culture—and for good reason. In 1950, Oum Khaltoum, the immortal diva of Egyptian music, sang these lyrics, written by the great medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam: "Tomorrow is unknown and today is mine." And so it seemed at the time. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Arab states had struggled to find their identity as Britain and France divided the spoils of the former kingdom, not least the booming oil trade. The two world powers manipulated leaders seen as corrupt colonialist puppets, including Egypt's King Farouk. But a number of Arab intellectuals began writing about nationalist ideals and sentiments, spreading a sense of pride in their identities. The phenomenon known as Pan-Arabism was beginning to take shape.

The establishment of Israel, a Western-sponsored nation, and the displacement of the Palestinians led to war and a quick defeat of the united Arab nations. Thoroughly disgusted with their rulers, who were seen as incompetent sycophants, talk of revolution began to spread. On July 23, 1952, a group of Egyptian military officers led by the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a coup against King Farouk's government. One by one, other Arab states followed suit, mounting revolutions and coups against their parliamentary monarchies and ruling elites: Iraq (1958), North Yemen (1962), Syria (1963), Algeria (1965), and South Yemen and Libya (1969).

After Nasser and other such nationalistic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa seized control of their governments, for a short while, certain states in the region became relatively stable. Under the umbrella of the new regimes, their populations—at least the wealthy and middle classes—were free to enjoy the lingering legacy of Western innovations as they savored the pride of their national identities. For a brief moment, some Arabs hoped they might return to the time hundreds of years ago, when Islamic nations were at the peak of civilization and learning. And they dreamed in style, albeit style borrowed from their former oppressors. The most obvious example of lasting colonialist influence on a Middle Eastern society is that of Lebanon, where the French had set about creating a little Arab replica of their own country.

While the city's reputation for hedonism has lasted, Beirut's nightlife now seems strained and desperately escapist.

Every once in a while, I'll sit for hours online, looking at pictures of Beirut in the 1950s and 60s. I reproduce those images as often as possible—on my business cards, on social media. I feel the need to remind others, and myself, what Lebanon used to be. Growing up, my mother used to show me photos of herself as a young bohemian with glossy black hair down to her waist, wearing tight bellbottom jeans and tottering on enormous platform shoes. She wasn't unique in her sophistication either. Sleek jetsetters sipping cocktails in hotel lobbies, beautiful women in bikinis giggling together on sandy beaches, trains that ran efficiently and on time—the Lebanon of that era bears little resemblance to the gradually disintegrating state that exists today. While the city's reputation for hedonism has lasted, Beirut's nightlife now seems strained and desperately escapist, given its placement against the country's bleak political backdrop.

Colonialism may have brought cosmopolitan culture, but it also widened sectarian and socioeconomic gaps in Middle Eastern countries. In addition to spurring the rise of nationalist regimes in Egypt, Iraq, and Libya—all of which would become as authoritarian and corrupt as the monarchies they had overthrown—the West exacerbated conflicts in Lebanon by sponsoring its various warring sects and external actors. In 1975, the country exploded into a 15-year civil war. It wasn't long before each sect was up to its elbows in blood and wanton violence became a way of life for the Lebanese. The chaos of Lebanon's civil war chained my father to the ground for seven years while I floated away like a little balloon. It robbed me of a healthy relationship with him—and with myself—for well over a decade.

The history of the wider region isn't any more uplifting. Bitter sectarianism, egomaniacal hubris on the part of leaders such as Nasser and Saddam Hussein, and continued Western meddling in the region's affairs fed upon each other. While colonialism started the fire, it must be said that Arab factionalism doused it with gasoline. Exhausted and broken, the region is now eating itself alive.

As a reporter working in the Middle East, I've witnessed some of this with my own eyes. I was in Cairo during the spring of 2013, after the ill-fated revolution against authoritarian Egyptian president Mubarak—who was seen as a Western-sponsored leader—ignited chaos and anarchy in Egypt. The pandemonium that ensued prompted the Egyptian people to support a semi-radical Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Then another, just as brutal, military ruler seized power: the current president of Egypt, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. While I was working there, I was told that walking down the street by myself in broad daylight could be seen as an invitation for rape. Sexual violence plagues Egypt now—a far cry from the days when women traveled the country in relative safety.

Iran is another nightmarish example of unintended consequences. In the early 50s, Mohammed Mossadegh, the country's democratically elected prime minister, began making efforts to nationalize the country's oil industry, which had been largely controlled by the British and French—until the CIA and MI6 instigated a coup against him in 1953. The resulting conflict returned Iran to the authoritarian yet Westernized rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. This move would have dire consequences in 1979, when radical Islamists hijacked popular outrage at the Shah's foreign-sponsored dictatorship and channelled it into the Islamic Revolution, which led to the oppressive government of religious clerics we know today. A faction of that government funded and sponsored the Islamic Jihad, the group that took my father.

A former high-ranking CIA agent who was stationed in the Middle East recently made the argument to me that the US has supported certain authoritarian Middle Eastern leaders in order to maintain peace in the region. "We don't run around trying to set up dictatorships," he said. "We're trying to create stability and the grounds for democracy." And it's true that authoritarian military rule tends to have one major advantage—a state's iron-fisted control often provides the illusion of peace and prosperity, as dissidents and criminals cower and plot quietly in the shadows.

But even from a crude realpolitik perspective, I'd argue that this formula may have served American interests in the short-term, but its long-term sustainability is fragile at best. Remarkably, when extremists turn against us, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein did in Iraq, the US seems to be quite blown away by the result, regardless of how much historical precedent accumulates. Today, the American alliance with Saudi Arabia, which bears at least some responsibility for the rise of the Islamic State, seems to fit this pattern. As in the case of the rulers who created the mirage of a Golden Age after overthrowing the Western-sponsored monarchies that preceded them, I don't believe the foundation for democracy can ever be built upon tyranny.

Democracy is a creation of the people, but here's the rub: When the people rule, they tend to dislike putting the interests of more powerful countries before their own. Rulers such as the al Sauds have no problem considering the interests of other nations before those of their own people. What they have an aversion to is placing the West's interests before their own desires—be they religious, financial, or political.

And even when authoritarian leaders remain loyal, steadfastly serving Western demands over those of their own citizens, uprisings such as the Arab Spring and Iran's Islamic Revolution demonstrate that people will usually take issue with being oppressed and eventually cease to tolerate it. Post-revolution power vacuums invite anarchy; a retained sense of outrage at the West helps create an environment in which anti-Western Islamic extremism can flourish. This pattern has played out across the region time and time again. Its threads are obvious to the eye when looked at in the right light.

As a friend put it recently, Lebanon now has the dubious honor of being the world's most successful failed state.

But most heartbreaking of all, at least for me, has been watching Lebanon slowly decay, gradually becoming as decrepit and crumbling as the ancient Roman ruins that dot the country. Today, the little war-weary nation has been without a president for a year and a half because the sectarian government can't get it together for long enough to reach a consensus and elect a leader. They can't even cooperate on finding a company to dispose of Beirut's trash—as the Mediterranean winter wraps its damp tendrils around the city, revolting mounds of wet garbage flood the streets. The Islamic State presses close in the north while mounting violent terror strikes against the Lebanese people, such as the bombings in Beirut, which were largely ignored in the frenzy following the Paris attacks. Israel is preparing for an almost inevitable confrontation with the Iranian-funded militia Hezbollah—considered by most to be a latter-day incarnation of the Islamic Jihad—along the southern border. By some miracle, my mother's homeland continues to sputter along, but it's painfully obvious that the situation is unsustainable. As a friend put it recently, Lebanon now has the dubious honor of being the world's most successful failed state.

The once-cosmopolitan city of Damascus is now ravaged by war. Cairo is revolution-weary and racked with political tension. Any dreams of a thriving future for this part of the world have been largely extinguished. Even though the Golden Age is nice to think about, it must be said that nostalgia is often kinder than reality—it was but the illusion of a moment's hope a long time ago. True stability would have been impossible under dictators like Nasser, Hussein, or the Shah, all three in many ways products of neocolonialism. History is offering a clarification: Any chance the Middle East has for a better future seems to hang on the hope that the West will change the way it interacts with the region.

I hope we will someday learn from history's mistakes and support the people of the Middle East rather than the men who exploit them. Missed opportunities to do so, including Western inaction when Syrians began an initially peaceful revolution against their ruthless ruler Bashar al-Assad—because an intervention didn't appear to serve short-term American interests—also seem to have less than ideal outcomes. In many ways, it can be argued that our failure to support the Syrian people left a chaotic vacuum from which the Islamic State sprung. I also believe that had we built a relationship with the people suffering from Lebanon's civil war instead of certain actors participating in the conflict, perhaps I would not have grown up without a father. Had our leaders lived up to the values they give lip service to and fostered democracy—real democracy, with the long-term plan of creating stability and goodwill in a tumultuous region, I think the Middle East would look quite different now.

These days, the Arab Golden Age is nothing more than an ephemeral dream. But the wistful memory of well-dressed women strolling the boardwalk by the Mediterranean Sea, of exquisite restaurants and tourists pouring in from all over the world—most Arabs carry that with them. You can still hear it in their voices sometimes, at least the older ones; that overwhelming sense of something beautiful lost.

Sulome Anderson is a journalist and author based between Beirut and New York City. Her book The Hostage's Daughter is scheduled for publication with HarperCollins in fall 2016.