Tribes with Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East
Three years ago Charles Glass decided to take time off from his work as an ABC television reporter in Beirut to make and record a trip through the countries of the eastern Mediterranean. His itinerary began in Alexandretta in southern Turkey, and was to have taken him through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, to end on the edge of the Sinai peninsula in Aqaba. He borrowed an old-fashioned term and called the whole region “the Levant,” and he seems to see his book as carrying forward the nineteenth-century tradition of “Levantine travels.” He intended—and to a limited extent the book he has actually written does this—to compare the texts of the old travel books about Lebanon with the conditions he found there in 1987.
However, the tone of his book is not detached and literary, as was perhaps originally planned, but urgent, sad, and personal. Glass’s kidnapping and imprisonment in Beirut for nine weeks in the summer of 1987 by Shi’ite militiamen put an end to his Levantine travels, and gave the book a completely different edge and emphasis. The original concept was that he should abandon for a few months his point of view as the ABC correspondent in the Middle East, to stand back from the awful, bloody melée which he had chronicled day by day from Beirut, and to look at the Middle Eastern scene in the light of its historical geography, of the “enduring realities of the region.”
It was an interesting project, if a difficult one to carry out. Almost certainly, Glass would still, in such a book, have found it impossible to avoid questions that he now discusses at length—How should a Western journalist deal with the Middle Eastern conflict and to what extent should he discuss the appalling difficulties he experiences in truthfully reporting it? Glass’s kidnapping brought this question to the front of his mind. The result is a mixed kind of book, with long, leisurely passages on the Middle East scene and the mentalities of its inhabitants, and taut, tense reporting of Glass’s experiences in the dangerous and brutalized world of present-day Lebanon, culminating in his own seizure and captivity. In some ways the book is more directly comparable with other recent books by Western journalists, notably Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, which dwell on the dilemmas and problems of Western journalists in the Middle East, than it would otherwise have been.
Before he reached Lebanon on this particular trip, there were questions in Glass’s mind that he would have found very hard to answer in the calm and reflective tone of a Victorian traveler. His own status as the Catholic American-born child of an Irish father and a Lebanese mother had given him a committed attitude to the Lebanese imbroglio that went far beyond a sentimental attachment to “roots.” At lunch in Zahle, the Lebanese mountain resort where his Lebanese grandfather had been born, with the political adviser of one of the blood-stained Lebanese bosses, Glass was prompted to ask himself:
Why did the war [in Lebanon] go on when no one wanted it to? How did Christians and Muslims live peacefully in Zahle, yet kill each other in Beirut? How did some Christians live in Muslim west Beirut and some Muslims in the Christian east? Who was killing whom and why? Whose hand was behind each faction? Why did Iran support the Shiah? Why did Israel support some of the Christians? What had happened in Lebanon to bring troops from America, France, Britain and Italy to try and fail to save it in the 1980s, as France had sent troops, and the Russians, British and Austro-Hungarians their warships, in 1860? What was it about this place that made it compelling, that dared outsiders to take part in its tribal battles, that sent them hurrying out in disgrace? How had the Arab world’s most advanced country—with the highest rate of literacy, four excellent universities, legal rights for women, a modern economy that supported both businessmen and poets, regular parliamentary and presidential elections, religious tolerance, a free press, lively theatre and music, modern hospitals, libraries, a bountiful sea and rich farms—become the most primitive?
These questions returned to bother Glass, he says, during the time of his captivity. What had happened to Lebanon that its people were destroying themselves, and that its young boys had turned into murderers and kidnappers? And why had he, Charles Glass, returned there while the conflicts still raged and, against much friendly advice, risked kidnapping as he tried to make his way among the warring factions of its torn society? The profoundly felt and considered way in which he tries to answer these political and personal questions makes this an interesting and, at times, a fascinating book.
A central question of which Glass is acutely aware is whether countries outside the Western tradition can successfully “modernize” in the sense in which we normally use the word. Could Lebanon have a democratic government in which its many differing groups, Muslim, Christian, and Druze, would cooperate in order to build a modern society? Glass calls the present condition of Lebanon “primitive”: a strong word to use of such a formerly sophisticated society. The question is indirectly referred to in the title of his book, which is taken from a quote from an Egyptian diplomat. “Egypt,” he evidently said to Glass, “is the only nation-state in the Middle East. The rest are tribes with flags.”
It was a clever quotation to take (even if it exaggerates the historic and communal differences between Egypt and other Arab oriental states), because it goes to the heart of the problems of the modern Middle Eastern states, including Israel. Once the Ottoman Empire finally disintegrated in 1918, the religious communities and ethnic groups that had until then been none too gently ruled by the Ottomans were reorganized in hastily conceived “nation-states”; and once a nation-state was declared to have been established, the ethnic or religious groups that did not belong to the ruling group could find themselves excluded from the political community, and viewed (however long their ancestors might have lived in the region) as strangers. When they are mistreated the tribes of the region may be in the position of persecuted minorities; but in some cases (for example, in pre-civil war Lebanon, ruled largely by Christians, and present-day Syria, ruled largely by Alawis) the ruling group may itself be a minority. The problem is not that the present supposed nation-states in the Middle East are “artificial,” as is so often said: many of them are no more artificial by origin than some of the current European states. The problem is whether any conceivable government will be able to get the political consent and loyalty of the “tribes” without relying on the secret police and the army. Hardly any Middle Eastern states have solved this problem, and Israel is no exception. Nor did the British or the French solve it, for that matter, during the period when they ruled Syria and Palestine between the wars under League of Nations mandates.
This question about consent is posed throughout much of the less-developed world, and has been solved by only a few modern cultures. In the terminology of the British scholar Albert Hourani (to whom Glass expresses his obligation in the introduction) failure to deal with this problem results, in the Arab world, in the growth of what Hourani once called a Levantine mentality, or trying to belong to two cultures, the traditional and the modern, without actually belonging to either. It is possible to see “Levantinism” in either a negative or a positive way. In his recent book Thomas Friedman claims that the Levantinism of some of the Lebanese he came to know was a manifestation of the modern secularized and constructive elements in the oriental world, and he sees it as a force for cooperation and political balance, opposed to “tribalism.” Glass tends to take the more pessimistic view that Arab culture is fatally fractured, and that Levantinism has not proved to be a way out, in the Lebanon or elsewhere.
When one thinks of the terrible deterioration of Lebanese life over the past fifteen years, it is hard to disagree with him so far as Lebanon is concerned. Glass also questions whether oriental societies can modernize without a fatal loss of cultural identity and autonomy. A Syrian intellectual whom he met in Damascus told him that Arabs have been subject to a lethal cultural invasion, because they have been told that their traditional values have been the cause of their failure, their backwardness. And Arab “backwardness” has, of course, been one of the main preoccupations of people who sought to renovate the Muslim and Arab world during the past century and more. Not by accident did one of the most powerful recent political movements of the Muslim world borrow the European term of Renaissance or rebirth (Ba’ath) to describe itself—while giving birth to the highly repressive and mutually opposed regimes in Iraq and Syria.
The cultural failings of the Arab world are thus an important subject for Glass. He has much to say about the new barbarism of Arab cities, where whether for political reasons (as in Hama in Syria, after the antigovernment rising, or in Jounieh, Lebanon, in the new Christian headquarters), or for administrative convenience (as in Damascus and Aleppo), or out of greed (as in Beirut itself and all over the Levantine world), the architectural patrimony has been mindlessly destroyed, and replaced, if at all, by a wilderness of concrete boxes. There is, as Glass says (quoting an Egyptian writer on Arab architecture), a cultural vacuum. It is a vacuum, Glass writes, which has yet to be filled,
except by that aching sense of loss which suffused the culture at every level—the loss of unity, of independence, of freedom, of dignity, of hope, of Palestine—all of which began, so far as this century was concerned, in 1918, when the Ottoman army marched north on the road out of Damascus.
The passage illustrates both Glass’s tendency to identify with the troubles of present-day Arab culture, and his nostalgia for a supposedly superior Arab past. These sentiments are too much like the emotionalism of many Arab intellectuals to be very helpful, however; moreover, they may exaggerate what used to be called a “cultural crisis” in the Arab world, by concentrating too much on the harassed Levantine region. In Arabia and the Gulf, for instance, there are still vulgarity and coarseness in the way the cities and the environment are treated, but there are also new architectural and cultural developments, and enlightened patronage that may point toward a more promising mixture of cultures.
There is, perhaps, a split which the author does not fully recognize in himself, between Glass the enthusiastic antiquarian who scrambles over fences in neglected oriental cemeteries to find the tombs of long-dead European lady travelers, and Glass the political analyst. And there is also an ambivalence, which he recognizes in himself to some extent, but which he does not entirely face, in his attitude as an American to his Lebanese origin and roots.