Tag Archives: History

Our sentimental commemorations have conveniently ignored our reliance on the Middle East

Roosevelt, Churchill and the representatives of Russia and China signed the United Nations Declaration on New Year’s Day 1942, two and a half years before D-Day. After that, those words “United Nations” became the formal name under which the allies were fighting Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Japan.

The declaration, which would cover the aims of the 6 June 1944 landings, declared that victory was “essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice”. It also supposedly – and very significantly – upheld the Wilsonian “principles of self-determination”.

I’m old enough to have met the soldiers of the First World War – at Ypres in the late Fifties with my 1918 veteran dad, when the men of Passchendaele returned to their former battlefields on holiday. And later I met, on my own Normandy holidays, the men of D-Day.

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Posted by on June 10, 2019 in Middle East


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Just because the map says so, doesn’t mean it’s true

I can remember three particular moments of realising there was a distinct thing called ‘Eastern Europe’ which was different from ‘Western Europe’, and both of them date me as being just about old enough to remember the Soviet Union. One is at Christmas 1989, in my grandmother’s flat on the Isle of Wight, an appropriately plush location to watch, on BBC News, the uprising in Romania and the subsequent televised execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, and learn several new words, like ‘dictator’ and ‘firing squad’. Also often said was the word ‘Communism’, but my Trotskyist parents referred to themselves as ‘socialists’ rather than communists, so that wasn’t concerning. What was, was looking in the Children’s Atlas that my mother bought for me in the late 1980s and finding the existence of a very, very large country called the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’. Being that sort of obnoxiously inquisitive child, I asked her ‘but we’re socialists, aren’t we? Isn’t this our country?’ ‘They’re not socialists. It’s very complicated’, she replied and refused to explain further. The next memory comes a few years later and concerns a Lufthansa map that my dad had brought back from work, where that space had suddenly been filled with over a dozen new countries, all with incredibly evocative names. Belarus! Azerbaijan! Kyrgyzstan!

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Posted by on April 2, 2019 in Uncategorized


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What should be done in the Middle East? Ask the Romans

On a rare visit to London not long ago, I followed a short path I used to walk as a schoolboy: from the ruins of the old Roman wall near Tower Hill Tube station to the Merchant Navy memorial. The remains of Londinium contain the fine red “sandwich” bricks which reinforced so many Roman houses, temples and fortifications across the empire.

I studied classics for my first degree and roamed Hadrian’s Wall and the ancient villas of England long before I copied down the Latin inscriptions on the Via Appia outside Rome.

On my very first visit to the memorial, I noticed that the commemorative plaques to the 35,800 merchant seamen of Britain’s two world wars, whose bodies were lost to the sea, contained Arab Muslim names. Many came from Yemen (Arabia Felix to the Romans) – and lived in South Shields – and most worked on the great Atlantic convoys.

And it still comes as a shock to think that the last desperate words uttered by some of those trapped in the engine rooms after the first U-boat torpedoes struck their ships were uttered in Arabic and must have been directed to Allah.

When I returned to Beirut a few days later, I took coffee with friends, quite by chance, beside the ruins of the old Roman city; and I noticed, of course, those familiar red sandwich stones behind the columns of the Via Maximus of ancient Berytus. The building blocks of empire, like the straight stone-slabbed roads, stretched across thousands of miles.

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Posted by on March 13, 2019 in Middle East


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Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?

A faint aura of destiny seems to hover over Teouma Bay. It’s not so much the landscape, with its ravishing if boilerplate tropical splendor — banana and mango trees, coconut and pandanus palms, bougainvillea, the apprehensive trill of the gray-eared honeyeater — as it is the shape of the harbor itself, which betrays, in the midst of such organic profusion, an aspect of the unnatural. The bay, on the island of Efate in the South Pacific nation Vanuatu, is long, symmetrical and briskly rectangular. In the expected place of wavelets is a blue so calm and unbroken that the sea doesn’t so much crash on the land as neatly abut it. From above, it looks as though a safe harbor had been engraved in the shoreline by some celestial engineer.

In late 2003, while clearing land just above the seaside, a bulldozer driver found a broken piece of pottery in the rubble. The villagers of Vanuatu often happen upon shards of timeworn ceramic, which spark an idly mythical curiosity; they’re said to be fragments of Noah’s Ark, or the original Ten Commandments, or the burst water vessels of powerful ancestral spirits. These shards are often left alone, but word in this particular case traveled quickly, and the artifact soon found its way to the Vanuatu Cultural Center and National Museum, where Stuart Bedford, a New Zealand archaeologist who had studied local pot shards for years, was called in to inspect it. He immediately recognized its distinctive pattern — “dentate stamping,” an ancient technique so named because it looked as though some tiny-toothed creature had bitten an intricate pattern into the ceramic — and understood that this pottery coincided with the very first movement of ancient peoples into the South Seas.

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Posted by on February 21, 2019 in Reportages


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Here, in the bloodlands of Belarus, I found hope for the future of Europe

In December I travelled to Minsk for a seminar with a group of European historians. A few miles outside the capital of Belarus, we visited places where both the Nazis and Stalin’s secret police had committed some of the worst crimes of the 20th century. During those few days, I also spoke with some young locals who offered glimmers of hope as to what a truly united Europe could one day look like.

It was the most instructive trip I’ve made in years: a deep dive into conflicting European memories, highlighting the difficulty of overcoming stereotypes and ideological narratives, as well as the legacy of the cold war in people’s minds.

It may sound odd, but for anyone trying to keep abreast of what Europe means, the best view could arguably be found right there, in those flatlands of marshes, pine trees and spruce, dotted with towns and villages on which the past weighs heavily.

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Posted by on January 4, 2019 in Europe, European Union


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The Ottomans were once humiliated by Yemeni rebels – today, the Houthis have done the same to Saudi Arabia

I rarely have reason to thank Turkish ambassadors. They tend to hold a different view of the 1915 Armenian holocaust, in which a million and a half Armenian Christians were deliberately murdered in a planned genocide by the Ottoman Turkish regime. “Hardship and suffering”, they agree, was the Armenians’ lot. But genocide? Never.

Well, that’s not the view of genocide scholars – including Israeli historians – nor of that bravest of Turkish academics, Taner Akcam, who has prowled thorough the Ottoman archives to find the proof. The Armenians did suffer, alas, a genocide.

Certainly my gratitude to His Excellency Umit Yalcin, Turkish ambassador to the Court of St James, is not for his letter to me, in which he describes the Armenian genocide as a “one-sided narrative”. But he did enclose a small book, published five years ago by Edward Erickson, whose contents obfuscate the details of the mass slaughter of the Armenians, even daring to suggest that the Ottoman “strategy of population relocation” should be seen in the contemporary setting of Britain’s policy of “relocating” civilians in the Boer War (in “concentration camps”) in South Africa, and by the Americans in the Philippines.

Interesting. But we didn’t mass rape the Boer women, burn their children and drown Boer men in rivers.

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Posted by on December 20, 2018 in Middle East


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Museum of Black Civilisations aims to ‘decolonise knowledge’

Dakar, Senegal – In April 1966, Senegal’s first president and a poet, Leopold Sedar Senghor ascended the steps of the National Assembly in Dakar to declare his country the temporary capital of Black Civilisation at the launch of the World Festival of Black Arts.

In the following weeks, African luminaries such as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and writer Wole Soyinka would converge on the Senegalese capital, as would others from the wider African diaspora: Jazz great Duke Ellington, the Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire, Barbadian novelist George Lamming and American writers Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka.

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Posted by on December 17, 2018 in Africa


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L’Italia e la grande guerra senza la retorica nazionalista

La prima guerra mondiale è stata e rimane uno dei miti fondativi dello stato-nazione, soprattutto nei paesi vincitori. Gli anni tra il 1914 e il 1918 sono stati avvolti da un’aura di sacralità che ancora oggi si può cogliere nei monumenti, nei cimiteri e nelle cerimonie che ricordano la grande guerra.

Per anni il conflitto è stato sottratto ad analisi obiettive ed è stato letto solo attraverso la lente deformante dell’eroismo, dell’onore, della patria, della propaganda bellica. In Italia la letteratura ne ha affrontato i tabù, spesso con fastidiose conseguenze per gli autori: Emilio Lussu fu accusato di disfattismo e antipatriottismo per Un anno sull’Altipiano, mentre La rivolta dei santi maledetti di Curzio Malaparte incappò nella censura e fu sequestrato. Negli anni settanta sono stati pubblicati saggi critici e analisi storiche rigorose e obiettive, come quelli di Mario Isnenghi, Giorgio Rochat, Enzo Forcella, Alberto Monticone e Piero Melograni.

Tuttavia, con la ricorrenza del centenario della fine della grande guerra e le celebrazioni previste per il 4 novembre, il velo di retorica che con tanta fatica era stato sollevato è tornato ad avvolgere quegli anni. Ci sono state iniziative storicamente accurate, ma la propaganda nazionalista e militare nel tempo si è riappropriata dell’evento. Mentre fiction tv semplicistiche come Il confine e Fango e gloria – andate in onda su Rai1 – hanno favorito il ritorno di una visione patriottica della storia.

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Posted by on November 22, 2018 in European Union


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From Lithuania, with love

In February 2015, a cryptic email reached me from around the globe and across 28 years.
“You have participated in the protest meeting of Ribentrop-Molotov 1939 agreement in Vilnius, August 23, 1987.”

“Do you still keep the tape records of that day?”

I was not a “participant,” but I was at the protest in Vilnius on August 23, 1987, a day etched deep in my reporter’s memory. Yes, I was pretty certain I still had the cassette tape I’d recorded as NPR’s correspondent.

But who would want that tape now? Only a few hundred people had attended the protest. Just a year later, the same anniversary of the pact that led to Soviet annexation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia drew tens of thousands, making the 1987 meeting look like not much more than a backyard gathering. And from 1988 on, the numbers kept swelling until, by March 1990, it seemed as though most of the republic’s nearly four million people were in the streets supporting the vote by Lithuania’s Parliament to declare independence—the first republic to formally challenge Soviet rule.

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Posted by on October 26, 2018 in European Union, Reportages


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The story of the Armenian Legion is finally being told – and it is a dark tale of anger and revenge

Governments at war make dangerous promises. And the First World War was a time of promises and lies. The promises came first: in 1916, the British told the Arabs they could have independence; in 1917, they told the Jews they could have a homeland; and the French told the survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide that they could return to liberate their homelands in eastern Turkey.

Then came the betrayals.

Superpowers like legions, the Roman variety, preferably when they are composed of foreigners. So the British created an Arab Legion to fight against the Ottoman Turks for independence and a Jewish Legion to fight against the Ottoman Turks for Palestine. And the French created an Armenian Legion – an offshoot of the French Foreign Legion, needless to say – to fight against the Ottoman Turks for Cilicia.

The Arabs lost Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, the Jews did not get all of Palestine, and the soldiers of the Armenian Legion – having helped to liberate Palestine – were abandoned amid the ashes of their own burnt cities.

Among the indigenous peoples of the Middle East, they were the most traduced of all, since they recovered not a square inch of their land. To be a loser doesn’t get you much purchase in the history books. To be a loser twice over turns you into a curio. Thus the story of the Armenian Legion has until now been largely untold and unremembered.

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Posted by on October 19, 2018 in Europe, Middle East, Uncategorized


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