A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 30, 2016

Kerry Restates Longstanding Policies, Commentators in Uproar

Let's be clear. Though softened a bit under George W. Bush, US policy since 1967 has considered Israeli settlements an obstacle to peace. Through the Reagan Administration, the US routinely abstainedon, rather than vetoed, UNSC Resolution similar to the recent one. John Kerry's recent speech reiterated often restated positions: that failing a two-state solution, Israel will eventually have to choose between democracy and n apartheid state, a position supported by many Israelis.

Whether taking a strong stand at this late date will have much effect is surely debatable, and the upcoming French initiative may indeed be what Netanyahu really fears, but the uproar this week has really made clear how much Netanyahu's defiant attitude to the US has seemingly deranged Israeli policy.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Belated Appreciation of Irfan Shahid, 1926-2016

Irfan Shahid
I  have learned, rather belatedly, of the passing of Prof. Irfan Shahid, Professor at Georgetown, former Associate Fellow of Dumbarton Oaks, and Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, who passed away on November 9 at the age of 90.

Professor Shahid was one of the readers of my doctoral dissertation.Though he was the definitive historian of Byzantine-Arab relations down to the Islamic conquests, he didn't actually teach history at Georgetown, where he was the Oman Professor of Arabic and Islamic Literature, teaching the Qur'an, Classical Arabic Literature, and the like in the Arabic department. I really only got to know him from his eager involvement in my doctoral committee.

Born as Irfan Kawar in Nazareth in 1926 to a Palestinian Greek Orthodox family, he read Classics at Oxford and then took his Ph.D. at Princeton in Arabic and Islamic studies. I never did know why he changed his name from Kawar to Shahid.

Although he was a prominent enough figure at Georgetown, I suspect he was really far more at home at Dumbarton Oaks, the Harvard-owned Byzantine studies library in Washington, where he did most of his life's work on Byzantium and the Arabs. He discussed his time there in an interview at Dumbarton Oaks in 2008. His publications included Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs; Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century; and Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, and numerous articles. I am uncertain if his final volume, on the seventh century and the Arab Conquests, might have been far enough along to someday appear. Unfortunately, all his volumes are priced beyond my or most people's reach.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

For Hanukkah, Something Completely Different: a Jewish Bluegrass Band

For Hanukkah, here's something you don't see every day: a Jewish bluegrass group. Nefesh Mountain was founded by an American couple, Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, joined by other bluegrass musicians. The band's website is here.

My own only previous bluegrass post on this blog was back when Doc Watson died in 2012, and I needed to reach wildly for that gospel music often mentions the River Jordan), but this time I'm posting Hanukkah songs during Hanukkah.

It;s impressive how smoothly Jewish folk melodies merge with bluegrass.

Here's a good introduction, Esa Einai, based on Psalm 121 (I will lift my eyes unto the mountains):

While living in Coney Island with a Jewish Mother-in-Law, Woody Guthrie wrote a couple of Hanukkah songs. Here,"Hanukkah's Flame," and "Hanukkah Dance," both by Woody Guthrie:

Finally an "Old Time Medley," the first song of which, "Down to the River to Pray," is an old standard of gospel bluegrass, with lyrics adjusted to provide Old Testament references.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Hanukkah and Christmas Greetings

We're now in the heart of the holiday season, with Hanukkah beginning Saturday at sundown, and the Western (Latin) Christmas on Sunday. Sincere greetings to readers celebrating either holiday, or both.

Though the Middle East Institute is officially closed through the New Year, we are still proofing the January issue, and I will probably be blogging, perhaps even more than usual.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Annual Fairuz Christmas Carols in Arabic Post

Christmas is coming, at least the Western date of Christmas. The great Lebanese singer Fairuz, who turned 81 last month, singing Western carols in Arabic, is an annual tradition here. So here goes:

Jingle Bells:

Silent Night:

Go Tell it on the Mountain:

Angels we Have Heard on High:

Her version of "Joy to the World" is about Beirut;

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen:

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Shab-e Yalda

Tonight is the longest night of the year. The Winter Solstice occurs at 5:44 AM tomorrow. That means tonight is Shab-e Yalda, the night of Yalda, the ancient Persian solstice celebration of the birth of the solar divinity Mithra, said to have been born of a virgin at dawn on the longest night of the year. (Yalda is the Aramaic word for birth.) After the Roman Army spread the veneration of Mihra in the West, the solstice became the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, when the sun begins it return to the north and the days begin to lengthen.
Traditional foods
Even in the era of the Islamic Republic, Yalda remains a popular seasonal feast, alongside Nowruz in the spring, in areas influenced by Persian culture: Iran, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, parts of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and among Zoroastrians worldwide.

Yalda greetings to all who celebrate, as the holiday season gets underway.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ill Omens for the Holidays?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
 Yeats, The Second Coming

On the very eve of the Winter Solstice and the seasonal feasts of multiple faiths, and in the bitter aftermath of the fall of Aleppo, in a single day we have seen the public assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, an apparent terrorist attack in which a truck plowed into a crowded Christmas Market in Berlin, killing 12 so far, and then (perhaps a retaliation?) a gunman in Zurich opening fire in an Islamic Center, wounding three people at prayer.

Just yesterday,  four gunmen in the Jordanian city of Karak killed nine, retreating into the city's famous Crusader castle, where they were killed.

Let us hope this is not an augury of worse to come.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dedication of the Butrusiyya Church

Following up on my earlier post on the history of the Butrussiya Church that was bombed Sunday, and courtesy of Prof. Paul Sedra, here's a souvenir of the 1912 dedication:
Note that the dedication was on the second anniversary of Boutros Ghali's assassination.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Political History of the Butrusiyya, Site of Sunday's Coptic Church Attack

The bomb attack on Sunday near the Coptic Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint Mark in Cairo's Abbasiyya district, which killed at least 24, is clearly intended to strike at the heart of Coptic Christianity, occurring adjacent to the Patriarchal See of Pope Tawadros II.

It matched or surpassed the death toll from the bombing of the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria in January 2011, the previous worst church bombing. The attack came during Sunday Mass; the explosion occurred on the women's side of the church, so many of the dead were women and children, and the bombing came on the eve of Mawlid al-Nabi, the Prophet's birthday. Most of these details were widely reported.

But a particularly political connection of the site of the bombing has largely been missed. In fact, many of the reports have spoken of the location as taking place in a "chapel" of the Cathedral, or in a Church "attached" to the Cathedral.

The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, known as the Butrusiyya, sits in the shadow of the Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint Mark, but it is a separate building that predates the Cathedral by several decades. The Butrusiyya was built in 1911, while the Cathedral was completed in 1968. The area around the cathedral is the site of numerous churches, some, like Anba Ruis nearby, dating from the 1400s. The land was given to the Church in Fatimid times.

Boutros Ghali
The Butrusyya was built by the family of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated in 1910, We dealt with the assassination and its background in my 2013 post about the Denshawai incident of 1906. Ghali, 1846-1910,  was a rarity as a Copt who became Egypt's Prime Minister, 1908-1910. His role in the Denshawai trials led to his being viewed as a tool of the British; his Christianity also worked against him. (He was also the grandfather of the late UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.)

The Butrusyya Church contains the grave of the original Prime Minister Boutros Ghali. So there are whole layers of potential political and sectarian symbolism.

In the photo below, the church of St. Peter and St. Paul is the Romanesque-style church in the center; the large Coptic-style vaulted church on the right is the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mark.

Tonight East Aleppo May Fall. There are no Winners; only Losers.

No one is innocent here. Both the regime and the rebels behaved as if the civilian population was invisible. Hospitals were systematically targeted. A great world city has been destroyed as the world watched and deplored. The Syrian people were the losers. There are no winners.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Avner Cohen and William Burr Shed New Light on the Vela "Double Flash" Incident of 1979

I'm one of a small number of Middle East hands who continues to be fascinated by the 1979 incident in which a US Vela satellite detected the double flash typical of a nuclear detonation in sub-Antarctic waters off South Africa, where the South Atlantic and South Indian Oceans join. Although the CIA and other analysts thought it was likely a low-yield nuclear test, a White House scientific panel declared that was unlikely, though subsequent hydrographic and atmospheric evidence of radiation was detected. The mystery has never been fully solved, though  growing consensus has evolved that the double flash was either Israeli, South African, or more probably a joint Israeli-South African test.

A Vela 5B satellite
Last year, I posted about the Vela mystery, when Leonard Weiss reviewed the incident in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Now there's some new material available.  While still not definitive, it adds to the clues that the test was real. Now Avner Cohen, the recognized open-source analyst on Israel's nuclear capabilities, and William Burr, Director of the Nuclear Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, have some new documents, mostly drawn from the papers of Ambassador Gerard C. Smith, Jimmy Carter's Special Representative for Non-Proliferation Matters, and US Representative to the IAEA in the Carter years. The results are still inconclusive as all the intelligence reports remain classified.

For those with a casual interest in the subject, Cohen and Burr summarize the new material in today's Politico. For the seriously interested, they have posted, at the National Security Archives' "Nuclear Vault," an "Electronic Briefing Book," with more extensive background and a full set of links to relevant documents.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The End is Near, and it Will Be Bloody

Reportedly, Syrian regime forces now control at least 75% of eastern Aleppo, and their jihadist opponents appear determined to fight to the end unless the regime offers them an escape route, which no longer appears to be an option.

Fighting is raging in and around the ancient Citadel itself, now badly damaged. The regime and the jihadists bear shared responsibility, though the Russian and Syrian Air Forces have made it an uneven fight.

Though for obvious reasons, the US press does not like to draw comparisons between the Syrian regime and the situation developing right now in Mosul, since in Mosul the US is supporting the Iraqi forces against ISIS, despite the presence of sectarian militias and Iran as virtual allies. But the fight for Mosul has bogged down, and once again, a regime and jihadi forces confront each other, The tragedy deepens.

Remembering Philip Hitti's Role in US Middle East Studies

Back in 2012, I did a post about the role of the late Philip K. Hitti (1886-1978) in founding Middle Eastern/Arab studies in the United States. Though his famous History of the Arabs and many other works have now been largely superseded, he remains the US pioneer in the field.

Now, here's a post about Hitti's contribution that actually includes interesting selections from an unpublished Hitti memoir.
Philip K. Hitti at Princeton

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Changing Horses a Century Ago: Lloyd George Becomes Prime Minister

David Lloyd George
This particular 100th anniversary post notes an event which, while not directly related to the Middle East, would have enormous effects on the Middle East in the remaining two years of the First World War. On December 7, 1916, David Lloyd George replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Internal Liberal Party politics, which I need not go into here, propelled Asquith to step down.
Lloyd George, a proud Welshman and veteran Liberal politician, had been serving as Minister of Munitions until June, when Lord Kitchener went down with HMS Hampshire in the North Sea. and Lloyd George took over as Secretary of State for War.

Even before becoming Prime Minister, Lloyd George became a strong advocate for emphasizing the Eastern Theaters of the war, particularly Palestine, Greece, and the Balkans, and as Prime Minister continued this focus, echoing his younger (then still) Liberal Party colleague Winston Churchill. Though he never got War Cabinet approval to shift troops from the Western Front, he did preside over more aggressive efforts in Palestine and the Balkan Front.

The 1917 Overture (Punch cartoon)
An avid reader of the Bible who said he preferred the Old Testament over the New, he had a fascination with Biblical geography. (During the Paris Peace negotiations he reportedly asked Clemenceau to cede to Britain the Mandate over "Palestine from Dan to Beersheba," though the Biblical definition was less than the eventual Mandate.) Though the Balfour Declaration of 1917 bears the name of the Foreign Secretary, Alfred James Balfour, Lloyd George was at least its godfather. And in the 1919 peacemaking, Lloyd George was deeply involved in bringing Palestine and Mosul into Britain's sphere.

Herbert Asquith had been easily dominated by his Cabinet colleagues, with stronger men like Kitchener at the War Office and Churchill at the Admiralty (until Gallipoli). Lloyd George would be a very different sort of leader.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Anatolian, So No Reindeer: Happy Feast of St, Nicholas of Myra!

Today, December 6, is the Feast Day of the fourth-century Anatolian bishop Nicholas of Myra, marked in the Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox traditions on the same date. Born at Patara (near Gelemiş in today's Turkey) in southwestern Anatolia about AD 270, he rose to fame as Bishop of Myra (the ruins of which are outside Demre, Turkey). He attended the Council of Nicaea, defended Orthodoxy against the Arian heresy, was famed for generosity and gift-giving. He is a particularly popular saint in the Orthodox tradition, especially in the Russian Orthodox tradition. He is less venerated in the West as an actual historical figure, but is better known under a distortion of his name: Santa Claus.

He was an Anatolian Greek (Turks did not arrive in Anatolia until after AD 1071), who is not known to have any association with the North Pole, and doubtless never saw a reindeer, let alone the flying kind.

No shortage of miracles came to be attributed to hem; he is often known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Among many stories told were that he gave gifts secretly to those in need, including paying the dowries of three sisters who could not afford them. That presumably contributed to the gift-giving tradition. In the last days of pagan Rome, he was imprisoned in the persecution of Diocletian, but was freed under Constantine, and attended the Council of Nicaea as Bishop of Myra.

Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD, hence the day became his feast day. He was buried in a Cathedral named for him in Myra. But his remains did not rest in peace. After the Seljuq Turks took over Myra in the 1080s, the Italian cities of Bari and Venice sought to compete to move his relics (and their lucrative pilgrimage trade) to Italy. in 1087, merchants from Bari made off with St. Nick's bones.

(Stealing saints was actually not that uncommon. In 828 AD, Venetian merchants famously stole the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist, traditional Apostle of Egypt, and took them to Venice, where they reside in the great Cathedral of San Marco.)

With that note, I begin my Christmas blogging, since the Middle East has more dates for Christmas than the rest of the world.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Victorian Converts to Islam

Though Al-Jazeera moved this story some months ago, I hadn't seen it before: "The Victorian Muslims of Britain,"  about British aristocratic types converting to Islam. (To quibble, some of these conversions were more Edwardian than Victorian. Among the examples is (Muhammad) Marmaduke Pickthall, whose translation of the Qur'an still circulates.

It also reminded me of the discovery of a letter from Winston Churchill's future sister-in-law expressing concern that Churchill might convert.