Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:July 7th, 2010 19:25 EST
Do we misunderstand Middle East history or just ignore it?

Do we misunderstand Middle East history or just ignore it?

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

Iran is in the business of preserving a culture that predates the Hellenic world in which we ourselves live.

Once Alexander the Great crossed the Bosporus, Iran (then called Persia) had to find a way to co-opt invaders, first the Macedonians and then the Arabs.

Alexander turned out to be the Persians` best ally, much to the chagrin of some of his father`s hoary generals. He was the quintessential globalist, a one-worlder whose vision foreshadowed the United Nations. He saw that Persia had much to offer everybody else and he set about using her smarts and treasures.

The Arabs, inspired by the Qu`ran, the word of God dictated to Mohammed by the Angel Gabriel, were also globalists and one-worlders, but to join their world you had to convert to Islam, whereas to join the Hellenic world you had only to lay down your arms and pay your taxes. Alexander believed Hellenic ideals were contagious. He was right. We are beneficiaries of the contagion. Beneficiaries because of the Arabs who transmitted Hellenic culture to the West.

Like Alexander, the Arabs were rarely destructive invaders. Their approach was practical. Why destroy what you were about to own? This made their civilization highly assimilationist, and the great agility of their language and alphabet abetted this process. They understood the power of language so well that they transmitted Alexander`s world to us by launching a translation project of heroic proportions. (Perhaps it`s worth mentioning here how few works in translation from any culture are published in the United States today.)

But their defeat of the Persians in 644 left the Persians vulnerable to Arabization, the very thing Turkish President Kemal Ataturk threw off when he abandoned the Arabic alphabet in 1928. The Kurds followed suit in 1932. The assassination of Ali, Mohammed`s faithful and brave son-in-law, and the subsequent formation of the Shia branch of Islam provided the Persians with a way to fend off Arabization.

That process continues unabated today. By dissenting from the majority Sunni rule the Persians achieved a number of goals. The original Arab conquerors were tribal and the Ummayad caliphs retained this tribal structure in their armies. Persian culture was much less tribal; it was both urban and urbane. So the Ummayads and their Sunni beliefs were inevitable enemies. Later the Abbasids, who violently overthrew the Ummayads and established themselves in Baghdad, were more to the Persians` liking. They were better able to operate in Abbasid politics and armies.

This use of Shi`ism for other than theological purposes continues. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of modern clerical Iran, was initially profoundly wary of messianism, the belief of Shias that the Hidden or Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, is coming. He was more concerned about today, about constructing a true Islamic theocracy that would practice the teachings of the prophet uncontaminated by capitalist greed and commercial imperialism.

But his successors, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, see that messianism has its uses, and they use it to suppress reform and what they perceive as Westernization. They seek to harness religious fervor to the purpose of imposing a security state. And the Revolutionary Guard, distrusting the clergy, seeks more and more to call the shots, because there is always the danger that true Islamic ideals, like hostility to usury, might actually create the kind of society that great caliphs like Haroun al Rachid in Baghdad and Abd ar Rahman III in Cordoba presided over. Fundamentalists may say they want to resurrect the caliphates, but the great caliphs would have rooted out their narrow, exclusionary ideas. They would have regarded today`s Islamic terrorists as a danger to the state.

It is one of the many paradoxes of American policy that we attacked the most Westernized and secular Arab country, Iraq, which also had the healthiest middle class. And we then proceeded to turn over this secularized Arab country to the influence of its clericalized neighbor, Iran. Where can any sense be found in that policy? By doing this we upset a precarious balance and proved to Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkey that we are ignorant meddlers.

We have alarmed the Sunni majority throughout Islam and at the same time strengthened Iran in its pursuit of old grudges with its neighbors. Nor are all those neighbors Arab. Iran and Turkey have never been pals, and Turkey`s new stiffness towards Israel and overtures to Iran can be readily explained by Realpolitik. Turkey sees how stupidly we have acted and is moving to normalize its relationship with a newly invigorated Iran, an Iran encouraged by our blundering.

We may have thought our longtime ally, Turkey, would continue to support one stupidity after another, but we were wrong. Turkey has to live in that region and it has a long and complicated relationship with all its neighbors. Unlike us, it does not see the region through Israeli eyes. The Turks appreciate our virtues, but they are aware that we are prone to mess around and go off half-cocked.

The Iranians see that we have given them a chance to reassert themselves, to contain the Arabs and Sunni Islam. But the fly in this ointment is that the Iranian population by and large, and the young people in particular, are no more crazy about messianism than they are about the clerics or the Revolutionary Guard. They are already considerably Westernized, as were the Iraqis before we forced them at gunpoint to reconsider the virtues of the West.

How much of this, any of this, do you see reflected in our policies? If I had to choose between the Bush-Cheney White House and its State Department or the Obama-Biden White House and its State Department, I would choose the Marines because they quickly perceived in Al Anbar Province that the Sunni tribesmen held the key to pacifying the Al Qaeda terrorists. Yes, our practical, brave Marines, not the pols and their commentariat in Washington.

So we know what we have the Marine Corps for, but what in hell do we have the rest of them for? What good are State Department Arabists to us if politicians twist their arms and censor their reports? Colin Powell knows a great deal about this, having been hung out to dry at the UN by the Bush-Cheney regime.

My question may sound rhetorical, but it isn`t. I think the answers lie with the banks and the corporations that exploit war for profit "and with their servants in Washington. Lithium, rubies, copper, gold and sapphire in Afghanistan in unprecendented quantities, and black gold in Iraq: short-term profit for the very rich, and hell for the rest of us.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

Del`s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latté`s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother`s art:

His aunt`s art: