Separating strands of fact and fantasy

Things in the Middle East have certainly gotten a whole lot more complicated recently.
With Russia becoming involved in military action in Syria, and Iran now being allowed back into the group of nations at the negotiating table, and Europe failing to cope with a stream of refugees, the stakes certainly seem to have changed. What was a brutal civil war now contains elements of a proxy war in old Cold War style, houses the possibility for old scores to be settled in the power struggle between Iran and the Saudis, and the frightening specter of one mistake of a bomb aimed at terrorists striking another foreign player triggering serious repercussions.
Even before the latest twists in this convoluted saga, it was pretty hard for the average citizen in Europe to sort out what was going on and who were the real bad guys. This conundrum was famously summed up in a letter to Britainand’s Daily Mail newspaper from one Aubrey Bailey, residing in the respectable English town of Fleet in Hampshire. It has been shared across social media countless times, but just in case you havenand’t come across it yet, here it is in all its glory:
and”Are you confused about whatand’s going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.
We support the Iraqi government in the fight against the Islamic State [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. We donand’t like IS but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We donand’t like President [Bashar al-]Assad. We support the fight against him but not IS which is also fighting against him.
We donand’t like Iran but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS. So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies whom we want to lose but we donand’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win.
If the people we want to defeat are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less. And all this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who werenand’t actually there until we went in to drive them out. Do you understand now?and”
If Aubrey were writing today, he (for it is normally a manand’s name among the English middle-classes) would be able to add in more strands of confusion by alluding to the Russians and Turkey, too. Sadly, those meeting around the table in Vienna last week must have been painfully aware of the accuracy of this satirical analysis. They had been unable to invite anyone from Syria to attend the talks because, first, all of the other parties in the disastrous debacle have to sort out the external influences before the internal situation can even begin to approach a resolution.
For historian John Man, it is all too similar to the situation that applied in the area back in the 1100s. From the disunity and enmity between different factions of Islam in the region, and the power-play and shifting allegiances that saw the various groups at times ally with one another against the Frankish Crusaders and at others side with the foreigners using their resources to gain supremacy over other Muslim stakeholders, rose a single leader: Saladin.
He subtitles his new biography of Saladin and”The life, the legend and the Islamic Empire.and” In the Western world, Saladin is seen as a good kind of Islamic warrior leader. Victorian historians, poets and novelists romanticized him as displaying the heroic integrity and chivalric magnanimity in victory that Christendom aspired to, at a time when the Christian Kings and Knights were guilty of ignoble behavior. Man sets out to explore the facts and to present us with a historical analysis of the real Saladin.
With his trademark strong storytelling, Man sets the scene of the Islamic world in the 12th century. This is a time when the Arabic world flourished through science and trade. But it was divided by the Sunni-Shiite split. It reeled from the horrors of the Crusaders who had taken Jerusalem. But the various factions could not overcome their old enmities to seek their revenge on the invaders. They needed a leader who could focus the hatred and despair they felt. Onto this scene marched Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub.
Man traces his progress from a young Kurdish nobleman becoming the sultan of all Egypt and Syria, how he plugged a power vacuum, established his authority over the area and ultimately at Hattin gave the Crusaders a defeat that was to be the beginning of the end of their kingdom.
It is a book of three parts. In the first section Man grabs our attention by clearly underlining a number of parallels between the sorry of Saladin and the present day. He was born in Tikrit (like Saddam). His hometown was Damascus (like Assad). His age was an age of hostage-taking (a practice revived by ISIL). The Muslim world was divided by the Sunni-Shia schism (viz Iran and Saudi Arabiaand’s rival influences). There was a longing to liberate Jerusalem (akin to the anti-Zionist movement).
Having succeeded in grabbing our attention, Man then begins a powerful narrative of the biographical details. You can probably get a clearer overview of the facts by reading the relevant article in Wikipedia, but it would be a lot less entertaining. This reads like historical biography that has been written with one eye to providing the screenplay for a Hollywood blockbuster. While other Muslim characters are only slightly fleshed out, much attention is given to Reynald de Chatillion, who is presented as the foil to Saladinand’s virtue. Every good yarn needs a baddie, and Man unashamedly introduces Reynald as a villain, playing up his brutal, deceitful, vengeful and shameless attitudes and attributes.
While the style of narration is entertaining at first, the reader wanting their history to feel less like a fairy-tale pantomime will find it wearing after a while. Man for me was a little too chatty, trying — by way of using asides like this that split sentences with dashes — to be too and”matey.and” It all had a little too much of the air of a garrulous pub-philosopher or an entertaining after-dinner speaker.
History should not be pompous. It should not be unintelligible to all, but the most erudite. But I became a little weary with the attempts to over-popularize the subject matter. Comments such as and”it is a truth universally acknowledged that an unmarried princess must be in need of a prince,and” describing Egypt as and”having fallen into Saladinand’s lapand” and likening him to and”a medieval version of Nelson Mandelaand” felt as embarrassing as an ageing uncle trying to impress the teenage members of the family with his street cred.
Man recognizes that historian Edward Gibbon was right when he said and”it is a clichandeacute to compare Saladinand’s humanity and magnanimity in victory to the massacre of the First Crusadeand” and he provides an accurate account of times when Saladin failed to live up to his saintly image. The book ends with a fairly good summary of the strengths of his leadership and an analysis of his ability to unite the disparate factions, albeit admittedly using material from the Harvard Business Review.
History will record whether there will arise a new Saladin out of the confusing melee that is Syria, to reunite the nation once more. Whether he is Sunni or Shiite or Yezidi or Christian, he will need the qualities of clarity of vision to unite a nation, forbearance and perseverance in implementing it, and generosity towards defeated enemies if the nation is to be rebuilt once more.
and”Saladinand” by John Man is published by IB Tauris. 13.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-059307373-5 Rating: three stars out of five

SOURCE: TODAY’S ZAMAN

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