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Waking Up to the Brussels Bombs

March 23, 2016 2 comments

The bombs in my new hometown of Brussels didn’t go off close to me. But they did kind of wake me up.

In Brussels airport’s modest departure hall, the explosions were at places I’ve passed through a hundred times over the years. Many of my acquaintances have done so too. The boyfriend of the online editor who works at the desk beside me was on his way to check in, and a colleague was parking her car nearby.

Shortly afterward, a mile away from us, another bomb exploded on a crowded metro train between Schumann and Maalbeek stations, killing 20 people, ripping the carriage into twisted metal and filling the underground with screams and choking smoke. My 12-year-old daughter had taken a nearby metro to school just an hour earlier.

 

Soldiers

Soldiers have become an everyday sight on the boulevards of Brussels since the November 2015 Paris attacks were traced back to the suburb of Molenbeek.

Brussels is not a big town. My former home of Istanbul has as many people as the whole of Belgium, and it probably takes more time to drive across. As my neighbour said as I met her walking her dog that morning, when something bad happens you always know somebody connected to it. I’m new here, so luckily for me, I knew nobody who was hurt. But my daughter’s schoolfriends did.

After 33 years living in the Middle East, I’d have thought I was immune to shock. I’ve seen plenty of bombs. My reporting job took me to warfronts, and once trapped me for ten weeks in a Sudanese town under rebel siege. The 2003 car bomb at Istanbul’s British Consulate-General sent its gatehouse up in smoke before my eyes. In 1983 I even witnessed one of the Middle East’s first suicide car bombs, when, as I describe in my book Dining with al-Qaeda, “a shockwave of explosive force whomped through the office … a column of evil, yellowish smoke and debris was spiraling up into the sky … ” (I’ve reproduced the page below).

But somehow these Brussels bombings shook me up, even though I didn’t go near them.

Perhaps it’s because just three days before, an apparently Islamist suicide bomber attacked the Istanbul street where until recently I had lived for 15 years, the latest of several such attacks in Turkey. We could pass the spot several times a day. At the moment of the blast, our caretaker’s son was taking an exam opposite. He sent pictures of what he saw, gruesome, guts-spilling-over-the-pavement images of the four crumpled dead and the stunned gaze of the injured .

Perhaps it was because I thought that by moving to Europe, I was coming somewhere safe. Perhaps I underestimated the angry sentiments of the pro-Islamic State element in the Brussels inner city districts; a journalist friend told me of residents stoning and harassing him as police arrested the organiser of the Paris attacks in the Moroccan district, telling him: “What are you doing? Belgians shouldn’t come here”.

Perhaps it was because I’ve started to identify with one charming Belgium, and have now learned that there is another, less predictable country inside it.

Perhaps my anxiety was also because of the throw-away comments I’ve been hearing in meetings with Western political leaders, or listening to those who mix with them. They are a steady drumbeat of defeatism: “the situation is catastrophic”, “things are out of control”, “my generation was spoiled, and has failed”, or “the crises are piling on top of each other like we’ve never seen before”. After a meeting with the German chancellor during the euro crisis, one German party leader confided that the worst part of it was a sense that nobody knew what to do.

In Brussels on Tuesday 22 March, though, my unease was definitely because I knew I was watching conflict spread. Pale-faced people around me were going through the painful initiation into what what the denizens of war zones have to get used to: calling family and friends as news of real attacks mix with false rumours; discovering the narrow escapes of partners and colleagues; sharing shaken feelings as old certainties crumble; and staying anxious until you learn that everyone connected to you is safe.

Normally, too, my work has long been to pronounce on what’s best for far-away countries. Even Istanbul often felt like a spaceship hovering alongside the rest of Turkey. But on the day of the Brussels bombs, it was reporters from Africa, China, Lebanon and, yes, Turkey, who called up to seek comment on the twin attacks that had paralysed Brussels for much of the day. Perhaps I was still in partial denial about the meaning of the 9 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., and the ones in London, Paris, and Madrid. Now I live here, I get it. The angry Middle East’s conflicts really have gone global.

It’s not only the new reach of the so-called Islamic State that make Belgium feel inter-connected. The country is a famously close neighbour to France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. On top of that, my new house in Brussels feels as though it is in the midst of a neo-Ottoman empire, within short walking distance of a Bulgarian cafe, a Macedonian Turkish bar, a Moroccan furniture shop, a Greek corner store, and streets of Turkish butchers, tile merchants and grocers. Beyond them is a veritable casbah of Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian and other shops spilling their cheap clothing, bedding and wedding finery onto the street.

The languages spoken around me on Brussels trams make the city feel like every nation within a radius of one thousand miles is represented. Forty nationalities were represented among the bombing casualties. Indeed, the refugee influx of the past year is no great conceptual shock. The city is not just the geographic heart of Europe, but in terms of its population, it has Russia, the Middle East and north Africa coursing through its veins.

For me, in short, Europe and the Middle East overlap in Brussels, and indeed in many other European cities. I like Brussels all the more for that diversity and energy, and feel I should understand both sides. As an adopted Middle Easterner, I know the role the West, actively or negligently, has played over the past century in stoking up the mayhem that is now biting it back. And as a convinced European, I wish more could be done to integrate communities that could contribute much in the long term, and in any event, cannot be wished away.

I hope my new European neighbours can learn to feel that way too, and to tell the truth, many of the ones I know do. But for now, violent conflicts, bombings and wailing sirens in the streets are an increasing part of both sides of the Europe-Middle East equation.

The page in Dining with al-Qaeda describing the first bombing I witnessed, with my then colleague David Zenian, as a news agency reporter in Lebanon in April 1983:

DWAQ 4

The Turkish Tortoise and the Middle Eastern Hares

July 13, 2015 Leave a comment

A belated posting of a talk that I did in Istanbul in May, trying to explain in a TED Talks lookalike why after 28 years in Turkey I felt that somehow the country will likely always do better – and more slowly – than its Middle Eastern neighbours. Turkish Review also published a cleaned-up text of the speech.

TR Talking 2

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With the Yezidis during the 2003 Iraq war

August 17, 2014 Leave a comment

As jihadists make Yezidis suffer once again on the Syrian-Iraq border, here’s my chapter from Dining with al-Qaeda devoted to my weeks with the community during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

From the archive

Chapter 17

THE YEZIDI HERESY

An Alternative Approach to Military Liberation

We rejoiced at the rising Nile, then it drowned us. — EGYPTIAN PROVERB

Hugh Pope and Sagvan Murad in front of Yezidi shrine Sheikh Adi. Lalish, 2003. Hugh Pope and Sagvan Murad in front of Yezidi shrine Sheikh Adi. Lalish, 2003.

A good introduction is an invaluable asset. My fixer, Sagvan Murad, was a young and active member of an ancient religious community called the Yezidis. They numbered about half a million people in Iraq, the bulk of them living south of the front line and under Saddam Hussein’s government control. Murad told me that community leaders on the side that was free, liberated, and developing since 1991, had organized a plan for a smooth takeover of the Saddam-controlled areas. It was his boss in a Yezidi cultural center, a part-time guerrilla chief, who had invited us to accompany them south when Saddam’s control collapsed. This offer of open access to whatever…

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Tahrir, Taksim and the Ottoman Empire

October 7, 2013 1 comment

Screen shot 2013-10-07 at 22.19.44In 2011, a book review monthly sent me Michelle Campos’s Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, asking for 5,000 words on all that it might mean. It set my head spinning, a dense, comprehensive battery of sources writing in 1908-1914, making me feel like I was in the same busy conference as a crowd of bourgeois Ottomans. There were also many uncanny parallels with what was going on in 2011 in Tahrir Square and other places of ferment during the Arab Uprisings. I wrote nothing about it at the time – I wasn’t part of those Arab events and wasn’t sure it was a fair to make the comparison. I delayed and prevaricated. I stopped hearing from the book review monthly. Then, in the summer of 2013, protests poured onto the streets of Istanbul outside my house, and I understood what I could and had to say. And, at last, I achieved a long-held ambition: to weave my electricity subscriber number into a story.

OTTOMAN GHOSTS

Istanbul’s Pro-Constitution Coup of 1908 Haunts Erdogan’s Turkey

By Hugh Pope

The Majalla, 1 October 2013

Elektrik 77 squareAn old enamel electricity subscriber disk, No. 77, hangs over the high wooden door to my Istanbul apartment. The number likely dates back to one of the Ottoman Empire’s first public power generators, and, in today’s metropolis, my bills duly come to subscriber No. 00000000077. My neighbor below, a prosperous Armenian furrier who cuts Dutch mink and exotic furs for the bourgeoisie, speaks fluent Kurdish due to his family’s once wide land-ownings in the pre-1915 east of the country. On the floor above, the direct descendants of the aga or commander of the 56th Regiment of Ottoman janissaries, whose surname translates as “Son of the 56th,” manage their family’s charitable foundation—set up in 1826.

The Republic of Turkey, founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, spent most of the last century deliberately framing itself as the opposite of much that was Ottoman or even Islamic. Yet the Ottoman legacy remains tangible in many parts of Turkey’s geography and culture, and the Turkish people have become increasingly fascinated by their long-belittled past.

A taste for post-Ottoman chic (and kitsch) emerged in the 1990s, cropping up in places from restored Greek taverns to mosque design. The once-banished Ottoman royal family began making it into the society pages. For the secular rich, a restored Ottoman mansion became the desirable abode. The trend has reached new heights since 2002, as the pro-Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan restored parts of Istanbul to resemble an Ottoman Disneyland and blended neo-Ottoman themes into party ideology.

This has triggered a deeper debate. How much is Turkey still rooted in the Empire that held sway for centuries over territories in the Balkans and Middle East that now encompasses more than 30 modern states? And do these roots represent a past best forgotten, an inherited magnificence to be recreated or a cautionary history of the region’s ethnic, sectarian and historical cleavages?

Take, for instance, the scenes on the streets in front of my apartment building near Taksim Square during Istanbul’s 2013 summer of political unrest [my first blog on that here]. “Now nothing will be like it was before,” read one slogan spray-painted onto a nearby wall. There was an intoxicating spontaneity and a freedom to say anything at all, out loud and in public—including egregious insults hurled by both the government and secularist sides. But was this outpouring on city walls and social media really so new? Was it a replay of Egyptians’ freedom-loving chants on Tahrir Square two years before? Or the Syrians’ later demonstrations? Or was this an echo of something from the Ottoman Empire, whose own pro-secular and pro-Islamist ructions in 1908-1909 reached a bloody climax in that same Taksim Square?

Prime Minister Erdoğan certainly thinks they are linked. He insistently uses an obscure insult, çapulcu (“looter”), as a label for the pro-secular demonstrators against his government, recalling the name given to Bulgarian irregulars who joined the secularists against the Ottoman Sultan in 1909. In a way, he may be right. Taksim and Tahrir’s praise of freedom, their early anti-sectarianism, and their heady moments of civil society asserting civic rights, do echo exactly those that inspired Ottoman public squares and meeting halls in Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Istanbul in 1908-1909.

This early cycle of revolution and counter-revolution, of secularist nationalism and Islamism, is captured in vivid detail by the book Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, by American Middle East specialist Michelle U. Campos (Stanford University Press, 2011). Just as with the heady days of 2011 when Arab peoples were carried away by the dream of an ‘Arab Spring,’ Istanbul’s pro-constitution coup of 1908 swept the empire’s multi-ethnic citizenry off their feet.

Above all—as in Tahrir in 2011—the word “hurriyya”, or freedom, seemed to herald a new dawn. “It sometimes seems as if one lives in a dream” one resident of Jaffa writes to his friend in Beirut in 1908. Another, reformist Rafiz Al-Azm, wrote that “wherever I met an Ottoman friend who was known for his love of freedom, whether in Syria or Egypt, we became overwhelmed with emotions, and our eyes burst with tears for the joy that was within us.” In 2013, such spontaneity was an unprecedented feature in Turkey too, as thousands of ordinary pedestrians expressed euphoria and togetherness with impromptu waves of clapping along the length of İstiklal Street leading to Taksim.

If Twitter and Facebook define communications now, the social media of the earlier era lagged only slightly behind, to judge by the wealth of telegrams, letters, wire reports, posters, diary entries and newspaper columns quoted by Campos. Crowds in Palestine shouted “Long live the Padishah [Sultan]!”—because the sultan had brought back the secular constitution—just as Turkey’s crowds shouted “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s republican founder, who died in 1938 and invented Turkey’s secular constitution). In both Palestine then and Turkey today, months of extemporaneous meetings in parks and public places followed, in which all were welcome to express their views.

Among the Jews, Muslims and Christians in Palestine in 1908, and the Copts and Muslims in the first weeks of Tahrir in 2011, observers were astonished at the extent that people put aside differences to embrace and support each other. Then as now, the army leaned to the modernist side. Ottoman intellectuals’ narrative of “awakening,” “revolution,” “rebirth” and “throwing off tyranny” all “reasserted the empire’s role at the center of Europe rather than at its margins,” Campos argues. Similarly, the “occupy” spirit and “anti-authoritarian” language in Taksim and Tahrir persuaded European visitors in 2011-13 that these events were a breakthrough for Western values. The same language echoes in the title of Ashraf Khalil’s bracing account of Tahrir: Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation (St. Martin’s Press, 2012).

Another parallel binds these oft-scorned neighbors of Europe to the old continent. The old Sultan cultivated an image of divine-paternal-political omnipresence, copied from the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg or Russian Romanov dynasties, while today’s Taksim demonstrators attacked Erdoğan as a “Putin,” shorthand in their minds for an oppressive Russian autocrat. And to cap off the comparisons: just as Tehran’s Green Revolution of 2009 came two years before the Arab uprisings, so did the Iranian Revolution of 1906 come two years before the Ottoman upheavals.

Of course, there are differences too. The scenes of ethnic and sectarian intermingling during the 1908 Ottoman constitutional revolution were more extraordinary than in 2011, with priests, rabbis and imams hugging and kissing in front of everyone. It was also accompanied by real changes in laws and prisoners’ releases, it was an empire-wide affair against an Islamic establishment backed by the army and a strong new political secularist faction, the Committee of Union and Progress, and it roundly defeated a 1909 counter-revolution by pro-Sultan Islamists in the old Taksim Barracks. By contrast, if there is a region-wide political movement involved in the unrest today, it is pro-Islamic, including Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Syrian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhoods. There is no neat story line. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood now represents a failed revolution. Meanwhile, the AKP has overcome many traps laid by the pro-secular establishment and built itself into a new pro-Islamic status quo. Istanbul’s summer protests rumble on with tear gas-filled weekend moments on İstiklal, confounding the pro-Islamic Erdoğan, but not overthrowing him.

Neo-Ottoman aspects of Erdoğan’s policy, however, are clearly at a dead end. The AKP’s idealistic attempt in the late 2000s to create a Middle Eastern area of free trade, free movement of people, regular joint Cabinet meetings and infrastructure integration collapsed with the Arab uprisings. Erdoğan’s chief policy guru Ahmet Davutoğlu—foreign minister since 2009—denied this was an attempt to turn back the historical clock, and indeed it also looked like an attempt to copy the European Union’s success. But Davutoğlu read from Ottoman firmans (royal decrees) when visiting former Ottoman lands, drew attention to what he considered good Ottoman policies and publicly praised Ottoman leaders.

More dramatically, Davutoğlu repeatedly vowed to smash the Sykes-Picot agreement, the 1916 British-French pact that divided up the Middle Eastern lands of the Ottoman Empire. AKP leaders also seemed seduced by the ideal of Islamic brotherhood, disregarding the lessons of the Ottoman period. The Sublime Porte’s policy was rarely pan-Islamic and kept a suspicious eye on non-Ottoman Muslims. And the Turkish republic’s policy of caution, neutrality and commercial opportunism towards the Middle East was based on the memory of how pan-Ottomanism failed and realism about Turkey’s limited capacity for regional hegemony.

The republic’s skepticism was branded into the Turkish consciousness by how brutally short-lived the euphoria of the empire’s 1908 revolution proved to be. The 1909 Armenian massacres and Ottoman defeats in a new Balkan War made it even harder to keep all the empire’s religions and ethnicities in balance, and defeat in the First World War of 1914-18 devastated Turkey’s geography. Ultimately, the events of 1908-09 presaged the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—just as the Arab uprisings are now putting under pressure the Sykes-Picot borders drawn one century ago.

The 1908 upsurge of pan-Ottoman citizenship may not have survived imperial collapse, but other Ottoman ghosts live on. The long-lasting pain of the Greeks forced out of Anatolia in the 1923 population exchange has been excellently explained by Bruce Clark in his book Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey (Granta, 2007). And a revelatory new book by French journalists Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier La Turquie et le fantôme arménien : Sur les traces du génocide, Actes Sud, 2013 (Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: in the steps of the genocide) found much that has survived the genocidal massacres of Armenians in 1915: survivors, converts, crypto-Armenians, derelict churches, descendants of ‘righteous’ Turks, artisans’ tools in second-hand shops, flour mills, abandoned houses, as well as songs and traditions that have blended into mainstream Turkish culture.

Do the Arab uprisings presage a worse fragmentation to come, a regional rebalancing as dramatic and bloody as the First World War? Michelle Campos’s book argues that the failure of Ottomanism was by no means a foregone conclusion, and that the 1908 outburst of togetherness and reform showed an empire that was arguably more tolerant than its European contemporaries. She also notes that later, the First World War’s European victors tried to buttress the political role they seized in the Middle East “by ignoring or even reversing the developments that had taken place in the last decade of Ottoman rule.”

Certainly, many Ottomans regretted the social disintegration. As Campos quotes an Ottoman Jewish writer in Liberty in November 1909: “Everyone says to give it time and our situation will improve … our situation gets worse by the day.” In Palestine, Campos argues, Zionism did not gain adherents so much as the failure of the idea of a common Ottoman identity lost the Zionists. She also details how the confused unscrambling of the imperial omelet made Arabs and Turks unintentionally lose their sense of common cause.

When Ottomanism did collapse, however, it rent apart the Middle East’s society and geography. Similarly, the retreat of the twentieth century order is today tearing open ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq, Syria and Libya, even putting pressure on the fault-lines of Turkey, the region’s most stable and successful twentieth century state. Indeed, when Foreign Minister Davutoğlu rejoices that the whole twentieth century was an aberrant “parenthesis” that has now closed, this may mean more challenges than opportunities for Turkey. Already, Kurdish intellectuals demanding autonomy in Turkey today regularly use the same arguments as Michelle Campos quotes from the Arabs’ Decentralization Committee in 1913:

“Every thinking Arab who understands the meaning of life demands that his place will be side by side with the Turk in this empire…where neither of them takes advantage of the other….But if our brothers do not want to understand this fact … then the Arab people want life and will struggle for it.”

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Of Arab springs, Arab winters and created realities

June 13, 2011 2 comments

Some words of wisdom from a friend deep in U.S. officialdom. I had complained about the superficiality of some American approaches to the Arab revolts in the Mideast (continuing a theme of Dining with al-Qaeda), thus:

[There is] unjustified hoopla about the dynamics of the Arab spring … and then, when it turns out that it’s all much more complicated than it looked, then it’s uh-oh, Arab winter again, and consign the region back to the dump with weary self-righteous sighs.

To which my friend replied from Washington, DC:

“On the simplicity of the Mideast coverage, you are certainly right descriptively.  In my view, though these simplistic narratives aren’t a result of not understanding the dynamics that you mention.  People are, for example, very aware that the all of the emerging “Arab Spring” governments will, at best, be problematic partners for the US.  It is rather an effort to create reality by insisting that it is so—and people will certainly continue to do so until it becomes so dramatically at variance with reality that they exercise a 180 degree and express with equal confidence the exact opposite (i.e. Arab Winter).  There is a general feeling in DC that public expressions of nuance, however accurate, are not useful, demonstrate uncertainty and hesitation, and are doomed to misinterpretation.  I’m not sure if this should make you feel better or worse.  It means there is more understanding than you imagine, but also that education will not cure the problem.”

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