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Sunday, November 24, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Western conceit of nation-building ignores culture and history of Arabia

Special to The Times

Somewhere in the letters-home of Gertrude Bell, the doughty English archaeologist and colonial administrator, there's a description of a pleasant afternoon spent riding in the Mesopotamian desert in 1918 or 1919. Bell trails a walking stick in the sand. Behind her, Arab boys erect cairns to mark the future boundary between what will eventually become the states of Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Bell was one of the many British and French nation-builders who carved up Arabia in the years following the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The lines they drew in the sand rarely corresponded to any pre-existent historical, tribal, cultural or geographical reality. The nations they invented were arbitrary agglomerations, their borders thrown up around dozens of warring local sheikdoms. These fictional states were given kings (the British loved to create monarchies in their own image) and elegant written constitutions, as if the right sort of ceremonial language and regular 21-gun salutes could somehow transform the chaos of post-Ottoman Arabia into a neat patchwork of Denmarks, Hollands and Swedens with date palms and minarets.

A nation so fancifully constructed does not easily lend itself to governance. You need a warlord, with a loyal standing army and a far-flung force of secret policemen, to prevent the country from falling into the turmoil which is the natural state to which it is perpetually tending. The systems of government that have evolved in Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are paranoid family dictatorships with ancestral roots in a single city or village. Thus the Assad family of Qurdaha, an Alawite village up in the hills behind Latakia, Syria's Mediterranean port. Thus the Saud family of Riyadh, an oasis-town in the Nejd desert, now the capital of Saudi Arabia. Thus the Husseins of Tikrit, a town 90 miles north of Baghdad, and the birthplace of Saladin. (Saddam's full name is Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti.)

If the European inventors of these countries believed that generously drawn borders would encourage a commensurate enlargening of national as opposed to local consciousness, the effects have been quite the reverse. To be an army general, a security chief or a government minister in Arabia, it is necessary to come from Qurdaha, Riyadh or Tikrit, and better still to bear the name of Assad, Saud or Hussein. So the village, and the family, supply a tyrannical ruling class which treats the rest of the country as an unruly empire, to be held in place, as empires are, by regular shows of military and terroristic power. In the case of Syria and Iraq, the reigning families belong to religious minorities: the Assads are members of the eccentric Alawi sect, though most Syrians are Sunni Muslims; the Husseins are Sunnis, and Tikrit is a Sunni enclave in Shiite Iraq.

The most nearly stable states in the Arab world are emirates that have survived intact from long before Picot and Sykes arrived on the scene. They too are family businesses. The al-Sabahs of Kuwait, the al-Khaleifas of Bahrain, the al-Thanis of Qatar, the al-Nahyans of Abu Dhabi, and the al-Maktoums of Dubai have been in power for around 200 years. But these functioning political entities are tiny. Qatar, for instance, is roughly twice the size of King County, with a third of its population; its neighbor Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is three and a half times the size of Texas.

The Sauds, Assads and Husseins practice a form of rule that works well enough in a Qatar-sized country but is a disaster when applied on a larger scale. It fills prisons and graveyards, it breeds among its subjugated peoples the kind of impotent despair and fury that makes them natural candidates for conversion to Islamist totalitarianism.

Consider the case of Hama in Syria, a city famous for its huge groaning waterwheels (they are said by the local poets to make a sound like that of women in orgasm). It is — or was — a center of Sunni conservative puritanism, always hostile to the secular Ba'athist regime of Hafiz al-Assad. In 1982, a group of Sunni militiamen ambushed an army patrol in the heart of the old city, and sparked an Islamic uprising against the provincial government. Assad sent in the Syrian army under Alawite commanders. Most of Hama was flattened. Somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 Hamaites, most of them civilians, were slaughtered.

It is an important axiom of the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction "against his own people"; but the concept of "own people" in Arabia needs footnoting, as the Hama massacre illustrates. When Assad sent his army into Hama he was not moving against his "own people" so much as attacking his traditional enemies, whose base lay within his territorial jurisdiction. So it was with Saddam and the Kurds, and Saddam and the Shiites. From the perspective of Tikrit, the Kurdish city of Halabja and the floating villages of the Shiite Marsh Arabs did not contain Saddam's own people: they were, rather, insolent colonial outposts that needed to be taught a savage lesson.

In the Middle East, the concept of nationality is understandably weak: It would be hard to feel patriotic allegiance to the capricious lines in the sand traced by Gertrude Bell and her kind. To say "I am a Syrian" or "I am an Iraqi" means a lot less than to say "I am a Damascene" or "I am a Baghdadi." For the ancient cities of Arabia-Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Mecca, Medina and Sana'a used to have the character of Renaissance city-states, as grand or grander than Venice and Florence. Even now, when you go to, say, Aleppo or Sana'a, you can feel the place's political self-containment as a once-great center of civilization and commerce. A powerful sense of the civic, as it relates to people's home towns, is matched by something very close to indifference to the national, and no amount of enforced flag-waving and protestations of fealty to the dictator in make-believe elections is going to change or conceal that fact of Arab life.

Yet one vastly potent nationalism haunts the Arab world — the idea of the Ummah, the nation or community of believers. It is to the Ummah that Osama bin Laden addresses his calls for armed resistance to the West and its "puppet" dictators in the region. Notice that he never speaks of "Saudi Arabia," his own home country; he always refers to it as "the land of the two holy mosques," for to bin Laden and his followers the Saud family are usurpers, kept in place by the patronage and military might of the United States. In Osama's version of things, the country we know as Saudi Arabia exists only as a piece of arrogant colonial mapmaking. Notice that in his most recent audiotape he spoke of "our sons in Iraq" — meaning not Saddam and his Tikriti henchmen, whose secular Baathist regime has long been on Osama's hit-list, but the faithful millions who live inside the artificial borders imposed on Mesopotamia by the Western powers when they summoned Iraq into being.

It's hard for us to understand the intoxicating appeal of pan-Arab Islamic nationalism — the dream of an Arabia without borders, united under a restored Caliphate, answerable only to Koranic law, the Sharia. To Western eyes, Sharia law, with its public stonings, beheadings, amputations, its male triumphalism, appears tyrannical in the extreme. How could anyone see in it the promise of liberation?

The answer lies in the despotic tyranny under which most Arabs now live. President Bush said, "They hate us for our freedoms" — but that's not true: Freedom is a rare commodity that Arabs would dearly like a lot more of. They hate us, rather, for the condition of humiliating subjection in which they find themselves, and for which, rightly or wrongly, they hold us responsible. They hate us for Sir Mark Sykes, for Georges Picot, for Gertrude Bell, for Arthur James Balfour; for America's steadfast support of what they perceive as corrupt and cruel regimes (like that of the Saud family in its glittering high-tech fortress of modern Riyadh) and for its bland indifference to the injustice suffered by the Palestinians.

All this may be unreasonable of them, but that is why they hate us, and that is why in the poorest parts of Arabia the favorite name to give a baby boy at present is Osama — the latest folk-hero of an impossible, idealized "Islamic nation" that will transcend the petty frontiers of the hopelessly divided and despotic Middle East. This is not meant to sound soft on Osama bin Laden: He is a monster, but a monster born of desperate dreams that are widely shared across an immense and unhappy tract of land.

Now we're going nation-building in Arabia once again. No one in the present U.S. administration seems to have any useful memory of our earlier adventures in this department, and no one appears able to clearly distinguish between the two crucially different bad-hats with sallow complexions, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. No one seems to have noticed that toppling Saddam — though it ranks a good deal lower on the agenda than toppling the Sauds — is a necessary part of Osama's larger game plan. We're on the brink of an intervention that will rank in Arabian history beside the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, and we are bringing to that intervention a terrifying mixture of ignorance and amnesia.

Copyright © Jonathan Raban

Jonathan Raban, a native of England who moved here in 1990, also has written "Bad Land" (1996) and "Passage to Juneau" (1999). His new book, "Waxwings," a novel set in Seattle, is scheduled to be published next year.

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