x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Nostalgia for the Ottomans won't solve today's problems

New York Times columnist Anthony Shadid's vision of tolerance and openness should be cherished.

Former colleagues of Anthony Shadid, the New York Times correspondent who died in Syria earlier this year, gathered in London this week to discuss his legacy. Most reporters do not leave any kind of legacy, but Shadid was different. He had a poetic style, and he set out to change the way the American press writes about Arabs, telling the stories of ordinary people, rather than squeezing them into "war on terror" stereotypes.

But more than that, thanks to his Lebanese-American origins, he was a Levantine dreamer, always looking for points of light in the darkness of sectarian conflict.

In 2006, after years covering the intifada in Palestine (where he was shot by the Israeli army), civil war in Iraq and then the Israeli-Hizbollah war in Lebanon, he took a year off for a personal project: to rebuild his great-grandfather's house in Marjayoun, a town in southern Lebanon bled white by emigration. The tale of rebuilding this ruin, with the brutal contrast between his quixotic goal and the rapacity of the locals who ripped him off shamelessly, is told in his memoir, House of Stone, which has been published after his death.

Colleagues at the Frontline Club lamented that he was not around to tell the stories of the Syrian conflict. Though he hated war, and recoiled from the label war correspondent, he would have brought a new perspective to a desperately complex conflict. But the words of his still grieving widow, Nada Bakri, best encapsulated the role that Shadid had made for himself after years covering sectarian conflict: "He saw himself as an Ottoman gentleman."

Nostalgia for the Ottoman period - before Britain and France divided up the Levant into states with artificial boundaries - is a recurrent theme in his book. Rebuilding the ancestral home was a gesture towards recreating "a lost era of openness before the Ottoman Empire fell, when all sorts drifted through homelands shared by all". Marjayoun used to be a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place, he wrote, "an entrepot perched along routes of trade plied by Christians, Muslims and Jews which stitched together the tapestry of an older Middle East".

The same yearning for open borders is voiced by the West Bank lawyer Raja Shehadeh, author of Palestinian Walks, who laments that his ancestors could have been in Damascus in a couple of hours. Now he has to cross two borders, requiring permits along the way.

This yearning for the past is hardly surprising. The schemes of the colonial powers during the First World War - Britain wanting a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the French keen to carve out a Christian statelet in Lebanon - dominate the news to this day.

Lebanon is an eternally unstable cockpit for rival sects, a fate which has overtaken Iraq and now awaits Syria. If Syria was an Ottoman-style tapestry of sects, the Lebanonisation process is proceeding helter-skelter as the dictatorship crumbles. The regime is now arming "popular committees" among the Christian and the Druze, which will surely complete the process of turning a political revolt into a sectarian free-for-all. Faced with this tragedy, who would not yearn for a remote Sultan to keep order?

In Turkey, successor state to the old empire of the sultans, there is another type of Ottoman nostalgia growing. Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey was forced to sever its bonds with the past and chart a pro-European course. But that is all changing. A travel article, Dreaming in Ottoman, in the Wall Street Journal last month, chronicles the rise of imperial chic in Istanbul. Turkish TV is full of patriotic costume dramas about the Ottoman era, while the hit of the winter film season was Conquest 1453, a rousing tale of how the Sultan's soldiers conquered the decadent Byzantines to take Constantinople and turn it into the capital of the greatest empire of the age.

Turkey's neighbours will see Ottoman nostalgia in a more threatening light. Turkey's government is pursuing a trade-led foreign policy in the Middle East, taking advantage of historical links. The term "neo-Ottoman foreign policy", implying that Turkey wants to throw its weight around in its old imperial possessions, is rejected by Ankara. But Turkish diplomats cannot expect the Arabs to forget 400 years of oppression by a Turkish elite.

Remembering the good things about Ottoman rule serves as an example of where the modern Levant has gone wrong. But as a road map for the future, it is misleading. Every Lebanese knows that the great emigration towards the New World was prompted by the need to escape the poverty, hunger, underdevelopment, insecurity and army depredations of Ottoman rule.

Raja Shehadeh provides a useful counterpoint when he tracks down a centenarian called Abu Naif who is old enough to remember hiding from the Ottoman army's conscription of young Arab men. "The Turks were cruel, hungry beggars. They built no schools or mosques. They destroyed the country and left nothing green in it."

There are no benign despots, as Abu Naif's recollections tell us. There is no way back to the empire.

A visitor from the Ottoman Empire who came to Europe during the wars of religion following the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s would have concluded that the Europeans were savages, and incapable of running their own affairs. At that time the Ottomans had the secret of making rival sects live side by side, and Europe had not found it. It took more than a century of war, until 1648, for peace to be restored in Europe.

We should cherish Shadid's vision of tolerance and openness. But for this vision to become reality, it cannot look much like the Ottoman Empire. It must stem from the painful lessons now being learnt from the Arab uprisings and the challenge of democracy. Unfortunately these lessons look like they will have to be learnt for some years to come.



On Twitter: @aphilps