Middle East Echoes

Arabs, Oil, and History.
by Kermit Roosevelt.
Harper. 371 pp. $3.50.

In Search of a Future.
by Maurice Hindus.
Doubleday. 270 pp. $3.00.

 

Both these books are calculated to provide a light, handy, and comprehensive guidebook to the Middle East for an American public almost wholly ignorant of anything but its geographic location. They combine the disengaged tone of prewar travel books with the content of the streamlined journalese produced about exotic places in such volume during and since the last war.

At this point their resemblance ends. Mr. Roosevelt’s book is a relatively detailed account by someone personally involved in Middle Eastern affairs as a functionary of the American government for some years during the war. It has a great deal of political discussion, many interviews with well-known political personages, and a sort of political angle. Mr. Hindus’s book is assembled by someone avowedly ignorant of the subject-matter and looking at everything with the naive eyes of the newcomer. It requires, however, great talent and sincerity to make naivety interesting to others, and also literary style, all of which Mr. Hindus lacks; the result is a hotch-potch of anecdotalized observations, talks with taxi-drivers, observations on insect life in Persian villages, and some unexceptionable data on material conditions, principally from the point of view of the possibilities of agricultural progress.

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Mr. Roosevelt’s book has a certain political weight, if only because his views are representative of a substantial, indeed, often decisive, opinion in American government circles, and because of his moderation and general fair-mindedness.

His book covers a good deal of ground, taking in Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan (now the Hashemite Jordan Kingdom), Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Saudi-Arabia, as well as Persia, Turkey, and Afghanistan (the last three very briefly), and the interplay of the Great Powers in the Middle East; it includes some rather extensive generalizing about the character of the area and its people, world history, and so on. It has some major defects, which doubtless arise from the fact that its unity as a book is not one of content but rather of point of view, the point of view of an educated American explaining matters from within the range of interest of someone who has just said: “Tell me something about the Middle East.” It would be fair to call it superficial, not pedantically, but simply because it explains difficult matters without seriously taking into account, or endeavoring to cope with, the realities and contradictions involved in the Middle East situation.

For instance, while it certainly would be possible to give a simple explanation of Arab society, it is precisely for simplification that historical perspective of some kind is indispensable. Mr. Roosevelt’s desire to give a simultaneous and general account of such things as the relationship between the Arab states and the Arabs, between Islam and Arab nationalism, between the Desert and the Sown, and so on, will inevitably lead to great confusion in the mind of the ordinary reader exactly at the point where he thought everything was being made clear for him by Mr. Roosevelt’s readable and hail-fellow-well-met approach. Perhaps this is chiefly because Mr. Roosevelt, like most of us, has been brought up to regard the modern state as somehow a fixed and central institution of social life. But this assumption is far from helpful in dealing with a society like that of the Arabs, in which up to not much more than a generation ago, the community was identical with religion, so that men were first Muslims, then Arabic-speakers, then nomads or peasants, and lastly people from, say, Basrah or Bagdad. Up to very recently, Iraq and Transjordan were genuinely meaningless as states, having roots neither in history, nor tradition, nor language, nor religion, nor geography, indeed not having any existence at all except as administrative or dynastic contrivances. And since in any case these flimsy latter-day structures have long since been submerged by the evolution of Arab nationalism as a whole, which has engulfed even Egypt—the only Arab state with any distinct modem history—what is, above all, needed now for the foreign observer is a sense of proportion if he is to make this process meaningful.

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Palestine of course constitutes the most controversial element of the book, and with respect to this a vein of extremely well-bred, rather restrained but classical anti-Zionism runs throughout it. Classical, that is, in being based on the “pro-Arab” stereotype of the Arabs’ having a greater “right” to Palestine by virtue of lengthier habitation etc. than the Jews, to whom of course Mr. Roosevelt’s urbanity and essential humanitarianism accords certain rights too. Mr. Roosevelt on Zionism sounds like a voice from the past, now that Israel is an accomplished fact. This echo from the endless polemics of three decades on the pros and cons of such things as immigration and land-purchase, simply reveals, now that the prime political act of establishing a state has created new forms of political expression, the profound insubstantiality of all these polemics, being, as they were, neither history nor objective analysis, but merely a species of bureaucratic memoranda.

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As for Mr. Hindus, it is difficult to see precisely why he went to the Middle East in the first place or why his publishers sent him. In this melange of elementary facts, abundant quotations from the Bible, and facile references to ancient history, little real insight or knowledge can be discerned: the. banal, and profoundly incorrect declaration that the glories of the great Arab Empire of the Middle Ages were to be ascribed to men who were racially Arab is symptomatic. Mr. Hindus confines himself to Persia, Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine, and the point of his book, if it has one, is the undeniably truth that the fearfully rapacious, lopsided, and backward social regime in the first three countries make a land-reform of some kind imperative. He comes out enthusiastically for the remarkable achievements of the Zionists in Palestine, in the application of modem technology to agriculture and animal husbandry, as constituting an example for the rest of the Middle East. This is the only indication of Mr. Hindus’s old-time reformist grow. Alas! Since engineering is simple and politics difficult, more enlightenment as to the means of attaining this desirable goal would be required than he hints at.

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