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Quintessential Stupidity

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Yes, the textbook stupidity of an Englishman and a Frenchman are probably the main cause of the current Middle East crises…

Why border lines drawn with a ruler in WW1 still rock the Middle East

The original secret Sykes-Picot map of 1916: “A” would go to France, “B” to Britain.

A map marked with crude chinagraph-pencil in the second decade of the 20th Century shows the ambition – and folly – of the 100-year old British-French plan that helped create the modern-day Middle East.

Straight lines make uncomplicated borders. Most probably that was the reason why most of the lines that Mark Sykes, representing the British government, and Francois Georges-Picot, from the French government, agreed upon in 1916 were straight ones.

At a meeting in Downing Street, Mark Sykes pointed to a map and told the prime minister: “I should like to draw a line from the “e” in Acre to the last “k” in Kirkuk.”

Sykes and Picot were quintessential “empire men”. Both were aristocrats, seasoned in colonial administration, and crucially believers in the notion that the people of the region would be better off under the European empires.

Both men also had intimate knowledge of the Middle East.

The key tenets of the agreement they had negotiated in relative haste amidst the turmoil of the World War One continue to influence the region to this day. But while Sykes-Picot’s straight lines had proved significantly helpful to Britain and France in the first half of the twentieth century, their impact on the region’s peoples was quite different.

The map that the two men drew divided the land that had been under Ottoman rule since the early 16th Century into new countries – and relegated these political entities to two spheres of influence:

  • Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine under British influence
  • Syria and Lebanon under French influence

The two men were not mandated to redraw the borders of the Arab countries in North Africa, but the division of influence existed there as well, with Egypt under British rule, and France controlling the Maghreb.

A secret deal

But there were three problems with the geo-political order that emerged from the Sykes-Picot agreement.

First, it was secret without any Arabic knowledge, and it negated the main promise that Britain had made to the Arabs in the 1910s – that if they rebelled against the Ottomans, the fall of that empire would bring them independence.

When that independence did not materialise after World War One, and as these colonial powers, in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, continued to exert immense influence over the Arab world, the thrust of Arab politics – in North Africa and in the eastern Mediterranean – gradually but decisively shifted from building liberal constitutional governance systems (as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq had witnessed in the early decades of the 20th Century) to assertive nationalism whose main objective was getting rid of the colonialists and the ruling systems that worked with them.

This was a key factor behind the rise of the militarist regimes that had come to dominate many Arab countries from the 1950s until the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Tribal lines

The second problem lay in the tendency to draw straight lines.

 

Sykes-Picot intended to divide the Levant on a sectarian basis:

  • Lebanon was envisioned as a haven for Christians (especially Maronites) and Druze
  • Palestine with a sizable Jewish community
  • the Bekaa valley, on the border between the two countries, effectively left to Shia Muslims
  • Syria with the region’s largest sectarian demographic, Sunni Muslims

Geography helped.

For the period from the end of the Crusades up until the arrival of the European powers in the 19th Century, and despite the region’s vibrant trading culture, the different sects effectively lived separately from each other.

But the thinking behind Sykes-Picot did not translate into practice. That meant the newly created borders did not correspond to the actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions on the ground.

These differences were buried, first under the Arabs’ struggle to eject the European powers, and later by the sweeping wave of Arab nationalism.

Brutality

In the period from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, and especially during the heydays of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (from the Suez Crisis in 1956 to the end of the 1960s) Arab nationalism gave immense momentum to the idea that a united Arab world would dilute the socio-demographic differences between its populations.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Arab world’s strong men – for example, Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein in the Levant and Col Muammar Gaddafi in North Africa – suppressed the differences, often using immense brutality.

But the tensions and aspirations that these differences gave rise to neither disappeared nor were diluted. When cracks started to appear in these countries – first by the gradual disappearance of these strong men, later by several Arab republics gradually becoming hereditary fiefdoms controlled by small groups of economic interests, and most recently after the 2011 uprisings – the old frictions, frustrations, and hopes that had been concealed for decades, came to the fore.

Identity struggle

The third problem was that the state system that was created after the World War One has exacerbated the Arabs’ failure to address the crucial dilemma they have faced over the past century and half – the identity struggle between, on one hand nationalism and secularism, and on the other, Islamism (and in some cases Christianism).

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Unbelieveably Bach to the Bone

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Revealed: the violent, thuggish world of the young JS Bach

John Eliot Gardiner’s research has shattered ‘sanitised’ versions of the composer’s life

Woodcut of JS Bach at the clavichord, with his family. Photograph: Corbis

Johann Sebastian Bach is arguably the greatest of all composers, with the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B Minor among the most sublime masterpieces in classical music. But biographers over the past half century have “sanitised” his life, in the belief that only a saintly man could have written such heavenly music, according to one of the world’s leading conductors and foremost interpreters of Bach.

After years of research, Sir John Eliot Gardiner says biographers have been so “overawed” by the composer that they have presented a misleading image of the man. They have depicted him as a “paragon of rectitude, studious and dull, with the false assumption that music of such extraordinary and sublime quality must have come from somebody who was beyond criticism”.

Gardiner added: “The reality seems very different … You’d expect a more accurate and less rosy-tinted version of him.”

Archival sources, including school inspector reports, reveal that Bach’s education was troubled by gang warfare and bullying, sadism and sodomy – as well as his own extensive truancy.

His first school, Eisenach Latin school in Thuringia, Germany, was largely attended by the children of bourgeois tradespeople. However, Gardiner said that documents damn the boys as “rowdy, subversive, thuggish, beer- and wine-loving, girl-chasing … breaking windows and brandishing their daggers”. He added: “More disquieting were rumours of a ‘brutalisation of the boys’ and evidence that many parents kept their children at home – not because they were sick, but for fear of what went on in or outside school.” For punishment, Bach’s contemporaries endured beatings and the threat of “eternal damnation”. Such experiences must have left “lasting scars” on him, Gardiner believes.

Gardiner examined records in three schools Bach attended – Eisenach Latin, Ohrdruf Klosterschule and Michaelisschule, Lüneburg. “From the tone of the school reports, it sounds as if the authorities were really worried that the situation had got out of hand. There was something exceptional, certainly in Eisenach.” A “villain of the piece”, Gardiner discovered, was a form master and church cantor at Ohrdruf, where Bach was a chorister. The teacher was a sadistic disciplinarian meting out “intolerable punishments”. He was eventually sacked as “the plague of the school, the scandal of the church and the cancer of the city”, but the 12-year-old Bach had endured “unusually close exposure to him”, Gardiner said.

Among Lüneburg’s town records, he found reports on antisocial behaviour of two schoolboys in a local hostelry – “thoroughly drunk and … slashing … with [their] dirks and hunting knives”. One is believed to have been Bach’s mentor. Gardiner writes of sufficient evidence “to dent the traditional image of Bach as an exemplary youth … surviving unscathed the sinister goings-on in the schools he attended. It is just as credible that [he]… was in a line of delinquent school prefects – a reformed teenage thug.” He added that Bach’s repeated absences – 258 days in his first three years – are traditionally attributed to his mother’s illness and his work in the family music business. But there could be a more sinister interpretation, he said, that the school conditions may have been so unappealing and even threatening.

Gardiner was “taken aback” to find that such archival evidence had initially been researched in the 1930s but “completely ignored and sanitised in biographies of Bach”. He added: “It puzzled me why the standard biographies have just ignored that.”

His research will be published by Penguin on 3 October in Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. Gardiner argues that Bach’s compositions became a receptacle for the turbulence in his life, including the loss of his parents as a child and later his first wife and 12 of his 20 children before they had reached the age of three – “well beyond the average, even at a time when infant mortality was ubiquitous”.

Although the impact on Bach of the violence and family losses is speculative, any insight into his early years is all the more significant as less is known about his private life than that of any other major composer of the last 400 years, says Gardiner. “We yearn to know what kind of a person was capable of composing music so complex that it leaves us completely mystified, then … so irresistibly rhythmic that we want to get up and dance to it, and then … so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being.”

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Toccata & Fugue in d minor (BACH, J.S.)

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This piece has been called the greatest piece of music ever written, and some consider it to be the origin of Heavy Metal, here played on the organ, it gives one a sense of the power and complexity of these grand instruments; sadly relegated to history.

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