Thursday, November 30, 2023

Six Walks in a disappearing wilderness

Cross-posted to The Heavy Anglophile Orthodox:

I just finished reading Palestinian Walks—a poignant and tragic memoir by human rights lawyer, author and Palestinian activist Raja Shehadeh about his work in the Holy Land over the course of nearly four decades. Shehadeh, who is an ethnic Palestinian Christian, makes numerous Scriptural references owing to the simple fact that he lives where Scripture was written, and where the events of Scripture took place. But his spirituality is not of an overt, apologist or confessional nature; indeed, his attitude toward organised religion in general is self-avowedly ‘cynical’. Living in a land which is riven by communal factionalism and self-serving zealotry on the part of the settlers, does understandably tend to leave a bad taste in the mouth when it comes to theological questions. But rather, we can see that spirituality most clearly in his meditations on the shifting ecological balance and the fragile disappearing landscapes he loves so dearly. He is very much so a lover of the land and its people, a fact which comes through painfully in every chapter. Glimmers and moments of his faith in Christianity do emerge, however—particularly in his visit to the Monastery of St George Choziba in Wadi Qelt.

To get a good grasp of the tenor of the book, it’s necessary to quote Shehadeh at length about the nature of these walks he would take. Here is his description of the sarḥa (سرحة), which is the term he uses for the sort of walk he would do:
It was mainly young men who went on these expeditions. They would take a few provisions and go to the open hills, disappear for the whole day, sometimes for weeks and months. They often didn't have a particular destination. To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wonders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. But not any excursion would qualify as a sarha. Going on a sarha implies letting go.
Shehadeh’s evocation of the sarḥa rather mirrors the false etymology that Henry David Thoreau posits for ‘saunter’ (from ‘sainte-terre’) as a sort of pilgrimage, though one without a fixed aim. I have little doubt that this choice was intentional on Shehadeh’s part, even if it’s left unsaid. Shehadeh demonstrates a firm command of English-language literature regarding his home country, and an enviable degree of appreciation for its artistry—even as he chides figures like WM Thackeray, Herman Melville and Mark Twain for their unappreciative, imperialist’s-eye view of his country and his people.

Shehadeh describes a landscape in which every ridge, crest, rock, dry riverbed and hill-slope has a name—in Arabic, most commonly, but with the occasional Canaanite and Aramaic epithet arising. He describes an austerely exquisite panorama, not to everyone’s tastes, but with life and vibrancy enough to one trained in the ability to look for it. His careful—yet lively—descriptions of the geological features, of the local plant and animal life, and the ways in which his fellow Palestinians (and their goats, their grapevines and their earthen houses) came to a modus vivendi with their near-desert surroundings, all bear witness to the personal stake he has in the well-being of this place.

Yet despite this naturalist, travelogue feel, Palestinian Walks is very much so a memoir, a personal text. He describes the effort his maternal uncle, Abu Ameen, put into constructing a qasr, essentially a cottage, in the wilderness of Harrasha—and the quirky romance he enjoyed with his hardworking bride, Zariefeh, as they spent their honeymoon hauling rocks and setting them into place. We get to see some of the family dynamics, too. Raja Shehadeh belongs to that educated class of Palestinians, who were drawn into the British administration at Jaffa… although they all hailed from Ramallah. He describes the differences in attitude between his two uncles: one who went off to Jaffa to become a ‘successful’ administrator; and the other who stayed behind and lived stubbornly in the desert hills outside of Ramallah, neither knowing or needing any other kind of life.

A personal streak runs throughout each of these sarḥât. Raja describes one of the first land cases that he took up on receiving his law degree, defending the title of a certain Palestinian named François Albina (who was referred to as ‘the Christian’ landowner by his Muslim neighbours in Beit ‘Ur, in contradistinction to another large landowner nearby whom his neighbours called ‘the Jew’). He details much of the history behind this case, including how the Israeli settlers—with the entire machinery of the Israeli legal system and seemingly bottomless foreign pockets behind them—resorted to practically every trick of legal chicanery and sleight-of-hand in order to undercut Albina’s claim to the land… and even essentially blackmail him into abandoning that same claim by demanding compensation for its use. Raja also describes how this served as an almost perfect test case: the defendant was an independent landowner who was not a Muslim. Yet the Israeli judiciary, despite being forced at every turn by Raja’s argument to acknowledge that Albina had an incontestable and continuous presence on and claim to his own land, ultimately decided on an expansive interpretation of an Israeli military order that gave the go-ahead for settlers to take it and build on it anyway.

Raja’s description of the wall that went up, straight through Albina’s property, is heart-wrenching. Instead of a gentle hillside shaded by pine trees, there was a garish, sixteen-foot concrete wall separating a nestle of villas in a gated community for Israeli high-tech IT employees, with a highway running to the coast, all lit by electric floodlights, overshadowing what remained of the Palestinian community in Beit ‘Ur. He describes both the intrusion of the built space, and all of the architectural choices which accompanied it, as perfectly keyed to stir up animosity and hatred between the two sides, assuring that violence would become an issue later. This point is driven home as, later, in the same vicinity, Raja and his wife Penny end up being shot at by Palestinian militants (Raja doesn’t say Ḥamâs specifically) even after calling to them in Arabic to stop.

Raja Shehadeh makes no bones about the fact that he refuses to consider violence as a legitimate tool. His weapon of choice is the law. His reasons for this are not religious at all, but primarily secular and practical: he knows full well that the Palestinians will not be able to outgun or outkill the Israelis; and he also understands that no peace arrived at through bloodshed is capable of being permanent. He also takes a long-term, generational view of the conflict… though to what extent this view is the product of hindsight in view of the Oslo Accords (which undermined practically all of his legal work defending Palestinian land claims) is unclear.

The Oslo Accords loom large in Shehadeh’s narrative as a kind of classical nemesis. In his view, the Palestinians who came to Oslo were essentially lulled into a false sense of security by the theatrics of hospitality put on by their Norwegian hosts, while the Israelis essentially walked away with the legal rights to the proverbial lock, stock and barrel. Although Shehadeh clearly, and for very good personal reasons, shuns and deplores the violence of the militants, still he views the political opportunism and low cunning of Fataḥ and the PLO more generally in still-bleaker terms: having sold out the patrimony of their people in exchange for aid money and pats on the head from Western governments. (In this, he echoes a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly in Antiochian and Palestinian Christian circles, particularly with regard to Mahmoud Abbas.) One sees a lot of this frustration in his third sarḥa down to the Dead Sea, which he takes in the company of a young PLO member who talks about the Oslo Accords with a nigh-intolerable rose-tinted naïveté. Here he also describes with alarm the disappearing biome and impending ecological catastrophe which can be observed in the lowering line of the Dead Sea, as Israeli interests divert the fresh water of the Jordan.

In another rare flash of religiosity, Raja Shehadeh describes his pilgrimage to the Monastery of Saint George Choziba in the chapter which follows. He is more comfortable, it seems, referring to figures of the Old Testament (like King David and the Prophet Isaiah) than to the figures of the New—but given where he lives and what his context is, perhaps this is not so strange. Again: his attitude toward religion in general is a negative one. Given what he has described of the overt religiosity of the Israeli settlers, which somehow coexists with callous disregard for neighbour, with casual violence and with absolute comfort in the one-sided and prejudicial use of the machinery of law… this is understandable. And yet he approaches the monastery, sixteen centuries old, with its fortified walls, its dark incensed cloistered interior, its candle-lit icons, with an attitude of deep respect and admiration, if only in the sense of inspiration for the ordering of one’s own life, or the attitude which a people under siege need to adopt.

Raja Shehadeh’s cloister of choice was a modest home with a courtyard in Ramallah… though even this was not inviolate of Israeli brutality, as he learned the hard way when his town came under siege and later occupation. More to the point, perhaps, is that writing became the discipline through which he could manage the defeats, the insults, the violence and the hopelessness which had become the common lot of his people. He discusses, in the context of a sarḥa which the two of them took together, the long friendship he has with Dr Mustafa Barghouti of the PNI Party, and the differences which their lives took. Raja Shehadeh began as a lawyer and ended up as a writer; Mustafa Barghouti began as a medical doctor and ended up as a politician. Yet the two men share a conviction that the Palestinian struggle must be waged in civil society and in terms of generations rather than intifadas.

The final chapter is a harrowing one, but it’s one which I think Shehadeh relates masterfully, simply from a literary standpoint. He describes getting lost right around Dolev, where he grew up—not because of his failing memory, but because the landscape itself had changed so much as to be unrecognisable to him. He ends up finding his way back to Ramallah by process of elimination: all the places which are blocked off to him by Israeli settlements, border walls or checkpoints. He describes a tense encounter with a young, armed Israeli settler who has snuck out of Dolev in order to smoke hashish. The conversation between the two is narrated excellently: a confrontation between two views of the same place that have been shaped by different values and different realms of knowledge. Placing this conversation at the end of the book, after we have been given this personal history of legal struggle and attempts to conserve some semblance of legal consideration for both the landscape and its original inhabitants, was a shrewd choice on Shehadeh’s part: we can see the clear delineation between his view and the ‘settler’ view. Shehadeh is a conservationist and a believer in the rule of law; the settler he encounters is a believer in material progress and victors’ justice. Yet in the end the two of them come, if not to an understanding, then at least to an uneasy truce over the nargileh (punctuated poignantly by the sounds of distant gunfire—whose ‘side’ it is, neither can tell).

Palestinian Walks is a book that I would strongly recommend as a means of understanding the (both literal, figurative and historical) lay of the land in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the common experience that shapes the convictions of the Palestinian side of that conflict. The author—a nominal Christian and a functional pacifist—is nonetheless an authoritative voice for a people who are predominantly Muslim and who are committed to a resistance which can turn, as we have seen, violent. It’s also valuable as an English-language travelogue. However he might chide and wag his finger at the likes of Melville and Thackeray and Twain, what Shehadeh has given us could easily be placed alongside them as a companion-piece, painting in intimate colours the intricate but endangered desert ecology and human communities of the West Bank.

One last note. My own view is that it’s a grim necessity, in these days, to engage in such intentional book-reading as a counterpoint to the prevailing media narratives over the recent conflict. You are not going to get the truth about this or any conflict abroad from CNN, from Fox News, from the New York Times or from the Wall Street Journal, which are all mouthpieces for the State Department and committed to a singular liberal ideology and historical myopia which colours their entire editorial perspective. The benefit of reading books like Shehadeh’s, is that such reading can help someone who is distant and removed from the conflict gain a sense of context, a sense of historical grounding, which is not otherwise available in our information landscape. Although Shehadeh is somewhat self-deprecating about his chosen means of coping with political defeat and the disaster befalling his people, his writing does serve this very needful and, dare I say, God-pleasing purpose.

Raja Shehadeh

Sunday, October 15, 2023

The Black Sea as a crossroads of civilisations

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Russian-American historian Michael Rostovtzeff’s Iranians and Greeks in South Russia. Well… pleasure in a qualified sense. I took my time in reading it, and spent much of the summer struggling through it and processing it.

It is an excellent and lush book, make no mistake. Rostovtzeff provides us with wonderful plates examining all sorts of artistic production and material culture from the northern coast of the Black Sea and the northern Caucasus. But I have much the same complaint about this book that I did about Martha Avery’s The Tea Road… and that is in its lack of reader-friendly organisation. Rostovtzeff’s project is ambitious: an attempt to explore the chthonic roots of Russian civilisation, in the Iranian, Greek, Thracian and Maeotian cultures that preceded it… but in a way that does justice to the particular features of each of these cultures in its own right.
In the end, it seems at times as though he has bitten off more than he can chew. Iranians and Greeks is in roughly equal measure a work of archaeology, art criticism and classical history… with the final chapter moving into the peculiarly-Russian field of historiosophy, an attempt to get at the underlying meaning in a cosmic sense of the historical (and artistic) patterns that he has just explored. But in some cases he comes dangerously close to losing the thread, particularly for non-specialist readers who come to his text in a relative state of ignorance of some of the cultures he examines.

When this book is good, it is incredibly good. Rostovtzeff more than proves his chops as a historian when he discusses the personalities, the geopolitics and the cultural idiosyncracies of the Cimmerian kingdoms, the Scythian empire and the Sarmatian empire which replaced it. And he is equally at his best when he is describing in lavish detail the artistic styles—he places particular emphasis on the ‘animal style’ of the Scythians and the ‘polychrome style’ of the Sarmatians—of the peoples he is concerned with. The plates (how dearly I wish they were colour!) which depict these artworks are deeply appreciated. Rostovtzeff doesn’t need to hammer his point home, clearly, that these civilisations were by no means hampered in their intellectual or imaginative prowess by the limits of their technological abilities! Rostovtzeff says this outright, but we don’t have to take his word for it: even the ‘primitive’ artwork of the early Bronze Age Maeotian culture has a sophistication and a perspective that belies the limits of the tools used to create it!
Another thing Rostovtzeff says—and this is part of the thesis that got him in trouble with the Soviet leadership—is that the kingdoms of the Russian Black Sea coast were primarily mercantile kingdoms. The wealth of the Greek colonies on the Crimean Peninsula, and the corresponding wealth of the Scythian- and Sarmatian-style burial sites, was built up from trade—both overland and by sea. Even though the Scythians (and the Sarmatians who followed) were often at war with the Greek cities on the coast, it was a sort of low-level raiding type of warfare… not the sort of brutal destruction which these Iranian tribes and the Thracians visited upon each other. The reason for this was because the sedentary maritime Greeks could master the seas in ways which the Iranians could not, and the nomadic-pastoralist Iranians benefitted from the goods that they could trade for with the proceeds of their herding and overland raids.

Rostovtzeff is at his most interesting when he shows some of the material proofs of Iranian and North Caucasian presence in the overland trade route. He talks about the ‘animal style’, which includes fantastic amalgamations of animal parts on mythical beasts (griffins, winged lions, pegasus-type horses and the like) and how this style finds an echo in the bronzeworks of the Chinese Zhou Dynasty. He devotes the better part of one of his chapters near the end to this topic, and shows that the cultural exchange went two ways: it wasn’t just Chinese goods that flowed through Scythia into the Roman Empire… but rather this sort of art style flowed into China from the Caucasus! It’s somewhat fascinating to think of fu dogs, pixiu, qilin and other iconic Chinese mythical beasts of the Shan Hai Jing being inspired by Scythian and Sarmatian designs!
Rostovtzeff structures his book in more or less chronological order, beginning with the Maeotian culture and art style, and going through to the rise of the Slavs in South Russia. But it is an unfortunate stylistic choice that he tends to shift gears within each chapter somewhat without warning. As in: he will talk about the historical drama and figures of the Cimmerian kingdom, and then he will shift suddenly into a discourse on grave goods and architecture. Both of these topics are quite interesting in their own right, but they are not segued with clarity nor are they given a chance to breathe so that the reader can catch up. This book could have stood a few more rounds of editing for this kind of structural clarity.

And the final chapter is, of course, pure historiosophy of the type that was common to scholars of Russia in certain émigré circles. Rostovtzeff is no longer with us, but based on what he wrote, I think he might agree that he was characterising Russia’s place in history in somewhat metaphysical terms. When he discussed the Slavs’ inhabitation of what he terms ‘Southern Russia’—the Crimea, the Azov coast region and the northern Caucasus, and their inculturation of the elements that were already to be found there, he also clearly distinguished their inward path, their goal of establishing Russia in its own right as opposed to merely using this area as a stepping-stone to elsewhere, east or west. There is little here that other émigré scholars of a historiosophical bent—say, Vernadsky, Fedotov and Fondaminsky—have not also said. Still, it is intriguing that Rostovtzeff follows the path so many of his countrymen did, viewing his subjects of classicalism, material history and art criticism with something of a religious understanding, an unveiling of the workings of God in history.

In all, I found this an enjoyable and informative read. And if it is a bit turgid and poorly-organised in parts, the inclusion of the plates and the lush, vivid, lifelike descriptions of the artistic works and methods of craft inside cover a multitude of these kinds of prosaic sins. I would certainly recommend Rostovtzeff’s book on these alone.
Michael Rostovtzeff

Monday, August 21, 2023

From Shwe Kokko to KK Park: anarcho-capitalism in action

aerial view of KK Park, Myanmar

Well, here’s a nightmare-fuel story if I ever saw one.

Since 2017, a bunch of ethnic militias along the Moei River between Thailand and Myanmar have entered into agreements with the Burmese military, which allow them full autonomy within certain ‘special economic zones’ in the area. At the same time, casino owners and hei shehui (Triad) leaders in Macau, fleeing a Chinese government crackdown, quite literally set up shop in the area. The most notorious of these, She Zhijiang, has been on the run from the Chinese authorities since 2012. Completely outside the reach of any law—whether Thai, or Burmese, or Chinese—a veritable bevy of shady casinos popped up along this stretch of river, with bribes to local officials providing blind eyes to construction outside of government-approved areas, and security being provided by paid members of Karen ethnic militias, apparently including both anti-government groups such as the Karen National Union and pro-government ones such as the Border Guard Forces.

It’s proven to be a match made in hell. The modus operandi of these casinos, which are in reality ‘fraud factories’ or ‘fraud parks’ (zhapian yuanqu 诈骗园区) is to lure migrants in with promises of easy work and high pay. Once the migrants are there, the bosses confiscate their phones and passports, put them into barracks-like living conditions, and force them to work on the casino floors or in scam call centres. Electrocutions, beatings and sensory deprivation are common punishments. New ‘recruits’ are often first pressured to extort their own families for money. If they have technological skills, they are put to work designing online fraud systems. If they do not perform adequately, the women are forced into prostitution and the men are sent into forced labour. If they fall foul of the overseers at that point, they are shipped off to seasteads, killed and dissected for their organs: kidneys, hearts and eyes being in the highest demand.

In general, the prime targets for this victimisation are people who can speak Mandarin and Cantonese: people from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But the bosses of these ‘fraud parks’ aren’t exactly picky. Indonesians have been targeted as slave labour for these casinos. So have Burmese people themselves, as well as Filipinos, Laotians, Hmong, Vietnamese, Nepalis, Thais, Malaysians and Kenyans. According to, at the very least 20,000 people are being held in such conditions at Shwe Kokko and KK Park.

‘Special economic zones’. No law enforcement except for-profit militias. Unregulated casinos. Cryptocurrency farming. Seasteading. Markets in human organs. What with all of this no-holds-barred profiteering going on, Shwe Kokko, Myawaddy and KK Park sound like Austrian School, anarcho-capitalist wet dreams. The rise of the slavery-driven ‘fraud park’ in this lawless region should be a cautionary tale to anyone who might think the anarcho-capitalist ideology is in any way feasible or desirable from a humanitarian perspective. But there’s far more to it than that.

The question remains: why would all these shady casinos choose to set up shop in the literal boondocks of Southeast Asia in the wake of COVID? For some, it seems, the answer seems obvious. That’s where the Belt and Road Initiative money was going; therefore China is to blame for these parks’ existence in the first place. But that explanation—really more like an excuse—doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. She Zhijiang has been a wanted criminal since 2012. It seems a stretch, to say the least, that the Chinese government would willingly just give him or his organisation money to fund these developments.

It looks rather like these ‘new’ developments are instead being built on rather well-trodden ground, at least as far as black-market activity goes. Back in 2000, long before the Belt and Road Initiative was a thing, let alone COVID or the political crisis in Myanmar or the crackdown on online gambling in Macau, the Thai side of that same Moei River was being used as a hub for shady casino constructions and drug smuggling, particularly opium. Evidently today that trade is again seeing a boom, and it would be neither unprecedented nor out of character for these ‘fraud parks’ to be coexisting with if not actively facilitating trade in both farmed and synthetic opiates.

What this seems to indicate is that the Belt and Road Initiative is attracting a dark, parasitic side which operates outside of any national law, in grey zones where political instability and illicit economic opportunity overlap. These non-state actors, rather than any state agency, pose the greatest threat to human dignity, as they are bound to no law and have no legitimacy other than that of brute violence. For the safety of the region and its people, the political crisis in Myanmar should be resolved swiftly and with a minimum of further bloodshed; as should the political crisis in Thailand.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The progeny of Nurenebi

If evil deeds cannot be forgotten, I wish to see them recalled without malice and vengeance.

The Nurenebi File, written by Ethiopian historical novelist Tesfaye Gebreab and translated from Amharic into English by Eritrean playwright Alemseged Tesfai, is a long, sprawling epic which rides a very, very fine line between an academic work of history, a biography of an actual family, and a literary work of historical fiction. It is a complete work, however. As such, it holds up well when examined from each of these three angles. The Nurenebi File tells the story of four generations, spanning nearly 100 years of East African history from 1886 to 1982, of the family of Nurenebi (from Arabic نور النبوي, ‘Light of the Prophet’) Bekhit, the Muslim headman of the village of Fana in Ethiopia, who fled a famine for the coastal port city of Massawa with his wife, his horse and his two infant sons.

The backdrop for Nurenebi’s flight from his dying home village to the bustling port city, is the conquest and colonisation of the coastal lands along the Red Sea—which had belonged to the Maritime Kingdom, Medri Bahri—by Italy. In Nurenebi’s time, the Italians were largely welcomed by the Tigrinya and Beja people amongst whom they landed, as it was thought that the Italians would bring peace and save them from oppression by the Gulf Arabs and the Ottoman Turks, who raided the lands of Medri Bahri for slaves. Indeed, Italy did put a stop to the practice of enslavement of local tribesmen where their writ ran. But as with all tales of colonisation, the colonial administration was a two-edged sword which cut against the colonised more often than it helped them.

Massawa was, as Gebreab illustrates vividly, a key trading port which opens the Arabic world and Egypt to the Indian Ocean trade. For much of the time of the post-classical world system of trade, the nearby port city of Adulis had served as the logistical and trade hub linking Egypt to India. As Medri Bahri replaced Aksum and the Muslim Beja people began exercising greater autonomy, the regional centre of gravity shifted toward Massawa. And Massawa became both a grand hub of commerce and a tempting target for regional powers, including the Ottomans, the Egyptians and the Ethiopians… with the Portuguese eventually coming in for colonial booty, to be replaced by the Italians by the end of the nineteenth century.

Tesfaye Gebreab is a master at showing the complexity of colonialism, both the good parts and the bad parts, while never being an apologist for the colonial masters. He notes with some justice that many Eritreans who sided with Italy did so because they saw in Italy the hope to escape the warlordism and slave raids that had plagued them for centuries. And although Massawa was already a thriving port, the Italians did bring in some level of industrialisation, technology and modern infrastructure. It came, however, at a cost. To Nurenebi, this cost was personal. His flight from famine had forced him to take up work as a guard at a local hospitality establishment, in which position a drunken Italian shouted an insult at him: ‘pigro’ (‘slacker’). Nurenebi, who had never been on the receiving end of such an insult from anyone (insults being taken incredibly seriously in the Ethiopian culture), responded to this by becoming an anti-colonial freedom fighter—a shifta. He carried on his struggle in the Sahel for the rest of his life, before being killed in a skirmish.

Having turned rebel, Nurenebi’s two young sons were left in the care of Christian missionaries, and were baptised into Christianity, christened with the Italian names Eduardo and Edmondo. These sons served in the Italian administrative apparatus and military, and were exempted from some of the more repressive Italian policies on the local population. Italian law severely limited educational opportunities for African people, banning education after the fourth grade, and even banning certain subjects which were not applicable to military or menial careers. (It was forbidden to mention Italian independence heroes Mazzini or Garibaldi to Eritrean students, for example, in educational contexts—for fear that the ideals of Mazzini and Garibaldi would be seized upon by enterprising Eritrean activists.) Italy used cheap Eritrean labour in its factories and shipping yards to extract wealth from Africa. And it used Eritrean soldiers as the front-line shock troops, the cannon fodder, in its wars against Libya and Ethiopia.

The narrative core of the novel is an espionage case in which the Italian authorities are on the trail of a ‘mole’ in their administration who leaked detailed secrets of Mussolini’s planned invasion of Ethiopia to Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. The mole, in this case, was Edmondo’s son Gabriel, who was captured and brutally tortured into confession. He in turn had been betrayed by an Italian mole who had infiltrated Ethiopian noble circles. The Italians, who believed that Gabriel was motivated by family feeling against them (as it came out that he was a grandson of Nurenebi Bekhit during his interrogation), attempted to convince Gabriel Edmondo of the error of his ways—but in vain. For his part, Gabriel believed firmly, despite the considerable technological progress that Italy had brought to Eritrea, that only independence could serve the human needs of the Eritrean people. He also disapproved of Italy’s constant warfare in the region, the human cost of which was borne almost wholly by its Eritrean subjects. Gabriel was issued a death sentence, which was commuted at the behest of his friend, the pro-Italian Iyasu. Tesfaye Gebreab offers Iyasu as something of a foil to Gabriel: his father had been wrongly taken as a ‘traitor’ by Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik after the Battle of Adwa, and punished with juridical amputation along with 460 of his fellows. Although Iyasu’s father bore no great ill-will toward the Ethiopians as a whole (some of whom helped him after the sentence had been carried out), the son bore a deep grudge against Ethiopia on account of this treatment.

The interplay between Gabriel and Iyasu, as well as between Gabriel and his interrogators, displays two of Gebreab’s central themes. As an Ethiopian historian, Gebreab is attuned keenly to the deep historical wrongs that were dealt to the brotherly people of Eritrea as a result of colonialism—up to and including those inflicted by Ethiopia’s emperors, Menelik and Haile Selassie, as well as by Lt Col Mengistu. But he is also adamant on the need for forgiveness—and he places the articulation of this need upon the tongue, mostly, of Gabriel Edmondo. Indeed, Gebreab’s clarion call is for a radical forgiveness, a Christian forgiveness specifically of the unforgiveable. His approach is therefore a knowing and willing mirror-image of that taken by China’s Lu Xun, who dwelt precisely upon the unforgiveable and expounded upon it at length in his work.

Eritrea was ruled, after all, first by the Italians—who brought industrialisation but reduced the Eritreans to a state of manufactured ignorance for the purposes of using them as cheap labour and cannon fodder. The Italians also ruthlessly kidnapped, tortured and assassinated, outside any legal system, any Eritreans who began talking too loudly about political ideas or demonstrating any sort of intellectual or organising prowess. Then came the British, in the wake of Italy’s defeat in the Second World War. The British liberalised Eritrea’s education and press climate, lifting the restrictions on Eritrean education… but they entirely dismantled everything Italy had built, literally pulling down factories and tearing up railways, and selling the materials off abroad. The British plundered Eritrea to the tune of 62 billion pounds sterling, and reduced Eritrea to a state of permanent near-famine or actual famine. Italy filled bellies but would not abide a full mind; Britain was happy to fill minds but at the cost of everything in the belly.

After union with Ethiopia, Eritreans continued to suffer, as Haile Selassie leased Eritrean lands to foreign governments in order to finance educational and charitable institutions which aggrandised the Shoa nobility and the Ethiopian monarchy. The Emperor also brought back Italy’s policy of sniffing out, incarcerating or assassinating anyone suspected of disloyalty—a policy which the nobility exploited to an almost cartoonishly corrupt degree for personal benefit. When the Derg took power under Mengistu, the terror took on a practically nihilistic character, as the Derg slaughtered anyone and everyone who was thought to be a ‘backwards’ influence—Muslim or Christian. Ethiopians suffered a great deal worse under the Derg than the Eritreans; but it was against the spectre of Eritrean independence that the Derg justified the commission of their worst brutalities.

Tesfaye Gebreab relates all these things as part of the historical backdrop within which his characters live and move, not to apportion blame or to pursue a partisan political agenda, but instead as a meditation precisely on the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. One sees through the person of Gabriel Edmondo that forgiveness comes to be something of a literal survival tactic, and the knowledge that desperation and political advantage can drive a person to commit terrible crimes ultimately leads Gabriel to symbolically forgive the mole who had turned him over for torture to the Italians (himself imprisoned by the Derg) by refusing to pass on his name even to his own children. The book ends, however, on the sorrowful note that Gabriel’s son, Mekonen, was killed fighting in the EPLF – leaving to become a guerrilla even after his mother pleaded with him not to go; his fate deliberately mirroring and echoing the struggle of his great-grandfather Nurenebi.

Again, even though the characters in it are real and thus borders on biographical, The Nurenebi File works remarkably well also as a historical novel. It foregrounds the drama of Nurenebi’s family firmly against the legacies of colonialism in East Africa, and the context lends the family drama a great deal of its power. The characters of Nurenebi Bekhit, of Gabriel Edmondo, and of Mekonen Gabriel, are all portrayed with remarkable skill—and all the more poignantly for swimming against the historical-political currents in which they find themselves carried up. However, Tesfaye Gebreab isn’t entirely willing to let his novel rest there. There is a certain extent to which his treatment of Ethiopian and Eritrean history is informed by a scholarly eye. One sees this in the consistent references to and citations of other non-fiction histories and books by authors both Habesha and Western. The acute shifts in tone and subject—zooming in to the personal level and then zooming out again to the level of palace intrigues and subcontinental campaigns—might come off as jarring to readers who are expecting a work of literature that fits neatly into one ‘box’ (biography, novel or history), but it surprised me how well everything pieced together.

That isn’t to say the book is perfect. Some choices in characterisation are slightly confusing even in context; as well, some actions appear unaccounted for or unexplained. Also, the book presumes a familiarity with local conditions, cultural practices and art forms, which makes particularly the early chapters a daunting learning curve for anyone daring to begin this book in its English translation. Still, The Nurenebi File is a deeply interesting read with valuable things to say: I’m still pondering some of its implications.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Thoughts on the China-Saudi-Iran deal

First of all, I think I should state that I welcome this agreement wholeheartedly. The China-Saudi-Iran deal is an immensely positive first step for peace in the Middle East. Just getting the Saudis and the Iranians to talk to each other, and agree to mutually reopen diplomatic relations with each other, is an immense feat of diplomacy, one in which the Chinese Foreign Ministry can take justifiable pride.

It’s a necessary first step: however, it is precisely that—a first step. Opening diplomatic talks does not, by itself, resolve the numerous issues that havearisen between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Not least of these is the bloodletting and the atrocities against civilians for which the Saudis and the Emiratis are guilty in Yemen. Very notably, the Houthi movement in Yemen has responded with great scepticism to the deal and prospects for future peace. Speaking for myself, I can’t blame the Houthis for their stance. The Saudis are inordinately responsible for the human suffering in Yemen, and have a long way to go before they can be considered a reliable party in the peace process there.

Yemen is a key strategic priority for China’s economic planning, however, given that it lies on the Maritime Route in the Belt and Road Initiative. One of the reasons that China was able to broker such a deal in the first place, is that it carefully threaded a policy of neutrality on the southern Arabian Peninsula, and took great care not to align itself too closely either with the Houthis or with the Saudis. This neutral policy was largely driven by a realisation that China needs both Saudi and Yemen in order to make the Maritime Route work.

Necessary for China’s economic goals though it may be, because this deal is a first step, subsequent steps will be fraught with complications. One of those complications will be Yemen, and brokering a just peace there. Another of those complications will be the various proxy conflicts in the region on which Iran and Saudi Arabia have aligned on opposing sides—especially in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Iraq and Syria, Iran is supportive of the legitimate governments in both countries, while the Saudis have attempted to use various violent non-state actors (the Kurdish militias in Iraq, or the Free Syrian Army and Tahrir al-Sham in Syria) to undermine both governments. Iran has supported the government of Lebanon, while Saudi Arabia has largely opposed it.

Another very likely source of complication to the deal comes from the United States and Israel. Israel has been assiduously courting the Saudi government for decades as a possible partner against Iran. If Saudi Arabia establishes peaceful relations with Iran, it obviously creates complications for Israel’s war plans; as a result, it is very likely that Israel will attempt to delay through diplomatic channels, or sabotage through covert actions, the further implementation of the deal.

The United States government is opposed to the deal for different reasons, seeing the Belt and Road Initiative as a threat to its military and diplomatic hegemony. Reading some of the reactions to it from state-aligned media, the overall reaction has been one of surprise and dismay. In many cases there seems to be a tenor that China has somehow reneged on or broken its promises; however, this seems to be an objection made out of chaff. China never promised to keep out of diplomacy, only not to interfere in the internal politics of its partner countries. In any event, this deal could be justified as being in China’s economic interests.

Honestly, though, I don’t think the American public needs to be worried about this at all. If a Saudi-Iranian deal impacts us, it will be in a positive way. A drawdown of Saudi campaigns against Iran in the Middle East is likely to diminish the possibility of violent terrorism against American civilians.