Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Lyautey’s whiskers and sexual predation

SDZ cartoon

Coming out of my hotel near the Ecole Militaire in Paris a few weeks ago week, I found myself directly behind a large bronze statue. From each side of its – his – face sprouted a luxuriant and wonderfully curly moustache, silhouetted against the sky well beyond each cheek. “That,” I thought idly to myself “looks like Maréchal Lyautey,” and walked round the front to check whose the statue actually was. It was indeed Lyautey’s, and I think I can now claim the only occasion in my life when I have recognized someone from behind by his moustache.

I was in Paris for a lecture, about ‘violent democracy,’ the notion explored by the speaker, Jef Huysmans, that there is a fundamental shift taking place within democracies as the conflicts which are negotiated and fought over in the democratic space become less about horizontal divisions, like class; and more about vertical divisions of identity. And with this compartmentalising shift, argues Huysmans, comes a new place for violence as intrinsic to the way we think about politics – a corollary of the vertical identities that make of fellow humans quite other categories of being. For those others, violence of vocabulary, violence of metaphor, violence of fact seem increasingly appropriate. One of the instances on which we dwelt was how violence is being injected into the way we look at migrants. Not just the way that violent episodes are stressed, and absurd inferences drawn about terrorists flooding in through the Greek islands, but more banal questions of language. Why, I wondered as I stood in line at the Gare du Nord, was my passport being examined by a ‘Border Force,’ rather than ‘UK Immigration’? It conjures up – as is intended – a firm and fierce corps d’élite committed heart and soul to fighting off unwanted intruders, rather than facilitating entry. A sort of liminal Dad’s Army on spinach.

The sexual harassment of hundreds of women by crowds of young men in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, or St Sylvester’s Night, has cast this violent rhetoric into high relief. It is clear that there are many people who are keen to tar migrants from the Middle East and North Africa with the brush of unbridled sexual predation: and it’s also clear that there are others who are so uncomfortable with this association that they freeze into silence rather than admitting it. This doesn’t look to me much like an evidence-based stand-off: the position you take is fairly predictable from your politics. Not long ago a former head of the French Foreign Legion, a septuagarian general with a moustache no doubt rather like the Maréchal’s, was arrested for refusing to disperse at a venomously anti-immigrant rally at Calais.  He didn’t go to the Pegida march wondering whether all this gossip about immigrants was true or not: General Picquemal knew it was true because he could smell it. And this is what violent democracy seems to me to mean in practice – the using of others whom you have no wish to understand, no desire to know, no hankering to like, as whetstones on which to sharpen the blade of your own preconceptions.

But nonetheless the question of sexual aggression is important, and needs to be discussed carefully. This doesn’t mean refusing to acknowledge it, nor does it mean glibly attributing to every young Muslim man a ravening, animal lust. First, remember that it is not just European right-wing commentators who comment with horror on the phenomenon. Here is the Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany describing the ‘Eid riots in Cairo in 2006 in his newspaper column:

More than a thousand young men gathered between Adli Street and Talat Harb Street and started attacking and molesting women at random for four full hours. Any female who had the misfortune to be passing through the area at that time – girls, women, young and old, with or without hijab or niqab, walking alone, with friends, or even with their husbands – would have met the same fate. Hundreds of sex-crazed young men would have would have attacked her and completely surrounded her with their bodies, and dozens of hands would have reached out to pull off her clothes and grope her breasts and between her legs.

But this kind of pack aggression, as al-Aswany puts it, “is not just an expression of sexual frustration. Sexual desire can often have buried within it despair, frustration, injustice, insignificance and futility, and all these are common among the poor in Egypt.” These young men “are the children of unemployment, impotence and overcrowding. They live crammed into tiny rooms in buildings without utilities …  They have lost all hope for the future, hope of work, of marriage, or even of emigration abroad. They live without dignity …”

This description of life at the very bottom of the Egyptian heap is chilling. It is from here that some of the wilder, less thoughtful energies of the Arab Spring came – and it is in this darkness that religious violence, so often subcutaneously sexual, brews too. Most of his columns (though not this one) al-Aswany ends with the short sentence, ‘Democracy is the solution,’ which echoes parodically the Ikhwan’s glib ‘Islam is the solution.’ He is probably right to avoid the facile in this context. There are many, many things that need addressing in this situation before democracy can have any traction – but the crisis is socio-political as much as it is sexual and behavioural. What is the solution to this toxic mess, and how are we to deal with its export to Europe? Because this is where – metaphorically at least – a proportion of the migrants comes from, the hopeless slums of the Arab world, without “hope for the future, hope of work, of marriage, or even of emigration abroad.” What does it mean to arrive in Europe from a Middle East where so much of the experience is of this sort, and where the whole nexus of women’s rights, of sex and of honour is so differently imagined from Europe’s own (often inconsistent and ill-applied) notions.

It so happened that I picked up Le Monde on the train home and found a long article by Kamel Daoud, the Algerian novelist whose Mersault Investigation was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, and won the English PEN award. Daoud is very clear about the background – as the headline in Le Monde has it, summing up the piece rather well, Welcoming refugees means admitting that giving them ID papers is not enough to heal them of the deep sexism that is rampant in the Arab-Muslim world. (An earlier but related article by Daoud was later published in the New York Times, here.) He puts it at slightly greater length:

So, is the refugee a savage? No. Just different. And it’s not enough to welcome him by giving him papers and shared accommodation and washing our hands of him. Certainly we must offer asylum to his body, but we must also convince his spirit to change. The Other comes from a vast, sad, frightening universe of sexual misery, of sick relations with women, with the body and with desire. Welcoming him is not healing him.

So what’s going on here? Daoud sees the woman in the Islamic world – and especially in the Islamist worldview – as endlessly depersonalised and owned, quoting himself as having written

Who does a woman’s body belong to? Her nation, her family, her husband, her eldest brother, her neighbourhood, the children of her neighbourhood, her father, the state, the street, her ancestors, her national culture, her taboos. The woman’s body is the place where she loses ownership of herself and her identity.

Focusing his anger not on Islam (though not sparing it) so much as on Islamism, to which he was himself attracted as a younger man, he writes that

Sex is the biggest misery in the ‘World of Allah.’ To such an extent that it has given birth to this porno-Islamism which Islamist preachers make use of to recruit their ‘faithful.’ Descriptions of a paradise more like a brothel than a reward for the pious, fantasies of virgins for suicide-bombers, the hunting of female bodies in public places, the puritanism of dictatorships, veils and burkas.

But essential to what Daoud is saying is that he is not condemning out-of-hand every young Muslim male. He tries instead to understand the ætiology of the profoundly unattractive relationship with sex that is displayed by a proportion of young single male migrants from Muslim countries. He believes that it is the result of terrible distortions in the Muslim world, focusing on the religious. One might add the political constipation of the last half century that has kept extractive Western-backed dictatorships in power, dictatorships that have had Islamist radicals on and off the leash whenever either tactic has seemed useful to the short-term political and security needs of the dictators; and has abandoned large tracts of the welfare realm to private – generally Islamist – providers with an ideological agenda based on a bizarre and destructive view of sexuality and woman.

And the corollary, in Daoud’s view, is that we need to think in moral terms about how we treat migrants. We have welcomed them to Europe, and it is not an adequate response simply to give them a roof and let them join the alienated pockets of European societies simply because we can’t be bothered to do more. Daoud concludes his piece:

Is Cologne a sign that we should shut our gates – or shut our eyes? Neither. Shutting the gates – that will ultimately constitute a crime against humanity. But shutting our eyes to the long, drawn-out work of welcome and assistance and all that that means in terms of work on ourselves and on others is also a lethal otherworldliness. Refugees cannot simply be reduced to a delinquent minority. But this raises the question of ‘Values’ to be shared, imposed, defended and made understood. And it raises the question of responsibility after the initial welcome – and who is going to take that responsibility.

Now you don’t need to agree or disagree in its entirety with his argument, to acknowledge that it is important, a serious attempt by an Algerian writer who understands the position of women in European societies to be central to European culture, and the position of many women in many Muslim societies to be dire, to analyse the meaning of St Sylvester’s Night.

So what was the reaction to his essay?

It was so aggressive, so negative that Daoud announced shortly afterwards that he was giving up journalism for good to focus on novel-writing. This was what a band of French intellectuals and New York bien-pensants managed to achieve – drumming the editor of an Algerian newspaper, Le quotidian d’Oran, out of journalism for his opinions. He was, said one, “feeding the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing part of the European population … more than just the usual colonial paternalism, he is effectively saying that the deviant culture of this mass of Muslims is a danger for Europe.” Which is not actually what he was saying, but hey, who cares about accuracy when there’s a snide polemical point to be made.

It goes to show how hard this business is to discuss at all, let alone to discuss intelligently. Accusations that Daoud is calling for re-education and indoctrination, displaying culturalist tendencies and so on, are designed to stifle discussion. Faouzia Zouari, a French-Tunisian writer, called the letter from French intellectuals “a secular fatwa.”

But it is not illegitimate to wonder whether guests invited into one’s home shouldn’t be asked to observe the customs of the house, and the ferocity of the response, often from those who understand – or should understand – perfectly well the predicament of the woman in many parts of the Muslim world, is fascinating. It seems to me that Daoud’s questions are right, and his analysis useful. His answers are uncomfortable, contestable and – certainly – prone to being misemployed by the malignant. But the basic message, that real hospitality demands more than a crust of bread and today’s equivalent of a Nansen passport, is right. It demands longer-term human engagement, and rather more than vapid moral outrage and cultural relativism. This, it seems to me, is what Daoud bravely gives it.

I find it very interesting that the two people I have read recently who give this nasty business serious thought (whether their conclusions are right or wrong) are novelists-cum-journalists, Daoud and al-Aswany. Perhaps it takes a novelist’s imagination to transcend the rigidities and the compartmentalisation of ‘Violent Democracy.’


Doormat cartoon

Several Lions and an Ottoman Miniature


A few years back, as part of a film package that was sent out from London to show in Rabat, we received Chris Morris’s funny, cynical Four Lions, and it went off for approval by the censors. Back came all the films, cheerfully approved, and it was only when my ambassador telephoned me a little anxiously to ask whether I was quite sure it was a good idea to show to a Moroccan audience a comedy based on Islamic terrorism, that I actually previewed it myself. Funny as it is (a merciless satire on jihadism) it would have played to mixed reactions at the Septième Art, and I withdrew it. I learned not to rely on the judgement of censors. It seemed that the censor hadn’t watched it either, and had been beguiled by the title and the large crow on the cover (the timer and dynamite strapped to its chest notwithstanding), into imagining Four Lions an Attenboroughesque nature film, and waved it through. I withdrew it, and the waters closed over an amusing and instructive incident.

I found myself thinking of it again this week, as I read the press coverage – sober and unexcited – in L’Economiste of a more recent but no less clumsy piece of censorship, though this time the ministerial razor was wielded positively, and with Sweeney-Todd-like enthusiasm. An issue of Science et Avenir (Science and the Future) devoted to God and the Sciences was banned from sale by the Minister of Communication. Not – perish the thought – because it was about God and science (“I find the text very interesting”), but because, went on the Minister, citing the Press Law and a UN decision on religious defamation, it contained reproductions of two Ottoman miniatures that the Minister felt to be disrespectful to the Prophet. What exactly did they depict? L’Economiste describes them thus: l’une des représentations  … illustre une sorte de chronologie sur trois millénaires. L’autre est consacrée au Coran, sa répartition en chapitres, datations de manuscrits anciens … Une œuvre réalisée par le calligraphe Lutfi Abdullah, suite à une commande du sultan ottoman Mourad III. Two miniatures, in other words, made for Sultan Murad III (1546-1595) which illustrate Islamic chronology and the internal organisation of the Qu’ran. They sound more like fine-art flow-charts than subversive documents – and in what sense they could be seen as defamatory is hard to make out. But as the minister sagely observed, “allowing the distribution of this issue of the magazine in Morocco would have been a legal and administrative recognition of images of the Prophet.” This seems to mean that although such images may exist in the sense that they are printed, published, marketed, distributed and put on the web, if we maintain “legally and administratively” that they don’t exist, then they don’t really exist. One can’t help recalling Wendy’s views on fairies, and the dying Tinkerbell.

As the newspaper comments drily, “this sort of decision is already creating a very negative buzz internationally and gives a poor impression of freedom of expression in Morocco.” It seems unlikely that the Moroccan authorities are actually alarmed at the possible impact of reproductions, in a French magazine, of sixteenth-century fine-art thumbnail portraits of the Prophet commissioned by the then Caliph. More likely is that an Islamist government is keen to avoid – as demonstratively as possible – being seen in any way to condone the representation of the Prophet, and keen to seize the opportunity for a flamboyant exhibition of this very contemporary orthodoxy – particularly at a time when overtures are being made by the government to salafists.


The Two Cultures and the Jihad


I published a working paper recently under the title Immunising the Mind: How can education reform contribute to combatting violent extremism in which I commented on the fact that the recruitment of jihadis in the Middle East and North Africa seems to correlate to some extent with their choice of subject at university. Diego Gambetta of EUI and Oxford University, and Steffen Hertog, whose excellent 2007 joint study I came across while working on this subject (and whose book, Engineers of Jihad, is coming out in May 2016) suggest that 48.5 percent of jihadi recruits at the time of his first researches were graduates, and about 44 percent of these were engineering graduates: hence his title. This is interesting, and although it is not the first time it has been noted, his analysis of the reasons for it is thorough and very intriguing indeed.

But I am even more interested by the dog that didn’t bark: there are virtually no graduates in the humanities and social sciences among the databases of jihadis that have been compiled. Since some 70 percent of students in the MENA region are in broadly defined H&SS, and since unemployment rates amongst H&SS graduates are very significantly higher than those amongst STEM graduates, and particularly amongst engineering graduates, this is highly counter-intuitive. I find myself wondering whether the humanities and social sciences may not have some subtle but powerful prophylactic effect on the mind.

Of course there are a wide variety of contributory factors on the one side (the dog that did bark) in the sociology of the engineering profession in MENA and the crisis of unmet expectations as the region’s governments scaled back public employment of engineers from the 70s onwards. There are also questions of prestige and selectivity – engineering, medicine and science tend to be limited (‘numerus clausus’) elite faculties, while H&SS don’t; and traditionally lead to good earning power – while H&SS have been the entry tickets for the now fast-shrinking public service.

But although there must be many reservations, it still seems to me that the question of how different disciplines form thought-processes and habits of mind is important in understanding the mental topography of jihad. Gambetta explores what he calls ‘the engineering mindset,’ and I summarised:

[he] picks out three traits that characterise the ‘engineering mindset’: monism, simplism and preservatism.  “Whether American, Canadian or Islamic, and whether due to selection or field socialisation, a disproportionate share of engineers seems to have a mindset that inclines them to entertain the quintessential right-wing features of “monism” – ‘why argue when there is one best solution’ – and of “simplism” – ‘if only people were rational, remedies would be simple.’” As for preservatism, “its underlying craving for a lost order, its match with the radical Islamic ideology is [sic] undeniable: the theme of returning to the order of the prophet’s early community is omnipresent in most salafist and jihadist ideology.”

I wondered whether the opposite might be true for sociologists, historians and anthropologists. Whether, in other words, the nuanced, hypothesis-based thinking that the social sciences require might not give the mind an inherent flexibility and questioning habits that make it very difficult for un-nuanced, black-and-white arguments to get a grip. What strikes me particularly is that even given the low-budget, high-volume and often low-quality teaching of H&SS across the region, there is very little overlap between Islamists and jihadis on the one hand, and students of the social sciences on the other. I began to wonder what really good teaching in these subjects, of which there is some but nothing like enough, could achieve. Hazem Kandil seemed to me to sum it up well in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood:

One look at members’ educational backgrounds reveals that highly educated Brothers (including 20,000 with doctoral degrees and 3,000 professors) come overwhelmingly from the natural sciences. He notes that there are clerics, lawyers and businessmen, and even a handful of literature students. Absent, however, are students of politics, sociology, history and philosophy. Kandil analyses the Brotherhood’s top leadership, finding veterinarians, agronomists, engineers, geologists and doctors, but virtually no social scientists. He quotes one former Brother as saying, In social sciences one learns that someone made an argument; another criticized it; and history validated or disproved it. Questioning received wisdom is welcomed. In natural sciences by contrast, there are no opinions, only facts. This type of matter-of-fact mentality is more susceptible to accepting the Brotherhood’s formulas which present everything as black or white.

And Marc Sageman says much the same: The elegance and simplicity of [Salafism’s] interpretations attract many who seek a single solution, devoid of ambiguity. Very often these persons have already chosen such unambiguous technical fields as engineering, architecture, computer science, or medicine. Students of the humanities and social sciences were few and far between in my sample.

Clearly a fine-grained study will look for the possibility of differentiation across the Islamist spectrum, violent and non-violent. (There is an intriguing aside in a Demos report of 2010: terrorists were more likely to hold technical or applied degrees – medicine, applied science and especially engineering. [Non-violent] Radicals, by contrast, were much more likely to study arts, humanities and social sciences, which gives abrupt pause for thought, though – or perhaps because – referring to the UK).

Anyway, the arguments need not be re-worked in this note (follow this hyperlink for the whole essay), but I was very intrigued by the possible significance of two rather different ways of thinking, and the impact of these different mindsets. It would be ingenuous to suggest that these are absolutes – very far from it, they are small phenomena on the margin – statistically, but not numerically, significant. Most engineers are of course not starkly ‘binary’ in this sense, though it is far from an unknown phenomenon.

What it does do is to make us think about education. If choice of discipline has this impact, we should be asking ourselves how to maximise the impact of the social sciences – how to raise their status, encourage the ‘valorisation’ of their approach to the world and improve their quality – all this in an environment where religious and political authoritarianism find them threatening. And we should be learning from the excellent work done in the UK and the US to broaden STEM curricula, to make sure that scientists have access to the destabilising questioning of the sociology and philosophy of science – as well as to the fullness of Popperian falsifiability, a parallel immunisation all too often lost in the torrent of fact.

And we should be looking closely at schools. Because it is very possible that it is not the university faculties that are driving out critical individualism, nuance and complex non-binary thinking – but the entire structure of schooling in the MENA region. Rather, it might be that a long tradition of passive education from the msid or kuttab (the koranic school) to the baccalaureate is creating the minds that feed and are fed by the binarism of simplistic science teaching when (and if) it is finally encountered. The classroom and the examination system in which young Arabs and Amazigh are intellectually formed may – perhaps – be a selection mechanism for what Diego Gambetta calls the ‘engineering mindset,’ and we might call the ‘uncritical mind.’ Whichever we call it, it seems to offer an increased degree of vulnerability to the ill-understood process known as ‘radicalisation.’


Biffy, the Bombers and Disorganised Morale

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A year or so ago I was very struck by an account of the way aeroplanes navigated across the desert between ‘Amman and Baghdad in the 1920s. There was a furrow ploughed into the land surface all the way, and the pilot simply followed it. This struck me as quite funny, an unexpectedly primitive way to navigate, and I was reminded of a wonderful story told by the Police Attaché to the embassy meeting in a European country that had better remain nameless, of drug smugglers in a light aircraft desperately following the motorway system, road atlas in hand, while a cavalcade of police cars roared along the tarmac below like Keystone Cops, keeping up with the plane. But in fact, I simply didn’t know much about the early days of flight.

Recently I came across an interesting book called Airway to the East,[1] which deals with the very first attempts to set up an air route from London to Cairo, in 1919. The idea was simple enough. It was planned as a way of shuttling quite large numbers of Handley Page bombers, redundant on the Western Front after the Armistice, out to the Middle East where they were needed for action against the Arabs, who were unaccountably reluctant to fall in with Anglo-French plans for the future of the region. Bombing them seemed like a good idea (indeed Churchill, famously, went further: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes”) and planes were needed. The Handley Page O/100 was a monster, which when it first rolled out of the factory in late 1915 weighed twice as much as any aeroplane ever built, had a wingspan of 100 feet and a range of 400 miles. So wide was it that the telegraph poles in Colindale Avenue had to be sawn down for the prototype to reach Hendon aerodrome. Two years later a more powerful model, the O/400, could carry 2,000 lbs of bombs as against its predecessor’s 600 lbs. These were the machines that were destined for the Middle East

Aerial warfare was devastatingly effective against Turkish ground forces (and later, Arabs). A decisive attack on a Turkish column at Wadi al Fara’a by the RAF in September 1918 resulted in what the wonderfully named, if also wonderfully unattractive, Colonel ‘Biffy’ Borton described thus: “We bombed [them] incessantly for four hours, completely blocking the head of the column and creating the most appalling carnage. A length of road some five miles long was absolutely packed and you can get some idea of what it meant from the subsequent count – over 80 guns and 700 horses and motor transport were found in an inextricable mess on just this one stretch of road.” It is about as edifying as the American ‘turkey-shoot’ on the Mutla Ridge above Kuwait in 1991: overwhelming air superiority used to obliterate retreating infantrymen. Interesting that Biffy didn’t bother to enumerate the dead Turks, as he did the horses.

But the aeroplanes were very fragile. Made of flimsy doped cloth stretched over wooden frames, with propellers prone to warping and splitting in the heat and rubber petrol-tubes that disintegrated in sunlight, they had a short life-span at the best of times, and then only with very regular maintenance. The cloth peeled and split and needed constant repair. The whole machine had to be pegged down meticulously at night so as not to blow away. In the Mediterranean they suffered a terrible rate of attrition from natural forces. The HP’s wings were too heavy to support themselves, so they had to be kept up by wire rigging – and it was the business of the myriad riggers to re-rig – to check, tighten and replace the rigging wires – each day. On top of this, all controls were operated by physical wire-pulls which easily jammed, especially when thickened and roughened by rust which made them stick in their pulleys with disastrous results. With a theoretical range of 400 miles, the O/400 often managed only 200 into a headwind and sometimes much less (one flight into a strong headwind is recorded with an overland speed of 10 mph).

This meant that to get to Cairo, their destination, they had to be flown down a designated route with a great many landing fields for overnight stops and servicing; and a great many emergency fields for pilots caught short by a headwind or engine failure – or simply by getting lost. The route changed all the time, but a 1918 plan shows a start at Buc (outside Paris) and overnight stops at Lyons, Istres, Pisa, Rome, Barletta, Taranto, Athens, Suda Bay, and Mersa Matruh – which is to say an optimal ten days to Cairo, almost never achieved. The trans-Mediterranean leg, from Suda Bay to Mersa, was about 250 miles over water, and aeroplanes were supposed to be escorted by destroyers or sea-planes (“it had been discovered that there was no ferry service between North Africa and Crete”). It very seldom happened quite that way, and indeed “the escorting flying-boats were mostly mythical, and even when they did appear, could not carry passengers on the first half of the crossing because of the large amount of petrol they had to carry at take-off.” This would have rendered their ability to carry passengers on the second half of the crossing somewhat superfluous.

In fact the whole functioning of No. 1 Aerial Route RAF was an unmitigated disaster. It was badly planned, badly managed, and undermanned by officers and men whose main preoccupation was being demobilised. The crew on the landing strips were idle and often absent; the pilots were prone to taking time off to see the sights; the spare parts were never where they were needed; the escorts were almost always unavailable; the chain of command was incompetent; the availability of weather forecasts and wirelesses pathetic; maps were inadequate; there was no petty cash or expenses. So disastrous was the whole doomed enterprise that the very existence of No 1 Aerial Route was afterwards routinely denied by the RAF and the Air Ministry, and only dug out of the archives by the author of this book, whose father, stationed at Suda Bay in Crete, had kept press cuttings and photograph albums.

HP 1

The story told in this book, though it’s much too heavy on technical detail for anyone but a terminal aviation history buff to savour in full, would be very funny were it not for the young lives lost in crash after crash along the Route. “They changed propellers at Suda but the replacements, which were cannibalised from Liberty flying boats, had brass tips and were twelve inches too small in diameter. This meant they could not fly higher than 2,000 feet and had to fly round the west end [of Crete] to avoid the mountains” – “During the night a gale blew up and the plane was blown from its moorings. A sister machine was also blown on top of the petrol shed” – “One machine made a forced landing on the Greek coast at Amyro because it had run out of petrol. It was impossible to get petrol to it by lorry and so HMS Swallow was sent from Alexandria” – “D5418 came in to land at Pisa, but when only 400 feet from the ground, the elevators jammed and the machine crashed on its nose on the airfield” – “One engine ran out of oil and seized and they found the plane was unable to maintain height on one engine alone … the machine came down in a gentle glide on to the sea and the pilot, concentrating on the landing, forgot to undo his safety harness … the machine tipped up on its nose … and the pilot went under water with the cockpit” – “At Athens they were delayed for ten hours because the petrol supplied contained water and they had to empty all the tanks and strain the petrol through chamois leather” – “One of the replacement machines never even started the journey before it was wrecked. A gale blew up at Buc, outside Paris … and while the machine was being hurriedly wheeled into a hangar, the tail was blown off the skid trolley and the fuselage cracked” – “HP J2246 had five forced landings while it was crossing France … the pilot got lost and came down in the sea at St Aygulf.”

At the end of September 1919, the situation could be summarised thus: “twenty-nine machines were either in Egypt or more or less airworthy en route, and thirteen had been written off. That still left nine machines dotted about …” It constituted a 30 percent failure rate, and eleven deaths. The accidents alone had cost £110,000. The whole story was the subject of an RAF inquiry which was carefully manipulated by the high command resonsible in order to bury the scale of the disaster. The patronising, self-assured and self-protective incompetence with which very senior officers handled money, young lives and the truth is still shocking a century later.

One final aspect of all this that I found very revealing was the attitude of the aircrew to the Arabs. The author comments drily that “Each of the crew had been issued with a side-arm in case the machine made a forced landing along the coast of North Africa where the native Senussi tribesmen were hostile because they were in the pay of the Turks. Orders then were to destroy the aircraft and then shoot oneself before unspeakable things were perpetrated by the locals. Unsurprisingly the crews chose the northern Mediterranean route (via Crete) rather than the African one (via Malta).” Unsurprising indeed, though it suggests a slightly unexpected coyness from RAF aircrew (Biggles would have used the revolver to fight his way out: Biffy apparently not.) But much more unspeakable is this episode, in the course of Major Stuart McLaren’s flight to Delhi in a Handley Page in 1919, recorded by the insouciant pilot:

Soon after leaving Bandar Rig we had a little amusement at the expense of one of the natives of the country. We were flying at about 100 feet when we saw, a short distance ahead, an unlucky native who was attempting to bathe by the banks of a small stream and was consequentially not in a position to argue his point with us. We put the nose of the machine down and headed straight for this unhappy mortal, who, already petrified with fear, at once threw up his arms to Allah and called loudly for help. At a distance of 50 yards I fired a green Verey’s light at him which burst into flames in front of his feet. His morale became extremely disorganised and he fell flat on his face into the stream.

Well, in fact, of course it was McLaren’s morale – or at least his morals – that were extremely disorganised, and this little vignette tells us a great deal about the sheer, bloody arrogance of imperial power. And now the natives of the country are bringing down European aeroplanes with their own amusing explosions. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

HP 2

[1] Clive Semple, Airway to the East 1918-1920 and the Collapse of No. 1 Aerial Route RAF, Barnsley 2012.

Comets, eggs and haemorrhoids

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Several years ago I wrote a novella for Christmas about a series of rather fantastic happenings in Rome, which involved a long-dead astrologer, a papal election, the appearance of a comet, and five long-buried Philistine artefacts – the five golden haemorrhoids of the Second Book of Samuel, since you ask. (If you didn’t know that the Book of Samuel tells this unlikely story, you are not alone: I was of your number until it was told me with great relish by Margaret Atwood one day in Toronto, seven or eight years ago.) My book was absurd, and I think quite funny, a sort of cross between Dan Brown (avant la lettre as far as his wildly over-egged Angels and Demons goes) and Dornford Yates. If you are interested in locating a copy, it can still be had from this link: The Affair of the Emerods – though this isn’t the point of today’s post.

The reason it crosses my mind now is the delightful coincidence of finding a story, just as bizarre, about … rather fantastical happenings in Rome involving a long-dead astrologer, a pope, the appearance of a comet and a magical egg. Had I read this account at the time (it comes from the True Protestant Mercury, and is reprinted in James Malcolm’s Miscellaneous Anecdotes of 1811), the egg would surely have appeared in the Emerods. It goes to show how life follows fantasy at a healthy distance. The action reported by the Mercury’s correspondent took place in Rome in 1680:

We have many nights been surprized with the sight of that prodigious blazing phenomenon in the Heavens. But that which more amazes us, is, that since its appearance, a hen, in the house of Seignior Massimi di Campidoglio, in this city, laid an egg, in which there is very conspicuously seen the figure of this Comet, the inward part of the egg being very clear, and the shell transparent. In the greater end is the Star, whence a blaze or luminous beam shines very bright to the other end. It was first taken notice of by a servant of the said Massimi, who, with wonder, shewed it to his master; and it hath since been carried to be viewed by the Pope, who, as wise and infallible as he is, knows not what to make of it. The Queen of Sweden, and most of the Grandees of Rome, have likewise beheld it with admiration, and have ordered it to be carefully reposited, where it administers not a little matter of speculation to our Philosophers.

Another source, also quoted by Malcolm, illustrates the fabulous egg (above), and describes its production: There did appear here, about the middle of December last, a strange and wonderful Comet near the Caliptick in the sign of Libra, and in the body of the Virgin. At the same time a prodigious egg was laid by a young pullet (which had never laid before), with a perfect Comet in it, and as many Stars and in the same form, as the inclosed figure shews. … The Roman wits are now very busy guessing at what the Comet and Egg may portend!

In 1681 Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote a topical play called La Comète, “in one scene [of which] a countess was consulting her astrologer about a dreadful bearded star overhead when letters arrived from Rome bearing the awful news that a comet had been discovered in an egg! The countess, aghast, swore that she would eat no more eggs; she was seconded by her astrologer’s valet, who dared not devour an Omelette de Cometes.”

All of which simply goes to show that we should be careful what we write, for fear of getting egg on our faces.


“There’s no ‘Yo man’ any more. We’re into religion”

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Four days ago Niger surrendered to the International Criminal Court a Malian man called Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who has been indicted by the court for the destruction of religious buildings in Timbuktu. This man, who calls himself Abu Tourab, insists on being addressed in Arabic by the Court, though he was born about 100 kilometres from Timbuktu and is a Tamasheq-speaker. He is a leader of what were apparently called the ‘Manners Brigade,’ the benighted thugs who terrorised Timbuktu when it was under foreign Arab occupation, blowing up tombs, burning books and bullying the population into behaving as they imagined seventh century Hejazis to have behaved. This Ahmed is, individually, of no interest at all, just an example of the small man burning with resentment and self-loathing, looking for revenge through bullying and destruction on a world he doesn’t understand. But his indictment is interesting and important because it highlights the place of cultural destruction in today’s conflicts – and the newfound preparedness of the international community to confront and punish it.

By chance, the night before reading in today’s paper about the indictment of this man, I had sat up watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s fabulous new film Timbuktu, which follows the Manners Brigade as they attempt to impose their stunted culture on a small Malian town. The invaders are defiantly foreign, scorning the Malians’ attempts at Arabic but making not the slightest effort to speak Tamasheq themselves. They come from the north, the ‘Green Land’ of Libya, and have no interest in the rich culture of Timbuktu, a centre of learning and high Islamic culture for centuries. They help themselves to women, blustering that they are following the instructions of the Prophet. They punish mercilessly the singing of sacred music. They forbid a ludicrously predictable range of things from bare female hands (even on the wet fish stalls in the market where gloves are obligatory) to football, long trousers, smoking and shaved chins (there’s a barber’s placard, fleetingly in the background of one shot, on which the profile faces without beards are obliterated with red crosses). In fact, as one of them puts it, “It is forbidden to do any old thing.”

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There are no burned books or blown-up shrines in Timbuktu. In fact there are no public buildings or recognizable shots of Timbuktu: despite its name the film is set in an almost abstract Malian village-scape of ochre mud-brick alleys and metal doors, and in the semi-desert around it. In the alleys of the town Abdelkrim and his bully-boys swagger and punish; in the country they are much less confident, careering incompetently after gazelle in their pick-up trucks, sneaking off for illicit cigarettes behind the dunes and pestering Satima, the wife of the film’s central character Kidane, when he is away from his tent. They may come from the Green Land, but they are creatures of the town, comfortable in small bureaucratic huddles, dealing out ‘sharia’ punishments in gloomy rooms and scribbling in exercise books with sandy biros. They hunt down the strains of music caressing the night air, climbing on rooftops and entering private homes to find and punish those who are “singing praises to the lord and his prophet.”

The action of the film is personal, and gently symbolic. Abdelkrim, the lecherous bandit leader, says disparagingly to Kidane, “What do you know about inner strength and goodness?” – when of course it is Abdelkrim who knows nothing, and Kidane who in his very human way exemplifies both those qualities. Kidane is a herdsman, a singing idler who loves his family and keeps out of trouble. His wife Satima says of him “the reason he’s still alive is because he plays the guitar and sings. He’s not a warrior. Warriors die young.” When he forgets this distinction and takes revenge on the fisherman who has killed his prize cow, GPS, the fragile security of his little world unravels and he is led inexorably through cursory trial to execution. Kidane accepts his fate, yearning only for a sight of his wife and daughter before he dies. His is the noble role, his the inner strength.

Music is central. Kidane sings, and so does the girl whose voice draws the Manners Brigade through the night to her gentle gathering of friends. The boy who is reproved for his lack of conviction in denouncing to camera his rapping past (“There’s no ‘yo man’ any more. We’re into religion”) finds it difficult to forswear music with any conviction. But defiance is musical too, and the singing girl bursts into anguished song as she is lashed, her voice rising above the squalid scene in the market place in a sublime cadence of pain and endurance.

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Defiance is all. The girl sings as she bleeds. The man who is told to roll his trousers up because they are too long, takes them off entirely. The football-playing boys obey the letter of the new law by playing without a ball, in an exquisite ballet of mimed passes and shots at goal, while the puzzled thugs glide sulkily by on a motor-bike, unable to complain. Zabou, a statuesque eccentric driven mad by a long-ago earthquake, wanders insouciantly through the film in ragged turquoise finery, her hair uncovered, her hands ungloved and her tattered black train brushing the dust behind her. She takes no notice of the Manners Brigade, at one point stopping their pick-up truck by blocking the narrow alley with her arms spread wide: they have no vocabulary to deal with her, and Zabou glides on, unmolested.

Also defiant, though gently so, is the imam of the mosque, a quiet, measured man who reasons firmly and uncompromisingly with the jihadis about jihad and about their behaviour. Never aggressive, always civil, he makes them very uncomfortable and is never reproved for his impertinence: these jihadis are not good at confronting integrity, whether it is that of a saint or a madwoman. And finally there is the enigmatic figure of a water-seller whose face we never properly see, a Malian Everyman who threads his way through the film on his motorbike, delivering water in yellow jerry-cans to tents and houses, weaving from scene to scene in flashes of his green robe. It is he who at the end of the film brings Satima to Kidane for the last snatched glimpse of her face before they die together; and he who races away on his motorbike, like the gazelle at the beginning of the film, while a truckload of barbarians pursue the symbolic figure at speed, black banners waving, shooting their automatic weapons incompetently at his back.

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Timbuktu is extraordinarily beautiful, cutting from a village of browns and reds with painted swirls on the walls and moonlit nights full of distant music, to a landscape of dunes, lakes and small shrubs, through which cattle amble. The lake shots, great silvery panoramas, with silhouetted men like Indonesian shadow-puppets at the centre, are exquisite. The landscape cries out to be caressed, a cry that even reaches the dimness of Abdelkrim’s brain when, frustrated by Satima’s scorn for him, he spots a suggestive tuft of grass between dunes, a dark declivity which stirs some lecherous cupidity in his dull heart. He blazes viciously away at it with his Kalashnikov, mowing the grass into submission.

In appearing to ignore the destruction of physical culture – the shrines, tombs and libraries which offended the shrivelled souls of the puritanical jihadis – Sissako allows the oppression of the human inhabitants of his Timbuktu to stand for all. The culture that is oppressed is represented by music, love, compassion, normality. The destruction, by flogging, stoning, shooting and abusing. But there is one very telling scene of cultural annihilation, right at the beginning of the film: a row of traditional dark wooden carvings, of female figures with large breasts, is lined up on the sand and shot. We don’t see who is shooting, though we know at once; but we watch the material culture of an old and civilised society being shattered by unseen idiots in a parodic firing-squad, and we know that this lies in the background to the whole film.

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It is a delicately brushed and sensitively represented balance. In the last couple of years we have heard a lot about the choice between ‘people’ and ‘things’ – about the obscenity of concern about material culture when flesh and blood are at stake. It is right to worry at these questions as Palmyra trembles, Nimrud falls and eleven million Syrians flee their homes. But in the end, the two are not easily disentangled. A few weeks ago I wrote about Palmyra, and the problem of ‘people’ and ‘things,’ and I shall risk quoting myself and – more importantly – Robert Bevan, here:

In a particularly good article  in the Evening Standard, Robert Bevan, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, discusses this whole issue very wisely, writing that “until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and the fate of their culture are interlinked, there can be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.” He discusses the insights of Raphael Lemkin, the Byelorussian Jew who drafted and promoted the 1948 Genocide Convention (having coined the word). Lemkin linked the two voices of annihilation – against people and against their culture – in his drafting of the Convention, but the UN removed reference to the destruction of culture, with disastrous results. Not that Lemkin confused the two. Bevan quotes him as saying, luminously, “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.” 

Sissako’s balance is right, with every stick of dynamite and every blow by bulldozer fully implicit in the singing of the flogged girl and the shooting of the gentle Kidane. The tombs of Timbuktu’s saints have mostly been rebuilt since the relief of Timbuktu, and the books were largely hidden before the vandals reached them, so the material damage is all the more easily subsumed into the human. Now at least one of those responsible for the double destruction will appear before the ICC, a Touareg pretending only to understand Arabic.

As for Kidane, the representative Malian, “the reason he’s still alive is because he plays the guitar and sings.” Yo man.

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Millions of chickens coming West to roost


We are told with po-faced solemnity that there is a real danger of the Daech’s smuggling Islamic State terrorists into Europe in the vast column of refugees that is now knocking at our gates. I daresay this is true – it seems likely that amongst the million or so refugees entering Germany alone this year will be a few bad guys, as well as a lot of dentists, cameramen, street-sweepers, research chemists, hockey-players, games-programmers, pickpockets, graffiti artists and ney-players. So what? This is true of any mass movement of people, and it is plainly silly to think it possible to scrub a refugee population clean of all its murkier elements. But I rather doubt that there is a bearded mastermind in Raqqah co-ordinating the disguise and cover-story of suicide-bombers and arranging for them be pushed surreptitiously to Germany in wheelchairs. Why on earth would they bother?

Pause a moment to compare this curious (and frankly inflammatory) assertion with reports from Bangladesh last week that Britain is the source of much of that country’s daechi recruitment: “We have growing numbers of Bangladeshi diaspora guys coming here from Britain to recruit,” as a Bangladesh Intelligence source told the Guardian. “There are very large numbers of young men [in Bangladesh] who don’t have a job or any prospects. Their only experience is the madrasa and the mosque … when Bengalis from the UK come in, they are very easy to lead. The jihadi recruiters are coming from London, from Germany, from the US.” No need for cunning disguise here – you just buy an air ticket. Because the bad guys (as governments, in different contexts, are continually warning us) are already in Europe.

The refugee crisis, unfolding each day in new and often ghastly permutations, is morally as well as practically challenging: it is not easy, and perhaps not possible, to reach a fully-rounded reaction to it yet. Any well-functioning human being wants to help and welcome the river of humanity that stretches from Syria into central Europe, of people rescued from the immolation of Syria where so many of them began their awful journey. Equally, there is fear mixed with that generosity. One after another, transit-countries have thrown up their hands helplessly, unable to deal with the vast moving column of refugees marching north and west. The Macedonian-Greek border, the Serbian-Hungarian border, the Serbian-Croatian border, the Austrian and German borders have been closed, not necessarily out of malice, as often just overwhelmed by the demands on small countries and small border villages. This is perfectly understandable. But there are many commentators and political actors who by their choice of vocabulary and imagery (not to mention the solutions that they propose) clearly intend to push the popular view not to careful reflection, but to xenophobic rejection.

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This growing xenophobia, sometimes legitimised by governments, everywhere in the background, is most visible at the moment in eastern Europe, though not absent from the west. The Czech Republic has become almost hilariously paranoid, with chimney-sweeps and foreign footballers mistaken for terrorists. Even in Germany it seems that the bulk of anti-refugee attacks take place in the old DDR rather than the BRD. At Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border masked Hungarian border guards fire tear-gas and water-cannon through the fences, shouting at the thousands of refugees – it would in other circumstances be almost funny –  “Go away.” As George Szirtes points out, this is aimed at domestic audiences: the Hungarian government has put up hundreds of billboards telling the refugees that they will not be allowed to take Hungarian jobs. These billboards are, naturally, in Hungarian, a language which not one in ten thousand Syrian refugees speaks. And yet it is essential that we not forget the Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks who swim bravely against this tide and question the callously nationalist sludge running down Europe’s gutters.

What is particularly disturbing is to watch governments across Europe treating the refugee crisis as a domestic political problem. Reactions are trimmed to the electoral winds in each country, rather than to the gale of humanity blowing out of the Levant. Fearful of the growing chauvinism of the right, whether from Jobbik or Pegida, UKIP or the FN, Europe’s governments are rowing back. Germany and Sweden have been honourable exceptions (Mrs Merkel was keen to show “Germany’s friendly, beautiful face”: but Germany has now closed its borders, and the river of humanity has frozen almost solid. By offering asylum to all Syrians and then shutting the door again, Germany seems actually to have significantly contributed to the awful knockback of human tragedy along the Balkan corridor).

The rhetoric is often small-minded, and deals with what we can allegedly afford, with the ‘austerity’ under which we live, the sheer numbers of refugees that would overwhelm us, the cultural threat to Christian Europe and – as I noted above – the risk of importing terrorists. By way of antidote to that I shall quote (at length because it is so very clear and good an expression of another, and better, way of looking at this whole problem) a letter from a newspaper last week, written by Paul Anderton of Newcastle-under-Lyme, about the welcome that Britain offered to Belgians in the autumn of 1914:

Estimates of 100,000 Belgians, mostly in family groups, and overwhelmingly coming in the three months of September to November 1914 were welcomed throughout Britain as victims of a war their government did not seek, and ours did little to avoid. They crossed the Channel by ferry and fishing boat, crowded into Folkestone, and were distributed out of holding camps in London by a volunteer War Refugees Committee headed initially by Lady Lugard and Viscount Gladstone.

These families were welcomed in towns and villages by a spontaneously formed scattering of committees which raised cash, found empty houses, organised brass bands to greet them at railway stations.

Newcastle-under-Lyme, prompted by the mayor, entertained more than 100 Belgians and raised over £2,000 before November 1915 to support them in groups managed by various church congregations.

Leek housed more than 50 refugees in three different properties by Christmas 1914 and silk-mill workers led a fund-raising scheme which made over £2,500 by May 1916.

Congleton was the first place in Cheshire to receive Belgian families, on Tuesday 8 September. Their reception was an occasion of great excitement, with two brass bands to conduct them from the railway station to their accommodation, with large crowds applauding in the streets. There is much to learn about handling a refugee crisis from a contrast between three places.

One very obvious observation is that in 1914 the government was slow and clumsy in its response to the flood of humanity. Churchill flatly rejected any idea of receiving them, and the Local Government Board had no part in distributing the families. This was done by volunteers. In fact, it was the charitable and humanitarian instincts of all sections of society that ensured that scores of thousands of families fleeing from a war zone were found shelter, food and clothing when most arrived with nothing. This episode is not quite forgotten as an aspect of the first world war, but too few lessons have been learned from it because it has never been given the attention it deserves.

The population of England and Wales in 1911 was about 36 million; of Scotland another 4.7 million. So 100,000 Belgian refugees represented some 0.24% of the UK’s population. The same proportion of today’s population, 63.4 million, would be 152,000. This is a trifle larger than the 20,000 – 0.03% of the population – that the British government currently proposes to receive; but much smaller than Mrs Merkel’s 800,000 who would constitute 0.1% of Germany’s people. (Last week’s EU quotas, small as they were, are in the range of 0.01% to 0.04%.) Then, as now, it was left to citizens rather than government to lead the effort and make the moral weather: “Churchill flatly rejected any idea of receiving them,” but Britain got on with it.

The local newspaper in our corner of north-west Essex reports that our Conservative-controlled District Council has debated the reception of migrants, and voted unanimously in favour “of playing a  full part in the housing and support of refugees seeking asylum in the UK.” As one councillor put it, “On the whole, Uttlesford is a very rich area and I would ask the working group to think about the resources available and the willingness of the people of Uttlesford to help and contribute, and I would like to see us go above and beyond what is simply our duty.” I am proud of them. No mention of who – of religion, gender, age – just unconditional openness, as “a compassionate community, to welcome desperate people and to give them sanctuary.”

That openness is vital. Most pictures of refugees are of children, families, the elderly and handicapped. The images that have particularly stirred Europe’s conscience have been of a dead child on a Turkish beach, or a Hungarian journalist tripping up an old man carrying a child, for camera. But in reality most refugees reaching the EU, and about 80% of those reaching Germany, are young men, aged 16-20, less picturesque and in some eyes more threatening. How we welcome them – the (as yet untested) Uttlesford way or the (all-too tested) Roszke way – will define the outcomes. They have very significant contributions to make to our European societies if we welcome them, give them the opportunity to work, study and remain. But if we don’t – if we make them feel excluded, despised, shut out from work, study and friendship – there will be bitterness. Irina Molodikova, an analyst from the CEU in Budapest, wrote recently that “Refugees are with us, and around us in the neighbouring countries. If we do not help them, we will marginalise them. And then – further down the line – they will follow those who promise them a better life and they will believe in it.”

Which, come to think of it, is what is happening to those young Bangladeshis “who don’t have a job or any prospects,” and are susceptible to the Pied Pipers of Bethnal Green, Cardiff and Luton. Europe must be very thoughtful, and judiciously (but generously) open-armed: there isn’t a practically, or morally, viable ‘No’ option.

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Education in North Africa

An essay of mine on education in North Africa since Independence, entitled The Sheepskin Effect, appeared in Critical Muslim no. 15, an issue devoted to Education Reform. It is part of an interesting collection, edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Jeremy Henzell-Thomas. Critical Muslim is published by the Muslim Institute and Hurst, and is an excellent quarterly review, which I thoroughly recommend. The Sheepskin Effect begins: 

“The kingdom of Libya became independent of Italy under King Idris in 1951. Just over a decade later, Algeria finally followed after its long war of independence with France in 1962. Between this period, the five countries of the southern Mediterranean coast each in different ways took control of their own futures. Amongst a sobering battery of challenges, one of the more pressing for all of them was education. A large proportion of colonial civil servants, businessmen, skilled workers and teachers left at Independence, especially from the francophone countries where settler colonialism was particularly dense. In Egypt the 1952 Revolution, followed by the Suez War and the expulsion of the mutamassirun, resident foreigners (Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians), had a similar effect, though Egyptian capacity was already far more developed than that of the Maghreb. In late Protectorate Morocco, for instance, there were three times as many French fonctionnaires as there were British civil servants in India, with its population forty times the size of Morocco’s – quite apart from a large European commercial and artisan classes. Each country faced an urgent need for skilled manpower to fill the vacuum. Each country’s educated local elite was both much too small, and mostly unsuited, to fill that need itself, and at the same time largely unequipped to train the next generation. Each government faced a pent-up demand for the social escalator that education represented, and from which the vast majority of the Muslim population had been excluded under French rule. Constructing a new education system was for each an urgent and absolutely crucial area of national development.”

Read more …

English Tangier – ‘Our little Town, and narrow lines’


Sitting in a hospital bed I have been consoled by an excellent new book, English Colonial Texts on Tangier, 1661-1684, by Karim Bejjit of Université Hassan II, Casablanca. If that sounds dry, blame only the title, because the book itself isn’t dry at all. Prof. Bejjit (and I admit an interest in both senses of the word, Karim being a friend; and I, fascinated by his subject) has collected a series of a dozen and a half contemporary pamphlets about Tangier under the English occupation, edited them into a chronological narrative and provided a very useful, long introduction. I have read the book at a sitting (a luxury perhaps best available to readers who are confined to a bed covered with tubes and sticky electrodes) and enjoyed every page. Both Professor Bejjit and his pamphleteers write, in their different ways, English prose more elegant and muscular than many of those who have come between.

In 1662 Charles II received the city of Tangier, along with the seven islands of Bombay, as part of the dowry of his Portuguese Queen, Catherine of Braganza. If we reflect on the extraordinary imprint that Bombay left on English culture, commerce, empire and history, it seems necessary to ask why Tangier did not have the same sort of impact. Bombay remained British, site of the symbolic Gateway to India, until 1947; and, now renamed Mumbai, is one of the great cities of the modern world, as well as India’s financial capital. Tangier remained in English hands only until 1683-84 when the garrison slighted the walls, blew up the harbour mole, and sailed away, leaving a much reduced Tanja to Moulay Ismail’s army, and a long sleep. Budgett Meakin, the editor of the Times of Morocco, wrote of the post-English period, “Since then its history has nothing worth recording, even as a pirate harbour, the only events of importance being the removal to it of the foreign consuls in 1770, and its bombardment in 1844 by the French.” One might add that it has been a place of exile and pleasure for Moroccans and Europeans, an arm’s-length holding-pen for the European diplomatic corps, an international jurisdiction, a rather tawdry haven for those in search of pleasures frowned upon in Europe, a bête noire for King Hassan II and only today – 331 years after the English left – perhaps the focus of a real economic take-off. The obvious question is, why?

The answer lies in a complicated intersection of English politics and a new, effective Moroccan dynasty which asserted itself in the later seventeenth century. While Charles leased Bombay to the East India Company for £10 year, he kept Tangier as a crown possession, and tried to develop it as a colony. Bombay, for all its ups and downs, was a strategic entrepôt which attracted trade and investment, and turned John Company a massive profit. Tangier, close though it was to Charles’s heart, was a drain on royal finances at a time when there were many other financial drains much closer to Whitehall. But more importantly, it fell victim to the deeply antagonistic politics of the 1670s and early 1680s, the struggle around the Exclusion Crisis and the Popish Plot, which made raising money from parliament very difficult indeed. The king certainly had the vision. As another author (Mrs Routh, in 1911) put it, Charles

saw in imagination a busy and prosperous city, the capital of a Moroccan Empire, possessing a harbour which, in the hands of English engineers, would make Tangier one of the best trading stations in the Mediterranean, and would help England to maintain that command of the sea which is they keystone of her power; a city attracting to its neighbourhood numbers of English settlers and merchants, who would create a growing trade in the interior of Morocco, and who would ultimately make the King’s African dominions a self-supporting colony and source of strength and wealth to the mother-country.


But he did not, in the end have the means, and the sums were huge: by 1683 Pepys estimated that Tangier had cost the crown £1.6 million. The structure was wrong – the constant lobbying of the Tangier merchants prevented the establishment of a Morocco Company which might have had the kind of incentives for investment that the EIC had in Bombay; and so the economic basis of English Tangier was never solidly built. What Prof Bejjit shows admirably is how the pressures of English politics made it quite impossible to raise the necessary funding through parliamentary grant. Just as the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail began to put serious military pressure on the Tangier colony in the late 1670s and early 1680s, it became definitively clear that the money needed to defend the colony was not going to be available. The vision was lacking in Parliament, and the granting of supply came to seem simply another prop to a catholicising authoritarianism. In the end the King decided to do without parliament altogether, surviving on grants from his brother-in-law Louis XIV, which did not stretch to underwriting colonial adventure. It was this all-consuming conflict with parliament, and its financial implications, that squeezed English Tangier off the bottom of the royal priority list. There is a splendid note in Grey’s Debates from October 1680 (quoted in Annabel Patterson’s Long Parliament of Charles II) which illustrates this beautifully:

On the day the Exclusion Bill had been left with the Lords, his Majesty had by Message demanded a Supply for Tangier, without which, it was urged, that Place could not much longer be preserved. There was some truth in this, and some fallacy, as there is generally in all demands of the like nature. Tangier was indeed in some distress, but the king was in more, and whatever was given in relief of the first, would also have contributed to relief of the last …

Parliament was not just posturing, though there was a fair bit of that too: Tangier must really have seemed quite dangerous. The Tangier Regiment, the second of foot (later known after the Tangier Governor Sir Percy Kirke as ‘Kirke’s Lambs’), was only the second permanent regiment established and funded after the Restoration, and memories of Cromwell’s New Model Army, along with the King’s catholic sympathies, and his brother the Duke of York’s catholicism, made a standing army – which is what the Tangier garrison was – a very hot potato. On top of this, many of the troops were catholic Irish (there is a telling moment in May 1680, when soldiers called from fort to fort in the outworks to co-ordinate their withdrawal to the city, and in order that the Moors in the siege trenches not understand, they “spake to us in Irish”). At least two governors of Tangier were catholic: Lord Belasyse (one of the five lords impeached during the ‘Popish Plot’) and John Fitzgerald (who had commanded a regiment of Irish exiles in the Spanish service), while another, Lord Peterborough, was dismissed the Council during the ‘Plot,’ and converted to Rome in 1687. The explosive nature of the cocktail is clear. Tangier had a symbolic value in the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle over religion, absolutism and a standing army which hobbled it from the start.

One of the pamphlets in this book, anonymously written, laments the decline of Anglican practice in the town, and the rise of Catholicism. “Too many have cast off all respects due to the God that hath made them, and mind nothing but Debauchery and Lewdness: other have hearkened to the sollicitations of some Popish Priests, and make profession of that Religion, that they might, by means of their Absolutions, enjoy their Vices and filthiness without remorse of Conscience.” The religious antagonisms of London ran through the Tangier garrison.

Maintaining Tangier in a military sense was an uphill struggle. In Lord Peterborough’s garrison “the Souldiers were eaten up of wants, cowed with their frequent misfortunes, possessed with an opinion the Moor was invincible,” and Lord Teviot, his successor had to undertake “the restoration of a body to strength, and to secure it from relapsing, after some emacerating disease has reduced it to sort of breathing skeleton …” Conditions continued hard, the garrison often at odds with the town, while “the Souldiers diet being salt Meat, disposes them in two or three years to inveterate ill habits of Body, Obstructions, Scurvies, Fluxes, etc.” Pay was frequently two years in arrears, rotations of duty virtually unknown, recruitment difficult. It a wonder the garrison put up the brave resistance they did to Moulay Ismail’s assaults in 1680.


What comes across very strongly from the pamphlets is that Tangier never ceased to be an alien implant in a strange land. Long gone the days of the previous century when English foremen worked on the sugar plantations of the Souss: these tangerine Englishmen were for the most part ignorant strangers. “As men fallen in love with their prison, nothing by them seemed as feared as enlargement,” wrote one chronicler of the early days of the occupation. And as another anonymous writer lamented sadly in 1679, “it is our unhappiness that we know not what is done amongst the Moors; we live in Tangier within the Walls and Lines, and unless we send a Flag of Truce for some pittiful business, we scarce see the face of a Moor in a years time, but at a distance … we have never sent any to understand their Country, to search into their strength and dependancies, to examine their Interest …” They had little idea what was going on in Morocco at a momentous time of shifting power, with the fast-consolidating sultanate of Moulay Ismail at Meknes replacing the fragmented statelets that had already given them enough trouble in the 1660s. Rare were those like Colonel Percy Kirke – he of the Lambs – who went on mission to Meknes and Fes in early 1681, made a good impression on the Sultan, and kept his eyes open while observing military exercises. Kirke noted that Ismail’s military strength, particularly in gunnery and siege-works, was provided not by Frenchman as was generally supposed, but by renegades; he understood the superiority of Moroccan horses and cavalry, but also the possibilities offered by their indiscipline. He did not, though, underestimate them: “Our Ranged Armies, keeping their Squadrons firm, and relieving their Charge with loose Parties, after their own manner, must take their ground from them, and so consequently be Masters of the Field; but however they are a very Vigorous and Valiant Enemy, their Discipline proportionable to the confused and difficult passages of this Country, observing their Ambuscades with the greatest cunning and patience Imaginable …” This was in marked contrast with Lord Henry Howard who, in 1669, in a fit of abject cowardice refused to leave Tangier at all, to proceed on his mission to Fes, because he feared for his life.

By the time Kirke led his mission to Meknes and Fes, the game was already over. A brisk campaign between March and May 1680, commanded by Qa’id Omar ben Haddu Hamami, rolled up the forts that the English had worked so hard to establish in forward positions to command the environs of the town. Renegades ran artillery and mines (“One of our Men belonging to Henrietta Fort is turn’d Moor, and made Master Gunner,” comments a diarist), and very effective deep trenching works were dug between the forts. A truce was made in mid-May, but it was clear that the remaining forts were indefensible and that, as the same diarist put it, “The Moors grow a formidable Enemy, being improved in all the Arts of War, as Mining, Sapeing, Scaling, and Battering.” Without a serious financial and military commitment, English Tangier was effectively lost: there was no such commitment, and the King, recognizing realities, ordering withdrawal and demolition. The main slighting and demolition was done in November 1683, and the last English ship sailed away the following spring. A rather half-hearted adventure was over.

It could have been different, though it is Morocco’s good fortune that it was not. Henry Sheres, the Surveyor-General of the Tangier Mole, was in no doubt of the city’s strategic potential, overlooking “the greatest Thorough-fare of Commerce in the World; having in one view almost the whole Sea comprehended between the Four Capes of Travalgar, Gibraltar, Spartel and Ceuta … so that no vessel can pass in or out of the Mediterranean, unobserv’d from thence.”  This strategic stranglehold on the Mediterranean would be increasingly essential to England’s naval power and commerce; but in the end, Gibraltar proved an easier stronghold from which England could dominate the Strait. It was captured in 1704, and ceded by treaty in 1713 – remaining British at least half a century longer than Bombay, a continuing post-colonial presence on that “greatest Thorough-fare,” and a potent factor in the history of Morocco.


The Jew of Carlisle again


After writing last week about William Mountsey’s Persian inscription at the Dwarfie Stane on Hoy, I came across a short and interesting booklet about him by Charlie Emett, called William Mounsey and the ‘Jew’ Stone (Giggleswick, 1990). It adds something to the story of Mounsey’s life, gives a little context for his family, and tells the story of the re-erection of the Jew Stone at Outhgill in 1989. (I assume in fact that most of the information in other sources comes from Mr Emett’s essay, so ‘add’ is simply a matter of the order in which I happened on them.)

Captain Mounsey (the author doesn’t bother with the assumed ‘Major’) was an intriguing man. His family was a prosperous one, its fortunes made in ecclesiastical law (for the diocese of Carlisle), legal work for several of the great landowners of Cumberland, political agency and the calico-printing which was booming at Carlisle in the late eighteenth century. Mounsey & Giles was a imagesleading Carlisle solicitor’s firm; Mounsey, Lawrie & Co. a leading calico-printer. On the strength of this, William Mounsey’s father, who took on the family businesses, bought Rockcliffe manor and built a large villa, Castletown House, while cannily managing the enclosure of much of Rockcliffe’s common land.

William, born in 1808, was destined to be a solicitor like his father, but first had a fairly undistinguished military career in Persia of which nothing significant is known at all, other than that during it he clearly learned Persian and Hebrew, and began his fascinated exploration of Jewish culture and history. He bought commissions in three regiments (ensign in the 30th Foot, lieutenant in 15th and Captain in the 4th, King’s Own). He sold his captaincy in 1844, perhaps on his father’s death, and returned to England.

Back in Carlisle, William took over the family firm and maintained his antiquarian and linguistic interests. He wrote at least one article, on mazes, for Notes and Queries, the leading forum for scholarly antiquarian research (today, sadly, given over almost entirely to literature, reflecting the disappearance of the learned amateur antiquarian like Mounsey). But the traces he has left are concrete, cut into the landscape he loved. He walked widely in Cumberland, and carved his name in a variety of languages. In the Eden gorge near Armathwaite he chiselled in 1855 a mischievously amended verse by Isaac Walton as well, perhaps, as a number of curious faces.  At St Constantine’s Cells, also on the Eden, he added in 1852 to existing Roman graffiti a ninth century Welsh verse meaning This leaf which is being persecuted by the wind, let her beware of her fate: she is old though only born this year, and a verse of his own in praise of Ituna, the Eden. His inscriptions were full of cryptic, sometime astrological references, and he had a imagespenchant for reversing letters, and frequently his own name, which often (as on Hoy) became YESNOUM SUMELILUG or (at Wetheral) MHW.

He also had an interest in the mazes cut by shepherds on the Solway marshes, of which there were three in his youth (the illustration above is said to be of one). In Notes and Queries he wrote that “the herdsmen at the present day are also in the habit of cutting labyrinthine figures which they also call ‘the walls of Troy,’” and related this to the Welsh Caerdroia, the word for a shepherds’ maze in Wales. Quite what they were for is debated, and shepherds may have cut them and perhaps danced them by Mounsey’s time simply because their fathers and grandfathers had. They are found across northern Germany and Sweden, and may have been used as a way of enticing and trapping evil spirits  by leading them noisily into the maze and then leaving them trapped at the centre. Mr Emett suggests that foreign sailors may have brought the original pattern, but in fact the Rockcliffe mazes are only three of the twenty-nine listed in Britain by W H Matthews in 1922, ten of them having ‘Troy’ in their names. I am interested by this, living as I do within a mile of another turf maze on the common at Saffron Walden, with a similarly intricate path-pattern designed only to lead from the edge to the centre.

But the focus of Mr Emmet’s essay is the Jew Stone. Mounsey, as I noted in my last, was clearly fascinated by Jewish culture and adopted a costume and beard based on Jewish practice, presumably as he had seen it amongst the Jews of Persia. We have to imagine his walking about the country heavily bearded and perhaps dressed in robes of some kind – hence his name, ‘the Jew of Carlisle.’ There certainly weren’t any local Jews there in the mid-nineteenth century from whom he could draw clues. And to judge whm2 (2)by his inscriptions, although he was interested by Kabbala and Jewish scholarship, he remained an orthodox, if rather florid, Anglican. The Jew Stone was cut and mounted in a lonely spot on Black Fell Moss. Seven feet high and covered in inscriptions, it must have been an odd thing to encounter near the source of the Eden – odd enough to provoke a bunch of navvies engaged in laying the Carlisle-Settle railway to smash it in 1870. Inscriptions in Greek and Latin were supplemented with a Star of David – Solomon’s Seal – and a triple T sigil symbolizing the Trinity. The Greek inscription reads Seek the river of the soul – whence it springs, whence thou hast served the body in a certain order – when thou hast acknowledged thy duty to the sacred scriptures – thou shalt be raised again to the order from which thou art fallen. Let us flee with the ships to our dear native land; for we have a country from which we have come and our Father is there.

In 1989 a group of local people in which Charlie Emett was a moving force worked with an Israeli called Shalom Hermon to replace the stone with a carefully made replica. Hermon had been an artillery officer with Jewish Brigade, training at Catterick in 1945 and intrigued by the Jew Stone marked on his Ordnance Survey map, but not to be found where marked. By the eighties a minister in the Israeli government, Hermon was able to help with fund-raising, and attended the inauguration of the new stone on Outhgill village green, where it should be safer from vandals.  A curiously interesting story, which leaves one wondering what else William Mounsey did, read and thought about – and where else he carved his name.


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