Edited by Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson, Shifting Sands: The Unravelling of the Old Order in the Middle East seeks to trace the genealogy of “contemporary crises” in the Middle East by charting a historical trajectory from the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement to the present. While the essays that make up the volume are divided by one eye on the past redrawing of the Middle East from World War One and another eye towards the problematic present, the “contemporary crises” to which the book alludes are quite divergent, spanning various nations and issues – from ISIS in Syria to sectarianism in Iraq, to the aftershocks of Egypt’s Arab Spring – so that the focus of the book’s trajectory as a whole ends up out of focus.
“How did the Arab Spring morph into an Arab nightmare, out of which we seem not to be able to awaken?” asks Khaled Fahmy in “Opening Politics’ Black Box: Reflections on the Past, Present and Future of the Egyptian Revolution”. The question is at the core of the volume of essays, which tackle crises engulfing the region today – repression, religious bigotry and civil war – after a brief inspirational period that saw resistance topple entrenched regimes in 2011. But for all the references to the Arab Spring in the book, whether as inspirational touchstone or simply the period that preceded or animated today’s crises, the essays focus predominantly on the Middle East (with the exception of Fahmy’s) rather than North Africa where the Arab Spring was ignited and actually succeeded in toppling regimes.
However, taken individually, some of the essays provide a fascinating insight into the present cumulative effect of Sykes-Picot, which is rendered vividly: British politician Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot hunker over a map and “draw a line in the sand, ‘from the “e” of Acre [Palestine] to the last “k” in Kirkuk [Iraq]’, dividing much of the region – particularly the Arab lands of the dying Ottoman Empire – into French and British spheres of influence.”
The ensuing secret agreement wreaked havoc on the “political geography of the Middle East”. According to historian Avi Shlaim, it animated what he calls “post-Ottoman syndrome” (which is the title of his essay) in the Middle East, constituting “ruptures in identity… and new assertions of local and national identity” that have created “turmoil, instability and a deficit of rights for the peoples of the region”. However, as the book asserts continually, the traces of the lines drawn in the sand a century ago are still tangible today, as the misguided attempt by ISIS to declare a new caliphate by “erasing” the border drawn by Sykes-Picot between Syria and Iraq reveals. As Dawn Chatty’s essay sums up, though, local identities that preceded Sykes-Picot are one mode of resilience: “in multi-ethnic Syria communities continue to cohere and find resilience in older, local identities.” Moreover, she discusses the possibility of Bedouin tribes and Kurds as major players and argues: “The lines drawn on the map of the Levant by Sir Mark Sykes may no longer hold, but the pre-existing social and cultural groups of the Levant with their multitude of ethno-religious belongings will remain.”
The most memorable and astute essays focus on a single topic rather than sweep broadly through history, like Justin Marozzi’s “A Long View from Baghdad”, which explores the Shia-phobia behind Iraq’s — and the Middle East’s — faultlines and asserts that the current sectarian tensions rending Iraq have been continuous since Baghdad’s founding in the 8th century. He also points out that this was understood by the Ottomans during their rule when they had wisely administered the place as three provinces before the British arrived in 1917. He states wryly that, despite this, “The British, in their wisdom, decided to throw them all together and create the new state of Iraq.” More intriguing, he provides insight into the anti-Shiism that pervades the consciousness of average Iraqis:
It is a fact that Shia rule in Iraq remains unacceptable today to many Sunnis — and vice versa. There is no shortage of Sunni aristocrats, including highly educated friends of mine… who flatly deny that the Shia are a majority in Iraq. Some Sunnis I have spoken to see the Shia as peasants, barbarians, uneducated, illiterate, unfit to be the natural rulers of Iraq. They describe them in terms better excluded from these pages. It is an extreme view, certainly, but it is surprisingly widely held.
Marozzi stresses that although peaceful coexistence has been the norm for much of Iraq’s history, communities experienced a sharp polarisation in the redrawn “sectarian map of Baghdad,” post-invasion.
In “Defying the Killers: The Emergence of Street Culture in Syria”, Malu Halasu discusses Syrians’ mediatisation of their uprising and “cultural revolution” in accompaniment to a political uprising (“the revolution within the revolution”). Ordinary Syrians documented the uprising through street art, cartoons, posters, videos, comic strips and rap, rendering an immediate democratisation of the arts and general cultural production.
While the book’s introduction acknowledges that “hope may seem a scant commodity in today’s crisis-ridden landscape” of bigotry, repression and war, the creativity behind the uprisings, from Syria to Egypt, still offers flashes of inspiration and hope that resilience is still possible.