The brittle world the Arabs built, then destroyed

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

Much has been written about the Arab uprisings, and the great unraveling of states and societies that ensued in their wake. Scholars looked for precedents in other regions and epochs to compare and contrast. Historians focused on the nature of the fractured modern Arab states and their inherently questionable political legitimacy. Sociologists and demographers searched for long term trends to gauge the changing dynamics between urban and rural communities, the persistence of ethnic, sectarian and tribal loyalties, as well as modes of mobility, social and cultural empowerment and marginalization of certain social strata either because of poor education or subtle and unsubtle discrimination. And economists analyzed the structural deficiencies of the rentier state, and the impact of income disparity, rampant corruption and stagnation.

When the definitive history or histories of these turbulent times of unwinding and disintegration are written, they will likely avoid using one Meta narrative to explain the colossal collapse of whole societies in real time into total anarchy and unfathomable violence and wanton destruction, that many a times were live-streamed and captured in high definition videos documenting how the Arabs and other communities that lived among them, with a helping hand from their neighbors and powers beyond the seas, were destroying the brittle world they have built. But much of what was written by scholars was reductionist, bland or lacking in insights as to what makes individuals and groups behave the way they do in seemingly apocalyptic times. And somehow in these narratives the economic data and charts, the nature of the despotic state and the changing demographic and societal dynamics, failed to go beyond providing a superficial, incomplete explanation.

Years from now, we will most likely get a better insight into what the Arabs did to themselves, or what happened to them during their collective fateful crossing into a purgatory like universe from which there is no return

Hisham Melhem

Six chronicles of a death foretold

Years from now, we will most likely get a better insight into what the Arabs did to themselves, or what happened to them during their collective fateful crossing into a purgatory like universe from which there is no return, by reading the great novels chronicling the journey, or by the first accounts of the witnesses watching the tragedy and the actors living in it, as conveyed to us by insightful journalists, whose front row seats allow them to smell the stench of death, to hear the cries of victims and to observe real men and women oscillating between hope and despair.

In the current issue of the New York Times Magazine, the gifted journalist Scott Anderson gives us a heart wrenching account of the unraveling through the piercing eyes of six disparate characters from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, who went through the upheavals, and were scarred by them but lived to tell their tales of woes, despair and hope that they experienced during their physical and psychological crossings. In the long article, (I almost said novella) titled “Fractured lands: how the Arab world came apart”, Anderson’s characters, like all complex and tragic characters that inhabit the truly great novels of the 19th and 20th centuries convey in various degrees of eloquence and bluntness a tragic and visceral sense of their worlds, and they ended up giving us six narratives that complement each other’s, even though the characters never met personally.

Two warriors and two activists

We first meet the gruff Dr. Azar Mirkhan, a Kurdish medical doctor and a Peshmerga warrior who is obsessed with Kurdish independence and total separation from the Arabs of Iraq whom he sees as the implacable enemies of the Kurds. Dr. Mirkhan fought the Iraqi army as well as ISIS. He conveys a sense of guilt because he did not arrive on time to help the Yezidi Kurds living on mount Sinjar who were massacred by ISIS in the summer of 2014. Then we are introduced to Professor of mathematics, Laila Soueif, the strong wiled matriarch of a prominent Egyptian dissident family,whose struggle for democracy and dignity mirrors that of Egypt. Laila Soueif’s husband Ahmed, her son Alaa, and daughter Sanaa were imprisoned and tortured under the various autocratic regimes that ruled Egypt in recent years. In one of the most poignant passages in the article, Ahmed the famed human rights lawyer told his defendant son in court, “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son, but instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”

In Libya, we encounter a young military cadet named Majdi el-Mangoush who fought in the rebellion against Muammar el-Qaddafi and lost dear friends, but refused to lose hope even while Libya continues its descent to chaos. He continues his studies, while cherishing his solitude as a former warrior in a Pine ‘forest’ he planted in the desert.

We then witness the incredible evolution of a young shy Iraqi women Khulood al-Zaidi, into a determined advocate for women’s rights in the provincial city of Kut, before the Shiite extremists drove her out of town and into exile in Jordan. From Jordan her journey led her to temporary residence in California, then back to Jordan to save her family, and finally, through the torturous watery passage across the Mediterranean to Greece before settling first in Germany then Austria. For Anderson, Khulood exemplify “the extraordinary power of the individual to bring change” to chaotic societies. But, alas there is a painful paradox here ”It is people like Khulood who must see to the mending of these fractured lands. Yet, it is those very people, the best their nations have to offer, who are leaving in search of a better life elsewhere. Today, Austria’s gain is Iraq’s loss.”

The Syrian exile and the condemned Iraqi

Through the eyes of a young Syrian student Majd Ibrahim, we see the gradual destruction of one of Syria’s ancient cities, Homs, and the depredations of both the Assad regime and some of the opposition groups. Ibrahim also went through his psychological and physical passages and ironically ended up living in Dresden, Germany, the city that was destroyed by the Allies during WWII, the same city that comes to mind when one is confronted by the destruction that has been visited on Homs. Finally, Anderson bring us to meet an unlikely character, Wakaz Hassan, a young Iraqi, who already crossed into the heart of darkness when he joined ISIS, before escaping their clutches to end up in a crowded jail in Iraqi Kurdistan. Wakaz, matter-of-factly described how he executed six blindfolded and handcuffed men, as he was ordered by ISIS. Wakaz’s life maybe the most precarious, because when he loses his usefulness as a source of intelligence on ISIS to his Kurdish captors, he will be handed to Iraqi authorities for execution.

The beginning of the unraveling

Anderson correctly traces the beginning of the unraveling to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. (One can even go back to 1980 when the calamitous Iraqi invasion of Iran began and lasted 8 years, then lead to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which in turn hastened the American invasion of Iraq). Anderson, rarely speaks directly, leaving that mission to his characters, but when he does, his observations are profound and jarring. “In my professional travels over the decades, I had found no other region to rival the Arab world in its utter stagnation.” He then focuses on the entrenched culture of grievances. “One of the Arab world’s most prominent and debilitating features, I had long felt, was a culture of grievance that was defined less by what people aspired to than by what they opposed. They were anti-Zionist, anti-West, anti-imperialist.”

In his attempt to answer what went wrong, Anderson avoids providing “a single answer.” But he observes that the three countries that have disintegrated the most, “as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century.” While the lack of “national coherence” is a factor in the unraveling, one could say that if good, accountable governance was created, the outcome might have been different. In other words, the problem was not necessarily or exclusively in the artificial boundaries and weak national coherence, but precisely in what happened and did not happen within these boundaries that led to the great unraveling.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.