We had just finished a meal of lamb, rice and tabbouleh. My host, an intellectual and fluent in several languages, was talking about the Middle East. He was a Kurd and Syrian.
"A French general put his foot on the grave of Saladin and said, ‘Saladin, we have returned.’"
He spit the words out. His face flushed, and he hit the table so hard with his fist that the dishes rattled. His wife seemed a bit uncomfortable with his sudden emotion. I was surprised. The incident that made him furious even to tell it had happened before he was born.
He was talking about the great betrayal at the end of World War I. The Arabs had been promised an independent country if they fought the Turks. It was a lie. The British and French negotiated a secret agreement that divided up the Middle East between them. France got Syria and, by chopping off the mountainous, coastal region, created Lebanon, just as the British created Jordan by severing Palestine east of the Jordan River.
Saladin was a Kurd, born in Tikrit, where Saddam Hussein was born. Saladin whipped the Crusaders and drove them out of Jerusalem.
The point of this story is that nothing is as simple in the Middle East as it appears to be to the president and his neoconservative ideologues. Lebanon remains part of Syria in the minds of many Syrians and, indeed, in the minds of some Lebanese. It’s no big deal for France to join the United States in calling for a Syrian withdrawal. France is not popular in either Syria or Lebanon. The president of Syria has taken no public notice of the president’s demands. He is not, as it has been erroneously reported in some outlets at this writing, withdrawing the troops from Lebanon. He is redeploying them along the border on the Lebanese side.
The situation is not, as the president pretends, a foreign army occupying a sovereign nation against its will. It is more like cousins who were invited for a visit and have stayed perhaps longer than all of their hosts would like. The real occupations by foreigners are the United States in Iraq and Israel in the Golan Heights and the West Bank.
But even if Syria decides to withdraw, that won’t end Syrian influence. Lebanon has many factions. There are the Druze, the Maronite Christians, the Eastern Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Palestinian refugees. They were embroiled in a terrible civil war in the 1970s, and it was the Syrians, invited in, who finally brought it to a halt.
If the president were not drunk on imperialism and so eager to accept what the Israelis whisper in his ears, he would get us out of the Middle East and leave the terrorists to the CIA and the Special Operations forces. As my friend illustrated, people of that part of the world remember things differently than we do in the West. For most of us, the past is no more than a story we read in a book. For them, it remains a part of their present. Nor do they think of time in the same way we do in the West. Forty or 50 years to them is not too late to get vengeance. If the president keeps blundering about in that part of the world, he’s going to end up with more war than he can handle.
The latest administration talking point that is worming its way into what is fondly called the news media is that democracy is breaking out all over the Middle East. The people in the Middle East have been having elections for decades. The president conveniently forgot that Yasser Arafat was elected in a free and fair election. The trouble is, the results of elections don’t last very long. There is no reason to believe the Iraqi elections will be any different.
The Middle East is full of ruins left by past superpowers. As a Palestinian friend of mine likes to say, pointing to those ruins: "They are all gone. We are still here."