The history of Germany and the Arabs during World War I permits several observations. On the one hand, the Germans and Ottomans realized increasingly during 1915–16 the importance of the Arab leaders in Arabia, especially the sharif of Mecca, but neither Berlin nor Istanbul seemed able to grasp the full significance of such leaders for the pan-Islamic campaign. Except for the Ottoman persecution of Arab nationalists in Syria, neither the Germans nor the Ottomans officially acknowledged Arab nationalism or aspirations for independence. For Germany, this was hardly a surprise. How could it recognize the demands for sovereignty of Arabs in the Ottoman Empire and not those of the Slavs in Austria-Hungary? Furthermore, national self-determination was not a policy that fitted with the xenophobic war aims of the German government, military and other elements of society, including industry and the professoriate.
On the other hand, neither the Arab–Ottoman hostility nor the British negotiations with the Arabs, much of which the Germans knew about, precluded attempts by Berlin to address the Arab question. But three factors severely limited such efforts, resulting in the failure of Germany to produce a coherent and effective Arab policy. There were not only disagreements among the German leadership over how to deal with the Arabs but there was also the persistence of the German view that Arabia should serve Germany as a base for its political and military expansion into Africa and Asia; there was moreover the lack of material resources and knowledge to match Germany’s imperial and other objectives. Consequently, with few exceptions, Germany found itself perpetually deferring on Arab policy to its Ottoman ally which, for other reasons, refused to conciliate the Arabs until it was much too late.
Meet Baron Max von Oppenheim. Archaeologist, diplomat, political agitator, spy. Head of the German Intelligence Bureau for the East during the Great War. Involved in German attempts to subvert British imperial ‘possessions’ throughout Northern Africa, the Near East, India and Afghanistan by encouraging rebellion and manipulating Islamic religious opposition to British rule.
And now meet James Pearson, my grandfather on my father’s side. Born and raised in Preston, Lancashire, his father’s signature on his birth certificate is a simple ‘X’. Profession: Weaver. In 1914, he joined up with the 42nd East Lancashire Regiment, I think in the Lancashire Fusiliers, serving primarily in Egypt and then Palestine. After the war, in the 1920s, Jim Pearson emigrated to Canada, finding himself in the very young city of Vancouver, on the outskirts of Empire.
Two European men, from opposite sides of the Great War, from social positions that could hardly be more divided socially and economically. One a boy born in a dirt-floored Preston house combined with a barn, the other an aristocrat born to social and economic privilege. One a soldier moving according to the whims of players with influence and decision-making capability. The other, one of those players.
* * *
In 1978, the prominent Palestinian academic Edward Said published his now famous book Orientalism, in which he investigates the development of Western attitudes towards the ‘Orient’ in politics, culture and education. Focussed primarily upon the nineteenth century in the first half of the book, in the second on the twentieth, Said takes a snapshot of a process that is both ancient and on-going:
Once we begin to think of Orientalism as a kind of Western projection onto and will to govern over the Orient, we will encounter few surprises… During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Orientalists became a more serious quantity, because by then the reaches of imaginative and actual geography had shrunk, because the Oriental–European relationship was determined by an unstoppable European expansion in search of markets, resources, and colonies, and finally, because Orientalism had accomplished its self-metamorphosis from a scholarly discourse to an imperial institution.
(Said, Orientalism, p. 95)
When I first read this passage, I was struck by Said’s emphasis on the role of imagination in producing a cultural logic that was fundamental to what became something brutally real. In this regard, Said’s analysis is similar to the work of such thinkers such as Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari, whose descriptive approach to the political emphasizes, especially for Foucault, the genealogy of concepts and their accompanying practises (while Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of societal patterns as shared delusions has a similar structure).
* * *
I’ve been doing some work to try to trace my grandfather’s place within the Division, especially trying to figure out where he served. We know that he was in Egypt—I grew up on stories of his exploits in recently-abandoned archaeological digs amongst pyramids, of his passing marmalade-tin labels as money to unsuspecting villagers new to British currency, and fighting near the Suez after Gurkhas had caused terror in the Ottoman camp during the previous night, killing every second sleeping soldier in their tents.
But, if he joined up in 1914, then this likely means that he was with the 42nd when it went to Gallipoli in 1915. There are no stories about this that have been handed down. The 42nd East Lancashire lost nearly two thirds of its force during this campaign.
It was only in the last couple of years that I discovered that he had been amongst the British forces fighting their way through the Sinai, and eventually entering Palestine. According to military records, his division was re-deployed to the Western Front during 1917, but there was never a hint in his stories of involvement in this theatre, so we’re fairly convinced that something happened that allowed him to return home from Egypt, rather than join the rest of his division in France. However, given his silence regarding Gallipoli, it may be that we are never certain on this, either.
It was also in recent years that I discovered how the violence that he had experienced as a young man dogged him through his parenting. Waking him was a dangerous affair. Violation of curfew saw my dad flying down the hallway. A history of violence was working its way forward.
* * *
At the end of March 1915, the Germans expressed their concerns about the Arab question to the Ottoman war minister, Enver Pasha. Almost simultaneously, Berlin decided to reorganize and intensify German propaganda in the Ottoman Empire. It sent to Istanbul Baron Max von Oppenheim, the pre-war German archaeologist-spy in the Orient and head of the foreign ministry’s holy war campaign. On his arrival in Turkey, Oppenheim added an element of nationalism to the holy war propaganda. Although he had no directives from his superiors in Berlin to do so, he nevertheless made inflammatory speeches in mosques approving the massacres by the Turks of the Armenians.This, and his advocacy of the reform of Islam introducing European elements, not only confused many Turks who listened to him, but it must also have done nothing to attract Arabs, especially those with nationalist leanings.
(McKale, p. 239)
Next year marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of hostilities in the Great War. To most of us, this will seem like ancient history—events whose only relevance could be to obtain a mark on a history exam, or as a part of a family genealogy, perhaps. But we are still reaping the rewards of this conflict, and the new world order that it was a part of spawning.
The clashing of empires in what we would eventually call the Middle East demonstrated not just callous disregard for the desires of the people in the region, but, concomitantly, the complete misunderstanding of the cultures of those peoples. European interest in the region was multi-faceted, but entirely Orientalist:
Every [Orientalist] kept intact the separateness of the Orient, its eccentricity, its backwardness, its silent indifference, its feminine penetrability, its supine malleability; this is why every writer on the Orient…saw [it] as a locale requiring western attention, reconstruction, even redemption. The Orient existed as a place isolated from the mainstream of European progress in the sciences, arts, and commerce.
(Edward Said, Orientalism, p. 206)
The semi-mythic importance of the lands and peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean for the biblical heritage that had been grafted into the Roman experience only became more pronounced with the Islamic conquests from the seventh century onwards. The Crusades were, in part, a species of Orientalist tourism. The cultural Orientalism of European and European-derived culture has always been coupled with economic, military and political treatment of this arena.
This has not changed in the century since the great empires of the nineteenth century, yet again, used the peoples of this region as pawns. Unfortunately, the West’s woeful ignorance, or unwillingness to realign our understanding, of the history and cultures of this region means that the Orientalist attitudes of the previous two centuries have barely been affected since. We simply won’t be able to sustain such attitudes in the next century, without bringing enormous harm—more so even than the disastrous wars of the past two decades.
* * *
In 2001, Mike Pearson (no relation) and Michael Shanks published a book that I have since dipped in and out of repeatedly for different projects and classes. It’s one of those books that can’t satisfy anyone in the first instance, because its conceptual structure disturbs one’s understanding of both areas of its purview. The book is called Theatre/Archaeology, and its authors are a performance artist and post-processual archaeologist, respectively. The book is a beautiful, poetic treatment both of archaeology and of theatre, as well as of a sort of conceptual nexus between the two. Archaeology is seen as a kind of appropriation of a concept of the past—a performance of a script made up of the entire conceptual fabric of this process of appropriation. Archaeology, from Pearson and Shank’s perspective, can function as an imperial or colonial tool, unsurprisingly similar to Said’s construction of ‘Orientalism’, given the origin of archaeology within the professoriate of the great imperial powers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
As they state:
Perhaps then it is only in landscapes [that are] places of contest, where claims and counter-claims have long been made, where issues of land and language constantly rub against each other, where we can, and indeed must, create work which has none of the dogmatism of the theatrical performance, of architectonics and that distanced aesthetic—framed up, laid out for our pictorial inspection and approval. So that the very inauthenticity of the performance allows room for manoeuvre, allows stances, of ownership, identity and interpretation, to be confirmed, challenged, confounded at the same time.
(Pearson and Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology, p. 146)
Pearson and Shanks later talk about what an archaeology might be, the second part of which is relevant to this investigation of Oppenheimer—Orientalist—and my grandfather—accidental Orientalist:
…archaeology might provide some sort of orientation, something to inform the reading: directions, a map. In that these direct movement around the site, then they could demand an energetic engagement with the site; they may come to resemble choreographic scores or diagrams… it could delineate unusual trajectories of movement—straight lines, circles, arc, traversing the site—revealing unexpected viewpoints, demanding altered stances and body engagements, all serving to defamiliarise the visitor, inviting her to look afresh at detail and at a prospect and to sense the place… [The visitor] wants to put a past onto the phenomenological experience of being present: she needs quite simply a deep map. So if we map, it is not as some banal planning or recording of the ruined structures.
(Pearson and Shanks, p. 158)
We are in a remarkably precarious position, globally, with regard to the histories, cultures, and religions that have given birth to the ‘modern’ world. We are globally reaping the continued history of violence in a way that extends the metaphor of my grandfather’s fist to entire populations.
I believe strongly in the function of understanding in conflict resolution and solution-finding. Unfortunately, bullets and bombs are all too immediately understandable, which tricks us into thinking that we see why, when, really, we have only seen what. From the standpoint of culture, the West has historically anti-understood the ‘East’. Like my grandfather, we are accidental Orientalists, ignorantly continuing a history of blindness.
Our construction of ‘deep maps’ of the past’s interaction with the ‘phenomenological experience of being present’ is an activity of the utmost importance in dispelling that ignorance, and in revealing new details, new prospects: ‘So if we map, it is not as some banal planning or recording of the ruined structures’.