Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th April, 2017
A century ago, the shape of the modern Middle East was formed out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The behind-the-scenes power play by Britain and France that resulted in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the boundaries of their respective zones of influence. But also significant was the work done by the British explorer, archaeologist and spy, Gertrude Bell, who drew the borders of the modern state of Iraq. A contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, with whom she had a friendship spiced by intense personal rivalry, Bell left her mark in more ways than one, including founding the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and chivying, not always successfully, the British government to, run its Middle Eastern League of Nations mandates according to her priorities. There have been several books about Gertrude Bell, but none gives such a vivid picture of her as the new documentary film by Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, Letters from Baghdad. Their approach is quite daring, reflecting its subject’s forthright personality, as it largely comprises archive footage that the film-makers found in 25 separate locations, as well as black-and-white photos taken by Bell herself. The streets of Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo and other places 100 years ago are so successfully brought alive that one is transported back in time, as well as place.
The commentary is drawn from the subject’s letters and diaries, supplemented by those of some of the people who encountered her. The actor Tilda Swinton provides Bell’s voice, while other actors impersonate key characters, filmed as if giving live interviews. This is truly history reincarnated before our eyes. The film does not hide the complexities, even difficulties, in Gertrude Bell’s character. She was driven by what she believed to be right, and she could be both churlish and offensive towards those who disagreed with her, or struck her as superficial. She was as brave as any man, and the Arabs treated her respectfully as if she were one, yet she also had a colossal wardrobe of clothes, one reason for T. E. Lawrence’s sneering disapproval. She would not have been an easy woman to have as a friend, but one would have had to admire her energy, even if she herself became increasingly disillusioned with life by the end, dying from an overdose (accidental or otherwise) of sleeping pills. This film does her an immense service, as well as underlining Britain’s role in shaping, for better or for worse, the modern, conflict-riven Middle East. It’s a “must see” for anyone with even the slightest interest in the region, but it should appeal also to anyone who relishes accounts of extraordinary individuals.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Baghdad, Gertrude Bell, Iraq, Sabine Krayenbuhl, Sykes-Picot Agreement, T. E. Lawrence, Tilda Swinton, Zeva Oelbaum | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th September, 2015
Yesterday, along with tens of thousands of others, including a sizable Liberal Democrat contingent with leader Tim Farron, I took part in the London march in support of refugees. But in the evening I facilitated a discussion with the Lewisham local party on what can and should be done about the current refugee and migrant crisis. Britain has an historic responsibility regarding Iraq and Syria, not only because Tony Blair joined George W. Bush in ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003 and dismantling Iraq’s predominantly Sunni security fores but also because of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret Anglo-French deal of 1916 that carved up the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire to serve the colonial interests of London and Paris. That is also why Britain should be at the forefront of pressing for a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as Palestine was part of the British Mandate in the Middle East.
However, in my presentation last night I emphasized how we need to work with our EU partners to respond to the current massive increase in refugees, including guaranteeing safe routes into Europe. David Cameron ought to have joined Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande in launching an EU strategy instead of sitting on the sidelines and only coming up with a still rather vague timetable for Britain’s taking Syrian refugees from camps in the Middle East. I deplored the Conservative government’s ongoing closeness to the Saudi regime, which not only has an appalling human rights record but also is partly responsible for Islamist extremism and the growth of groups such as ISIS as Saudi has exported its own fundamentalist interpretation of Islam as expounded by Muhammed bin And Al Wahhab in the late 18th century. The Saudi intervention in Yemen, as well as devastating that already impoverished country is further destabiising the region. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, the US and the EU all need to be involved in some sort of peace conference, preferably sponsored by the United Nations, that could negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war. But given such developments as the rise of ISIS and the Kurds growing demand for an independent homeland I do believe we are witnessing the unravelling of the borders as set down by Sykes-Picot and that that is not necessarily a bad thing given their arbitrary nature.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Francois Hollande, Iraq, ISIS, Israel, Kurds, Middle East, Palestine, refugees, Saudi Arabia, Sykes-Picot Agreement, Syria, Tim Farron | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th August, 2014
The tectonic plates of the Middle East are shifting. This is maybe not surprising, given the artificial boundaries imposed on the region by the British and French following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. In fact, it’s quite surprising that carve-up envisaged by the Sykes-Picot Agreement has lasted as long as it has. The Islamic State, as ISIS has rebranded itself, sees its putative caliphate rubbing out borders like chalk lines on a blackboard. Iraq as a whole is falling apart, to an extent as a result of George W Bush and Tony Blair’s immoral war, but also because of the sectarianism and incompetence of the outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The one bright spot on the horizon is the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has brought remarkable prosperity and stability to North-East Iraq, as well as providing a safe haven for refugees from other parts of the region. But in recent days, Kurdistan (KRG) has been under threat from ISIS and has called for weapons from the West, to help defend itself. Kurdistan deserves to be protected, and indeed to move swiftly to full independence, if that is what it wants. It had long been assumed that Turkey would oppose an independent Kurdistan, because of its own restless Kurdish minority, but that is no longer the case. So we may well see an independent Kurdistan take its seat at the United Nations in the not too distant future. And other changes to the map of the Middle East will surely follow.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: George W Bush, Iraq, ISIS, Islamic State, Kurdistan, Nouri Al-Maliki, Ottoman Empire, Sykes-Picot Agreement, Tony Blair | 1 Comment »