Saturday, August 13, 2011

Reviews of A Line In The Sand

All the reviews of my new book, A Line In The Sand, can be found here on my website.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My next book comes out on 4 August, and I have set up a website where you can read the first chapter and find out when I am next speaking:

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Featured on Reuters

I did an interview for Reuters Insider a few weeks ago.

Here is the full programme it was used for.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Assad - not a reformer, or not in control

I've never met him. But when I first visited Syria in 2002. not long after he took power, it was always said that he was a reformer surrounded by hardliners. I did meet Al-Sharaa, his foreign minister, whose erm, 'sneer of cold command' inclined me to believe this.

Today people are still saying Assad is a reformer surrounded by hard-liners.

But the facts show that either he is not a reformer, or he is not in charge.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Two views of Assad

These two contrasting articles on Syria are very interesting.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Joblessness + Phone ownership = Unrest?

Here is an interesting graph I pulled together in the course of a project I am working on. It uses data from the World Bank (for the phone subscriptions data) and the ILO and others for youth unemployment. It plots youth unemployment rates against mobile phone ownership (subscriptions per 100 people). Countries above the line have disproportionately high mobile phone ownership given their rate of unemployment: in other words their people are both jobless and well-connected: to one another and the outside world (A recent survey showed that 45% of people in the Middle East use their phones to access the internet).

Monday, February 21, 2011

When God Made Hell

My review of Charles Townshend's When God Made Hell, published in the February issue of The London Magazine

When God Made Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq, 1914-18, by Charles Townshend

Faber, £25, 591pp.

Serial inquiries into Britain’s embroilment in Iraq are nothing new, as Charles Townshend’s latest book reminds us. After a British force besieged at Kut, on the river Tigris, was forced to capitulate in 1916, the government was pressured into holding two inquiries.

The first was supposed to be a small-scale investigation of the lack of medical facilities available to the wounded during the expedition, which had been sanctioned by the government of India. But when the two men appointed to this task concluded that the appalling casualty clearing procedures were due to the fact that the force’s entire organisation was ‘manifestly inadequate’, the government felt obliged to sanction another, broader inquest.

The resulting Mesopotamia Commission, like the Chilcot Inquiry today, comprised a panel of five with a similarly wide-ranging brief. Charged with examining ‘the origin, inception and conduct of operations of war in Mesopotamia,’ it produced an excoriating report that blamed the government of India for failing to send properly trained or equipped troops, and for strangling military operations with ‘Gilbertian’ bureaucracy. Although the Delhi government had behaved as if it were an independent state, it was ultimately answerable to the India Office in London. There, the secretary of state for India, Austen Chamberlain accepted responsibility. Having described the report as ‘the saddest and most appalling document’ that he had ever read, he resigned.

Agreeably, Townshend leaves the reader to compare such conduct with that of more recent politicians in his book, which is the first major work on the Mesopotamian campaign since Arthur Barker’s A Neglected War of 1967. Despite his subtitle, only in the final ninety pages does Townshend gallop through the fascinating post-war consequences. Perhaps this explains why, after he credits his editor for the idea behind the book, he says he fears that the result does ‘not quite match’ his publisher’s original vision. But even so, he plaits politics, war and the voices of soldiers on the ground to make a fascinating book.

The story begins in 1914 when the government of India sent troops up the Persian Gulf following the outbreak of the First World War, but before the Ottomans joined in on the Germans’ side. Townshend rejects the traditional view that the reason why it did so was to secure Britain’s oil installations in Persia. Rather, he argues, it was British officials’ determination to impress the Arabs that encouraged them to weigh in, particularly when the Ottoman sultan commanded his reluctant Arab subjects to join a jihad against his enemies.

After the Ottomans declared war, the British landed in what is now Iraq, and the ease with which they captured Basra whetted their appetite for more. It was ‘difficult to see how we can well avoid taking over Bagdad’, said Sir Percy Cox, a political officer with the British force. ‘The very glamour attaching to so historic a city is in itself a temptation,’ admitted another official in the India Office.

The lure proved irresistible. At the end of 1914 Britain’s senior general in Mesopotamia, Sir John Nixon, charged a subordinate, Sir Charles Townshend, with capturing Baghdad. Townshend, to whom the author does not think he is related, was a keen student of military history, who once remarked that it was “always fatal in history if political reasons are allowed to interfere with military reasons.” Although, as this book demonstrates, the politics and war are never separate, events in Mesopotamia were to prove him right.

Once General Townshend had advanced far enough up the Tigris to secure the oil pipeline from neighbouring Persia, there was no military requirement for capturing Baghdad; the pressure was political. By then it was obvious that the Gallipoli landings had failed, and Arab loyalties continued to look uncertain. Keen for a victory that would restore British prestige, Nixon ignored warnings that more river transport and reinforcements were needed, arguing that Townshend should start immediately for Baghdad because the Turks were still tied up in the Dardanelles.

The British badly underestimated their opponents, the weather, and the logistics they would require. The Ottoman Army looked as if it would be a pushover – one of its officers complained that his soldiers had “bayonets tied on with string instead of belts” – but its men were sturdy masters of defence. The weather veered from spring deluge to summer drought. Most crucially, Townshend lacked the water transport to supply operations up-country. There was ‘too much water for the army, too little for the navy’, as one general put it, and Townshend’s needs fell between the two.

Having gone far beyond the point at which his men could be easily supplied, Townshend met catastrophe in a battle beside the ruins at Ctesiphon. His own Indian Muslim troops were reluctant to attack because the battlefield was reputedly the burial place of the barber of Muhammad, Salman Pak. The Turkish general, Nureddin, showed no such scruples. After Nureddin’s counterattack caused 3,500 British and Indian casualties, Townshend decided to withdraw to Kut, a squalid town of 7,000 Arabs on a tight bend in the Tigris, to rest and await reinforcements.

Professor Townshend argues that his namesake must have realised that he was unlikely to emerge victorious from a siege. But twenty years before, General Townshend had successfully withstood a siege at Chitral, on the North-West Frontier, and this must surely have distorted his judgement of the odds. Evoking that earlier success to reassure his men, he sent a pessimistic estimate of his food stocks back to Basra in a misjudged bid to hurry up his rescue. But when a hastily mustered relief force failed to break the siege, and with his food about to run out, in April 1916 he had no choice but to surrender. His soldiers were marched away into a terrible captivity. Unlike Barker, the author does not blame the Turks, who, as he points out, treated their own soldiers just as viciously. ‘Both sides’, he says, ‘fell victim to a grossly inadequate system.’

The War Office in London took control of the campaign. Nixon was removed and his replacement, Stanley Maude, was ordered to do nothing without London’s prior sanction. Maude used the ferociously hot summer of 1916 to improve the railway between the coast and his frontline. He equipped his force with additional machine guns and, for the first time, mortars. After finally receiving permission to advance late that year, and helped by long-range guns aboard the naval vessels that accompanied him up the Tigris, he reached Baghdad in April 1917.

The government of India envisaged Mesopotamia as a colony that might absorb part of India’s rapidly growing population. Until April 1917 it had no idea that the British government had already secretly offered parts of it to both Sharif Husein of Mecca and the French. The contradiction between these two promises required careful handling. As a consequence on his entry to Baghdad Maude was told to invite the residents of the city to assume the management of their civil affairs ‘in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain.’ Maude tortuously reassured them that they were ‘not to understand that it is the wish of the British Government to impose upon you alien institutions.’

The British changed their mind when, midway through 1918, they realised the strategic importance of the oil known to lie beneath northern Iraq. By then Maude had died of cholera; it was his successor, William Marshall, who was ordered to occupy Mosul after the war had ended. The city lay within the area Britain had offered to France; the last-minute dash to seize it ensured that the British were in a strong position to rewrite the promises they had made to Husein and the French.

Oil may not have been the reason why the British landed in Basra in 1914, but it explains why they stayed on in Baghdad after 1918. British officials did not believe that an Arab government would be acceptable to the investors needed to fund the exploitation of the country’s oil reserves. They took advantage of the confused international situation to impose a regime of their own, in which there was no Arab participation whatsoever.

The Arabs reacted angrily and in 1920 the British faced a series of uprisings across the country which it took the remainder of the year, and vast expense, to crush. Chastened, they realised that their new colony would need an Arab face. The following year they placed Sharif Husein’s pliable young son Feisal on the throne after he was endorsed by a plebiscite which they had rigged. The final shape of Iraq, as the new country became known, was ironed out by the League of Nations in 1926.

‘I came to the conclusion that he was in many ways hard done by’, writes Professor Townshend of General Townshend. Townshend the author appears to have been hard done by his publishers, too. For a military history the book has utterly inadequate maps and, oddly, Feisal is not depicted in the illustrations at all. But do not be put off. Supplemented by a decent map, this is still a fascinating, well-researched and elegantly written history of a resonant subject.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A man I saw

In Diyarbakir, south-east Turkey, 2008

Saturday, January 23, 2010

In the sticks

Trying to write up the day's events before it gets too dark to see - in the desert west of Mudawarra, southern Jordan, 2004

Fortunately, I don't spend all my time hunting for information in the archives. It was a visit to Syria in 2002 to see the crusader castles that sparked my interest in T.E. Lawrence - and to complete the research for my book about the Arab Revolt, Setting the Desert on Fire, I then went to Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, going deep into the desert to see the places in the story for myself.

The photograph above was take
n at the end of the first day of a two day trip to Mudawarra, which ninety years ago was a key railway station on the Hijaz Railway that Lawrence was anxious to destroy. Now close to the Jordan/Saudi border, the station lies in an area with abundant water supplies, and Lawrence believed that, if he could knock it out, the railway would become unusable, as the locomotives depended on water for steam.

Mudawarra lies on the Mecca road southeast of Maan, but by far the more interesting way to get there is just as Lawrence did, directly cross-country from Wadi Rum. Before I started writing the book I was keen to get more of an idea of the forty mile journey the raide
rs had to make to the railway, and the conditions they faced, so I organised a guide in Wadi Rum - Attayak Ali - and headed with him in a four wheel drive east out of the Wadi, and into the desert. Very quickly it feels very far from anywhere.

The desert east of Wadi Rum

With a generous stop for lunch, it took about half a day to drive there, bumping across the stony, Jordanian desert, leaving a wake of yellowy-grey dust behind us. The picture above shows why, following the capture of Aqaba in July 1917, the British shipped in armoured cars and tenders to mount operations against the railway: this is (mostly) ideal country for motorised hit-and-run attacks.

We reached Mudawarra by mid-afternoon. Much of the railway station - including its all-important water tanks - was finally demolished by the British in August 1918 and what remains is now occupied by the police, who offered us a cup of tea. Then we then turned back, southwest-wards, into the desert, to find a place to spend the night.

The campsite

Writing up the diary at the end of a long and hot day is invariably a chore, but it is well worth it in the long run. I find the diary reminds me far better of what the day was like than pictures I took, like the one above. It was the first time I had ventured into the desert and I was surprised by how much I had seen that day:

"The desert is not deserted. There are Bedu in their brown tents - hard to spot, and closer to the water sources in this dry season of the year [it was September]; camels loping across the desert; flies which swarm as soon as we stop; tracks of more camels, foxes, rabbits, snakes. Sand-coloured birds."

To see the debris of this forgotten battlefield you have to go much further south, however. That was why, the following year, I also went to Saudi Arabia.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In the archives at the Chateau

One front page that caught my eye

I pushed open the heavy door and made my way into the grand, but slightly damp and cold hall of the Service Historique de l'Armee de Terre at the Chateau de Vincennes. A few minutes earlier I had been granted a pass giving me access to the archives of the French army, and I now had three days to find as much as possible.

Archives specialise in petty rules. You may need a document to corroborate your identity on arrival; to have booked an appointment in advance; have a letter of reference from a publisher. I have seen a grown man (he was a Turkish civil servant) reduced to the verge of tears by the access policy of one establishment. He had come all the way from Ankara and was on a tight deadline. He had no idea that the archive he had come to visit was only open for just over five hours a day, because of budgetary constraints.

All this means that I am always nervous when I arrive at an unfamiliar place, and all the more so if any conversation I have to have is in a foreign language.

The atmosphere upstairs at the chateau is a good deal more welcoming than the chilly entry hall. Although the temperature outside is sub-zero, large, tall windows, golden wooden panelling and generous use of central heating make my first stop in the archive a pleasant place to linger. However, I have to avoid this temptation. The first task is to locate the documents I want to look at, and get some ordered as fast as possible. The documents will take at least half an hour to be brought out of the archive for me, and there is already less than eight hours to go today. Time, therefore, is of the essence.

Archive catalogues in Britain are increasingly electronic, making the researcher's task quicker, since likely documents can be identified, ordered, and even viewed from home. The French are somewhat behind the curve however, and so my first task was to look through the paper catalogues filed in the search room. Fortunately there is some help online, making the job quicker on arrival. On this visit, I was particularly interested in records relating to the First World War, the 1925-28 period, and the Second World War. Picking a few to start with has a close resemblance to a lucky dip, but I was quickly on my way. Once into the reading room, I was able to give my list to the invigilator at the desk who types the numbers into the system. Then there is a wait.

My spoken and written French are perfectly good but slow, so a newish policy operated by the archive is going to be a major help. They will allow you to take photographs for personal use. So as well as a laptop, and a notebook and pencil (no pens, of course), I have brought my camera. Other researchers have gone further, bringing tripods to make the process of taking hundreds of photos as painless as possible. After a day spent looking over a desk holding up a heavy camera, I can see why they do. All I need is a seat nearish to a window.

My name is shouted by a French soldier in the corner of the room who is in charge of handing the boxes out to visitors, and I go to fetch a large, cold 'carton' of papers which has clearly come from somewhere that is not heated. They are frequently in a dreadful state. Wartime rationing means paper of poor quality, and many of these files have been kept for years in humid, hot conditions. Some of them are drilled by woodworm. The pins and tags that hold others together, have rusted through, and disintegrate in one's hands. I like these signs of age and neglect, however, because they imply that few people have bothered to look through them. A new paperclip, or the restorer's laminate on a fragile piece of paper suggests that others may already have been looking through them recently.

The job that follows is, I imagine, similar to a spy's. I need to skim the contents of these boxes, often containing several hundred sheets of fine paper, as rapidly as possible, assessing which look interesting, and photographing each of these. I have twenty four hours in all to do so. I take all the photos in black and white, since this means I can fit more on a memory card. Periodically, I download batches of two hundred or so photographs onto my computer.

The time limits on these trips requires an intense schedule. I tend to have as big a breakfast as possible, so that I do not need to stop for lunch. The day will normally bring up a handful of fascinating items, and to keep my interest up, I will sometimes stop to read a little. At Vincennes, one document that catches my eye is the record of an interrogation of a Druze leader who was wounded and captured in 1926, and makes some fascinating allegations about the British. Another is a reference to a man I have been hunting for several months, but interestingly, refers to his role as an intelligence officer in a controversial counter-insurgency operation outside Damascus years before. There will be a great deal more to say about this latter gentleman in the book.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rory Stewart's Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia

I had a walk-on part in Rory Stewart's two part documentary on T.E. Lawrence's legacy, which was broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday, and can be downloaded on Iplayer. The film is well worth watching, and Stewart does a very good job of linking Lawrence's pre-war travels as a student, then an archaeologist, then effectively a spy, with his wartime role. There's some superb footage of the southern Jordanian desert from the Batn al Ghul escarpment and overlooking the Gueira plain, just north of Aqaba.

Incidentally, the phrase that I used in my interview to describe the line that Sykes proposed, "from the E in Acre to the last K in Kirkuk" is Sykes's and not mine. These were the precise words that Sykes used when he explained his scheme for the partition of the Middle East with France, and they speak volumes about the manner of the British approach. Here is the extract from the minutes:

Source: TNA, CAB 24/1: Meeting held at Downing Street on Thursday, December 16, 1915 at 11.30am.

Friday, January 15, 2010

In the archives

The Chateau de Vincennes, Paris, in early 2009

This year's snow reminded me of last year's - and how it nearly wrecked a research trip I had planned.

Original research forms the heart of my approach. I've spent the last two years in various archives gathering the information that I will use to write my current book. This is slow work. On some days I find nuggets, on others, none. There is always the temptation to cut corners. If I based my books on others' work, I could write more, and faster. As a consequence I might be better-known and richer. But I would always feel that I was an interpreter, rather than an explorer. I would not have the same feeling that I am bringing the reader something that is genuinely new. And the only way to do that is by going into the archives.

This new book, which covers the era between 1915 and 1948 when Britain and France divided and then ruled the Middle East between them, required several weeks' work in France. There were two places I had to visit: the Centre des Archives Diplomatiques, in the suburbs of the western city of Nantes, and the imposing Chateau de Vincennes, in east Paris. This time last year I was in Paris.

The Chateau is, as the name suggests, the best defended archive that I have ever visited. No other set of papers I have looked at is protected by a drawbridge. It is the home of the Service Historique de l'Armee de Terre - housing the French army's historical records. Like all things French, there is a certain amount of bureaucracy involved in getting in to look at them. You have to register with the archive when you first visit. You cannot order documents before your visit unless you have a registration card.

Last January I had booked my tickets to go to the Chateau in Paris. Then came the snow and on the day before I was due to take the train to Paris, on the website a notice appeared, warning visitors not to come unless they had already ordered documents. I had not ordered documents, because I was not registered. The choice was between writing off the Eurostar tickets, or pressing on regardless and hoping that the rules were flexible. I took the latter option.

Early on 7 January, I crossed the drawbridge and walked to the reception centre where I would apply for my ticket. I was apprehensive: this could turn out to be an expensive waste of time. My spoken French is also pretty slow. So I had rehearsed a few sentences explaining my predicament.

"Je suis historien anglais" turns out to be a very useful phrase.

The woman in charge of visitor registration initially caused my heart to sink. Had I not seen that the Chateau was shut today, because of the bad weather? I lied, saying I had not. I had come all the way from London and this was my first visit. Hence my predicament.

The atmosphere improved. Forms were produced for me to fill. A registration card was printed. My shoulders dropped at least an inch, and I left the hot office, crunching across the snow towards a forbidding looking Napoleonic barrack-block where, I was told, the archive was based.

The vital registration card

Friday, January 08, 2010

'Faces' from the Yemen No. 5

Woman in traditional dress, Thulla

When I was in Yemen, three years ago, I commented on the colourful traditional dress that many Yemeni women wear, and got an interesting reaction. Traditional dress was dying out, a Yemeni man told me. Instead, he said, more and more women were wearing black abayas - influenced by Saudi habits to the north.

Woman in Saudi-influenced dress, Shibam

It struck me then, and much more now, that there is an important metaphor here. As local and international politicians seek to blame Yemen for the problems that are festering there, it would be useful to ask the question of where the influence that drives them comes from. The answer, as with fashion, is, from the fundamentalist state that lies directly north.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Faces from the Yemen No. 4

Early evening, Sana'a

"The poorest nation in the Arab world struggles with 27% inflation, 40% unemployment and 46% child malnutrition. Half of its 22 million citizens are under sixteen and the population is set to double by 2035."
Ginny Hill, Yemen: Fear of Failure, Chatham House, December 2008

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Faces from the Yemen No. 3

At the juice bar, Seiyun, Wadi Hadramawt

After I took this man's photograph, he took one of me, using the camera on his mobile phone.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Faces from the Yemen No. 2

A girl carrying fresh water in Hababa

Clean water supplies would free her to go to school.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Faces from the Yemen No.1

In the capital, Sana'a

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Wadi Hadramawt, in eastern Yemen: now a stronghold for Al Qaeda

With all eyes suddenly focused on Yemen, here are a couple of posts I wrote about the country in 2006 following a visit earlier in the year.

Various reports say that western governments are pledging military support to the regime in Yemen to help it tackle Al Qaeda. Certainly the Yemeni government needs help, but the fact that it is widely seen by the people it governs as hopelessly corrupt may mean that well-meaning efforts to prop it up have unintended consequences.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fox shot

My eye was caught yesterday by a quote in Rachel Sylvester's column yesterday in The Times. She quoted the opposition Conservative Party's defence spokesman, Dr Liam Fox, making the case for staying the course in Afghanistan. “Imagine if Churchill had said — ‘things aren’t going well in the opinion polls’,” he said. “If we are forced out that would be a shot in the arm to jihadists everywhere.”

But a vivid imagination is not necessary. Here is Churchill arguing the need to withdraw from Iraq, in a letter to the prime minister, Lloyd George, in August 1920.

There is “something very sinister to my mind in this Mesopotamian entanglement” he wrote to Lloyd George. “It seems to me so gratuitous that after all the struggles of war, just when we want to get together our slender military resources and re-establish our finances and have a little in hand in case of danger here or there, we should be compelled to go on pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts.”

“We have not got a single friend in the press on the subject, and there is no point of which they make more effective use to injure the Government. Week after week and month after month for a long time we shall have a continuance of this miserable, wasteful, sporadic warfare…”

(CHAR 16/48, Churchill to Lloyd George, 31 August 1920)

Churchill was overruled. But the idea that he, like any other elected politician, did not pay close attention to public opinion, is risible.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Next speaking

I'm speaking next Monday morning - on Lawrence of Arabia and World War One - at 9.15 am at this year's Christ Church Oxford Conflict conference, on the Making of the Modern Middle East. It's still possible to come for my talk, and any of the others - more details of how to do so can be found here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reinstate Michael Yon

Michael Yon is a freelance journalist who has an excellent website and who has, up to yesterday, embedded with British forces in Helmand, Afghanistan. In his most recent report he describes in great detail the circumstances in which a number of British soldiers have been killed in the town of Sangin recently. The report has led the Ministry of Defence to cancel his placement: precisely why he does not say: is it the details of the deaths, or the description of the effect of them on the other soldiers, or the Google Earth images showing exactly where they happened?

Whatever, the MoD's decision is a bad one. Michael Yon should be reinstated.

UPDATE - 26 August: Defence of the Realm suggests that the reason why Yon's report stung the MoD was because the clearance of the road was in fact a relief operation, revealing just how far the situation in Sangin has deteriorated. The MoD has also published its version of events.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The source of the famous Churchill quote

The quote, which seems to capture its author's reckless personality perfectly, has been misquoted and misattributed. There are a dozen variations of it across the internet. The questions I had were, which version is correct and where is it from?

If, like me, you guessed he said it in his younger years and bought the popular abridgement of his early works in a bid to find it, you will be disappointed, for that edition omits the passage that contains it altogether. Finally I have found the answer:

"Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."

Winston S Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, London 1898.

You can read the quote in context here: see page 107. It may be that, given that the book is based on a series of letters Churchill wrote to the Daily Telegraph to describe the fighting that in fact that newspaper was the first to print it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The British Museum and national politics

I listened last night as Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, was interviewed by Mark Lawson on BBC Radio Four. The conversation predictably turned to the perennial question of the Elgin Marbles, the reliefs from the Parthenon which are exhibited in the British Museum and which the Greek government desperately wants. Was it not the case, asked Lawson, that the Greeks, who have built a gallery to house the marbles, now had an unstoppable moral and practical case for their return? "The key thing", replied MacGregor (28 minutes in), "is whether or not you bring politics into culture. The British tradition of museums has been to separate politics, national politics, from cultural questions. The Greek tradition is a very different one."

What utter rubbish. Britain's museums and national politics have always been tightly intertwined. British rivalry with the French was an important stimulus in the building of a collection which was not an assembly of all things British, but an exhibition of Britain's power and global reach, in the capital of its empire. The dramatic growth of the museum's Egyptian collection followed the defeat, by the British, of the French at the battle of the Nile in 1799. And Elgin himself used his position as Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire to take away the marbles shortly afterwards.

The French behaved similarly. On 23 July 1850 The Times reported that the French were "determined to excel us in the exhibition of Assyrian works of art in order to compensate the comparative deficiency, which the Louvre is obliged to acknowledge as to the treasures it possesses in the other great catalogues."* French archaeologists used their diplomatic corps to assist them in the removal of the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace - to highlight two famous examples that grace the Louvre today - and to thwart the opposition. A set of permits to excavate made out by the Ottoman authorities to the British mysteriously disappeared at the French consulate in Tunis.

By 30 November 1861 the Illustrated London News believed that the British had regained the advantage. It celebrated the fact that "During the last few years the Foreign Office has shown a zeal in the service of archaeology not second to that of the continental governments and the National Collection has in consequence received priceless additions that would else have remained unnoticed or gone to enrich the museums of other countries."*

Personally I support Neil MacGregor's dogged refusal to surrender to Greek pressure, for reasons I've mentioned before. But the line that Britain is somehow different (and superior) as a nation is flimsy. If that is the best argument remaining, it will not be long before the marbles are back in Athens.

*Both the quotes come from Debbie Challis's fascinating book on archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, From the Harpy Tomb to the Wonders of Ephesus: British Archaeologists in the Ottoman Empire, 1840-1880, London 2008.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Was the Arab Revolt a proxy war?

With the paperback Setting the Desert on Fire about to be published in the US, The Army Lawyer runs a detailed, generous review by Major Jennifer Clark. Scroll through to pages 62-68 to read it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

But eez bootik 'otel

The Ziad Hotel in Deir ez Zor wins 2 UN Stars

I’ve written before about how useful an endorsement from the United Nations, whose staff are never known to rough it, is when picking hotels on the edges of conflict zones. The two shiny 4x4s of the UNHCR parked outside the Ziad Hotel in Deir ez Zor, in eastern Syria, showed promise. And so it proved. The Ziad offers clean, large, echoing rooms with air-conditioning in a newish block beside the canal and minutes’ walk from the centre of this bustling town on the Euphrates.
I’ve just returned from my first visit to Syria since 2002 and there are plenty of obvious changes. Tinny far-eastern cars have displaced the armada of elderly American automobiles, held together by solder and putty, which previously served as taxis. ATMs have arrived (though not always willing to dispense money), there is internet access of unexpected velocity, a dramatic increase in tourists and a rise in the number of hotels. With that last in mind I’m going to run through where I stayed on my anti-clockwise tour around the country.
Unlike in south-east Turkey last year, where I heard the phrase "but eez bootik 'otel", used repeatedly by hoteliers to justify an outrageous opening demand on the grounds that their tatty hotel has atmosphere, negotiating the price downwards in Syria is a rather less fraught process, and because the supply of beds still outstrips the number of intrepid tourists, it is possible to get discounts, even in the high tourist season.

Palmyra – the Tower Hotel. I had looked at the Heliopolis Hotel already, but it wanted about $70 for a small room with poor beds and proved unwilling to negotiate. The Tower, which is on the main street in the town, offered me a “suite” (you got space, not grandeur) for about £30, I think. It was clean enough and well-placed for the sights but nothing special. I ate across the road at a restaurant that does superb lemonade with mint by the half-litre jar.

Deir-ez-Zor - the Ziad Hotel. Two UN stars, as described above.

Aleppo – the Beit Wakil. $120 a night plus tourist tax. Despite one or two slightly buttery male reception staff who want to take your money up-front, air-conditioning that did not work and staff who shrugged when asked to fix it, which together give the impression it is coasting on its reputation, this is an atmospheric place to stay in the Armenian Jdeidah quarter, with a pretty shaded courtyard with flowers and a tinkling fountain. You can park on a meter in the nearby square, Saahat Hattab, while you dump your bags, and park overnight for 200 Syrian Pounds (ie about £3) a day in the carpark owned by the Dar al Zamaria round the corner. And the thickness of the walls at the hotel meant that the lack of air-conditioning in May was not a problem. There are many other boutique hotels appearing in the city, against whom the Beit Wakil will increasingly have to raise its game, or drop its prices. There are a growing number of good places to eat, many of them providing roof-top views across the city.

Lattakya – the Riviera Hotel. I checked in here after driving up the coast to the Meridien, where the manager wanted $185 for a room on a Friday night, but immediately came down to $134 when I laughed. I offered $70, which he would not accept, though he admitted that the hotel was only 45% occupied. The lifts have graffiti, the rooms smell of smoke. Avoid, as I did. By contrast the Riviera, on the unpromising main drag into the city, has pleasant staff and good clean rooms. They took $75 for a room. Finding it was oddly tricky, given that it is on the main road into the city: it is on the left, opposite the new looking tourist office, as the road bends round to the left. You can park on the street outside. Dinner not special.

Hama – the Orient House. I asked first at the Cairo Hotel, which is a basic but clean option in the centre of town, near the clock tower. The Cairo offers bargain rates but the rooms are not inspiring, and – I suspect – quite noisy from traffic into the night. But the same family owns other hotels in the town, one of which is the Orient House, a few minutes’ drive south – the Cairo’s owner sent his young nephew with me in my car to provide directions, including going the wrong way up a one-way street. The pleasant manager of the Orient House – brother of the manager of the Cairo – wanted $90 a night but took $75. This is a two courtyard old house with perfectly fine if slightly characterless rooms, and a pleasant courtyard dining area. It doesn’t serve alcohol, but the food was fine. The hotel was apparently the home of Akram al Hawrani, who was vice-president in the Nasser-dominated and short-lived union between Egypt and Syria, the UAR, which lasted between 1958 and 1961.

The sting in the tail of a visit to Syria is the exorbitant departure tax demanded by the Syrian government. This now stands at 1500 SP (£20); the guidebook, which was a recent edition, quoted 200 SP. Paying it left a briefly bitter taste; Syria remains a fascinating place.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Next speaking

I'm speaking next Friday, 15 May, about British-French relations in the Middle East between the Wars, at St Antony's College, Oxford. The seminar starts at 5pm.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Al Hayat review

Here's the first review I am aware of from the Arabic press - it was published in Al Hayat on Tuesday.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The lengths a tourist board will go to

News that a Spanish tourist board on the Costa Brava has used a photograph taken in the Bahamas to promote its local beach reminds me of a poster I saw four years ago.

I was in a dark and tatty bureau de change in Leh, in the Indian Himalaya. On the wall there was a dog-eared poster. "Come to India", it beckoned, beneath a photograph of a range of saw-toothed snowy peaks. They looked familiar, I thought. Yet this was the first time I had been to India.

They were familiar: the view was of the spectacular scene at Concordia - across the Line of Control in Pakistani-occupied (and Indian claimed) Kashmir, which I had seen two years before.

Was this ignorance, over-enthusiastic marketing or a political statement? It was impossible to tell.

Another review

A new review of Setting the Desert on Fire can be found here.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Next speaking...

I'm speaking twice next week:

Wednesday 11 February - to the Barnes Literary Society
Friday 13 February - at St Antony's College, Oxford

Monday, December 22, 2008

Speaking too soon

On 16 December, The Times, a newspaper that ardently supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, published a leader which argued that the lenient treatment given to the now famous shoe-thrower, Muntazer al-Zaidi, was a colourful illustration of Iraq's transformation. "Had a protester hurled shoes and shouted insults at Saddam Hussein during the visit of a world leader" the paper reflected, "the perpetrator and all his family would probably have been put to death." The editorial glibly ended: "Iraq is far from perfect, but at least its people have learnt to enjoy freedom of expression."

Freedom of expression can only be enjoyed if it is respected - and in al-Zaidi's instance this does not seem to have been the case. According to the New York Times, who interviewed al-Zaidi's brother, after his arrest the journalist was burned with a cigarette and beaten up in an effort to extract a confession from him. The BBC corroborated this report on Friday by talking to the judge investigating the case. With a furore now raging about the treatment of the journalist the judge has today backtracked somewhat, saying that al-Zaidi was bruised during his arrest, not from his treatment afterwards.

Al-Zaidi is due to be tried for "aggression against a foreign head of state" on 31 December. Presumably by then the prosecutors hope that his bruises will have healed.