Boomer Opinion: The Middle East mess is forever

So many things have shaped the lives of baby boomers. Some close to home, some on the other side of the world. BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs had a front row seat for some of those changes on the other side of the world, and writes about how much worse they have become.

The Middle East is a mess. But I could have written that sentence more than 40 years ago when I first set foot there as a journalist. And I could have written it every single time I went back, probably almost a hundred trips over all.

Greg Dobbs

There always have been conflicts there over military supremacy and cultural superiority, over treasure and territory, over rights and religion. Sometimes externally between Muslims and Jews, sometimes internally between orthodox and non-orthodox Jewish sects, sometimes between different branches of Islam. In those 40 years going in and out of the Middle East, I covered them all.

Some of the ugliest rivalries I’ve seen — and “ugly” has fatal overtones in that part of the world — have been battles within the same religion, where each side believes it has a hammerlock on God’s will. The fact is, ever since Israel was created shortly after the first baby boomers were born, and the Arab nations lined up in a coalition to destroy it, the Middle East has been a mess. That makes it more than 70 years now. And that’s only the modern-day Middle East. There were messes in the region before we ever came along.

I’ve stopped counting the number of times enemies have lined up to eviscerate Israel. Three attempts by sovereign nations, several more by non-state terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas, not to mention the original Palestine Liberation Organization. Today, throw in newer groups like ISIS, and non-Arab nations like Iran, which continues to support those who would push Israel into the sea.

But for most of these years, that’s what “the Middle East” was about: conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, and their proactive proxy proponents. When Arab leaders rattled sabers, it was always in fellowship with the Palestinians, although truth be known, most of them talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. I’ve been in Palestinian refugee camps in Arab countries where they were treated far worse than they were treated in Israel itself.

I think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist when I say, the issues between the two sides are so intractable, I don’t think there will ever be peace on that front. I saw hatred passed down from generation to generation, young Palestinians who weren’t even around for the birth of Israel in 1948 protesting that the Jews took their families’ homes, young Israelis who also were shackled by secondhand stories complaining that when Israel was born, the Arabs fled rather than live beside them. All I can say, after so many visits and so many interviews, is that I believe there is some truth from both sides.

What has changed since I first started covering the region though is, “the Middle East” no longer means just that. Where a war in the Middle East used to focus our eyes on Israel, today it might bring us to a map of Iraq, or Syria, or Yemen. It might mean the anarchy in Libya, or the unneighborly hostility between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (or the regional enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran). It might conjure up the ruling tyrants versus the roving terrorists in Egypt, or the mullahs versus the moderates in Iran. When I covered the 8-year-long war between Iran and Iraq and saw hand-to-hand combat in the 20th Century, or during the 15-year-long civil war in Lebanon saw brothers from rival militias sniping at each other from rooftops in Beirut, I knew that “the Middle East” was troubled far beyond the borders of Israel.

Today in fact, “the Middle East” extends well beyond the Middle East. When I covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which is Asia, people thought I was in the Middle East. When I covered a war for independence in southern Morocco, which is Saharan Africa, people thought I was in the Middle East.

In my mind, within the scope of my experience, two events drove and define the change.

One is the revolution in Iran. For time immemorial, or at least since the post-ancient concept of a unified nation, there have been revolutions. But until the revolution in Iran, they remained confined to their borders. Revolutions were about a change of government, a change of culture, a change of power, but all within the borders of the nation itself.

The Iranian revolution pushed out those borders. Those of us who covered it didn’t all grasp at the beginning— nor did our governments— that when its advocates called it the Islamic Revolution, they meant a revolution throughout the Islamic world. I got to know the first civilian leaders of Iran, and they didn’t necessarily have that vision. But the religious fanatics, the ayatollahs, did, and they won the day. In Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in the Palestinian Territories themselves, their revolution has taken root. I’ve seen the roots of it firsthand. It’s scary.

The other event is the transistor, which was a revolution of a different sort; it transformed people’s awareness of the world. My first trip to the Middle East, in 1977, was to Egypt, when President Sadat had agreed to pursue peace with an equally willing Israeli Prime Minister Begin. The day I landed, I had to wait for about four hours at Cairo’s airport — an outdoor affair back in the day — for a journalist’s visa. (If I had simply told the immigration officer that I was there to see the pyramids, he’d have quickly stamped my passport and welcomed me to his country. But I wasn’t that smart.)

Israel’s Prime Minister Begin (right) welcomes Egyptian President Saadat to Jerusalem

It happened to be the time of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage that every Islamic male is expected to make to Mecca. So the airport was full of Egyptian men, and maybe some from other Islamic nations in Africa who were changing planes. Many were carrying just two things: a stick with their possessions wrapped in a sheet, reminiscent of pictures we’ve all seen of American hobos during the Depression, and a boom box. By the ‘70s in the U.S., transistor radios were as small as a cigarette pack, but in that poor part of the Middle East, the boom box was the first technology that gave people a picture, albeit verbal, of the world. Especially people who had never before been more than 10 miles from home.

The speakers were blasting various radio broadcasts of Arabic voices. It is not a pretty language, and to my unschooled ear they all sounded angry. And I remember thinking, this is probably both good and bad news. The good news was, these people finally can break out of the narrow prisons in which they’ve always lived. But the bad news was, now they would find out that in other parts of the world, people didn’t live in prisons like theirs. People elsewhere had freedom, and power, and opportunities, and luxuries, that these men with their boom boxes never dreamt existed. Now they would want such things for themselves. And maybe someone else would have to give them up.

It’s a straight line from then to now. The Middle East is still a mess, even bigger than before. Nothing on the horizon suggests it will change.

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2 Comments

  1. As always, a great read and so informative. Yes, I guess after over 100 trips to the Middle East, I shouldn’t be surprised that our Editor here, Greg Dobbs, is so well-informed! I totally agree with him: For now, the Middle East is a mess “forever” – well, perhaps not forever but at least 100 years. After all, that’s not too surprising, we’ve had our own 100 years war in Europe – though, to be frank, Europe has been involved in many more wars – if you add it all up, it’s far longer than 100 years.

    Actually, one may well wonder whether the problem is less with a particular area of the world (like the Middle East or Europe) and more with humanity itself…

    But what I really liked about this article is the identification of two key factors that expanded the problem beyond Israel: the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the “transistor”. Very interesting. And so true. Iran has brought war all the way to Yemen, and the “transistor” has morphed into the Facebook/social networks revolution that has launched first the Arab Spring and ultimately the war in Syria. Everything links back to the two factors Dobbs identified here. Great analysis!

  2. Hi Gregg . . . I’ve been reading your notes for a few years but I don’t think I’ve ever commented. I especially liked your distillation of the Middle East today. You have probably gathered from Carol that I spend too much time stirring the community pot . . . . I probably ought to pend more time reflecting and distilling . . . maybe, another day.

    Best wishes

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