By Abbey Mikha
Egypt and Mesopotamia are regions of the world where the first civilizations of humankind suddenly sprung up thousands of years ago. Palestine is also an ancient area but it was called Canaan in Biblical text. Jericho is said to be one of the oldest urban habitations in the world where many important ancient souls walked and preached.
The writers of the two books being analyzed for this essay gave their versions of what occurred in these areas when the British were trying to break apart the Ottoman Empire. Antony Bluett and Bill Spackman have written their books as travellers journeying through foreign lands, but Bluett (1919) describes his journey as a crusade (p. 2). In Bluett’s case there were occasions where he uses intolerant language in regards to Arabs. For example in describing an Arab village as “evil smelling.” He also harshly speaks of the poor Arab Egyptian Labor Corpse and their sad songs. Lastly he contends that Palestine belonged to the Jews in order for them to become a nation without mentioning other peoples of Palestine like the Palestinians. These are considered as Arabs because of arabization in the region, though they have more ancient roots. In these instances it seemed that he had some negative underlying feelings for Arab people.
Contrary to this Spackman (2008) was trying to survive in Mesopotamia and was defending himself from hostile Arabs (p. 123) who would shoot at him and try to kill him. He did not use negative discriminatory language to describe the Arabs; rather he rationally explained the desperate situation in Mesopotamia. He knew that had nomadic Arabs in the land between the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates captured him, it might have been the end of his life. Spackman though was reasonable enough that he admirably mentioned the fair-haired Arab children, he would play backgammon with Arabs, and he talked about the beautiful Arab women. This showed some positive spirit towards the Arabs.
Truly these two individuals had their own take on the situation in Mesopotamia at that time, but they were both courageous survivors of war, which took the life of many people from various cultures and religions. When trying to be fair, it is difficult to discern whether these two individuals were anti-Arab at heart, but there is some evidence which will be cited from the two books for and against the argument for each individual.
Antony Bluett and his Negative Language Tone in Regards to Arabs
Antony Bluett (1919) speaks of an Arab town where he says that they knew that assisting the force would be sent to “some evil-smelling native town” (p. 39) with a name he could not pronounce, far away from anywhere, left there to look after the place and excite the regular people with the power of the British arms, while the Arab leader and his wild horsemen (p. 39) would go about in the desert firing their guns in the air and make some extra ordinary noises to alarm the “half starved Turks” (p 39).
In these sentences Bluett demonstrates that he had some intolerant feelings for the Arabs. Describing the town as “evil smelling” is strong language. After all how can a town smell in an “evil” way? Here he shows his distaste for the Arab people and way of life. He goes on to call the Arabs in Egypt as, “a gang of natives” (p 52). The language tone is discriminatory; it seems critical and has a disrespectful nature.
In regards to the Egyptian Labor Corps who according to Professor Fantauzzo were, “A group of Egyptian laborers used by the British in Egypt, Palestine as well as in Gallipoli. They were comprised mostly of Egyptian farmers and manual laborers from the Egyptian countryside.” In Bluett (1919) he explains how the English person in charge of them would say to them “quais” when they did something good and when they made a mistake yell, “La! mush quais!” which means no not good (p. 89)! The people in charge talked to these poor Egyptian Arabs as a herd of cattle they were trying to chaperone, or even worse as animals.
Bluett (1919) speaks of the Egyptian Labor Corpse making the day, “hideous with their mournful dirge” (p. 89), which is to say the sad songs they sung did not amuse him. Then he further explains, “But if this eternal chant made one yearn to throw something large and heavy at the performers…” (p. 89). This is so insensitive on his part. These people were laborers; maybe a class up from slaves and their workdays were difficult. It was hot and they were tired. Obviously they would be singing sad tunes as people in their condition often do. These sad songs had a history in the region, and they were part of their folklore. Truly if one hears the songs of the African slaves of North America one can hear the sadness in such songs as well. It is appropriate to wonder if it was it the songs that were bothersome to him or was it that the songs were coming from these poor Egyptian Arabs?
Subsequently Bluett (1919) speaks of the scenery and the trees in Palestine and he is imagining the future of this region, this land of milk and honey, and how beautiful the landscape is (p. 98). The British wanted to liberate the Holy Land from the Ottomans, but they forgot that both Jews and Palestinians have history in that region of the world. The British wanted this land for their allies. In the land of Palestine he described a simple people living as in biblical times in clothes and mannerisms. Bluett (1919) also believed in Biblical prophesies. He said:
“Whether the Jews as a nation will ever settle in Palestine is a question the future alone will solve; certainly the wise policy of the British and French government offers them every inducement if they really wish to become a nation again in their own ancient land. If the prophets are to be believed Jerusalem will one day be the capital of the world-but it will not be in our day. “ (p. 288)
This statement is not sensitive to Arab aspirations in the region and can be called anti-Arab because it speaks of giving back the country to Jews without consideration and without even mentioning Palestinians, who had also resided in that region of the world for generations.
It is an amazing thing for the Jews to become a nation again in the land of their ancestors, but one must realize that this land as every land did not only belong to them. This land was a multicultural land in which many peoples of various religions were trying to survive and thrive, and who all should have had every right to do so. Unfortunately some humans never realized that they could be like birds, who have no castles other than the wilderness, but who sing for all of human kind impartially.
Spackman the Reasonable Man
Spackman (2008) had his own adventure. He speaks of the Arab guides in Mesopotamia as unreliable (p. 4). He says that they steal (p. 10), and they shoot randomly at the British (p. 10). Arabs in Mesopotamia at this time got in the way of the British fighting the Ottomans. Spackman calls some of the Arabs in Mesopotamia nomadic (p. 13), but the language he uses is not disrespectful and rather reasonable and explanatory, and even rather open-minded.
At one point Spackman (2008) explains that there were many ferocious mounted Arabs that were “hovering like vultures” (p. 19) on the side of the frontline, “waiting to fall on the hapless losers whichever side that might be” (p. 19). This was the situation the British were facing in a country with peoples of various nations, cultures, and religions. There were Arabs, Kurds, Jews, Assyrians, Armenians, Sabeans, Mandeans, Yazedi, Turkoman, and Shabak peoples spread out in various regions in Mesopotamia at this time. Some of these nations were peaceful and others aggressive. The word “vultures” used in regards to the Arabs is a strong word, but how can one see a shark and not call it a shark.
At one point Spackman (2008) says the Arabs were dangerous to “friend and foe” (p. 41). He speaks of the fate of those who fell into the hands of the nomadic Arabs in desert encounters. He says, “The more prepossessing of us might have suffered a fate worse than death or equally painful mutilation had such an encounter gone against us” (Spackman 2008, p. 54). There was also shameless looting and abuse by the Bedouin Arabs (Spackman 2008, p. 57). To this day there are such Arabs in Iraq who loot the archeological sights of the ancient Assyrians, Sumerians, and Babylonians.
Spackman (2008) mentions the “fair haired Arab children” (p. 34), who played in the water. He admires their behaviors maybe thinking of the young kids back home with similar hair color. It probably was a surprise to British officers to see children in Mesopotamia with blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. Spackmans language is rational and he positively explains these children from a culture of his supposed adversaries, who at some points were trying to bring about his death. A man filled with hatred for a nation will ignore even such small similarities as a light haired Arab, but a reasonable man will see the likeness as something positive of human beings of the same earth.
Spackman (2008) also speaks of playing ‘towlu’, backgammon, with the Arabs in coffee shops, a game he had not played for a long time. This was a very ancient game (p. 118). If Spackman had bad feelings towards Arabs he would not have sat down to play such a game because it requires a certain amount of respect for the other competitor. From his words it seemed like Spackman was playing this game with Arabs as if he had been playing this game with an Englishman back home.
Spackman (2008) furthermore speaks of the Arab women, “With their Arab features and olive complexions the girls looked very attractive” (p. 15). Had he had a backward mentality, he could not have seen these women as beautiful, but through a certain spirit he tells the truth about these girls. What was the nature of these encounters is not clear, and he makes it seem rather innocent.
Antony Bluett and Bill Spackman are persons who lived through war. When trying to be fair, it is difficult to discern whether these two individuals were anti-Arab at heart, but there is some evidence from the two books for and against the argument for each person, which was previously analyzed.
It is wrong to harshly judge people who have come before in History, for they lived in a different time and under different circumstances, but hopefully as the human race evolves ideas in regards to nations and peoples will also develop and change.
Nationalism was rising all over the world during these wars in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. Thinking people did not realize back then, but hopefully they will realize in the future that now it is time for the world to heal and to become one. Giving the Jews their ancient land back hardly solved the problems of the region and for neither side. Humanitarianism and multiculturalism should encompass the world and tolerance should be the language that everyone speaks.
When reading Bluett there was a distinct negative tone to the language in the story in regards to Arabs, whereas Spackman came across as more reasonable. Bluett had his own religious beliefs and he hoped to see Christian prophecies become a reality in the future. He was a British man from a nation, which had its own goals for this region with its own interests.
Spackman mentions the mounds of Nineveh and the way the Old Testament God had asked Jonah to go to this city to speak to its people. At that time did he know about the Assyrians and their struggle?
Both of these individuals were well versed in Biblical tales. It may have come as a surprise to some of these people at the front line of the British army that these regions of the world held and hold the secrets to the history of the human race. Even the Arabs of the Middle East have a vast history in the region as conquerors bringing war to the region through Islam. Their language is Semitic, and they are a Semitic people like the Jews, Assyrians and others. The unfortunate thing about some of the nomadic Arab tribes at the time was that they were violent and lacked diplomacy. They were fanatic about their religion, which they themselves did not even entirely understand.
It is a great gift to students of history that books such as those of Bluett and Spackman have been written and can be read so that they can get into the minds of these people. The most difficult thing when writing in a sort of memoir is to completely hide prejudice and negative feelings towards others. Some are well aware of the negative connotation of being biased, and are well versed in the language, which make them seem impartial. Only geniuses can write false history in order to create an affect for generations of the future, and there have been many such writers. Though Bluett seemed more prejudiced towards Arabs than Spackman no one really knows how they truly felt. The heart of the man at war is a mysterious ocean.
Today people have various feelings about the modern day Arabs especially because of the Islamic extremist group called ISIS. There are good and bad people in every nation. It seems the radical Islamic Arabs are going backward in to a dark time in history. Today three suicide bombers exploded themselves in an airport in Turkey and most news outlets are saying that once again it must be ISIS. The Arabs of the world need to rise up against this world threat if they want any good words said about their nation by intellectuals and the people of the world. If they ignore the evil acts that are being committed, those who write truthful history will reveal everything about some of their backward culture.
I reviewed Bluett Antony, “With Our Army in Palestine” (1919) and Spackman Bill, “Captured at Kut Prisoner of the Turks” (2008 ).
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