BACKSTAGE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

The hit-and-miss fight to find the truth

BLAIR FRASER August 16 1958
BACKSTAGE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

The hit-and-miss fight to find the truth

BLAIR FRASER August 16 1958

The hit-and-miss fight to find the truth

BACKSTAGE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

BLAIR FRASER

BEIRUT

Not for the first time the title of this column is embarrassing to a hit-and-run reporter. To be accurate, it should be not Backstage but Second Balcony in the Middle East. And that raises a fair question: What can a man learn from a quick visit to places he has seldom or never seen before, and where he cannot speak the language of the people? Wouldn’t he be just as wise staying quietly at home and reading the New York Times? Obviously his dispatches will be something less than infallible.

The traveling reporter spends about a third of his time negotiating with hotel clerks for shelter, government clerks for passes and permits and visas, taximen for transport. He interviews politicians and government press agents, sometimes through an interpreter. sometimes in their broken English or his own broken French; in the end he can hardly remember which of these faceless men said what. Occasionally, with luck, he has a brief chat with the prime minister, foreign minister or other VIP, and hears the official line from them instead of from their henchmen. He appraises public opinion by reading the censored press, and by talking to an unscientific sample of .000001 percent of the population, mostly bartenders and taxi drivers.

Still, you do get something from a second-balcony seat that you don't get just by reading the reviews, especially when the review's are censored, or have to be cabled at eighteen cents a word. You do learn things by physical contact, however brief and superficial. To some extent this is true everywhere,

but nowhere quite so true as in the Middle East. Baghdad is a tragic example.

Nineteen months ago, and no doubt at any other time in the past few years, the most casual visitor could see at a glance the danger of an explosion in Baghdad. You could feel the tension as you can feel an oncoming thunderstorm. But until sunrise on Monday, July 14, a spot news report from Baghdad would have described the situation quite accurately as quiet. Government publications and background articles told of the plans for investment of oil revenues that Nuri Said’s government had in hand. It was said that Iraq was the only Middle Eastern nation (barring one or two tiny sheikdoms) to be using its resources wisely and thriftily to raise the people’s standard of life.

Instead of an unemployment problem like that of Egypt, Iraq had an actual shortage of skilled labor—people were coming in from Syria to take jobs in the various construction projects, the dams that would give hydro-electric power and water for irrigation, the new' houses that would give the people decent places to live. All these statements were quite true, but they combined to give an impression not only untrue but preposterous—that Iraq was a stable, contented, reasonably prosperous country. In twenty-four hours or less, any visitor could see with his own eyes that this was not so. He could see that Iraq was a nation in danger, where the surface tranquillity was only a millimetre deep.

For one thing Iraq was desperately poor, even poorer than other Arab countries like Syria and Lebanon.

There were more blind and half-blind beggars on the street, their eyes blank with trachoma. In Damascus and Beirut and even Cairo the bootblacks are little boys; in Baghdad queues of fullgrown men waited all day by the Tigris bridges for a chance to shine a rich man’s shoes. No doubt there was a shortage of skilled labor, but these poor devils are not skilled, and for them there was no work in Baghdad. To them the government’s plans for investment, the riches that were to come out of oil, must have been as invisible and seemed as mythical as they did to the visitor.

Poverty doesn’t always mean revolution, of course, or the whole of Asia would be in revolt all the time, but there were other danger signals in Baghdad. Nowhere, not even in Syria, was the press as tightly censored and as remote from outer reality as in Baghdad. Nowhere, not even in Egypt, were more soldiers and police in evidence all the time.

The opposition was officially supposed to be Communist, but the “Communists” that I met were well-to-do lawyers who lived in a suburb like Westmount or Rockcliffe or Forest Hill Village; some of their friends and neighbors were in jail, without trial and even without precise charge. It’s obvious now that these precautions were not mere hypochondria on the part of Nuri Said’s government; far from being needless, they weren’t even adequate. But they did show how precarious Nuri Said’s hold on Iraq really was.

I don’t mean to suggest that what

you see in the Middle East makes Arab nationalist propaganda true and all other propaganda false. In some places the effect is quite the opposite—Algiers, for one. The Arab propaganda line is that Algeria is an Arab city in which French are mere interlopers. Anyone who arrives in Algiers westbound, from Cairo or Damascus, sees it at once as a French city, not merely as Calcutta or Hong Kong could be called British, but predominantly and unmistakably French. Two thirds of its citizens are Frenchmen of European origin, and even some of the Moslems speak better French than Arabic. Of course it is obvious fiction to say as the French colons do that "Algeria is an integral part of France,” but hardly less fictitious to call it part of “The Arab World.” And this, too, the casual visitor can see.

Often he can see that Arab propaganda is not only false but pathetic. I remember one morning in Cairo, five years ago, when a group of visiting reporters were being briefed on the wonders of the “New Egypt” under its great leader General Naguib. (Nasser was a mere second-in-command in those days.) To listen to the official spokesman at the ministry of health you would think that Egypt had left the British national health scheme far behind—there was nothing, but nothing, that the lucky Egyptians weren't about to have in the field of public health. But during a coffee break between two of these briefings some of us went to the bathroom. One look at its really startling filth told us more than all the handouts about the true state of public health in the new Egypt.

Two weeks ago, in the controlled press of Cairo, I noticed two items that seemed pathetic in a different way. One was an interview with an army commander of high rank, who was asked among other things whether Egyptian officers would continue to go abroad to learn strategy and tactics. It was unnecessary, he replied; officers of the United Arab Republic could now learn as much at home, from their own military institutions, as any foreigner could teach them. However, he added, in order to preserve traditions and for courtesy’s sake, a certain number would still be sent abroad.

The other item was a small announcement which, I was told later, appears in the Cairo newspapers every few months. It said the Egyptian government would soon ordain a “unified” dress for workers—apparently "unified” sounded a better word than “uniform.” This unified dress would be of stillundisclosed design, but would be something along the line of Western shirt and trousers. The flannelette nightgown, which is now the everyday dress of the Egyptian poor, would be forbidden.

Maybe I was reading too much into them, but those two items in the same issue of the Egyptian Gazette seemed to tell a lot about the United Arab Republic and its admirers in Iraq and Lebanon—the pathologically sensitive vanity, the envious and reluctant admiration of Western ways, the desire to replace their own customs and folkways without ever admitting that such a desire exists. These are also things that the visitor can see, or at any rate thinks he can, they are among the reasons why most visitors to the Middle East become pessimists about the Western chances to win friends and influence people there. -fa