Samarkand and how we’re all to blame

Samarkand by Amin Maalouf

I have just finished reading Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley and Amin Maalouf’s Samarkand, two excellent novels that help us oustiders understand the mindsets, cultures, and history of Egypt and Persia respectively. As I have mentioned on numerous occassions previously in this blog, I love learning about other cultures through reading novels by their greatest storytellers (although Maalouf is Lebanese and not Iranian). I highly recommend either of these books as they do a great job of putting the world we live in today into perspective. Here it is:

Samarkand tells the two-fold story of Omar Khayyam who penned the legendary Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (or Manuscript of Samarkand) in the 11th Century, and Benjamin O. Lesage from Annapolis, Maryland who travels to Persia at the turn of the 19th and 20th Century to find the original copy of the Manuscript. In the first part of the story, we see how the struggles in Persia between foreign rule (the Turks), religious and tribal sectarianism, and good old-fashioned political corruption are the legacies of the problems the world faces today in the region. In the second half of the story, we see the conflict that Persia faces when its the traditional politics are confronted by the British and Russian colonial and economic imperialism. Ironically, it is the Americans who offer a solution in the 1910s for democracy, while today the Americans are seen very much as playing the opposite role of the British and Russians.

Meanwhile, in Midaq Alley (as in most of Mahfouz’s works), the reader encounters the entire gambit of Cairo society along with its machisimo, religious qualities and oppression, social oppression, tolerance, and politics. Interestingly enough, I could see a lot of the Spanish temperment in the Arab culture of the Egyptians. In particular, there is scene where one of the female protoganists on the verge of “giving herself” to the man she thinks she loves, and yet

She had no intention of submitting herself to him until she had satisfied her desire to be stubborn and difficult.

All in all, what I have come to realize is that we are all to blame for the problems that the world is now facing. First, in the Arab and Muslim world, we are witnessing the historic internal conflicts of an ongoing civil war between various religious factions and ethnic groups. They are not battling the West. There is no conflict of civilizations, yet internal conflicts within civilizations. Nevertheless, if we look at the map of the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and beyond, we see that we are living the legacy of 19th and 20th Century exploitation and colonialism. The Americans did not create these false barriers and empoverish these people, but the rather the British, French, Belgiums, Italians, Spanish, Germans, Austrians, and Russians. They divided up the world, incorporated companies to own and exploit nations, and drew false boundries. And yet it seems like the world is most enraged with the Americans. And still, the Americans are also to blame.

When Morgan Shuster appears in Samarkand as the Treasurer General of Persia, he does so with the greatest intentions of impartiality and incorruptibility — those values that the American people wish to believe that their government upholds in the international sphere. Sadly, he is conspired against by the Russian Czar and the British so that they may not lose control of their economic interests over Iran with no regards at the cost of the Persians’ freedom and lives.

Isn’t that what the US government appears to be doing today? The US lobbied in favor of the War in Iraq while the French and Russians lobbied just as strong against it — both with economic and political interests in mind. Just like the Russians, who subsequently invaded Persia after Shuster’s slight of diplomatic protocol, or the numerous shahs in Persian history, young soldiers and civilians died so that history could simply repeat itself ad infinitum.

The words that Amin Maalouf attributes to Morgan Shuster reflect who the US was, who the US is becoming to resemble, and the fate of it all:

I came with a very precise mission: to modernize Persia’s finances. These men have called upon us because they have faith in our institutions and the way we handle our affairs. I have no intention of disappointing them. I come from a Christian nation . . . and that means something to me. What image do the Persians have of the Christian nations today? Ultra-Christian England which appropriates their gas and ultra-Christian Russia which imposes its will on them according to the cynical law of the survival of the fittest? . . . What idea do you want them to have of us? In what world are we going to live together? Do we have a choice to offer other than to be our slaves or our enemies? Could they not be our partners and equals? Some of them fortunately continue to believe in us and our values, but how much longer will they be able to muzzle the thousands who liken Europeans to demons?

What will the Persia of tomorrow be like? That depends on how we behave and on the example we offer . . .



Filed under Digressions, Literature

18 responses to “Samarkand and how we’re all to blame

  1. James

    When the agent of currency betwixt hominid nations remains ideological, scenarios remain historically fixed.

    I am quite pleased to see my cousin is well read enough to realise that the high imperialism of the European nations is as much causal to the result.

    Although, I’ll disagree with you that politicial maneuvering is separate or different from any other form of attempted resource superiority. Just a vehicle that is a poor ruse for its intentions.

    The U.S. policies for Iraq, are certainly laughable, in context and content. The aim of the current imperialistic movement, is exactly as you stated: historia indentidem ad infinitum.

    Almost nauseating with predictability, wouldn’t you say?

    What do you think the chances are for “democracy” to take hold in Iraq, or any of these countries, for that matter?

    The Persians and Arabs have lived under tribalism for century upon century, what creates the expectation that they are willing, much less capable, of accepting a new form of governmental vehicle?

    Warfare and primality, under the steady fuel of religious fundamentalism, has always been the means, what is to force the change?

    Excellent work, thought provoking to say the least.

  2. eric


    I don’t think that democracy has a great chance in the near future of “sticking” (even though theoretically Iran is a democracy).

    In the 1910s when Iran was on the verge of developing a constitutional democracy, Russia and Britian were very much against the idea. Russia was worried, in part, by what it would mean for its own country if its southern nation became a democracy. The Czar definitely would not have liked to see such liberalism spread. The British were concerned about how an Iranian democracy would affect Britian’s stronghold over India. Would the Indians then ask for independence as well?

    Do you think that Saudia Arabia, Jordan, Syria (to name a few of Iraq’s neighbors) would be comfortable with a successful democracy in the region. Wouldn’t that destabilize their own governments? Then there is the political play. Syria trying to return to power in Lebanon. And the tribal — Saudia Arabia, a Sunni country, must definitely not like Shiite control over its neighbor Iraq. And this Shiite-Sunni conflict shows its face also in Lebanese politics and is running through the region.

    It all reminds me of the Balkans. Tito held an artificial state together that was comprised of Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbians, Muslim Bosians, and Muslim Kosovars. When Tito died (like the overthrow of Sadam), Yugoslavia came to one big civil war with everyone fighting everyone, and resulting in a multitude of new nations. The Europeans did nothing to help the genocide, and finally after much of the important destruction had been done, the US took the initiative to get the UN and Nato involved. So what lesson is to be learned? Let them fight them fight their civil war and draw their own boundries? Send in international peacekeepers and artificially hold the peace? Impose a foreign style government?

    I don’t have the faintest idea.

  3. James

    The one thing that appears abundantly clear, with respect to international politics, is that we don’t learn lessons.

    The Saudi’s, being extreme fundamentalists, (Wahhabi Sunni’s), definitely prefer the dictatorial warlord state, a free nation is an abomination to their perspective.

    My own twisted, socially unacceptable bent on this scenario is simple: Sunni and Shia, (Hatfield and McCoy?), have no reason to cohabitate peacefully, opposing fundamentalist ideologies garnered with predictable hominid avarice. We made Saddam, we should have left him in place and worked “politically” to keep him in check. The half century in Iraq is going to be bloodier yet, is my bet.

    Sometimes, yes, the best thing to do is just mind your own business, deal with what’s in your own backyard, and let the bad kids fight over the sandbox. Sun Tzu taught as much, contain them, and wait for one to eliminate the other, if they are both your “enemy”. Tactically, the most advantageous position.

    No one respects the “international peacekeepers”, the U.N. has no strength, (I think flaccid is the word), so there is no real fear of reprisal. Imposing a foreign style of government has proven to be ineffective, time and time again.

    I’m like you, there really are no direct answers that guarantee positive change.

    Besides, what’s wrong with a country minding their own business?

    Why doesn’t the U.S. take the European stance? How did we end up with the job of “policing the globe”? I certainly didn’t vote for that legislation, never would. (Definitely leaning more towards a neo-isolationist policy position 🙂 )

  4. eric

    Actually, I believe the Dole Lieberman Bill in the early 90s (which was never passed) intended to lift the arms embargo en the Balkans to allow the Bosnians to defend themselves. What was the logic? Let them fight it out and have a natural resolution?

    European passivism is actually not so passive. The European governments tacitly approve of the US military actions. European nations have invested no money in military spending, so they let the US do the dirty work for them. Thus, they enjoy the fruits of the US preemptive war and appease their populations by acting like they are against the US Empire.

    What is really sad about all of this, though, is all of the civilian deaths for nothing and then all of the US military deaths and maimings for no real concrete interest of the soldiers.

  5. James

    I think sometimes the best avenue, both politically, economically, and militarily, is, yes, to mind own business, and let these nations pay the private penalties. Yes, it’s austere, and most will writhe and gnash their teeth against human casualty, but in the end, war is not stopped by bringing the war into your own personal/national arena.

    I’m certain you won’t appreciate this, but I have to call it like I see it cousin. As far as the civilian casualities in the Iraq police action, they are as much to blame for their own demise.

    Sleeping with vipers, will invariably end in being envenomed. The Iraqi people, the citizenry, for their insistence upon dividing the entirety of the nation in the “us” “not us” mentality, is a primary problem. They divide by ethnicity, sectarianism, warlordism, etc.

    Instead of actively pressuring imams/sheiks/warloards to denounce their collusion and complicity with former Ba’athists and foreign entities, they allow it, which is advocacy. Again, individual responsibility and ownership of actions. Basically, they are getting what they ask for, otherwise, they would be in the streets beside their soldiers/police and ours.

    I’m curious about the “interest of the soldiers” statement. To my understanding, warriorhood is a willful choice, it comes with not only honor, but duty as well. Duty being precedent. No, I am not saying I feel they should be made free targets by moronic policy, as is the current case. But, necessarily, these are the risks they accept, as horrifying a prospect as that may be. (Which is why I am tired of these fools in this country with their blind partisanship prejudices, instead of denouncing the system as a whole for utter failure.)

    Personally, seeing as Bush Co. has so poorly mismanaged this conflict to the current date, they have no choice but “up the ante”, and bring in a larger contingent of soldiers and equipment, to attempt to end the conflict. Had Bush Co. pulled their collective heads out three years ago, and listend to those who told them the numbers were wrong, this might already be done with, and the puppet regime sufficiently installed.

    All things being fair and equal, it is preferable that our soldiers come home. Including those still stationed in foreign countries that wail about our continued presence.

  6. eric


    I really don’t know what the answers are. Sometimes military intervention is called for, but exactly what “preemptive war” is, I don’t know, and whatever it is, it surely has proved to be huge failure for the US in Iraq and for Israel in Lebanon. As a matter of fact, the great loss is that the US has lost its ability to scare off or deter “rouge” nations after Iraq. But what about to stop genocide?

    I also don’t think that anyone deserves to die (and yes, I am against the death penalty). I don’t think that civilians deserve to die, even if they have the governments they do deserve. Bagdad was supposedly one of the safest cities in the world prior to our invasion. Are the Iraquis better offer today than under a totalitarian regime? And I don’t think that soldiers deserve to die, even if that is a fact of life. Soldiers do either volunteer or, as in the past, are forced to serve. But we both know that USA corp. is not completely straight forward with its teenagers in the recruiting process. And is happy to send its troops to their death with no real game plan. That is what’s sad.

    And then there is the reality that it isn’t a pleasant world out there, and everyone else has left it to the US to watch over it, and then gets upset when it does. A Catch 22?

  7. James

    Definitely a double bind. But then again, we have to inquire, did we ask for the situation?

    Basic facts are simple: most U.S. citizens are willingly uninformed, willingly misinformed, willingly complacent to continue to be so … not only about politics in the current era but, maybe even more importantly, what the nature of our politics was when these policies were set in motion, prior to the first “World War” …

    I just can’t accept the premise that life is inherently unfair to anyone. The reality appears to be that people get what they ask for, just as with the two party system that now corrupts and distorts every aspect of life here, with those vectors that we call “politicians”:

    We choose to be oblivious to the obvious, escaping responsibility by saying “it’s the governments fault”.

    This is why no one can actually believe in that oh so rosey opening statement: “We, the people”

    Balderdash and hogwash. Accept the plutocratic socialism, and then pretend it never happened, Welcome to the America herd … LMAO.

    Strangely, apathy can create quite the mess out of no activity whatsoever. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

    (It will be interesting to discuss the death penalty with you at some point, always interested in how we logically justify our positions to such polarised topics, good on ya mate.)

  8. eric

    Well, James, that’s how we get back to the old democracy debate from the earlier post…people’s complacency, indifference makes democracy often weak, watered down, unsatifactory, and hence, people get the government they deserve.

  9. TheCommentKiller

    i agree with the vast majority of what eric said.

    one thing i thought wasn’t made clear was the U.S.’s reasons for being Iraq- which i my opinion are primarily about Oil. We had no altruistic intentions when we entered iraq.

    As for the comments about the average iraqi person; how the hell can we place any blame on them. What the hell would americans do if they were invaded by a foreign power? Not to mention the constant invasions of privacy, baseless imprisonment and torture, etc. etc. If anyone is innocent in this bullshit war it is the iraqi people.

    As for U.S. troops, i think JP Sartre said it best: “When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die.” These unfortunate young men and women are dying in vain getting paid 1/4 what the U.S gov’t (i.e. the taxpayers) pays Haliburtons and other private contractors people. And often times these underpaid soldiers are guarding the pvt contractors. And support amongst soldiers for the war is currently below 41%.

    As the Weatherman said it is time to “Bring the war home” now that would be an honorable war- one worth joining.

  10. eric


    One of the reason I brought up the story from Samarkand is precisely to show how in 1910, the US was very respected in Iran for having supposedly “altruistic” motives for providing services to Iran, while the Russians and British were only there to exploit the nation and Russian eventually invaded Iran in order to maintain its economic interests in Persia. The irony is that 90 years later, the US has done to Iraq exactly what Russian and Britian did to Persia. It is an uncanny example of how history repeats itself.

  11. James


    LOL, talk a walk, clarify your thought processes, and relax.

    No one is innocent, except for most of the prepubescent hominids.

    The US military presence is not the primary issue, at this point in the conflict. Your logical functions are being obfuscated by emotional conflagration.

    1. Altruism is a non-evidentiary pretense, never existed, never will.

    2. As your sibling has so pointedly elucidated, and we have concurred, the US’s intentions were obviously for resource superiority, or as policy vectors like to announce, “to protect US interests abroad”.

    3. The Iraqi people are far from “innocent”, unless collusion and complicity have taken on new definitions, of which I am unawares.

    So you ask, “what would Americans do if they were invaded by a foreign power?”

    Not so difficult to understand. Leaving aside my proclivities for the genetic history of hominid nature, it can just be called straight: the greatest majority would wage outright war against the invaders, only the few opting to cooperate. Our populace is, as the abject media states so frequently, “dangerously armed to the teeth”. It is a simple deduction.

    Sartre is certainly not one I would quote, although claimed to be an existentialist, his philosophies were constantly, and openly, debased by his personal politics. His quote is not only aphilosophical, it is deluded. For most of human history, the soldier, the warrior, was the elite, (as they were part of landholders class), and it was a furtherance of their aristocratic station in being a warrior, and being “able” to afford weapons and armor.

    Sartre’s commentary, is mostly geared at the modern era of warfare, and has little usability outside of politics. You also need to remember another colloquialism, regarding quoting numbers: “there’s lies, damn lies, and statistics”. Whether any soldier “supports” the war ideologically/politically, is of little value, to themself, or to an argumentative proposition.

    None of this is meant to indicate a complacent attitude towards the current condition, with respect to the service members. Warriorhood should maintain a place of honor, to have any value. Dying in an unwinnable police action, is anything but honorable.


    I don’t know about “uncanny”. It appears to be the incessant prestidigitation caused by hominid stupidity and nugatory attentiveness, that perpetuates the error of historical repetition.

    Beatitudine, mia familia.

  12. TheCommentKiller

    James i agree, after a long walk (LOL), with pretty much everything you have said in the most recent post.

    i was a bit grumpy last night, as i was (and still am) working on a bullshit case (hey, i could use some good lexis research) and i am not happy about spending my weekend on this case (although in general i don’t mind working beyond the typical 9-5… just this case does not seem to have happy ending for anyone).

  13. James

    LOL, well, agreement wasn’t necessary, but obviously the walk was most sorely needed.

    Actually, it makes my words come with greater ease, when you don’t agree … LOL.

    I know, I’m awful.


    (let me know what you need, and I’ll see if I can help)

  14. TheCommentKiller

    sorry i didn’t get back to this quodlibet (a word i just learned today) sooner, but i have been swamped.

    Thanks for the offer on the research front. I ended up doing little legal research and just sticking with the facts.

    Anyway. Let’s hope Eric starts a new quodlibet soon.

  15. eric

    Let’s hope he does because, frankly, all of this Lyle Lovett and Carole King nonsensical fluff is really trying my patience.

  16. James

    Thanks for the offer on the research front. I ended up doing little legal research and just sticking with the facts.

    LOL … that’s one of the greatest legal counsel quotes ever.

    I’m hiring you for my defense.

  17. TheCommentKiller

    it is a freaking divorce case and we were arguing over custody and visitation, what kind of law does one need? The wife denied all visitaiton since Sept with the exception of 1 visit despite the fact that the parties signed a liberal visitation order.

    I did use one case that said if wife persistently denies visitation then custody should be given to the father.

  18. TheCommentKiller

    well i guess i was wrong. i just found a law review article entitled: “Father? What Father? Parental Alienation and its effect on Children.” The shit is hot, i wish i had found that earlier. i did cite the chief case in the article, the article has great rhetoric.

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