This past week has been one of Remembrance, not least because of Remembrance Day/ Veterans’ Day on November the 11th. It made me think about the role of history, collective memory, and family heritage in shaping world view, and an individual’s perception of current events.
In Saudi Arabian history, the Ottoman-Saudi War between Egypt under the Ottomans and the First Saudi State (1811-1818), which included the Al-Saud as well as the primary Al-Wahhab tribe, is significant, but somewhat better known in the West is The Great Arab Revolt. A part of WWI, it is more important to Saudi than other fronts of “The Great War”, particularly as the Sultanate of Nejd, the Hashemites under the Sherif of Makkah, Hussein bin Ali, and irregular, mainly Bedouin, troops under Prince Faisal and TE Lawrence joined with regular Arab and British forces to defeat the Ottomans. The Middle Eastern Theatre of the War, and the Arabia and Southern Arabia Campaigns are addressed little in the West but helped draw contemporary maps and conflicts. Battles were fought in major centres of what is now Saudi Arabia starting from Makkah, then Jeddah, Madinah, Taif, Al Lith, Yanbu, Aqaba, Wadi Musa, and Damascus, a major Ottoman stronghold.
The Saudi-Yemeni War of 1934 establishing Al-Saud control over disputed territories probably has greater significance in Saudi than in the West despite a write-up in Time Magazine on May 14, 1934 ARABIA: Fall of Yemen. Border disputes and questionable allegiances are again present in the most recent Saudi-Yemen conflict.
WWII, in which Saudi stayed neutral until declaring war against the Axis in March 1945, may not be as important in Saudi collective memory as later wars of independence across MENA, which are largely in the background of Western consciousness--except perhaps for the Six-Day War of June 5-10, 1967 to which Saudi contributed troops, and where they suffered losses.
However, the Middle Eastern Campaigns of WWII determined much about what was being configured around Saudi Arabia, in Iraq, the Levant, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Aden. The end of the war, when Saudi sided with the US, led almost directly over the next very few years to the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956.
I grew up with the idea of Canada’s heroism in WWI (Vimy Ridge) and WWII (Dieppe), the cannon fodder theory (Canadian troops in front, UK and US behind), and a nation of peace keepers: Lester Bowles Pearson, then a Canadian Diplomat, later Prime Minister, originally suggested the idea of a UN peace keeping force to maintain the tentative peace among Great Britain, France, Israel, and Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956, and won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for it.
Largely unmentioned were Canada’s role in the 19th Century Boer War, and in the 20th Century Korean War; and, the Vietnam War happened to someone else. However, there were Canadian vets of the other wars of the 20th Century, including individuals who served in Vietnam with US forces. Trust me; there is nothing that strikes fear in the heart of an ER physician or psychiatrist like “Vietnam vet…on something…maybe PCP (Angel Dust)”.
The European theatre, rather than Pacific or North African one, during WWI and WWII, was the prime subject of study and commemoration. For WWI the French Front was in the history texts, not the others; including the Italian one, which I learned more of only recently, even though it had a major impact on my family’s personal history. Discovering that the front line wavered back and forth through my paternal grandfather’s home region of Italy, through his home town, his college town, and the main railway town, gave greater prescience to my great-grandmother’s urging him to leave the country as there was about to be a war. She, of course, meant to move temporarily to Ticino, the Italian region of Switzerland, whereas he left for Montreal and never returned.
The disastrous Battle of Caporetto, on the Italian Front in WWI, is what gave rise to the myth of Italian cowardice in battle, a myth that would serve WWII propagandists well. Squandered by an Italian General’s ineptitude, and mowed down by superior Austrian and German forces, many of the Italians who weren’t among the 11,000 killed, 20,000 wounded, and 265,000 taken prisoner, deserted.
Ernest Hemingway was there, and captured the aftermath of the battle in his novel, A Farewell to Arms.
Only recently, when curious about whether literary scholarship in Post-Colonialism extended to Italian literature, did I discover Italian colonialism in a more graphic way; and, on meeting Libyan students, in a more personal way. The myth of Italian cowardice in fighting doesn’t resonate with them—far from it. They know, and have family recall of the colonial wars when 20-50% of the Libyan population died, most in forced marches through the desert and prison camps, and Omar Mukhtar’s “trial”.
It wasn’t until I lived in Hong Kong that I learned of the Canadian presence in the Pacific theatre and the Battle of Hong Kong. More cannon fodder theory too! The small British garrison had recently received reinforcements. Along with the Indians and the Scots, the Canadian troops were newly arrived, with no battle experience, and had been sent only in the hope that the Japanese could be slowed, not stopped, for at least 3 weeks.
The Japanese overran the Gin Drinker’s Line in 3 days, and the Allied troops began retreating onto Hong Kong Island, over 2 more days, with the Rajput Battalion fighting the rearguard action, until on the 5th day the colony fell.
Canada is currently reshaping our history teaching, to the public at large, to aspiring citizens, and to public school students. On this account, we are more active combatants than peace keepers. This is evident in the news, on the streets, and in Remembrance Day ceremonies. In a conversation about Remembrance Day with an older friend, the daughter of an elderly WWII vet, we initially wandered through the politicization of this year’s memorial services. We discussed how the 60th anniversary of the ending of WWII saw scandalously little official recognition, whereas the one this week was filled with pomp and official circumstance.
Even our next head of state, Crown Prince Charles, and our future Princess morganatic, Duchess Camilla, attended in appropriate regalia.
Prince Charles, Lieutenant-General of the Canadian Forces, wore his full dress Canadian military uniform, as did our Commander-in-Chief, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative as head of state, Governor General Michaëlle Jean, a Haitian-French-Quebecker-Canadian, married to a Frenchman, wear hers. Their daughter, Marie-Éden, an adopted Haitian girl, was not present.
While my friend and I agreed that it is all political, she is incensed on behalf of her father, and I think the Conservative government is pandering to the Canadian Right, and ginning up militarily to keep combat troops in Afghanistan or where ever else Obama wants us. Even McGill Students honoured Remembrance Day with Afghanistan in mind.
We then moved on to Major Hasan, whose victims were also remembered this week. In the blogosphere John Burgess of Crossroads Arabia has an excellent series of posts and comments documenting the events and the international press response, the most recent in the series being “Two more Approaches to Major Hasan”; and Jehanzeb of Muslim Reverie has written on the events from the perspective of the implications for Muslim Americans, in “No One Hijacked Islam”.
On this topic my friend and I departed intellectual company rather dramatically—or at least as dramatically as 2 professional women in a café can manage. She is too polite and cautious to say Islamic jihad or 5th column but it was there in the undertones of her impression of the events at Fort Hood. She then asked, my impression “shrink to shrink”.
Having asked the question, she didn’t like the answer: that a highly ethical officer was put in an untenable ethical conflict of values, was not allowed an honourable way out, and faced with imminent deployment, had a psychotic break—no previous psychiatric history necessary, no prior terrorist intent evident.
She also didn’t like my proofs: the army promoting him recently; his academic presentation calling for conscientious objector status for Muslim Americans; his research on extremists in the interest of improving care for American Muslims in the US military, and his attempts to resolve his conflict of conscience through ethical channels—remaining stateside, or leave the military and pay back whatever monies were owed for his education.
My medical, academic, and Abrahamic cultures clashed with her corporate, military, and Christian ones. By the time we got to a thorough discussion of conscientious objector status we were right back to which immigrants were allowed to serve in WWI and WWII in which theatres, and our respective Italian Canadian, and German Canadian family heritages.
My Moroccan husband grew up learning of Morocco’s place in international history.During WWI Morocco was a newly created French Protectorate, having lost the war against colonization in 1912. Some Moroccans served in the Troupes Coloniales, Armée d’Afrique in WWI, under French officers of course.
and again in WWII:
Régiment d'infanterie-chars de marine, a Moroccan regiment, and the most decorated of the war
We have both met enough Moroccan veterans of the French military to know how collective political and social issues have impacted their individual lives in terms of stigma, envy, and (lack of) military pensions or recognition.
Similar issues run more stormily through French-Algerian history, and play out in French politics to this day, with the extreme right Front National being openly racist and xenophobic. Its founding president, Jean Marie Le Pen, spent his military service torturing Algerians, and now, when not politicking against all non-Gallic non-Roman Catholic inhabitants of
Le Pen also forced 3 time FIFA World Player of the Year, Zinedane Zidane (Zizou), out of his apolitical stance to defend his father against false charges by LePen and his surrogate that Zidane was a “fils de l’Algérie française”, implying either a non-Frenchman or a traitor to Algeria, and that his father was a harki, that is, served with the French Forces against Algerians in Algeria, during the war of decolonization--a charge that still carries very negative connotations. Faced with death threats before the 2001 France-Algeria match, Zidane finally broke his silence on his personal life, and issued a statement identifying his father as a proud Algerian from the Kabyle, and denying that he was ever a harki.
Le Pen, was further unhappy that the face of the championship French National Soccer team, whom so many fêted, bore the features of French colonialism.
Similarly, my husband’s family history is more marked by colonization and decolonization. Older family members have a perfect “Bonjour, comment-allez vous?” even if no other French. Those who were schooled by the French during the time of the Protectorate lack high level standard Arabic linguistic and literary skills. Some used their French education to work for the French by day and against the French by night, as members of the Moroccan underground. Hmmm, “terrorists” in my midst?
Although he was born post-Independence, his generation still bear the sequelae of “colonization syndrome”, sensitivity to racism, to discrimination, and to implications (intended or not) of cultural inferiority. Early in our relationship I once used the word “civilization” (referencing tomato chopping styles) humorously and got a negative reaction, as it is/was one of the buzzwords of French Colonialism. Over the course of our relationship, other differences of cultural interpretation or heritage have resulted in other occasional infelicities of word choice. While we are generally diplomatic, understanding, and appreciate each other’s intent, a very few other in-laws have chosen not to be so generous.
Saudi-American, like other Arab/non-Arab or Muslim/non-Muslim, couples have perhaps faced some of their greatest challenges post-9/11, an event which has altered international relationships, resulted in global traveling challenges for all, and greatly impacted the general view of Muslims, Arabs, and perhaps Saudis in particular, given the nationalities of the hijackers and the origins of the instigators. Though Saudis themselves reject this action, both officially and personally, border guards, airport officers, and some non-Saudis are less understanding.
9/11 is now part of the international historical fabric for all, with each of us bringing a cultural/religious and perhaps family heritage to our understanding. If there is one thing currently certain about the Major Hasan shooting at Fort Hood, it is that cultural tensions underpinned it, and colour the reactions to it.
Closer to home:
What differences of cultural and family history have impacted your relationships?
How do you resolve these?
If you are a Saudi abroad, what impact has your understanding of world history/current events had on your relationship with the nationals where you are?
What are your children learning in school that is similar to or different than their family heritage(s)?
How does the teaching of history evolve in the countries you are familiar with, including Saudi, and what impact does that teaching have on the world view of the citizenry?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?