Andrew Trovalusci

The ‘Lines in the Sand’ Myth

The idea that European colonialism is the original cause of modern day political strife in the Middle East is a popular one both in academia and amongst large sections of the general public. It originated in political science literature in the 20th century but has been ham-fistedly revived in the 21st, particularly in the context of the Syrian Civil War.

The narrative goes that the region was greedily carved up by the British and French empires following their victory over the Ottomans in the Great War. Bumbling colonial administrators drew straight lines in the sand, bounding territory arbitrarily and mixing peoples with arrogant disregard for differences in culture, ethnicity or religion. The resultant states were thus internally divided, unstable and weak – and it’s our fault. While it might be funny to point out the worrying implications this might have for our own enthusiastically multi-cultural society, it’s easier and more effective just to point out that it’s false. In actual fact, the states created by the much-maligned Sykes-Picot agreement have their roots in the pre-war Middle East and were starting to take shape in the 19th century as a result of various Ottoman attempts at reform.

Ironically, most who blame colonialism and Sykes-Picot for strife in the modern Middle East are doing a ‘Eurocentrism’ (a term you’ve certainly heard if you’ve spent any time as a humanities student) by exaggerating the impact of European empires and downplaying the importance of the Ottoman Empire. It’s high time we decolonise our thinking and give deserved credit to the Ottoman Empire for sowing the seeds of destruction in the fields of Iraq and Syria.

Syria, or ‘Suriyya’ as it was then known, began to take shape as a political entity in the mid-19th century as a result of a series of infrastructure improvements that connected previously isolated highlands with the cities of the coastal area of Bilad al-Sham. The creation of the Beirut-Damascus highway by French entrepreneurs encouraged more European commercial activity in the region as Beirut became the link between a significant portion of the Ottoman empire and the industrial economies of Europe.

Prior to the creation of the highway, Syria’s dismal transportation infrastructure left the region fractured and much of its population isolated. Improvements connected people in isolated hinterlands to participate in the economies of the wider region, uniting diverse and divided peoples together and forging a regional (and later national) identity. This infrastructural development occurred parallel with the aforementioned intellectual development that created ‘Suriyya’ out of Bilad al-Sham and the surrounding area. In 1863 local administrative boundaries were redrawn and the province of Suriyya was made concrete for the first time.

Syria was not the only state with a formation that predates Sykes-Picot, either – Iraq developed similarly. Iraq in the early 19th century was even more of an infrastructural backwater than rural Syria. While the main artery of 19th century Syria was the road, in Iraq it was the canal. Steamships in the 1860s cut the journey time from Baghdad to Basra down to just ten days while before it had been four weeks. Just as the Beirut-Damascus highway connected Syria to the world and to European trade, canal routes through the Persian gulf were what connected Iraq.

Although Iraq was never unified as a single province under the Ottomans like Syria was, the group of territories it comprised were referred to commonly by Ottoman administrators as ‘Iraq’ from as early as the sixteenth century. The skeleton of an Iraqi state can be seen also in the actions of the army, which was often organised in Iraq as a separate unit of its own with a headquarters in Baghdad, irrespective of the boundaries of local government. Despite the existence of religious and ethnic differences in both of these nascent states, importantly, all Iraqis rose up against British rule in 1920 as Iraqis and all Syrians rose against the French in 1925 as Syrians.

So we’ve established that Syria and Iraq, at least, were not entities made up by imperialists for their own convenience but rather nations that had formed organically out of a period of upheaval and transformation. However, the 19th century created a lot of disunity as well as unity in the region.

From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, poor infrastructure, low literacy rates and the relative remoteness of much of the Middle East meant that religious doctrine could not exert as commanding an influence as it could elsewhere and there was significant blurring and admixture of local communities. In the most isolated areas, lines between Christian and Muslim, and Shia and Sunni communities were blurred such that it was difficult to distinguish between them.

However, Ottoman constitutional reforms – known collectively as the ‘Tanzimat’ (‘reorganisation’) – crystallised this distinction by granting non-Muslims full legal equality with Muslims. The removal of the privileged position of Muslims in the Ottoman empire came at a crucial time of increasing European commercial dominance and penetration. Some Muslim textile workers thus began to resent Christian counterparts who, they felt, were gaining the upper hand on them thanks to connections with Europe and the preference of European merchants to do business with Christians. Local elite, who sought to preserve their power by opposing the Tanzimat were then able to use this to their advantage by framing their opposition to reforms in ethnoreligious terms, fanning the flames of sectarianism. The starkest example of this phenomenon reaching boiling point is the 1860 Damascus riots in which between 5,500 and 8,000 Christians were killed.

In this we can see clearly patterns of sectarianism and a political landscape that is very similar to what we have today. The only thing preventing large-scale violence from occurring up until the 20th century was the existence of the Ottoman state and the authority of the Sultan. However, the Ottoman Empire had territorially been in slow retreat since 1683 and modernisation – attempts to create a Western-style Weberian state – had repeatedly failed or achieved only partial success. The truth is that the importance of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the post-WW1 colonial settlement in the Middle East is massively overstated in comparison to the events of the mid-to-late 19th century, which are massively understated.

The problem isn’t so much that a common misconception exists – history is full of them and this is by no means one of the most egregious – it’s that this falsehood is used in bad faith as a political weapon. It’s a narrative that fits nicely into a far-Left view of the world wherein the shadow of colonialism still lies over the whole world and is responsible for all evil and conflict. It is used to bash British people over the head with guilt so they take responsibility for all that goes wrong in the Middle East, particularly with regard to contentious topics such as asylum seekers, foreign aid and military intervention. ‘It’s our fault, you know,’ they say. It’s pernicious and ultimately ahistorical.

Photo Credit.

Deconstructing Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack was an American animated TV series that premiered on Cartoon Network in 2001 and ran for, eventually, five seasons. The story follows the adventure of an unnamed samurai travelling through a dystopian future governed by a demonic wizard named Aku. What makes Samurai Jack unique is the moral paradigm that can be read into the central premise of the plot, neatly summarised by the tagline of the opening sequence: ‘Gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack.’

The world that the samurai fights to destroy – a world corrupted at every level by Aku’s evil – is unambiguously modern in character. When he is cast through a time portal at the end of the first episode, he falls out into the squalid depths of a futuristic inner city ghetto. He drops out of the sky into a world of towering black skyscrapers, massive electronic billboard advertisements and sky-streets jammed with flying motorcars. The thunderous roar of the city’s traffic disorients and terrifies him.

After barely surviving his dramatic entrance, he is greeted by some locals who give him the name ‘Jack’ and speak to him in what is easily recognisable as a modern urban patois. ‘Yo, Jack! That was some awesome show!’ ‘Word! Jack was all ricochetically jump-a-delic!’ Their manner of speech contrasts heavily with Jack’s own old-fashioned and deliberately measured standard English. When Jack hesitantly asks where he is, he is told by these odd strangers that he is in the ‘central hub’ of Sector D. This is a placeless place, devoid of history or culture and labelled a ‘hub’ of a ‘sector’ in familiarly modern and soulless bureaucratic fashion.

Jack then stumbles into a seedy nightclub where he becomes even more distressed than before. He holds his hands to his ears, desperate to block out the loud, thumping techno music, and looks around wild-eyed at a room full of scantily-clad dancers and hideous aliens with bionic body parts. This new world is too bright and too loud for Jack. The world he came from is tranquil, soft and full of flower-filled meadows, rolling hills and beautiful snow-topped mountains. Aku’s world is vulgar, harsh and obnoxious. Jack is a man out of time, questing through the future in order to return to the past. He fights to turn the clock back in order to prevent the world around him from ever existing and to save the world he once knew. The tale of Samurai Jack is a reactionary, luddite Odyssey.

The first scene of the first episode is like something out of a bad psychedelic trip or a nightmarish fever dream. Everything is uncanny – the sun and moon are too large, the landscape is barren and red and the lone piece of flora in the scene is a twisted black tree. The giant moon eclipses the sun, shooting red lightning through the sky as the tree twists and morphs into the demon Aku. This terrifying moment, complete with deliberately unsettling sound effects, masterfully introduces the show’s main antagonist. It is also a prime example of Tartakovsky’s use of the environment instead of dialogue to evoke emotion and convey information about his characters.

Aku is able to see Jack through a magic mirror at all times, he can shapeshift endlessly and is immune to all physical weapons. Aku is more than a demon wizard – he is a malevolent god. He is informed instantly of Samurai Jack’s arrival in the future by his informant network that, throughout the show, seems to extend into every nook and cranny of the universe. Aku’s armies are inexhaustible, dwarfed only in size by the intergalactic mining operation he employs to sustain it. The entire universe is in the grip of an Orwellian state in the service of a quasi-Gnostic demiurge. The central premise of the show itself implies the extent of Aku’s dominance – dominance so complete as to be completely insurmountable, and able to be defeated only through time travel. Genndy Tartakovsky’s finest creation is a kids TV show set in a world that is incomprehensibly awful, where the main character faces completely hopeless odds and the main antagonist is all-powerful. Jack stands alone, armed only with a magic sword and the power of righteousness, and yet it somehow feels as though Aku fears him more than he fears Aku.

For the first four seasons Jack is an unchanging constant as the setting around him is repeatedly changed in line with his journey. Dialogue and character development are conspicuously limited in contrast to many other shows, but this speaks to the genius of Samurai Jack’s unique formula. The relationship between the main character and the setting are reversed – Jack is the unchanging stage. The story takes place around him but he stays the same, dressed in his characteristic white robes, forever a fish out of water. The only exceptions to this rule are the first episode, where Jack’s character is established, and the final season on Adult Swim, which takes a different and more mature tack.

Genndy Tartakovsky’s work for Cartoon Network is understandably constrained by limits of what is appropriate for children to watch before school, but when the show was moved to Adult Swim it became free to explore darker themes. For the first four seasons, Jack turns his deadly sword on his robotic and demonic enemies only. This allowed Tartakovsky to showcase Jack’s skill, defeating hordes of enemies that sometimes cover the entire horizon, without any graphic violence. The fact that Jacks opponents until the final season remain the minions of Aku, which are overwhelmingly robots, rather than the flesh-and-blood inhabitants of his fallen world is another way in which Aku and his evil are made to seem industrial in character, in opposition to noble, agrarian Samurai Jack.

The entire show is hand-drawn without outlines so that characters blend into their backgrounds. Lineless drawings give the animation a rudimentary, child-like appeal as well as greater flexibility with regard to proportions so that all of the characters’ movements feel powerful and dynamic. Action scenes are one of the great strengths of Tartakovsky’s cartoons – evident in Star Wars the Clone Wars (2003) earlier in his career right through to Primal, which aired just recently in 2019. All of this combined with the use of comic book-esque screen framing make the series feel more like a graphic novel come to life or an anime series than a Western kids cartoon. What’s more, Samurai Jack accomplishes this without sacrificing childish entertainment value.

However, what makes Samurai Jack stand out in a sea of well-animated cartoons is the story. Jack is a unique character that represents a sentiment not often explored in visual media – the sense of longing for a world you’re not even sure exists, or ever existed. The world around Jack is fetid and evil – but the world he remembers, was it ever truly as good as he remembers it to be? Was the world that was ever free of the corruption and evil that so disgusts him about the world – the ‘world that is Aku’ – that he fights to undo? Jack’s sense of alienation is deeper than that of a stranger in a strange land – he is a man trapped at the wrong place in time entirely. Not only is the world foreign, but everything is laced with and governed by Aku’s evil. The very ground on which he walks, the air through which he moves, is hostile to him. In our world where seemingly nothing can escape the plastic-coated grip of modernity, this cartoon asks whether it really is so crazy to feel like you’ve gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack.

Photo Credit.

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