Hisham Melhem writes: On Dec. 11, 2016, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Syria’s most consequential public intellectual in the last half-century, died in Berlin. He was 82 years old. In his last conscious days, Azm, like numerous other Syrian exiles, watched from afar the slow, methodical massacre of rebel-held eastern Aleppo. For a man who struggled for half a century against Arab tyranny, intellectual vacuity, socio-economic injustice, and sectarian and ethnic bigotry, it must have been particularly cruel to see the victory of these forces in the physical destruction of Aleppo, the jewel of Syria’s ancient and famed cities. From the heady days of intellectual debates over the perennial question of “what went wrong” in the Arab world to his last deathbed moments of solitude and sober reflection, Azm was a critical witness to the Arabs’ long descent into the heart of darkness.
Fifty years after Azm and other Arab intellectuals started to mercilessly deconstruct their ossified political orders, reactionary and primitive religious structures, and stagnant societies, the Arab world has descended further into darkness. Physical, intellectual, and political desolation has claimed many of the once lively metropolises of the Arab region — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Mosul, Cairo, and Alexandria — with only Beirut still resisting, albeit teetering on the edge. For centuries, these cities constituted a rich human and linguistic mosaic of ancient communities including Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, and Circassians. In modern times, they were joined by Greek, Armenian, and Italian communities. A vibrant cosmopolitanism found home in the port cities of Alexandria and Beirut and the cities of the hinterland, such as Aleppo, Damascus, and Baghdad.
As a teenager roaming the streets of Beirut, I would hear a babel of languages: Arabic, French, English, Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish. Admittedly, that thriving cosmopolitanism had its drawbacks amid a brittle world of uncertainties and inequalities. The rural hinterland was populated by resentful peasants, who could see and envy from afar the shimmering lights of the forbidden cities and their hidden rewards.
As a young man, I witnessed the surprising outburst of enthusiasm that arose in the wake of the collective Arab disbelief and humiliation following the swift, crushing defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan at the hands of Israel in six days. The war allowed Israel to seize Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the West Bank and Gaza and eventually marked the death knell for the idea of Arab nationalism embodied by Egypt’s then-president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Initially, most Arabs sought refuge in denial, refusing to admit that their military rout was emblematic of deeper rotten cultural maladies and social defects and instead calling the disastrous defeat a temporary “setback.” Many wanted badly to believe that Israel’s victory was achieved only because of Western machinations and deception, since it was almost an article of faith among many Arab nationalists, leftists, and Islamists that Israel was an “artificial entity” — an extension of imperialism in the Arab East.
The belief among Arabs that their armies would prevail in the war was almost universal. I was 17 years old then, and I still vividly remember the searing pain I felt, mixed with unadulterated rage directed mostly against the self-appointed guardians of Arab patrimony.
Fifty years after the defeat, the brittle world the Arabs built is unraveling in civil wars fought with abandon by cruel men supported by equally cruel foreign and regional marauders. Ancient cities that survived many an invader now lay in ruins in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Schools and hospitals, places of worship, bakeries and pharmacies — all were repeatedly violated by governments and rebels. Millions of bereft souls wandered over large swaths of scorched earth before fleeing their countries, by choice or by force, forming rivers of refugees and spilling over into neighboring lands and then scattering across Europe. A tragic modern version of the “Middle Passage” has taken place in the Mediterranean, whose deceptively calm waves became the watery graves of many a refugee braving the sea on rickety, overflowing boats operated by greedy seamen, the slave traders of yesteryear. In the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, Arabs — who barely constitute 5 percent of the world’s population — burdened the world with more than 50 percent of its refugees.
Today, Arabs find themselves living in the shadow of more powerful non-Arab neighbors: Israel, Turkey, and Iran. In both Syria and Iraq, the concept of a unitary national identity has collapsed along sectarian and ethnic fault lines, thus deepening political, social, and cultural polarizations and making the reunification of both countries all but impossible. Egypt, once a regional power, has been thoroughly marginalized politically in the last few decades, remaining afloat economically only because of handouts from the Arab Gulf states. The vaunted Egyptian military is even incapable of imposing its total sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula. It finds itself reliant on the might of the Israeli Air Force — the same air force that decimated Egyptian air power on June 5, 1967 — in the fight against the so-called Islamic State and other extremists.
Cairo has ceased to be the cultural mecca of the Arabs, with none of its universities, research centers, laboratories, publications, studios, or galleries producing meaningful science, knowledge, or art. Beirut, the imperfect liberal oasis of my youth, is meanwhile being suffocated by an ossified, corrupt, and feudal political system and by a predatory, cunning, and ruthless paramilitary force: Hezbollah. The group is among the most lethal nonstate actors in the world, serving effectively as Iran’s foreign legion — a Shiite version of the famed Ottoman Janissaries. [Continue reading…]