Sunday, May 14, 2006

Manageing change in the Middle East

Anthony Shadid, veteran reporter for the Washington Post, has an interesting article on his return to his ancestral home in Lebanon, Marjayoun. It says a lot about the changes that have happened in the Middle East in the last century, and goes a long way towards explaining why the region has so much trouble overcoming the legacy of colonialism.

Colonialism alone is not enough to explain why the region remains torn by conflict and underdevelopment. Poor governance on the part of local rulers and military leaders has a huge part to play in that. But to understand why it has been so hard for so many communities in the region to flourish in the post colonial period, you have to understand the deep changes that occured in the Middle East. I lost the original link from the Washington Post, but found a link to the story here.

As Shadid writes:

When Beirut was a provincial capital at the turn of the century, Marjayoun was said to rival it in size. It once had four newspapers, and its schools -- with instruction in English and French -- remain the region's envy. For much of its history, it looked beyond modern-day Lebanon to Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Beirut was an afterthought; life revolved around trading with less-remote towns such as Haifa, Damascus and Quneitra nestled in the Golan Heights.

Dictated by the French in 1923, Lebanon's modern-day borders changed that. Even more disruptive was the creation of Israel in 1948. New borders were drawn with Syria's loss of the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967. Centuries-old trade routes were severed, and land holdings were arbitrarily partitioned. During Lebanon's civil war, which began in 1975, Marjayoun was run by a local militia, somewhat vaingloriously named the South Lebanon Army; Israel later occupied it, turning it into a battlefield with Hezbollah.
Local political elites who got control of the new states in the region also played a huge part in making the impact of such divisions greater, and in pursuing a narrow ethnic Arab nationalism that destroyed much of the long practiced tolerance and diversity of the region. Ask people where their families came from and you find Yemeni roots in families in Jordan, Iranian roots of some families in Syria, Turkish roots in people who are now Egyptian, and so on. In the creation of modern nation states in the Middle East the region lost a lot of its Greek, Jewish, Turkish and Armenian populations, and lost something of itself.

Modernity has not been kind to the Middle East on lot of levels, and the region is still struggling to cope with and adapt to the changes it brought about. The change has not always been well managed, but it was not helped by so much outside intervention.

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