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Things Fall Apart

Lee Smith

The era of of “Arab” unity may be coming to an end and the map of the Middle East may be about to change.

Damascus — The cabaret girls are Russian, but the singer is pure Syrian—and also, says my friend Ibrahim embarrassedly, very gay. We are in one of Damascus’s dozen or so super night-clubs, where wealthy Arabs come to lose money to blue-eyed blondes. Most of the men are Syrians, says Ibrahim, a Syrian himself, but there are others as well, including Gulf Arabs, the region’s most profligate spenders. The singer calls out to the audience, acknowledging the members of the larger Arab nation by their particular state. “To the Jordanians,” he sings out, and a man across from us tips his beer in response and smiles. It seems that Ibrahim is the only one here uncomfortable about the singer’s sexual identity. Next he calls out, “To the people of Iraq—especially the heroic figures of Falluja.” The man sitting next to us, with a mustache characteristic of the Arab officer-class and a full bottle of Absolut before him nods his head, smiles and shakes the singer’s hand warmly.

Now I am uncomfortable, and though Ibrahim laughs, he agrees that we should go. Who knows how many friendly rivers of vodka might course between us and the increasingly drunken and happy man from Falluja, but we are somewhat out of place here since I’m American and Ibrahim, whose name is really Abraham, is a Jew.

Damascus is still the beating heart of Arabism and one of the centers of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. But the Middle East is in transition. There are almost 500,000 Iraqis now living in Syria, many of them Sunni—though not all them friends of Falluja. Since the Israeli siege of Lebanon, an estimated 150,000 Lebanese refugees have crossed the border out of the South and the Bekaa valley, almost all of them Shiite. If Washington, contrary to Arab fears, has no intention of redrawing the regional map, the fact is that the Iraq war has unleashed local furies that have a stake in remaking the Middle East. It will not look like your father’s Arab world, but during the current transition parts of it resemble what your great-grandfather might have recognized as bits of the Ottoman Empire.

Even the “Russians,” as Abraham describes women from the former Soviet states, are not new to the region. “The Ottoman pashas always married slave girls from the Balkans,” he says. When Abraham and I first met last year, he told me he was from a Jewish family. Now he is unwilling to talk about his heritage. “Why make a big deal out of it, if it just causes trouble?” he says. “And besides, we’re all just Syrians anyway.” I point out that he is contradicting himself: If it’s not a big deal in this one, big, happy Syrian family, then why not talk about it?

I can see why he chooses to ignore me. Bashar al-Asad is Islamicizing Syria at a pace that would have alarmed his late father, even if the old man’s regime, its press, and educational system, was hardly philo-Semitic. There are publicity photos of Bashar the Alawite praying like a good Sunni; and he has so fervently embraced Hamas and Hezbollah that his passion seems to encompass their ideological afflatus, too.

Arabs and western Arabists typically describe Israel as a European invention stuck right in the center of a region where it does not belong, but this is ignoring the fact that almost half of the Jewish state’s population originated not in Europe, or Russia, or even Brooklyn, but in the Middle East. The Jews belong here as much as the other Middle Eastern minorities do, the Christians, Shiites, Alawites, and Kurds. The difference is that many of these minorities, unlike the Jews in Israel, have signed on, willingly or not, to the triumphalist Sunni Arab narrative: We are all Arabs. It seems as though eventually this fiction will collapse and some of these minorities will, like Israel, want their own states.

For decades now “Arabs” in the Middle East have feared Washington’s ostensible designs to divide and weaken them. (Despite the obvious fact that America is working hard to see that Iraq, for instance, does not break into three parts.) But a region-wide reshuffling may be in the cards anyway. What might that look like?

Perhaps Washington is most anxious about its NATO ally Turkey and how it would deal with a separate Kurdish state. But the time may be coming when the Kurds will weigh their choices and might prefer fighting for an independent Kurdistan to defending themselves against their Iraqi compatriots.

Whether or not Israel manages to kill Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon may be immaterial. If his catastrophic foreign policy loses the Shiite population, the political gains Hezbollah’s arms may have earned it over the last 20 years could evaporate. Who is to say that the 150,000 refugees now in Syria will return to Lebanon, rather than head east to Iraq, where Shiites are ascendant?

Perhaps Syria will return to the days of its ancient Umayyad glory with an unquestionably Sunni Arab empire, and the minority Alawites will move to the Syrian coast, an escape hatch designed ages ago by Hafez al-Asad. The Mediterranean then would be lined with a strip of regional minorities turned toward the West, Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Jews.

Maybe the answer to the region’s violence, the refusal of its citizens to accept difference, is in these fragments.

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