Arabs Relying on Britain and Israel for their History?

Robert Fisk  highlights  a serious problem in studying contemporary Middle Eastern politics and history- the lack of access to archives:

LONDON: In Damascus, a massive statue of the late President Hafez Al-Assad sits on a mighty iron chair outside the 22,000 square meters Assad Library, a giant book open in his right hand.

Behind him lie the archives of his dictatorship. But not a single state paper is open to the people of Syria. There are no archives from the foreign ministry or the interior ministry or the defense ministry. There is no 30-year rule — for none is necessary. The rule is forever. There is no Public Record Office in the Arab world, no scholars waiting outside the National Archives.

It is the same in Cairo, in Riyadh, in Beirut and in Tripoli. Dictatorships and caliphates do not give away their secrets. The only country in the Middle East where you can burrow through the files is called Israel — and good for the Israelis.

Fisk is spot-on.  On any controversial or sensitive political or security issue, researchers, Arab or foreign, have almost no chance of getting access to the local records, which is critical.   After all, noone could write a decisive book about the First World War if they had access to only the French archives but not the German, or vice versa.    In Europe, one can get access to the most sensitive documents, at least after 30 years, and we have a pretty decisive understanding of the events of the First and Second World Wars.   Not so in the Middle East.   Take for example,  Arabs_at_War: Military Effectiveness 1948-1991, an overall outstanding book.   The one thing that sticks out, however, is that 99% of the sources used are American or Israeli, which is a serious problem.  That being said,  there aren’t many sources the author could have consulted as they are all closed to the public.

On this topic,  if anyone ever has time to kill in London- go to the National Archives at Kew Gardens.  It is a gold-mine.  In the time it takes to make a few clicks on a compter screen, one can get access to virtually any file of importance  on say the Second World War, British foreign affairs,  or even more contemporary issues such as the IRA.  Its amazing how useful and organized their database is, which is in stark contrast to the situation in France where files are  highly disorganized, and highly (comparaitvely) decentralized, and one has to go through more red-tape just to get access.  In London, one can show up the day off, sign up for a library card within minutes, whereas in France, it takes  much longer to get access.  Although, my lack of research success in France probably had something to do with my mediocre French language skills.

7 Responses

  1. […] at Arab Media Shack points to an interesting article by Robert Fisk in Egypt’s Daily News, wherein he highlights a major […]

  2. Rob,

    This is an excellent (if not obvious point). Nonetheless, I think all Arabs are aware of this. I assume you know the famous historian Mohammed Hasaneen (not Hussein, I know) Haykel.

    Not only was he an insider with the government, he spent many years of retirement using his wealth and influence to buy high-value and/or classified documents, from all sides. He then translated those in English, French, etc to put it alongside stuff from the Egyptian government. His books, the Years of Boiling series, are a must read. I bought them in Egypt, a collection worth between 200 and 300 pounds, and I am still missing one. His appendices are bigger than the book, all with original correspondence. He has arguably the best history of Middle East security history from the Suez Crisis to the 73 war. I would not be surprised if a single Arabist/MENA studies major in the US knows him beyond his showcasing on “With Haykel” (yes, they are the same guy). And then, people only know him as that crazy old bastard. I am sure I am one of many who has not read his stuff.

    So, my point is that we never support endeavors like this. More importantly, not a single American is required to read his books. One Egyptian friend had read all four of his book in the series. I disagreed with him on many things, but he could clearly out-argue people on this period of history. It just goes to show the problem: some make the effort, but we do not care. To my knowledge, two or three of these books (which are only part of his stuff) have been translated.


  3. this is an excellent point about Heikal. he is a major exception to the rule, and his books are considered some of the best on contemporary Arab politics and history.

    the flip side is how did he get all of these documents? his critics would say because he was so close to the regimes, so he is biased.

    Autumn of Fury, his book on the premable to the Sadat assasination, though highly biased is an outstanding book.

    thanks for bringing up this point because it is absolutely important and needs to be mentioned along with the post

  4. oh and Heikal gave a long interview for Al-Jazeera on what he expects from Obama. he is very cautious and doesnt expect that Obama will be much different than other American presidents because he sees interests as fixed. when the transcript is available ill probably post on it.

  5. Rob,
    You really are a nice guy but this cheer leading for the Israelis sometimes gets a bit out of hand. Israel is a democracy. Yes, but it is a democracy that does indeed discriminate its Arab population. This is a fact. The record of its army in the Occupied territories is, by the same token, unbecoming of the Utopian democracy you make it out to be. With regards to Lebanon, no comment. Finally remember that Israel is for Israelis and that there are Palestinians who still have the deeds to their homes in Occupied Palestine / Israel proper. Why don’t you talk about a one state solution?

    Concerning the Arab states, we all know they are dictatorships. But there are winds of change. And those winds aren’t coming from the Atlantic. It is the population itself. The young people. What Donald Shaw called the struggle of generations. And it won’t be beneficial for the West. It will be a democracy or liberty that will be worried about their own well being first. And it will be their freedom. It might even lead to changes in geography. Some countries might unite. Others might separate. But it is their decision.

    Don’t forget that these dictatorships are directly supported by our model democracies. I laugh when Bush speaks about our allies and friends in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, etc. For instance, do you really think that Kuwait treated the foreign nationals living there better than Sadam’s Iraq? Or that women had more rights there?

  6. John,
    I appreciate your comment, but I think your reading way too far into the post. I blogged about an article talking about how documents in the West and Israel are more open than those in Arab countries. Nothing more.

  7. I would appreciate it if you gave your view on the One State Solution, ide est, “that the name of which is never said.”

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