April 25, 2003

Arab Port Towns Can Teach U.S. the Secrets of Local Power

By Rami G. Khouri


If U.S. leaders wish to avoid making a costly mess of their adventure in Iraq, they should do two things right away: First, ignore the intellectual pay-per-view service from prominent Anglo-American Orientalist scholars, and second, get to know a Middle Eastern port.

Seaports and inland port cities have always been the place where Middle Eastern cultures thrived. An irony of the Anglo-American attack on Iraq, code-named “Operation Freedom,” is that the earliest documented use of the word “freedom” comes from 2nd millennium B.C. Iraq – ancient Mesopotamia. Scholars like Patricia Springborg have documented how ancient values of what she calls “the Oriental Prince” – commercial contract rights, state-individual relations, and many others — were born and bred in the ancient Middle East and spread to influence Greece and Rome, Byzantium, the Islamic realm and finally Renaissance Europe and the modern Western world.

People in the Middle East, especially in port cities, have played by the same rules for the past 5,000 years, constantly establishing new power relationships that define people’s lives and nations’ conditions. Now that Donald Rumsfeld and his troops have, as expected, successfully attacked/liberated/conquered Iraq, they must negotiate with all sorts of people whom mainstream America might casually refer to as “Middle Eastern-looking types.”

In ancient times and modern, the port city — including sea and inland ports bordering vast deserts, such as Baghdad, Damascus, Apeppo, Amman, Jeddah and Cairo — has always excelled at two things: making the commercial deal, and calmly absorbing the incoming impulses, values and interests of powers from afar, even when carried on the wings of conquering armies.

American media informs us that Rumsfeld has been reading about Roman conquests and their consequences. Here’s a footnote for him to ponder: In the 2nd century A.D., at the Greco-Roman city of Jerash in Jordan, along the southeastern frontier of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent, the Romans used their immense power to make the locals “modern.” Rome introduced the concept of the representative city council. Still inscribed on the seats of the North Theatre, where the council met, are the names of the representatives in the city-state of Gerasa (Jerash).

It would appear that Rome achieved its purpose to modernize and civilize the locals, by giving them a quasi-representative government in a Roman-style institution. But look closely and you find that in this little ancient desert port town, the inscribed names represent the local Arab and Semitic tribes that formed Gerasa’s indigenous demography, economy, social system and power structure. Rome wanted to give our ancient counterparts a city council, and our Middle Eastern-looking counterparts ended up turning it into an Oriental confederal tribal assembly.

Similar things happen today: most modern Arab parliaments that copied European models have been turned into tribal or religious jamborees, reflecting the strongest indigenous Middle Eastern forces of identity and power.

That’s what happens in ports, especially our ports that have operated without interruption since the start of human civilization. People make deals. Middle Eastern-looking types are very good at negotiating relationships with powerful foreign army commanders, making them feel at home, even wanted. The locals show little resistance in the face of impressive foreign power, bending just enough to make the system work, and perhaps making a buck or a dinar in the process.

“Yesiree, General Franks, I’d love to have my own parliament and free press, thank you very much. Excuse me for a moment, though, while I round up some of my cousins to run these nifty new institutions you’re leaving us before you return home. Yes, of course they speak very good English. Yes, we’d love to learn to play softball. And by the way, we’ll need a few million dollars a week to, well, to secure the perimeter, just like we learned from you as we became free and modern. Please have that check transferred to my account every two weeks. Thank you, General. Another cup of tea?”

The monumental exercise of American military power we have just witnessed in the desert and the air will now be replaced by a very different human power relationship: urban wiliness. Deals will be made, and made again. Money will change hands. Individuals and groups will compete for power. A new parliament will be formed. The tribes will get their checks every two weeks. The British and Americans have already started appointing tribal leaders and traffic cops.

The port never sleeps. It hasn’t since the middle of the 4th millennium B.C. Keep your eye on Mesopotamia.

Rami G. Khouri (rgskhouri@ hotmail.com) is a political scientist and executive editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon.

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