Friday, August 19, 2005

Column on Karl May & Arab Strife

Karl May and the History of Arab Strife

Tibor R. Machan

When as a kid in Europe I devoured that peculiar German author?s, Karl
May?s, novels?about American Indians (Winnetou is his most famous) and the
Near East (In the Desert toping the list here)?I had no idea that much
later in my life May?s research and the information conveyed in his books
would come in very handy. But I remembered enough from back then to take
another look recently at some of May?s work because, as I recalled, he
seemed to have a very detailed understanding of what he wrote about. Turns
out, he did, in fact, do the research so diligently that many came to
admire him for his historical accuracy. Among these were Albert Einstein,
Albert Schweitzer, Isaac Asimov, and, embarrassingly, Adolph Hitler. All
in all May appears to have been obsessed with getting it right about a
culture if he was to write about it, even in a fictional work.

What in our current geopolitical climate brought Karl May?s writings
about the Near East to my mind? I think one particular passage will help
one appreciate this. In the novel, In The Desert, published in an English
translation in 1977, by Seabury Press, and also, in 1980, by Bantam Books,
May has his hero, Kara Ben Nemsi (which I believe means Karl from
Germany), roam around the Middle East in the 1870s, taking his readers
throughout the Ottoman Empire, sampling the customs, laws, religions, and
ideologies of all the various peoples as he embarks upon his innumerable
adventures (which make his books so appealing to kids).

The following longish passage will probably explain why I think May?s
work has relevance and serves as something of a cautionary tale for
current events.

Quite apart from the ruins of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, so
visible at every step, there now rose before my eyes the mountains along
whose slopes and valleys people had lived whose racial and religious ties
can only be disentangled with the greatest difficulty. Light
extinguishers, fire worshipers, devil worshipers, Nestorians, Chaldeans,
Sunnites, Shiites, Mutazilites, Wahabes, Arabs, Jews, Turks, Armenians,
Syrians, Druzes, Kurds, Persians, Turkomans. At almost any moment, one may
encounter a member of these tribes, peoples, and sects, and who can guard
against the mistakes, lapses, and even transgressions a stranger may
commit on such an occasion! Even today these mountains stream with the
blood of the victims of national hatred, religious zeal, lust for
conquest, breach of faith, predatory instincts, and blood feuds. Human
habitations cluster along the rocks and in the ravines like vultures?
nests, a bird always ready to pounce on its unsuspecting prey. Here,
suppression and remorseless exploitation have created that bitterness that
can barely distinguish any longer between friends and foe, and the words
of reconciliation and love proclaimed by the apostles have been utterly
lost. And if American missionaries talk of their successes here, that can
only have been superficial. The ground is not ready to receive the seed.
Whatever other men of God may do, the most hostile currents combine in
wild rapids in the mountains of Kurdistan, and the waters will only calm
again when a powerful fist succeeds in smashing the cliffs that cause the
whirlpools, when the hatred has been eradicated and the ugly feuding
stamped out. Then the path will be open to those who preach peace and
proclaim salvation. Then no inhabitant of these mountains will any longer
be able to say: ?I became a Christian because otherwise I would have been
bastinadoed by an aga.? And this aga was a strict Moslem.?

Not being a specialist in the history and sociology of Middle Eastern
cultures, I couldn?t on my own attest to whether May had it right. Nor do
I share May?s idea of how things might calm down in the region. However,
when one reads a work such as The Arab Mind, by the widely admired middle
eastern scholar Ralph Patai (Hatherleigh Press, 2002), one cannot but come
away convinced that May was onto something here.

Now I am not a cultural or, indeed, any other kind of determinist and so
I do not believe in the currently fashionable ?clashes of cultures?
approach to understanding the strife that?s been unleashed recently by
terrorists from that region of the world. Nor do I hold to the notion that
in this strife only one side has perpetrated injustice galore. It would be
foolish, though, to dismiss the strong influence that the type of
education and upbringing in certain societies have on the population. It
is even reasonable to assume that entire generations of children would
become traumatized with the cruelties involved in how they are guided
toward their adulthood.

At one time in the past, perhaps, the scenario and cultural climate Karl
May describes could be confined to that region of the globe but now, with
oil having made these folks extremely wealthy, their form of life cannot
but become ripe for exportation. It is this, I think, that needs to be
kept in mind, among many other matters, in order to appreciate what we are
witnessing and experiencing in our time and are likely to have hovering
about for a long time to come.

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