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How to Make a Middle-Eastern Headache Milkshake December 8th, 1999

First, take every over-dramatic action-adventure movie you've ever seen, mix it with contradictory religious and nationalistic rhetoric, throw in bombs and uzis galore, add a handful of charismatic leaders and suicide bombers, set it all in a holy land of deserts and traders, marinade in a history that makes the pyramids seem new, then smother it with colonial tampering and superpower cold-war posturing, and you have the makings for seemingly endless conflict!

Trying to figure out the modern history of the Middle East is like putting your brain in a blender and switching it to "puree." It's like reading a book backwards... you know all the characters, but can't understand the plot. For every event, there are countless versions of the "truth" in general circulation, and every war has at least two names...a mournful epitaph given by the losers, and a victorious title bestowed by the winners.

So your fearless trekkers are faced with the biggest nightmare from our high school days! Your intrepid mind must make sense of something that seems senseless, write the truth about something for which no truth exists, and turn it in by the beginning of class on Monday, typed, double-spaced, spell-checked, in 500 words or less!

We're still in Egypt, but we're about to head over to our next stage in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Historically, these areas have been in contact since the beginning of civilization, so separating them is not only undesirable but also impossible! The two areas were overrun by the same invaders, traversed by the same traders, and converted to the same religions. They've been controlled by Greeks, Romans, Mamluks, Ottomans, and the British, just to name a few.

In order to understand all the craziness that splashes itself across the headlines and the evening news, we have to go back centuries! Where on earth could we start? Well, I'm going to make an attempt here to write about Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century. Considering we covered several millenium of pharonic times in the course of a few short weeks, sixty years or so shouldn't be that hard, should it?

The turn of the century found Egypt ruled by the British through a puppet Ottoman (Turkish) monarch, a descendent of Mohammed Ali. So the Egyptians-who were mostly Arab, Coptic, and Nubian-were ruled by a foreign power that was controlled by another foreign power! Meanwhile, European Jews were starting to settle in Palestine, where their ancestors had fled Roman persecution almost 1900 years earlier. Palestinian Arabs, as well as the rest of the Arab world, Egypt included, were greatly annoyed by what seemed to them as European colonization of Arab lands.

But nothing stays the same in the Middle East, you know. Even the Sphinx lost her nose. Soon, World War One pitted the British Allies against the Ottomans who backed Germany. Since much of the Middle East at that time was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, the British made the Arabs a deal-if they would declare war on the Ottomans, Britain would support them in having independent control of their native lands.

infamous- having an extremely bad reputation
charismatic- a very engaging personality
intrepid- fearless
epitaph- a brief poem or writing in praise of a dead person
So, in 1916, Lawrence of Arabia led Arab troops throughout Jordan in the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule. But, no matter how great the Lawrence seemed in the movie, the truth was, Britain had lied to the Arabs AND to the Zionists (Jews who support forming a Jewish state in Palestine) whom they had also promised support for a homeland. All along, they had been in cahoots with France, planning on carving up the Middle East between the two countries into permanent "spheres of political influence."

What a mess! And I thought telling you about 60 years would be easy! We're only one third through, and the trickiest stuff is just starting! Hang in there...I doubt I'll make it within the 500 word limit!

So WWI ended and Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt become British "protectorates," which didn't please anyone, except, I guess, the Brits. Egyptians immediately revolted against the British, and they were granted a sort of Independence under King Fuad I, another descendent of Mohammed Ali, but were still basically controlled by Britain.

Partially in reaction to the growing power of the Zionists (or Jewish Nationalists) in Palestine, The League of Arab States was founded in Alexandria, Egypt. Similar to the United Nations, it sought to help the Arab world work more closely together. Also in reaction to what was seen as liberalization and foreign influence leading to the decline of Islamic values, the infamous Muslim Brotherhoods began forming. Still in existence today, the Brotherhoods have often resorted to terrorist acts to "encourage" people to see things their way. Recently, they have declared a "war on tourism," which led to the death of 70 people in Luxor in 1997, when 6 members of the Brotherhood opened fire on a crowd of tourists!

In 1948, the tiny Jewish state of Israel officially gained independence and proceeded to win a major war against all the neighboring Arab states which attacked it, including Egypt (we'll be learning a lot about this soon!). This left the Egyptian monarchy in shambles.

In 1952, after the Egyptian people had been striking, demonstrating, and rioting for years, Cairo was set on fire and all foreign-owned businesses and British buildings were destroyed. A group of young army officers took this opportunity to seize power from King Fuad's corrupt son Farouk in a bloodless coup led by a handsome, charismatic Colonel in the Egyptian Army named Gamal Nasser. This was the first time Egypt was ruled by Egyptians since the Greeks came and put an end to Pharonic rule!

Nasser was a powerful leader who hoped to unify the Arab world into one massive country, which could forever resist foreign invasion and reunify Palestine under its rule. His vision was charged with emotion, and highly appealing to the Arab masses, sick of constantly being controlled by foreigners. He wanted to return Egypt to the Egyptians, so, in a Robin-Hood inspired move, property was taken from the large landowners, especially foreigners, and "nationalized."

But this was the time of the Cold War, remember, and Nasser, with his liberal ideology that seemed awfully similar to Communism, was getting a little to powerful for Washington's comfort. The US reneged on its promise to help fund the Aswan High Dam in an effort to bring him down to size. Not to be deterred, Nasser nationalized the strategically essential Suez Canal in order to earn enough money to build Aswan Dam.

The Suez, as you know, links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, so it provides a quick water route from Europe to Asia, without having to go all the way around Africa. Like the Panama between Central and South America, control over the Suez effects the economic and military stability of many countries. So Britain, France, and Israel proceeded to attack Egypt, take over the Sinai peninsula, and re-capture the Canal.

Oh, these little boys with their big, deadly toys! Can't we all just get along?

The two superpowers, the US and the USSR, were furious--maybe they thought they were the only ones allowed to do such obnoxious things. Through diplomacy, they forced the invaders to leave the Sinai. Nasser became a hero, not just in the Arab world, but in all of the developing world, as countries struggled with independence from colonialism.

Pan-Arabism really took off, and in 1958, Egypt and Syria briefly united as the United Arab Republic. The idea was that the other Arab countries would eventually join as well, but what happened was that Syria soon pulled out. A common language does not necessarily make a strong country. Still, Pan-Arabism pushed ahead, Arab Summits were held, and, in 1964, Nasser helped form the Palestinian Liberation Organization-the famous, and infamous PLO.

Hey, that's 1964! We did it! Over 60 years of history...and it only took about 1,400 words...and you read them all. Thanks. Now, go take your brain out of the blender, chill overnight, and serve over a bowl of Wheaties for breakfast. Because soon, you'll be confronted with more pieces of the crazy Middle East puzzle, and you'll need your brain energy!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Monica- Fitting the Stereotype, or Resisting It?
Kavitha- Camping Out in the Sinai Desert
Kavitha- Doctor Jim to the Rescue!
Team - Alert! Our Friends are in Danger!

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