When I set out to write this third piece about my evergreens and sorted the collection of books that I flaunt as my library, I realised I had very few books about the country with which our relationship is “deeper than the Arabian Sea and higher than the Karakorum.” Maybe its dimensions are even more mellifluous and stellar than the aphorism which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is supposed to have coined, but beyond this captivating rhetoric about Pakistan-China ties, how much do we really know about our northern neighbour — and about Eurasia?
About the archipelago that is Japan, I have only one book: emperor Hirohito’s biography by Edward Behr, who also wrote The Last Emperor, which was about China and made into a film with Peter O’Toole in the cast.
On Mongolia, I have some books, centring mostly on Temujin’s (Changez Khan) conquests. Former Dawn colleague Zarrar Khuhro gifted me a three-volume set on Khan by British author Conn Iggulden, who specialises in historical novels, especially about empires.
The first volume is both fascinating and highly informative in terms of details of Mongol social life, especially their dietary habits and lack of hygiene. It begins rightly with the consolidation of Khan’s power in the Mongolian wilds and ends with his conquest of China. But the second volume tired me out halfway because of endless dialogue and little action, even though Khan is now on the outskirts of Khwarazm, where he truly meets his equal in Jalaluddin.
Some books on China, Japan, Mongolia and Russia, as well as a few very insightful works on the Arab world
About Russia, my knowledge is extremely limited, and a voluminous ‘official’ history of the Russian revolution, and of Joseph Stalin’s empire, left me as ignorant about it as before, because ideologically awkward facts had to be camouflaged in prosaic and repetitive party jargon. One book that I valued, but lost, was The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the ’30s, a biography by British author Robert Conquest, an expert on Russia.
On China I have, relatively speaking, a good collection, but a tome somebody pinched was priceless: Stanley Karnow’s Mao and China: From Revolution to Revolution. I read American author Edgar Snow’s classic Red Star Over China only to get the right quotations for a thesis I was working on. Another valuable biography I have not lost is Mao: The People’s Emperor, by British journalist Dick Wilson, who also wrote a biography of former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.
Many aspects of Mao Zedong’s life are extraordinary. According to Wilson, he was China’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as well as Vladimir Lenin, and governed “a quarter of mankind for a quarter of a century.” Like all great men he could see the future. What he said when the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) hadn’t even come into being shows his power of prescience.
In 1921, as a mere delegate enroute to a secret rendezvous in Shanghai where the CPC was to be formed, Mao said: “If we work hard, in about 30 to 40 years’ time the [CPC] may be able to rule China.” Note the astonishing bit of crystal gazing.
As Mao began his struggle against the system he ultimately destroyed, tragedy struck when the militia supporting Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist government executed many of Mao’s family, including his wife, Yang Kai-hui.
Like all great men dedicated to their mission, Mao lived a simple life, hated sumptuous food, used the same quilt from 1942 to 1962 and ordered the removal of a spring bed that some militiamen had put in his bedroom. He then slept on his bedding laid out on a wooden board.
The Carter book gives another example of Israeli leaders’ contempt of America and its leadership, and of making no attempts to hide it. He doesn’t hesitate to write how Menachem Begin, then Israel’s prime minister, treated Carter with contempt when he was no more president.
Mao’s many sayings range from philosophical dictums to cynical musings in later years when he was firmly in power and faced the truth about his country and people, especially their poverty. He tired out the KMT army by tactics that were suited to Chinese conditions and have been recognised for their ingenuity and brilliance. The basic strategy was to surround the cities by capturing villages, besides the much-quoted “The enemy advances, we retreat. The enemy halts and encamps, we harass. The enemy seeks to avoid battle, we attack. The enemy retreats, we pursue.”
Of the many predictions Mao made, one is a reality while another is on the verge of a spectacular dawn. He said: “Capitalism leads to socialism, socialism leads to communism and a communist society must still be transformed; it will also have a beginning and an end.” However, his fond hope that is about to be realised must be noted: “The era in which the Chinese people were regarded as uncivilised is now ended. We shall emerge in the world with an advanced culture.”
We can also detect traces of cynicism common among great men in their twilight years, especially when faced with new leaders brimming with ideas that, to them, sound blasphemous. It was perhaps during the disaster that was the Cultural Revolution that Mao said: “The more books one reads, the more stupid one gets.”
Now back to where our hearts are: the Middle East, the birthplace of monotheism. Few books rival Lebanese author George Habib Antonius’s The Arab Awakening in terms of the details on the labyrinth of relations among three parties — the peninsular Arabs, the exhausted Ottoman colossus and the British — as World War I raged.
The central character on the Arab side was Husain bin Ali, the Sharif [governor] of Hejaz, whom Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II didn’t trust. The sultan-caliph called Ali over to Constantinople and then confined him to the city for 20 years. This added to Ali sophistication because he had to be cautious in his utterances.
Far from being the Bedouin chief as some Western writers portrayed him, the Sharif had to “in self-protection … cultivate caution in his utterances, and the result was a mode of expression in which his native directness was enveloped in a tight network of parentheses, incidentals, allusions … woven together by a process of literary orchestration…”
Laughable indeed was the language used by Egypt-based British diplomat Sir Henry McMahon, who was instigating the Sharif to revolt against the Turks. McMahon could stoop to no limit of flattery. One of his notes addressed the Sharif thus: “To the excellent and well-born Sayyed, the descendant of Sharifs, the Crown of the Proud, Scion of [Holy Prophet] Muhammad’s (PBUH) Tree and Branch of the Quraishite Trunk, him of the Exalted Presence and of the Lofty Rank, Sayyed son of Sayyed, Sharif son of Sharif, the Venerable, Honoured Sayyed, His Excellency the Sharif Husain, Lord of the Many, Amir of [Makkah] the Blessed, the lodestar of the Faithful and the cynosure of all devout Believers, may his Blessing descend upon the people in their multitudes!”
This “medley of Turco-Persian toadyisms” — as Antonius put it — served to annoy Ali.
More than a century has passed, and the British side continues to insist to this day that, in the Ali-McMahon correspondence, Britain kept Palestine out of the territory of which Ali was to be the ruler in the post-Ottoman era. Ultimately, Britain handed Palestine over to European immigrants.
As for Ali, the would-be king of the eastern Arab world lost even his home to Abdulaziz bin Saud. Shunned and ridiculed by those who had promised him an empire, Ali sought refuge in Cyprus and passed his last days in Jordan — the only territory still with his protégés.
Also to dwell on the Palestine tragedy is 39th American president Jimmy Carter, whose book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, exposes Israeli duplicity in implementing the 1978-79 Camp David accords. Contrary to general belief, the Camp David agreement wasn’t confined to the Egypt-Israel rapprochement which provided for Egypt’s recognition of the Jewish state in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.
It also included — as Carter’s book makes clear — “a specific commitment to honour UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which prohibit acquisition of land by force and call for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories. The accords prescribe ‘full autonomy’ for the people of occupied territories, withdrawal of Israeli military and civilian forces from the West Bank and Gaza and the recognition of the Palestinian people as a separate political entity with a right to determine their own future.”
The Carter book gives another example of Israeli leaders’ contempt of America and its leadership, and of making no attempts to hide it. Ignoring the oft-quoted Ehud Olmert-George W. Bush incident, Carter doesn’t hesitate to write for posterity how Menachem Begin, then Israel’s prime minister, treated Carter with contempt when he was no more president.
The British had declared Begin a terrorist as he was responsible for the deaths of scores of innocent people in acts of terrorism carried out by the Zionist militia Irgun, to which Begin belonged. His criminal record included the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, that killed 91 people.
On his 1983 visit to Israel, Carter wanted to talk about lack of progress on the Palestinian question because it was “one of the most fascinating and truly important political and military subjects of modern times.” However, he was shocked by the way Begin cold-shouldered, if not snubbed, him.
To Carter’s queries, Begin “responded with just a few words in a surprisingly perfunctory manner and made it plain that our conversation will be concluded … We had been sitting in a small, sparsely adorned room on the lower level of the Knesset building. The exchanges had been cool, distant and non-productive. As I left I noticed that the adjacent room was large, brightly lighted, attractive and vacant.”
Mind you, this was an American president who had achieved the impossible by making the Arab world’s most important country recognise Israel, and here was an Israeli prime minister, a terrorist to the core, treating him with contempt.
Next: Among others, Edward Said’s Orientalism.
The writer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 20th, 2022