May 26, 2015

1954. The Arab World in 1954

Orientalism, the Rise of Extremism, and the Future of Arab-Israeli Relations
Bill Downs (right) and Frank Kearns (center) during an interview in November 1954 with Gamal Abdel Nasser
Bill Downs

CBS Cairo

May 6, 1954

This is a report on the Arabs, circa 1954. The trouble is that, when a reporter talks about Arabs, it is at once presumed that he is anti-Jewish, because how can you talk about the Arab world these days without talking about Israel? And in the emotionally charged atmosphere of this part of the world, both the Arab and the Jew demand that you be on one side or the other.

However, it remains the goal of CBS News to be objective, and consequently this report probably will please neither side.

The limitations of this report are these: We have spent only one week in the Middle East, not counting some transit time through this part of the world during the war. This reporter does not speak Arabic, and probably never will. We talked to no heads of government, although we could have. We did talk with Arabic American and British diplomats and students of the Arab peoples. We walked the bazaars and streets with an interpreter to hear what the peoples were saying to each other. And in the tradition of the trade, we picked all the reportorial brains we could find, Occidental and Arab. We are not ready or about to write a book.

We make this confession: Ignorance is frightening, but total ignorance, which we feel about the Moslem peoples, sends one into intellectual panic. The fact is that Americans are virtually totally ignorant about Arabs. Outside of Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and a few misleading motion pictures, the popular conception of an Arab is a man in a night shirt, a turban, or a fez who rides a camel and who will swing a scimitar at any non-Moslem to assure himself rapid entry into a heaven which provides him with a harem of thirteen virgins, more or less.

This should have happened to Percival Christopher Wren, whose books have convinced generations that the Arab is something less than a white man and is thus to be despised and feared.

The trouble is that every Arab has in him a trace of Moslem fanaticism which made him such a threat and danger to Crusaders. He also has in him the ancient dignity of a people who once ruled this part of the world. And in the modern Arab, if this is not presumptuous or patronizing, there is a humor, intelligence, and modesty that makes him the most stimulating companion this reporter has run into since an assignment in Dublin.

All of which adds up to the fact that we don't know a hell of a lot about Arabs, but what we have discovered thus far is fascinating. It is both ironic and entrancing to see a sleek pasha in a matching Cadillac unconcernedly speed past a Bedouin caravan—somehow the camels look more enduring. It is equally fascinating to discuss democracy and communism with students who come from various Arab countries which have governments ranging from absolute tribal monarchies and military dictatorships to a kind of twentieth century despotism which amounts to upper class anarchy. Sometimes it becomes difficult to remember which country you are in.

As a kind of conditioner, we have been reading the Koran. In it we discover that the way the Muezzin determines when it is time to call the faithful to sunrise prayers—to mount the minaret and sing out the haunting, wavering praise of Allah—is at that moment when it is light enough to determine white thread from a black thread.

In discovering the problems of the modern Arab world, the test of the "Muezzin" maintains. Everything is black or white.

This is the reason that the first thing Occidental diplomats will tell you is that their problem in dealing with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt is mainly psychological, concerning such present day questions of American-Arab relations vis-a-vis Israel, arms aid, and the Cold War, and it is not surprising that the atmosphere sometimes becomes frenetic.

From the Arab viewpoint, the problem of Israel is to the Moslem Middle East what Korea or Indochina is to the Western free world. This is the overriding fact of life in this part of the world that transcends all other problems.

It is perhaps oversimplification to say that the Israeli-Arab argument centers around who got here first. The Zionists claim that Palestine is their ancient homeland dating back from the pre-Christian days of the Old Testament. The Arabs claim that for the past 1500 years Palestine and the Middle East has been their homeland and their land.

The Jews maintain that after centuries of persecution, climaxed in the spasm of inhumanity under Hitler, civilization owes them a place of refuge and safety—that they are willing to work and fight for the ancient land and make it bloom again.

The Arabs counter that Jews and Moslems have been living and working peacefully together for centuries—that racial persecution is not solved if the Jews establish themselves in a separate state which the Arabs regard as illegal—and that, anyway, what benefits civilization if Jewish refugees establish themselves on Arab lands which in turn creates an Arab refugee population of some 800,000 souls?

Mix these arguments with the volatile Semitic character of both the Jews and Arabs and you have an explosive situation, to say the least.

An American diplomat and old Middle East hand (US Ambassador Ray Hare to Lebanon) told us that back in 1947 and 1948 the Arabs never really believed that the United Nations or the United States would allow their country to be taken over by the Zionists. They maintained, and still maintain, it was in violation of the United Nations Charter guaranteeing national and ethnological sovereignty. The Arabs constantly point out that, in what is now Israel, the Moslem population outnumbered the Jewish by three to one.

The tragic and bloody warfare which ended with the establishment of Israel dispossessed 800,000 Arabs who for the past five years have been living on rations provided by the United Nations Relief Work Administration. The real tragedy is not their poverty, which has always been great. The real tragedy is that for five years these people have been living as a stagnant state of unproductive indignation. The Arabs' pride has been hurt, and the desire for vengeance, not only against the Jews but against the British and Americans as well, is already being handed down from father to son.

However, the realities of the situation call for a reasonableness that bypasses racial and religious pride and national indignations. The Arabs maintain in their frustration that they could have won the war if it had not been for British deceit, American support, and betrayal in their own ranks. Yet they did not win, and now there is an Arab-wide fear that the hostilities may break out again. This time the Arabs are certain they could not win without the outside aid of the hated British which they distrust. The measure of this distrust is the contradictory reaction to the recent statements by Under Secretary of State [sic] Henry Byroade. Although the Byroade speech was greeted in the Arab world as being directed mostly against the Jews, the Arab reaction again was of suspicion—a kind of grateful suspicion, however.

The immeasurable and imponderable factor in the Arab attitude is the semi-oriental question of pride and "face." As it was explained to us, the situation works out something like this: The Arabs are now in a position somewhat like that of a father whose daughter has been violated by a foreign young man. The despoiled daughter returns in disgrace to her father's home. Then, a few months later, friends of the rapacious young man come to the father and say, "Let's sit down and talk this thing over. How much money do you want?" The position of the defeated Arabs is that they simply are not ready to sit down and talk over what they consider to be the rape of their homeland. And as weak militarily as they are, there is no price in material goods that will assuage their pride.

However, out of the imponderable there is one truth which maintains that the Arabs do not want war. The hotheads who talk of "blood and steel" and a "bayonet solution" are not the ones who volunteer for action.

We asked this diplomat if there really is a solution in sight. His reply was typically cryptic. "An injury, you might say, has been done to the Arab body politic. There are some injuries which can be corrected and cured quickly by surgery. There are others which require long treatment such as hydrotherapy. The Arab-Israeli situation is of the latter type. It may take a long time, but there is no reason to be despairing."

We asked another diplomat if there really is a formula for solution of the Arab-Israeli problem. This man, the most objective observer we ran into (Commander Hutchison of the UN's Mixed Armistice Commission), said that both sides must compromise. The Israelis, he said, must not approach the conference table as conquerors. The Arabs must accept the situation that faces them. His formula for solution of the struggle boils down to this: There must be an offer on the part of the Israeli government to repatriate the refugee Arabs. Jewish statements that none can return (an unofficial attitude) merely provokes Arab insistence that all return. Actually, the experts on both sides estimate that only about 100,000 of the 800,000 refugees would actually agree to return and live under the Zionist flag. In fact, the Israeli government could make prestige for itself if it only offered to reunite the broken families now separated by the demilitarized zone around Palestine.

The other prerequisite of possible peace is an adjustment of the boundary line. For example, much of the current shooting over alleged "infiltration" by the Arabs is due to the fact that an Arab village may be cut in half by the boundary line, or that the village may be isolated from its traditional farm, grazing, or orchard lands. Only the most callous cannot sympathize with the Arab who persuades a Jordanian home guardsman to accompany him to his former farm in the no-man's land between the two nations and to guard him when he plows. One cannot legally condemn the Israeli sentry whose orders are to fire at any violator of the armistice agreement who trespasses the assigned borders. But the plow has never before been considered a weapon.

Finally, according to the diplomat, the projected formula for peace must include compensation for Arab property seized by the Jews. This compensation must not only include fair payment for properties seized, bank accounts held in escrow, and other chattels, but it should include a kind of "hardship payment" to the dispossessed who have been sitting for five years in refugee camps. This payment would be in the form of an award to the dispossessed Arab to allow him to obtain a piece of land, a mule, and a plow in order than he can start supporting himself and his family again. As the Byroade speech pointed out, the Israeli government is currently receiving compensation payments from Germany. Consequently, there is a precedence and perhaps a moral duty incumbent on the Zionists to do likewise.

The Arab refugees are the most paradoxical factor in the entire dispute. Five years of inactivity and stagnation have not dispirited them. They are conscious of their position as a political cause and diplomatic bargaining point. In fact, some of the most violent advocates of solution "by the bayonet" are to be found in their camps. There is perhaps some truth to the Israeli charge that the Arab nations are deliberately not trying to disperse these people, because to do so would destroy one of their major causes. As long as the refugees can be held up to the world as the unfortunate result of Zionism, then that long will the Arabs have a major bargaining point.

But if this is true, the Arabs are risking a kind of political cancer which eventually could spread and engulf them all. One indication is a series of incidents related to us by a young American officer who serves as an observer for the Mixed Armistice Commission of the UN.

In recent weeks, he said, he has been getting some peculiar questions from the refugees when he visits their camps. They are parroted questions such as "why do you Americans treat Negroes the way you do," and "what has your government done to the American Indian?" Taking into consideration that most of these people would never have known there were such races in the United States, the officer concludes that someone is propagandizing them. It's not difficult to figure out who.

The inference is obvious. The longer the Arab refugees are holed up in their camps, the more dangerous they become. They contrast their poverty and barely adequate UN rations not only with the Jews who are now living on their property, but they are also not unaware of the powerful cars, wealth, and sleek living of that small segment of Arab society that runs their countries.

Communism is outlawed, officially, in all of the Arab states. The Arabs do not take it very seriously. In fact, there is a distinct tendency to play the Russians against the West. The Koran also has a proverb that goes: "My enemy's enemy is my friend." This is the reason behind the recent message of congratulations sent by the Jordanian parliament last month to Russia's Vyshinsky when the Soviet Union came to the aid of the Arab powers in a UN dispute. It is to be noted that the Jordanian government fell two weeks later because of US and British pressure, say the Arabs.

However, there is every sign that the Russians are moving again in this part of the world, and that their attempt to woo the Arabs to their side is only beginning. But again, it would appear that the Arab attitude toward communism is more anti-Anglo-American than pro-Russian.

We deliberately avoided collecting up to date military information on this trip because such knowledge, we felt, is compromising in a situation where we intended to visit both sides. However, there are generalizations which have become obvious and are not in the realm of intelligence.

Americans have pictured Israel as a small, perhaps helpless, nation surrounded by millions of hostile Arabs. In the beginning, this was perhaps true. But the picture has now changed. It now appears that Israel has the most powerful national striking force in the Middle East. Her military power is the source of Arab fear and is perhaps the Zionists' greatest diplomatic weapon. Recognition of Israeli power again came in the Byroade speech. The Under Secretary was not being supercilious in warning that the United States would not tolerate aggression by either side.

The Arabs fear Israeli power, and some of them openly predict that nothing can contain it. They reason this way: under the Ben-Gurion tradition now being carried by Moshe Sharett, the moderate Zionists have the upper hand. But despite this, say the Arabs, Israel continues to use its power by keeping the pressure on the borders—by retaliatory raids and indoctrinate use of arms on the borderlands. Meanwhile they believe Sharett is under great pressure from the extremists—those who want a military showdown no matter the cost. Under the present stalemate, the Jewish national temper is being strained as incident follows incident. Day after day, as this situation continues, the position of the Israeli moderate is being undercut, and some Arabs believe that the explosion is only a matter of time.

One of the most disturbing conversations we had was with one of Jordan's leading authors—a violent Arab nationalist, former mayor of Hashemite Jerusalem, and member of the Jordanian parliament. His name is Aref al-Aref. There used to be a Pasha in the middle before the title was abolished by law. We saw and drank coffee in his villa at the town of Ramallah a few miles north of Jerusalem.

Al-Aref started our conversation by asking if what I had seen and heard in the Arab world would truly be presented without distortion on the American radio. He said that it was his impression that Jewish interests so controlled the press and radio that the Arab cause could not be presented in the United States.

We replied that we were not there to present the Arab case or the Israeli case but to get the truth, and that this truth, as near as we could come to it, would most certainly be heard on the CBS networks.

Al-Aref is an eccentric and something of a professional gadfly. I wanted specifically to talk with him about the inter-religious aspect of the Middle East struggle, however we wandered all over the lot. The Arab writer said that in his view the Arab-Zionist conflict is predominately a nationalistic struggle. Religion has in reality a very small part in it. He admitted that both sides made a demagogic use of religion to support their causes—for example, the Jewish Appeal for funds in the United States and other nations uses the religious approach. By the same token, al-Aref confesses to organizing the Jerusalem chapter of the ultranationalist and pseudoreligious Moslem Brotherhood. "I am not a devout Moslem," he said. "It's merely that I wanted one more instrument around which to fight Zionism."

After much beating around the bush about war, the writer finally said that, "We Arabs must accept the fait accompli. But the Jews must also make concessions. We must save our honor."

And he concluded, "This thing has left a dark spot on the Arab's heart. Let us face the facts. We were defeated. But eventually we Arabs will be avenged. I am instructing my son not to forget, and after I am dead, my son or my son's son will take my revenge."