How did Donald Trump experience his flamboyant visit to the Middle East? Maybe he felt as if he were attending some grand musical production in Las Vegas in which the Arabian Nights were intertwined with the Ten Commandments. First came swords, galabiyas, mustaches, camels, oil and kings – and then stiff-necked Jews, holy churches, ancient stones. And betwixt and between: sycophancy galore.
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Some 220 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Egypt, heading an army of 35,000 soldiers. Like Trump today, he too was aiming to extricate himself from domestic distress – and what better way to breach a political deadlock than to conduct a showcase junket to the Orient? “In Egypt I found myself free from the wearisome restraints of civilization,” Napoleon wrote in a letter. “I dreamed all sorts of things, and I saw how all that I dreamed might be realized. I created a religion. I pictured myself on the road to Asia, mounted on an elephant, with a turban on my head, and in my hand a new Koran, which I should compose according to my own ideas” (translation from “The Age of Napoleon,” by Will and Ariel Durant).
Since then, the Middle East has become a convenient arena for the realization of the megalomania of Western patriarchal rulers who have a hard time fulfilling their ambitions under the parliamentary democracies in their countries. The zenith of the phenomenon came in the post-World War I period, when Great Britain began to shape the character of the region. In his book “Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire” (2001), the historian David Cannadine argued that the British tried to instill in the empire the old English class system, which had already disappeared in Britain itself.
For T.E. Lawrence, and other Britons from conservative and aristocratic circles, the Arab world was a place where the ancient spirit of chivalry, the time-honored social order and the feudal structure remain intact. The Orient offered the possibility for escape from the rise of the masses and the introduction of democracy, developments that threatened the world of these reactionary figures.
Indeed, the British established a monarchic dynasty in the Middle East, a kind of mirror image to their own monarchy: the Hashemite dynasty, under Hussein bin Ali. “Creating kings,” as the British orientalist Gertrude Bell – who also played an important role in shaping the region in this period – described it. The eccentric and unstable Lawrence of Arabia maintained that Britain was quite suited to ruling the Middle East, as it was a monarchy and as such would get along with the local sheikhs and emirs. He too had a propensity toward Napoleonic megalomania.
“I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts,” Lawrence wrote in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” He used passionate language to describe the Arab men alongside whom he fought against the Ottoman Empire: “The men were young and sturdy; and hot flesh and blood unconsciously claimed a right in them and tormented their bellies with strange longings.”
In the coming decades, the British kingdom preserved an intimate bond with the monarchical regimes of the Middle East. It was retained even when the House of Saud seized control of the Hijaz and created Saudi Arabia, in 1932. Since then, the members of the British royal family, particularly Prince Charles, have been fond of visiting Saudi Arabia, lounging around in tents and taking part in hunting excursions aided by falcons.
Now, Donald Trump, too, has discovered the allurements of the orient. One can believe that the U.S. president prefers King Salman by a long shot over Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron. The sword dance, and the reception by dozens of Arab leaders who came to Riyadh to honor him, thrilled him deeply. Maybe he, too, like Michael Jackson, will settle in Bahrain after his term is over.
It’s all very amusing: Three years ago, when Islamic State declared it was abolishing borders in the Middle East, the experts talked about the annulment of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which demarcated the territories of various countries in our region after World War I. Now it’s clear that Trump, in conjunction with his favorite monarch, is preparing some sort of reactionary deal in a similar style, under the auspices of kings, sultans and emirs.
Choosing each other
But as was the case a hundred years ago, there’s a fly in the ointment of the orientalist fantasy: Zionism. Different factors are at work in our country – far less spectacle and many more Jews; fewer swords, more holy places and historical calamities. But never mind, Israel provides a fantasy from a different field: that of religion. Some observers noted that Trump’s speeches are typically studded with more religious content than those of previous presidents. In fact, he is not a particularly devout Christian. He’s simply adopting simplistic narratives. And they’re not lacking in Israel, either.
The Israelis couldn’t put on sword shows, but even so, oddly, they know how to create a feel of the Chosen People. The traditional belief in the idea of the divine choice of the Jewish people has been supplanted here by the idea of the American choice: Just as the Creator of the world chose us above all other peoples in those days, the most powerful force in the world has chosen us above all other peoples these days. The Americans, for their part, are happy to assume the role of God.
In their book “The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel and the Ordeals of Divine Election” (2010), co-authors Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz argue that the alliance between the U.S. and Israel is not just a concatenation of interests, but a bond based on a shared religious consciousness of being chosen. The U.S. chooses Israel and thus takes on the role of the God of history, fulfilling the divine promise to Abraham.
Here, too, the ground was prepared by the British Empire. A century ago, Great Britain granted the Balfour Declaration to the Zionist movement, an act in which the Protestant roots of English culture was a critical element. Arthur Balfour himself was an avid reader of the Hebrew Bible, and an ardent admirer of Judaism. His foreign policy was driven more by Scripture than by imperial politics.
The familiar excuse of shared democratic values is losing its validity: Israel doesn’t especially care about democracy, and America cares even less about it. In any event, liberalism, human rights and openness to the world are not Trump’s chief priorities; he certainly doesn’t look for them in the East, if at all. We’ve reverted to the most infantile image of the Orient: colorful and patriarchal, dangerous and holy. And all of us – Jews and Arabs alike – are playing our parts and joining in the traditional dance, which validates the most outworn of clichés about the region. And it looks as though we’re quite comfortable with the part that’s been assigned to us.