Chaps with maps

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps

– Edmubd Clerihew Bently

On a night flight back from Beirut to Paris recently, unable to sleep for crying children and repeated attempts to make me buy duty free goods, I put my hand into my flight-bag and out came James Marr’s book A Line in the Sand, about the Anglo-French struggle for control in the Middle East in the first half of the last century.

The deal the book describes (Iraq and Palestine to Britain, Syria and Lebanon to France) has had consequences we are still living with. Many would say, indeed, that the current crisis in Syria is simply the last stage in the decline of the Ottoman Empire – a decline which began some two hundred years ago. But what’s different, a century later, is the factor of space and the factor of time.

These days, you can take a plane from Europe to these countries in four or five hours. A day trip to Beirut is just about conceivable. But a century ago, at the time of the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement, such a journey would take weeks, and few representatives of foreign ministries ever did it. The result was that, in London and Paris, the Middle East was carved up by Chaps with maps representing places they had never visited, and probably never wanted to. How easy it must have been in those days – one for you, one for me. Draw a line here and a line there. I wonder, sometimes, how these predecessors of mine would have felt if they could have seen the blood and tragedy that their meddling would cause, and which is by no means over yet.

But in a sense, of course, none of this was real to them. It was all about advantage and position, about manoeuvring for access to oil, and maintaining or improving one’s imperial status. It was not about real people. We tend to forget that both the British and the French Empires reached their zenith in the years after the First World War. How many more centuries will it take us to deal with the consequences?

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