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Archive for the ‘The Middle East’ Category

One of the cardinal values of a proper method of history is the pursuit of “insight” into the world around us. Only history can answer the fundamental queries we naturally pursue from our childhood, and only become discouraged of asking through the failure of modern pedagogy. “Where did the world around us come from? How did things come to be the way they are now? Who made it so? Where are we headed? Down what path? What forces shape the world, and by what means? Do we control the world we live in, and, if so, in what sense?

When Herodotus, that other great ancient Greek historian, proposed to record the results of his inquiries into the shaping of the Greek world, he explained that his purpose was “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements of both the Greek and the non-Greek peoples; and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict.”

Herodotus’s goal was to help the Greeks see their land within a geographic and cultural continuum of peoples, and the events unfolding around then as part of a chain of cause and effect that had brought them where they were. To the student of the world informed by history, the moment is always to be integrated into an arc connecting past, present, and future. It is thus both the culmination of a knowable process and a link in a progression leading to yet further predictable milestones in a causal series.

One may not be able to predict, for instance, the precise moment of a revolution in post-Nasserist Egypt, but one may very well have predicted that Egypt would be the next US-supported Middle East regime to be toppled (see: The Islamist Entanglement, lecture 4) and that it would necessarily gravitate towards an Islamist government. While Western commentators were tripping over each other in the past year to find hopeful signs of a “liberal” regime emerging from the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the outcome could never have been in doubt for those who benefit from the insight that history provides.

One particularly sharp example of the difference between a purely journalistic outlook and a historical one was demonstrated in the exchange between MSNBC anchors and Harvard historian Niall Fergusson — available on Youtube:

One of the general themes I discuss in The Islamist Entanglement is that more democracy will always mean more Islamism in the foreseeable future of every major regime in the Middle East – including Turkey, the most “Western” regime, where growing Islamism is and always has been a popular movement in the post-Kemalist era there.

To demonstrate the importance of a proper causal perspective on history, one of the regular features of the new PHR newsletter will be a “Vectors” feature.  In this feature we will look at current events that reflect historically significant trends in order to predict the shape of the world to come.  (Coming in April, for instance, we’ll examine what I call the “debt aggregation” vector, which portends a false stability and far greater financial disruptions than the 2008 financial crisis to come. Stay tuned!)

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Death to all Juice?  No it’s not a rally against poor nutritional choices.  :-)

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In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte changed history.  In 1868, Jean-Leon Gerome showed us why.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome

Few figures in history are more controversial than Napoleon.  In his scholarly work “Napoleon: For and Against”, Pieter Geyl, a highly regarded academic historian, characterizes the litany of debates concerning this key figure over the past two centuries as an “argument without end.”

Was he a destroyer of liberty or promoter of the rule of law? Was he a conqueror or liberator? Was he conservative or liberal, pragmatic or enlightened? To come to a proper evaluation of Napoleon one must develop a proper understanding of the manifold contradictions that have long mired European civilization, and especially the period which gave rise to his imperium: the French Revolution. Few individuals with such a historical footprint embody both the trend and the exception, both the tide of culture and the piercing shock of the individual, and both must be brought to account.

For the record, let me say that I find Napoleon to be a malevolent and hateful man, despite (in some cases) positive intentions and (in some cases) positive results deriving from his actions. For all the good that was done to promote the dissolution of the decrepit order of European feudalism through his conquests (and through subsequent reaction to his conquests), no excuse can be made for the cataclysmic means employed, especially when they were used to promote a rotten code which blatantly evaded the only truly salutary principles so proudly hailed across the Atlantic.

Whatever may be said morally about Napoleon, there can be no question, however, that he commands our attention. All of subsequent world history has been irrevocably conditioned by his presence in the time line, and it is in this regard that those of us who wish to change the world for the better should examine him.

What was it about Napoleon that was exceptional, not mundane? What made him (in certain aspects) a world-changer, as opposed to a mere cipher of history? The root of the answer is provided in the deceptively simple painting: Bonaparte before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome.

In a barren landscape, in what appears to be a barren composition, a soldier–Bonaparte, of course–confronts the colossal remnant of a distant past.

The man appears to be alone, but for the shadows of his aides, who remain sufficiently far back not to intrude on this moment of reflection.

Slightly hunched, support himself by placing his hands on his thighs, Bonaparte sits in contemplation.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (detail)

It is important that we call him by his real name, Bonaparte.  He is not yet “Napoleon.”

The year is 1798, and Bonaparte is leading an expedition to conquer Egypt.  His army is seen in the background, moving across a vast plain.

What was Bonaparte doing in Egypt? France’s leaders at the time were as perplexed as many have been since.

Egypt itself was not Napoleon’s goal.  The ultimate target in Napoleon’s mind was India. But to reach India despite the seemingly insuperable power of the British Navy, France would have to secure a land route. An alliance with Russia would have to be arranged. Also, the Ottomans and Persians would either have to be bullied or co-opted. But Bonaparte was the kind of individual who could project such a complex line of developments and take the steps necessary to bring it to fruition. In light of his subsequent failure due to the heroics of Admiral Nelson’s navy at the Battle of the Nile, historians have tended to downplay Napoleon’s concept, but as his later conquests would show, his ambition was usually matched by perceptiveness, intellectual penetration, and an ability to carry through the most complex plans.

In addition, Jean-Leon Gerome proposes that Napoleon possessed yet another virtue: historical-mindedness.

In the painting, Gerome portrays the still young Bonaparte–whose plans to change history have yet to unfold–pondering the ruins of a once great artifact.

The particular juxtaposition of the larger-than-life Sphinx and the soon-to-be world-altering Frenchman on horseback has led some to find humor in the painting.  The man undoubtedly is smaller than the sculpture, and by making him look small, one may suppose that it makes him seem insignificant, even comically so.  However, had Gerome intended such a mood, he could easily have dwarfed the general by changing the perspective and including the Pyramids as well. Bonaparte is smaller, obviously, than the Sphinx. But this is fitting within the composition since he hasn’t yet earned a larger place in history.

That Bonaparte is not yet a great historical figure but that he must already have dreamed of conquering the world by this point in his career is what matters.  It is this individual who is juxtaposed with the mysterious deity, which once held sway over civilization but now is no more.

Thus the painting depicts a man who wishes to become important pondering something which was once important but is no longer.

“Will it matter,” wonders Bonaparte?  What does matter in history?  Who or what has a lasting effect through time?

Napoleon surely wished for a legacy.  But the Sphinx’s legacy, no matter how great it once was, had long been extinguished.

The painting invites us to consider the theme of historical significance, and proposes in a subtle manner that no matter how great something is, it is eventually discarded and forgotten.  And yet, Napoleon’s presence in history, viewed from Gerome’s vantage point, and still from our own, defies this idea.

That Napoleon did not accept this notion is a part of the reason why he occupies his unique place in story of mankind. Nobody who strives to change the world can accept that what they do doesn’t matter.  And nobody who does truly change the world in a significant way ever is lost to history.  The Sphinx also, despite lying in ruins and partially covered, still remains. Even if only as neglected ruin, it calls out through time for us to solve its mystery.

As far as history is concerned, we can enjoy Gerome’s deceptively simple painting for its ability to conjure this manifold context of thoughts.  On a personal level, we can also derive an important benefit.  We can contemplate the question of the importance of things–of the every day toils we engage in to reach a great goal, of the problems that get blown out of proportion in the moment, but then fade away.  Some things are important, and we should pay them the attention they deserve.  Others are not, and we can let them go.

Like Napoleon before the Sphinx, we have to consider the question, if we are to know the difference and act to make real changes.

To help you on your own journey towards historical-mindedness, consider joining my 20-lecture history course on Ancient History, starting October 8th.  Learn more here.  Register here. (More information to come on this blog.)

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Installment four of A First History for Adults, Ancient history. begins October 8th.  In preparation for this exciting course–and, of course, to entice you to registerI’ll be posting a number of pieces related to its themes.

Among the stories concerning the uncovering of the distant past, none is more fascinating than that of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798.  It is at once a watershed moment in the unfolding of modern Middle Eastern history and in the origin of the study of the ancient world.

Since I have addressed the significance of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt for Middle Eastern history at length in my newsletter, I’ll merely summarize it here.  In essence, Napoleon’s actions punctuated the West’s military, political, and cultural ascendancy over the Muslim world.  A visible trend had begun in 1683, when the Ottoman Turks were repelled from Vienna by European powers and forced to accept major territorial losses.  Soon Russia was making advances into Ottoman and Persian territory.  Then France’s prodigal son demonstrated in turn that the West was ascendant by soundly defeating the vaunted Mameluk warrior aristocracy of Egypt and taking control of the region, which was then a province within the vast Ottoman Empire.

Francois-Louis-Joseph Watteau’ s depiction of the Battle of the Pyramids

Napoleon was eventually expelled from Egypt. Ironically, however, his defeat only reinforced the fact that the West had taken a great leap forward.  It wasn’t the Mameluks, or their Ottoman overlords who ejected the French from Egypt; it was the British.  The lessons of the West’s successes was not entirely lost on either the Turks or the new regional leader of Egypt, Muhammad Ali (the Pasha, not the boxer!), and a concerted effort–already underway in some areas–was made to match Europe’s progress by mimicking its institutions.  This led to the Tanzimat reforms in Turkey, and to a host of similar projects throughout the region.  (The partial success of these reforms, combined with the West’s continued ascendancy, lies at the heart of the modern dilemna I have termed The Islamist Entanglement.)

Napoleon thus changed history, as he was soon to do in still other ways.  But he also changed our understanding of history.  Along with large army of soldiers, Napoleon brought a small army of scientists and artists to Egypt.  Their aim was to push the boundaries of knowledge about the mysterious land of Egypt.  They traveled the exotic domain of long-dead Pharaohs in the wake of Napoleon’s army, sketching, recording, seeking, and uncovering.

Arrival at Abu Simbel, by David Roberts

The first windfall of these efforts was the gargantuan Description de l’Égypte, published originally as a 23-volume edition, and later expanded to 37 volumes!  The “Description,” as the name suggests however, was merely the observations by scholars of Egypt as it was then.  The country’s distant past remained a mystery.

The great obstacle to uncovering Egypt’s history was straightforward in nature, if impossibly complex in its particulars.  The source material from which history is constructed is written records.  Although Egypt had plenty to offer, they were indecipherable.  The famous hieroglyphic writing which blanketed Egyptian temples was inaccessible, as were the other forms of Egyptian writing.  Until the linguistic code of the Ancient Egyptians could be cracked, the true nature of their culture would remain unknown.

There was hope, however. In 1799, Napoleon’s soldiers had uncovered a stele near the town of Rosetta on the Nile river delta.  Whereas the soldiers might well have ignored the stone in other circumstances, they had orders from Napoleon to preserve anything of interest.  Surely this artifact qualified. It seemed to have three different kinds of writing on it.

French scholars examined the stone, and found that one of the languages was Ancient Greek, which they could read.  The other two languages–hieroglyphics and demotic–were not readable yet, but with a key such as this one, comparisons between the three parallel versions could provide an all-important opening for linguists.

The Rosetta Stone, found by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799

The task was torturous.  It took scholars 15 years to decipher the demotic–a later Egyptian cursive script.  The hieroglyphics remained indecipherable for a further eight years.  The problem was that the script contained a combination of phonetic and pictorial symbols.  Finally, French scholar Jean-François Champolleon cracked the code.

Work could now begin on the rediscovery of Egypt’s story. King lists and annals, religious papyri, funerary engravings on temple walls–all began to be translated, collected, compared, and ultimately integrated into narrative form.

Nearly 200 years later our understanding of Egyptian history is incomparably greater than that of any people before us–including the Ancient Egyptians themselves!  An entire science–Egyptology–thrives in academic centers around the world. Through the lens of scientific history, we can see further back and with greater clarity than anyone could have previously imagined.

And all of it stems from the unusual actions of one of history’s most brutal destroyers of life.

As far as Napoleon is concerned, many would rather dismiss his contribution.  Some interpret the scholarly dimension of his expedition as nothing more than a ploy to sway public opinion or a device for gaining political advantage.  But history is not primarily concerned with moral judgment.  Historical value-jugdment is an act of weighing the importance–not the goodnessof an individual or group’s contribution to the fate of mankind.  In this regard, one must attribute to Napoleon a unique place as a conqueror, lawgiver, transmitter of ideas–and irreplaceable contributor to a vast expansion of human knowledge.

In the first four lectures of my 20-lecture Ancient history program for adults we’ll examine the results.  I hope you’ll join us, starting October 8th!  Registration is now open, for those of you who’ve been waiting.  For more information on the course, stay tuned for the opening of the Ancient History program page–coming soon!

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One of the things I love about world sporting events such as the Olympic Games, other than the displays of fantastic athleticism, is that they provide an opportunity for people to escape from oppressive regimes by seeking asylum in freer countries. The fact that this won’t be possible in 2008 because the Olympics are being held in one of history’s most oppressive nations is only one dimension of the travesty that are Olympic games in China, but at least one athlete may have found a way around the problem.

Afghan runner Mehbooba Andyar is missing. The only female athlete from the violent tribal Islamic country of Afghanistan, who trained despite Taliban threats of enslavement and worse, has skipped town before the Olympic games. Andyar was training in Italy in preparation for the upcoming Olympics, but just a few days ago, she simply disappeared–with her personal belongings and passport–fueling speculation that she has run off to seek asylum somewhere.

Of course, one cannot imagine any athlete leaving a Muslim country in order to seek asylum in China at the upcoming games–especially a woman. That would be ludicrous. Andyar would only trading one range of threats to her person stemming from tribal and Islamic culture for an entirely new set of tortures in the  culture that brought the world foot binding and still practices coercive abortions.

Somehow, apparently, Andyar knew enough about the world to plan her escape from Afghanistan before the Olympics–while she was in Europe.

At least I hope so. There’s still the possibility that some hateful Muslim man or group has kidnapped her, and that she’ll turn up dead somewhere.

If not, and if the young runner has made the courageous choice to try to pursue her own happiness in the world by seeking freedom from Islamism, then I wish her “godspeed!”

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Apparently, the International Olympic Committee is considering a ban of Saudi Arabia.

Sounds good. The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which is Latin for “Swifter, Higher, Stronger.” It is an ideal that encompasses all people, including women. An organization that stands for this ideal cannot rightly allow a member state that systematically denies equal rights to one sex, and indeed systematically oppresses that sex.

Obviously, the IOC doesn’t exactly have a consistent history of standing up to the world’s worst regimes (such as the Nazis and the Soviets), but it did give South Africa the boot, and it should ban the Saudis next.

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As I was preparing my lecture on Israel–listen live tonight, I wanted to try to find an apt comparison to demonstrate just how small Israel is. A quick Google search revealed a great site: IRIS.ORG.IL (IRIS stands for “Information Regarding Israel’s Security”) that has great comparative maps.

Here’s the pick of the litter:

How Big is Israel–A Special Map for Americans:

How Big is Israel–a Special Map for Canadians:

How Big is Israel–a Special Map for Arabs:

Actually, the Arab World is so big, it won’t even fit in my blog window! You can click on the map to see the original, if you like. No wonder the Arab world had so much trouble accommodating the Palestinian refugees. Where would they all fit?

(IRIS also has a decent BLOG, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to leave a comment on some of their more interesting posts. If you manage to do so, let me know how!)

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In returning to the history of Saudi Arabia in preparation for my recent lecture on the Islamist Entanglement and struggling to define the precise relationship between the United States and its so-called ally, it finally struck me what the two countries have colluded in creating. In essence the United States has adopted a feudal relationship with the Saudi monarchy. What is worse, rather than champion its distinctive founding ideology of individual rights, the US has essentially captained the re-institution of the feudal system as the basic system of international relations throughout the world. Viewed from this perspective, US actions in support of dictators, theocracies and other oppressive regimes around the world are understandable, and completely consonant with the poor treatment the US and its closer allies often reserve for each other. God help us, because we’re headed back to the Dark Ages!

Ibn Saud becomes the vassal of the United States

Want to know why this tribal barbarian is so happy? He’s just been infeuded by the most powerful lord in all of history!

Feudalism, a political system found in various forms in all developing world cultures through history, but especially associated with the darkest time in the history of Western civilization, is an attempt to mitigate human barbarism not by identifying the principles required for people to live in peace, but rather by establishing a set of inter-dependencies to discourage war and to accrue short term advantages.

When the feudal system originated in Europe, it was because the most powerful chieftains could not directly manage their territories during the constant war that was life in the post-Roman world. Charlemagne, for instance, was constantly running from one front to another—from the Muslims in Spain, to the Lombards in Italy, to the Germans in central Europe. Despite his martial prowess, he understood that no area that he had conquered would stay conquered for long in the religious and tribal setting of the time, so he extended the system of “stem duchies,” whereby semi-independent regional rulers were entrusted with maintaining order on the frontiers. In the south, there was the “Spanish March.” In the east, there were numerous regions such as Bavaria and Saxony, each ruled by a “dux” (a duke).

To make sure that the system functioned by design, and that no part became too self-involved, Charlemagne sent envoys to every part of his empire on a regular basis. They were known as the “Missi Dominici.” The Missi were foreign to the territory they managed, so that they wouldn’t have special ties to its rulers, and they were sent to insure that imperial directives were implemented. One was a lay official, the other an ecclesiast, so that both dimensions of medieval governance could be managed.

The fundamental relationship that the Missi Dominici were supposed to oversee through their “shuttle diplomacy” was the basic form of barter that defines every feudal relationship: “land for loyalty” (sometimes known as Frankish Resolution 242!)

In this barter arrangement, a vassal was granted territory (a fief or “feud”) by his lord in exchange for various expressions of loyalty. Whenever the lord required an army in defense of his broader objectives, the vassal was to provide a levy of knights and peasants from his territory. In exchange the vassal’s claim to his land was sanctioned and protected by his lord. If one landholder’s claim was threatened by another it was the lord’s obligation to arbitrate the relative claims of his vassals and to interpose his military might when needed. This type of relationship existed at every level within the medieval social hierarchy, from serfs and farmers to knights, barons, counts and dukes, all the way up to kings and emperors.

An important aspect of this system was that the moral legitimacy of any particular regime took a back seat to power politics. Feudalism was the systematization of “might makes right.” For instance, before Charlemagne’s reign, when Frankish feudalism was still in its infancy, Pippin—a servant of the reigning Merovingian king Childeric III—went to the Pope and demonstrated that it was he, not Childeric, who exercised real power in the kingdom. The Pope then sanctioned the transfer of power from the Merovingians to Pippin’s family, later known as the Carolingians.

Childeric deposed by Pippin. (His hair is being cut in preparation for life in the monastery.)

Later, when Rollo the Viking was granted Normandy by the king of France in 911, it wasn’t because he had a moral claim to it, but rather because he promised to “stabilize” a region that was otherwise subject to the very depredations that Rollo had engaged in but was now supposedly willing to forgo. (You could say he was willing to play Fatah to other the Vikings’ Hamas.) Not surprisingly, Rollo’s powerful descendants nearly toppled the French kingdom on multiple occasions thereafter. The French-Norman version of the “peace process” extended for many centuries, and only closed with the Hundred Years’ War.

What on earth does this have to do with the present day? I’m sure to some of you (especially my students!) the parallels may already be evident. Before revealing the trappings of the modern feudal system, however, I still need to elaborate on how feudalism works in Part 2: False Morality, Pragmatism, and Collectivism. Stay tuned!

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Every culture has a barbaric past. Some are just more stylish than others. [Warning: gory details to come!]

For instance Italy–the land of the Renaissance, homeland of Verdi and Marconi, was once home to the Lombards.

These nasty long-bearded types had a penchant for cruelty. As one story goes, a Lombard ruler, having conquered his enemy, made a mug out of his skull, then married his daughter and forced her to drink out of the cup at their wedding!

This reminds me of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play Titus Andronicus, in which Titus feeds a Goth woman a pie made from the body of her sons–themselves rapists, whose victim Titus kills at dinner to relieve her shame!

Europeans definitely have a certain flair for life-hatred. But if you’re looking for real commitment, for a barbaric ancient culture that went the extra mile, It’s hard to imagine anyone topping the Aztecs.

The Aztecs themselves claimed to have sacrificed 80,000 victims to consecrate the pyramid of Tenochtitlan over the course of four days. As one writer has remarked, this outstrips the rate of eradication of the Jews by the Nazis at Auschwitz! And the Aztecs did it by hand! Modern writers are pretty convinced the Aztecs were bragging, however, so I suppose that gives Germany the “edge.”

Speaking of edges, how about the edge of guillotine blade? The French were definitely stylish in their barbarism, if nothing else. But when the guillotine proved too slow at lopping off heads in the French Revolution, the French put their inventive minds to work, tied hundreds to barges, and sunk them in the middle of the river. I’m not sure if this got them to barbarism’s “magic number,” which seems to be the slaughter of 20,000 by hand.

This honor goes to Agha Mohammed Khan the first of the Qajars, the dynasty that would rule Iran from 1794 to 1925. When he finally captured the city of Kerman, which had supported his adversary Lotf Ali Khan, Agha Mohammed ordered all the male inhabitants killed, and had a pyramid made out of their 20,000 eyeballs!

Apparently, in a letter (now lost), Agha Mohammed then wrote to Robespierre, which note he received just before having his lead lopped off. It read, “Your barbarians owe my barbarians twenty bucks!”

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According to this AFP Google news story, Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party recently won 92% of the votes in the country’s municipal elections. Of course, the results were never in doubt as the NDP was able to “disqualify” opponents, resulting in a boycott by still others.

Who cares? Well, consider that the British installed a puppet monarchy in Iraq in 1921, and held a bogus referendum showing that the new king had the overwhelming support of the people. Then, in a slowly building crescendo, Iraqis scratched and clawed their way to the point where they overthrew this illegitimate government in 1958. This, by the way, set the stage for the eventual takeover of Iraq by the Ba’ath Party, and the takeover of the country by Saddam Hussein.

One important difference between the gradual shift taking place in Egyptian culture today and that of Iraq after 1921 is that it is being being driven not by nationalists working to displace a monarchy that collaborates with the West, but by Islamists working to displace a dictatorship that collaborates with the West.

Even more ominous though is that Egypt is definitely due for a revolution. It’s coming soon. It took Iraqis about 50 years to develop the political and institutional awareness during Ottoman constitutional rule and subsequent British control to the point where they could take over the government. Egypt’s Islamists have had to endure a secular dictatorship longer than that, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been in operation since 1928 — and has roots going back to the Urabist movement of the 1870s — meaning that is likely better positioned to take over the country than any Iraqi group would have been in 1958. What is more, the Mubarak regime allows Brotherhood members to hold office as “independents,” even though the party is banned.

The only reason Mubarak is still in power is his hold over the military, but one wonders how long that will last. I am convinced that Egypt will become one of the next Islamist theocracies, probably when Mubarak dies. (Here’s an interesting YouTube video from Al-Jazeera that shows the government’s intellectual bankruptcy, and gives you a flavor of the current political scene in Egypt.)

Readers interested in Egypt’s plight, may want to check out John Bradley’s Inside Egypt, which has been called “a blistering overview of what it’s like to live in this autocratic, hopelessly corrupt society.” (I’m currently reading Bradley’s book Saudi Arabia Exposed, and although I think he is too evenhanded in his presentation, the irony is that even when he’s trying to portray so-called dissidents in the The Kingdom in a positive light, to the astute observer he ends up condemning even that segment of the population. There is simply nothing redeeming about Saudi Arabia.) For my top reading recommendations on Egyptian and Middle Eastern history, be sure to join the Powell History mailing list. The next installment is coming this weekend.)

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