Book Review: A Land of Aching Hearts
by Leila Tarazi Fawaz
Harvard University Press, 2014
Tufts University professor Leila Tarazi Fawaz is certainly correct, in her intensely moving new book, to point out that the bulk of popular historical attention given to the First World War tends to center on the well-known conflicts in Western Europe, and this has remained true even as the 100-year anniversary of the war’s beginning has flooded the bookstores with new histories. A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War seeks in part to redress that imbalance; Fawaz takes as her main focus the “Greater Syria” on the eastern Mediterranean, and she does an astounding amount of research into primary sources that haven’t to my knowledge been synthesized before to an extent this masterful.
Great figures stride through the history of the Middle East in the years of the First World War and its aftermath, figures like King Faysal ibn Husayn, who “advocated tolerance as tensions flared,” Egyptian Wafd Party founder Sa’d Zaghlul, T. E. “Lawrence of Arabia” Lawrence, and of course Mustafa Kemal, who founded the state of Turkey in 1923. But the main focus of Fawaz’s book is the plight of ordinary people caught up in the often calamitous changes the war swept into the entire remains of the Ottoman Empire. We meet humble fishermen, housewives, food vendors, schoolchildren, pedlars, shopkeepers, innkeepers, and a dozen others, all sketched with economy and skill from newspaper articles, journals, account books, diaries, and a tantalizing spread of unpublished theses and letters. At one point Fawaz tells us that World War I historians “must soldier on, making use of whatever source material – memoirs, diaries, memoranda, newspapers – can be uncovered,” and she’s certainly right: the degree of such soldiering on in A Land of Aching Hearts is prodigious.
Her account of the lives of these ordinary people is thickly carpeted in tragedy, necessarily. Fawaz dramatizes whole populations displaced or attacked, whole ways of life threatened or annihilated by war – and also by famine and disease, which swept through the Arab territories during the war, when most of the medicine and trained medical personnel were being shipped to the front for the various armies. The diaries and letters Fawaz brings together here paint this famine in stark terms:
Paradoxically, among those affected most severely by the war in Istanbul were government employees whose wages lost their purchasing power due to the enormous inflation that racked the city for the entirety of the war and beyond. A telegraph operator with a large family, who received the equivalent of $24 per month, submitted a letter to the editor in which he wrote: “We are literally starving. Members of our families are suffering from diseases directly caused by hunger … I have had to sell everything we had, merely to keep my family and myself alive.”
The Kaiser might have expressed a starry-eyed affinity for the Muslim faith, but the German forces were plainly unprepared for the degree of fractious tribalism they encountered in the Arab spheres they now encountered. Fawaz’s account abounds with appalled anecdotes along those lines:
In the rough-and-tumble settings of the Sinai, Hijaz, and Mesopotamian deserts, and in the midst of conflict, tribesmen sought out advantage whenever possible. The Arab Revolt undermined the already tense relationship between Ottoman Turkish and non-Turkish soldiers, causing [German general] Liman von Sanders to exclaim in exasperation that non one “can long ward off attacks from the enemy in front, and assaults from the rear.” … Reportedly, an artillery exchange in the summer of 1918 was interrupted by a group of locals gathering on a distant ridge to observe the spectacle. “To everyone’s astonishment, the Turkish and Armenian gunners shifted their fire off the New Zealand trenches and began shelling the civilian onlookers.”
Fawaz’s narrative leans toward indicting that intractable tribalism for not only the problems it caused Germany but for the problems it continues to cause today. Her book is a first-rate work of historical investigation, but it also functions as a kind of doleful question-mark shadowing the present day, which has the dubious advantage of being able to see live video feed of the disruptions and sufferings being inflicted on the descendants of the same ordinary folk Fawaz so skillfully uncovers. She does a fine job of soldiering on, but she can’t help but end her study on a down-note:
No wonder, then, that cynicism was one outcome of the Great War. The promises by the Allies to respect and support national aspirations took second place to realpolitik, and the peoples of the Middle East learned the hard way not to trust any ruler’s promises. Cynicism in small doses can be useful in politics, but the massive disappointment felt after the outcome of World War I led to a depth of distrust in government that did not bode well for the rest of the century.