Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Historical Middle East, seven: Military hardware

This is the final post in a new (third) series of blogposts based on the ME trip I completed in May and early June. The other posts in this series are on orientalist art, funerary customs, ritual objects, applied and decorative arts, sacred buildings, and civic and commercial buildings.

It might seem wrong to end a series on history in the ME with a post about military hardware but as you will see there is a story here that links the point of departure – orientalist painting – with the finale. We didn’t spend much time looking for this kind of thing and I just snapped the occasional photo when the opportunity arose to do so. This will be a short post relative to the others in the series.

The driver who took us back to Amman from Petra, whose name was Maruan, guided his 3-year-old Hyundai Sonata hybrid through the city in order to visit his sister and on the way to his relative’s house we passed by the government’s tank museum. We didn’t stop as it was already late in the day and we were keen to get back to our hotel.

But Maruan slowed the car down and told me in English to read the sign that had been installed at the gate of the compound. Seeing this institution even from the outside underscored for me how, in the ME, the military sits relatively close to the surface of the polis compared to a country like Australia. In one shop in Jerusalem when we were looking at the goods on sale I struck up a brief conversation with one of the staff. He expressed a feeling of longing for the kind of peace and security that we take for granted.

There are police everywhere in Jerusalem, as there are in Istanbul. Big grey trucks with water cannon mounted on top of them stand at busy locations in that city ready to be put to use if there is civil unrest. The police there wear civilian clothes with badged vests but they carry automatic weapons in their hands.

As usual with posts in this series, I will start from the earliest objects and proceed to talk about more recent ones. The first object that draws my attention is the iron cannon in the photo below dating from about 1500 that was in the museum next to the Temple of Hercules in Amman. The label that accompanies the exhibit says that the writing cast in the object’s exterior reads: “Ezz for our master Sultan Al-Ashraf Abu Al-Nasr victory for the sake of God the work of Kamal Ibn al-Hamawi.”

The grenades below were in the same case as the cannon and, like it, they are made of iron.

The photo below shows the Aqaba Fortress. We drove to this Red Sea coastal town on day three in Petra after we had gone to Wadi Rum to see the sandstone cliffs among the dunes there. The fortress dates from the 16th century. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, the 1962 Hollywood movie, was filmed in the city and in the area surrounding it. Apologies for the finger in the frame.

The photos below show two trains near Wadi Rum that sit abandoned on tracks that lead, presumably, somewhere. When we were there a man and a woman were engaged in a photoshoot. The woman, who wore a Lycra top that showed her midriff, was doing handstands and other manoeuvres while the man snapped away with his camera. 

Khalid, our driver, said that the steam train originally came from Japan. He took us to see the trains as a treat after we had decided to accept his offer of a trip to Aqaba in his 3-year-old Hyundai Elantra. While the two of us took photos he went into a prayer room in the station building and completed his devotions. 

If you look online you can find traces of stories about the Hejaz Railway. The steam train in the pictures below is reportedly part of that service and it was during WWI that local Arabs, urged on by Lawrence of Arabia and with the help of the British, blew up sections of the railway tracks in order to disrupt the Ottoman war effort.

The sea mines in the photo below can be seen at the back of the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul. I don’t know when these mines were made or if and when they were deployed. They can be seen from a path outside the painting museum at the back of the palace compound.

The photo below shows a military installation that was set up for Ramadan in Boulevard Abdeli Mall, in the western part of Amman. The sign that accompanied the installation said that the cannon was used in the 1940s to signal the end of fasting during Ramadan but the installation also had a PR purpose.

After I got back to Sydney at the end of the trip I was watching TweetDeck as I usually do during the daytime and saw a photo a Turkish account, that normally posts photos of orientalist art, had put up. It showed a tank or a large gun (I don’t recall this detail clearly) and it had a caption that placed the photo in Cyprus following the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974. I was a little surprised and asked why the account operator had put this image up but in reply the person in charge of the account blocked me. It had been put up, they said, just to rub it in. 

For many people living in the ME, memories of war are fresh and going by the way people who live there think there is little to be optimistic about. Conflict characterises the region and I see no chance for that to change in the near future. Maruan had opened the conversation with remarks about soccer – he showed me on his phone part of a game that had recently been played by the Australian and Jordanian national teams, which Jordan had won – but considerate and peaceable people like Maruan are not always who you meet with.

Some are like the man who, on the day this post was written, climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge in order to protest against the government of Iran. During the climb, which stopped traffic on part of the bridge for about an hour, the 33-year-old made a video of himself that he loaded to social media. In it he addressed President Trump of the US. The Sydney Morning Herald story on the incident went on:
In the video, the man identifies himself as a member of the "Restart" movement, a group that, according to its website, wishes to "overthrow the regime of Islamic Republic of Iran" and "establish a government based on knowledge and merits" to bring peace to the Middle East.
Is the region a contested space? As Tony Abbot might have said, “You bet you are.” You bet it is. And one thing that strikes me as a result of writing this series of posts is that creativity and power have always gone hand in hand. In order to effectively project power you need more than military strength. You also need people who can paint and sculpt and engineer and design and build. You need artisans and artists and architects: people who command the plastic materials that we use to communicate feelings and ideas. 

I have focused in this series on physical things (buildings, ritual objects, kitchenware, glassware, castings, paintings, jewellery, carvings, mouldings, decorative items, even a mechanical device) but the same rules apply when you deal with words and with other such cultural artefacts as music and dance (I wrote about the extraordinary rite of the dervishes in a June post). And it is as true today with social media and videos uploaded to the web over wifi, and short segments of text such as tweets, as it was in the days when cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) letters stamped on clay tablets were the medium of choice for people living in the Middle East. 

Mere strength will only get you so far; to create a successful polity you need people’s trust. To gain it, religion and culture were combined in many potent forms: stories of origin that lived in the present. History keeps these stories relevant to us today so that we can learn important lessons and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

So how did the guy who climbed the Harbour Bridge fare in the courts? According to the SMH, “Naghi Pirzadeh, 33, pleaded guilty in Central Local Court on Monday to entering the structure and disrupting vehicles.” According to his lawyer Michal Mantaj, “his client's night in prison had a ‘profound’ effect on him and [he] had broken down in tears when they had spoken on Monday morning.” So a second chance for this guy, at least. He got a nine-month intensive corrections order, was banned him from going within five kilometres of the bridge, and was also fined A$1200 for this and two other offences.

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