Detective Team

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THOUGH the American public tends to view the radical states of Iraq and Syria with disdain, these two ancient lands represent the historical, literary, and linguistic core area of an Arabist’s life work. “Syria is the apogee of Arabism,” Horan says, “because the Syrians have everybody else’s number and nobody has theirs. I always regret that I never got to serve in Syria. Syrian Arabic is the Arabic I most enjoy listening to. Iraqi Arabic, on the other hand, is less aesthetically pleasing, because it has a heavy admixture of Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish.” This linguistic fact, however, is evidence of a different allure: Iraq, in addition to being an Arab urban center second only to Egypt in importance, is home to the Fertile Crescent’s richest overlay of civilizations. For these reasons, Horan observes, Arabists exhibit “a certain weakness, a faiblesse,” for Syria and Iraq.

This faiblesse merges with the Arabists’ grasp of the modern histories of the two radical states, which is the result of reading, often in Arabic, and of actually living in Damascus and Baghdad. “Syria sees itself as the most mutilated descendant of the Ottoman Empire,” says Richard Murphy, who became America’s first ambassador to Syria after President Richard Nixon re-established relations in 1974. Indeed, when the great British Arabist Charles M. Doughty traveled in the Middle East in the 1870s, the region was divided into only two parts: the limestone plateau of the north, called Syria, and all the rest–a sandstone desert stretching south to Yemen–called Arabia. Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and the Turkish salient of Alexandretta were then all part of Syria, and each was taken away. Murphy explains that whereas most Americans see Syria only as a brutal regime of anti-Western peasant Alawites, Arabists have lived in Damascus, where the Sunni population is urban and instinctively pro-Western. Gene Cretz, who was an embassy political officer in Damascus in the late 1980s, recalls, “Syrians are sophisticated and quite at ease with Westerners, at least on a personal basis. I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna-ish, but I never had a bad day in Syria. Dealing with my Syrian friends and acquaintances was as natural as breathing.”