How do you to create a coherent narrative to present complex historic trends to an audience of non-specialists? I decided to use my personal experience to illustrate them.
I was invited to be the speaker at the White Cliffs U3A August meeting, and was delighted to accept. That was way back in March, but the date came around quickly enough. After some pleasant conversations with local organisers Ann Cook and Ian Philpott, I decided to create the presentation around my personal experiences of the Middle East. U3A runs a range of stimulating courses for its members, so I underpinned the presentation with a serious set of georeligious and geopolitical themes to give a more academic perspective for the audience, more than merely personal anecdotes and photographs.
- Cyprus (1988-90) – Borders and ruins
- Jordan (1989) – The unforgiving climate
- Egypt (1993-95) – Population and identity
- Gaza (1995) – Those ruled are of no consequence
- Gulf (2005-11) – Modernity?
- Basra – Trying to unscramble the eggs
- Baghdad – Georeligious rivalries
- Istanbul (2009-2013) – Facing east or west?
My talk was scheduled for 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon, so I expected about a dozen people and invited my parents along to make the numbers up. As I entered the venue it was quiet and there were few people in the bar or lobby. However as I entered the darkened auditorium, the hubbub hushed slightly and about 130 pairs of eyes turned towards me. Thankfully I was familiar with presenting at the venue – and had taken 2 days to prepare my 40-minute presentation – so was able to start without too many nerves.
As it turned out, the presentation lasted an hour and then there were about 30 minutes of really stimulating question from knowledgeable people. Many in the audience had some experience of life in the Middle East in the 20th Century. I think the great interest was encouraged by sad news from Syria and Iraq in the few weeks beforehand (such as the fall of Mosul). I’m glad I was able to provide those present with genuine insight into the challenges faced by the region (and ourselves) beyond the standard media portrayal.
In my final 2 slides I set out my personal views of the current problem and challenges for the 21st century (phrased for a non-specialist English audience). For me the single largest problem is the chaotic nature of Sunni Islam itself, and its inability to form secure states.
- More allegorical (‘innovative’ or liberal) interpretations of the Koran have throughout history been defeated by literalists.
- The literalists have throughout history ended more ‘liberal’ periods (such as the ‘Golden Age’) and accused the ‘liberals’ of apostasy.
- As nobody wants to be accused of apostasy, this has led to a cultural unwillingness to question and a suffocating orthodoxy.
- Practically any Muslim can claim to be a ‘pure’ Muslim – as the new ‘Caliph’ is now doing – and position themselves against less ‘pure’ (often but not always more ‘liberal’) interpretations.
- This cycle has repeated numerous times and in numerous countries since Islam came into being. The ‘West’ and Israel did not cause it. They just made it worse at different periods of history.
I’m an optimist but I foresee:
- Unrelenting population increases and economic hardship in North Africa and the Levant.
- On present demographics Israel will be overwhelmed before the end of this century.
- Victory of literalist Wahhabi Sunni Islam over more allegorical interpretations (wherever there are communities of Muslims, including the UK), regardless of whether the Saudis are dethroned.
- Recurring georeligious flashpoints between Sunni and Shi’ites throughout the region and beyond (KSA/Qatar v Iran).
- Continued aggressive expansion by the (Arab Sunni) Islamic State that squeezes out every other faith and ethnic minority in the region: Christian; Jews; Shi’ite; Yazidis; Kurds.
- Ecological devastation if ISIS tampers with Mosul Dam.
The volume of questions and warm applause and comments at the end was most gratifying and, on a personal note, I was pleased my parents were able to attend as it was the first time they were able to see me explain my travels in context.