A few years ago my sister bought me, as a birthday present, the actual issue of the London Sunday Times for the day of my birth, June 3, 1945. I have the paper in front of me right now, discolored and rather fragile — a little slice of the world as it stood in the closing weeks of World War Two.
U.S. Bombers Keep Up Blitz on Japan — Curtis LeMay, who once said he fully expected to be tried as a war criminal if the U.S.A. lost the war, was fire-bombing Japanese cities into ash-strewn plains.
Big Three to Meet Soon — "It has been definitely stated that Marshal Stalin has agreed in principle to the meeting …" That was the germ of the Potsdam Conference.
Czechs Will Preserve Independence, subhead "Dr. Benes's Hope of Future" — The Czechs had just 33 months of independence left, and Benes only six months of life beyond that.
Suicide bombers add a contemporary note, though they are Japanese, and in planes. The books page features a review, by Desmond MacCarthy, of Evelyn Waugh's new novel, Brideshead Revisited. Further down that page is another very contemporary-looking item, a review of an Ann Coulter-style political book: The Left Was Never Right, by Quintin Hogg (who, many years later, was a candidate for the post of Prime Minister, then later still, Lord Chancellor, and an amateur theologian).
What caused me to pull this relic out of my files, though, was a vague recollection of the front page lead headline. Yes, there it was: De Gaulle on Levant Crisis:
Gen. de Gaulle, addressing a Press conference in Paris yesterday afternoon on the crisis in the Levant, said that events there had an international and not merely a local importance … France, he said, was ready for negotiations on the question as a whole, not only concerning Syria and the Lebanon but the whole Eastern Arab world, for America and Russia were also interested in this …
You don't say. "Levant" is an old term for the Middle East. The context here is the reluctance of de Gaulle to altogether let go of the French mandates in Syria and Lebanon, mandates awarded to France in 1918 following the defeat and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. He blamed all the problems on Britain, of course, giving "the reasons for these difficulties" as:
(1) The Levant countries were complicated national entities. Egypt, Irak, and Palestine existed as political and geographical entities, but it was difficult to pretend that Syria was either a political or geographical entity. (2) The difficulties had arisen from the British attitude.
Not only the lead front-page headline is concerned with "the Levant," but the lead editorial on the Op-Ed page too: The Trouble in the Levant. Over on the inside Foreign News page, the main story, datelined Washington DC, is: American Dismay over Syria. (Says the story: "The headline 'French Bomb Damascus' produced the same feeling of dismay here as did that announcing the arrest of the 16 Polish leaders by Russia a few weeks ago …")
Syria … Lebanon … crisis … bomb Damascus … Egypt, "Irak," and Palestine … America and Russia also interested … Oh boy. A date plucked at random from sixty-one years ago, and the names, even some of the issues, are all so drearily familiar.
My health is pretty good, thank God, and if my kids don't drive me to suicide, and Al Qaeda doesn't pop the big one in Manhattan (my house is right under the Manhattan fallout plume), I have an actuarially excellent chance of living for another twenty years. I confidently expect that when at last I shuck off this mortal coil, kick the bucket, get my ticket punched, hand in my lunch pail, and go off to join the Choir Invisible, the newspaper headlines will still be saying American Dismay over Syria and editorialists will still be pondering The Trouble in the Levant, though unless it is true that absolutely everything comes back round sooner or later, they'll likely refer to the place as something other than the Levant.
A hundred years ago people of a geopolitical inclination used to amuse themselves by saying that the Balkans produced more history than they could consume locally. The Levant was at that point vegetating quietly in the embrace of the Ottoman Empire. When, after World War One, the region at last emerged from its chrysalis, it proved capable of generating a quantity of history that makes the Balkans look like North Dakota.
Does anyone else feel, as I do, an almighty weariness with the Levant and its intractable problems, its immemorial rancors, its savage rivalries, its unappeasable grievances? Back when Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State he used to tell his aides that if he ever showed signs of taking an interest in the Cyprus problem, they should immediately put him in a straitjacket. If only we could be that indifferent to the Levant!
I know, I know, we can't. Oil; nukes; Islam; terrorists; Russia and China — the Great Game of our time. We can't ignore the damn loathsome filthy accursed place. Our statesmen have to come up with policies; we journalistic thumb-suckers have to come up with opinions; all we citizens have to come up with taxes to pay for the warships and armies, the bribes and subsidies, the front men and stool-pigeons, the soldiers and diplomats. No, we can't ignore the Levant. But Lord, how I wish we could!