The West too had its Syrian moments

Through my days in college and university I often felt intrigued, rather haunted, by why tyrants enamoured British Romantic poets. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was full of admiration for a vile tyrant Hulagu — brother of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. And Lord Byron adored Timur Lang for whom the footnotes of history have never had a single word of kind appreciation. Timur, we know "destroyed Aleppo and Damascus in the fourteenth century, leaving behind him mountains of skulls out of which hundreds of towers and pyramids were built." Hulagu had ransacked northern Syria in 1260 in an attempt to wipe out even the last trace of a civilisation which was then flourishing in Middle East and West Asia.

Syrian author and a professor of literature Samar Attar's recent book, Borrowed Imagination: The British Romantic Poets and Their Arabic-Islamic Sources, is incisive, explains the reasons of the fascination and offers us a clue why the West has always been derisive about West Asia, especially the Islamic civilisation.

Attar says, the English Romantic poets like Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley and Byron lived during a turbulent historical period not very different from hers. Their country was always engaged in wars. The injustice of the social system was appalling. Religious minorities were oppressed. Slave trade was rife. Indigenous Africans were mostly brought from west central Africa by British ships and exported to British plantations, especially the sugar colonies, and to North and South America.

The French Revolution that destroyed the most centralised absolutist state in Europe excited the British poets' imagination. They hoped for radical political reform both in France and their own country. But gradually they witnessed the failure of successive constitutions in Paris, the Reign of Terror of 1793-94, the execution of the French king and queen, the endless fighting between political factions, and finally the triumph of a military dictatorship.

Pithily, Europe was then a veritable hell on earth — dark and lawless much like, if not more, what Syria and Libya are today. Civilisation in the West was then in constant strife — in clash with emerging realities and ideals. Industrial revolution had not only brought in economic changes but also created situations which demanded political changes as well.

Questions seeking the justification of continuing with monarchies were being asked in Britain and Netherlands. Revolutions were spreading across Europe and counter revolutionary forces too were rearing their reactionary heads simultaneously. Anxiety and fear were all-pervading in contemporary West.

In sharp contrast to this picture imperfect, West Asia, though under the absolutist rule, offered a picture of stability, peace and prosperity. To the scared and tentative Westerners West Asia then was a unique island of peace —William Wordsworth's ultimate destination where intuition and imagination triumphed over reason and the pastoral over the urban.

And did Keats, in his poem, Ode to a Nightingale, wish to fly away from Britain and its unquiet ambience into the ultimate pastoral pleasure of contemporary Syria or Libya?  In Britain he was sad and his melancholy found an eloquent expression in the poem:

"Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow."

East's wealth and prosperity, especially those of today's Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Turkey, had always been matters of desire to the West. And all the more ever since hoards of Western marauders swooped upon the region during Crusade. West Asia's wealth, prosperity and peace stunned the Westerners and anecdotes of this opulence reached Europe through word of mouth and writings of various authors, both European and Arab.

Clash of civilisation had thus begun. Desire to colonise the affluent had begun to sprout in the West. Plots to plunder thus started to hatch.

Political activist Clifford May was brazen in his partisan pro-West stand. He was absolutely crass in trying to project a different scenario. But we would take a cue from him and say that the West's lusts and plundering of the Arab wealth were manifestations of not just a clash of civilisations but a clash of civilisation with barbarism and we know who the barbarians were and still are.

The West has historically been in clash of civilisations with the Arabs and Muslims. It is a fact that European leaders and people at large have always denied and yet their denials have failed to offer us any tangible argument to dismiss what is and has been so obvious.

The West's present attitude towards West Asia, the Arab world and Muslims, lamentably, still echoes the sentiments of Coleridge and Byron. They lived in turbulent time in Britain and they rejoiced in the fact that a prosperous region and peaceful countries which lay beyond their shores were devastated by tyrants and enemies of civilisation. No wonder Byron nursed a deep pride in his own ancestry as crusaders in Palestine

Today when I see Syria, Libya and the Arab world in general being ravaged and devastated yet again, when I see the Muslim world getting bloodied almost every day with continuous abetment from the
West and the United States I get my answer why poets like Coleridge and Byron were so deeply enamoured by Hulagu and Timur Lang.  

The author is the Opinion Editor of Times of Oman. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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