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Nihilism in the Middle East

From Colonel Lawrence to Mohammed Atta

(Quadrant, December 2001; revised 2003)

“The ideal Arab prince will be wearing a long white robe, his aquiline features will be those of a natural aristocrat, and he will be famous for his skill at martial arts… It is noticeable that there are no girls or women anywhere. And it is fair to mention something else: in Lawrence’s vision the prince is often attended by slaves who are invariably handsome, silent and strong.”

The art of guerrilla war

Now that sporadic sniping in Baghdad looks set to escalate into more serious guerrilla activity this might be the time to take another look at Colonel Lawrence. He had lots of experience at this sort of thing and was an able theorist. His political meddling had much to do with the pattern of the Arab states today. His military thinking on behalf of Arab nationalism and guerrilla war was of course designed to overthrow the Ottoman Empire, almost one hundred years ago, but it fits the case of the US occupation of Iraq as well—perhaps more so, given the cautious western disinclination for murderous reprisals when attacked.

Anyway his account of how his Arab cutthroats would beat the Turks (and cutthroats is what his mates were) makes chilling reading today. He asked himself how a handful of fierce zealots whose main activities had been pilfering, ambush, and brigandage, could possibly bring the Ottoman Empire to its knees. Orthodox military tactics wouldn’t work: it could never be done by punching toe to toe with Turkish artillery.

“But suppose” (he wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom) “suppose we were an influence, an idea, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas?” Conventional armies were large and immobile, and conventional generals equally so. Instead, “we might be a vapour, blowing where it listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind, and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so perhaps we offered nothing material to the killing.

Like much else that he wrote this was eerily prescient. Today the heavenly kingdom of Islam’s more fanatical devotees, to be achieved by ridding the world of unbelievers, is indeed half in the mind and half in the hereafter. Groups like al Qaeda have of course plenty of material things like men and weapons too. But far more important than these is the way they have become throughout the Arab world, as in Lawrence’s vision, an influence, a toxic idea of universal revenge, an intangible thing without front or back or visibility, drifting about the globe like poison gas and striking unannounced and at will.

And if most readers think that Lawrence’s use of the word ‘gas’ synonymously with ‘vapour’ has no special significance, they’re probably wrong. He was writing around 1920, when mustard gas on the Western Front was the first thing every reader thought of when the word was mentioned. I suspect that Lawrence knew exactly what he was doing. It was in his nature to be unhealthily excited by gore, and killing, and nihilistic oblivion, and it was more than likely that when he wrote of “gas” he did so fully intending to convey its sinister menace, and happy enough to identify the mayhem it created with his own designs.

There are other interesting things too in what he says, especially for anyone hoping to occupy and hold a Middle Eastern country like Iraq for any length of time today—for example, the much-discussed asymmetry of forces. How many men would the Arabs need, and how many men would the Turks need, for either of them to succeed against the other? According to Lawrence the equation favoured his own guerilla-terrorists:

The Turks would have need of a fortified post every four square miles, and a post could not be less than twenty men. If so, they would need six hundred thousand men to meet the illwills of all the Arab peoples, combined with the active hostility of a few zealots.

With Iraq’s occupation now entering a critical phase much the same argument applies. Outside the Kurdish areas it is impossible to say how many of the general population support the effort to drag their country into the modern world, and how many remain sullenly acquiescent, waiting to see how things pan out and whether Saddam tries to stage a comeback. In the latter case, how many US troops will be needed in urban areas, distributed in what numbers and where and at how many fortified posts, to secure a regime installed by the USA against the sullen illwill of much of the Iraqi population, “combined with the active hostility of a few zealots”? We shall see.

The high romance of it all

I have had a copy of T. E. Lawrence’s The Desert Revolt (the abridgement of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom) for many years. It bears a 1927 inscription from a great-aunt who served as a nurse during the First World War in France, and who gave the book to my New Zealand father; and beneath this there is a later inscription from my father to me. Like other Britishers of their colonial generation they honoured Lawrence as a spectacular war hero, and they regarded his book as a literary treasure. It was indeed a handsome production. Printed on deckle-edged paper, it had the most glamorous imaginable charcoal drawing of Lawrence by Augustus John at the start, opposite a title page bearing “The Desert Revolt” in blood-red lettering.

Even as late as the mid-1950s the Lawrence cult was still going strong. I recall the wife of a prominent poet, her eyes moist with emotion, asking me if I had seen the Eric Kennington portraits in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: they were, she said, quite superb. And indeed they were—whether crayon or line drawings—quite superb.

Emir Abdulla, Abu Tayi, Felsal, all of them superior beings far above your plain, boring, bespectacled, job-holding townsman in the West. On the one hand Mr Sinclair Lewis’s representative of the deplorable boorboisie, Mr Babbitt; and on the other hand . . .  What incomparable hawk-like profiles and piercing eyes! What haunting images and striking dress! What memorable glimpses of eastern tribal glory are there displayed! E.M. Forster described the Arabian campaign during World War One as  “the last of the picturesque wars”, and at the level of theatrical costuming the portraits strikingly confirm this view.

But as for what Lawrence’s books tell us about the clash of tribal primitivism on the one hand, with Western civilization on the other, not to mention which of the two engaged his deepest loyalty—that is something else again. In my own view, much influenced by the writings of Elie Kedourie, the whole episode shows a politically naive romantic aesthete tipping the scales of history in a disastrous way. That Winston Churchill in 1921 participated in this weighting of the scales, intervening in support of Lawrence to help place Feisal on the throne in Baghdad, reveals more about Churchill’s own romanticism than anything else.

As for Churchill’s hope that “around the ancient capital of Baghdad . . .  there will arise an Arab State which can revive and embody the old culture and glories of the Arab race”, this represented a sad misuse of his customary rhetoric. The glories of the Arab race which preoccupied the author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom were on an altogether lower plane. They reflected what has been called “the peculiar affinity of the English ruling class with Islam”, an affinity based on the fact that

Muslims shared many of the deep-seated characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon elite—an intuitive resentment of culture, an amicable contempt for women, a proclivity for riding about on horses, a pleasure in discipline, and a covert homophilia.

While hundreds of observers have noticed the general phenomenon, the useful short list above was set down some time ago by the journalist James Cameron in a book about India, and for convenience we may call it the Cameron Complex. Barring resentment of high culture—both musical and literary matters were in fact things Lawrence was very self-conscious about—most of the Cameron Complex fits the Lawrence Complex (and indeed the British Foreign Office Complex) very well.

Given the number of British writers who have been attracted to the camels and tents and desolation of Arab tribal life it is tempting to reduce it to an infatuation with the noble savage. But this is misleading. As Ernest Gellner points out in Muslim Society, it was more often the aristocratic ranking of a feudal order that appealed to those drawn to the Arab world:

The European discovery and exploration of Muslim tribal society occurred in the main after the French Revolution, and was often carried out by men—long before T.E.Lawrence—who were possessed by a nostalgia for a Europe as it was prior to the diffusion of the egalitarian ideal … They sought, not the noble savage, but the savage noble.

That’s an interesting twist. Savage nobles aplenty can be found waving their swords and daggers throughout The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a work some regard as one of the important books of the twentieth century. Certainly Lawrence himself saw it in this light. Jeffrey Meyers in his study The Wounded Spirit tells us that literary achievement was what its author “valued above everything else”, and the subordination of military history to the demands of imaginative writing was something Lawrence freely acknowledged at various times and places.

To Robert Graves he wrote that “Artists excite and attract me. I’ve wished all my life to have the power of creating something imaginative”, while to others he announced that “a man never amounts to anything in this world unless he be an artist. I hope to be appraised rather as a man of letters than as a man of action.”

After completing his manuscript Lawrence listed three “titanic” books which were his models: The Brothers Karamazov, Zarathustra and Moby Dick:  “My ambition was to make an English fourth.” Of these works Jeffrey Meyers says that The Seven Pillars of Wisdom “shares their epic and idealistic vision and portrays Melville’s exalted quest for the absolute with Dostoyevsky’s recondite and infernal soul-states”. That could be so. But other reckonings too suggest themselves, including the possibility that in important respects Lawrence’s book is little more than an upmarket old-time adventure story for boys. A highly pretentious, artificial, and self-glorifying adventure story, to be sure—but that’s what it’s like all the same.

The greatest boys’ story in the world

In the sort of tale I’m thinking of we find a plucky young chap (in order to bring things up to date let us call him Harry) who visits an exotic feudal kingdom ruled by a princely leader of his people. With a bit of luck the prince will be wearing a long white robe, his aquiline features will be those of a natural aristocrat, he will be famous for his skill at martial arts (a silver-handled dagger is stuck in his belt), while awed visitors instantly recognise his inborn air of command. It is noticeable that there are no girls or women anywhere. And it is fair to mention another curious feature too: the prince is often attended by slaves who are invariably handsome, silent and strong.

Let us now turn to Harry Lawrence’s own words as he describes his first meeting with Prince Feisal. A slave carrying a silver-hilted sword

led me to an inner court, on whose further side, framed between the uprights of a black doorway, stood a white figure waiting tensely for me. I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek-the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory. Feisal looked very tall and pillar-like, very slender, in his long white silk robes and his brown head-cloth bound with a brilliant scarlet and gold cord. His eyelids were dropped; and his black beard and colorless face were like a mask against the strange, still watchfulness of his body. His hands were crossed in front of him on his dagger.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom contains pages and pages of this adjectivally overwrought gush. Elsewhere and afterwards, enraptured by what he has seen, Lawrence tells us that he

sat and half-listened and saw visions, while the twilight deepened, and the night; until a line of slaves with lamps came down the winding paths between the palm trunks, and we walked back through the gardens to the little house, with its courts still full of waiting people, and there we sat down together to the smoking bowl of rice and meat set upon the food-carpet for our supper by the slaves.

Fanned by slaves our hero tucks into his supper—and while he is feeding we might usefully take a closer look at this social milieu, a milieu in which Lawrence completely immersed himself, with whose fortunes he identified, and for which he was committed to securing Middle Eastern paramountcy at the end of the war. It has splendid princes at one end of the social spectrum and slaves at the other: that much we know. We have seen his warm regard for the silk-robed set—but what about the slaves? In the first place he seems to have been altogether unmoved by the plight of the harem women, or the fact that the sexual captivity of Somali and other African girls by Arabs had gone on for centuries. What interested him were the men.

The gardens were entrusted to slaves, negroes like the grown lads who brought in the tray of dates to us, and whose thick limbs and plump shining bodies looked curiously out of place among the bird-like Arabs.

The author explains that these plump and shining blacks were originally from Africa, and had been brought as children to Arabia by their fathers on pilgrimage to Mecca, where they were afterwards sold. “When grown strong they were worth from fifty to eighty pounds apiece, and were looked after carefully as befitted their price.” Some of them became servants, Lawrence tells us,

“but the majority were sent out to the palm villages … whose climate was too bad for Arab labour, but where they flourished and built themselves solid houses, and mated with women slaves, and did all the manual work of the holding.”

The “mating” of this labouring livestock with women slaves is a nice touch, and entirely typical. Anyway, like many plantation visitors to the Old South, Lawrence finds nothing to object to in their condition. Everyone is perfectly happy— “They formed a society of their own, and lived much at their pleasure “—while those he saw “declared themselves contented”. This was not written in 1720 or 1820, though It might well have been. It was written by a cultivated Englishman in 1920.

The adoration of feudal society

What our admiring English emissary to the emirs shows is a complete acquiescence in the rules and customs of a feudal society where slavery is a fixed institutional feature, and where the breeding of slaves for garden work in the palm groves is considered normal, since its purpose is to support an idle, fierce and touchy Arab leisure class permanently insulated from manual labour.

Need one add that it remains today as insulated against manual labour as it was then? Or that the accidental windfall wealth of oil revenues allows it now to import an entire service caste from the remotest corners of the globe to avoid having to cook or dust or mop? But the author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom found nothing wrong with such arrangements then, and would find nothing wrong with their perpetuation today. It’s the way things were meant to be.

Peculiarly enough, as Elie Kedourie points out in Islam in the Modern World, Lawrence combined this complacent attitude towards traditional slave-owning Bedouin society with views commonly described as “radical” or “anti-imperialist”. Thus, in the introductory chapter of Seven Pillars, he declares that British soldiers, “young, clean, delightful fellows” were sent “to the worst of deaths, not to win the war, but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours”. This, observes Kedourie, is nothing more than the Hobsonian-Leninist version of Marxist doctrine which holds that it is always “capitalism” which causes war.

Yet this seeming radicalism was entirely superficial. At war’s end Lawrence would work to have his friend Feisal installed as a king in Damascus, and when that failed, and Feisal was expelled by the French, he used his influence with Churchill to have him installed as a king in Baghdad. Kings are the thing, especially in the Mysterious East where they get to wear picturesque headwear and splendid silken robes. There is also talk in Lawrence’s book about nationalism and a “nationalist revolt”, as well as the claim that this was the underlying motive of his Bedouin friends; and along with this goes the frank enjoyment of his role as a charismatic outsider leading their movement.

But as for understanding where it all might ultimately be leading, and whether or not a collection of despotic quasi-feudal Arab states would be a desirable outcome at the end of a “war to save civilisation”—or might instead evolve into a destructive adversary of that civilisation —things like this never seem to have entered Lawrence’s head. His grasp of all such matters appears no deeper than his grasp of Marxism. His political philosophy was entirely secondary, something to be subsumed under a romantic infatuation with the savage nobility of Abu this and Emir that, who have daggers in their belts, and ride hard all night, testing themselves against the Arabian wastes.

Is it unfair to describe The Seven Pillars of Wisdom parodistically as an over-ambitious boy’s adventure story? Perhaps it is. The book contains many fine descriptions, several penetrating character sketches, and is close enough to the action to at least read like a plausible literary transfiguration of events—however strained, artificial and hyperbolic the prose.

At the same time it is hardly coincidental that the book lends itself so readily to shorter versions for the juvenile market. One of these, The Boys’ Life of Colonel Lawrence, was written by his American admirer Lowell Thomas (“Capture of a Turkish Stronghold”, “The White King of the Arabs”, “The Wonders of the Lost City” are typical chapter headings). This however was understandable, since Lowell Thomas was the lecturer-publicist who single-handedly created the glamorous public image of Lawrence in the immediate postwar years, and a “boys’ life” of his hero would obviously have been a nice little supplementary earner.

More surprising, among the 1300 entries in Jeffrey Meyers’ bibliography in The Wounded Spirit, is Lawrence of Arabia by Phillip Knightley. This is strictly the kind of  thing found in that pre-World War Two magazine for British schoolboys, the Boys’ Own Paper, with chapters like “Blowing up Trains” and “Ned and Darkey Turn Spies”. Somewhat incredibly, the publication date appears to be 1976. It should be explained that Knightley co-authored with Colin Simpson The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (1970), in which the world learnt that from 1923 to 1935 Lawrence employed a young Scotsman to give him periodic beatings. Accounts of the curious theatrical arrangements associated with the whipping rituals are to be found in Jeffrey Meyers’ book, and also in a searching essay on Lawrence by Elie Kedourie in Islam in the Modern World. Understandably, perhaps, there is no mention of it in Phillip Knightley’s book for boys.

The Cameron complex

The Cameron Complex includes horse-riding. Suitably adjusted for the preferred type of mount under desert conditions—the camel rather than the horse—hard riding is a feature of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on page after page. Sometimes camels are being kissed on the lips; sometimes a worn-out beast is killed and eaten. But that Lawrence’s companions were decidedly more attached to their four-footed friends than to their wives or concubines is clear, while Lawrence himself once proudly declared that “the only females in the desert revolt were the mares”. Cameron himself delicately refers to what he calls “covert homophilia”, but there was nothing at all covert about Lawrence of Arabia. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom must be the only serious military history to be preceded by a dedicatory love poem to a donkey boy, or to display intertwined male bodies, supposedly “slaking” something or other, on its second page.

But it is with that “amicable contempt for women” described by Cameron  that the exotic universe of Lawrence’s social and political values in distant Arabia violently connects with our own world. For here our attention turns to Mohammed Atta. It was Mr Atta who flew the first plane into the World Trade Center. According to his father, the young Atta was reluctant even to shake hands with women. Although he evidently spent eight years at Hamburg’s Technical University, he shied away from anything female throughout this time, and studiously avoided the inhabitants of St Pauli. He left instructions that women were to be barred from his funeral—pregnant women being especially tabooed from any contact or association with his corpse.

What are called “unclean people” are also to be kept away, unclean being a word usually applied to women who may be menstruating, or whose bodies are in anyway affected by their sexual timetable or generative functions . The deep neurosis evident in all this is also extended by Atta to whatever men are employed to wash and dress his corpse. In the report in the Times, if his privates are bathed “he who washes around my genitals should wear gloves so that I am not touched there”.

What is one to make of all this? At the deepest level of human psychology it has to do with the woman problem. Ever since Eve, all thinking men have known that a world without women would be a much more virtuous place. To a certain cast of puritanical male mind this is too obvious to argue about—and I certainly won’t argue with it here. At the same time it is equally obvious that such a world would be short-lived: room must somehow be made for reproduction.

Mature religions have usually found a way round the woman problem—by regulating reproduction; by offering havens for the celibate; and by the humane forgiveness of sin. But immature and primitive forms of religious belief have never handled the woman problem very well: numerous cultures have expressed their fear of women by chopping off bits and pieces of genitalia, by haltering women, by hobbling them, and by forms of ferocious social oppression including suttee—the burning of widows alive in India.

That mainstream Islam has accommodated certain mutilatory practices is well known, and an identical woman-hating and life-denying tendency is found among the mad sects to which Islam every so often gives rise. Ruled by mullahs who never grow up, and who may even be sexually psychopathic, they allow the woman problem and its itch to become a frantic obsession. Not of course that this matters to full-blown ascetic nihilists like Mohammed Atta. “Let purity reign though the heavens fall” is their slogan, whether suiciding in a burning skyscraper or despising everything female in social life.

Women as faceless tents

The result is not a pretty sight. As assorted fanatical sectaries struggle fearfully to deal with fleshly matters they have been driven further and further towards insanity. Among the Taliban, who understand that after the Tree of Knowledge came the Fall, women were first denied an education; second, beautification as an aid to femininity was accounted a dreadful sin; third, it was thought desirable to keep women as far as possible in physical confinement for their own good. But this still doesn’t always work, because the unaided lubricity of the male imagination is a powerful force in its own right.

The short-term solution adopted was therefore to pull a kind of horse-cover over the entire female body, concealing everything that might conceivably inflame male desires, and converting what was once a human being into a faceless tent. Then, when all else failed, there was the Final Solution. Afghani women who triumph over all the obstacles the mullahs have placed in their path, who succeed in retaining the attributes of Eve and allow themselves to commit some act which has been sternly Talibanned, and who stand condemned by the officers of the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, were led into a Kabul football stadium where they were shot in the head to the sound of cheering—the cheering of turbanned madmen in the stands.

It is a curious and disturbing fact that T.E. Lawrence shared much of this sick and nihilistic view of women—certainly as regards the horrors of biology and the repellent nature of physical procreation. Jeffrey Meyers’ chapter on Lawrence’s sexual pathology in The Wounded Spirit may be consulted for the full story. Here an outline will have to suffice. Meyers writes that

Much of Lawrence’s life was an unsuccessful attempt to subjugate his body, and he tried to escape the humiliation of the physical (“Everything bodily is now hateful to me”) through starvation, asceticism, masochism and flagellation.

He points to the similarity with Hamlet: both

react to the guilt-ridden, irregular marriage of their mothers, to whom they are unusually close, with a violent sexual revulsion. Hamlet’s nauseated condemnation of living “ln the rank sweat of an enseamed bed / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty” is an accurate portrayal of Lawrence’s sexual morbidity.

Normal heterosexual union was “dirty”: it disgusted and horrified Lawrence, as did birth itself. To clean oneself all fleshly bonds had to be cut, and the body scourged. Swords and daggers appear again and again both as metaphor and reality throughout The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Meyers says the epigraph stamped on the cover of one edition—“’the sword also means cleanness and death’—reinforces Lawrence’s connection of cleanness with death, rather than life”. Here we are not too far removed from Osama bin Laden’s claim that his followers love death as Americans love life”; and what it finally leads to is the humanity-hating nihilism expressed by Lawrence in a letter to a friend:

What is needed is a new master species—birth control for us, to end the human race in fifty years—and then a clear field for some cleaner mammal. I suppose it must be mammal.

As for the Arabs and Lawrence’s relation to them as set out in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Meyers notes that his attitude changes from that to be found “in the beginning of the book, [where] the successful guerilla raids of the Hejaz war are described in terms of schoolboy larks”, to something altogether darker at the end. This change is simultaneously a move from idealism to nihilism. No longer are the Arabs portrayed as either savage nobles or noble savages.

No longer is there mention of nationalism or high ideals or nation-building. Instead the Bedouin were

petty incarnate Semites [who] attained heights and depths beyond our reach, though not beyond our sight. They realised our absolute in their unrestrained capacity for good and evil; and for two years I had profitably shammed to be their companion!

Self-delusion is followed by the bitterness of disenchantment, and this in turn by his own psychological collapse. But was this merely a souring of the original ideal, or a final awakening from his romantic fantasies and a belated coming to terms with reality?

War with the West

Today Islam is at war with the West. Many deny it, and even the leaders of Muslim countries say it isn’t true—although they don’t say so very loudly. Every political leader with a grain of diplomatic sense and a large domestic Muslim constituency like France, is bound to say that Islam is not at war with the West—not a bit of it—our present troubles are caused only by a fanatical, anachronistic, and unrepresentative minority of the millions of peace-loving Muslims around the world.

We must all hope they are right. But most of us know in our hearts that it is only half-true at best, because what has happened is so remarkable and unanticipated that we still haven’t fully digested the fact yet. This is that the new ideology of radical Islamism directs and concentrates and inspires the deep resentment of the Arab world towards the West as nothing has been able to do before. The Marxists with their North-South class dichotomy once tried to do this. But the clash between the secular and the religious view of the situation largely disabled communist movements within the Islamic countries in the past. There’s a contradiction in asking the troops of a purely secular and materialistic movement to commit suicide for the cause. For them it just doesn’t make sense.

But today there is no contradiction. Under the regime of jihad suicide makes perfect sense. And the consequence of romanticising the cultural and religious antagonism between East and West has finally become clear at last—a deeply corrupted public understanding of what is at stake. As I have argued in The Culture Cult, the sentimental embrace of old-time pre-modern cultures as alternatives to our latterday commercial civilisation is unqualified folly. Politically, socially and economically, the two things are irreconcilable.

Radical Islam knows this and has drawn the logical conclusion—the conclusion Marxist radicalism was not allowed to draw. This being that the triumph of the backward and barbaric requires the destruction of the progressive and advanced by whatever means it has at its command. In the name of an imagined and terrible simplicity, modern civilisation must be destroyed.

As for the contribution made by both Lawrence and an entire era of British diplomacy which supported Arabism in one form or another, Elie Kedourie wrote that it was always absurdly romantic to see Arab nationalism as a civilising force:

The cause of Arab nationalism which he embraced was not more virtuous or worthy than any similar cause. Why a foreigner should so fervently embrace it, and what it has contributed to civilization, are both quite obscure.

Lawrence, on the other hand, promoted a pernicious confusion between public and private, he looked to politics for a spiritual satisfaction which it cannot possibly provide, and he invested it with an impossibly transcendental significance.

In doing so, he pandered to some of the most dangerous elements to be found in the modern Western mentality. His influence and his cult, here at their most extensive and enduring, we may judge to be not civilizing, but destructive.

Posted in Civilization.


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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Arabian Nights, Baghdad Days — romancing the Middle East – Roger Sandall linked to this post on 10 August, 2010

    [...] Note: Substantial excerpts from Layard’s writings, mainly Early Adventures and Autobiography, are here: Young Layard of Nineveh. For a discussion of more recent regional issues, and the political influence of Lawrence of Arabia, see also Nihilism in the Middle East. [...]