Anasazi Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Review of "Cairo to Damascus", by John Roy Carlson, 1951

In the late 1930s and early 1940s an Armenian refugee from Bulgaria, now a US citizen living in the United States, began the self-appointed task of exposing pro-Fascist organizations in the United States. Organizations like the German-American Bund that hoped for a German victory in that war. His work was done undercover, originally for Fortune magazine. He used the pseudonym John Roy Carlson. In 1943 his complete research was published in a book titled “Under Cover”.

In 1948 Carlson was concerned about continued anti-Semitism in the US, Britain and in the Arab world. So he traveled to the British Mandate in Palestine to cover the war between Jews and Muslims over the fate of that land. On the way to Palestine, he visited Britain and Egypt. In Britain anti-Semitic political groups were easy to contact. From them he got introductions to anti-Semitic leaders in Egypt. Of course, almost everyone he met in the Middle East who was not Jewish or Christian was a Jew hater.

After entering Palestine and witnessing the war from both the Arab and Jewish sides, he traveled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and then went back to a now independent Israel. The information he gather during his 1948 travels was published in “Cairo to Damascus”. I own an autographed, first edition copy, dedicated to my maternal grandmother who had important contacts in the Jewish community in Los Angeles in the early 1950s.

The most interesting thing about “Cairo to Damascus” is that, for the most part, the book does not feel dated. Do you want to understand the Arab-Muslim mind today? Start by reading this book published 6 decades ago. Along the way you will get accounts of first person meetings with, Hassan el Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and with Mohammad Amid al-Husayni, the infamous Mufti of Jerusalem, and World War II collaborator with Germany.

Hassan el Banna, Interviewed by John Ray Carlson in Cairo. "He was the most loathsome man I had yet met in Cairo

Today they are almost mythical figures whose goals are often disguised by modern journalists. Do you believe that the modern Muslim Brotherhood will do good things soon for a democratic Egypt? You will not after reading “Cairo to Damascus”. Here is Carson’s quote after meeting with Hassan el Banna: “The Koran should be Egypt’s constitution, for there is no law higher than Koranic law. We seek to fulfill the lofty, human message of Islam which has bought happiness and fulfillment to mankind in centuries past. Ours is the highest cause and the purest way. Those who criticize us have fed from the tables of Europe. They want to live as Europe has taught them – to dance, to drink, to mix sexes openly and in public.” To hide its aims the Brotherhood has changed its public name to the Freedom and Justice Party. But the modern Brotherhood has not renounced its founder or his beliefs

If you think this is out of date, take a look at the Hamas charter from 1988. Hamas is the Islamic organization running Gaza, and is a local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. See article 7 of the charter online at:

Another feature of Arab-Muslim culture that has not changed in 6 decades is the willingness of Arabs to believe in conspiracy theories. Almost every Arab Carlson meets believes that they were being manipulated by the Jews, English, or Americans. Good conspiracy believers thought that all of them, Jew, English and Americans, were out to get them at the same time. When “Cairo to Damascus” was written, one theory concerned the Jews in Palestine and the atom bomb. After 2 4-engine planes from Israel bombed Damascus in 1948, Carlson, who was there, wrote, “Rumors spread the Jews also had an atomic bomb and Einstein was its inventor.”

If you have hopes for an improved role for woman in the Arab world, consider this conversations with a young Arab Carlson meet in 1948 Damascus: “’Look at that’, he said, suddenly, pointing to a woman all in black, black headdress, heavy black veil, black cotton stockings, black shoes. The hem of a black slip showed. ‘Doesn’t she look like a ghost in black?’ he exclaimed scornfully.” (I walked past some of these women, in the full black outfit in southern Indian in 2005. I was scared to look at them. My wife told me they too looked scared!)

The author spent time in Lebanon towards the end of his stay in the Middle East. There he met many important leaders. The interesting thing about these leaders is one of their names: Pierre Gemayel, leader of the Lebanese Falange party in 1948. His son was elected President of Lebanon in 1982, but he was assassinated before taking office. Pierre’s grandson is today an important Lebanese politician. My point is that political dynasties like the Kaddaffis and the Assads are nothing new in the Arab world. A reader of “Cairo to Damascus” will be aware of this.

Another timeless element in this book is provided by a map of Jerusalem. I went online using Google Earth to look at Jerusalem today. I traced some of the same roads the Carlson walked and found some of the same building that Carlson described in “Cairo to Damascus”. Carlson’s time in Jerusalem is possibly the most interesting part of the book. He was present when Jordanian forces captured the Jewish quarter in eastern Jerusalem, expelling all the Jews living there, and allowing local Arabs to loot the empty and undefended shops and houses. Which leaves me wondering why east Jerusalem should be regarded as belonging to Arabs when their rule there lasted only from 1948 to 1967?

Now Carlson had an agenda. He started out pro-Jewish, and stayed that way. His interaction with Arab leaders and many individual Arabs gave him no reason to change his views. But he did meet individual Arabs who he liked, despite the fact that he understood they were being used as tools of the Arab elite. In order to give more weight to the Jewish side, he attributes Jewish units recruited by the British and fighting in Crete in May 1941, a role much greater than they performed there. So, having some background on the politics of the Middle East is useful when reading “Cairo to Damascus”.

One thing that dated the book to the past was that Carlson managed to meet many Communists who seemed to be among the few Arabs aware of the desperate situation in their own countries. With the end of the Cold War, Communism as a possible source of opposition to Islamic extremism has disappeared.

There is another old thing, no longer existing, that you will learn about in this book that is hard to find anything about elsewhere. That is the Dashnag, an Armenian organization with political and criminal power in many parts of the world from the time of the Turkish Armenian genocide, and lasting until the early 1980. They were part of the Armenian diaspora, hating Russians and Turks with equal ill-will. In 1933 the Dashgan murdered an Archbishop of the American Armenian Christian church in New York for a minor insult to Dashnag sensibilities. This sacrilege was a defining event in Carlson’s political development.

Carlson again ran across the Dashnag in Lebanon during his visit to that country in 1948, where they were locally an important political and criminal force. (My understanding is that one reason that Turkey and Israel got along well for two decades after the Israeli intervention in Lebanon was that the Israelis finished off the Dashnag in Beirut.)

There is one more element of Carson’s story that is dated. That is how he was able so easily pass as anti-Semitics in Britain and in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Before the Internet it was easy to fake realistic documents attesting to anti-Semitism, with little concern these documents would be verified by anyone on the other side of the Atlantic. That was a time with no e-mail and no Google search!

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