Once it was called the Silk route. In this route, travellers, pilgrims, conquerors, soldiers, spices, horses, camels, caravans, commodities and ideas circulated between east and west. From China, India, Persia, Iraq into Greater Syria, the caravan route was a festival of interaction between different peoples, religions and cultures. This happened up till the end of the nineteenth century. The opening of the Suez Canal as well as the European invention of the nation state in Iraq and Syria weakened the economic vitality of this route. For once the Suez Canal was opened, routes to the East Indies and China through Syria and Iraq were no longer holding the same vital strategic and commercial weight for the global circulation of commodities between imperial Europe and an imperialised Middle East.
But before these developments, an amazing period in history occurred which, had it continued until our days, would I Imagine have ensured that Syria and Iraq would never have experienced the tensions and conflicts which we are seeing in these days: sectarianism, bloodshed, suicide bombings, dictatorship, and, most importantly, poverty and lack of hope among the younger generations. For if we go back two or three hundred years ago, this was not the case.
Between Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra there were many interactions, encounters and hopes. The modern Arab living in Syria and Iraq would be quite surprised if someone like me happened to tell her that two hundred years ago the lands in which you are now living were not Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, Jewish or Christians. Religion did not define these lands. I am not saying that religion was something which did not exist in these lands. Rather the people living in these lands did not define themselves in terms of their religious, local or national identities. Rather they described themselves according to the extent to which they could make profits by interacting with different people from different religions and backgrounds. Rivalries and alliances existed between those who set out to enrich themselves rather than spreading their religious beliefs or imposing them on other people.
Many European travellers who crossed these routes during the eighteenth century recorded their observations. They noted the extent to which the commercial caravan was one of the linkages between Syria and Mesopotamia. As they mentioned in their diaries, the caravan would leave Aleppo loaded with European and Syrian commodities. The leader was an Arab Sheikh from a powerful tribe in the Syrian deserts. The merchants in the caravans were Ottoman Turks, Syrian Arabs, Christians, Jews, Europeans, and Armenians. In Basra, the caravan would set out to Aleppo loaded with Persian carpets, East India spices, and Chinese porcelains. Before the invention of an imperial commodity— one called oil—this area was open for a level of cross-cultural interaction and religious openness which we will never see in these days of the Iraq of Sunni-Shia death camps and the Syria of sectarian, regional and tribal feuds, massacres and chemical adventures.
France and Britain brought into Greater Syria and Iraq the Sykes-Picot agreement which later invented the nation state system in these lands. Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Iraqis have always reacted against this system. The wave of nationalism in the Arab World which the charismatic and honey words of Gamal Abdel Nasser ushered in were brought to a halt with the increasing consolidation of Israeli colonial projects in Palestine. The Arabs now reacted against Sykes-Picot in a different way. Rather than imagining themselves a homogenous community living within one nation state, they began to develop religious dreams. They saw themselves living in an Islamic Umma. This Umma was sectarian: one for the Shi'a and one for the Sunnis. Christian Arabs remained on the margins, and most of them looked to the west as a refuge.
Nevertheless, before we reached this stage, Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad’s projects of Arabic unity were a second step forwards in the run-up to what we have in Syria and Iraq today: sectarian illness. Since Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad established themselves as the leaders of the Baathist dream of unifying the Arab World, there has grown an awareness within Syria and Iraq that both would maintain their separate nation states instead of joining in 'one Arabic Umma', as the Baathist slogan would have it. Assad has his own Arabism. Hussein had his own Arabism. The result was not only the parochialism and repression of the nation state which both these leaders demonstrated in their political projects which nursed empty dreams within the Arab mind, heart and soul in Syria and Iraq. The dire consequence of separating these two lands from each other was one of economic regression in both countries. Of course, Iraq was a rich country under Saddam since it has unstoppable reserves of oil. Nevertheless, the Iraqis never got the chance to enjoy the blessings of possessing such commodities simply because of the fantastic level of corruption in that country as well as the on and off western embargo on buying Iraqi oil. One might also say that Syria was not a poor country under Assad. Since this country, thanks to a certain mount of Soviet pride, was not seeking to depend on the west for buying its commodities; rather it sought to manage with what the country could produce for itself in the sectors of food, agriculture and clothing. This is not to say that the important luxury commodities which the rich officials as well as wealthy aristocratic families could not live without were being brought to the country via the little brother, a previous Syrian territory now called Lebanon.
What I am arguing here is that if these two leaders had worked towards unlearning the new reality which Sykes-Picot aimed to create in the Arab World, the current deadlock in the Syrian-Iraqi situation would never have happened. Two hundred years ago, there was a caravan crossing these routes. Since then, we have not seen any real projects for connecting the economies of Syria and Iraq via these routes. In 2003, these routes delivered refugees, instead of commodities, from Iraq to Syria. In 2013, these routes are nursing fighters, Jihadists, bullets, and exclusionary ideas and beliefs, rather than the rich commercial and cultural scenes of interaction with which I began my article. If any hope needs to be mobilised for both countries, we should remember one thing. In the period before European colonialism and parochial Arab nationalism and sectarianism, it was daily practice across the commercial caravan routes between Syria and Iraq to cut across religious, cultural and sectarian identities and polarities.