In Damascus, a massive statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad sits on a mighty iron chair outside the 22,000sq m Assad Library, a giant book open in his right hand.
Behind him lie the archives of his dictatorship. But not a single state paper is open to the people of Syria. There are no archives from the foreign ministry or the interior ministry or the defence ministry. There is no 30-year rule – for none is necessary. The rule is for ever. There is no Public Record Office in the Arab world, no scholars waiting outside the National Archives.
It is the same in Cairo, in Riyadh, in Beirut and in Tripoli. Dictatorships and caliphates do not give away their secrets. The only country in the Middle East where you can burrow through the files is called Israel – and good for the Israelis. But the result is obvious. While Israeli scholars have been able to deconstruct the traditional story of little Israel – proving that there were no Arab radio stations calling for the Palestinians to leave their land, that the Arabs were indeed ethnically cleansed from their towns and villages by Irgun and the Hagana – there is no Arab scholar who can balance the books by drawing on the archives of his own history. They must go to the National Archives in London to read General Cunningham's dispatches from 1948 Palestine, or quote from Israeli books. The record stops there. Aside from the self-serving biographies of Arab dictators and generals, that's it. Even Walid Khalidi's huge tome on the destroyed villages of Palestine relies heavily on the work of Israeli historian Benny Morris.
Slowly, though, a little bag of history is being filled across the region. If we can't read the private papers of the leaders of the lamentable Arab Liberation Army of 1948, we can still hear the personal testimony of the Palestinian survivors. Rosemarie Esber, for example, has put her degrees from London and Johns Hopkins universities to good use by interviewing – in Jordan and Lebanon -- 126 Palestinian men and women who lost their homes and lands in 1948 and 1949. Her soon to be published work (Under the Cover of War) helps to balance documentation and diaries by one side with verbal recollection on the other. The book does not spare the Arabs – least of all the Arab atrocities or the Iraqi volunteers who turned up to fight for Palestine but didn't even know their geography – yet the suffering of those who fled is all too evident.
Here, for example, is Abu Mohamed from the village of Saqiya, east of Tel Aviv, describing what happened on 25 April, 1948: "Jews entered the village and started shooting women, men, and old people. They arrested girls, and we still don't know what happened to them. They came from the settlement that was near the village... They used Bren guns. Then armoured vehicles entered the centre of the village. Fourteen were killed that day... Two women could not run so they were killed in the village... The villagers ran together in the direction of al-Lid (Lod, the site of Ben Gurion airport in modern-today Israel). After that families started to leave separately... We left everything in the village... We thought it would be a short trip and we would come back."
In Lebanon, too, there is a flourishing market in books based on diaries and personal archives. Among the most intriguing is A Face in the Crowd: The Secret Papers of Emir Farid Chehab, 1942-1972, the private documents of Lebanon's post-Second World War intelligence boss. Apart from proving that Lebanese-Syrian relations could be as awful in the 1940s as they could be in the 1990s, he was an assiduous spy, nurturing his agents in Jordan in 1956 to find out why the young King Hussein had fired the British commander of the Arab Legion, Glubb Pasha. "Glubb was a spendthrift, tightly controlled the army's finances and secret expenses, and refused to share relevant information with Arab commanders and officers," a still unknown informant writes to Chehab on 11 March, 1956. "His interference (extended to) ... control over various ministries' telephone lines... A telephone employee in Amman admitted to me that even the Palace's and Prime Ministry's communication networks were under the army's surveillance. A secret communiqué addressed by Glubb to all British heads of army units was recently discovered; it said that in case of an Israeli attack they should retreat and not resist. The free officers took this communiqué up to the King."
So goodbye Glubb Pasha. But did this also, perhaps, have something to do with the equally secret Operation Cordage, first highlighted by Keith Kyle in his excellent book on Suez and even more rigorously investigated by Eric Grove of Salford University. "Cordage" was Britain's plan for defending its Jordanian ally from Israeli attack if Israel assaulted Egypt. The plan, according to Grove, included "an air campaign carried out by (RAF) Venoms based at Amman and Mafraq in Jordan to knock out the Israeli Air Force in 72 hours... A fighter wing of swept-wing aircraft (Sabres or Hunters) would be provided from Germany to operate from Cyprus..." A parachute brigade group would be flown to Jordan to defend British air bases and then – along with Glubb's Arab Legion – to defend Amman against the Israelis. It was at the end of February 1956 that Hussein dismissed Glubb; which, as Grove diplomatically puts it, "created problems". So how much did Glubb know about Operation Musketeer?
What really created "problems", of course, was Britain's own secret plan to attack Egypt, along with France and Israel after which Operation Musketeer – the Suez aggression – took over from Operation Cordage, and Britain's potential Israeli enemies suddenly became their secret allies. But of course, all this comes from British files. Alas, it will be many years before we know what is in the book that the iron Assad is reading outside his library in Damascus.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies