George Kerevan: ‘You got it wrong again, Balthazar’

Which star? Navigating the region's shifting political and religious sands is harder than ever. Picture: Getty
Which star? Navigating the region's shifting political and religious sands is harder than ever. Picture: Getty
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Imagine the three Magi were still traipsing around the Middle East trying to find the Prince of Peace. By George Kerevan

The red light in the night sky suddenly paused and did a lazy 90 degree turn to the right. Surprised by this unexpected event, the three Magi scholars travelling from Iran halted their camels and shivered in the eerie silence of the Iraqi desert.

“You got it wrong again, Balthazar,” said Melchior, the only Persian of the three. “That can’t be a star. Stars don’t do right angles.” The third of the group, Caspar the Indian scientist, suppressed a giggle. Balthazar, the one Arab in the trio, had made a lot of his astronomical and astrological skills in their quest to find the new Prince of Peace promised in the ancient scrolls.

“It’s a bloody American UAV. I can’t help it if the astrological tables don’t take bloody drones into account. Probably the Americans trying to take out an Islamic State position.”

There was a dull explosion a few miles off. Caspar lowered his night vision goggles. “Could be anybody’s – US, Israeli, Iranian, Syrian, Saudi, Turkish, or CNN. Might even be the Britons. The RAF is flying MQ-9 Reapers out of Kurdish Irbil, to our north, armed with Hellfire missiles.”

“Britons?” queried Balthazar. “Where the tin mines are? Before tin prices collapsed?” Caspar nodded in reply: “Yes. But there are no actual Britons around here. They pilot their killer drones from a place called Lincolnshire, by a magic called the internet. Hope they’ve warned the local population about IS reprisals.”

“This is getting us nowhere,” interjected Melchior. “Far less helping us to find the Prince of Peace. Try the Camel GPS again.”

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Dawn was breaking when they came upon a group of armed young men flying the green flag of militant Islam. They were guarding a cardboard sign which said “Border”. As there was only sand in every direction, it was not instantly clear which border was intended.

“Are they IS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Al Nusrah,” queried Caspar, who was behind in his understanding of the fratricidal wars in the Middle East. “We’ll find out soon enough,” replied the unflappable Bathazar, who immediately addressed the young militants in elegant, classical Arabic. Unfortunately, he received blank stares in return.

“Halt, bruv,” said a bearded jihadist, speaking in a broad Leeds accent. A potential disaster was solved when Caspar, who (being from Jaipur) spoke impeccable English, did the translating. The young men were Islamic converts from Leeds and Bradford. After handing over a few dates, the three wiser men were allowed to proceed. The young militants explained that their notional border post marked the division between Syria and Iraq – invented by Sykes and Picot, two British and French civil servants, at the end of the First World War.

“Why are they guarding a border invented by Europeans, so they could carve up the Middle East for the oil?” mused Melchior, the philosopher. “Have they not grasped that half the problems in this part of humanity are caused by foreigners intervening to impose their own political fantasies on the inhabitants? And where is Leeds, anyway?”

On the horizon, a black plume of smoke indicated an oil well. The three travellers were informed by local urchins that this was controlled by Islamic State, who were selling the oil to western traders via the Syrian government and Turkey. Melchior shook his head slowly and said (mostly to himself): “I thought that IS, the Assad people and Turkey were all deadly foes of each other. How can they be trading oil?”

Caspar, who had studied western duplicity in his native India, merely guffawed so it was left to Balthzar to explain to his rational friend. “IS needs the cash and pays off the Syrians, who also need the money. And the West will buy oil from whatever gang of thugs currently has it on their land.

“Unless they are Scottish, of course. For some reason, the Scots are deemed to be incapable of running their own oil industry.”

“I’m still confused,” admitted Melchior. But further conversation was drowned out by a low flying transport aircraft, heading from Iraq to Syria. It carried the markings of the Iranian air force.

“Ah ha!” cried Casper. “That must be the Iranians going to bomb IS, to help their allies in the Iraqi government.”

Balthazar shook his head, wearily. By now he was getting fed up trying to explain the insanity of the conflict in the Middle East. Indeed, the more he tried to explain it, the less he understood. “It’s like this,” Balthazar said, his hands making circles. “The Iranians are flying in arms to their pals, the Assad regime in Syria. To get there, they have to fly over Iraq. The Americans have agreed to let them do this, even though they (the Americans) are bombing the Syrians. This is because they need Iranian help to fight IS in Iraq. After all, the Iraqi army is so corrupt, it is useless.

“Of course, the Iranians are flying arms to Hezbollah at the same time. These will eventually be used against Israel, the government in Lebanon, and also Jordan. The Americans know this but are hoping no-one notices, especially in an election year. The Israelis also know this, which is why they have submarines armed with nuclear missiles patrolling the Gulf. The Saudis know this, which is why they are pumping to excess, the better to hurt America’s shale oil industry. They hope to get the attention of the White House.

“IS knows all this but also knows the Americans and Brits have now worked themselves into a truly stupid position where stability consists of no-one actually winning. In the meantime, ordinary Christians, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnies, and Jews will do the suffering. In the longer term, the whole shemozzle could end in a mushroom cloud.”

“Which is why we are searching for the Prince of Peace!” responded Melchior and Caspar in unison. Satisfied, though far from enlightened, the three friends continued on their mission. It was one they had been on for more than two thousand years.

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