A Parable of Middle East History: The Well-Intentioned Arab and the Malicious Genie

 By Barry Rubin

One day in 1952, a young Arab intellectual was walking along the shore of the Nile when he spotted something glinting in the sun. He picked it up and saw that it was a small brass lamp. Thinking that he might have found an attractive antique he took it home and brushed off the sand with the sleeve of his jacket.

Suddenly, there was a bright flash that knocked him over. When he stood up and regained his senses he saw a large genie glaring at him. “I am the genie of the lamp,” it said, “and you are granted three wishes. Choose them wisely. But remember that you only get one wish every 59 years.”

The intellectual was a good man albeit—in the way of most intellectuals—a naïve and bumbling one.  He wanted the best for his people and was fed up with the corrupt and stagnant monarchy.

Quickly he said, “I would like my country and the Arab people o have a different kind of government, a government that brings them together and makes them proud of their nation.”

“Done!” said the genie. And there was another bright flash.

And so was born the era of Arab nationalism. It was a disaster. . He was even arrested and held in prison for a while on a charge of being a spy working for Zionism and Western imperialism.

Almost six decades later, that man had become aged and cynical, in despair at what he had seen and riddled with guilt about the disaster he had brought about. He had focussed all of his will power on living long enough to get another wish at the end of e genie’s 59-year waiting period. Every day he had thought about what his new wish should be. 

Finally, in January 2011 he took down the lamp and rubbed it as hard as he could. Out came the genie, completely unchanged from his appearance since the first time they had met.

The man thought he saw a malicious glint in the genie’s eye. But he would not be deterred. He knew the risks but was sure that this time all would turn out well.

“Another wish, perhaps?” asked the genie with a nasty grin.

“Yes,” said the man who, like all mortals with much knowledge of books but little of people, wasn’t as smart as he thought. “I want a new government and worldview. But this time it should be chosen by fair elections.”

“Done!” shouted the genie. There was a flash and when the dust had cleared there were elections. At first the man felt as if he had achieved his purpose.  But soon it became clear that the new order was dominated by an intolerant, repressive Islamism. He was even arrested and held in prison for a while on a charge of not being pious enough.

Heartbroken and horrified, the foolish but kindly intellectual, broken by his imprisonment and the horrors suffered by his beloved country, died. But before doing so, he left a note to his son that went like this:

“My son, I have told you the secret of the lamp. The genie is very devious so be careful. I hope you live a long and prosperous life. And if you do, in the year 2070 please take down the lamp, rub it, and wish for moderate democracy with human rights enshrined in law. Just as a genie cannot be tamed, neither can those extremists who believe in violence and a radical ideology.”

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and Middle East editor and featured columnist at PJMedia http://pjmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). GLORIA Center site is http://www.gloria-center.org. His articles published originally outside of PajamasMedia are at <http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com>