I’ve worked out that in the past week, I’ve been told to wait “only five minutes” at least four times. In the Arab world, any interview that is delayed will always be accompanied by the assurance that I will only have to wait for five minutes. Or I will be called back on the phone in just five minutes. Only very occasionally is it 10 minutes. Almost never one minute. It’s five – used more in Egypt, less so in Lebanon and Syria. In Arabic, “only five minutes” is – my transliteration – khams daqiya faqat. In 43 years, I calculate I must have heard the phrase almost 9,000 times, probably more.
It’s a 99 per cent lie, of course, a lie every bit as big as the average percentage vote for an Arab dictator at election time. But I always – still – believe it. Even today, I will wait in a secretary’s office in the Middle East or glance at my phone and say to myself, ah well, it’s only three more minutes now and he/she will see me or ring back. He or she doesn’t. I know he/she won’t. But in the willing suspension of disbelief, five minutes must have credibility.
The lie has been uttered so many times that it has become more real than the truth. And I have not yet, dear reader, mentioned Brexit.
I did several times try to find out where these “five minutes” came from, and an elderly Egyptian friend tried to put my mind at rest. It came from India, he said, whence so many British officers had moved to Egypt in the late 19th century – and it was they who would tell the local Arabs that their pleas/wishes/requests/problems might be dealt with in “five minutes”.
So we were to blame, it seems. And when I was in India some years ago, I met an Indian journalist in New Delhi who said that, yes, this was the expression district commissioners would use in distant parts of the Raj when they were overwhelmed by plaintiffs to a village dispute.
After independence, the Indian civil service – and indeed any official in the newly independent Arab world – continued to seek the patience of a visitor (local or foreign) with the comforting advice that requests could be accommodated in “just five minutes”.
The actual time might stretch out for a day, a week or to the crack of doom. No matter, they said it, and they say it still – and I still innocently believe it. I might add that when I asked my journalist colleague to account for the accent in which English is spoken by Indians, he claimed this went back to the early Welsh missionaries who taught English in the country. Did not Indian English sound like Welsh people speaking English, he asked me? I’ve been thinking about that ever since.
But not about the “five minutes”. For I now accept its existence. Emotionally it is true, factually it is codswallop. Which is how Arab friends of mine now regard British diplomacy or policies – or “statesmanship” if we dare still use such a word – in the era of Brexit.
They are profoundly bored by Brexit because many of them – like an ever fewer number of Brits – don’t believe it will happen. But the Arabs also know that the present prime minister – forget his preposterous electoral mandate from the Tory party – doesn’t say what he means and doesn’t mean what he says. Retrospectively, that’s pretty much how they have regarded British Middle East policy for the past century.
The 1917 Balfour Declaration had an “only five minutes” credibility about it. It was only one sentence. It promised British government support for a Jewish “national home” in Palestine while insisting that nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the Arabs. Or “existing non-Jewish communities” as foreign secretary Balfour dismissively called them.
The first proved to be true, the second a lie. Yet for years, the British went along with this duplicity – until they departed Palestine in humiliation in 1948, by which time they didn’t care what had been promised or to whom it had been promised by Balfour.
It’s instructive, in this context, to observe our new prime minister’s attitude towards this most specious, dishonest and disgraceful document. In 2015, Boris Johnson described the Balfour Declaration – almost accurately – as “bizarre” and “tragicomically incoherent”. It was, he said, “an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama”. But on a subsequent visit to Israel – Boris Johnson was now Lord Mayor of London and conscious of the profitable nature of Anglo-Israeli relations – he stated quite the opposite. He had now discovered that the Balfour Declaration was “a great thing” and “reflected a great tide of history”.
Now obviously one of these two statements was false. Either Balfour’s words were incoherent and bizarre – tragicomically or otherwise – and the foreign office officials were knaves (“fudgerama”), or Balfour was a titan among men whose single sentence was a turning point in the history of the world.
The Arabs sighed wearily. They expected nothing more from the Brits. Hadn’t they always been lied to? Nor were the Israelis fooled by this nonsense. An Israeli journalist I’d known for 20 years shrugged her shoulders when I pointed out Johnson’s dishonesty. “We know what this stuff is worth,” she said.
And I rather think that’s how many Brits now regard the Brexit government. It is not our government any more than Boris Johnson is our prime minister. It’s just that lies – even five minutes of lies – have become normal, inevitable, boring, dull, tiresome and thus acceptable.
On a trade visit to Egypt three years after Field Marshal/President Sisi had overthrown the country’s only democratically elected president, massacred his Islamist opponents and incarcerated tens of thousands of political prisoners, Boris Johnson was chatting happily with the dictator in his Cairo office in order to “deepen the strength of mutual ties” between Britain and Egypt.
Britain was a longstanding friend of Egypt, Johnson announced. “We are Egypt’s top economic partner and strong allies against terrorism and extremist ideas.” While the torture wheels continue to turn in Egyptian prisons and every last activist from the 2011 revolution is clapped into jail, the Egyptians were nonetheless our “allies”.
Johnson’s preamble about the economy, of course, gave the game away. This was all about cash – and gratitude for any intelligence info from Egypt’s torturers. But we know that if it suited him, Johnson would – in just the same way that Eden’s support for Nasser turned overnight into hatred – throw Sisi under the same bus as he chucked our man in Washington. Indeed, at one meeting with Johnson, Sisi, who is nobody’s fool, showed what he thought of him by walking out of the room since the then foreign secretary was only expressing pleasantries.
But even recording this painful event means nothing. Indeed, the problem of writing about Boris Johnson now is that he is such a natural, easy-going and happy liar – an utterly dishonest man whose every individual lie has been unearthed, exposed, revealed and proven beyond a shadow of doubt so many times – that his very mendacity is what we journos call an “old story”. Boris Johnson lying? Well we know that – so what’s new to write about?
In this sense, writing about Johnson is a bit like reporting on the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who was infected with Trump-like insanity but who constantly made statements – about a holy cloud appearing over his head at the United Nations, about how the world was becoming “Ahmedinejadised” – which became part of his flaky character.
When he moved into more sinister territory – doubting the existence of the Jewish Holocaust, for example – we took him very seriously indeed. But when he made up stories, they fell into the “what’s-new-to-write-about?” category.
In a similar way, the total untrustworthiness of the British prime minister – his treachery towards the truth – has now become subsumed into his buffoonery. His disrespect for the truth is part and parcel of his buffoonery, which is his public personality – but which hides his actual contempt for the British people.
You can apply this to the dictators of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the former tyrants of Iraq and Libya. Their five-year plans, their election victories and their promises to destroy “Zionism” – not to mention their “love” for their people, while preparing their biological children as dictators-in-waiting – are and were nonsensical, spurious, untrue.
But we had long grown used to that. Mutually antagonistic Arab dictators would thus encourage their own newspaper cartoonists to characterise each other as buffoons – and western cartoonists often drew similarly insulting pictures of Arab leaders.
In some ways, Boris Johnson is a more dangerous man than all the Arab autocrats in one basket. Yes, I always resist the old canard of comparing modern-day politics to the Second World War. Saddam was not the “Hitler of the Tigris”. Nor is Trump a Nazi. If there is anyone in the fascist pantheon in whose actions we might find even the faintest parallel to our new British “government”, it is Mussolini.
His political resurrection in Italy (the busts of Il Duce for sale in his home town, the tourists allowed to visit his tomb) owes much to his buffoonish character. If you needed to look on the light side of the grotesque Nazi alliance with Italy – even at the cost of ignoring Mussolini’s outrageous antisemitism and his persecution of the Jews and racial slaughter of the Ethiopians, lacklustre as it may have been in Hitlerian terms – you could make fun of his outrageous uniforms, his feeble attempts to recreate the Roman Empire and his strutting and ranting in front of the crowds.
Yet a sliver of nervousness passed through me when I read that Jacob Rees-Mogg was doing a little language-cleansing now that he has a seat in the Cabinet. On the face of it, his desire to erase clichés and misnomers – “ongoing”, “got”, “ascertain”, “fit for purpose” etc. – may be eccentric, but it is hardly fascistic. I only wish he had added some of my hate-words – “narrative”, “space” and “move on” – to his list of banned expressions.
But I’m also aware that Mussolini himself did a little linguistic cleansing in his later days in power. Under Musso’s “reform of customs”, the Italian voi – the informal and rather trusting “you” – was to take the place of lei, the formal, perhaps overpolite “you” used in official Italy.
More seriously, he outlawed the use of dialects so that all should speak the Italian equivalent of English “received pronunciation”. Standard Italian meant that all citizens of the state could understand each other. Imagine how much easier it would be in the UK if all those who speak with a Belfast accent could be understood at once by all the folk in Cornwall or Kent. Just make the lot speak with an upper-class Eton accent and all would be clear.
Much more worrying – if we are to take the Second World War a little further into Johnson’s fantasy world – is the portentous war footing upon which his Cabinet now supposedly stands. In the virtual-Churchill world that the prime minister inhabits, he has, like his hero, created a “War Cabinet”. This play-acting no doubt has Johnson’s faux Churchill as its inspiration. Churchill – the real Churchill – did indeed create a War Cabinet. But that’s because he was facing a real war, not the EU.
Like Johnson, of course, he was not an elected prime minister: he came to office because Chamberlain had retained only a humiliatingly small majority in a vote of confidence in the Commons and because Britain faced a national emergency caused by Hitler’s victory over Europe. Churchill only came to power because he could form a government of national unity which included the Labour Party. Johnson’s war cabinet has to confront a national emergency created by its own prime minister – and without the help of his political opposition.
Here again, there are Arab parallels. Whenever Arab leaders – dictators, autocrats, tyrants or “strong men” – confront an insoluble problem, they create “emergency committees” to deal with the crisis. These committees achieve nothing – nor are they intended to achieve anything – but they provide the masses with a governmental façade of power and action.
In a similar way, Arab leaders will always justify their actions on the grounds that they are still in “a state of war” with Israel. Here, too, they will deal in circumlocution. It’s not Israel they often refer to, but “the Zionist entity”. Churchill would quickly spot the Boris Johnson version of what he himself (again, the real Churchill) would refer to as a “terminological inexactitude”.
In Johnson’s case, it appears to be the expression – now uttered almost robotically by his servants – “the undemocratic backstop”. No longer, in other words, just the Irish backstop. The Arabs would immediately understand this.
Much more seriously for them, however, what if the buffoon in Downing Street and the buffoon in Washington begin to speak with the same voice in the Middle East, now that Britain must grovel for America’s goodwill after Brexit?
When Trump announced that he would move his embassy to the Israeli “capital” of Jerusalem, Johnson replied that the UK embassy to Israel would remain in Tel Aviv. But does that still apply? Or was it just another lie? How soon, in other words, before Boris Johnson decides that the Balfour Declaration really did reflect “a great tide of history” rather than a “fudgerama”, and that Britain should complete the circle it began in 1917 by dispatching the UK ambassador to live with his US opposite number in Jerusalem?
A swift decision, a refusal to tolerate Palestinian doomsters and gloomsters – Priti Patel’s rich experience might make her the one to sell the package – and the prime minister can postpone calling Mahmoud Abbas to discuss his Jerusalem betrayal as he did Leo Varadkar over the “undemocratic” backstop.
Such a change in Britain’s Middle East policy would take scarcely five minutes – in real time, that is – and by the time protesters could gather at Downing Street, the prime minister could wave his wand again: free the Grace 1 in Gibraltar, welcome Iran’s release of the Stena Impero and pose as the new peacemaker of the Gulf. Britain’s navy may be puny – we cannot any longer, of course, suggest that it’s “not fit for purpose” – but Boris Johnson will by then have flown to Tehran for the third part of the deal: the release of Nazanin Zagahari-Ratcliffe.
But don’t count on it. To believe in the above is part of the fantasy world of eternal and phony optimism in which Johnson lives. There will be no election before 31 October – or maybe there will. We must remain. We must leave. He tried both versions and plonked for the second. The people will be united – or maybe there will be “civil unrest” – a sinister phrase we are hearing more and more lately.
Here the Arab potentates entirely understand Boris Johnson. For do they not also constantly promise unity to their people, security, the destruction of their enemies, the extermination of doomsters and gloomsters? In return, their masses shout: “With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you”. Boris Johnson gets only boos in Scotland and Wales.
But no matter. It takes only five minutes to forget all that and play the fool with chickens and nuclear submarines. Announcing that the withdrawal agreement is dead is a bit like accepting – as the prime minister will, be sure of this – that the land-for-peace deal in the Middle East is dead. If you can renege on one, you can betray the other. For this is an age when solemn peace treaties can be torn up – I won’t allude to the last time this happened on such a scale – cash splashed around and promises made to be broken.
Trump promises the Israelis and Palestinians ‘the deal of the century’ (for which Arab allies will pay) and Johnson promises the Brits an equally bogus deal of the century (for which the EU will pay).
No wonder the Arabs don’t seem surprised by the Brexit schmozzle. They are used to watching the Europeans inflicting pain on themselves as well as upon the Arabs – from the League of Nations mandate to the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq – but they also know that these events ricochet around the Middle East in blood and hatred for years to come.
Boris Johnson thinks he can “fix” Brexit in 91 days. Does anyone actually ring Downing Street these days and ask for a serious explanation? Of course, you’d be wasting your time. They’d promise to call back in five minutes.