[update below] [2nd update below]
He died yesterday. At 84, from brain cancer. Patrick Seale was one of the premier Middle East journalists of the past five decades. I was, as I wrote in a post exactly two years ago, a decades-long admirer of his work, despite his decades-long apologetics for the Syrian Ba’athist regime and disagreement with a number of his views on and interpretations of Middle East geopolitics. His 1965 classic The Struggle for Syria: A Study in Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958 is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the Middle East (it’s unfortunately out of print; I liked this one so much that I read it twice, and then bought a copy when Yale University Press briefly brought it back in print in the late ’80s). And his weighty biography of Hafez al-Assad, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, is also up there with the best (this one is still in print). His massive biography of Riad el-Solh I haven’t read. Un de ces jours…
Though I admired his work I probably would be writing this post if I didn’t know Patrick personally. We first met in 2008, here in Paris, where he lived for many years. He invited me to his well-appointed flat in the 8th arrondissement and I invited him in turn to speak in a graduate-level class I was teaching on the modern Middle East. The students greatly appreciated his talk, so they told me, and found him engaging and amiable, which he was.
Seale was naturally best known for his writing and commentary on the Middle East but less so for that on France. À propos, he was a co-author of a book on the May 1968 events that I consider to be the best on the subject in English, and to which I have devoted a blog post.
The Lebanese journalist Michael Young, learning of Seale’s terminal illness, had a fine—though not entirely uncritical—tribute to him a week ago, that one may read here.
UPDATE: Historian Bruce Maddy-Weitzman posted this comment on my FB page
Young’s review pointed to an important point – Seale’s increasing penchant, as time went on, to emphasize conspiracy theories to explain events. One of the worst examples is in the Asad biography, where he explains the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war as a case of a brilliant Israeli deception by manufacturing a crisis to lure Nasser into Sinai so that his army could be smashed and Israel could grab territory. It was such a brilliant ruse, he said, that even the Israeli public believed that it was in mortal danger. This was the classic explanation in the Arab world after the war about what had happend – Arab governments have no agency and no responsibility for what happens.
It was indeed the case that Seale had a penchant for conspiracy theorizing, at least in regards to Israel. E.g. Michael Young mentions Seale’s suggestion that Abu Nidal may have been an Israeli agent, which, to put it mildly, didn’t make a lot of sense—and which no serious observer of the Middle East took seriously. À propos, Martin Kramer related an anecdote to me several years ago of Seale’s visit to Jerusalem circa 1995, during which Kramer asked Seale if he really, honestly believed what he wrote in his 1992 book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire, about Abu Nidal doing Israel’s bidding, to which Seale smiled and shrugged, indicating that he either didn’t take his speculation too seriously himself or had no evidence whatever to back up it—apart from what Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), his principal informant for the book, told him—, so wouldn’t insist. In 2008 I asked Seale himself about some of what he wrote in the Abu Nidal book but he had forgotten the details.
A particularly vicious, mean-spirited, mendacious “obituary” of Seale posted on a blog called Syria Promise has been making the rounds since yesterday, in which it is claimed, among other things, that Seale knew no Arabic. This is bullshit. Seale’s books on Syria each contain six pages of bibliographic references in Arabic. There is simply no way he could have written those books—and particularly The Struggle for Syria—without a good command of Arabic (reading at least). And he spent the first 15 years of his life in Syria—where, it stands to reason, he would have acquired at least some knowledge of the language—and was a student of Albert Hourani’s at Oxford, under whose stewardship he would have no doubt perfected his linguistic skills (on this, see the obits in Al-Arabiya and The Guardian). As for this Syria Promise blog, it has but one post—the nasty one on Seale—, indicating that it was created specifically for this purpose. And the blog’s author gives no hint as to his or her identity. What an abject, cowardly S.O.B.
2nd UPDATE: Martin Kramer has a remembrance in Commentary of “Patrick Seale in Israel.” As it happens, the anecdote I recounted above was a little off on the date and place.