The Mirror and the Aquarium


There is an old tale about a sultan, who liked fish. And because he was a sultan – and because fish liking wasn’t the worst thing he could do – the richest merchant in the land (seeking a favor, no doubt) made him a present. From the deepest parts of the Indian Ocean he brought him the Emperor Fish. It was a marvelous creature, golden and red, a size of a cat, wearing a thin line of silver scales as a crown around his head.

The sultan was amazed, and after rewarding the merchant with gold and jewels, he ordered to construct an aquarium worthy of the Emperor Fish. The best craftsmen in the kingdom worked for weeks, until the wonderful aquarium – aquarium? It was a small palace by itself – was created. And, with a royal ceremony of course, the Emperor Fish was put in his new residence.

The sultan asked for the aquarium to stand just next to his throne. He wanted to be able to look at this rare creature all the time. He also wanted his subjects to admire his new friend (and the sultan’s own glory and wealth on the way). Being just a bit eccentric, he saw the Emperor fish in a way as a colleague, a fellow monarch, if you want. He wanted him to see the court and himself – the sultan – at work.

... began looking quite feeble.

But the days passed, and the fish, truly amazing when he first arrived, began looking quite feeble. The sultan was worried, as he saw his fish friend becoming weaker and sadder with every new day. He brought in the best doctors in the kingdom, but they just pulled their shoulders – they knew how to cure people, not fish. He tried astronomers, then magicians, but they couldn’t do a thing. And then, on one rainy afternoon, one of the guards standing in the throne room and looking at the depressed fish and the not-less-depressed sultan, coughed.

–          My father, oh great sultan, lives in a village not far. He is known as a very wise man. And he is very good with animals. Maybe he can do something, oh you glory of the earth.

And the sultan, having nothing to lose, sent his best rider to call the old man. He came later that evening, complaining loudly. When he saw the sultan he bowed indifferently and then turned to the aquarium.

–          So this is the patient?

He asked and walked around his glass palace. He looked at the fish and then came closer and stared deep in his eyes. He knocked on the glass and tasted the water. Then he turned to the worried sultan.

–          There is nothing complicated here, sultan. It is clear. You see, this fish is royalty. And a very spoiled one, I think. Back at home, he probably had servants and all kinds of underwater goods. Here, looking at humans passing by all day long, he is just bored. I think he simply needs something beautiful to look at…

The sultan was amazed. All his wisest scholars couldn’t think about a solution and here he got one in seconds. He applauded, ordered the vizier, the prime minister to reward the old man and began planning.

The next day, the most beautiful clothes from the palace and the market were brought and presented to the fish. The creature showed some interest for a minute but then the empty look returned to his big eyes and he turned way. That was a failure.

The day after, servants began carrying paintings into the hall. Each of the paintings was truly a unique piece of art, a marvel among marvels, but the Emperor Fish didn’t seem to care.

Then the sultan brought gold and later diamonds. He ordered the prettiest dancers to perform, but the fish couldn’t care less. In a splash of straight thinking he ordered another aquarium, full with the most exotic fish, to be installed in front of the Emperor Fish, and for a day – oh, such a happy day – it seemed that he had found the solution, but then the creature lost interest again.

After a week or so, the old man was called in again, and again he came complaining. Without even looking at the sultan, he approached the aquarium and stuck a finger in the water. Then he walked back and forth, and finally preformed what seemed to be a little dance in front of the bored fish, the baffled sultan and the completely embarrassed guard, his son. Then he blinked few times and said:

–          He is much worse than I thought. I never saw such self-adoring creature. The answer is, once again, simple. You have to put a mirror in front of the aquarium. The only true beauty in his eyes – is himself.

And the old man walked away. Within an hour a huge mirror stood in the throne hall and the Emperor Fish was completely captivated by his own image. He began to eat properly, his movements became fast and strong and his silver crown sparkled once again. The sultan was overjoyed, the old man was announced as the head of his village and his son made an officer of the guard.


After the fall of the Soviet Union, the US began to talk about democratization. It was a euphoric time, when the West thought that we’ve reached the “End of History” and the credits are about to begin any second now. “There will be no more wars,” thought the West, as any other self-concentrated empire would have, “because we just over lasted a great enemy”. Surely, a steel-strong logic. In a very Western way, only few spoke about the most amazing notion that history didn’t exactly began with the Boston Tea Party, and probably won’t end with the Communist Party gone.

Under the banner of this wisest idea of the premature ending of history, the US went establishing a new order. The problem, one of those appearing each time when someone thinks he knows what is right for all, is that… Well, he doesn’t. And so, in the ME, the White House began to tango. Or maybe, in a local manner, to belly-dance. It tried both to appease the Arab states and to promote democracy.

Now democracy, just like ballet on ice, is something to grow in to. The West had few millennia to think about the idea, and most of the time it preferred to devote its’ efforts to other fields of interest, such as killing. Or the inventing of curling, which is in no way better. The ME, Israel not included, had not a second of democracy, since the city-states of the Hellenic period, and even then it wasn’t quite like DC., although they are surely some parallels.

It is a different place, our ME, a different civilization. It is based on different values, different patterns of thought. And when you bring your mother to the poker night, expect misunderstandings.

The previous administration choose a simple path – bombing. And the ME complained, but understood. Here, in a society still thinking as a Bedouin tribe living in the Great Desert, the strong is respected. The US wanted something; the US went to war to get it. Simple and clear, just like the rizu – the raid against another tribe, against the “them”, in which Bedouin men show their bravery. Sure, it was violent, but violence is part of life in the desert. You have to survive, so you push around others. And the Bush administration stayed within the borders of the paradigm. There were “friends” (good) and “enemies” (bad). We help friends, we fight enemies. Simple and clear.

The current administration is a different being. Nothing is clear anymore. It made a unique move, which would surely confuse any self appreciating chess player. It first apologized and promised eternal friendship for all, and then went home, leaving both friends and enemies standing in front of the chess board in amaze. You see, the US still has interests here, and for some reason it now thinks that they will be guaranteed by themselves. Why by themselves? Because the “friends” basket is getting emptier. Fast.

The Turkish navy. Clouds of confrontation?

Obama and his scholars decided to do something truly revolutional and give the ME to the people. Which is a great idea in general, but it has its’ exceptions. Take Turkey for example. It was founded as a secular republic with a failsafe mechanism built in. Each time an Islamic regressive player will get closer to power, the army will step in and push it away. Otherwise – please, enjoy democracy. Ataturk, the truly great founder of the republic, saw the dangers waiting within his own society. But when it did happen not so long ago, the US kept the Turkish army from doing what it was created to do – saving Turkey. And now, as – sadly – usual, Israel is the first to pay the price. It was democracy in the ME that brought Erdogan to power, but it was the White House that kept him there. First it wasn’t too bad but now, in only two years, we went from being allies to being the “main potential enemy” in Turkish strategic papers. Thank you, oh wise sultan of the White House.

And, of course, Egypt. I still recall being in NY earlier this year and hearing applause from all around to the great Egyptian revolution. The US did nothing as its’ best friend in the Arab world, a friend that had nothing to sell to the US except his support, was brought down by a cheering mob. It was the same mob, whose leaders refused to meet with Hilary Clinton, when she came to speak with them. The same mob, which burns the American flag as a relaxing afternoon activity.

So, to conclude, here is something that is painfully obvious here in the ME. We are an ancient region, which follows ancient traditions. The Arab world – and in a way Israel – is a tribal world. The core thinking is “us” and “them” and the loyalty goes from family to tribe, and then to nation or religion. The US is a classical “them”, as “them” as they get. We, Israel, also have some hard time becoming “us”. The local rulers are called “presidents” or “prime ministers” but this is a charade. The proper word is “sultan” or “amir”. They are authocratic, and some of them are not the type of men to invite home, but they keep their countries – these huge oceans of tribes, faiths, interests, causes, feuds and rivalries – together.

By letting the people to decide, you don’t get western democracy. You get a power-striked mob. In best case, like in Turkey, order is kept. The people decided to go to radicalization, and they do. Although, if you’ll look closer on the way Erdogan deals with opposition, you’ll see very little democracy. The worse case – Iraq and Egypt. Anarchy.

In a previous post I wrote about Saddam Hussein, who wasn’t exactly a gift to mankind, but he kept Iraq together. Now, there is no Iraq and Egypt, when it will appear again, will be a different player. And again, Israel pays the price, with terrorists running freely in Sinay, with thousands calling for canceling the peace agreement in Cairo, with the Israeli embassy looted and the personal evacuated by the IAF back home.

You see my friends, the White House, its’ heads and maybe the West in general are much like the Emperor Fish. They are happy to see a reflection of themselves, without dealing with the fact that it is just a reflection and the real world keeps going on without them. “Living in a movie,” we call it in Israel.

In the ME, when you speak about Israel, there is a strong tendency to rejection. We are still considered as “them” in the eyes of our neighbors. Our understandings with other countries in the region, our peace agreements, are not with the people but with the rulers. When, in the name of democracy and freedom you take out the leaders, you create a void that invites demagogues, who will follow the mob, or power-hungry extremists that will lead it. The strong get the crown, and pro-western, peace-thinking leaders are not too strong around here. And you get conflict.

So, thank you, oh great and wise president Obama. Thank you for soon-to-be nuclear Iran. Thank you for soon-to-sail Turkish warships. Thank you for the devastation of our embassy in Egypt. And thank you for all the great gifts that your wise leadership is going to create in the future.

And to my friends in the US – if the Emperor Fish is overwhelmed by his own reflection, there are only two things to do. The first is to take away the mirror. The second – to find another fish.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s