Friday, 22 November 2013

Book Post: The Spies Of Shemlan

The frontispiece of my prized copy of Arabia Felix. 
Note TE Lawrence was, at the time he wrote his 
foreword for Thomas' book, going under the name TE Shaw.

Conceived with the genuine intention of building bridges between the British officer and governing class and the people of the Arab World, the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (MECAS) was founded by noted Arabist Bertram Thomas - the author of Arabia Felix, a friend of TE Lawrence's and very much a member of the 'Middle East gang' of prominent arabists connected with, among other things, Military Intelligence (the MI in MI5 and MI6). Storrs, Lawrence, Wingate, Thomas, Stark, Bell - these names trip off the tongue, but they were a highly influential little bunch of interconnected people swimming in a pond of finite size.

It's this connection with intelligence that's so hard to shake, right from the very conception of MECAS. While it may have had lofty aims, there was a whiff of sulphur connected to figures such as Thomas and his contemporary, Harry St John Bridger Philby - father of the notorious 'Kim' Philby, a man who has been connected with MECAS although it appears the connection was tenuous at best. Philby lived in Beirut for a time working for The Economist (and spying) and was said to have socialised with MECAS students. He never did study at the school.

But George Blake did. And Blake was one of the most notorious spies of the Cold War.

It was Blake who was to give the Centre a high profile student to justify Kamal Jumblatt’s assertion that MECAS was ‘A school for spies’. Blake, born George Behar in 1922, is still alive, living in exile in Moscow. He is said to have betrayed over 400 British spies in his remarkable career as a Soviet double agent - a career that ended with his in camera trial and subsequent 42-year prison sentence. The sentence was notably long, the judge finding him guilty on three separate counts of spying and handing out three maximum sentences. Newspapers at the time claimed the sentence represented a year for every British spy killed as a result of Blake's many betrayals but, fun though it sounds, it appears the claim was editorial embellishment.

A highly resourceful man who had enjoyed a remarkable career with the Dutch resistance in the war, Blake conspired to escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison in October 1966 and fled to Moscow via East Germany.

But as far as the Lebanese were concerned, it just went to prove what they’d always suspected. Up there in Shemlan, was The British Spy School. And people on the mountain still call it that – even though the Centre has long been closed and its building converted to house an orphanage. The legend lives on.

It's actually how I first found the MECAS building in Shemlan. We were looking for the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, but understanding dawned on the puzzled face of the man we asked for directions, "Oh, you mean the British spy school!" he said.

By then I knew MECAS was going to be at the very centre of Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy. Which, incidentally, you can buy here either as an ebook or in print. See what I did there? Subtle, me...
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