Book review: Tomorrow there will be Apricots. An Australian Diplomat in the Arab World by Robert Bowker

The title of the book is a Syrian saying roughly equivalent to the English expression “Pigs might fly.” Bowker writes that it gives appropriate weight to the human qualities of the Arab world. It captures an unquenchable, droll optimism which, together with the deep appreciation of culture and hospitality, ranks highly among the virtues that define what it means to be an Arab. It also reflects an abiding scepticism towards those in positions of authority.

Bowker was an Australian diplomat for 37 years, mainly in the Middle East. He speaks the language. After he retired as a diplomat, he spent ten years researching the Arab world at the ANU.

The book describes the realities and prospects of the Arab world, concentrating on Israel and the Palestinians, Syria and Egypt. More than 7.3 million Palestinians live either as citizens of Israel or non-citizens in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, alongside 6.8 million Israeli Jews.

In April 2021 the Human Rights Watch released what Bowker believes to be a compelling 213-page report arguing that Israel`s policies towards the Palestinians met the definitions of apartheid and persecution, and hence crimes against humanity. In 2022 Amnesty International confirmed the report. Bowker maintains that the “two state solution” to these problems, whereby statehood is conferred on the Palestinians, is now impossible. He holds that the best hope lies in person-to-person outreach by Palestinians to Israelis. 

In Syria the recent history has been tragic. There have been 640,000 deaths, including the deaths of 306,000 civilians, 90% of whom were caused by the Syrian Government and its allies. Half of the Syrian population is displaced or living in neighbouring countries. There are 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Syria, writes Bowker, is gravitating towards a patchwork of territories controlled by war-lords. Beyond the coastal and urban areas, in Bowker`s estimation, Syria will be a wasteland for decades. The central government under Assad is doing what it can to gain control. Bowker recommends a gradual, calibrated, conditional engagement with the Assad regime.

More generally, Bowker writes, the path of Arab politics since the Arab Spring of 2011, has been one of evermore entrenched authoritarianism, amidst periodic upsurges because of inadequate economic performance, corruption and joblessness. Regimes will probably survive because of the absence of any credible, coherent alternative.

However, the base of the social pyramid is shifting, he believes, through the impact of rising levels of education, literacy, nutrition, web-based connectivity and the employment of women. There has been something of a Muslim diaspora over the last fifteen years, and millions of Muslims will be on their mobile phones reporting on life in other countries. If hope is added to all these factors, there could be a genuine renewal.

If there is a movement towards secularisation, as there has been in the West, there is likely to be a variety of responses, not all of them peaceful. We should be ready with constructive, respectful, solutions.

The book is in two parts. The first is about Bowker`s diplomatic career, the second consists of his reflections on the Middle east.

Published by Shawline Publishing Group. Australia. 2022. pp.307.  Paperback ISBN 978-1-9228-5042-3

 Reg Naulty, Canberra and District Quakers


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