On a winter day in 1945, Saudi King Abdulaziz and President Roosevelt met on the Great Bitter Lake, on a ship sailing the Suez Canal.
The two men came to an agreement: In exchange for US access to Saudi oil, a commodity crucial to Roosevelt’s planned development and security of the US, the “Land of the Free” in turn, agreed that it would not interfere in the Wahhabist theocratic governance of the Saudi monarchy.
‘Bitter Lake’ is the story of how their meeting and the profound ideological compromises it imposed on both sides, set off a head-spinning chain of events, which came to define the era since the second half of the 20th century, the reverberations of which continue to impact the lives of virtually everyone on the planet, on some level, on a daily basis.
Among the countless developments which grew out of this agreement, duly covered in the film, was the rise of major banks and corporations, as an alternative to the power of sovereign States. In addition, the world saw the Saudi-financed export of an extremist, pessimistic practice of Islam, known as Wahhabism (aka Salafism, which is actually fundamentalist Islam) and the longest war in US history, by five years and counting, “Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan” (sic).
In the succeeding centuries since the initial spread of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula in the 8th century, through South, Central, Southeast Asia and North Africa, the practice of Islam had become much more moderate throughout the Islamic world and it had also adapted regionally.
This was before Saudis exported, armed and financed a revival of Wahhabism during the 1980s, to places like Afghanistan. The United States supported this, both financially and with military training, starting with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
This brilliant and artistically made film by Adam Curtis, with Dadaist touches that take us from the absurd to the horrific to the existential, shows us how the intractably wily Afghans, after millennia of conquest by innumerable invaders, have come to work the same effect on the US-led war as they did with the Soviets who preceded the Americans, as well as with the 19th century British “Men Who Would Be Kings.”
The previous two empires crumbled after tangling with Afghanistan. Will the US be next? (Rhetorical question!)
Curtis likens this “Afghanistan effect” to the plot of a Soviet cult science-fiction film from 1972 called ‘Solaris’ (which I’m going to try to run on this channel, as soon as possible). Afghanistan, Curtis narrates, has a way of throwing a mirror up at its invaders, making them doubt their own most-cherished beliefs and intentions, reflecting back at them a disquieting image of their own abject hollowness.
The chaos wreaked upon the land by these outside forces is also shown to be deeply intertwined with – and to have culminated in, the founding of ISIS, aka the Islamic State.