Game of Thrones: An Allegory for the Middle East?
Much has been made of the hit HBO television show, “Game of Thrones,” being based off of medieval European history. Indeed, some suggest that the Lannisters and Starks are based off of the Lancaster and York Houses from the War of the Roses. However, interestingly enough, there are also some parallels between the show and the modern Middle East, particularly the Syrian Civil War. True, there are some glaring differences, and the books (from which the show is based off of) were written twenty-plus years before the events in Syria occurred. Still, the show debuted just as unrest was spreading all across the Middle East, including Syria. It’s possible—especially given the Jewish background of the two creators of the show, DB Weiss and David Benioff—that the events in the region influenced some elements of the show. In particular, the speed in how fast things change in the show, politics-wise, is remarkably similar to the quick political changes in the Middle East. But so, too, are some of the narratives and characters in the show similar to various Middle Eastern actors.
Starks vs. White Walkers & the Kurds vs. ISIS
It’s inevitable that there would, at some point, be a comparison of the House Stark and the Kurdish people, spread around Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Just as the Starks are beloved by most fans of the show, the Kurds are cheered on by the international community. It’s true that neither House Stark nor Kurdistan is perfect. But they are generally regarded as honorable, usually minding their own business, and are fighting against a foe that threatens all of world civilization and is loathed by all actors — including other villains.
House Stark began the show as a friend of the regional ruler, King Robert of the House Baratheon. By the end of the first season, however, Robert was dead, Eddard “Ned” Stark — too honorable for his own good — executed on false charges of treason, and a tyrant was placed on the throne that quickly became loathed by all and hostile to the Starks. Sound similar? If so, it’s because of the parallels with the Kurdish story. The Kurds were once allies of Iran’s Shahin his rivalry with Iraq. Ultimately, though, the Shah abandoned them, only to be overthrown and replaced with an oppressive Islamist dictatorship in Tehran that saw the Kurds as an enemy force. The Kurds carried out a courageous military campaign that seized many of their ancestral Iraqi lands from 2014-2017 by an Iranian-supported regime, yet due to behind-the-scenes maneuvering and internal betrayal during their independence referendum in 2017, they lost these lands and much political power. In the show, the King in the North, Robb Stark, launched a successful military campaign against House Lannister, yet ultimately he was murdered due to a betrayal of a Northman who aligned himself with the Lannisters, and subsequently took his turf. The Starks were exiled for years. Eventually, they managed to crush the traitorous Boltons and seize back their home — whether the Kurds manage to do this remains to be seen. However, the new King in the North, Jon Snow, maintains that the true war the Starks must focus on — indeed, that of all humanity — is the war against the White Walkers, an army of undead that seeks to destroy all of civilization, poses a threat to “good guys” and “bad guys” alike, and is despised by all actors on the playing field. Similarly, in Iraq and Syria, the Kurds maintain that the most important battle is the one they are fighting — that against Islamist extremism, mainly from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and fighters backed by Turkey. This assembly of mostly Sunni radicals threatens and openly wishes to dominate the entire world and destroy the West, Israel, Kurdistan, Arab governments, Russia, China, and Shiite Iran altogether, replacing it with a radical Sunni caliphate. The West, Russia, Kurds, and Iran (along with their militias) have all taken action against ISIS, with support from a number of regional and international actors as well. In Game of Thrones, the Lannisters and Targaryen army either support action against the White Walker army, or are planning to actively engage in war against them.
Russia/Iran & House Lannister
House Lannister is an opportunist, oppressive, controversial, and loathed power in Westeros. They have weak and unreliable allies, an otherwise strong army that has been degraded and exhausted by numerous wars, have suffered many personal tragedies, been undermined by various strategic actors, and have a suffering economy — also as a result of war. Yet House Lannister, for the time being, has managed to maintain its hold on power mainly by rallying its oppressed and embittered population against “foreign savages”, and by using brute force to crush its enemies. This is perhaps best exemplified in real life by Iran and its allies, along with (at times) the Russian Federation. The people of Iran can’t stand, by and large, their government, which is incredibly repressive, has squandered all of its wealth on useless foreign adventures, and generates controversy and embarrassment in the international realm. Yet House Lannister remains in power due to its demonstration of its barbarism abroad. Their ruthless execution of noble actors on the scene like Ned Stark, Robb Stark, and Olenna Tyrell, along with their previous battlefield victories have terrified their own population into submission. Their fear-mongering of “heathens” from other lands manages to temporarily rally their population — which hates them, as demonstrated by the abusive crowd to Cersei during her walk of shame — around the dynasty. The deaths, murders, or assassinations of Tommen, Myrcella, and Joffrey can perhaps be best compared to the assassinations of nuclear scientists in Iran, allegedly by the Mossad. As for military prowess? It’s the only thing keeping the regime and the Lannisters on the throne, yet it also has emptied the government coffers of money, with little reward — particularly as a more powerful adversary emerges on the scene. Russia, to a lesser extent, can be compared to this, with its strong military and sense of nationalism yet declining standard of life and tumbling economy. House Lannister also faces some internal fraying, with Jaime deciding to take part in the war against the White Walkers despite Cersei’s insistence on instead conquering the remaining portions of Westeros from the Starks and Targaryens. Similarly, in Iran (and to a lesser degree, Russia), there are reformists and protestors who either want rapprochement with the outside world, to look internally at their own problems, or to focus on the fight against mutual enemies such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, rather than the “resistance” to the US and its allies.
Israel & Daenerys Targaryen
Imagine a powerful dynasty exiled from its land by foreign usurpers, sent to be destitute, vulnerable, and poor in faraway areas. The once powerful is cast out, taken advantage of, imprisoned, raped, defiled, and shamed by powerful actors on the foreign scene. Yet somehow, the inheritor of this dynasty eventually assembles a following based on noble (yet sometimes naïve) actions, assembles strong allies, builds a powerful army, gains a lot of money, and sets off to take back what is hers — Westeros. This is the story of Daenerys Targaryen, who arrives in Westeros to destroy the Lannisters and take back the Iron Throne. In doing so, despite Westeros being her ancestral land, she is labeled as a foreigner by those in power. She also faces harsh criticism for sometimes using a heavy hand to win battles or defeat her enemies, because her allies expect better (perhaps the impossible) from her. This is also the story of the Jewish people. Exiled, mostly, by the Romans from our native land, only to have various empires colonize and occupy it, portraying the Jews as foreigners with no claim to it despite all evidence to the contrary. And what about the Targaryen family’s origins in Old Valyria? Perhaps a reference to Abraham’s origins in Mesopotamia? After suffering displacement, discrimination, the Inquisition, pogroms, and the Holocaust, we make strong alliances, return to the land, build a healthy economy, and construct the most powerful military in between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caspian Sea. Of course, it isn’t easy. Much as Daenerys faces strong resistance to her return on the battlefield and loses a number of allies in the process, she still manages to mostly best her enemies on the battlefield and make new partnerships. Similarly, despite the difficult wars in 1973, 1982, and 2006 that Israel has faced, it has overcome all military obstacles so far that it has faced and retains (and expands) its network of alliances. Much as Daenerys was judged for being too harsh for burning alive the Tarlys after they refuse to surrender and accept her rightful claim, Israel is often criticized for using a heavy hand to defeat Palestinian terrorism or deal with Iranian proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere. Just as Tyrion Lannister and “the Spider” expect her to be more soft and moral after her own harsh history, so, too, do the European Union and international leftists around the world expect Israel to be soft and generous in war, because of the Jewish people’s own experiences of persecution abroad. The references to the Jewish people and Daenerys are far from subtle. Not only is the narrative identical to that of the Jews, but her return to Dragonstone — her Westerosi counterpart to Jerusalem for the Jews — is marked by her grasping a handful of sand upon arrival to the land she’s heard of yet never been to since being a baby. The Jewish creators of the show likely added this in as a reference to the Jewish practice of making aliyah(returning to Israel), when many foreign Jews kiss the ground upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. Her alliance with the noble “leaders to the north” in the Starks is also tantamount to the Israeli historic friendship and alliancewith the Kurds, also to the north. Speaking of which, just as the Mother of Dragons shifts her attention north to first deal with the threat of White Walkers, so, too, is Israel now realizing that it has its own northern threat in Turkey.
Westeros & Syria
Westeros also resembles Syria, in many ways. The country goes from unity and stability to war, bloodshed, violence, and cantons of influence in just a few years. The battle shifts from being one of competition of who will rule and govern to one between two powerful Houses (Lannister and Targaryen-Stark) and then to one of everyone vs. an existential threat. In real life, the order is switched around a bit. Syria went from being a competition between Assad and a variety of rebels, to a fight between everyone against the murderous thugs of Sunni jihadism. Now that both the rebels and Sunni extremists have largely been extinguished, it is a battle between two of the region’s foremost powers — Israel and Iran, with Russia trying to please everyone. Syria is also not a country in anything but name — it has been split and divided into various spheres of influence, between the Kurds and the West on one hand, Israel in the south, Turkey in portions of the north, Iran in some parts of the country (though this is changing), and Russia in “useful Syria” along the coast to prop up and protect the government. Allegiances also shift easily, with the West, once backing the Kurds strongly, now moving towards Turkey; and Russia, once a patron of Iran, now moving closer to Israel’s red lines in Syria. There’s also the tragedy of Syrian refugees, forced out of their country for safety, which in many ways mirrors the tragedies of Arya and Sansa Stark after the death of their father.
The Tyrells & Martells and the “Moderate” Arabs
How could one forget the Martell and Tyrell families in all of this? Both are former rivals, yet eventually decide to collaborate with each other — along with their former Targaryen enemy — in order to bring down the family they all hate most: the Lannisters. The Martells have decently effective fighting skills, but are rendered less powerful than they could be due to internal rifts and the deaths of many of their most revered leaders or figureheads. And the Tyrells? While wealthy, they have a weak and feckless army, and tend to rely on political maneuvering to gain power and influence. If these two families have a counterpart in the Syrian Civil War and the Middle East at large, it is the functioning Arab states, often seen as more moderate than either Lebanon or Iraq and certainly more stable than Libya, Yemen or Syria. The intense and historic Martell loathing of the Lannisters can be best compared either to the Arab loathing of Persians or the Sunni disdain for Shiite Islam. Much of this stems from the humiliation and grief they suffered at the hands of the Lannister army and allies, which resulted in the deaths of their cherished family members (some of whom were heirs to the throne). Similarly, disdain for Shiites and Persians in the Arab World is especially growing in light of Iranian intervention and bloodshed in Arab countries, and its seeming “victory” over Arab efforts to resist Tehran’s colonial campaign. The Martells were also the only family in the 7 Kingdoms of Westeros (not including the Starks, who surrendered before hostilities could begin) that resisted Targaryen rule and remained autonomous. Similarly, Israel repeatedly routed its Arab neighbors in war, and certainly has crushed the Palestinians in their violent campaign. Yet out of any of its Arab foes, the Palestinians have certainly provided the most trouble for Israel politically and militarily.
The Tyrells perhaps most closely resemble Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries of their ilk. Wielding enormous wealth and resources, the Tyrells are respected and envied by many throughout Westeros. Their humanitarian gestures, particularly that of Queen Margaery, endear them to the people — even if it is sometimes for self-serving reasons. Yet they lack an effective military to defend themselves or advance their interests — something that even the matriarch, Olenna, admits and mocks. The Gulf Arabs also wield enormous influence internationally due to their wealth in resources like oil and their vast sums of money. They have pressured, mainly in the past, the West when it came to pro-Palestinian initiatives and sentiments. They also have spent billions of dollars on humanitarian initiatives in Third World countries, sometimes in exchange for voting against Israel in the UN or for spreading Islam. Yet their militaries leave something to be desired, despite their enormous military spending and acquisition of some of the most advanced Western weaponry. The past rivalry between the Martells and the Tyrells also mirrors the rivalries and differences between the Arab states — be it the Qatar blockade, the Arab hostility towards Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, or past difficulties in relations between North African Arab states and the Gulf. Now, however, in the face of common threats of civil unrest, international condemnation and isolation, terrorism, and Iranian expansionism, they must unite and even grow closer to their once penultimate enemy, Israel, to survive.
One may think of “Game of Thrones” as a form of entertainment and the Syrian Civil War is certainly far from that. Yet once cannot help but see the parallels between the two scenarios and wonder how much of real life inspired the show. Or is this just a case of history repeating itself? The story of Westeros, Essos, and the Iron Throne was modeled after the War of the Roses, and many can’t help but compare the Syrian situation to the Spanish Civil War eight decades ago. It does leave one wondering, though, whether life imitates art, or if time is on a circle instead of a line, destined to repeat itself at some point, even if some events are reconfigured on a minor scale.