A Flag Worth Dying For (All Countries)

The Union Jack
The Union Jack

by Tim Marshall
courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore
Even though this book isn’t about one specific country, it filled in a lot of the gaps left from high school geography. In fact, it taught me more about the history of some countries in a single flag chapter than entire books dedicated to those countries.

I’m going to skip the first chapter, the Stars and Stripes. I mean, your own patch is always the least interesting, right? Or the one you know the most about?

The second chapter is called The Union and The Jack. OK, fellow Anglophiles, let’s dig in! Righty-ho, like all countries, Great Britain has had many flags before settling on THE ONE. Kind of like dating, really. The flag that we all see at Royal Weddings and flying proudly at Buck House used to be called The Union Flag.

Irish Flag
The Irish Flag

It represents the union of Scotland and England, although with Brexit who knows how long that will last. (Could Scott-exit be next?) Anyway, when the Royal Navy started flying the flag, it hung from a pole on the ships called “a jack”. And that is why it is now called the Union Jack. (Not represented: the Welsh dragon, or any Cornish or Irish symbol.)

Oh yes, the Irish, those feisty goobers. (Shout out to Great-Grandpa here.) The orange, white, and green tricolor represents the two fighting factions and the white is the hope for peace and the desire to keep them apart. My book group just learned about an Irish rebel who helped design this flag and fomented revolution on 3 continents before becoming the Governor of Montana and then vanishing.

The Colors of Arabia

Saudi Arabia
The Saudi Arabian Flag. Arabic: Allah is God.

“White are our acts, black our battles, green our fields, and red our swords.”
–Safi al-Din al-Hili (1278-1349)

Because of this chapter, I’m going to kill at the identifying world flags portion of the United Nations-sponsored site Free Rice.

What is an Arab?
So…the Arabs. My one big complaint with this book is that it assumes a level of knowledge I didn’t have. If you live in the Middle East, wear a head scarf, or are Muslim or all three, I thought you were an Arab. And I don’t think this is an uncommon misperception in America. But this chapter starts by talking about the pan-Arab movement during WWI, to overthrow Turkish rule. The Ottomans without explaining that Turks aren’t Arabs. Wait, what?

Turkish Flag
Turkish Flag

And–big shocker here–the Iranians aren’t either. I had to turn to Professor Google to find out that Turkish people are descended from the Mongols, and, it is thought, the Chinese. People in Iran speak Persian, which is distinct from Arabic. So which countries/peoples can be described as Arabic? (In the way that the U.S. is a “Christian country” but has Jewish people, Buddhists, secular people, Muslims, Hindus, etc. living in it.) At first glance, most obviously, the following:

  • Saudi Arabia
  • The United Arab Emirates
Flag of Iran
Flag of Iran. I actually recognize this when it comes up, I think because of how often I saw it when I was in elementary school and our Embassy was taken over. Scary times.

Easy, because they have Arab in their names. There are 20 additional countries in the Middle East and North Africa that could be described as Arabic, according to this book, with a combined population of more than 300 million. “Within this region are many different ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, including Kurds, Berbers, Druze and Chaldeans, but the two dominating factors are language and religion.” (And, I would add, Yazidi.)

Take a moment, close your eyes, and try to name some Arab countries, would you? OK, now here they are: according to Wikipedia. (They don’t count Palestine, but they do count the Comoros Islands.) The top Arab by population are as follows: Egypt, Algeria, Sudan,  Morocco, and Iraq.

If you do click the Wiki link, look at the tiny flags! A British vexillologist (flag specialist) told author Marshall that if you can’t recognize your country’s flag when it’s the size of a postage stamp,  you have a crappy design.

A few notes:

  • Syria is where the Arabs are thought to have originated)
  • Iraq is not Arab and the majority speaks Persian; neighbor and frequent enemy Iran is Arab and and the majority speaks Arabic.
  • “The would-be nation state of Palestine” is listed in the book as an Arab nation (unlike on wiki).

Trivial Pursuit

Flag of Mozambique
Flag of Mozambique

After reading this book, you’ll not only ace Free Rice, but you’ll be great at trivia games in the pub or on board game night. I learned that:

  • Nepal is the only country to have a flag that isn’t rectangular
  • Mozambique is the only country to have a flag with an AK-47 on it, somewhat analogous to an early US flag with a rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me”
  • In a more peaceful stance, that wheel in the middle of the Indian tricolor represents the Circle of Life and the concept of re-incarnation
  • Ignoring or dishonoring a white flag of truce is considered a war crime, and…
  • The Jolly Roger that we know today as a pirate flag was originally flown by the Knights Templar. Take that, Johnny Depp!

Carping and Criticism

Flag of Nepal
Flag of Nepal

The ARC of this book was black and white. I figure the publisher was trying to save money, but as a review copy, I would have appreciated color pictures of the flags. Particularly in the Union Jack chapter, where the author claims many Brits can’t tell when their flag is upside down, and that other countries have accidentally flown it this way, offending those who noticed. But these criticisms are minor.

I highly recommend this book. Fascinating stuff. I focused on Arabia, but the chapters on Latin America, Asia, and everywhere else are just as thrilling.

RATING: Five Vexillologists at a Geography Convention!

Flag of Tibet
Flag of Tibet

PS–One more flag, the Snow Lion Flag. How could I resist?

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