Sometimes, after reading just a few paragraphs, you can tell if a book is going to be fantastic. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you love it. You’re unable to put it down. You burn through it while hoping somehow that you never reach the end. But at this same time, you enthusiastically keep reading, ’cause you need to know where it all goes in the end. Robin Wright’s Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East is exactly that kind of book. I loved it.
Not to be confused with the wife of actor Sean Penn who shares the same name, Robin Wright is an award-winning foreign correspondent with over 20 years of experience and has reported from over 140 countries in addition to writing for a host of impressive publications including The Washington Post, The LA Times and The New Yorker. Her 2008 book could be seen as the capstone to her years of work traveling throughout the region and interviewing its diverse personalities, in addition to reporting on the region’s many tumultuous events and analyzing their significance. Thankfully, all of this has helped build the foundation for an excellent book.
Her book is as wide as it is deep. Stretching from Morocco in the west and to Iran in the east, through countless interviews Wright presents a detailed mosaic of the many individuals all calling for change in the Middle East. Just like Neil MacFarquhar did with his recent book, Wright interviews a wide gamut of individuals from across the region including dissidents, clerics, intellectuals, activists and government officials. As a result, her book captures not just the region’s ironies, (from theocratically-oriented Iran, one of the few nations where a 16-year old female can vote in an election; to the Palestinian Territories, which is home to some of the most sophisticated and savvy politicians in the Arab world, thanks in no small part due to being occupied by Israel, a nation with a Western-style political system), but the stagnation, (Syria and Egypt, while officially republics, due to dynastic succession or impending dynastic succession are really monarchies), as well as the dynamism, (the most sweeping reforms of all levels of state and society in a particular Arab nation were initiated by the king of Morocco, ironically an absolute monarch; while in Syria many of the pro-democracy dissidents are fervent Marxists or former Marxists who once fought to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat). All of this helps put a human face on the various personalities who are starting to shape that region’s future.
Many books on the Middle East are either incredibly opinionated and partisan, or superficial, or (perhaps worst of all), incredibly naive. Wright’s book is none of those. Simply by allowing a number of significant people to speak their minds and thereby offer prescriptions for the region’s many problems, she has created one of the best books I have ever read on the Middle East. This is a superb book and an absolute must for any reader who would like to understand that complex and troubled part of the world. I highly recommend it.