Lawrence Wright’s best-seller Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief completely blew me away back when I read it back in 2013. So impressed I was with his book that it easily made my year-end list of Best Nonfiction and came very, very close to being chosen by me as the best overall nonfiction book of that year. (That singular distinction would go Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 which beat out Wright’s Going Clear by such a narrow margin it can only be described as a photo finish.) Like any superb book, I’ve recommended Going Clear to countless people. Of course, I was thrilled to learn that HBO had made a hard-hitting documentary of the same name based on Wright’s book. With all the buzz the documentary has generated, I’ve found myself recommending Wright’s book Going Clear even more.
Imagine my excitement, when in the later part of 2014 I learned that Wright had written a book about the 1978 Camp David Accords. Feeling optimistic that Wright would do a fantastic job writing about one of the late 20th century’s most important peace agreements I kept a sharp eye out for his book should I ever find a copy at my local public library. Then one day as luck would have it, I spotted a copy sitting on the shelf. And with no hesitation whatsoever I grabbed it.
Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David is not just the story of the Camp David Accords. Wisely, in telling this story Wright vividly serves up an in-depth account and analysis of the three leaders who were the Accords’ signatories: President Carter of the United States, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and their respective entourages. Wisely also, Wright provides no small amount of historical backstory which helps put everything within the larger context.
Reading Wright’s book, it was fascinating to see how the peace process evolved. Carter’s original idea was to simply bring Begin and Sadat together long enough for the two leaders to trust each other, find common ground and hammer out an agreement. Then, nearly halfway into the summit it become apparent to Carter that he would have to lean hard on both men, especially Begin in order to reach some sort of deal. And speaking of deal, Carter’s perhaps naive dream of a comprehensive deal involving not just a peace between Egypt and Israel and the return of the Sinai Peninsula but also permanent and equitable solution to the plight of the Palestinians as well as the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank, despite his best efforts would not come to fruition. But in the end a deal would be struck, resulting in peace between Egypt and Israel. And that peace has held for over 30 years.
I was also fascinating not just by Wright’s depictions of Carter, Begin and Sadat, but also by the men (and since this was 1978 they were all men) of their respective entourages. Sadat brought not only future United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali but also his Deputy Prime Minister Hassan al-Tohamy, who besides being a Sufi mystic was also an astrologer. (Calling him an eccentric would be too kind.) Besides larger than life Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan (even though by this time his sterling reputation had been tarnished considerably by the fiasco of the 1973 Yom Kippur War), Begin also brought Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, whose friendly relationship with Sadat stemming from his meeting with the Egyptian President the year before came in handy during the summit. Carter was blessed with having National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski (like Begin also of Polish extraction) and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance by his side.
This is an excellent book. It flows extremely well and reads darn near effortlessly. Thirteen Days in September is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understand of today’s Middle East and should be read alongside books like Kai Bird’s Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, Neil MacFarquhar’s The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East, Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account and Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine. With all that in mind, I’m quite confident come December Thirteen Days in September will be on my Best Nonfiction of 2015 List.