2021 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 20 books, and for my efforts once again earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. Compared to past years my performance in 2021 was pretty lackluster with just 10 books read and reviewed for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Switzerland. This year for this first time I’ll be including something by a Norwegian author. 

  1. Becket or the Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (United Kingdom)
  2. Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland (Norway)
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes (Switzerland)
  4. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer (Russia)
  5. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (Spain)
  6. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini (Italy)
  7. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (Germany) 
  8. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Ukraine)
  9. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury (France)
  10. Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska (Poland)

Much like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction with five books apiece. Four are translations from other languages, including Polish. Red Famine easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list for 2021 while Swiss Watching was a runner-up. Both The Invisible Guardian and Empire of Lies made my year’s Favorite Fiction list with Not All Bastards Are from Vienna along with There There as my favorite novels of the year.  

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Old Books Reading Project: Becket by Jean Anouilh

Years ago, each fall around the time of my birthday I used to spend a Saturday morning shopping at the Friends of Multnomah County Library’s annual used book sale. Almost always I walked out of there with more books than I knew what to do with but I didn’t care. I was happy.

One of those books I bought so long ago was a paperback edition of Jean Anouilh’s play Becket or The Honor of God. Published in 1960 it’s a dramatic portrayal of the friendship between Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England, Becket’s appointment by Henry to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury and the two mens’ tragic falling out leading to Becket’s eventual assassination in 1170. More than just some costume drama like so many great pieces of literature it explores a multitude of themes.  It vividly depicts how some friendships, even the most passionate ones can have tragic arcs and end horribly. It also shows the age-old tension between church and state, as well as the battles that frequently arise between the recently converted or recommitted and their less pious former confidantes.

At first I thought it was odd a Frenchman would write a play set in Medieval England. In the introduction, Anouilh recalls purchasing a copy of 19th century French historian Augustin Thierry’s History Of The Conquest Of England By The Normans at a book stall along the Seine. (One of “curious little stalls set up on the parapet where old gentlemen of another age sell old books to other old gentlemen and to the very young.”) Fascinated by Thierry’s account of fractured friendship between Becket and Henry and with encouragement by his wife, he brought forth a play mined from the depths of history. Rooted in the real events and larger than life personalities of 12th century Europe the play is not without its historical inaccuracies, of which the playwright freely admits in the play’s introduction.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate Anouilh would write a play set chiefly in England. Though geographically separated by the English Channel, in the time of Becket there was no clear-cut delineation between England and France. Thanks to their conquest of England a hundred years earlier, it was the Norman French, not the native Saxons who ruled the land, with Henry of the House of Plantagenet as sovereign. This blending of realms would lead to the Hundred Years War with English armies fighting countless battles on French soil. It would also result in Saxon resentment towards their French overlords, exemplified by Anouilh’s Saxon Becket (historically inaccurate since he was descended from Norman stock) sympathizing with the Saxon downtrodden while sparring with the ruling aristocracy, including his formerly beloved Henry.

In the end, this is also a play about the abuse of power. Throughout the centuries, right up to the present despots and those who style themselves as such have enlisted, or at the very least inspired agents to commit heinous acts on their behalf. Time and time again the Nixons, Putins and Trumps of the world have enlisted those around them to do their sordid bidding, always denying any direct responsibility for their actions. To paraphrase 19th century orator, lawyer and “Great Agnostic” Robert G. Ingersoll, nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. The play Becket, also entitled The Honor of God easily could have been called The Recklessness of Kings. As monarch Henry wielded considerable power, but at the same time sorely lacked in character.

2021 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

As 2021 finally draws to a close it’s time to announce my favorite nonfiction books of the year. This year, just like in years past I read some outstanding nonfiction. Year after year it’s hard to limit my list to only 10 books so a number of times I cheated and listed a dozen titles. Last year I stood firm and limited my list to 10 and this year I’ll do the same. In no particular order of preference here’s collection of books I have no problems recommending.

  1. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin
  2. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
  3. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
  4. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw
  5. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
  6. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum
  7. Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson
  8. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser
  9. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
  10. I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet 

 I’d also like to add four honorable mentions to this esteemed line-up. 

  1. God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin
  2. Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance by Mustafa Akyol
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes
  4. A Mirror Garden by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

You probably noticed Anne Applebaum’s name appears twice on the list. This marks the first time I’ve selected two books by the same author. In another first, I also included three books by foreign correspondents recalling their respective assignments throughout the Muslim world (Black Flags, The Forever War and I Was Told to Come Alone). As for my favorite book out of the 10, it was hard to choose but I’ll have to go with Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949

Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler by Svenja O’Donnell

My quest to learn more about 20th century European history inspired me to borrow a library copy of Svenja O’Donnell’s 2020 family memoir Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler. Published in 2020, it tells the story of her mother, grandparents’ and great grandparents’ and the lives they lived in the German city of Königsberg (now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad) and harrowing escape just ahead of the invading Red Army during the final months of World War II leading to their eventual resettlement after the war in West Germany.

Born in Paris to a German mother and an Irish father, the British-educated O’Donnell has served as Bloomberg‘s UK political correspondent covering Brexit and other European developments. In her capacity as a journalist she visited Russian Kaliningrad, where she concluded the fall of Communism “brought heavy job losses” and the city “became a hub of drugs and human trafficking, with a rampant heroin problem and the highest rate of HIV in Europe.” Mindful of her family’s connection to the city from pre-Soviet times, during her assignment in Kaliningrad she phoned her elderly grandmother to let her know she was visiting the former Königsberg. Upon hearing the news her grandmother responded somberly there were deep family secrets she needed to be told. Then, over the next 10 years until her death Inge revealed to her granddaughter the details of a life lived long ago, and a world destroyed years ago by the ravages of war.

Born in Königsberg, as a 16 year old Inge was able to convince her protective Lutheran parents to enroll her in a girls academy in Berlin. Wishing to insulate her from the temptations of a big city, they were more than happy when she eventually moved out the school’s designated boarding house and in with a classmate’s family, knowing they’d keep a close eye on her. But before long the two girls were frequenting Berlin’s underground swing dancing clubs and enjoying all the exciting nightlife Berlin of the early War years was able to offer. But temptations arose closer to home as she fell head over heels in love with her friend’s older brother leading to her pregnancy. Sadly, her boyfriend’s father disapproved of her and to thwart any possibility of marriage used his connections to fast track his conscription into the Wehrmacht. Broken hearted, young and pregnant, in order to give her pregnancy and motherhood a thin veneer of legitimacy Inge had to settle for a wedding ceremony featuring an empty chair as proxy for the absent groom. Making maters worse, the father of her child was taken captive in the Battle of Stalingrad and languished for serval years in a Soviet POW camp.

Later, in the dead of winter, now as a young mother with an infant daughter in tow Inge and her relatives were forced to flee Königsberg as the Red Army juggernaut slammed into East Prussia, laying waste and exacting revenge. Evacuated by ship, her vessel narrowly escaped being torpedoed by Soviet submarines and thus avoided the same fate as the MV Wilhelm GustloffSafely in western Germany they sought refuge in occupied Denmark but left after the end of hostilities, in no small part due to the inhospitality of the local Danes, resentful of their prior treatment at the hands of the Germans. Back in a Germany shattered by years of war and occupied by the victors Inge attempted to build a new life for herself and her infant daughter.

Inge’s War is well written and satisfied my need for a good book on 20th century European history. Through the eyes of O’Donnell’s grandmother I was able to see a central European world long forgotten but with faint echoes that can still be heard today.

About Time I Read It: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

As you’ve probably guessed, while I’m always borrowing books from the library I don’t manage to read them all. Some books I end up returning without even cracking them open, and more than a few I’ve started only to return to the library unfinished. But even if I don’t finish a book, if it shows promise I’ll borrow it again later and try harder to finish it. Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad is one of those books. I started it back in August only to return it unfinished to the library three weeks later. Recently, I wanted to give Mekhennet’s 2017 book another chance so I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work. I’m glad I gave it another chance because I Was Told to Come Alone is a well-written, first hand account of life growing up in Germany as the daughter of Muslim immigrants and her rise to prominence as a world-class foreign correspondent.

Besides a talent for writing well, bravery and a dogged ability to uncover the truth, one could argue for a foreign correspondent to be successful such an individual should also be even handed, multilingual, and possess a keen understanding of other cultures. With that in mind this is the career Mekhennet was destined to pursue. Her father a Sunni Moroccan and her mother an ethnic Arab Shia from Turkey, Mekhennet’s parents met as guest workers in Germany. Underclass and a cultural outsider who experienced more than her share of prejudice, the young Mekhennet nevertheless applied herself. Intellectually curious, ambitious, and a desire to write, she began interviewing German political figures while still in high school. Later, as a college student she worked as an entry level journalist. Raised Muslim and fluent in Arabic, she quickly proved to be an invulnerable asset to her more seasoned colleagues as they interviewed Muslim immigrants and perused leads throughout Europe in the wake of 9/11.

In a career that’s spanned the better part of two decades Mekhennet’s travels have taken her across three continents, conducting interviews and investigating stories across Europe, North Africa, Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. During her tenure she’s reported on Al-Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, (including helping uncover the true identity of the infamous terrorist Jihadi John) Arab Spring, Syrian Civil War, 2015 Paris Terrorist Attacks and European Migrant Crises of the same year.

I Was Told to Come Alone is well written and considering English is her third or fourth language makes this even more impressive. What’s also impressive is her sense of fairness. As a Muslim from Germany, she’s experienced discrimination and as a result is sympathetic to the plights of her co-religionists living as immigrants or the children of immigrants in Europe. On the other hand, she takes to task Islamic extremists for their misogyny and refusal to respect the basic rights of others.

Admirable as well is her honesty and insightfulness when assessing the 2015 European Migrant Crises. Unlike some European leaders and aid officials she wisely pointed out while many of those seeking refuge were fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, many were also economic migrants from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. In addition, a sizable portion of them were not highly educated professionals but laborers conversant only in their respective native languages. Based on her observations she also revealed a few hailed from ISIS’s Islamic State. While not terrorists bent on wrecking havoc, nevertheless their sympathies for the Islamic State were apparent.

I Was Told to Come Alone is easily one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It deserves to stand beside other outstanding books by respected journalists about political developments in the Islamic world like Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. Just like Black Flags and The Forever War there’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland

Just before the entire world went on lockdown I was wandering through the stacks at the public library one afternoon when I happened to see a copy of Erika Fatland’s Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Intrigued by what I saw I still declined to  borrow it, but figured someday down the road I eventually would. Recently, I found myself in the mood to read about the “Stans” of Central Asia and borrowed a copy of Fatland’s book through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I enjoyed the author’s account of her journeys across the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and now can’t wait to read her recently published English edition of The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, … Finland, Norway, and the Northwest Passage.

Before reading Sovietistan I didn’t know a lot about this part of the world. I did however know all the countries are landlocked. (Although two of them border the equally landlocked Caspian Sea.) I’d also read one of the countries, Turkmenistan, for years was ruled by a dictator so megalomaniacal he renamed several months of the calendar in his honor. Lastly, thanks to the magic of Hollywood I knew Kazakhstan was home to the fictional character Borat.

Combining travelogue with generous portions of history and contemporary politics Fatland serves up a detailed yet personal look at all five Stans of Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Like so many former European colonies in Africa and Asia, these landlocked countries of Central Asia, while steeped in history are in essence modern creations, with legacies dating back to the early years of the USSR. After the Soviet Union collapsed all five declared independence. In the decades since then they’ve attempted, in varying ways and with varying success, to guide their young nations between East and West always mindful of their former master to the North and its undeniable influence.

The countries visited in Sovietistan feel ancient and exotic while at the same time modern and Western. Just as the lucrative trade of the Silk Road brought wealth to the ancient kingdoms and imperial provinces of this region centuries ago, today oil and gas exports generate billions in petrodollars, financing lavish presidential palaces and, depending on the country funding national infrastructure. Sadly however, like many oil exporting countries in the developing world most of this generated wealth ends up lining pockets of the elites only to be squirrelled away overseas in foreign bank accounts or spent profligately on luxury items. Like the potentates of old, their current day presidents have ruled their respective Central Asian countries with iron fists. (The exception being Kyrgyzstan, which even though it’s the most corrupt of all the Stans, its president actually stepped aside in response to public pressure.) Inheriting not just the borders of the old USSR but also its Stalinist mode of governance, some leaders have imposed their own cults of personality, with their imposing likenesses gracing statues and portraits ubiquitously throughout their respective countries.

While blessed with oil deposits and physical beauty, ecologically some of the Stans are horribly scarred. Years of Soviet above-ground nuclear weapons testing have ravaged parts of Kazakhstan and produced generations of health problems for its residents. Years diverting water to grow cotton has catastrophically drained the Aral Sea, leaving it a shadow of its former self.

This is a great look inside a part of the world that in my opinion doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Please consider Sovietistan recommended reading.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction  hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Katie at Doing Dewey has agreed to host. In her post she enlists us to offer up our recommendations.

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

In previous years I’ve approached this by discussing an extensive collection of nonfiction/fiction pairings but this time I’d like to do something different. I’ll be featuring an historical novel I recently read along with several works of nonfiction that make for wonderful follow-up reading.

Published in 2018, Michael David Lukas’s The Last Watchman of Old Cairo jumps back and forth between the early 2000s, 1897 and the 11th century. Joseph, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, is puzzled when a strange package from Egypt arrives in the mail one day. Intrigued by its cryptic contents, the son of a Jewish mother and an estranged, now-deceased Muslim father decides to put his university studies on hold and visit the land of his ancestors in search of answers.

The heart of the novel is Cairo’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue, for centuries center of the city’s vibrant Jewish community until a series of the mass exoduses starting in 1956 spurred by Egyptian President Nasser’s anti-Jewish and anti-western measures drove them from the country. In the late 1890s the synagogue would achieve worldwide notoriety after its repository of ancient documents or Geniza was mined and catalogued by a visiting Cambridge scholar, his young female assistant and a pair of brilliant middle aged Scottish twin sisters. Also, legend had it the synagogue was the secret home of the Ezra Scroll, written by the great Lawgiver himself 2,500 years ago and purported to possess powerful supernatural properties.

This multiple award-winning historical novel is an enjoyable mix of intrigue, romance and a touch of magic. If you take my recommendation and end up reading it, I can’t encourage you enough to follow it up with a few other books, all nonfiction.

Start with Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Published in 2011, this National Jewish Book Award finalist is a detailed look at the history of the Geniza, its treasured contents and the intrepid individuals who helped bring it all to light. Located in an out of the way annex of the synagogue, the Geniza was kind of hallowed dumping ground for old letters, business records, marriage contracts, divorce writs, holy scriptures and everything in between. Dubbed by some scholars as the “living Sea Scrolls” they provided a highly detailed look at centuries of everyday Jewish life in the region and beyond.

Proceed next to Janet Soskice’s 2009 The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Here you will learn more about two of the late-Victorian era’s most fascinating, and under-appreciated women. Denied higher educations thanks to the sexism of the day, the pair nevertheless went on to master Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac plus a host of other languages (between the two of them close to a dozen) and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and the Levant where they were instrumental in locating and acquiring a number of ancient Christian manuscripts. Later, the sisters, together with Solomon Schechter would transport the contents of the Ibn Ezra Geniza back to Cambridge where it could be secured safely and extensively studied.

As the old TV pitchman used to say, “but wait, there’s more.” For great looks into the lost world of Egypt’s Jewish community I highly recommend a quartet of great family memoirs. Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, her 2011 follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, André Aciman’s 1994 Out of Egypt and Gini Alhadeff’s 1997 The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family all provide vivid portraits of an exotic yet cultured place that managed to be Middle Eastern, European, Muslim and Jewish all at the same time. But sadly is no more.

About Time I Read It: To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw

As part of an ongoing research project I’ve been reading books on European history, especially that of 20th century. Back in September I read Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century and recently I borrowed through Overdrive Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949.  In 2019 I read its sequel The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017 and was duly impressed. I’m happy to report Kershaw did not disappoint me.

Like some cataclysmic three act play, the first half of the 20th century brought to the European continent World War I, the Depression and World War II. 50 years later Europe emerged from this bloody third act impoverished and broken. While Nazism and Italian Fascism had been vanquished, the exhausted Continent was left almost equally divided between East and West, and would remain so for another half century.

In To Hell and Back Kershaw addresses in detail everything I’d hoped: the run-up to World War I and its significant battles; the Paris Peace Conference and the new European order it spawned, including the punitive reparations imposed upon the young Weiner Republic of Germany; the rise of new forms of revolutionary totalitarianism in the USSR, Italy and Germany as well as a concomitant slide from democracy to conservative authoritarianism throughout much of Europe with the exception of Great Britain, France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia (in addition to other outliers Czechoslovakia and Eire); the Depression: and the Second World War’s origins, horrors and aftermath. He also discusses the period’s significant social, economic, technological and artistic developments.

Perhaps my most memorable take away from Kershaw’s book are the of destabilizing effects of ethnic tensions in Central and Eastern Europe. Restive nationalities yearning for independence or union with their neighbors, and long-oppressed ethnic groups perceived to be standing the way of national homogeneity would help spark not one but two world wars during the first half of the 20th century.

Meant as a blow against Austro-Hungarian rule over the region’s southern Slavs, in 1914 a Serb nationalist assassinated the Austrian Archduke and his wife. Backed with a blank check by its increasingly bellicose ally Germany, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia to punish and reassert dominate over its southern neighbors (and given the dual empire’s own multi-ethic composition, reassert dominance domestically as well). Russia, in turn would come to the aid of its junior ally Serbia and respond with force. Germany, coming to defense of Austria-Hungary would declare war on Russia also hoping to carve off a slice of its neighbor’s territory. Thus began the First World War.

By the 1930s the Nazis, a party that elevated race above state, would take control of a divided and dysfunctional Germany. Chief among the demands of Hitler and his cronies was the incorporation of neighboring ethnic Germans into the Reich. After annexing Austria he demanded, and was awarded the Sudetenland, home to a sizable German population. But after the German army occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia Great Britain and France learned they’d reached the limits of appeasement. Once Hitler began calling for the Polish Corridor and Danzig (technically a “free city” under League of Nations protection, overwhelming ethnic German but closely administered by  Poland) war looked likely. In 1939 when Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR to secure its Eastern flank war was inevitable. Poland was invaded from both West and East. Just like 20 years earlier, military aggression in Eastern Europe would spark a continent-wide conflict with devastating consequences.

This makes superb follow-up reading to other faves of mine, especially MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World , Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, Ross Range’s 1924: The Year That Made Hitler and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II.

Speaking of follow-up books, I’m hoping To Hell and Back will inspire me to read both Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us and Tony Judt’s tour de force Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.

Please consider To Hell and Back highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Black Flags by Joby Warrick

Next time you’re at the library, do yourself a favor. If you see a book displayed as a staff recommendation grab it. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s led me to excellent books like David Liss’s historical novel The Coffee Trader or Warren Kozak’s The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser or Julie Holland’s memoir Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER.

Recently, one of my local public libraries decided showcase a number of staff recommendations. Following their sagely advice I borrowed two, one which happened to be Joby Warrick’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. I couldn’t put it down and theres’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

In the early 2000s, al-Qaeda was seen as America’s most feared scourge. But in just a few years a rival terrorist organization materialized out of Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Founded by a semi-literate Jordanian street thug turned Islamic militant the group attacked US occupation forces, beheaded captives and bombed Shia holy sites throughout Iraq, pushing the already chaotic and wounded nation into a state of civil war.  For the next decade its fortunes would wax and wane but within 10 years its fighters would accomplish what al-Qaeda could never achieve: conquer a swath of the Arab World and impose Islamic rule. Proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (rendered into English as ISIS) its vengeful leaders reigned with an iron hand, committing a host of atrocities including genocide, sexual enslavement and wholesale destruction of hallowed archeological sites. It took the concerted military effort by both Western and Arab nations to break the group’s hold on the area. But not before ISIS could wreck havoc on the Arab World and even Paris.

In chronicling the evolution of ISIS Warrick expertly conveys the group’s rise to prominence. Most fascinating of all, he shows how this was inadvertently facilitated by the actions of others, even those committed to fighting Islamic terrorism.

  • Founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would have lived out his life as a low-level criminal had his parents not remanded him to his local mosque for religious instruction where he soon became radicalized. Reinventing himself, he fled to Afghanistan and enlisted in the Mujahideen. Later, he returned to Jordan and emboldened by his experience embarked on his own holy war, this time against his native Jordanians. Eventually, he was captured and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
  • Al-Zarqawi would have languished in prison for years, even decades and eventually forgotten, like so many other imprisoned Islamic radicals had he not benefited from a stroke of good luck. In 1999 Jordan’s King Hussein succumbed to cancer and was succeeded by his son Abdullah II. In keeping with Jordanian custom the newly crowned king authorized the release of a number of prisoners, one of which happened to be al-Zarqawi. Later, once al-Zarqawi earned a reputation as a terrorist mastermind (orchestrating attacks in Iraq and later Jordan) Abdullah was furious security officials deemed al-Zarqawi worthy of early release.
  • Sold to the American public and the world at large as an essential undertaking in the fight against terrorism, Bush and his inner circle orchestrated the armed invasion of Iraq. After toppling Saddam’s regime and driving the country’s Sunni-dominated Baathists from positions of authority a chaotic power vacuum soon ensued. This provided the perfect environment for al-Zarqawi and his followers (including a number of Sunni military officers) to attack US forces and Shia holy sites.
  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was an Iraqi graduate student studying Islamic theology when he was swept up in a raid by US forces while visiting an old college friend. After thrown in a detention camp by the Americans the “civilian internee” so impressed his fellow detainees with his command of Islamic jurisprudence he quickly gained a following among the camp’s militant elements. In 2004 after deemed “low level” he was released. Thanks to his reputation as a gifted Islamic scholar he was soon brought into the ISIS fold as its chief Sharia lawgiver. After holding the number three position in the organization he eventually became its leader after an American military strike took out ISIS’s top two men.
  • After the last US forces left Iraq in late 2011, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began taking a harder line against the country’s Sunnis. His purging of prominent Sunnis from his administration and crushing Sunni protests would drive many of them into the welcoming arms of ISIS. Reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose the group would out-battle the poorly led, demoralized Iraqi National Army and capture a huge chunk of Iraqi territory.
  • In the early 2010s as the Arab Spring spread throughout the Middle East thousands in Syria protested the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Refusing to step down or make any concessions whatsoever Assad instead ordered his security forced to fire on demonstrators, sparking a civil war that would tear the country apart. Before long a huge contested zone opened up  in the country’s interior where a myriad of anti-government rebels fought against Assad’s forces, his assorted foreign allies and each other. Taking advantage of the situation, ISIS fighters carved out their own Islamic caliphate to rule puritanically and use as a base from which to launch operations throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Taking advantage of a long series of unforced errors and miscalculations ISIS leaders were able to grow their terrorist organization. No wonder Napoleon said never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

This is an outstanding book, well deserved of all the praise. Readable, insightful and comprehensive, it should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider Black Flags highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes

In the 2006 franchise reboot Casino Royal, James Bond meets his MI 6 contact Vesper Lynde on the train to Montenegro to be briefed on the details of his mission. After dinner they spar conversationally, each trying to size up the other. (And from an operational and sexual standpoint battle to impose their respective dominance.) Lynde wonders aloud if Bond is little more than a former SAS type with an easy smile and expensive watch. “Rolex?” she asks. Bond replies “Omega.” Both esteemed brands made only in Switzerland, a country long associated with high-end watches.

One wonders how a small, mountainous, landlocked country with few natural resources could be a global leader in quality wristwatches but also secure (and secretive) banking as well as delectable milk chocolates, all while enjoying centuries of political neutrality. Add to this a premier tourist destination, especially for the world’s rich and famous.

Over the years Claire of the book blog The Captive Reader has been one of my go to sources when it comes to books about Europe. (As well as the Interwar Period.) Last December in one of her Library Loot posts she mentioned Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes. Needing something representing Switzerland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I went looking for a borrowable copy of Bewes’s book and secured one through Overdrive. One of Financial Times’s books of the year Swiss Watching didn’t disappoint me. Like Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler is one of the year’s pleasant surprises.

Bewes, after falling in love decided to leave his native England and move to Switzerland to be with his boyfriend. Traveling from one end of the country to another his book is an intimate, intelligent and candid perspective on Switzerland’s history, culture and geography, similar to what his fellow Brits John Hooper and Tobias Jones did for Italy in their respective books The Italians  and The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country

Through Bewes’s eyes you see Switzerland as a land of contradictions, starting with the nation’s longstanding practice of political neutrality. For hundreds of years, even through two world wars Switzerland has avoided belligerency. Neutral but not pacifist, Switzerland is a leading exporter of military hardware, on occasion even selling arms to both warring sides. Traditionally, all Swiss all males are required to serve in the military. (Only recently was a nonmilitary service option added.) After released from active duty each reservist is required to keep a service rifle in his home, leading to Switzerland having more gun-related suicides than anywhere in Europe. (In hopes of addressing this disturbing distinction, the ammo is now safely secured in Swiss armories.) Lastly, the nation is crawling with fallout shelters, even apartments have a basement location where Swiss can ride out a nuclear exchange.

Politically, Switzerland is probably one of the most democratic nations on earth. Like most European nations it has an elected bicameral parliament but Switzerland boasts no president or prime minister with executive powers. The closest the Swiss have is the seven member Federal Council which serves as a collective head of state with a rotating Presidency that’s chiefly ceremonial. Almost all important legislation is decided by referendum, both at the national and local level. However, despite being one of the world’s few, if only direct democracies voter participation is surprisingly low. Because Switzerland’s path to citizenship is heavily skewed against immigrants and their children close to 20 percent of the population are non citizens and thus ineligible to vote. Another rarity among the world’s democracies, Swiss women didn’t earn the right to vote in national elections until 1971. Not until 1992 did the last Swiss federal state or Canton grant women the vote in a local election.

Landlocked and bereft of natural resources the Swiss would need to be creative if they were to be successful. Beginning in the 19th century the Swiss built a network of railways crisscrossing the country, connecting it to its larger, more resource and sea port blessed neighbors. High value products easily transported via rail, products like premium time pieces, cheeses and milk chocolates became lucrative exports. Calvinistic Geneva with its orderly, literate and industrious culture combined with a healthy respect for thrift and privacy would make the city, and the nation as a whole a banking Mecca. Innovation would be key to Switzerland’s success,  whether it be crafting a better cheeses, making chocolate more delectable by adding milk or manufacturing sexier wristwatches.  Like a determined prize fighter punching above its weight no wonder the small alpine country ranks 8th in the world for Nobel Prize laureates.

Originally published in 2010 and updated in 2018, like I said at the beginning Swiss Watching is one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It might even make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.