Black Wave by Kim Ghattas

I’m going to make a bold prediction and say Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas will be my favorite nonfiction book of 2020. I know it’s not yet May and I’ll have read plenty more books before the end of the year but Black Wave impressed the hell out of me. If I’ve learned just one thing from ten years of book blogging it’s I know an outstanding book when I’ve read one. And Black Wave is outstanding.

I don’t know remember how and when I first heard about Black Wave, but I recently borrowed a Kindle version through Overdrive. After a mere few pages I knew I’d found a winner.

Black Wave begins with snapshot of the not so distant past. The Islamic World of the 60s and 70s from Cairo to Kabul was full of promise. Arab intellectuals, be they Marxist, Pan-Arabist or Palestinian nationalist held court in Beirut’s bars discussing politics over drinks. Egypt was the Hollywood of the Middle East, producing an endless parade of movies featuring beautiful, uninhibited actresses not afraid to break conservative moral taboos. The Shah of Iran vowed to modernize his country,  making it socially and technologically on par with the West. With so many city-dwelling secular educated Muslim women embracing Western dress and high fashion, the streets of Karachi and Tehran began to resemble Paris, London and New York. Pakistan, created as a homeland for India’s Muslims was nevertheless seen by many who lived there as a modern, secular state that recognized the rights of all religious minorities. This commitment to religious freedom was enshrined in the nation’s constitution and was proudly proclaimed by Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah upon achieving independence in 1947.

So what happened? How did such a promising social and political trajectory end with ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia at each other’s throats? According to Ghattas in 1979 three monumental events occurred whose impact would be felt thought the region for decades. First came the Iranian Revolution, in which the Shah was overthrown only to be replaced by an even worse regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his army of theocrats. Next was an unsuccessful attempt by Saudi Islamic militants to capture the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Finally, just before year’s end the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to decades of war involving guerrilla fighters from across the Muslim World including a wealthy young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.

All three were events unfolded independently yet occurred in such close proximity both geographically and chronologically they’d end up reshaping the Muslim World. After the Iranian Revolution, Iran would proclaim itself protector of the region’s downtradden Shia Muslims by creating ex nihilo militant groups like Hezbollah, as well as positioning itself as the sole rightful guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The ruling Saudis couldn’t drive the militants from the Grand Mosque without the blessing of the Kingdom’s conservative religious authorities, and that would require giving them carte blanche going forward. Luckily for the ruling Saudis, Afghanistan could serve as a convenient safety valve where militant young Saudis could fight holy wars abroad instead of at home. Awash in oil revenue the Saudi royals would repay the religious conservatives who blessed their retaking of the Grand Mosque by funding hardline Sunni causes through the Middle East and South Asia.

If you’re trying to understand the Greater Middle East this book is for you. Ghattas does a superb job delivering the big picture with the perfect amount of detail. Published in January of this year, it covers a number of recent developments including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Iranian drone attack on the Aramco oil processing facilities. Black Wave is ideal follow-up reading to Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan, Ronen Bergman’s The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power and Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine. Consider Black Wave highly recommended. 

20 Books of Summer: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

When chosing a book to read I usually take backcover praise with a grain of salt. But when Ian Bremmer says it’s a “must-read” I take notice. That’s all it took for me to grab a copy of Ronan Farrow 2018 insider’s look at the State Department War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence when I spotted a copy at the public library.

Over the course of his career, Farrow has worn at least two hats, one as a State Department Iawyer and the other as an investigative journalist. Thanks to the author’s diverse background War on Peace could be seen as two books in one. As a former State Department official Farrow recalls the time he spent at the agency, much of it working for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Through Farrow’s eyes anyway, the late Holbrooke comes off as an overly driven figure so eccentric I suspect he resided somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Utilizing his talents as an investigative journalist allowed Farrow to serve up a no-holds barred look at the messy world of international diplomacy. To pull off this feat he interviewed every living former State Department head. Farrow must have some serious street cred becuase he’s able to sit down with Kissinger, Albright, Clinton, Kerry and Tillerson.

Overall, War on Peace is pretty good. I especially enjoyed what Farrow had to say about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those countries’ role in the “War on Terror.” (Regarding Pakistan’s level of dedication in fighting al-Queda and the Taliban, let’s just say it’s no coincidence Osama bin Laden lived comfortably for years in a fortified compound a stone’s throw away from the nation’s top military academy.) The behind the scenes look at the Iranian nuclear deal was another favorite of mine. Lastly, while it angered and depressed me, Farrow’s depiction of the State Department being gutted by the Trump administration made for excellent reading.

About Time I Read It: How to Win a Cosmic War by Reza Aslan

For years I’ve a had soft spot for Reza Aslan, ever since I read his 2005 book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Five years ago I read another of his books Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and while I didn’t enjoy it much as No God but God nevertheless I found it satisfying and thought-provoking. Not counting his recently published God: A Human History there was one more of his books out there I’d yet to read.  His 2009 book How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror had eluded me for close to a decade. That is until I spotted a copy on the shelf at the library and decided to give it a try.

Aslan’s argues in How to Win a Cosmic War (when released in paperback the next year it was retitled Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization) that Jihadist groups, when attacking Western targets and other perceived enemies are not fighting a holy war but instead a cosmic war, one that’s like “a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.” With no distinctions between sacred and profane or secular and spiritual the goals aren’t material like the conquest of territory or control of scarce resources. One could think of it as an earthy reflection of a greater metaphysical struggle, and with no middle ground or neutral parties making it Manichean in nature. (Which also makes negotiation impossible.) Like a verse lifted from the Lord’s Prayer, these holy warriors are killing and dying for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

How then should Western nations like America successfully respond to groups like these? According to Aslan, it’s not by using terms like “crusade” or religiously charged rhetoric since this just validates their cosmic world view. The best solution Aslan recommends is to encourage democratic reforms in Islamic world. “Throughout the Middle East, whenever moderate Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, popular support for more extremist groups has diminished.”

Understandably, since How to Win a Cosmic War was published almost a decade ago it doesn’t feel fresh. But that’s OK. Aslan writes well and makes many a compelling point. If nothing else, his book, no matter when it was published provides greater depth and commentary to the ongoing conflict between armed Islamic groups and the West.

About Time I Read It: Devil’s Game by Robert Dreyfuss

It might be hard to believe there was a time, not long ago when radical Islam, political Islam, Jihadism or call it what you will wasn’t seen as the enemy of Western civilization. During the last half of the 20th century there were other ideological movements, both secular and nationalist successfully competing for hearts and minds throughout the Middle East and Islamic world. Instead of al-Qaeda and ISIS  it was Pan-Arab regimes in Egypt and Syria, nationalist groups like the PLO and Communist entities like Iran’s underground Tudeh Party and the Soviet-backed rulers in Afghanistan dominating the news and giving Western leaders headaches. Seen as threats to America and its allies, over the years Western intelligence services gave covert support to the ideological rivals of the above-mentioned groups. These rivals were anything but secular, preaching “Islam is the solution” and advocating a reordering of society based solely on religious lines. Decades later, after the decline of both Arab nationalism and Pan-Arab nationalism, collapse of Communism, and Iran’s bloody transformation from pro-Western absolute monarchy to Islamic theocracy the region’s political landscape has changed dramatically. Now the heirs of our one-time Islamist allies are now our enemies.

The story of how this all unfolded can be found in Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam by Robert Dreyfuss. Published in 2005, Devil’s Game takes a long and detailed look at decades of secretive intelligence operations that in most cases in the long run ended up doing more bad than good. While it might have taken me a while to get into this book, once I did I couldn’t stop. Dreyfuss writes well and from what I can tell did a lot of research in writing his book.

I think at the end of the year I need to do a post featuring the year’s surprisingly good books. When I spied Devil’s Game at the library I had no idea I’d enjoy it as much as I did. So, even though it was published well over ten years ago, Devil’s Game is an intelligent and informative book and therefore essential when it comes to understanding today’s Islamic world.

About Time I Read It: Faith at War by Yaroslav Trofimov

Even though it’s been a decade since I read it I still find myself recommending Yaroslav Trofimov’s outstanding 2007 book Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine. Whenever someone asks me for a reading list of books about the Middle East I always include it along with other favorites like Kai Bird’s Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Neil MacFarquhar’s The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday and Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem. Last Saturday, during one of my weekend visits to the public library I came across a copy of Trofimov’s first book Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Knowing full well I had  a sizable stack of library books next to my bed waiting to be read I still grabbed Faith at War, hoping I’d enjoy it as much as I did Siege of Mecca. Well, after happily burning through it in no time I’m happy to say Trofimov did not disappoint me.

Published in 2005, Faith at War is a collection of pieces recalling Trofimov’s travels across the Muslim world during the years immediately following 9-11. In his quest to better understand the challenges facing the world’s Muslims and with it the rage some have directed towards the West he interviewed clerics, government officials, dissidents and Islamic fighters. Trofimov traversed three continents, reporting from a host of countries stretching from Saudi Arabia to Mali to Bosnia. During the US-led invasion of Iraq he sped across the border from Kuwait in a rented SUV and then returned two years later to observe life under US occupation. In Afghanistan he spent time embedded with American Marines as they did patrols of remote villages searching for Taliban fighters, their allies and weapons. Lastly, Trofimov show us the surprising success story of Mali, a poor North African country at the time of Trofimov’s visit had embraced a home-grown vibrant democracy, perhaps in some ways made easier thanks to the laissez-faire interpretation of Islam practiced by most Malians. (Sadly, in 2012 this later day Belle Époque would come to an end, at least temporarily when the country was briefly overrun by Islamic fighters.)

Despite being published a decade ago, Faith at War holds up well. Yes, it’s a pre-Arab Spring and pre-ISIS world Trofimov writes about but his insights provide valuable backstory to what’s going on right now not just in the Middle East but also the wider Islamic world.

Reading Afghanistan: The Great Gamble by Gregory Feifer

Some of might remember a post I did last July called “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read.” In that post I featured 15 different books I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a long, long time. One of those books Gregory Feifer’s, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan has been on my to read list since 2009, when it was first published. After years of making no effort whatsoever to read The Great Gamble, Christmas morning six months ago I decided to treat myself by buying it and a few other books off Amazon. Honestly, I can’t remember exactly when I decided to finally sit down and start reading it, but when I did I immediately took a liking to Feifer’s 2009 book. Once again, I had one of those “why did I wait to so long to read this?” kind of moments I always experience when reading an excellent book I should have read years ago.

The Great Gamble is Feifer’s detailed and highly readable account of the Soviet Union’s costly and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to install and sustain a friendly regime in neighboring Afghanistan. A former NPR Russia correspondent based in Moscow, Feifer made good use of his home abroad and the journalistic connections that came with it to interview those who fought in Afghanistan. Living in Moscow he was also able to utilize Soviet-era archives to help show what USSR’s aging leadership was thinking when it decided to roll across the border two days after Christmas in 1979. Fearing Afghanistan’s latest dictator might withdraw the fractious and horribly impoverished country from the USSR’s orbit of client states, the Soviet inner circle somehow authorized (actual written documentation either no longer exists or was never written down) the invasion as a quick surgical strike by Soviet special forces. Eliminate Afghanistan’s leader, put in the USSR’s chosen successor and go home. Funny how these kind of military operations never exactly go as planned. A decade later a bloodied and disillusioned Red Army would limp home after accomplishing little if anything. On top of that, in one of history’s more striking ironies, several years later the same  global superpower that invaded Afghanistan would collapse like a house of cards.

The Great Gamble is an excellent book. Reading Feifer’s accounts of Soviet troops winning individual battles only lose the overall war, shows the near impossible task of defeating a force of motivated insurgents, especially when those insurgents receive international backing including bases in a neighboring county. Personally, my favorite part of The Great Gamble was Feifer’s account of the lack of coordination and communication between different elements of the USSR’s intelligence and elite military services. Soviet spies tried to poison Afghan President Hafizullah Amin once, and when unsuccessful tried again. Ailing and fighting for his life, different elements of Soviet intelligence dispatched a doctor who ultimately saved his life. But alas, it was all for naught when right after that a squad of Soviet commandos stormed the Presidential palace and killed him.

Like I said before, The Great Gamble is an excellent book. So much did I enjoy it there’s a good chance you’ll see it included in my year-end best of list of outstanding nonfiction.

Reading Afghanistan: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

I was no stranger to The Places in Between, or its author Rory Stewart when I decided to grab a copy from my public library. You see, years ago, a dear friend of mine after returning from a shopping trip to Powell’s Books informed me she’d bought a copy and asked if I’d heard of it. (At the time I’d hadn’t. But I was vaguely familiar with one of his other books, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.) As for Rory Stewart, I was introduced to his writing when I read the foreword he wrote to Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. Since I thought it was one of the best  forwards I’d ever read, I welcomed any opportunity to read more of Stewart’s stuff. Needless to say, when a copy of The Places in Between came available, I grabbed a copy.

You gotta admire a guy like Stewart. Mere months after the US has toppled the Taliban, he arrives in Afghanistan. Alone and in the middle of winter, this fearless (or crazy, depending on how you look at it) Scotsman sets out to walk across the country, from Herat to Kabul. The locals think he’s either insane, or worse some sort of spy. At the start of his trek, he’s  confronted by several  “government” agents, probably with Iranian connections. After explaining his intended mission, one of his interrogators responds incredulously  “there are no tourists.” Reminding him it’s winter and the high mountain passes are covered with tons of snow he adds “you will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to die?” Undeterred, Stewart proceeds to hike across north-central Afghanistan usually accompanied by a few Afghans. But always on foot. And always at the mercy of the hostile elements, both natural and human.

Reading The Places in Between you learn quickly Afghanistan is one hell of a rough place. Think of it as wall to wall grinding poverty. There’s no infrastructure worth speaking of and thanks to the country’s mountainous terrain most population centers are terribly isolated and thus insulated from the reach of any central government. Instead warlords and chieftains rule individual pieces of the country. Theses are the men Stewart must win over if he’s going to make it across Afghanistan alive.

My only knock on The Places in Between is a slight oneStewart’s habit of including so many passages of medieval travelogue might have gone a bit too far. But alas my complaint is a minor one, and should not defer anyone from reading this very good piece of travel writing.

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle EastIf you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware a number of the great books I’ve been featuring I learned about through the NPR program Fresh Air. Be it Lawrence Wright’s expose on Scientology Going Clear, Keith Lowe’s magnificent history of early post-World War II Europe Savage Continent or Doug Saunders’ intelligent and well-reasoned look at Europe’s Muslim population The Myth of the Muslim Tide I have the good people at Fresh Air to thank for bringing these terrific books to my attention. Now, I’m happy to say there’s one more book I can add to that list: Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

Back in October of 2014 I heard Russell’s interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.  Listening to the program, I was fascinating by what Russell had to say about the Middle East’s small and increasingly endangered religious communities. Vowing to someday read Russell’s book, I quickly added to my “to read” list on Goodreads and kinda forgot about it. But about a month ago, feeling ambitious and in need of fresh reading material for an upcoming vacation I bought a copy off Amazon. Taking advantage of my time off I quickly made my way through Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms all the while enjoying Russell’s rather excellent book. On top of that, I was even able to talk my book club into reading it. And they enjoyed it too!

If anyone should write a book about the disappearing religious communities of the Middle East, it should be Gerard Russell. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Russell spent years in the troubled region as a diplomat for both the British government and the United Nations. He’s also highly knowledgable of the area’s history and religions, including the beliefs, practices and philosophies of ancient times. For his book he traveled the entire length of the Greater Middle East, from bustling streets of Cairo to the isolated mountain villages along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With communities like the Copts, Mandaeans and especially the Yazidis suffering persecution at the hands of Islamists, these beleaguered practitioners of ancient faiths have been leaving the Muslim world in droves. As a result, Russell’s travels took him thousands of miles away from the Middle East to newly established exile communities in London, Michigan and even Nebraska.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a great book. In order to serve up a rich, detailed and readable treatment of the subject matter, Russell skillfully manages to incorporate ancient history, politics, travelogue, philosophy and religion. Therefore, I have no problem recommending this excellent book.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

9781594488276_p0_v1_s192x300You gotta like a guy who gets his first book published when he’s 80 years old. Heck, just living to the ripe old age of 80 is impressive enough, but getting your debut work of fiction published at an age when many people are entering an assisted living facility is an amazing feat.

Last week, after dropping off a few books at the public library I took a lazy waltz along the shelves in hopes something might catch my eye. Seeing the non-Western name Jamil Ahmad on the spine of a book I was quickly intrigued. After inspecting it, things started to look familiar. Then I remembered author Jamil Ahmad and his book The Wandering Falcon being featured on NPR a few years back. Well heck, good enough for NPR, good enough for me. So I grabbed it.

Even though The Wandering Falcon isn’t a novel but a collection of short stories, with all the stories sharing a common character. Tor Baz, the orphaned love child of a renegade couple shows up in all nine stories, even if in passing. As the stories shift forward and backward in time, we see Tor Baz young and old, as well as from varying perspectives.

What I really liked about The Wandering Falcon was Ahmad’s ability to capture the people and environment of the rough and tumble borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Seeing this region through Ahmad eyes, it’s a world perhaps best described as harsh and unforgiving, but at the same time rich and colorful. As I read these stories, I found the writing reminiscent of mid-century American writer Paul Bowles and his descriptions of North Africa.

After reading The Wandering Falcon, I’d like to read more works of fiction set in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And why not? The two nations are always in the news and will probably continue to be as Afghanistan slides towards anarchy, Pakistan remains unsettled and the overall region of South Asia rises in significance as the Indian Ocean takes center stage among world policy makers. Therefore, expect to see more books like The Wandering Falcon featured on my blog.