1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink

As I pointed out three years ago when I reviewed Victor Sebestyen’s 1946: The Making of the Modern World I love books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. A few years ago I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. The latest of these kind of books to catch my eye is Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: Where Now Begins. I’m not sure exactly when and how 1947 popped up on my radar but I’ve been wanting to read it, coming close to borrowing a copy from the library on several occasions. Two nights ago I found myself on Overdrive searching for a new book to read and saw a copy of 1947 was available. After downloading a borrowable copy I effortlessly burned through it in no time. Not only did this book greatly exceed my modest expectations there’s a good chance this lively and illuminating book will end up being one of my favorites of 2020.

Prior to reading this book if someone asked me if, and why 1947 could be a thought of as a seminal year in history my less than decent answer might mention India and Pakistan achieving independence or Arab and Jew battling for control of the soon to be former British Mandate of Palestine. If I’m lucky I might remember 1947 was the year the CIA was created and President Truman proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, pledging financial and military assistance to Greece and Turkey in hopes of blocking Soviet expansion into the Mediterranean. But really, that’s it.

Little did I know according to Åsbrink 1947 was one heck of a year. In arts, letters, entertainment and fashion ground-breaking things were going on throughout the year all over the world. Christian Dior would be both worshipped and hated by millions for revolutionizing the fashion world. George Orwell, disillusioned and haunted by totalitarianism in all its forms would pen 1984. Simone de Beauvoir, while on tour in the United States would fall madly in love with American author Nelson Algren, who in addition to showing her around the vice-filled bars of working class Chicago would introduce her to Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy providing  inspiration for her feminist classic The Second Sex. After hearing amazing things about an eccentric yet highly talented jazz pianist the founder of Blue Note Records Alfred Lion and his wife would pay visit to his apartment to hear him play. After he’s done Lion would award the musician, Thelonious Monk a record deal.

In science and technology, American computer scientist Grace Hopper would achieve lasting fame for not only pulling a short-circuiting moth out of an early mainframe (giving us the term “debugging”) but more importantly pioneer the concept of a machine-independent programming language, leading to  the development of COBOL, a language still used today. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union a self-taught small-arms designer by the name of Mikhail Kalashnikov would give the world a sturdy, reliable and lethally efficient machine gun and the weapon of choice for countless armies, terrorist groups and insurgents.

As I expected, in the realm of politics Åsbrink covers the run-up to India and Pakistan’s independence. (As for its bloody outcome, she blames the British. Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, in hopes of wrapping things up on a nice, tidy deadline rushed the partition process. The man he entrusted with drawing the new borders and putting millions at risk, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was a lawyer by trade and had never set foot in India prior to his arrival.) Again, as expected the author delves into the origins of the state of Israel, including what was happening among the Palestinians. ( Former Nazi collaborator and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammad Amin al-Husayni steadfastly refused to negotiate over the future of Palestine and urged his countrymen to do the same. Opting instead fight they’d be routed by the newly independent Israelis the following year.)

Among the other political developments discussed in 1947 the most surprising was the birth of the Malmö Movement headed by Swedish Fascist Per Engdahl to create a pan-European organization of former Nazis and their sympathizers. Anti-communist, anti-semitic and anti-democratic they sought to promote their views of a “white Europe”, replacing master race with “civilization” in hopes of making their extremist views more palatable. Those and others like them were instrumental in helping Nazi war criminal secretly escape to South America, especially Argentina.  Fast forward to today and European’s far right continues to draw inspiration from this deep well of hate.

Common among the above-mentioned books chronicling a single year in history is their authors’ tendency to argue based on the presented evidence the particular year in question has almost epic significance. My cynical side says you can make that argument for just about any year in history. However, when it comes to 1947 Elisabeth Åsbrink makes a compelling case.

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: Empty Planet by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker

For a relatively small country, population-wise Canada has produced some impressive writers, especially in the field of politics. Weighing in on opposite sides of the immigration debate are Bruce Bawer with While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within and Doug Saunders with The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? Back in 2011, before 4chan became a platform for QAnon’s absurd conspiracy theories Jonathan Kay explored and debunked the dark world of conspiracy theories in his book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. Lastly, even the ultra-conservative pundit Mark Steyn, author of a host of books including America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It is Canadian, even if he currently resides in the United States.

In that regard America’s neighbor to the North continues to punch above its weight. A few weeks ago at the public library I picked up a copy of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. With their 2019 book the two Canadians make a bold and compelling claim: In the near future the world’s population will not explode but precipitously decline.

After being told for years we’ve been sitting on a ticking population bomb at first it’s hard to take the two authors’ claim seriously. You ask why is global population going to decline within the next 40 to 50 years? The answer is everyday, the world is becoming more and more modern.

A key component of modernization is urbanization. The bulk of the world’s population resides or is  predicted to reside not on farms or in villages but in cities. Urban families aren’t engaged in labor intensive farm work, so families are smaller. Living in cities makes it’s harder for conservative elements like their parents and in-laws, churches and mosques to pressure them into having lots of children. It’s also easier for city-dwelling women to obtain reliable birth control and receive helpful family planning advice. Lastly, more and more cities around the world are joining the global economy, leading to an explosion of service sector “knowledge jobs” throughout the world, especially in South and East Asia. These jobs require an educated workforce, prompting more women to delay marriage in order to attend college. Once in the workforce, many women continue to delay marriage and with it motherhood since it’s seen as a career impediment. So, as the world urbanizes it starts having fewer children. Once a country dips below the birthrate of 2.1 children per couple its population begins to contract, then collapse.

According to Bricker and Ibbitson, there’s both good and bad things on the horizon. Lower population should put less pressure on the environment, resources and the global food supply. Potentially, it could also lead to lower unemployment, since there’d be less competion for jobs. With fewer global births, the population ages and the authors speculate this could lead to a “geriatric peace” since there’ll be fewer young hot-heads in positions of power.

On the other hand, without a huge pool of young workers it will be harder for countries, especially in Europe and East Asia to generate the taxes needed to pay for the retirement and medical expenses of a ballooning population of seniors. On a related note, the United States, Canada and the countries of Europe will no longer depend of young immigrants to replenish their employment rolls and help prop-up their birthrates. (This could get worse if today’s anti-immigration sentiment leaves a lasting legacy around the developed world.)

If, after reading Empty Planet you’d like to get another perspective on where the world might be going, I’d encourage you to read Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. I suspect Empty Planet is one of those books that will be embraced, debated, attacked, and in the end highly influential. That alone is enough for me to recommend it.

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: Delhi by Sam Miller

For the last several years I’d seen Sam Miller’s 2010 book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity had been available to borrow through my public library, but despite my curiosity I never followed through. Strange, one would think considering my interest in books about India, both fiction and nonfiction I would have read Delhi by now. Then one day my curiosity finally got the better of me and I downloaded a copy through Overdrive.

Miller, a British expat living in Delhi and married to an Indian woman came up with a cool idea. Intrigued by the city around him, he decided the best way to explore it was to do so in the style of a 19th century French flâneur, that is leisurely and on foot. Over the course of a year Miller traversed Delhi in a spiral counterclockwise pattern, exploring the teeming city’s inhabitants, alleyways, attractions and small shops. During Miller’s year of meandering he was treated up close and personal to a diverse and vivid universe (he calls the megacity “India’s dreamtown—and its purgatory”), long ignored by guide books and government-promoted travel literature.

Delhi is a pretty good book. I admire Miller for putting so much effort in exploring the city and choosing to do so on foot, which based on my experience is the best way meaningfully explore any city. I would encourage all aspiring travel writers to follow Miller’s example whenever they find themselves in a large city far from home.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick

If I may for a moment, channel The Most Interesting Man in the World and say I don’t always read young adult books, but when I do, I prefer something that’s socially and politically relevant. When I saw my public library had an available copy of Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 memoir I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World I decided to grab it lest someone beat me to it. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to read something authored by history’s youngest Nobel laureate. Plus, with my interest in the history and politics of South Asia, I’d be fool to pass up a chance to read I Am Malala. Lastly, considering she spoke in town about six months ago it might be wise to read Yousafzai’s memoir in the event I find myself in a conversation with someone who saw her speak that night in my hometown of Portland. (Remember, one of the keys to being a great conversationist is knowing your audience. And that requires preparation, possibly even research.)

But I was hesitant to read it because the edition I’d selection was billed as the Young Reader Edition. Was this some dumbed-down, Dick and Jane Reader version of what I assumed was a powerful memoir? So, like any decent American who needs to know something, I went running to the Internet. Luckily for me, I came across Kasey’s blog PhDs and Pigtails. Back in March of 2015 she posted an outstanding piece in which she weighed in on the pros and cons of both the original version of I Am Malala and its Young Reader Edition. In the end, while she suggested it’s best to read both versions, she preferred the Young Reader Edition. Feeling enlightened by Kasey’s recommendation I began reading I Am Malala. After whipping through it in mere days I’m happy to report Kasey did not lead my astray. I Am Malala did not disappoint me.

If you’re a half-way intelligent person who’s spent even a modicum of time reading or watching the news over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with Malala’s story. After surviving being shot three times in the head by militants who found her views on female education an affront to Islam, the Pakistani teen became an international human rights celebrity and eventual co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s about I knew about her before reading this book.

Thanks to I Am Malala I learned there’s a lot more to her story. For one, I had no idea prior to her assassination attempt she was such a vocal proponent of female eduction, doing interviews and meeting with officials. I also didn’t know how close she came to either dying or suffering major brain damage. (Or that she sought treatment in a series of four hospitals, with the last one in the United Kingdom.) But what will really stick with me after reading I am Malala is this young woman’s sense of purpose and belief in the importance of her cause, aided in no small part by her vast reservoir of self-confidence.

Not only did I enjoy this memoir, there’s a good chance at the end of the year when I look back on all the books I’ve read that I Am Malala could earn an honorable mention. This is a great book for young readers, as well as the not so young like myself.

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen

1946: The Making of the Modern WorldI’m a huge sucker for books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. Last year I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. Over the last year or so, I kept seeing a book at my public library called 1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen. However, despite my love for these single year books I never felt compelled to grab a copy. Sadly, I’m embarrassed to say I never did so because I disliked the book’s cover. Then one afternoon I came to my senses, put my petty prejudices behind me and helped myself to an available copy. I’m sure glad I did.

1946, while it might not make my year-end Best of List, could very well end up being one of my pleasant surprises of 2017. Made up of short chapters and employing a direct writing style, Sebestyen’s informative book makes for quick, but fascinating reading. Structured chronologically, it skips around the globe, largely ignoring Africa and the Americas and spending the bulk of time discussing seminal events and developments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sebestyen’s 1946 chronicles a world in transition. With Nazi German and much of Europe in ruins, the United States and the Soviet Union have emerged as superpowers and their ensuing rivalry would eventually morph into the Cold War. On the other side of the world, Imperial Japan lies defeated, occupied and no longer able to impose its will on East Asia. In Japan’s place is a regional power vacuum with America to a degree the USSR to a slightly lesser degree rushing to fill the void. On a related note, with Japan vanquished Chinese Communists and Nationalists could now be freely fight each other for mastery of the country. Also in Asia, the sun began setting on the British Empire as India/Pakistan moved towards independence and in the Middle East armed Zionists intensified their fight for a modern State of Israel born from the ashes of the Holocaust. Lastly, Britain’s eclipse as a colonial power was part of a larger global trend in anti-colonialism that would in the coming years drive France from Indochina and Holland from Indonesia.

If you end up reading 1946 and would like follow-up books to read let me offer the following suggestions. I would start with Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. From there I would proceed directly to Keith Lowe’s masterpiece Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and then to Anne Applebaum’s outstanding book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t be me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.