Category Archives: Middle East/North Africa

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 me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named of Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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Pan-European Lives: Dark Voyage by Alan Furst

Dark VoyageAs any of my longtime readers will attest, I love the novels of Alan Furst. Over the last couple of years I’ve devoured almost the novels of his extensive Night Soldiers series. Expertly researched and well written, Furst’s novels capture atmosphere and tension-filled drama of Europe on the precipice of war or during the early years of World War II before the Allied Invasion. With just a handful of books left in the series I haven’t read, my goal for 2017 is the read those last remaining novels. Those happen to be Dark Voyage, Dark Star, Red Gold and his most recent offering A Hero of France. So with that in mind, my first step in accomplishing this goal began when I cracked open my hand me down copy of Furst’s Dark Voyage, 

Just like all the other novels in Furst’s Night Soldiers series, Dark Voyage follows what’s become for me a familiar template. Set during the years leading up to, or the early years of WWII, a middle-aged gentleman of Continental extraction finds himself battling the Nazis as part of one secretive plot after another. Almost always, he’s never a spy or intelligence operative in the traditional sense, but instead some sort of professional who’s been pressed into the role by the Brits, Americans or their allies. In the case of Dark Voyage, it’s the adventures of Dutchman Eric DeHaan, Captain of the Noordendam. One night while in port in Morocco, Captain DeHaan is told by agents of the Dutch military in exile that his ship has been loaned to the British navy for secret military operations. Covertly repainted and renamed the Santa Rosa and now sailing under the flag of neutral Spain, DeHaan takes the battered freighter from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. With him is a diverse multinational cast of crew and passengers resembling a microcosm of Europe and the Mediterranean including a Greek stowaway, a German Jew, two spies (one working for the British, the other a Russian on the run from Stalin’s secret police) assorted Dutch, Germans and Spaniards, and an Egyptian Copt radio operator.

For whatever reason, this wasn’t one of my favorite Furst novel, but nevertheless I enjoyed it. Since my goal is to finish out the series before the end of 2017 it’s a sure bet you’ll see a few other Alan Furst novel’s featured on my blog.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

In the Country of MenAs I mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve been itching to read Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men for over 10 years. The problem is, it’s been hard as heck to secure a library copy. When you write a coming of age novel that’s set in Libya that ends up getting shortlisted for the Book Man Award everyone wants to read it. So like any popular book, it seemed like it was perpetually checked out from my local library. But one day not long ago, I noticed there was an available copy so I quickly grabbed it. I’m happy to let you know I was not disappointed, even having to wait 10 years to read it.

Set in Libya in 1979 during an era when Qadhafi reigned supreme, the novel’s young narrator Suleiman recalls his life in the capital Tripoli as the nine-year old son and only child of a couple whose marriage, to say the least is less than ideal. His father, a businessman with a penchant for hatching one unsuccessful business venture after another, is frequently absent, ostensibly for business purposes. His mother, an emotionally unstable alcoholic, literally curses the day she married Suleiman’s father preferring to spend her purposeless days and nights lamenting the state of her marriage while pining for the brief period of freedom she enjoyed as a teen girl before she was forcibly married off by her family. While all this is going on, young Suleiman witnesses firsthand the soul crushing oppression of a ruthless dictatorship.

Matar did a fine job telling this story not just through the eyes of a young child, but also as an adult looking back years later would tell that child’s story. Not only is In the Country of Men is an excellent novel, it’s also an excellent debut novel. Please consider it highly recommended.

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The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective StoryI hate to admit it, but some books just take me forever to read. Whenever this happens, frequently it says less about the quality of the book and more about my inability to stay focused and not be distracted by the first interesting book to come my way. Take for instance Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective Story. Here’s a very good book that took me close to a year to read. Had it not been for my public library’s generous policy towards book renewals there’s no way I could have kept this book around without finally finishing it. Trust me, it’s not like I found the book’s subject matter boring. For most of my adult life I’ve loved reading about the Middle East, especially Israel. So when I learned my public library had a book on the old Stern Gang of course I had to grab it. I just didn’t think it would take me that long to read. And that’s a shame because it’s a pretty good book.

For those who might not know, out of all the groups in British Palestine striving to establish the modern State of Israel the Stern Gang was the most hardcore. Besides robbing banks, blowing off bombs and assassinating people, Avraham Stern and his crew were willing to do just about anything to drive out the British and the Arabs. So passionate was Stern’s hatred against the British rulers of Palestine that he even sought assistance from Fascist Italy, and later the Germans. Of course, that a Jew would be willing to enlist the forces of Nazism in his crusade to rid Palestine of British rule looks completely absurd and reckless when seen with the hindsight of history. But history is full of individuals whose narrow-minded interests and uncompromising agendas ultimately lead to their destruction.

Bishop’s book is well written and well researched. While I thought it lost a bit of punch towards the end it’s a pretty decent book overall. Shame on me for taking so long to read it.

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Middle Eastern Memoirs: And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle EastAt one time memoirs about life in the Middle East were a regular feature on my blog. Seems like every time I turned around I was reviewing some book in which the author recalled the time he/she spent living in, or traveling through that particular part of the world. But over the last few years I found myself reading these kind of books less and less. As for exactly why I’m not sure, but probably it’s because I haven’t been reading books about the Middle East like I used to. Too bad. I think that needs to change.

One afternoon months ago I was strolling along the new books section of my local public library when I came across  Richard Engel’s recently published memoir And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East. As I stared at Engel’s book, I realized how long it’d been since I read a memoir like his. Thinking that spending two decades in the Middle East certainly should give an author something to write about I grabbed Engel’s memoir. Even though I  stopped reading it about half way through only to finish it several months later, it’s pretty good memoir and in the end, I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Engel’s memoir begins with him as a 23 year recent graduate of Stanford who ships off to Egypt to live his dream as a foreign correspondent. After honing his Arabic skills and immersing himself in the local culture (and getting to know members of the Muslim Brotherhood) he eventually finds work as a reporter. Working his way up the journalistic food chain, his career takes him throughout the region to Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel/Palestinian Territories and Syria. In addition to covering two Gulf Wars and the Arab Spring protests, he also reported from the frontline battles in Libya and Syria, where in Syria he was kidnapped.

This is breezy and succinctly written memoir. If you’re looking for a light but informative look at the world of the Middle East And Then All Hell Broke Loose is your book. Give it a shot and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization by Paul Kriwaczek

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of CivilizationYears ago on my way home from work I used to walk by a funky old bookstore whose name has long escaped me. On nice days when it wasn’t raining, in front of the store there was a wheeled cart stacked with used books. Priced at 35 cents each or three for a dollar, 99 per cent of the time everything on the cart was pure garbage: old romance novels, obsolete technical manuals and out of date textbooks. But every once in a while, I could find a real gem or two. Over a stretch of a few week I found five or six 1960s era paperbacks devoted to ancient history. Priced down to close to nothing, how could I not resist picking up books like Leonard Cottrell’s The Anvil of Civilization and Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way or some other battered, frequently cover less vintage paperback that recalled the ancient glories of Babylon, Greece, Persia or Egypt. Before long I found myself reading one of these old paperbacks at home or in some coffee shop absorbed in the wonders of the ancient world.

Perhaps it nostalgic reasons that eagerly made me want to Paul Kriwaczek’s Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization when my book club chose it as our monthly selection. My eagerness grew once I discovered Kriwaczek also wrote Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, a book I reviewed a few years ago. So, ready to once again immerse myself in the forgotten worlds of the Near East, I bought a copy of Babylon off Amazon and went to work. I’m happy to report that reading Kriwaczek’s book brought me back to the good old days of reading ancient history. Plus, it’s a good book too.

I walked away from this book with a deeper appreciation of Mesopotamia’s history. It boggles my mind that Mesopotamian had a flourishing civilization for 2,500 years BEFORE the Persian conquest in BC 500. That’s like 200 years before Alexander the Great and 500 years before the dawn of the Roman Empire. And much like Rome Mesopotamia left a lasting legacy. Not only is it home to the world’s first cities but also irrigation projections, state-sponsored religion, taxation, socialist-style planned economies, beer brewing and mathematics (base 60 for both time keeping and geometry). Through a series of historical twists and turns Mesopotamian cuneiform would eventually lead to today’s written alphabets. In mythology, legends of baby Sargon’s rescue from the river find echoes in the life of Moses, just as the Gilgamesh flood myth narrative also finds parallel in the Torah, and with it the West’s Abrahamic faiths.

Kriwaczek writes well, makes ancient history accessible and interesting to a lay audience. If you’re in the market for a good book on ancient history book, then look no further then Kriwaczek’s Babylon.

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