Category Archives: Arab 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.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, History, Middle East/North Africa

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth

The good news is I had a blast taking part in this year’s inaugural Thanksgiving Readathon. I’m sure all the participants enjoyed the week’s flurry of blog posts and Twitter updates. The bad news is unlike everyone else who took part in the Readathon I finished only one book. But alas, all is not lost because the one book I did manage to finish, Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End I thoroughly enjoyed. As a matter of fact, I can easily see The Vanquished making my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

Europe emerged from the ravages of World War I a shattered continent. Hunger and influenza stalked the land. Millions of men, most of them in the prime of life were either dead, maimed or emotionally damaged. But perhaps worst of all, the mightiest empires of modern Europe, specifically Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire had fallen, each one collapsing like a house of cards. From the ruins of these once proud empires arose a host of new nations, each one eager to assert its dominance. Frequently, those quests for nationhood resulted in yet more rounds of armed conflict.

It’s cruelly ironic the above-mentioned nations all marched to war in 1914 expecting to enlarge their respective empires only to stripped of their territory five years later. (Even Italy, which wound up on the side of the eventual victors suffered huge losses in men and material only to receive relatively minor land gains.) Out of the ashes of empires arose Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Finland broke completely free from Russia as did the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Cruel irony would rear its head once again, since Poland and Yugoslavia, spin-offs from large multi-ethnic empires would be left with significant minority populations of their own. The resurrected nation of Poland would be roughly two-thirds Polish with sizable numbers of Germans, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. Meanwhile, newly created Yugoslavia would begin life as a Serb-dominated kingdom of Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Kosovo Albanians and Montenegrins as well as home to fairly large communities of ethnic Germans and Hungarians. In effect both countries become mini empires of their own. Even smaller nations like Czechoslovakia would face challenges with its Sudetenland Germans as would Romania after absorbing the former Hungarian province of Transylvania. Ethnic solidarity frequently clashed with national will as all sides saw their actions justified according to newly proclaimed rubric of National Self-Determination, as proclaimed in American President and statesman Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.

World War I was a knock-out blow not only to Europe’s land-based empires but also its traditional political structures. Russia’s absolute monarchy and the shaky provisional government that followed was replaced by Communist dictatorship, inspiring the establishment of short-lived Red regimes in Hungary and Bavaria, insurrection in Germany and bloody civil war in Finland. (And even a bloodier and more extensive civil war in Russia.) The leaders of Italy’s constitutional monarchy, unable to placate the masses in the wake of the county’s “mutilated victory” opened the door to Fascism. Elsewhere in Europe, military coups toppled both monarchs and elected leaders, especially in newly established countries. Lastly, in Germany far-right hooligans, (many of them anti-Semites) and bitter war veterans angry the war was lost not by the military but the nation’s Weimar leaders rioted and seethed. Over the next dozen years this nationwide rage coalesced into the Nazi Party, with disastrous results not only for Germany but the entire world.

The Vanquished an outstanding book, wonderfully complimenting other excellent history books like The Sleepwalkers, October, Paris 1919 and Savage Continent. Please consider The Vanquished highly recommended.

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Filed under Arab World, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

The Best Place on Earth by Ayelet Tsabari

We’ve all been told never judge a book by its cover. Perhaps I should have remembered that bit of advice when I impulsively grabbed a library copy of Ayelet Tsabari’s short story collection The Best Place on Earth. For some silly reason, after taking one look at the book’s brightly colored cover art I immediately assumed it was about India. Nope, I was wrong. You see, Ayelet Tsabari is a Mizrahi Jew of Yemeni heritage, born and raised in Israel but now living in Canada. Her debut collection of 11 short stories show life as it’s experienced by an array of mostly Mizrahi characters spanning the globe from Israel to Canada. Luckily for me, overall it’s a decent selection of stories. On top of that, come on, when does one come across a collection of short stories from a Mizrahi point of view? With that in mind, who cares if this book has nothing to do with India.

Seems like most short story collections contain stories you enjoy, stories that are so-so and some that just don’t work for you. While some of the stories in The Best Place on Earth I liked more than others, there weren’t any pieces I detested. My favorite story is probably “Casualties,” the tale of a young Israeli Army medic known as the “Moroccan firecracker” who supplements her army salary by selling black market gimel passes that medically excuses its pass holder from duty, allowing the conscript to flee the base for a bit of unauthorized R and R. For whatever reason, I enjoyed the stories set in Israel much more than the ones set in Tsabari’s current home of Canada. (Maybe Canada isn’t as relatively exotic, and therefore not interesting enough for me.)

I’m pleased to say Tsabari’s collection nicely compliments Rachel Shabi’s outstanding look at Israeli Mizrahi life We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. On a related note, if you haven’t read Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World or Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq I welcome you to do so, especially after you’ve read The Best Place on Earth. Which I’m thinking, is a collection of short stories you just might possibly enjoy.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan

Seems like the more I enjoyed reading a book, the longer it takes me to post a review of it. As to why, I’ve always thought it’s because frankly, outstanding books are not easy to write about and deep down, I’m afraid any review I write won’t do the book justice. I’m sure that’s the case with Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. I read this thing months ago and it’s taken me forever to get off my butt and write about it. Well, that wait is over.

Published 15 years ago in 2002, Paris 1919 has been on my list to read for over six years, ever since I learned Amy of the blog Amy Reads happened to be reading it. Those following my blog might also remember Paris 1919 was one of the books, just like The Great Gamble that was featured in the post “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read.” With this being the hundred year anniversary of World War I, from time to time I’d at check-in at my public library to see if a copy happened to be available. One of those times I got lucky and a copy was available for the taking. So, of course I grabbed it. And loved it.

It’s hard to read Paris 1919 and not marvel in both the scope of the Paris Peace Conference but also its lasting consequences. For one, in today’s hyper interconnected, 24 hour news cycle driven, Twitter-crazed world, it’s hard to imagine the world’s leaders setting up shop in some city for six months just to hash out a peace treaty. Also, some of the participating delegations and their respective support staff were, numerically speaking, huge. The British and America groups rented out entire hotels and even brought their own nationals to staff the places. Those attending the Paris Peace Conference, in official or unofficial capacities was like a who’s who of the mid-20th century. Lawrence of Arabia, Ho Chi Minh, Queen Marie of Romania, FDR and Eleanor, Arnold J. Toynbee and John Maynard Keynes all rubbed elbows at the Conference in some degree or another. (Even French novelist Marcel Proust was seen at one of the Conference’s many dinner parties. According to MacMillan he was overheard asking one his fellow dinner guests to regale him in great detail of the Conference’s developments.)

As for the consequences of the Conference, with a few exceptions the blueprint that was drawn in 1919 holds true today. The great land-based empires of western Eurasia were carved up. Russia lost, then won, then lost its Baltic territories. With the collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany, Poland regained its independence and Czechoslovakia became independent. (Although 70 years later it would split in two). A Serb-dominated Yugoslavia would arise from the ashes of WWI only to horribly disintegrate by the century’s end. Lastly, the Ottoman Empire’s remaining Middle Eastern territories were seized by Britain and France. As a result of this land grab British Palestine became the State of Israel. The Kurds were left without a homeland. Iraq is a sectarian mess. The rest of the Middle East, especially the former Ottoman lands have been unstable for years, especially recently. Lastly, over the last 75 years there hasn’t been a group of freedom fighters or separatists who haven’t espoused the Wilsonian term of self-determination at least one in a manifesto or proclamation.

Paris 1919 is easily one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make my year-end best of list. Consider this book highly recommended.

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

About Time I Read It: Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne

You probably remember the novels featured in my two previous posts, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and The Sleeping World I found among the new releases and featured titles displayed on the shelves just inside the main entrance of my public library. Interestingly enough, the topic of this post, Teddy Wayne’s debut novel Kapitoil  I also discovered sitting on one of those shelves. But that was way back in 2010, right after it was published and prominently displayed on the New Books shelf. You see, almost a decade ago on several occasions I saw Wayne’s novel sitting there and while I toyed with reading it, alas I never did. Nevertheless, its title stuck in my head and for years off and on I thought about reading it. Then, about a week ago I got the itch to finally do so. Luckily for me, I was able to find an available copy at my public library. Much like I did with The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I burned through Kapitoil in no time. And I enjoyed it.

Our story begins in the fall of 1999 when Karim Issar, a 20-something, self-taught computer programmer from the Arab nation of Qatar travels to New York City to assist financial giant Schrub Equities in safeguarding its IT infrastructure from the looming disaster known at the time as the Y2K bug. Finding this particular project simple and uninspiring, the highly capably and talented Karim shifts his attention to a side project, a computer program that uses news articles to predict changes in oil prices. Soon his new program is earning the company tons of cash, which does not go unnoticed by founder and CEO Derek Schrub who begins taking the young Karim under his wing, showering him with attention and lavish perks. But even though Karim is on the fast-track to wealth and prestige, he worries his invention is merely making money off the misfortune of others. He also fears losing ownership of the program, and with that his chance to  better humankind by using the program’s core algorithm to track and prevent global disease outbreaks.

I enjoyed Wayne’s novel and perhaps what I liked most about it was seeing Karim slowly acclimate to American life. Through countless fits and starts, he gains a deeper understanding of American English as well as our nation’s nuanced, and at times contradictory cultural mores. Awkwardly, he makes only a few friends, but those friendships are authentic and meaningful. Kapitoil reminded me a lot of movies like 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson and 1986’s Crocodile Dundee in which a relatively innocent outsider finds himself in a large American city and in process of learning the ropes we the audience see our own culture in a new light as it’s perceived through the eyes of a foreigner.

In conclusion, I found Kapitoil an enjoyable read. Since Teddy Wayne has written a few more novels since Kapitoil was published almost a decade ago, I have a feeling I’ll be reading more of his stuff in the future.

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The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

During the spring and summer of 2014 I frequently dropped by the Central Branch of my public library just to see which new books were displayed on the shelves just inside the main entrance. While most of the featured material consisted of newly acquired stuff, there were tons of librarian’s choice selected books as well. As a result of these little side trips I discovered a number of quality novels like Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for EverythingAndré Aciman’s Harvard Square, Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen and Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands. Once home, I spend my evenings sitting outside my door reading these recently published works of fiction frequently with an adult beverage in hand and accompanied by friendly neighborhood cat or two. Good times indeed.

With the return of summer, I found myself longing for those pleasant evenings of drinks and good fiction. (Unfortunately, since then I moved, and it’s hard for the neighborhood cats to make it to my third floor balcony.) So recently I’ve gone back to raiding the those shelves near the main entrance of the Central Branch. One of the novels I recently grabbed off those shelves, The Sleeping World wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the other Vendela Vida’s 2016 novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I thoroughly enjoyed.

Our story begins with our nameless 30 something female protagonist traveling solo on a transatlantic flight from Florida to Morocco on trip that vaguely feels like a personal vacation but without any hint of joy or pleasure. Upon checking in to her hotel, she’s quickly robbed of her credit cards, passport and other valuables. After visiting local police station only to be “reunited” with another woman’s credit cards and ID, she opts to spend her time in Casablanca living as that woman, knowing full well she could end up in jail or something worse. Before long she’s noticed by a local film crew shooting on location in Casablanca and gets hired as a fill-in body double for the movie’s starring American actress. The two women soon bond over gin and tonics while swapping relationship horror stories. With this series of improbable events behind her our heroine has shed her previous identity and reinvented herself as a minor league Hollywood jet-setter.

More than one reviewer described this novel as taught and I wholeheartedly agree. Vida’s writing is tight and to the point. To risk sharing any spoilers, let’s just say she doesn’t reveal everything at once, but by the time you get to the end everything has unfolded nicely.

If, after reading The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty you find yourself in the mood to read more about Morocco, I would suggest novels like Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Leaving Tangieras well as nonfiction pieces like Joseph Braude’s The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty served as my introduction to the writing of Vendela Vida. Her excellent novel has left me craving more. I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of her stuff.

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About Time I Read It: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The subject of my previous post, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 happened to be the selection of one of my three book clubs. In keeping with this theme, the book featured in this post, The Golem and the Jinni, was recently selected by one of my other book clubs. Yesterday I met with members of my book club at a local wine shop/bar to discuss it. I’m happy to report to the last man and woman, all of us enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, and when a whole book club likes a book, it means it’s a pretty darn good.

Published in 2013, I’ve been wanting to read The Golem and the Jinni ever since one of those those “based on your history, you should read this” algorithms utilized by Goodreads brought the novel to my attention. Once my book club chose it as our May selection, I was able to secure an available copy through my public library. Despite being 657 pages long, it felt like I made my way through the novel rather quickly. Which, like having your whole book club praise a book, is never a bad thing.

Blending elements of fantasy, romance, mythology, religion and historical fiction, Wecker’s tells the story of two supernatural beings, who through strange twists of fate find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York City. One is Chava, a beautiful golem originally created by a one-time rabbinical student turned malevolent magus to serve as a submissive wife to a somewhat moneyed but nevertheless loser lech. The other, a roguish but likable Jinni named Ahmad, suddenly finds himself in Gotham after spending the last thousand years or so imprisoned in an old flask. While physically appearing normal, neither Chava or Ahmad are human. But on the other hand, neither are lacking in humanity. Their interactions with the diverse denizens of New York show the depth and width of the human condition. We readers are kept entertained by their supernatural abilities (physical as well as mental) as well as their sometimes fumbling attempts to pass as lowly mortals.

Despite The Golem and the Jinni popularity among readers, some reviewers were critical, taking issue with the novel’s length. I on the other hand have no such complaint, since it allowed Wecker to flesh out the unique and memorable cast of supporting characters who populate the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni and can easily see it making my year-end Best Fiction list.

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