Category Archives: Arab World

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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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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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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The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic StateAfter spending a quiet evening watching a pair of Frontline episodes on the rise of ISIS I found myself wanting to learn more about the feared Islamist organization. Later on, I happened to see my public library had an available copy of William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. Figuring now is as good as any other time to read up on the organization that’s dominated the headlines over the last couple of years I grabbed it. Fortunately for me, like almost all of the library books I’ve borrowed of late McCants’ book is pretty darn good.

Published in 2015, McCants’ book I suspect is unique among books about ISIS and al-Qaeda. McCants, in order to explain how ISIS came to be, recruits followers and strives to build an Islamic state shows how the organization took and continues to take inspiration and guidance from not just the Quran and the Hadith (the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) but especially medieval Islamic apocalyptic literature. Traditionally, most Sunni Muslims shied away from these esoteric writings, deeming them inspiration for crackpots or worse, the kind of holy scriptures dreaded Shia would follow. But in the hands of ISIS, they serve as a priceless playbook.

According to McCants the ISIS break from al-Qaeda was a major paradigm shift. Al-Qaeda wanted to draw Western, especially American military forces into the Middle East in hopes of inflicting a crippling defeat, eventually resulting in America’s decline. (After all, it worked it worked against the USSR in Afghanistan.) With America and its Western allies no longer able to support its client states in the Middle East al-Qaeda could resurrect the Caliph of old. While attacks on Western targets were fine, al-Qaeda ideologues stressed the necessity of Arab unity and that meant being careful not to inflict Arab civilian casualties.

But ISIS had a different game plan. Instead of fighting the West, ISIS preferred to seize territory within Arab world and begin the Caliph now, not sometime in the distant future. It’s had its best success in places like Syria, where President al-Assad has been willing to largely leave the group alone (as long as it doesn’t attack Damascus and is more interested in fighting other rebel groups) and Iraq where the country’s Shia-dominated government has limited influence in the Sunni regions. And as far as limiting Arab casualties, ISIS took the opposite approach. The more public beheadings, genocide and suicide bombings the better.

What impressed me the most with The ISIS Apocalypse is McCants’ scholarship. Besides being fluent in Arabic, his knowledge of the above-mentioned medieval Islamic writings is impressive. I was pleased with The ISIS Apocalypse and like any good book it’s left me wanting to read more. Therefore, get ready to see more books on ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Middle East featured on this blog.

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Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War by Francesca Borri

What happened to me? How come I don’t read stuff on the Middle East anymore? Seems like not that long ago I was forever reviewing some book about Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia or some other country or collection of counties from that part of the world. For several years I was an active participant in Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge and one year I even hosted it. But over the last couple of years I’ve shied away from those kind of books. Who or what could I blame for this change in reading preference? Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge? My book club? My new-found love of the Kindle, and with it my feverish urge to read through my slight backlog of ebooks like Spillover and Bloodlands? What on earth could have caused this to happen?

One night I was fumbling my way through my public library’s online catalog when I came across a listing for Francesca Borri’s Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the War. With the ongoing carnage in Syria frequently featured in the news I figured such a book might help me greater understand the bloodfest I’ve been seen covered on CNN, the BBC and everywhere else. Plus, I could apply the book towards Introverted Reader’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge as well as her Books in Translation Reading Challenge, since Syrian Dust was translated from Italian. So, with those thoughts in mind I grabbed Borri’s book.

Perhaps like anyone else who’s read Syrian Dust, this is the first book on the Syrian Civil War I’ve read. Published in 2106, the book covers the period Borri spent in Syria as a freelance reporter covering the conflict. According to Borri, Syria is a giant soul-crushing mess. The opposition forces are hopelessly divided, fighting with each other when not battling Assad’s army. The only effective and organized rebels are the Islamists, and all they care about is setting up their own oppressive theocracy. The non-Islamist militias are relatively disorganized and underfunded and their corrupt leaders do nothing but live high on the hog and issue pious proclamations from the cozy confines of Istanbul, Paris and London. Meanwhile, either because of incompetence or sheer ruthlessness, Assad’s forces favor shelling and bombing civilian areas as opposed to columns of advancing rebels. Just like in any civil war, especially in the developing world, the civilians caught in the middle are diseased, displaced, maimed and starving.

This is a grim book, but a valuable one nevertheless because it shows what the hell is going on inside Syria. Perhaps for that reason alone Syrian Dust is worth reading.

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