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.

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20 Books of Summer: Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas

Leave it to me to lead off the 20 Books of Summer with an alternate. Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad ranked dead last on my list, weighing it at 24 out of 20. But by God, I was going to read it no matter what. I have a fondness for her writing, (and for that matter, Iranian writers in general) dating back five years ago when I discovered her 2004 memoir Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America.  Knowing she’d written at least one follow-up piece I figured someday I’d read more of her stuff but never made any effort. Then one day I noticed my local public library had a copy of her 2008 offering Laughing Without an Accent.  A few weekends ago I finally made good on my vow and borrowed it. While Funny in Farsi might be a better book, surprisingly Laughing Without an Accent might be funnier and thus more entertaining.

It’s a collection of vignettes, all of them humorous to one degree or another.  Dumas serves up a lifetime of annectdotes including her early childhood in pre-Revolutionary Iran, (I liked how she contrasted life, from a child’s persepctive, in rural bordertown Abadan versus cosmopolitan Tehran) her upbringing in Southern California during the 70s and early 80s, college years at UC Berley, mother trying to raise her two young children as well as daughter to a pair of aging immigrant parents, and wife of a techie in boom and bust Silicon Valley.

My favorite chapters are those in which she recalls how her world changed after Funny in Farsi became a bestsellerEven the ruling theocrats of Iran permitted her memoir to be translated and published, but without the part in which her father declares the traditional Islamic prohibition on eating pork should no longer apply, thanks to modern advances in food safety and sanitation. I chuckled as she recalled her adventures as the 7 AM guest speaker for a group of New-Agey entrepreneurs. (Her parents, tagging along for moral support and blissfully unaware of the group’s intentions, thought those in attendance were sweet and wonderfully polite, and hearilty enjoyed the provided buffet breakfast.) Dumas also includes the text of one the graduation speeches she’s been asked to give. (Frequently because Kite Runner novelist Khaled Hosseini wasn’t available.) Speaking to the assembled graduates, she dispensed her wisdom and much to my joy, encouraged them to read books.

Laughing Without an Accent left me with a desire to read more memoirs. And with a nearby public library chock full of them, chances are you’ll see more of these featured on my blog.

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: Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

The President of the United States is an uncouth, unhinged bigot prone to late night diatribes against the media, minorities and political rivals. In the wake of his recent electoral victory, rumors are emerging members of his inner circle engaged in illegal activity against his challenger. Unbeknownst to all, he’s secretly engaged in top-level negotiations with a potentially hostile foreign nation. As result, America is a divided nation when it comes to the President. Many, like those in rural areas and especially the South see him as a straight-shooting, law and order savior who upholds time-honored values against unchecked liberalism and East Coast elitism. Others, see him as a despot and lout, and therefore a disgrace to the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, things aren’t much better as Prime Ministers come and go, scandals rear their ugly heads and the general consensus being the country’s best years are well behind it. Internationally, the proliferation of terrorist organizations has the world on edge. Headlines and newscasts are dominated by reports of bombings, assassinations, and mass killings. Try as they may, Western leaders are powerless to stop the carnage. Lastly, from Africa to Latin America brutal dictators rule with iron fists tolerating no dissent and committing countless human rights violations.

While this might well sum up the current state of the world it also describes an era from our not so distant past. Welcome to the 1970s as described by British journalist Francis Wheen in his 2010 book Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia. Yet again another decent book I never knew existed until I stumbled across it at the public library.

Of course, to be realistic while similarities abound so do the differences when one compares today’s world to that of the 70s. While Nixon hated the media as much as Trump does, in Nixon’s day there was no Twitter. Therefore late at night when Tricky Dick spouted off against newspapers, Jews and everyone else he hated, he did so within the confines of the White House, ironically usually in the presence of his Jewish Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Instead of Russian computer hacking, Watergate was an old-fashioned burglary. And it was the People’s Republic of China, not Russia the President secretly reached out to, not to help win an election but enlist as a geopolitical ally against the Russian-dominated USSR. Looking back even terrorism was different in the 70s. 40 years ago it wasn’t Islamic-oriented organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda grabbing headlines but more secular groups like the PLO or IRA, or the dozen or so now forgotten Marxist-inspired revolutionary cells active throughout Europe, Latin America and America.

Someday, if you end up reading Strange Days Indeed I’d strongly encourage you to follow it up with Rick Perlstein’s outstanding The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan as well as Bryan Burrough’s equally outstanding Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Perhaps, after reading Strange Days plus one, or both of these recommended books it might look like history repeats itself, or to paraphrase the authors of How Democracies Dies at least possess familiar echoes. Just like the ancient author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes you too might conclude there’s nothing new under the sun.

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.

The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan

You can probably tell from one of my earlier posts, I have weakness for Iranian writers. The crazy thing is even though I’ve read lots of Iranian writers, I’ve read few who write fiction. Clearly, if I’m to widen my exposure to Iranian writers I need to read more Iranian fiction. Therefore, when I came across Parnaz Foroutan’s novel The Girl from the Garden at the public library I figured it was an excellent opportunity to read some Iranian fiction.

Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran. After spending her childhood there her and her family immigrated to the United States, where she currently resides in LA. Her debut novel is set in the Iranian town of Kermanshah sometime in the first third of the 20th century and follows the lives of family of Iranian Jews. It’s told from the perspective of the sole surviving daughter Mahboubeh, now an elderly woman living in LA.

As much as I wanted to love The Girl in the Garden for whatever reason(s) it just wasn’t my cup of tea. This is a shame because I was excited to read a novel about a family of Iranian Jews living in pre-Revolutionary Iran. (In all fairness while reading The Girl in the Garden I was also reading several other books. Based on my personal experience a distracted reader is frequently an unfulfilled one. It wouldn’t surprise me if those literary distractions adversely impacted my ability to truly appreciate Foroutan’s novel.) But this first time novel shows considerable promise. I’m confident before I know it I’ll be reading one of her future novels and enjoying the heck out of it.

Nonfiction November: Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert

I can’t believe it’s already the third week of Nonfiction November. This week it’s hosted by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, one of my long-time favorite book bloggers. Our theme is Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert.

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

If you’ve been following my blog, especially for a long time you know I enjoy books about the Middle East. Of all the countries in the region, there’s two that interest me the most. One is Israel, and the other is Iran. Perhaps this is because Iran is so different when compared to the rest of the nations of the Middle East. Geographically, it sits on the periphery of the Middle East at the gateway to Central Asia. While most of the Middle Eastern’s nations are overwhelming Arab Iran’s population is heavily Persian, both in ethnicity and language. With 85 per cent of the world’s Muslims Sunni, Iran is majority Shia. Lastly, its complex political system is bewildering mix of theocratic authoritarianism and limited representational democracy, even if the country’s ballot box is subject to the whim of the ruling Mullahs.

I also suspect my fascination with Iran is also a personal one. Being a “man of certain age” I can remember when events in Iran dominated our newspaper headlines and evening newscasts. Perhaps my coming of age during this period has had a lasting effect on me, resulting in my life-long fascination with this country.

Let’s say you’ve read Reading Lolita in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad and you wanna learn more about Iran. If that’s the case here’s six additional books I’d like to recommend. While there’s probably no shortage of great books on Iran, I’ve restricted my list to Iranian authors. Americans have a nasty habit of imposing their views on others. With that in mind perhaps it’s best to let the Iranians speak for themselves.

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr – I read this gem of a book not long after it was published in 2006. It’s an outstanding big picture analysis of not just Iran’s rising influence in the region but also its Shia allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd –  This  2008 book was recommended by a young college student I met one morning in a neighborhood coffee shop. She called it the best book on Iran she’d ever read. I feel the same way about it.

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope by Shirin Ebadi – If her name looks familiar it’s probably because she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution by Amir Taheri – A passionate, detailed and insightful critique of the Iranian regime.

Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival

A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran by Reza Kahlili – One of my all-time favorite books by an Iranian émigré. His thrilling true story reads like a spy novel.

 

 

If, after reading these half-dozen books you’re inspired to read more there’s other books on Iran I can recommend. One of my personal favorites is The Secret War with Iran: Israel and the West’s 30-Year Clandestine Struggle by Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman. If you’re looking for a fresh look at US-Iran relations from the perspective of former career CIA officer, I’d recommend Robert Baer’s The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian SuperpowerOn a similar note, I’d also recommend Stephen Kinzer’s Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future. Lastly, although he can be a bit dry and verbose, Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran and The Struggle for Iran are also worth the effort. 

But alas, there’s a ton of books on Iran I still have yet to read and want to. I’m embarrassed to admit, but I’ve never read Reading Lolita in Tehran or Lipstick Jihad. Elaine Sciolino’s Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran has been on my TBR forever, along with Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs. As for more recent offerings, I’d love to read Laura Secor’s Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, Andrew Scott’s The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran and Barry Meier’s Missing Man: The American Spy Who Vanished in Iran. With a list of books like this it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.