Memoirs of the Middle East: My Name Is Iran by Davar Ardalan

Considering my weakness for Iranian memoirs it’s a no brainer I borrowed a copy of Davar Ardalan’s 2007 My Name Is Iran when I found it prominently displayed by an anonymous librarian at my small town library. Besides that, who can resist anything written by someone named Iran?

Like many of the memoirs I’ve read over the last several years My Name Is Iran the memoir of both an individual and a family. A young woman growing up in rural Idaho around the turn of the century her American grandmother left to pursue a nursing career in New York City. While working at a local hospital she fell in love with an Iranian doctor and after a whirlwind courtship the two get married. Hoping to put their Western medical training to work she follows him to Iran. Years later, the two of them and their children return to America for a period during which their daughter devoutly embraces Catholicism and her son becomes an all-American football player at the University of Virginia.

Iran (the author, not the country) would spend young adulthood in the United States, but after getting married would move with her Iranian husband to Iran. Thanks to her fluency in English she’d find employment as an English-language TV newscaster for theocratic regime’s propaganda service. Later, dissatisfied with both the regime and her marriage she returned to the States.  Putting her broadcasting experience to work she landed a job in radio, working her way up the food chain at National Public Radio and ultimately serving in several high level positions.

Compared to other Iranian authors I’ve read Ardalan is kinda rare. Her grandmother was an American and her father, while Iranian was an ethnic Kurd. Rare still, her great grandfather was a revered Iranian jurist and an inspiration to Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. While the majority of the Iranians I’ve read are members of the diaspora who fled the Islamic Republic never to return Ardalan moved back to Iran after her first marriage only to finally leave for good a few years later.

While it’s hard to find fault with My Name Is Iran I wish I’d enjoyed it as much as I did Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi or Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s A Mirror Garden. But it’s left me wanting to read more Iranian memoirs and trust me, that’s never a bad thing.

Nonfiction November Week 4: Worldview Changers

After taking last week off, I’m back with another post for Nonfiction November. This week our host is Rebekah of the blog She Seeks Nonfiction. Even though she’s been blogging since 2016 I discovered her blog only about a year ago. Since then I’ve been a huge fan, in no small part because I see her as a kindred spirit. Rebekah was raised in the “conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” even though she “never really believed in God”, and I’m an ex-evangelical Christian. If the books featured on Rebekah’s outstanding blog are any indication she’s a progressive individual who strongly embraces science, reason and intellectual honesty. With that in mind she’s the perfect book blogger to host our latest installment of Nonfiction November.

One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book (or books) has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?

When first introduced to this week’s topic I was excited to participate even though wasn’t sure where to begin. I thought about limiting the scope solely to books critical of Christianity, the Bible or religion in general. I also considered discussing just various political books that have impacted me over the years. Or significant history books that did the same. But in the end I decided to throw caution to the wind and feature as many books as possible that significantly shaped my view of the world. They did this by overthrowing my previous beliefs or assumptions, or in some way or another making me look at things with a different perspective. If this project wasn’t ambitious (or foolhardy) enough, I’d also like to approach things somewhat chronologically, starting with books that impacted me as a young man. (But I’ll still mix things up here and there.)

The Early Years

Christianity and the Bible: A New and Critical Look 

History: A Deeper Understanding 

Anti-Colonialism: At Home and Abroad 

Developing a Post-Religious Worldview

The Middle East: A Deeper Understanding

East vs West and Nations Rich and Poor: Competing Explanations 

Corruptions of Power

Animals: Smarter Than You Think

That’s all for now. Enjoy Nonfiction November!

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Katie from the blog Doing Dewey kicked off Nonfiction November. This week Rennie at What’s Nonfiction has agreed to host. She invites participants to share their favorite book pairings, and takes a pretty inclusive approach. It could be a pairing of nonfiction books with fiction, podcasts, documentaries, movies or even additional works of nonfiction.

In past years I’ve been straight-forward, just pairing up nonfiction books with works of fiction. However, last year I did something new and featured Michael David Lukas’s 2018 novel The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, pairing it with a half-dozen books about the ancient Cairo Geniza and Egypt’s Jewish community. This year I thought I’d return to my old ways. I’ll be looking back at what I read in 2022, both nonfiction and fiction and select 15 books. For every work of nonfiction I’ll suggest a piece of fiction and visa versa.

Considering my reading tastes it’s no surprise I’ve included lots of history and international politics kind of stuff. For the first time doing these pairings I’ve featured books by two siblings (Masha and Keith Gessen), a pair of books by the same author (Andrey Kurkov) and two works of nonfiction by the same author (Adam Hochschild). In other firsts, close to half were translated into English from another language, with three quarters of these books written by either immigrants, expats, refugees or children of immigrants. I hope you enjoyed my post and I look forward to reading all the others from Nonfiction November.

20 Books of Summer: The Attack by Yasmina Khadra

I’ve mentioned from time to time I enjoy books on the Middle East or novels set in that part of the world. Therefore, it was hard to resist borrowing Yasmina Khadra’s 2006 novel The Attack when I came across a copy at the public library. After putting it aside for a couple of weeks I dived right back into it and whipped through it in no time. I’m happy to say it’s yet another pleasant surprise of 2022.

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul. While serving as an officer in the Algerian military in the late 1980s, Moulessehoul adopted the the feminine pseudonym to keep his superiors from censoring his writing. Even though his true identity was revealed in 2001 he continues to write under the pen name. Just like his fellow Algerian novelist Amara Lakhous, he lives abroad in Europe. (Lakhous lives in Italy and writes in Italian. Moulessehoul lives in France and writes in French.)

All things considered, life’s been good to Amin Jaafari. A successful self-made man by any standard, the highly skilled Arab-Israeli surgeon is well-respected by his Jewish colleagues at the hospital in Tel Aviv where he practices. Happily married to Sihem, an intelligent and lovely woman, the two share a home in one the city’s poshest neighborhoods where their frequent get-togethers attract well-healed guests from across confessional lines. Bedouin by birth, he’s since embraced an urban, cosmopolitan lifestyle.  Both an Israeli citizen and non-practicing Muslim, his outlook is wholly secular with one his best friends a high-ranking Israeli police chief.

But then one day this comfortable world comes crashing down. Not long after a suicide bombing flooded his hospital with dozens of casualties he’s told the bomber was none other than his wife. Overnight his colleagues and neighbors no longer see him as a “good” Arab. At the very least he’s seen a clueless moron, negligently oblivious to his wife’s murderous intentions. (Much like the parents of America’s young mass shooters.) At worst, he’s some closeted radical who secretly assisted in his wife’s deadly act terrorism. Instead of mourning his deceased wife he’s forced to undergo humiliating interrogations, invasive home searches and police detentions.

Initially, in hopes of clearing her name he leaves his upscale Tel Aviv home in search of evidence to clear her name. Visits with his in laws eventually lead him to a radical imam and his acolytes. Slowly connecting the dots he begins to see how Sihem secretly evolved into to suicide bomber. At the same time, he’s gripped by feelings of betrayal, like a faithful husband confronted with the growing evidence of his wife’s infidelity. Feeling increasingly alienated by both Israelis and Arabs he begins questioning his religion, nationality and allegiance to the Jewish State.

Like I mentioned earlier this is a surprisingly good book, one of many I’ve stumbled across this year. Don’t be surprised if you see more novels by this talented author featured on this blog.

Sunday Salon

About a month ago the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished both Yasmina’s Khadra’s The Attack and Karlheinz Deschner’s God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic. Hopefully, I’ll get my reviews up and posted by the end of the week. Since both are translated works I’ll be applying them towards The Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge

After putting aside Jay David’s anthology Growing Up Jewish I started Lea Ypi 2022 memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History.  Ypi’s recollection of life in Albania during the implosion of that country’s oppressive communist regime is shaping up to be a winner. I also went back to reading Frank Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting as well as Stuart Jeffries’s 2016 Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) serving up a bombshell special session last Tuesday I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. With so much stuff out there it’s hard knowing where to begin but Deep State Radio’s “Showstopper” is a good place along with The Lincoln Project’s “The Emergency Hearing.” The Bulwark never ceases to satisfy so I’d recommend both “A Damning Witness” and “Mea culpa. Really.” Opening Arguments is a recent find of mine and the episode “Surprise Jan. 6 Hearing – Bombshells Within Smoking Guns Within More Bombshell” is definitely worth a listen. The Lawfare Podcast can get a bit dry and wonky but “The Jan. 6 Committee, Day Six” episode is good. During the Trump administration Vanity Fair’s Inside the Hive was my go-to source for place intrigue. I thoroughly enjoyed the recent episode “If You Bite the Head Off of the Snake, the Rest of the Snake Will Die”: Daniel Goldman on Prosecuting Trump.” If you wanna learn more about the assorted far-right militia groups in cahoots with Trump and his crones then check out the Fresh Air episode “Investigating The Far-Right Militia Groups Of Jan. 6.” Lastly, round things out with Talking Feds and “This is (Trump’s) America.”

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain with its plot twists, great writing and superb acting. Last week we were treated to a special session of the January 6 Committee sessions which blew myself, and much of America, away. I look forward to watching more once they resume latter this month. I also caught an episode of Stranger Things. After a bit of a slow start it’s shaping up to be as dark and entertaining as I’d hoped. Like last week I checked out The Lincoln Project’s web series The Breakdown. Hosts Tara Setmayer and Rick Wilson (and special guest Harry Litman) did a fine job breaking down the last Tuesday’s bombshell January 6 hearing. It’s well worth your time. 

Everything else. Even though gas is damn expensive right now I did make a trip to my favorite area winery for some friendly discussion with my professor buddy. Weather-wise, after recently experiencing a mini heat wave temperatures have considerably moderated. 

Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished Ruta Sepetys’s 2022 historical novel I Must Betray You.  While it’s only June I’m betting it makes my year-end list of Favorite Fiction. I put aside  Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting, Khadra’s The Attack and Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street and started two new books. For Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge and Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge I started Karlheinz Deschner’s God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic.  Originally published in 1966, it’s shaping up to be quite the polemic against both the Vatican and the Catholic Church in general. (Not sure if that’s what I originally bargained for. I’ll just have to see where the book goes.) The other is the 1969 anthology Growing Up Jewish edited by Jay David. One of my original 20 Books of Summer, since a number of the pieces are translated from Yiddish and German I’m hoping to apply this book as well to the Books in Translation Reading Challenge. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) continuing to be televised I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. With so much stuff out there it’s hard knowing where to start but I would begin with The Economist’s Checks and Balance episode “Insurrection Retrospection.” From there it’s pretty wide open. Deep State Radio’s “The Trial of Donald J. Trump” is particularly good as is The New Yorker’s Politics and More episode “What the January 6th Committee Uncovered This Week.” I’d also recommend Angry Planet’s “Proud Boys, January 6, and When a U-Haul Is a Clown Car.” Lastly, round things up with The Lincoln Project’s “The DOJ is Watching” with guest David H. Laufman and from The Bulwark “How the 1/6 Committee Could Succeed” with Denver Riggleman and “Why We Were Alarmed” with Bill Kristol. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain, throwing head-spinning plot twists at me right and left. As I mentioned earlier, I’m knee deep into the January 6 Committee sessions and look forward to watching more once they resume next month. At long last I started watching the much-anticipated season 4 of Stranger Things. After a bit of a slow start it’s shaping up to be as dark and entertaining as I’d hoped. Finally, I decided to check out The Lincoln Project’s web series The Breakdown. Hosts Tara Setmayer and Rick Wilson did a fine job breaking down the last January 6 hearing. It’s well worth your time. 

Everything else. Even though gas is damn expensive right now I did make a few trips into town. I returned to my favorite an area winery to for a bit of friendly discussion with a couple of my professor buddies. Yesterday, while out running errands I dropped by one of my favorite watering holes to have a beer and read my Kindle. Weather wise, we’ve been experiencing a mini heat wave but temperatures should drop starting tomorrow. 

Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I hope to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished up Kitty Veldis’s 2018 historical novel Not Our Kind  and like I mentioned earlier, if it doesn’t make Favorite Fiction list in December it’s a shoe-in for a future honorable mention. After putting A.C. Grayling’s Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius on pause I dived headfirst into The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko. Scott Stambach’s 2016 dark yet hilarious novel is set in Belarus at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children. Pleasantly sick and wrong, it’s great reading if you enjoy the twisted fiction of Chuck Palahniuk, Iain Banks or Gary Shteyngart. Currently, I’m about half-way through Alexander Münninghoff’s 2020 family memoir The Son and HeirAn alternate for my 20 Book of Summer reading challenge it’s applicable to a number of others including the European Reading Challenge. I also started two other novels and it’s too earlier to tell how much I’ll end up liking them. Yasmina Khadra’s 2006 The Attack shows early promise. Since I’ve yet to finish the introduction to Heda Margolius Kovály’s 2015 Czech crime novel Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street who knows if I’ll like it or not. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) at last being televised I dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. On Fresh Air Terry Gross interviewed New York Times Congressional reporter Luke Broadwater on the episode “The Jan. 6 Insurrection: Understanding The Big Picture.”  Another must listen is the recent Daily podcast “The Proud Boys’ Path to Jan. 6.” Recorded the morning after Thursday’s opening session, Charlie Sykes and guests Sarah Longwell, Tim Miller, and Bill Kristol did a fine job on The Bulwark breaking things down with the episode “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.” Deep State Radio’s “A Life or Death Moment in the History of US Democracy” with guests Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Harry Litman of the Talking Feds podcast is also a must listen. Speaking of Talking Feds, recorded a few days before Thursday night’s session the episode “At History’s Edge” with guests Julie Zebrak, Josh Marshall and Rep. Ted Lieu also makes for great listening. Lastly, Molly Jong Fast and Andy Levy on The New Abnormal as expected served up insightful and irreverent commentary on the opening session. But what helps makes the episode “Liz Cheney Is Ready to Follow Donald Trump to the Gates of Hell” a true gem are the interviews they did with Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer, and my favorite thought leader Ian Bremmer.  

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain me and has been a fantastic find. As I mentioned early, Thursday night I watched the opening session of the January 6 Committee and I’m excited to see more. 

Everything else. Like last week I once again snuck out early on Friday and joined my buddy the semi-retired sociology professor for beers and some pizza at a local watering hole. Yesterday on Saturday there was a break in the rainy weather so I snuck out again for another beer. On Wednesday I took part in a weekly Facebook group chat with two librarians from the New York Public Library. I’ve been doing this for months and it’s a great way to get book recommendations as well as learn about new books months before they’re officially released. 

About Time I Read It: Judas by Amos Oz

In late 2018 I was saddened by the news Israeli author Amos Oz had passed away. I’d only read Between Friends, his collection of eight interconnected short stories and short coming of age novel Panther in the Basement but longed to read more, especially his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. For some inexplicable reason earlier this week I found myself in the mood for more of his fiction so I borrowed an ebook version of his 2016 historical novel Judas. Of the three books of his I’ve read, I’m pleased to say I enjoyed this one the most. There’s even a good chance it will wind up making my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

It’s 1959 and Jerusalem is a city divided between Israel and Jordan. Shmuel Ash, originally from Tel Aviv, is a young idealist who’s lost his way. His steady girlfriend recently dumped him to marry her boring ex-boyfriend. The socialist cell he’d been a member of, passionately debating in smoke-filled coffee shops the role of the enlightened proletariat collapsed under the weight of its idealogical differences. Bereft of funds after the bankruptcy of his family’s business he’s forced to quit his university studies, even though he’s on the cusp of graduating. Unmoored and with nothing to lose, he answers a help-wanted posting for a live-in caretaker for an elderly man. For a modest stipend plus room and board Shmuel stays up half the night bantering with Gershom Wald, a crutch-dependent invalid as cantankerous as he is erudite and brilliant. Sharing this eccentric household is Atalia Abarbanel, the beautiful 40-something widow of Gerhom’s dead son and daughter of Shealtiel Abravanel, onetime member of the Jewish National Council who, because of his opposition to making Israel a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs was branded a traitor by his fellow Zionists and forced to resign in disgrace.

Surrounded by bookshelves stacked with dusty old tomes in a half-dozen languages Shmuel and Wald’s late-night arguments chiefly revolve around Israeli politics and, because Shmuel until recently was a religious scholar specializing in Jesus as viewed from a Jewish perspective, the role of Judas as betrayer. As they argue night after night, the reader begins to wonder if being a traitor is necessarily a bad thing. Fully aware “courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics” Shmuel muses “anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change.”

But no matter how much he debates Wald, nothing can take his mind off the beguiling Atalia. She drifts in and out of his presence, elusive yet nevertheless attentive. In spite of her aloofness, she invites him to share a series of chaste, though pleasant evenings on the town. During their conversations she regularly reminds him there’s been a series of admiring young men who preceded him as Wald’s caretaker and each one left broken hearted. But Shmuel is a young man in love and relishes their bittersweet relationship.

With its secluded alleyways, Hungarian restaurants, Romanian-born police officers and sizable first-generation immigrant citizenry, the Jerusalem of Amos Oz’s Judas feels more like the Jewish quarter of some pre-war European capital than a Middle Eastern city. Dark, wintery and possessing a distinct Mitteleuropa flavorJerusalem in essence becomes the novel’s fourth character.

Judas has been called a love story, coming of age novel, intellectual novel, historical novel, philosophical re-appraisal of the Biblical character of Judas and allegory for the modern state of Israel. Not only is it all of these things, it’s also a terrific novel. Please consider it highly recommended.

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.

About Time I Read It: War and Peace in the Middle East by Avi Shlaim

About four years ago I stopped at a neighborhood garage sale to see if there was anything for sale I couldn’t live without and before I knew it I found myself rummaging through a big box of books. After finding three paperbacks to my liking I went over to sale’s acting cashier to purchase them. While handing her a couple of bucks she told me I’d just purchased a few of her old text books from college, and she’d majored in International Conflict Resolution. Looking back, I should have stuck around longer and picked her brain. Not only did her course of study sound right up my alley, but I bet she could have recommended a ton of great books.

I doubt any student could major in International Conflict Resolution without taking at least one class on the Middle East. Little wonder one of her old college texts I ended up buying was Avi Shlaim’s War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History. While some folks might shied away from buying a book on the Middle East published in 1995 I didn’t. As I told the book’s now former owner, I wanted to get a different perspective on the Middle East. Specifically, I wanted to explore the region as a subject matter expert might in the years prior to 9/11, the Invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring and the rise of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Even though Shlaim’s book is over 20 years old I hoped it could teach me a few things  about arguably the world’s most turbulent and complex region.

As billed, War and Peace in the Middle East is a concise history. Roughly covering the period 1914 to the early 1990s Shlaim takes a “big picture” approach to explaining the how, why and what of the Middle East. He begins with a historical overview of which great powers were influential in the region over the course of 20th century. According to Shlain, sometimes a solitary power was dominant in the Middle East. The Ottomans ruled most of the area until they were displaced by the British (and to a lesser degree the French) after World War I. Because the British and French carved up the Ottoman’s Middle Eastern possessions to suit their own interests and not those who actually lived there the region has been unstable for a century. The Kurds were never given a homeland have been fighting for one for years. Iraqi anger over their western border led to a long and bloody war with Iraq. Feeling Kuwait should have been included as part of the Iraqi nation after WWI was a motivating factor in invading and annexing the oil rich kingdom in early 90s. Lastly, Britain’s inability to please both Jews and Palestinians after promising each side everything, compounded with the horrors of the Holocaust spawned one of the modern world’s most challenging political conflicts.

By the 1956 Suez Crisis the Middle East became a Cold War battleground as the USA and USSR courted clients and bankrolled allies. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, the USA was left without a rival and could exert even more influence in the region, like assembling a global coalition to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait and pressuring the Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate a peace settlement.

Over the years America’s leaders and policy makers approached the Middle East differently. Some Presidents and their advisers saw everything through he context of the Cold War. Countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt after 1973 and Iran before 1979 were seen as pro-American and anti-communist. Syria, the PLO and Iraq prior to the late 80s were seen as pro-Soviet. At times some American decision makers refused to see the Middle East as another of Cold War side-show but instead saw all conflicts as rivalries between states, each with their own respective agendas. Israel, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia were all seen at one time or another as key allies. Later, Iran was seen as America’s greatest adversary.

War and Peace in the Middle East is a pretty old book, but nevertheless an illuminating one. It’s inspired me to read more stuff on the Middle East and for that I’m thankful.