Library Loot

I dropped by the public library the other day to return some books only to grab a few more. Just like last time I selected a pair of books by authors from outside the United States. Penelope Lively is a British resident of London while Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of exiled Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul who’s lived in France for years. 

  • Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively – I’ve borrowed this book several times only return it ignored and unread. Needing something representing the United Kingdom for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’m hoping this time I finally read it. 
  • The Attack by Yasmina Khadra- Always hard for me to resist novels set in the Middle East, especially by native authors. Harder still if it’s deckle edged

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s blog.  

About Time I Read It: Kings and Presidents by Bruce Riedel

I’ve mentioned from time to time of all the countries in the Middle East Iran and Israel intrigue me the most. But if I had to pick a runner-up it would probably be Saudi Arabia. A major oil exporter, home to the holiest sites in Islam and ruled since the early 1920s by the puritanical al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally since the end of World War II. It might seem odd a representative democracy like the United States, a majority Christian nation with a deeply enshrined commitment to a separation of church and state would ally itself with one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. Even when compared to its Arab neighbors the Islam practiced by most Saudis and heavily promoted by the kingdom’s ruling family is an austere, uncompromising interpretation easily at odds with more modern concepts of feminism, religious tolerance, scientific inquiry and freedom of sexual identity. While both the United States and Saudi Arabia see Iran as a threat to the region the Saudis have traditionally viewed Israel, a chief American ally, as a perennial thorn in their side hellbent on destabilizing an already volatile region.

So, why a long friendship between the two countries? That’s the question Bruce Riedel set out to answer with his 2017 book Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR. Considering my interest in the Middle East it was hard for me to pass up a borrowable Kindle edition of Riedel’s 2017 book. Knowing nothing about the book or its author I didn’t know what to expect. I’m happy to report Kings and Presidents exceeded my modest expectations and is one of 2022’s pleasant surprises.

While some reviewers complained the book was superficial I disagree. Riedel is no stranger to the Middle East. He spent 30 years in the CIA, served on the National Security Council for four different presidents, as well as a Special Advisor to NATO and is currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He covers a hundred or so years of major political and religious developments that helped pave the way for the founding of Saudi Arabia. From there Riedel draws from his decades of foreign policy experience supplemented by memoirs and official documents to craft a detailed and readable history of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia

Even after reading John R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crises and Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future this book taught me more than a few things about Saudi Arabia. I knew the Saudi monarchy, together with the American CIA worked with Pakistan’s intelligence agency the ISI to arm and train Afghan and Islamic resistance groups to fight the Soviets and their Afghan puppet army during the 1980s. But I had no idea military ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan go much deeper. For years starting in the 1982 Pakistan stationed a “reinforced armored brigade” of 20,000 troops in Tabuk near the Jordanian border to serve as a both a deterrent to Israel as well as a “loyal Pretorian guard” for the royal family in case of a palace coup or popular uprising. (During the run-up to the first Gulf War the brigade was quietly redeployed across the kingdom along the border with Iraq in case it was needed to counter an Iraqi invasion.) I’ve read the Chinese supplied the Saudis with medium-range ballistic missiles, which, due to their inaccuracy are suitable only for carrying nuclear warheads. Why the Saudis would purchase such missiles while lacking a nuclear arsenal for years has been a mystery. But Riedel plausibly speculates as part of this long and shadowy military alliance the Saudis feel the Pakistanis will provide them with deliverable nukes should the Kingdom be sufficiently threatened by one of its regional rivals like Israel or Iran.

In the end, the US-Saudi alliance is based not upon shared values or long-standing institutions but common interests. Affordable and plentiful oil runs our economy and in turn keeps the Saudis afloat financially. While our leaders disagree over Israel, for decades our two countries have allied with each other against various powers in the Middle East be they Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq or Iran under the Ayatollah or his successors. It’s a marriage of convenience that’s lasted since the spring of 1945 when FDR met with the founding king Saudi Arabia on an American battleship near the Suez Canal and hashed out a deal to both parties’ liking.

2021 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I found myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 20 books, and for my efforts once again earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. Compared to past years my performance in 2021 was pretty lackluster with just 10 books read and reviewed for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Switzerland. This year for this first time I’ll be including something by a Norwegian author. 

  1. Becket or the Honor of God by Jean Anouilh (United Kingdom)
  2. Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland (Norway)
  3. Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes (Switzerland)
  4. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer- The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames by Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer (Russia)
  5. The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo (Spain)
  6. Not All Bastards Are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini (Italy)
  7. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (Germany) 
  8. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Ukraine)
  9. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury (France)
  10. Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska (Poland)

Much like last year it was a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction with five books apiece. Four are translations from other languages, including Polish. Red Famine easily made my Favorite Nonfiction list for 2021 while Swiss Watching was a runner-up. Both The Invisible Guardian and Empire of Lies made my year’s Favorite Fiction list with Not All Bastards Are from Vienna along with There There as my favorite novels of the year.  

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

As you’ve probably guessed, while I’m always borrowing books from the library I don’t manage to read them all. Some books I end up returning without even cracking them open, and more than a few I’ve started only to return to the library unfinished. But even if I don’t finish a book, if it shows promise I’ll borrow it again later and try harder to finish it. Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad is one of those books. I started it back in August only to return it unfinished to the library three weeks later. Recently, I wanted to give Mekhennet’s 2017 book another chance so I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive and went to work. I’m glad I gave it another chance because I Was Told to Come Alone is a well-written, first hand account of life growing up in Germany as the daughter of Muslim immigrants and her rise to prominence as a world-class foreign correspondent.

Besides a talent for writing well, bravery and a dogged ability to uncover the truth, one could argue for a foreign correspondent to be successful such an individual should also be even handed, multilingual, and possess a keen understanding of other cultures. With that in mind this is the career Mekhennet was destined to pursue. Her father a Sunni Moroccan and her mother an ethnic Arab Shia from Turkey, Mekhennet’s parents met as guest workers in Germany. Underclass and a cultural outsider who experienced more than her share of prejudice, the young Mekhennet nevertheless applied herself. Intellectually curious, ambitious, and a desire to write, she began interviewing German political figures while still in high school. Later, as a college student she worked as an entry level journalist. Raised Muslim and fluent in Arabic, she quickly proved to be an invulnerable asset to her more seasoned colleagues as they interviewed Muslim immigrants and perused leads throughout Europe in the wake of 9/11.

In a career that’s spanned the better part of two decades Mekhennet’s travels have taken her across three continents, conducting interviews and investigating stories across Europe, North Africa, Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. During her tenure she’s reported on Al-Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, (including helping uncover the true identity of the infamous terrorist Jihadi John) Arab Spring, Syrian Civil War, 2015 Paris Terrorist Attacks and European Migrant Crises of the same year.

I Was Told to Come Alone is well written and considering English is her third or fourth language makes this even more impressive. What’s also impressive is her sense of fairness. As a Muslim from Germany, she’s experienced discrimination and as a result is sympathetic to the plights of her co-religionists living as immigrants or the children of immigrants in Europe. On the other hand, she takes to task Islamic extremists for their misogyny and refusal to respect the basic rights of others.

Admirable as well is her honesty and insightfulness when assessing the 2015 European Migrant Crises. Unlike some European leaders and aid officials she wisely pointed out while many of those seeking refuge were fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, many were also economic migrants from across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. In addition, a sizable portion of them were not highly educated professionals but laborers conversant only in their respective native languages. Based on her observations she also revealed a few hailed from ISIS’s Islamic State. While not terrorists bent on wrecking havoc, nevertheless their sympathies for the Islamic State were apparent.

I Was Told to Come Alone is easily one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It deserves to stand beside other outstanding books by respected journalists about political developments in the Islamic world like Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. Just like Black Flags and The Forever War there’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland

Just before the entire world went on lockdown I was wandering through the stacks at the public library one afternoon when I happened to see a copy of Erika Fatland’s Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Intrigued by what I saw I still declined to  borrow it, but figured someday down the road I eventually would. Recently, I found myself in the mood to read about the “Stans” of Central Asia and borrowed a copy of Fatland’s book through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I enjoyed the author’s account of her journeys across the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and now can’t wait to read her recently published English edition of The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, … Finland, Norway, and the Northwest Passage.

Before reading Sovietistan I didn’t know a lot about this part of the world. I did however know all the countries are landlocked. (Although two of them border the equally landlocked Caspian Sea.) I’d also read one of the countries, Turkmenistan, for years was ruled by a dictator so megalomaniacal he renamed several months of the calendar in his honor. Lastly, thanks to the magic of Hollywood I knew Kazakhstan was home to the fictional character Borat.

Combining travelogue with generous portions of history and contemporary politics Fatland serves up a detailed yet personal look at all five Stans of Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Like so many former European colonies in Africa and Asia, these landlocked countries of Central Asia, while steeped in history are in essence modern creations, with legacies dating back to the early years of the USSR. After the Soviet Union collapsed all five declared independence. In the decades since then they’ve attempted, in varying ways and with varying success, to guide their young nations between East and West always mindful of their former master to the North and its undeniable influence.

The countries visited in Sovietistan feel ancient and exotic while at the same time modern and Western. Just as the lucrative trade of the Silk Road brought wealth to the ancient kingdoms and imperial provinces of this region centuries ago, today oil and gas exports generate billions in petrodollars, financing lavish presidential palaces and, depending on the country funding national infrastructure. Sadly however, like many oil exporting countries in the developing world most of this generated wealth ends up lining pockets of the elites only to be squirrelled away overseas in foreign bank accounts or spent profligately on luxury items. Like the potentates of old, their current day presidents have ruled their respective Central Asian countries with iron fists. (The exception being Kyrgyzstan, which even though it’s the most corrupt of all the Stans, its president actually stepped aside in response to public pressure.) Inheriting not just the borders of the old USSR but also its Stalinist mode of governance, some leaders have imposed their own cults of personality, with their imposing likenesses gracing statues and portraits ubiquitously throughout their respective countries.

While blessed with oil deposits and physical beauty, ecologically some of the Stans are horribly scarred. Years of Soviet above-ground nuclear weapons testing have ravaged parts of Kazakhstan and produced generations of health problems for its residents. Years diverting water to grow cotton has catastrophically drained the Aral Sea, leaving it a shadow of its former self.

This is a great look inside a part of the world that in my opinion doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Please consider Sovietistan recommended reading.

About Time I Read It: Black Flags by Joby Warrick

Next time you’re at the library, do yourself a favor. If you see a book displayed as a staff recommendation grab it. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s led me to excellent books like David Liss’s historical novel The Coffee Trader or Warren Kozak’s The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser or Julie Holland’s memoir Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER.

Recently, one of my local public libraries decided showcase a number of staff recommendations. Following their sagely advice I borrowed two, one which happened to be Joby Warrick’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. I couldn’t put it down and theres’s a strong likelihood it will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

In the early 2000s, al-Qaeda was seen as America’s most feared scourge. But in just a few years a rival terrorist organization materialized out of Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Founded by a semi-literate Jordanian street thug turned Islamic militant the group attacked US occupation forces, beheaded captives and bombed Shia holy sites throughout Iraq, pushing the already chaotic and wounded nation into a state of civil war.  For the next decade its fortunes would wax and wane but within 10 years its fighters would accomplish what al-Qaeda could never achieve: conquer a swath of the Arab World and impose Islamic rule. Proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (rendered into English as ISIS) its vengeful leaders reigned with an iron hand, committing a host of atrocities including genocide, sexual enslavement and wholesale destruction of hallowed archeological sites. It took the concerted military effort by both Western and Arab nations to break the group’s hold on the area. But not before ISIS could wreck havoc on the Arab World and even Paris.

In chronicling the evolution of ISIS Warrick expertly conveys the group’s rise to prominence. Most fascinating of all, he shows how this was inadvertently facilitated by the actions of others, even those committed to fighting Islamic terrorism.

  • Founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would have lived out his life as a low-level criminal had his parents not remanded him to his local mosque for religious instruction where he soon became radicalized. Reinventing himself, he fled to Afghanistan and enlisted in the Mujahideen. Later, he returned to Jordan and emboldened by his experience embarked on his own holy war, this time against his native Jordanians. Eventually, he was captured and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
  • Al-Zarqawi would have languished in prison for years, even decades and eventually forgotten, like so many other imprisoned Islamic radicals had he not benefited from a stroke of good luck. In 1999 Jordan’s King Hussein succumbed to cancer and was succeeded by his son Abdullah II. In keeping with Jordanian custom the newly crowned king authorized the release of a number of prisoners, one of which happened to be al-Zarqawi. Later, once al-Zarqawi earned a reputation as a terrorist mastermind (orchestrating attacks in Iraq and later Jordan) Abdullah was furious security officials deemed al-Zarqawi worthy of early release.
  • Sold to the American public and the world at large as an essential undertaking in the fight against terrorism, Bush and his inner circle orchestrated the armed invasion of Iraq. After toppling Saddam’s regime and driving the country’s Sunni-dominated Baathists from positions of authority a chaotic power vacuum soon ensued. This provided the perfect environment for al-Zarqawi and his followers (including a number of Sunni military officers) to attack US forces and Shia holy sites.
  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was an Iraqi graduate student studying Islamic theology when he was swept up in a raid by US forces while visiting an old college friend. After thrown in a detention camp by the Americans the “civilian internee” so impressed his fellow detainees with his command of Islamic jurisprudence he quickly gained a following among the camp’s militant elements. In 2004 after deemed “low level” he was released. Thanks to his reputation as a gifted Islamic scholar he was soon brought into the ISIS fold as its chief Sharia lawgiver. After holding the number three position in the organization he eventually became its leader after an American military strike took out ISIS’s top two men.
  • After the last US forces left Iraq in late 2011, Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began taking a harder line against the country’s Sunnis. His purging of prominent Sunnis from his administration and crushing Sunni protests would drive many of them into the welcoming arms of ISIS. Reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose the group would out-battle the poorly led, demoralized Iraqi National Army and capture a huge chunk of Iraqi territory.
  • In the early 2010s as the Arab Spring spread throughout the Middle East thousands in Syria protested the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Refusing to step down or make any concessions whatsoever Assad instead ordered his security forced to fire on demonstrators, sparking a civil war that would tear the country apart. Before long a huge contested zone opened up  in the country’s interior where a myriad of anti-government rebels fought against Assad’s forces, his assorted foreign allies and each other. Taking advantage of the situation, ISIS fighters carved out their own Islamic caliphate to rule puritanically and use as a base from which to launch operations throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Taking advantage of a long series of unforced errors and miscalculations ISIS leaders were able to grow their terrorist organization. No wonder Napoleon said never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

This is an outstanding book, well deserved of all the praise. Readable, insightful and comprehensive, it should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider Black Flags highly recommended.

20 Books of Summer: Reopening Muslim Minds by Mustafa Akyol

I can’t remember how and when I first heard of Mustafa Akyol’s Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance but when a Kindle edition became available through my public library’s Overdrive portal I immediately downloaded it. Published in April of this year, Akyol asks why the Muslim world lags so behind the West in such key areas as democracy, civil liberties and scientific and technological achievement and what can be done to address these disparities?

In search of answers Akyol-a Turkish journalist, New York Times contributing opinion writer and current senior fellow at the Cato Institute- explores Islamic history and concludes in the Middle Ages, when Muslim theologians and ruling powers elevated blind religious faith over reason and refused to incorporate valuable concepts and principles from communities and traditions outside Islam it effectively closed the door on further development.  Intellectually hamstrung and closed to novel and foreign ideas, the Islamic world, unlike the Christian West never experienced the Enlightenment nor its subsequent developments: the scientific and industrial revolutions, democracy, human rights and religious pluralism.

The motivation for this medieval closing of the Islamic mind was more than just theological. According to Akyol, the insistence on believing tenants of faith solely on Islamic scripture and tradition instead through more open-ended processes like philosophical reasoning gave weight to those who believed the Caliphs and those like them should be simply obeyed because God said so. More flexible and less slavishly literal interpretations of Islam might lead to Muslims questioning the rule of an oppressive or incompetent ruler. Putting the emphasis on “what” a person should believe instead of the “why” would hinder deeper explorations into the nature of truth, promoting an overall rigid faith leaving it unable to modernize as times changed.

Reopening Muslim Minds reminds me of other books that have appeared over the last decade and a half, in many ways a response to the rise of Islamic terrorism. Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Anouar Majid’s A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America, Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now all ask in varying ways what went wrong in the Islamic world and how could it be fixed.

Reopening Muslim Minds is no doubt controversial, perhaps even downright offensive to some. But he makes countless compelling, if not convincing arguments. I enjoyed Akyol’s book and look forward to reading what else he’s written on the Islamic world.

20 Books of Summer: The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

As I pointed out in an early post, I’m a big fan of Dexter Filkins. His 2013 New Yorker piece on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was top notch and became must reading after Soleimani’s 2019 assassination. But as much as I love his New Yorker stuff I still hadn’t read his highly praised 2008 book The Forever War. Lately however I’ve been craving books on the Middle East and the Islamic World so when I spotted a copy of The Forever War at the library I figured now was as good a time as any to finally read it. Filkins’s well-written book made for almost effortless reading and like so many back-listed books I’ve read over the years left me wishing I’d read it years ago.

During his years as a foreign correspondent Filkins spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq, battlegrounds in America’s War on Terror. His collection of dispatches begins in the late 1990s in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and ends in Iraq, roughly around the time of the “Surge”, necessitated by the escalating insurgency and corresponding Sunni-Shia civil war. In addition, Filkins also reports from Ground Zero in New York City in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks showing us the face of war on American soil.

To me the most memorable take away from Forever War is the everyday look of military occupation. Besides the endless ambushes, bloodshed and grabbing suspected insurgents for detention and questioning it’s also the blurred lines between friend and foe. The friendly face you meet today could kill you tomorrow. Yesterday’s sworn enemy may throw in his lot with you today should he find it politically and/or financially advantageous. Just the simple act of grabbing lunch in a local restaurant is a potential risk to life and limb as evident the moment you walk in, when regulars stop talking and begin staring at you, like some scene in an old western.

Thanks to Filkins’s direct, narrative style The Forever War is easy and entertaining reading. Even though it was published over 12 years ago in contains valuable insights into the bitterly contested countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. If you’re looking for good books to explain the bloody conflicts behind today’s news headlines, consider The Forever War.

About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

Black Wave by Kim Ghattas

I’m going to make a bold prediction and say Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas will be my favorite nonfiction book of 2020. I know it’s not yet May and I’ll have read plenty more books before the end of the year but Black Wave impressed the hell out of me. If I’ve learned just one thing from ten years of book blogging it’s I know an outstanding book when I’ve read one. And Black Wave is outstanding.

I don’t know remember how and when I first heard about Black Wave, but I recently borrowed a Kindle version through Overdrive. After a mere few pages I knew I’d found a winner.

Black Wave begins with snapshot of the not so distant past. The Islamic World of the 60s and 70s from Cairo to Kabul was full of promise. Arab intellectuals, be they Marxist, Pan-Arabist or Palestinian nationalist held court in Beirut’s bars discussing politics over drinks. Egypt was the Hollywood of the Middle East, producing an endless parade of movies featuring beautiful, uninhibited actresses not afraid to break conservative moral taboos. The Shah of Iran vowed to modernize his country,  making it socially and technologically on par with the West. With so many city-dwelling secular educated Muslim women embracing Western dress and high fashion, the streets of Karachi and Tehran began to resemble Paris, London and New York. Pakistan, created as a homeland for India’s Muslims was nevertheless seen by many who lived there as a modern, secular state that recognized the rights of all religious minorities. This commitment to religious freedom was enshrined in the nation’s constitution and was proudly proclaimed by Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah upon achieving independence in 1947.

So what happened? How did such a promising social and political trajectory end with ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia at each other’s throats? According to Ghattas in 1979 three monumental events occurred whose impact would be felt thought the region for decades. First came the Iranian Revolution, in which the Shah was overthrown only to be replaced by an even worse regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his army of theocrats. Next was an unsuccessful attempt by Saudi Islamic militants to capture the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Finally, just before year’s end the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to decades of war involving guerrilla fighters from across the Muslim World including a wealthy young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.

All three were events unfolded independently yet occurred in such close proximity both geographically and chronologically they’d end up reshaping the Muslim World. After the Iranian Revolution, Iran would proclaim itself protector of the region’s downtradden Shia Muslims by creating ex nihilo militant groups like Hezbollah, as well as positioning itself as the sole rightful guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The ruling Saudis couldn’t drive the militants from the Grand Mosque without the blessing of the Kingdom’s conservative religious authorities, and that would require giving them carte blanche going forward. Luckily for the ruling Saudis, Afghanistan could serve as a convenient safety valve where militant young Saudis could fight holy wars abroad instead of at home. Awash in oil revenue the Saudi royals would repay the religious conservatives who blessed their retaking of the Grand Mosque by funding hardline Sunni causes through the Middle East and South Asia.

If you’re trying to understand the Greater Middle East this book is for you. Ghattas does a superb job delivering the big picture with the perfect amount of detail. Published in January of this year, it covers a number of recent developments including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Iranian drone attack on the Aramco oil processing facilities. Black Wave is ideal follow-up reading to Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan, Ronen Bergman’s The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power and Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine. Consider Black Wave highly recommended.