Sadly, so much of the terror that has become ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the countries of North Africa and the attacks in Europe are a consequence of America’s invasion of Iraq and depressingly inept post-war policies. The historical evolution laid bare in this highly readable, and rather suspenseful account, is an excellent introduction. In contrast to George Bush and his democracy cowboys, Jordan’s King Hussein, and especially Jordan’s secret service, the Mukhabarat, appear to be prescient, surrounded by enemies, and highly competent. It could be because Warrick likes Jordan or had access to more material from Jordan, but I do have new respect for Jordan’s plight. I also have questions about whether ISIS can be beaten militarily or whether more difficult measures like economic development, women’s empowerment, and more participatory politics are needed to stem the tide. The test case seems to be Tunisia, but for the outcome on that experiment, we will have to await someone else’s book.
Ghosh recounts the life of a Medieval Jewish trader, Ben Yiyu, who transported goods by ship from India to Egypt. Evidence of his trader emerge on scraps of paper from the famed Egyptian geniza, a millennial trove of sacred papers in Cairo’s synagogue. In order to fill in the gaps in Ben Yiyu’s life, Ghosh moves to a small village in Egypt, and then a second nearby village, to live among the Felaheen, farmers on the Nile’s banks. It is the early 1990s and rural Egyptians are being pulled from the timeless habits of sowing seeds and tending cows to the trappings of refrigeration, TVs, and urban colleges for able youth. So with the aid of the eyes and ears of a trained anthropologist, we find ourselves immersed in the daily rhythms of growing children, greedy landlords, temperamental imams, ambitious businessmen, and village elders serving endless rounds of mint tea. It is not lost on anyone that frequently we are observing a Hindu researcher explaining to his Muslim hosts his search for information about a Jewish trader. Because men and women in traditional Islamic culture lead such separate lives, you will need to read Guests of the Sheik, if you want to get an insider’s view of female lives.
A computer hacker living in an unnamed Arab country with enough liberties to allow full internet access crosses the secret police who are monitoring his activities. So far so good. As he runs for his life his narrative intersects with mystical stories from the Quran and A Thousand and One Nights and we are somehow supposed to draw cosmic conclusions about the intersection between the Internet and the ancient mysteries of Jinns (ghosts), prophets, desert humans with animal tendencies and the oppression of autocratic regimes. All too much when the characters aren’t particularly deep, the dialog is amateurish, and even the description of how hackers works sound like the author doesn’t really understand it herself.
Girl meets boy. Girl loses boy. Girl and boy are reunited, but with issues. That part seems straightforward enough, but this telling of the simultaneously heartrending and heart warming version of a traditional tale is unlike any other. The structure of the relationship of Dodola and Zam is constructed on legends from the Holy Quran. Their tribulations unfold in a graphic novel bursting with images of Middle Eastern cultures, both historic and contemporary, Islamic designs, and Arabic lettering. The more you know about Islam before entering the text, the more you will gain, but even with limited knowledge, Craig Thompson’s retelling of Old Testament stories (also part of the Quran) are fascinating. His drawings are warm and thoughtful, his main characters respectable and real, and the plot is part 1,001 Arabian Nights and part Quran lesson. As a package the book flies by.
This book changed the way I viewed the CIA. I used to believe they were ideologically driven bumblers, but after observing the careful exhibition of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan from the inception of the Soviet invasion during the 1980s years through the 9/11 attacks of 2001 I realized how really difficult it is to gather good intelligence. You have to assemble electronic data (spotty at best) and human intelligence. Your spies on the ground are being paid and their loyalties or veracity cannot be independently verified. Often you are trying to gather data from extremely hostile territory where your opponents are in the business of flooding your sensors with misinformation. And how in the world do you maintain your own objectivity as information arrives at CIA headquarters? Don’t we all tend to find what we are looking for rather than what we are not? The only shortcoming of this book, perhaps, is its length and detail, but in trying to ascertain what someone like Osama Bin Laden is up to, or the next Osama might be planning, detail is really what it is all about, isn’t it?
If a book is this bad I ordinarily just leave it off my list, but this one deserves to be panned, partly because it received such a flourishing review in the New York Times. Author, Jennifer Steil, gives up her day job as a NYC journalist to manage a newspaper in Sanaa, Yemen. While few topics could be more timely than to learn about daily life in Yemen, Steil eschews the opportunity to let her staff of Yemeni reporters gather information for us, her American readers, that might otherwise be hidden from a western reporter. Instead, in breathless, purple prose she focuses on herself and her blossoming affair with Britain’s (married) ambassador to Yemen. She drinks, she parties, she works too hard, and she frets, but her writing does nothing to make me care about any of it. Feh.
Griswold travels the around the globe hanging out approximately 10 degrees north of the equator. In Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines it’s the abrasion zone between Muslims who have spread from the north and Christians arriving by boat from the coasts and the south. In some aspects Griswold makes more of a religious conflict than probably really exists; she simplifies culture to unidimensional religious identification when most people carry ethnic, tribal, historic, and family identities, too. She focuses on the cities where conflict is most pronounced, sidestepping communities where coexistence and intermarriage are prevalent. What does jump out, however, is how tenacious and aggressive American-born, Christian missionaries are in their drive to save souls from damnation. It is easy to see how Muslim people and governments perceive American intervention (say in Iraq or Afghanistan) as a continuation of a long history of western, Christian, first British and now American, colonial domination. Anyone who has ever confronted a Christian missionary knows how unrelenting and self-confident they can be. Unfortunately, the book isn’t an easy read. Somehow Griswold makes history and conflict more complicated rather than less. By mentioning every actor from local to national with a relationship to a particular zone she confused me. My mind wandered and eventually I could hang on no longer.
OK, I admit it. I’m tired of reading books about the evils of Islam. It’s enough to make you think there’s a conspiracy of publishers each searching for the next great novel of Islamic terrorists, brutal prison guards, violent husbands, and psychologically tortured ordinary citizens. After reading this overrated book about a Jewish gemologist in Iraq imprisoned after the Iranian revolution and tortured while his family waits helplessly and anxiously I was left wishing for more complexity. Sofer hints at deeper characterizations, but doesn’t quite make good. The gemologist, for example, really did turn a blind eye to the Shah’s evil secret agents. The prison guards did have mixed feelings about their obligations to the revolution, their families, their own security, and to justice. Yet, for me, the characters felt flat, surprising, since I suspect much of the book is an autobiographical account of the author’s father. (Makes me doubt she has another critically acclaimed book in her.) Perhaps I’m poisoned reading this book back to back with A Thousand Splendid Suns but I am issuing a challenge to editors: surely there are some level headed Muslims living in the Middle East. Let’s hear their stories. January 2008.
The year is 999. European Christians are awaiting the return of the Messiah. Ben Attar a Jewish Moroccan trader packs a ship with his desert wares, his two wives, his Islamic business partner, and a Rabbi to confront his nephew in Paris. The nephew used to be the third member of the trading partnership, but his new Parisian wife cannot tolerate the notion her husband consorts with bigamist Jews and repudiates the partnership. It is Sephardic cosmopolitanism versus the Ashkenazim living in the swamps, ghettoes, and drizzly dark forests of Christian Europe. Ultimately the book wrestles the question of love: a nephew for his uncle and his new wife; Ben Attar for his two wives (is that really possible or practical in 999 or ever?). November 2008.
A Syrian-American businessman, Zeitoun, rides out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Eggers gives us a vivid view of the storm and its aftermath from inside the city, rather than the view most of us had from a TV helicopter. We also experience the repercussions for a Muslim who comes face to face with the overwhelming number of national security forces sent to recapture the city from bedlam. The best read of the year. I could not turn the pages quickly enough. November 2009.