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.
Israel is threatened, and always has been, from within and without. Beyond its borders are hundreds of millions of Arabs, and 1.5 billion Muslims, most of whom would be happier if Israel did not exist, and some of whom are working hard to acquire the nuclear capability to make that wish a potential reality. Within the country’s borders (I know, I know, even their borders are fuzzy), reside an internal, and justifiably unhappy Israeli Arab population, a rapidly growing ultra orthodox group of Jews that control too many state decisions, fanatical settlers, a million Russian immigrants of questionable loyalty to Israel’s original visions of itself, high-tech millionaires indifferent to the plight of the growing underclasses, and a collective malaise brought about by a hundred years of nearly continuous warfare. Shavit displays each worry beneath a bright light and uncovers additional concerns that few native Israelis have paused to consider. Most notable is that the very premise of Israel from Day One of the earliest Zionist Congresses is that Israel was a land of occupation and settlers. Overtaking the West Bank and Gaza was only a continuation of a Jewish plan to escape the ashes of pogroms, centuries of ghettoization, and the Shoa by taking over another people’s land. A lot like Western occupation of the Americas. Like many Israelis themselves, Shavit is loud, arrogant, compassionate, argumentative, insightful, and brilliant.
The protagonist, he goes by several aliases, but Michel Khoury appears to be his given name, is a former Palestinian refugee from Lebanon. His parents were murdered during the Israeli-sponsored massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. Stateless and without family he is fathered by a friendly Palestinian who in time teaches Michel the tradecraft of undercover work, but with a twist. The goal of these Palestinians is to undercut the piecemeal Oslo peace negotiations of the 1990s with a truly comprehensive peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis. Michel couriers secret messages around the world until he makes the one mistake no spy should ever make. He falls in love with a British girl. Khoury’s slow awakening to the entanglement of high stakes espionage he has entered, and how he has unwittingly dragged in his first real love, provides terrific suspense without ever dropping into polemic. Remarkably, this book eschews diatribe about middle eastern politics while embedding in one of the great political feuds of our time.
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.
In this rewrite of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, aptly named Alan Clay, a former salesman of Schwinn bicycles finds himself in Saudi Arabia trying to sell the King a new technology for holographic communications. Clay has a fragile exterior: he doesn’t really understand holograms or computers, his ex-wife is annoying, his financial debts are insurmountable, his college-aged daughter is directionless, he hasn’t been in a substantive relationship with a woman, or even a male colleague, for nearly a decade, and he has a lump on his neck he is certain is cancerous. Now he is in sprinting as best he can in the Arabian desert of a globalized economy trying to make one last sale he hopes will alleviate all his worries. Only Saudi Arabia is not what his guidebook led him to expect. Women flirt, men drink, and cities in the sand sometimes don’t live up to expectations. Neither does the book, I’m afraid. As strong a writer as Eggers is, it’s hard not to feel as despondent as Alan Clay. His demise seems preordained and who wants to spend forever reading about that?
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.
All the critics have raved about this recounting of a collection of a thousand years of written documents crammed in a synagogue vault in Cairo, Egypt. Because Jews, the People of the Book, find written words to be sacred, many documents, such as Torahs when they are no longer kosher or viable, are buried, rather than thrown away. A Geniza such as this one in a Cairo synagogue is a room to store discarded sacred documents. This congregation considered nearly all of its written documents deserving of special treatment. The Jews of this neighborhood in Cairo tossed together their ancient texts, wedding contracts, prayer books, parables, donor lists, receipts, and business documents creating a disorganized “battlefield of books.” While the interesting thing to me would be what those documents revealed, the book is almost entirely about the people who discovered the Geniza, a topic of far less interest.
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.
Stacy Schiff doesn’t just bring the most powerful woman in history to life, she brings her readers on location. We face every decision Cleopatra contends with in real time. First we are given detailed context with respect to the economy, politics, both local and foreign, family issues, the weather, even it feels like, how everyone is feeling on a particular cloudy afternoon when something auspicious is about to occur. Then we are given options, Cleopatra’s selection among those choices, and finally a full retrospective analysis for what might have been going through her mind as she calculated was on the minds of her friends and enemies. Without being overtly feminist in her description, Schiff does an extraordinary job of overturning history’s assessment of the Queen. No longer a whore and seductress, Schiff persuades us rather convincingly that Cleopatra is an exceptionally adept politician unsurpassed by virtually anyone of her period. Yes, she sleeps with and has children by the two most powerful men of her era — Julius Caeser and Marc Antony — but her success is not so much sexual as political. The tragedy, Schiff argues, is that Cleopatra is judged by standards reserved to oppress women, rather than the more objective measures used to evaluate male political leaders. Schiff can really write, too. This is much more than a history text; it redirects the way history has been used for 2,000 years.