Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts

July 8, 2012

after-the-arab-spring-by-john-r-bradley

 

Some guy named Kyle commented favorably on my Good Reads review of John R. Bradley’s After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts, which inspired a response from me, but perhaps more importantly also reminded me how interesting and important a book this is.

I love the hell out of John R. Bradley’s books; I think he’s the best English language writer on the Middle East currently working. The guy is also terrifyingly young, by the way — according to the Wikipedia page about him, he was born in June, 1970.

Anyway, it turns out the commenter, Kyle, aka Kyle Williams, has a bio that says he’s a Harvard-educated counterterrorism analyst, and has his own book about terrorism, available free online, and a blog by the same name that on first glance seems pretty balanced and engaging.

That also reminds me that I haven’t been keeping up with my favorite international affairs blog, The Coming Anarchy, which was inspired by Robert Kaplan‘s book of the same name (about the post-Soviet collapse). The bad news is, apparently the folks at The Coming Anarchy haven’t been keeping up with themselves; their most recent update is from last October.

I’ve never been entirely clear on whether the TCA blog is Robert Kaplan fan service for international relations nerds, or simply a thematic riff on a Kaplan-esque theme; as far as I can tell, there’s no affiliation between Kaplan and The Coming Anarchy Blog. The latter tends to run a little more conservative than my own politics are, but then, I tend to run more conservative when it comes to international affairs than I am in most other matters, so I’d frankly rather enjoy a bout of conversational fisticuffs with some well-informed Tories than a Kumbaya fest with some of my fellow peace-and-love hippies who want to talk about how great Iran and Cuba are.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my return comment to Kyle on interesting books about other regions that hint at what John R. Bradley does with the Middle East and North Africa. It’s worth saying, though, that as Bradley is probably, currently, my favorite English-language writer on the politics and culture of any international region, no other author comes close to him on such topics. I don’t find anybody as irresistibly readable as Bradley.

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By Way of Deception: The Making of a Mossad Officer

June 6, 2012

By Way of Deception: The Making of a Mossad Officer, Victor Ostrovsky’s groundbreaking book on the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, came out in 1990. I’ve been sort of half-assedly planning on reading it ever since, and finally got around to it recently.

Unfortunately, it was a huge disappointment. The main problem is that the author doesn’t differentiate between his own experiences and things he’s reporting from other sources; it becomes fairly obvious when you’re reading it that most of the material is lifted — whether from rumor, innuendo, scuttlebutt or legitimate reporting in other sources, I don’t have the foggiest idea, because Ostrovsky’s got all the citation chops of a fourth-rate potboiler, not a serious academic or political book. It comes across as hearsay garbage. What’s more, while Ostrovsky may have broken some news at the time of first publication, there’s nothing in here that was the least bit shocking to me; much of it felt INCREDIBLY repetitious, especially in the first half.

Pretty much everything interesting is confined to the first half, where Ostrovsky discusses his training in Mossad operations; there, the details of spycraft are FASCINATING. Had the book been half as long, I would have given it 4 stars, probably. Had it been three-quarters as long, maybe three stars. But after the halfway mark, Ostrovsky just drones on and on and on and on with the same bland scandals that are basically hearsay. It ends up sounding like “Shooting the shit with the Mossad.” He he seems to be reporting most of these stories either unreferenced or taken from mainstream news stories, but damned if I can tell which is which.

What really made me feel burned, though, is that after a badly-paced second half that LITERALLY PUT ME TO SLEEP ON TWO SEPARATE OCCASIONS WHILE I STRUGGLED THROUGH IT, Ostrovsky tries to wrap it all up with a sort of vapid statement of his moral rectitude. He references an old joke that the worst thing a Mossad officer can say to another Mossad officer is “I hope I read about you in the papers.” He suggests that maybe it takes the light of public inquiry to change the Mossad’s ways.

Yeah…it all seems so quaint, post-9/11, post-Gulf II, post-Afghan War, post-globalization, following Europe’s mounting financial collapse…if the Mossad, or Israel in general, could be induced to change its ways by journalism, unfortunately Ostrovsky isn’t the one to do it, because his thinking and his reporting is too fragmented, confusing, and unclear.

If you’re interested in spycraft, read the first half of the book and skip the rest.

Three Empires On The Nile: The Victorian Jihad, 1869-99

June 6, 2012

"General Gordon's Last Stand," by George W. Joy.

In keeping with a piece of advice from Ray Bradbury that has been making the rounds, in which he suggests that writers must have a slightly creepy love affair with books, I say emphatically that this week I am creepily in love with books about Sudan.

Today, I am particularly in love with Three Empires On the Nile, a brilliant, dry, inspiring and horrifying account of the colonial hijinx that led to the grotesque mismanagement of both Egypt and Sudan in the last part of the 19th century.

The book touches on the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the ascendency of British imperialism, with a cast of characters that includes a parade of colonial notables including Gladstone, Gordon, Kitchener and the corrupt pseudo-monarchs of the disintegrating Egyptian vassal state.

Its second half is concerned almost entirely with the rise and fall of the Mahdist State in what is today South Sudan; the bookends of the movement’s rise and fall were the massacres at Khartoum (1885), which saw the death of Charles Gordon, and Omdurman (1898), presided over by Lord Kitchener.

Expanding its scope to include the Egyptian, Ottoman, French, Belgian, and British politics of the time, Three Empires on the Nile is brutally sarcastic toward both Colonialism and Islamism in the way that only 100 years of hindsight can provide.

Filled with colonial pratfalls and oodles of Stupid Prime Minister Tricks, it’s a riveting study in Victorian politics as well as a solid piece of historical adventure horror…oh, and it’s also a history book, not a thriller. Then again, can’t it kind of be both? Hellz yeah, if you’re a Colonialism geek like me.

The 21st-century end of the Mahdist story, incidentally, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which descended directly from the Islamism that created that group and therefore ultimately Al Qaeda, and the coup that led to Sudan becoming the very first Sunni state governed by Sharia law.

But wait, there’s more; the British expeditions into southern Sudan were originally prompted by the slave trade, which was an atrocity perpetrated primarily by northern, lighter-skinned Arabic-speaking Muslim Sudanese against the southern tribal peoples, primarily Christian and animist.

Sound familiar? Why, yes, yes in fact, the racial, ethnic and religious factors that drove the slave trade in Gordon’s time are precisely what drive it today, along with the mass slaughter of Sudanese blacks by government-supported forces, including both Sudanese government troups and Arabic-speaking Janjaweed militias in Darfur and what is now South Sudan. (South Sudan seceded last year — successfully, apparently, with international help).

But what makes this book so enjoyable is the evident disgust it heaps on the political animals of Victorian England and the arrogant and criminal disregard they showed both for their own heroes (Gordon) and their subject peoples. Concerned with resources and markets, not people, Colonialists of this era often wrapped themselves in the mantle of humanitarianism in order to royally fuck shit up. I have no doubt that at times, they believed they had the best of intentions. Of course, the other side of the coin is the frank corruption and ineffectiveness of the Egyptian and Ottoman states — or, even more so, King Leopold, who never had any good intentions for his private corporate rule over the Congo.

The title is, I believe — like all the best history book titles — a double-entendre; “Three Empires on the Nile” could be the British, Ottoman and French Empires…or it could be the British Empire, the Mahdi State and the Egyptian Empire, which may rightly be called that insofar as its conquest of Sudan was, in the minds of its leaders, explicit imperial expansion. Corruption and Egypt’s dependence on Britain meant that it could never become a real empire — but one doesn’t need to read very deeply to see the similarities between atrocities of every flavor, and the irrelevance of all good intentions in doing anything more than justifying self-interest.

The book’s very last line says it all: “Today, the price of a child slave in Khartoum is $35.”

Three cheers for Gordon and Kitchener and Gladstone. Three cheers for Muhammad Ahmad, self-proclaimed messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith, and Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt. Now somebody stick a fork in our ass and turn us over, we’re done.