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What to Read While the Cradle Burns

Seven books about the Middle East deftly explore stories and issues underlying the headlines.

By Deborah Campbell 21 Jul 2006 |
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Beirut fuel tanks after Israeli helicopter attack.

The Middle East is both the birthplace of civilization and, as the globe's largest repository of fossil fuels, the mother's milk of the modern industrialized world. At a time when war threatens to engulf the entire region and the Harper government abandons Canada's traditional "honest broker" role in favour of increasingly pro-American and pro-Israel policies, the daily barrage of news headlines often does more to obscure than enlighten.

In addition to Informed Comment, the daily blog of Professor Juan Cole -- arguably the world's leading expert on the Middle East -- the following books are recommended for both the informed observer and the recent initiate to the cataclysmic events unfolding on that fraught soil. Far from dry policy prescriptions, these compelling narratives stand apart from myriad other books in the field by relating the human story behind the headlines and focusing on fundamental issues that rarely make the news.

The Yellow Wind By David Grossman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988) The unresolved question of Palestine is the single greatest cause of the woes plaguing the Middle East -- and, by extension, the world. Yet rarely do we glimpse the brutal realities of life under Israeli occupation. The acclaimed Israeli novelist David Grossman took a turn at telling that story in 1987 -- mere months before the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada -- and his account is no less relevant today.

Back then, it was already 20 years into the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In poetic non-fiction reportage, Grossman chronicles the occupation from the perspectives of both its victims and its perpetrators -- and those, like Grossman himself, caught in between. He meets an old Palestinian woman who reminds him of his Polish grandmother, and finds himself disturbed by Israeli settlers who take the Bible as an "operational order."

Even as his experiences transform him, he recognizes that the most formidable fortress is the mind: "Furthermore, at the end of twenty years it seems to me that all the arguments, both rational and emotional, have already been made. Only on extremely rare occasions do we hear a crushing new argument, one that requires you to re-evaluate your opinions, and in Israel the reality is that it is easier for a man to change his religion, and maybe even his sex, than to change in any decisive way his political opinions. Renounce your opinions -- and it is as if you have announced the total replacement of the structure of your soul, and have taken it upon yourself to proclaim that, up to now, you lived a perfect lie."

For the rest of us, presented with nuanced reality through the eyes of this keenly perceptive observer, it's not too late.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie Edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner (Nick Hern Books, 2006) The writings of the young American activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli Caterpillar bulldozer while trying to protect the home of a physician in Gaza from demolition (a common occurrence for Palestinians under occupation, the vast majority of whom are unarmed civilians) were made into a play that experienced the kind of censorship journalists frequently endure when they attempt to document the realities of Israel's occupation.

Though the play was "postponed" in New York, it was recently presented in Vancouver by the Neworld Theatre and Judith Marcuse Projects. It's also available as a short book. More from one of the editors here. Get it for your book club or read an excerpt from Rachel Corrie's final e-mails.

Palestine By Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics Books, 2001) This graphic novel from the creator of Safe Area Gorazde is a pioneering work of comic-strip journalism. Joe Sacco, a young American curious about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spent two months living with Palestinians in the occupied territories in 1991 and 1992, poignantly depicting the torture, land confiscation, killings and small and large humiliations of their daily lives. A groundbreaking work with an introduction by Edward Said, it was originally issued as a nine-part comic series that received an American Book Award.

Shah of Shahs By Ryszard Kapuscinski (Vintage International, 1982) Shortly after the 1979 revolution, Kapuscinski, the great Polish literary journalist who covered 27 wars and revolutions in Africa, journeyed to Iran to write what may be the definitive account of how and why Iranians rose up en masse against the Shah.

From grisly accounts of tactics used by the Shah's American-trained secret police to the growing awareness that the short-lived Spring of Freedom following the Shah's ouster was culminating in a new government not so different from the old one, this slim, gorgeously written non-fiction novel is as much an exploration of the nature of popular revolutions as it is about the circumstances that created the Islamic republic.

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror By Stephen Kinzer (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) Former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer weaves a gripping, highly researched tale that documents the first U.S. regime change in the Middle East. In a 1953 covert op code-named Operation Ajax, the CIA overthrew Iran's first democratically elected prime minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, after Mossadegh nationalized Iran's oil industry. Kinzer demonstrates how the U.S. (with British involvement) installed the spineless Shah -- whose personal corruption and brutal tactics set the stage for the popular uprising that became the 1979 Islamic revolution.

He argues that it "is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah's repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York." A classic case of blowback, Kinzer's narrative account is necessary reading for anyone seeking to understand the roots of terrorism in the Middle East. Most astounding is the ease with which Operation Ajax accomplished its mission via a single operative -- Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt -- armed with a suitcase full of greenbacks.

Persepolis By Marjan Satrapi (Pantheon, 2000) This graphic novel is a poignant journey through one young girl's experience of the 1979 Islamic revolution that eventually drove her to leave her homeland, Iran. It should be read as a follow-up to Shah of Shahs, with the recognition that Iran has changed dramatically since the days of Satrapi's youth.

Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History By George Crile (Grove/Atlantic, 2003) How did Afghanistan become a breeding ground for anti-American terrorists? In this compelling narrative account of the CIA's secret war against the Russians, who were (take note Canada) attempting the inglorious task of subduing one of the least governable nations in the world, former 60 Minutes producer George Crile tells the story of how one man -- a hard-drinking, coke-snorting, womanizing anti-Communist Texan Democrat -- changed the course of history by arming and funding the mujahideen. Understanding the way back-room deals and shady characters created the contours and consequences of Afghanistan (including one Osama bin Laden) has rarely been more urgent -- or a better read.

Further Reading:

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East By Robert Fisk

Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq By Stephen Kinzer

Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq By Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor

Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War By Anthony Shadid

The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development By Sara Roy

The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah: 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam By David Harris

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam By Reza Aslan

War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet By Eric Margolis

Deborah Campbell is the author of This Heated Place: Encounters in the Promised Land. Her feature "Iran's Quiet Revolution," which will appear in The Walrus this September, explores the forces transforming modern Iran, from youth culture to the nuclear issue.  [Tyee]