Book Reviews

I have written a book review in what is now my monthly book review slot for Executive Magazine on Brian Whitaker’s new book What is Really Wrong with the Middle East. It is a really interesting book that certainly made me think about the issues of the Middle East in a much broader way. Click at the bottom to read the whole thing on the Executive website:

There are many people in the Middle East who hold an opinion on the region’s ills, but whatever their view, very few choose introspection over finger pointing. Brian Whitaker, the former Middle East editor of The Guardian, in his new book “What’s Really Wrong With The Middle East” aims to realign the trend of shifting blame. “The problems of the Middle East are always someone else’s fault,” writes Whitaker. “While the West blames dictators and extremists, Arabs often turn the tables, blaming centuries of foreign interference. Both sides are right, up to a point, but they both also ignore a large part of the picture.”

The picture that Whitaker offers after interviewing “intelligent, independent minded people” (meaning not government officials or religious extremists) covers four central issues: knowledge, equal rights, secularism and citizenship. In surveying these four topics, Whitaker leaves no doubt that there is something deeply wrong with the region, underlining his views with a damning array of statistics. Whitaker explains that, “Arab societies have, in the past, [balanced] science and Islam very successfully. But many of Islam’s contemporary manifestations are backward looking and anti-intellectual, while the high value placed on conformity in Arab societies is suffocating change.”



Image from arablit.files.wordpress.comThe 3rd Arabic Booker has been announced and the winner is Saudi writer, Abdo Khal (left) for his book  “Throwing Sparks as Big as Castles”. The book is about the excesses of the royal family and the books title is from a Quranic description of hell. Like all great fiction it is not so fictional. Brian Whitaker’s blog has a great low down and links to the book that is well worth a visit. Also the Arabist gives a nice take on the book also complaining of the titles translation. Abdo Khal certainly appears to quite the character. Like all good Arab stereotypes he was a Suadi preaching Jihad. Here is an interesting extract from an article from the Art Fuse Blog where journalist Johnathan Levi went to meet Khal:

“I was out in the streets preaching, ‘you’ve got to believe in jihad or you’re going to hell.’ I really believed it. I even went home and tore up all the pictures and smashed the TV.” But Abdo’s spiritual leader was someone slightly more frightening than Elmer Gantry or Jerry Falwell. Juhaiman Al Otaibi was a militant fundamentalist who, at the end of 1979, in the company of 200 followers, attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca and took hundreds of hostages, protesting the corruption of the royal family. It took two weeks for the government to retake the holy places. 250 people died, 600 were wounded. 68 terrorists were beheaded in the aftermath. Juhaiman was one. Abdo could have been another.

Now of course he is the Arab worlds new international literature star.

Novels have an important role to play in political discourse and it is pleasing to see the Arabic Booker getting more prominent each year. The fact that this book is speaking out again the “excessive world of the palace” should give hope to all who want to see people take on the big men of the Arab world.

Finkelstein has brought out a new book “This time we went too far” on what went on in Gaza and Mondoweiss has an excerpt from Chapter 5. It appears to be much of the same from Finkelstein who I am not a huge fan of. But I feel a duty to promote his book given the attempts to silence him and he having two talks cancelled in Germany due to protests by pro-Israeli groups. The book in typical Finkelstien style goes right for the jugular of his opponents and is on the one dimensional side. But in a conflict that is very one sided here is a nice fuck you.


At each of the parleys with Hamas members I repeated the same message: the current diplomatic posture of Hamas seemed in alignment with representative political organizations, respected juridical institutions, and major human rights groups. Many Hamas members appeared genuinely surprised when I rattled off the “pro-Palestinian” positions espoused by these mainstream bodies. If I was correct, then Hamas should couch its political platform in their language because the chink in Israel’s armor is its diplomatic isolation. Hamas must hammer away the critical point that Israel is the real outlier in the international community and obstacle to peace: not “Hamas says,” but “the U.N. General Assembly resolution supported by 160 nations says”; not “Hamas says, but “the International Court of Justice says”; not “Hamas says” but “Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say.”

A great article on the Arab booker prize entitled A literary prize fight articulates indirectly what is really wrong with the Middle East. It is all hear: mistrust over corruption (wasta), conspiracy theories going wild, strong nationalist sentiments, resignation, disorganisation.

the literary community has been polarised into pro- and anti-Booker factions, ensuring that future rounds will continue to be clouded by suspicion, particularly over the nomination of younger writers whose reputations have not yet been established.

Yes, that is right. The Popular Committee for the Arab Booker is coming to an Arab city near you soon!

I have had the luxury of being able to read quite a lot lately and for those interested here is a quick review of some of it:

1. Ried-Henry, Simon. Fidel & Che: A Revolutionary Freindship, 2009

“Condemn me, it does not matter, history will absolve me!” Fidel (Hezbollah will surely be taking notes from Fidel)

Simon is an old tutor of mine at Queen Mary, so was excited for him to see his book in a bookshop in Beiurt! The book is great. Simon writes in beautifully descriptive way that brings the book to life. Not only do you learn that Che was a poet of great quality but such is the detail the book you even get to know his favourite Tango (‘Adios Muchachos’ by Carlos Gardel; in case you were wondering). While, giving minute details the book is never lost in it. The strange thing I found about reading about these two characters is that I came to like Fidel more than Che, even though it is Che with the ideals and Fidel is a kind of benevolent pragmatic megalomaniac. Also I found it fascinating that Fidel did not base the revolution on communism but it became a kind pragmatic political solution.

But Che is just so frustratingly cold as a character, he behaves disgustingly to his women and he is essentially a self obsessed loner with a vision to save the world. The only person he seems loyal to is Fidel, and of course Marx. The detail of going to Bolivia is also revealing and shows the limits of Marxism in understanding the power identity politics. Although Che was able to transcend identity politics with Fidel in Cuba when he led his own force to Bolivia he could not get the peasants to trust him, he was seen as an outsider and as such was eventually killed.

There are so many parallels with the situation in Cuba at that time and the Middle East today, especially with Hezbollah. The link is emphasised by the fact that Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury is quoted at the front, a book I am currently reading, about Palestinian refugees and their exile to Lebanon. I guess there are always commonalities in those that resist and attempt revolutions. But the use of history through symbols and historical figures is strikingly similar with both Hezbollah and Castro.

2. Obama, Barak. Dreams from my Father, 1995

This book gives a fascinating insight into Obama’s world. He does not talk a lot about his intellectual influences, which is a shame because I would love to know who gave him the idea in 1983. Obama makes it appear like the idea fell from the sky. This book really made me realise what Obama has achieved. Not only is only the first black President but he must also be the most left leaning since President Hoover or Roosevelt? His community organising is  a call for workers of the community to unite! “Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens…Through organising, through shared sacrifice, membership has been earned!” I mean even if this man was a certified WASP it would be amazing if he was elected President!

He also gives some fascinating insight as to why he became quickly disillusioned with black nationalism.”[Rafik]…was less interested in changing the rules of power than in the color of those who had it and who therefore enjoyed the spoils. There was never much room at the top of the pyramid, though; in a contest framed in such terms, the wait for black deliverance would be long indeed.” Then what he goes on to say speaks really highly for this region. “It was the distance between our talk and out action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as people.” This makes me think of Hezbollah and how they always ensure that their talk is always close to their action, and self-consciously so. In some ways it is so obvious that action to the purpose you talk about gives you dignity. The unrealistic expectations that your everyday politician gives you, for whatever reason, may also be cause for the political apathy.

While, I have also been reading a bit of fiction to quickly sum up:

Hage, Rawi. Cockroach, 2008. An angry book. A Marxist post-colonial look at the world. An angry nameless young man gives us a swirling tale of the depravity of powerlessness. A good read but I found it a bit one dimensional. You are a pissed of exile, OK but I need more than that.

Salih, T. Season of Migration to the North, 1969. This is what Cockroach should have been. This is a beautiful book and is rightly part of the vanguard of post-colonial literature:

Yes, I know that in the rough wisdom that issues from the mouths of simple people lies our salvation. A tree grows simply and your grandfather has lived and will die simply. That is the secret. You are right, my lady: courage and optimism. But until the meek inherit the earth, until the armies are disbanded, the lamb grazes in peace beside the wolf and the child plays water-polo in the river with the crocodile, until that time of happiness and love comes along, I for one shall continue to express myself in this twisted manner.

Meanwhile, there is a great bibliography that has been created by Qifa Nabki over at his blog


For those of the social democratic persuasion, like me, it will not come as a shock that neo-liberal fundamentalists such as Bush and Co feed off disaster to spread their ideology.

Klein destroys the theory of Milton Freidman’s free market ideology and that the state should be as minimal as possible. Klein exposes how proponents of free market fundamentalism far from extending freedom as they claim. The proponents of totally free markets use extreme measures of oppression to ensure that their privatization schemes and rolling back of social welfare can be implemented. Klein illustrates her theory in country after country starting from Chile and Argentina in South America, and then to Russia, China, South Africa, Sri Lanka…

In the Middle East Klien focuses on Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

In Iraq Klein notes that it was the Freidmanite economic policies that the Bush regime was pushing through in Iraq that really got the insurgency going. The reduction of the state that included the now famous “de-Baathification” that left 500,000 Iraqis jobless, angry and ready to fight. Further to this, Klein documents how most of the reconstruction work went not to Iraqis or the Iraqi state but to private contractors from the US again leaving hundreds of thousand of Iraqis frustrated and jobless.

In Israel Klein remarks how since the Oslo accord Israel has never been interested in peace but security. This Klein argues is primarily becuase Israel moved from a country that relied on high tech computer technologies in the global economy to security, especially in the world of 9/11.  While a convincing argument Israel did not suddenly come up with the idea of security as the main goal, as opposed to peace, in 1993. If Klein picked up a copy of the Iron Wall by Avi Shlaim she will find that ‘security’ has been Israel driving ideology since its inception, with Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his Revisionist Zionism that has dominated Zionist thinking since Israels inception.

As for Lebanon Klein does not give the country the time it deserves and in fact misunderstands the very nature of the beast. Klein rightfully praises Hezbollah for the efficient way they were able to deliver Iranian funds to their constituents after the July 06 war. But Klein  does not grasp that Hezbollah are the representatives of the Shia in Lebanon. Thus, stating that the Shia population took Hezbollah’s money because if they did not they would be left to the mercy of privatization and Solidere, while not wrong does not really grasp what was and is happening in Lebanon. “If the residents of Lebanon were grateful for the results, it was also becuase they knew the alternative. The alternative was Solidere.”

It must be said that many residents of Lebanon were not ‘grateful for the results’ (mainly the non-Shia) and that Lebanon was left bitterly divided that led to a crisis that is only just beginning to be solved today. There was not a Kenysian vs. Friedman economic debate/war. Instead it was while Bush was in power a confrontation between the US, Israeli and Saudi axis against the Syrian and Iranian one. In short there was to economics than what was going on in Lebanon during and after this period, even if Klein can strongly argue that Israel went to war with Hezbollah for economic reasons.

With Hezbollah expected to win the elections in Lebanon has been no end of talk of what will happen to military assistance by the US to Lebanon. David Schekner has given extensive commentary on how the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces) is under Hezbollah control. Not too surprising given that Hezbollah are a Lebanese entity, with Iranian support, Shekner appears to believe that only those groups with US support should have any say it what the LAF does or does not do. Andrew Exum states that he believes the LAF should be continued to be supported by the US whatever happens in the elecitons arguing that Hezbollah does not need the LAF and the US weapons that it is given and the examples of what happened to Pakistan whith the US losing its relationship with the Pakistian army. It is important for the US to remain ties, according to Exum, with the LAF becuase: “In the future, I am guessing the ungoverned spaces in Lebanon — the Palestinian refugee camps, specifically — will continue to harbor violent transnational groups. We will badly need a local partner — even an imperfect one — to combat these threats. We should be trying to nurture relationships with the next generation of the Lebanese officer corps and security services if we’re serious about the threat these transnational groups pose.”

Oren Barakh has written an extensive history of the Lebanese army in his new book The Lebanese Army: A National Institution in a Divided Society. The Book has three aims:

“The first is to call attention to the significant developments that have taken place in Lebanon in recent decades, and especially to the strengthening of the state’s institutions not only in the coercive sense but also in terms of their legitimacy. In my view, this process has considerable implications for Lebanon’s close neighbors, and especially for Israel, where many still treat Lebanon as a “non-state state.” A second goal is to encourage additional studies on military institutions—and on the realm of security generally—in divided societies, including most Middle Eastern countries. Finally, the book challenges scholars to rethink existing explanations for the “weakness” and “strength” of states in our times, as well as these concepts themselves. Lebanon, for one, is certainly not “dead” and there are many lessons to be learned from its experience.”