Toil, trouble and tension but hope too: Middle East explained (Book Review)

Title: Shifting Sands: The Unravelling of the Old Order in the Middle East; Author: Raja Shehadeh (editor), Penny Johnson (editor); Publisher: Profile Books/Hachette India; Pages: 261; Price: Rs.350

Colonialism’s malevolent effects lingered here long and for nearly a century now, this region saw great instability and/or intense repression. The Arab Spring held hope of a peaceful and equitable future but the optimism has waned and the Middle East is more dangerously unstable – made more toxic by the fact that what happens there can cause repercussions not only in adjoining continents but even in those separated by mighty oceans. What is happening, and why, how did groups like the IS appear and does the future hold any hope?

Over a dozen writers, most hailing from the region, seek in this book to deal with these questions, as more, as they “provide valuable insights into what is happening in the Middle East from a range of cultural perspectives”.

The book, which grew out of multiple panel discussions at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2014, is divided into four parts – the region’s remaking in and after the First World War, the contemporary unravelling of the old order, on writing in the region, and the Syrian crisis.

With the Middle East one region where the weight of history still hangs heavy after the local inhabitants’ hopes for self-rule were belied by imperial statesmen who drew arbitrary lines to create a score of artificial nation-states within their “spheres of influence”, it is taken up in the first section.

Oxford academician Avi Shlaim, whose writings include a voluminous biography of King Hussein of Jordan, calls the region’s chronic condition of turmoil, instability and lack of rights the “”post-Ottoman Syndrome” arising from three contradictory promises. These were the much-maligned Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement, the assurances made by Sir Henry McMahon, the then British high commissioner in Egypt, to Hussein, the Sherif of Makkah, and the equally-pilloried Balfour Declaration, promising a Jewish homeland in Palestine – but without prejudice to rights of existing residents (a stipulation often glossed over).

Jamie Barr provides more telling detail, about the first of these, proving how almost casual decisions about someone’s else fate can blight futures and Palestinian academician Salim Tamari gives experiences culled from diaries of Ottoman civilians and soldiers in the region in World War I (including journalist Najib Nassar, who happens to be editor Raja Shehadeh’s great-uncle), showcasing the rupture of existing imperial identities and assertion of new national or local ones.

In the next section, Egyptian historian Khaled Fehmy wonders when did the country’s revolution started – or should have started, Palestinian poet and academician Tamim al-Barghouti tells in a searing account why Arab states are akin to “cracked cauldrons” and writer Justin Marozzi, who recently wrote a biography of Baghdad, addresses Iraq’s case. British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai and British-Turkish journalist Alev Scott underscore that crisis is not limited to only Arab states, but takes new shapes in Iran and Turkey two seemingly more stable polities and societies.

Writers’ experiences in the region feature Kuwaiti professor Mai Al-Nakib, who is working on her first novel, British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh and academician and translator Marilyn Booth, dealing with issues like gaps in history, persistence of social issues and aspirations in literature down the ages, the obstacles for a writer, including censorship – and how hope only survives within a book!

Offering some unique perspectives on Syria choking between the authoritarian Baathist regime and the vicious IS are Dawn Chatty, who discusses “what you don’t read” about it, and above all, seeks to fix the nation in local, regional and Western perspectives rather than as an anomalous “black hole”, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Malu Halasa, who strikes a rare note of optimism by chronicling the street art and other artistic forms of expression.

In the afterword, Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer, rights activist and acclaimed writer , through changing conversations in a shared taxi ride between Ramallah and Jerusalem, shows changing Palestinian norms as he contends a just, inclusive solution to the Palestinian issue can offer a new vision of “cooperation and cosmopolitanism” to the Middle East.

As an exploration of not only the Middle East’s tragedies, but also its potential, as well as a concise but most accessible and insightful explanation of the region, this book is unbeatable.

(14.12.2015 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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