This book was a comprehensive and thoughtfully composed overview of recent Middle East events and history. I picked it up to help me gain a better understanding of all that is happening in the Middle East, and as far as this goal is concerned, the book did a great job. From the budding efforts of a mother agitating for fair elections in Egypt to the blunders of American foreign policy in Iraq, this book touches upon the political theaters in several major Middle Eastern countries (Syria, Lebanon, Iran…) all in a way that is easy to follow yet not overly simplistic.
The complexity of the region’s entrenched issues is still mind boggling but Wright manages to explain much of it with clarity and balance. She supports her observations and analyses with 30 years of interviewing people from all levels of involvement with Middle East politics: activists, thinkers, leaders in and out of power and both peaceful and violent, military personnel, American and UN officials, and everyday people. As a result, this book is hardly just a dispassionate description of current events and historical background (like the news sometimes); it becomes a compelling narrative that begs the reader to actually care about about what is happening there. I was continually drawn into the humanness of the struggles there, which helps form memorable impressions for me and bolster understanding from a micro and not just a macro point of view.
This book is ultimately as much about the struggles to solve the problems of despotic regimes, religious sectarian strife and power imbalance as it is about these problems themselves. Wright’s descriptions of homegrown, grassroots efforts to cultivate democracy are inspiring and galvanizing, and her accounts of brave activists’ struggles against violent intimidation tactics and government corruption heartbreaking. Ultimately (and in spite of the last chapter on the American occupancy of Iraq being depressing as heck), the book imparts a sense of hope and positivity: the Middle East may be beset by political challenges like never before, but the contrary to some strains of popular belief, the Middle East is not a region populated by willfully hostile ideological miscreants with no regard for human life; rather, it is full of people like us, trying to get by, and trying to influence it in what small ways they can. Even if that were the only message I took away from this entire book, I would call it a worthwhile read.