The book is a about the dealings of the UK and France in shaping the current Middle East. It starts at the beginning of the first world war and it finishes with the UN Declaration of the Partition of Mandatory Palestine in 1947.
I really enjoy reading the book, James Barr does a great job narrating the facts using historial records giving a voice to all those implied in the events. It reminded me of the book of How Cortes conquered the Aztecs, but with a lot more quotations of several actors.
The book is mainly based on historical documents of the British Empire Government, letters and diaries. It gives an overview of the whole situation, of course, with an English accent.
The book is good read and I highly recommend it, but it does have shortcomings. The key one, is that some topics suddenly fade into the background without a proper explanation. For example, at the end of the first word war there are long discussions on Iraq and Transjordan, but then the story shifts to Mandatory Palestine and Syria without giving a sense of closure to the other topics. Arabia is barely mentioned, even though the Kings of Transjordan and Iraq are sons of the Ruler of Mecca; and just suddenly the author mentions that he is to busy fighting the Saudis. I know it would be impossible to do a comprehensive popular book of the history of a part of the world. But I think there are tools the author, or editor, could have used to help the reader. For example, a Timeline of events of the Middle East.
The other important factor, not shortcoming but a feature and part of history, this is a “British Version”. I am looking forward to finding similar books with French, Arab and Israeli versions.
I find surprising that two beacons of democracy, freedom, fraternity and equality, as they have presented themselves, had such an abject view of the world. I am judging them of course under today’s standards. But the way France and Britain just decided to divide land, and the people living there, shows a complete disdain for human life and democracy. For them it was just a game of Risk, about power, land gain, “saving face” and eventually, oil control. I don’t know if any of them have apologised for their role in shaping the current world, but they certainly need to do it.
About the Israel/Palestinian conflict. I am not a fan of several policies that the government of Israel has implemented. But every time I read more on the historical records, and not only the current news, I understand better from where the Israeli government is coming from to propose their policies. I still do not agree with them, but I get them. Under today’s spectrum, where we are all complaining about Donald Trump raising walls and travel-bans, what would have been the response when Britain decided to control the migration into Mandatory Palestine based on religion/race? Learning about the historical aspects makes me more empathic when reading news of current events.
One line of the book worries me, it happened when the author is discussing the Irgun and the Stern Gang and their terrorist activities:
The longer HMG does nothing, the harder it is to resist the conclusion that terrorism pays
I hope that the view that terrorism pays, under any circumstance, is disregarded as we mature as society.
To finish this review, the question that has always been in my head while reading the book:
Have France and the UK atoned their sins for their role in shaping the current Middle East?
P.S. For the record, I always advocate for governments that are: secular, democratic, with a respect for Freedom of the Individuals, and that provides/promotes social justice. So any policy that is against any of those characteristics, I am against it.