Broken Circle: A Memoir of Escaping Afghanistan – Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller

circle1 On December 25, 1979, the armed forces of the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in support of pro-Communist forces engaged in a power struggle with insurgent forces known as the mujahideen.  Soviet forces marched into the capital city of Kabul and later succeeded in staging a coup in which President Hafizullah Amin (1929-1979) was removed and replaced with Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal (1929-1966).  Thousands of Afghan citizens were rendered homeless as bombs fells and brutal fighting produced collateral damage. For Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller, the war changed her life in ways she could have never imagined.

This moving autobiography is Ahmadi-Miller’s story of life in Afghanistan and her family’s journey across cities and countries in search of a better life far removed from war torn Kabul.  As the book begins, we are taken inside her home where she and her seven siblings are being raised by their parents Abdullah and Miriam.  Their daily routine is what we would expect of large family and the interactions between siblings is something that anyone with brothers and sisters can easily relate to.  Her parents care deeply for each other but Abdullah, whom Enjeela affectionately calls Padar, has a vice that eventually fractures their marriage. Though they are able to move past it, changes in the Afghan government coupled with a crackdown on opposition voices, results in Miriam making the decision to leave the country with half of their children, leaving Padar and the rest behind.  He is determined never to leave Afghanistan and is certain they can ride out the war.  However, the reality of the conflict begins to hit home as he finds himself suspected by the Soviets of secretly working for the United States.  Time begins to run out and Padar decides that they will join their mother who has settled in India.  He sends his children on their journey with a trusted friend, Masood, and promises to join them in neighboring Pakistan.  Masood is a loyal and dedicated friend who serves as their guardian as they traverse across mountains, valleys  and small villages across Afghanistan and Pakistan.   Enjeela and her siblings soon experience the realities of the world that have a profound effect on all them.

As they move through Afghanistan and later Pakistan, they encounter many dark realities of life that children in the west are never exposed to.  Soviet fighters had engulfed the city and their presence alone is enough to cause fear and consternation among the local populace.  Enjeela has plenty to tell us and her memories of the migration between the two countries are filled with anecdotes that reveal the brutal reality that is life in remote locations.  Nomads, rebels, shepherds and bandits roam freely resulting in Masood keeping a watchful eye over his group.  Mina enters the story and young Enjeela soon makes a new friend.  But over time, Mina’s life at home reveals a dark side of Afghanistan that Enjeela was unaware of.  She is slowly growing up on this trip but in ways she could never have imagined.  Their bond as siblings and support for each other are tested time and again as they are forced to use critical thought in situations that could have easily gone the wrong way.

Pakistan proves to be a refuge for the group of siblings who eventually realize that they are in fact refugees.  But they have many guardian angels along the way and their roles in the story were unexpected but definitely welcomed.  Those moments add a touch of humanity to a story filled with adversity.  Padar eventually reenters the story and the Ahmadi family that has survived thus far, is determined to make it to India.  The next leg of their journey to what they believe is their final destination, is by far the most dangerous and the escapades that ensue are what we would describe as “close calls”.  Padar remains the voice of reason and their source of eternal faith. Throughout the book he is anchor upon which everyone relies for support and reassurance.  His strengths and flaws are on display but it is clear that Enjeela truly loves him and the two have a special bond.  After a series of mishaps, Padar and the four siblings finally reach India where a sense of normalcy sets in again.  However, their mother Miriam has her own struggle and needs the support of her family at this time more than ever.  Her plight and the family’s status in India, forces her and Padar to make another life altering decision that will take the family across several continents to place none of them ever thought they would live in.

This book came as a recommendation on Amazon and at first glance, the cover caught my attention.  I have always been fascinated about the Middle East, a region which many westerners still struggle to understand.  Enjeela’s story shows a side of Islam that is often omitted and her observations about what true Islam is and how we should treat each other, are insightful and thought provoking.  My only complaint is that I wish the book had continued for a few more chapters to see how life changed for the Ahmadi family after their final move. Perhaps that part is not as important or possibly boilerplate in development. Regardless, this story of her early years in the Middle East and the struggle to survive and emigrate is enough to inspire anyone that decides to read this story.  And her account goes to show that broken circles can be repaired.

ASIN: B07DK7FBDS

I, Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption and Fate – Zahed Haftlang, Najah Aboud and Meredith May

zahedOn September 22, 1980, the Iraqi military marched into neighboring Iran under the orders of President Saddam Hussein (1937-2006).  Tensions between Hussein and Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) had been brewing over control of the Shatt al-Arab river, Iraqi nationalism and Khomeini’s calls for the Ba’ath party to overthrow the Iraqi government.  The conflict raged for eight years before a cease-fired was signed in August, 1988.  It is estimated that the war resulted in the deaths of nearly 1.5 million Iraqis and Iranians.  On both sides, villages were destroyed, leaving thousands homeless and families permanently separated.  Children as young as thirteen were conscripted to serve, becoming trained killers before the age of twenty-one.  After the cease-fire, prisoners of war remained held in prisons on both sides before they were slowly repatriated.  This book is the story of two of those prisoners who survived the war, living to tell their story about the war that changed their lives.

Zahed Haftlang was born in the town of Masjed Soleyman in Khuzestan Province, Iran. His relationship with his father, whom we come to know as “Baba”, is not good and serves as the main catalyst for his flight from home. At the age of thirteen, he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary and for six years he fought in the war before being captured by the Iraqi army. in 1982.  By Iraqi protocols, he should have been executed, but his captor showed mercy and transported him back to base for medical treatment.  Along the way, he suffers more injuries at the hands of Iraqi soldiers but arrives in stable condition.  He was then joined by other captured Iranian soldiers and for the next seventeen years, he remained there as a prisoner of war before being released in 1999.

Najah Aboud was born in Iraq and grew up in the Shula neighborhood in Baghdad. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Iraqi army and was formally discharged in his early twenties.  He was called back to serve at the age of twenty-eight when the war broke out.  In 1982, he was captured by Iranian forces and and spent seventeen years as a prisoner of war.

The two stories are interesting and although parallel, they show two different sides of the war.  What is clear from the beginning is that neither man wanted the conflict but rather a normal life that would include a career, marriage and children.  Their goals are simple and under normal circumstances achievable.  In fact, Najah had been operating the Bruce Lee Restaurant before the war destroyed his efforts.  The arrival of the war changed all of their dreams each one recounts how destruction settled in as the bombs fell and all hell broke loose. It is at this point in the book that the stories change gears and the ugly realities of the war become vividly clear.

What I noticed in each account is that on both sides of the war, chaos reigned. Neither goes through any type of basic training but rather are thrown into positions and forced to learn through baptism by fire. Their recollections of battle scenes and the horrors of war are graphic and sobering.  Make no mistake, they do not sugar coat this part of the book, it is as real as it gets.  Eventually, both are captured and their experiences as prisoners of war are where their accounts diverge, showing a very stark difference in treatment of prisoners of war.  For Najah, his time served in Iranian camps is quite mild although mundane. He longs for his fiance Alyaa and son Amjad.  But for Zahed, the Iraqi camp is nothing short of a nightmare.  The descriptions given by him of his time as a prisoner of war are beyond shocking.  Inhumane would be an understatement to describe his treatment at the hands of officials, most notably the antagonist Mira Sahib, whose sadistic behavior is repulsive. By the time Zahed is released, he is a shell of himself and man haunted by the war in which he fought. A shining light comes in the form of Maryam, whose entry into his life influences the decisions he makes as love becomes a very real possibility.   Najah continues to carry his own own scars as well without any information of his future wife and son.

The realization that both Iraq and Iran suffered tremendously during the war hits home and they both realize that moving abroad is the only way to help their families and themselves.  In a twist of fate, both end up in search of a new life in North America.  Vancouver, Canada is the destination and fate intervenes in ways that no one could have ever imagined for them both.  Upon arrival life is tough for both, but various figures enter the story, each to serve a different purpose in their lives.  And even after adjusting to life in the U.S., there is still much they must deal with regarding their former lives as soldiers on the front line.

The ending of the book is beyond moving and puts the finishing touch on two incredible stories.  Both express their gratitude to author Meredith May for writing this book and I do too.  It truly is an exciting and emotional book to read but crucial in understand the effect of war on all involved.

ASIN: B01IA7TLL8

Gaza Unsilenced – Refaat Alareer & Laila El-Haddad

GazaOn July 7, 2014, Israeli began a full scale assault on the Gaza Strip, a self-governing Palestinian territory.  the assault claimed the lives of more than 1,600 men, women and children.   The conflict was a culmination of long-simmering tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.  The Israeli government has made it clear that it wants Hamas to recognize its right to exist.  Hamas has called for a Palestinian state on the land it believes belongs to the Palestinian people.  Multiple foreign governments have made an attempt to mediate the dispute, most notably Egypt.  The role of the United States has generally been in support of its ally Israel.  The vicious assault  was captured and uploaded by Palestinians to such sites as Twitter and Facebook.   The images on social media only tell part of the story of the realities faced by the Palestinians who found themselves under siege and facing an opponent superior in both weapons and finances.  The full story of what was happening inside the Gaza Strip is a much darker and tragic story, revealed here as the Palestinians are given a platform to the break the silence surrounding their experiences under occupation.

Before reading this book, I do believe it is a good idea for readers to brush up on the conflict’s history.  One source that I can recommend is Ilan Pappe’s ‘A History of Modern Palestine ‘, which I have found to be an in-depth and thought provoking compendium on the Palestinian people, their home and the creation of the State of Israel.   A solid understanding of the conflict will undoubtedly highlight why this book is so important. It is a story that I am sure no reader will ever forget.

As a warning, the book contains graphic descriptions of bombings, shootings and other forms of military force.  The devastating results are tough to read at times and I found myself on more than one occasion wondering when the carnage would end.  Quite frankly, this book is not for the faint at heart. It is dark, gritty and without a happy ending. The damage to the Palestinian homeland and psyche is on full display and Israel flexes its military might.  The voices in the book are not soldiers or even leaders, but farmers, reporters, businessmen and others who find ways to survive in a system that resembles apartheid in South Africa and the ghettos of Poland in World War II.  Some of the deplorable conditions Palestinians live in, include a largely inoperative sewage system,  lack of water, restricted exports and woefully understaffed and under-equipped medical facilities.  Famine, disease and infection are the usual culprits aside from violence that have nearly broken the will of the Palestinian people.

I would like to point out that some of the tensions that do exist are not solely the cause of Israel. Hamas has been labeled a terrorist organization and its actions at times have not helped peace negotiations.  Whether its removal from Palestine will finally result in peace remains to be seen.  In December, 2016, the United Nations passed resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.  The United States abstained from voting.  The reacting by Israel was swift and denounced by the Israeli government. For Palestinians and the international community, it was seen as a first step towards truly achieving a legitimate two-State existence.

To understand why life in Gaza exist the way it does, we must first ask why does Israel keep the Palestinians in such conditions?  There are many answers here and some of what is revealed might surprise some readers.   Money plays a role in nearly every major conflict and certainly does here, but the anti-Arab propaganda and horrific acts of discrimination against Arabs are some of the most shocking parts of the book.  The xenophobic thoughts are not just from random common folk, but also espoused by members of government, in effect providing a license to kill to those who believe in extremism.  Readers who are sensitive to this type of subject matter might want to use discretion.

In spite of the many dark lessons to be learned here, there is a bright side.  Voices for change can be heard on both sides of the conflict.  Older Israelis angered by the actions of their government and the younger generation have become more vocal in voicing opposition to the conditions in the Gaza Strip. The social media platforms that unmasked the devastation have also been used to gather support for a new approach by those who wish to see the conflict end.  And there are many who believe that attitudes on all sides are slowly changing and that peace is a real possibility.  But before that can happen, the truth about the Palestinian experience and life in Gaza has to be told.

ASIN: B019136FE6

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll

Ghost WarsOn the morning of February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and a team of terrorist drove a bomb laden van into the basement of the World Trade Center complex in New York City.   As I watched the news from across the river in Brooklyn that morning, I felt a sense of shock and vulnerability.  America had been attacked.  When Ramzi Yousef was captured and extradited to New York to stand trial, many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief.  The Hon. Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to life with no parole plus an additional 240 years which he is currently serving at the ADX Florence Supermax facility in Fremont County, Colorado.  Eight years later on September 11, 2001, America was attacked again when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the final aircraft outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  The response from Washington was swift and a show of force nearly unparalleled in modern times. The mission to capture those responsible and root out terrorists, led to Afghanistan, a land-locked country in South-Central Asia.  Images of U.S. troops and the enemy Taliban flashed across news screens as reports of successes in the mission to root out terror were triumphantly proclaimed.  To many Americans, Afghanistan was another far away place across the world where people lived in ways that seemed to be from ancient times, going against “American ideals”.  Today, Afghanistan is nearly completely forgotten by the American public.  There has been no news about what America’s current role is and plans to withdraw American forces have been cast aside as yet another victim of the focus on what has become reality television politics.  The story of Afghanistan and its importance to world history is often misunderstood and in some cases not even recognized.  But there is far more that meets the eye and author Steve Coll explores this topic in this New York Times bestseller that tells the full story what did happen in Afghanistan between the Soviet Invasion and the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001.

If you asked a person on the street today why we are in Afghanistan, I firmly believe that many could not give a plausible answer.  Washington has no official position on it.   But what is striking is that for decades, U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan was either anti-soviet, anti-Taliban and in other cases, non-existent.   Coll revisits each and examines the subject in detail so that we can understand how and why the U.S. attitude towards Afghanistan continued to shift.   The book is primarily focused on the Soviet-Afghan war between 1979 and 1989.  The conflict drew the attention and participation of multiple countries including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.  The Central Intelligence Agency served as the main force to funnel information back to Washington and the United States found itself supporting the Mujadhideen rebels against the Soviet backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.   The rebels’ cause earned them support from other young radicals including a very young Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) who reappears later in the book as an arch-nemesis of the United States.  The Soviet-Afghan war served as the last major conflict of the Cold War before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.  Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, history took a very different course for many reason as the author shows.  And slowly Afghanistan became a pawn in a much larger chess match between more powerful and sophisticated nations.

The figures that appear in the book are numerous and keeping track of all of them is a bit tedious.  But each is critical to the story at hand including the late Senator from Texas, Charles Wilson (D) (1933-2010), Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960-2013) and former Pakistan Premier Benazir Bhutto (1957-2007).   All of the figures are central to the complicated web woven in the Middle East as Sharia Law clashed with modernity and oil pipelines became the target of several governments. Coll connects all of the dots in a writing style that makes the story very easy to follow.  The revelations in the book dis-spell many rumors and confirm others.  The volatile nature of politics in the region is on full display as each leader walks a tightrope while in office.  The rise of Sharia Law and anti-modernity beliefs began to turn the tide in the Middle East from welcomed support from the west to disdain for the western way of life.  Radicalism is born and as Coll moves through the second half the book, we see how Islamic extremism gained its footing while Washington was asleep at the wheel.

Osama Bin Laden held a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list for several years until his death.   Even today, he is still considered one of the world’s deadliest terrorist although he did not carry out the acts himself.  But as we see in the book, he was charismatic, dedicated and blessed with enormous wealth as a result of his father’s high successful and respected construction firm.  He became a central figure in the new war against the west which would be waged by a new wave of committed soldiers with nothing to fear.  Incredibly, while this was taking place, the response by Washington was bewildering.  However, not everyone was oblivious to the sudden rise of Bin Laden and there were many officials who sounded the alarm as to what they saw as the next major threat to America.  That threat manifested itself horrifically in September, 2001.

Undoubtedly,  each reader will take something different away from the book.  But I do believe that every reader will be confused to say the least as to what was really happening in Washington and lack of information provided to American citizens. As I read the book, I shook my head at times in disbelief.   Today we can look back and ask what if Washington had stopped Bin Laden when it had the chance?  Why did Washington fail to acknowledge the warning signs from the intelligence community?   Some answers we may never fully know but through Steve Coll, we have plenty of explanations that will suffice for many.   For those interested in learning the true story of the Soviet-Afghan war and America’s foreign policy in relation to the region, this book is a must read.

ISBN-10: 0143034669
ISBN-13: 978-0143034667

They Dared to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby-Paul Findley

FindlayThe title alone is enough to grab a person’s attention.  Because of the subject matter, it was bound to stir controversy for it touches a topic that remains taboo thirty-seven years after its publication.  And with the events this past week regarding the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, the contents of this book are as important now as they were then. Before you attempt to read this book, it is critical to understand the difference between Judaism and what is referred to as Zionism. There is a fundamental difference between the two that is often forgotten as charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias are leveled against those who dare to speak out.   However, what I have learned from this book, is critical to understanding how our world functions and why peace is seemingly an impossible objective to accomplish in the Middle East.

For those who are of the Jewish faith, before reading this book, you must understand that you will learn many things that are not pleasant.  And the temptation to feel or believe that the author is an anti-Semite might rise to the surface. But I caution you that any notion of Paul Findley (1921-) being anti-Semitic is far from the truth.  In fact, Findley was U.S. Representative from Illinois from 1960-1982 and supported Israel at many times during his career. I firmly believe it is underestimated by many Americans, how much power and influence the Israeli lobby holds over the U.S. Government. Foreign policy and aid is highly scrutinized by the lobby and anything deemed to detrimental to the existence of Israel is quickly condemned and crushed, even at the expense of possible peace with its Arab neighbors.

I can only imagine how much pressure Findley had to endure to see this book all the way through.  He discloses the difficulty in finding a publisher for a subject which many were reluctant to touch out of fear of severe backlash.  In staying the course and braving the opposition, he has compiled the book that should be read by every American concerned with the past and future of the United States.  You might ask yourself, is I agree with the material in the book, does it make me anti-Semitic? No it does not.  Personally, I have Jewish friends and even dated a woman of the Jewish faith.  I was never taught hate growing up and my parents invited everyone into their home regardless of creed, ethnicity and even sexual orientation.   However my parents did teach us to examine all sides of an issue and make a decision based off of what is known and not by what is assumed.  And it is for that reason that I believe this book is a critical read.

The book is not only an account of Findley’s difficulty in taking a strong stance on the Israeli lobby, but other politicians throughout history who have taken on the machine.  Some of the names will be familiar to readers such as Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) and William J. Fulbright (1905-1995). Other names will be known only by few but their stories are as important as the rest in understanding the costs associated with speaking the truth about U.S. foreign policy regarding Israel.  Careers were destroyed and lives ruined by those with a vested interest in maintaining a power hold over legislation and the media.  The stories are too high in number to reveal here but I can say is that you might be surprised at how many people have had their lives ruined by the Israeli lobby for even questioning U.S. foreign aid to Israel of the occupation of the Gaza strip.  Others have had their lives ruined for even meeting Arab officials from the PLO including Yassar Arafat (1929-2004) himself.

Findley has provided a staggering amount of information which is bound to confuse and in some cases anger the reader.  But it is imperative that the reader recognizes that difference between the Israeli lobby and ordinary Jews in America who do not support what Israel does but are obligated to remain in silence and show unwavering support.   As with any story, there are multiple sides and what sometimes seems to be black and white, will be revealed to have many shades of grey.  The truth is rarely pleasant and in some cases upsetting. But if that is what the reader seeks, then books such as this are a necessity.  The courage exemplified by Findley and others who have dared to speak out has give us the knowledge we need to make informed decisions before we lend our support to movements and causes.

As the book approached its end and I continued to digest everything that Findley had disclosed, I was haunted by the thought that there may never be true peace between Israel and Palestine.  But if that is the ultimate goal then the first step is re-examine U.S.  foreign policy.   And doing so does not make anyone anti-Israel or anti-Semitic but an advocate of genuine and long-lasting peace.  Furthermore, we are forced to remember that Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions, observed by millions of great men and women and unrelated to many of things we learn through Findley’s words.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple” – Oscar Wilde

ISBN-10: 155652482X
ISBN-13: 978-1556524820

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East-David Fromkin

20181205_223638Ideology is sometimes as powerful of a tool as violence and in some cases has been the direct cause of violence. In the Middle East, ideology has maintain a stronghold as it finds itself on a crash course with modernity.   Those who live outside the Middle East are at times confused and mystified by the traditions and events that occur throughout the Arab nations.   In fact, many of us here in the United States do not know how the modern-day Middle East came into existence.  To them, I say that the key to understanding the Middle East is to retrace its history to see why and how it developed into what we know it to be today.  David Fromkin lends us a helping hand in this incredible historical investigative account of the fall of the legendary Ottoman Empire and the creation of a region that would never truly know peace.

I find it a bit ironic that the title is called A Peace to End All Peace because when the reader has finished the book, he or she will see that is far from what happened.  But the question is why not?  To find that answer, we revisit Constantinople, headquarters of the empire, prior to the outbreak of World War I.  Iraq and Jordan (formerly Transjordan) had yet to be created.   Iraq was then known as Mesopotamia and Jordan was still part of Palestine.  The Zionist cause was still in its early stages and it would be several years before the signing of the Balfour Declaration. Regardless, these nations were caught in the middle of a bitter conflict as Britain and Russia took on the German Republic for control of the Ottoman Empire.  But as casualties mounted and victories were won, what was really transpiring behind the scenes?  And who were the major players?  As we step back into time with Fromkin, we are re-introduced to long-lost figures such as the famous Winston Churchill (1874-1965),  former Prime Minister Lloyd George (1864-1945),  U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) and Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)(1888-1935).   Lawrence has been transformed throughout the years into a larger than life character but Fromkin provides a good biographical sketch of him and investigates his true role in the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the British goal of conquering the Middle East.  However, as Fromkin shows us, the heart of the entire stories lies in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret pledge between Britain, France and Russia to partition the Ottoman Empire after the defeat of Germany in World War I.  The agreement shaped relations between the nations for decades to come.

The story is an incredible from start to finish and after you have completed the book, you will better understand why the Middle East is the way it is today.  You will further understand how the Zionist cause for a homeland grew in strength due in part to the actions of the British Government.  The story of Palestine is especially important for the effects of the actions then are still being felt today.   Fromkin has done an excellent job of researching the topic and it is evident in his writing.  The book reads like a historical novel full of intrigue, mystery and ultimately tragedy.  Further, the relationship between Russia and the nations of the U.S.S.R. are examined highlighting the cultural diversity that once encompassed the Soviet Union.   The Bolshevik revolution is discussed but not at great length.   Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) make appearances but their story is only discussed regarding its relevance to the current topic.  And throughout the book, developments in other nations are mentioned but the author never strays off topic.   Like a master professor, he keeps us on course throughout a critical time in the history of the world that was complicated to say the least.

The book ends before the rise of Adolf Hitler and the start of World War II.  And it would not be until 1948 that the nation of Israel was formally created.  Readers may be surprised to reach the end of the book only to find that the story does not continue in the next decade.  But the reality is that was never the intention and is irrelevant to the story at hand.  True, the events in this book would affect the future in many different ways but that is a topic for another discussion.  For those who wish to understand how an Empire came crashing down, the development of the modern-day Middle East and how several nations underestimated the power of the Islamic faith, this is a great place to start.  And for others who have an active interest in the Middle East, this book is a much welcomed addition to any library.

“To the victor belongs the spoils” – New York Senator William L. Marcy

ISBN-10: 0805068848
ISBN-13: 978-0805068849

A History of Modern Palestine: Second Edition-Ilan Pappe

PappThe crisis that exists between Israel and the area that was once the nation of Palestine has evolved into one of the most tragic the world has seen.  Anger on both sides and the failure of mediation on more than one occasion has resulted in the continuation of the long feud.  Each side has its supporters and detractors refusing to abandon their beliefs and stance of the matter.  My interest in the conflict propelled me to acquire this high recommended book on the issue written by Israel historian and social activist, Ilan Pappe (1954-).  Pappe was born in Haifa and continues to educate millions about the true origins of the raging battle.   This phenomenal account of the history of Palestine and its current day status is a must read by anyone seeking to understand the origins of the matter.  To be fair, Pappe is not anti-Israel, but he does however, confront many facts about the history of Palestine that are often very uncomfortable.  But any good researcher should do just that and it is in this area that Pappe shines through.

The book begins in the early 1800s in Palestine before the appearance of large numbers of Europe’s Jews. This is a history that is often neglected and unknown by many.  The Palestine we see is far different from the one that exist today.   As a part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine is protected by the ruling authorities in Istanbul intent on maintaining the empire’s domain at any costs.   Incredibly, even then, there existed smaller religious minorities freely allowed to practice their faiths.  But sadly at the 1900s approached,  the future of Palestine took a dark turn, one that is fully explored by Pappe and is sure to leave the reader speechless.  But his research and conclusions are critical to understanding the cause of the Palestinian people and the effects of Zionism on foreign territory and domestic policy.

The term Zionism and Judaism are sometimes believed to be the same thing. But as we learn throughout the book, they are in fact two different things and not necessarily operating in the same spectrum.   In the book, we are introduced to the founder of the Zionist cause, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) and his successors that carried the Zionist cause setting their sights on a Jewish homeland. Palestine became their choice and their mission created a conflict that continues to this day.   Pappe does a meticulous job of exploring all of these polarizing figures and their role in the affair.  But what is often left out of the conflict is the role of the British government, heavily complicit in the developments in the area and subsequently in the deadly aftermath.  The relationship between the British Government, Palestinian rulers and the new Zionist immigrants proved to be a power keg determined to detonate at any minute. Two world wars and three agreements later paved the way for the creation of Israel in 1948 and the loss of land by the native Palestinians.  It was the beginning of a war that has claimed thousands of lives and brought shame to those involved and resulted in the meddling by several foreign nations allied to the Israeli or Palestinian cause.

On December 23, 2016, the UN passed a resolution ordering Israel to stop building settlement east of Jerusalem in Palestinian territory.  The order has been ignored by Israel which continues to build settlements.  The abstinence of the United States in voting on the resolution strained the relationship between Israel and its American ally.  The decision by the White House to abstain is in direct contrast to the policy of the US for several decades which actively supported the Israel government.  America’s complicity in the conflict, as well as that of Great Britain, France and other Arab nations seeking to exploit the situation,  created a power vacuum which has no clear ending in sight and helped plunged the Middle East into a cycle of revolution, mayhem and death.  Today it remains to be seen if a two-state solution will ever truly work between the two battle nations.

Throughout the book, many figures make an appearance and their roles in the conflict are explored in-depth.  Forgotten name such as Menachem Begin (1913-1992), David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995), Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1918-1970), Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) and Fayṣal al-Awwal ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn (1883-1933)(Faisal I of Iraq) will jump out at some readers triggering an avalanche of dormant facts and others unknown.  But their names, actions and stories are beyond critical in understanding the evolution of the tragedy.  And like a jigsaw puzzle, the back door political deals, covert operations, overt discrimination, greed and betrayal help set the stage for the region as we know it today.   Right-wing and left-wing groups proliferate on each side of the conflict rendering a peaceful solution seemingly unattainable.  But regardless, the United States continues to condemn the Israeli occupation and has added allies from dozens of countries and even domestic groups in Israel in opposition to the government’s expansionist policies.  Pappe refers to it as the post-Zionist era in which literature and film seeks to tell the real story of the Zionist cause and its devastating effects on the people of Palestine. For them, their struggle continues but they too deal with domestic right-wing groups, the most famous of which are the PLO and Hamas.   Their objectives and those of the Likud, lead by Binyamin Netanyahu, serve as fuel to a towering inferno.

Perhaps in the next decade or two we will finally see peace between Israel and Palestine.  I certainly hope it occurs before more death and destruction of the land they both call home occurs.  Attempts to form a settlement have ultimately fell short time and time again but I and many in the world remain optimistic.  For those who are unsure of what really needs to be done or are unaware of the origins of the dispute, this book by Pappe, is the place to start.

ISBN-10: 0521683157
ISBN-13: 978-0521683159

Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein-John Nixon

saddamOn March 20, 2003, the United States military invaded the Republic of Iraq.  The invasion marked the second time US and Iraqi forces faced off in armed conflict.  Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq was deposed and fled into hiding.  He was captured several months later on December 10, 2003 and three years later, executed by hanging.  Over 10 years have passed since his death and Iraq continues to struggle with stability in the face of internal factions divided along tribal and religions lines and the emergence of ISIS intent of claiming their portion of territory across the Middle East.  After he was captured, he was debriefed by American forces. The man who many Americans had seen as a powerful dictator on television, was reduced to another captured fugitive on a most wanted list.  His appearance before cameras with a full beard and unkempt hear, remains one of the most popular images from that decade.   However, it was a stark contrast from the man who allegedly had his mind-set on the destruction of America.  But is that was Saddam Hussein really wanted? And what were his thoughts leading up to and during the invasion?  John Nixon served as a former Senior Analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency and was tasked with debriefing the fallen dictator.  This book is a recap of his career and the conversations he had with Hussein following his historic capture.

I believe that in order to truly enjoy this book, it is necessary for the reader to abandon any pre-conceived notions he or she might have about Hussein.  While he was in fact a brutal tyrant, he did serve as Iraq’s head of state and provides insight to the decisions and non-decisions prior to the U.S. invasion.  Prior to reading the book, I knew that Hussein was one of the worst rulers the world had seen. But I was curious as to what he truly thought about U.S. foreign policy towards his country.    His answers a lot of questions and also clears up a few long-standing rumors.   After finishing the book, I did not come away with a favorable impression of Hussein. Neither did I feel any more antipathy towards him.   I do empathize with the men and women of Iraq who suffered under his reign.    And I do feel that he was either unable or unwilling to see the error in his ways.   At one point during the book he makes it clear that ruling Iraq was no easy task because of several factors and fears.   Perhaps he is right, after all he would know better than any of us. I did find it easier to understand why he did not fully prepare for the invasion but found it increasing difficult to find any justification for the invasion.  I never believed in the invasion and after reading Hussein’s answers, it seems even more bizarre and highlights a terrible moment in U.S. foreign policy.

It may sound ridiculous to some but during the book, it seemed absurd that the Hussein that is captured was the leader of Iraq.   Perhaps his capture served to humble him slightly but I had trouble looking at him in the same way.   Was he naive about some things? Absolutely.   Was he also defiant? Yes he was.  But the real question is was he a threat to American security and did he plan to kill both George H.W. Bush and the daughters of George W. Bush?  Nixon touches on those topics and the answers just might surprise you. Nixon did an excellent job of remaining unbiased throughout the book.  At no time does he praise of show disdain for Hussein.  He does point out errors in Hussein’s answers and does make comments about his character but he gives a balanced account and lets the former ruler speak for himself.

Saddam is by far the highlight and main topic of the book. But where the book also piques interest is in Nixon’s account of the meetings with President Bush.   His memories help shed light on what the White House was thinking and willing to believe as the events were taking place.  And although I’m sure the book was heavily vetted by the CIA and perhaps the Obama administration, Nixon is quite frank in his assessment of both cabinets. He also points out where the ball was dropped and the difficulty America has in understanding our counterparts in the Middle East and in particular, Iraq. The book is not the end all account of the story of the invasion but it is a great read to understanding the mind of Saddam Hussein.

ISBN-10: 0399575812
ISBN-13: 978-0399575815

 

Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic-Michael Axworthy

 

iranAmerica still struggles to understand the Middle East and a large number of Americans have suspicion and fear of the religion of Islam. Acts of terrorism and reports of the extremes of Sharia law have caused many Americans to dismiss Islam as an archaic system of faith maintained by fear, intimidation and capital punishment.  Furthermore we are rarely exposed to the positive aspects of life in an Islamic state and are only shown the most extreme acts of aggression that occur.  It has been planted in our minds that Muslims around the world would like nothing more than to see the United States collapse.  Near the top of this list are the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation which shares a long and troubled history with the United States of America.

It is tempting to dismiss Iran as another nation controlled by radical Islamic fanatics determined to destroy America.  But the reality is that Iran is far from that and highly misunderstood by the west. Michael Axworthy dives into this topic and provides us with a history of Iran in an effort to explain how and why it is the nation it has become.  His efforts have resulted in an incredible and insightful look into a unique and revolutionary country.   As can be seen in the book, the key to understanding Iran and the Middle East are the Sunni and Shiite systems of belief.  They lie at the heart of much of the dissension between Iran and its neighboring Islamic nations for the largest number of Muslims are believers of the Sunni system. The conflict between the  two systems is explored throughout the book and helps the reader to understanding the forces behind Iran’s war with Iraq from 1980-1988.

Today, the focus is on Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the incoming presidential administration will seek to enforce stricter measures than ever before.  But the question we have to ask ourselves is how much of a threat is Iran to the United States?  The answer just might surprise you.  As we learn in the book, Iran has for many years sought to emulate the western style of life. And this is one reason why the overthrow of the government of Mohammad Mossadegh was such a dark moment in U.S. foreign policy.  Mossadegh was a nationalist and believer in a free Iran but also believed in democratic processes. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi returned from exile following the CIA backed coup of Mossadegh’s government and sought to modernize Iran even going as far as to try to remove the name Persia from all aspects of Iranian society. His efforts would prove to be futile and would also help engineer his downfall which came during the 1979 revolution in which Ayatollah Khomeini asserted his reign over Iran.  His administration was followed by several regime changes which resembled a comedy of errors culminating with the rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the brazen and outspoken president who seemed to walk a fine line between reality and make-believe.  Each of the rulers come with their own story and one of the highlights of the book is that their personal stories are told in detail.   At first it may seem overwhelming as a multitude of names appear throughout the book.  But they are critical for the reader because they all played a critical part in the development of modern-day Iran.

Remarkably, even with devout Islamist such as Khomeini in charge, Iran still retained some aspects of western society.  The true tragedy is the inability of the west, primarily the United States, to establish stronger diplomatic relations with the Iranian Republic. The attack on the U.S. embassy, overthrow of the Shah and war with Iraq, brought Iran into direct opposition to the United States.  What is often forgotten is Iran has never threatened American or executed any type of preemptive strike.  Their ability to inflict death and turmoil is far overblown.  But what stands out above all else is that we continue to make the same mistakes towards Iran and fail to understand the complex history of a truly remarkable nation that finds itself on the brink of modernity.  To help Iran along this trail of progression, it is imperative that the channels of communication remain open.  Some of us have friends, neighbors, co-workers and even family members of Iranian heritage.  We owe to them and to ourselves to learn the history of the place they call home. In the process we will not only learn more about them but about ourselves as well.

Iran continues to reexamine itself and look towards change.  The healing process from the war with Iraq and constant regime changes have left lasting impressions upon the Iranian people.  But they continue to hope for liberty and democracy, ideas that they have adopted from America. And as it continues to change, we can hope that the people of Iran move past the influences of despotic leaders, extreme ideology, suppression of freedom of expression, speech, women’s rights and a world opinion that has set neighboring countries against it. For those of us in the west determined to understand the true history of Iran and why it matters to us, Axworthy’s book is a good place to start.

ISBN-10: 0190468963
ISBN-13: 978-0190468965

All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror-Stephen Kinzer

all_the_shahs_men_book_coverAugust 19, 1953-Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967) is removed from power in a coup engineered by British MI6 and the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency under the control of Kermit Roosevelt. Mohammad Reza Shah (1919-1980) returns from exile in Rome to reestablish himself as the nation’s highest authority. The Shah proceeds to place the country in an iron grip, enforcing dictatorial rule for the next twenty-five years before his abdication in 1979 resulting in the seizure of power by the Ayatollah Khomeini setting Iran on a path of radical Islamic rule highlighted by the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The coup in 1953 and the actions of U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979, permanently changed the relationship between the United States and the once promising Islamic Republic.

A little more than one year ago, the United States in conjunction with several other allies, reached a formal agreement to limit Iran’s ability to manufacture and stockpile nuclear weapons.  The agreement has been both lionized and criticized by the far right and far left. It is assumed by many that Iran is a sworn enemy of the United States and seeks to destroy all that America stands for.  Islamophobia and ignorance have allowed the belief that Iran is a threat to peace in the western hemisphere to proliferate exponentially.  Christianity still holds the record for the largest number of followers.  But that might change sooner than we might believe.  The Pew Research Center has projected that Islam will hold the title of the world’s largest religion by 2070.  The overwhelming majority of people who believe in Islam are very peaceful and sincere individuals. Fanatical believers unafraid of committing extremist acts have cast a dark cloud over the faith, breeding fear and suspicion that have resulted in a surge in hate crimes against those of the Muslim faith.  But was Islamophobia the sole reason for the actions of August, 1953?

Stephen Kinzer revisits Iran in 1953 in this investigative account of the origins of the coup, its implementation and consequences which continue to haunt Iran and the world to this day.  The life of Mohammad Mossadegh, the charismatic voice of democracy and liberty who gained a following as he chartered his course with the purpose of transforming Iranian society, is examined in detail.   Free speech, open elections and personal freedom became staples of his rule giving hope and optimism to thousands of believers.  But as we learn in from Kinzer’s investigative efforts, foreign influences, economic restrictions and domestic threats embarked on a collision course that dealt Iran a blow from which it has never fully recovered.

But just how did the coup happen and why was it initiated?  The answers to those questions, found in this book, are key to understanding the tragic results of U.S. and British involvement in the nation’s domestic affairs.  Greed, oil, British embarrassment and the fear of communism, were just a few ingredients in a stew that served as the catalyst for Mossadegh’s removal. The lack of appreciation for Iranian history and the complicated relationship between the Shiites and Sunni Muslims, allowed intelligence operatives from abroad to engage in a deadly plot resulting in one of the darkest moments in Middle Eastern history.  Today it is difficult to believe that the coup affects present day events.  But as we learn through Kinzer,  destabilization and political turmoil that ensued giving rise to fierce anti-western ideology, is directly tied to the coup.  The attack on the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and subsequent events further complicated matters.  War with Iraq and the emergence of international terrorism pioneered by radicals such as Osama Bin Laden continued to amplify aggression on both sides. The nuclear arms restriction deal came as a result of long hours of discussion, assurances and acts of faith by all involved.  Agreements reached with the deal,  have given way to the first steps on the road to reconciliation.

We have much ground to cover as we continue to reconcile with Iran. Many wounds have yet to fully heal and will require more patience and understanding on both sides.  The first step, which has already been taken, is to admit wrongdoing.  Governments can apologize but its citizens can and do sometimes remain defiant and unconvinced of any form of complicity.  In order for us to understand Iran and remove our fear of Islamophobia and our destruction, we must first learn why their feelings exist. Only then can we begin to untangle our complicated coexistence and move forward in a harmonious and promising direction.

“Those who are at war with others are not at peace with themselves.”- William Hazlitt

ISBN-10: 047018549X
ISBN-13: 978-0470185490