The New Middle East by Paul Danahar is about the Arab Spring revolts and their aftermath as a whole, which in a short span brought drastic changes for the people of North Africa and West Asia. The author is a veteran journalist who has spent many years reporting from the region. He brings the Arab streets to life, and has been present during numerous epochs that have convulsed these parts. It is impressive that when the US started their ‘shock and awe’ campaign by starting to bomb Iraq, the author chose to stay. His accounts are vivid and graphic, which makes it an absorbing reading experience.
Out of the blue
The book highlights how the events occurred without warning, in countries where youth constitute the largest proportion of the population; with youth in multitudes taking down seasoned institutions of oppression. The suddenness of the events, even a month earlier the most astute of West Asia observers would fail to fathom that plurality - the masses marching to Tahrir Square - could force an entrenched Mubaraq to step down, and what caused them to occur are analysed by the author. He offers a historic analysis and recounts how the present was shaped in the individual countries where the upheavals took place. More than an analysis, he recounts events as they occurred, highlighting their importance and how they affected the dynamics of the region right up to the happenings of the Arab Spring and its aftermath.
The author has access to some of the most important players of the Arab Spring. Of course, the discourse was brought about by pluralism and not these players. But, the author presents a nuanced account of how important players reacted to these drastic happenings, even though their policy initiatives in no way catalysed the upheavals. Throughout the book, and as events unfolded, one can be assured that the Arab Spring is a bottom to top phenomenon and not the other way around. The revolts were by the masses, mostly disgruntled youth, who said enough was enough and created a domino effect of toppling regimes. He directly quotes most of the people he has spoken to, whether it is those in charge of making policy, the leaders of revolutionary organisations or the public who found themselves caught in the midst of such turbulent times.
A transparent account
After he explains his meeting someone and how he interpreted what that person said, the exact quote is presented as an indented paragraph. This makes the book transparent. There are citations given throughout the book, and the author makes sure he attributes sources whenever it is due. The citations are helpful for further reading on the subject. The author, with his long stint in West Asia, also talks to the common man on the street as well as intellectuals, who may be residing in ivory towers, but are insightful in their opinions about the happenings. This approach is a welcome change from most of the mainstream Western media’s coverage of events. The mainstream media has been embedded into military units that invaded countries like Iraq and Afghanistan or can be seen doing person-to-camera from the lobbies of plush hotels. In most of the cases, by the very method that they adopt, coverage is biased. The author worked for the BBC, but the book is much more honest than the coverage one would expect from such networks, patronised by the state, that have to toe the line.
Israel: A society divided
An interesting portrait is presented of Israel. The author highlights that the Palestinian issue has taken a back seat and Israelis are now more concerned with whether religion has a larger role to play in the state or not. He divides Israeli society into three broad categories: The ultra-orthodox, orthodox nationalists and the secular. The first of the above is a community that takes a literalist interpretation of scripture. The men are supposed to only study the Torah and they refuse to serve in the military though it is mandatory. It is a community that resists modernity fiercely. The second is the one responsible for making illegal settlements. There is tension amidst these disparate positions which came to a boil in the case of a minor girl who was abused by ultra-orthodox men for not dressing ‘appropriately’. The video of the abuse went viral on the Internet, causing a backlash against the ultra-orthodox. The author has sharp insight into the fault lines in Israeli society and how it is more divisive than it actually looks. He gives an anecdote of being invited by friends for Memorial Day in Tel Aviv - a day when those who have fallen in battle are remembered by the Jews. But, ultra-orthodox Jews consider such occasions as sacrilege and refuse to participate. The author interviews numerous Israeli military men and politicians, and his interviews show that they are not very happy with events in the neighbourhood. The Arab Spring is turning into an Iranian winter, was famously quoted by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and this view holds currency with many Israelis. The invasion of Iraq by the US has strengthened Iran according to the author, and since then a continuous struggle has been going on between the Arab states and the Persians, on who is able to exert their sphere of influence in the region post the Arab Spring.
In one portion of the book it is mentioned that the Syrians were helping Sunni insurgents to slip into Iraq to fight the current regime. This seems strange, since the Syrian regime was more closely allied with Iran. Since Saddam’s fall, Iran has considerable leverage over the incumbent Iraqi regime, which is of the same religious persuasion - Shia. Hence, it is perplexing why Syria would support a Sunni insurgency, unless of course, the support is not from Assad’s regime. The author would have done well to explain how this was so. The author is of the opinion that it is imperative that America act when the moment is right, in context of the Arab Spring. But, Western interference is what caused such a soup in the first place. It would be more appropriate that American policy stopped dictating other sovereign nations on what to do.
The book is a must read. The author’s vast experience, acute analysis and anecdotal style of narration helps readers get a much better grasp on West Asia.