Nathan J. Brown | Non-resident senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
Khirbet Khizeh is a searing fictionalization—though perhaps barely a fictionalization—of the expulsion of residents of a Palestinian village 70 years ago. Writing in 1949, shortly after the events he describes, Yizhar Smilansky, using the penname S. Yizhar, places the narrator in the then-distant future, purportedly writing about a time “long ago.” That narrator is, alternately, profoundly troubled and then troublingly untroubled by his actions. He also shifts between participating in and standing aloof from the cruelty of the expulsion. In the telling, the victims are solely victims, not more. The narrator knows little about them, and their own thoughts, words, and feelings barely impinge on the story.
Oddly, the novel’s and Yizhar’s role in Israeli public life mirror the tone of the book itself. Added to the Israeli school curriculum in the 1960s, the book was an accepted part of the literary canon even as its content was so utterly at odds with the canonical account of the origins of the “refugee problem.” Its author wrote other literary works but was also an active politician, closely associated with David Ben-Gurion. Controversies concerning the novel did not break out until three decades after its publication. It was not translated into English for six decades.
Today, the novel reads as an unfiltered, unflinching account of events that now really are “long ago,” even as their effects are still so very much alive.
Karim Sadjadpour | Senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
The individuals killed by the Middle East’s megalomaniacal dictators—Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mo‘ammar al-Qaddafi, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, and so on—are often reduced to anodyne statistics. But there is no data that measures the millions of families shattered by these deaths. Libyan novelist Hisham Matar’s memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between is the haunting story of just one of these statistics.
In 1990, Matar’s father Jaballa, an exiled Libyan dissident, was kidnapped from his apartment in Cairo by the secret police of the Egyptian government—America’s longtime regional ally—and “delivered to Qaddafi.” Matar’s entire adult life has been dedicated to finding—or finding out what happened to—his father. “When your father has been made to disappear for nineteen years,” he writes, “your desire to find him is equaled by your fear of finding him. You are the scene of a shameful private battle.”
Without bitterness, Matar’s story chronicles not only the unspeakable cruelty of Qaddafi’s Libya and its tumultuous aftermath, but also the widespread complicity—Western and otherwise—that enabled Qaddafi to rule for over 40 years. Through a common friend, Matar asks Nelson Mandela—a close ally of Qaddafi—to inquire about his father’s whereabouts. “Mandela,” his friend responded, “says never to ask him such a thing again.”
Loulouwa Al Rachid | Co-director of the Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at the Carnegie Middle East Center
Written by a historian of international relations, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou’s A Theory of ISIS: Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order offers a convincing take on the genesis, nature, and trajectory of what was for a time the most powerful terrorist group in the world. In doing so, the author brings the social sciences into a conceptualization of the so-called Islamic State, beyond its specific geopolitical and radical Islamist nature.
Mohamedou shows that the meaning of the Islamic State’s violence in the areas it controls, as well as regionally and transnationally, is inscribed in three factors: the colonial story linking the Levant and North Africa with the West; globalization, characterized by fluidity and intensity, which magnifies the organization’s spectacular use of violence and its perfunctory attempts at state-building; and post-modernity, with its use and reuse of media and communications technology against a backdrop of urban youth culture, commercial individualism, and societal alienation. To Mohamedou, the cumulative effect of all this has been a hybrid movement, one that has returned violence to the sender.
Mohanad Hage Ali | Communications director at the Carnegie Middle East Center
Hazem Kandil’s The Power Triangle: Military, Security, and Politics in Regime Change explores the discrepancy in the fortunes of three countries that underwent military coups in the 20th century, namely Iran, Turkey and Egypt. In Iran, an authoritarian monarchy ensued, only to be overthrown by an Islamic revolution. Turkey, in turn, developed “limited democracy” after successive attempts at reform. And Egypt became a resilient police state.
The power struggle between the military, security, and political institutions, or “the power triangle” as Kandil names them, is the main driving factor behind the differences among the three countries. The book provides a very useful history of the tensions and alliances in the power triangles in Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. In the case of Egypt, one sees the value of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s security architecture in establishing coup-proof regimes in the country. Kandil largely attributes this to Zakaria Mohieddin, one of Egypt’s “free officers” who died only six years ago at the age of 93, without unveiling much about his role. For that enduing silence, Kandil described Mohieddin as a “vault of a man.”
Regardless of the validity of Kandil’s central argument, the book provides an informative and detailed account of power relations in each of the three countries he examines, as well as insightful quotes. One of them, by Hannah Arendt, tells us much about how Kandil views power in authoritarian states: “Above the state and behind the facades of ostensible power … lays the power nucleus of the country, the superefficient and super-competent services of the secret police.”
Michael Young | Editor of Diwan
Steve Coll’s new book, Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a cautionary tale of how America tends to intervene in complex environments, expecting them to bend to its priorities, only to discover that other countries have priorities of their own.
When the United States entered Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks, its main focus was counterterrorism and the defeat of Al-Qa‘eda. However, the overthrow of the Taliban regime had negative repercussions for Pakistan, until then the main power broker in the country, particularly in its rivalry with India. Soon, the strongest Pakistani intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence, was quietly backing the Taliban against the United States, through its Directorate S.
Today, the United States is stuck in Afghanistan. It fears that a withdrawal would signal defeat for a political system that it has backed for over a decade and a half, yet it has no path to victory. In that way, quagmires are made. More important, Americans have learned that they cannot shape the world to conveniently suit a desire to cut their own losses. By taking Afghanistan they opened a can of worms affecting Pakistani, Iranian, Russian, and Chinese interests. Coll does a service to bring out the complexities of the situation. America is the prisoner of an irresolvable dilemma, ironically only three decades after helping to push Russia into a similar one in the country.