Top positive review
Between Despair and Hope
Reviewed in the United States on February 6, 2020
Not since "The Great War for Civilization" have I read such a sweeping overview of recent Middle Eastern history and in many ways, this book is better (as well as more accessible). While Robert Fisk, the author of that book, mostly blamed the West for everything that had happened to the Middle East, Kim Ghattas mostly blames Iran, Saudi Arabia and their rivalry (even if this theory is somewhat undermined by the two countries' détente during the 1990s and early 2000s). While that book was mostly a story about loss of life, this book is a story about loss of intellectual and social freedom.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, since 1979, have both been out to prove that their models of Islam are the only valid ones. The Saudi government didn't understand that this would lead its citizens and proxies to turn on its own American protector, but far from cutting them loose, the Americans for their part have mostly blamed Iran (or minor players such as Saddam Hussein) and bucked up the pro-Saudi dictatorships holding power throughout most of the Sunni Muslim world. (I didn't say Ghattas takes us off the hook entirely.) These dictatorships turned to Islam as a source of legitimacy and increasingly cracked down not only on Western imports but their own cultural legacy of a more cosmopolitan Islam. Iran was doing the same thing as Saudi Arabia (on a smaller scale due to having less disposable income). Dissenters in both Iran and Saudi Arabia remember being told as children that if they enjoyed music, molten iron would be poured into their ears on Judgment Day.
Ghattas' book is also superior to Fisk's in that the story of the devolution of Iran, Saudi Arabia and various other countries in the region is told not through her own eyes but through the eyes of a panoply of freethinkers both male and female with whom she has cultivated relationships. She tells the stories of their evolution and martyrdom or escape to the West.
Only one of the people who escaped to the West eventually returned to live in the region, which is why unlike Ghattas, I am inclined to despair for the Middle East. I don't see how these countries can come back from the black hole into which the wave has swept them, especially given that people who want more freedom than currently on offer can simply move to the West. That pressure will prove irresistible to most, but perhaps there are exceptions. The young Saudi studying IT who lived in my boardinghouse might be one. I encouraged him to stay, but he went home to Saudi Arabia. If there is hope, it will be built upon by his generation. Five stars for the book.