Categories
Daily

This Very Old House

Originally appeared in The Daily.

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

by Anthony Shadid

Mariner Books; 336pp.
A century of warfare in Lebanon has sent most Lebanese into exile, flung to the corners of the earth like shrapnel from a rocket blast. These 12 million overseas Lebanese — three times the number still in the country — keep their identity strong by marrying other Lebanese, sending their kids to Lebanese schools and, often, tithing money to their co-religionists in the old country.
Among the Christian faction of this diaspora was the late Anthony Shadid, the two-time Pulitzer winner who died of an asthma attack while reporting in Syria earlier this month for the New York Times. He grew up in Oklahoma, in many ways disconnected from Lebanon: He spoke English at home, and he never visited Lebanon until his early 20s. But the Lebanese force was strong in this one, and eventually he returned to the site of his family home, the subject of “House of Stone,” his third and final book.

Categories
Daily

Cullen Murphy’s new book on the Inquisition

Originally appeared in The Daily.

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

by Cullen Murphy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320pp.

“Inquisition” is among the least cuddly words in the English language — an odd state of affairs, when you consider that some of its linguistic cousins are perfectly lovely. The ultimate Latin root means simply to ask a question, and its English relative “inquisitive” is something we typically laud children for being. But to be the object of any sort of inquisition, whether headed by a hellbent bureaucrat or a man in a scarlet cassock, is very bad news for you indeed, with a guarantee of psychological discomfort and strong hint of the physical sort as well.

Categories
Barnes & Noble Review

Tongue-Tied

Review of Michael Erard’s Babel No More.

The ability to speak multiple unrelated foreign languages fluently counts among a short list of showstopping talents, like the ability to play a Bach fugue or fly a helicopter (assuming one isn’t a harpsichordist or pilot by profession). It impresses in part because it suggests discipline, time, and effort — and, perhaps, other hidden skills.

But what if the languages came effortlessly? There are, in the history of polyglottism, a few examples of people who seem to have found a way to cheat the system and acquire languages so easily and quickly that what would normally appear a feat of discipline and erudition looks instead like savantism. These hyperpolyglots chitchat fluently in dozens of dialects, and they pick up new ones literally between meals. For the rest of us who have to slave over our verb tables, their talent resembles sorcery.

Categories
National

Mercenary Hires Self, Has Fool for a Client

I reviewed Simon Mann’s memoir, Cry Havoc, for The National.

John Blake Publishing Ltd

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Everyone’s favourite kind of coup d’état is the bloodless one: El Presidente is surprised in his pyjamas, or while shopping in London, his trusted military aides turn out to be snakes, and he ends up, along with his loyalists, either under house arrest or in exile – padded at first, then increasingly threadbare as the secret accounts are frozen, one by one. Meanwhile, if you are an average citizen of his beleaguered country, not much changes. The money flows to anyone but you: meet the new Presidente, same as the old Presidente.

Simon Mann, one of the most famous living mercenaries, set out in 2004 to manage what he insisted would be a bloodless coup to topple Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. But the Wonga Coup was so bloodless that it barely got started. Mann chartered a Boeing 727 full of armed men and planned to fly into the capital of Malabo, where an advance team led by the South African mercenary Nick du Toit intended to take over the airport. Mann hoped to install Severo Moto, the leader of a government-in-exile headquartered in Spain, as president, and in return reap millions in oil revenues.

Categories
Wall Street Journal

Janet Reitman’s “Inside Scientology”

Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Inside Scientology

By Janet Reitman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 444 pages, $28

The Church of Scientology, founded in 1950 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is not a church that turns the other cheek. In the early 1990s, the Internal Revenue Service went after it for taxes; Scientology unleashed an enfilade of lawsuits and complaints that eventually brought the IRS to heel and won the church tax exemption. In “Inside Scientology,” Janet Reitman says that when the church was charged criminally in 1998 over the death of a parishioner, the organization overwhelmed the medical examiner in Clearwater, Fla.; within two years she had resigned and later suffered a nervous breakdown. According to Ms. Reitman, David Miscavige, the church’s leader, called these acts a ” ‘holy war’ of litigation.” If the English language has a more frightening phrase, I haven’t come across it.

Categories
Bookforum

Trotsky and Tahrir

Originally appeared in Bookforum (Summer 2011).

Bibliomancy—the ancient practice of opening a sacred text to any page, then mining a random line for prophecy and advice—is not one of my
standard journalistic research methods. But for those who write about the Middle East, 2011 has been an exceptionally demanding year. With
autocracies toppling and teetering decades ahead of schedule, untold shelves of books on Arab politics now need revision (or pulping). Could the methods of yore be any worse? The medieval bibliomancers liked to consult Virgil, Protesters and soldiers celebrate in Cairo, February 2011. And the ancient Chinese—along with plenty of hippies— preferred the wisdom of the I Ching. Back home after covering the Egyptian revolution and the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, I tried both. I hoped the Aeneid would yield something apropos about Carthage, but instead I landed on a verse about naval architecture; my random page in the I Ching was “Ta Kuo” through “Wei Tzu” in the index). Any relevance to Arab revolution was opaque.

But I am happy to report that bibliomancy of a more recent vintage has held some promise. It is a special book whose every page offers an insight and an expertly deployed phrase. In this season, more than in most, Leon Trotsky’s energetic and embittered The History of the Russian Revolution is ripe for bibliomancy, and capable on any page of furnishing an aperçu uncannily relevant to the Arab world today. It is also among the most thrilling works of history ever written. Trotsky wrote “a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny,” which should in itself sound similar to much of the masters-of-our-fate liberation rhetoric in common currency in revolutionary Arabia. In its characters, but even more so in its depiction of the eddies and microcurrents of collective action during the crucial February Revolution, it is riveting and intelligent, capable of nourishing any reader who wants to know what the Arab Spring feels like from inside.

Categories
Barnes & Noble Review

Bob the Destroyer

The Fear

By PETER GODWIN
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

The word “autogenocide” came to English from a French coinage in the 1970s, meant to convey the self-slaughter of Cambodia in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge. The category has been a rather lonely one since then, with just a few instances of mass death that were truly self-inflicted, and could not plausibly be explained away as collateral damage in a fight against an outside enemy. The pre-eminent current example of autogenocide is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and Peter Godwin’s new book The Fear is the most enraging account of what has happened there yet published.

Categories
National

The British Invasion of Mesopotamia

Review of Charles Townshend’s Desert Hell (Harvard University Press).  Originally appeared in The National.

In the history of colonial Britain, the name Charles Townshend is usually said with a scowl. It wasn’t always thus. In 1895, as a young captain, Townshend led the besieged garrison at Chitral Fort and held out heroically until the arrival of reinforcements. But his reputation and ignominy live on mostly because of his defeat two decades later in what is now Iraq, against an Ottoman opponent generally judged weaker and less equipped than Townshend’s own Indian soldiers. Townshend led his soldiers up from Basra towards Baghdad, only to meet fierce Turkish resistance at the Battle of Ctesiphon, near the enormous sixth-century Sassanian arch that is one of the wonders of pre-Islamic architecture. In December 1915, he retreated to Kut in eastern Iraq near the modern Iranian border, and after five months’ siege he surrendered to the Turks. In their custody, fully half his surviving men perished, mostly from exhaustion and disease.

The author of Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia (who is, oddly enough, also named Charles Townshend, though he admits to no relationship) echoes conventional wisdom in rating the defeat at Kut the most embarrassing British military defeat since Cornwallis’s surrender to American tax protesters at Yorktown in 1781. In this book, the blame meted out to Townshend the general is less than he has received in previous accounts, but still enough to place him in the low ranks of British generalship. To his superiors, Townshend expressed reservations about the push to Baghdad, arguing that the gains would be minor and the potential costs extreme. But in the end, the superiors’ views won out, and Townshend pushed forward, with disastrous consequences.