A review of the history of the current Middle East.
I selected this history by one of my favorite authors, Russell, because one needs to understand the somewhat arbitrary architecture of the political and governing geography of the nations/states of The Middle East. I often hear discussions which seem to assume that these geographical entities, as now defined, have previously existed from time immemorial. Even though it is historically accurate that there have been “nations/ tribes” identified as Arabs, Azeris, Persians, Turks, Armenians, Assyrians and Jewish as well as several minorities for centuries, the vague and contested boundaries have moved and been redefined many times. Of course at least three of the World’s greatest and largest religions compete for this blood soaked Holy Land. Many people are surprised to learn that the current nation/ states and governments were only defined less than one hundred years ago, after the First World War. I have to be continually reminded that these invented entities and redefinitions are only thirteen years older than I am! Yet they are defended with the greatest of tribal passions and sacrifice. The concentration of one of the largest sources of essential oil, remains a major driving issue. I find it ironic that this oil is both the prize and the fuel for the engines of war which are used in the constant carnage employed to control this triplicated site of the birth of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.
This narrative is told in the first person by a fictional character, Agnes Shanklin. Miss Shanklin’s story is the creation of the modern Middle East at the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, where Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence and Lady Gertrude Bell met to decide the fate of the Arab world – and of our own.
A 40-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio, still reeling from the tragedies of the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1918, our narrator has come into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel just as the Peace Conference convenes, Agnes enters into the company of the historic luminaries who will, in the space of only a few days at a hotel in Cairo, invent the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.
While not a participant at the conference, Agnes is ostensibly insignificant, and that makes her a welcome sounding board for Churchill, Lawrence, and Bell. As she observes the tumultuous inner workings of nation-building, she is drawn more and more deeply into geopolitical intrigue. As an aside, she has a personal awakening with an intimacy with a German spy.
Another reviewer says: “With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates today’s headlines.” Dreamers of the Day is a memorable, passionate, gorgeously written novel.
As a final reasoning regarding life, Mary Doria Russell, through the voice of Agnes Shanklin councils: “Read to children, vote and never buy anything from a man selling fear.” 30
Dreamers of the Day, Mary Doria Russell, Ballatine Books, New York, and Audiobooks, 2008, Our photograph, here, is courtesy of My Phuong Nguyen.