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Book Review: The Making of the Modern Middle East – a personal history by Jeremy Bowen

Book Review: The Making of the Modern Middle East – a personal history by Jeremy Bowen

Review by Dr Mike D Williams

The final event at the Budleigh Literary Festival this year was Jeremy Bowen talking about his latest book – a personal history of the Middle East. Jeremy, who as the BBC Middle East Editor, has been reporting from that region for over thirty years. He has been at the centre of a constantly shifting political and religious series of conflicts. Reporting on twenty wars means seeing human suffering at its most extreme yet also how people can show compassion and care for each other in the midst of war. He has countless stories to tell, many sad, some humorous, many insightful.

This is not an easy read due to the unending suffering that is detailed. Yet if you wish to gain a real insight into the multiple causes of turmoil in the Middle East it is worth the effort. There are twenty five short chapters that have built on a series Jeremy wrote and presented on Radio 4, called ‘Our Man in the Middle East’. It is organised through time so you can jump around the region a bit and even within chapters the timeline is not always obvious.

What is very clear from the reporting and reflecting is the willingness of Jeremy and his colleagues to get on the ground and talk to ordinary people as well as politicians and the different autocratic leaders. The nature of news reporting is that journalist focus on the trouble spots in our world. When things go wrong that is when we hear about it. There is much that is positive about the countries of the Middle East, yet the conflict situation is what dominates and makes the lives of those who live there harder than it should be.

There are big geopolitical themes mixed with local issues that can burst into open conflict. The impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks ripples throughout the region. The subsequent role of western nations seeking to transform the governance of countries by force has created many unforeseen consequences. The willingness of autocrats to kill their own people who sought political freedom in the Arab Spring alongside the ever present Israeli Palestinian conflict are all part of the ongoing situation.

Drawing conclusions is not easy. The final chapter does try to tease out some key points. “Without Russia, Assad might have fallen. Further east, without America, the government in Kabul collapsed.” The interconnections are important alongside the religious fault line between Shia and Sunnis. It is a region of “geopolitical Jenga.”

Spending an hour listening to Jeremy Bowen speak about his life work at the literary festival left me in admiration of those journalists who are constantly willing to put themselves in danger so that we can be informed about our world.