Review: A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin

Phew. Finally. I was reading this book for a good, ooh, three weeks I guess, before I finished it at last. Now I know a lot more things than I knew previously about the formation of the modern Middle East, but still not a lot. As with Three Empires on the Nile, much of the information contained in A Peace to End All Peace went in one eye and out the other. (That’s a gross image but “ear” doesn’t work with reading, so, er, sorry.)

A Peace to End All Peace is about the fall of the Ottoman Empire and how its collapse contributed to the development of the modern Middle East. When the Allies were ensconced in World War II, and Turkey allied itself, almost by accident, with Germany, the Allies began making deals amongst themselves, over who was going to get what bits of the Ottoman Empire when the war was over. A great deal of dishonest, behind-the-scenes negotiating went on about this, and a great deal of reneging on promises after the war was over.

I loved the parts of the book that dealt with the diplomacy: what the Turks thought and what the Germans thought and what the British thought. Like, the Germans sailed a ship into Turkish waters, before they were completely officially altogether allies, and Turkey let the German ships come into port. England and the Allies thought this meant Germany and Turkey were BFF. But in fact, Turkey was more or less blackmailing Germany, demanding Germany pay them handsomely for letting their ship come into port there. Germany had to do what Turkey wanted, since the alternative was sailing back out into waters where British warships were waiting. I wish I could read fifteen miles of books like these bits, about why diplomats thought the things they thought and did the things they did. Fromkin talks about the people who were making these decisions, their biases and their ignorance and their integrity (or lack thereof — oh, Lloyd George).

As with any book that provides a broad overview of something — in this case a fairly huge something, the division of the Middle East into its modern-day boundaries — this book threw a lot, lot, lot of characters, places, and situations. Fromkin individuated the people really well, I thought, and I kept track of them most of the time. I had a harder time remembering what countries were friends at any given moment, though, or who was double-crossing whom. And I was absolutely incapable of conceptualizing the space of the Middle East, which meant I never had a good picture of where things were happening.

Out of curiosity, how did y’all do on spatial relations in your aptitude tests? My uncle, who is an engineer, and my father, who is a jack-of-all-trades when he is not pursuing his One True Calling (social work), can look at the trunk of a car and stuff it with so many suitcases and bags it would blow your mind. This is not the case with me. I fail at all spatial relations. If things don’t come in a box that exactly fits them, I can conceive of no sensible way of storing them. You? And what did your aptitude tests say you should be? And are you that now?

A final note, while I’m on the subject of British imperialism (again): The scores and scores of trashy imperialist adventure novels out there in the world will soon be mine. Physical copies. One by one. I plan to collect them all! I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But, Jenny! You are so broke! New York City is expensive! How can you afford to buy any rare books, let alone many of them, particularly rare books that you may not want to reread a thousand times?”

My darlings.

There is this independent bookstore in Soho, McNally Jackson, which is patronized by earnest, liberal, middle-class non-tourists in ironic hats and skinny jeans, and although I officially sneer at its trendy location and pretentious coffees, in reality I am rather fond of it. It hosts frequent book clubs and author events, in Spanish and English, and for its size it has a really good selection of books, particularly books in translation. And it has just installed a book espresso machine. What in the world is up?

Have you ever read any good books about diplomacy? Want to recommend them to me?

Review: Three Empires on the Nile: Egypt 1869-1899, Dominic Green

Colonial encounters fascinate me. Sometimes I think that I will abandon all my other reading and devote myself only to colonial fiction and nonfiction. In general, I like colonial encounters by colonizing country in this exact order from best to worst: British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, Italian, German, Spanish, American. I have a particular sneaky fondness for novels from the olden days where stalwart British protagonists go abroad and have stiff upper lips and unyielding codes of hono(u)r. Please don’t judge me.

Three Empires on the Nile had a lot of players and a lot of new words and terms for various groups of players. I discovered, belatedly, that there was a glossary in back explaining the words, but it was just impossible for my poor little brain to remember all the characters. I couldn’t remember who was in charge of what: British government, British army, British government in Egypt, British government in Sudan, Sudanese armies, Sudanese slavers, Sudanese rebels, Turkish rulers, Turkish armies, Egyptian armies, Egyptian government. As long as we stuck with one set of characters for an extended period, I was okay, but if we left behind, say, the Turkish financial adviser, and then came back to him twenty pages later, I had utterly forgotten his name and why I cared about his activities. If I had had a journal to write down everyone’s name, or better yet, a glossary of characters in the back of the book, that would have helped a lot.

With that caveat, the stuff I did manage to follow was fascinating. It was the same old story of British colonialism: They wanted to carry on with their trade activities in Egypt, they didn’t want it to be governed by any other European country, and so, griping and grumbling and calling each other “the Honourable Gentleman” when really they wanted to hit each other very hard in the face, they took over Egypt and then, even more grumpily, the Sudan. The process was gradual and complicated and full of diplomatic tap-dancing around Turkey and France and Belgium and Egypt.

I also learned that the story of the gallant Gordon is quite as exciting as rumors of Gordon’s gallantry make it sound. Do you know about it? I will tell you. Well, once upon a time, England really didn’t want to be in charge of the Sudan, because it was a hot mess there (ha, literally), and moreover the Mahdi was carrying on a religious revolution. The people in charge of Britain asked the gallant Gordon, whose professional and personal reputation was very good, to pop down to the Sudan and evacuate the Egyptians who were stationed there, so that they would not get smashed up by the Mahdi and his crusaders. AND THEN COME STRAIGHT HOME (they told Gordon).

Instead of coming straight home, however, Gordon started trying to sort out a new government for the Sudan, so that the Mahdi could be quashed and would not come into Egypt and take over Egypt. He wanted to Stop the Mahdi and believed he could convince the British government to help him do it; and he became convinced that leaving Khartoum would be ungentlemanly because (he thought) then what would happen to the poor Sudanese people who got left behind? He felt responsible. So rather than evacuating Khartoum in a timely manner and then going straight home, he stuck around and fortified it for a siege, all the while sending letters back to England asking them please to send more troops as he had already promised everyone that more troops were coming. Then the Mahdi surrounded Khartoum and nobody could get out.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Prime Minister, Gladstone, did not want to send any more troops, and he did not like the gallant Gordon anyway. He said “Well really, shouldn’t he be able to get home if he wants to, and can we afford to send troops to reinforce him?” And Gordon sent more and more telegrams to say, “Hello hello, I am still here in Khartoum but now I properly cannot get home, we can survive for another few months but then we will start starving to death.” Gladstone still didn’t want to send reinforcements, so he posted Gordon a letter asking him to explain the situation in more precise detail, and that took several months to arrive. Meanwhile the Mahdi’s troops carried on beseiging Khartoum, and the Mahdi kept sending Gordon letters to say, “We know that no back-up is coming. I promise we won’t kill you if you will just surrender and convert to Islam,” but Gordon did not feel this was an act for a British gentleman and a Christian. And everyone in Khartoum was like, “Dude, you said British troops were coming,” and Gordon was like, “…I really thought they were.”

But they did not. All the people at Khartoum who did not give up and surrender to the Mahdi got killed, including of course Gordon. And yes, I know that Gordon was a nasty colonialist, but still, when I was reading the book I couldn’t help feeling terribly tense and hoping that Gladstone would give in and send reinforcements and save Gordon and the people at Khartoum. So I am not surprised that everyone in England was extremely cross with Gladstone for leaving all his fellow countrymen, not to speak of the Sudanese and Egyptians still in Khartoum, to die. They sent Gladstone loads of hate mail, which stressed him out so much he got diarrhea and couldn’t go in to work.

That story is the main thing that stuck in my brain from this book, because it is the event for which my brain had a small network of association. Everything else fell out like a sieve two seconds after I had turned the page, and that is why this is not a proper review but really just an excuse to tell you the story of Gordon at Khartoum. I’m still interested in Egypt and Britain, though, so if anyone knows of any good nonfiction books that deal with this subject, I would appreciate the recommendations.

If anyone else out there (*hem* Anastasia *hem*) shares my love of trashy adventure novels a la The Prisoner of Zenda, I just want to report that this book told me about an author called G.A. Henty who churned out novels by the dozens, all about daring British youths having adventures. They are called things like By Right of Conquest and When London Burned and With Clive in India, and look, I truly don’t know why this is, but if there is one thing I absolutely cannot resist, it’s British imperialist propaganda in the form of adventure novels.