Saturday, October 27, 2012

"On The Front Lines of A Global Struggle."

For today's Ottawa Citizen I've written a review essay about the world as we know it that touches on three splendid books. They are particularly important books for Canadians to read because, among other things, they provide a portal out from under the suffocating weight of the consensus Canada's cultural establishment expects us to adopt on the subject of the Middle East and on the Afghan struggle.
About the latter, long story short: You’ll notice it in the way perfectly progressive Canadians will talk themselves into such tight corners on the subject of Afghanistan that they sound as though they actually believe that the only reason all those Afghan girls risk their lives to walk to school every day is so that Don Cherry will say nice things about them on Coach’s Corner.
I know, I'm insufferably unfashionable. It's just my nature.
Anyway, the first of the books is Michael Petrou's Is This Your First War? Travels Through the Post 9-11 Islamic World. The book chronicles Petrou's time during the Darfur genocide on the Sudan-Chad frontier, his clandestine travels in Iran with that country’s diverse and far-flung underground of brave democrats, intellectuals and dissidents, his sojourns in Pakistan and on the streets of New York following the atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001, and his time in Israel and Palestine. But it’s Petrou’s dispatches from the front lines of the “first war” of the book’s title, the freedom struggle that Canadians usually call the “war in Afghanistan,” that gives the book its most useful gravitas.
Petrou’s previous book, Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, is far and away the best book on that subject. I reviewed that book in Vancouver Review (here's a synopsis), and I mention it in passing because readers may pick up something of Catalonia in the northern Afghanistan of Petrou’s new book. When Petrou first arrived at Afghanistan’s front lines, he showed up on horseback, a 27-year-old cub reporter for the Ottawa Citizen. It gets better from there.
Michael Totten, meanwhile, is part Paul Theroux and part Hunter S. Thompson, but he is also very much his own bloke. He covers a heck of a lot of turf in Where the West Ends: Stories from the Middle East, the Black Sea, the Balkans and the Caucasus. What you get is exactly what it says on the tin, and  I was not exaggerating when I wrote that it's as good as travel writing gets. Totten's been around. His previous books are The Road to Fatima Gate, written during Totten’s time in Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution and the Israeli-Hezbollah war, and In the Wake of the Surge, a synthesis of his seven extended visits to Iraq during the command of General David Petraeus. 
Totten's Where the West Ends is that rare kind of book that you begin reading and the next thing you know you've been swept along to the last page. But take your time with it. It's worth paying close attention if only because the people you'll meet aren't caricatures of any fashionable gender-ethnicity identity pantomimes. 
For an even closer and at the same time a more kaleidoscopic view of the writers, liberals, dissidents and otherwise perfectly ordinary young women and men on the far side of the East-West divide, you need to get your hands on a copy of Sohrab Ahmari and Nasser Weddady's Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran. Because it's a collection of essays, it allows the people to speak for themselves. It's more than just refreshing to hear from the very people who live in the unfree parts of the Middle East. The thing to notice is the way they take such risks in their lives on behalf of the very “values” that so many privileged and pompous Canadians absurdly and arrogantly arrogate as those exclusively "Canadian" values that "we" are incessantly hectored by the Canadian establishment to take care not to "impose" on "them."
I was especially moved by “S.D.”, in Iran, a young comrade who takes the opportunity in "Living Inside 1984" to speak directly to those of us who live the West: “While you are fighting for the rights of pandas over there, people are still being stoned to death here in my country.”
One of the privileges (or curses) of writing a newspaper column in a free country is that you're expected to allow your "objectivity" to fall around your ankles. I am happy to know Petrou, Totten and Ahmari, and consider them to be fellow travelers. If I write favorably about these lads it's not because of any affections for them. It's the other way around. It's because they deserve the highest praise for the work they do in their very different ways, but it's mainly because sensible people everywhere will profit from reading their stuff.
No Pasaran, etc.