World History Seen Through a Middle-Eastern Prism

Peter Frankopan: Silk Roads. A New History of the World ISBN 978-1-4088-3999-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The subject of this book is so vast that I hardly know how to begin this review. Perhaps I should start by saying that I was overwhelmed both by the author’s detailed knowledge and his analytical ability by which I mean his way to connect the past to the present and to show hidden links between events that do not seem connected in the first place. I have rarely seen a researcher presenting such a complex issue in such an intelligible way.

For complex the subject is: the history of the world. One has to be a little ambitious, hasn’t one? But why a new history? Peter Frankopan’s stroke of genius consists in a shift of perspective as he explains in the preface. We tend to have a Eurocentric view of history: the Neanderthal, the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, Enlightenment, World War I and II. Perhaps we may spare a thought for the colonisation of the Americas, feel a little guilty because of the genocides we orchestrated, and even after the United States seemed to be the biggest winner of World War II, we tend to view the history of the world through the prism of Europe. After all, the likelihood of the Cold War turning into mutual nuclear annihilation would had the first and most violent impact along the Iron Curtain.

Frankopan takes a different look at the past 2500 years. He and this book’s readers board a time-machine and fly back to the times and places of Cyrus the Great, the founder of a powerful Persian empire. Location is paramount here. Frankopan analyzes how the power balance in this region, the wealth of its natural resources, the industriousness of local traders at the origin of the Silk Road, the genius of the local intellectuals, and, last but not least the refinement of arts impacted over the centuries first on Europe, than on China, India, on what today is Russia and finally on the New World.

This completely new perspective on the correlation of political, military, economic, sociological and philosophical events affecting us Europeans is the key issue of Peter Frankopan’s monumental work. His research was both broad and deep, his sources are well documented. His analytical brilliance is matched by an easy-to-follow narrative leading in my case to many new insights, insights that many years of studies in political science, in political journalism and in government service did not give me. I was truly impressed and at the same time frustrated about my past ignorance. So much had not known or understood!

Let me just name a few examples. Fact 1: Jews and Muslims supported each other politically and economically in the early years of Islam, both gaving identified a win-win situation and a common religious heritage. Fact 2: A transcontinental slave trade between Europe and Asia, spanning over several centuries, was economically of the highest importance to the political entities of these times. Fact 3: Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union had an important economic rationale as Nazi Germany needed the grain harvested in the Ukraine to feed its citizen and the oil of the Caucasus to feed its war machine. Fact 4: Not only the United States, but China too supplied Afghan insurgents against the Soviet occupation force with weapons and trained Islamic fighters from its western province; a support it would letter regret – just like the United States – when these fighters turned their arms against their former patrons.

In each chapter of this highly recommended book, Frankopan focuses on a different type of “Silk Road”. At times human ambition was motivated and fuelled by the appetite for textile, furs, gold, silver, oil or grain. At others Man embarked on the road to moral salvation or hell on earth, to crisis and war, to revolution and genocide. The earth’s political and economic center of gravity shifted east and west, and the last chapter of the book remains to be written.

If the original Silk Road linked China to Europe with the Middle East as the indispensable transit point, the current government in Beijing intends to rebuilt this political and economic power axis with its “Belt and Road Initiative”, a system of overland corridors and shipping lanes from South-east Asia to Eastern Europe and Africa. It is an ambitious project aiming to translate economic into political leverage and to make China the leading nation of the world at the expense of the United States, perceived by many inside and outside of China as having passed its zenith as a superpower. “The Guardian” had published an excellent piece about this project.

I am looking forward to a new edition of Frankopan’s book in ten years and another one in twenty years. It would have to address in a new chapter China’s emergence as the world’s economic leader or, alternatively, the fall of an ambitious state that failed to address migration issues, civil unrest, political corruption and ecological disasters. In which direction the centre of gravity would shift in the second scenario will remain a challenging question.

It is this context that makes “The Silk Roads” a highly stimulating read. It shakes our Eurocentric view upon world affairs and encourages us to look at globalisation with the eyes of an Iranian banker, a Chinese entrepreneur, a Kazakh railway engineer or an Indian aerospace scientist. If George Orwell coined the phrase “Who controls the past controls the future”, I am tempted to believe that who knows the past is well prepared to anticipate the future. Human life is 50 percent ambition turned towards the future and 50 percent experience gained in the past by himself or his ancestors. Frankopan concludes the book with a stern warning: “What has been striking throughout the events of recent decades is the west’s lack of perspective about global history – about the bigger picture, the wider themes and the larger patterns playing out in the region.”

When I closed the book I felt that politicians and citizen in Europe and in the United States would be well advised to display a little humbleness when dealing with Asian countries, their governments and their citizen. There is no natural law that makes our countries more important than others. We may dictate the rules now. A look back shows that others have written them in the past, and it is not unlikely that they will write them again in the near future.

Obviously the treasures of the Orient have tempted many adventurers to explore the Middle East, and the legends around both the treasures and the adventurers have excited generations of story-tellers and their audiences. “Sheherazade.2”, a piece composed by John Adams, is part of this tradition:

Sheherazade – Only Smart Women Survive

Warning – Children Are Liable for Their Parents!

John Lanchester: The Wall ISBN 978-0-571-29872-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ You are familiar with the feeling: You did something wrong, you begged for pardon, pardon was granted, but the feeling of guilt lingers on, the remorse remains palpable, a barrier between you and the other. “The Wall” is about guilt and it is about us and them. Us, well, that’s us, the present generation. Them, that’s our children, people like Josef Kavanagh and Hifa. What separates us, is the fact that we were born before an irreversible climate catastrophe occurred – the one we did not prevent – while they were born after “the Change” and into a world that is not necessarily worth living in.

For Kavanagh, us refers to the inhabitants of Great Britain, living behind a heavily guarded wall built all along the coastline to protect the country from a rising sea level and refugees fleeing their submerged home countries – them. Or as they are euphemistically called in the novel: the Others. Kavanagh and Hifa are Defenders, young people doing their duty on the wall, watching out for refugees that might approach the wall from the seaside and shooting them. Kavanagh is perfectly aware that if a refugee will come through on his watch, he will be put to sea and no longer belong to what he used to call “us”, but become one of “them”.

“The Wall” is about guilt and responsibility. Lanchester’s novel is a tough one. It pitches us against our children or rather it shows us how our present choices will pitch us against our children. The moral dilemma he sketches strongly resonates with my remorse for not doing enough against climate change, which may lead to a situation where our society will kill less fortunate people so that we may live. And I have to ask myself how I will justify my lack of action in ten or 20 years when I will be challenged by my daughter. A bit like our parents may have challenged our grand-parents by asking why they hadn’t prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The wall, as a construction, isn’t perfect, neither are the people defending it. First of all, there are not enough Defenders. After the Change the incentive to reproduce has dramatically sunk. Furthermore there are traitors among the Defenders, siding with the Others. Finally, there are so many Others, many more than there are Defenders. Courage, good planning, luck, desperation – all play a part when a refugee manages to get across the wall, and as Lanchester, says “Others who get over the Wall have to choose between being euthanised, becoming Help or being put back to sea”.

Help. Help are everywhere and do the daily chores for those who are entitled to a little luxury. Help have no names, no feelings and hardly any rights. They are an anonymous mass, owned by the British government, with their only raison d’être to serve as modern slaves in all but name.

The world Lanchester shows us is a gruesome dystopia and fascinating at the same time. An intellectual experiment masterfully narrated and leading to painfully interesting ethical reflections. The world after the Change being what it is, Kavanagh reflects his situation throughout the novel and his personality evolves with each new turning point of the novel.

Exposed to solitude, monotony and bad weather while mounting the guard, his only thought is to get away from the wall as soon as possible. When his squad enjoys a well-deserved rest, it begins to dawn on him that after his two years on the wall, he has nowhere to go to. He harbours ambitious, but vague dreams, at the same time he enjoys the comradeship among the Defenders.

Once Kavanagh has experienced a life-or-death moment, his personal life takes a new trajectory, which leads to the question of responsibility turned upside-down. What kind of responsibility does Kavanagh have towards the generation following his own? Finally betrayal kicks in, and Kavanagh’s ethical considerations become absurd. In a violent society where the “greater good” is more important than basic rights, life is reduced to physical and mental survival. Or so it would seem.

Taken together, all this should be enough to wet your appetite for novel with an exciting plot. I like Lanchaster’s style, and his familiarity with the weather on the British Isles shows the multiple ways to describe cold and wet and windy. I loved that since I experienced the combination of cold and wet and windy myself many times, and yes, there are many different types of cold and wet and windy. And since the weather is what it is, here or on the wall, I recommend a cup of tea and some lovely music from an Other who made it to London before the wall had been built. In the second half of the 18th century, Jacob Kirkman wrote his lovely Sonata I in A Major:

Chamber music from a continental immigrant

Books of the Past I Had Forgotten (About)

I did some digging. In my past. In my memories. As I had promised in my first post dealing with books of the past that were important to me. Funny how I had forgotten about them. Some of them were actually more important than those that sprung to my mind while I was compiling the first list. Now, if you continue reading, brace yourself. You are signing up for a couple of confessions!

1977 – 1982

Jack Hambleton: Flieger überm Busch (Forest Ranger) I inherited this youth novel, published in its 3rd edition in 1956, from my dad. Bill Hanson and Bun Higgins, two friends, a young and a more experienced bush pilot, chase bandits setting Canada’s woods on fire. I loved this book. I still love it. I don’t have my dad’s copy anymore, I gave it to one of my cub scouts when I resigned as an assistant cub scout leader. I immediately regretted it and got hold of a vintage copy. I just wanted to possess it. Decades later I passed this copy to my daughter. She liked it too. She presented it to her school class. Imagine, a book published more than half a century ago! Pretty cool.


1982 – 1989

Heinrich Heine: Sämtliche Gedichte (Complete Poems) Those familiar with my music blog will know that Heine is my favourite poet. Quite a few composers have set his poems to music. I fell in love with Heine at school, despite an incompetent teacher. But incompetent teachers had stopped impressing me. It was the same teacher who made me learn part of a novel by heart as I mentioned in that earlier post. The way Heine plays with language, his irony wielded like a rapier, his political Romanticism – I just love it!

Anne Frank: Tagebuch (The Diaries of Anne Frank) I had always been fascinated by World War II. I was worried about my fascination for the German side. Hic sunt daemones… One of my teachers, a human rights activist, understood my worries. He warned me about being lured to the dark side, but he offered no rescue. I had to find it myself. Anne Frank was a revelation. Very moving, very disturbing. I understood Hitler’s idea: People like Anne have to die for Germany to live. Anne was for more sympathetic than this man with his ridiculous moustache and his bad haircut. Never mind the cool planes flown by the Luftwaffe, I knew where I stood. On Anne’s side.

Richard Bach: The Bridge Across Forever Men and women and the question of love. Meeting a soul mate and taking care of a relationship. Exploring what love can mean – for myself and the girl I was in love with. I was 17 and I had no clue about all of the above. The book helped fill a few voids not covered by the biology book. It’s still a good read. My copy is full of annotations by myself and my former girl friend. She was equally impressed. The right book at the right time. Soon afterwards we decided we were not made for each other. We were devastated, but it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t ready to take up the challenge of a true partnership. I hadn’t grown up yet. It would take many more years unfortunately.


1989 up to now

Ken Follett: The Key to Rebecca I think this was the first of many spy novels by Ken Follett that I read. It certainly was the one that fascinated me most. A World War II spy hunt in the exotic setting of Egypt, under British control, but threatened by the evil designs of a Nazi master spy. Thrilling! I like anything linked to codes and cryptology since my early childhood, when I made invisible ink from lemon juice that reveals itself only when heat is applied. I gave my copy of Follett’s novel to a fellow student in Munich and forgot to claim it back. Shame on me! That’s why I had trouble remembering some of the best books I had read. I gave them away to share the pleasure and…  bye-bye! It’s unbelievable!

Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen I must confess that it was the cover of the German edition that initially compelled me to grab this book at the bookstore. Once I had read a few lines – still in the bookstore – I had found a better reason. What a strange book, I thought. The lives of women in Japan, their hopes, their disappointments, the subject of sexuality – I never had asked myself these questions. The novel had a strange effect upon me: bewilderment, curiosity, fascination, compassion… I wonder whether it would not be a good thing to read it once more!

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings I read this breathtaking novel during my last days as a student. My flat was being painted, I stayed with a friend, I had a job contract in my pocket, but since I was to start working only a month later, I had no money at all. I checked my friend’s bookshelf, found Tolkien’s great achievement and didn’t bother to go outside for three days. I even forgot to eat. That was… unheard of.

Biljana Srbljanovic: Familiengeschichten. Belgrad (Family Stories – The Belgrade Trilogy) After having spent a week in Sarajevo in 1998, I was keen to explore not only Bosnian literature but also Serbian contemporary works. These two dramas truly shocked me. They depict dysfunctional, violent and mysogynic families, serving as an allegory for a dysfunctional, violent and mysogynic society. Srbljanovic condenses the long-term psychological effects of Tito’s dictatorship, the Balkan civil wars and the complicated history of Serbia searching for its identity in two powerful theatre pieces in a language trying to accommodate love and destruction at the same time.

Elias Khoury: La porte du soleil (Gate of the Sun) My dream was to work as a political editor for a newspaper and I was able to make this dream come true. The Middle East was one of my traditional fields of interest, and Khoury’s novel, set in Lebanon during its disastrous civil war, opened my eyes to the plight of refugees and the religious and ethnic plurality of this country. A sad excursion into a fascinating society.

William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Imagine a spring morning in central Scotland. The sun just had gone up, it was cold and I stood at a bus stop. I felt miserable. I felt lonesome. I had hardly any money left (I have an issue with money, it would seem!!!). I wanted to stay in Scotland and I longed for home. I had fallen in love with a girl and she had left. I had hung around with another girl who had left too. I had had a wild night with a third girl whom I had left once I was sober again. I desperately looked for a kind illusion. I had it in my backpack. Once I had started to read at the bus stop, the cold air, the empty belly, the lack of funds and the broken heart were forgotten. Thank you, William!

Final remarks

What I take away from this post – a real intellectual effort started today way past midnight and finished on a morning bus – is two-fold: First, exploring foreign cultures like Serbia, Japan or Lebanon somehow seems important to me. My cosmopolitan side, I guess. Second, the perspective of female authors intruded into my life. Well, it’s never to late, is it? And finally, reflecting this second selection, I realized that books reconcile me partly with this world. Just as music does. That fills me with joy.

Behind the book and inside the story

A fellow blogger, Uwe Kalkowski, who likes to sit in a Kaffeehaus, gave me the idea: A post about books that have had a lasting impact on me, books that shook me and prevented from a good night’s sleep. Books that stirred intense emotions, both good and bad. Now, wouldn’t it be fun to compile a list and see what books I would include and why? Here we go, the books of my life, organized in three sections corresponding roughly to my childhood years, youth and adulthood. All deserve ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️!

1977-1982

Dschungelbuch

Rudyard Kipling: Das Dschungelbuch (The Jungle Book) German is the first foreign language I learned at school, and accordingly, the first books I read were either German books or translations into German. Being a cub and later a boy scout, the Jungle Book exerted a huge fascination upon my mind and became one of my ethical reference points. It served me well then and it still serves now.

see abenteuer

Enid Blyton: See der Abenteuer (Sea of Adventure) I inherited this novel from my mother and, after having read it, I was craving for more from Enid Blyton. Of all her books, I liked the adventure series with Philip, Dinah, Jack, Lucy and the parrot Kiki best. And this specific novel had a powerful impact upon my fantasy – it painted a picture of a  wild landscape, beaten by winds and the sea, a landscape I later found in reality, on the Scottish Orkney Islands. Ultimate happiness!

klassenzimmer

Erich Kästner: Das fliegende Klassenzimmmer (The Flying Classroom) Being lonely at school, being lonely in life, even if surrounded by people, was a feeling I experienced from early childhood on. Being the odd boy out never felt very good. Kästner experienced something similar in his childhood, and this generally amusing children’s novel has its dark moments that made me cry silently when I read it.


1982-1989

caine

Herman Wouk: The Caine Mutiny  I suspect this book was the first of many that touched a subject that keeps haunting me: men and the identity of men. William S. Keith is a young, well-educated and spoiled man from a rich US family who joins the US Navy during World War II. He is confronted with autocratic superiors, lazy subordinates, the dull routine of any military system, a typhoon, a court-martial and a kamikaze attack. The novel retraces how a boy becomes a man. The “Caine Mutiny” was also the first novel I read showing in detail how things between men and women go wrong and why. A lot to digest for a 15-year-old. I read this book at least 20 times since then.

schimmelreiter

Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse) This novel was compulsory reading at high school, and I remember the book very warmly. I had to learn parts of it by heart as a disciplinary sanction, but I had my revenge on the teacher in a test, when I stole a couple of ideas from the editor’s afterword to answer a question. It was the first time I read an editor’s note about a novel. It was actually the first time I understood symbolism in literature. The experience unlocked a door to a world I haven’t left since.

fracasse

Théophile Gautier: Le Capitaine Fracasse An alternative role model to the sailor William S. Keith: An impoverished French nobleman joins a theatre troop to give his life a meaning. He is gifted and loyal to his new friends, and, romantisme oblige, there are a lot of occasions for heroic duels and Romantic love. Gautier’s detailed and evoking descriptions, his amazing command of the French language – a true delight! I loved it then, I love it now.


1989 up to now

steppenwolf

Hermann Hesse: Der Steppenwolf (Steppenwolf. A novel) “Steppenwold” was an almost traumatic experience that marked the culminating point of my first identity crisis. I must have been 22 or so. Men and the identity of men once more. Ugh. Men and their relationship with women. Ugh-ugh. Men and their selfishness. Nooooooo! I passed several bad nights after having read this book, I felt sick and nauseated. I cried and I was desperate. I never took up the book again. It’s an excellent book, but I had become afraid of… a text.

kierkegaard

Sören Kierkegaard: Entweder – Oder (Either/Or) No other writer has stimulated me so much during my studies as the philosopher Sören Kierkegaard. I explored both the Bible and French existentialism having Kierkegaard within reach. His works, and most importantly “Either/Or”, triggered some of my most intense reflections about religion, about giving life a meaning, about leading a good life. In a few years I will schedule a second exploration of his numerous works as I am sure I have missed 95% of what Kierkegaard meant to say.

quiet don

Mikhail Sholokhov: And Quiet Flows the Don I read this  book when I lived in the former GDR, where Sholokhov was well-known. It helped me connect with the East Germans I worked with, lived with and discussed with on long evenings in their homes or in a pub. The novel narrates the story of a Cossack soldier during  World War I and the Russian Revolution and presents an amazing sketch of the transition from Czarist to Communist Russia. The Soviet author was rewarded by a Nobel prize; but Sholokhov most likely did not write the novel himself. The publication of the book was a Soviet propaganda effort orchestrated by intelligence agents. Still, I remember the book as a real page-turner and I am tempted to pick it up once more.

fingerpost

Iain Pears: An Instance of the Fingerpost Four narrators, for versions of a turbulent story taking place at the University of Oxford, steeped in intrigues and rivalries. The setting, the plot, the philosophical ideas – Medieval metaphysics versus scientific methodology – and of course Pears wonderful way to tell a story made me buy a second copy after I had given the first to a friend – just in case I felt like reading it a second time. It is waiting for me on the shelf and time will come…

harry potter

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Stranded in a Beijing hotel room, without money (not my fault!) and 72 hours to kill before I was due to head home… Harry Potter was a lot of value for little money and one of the greatest literary pleasures I had. I loved all seven volumes, and during those 72 hours I read the first three. I didn’t mind the dull hotel room, the icy winds on Tiananmen Square and the fast food I had to rely upon. I had Harry Potter and he saved my stay in China!

Iran

Christopher de Bellaigue: In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs De Bellaigue’s book was the beginning of a deep interest in Iran, its glorious history, its difficult and ambiguous modernity, its culture and its people. Such a promising nation, kept prisoner by religious zealots, welded together by hardship, traumatized by a civil war, uncertain of its future. May others demonize Iran – they don’t know what they are talking about. If ever a Middle Eastern Muslim country has been ripe for a free and democratic state, based on the rule of law, high-level education and a sense of destiny, it is Iran.

zauberberg

Thomas Mann: Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) I read it twice and I am looking forward to read it a third time. There is so much in it. Philosophy, poetry, psychology and the German language, oh the German language! Mann was, is and always will be a master story-teller, never mind the impossibly long, entwined sentences with the utmost complex grammatical constructions ever to be written by man (Mann!). The first time I didn’t understand much, the second time was an exploratory tour and the third time will be an exquisite, five-star literary dinner with champagne before, after and in-between.

Final remarks

I was amused and surprised about a few choices myself and I am still at loss to explain why there is a huge lack of relevant books for a period of almost 15 years, my journalist years. I read a lot during that time, I spent most of my salary on books, mostly non-fiction, books about politics, military strategy, globalism, terrorism, Islam, but I did read novels too, didn’t I? Strange. I needed to do a little more hard thinking to come up with something, and for once, my ordering history with a global online bookseller was of some use. Now that I order books mainly at a real bookstore, retracing past orders will become more difficult.

A dead body and questions better not asked

fatherland

Robert Harris: Fatherland ISBN 978-0-09-957657-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What if Hitler had won? Well, if Hitler had won I most likely wouldn’t be writing this. Considering the background of my family, my grand-parents would not have led the life they led after 1945, my parents would most likely not have married and I would most likely not have been born. Hitler hasn’t won however, and so here I am writing a post about a book that I have looked forward to read for almost 20 years and never actually did. It only happened because I had forgotten another book at home and craved for something to read. The bookseller at the railway station made my day.

If Hitler had won, Germany would be ruling Europe from the Atlantic to Siberia, Moscow would be occupied by the Germans, Washington would be appeased by the same Germans and the United Kingdom would not play any role at all. The 1960s are Harris’ setting for the plot of a fantastic thriller. The dead body of a man missing one foot is found in Berlin. He leads to more dead bodies and a gruesome conspiracy to hide an even more gruesome crime. If most of the action takes place in Berlin, the reader is dragged for 24 hours to Switzerland to discover the Swiss understanding of a discrete banking place.

Detective Xavier March from the German Kriminalpolizei is leading the investigation, by pure chance as a matter of fact. He happened to be awake when the phone rang while is colleague on duty slept like a baby. March’s mistake was to pick up that phone. He is not exactly an enthusiastic Nazi, and once the Gestapo comes into play, it quickly becomes apparent that the secret police is not too keen that March solves the case, much to the contrary, the Gestapo does everything to dissuade March from asking the right questions and collecting evidence. The hunter becomes the hunted. As to how and why, if you haven’t read “Fatherland” yet, now is the right time. For two reasons.

First, it’s an excellent thriller. I had a hard time to put it down. Second, it has a message that is relevant today, never mind the harrowing setting: Once we suspect something is amiss with our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues – are we ready to ask questions? Or do we turn a blind eye to it because we are afraid to lose a personal privilege, our social position or the esteem of someone important? Once we have identified evil, what do we do to stop it? To change something? Do we wait for somebody else to take the initiative or do we stand up ourselves for justice, freedom, a life without fear?

These are the questions March is compelled to ask himself over and over. A family photo, showing the previous occupants of March’s flat, sets into motion a dangerous intellectual chain reaction in March’s brain, dangerous for him, dangerous for his hidden enemies. The Nazi rulers relied upon the fact that man often is too lazy to leave his comfort zone. Better not ask any questions. Better no dispute the official truth. Better not think. The question however is whether one strives to be a human being or just wants to be a shadow.

The composer Arnold Schönberg wrote music that was meant to reflect man’s progress, his active movement, his way forward to transform society. Here is his String Quartet No. 3:

A democratic revolution – all notes are equal