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From Deep State To Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution And Its Jihadi Legacy, Jean-Pierre Filiu, ISBN 978-1-84904-546-9
This book analyses the background to, and aftermath, of the Arab Spring: the military despotisms in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, with a lesser amount of material on Tunisia and Libya.
The question the book asks, essentially, is how the contests between military oligarchies, street protesters, political Islam and violent ‘jihadi’ movements ended with the first of the above remaining in charge, the middle two components crushed, and the latter successful and destructive. Filiu’s answer is essentially that the jihadists were indirectly, and in some cases directly, supported by the governments they supposedly oppose, both as a warning of chaos and as “my enemy’s enemy”.
The most blatant example is Bashar al-Assad, initially providing support for Iraqi enemies of the USA (including the local precursors of IS) and subsequently emptying its jails of jihadists in order to support its own propaganda once popular protests erupted in Syria.
The author also touches on Tunisia and Libya. In both cases the dictator fell, but the outcomes were very different. The reasons can be found both in the pre-revolutionary structure of the two countries and in the subsequent political processes.
The military oligarchies are characterised as ‘modern Mamluks’, alluding to historical military rulers. In their modern form, the author finds them excellent manipulators of both world powers and their regional neighbours, successfully extracting support in the form of money, weapons and oil; and vigorous defenders of their own privileges; but poor rulers of their countries.
This is a pretty depressing book. The only remotely successful entities in places like Syria are those that are prepared to burn the country to the ground to keep or take control, and when compared with the similar situation in Algeria in the 1990s, neither the ferocity of the conflict nor the negligible Western response seem particularly surprising.
House of Cards, Michael Dobbs, 978-1-4711-2852-3.
An unscrupulous 1980s Conservative chief whip plots and schemes within a re-elected but weakened government. This is not really great literature: most of the characters are stereotypes rather than in any way rounded portrayals, and the writing felt a little pedestrian. Nevertheless it was fun to read and I can see why it was adapted for television multiple times.
A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin, ISBN 978-1-84668-740-2.
A far-left Labour politician becomes Prime Minister, and the establishment and the Americans set out to undermine him. In some ways timely as Harry Perkins partially reflects Jeremy Corbyn: however, importantly, he is considerably smarter and has the backing of his parliamentary party (and, at least initially, the country). As above the writing is not of the most dazzling style, and the characters are if anything even more 2-dimensional, but also as above, it got the job done.
Also, really, a more serious political work, focusing not on the process of climbing the greasy pole (and stamping hard on those below) but instead on the structure of UK politics (at least as it stood at the time). Amusingly, the book mentions US interception activities in Europe, three decades before Snowden and half a decade before Campbell.
We went climbing on Stanage Edge, a lengthy escarpment in the Peak District.
Climbing. We mostly stuck to Mod and Diff routes. For the first few days we managed a lead and a second each; much of the rest of the time was consumed with false starts and getting lost trying to find the next route we wanted to do. We had nice weather and beautiful scenery though. For the last couple of days our productivity roughly doubled, partly a result of more effective navigation but probably also “getting into the swing” of it. On Sunday Matthew and Sally joined us which made for a good end to an already excellent week.
Other Activities. Friday was the only day that was seriously wet during the day and we went to Chatsworth House, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire even today. In local terms it’s kind of like Wimpole but on a rather grander scale. Its continued noble occupation has resulted in the accumulation of contemporary art as well as the usual stately home standbys, although excepting the photography I didn’t rate much of it. It’s also substantially covered in scaffolding and sheeting at the moment due to extensive renovation works; apart from the occasional drilling sounds (which based on conversation maybe annoyed the staff more than they did us) this didn’t really impact on our visit, though if you want a clear view of the whole exterior then maybe you should postpone your visit until this is finished.
We also made it to Sheffield Hallam Parkrun, where I chipped a few seconds off my PB. I’m not sure how comparable it is with Cambridge, though. Doing a 5km run in the morning coincided with the uptick in our climbing productivity, which N didn’t consider a coincidence.
Accommodation. We stayed at the North Lees campsite, which is a pleasant 10m walk from the road below Stanage Edge (more to the rock, depending which bit you aim for and how lost you get). Slightly spartan but it did the job. It was mostly fairly empty, only really getting crowded at the weekend. Generally the first thing we heard on waking was sheep.
The nearest village is Hathersage, which was a pleasant enough walk in the light though a bit dicey coming back in the dark. We tried two of the three pubs for dinner, returning to the Scotsman’s Pack for a second visit and eating once at the nevertheless perfectly acceptable Plough Inn and one of the two local curry places, Maazi.
Driving. I haven’t owned a car for more than a decade and until very recently hadn’t driven one for around half as long. For this trip we hired a car and mostly got on well, though I thoroughly disliked the single-track lanes around the campsite.
Cars have changed in the (mumble) years since the previous car I drove left the factory. Six forward gears is an obvious enough evolutionary step and I was vaguely aware of start-stop but I’d not expected the electronic handbrake, nor had I expected the car to tell me when to shift gear - something it was generally right about on the motorways, but I thought less reliable when getting round those narrow lanes.
Photos. There are lots more photos on flickr. I made some videos while climbing although I think they’ll be of more interest for analyzing gear placement than general interest.
With a real likelihood of UK exit from the EU, it makes sense to move the bulk of any savings you may have outside the British economy, since there's a serious risk that they will soon become worth substantially less and stay that way. Where are you moving yours?[Poll #2047249]
Some sampler issues that came via Humble Bundle a while back and I’ve only just got around to.
Black Magic #1. A witch who is also a policewoman. First episode works in isolation but is clearly intended as the start of a longer story. I liked this and could be tempted by more.
Citizen Jack #1. Brutish snowplow salesman makes a deal with a demon to run for president. Didn’t grab me at all.
Huck #1. Small-town superman-alike just wants to do a good deed every day. What happens when the media find out? Find out next issue! Difficult to assess as it’s basically all setup in this issue.
I Hate Fairyland #1. Small girl magically transported to fairyland wants to get home and (eventually) responds to persistent setbacks with anarchic cartoon violence. Amusing idea but I didn’t get a sense there was any more to it than that.
Injection #1. See here.
Limbo #1. Noirish amnesiac detective (reminds me of Dead Letters, which I enjoyed) with magic. The issue concludes at the point he thinks he's got a job all wrapped up, and there's a genre convention about that... Has potential.
Monstress #1. A physically and emotionally damaged witch tricks her way into the stronghold of her enemy in search of answers, but has to leave satisfied with nothing better than revenge. I liked this.
Paper Girls #1. Four ?1980s paper delivery girls in (I think) encounter some kind of alien intrusion, although not a hugely competent one so far. Curious to find out what’s going on.
Plutona #1. Spends the entire issue character-building the group of kids who encounter the eponymous superheroine towards the end of the issue. Difficult to asses for the same reason as Huck, but the setup is more character-building and less situation, which I think is promising.
Pretty Deadly #6. Nice artwork and creative panel layout. But the story seems to be mostly setup and I wonder how much I’m missing from being dropped in at a 6th issue. An odd choice of sampler?
Ringside #1. Lots of good character stuff around an ex-wrestler and others ... followed by what looks suspiciously like the setup for a revenge fantasy. Undecided.
Saints #1. Saints run around a dingy bit of the USA and find each other. Angels plot. Reminds me a bit of Lyda Morehouse. The authors clearly share my amusement at medieval depictions of Saint Sebastian.
The Goddamned #1. A blond naked white dude called Cain (yes, that one) kills a bunch of savages in order to recover his stolen clothes and stuff, then spends a few pages moaning about how horrible everything is. I didn’t really like it.
Tokyo Ghost #1. A pair of police-ish types track down a villain who might be at home in a crossover between Ghost in the Shell and Batman: The Killing Joke. Sanguinary but fun.
A History Of Christianity, Diarmid MacCulloch, 978-0-141-02189-8
Set aside some time to read this; at comfortably over a thousand pages, you’re unlikely polish it off in a weekend.
MacCulloch nominally starts his history in 1000BCE, though devotes just a few dozen pages to the Greek/Roman and Jewish background. The following 2000 years get considerably more detailed attention, across a broad geographic range. Western Europe, Russian, the Greeks, the Miaphysites and Dyophysites of the Middle East, China, Africa (especially but not only Ethiopia) and the Americas are all covered (and I’ve probably missed more than a few from this list).
It is of course thoroughly entwined with other elements of history: Constantine, Charlemagne and colonialism all make an appearance. Some appreciation of (particularly, western-oriented) history over the last couple of thousand years will surely help the reader but the wider context is not neglected. Equally, you will find a lot of philosophy and science in here, covering both religious background to new thinking and subsequent engagement with it.
The writing is excellent, informal without being lightweight, and making occasional but good use of sarcasm; the result is a pleasure to read. Particularly well done is the 16th chapter, which despite the dry-sounding title ‘Perspectives on the True Church’ in fact engrossingly lays the intellectual and political groundwork for the Reformation.
I’ve previously reviewed The Popes by John Julius Norwich. Where that was the narrowest of vertical slices through history, this book may be as broad a slice as is possible while still representing a single coherent theme. Recommended both for readers interested in Christianity in particular, but also world history in general.
(A curious detail that I’d not previously been much aware of is the growing strength of Dyophysite Christians among the Persian elite in the first half of the 7th century. Given the previous Roman experience, it’s interesting to wonder how that would have played out had the Sassanian empire survived any longer.)
God’s Crucible, David Levering Lewis, 978-0-393-06472-8
A history of Islamic Spain and its context and impact. The first quarter of the book quickly covers Roman and Persian background material leading (in the west) to Visigothic Spain and (in the east) to the rise of Islam, before putting the two together with the Islamic conquest of Spain in the early 8th century. The rest covers the history of ‘Al-Andalus’ and its interactions with its geographical and ideological neighbours. (Sadly for my particular interests the author simply states one of the theories for the etymology of the name without alluding to the difficulties in this areas.)
At the political level those interactions generally produced much heat and little light, although the Byzantine gift of De Materia Medica to ’Abd al-Rahman III is a notable exception - essentially a bribe to maintain opposition to the Abbassids, but in practice a substantial injection of knowledge into the western Caliphate and (eventually) Catholic Europe. And it underlines the case the author really wants to make: for an extended period Islamic Spain was the major intellectual and cultural centre of western Europe, for instance putting Alcuin’s efforts in the Carolingian empire into the shade, and moreover that it had an outsized impact on the rest of western Europe.
The case is not badly, though I thought that the balance between the political and intellectual history could be shifted further towards the latter with little real loss. Maimonides, for instance, has to share a chapter with the comparably significant Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and the two of them don’t even get the whole of it. Still, this is a minor flaw. An enjoyable book about an interesting episode in history.
Is there any generally agreed coloring for the analogous integrity question? i.e.:
Non-color visual notations also welcome for several reasons:
Things that didn’t quite make it:
pseudomonas is mentioning more on IRC but it’s getting late…