Monday, April 01, 2013

Lines on A Line in the Sand

I was lucky enough to visit Jerusalem last year for work purposes, and it’s an amazing city with an incredible history, which is still being fought over in a conflict that’s hard to fathom.

Having now visited  and seen just how close three of the major religions of the world live, it strikes me no-one will ever solve that city or reach a compromise that could bring any real ever-lasting peace.

Such thoughts were reemphasised this week when I finished A Line in the Sand by James Barr. This was an excellent piece of engrossing historical writing about the problems caused by the British and French intervention in the Middle East dating back to the eve of the First World War when two diplomats, in that brilliantly awful high-and-mighty manner of the old era of colonial dictatorships, drew a line across a map and apportioned themselves a piece of the Middle East to manage, maintain and manipulate.

Of course, as in other areas, this didn’t go as smoothly as they’d hoped, especially when the locals realised they were being had. What was even more fascinating was the rivalry between the French and the British over the years that led to endless in-fighting and even the funding of local militia to covertly attack one another, even when they were supposed to be allies during the Second World War.

The research Barr must have undertaken is mind-blowing as not a paragraph goes by without a reference to a letter, some archived minutes, a newspaper article, a diaries and other first-hand sources he scoured to tell the story in minute and revealing detail. 

At school and university there was often a surface level debate about whether history was about the fates of people or nations i.e. should you study macro or micro history. What Barr does so well is tell both in an interlinked fashion.

So we see the frontline intrigues and personalities of those who shaped the history of the region, from TE Lawrence to Churchill to Truman as the household names we know, to the local gangs and tribes people, like Avraham Stern, while also seeing explaining the wider picture from the national and local interests of numerous competing groups and how their aims affected the actions of those on the ground, and vice versa. 

Highly recommended reading.

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