It’s almost underrating to label the new year as fundamentally momentous; only one month in and the political backdrop of the Middle East has experienced twists the craftiest of analysts could not have seen coming.
The Arab World marched into 2020 in what has been termed “the Global Protest Wave of 2019”, most notably with the uprisings of Iraq, Egypt, Algeria and Lebanon. January kicked off with a fateful American drone strike that assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the 62-year-old head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who altered the character of the Syrian civil war and intensified Iran’s hold on Iraq. The month concluded with U.S President Donald Trump’s nightmarish Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace’ plan, unveiled to the horror of middle easterners everywhere on January 28th.
Treading along this setting, Lebanese author Kim Ghattas could not have chosen a more optimal timing to unveil her latest work, entitled “Black Wave, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and The Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, And Collective Memory In The Middle East”. Having covered the region for twenty years under the BBC and the Financial Times, Ghattas effortlessly weaves between historical events across the last four decades, which serve, according to her, as a compulsory guide against sensationalist headlines that have failed to describe its true political expression.
“I pieced together 40 years of history across seven countries from Egypt to Pakistan,” Ghattas tells Daraj. “I traced our steps back to a period that was less violent less sectarian and that helps you understand why we got to where we are today. Once you have that, you can find a better way forward.”
She argues that the 1979 analogous Islamic revolution in Iran and extremist attacks in Saudi Arabia constitute as main variables in the larger Middle Eastern equation, influencing not only past conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war and the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, but also a hand to play in the flop of the Arab Spring and the ascent of extremist fundamentalist organizations such as Al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
Beginning in 1979, three events establish the framework for her case and cooked up a recipe for disaster in the course of the Middle East. The overthrowing of the ‘Western ally’ Ayatollah Khomeini during Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the siege on the Grand Mosque of Mecca by Saudi Arabian zealots, and the U.S backed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, “the first battleground for jihad in modern times”. Ghattas explores history through the humanizing accounts of prominent characters whose lives were colored by geopolitical strife, some of which surrendered their lives to the battle for tolerance.
“There is a big gap in peoples understanding of the region and its culture,” Ghattas tells Daraj. “That’s the gap I hope to fill with this book, because I do it in a very accessible way through the stories of people, novelists, activists, clerics, people whose lives were affected by the geopolitics.”
Badia Fahs, Nasr Abu Zeid, Yassin al-Haj Saleh and Jamal Khashoggi are chief among her reformist heroes who resisted the oppressive turn of 1979, either murdered or in exile, “the silenced majority”.
While the assorted details Ghattas embellishes her writing with almost seem geared towards a Western audience, the intimate imagery she provokes resonates with the youth of the region. This is transparent in her conclusion, where she claims that the book is an attempt to answer the question, “what happened to us?”
“It’s a question many of us ask ourselves,” Ghattas explains. “We say ‘rizkallah 3al ayyam’. The days when there was more choice, politically culturally and in religious terms, in how religion was understood and practiced.”
Her words eloquently express an all-too-familiar frustration the fresh generation of Arabs endure, riddled with an inferiority complex due to dominating Western exposure and a lack of historical comprehension resulting from diluted educational backgrounds. Why didn’t their parents reject the weaponizing of sectarianism, oppression of women, and systemic corruption? Ghattas’s describing of a widely circulated video of a young woman’s speech during Iran’s 2017 demonstrations (‘“you raised your fists (in 1979) and ruined our lives, now we raise our fists to fix your mistake”’) echoes the bellows of thousands of young Arabs in 2019/2020, desperately clinging to what they envisage as their last chance at reversing the damage the older generation had inflicted.
“I wrote this book for audiences everywhere,” she clarifies, “but perhaps mostly for the young generation of the region who don’t want to live with the ghosts of 1979, the ghosts of our past.”
It should be noted, that the U.S takes a passenger seat in Ghattas’s narrative, as she chooses to instead apply a dense pressure on the agency and accountability of Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is not to say that the author does not recognize nor absolves America for its criminal foreign policies and reckless decision-making; but rather that she chose to avoid the Arab victimhood route to instead feature the ill-reported yet catastrophic actions of Iran, Saudi Arabia and other local actors, including strategies of religious armament and nationalist sentiments. She does, however, emphasize combating orientalist Western media reporting of Middle-Eastern strife through the prism of the West’s wellbeing, and reminds readers that “the largest number of victims of jihadist violence are Muslims themselves within their own countries.” Her ambitious overtaking of a complex and layered 40-year history also interrogates and refutes reductionist analyses that insist on ascribing the Saudi-Iran antagonism to Sunni-Shia hostilities. “Before it was weaponized in the years following 1979, the Sunni-Shia schism lay mostly dormant,” she explains, accentuating a more nuanced investigation of the cause of the many civil wars across the region.
Ghattas hopes her work will be translated to Arabic soon, claiming that it may illuminate even the nationals who may think that they understand enough about the region.
“The reaction from readers has been incredible so far…” Ghattas tells Daraj. “Overall its very positive about how much they’re learning, and seeing the region in a different light…People in the region who have read it, have commented that a lot suddenly makes sense, events they lived through but which they never saw in their bigger context.”
“I’ve had comments from Iranians and Saudis who feel their voices are finally heard their story told,” She continues. “I had interesting reactions from people who said this taught them things they didn’t know about their own country or the region, and that they were grateful someone had put the pieces of the puzzle together.”