The Poisoned Well: Empire and Its Legacy in the Middle East By: Roger Hardy
4 out of 5 Stars
I received an advance copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Roger Hardy has set out a monumental task for himself. In “Poisoned Well,” he seeks to lay out the development of the Middle East we see in our news feeds every day. From the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, to the bitter struggles that marked the death throes of European imperialism in the middle decades of the 20th century, Hardy focuses on the impact of European colonialism on the region and how imperial hubris helped to develop reactionary movements whose impact is still being felt today.
The scope of “Poisoned Well” is quite sweeping. It begins with the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. In the post war peace talks, the Empire (which had allied with Germany) was to be broken up and split among the two major Allied powers at the talks, namely Britain and France. The plan, on paper, was for the pieces of the Ottoman Empire (some divided, literally at random, into new nation states by the Europeans) to be come colonies and protectorates of either France or Britain, with the goal of westernizing and modernizing these new countries, and eventually returning them to independence, as staunch allies of the west, safeguarding European interests in the Middle East. What actually happened should shock no one. The European powers found it hard to let go of their new colonies, especially after oil was discovered in the region.
Hardy takes us on a whirlwind tour of the region, giving us insight into the development of modern day Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Algiers, Iraq, Syria, and of course the still violently contentious Palestine/Israel conflict. Each country is allotted its own chapter, which generally gives some history of the area under the Ottoman Turks, and progresses through the start of colonization, through World War Two, and on to independence. With each, Hardy gives us both sides of coin, the British or French officials (political or military) who ran the country, and the nationals who pushed against them for freedom. Hardy gives special attention to the evolution of nationalist movements in each country, showing how the steps (and missteps) taken by the Europeans helped to shape the nationalist movements they were working against.
As you progress further into the book, certain names on both sides start to repeat, and you realize there’s another layer underneath Hardy’s narrative. European names reappear when politicians, journalists, or spies move from country to country for their work. The Arabic names reappear and you realize that there where two fronts to the nationalist movement in the Middle East. There was a nation-state level movement within each colony, but there was also a pan-Arabic nationalist movement, seeking to unify all the Arab nations under one banner (Hardy points out that this is very similar to one of the goals of the radical Jihadists we see today).
In all, Hardy has produced a wide-reaching, yet accessible book. It provides a great jumping off point for folks (like me) who don’t know much about the history of the Middle East; yet his use of first person accounts (though these are mostly from European sources) should interest a scholar of the area. In fact, I’d say that the weakest part of “Poisoned Well” is also the strongest. By giving us such a broad look at the colonial history of the Middle East, Hardy naturally has to sacrifice detail. Each chapter is a complete story in its own right, but Hardy will mention something in passing in the midst of a paragraph, and you get the feeling he just compressed a major political turning point into a few words. Fortunately, a Dramatis Personae and a bibliography at the end of the book allow for further reading.
Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Reading “Poisoned Well,” it is striking (and depressing) how cyclical the western world’s dealings with the Middle East really are.