The Librarian Is In

By KATRINA SPENCER

Best of Enemies: A History of U.S. and Middle East Relations, Part I, by Jean-Pierre Filiu and illustrated by David B., 2012”

This book is a mess. Or as the young people say, “It’s messy.” It’s a graphic novel, published in a series. It comes in three parts and attempts to explain the historical relationship(s) between the United States and the broadly defined Middle Eastern region. As might be expected of any publication attempting to encapsulate 170 years of history through sequenced and paneled illustrations, the text’s narrative arch is weak. It’s difficult to map out where the climax occurs, who the most definitive characters are and who is an antagonist at any given point in time. 

However, in these respects, the work is rather likely to be giving a more or less “accurate” representation of history. That is, who is a hero(ine) and who is a villain often (always) depends on who is telling the story — and when, and why, and on what platform, and to whom and for what purpose.

I picked up this book because conflict and antagonism between the United States, its “allies” and the Middle East has been a constant backdrop for the entirety of my life. (I’m 33 at the time of this writing.) And I’ve always been dazed and confused in attempting to find an entry point to answer the question of “Why?” I want to know how it all began and and why it continues. This work sheds more light but does not offer clear-cut answers. I suspect that most international, armed conflicts are about securing access to resources and maintaining or demanding sovereignty. 

In this work, however, knowing who’s in charge and when is dizzying. As suggested, I’m not as versed on the cultures of this region as I’d like to be. When reading the text, I encountered titles of rank, esteem and power like “shah,” “pasha” and “bey” knowing little, if any, difference between them. 

The clearest information I got on this text came from the presumably American Good Reads reviewer, Robert Boyd: “It is a brief retelling of U.S./Middle east (sic) relations, starting with our early wars with the Barbary pirate states, our inability to prevent France and Britain from carving up the Ottoman empire after World War I, our establishment of friendly relations with the Saudis during World War II (as a guarantee of oil supplies for the war effort), and finally our involvement in the Iranian coup that set the Shah up as dictator. The book stops in 1953.”

I wanted the author to do more to educate me, but his intended audience may not have needed that. Given that the text was originally published in French, I wonder who the target audience is and whether those readers already have this information well sorted out. 

On another note, the tale(s) within this tome almost exclusively feature male perspectives, voices and characters. If I didn’t know any better, I could assume that women were an aberrational occurrence once every 60 years or so in the region. So, in the first book of the series, their presence and participation in the evolution of 18 countries comprising the Middle Eastern region is largely capital-E Erased. I realize the author is male and so is the illustrator. However, it seems they felt virtually no pressure in representing 50 percent of the population impacted by the U.S.-Middle Eastern relations. “How, Sway?”

This work is likely best for people who already have some general or specific knowledge and timeframe regarding Middle Eastern politics and enjoy the idea of seeing it drawn in graphic-novel form. The less educated on this theme, like myself, will likely need to familiarize themselves with the greatest highlights from the broad region first in order to best appreciate its content, structure and visuals. 

It is a work that necessitates that the reader bring knowledge to the text. For other graphic novels that touch on the Middle East and the Near East, I recommend “juifs arabes” by Farid Boudjellal and the acclaimed “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, which I have yet to read.

Literatures & Cultures Librarian Katrina Spencer is liaison to the Anderson Freeman Center, the Arabic Department, the Comparative Literature Program, the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies (GSFS) Program, the Language Schools, the Linguistics Program and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

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The Librarian Is In