In a time of monsters – Travels through a Middle East in Revolt by Emma Sky

Encouraged to read this by Emma Sky’s sharp analysis in BBC radio interviews of the unintended consequences of the Iraq War, I realised too late that to find out more about her role as political advisor to the American commander General Ray Odierno in its aftermath, enabling her to give damning evidence at the Chilcot Enquiry, I should have started with her book “The Unravelling”.

“In a Time of Monsters” proves as is often the case with travel books to be very anecdotal and episodic, often revealing some telling insights through a chance encounter, but also frustrating, even confusing at times, in what it omits or glosses over. The background history of the Shias versus Sunni is a little too fragmented, while the explanation of the Caliphates from the death of Mohammed up to the recent attempts of Daesh to create a single Islamic state probably comes too late in the book, some two-thirds of the way through.

“Bored, bitter and twisted”, with an acute sense of anticlimax and loss of purpose after her return to London in 2010, perhaps even a little traumatised by her experience in Iraq as she suggests most westerners are, she resolves to make sense of events by visiting countries affected by the Arab Spring: Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kurdistan and so on.

Making use of what seems like an inexhaustible network of obliging high level political contacts prepared to engage in boozy debates, Emma Sky has no difficulty in striking up conversations with strangers prepared to chat at length . Perhaps her childhood as the matron’s daughter at a boys’ boarding school gave her the confidence to act with such ease in “a man’s world” and also to embark on risky, physically tough journeys, solo or with a male guide for the reward of seeing beautiful, remote areas, like the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Skimming along the river on a jet ski, white-water rafting, swimming into caves to scale waterfalls: sometimes, the socialising and exciting activities, seem too much of a digression from the lives of ordinary Arabs.

It is no surprise that Emma Sky criticises the US for allowing Daesh (or ISIS) to gain a foothold in Iraq in the anger over government corruption and discrimination against Sunnis following the fall of Saddam Hussein. She also condemns the failure to take early action against Assad in Syria to force him to negotiate. It is perhaps more of a surprise that she is so harsh on Obama, described as “leading from behind” and being too passive. However, she does not really provide convincing evidence that continued use of direct force by the West would have yielded the desired results without unacceptable levels of bloodshed, not to mention resentment over apparent attempts to dominate . She is also very critical of Iran as a somewhat malign and destabilising force, reaching tentacles even to the borders of Israel, but was perhaps unable to make the visit to the country which would assist a clear and more objective analysis.

There is a logical progression, in that, being in date order, the visits reflect the passage of events, so that by 2014 Emma Sky is at the refugee camp of Zaatari, close to the border in Jordan, which has become the fourth largest city in the country owing to the flood of refugees from Syria. By 2016 she is in Greece and Eastern Europe tracing the destabilising pressure of Arab refugees pushed out by the devastation in parts of the Middle East. She even visits London to suggest, perhaps too simplistically, that the Brexit vote itself was largely the result of concerns over migration triggered partly by the instability of the Middle East.

The Epilogue finds her on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a time of acceptance of her past naïve over-optimism, but clinging to the belief that “this is not a time for cynicism or despair” in the hope that her students will manage to leave the world a better place than they found it.

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