By Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B.
I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this one. It felt, purely on the the title and the blurb, a little too history heavy, a little dry. Even David B’s cover didn’t do much.
But thankfully I was wrong. What it actually turns out to be is a rather exhaustive and informed history of the dysfunctional relationship between the US and The Middle East; a difficult subject to deal with objectively, but Filiu and David B. manage it, and produce something rather intriguing, educational, and strangely entertaining.
Everything begins, via a retelling of the legend of Gilgamesh, with prophetic warnings of the disasterous nature of war that were unheeded in legend and continue to be unheeded throughout the history the authors proceed to lay out in front of us.
Across the centuries the difficult, complex, damaged, even at times slightly ridiculous nature of the America – Middle East relationship is explored. Historical exploration as psychological counselling almost.
Each subsequent chapter deals with the Middle East across the ages; themes building, repeating, and our authors not afraid to deviate from a simple chronological retelling where it suits the story.
A newly born America takes its tentative first baby steps into the world of politics, deception, greed, and warfare, and find themselves left high and dry by their former colonial masters to face piracy on the high seas of the Med, complete with suitably snake-like speech….
Money and power changes to money, power, and OIL; with a chapter zipping through the hundred years or so up to the end of WWII, with America interested in The Middle East for more and more of the black stuff, and along the way the history keeps coming; Roosevelt’s wartime proclamations of “the great jihad of Freedom“, Mahan’s 1902 coining of the term “Middle East“, the ascent of the Saud family to rule the oil rich lands that would eventually, post war, and with American assistance, lead to a mutually beneficial relationship of provider and protector, that exists to this day.
Final chapter Coup d’Etat sees the focus narrowed to the events in 20th Century Iran, specifically the post WWII manipulation of the country by the US, a despicable moment in US foreign policy, and a monumental moment for the Middle East, the final transfer of power in the region, from the colonial powers of old Empire to the United States.
Best Of Enemies is unrelenting in its march through time, but the authors never allow the relentless pace to be constrained by a simple procession of events. Decades are covered in panels, or whole extended sequencs are devoted to a single momentous battle or corrupt, nefarious deal. Each extended sequence is chosen to hammer home a point, yet very rarely does it drag, and although there’s always an element of over-simplification with these things, the authors get away with it here.
Artistically David B, as you may expect from someone heralded far and wide as a near genius, does a beautiful job, art veering from exquisite detail, simple storytelling, to complex, almost surreal imagery, but always, always in perfect service to the history, his images pack so much, there’s no need for Filiu to be overly verbose (always a risk with historical retelling) when David B. can get over the whole crux of the matter in a carefully composed page.
The combination of Filiu and David B., the decision to tackle the problem from its roots in the late 18th Century, the space allowed to do it, all allows us to get an overview to the ebb and flow of the political landscape of the Middle East. Simply, yet never simplistically, the authors have presented something incredibly complex and controversial and done it with readability and style.
In the end, the lesson from Best Of Enemies is quite clear, throughout history the situation in the Middle East has been full of some of the worst elements of humanity; venal, deceitful, corrupt. It teaches us that war is rarely just, always destructive, and that the lessons learned are soon forgotten, the mistakes made through history are repeated throughout history. We simply never learn.
I imagine Volumes 2 and 3 will continue this history lesson. I imagine they’ll be equally illuminating.