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In a Time of Monsters: Emma Sky's attempt to shed light on the Middle East

Emma Sky. Photo/Harold Shapiro/Supplied

A diary of adventures in the volatile Middle East is diverting but hardly illuminating, writes Peter Calder.

The history of the Middle East, and the world, since 9/11 has been a triumph of experience over hope. Arab Spring has turned to winter. The most cursory look at Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – never mind Washington DC – in 2019 doesn’t leave much room for optimism.

Yet Emma Sky, the author of In a Time of Monsters, a well-informed but only moderately inspiring diary of travels in north Africa and the Middle East, allows herself a sanguine, even upbeat ending. “America undermined the very rules-based international order that it helped establish” and “identity politics is polarising people”, but “each one of us can make the world a little bit better by how we live and what we do each day”.

If that seems saccharine enough to nauseate Pollyanna, it may be all most of us have to hold on to. Sky’s adventures, chronicled in a dozen country-based chapters, enumerate many acts of kindness, but all of them against a backdrop of sectarian viciousness, political corruption and mismanagement and foreign policy that is calculated for electoral advantage in wealthy countries that treat the world’s trouble spots as if they were playing table football.

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Her surname may conjure up an image of a Peace Corps volunteer with a journal, but Sky has serious cred. English-born, she worked for more than 20 years in the Middle East as a diplomat, teacher and adviser to leaders both political and military and her interviewees include some heavy hitters.

Yet the text veers wildly between plodding Wikipedia-style history and on-the-ground travelogue that is diverting though hardly illuminating. Those looking for inspiring writing will find none here (is there a more depressing sentence than “My return to Damascus was without incident”?).

More fatally, the chapters are datelined from 2011 to 2015, and this in a region in constant, roiling change: the section on Saudi Arabia does not mention the name of Jamal Khashoggi.

The title is from a quote attributed to neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci, about how “the Old World is dying and the New World struggles to be born”. In the circumstances, that might be regarded as being at once glib and naive.

IN A TIME OF MONSTERS: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt, by Emma Sky (Atlantic Books, $37)

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.