Book review: Insightful Middle Eastern journey through a changing region

In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt, by Emma Sky. (Supplied)
Updated 03 April 2019

Book review: Insightful Middle Eastern journey through a changing region

BEIRUT: Brit Emma Sky fell in love with the Middle East from the moment she first set foot in the region aged 18.

On returning to the UK in September 2010 after serving in Iraq as political adviser to a top US general, the country no longer felt like home.

Perhaps it was no surprise that not long after, Sky found herself back in the Middle East travelling through a region in transition.

Her book “In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt” is one of the latest accounts of the aftermath of the Arab Spring, sparked on December 17, 2010, when Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest over municipal authorities withdrawing his trading license.

The revolution that followed saw three strongmen ousted from power, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. However, the social, economic and political reforms that people had hoped for did not happen, and the movement’s effects are still reverberating today.

Sky had always felt a warmth and sense of belonging in the Middle East that she found lacking in the West, and so she set out to make sense of the great upheavals taking place in the Arab world.

Between 2010 and 2016 she travelled across the Middle East and North Africa, from Syria to Iraq, Egypt to Sudan, and documented what she witnessed along the way. Embarking on risky and tough journeys to remote places, she has been compared to Gertrude Bell, the British political adviser who helped create the state of Iraq.

“In a Time of Monsters,” with its sharp insights, daring encounters and incisive writing, sheds light on “a region in transition during a time of changing world order.”

One of the most intense moments in the book features Jaber Al-Jaberi, an adviser to then Iraqi finance minister, Rafi Al-Issawi, asking why America had allowed Iraq to fall under the control of Iran.

Sky admits her inability to provide an answer at the time. In view of what is happening today, it is clear that Iran’s meddling in Iraqi politics added considerable weight to its designation by US President Donald Trump as a rogue state.


What We Are Reading Today: Self-Portrait in Black and White

Updated 20 October 2019

What We Are Reading Today: Self-Portrait in Black and White

Author: Thomas Chatterton Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ book Self-Portrait in Black and White is “more rigorous than mournful, an account of solutions more than of problems, marked by self-deprecating humor and acute sensitivity,” said Andrew Solomon in a review for The New York Times.  
Solomon added: “Williams, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, is well educated, intellectually sophisticated and prosperous, and he tries to limn the complex relationship between race and class, to figure out where racism is classism and where classism is racism, an almost Escher-like maze as snobbery casts a thin veil over racial hatred and vice versa.”
While Self-Portrait in Black and White “begins with assertions of Williams’ blackness, it evolves into a rich set of questions occasioned
by the birth of his first child,” said Solomon.
The critic said Williams’ final chapter, Self-Portrait of an Ex-Black Man, “explores his rejection of an identity that he has seldom sought but frequently embraced.”