Untangle the web

The Middle East is a mystery to many expats living in the region, let alone those who were born and bred here. The mystery is understanding the various factors that make up the countries and their rulers, such as who likes each other, hates each other, wants power, has power, is willing to fight for power, wants minerals, will fight for minerals, wants to expand, wants land back, wants influence, has influence and so on…

By Charlie R Neyra

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Published: Fri 29 Oct 2010, 10:03 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:28 PM

In Letters to Dalia, Dubai resident Hani Soubra attempts to explain much of this mystery — a daunting task. In trying to explain one part of the Middle East, you can’t help but be drawn into explaining another part, which then feeds into yet another area. For instance, Iran meddles in Lebanon, which draws ire from the US and contrasts with Syrian interests in Lebanon, whose southern border with Israel is a continued source of unrest, which feeds back into another Western concern for the region affecting the Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians — and how these and other countries are used by fundamentalist and militia groups pursuing their own agendas... It’s a tangled web that seems impenetrable to the outsider.

Soubra takes on the challenge by starting with the Mediterranean flashpoint that is Lebanon — a country that has seen turmoil ever since its independence in 1943 — and is the author’s homeland. Starting with ‘A Summary of the Lebanese Civil War,’ he sets about explaining the various groups that were fighting for control and influence over the course of the 15-year war. Understanding the war is really key to understanding much of the region, and Soubra achieves a clear summary, laying it out in an accessible way. The names and places are confusing to the non-Arab and I would have liked a chart or diagram to show how the factions were interacting, but in general the picture for how this small country tore itself apart is explained, often with passion.

Throughout the book, Soubra’s tone is personal, reflecting the reason for writing it in the first place — it is a message for the next generation, one that outlines the follies of the past, hoping for better leadership, better judgement and a better life for Arabs in the future (see author interview, right).

Soubra goes on to explain the importance of Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese leader who was murdered in 2005, who pushed for a peaceful agenda. Again, the importance of Lebanese strife is made clear, but again it is a complicated issue to understand. Soubra does well to emphasise the importance of Hariri and how much his death affected Lebanese people, leading to the Cedar Revolution and Syrian troops finally leaving Lebanon.

The middle of Letters to Dalia is concerned with religion and ideology, with Soubra using internationally recognised events that any reader will find easy to take in, before moving onto Al Qaeda and the Arab mindset. It’s a fascinating look at how Arabs are never likely to work together due to differences in their outlooks and governments, and how Al Qaeda has thrust itself upon the region.

Finally, the main section of the book ends back at Lebanon and how Rafik Hariri’s son is a glint of hope for the Lebanese, before Soubra gives us over 20 pages of poems, which all fit a similar style. It is an unusual way to finish a book, but cements the fact that Soubra’s work has a strong personal slant.

Learning more about the region is crucial for anyone living here, so Letters to Dalia is a good addition to any recommended reading list. It will explain many of the reasons as to why the region has faced so many problems and will continue to face issues unless changes are made. One of the problems with the book is the editing, in that there are many grammatical errors. Also, at certain points, the reader may get confused following the timeline and people as Soubra’s focus sometimes jumps from one group with a tricky name to another with a similarly sounding name, or one period to another.

You’d do well to read Letters to Dalia, alongside other books on the same subject, such as From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L Friedman. People living in the region should try to understand what drives Arabs and how the Middle East has developed over the decades. Soubra’s book is a solid addition to the subject and his extensive experience at the BBC, along with a clear passion for trying to be part of the process to improve the region, shines through.


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