Sunday, March 8, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Best of Enemies

Title: Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953
Writer: Jean-Pierre Filiu
Artist: David B.
via Amazon
The lesson has become clear.  Want to learn about the world?  Read comic books.  It's a great place to start, anyway.  Over the past few years, I've explored ancient India, pre-war Berlin, 20th century Japan, the Holocaust, Israel, Palestine, Iran and West Africa through the dynamic medium of sequential art.  Most of the work has only recently been translated from either Japanese or French, two literary traditions that embrace comic books as mainstream reading material to a far greater extent than does the English language tradition.

Such is the case with Best of Enemies, a series originally published in French, outlining the history of US relations with the Arab/Muslim world from American Independence to the present day.  This first book begins with the Barbary pirates of the late 18th century and ends with a CIA-orchestrated coup in Iran, 1953.  I'll admit upfront, I knew very little of this history before.  I knew the ancient and medieval history through the Crusades.  I knew a little about the Ottomans in World War I and the carving up of their empire afterwards.  I knew the history of the Israeli conflict from 1948 onward.  But the rest was all new.  I'd heard of the Barbary pirates, sure, but never really gave much thought to who they were.  The lesson is clear: learn about the world through comic books.

There is plenty of debate over how much of the world is actually encompassed by the term Middle East.  Is it just the Arabian peninsula?  Just the Arab-speaking countries?  Plus Israel?  Does Turkey count?  Iran?  Egypt?  North Africa?  For its purposes, Best of Enemies includes all of the above under the umbrella.

Impressively, the book manages to stay reasonably neutral.  There are no heroes, exactly.  Plenty of mud is flung in both directions.  The history of relations between the two entities is one of compromise, corruption and manipulation.  For both sides, money has always been king.  American and Middle Eastern regimes have been willing to compromise myriad principles for the sake of cash.  The discovery of oil only made things worse.  The black-and-white artwork is somewhat satirical though again, evenhanded.  I'm definitely keeping an eye out for Part Two: 1953-1984.


  1. This is actually a bit of history that greatly interests me. I've been meaning to read Seven Pillars of Wisdom for a while now but haven't managed to work it in.
    Probably, I won't go get this but only because I'm not doing comics anymore (if you could see my collection, you'd understand).

    1. As well it should. I don't know if there's a more inherently interesting part of the world than the Middle East, or a more crucial one to at least try to understand.

  2. I have read all of Peter Hopkirk books on the near East. They were books son was reading for class. I started with "Like Hidden Fire" right smack in the middle of his series.
    Of course the books have a British slant they are indeed a foothold on what is going on.
    The names like Kabul, Kandar, Birjand, Ashkhabad and Baku are all names I know. The exact same battles from hundreds of years ago are still going on
    today. The same battles but in the last few years with even more violence.
    The circle of violence.
    For me super interesting.

    cheers, parsnip

  3. So much hidden, kept under the wallet. Have you ever heard of "Persepolis"?

    1. Oh yes, I'm a big fan of Satrapi's work. If you enjoyed Persepolis, you should also try Chicken with Plums and Embroideries.