Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle-East relations (Part One: 1783 – 1953)

Best of EnemiesGiven the state of United States dependence on Middle East oil, no one can deny the importance of the region in U.S. politics today. But many may not know how long that relationship has lasted or how early conflicts with the region began. Best of Enemies aims to solve that lack of information by tracing a history of the conflicts from our early efforts to end the piracy off the Barbary Coast in 1783 to the successful U.S.-backed coup in Iran in 1953.

Filiu makes a valiant attempt to condense this complicated history and there are some strengths to this work. He gives the reader the beginnings of the U.S. dependence on Mid-east oil, explaining why the United States felt it needed to secure the region for itself. He also does a decent job staying neutral, which is quite a feat given the length of the conflict between the U.S. and the Middle East region. And his explanation of the Coup of 1953 is the clearest of all his chapters.

But this work falls a little short for a number of reasons. First, Filiu’s introduction connecting the images in the Epic of Gilgamesh to images of U.S. Middle East policy today are confusing and convoluted. While it was interesting to be reminded that Babylon is present day Iran, I don’t feel that the Epic of Gilgamesh was quite as prophetic as he seemed to be claiming.

Secondly, Filiu condenses so much in order to have a manageable book that he leaves out important pieces of information. For example, when were the modern countries of the Middle East first formed? When we were fighting the Barbary pirates, the Ottoman Empire was still in existence. But that fact is not clear from the book; I had to look it up. Without using a map, Filiu describes how the U.S. tried to blockade Tripoli. He also doesn’t explain that we were not fighting Libya because Libya did not exist yet. Again, I found myself reaching for an atlas so I could understand the geography he was referring to. This is a problem that could easily have been solved with the inclusion of a map in an index.

He also tends to throw terms around freely without providing a glossary. I mean, I can figure out a Pashta is the guy in charge, or an Imam is an important holy guy from context, but a glossary would have been nice for those of us who need more. A glossary is especially helpful for keeping the story flowing. If you know the term, you don’t trip over a definition. If you don’t know the term, you can choose to plow through or pause to look up the term.

Perhaps all my frustration with this work has less to do with its quality, which is actually quite good, as much as the level of assumptions it makes. For a book subtitling itself A History of U.S. and Middle East Relations, it leaves out an extraordinary amount of information. Maybe because this book was first published in France for a French audience, there are cultural assumptions that are just not being translated. History classes in the U.S. tend to focus on the American Revolution and the Civil War, not on Middle East policy.

David B.’s minimalist pen and ink drawings complement the subject matter wonderfully, though. I like his tendency to anthropomorphize objects to represent characters. For example, a naval commander will be portrayed as a cannon with many legs and an admiral’s hat. He uses his ink freely, enabling him to show clandestine meetings as barely illuminated rendezvous in a sea of black.

I can see this text being a supplemental assignment in a high school history class giving an introduction to U.S. actions in the Middle East. Or, for people like me, who know very little, it will inspire them to read more. But as a stand alone work it falls a little short.

Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle-East relations (Part One: 1783 – 1953)
by Jean-Pierre Filiu
Art by David B.
ISBN: 978-190683845
Self Made Books, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: (teen to adult)