In a year when the world is being seriously beleaguered by a never-ending pandemic, conflicts, economic recessions, and natural disasters, Adrift by French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf seems an appropriate read. Focusing on the Middle East, especially the unravelling of the author’s native Lebanon, Maalouf attempts to explain how the world has become the way it is now through a set of interconnected crises.
Maalouf expertly weaves his life story with his journalistic insights and major 20th-century events to create a compelling narrative. Maalouf’s retelling of the political and religious dynamics in the Middle East is emotional, but also clear enough to shed light on what is a very complex region whose tensions are still very much unresolved.
At the start, the author laments what happened to Lebanon and the wider region in which the small Mediterranean country is part of. Maalouf recounts his childhood, in which he briefly lived in Egypt as a youngster and where his father is from. Initially idyllic, their time in Egypt later came to an end after a revolution brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952, setting in motion events that forced the author’s family, as well as many others, to flee to Lebanon. The departure of his family from Egypt under Nasser is not just a personal tragedy for Maalouf but a sociological one as the outcome of measures that would eradicate Egypt’s multiculturalism by expelling minorities. He contrasts Egypt with post-apartheid South Africa when Nelson Mandela extended an olive branch to the white minority instead of expelling them.
At that time in the 1960s, Lebanon was the most cosmopolitan country in the Middle East, bringing together writers, poets, artists and intellectuals from throughout the region. However, the country’s mix of religious, ethnic and sectarian groups was only able to coexist peacefully for so long: until civil war erupted in 1975. Meanwhile, Israel’s devastating defeat of Egypt and other Arab nations in 1967 constituted a tragic embarrassment for the Arab world from which it never recovered. Nasser himself would die three years later, much diminished in spirit and international prestige.
This calamitous setback for Arabic nationalism led to a vacuum into which Islamic fundamentalism stepped in. Besides resulting in extremist-fuelled violence, this also put an end to religious and sectarian pluralism, with Iraq being a prime example. While in the early 20th century, an Assyrian Christian could become the head of the Iraqi Communist Party and one of the country’s most popular politicians, that could never happen nowadays where leaders can only be Shiite, Sunni or Kurd, Maalouf says.
The second half of the book deals with the decline of the Soviet Union and the conservative revolutions that swept through the US and UK in the 1980s, as well as Iran in the form of the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power.
The conservative revolutions in the West, spearheaded by US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, resulted in free market capitalism, the withdrawal of the state in providing essential services, and privatization.
This revolution was disastrous not because it managed to overcome Communism as a viable alternative economic system, but because it also discredited related concepts like social democracy, egalitarianism, and the principle of equality. We see this even today in the West, especially the US, where “socialist” is used as an insult against politicians and programs such as universal health care.
Even more damaging was the nurturing of a force by the US and its allies that it would soon be unable to control—Islamic fundamentalists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. While this would lead to a defeat for the Soviet Union that would then result in its disintegration, the Islamic radicals would move on and set their sights on other targets such as the US, culminating in the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy. In today’s Iraq and Middle East, the Islamic State organization, sometimes known as ISIS, continues this long line of fundamentalist terror but on a regional scale.
Maalouf’s main point is that the loss of pluralism, as symbolized by the unraveling of Lebanon, and the prevailing of conservatism and capitalism are key to the chaos of the world today. While Maalouf ably describes the 20th-century upheavals in the Middle East, the defeat of the Soviet Union and its Communism system, and the enabling of Islamic jihadists by the West, towards the end, the thread between the 20th and 21st centuries seems a little loose. But though his closing arguments may be a little too wide-ranging and meandering, Maalouf is right that the modern world has been in a very unsettled state, even before the onset of COVID-19 this year.
With the US and Europe proving unable to lead the world properly, and no state from the developing world able to step up, Maalouf bleakly asserts that what we are seeing is the dissolution of “any world order worthy of the name.” With the way that things are going, that might be a plausible possibility in the near future.