‘A Line in the Sand’, J. Barr

I’ve taken great pleasure in reading Mr Barr’s book on the Sykes-Picot Line and how it developed (and on what happened afterwards). A very good question in response to the statement above would be “why?”. It doesn’t sound like the most thrilling of experiences and that is something I would have said before taking up this book. However, if my previous impression of the Sykes-Picot Line would not have amounted to much then this book has turned it around — I could probably find a way to connect the majority of the situation in the present-day Middle East to something someone did there between ’15 and ’49, and it would not be a trivial connection.

Mr Barr decided to go through the British and French archives and secret documents which detailed the story of how this line got drawn and how the two relevant parties tried to change the borders afterwards — as well as what this meant for the local people and the governments of the two countries. This experience must have been very enjoyable for the author, for indeed I have seldom felt such passion written into a history book. This passion was certainly something which assisted in me keeping an interest in the book although it was not by far the most crucial.

The most crucial would be the story itself — an endless amount of backstabbing and treachery conducted by both sides while trying to manipulate the people and the press into believing their own story. It almost sounds too good to be true, but then I remember that thousands if not tens of thousands have died and perished in the name of this manipulation and we get another look into typical human history. What we have managed to do this time round is clarify the story so that more is known. Indeed, some of what is known only allows us to despair at human nature.

The characters that the author introduces us to range from Lawrence of Arabia to de Gaulle — and all of these people had their part to play in the story that has unfolded in the Middle East. Some of them were honest politicians, some of them were soldiers from Australia. What united them was a passion and strength on how the Middle Eastern question would be solved with regards to the times — starting off with a question of independence or a League of Nations mandate for self government and heading off on an unknown path that these people tried to gently nudge towards whatever they thought was best. I will note that naturally what these people thought best seldom actually went along with what the people themselves might have considered ‘best’.

It is indeed very much a story of the people who lived it — for it was inevitably them who decided which way to move at any given point, and just how far to push. The range of characters that we are introduced to is thereby something that really does expand one’s mind. I would name some of these names but they’d honestly be more worth it if their full story was known (or as full a story as we can construct), so I’ll pass on that this time round.

What I will add is that Mr Barr has managed to chapterize the book very well. I never felt that any of the chapters here went on for too long, and that is something novel. In general, I am not bothered by where a chapter ends or begins, but in this book it always felt just right. I could take it up and I would know “I’ll be able to read a chapter, and then come back later.” The chapter would last for exactly the right amount of time to consider one of them a short break. That was something very special, and I am uncertain as to how the author accomplished that — all I know is that I wish more historians were as good with this skill.

The latter part of this book might have started weighing heavy on me — I really did enjoy finishing it, but the topics turned to a very different type of serious. It might be that this is because the most recent actions described, if still distant for us of this day and age are still tangible. I can never feel very happy when I read about blackmail and terrorism succeeding, and that is what it felt like.

In tone, at least, I would say then that I prefer the start of the book to the ending, although there was no change in what the author gave us — his work is supreme.

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