‘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). While it doesn’t sound like the most thrilling of experiences, this book turned that impression around. Now, I could probably find a way to connect the present situation in the Middle East to something one of the relevant parties did there between 1915 and 1949—and it would be a major link.

Mr Barr decided to go through British and French (secret) archives that detailed the story of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and how the two countries tried to change the borders afterwards. The author also touches upon what this meant for the local people and the homeland governments. I think that Mr Barr really enjoyed this historical investigation for I have seldom felt such passion in a narrative history. This certainly kept me drawn into the book though the author’s compelling style did not need much to keep one’s interest.

The story of three and some decades involved endless backstabbing and treachery, undertaken by both the French and the British while trying to manipulate the local populace and the press into believing their versions of events. This sounds more like fiction than fact—and then the realization that these lies and counter-truths cost tens of thousands of people their lives. While not unprecedented, it is perhaps surprising that such activities were happening less than a century ago by two of the so-called Western democracies. At least this story is now known. If it leads us to despair on human nature, so be it—perhaps some will learn and the future will be better.

In this journey, we meet people as varied as Lawrence of Arabia to Charles de Gaulle. Them and untold others from the British and French diplomatic and military cores had their parts to play in the collusion of the two super-powers. Some were honest men, trying to do their best; others were out to make a name for themselves. Most were united by a passion towards the Middle East—and yet separated by how the Middle Eastern Question should be resolved. The options of independence, a League of Nations mandate, or some third solution were all considered, discarded, and found again in the relentless quest by these imperial powers to take away the local peoples’ right to self-determination.

What I’ll add is that Mr Barr managed to section the book very well. The chapters were of a reasonable length, without going on for too long. The subject was discussed and put to rest, but not endlessly considered. I could take the book up, and I’d know, “I’ll be able to read a chapter, and come back to the next one later!” This is a special skill for often author’s section their narratives without consideration to time or space, or possibly don’t section their stories at all. I wish more historians were as good as Mr Barr with this eloquence of the written word!

I preferred the start of the book to the ending—which with its consideration on the Palestine mandate and the state of Israel came into a very complex topic—but the author’s work on this part of Middle Eastern history is supreme.

Revised on 25-Nov-2020. Original from June 2013.

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