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405 - Middle East

Joseph O’Neill and the Middle East

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Posted by Mary Ann

I am a longtime fan of Joseph O’Neill’s work. His writing is a heady combination of lyricism, literacy and sophistication – the fact that he’s half Turkish and half Irish (he was raised in Holland; his dad was in construction and took his family all over the world) may encourage in him a sort of sensibility that transcends nationalities. It takes someone with that point of view to adequately describe Dubai, as O’Neill does in the “The Dog.” Dubai is a place where people come from all over the world to make money and live in luxury – or to work in jobs that cater to the hyper-rich.

O’Neill’s international point of view was on display in his breakout novel, 2008’s “Netherland,” one of my favorite books of all time.  New York Times critic Dwight Garner called “Netherland”  “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.” Garner also said that O’Neill “seems incapable of composing a boring sentence or thinking an uninteresting thought.” I wish I had said that myself!

“Netherland” is set in the post-9/11 era in New York City.   It tells the story of Hans, a Dutch commodities analyst who is living in lower Manhattan with his wife and young child when the planes hit the World Trade Center. His wife decides to leave the country with their child, both out of fear for their safety and concern that the United States is running off the rails politically in its reaction to the terrible event.

Hans is deserted and desolate, and he finds solace in the world of the sport of cricket as it is played in New York. Cricket in New York? I had no idea! Apparently the Brits spread the game all over the empire, and its devotees are legion, which means the cricketeers in New York are exiles and immigrants from every corner of the earth. 

Hans’ guide through this world is Chuck, a street-smart Trinidadian who is a virtual Gatsby for the 21st century. His business practices are shady but he has a dream – to build a world class cricket center in Brooklyn (unsurprisingly, the fields used by the cricketeers around the boroughs are not in great shape). Hans’ emotional desolation makes a mighty contrast to Chuck’s sheer ebullience. This novel works on so many levels – it is simply one of the best books I have read in the last ten years.

Next up is O’Neill’s autobiographical nonfiction book, “Blood Dark Track: A Family History.” It’s the story of the author’s investigation into the history of his two grandfathers – one Turkish, one Irish (O’Neill’s Irish father met his Turkish mother on a construction project in Turkey). O’Neill’s Turkish grandfather, a Syrian Christian living in Turkey, was a successful businessman. But when Joseph Dakad is arrested on a trip to Palestine to buy lemons, he becomes one of  World War II’s  victims; imprisoned for three and a half years by the British who resorted to psychological terror to get him to confess that he was a spy for the Germans. He never did.

His Irish grandfather experienced the tougher side of politics of a different sort. His story unfolds in the 1920s when, desperate to throw the hated British out of Ireland, the IRA resorted to terrorism and murder in West Cork – shooting Protestants just because they were Protestant.  O’Neill tries to determine the extent of his grandfather’s involvement; I won’t give away what he discovers. This book is a compelling study of the effect of political violence on the two branches of O’Neill’s family.

Now, let us segue fairly abruptly to a couple of books about the Middle East that came to mind as I read “The Dog,”  in which, the city/kingdom of Dubai was virtually a character in itself. I am reduced to saying something very teenager-y, such as – “what a weird place!”

One weird thing about this part of the world is the pace of change, the rapid acceleration from poor to rich (at least for a portion of the population). As you may know, Dubai sits on the Arabian peninsula.  One book that captures the flavor of what this area was like before oil money and progress changed it forever is the travel memoir “Arabian Sands” by Wilfred Thesiger.

Thesiger was one of those nutty, fearless Eton- and Oxford- educated English explorer types. He traveled what is called “The Empty Quarter” in Arabia between 1945 and 1950 on foot and by camel with the Bedu people, trying to capture what the area was like, before progress altered the way of life of the Bedu, the tribal people who inhabited it.

This book, published in 1959, is a classic of its genre. Thesiger does not romanticize this way of life; far from it. But he helps you understand the extreme deprivation these people lived with, and why civilization looks pretty darn appealing to a people who have endured the desert for several thousand years. Thesiger is also author of “The Marsh Arabs,” a 1964 book about an area in Iraq which was devastated by Saddam Hussein’s draining of the marshes to flush out the Madan people, his political opponents.

Finally, I have read good things about “Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City” by American journalist Jim Krane. This is another book that gives you a very good sense of how this area went from very poor to very rich in a very short period of time. A Telegraph review of this book noted that, “In the late Forties, Dubai had suffered an extended famine in which people had eaten locusts, leaves and lizards in order to survive. Yet within a few years, Sheikh Rashid had ordered the Middle East’s biggest port, its tallest skyscraper and its largest airport.”

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