Fractured Lands was published as a whole issue of the New York Times in 2016 after author Scott Anderson spent 18 months travelling the Middle East and North Africa. The resulting work focusses on 6 characters met along the way from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Kurdistan.
The variety of the six backgrounds creates a captivating mosaic. The relative prosperity of an Egyptian human rights lawyer stands in contrast to a young Iraqi construction worker with no hope for excitement until ISIS’ cash-flushed arrival.
Whilst providing this assortment of hugely different lives in the region, Anderson still makes the similarities of these countries clear.
The most fascinating of these is the tribalism that has to be managed by the inorganic modern states of the region. The post-Ottoman history is informatively presented without getting bogged down in details. By rhythmically returning to the centuries-old role of these groups between the personal stories, Anderson allows for consistently satisfying insight as well as a fascinating local summary. The governments of Assad, Gaddafi and Hussein only put lids on kettles that never stopped boiling.
Unfortunately, some of the conclusions drawn seem to completely miss the lessons taught immediately before.
Khulood al-Zaidi of Iraq stood to be one of the liberal’s beneficiaries of the Iraq invasion, being offered a human rights job initially. After being disposed of by the invaders shortly after she wishes they’d never come, saying “without that, we’d be normal”. Anderson agrees with the sentiment and highlights how the disastrous war facilitated ISIS’ rise.
Yet when he turns attention to neighbouring Syria he calls the reluctance to invade “the most grievous policy misstep in the region since the Iraqi invasion”. The infamous 2013 sarin gas attack is used argue this, although American intelligence officials have continued to argue this was carried out by Assad’s opposition to encourage foreign intervention.
The sudden arising of Libyan opposition forces in 2012 isn’t explained either. In these lands of strongmen leaders, Libyans undoubtedly enjoyed the most prosperity. Yet Majdi el-Mangoush’s story of travelling across the oil-rich land shines the least light on his setting. The uprising, which was primarily carried out by a wavering group of religious fanatics, is widely considered to owe almost all its success to foreign interests. The Western imperialists escape without much blame here, though.
The Kurdish story is upsetting and exciting. It spans the region and the world. The unravelling of the Kurd’s role in their perilous position perfectly encapsulates the problems that the regions’ inhabitants must work out for themselves, even as we remain angry at the persecution they’ve suffered.
In conclusion, the book’s core makes a compelling case for national self-determination, although its conclusions seem disjointed from that content. The way Anderson balances the personal, political and historical makes 200 educational pages easy to breeze through. If he’d taken more care to measure out the political focus, Fractured Lands would’ve landed close to perfection.