I try to keep up on things. I try to read and improve my understanding of the world around me, its history, and the events that have brought us here.
It’s really tough. Really, really tough. There are many more places and things happening in the world than there are hours in my day to investigate them. So when I try to wrap my head around a region like the Middle East I am looking for a leg up.
Enter the documentary Blood and Oil: The Middle East in World War I. Released in 2006 and directed by veteran journalist and military historian Marty Callaghan, Blood and Oil is a dense and revealing documentary. But why World War I? It may seem like ancient history to some, but the modern Middle East as we know it was born in the Great War’s wake. The documentary takes us through the military campaigns of the British, Russian and Ottoman Empires and into the politics and maneuvering in the immediate post war period. For fans of military history, this documentary lucidly outlines World War I’s campaigns within the region in dramatic detail. Ataturk and Gallipoli and the pan-Turkish dreams of the ill-fated expedition of Enver Pasha are featured in this rich film as well as the Russian invasion of Anatolia and the tragedy of Smyrna. The post war period covered by the documentary is the real pay-off to people on a mission to provide context to the Middle East. The defeated Ottoman Empire was carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey by the victorious French and British, and the decisions they made nearly a century ago set the table for events today. This film explains the various agreements and secret treaties that gave birth to a group of nations almost overnight, a set of borders and new countries designed to preserve influence and maintain access to an increasingly vital resource, oil, which had only recently replaced coal in the new ships of the British navy. It isn’t hard to see how these new nations suffered the occasional post-colonial migraine as ethnic and national aspirations clashed with an artificial and seemingly arbitrary set of circumstances. Understanding the modern Middle East begins with understanding the post war period and this documentary is an incredible shortcut. The human cost of imperial and national ambition is displayed with moving sympathy throughout the film.
Africa: 56 countries sharing a population of over a billion people. Now there is a region I need to work on. I needed help there, a good primer, and I found The Africa Book. This weighty tome contains a spread for each country featuring vital statistics, a brief history and cultural information, and a selection of beautiful photographs. The history sections are short but revealing, showcasing the continent’s richness and complexity, host to dozens of empires, foreign colonizers, and the sometimes difficult paths to nationhood in post-colonial times. It’s a Lonely Planet book so the target market is young, wealthy, wearing a back pack, and looking to score at the ex-pat bar, but the book suits my purposes equally well. Thanks to this book I could read the news on Africa without constantly referencing Wikipedia. Soon I will be expanding my reading into some general histories and country specific works and then I will be really set.
And then onto South America….