06 October 2016, The Tablet

The roots of misrule

by Simon Scott Plummer


The Poisoned Well: Empire and its legacy in the Middle East

Readers of The Tablet may well be familiar with the voice of Roger Hardy, who for over 20 years was a Middle East analyst with the BBC World Service. Widely travelled in the region, softly spoken and thoughtful, with an acute historical understanding and a journalist’s eye and ear for telling detail, he is an outstanding commentator on a part of the world which, in Western eyes at least, has become a byword for misrule. The Poisoned Well, which broadly covers events from the seismic impact of the First World War until independence, has its origins in a radio series which the author made for the BBC in the early 1990s.

Hardy devotes about 20 pages to each of 11 countries in the Middle East, from Turkey, whose decline as the centre of the Ottoman Empire gave rise to Arab nationalism, to Yemen, where, in 1967, the British relinquished power to the first Marxist regime in the region. In each case, he provides a concise and lucid historical survey, enlivened by the first-hand accounts of participants. For example, he quotes this sharp assessment of her boss by Halidé Edib, a Turkish writer and social reformer who was the only woman in Kemal Atatürk’s inner circle: “He was by turns cynical, unscrupulous, and satanically shrewd. He bullied, he indulged in cheap street-corner histrionics.”

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