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Shifting Sands
The Unraveling of the Old Order in the Middle East
edited by Penny Johnson and Raja Shehadeh

published 2016 • 6" x 9" • 208 pages
ISBN 9781566560726 • paperback • $17.95

“Penny Johnson and Raja Shehadeh have edited a highly compelling collection of essays charting the demise of the region's political order called Shifting Sands: The Unravelling of the Old Order in the Middle East. It is full of larger theories but also choice tidbits, including the revelation that France's negotiator Francois-Georges Picot signed the Sykes-Picot agreement in ink, while the Briton Sir Mark Sykes used a pencil, reflecting each side's attitude towards the pact.  For those who despair that diversity, humor and art might survive the turmoil, this book is a delightful antidote.”
—Nicholas Pelham, author of Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East

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At a time when the Middle East dominates media headlines more than ever—and for reasons that become ever more heartbreaking—Shifting Sands brings together fifteen impassioned and informed voices to talk about a region with unlimited potential, and yet which can feel, as one writer puts it, “as though the world around me is on fire?”

This collection has as its framing event the Sykes-Picot agreement, which marks its centenary this year. The British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart Francois George-Picot wanted to divide most of the Middle East into British and French zones of influence. The accord that they secretly signed in 1916 invented the modern Middle East and planted the seeds for many of its current woes.

Collecting together the thoughts and insights of writers who live or have deep roots in there, Shifting Sands takes a look at aspects of the Middle East from the catastrophic long-term effects of the carving up of the region by the colonial powers after World War One to the hopes and struggles of the Arab spring in relation to Egypt, Iran and Syria. And it asks questions such as: what is it like to be a writer in the Middle East? What does the future hold? And where do we go from here?

For all those who are wearied by the debates surrounding the Middle East—often at best ill-informed and at worst, defeatist propaganda—this intelligent, reasoned perspective on life in the Middle East is a breath of fresh air.

Contributors include: James Barr, Avi Shlaim, Salim Tamari, Ramita Navai, Dawn Chatty, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Malu Halasa, Marilyn Booth, Mai Al-Nakib, Selma Dabbagh, Tamim Al Barghouti, Justin Marozzi, Alev Scott, and Khaled Fahmy

Raja Shehadeh is Palestine's leading writer. He is also a lawyer and the founder of the pioneering Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq. Shehadeh is the author of several acclaimed books including Strangers in the House and Occupation Diaries and winner of the 2008 Orwell Prize for Palestinian Walks. He lives in Ramallah in Palestine.

Penny Johnson is an academic at Birzeit University in Ramallah. She has published articles and edited a number of important books on Palestine, including Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home.

Media Reviews
“This compilation by diverse writers lends nuanced insight into the complicated, volatile Middle East... this timely collection of 15 essays... provides both a historical perspective on the region and a spotlight on the current crises—e.g., how Syrian street art helped ignite a revolution, as described by London author Malu Halasa. While Avi Shlaim offers an elucidating overview of the lack of territorial and political legitimacy imparted by the post-World War I peace settlement, sociology scholar Salim Tamari analyzes diaries by World War I soldiers on the Ottoman side whose writings reflect the shift from Ottoman loyalties to a sense of Arab national identity. Other essayists try to make sense of the reigning states of chaos and despair: in Egypt, historian Khaled Fahmy bemoans the post-Arab Spring lack of any ‘imagined golden age in which we can claim we shaped our destiny and to which we want to return’; Iranian-British journalist Ramita Navai looks at how the entrenched ‘culture of victimhood’ by the Iranian Shia underdog is spurring a new desire to ‘come in from the cold’ through nuclear deals with the U.S.; and Alev Scott believes the civic courage of Turkish youth will prevail in President Recep Erdogan’s oppressive state. In her unique essay on living and writing in Kuwait, novelist Mai al-Nakib uses fiction to revisit the ‘forgotten or stifled cosmopolitanism’ in her country. An accessible collection in which the editors and the contributors don't shirk from delivering necessary criticism but offer possibilities of hope for a troubled region.”
—Kirkus Reviews

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