'The Fires of Spring': A Pittsburgh RAND scholar's vital 'Post-Arab Spring Journey Through the Turbulent New Middle East'
A look at the Arab Spring five years later
July 24, 2016 12:00 AM
By Dan Simpson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“The Fires of Spring: A Post-Arab Spring Journey Through the Turbulent New Middle East” by Shelby Culbertson (St. Martin's Press, $29.99) is an important book.
The so-called Arab Spring started five years ago, in Tunisia, where a frustrated young fruit seller set himself on fire after a government official slapped him and stole his apples, setting off waves of popular indignation that ultimately rocked governments across the Middle East, population 500 million. Five years later, the earth has moved to some still uncalculated extent. The world is trying to make sense of what has happened, what it means particularly in terms of the relationship between Islam and states, and seeking to judge what comes next, not least in terms of gauging what the U.S. role should be in the whole shooting match.
Ms. Culbertson has looked at the region, specifically at six countries there including, in order of her travel, Tunisia, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt, and asked the hard questions. It is no secret that some observers and participants consider the summer fruits of Arab Spring to have been unsatisfying and bitter in the eating. At worst, they could be considered to have been principally destructive to the societies where they occurred.
On the other hand, they constituted a sea change in the region, an important watershed in the centuries-long history of the Middle East. For those who accept the contention that the Arab world was in severe need of change, of reform, the events of Arab Spring can be considered to be a vital start to an evolving process.
The author has woven a glorious tapestry of people, history and sometimes unspoken analysis that provides the reader the raw material to draw his or her own conclusions.
First of all, she makes it clear that we are looking at a different chronology of events from the one that dominates a Western regard of history. She is especially strong on the evolution of governance in the region from the multiethnic Ottoman empire to the nation state, with all of the mischief that change has prompted. The Ottomans ruled Palestine from 1517-1921; now it is a churning bowl of conflict among the Israelis and Palestinians that poses a threat not only to the region, but to world peace in general. Other landmarks include: 1095, the beginning of the Crusades; 1258, the end of the Golden Age of Islam when the Mongols under Hulagu Khan took Baghdad; and 1453, when the Ottomans took Constantinople, now Istanbul.
Second, across her journey, Ms. Culbertson interviewed numerous important, articulate political, economic and cultural figures in the six countries she visited. If one wanted to, one could put together a “Who’s Who?” of whom one should talk to in the region to gain some understanding of it. In particular, without making a fetish of it, Ms. Culbertson took pains to interview powerful, prominent women in each of the six countries.
That served to underline one of the major themes of the post-Arab Spring period in Middle East history — the progressive, rapidly growing emergence of women in determining the present and future of the countries of the region. She didn’t hit the worst of them — Saudi Arabia, Yemen, some of the murkier sandboxes of the Persian Gulf — but she harvested some remarkable interviews from dynamic women playing growing roles in all six of the countries. By the way, Tunisian women have uncontested abortion rights, unlike in some of the more primitive American states.
She examines sophisticated concepts in the book. She differentiates between “meddling” countries and “meddled with” countries. She writes about author Orhan Pamuk’s “melancholy that is communal, rather than private.” She tells us about “Ijtihad,” independent reasoning or critical thinking within Islam.
To be critical for a minute of what is truly an excellent book, I would say that I would have enjoyed more of Ms. Culbertson’s own conclusions about what she was being told. I would also be curious about how she sees the role of the United States in what has happened, where these countries are now, and where they are going.
In that regard, we are lucky. Ms. Culbertson is a Pittsburgher and will be speaking under the auspices of the Pittsburgh World Affairs Council Monday at City of Asylum on the North Side (412-281-7970 or firstname.lastname@example.org) to pursue some of these questions.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (email@example.com).
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.