Sometimes current events are so complex that looking at them from a global or nation-state level is confusing and chaotic. The way to understand them is to go back to the human scale, to look at events through the eyes of people on the ground. That is exactly what Scott Anderson’s Fractured Lands attempts to do in explaining the fracturing of the Middle East.

Most historians anchor the current troubles in the anthropologically ignorant nation-making after World War I, when the west drew boundaries in the Middle East that ignored ethnic and tribal ties in breaking the Ottoman Empire apart into several nation-states under their spheres of influence. These artificial nations held together through strong man dictators, but when those dictators fell, the natural tribal divisions prevented the formation of integrated, united democracies. When the United States toppled Saddam Hussein, President Bush said we had an obligation to spread democracy,  but instead we spread chaos.


In Iraq, Scott Anderson follows Azar Mirkhan, a Kurdish doctor who is now fighting ISIS; Khulood al-Zaidiin, a young woman encouraged to organize for women’s rights but who was eventually forced into exile; and Wakaz Hassan, a poor laborer who joined ISIS for a paycheck but who now faces imprisonment or death. In Egypt, Laila Soueif was a long-time activist along with her husband. Active in the Tahrir Square revolution, now she and her family face repression under the current el-Sisi regime with two of her children in prison. In Libya, Majdi el-Mangoush was a cadet in the military when the revolution happened, now he is a student and volunteers with a conservation group to plant trees, while he watches his country collapse into tribalism. In Syria, Majd Ibrahim was a college student when the civil war began. His family survives the siege that destroyed his home town, now he lives in exile.

This book is fast-paced and fascinating. Most of the people Anderson focuses on are young, and buffeted by changes outside their control. Some of them have more agency than others, choosing the roads they take. Others, like the three young men, Majdi, Majd, and Wakaz seem to have many of their choices made for them by family or by circumstance.

Fractured Lands is not the kind of reporting that we see very often. It required the kind of long term investment that most papers just do not sustain any more, but with a grant from the Pulitzer Center and the support of the New York Times, Paolo Pelligrini, Ben Soloman, and Scott Anderson reported on the fracturing of the Middle East through the lives of six representative people in the New York Times Magazine last year.

This is an excellent book that puts a human face on the tragedies roiling the Middle East today. So much of the reporting from that region is impersonal, as though it is populated by abstractions instead of people. This is a valuable counterweight to that reporting. Anderson identifies critical foreign policy blunders on the part of the US and the West, the original sin of making the false constructs, the invasion of Iraq, and the failure to act in Syria. Anderson does not have much in the way of a prescription other than possible creations of federal governments with ethnic/tribal regional governments sharing power and resources. However, even then, as he points out with the Kurds, the Kurdish unity today is a result of a common enemy and within the Kurds are further divisions that would fracture into conflict if they did not have an external enemy.

There’s not much hope in this book. In the end, where are these people, at war, in prison, or in exile, most of them. For all of them, their future is uncertain. As it is for everyone in their fractured lands.

Fractured Lands is released today by Knopf Doubleday. I was provided an advance e-galley by the publisher through Edelweiss.