Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953 by Jean-Pierre Filiu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Here is the great David B., author of Epileptic, bringing his amazing talent to the service of something almost like history. The result is every bit as fun, funny and visually witty and exciting as anything the cartoonist has ever done. That he and his co-author can not have intended anyone -- other than, perhaps, the French -- to read this as actual history is evident from the opening chapter, which features mythical boyfriends Gilgamesh and Enkidu, lusting after wood. (There is history in here, of course, amidst the agitprop, but the skewing sometimes bends this stuff so hard, if anybody but David B. was drawing this thing would just snap, the whole enterprise reading like a freshman book report on Noam Chomsky.)
Some of the editorial is just embarrassing. Witness this nugget on 19th Century American diplomacy: "Their representatives in Istanbul were very active in corrupting local officials" Indeed. Before the Yankees got there? Evidently, the locals were upright as church pianos. Verbs can be so meaningful when the words are few, no? And then there's the knothole perspective of things like this, "On his voyage to the Middle East, Mark Twain was highly critical of local religions." Ha! Just embarrassing! That one lil' word, "local," meant to focus mind I guess. As if Mark Twain otherwise was a big fan of the Pope, or Mary Bake Eddy, or God. (That's just... lazy-minded.)
What saves the book from being a pamphlet on American imperialism is the endless invention of David B. In his mad hands, the grand Pasha's turban inflates into the globe, his mustaches flashing scimitars. The conquest of Mecca by the Wahhabis, seen here in a full-page, single panel, shows mosques and minarets tumbling about like Escher staircases, "decadent" tobacco pipes ablaze in a bonfire, and everywhere at once, the striped clothes and handed headgear of the conquerers adds to the delightful, general dizziness and destructive fun. (Only in the last story, in Chapter 4, "coup d'état," does Dav B.'s invention start to flag a bit, but then this, the American investiture of the last Shah, is all too familiar a tale -- sparked up a little here at least, by the artist's inspired, jack-o'-lantern portrait of Kermit Roosevelt as the omnipresent bad guy.)
Anyone reliant on this book for history will be roughly as well informed as an attendee at a "no Blood for Oil" rally, but nothing David B. does is ever not worth a long look. I'm already looking forward, eyes rolling, to part two.
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