THE MAN WHO BROKE INTO AUSCHWITZ by Denis Avey with Rob Broomby

Picture of the sign at the entrance of Auschwitz that reads Arbeit Macht Frei.

(The entrance to Auschwitz)

THE MAN WHO BROKE INTO AUSCHWITZ by Denis Avey with Rob Broomby is not an easy book to review.  It is a memoir of a former British soldier who decided after his capture and incarceration in a German POW camp, located next to the outskirts of Auschwitz, to switch clothing and identity with a Jewish inmate, so he could witness what went on inside the death camps.  These actions take place about halfway through the memoir and from that point on the reader is riveted to Denis Avey’s story.  The first third of the book recounts his early years in England and his boredom that led him to join the British army in 1939.  We are taken through his training and finally his experiences fighting first against the Italians in North Africa and then once the Italians lost Tobruk the Germans led by Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corp.  It is during the battle against the Germans at Sidi  Rezegh that he is captured and the essence of what he would experience is recounted.

Evaluating this type of memoir places the reviewer in a quandary.  You can comment on style and language and the demeanor of the author, but based on what he has survived and overcome, is that fair?  For me, Avey’s story is an emotional journey that takes him through the savagery of warfare in the Libyan dessert as a driver of a carrier vehicle with a mounted Bren gun on top.  He sees his friends blown to bits by Italian and German artillery and bombers.  He himself is wounded and contracts malaria and in the end winds up in a German field hospital where he miraculously recovers.  The first question that must be asked is why Avey, who did not have to enlist, join the army.  Avey states that “I hadn’t joined up for King and country but youthful adventure,” but what began as somewhat of a lark morphed into “a moral conflict for me at the very time I could do little about it.” (128)  Avey matured as a person because of his experiences and for him morality dominated his mindset.

Avey’s survival can be explained through luck, but also a state of mind.  Throughout the memoir he describes the abhorrent conditions he experienced but as he states, “my body was in a shocking state, but in my head, I wasn’t a prisoner at all.  The enemy had done many things to me but they hadn’t captured my mind.” (98)  After being captured in North Africa he attempted to escape a number of times and he was labeled as a “habitual troublemaker” which led to his transfer to a POW labor camp in the Polish town of Oswiecim where he noticed people who looked starved with shaved heads wearing “ill fitting striped shirts and trousers that were more like pyjamas.” (105)  Avey worked on a massive factory that was being built by I.G. Farben to manufacture “buna,” or synthetic rubber.  Avey realized earlier that “everywhere, in the nooks and crannies of this industrial nightmare, were poor creatures in their filthy zebra uniforms, many too weak to stand, led alone shift and carry.  I knew by now this was no ordinary labour camp.  They were deliberately worked to death.” (107)  For Avey, the knowledge that as a British POW he was not going to be worked to death allowed him to contemplate how he could assist these Jewish inmates.  He was able to get a letter out to the sister of a Jew named Ernst that allowed a package to be returned to him that assisted Ernst’s survival of what is referred to as Auschwitz III, the Nazi death camp.

Avey who became obsessed with the immorality of the Holocaust decided to change places with Ernst.  This was accomplished on two separate occasions where Avey experienced the barracks, the smell from the crematoria, the beatings, and the total inhumanity that was the “Final Solution.”  For Avey he wanted to bear witness to the plight of the Jews.  He wanted to tell the world of their suffering and the savagery of Auschwitz I, II, and III.  Throughout his experiences Avey was careful not to establish close relations with anyone, except for Hans a Dutch Jew he assisted, and Ernst, because you never knew how quickly you would be chosen for a detail to bury them.  As the Russians moved in from the east, Avey and thousands of others were forced to March westward in the middle of a frozen winter.  Avey broke away and miraculously made his way through Silesia, Czechoslovakia, and Germany.  Finally after passing through Nuremburg he came across the American army where he was taken to an officer whose description sounded like George S. Patton.

(Head to Head with Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street on January 22, 2010.  In March 2010 Avey was presented with a medal as one of 27 British heroes of the Holocaust.  All but two received the award posthumously)

From this point Avey describes his post war struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at a time when no one knew what it was and people were interested in talking about victory not the calamity facing soldiers who fought in the war and who were victims that people did not recognize.  Avey describes his battles with nightmares, jumpiness, his inability to speak about his experiences, his violent temper, stomach pains, and loss of memory.  These symptoms as well as the loss of vision in one I that grew cancerous from a beating during his incarceration plagued him for years after the war.  Eventually he would overcome them and lead a very successful life, as Avery says during the day, but at night it was a different story.  The most heartwarming and emotionally wrenching part of the book is the last third as he describes how a reporter Rob Broomby traced Avey’s experiences for a news story and he located Ernst’s sister, leading to a reunion with Avey.  Further they uncovered a DVD of Ernst’s life in the United States after the war.  Avey never knew what happened to him and this emotional catharsis allowed him to open up and went a long way in his own recovery.  The book is sad in parts, uplifting at the same time, but it serves as another voice, a witness to man’s inhumanity to man, and as Avey points out by recounting his experiences hopefully people will gain an understanding of genocide and will not allow it to take place again.

HARD CHOICES by Hillary Rodham Clinton

(Hillary Clinton testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Benghazi)

When Hillary Clinton launched her recent book tour promoting her memoir of her State Department tenure the political pundits concluded that this was the launch of her 2016 presidential campaign.  While that may be accurate the book, HARD CHOICES should be evaluated as to whether it provides greater understanding of American foreign policy during the first Obama administration.  The answer lies somewhere in the middle.  The book has many components.  It is Clinton’s attempt to justify the course of action taken during her years as Secretary of State, provide explanations to counter the myriad Republican criticisms that seem to emerge no matter what the issue or situation at that time, project a softer image for the American public, offer advice as to what tools American diplomacy should employ during the “digital age,” and discuss non-traditional topics that normally do not take up a great deal of space in political memoirs, i.e.; environmental and economic policy.  For Clinton the conduct of foreign policy seeks a balance of “smart” and the hard power of projecting military might.  For the former Secretary “smart power” needs to be “integrated with the traditional tools of foreign policy—diplomacy, developmental assistance, and military force—while tapping the energy and ideas of the private sector and empowering citizens, especially the activists, organizers, and problem solvers we call civil society, to meet their own challenges and shape their own futures.”  (pp. x-xi)  In doing so America’s strengths can be employed to develop more partners and fewer adversaries by sharing responsibility and becoming involved in fewer conflicts.  This includes reaching out to the people of whatever country policy is being developed, promoting jobs and less poverty, and expanding the middle class to lift people up with less damage to the environment.

At a time when President Obama’s foreign policy decision making is under attack, especially over events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Ukraine, Clinton’s memoir is a useful tool to see how decisions were reached, particularly the background considerations.  The “pivot” toward Asia was pronounced as soon as Clinton entered the State Department and currently it is seen by opponents as a failure because of the unrest in the Middle East.  The other major pronouncement was a “reset” with Russia that has fallen under scrutiny as Vladimir Putin has used events in the Ukraine to seize the Crimea and threaten the eastern part of the former Soviet republic.  Clinton spends a great deal of time providing the rational for these policy changes and makes the case that the results have not been perfect but were worth the effort.  In the case of the “pivot” toward Asia, Clinton called for broadening our relationship with China.  To accomplish this a sophisticated strategy was needed to encourage China to be “a responsible member of the international community, while [we] stood firm in defense of our values and interests.” (42)  At the same time the United States needed to strengthen our treaty alliances in the region to provide a counterbalance to China’s growing power.  A third goal was to “elevate and harmonize the alphabet soup of regional multilateral organizations” and use these venues “for all nations of the region to work together on shared challenges, resolve disagreements, establish rules and standards of behavior, reward responsible countries with legitimacy and respect, and help hold accountable those who violated the rules.” (44)  Clinton admits that the jury is still out as to whether this emphasis on Asia was a success, but with the growing influence the region has on the world economy, demand for energy, and the many disagreements on trade, human rights, boundaries, and the environment, the effort was well worth it and in the long run should yield positive results.  In the case of the reset with Russia the jury remains out.  When Putin left office and was replaced by Dmitry Medvedev as Russian Prime Minister in 2009 the world witnessed greater cooperation between Moscow and Washington.  The “reset” produced a strategic arms agreement, use of Russian soil to supply American forces in Afghanistan, Russian support for a no-fly zone in Libya, bringing Russia into the World Trade Organization, the expansion of counterterrorism cooperation, and Russian support for economic sanctions against Iran and North Korea.  This was in contrast to the intransigence of US-Russian relations under Putin that returned when the former KGB officer returned to his role as Prime Minster after Medvedev served his term.  Putin believes in restoring Russia to its preeminent role in world politics that it experienced before the collapse of the Soviet Union.  He is a Slavic nationalist who does not believe in the concept of “smart power,” for him it is a reflection of weakness.  Further, he blames the United States for the economic crisis begun in 2008 and believes the United States hood winked Moscow in gaining support for a UN resolution in dealing with Libya and then turned into strong military action that resulted in the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.  Many of President Obama’s critics blame him for events in the Ukraine and the Russian seizure of the Crimea, but based on Putin’s belief system and ambitions there was little that could have been done to deter him.  The question remains what should the United States do in response and Clinton is clear that economic sanctions can work as they did with Iran, but for those who want immediate gratification the time it takes to have an impact will not be satisfied.



(Vladimir Putin contemplates the next step for the Ukraine)

Clinton organizes her memoir around specific issues and problems rather than a chronological approach to her term as Secretary of State.  She does an effective job of providing the background history of the subjects she chooses to address and to her credit she continues to explain her viewpoint pertaining to those issues during the period after she resigned. The most interesting chapters deal with events in Afghanistan, the ongoing crisis in Syria, the difficulties dealing with Pakistan, the inability to achieve any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the effects of the Arab spring, relations with Iran, and of course Benghazi. It was fascinating to read about the internal discussions in the Obama administration in deciding whether to launch a “surge” in Afghanistan the way President Bush had done in Iraq.  Vice President Biden was against the “surge,” and Richard Holbrooke who was in charge of the Afghanistan-Pakistan portfolio in the State Department was very skeptical that a surge could prove effective.  Clinton supported President Obama’s decision to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan believing that if nothing was done the Taliban would continue to seize more of the country, making it harder for the United States to conduct counterterrorism operations.

The Obama administration has been very careful in dealing with Syrian rebels who oppose the Assad regime and has drawn a great deal of criticism.  The fear has always been if weapons were supplied how we could guarantee that they would reach the moderate elements in the fractious grouping of rebels who were fighting Damascus and eventually would be used against the United States as occurred in Afghanistan.  I disagree with the pronouncement of “red lines” that once crossed would produce American military action, if none was intended. However, the United States has provided a tremendous amount of non-military aide, and it is obvious from polling that the American people do not want to intervene with “boots on the ground.”

Pakistan also presents a difficult problem and an obstacle to peace.  Clinton supports the conclusions of Carlotta Gall in her recent book, THE WRONG ENEMY that the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) which has had a long running relationship with the Taliban is one of the major obstacles for peace.  They have provided safe haven for insurgents inside Pakistan and worked behind the scenes to prevent President Karzai from making a separate peace with the Taliban.  Clinton is right on the mark when she argues that the Pakistanis need to become invested in the future of Afghanistan and that they have more to gain from peace than a continuation of the current military conflict.  Pakistan has its own national security fears in dealing with India and events and its attitude toward Afghanistan must be seen from that perspective.  As in all cases Clinton provides comments about the individuals she is dealing with especially Afghani President Hamid Karzai who she describes as a proud man who believed that the Taliban was not his primary opponent, it was Pakistan and he was reluctant to use his own forces against the Taliban.  He believed the United States and coalition forces should conduct the “lion’s share of the fighting against Pakistan, while he negotiated with his fellow Pashtuns in the Taliban. (145)

(Clinton and Netanyahu in Israel)

In dealing with the Middle East Clinton provides a detailed history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and her relationships with the main players, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barack in Israel and Mahmoud Abbas the leader of the Palestinian Authority.  Since the memoir appears to be the launching of a presidential campaign the reader will witness the obligatory support for Israel that is a necessity for any Democratic candidate.  Clinton chooses her words very carefully in supporting a two-state solution for the conflict and her opposition to Hamas and the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon in dealing with Israeli security needs.  I commend Clinton’s attempt to mediate a solution to the conflict but from the outset it was apparent that the odds of success were remote.  With Netanyahu’s support for the continued construction of settlements on the West Bank, being hamstrung by the religious right of his own governing coalition, success was doubtful.  Clinton’s advice to Netanyahu concerning the burgeoning Palestinian birth rate as being the greatest threat to Israeli security in the future was also very timely.

As soon as excerpts of the book were released in advance of publication the pundit world jumped on the Benghazi episode.  There is really nothing new presented here that has not come out in the numerous congressional hearings dealing with the crisis.  Clinton correctly points out that “the total elimination of risk is a non-starter for U.S. diplomacy, given the need for the U.S. government to be present in places where stability and security are often most profoundly lacking and host government support is sometimes minimal to non-existent.” (385)  The criticism dealing whether the attack was incited by a disrespectful video dealing with Mohammad should not be the center piece of what might have gone wrong.  State Department and Congressional investigations have shown that the mob was provoked by the video and terrorists took advantage of the situation to launch its attack.  Another criticism of Clinton centers around her leaving her office the night of the crisis and going home, a home that was outfitted with the same intelligence and communication equipment as her State Department office.  Clinton took responsibility for events before a Senate committee; perhaps others who have created many of the issues in the region today might do the same.

Clinton is at her best when she is describing the reality of the diplomatic process.  The machinations behind the scene are ever present and some of her details are fascinating.  A good example was the attempt to create a coalition of NATO and Arab League members to thwart Qaddafi’s troops as they marched on Benghazi.  Maintaining relations with the United Arab Emirates after Bahrain was criticized for using Saudi troops to help crush domestic descent, Franco-Turkish relations were sour because French President Sarkozy had opposed Turkey’s membership in NATO, Italian-French competition to lead the coalition against Libya, gaining Russian and Chinese support for a UN resolution, and President Obama’s goal of having the US take a more limited role in any action all had to be balanced.  Opponents called this “leading from behind,” Clinton answers her critics by stating, “That’s a silly phrase.  It took a great deal of leading from the front, side, and every other direction, to authorize and accomplish the mission and to prevent what might have been the loss of tens of thousands of lives.” (375)

Clinton concentrates a great deal on her experiences in Africa and Latin America.  She details crises in Kenya and Somalia in Africa, and crises in Honduras and El Salvador in Latin America.  Her discussion of the future role of Brazil is important as is her poignant chapter dealing with the earthquake in Haiti that took place on January 12, 2010.  Her coverage of poverty sets her memoir apart from others.  She devotes a significant part of her book to the role of American foreign aid as a vehicle to assist those countries in need.  She debunks the view that foreign aid is a significant part of the federal budget, some believing it is as high as 25%, when in reality it is less than 1%.  Clinton’s emphasis on assisting countries through economic aid, education, human rights, and medical assistance is part of her goal of using what she terms as “soft power” to improve the lives of those in need and uplifting America’s image in the world.

Apart from the traditional discussion of policy and planning, Clinton lets the reader see her softer side.  Whether it is to improve her image as a presidential candidate or not her she is able to integrate personal moments into her narrative.  Her emotions related to her daughter Chelsea’s marriage and her moniker “M.O.T.B,” short for mother of the bride while negotiating with the Chinese is revealing.  Her feelings dealing with Chelsea’s pregnancy and her new role as a grandmother are very heartening.  She talks about her own honeymoon a number of times and refers to her husband as her best friend. Her emphasis on the role of woman in diplomacy is important as she argues that women pursue a different approach than men and are less likely to employ the military in solving crises.  Clinton has an excellent chapter on the role of the environment and its relation to current economic issues and the health of future generations is well put.  Pundits search for differences with President Obama, but in large part they agreed on policy and when disagreements took place her views were aired and any issues going back to the 2008 presidential campaign were easily overcome.  If she strongly disagreed with policy she had no difficulty in saying so, i.e.; when asked to attack Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign she refused arguing she would not criticize a woman for trying to attract women voters.  Clinton, unlike other politicians admitted her vote to support the war in Iraq was wrong and she realizes how that war has hurt the United States, particularly with events in Iraq as of this writing.

(Chelsea Clinton’s wedding Photo!)

If one reads HARD CHOICES you should come to the conclusion that Clinton has wide-ranging experience on national security and foreign policy issues, however, if one followed the news carefully during her time at the State Department there is very little that is new in the book.  If you are interested in a female perspective on world events during her tenure as Secretary of State, the book will come across as fascinating and informative and will provide you with the background for events, explain why certain policies were pursued, and suggest what might occur in the future.


(statue of Joshua L. Chamberlain at Gettysburg Battlefield)

Recently my daughter earned a position a position at Bowdoin College and when I visited the campus I was struck by the statue of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an individual who I was familiar with but had not read much about.  A week before visiting the Bowdoin campus my wife and I celebrated our anniversary traveling up and down the Maine coast, and for those who know me, they could predict I would find a few books, and in this case they were two biographies of Chamberlain, one of which was Alice  Rains Trulock’s IN THE HANDS OF PROVIDENCE: JOSHUA L. CHAMBERLAIN AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, the subject of this review.   I knew in advance that Chamberlain’s life story was remarkable, and perhaps, the book should have been titled, “The Professor turned General.”  In any case students of the Civil War should become familiar with his exploits; a hero at Gettysburg, a hero during the run up to the siege of Petersburg, a hero at the final battle of the war that led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox; achieving the rank of major-general, and having his horse shot out from under him six times.  His amazing career also included a professorship and presidency of Bowdoin College, and a four term governorship of the state of Maine.  There is no question that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain deserves a full length biography depicting his many exploits and accomplishments, but I must ask, has Alice Rains Trulock done Chamberlain’s life justice?  Trulock has written a comprehensive biography, but it lacks the incisive analysis that a major work of historical biography calls for.  Trulock spends two-thirds of the book detailing Chamberlain’s role in the Civil War and the remaining third on his pre and post-war career.  I wonder whether the book is an improvement over Willard M. Wallace’s biography, SOUL OF THE LION, written over thirty years earlier.

To Trulock’s credit she mines the documents carefully and does an exceptional job integrating Chamberlain’s own writings throughout the narrative.  Her discussion of the attack and eventual siege of Petersburg and Chamberlain’s role in planning and carrying out orders is perhaps the author’s best section of the book, surpassing her very solid description of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Her blend of  the course of the many battles she describes, as well as her human interest approach provides the reader with the feel that they were riding along side Chamberlain as he was constantly under fire and repeatedly wounded.  The major drawback to the narrative is the paucity of analysis, something that is not expected from a work of this type.  Her approach is as a reporter and less so a historian.  Her observations of Chamberlain’s bravery and the respect that the troops had for him is well and good, but beyond this and intricate details of a myriad of battles, I expected further discussion of the whys and wherefores of decision making and the historical significance of what transpired.

(General Joshua L. Chamberlain during the Civil War)

Trulock’s political observations are more interesting than her military ones.  Her discussion of the Election of 1864 that saw President Lincoln defeat General George McClellan was astute.  Arguing that it “was one of the most important victories of the war” for union forces, it belied the myth of McClellan’s popularity with the troops as Lincoln garnered a 3-1 advantage among the military. (221)  The author also does a credible job as she portrays the important commanders during the war.  In particular, her description of the self-serving Philip Sheridan, by providing examples of his egotistical nature is well put.  I also enjoyed her discussion of the soldiers and the cross they had to bear.  Her short biography of Sgt. Patrick DeLacey and his interaction with Chamberlain is poignant and reflects the raw courage of the men who fought for the union.

Aside from matters relating to the Civil War the reader is exposed to Chamberlain’s early years in Brewer, ME, his staunch moralism, and his early years at Bowdoin.  After the war the narrative concentrates on Chamberlain’s presidency of Bowdoin, his governorship, military reunions, business ventures, his health, and family issues.  An example of the analysis that may be missing is seen with the ruckus over the mandatory military drilling that Chamberlain called for at Bowdoin.  When students opposed the order and rebelled, he suspended the entire student body as his solution for the “drill rebellion.”  Trulock could have related this episode to Chamberlain’s own suspension from college when he thought his stand was a matter of honor to defend his beliefs, but she does not.  Further, she does not really address why Chamberlain was able to be such a success in the military arts with little combat training.  Perhaps it was the discipline he forged during his earlier life.

Overall, despite its flaws, Trulock’s biography is comprehensive and is a useful addition to any Civil War library.  There are areas that should have been addressed, perhaps greater clarity of the “fog of war,” but to her credit she does address his depression, physical issues related to the war (he was wounded “by shot and shell” six times), and alludes to a probable case of PTSD from his wartime experiences.  One wonders how he accomplished so much as he had to deal with so many personal issues.  It reaffirms that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is a worthy subject, and those with an interest in the topics that encompass his life might want to pursue Trulock’s biography.

DOGSTAR RISING by Parker Bilal


(Temple of Queen Hapshepsut, Luxor, Egypt)

Periodically we read in a newspaper or hear broadcast news accounts of attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt.  The latest and every bit as horrific as others during recent years was in October, 2013 as Egyptian gunmen opened fire on a Coptic Christian wedding in Cairo.  “Three people, including a girl aged eight, died when gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on the wedding party outside a Coptic Christian church in Cairo.” (BBC News 21 October, 2013)  Some Islamists groups have been targeting Coptic Christians who accuse them of supporting the army’s overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi last July.  Human Rights Watch reports that attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt have been on the rise and Egyptian authorities have done little to investigate the attacks or take actions to prevent them.  Another aspect of the problem is the kidnapping of Coptic Christian women and forcing them to convert to Islam, and then releasing them.  The issue is that Islamic conversion is irreversible, even under threatening conditions, and if one tries to reverse the marriage, the punishment is death.  “One priest in Cairo estimates that at least 21 young girls, many as young as 14, have disappeared from his parish alone.” (THE AUSTRALIAN May 21, 2011)  This atmosphere becomes part of the background for Parker Bilal’s novel DOGSTAR RISING.  The story is extremely timely as he begins the narrative with the murder and mutilation of Moslem children in Cairo.  The event takes place in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks and involves threats against employees of the Blue Ibis Tours company for supporting and aiding western pollution of Islam.  Makana, Bilal’s central character, a former Sudanese policeman who is a detective in Cairo is hired by the head of the tourist agency to investigate.  From this point on the novel twists and turns around the murder of the children and its possible link to a pedophile who is involved in smuggling linked to military officials, and attempts by journalists to expose the creation of an Islamic bank, the Eastern Star Bank that was set up to launder money for illegal activities.

The plot rests on a series of attacks on Moslem boys, journalists, and anyone who might be an impediment to the corruption that poisons Egyptian life.  By making the murders appear as if Coptic Christians are performing ritual murder, the television “Islamic evangelist,” Sheikh Mohammed Waheed publicizes this conspiracy theory to further the radical cause to make Egypt another Iran. The story highlights the dichotomy that is Egypt.  As Sami Barakat, a journalist points out, “You know what our problem is?  We can’t decide what we want.  Do we want West or East, Islam or the joys of secularism?  We think we can have it all.” (201)

Bilal has constructed a many layered novel involving fears of ritual murder, the plight of Coptic Christians, government corruption, Islamic extremism, and the hopes by some to recapture and make amends for their past.  The characters are numerous and well conceived.  Some return from Bilal’s previous novel, THE GOLDEN SCALES, but he introduces many new ones i.e.; a murdering pedophile, a Coptic priest, assorted Egyptian mobsters, corrupt police officials, a radical Imam, and every day Egyptians who have to bear the weight of the poverty that is their existence.  Throughout the novel, Bilal makes numerous references to Egyptian history and tries to place contemporary Egypt in that context.  His discussion of radical philosophers is accurate as his use of certain historical events to assist in the flow of the narrative.

The story itself is extremely complex and Bilal’s literary style makes it easier for the reader to keep up with the constant changes that seem to take place on every other page.  The ending is somewhat of a surprise and it will easily lead to another sequel as Makana’s search for his daughter, who he thought was dead, remains unresolved.  I enjoyed both Makana mysteries and I look forward to the publication of the third installment, THE GHOST RUNNER.


fo01 (The slums of Cairo…at a minimum 25% of Cairo’s citizens live beneath the poverty line)

Most Middle East specialists would agree that Egypt is a key component if Middle East peace is ever too achieved.  Therefore, any insight into that country is well worth pursuing even if it is in a mystery format.   Jamal Mahjoub, writing under the pseudonym Parker Bilal is just the writer to bring insights from that perspective.  Having been brought up in Khartoum, Sudan and lived in Cairo his feel for the people and culture of the region is something he draws upon in his first Makana mystery, entitled THE GOLDEN SCALES.  The story begins in 1981 before the assassination of Anwar Sadat by the Muslim Brotherhood and then jumps to 1998.  The narrative takes place during the increasingly autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak that is dominated by the Egyptian intelligence and military communities who reign supreme in everyday Egyptian society.  It is a time when the “Arab Spring” is a reformist fantasy and repression and poverty are the order of the day.  (Tahir Square, during the Arab Spring, 2011)

At the outset, Bilal offers an insider’s look into a missing person’s situation and a murder investigation.  He has the reader witness the underside of Cairo’s economic and social structure as we confront Egyptian gangsterism and corporate crime as the 20th century begins to draw to a close.  Employing a former police inspector, named Makana, who has his own demons that relate to his experiences in Sudan where his wife and daughter were killed, we meet a driven man who believes that no matter the consequences for himself, the law must be up held for society to function properly. Once Makana begins to oppose the Islamic fundamentalism that emerges in Sudan he is forced to immigrate to Egypt.  Bilal lives on a rickety wooden house boat on the Nile and from that base he launches a series of investigations that rub the gangster, intelligence, and corporate worlds of Cairo in the wrong way.  The background history Bilal presents is very accurate as he creates a number of characters that interact with Makana to tell his story.  Bilal puts together a plot that reflects the political and economic upheaval under the repressive regime of Hosni Muburak that Egypt still has not overcome to this day. Bilal creates an eclectic group of characters for Makana to work with and sometimes cope.  The story revolves around the disappearance of a four year old child in 1981 and the murder of her mother seventeen years later; the disappearance of Aldi Romario, a national soccer favorite; the machination of Saad Hanabi, a former gangster and now one of the richest men in Egypt; Sami Barakat, an unemployed journalist; Vronsky, the former Russian soldier and intelligence agent; Soraya Hanafi, the heiress to the family fortune; Daud Bulati, a former partner of the Hanafi’s who becomes an Islamic revolutionary;  and Okasha, a police inspector in Cairo.  There are a number of other important individuals who appear but machinations among those named form the core of the narrative. Makana is hired by Saad Hanafi to locate his star player, Aldi Romario who has gone missing from the soccer team which he owns.  Makana’s investigation has numerous twists and turns as he theorizes how the disappearance of the child, the murder of her mother, and the disappearance of Adil are all related.  In developing the story, Bilal periodically alternates chapters stepping back from the criminal investigation to events in the Sudan seven years before.  We learn about Makana and the plight of his family in the context of the Sudanese civil war caused by the rise of Islamic extremism. Throughout the novel the reader is exposed to what the citizens of Cairo must deal with on a daily basis, as Makana remarks early on that in Cairo, “life was lived on the streets.”  The teeming masses, the never ending poverty, the lack of civil rights are all part of the burden that most Egyptians share.  The novel will incorporate the Egyptian intelligence branch, the SSI; Sudanese “supposed” law enforcement officers, jihad, the breakdown of the Egyptian welfare network, and the violence that is Cairo.  For a murder mystery the book contains exceptional prose as Bilal has written a number of other novels before embarking on his Makana series.  The plot line has tremendous depth and I challenge any reader to try and figure how the novel concludes.  This book was recommended to me by a friend, to whom I am grateful as I have already begun to read the second installment of the Makana series, DOGSTAR RISING.


As a retired educator I enjoyed having students debate whether Thomas Jefferson was a realist or an idealist when discussing his foreign policy.  Many believed he was an ideologue who rarely strayed from his principles that usually pitted him against Alexander Hamilton.  In EMPEROR OF LIBERTY, Francis D. Cogliano revisits this debate and concludes that Jefferson consistently implemented a pragmatic approach to foreign affairs no matter the situation.  The book is a concise recapitulation of Jefferson’s diplomatic decision making tracing his raison d’être from his service as Governor of Virginia during the American Revolution, American Minister to France following the revolution, Secretary of State during George Washington’s first administration, and as President of the United States.  The issues he faced included a number of bouts with the Barbary pirates, Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco; a series of issues with the British, including impressment and commercial interests among many; policy toward the French Revolution; the purchase of Louisiana; and finally his effort to remain neutral during the Napoleonic War.  In all cases Cogliano employs precise language and command of the relevant secondary and primary source material.  But as a historian I must ask, is there anything that has not been written before?

In each instance Cogliano presents the views of those historians who argue that Jefferson’s actions must be explained from the ideological perspective.  For the author Jefferson’s motivations are clear from the time he was Governor of Virginia that his vision for the United States was an empire of liberty that would be brought about primarily through peaceful expansion.  Jefferson favored an agrarian republic that rested on the ability of Americans to trade freely in the world.  For Jefferson, a threat to commerce was a threat to the republic.  He was not totally against the use of force as many maintain.  Once he perceived that American commercial interests were threatened he would employ the navy as he did against the Barbary pirates to achieve his goals.  He could also use the “veiled fist” as he did with Spain before the United States acquired the Louisiana territory.  That acquisition which married commerce to an avenue to the Atlantic Ocean was Jefferson’s greatest triumph.  Jefferson had always favored westward expansion as a vehicle of spreading republican principles going back to when he was Governor of Virginia when he dispatched George Rogers Clark to explore the territory.  Jefferson’s vision for the American empire was quite simple.  If the republic was to succeed it would have to expand to absorb its growing population.  For liberty to survive the republic would need to be a nation of small farmers.  In order for the United States to flourish they would have to export their produce requiring unfettered access to international markets.  “The United States would be an empire of liberty because liberty could not thrive without expansion.  If liberty were extinguished in the United States, the republican experiment would fail.  In Jefferson’s mind the growth of the ‘empire of liberty’ and the success of the American republic were one and the same thing.  As president, Jefferson sought to realize this vision of an expansionist American republic.” (5)

(map circa 1800, Barbary States)

Throughout his diplomatic career Jefferson made careful note of strategies that were effective and mirrored his beliefs.  As governor of Virginia he felt that the state’s decentralized constitutional arrangement hampered his ability to deal with the constant threat of British encroachment.  From this experience he realized a strong executive was needed to conduct an effective foreign policy even if it meant exceeding constitutional limits as long as he received legislative approval after the policy was implemented.  Employing the case study approach Cogliano does not present a comprehensive study of Jeffersonian foreign policy, but he chooses the most salient examples.  Jefferson had to deal with the issue of the seizure of American ships and imprisoning American sailors on a number of occasions during his career.  Whether it was as Secretary of State or President, Jefferson believed that the Barbary corsairs threatened American trade, therefore liberty.  Jefferson was fully aware that the United States projected weakness to foreign powers, which is why the Barbary States targeted American shipping.  Until a navy could be developed Jefferson employed diplomatic threats, support for overthrown leaders, and the creation of alliances to achieve his goals.  In 1791 the US would wind up paying tribute, but by 1802, the American navy taught Tripoli a lesson.  For Jefferson, diplomacy was the first resort, but force at times was proven necessary.  Jefferson’s greatest diplomatic accomplishment was the purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon.  Some argue this came about due to the defeat of the French in Saint Domingue and her inability to protect Louisiana as the Peace of Amiens in Europe broke down.  Whatever the case the purchase was made by exceeding his constitutional powers and Jefferson obtained the western territory, control of the Mississippi, and New Orleans at the same time.  Following precedent, Jefferson obtained Congressional approval after the fact.  I agree with Cogliano’s premise that Jefferson was a pragmatist when it came to foreign relations as all his examples seem to reflect.

In dealing with England Jefferson was at a disadvantage since commercial interests were his prime concern and his position was weak. Cogliano lays out the different scenarios that Jefferson could employ; war, embargo, or be patient and hope things would calm down.  A great deal of attention is focused on the issue of impressment and British Orders in Council that hindered American commercial interests.  After the Chesapeake-Leopard affair it appeared that the United States would declare war against England, but fearing the repercussions of war Jefferson chose an embargo. In Jefferson’s eyes the embargo was the best option that he had.   According to Cogliano the policy was not defective; it was its implementation as Jefferson did not rally the American people to support the embargo, resulting in smuggling and other strategies to undermine its effectiveness.  The policy was an economic disaster for the US and was the greatest failure of Jefferson’s presidency.

Overall, the book has a great deal of interesting sidelights, i.e., the fact that the British were so desperate in its war against Napoleonic France it bombed Copenhagen when the Danes refused to turn over its navy to them. Also, Cogliano begins the book with a discussion of autocracy and Jefferson’s positive views of the new Russian Tsar, Alexander, a discussion I found interesting and somewhat surprising.  If you are looking for a readable study of Jeffersonian foreign policy then Cogliano’s work fits the bill, however, if you are well versed in the subject the narrative will qualify as an excellent review of information and events.