The master of the hardheaded travelogue, Robert D. Kaplan returns with a book on what he calls "the New Near East," an area stretching from the Balkans to Central Asia that "might become the seismograph of world politics" in the new century. That doesn't sound like good news: "The pitiless history of the Near East [is] dominated by marauding armies and earthquakes while peace treaties have merely formalized temporary stalemates on the ground." Kaplan has made a career of writing about the world's trouble spots "without illusions"--his books Balkan Ghosts and The Ends of the Earth are at once influential and pessimistic.
Eastward to Tartary is a fascinating exploration of places Kaplan has not written about in depth before: "Third World Europe" (Romania and Bulgaria), Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and the confusing conglomeration of countries and peoples in the Caucasus. Smart observations leap off almost every page. "In every Arab city I have ever visited, people were polite and honest, running after you to return a loose coin you have left at a soft-drinks stand," he writes. So why hasn't democracy taken hold in the Islamic world? "The very perfection of the Islamic belief system begot a naive absolutism that made the compromises of normal political life impossible." In an aside on ancient Assyria, Kaplan notes, "The theme is always the same: Highly militarized and centralized states and empires, so indomitable in one decade or generation, hack themselves to pieces or are themselves conquered in another." Then he reminds readers that Assyria once bestrode present-day Iraq and Syria--a "hauntingly appropriate" coincidence. And surprising facts abound: "Turkey represents the most stable governmental dynasty in world history, with the Turkish soldiery able to trace the roots of its power to the Roman emperors." Fans of Kaplan's previous books won't want to miss this one, and neither will new readers interested in this part of the world. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
In 1993, as the blood-letting in Yugoslavia's ethnic civil war entered its fifth year, Kaplan, a foreign correspondent, wrote a history of that tragic region that became an instant bestseller. The war and its elements of genocide paved the way for popular reception of Balkan Ghosts, but it is Kaplan's name that will secure readers for his newest travelogue. In many ways, this book is the sequel to Balkan Ghosts, telling the story of those other orphans of the Ottoman EmpireDthe lands of the Middle and Near East. Kaplan's intention is to introduce Tartary (known today as Central Asia) as a place that has more in common with the Western Balkan countries than with the Oriental images conjured up by its exotic name. Walking the streets of Baku in Azerbaijan, he sees images of the Romanian capital, Bucharest; both reside in the 100-year-old shadows of a cosmopolitan Ottoman boomtown, and in the more obvious decay and disenchantment that is the legacy of the shorter-lived Soviet empire. In relating his travels through Syria, Israel and Lebanon, Kaplan focuses less on the effects of communism and more on the way Turkey remains a historical link between Arab and European powers. Whether he is analyzing the basis for Turko-Israeli alliances or pondering the likelihood of an ethnic "Balkanization" of the Middle East, Kaplan is thinking in terms of a new "seismograph of world politics in the twenty-first century." His readers will be left with a rich supply of historic, geographic and cultural cross-references to apply when they read the news about some of today's most strategic hot spots. (Nov.)
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