Frustration in the Desert

Sand is everywhere: in the food, stuck between the teeth, all over the bed sheets, caked to the skin beneath the boxer shorts. The only thing worse than the sand is the sun, which beats down relentlessly, sizzling the skin as if the flesh had been torn off and thrown into a frying pan. The constant pain and irritation grow into frustration, as one soldier turns to another and snorts in disgust, “The reason we’re here, case you hadn’t realized: Keep the empire’s oil flowing.” The troops were told they were going to the Middle East on a humanitarian mission to keep the peace, but now were bogged down in a hostile occupation with no end in sight. If the narrative sounds familiar, that’s the point—though it is not about American GIs currently in Iraq. A Small Place in the Desert, by Christopher New, is set primarily in Egypt 50 years ago, when the British occupied the Suez Canal Zone. The mighty empire had controlled Egypt since 1881, but was beginning to lose its grip. As the novel makes clear, Arab lands can be hard to manage. Britain’s original justification for imperial rule of the eastern Mediterranean was to protect trade routes to colonies in the east. This ceased to be an issue after India’s independence in 1948, though London continued to maintain military bases in the Middle East to preserve a balance of power and guarantee the West’s access to the region’s oil. As local resistance to the occupation intensified, British willingness to shed blood and spend Sterling gradually faded, along with its pretense to global empire. Mr. New uses the apparent cyclical nature of history to offer a gentle reminder why the United States should be wary of an open-ended military presence in the Arab world. None of the Bush Administration’s struggles in Iraq are new. In the Suez, British forces routinely contended with suicide bombings, anti-Western sentiment, growing Islamic radicalism, foreign mercenaries, timidity of supportive locals, a lack of cooperation from native police forces, and the inability to control the streets of occupied cities where the population wanted the foreign power to pull out. The novel’s most painful flashback is the sinking morale felt by grunts as fellow soldiers got pegged off by snipers, one-by-one, day after day. At times, the novelist doesn’t even try to veil his references to the current unpleasantness in Iraq. When rejecting a proposal to depose the government in Cairo and replace it with a new regime friendly to Britain, the commander states matter of factly why it is a stupid idea. “We’d be killing lots of people for one thing,” he says, “and making a lot of enemies for another. But what good would it do us? Would it get us what we really want?” Many Washington policymakers are doubtlessly asking these very questions today. Half of the novel takes place during young British officer Peter Saunders’ tour in the Canal Zone a half century ago; the remainder follows his return to modern Egypt as an aged tourist seeking to put the past to rest. To deliver his message with some subtlety, Mr. New employs the Jamesian tool of giving various characters the traits commonly attributed to their nations of origin. On his vacation, for example, the retired Saunders meets a young American couple. They are energetic and out to save the world, but naivete gets them into trouble repeatedly. American innocence is checked by European experience. Saunders admires the simplicity of American idealism but doubts whether any good can come from it. His own military background in the region has left a permanent skepticism for foreign intervention. On this point, a mischievous allusion to Tony Blair’s partnership with George W. Bush is introduced. Gradually, after years of pain, Saunders the Englishman realizes the mistakes of an adulterous affair with Margaret, the American wife of his commanding officer. Although reluctant at first, and despite fear that the liaison could only end badly, he was seduced by her promises of future bliss. After the excitement of the moment had passed, the encounter turned into the mess he should have known it would be. A Small Place in the Desert culminates in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The plot is not the only aspect of the novel that is well-timed. As Operation Enduring Freedom turns into a long, hard slog in Iraq, Christopher New’s message is also poignant: A small place in the desert can grow into a very big headache.