This graphic “novel”, a collaboration between historian Jean-Pierre Filiu and illustrator David B., is the first of a planned series. Covering the period from 1783-1953, this rather ambitious book weighs in at just over 100 pages. What we get is a focus on a few key historical events: US struggles with the Barbary pirates (Ottoman privateers who controlled shipping in the Western Mediterranean from the 1600s through 1830 or so), the agreement the US signed with Saudi Arabia during World War II granting access to oil and permission to install military bases, and the 1953 Iranian coup d’état. Certainly these last two events are critical to understanding how we got to where we are today in the Middle East. For example, why the Saudi royal family is so closely connected with the US? When the worlds’ navies were converting from coal to oil around World War I, the largest known reserves (then as now) were all in the Middle East, but France and England had divided up the rest of the region amongst themselves when the Ottoman empire fell, meaning the US had no choice but to ally with the Saudis. (It’s been a surprisingly stable relationship, all things considered.) And why exactly does the current Iranian regime distrust the US so much? When you remember that their democratically elected prime minister was run out of office by the CIA just two years after nationalizing the oil industry, it makes sense that government which came to power in the 1979 revolution would want nothing to do with them.
Stylistically, David B.’s absurdist style works very well – generals are shown with cannons for heads, and oil men are drawn on all fours with a pipeline for a snout, drinking in oil like an elephant at a watering hole. The original French cover shows a sultan whose navy circles his enormous turban, and all the Iranians seem taken from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. A fine use of the medium, and a helpful reminder of tomorrow’s consequences of today’s alliances of convenience.