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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Black Wave

Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East

Kim Ghattas

Henry Holt and Co.



“What happened to us?” The question haunts us in the Arab and Muslim world. We repeat it like a mantra. You will hear it from Iran to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, and in my own country of Lebanon. For us, the past is a different country, one that is not mired in the horrors of sectarian killings; a more vibrant place, without the crushing intolerance of religious zealots and seemingly endless, amorphous wars. Though the past had coups and wars too, they were contained in time and space, and the future still held much promise. “What happened to us?” The question may not occur to those too young to remember a different world, or whose parents did not tell them of a youth spent reciting poetry in Peshawar, debating Marxism late into the night in the bars of Beirut, or riding bicycles to picnic on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad. The question may also surprise those in the West who assume that the extremism and the bloodletting of today were always the norm.

Although this book journeys into the past, it is not driven by wistful nostalgia about a halcyon world. My aim was to understand when and why things began to unravel, and what was lost, slowly at first and then with unexpected force. There are many turning points in the Middle East’s modern history that could explain how we ended up in these depths of despair. Some people will identify the end of the Ottoman Empire and the fall of the last Islamic caliphate after World War I as the moment when the Muslim world lost its way; or they will see the creation of Israel in 1948 and the defeat of the Arabs in the subsequent Six-Day War of 1967 as the first fissure in the collective Arab psyche. Others will skip directly to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and point to the aftermath as the final paroxysm of conflicts dating back millennia: Sunnis and Shias killing each other, Saudi Arabia and Iran locked in a fight to the death. They will insist that both the killings and the rivalry are inevitable and eternal. Except for the “inevitable and eternal” part, none of these explanations is wrong, but none, on its own, paints a complete picture.

Trying to answer the question “What happened to us?” led me to the fateful year of 1979. Three major events took place in that same year, almost independent of one another: the Iranian Revolution; the siege of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by Saudi zealots; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the first battleground for jihad in modern times, an effort supported by the United States. The combination of all three was toxic, and nothing was ever the same again. From this noxious brew was born the Saudi-Iran rivalry, a destructive competition for leadership of the Muslim world, in which both countries wield, exploit, and distort religion in the more profane pursuit of raw power. That is the constant from 1979 onward, the torrent that flattens everything in its path.

Nothing has changed the Arab and Muslim world as deeply and fundamentally as the events of 1979. Other pivotal moments undid alliances, started or ended wars, or saw the birth of a new political movement. But the radical legacy of 1979 did all this and more: it began a process that transformed societies and altered cultural and religious references. The dynamics unleashed in 1979 changed who we are and hijacked our collective memory.

The year 1979 and the four decades that followed are the story at the heart of this book. The Saudi-Iran rivalry went beyond geopolitics, descending into an ever-greater competition for Islamic legitimacy through religious and cultural domination, changing societies from within—not only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but throughout the region. While many books explore the Iranian Revolution, few look at how it rippled out, how the Arab and Sunni world reacted and interacted with the momentous event. All the way to Pakistan, the ripples of the rivalry reengineered vibrant, pluralistic countries and unleashed sectarian identities and killings that had never defined us in the past. While Pakistan is geographically located on the Indian subcontinent, its modern history is closely linked to the trends that unfolded in the Middle East, and the country features prominently in this narrative. Across this Greater Middle East, the rise of militancy and the rise of cultural intolerance happened in parallel and often fed into each other.

Everywhere I went to conduct interviews for this book, from Cairo to Baghdad, from Tehran to Islamabad, I was met with a flood of emotions when I asked people about the impact the year 1979 had on their lives. I felt I was conducting national or regional therapy, sitting in people’s living rooms and studies: everyone had a story about how 1979 had wrecked their lives, their marriage, their education, including those born after that year. Although this is neither a work of historical scholarship nor an academic study, it is more than a reported narrative: I dug deep into archives, pored over thousands of newspapers, interviewed dozens of people, and built a virtual library of the history of those four decades. The result is a new reading of known events, some forgotten, some overlooked, most heretofore seen in isolation. Brought together, spanning four decades of history and seven countries, they shatter many accepted truths about the region and shed an unprecedented light on how the Saudi-Iran rivalry evolved and mutated over time, with consequences no one could have foreseen in 1979.

Although geopolitical events provide the backdrop and stage for Black Wave, this is not a book about terrorism or al-Qaeda or even ISIS, nor is it about the Sunni-Shia split or the dangers that violent fundamentalists pose for the West. This has been the almost obsessive focus of the headlines in the West. Instead, these pages bring the untold story of those—and they are many—who fought and continue to fight against the intellectual and cultural darkness that slowly engulfed their countries in the decades following the fateful year of 1979. Intellectuals, poets, lawyers, television anchors, young clerics, novelists; men and women; Arab, Iranian, and Pakistani; Sunni and Shia; most devout, some secular, but all progressive thinkers who represent the vibrant, pluralistic world that persists beneath the black wave. They are the silenced majority, who have suffered immensely at the hands of those who are relentlessly intolerant of others, whether wielding political power or a gun. Some paid with their life, like the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Jamal was a colleague and a friend. I was writing a passage about his life when his brutal death provided a macabre twist to the larger tale of the Saudi-Iran rivalry.

The lives of all the characters at the heart of this book overlap in time, across generations. Some know each other; most don’t. They live in different countries, but they are fighting the same battles. Their stories are contained within other stories of historical figures, famous writers, or infamous militants, a sprawling tale, a One Thousand and One Nights of modern Middle Eastern politics.

This tale begins just a few years before 1979, on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Lebanon, in a little-known episode that played a crucial role in setting the stage for the Iranian Revolution.

Copyright © 2020 by Kim Ghattas