1 March 2009 0 Comments

The Middle East and the Art of Non-catastrophic Thinking

When things look bad in the Middle East, foreign correspondents and diplomats and local politicians tend to forecast every catastrophe up to — and sometimes including — the end of the world. I generally have a more relaxed approach.

Why? Because of Mary Renault.

I discovered Renault in a used bookstore on a rather ratty lane in West Jerusalem in 1999. I was Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman at the time and about to leave for Amman to cover the illness of King Hussein of Jordan. The Plucky Little King (as the CIA called him) was lingering, despite the presence of the international press awaiting a good spectacle at his funeral. So, off the shelf jumped a 1959 edition of The King Must Die, Renault’s vividly imagined tale about Theseus, the prince of Athens, condemned to the “bull dancing” ring when he is enslaved on Crete. It’s a wonderful adventure which, like Renault’s other great historical novels of ancient Greece, is drawn out of detailed research into the period.

I couldn’t resist the title. I started to read it as I waited at the border crossing in the Jordan Valley. It kept me entertained as poor Hussein died and I was probably the only man in Jordan who was neither depressed nor convinced that the Middle East was about to erupt into revolution. That’s because I knew there were a half-dozen other Renault novels for me to read. Each of them proved marvelous, but The King Must Die remains my favorite because of its fortuitous discovery.

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