Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

By Scott Anderson, Photographs by Paolo Pellegrin, The New York Times Magazine, August 2016.

Not a full length book, but much more than just an article, Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart is a compelling journey through Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the rise of ISIS and the refugee crisis that I saw first hand in Greece in July.

The author weaves textbook history (such as the Sykes Picot Agreement that carved up the Ottoman Empire in 1916) with the personal stories of six people whose lives and futures are cast from this region.


By way of introduction, the Editor-in-Chief explains:

This is a story unlike any we have previously published. It is much longer than the typical New York Times Magazine feature story; in print, it occupies an entire issue. The product of some 18 months of reporting, it tells the story of the catastrophe that has fractured the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq 13 years ago, leading to the rise of ISIS and the global refugee crisis.


It is unprecedented for us to focus so much energy and attention on a single story, and to ask our readers to do the same. We would not do so were we not convinced that what follows is one of the most clear-eyed, powerful and human explanations of what has gone wrong in this region that you will ever read.

The hope and sheer joy that so many people felt during the Arab Spring has all but been dashed. I clearly recall being glued to Aljazeera America day-in and day-out as the revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded in January and February 2011. The live images on the television were intoxicating, as are the images presented in Fractured Lands. The author and photographer have many years’ experience in the Middle East which they share with a clear eye for detail and for connecting the dots.

I fear that many (most?) Americans feel overwhelmed by the Middle East (“It’s just too complicated”) and won’t take the time to read Fractured Lands. Or they might already have a full plate just trying to put food on their family’s table, and can’t turn their attention to the cauldron brewing “over there.”  But Americans, through the decisions and actions of our leaders, bear a heavy responsibility for the failures and traumas engulfing the region today. We have a duty to become informed, and Fractured Lands is a very good place to begin our education.

When I reached the end of Fractured Lands, I realized there’s a huge hole in the story. The Palestinians and the occupation of Palestine are not included. It seems to be a glaring omission, and I wonder whether it’s a deliberate omission (and if so, why?) or whether Palestine doesn’t fit within the author’s construct of the Arab world. He also dances pretty nimbly around the U.S. role in tearing the Arab world apart. I hope he’s planning a sequel. If not, then someone should. Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the festering open wound in the region.