Ghattas spent a successful career as a journalist for the BBC. It shows in her wonderfully readable account. Intellectuals, clerics and novelists are highlighted because they represent ideas and suffering in the face of repressive regimes and intolerant ideologies. The contrast with many academic studies of these countries and issues is striking – and very much in the author’s favour.
What Ghattas does best in illustrating all this is to bring a focus that is broad but also deep. She weaves together multiple strands – Arab, Iranian, Pakistani, male and female, young and old – from across the wider region over decades into a story with historical but also real personal resonance. Others have covered some of this terrain before – Fouad al A’jami in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, for example, or, in a different way, Roy Mottahedeh in his wonderfully elegiac account of the coming of the Iranian Revolution, The Mantle of the Prophet. But Ghattas has a wider and more contemporary sweep. There is a simmering anger not far below the surface of her book. It is a gripping tale. It is a tract for our times. Read and weep. But also, like Ghattas, allow yourself to hope.
Black Wave is a sobering testament to all those who have dreamt of a different Middle East, and sometimes paid with their lives for it. And yet, there is also hope, which Ghattas finds in the ways in which people manage to deal with historical trauma, and the suffering that has been inflicted on the region by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and foreign intervention. “Their defiance is a source of hope, their steadiness contagious. Even when they go into exile, they don’t give up.”
Ms Ghattas admits, at the conclusion of this gripping story, that she swings between despair and hope — though ultimately she settles on hope. Not because of any diminishing intransigence among the main state players, but because of what she describes as the ‘incredible power of those who continue their relentless, courageous fight for more freedom, more tolerance, more light . . . their defiance is a source of hope, their steadiness contagious.’
Rays of light are provided by the inspiring women who have fought back. They include the news anchor Mehtab Channa Rashdi, who resigned rather than wear a headscarf on Pakistani TV, and the Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, who set up a Facebook page on which Iranian women post photos of themselves outdoors defying the law requiring them to wear the veil. Reporting on campaigns such as these, Ghattas ends optimistically. But it is notable that many of the people she praises for their resistance are doing so in exile (Naji now lives in the US). While she is right to point out that this is a complex story, and that extremism ebbs and flows, the black wave taints everything it touches, long after it recedes.