Juan Cole was one of the first and most valuable voices to vault into public attention from the political blogosphere. As America blindly stumbled into Iraq in 2003, Cole’s analyses and daily summaries of Arabic-language news at Informed Comment became an essential counterweight to government-dictated propaganda in the U.S. media for tens of thousands of regular readers.
But as an outstanding and experienced historian, Dr. Cole’s knowledge ranges far beyond Iraq. In Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East, Cole provides the same perspective and keen insight regarding a military incursion that occurred two centuries ago — the French effort, led by then-general Napoleon Bonaparte, to invade and occupy Egypt.
Cole’s fluency in both French and Arabic enabled him to scour and compare contemporaneous sources in each language, and the resulting account gives equal weight to each side of the awkward collision of cultures (including attempts to discern the truth when different retellings conflict). And the tone, although well-informed, is scarcely academic — because Cole’s sources include numerous eyewitness journals, letters, and other firsthand reports, he is able to weave a rich, complex narrative that is as involving as any novel on the subject could be.
Although he almost never makes a direct connection, Cole doesn’t have to mention Iraq for several elements of his story to resonate with modern-day news junkies. It’s hard not to hear the echoes of neocon self-absorption in Napoleon’s efforts to blend Enlightenment philosophy with brutal military conquest, or Iraq quasi-viceroy L. Paul Bremer’s clueless egotism in Bonaparte’s hamfisted communications with the people of Cairo, or especially the similarly dogged, draining insurgencies that result from a distant nation’s attempt to impose its will on millions of people.
The details Cole gleans from his research (some of which he continues to post at a blog devoted to the book), though, make Napoleon’s Egypt a unique and personal tale worth reading in its own right. With that, I am delighted to be able to introduce Juan Cole, who is joining us to answer questions about the book.