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Parting the Desert


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About the Author

Zachary Karabell was educated at Columbia; Oxford, where he received a degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies; and Havard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1996. He has taught at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Dartmouth. He is the author of several books, including The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland prize. His essays and reviews have appeared in various publications, such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, and Newsweek. He lives in New York City.


In an ably researched and well-told account, Karabell (The Last Campaign) chronicles the origins and legacy of one of the greatest undertakings of the 19th century. While the construction of the Suez Canal across a 100-mile stretch of arid Egypt to link the Mediterranean and Red seas was largely (and rightly) seen as a marvel of engineering and planning, Karabell demonstrates that the political machinations behind the project were just as intricate and daunting. European involvement in the canal stretched back to Napoleon, but the two main players in its execution were the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Said. The book skillfully outlines the intrigue among their supporters and detractors without getting bogged down in meticulous detail, and it does the same for the exacting creation of the canal itself. But Karabell does an especially fine job of balancing the ballyhoo and symbolic grandeur of what the canal was meant to be and the more or less forgotten entity it has become. He quotes de Lesseps as saying to Said, "'The names of the Egyptian sovereigns who erected the Pyramids, those useless monuments of human pride, will be ignored. The name of the Prince who will have opened the grand canal through Suez will be blessed century after century for posterity.'" Ultimately, he was wrong, and the canal became a mixed blessing for Egypt at best. But Karabell's book is more sensitive than damning, and it provides a fascinating look at an early attempt to bridge East and West at a time when such history is particularly relevant. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Karabell (The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election) has written a thorough and entertaining work on the history of possibly the single most important transportation route completed by humans-the Suez Canal. Finished in 1869, the canal shortened the trip from England to India from 135 days (around Africa) to 45 days. It was not wholeheartedly agreed upon, however, when first proposed by its builder, Ferdinand de Lesseps. But when he rode out to a desert meeting with Egypt's leader Muhammad Said and gave logical (and politically strengthening) reasons for creating the canal, it was all finished but for the building. It would take 15 more years of hard work, salesmanship, inventing new technology, and providing housing, water, and food for the thousands of corvee (forced laborers) before the canal would have its grand opening. As Karabell points out, the canal is no longer as strategic now; many larger modern ships are unable to squeeze through the narrow, shallow waterway. The author is quite comfortable discussing any issue, period, or personality in the canal's history, and many of the references in his 150-title bibliography are from primary sources. This is simply an excellent book that should be purchased by most public and academic libraries. (Photographs not seen.)-James Thorsen, Weaverville, NC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

"Karabell writes with the authority and power of a gifted entirely splendid book." --Simon Winchester, The New York Times Book Review

"Karabell tells the story of a crucial development in the history of the modern world with economy and lively grace." --Los Angeles Times

"Zachary Karabell reminds us in this concise and pleasantly digressive history [that] the waterway's creation stirred great passions in the 19th century."-The Economist

"Read Karabell's wonderfully written book to remember the dreams people had about the Middle East-and what became of them."- Newsweek "A fascinating saga: of diplomacy involving primarily the French and the Egyptians, of raising gigantic sums of money, of overcoming massive geographical and technological obstacles long before the invention of mechanized earth-moving equipment. . . . The business aspects sometimes seem as if they are ripped from last month's headlines." --Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel "A rich and engaging narrative of one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century [with] resonance beyond its time." --Alexander Stille, author of The Future of the Past "An absorbing, well-written narrative. . . . [Karabell gives] dimension to the personalities, eccentricities and strengths of key figures. . . . [A] fascinating account." --San Antonio Express-News

"Karabell tells his story elegantly . . . distilling a large cast spread across several countries into a manageable one. . . . A gifted crafter of sentences, Karabell seldom wastes a sentence as he offers one well-chosen anecdote after another that sheds light on the greater drama of this important and historic construction project." --Charleston Gazette

"A fascinating, epic, elegiac story. Zachary Karabell's account of the political intrigue, quixotic dreamers, and engineering genius that led to the construction of the Suez Canal vividly brings to life one of the underappreciated marvels of the modern world. The book is a triumph of history and art." --Bruce Feiler, author of Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths "A tale shot through with . . . unexpected twists. . . . Karabell tells his story concisely and with narrative skill, peppering the account with many wry anecdotes." --The Jerusalem Post "Engrossing. . . . As accessible and vividly written as a novel. . . . It maintains a page-turning pace. Superbly researched, it is a volume to keep." --The Sunday Times

"Zachary Karabell has written an absorbing narrative. . . . [He] traces with skill the complex diplomatic and engineering feat. . . . [and] prompts reflections . . . about the futility of human effort and the evanescence of glory." --Times Literary Supplement

"Excellent and well-written. . . . A riveting story, and Karabell tells it handsomely. . . . An exceptional book, one of the best of its kind I have read. . . . A splendid account of a great project." --Sunday Herald

"Well-researched and very well-written . . . The tens of thousands of the Egyptian fellahin peasantry who dug the canal . . . did indeed part the desert, and their story cannot have been better told than by this fine book." --The Sunday Telegraph (London) "Fascinating. . . . Elegiac. . . . Parting the Desert is an excellent story, skillfully told. Even those who are bored to tears by canals, whose eyes glaze over at the first mention of engineering, will find themselves, as this reader did, racing through it." --Justin Marozzi, Literary Review

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