On this journey:
I'm going to start with my conclusion: I'm so glad that I read this book and I recommend it to anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of the forces influencing the relationships between nations and regions in the world today and how we reached this point. Now, let me tell you why (and what I was not so keen on).
Prisoners of Geography introduces the reader to how the geography of different regions has impacted and continues to impact the development and relationships of countries and regions. Each chapter focuses on a particular part of the world, giving its historical background then leading up to today. Since the book was published in 2015, it is still quite up-to-date. Given that the book is based on maps, I was hesitant to listen to it as an audiobook. However, I gave myself my usual non-fiction dilemma line - "if I don't listen to it, I probably won't read it at all" - and stuck my headphones on. Having said that, I don't feel like I missed out too much; my knowledge of the world map could be better, but it's not too bad either so I was generally able to picture in my mind the region he was talking about and where the countries were. Also, having had a quick look at the book pages online, the images in the book are just maps of the region, so you could easily have a look on Google Maps (with the "terrain" option on) and you'd be able to see what he is referring to. Of course, if you don't have my non-fiction resistance problem, just read the physical book instead!
I have read next to nothing about geopolitics and had never given that much thought to how geography impacts the way countries are run and interact with each other beyond the location of oil and natural gas reserves, which have been regularly brought up in the news in recent years (hello, Iraq). So from the start I found myself constantly amazed at how fundamentally history and international relations have been dictated by terrain, natural resources, access routes, natural barriers, and the list goes on. For one, he mentioned many conflicts that I had always considered as predominantly ideological that have significant geographical motivations behind them: Kashmir (access to water from glaciers), Xinjiang (natural buffer zone to foreign invasion), Tibet (same as Xinjiang), Afghanistan (facilitates Russian access to a warm-water sea port), to name a few. He also outlined how geography has played a role in giving certain regions a "head start" in development, such as Western Europe's naturally fertile land and relatively uninhibited natural trade routes between areas within it.
A significant geopolitical issue he brings up that may have slipped under the radar of some people (but that has consistently comes up in reading on the history of the Arab world) is the creation of nation states and the impact of arbitrary borders drawn up by colonial powers. This is not only significant in the Levant, although it is particularly visible there thanks to ensuing conflicts and the ongoing occupation of Palestine, but applies to a large portion of the world. Marshall gives examples from the Levant, South Asia and East Africa amongst others, and I think for anyone who was not already aware of the huge problems this has caused, it will certainly be an eye-opener.
Now for my words of caution when reading this book. Inevitably, discussions that involve politics or any topic related to social sciences are going to be tinged with the ideology and values of the writer and this book is certainly no exception. One of the most obvious examples was a simple list of cities around the world which ended with "and Jerusalem in Israel". Do I need to spell out how much it undermines the credibility of a geopolitics specialist when he casually brushes over one of the most (THE most?) contested land disputes in the world and in history? Of course, this was not done out of ignorance, but I think we can all join the dots so I'll move on.
There is also a definite Western perspective (for lack of a better description) that runs through the book in the way certain areas are discussed, but there is unlikely a book out there on this topic that isn't tinged with the writer's views. This is natural and we just need to be aware of it and of how it might influence the way information is presented.
My other warning relates to the isolation of geographical motivations from other factors that play a role on the world stage. By the time the reader reaches the end, they might be inclined to wonder if all political decisions and conflicts in the world are purely geographical. The title of the book doesn't help to direct the reader away from this idea, either! Of course, this is not the case and there are naturally other factors, such as ideology as mentioned above and other socioeconomic factors (and justice! and ego! and general humanness!). However, this book is about geography and the writer can't possibly cover everything else as well.
The main point I'm making with these warnings is that we must always remember to read more than one book on any particular topic, preferably from writers of a range of schools of thought and origins. This allows us to gain a wider perspective, to mitigate the effects of writers' biases and to compound our knowledge and understanding through repetition and reflection.
All in all, I was very pleased that I chose to read this book. It was easy to follow and understand, there were some witty remarks that gave me a chuckle here and there and it opened my eyes to factors affecting our world today that are often hidden from the layman's eye. Although it didn't discuss certain regions in as much depth as others (I was hoping for much more about Africa), there is a lot to think about and I think it will certainly impact the way I process everything from political events and international relations to the novels I read from around the world.
The fundamental question I'm left with is this: technology will never fully overcome the natural limits that we live with on this planet, neither can we undo the damage done in the past, so how can conflict over resources be resolved if not through justice and wisdom, courage, and compromise for the greater good? To reach such a point, we as individuals and communities must lead by example (and keep reading and learning).
Related learning resources:
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.