Middle East Spy Thriller is a Powerful Debut for Ex-CIA Officer
I.S. Berry’s “The Peacock and the Sparrow” is credibly set in real-life Bahrain
For those who want to better understand the complex political dynamics that have swept the Middle East in recent years, I.S. Berry’s provocative first novel will not disappoint. Berry’s background as a former CIA operations officer and her familiarity with the ground truth there gives the story and her characters genuine believability. The chapters are peppered with Arabic proverbs and colloquial turns of phrase that enrich this already excellent story.
Her story begins at the epicenter of the now infamous Arab Spring that upended the region from approximately 2011 until 2014. While many readers might recall the unrest in Egypt during the early days of the Arab Spring, in reality it spread across much of the region, including Bahrain, where the intense sectarian protests not only shook the Gulf kingdom but profoundly affected the strategic posture and operational tempo of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, docked at the most important US naval base in the Middle East. Bahrain and its oversized capital city of Manama, therefore, provide a perfect backdrop for an exhilarating plot that features espionage, divided loyalties, illicit love affairs, and a fictional, yet very realistic portrayal of the fraught relationship between the U.S. and one of its closest allies in the region. The book’s title is based on the parable of the peacock and the sparrow, in which the strutting peacock represents power and entitlement while the little sparrow represents the manipulated and powerless.
When Worlds Collide
In the first chapters, Berry introduces the reader to an intriguing cast of characters who inhabit two vastly different worlds that collide with each other in Bahrain. Locals live amid sectarian fault lines between the ruling Sunni minority and the Shia majority, between astounding wealth and rampant economic deprivation, and under the ever-present coercive apparatus of the security state. In the story (as in reality), the Americans and other expats who work for the U.S. military, or within the wealthy expat business community, experience a completely different Bahrain than the vast majority of locals. They come and go with little exposure to its domestic economy and reside in comfortable and affluent (mainly Sunni) Bahraini neighborhoods that are insulated from the sectarian tensions simmering beneath the surface. In the novel, these normally separate worlds begin to overlap in increasingly dangerous ways that progressively expose the fatal character flaws of the story’s main characters.
Berry’s own time in the Middle East gives her unique credibility. Her depictions of the American characters is less than complimentary, a fact that may be related to her own experience working for the clandestine service during an extended period of ugly interagency warfare, as well as her unfortunate, but sadly common experience as a victim of sexual harassment in a traditionally male-dominated profession. That said, all of the characters she creates possess human qualities that motivate readers to empathize with them. They are all, like the peacock and the sparrow, caught in moral and ethical dilemmas that drive them to unintended destinies.
The Plot Thickens
The novel’s main character, Shane Collins, is a middle aged CIA field officer tasked with providing intelligence on the Bahraini Shia opposition movements and their suspected Iranian benefactors. Collins is an utterly recognizable stereotype. He is bored and unsatisfied with his dead-ended career and resentful of his younger and less experienced station chief, Whitney Alden Mitchell, who hails from diplomatic blueblood. Collins has little patience for the stultifying day-to-day of expat life in Bahrain, except that it allows him to sleepwalk toward retirement and indulge himself along the way in a constant stream of alcohol and casual sexual encounters with a co-worker’s wife.
The first Bahraini character we meet is Rashid, Collins’ trusted CIA informant, who is a devoted member of the underground Shia opposition. Rashid, unlike Collins, is a man of integrity who fervently believes in his cause and his leadership. Rashid’s objective is to seek justice for the imprisoned revolutionary leader and poet, Junaid. Junaid, like one or two other of Berry’s characters, seems to be a composite of several actual well-known Shia opposition movement leaders. The slow but steady trickle of intelligence that Rashid provides to Collins begins to erode the CIA veteran’s confidence in the long-held U.S. view that Iran is the puppet master of the Shia opposition. Rashid insists that the issue of Iranian support is a red herring and scare tactic employed by the monarchy to assure American support for the kingdom and stoke U.S. paranoia.
Rashid plies Collins with information that appears to confirm the monarchy’s collusion in a dirty-trick plot to plant supposed Iranian weapons with the Shia opposition. Even more unexpected, Collins suspects that that a U.S. admiral is also involved in the illegal transfer of weapons.
Another notable and realistic character is Almaisa, a Sunni Iraqi-British beauty who moves between the worlds of privilege and poverty as a renowned local artist who is commissioned by both the monarchy and by wealthy expats, but is devoted to her work for a secret local orphanage. Collins is smitten with Almaisa for some of the same reasons he trusts Rashid; she possesses a genuine intensity and passion for her culture and the downtrodden of her adopted country. When they become romantically involved, Collins justifies the relationship as related to his mission even as he begins to compromise his own cover and undermine his tradecraft.
Berry’s story is populated with lesser characters, of course, but even they possess depth and complexity.
Qasim, a Shia double agent, appears only twice, for example. At first, we are led to believe he has sold out the revolutionaries for regime cash by reporting on the Iranian weapons shipments to the regime and to U.S. intelligence. However, in his second appearance in the novel, Qasim’s loyalty to the regime becomes unclear, upending Collins’ initial certitude about what he thinks he knows and leaving the reader unsure about his true motives and identity. Qasim’s character goes almost unnoticed but serves as a mirror-image of Collins in a number of respects.
Another supporting, but significant, character is Collins’ station chief, Whitney. Collins initially views Whitney as a clueless and inexperienced bureaucrat until he stumbles into evidence that Whitney could be involved in the alleged weapons transfers, too. The final straw for Collins comes when he is confronted with the discovery that Whitney is also sleeping with his beloved Almaisa. From this point forward, Rashid becomes the handler rather than informant.
One aspect of the narrative that is tricky to navigate is Berry’s choice to move back and forth in time as the story unfolds. Midway through the second half of the book, Collins finds himself in Cambodia on a mission to procure critical intelligence for Rashid, as well as to try to nail down, for the last time, whether or not his own countrymen are involved in the clandestine weapons transfers to Bahrain. In Cambodia, we meet the Asian go-between, Uncle Change, who procures everything from prostitutes to solid gold cufflinks for well-placed Western clients. The association here with the well-known “Fat Leonard” scandal is obvious, but the reader must pay close attention to the plot so as not to lose the fidelity and context that are essential to connect the dots with the goings-on in Manama. However, Berry’s choice to blur the line between the real world and pure fiction works wonderfully. Indeed, this ambiguity between what is real and what is not is exactly the dystopia that Collins himself is experiencing.
The reader, like Collins, is challenged to distinguish between facts and half-truths. In the end, as he sets in motion consequential and life-changing events in Bahrain, he’s grappling with existential truths about how, when and where he forfeited his tradecraft and humanity.
Berry pulls no punches. Her fulsome and artful description of Bahraini neighborhoods and expat haunts, and her sharp sense of character development, offer insights into some of the most complex political dynamics in the region and lend the story a credibility that does not in any way diminish its fictional purpose. The evolving plot of political intrigue and moral ambiguity that unfolds within this novel will not seem fictional, but the way in which it unfolds in unexpected twists and turns will keep even the most familiar readers guessing.###
Heidi Lane teaches strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College, where she directs the Greater Middle East Research and Study Group. The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not represent or reflect, officially or unofficially, the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Department of Defense.
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