A heavily shortened version of this list by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello first appeared in the Guardian in January 2012.
In researching The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, we feasted on others’ descriptions of the mountains and plains, villages and cities, open seas and jagged coastlines that we needed to cross.
In our book, we follow crude oil from deep beneath the Caspian Sea as it is pumped through the Caucasus Mountains, over the Anatolian Plateau, across the Mediterranean and Adriatic to Trieste, and onwards over the Austrian Alps to Bavaria. Trade and travel in this zone – at the intersection of three continents – has over millennia been shaped and reshaped by colonialism and resistance, environmental change and demand for natural resources.
Much writing available in English on this region is top-down and seen from outside, from Western Europe. Because the voices that are heard are frequently those of the coloniser, the international businessman or the academic describing the ‘other’, The Oil Road is itself written by two authors from London, but in doing so we tried to prioritise the voices of those standing up to power – be they Kurdish poets, Turkish fisherfolk, Azeri vilagers or Georgian environmentalists.
The Oil Road was conceived and written within Platform which has been examining the relationship between power, inequality and trade for twenty years, as well as having a long-term dedication to understanding, and slowly exploring ‘place’ – be it London or along a pipeline.
1) The Odyssey – Homer, transl Robert Fagles – Penguin Classics, 1996
The King of Ithaca’s adventures remain vivid after 2,700 years. But for those Greek navigators who first read it, The Odyssey was already an ancient tale. It was set 500 years earlier, written in archaic language that emphasised its antiquity, as distant to its first readers as Chaucer’s English is to us.
The world of Odysseus and Agamemnon, had come to a sudden end. Deforestation and agricultural methods had led to rapid soil erosion. A shifting climate produced harsh droughts in the Aegean. With the collapse of the Mycenaean Bronze Age went its trade arteries.
As the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe notes in Europe between the Oceans, these city-states relied on maintaining ‘a constant flow of the commodities used in diplomacy and trade. Climatic shift and environmental devastation destroyed the world that Homer described. Thus written into the very history of the story of The Odyssey is a woeful lesson on the impacts of climate change and the ecological limits of societies.
2) Blood and Oil in the Orient – Essad Bey – Simon & Schuster, 1932.
Authored by Lev Nussimbaum under his Muslim pseudonym, Blood & Oil is an adventurous journey of an oil magnate and his son crisscrossing the Caspian region to escape the post-WWI Socialist revolutions. Claiming to be autobiographical, the book is unreliable historically, but nonetheless a great read. The city of Baku before 1914, is brought alive in the book’s twin Ali & Nino – Azerbaijan’s most famous novel about inter-cultural young love at a time of unrest. Possibly also written by Nussimbaum, actual authorship is still highly contested.
Both of these works describe the privileged world of the oil baron’s son in the mansion, but their counterpoint can be found in texts such as The December Strike, written by Stalin, while still an activist living among the oil workers in Baku’s Black City.
3) The Region of the Eternal Fire: An Account of a Journey to the Petroleum Region of the Caspian in 1883 – Charles Marvin – W.H.Allen, 1884
The Caucasus in the late 19th century held a particular attraction for adventuring Englishmen like Marvin out to make a name for themselves, as it was seen as a wild and untamed province in the southern fringes of the Tsarist Empire that also hosted the world’s primary oil province and was the source of much new technology.
James D Henry’s Baku: an Eventful History, published in the immediate aftermath of the 1905 uprising, explicitly tried to shape Britain’s early foreign energy policy and encourage control over the oil region. Henry insisted that “British financiers should give serious thought to how they can best secure a fair share of those fields which Russia will shortly attempt to open up” while demanding “permanent peace guaranteed by a military force … before it can expect to enlist the assistance of foreign capital in the development of its mineral … resources.” Henry was one of the first to promote policies that still shape the region, from Azerbaijan to Libya.
4) Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills – Latife Tekin – Marion Boyars, 2000
Tekin’s fantastical stories of the daily life of a squatted slum on the edge of Istanbul give the reader an extraordinary sense of the precarious existence of Kurdish and Turkish villagers who journeyed to the cities in search of a new life.
Yashar Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk, describes a more social realist world that is left behind by those that make these journeys. These are epic tales of harsh social change and bitter battles between peasants and greedy landlords in the Cukurova Plain and Taurus Mountains. During our travels we discovered that Memed is remembered today as if he actually stalked the region; unsurprising, given the continued struggles over land.
In her best book according to author herself, Morris explores the port town’s role in centuries of trade and movement across the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Having first visited at the tail-end of WWII as a British cavalry officer, Morris developed a close relationship with the Adriatic, with a further three books on Venice – both as a city and as a naval empire.
Morris’ book is the work of an outsider observing Trieste. Insights into how the city is perceived by one of its inhabitants are provided by one of our favourite travelogues, Danube by Claudio Magris.
6) Al-Rihla (The Journey), Ibn Battuta – (The Travels of Ibn Battutah ed Tim Mackintosh-Smith – Macmillan, 2003)
The Western imagination of medieval travel across the Mediterranean and Caspian regions is dominated by Marco Polo’s tales of the Venetian Empire and beyond – an imperium of militarised trade routes. Yet Ibn Battuta – a near contemporary of Polo’s – travelled three times the distance, visiting China, Tanzania and Timbuktu. Both transcribed their accounts afterwards, raising doubts over the accuracy. Ibn Fadlan’s vivid portrayal of the tattooed Rus – in what is now Russia – is probably less fictional.
7) Libya: The Elusive Revolution – Ruth First
Ruth First, the indomitable South African liberation fighter later assassinated by the apartheid regime, produced one of the first and most insightful books on Gadaffi’s Libya. Analysing the role of crude in propping up and incentivising increasing repression and corruption, she gave an early insight into the petrostate at the heart of the Mediterranean.
8) Memories of our Future – Ammiel Alcalay
Never mentioned in The Oil Road, Alcalay’s book nonetheless was foundational to the process of our writing. This collection of essays offers a glimpse into the forgotten underbelly of Mediterranean culture, from Mizrahim in Occupied Palestine via Sarajevo in the 1990s, to Goytisolo’s Count Julian in Spain. Alcalay turns Western and Northern European assumptions upside down and sides with the invisible. Both humble and transformational, Memories of our Future encourages the reader to play traitor to privilege and power.
9) The Oil & the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea – Steve Levine – Random House, 2007.
Levine’s book is packed with stories of the intrigue behind the West’s attempts to gain control of Caspian resources, out of reach since the Bolshevik Revolution. Although his book still portrays these events from the top down, thankfully it is better written and less partial than Beyond Business: An Inspirational Memoir from a Remarkable Leader, the autobiography of John Browne, former CEO of BP and central to BP’s acquisition of control over Azeri reserves.
10) Pipe Dreams – A chronicle of lives along the pipeline – Rena Effendi – Mets & Schilt, 2009
Effendi was initially employed by BP to document its Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline for a corporate calendar. After travelling along the route, she became increasingly disenchanted with the reality of poverty despite the oil wealth flowing beneath the fields. She flipped sides and produced this powerful photographic journey recording the hidden stories behind the spin. It also features various friends of ours who also appear in The Oil Road.
11) A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe – John Berger & Jean Mohr – Penguin, 1975
A Seventh Man examined the challenging experience of migration from Turkey to Western Europe and the centrality of migrant workers to modern Capitalism. Thirty-seven years later, Europe’s borders have changed drastically but this book remains seminal – not least given the parallel strengthening of Fortress Europe by officials in Brussels and rising xenophobia from Britain’s Conservatives to Greece’s Golden Dawn.
We wanted to recommend a first-hand account of today’s 21st century migration across the Mediterranean in one of the small boats that leave Libyan, Tunisian and Moroccan shorelines, but we have not yet found one. Please suggest one to us!
12) Energy 2020, European Commission, 2010
Last and easily the driest reading on this list, Energy 2020 is also by far the most important guide to future travel and trade across the region – setting underlying priorities that will define pipelines, tanker routes and energy sources. While not the most gripping narrative, this document was written in order to shape the geographic, economic and social realities from the Caspian to the Mediterranean – and beyond.