The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar.
Neil MacFaruhar has more experience then most with the middle east. Having spent a good part of his boyhood growing up in pre-coup Libya and a good chunk of his adulthood as a reporter for various papers in the middle east. Working in just about every nation there and sneaking into the ones he wasn't suppose to be working in, MacFaruhar developed a street level knowledge of the nations of the middle east that most of us don't have. He's decided to share his experiences and his knowledge in this book, giving us a peek at what's going on over there.
Or what was going on before the Arab Spring and the Syrian/Iraqi civil wars. Released in 2009, in a lot of ways the situations described simply don't exist anymore. Other situations, remain sadly unchanged.
We start with a view of his boyhood in Libya, before Qaddafi took over the nation. Interwoven into this is the realization of just how shallow his interaction with the native culture was when he was a boy. He lived in an enclave that was carefully built to maintain as much of a feeling of the west as possible you see. This left him with the desire to know more as an adult which he tried his level best to satisfy working as a journalist in the middle east. Nostalgia and regret for lost chances are themes in this book although I couldn't tell you if Mr. MacFaruhar meant for them to be there. Whether it's nostalgia for the Lebanon that existed in the 1950s and 60s, or the old Alexandra of Egypt or the many missed chances and mistakes of the United States that he points to the book (I'll get back to this).
The book takes us of a tour of the Islamic middle east, taking us from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. We meet professors, Imans, photographers, farmers, cooks and more. Because of this we get a multi layered view of middle east, one we don't often see in the news. We are allowed to meet these people on their terms and to come to grips with their view of the world and what they want. We see societies in the midst of an intense debate over what kind of societies they want to be, what kind of social and political freedoms should individuals have? What is the role of religion in society? The rights and roles of women? To say there is no consensus is putting it mildly. All across the middle east you see a deep well of support for some public and recognized role for Islam (or at least with the people MacFaruhar talks to, excluding some Christian co-workers, MacFaruhar doesn't really seem to want to touch on the non-Muslim or non-Arab minorities of the Middle East). At the same, that doesn't translate to wanting a Islamic theocracy or even the kind of heavily restricted society envisioned by the Muslim Brotherhood (who get their due coverage in this book as well, I can only wonder how many of the Brotherhood members who spoke to him are now in jail or dead).
We also see that there are at least 2 middle Easts. One is a region of rich oil states ruled by despots, who are ruthless in neutering dissent and at times use terrorism either as an excuse or a method of getting their way. The other Middle East is the place where millions of people actually live, the one where public service is at best shady, government is an exercise in surrealism and being young means having no job. It's in that middle east we meet people trying to make a better tomorrow, or a least a bearable today. Often in the face of resistance from their own government. It's here we learn about a ever present fixture in the Middle East outside of Israel and Turkey. The secret police. Even “moderate” nations like Jordan and Morocco have them and they will come down on you for making such mistakes as spray painting the wrong Arab proverb on the side of your alley wall (it could be misinterpreted you see).
One of things I learned in my brief stay in the Middle East is that Allah Akbar, “God is Great,” has been turned into a catch all phrase that could mean anything from down with the government, hooray for the local sports team, to fuck you. Seeing stories like the above it becomes very easy to understand why people would take the one phrase no one in the Middle East would ever dare ban and turn it into a catch all statement. Because they have no other options. It does kinda show why 1984's new speak idea would never work, but now I'm wondering into different topics.
One thing that held true in every nation was a deep frustration with their government, the slow pace of change and a undeniable desire for that change. We saw that in 2012 and all things considered I believe we will see it again. In Libya people were angry because their government kept changing the official calendar, meaning no could even be sure what day it was! No wonder they rebelled. Or in Saudi Arabia where the education system regulations means that every lesson must reference Islam in an open and basic way, often driving Math and Science professors near madness.
Another is a deep sense of skepticism about the United States Government and it's commitment to things like democracy and human rights. For one thing the communication and the government's bumbling of it are on a level that if I wrote it in a fiction book people would deride it as unrealistic. For example there's the fact that when a Chinese or Russian diplomat goes on Al Jazeera (like it or not, it's the biggest, most popular and at the moment freest news network in the middle east) they speak Arabic. An American? Often only speaks English. So basically the richest, most powerful nation in the world can't find enough Arabic speakers to ensure that the people who are in charge of communicating the US position to people... Speak a language that most of them can understand. Even our outreach programs meant to benefit the people on the ground seem to be at best clumsily done. There's a dairy program in Lebanon, where the US government buys cattle from American farmers at full price and sells them for much less to Lebanese farmers, or in some cases just donates them. Sounds good right? Expect the cows are lackluster at best and frankly aren't making enough milk to turn a profit (as far as a I can find, American farmers use the program to offload old and sick cattle onto the government who always pays full price). This damages the American reputation and makes it harder for other programs to take root. Not to mention costs us taxpayers money for no good return. The only people who benefit are American Dairy Farmers, who frankly already receive a lot of support as it is.
I walked away from this book with a slightly better understanding of what the Middle East was like on a street level and how American foreign policy was more then a little tone deaf. While honestly I don't think the average Arab won't ever be happy with us (I'm not about to abandon support for Israel for example which is something many of them dearly want), I still think we could and should do better. This book is also very good at humanizing the often faceless masses of the middle east, letting them tell us their desires, hopes and opinions. That in and of itself makes it a worthwhile book. It's biggest flaw besides not speaking about the Kurds, Turks, Jews and Christians in the middle east, is the fact that the ground itself has changed so radically. Two governments had fallen in Egypt, Syria and Iraq are in full blown civil war that has bred something darker and frankly more evil then Al Qaeda. While I then to believe that the Islamic state is something of a wild fire that will burn itself out, like a wild fire it's passing will have left the region changed. Whether for the better or for the worse is yet to be seen.
The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar gets a A-. I would urge everyone with even a passing interest in the Middle East to read it.