Book Review: 'The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday' by Neil MacFarquhar

  Enlarge Photo    
By Wendell Steavenson
Sunday, May 24, 2009


Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East

By Neil MacFarquhar

PublicAffairs. 387 pp. $26.95

Neil MacFarquhar is that rare and wonderful thing, a Middle East correspondent who not only speaks Arabic but also grew up in the region. This experience infuses his book -- the product of 20 years of reporting -- with the wit, insight and eye-rolling exasperation of a near-native. MacFarquhar maintains that "the constant, bloody upheaval that captures most attention has become the barrier limiting our perspective on the Middle East" and eschews the usual descriptions of violence and gore. Instead he offers a broad cultural and personal investigation into the region. The result is an intelligent and fascinating romp full of anecdotes, acid asides and conversations with everyone from dissidents to diplomats and liberal religious sheikhs, and even a Kuwaiti woman with a sex-advice column.

Each chapter, set in a different country, illustrates a different facet of Middle East life: dictatorship, secret police, Islamic precept, the influence of Arabic satellite TV channels, reform, dissidence. Mercifully, the welter of facts and analysis which bogs down so many surveys of the contemporary Middle East is here kept brief and succinct. It's a testament to MacFarquhar's deep background knowledge and the lightness of his touch that complex issues like the relationship between the royal family and the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, the Sunni-Shia divide in Bahraini politics, the myriad ways Islam can be interpreted and the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon are distilled into clear exposition without ever being oversimplified or dumbed down.

But MacFarquhar has written much more than just a very good primer to the region. His real achievement is to give the reader a window into the private debates among the intelligentsia and political classes of the Middle East. He uses the lyrics of the beloved Lebanese singer Fairuz to examine history and nostalgia from Beirut to Cairo and a bestselling cookbook as a springboard for a discussion about tradition and modernity. He addresses issues of censorship while watching a (very mildly) irreverent Saudi TV serial. Yet from Bahrain to Morocco, through Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Syria, Yemen and Egypt, the story remains depressingly the same: stymied reform and rulers governing, in essence, by proclamation without due process of law, relying on fear and their secret police. Despite the recent changes in leadership in many of the region's countries, MacFarquhar shows, the new rulers have proved only marginally less brutal than their predecessors.

Despite this bleak picture, MacFarquhar, now the United Nations bureau chief at the New York Times, is a fun guide. Whether poking fun at the "gothic circus" of Libya under Moammar Gaddafi or noting the difficulties of protecting your photographer from plainclothes policemen during a demonstration, he maintains a wry affection for the region. The title, for example, is a dig at Hezbollah's attempts to spin the media by sending birthday wishes to foreign correspondents. Avoiding pronouncements, he relies instead on the people he meets to provide the bulk of the commentary. Through them, he tries to shed light on why reform in Arab countries and societies has been thwarted. "How can you be a democrat and follow a fatwa?" asks one Kuwaiti liberal politician. The king "has all the power," a former political prisoner complains to him in Morocco, "how can there be reform if it does not come from him?"

MacFarquhar concludes by criticizing American foreign policy, which he says has too long propped up dictators for reasons of realpolitik and ignored the ordinary people of the Middle East: "Washington was always on the side of the rulers," he writes. Policy makers, he suggests, should put less stress on American interests and more on the injustices suffered by people who live without the protection of due process and the rule of law. He finds a glimmer of hope in a popular (though banned) Saudi novel in which a girl looks to the struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiration. Such stories are heartening, but I couldn't help thinking that ultimately the Middle East needs its own role models and its own solutions to the real problems of poverty and discrimination, instead of those borrowed from the West.

Wendell Steavenson is a freelance journalist who has reported extensively from the Middle East and is the author, most recently, of "'The Weight of a Mustard Seed."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company