Correction to This Article
This review of the book "Every Man in This Village is a Liar" misspelled the author's last name in some references. She is Megan K. Stack, not Stark.

Review of Megan K. Stack's "Every Man in This Village Is a Liar"

By Susie Linfield
Sunday, August 8, 2010


An Education In War

By Megan K. Stack

Doubleday. 255 pp. $26.95

The title of Megan K. Stack's book of dispatches from the war zones of the Muslim world is deliberately provocative. It also illustrates the bracing forthrightness of her approach -- along with its equally real shortcomings.

In the post 9/11 period, Stack, a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was stationed in the world's most contentious lands. If there was a war, she was there -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon and Yemen. She stopped off, too, in Saudi Arabia and Libya, both of which she found repellent. She is clearly, refreshingly intent on conveying unsentimentalized observations about these dysfunctional countries. (The secular-religious rhetoric of martyrdom that pervades the Mideast is, she observes, "the cave art of political discourse.") Yet Stack is equally critical of the U.S. interventions under the "war on terror" rubric, and of the political repressions that characterize our presumed allies.

In a supposedly rehabilitated Libya, she finds a dictatorship both ruthless and ridiculous; the people appear "locked in the basement of an asylum" and "even the waves seemed exhausted." In Egypt, she attends an energetic Muslim Brotherhood demonstration -- far larger, her interpreter glumly notes, than anything the secular democrats could pull off -- and watches the government blatantly steal an election. Her description of our comrades in Afghanistan will offer scant comfort to American readers: "The mujahideen prowled the mountains underfed and shivering, clad in tattered tennis shoes and old sweaters. . . . They didn't know how to read. . . . The mujahideen mooned around, stroking one another lovingly and dreaming of their next meal." She loves living in Israel -- except for the fact that it is "rotten underneath." She is deeply, presciently suspicious of Lebanon's supposed revival and reconciliation after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, noting that the regeneration seems based on a repression of, rather than a realistic reckoning with, the country's sectarian, murderous past. And all over the region, she observes the grotesque marginalization of women, which transforms them into non-citizens, non-actors, non-people.

Stack can be an astute observer of political complications; indeed, I wish she had paused longer to flesh them out, rather than construct her book as a series of short, staccato chapters that cater to a kind of attention-deficit disorder. In Iraq, for instance, she notices the Iraqis' delicate, convoluted sense of shame and self-hatred for having colluded in Saddam's brutal dictatorship. Her book's most moving section is an homage to a young, female Iraqi journalist named Atwar Bahjat, who passionately insisted on a democratic, nonsectarian Iraq; for this, she was assassinated by a death squad. "Her aspirations were the finest hopes of a broken country. . . . She lived as a symbol of mad hope for an impossible, alternative Iraq," Stark mourns.

But when it comes to Stark's own "education in war," she comes up short. She learns two main things. One is existential: that war is "dark and dangerous, that you could survive and not survive, both at the same time." The other is political: that America's war on terror is "hollow, it was essentially nothing but a unifying myth. . . . Mostly, I think, it was fear." These insights don't stretch very far, nor are they original or profound. And they are radically incomplete. For Stark must know that even if the United States withdrew all its forces from the Mideast, the vicious war within the Muslim world -- the attacks on secularists, women, democrats, dissidents, writers, teachers, mosques, movie theaters, hospitals, schools, marketplaces, Shias and Sunnis -- would continue. Forget about democracy, pluralism and human rights: This is a war that -- as Atwar Bahjat and so many others have learned -- has negated the very concept of civilian.

But the biggest flaw here is Stark's writing style, which repeatedly undermines her substance. She is addicted to ornate -- indeed, often incomprehensible -- metaphors; they are irritating, confusing and strikingly inappropriate given the soberness of her subject. What are "carbonated eyes"? How can death get "stuck in the glue of itself"? What does it mean for farms to be "convulsed with catharsis"? In the midst of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Stark comes to this: "The smell [of death] is perverted and cold, like a creeping creature of mist, clamping clammy hands over the flowering shrubs." These phrases and sentences -- and many more like them -- bespeak a terrible evasiveness; Stark is hiding behind words rather than using them to illuminate or explain. (She should have read George Orwell on the function of metaphor -- and, for that matter, should have read his less-is-more war reportage.) In the book's epilogue, she promises that she has "given up on pulling poetry out of war." But by then it is too late.

As for that title: Stark never tells us who actually made the statement about liars, which makes it difficult to assess. And her book is peopled both by those who dissemble and those who offer us unsettling truths.

Susie Linfield directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. Her book "The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence" will be published this fall.

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