- The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East
Unlike most Western correspondents who report for a few years from the Middle East before becoming instant experts on every imaginable question, Neil MacFarquhar grew up in Libya as the son of an American oil engineer, studied Arabic, and lived for close to two decades among Middle Easterners. Despite this undeniable expertise, he recognizes that his understandings are limited, though he is eager to ask pertinent questions. This is quite rare. The strength of this highly readable book is that it was written by a near-native mind that cares about ordinary folks. MacFarquhar kindly wonders about the Libyan family he once knew, the country he lived in, and the questions that most inhabitants ask themselves about life and its many challenges.
Throughout his text, the author does not ignore the angry radicalism that dominated Arab and Muslim politics throughout the 20th century, nor does he gloss over the omnipresent Mukhabarat (secret police) in each country he visited. Rather, he dictates solutions by relying on the people he meets and allows them to comment. It is incredibly novel to let indigenous people, whether human rights activists, sex therapists, chefs, bloggers, academics, young women, or even so-called extremists, to speak for themselves —speak not only about the security services that pervade their societies but also about a slew of topics that concern them. MacFarquhar describes specific acts in all of their disgraceful details, but sees beyond "the constant, bloody upheaval that captures most attention [and which] has become the barrier limiting our perspective on the Middle East" (p. 36). The usual descriptions of violence and gore are limited because he is far more interested in highlighting cultural questions through personal investigations. Naturally, the result does not disappoint, as a series of stories are woven together [End Page 153] that humanize Arabs and Muslims, customary shortcomings notwithstanding.
There are fascinating anecdotes and deadly serious conversations with Fawzia Dorai, "a Brash Kuwaiti sex-advice columnist, who [boasted] her own satellite television talk show, The Biography of Love" (p. 91), as well as dissidents galore. In one of his expressive but highly probable predictions, MacFarquhar anticipates that "globalization and the ready access to satellite television will close the gap between the publicly secret and the privately accepted" (p. 98).
Each chapter is set in a different country and concentrates on key aspects of life that apply elsewhere. He starts in Libya and ends up in Syria, certainly two extremes that encompass an amalgam of discussions on dictatorship, secret police, and dissidence. Seldom does he opine simply for the sake of doing so and the reporter's preachy tendencies are truly kept to a bare minimum. Instead, one is exposed to complex issues, like the relationship between the ruling family and the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, with a light touch (pp. 149-77), which will irritate the expert but delight the lay reader, without confusing either. His abilities to contrast between piety and violence —the whole haram (forbidden) vs. halal (religiously acceptable) debate —will shock while it highlights key differences with exceptional clarity. Likewise, his discussion of the Sunni-Shi'a divide in Bahrain is first rate, too, especially when it is presented with the idea of glorifying the Monarch. Even his references to Hizbullah in Lebanon, as the funny title clearly implies —with the Party of God attempting to spin the media by sending birthday wishes to foreign correspondents —are poignant. One of the more interesting vignettes that will delight the reader is MacFarquhar's discussion of what Arabs read when they are "overwhelmed by unending conflicts and stagnant politics." Arabs, he informs us, "prefer to read texts that dwell on the afterlife" or pour over Chez Ramzi, a bestselling cookbook that sold over 160,000 copies, which was "a runaway hit in a region where selling 5,000 copies constitutes major success" (p. 110). This entire...