The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

"Innocent abroad"

Over at The National, Wesley Yang reviews Neal McFarquhar's new book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East. McFarquhar was the New York Times correspondent in Cairo from 2001 to 2006. (He previously wrote a novel--a satire of the journalistic milieu, mostly aimed at TV, and a story of romantic entanglements between foreign reporters during the 1991 Gulf War--called The Sand Café.)

The new book is a tour d'horizon of the Middle East, with a focus on its supposedly lighter, more hopeful side--it features interviews with feminists, activists, media personalities, non-conformists. Yang--while respectful of McFarquhar's professional production and personal politics--critiques the book for its "banal," general observations about both the state of the Middle East and the American role therein. 
He proposes that Americans increase the amount of foreign aid targeted toward development, become more vocal in condemning all forms of repression, and refuse to moderate that criticism just because a foreign government serves America’s immediate policy goals. He urges a return to “a time when the US was known for defending the little guy, when the guiding principle of American foreign policy was doing the right thing”.

The blameless banality of these suggestions, most of which are both apposite and true in their way, winds up in tension with many of MacFarquhar’s observations elsewhere in his book. It begins as a view of the “lighter side” of the Middle East; it becomes, almost in spite of itself, a rather crushing account of political paralysis. The “smart, energetic, dedicated activists out there working to transform the region may not have reached a critical mass”, he writes. They may “face terrible odds in confronting the brutal machinery that keeps so many dictators in power”. But, he concludes somewhat lamely: “they are determined to make a difference.”

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I suspect what we have here is yet another Big Book by a Big Guy (it's almost always a guy) with a Big Idea--a genre that dominates the Western publishing industry when it comes to the Middle East (in second place are accounts of female oppression and sexual self-discovery, featuring the world "veil"). I know there are some excellent exceptions, but generally I have the  hardest time mustering interest for these "medical" books--they're all diagnosis and prescription--in which every anecdote is milked for socio-cultural insight and every interview leads to political prognostications. And the Big Idea seems quite fuzzy in this case: there is hope for the Middle East, not everyone there is backwards or cowed or fanatic, but still things are very tough, and the US should do something to help. Yet the US's deep, structural complicity with the authoritarian regimes of the region is one of the book's "blind spots," according to Yang.