The May 2010 edition of Britain’s leading intellectual magazine Prospect has run a three-page excerpt that its editorial staff cleverly adapted from a chapter in Dining with al-Qaeda. In it I tell of my encounter in Saudi Arabia with a missionary from al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan. Editor David Goodhart sent me a copy of the magazine with a kind note of thanks saying he thought the episode was ‘spine-chilling’. Here’s how it starts:
It was a couple of months after 11th September 2001, but it never occurred to me that I was at risk from al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. I was there as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and I still believed in the cloak of innocence: the idea that my reporting represented an honest, universal right to know…
This is the story I’ve been asked to retell to audiences most often while presenting Dining with al-Qaeda. Naturally, people focus on the way the missionary said he would kill me – as I did at the time, unsurprisingly. But beyond saying it was because I was an ‘infidel’, I don’t delve much deeper in this excerpt into why he would even consider such drastic action. The ‘Islamic’ explanation has never satisfied me. As I try to show elsewhere in the book, Middle Eastern actions, even inexcusable ones, are often better explained as the result of Western actions upon them over decades, which Westerners just don’t understand because it hasn’t been done to them. If you poke someone, you always feel it less than if that person pokes you.
I have lived and worked in the Middle East for more than three decades, and this book collects what I feel to be my most compelling insights from journeys and meetings in some two dozen countries. I have visited many of these states repeatedly, first as a traveller, then as a student of the Arabic, Persian and Turkish languages, and then as a foreign correspondent, most recently for the Wall Street Journal.
I chose the stories that lie ahead of you to underline straightforward points that I believe are essential to understanding the people, governments and social forces at work in the region. They side-step the ins and outs of theoretical debates, acronyms and quickly forgotten politicians’ names. As I wrote these pages, I imagined before me an enthusiastic student or well-educated traveler, trying to make sense of the Middle East and frustrated with dry and theoretical approaches.
I want to share my confusion and the hilarious moments as I was educated out of my initial bafflement and into an understanding of the absurd paradoxes of dysfunctional states. I met people trapped between ruthless tyrants and an insensitive outside world. I experienced not only cruelty, fear and war, but also poetry, love and adventure. Along the way I want to explain how I came to terms with a very muddled East, and also suggest new ways how an insensitive and meddling West can better come to terms with the region.
I believe that the U.S. and other states’ policy mistakes of the past decades are based on a fundamental blindness towards the people and circumstances of Middle Eastern countries, and an over-readiness to think of the region in terms of simplistic ideological labels like ‘Arabs,’ ‘Islam’ or ‘terror.’ As a new American administration is taking office explicitly promising to listen to and to re-assess its approach to the Middle East, I hope the observations in this book can be a source of new ideas, empathy and change.
Avoiding classic territorial subdivisions, I have made the scope of this book the whole Middle East. This is not because of any belief that the Middle East can usefully be seen as a political grouping; in fact, every country of the region prioritizes its relations with outside powers over any mutual solidarity, and there can be bewildering differences of ethnicity, language and religion. I do however believe there are also continuities and overlaps in Middle Eastern societies, history and geography. This book ranges therefore from Turkey in the west to Pakistan in the east, from Afghanistan in the north to Sudan in the south. There is a particular focus on Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and, of course, Iraq.
The first five chapters recount my introduction to the Middle East, during which time I became a foreign correspondent. The next five chapters follow my deeper explorations, from dodging through the streets of Jeddah with a Saudi businesswoman to the chilling night I sat up until dawn talking with a missionary from the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Three chapters then take a frank look at state formation, dictatorship and governance in the region. The final five focus on Iraq, before, during and after the U.S. invasion.
Above all, however, this is a book of stories, from unexpected hiccups with my Egyptian girlfriend, to reeling from explosions in the Iran-Iraq war, to enduring ten weeks trapped in a forgotten, besieged and famine-struck Sudanese town. Rather than trying to fit every idea into any single political or economic scheme, the artificial, virtual framework that traditional news reporting uses to explain events to readers, I have allowed myself to go with the flow of the truer and more interesting confusion of everyday life. I have tried to recreate on these pages the sense of plunging into the cumin-heavy vaults of the Aleppo bazaar or the edgy backstreets of Baghdad as if you were at my shoulder, so as to communicate as intensely as possible the Middle Eastern reality and vivacious human contact that makes the region so addictive to me.
Along the way, I want to show why it was so hard to accurately report my developing understanding of the Middle East to a Western, and especially to an American audience. I was lucky to write for the Wall Street Journal in its golden age. Yet even in this most prestigious of American newspapers I found it hard to keep my stories out of the ruts of traditional coverage of good “moderates” versus bad “radicals”, a misleading focus on an Arab-Israeli “peace process” that never proceeded anywhere, and the way many people over-emphasize the role of “Islam” as an analytical tool in assessing the Middle East.
The idiosyncracies of the region, I believe, are more the product of universal problems of inequality, circumstance and international politics, not uniquely Middle Eastern religions or ideologies. The lives of Middle Easterners, the majority of whom are only a generation or two away from an illiterate peasant background, differ greatly from those of Americans or Europeans, especially members of Western élites likely to read newspapers that I wrote for like the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and London’s Independent. My argument is that this is not because of some insoluble “clash of civilizations” but because of bridgeable disparities in education, security, prosperity and expectations.
Outsiders find it hard to see that despite the Middle East’s occasional agonies, its people are like any other and can have fun too. Westerners should be more aware that the stress and conflict in media reports are only part of a much larger reality, just as Middle Easterners should realize that the normality of Western countries is not all as presented in Hollywood films and TV sitcoms. I hope that this book can allow a wider audience to see the countries of the region in a new and less confrontational light, to hear the voices of its peoples and sometimes to make them laugh out loud.
Istanbul, April 2009
Map of the Middle East
1. Mr. Q, I LOVE YOU
Oriental Studies Meets the Middle East
2. IT’S A FINE LINE
Journalism on the Road from Damascus
3. THE PLOT IN THE CONSPIRACY
Spies in the Syria-Lebanon-Palestine Triangle
4. HUNTING FOR SCAPEGOATS
Foreign interference and Misrule in Lebanon
5. A PILGRIMAGE TO JERUSALEM
The Israeli-Palestinian Entanglement
6. THE DRUNKEN LOVER
Revolutionary Iran’s Struggle with its Poetic Soul
7. SUBVERSION IN THE HAREM
Women on the Rise, from Cairo to Istanbul
8. WAR, WAR TO VICTORY
Iran’s School of Martyrdom and Love
9. MAMMON IN MECCA
Crushing Religious Diversity in the Name of Islam
10. DINING WITH AL-QAEDA
A Saudi Missionary and the “Wonderful Boys” of Sept. 11
11. TEA WITH THE BRIGADIER
Failing the Famished of South Sudan
12. THE CENTRAL BANK GOVERNOR HAS NO SOCKS
Taliban Warlords, Pakistani Feudals and the Nation State
13. REGAL REPUBLICS, DEMOCRATIC KINGS
Syria, Jordan and the Dimensions of Dictatorship
Inside Iraq’s Psychotic Stress Machine
15. JOUSTING WITH THE JUGGERNAUT
How Not to Stop a U.S. Invasion
16. STOP FIRING! THIS IS A MILITARY SITUATION
One Step Behind the War with the Kurds
17. THE YEZIDI HERESY
An Alternative Approach to Military Liberation
18. THE GENERAL AND THE PROFESSOR
America Collides with History in Iraq