Home > Reviews > “Anyone with any interest in the Middle East should read this” – S. McGee

“Anyone with any interest in the Middle East should read this” – S. McGee

S. McGee is one of the top reviewers on amazon.com, and she has awarded Dining with al-Qaeda a “solid four stars” –  a category McGee defines as representing “a book that is very good, albeit with a few significant flaws or shortcomings.”

The flaw cited by McGee is that I bang my readers too hard on the head about the difficulties of getting stories about the Middle East onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Members of my own family have long been the first to object to any hint that I might be riding a hobby horse, but apparently they haven’t trained me as well at hiding this trait as I thought. To prove it: I stick to my position that reporting on the Middle East puts up unique obstacles for journalists, which must be exposed!

And I note with satisfaction that McGee says her stated reservation is mainly for fear that other readers might not be interested, and acknowledges that she herself is “fascinated” by my look at this very same process.

An intriguing look behind the scenes at covering the Middle East

By S. McGee (amazon.com top 100 reviewer)

March 21, 2010

Hugh Pope’s new book is a different kettle of fish from the stellar but straightforward Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, which was a great (and highly recommended) look a the world inhabited by the Turks today, from Turkey itself to the southern reaches of Russia and all the way to western China. That was a straightforward book of journalistic reportage; this is more of a hybrid, a book that focuses as much on Pope’s experiences living and working in the Middle East over the last three decades as on the regions that he has lived in and traveled through.

Unlike Robert Fisk’s massive The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, which is a similar kind of book in focus but far more ambitious in both scope and message, Pope’s survey has no single compelling theme that sets current events in a historical context. That’s a strength in some ways — certainly, reality is hard to shove into a nice, neat little analytical framework, particularly in this region. On the other hand, it doesn’t give the reader — particularly one who is new to reading about the Middle East and with a familiarity with the issues gleaned only from cursory glances at newspapers and CNN — much to hold onto as they follow Pope as he skips back and forward in both time and place, moving from his early adventures living atop a brothel in Aleppo, Syria, to his efforts to avoid frontline combat reporting in Iraqi Kurdistan during the American-led invasion of 2003. But then, Pope, unlike Fisk, doesn’t make himself the hero of his own narrative (indeed, Pope’s early discussion of Fisk’s own recasting of reality in his book are eye-opening), although they start from a similar philosophical viewpoint: that over the last half-century or more, Europe and North America have tended to oversimplify the complexities of the Middle East and have remained dangerously unaware of the consequences of their often-clumsy political manoeuverings in the region.

Many of the observations, anecdotes and arguments put forward by Pope are at once fascinating and eye-opening. There are some “oh my god” moments, as when he has to bargain for his life with a Saudi recruiter with Al-Qaeda, and some sobering moments when the reader gets a glimpse of the reality behind the ‘glamorous’ life of a foreign correspondent, as when he spends six weeks or so trapped in a besieged town in southern Sudan after he decides to hitch a ride out the next day only to find that rebels have declared a ‘no fly’ zone. Pope tries to shed light on the Persian/Iranian character by probing into the writings of a long-dead poet, Hafez; and writes about the irony of Saudis destroying their own Muslim heritage when they level historic buildings in Mecca in order to build McDonalds franchises and glass office buildings and malls.

When Pope is weaving stories like this, I was caught up in the moment, and felt I was gaining more insight into a region that I’ve traveled through, at least insofar as I’ve been able to as a woman and a North American who prefers to travel on her own. (In other words, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey — yes; Yemen and Saudi Arabia or Iran, nope.) His language skills (Arabic and Persian) give him an edge in reporting; the reader can have confidence that what Pope writes is what he has actually heard people say, rather than having it filtered through an interpreter who may have a separate agenda. That said, Pope has his own agenda: that Americans are too narrow-minded about the Middle East, and that may, unfortunately limit the audience for this book.

My only reservations come with this book as journalistic memoir. Pope goes back, over and over again, to his difficulties getting his stories on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and the compromises he has to make to make them work for his editors and readers. Eventually, these endless variations on a single theme became wearing, even for me (and I spent years running the same gauntlet, albeit not from the Middle East, and was fascinated by his look at a process I know all too well and the personalities involved, whom I also knew.) For anyone outside the rather incestuous world of journalism, I would imagine these would become either wearing, or feed into theories that the media is deliberately withholding “the truth” about the world. (In fact, in my experience, the Journal’s page one editor are simply in search of counterintuitive “man bites dog” stories, and too many of the stories about which Pope felt strongly just didn’t meet that threshold.) There’s a case to be made that that is too narrow an approach to take, particularly when it comes to covering such an important region, but it really isn’t about bias, and if that’s the story Pope wants to tell, it would probably work better in a separate book. The two themes in this story — what has happened in the Middle East over the last 30 years and Pope’s frustrations with his editors and publishers as he tries to write about those events — don’t always coexist easily, and make it a less fluid and focused book.

Still, Pope pulls no punches and that’s refreshing, as is his point of view. He has witnessed enough tragedy on a massive scale that this book deserves a wide and open-minded audience of readers willing to think about his observations. As he notes in his brief conclusion, there are no uplifting endings — but then, that’s the reality of the world we inhabit and our yearning for a happy ending, for a pat resolution, can actually undermine our geopolitical efforts. Pope’s ultimate and idealistic plea is for a kind of pragmatism that is all too thin on the ground. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Pope has left journalism to work for the International Crisis Group, an independent body that does remarkable work in trying to identify the causes of some of the conflicts he has chronicled and find a way to defuse them before it’s too late.

This is a solid and well-written book that tells uncomfortable truths, without cloaking them in dramatic feats of derring-do by the author or splashy revelations about foreign policymaking. Anyone with any interest in the Middle East should read this, as it brings a stubbornly independent perspective and an eclectic set of memories and experiences to the mix. It’s not as compelling or streamlined a narrative as Fisk’s book, but in some ways may be both more raw and more honest. But it’s probably not a good introductory book on the Middle East, simply because of the way it jumps from one region and time period to another, and because of the frequent diversions into the art of reporting. A solid 4-stars.

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