With perhaps the longest title of any book I’ve read this year, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East gives an insight into the lives of people living in Middle East through the eyes of journalist Neil MacFarquhar.
MacFarquhar’s father was a chemical engineer who supervised an Esso refinery and a water desalination plant. His family lived on the Libyan coast in Marsa Brega alongside a community of other employees’ families. The first 40 or so pages deal with his childhood in Libya and his encounters with Qadhafi when he returned years later as a journalist.
A fluent Arabic speaker, MacFarquhar spent 13 years as a journalist covering the Middle East for Associated Press and New York Times. The book tours around the region looking at different cultural, religious and political thinking: fatwa, jihad, policing and justice. Through the book’s pages, readers meet many people on the ground and hear their aspirations and ideals.
It’s an eye-opening read. US Secretaries of State and British Foreign Office Ministers are apt to speak about the need for change in the Middle East using western models and concepts. Yet MacFarquhar introduces readers to people who are keen for change, but articulate it in their own cultural nomenclature.
While readers, commenters and posters on Slugger O’Toole sometimes feel the need to do so under a badge of anonymity, their ability to express views (within the bounds of defamation) is taken for granted.
Users of Bahrain Online – the “go-to political site” in the island state – have a different starting point. Webmaster Ali Abdulemam explained to MacFarquhar that “freedom of expression is something you have to take, not something that will be granted to you.
Royal princes, parliament members, opposition leaders, and just about anybody with an interest in politics told me [MacFarquhar] that they consulted it daily to find out what the opposition was thinking. The easiest way to ensure a wide turnout for any demonstration, the leader of the main Shite opposition assured me, was to post it on Bahrain Online. By 2008, Abdulemam said, he was getting some 150,000 hits a day, or more than one-quarter of native population. “If something happens anywhere in Bahrain, usually within five minutes maximum something about it is happening on mu site,” he said.
MacFarquhar describes Tash Ma Tash, a cult Saudi satirical comedy that is self-critical of Saudi society and airs new episodes each year exclusively during Ramadan.
The show did not try to directly challenge the religious hierarchy, but it did poke fun at some of the more lunatic ways conservative traditions twist daily life in the twenty-first century.
The show’s coverage of issues like a woman’s need for a male guardian to accompany her outdoors sparked debate and a change in law.
The modern tragedy in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere is that the rulers keep such discussions bottled up in the private sphere – the Internet is not yet widely accessible enough in most countries – and in that restricted environment problems tend to fester rather than slouch toward resolution.
There’s an illuminating discussion about fatwas and the concept of fatwa shopping. It’s not all about death sentences.
Religious scholars issue fatwas on questions ranging from household quandaries to major issues of public policy.
So from whether a Muslim woman should ride a bicycle (“usually not, too publicly physical”) to whether a man should wear soccer shorts (“only if they modestly come below his knees even when he sits down”) to whether the Saudi royal family could “allow 500,000 infidel American soldiers to deploy in the kingdom after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990”.
But with the advent of dial-a-sheikh lines, people can shop around to get an answer that suits:
… fishing around for a religious scholar who will endorse whatever the supplicant wants. That elasticity on any topic large or small underscores both the benefit and the bane of Islam having no formal ruling structure.
As well as the serious business of reforming governments and changing culture there are some hilarious stories. Chapter five covers MacFarquhar’s mad-cap attempt to use three ovens spread across Jerusalem to cook Thanksgiving dinner for some international friends. It took all afternoon and a cab driver to baste and cook the various dishes … all because the door fell off his own oven.
MacFarquhar points out patterns of government belief and behaviour across the area.
… the repressive regimes ruling the Arab world … believe they can find the magic balance required to maintain their grip on power while introducing just enough openness to east the simmering frustration of the next generation.
At the end of the book, MacFarquhar reflects on 9/11 and the American government’s confrontational approach demanding changes to the curriculum “saying that the religious content helped breed foot soldiers for Al-Qaeda”. Instead of being an effective lobby to open up educational opportunities for all, the US demands “brewed all manner of resentment” and “smacked of Christianity attacking Islam, of the entire Crusades resurrected”.
Instead, MacFarquhar counsels that the American government should find ways to raise the kind of questions that parents in the region ask. “Why are the Arabs, who once kept science alive, now so weak at it? … How come the wealthy Gulf countries have failed to produce any Arab Microsofts, any Arab Apple Computers, any real modern innovation of any sort?
He also suggests that Washington “should be more vocal in supporting change, no matter how weak its proponents are and whether or not their goals mirror American policy”. The very fact that the US notices any measure of change “signals that it is watching” and helps agitators “immeasurably”.
The west sees democracy as the missing ingredient in the Middle East melting point. But reformists that MacFarquhar met, and introduces his readers to, have other reforms higher up their list.
The attempt to establish any kind of progressive organization to guide the process [of altering the political landscape] is illegal in virtually every country in the Middle East. Both free speech and the right to assemble are sharply curbed. Merely gathering in the same place to talk about how to achieve change can provoke arrest and sometimes a harsh prison sentence. For many reformists, both in Saudi and elsewhere, the lack of such simple freedoms grates most; obtaining basic civil rights constitutes a far higher priority than elections or other formal ingredients of Western democracy.
Later in the book, MacFarquhar returns to the freedoms people across the region have spoken to him about.
All of them would certainly prefer to live in open societies; to enjoy freedom of expression; freedom from fear of their governments and their wicked secret police; freedom from the vagaries of an unpredictable justice system; freedom to assemble and to form the kind of civic organisations they want; and yes, freedom to choose their own leaders … Political freedom may be stuck in line behind the desire to live a life without hunger, to attain some manner of security.
At a time when civil protests, political revolution and guerrilla military action are in the news, Neil MacFarquhar’s riveting book paints a believable and fascinating picture of the Middle East, and is a timely and recommended read.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.