Books for the Arab World in Troubled Times
Book: Dining with Al Qaeda (2010)by Hugh Pope
Every Monday for a while now, I’ve been writing about books that might shed some light on the current internal struggles of countries in the Middle East (as well as Iraq and Afghanistan as the center of international warfare) for those of us who plan to travel there in the future.
Some of the books I have covered are directly about the politics of the situation, like In the Country of Men, and some are poetic, like The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and some are strictly travel books. I think it takes an understanding of both politics and poetry–literature and news reports–for us in the West to build an understanding of the largely Islamic countries of the Middle East and the Arab Spring.
In Dining with Al Quaeda, published in 2010, Hugh Pope provides a must-read journalist’s memoir of 30 years of travel through many of the countries still on the front pages today. Much of what he writes seems incredibly timely today. Just as In the Country of Men made its way to A Traveler’s Library as the Libyan revolt was heating up, Dining with Al-Qaeda came my way during the reporting of the death of Osama bin Laden.
This book educated me more deeply about more different cultures in the mid-East than anything else that I have read. I have seen it compared to Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem (1990-revised for Kindle edition in 2010), which broke ground in explaining the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, through the lens of an American very aware of American public opinion. I agree. I still recommend From Beirut to Jerusalem to anyone traveling to Israel, and wrote briefly about it some time back.
Both Friedman and Pope were employed by first-rate American newspapers and news organizations. They are both masterful reporters and enticing writers.
However, Friedman approached his reporting from the background of an American Jew, skeptical of Israel’s political actions, and Pope, born of British parents and educated in England, approaches the Middle East with a deep-seated love of all things Arabic.
Pope owns up to his prejudices (pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel for instance) and admits when reality does not quite match his infatuated romantic vision of Arab culture and behavior. Since he studied the Arab language and culture at Oxford, he can more easily converse with people in various countries. Because of a childhood spent partly in the Middle East, he also can get along in Farsi.
Although I was afraid that I would be turned off by his one-sided viewpoint, he demonstrates that he is an even-handed reporter, and I found myself trusting his account of the countries he covered during his 30 years in the area as an eager seeker of adventure but a reluctant war correspondent. Lebanon during the Israeli-Lebanese war, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel.
His discoveries continually surprise, not only the reader, but the author as well. “Ultimate, I learned, every country in the region viewed itself as a kind of island uniquely connected to the West, not the East. Politically, the “Middle East” barely existed.”
I learned as much about how the Wall Street Journal curates the news and treats its writers as I did about the Middle East. Pope wanted to let Americans know that the Iraqi people were not going to unanimously welcome American troops. Pope’s “fixer” in Iraq before the American forces arrive says, “Here in Iraq freedom means the freedom to kill” and he goes on to say that because the American blockade cost his family medicine his brother needed, he would kill the first person out of the tank when they arrived. But because it sounds too much like propaganda, the quote could not go in the story. “I understood that , too. I was up to my eyeballs in Iraqi propaganda and I didn’t want to scare the readers into thinking I couldn’t be trusted….Reality was a broad spectrum and the common zone between the diametrically different Iraqi and U.S. worldviews overlapped only a short handspan in the middle,” Pope says.
I want to read it again. That is how valuable I believe this book is. Pope now lives in Turkey, and with his wife wrote a history of Turkey, Turkey Unveiled. See his pick of five best books on Turkish politics at The Browser.
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