Thursday, October 06, 2011

Book review: Road to Fatima Gate

Road to Fatima Gate — The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel by Michael Totten

Book review - Executive magazine

There has been a flurry of books published over the past few years by Westerners, primarily Americans, describing in depth their brief encounters with Lebanon and the Middle East. Their insights are telling not so much for the informative content, but rather how this budding vein of adventure writers perceives the region and its people.

Often misplaced on bookstore shelves under ‘political journalism’, these titles — including Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis’ “Tea with Hezbollah”, Jared Cohen’s “Children of Jihad” and Lee Smith’s “The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations” — rightly ought to be stacked closer to the ‘adventure/fantasy’ section; crafted in the language of swaggering bravado, the narratives frame the authors as intrepid explorers in a land of peril, boldly setting out where ‘few Americans dare go’.

And relegated to the bin of banality they would be did they not also wield such a dangerous degree of influence over the shaping of United States foreign policy; speaking at Smith’s 2010 book launch in Washington, DC, were the former ambassador to Lebanon and current assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, and Elliott Abrams, former deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for global democracy strategy under the Bush administration, with both statesmen heaping praise on the author’s effort.

It is in this light which one must regard Michael Totten’s “Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel”, released earlier this year by Encounter, a publisher self-described as being a press for the “serious conservative”. Fitting, then, that the book is written from what could be called a ‘Western extremist’ perspective.

Road to Fatima Gate traverses Lebanon’s politically tumultuous time between 2005 and 2008, from former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and the Syrian army’s subsequent withdrawal, through the July 2006 war and the civil conflict of May 2008. Totten is in Lebanon only part-time during this period, but does not let his frequent forays abroad pollute the aura of comprehensiveness he lends his accounts. Nor does the author let the selectiveness of his associations temper the license he allows himself to make sweeping generalizations regarding the Lebanese mindset — Totten has minimal meaningful interaction with ‘people on the street’, instead openly preferring the company of expatriates and barfly drinking buddies, with his most authoritative source on the country being Charles Chuman, an American-Lebanese from Chicago who was in Lebanon for around five years, and whom the author describes as knowing “the country better than almost anyone I ever met.”

Totten tells the tale of the 2006 war in Lebanon from Northern Israel and, being abroad when rival political factions faced off in block-to-block combat in May 2008, Totten retells the experience largely through the eyes and ears of Chuman, complete with dialogue and inner thoughts. (Perhaps tellingly, Chuman, Smith and Totten all spoke at the annual Institute for Policy and Strategy conference in Herzilya, Israel, shortly after the 2006 war.)

Totten’s blinkered narrative is most blatant regarding Beirut’s southern suburbs and South Lebanon, despite the crux of the narrative being about Hezbollah — a flaw Road to Fatima Gate shares with Thanassis Cambanis’ “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel”. Totten describes these areas as throttled by totalitarianism, where Hezbollah suppresses self expression through violence, and ignores pesky nuances such as the plurality of political affiliations, family divisions over allegiances, independents running in elections and the large and growing body of the apolitical. To be fair, Totten does let Lebanese voices set some of the record straight, but only in chapters outside those in which he portrays “Hezbollahland”.

In his account, Lebanese police have never set foot in “Hezbollahland”, from which they are “forbidden” — news, no doubt, to the veteran law enforcement officers in Haret Hreik and Bint Jbeil. Similarly, Totten leads his readers to believe that Iran is the sole financer of post-war reconstruction in South Lebanon, completely ignoring the hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into the effort by Qatar, Kuwait and other nations, including the US.

Leveraging his thorough understanding of Lebanon, Totten then graces us with his incisive insight into the region as a whole: “Arab countries have a certain feel. They’re masculine, languid, worn around the edges and slightly shady.”

Road to Fatima Gate does a good job of listing the many important events of the years it covers in Lebanon, but is rigidly selective in the sources it taps and questions it asks, as well as lacking historical insight and glossing over inconvenient things like ‘facts’ that would run counter to the agenda Totten is pushing. But then again, what adventurer would want to dilute his drinking stories with reality?

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