Toward the end of my tenure as the Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, I was on vacation in San Francisco when a dinner guest asking me a startling question.
“Aren’t there any normal people in the Middle East?’’ she asked. “I mean, people like you and me, or at least people we can empathize with?’’
My immediate response was, “Of course, all kinds.” (With an unspoken duh!) But I was left with the nagging sense that I had somehow failed her, and by extension, anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the region where I have spent half my life.
I recognized the source of the problem. All I had to do was revisit the key assignments since my initial foray into the region as a correspondent in 1988: the first Gulf War. Repeated Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation. The 9/11 fallout. The invasion of Iraq. More terrorist attacks than I care to remember. As a result of that litany of violence, the outside perception of the Mideast is far too monochromatic—represented by seething, masked gunmen or veiled women presumed to want to say "Rescue me!" if only they weren’t mute.
But when given the choice, when the stories were filed and the New York editors weren’t calling, the people I spent time with were bright, funny, engaged, warm, generous, astute, well-read—in short, ideal friends that made me revel in being a correspondent in the region. I knew it would take a book to render a more detailed portrait.
So on the very day my assignment ended in February 2006, I flew off to the snowy New Hampshire woods, to the MacDowell Colony, to think about it. My studio was an isolated, roomy cabin with a heavy table for a desk and a roaring fireplace. The staff quietly left lunch in a picnic basket outside my door every day.
I first printed out a list of everything I had written for the Times over the course of five years as Cairo bureau chief, roughly 460 stories. Then I scratched out everything related to violence. Bombings. Out. Beheadings. Out. Wanton brutality. Out. That left me just 60 articles, but braiding some of them with a host of unpublished jottings in my journals and notebooks established the core of what I was trying to convey. After six weeks in the woods, I emerged with a rough outline.
I wanted to capture both the humanity and the zaniness present from Marrakesh to Mashhad, to delve into Arab or Iranian conversations on ordinary topics ranging from food to politics, television to jihad. I wanted to show that the Middle East is a complex place where some inspired men and women are groping their way toward making it freer, more open, more tolerant; people like Ramzi Shwayri, the wildly popular television chef; or Fawzia Dorai, the veiled sex therapist; or Fayrouz, such a famous Arab diva that she even played Vegas. Plus there’s all the darkly comic stuff like Iranian fatwas inveighing against dogs or the travails of Arabia’s last brewer. I didn’t ignore the violence, but tried to broaden the perspective, like a Chinese scroll that offers a continuum rather than one fixed point of view.
I wanted to show that the Middle East is a complex place where some inspired men and women are groping their way toward making it freer, more open, more tolerant; people like Ramzi Shwayri, the wildly popular television chef; or Fawzia Dorai, the veiled sex therapist.
I am unaware of any historic or genetic link to the Middle East among my Celtic ancestors, and at over 6’ 3” and blond I don’t exactly blend in. But spending my childhood in those environs gave me a certain fondness and empathy for the region. I remember the Times dispatching me from New York to Tel Aviv at 2 p.m. one afternoon amidst some crisis. Within an hour of landing the next morning I found myself in a West Bank village, taking in the olive groves, the chickens scratching in the dirt, and the distant sound of someone reciting the Quran. A little voice inside me said, "You’re home."
As a child, my morning ritual before dashing across the street to Esso Elementary School in Marsa Brega, Libya, was eating cornflakes at the kitchen table with my father and listening to the BBC.
When the chimes of Big Ben ended on September 1, 1969, the first headline was a shocker. A coup in Libya! An unknown army officer named Muammar al-Qadhafi had seized power in the name of Arab unity and Islam. Brega offered no hint that anything was amiss, basically because Libyans were barred from living there. Little of real Libya penetrated the fence sheltering our compound. It was Texas on the Mediterranean.
It was only later that I decided to make amends, to return to explore what I had missed—studying the history, the religion, and learning to speak Arabic. The book is the culmination of that quest.
After I finished writing, I was stumped about a title, but it was hiding in plain sight: The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East. It was inspired by the start of Chapter 3, the birthday greetings dispatched to me each year from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of course any book I wrote about the Middle East had start with Col. Qadhafi. In truth I call him al-akh al-qa’id
But the brother never sent me birthday cards.
Neil MacFarquhar served as New York Times Cairo bureau chief from 2001 through 2005 and is now its UN bureau chief. His Middle East expertise predates his Cairo assignment: he grew up in Libya and covered the region for the AP, including stints in Israel and Kuwait. He is the author of a novel, The Sand Café.