From Beirut to Jerusalem

From Beirut to Jerusalem - Thomas L. Friedman It was an Israeli friend who told me that if I wanted to understand today's Middle East, I should read this book. The author is well-qualified as a guide to the region’s complexities. Friedman, who is Jewish and studied Hebrew as a child, as a teen spent a vacation in an Israeli Kibbutz. He started studying Arabic as well, and fell in love with Egypt after a two-week visit on his way to a semester at Hebrew University. Less than two years later he was taking Arabic courses at the American University in Cairo. After college he earned a Masters at Oxford in Middle Eastern Studies: then, he became a reporter. In Beirut. In the midst of their civil war. He’d spend almost five years there, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the massacre at Sabra and Shatilia camps. When American marines were slaughtered in their Beirut barracks, Friedman was on scene watching the bomb’s mushroom cloud rise overhead. He’d then spend almost four years as the Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the New York Times. I’ve read criticisms of Friedman’s style as risible, with mixed metaphors and outlandish analogies. I didn’t really notice in the Beirut portion of the book, and I usually do. I think it’s that the story he had to tell was so riveting, I didn’t trip up on that--I just glided right through. When you’re reading about an Israeli officer being confronted in Beirut with three boxes, one filled with heads, another with torsos and another with limbs or read of how the parrot at the bar of the Commodore Hotel rendered a “perfect imitation of the whistle of an incoming shell,” it’s not style that draws your attention. I certainly found this book very readable and well-paced in that first half of the book. I admit I did start noticing the plethora of analogies in the Jerusalem portion. Maybe because a Hobbesian hell like Beirut rivets your attention more than the stories of a functioning democracy. Maybe it’s that the Beirut portions seemed more built on personal experience and observations, while the Jerusalem portions more based on interviews with others. Maybe it’s that his stylistic tics, as some reviewers suggest, increased over time and the Beirut portions were based on material written earlier. For whatever reason, I did find the second half of the book less compelling, and the style much more irksome. Friedman seemed to me very even-handed. He certainly took to task not just Arabs, but the Israelis and the Americans for a generous share of the blame. Some reviewers pegged him as a Neo-Con, but given his insistence there will be no peace until Israeli settlers are withdrawn from the West Bank, his account of the Israeli occupation there, and his criticism of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, he hardly came across to me that way, and the Goodreads bio taken from the Wiki described him as "left-leaning." I don't think he's so easily labeled, at least not in this book. He identifies three forces that drive much of the madness of the Middle East, and interestingly it isn’t religion, or at least religion per se, which he blames. Even when it comes to Islamic Fundamentalism, he believes it “is at root a secular socioeconomic problem.” He points to three conflicting and competing forces: tribalism, authoritarianism, and nationalism--particularly in the context of how the colonial powers drew very artificial lines when in the aftermath of World War I the Middle Eastern states were established. I may not always agree with Friedman's analysis or his solutions, but certainly his account of his time in the Middle East makes for a good primer on the nations of the Middle East and their conflicts, even though almost a quarter of a century has passed since the original publication. And the 2012 edition I read had an interesting Afterword on the events that have passed since, particularly Friedman’s thoughts on the Arab Spring and its opportunities and dangers. This may not be the last word on the subject of the contemporary Middle East, but it’s not a bad place to start.