34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Full Disclosure: I have known Michael Totten & counted him a friend for many years. We have rolled our eyes through lame (read: back-patting) writing workshops, eviscerated each other's creative writing, and argued about the tiny 1% sliver where our politics diverge. That 1% sliver has always been small but significant. Over the years, though, that 1% sliver has shrunk considerably--at times because Totten's writing changed my mind. When someone's right, he's right.
So take this review with a grain of salt if you must, but know this: I would not be afraid to deliver a bad review to Michael if it were warranted. He has too much integrity to freak out and fire his friends over something like that. Those 5 stars are legit.
To me, what makes "The Road to Fatima Gate" different from every other book about the Middle East is this: Totten is genuinely curious about every culture, every person, every religion, every sect, every building, every propaganda poster, every town, every conflict--everything--he encounters. Even though "Fatima Gate" is a first-person account, Totten gets out of the way and lets the people and the place tell the story because he genuinely wants to understand. Most journalists and writers fail miserably at that. They have a story to tell and find a way to impose it on the places and people they encounter. Not Totten.
He listens to everyone--cab drivers, soldiers, Hezbollah security officers, journalists, Lebanese activists, bartenders, Israeli soldiers. He wants to know. He wants to understand. He wants the story he tells to be genuine and real and true. Every person has something to teach him. Every perspective is interesting on its own terms, just for existing.
And that is why his book is a game-changer. It is nothing like the reports you see on cable news about Lebanon or the Middle East in general. The mainstream media tries to take something complex and make it simple and digestible--something "black and white." Totten takes something complex and makes the complexity easier to understand. He wrestles with the region on its own terms.
Of course, Totten does not disappear from the narrative. He is always there--always questioning, wondering, and analyzing. During a scene at the Lebanese-Israeli border, he wonders what it would be like for Americans to live just a few feet away from the Taliban, with nothing but a fence between them. It brings the reality of the border situation into sharp focus. But he wants to know what it's like to look at that border through the eyes of someone from Lebanon, someone who lived through the upheavals and conflicts and remembers when the border was open. So he asks. The answer--the entire scene, really--gave me chills.
At times, he is even hilarious, as in the scene where he and a colleague attend a Hezbollah iftar (a fast-breaking meal after sunset during Ramadan), and it occurs to Totten that the Islamic Republic of Iran paid for his meal. "It was about time they did something for citizens of the Great Satan," he thinks. By that point, he had tolerated bullying and harassment from various Hezbollah security officers. He had enough.
That sense of humor gets him in trouble, though. When he jokingly posts on his website that Hezbollah had "blindfolded" him and taken him to a "'safe house'" in the mountains, Hezbollah is not pleased. Hussein Naboulsi in the Hezbollah media relations office calls him and accuses him of spreading propaganda. Never mind that Totten made it crystal clear the post was a joke (a reckless one, Totten realizes in hindsight). Naboulsi threatens, "We know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live."
Totten is terrified, but he refuses to be bullied. He has the guts to call Naboulsi back two days later and tell him to "shut up" and "never call or threaten" him again.
I don't know about you, but I wouldn't call a workplace bully to say that--let alone Hezbollah.
Totten's intellectual curiosity and bravery make his book different and game-changing, but the depth of his historical knowledge makes it smart. He has done his homework, and he has much to teach about the history of Lebanon and the Middle East. But he doesn't just spout off facts. No, he tells a gripping narrative and connects it to the events he witnesses. In "The Road to Fatima Gate," history is alive. History is relevant. History is now.
If you want to finally, finally, finally understand Middle East politics, read this book now. With all the recent uprisings in the region, Totten's work has never been more relevant or urgent, especially as Americans wrestle with foreign policy questions that could help set the course for the future of the region.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
It is hard to put down The Road to Fatima Gate. Totten turns arcane subject matter into flowing prose, and lets his subjects speak for themselves.
Michael Totten is not an academic, and he's not a political activist. He's a concerned American citizen who happens to be an excellent writer. This makes him a journalist, but that title doesn't fully suite him either, because it often implies reporting on deadline. His interest is not in parachuting into a foreign capital, interviewing the most important political actors and academics, writing about it, and leaving.
Totten truly wants to understand the Middle East. As is apparent in The Road to Fatima Gate, Totten arrived in the region for the first time already well versed in the academic and political theories on Lebanon, Israel, and the Middle East at large. However, those works did not describe the place Totten saw. Lebanon and Israel and the people living there were nothing like what he read in books and saw in the news. The first thing he needed to do was to reorient himself.
Totten writes that he was apprehensive on arrival in Beirut, but suddenly recognized that the images didn't match the place. A young man in a bar says to him, "You must be crazy to be here." Totten responds, ""You really think so?" I said. I didn't feel crazy to be there. That feeling passed after twenty-four hours" (7). But, of course, how could he know for sure? He didn't do what many journalists would have done: run to the politicians and the political risk consultants and the academics. He talked to the people. He went to their houses, dined with them, and drank tea. It seems his stringers were nice people he met along the way who offered to help him understand this complex place.
Totten recognizes that he could not fully understand the biases of his sources, so he talks to as many people as possible. Despite his initial bias against certain factions, like Hezbollah, Totten talks to them. What makes him different than journalists is that he is not looking to portray an overarching concept in a headline and 2,000 words, ie "Hezbollah Attacks Beirut, Settles Scores," "Does the US Need Dialogue with Hezbollah?," "Regional Instability Increases Sectarian Tension in Lebanon." He will describe those same situations and convey his positions on those matters, but only after letting the people speak for themselves.
Often times, Totten's sources hang themselves with their words and actions, like when Hezbollah's press relations manager threatens Totten and his photographer, and when Syrian Social Nationalist thugs beat Christopher Hitchens in the middle of a main thoroughfare as Totten tries to rescue him. At other moments, Totten provides a voice to political parties, like the Christian Aounists, little understood in the West (and even within Lebanon). His interviewees appear endearing, and it is left to the reader to recognize their naivete, which Totten often does not need to point out, as he does not selectively quote them and lets them speak for themselves over the course of many pages.
In this regard, he is more of an oral historian of the Middle East in the tradition of Studs Terkel than he is a journalist. Totten isn't just telling a story. He is trying to depict lives. An entire chapter is based on a long conversation at a cafe with the previously mentioned Aounists prior to a rally they held alongside Hezbollah to overthrow the government. It is a compelling read, and provides a fair assessment of these Christian men and their motivations for supporting what most Americans believe is a radical Muslim terrorist organization.
Like Terkel, Totten has his biases, which are apparent in the text, even if he is sometimes not even aware of them. Like any concerned citizen (and even oral historian) writing about a contemporary issue, Totten makes moral judgements, which will upset people who differ with his opinion. However, Totten reveals his thinking and the process through which he made his opinion. Often, the reader is left in agreement: "The spokesman hung himself with his own words," "That action was unjust," "They seem to be good people, but misguided."
My only major qualm with the work is due to something out of Totten's control: that he cannot be in two places at one time. Totten covers the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah from the Israeli side of the border. At that moment, the road he takes to Fatima Gate is from the south, and he does an excellent job conveying the physical destruction in northern Israeli and giving voice to bombarded Israelis. Not only do those chapters manifest the implications of Lebanon's unstable and violent politics on other countries, but they provide the reader insight into the minds and motivations of Israelis and how much their domestic interests are determined by foreign actors. Totten is so good at conveying the emotions and details of lives that it would have been nice to see effect of that violence on the northern side of the border.
Totten makes up for it with what I think is his best chapter - the one that reads like an action novel - on the 2008 Hezbollah invasion of Beirut.
Not only will The Road to Fatima Gate provide readers with fingerspitzengefuhl knowledge of Lebanon, but it will be a fun read, as well.