Channel Surfing in Riyadh

The combustible politics and morphing media of the Middle East

The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East

By Neil MacFarquhar | PublicAffairs | 359 pages, $26.95

Whatever else you can say about Neil MacFarquhar’s new geopolitical travelogue about his years in the Middle East, you have to give the book its due for what might be the best title in recent memory.

This semi-comical mouthful comes from an e-mail that the crack Hizbollah media shop sends to reporters on their birthday, and MacFarquhar uses it as a jumping-off point for his at times depressing exploration of the myriad ways in which politics and religion define all aspects of life throughout the region. Sprinkle into the pot a variety of longstanding grievances against the West (particularly Israel and the United States), and the end result is a dangerous, contradictory brew of inferiority and xenophobia. This is the world that MacFarquhar, who served as Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times from 2001 to 2006, tries in his own quiet way to untangle.

The Middle East that MacFarquhar sketches in the book is in the midst of a grudging, sometimes painful transition—the latest in a chain of fitful eruptions that have repeatedly shifted the balance of power in the region. There were the early, freewheeling decades of the last century; the secular pan-Arabism of the 1960s; the decadent oil-boom years; and the moral rot of nepotistic police states that have simultaneously nurtured and suppressed a variety of Islamist movements. At the moment, the Middle East appears to mingle all these ingredients in a combustible mix.

As an Arabic speaker, MacFarquhar’s greatest strength is his ability to consume the local media, and he mines that vibrant, varied, and contentious landscape to powerful effect. Television is a powerful cultural force in Middle Eastern societies (as it is almost everywhere else), and we learn that yes, there are some rather subversive sitcoms on Saudi TV, and that one of the most popular shows from the Levant to Africa is a modern Lebanese cooking show. Also, people across the region are obsessed with talk shows (including Oprah), which differ from their Western equivalents in one key sense: they sometimes issue fatwas on call-in shows.

Not surprisingly, MacFarquhar dwells on the phenomenon of Al-Jazeera. The cable channel’s most important accomplishment, in his view, has been “creating a competitive news industry where none existed.” Thanks to the success of Al-Jazeera, government-controlled news stations have been forced to loosen up their coverage in an attempt to win back viewers. This in turn “initiated a spillover effect in prompting newspapers and other publications to cover a far wider range of topics and issues like corruption and labor strikes.” This doesn’t mean that the press has become free, in any generally accepted Western sense of the word. But it is an unquiet revolution nonetheless, prompting debate and a deep cultural self-evaluation across the region.

The author doesn’t fault Washington for its stress on human rights, however intermittently, cosmetically, and even cynically it has pushed for them in the Arab world. The big mistake, he argues, is the way it has done so. Calling for free elections and sweeping democratic reforms before the requisite institutions and societal foundations are in place has done little more than stir anti-American resentment. If a greater emphasis were placed on situating human rights and electoral reform within the context of justice and respect—which are major tenets of Islam—these ideas would carry greater weight both on the street, and in the palaces and walled-off ministries.

While making these broader policy arguments, MacFarquhar never loses sight of the fact that he is, in the end, a newspaper reporter. He repeatedly dwells on the ad hoc methods one is forced to employ when reporting in such a frustrating, heavily censored environment. (As MacFarquhar notes in his typically deadpan prose, “being arrested put a rather significant damper on reporting a story.”) When a photographer he was working with was arrested—a not uncommon occurrence—the best response was usually “a question of timing.” Before rushing forward to intervene, which would only land them both in jail, MacFarquhar would “call some senior official first, hoping the photographer would not be whisked away instantly. Then at least someone would know we were in custody and could hopefully gain our release.”

Working within a system that imposes rather arbitrary limits on speech, and where official explanations and opinions can shift with the desert sands, it’s often hard for the author to know exactly which bits of information can be published. Nor can he forget that his visa status hangs on the whims of security organizations and bureaucrats looking out for their own interests (and for bribes). He is detained briefly in several countries, beaten by a mob in Saudi Arabia, and nearly kidnapped. His photographers and drivers are hauled in for questioning and expelled. Yet MacFarquhar keeps asking questions, even if the answers aren’t always what we might want to hear.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.