According to foreign correspondent Neil MacFarquhar, Americans do not understand the Arab countries of the Middle East. We are baffled by government and rebel leaders who can at one moment offer you tea or send you a birthday greeting and in the next moment blow you up. In The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday, MacFarquhar recounts his career chasing stories for the Associated Press and New York Times in a dangerous region.
As you can guess from the title, MacFarquhar has a sense of humor, as do many of the subjects he interviews in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries where religious moderates and extremists are struggling for control of power. He attempts to insert humanizing details into his accounts of war and crisis. In his chapters on "fatwas" and "jihads" particularly he tries to defuse the terms so Westerners can understand them. He does not, however, neglect to show how violent and corrupt some individuals, groups and governments can be.
MacFarquhar was introduced to the region early in life. His family lived in an American oil company compound on the Mediterranean coast in Libya in the 1960s. His account of growing up isolated in a foreign country rings a bell for me. When I was a boy growing up in Texas in the 1960s, I knew another boy whose family moved to Libya for a couple of years and then back to my home town. It was hot and dry in Libya, they stayed at the oil camp, and they never met the Arabs. In a sense, they never left Texas. MacFarquhar's family stayed long enough to witness the coup that brought Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi to power. His account of that time is my favorite part of this book.
MacFarquhar notices everything about the Muslim world. He also notices the visitors and points out that most Western and Asian countries send to Arab countries diplomats that speak Arabic while the United States tends to send politicians who rely on interpreters. And we wonder why we have so many problems.
The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday is serious reading tempered with humor to be read only a chapter at a time. Give yourself several weeks to finish.
MacFarquhar, Neil. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday. Public Affairs, 2009. ISBN 9781586486358