Michael Totten is a friend – which makes writing reviews of his work hard. Reading this, you might wonder whether I’m writing to boost a friend…or saying what I honestly think.
I get that, and to be honest when I got my copy of his new book, ‘The Road to Fatima Gate‘, I started reading it as a friend, expecting to enjoy reading about the adventures and thoughts we’d already discussed and to be impressed most of all by what he’d done.
That lasted about ten pages.
What Michael has done is to bring his readers with him – concretely, not in abstract – as he tries to explore from the position of a non-Orientalist westerner the culture and human flavor of parts of the Middle East. And that’s an incredible gift he’s offering you.
To be blunt, I don’t trust anyone who writes about the Middle East today. There are so many partisan and cultural interests clamoring for primacy that I can’t with any confidence separate out the honest perspectives from the spin. My answer to that is to want to go and see myself, to sit in restaurants, walk streets, talk to people at random they way I typically do when I travel. Because for me those small experiences begin to aggregate into impressions that tell me something I trust.
Michael did that, and he writes about it in a way that makes me feel I’m walking at his shoulder, seeing and hearing everything he did. It’s really that good. I consider myself a pretty good writer but reading Michael makes me want to go back and redo everything I’ve ever written for the public. What he accomplishes is transparency and particularity, and most of all personalization. Michael understands that history is made of people, and that to understand history – or society – you need to understand and try and relate to the people who make it happen. Here he’s talking about Hezbollah’s press aide:
More interesting than anything Afif actually said were his facial expressions. I wished Dan had brought a video camera instead of a still camera so he could capture them.
“You must know.” I said, “that Americans are sick to death of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Is there any chance we’ll see peace in this region any time soon?”
Afif didn’t need Abdullah to translate the word “peace.” He knew what it meant in English just as almost every Westerner in the Middle east knew how to say it in Arabic. And when he heard me say “peace,” when he was relaxed and not thinking about the fact that I was carefully watching his face, he twisted his flat expression into a grimace. The moment was fleeting, and he composed himself almost instantly, but it’s impossible for even the most accomplished poker players and liars to control all involuntary facial muscles that reveal their inner thoughts and emotions.
Michael has a perspective (one that I share) – he thinks Hezbollah is bad and peace is good. But overriding that perspective in his writing is simply treating the people he meets as people first, and not as ideological avatars.
If you’re at all interested in the Middle east – and you should be – this is a great book that will help you understand the people and forces that are shaping it today.