The New York Times
The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle Eastby Neil MacFarquhar
Since his boyhood in Qadhafi ’s Libya, and later as a reporter for more than thirteen years in cities stretching from Tehran to Marrakesh, Neil MacFarquhar has developed a counterintuitive sense that the Middle East, despite all the bloodshed in its contemporary history, is a place of warmth, humanity, and generous eccentricity. In The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday MacFarquhar shares a lesser known side of the region, the story he always wanted to file. MacFarquhar shows the daily lives and attitudes of people frequently obscured behind the curtain of violence: the stories of chefs and sex therapists, bloggers and academics struggling to reform on their own terms.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
While a glut of recent books on the Middle East have addressed Western perspectives on the region, this excellent book emphasizes questions Arabs ask themselves. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iranian revolution serve as backdrops, but veteran Mideast correspondent MacFarquhar (The Sand Café) focuses primarily on Arab nations and a grab bag of Saudi teachers, Moroccan dissidents broken by their years in prison, individuals searching for political freedom and Muslims struggling to sustain their faith in the face of violence from within and without. MacFarquhar's approach is well-rounded; he includes less palatable facts ("those who argue that the word [jihad] contains no implication of violence are glossing over the fact that for some zealots, jihad means only one thing") and facts often overlooked (when most Arabs "talk about reform, they usually mean curbing rampant corruption"). If America is to overcome Arabs' deep distrust, MacFarquhar suggests, it must abandon policies "too often based on expediency" and listen, not to its own domestic politics but "to the concerns of the people in [Arabs'] own countries." (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A mixture of travel tale and current events reporting, this book delivers more significant insights into the Arab world than the lighthearted title might suggest. Growing up in an American compound in Libya and then returning to the Middle East as a reporter for the New York Times, MacFarquhar is more qualified than most Americans to write about the street-level Arab point of view. Anecdotes range from the silly to the chilling and are sometimes both, as when he describes a children's history book that includes a pop-up figure of an Israeli soldier bloodily stabbed to death. MacFarquhar does not offer the profusion of flavors and colors expected in a travel narrative or delve very deeply into the characters of the people he describes, yet he manages to paint a convincing picture of the variety of perspectives existing in the Middle East, from the rigidly Islamist to the passionately dissident. MacFarquhar also offers his own reasoned judgments on the success of U.S. policies in this part of the world. Recommended for informed readers and scholars.
War zones are in some ways all alike, but countries that simmer in relative peace all simmer in their own ways. Show me a book about Arabia that doesn't feature a casting call of masked gunmen and earnest-but-ignorant American soldiers, and I will show you a book worth reading. MacFarquhar's new book makes stops in war zones (Baghdad, Beirut), but it glances at these stock figures of Middle East reportage only obliquely. Instead it concentrates on the simmering. In a geographically wide-ranging series of portraits, it depicts a region more complicated and more interesting than coverage of its signature conflicts suggests.
MacFarquhar's title, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday, refers to a cordial August 2003 email from Haidar Dikmak, a flack for the militant Shiite political party in Lebanon. The book sustains the ironic, half-menacing tone of the title, and in its progress from one country to the next, it focuses on issues and personalities of interest to Arabs themselves, rather than the issues of narrow interest to the United States. As one government official notes explicitly, foreign reporters tend to arrive and raid the country for Hizbollah stories.
But to MacFarquhar and to nearly all Arabs, Lebanon is a country best known not for war but for entertainment and glamour -- a sort of semi-debauched Middle Eastern Hollywood. (The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, whose music videos and singing temptresses entertain patrons in crowded lunch spots all over the Middle East, is known as Lubnaniyaat Bidun Culottes, or Lebanese Girls Without Underwear.) Fairouz, the beloved Lebanese hit singer, often goes unmentioned in books like this, an omission that would perhaps be comparable to a book about modern Iceland that never mentioned Bj?rk. MacFarquhar awards Fairouz several pages that explain her fans' ardor in illuminating detail.
In his visit to the Bekaa Valley, he bypasses the usual Hizbollah officials to meet Shiite dairymen whom the U.S. and Lebanese governments had forced to give up a lucrative hashish business and replace it with cows. Cows don't take especially well to the Bekaa, but at one point hash grew so readily, and earned so much cash, that even Bekaa farmers wore Armani. Again, MacFarqhar's method is oblique and powerful: the farmers' annoyance illustrates one of Hizbollah's enduring selling points, which is that it encourages Shiite Lebanese to forswear the help of outsiders and to keep dealings within their own community. This insistence on dogmatic self-sufficiency (which MacFarquhar points out is contradicted by their reliance on Iran) casts Hizbollah more in the model of North Korea or Albania, a comparison considerably more interesting than the usual bickering over whether Hizbollah is a terrorist organization.
The book's strongest moments are in countries even less saturated with coverage than rural Lebanon. MacFarquhar visits Bahrain to meet a Web dissident, and Yemen to meet a mad German who operates a commercial brewery in Aden despite being besieged by Islamists. The early chapters recount a boyhood on the Libyan coast, where the author grew up in an oilman's family, and where he returned only decades later, to cover Muammar al-Qadhafi. The years before Qadhafi have an appealingly foreign air, a sort of view-across-the-fence analogue to Abdurrahman Munif's wonderful stories of American oil exploration through Bedouin eyes in Cities of Salt. When MacFarquhar returns, Qadhafi has thoroughly remade the country, sometimes for the worse but always for the weird. Camouflaged female commandos guard the Libyan leader everywhere he goes, and he lectures reporters in elaborate purple gowns. Taking a page from Sapurmurat Niyazov, the Turkmen dictator who named one month after his own mother, Qadhafi renames February "Light" and August "Hannibal."
The last third of the book is less engaging, attempting to explain the "changing Middle East" through a more disciplined tour of disordered states. Each state is an instance of one of several common afflictions in Arab societies -- for example, secret police, breakdown of law and order, and tribalism. Though each of these later chapters contains its gems, they lack the unpredictable pleasures of the rest of the book, and they lead to an epilogue in which MacFarquhar packages a few relatively banal directives for American foreign policy ("address the concerns of the people in their countries at their level"). Perhaps he was preparing for the inescapable and heartbreaking banality of his current Times beat covering the United Nations. In any case, readers will almost certainly forget these directives, because they are neither bold nor new, even if they are sensible, and they conspicuously lack the vigor that MacFarquhar's excellent ground reporting surfaced in previous sections. In a way, the modesty of these prescriptions befits a reporter who has spent years in the region, and who is aware of the manifold shortcomings of nearly any possible American policy. Keeping American public diplomacy simple and promoting democracy with extreme caution are some of the few suggestions one can confidently give policymakers.
Most of all, though, MacFarquhar's achievement is to portray a region in full, and to give the accurate impression that there are many more stories left untold than told. He speaks Arabic, and at one point mentions that one of his favorite Arabic words is tabaruj, a multivalent noun that means "displaying one's charms" (and, when applied to women, connotes feminine guile and hussydom). MacFarquhar's is one of the few books that really illustrate the charms of the Middle East and gives a sense of containing not just multitudes of masked gunmen and fanatics but multitudes tout court. In a region where clichés grow even more readily than hash, this book is no minor achievement. --Graeme Wood
Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic. His articles and reviews have appeared in many publications including The New Yorker, Good magazine, and The American.
“A sly, knowledgeable look at the changes in Arab mores and politics since the 1970s, from a New York Times journalist with extensive experience in the region…. Having to navigate among oil wealth, repression and the simmering resentment of a struggling populace continues to plague the Arab states, stifling what MacFarquhar believes—and convincingly argues—they urgently need: new ideas, technology and innovation. A humane, well-reasoned investigation of the Arab countries of the Middle East and the tremendous vitality of their inhabitants.”
Booklist, review 4/15
“The openness and immediacy of his on-site reporting reveals the diversity in country and culture as he explores current Arab attitudes toward the U.S., the oppression of women, the power of the Internet and satellite TV, the stifling control of the secret police, and much more. The professor forbidden to pluck her eyebrows sums it up: ‘They focus on the trivial . . . so we don’t worry about the big things.’ Those big things will grab American readers, from religion’s blocking of science to U.S. expediency in backing the powerful and, always, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Publishers Weekly, STARRED review
“While a glut of recent books on the Middle East have addressed Western perspectives on the region, this excellent book emphasizes questions Arabs ask themselves.”
“This survey of the modern Middle East is concerned with more than just the typical tales of conflict, death and revenge so often peddled by foreign correspondents. With both an insider’s affection and an outsider’s perspective, [MacFarquhar] paints a richer, more subtle portrait of the region through miniprofiles of the people, groups and agencies (big and small) that influence daily Arab life—Hizbollah, al-Jazeera, Saudi clerics and an influential Lebanese cleric, among others. As a result, stories of the hateful misogynist policies of the Saudi religious establishment and the dark deeds of the Jordanian secret police are more than balanced out by those of brave, modern reformers. By the book’s end, MacFarquhar’s hope for the region’s future has become contagious.”
Dallas Morning News
“His book’s title reflects Mr. MacFarquhar’s appreciation of the quirks of Middle Eastern life, but he provides insightful reporting and commentary about countries and people who consistently confound American policymakers…. MacFarquhar keeps his touch light as he examines serious issues, but he is a knowledgeable and wise observer. For anyone wanting a thoughtful and penetrating appraisal of the Arab world today, this is an exceptionally valuable book.”
Time Out New York
“Reformers would do well to seek help from the individuals profiled in this book."
“Filled with first-rate analysis, leavened by plenty of local color.”
Wendell Steavenson ,Washington Post
“Neil MacFarquhar is that rare and wonderful thing, a Middle East correspondent who not only speaks Arabic but also grew up in the region. This experience infuses his book -- the product of 20 years of reporting -- with the wit, insight and eye-rolling exasperation of a near-native…. The result is an intelligent and fascinating romp full of anecdotes, acid asides and conversations with everyone from dissidents to diplomats and liberal religious sheikhs, and even a Kuwaiti woman with a sex-advice column…. It's a testament to MacFarquhar's deep background knowledge and the lightness of his touch that complex issues … are distilled into clear exposition without ever being oversimplified or dumbed down. But MacFarquhar has written much more than just a very good primer to the region. His real achievement is to give the reader a window into the private debates among the intelligentsia and political classes of the Middle East…. MacFarquhar, now the United Nations bureau chief at the New York Times, is a fun guide.
San Jose Mercury News
“A revealing and at times moving account of a region alternately deified and demonized in the United States…. In his deft storytelling, it's the humanity and generosity of the author's subjects that shine through…. MacFarquhar makes an excellent guide to the eclectic mix of peoples often lumped together as ‘Arab.’… Readers looking for a nuanced, sophisticated understanding of the region's complexities and contradictions will find MacFarquhar's book well worth their time.”
Christian Science Monitor
“[MacFarquhar’s] anecdotes – personal, wry, apt, and insightful – are the special sauce in his part-memoir, part-journalistic account, part-foreign-policy primer. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday shows recent history through the eyes of a 6-foot, 3-inch blond Arabic-speaking American, who wrote first for the Associated Press and then as the Cairo bureau chief of The New York Times. It aims – and succeeds – to animate the news with characters and compassion.”
Elaine Margolin, The Forward
“Unusually compelling…. Neil MacFarquhar is a gifted writer and a natural storyteller and has used his unprecedented access to illustrate for us a vivid rendering of the Middle East in all its complexity, congestion and paranoia.”
New York Times
“Mr. MacFarquhar’s sly, vivid memoir, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday, is full of anecdotes backed up by perceptive analysis… Unlike many correspondents Mr. MacFarquhar speaks Arabic and shows an appreciation for the language, its poetry and political rhetoric. He uses compelling characters effectively to illustrate larger themes and forces at play in the region… Few in the West pay attention to these arguments within Islam — or to the daily tribulations of homegrown reformers — and that is the ultimate strength of this book. Mr. MacFarquhar has provided a sobering and heartbreaking record of these quiet struggles.”
New York Times Book Review
“In this engaging and fact-filled reporter’s memoir, Neil MacFarquhar successfully walks a fine line. He offers something fresh and unexpected for readers steeped in a decade of news reports about suicide bombers, absolutist imams and tyrannical despots. Yet he never forgets that most of those readers care about the subject only because they have already decided, perhaps simplistically, that they are under threat from the Arab or Muslim world. He nods to the prejudices about Middle Eastern fanatics and then sets off merrily to dispel them…. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday is MacFarquhar’s effort to write a funny (yet penetrating) account about real Arabs—and a few Persians—struggling against long odds to bring their societies into the modern ages…. For those who care about the Middle East and want to start listening to weak but growing voices calling for reform and modernization on local rather than Western terms, MacFarquhar’s account is a fine place to begin.”
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Meet the Author
Neil MacFarquhar served as New York Times Cairo bureau chief from 2001 through 2005. An Arabic speaker, he grew up in Libya and covered the region for the AP, including stints in Israel and Kuwait. He is the author of a novel, The Sand Café.
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MacFarquhar's book manages to both educate and entertain, and is a must read for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of the Middle East. For those readers who have not yet explored the Middle East, the author's personal anecdotes provide an excellent and easy to understand overview of the wonderfully complex, contradictory, and often exasperating politics and personalities in the region. Readers who have traveled extensively in the Middle East will appreciate the author's deep knowledge and understanding of the region, and will likely be a bit envious of his access to such colorful characters. Whether you are an armchair traveler or have first-hand experience in the Middle East, you will certainly leave with an even deeper understanding of a region that is all too often presented as a black and white issue in Western media. (The chapter on Fatwas was probably my favorite - I have spent many a day hanging out with locals in various M.E. countries, and I cannot believe I have yet to have a conversation about this with anyone!)
What's this book? Imagine you have an uncle or a brother who lived , worked and travelled in the Arab world for years and just came home. You invite him over and your family wants to hear his stories. Well, the author would be the best of such uncles. He deeply knows the region, but this is not what he knows, but how he tells it. The chapters of the book are based on the everyday impressions and encounters. It is not a research, not a thesis to prove some theory or another, and not a lecture on Middle East's history, politics, religion, peoples, culture etc - and yet at the same time the book teaches you more about all of the above then dozens of pundits . I closely followed the news of M.E. for many years, and discovered in it huge layers of most obvious knowledge I had no idea about. I grade the books as Buy and Keep (BK), Read Library book and Return ( RLR) and Once I Put it Down I Couldn't Pick it Up ( OIPD-ICPU). This one is definitely BK .
Let's face it: most Americans know almost nothing about the Arab World. Now, here is a great chance to learn! Clearly determined to present a comprehensive picture of the region in the past 40 years leading up to its challenges today, MacFarquhar goes behind the curtains and gives readers a dual lesson of history and politics, country by country. The book is an enlightening and profound journey of the soul, combined with a factual read, full of information on the region's real players, and real people, that won't be found in the American news media. At the same time, the book is very affirming and full of passion the author feels for the region. After all, MacFarquhar's experiences are first hand. It is a must read for anybody who wants to learn about the world we live in.
An interesting and insightful view of the region from an American who grew up there. McFarquhar's ability and willingness to speak to high ranking government officials and the leaders of the various opposition groups makes for an extremely broad yet in-depth examination of the problems facing one of the most complex and volatile areas of the world. A great read.
Heading to the Middle East? Taking a job there? Just interested in understanding more about the Arab world? If so, you should read this book. This is not a heavy, abstract academic piece written from afar. Instead, the author takes a thoughtful look at several countries and examines the cultural, political and religious influences that shape the everyday. The reader gets a more nuanced sense of why some of these countries are troubled and just what some of the forces are that are boiling away under the surface. Fatwas are de-mystified (who knew they are not all bad?) and the role of clerics is explained more fully. Why new education initiatives in Saudi Arabia (and they have the money to do it) are seen as a promising solution to some of its problems. The writer talks about brave individuals in several countries - many that are devout Muslims - who have stood against the more xenophobic strains of Islam or the stranglehold of uninclusive, untransparent government. What emerges is a running commentary on the internal tug-of-war going on in much of Middle East - in government and in religion. I particularly appreciated the feeling that I was starting to see faces and personalities of the Middle East, rather than just the typical headlines. Well written and easy to understand, the author includes his insights and much of his experience from his career there on the ground, inspired from a childhood spent in Libya. If you have an interest in this part of the world and its people, this book has some very current perspectives. Thoroughly worth your time and money.
Neil Mac Farquhar has accomplished a great deal with this book by providing a fresh perspective on the Middle East, its peoples and their governments. Having grown up in Libya as a child of an ex-pat Neil learned Arabic and has a deep understanding and appreciation of the culture as well as what's implied when a colloquial expression is used. Being an Arab American myself, I found Neil translations quite accurate. His ability to point out how little we understand about the Arabs as people and how they differ from their governments is spot on. In many parts of his book, I laughed out laud in reading how bizarre are some of the idiotic ideas sold to the people. I have learned a great deal from his book about the Middle East, particularly about Egypt, Morocco and Libya. The level of sophistication used by Hizboallah in counteracting the US efforts is under appreciated by our government, as evident by the missed opportunities with Al-Jazeera TV and how the U.S. countered by launching Al-Hurra; which few pay any attention to. Clearly we've missed the mark. Neil points out how and where simply, effectively and clearly. You need to explore it for yourself and arrive at your own conclusion. I might suggest a different order to reading this book. Start with the first chapter, then proceed to the epilogue, then return and read the rest of the book in order. By the time you get to the epilogue again you would have had a deeper understanding of the three points Neil makes. How we, the U.S., can and should better deal with the Middle East. How our policies too often focus on expediency and short term goals, rather than lead to a long term solution, namely education, economic opportunities and consistency of message, i.e. we need to walk the talk not just talk the talk.
I was expecting something with more insider information like "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" but I enjoyed the book.
The author does a great job in covering the intricacies and prevailing outlook of the current Middle East, and offers some rather simple solutions for those within the region and outside of it to understand and appreciate what really is taking place within the civil societies of many of the countries within the region that will provide hope, stability and mutual respect. This book is unique in its coverage of the Middle East region in that it does not focus purely on a couple of countries within it and suggest that what is going on within these select countries is what is going on throughout the region. This book also is not shy about detailing the civil abuses that some of our friends in the region display on their own citizens in the name of preserving national security. The bottom line is that MacFarquhar is able to show that there is hope seeping througout this region and what better time than now to take advantage and address the change and civil rights that every person in this unique region deserves.
Neil MacFarquhar has done something very rare here: he has given us a fresh view on the Middle East that is at once entertaining, based on long personal experience AND well-researched. That a book with "Hizbollah" in the title can make you laugh is an achievement in itself--but this book will make you reassess your views on what is going on in this key part of the world without making you feel that you are being beaten up or forced to take "sides" in a war that never ends. Rather, your eyes will be opened as to how the world is viewed from the Middle East. The excellent reviews the book has received will tell you about the wonderful character sketches he draws from across the region. What I can tell you is that this is the book I am buying to give to my friends. After Obama's speech in Cairo, reading this book is a must...and a treat.