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

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Sheikh Guindi was the main religious scholar behind a wildly popular dial-a-sheikh service called The Islamic Line, and he let me spend a few hours listening in to the hundreds of calls he got each day.... The Islamic Line was designed to help negotiate the dense thicket of religious tradition in minimal time. Ninety percent of the callers were women and 30 percent of all calls were about sex....
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The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East

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Sheikh Guindi was the main religious scholar behind a wildly popular dial-a-sheikh service called The Islamic Line, and he let me spend a few hours listening in to the hundreds of calls he got each day.... The Islamic Line was designed to help negotiate the dense thicket of religious tradition in minimal time. Ninety percent of the callers were women and 30 percent of all calls were about sex....
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Editorial Reviews

Mohamad Bazzi
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…Throughout the book Mr. MacFarquhar displays an impressive grasp of history, particularly in his chapters on fatwas (religious rulings) and the concept of jihad.
—The New York Times
Wendell Steavenson
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. MacFarquhar maintains that "the constant, bloody upheaval that captures most attention has become the barrier limiting our perspective on the Middle East" and eschews the usual descriptions of violence and gore. Instead he offers a broad cultural and personal investigation into the region. 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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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.
Library Journal

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.
—Lisa Klopfer

Kirkus Reviews
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. MacFarquhar (The Sand Cafe, 2006), the Times' former Cairo bureau chief and current UN chief, grew up in Marsa Brega, Libya, where his American father worked as a chemical engineer. Largely sheltered from the repercussions of the Six-Day War in 1967 and the military coup by Muammar Al-Qadhafi in 1969, the author returned to the Middle East after college in America to find out what he missed, learning Arabic and traveling through the area as a foreign correspondent. Here MacFarquhar attempts to uncover the positive changes in Libya, still plagued by Qadhafi's "erratic, often adolescent theatrics" and without a clear notion of his succession; Lebanon, where farmers in the Bekaa valley rue the end of the civil war in 1990, which eliminated their lucrative business growing hashish and opium; Kuwait, where the author interviewed a sex therapist (" ‘A veiled woman writing about sex. Can you imagine? They love it, sweetie,' she told me, laughing"); Saudi Arabia, where fatwas, or religious edicts, are issued daily on social and political matters; and Syria, where he spoke with Mohamed Shahrour, an outspoken critic of the narrow, violence-centered interpretation of the Koran. Everywhere the author encounters the repressive tentacles of the secret police agencies, or mukhabarat, especially in Saudi Arabia, with its Wahhabi clerics, and Morocco, ruled by the whims of the king. Having to navigate among oil wealth, repression and the simmering resentment of a struggling populace continues to plague the Arab states, stifling what MacFarquharbelieves-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. Agent: David Halpern/The Robbins Office
The Barnes & Noble Review
On October 3, 1997, New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar was bicycling down Fifth Avenue and got hit by a bus. This was a bad day for MacFarquhar but, in a strange way, a lucky one for journalism. After a coma and long recovery, MacFarquhar returned to work with lingering frailty and a permanent medical excuse never to cover another war. His Sarajevo and Kabul days over, he moved to Cairo in 2001 and reported on the parts of the Middle East most underserved by foreign journalists, namely the parts that are not war zones.

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586486358
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 4/28/2009
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

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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Table of Contents

Map x-xi

1 The Beachhead 1

2 The Return 13

3 The Good Life 39

4 Satellite TV 67

5 Thanksgiving 105

6 Fatwa! 121

7 Talking About Jihad 149

8 Police States 179

9 Above The Law 203

10 Tribes 221

11 Working in Isolation 245

12 The Muslim Brotherhood 277

13 Arrested Development 309

14 Epilogue 341

Acknowledgments 361

Select Bibliography 365

Index 369

About the Author 387

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 24, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Refreshingly unique must read on the Middle East

    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!)

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  • Posted October 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Unusually readable, informative and fun book on the subject.

    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 .

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  • Posted September 11, 2009

    Lifting The Curtains

    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.

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  • Posted August 24, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent 'insider' view of the Middle East and North Africa

    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.

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  • Posted August 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A different look at the Arab World. Troubled? Yes. Hopeless? No.

    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.

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  • Posted July 29, 2009

    A refreshing perspective

    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.

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  • Posted July 13, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting read.

    I was expecting something with more insider information like "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" but I enjoyed the book.

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  • Posted June 9, 2009

    There is hope and MacFarquhar shows it here

    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.

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  • Posted June 5, 2009

    Read This Book Now

    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.

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    Posted December 5, 2010

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    Posted June 6, 2011

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