“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.”
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
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 bookthe product of 20 years of reportingwith 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
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.
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
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.