Report from the Middle East

Every Man in this Village is a Liar    by Megan K. Stack

An education in war

257 pp., Doubleday 2010  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


What a rotten time to be born an Arab!

    That is the impression one gets reading about Megan Stack's encounters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Gaza, Palestine, even in rich Saudi Arabia. It is worse if you are a woman, if you try to improve the social order or oppose those who hold the guns. If you ever expected that situation to improve soon, better skip this book.

    But if you seek reality, this is the one to read. Stack gives eloquent testimony, lucidly told with passion and feeling, describing her encounters over six years as Mid-East correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. A correspondent is an emissary of the public, here reporting from dangerous places, from upheaval and war, living like a nimble pilot fish darting around the jaws of sharks without getting snapped up. She is quite skilled in that role, and a compassionate observer, because being so close to a war builds an emotional involvement with whomever one meets there.

    Thus one reads here about Adela Labban, caring for mental patients no one wants. About Heshmat battling crooked Egyptian politics, Ahmed of Baghdad who disappears after being observed meeting with the author, brave Iraqi correspondent Atwar Bahjat who gets assassinated, Hussein the survivor of a firing squad, Raheem caught between Shia and Sunni extremism in Iraq, also about his grown son who went out for ice cream at a wrong time and was shot by American soldiers. She covers Qadafi's Libya where the government tracks her every step, the Israel-Hizbollah war and its victims, and the funeral in Beirut of an assassinated prime minister.

    What is behind the region's hard luck? Not lack of intelligence or dedication, perhaps not even lack of literacy and open minds. Many Arabs possess those, though others (who may be the majority) block any attempts at an open and modern society.

    It may be, in part, because the large-scale fabric of Arab society is still stuck in the 14th century. At that time the societies of Europe and the Middle East were rather similar, but then their fates diverged. Europe had its renaissance and grew away from feudal structure and religious fervor, and through centuries of religious wars, learned to separate church and state. America learned from Europe, but no such transition has yet occurred in the Arab world.

    What makes the present situation worse is a glut of guns, many (I suspect) originally purchased by oil money but then leaked to the streets. There still exist citizens of the USA who preach unrestricted firearm ownership and minimal government, but Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and other Arab states show where this could lead to. The Middle East is long past the point where zealots can be disarmed, except maybe by a total collapse and a military takeover. The four horsemen are waiting.

    But what makes the mix of religious zealotry and firepower particularly violent and explosive is overpopulation. Not long ago Egypt's population was 12 or 15 million; today it is 90 million, while the resources of the country remain essentially the same. Most of the Middle East is poor, dry land, yet its archaic culture encourages large families, whose heads often strive to become patriarchs of their own clans. How much denser can Gaza grow? How many dead-end young men can a society endure? Social collapse cannot be far, and it may arrive rather suddenly. Or is it here already? Stack's book makes one wonder.



Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 28 August 2013