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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book review: "The Road to Fatima Gate", Michael Totten

Lebanon is a very complicated place.

You literally need a scorecard to keep track of all the different groups that make up Lebanon's political scene and their shifting loyalties. The three main groups are,of course, the Christians, the Shiites and the Sunnis, but each of those groups have splinter groups that may or may not be aligned with their co-religionists at any time. There are also the Druze and smaller groups, whose very survival depends on being able to anticipate which way the wind is about to blow and jump on the side of the winning team.

Add to this that these are not just political groups but they all generally were parts of militia in the 1970s and 1980s. Sometimes they have to take out their weapons to defend their towns and villages.

And add to this the entire recent history of civil war. Plus the collective memory of being effectively controlled by Syria, by Israel or (more recently) by Iran. Not to mention the French influence on Lebanese culture and the fact that it is a favorite vacation spot for decadent, rich Saudis. More ingredients in Lebanon's ratatouille is the generally liberal and Western-style of downtown Beirut compared with the poverty of the south and the traditionalism in other areas.

The resulting dish is dizzying in its complexity.

Michael Totten, in his great book "The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel ," explains it all (or at least a lot of it) in a wonderful first-person journalistic style.

We learn about Lebanon as Totten does. We follow him as he interviews Shi'ite, Maronite and Sunni leaders and ordinary people as well. We tag along as he gets threatened by people with guns and eventually finds that he is somehow safer with armed people around.

Unlike many journalists who speak as if they are omniscient, Totten lets us see his mistakes and how he learns from them.

He takes us on his journey during the Israel/Hezbollah war of 2006 and mini-civil wars precipitated by Hezbollah in afterwards. He speaks to many people on most sides, and lets us know when he doesn't believe what they say. He and his friends get into dangerous situations that are inconceivable to Western eyes - but he knows that and explains it so the audience gets it.

Totten often uses that skill to great effect. For example, he mentions that he asks Eli Khoury, a leader of the March 14th movement, "What is the solution?" Totten then goes on to tell his readers that this is a very American question, one that he soon learned not to ask, because the Lebanese know that there isn't one. However, Americans are solution-oriented and cannot grasp that basic concept that is so integral to survival in the Middle East.

We cannot solve the problems. We can only manage them as best we can, today.

One other talent that Michael Totten has is the ability to see the entire picture and relate to it. It is easy to get lost in the minutiae, especially in Lebanon where there are so many groups competing with each other and none of them are in the majority. But Totten is always there to remind us what the real danger is. It is Iran, using Hezbollah as its proxy. All of the desire to be pacifist or pan-Lebanese is doomed as long as Hezbollah, effectively an arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, has effective veto power over the Lebanese government and controls its own state within a state. No one can confront Hezbollah militarily nor politically, and as a result Iran is extending its hegemony over the region.

Totten's journalistic style is especially appreciated in the Lebanese arena. While most other journalists will meekly follow whatever restrictions their interview subjects impose on them, Totten reports on the entire context of his interviews, letting us know that if he cannot find out a piece of information it is not because he didn't try. He also lets us know when his subjects are not being entirely truthful.

Totten was not in Lebanon for all the events he covers so he relies on his friends to fill in the personal stories. Also, he didn't talk much about the Palestinian Arab experience in Lebanon outside of broad historical strokes; there is no interview with the Arabs in refugee camps and the Nahr al-Bared fighting is glossed over as a "sideshow." While this is probably true, there are  about as many Palestinian Arabs in Lebanon as there are Druze, and demographics do matter. I would love to have seen him highlight Lebanese discrimination against them across the board as well as what they have done to help destroy Lebanon from inside.

These are minor points, though. The Road to Fatima Gate is a brilliant combination of memoir and journalism, and it is highly recommended.