By Neil MacFarquhar. Public Affairs, $26.95
Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York
Neil MacFarquhar (The Sand Café) offers an impressionistic brief of his time in the Middle East—first as the child of engineers based in Libya and later as the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times. He spotlights ordinary individuals—a Kuwaiti sex therapist, a Lebanese chef, the writers of a sly Saudi sitcom that pokes fun at patriarchal rules, and a host of journalists and professors—bent on extraordinary creative resistance to domestic repression and foreign interference, juxtaposing their efforts with an efficient summary of American blunders in the Mideast. MacFarquhar’s criticisms are reasonable and rooted in his frustration with the U.S.’s poor management of its image: how it contributed to Hizbollah’s rapid ascent, and how certain types of aid are designed to divert money back to American corporations and give rise to a nasty sibling rivalry among recipient nations. For all his immersion, MacFarquhar, thankfully, never goes native; his search for the pulse of the Middle East vies with his quest for “an excellent adventure,” and he delights in eccentricity—Gadhafi’s bevy of all-female bodyguards, for example, or an Egyptian help line that explains the finer points of recent fatwas.
Though evocative, MacFarquhar’s dispatches are sometimes frustratingly scattershot. Still, his travelogue successfully derides decades of U.S. policy that—in the admission of no less than Condoleezza Rice—has pursued “stability at the expense of democracy in this region…and achieved neither.” MacFarquhar’s parting prescriptions call for the U.S. to revitalize civil society in the Middle East. Reformers would do well to seek help from the individuals profiled in this book. Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York