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 Café, 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 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.