A deft personal account of a career spent reporting from the Middle East, witnessing the evaporation of peace and stability.
NBC chief foreign correspondent Engel (War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq, 2008, etc.) takes a confident, thorough approach to this fusion of memoir and journalistic narrative, beginning with evolutionary overviews of both Islam and the modern Middle East. Looking back, he concludes that his own youthful, improvisational journalistic beginnings in Egypt in 1997 coincided with the impending downfall of dictators like Saddam Hussein. “Saddam was the first of the Arab big men to go,” he writes. In cleanly structured chapters, the author explores his reporting during particular flash points, beginning with ominous early examples of fundamentalist terrorism, through the Syrian war and the spread of the Islamic State group, illustrating a harsh thesis of entropy fueled by successive American administrations: “Bush’s aggressive interventionism and Obama’s timidity and inconsistency completely destroyed the status quo.” Engel’s personalized viewpoint supports this claim, presenting a coherent episodic narrative alongside his own high-risk career. He was offered a position as Palestinian-affairs correspondent for a French press agency in time to witness the violent Second Intifada. From there, he often wound up in harm’s way, as when he found himself the last American correspondent in Baghdad at the outset of the second Iraq War, leading to employment as a foreign correspondent for ABC. The depth of Engel’s experience is clear, yet his boldness may have led to an overconfidence that contributed to his 2012 kidnapping in Syria. “Those [experiences] gave me a false sense of security, and I guess I got greedy,” he writes. “In journalism, you never want to get greedy.” Engel seems capable and likably frank, in contrast to his pessimistic conclusions: “A lot of killing remains to be done before leaders of stature emerge—and before the fires of chaos are tamped down once again.”
An intriguing journalistic memoir built around a lucid, alarming overview of where the Middle East has been and where it is heading.