The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday

Foreign correspondent Neil MacFarquhar serves up a memoir that is part-journalistic account, part-foreign-policy primer on the Middle East.

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In 1993, just after Israel and Palestine had agreed on a framework for a peace accord, foreign correspondent Neil MacFarquhar invited some colleagues to join him for Thanksgiving dinner in Jerusalem.

MacFarquhar had been living in the Middle East on and off since he was 3  years old, when his dad moved the family to Libya to work for an oil company, but he still held some American traditions dear. A “linebacker turkey” at Thanksgiving was one of them.

But when MacFarquhar opened his oven to put in the bird, the door came off in his hands. Desperate, MacFarquhar commandeered each of his guests’ small ovens to cook the meal. For the entire afternoon he shuttled among his British neighbors, the Arab quarter, and Jewish Jerusalem, basting the turkey in one house, checking the vegetables in another, and cooking the pie in a third.

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It was the perfect metaphor for the peace process: The dinner couldn’t have been completed without everyone’s cooperation. In the end, only one potato dish was burned – “which was more than could be said for the peace plan,” MacFarquhar notes.

These anecdotes – personal, wry, apt, and insightful – are the special sauce in MacFarquar’s part-memoir, part-journalistic account, part-foreign-policy primer. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East shows recent history through the eyes of a 6-foot, 3-inch blond Arabic-speaking American, who wrote first for the Associated Press and then as the Cairo bureau chief of The New York Times. It aims – and succeeds – to  animate the news with characters and compassion.

What it lacks is a narrative arc, keeping the reader turning the pages for the sake of a story. Instead, MacFarquhar writes like an entertaining, exceptionally well-informed host. For the first half of the book he discourses on everything from a Kuwaiti sex columnist to the female Frank Sinatra of Lebanon to a Saudi Arabian chef trying to spice up traditional Ramadan meals.

The characters represent what MacFarquhar identifies as a central tension in the Middle East: the desire to try new things and anxiety about too much Western influence. In a chapter on clerical edicts, MacFarquhar writes, “Religious authorities feared that it would start with red lipstick and dogs and end with tossing Islam aside.”

In the second half of the book, MacFarquhar appears to retire to the den for more disciplined and sober conversation. Focusing on one country at a time, MacFarquhar describes some of the obstacles reformers face: the secret police keep citizens in line and dissent in check, leaders consolidate power and hold themselves exempt from the law; women have little freedom and less voice, the conservative Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt increasingly wields power.

MacFarquhar doesn’t want to encourage Westerners’ stereotypes, and he’s careful to show how activists are resisting these pressures. Things are changing in the Middle East, he insists. However, he also points out that “change” doesn’t always mean movement toward more open, pluralistic, United States-style democratic societies.

Indeed, the US is ultimately the target of MacFarquhar’s musings. He reports that in the Middle East, US policy is perceived as inconsistent at best; at worst, disingenuous. The US may claim to be motivated by human rights, but many of MacFarquhar’s sources suggest that its intervention is done in the service of American business or Israel.

The author’s sympathies lie with those frustrated that the US seems to use itself as a yardstick for democracy or social values. “Let the people struggle inside to find the nature of their own political system,” one Syrian dissident said.

MacFarquhar does his professional best to communicate dispassionately, but ultimately the impression he leaves is one of a man in pain. Shortly after he returned from the Middle East, he was hit by a bus in Manhattan and spent much of the next year recovering. Temporarily hobbled, he watches helplessly as two parts of the world he knows and cares about deeply eye each other with increasing hostility and suspicion.

MacFarquhar implores American policymakers and the public to support Middle Eastern reformers working for change within the context of their own countries’ cultures and values. He recommends encouraging civil rights – free speech, free press, and freedom of assembly – and advocates finding common ground in basic needs and wants: food, health, education, safety.

Finally, he recalls us to our shared humanity, quoting Robert Kennedy’s injunction to “recognize the full human equality of all our people.”

While MacFarquhar’s prescriptions come with unique authority, one has the sense they developed as much out of reason as heartbreak. In a casual but poignant aside, he surmises that after the events of the last decade, the friends who attended his collaborative Thanksgiving dinner would no longer care to sit down at table and share a meal together.

Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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