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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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.
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.”