Above and beyond the 24-hour news chatter, opaque academic papers, and truncated press reports, stands Megan K. Stack’s glittering Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War. Stack’s beautiful, searing storytelling propels the reader into a head-on collision with the Arab and Afghan experience in the age of the war on terror. By peering deeply into the lives of the Middle Easterners caught between despotic rulers, the dream of freedom, and American foreign policy, Stack illuminates the political and psychological undercurrents of the broader Middle East – and in doing so, asks Americans to look more deeply into themselves and their own country’s actions for a similar examination.
“Every Man” follows Stack – a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who was plunged into the American invasion of Afghanistan – across the roiling Middle East between Sept. 11, 2001, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. In between, she’s an observer of many of the region’s most significant events: the opening of the American invasion of Iraq and its subsequent descent into civil war, the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and the subsequent Cedar Revolution, and Egypt’s farcical elections.
That’s in addition to surviving the advances of a lecherous Afghan warlord, taking a quick trip through the insanity of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, having a soulful interaction with a young Iraqi bent on better things, and experiencing a slice of life in Saudi Arabia that offers insights into both the American-Saudi relationship and the callous treatment of women in Saudi society.
The thread that unites Stack’s energetic prose and compelling, circumspect analysis is an ability to embrace complexity, to understand that what is contradictory is not necessarily the enemy of the truth. In Afghanistan, Stack understands both the world’s inability to get at the truth – who really knows what sort of deals are being struck deep in the mountains of western Afghanistan? – and the fact that the apparently conflicting accounts that do emerge may actually represent truth. Afghan warlords, in this case, may be robbing weapons from the United States even while hunting down Osama bin Laden. In Israel, the glorious openness of spirit, intellect, and culture in Tel Aviv coexist with the “filthy” occupation of the Palestinian people. In war,, “you can survive and not survive, both at the same time.”
Stack’s willlingness to embrace complexity, however, does not mean that she is not capable of piercing critique. She writes with a pitch-perfect moral outrage – yet manages to avoid either preaching or equivocating. She has no use for the paper-thin propaganda spewed by government press offices in support of dictators. In one particularly pointed deconstruction, her levelheaded probing of the Lebanese Cedar Revolution allows her to dig deeper intellectually and in so doing to uncover new social truths.
What stands out most in this book, however, are Stack’s relationships with a series of individuals somewhat cynically known in the news business as “Real People,” the ordinary Middle Easterners who live through the nightmares that most Americans only read about. Like Anthony Shadid’s masterly “Night Draws Near,” Stack’s writing makes clear how difficult it is to talk or think about nation building without understanding the perspectives of Shiite Lebanese or Iraqis.
Stack also offers insights into the image of America in the eyes of the Middle East. After the release of the photos documenting horrific abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Stack’s Jordanian translator, Nora, is distraught and Stack can’t understand why. “Did you really believe in us?” Stack thinks as Nora sits in utter disbelief at the American abuses. “Did you think we came to Iraq to fight a noble war, did you honestly think that? Don’t you see what we have done?” Nora responds simply: “But Megan, people believe in the Americans.”
Perhaps the book’s most elegant passage is one where Stack – without condescension or simplification – brings the reader eye to eye with the Arab world’s profound sense of shame and dispossession. As Stack discusses the torture and rampant, vicious (and often deadly) backbiting of the Saddam Hussein regime with an Iraqi from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, the man’s hands tremble and his silence deepens before he allows, “Really, it is a shame upon us that we have such things.”
Stack writes: “A shame upon us. I shivered in the heat. Yes, that was it, somebody had finally said it out loud. These people were embarrassed about what they had endured, about the parts they had been forced to play – victims or tormentors, it was all unendurably shameful.”
And so, Stack observes: “They had sunk deeper and deeper into collective guilt until the moment of their final humiliation: they had been invaded by the Americans.”