London, Asharq Al-Awsat- In this interview, Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to journalist and author, Neil MacFarquhar, who currently serves as the UN Bureau Chief for the New York Times. He is the author of two books, ‘The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East’ and ‘The Sand Café’. MacFarquhar speaks Arabic fluently and lived in Libya as a child.
Q) You used to be Chief of the New York Times Bureau in Cairo. What was the best story you published from Cairo and what is your impression of the Egyptians?
A) The best part of Egypt is its people, and my fondest memories of that country which I will carry with me forever are the friends that I made there, particularly the smart, funny, hard-working Egyptian reporters who worked with me. My best stories were the ones that concentrated on the men and women who are struggling to make Egypt a freer, more open, tolerant, and developed society. I tried to capture some of their spirit in my book, too.
Q) What has been the best story that you have published so far? What have been the best stories that you published from Egypt or Saudi Arabia?
A) The best stories I published were the ones that form the core of my book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East. I spent about a month each in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria and Saudi Arabia and focused on one or two men or women trying to bring about political or social change. Meeting them made me optimistic about the future of the Middle East in a way that the violence I so often had to write about did not. Of course there are other stories that are just fun, like the story of the bee that flew into the white sauce that Chef Ramzi was cooking one day (you’ll have to read the book).
Q) You covered the Gulf War in 1990. What do you remember about that?
A) Covering the war itself was often a frustrating experience because the press corps spent so much time in a hotel in Dhahran waiting for it to actually begin. (I wrote a novel about that called The Sand Café which was published three years ago.) The best part of it was that I got to live in Saudi Arabia for nine months, and got to know the country and its people far better than I normally could have on the quick visits journalists normally make.
Q) What is your impression of Arab politics in comparison to politics in the West?
A) There are all kinds of people in the Arab world who feel that their region is out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to basic civic, human and political rights. When they look at the history of the region, with its rich history of scientific and artistic achievement, they wonder what went wrong. Where are the Arab Microsofts? Where are the Arab Apple computers? I think the young people understand that they need some basic freedoms and opportunities to advance, and it is sad that the young generation of new leaders appear more interested in just grabbing onto power and clinging to it like their fathers rather than improving the lives and educations of the young. One entire chapter, Arrested Development, talks about this phenomenon.
Q) What do you believe is the legacy that George W. Bush left behind in the Middle East? How will President Obama handle this issue?
A) I think President Bush made a lot of promises about helping bring change to the Middle East that he did not keep. The policy of pushing democracy was something closer to “We like democracy when our friends win.” I think it would have been better to push for some of the basic rights in civil society – a free press, the right to assembly, freedom of speech. Plus he should have tried to identify common values and common vocabulary, like the need for justice which is emphasized in the Quran. Arabs certainly need greater political development, but they need to find their own path in doing it. Hopefully President Obama can encourage them along the path without telling them how they should walk.
Q) What are your hopes for solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue?
A) I avoided writing about the conflict too much in my book because I think there is so much more to the Middle East than that problem, although it is obviously important. I was a correspondent based in Jerusalem for two years starting in 1993, when the first Oslo peace process was launched. There was great optimism among the Palestinian people that they would get the Israeli army out of their lives, and among the Israelis that they could mingle a little with their neighbors. In other words, people on both sides wanted something concrete and tangible out of the peace process, but it was hijacked by extremists. The politicians did not do much better. I hope that sentiment still exists on both sides, and political leaders can come along who can shape it and get the public what they really want – lives with dignity and with better hope for their children.
Q) The Hezbollah cell discovered recently in Egypt caused a lot of controversy amongst the Egyptian public. As you have experience of both Egypt and Hezbollah, what is your view of this?
A) I have not been in the region lately and not followed that particular fight in close detail. But my main hope is the struggle for the future of the Middle East, the people who believe in freedom and justice and tolerance win.
Q) You speak Arabic fluently and you spent around 25 years of your life in the Middle East. Do you feel close to the Arab people?
A) The one thing I miss the most about no longer living in the region is the warm hospitality I experienced in every country. It is sometimes lonely being a reporter, moving from one hotel to the next and my Arab friends were always ready to whisk me off to dinner or on an adventure. I saw so much of the Middle East that way; Egypt’s White Desert, Jordan’s Wadi Rum, Palmyra in Syria, the Red Sea coast around Jeddah…I could go on and on. In fact one of the main reasons I wrote my book was to emphasize that the Middle East that I lived in was so much different from the violent one of its outside image.
Q) What is your view of Thomas Friedman’s work?
A) It is not my place to comment on the work of a writer who works for the same newspaper as me.
Q) On your personal website there is a gallery of pictures of you in a number of Arab and African countries? Which is your favorite and why?
A) I have great affection for many Arab countries, which I think shows in my book. It is difficult to pick out any one because all of them have qualities that make them unique.
Q) You have been a journalist as well as a novelist. Which do you prefer and why?
A) I liked writing fiction because I did not have to check every fact, and I thought it might be a vehicle to teach people about the region, to show them how much more variety there is to life in Saudi Arabia, for example, than the stereotypes of men on camels and women in Abayas. But I found that in writing non-fiction, readers here take it much more seriously.
Q) Can you tell us a bit about your latest book, and how long it took write?
A) I was on vacation from Cairo once in California when a fellow guest at a dinner party asked me, “Aren’t there any normal people in the Middle East, people like you and me, or at least people we can relate to?” My first reaction was that there are all kinds of people, thinking about all the delightful Arabs with whom I have spent time – smart, cosmopolitan, cultured, sophisticated, funny, generous. But then I kind of whirred through what I spent my time writing about and it proved to be a rather grim litany; the first Gulf war; various Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation; the fallout from 9/11; the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. I realized that the violence had become a kind of barrier preventing me from pursuing my original goal, which was to use my tenure to try to add a bit more depth to what has become an excessively monochromatic view of the region since the 1979 revolution in Iran.
The standard picture of the Middle East is a backward region brimming with seething, masked men and veiled women who would cry out “rescue me” if only they weren’t mute, with maybe a camel in the background. I know this, because even I had this image when I was a child in Libya, growing up in an oil compound called Marsa Brega, surrounded by a high fence. It seems crazy now, but Libyans were not even allowed to live there at first.
So the real point I try to make in this book is that when it comes to the Middle East, there is this whole question of the outside perception versus the internal reality. The reality is so much more interesting than the image. I tried to capture it as a correspondent, of course, but it is so much stronger to put it between the pages of a book than in single newspaper stories here and there. It cuts across all arenas of life, not just on the larger questions like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but on ordinary stuff like satellite television, food, fatwas, you name it. That inspired me to write about some of my favorite characters; Chef Ramzi, the famous chef; Fayrouz, the Lebanese diva; talking about how nostalgia for bygone rhythms of village life in the Mideast was so strong that the recent past had become almost mythological; Fawzia Doria, The Kuwaiti sex therapist; all kinds of men and women working for social and political change. I guess by focusing on inspired people I could in a small way redress the endless emphasis on bloodshed, to try to redress the balance. The reaction so far has been fairly positive, with all the reviews and the people I have heard from saying it was a side of the Middle East they had not seen before.