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Rooted in Sand

Years as a reporter in the Mideast let Neil MacFarquhar discover its diversity.

Courtesy Neil MacFarquhar

By Stephen Whitty

Neil MacFarquhar grew up in coastal Libya, the son of an Esso chemical engineer. He remembers long yellow days, shifting stinging sands, running with the other American expat kids through the wind-whipped roads of the oil company’s compound.

But mostly the New York Times journalist remembers the fence that kept the little Western community segregated from the rest of the country. In the decade he lived there, he doesn’t remember eating a single Libyan meal.

“You were really sort of isolated,” he says, sipping a cappuccino in an Upper West Side apartment decorated with framed Arabic calligraphy. “When we left, I felt like I had missed out on the culture, because we really didn’t know what went on beyond that fence.”

MacFarquhar, ’82, has spent his career trying to find out.

After graduation from Stanford, MacFarquhar went to Cairo to study Arabic. Eventually he spent about a dozen years reporting in the Middle East, first for the Associated Press, then for the Times—and got a lot of material that was spun into a foreign-correspondent novel, The Sand Café (PublicAffairs, 2006.) His new nonfiction book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday (PublicAffairs, $26.95), shares more of what he saw.

There were late-night trips to mysterious destinations and summary arrests, sudden bombings and inquisitive secret policemen. But the only time he worried was when an angry mob or suspicious cop would relieve him of his notebooks. Because that meant he might not be able to tell the story.

His lively, anecdotal book describes a world most Americans never see—Saudi Arabian sitcoms and Kuwaiti sex therapists, a culture fascinated with cooking shows and entranced by poetry. A world that is more than suicide bombers and simmering anti-Americanism.

“The region is not monolithic,” MacFarquhar insists. “There are 22 very different countries stretching from North Africa into Asia. . . . For example, Tunisia is a horrible little police state—but they have incredibly progressive laws for women and a big emphasis on birth control. Saudi Arabia is an apartheid society [segregated] by sex—but the women have an incredibly vibrant society of their own.”

Peter Waldman, a longtime San Francisco writer, met MacFarquhar in 1992 in Tehran over an illicit bottle of apple vodka. “We all covered a gazillion terrorist bombings,” Waldman says. “But Neil has always been interested and motivated as a writer by the cultural elements of the region. Wherever you were, he always knew the most knowledgeable local journalists—as well as the most beautiful artists.”

MacFarquhar says any change that comes in the Mideast is going to have to come from within. “The Iraq invasion gave democracy this image as a bad Western thing that only brings destruction—which, of course, the dictators in the region were very happy about. Anything or anyone we support now seems suspect. . . . There are people who are struggling to change the region, but our policy should be to support them indirectly.”

While he now covers the United Nations for the Times, he retains his fondness for the Mideast—the clean white dunes, the heady spice markets, the intricate Persian poetry. “The perception we have of the region is one of constant turmoil,” he says. “And certainly I wrote about it all the time, so I know where it comes from. But the violence is a scrim that blocks out everything else—just like the physical fence that surrounded me when I was a child.”

STEPHEN WHITTY is the movie critic at the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.

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