Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


July 17, 2009

Madrassa Yourself in Corduroy and Denim

Former Times Middle East correspondent Neil MacFarquhar reports on some of the lesser-known fatwas in his zany new book.

Vincent Valk

Neil MacFarquhar was raised in Libya—sort of. Rather, he was raised on an oil company compound that brought a little slice of American suburbia to the sun-drenched African coast of the Mediterranean. This unusual background led him back to the region as Middle Eastern correspondent for the New York Times and informs his irreverently-titled book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday.

Neil MacFarquhar. Photo by Ragui Assaad
"What gets lost a lot of time is that people in the region have an excellent sense of humor."

Neil MacFarquhar. Photo by Ragui Assaad

In case you were wondering, yes, Hizbollah does have a media relations department and, yes, it wished MacFarquhar a happy birthday on multiple occasions. That is just one among the book's many surprising anecdotes about an oft-misunderstood part of the world. Others include a Kuwaiti sex advice columnist and the Egyptian cleric behind a wildly popular dial-a-sheikh service. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, MacFarquhar—who is now UN bureau chief for the Times—discusses the culture from which these figures emerged, the motivation behind his work, and some of the many misconceptions that have arisen between the Middle East and the West.

Gelf Magazine: The book essentially reads like a memoir. What motivated you to write it?

Neil MacFarquhar: Ideas can come at you randomly. In this particular case, I was at dinner party in San Francisco and a woman leaned over and said I have question for you about the Middle East. Usually when people say that they ask about peace, but this time it was, "Aren't there any normal people in the Middle East?" I thought, good God, there are all kinds, and that made me think about how the stories I follow have so much to do with violence. I wanted to bring to light the people I could spend time with when I wasn't working.
It started on that premise, and at the same time the U.S. had this whole democracy-spreading initiative, and I was curious; if they really are going to push for democracy, who are the people they'll be helping? I think people carry around a lot of misconceptions about the region. I also think what gets lost a lot of time is that people in the region have an excellent sense of humor. That gets lost in all the bloodshed.

Gelf Magazine: What is the biggest difference between daily life in the Middle East and daily life in the West?

Neil MacFarquhar: We in the West live our lives with a certain sense of security. There are random acts that can happen, but we never really fear that the state is will suddenly appear at our door or that the guy next door will use his political connections to screw with us because he doesn't like us. It's the rule of law, it's not perfect, but we take it for granted. Governments in the Middle East override laws at will. They have secret police agencies to spy on people. One of the big efforts made by reformers is to turn states into places where they respect the rule of law. Also, there's a lack of security on all levels: job security, food security, the ability to speak your mind.

Gelf Magazine: How did your upbringing in an oil company compound in Libya influence your views on the Middle East?

Neil MacFarquhar: One, it gave me a guilty conscience. Two, it whetted my appetite for more because it was such an idyllic childhood in a way, but when I got older, I realized how sheltered and cut off it was from any kind of reality. It inspired me to go back and find out what I missed. Growing up, we were caught up in the American suburban life in a different place. Oil companies establish those compounds because they think Americans will not be able to handle the Middle East and they think that we would drive the locals crazy. So they came up with these camps. The camps still exist, by the way. They've changed because Muslims live there now but what happens is the Saudis become Americanized instead of vice versa.

Gelf Magazine: Do Middle Eastern governments ever try to censor the work of foreign correspondents? Do the reporters listen?

Neil MacFarquhar: They would not lean on me directly, but they would lean on my local assistants. It comes back to security; we would never tell [the authorities] to go away, we'd always say we'd think about what they said. With me, personally, it was more a question of access. Libya was the most extreme case [after declaring that his description of a Popular Committee meeting "mocked Libyan democracy," the government refused to let MacFarquhar back into the country], and Iran was cut off sometimes for 18 months at a time. On a story-by-story basis, it's not censored anymore. They just don't have the same kind of control where they can cut people off. There are guidelines you have to agree to in some places, such as Israel.

Gelf Magazine: What, to you, is the most surprising thing about Muslim society? What do you think would most surprise a Westerner who has not traveled in the region?

Neil MacFarquhar: As a kid, I always thought that Arab women wore the veils because maybe they weren't good looking, and that they'd have 16 layers on underneath. But when you see them inside, they're wearing shorts or t-shirts and a lot of them are very attractive. More broadly, Middle Eastern societies are incredibly cosmopolitan societies; people are well educated, well read, speak a bunch of languages. Our image is frozen in religious fundamentalists, and that exists but it is the dark end of the spectrum.

Gelf Magazine:You devoted an entire chapter in the book to fatwas. What is the strangest fatwa you've encountered?

Neil MacFarquhar: Some of them are just silly, and I had a hard time choosing which ones I wanted to highlight. The ones about what to do on the toilet are funny. The one about the guy saying that a veiled woman can remove her veil with a coworker if he suckles her breast five times was pretty absurd.

Gelf Magazine: Is your target audience Western, Muslim, or both, and what are you trying to say to those audiences?

Neil MacFarquhar: I wasn't expecting a Muslim audience to read it. I liked to highlight the efforts of people working for reform because just giving them some attention makes them feel like someone is listening. I'd guess it's wrong, but it's honest to say that people who are given a lot respect by the West are often considered suspect. But people who are given a measured amount of respect in the West are kind of respected more in the region. It's a very fine line, because if they are seen as aping the West they are pilloried, but if they're given some attention and interest it intrigues people. If you give those people some attention, it makes them feel good, and it means they are less likely disappear into jail because someone is paying attention.

Gelf Magazine: Has the book been released in any Muslim countries? How has it been received, if so?

Neil MacFarquhar: I think it has been received pretty well, but mostly in interviews with me in pan-Arab newspapers. I think they are so used to negative press that they're kind of happy that someone is presenting a broader view of the region.

Gelf Magazine: You discuss numerous instances—the Lebanese chef, the Kuwaiti sex advice columnist—of the Muslim world adapting certain aspects of Western culture. How do you think the average Muslim Arab views these developments?

Neil MacFarquhar: For the Arab world, I think the comment the Libyan women yelled in first chapter of the book really stands out—"Why can't we just be normal?" I think there is a sensibility, especially with younger generation, that they know they are out of step and they are trying to figure out how to get in step without tossing their history and culture overboard. When you look at photos and talk to people from the '60s, they tried a Xerox copy of west and it didn't come off. Now they are trying to retain their values, but with some modernization.

Gelf Magazine:What are the most common misconceptions about the West in the Muslim world?

Neil MacFarquhar: They think it's incredibly libertine, and sometimes it is, but they think there are no ethics or values whatsoever. I think the Obama election was interesting because it upended their conceptions of who runs Western countries to a certain extent. No one with Obama's story could rise to the top of the heap in an Arab country if he wasn't a military officer. I think the election contradicted their image of how the American system works and made them reconsider if democratic elections are worth pursuing. Democracy got a terrible name in the region because of Iraq, and now that's being reconsidered.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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