Feb. 16, 2015 by Darius
While I was away, I read The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East by journalist Neil MacFarquhar. Aside from the absolutely awesome title (actually the reason I checked the book out of the library in the first place), The Media Relations Department is an excellent book detailing MacFarquhar’s personal experiences across the Middle East.
MacFarquhar grew up in Libya; his father was an employee of the US oil company Esso (today’s Exxon). Although MacFarquhar had almost no interaction with Libyans as a child, instead living in a shelter compound, his experiences in Libya drew him back to the Middle East through the rest of his life. As a reporter, MacFarquhar also worked extensively in Libya, even interviewing longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi. As a result, The Media Relations Department boasts a fascinating section on Libya under Qaddafi’s wacky rule, and I consider the book worth reading for its Libya section alone.
MacFarquhar also devotes considerable attention to Saudi Arabia. As in many other books I’ve read, Saudi Arabia comes off worse in The Media Relations Department than any other Middle Eastern country through its combination of religious radicalism, horrific education system, corrupt rulers, and generally backwards and stifling society.
Finally, MacFarquhar makes a number of points about the Middle East through case studies of six Middle Eastern countries: Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan sections, in particular, are very well-written and are chock-full of insights.
One further valuable lesson of MacFarquhar’s work is analysis of the failure of American attempts to “connect” with the people of the Middle East. A good example: in 2008, Al-Jazeera devoted intense coverage to the Democratic National Convention, even having a reporter “shadow” a Muslim delegate for the entire day. MacFarquhar expected that Al-Hurra, a US-funded Arabic-language TV station designed to teach Arabs about Western values and democracy, would have even more extensive coverage of such an event vital to understanding the nuts-and-bolts workings of democracy. Instead, Al-Hurra was broadcasting a documentary about dolphins. In English with Arabic subtitles.
Published in 2009, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday of course misses the Arab Spring. However, the events of the Arab Spring have, in my view, served to strengthen MacFarquhar’s perceptive analyses.
If you’re interested in the modern Middle East, read this book. Really.