Review. The Road To Fatima Gate
The Road to Fatima Gate
The Beirut Spring, the rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian war against Israel
By Michael J Totten
Encounter Books, Publication Date: April 5th 2011
The current political and social upheaval throughout the Middle East and North Africa has highlighted something that those of us living in the region have known for a long time; just how rare accurate reporting and analysis of events in this area is.
Too much of the commentary produced by foreign correspondents and Middle East ‘experts’ is one-dimensional and it is the result of both the inability of writers to set aside their own cultural straight-jackets which have little or no relevance in this region, together with the commercial pressures to compete for headlines in a digital age in which speed and volume of content trump accuracy and quality reporting.
I often think of this prevalent sort of Middle East journalism in terms of mass-produced, flat-pack chipboard furniture. It’s not meant to last, it all looks pretty much the same, it doesn’t aspire to quality in terms of the materials used, and it comes in a one-size- fits- all form of presentation designed to appeal to the broadest possible consensus.
By contrast, Michael Totten is a master carpenter. His work is a long, slow process using only carefully selected quality materials, often acquired with difficulty. In terms of volume, he comes nowhere near the output of many of his colleagues, but what he does produce will stand the test of time because Totten does not seek to tell his readers (or himself) what they want to know – he informs them of what they need to know.
Over five years of research went into “The Road to Fatima Gate”, which begins with the ‘Beirut Spring’ of 2005 which followed the political murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. The book documents the subsequent seismic shifts in Lebanese politics over the next half-decade and the related events in the broader region, including the 2006 summer war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Not only does Totten manage to unravel for his reader the intricacies of the various factions at work in Lebanon, he succeeds in mapping their changing alliances and connections to the broader regional picture, whilst at the same time deconstructing the often one-dimensional impressions which many Westerners hold of the players at work in the entire Middle East.
However, this is no dry study of Middle East current affairs: the book is written in an engaging ‘zoom in –zoom out’ style whereby Totten recounts his first-person experiences during the many months he spent living in Beirut and visiting the surrounding countries in among the detailed political overview. But even Totten’s documentation of his own experiences such as being blacklisted by Hezbollah, dodging rockets in Northern Israel or extracting Christopher Hitchens from a fight with the Syrian Social National Party are not about him; they are used as a conduit through which to give the Western reader better access to understanding an environment in which all he thought he knew is largely irrelevant.
Just as Totten himself manages to produce such quality work because he has grasped during the long time he has spent in the Middle East that in order to understand his environment he must jettison his own culturally-defined inbuilt perspectives, he encourages his reader to do the same. As he states himself in the book, at some point he stopped asking his interviewees “so what do you think the solution is?” because he came to understand how ridiculous a question it is. Unlike so many Western journalists he also understands that concepts of winner and loser, right and wrong, good and bad have little relevance in such a complicated region and therefore his writing is refreshingly free of misleading judgment.
“The Road to Fatima Gate” is essential reading for anyone who wishes to look beyond the trite reporting of Middle East affairs and find out what really makes this region tick. It offers no easy answers, no instant solutions and little comfort or reason for optimism. But then again, that is precisely what makes it an accurate record and analysis of five years in the life of a region which, despite always being in the news, so few know much about. Even more importantly, Totten’s work will provide the reader with an essential basis for the understanding of future events in this region, the mechanisms of which are already in process.
Hadar Sela is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist living in the Middle East.