A Book by Michael Totten
There has been a flurry of books published over the past few years by Westerners, primarily Americans, describing in depth their brief encounters with Lebanon and the Middle East. Their insights are telling not so much for the informative content, but rather how this budding vein of adventure writers perceives the region and its people.
Often misplaced in bookstores under ‘political journalism’, these titles — including Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis’ “Tea with Hezbollah”, Jared Cohen’s “Children of Jihad” and Lee Smith’s “The Strong Horse” — ought to be stacked closer to the ‘adventure/fantasy’ section. And relegated to the bin of banality they would be, did they not also wield such a dangerous degree of influence over the shaping of United States foreign policy.
It is in this light which one must regard Michael Totten’s “The Road to Fatima Gate”, released earlier this year by Encounter Books, a publisher self-described as being a press for the “serious conservative”. Fitting, then, that the book is written from what could be called a ‘Western extremist’ perspective.
“The Road to Fatima Gate” traverses Lebanon’s politically tumultuous time between 2005 and 2008, from former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and the Syrian army’s subsequent withdrawal, through the July 2006 war and the civil conflict of May 2008. Totten is in Lebanon only part-time during this period, but he does not let this pollute the aura of comprehensiveness he lends his accounts. Nor does the author let the selectiveness of his associations temper the license he allows himself to make sweeping generalizations regarding the Lebanese mindset — Totten has minimal meaningful interaction with ‘people on the street’, instead openly preferring the company of expatriates and barfly drinking buddies, with his most authoritative source on the country being Charles Chuman, an American-Lebanese from Chicago who came to Lebanon in 2003 and whom the author describes as knowing “the country better than almost anyone I ever met.”
Totten recounts the 2006 war in Lebanon from Northern Israel and being abroad when rival political factions faced off in block-to-block combat in May 2008, Totten retells the experience largely through the eyes and ears of Chuman, complete with dialogue and inner thoughts. (Perhaps tellingly, Chuman, Smith and Totten all spoke at the annual Institute for Policy and Strategy conference in Herzilya, Israel, shortly after the 2006 war.)
Totten’s myopic narrative is most blatant regarding Beirut’s southern suburbs and South Lebanon, despite the crux of the narrative being about Hezbollah. Totten describes these areas as throttled by totalitarianism, where Hezbollah violently suppresses self-expression. Totten does let Lebanese voices set some of the record straight, but only in chapters outside those in which he portrays “Hezbollahland”.
In his account, Lebanese police have never set foot in “Hezbollahland”, from which they are “forbidden” — news, no doubt, to the veteran law enforcement officers in Haret Hreik and Bint Jbeil. Similarly, Totten suggests Iran is the sole financer of post-war reconstruction in South Lebanon, completely ignoring the hundreds of millions of dollars pumped in from Qatar, Kuwait and other nations, including the US.
Leveraging his thorough understanding of Lebanon, Totten then graces us with his incisive insight into the region as a whole: “Arab countries have a certain feel. They’re masculine, languid, worn around the edges and slightly shady.”
This book does a good job of listing the many important events of the years it covers in Lebanon but it is rigidly selective in the sources it taps and the questions it asks. Further, it lacks historical insight and glosses over inconveniences such as ‘facts’ that would run counter to the agenda Totten is pushing. But then again, what adventurer would want to dilute his drinking stories with reality?