Friday, December 23, 2011

Women Writers and the War on Terrorism after 9/11

Review of Kim Barker, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Doubleday, 2011); Anna Ciezadlo, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press, 2011); and Megan K. Stack, Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday, 2010)

One of the ironic benefits of the 9/11 attacks was that we ended up learning a great deal about the Middle East. Responding to the shocking explosions, American interest in the Middle East and South Asia also exploded. Suddenly, everyone was curious to know about the region, and media outlets scrambled to report the news from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the Arab world. In the process, they turned to young American women like Kim Barker, Anna Ciezadlo, and Megan Stack to travel to war zones as reporters.

Reading these women's personal accounts together tells us something about the state of American journalism and the state of the so-called War on Terrorism. What we learn is often troubling, but also revealing. American naivete is the first thing we learn about.

Naive Americans Abroad
Each woman's story moves along a similar arc: from young, naive American unconcerned with foreign affairs, to eager and curious reporter after 9/11, to veteran war correspondent who has seen death up close too many times. None of them had a particular passion for the region and none of them spoke any regional languages when 9/11 occurred. But all of them ended up seeing the worst of what the world had to offer in war zones.

Kim Barker, having landed a job at the Chicago Tribune by age 30, was sent to Afghanistan as a self-confessed "unilingual green reporter" (p. 302). After the Iraq War flared up, she returned to the region and reported extensively from Afghanistan and Pakistan--until the Tribune went into bankruptcy and she chose to quit rather than be reassigned to metro Chicago area reporting. The many moments of humor sprinkled throughout the book make it a pleasant read.

Los Angeles Times reporter Megan Stack, age 25 in 2001, was also sent to Afghanistan, where she was harassed by an Afghan warlord in the early days of the war. Unlike the other two authors, she remained in the region and went on to report from several other countries, including Egypt during its 2005 elections, where she witnessed brutal military violence against voters--an eerie echo of the present. Her book is clearly an attempt to make sense of her sense of shock but resists tidy lessons. Instead of a coherent narrative, she offers fragments of reporting from countries across the region (most memorably Yemen and Lebanon in 2006). This is the most writerly book, serious and a bit ponderous at times.

When 9/11 happened, Annia Ciezadlo was 31, living in New York and dating Mohamad, a Shiite Muslim from Lebanon who was a fellow reporter. (She says that they both loved discussing, of all things, urban transportation policy!) After a five-month courtship, they got married in 2002. By 2003, Newsday made Mohamad its Middle East bureau chief and Ciezadlo joined her husband in the region. "I went to the Middle East like most Americans," she writes, "relatively naive about both Arab culture and American foreign policy" (p. 9). She became a free-lance reporter, contributing a number of pieces to the Christian Science Monitor from Baghdad and Beirut. She, like Stack, reports on the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon with some memorably disturbing images.

Responding to regional cultures
Ciezado, like Stack and Barker, learned a great deal about the region. In her case, she had the added benefit of building on her husband's insider knowledge, which she furthered by learning Arabic. Her book is the most sensitive to regional sensibilities, notably in her praise of local foods in Iraq and Lebanon. She writes of sharing a meal with her husband's family right after the funeral of her father-in-law Abu Hassane: "Food unlocked memories, connecting the family to people and places no longer with us, to the dead. Like tradition, the repetition of familiar foods created the illusion that the past was still alive: we eat this food because we ate it before when Abu Hassane was still with us(p. 208). 

By immersing herself into daily life in the culture, using food as a lens, she was able to see the universality within the particularity. She begins to see a common humanity that eludes the other two writers. Her otherwise-forgettable title refers to an Arabic saying, "youm 'asil, youm bassil"--day of honey, day of onions--which captures her deeper theme: life is bittersweet.

Barker, the author of Taliban Shuffle, is mostly clueless about the cultures in which she reports, and she gravitates toward fellow expatriate reporters in both Pakistan and Afghanistan rather than local friends. She even likens the social scene in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to high school, and we hear a bit too much about her dating life. At the same time, her light-hearted, self-deprecating humor offers a refreshing contrast from Stack's ultra-seriousness. But she also comes across as a bit demeaning toward Muslims.

Stack's Every Man, while sprinkled with autobiographical fragments, is closer to the norm of traditional, straight political reporting. To the extent that culture affects the stories, she touches on it, but she's neither as deeply embedded as Ciezadlo nor as tone-deaf as Barker. She simply navigates enough to get the stories.

Observing war up close
All three books see death up close. After reading about Barker washing the blood and guts off her shoes after a Pakistan suicide bombing, we get the gross-out reality. Both Ciezadlo and Stack tell harrowing tales about traveling into the war zone while Israel was bombarding Southern Lebanon, making me realize how little I had thought about the Lebanese side of the 2006 conflict. This humanizing of ordinary people in the midst of war zones--provoking us to start hearing the voiceless--is the central contribution of these engaging books.

None of these books attempts to teach us anything comprehensive about the so-called war on terrorism; but they do teach us something about humanity in wartime.

The role of autobiography
In contrast to many excellent books by young male reporters on the Iraq War (including Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Dexter Filkins' The Forever War, David Finkel's The Good Soldiers, George Packer's Assassin's Gate;  and Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near; with Oliver Poole's overlooked Red Zone: Five Bloody Years in Baghdad being the exception), these women generally tell us more about their day-to-day struggles with living in war zones. 

This may have something to do with their gender and their location. As liberated, educated American women in pervasively conservative, patriarchal, and gender-conscious societies, they struggled to navigate daily life. It was hard for them to travel safely to and from interviews, for example, without suffering from petty harassment--or worse.

As a result, they take a larger role in their own stories than their male colleagues do in their books. And for this we can be thankful, since we learn more about daily life--shopping, eating, drinking, traveling, dating, and writing--in a war zone. I learned a lot more about what it really meant to live in Kabul, Baghdad, or Beirut while war raged all around.

I'd recommend all three books, depending on what you're hoping to learn about. For excellent coverage of both Iraq and Lebanon between 2003 and 2006, and for mouth-watering descriptions of Middle Eastern food, go with Day of Honey. For thoughtful, serious coverage of multiple stories across entire region, All the Men in This Village would be a good start. And for a funny glimpse into how messed-up Afghanistan and Pakistan were by 2009, The Taliban Shuffle is hard to beat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Ten Best Books of 2011

Bowing to convention, here's my list of the best new books I've read this year on globalization. None of these are dry academic studies; all are engaging first person narratives, journalistic accounts, or colorful histories that illuminate the complexity of globalization for ordinary readers. All of these are highly recommended.

1. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)
  • This "biography" of the city of Jerusalem, by focusing so clearly on the most coveted holy city in the world, illuminates the rise and fall of regional and global powers that have claimed possession of Jerusalem's sacred space over millennia. It's the most readable 600 page history book I've ever read, entertaining and enlightening at the same time. It was impossible to put down.

2. Michael Lewis, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (W.W. Norton, 2011)
  • As my recent review indicates, this is a entertaining and sobering account of recent financial history by one of our best-known non-fiction writers.

3. Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis (Penguin, 2010)
  • Another book reviewed in this space, All the Devils is probably the single best place to start reading about the origins of the financial crisis, although it's best read in conjunction with the next selection. McLean and Nocera largely blame Wall Street for the crisis, mostly corroborating Charles Ferguson's Inside Job.

4. Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon (Times Books, 2011)
  • Unlike McLean and Nocera, Morgenson and Rosner focus on the story of James Johnson's tenure at Fannie Mae, the quasi-government mortgage guarantor. They convincingly show how Fannie Mae was involved early in contributing to the crisis, especially in hijacking Washington politicians. The lesson? Beware of the capitalist-statist complex, the overlap between Wall Street and Capitol Hill: this is the space Fannie Mae exploited to enrich Johnson and his cronies under the guise of expanding homeownership to new borrowers. If you read this and All the Devils, you'll have a fairly complete picture of what happened.

5. Stacey Edgar, Global Girlfriends: How One Mom Made It Her Business to Help Women in Poverty Worldwide (St. Martin's Press, 2011).
  • An upbeat and hopeful example of alternative globalization. This young mom built a fair trade fashion business aimed at empowering female producers by giving them access to the large U.S. market through Global While the narrative is a bit too cheerful and optimistic, it also stimulates hope about making a dent in global poverty.

6. Annia Ciezadlo, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press, 2011)
  • If you can get past the cheesy cover, you'll find an engaging story of eating across the Middle East in a time of war. Having married a Lebanese journalist not long after 9/11, this young writer becomes a war reporter, but she ends up writing about ordinary Middle Eastern life by focusing on the region's cuisine. Globalization is often accused of undermining traditional diets, but, as Ciezadlo shows, it can also foster cross-cultural understanding. Recipes are included!

7. Connor Grennan, Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal (William Morrow, 2011)
  • A young man decides to spend his savings on a trip around the world and decides to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal because it sounds cool. He ends up finding his wife, discovering his vocation, and starting an organization to combat child trafficking in Nepal. A great story, told humbly. (Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book when it was chosen for Malone University's Fall 2011 required freshman reading program.)

8. Robin Wright, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World (Simon and Schuster, 2011)
  • As the Arab Spring continues to unfold, this is a helpful first cut at telling its early history, by a seasoned journalist. Wright explicitly links the changes in the region to the forces of globalization. Far from being isolated from the world, the region turns out to be very much interconnected: satellite TV, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all significant tools in spreading revolt against corrupt regimes.

9. Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale (Penguin, 2011)
  • A reflective romp through a six-month experiment at going screen-free: no TV, no computers, no cellphones, and no video games in the house. Maushart has a Ph.D. in communications from New York University, so she's got some excellent preparation for thinking about media in society. Her lessons, "The Ten Commandments for Using Modern Media," are excellent advice for all of us. Instead of accepting the intrusion of electronic media as inevitable, we need to slow down and find alternatives that keep us human. We need to make space for kairos time and resist the flattening forces of chronos.

  • Also reviewed here, this book focuses on the American automobile industry in a global context: the oil price spike and financial collapse of 2008 were the nails in the coffin for an industry that had many internal problems. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Advent and the Kingdom Coming: Emptiness is Fullness

Last night I ran into a former student of mine at an event downtown, where she reminded me that it's Advent. Sadly, I needed this reminder. I've been so busy trying to survive the end of the semester that I've almost forgotten to read my daily experiences through Advent. Which is exactly what I'm arguing in the book that we shouldn't do in any season. Ideally, we should let the narrative of the liturgical season frame how we see the world. Instead, I've all too often let the Flat World define me.

All is not lost, however. This week I've also been talking with a student who is depressed about the brokenness of the world. I share her tendency to be overwhelmed by both history and current events, seeing how much violence, death, destruction, and oppression has occurred and still occurs every day, all around the globe. There's often little sign that God's Kingdom is ruling. "The world is so screwed up!" said this student.

But this is exactly where we should be in Advent:  We should be frustrated with the brokenness. We should be experiencing the "lonely exile here," as evoked in the haunting Advent hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." We should be hungering for God's rule to arrive here on earth as in heaven. We should be longing for God's shalom (peace, justice, righteousness) to be restored.

This is what it means to experience the Fullness of Time right now--a Fullness that means entering into the Emptiness of the Hebrew people longing for a return from exile, the Emptiness that Christ experienced in the Incarnation (Phil 2:7), and the Emptiness that the disciples experienced after the Crucifixion.

In morning prayer on Tuesday, Psalm 74:19 jumped out and spoke of the Emptiness of exile: "Look upon your covenant; the dark places of the earth are haunts of violence."

As we ponder these dark places and their haunts of violence, we can pray for the restoration of the covenant: for a return from exile, for redemption of the world, and for resurrection to eternal life. Experiencing the depths of this brokenness just points us back to the story that begins with Advent. We long for the Kingdom to come and the Fullness of God's reign to begin.

Come quickly, Lord.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

An Exemplary Failure?

Today's New York Times web opinion page ran an interesting piece by D. Michael Lindsay, the current president of Gordon College who was an academic sociologist at Rice University until this year. Lindsay also wrote Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, a book based on several hundred interviews with evangelical Christians who have "made it" by getting into top positions at mainstream institutions in American society.

But there is another side to the story of "making it." And it's one that I've been thinking about for several years. When Christians enter the Big Time of corporate leadership, will they be corrupted by power? If necessary, will they be willing to sacrifice their positions in order to stay true to their faith?

Lindsay tells us that Gerard Arpey, the CEO of American Airlines, did the latter. As Lindsay puts it, Arpey
resigned and stepped away with no severance package and nearly worthless stock holdings. He split with his employer of 30 years out of a belief that bankruptcy was morally wrong, and that he could not, in good conscience, lead an organization that followed this familiar path.
I'm grateful to hear about this. If Lindsay's account is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt it, since he's interviewed Arpey), then this is a great example of the kind of leadership that Christians could exert in corporate America: real leadership that embraces noble failure rather than compromised success.

Or to be more accurate, the kind of leadership that takes seriously the call and example of Jesus to be a sacrificial servant of others rather than exalt oneself. As Jesus said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). In case the readers of Mark missed the point, this is repeated:
whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)
A little context helps appreciate how radical Arpey's move is. First, as I've blogged about before, executive pay has gone crazy in this country, and Arpey is bucking a major trend. Second, all airlines have struggled to be profitable and contemplated bankruptcy in order to shed union contracts with pilots, flight attendants, and maintenance workers. And some of their CEOs had no such scruples. By leading their companies through bankruptcy, they slashed their workers' pay and trimmed their retirement pensions, taking money away from ordinary workers. But Northwest Airlines' CEO came out of bankruptcy in 2007 with a compensation package worth $26.6 million. After United Airlines CEO Glenn Tilton put his company and his workers through bankruptcy, he walked away with a cool $39.7 million.

So Gerard Arpey does deserve our praise! Well-done, good and faithful servant.

Epilogue to this story
Of course, the day that Arpey resigned, American Airlines declared bankruptcy, which means that the end of the American Airlines story isn't good news. But the good news of the Christian story is that those servants who sacrifice and end up last will someday, in the Kingdom's economy, be first.

If we were in Arpey's shoes, I hope we'd choose the right thing--to be more motivated by truly loving God and our neighbor in the long run (and in the long run, as Keynes said, we are all dead, so we'll have to face our Maker) than by enriching ourselves. I hope we'd decide to work toward that day when we might hear those words: "Well-done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your Master's happiness" (Matt 25:23).