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.

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