World

11 questions with ‘Road to Fatima Gate’ author Michael Totten

6. If you could boil down what you want readers to take away from your book to a few points (I know that’s hard!), what would those points be?

I wrote this book as much as possible like a novel. It has characters, dialogue, plot, suspense, cliffhangers, and a dramatic conclusion. Of course, the difference between “The Road to Fatima Gate” and an actual novel is that all my characters are real, some of them have become my friends, and everything I dramatize actually happened. So if I succeed in bringing the Middle East alive to people who have never been there, I will be happy.

It’s not a right-wing or a left-wing book with a partisan argument, unless, I guess, you’re a political maniac who thinks I’m hopelessly “biased” because I hope the terrorists lose. I can’t think of any reason why Hillary Clinton wouldn’t like this book any more or less than John McCain would.

7. You are one of the best foreign reporters around. What is the most dangerous situation you have put yourself in while trying to get a story?

Thank you for saying that.

I’m not actually sure which is the most dangerous situation I’ve put myself in. I can tell you that the most frightened I’ve ever been was during the scenes I wrote about in Chapter Eight, “The July War,” which takes place on the Lebanese-Israeli border during the hot summer war of 2006. I was there on the front line with my friend and colleague Noah Pollak while Hezbollah rockets exploded around us and Israeli tanks blasted their way into Lebanon. It’s quite an experience being in a war zone for the first time, let me tell you. Perhaps the strangest thing about that experience was how fast I got used to it. There is only so much adrenaline in the human body, I guess.

Baghdad was a lot less kinetic and a lot less frightening when I later went there during the surge with American soldiers, but I’m not entirely sure which place was more dangerous. All I can tell you is that the Lebanese-Israeli border was a lot scarier for me personally, and a lot more compelling to write about.

8. Let’s talk some current events. A lot is going on in the Arab world. What do you think of the revolutions that are taking place? Does anything make you uneasy about them? Or are you optimistic that they will result in greater freedom in the region?

I think each revolution will most likely end differently and that the region-wide result will be mixed. Tunisia might be okay. It’s culturally the most “Europeanized” of the Arab countries. It feels more “Mediterranean” than “Arab” somehow, though it is, of course, both. It also felt pre-democratic when I visited years ago. Libya next door is a totalitarian dungeon. Gadaffi’s rule has been less violent than Saddam Hussein’s was, but not much less oppressive. At least Libya is free of the sectarianism that so poisons Lebanon and Iraq. Egypt is a brutally poor and heavily Islamicized basket case. These countries won’t likely resemble each other five years from now any more than they do today.

I think those who assume that the results of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the Khomeinists seized power after liquidating the liberals and leftists, will be repeated everywhere are being too pessimistic. The Iranian model of revolution is not the only one the Muslim world has experienced. Indonesia managed to overthrow Suharto without degenerating into Islamist tyranny. Albania got rid of Enver Hoxha and is a more or less functioning democracy now even though it’s still a bit ramshackle. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world yet has had several peaceful transfers of power recently without any of the new leaders being Islamists. None of the former Soviet Muslim nations are democracies, but they aren’t Islamist theocracies either, and the odds that they will be in the future are, I think, pretty remote.

The Arab countries, though, are in general more Islamicized than the countries on the periphery of the Muslim world, and many are also more politically dysfunctional, so I wouldn’t put myself in the optimist camp either, especially after witnessing the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah bloc crush the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon. The Middle East is a tragic and violent place that seems to have a nearly limitless capacity to smash the idealists who want so badly for their civilization to join the 21st century.