Understanding the Middle East
Robert Fisk The Great War for Civilisation (Harper Perennial 2005)
Mohsin Hamid The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Hamish Hamilton 2007)
Reviewed by Peter Bore
(Reviewed February 2008)
Both of these books are about the Middle East and its problems. One is a 1300 page factual contemporary account by an Englishman who has lived in Beirut, as a reporter for a British news-paper, for almost 30 years. The other is a small novel written by a Pakistani who has made his home in the West. Their great similarity is that religion is barely mentioned in either.
The Great War for Civilisation
The Great War for Civilisation takes its title from the inscription on a medal belonging to Bill Fisk, the author’s father. Bill Fisk fought in the 1914-18 war and it was for service in that war that he received the medal. The book is in one sense a tribute the Roberts Fisk’s father. In each long chapter as Robert recounts the recurring horrors of the Middle East there are one or two sentences which acknowledge Bill. Though it seems that Robert did not get on too well with his father, he nonetheless values and respects what his father taught him and the bravery and compassion his father demonstrated in the First World War. The unstated message, regarding our interactions with others whose views we may not share, is all too obvious.
Robert Fisk is a brave man. He has visited Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Palestine many times. He takes seriously his journalistic task of finding out what is happening and reporting it to the world. His stories of violence to men, women and children alike are sickening and all the more so because they are repetitive and frequently tell of the indifference of the political establishment.
Not for Fisk the quiet life (relatively) of being ‘embedded ‘with US troops. His reward is that he has twice been invited to interview Osama bin Laden. He manages to report these interviews by simply recounting the events. He neither supports nor condemns; he just tells the story.
Bill Fisk put his own life on the line by refusing to command a firing squad for the purpose of executing a fellow soldier condemned by a court martial. His protest had little effect. They simply ignored Bill and found someone else who would comply. Robert Fisk also puts his life on the line, not only by reporting from war zones but also making himself a target for the secret services of a number of governments who would rather the world did not have the opportunity to read his reports. One can only hope that his fate is not to be ignored like his father.
Fisk’s stories are gripping but the book is not easy reading. It is long, repetitive and the events it reports are ugly. But then it is the story of the Middle East. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to begin to understand what daily life entails in what is so often described, with justification, as one of the birthplaces of civilisation.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a technical masterpiece. The story, which encompasses several years ,is told in a conversation lasting a few hours. The words are entirely the words spoken by of one of the participants to the other. There is no description of either participant’s actions and what the second participant says can only be deduced from the responses of the first. It works superbly well.
Underlying this technical tour de force is a gentle and very readable story of a Pakistani’s sojourn in the USA and his eventual return to Lahore. There is little if any overt comment but one is left with a great sense of understanding of the estrangement of the narrator.
The book is not about fundamentalism as anyone in Sea of faith would understand the word and indeed there is nothing that we would recognise as fundamentalist in the narrator. But who knows. Much of this book’s impact devolves from the impressions and interpretations it generates in the mind of the reader. For that reason alone it deserves to be on a Sea of Faith bookshelf.