Thursday, July 23, 2009

Neil MacFarquhar's Textured View of the Middle East

In his engrossing new book, “The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East”(Public Affairs, $27), former New York Times Cairo bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar takes a sledgehammer to monolithic views and stereotypes of the Middle East by profiling dissidents, rebels and bloggers who are battling repressive regimes from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Raised in Libya in the 1960s and fluent in Arabic, MacFarquhar spent two decades as a journalist in the Middle East. In his book, he sets out to show a widely diverse region where wit and black humor are used to combat dictators and the omnipresent secret police. MacFarquhar interviews the host of a Lebanese game show glorifying suicide bombers, but then spends time with a Kuwaiti sex therapist who is a satellite TV icon in the Arab-speaking world. He finds that the Jordanian secret police has their own website, and wonders if one of the FAQs should be, “How do I find what dungeon my relative is in?” MacFarquhar’s book is a combination of history, memoir and travelogue, taking the reader through a vibrant, modern Middle East that is on the cusp of dramatic social and political change.

MacFarquhar, 49, worked for the Associated Press and the New York Times in the Middle East, and presently covers the United Nations for the Times. He met with freelance writer Dylan Foley in a cafe in Manhattan.

Q. What motivated you to write this book?

A. The book was something I always wanted to do, having spent so much time in the region. I got the end of my stint in Cairo, and I wasn’t sure if I had a book because I covered so much violence. The overwhelming amount of time I spent in the region was running off to bombings and all sorts of mayhem. I took all my notebooks, packed them in a trunk and went to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. They gave me a cabin and for six weeks I read through my old notebooks. I downloaded my stories that I had written in a five-year period. There were 460. I took out all the stories that dealt with violence or explosions. There were 60 stories left.

Q. You write about the outside image of the Middle East, versus the internal reality of sophisticated people often living under brutal dictatorships. How would you describe the varied people of the Middle East?

A. The people who live in these countries are great. The Egyptians and Lebanese have wicked senses of humor, which makes surviving in difficult situations possible. The food is wonderful. The people are incredibly hospitable, despite the hostility towards Americans because of American policies towards the region.

Q. Jordan is viewed by some its own dissidents as the “best of the worst” dictatorships in the region. Could you tell me the story of Emad Hajjaj, the Jordanian cartoonist?

A. Hajjaj wrote a cartoon showing the secret police as just a hand hovering over society. He was called in by the secret police and they said, “Never mention us in a cartoon again, ever.” I asked, “Did you obey?” He looked at me and said, “Are you kidding? We barely feel comfortable talking about the secret police when we are alone with our wives in bed.”

Q. You profile Professor Bakr, a woman Saudi rebel who fights the brutal regime against impossible odds. What are Saudi women like?

A. The Saudi women are amazing. They are so strong. You don’t know if it is because they have been repressed for so long or they have always been that way. The women are outspoken and educated. It is a source of frustration that the system doesn’t let them exercise their ambitions. Saudi Arabia has a horribly repressive system. When you spend any time there, you appreciate our separation of church and state.

Q. Opponents to the Syrian dictatorship have no newspapers and are almost completely blocked from the Internet. How do see the situation in Syria?

A. It is sad because it is a country where so much potential has been squashed. A lot of people with talent and brains don’t leave the country because they don’t want to spend their lives fighting the system. I knew this [human-rights] lawyer named Bunni who wound up in jail. He was a giddy optimist, but you have to be one to take the system on.

Colum McCann's Epic Novel of 1970s New York City

The Irish writer Colum McCann’s bold new novel “Let the Great World Spin” takes place in New York City on and around August 7, 1974, when the Frenchman Phillipe Petit carried out his death-defying tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. In a glorious panoramic view of the city, the book goes high and low, from Petit’s walk to Claire, a Park Avenue matron grieving over the death of her son in Vietnam, to the lives of Corrigan, an Irish priest in the Bronx, and Tillie and Jazzlyn, the mother-daughter prostitutes he befriends. McCann’s complex cast of characters creates a gritty and vibrant chronicle of an almost-bankrupt metropolis.

McCann spoke with the writer Dylan Foley at his New York City apartment.

Dylan Foley: Why did you start this novel at the World Trade Center?
Colum McCann: In one sense, it has to begin with 9-11. My father-in-law was in Tower Two, the first building hit and the second to come down. We were living on East 71st Street. It was 9 a.m. My sister called all hysterical from London. I turned on the television and saw the burning. My wife Alison was putting a shirt on our son Johnny Michael. She was kneeling on the floor, buttoning him up. What do I do, what do I say? My father-in-law was on the 59th floor. We didn’t know if he’s going to get out. It was 2 p.m. when he finally walked up to us, covered in ash. My three-year-old Isabel ran to him, “Poppy, Poppy,” all happy, then she ran away and hid. I found her and asked what’s wrong, and she said, “Poppy’s burning, he’s burning from the inside.”

Foley: You don’t even mention the collapse of the towers in the novel. Why?
McCann: For me, there were two towers in the novel, and that was Corrigan and Jazzlyn. They are dead in the first chapter. I didn’t realize this at first, but I spent the rest of the novel building them up. A lot of this is unconscious, but I feel the book is an anti-narrative of the 9-11 experience. The novel doesn’t want to cling to all the grief, all the sadness. I am interested in grace and recovery, and making sense of the small lives at the bottom, like Tillie and Jazzlyn.

Foley: How did Phillipe Petit’s famous walk become part of the novel?
McCann: I looked to 1974, first of all, and there was Phillipe Petit and his tightrope walk. I wanted the image of the wire between the towers. I was originally going to do the book about Petit and have him fall in the middle. I wanted to rewrite history. I hope people will forget Petit when they read the novel. He dissolves throughout the book. At the end, you should only remember the two little girls, daughters of a dead prostitute, being ripped from their home in the housing projects, and it looks like they are being taken away to lives of absolute misery. We have forgotten the tightrope and are down at street level.
Foley: How did you wind up moving from Petit to hookers working under an expressway?
McCann: Part of it was luck and accident. I knew I wanted to write about Corrigan, who was initially based on the activist priest Daniel Berrigan. I knew I had to have Corrigan live in the projects. The Irishman led me to those women.
Foley: Tillie turns her 17-year-old daughter into a hooker, and is indirectly responsible for her death. How did you create Tillie’s voice for her 32-page suicide monologue?
McCann: It took me a long time to get the voice of Tillie. It was four or five months. I went out with the writer and Bronx police detective Ed Conlon. I read the memoir of the pimp Iceberg Slim. I spoke to some women on the stroll, but there are no hookers left from the 1970s. I told Alison that I can’t do it, that Tillie is too far away. One night, I had a simple line, something like “The skinniest dog I ever saw was on the side of the Greyhound Buses.” I wrote all night and wound up with six pages. Tillie started whispering all this stuff to me--“I’m Rosa Parks. I’m black and on the pavement. I’m a chewing gum spot.” I wanted to get at Tillie, I wanted to get at a Walt Whitmanesque view of the city, to list all these people. That is what I do well, accessing “the other.” I had some cops read the section. They said, “This is perfect. This is a woman we know.” Part of it was knowing that Tillie was telling her story from her prison cell, planning to commit suicide. That helped. I have to be careful, but I do think that this is my best piece of writing, the Tillie section.

Foley: How did you come up with the ending, which moves forward to 2006?
McCann: I didn’t know how the novel was going to end. I was going to have Phillipe Petit walk across the Grand Canyon. Then Jaslyn, Jazzlyn’s daughter, came along. She suggested to me that she was alive and wanted to finish the book. I liked her and worked hard on getting her voice right. I didn’t want her to be too cute or too highly sexualized. Her whole story broke open.

Foley: Did you set out to write an epic novel about a New York City on the verge of bankruptcy and an America scarred by Vietnam and Watergate?
McCann: Yes. Yes, I kind of did set out to write an epic. Part of me thought that I failed with “Zoli,” my novel on the Gypsies and Romany culture in Europe. I wanted to bounce back fast. First of all, every novel is a failure. I really believe that. You can never achieve what you truly want to achieve. That thing you dreamt on the riverbank is never the thing you achieve when you are back at the writing table, or when the paper is coming out of the printer. With this book, I felt I got what I wanted to get across.

Foley: And what did you want to get across?
McCann: If I had a gun to my head, and somebody asked me what this book was about, I would say it’s about achieving grace in the face of trauma and not making a grief-fest out of 9-11. We shouldn’t use 9-11 as an excuse to bomb Iraq or Afghanistan, not in our name. We have to look at ourselves instead.

Foley: Your title “Let the Great World Spin” comes from an Alfred Tennyson poem. What does it mean to you?
McCann: The world goes on and we have to go on with it. We have to achieve some modicum of beauty. The idea that Jazzlyn’s two girls would be sent to some horrible state school, I just couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t have thought that I had achieved any kind of grace for my own children or the people around me. We can look at the crap and the grime and the torments in the world around us, and still find something beautiful in the end. That’s my responsibility to what I know in my heart and what I feel about the world. I do think it is a bit harder to be optimistic than to be cynical.