Book Review – From Beirut to Jerusalem

3 04 2010

From Beirut to Jerusalem – Where does one begin with such an immense undertaking?

-An award winning book by Pulitzer Prize journalist Thomas Friedman. A 10-year journey when he travels across the violent landscape of Southwestern Asia (The correct location and name,) otherwise known as the Middle East, while with United Press International, then with The New York Times. The experience he shares is a kind of metaphorical type of education regarding the crisis of that region. Friedman explains the Ottoman Empire to the present time. It is a primer, and an overview for those hard questions behind the Arab-Jewish Conflict.
Thomas gives a broad base of understanding and coats it perfectly with pin point accurate insight to individual ideals and beliefs. He also shares first hand knowledge of people he meets along the way, but also provides a sort of history lesson through a myriad of powerful world actors. Thomas, who is now a columnist with the New York Times shows-and-tells the never ending conflicts, dissolved resolutions and that extreme belief that individuals; tribes, towns, cities and countries must possess in order to exist in the world where your enemy vows religiously, and to God that you must not exist, the belief that cycles over through every generation, and has become the war cry of every Jew and Muslim, the code of; Hama Rules: Rule or die.

Thomas Friedman-New York Times Columnist

The journey begins with Beirut; what a place it was. A place that seemed to be completely wrong, or all correct all of the time; it was good and it was bad; it was beautiful, and at times when Beirut was in the mood, it was very ugly. The mood of Beirut was always changing, and if you wanted to live there, you were best not to take Beirut too serious exclaims Thomas.
“Would you like to eat now, or wait for the seize fire?” asked one host of his guests during an attack right before dinner. Beirut seemed to have one foot in an obscured reality and one foot in an absurd fantasy. It was a place where you could be anything you wanted, for example; if you wanted power, you would get a couple of old oil drums and a 2×12 piece of lumber, paint some political words on it, perhaps a military uniform would be nice, and you and your buddies could create your very own road side check point, Viola! You enforced your own law that day.

The conflict of the Middle East, as explained by Thomas is always changing, just like Beirut. It was the knowledge of the special ingredients that went into the mix that set leaders apart; like Saddam Hussein. Thomas explains the mental savvy of such a destructive leader. Saying he was one that was able to change to meet a special need, for his own benefit. But as always, the purpose was never for the good of the country. For one example, and of most violent and oppressive regimes he would propose a toast in your honor in his palace, while his subordinates where at your home raping your wife. Hussein was a master of such illusions and myths says Thomas.

“One can never get it right, it is difficult to understand the violence in the Middle East,” says, Vaswati Ghosh, World Politics Professor at Paradise Valley Community College.

Ghosh says that the U.S. sees the Middle East conflict through a western perspective. “It is very hard to understand, very hard.”

In the book, Lebanese historian Kemal Salibi says,”When it comes to thinking about Middle East politics, the American liberal mind is often chasing rainbows. They are living in a world of delusion.”

“It is a kaleidoscope of ideas and beliefs,” said one Israeli soldier when they attacked Lebanon. There was a window and we went through it not knowing what was on the other side.”

It was these same beliefs that guided Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin-both leaders of Israel, myths about their own survival and the destruction of their enemies.

Thomas explains the myths on the other side of that tell-all window. And the myths that guided the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader, Yasir Arafat, in making his fellow Palestinians and the other Arab nations, but also the Israelis and even the United States in believing their was much more than what they saw.

When the Palestinians had found leadership in Arafat; and one that would put them on the world stage as a legitimate and viable people in need of a country, they soon became disheartened at the cause as they saw him crumble in Lebanon. Instead of building through actual compromise with the Israelis so to create a place of their own in Palestine; Arafat made them see their own future through a crystal ball, always distorted and always an illusion.

Thomas decided to leave Beirut on June 1, 1984. He expressed his passion for his friends and the city that harbored him for so many years, saying how he cried saying goodbye to his friends knowing they had to stay behind to endure the strife of their home.

Thomas crossed the Lebanese-Israeli border with a suitcase and his golf clubs. Some thought they were special weapons and even tried taking apart his pitching wedge. Even the soldier girls, who knew what they were, still made him empty the golf bag placing all the golf balls on a table. He cautioned as the golf balls began rolling off, bouncing everywhere inside the customs hall as the soldier girls quickly gathered them. (The irony of humor in such a difficult place) He writes of having to catch them before they rolled back to Lebanon.

Thomas explains the Crosswinds of the politics of Israel and the beliefs of the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion. A true and descriptive analysis as to where Israel stands in the fight for its home and its conflict with the Palestinians.

Thus; the story of the conflict in Israel is not totally complete unless the struggle of the Palestinians is fully explained, which Thomas does very well.

“I am going to fuck your mother, I’m going to fuck your sister,” screams a young Palestinian boy to a young Israeli soldier. The anger seems to come within the soul of each party. No one really understand this hate, it just is.
An Israeli commander in charge of the Gaza Strip witnessed a one-year old boy who could barely walk. “He held a stone in his hand, he said, he was just learning to walk and he was ready to throw a stone at someone, he didn’t know at whom, I smiled at him and he threw it on the ground, he could barley walk,” he said reflecting.

It is a time of the intifada, or as Thomas explains, the earthquake of a revolt against the Israelis from the Palestinians. It was a good revolt, as far as the Palestinens were concerned because it kept them in the lime-light, of course the world would hear of the oppression and they would come running, little did they know that the world was not paying too much attention. They thought they were the only refugees in the world that had this type of attention, and they were, but no one cared, not even the Americans. So an explosion was inevitable, stemming from years of anger and frustration, it was like a pot of steaming hot water, it was boiling over all these years until one day everything all went to hell, the peace and the negotiations and everything else.
Fallah, a candy seller in Jerusalem describes the struggle as meaningless, “You know what this intifada is? It is a drop of water in the sea.”

But in all of this, again Thomas explains how the west sees this particular Middle East conflict through its own viewer. America sees something that is not real, something that is covered in a shroud through the media. Everything in the Middle East is magnified out of proportion. Life always seems to go on. If there is strife in the West Bank, Israelis go to the fair in Tel-Aviv, and if a struggle erupts in the Gaza Strip, Israelis go the fair in Tel-Aviv.

In the book, West Bank expert Meron Benvenisti, says that whenever he watches news coverage while in the United States, of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict he feels he needs to go back home to find his reality.

When the American Media goes to Israel, they don’t go to film Palestinians throwing rocks; they prefer to film Israelis with billy-clubs.

From Beirut to Jerusalem also explains the intimacy Americans have with Israel. As with a lot of things in the world concerning kinship and belonging, Jewish Americans have found a love of Israel, and Israel a love for America. But when Jewish Americans began to read and see through the media that their distant relatives had invaded Lebanon, and how Israeli soldiers were braking Palestinian bones, they soon began to ask who they were and, “Who am I?”

In ending Thomas Friedman uses an excerpt from Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. Where he reflects, describing the Jordan River. In the story Twain tells how the river is not what we think it is, not as long or as wide as the imagination leads us to believe, (then again we normally let our imaginations run as wild as they want. Surly it is our right to expand the truth in our heads in order to make things more interesting.) In the end of the excerpt, Twain is forced, and in turn forcing us to accept whatever the truth may be. I believe it’s the same with the conflicts in the Middle East. We are always seeing the world, just as we see our neighbor or friends and even family through this different and personalized perspective, ours!

Ghosh says, “we want them to vote in ballots. This is all new to them, a western view. It doesn’t work.- and its funny,-Israel needs to fight, it’s surrounded by Arab states.”
Thomas Friedman, through his journalistic journey shows us that there is a different perspective and that ours is not always the right one, but there is a different one that exists and tells the truth, because it’s real. (It takes an objective eye to see the world in full light, and in order to promote any type of goodness or peace one must stay focused on the truth. But we also must understand that some things are worth dying for, a principle we as Americans say we believe when we talk of freedom. These are the same feelings and dreams that the Palestinians and Israelis thing about themselves. How is it or ever will be possible to change such convicted beliefs?)

Ghosh agrees with Thomas, and cannot over emphasize that The Middle East violence is seen through a western only perspective.
“Democracy, she says, does not work in the Middle East, it cannot function.”

She ends by saying, that all Arabs are still against Israel, “it doesn’t matter if they are moderates, extremist, Shiite, or Sunni. Israel needs to show violence-according to Hama Rules; they can not show weakness if they are to survive.

From Beirut to Jerusalem is one of the greatest non-fiction books I have ever read, but not as great as The Life and Times of Sonny Barger of the Hells Angels. Although, I have read Barger’s book three times, I will read From Beirut to Jerusalem once again later this year – its a must read and so is the Hells Angels Story by Sonny.




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