Books and Culture

Sol Stern
An American in the Paris of the Middle East
Michael Totten’s important, prescient reporting from Lebanon
6 May 2011

The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel, by Michael J. Totten (Encounter, 360 pp., $27.95)

In the title of Michael Totten’s book, “Fatima Gate” refers to the only official border crossing between Lebanon and Israel. Located on the edge of the little town of Metula in Israel’s northeast corner, the gate is almost never open for civilian traffic these days. Not that long ago, however, Lebanese Muslims and Christians regularly passed through it into Israel for jobs paying good wages. On weekends, hundreds of Lebanese families would regularly cross the border to spend a Sabbath day at the sprawling Canada Center (a gift to Israel from wealthy Canadian Jews). The Arab families, from a country technically still at war with Israel, frolicked in the center’s swimming pools, waterslides, and indoor ice rink, mixing freely with Jewish Israelis. The Muslims came on Fridays and the Maronite Catholics on Sundays. The economic activity and social contacts benefited both sides and even brought a taste of peaceful coexistence. It was in those halcyon days that Israelis named the border crossing “the Good Fence.”

The good times ended after the Israeli army withdrew from its South Lebanon security zone in 2000. On the Lebanese side, the gate morphed into a prop for Hezbollah political theater. (Hezbollah militants are said to have given the gate its present name after a girl named Fatima was allegedly shot near the border by Israeli soldiers.) Hezbollah, the “Party of God,” now conducts guided tours from the Shia slums of Beirut down to Fatima Gate for its international fellow travelers. These radical tourists, who have included such luminaries as Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said, are driven to the border, where they can gaze across the fence and rage against the Zionist colonizers. The Party of God’s secular comrades are sometimes so overcome by the sheer injustice of it all that they throw rocks over the fence into the Jewish state.

A good part of Totten’s book describes what he saw and heard in his travels from the capital cities of Lebanon and Israel to each side of Fatima Gate, which he somehow managed without the assistance of any official tour organizers. For the author, the ugly, rusting gate serves as a metaphor for something more ominous than a mere military checkpoint between two nations periodically at war. The gate also serves as a fault line demarcating two antithetical social orders, an idea reminiscent of the “clash of civilizations” theory postulated in the early 1990s by scholars Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. Totten is not a political theorist, but he employs remarkable reporting skills to dramatize the subversion and near-destruction of a peaceful Arab democracy by a ruthless, clerical-fascist movement backed by Iran. Ostensibly created to defend the legitimate interests of the downtrodden Shia population, Hezbollah started out as just one of many competing tribal and religious groups in the Lebanese mosaic. Totten shows that, while dispensing social services to its own people, the militia was also able to intimidate the country’s other confessional groups and build a totalitarian mini-state within fractured Lebanon.

The timeline of Totten’s chilling story ends well before the recent upheavals in the Arab world. Yet it can be read as a cautionary tale, reminding us that there was once another “Arab spring” that appeared even more hopeful than the present-day uprisings in Tahrir Square, Tunisia, and Benghazi. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution broke out spontaneously in 2005, just a few months after the Syrian intelligence services—with Hezbollah’s active collaboration—assassinated the popular, pro-Western prime minister, Rafik Hariri. In a spontaneous outburst of “people power,” 1 million Lebanese, out of a total population of 4 million, packed Beirut’s Martyr’s Square to demand the removal of the country’s Syrian overlords. The Syrians did leave, and for a brief interlude, its Lebanese client, Hezbollah, was pushed off the streets and found itself in political retreat. Many in the West became convinced that democracy and civil society were about to blossom in a pivotal Arab country, while also creating prospects for peace and stability in the region. But Hezbollah bided its time, waiting patiently for its moment of opportunity. When the West lost interest, Hezbollah forced its way back into power and turned the lights out again. The ominous parallel to recent events will become obvious to readers of Totten’s book.

In an engaging first-person narrative, Totten begins with a description of his nearly empty flight from Germany to Lebanon a few days after the Hariri assassination. His West Beirut hotel was similarly uninhabited. The country seemed on the verge of another brutal civil war (the last one had raged for 15 years and resulted in the deaths of 150,000 Lebanese), and foreigners were avoiding the capital city. Even veteran residents of Beirut were staying off the streets. To the young, inexperienced freelance journalist arriving in Beirut for the first time, the city seemed bleak and scary, more like Belfast during the “troubles” than the legendary “Paris of the Middle East.”

One of the conceits of the powerful mainstream news outlets is that to deliver effective journalism in war-torn regions like the Middle East, their big-time reporters need well-staffed bureaus, with local “minders” speaking the native language to guide them around the dangerous neighborhoods. Plus, the reporters need lots of walking-around money. Totten, one of a new breed of young, self-created Internet bloggers and reporters (and an occasional contributor to City Journal), travels light. His bureau is in his backpack, and he forages off the land.

Yet it may be because of these apparent disadvantages that Totten is able to deliver truthful assessments of the totalitarian Hezbollah movement, which perennially escape the big media outlets. Fear is a major factor behind the mainstream media’s professional failure to report on Hezbollah accurately. In the Middle East, we now know, Islamist movements and militias kill reporters. One Hezbollah official warned Totten after he wrote something that displeased the organization: “You insulted Hezbollah. We know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live.” In his book, Totten also cites Time reporter Christopher Allbritton on the subject of Hezbollah intimidation: “Hezbollah is launching Katyushas,” Allbritton confided in his personal blog in 2006, “but I’m loath to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.” On his own blog, USA Today reporter Charles Levinson was even more direct in describing Hezbollah’s methods: “Their interaction with the press borders on fascist.” Yet such fears are only voiced in reporters’ private blogs. On prime-time broadcasts, the rule is to hide behind formal objectivity and balance.

Totten sensibly also worries about the possibility of physical retaliation. Yet it is to his advantage that he has no permanent address or bureau that Hezbollah can track. And he doesn’t have to worry that his employer’s assets will be put at risk whenever he decides to speak truth to Hezbollah power. Over the past five years, this entrepreneurial young American has darted in and out of many of the Middle East’s hot spots, engaged the people caught up in the vortex of conflict, and offered the readers of his blog an honest take on what each of the parties really stands for.

Totten concludes with a powerful statement about what’s at stake for Western and democratic values. It may not be quite literally a clash of civilizations that is symbolized by Fatima Gate, but it is, inescapably, a clash between fascism and democracy. The moral question that Totten poses for readers is: Which side are you on?

Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.

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