Travel literature review: The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah...

The Media Relations Department of HizbollahThe Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar

4.5 star

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Angela Tinson

Angela Tinson is an in-house editor at Lonely Planet.

“The media relations department of Hizbollah wishes you a happy birthday”, by email, apparently. Or at least they used to, for foreign correspondents registered to report on the region, until the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon diverted their attention elsewhere.

Neil Macfarquhar spent 13 years reporting on events in the Middle East, everywhere from Tehran to Marrakesh for the Associated Press and the New York Times. This book is his memoir of those times. Written more like a series of essays than an autobiography, it lays bare the media, from the precarious position of foreign correspondents in the region to local game shows, fatwa talk shows and blogs. It covers politics, from neighbourhood sessions of Libya’s Popular Committees to audiences with officials up through the ranks, even as high as Qadhafi. And, of course, Macfarquhar delves into the religion of the region, from fatwa to jihad and everything in between. Each topic is covered in rich detail.

Macfarquhar lived by the universal advice to journalists to “go everywhere”, and his memoir is full of anecdotes about the incredible array of people he met and mined for information and insight along the way – colleagues, friends, official contacts. With so much lacklustre and noncritical journalism around today, it is heartening to see how much dedication and passion Macfarquhar put into his assignments – making meaningful connections with local people and often putting himself inconveniently, and sometimes dangerously, on government radars. And although the book is dense with intelligent, well-researched political commentary and analysis, Macfarquhar writes in plain and unpretentious language and makes the fascinating subject matter more accessible than most other sources.

The book is certainly not light reading, and not what I would ordinarily consider travel literature, although Macfarquhar does give the reader insight into the complicated lives led by the people in a region in which secret police, unpredictable dictators and violent conflict can be part of everyday life. He introduces some inspirational activists working in places where advocating for change is a risky, liberty- if not life-threatening endeavour; and he reveals the unique ways in which you need to have your wits about you to travel safely and responsibly in such volatile destinations. For example, do you report a theft, resultant from your absentmindedness, in Saudi Arabia, where the accused may have a hand cut off for your foolishness?

I found this book a challenge to get through, but well worth the effort.

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