Missing the Big Pictureby Joshua Alvarez
And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East
(Simon & Schuster, 2016)
It was fall 2010 and sitting next to me on a bench on Cairo University’s campus was a slightly frail Egyptian student who was calmly explaining to me why the September 11 attacks were justified. He wore a faux-European designer outfit in style among young Egyptian men: a pink, glossy, tight-fitting t-shirt; bleach-streaked blue jeans; and faux-Puma sneakers. He was clean-shaven and his hair was (typically) over-gelled. He spoke with unnerving gentleness, a steadiness of voice afforded only to those whose minds, at the deepest levels, are made up.
Working to keep my own voice as steady, I offered that attacks against United States military personnel or even intelligence operatives had a nugget of legitimacy: if your war is against the American government, fight its armed representatives directly. The militant’s eyes gleamed as if he had studied this line of reasoning and finally had a chance to deploy his counter-argument. “But isn’t America a democracy? Aren’t the people the government?”
Some days later I was flipping through television channels— all of which were closely vetted and censored by the ostensibly secular Egyptian government—and I found one showing a montage of home videos capturing American soldiers being shot or blown up in Iraq. Islamic incantations with melodramatic celebratory music played in the background. The videos weren’t shot by innocent bystanders; they were choreographed by the same people pulling the triggers and detonating the IEDs.
These are vignettes and there are not necessarily any fundamental truths to be extrapolated from them. They happened during my five-month stay in Cairo as a student, just weeks before the first Tahrir Square protests, so it may be a bit brash of me to claim any deep understanding of the country, much less the Middle East, though I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time in the region since then. But at some indefinite point, a reasonably intelligent person, especially a journalist, should feel some obligation to connect events and create a framework for understanding them, articulate themes, or reveal historical forces that may be at play.
Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, did not take the opportunity to do any of those things in his book, And Then All Hell Broke Loose, a chronological recap of his twenty years of living and reporting in the Middle East. Engel does succeed in providing some historical context to events he witnesses, which readers less acquainted with the region would find helpful. But too often he writes as if he is doing television segments, and when he’s not standing atop rubble listening to gunfire he lapses into self-absorption, reveling in the minutiae of walking around whatever conflict zone he happens to be in. What’s good for NBC viewers does not necessarily make for good or informative reading. Lurching between compressed macro-history, tangential interactions in the streets, and gratuitous personal details, Engel barely addresses his most likely audience: people who have already seen the headlines but are not regional specialists and are hoping that he—the American journalist with probably the most experience in the region—will help them make some sense of a confusing region that will demand informed attention for the foreseeable future.
It is an opportunity sorely missed—Engel is an excellent reporter, even close to an ideal one. He earned his position at NBC honorably. He was the only American journalist who chose to stay in Baghdad in March 2003 for the “shock and awe” bombing campaign and the subsequent invasion. He was also averse to embedding with the military, preferring to rely instead on his own network of Iraqi citizens (he’s fluent in Arabic) to get an unvarnished sense of life outside the Green Zone, from which most reporters comfortably filed their stories.
But the potentials of book writing seem lost on Engel even as he writes one. Late into the book, in an attempt at a heart-to-heart with the reader, he writes that the complexity of the Syrian civil war “made it difficult to explain in a two-minute news segment.” At this point, we’ve already followed Engel through the Second Intifada, the Iraq War, the month-long Israel-Hezbollah fracas in 2006, and NATO’s intervention in and exacerbation of Libya’s civil war—each of them at least as complex as the Syrian civil war. Unintended irony collapses into farce a few lines later when he writes, “These days, I no longer believe there ever are truly good guys or bad guys in war, at least in the Middle East. They’re generally shades of gray. But that doesn’t translate well on television. It was too complicated. Too remote. Too Middle Eastern.” Is not a book, then, an especially terrible thing to waste
Engel didn’t start in television. He began his career in Cairo where he lived and worked as a writer and editor for Middle East Times from 1996 to 2000. Sixteen years have passed since he left Cairo, but Engel is at his most lucid in this book when he talks about his time in Egypt. He is willing to go beyond mere scene-setting and gestures toward larger conclusions. I would like to think it’s because he wrote about the country rather than cut it into two-minute television segments. Engel points out that Egypt has served as both a trendsetter and a roughly accurate microcosm of the Arab world. Indeed, the model of governance controlling Egypt for the past three decades is similar to the governments controlling a large portion of other states in the region: a strongman at the top who enriches himself by pillaging his own citizens, whose welfare and education he leaves to the mosques. Since 2011, we’ve been watching these governments fight for survival against monsters of their own creation.
The Egyptian model runs on what Engel calls “deliberate stupidity,” which is simply to say that multiple generations of people have been systematically subjected to misinformation, sustained campaigns to incite religious and ethnic hatred, and prohibitions against any political rhetoric outside of slogans that lay grievances at the feet of external bogeymen and ludicrously paranoid conspiracy theories (two I constantly heard: 9/11 was an Israeli job and Osama bin Laden never existed). Exacerbating this stupidity are reactionary religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which have exercised a firm grip on street culture by offering a return to greatness through fundamentalist Islam.
It’s here where I’m willing to extrapolate from my time in Cairo. The collusion of reactionary politics and religion described above has transformed Cairo into a place with virtually no music halls, no alcohol, no dancing, and no uncovered women—in short, a place where any potential sexual expression is suppressed. An amateur psychoanalyst can tell you exactly where that leads: based on the brave research of women’s rights activists in Cairo, the United Nations conducted a 2013 survey showing that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed and that groping was more prevalent than even verbal harassment. Ninety-nine percent sounds ludicrous, but judging from my own conversations with female Egyptian students in 2010, Egyptian women probably greeted the survey with little more than a matter-of-fact shrug—and they would say that the harassment they face on a daily basis is a symptom of a larger problem. Those same conversations revealed to me what could be the closest thing to an antidote to the economic and psychological poverty that plagues the region: the empowerment of Arab women.
It’s a shame Engel does not tap into this, and other possible reservoirs that help explain today’s madness, any further. He does come close, too. After listening to a member of a volunteer Islamic moral police force that patrols the streets of Cairo wax poetic about the sensual awards that await him in heaven, Engel ironically points out that, “Heaven is the antithesis of Egypt.”
Joshua Alvarez is a writer and journalist in Brooklyn. He is currently a graduate student in New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.