Wednesday, October 8, 2008

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman

Being under 30, my firsthand knowledge of politics and world events only goes back about 15 years, so most things that happened in the Reagan Administration and before are historical to me rather than something I can look back on and remember. As this presidential election plays out, we are constantly reminded of the strategies employed by previous candidates, but looking at these things from a historical perspective is somewhat strange: since I already know the outcome to the election, I tend to view strategies through that lens rather than the situation as it existed on the ground at that time.

The same thing is true with respect to foreign affairs, only more so. I was almost exclusively interested in domestic matters before September 11th, so I only distantly followed events like Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands at the White House. But as the last eight years have increased the relevance of the Middle East to our country, I have become progressively more and more annoyed with those who speak authoritatively about something they know so little about. My reading serves as much to inform me what I don’t know than fill in gaps in my knowledge, so I’ve realized how little about Israel and Palestine I can really speak intelligently

Therefore I’ve been reading extensively on the region, last week finally getting to Thomas L. Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, an account of his time serving as a reporter in Lebanon and Israel. Shifting from memoir to reporting adeptly, Friedman is able to help the reader understand the situation, as it existed in the 1980s. While I learned quite a bit about the political situation in Beirut involving the Druse, Maronite Christians, and Arafat’s PLO, what stuck with me the most was the depiction of the everyday citizen. What must it be like to live in a world where car bombs have killed someone you know?

It shames me to admit, but I really didn’t have a good sense of Lebanon’s history prior to this reading. Considered the ideal with so many factions of people living together in relative harmony, the tensions underneath eventually exploded in violence, something that hindsight sees as inevitable. Friedman is at his best when intertwining interviews with people on the ground along with leaders of the various factions, occasionally throwing in his own viewpoint in order to flesh out the picture. What we tend to get is a real cross-section of the culture.

As he moves on to Jerusalem, the book shifts in tone. There is much less of Friedman himself in these chapters. Instead he focuses on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and how that was handled during his time there. I have always been one to sympathize with Palestine, but reading these passages helped me to evolve my thoughts. Not that I am less sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people, but now I feel that I have a better grasp to the actual problems in the region and how they might concessions be made by each side in order to achieve lasting peace.

My edition had a chapter written in 1994, five years after the book was first published. In it, Friedman opines at length about the direction he feels the two sides must take in order to solve some of the conflict. Though no expert, I believe much of this to still be applicable today. I was fascinated by how little the region has seemed to change in the intervening years, even with the rise of Hamas and the death of Arafat. Though I would like a similar account of the intervening years, I nevertheless feel that From Beirut to Jerusalem to be quite valuable for anyone trying to understand the region. What happened twenty years ago may seem like old news to those of my generation, but in the communities of Lebanon and Israel, it seems like yesterday.

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