on March 19, 2016
I previously had no idea who Jared Cohen was, but I found this book while prepping to work through a series of books on Islam, including ones looking at modern conflict and reform. Cohen's adventure in this book eventually led him to great success at the State Department and now at Google. There are some events in this book that I think are unbelievable-- how a person "just happens" to end up in Mosul in the middle of a war zone, avoids detention in Iran, and more tight spots that it seems a Jewish-American could easily have been kidnapped or badly mistreated. He intentionally wanted to sneak through the Syrian-Iraq border in the middle of the insurgency against the advisement of any local who can help him. Details about how he made sleeping arrangements, was able to wash his clothes, or get by with his worn out treads, etc. get lost between conversations with students and wild parties in Lebanon. (I also imagine much goes unsaid about those parties and what happens afterward, he knows too much not to have experienced things very personally.) Nonetheless, I found the work captivating; I admire his courage. I was intrigued also because I once also spent part of my formative years traveling and even lived with some college-aged youth in a Muslim context, watching them walk the line between cultural conservativism and their desire to drink and party. Children of Jihad is an excellent book to get a primer on the Arab Spring as the seeds were beginning to germinate during Cohen's travels. But it is worth keeping in mind that he does not speak Farsi or Arabic, he is reliant on English. He may have picked up some Syrian Arabic in his extensive time there, but anyone there could tell you that Syrian-Lebanese Arabic is different than Iraqi and others; if he was communicating on the street he was not learning anything universal. Thus, I am highly skeptical of many of the risks he takes with his own life given he has no language-- that language barrier is rarely mentioned, even in remote places.
Cohen is already no stranger to travel, having spent time in Africa and seeing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. The Introduction begins in Beirut where there's a distinct dichotomy of teenagers who love American food, culture, and music but hate the government; and then there's Hezbollah. Cohen's travels lead him to note that extremism gains a foothold whenever an extremist group builds a school or a hospital, as is the case with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Wahabist outfits places like Pakistan. Much of the book, and Cohen's work, deals with youth and their increased access to unfiltered news via social media outlets; Cohen's work in this area was lauded both by Sec. Condi Rice and Clinton, and is what vaulted him to Google Ideas.
The first chapters chronicle his four months in Iran in 2004-2005. Cohen underestimates the difficulty of getting money transferred to him from the US around the restrictions, and lacks initial contacts until he runs into serious trouble and draws on his contacts from his Rhodes scholar studies at Oxford. Cohen is followed by minders and his hotel room is searched randomly and repeatedly. Within 24 hours of arrival, he is threatened with imprisonment. This brief incident actually breaks him emotionally, which makes it rather incredible that he decides to stay in the country and risk his own life and others he meets with. Nonetheless, through a university he is able to make student contacts and find the help he needs-- he avoids further detention despite coming into contact with dissenters, moonshiners, and more which would have been highly punishable (I will follow this review with Roxana Saberi's account of detention in Iran for supposedly lesser sins.)
Cohen documents the underground parties, illegal wares, and the boldness of Iranian students, particularly females. This is just prior to the "Green Revolution," which Cohen basically foretells. The students recall previous riots under Khameny, and the dashed hopes from false reformers they had previously supported; there is now "fear and loathing" under Ahmadinejad. Now with weak internet filters and satellite television, the whole country has access to different views from abroad. Iranian politics, like Iranian nationalism, is complicated and rooted in a long history of disappointment with the West. Iran's nuclear program a case in point, begun in the 1950s with US help under the Shah, it is still a source of pride and in 2005 a bargaining chip. Remarkably, at one point Cohen actually gets close to a classified facility. When hikers are detained in a country for doing far less, Cohen, without any aid of Farsi, seems either young and naive or foolhearty. Cohen also seeks out a synagogue in Iran, revealing and taking pride in his Jewishness. Eventually, he leaves and is denied a visa to return.
Back in Lebanon, Cohen makes friends with liberal Lebanese-- attending multi-ethnic beach parties and even gay bars. He chronicles parties with mingling Druze, Jews, and Muslims, noting that "most one night stands cross religious lines" as it's safer as there are no expectations afterwards. He also chronicles the history of the Maronite people, retells the history of the Lebanese civil war in 1976, and the eventually united movement against Syrian influence in Lebanon. He meets a lot of students who are either secretly or openly members of Hezbollah; something like 70% of Hezbollah students enroll in the sciences and most keep their membership secret. But Cohen notes that they are "radical by day but partying by night." Cohen writes that while Israel was criticized for its actions in Lebanon in 2006, it was Hezbollah who was "looking for a fight" and "willing to kill civilians" to get it. The author also visits the camps of displaced Palestinians. He meets some who fit the stereotypes of radicals and others who welcome him warmly as a human being-- even as a Jew.
Cohen moves onto Syria, where he initially spends a lot of time in cities with the secular youth; few wear a hijab and fewer wear a chadour. He senses change as youth have the internet and demand more, he essentially sees the Arab Spring before it begins. I thought Cohen did a good job giving a historical overview of Syria, describing its ruling minority Alawite population (16%), the historical practice of Christianity in the region who also give support to the Alawite government, and the Assad family history of wiping out tens of thousands of Sunnis. In this, Cohen chronicles the history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria as well. Just like Lebanon and Iran, Cohen finds the gay parties less-than-hidden night life. Like Iran, Syrian intelligence picks him up and gives him a warning.
The author finds conservativism when he ventures out of town, spending time in Palmyra and Deir Ez-zor. This is sad to read in light of ISIS' wanton destruction of the area. Cohen again finds the influence of the satellite dish, even among Bedouins. (Interesting anecdote from this section: The West Wing Season 2 was banned from Syrian TV because of its favorability toward Israel?) The author is impressed by Syrian nationalism, the "we are all Syria" that helped eventually fuel the Arab Spring protests. Another commonality he finds in Eastern Syria in 2005 is that no one wants to go to Iraq, and no one will agree to take him there for any price. Why he feels compelled to go there during the height of the insurgency, by any means, is unclear.
Eventually, Cohen gets into Iraqi Kurdistan by skirting the area around the Turkish border. It is hard for me to believe he somehow navigates all of this completely in English. In Kurdistan, he witnesses children who are homeless but have learned to hack cellphones. One person gets a phone and they all figure out how to use it. Cohen details some of the history of Kurdisan, the 1975 Algiers Accords and Kurdish betrayal, their sense of betrayal worsened by the Bush Administration not helping after the 1991 uprising, the KDP and PUK civil war, and more. One interesting thing he notes is that televisions stay on all the time everywhere, through all events. Whether this is due to an increase in channels available after Saddam's fall or not is unclear. But Cohen finds Kurds to be the most democratic people in the Middle East.
While apparently trying to take a taxi to the Turkish border, his driver decides to go to Mosul to save a few bucks on gasoline while Cohen naps unawares. When he wakes up in the cab, he lays low, terrified, in the 120 degree car, afraid to leave and unsure what to do-- certain he is likely to be kidnapped at any moment. Cohen's driver eventually returns and they set out on the dangerous journey, his driver stopping for tea along the way as if there is no danger to his American passenger. Eventually, they end up at the border and Cohen practically runs to US soldiers guarding the border; they help him find a way out through the mess.
Thus ends Cohen's wild tale of adventure, youth, and technological awakening in the tense Middle East. "The monolithic characterization of 'us' versus 'them' fails to take into account humanity," he writes. He befriends people in Palestinian refugee camps, conservatives in rural Syria, and enjoyed hospitality in Iran and Lebanon. It's easy to see how he wanted to help spread American ideals of freedom and democracy through the still-underground channels of social media as a career. I give this book four stars out of five. It loses a star because I am curious about what is left unsaid, feel he took unnecessary risks with his life in Iran that would have eventually cost US taxpayer dollars, and I don't believe he did all he claims and enjoyed the conversations he claims without having any language other than English