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Customer reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars

on October 24, 2015
I picked this book because I served at the US Embassy in Beirut from 1996-97. I retired in 2000 and was out of the loop on what was really happening in Beirut since I no longer had access to the reporting on politics there, that I had when I was still working at the State Department. Totten's book is full of facts and many details that anyone who wants to look closely at Lebanese politics should read. His stories of clashes with Hizbollah, among other terrorist groups operating there, is well worth the time to read. Beirut is a fascinating city, one I wish I could have explored on foot rather than from an armored vehicle in a convoy careening around town. We had to travel to Beirut from Cyprus on US Army operated helicopters, as the airport was considered unsafe during my time in Lebanon. During my time in Beirut the State Dept. considered it the most dangerous assignment in the world. This book should be read by Middle East scholars
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on April 6, 2011
It is hard to put down The Road to Fatima Gate. Totten turns arcane subject matter into flowing prose, and lets his subjects speak for themselves.

Michael Totten is not an academic, and he's not a political activist. He's a concerned American citizen who happens to be an excellent writer. This makes him a journalist, but that title doesn't fully suite him either, because it often implies reporting on deadline. His interest is not in parachuting into a foreign capital, interviewing the most important political actors and academics, writing about it, and leaving.

Totten truly wants to understand the Middle East. As is apparent in The Road to Fatima Gate, Totten arrived in the region for the first time already well versed in the academic and political theories on Lebanon, Israel, and the Middle East at large. However, those works did not describe the place Totten saw. Lebanon and Israel and the people living there were nothing like what he read in books and saw in the news. The first thing he needed to do was to reorient himself.

Totten writes that he was apprehensive on arrival in Beirut, but suddenly recognized that the images didn't match the place. A young man in a bar says to him, "You must be crazy to be here." Totten responds, ""You really think so?" I said. I didn't feel crazy to be there. That feeling passed after twenty-four hours" (7). But, of course, how could he know for sure? He didn't do what many journalists would have done: run to the politicians and the political risk consultants and the academics. He talked to the people. He went to their houses, dined with them, and drank tea. It seems his stringers were nice people he met along the way who offered to help him understand this complex place.

Totten recognizes that he could not fully understand the biases of his sources, so he talks to as many people as possible. Despite his initial bias against certain factions, like Hezbollah, Totten talks to them. What makes him different than journalists is that he is not looking to portray an overarching concept in a headline and 2,000 words, ie "Hezbollah Attacks Beirut, Settles Scores," "Does the US Need Dialogue with Hezbollah?," "Regional Instability Increases Sectarian Tension in Lebanon." He will describe those same situations and convey his positions on those matters, but only after letting the people speak for themselves.

Often times, Totten's sources hang themselves with their words and actions, like when Hezbollah's press relations manager threatens Totten and his photographer, and when Syrian Social Nationalist thugs beat Christopher Hitchens in the middle of a main thoroughfare as Totten tries to rescue him. At other moments, Totten provides a voice to political parties, like the Christian Aounists, little understood in the West (and even within Lebanon). His interviewees appear endearing, and it is left to the reader to recognize their naivete, which Totten often does not need to point out, as he does not selectively quote them and lets them speak for themselves over the course of many pages.

In this regard, he is more of an oral historian of the Middle East in the tradition of Studs Terkel than he is a journalist. Totten isn't just telling a story. He is trying to depict lives. An entire chapter is based on a long conversation at a cafe with the previously mentioned Aounists prior to a rally they held alongside Hezbollah to overthrow the government. It is a compelling read, and provides a fair assessment of these Christian men and their motivations for supporting what most Americans believe is a radical Muslim terrorist organization.

Like Terkel, Totten has his biases, which are apparent in the text, even if he is sometimes not even aware of them. Like any concerned citizen (and even oral historian) writing about a contemporary issue, Totten makes moral judgements, which will upset people who differ with his opinion. However, Totten reveals his thinking and the process through which he made his opinion. Often, the reader is left in agreement: "The spokesman hung himself with his own words," "That action was unjust," "They seem to be good people, but misguided."

My only major qualm with the work is due to something out of Totten's control: that he cannot be in two places at one time. Totten covers the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah from the Israeli side of the border. At that moment, the road he takes to Fatima Gate is from the south, and he does an excellent job conveying the physical destruction in northern Israeli and giving voice to bombarded Israelis. Not only do those chapters manifest the implications of Lebanon's unstable and violent politics on other countries, but they provide the reader insight into the minds and motivations of Israelis and how much their domestic interests are determined by foreign actors. Totten is so good at conveying the emotions and details of lives that it would have been nice to see effect of that violence on the northern side of the border.

Totten makes up for it with what I think is his best chapter - the one that reads like an action novel - on the 2008 Hezbollah invasion of Beirut.

Not only will The Road to Fatima Gate provide readers with fingerspitzengefuhl knowledge of Lebanon, but it will be a fun read, as well.
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on April 18, 2011
Drawing together his reporting from the last half-decade in Lebanon and Israel, Totten lets people make their case, or give their opinions, unencumbered. Between hair-raising accounts of visits to dangerous locales, he manages to lead the reader through the ecology of Lebanon -- the people there (Christian, Muslim, Druze) with all their violent factions -- and the players over the horizon (Syria, Iran, Israel, France, the US) who often have agendas at odds with local peace and prosperity.

For readers with little or no background in the history of the country (let alone the region), "The Road to Fatima Gate" is an excellent introduction. Totten's writing style is vivid, modern, and well-paced. He describes recent events and provides historical background to events and attitudes, as appropriate. Readers will now find newspaper or online accounts of events in Lebanon far more comprehensible. Tales of parties switching sides, thinking short-term, and embracing zero-sum gaming, will trigger more compassion than disdain. It makes for a sober account, all in all.

As the author notes in this book, he finally stopped asking people about "their solution," because it's clear that the resolution of conflict in Lebanon is going to be triggered by changes outside the country. The latest turmoil in Syria (occurring too late for inclusion in the book) is one possible source. A Green Revolution in Iran would be another. And the reader is left with the impression that any removal of outside influence will simply kick off another round of domestic "solutions" ... often at the point of a gun. Lee Smith's Strong Horse model is scalable.

The reader will come away with an appreciation for the plight of the Lebanese ... and a better understanding of why "getting out" is often the solution of choice for some Lebanese. All the more tragic in light of what the natural resources and beauty of the area might offer in an era of real peace. Lebanon ought to be the place where East meets West with greatest prosperity for both. There's no sign of that coming soon in this book.

Reading The Road to Fatima Gate is an opportunity to count one's blessings. Buying The Road to Fatima Gate is an opportunity to sponsor, and acknowledge, an important new style of journalism by an excellent, humane writer.
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on August 18, 2012
Middle eastern politics have a reputation for being hopelessly arcane and boring, so you might not expect much from a non-fiction book about it... but in this case, you would be mistaken. This book is genuinely compelling, as much of a can't-put-it-down adventure as some of the best fiction I've read.

I do have a modest knowledge of the middle east situation, at least enough that I know what the countries and groups are all about. I can see it getting boring real fast if you don't have any idea where the major countries and organizations are and what their foreign policy is basically like, but that wasn't the case for me. If you know at least a little bit, I think you'll come out much better informed than almost anyone who hasn't actually lived there for an extended amount of time. If you just want to hear "Israel Bad, Palestinians Good" or "Israel Good, Arabs Bad", try somewhere else.

If I can take a stab at what I think makes the stories that make up this book so compelling, I think it's that, though Totten has his own politics which he doesn't attempt to hide, he does his best to let each individual speak for themselves and take their point of view into account. You start to actually get a feel for what the Sunnis and Shia and Christians and Israelis and Druze are all about and why they do some of the things that they do. It's mostly real people on the ground saying what they really think, rather than national leaders and bigshots putting out carefully prepared political spin.

If you want to read about a good adventure and get a glimpse of what the middle east is really about, rather than what various US interest groups want you to think, then read this book.
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on January 16, 2016
Totten is essential to understanding the Middle East. Well-written and insightful.
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on April 15, 2015
Great book for those who want to truly understand the complexity of the Middle East.
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on March 10, 2013
This is a book that everyone should read. Though depressing, it is no doubt a book and information that everyone should know. I thank the author for his bravery and candid thoughts about the situation in the middle east.
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on October 24, 2015
Interesting read.......
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on November 3, 2014
Oh boy, he gets inside Hezbollah before the war with Israel in 2006 and what an eye opener!
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on April 7, 2011
Great writing. Interesting first hand and historical reporting. This will give you a good sense of what has been happening in Lebanon since the early 80s and what is happening now with Iranian influence in the Middle East. Kindle edition is well done with good linking of footnotes.
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