The 'New Middle East' That Never Was

By the spring of 2000, Friedman had finished his compulsory service (but with reserve duty ahead of him), and Israel left the security zone, blowing up the Pumpkin and all its other outposts. But “[i]t turned out the Palestinians were watching closely that last night in the security zone.” Watching closely—and getting inspired:

When the suicide bombings began in our cities that fall we realized there was no “new Middle East” after all. That phrase would never be used again without sarcasm. The Middle East was gutted houses and cafes, and young killers in black masks.

And yet Friedman, a couple of years later, now a university student of Islam and the Middle East with time out for intifada-fighting reserve duty, hit upon a peculiar idea: actually implementing the vision of returning to Lebanon and, ultimately, to the remains of the Pumpkin itself. “I’m sure that at the time I thought”—still, amid the Middle Eastern fury—“this might give me reason for hope.”

And so the summer of 2002 found him—after first returning briefly to his native Toronto—entering Lebanon on his Canadian passport to play the part of a non-Israeli, non-Jewish, Canadian tourist.

The Lebanese turned out to be friendly, curious, talkative—and steeped in hatred of Israel and Jews. A Shiite in Beirut told him: “Jews are very bad. They kill little babies.” A group of young, mixed Muslim and Christian, more liberal Lebanese didn’t turn out much better; one asked: “did I agree that Israel had engineered the American plan to invade Iraq so that the Palestinians could be transferred there?” The “better bookstores in Beirut” featured The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other antisemitic works.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, Friedman then made his way by taxi to the grim, Hizballah-dominated south with its posters of Khomeini and wall portraits of “martyrs” who had killed Israelis. In Nabatieh he felt he was “pushing my luck” and “badly wanted to leave.” Which he did, by taxi, for one last stop: what was left of the Pumpkin.

There, in what is the book’s third encounter with the place,  Friedman comes face to face with the real lessons that this hill—now a desolate ruin—has to impart: not the fruition of youthful fantasies but the cruelty of war, the preciousness and fragility of life, the harshness and implacability of the Middle East. When he left it, he “knew I wouldn’t see it again.”

Pumpkin Flowers is ultimately a story of an individual’s and a society’s growth and adjustment to reality. Rendered in Friedman’s lean, pinpoint prose with its frequent poetic intensities, it’s an engrossing read and leaves—I’m already finding—a strong impact.