Michael Totten

The Story of a Defeat

Jonathan Spyer reviews The Road to Fatima Gate in the Jerusalem Post.

The Road to Fatima Gate is the first book by US journalist and blogger Michael Totten. Over the last several years, Totten has built a reputation as one of a new breed of reporter, the kind made possible by the rapidly changing nature of the media industry. As mainstream news organizations struggle to generate sufficient revenue, so budgets for maintaining reporters in the field shrink.

And as the classic foreign correspondent with his large local staff and expense account fades into memory, reporters of the type represented by Totten have emerged to take his place.

Operating independently, self-financing and self-motivated, Totten has taken himself to some of the Middle East’s most dangerous hot spots. His reporting and writing are characterized by a willingness to take risks and get into the field, and an affectionate but not uncritical attitude toward the region.

In his book, Totten seeks to observe and understand the tragic trajectory of Lebanon over the last half-decade, from the murder of prime minister Rafik Hariri and the departure of Syria, to the present situation of effective Hezbollah domination.

Totten was one of a group of American journalists and researchers whose imaginations were captured by the Cedar Revolution of 2005, and the promise it seemed to herald of a Middle East freed from the suffocating grip of politicized religion and militarized politics.

The story he tells is not a happy one. It is the story of a defeat.

Through analysis, interviews and his own experiences living in Beirut and traveling in both Lebanon and Israel, Totten observes and depicts the gradual eclipse of the hopes of the March 14 movement in Lebanon, in the face of the implacable will and capacity for violence of Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers.

The book is a description of an intellectual journey. We observe as the author’s initially somewhat excessively optimistic view of Lebanon and the region is gradually tempered by experience and disappointment, leading to the starkly realistic observations in the conclusion.

On the way, Totten describes a number of adventures. There is a slightly hair-raising encounter with Hezbollah, whose media officer Hussein Naboulsi, by turns unctuous and hysterical, threatens the author in Beirut after misinterpreting a sarcastic comment he makes on his blog. Totten accurately captures Hezbollah’s unique blend of crude menace, paranoia and ideological other-worldliness.

Read the rest in the Jerusalem Post.