Excerpts from Michael Totten’s book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel, is now on his site. It begins with the story of how he came to Beirut and one may be forgiven for wondering why Americans would voluntarily make their way to a city where car bombs incinerate armored limousines and blow over multi-storey buildings.
For some the attraction to the Beiruts of the world lies in their strangeness. For example, in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, the character playing Faisal says that he fears Lawrence because the English “have a great hunger for desolate places.” But Michael’s world, I think, has no desolate places. On the contrary, it is a world completely inhabited by people, who, despite the differences in their language, culture and locale, are just like any of us.
What strikes you about being with Michael Totten is that he has the ability to make friends with most anyone who isn’t a certified homicidal maniac. That will probably make The Road to Fatima Gate a unique read because while most people approach the Middle East from the perspective of ideology, tribe or great power politics, Totten comes at things like a character from Mark Twain. The Middle East is his Mississippi and the conversations he records are like the lights twinkling ashore. Totten is a tireless observer of atmosphere, not just of place but in what people say and how crazy they can be while being completely sane in 99% of respects.
Back in February 2009, Michael, Jonathan Foreman helped Christopher Hitchens get away from a bunch of Syrian Nazis. In the video below, you can hear them describe somewhat of the experience, which oddly enough, sheds light on how easy it is for people like Laura Logan to be attacked in Tahrir Square.
Hamra Street, where the Nazis went after Hitchens, is calm and urbane most of the time. No one would think, looking at its cafes, retail stores and restaurants, that a photojournalist would be thrashed within an inch of his life just for taking pictures of Nazi flags, or Christopher Hitchens chased round for writing witty British slogans on posters describing “heroes” most of us have never heard of. That probably motivated me to go out a little later in the day to take pictures of the scene of the incident and post them on the Belmont Club.
Everything can be fine and dandy one moment and dicey the next. What throws the switch — the key to understanding the forces at work — is not to gaze on the “desolate places” which can be photographed from orbit, but to peer into the hearts of men. That is better glimpsed through the Fatima Gate.