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The Middle East, History, and Hope: A Q&A with Kim Ghattas

The Corporation’s Nehal Amer interviews the Emmy Award–winning journalist about her latest book, Black Wave, which the author describes as a “One Thousand and One Nights” tale of modern Middle Eastern politics


Kim Ghattas (Credit: Tarek Moukkadem)

You’ve had a wide-ranging career as a journalist. Tell us about some of the most memorable events and places you’ve covered.

From my first reporting trip to South Lebanon in 1997, covering the Israeli occupation there, to the few months I spent in Pakistan in 2015 doing stories about the training of a women’s police unit in tribal areas or the vaccine campaign against polio, to the final trip on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign plane, landing at dawn on Election Day … I’ve loved every moment of my career. Every story is special, every event memorable — and that’s really not an exaggeration. I’ve felt very lucky throughout my career to have the opportunities I’ve had, meeting incredible people everywhere, who welcome you into their homes, their lives, and open their hearts to you. Some stories are intense and difficult, like the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, or the war between Israel and Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah in 2006. Some are incredibly special, like a radio piece I did on Sufi music and traditions in Aleppo. I often pull up my recordings from that trip and listen to the music again. It’s a world that is now lost, after nine years of war in Syria. Throughout my career, this is what I’ve always tried to figure out: What does it mean? How does it affect people?

What inspired you to write Black Wave, and what were some of the challenges you faced?

Black Wave is the culmination of 20 years of reporting — in some ways, the combination of all the knowledge I had acquired and all the questions that were left unanswered, such as the one at the start of the book: “What happened to us?” It’s a question that many of us in the wider Middle East ask ourselves when we think to the not-so-distant past, the past that our parents and grandparents lived in and which is very different from our reality today. I wanted to understand how things had unraveled because the region has not always been in the throes of such despair, sectarian violence, and intolerance. And I wanted to tell our story, from our perspective in the region, to help change the narrative.

Initially, the biggest challenge was convincing my agent and my publisher that I was presenting them with a new, BIG idea about a region that people are really tired of hearing about, that I was offering a new reading of known history, one that would open people’s eyes to a different way of looking at the Middle East. And that is precisely what I do with the book: I go against key misconceptions that people have about the Middle East, so I hope readers come away with a totally different perspective of the region. I get a lot of emails from readers telling me reading the book was an aha moment for them. The other challenge was realizing the enormity of the task: tackling 40 years, 7 countries, and 15 characters in one book. I got a lot of skeptical looks when I told people what I was about to undertake.

Black Wave weaves together — impressively — extensive historical research and on-the-ground reporting. Can you tell us a bit about your research process?

I started by writing a proposal for my agent that we would shop around to publishers. To write the proposal, which ended up being 70 pages, I spent a year reading, researching, and talking to people about my thesis: that 1979 was a pivotal year that began the unraveling, triggering the Saudi-Iran rivalry, which ultimately undid the region, igniting dormant sectarian tensions and unleashing the rise of political Islam and, with it, the rise of cultural intolerance. With the help of two part-time research assistants, I stress-tested the thesis, dug for information in books and articles, and did preliminary interviews. After a year of writing and fine-tuning, we presented the proposal to a publisher and got a book deal. Then the hard work started! I moved from Washington, D.C., to Lebanon because I knew this book had to be written while I was surrounded by the moods, the cultures, the languages, and the smells of the region. I wanted to be able to grab a quick coffee with a journalist who had witnessed the Iran Revolution, or someone who had lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, or someone who had met Arafat. They would inspire me. I didn’t want to be consumed by the policy world of D.C. — or else the book would have become something very different.

I knew all the countries I was writing about from my years of reporting. I traveled back to most of them, except Syria. I had been to Iran in 2015 while I was writing the proposal but was not able to return. I had two other research assistants in Beirut who were incredible and should get a lot of credit for what we achieved. They practically lived in the library of The American University of Beirut, going through books, newspapers, magazines, film footage, trawling the Internet for days and days, looking for all the big bits and the tidbits that helped me fill out the narrative with texture, color, and incredible detail, building on the interviews I had conducted. After six months of intense reporting, researching, and drafting, I spent a full month just organizing the pieces of the puzzle and figuring out the structure. The book is chronological, different characters moving through time and space simultaneously. It’s a complex structure but it has to feel effortless for the reader.

There are many turning points in the region that have had a huge political, geopolitical impact: from the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the creation of Israel to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. My argument is that none of these events transformed culture and religion or collective memory the way the year 1979 did.

Kim Ghattas

 

You are careful not to paint the Middle East in a singular, monolithic light, but you do present the reader with an overarching argument: that the Saudi-Iran rivalry has shaped not only the politics but also the diverse cultures of the region. Why did you decide to look at this particular question?

There are many turning points in the region that have had a huge political, geopolitical impact: from the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the creation of Israel to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. My argument is that none of these events transformed culture and religion or collective memory the way the year 1979 did. Before that year, Iran, a dominantly Shia country, and Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country, were allies. Competitive? Yes. But they were friendly, twin pillars in U.S. policy in the region to counter the Soviet Union. Before 1979, there were occasional communal disputes, grievances, and there have been battles in past centuries, but the Sunni-Shia divide did not feature in or define the geopolitics of the region. As custodian of the two most holy sites in Islam, Saudi Arabia had begun deploying religion as a soft power tool during the 1960s, but it did so haphazardly. Its efforts were not met with great enthusiasm. In 1979, Khomeini transforms Iran into an Islamic Republic, he has visions of leadership beyond his country’s borders and beyond the world community of Shias. He begins to challenge the House of Saud in their leadership of the Muslim world — and that pushes Riyadh to deploy all the soft power tools at its disposal to rally the Muslim world to its side. With that comes a lot of money, billions of dollars — spent on education, religious education, literature, even cinema — that begin to transform people’s cultural references, shaping a world that is more to Saudi Arabia’s image. More conservative, more literalist, more puritanical. Meanwhile, Iran is busy doing the same, exporting its Islamic revolution where it can, including to places like Lebanon. That competition for hegemony, with religion as a tool, has a profound impact on the region. Slowly but surely it alters norms and references, and in doing so it transforms our collective memory.

Your first book, The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (2008), is both an insider’s account and a lens through which you engage with questions around America’s role in the world. Talk about your experience writing The Secretary, a very different sort of travelogue from Black Wave. Does anything connect the two books?

Though I did not know it at the time, writing The Secretary was great preparation for writing Black Wave, almost like a first trial in terms of technique and structure. In my first book, I also take the reader on a journey, from country to country as I travel with the secretary of state around the world, from China to Pakistan to Morocco and on and on. I also try to tell the bigger story of American foreign policy, how it works and doesn’t work, by telling the stories of the human beings at the heart of the machine. The biggest difference is that the period I cover in The Secretary is much more condensed — four years of the tenure of a secretary of state — and I am a witness to all the events I’m writing about. I know all the players in the secretary’s entourage, and I interview them as the action unfolds. The book came out a month after Clinton left the State Department. It’s a first draft of history, though it is not purely a biography about her time in office. The Secretary is a much bigger story about how American foreign policy affects people, what drives it, what hinders it. My own story as someone who grew up in Beirut, on the receiving end of American foreign policy, is part of the narrative and is the impetus of the key question I try to answer in the book, the question that people still ask themselves in various parts of the world: How will American foreign policy affect me, affect my country? I must say though that The Secretary now feels like a book of ancient history, a template for how foreign policy was conducted once upon a time, perhaps to be revived under a different president.

For several years now, protests have been unfolding throughout the region — in Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, and Iran. Can you help us understand these protests in light of what you discovered while writing Black Wave?

Not everything that is wrong in the region is due to 1979 or the Saudi-Iran rivalry, but that rivalry undergirds a lot of the dynamics and exacerbates a lot of the current issues. Of course, another key driver is the Arab-Israeli conflict — it is in the name of the fight against Israel that countries like Egypt and Syria justify their bloated defense budgets, the repression of civil society, etc. The interplay between these two trends, combined with problematic American foreign policy, such as invasions or supporting dictators for the sake of maintaining stability in the region, is what has led much of the Middle East to sink into the crushing darkness in which it finds itself today. It should be no surprise that people revolt. The younger generation does not want to remain wedded to the old ways of doing things, it doesn’t want to be held hostage to the ghosts of 1979. A majority of young people polled also say religion plays too big a role in everyday life. They want governments that are accountable and uncorrupt, that offer solutions, employment, governance. They want what everybody wants, everywhere: dignity and justice.

Black Wave was launched just as the world began to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic — a tough time to be hitting the road on an author tour. What was that like? Any memorable encounters or anecdotes?

I was incredibly lucky that the book launched in January, before the pandemic really hit. In fact, the book took off even before the official launch date, because we got a call from The Daily Show inviting us on a week before the official publication date of January 29. The Middle East had been in the news all month because of the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on January 3. I was on the air a lot those weeks, talking about Iran, Iraq, explaining the regional reaction to Soleimani’s death. That’s when The Daily Show called. It was a bit surreal flying into New York City from Beirut one evening and then finding myself on set with Trevor Noah the next evening. I was so tired and jet-lagged I that didn’t have time to be nervous. It was a lot of fun. From then on it was a whirlwind and a great one at that: the reviews started to come in and they were all very positive, in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and elsewhere. Reviews in the U.K. were also fantastic. We did all the shows like NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN’s Amanpour, and GPS with Fareed Zakaria. I managed to squeeze in a tour in London that was packed with events and interviews and one last event at MIT before everything came to a screeching halt. After a few weeks of quiet, virtual events began to pick up — as well as some radio interviews. Most of all, I’m beyond thrilled with the emails I get from readers in Italy, Iran, Pakistan, Brazil, Ireland, the U.K., Arizona, Kentucky, New York City — really, from everywhere — telling me I’ve been their quarantine companion.

Think of the general reader, not an area specialist. What do you want them to take away from your book?

This book is not for specialists. It’s very much for the general reader who is interested in knowing more about the Middle East. It’s not a light read, but it’s a page-turner. So I would say: come with me on a journey through time, a “One Thousand and One Nights” tale of modern Middle Eastern politics, and discover a region that is more interesting, more vibrant, more diverse, and more tolerant than any newspaper headline would lead you to believe. Meet some incredible people who are just like you, whoever you are, anywhere you are. People who fight for what is right, who recite poetry, march for their rights, defy dictators, sing when music is banned, tell jokes to keep smiling. Most of all, I would say this book will show you that the Middle East has not always been as dark as it is today, because of various accidents of history, and therefore, it can also recover and move forward on a better path. The answer is within us, our own history, our own rich culture.


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TOP: Symbolizing religious coexistence in both the past and the present, the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque (also referred to as the Blue Mosque) and the Maronite Cathedral of Saint George stand next to each other in Beirut, Lebanon. In the foreground is an archaeological site. (Credit: Frans Sellies via Getty Images).