Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict
by Sandra Mackey
Reviewed by Michael Lukas
San Francisco Chronicle
At the end of Mirror of the Arab World, Sandra Mackey acknowledges her publisher's editor in chief, Starling Lawrence, "who has so wisely recognized the value of books on the Middle East for the nonspecialist reader." Lawrence is right to want to publish popular books about the Middle East. And Mirror of the Arab World embodies much of what we want from such books. Evenhanded on even the most sticky and controversial issues, the book is readable and to the point. However, anchored as it is to a somewhat flimsy conceit, Mirror of the Arab World is doomed from the start.
The basic premise of Mirror is that Americans can best understand the Arab world by viewing it through the lens of recent Lebanese history. "By examining the Lebanese experience," Mackey writes. "I intend to lead the reader into the Arab world to glimpse its complexities, frustrations and virtues." This is where the ship begins to sink. Although recent Lebanese history can surely be used to illustrate certain trends and themes in the Arab world, viewing the entire region through this tiny and idiosyncratic country is simplistic to the point of distortion. A more skilled writer or a more learned scholar might find a way to thread 250 million people and 14 centuries of history through the eye of such a tiny needle, but Mackey is neither. The result is a mirror broken into pieces, a kaleidoscope refracting only slivers of truth.
At its best, Mirror of the Arab World resembles Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem. Mackey's journalistic concision and sharp eye for detail make historical events read like this morning's news. She recounts car bombings and political maneuverings in the tough, tight prose of a writer who has been trained to pound out copy on deadline. But while From Beirut to Jerusalem focuses on two relatively discrete conflicts, Mirror tries to encompass an entire geographic region, an entire culture and worldview. Veering from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, from Beirut to Baghdad and Damascus, Mackey takes us backward and forward in time, leaving us with a confusing muddle of names and dates, violence and revenge. The book is confusing even for a reader intimately familiar with the history of the Middle East.
This opacity might be forgiven if Mackey's book were an academic tome. But it is not. Mackey has a good command of the facts, but her interpretation would not pass muster in a peer review. We can accept, reluctantly, her rationale for leaving North Africa out of the book. But her elision of political and militant Islam, her amateur sociological analysis and her repeated use of phrases such as "Arab hinterland" and "tribes" would raise the hackles of any serious Middle East scholar. And on top of all this, a large number of her secondary sources date back to the 1980s.
The most problematic aspect of Mirror of the Arab World is hidden in its more florid moments of description. Although Mackey surely would not say the Arab world is timeless or uniform, her descriptions reinforce a picture of the Middle East as mired in its desert-dwelling past. Take, for example, this description at the beginning of a chapter titled "Identity in Pursuit of a Nation": "Day after day, year after year, the fellah scratches the dense, black soil with the same crude hoe devised by his ancestors, and milks the water buffalo that powers the same primitive apparatus that dips water from the river."
Perhaps explaining the Middle East is too much to ask of a single book. Imagine writing a single book that explains the United States! But whether or not such a book is possible, Mirror of the Arab World is not that book, nor is it a good place to begin. For a more solid foundation in the Middle East, try Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples, The Venture of Islam by Marshall Hodgson or Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
Michael Lukas is a former Fulbright scholar and is at work on a novel about the end of the Ottoman Empire. He lives in Berkeley.