It is hard to put down The Road to Fatima Gate. Totten turns arcane subject matter into flowing prose, and lets his subjects speak for themselves.
Michael Totten is not an academic, and he's not a political activist. He's a concerned American citizen who happens to be an excellent writer. This makes him a journalist, but that title doesn't fully suite him either, because it often implies reporting on deadline. His interest is not in parachuting into a foreign capital, interviewing the most important political actors and academics, writing about it, and leaving.
Totten truly wants to understand the Middle East. As is apparent in The Road to Fatima Gate, Totten arrived in the region for the first time already well versed in the academic and political theories on Lebanon, Israel, and the Middle East at large. However, those works did not describe the place Totten saw. Lebanon and Israel and the people living there were nothing like what he read in books and saw in the news. The first thing he needed to do was to reorient himself.
Totten writes that he was apprehensive on arrival in Beirut, but suddenly recognized that the images didn't match the place. A young man in a bar says to him, "You must be crazy to be here." Totten responds, ""You really think so?" I said. I didn't feel crazy to be there. That feeling passed after twenty-four hours" (7). But, of course, how could he know for sure? He didn't do what many journalists would have done: run to the politicians and the political risk consultants and the academics. He talked to the people. He went to their houses, dined with them, and drank tea. It seems his stringers were nice people he met along the way who offered to help him understand this complex place.
Totten recognizes that he could not fully understand the biases of his sources, so he talks to as many people as possible. Despite his initial bias against certain factions, like Hezbollah, Totten talks to them. What makes him different than journalists is that he is not looking to portray an overarching concept in a headline and 2,000 words, ie "Hezbollah Attacks Beirut, Settles Scores," "Does the US Need Dialogue with Hezbollah?," "Regional Instability Increases Sectarian Tension in Lebanon." He will describe those same situations and convey his positions on those matters, but only after letting the people speak for themselves.
Often times, Totten's sources hang themselves with their words and actions, like when Hezbollah's press relations manager threatens Totten and his photographer, and when Syrian Social Nationalist thugs beat Christopher Hitchens in the middle of a main thoroughfare as Totten tries to rescue him. At other moments, Totten provides a voice to political parties, like the Christian Aounists, little understood in the West (and even within Lebanon). His interviewees appear endearing, and it is left to the reader to recognize their naivete, which Totten often does not need to point out, as he does not selectively quote them and lets them speak for themselves over the course of many pages.
In this regard, he is more of an oral historian of the Middle East in the tradition of Studs Terkel than he is a journalist. Totten isn't just telling a story. He is trying to depict lives. An entire chapter is based on a long conversation at a cafe with the previously mentioned Aounists prior to a rally they held alongside Hezbollah to overthrow the government. It is a compelling read, and provides a fair assessment of these Christian men and their motivations for supporting what most Americans believe is a radical Muslim terrorist organization.
Like Terkel, Totten has his biases, which are apparent in the text, even if he is sometimes not even aware of them. Like any concerned citizen (and even oral historian) writing about a contemporary issue, Totten makes moral judgements, which will upset people who differ with his opinion. However, Totten reveals his thinking and the process through which he made his opinion. Often, the reader is left in agreement: "The spokesman hung himself with his own words," "That action was unjust," "They seem to be good people, but misguided."
My only major qualm with the work is due to something out of Totten's control: that he cannot be in two places at one time. Totten covers the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah from the Israeli side of the border. At that moment, the road he takes to Fatima Gate is from the south, and he does an excellent job conveying the physical destruction in northern Israeli and giving voice to bombarded Israelis. Not only do those chapters manifest the implications of Lebanon's unstable and violent politics on other countries, but they provide the reader insight into the minds and motivations of Israelis and how much their domestic interests are determined by foreign actors. Totten is so good at conveying the emotions and details of lives that it would have been nice to see effect of that violence on the northern side of the border.
Totten makes up for it with what I think is his best chapter - the one that reads like an action novel - on the 2008 Hezbollah invasion of Beirut.
Not only will The Road to Fatima Gate provide readers with fingerspitzengefuhl knowledge of Lebanon, but it will be a fun read, as well.