Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Book review: Pity the Nation - The Abduction of Lebanon

I find it distracting to know much about an author's background and credentials while reading his or her work. It seems to alter the reading experience in subconscious ways, so I normally wait till after I finish the book to read the 'about the author' on the back jacket.

But Robert Fisk does not offer the luxury of shutting him out in Pity the Nation, an intense account of Lebanon as recorded first-hand during his years as a newspaper correspondent there during a violent period in the 1980s. As Fisk accidentally stumbles over a hastily dug grave for victims of a refugee camp massacare, feels a gun pushed to his temple by a militiaman, and cowers in the middle of a battlefield, you cannot but intimately know your messenger.

This first-handness turns out to be the fundamental difference between this book and other books written by westerners about the middle east - Fisk doesnt tell the story as it unfolded in the President's palace or militia headquarters in Beirut, rather he describes what was experienced by thousands of everyday Lebanese who he seems to have a comfortable connection with. In some ways, the book is in the style of 'subaltern studies' popularized by Ranjit Guha and his fellow South Asian historians.

But this approach also turns out to be a pitfall of the book - Fisk sticks religiously to writing about events and circumstances that he has covered in person during his journalistic forays, and neglects to inform readers about what was happening beyond his sphere of coverage. A reader without much prior knowledge of middle eastern history will be bewildered trying to make connections between Fisk's grassroots world and simultaneous events happenings in the broader frame of history.

The book paints the political story of Lebanon roughly from the mid-1970s to early 1990, from the Muslim-Christian civil war through the invasion and occupation of the country by Syria and Israel. To say that Fisk looks at events in that period through a neutral point of view is as fallacious as saying that Dominique Lapierre's history of Israel's formation (Oh Jerusalem) is an objective piece of literature. Apparently, Fisk belongs to the club of Chomsky-types with an intense aversion for Israel's actions and he makes his bias pretty apparent in the book. However, if you have been exposed to years of ubiquitous pro-Israel propoganda in American or Indian media, it is only fair to hear some noise from the other side.

Pity the nation was first published in 1990, and like all political literature on the middle east from that period, it presents itself to our post-9/11 hindsight as shockingly ominous. Anyone wishing to get an informed perspective on the causes for the upheaval of the first decade of this century should read it.

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