“Only after covering it for years did I understand that the war on terror never really existed.” That’s a bold statement, three pages into a book about a journalist’s experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Jordan and Saudi Arabia starting days after 9/11. If the war on terror doesn’t exist, what is the glue that holds together these places?
It soon becomes evident that Megan Stack herself is the glue. She tries to downplay this as far as possible, realising the absurdity of trying to put herself at the centre of stories of benighted nations, but nonetheless this is a book which follows the chronology of her travels. She is the journalist being sent from one place to another, propelled by the media’s belief that such a thing as the war on terror does exist, that there is a unifying principle that connects all these countries to each other, and to the idea of America’s safety. Stack comes to understand that actually there is merely “a unifying myth for a complicated scramble of mixed impulses and social theories and night terrors and cruelty and business interests”, but that does nothing to undercut the horrors that she witnesses. There is not one war, yet there is a seemingly endless supply of terror, often tangled up with US foreign policy, and if you move through it, from nation to nation, something in you will probably break.
Stack does not seek to tease out the links and disconnections between the various and varied nations of which she writes; it’s a relief to realise that she isn’t going to try to place, for example, Afghanistan and Egypt into the same crucible of analysis (if “the war on terror” is a myth, so is “the Muslim world”). What she does instead, with her fine journalistic eye, is capture what she sees and hears, and present it alongside enough taut analysis to move her accounts beyond the merely factual.
It doesn’t always work. There are times when her language seems to come right out of a 19th-century imperial text. A group of Afghans are “slippery, wild-eyed figures”; Lebanon is a country marked by “its dagger-in-teeth warlords and its slick shiny liars and its endless capacity for blood and more blood”. She is also prey to the notion that there comes a point at which people from different regions of the world are simply unable to understand each other. She can’t understand the Iraqis who support Saddam, and her Iraqi friend Nora can’t understand the US soldiers who tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib. “We were both just crusts of deep and complex icebergs,” Stack says, by way of explaining the mutual incomprehension. Putting aside the question of what makes an iceberg complex, this statement reflects a “never the twain shall meet” laziness of thought. In truth, it doesn’t require very much time and effort to understand either side of the Saddam-Abu Ghraib equation. Even more egregious is her claim that “Egypt rippled with tension between Islam and democracy”, which comes right after she describes, in great detail, how a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood is denied victory at the polls because of vote-tampering by the secular yet dictatorial government.
These failures of imagination, the slippages into received reactionary ideas, are particularly jarring precisely because so much of the rest of the book is illuminating and compassionate. When she’s writing about Raheem, her guide and companion through southern Iraq, whose son Mohammad was killed by US snipers firing without a specific target, or about the Iraqi reporter Atwar Bahjat, who was assassinated by her countrymen for denouncing sectarianism, her anger at the suffering and loss is as clear as her great regard for the people who live through hell with both dignity and courage.
She is aided by a prose style which, though occasionally given to melodrama or tangled metaphors, is more often sharp and evocative. In a single sentence she can conjure up mood and atmosphere, for instance in Amman, where “wilting wedding guests dragged themselves over the floors, old men muttered into cigarettes, and late-night playboys in dark suits chased their own laughter into the darkness”.
She is at her best when considering the one region in which she isn’t an outsider: war-reporting. She is all too aware that a great many of the dispossessed continue to hope that someone in the world will hear their stories and be moved to assist; it makes people eager to tell her their stories, and she writes them down knowing that no one will come to help. In one horrifying episode, a young Iraqi called Ahmed comes to meet Stack repeatedly, with his girlfriend, in order to tell his story. All of them know the dangers. One day he and his girlfriend are recognised by someone with militia connections; Stack is never able to contact him after that, and remains haunted by the idea that both young Iraqis were killed because they were seen with her.
She knows she is among the privileged, the ones who can go, the ones whose country isn’t tearing itself apart, and this privilege starts to eat away at her (though she fastidiously avoids the impression that she’s asking for pity) until she finally makes use of it and leaves. But before she goes she has reached the point where journalistic detachment has given way to this cry in Lebanon (or is it Afghanistan, or is it Iraq?): “Oh god, just make it stop. Make the bombs stop.”
This review was published in The Guardian.