My husband and I are going to be relocating to the Middle East soon; thus we are devouring any text we can find that will help prepare us for our life and work there. Having background knowledge and context of any new home and work environment is helpful, but it can sometimes be an overwhelming task to obtain it. However, when I saw Richard Engel’s memoir, I was intrigued: “A first-hand recounting of a well-known foreign correspondent’s experiences in the middle east over a (so far) 20-year career?” I picked up the paperback, colored in the oranges, blacks, and greys of the blasts and ash of war.
Admittedly, my knowledge of Middle East politics and history has been limited to the basics learned in public school history class and the terror and devastation reported by the media. Richard Engel had my rapt attention from the first page of his prologue when he taught me something I may have learned in school, but had long since forgotten because it was not immediately important or interesting to me back then: “The borders of the modern Middle East were drawn by Europeans after the First World War with no regard for the interests or backgrounds of the people who inhabited it” (1). He goes on to cite canonical literary references to Islam and Muslims, explains the tragic dimming of the Islamic Golden Age of science and intellect, and helps readers to understand the centuries-old wounds that still ache in the hearts of Muslims and color their resentment toward the Western world.
Throughout the rest of the text, Engel takes readers along his geographical career path from Egypt to Lebanon and Syria, among others. His descriptions of his experience are most often quite superficial, focusing–as news correspondents do–on the action and activity of the circumstances. This is not a travelogue, so there is no detailed imagery of his surroundings or the people with whom he interacts. News correspondents have film crews who usually take care of that aspect of their stories. There is, however, a digestible amount of history, current events references, and personal commentary to help the most uninformed reader make sense of the clashes in culture and communities that continue to occur in the Middle East.