Tribes with Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East
by Charles Glass
Atlantic Monthly Press, 510 pp., $22.95
Three years ago Charles Glass decided to take time off from his work as an ABC television reporter in Beirut to make and record a trip through the countries of the eastern Mediterranean. His itinerary began in Alexandretta in southern Turkey, and was to have taken him through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, to end on the edge of the Sinai peninsula in Aqaba. He borrowed an old-fashioned term and called the whole region “the Levant,” and he seems to see his book as carrying forward the nineteenth-century tradition of “Levantine travels.” He intended—and to a limited extent the book he has actually written does this—to compare the texts of the old travel books about Lebanon with the conditions he found there in 1987.
However, the tone of his book is not detached and literary, as was perhaps originally planned, but urgent, sad, and personal. Glass’s kidnapping and imprisonment in Beirut for nine weeks in the summer of 1987 by Shi’ite militiamen put an end to his Levantine travels, and gave the book a completely different edge and emphasis. The original concept was that he should abandon for a few months his point of view as the ABC correspondent in the Middle East, to stand back from the awful, bloody melée which he had chronicled day by day from Beirut, and to look at the Middle Eastern scene in the light of its historical geography, of the “enduring realities of the region.”
It was an interesting project, if a difficult one to carry out. Almost certainly, Glass would still, in such a book, have found it impossible to avoid questions that he now discusses at length—How should a Western journalist deal with the Middle Eastern conflict and to what extent should he discuss the appalling difficulties he experiences in truthfully reporting it? Glass’s kidnapping brought this question to the front of his mind. The result is a mixed kind of book, with long, leisurely passages on the Middle East scene and the mentalities of its inhabitants, and taut, tense reporting of Glass’s experiences in the dangerous and brutalized world of present-day Lebanon, culminating in his own seizure and captivity. In some ways the book is more directly comparable with other recent books by Western journalists, notably Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, which dwell on the dilemmas and problems of Western journalists in the Middle East, than it would otherwise have been.
Before he reached Lebanon on this particular trip, there were questions in Glass’s mind that he would have found very hard to answer in the calm and reflective tone of a Victorian traveler. His own status as the Catholic American-born child of an Irish father and a Lebanese mother had given him a committed attitude to the Lebanese imbroglio that went far beyond a sentimental attachment to “roots.” At lunch in Zahle, the Lebanese mountain resort where his Lebanese grandfather had been born, with the political adviser of one …