Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East
by Robin Wright
Penguin, 464 pp., $26.95
If there is such a thing as a pinnacle in the landscape of international journalism, Robin Wright surely stands atop it. The Washington Post‘s chief diplomatic correspondent has braved thirty-five years of wars, crises, and famines, not to mention bureaucratic sniping in Washington, to illuminate the world’s darker interstices. She has scored many scoops, captured a stack of awards, authored a half-dozen books, and accumulated a star-studded Rolodex that must be the envy of every hack within the Beltway.
When a journalist of this caliber descends on some dusty capital, she is sure to have her path eased by the most capable local dragomen, and by the eagerness of media-savvy people to communicate with the Superpower. And when she sets her sights on a topic as weighty as the future of the Middle East, that most tiresomely troubling corner of the globe, it should be time for armchair analysts to take cover and policymakers to listen.
Wright’s latest book, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, elaborated out of a year-long series of articles for the Post that looked into prospects for political reform in the region, delivers plenty of what one would expect from so experienced an observer. Roaming through Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, she recounts her impressions with wisdom, clarity, and a sharp critical eye. Her favored access to top officials, as well as to the dissidents opposing them, is put to good use. Wright lets her varied interlocutors speak in their own words, but also sets the scene helpfully.
We discover for instance that Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic but reclusive leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia, proves to be a thoughtful and voluble host. He annoys aides by prolonging an interview with Wright late into the night. And he surprises her with the sometimes disturbing turns of his logic, as when he fulsomely denounces the September 11 attacks on New York, but hints that the Pentagon may have been a legitimate target—just the sort of unappetizing yet intriguing view that American audiences are seldom exposed to.
Wright can be an engaging guide. It is amusing to be reminded that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat drove a two-tone pink Thunderbird convertible in the days when he was a successful engineer in Kuwait, before the career change to gritty guerrilla politics. We are told of an exquisitely crass exchange of gifts during his visit to Libya’s ruler, Muammar Qaddafi. The erratic Bedouin strongman received from the Palestinian an antique camel saddle, and he gave in return a set of Samsonite luggage to Arafat, the peripatetic refugee. Those who think of Iran as a grim place will be heartened to hear that people joke there about their fanatical but endearingly disheveled president parting his hair and ordering male lice to the left, female lice to the right. His predecessor, the dapper, charming, but ineffectual Mohammad Khatami, was referred to as the “Armani mullah.” Moroccans, we are told …