Neil MacFarquhar Discusses Effecting Change in the Middle East

By Adas, Jane | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Neil MacFarquhar Discusses Effecting Change in the Middle East


Adas, Jane, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


FIVE YEARS ago in California, recalled journalist and author Neil MacFarquhar, a woman startled him by asking if there were any normal people in the Middle East. "Why," he asked, "what have you been reading?"

"The New York Times," she replied-the newspaper for which MacFarquhar had been Cairo bureau chief for the past several years. When the Times asked him to stay an additional year, he agreed on condition that he be allowed to cover normal, daily life, focusing in particular on people trying to effect social and political change.

MacFarquhar is now The New York Times United Nations bureau chief, but he drew on what he learned in that extra year, augmented by his childhood in Libya and earlier years reporting on the Middle East for the Associated Press and the Times, to write The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East (2009). MacFarquhar, speaking on Dec. 4 at The Graduate Center of CUNY (City University of New York), noted wryly that the publisher has had trouble marketing his book in the Middle East because people there don't find the title humorous.

In Saudi Arabia MacFarquhar met a woman he described as "the bravest person" he knows, Fawazia Al-Bakr, an associate professor of education at King Saud University in Riyadh. Only three days after she had returned to the Kingdom from graduate studies in the U.S., al-Bakr organized the November 1990 demonstration against the ban on women driving, for which she was arrested. Since then al-Bakr has been working to reform education by encouraging independent thought. In Jordan MacFarquhar interviewed a man who recited a poem at a dentists' convention that defined public opinion as whether one applauds the king or not. For this he spent a year in jail for slander. Ali, a Bahraini who started an Internet Web site, told MacFarquhar that "constitutional monarchy" in the Middle East means the monarch writes the constitution. …

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