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BOOK REVIEW

Training a discerning eye on Arab economic collapse

Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants: The Economic Collapse of the Arab World By Stephen Glain, St. Martin’s, 368 pp., $25.95

Terrorists, fanatics, oil sheiks, veiled women, sand, camels -- it's hardly news that the United States has been saturated, to its own peril, in blinding stereotypes about the Middle East. Self-created "experts" cloud the media debates with rival analyses of terrorism while mispronouncing all the Arabic names. Given that America is now slogging through a military occupation, has always had vital oil interests, and has been involved directly or indirectly in six wars in the Middle East since the 1950s, better insight is urgently needed.

But the Bush administration approaches the Arab world with all the subtlety of Snakes and Ladders: Arab populations are now simply victims of "evil" dictatorships, political juveniles who must be gently pushed to democracy through benign US tutelage. Paul Wolfowitz, the neoconservative architect of the Iraq war who has most impressed specialists with his ignorance of the region, compares the process to "teaching a youngster to ride a bicycle." Hardly a workable premise for superpower diplomacy anywhere, let alone in a complicated society such as Iraq.

Yet grasping the region's complexity is difficult even for the best-intentioned. The most accessible material is by journalists, but the books by newly arrived journalists have been a mixed lot; some painfully reproduce old nostrums, others are more fine-tuned and perceptive. It helps if a newcomer brings a sophisticated analytical framework, as well as a discerning eye and a sense of humor. Such an observer is Stephen Glain.

Glain is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who transferred to the Middle East in 1998 from a seven-year stint covering East Asia. In Asia, he wrote about booming industries and trade and interviewed many commercial attaches working in US diplomatic missions. Arriving in the Arab world, he was stunned by the contrast: economies moldering from corruption and neglect. And no one seemed to be paying attention. Glain offers a mosaic portrait of a region sliding toward economic crisis, through vignettes and interviews in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, "Palestine" (the West Bank), Iraq, and Egypt.

Everywhere, Glain finds friendly, intelligent, and hard-working Arab entrepreneurs whose best efforts are repeatedly thwarted by incompetent or corrupt bureaucracies and the failure of governments to create any efficient banking or credit system. Interspersed with his lively interviews are segments of history: wars, coups, or colonial interventions that shaped the conditions in which these businesses now flounder. For Glain has bothered, unlike most, to dig into the past to make sense of the present. The book's blurbs and catchy title don't do justice to his effort; this is no simplistic portrait of Arab economic collapse, nor does he blame "mullahs" and "militants" for the region's troubles. Rather, Glain takes each story as a glimpse into a system gone wrong. A restaurant in once-vigorous Lebanon struggles for life under a stifling Syrian occupation. Police corruption and lack of credit cripple businesses operating under Syria's ossified socialist dynasty. Jordan's economy staggers under the feeble state institutions left by the charming King Hussein. Egypt, ostensibly the "sanctum of Arab unity," is actually "a complete mess." The journalist's "I was there" perspective sometimes limits but is often trenchant; for example, Glain's descriptions of hours he considered clearly wasted at Israeli checkpoints and a few dire statistics on West Bank trade illuminate the gritty reality of Israeli occupation policy outside of any polemics. His portraits of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and under US sanctions are both wry and scathing.

Glain's introduction is the weakest link in this portrait, lapsing into more packaged formulas such as "Islam's dreary present." His short references are not always enough to explain how regional wars have shaped the entire region, and historical names sometimes seem hastily added. Nor will Glain's notebook approach work for everyone; as he jumps from interview to interview, adding historical background where he thinks relevant, the book often reads like a patchwork of 16-inch columns. But for some readers, Glain may provide the crucial juxtaposition of human contact and background that will animate the region and give it a much-needed human face. Certainly his travels suggest an Arab world anxious for that understanding and a hope for peace with Israel that may surprise and encourage many. "If the Lebanese people say yes to peace with Israel, so be it," says an official in Hezbollah. A Syrian merchant tells him, "We can accept a Jewish state if it decides to live peacefully with the Arabs." In Egypt, one man shook his hand vigorously in finishing an interview. " `Tell the Americans to treat us the same as they do the Israelis,' he said. `That is all we ask. My eldest daughter is studying Hebrew. One day, God willing, we will all understand each other.' "

Virginia Q. Tilley is associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith colleges and author of "The One-State Solution: Seeking Peace in the Middle East," forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.

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