Books: On the front line

NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel offers a somewhat detached look at his two decades in the Middle East.

Richard Engel has been caught in the crossfire and even survived a kidnapping attempt in Syria (photo credit: BREDUN EDWARDS)
Richard Engel has been caught in the crossfire and even survived a kidnapping attempt in Syria
(photo credit: BREDUN EDWARDS)
NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel overcame many obstacles to reach the top tier of his profession.
He grew up in an accomplished Jewish family in Manhattan but was diagnosed with dyslexia – which interfered with his success at school. But Engel did not let that stop him for long.
His fascinating new book, And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East, chronicles his often dangerous journey in a complicated neck of the woods.
Engel was always restless, driven and filled with wanderlust. After graduating from Stanford University, he left immediately for Cairo in 1996, determined to chase what he guessed would be the great stories of his generation. He learned Arabic quickly and embedded himself with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he tried valiantly to understand.
He was in his early 20s, a good-looking kid, and seemingly able to endear himself to others with a certain combination of charm and cool.
His initial excitement with the Muslim Brotherhood’s willingness to talk soon turned to utter disgust, which he would attempt to forget by spending evenings in Cairo’s casinos gambling and drinking.
He felt tainted by their poisonous rhetoric about Jews, Israel, gays and women, and by their insistence that all of their problems were someone else’s fault.
The Muslim Brotherhood was an illegal organization at that time, but was permitted to operate under Hosni Mubarak, who was busy trying to hold on to his wealth and power by keeping his army loyal. It was the Muslim Brotherhood that played an interactive role in civilians’ lives by infiltrating the schools and factories and trade unions. Engel realized that their venomous talk was polluting the minds of thousands of Egyptians who were swayed by their diatribes.
“The revolution Egyptians needed wasn’t for political power and democracy but a revolution in thinking, a revolt against the Brotherhood’s bile,” Engel said. “Egyptians needed to strip away the conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and the litany of victimization that passed for education. Sometimes, I thought the only way to fix Egypt would be to drop books on it. Open the bomb doors of B-52s and let Kant and Locke, Hemingway and Gloria Steinem, rain from the heavens. But the big men let the Brotherhood and the extreme Wahhabi clerics pollute the people’s minds.”
Engel would see this pattern repeated again and again over the next two decades while covering the Middle East: thuggish and corrupt dictators using religious extremists to cover for their own inadequacy and greediness.
Engel has proved to be a fearless reporter.
He has covered every major crisis with incredible moxie. He was the only Western journalist in Iraq during large portions of the war. He has been caught in the crossfire repeatedly and survived a kidnapping ordeal in Syria. He confesses to being haunted by something he once saw that he can’t really shake from his mind – a dog running down a street carrying in its jaw a severed human head.
But he doesn’t dwell on the psychological trauma of covering warfare, and instead focuses on the importance of his mission. He finds solace during vacations – scuba diving and cooking – and has recently married and fathered an infant son. But there is something about Engel that seems a bit obtuse. His perceptions often seem flimsy and not well thought out. He isn’t prone to self-introspection, and this hurts his perceptions of others.
While one senses his intentions are good and righteous, there are gaps in his assessments that startle the reader. Particularly when it comes to the Jews. He covered the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict from Lebanon and the Israel-Hamas conflict of 2012. When he writes about these events, there is a cold detachment and muted hostility toward Israel that is jarring, considering his own Jewish lineage.
He seems to have no sense whatsoever regarding recent Jewish history or the Holocaust or any of the significant factors that have affected Jews and Jewish life during the last 100 years. He treats Israel’s creation as a rude interruption to the situation that existed there before its miraculous creation.
He does put forth a damning indictment regarding president George W. Bush, whom he met with for over 90 minutes in the White House during the Iraq war. Bush wanted to take advantage of Engel’s handson experience in the region. Engel came away from the meeting with Bush convinced the former president had no idea of the complexities in the region and was deluding himself about planting democracy around the world without any nuts-andbolts sense of what he was dealing with.
He was most dismayed that Bush seemed oblivious to the antagonisms between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis and the role the Iraq invasion played in disturbing the status quo that had existed for years.
Engel spends a large portion of his narrative deftly explaining to us these sectarian differences and their centuries-old history.
He feels that Bush’s invasion began a ripple effect that we now see played out in Syria and Libya and the eventual creation of Islamic State.
He also criticizes President Barack Obama for offering hope to the Syrian rebels but then backing away from supporting them in any meaningful way.
Engel’s book holds your attention, but what is really missing in the end is Engel himself. He remains too peripheral a figure in relation to his own experiences. We sense he fancies himself an international man of sorts, above any sort of petty allegiance to caste or class or religion. This works against him in the passionate and chaotic Middle East, where such self-definition is a requirement.