Response from Thanassis
Thanassis sent me the following piece to post as a response to my (admittedly) pre-critique from the other day of his new book. I post in full with some comments at the end:
I certainly hope you read the book (although if you’ve already written a thousand words of trenchant criticism based on the title and a blog post, I shudder to think what you’ll do after digesting a 100,000-word work!).
I’ve engaged in a work of journalism here, based on four years of reporting and research, including hundreds of hours with Hezbollah partisans and officials in Lebanon. I believe that a quality reporter with an outsider’s perspective can bring a crucial and discerning eye to any subject. One could certainly read this book and conclude that I have failed to add useful information or analysis to our understanding of Hezbollah. But I disagree with your view that someone who isn’t fluent in Arabic or isn’t Lebanese cannot write meaningfully about Hezbollah.
I think there might be a fundamental misunderstanding here of what a reporter does: at the most elemental level, we try to establish what happened, and what people said. If we do our job well, we can often place events and statements in a context that also advances our understanding of why. In your post, you seem to be addressing deep Platonic questions, asking whether we can ever really know what anyone other than ourselves really believes. Suffice it to say that I learned a lot simply by observing what people did and listening to what they said. Readers of the book, I hope, will as well.
Some of the problematic parts of your post (an obvious hazard when you review something before you actually read it) come when you toss out some words I never said or wrote to illustrate what is “sensationalistic” or “counterproductive” about A Privilege to Die. Case in point:
The obvious question is this: why read a nice narrative that seems – seems – to want to tell us about the reason and humanity behind Hizbullah’s supporters, but founds this on an immovable truth – i.e. they hate “us,” they love death, they are essentially “groupthink,” unreasonable lovers of violence who will fight “us” “ENDLESSLY”… hence their “endless war.”
Why indeed, unless the book makes no such claims, or, unless the book contains some original reporting that can help analysts like you in your work.
More information is better than less, and more information – carefully reported, researched, and relayed to the readers – is what I’ve provided in A Privilege to Die. Some people might take the additional data and use it as grist for their already-formed conclusions. Some might disagree with my conclusions, find the material lacking, or otherwise take exception to aspects of the work, all of which in my view fall in the category of welcome criticism. Others still might incorporate the material from the book into their own views and perhaps even make adjustments. There are certainly partisans who chafe at anything short of an apologia or a polemic. I have written neither.
The first thing to say is that even though I stressed this was a pre crit based on the synopsis, author interviews, titling and reviews – Thanassis is right to point out that even a pre crit should probably wait to READ THE BOOK. Its just hard to restrain oneself when the situation as it is right now feels increasingly dangerous and desperate.
On his other points, he says: “But I disagree with your view that someone who isn’t fluent in Arabic or isn’t Lebanese cannot write meaningfully about Hezbollah.”
I specifically did not say this, especially the being Lebanese part!
To clarify: if we are NOT fluent in Arabic we can still write things meaningful about “them”but with limits – I write about specific aspects of Hizbullah all the time and as I said before AND in the intro of my book of Nasrallah’s speeches and interviews (stressing for the informed reader), I cannot yet work in Arabic although I can get by OK in understanding and stuttering through Lebanese dialect conversation (especially with plumbers and deliverymen)… but I am studying again (finally after a half year hiatus)… and the point is that I specifically avoid writing or commenting on deep aspects of how Lebanese think, what is in there interests etc. I try to limit myself to US policy in the Levant AND when there is a specific body of texts that is limited of the Lebanese/local actors – like Nasrallah’s speeches and Interviews and those of Hizbullah officials which our company and others have translated. But one must make the limits clear to the
An almost anthropological exercise such as Thanassis book appears – and which claims a deep direct insight into the minds of the natives – is, in my view, one that should be tackled by an author who can speak the native language – without that, my thinking is that it is going to be of limited value and may even exacerbate already existent problems/pre conceptions/mistakes etc. – which are well known.
This of course is the old pitfall of parachute journalism – the most extreme example of the underlying problem – that we all know about – when western reporters come to town and dont know the language …. well, has that proved valuable when you look back at the history of the Middle East? I think there are numerous examples where that disconnect has proven disastrous.
So it is NOT about whether one can know truth – or a “Platonic” conundrum – its more simple in fact: can we really purport to explain to a western audience a culture that we ourselves cannot really converse with? Or do we take the time to learn the language before making such deep, almost personal claims?
At its simplest – To stress on the religious and cultural and ideological aspects of Hizbullah supporters, one must be able to read and dialogue with these poles on their own terms. If one is not able to, then I think it is a task best left to someone that can.