Edward Said: The Orientalist Express: Thomas Friedman Wraps Up the Middle East

I haven’t posted anything in a while. Sorry. Managing my job and finishing the PhD has pretty much eaten all of my time recently, but I’m hopeful that in a couple of weeks at least one of those things will have gone away and I’ve got a few ideas of what I want to get stuck into then.

Anyway, I just started reading ‘The Imperial Messenger‘ by Belén Fernández – a polemical assault on (that Captain of the good ship USS Cliché and Cheif Quarterback of the team mixed metaphors) Tom Friedman. Thus far its been a great read – punchy but also meticulous in its exposition of Friedman’s epic twaddlings. I know Friedman’s work divides opinions and I’ve found that often my distaste for him has upset some friends. So I’ll make sure I write a fuller review of the book when I’ve finished it.

But, in the meantime I’ve posted below a review of one of Friedman’s earlier works ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem: One Man’s Middle Eastern Odyssey’ (which is quoted by Fernández) – a book that is often seen as representing the ‘best’ of Tom Friedman – the review is by Edward Said and was published in Village Voice in 1989. 

Edward Said: The Orientalist Express: Thomas Friedman Wraps Up the Middle East

On the face of it, From Beirut to Jerusalem is a reporter’s journal of a decade in the Middle East spent first as UPI correspondent for a couple of years, then as New York Times bureau chief in two major centers. Between 1979 and 1984 Friedman was stationed in Beirut where he covered the civil war, the Israeli invasion of 1982, and the country’s tragic dissolution thereafter. He then moved to Jerusalem (traveling rather ostentatiously across the Lebanese-Israeli border with his golf clubs), where he wrote about the Israeli political scene, with particular attention to the intifadah. He remained in Israel until mid-1988. He then returned home to become the Times man in Washington. For his Middle Eastern coverage Friedman won two Pulitzer prizes, both of them, interestingly enough, about major Palestinian events: the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the uprising or intifadah that began in late 1987 and continues to the present.

Friedman is no ordinary reporter, however. He is, as he tells us right from the start, a young American Jew who grew up in Minneapolis, was galvanized into Zionist enthusiasm by the 1967 War, studied Arabic and Jewish history first at Brandeis and then at Oxford, and went on to become a major figure in discussions and policy analysis of the Middle East. The complexity and richness of his personal background thus make Friedman’s book a compendium of autobiography, journalistic reportage, philosophical reflection laced with a political theory whose main idea is that by virtue of their power and enlightened attitudes Israel and the United States set the standards to which in the end the less gifted and culturally backward Arabs must conform. Yet Friedman is also something of a craftsman. From Beirut to Jerusalem, for all its gargantuan length, doesn’t often flag or bog down except, it must be said, when Friedman either gets mushy with testimonials about his feelings, or when he offers advice to everyone about how much better they could be doing if they paid attention to him. The result is therefore an interesting book, as much a collection of anecdotes as it is clever writing studded with eye-catching but symptomatic bits of analysis.

What keeps it together as a book is Friedman’s own “insider” voice — smart, frequently vulgar and tough, sententious, effortlessly knowledgeable. When Arabs or Jews do things, it is not what they do but how their actions register on Tom’s sensibility that matters. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is a strangely ignorant book: Friedman’s two main sources of illumination are trusted gurus (e.g., the “philosopher” David Hartman, who — we are not told this — runs a strange religious school in Israel largely on U.S. funds; he doesn’t seem to have any “philosophical” works to his credit) or bits of expert and/or folk wisdom, unconnected to specific works or research, asserted rather than argued or proved. I do not disagree with Friedman, for example, in his account of how Hafez al-Assad ruthlessly destroyed Muslim opposition in Hama by massacring thousands of his own citizens; Friedman takes the incident as a case of “Hama Rules” and attributes them to “different political traditions” in the Arab world whose true origin, he pronounces, are such things as a “tribalism” learned in the desert. So astonishing a jump, from modern, predominantly urban Syria to the prehistoric desert, is of course the purest Orientalism, and is of a piece with the moronic and hopelessly false dictum offered later in the book that the Arab political tradition has produced only two types: the merchant and the messiah.

These ludicrous reductions do have sources: In the case of tribalism it is the Israeli “Bedouin expert” Clinton Bailey; in the case of the Arab political tradition “Lebanese Shiite scholar” Fouad Ajami. Friedman deploys these ideas disingenuously, as if there wasn’t a fairly active controversy seething in all departments of knowledge about the Middle East. In fact Friedman belongs very clearly on one side, the side associated with classical anti-Arab and anti-Islamic Orientalism, the world according to Bernard Lewis, Ajami, Bailey, and their ilk. Of course Friedman is perfectly entitled to his views, which are not always unsympathetic, but what is particularly shady is that Friedman palms off his opinions (and those of his sources) as reasonable, uncontested, secure. In fact they are minority views and have been under severe attack for several decades now. They represent a narrow consensus associated not with desirable political change but with the equally political, basically conservative perspective of thestatus quo. People in this camp characterize themselves as pragmatic and realistic, labels that are intended to dismiss the theories of Marxists, non-Western and non-white nationalists, feminists, political economists. The point, of course, is that what Friedman and the Orientalists espouse is a threadbare repertoire of often racist clichés, all of them bearing the marks of colonial knowledge now allied with Naipaulesque disenchantment. People can’t change, Friedman says in effect; they are what they are forever. Give Ahmed, or Sambo, a place in the bus and he’ll simmer down.

But since this is not a scholarly book, one might say, why shouldn’t Friedman traffic in these discredited myths? Because Friedman presents himself as more than a reporter, his book as more than a personal chronicle. No one watching television these days has not seen Friedman, “the expert,” on all the right programs — the detached, impartial, authoritative observer who is a sizable cut above the smaller-scale partisans who are so transparently militant and therefore less credible. From Beirut to Jerusalem is the marketing strategy by means of which a young reporter consciously elevates himself to the rank of foreign policy sage, there to reap rewards and, alas, to recycle the illusions of American power and visionless realism. In the Middle East, he tells us, America should alternate between being “obstetrician, friend, grocer, and a son-of-a-bitch.” Among the prototypes for these largely unattractive roles are Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger.

It is not just the comic philistinism of Friedman’s ideas that I find so remarkably jejune, or his sassy and unbeguiling manner, or his grating indifference to values and principles by which, perhaps misguidedly, Arabs and Jews have believed themselves to be informed. It is rather the special combination of disarming incoherence and unearned egoism that gives him his cockily alarming plausibility — qualities that may explain the book’s quite startling commercial success. It’s as if — and I think this is true of his views on both Arabs and Jews — what scholars, poets, historians, fighters, and statesmen have done is not as important or as central as what Friedman himself thinks. Not only is there scarcely a reference in From Beirut to Jerusalem to the latest work on Arab history and society, but Friedman is also quite innocent about the latest in Israeli scholarship that has analyzed the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem, or the birth of Israel, or the internal dislocations within Israeli society.

I do not want to suggest that Friedman is nowhere capable of uncompromising analysis — his remarks on the creepy similarity between Labour and Likud parties are especially trenchant — or that he flinches when it comes to reporting the dreadful, virtually insensate ugliness of recent Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. He is clear about these matters, but he feels somehow that his prized sensibility, saying one thing in one breath and then contradicting it in the next, can carry the whole burden of interpretation and evaluation. And underlying his overestimated sensibility is a patronizing attitude toward all the little people who do not have quite his olympian perspective. Israeli Jews, he tells us in one passage, are closer to the West because their symbol, the star, is close to the cross, “both of which are full of sharp, angled turns. The symbol of the Muslim East is the crescent moon — a wide, soft, ambiguous arc.” From such entirely dubious materials he draws
conclusions roughly equivalent in explanatory power to theories about a natural sense of rhythm among inferior races that have been discredited at least since World War II. A little later in the book Friedman informs Palestinians that they do not belong to the “biblical super story through which the West looks at the world” — when you come to think of it, not many people have that privilege — and they are “lucky” to have had the Jews as their enemy.

Inside this serenely untroubled cocoon of the purest race prejudice the Friedmanian sensibility ambles from subject to subject. When he arrives finally at the vexed problem of press coverage, he warns us that the media are unfair in their relentless fixation on Israel (this from the journalist-author of a 600-page book on the subject), then he compliments the Israelis on manipulating the media brilliantly, then he blathers on about Israeli troops beating up three-year-olds, and how that vigorous form of outdoor exercise provides them with self-knowledge! Friedman seems to have no inkling that people were and have been killed or beaten when he and his media colleagues were not there to report the story, or that such things as imperialism, or demography, or conflicting ideas played a role while he wasn’t around to comment on the case. He does not seem quite to have apprehended that other peoples besides Westerners with sharp-angled symbols and superstories might have had a sense of nationhood, or that when a whole society is shattered and its people dispersed and stripped of their lands, it might on its own, without a Biblical superstory or a sharp Western symbol, try to reforge itself and create a new independent society.

One would not fault as seriously From Beirut to Jerusalem for its numerous shortcomings were it not that as a collection of anecdotes or as a report on his own apparently omnicompetent sensibility Friedman’s writing aspires to an almost regal authority and inclusiveness. There is little self-irony, no twinge of doubt in what he ladles out; mockery and sarcasm are reserved entirely for local Arabs and Jews, not for earnest Times reporters. Read his prescriptions at the end of the book and you will quickly realize that Friedman has internalized the norms, if not the powers, of the secretary of state not just of the United States, but of all humanity. Do this, he tells the Israelis; do this, he tells the Palestinians; do this, he tells the Americans — and anyone else who happens to be listening in. His formulas suggest that everyone should try for limits and realism, except, of course, Friedman himself.

His book would have been more interesting had his account of himself included some narrative of how he achieved such awesome powers, or of how being a reporter for the Times in the Middle East elevates one to institutional status, or of how the selection of what’s fit to print (for example, Friedman’s use of the word indiscriminate to describe Israel’s 1982 bombing of Beirut was removed by then Times editor A. M. Rosenthal; Friedman makes no mention of the episode in his book) has a lot to do with what is considered “important” by various powers and interests. I would have also liked to read his opinion of the wall-to-wall coverage of terrorist Shaikh Obeid’s kidnapping in which the fact that Israel has been in military occupation of a handsome swathe of South Lebanon is almost totally suppressed by the Times and all the other independent U.S. media, along with the fact that although Obeid is an unattractive clerical zealot, he hasn’t been concretely accused of any greater or more specific “terrorism” than fighting the Israeli military who have taken over his homeland. Or then again I’d like to have read Friedman’s account of how theTimes‘s editorial pages are dominated by the opinions of William Safire and A. M. Rosenthal (whom Friedman credits with having helped his career), opinions about the Muslims and Arabs that could not be printed about any other people on earth.

A treatment of these facts would have been fairer and perhaps less grand than asking Arabs and Jews to bear the brunt of Friedman’s ponderous judgments on their infractions and departures from the essences and fates decreed for them by Friedman and his dubious authorities. Yet despite the distorting prism of his official self, Friedman does indeed have an understanding of how people hang on — e.g., the young Palestinian defenders of Beirut in 1982 — or of how a self-serving myth of victimization still controls the Israeli self-image. Compassion and affection thus occasionally get through Friedman’s remorseless machine, but the really curious thing is how little he seems to be interested in these genuine accomplishments, and how much more determined he is to be an all-knowing White Father composing the ultimate how-to-do-it book for the Middle East.

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2 thoughts on “Edward Said: The Orientalist Express: Thomas Friedman Wraps Up the Middle East

  1. Funny. I just started Imperial Messenger yesterday and that’s what brought me to this page. Thanks for posting…

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