Same Bloody Rhythm
And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East
By Richard Engel
Simon & Schuster, 2016
“You’re breathing pure oxygen,” Dexter Filkins, one of our era’s finest war reporters, told an interviewer on the radio a few years ago. He’d been asked to explain the magnetic effect of the war zone, the reason he and reporters like him keep going back to risk their lives. It’s not the violence, he explained, it’s “the largeness. How many times in your life do you get to really feel the continental plates shifting underneath your feet?”
“To stand in the middle of one of these enormous events,” he said, conveying some of its breathless energy, is “really exciting. It’s really fun. And if anybody tells you it’s not fun, they’re just there bearing witness and all that, it’s not true. It’s amazing. It’s extraordinary.” The war zone is a strange place, where “everything” – the daily comforts and structures, the settled questions of government and society that we take for granted – “is up in the air.” Normal life recedes, and one returns from the zone to find that it is home that has become strange. “It’s kind of destructive, to you and to your relationships… because it’s such an extreme experience, and it’s very isolating…You’re in this world that most people can’t understand… It’s not a life that’s sustainable over a long period of time.”
These sentiments are echoed vividly in Richard Engel’s And Then All Hell Broke Loose, a chronicle of the nearly two decades he spent reporting from the Middle East. Like Filkins, Engel began reporting abroad with hardly any idea of what to do, and learned by improvising. He discovered the most useful tool to be large amounts of cash, and found that war reporting was both utterly draining and beguiling. He lost friends and he lost a marriage. His testimony, and that of others, reminds us that war reporting is not only a rare window onto the lands Western governments bomb, but a profession that increasingly carries costs not wholly unlike soldiering itself.
Engel made his name in television, not print, and he came to the Muslim world fresh out of college, moving to Cairo, where he slept in a dust-caked apartment and reported for a local paper in the late 1990s. (Filkins graduated from political reporting to an embedded assignment with the Northern Alliance, bag of cash in hand, right before the Taliban was run out of Afghanistan.) So he was there before the region fell to chaos, and he’s ambivalent about the decline of the region’s strong men: they were brutal, and yet, his book seems to ask, is the new disorder any better?
His recollections of the Cairo’s Mit Ouba neighborhood – before 9/11, before the Arab Spring – vibrate with strange contradictions. It was poor and dirty but safe; friendly but smoldering with directionless anger and misogyny:
There was no crime in Mit Ouba, which amazed me. I had a computer and a fax machine in my apartment, but I left it unlocked. Everyone in the building left his or her apartment unlocked, not that people had much to steal. I never heard about anyone being mugged. I never heard about a rape, but I wouldn’t have anyway. Victims were often married off to their attackers.
The only women Engel spoke to were those who sold food. Physical contact between the sexes was forbidden. Daily interactions were lubricated with paeans to God:
The result was a kind of social fraternity, a world composed almost entirely of men. In exchange for celibacy and seclusion, the fraternity was safe and even gentle. Men didn’t curse. They seldom raised their voices and were elaborately generous, especially with food. It was impossible to eat on a bus because you had to offer more than half of whatever you had to the person next to you. You were obliged to tear your sandwich and put it in his hands. He was obliged to refuse and say, “May Allah preserve you.” “May Allah preserve you,” you had to say, and close his hands around the half sandwich.
Engel’s impressions of Cairo are shot through with the kind of unguarded opinions he would sometimes leave out of his television reporting. The Muslim Brotherhood was powerful in Mit Ouba, and Engel found them fascinating and repulsive. Their “diatribes against Israel, women, gays, and the Elders of Zion made me nauseated,” he writes.
But while Engel is a fine observer of the quotidian, his attempts to graft his experience onto a larger framework are less successful. He blames Egypt’s former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, for the Brotherhood’s ascendance, but does so for an odd reason: “Worst of all, [Mubarak] let the [Muslim Brotherhood] infect the Egyptian mind with its hateful nonsense… The revolution Egyptians needed wasn’t for political power and democracy, but a revolution in thinking, a revolt against the Brotherhood’s bile.” This has it backwards: dictators like Mubarak are why fanatical religious groups like the Brotherhood are successful (the Iranian revolution is another textbook example). Only the advent of mass communication broke the state monopoly on large-scale organization among Egypt’s citizens. Before that opposition was brutally suppressed. Religious organizations were the only avenue for expression, and when the regime fell in 2011 they were best positioned to take advantage of the revolution. Engel’s comment is especially odd given that he later acknowledges an essential paradox: the region’s strong men were “simultaneously containing and creating” the “religious fanaticism and ethnic hatred” that found expression when they were deposed.
Engel is astute enough to note what it is still impolite to say on TV: that the governments of the West bear some responsibility for the danger their citizens face. Here his outlines are steadier. The nation state system was grafted onto Middle East after World War I. Its cartography reflected European priorities, and after World War II the United States became its guardian. The local strong men were corrupt and oppressive, but as long as they kept the oil flowing, as long as they provided a modicum of stability, they were supported by the West—and the people living there know it. In that sense, Engel notes, the narrative of oppression and former greatness that children are taught all across the Muslim world is “largely correct.” (In one of the book’s many fascinating details, we learn that period dramas depicting Islam’s Golden Age, from about the 8th to the13tth century, are “extremely popular” on Arab TV.)
But like his brief against Mubarak, Engel’s view of the region as a whole is inconsistent. On one page he acknowledges the historic role America has played in perpetuating oppression, and though he supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he now knows it was a terrible mistake: “No Iraq, no ISIS,” as he puts it in the middle of the book. And yet he says in the beginning:
The United States didn’t create ISIS: its brand of backward intolerance and violence has been a part of wars in the Islamic world since the earliest days of the faith and helped found modern Saudi Arabia. The United States isn’t responsible for giving the Kurdish people a state or denying them one. Although everyone in the Middle East tends to blame Washington for everything from car bombs to the weather, the United States isn’t responsible for the woes of the Middle East. But like old houses that were barely standing, Washington’s actions and missteps pushed them off their foundations and exposed the rot within, unleashing the madness of the Iraq war, the bloodbath in Syria, Libya’s post-Gadhafi anarchy, and ISIS.
For all their force, these are thoughts that refuse to cohere. Jihadist thought and ISIS are not the same thing: they are discrete but interrelated. The United States isn’t totally “responsible for the woes of the Middle East,” but it is partly responsible. Washington didn’t just push the “old houses” of the Middle East off their foundations: it helped to build them. I’m not sure of the reason for this confusion. Maybe the truth is that, like a lot of people, Engel’s emotions are leading him to sketch haphazardly. It is clear, to his credit, that he’s deeply moved by what he has seen on the ground.
Those experiences are the most accomplished portions of Engel’s book, and they make up the bulk of it. After Israel he spent time in Lebanon, in Iraq after the American invasion, and in Syria after the civil war broke out, where he was kidnapped and luckily released. The chapters on Iraq and Syria are the heart of the book: they are where Engel saw the worst violence, faced the most frequent danger, and felt his keenest losses. The rise of the insurgency in Iraq spelled the end of the old reporting world: journalists were now targets, and the risks of reporting became more like those of soldiering, as Engel was to discover.
The chief achievement of Engel’s book is reminding its readers, who live thousands of miles away in relative comfort, of the costs of war, it’s toll on people and societies. He chronicles Baghdad’s carnage in terse, effective sentences:
The spring and summer of 2005 were a nightmare of murders, bombings, shootings, and kidnappings. Each day had the same bloody rhythm: mortars at dawn, car bombs by 11:00 a.m., drive-by shootings before tea, and mortars again at dusk. At night the death squads went to work.
He was nearly killed several times. His relationships suffered, too. Engel, like Filkins, got divorced while he was in Iraq, at least in part, they both imply, because they spent so much time away from home, huddled under arcing shells, drinking hard at night, experiencing something their families and friends could not understand. Solace was ephemeral. After his divorce Engel met a woman he liked but a suicide bomber blew her apart a few weeks later. His worldview blackened: “I now saw war as constant…It’s an atavistic thing, buried deep in our DNA.” His sense of self grew abstracted: he made a name for himself in Iraq, and he notes Zarqawi making a name for himself at the same time, two cogs in a catastrophe machine. Filkins said something similar: “You imagine that your place in this is very crucial, whether it is or not.”
But though the experience of journalists in the Middle East often dovetails with soldiers and civilians, the comparison doesn’t survive past the level of the individual, and reporters who lived (Filkins lost 18 friends between 2002 and 2014) could always go home. The invasion of Iraq sundered a country, and now it’s destroyed a second. Reporting from Syria during the Iraq war, Engel found the outskirts of Damascus transformed:
What had been desert was now a strip packed with dozens of sleazy nightclubs, each featuring fifty to a hundred young girls, almost all of them Iraq refugees forced into the sex trade to support their families. The owner of a place called the Lighthouse let us film inside his club because he thought it would be good advertising. The girls were barely pubescent (and some clearly weren’t), and they wore belly-dancing costumes covered with sequins… If a customer was interested in a girl, he would talk to her father or uncle or male guardian….If a deal was struck, the girl would become the man’s sexual property for a week, a month, six months, or for as long as he was interested.
When a young Iraqi man watched his sister pimped out by his dad, the effect was grimly predictable.
Books like And Then All Hell Broke Loose (and Filkins’ The Forever War) ought to be required reading for citizens of the West. They ought to be aware, in terrible, gruesome detail, of what their tax dollars have paid for.
In the life of a reporter, though, “What’s most jarring,” Filkins said, “is when you come back and nobody cares.” It’s a common refrain: “In 2015,” Engel writes, “when I went back to the States or to an international conference, I found that people didn’t much care anymore.” The only thing that seems to focus the attention of American and European readers are terrorist attacks, and then their governments strike back, and so the cycle repeats itself. And then there will be more books about war zones, grim chronicles of blood and pain, for all their passion making no more impression than a stranger’s obituary.
Greg Waldmann is the Editor-in-chief of Open Letters Monthly, and a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.