Catherine Taylor, Once upon at time in Beirut: A journey to the heart of the Middle East (364 pages, Sydney: Bantam), 2007.
Due to living in the Middle East for a couple of years i have a particular interest in reading other people’s experience of it. Catherine is a professional journalist from Australia and tells of her life and travels within the region. She and her husband based themselves in Beirut for a number of years, just after 9/11 through to 2005 (3-4 years). During that time they also travelled around the region, including Iraq, during and after its occupation.
This journalistic-biography is very pleasant to read. It just flows; and there are plenty of stories to get wrapped up in. The experiences Catherine had come across as amazing and the ease with which she adjusts to life in the ME is commendable. Her and her husband’s story skip along at a great pace and reflect what any Westerner living in the ME would feel. I can relate to many of the stories that she tells about her dealings with the people, the places she visited and the various experiences with those of different religions.
It was great to get more of an insight as to the nature of the city life in Beirut. The clubs, pubs, eateries, coffee houses, streets, shops, swimming pools, hair-dressers and the like are experiences to be treasured when one goes to the ME, Beirut in-particular.
I find what Catherine says regarding living in that context to be true. The enduring mind-set of the Lebanese people after the Civil War, the exuberant support and a national mind-set after Hariri’s assassination and then the recovery after the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict all ring bells. She does well to purvey what went on and at least talks to a number of different people (her close friends, Hezbollah officials, Sunni’s, Palestinians etc) to get different points of view. I think the book would have been improved if there was a greater focus on the Hariri assassination and the after effects of that. While she was not there at the time of the bombing only one chapter is dedicated to it.
Overall i think it is a good read and gives a basic understanding of life, for a Westerner at least, in the ME. It is not a cultural thesis and should not be read that way, but for a little glimpse at what life is like over there it is good.