Having lived in the Middle East for a couple of years, and studied its history while at university, I am always drawn to books depicting personal experiences of it.
Catherine Taylor, a professional journalist from Australia, tells of her life and travels of the Middle East in this little gem of a book. She and her husband were based in Beirut for three to four years, from post-9/11 to 2005. During this time they travelled the region, including visits to 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 has come across as amazing. And the ease in which she adjusts to life in the Middle East is commendable. Her and her husband’s story skip along at t great pace, and reflect what any Westerner living in the Middle East would and should feel. I can certainly relate to many of the stories she tells, particularly in her interactions with people, the places she visits, and the experiences with various religious expressions.
It was great to get more of an insight into the nature of city life in Beirut. The clubs, pubs, eateries, cafes, streets, shops, swimming pool, hairdressers, and the like are experiences to be treasured when in the Middle East.
I found what Catherine says regarding living in the Middle East to be true. The enduring mind-set of the Lebanese people after the Civil War, the exuberant and nationalistic support post-Hariri’s assassination, and the recovery after the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in 2006 all ring bells. The survey and investigation as to what went on in various parts of Lebanese history is told through interviews with close friends, Hezbollah officials, Sunni’s, Palestinians, and others. This gives different points of view to the historical narrative of Lebanese history.
I think the book would have been improved if there was a greater focus on the Hariri assassination and its after effects. While Catherine was not there at the time of the bombing and assassination there is only one chapter dedicated to it.
Overall this is a good read and gives a basic understanding of life, for a Westerner at least, in the Middle East. It is not a cultural thesis, and nor should it be read as such, but for a little glimpse into the milieu of the region it is worth the read.
Catherine Taylor, Once Upon A Time In Beirut: A Journey To The Heart Of The Middle East (364 pages, Sydney: Bantam), 2007.