Privilege, Anxiety, and Life in the Modern Middle East

May 18, 2014   •   By Joseph Dana

Friday Was the Bomb

Nathan Deuel

"ARE YOU A JOURNALIST?" The question, coming from a Bahraini immigration officer adorned in what looked to be a sailor’s uniform, felt strangely like a theoretical one. "Is this you?" he asked as he waved a photo of me reporting for Al Jazeera English from Greece more than three years ago.

Airports have always been sterile places, even in the Gulf where they are filled with shiny and expensive duty free goods. But recently, they have come to physically embody much of the anxiety associated with living in the Middle East. 

Over the last four years, I have watched as the profession of journalism has gone from a mere nuisance for authorities to a crime in countries around the region. This is particularly acute in Egypt, where radio equipment is currently regarded as advanced spying gear. It is no less sharp in places like Israel or Turkey, where obtaining a press card is a dystopian process straight out of Kafka’s imagination — especially in an airport.

On that particularly crisp evening last month, I had arrived from Istanbul to Bahrain. Exiting the plane, the night was dry enough to keep the early summer heat at bay. A few hours after my arrival, the oil-rich rulers of this Gulf kingdom were set to stage the Formula One Grand Prix.  

It wasn’t difficult to see what they were trying to do. The airport was adorned with inviting posters showcasing the bounty of Bahrain for the droves of pale Brits eager for a weekend of racing and dry desert sun. Behind the scenes, immigration officers were busy Googling each arriving passenger; their task was to sniff out any trace of activism or journalism.  

Foreign journalists weren’t welcome to float around Manama during this state-sponsored PR blitzkrieg. The Arab Spring gave courage to Bahraini Shiites, and massive street protests have engulfed the country since 2011. The government reacted with an iron fist and plenty of support from the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Formula One race was an attempt to change the media coverage coming from the island nation; I later learned that 27 high-profile Western journalists were denied entry to the country the night before the previous Formula One race. 

There I was, held at the immigration line. Despite the fact that I was not on a journalistic assignment, I was told politely that in the eyes of the Bahraini government I was a journalist. Once a journalist, always a journalist was the mantra I kept hearing.  Of course, it could have been worse if I was a local. I would have likely been placed in jail. 

Dana Buildings Tahrir

Joseph Dana filing a story on top of a building in Tahrir Square.

Experiences like this one, lingering in the in-between zone of dimly lit airport arrival areas while pondering the “crime” of being a journalist in the Middle East, are par for the course for those working as journalists in the region. Life is filled with paranoia, excessive military posturing and plain stupidity in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Nathan Deuel's new memoir, Friday Was the Bomb, is an intimate portrait of a myriad of these challenges written from the perspective of a journalist’s spouse.

Deuel's wife, Kelly, bounces between Beirut, Riyadh and Baghdad as NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, leaving Deuel to tend to their newborn daughter, sometimes from a careful distance and sometimes in the thick of the chaos.

Friday Was the Bomb is a memoir about life, of the little things that infuriate and invade the small corners of life in the center of conflict zones. Early in the memoir, Deuel describes the difficulty of obtaining permission for their daughter, Loretta, to leave Saudi Arabia for the United States. Having been born in the Kingdom, it is unclear if authorities will let the baby leave the country; if they say no, there is little recourse available to change their minds. The fear of being helpless if the Saudi authorities refuse to cooperate is thick in Deuel's prose. Eventually, after evading random queues that typify immigration offices, Deuel obtains safe passage for his daughter by citing, of all things, religion. “Religion,” he writes,  

meant something here, even if wasn’t Islam; faith commanded respect, and more importantly, action. He [the Saudi Arabian official] walked to a shelf filled with thick leather binders. Paging through the yellowing paper of one, he found an open space and took out an ink pen. Peering closely at my shaky handwriting and the picture of our newborn daughter, he slowly began to write. Then he stopped, inspected my forms again. I held my breath. I said a little prayer. Was something wrong? Then with a sigh, he resumed scratching, producing line after line of flowing Arabic. Finally, he took out a stamp, moistened it with a small sponge, affixed it to little Loretta’s passport page, signed, and with that, we could leave.   

Deuel structures his memoir through a series of short vignettes. Some are painfully short and tackle topics ranging from the pitfalls of the hit American TV series Homeland to idiosyncrasies of his favorite café in Beirut. It is in the descriptions of Beirut and Istanbul that the book truly excels. Deuel’s eye allows for startlingly subtle portraits of cities in the grips of violence. In Beirut, soldiers in full combat gear fight in front of Deuel’s flat. APCs remain parked in alleys in his neighborhood. He walks over bullet casings to get to his front door. Life appears chaotic outside the confines of his four walls but inside Deuel busies himself with caring for his daughter, the craft of writing and trying to keep his mind on the conflict zones where his wife travels. 

Life in the region is still exotic for the foreigner, despite being anxiety prone. Working as a correspondent in Jerusalem, Cairo or Beirut still conjures romantic images of intellectual stimulation and excitement. But there is another aspect of working as a journalist in the region today: the influx of woefully uneducated and tragically misguided writers that grab a commercial flight, open a Twitter account and cut their teeth in the region. We have seen the stories of freelance journalists disappearing in Syria, but there is a lack of accounts of how the American media sausage gets made in this part of the world.

About halfway through the book, Deuel’s writing gets sharper, more pronounced. His observations provide layered insight into life in the Middle East. Yet, there is little to no comment on the connection between the events he describes unfolding around him and how they are portrayed in the work of his friends, colleagues and his own wife.

Deuel accompanies his wife on trips to Iraq; he is exposed to the loss of New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid; he mixes with the heart of the international Middle Eastern press corps but he never provides insight into to whether the coverage coming from these people is on point. 

Perhaps that is beyond the scope of the memoir. For my part, living and reporting in the Middle East has provided enormous insight into the myriad of ethical challenges that exist in this part of the world. I am struck, for example, by the many times I have seen senior correspondents for major American media organizations cozying up with senior Israeli military advisors. I recall the endless arguments about terminology in the press (do we call it a West Bank security fence or wall? Was it a coup or part of the revolution in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from leadership?).   

Given the structure of the memoir, and some of the journalist parties described in detail throughout the book, I would have enjoyed that rare perspective into what journalists in this region talk about when they are not working. What are the challenges they face and, perhaps more importantly, where does Deuel find holes in their coverage? 

Commentary on the news coverage from this region is an easy way of including perspectives from the ground. Throughout the memoir Deuel includes portraits of life here, from his wife’s security guard in Iraq who no longer celebrates his own birthday to those running his favorite café in Beirut, that demonstrate the incredible pressure to which locals are subject. The gravity of these pressures far exceeds the pesky bureaucracy that Westerns encounter. At the end of the day, we can leave this region and return to the safe confines of the United States and Europe. We can’t lose sight of the privilege and entitlement that travels with us like a warm blanket. Deuel, to his credit as a keen observer, doesn’t lose sight of this truism. 

The most potent emotion that I have experienced living in the Middle East is anxiety.

Whether crossing borders, arranging visas, dealing with the threat of violence or simply the lack of public services, this region excels at producing anxiety-breeding situations. Deuel masterfully captures the subtly of life here. His worry grows as the book progresses. 

He worries about his friends in Beirut as the city is rocked by car bomb after bomb. And, of course, there is life back in the United States. Despite the ease of commercial travel and internet communication, when you live in a conflict-ridden zone halfway around the world, disconnection from family is a reality and a sacrifice: 

I knew Kelly’s job obliged her to go to terrible places. I knew there’d be nights alone, days without word. But then her colleagues started dying, killed by gunfire and bombings. I went to a funeral. I cried in a pew. I hoped, made myself believe after years of worry, that it wouldn’t happen again. Would you believe that part of me stopped worrying, or that I thought maybe after a certain point I couldn’t worry anymore?

The Middle East is the best region of the world for constant news material. It will likely always hold that distinction. Nathan Deuel’s memoir is a rare glimpse into what life is like for the families that come to cover the region’s events. Without revealing exactly how the media sausage is made, Deuel encapsulates the only real constant in this region with precision and skill: anxiety.

Sitting in that lonely airport in Bahrain, waiting for my 4 a.m. flight back to Istanbul, Friday Was the Bomb was a great companion as it reminded me, above all else, that I was not alone in navigating the strange and mystical bureaucracy that unites the Middle East. Ultimately, however, I was a lucky Westerner simply being denied entry. Had I been a local, one can only assume what fate awaited me for practicing the “crime” of journalism as a profession. 


Joseph Dana is a print and radio journalist based in the Middle East and South Africa. His print work has appeared in GQ (Germany), Le Monde Diplomatique and The Nation. His radio reports can be found on Monocle 24.