[27 July 2010]
Megan K. Stack was a 25-year-old national reporter vacationing in Paris when planes hit the World Trade Center. She knew that September 11th would inexorably alter her generation. Stark’s own life certainly changed when her newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, asked her to head straight to Afghanistan. Thus began seven turbulent years of reporting from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya—experiences colorfully captured in Every Man in This Village is a Liar.
Reporters are somehow supposed to remain calmly outside the fray, objective witnesses that scrub traces of themselves from the articles they pen. Every Man in This Village is a Liar shows how very much cut by the fray journalists are. Stack’s writing has an emotional intensity that makes you feel that writing this book was not an option. Rather, it was something she had to do to express the images and stories scribbled in her notebook and seared in her mind, the ones that didn’t make it into her articles.
Some tales were too personal for the newspaper, such as her experience coping with the many restrictions on women’s lives while reporting from Saudi Arabia. Others simply lacked the tidy endings that articles require, like the story of Ahmed, a thoughtful, young Shiite man Stack meets in Bagdad during the summer of 2006. She begins interviewing him regularly, aiming for an article that would give her readers insight into the lives of young Shiites as a whole. One day Ahmed is threatened while walking to a meeting with Stack, and then disappears. She is devastated.
Stack has an incredibly evocative way of describing things—often vividly poignant, occasionally slightly bizarre (“fingers dripping like algae onto my ears and cheeks”). The details she captures are stunning. In wartime situations when you can’t imagine having the wherewithal, or even the desire, to write and remember, Stack has seemingly jotted down everything she felt, saw, smelled and heard.
The most dramatic example is her interview with a police officer seriously injured in a suicide bombing. His face “looked like a broken plate that had been plastered together with blood for glue.” She feels dizzy and nauseous. “With the salt of a stranger’s blood in my nose, I squinted into my notebook, clenched the inner skin of my cheek between my teeth, and made myself write his words”. At times like these, perhaps the notebook itself served as both safety blanket and talisman—Stack is alive and sane as long as she can continue to write.
All of her stories are compelling, but is there any larger narrative that Stack is trying to illuminate? If so, it is one that is quite nihilistic. She portrays the war on terror as a myth designed to assuage Americans’ fears, and describes the US as “running uphill to nowhere in pursuit of a receding mirage of absolute safety.” Everyone is chasing phantoms, and normal people trying to live their lives are caught up in the chaos.
She thinks Americans put too much emphasis on the future, on a “new” Middle East, when, in the minds of people from the region, “there is no past or present, there is only everything, and it weaves together, shimmering and seamless”. She does not use this book to make specific recommendations for US foreign policy, although she does point out some of the blatant hypocrisy of American actions –- such as toning down talk of democracy in the Middle East once Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood make electoral gains.
In large part, Stack leaves it up to you, the reader, to use what she has witnessed to draw your own conclusions about where developments in the Muslim world may lead us.
What Stack does most effectively is illuminate the many lessons she learns during her travels. One example is the book’s title, a sentence Stack hears in Pakistan before crossing into Afghanistan after September 11th. She finds that all the people she talks to have other motives, other hands they are playing, and that the truth is elusive.
One night she writes an article about the bombing of a small village, which she personally visited. When the story runs the following day, it begins with a Pentagon official denying that the bombing ever occurred. Stack writes: “Were we to believe that the village had spontaneously collapsed while U.S. warplanes circled overhead?” Stack becomes more comfortable with the notion of emotional truth than objective truth, which can be morphed and molded to fit anyone’s needs. For example, in Israel she uncovers the “emotional truth” that Israelis and Palestinians have actually become two halves of one whole, endlessly torturing each other.
Stack also learns that it matters what you do at war. The war may happen far from you, like in Iraq, or on the other side of a wall, as in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Still, no matter how you try to block out the war, “[w]e become what we do… All of that poison seeps back into our soil”. Stack believes it is possible to overcome things done to you, but not the things that you have done. She wants us to stop thinking of war as something that can be held at arm’s length, neatly concluded with no repercussions.
In Afghanistan, Stack finds that “[t]o write about the battle in an organized way, to shuffle the pieces, tap the sides and square it into paragraphs and quotations was a fabrication”. This statement could describe all of the events covered in her book. In fact, the only clean narrative may be Stack’s own story—one of a young woman thrown into the life of a war correspondent, and how it changed her forever.
As a story about how war transforms you, the book is not unique—Stack’s voice in the midst of war, however, is.