Untold stories from the Middle East

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Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Media coverage of the Middle East often leaves the impression that the entire region is overrun by masked gunmen and militants. But New York Times journalist Neil MacFarquhar tells the stories of very different residents of the Middle East. You can find those stories in his new book. It's called The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday. As to how MacFarquhar came up with that title...

NEIL MACFARQUHAR: When you work in Hizbollah territory either in the southern suburbs of Beirut or in southern Lebanon they first make you fill out a bunch of forms and they ask you your mother's name, where you went to college, what degrees you have, and your birthday, is among the questions. And then suddenly on my birthday I started getting birthday e-mails popping up from Hizbollah@hizbollah.org. Hizbollah with an "i".

MULLINS: Well, that's one thing that, probably, a lot of your colleagues in the business can't brag about, getting birthday greetings from Hizbollah. But, you know, it may not have surprised you, Neil, because you have spent so much of your life in that part of the world. You spent your childhood in Libya because your dad was a chemical engineer who was supervising a refinery there. How did your life and your work, in fact, right now and this book, obviously as an offshoot of that, get formed from the very beginning by your growing up in the Middle East?

MACFARQUHAR: I did grow up in Libya and it was a great childhood, but it was a little like growing up in a club med because we lived in this, sort of, oil compound and Libyans actually had to be outside the gates by five o'clock and we were so isolated that we only discovered that Colonel Kaddafi came to power when we turned on the BBC one morning and after the chimes of Big Ben it was there has been a coup in Libya and we kind of stared at the radio and said, really? And as I got older I, sort of, realized that that fence had kept me apart from kind of an interesting culture and an interesting part of the world. And so I wanted to go back. Although sometimes when I'm in the region, you know, Colonel Kaddafi is still in power and I feel like there's just two people in the Middle East less since when I was a boy, me and the Colonel.

MULLINS: Yeah, the Colonel still is a very colorful character and there are so many colorful characters in your book we're never gonna get to them all but I wonder if you can give us an overview of some of the people who you've encountered there? Tell us about one of them in particular, his name is Sheik Gendy. This is the religious scholar behind the wildly popular dial a sheik service called the Islamic Line.

MACFARQUHAR: It's sort of a dial a fatwa service. Now, fatwa's a sort of religious rulings from a scholar who can help interpret modern life or everyday questions or difficult political questions according to the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. And, you know, it used to be kind of like a confessional. You went to the mosque and you asked your Sheik for a ruling, but in the modern age they've just kind of multiplied like kudzu and so now there's dial a sheik services you can call up on the telephone. You can get them over the internet. You can get them on television programs. Sheik Gendy is a scholar at al-Azhar University in Cairo.

MULLINS: So, you spent some time with this man?

MACFARQUHAR: You know, he let me listen for a few hours to some of the calls he got and, you know, they dealt with all kinds of questions of daily life; is masturbation a sin, is homosexuality a sin, how do you use a condom, I own a bar but I give all the profits from the bar to charity is that still okay even though liquor is forbidden in Islam? He would tell the person who asked about masturbation, he would say, you know, try to play a lot of sports and get married early. But the woman who called in about the bar, he told her that she would go to the depth of hell unless she sold the business because liquor was such a great sin.

MULLINS: Because liquor is such a great sin?


MULLINS: So, do you think it mattered that she was a woman?

MACFARQUHAR: That didn't enter into it. There are obviously a lot of questions, you know, about veiling and correct Islamic dress that he got.

MULLINS: Alright, talking about women in that part of the world, and obviously there are people who test some of the tenets of Islam and those who adhere to them. I want you to talk about another person you met there, Fazia Durai?

MACFARQUHAR: Yes, I think one of the things I tried to get across in this book is that, you know, the Middle East is not peopled with masked gunman and Fazia Durai is an excellent example because she is a US educated sex therapist in Kuwait but she's also a devout Muslim. So, she tends to wear the clothes of a devout Muslim but with a sort of sex therapist twist to it. So she'll wear, like, long read leather skirts and matching head scarves and she's completely open about questions of sexuality and she started with just an advice column in the newspaper but she's since branched out into satellite television. And, you know, she'll take any questions and she really discusses, quite openly, topics like, you know, she'll tell husbands make sure you kiss your wife after sex at night so that, you know, she knows that you still love her even if you feel like you've just done something that involved depravity.

MULLINS: You also had asked her why she has so many male fans and she kind of replied to you coyly, do you remember what she said?

MACFARQUHAR: When I asked her if she had a lot of fans she said, "A veiled woman writing about sex, they love it sweetie." And I think they do love it.

MULLINS: One of the other things that you write about is American invasions of the cultural variety which you say are often welcomed by Arabs. You talk about Oprah Winfrey; in fact, her show is available in many Arab countries on illegal but tolerated satellite dishes. You see satellite dishes everywhere over there. I was just in Egypt and got to see the Colbert Report which was pretty surprising. One can only wonder how it's interpreted there. Why do you think that these shows are so popular across the Arab world?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, I think they're particularly popular among women because women do tend to be a bit, sort of, cloistered and in their homes, Saudi Arabia in particular. I had a great experience with the Oprah Show because I was in Cairo airport waiting for a flight to Saudi Arabia and it came on and it happened to be a program called hunks who build homes. And it was a bunch of shirtless men pounding nails. And all over the waiting room, you know, women were taking their face veils off so they could get a better look until finally a Saudi man got annoyed and he stood up and yelled at one of the waiters to change the channel. But you can tell because at one point Oprah did a show about women all over the world and one of the women she featured was a very brave Saudi television presenter who'd been battered by her husband and came forward to speak about it. And it prompted this whole debate within Saudi Arabia, first of all they were mad because they felt like that was the only negative shown from all over the world, but it was also a whole conversation started about Saudis' image in the world and the role of women and whether it's good for a battered woman to step forward. So, it kind of started a dialogue, in a way, that wouldn't because, you know, the Saudi TV they would just never air a program like that.

MULLINS: That's really interesting because I think the composite of the characters that you portray in the book is really an illustration of what's happening throughout the Middle East right now. How should we hear all these stories? I mean, what emerges from this picture.

MACFARQUHAR: My overall sense is that I think that we probably do look at the violence a little bit too much and there are people out there who do want to bring the more open societies, freer societies, and people on the outside we can't dictate the form that that should take but we could certainly encourage them and encourage freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and those kind of civil rights that will allow that space to expand. And I think one of the reasons that Islamic parties are so popular is because it's the only real alternative. And if you gave people, you know, the space to bring forth other ideas then there would be a wider dialogue and change would be easier and wider.

MULLINS: Neil Macfarquhar is the New York Times UN Bureau Chief. He was the paper's Middle East correspondent from 2001 till 2006. His new book just out is called "The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday." Neil thanks a lot.