50 years of intricate stories meant to illuminate the times
Short, clipped sentences that follow and complete each other, and long, elaborate, detailed paragraphs form the rhythmic text of this page-turner that keeps the reader riveted.
Chronology follows the writer’s own tempo, seemingly random, yet, rendering a clear picture of a region that rarely sees a moment of peace and that Michael Jansen has made her home.
Hers are stories of people, places and events woven in a tapestry as intricate as the arabesques of Islamic art and as enthralling as those of Scheherazade — minus the romanticism, plus the gore, misery and injustice that have been plaguing the region for many decades.
From the early time of her writing — as a 17-year-old American writing about the 1958 Iraqi revolution after a chance encounter with Iraqi students at the University of Michigan, for The Bay City Times, at her birthplace that she “escapes” by going to Mount Holyoke College, or as she puts it, “from a small town of 60,000 in Michigan to a town with a quarter of its population in Massachusetts” — and for the next five decades, Jansen has been recording history, as a reporter. As a book writer, she blends facts with rich descriptions of people, history and nature in a measured, calm tone, careful to present the information in the most faithful way possible.
“I have tried to be in watching and listening mode and to report what I saw and heard in an effort to reflect reality and avoid perpetrating the injustice of telling it wrong,” she says in the Epilogue to her book.
She does that by corroborating information and, most importantly, by talking to people, from “worthies” to the simple man in the street, for they all have a story to tell that she is willing to listen to.
“This book is not a history of the past half-century of the Middle East, not a memoire, not an autobiography,” says the author in the Prefatory note, but just windows meant to illuminate the times, opened by journalism, providing whereabouts for eyewitness accounts of seminal or dramatic events.
It is all these, but also more. For, it does present the history of the region’s past 50 years — in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Cyprus and more — but it also talks about older history, which makes her writing colourful, interesting and informative.
And while not exactly an autobiography, Jansen’s destiny is intrinsically tied to that of the region she has made her home since 1962, and in the course of her telling the story of the area, one also finds out about her marriage to G.H. Jansen — a former columnist, like herself, for The Jordan Times, The Economist and others — the birth of her daughter Marya and her granddaughter Elise Elin, the death of her husband, about relatives and friends, about the fact that she is, also, twice a refugee, from Lebanon and from north Cyprus, and about people that touched her life one way or another, and that help inform the reader of her life just as an autobiography would.
Moving between countries and cities in pursuit of a story, she can be seen in all big Arab and European capitals, in smaller cities the world over touched by implacable events.
When writing, she is pushed, she says, by a stream of thought that, when it starts to flow, “finds its own course among impressions and recollections, it zig-zags, goes backward and forward, up and down, gathering force until the mind forms pictures of people, events and happenings, relevant or irrelevant”.
To the region’s readers, the words are all relevant; they can easily identify, and re-live, events, recognise personages and have their theories — at a time labelled conspiracy theories — confirmed by subsequent findings.
To those removed from the region, or ignorant of its mostly bloody events, Jansen’s writing could easily serve as credible information and point of reference, for she digs deep when writing a story and reports impartially.
In the book, however, the stories she wrote are at times concluded with wry humour or are followed by a moral that, after evidence had been gathered, delivers cutting indictment of the perpetrators of killings and destruction, of colonisers whose lack of scruples is responsible for the evils that befell the region, of the callous rulers whose dirty politics are based on vested interests, with not a thought for the masses of people that die, lose dear ones, their homes and countries as a result, of tyrant Arab dictators and weak, fickle Arab rulers.
From the depth of history through to our times, from Cairo east and west, the book talks about hope and despair, peace and war, Arab Spring and the desolation that followed it, the rise of extremist religious thought and groupings each more gruesome than the other, about loss of life, refugeedom, bombings and lies that led to them, about an Arab world divided by factionalism, religious thought, local and foreign leaders, a heart-rending story that is interspersed with glimmers of happier and better times, with good deeds, tolerance, generosity, real understanding of the problems in the region — often present in simple citizens whose views are of no interest to policy makers — and with descriptions of nature and archaeology that somehow mollify the anger elicited by the events.
Perhaps it is no accident that the book starts in Cairo. It is the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the standard bearer of political causes often emulated by other capitals.
Rises and falls of the political fortunes of kings and presidents in the Arab world, but also events in faraway places (from the US, through Europe, on to Iran and India), intifadas, oppression and unjust occupation, peace camps and war-bent, blood-thirsty leaders, rivalries, big events and small heroic deeds find their way in Jansen’s book. It is the make up of this region that rarely sees moments of peace and prosperity, described in minute detail by an eyewitness that exhibits no bitterness, no lamentation, just a faithful rendition of events as seen from her “window”.
The book encapsulates history and events — past and present — is populated by myriad characters — friends made in the course of a rich life, acquaintances, people in high places and of more modest standing. They all play a role, have something notable to say, are part of a vast tableau created by an accomplished storyteller with astute insight and a vast network of helpful individual.
Hospitality, cuisines, rituals, archaeology and nature also find their way in her stories, bringing moments of normalcy in a topsy-turvy world devastated by wars, uprisings, tragic political interests and games whose victims are, in most cases, innocent people.
A quote by the author, from her Epilogue, perhaps best describes her credo and professional drive: “… once in a while one or other of us grabs a grand story, a story that tells us, and our readers something exceptional…. Hopefully, in these instances we write faithfully about the actors, their cause, and their dreams.”
Jansen did just that in this exceptional book, which can be purchased from the publisher.
By Ica Wahbeh - Oct 15,2018