THE GULF TODAY
A STORY OF STORIES
When I was a little girl, my parents gave me One Thousand and One Nights to read, and I was hooked on the Middle East for the rest of my life. Michael Jansen’s Windows on Interesting Times will take you for the same breathless ride from the very first page, as she, like Scheherazade, knows how to tell wonderful stories about her journey as a woman, a journalist and a truth-teller.
She says in the prefactory note, “This book is not a history of the past half-century of the Middle East, not a memoire, not an autobiography…it is a story of stories,” And what a delight you are going to have reading them. In no particular order, Michael writes about living in Beirut and Nicosia while covering the Lebanese civil war, the Arab Spring, constant Israeli attacks on the civilians of Gaza, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and her personal journey to Mecca and becoming a Hajji. Just when you think the story is finished, it’s not. One of the most amazing aspects of this book is how Michael can weave them into a tapestry of rich smells, tastes and colours. If you close your eyes, you can smell the souks of Damascus and Cairo, hear the call to prayer and see the mountains outside Beirut where she once lived.
“Following the third stoning, I returned to Mecca in the back of a pick-up, went to the hotel where I had spent the first night and showered and changed into coloured clothing to show I had completed the rituals of the Hajj. As the golden evening folded the nearly empty Grand Mosque into its arms…I took part in the Maghreb (sunset prayer), as pigeons fluttered and soured overhead,” is just one of hundreds of delicious descriptions by this writer.
One minute you are breathlessly reading about the women’s march across the border in Nicosia, Cyprus in 1989 and the next, she describes some of the most mouthwatering food that you would ever want to eat, to say, “Michael, I need that recipe. Oh, but I can wait to ask her after I finish these next two chapters.” The stories sometimes break your heart as you read about the massacres in Jenin, Palestine or the brave attempts at changing regimes in Egypt during the “Arab Spring,” (which turned out to be an Arab winter for the Egyptians) or the visit to the front lines of Afghanistan. Interspersed in the stories is also a personal one, as she writes this book about her husband, Godfrey (a journalist for the Economist of London) and her daughter, Marya. The writing is a perfect blend of the political and the personal.
For a half century, Michael has borne witness to the changes in the Middle East, and catalogued them with a clear journalist’s eye, reporting the facts, interviewing people as disparate as Yassir Arafat and Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein. None of the changes have been good for the region, as it has struggled to cast off the colonial regimes that drew the lines of many countries that didn’t really exist until France and England sliced up the Ottoman Empire after WWI. Her descriptions of the people she has met along the way and the events she has seen and written about will hold your attention until the very end of this book. I couldn’t put it down and read it on a plane from Los Angeles to London, what appeared to be the shortest flight I remember until I realised I’d read for over ten hours, waiting to turn the page to the next adventure.
In the Epilogue, Michael says, “Let us abide a while and see injustice done. I don’t. I fret and fume and eventually, write…I write because I fight. The truth must be told…victims defended, bullies blasted…Writing is a way to express rage against injustice in the hope of infecting others with rage.”
Windows on Interesting Times is about that rage. It’s also about family and friends and food and joy, written by a woman who has seen 50 years of turmoil in a region she loves and makes us love. Unlike Scheherazade, however who spun tales to save her life, Michael writes in hopes she can also save lives and the richness of this amazing region. And we get to look through those windows and come along with her. Don’t miss the opportunity.
Review by Greta Berlin, Co-Founder, The Free Gaza movement
12 November 2018
Panorama - The Gulf Today