Boredom and bombast: a story of the first Gulf War
War reporting isn't always all it's cracked up to be - at least, not in Saudi Arabia.
Let me confess my bias up front: It would be hard for a print journalist like me not to enjoy a book that makes me and my peers look smarter than both our editors and most television reporters.
But hopefully there's a broader audience for Neil MacFarquhar's The Sand Café, a satiric fictional account of a journalist's romance and reporting set in a non-descript Saudi Arabian hotel during the first Gulf War.
"The Sand Café" is a witty younger sibling to the 2003 nonfiction "Jarhead" by Anthony Swofford, which was also written about the first Gulf War, although there a Marine grunt was the protagonist rather than a journalist. Both books, however, depict an antiseptic war in which the main character is locked into a state of relentless boredom.
The hero of "The Sand Café" is Angus, a wireservice foreign correspondent who lands in Saudi Arabia shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. He hopes the war will boost him into a job with one of the nation's big newspapers. To that end, he is willing to repeatedly risk explusion by writing stories that anger his Saudi hosts.
But the real drama during his stay involves his romantic life, which, previously, had always taken the same trajectory as his stories: "caterpillar to butterfly to dust in two weeks." That is, until he meets Thea, a chick-lit version of CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She ambitiously bounces between two boyfriends when she's not filming standups for her fictionalized cable news network.
Unfortunately, the romance in this novel is a fairly saccharine affair. MacFarquhar, a New York Times correspondent who has long covered the Middle East, is best when he sticks to journalism and the region. These are topics he knows quite well - so well, in fact, that it's hard not to wonder if the book is autobiographical - or perhaps it's simply a vehicle for MacFarquhar to vent feelings not appropriate for the news pages of the Times.
He takes advantage of any opportunity for digs against TV news people. (In one scene, they furiously debate military officials about the best colors for on-air reporters' clothing.)
The contempt he feels for television news is exceeded only by that he directs at the Saudi government and the hypocrisy and corruption of its richest members.
There is the "handsome, erudite scion of an illustrious family" who "could lie fluently in several languages" as spokesman for the Saudi government. Another seemingly pious leading Saudi kept a fully stocked bar and dance club full of scantily clad women in his basement.
MacFarquhar also captures the absurdities of military/press relations during the war in all their glory. The reporters chafe constantly as they are limited to pools that can't interview high-ranking generals, cover religious services, or write about battle damages and casualties.
This is a story that takes much of the glamour out of the life of a foreign correspondent. Here they come off with not much better a life than traveling salesmen.
At one point Thea calls war correspondents "nerds with laptops, toting up their front-page stories like accountants." Angus complains about the loneliness of finding "himself sitting alone in yet another interchangeable hotel room."
As in "Jarhead," most of the book's action takes place during the run-up to the war when the biggest source of drama was a protest staged by Saudi women who ignored the ban on females driving.
And as in "Jarhead," Angus winds up itching to get closer to the action. He is initially stuck deep in Saudi Arabia near an air force base, so his only indication that war has begun is when the American fighter planes start taking off en masse.
With the US into its fourth year of occupying Iraq, this book might leave you feeling nostalgic for the comparative bloodlessness of the Gulf War. Reporters today living in fortified bunkers in Iraq and worrying about who will get kidnapped next might well roll their eyes at the frivolous concerns of journalists portrayed here.
The first Gulf War feels almost quaintly anachronistic compared with the current occupation, and it may be that this book's moment has passed now with so many books set in Iraq now hitting bookstores.
MacFarquhar admits he planned to write it much sooner but he was delayed by a serious accident. Ironically, the veteran reporter, who has safely covered the Middle East for years, was badly injured when his bicycle was hit by an out-of-control bus - in the middle of Manhattan.
• Seth Stern is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, DC.