Monday, September 24, 2012

“Surfing Near the Siege”: A Review of Jesse Aizenstat’s Surfing the Middle East

Surfing the Middle East is a book of endless dicotomy. Subtitled “Deviant Journalism for the Lost Generation,” Aizenstat’s diary and depiction of his two trips to the Middle East is equal parts eye-opening participant journalism in the tradition of Sebastian Junger and V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers (the best book I have ever read about the tangled weave of cultures and belief systems in the Middle East) and an at times over-the-top homage to the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson (as evidenced most obviously by the opening quote from the good doctor and more subtly by the rampant use of his signature words: “savage,” “swine,” “fiend,” and his metaphorical device of linking drug-tripping adjectives with his on-site experiences).
            To be fair to Aizenstat—whose idea to surf in Israel and Lebanon while immersing himself in the Gordian knot of what is happening “over there” as an American Jew was as excellently executed as it was extremely evocative in concept—I have spent the past eight years reading everything I can find written by or about Hunter S. Thompson (indeed, as I was reading Surfing the Middle East I was also reading Hey Rube, so the Doctor’s typical dialogue and devices were foremost in my mind). Thompson’s appeal is his intense Uniqueness, and any attempt to borrow from or otherwise emulate what he so carefully cultivated rubs me the wrong way. It’s like trying to paint like Jackson Pollock and pass it off as in any way your own. I have watched with no small sorrow as Johnny Depp sinks into a not-so-subtle cartoon echo of his fallen hero. Sad.
            Aizenstat—a self-professed “smartass”—succeeds best when he is caught with his guard down, letting the waves of misery, injustice, absurdism, and poor policy that is the history of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict wash over him like some rogue wave. These moments—which happen with more frequency and greater intensity as he gets deeper into the Reality of things—like a Nor’easter moving into the mid-Atlantic coast where I spent my youth—make this book a must-read for anyone who cares at all about what is really happening among the flying rhetoric and rockets.
            Of course, like any successful story arc, the main character, fictional or not, has to start from somewhere far from where he ends, and watching Aizenstat’s armored plates of wise-cracks and playing the couldn’t-care-less California surfer-dude crack and fall away as he attends fire-flinging political rallies on both sides and sees first hand the Andersonville-esque squalor of the refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila one cannot help but invest in his pain and disbelief.
            The book is abundantly filled with quotes penned by everyone from social commentators like Mary Shelley and Mark Twain to absurdist/existentialists like Albert Camus and Joseph Heller and is richly illustrated with nearly a dozen indispensible maps and a section of provocative color pictures. [I was doing a series of workshops for eighth graders in the West Virginia Capitol Complex on the Constitution and Bill of Rights while reading the book and the inside cover shots showing the disturbing dicotomy between the war and the western shore opened more than a few lost and jaded eyes]. There is also an ipad app [as well as a blog and numerous YouTube videos], illustrative of the hip and happening mode that feeds the surfing metaphors that are Aizenstat’s own coin of the realm. I was quickly reminded that what we think of almost without fail as an unmitigated desert-scape actually has a considerable coastline that provides page after page of apt comparisons between the surfer’s unpredictable dance with the swells and daily life in the camps, bombed out neighborhoods, checkpoints, and mosques and temples in Israel and Lebanon.
            Like the metafiction of the Beats, Surfing the Middle East boasts a compelling cast of characters: Jewish and Muslim surfers; attractive and flirtatious female border guards; no nonsense Israeli soldiers; wealthy Palestinian playboys living the club life; and an on-the-edge journalist from Texas nicknamed As-Salibi (“The Crusader”) who clandestinely gathers stories for a Palestinian news agency are just some of the many people that serve to educate and escalate Aizenstat’s transformation.
            This is not to say that at the start the author is in any way vacuous or not in tune. Despite his put-on surfer persona and failure to pass the Foreign Service Exam (the precipitating incident that started him on his journey—what Joe Campbell would identify as the hero’s “Call to Adventure”) his writing demonstrates an impressive knowledge of geography, mythology, foreign affairs, Middle Eastern history, and human psychology. In that regard, he is very much like Hunter S. Thompson, who, thru the drug and booze–fueled madness that mark his writing and his life, was a brilliant analyst whose political and pop culture predictions more often than not came true.
And Aizenstat definitely knows enough about the nuances of surfing to thread them through the multi-colored, multi-textured Middle Eastern tapestry that he weaves.
            As I said at the start, Surfing the Middle East is about nothing if not Dicotomy. I’ve explored several in this review—the serious journalist vs. the smartass surfer; the Israelis and Palestinians; the war and the western shore. These could be considered the macro-dicotomies. But dig a little deeper [stick around as the sun starts to set for that one last perfect wave] and you can mine the riches of the micro-dicotomies: the Sunni vs. the Shia; the blood-lusting militant vs. the old man struggling to feed his family in a quiet corner of a bombed and burned out world after being chased from his home by a roving gang of those blood-lusting militants; the shortest distance between two points vs. the realities of traveling in such a divided, border-guarded land; and perhaps the most compelling of all—the Jekyll and Hyde nature of organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the PLO and many of the so-called leaders on both sides. The deeper you go—the longer you ride the tide—the more you want to know and the less you can ignore.
            So what about the non-Jew, the non-Muslim, like myself? What is our role in all of this? Because we most certainly have one. If you know nothing about the history and horrors of this area of the world, let this book be your passport, your circumventing navigational tool, your entrypoint to the rallies and the temples and the mosques.
            And when you’re done, just try and forget what you have read.

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