****Beside the Syrian Sea

Beirut, street, watcher

photo: Jonhy Blaze, creative commons license

By James Wolff – When reading this British spy thriller, you may feel that, like the protagonist, you’ve gone for a stroll in a dangerous section of town and found yourself in over your head.

Jonas’s father, part of a church delegation visiting Syria, has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists, who demand a $100 million ransom for the 75-year-old cleric. Father and son have been a bit at odds, but despite that—or because of it—Jonas has vowed to rescue him.

Jonas did work for the MI6, yes, but in a desk job. His tradecraft is thin and contacts are few. Thus does Wolff put Jonas and his exploits in the realm of the doable. He makes decisions and takes actions an ordinary person, as opposed to an espionage superhero, might—a believable, somewhat erratic, and doubt-ridden character, easy to identify with and root for.

The story starts in a seedy Beirut bar, where Jonas seeks the help of the middle-aged former priest Tobias, who has previously negotiated the release of terrorist-held hostages. Jonas doesn’t tell him everything, wondering “how it had come to pass unnoticed that deceit had been worn into him like grooves in a record until all he could play were false notes.” Tobias is reluctant to get involved, but he has an interest in a woman named Maryam also stuck in Syria. Jonas says, if he helps, “we’ll get her out.” We?

Because this shaky rescue mission has no official standing, he’s unlikely to deliver on this promise, or on any of the commitments he ultimately makes with Hezbollah representatives, the espionage establishment, and anyone else he thinks can help him. You feel you’re mounting a wobbly tower made of playing cards, a fragile edifice that may collapse at any moment.

MI6 sends the tennis-playing Desmond Naseby to befriend and spy on Jonas and persuade him to give up his efforts. Naseby is quickly followed by CIA case office Harvey Deng. Deng is all business, aggressive and profane, but Jonas and Naseby banter amusingly. Says Naseby, “You can’t stand to be cooped up. Smell of the sea, bustle of the bazaars.” “Thwack of the tennis racket,” responds Jonas.

Edward Snowden taints the narrative like a malevolent spirit when it dawns on MI6 higher-ups that Jonas may have availed himself of some of the secret reports he’s been reading at his desk all those years. When it appears he is trying to trade a USB drive for his father, they give his case the operational name LEAKY PIPE and, well, panic sets in.

What keeps the pages turning in this highly entertaining tale, is that, like Jonas’s MI6 and CIA opponents, you can never be quite sure how much he really knows, what his strategy really is, or even if he has one. As a result, the outcome of his dangerous mission might succeed or, as seems much more likely, go disastrously wrong.

*****Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story

war damage, bomb

photo: Feyrouz at English Wikipedia, creative commons license

During the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon in the late 1980s and 1990s, the army gave its outposts botanical names, which led to an otherwise undistinguished hill’s being called “Pumpkin.” In military radio traffic, a dead soldier was an “oleander” and an injured soldier merely a “flower,” species undefined.

Pumpkinflowers, then, refers not to a bucolic late-summer farm field, but rather to the soldiers physically and sometimes mentally wounded by service in a hostile land, where their presence became increasingly indefensible. Matti Friedman tells the stories of these young men and their challenges feelingly and at close hand, as he was one of them.

Friedman is a journalist born in Canada, who lamented the lack of writing about that occupation and its impact on the young Israeli men who served there, most of them fresh out of high school. So he set about telling their story himself, believing today’s Middle East situation had some of its seeds in this unnamed and largely ignored security zone conflict.

Initially, as so often happens in military history, the generals were fighting the last war. They thought the enemy comprised somewhat ragtag Palestinian guerrillas, but before long, the occupiers faced local Shiites, who called themselves the Party of God, Hezbollah. This group was generously funded by Iran and Syria and able to call on a seemingly endless supply of would-be suicide bombers. Hezbollah also soon seized the lead in the propaganda war.

That the TV images were the real weapons, that the Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers had been turned into actors in an attack staged for the camera—these weren’t things anyone understood yet. . . . Within a few years elements of the security zone war would, in turn, appear elsewhere and become familiar . . . : Muslim guerrillas operating in a failed and chaotic state; small clashes in which the key actor is not the general but the lieutenant or private; the use of a democracy’s sensitivities, public opinion, and free press as weapons against it.

(The Body of an American, a prize-winning play reviewed here, makes a similar point.)

Hezbollah was not interested in a negotiated withdrawal of Israeli troops or achievement of some limited goal: “It is a vision and an approach, not only a military reaction,” one of its leaders has written. Subsequent actions continue to demonstrate this larger view, which suggests limits on a strictly military response.

Through discussion of the Four Mothers movement, which supported withdrawal from Lebanon, Friedman explores the political conflict between the leftists of the dwindling kibbutz movement who in the 1990s believed in compromise and thought peace was possible and the rightists who believed peace was a dangerous illusion and who currently dominate Israeli politics.

The last section of the book describes Friedman’s return to Lebanon (using his Canadian passport) and his rediscovery of the remains of the Pumpkin, a place as tangible to him today, in its continued importance, as it ever was when he served there.

Not a long book at 225 pages, it’s insightful and well written, condensing both human interest and political analysis into the story of a single lost outpost. Author Lucette Lagnado says Friedman’s prose “manages to be lyrical, graceful, and deeply evocative even when tackling the harshest subjects imaginable,” and I certainly found it so.

 

Incendies

film, Incendies

“Incendies” (image: nymag.com)

The New Year is off to a great Netflix start with the 2010 Canadian drama Incendies (trailer), adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, and directed by Denis Villeneuve. In it, a twin brother and sister are directed by their mother’s will with finding their father and previously unknown half-brother, both presumably lost in the human fallout from a Middle East conflict.

The key question is, how can they find their father when they did not really know their mother? Who and what she was is the first mystery they must solve. Incendies was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Foreign Language Film), won numerous other awards, and was picked by the New York Times (review) as one of the 10 best films of 2011. It covers a wartime history, so there’s violence, but mostly it’s a moving mystery that captivates until the end. Rotten Tomatoes rating: 92.