A Conversation with Michael Totten
1:35 PM, Dec 6, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
Soon after 9/11, Michael Totten abandoned a profitable career as a technical writer and started a blog that took him throughout the Middle East, including Iraq which he visited seven times from 2006 to 2009. He also lived in Lebanon in parts of 2005 and 2006 in the middle of the Cedar Revolution, where I first met him. The characteristic Lebanese joie de vivre was further augmented with the hopefulness that came from forcing out Syrian troops after 29 years of occupation. Finally, the tiny country on the Mediterranean had a chance at peace, freedom and prosperity after decades of bloodshed. The problem was that some Lebanese, backed by Syria as well as Iran, wanted otherwise and pushed back against their neighbors in a campaign of bombings and assassinations. Totten’s account of the period, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hizbollah, and the Iranian War against Israel , was published in 2011 and won that year’s Washington Institute for Near East Policy Silver Prize. I spoke with him recently about his latest book, Where the West Ends: Stories from the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea and the Caucasus.
LEE SMITH: Most of your previous work including your first book, The Road to Fatima Gate, is about and situated in the Middle East. So why did you write a book about the West, or where it ends?
MICHAEL TOTTEN: I spent years on and off covering the twilight region where Western civilization slowly bleeds away into Russian and Islamic civilizations. Between Turkey and Russia, and between the Balkans and the Caucasus, the West slowly drips away into one Eastern civilization or another, and I’ve been subconsciously attracted to it ever since I started traveling. The farthest regions of Eastern Europe, and the nearest regions of Western Asia, are far more interesting places to visit and write about than Western Europe. They’re both familiar and exotic at the same time. On the surface they look much more like home than they really are. They’re wracked with the kinds of troubles that are all but unthinkable in the United States.
LEE SMITH: How is Where the West Ends different from your first book?
MICHAEL TOTTEN: Some of it is war correspondence—in particular the section on the Caucasus that takes place during Russia’s invasion of Georgia—but most of the book is more like a road movie.
My best friend and I took a road trip to Iraq from Turkey on a lark, for instance, and the book opens with that. It was by far the most unpleasant journey I’ve ever taken. Everything went wrong. Everything. But it was so much fun to write about that I actually have fond memories of the trip now. It brings to mind travel writer Tim Cahill’s observation that “an adventure is never an adventure when it happens. An adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.”
I made a lot of mistakes on the road this time around, and I decided to be honest about them and include them in the narrative. I was completely unprepared for my trip through Ukraine, for instance, partly because I didn’t expect to be there very long, but also because the place is just a lot harder to travel in for those who stray off the tourist paths, which I always do. Arab countries are much easier to travel in than Ukraine. That astonished me at the time, and it still does.
LEE SMITH: Most of the places you visit in the book, from Ukraine to Azerbaijan, are either former states of the Soviet empire, or were part of the Soviet bloc, like Romania. Others, like Turkey, were Cold War powers that felt the hot breath of the Soviets on their neck for almost half a century. What did you learn about the vestiges of Soviet imperialism and communism in its post-Soviet phase?
MICHAEL TOTTEN: What struck me about some of the hard post-Soviet places is how lasting the damage is. You’d have no idea if your only experience of post-communism is in Budapest or Prague. Try going to the blasted up shoreline of the Sea of Azov or to remote places you’ve never heard of in Ukraine. They look like they were hit by an apocalypse. Want to know what happens to roads and other infrastructure after sixty years of no maintenance? You’ll find out. It’s a counterintuitive lesson. Places that suffered for far too long under way too much government have now been abandoned to weeds and decay.
Much of Eastern Europe is pleasant now because it re-integrated with the West through the European Union and NATO. But some of the more distant parts of the post-Soviet space are in ghastly condition. They never recovered. The Soviet Union fell apart half my lifetime ago, and I sort of blithely assumed that its victims stopped being victims around the same time, but that’s not what happened. Even Romanians I spoke to—and Romania is a Western country that’s now in the European Union and NATO—explained to me how they still suffer severe psychological damaged inflicted on them by Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian state.
LEE SMITH: As you show in that first chapter about making what amounted to a day-trip to Iraq by crossing the length of Turkey (first along the coast and then through the mountains), the post-Ottoman Middle East is also psychologically, and often physically, scarred by its history of authoritarian regimes. Some of those, like Iraq, were aligned with Moscow and others, like Syria, still are. In a sense there seems to be a shared, often unpleasant, sensibility. So what does your primary region of interest, the Middle East, have in common with the post-Soviet landscape?
MICHAEL TOTTEN: Whole swaths of the post-Soviet space have a great deal in common with the post-Ottoman space for the simple reason that both straddled the Muslim world and the eastern portion of Europe.
Each is jam-packed with squabbling ethno-sectarian factions. The post-Ottoman region consists of Arabs, Jews, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Sunnis, Shias, etc. The post-Soviet space is even more complicated, including Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Azeris, Armenians, Chechens, Tatars, Abkhaz, and so on. Some of these people are Christians and some of them are Muslims. Horrible wars broke out after the imperial powers collapsed, from the crackup of Yugoslavia and the Lebanese civil war, to the now “frozen” conflicts in the Caucasus and the Black Sea region that fewer people have heard of. Russia’s invasion of Georgia a few years ago was about resolving two of those conflicts—in Russia’s favor, of course.
If you develop a firm understanding of how one of these regions works, it doesn’t take long to open up the hood and figure another one out. The various issues and conflicts are all completely different, and yet somehow almost the same.
Distant parts of the former Ottoman and Soviet empires are all but irrelevant to people in the Western world, but the westernmost fringes are part of the Western world. The European Union includes parts of both. They’re not beyond our backyard. They’re part of our yard. And sometimes, when things get out of hand, we go to war there.
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