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?