Embedded. In the Lives and deepest hopes of the Arab Spring protesters, Robert Worth’s stories illuminate an inaccessible world, Robert Worth ’83

Posted on Mar 22, 2017

Embedded. In the Lives and deepest hopes of the Arab Spring protesters, Robert Worth’s stories illuminate an inaccessible world,  Robert Worth ’83

Looking professorial in a soft blue shirt and unstructured corduroy sport jacket, Robert Worth speaks quietly and intensely. Robert’s book, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to Isis, was published in April 2016 to significant acclaim. He is both erudite and unpretentious, answering questions with patience.

Imagining Robert perched in the back of a pickup truck among exuberant Libyans who are shooting into the air and hurtling at top speed across a “debris-strewn” desert is a stretch. Likewise, you must work to configure the scene of Robert sitting patiently on the dirt floor of a Ja’ashin peasant’s home, within a city of tents that startlingly brave protesters have constructed in Sana’a, Yemen—hundreds of miles from their families. Another day, on the Syrian mountainous coast, in the ancestral home of a young woman who belongs to the same Alawi sect as Bashar al-Assad, Robert attentively listens to the stories of “dozens of working class people.” None of those Alawi “conveyed any of the arrogance...I was used to seeing in Damascus. They all made it clear to me that they felt their families, their homes, their whole way of life were in terrible danger.”

Robert introduces his book with one of the early crossings in his two-year trek, witnessing the Arab Spring uprisings and their aftermath: On an evening in February 2011, he launched his bags and himself into a “beat-up minivan” in Cairo that was headed, with a caravan of reporters, aid workers and “ride-along Egyptians,” for Libya’s border. He had just spent “the most thrilling and bewildering weeks of [his] life in Tahrir Square.” No one would have predicted these uprisings, and Robert himself had no plans to return to the region. He’d just returned home at Christmas after eight years in the Middle East as Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times from 2007–2011, and a Baghdad-based reporter for the Times prior to that. He had exceeded his quotient of suicide bombings, assassinations, and daily examples of political, economic and social stagnation.

bookRobert claims that he would have said revolution in Egypt was impossible. Yet, the cumulative frustration and seething outrage in Egypt and in other countries in the region did coalesce. The political dilemmas people faced in each country were similar: entrenched rulers, few expectations, misery, and lack of hope. Victims of routine atrocities like police beatings, or the self-immolation of a young Tunisian man utterly hopeless about making a living, were memorialized through Facebook posts and burgeoned into myth. The viral power of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube spawned communal bonds and collective courage. People took it upon themselves to demand change. Al Jazeera fanned the flames.

The time had come to mobilize ardor, to believe in a vision that seemed within reach. Activists and those who joined them used the tools at their disposal, taking to the streets. Tunisia erupted first (December 2010). Egypt was next: The massive demonstration in Tahrir Square called for Mubarek to step down on January 25, 2011. Libya, Yemen and Bahrain followed; and Syria’s demonstrations began in mid-March.

Robert had “a sense that the world was being remade before [his] eyes....The tyrants would soon be gone. What would come afterward was less clear. In that moment, to be cold and reasonable felt almost like treason.”

Five years later, in every case except Tunisia, the effort embraced by so many disparate individuals and groups to achieve a “modern state,” a homeland where citizens have participatory roles and rights, had devolved. Countries followed different destructive paths.

“The protesters who chanted for freedom and democracy in 2011 had found nothing solid beneath their feet, no common agreement on what those words meant,” Robert writes. Ultimately, he argues in the book, the thrilling, transformative “high” of the initial uprisings, especially those in Tahrir Square, succumbed to bitter, rooted divisions. The loose collection of successful activists had no preparation for governing; after decades of tyrants, no political scaffolding existed from which to build. The desperation of the search for change, the destabilization and fear, the absence of trust, the need for revenge, the extreme violence of the process yielded psychological ground for the Islamic State to declare itself and gain strength. People had sought something “they’d always been denied: order, harmony, a sense of belonging. They wanted a place where the cross-strands of their ethnicity and faith and tribe would not be cynically exploited against them....When non-violence failed to achieve those things, some of them sought the same goal through an orgy of killing.”

A learned journalist and consummate storyteller, Robert artfully works through his own gripping character portraits and sustained encounters with his characters’ allegiances, families, and cultural roots to illuminate the course of events and the human impulses at work during this time. His characters “intersected with the uprisings and their aftermath in five countries: Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia.”

Robert describes himself as a latecomer to journalism. Both at Milton and at Wesleyan, he was far more involved in reading and writing poetry than journalism. He majored in humanities as an undergrad and became interested in writing nonfiction—but not through newspapers. “There were far too many novels and histories, and too much poetry for me to read then.”

After an internship writing fiction at The Nation, he turned to graduate school, pursuing a master’s and Ph.D. in writing at Princeton. A second-year course with writer John McPhee proved important. McPhee included many New Yorker writers in his classes, and Robert learned that their careers had often involved working at several newspapers. That realization allowed him to visualize a career path that could work. McPhee urged Robert to complete his Ph.D., which he did in 1996. Robert’s first “substantial article,” he says, was in The Atlantic: “A Model Prison” appeared in November 1995.

Following Princeton, Robert worked at Washington Monthly, which he describes as “a kind of well-established boot camp for young journalists.” Not only did you learn the basics, you became part of a generous alumni “family” of journalists, among whom were several who would be important mentors. They include Nicholas Lemann (The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America) and Jason DeParle (writer for the New York Times, author of American Dream).

Robert landed a job at the New York Times in 2000 and began in the ritual manner—on the metro desk. Although he’d grown up in New York, racing from the Bronx to outer Queens reporting on crime or political infighting uncovered a city he’d never known. Surprisingly, he loved it—even the pace: “Run, run, run, write, file the story, feel purged, see the byline, start over.” When the war in Iraq began in 2003, Robert asked to be sent overseas—tellingly, not for the invasion itself but “to see how Iraq settled, to see how the Iraqi society came together, or did not come together.”

Long interested in the Middle East, Robert had begun studying Arabic and writing about Islam after 9/11. Notably, he wrote one article about Sayyid Qutb, a philosopher, Islamic theorist, poet and leader among the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Qutb studied at a teachers’ college in Greeley, Colorado, in the early 1950s. That experience strengthened his angry critique of America’s values; our belief in science and invention, our focus on the capabilities and the rights of the individual were morally regressive. Qutb became an early theorist of violent jihad, and he is seen as one of the ideological forebears of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the attacks on 9/11.

Robert drilled down on his Arabic training. After time studying on his own, a nine-week summer program at Middlebury College, where he spoke only Arabic, was Robert’s most rigorous and productive training. After reporting for the Times out of Baghdad from 2003–2006, he was offered the job of Beirut bureau chief, covering Syria, the Gulf and Iran. At the end of 2010, Robert shifted to writing independently, focusing on those long, narrative pieces that had always been his inspiration, particularly stories for the New York Times Magazine.

By 2011, book contract in hand, Robert was reassessing his original plan to write about Yemen, a country that he loved and was least known among the Middle Eastern countries. The succession of uprisings in 2011 begged the question: What exactly are these? Each country’s experience seemed to become more and more distinct. Yet by 2014, extreme polarization dominated each country; there was no semblance of order or rule of law; abject fear and sense of potential loss drove people’s decisions and actions. Across all five countries “there was a similar sense of existential dread,” Robert says. “ISIS was brewing up in Syria and eventually spread to all five countries.” That confirmed that something was tying all these events together and created the arc of Robert’s story: From Tahrir Square to ISIS.

In the telling, the accomplished journalist—sensing the time and place to be present, to listen, to question—and the fine-tuned storyteller combine to render scenes of intensity and pathos. In Libya, for instance, Robert watched and listened as men who had been victims of appalling torture now held their torturers in their own brigade command headquarters. One man, who now jailed his brother’s killer, tries desperately to understand why this man was able to kill his brother. Their goal was to provide justice according to a rule of law, and not simply persist with brutality and revenge. There was no rule of law, however, and they eventually let the torturers go, and gave them guns to fight.

In Syria, Robert details the loss of a long-standing, close friendship between two young women, each with large, robust families—one an Alawi and supporter of Assad, and the other a Sunni. We move from sharing an intimate conversation they had about a marriage proposal to a time when “their shared conception of the world began to split apart, like speakers of the same language who are suddenly marooned on different islands.” Over the course of the violence in Syria, they lose physical proximity; their trust in one another is irretrievable; and they both reconstruct the arc of their friendship to suit their sectarian identities.

In Yemen, Robert is invited to visit Sheikh Muhammad Ahmed Mansour who, with his merciless private army, had for decades oppressed and tortured the farmers who lived on his lands. The same Sheikh dutifully delivered 60,000 votes, in every election, to entrench Yemen’s “democratically elected” president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. “Here in front of me was a frail old man of near ninety, reclining on pillows in an attitude of languid repose with a water pipe at his lips. He had a pale face, strangely unlined and perfectly clean shaven, and a remote, cold gaze. His head was wrapped in a gray and blue silk cloth, and he wore a sweater and a gray wool blazer. On his wrist was a gold and silver Rolex with what looked like diamonds.” In a moment of awkward silence in the room, Robert asked the Sheikh to tell him about some of the changes he’d seen in his long life. “Where is Yemen going,” Robert asked, finally. The Sheikh puffed on his water pipe, the room remained still, men shifted their positions: “Yemen,” the Sheikh said slowly, “is going to Yemen.”

Reviewing Robert’s book in the New York Times, Kenneth Pollack calls it “the book on the Middle East you have been waiting to read.” Robert renders stunning, personal stories that span five countries. He weaves his astute analysis through events, the views of an unusually seasoned journalist in constant touch with people at all levels of Middle East society. He renders carefully chosen scholarly background exactly when the reader needs it. Robert’s compact, engaging narrative vastly deepens any reader’s appreciation and understanding of live events and people, now, in the Middle East.