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'Black Wave' Author Chronicles Cultural, Religious Upheaval In The Middle East


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In her new book, journalist Kim Ghattas asked the question she says haunts her and most people in the Arab and Muslim world - what happened to us? Ghattas is Lebanese and grew up during her country's civil war. For people in the Middle East, she says, the past is a different country, one that is not mired in the horrors of sectarian killings, a more vibrant place without the crushing intolerance of religious zealots and seemingly endless wars. Her new book is a history of how the Middle East unraveled in the past few decades. It's called "Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, And The Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, And Collective Memory In The Middle East." She covered the Middle East for the BBC and The Financial Times for 20 years and is now a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. She divides her time between Washington and Beirut.

Kim Ghattas, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I want to start by asking you about General Qassem Soleimani because you've written about him. The U.S. killed him in a drone strike earlier this month. And, you know, he was a very powerful leader in Iran. He was the leading commander. He headed a powerful militia, the al-Quds Force. He was also a political leader and ran Iran's proxy wars in the Middle East. After the U.S. killed Soleimani and then Iran retaliated, it really looked like we were on the brink of war with Iran. Things have quieted down since then. And here in America, we're so absorbed in the impeachment and the Senate trial and the upcoming Iowa caucus that Soleimani has kind of - and Iran has of kind of, like, fallen off the radar. But it feels like this story is not over. What's your sense of what's coming next?

KIM GHATTAS: You're absolutely right that the story is not over even if it's not making headlines in the U.S. anymore, and that's a pattern often when it comes to covering the Middle East. The story continues in two ways. One, there are renewed protests in Iraq, where Qassem Soleimani had led the crackdown on protesters in Iraq who were protesting against the corrupt leadership of the country but also Iran's stranglehold on its politics, where Iran is basically in charge of deciding almost who gets to run for political office and how to form a government. And they run, as you say, very powerful militias. So the protests in Iraq paused for a second after Qassem Soleimani was killed and after people celebrated his death - because people did celebrate in Iraq - and now they have resumed. People are back in force.

The story also continues because after the back-and-forth, Iran's retaliation - the very unfortunate plane crash, the tragic plane crash of the Ukrainian plane that was brought down unintentionally by Iran after they launched missiles in retaliation at U.S. interests in Iraq - Iran is looking at how it can capture this moment where - it is supposed to look like a moment of weakness for Iran where they've just lost their top commander, the architect of their regional policy. But Iran and their - and its regional allies are very good at seizing on moments like that, sometimes provoking chaos to try to grab as much as they can territorially or politically just the way they're doing in Lebanon, for example, where Iran's ally is Hezbollah, a militia and political party.

So there is almost a counterrevolution happening in Iran, in Iraq and in Lebanon where Iran is trying to seize the day and use this moment of vulnerability and of weakness to come on top because the U.S. has turned its sights away.

GROSS: I don't understand how Iran uses this moment of weakness to come out on top.

GHATTAS: Well, if you look, for example, at Lebanon, where, for the last hundred days or so, young people, older people, people of all sects and all faiths and all social classes have been protesting relentlessly, doggedly against the corruption in the country, the mismanagement of the country, the establishment that has, in essence, brought the country almost to or - I think we are about to default on a huge debt. And Hezbollah, which has always positioned itself as the defender of the oppressed and the poor, found itself in the sights of the protesters as well because it has become so entrenched in the establishment that it became a target of the protests as well. And for the first time in its history in Lebanon, it found that protesters were directly attacking its power in Lebanon, insulting some of its leaders and some of its allies.

And for a few months, it looked like Hezbollah was in a very difficult position. And it looked like Iran was in a difficult position because there were also protests, as I mentioned, in Iraq that had a very strong anti-Iran sentiment. And I thought that it was very interesting, Terry, to see that when Qassem Soleimani was killed in Baghdad on that January 3 morning, he was coming back from Beirut. There was no proxy war to run there, but there was a proxy militia to manage. Hezbollah was trying to figure out how to get out of this bind where its position in Lebanon was being challenged as part of this wider movement of protest.

And so what they're doing now is instead of compromising - and they could have gone both ways. They could have said, OK, we need to compromise because we're going under - we are coming under a lot of pressure. So we need to compromise, solidify our position in the country. Or we could go another way, break everything in front of us and just grab everything that we can. And I think they're going for that second option, where, in Lebanon, they've imposed, in essence, a new cabinet that represents them and their allies.

GROSS: Wow. That sounds like quite a dramatic move.

GHATTAS: Hezbollah is very pragmatic, but as I said, they're also very cunning in their planning. And they have a long-term strategy, and that is Iran's strength in the region. Whatever you think of Iran, its policies, what it has done in the past to the region or to Americans, they're very good at positioning themselves and taking advantage of moments of weakness.

GROSS: So another question about Iran and Soleimani - after the U.S. killed Soleimani, Iran retaliated by bombing a U.S. military base, but it wasn't as catastrophic as it could have been. American soldiers had what is probably traumatic brain injuries, but considering what many people were braced for, it was, you know, a relatively restrained attack. It almost seemed like they were intentionally not doing more damage than they did. I did not expect Iran to use restraint. Why do you think they did?

GHATTAS: I would have to disagree about the fact that it's unexpected that they use restraint. I think they are, in their own very interesting way, restrained because they want to avert a full-on conflict with the United States, which they think - which they know they can't win. And so they resort to the pattern that they've adopted over the last four decades of the existence of the regime in Iran, which is mostly proxy wars, proxy militias, restrained attacks with a big message, something symbolic that shows their people at home, that the government has not stayed silent to this affront and yet does not bring the risk of full-on war.

So I knew right then that the response that Iran would adopt would be limited. And there was almost, like, a dance, a very dangerous dance, where everybody understood that this would be the extent of their reaction, even the Americans understood that. But the tragedy in that restrained response was the downing of the Ukrainian plane that carried 290 people, who all died, and that was an unspeakable mistake that is causing ripples within Iran as well now.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Kim Ghattas. She's Lebanese but now divides her time between Washington and Lebanon. She covered the Middle East for the BBC for 20 years. Her new book is called "Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, And The Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, And Collective Memory In The Middle East." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Kim Ghattas, who covered the Middle East for the BBC for 20 years. Her new book is called "Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, And The Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, And Collective Memory In The Middle East."

I want to ask you about your book. Your book - one chapter with your book starts with the question, what happened to us? I want you to elaborate on that question - what you're asking and why you're asking it.

GHATTAS: The question, what happened to us, is one that we ask ourselves a lot in the region because we look at childhood and the young adulthood of our parents and we realize they had a completely different life. First of all, it was not one that was mired in sectarian bloodletting and constant upheaval and constant wars. There were coups. There were wars. But they were more contained in time, and they were more localized. It didn't feel like this endless war across the whole region. Second of all, it was a much more diverse and vibrant time politically, culturally, socially and religiously.

And so we look at pictures of our parents, you know, walking on the streets of Beirut or riding bicycles in Baghdad, men and women. We look at posters of Egyptian actresses from the '60s. We look at, you know, women dressed in skirts on the campus of Kabul University, you know, also in that same period. And we wonder what happened? What went so wrong? Where did we go wrong? And how can we move forward? And who is responsible in the region and, also, abroad? And how can we recapture the lost hope from the past?

GROSS: Well, in trying to answer that question - what happened to us, and how did it happen? - you spend a lot of time in the book focusing on 1979. That's the year of the Iranian Revolution and, for Americans, the Iranian hostage crisis, when radical students took Americans hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. It's also the year that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the year that the jihad against the Soviets was launched. And I should add, 1979 is also the year that the Grand Mosque in Mecca in Saudi Arabia is seized by zealots who took it over.

So this is a really consequential year. Are all the things, the three things that we just focused on, leading toward a more extreme form of Islam and more extreme cultural norms, social norms, religious norms enforced by the state?

GHATTAS: 1979 is such a consequential year that sometimes I think I should have written a book just about that year because so much else happened. In Egypt, you had President Anwar Sadat, who signed peace with Israel. In Pakistan, you had the execution of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by his successor, the dictator Zia ul-Haq, an ally of the U.S. There was so much that happened in that year that one Pakistani journalist told me that it felt like the sky had fallen to the earth that year.

And what I found was crucial about looking into the consequences of that year was that, you know, other turning points in the Middle East, you know, brought an end to wars or started wars or brought an end to certain political ideologies or signaled the birth of a new movement, but 1979 did all of this and more because 1979 is the year when Saudi Arabia and Iran - two former allies, in fact, twin pillars of U.S. policy in the region to contain the Soviet Union - became rivals.

And suddenly, Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world, is challenged in that role by Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini, who emerges as the ultimate leader of this revolution and turns the country into a theocracy. He also wants to be leader of the Muslim world, except Khomeini is Shia and Saudi Arabia is Sunni, and that rivalry puts them in a constant dynamic of trying to one up each other about who is really the most righteous leader of the Muslim world.

And so they keep trying to outdo each other not just in the geopolitics of it and in the military aspects of it, but in the cultural and social aspects of it. So they both try to use and wield and exploit religion to rally people to their side. And in doing so, they create new divisions within the Arab and Muslim world that are very sectarian-driven, something that did not exist in that same way before. And because the rivalry continues, we're still living with the consequences today.

GROSS: Give us an example of how Iran and Saudi Arabia exploit religion for their own rivalry between them.

GHATTAS: So there are many ways in which they do that. But I would look at, for example, the efforts by Iran to export its own understanding, its own version of, in essence, state-sponsored Shiism. And they do that, for example, in Lebanon very early on in the early '80s by sending, around 1982, members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards to set up a front base there and train this new movement that becomes Hezbollah. And in doing so, they bring with them, you know, literature. They set up radios. They introduce the chador, the all-enveloping black cloth that is known in Shiism.

The chador starts spreading in Baalbek, in this town in eastern Lebanon that becomes later a stronghold of Hezbollah, and women start adopting the chador because of the pressure that they feel under when they're walking on the street because more and more women are wearing it. And they're afraid of these revolutionary guards that are coming from Iran, and it's just safer to wear it because you don't want to stand out. This is in the middle of a civil war, as well in Lebanon, and Baalbek is a very distant town. And there are reports that they also paid women to put on this chador.

At the same time roughly or a little bit later on, the Saudis start focusing on ways that they can rally people to their understanding of Islam, and one way in which they do that is by spending money in a country like Egypt in the '90s to rally people in the media, for example, to their side. So you have laudatory editorials or articles, and journalists are paid for that. They get paid huge sums of money, which they would not get if they were just writing for an Egyptian newspaper.

And you have this sudden wave of Egyptian actresses who had been beloved in the Middle East for their roles in these beautiful films, black-and-white and then in color, where they suddenly start donning the veil - the Saudi-style niqab, which covers the face, and the Saudi-style black abaya, the robe, the black robe. And that had been unseen and unheard of in Egypt before. And there was a joke at the time in Egypt that described how, you know, the second richest women in Egypt were the belly dancers who were getting money slipped on their - under their skirt by Saudi - rich Saudi men who were watching them dance. But the richest Egyptian women were the belly dancers who had converted and donned the veil because the rich Saudi men deposited the money directly in their bank accounts.

GROSS: You talked about how Iran created Hezbollah in 1982 as a proxy force that Iranians trained. You were living in Lebanon then. You were 5 years old at the time. Did you notice the change? Did - the civil war was already underway. Did you notice the country becoming more fundamentalist or parts of it more fundamentalist? Did you notice changes in social codes and how people dressed? And again, you were only 5.

GHATTAS: First, we were in a civil war, and we were very - the country was very divided. So I happened to live on the frontline sort of with our front door facing towards the Christian part of Beirut. But we had to go to school in the - what was then known as the western part in the more dominantly Muslim part of Beirut. And so it was kind of cantonized, and you didn't necessarily know what was going on in other parts of the country.

And I would say two things about that period. One, the Sunni-Shia divide that is so prevalent today in everyone's discussions about the Middle East did not feature in that war. The second thing that I would say is that there were a lot of reports about the chador spreading in the southern suburbs of Beirut or the southern parts of Lebanon or in the Bekaa. But, you know, we didn't really know what was going on exactly and what it meant and who was doing it. And I have a chapter where I describe the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon. And I go a little bit against the accepted truth about how they were created because most people think that they were a direct result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, whereas I argue that Iran was already planning to sort of set up a foothold on the Mediterranean even before 1982. It wanted to export its revolution.

GROSS: My guest is Kim Ghattas, author of the new book "Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, And The Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, And Collective Memory In The Middle East." After we take a short break, we'll talk about growing up in Lebanon during the Civil War, and Lara Maiklem will tell us about hunting for historical treasures along the muddy banks of the River Thames in London. She's found amazing things. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Kim Ghattas, author of the new book "Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, And The Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, And Collective Memory In The Middle East." She covered the Middle East for the BBC and The Financial Times for 20 years and is now a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. She divides her time between Washington and Beirut.

You point out that in Lebanon, where you're from, you know - and you grew up during the Lebanese civil war. You know, you say that the Sunni-Shia divide was not an issue in the civil war, but on the other hand, the Islam that's predominantly practiced is a branch of Shia Islam. And also, there was a Christian-Muslim divide in the civil war, and your family is Christian. What was it like to be Christian during the civil war?

GHATTAS: Growing up in the war was unreal, but it was the only reality that I knew. And in a way, it felt normal even though I knew that beyond the borders of Lebanon, there was peace. My mother is Dutch, and so we traveled sometimes to the Netherlands on vacation whenever we could. And I would be in tears every time we had to come back to Lebanon. We were very lucky because we survived unscathed. There were material losses. We lost our house several times. But all of us survived. No one was injured. I can't believe that none of our friends, none of our relatives were killed or injured because this is a war that killed 150,000 people.

And this could be a sob story where I can cry about the fact that I have probably some kind of trauma about growing up in that war, but the war also made me who I am. It drove me to become a journalist. It drove me to write. It drove me to explain other people's stories in the hope that I could bring more understanding about Lebanon and about the Middle East to the rest of the world.

GROSS: Did you grow up afraid? Like, if you played outside, did you hear shelling? Did you see militias down the street?

GHATTAS: We saw everything. We lived on the frontline, so we really did see everything. We saw militias who camped in the ground floor of our building, all sorts of militias - you know, whoever was on top at the time, whether it was, you know, Christian militias or the PLO and then the Syrian army and then the Israelis. You know, everybody came through. And, you know, we didn't play outside very much. We played indoors at friends' houses. But because it was a no man's land where we lived - the frontline and a no man's land - I didn't have many friends to play with after school. So I would go to school whenever it was possible and there was no shelling. And there were long periods where we couldn't go to school.

But then when I came home, I really just stayed home. And no one would visit us because it was so dangerous. And I know that the next question is going to be, I think, why did you stay? The answer is, well, we didn't know how long it would last. My parents simply didn't know how long it would last. There would be cease-fires, and then there would be more fighting, and then there would be cease-fires. And we're like, well, it can't get worse than this, but then it would. And we ended up staying almost until the end of the war in that no man's land, and we didn't leave Lebanon either.

So we saw it all. We had to walk through checkpoints to get to school. We had to sleep in shelters.

GROSS: When you were a child growing up during the civil war, were children targeted by snipers, or did snipers try to protect children from their own gunfire?

GHATTAS: I don't think anyone was protected from snipers. We had to dodge sniper bullets often, crazily enough - I know it sounds crazy - when we had to go to school or even leave the neighborhood. But snipers were playing a game, and I don't think they spared anyone.

GROSS: You mentioned that you lost your home several times. Was it the same home?

GHATTAS: Yes. We lived in that terrible area that was known as - I don't know - sniper central, called Gallery Samaan, at the intersection of east and west Beirut. And it was shelled several times, so we had to move out every time and rebuild. It was a flat, an apartment on the third floor of a building, and it took a lot of direct hits. I mean, the whole building wasn't brought down. There was just, you know, pockmarks. And shells had entered or bullets, or glass was broken and holes in the walls and so on. It's slightly surreal scenery. But again, you know, it's the syndrome of the boiling frog. You're in it, and then it gets worse and worse. But your sense of how it compares to the normality that you lived, you know, five hours ago, 10 hours ago, five years ago, 10 years ago is dulled by the intensity of the moment that you are in.

GROSS: You were a friend and colleague of Jamal Khashoggi. He was murdered in October of 2018 in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. And it's believed that MBS, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, ordered his murder. How did you hear about his death?

GHATTAS: On Twitter. I was in Beirut. And I can't remember who tweeted it first that he had gone into the consulate and not reemerged. And I really got the chills because somehow - and I don't say in hindsight. Somehow, I felt instantly that something was terribly wrong - terribly, terribly wrong. And I also got the chills because at the time, I was somehow writing a passage about Jamal's life. It was the episode around the time when he was fired from his job at a Saudi newspaper around 2003 or so for having printed an opinion piece that was very critical of how Saudi Arabia understood and exercised Islam.

And I thought, wow. You know, he had been an incredible friend and a person I interviewed as a source for the book to try to understand things about Saudi Arabia. And it was just devastating that he was killed in the way that he was killed because he still held much promise. He was such a towering figure in the Arab world, in the world of commentary and analysis about Saudi Arabia. And it just provided a devastating and very macabre twist to the tale that I was trying to tell.

GROSS: I assume that the reason why he was murdered was not only to stop him from writing but to teach a lesson and to warn other journalists and opinion writers and analysts. Do you think it had a chilling effect on other journalists in the Middle East?

GHATTAS: It had. It definitely had. First of all, it had a chilling effect on young Saudis within the country who were hopeful that their country could have a different, more open, more progressive future under this crown prince who promises so much change and reform and is implementing some of it. But, you know, there's a lot to be said about how and what exactly he is doing. And suddenly, they thought, oh, my goodness, our country is going to turn into a pariah. So there was that fear. And then there was the chilling effect of the example that was set. You cross the crown prince. You rain on his parade in op-eds that you're writing from the U.S. in The Washington Post, of all newspapers, and you get punished for that. And across the region, yes, I think people are thinking twice about what they write and what they don't write about the kingdom.

And a lot of people ask me whether I was afraid to write what I was writing in "Black Wave," and my answer is, I pull no punches. I write it as it is. I describe what happened, and I'm an equal opportunity critic. And I write about Iran, and I write about Saudi Arabia, and I say exactly what both of those countries did. And I think that they are both guilty of having driven the region to the abyss.

GROSS: Well, Kim Ghattas, thank you so much for talking with us.

GHATTAS: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. It was wonderful to speak to you.

GROSS: Kim Ghattas is the author of the new book "Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, And The Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, And Collective Memory In The Middle East." After we take a short break, Lara Maiklem will tell us how she searches for and finds historic treasures during low tide on the banks of the River Thames in London. This is FRESH AIR.

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