The Rumpus Interview with Megan Stack

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The six years Megan Stack spent in the Middle East reporting for the LA Times began as a sort of emergency assignment and ended with Every Man In This Village Is A Liar, her indelible memoir of an education in war and war reporting. At 25 Stack, who was then the Houston Bureau Chief for the paper, was visiting her sister in Paris on September 11th, 2001; within days she was making her first trip to Afghanistan.

Stack’s first book is the extraordinary account of her time spent there, as well as in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Libya—all countries in thrall to war machines or repressive regimes. After a three-year stint as the Moscow Bureau Chief, she began a post in China this July. I reached her at her home in Beijing to talk about the book. A few hours after our Skype-enabled conversation, Every Man In This Village Is A Liar was announced as a finalist for the National Book Award.

The Rumpus: I’m curious—the book has been out now for several months—and I’m curious about the response you’ve gotten in general but in particular from your colleagues at the LA Times, and elsewhere. I was struck by how honestly and openly you described grappling with the limits of war journalism.

Megan Stack: I tried to be very honest in the book, and not just in terms of telling the truth by the letter—I tried to be intellectually honest about war reporting, and foreign reporting in general, and to a certain extent the very nature of reporting. Because I think there’s a tendency to be a little less intellectually honest in the way we portray ourselves and the work that we do. Everybody wants to look good and look like they know everything and they’re the smartest kid on the block, and I was really trying to get beyond that—the posturing that I feel like sometimes gets in the way of journalistic accounts. But I don’t think anybody would come to me and say, “You misrepresented this.” If anything, I think some people appreciated it.

Rumpus: You’re very frank about the business—or the process—of reporting, and its challenges. For instance in the Yemen chapter, you get at the pressure of situations where, like, “they sent me here, so I have to send them something back” [even if the facts on the ground are unverifiable].

Stack: It’s funny—the Yemen chapter was the one I was thinking about too. That was the chapter where I tried to say to the reader, “Look, let me level with you. Not everything that you are reading in the newspaper is necessarily completely clear.” It’s not that it’s untrue—of course these things are true; it’s true that someone said this to a reporter, and it’s not like reporters are going around misquoting people—of course they’re not. The problem is that there are so many layers of misrepresentation, there are so many layers of the difficulty of penetrating another country that’s not your country, finding someone to talk to you who isn’t just trying to use you for their purposes, who isn’t lying to you because of the agenda of the foreign government.

If you’re talking about truth, it’s not really enough to say, “This happened, according to this official.” Because that may not be true, and that’s what I was trying to elucidate with the example of that one trip where I felt so completely unable to come back with anything that was truly meaningful to the story I was trying to get, about how the so-called war on terror was being fought in Yemen and what kind of compromises were being made, what kind of deals had been struck between the U.S. government and Yemen, and just what it feels like to get swaddled in spin, and more and more desperate to come up with something. You start out with very ambitious plans for the trip and then—some of these trips disintegrate into, “Okay, what kind of feature can I get, because I’m leaving on Saturday and I have to pull something together.” That’s just part of the work, but I wanted people to have a sense of that—because it is how a lot of places that are important to the U.S. are covered.

Rumpus: I got the sense that a big part of your experience was figuring out how the job worked. You were so young when you first went to the Afghanistan, and one of the first things that happens is you report a story that Donald Rumsfeld contradicts in the press the next day.

Stack: It wasn’t just me—everybody who was working in that part of Afghanistan that day got the same story. But yeah, there was a denial of a bombing that had pretty clearly taken place. That’s something that you deal with all the time; getting people to tell the truth is in general very difficult, and in no place is it more difficult than a war zone. The nature of that experience is that people are doing things that are not noble and that they don’t want to remember themselves, let alone talk about. It’s a very sticky thing to try and sort through.

Rumpus: When did you know that you would write this book, and filter your experiences into a work of narrative non-fiction?

Stack: It’s interesting, I had experienced all of these things in the Middle East, and it was all sort of still boiling inside of me. I used to look at the pile of newspaper stories that I had written over the years, and just feel kind of sad, and like they weren’t enough. All of the people I had known, all of the human tragedies and triumphs and places and emotions that I had seen felt more or less wasted. And I was really bothered by that; I felt like if I move on with my life and don’t find a way to record these things in a way that was more artful then I had wasted my time.

I wanted to write a book, but I didn’t think that I could write a book, and I didn’t think I had a book. I didn’t have an idea of what the book would be. I was in Egypt when I was thinking this through and I remember having coffee with a friend and telling her, “I don’t have a book.” And she said, “You do, you have a book.” I said, “I don’t remember anything that’s happened the past six years, it’s just a blur of experiences and places and I could never sit down and take it all apart.”

But it’s interesting, once I got to Moscow, and out of that part of the world—Moscow was so completely different—the daily experience and the feeling of being there—from an Arab country, that it gave me the distance that I needed. I started going back and reading through all of my reporting notebooks, and re-reading my journals, which is something that I don’t usually do. I had the time and the space, for the first time, to process all of the things that had taken place, and what they meant. And that’s where the book started to come; I saw that there was a narrative, there was an overarching thread that ran through all of these disparate experiences and countries, and that in some ways it was the story of this thing called the war on terror. It’s also a very American story about going out into the world and getting lost, and to a certain extent that had happened to me:  I had had to find my footing again after ending up in war zones almost serendipitously—I don’t know if you can call it serendipity to end up in a war zone! By happenstance. And it had also happened to the country—the country had gotten into something that got so much bigger and more complicated and difficult to get out of than any of us could have imagined after September 11th.

Rumpus: In terms of arriving at your style—which I found really distinctive—was that a parallel challenge, or something that evolved as you wrote?

Stack: I write a lot independently—this is the first thing I’ve published outside of the LA Times, ever—but I do write a lot, and read a lot. I think I had my own way that I wanted to do a book; I knew exactly how I wanted to write it. If anything I felt really free when I was writing the book; I felt like I could finally write the way I wanted to write, and I didn’t have to make it match a newspaper style. Which I like to do—I like working for a newspaper—but it was great not to have those restrictions in prose style, to be able to lose myself a little bit and have more of a free-roaming artistic experience. I really enjoyed writing the book; there were times I would spend working—in the morning in Moscow with the streets still dark, and I was just so happy writing.

Rumpus: You wrote that you “had expected everything from war, danger and blood and hurt, and the war produced all of it.” Was there anything that surprised you about the experience of war, or your own response to it?

Stack: I covered different conflicts at different stages of my late twenties and I guess early thirties; from the first time that I went to war, I think the thing that was most striking to me—and I bet that a lot of people have this experience, just on first impression—is how much ordinary life there still is in a war zone. You watch movies and read books about war and it’s very easy to get this melodramatic impression that everything’s going to be blowing up around you all the time, and it’ll be non-stop carnage. I think you expect that to some extent unconsciously without realizing that’s your expectation. Then you go to a war zone and you realize that kids still go to school, and you can go to one village and it will be this apocalyptic nightmare, and a few miles down the road you’ll maybe find something completely different. Obviously every war is different, but when I went to Afghanistan that was what surprised me the most. I had girded myself, I was ready for it to be awful and traumatic and difficult every moment of the day. Then you get there and find yourself having a wonderful day with villagers—or whatever; you have all kinds of different experiences in the context of covering the war.

As far as myself—and I wrote about this in the book—I think went from in the beginning feeling very aloof and unafraid and sort of cavalier about being there to two years later being in Lebanon and being terrified for the first time, and how awful it was to be that scared in a war zone. All of a sudden I found myself not having those reserves of fearlessness. It made it much harder to be there, unsurprisingly.

Rumpus: The chapter in which you chronicle the aftermath of the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon is amazing—one thing I kept wondering as I read it is how you got such incredible access. It almost sounds like you became a part of his funeral procession.

Stack: It’s one of the things about Lebanon that had started to change when I left Lebanon—I’m not sure if it’s still like that. I did have very good access in Lebanon, but that wasn’t specific to me, all the reporters were able to come and go. But with Hariri for example—and a lot of Lebanese leaders—you’re talking really about communal bosses, so you’re kind of talking about somebody who’s sitting at the top of a pyramid which consists of a sect. In the case of Hariri of course you’re talking about Sunni Muslims. And one of the ways that people who derive power from their people show their strength is to let you know that they would go out among the people and be with them. There was that sense of inherent protection, that you didn’t need a bodyguard and people could come up and kiss your hand and ask you for a favor. That was a real display of strength.

As a result, if you were a reporter you could kind of just walk into the house—not every day, but during the funeral definitely, because they opened the doors and let in, not everybody in Beirut, but the Beirut upper crust was definitely all there. That started to change after the war, but Lebanon in general—once you spend some time there you realize it’s kind of like a small town. It’s not like Cairo where you have huge numbers of people and a huge security apparatus, it’s much more of a small town feel.

Rumpus: I noticed in the news this morning there are reports of [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon, where I guess he received a distinctly warm welcome. You made some criticisms of the U.S.’s position on Hezbollah in the book, I’m curious about your thoughts on what the U.S. should be doing?

Stack: I don’t think the book is critical of how the United States deals with Hezbollah, I think the book talks about, during the war in Lebanon, the efficacy of bombing Hezbollah. I think there is a parallel to Iraq and the old school thought of counter-insurgency strategy and does it work to deal with an insurgency this way.

Mourners of Rafik al-Hariri

The book does talk about how, after the assassination of Hariri, there was this rush, in U.S. policy circles, to look at Lebanon as a country that was defined by the Hariri people, which is to say the pro-Western, either Sunni Muslim or Christian or Druze communities, and not recognize the fact that there is a huge Shi’ite population in Lebanon and in general that population is with Hezbollah. You can crunch the numbers and try to make them not say that, but it’s the truth, that’s what the situation is. So there’s the question—and this is a complicated issue that’s in the book—about the problems that were going to be caused after the assassination of Hariri by to some extent negating the existence of part of the country, and how that would destabilize Lebanon in the long run.

I think that is what you see today: You see Ahmadinejad coming and you see how excited the country is. Obviously not the entire country, I’m sure there are people in Lebanon today who are disgusted with the fact that he’s there, but you have a very, very divided country in Lebanon—it sometimes seems like a hopelessly divided country. So it becomes very dangerous and very difficult to pick one side or the other and say, “We’re going to let this side define what Lebanon is.”

Rumpus: I got the sense in the book that you were raised Catholic?

Stack: I was, I was raised Catholic and my family is very observant Catholic. They went to church every Sunday.

Rumpus: I’m wondering what your feelings are about religion…[general laughter] I guess that’s kind of an absurd question.

Stack: I don’t think I can possibly answer that question effectively or honestly in the context of this interview just because there are so many things that I can say about that.

Rumpus: Let me ask a more specific question: In your chapter on Egypt you observe that “profound” religious faith is often a product of poverty and a source of comfort for its practitioners—“to feel the fire of faith when you have nothing else to hold.” You compare it to the Christian fundamentalist movement in the United States. I’m wondering if you could talk about the notion of class—if you think it’s a determining factor in whether someone is raised in an extremist faith, rather than a moderate one, or no faith at all.

Stack: No, no, I don’t think that at all. I wrote about that in the chapter about Saudi Arabia, which is one of the most radicalized places in the Arab world, and also the richest. No, I would definitely not make that argument at all. In the chapter about the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s talking about Egypt, and a part of Egypt where people are poor and don’t have much, and what they do have is this profound religious faith that they’ve been raised with and that binds them to their ancestors and to their relatives in a very powerful way. It’s also a place where the mosque is one of the only social structures you have; it’s naturally going to have a great deal of appeal to people growing up there.

When I think of those people in that chapter in that village, I don’t think of them as necessarily radicalized people. They were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but individually I think that’s what they were living inside of, that’s culturally what they had—I don’t think they were people who were individually looking to blow something up, or whatever. They were people who were very, very devout. In a country like Egypt, where you have so much corruption, here were people [the Muslim Brotherhood] who came to them as political leaders draped in this perception of incorruptibility—“We’re not coming from the wealthy, powerful secular leaders, we’re coming to you from religion, we’re coming from the mosque.” And the people have seen their entire lives that these are people who take care of orphans, and the elderly—it’s a very powerful PR move. It’s a large issue and I go into it more fully in the book, but I think poverty is just one part of it.

Rumpus: You have a quote from one of the Muslim Brotherhood candidates whom you shadow that I thought, although it has a specific context, really got to the heart of the matter. He said: “Globalization shouldn’t be a globalization of morals, of interfering in affairs of every stripe.” All of the issues and events you write about in the book are so complex and so layered, and yet it seems to me you either believe this or you don’t.

Stack: He was saying that to me at that moment because I was a woman who was asking him about how women would be treated in this theoretical universe where the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, and he did not like that. He was trying to tell me, in a roundabout way, “Hey, back off, you don’t live here, this isn’t your country, you can talk about women’s rights in your own country, not here.”

But the question you’re raising is the serious question of our time, and it’s something that’s not necessarily answerable with a throwaway line. I think to a certain extent, I think it matters—it matters to me. It matters, for example, what my tax dollars go toward. Do I like the idea, for example of propping up dictatorships that oppress their own people and don’t hold elections? No, I don’t like that at all. On the other hand, I live in the world, and I have spent the better part of the last decade traveling the world, and I do understand that there are strategic concerns, and those concerns are real, they’re not fake concerns.

I’m a writer, I’m a journalist, and I’m forming, as I go along, my stance on these big questions. I don’t have a hard answer. But what is very important to me is that people in the United States become more educated about the world, because those are exactly the kinds of questions we need to decide as a country. What would Americans say? What is more important to them? Is it preserving markets? Is it preserving strategic interests? We like to think of ourselves as a country of ideals, and we don’t like to think of ourselves as a country that has done things to contravene those ideals overseas, but I think that we should have a very conscious sense of the choices we’re making as a country and I don’t think we necessarily do. For me, the bigger thing is moving information and getting people educated and trying to share some of the stories so that at least they can make educated choices and informed choices.

As I said, I think the question you just asked is truly one of the driving ones in foreign affairs right now. This is a big deal. If you look at China, for example—I remember a lot of Arab governments telling me, and people in the Arab oil industry telling me that they really liked dealing with China because China paid, and China just wants to do business. “China doesn’t hassle us about human rights: They come, they make a deal, they go home. We don’t have to have the conversation about political prisoners or torture, or whatever it’s going to be with the Americans.” At the end of the day, we still have a lot of the same deals with these countries but we do go through the process of putting some pressure on them; sometimes they do some good. All these questions—how we want to guide ourselves as a country—I think is really important, and I’m not sure that that conversation is taking place in the country right now.


Michelle Orange's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney's and other publications and has been collected in The Best Sex Writing 2006 and Mountain Man Dance Moves. She is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a collection found in issue 22 of McSweeney's. Follow her on Twitter @michelleorange. More from this author →