As  I got into an uber a few months ago, I heard an NPR segment playing about civil conflicts in Iran. As I reached to buckle my seatbelt, the driver immediately switched the audio to a typical pop FM station that he probably assumed I’d enjoy listening to. I broke the silence and asked if that was NPR he was playing. His eyes lit up as he turned around and responded with an astounding yes, while switching the station back to the segment. I soon learned that he is from Iran and we continued to have an in-depth conversation about our respective experiences in the Middle East and our desire to learn more. As I left the uber, the driver told me how surprised and caught off guard he was by my knowledge of the Middle East and Iran, and hoped that we would have a chance to discuss the Middle East again.
Though I never saw this driver again, nor would I even recognize him if I saw him on the street, the conversation we shared has stuck with me. Very few people have a genuine understanding, or a genuine desire to understand the complexity of the conflicts and culture of the Middle East. Without further ado, here are my top five books, films, and documentaries about the Middle East.
Iraq Uncovered (2017), a PBS Frontline documentary
1. Iraq Uncovered
Frontline’s documentary Iraq Uncovered brings viewers directly into the warzones of Iraq, investigating the role of various Shia militias in the ongoing battle against ISIS. Ramita Navai, an award winning British-Iranian journalist, and one of my own personal role models, goes undercover into the heart of the conflict in Iraq to inform the world of the harsh realities faced by Sunni civilians, who have been freed from ISIS rule by Shia Militias only to be imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by their own liberators. The central aim of the documentary is to expose the inhumane and barbaric treatment of civilians and the inability of anyone, including the Iraqi government, to stop it.
Hezbollah (2007) by Augustus Norton
Norton, a professor at Boston University, takes a factual and highly analytical approach towards exploring the politics, origin, and propaganda of Hezbollah, a terrorist organization. This book offers a multifaceted understanding of Hezbollah, which allows it to serve as a guide to students, teachers, and policymakers in developing a more holistic understanding of the motives, goals, and history of the group and their presence in the Middle East. This novel has aided in forming my view on power and war politics of terrorist groups in the Middle East.
Wajib (2017), a film by Annemarie Jacir
In her latest work Wajib, filmmaker Annemarie Jacir explores the tensions between a father and son who have very different approaches to being Palestinian. Driving through Nazareth, the father and son hand out wedding invitations for their sister and daughter Amal’s wedding. It is the wajib or “duty” of the father to make sure all friends and members of the family receive the wedding invitations personally. This duty is central to uniting the father and son to fulfill a common goal despite being separated for many years. The film highlights the differences between the father's loyalty to traditional values and the son’s decision to adopt a more westernized way of life in Italy.
Nomad (2010) by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
As I picked up this book, I expected it to be about Ali’s journey immigrating from the Middle East to America, however, I found something completely different. While this novel may be quite polarizing, and at times uncomfortable to read due to comments Ali makes about the Islamic faith after leaving it behind, I enjoyed how it challenged my conventional perspectives. The novel caught me off guard, as it was the complete opposite of what I expected. While I do not personally agree with all that was written, it was very thought provoking and interesting to read about Ali’s experiences and rejection of her own Islamic faith and upbringing. Ali aims to explore the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West in her memoir, Nomad.
My Father's Paradise (2008) by Ariel Sabar
5. My Father's Paradise
This memoir by Ariel Sabar is a labor of love from son to father. Sabar’s father was born in Kurdistan to a Jewish family who was later forced to leave and immigrate to Israel before becoming a professor at UCLA for his mother tongue Aramaic. Sabar's narrative is a two level story, personal and historical. At the personal level, it is the story of his own struggles in America with his immigrant father. The memoir is the story of Sabar's effort as an American to understand his father. Beyond the personal, the memoir is also a historical account of the Kurdish immigration and settlement, describing the history of the Jewish settlement in Kurdistan, ending in the mass exodus of the Kurdish Jewish community to Israel in 1951.
I've always had a strong interest in middle eastern culture, and I’m sure you can understand why. However, despite having lived and traveled all over the region, there's still so much I have yet to learn and understand about it. The media presents the Middle East in such a polarizing way that it takes more than reading an aesthetic Instagram edit or Snapchat news article to understand something so complex. This is why I have turned to film and writing- to learn about these topics that are so intriguing to me. Though I realize that these sources also have their own inherent biases, the fun often presents itself in the consumption of diverse media, where the variety of sources ultimately enables each of us to form our own unique perspectives.
Fly high, Nicole
MY TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
My succinct and brief packing list covers everything you may need while traveling, without going overboard.