A year or so ago, I read “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas L. Friedman in an attempt to get my head around the endless conflagrations that dominate the Middle East. At the same time, I was also reading “Absurdistan” by Gary Shteyngart, a comic satire about a former-Soviet state that fakes a civil war in an attempt to capture the West’s attention and, more importantly, its money. The result was an odd convergence; Shteyngart’s cartoonish satire seemed to cherry-pick, but amplify, the most salient revelations from Freidman’s nuanced consideration of the political and social climate in the region.
“From Beirut to Jerusalem” is the culmination of the ten years Freidman spent in the Middle East, first as a correspondent in Beirut, then in Jerusalem. The book is a document of Freidman’s Middle East education: from a zealous pro-Israeli Jewish teenager in Minnesota to an awestruck journalist in Beirut to a grizzled Middle East observer in Jerusalem. Freidman offers a crystalline analysis of the chaos in the region, perpetuated by “Hama rules,” a reference to a small town in Syria leveled by its own leaders in a brutal display of power. Tribal rivalries and brutal sectarianism have always ruled in Lebanon, trumping peace at every turn. For Freidman, “Hama rules” illustrated his personal “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. The irony of Friedman’s education is the fact that, despite its success, Israel suffers from similar problems as Lebanon, mainly a political paralysis caused, at its root, by tribalism. The result, in his opinion, is that a silent majority, in both countries, whose call for moderation and compromise is drowned out by the shouts of zealots on both sides. Friedman concludes, “in Lebanon they called the paralysis ‘anarchy’ and in Israel they called it ‘national unity,’ but the effect was the same: political gridlock.”
To include the word “absurd” in the title of one’s novel would seem a bit on the nose. It has all the subtlety of being slapped in the face by a sturgeon. And that’s the effect Gary Shteyngart is going for in his satirical novel, “Absurdistan.” It’s the story of Misha Vainberg, a gluttonous man-child (aka Snack-Daddy), the only son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, living in a state of arrested development, pining for all things American in Russia’s post-Soviet capitalist carnival. To avoid his father’s enemies, Misha tries to circumvent diplomatic roadblocks and buy his way to America via the tiny Caspian oil-republic of Absurdistan. In Absurdistan, Misha is embroiled in a simmering feud between two ethnic groups, the Sevo and the Svanï, who have fought for centuries over which direction Christ’s footrest tilted on the cross. When American multi-nationals (“Golly Burton, Golly Burton”) arrive with chants of “LOGCAP and cost-plus contracts” their schism threatens to explode into a full-blown mediagenic civil war, proving that the only thing more lucrative in the 21st century than oil… is conflict.
Many times, the joy of reading is discovering the serendipitous connections between one book and another. Paired together, Thomas L. Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem” and Gary Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan,” offer a vivid portrait of political (and tribal) conflicts and capture the passion, bad faith, and human folly that usually lie at their heart.