Book Review: “I Am Not a Spy” by Michael Bassin
Remember when you first read 3-time Pulitzer prize winner Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem? If you read it while the Lebanese Civil War was going on, Friedman’s book really helped make sense of the complicated ethno-political make up of Lebanon and the power struggles that lead to the conflict. If you read it afterward, it really helped drive the point home that the Middle East was freaking complicated. Now, despite the fact that the book was published in 1989 and won the National Book Award, it remains, to this day, a must-read part of any serious or semi-serious person’s library. But fuck. That was 1990! And Thomas Friedman has evolved into this sort of fatuous, self-important pundit… undoubtedly talented, but, like… ugh. 1989 was 27 years ago! What we need today is an update. A reboot.
Is Michael Bassin the millennial version of Thomas Friedman, circa the-late-1980s? Friedman was a reporter in Beirut from 1979 to 1984 where he won a Pulitzer for his reporting on the Civil War and the Israeli invasion. He then went to Jerusalem where he was the New York Times Bureau Chief until 1988 – and he won another Pulitzer for his coverage of the First Intifada. Great timing there Thomas. As for Bassin? His time spent in the Arab world is colored by the same unlikely Jew openly among the Arabs scenario that infuses both books with a constant, underlying, dramatic tension. Except at those moments when the tension is through the roof and you want to scream at Bassin “Dude! Why are you in Beirut during a Hezbollah rally!?”
Bassin, an American College student at the time, enrolled in a semester abroad program at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. The student body wasn’t really representative of the Middle East as a whole – most Middle Easterners don’t have the finances or English skills to send their kids to an American University. Despite that, the student body did represent the region’s diversity – including Shiites and Sunnis, Iranians, Palestinians, Lebanese, various rich Saudis and Emiratis as well as secular and religious individuals – and everything in between. “I Am Not a Spy” is not an academic work at all, but in its anecdotes you get an inside look into the diverse attitudes and motivations that represent the Arab/Muslim world. After reading this book, you know for sure that anyone that refers to Muslims or Arabs as a homogeneous, monolithic, unitary whole is, well, either ignorant, stupid, racist or all three.
And what’s the best way to follow up an immersive Arab experience? Why by volunteering to serve in an IDF combat unit with the bulk of your service taking place in the West Bank. Obviously! You have to admire Bassin’s sense of adventure while also feeling bad for his parents and the many sleepless nights he must have caused them. Much like the part of the book that focuses on the Arab world, Bassin’s description of his time in the IDF paints a nuanced picture of Israel. Once again, anyone who talks about Israel or the IDF or the Palestinians as uni-dimensional, just doesn’t know what they are talking about. For instance, the unit that Bassin served in has a reputation as being very tough and mean. And yet Bassin describes many instances showing that the soldiers were trained and taught on numerous occasions to behave humanely and within the boundaries of decency and the law, in the execution of their duties.
As such, “I Am Not a Spy” really does deserve to be on bookshelves everywhere. Bassin manages to take an extremely complex and complicated situation and he infuses it with humanity, showing both what separates the two sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and, most importantly, what unites them. His writing style is an entertaining blend of humor and drama and while it is not remotely academic – it’s clear that based on the nonsense I hear every day, both from the right and the left, that many people can stand to learn the lessons found within. So yeah. Go buy this book. Invite Bassin to your events and have him speak. Do it. Do it now while he’s still relatively cheap, because you know what? “I Am Not a Spy” is indeed the millennial “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” Except Bassin’s not going to get a Pulitzer, but so what!? I was entertained and you will be too.