Thursday, April 13, 2006

A Foreign Correspondent's View

I first noticed Neil MacFarquhar in the mid-1980s when he walked into a party in San Francisco. He came into the room, all 6’3” of him, dressed in jeans and a white dinner jacket. With his wavy blond hair and jutting Scottish chin, he was instantly alluring. But that’s not what made him memorable. It was his wicked sense of humor. He made me laugh at almost everything.

My next most vivid memory of Neil is coming upon him one balmy day when we were both juniors at Stanford University. The top to his vintage yellow Mustang convertible was down and he was sprawled in the front seat, his long legs resting on the dashboard. When he saw me – we were close friends by that point – he sat up and announced in a joyful voice that he had finally figured out what he was going to do with his life: he was going to be a foreign correspondent.

Neil has fulfilled those dreams. He spent years covering the Middle East for Associated Press, first living in Cyprus and then writing about Israel, Iran, Jordan, Syria and other countries. He was in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the first Gulf War and Iraq for parts of the second. For the past five years he has been the New York Time's bureau chief in Cairo. He is about to start a new assignment, covering American Islam.

Neil’s first book, the novel The Sand Café, has just been released and it is getting glowing reviews. It tells the story of three reporters ensconced in a hotel in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. The U.S. and Saudi governments are micromanaging the reporters, making it impossible to report any real news. Against this restrictive backdrop, the reporters form their own intimate liaisons of love, competition, and sabotage.

Jay Matthews reviewed the book in the Washington Post and said “few novels so honestly portray what reporting abroad is like in the era of the American colossus.”

"The Sand Cafe" presents a world no different from what any reporter has ever faced covering a story big enough to draw a horde of competitors who skirmish over scraps of gossip, form temporary liaisons, plot career moves, eat poorly and stretch the truth (but not so much that the blogs might pound them into library paste). It is an interesting and revealing world, which shows that American-style journalism is driven more by competition between newspapers and networks than any desire to please the left or skewer the administration.”

Neil is scheduled to be interviewed by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” on Thursday April 13.

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