In an article that consumes the entirety of this week’s New York Times Magazine, Pulitzer Center Grantee Scott Anderson aims to tell a story of great breadth and timeliness: how the current conflicts in the Middle East arose, and how they might evolve from here. In this segment from the August 12, 2016, PBS NewsHour broadcast, host Hari Sreenivasan discusses with Anderson how the writer leveraged six individual voices to illustrate the narrative of these immensely complex hostilities.
Judy Woodruff: Now to the Middle East and a conversation about the chaos, calamity and political dissolution that now envelop the region. Hari Sreenivasan in New York has that.
Hari Sreenivasan: The last five years of tumult in the Middle East defy easy explanations. Revolutions that began with much hope in early 2011 have evolved into disaster in places like Syria and Libya and led to political upheaval and repression in Egypt. In Iraq, the American-led war that began in 2003 has morphed into a many-sided conflict that has once again brought America back into the fight there and in Syria. Caught in the middle, millions of people whose lives have been upended. An attempt to capture in part the story of this cataclysmic time comes now from journalist Scott Anderson and photographer Paolo Pellegrin, whose work “Fractured Lands” comprises the entirety issue of this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.
And Scott Anderson joins me now.
You’re telling one bigger story, and you’re using six different voices to get at it.
Scott Anderson, Contributing Writer, The New York Times Magazine: Right.
Hari Sreenivasan: But the big thesis in a nutshell.
Scott Anderson: I wanted to tell this kind of broad story of how we got here, and to a degree where we might be headed next. And to tell this story, I really needed to focus in on people.
Hari Sreenivasan: One of the characters that you focus on in Iraq is so compelling. It’s a young woman who ends up — she was working for the CPA for a little while, the Provisional Authority. Tell us about her arc now.
Scott Anderson: Right.
Yes. Khulood al-Zaidi, she was—she’s from a provincial town in Southern Iraq from a Shia family. When the Americans invaded in 2003, she heard the talk of democracy and human rights and women’s empowerment that the CPA was talking about. She became an instant convert. She worked for the CPA. And then, when the Americans left, she was stranded on the beach, so to speak. And she tried to continue doing work. She received many death threats from the militias, finally ended up having to go into exile in Jordan. And just in the last—about six months, she joined the migrant exodus to Europe.
So, now she and one of her sisters are living in a little town in Austria, and they have been given asylum and they’re going to start a university in September.
Hari Sreenivasan: You find these characters kind of at their bridge they’re crossing over, something that changed their lives forever, not just the overall invasion, but something very specific that happened in each of their lives.
Scott Anderson: Right.
Hari Sreenivasan: There is an Egyptian character that you focus on, an activist.
Scott Anderson: Right. Laila Soueif is a—she’s a math professor at Cairo University, has been an activist since the 1970s, leftist, a feminist. And she and her husband, who is now deceased, were probably the most—certainly the most prominent political dissident couple in Egypt.
Hari Sreenivasan And their son was in the family business, too.
Scott Anderson: And their son and their two daughters got in the family business. Laila was—during the Tahrir Square in 2007 was in the front lines. She very early on, though, saw the danger. The existing political forces, they were slow in trying to consolidate after Mubarak was overthrown. She saw the danger of the military coming back in. And now she’s living that. And two of her children are in prison for protesting against the Sisi government.
Hari Sreenivasan And this was part of this ripple effect of the Arab spring.
We thought—we saw the incredible act of Bouazizi, who immolated himself that caused this in Tunisia. And here it was spreading like wildfire across the region. And we look, three, fours years later, there’s not that much change. In fact, some things are worse off.
Scott Anderson: I think what happened in a lot of these countries is that there wasn’t a consensus. These dictators had been around for so long. And so when they did fall, people tended to fall back on their tribal or sectarian allegiances that in a lot of these countries had always been people’s primary allegiance anyway. You look at Libya, Syria, Iraq, these were all artificial nations that were created by the Western powers at the end of World War I. When the strong man goes, you have no tradition of democracy, no tradition of political expression. Let’s not even talk about democracy. You know, what happens? What takes its place?
Hari Sreenivasan And you say that really it’s, in that initial carving up, there wasn’t much attention paid to what is Kurdistan, who are their loyalties to, what is the other rest of Iraq, and should this be part of one country?
Scott Anderson: Right. Not even little consideration. I think it was a strategy. It was the same strategy the colonial powers used in sub-Saharan Africa. You empower a local tribe or ethnic group or religious group to operate as your local overseers. So, the majority can never—is never going to rebel against them, and they’re not going to rebel against you because they will be taken over by the majority.
And this is a pattern that existed throughout the region.
Hari Sreenivasan: You begin and end the story with bookends from one of your characters from Kurdistan. And near the end, he says, Iraq is gone, Syria is gone, it is our time now.
Scott Anderson: What they have always wanted is a larger Kurdish homeland. But this character in particular, he sees no future for living amongst Arabs, so he sees this as an opportunity. This is a golden moment, in his mind, to rid the area, to basically ethnically cleanse the entire Kurdistan of the Arab population that has moved in. And this goes to this idea that people think, oh, well, why don’t we just start like bifurcating or trifurcating some of these countries, and everyone can go back to having their little homelands? But everyone is so mixed in now. And it’s like where—how far down do you start subdividing it?
Hari Sreenivasan: One of the things that I noticed in this article is that you don’t just say this is a Shia-Sunni problem, which is very easy kind of Western way to look at the Middle East and say, well, oh, clearly, these Shia must love those Shia, they’re in cahoots, and they are going to overthrow this. And you don’t—get into that.
Scott Anderson: No, and it’s so much more complicated, and enjoined to the idea of how you subdivide it. In Iraq, there is lots of very large tribes that have a Sunni component and a Shia component. So, what happens? If you tried to do a Sunni-Shia division, what happens to that tribe? You know, there are issues with clans going back…
Hari Sreenivasan: A couple of thousand years.
Scott Anderson: A couple of thousand years. You know, and so, when people start looking at like a kind of a quick solution to any of this, I think it’s just in for a really long, very rocky road throughout the region.
Hari Sreenivasan: And, finally, Syria, you have multiple characters, and we just got to a few of them. But he’s fascinating for a totally different reason.
Scott Anderson: Yes, Majd Ibrahim, he is a 23-year-old from Homs, a city in Central Syria that has probably the most destroyed city over the course of the Syrian civil war. They call it the Syrian Stalingrad.
And the whole time he was—Majd is a very Westernized young man. I once asked them, looking at the Assad regime, what does your father say about the Assad regime? What were his views? And he said, we never talked about it. They never once talked politics around the dinner table. The security state that existed in Syria, and still does, was so firm that nobody would talk about it. And it goes to this idea that if people can’t even talk about their political aspirations, when you have a rupture, how can there be a consensus of what is going to take its place?
Hari Sreenivasan: Scott Anderson of The New York Times. The piece is fantastic. It’s the entire “New York Times Magazine” this weekend. Thank you for joining us.
Scott Anderson: Thank you, Hari.
Judy Woodruff: And Scott Anderson’s work for “The New York Times Magazine” was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. They are a frequent partner of the “NewsHour.”