Fifty flying rabbis recently took to the sky in an aircraft, blowing on sacred ram's horns in an effort to purge swine flu from the airspace over Zion. And now Lady Gaga has arrived in Israel, wearing a spiked Star of David on her black leather fetish gear. Truth can be far weirder than fiction on the frontlines of holy war, whether the fight is against the H1N1 virus, moral depravity, or zealous terrorists clad in suicide vests.
After sojourns in the Holy Land, writers as diverse as Mark Twain and Allen Ginsberg have come away with the notion that, regardless of any outsider's road map, peace in the Middle East will be achieved...when pigs fly.
Enter James Hider, an intrepid war correspondent for the Times of London, who sometimes dyes his gingery eyebrows black to better blend in with the Arab Street. His prolific and authoritative coverage of conflict in Fallujah, Baghdad, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for Rupert Murdoch's newspaper has been essential reading for years. Now, in his first book, The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War, published this summer by St Martin's Griffin, Hider unleashes his dark humor and angry wit in a troll through the atrocities that result when religious fanaticism and ignorance are given unlimited fire power. Hider goes beyond the jaded truisms of most eyewitness post -- 9/11 war reportage. To Hider, an ardent atheist, religion in the Middle East has mutated beyond Karl Marx's "opium of the people" into "the crack cocaine of fanatical fundamentalism."
The book's odd title comes from an Iraqi urban myth which went viral online in the early days of the war. Jihadis were rumored to be onto a secret weapon: shrieking camel spiders "the size of dinner plates", primed to sprint at 25 mph on wight legs and attack infidel invaders like the US Marines. The timeline of Hider's personal chronicle sometimes is perplexing because the action surges ahead or casts back a couple of millennia. It's written in a self-deprecating Blackwater stream of consciousness -- complete with rapids, whirlpools, and the occasional snag.
As he gets "sucked back into the 3,000- year-old vortex of fighting between Israel and its neighbors", Hider jolts away from any anticipated script. For instance, his take on how the Islamist group Hamas and its Al Aqsa tv channel hijacked Disney characters to whip up pre-teen Palestinian martyrs against the Israeli occupation ends up in a rock fight with the "feral children" of Gaza, who get bored by the squeaky rodent on the program.
More thoughtful than the usual Gonzo danger junkie writing from a war zone, Hider doesn't tout his own brushes with death as courageous. At one point he castigates himself for his cynicism after he sees so many killings that they start losing news-worthiness. His eye for repellent detail, the kind of graphic description that copy editors would spike out of concern for readers at the breakfast table, has put me off Turkish delight forever. But there are other delights, particularly the droll accounts of unexpected encounters as he tracks sects and violence across the region.
Crossposted from Israelity Bites.