Where the West Ends: Stories from the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus Paperback – 23 Jul 2012
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About the Author
Michael J. Totten is an award-winning journalist and prize-winning author whose very first book, The Road to Fatima Gate, won the Washington Institute Book Prize. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic among others, and he's a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal. He has reported widely from the Middle East, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union, and although he lived once in Beirut, Lebanon, today he lives with his wife and two cats in Oregon.
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Probably most of us are guilty of throwing around terms like "the West" and "the Middle East" without really thinking too hard about what they mean, or where those places begin or end. If you want to understand what "the West" is, read this book to learn where it is, and where it is not.
There is a persistent feeling of loneliness in this book. It is the loneliness of communities cut off from one another and from themselves; but it's also the loneliness of certain individuals who refuse to be confined within the communal walls that are assigned to them.
There are harrowing stories of violence and cruelty, such as Berisha's tale of the expulsion of the Albanians from Prishtina and the ravaging of Krusha e Vogel. There is Ukraine's memory of the Stalinist "hunger plague" of 1932-1933. But there are also stories of courage and kindness, and of hope.
Three themes emerged for me as I read "Where the West Ends". There is the image of the lonely liberal, surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile and violent factions. There is the conflict between old traditionalism and new fundamentalism. And there is the improbable eruption of pro-Americanism in the strangest places.
The Serbian film writer Filip David is one of those lonely liberals; so is the half-Serbian, half-Bosnian Predag Delibasic, who takes pride in having declared himself variously a Jew, a Muslim, and a Yugoslav - and claims that nonexistent nationality to this day. Perhaps the loneliest, though, is Shpetim Mahmudi, an Albanian Sufi mystic who must watch the gradual encroachment of foreign-backed Arab islamists on the grounds of his religious compound. His story is tragic.
It also points to something important about religious conflict in the Muslim world: that the conflict is often not - as Westerners sometimes imagine - a case of Western modernity threatening to extinguish Islamic tradition. Rather, it is instead a direct attack on centuries-old, evolving religious traditions by well-armed, well-financed followers of a comparatively recent fundamentalist sect. It is ancient moderation versus newfangled fanaticism.
It should not be news that there are places in the world where America is not well liked. Serbia is one of those places, as attested by the Belgrade taxi driver's curt greeting to Totten at the beginning of chapter 2. What's a better-kept secret, though, is that there are places that are enthusiastically pro-American. "Where the West Ends" visits some of those places: Iraqi Kurdistan, Albania, Georgia, Romania.
Taken as a whole, this book presents a spectrum of individual and communal relationships: nation-states new and old, enclaves and exclaves, secessionist and occupied zones, segregated and integrated communities, and individuals struggling - with varying degrees of success - to behave with dignity and decency amid environments calculated to breed brutality.
What we're left with is an admiration of the courage it takes to succeed. The Georgians in chapter 9 have watched Russian planes burn their forests and bomb their villages. They are angry with Russia, but they do not hate Russians. And Delibasic, at the end of chapter 2, says, "I don't hate anybody" - not even the general who commanded the prison camp where he was once confined.
Still, forgiveness is sometimes born of proximity. In the course of a conversation with a Romanian researcher about that country's Communist past, Totten is reminded of a militant in another place who said, "[They] don't live here ... they live over there, so I don't have to forgive them!"
One final note: The values and traditions that we cherish in the West are by no means assured of continuance. "The West" is an abstraction that exists in space and also in time. If in the title you replace the word "where" with "when", the book is also a warning.
The book ends with an unforgettable scene of desolation. Read the book all the way to the end, to understand why the chilling final pages capture a part of Europe still haunted by many ghosts.
Totten and an occasional travel partner ultimately visit thirteen countries in all with each country roughly receiving one chapter. Each chapter can stand alone as a vignette but chapters are further organized by region which helps provide greater context to understanding life there. Where the West Ends adheres to some of the basic structures of travel writing, and Totten offers up some vivid descriptions of the sheer beauty and abject desolation that he finds within these countries. He is a gifted writer and he is also very familiar with his subject matter. Totten is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and he has reported from Iraq, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union.
I came into the book with very limited knowledge about the region. I always plan on reading The Economist cover-to-cover but I can't recall the last time I read more than one article in the Middle East and Africa Section. I generally assumed that countries such as Georgia and Kosovo had their issues and quirks but I never read anything describing life there. Shameful reading habits aside, I remain interested in learning about the area and Totten thankfully is able to provide quite a bit of fascinating information about it. In addition to dejecting post-communist apartment blocks and corrupt officials, many of these countries are filled with factual tidbits. The reception of Totten's American citizenship truly runs the gamut, and there are some surprising members of the pro-American camp. The author is embraced by Iraqi Kurds, who are ideological polar opposites from Iraqi Arabs in terms of America. Kurds (and even the most devout viewers of Fox News) cannot beat the residents of Kosovo in terms of American support, though. The country boasts what is probably the world's only examples of graffiti writing effusively praising George W. Bush and a patisserie/disco (there are undoubtedly numerous typos in this review but that last phrase is not one of them) named "Hillary" in honor of the former first lady, while her husband has an eleven foot statue in his honor on Bill Clinton Boulevard in the capital of Prishtina. That being said, the highlight of the book was still probably learning about a statue of Lenin in Yalta that stares directly at a McDonald's franchise.
While there are plenty of entertaining and somewhat-depressing descriptions of awful hotels, ravaged post-communist environments, shady cabdrivers and other elements of the countries covered, Totten also writes about some of their deeper cultural and political aspects. Totten interviews various professors, journalists, and everyday residents who help provide additional insight into life at the borders between the developed and developing world. I found these sections, such Totten's detailing of the Russia-Georgia conflict to be both comprehensive and enlightening, though not all interview subjects were equally engaging. Several of these sections dragged on a bit as a result. It was still generally nice to understand the historical underpinnings that led to the often dismal surroundings encountered by the author. Totten also makes some astute statements, such as when he posits that nationalism is on par with radical Islam in contributing to the perpetual state of Middle Eastern tension.
I don't want to come across as a pre-schooler but Totten mentions holding a camera or performing the act of photography several times in the book, often while in front of some majestic landscape or peculiar sight. He even risks riling up unfriendly soldiers and officials by having a camera on his person during several instances. If he is going to dangle these pictures in front of our faces and endure so much trouble and risk in doing so you would think he could include some of said photographs within the pages of Where the West Ends. On a more positive note, these reckless camera-holding habits exhibit Totten's freewheeling and adventurous approach to his journey, which helps make for an enjoyable read. He is unafraid to travel to Iraq on a whim (the trip was completely unplanned as he tells it), solicit navigational help from anti-American civilians, and he even attempts to pay Chernobyl a visit during his travels (where he is unfortunately rebuffed). These passages inject more excitement than most books that extensively cover the breakup of Yugoslavia and collapse of Albanian government can muster.
Where the West Ends is a worthwhile read that strikes a nice balance between being informative and entertaining as Totten explores the Balkans, Middle East, Caucasus, and Black Sea regions. Simply pointing out their idiosyncracies in a travelogue would make for a worthwhile read, but the book is further enhanced (in general) with reflections about the factors that shaped each country's politics and culture.
It does so while pulling back the curtain on his own life and background more revealingly than in his other books, though it is never self-indulgent. These essays at times become madcap travelogues, in which Totten (and his comrade-in-arms Sean) are like a Hunter S. Thompson and Dr. Gonzo, high not on illicit drugs but rather on a supremely American decency and curiosity regarding the world beyond Totten's native Oregon. We are treated to accounts, alternately harrowing and funny, surprising and heartbreaking, of Totten's travels through cities and places as diverse as Dubrovnik, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Ukraine, and Azerbaijan, yet which all, through conversations with intellectuals and activists, random street encounters, and Totten's detail-hungry eye, reveal volumes about the fault lines between east and west.
These lines run in often unexpected directions--anyone who is confident that he can establish fixed borders in the clash of civilizations should read this book and think again. Totten's politics are refreshingly eclectic, not doctrinaire. He is "conservative" in the sense that he does see the world as an (often lost) struggle between the forces of civilization and those of barbarity. He is "liberal" in that he finds "West" and "East" in flux and not where one would usually expect. One might adapt Solzhenitsyn's famous line to draw the moral from Totten's superb new book by saying that "The line dividing East and West cuts through the heart of every human being."
While I found some of the sections on the former Yugoslavia interesting, I almost abandoned the book partway through the first chapter. Why should I pay attention to an idiot who drives all the way across Turkey for a couple of hours in Iraqi Kurdistan, knowing that he has no time to spend there, or enough time to return? Then at the end I discover he also doesn't have the sense to learn the Cyrillic alphabet before visiting a country known to use it. I am terrible at languages, but I managed to learn the Cyrillic alphabet without great difficulty. And how come he didn't at least have a guidebook? I arrived in Ukraine in 2006 with two - Lonely Planet and Bradt (just as well, as LP only had a Ukrainian language section!). I really don't want to hear about your difficulties reading menus when you are too stupid to make ordinary preparations. And I took the train - much less hassle than driving, although as far as I'm concerned the worst roads in Europe are in Moldova.
Just shows that you should take more than one person's opinion into account before drawing conclusions. I had a very different reaction to Macedonia as well, but then Mr. Totten didn't visit Skopje, or, I bet, Ohrid. And I found the Albanians just across the border in Korca a lot less friendly than the Macedonians. So, I would say this book is worth reading for some of the interviews, but don't take it as the last word on the area.