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An Education in War

Written by Megan StackAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Megan Stack



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On Sale: June 15, 2010
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-385-53268-6
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A National Book Award Finalist

A few weeks after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, journalist Megan K. Stack was thrust into Afghanistan and Pakistan, dodging gunmen, prodding warlords for information, and witnessing the changes sweeping the Muslim world.  Every Man in This Village Is a Liar is her riveting story of what she saw in the combat zones and beyond. She relates her initial wild excitement and slow disillusionment as the cost of violence outweighs the promise of democracy; she records the raw pain of suicide bombings in Israel and Iraq; and, one by one, she marks the deaths and disappearances of those she interviews.

Excerpt

ONE
EVERY MAN IN THIS VILLAGE IS A LIAR


Cold dawn broke on the horizon outside. The bedroom door shushed open, bringing the morning air and a warlord on predator’s toes.

I lay in a nest of polyester blankets and listened to his footsteps cross the carpet. Every muscle pulled tight. You reveal yourself in breath, in the nerves of your face. Count the breaths, in and out. He sat on the edge of the bed. Smooth breath, relax your eyes, don’t let the lids shake. Then his calloused old hand was stroking my hair, cupping my scalp, fingers dripping like algae onto my ears and cheeks.

The warlord lived in Jalalabad, in a swath of Afghanistan where the soil is rich with poppies and land mines, in a house awash in guns. People whispered that he was a heroin trafficker. His tribal loyalists clotted the orange groves and rose gardens outside, AK-47s in dust-caked fingers. They said he was ruthless in war, that his skin was scarred by an arrow. There was a vague whisper about a legendary ambush, the warlord killing enemies with his bare hands. And now those ropey hands were petting my hair, silent and brazen.

I clung to one thing: Brian, the photographer, was in the bathroom. Water slapped the floor. How long would his shower last, and how could I escape the warlord’s lechery without offending him? The truth was, we needed him. He was an enemy of the Taliban, funded by the U.S. government, making a play for power in the vague, new order that had begun when American soldiers toppled the Taliban government. I was a stranger here, and he was my best source. He said he knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding. And now he was petting me like a puppy; nobody could sleep through it. The bed creaked. Stale breath sank in my face. Papery lips pressed my forehead. I opened my eyes and tried to look groggy.

“What are you doing?”

“Sshhh.”

I struggled upright, cleared a phlegmy throat, and tried to sound dignified: “You are putting me into a very awkward position.” A  black-and-white-movie line, spilling out in a moment of panic.

He smiled and reached for my face.

“Please don’t do that,” I snapped.

Then, suddenly, silence. The water stopped, the pipes fell quiet. The warlord glanced around, stood, and slipped back out of the room.

Brian stepped out; his hair gleamed with water.

I turned my eyes to him and hissed: “We’ve got to get out of here.”



I had met Mohammed Zaman weeks earlier, in  Peshawar—a cramped kaleidoscope of a city perched on the last edge of organization and authority in Pakistan. To the west stretched the lawless tribal territories, the Khyber Pass, the Afghan frontier. Driven away by the Taliban, Zaman had been living an exile’s life in Dijon, France, before September 11. Under chilly French skies he’d pined after his family’s lands, the service of armed tribesmen, and, presumably, the rich, fresh fields of Afghan poppy. When U.S. jets started dropping bombs on Afghanistan, Zaman raced back to Peshawar and holed up in a rented house, waiting for the Americans to dispose of the Taliban and clear the path home—and eager to make some money while he was at it.

I sat in the shadows of a taxi late one night, my face and head draped in scarves, making my way through the jangling streets of Peshawar for an audience with Zaman. I liked it, all of it, enormously—the poetry of the place, the intrigue of war, imagining myself veiled in the back of a clopping carriage, bringing secrets to a bootlegger. The warlord’s return had drawn throngs of men for endless meetings; I picked my way around the crowds on the lawn and sat waiting in a long drawing room. A door opened and out marched an American diplomat I’d seen at the embassy. His eyes skimmed mine and he hurried on,  stone-faced. He didn’t like being spotted there. I sat and watched him leave.

Zaman came out, tall and deliberate, face sagging from his skull. We sat with tea between us, and I asked him to take me to Afghanistan when he went.

He was solemn. “I take your life on my honor,” he said from the heights of his mountainous nose. “They will have to kill me before they can harm you.”

A few days later, we set off for war. The sun sank as we drove toward the Khyber Pass, storied old route of smugglers and marauders. Men pounded through a field hockey match in a haze of setting sun and rising dust. “Dead slow,” ordered a traffic sign. “These areas are full of drugs,” muttered the driver. In my head shimmered gilded pictures of the Grand Trunk Road, the Silk Road, Kim. On the edge of Afghanistan, stars crowded the sky, dull and dense. We crossed the border and plunged into the enormous uncertainty of this new American war. Forty Afghan fighters waited for us, young men and boys nestled together in pickup trucks. They shivered in the stinging night and gripped grenade launchers, chains of machine gun rounds trailing from the trucks. We drove alongside the Kabul River, past the shadowed bulk of mountains and tractors, along fields of tobacco and wheat. At the edge of Jalalabad, the deserted dinosaurs of rusted Soviet tanks reared from the ground.

In the core of the dusty night, we pulled up to his house. Zaman served a feast and stayed awake with us, lolling on the floor around the vegetables and lamb and spinning out long, fatigued stories. We blinked and yawned but Zaman pushed on toward sunrise. He was selling his case even then, from those earliest hours. Osama bin Laden had fled to the nearby White Mountains, he said, to the caves cut into stone, to Tora Bora. The terrorist and his followers still lurked nearby. If America was serious about this war on terror, the terrorists needed to be flushed out. He could do the job; he only needed guns, money, and equipment.

He talked on and on, weaving French into English, until the dawn call to prayer rang from a whitening sky. His words melted together. My chin was falling. I slept on the floor, and woke up in the new Afghanistan.



The first days with Zaman were easy. The stories fell like ripe fruit. But when he tiptoed to my bed, I knew we had to scrounge for another roof. There was nowhere to go but the Spin Ghar hotel, a crumbling Soviet relic rising from tangles of garden and derelict trees. Rank smells wafted through the cold corridors, over chipped linoleum, past cracked plaster walls. Mad jumbles of bodies crowded the lobby—foreign reporters, Afghans, hired gunmen in their robes and eye paint, all sprawled on the grass, smoking on the steps, flooding over the balconies.

The electricity died that night, and gas lanterns shivered in the dark cavern of the hotel dining room. Everybody was very quiet. There was bad news.

Some of the reporters had set off for Kabul in a convoy that day. Two hours out of town, Afghan bandits stopped the first car and shot the passengers dead: a Spaniard, an Afghan, an Australian. There was an Italian woman, too, who was raped and then killed. The rest of the reporters squealed their cars around and came back to Jalalabad. The bodies were abandoned on the road. It was the first lost gamble, and it pulled us a little farther into war. Now we in the dark dining room were rendered survivors, the ones who hadn’t died. The faces swim out of darkness, painted in wisps of gaslight. They are talking about the abandoned bodies, about who fetched them. I feel empty. I have no reaction. It is a gap inside of me, like putting your tongue where a tooth used to be. I know that I should feel something; to feel something is appropriate and human. I stay silent so that the others will not realize that I am gaping like a canyon. I am not absolutely sure this is real; it’s so very far from where we started. On September 11, I was in Paris, and then in Bahrain, an aircraft carrier, and Pakistan, moving slowly, unconsciously closer to here, tonight. America is at war, and we are all here too, at the edge of death, just like that, in just a few weeks. And so we are on an island, and so the roads are a place to die.

In my room the darkness is thick as tar. My fingers can’t find a lock on the door. I am groping when the door cracks forward with a grunt of Pashto. I can’t see the Afghan man but I push at him, throw my arms into the darkness and find flesh, drive him back. His cries are pure sound to me. I don’t care. After Zaman at my bedside and reporters dead on the road, this man cannot stay. Our American and Afghan words mean nothing when they hit the other ear. We are stripped of all understanding, battling in the blackness. I shove him into the hall and force the door closed against the last pieces of him, a kicking foot, a grasping arm. Later on, I realize he was probably the sweet-faced cleaning man who shuffled like a kicked stray through the corridors at night. Later I laugh, a little embarrassed. But on this night, I have vanquished. I lean limp against the door of my stinking little cave, conqueror of misunderstood forces.


Back in Pakistan, before I crossed over into Afghanistan, somebody said to me: “Every man in this village is a liar.” It was the punch line to a parable, the tale of an ancient Greek traveler who plods into a foreign village and is greeted with those words. It is a twist on the Epimenides paradox, named after the Cretan philosopher who declared, “All Cretans are liars.” It’s one of the world’s oldest logic problems, folding in on itself like an Escher sketch. If he’s telling the truth, he’s lying. If he’s lying, he’s telling the truth.

That was Afghanistan after September 11.

You meet a man, and his story doesn’t sound right. You stare at him and your brain is chewing away, and out of the corner of your eye something bizarre and fantastic trails past—a pair of mujahideen with their fingers intertwined, plastic flowers glowing in black hair, winking and fluttering with the kohl-rimmed eyes of two besotted lovers. And you can’t help but look, but then all you can do is watch these strange peacocks, stunned by the magenta homoeroticism of this dry, pious land. By the time you peel your attention back and stop your thoughts from whirling, the man you were trying to weigh out is long gone. Afghanistan was meaning washed away in floods of color, in drugs, guns, sexual ambiguity, and Islam.

I met a young man who spoke Arabic and English, which was rare and fancy for provincial Afghanistan. He had worked for bin Laden, and I was certain his sympathies lay with the Taliban, with Al Qaeda. We sat together and had long interviews. Later I found out he worked for the CIA. They gave him a satellite phone, and he was calling in coordinates for bombing targets.
 
Every man in this village is a liar.

Maybe that’s why nobody believed the warlords when they kept saying that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora. A pity, because it was true: Osama bin Laden packed his bags and fled into the mountain redoubt near Jalalabad after September 11. The caves were his last stop before he lost his substance and melted into the world’s most  famous phantom. Catching bin Laden was the first important thing the United States set out to do after September 11. The job was bungled so thoroughly that the war never really found its compass again. Here in eastern Afghanistan, the Americans would begin to lose the plot.
Megan Stack

About Megan Stack

Megan Stack - Every Man in This Village Is a Liar
Megan K. Stack has reported on war, terrorism and political Islam from twenty-two countries since 2001. She was most recently Moscow bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. She was awarded the 2007 Overseas Press Club’s Hal Boyle Award for best newspaper reporting from abroad and was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting.
Praise

Praise

“A moving and unsettling account of war reporting in the age of terror. . . . Brave and engaged.” —Los Angeles Times

“For readers frustrated with cold and unfeeling news coverage, Megan K. Stack’s Every Man in This Village Is a Liar will serve as a much-needed antidote. . . . Personal and impassioned. . . . Refreshingly candid and undeniably affecting.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Above and beyond the 24-hour news chatter, opaque papers, and truncated press reports, stands Megan K. Stack’s glittering Every Man in This Village is a Liar.” —The Christian Science Monitor
 
“Without stories like Stack’s, war becomes impersonal and easy to gloss over, relegated to page two. These stories—personal and vulnerable—are meaningful, if for no other reason than they force us to look again.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Journalist Megan Stack sheds the customary pretenses of her profession to show us—with blistering eloquence and her own raw nerves laid bare—war’s impact on the non-combatants who bear the brunt of its horrors. You’ll be thinking about this book long after you turn the final page.” —Jon Krakauer, author of Where Men Win Glory

Every Man in This Village is a Liar is an electrifying book by an extraordinary foreign correspondent. Megan Stack has braved the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, decoded the secrets of Israel and Egypt. She shows us what war and terror have done to humanity in the 21st century. Read it if you have the courage to care about your country, its allies, and its enemies.” Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes
 
“A piercing take on what it’s like to be a female correspondent in today’s Middle East.” —Vogue


“There have been plenty of books by journalists about the Iraq and Afghan wars, many by reporters ‘embedded’ with troops. Megan Stack’s offering is a different exercise in understanding, and all the better for it. . . . What makes this such a refreshing, and revealing book is that Stack never makes herself into anything other than she is, a woman, an American, young, naive and even innocent. . . . As an attempt to make sense of what was without sense, and a portrayal of a mood and time, Stack’s book may be the best account yet of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.” —The Independent (London)

“[An] extraordinary book: Stack removes all the usual nonsense from war reporting. What you read here is the truth, gorgeously rendered in shimmering sentences, but unrelenting all the same.” Joe Klein, author of Politics Lost and Primary Colors
 
“A brave and beautifully written book. . . . [Stack] conveys is a war without direction and so badly managed that it has left in its wake a string of shattered societies across the globe.” —The Sunday Times (London)
 
“Bracing. . . . Of lasting importance.” —Elle
 
“Evocative. . . . Stack does not seek to tease out the links and disconnections between the various and varied nations of which she writes; it's a relief to realize that she isn't going to try to place, for example, Afghanistan and Egypt into the same crucible of analysis (if ‘the war on terror’ is a myth, so is ‘the Muslim world’). What she does instead, with her fine journalistic eye, is capture what she sees and hears, and present it alongside enough taut analysis to move her accounts beyond the merely factual.” —The Guardian (London) 
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Megan Stack’s Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, a searing account of war in the Middle East.

About the Guide

Seen through the keenly perceptive eyes of Megan Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar offers readers a harrowing, visceral, unflinching look at what war does to people—those who fight it, those who cover it, and those who are unwittingly caught up in it.
 
A foreign correspondent in Paris for the Los Angeles Times, Stack is sent to Afghanistan after 9/11 and thrust into the maelstrom of violent conflict in the Middle East. Her account of her experiences—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere—form “an education in war,” both for Stack and for her readers. That education involves suffering through Israeli bombardment, being punched by Egyptian security agents, and witnessing death, grief, and despair up close. Indeed, it is Stack’s willingness to put herself in harm’s way, and to keep her eyes open and her mind clear of the self-serving obscurations of political leaders, American and Middle Eastern alike, that makes her reporting so invaluable. She captures for readers the raw terror of war, the helpless confusion of civilians who have lived with violence for decades, and the cycles of betrayal and revenge that perpetuate these conflicts.
 
Initially excited about the prospect of covering the Iraq war, Stack becomes quickly disillusioned, “clobbered by the first wave of a feeling . . . that it was all a mistake, that none of us should be there, the soldiers or aid workers or me. It was all a misunderstanding, and now we were lost abroad and the Iraqis were lost at home, and from this chaos absolutely anything could be born” (p. 56).        
 
Against the simplistic, self-congratulatory narratives of American politicians and Pentagon spokesmen, Stack shows readers the messy realities of life in the Middle East. She covers some of the most compelling stories of the time: the American invasion of Iraq and Iraq's descent into civil war; the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; Egypt’s fraudulent elections; the murder of Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat; and the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006, in which she is nearly killed. She also tells the powerful stories of ordinary people in the Middle East, and through them shows us how it feels to live amid chaos, violence, corruption and, for women, horrific repression.
 
Most important, Stack tells the truth about a region—and the complicated, disastrous American involvement there—that is too often shrouded in lies.

About the Author

MEGAN K. STACK has reported on war, terrorism, and political Islam from twenty-two countries since 2001. She was awarded the 2007 Overseas Press Club’s Hal Boyle Award for best newspaper reporting from abroad and was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. She is currently the Los Angeles Times Moscow bureau chief.

Discussion Guides

1. Every Man in This Village Is a Liar is, in many ways, a book about telling the truth. What truths does Megan Stack discover and reveal throughout the course of the book? Why is it so important to tell the truth amid the lies of war?

2. Stack writes an article about Palestinian suicide bombers that engenders death threats from Israeli readers. When she asks why, a reporter friend tells her: “You humanized them. You’re writing about suicide bombers as people who have corpses and families. They can’t stand to see them written about like that” (p. 44). Why is it necessary to dehumanize one’s enemies during war? In what ways is Stack’s book an effort to humanize everyone she writes about?

3. Who are some of the most memorable people Stack meets during her reporting on the Middle East? Why is it so important to tell the stories of individual human beings caught up in the suffering, pain, and grief of war?

4. Writing about the Old Testament story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice to his son Isaac in order to do God’s will, Stack observes “the trouble is that, centuries later, the Middle East is still packed with murderers who believe they are doing God’s will, privately attuned to the ring of God’s voice. This is still how Middle Eastern battles are fought, by Arabs, Israelis, and now by Americans. Blind faith is the footbridge that takes us from virtuous religion to self-righteous violence” (p. 103). Why does religious fundamentalism so often lead to violence? Has America been guilty of the same kind of self-righteous extremism it opposes in the Middle East?

5. After the killing of the courageous Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat, who “wanted to calm things down not stoke the anger” Stack writes: “There was no place in Iraq for a woman like that” (p. 197). Why is there no place in Iraq for someone like Atwar Bahjat?

6. What does Stack reveal about how women are treated throughout the Middle East? Why is it important to have a woman journalist’s view of the conflicts in the region? What contrasts are provided by the American women Stack interviews in Saudi Arabia?

7. “Here is the truth,” Stack writes. “It matters, what you do at war. It matters more than you ever want to know”  (p. 51). Why does it matter so much what one does in war? What are the consequences not just for individuals but for nations in how they conduct themselves during war?

8. Every Man in This Village Is a Liar is subtitled An Education in War. In what ways is Stack educated by war? In what ways does she educate her readers about the realities of war?

9. How does Every Man in This Village Is a Liar challenge conventional views of the Middle East?

10. Near the end of the book, Stack writes about the strange feeling of being present and absent at the same time. It occurs to her that this might be “the most American trait of all, the trademark of these wars. To be there and be gone all at once, to tell ourselves it just happened, we did what we did but we had no control over the consequences” (p. 240). In what ways is this an essentially American trait? What dangers are inherent in this way of being simultaneously engaged and disengaged?

11. Stack ends the book by reminding readers what war has taught her: “You can survive and not survive, both at the same time” (p. 245). What is the meaning of this paradoxical statement?

12. In the epilogue, Stack writes that she has “given up on pulling poetry out of war” (p. 246). In what ways has Stack found a gritty, heartbreaking poetry the war-torn Middle East? What passages in the book rise to the level of poetry? Why would she give up this way of writing about war?

13. What are some of the most harrowing moments in the book? What effect do they have on Stack and on her readers?

14. Stack concludes that the “war on terror never really existed,” that it was “essentially nothing but a unifying myth for a complicated scramble of mixed impulses and social theories and night terrors and cruelty and business interests, all overhung with the unassailable memory of falling skyscrapers” (p. 3). Is she right about this? In what sense is the war on terror unreal? 

15. Every Man in This Village Is a Liar plunges readers into the visceral particulars of the war in Iraq and other ongoing conflicts in the region, giving a vivid sense of the texture of war. But what larger points does the book make about war, America’s involvement in the Middle East, the treatment of women in Islamic countries, and other issues?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

Suggested Readings

Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning; Yasmina Khadra, The Sirens of Baghdad; Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East; Jon Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman; Anthony Shadid, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America's War; Rory Stewart, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.

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