The Tribes Triumphant

One of the great mysteries of our time is the awfulness of the American media. The world’s greatest nation gets its intelligence about the rest of the planet mainly from television, a medium dominated by air-headed bimbos and himbos – ‘I’m Cindy and he’s Grover’ – real-life car chases of narcoleptic tedium and the weather in the United States. (I survived a hurricane in Miami once, as the natives boarded up and belted out. It seemed little different from a wet weekend in Manchester.) The rest of the world gets a look-in so long as it does not conflict with the ordained clichés of the world-view from Ohio, or wherever.

American newspapers are dull, pompous and waste acres of forests on local bits and pieces, unless they have been made up wholly by some of the many fantasists that they employ, in a country which desperately needs a properly functioning Private Eye. (The only exceptions are the magazines, which are superb.) By and large, the American media is a mirror reflecting a dumb, self-absorbed and obscenely trivial society – and that is puzzling, because America is full of incredibly clever, decent and altruistic people.

Charles Glass’s second book, The Tribes Triumphant,  doesn’t really provide an answer to that conundrum, but more ammunition for the Dumb America lobby. He’s a brilliant, literate and hugely informed expert on the Middle East, who used to work for ABC television as a star reporter. Now he’s pretty much out of the mainstream, and reduced to writing beautifully turned analyses of what is going wrong in the Middle East for a few clever newspapers. That is the mainstream’s loss, as the quality of The Tribes Triumphant bears out on page after page.

It feels relevant to report that Glass is a vocal critic of the state of Israel, and what he sees as the power of the Jewish lobby to bend reality to its way of thinking about the world. One should add that Glass is no anti-Semite and, having been kidnapped by Hizbollah, no self-deluding apologist for Arab misdeeds. He knows his stuff and anyone who is interested in the continuing agony of the Middle East should read this book.

He set off for his tour around Israel and the Occupied Territories, with brief sorties into Syria and Lebanon, a few days after 9/11, so there is a strange counterpoint to his gentle and gentlemanly travels: he glimpses the horrors in New York on television, and they are followed by the horrors that came, it seems inevitably, in their wake – war in Afghanistan and then Iraq.

Glass reports the facts fairly and objectively, and yet seems at a loss when they add up, again and again, to a victory for the Israelis and further humiliation for the Palestinians in particular and the Arab world in general. The Israelis have got – through force of arms and courage and billions of US dollars in aid – 78 per cent of the Holy Land. Why then should the Palestinians not be allowed to have 100 per cent of the 22 per cent theoretically allotted to them? Why less, as offered in the deal brokered by Clinton and rejected by the late and unlamented gibbering crook Yasser Arafat?

Arafat was a great general (for the Israelis). Time and again, he said and did exactly the wrong thing, allowing (or not effectively disallowing) various Israeli governments to establish more facts on the ground, more settlements after the Oslo agreement, more Jewish homes on Palestinian land. The Palestinian leader played a bad hand extremely badly, reinforcing his weakness with stupidity, lack of foresight, anti-democratic instincts and unholy greed. General Sharon emerges from this book a thug, but an effective one; Arafat a corrupt and useless fool.

I have to admit that the cumulative effect of reading Glass’s testimony is pretty depressing. Just like Jeremy Bowen’s book on the Six Day War, the narrative is grimly repetitive: a strong, effective and successful Israel wipes the floor with a weak, failing and chaotically divided Palestine. The losers abandon the moral high ground when they resort to suicide bombs, although that begs a question: which is morally more obnoxious – blowing yourself and others up, or sitting in an American-designed tank and blowing others up at the touch of a button with minimal risk to your own skin?

It is this kind of question that the American television majors do not ask very often, and nowhere near often enough. The failure to try to understand the anger and humiliation of the Arab world over Palestine is a great beam in the eye of America, and until that is resolved, the greatest power on earth will remain dim-sighted and dull-witted. But no one can say that there aren’t thoughtful Americans around. Charles Glass, for one.

(This review first appeared in The Literary Review)

The Tribes Triumphant: Return Journey to the Middle East
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