I had a piece of shrapnel go straight through my left arm during one of the many, endless battles for Fallujah a decade ago. The wound left almost no scar tissue at all. Three months ago, a vicious but very small bee stung me on almost exactly the same spot on my right arm, and there’s still a big red mark there. So should I tweak the truth and present the bee sting as the battle scar when droning on about it in the pub? Answers on a post card please to Lord Leveson, House of Lords
I haven’t blogged on this site for several years now, partly because I was so busy — covering the Arab Spring, having a kid and then moving to Brazil, after a brief stint in Miami — but now I am returning to it. I had hoped, standing on Tahrir Square and then covering the frontline battles with Libya’s rebels, or talking to Syrians standing up to their terrifying government, that the Arab Spring might make the themes of Spiders of Allah redundant. On the contrary, they have become much, much worse, and the Arab Spring, for various complex reasons, is now a kind of nuclear winter for the Middle East. Grey skies, nothing growing but death, hatred and fear.
Yesterday, the American photojournalist James Foley was brutally murdered by the Islamist extremists who have set up a “Caliphate” in the ruins of Syria and Iraq. My first gut reaction was rage: these psychopaths certainly deserve to get their comeuppance, and deserve no mercy. But the rage sweeping the Western world, and America in particular, is exactly was ISIS wants. They feed off anger and despair. People are saying Obama should “grow a pair” or “drop the bomb” — but that is what ISIS wants. Nothing would act as a better recruiting tool to them than saying the infidel Zionist-Crusaders are trying to crush the true descendants of the Prophet, to rally every depressed wannabe jihadist to their cause. A show of force would almost certainly kill civilians too, providing propaganda value to the extremists and radicalising whatever relatives survived the raid.
James Foley’s death is tragic and shocking, all the more so to me because I covered many of the same conflicts, we are almost the same age (and same name too) and because he was kidnapped at exactly the same time my daughter was born, in November 2012. I think of all the joy she has brought me in her brief lifetime, and compare that with what James was going through at the same time — the terror, the dark basements in bombed-out cities, the armed men in masks and the knowledge of what your disappearance is doing to your loved ones back home.
But ISIS is like the evil Emperor in Return of the Jedi: they want to fight America, the Great Satan, and James Foley was the red rag to the bull. As the Emperor said to Luke Skywalker, “Good, I can feel your anger. I am defenseless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete!” The West certainly needs to act, but intelligently, and using its local allies such as the Kurdish forces – getting sucked back by rage into the quagmire that grew out of an original misguided, fear-driven mission will only lead to even more death and misery
“Spiders of Allah” was picked this month as an Editors Choice for 2009 by Booklist Magazine, the publication of the American Library Association. Every year, they pick 100 books published in the United States and recommend them to US libraries.
Flying Rabbis, Lady Gaga and the “Spiders of Allah”
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.
Having spent the last month travelling in South America, I have missed posting some of the latest reviews that accompanied the US launch of Spiders in June, most notably this from the July/August edition of Mother Jones magazine:
“It’s a bloody miracle James Hider isn’t dead. But then, Hider, the Middle East bureau chief for the Times of London, doesn’t believe in divine intervention. Dumb luck has helped the atheist escape all manner of potentially fatal binds: cowering in a Gaza terrorist compound as Israeli warplanes buzz by, fleeing furious Iraqi mobs, and taking shrapnel with an American unit in Fallujah.
This romp through the cradle of civilization—think Hunter S. Thompson meets Christopher Hitchens—takes Hider from suicide bombers’ lairs and hardcore Zionist settlements to a mosque in Mosul, where a 7-foot-tall Sufi sheikh insists the British reporter impale himself with a metal skewer. (He’s kidding.)
Indeed, Hider finds plenty of grim humor in the midst of the chaos of Iraq. Beyond the typical narrative of mayhem and missed opportunity, he writes of the magic, rice-eating stones that many Iraqis believed protected Saddam Hussein, and the spiders—an Internet rumor—that insurgents believed Allah had sent to destroy the infidel army. Not to mention Al Qaeda in Iraq’s decrees that goats had to be clad in underpants and that grocers could no longer display cucumbers and tomatoes in close proximity (too suggestive).
Mixed in with such oddities is a potent point about the dark side of faith and how things can get disturbingly nihilistic at the nexus of extreme and clashing beliefs. In one scene, Hider talks cars with a Shiite death squad member who extols the virtues of a model whose trunk can fit four bodies. Though much of his reporting captures Iraq as it was before the surge or word of an American withdrawal, Spiders of Allah left me ever more skeptical that the country’s sectarian rifts will mend easily. As Hider puts it, “It seems the rational world…will continue to be blindsided in a bloody fashion by the madness within us.”
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Michael Mechanic is a senior editor at Mother Jones.”
Also Kirkus Reviews put out the following:
“A British journalist’s firsthand account of fanaticism and bloodshed in the Middle East. In his first book, Hider, the Middle East bureau chief for the Times (London), loosely examines the ways in which radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity have continually warped and damaged an already difficult situation. In Iraq, writes the author, there has long existed a web of ludicrous superstition and delusion, nurtured by a dictatorship that cared little for objective reality. A lack of understanding about the many facets of Islam on the part of the invading American military, as well as the fog of its own myths, has resulted in a culture clash of terrifying complexity without a foreseeable solution. An atheist, Hider encountered the warring religious agendas of the Sunni, Shia, Jews and Christians as an outsider. He was a neutral recorder of the facts, albeit one with a wealth of experience, since he developed personal and working relationships with Iraqis of all descriptions during the course of several years. He shares stories of riding out with U.S. soldiers in a tank as they laid waste to cities, but also of interviewing leaders of the insurgency or gaining access to their camps, hair-trigger encounters that were tense and unpredictable at best, and which could turn menacing in an instant. Readers will marvel at the mix of resolve, purpose and just plain lust for adventure that made Hider return to the hellish carnage and turmoil. He and his girlfriend Lulu, also a British journalist, often chose to head toward danger rather than away from it. They traveled to Karbala for the massive festival of Ashoura because they anticipated-correctly, as it turned out-that large-scale violencewould erupt. The author’s dense, vivid descriptions, frequently steeped in irony and humor, make for a slow but powerful read. For most of the narrative, Hider allows the nauseating, unbelievable events he witnessed and chronicled gnaw at the reader without overt analysis. Horrifying true tales intelligently told.”
I also did a radio interview with Jeff Schechtman of the California show Specific Gravity, which can be found at the following website:
Time Out magazine has published a review of the book, calling it “gripping” and “required reading”.
Here is the full review:
As the cyberpunk author William Gibson once said, ‘the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.’ The past, on the other hand, writes Times Middle East bureau chief James Hider, ‘seems to be mostly squeezed into a narrow belt of hot lands between the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and the mountains of the Hindu Kush.’ Hider has a nickname for his deadly stamping ground, the bloody birthplace of three major religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) whose latter-day soldiers are still murdering each other there. In this book (subtitled ‘Travels of an Unbeliever on the Front Line of a Holy War’) he calls it ‘Pandora’s Sandbox': an apt and revealing tag. Pandora was the Eve-like figure of Greek myth who, out of curiosity, released all human evils from the box in which they were imprisoned. After several gore-splattered years running towards explosions rather than away from them, Hider concludes that the evils that swarm out of the ‘sandbox’ of the West Bank, Fallujah, Basra and Baghdad are the religious myths themselves. Poverty, humiliation, ignorance and sexually frustrated teenage boys come together in a kind of human gelignite, ignited by irrational beliefs and the hope of paradise.
It’s hard to find a lens panoramic enough to survey conflicts like these which have raged for hundreds of years. Hider’s macho, secular, vivid depictions of Gaza, Fallujah and Basra offer one snapshot. You can practically smell the corpses in his description of the Hobbesian state of lawlessness that prevailed after the British-American invasion of Iraq. The dismembered body parts that strew this gripping account- such as the carefully cloth-wrapped penis of the young suicide bomber who probably believed he would soon be using it in paradise – are signs that the body politic has been blown up. Hider gets used to the corpses but can never stomach the various religious justifications for creating them, whether they’re from the Hilltop Youth of the Zionist settlers or from Iraq’s Sunni militias. The scenes he describes are extreme but never sensationalised, and they raise more questions about human evil than his secular incomprehension – or journalism as a whole – can necessarily answer. But this sort of informed but subjective account of the front lines of conflict in the Middle East is not simply rubbernecking, it’s required reading.
Time Magazine has reviewed Spiders on their Middle East blog:
The Spiders of Allah Strike Again
By Tim McGirk/Jerusalem
How do you end a conflict when everybody fighting thinks that God is on his side? It’s impossible, especially when the line between faith and superstition wobbles and breaks apart. Shortly before I came to Jerusalem, Israel’s seemingly indestructible Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fell into a coma. Many Israelis are convinced that Sharon was struck down because rabbis put a curse on him for pulling out of Gaza. That was three years ago, and Sharon –-lying in a hospital bed, half-man, half-machine– still languishes in a coma.
Want more proof of divine intervention? During the Gaza war, Israeli newspapers solemnly reported that Rachel from the Bible appeared to warn a platoon of soldiers to stay away from a booby-tapped house.
I cite two Jewish examples. But there are plenty among Muslims and Christians, too. Take the Spiders of Allah. James Hider, the Middle East correspondent for the London Times and a self-confessed arachnophobe, was covering the U.S. Marines’ campaign in Fallujah where he heard reports that the city’s preachers would boost the Islamic fighters’ morale with tales that Allah had sent in legions of “chair-sized arachnids, whose poisoned hairs could make a human body turn blue and explode in a shower of corrupted blood.” Oh, and the spiders also scream along at 40 kms an hour.
Hider is more afraid of spiders than of God’s wrath. (He’s an atheist and says he has seen nothing while reporting various Middle Eastern wars to convince him otherwise). He’s also just written a book “The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontlines of Holy War” (published in the U.K. by Doubleday and in the U.S. in June by St. Martin’s Press), which challenges that famous WWII phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Everything Hider sees in Iraq, Gaza, and the West Bank makes him question the madness of men killing, and dying, for their gods. “It is when the mild opiate of mainstream religion is distilled into the crack cocaine of fanatical fundamentalism that the problems really start,” he writes.
‘Spiders’ is, by turns, hilarious sardonic, and visceral. It’s a first-class war memoir, with a bow to Vonnegut and Brecht. Lately, a rash of journalists’ Iraq war diaries have appeared, but Hider spares us the swagger and chest-thumping. Thankfully, he doesn’t brag about his reportorial heroics; in fact, he makes light of the danger he faces. At Fallujah, he takes a piece of shrapnel through the arm. The medic who pulls out the metal chunk gives it to Hider in a zip-lock baggie as a souvenir. Hider takes it back to the Baghdad bureau and forgets about it. Coming back from a vacation, Hider finds a note from his replacement correspondent who had “mistaken the shrapnel for a lump of hash and burned his fingers trying to smoke it. By my bed was a handwritten note.
“’Dope here is crap. No wonder everyone here is so f____king tense.’”
Hashish is nothing, as Hider writes, compared to the nihilistic buzz of fanaticism. In this age of Internet-sped fatwas, Kabalistic curses and Christian outrage, it’s a relief to find a writer like Hider who doesn’t pussyfoot around the murderous sensibilities of zealots.
The Time review can be found at:
Also McClatchy newspapers also did a short review a few weeks back:
As a child growing up outside London, British journalist James Hider came to view the Bible as a boring children’s story.
His teachers taught the New Testament alongside tales of Olga da Polga (the talking guinea pig), Paddington Bear and Beatrix Potter.
By the time he headed to the Middle East to cover the chaos in Iraq, he saw religions as “a series of often gory stories, fables told to take the poor, isolated, individual sap out of himself for a little while, [and] let him forget that he is all alone in the universe.”
Needless to say, James take a rather dim view of religious wars in “The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War.” a new memoir that he describes as “a romp through the madness that is the Middle East.”
“The Spiders of Allah” is more readable than “The God Delusion” and less pompous than “God is Not Great.”
In 300 pages, James travels between meeting extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Hamas TV producers transforming Mickey Mouse into an anti-Semitic revolutionary.
James, now the Jerusalem-based Middle East correspondent for The Times of London, scoffs at Muslim extremists in Iraq who issue edicts banning the display of tomatoes and cucumbers side-by-side because they are viewed as representing female and male organs.
James describes US soldiers using the “Team America” soundtrack to try and rattle Iraqi insurgents and his distasteful first encounter with American corn dogs during the American effort to rout militants from Fallujah.
By 2005, James writes that he was becoming so “inured to the murderous pace” of Iraq that, when a suicide bomber shattered the windows of his hotel room early one morning, he went back to bed because he knew the attack would never make it into his paper.
Camel The title of the book comes from a myth that spread across the Middle East that camel spiders sent by Allah were decimating Americans in Iraq.
The urban legend had its genesis in a photograph of two camel spiders hanging from a soldier’s helmet in Iraq that whipped around the Internet.
Although James doesn’t hide his atheist views, he doesn’t often engage religious extremists in the book.
Instead, he lets the stories speak for themselves.
But you can get a glimpse of his views in the panel discussion below on “Frost over the World,” the Al Jazeera English show with host David Frost.
“The Spiders of Allah” is already out in England and is scheduled to be released in the US this June.
First review of Spiders from South Africa, published by The witness, the country’s oldest newspaper.
On the frontline in the Middle East
15 Apr 2009
If you want to know what has really been going on in the Gaza Strip and particularly in Iraq for the past few years — indeed, for the past few 1 000 — this is the book for you. It is also rivetingly absorbing, a page-turner, written with the best of journalistic qualities (snappy, darkly witty and ironic, ruthlessly candid and highly observant). And it is stomach-churning, full of horrors which, even more frighteningly, are shown to be “everyday” in that part of the world. “By a blown-in restaurant door was what remained of a man I presumed to have been a suicide bomber. His body had been reduced to a pond of jam-like pulp, atop which sat his head, eyes closed and lower jaw sheared clean off.” (p.161) There are many such scenes: accounts of numerous suicide bombings, torture, ham-fisted beheadings, and bloody gun battles between various fundamentalist groups or between such groups and American or British soldiers from the occupying coalition forces.
The author casts a cold but fairly impartial eye over the ethics and especially the complexities of the occupying forces operating in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, with a chilling backward glance at the tyrant’s vicious reign of terror. Sadly, the “liberation” of Iraq seems to have opened a can of sectarian and violent worms, and produced a situation which is about as horrific as the problem it was meant to solve. The West’s thirst for oil is also a sinister player in the whole murderous farce. As for the people of Iraq, Hider made some good friends among them; but he sees so many as being driven by (for him) totally insane religious fanaticism to acts of unspeakable cruelty against their own people. In fact, Hider, after extensive spells in the Middle East, has developed an abiding horror of irrational and obsessive beliefs and the fruits they produce.
In the midst of the horror, the book also offers fascinating glimpses of local history and mythology, stretching back to the Sumerians 3 000 years ago, as well as many striking cameos of both sympathetic and terrifying characters, insight into military operations and into the activities of journalists who, like the author, often show incredible nerve in the face of mortal danger.
Early in the book, Hider expresses his nagging despair: “It seems the rational world, that thin mirage of enlightenment shimmering in a heat haze of illusions, will continue to be blind-sided in a bloody fashion by the madness within us.” His book is frightening, reeking of terrible realities, and a stunning plunge into the hottest of hot spots.
The review can be found at The Witness website
Another review from Down Under, this time from the Nelson Mail in New Zealand which puts it up there Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, which is flattering but I hope I don’t end up needing 24/7 police protection like the author of the Mafia expose.
An excerpt from the review:
“It’s not often that journalists can work themselves and their opinions deep into their own reportage and get away with it. Mostly, it ends up as mere polemic, or dull, who-cares rambling. But sometimes, the reach and courage of their approach allows them to get away with more pontificating than should be bearable.
So it is with James Hider’s reports from the heart of the holy wars in the Middle East and Roberto Saviano’s hair-raising recitations of the numerous sins of the Neapolitan mafia.
Mostly, Hider’s book is a straightforward foreign correspondent’s observations from Iraq around the time that the insurrection against the American invasion started ripping the country into little pieces. It’s a largely excellent read, darkly amusing, cynical in the way only the justifiably jaded can manage, gripping and depressing by equal measure, principally for its insight into the culture and people buried beneath Iraq’s miseries. Hider is The Times’ Middle East bureau chief, so his reportage is up there with the best: his recounting of the ill-fated 2004 Shia pilgrimage to the holy city of Kabala is superb”
The full article can be found at
Also, The List, the Edinburgh entertainment weekly, gave the book a four-star review and said it was “essential stuff for anyone concerned with the dangerous condition of the region in the 21st century – and that should be just about everybody…
“this book is simply a work of solid, captivating, gutsy war reportage,” the review said. “Like any good foreign correspondent, Hider has a nose for a terrifying scrape, and writes with grim humour and sober authority even as the sheer madness of religious bloodletting peaks around him. When you discover that a goat wearing underpants becomes a life or death matter in modern Iraq, you shouldn’t need anyone to spell out that blind, extreme faith is a hopelessly weird and poisonous force.”
The article can be found here:
The book came out this month in Australia and New Zealand, and has its first Antipodean review courtesy of the Otago Daily Times. This one comes with a health warning: “This is a book those of delicate disposition should avoid…As well as writing stylishly about the complicated fabric of Middle East quarrels, this brave author also dips into the past history of a region which is unlikely ever to know lasting peace. “
Back in the UK, the Manchester Evening News made it their Book of the Week recently, and had this to say: “Amid the brutality and the horror there is also humanity and humour and that’s what makes this book, whose timely publication in paperback comes as the Israel/Gaza conflict is back in the headlines, so readable. It’s authoritative and well balanced.”