Time Out review

April 23, 2009

Category: Non Fiction

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.

Caroline McGinn