Mother Jones review

July 28, 2009

Category: Non Fiction

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: