As an American Jew traveling in the Middle East during this age of terror, I should have been unwelcome, I should have felt unsafe, and it should have been impossible for me t engage on any level with people that I have been told hated my country and religion. But I found that the easy, monolithic characterization of “us versus them” fails to take into account the humanity and the individuality of all the people who make up “us” and “them.” And the “them” I met … should make all of us hopeful for the future. (270)
I’ll come right out at the start of this review and say that this is an excellent, and in many ways, eye-opening read. Many of the misconceptions the average American holds about the Middle East could be remedied by a weekend spent reading this page turning adventure story of a young American’s travels among the youth of the Middle East. Jared Cohen, who would later go on to work in the US State Department under both President Bush and President Obama, skillfully makes use of his own youthful fearlessness as a journalist to produce a revealing look at the youth of Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Iraq.
Most 23-year-old graduate students fortunate enough to earn a Rhodes scholarship spend their time and stipend in the hallowed halls of Europe’s finest schools. Cohen took a somewhat different path spending his time trekking through the Middle East. Children of Jihad details his travels and the people he meets along the way. Each of the five sections open with a brief overview of the history of the region which often includes some of the author’s own misconceptions about the youth he is preparing to meet. Cohen, as a Jewish American, is understandably nervous about the adventure he is having, yet again and again his preconceived notions are proven false as he meets a youth culture that is predominantly pro-American and friendly. Regaling readers with anecdotes that rage from meetings with Hezbollah to debating politics with internet savvy 20-somethings, Cohen presents a Middle East that wants to join the rest of the world but is being held back by governmental forces they are trying to resist.
What I enjoyed most about this book were the one-on-one relationships that Cohen developed with young people from each country. Almost without fail they were eager and willing to share their stories; eager to have the outside world get a taste of the real Iran, Iraq, Lebanon etc. First, he meets two women from the University of Tehran, and is introduced to the city’s nightlife where women shed their head-to-toe coverings and dress like normal western students partying well into the night. For the youth of Iran this is their way of rebelling against the ruling authority. In fact, late night underground “rave” style parties are something of a recurring theme throughout Cohen’s travels.
Later he has a sit down with a Hezbollah general who, while surprisingly polite and approachable, mainly offers the traditional talking points. It is later, when Cohen is able to speak candidly with the foot soldier, the youth, that he realizes that many of them clearly differentiate between governments and citizens stating that they have no problems with Jewish people or Americans individually. The author doesn’t romanticize them. Tales of their violence are present as well, but it is the conversations at the local fast food restaurant about a need to connect to the wider world that really pull the narrative along.
In the end what Cohen ultimately finds is that our western stereotypes simply do not fit the world he witnessed.