And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East

  • By Richard Engel
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 256 pp.

"An unexpected, suspenseful page-turner."

At once career memoir and analysis of recent Middle East history, Richard Engel’s new book, And Then All Hell Broke Loose, is an unexpected, suspenseful page-turner. It is the story of a young, enthusiastic journalist’s coming of age as a premier foreign (read “war”) correspondent. Fresh out of Stanford, and at first without employment, Engel plunked himself down in the major trouble spots of the Arab world, beginning in Cairo in 1993.

After a string of freelance assignments, he became NBC’s Beirut bureau chief and then the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News. As the book title promises, all hell is breaking loose around Engel, but that’s because he eagerly shows up wherever that is likely to happen. He is plying his trade.

One fascinating thread in Engel’s powerful presentation involves the tradecraft and survival skills of a foreign correspondent: where to stay, how to travel, what to bring from one place to another, how to develop contacts, how to interview effectively, and, perhaps most important, how to stay safe and out of legal trouble. Dozens of episodes dramatize the daily working life of someone seeking and developing the stories that will reach an editor and get into print or on the air.

Another thread is Engel’s take on the history he has reported. Of course, it wasn’t history yet, but the unfolding present: the downfalls of Mubarak and Morsi in Egypt; the second Intifada in Jerusalem; the wars in Lebanon, Iraq (where Engel spent several years), Libya, and Syria. For Engel, it was all close up and personal. Yet he wasn’t part of the story. Now he is.

Looking back, he can offer personal reflections on the political dimensions and consequences of U.S. actions undertaken or not undertaken during the Bush 2 and Obama presidencies. Engel understands the forces influencing their decisions, but he judges these men rather harshly and supports his judgments convincingly.

He also presents dozens of portraits of key players in the Arab world, as well as ordinary citizens reflecting upon how events are shaping their lives and their futures. He meets shopkeepers, terrorists, government functionaries, artists, doctors, and other reporters. He brings us an immense treasure trove of facts and perspectives.

Engel’s descriptive powers are first rate. Anything he has seen and recorded, his readers will see, hear, feel, touch, smell, and taste. His blend of sensory images, movement, emotion, and judgments are enlivening and often frightening.

Most readers of this book will come away with a much better understanding of the turmoil in the Middle East. Engel provides meaty encapsulations of the long history of deep enmities and often capricious dealings that lie behind the chaos of recent decades.

He writes clearly and knowledgeably about the “Sunni-Shiite civil war”; the fabrication of doomed-to-fail nations following the end of WWI; Netanyahu’s intervention in America’s political life; Israel’s weak performance in its war in Lebanon; the forces that created ISIS; and the announced policies of the proclaimed caliphate that we must take seriously.

Given its modest length, it’s amazing how much material is crammed into Engel’s memoir/history/adventure story. Engel’s prose is both fluid and crisp. His distinctive voice is full of attractive rhythms and brimming with personality. Thankfully, given the grimness of much of his material, Engel reveals a pleasant sense of humor that is often directed at himself.

Engel’s new book expands upon and deepens his earlier two: A Fist in the Hornet's Nest: On the Ground in Baghdad Before, During & After the War (2005) and War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq (2011). His is a voice of fierce clarity ringing through the land of Babel.

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of 20 books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom. His reviews appear in a wide variety of regional and national publications.

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