To explain all the kaleidoscopic woes of the Middle East, 40,000 words may not be enough — but it’s a good start.
That’s how much coverage The New York Times Magazine is devoting to a blockbuster special issue delving into the collapse of the world’s most volatile region over five decades. It's taking a critical look at all the unraveling that’s happened since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
This Sunday’s issue, titled “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Part,” is essentially a multipart piece of very long-form journalism by one author, Scott Anderson, a war correspondent and novelist.
Anderson’s journalistic opus consists of five main sections that distill the chaos of dissolution through the experiences of a handful of representative individuals. For wagering types, the end result is a safe bet for a Pulitzer or few. (It’s funded with a special grant from the Pulitzer Center.)
There is a lot of ground to cover, and any chosen starting point is kind of arbitrary. But the NYT and Anderson, wisely deciding that one book-length magazine is enough, chose to concentrate on the period since the 1950s.
That's when the most recent round of upheaval began — with Gamel Abdel-Nasser’s populist nationalism in Egypt. That led to the 1967 War with Israel and inspired Qaddafi’s seizure of power in Libya in 1969.
After exploring these origins, the next part of the issue zeros in on the misconceived Iraq invasion, followed by a third section on the Arab Spring, then a fourth on the rise of ISIS, and a concluding fifth on the flight of millions of refugees from the region.
The representative characters whose stories are woven together in the pieces include the 60-year-old matriarch of a family of Egyptian dissidents, a 22-year-old day laborer turned ISIS recruit in Iraq, a 41-year-old Kurdish doctor volunteering with rebel forces, a 24-year-old college student trapped in Aleppo, a 36-year-old Iraqi women’s rights activist, and a 30-year-old Libyan air force cadet.
It’s worth noting that, thanks to the Pulitzer grant, the special issue carries no advertising — a wise move considering the dire seriousness of the topic and the heartbreaking stories found within. (Tony ads for luxury watches would be a bit jarring in a sea of human misery.)