Spectrum of Survival: Megan Stack and Every Man in This Village Is a Liar

by Tarah Gibbs

Megan Stack’s nonfiction work Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War was a National Book Award Finalist in 2010. Stack’s first book, it reports on her personal experiences as a Middle East war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In her years of war correspondence, Megan Stack reported from dozens of countries including Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Her reflections of wartime and its effects on civilians, which are too easily forgotten amid the tragedy, provides a poignant read for all those interested in examining how the actions of a few affect the lives of many.

TG: One of the things that I enjoyed about your book was that the language was very, very eloquent and poetic. Most readers can certainly say that reading the newspaper is full of very basic language. Was it a freeing experience, in your opinion, writing a memoir about your years as a reporter in this fashion and being able to use poetic language?

MS.: It was; I felt very liberated. I really had a good time writing this book even though the material was very difficult and there definitely were days where it was really hard to capture certain scenes or relive certain moments that were traumatic for me. But overall I just have these memories of really experiencing joy in the writing of this book. Working for newspapers years and years makes you so used to putting things the way that you have to put them to get them printed into the newspaper. And [reporting] is another art in its own way in that it’s saying things as concisely as possible, as clearly as possible; it’s the delivery of information. But it was wonderful just to be able to really grow in language. I love language and I love prose and it was just great to be able to put things exactly the way that I wanted to put them, and work as impressionistically as I wanted. It was great.

TG: The book is wonderful. You have some really absolutely stunning lines in my opinion, images that are really crisp and really succeed in amplifying the tragedy and the beauty of the Middle East. It made everything seem so much more poignant to me as a reader.

MS: Thank you. I mean, to be honest it’s not for everybody. I know that some people do not like nonfiction being written in voices that veer away from the very straightforward, pared down style. And I understand that. I feel like there’s a bit of tension around nonfiction and the extent to which it can be written artistically and the extent to which it should just be a historical truth-telling. So I think that, you know, obviously I fall on one side of that split but I hear a lot of snarking about it back and forth.

TG: You discuss, too, in your book about your experiences in Yemen. And it seems like it was a very interesting time for you and that it was incredibly difficult to get real stories because your days were being planned to a very large extent. It sounded like you had a very strict itinerary that you were being held to. How did you go about finding stories in such a restrictive environment?

MS: Well, Yemen wasn’t actually overt. I mean, some countries that I covered, like Libya, had actual overt itinerary that the government would assign to you. Yemen was a bit more subtle. They had, you know, a charming government employee or government “friend,” you could say, who would turn up with a foreign journalist from the bigger papers and try to show them a good time and basically, as you say, end up filling their days kind of suggesting a lot of fluffy features that they might do to sort of keep them busy. That is true. But I think that part of the challenge of the job was learning how to operate in all these different places, or at least trying to learn how to operate and how to pull some kind of story that was useful for U.S. readers out of that kind of environment. I mean, Yemen was difficult. Yemen was one of those places where it was so tribal and it was so difficult to find the people who would actually be willing to talk to me. I mean, you can always get interviews but the question is whether the interviews are going to be of value in newsgathering. I’m not sure that I did remarkable groundbreaking journalistic work in Yemen, but I did put together some stories. And I think that one of the strategies that I tried to put forward was to write about things that you couldn’t talk about and write about things that you couldn’t get. Or at least to try and put out there the fact that these questions were floating around unanswered. I think that’s one of the things that you can do, is to point out to the reader that there are questions that no one will answer. Because readers aren’t stupid and I think that starts them getting to think in the direction that you’re thinking.

TG: What was, and I can’t imagine that place was particularly easy, that might not be the right word, but what place was the best for finding stories that you felt were ground-breaking?

MS: It’s kind of counter intuitive, but I always think that in some ways the easiest coverage, from a pure journalistic standpoint if you ignore all human aspects of it, is actual war coverage in the middle of an active combat zone. Because when there’s a war going on, usually there’s a high level of interest among your editors and among U.S. readers. So almost anything you get will be read and gratefully devoured. But, you know, the bar is much lower for what kind of material you can get onto the front page of the paper. Because whatever you get, whatever you see, whoever you talk to, it’s probably extremely relevant. You’re not just in a random country scraping around; you’re in the middle of a place where everyone wants to know exactly what’s happening. And so you can tell them something even if you can’t tell them everything. So for me what I liked to do was to go out and I like the challenge of trying to write, to gather as much information during a very challenging, very quickly changing environment like a war zone and try to synthesize it as beautifully as I could or as descriptively as I could by the end of the day so that I felt like I was giving people back home a taste of what it felt like, what it looked like, and how bad the situation was in this war zone. That’s always what I liked to do as a journalist. There are many different kinds of reporters and they’re very good at different things but that’s what I found both the easiest and the most rewarding as far as feeling goes and making some kind of difference in the world.

TG: In your book, also, the idea of survival is very prevalent. And, of course, it’s a primary concern for many of the people that you interviewed. But over the course of your time as an American in the Middle East, did you feel that your idea of survival changed at all?

MS: I wrote about this in the book. I don’t think it came from being in the Middle East, I think it came from being around a lot of death and a lot of people who had been altered forever psychologically and emotionally by the things that they had been through. And I suppose that could happen anywhere; I don’t think it’s particular to the Middle East. But what I learned was that instead of thinking of survival as a binary, instead of thinking, you know, you’re alive or you’re dead, actually when you go into these kinds of experiences it’s more of a spectrum. It was sort of like you could survive physically and really be dead emotionally or just maimed psychologically in ways that I hadn’t really understood before. That you could lose your old self in a way. And in general I don’t think it’s really possible to change dramatically. I think people tend to be who they are, but I think that there are certain experiences that are so profound and either difficult or, and I’m starting to think that childbirth might be one of them which is a different thing, but I think there are certain experiences that are so big that they do change you. And in a way you don’t survive them and you come away from them somebody that you weren’t before you encountered them. I think that war is obviously one of those experiences. Or just the experience of extreme violence is one of those things that change you as I said in the book; you sort of survive and don’t survive at the same time.

TG: You write, “The truth is precious. Few people know what the United States is doing in Yemen, or Saudi Arabia, or even Jordan. And by all signs journalists are not among them.” So when you first arrived in these places what did you expect? And do you think that you’ve found the truth when you were over there?

MS: No, I don’t really remember what I expected. I don’t know that I necessarily had expectations. Whether I found the truth? No. I mean, the whole thing with U.S. policy in these countries, and it’s not only a Bush administration phenomenon, it wasn’t all under George W. Bush that there were highly secretive, classified, and probably questionable to observers, policies going on underground in these countries. Certainly after September 11 it got amplified and I’m thinking about secret prisons, about disappearances of people, I’m thinking of reliance upon local intelligence agencies in places like Yemen or Jordan who are probably going to be willing, or are willing, to torture people. That sort of vagueness in saying, ‘Well, we’re not actually torturing them but maybe we’ll sit in the other room and listen to what they say while you torture them’ and drawing that as a distinction. Obviously the Secret Rendition program, after September 11, getting to drone strikes in Yemen . . . I mean, there were just so many things that happened that were not always openly discussed or never openly discussed and, no, I don’t think I did uncover any of that. I think I became aware of them through scraps of things that I saw or knew but it was never anything that I could ever patch together enough to put into the newspaper. That really wasn’t the kind of reporter that I was. You know, I try. I think a lot of people try. But I don’t think anyone did a wonderful job of putting that kind of stuff out to the light.

TG: Do you think the kind of reporter you are now is different from the reporter you were before you wrote this book?

MS: Well, yeah, because I’m not really a reporter anymore (laughs). I quit my job at the L.A. Times this year. I’m sure I will do journalism again but what I got interested in through writing this book was really moving more into fiction. So now I’m working on a novel and that’s what I’m doing with my energy, when not caring for the baby. I mean, I do love journalism, but I think that I did hit a point, at least for the time being, where I just felt exhausted by the demands of daily journalism and I just felt like I couldn’t continue to write stories with the same enthusiasm and quality as I did before. I just felt so exhausted. But I started a novel when we were living in Russia, to see if I could finish a novel. During the process of writing the nonfiction book one of the things I realized was that I found myself often wishing that I was writing fiction. With the nonfiction I thought, ‘I wish I could take this character out and do something else with him.’ (Laughs). But I can’t because it’s nonfiction and that didn’t happen. So I thought maybe I should be writing fiction. So that’s what I’m doing now.

TG: Well that’s wonderful! I’m looking forward to the novel, then. One of the things that I also admired about this nonfiction book, though, is how you approach the fact of being a woman in the Middle East, particularly in your sections concerning Saudi Arabia, and I’m sure many other places as well. But the issue of gender and equality takes a prominent role. How did being an American female in the Middle East affect your ability to find those newsworthy stories?

MS: Well, I write about this in the book, too. I think that there’s the automatic answer that women are sort of conditioned to say, which is that you have a great advantage in some ways over your male (reporter) colleagues because you can talk to the women and men can’t talk to the women. And there is truth in that. Of course it’s true that you can go into the tea rooms and have time with women that men could never have. And you can write that one story about the condition of life in Afghanistan for women or life in the territories for women, whatever the story is that you’re trying to do. But the bottom line is that it’s probably only one story. You can probably do a story about women’s rights in Afghanistan maybe once a year maximum if Afghanistan is of great news interest at the time. Most of the other stories you want to do, you can probably get better if you’re a man just because most of the major players in those countries are men. I think there’s a certain way of speaking between men that you’re never going to really be able to access.

With that said, in some ways I feel like I did have an advantage in getting interviews with people in places like Saudi Arabia. I don’t know if they told me anything wonderful but I sometimes was able to parlay the fact that I was a woman into an interview because some of these men thought that was interesting: to sit and have tea with an American woman. Maybe it was a little bit titillating, a little bit exciting. And so perhaps they might say yes to an interview where they would say no to a male reporter. But the problem is that these same men would sometimes just want to hit on you and not really give you any information (laughs). But, again, I think the value of those meetings is not always the highest.

The other thing that is true, though, is that you can blend in. If you’re dealing with a very strict society where Islamic custom is very rigorously followed, it does become easier just from a costuming standpoint to blend in because you can wear something like a burqa or something very smothering, not very revealing, like a hijab that would really cover everything on your face so that people wouldn’t necessarily notice that you’re an American. And men, of course, cannot do that. Men are more exposed. And if you’re generally in a place that might be dangerous for an American, which can certainly be a logistical advantage for just getting out and getting around in the streets.

Overall, I think the value of being a woman reporter is not always the greatest. I think women reporters have to work around to overcome a lot. I think there’s a pressure not to say that because you don’t want to undermine yourself, your own work, your colleagues work, to say that women can’t do it as well. And actually I don’t think that’s true. I think that women, as in many aspects of life, train themselves and learn how to go at things from different angles because they can’t always get things from going through the front door the way that men might be able to.

TG: So being a woman made you more versatile, I suppose, in finding the stories?

MS: I think it just took a different strategy. I don’t know if it made me more versatile but I couldn’t always get things the same way. I had to get them a different way and it makes you have to find a Plan B sometimes.

TG: The subtitle of your book is “An Education in War.” I found this really interesting since it seems to have a double-meaning, maybe what you learned from your time in the Middle East and what you want your readers to realize about life outside the United States. So what’s the most important thing you hope your American readers learn from your book?

MS: I think I felt like I wanted people to have a more visceral experience with some of the conflicts and some of the things that happened over these years. In some ways I wanted to just work it out with myself and to process some of the things that I’d seen and that happened. But I also hoped that more people would follow these experiences with me so that there wouldn’t be quite so much this sense of detachment from the U.S, this sense that these wars are happening very far away, very much in this abstract, that it’s not a real thing, that they aren’t real people, that the victims of these wars are this mysterious Other, that they’re not like us. I think somehow there’s a sense that they’re not as human as Americans or that they have these crazy ideologies so this is what they get. There’s all these ways of belittling the human cost of these conflicts. I wanted people to have a sense that these are real places, these are real cities, real families, these are people that you would like if you knew them. They’re not just, I don’t know, whatever this weird image is of bearded fanatics that are getting killed because they hate our way of life. That’s not really what we’re dealing with here.

In speaking with Megan Stack I truly glimpsed the scope of the wide world around me and marveled at the physical distance between myself and the men and women she remembers in her book. The events take place half a world away, and yet because of her writing I think readers will feel the distances between cultures and mindsets close; the gap becomes meaningless in front of the sheer power of a shared human experience. Megan Stack taps into her readers’ sense of empathy. To many Americans, the Middle East is a faceless and dusty place. Megan Stack’s book, Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War, gives these people back their faces and shows them, and herself, openly, honestly, to a country that needs to understand.

Tarah Gibbs is a second year student of Fiction in Old Dominion University’s M.F.A. program. In her undergraduate years at Georgia College and State University, Tarah worked as a fiction editor for thePeacock’s Feet literary journal for two years. In December 2011, Tarah had one of her fiction short stories accepted for publication in Issue 4 of The Quotable. It was released in early January. This is her first year working as a nonfiction editor with the Barely South Review.