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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, October 27, 2002

The Middle East a Timely Focus for Several Authors

The Middle East is always on my mind these days, so when I visited the 14th Annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this month, I gravitated toward any authors who might shed some light on the situation.

I heard Senator Bill Frist, the "Senate's only doctor," describe the frightening days after the anthrax attacks and the importance of a resumed smallpox vaccination program; and frail antiwar crusader Daniel Ellsburg, on a publicity tour for his new Pentagon Papers memoir, "Secrets," diverged from his scheduled topic to muse about Iraq.

The nonfiction bestseller charts are filling up fast with books on the Middle East. Since reading a sampling of them, I am less certain of my position on a potential Iraqi invasion than I was before. But at least I have more facts to work with.

Longitudes & Attitudes; Exploring the World After September 11 by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002).

Friedman is the three-time Pulitzer Prize winning foreign affairs columnist for the "New York Times." He has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and counts a wide variety of individuals from Kings to taxi drivers among his friends and acquaintances. "Longitudes" provides an enlightening look at a divided world.

Friedman analyzes the countervailing forces of modernization, globalization, and secularism versus traditionalism, nationalism and religious fundamentalism. He extols the virtues of American democratic society and the attraction that our lifestyle and ideals have for much of the rest of humanity. However, he also emphasizes that the United States, today's only Superpower, could put itself in a more defensible worldwide moral position by cutting down on energy consumption and devoting our considerable scientific resources to developing alternative technologies and energies.

Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow, 2002).

Feiler, whose talk I attended in Nashville, is the handsome, energetic, young author of six books, including the best-selling Walking the Bible. A frequent traveler to the Holy Land, he spent several months interviewing scholars of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism about the importance of Abraham in all three great monotheistic traditions.

Feiler believes that coming together to discuss our common religious past will help us to build a peaceful future. In fact, he has started a grassroots movement to hold informal interfaith discussions, called "Abraham Salons" throughout the United States from November 8-24. Go to his web page ( to get more information or to learn how to set up your own local community discussion group.

Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam by John Esposito (Oxford University Press, 2002).

If you want facts, this is the book to read. Esposito is a Georgetown University Professor of Religion and International Affairs and the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Esposito traces the history of the Muslim faith. He is kind enough to include a four-page glossary of Arabic terms, including "jihad" (armed struggle or holy war), "madrasa" (religious college or university), and "Sunni" (the majority community Muslims who believe they represent the example of the prophet Muhammad). He argues that the vast majority of Muslims are appalled by the recent terrorist acts of violence done in the name of their faith, and that we must work on bolstering the efforts of moderate Arabs to achieve strength in their often-autocratic societies.

The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston (Random House, 2002).

Science writer Preston penned the mesmerizing Hot Zone about a 1980's Ebola virus outbreak in a suburban Washington D.C. lab. Now he focuses on the smallpox virus.

Smallpox was humankind's most dreaded disease because of its quick contagion and high death rate until an army of eradicators literally wiped smallpox off the planet in 1979 - except for the small stocks saved in two high security freezers in the United States and Russia.

Unfortunately, the Soviet Union lost track of some of their stock during its decentralization, and experts have evidence that hostile states such as Iraq and North Korea have illegal samples. Because of recent advances with recombinant viruses, it is also likely that strains that would break through our vaccines have been produced.

Preston fills this book with such intriguing characters and experiments, that you will stay up at night until you finish it, then go to bed wishing your long ago smallpox vaccination had remained effective for more than 10 measly years.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.