Fear and Faith in Paradise, Exploring Conflicts & Religion in the Middle East

fear and faith in paradise phil karber

From the first Gulf War to the Arab Spring, Phil Karber has witnessed decades of change throughout the Middle East. Fear and Faith in Paradise is his timely and fascinating portrait of the region throughout history. Going beyond the endless images of terrorism and war and one-size-fits-all Muslims, he challenges stereotypes and delves into the living history and cultures of Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Persians, Jews, Tunisians, Moroccans, Armenians, and others. Seamlessly moving between past and present, Karber skillfully develops two overarching themes: America’s heavy footprint in the Middle East and how it can be productively changed through a focus on a humanitarian rather than military emphasis; and how fear is used as a cudgel by today’s monotheistic leaders to sacrifice the faithful.

Whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, all invoke their own vision of paradise, often as incentive, in conflicts that seem doomed to be repeated. Karber’s dirt-on-the-shoes writing vividly conveys the charm and beauty of a region against a backdrop of power struggles among competing faiths, nationalisms, and outside forces.

Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (June 2012)

ISBN: 978-1-4422-1477-4 Hardback

ISBN: 978-1-4422-1479-8 eBook

Reviews of Fear and Faith in Paradise: Exploring Conflict and Religion in the Middle East

Karber, a travel writer whose previous books have explored Africa and Indochina, now turns his focus to the Middle East and parts of Muslim North Africa, chronicling for the reader his travels through Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, and Tunisia, where he attempts to understand the history and the culture of the region as a lens through which to view the turbulent political climate of the past decade. Karber is intrepid and inquisitive, with a lyrical prose style and a commendable eye for detail, and he has done copious background research, which makes the book rich with historical context….The book is well worth reading, since it offers a fascinating glimpse into some underexplored countries and adds valuable color and context to the headlines.”

Publishers Weekly

Counter to the homogeneous portrayal of the Middle East and North Africa in American media, Karber reveals the kaleidoscope of cultures, ethnic identities, and belief systems that comprise the region. Beginning in 2006 in Syria and concluding in 2011 in Tunisia, Karber traveled through the Middle East, witnessing critical periods of humanitarian distress and political foment from the 2006 Lebanon War to the postwar development of Kurdistan to the birth of Arab Spring. He shows genuine enthusiasm and curiosity for the people and places he visits as well as an understanding of, and sensitivity to, the diverse cultures of the region. Throughout his travels, Karber engaged locals in discussions on their perceptions of the U.S. and on the political climate in their own country. He couches these conversations in the wider history of the region, weaving in historical events dating back to BCE. A fascinating travel memoir and a revealing look at the devastating toll that war has taken on the Middle East.” 

Eve Gaus, Booklist

Praise for Fear and Faith in Paradise: Exploring Conflict and Religion in the Middle East

It will be a huge mistake if Karber’s Fear and Faith in Paradise gets labeled merely a travel book.  While his vivid and entertaining descriptions of his travels among the people of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond paint for us a clear understanding of their communities, cultures, politics (or lack thereof), and beliefs; the book’s real strength is the insight it provides into the lack of understanding and trust our leaders and us, as Americans, have of the Muslim world – and theirs of the United States.  In this turbulent and uncertain Arab Spring and post 9/11 era, it is a must read for our leaders and policy makers and all of us who put them in power.”  

John Lancaster, Board of Directors of the United States Institute of Peace

Phil Karber is part scholar, part seeker and full-on adventurer, a boots-on-the-ground writer who has regularly been drawn to some of the world’s most complex and turbulent places. He began exploring North Africa and the Middle East years ago—sleeping rough, eating local, hitching rides. And now, with “Fear and Faith,” he has delivered a riveting, poignant and up-to-the-minute account of the region, from its history, peoples and cultures to its modern politics and recent upheavals. This book is a guide, a compass, a marvel.”

Mark McDonald, Foreign Correspondent for International Herald Tribune and New York Times

 Fear and Faith in Paradise comes to us from Phil Karber as everyman…on the road. Not an historian, nor a development worker. Not a sociologue, nor a novelist. But rather, he asks, ‘come with me America and sit by my side,’ as this incorrigible native son moves among foreign people.”

David Holdridge, Founder and President, Bridging the Divide


Excerpt from Fear and Faith in Paradise: Exploring Conflict and Religion in the Middle East


A Moment of Opportunity

We had arrived in Marrakech only hours before on the express train from Casablanca. The afternoon heat had been stifling, shops were shuttered, and Moroccans of the medina were sheltering themselves, as I had been, in fountain cooled courtyards, shaded by crimson bougainvillea and branching oleanders. I had entered the 17th-century riad through a short cedar doorway protected from the evil eye by the hand of Fatima, a rabbit-hole-like transition from chaos and external influences to family and meditation (the hijab is but a fashion expression for this pivot from public to private).

Now, it was evening, and from our sky perch, people and swallows awakened. Like Miro’s birds, swallows blotted the orange-red sky with black silhouettes. We were the highest terrace, only the Atlas Mountains and Marrakech’s venerated minarets stood taller. Those towers had now turned wine dark from their pinkish plaster facades of day. Joellen (my wife) and I sat with friends on Berber carpets, drinking Meknes cabernet and fig brandy, and smoking a hookah, all ears cocked. First a lone muezzin sounded in Arabic, and then another, followed by many more, until it became a chorus of tenor voices, the evening call to prayer, rolling across the medina and up the Atlas slopes like a comforting breeze. Beneath the majestic 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque, smoke clouded the twilight air. In the night food stalls of Djemma el-Fna, Marrakech’s main square and medieval theater, vendors fired up their grills. We would soon make our way there, taking in the pungent aromas and the fierce swarm of medina nightlife: snake charmers and Gnoui dancers, fez-spinning music men and fire eaters, monkey handlers and henna girls, and storytellers and red-costumed water sellers. Stall number 20, cooking up sides of sardines, mashed aubergine, and fish brochettes, was our favorite, located just steps from the Argana café.

Hauntingly, only two weeks before, the Argana had been percussion shocked and shredded from an al-Qaeda-inspired bombing that killed 16 people and wounded at least 20. Tourism was in tatters: not since the 2003 Casablanca bombings had Morocco fallen victim like this to the jihad jitters. Four days after the Argana bombing, U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It wasn’t the end of al-Qaeda (or the idea of it), but bin Laden’s death, coupled with the more temperate tone of the Arab Spring, has forced its coldblooded adherents back into the primitive shadows where they belong.

In the rising din of Marrakech nightlife, from the nearby Ali ben Youssef Mosque, the last voice of the evening prayers fell silent. We reveled in the theater of Djemma el-Fna.

Since my last visit to the region, voices of discontent—infinitely more resonant and reality based than al-Qaeda’s scorched-earth nihilism—have been ratcheted up, in the streets and through social media. Not since the post–World War II decolonization of Africa and Asia has such a “great pageant of political progress” played out in the region. With the exception of Libya and Syria, in almost a dozen countries in North Africa and the Middle East autocrats and extremists are now in the crosshairs of grassroots reform and independence movements focused on nonviolent protest but compelled by a sudden break from decades of oppression and frustration. Political expression for young people in the Middle East and North Africa is now defined less by ideological hatred and more by a yearning for equity and jobs. One-third of the Arab world is between 15 and 29 years old. Morocco has a youth unemployment rate of 40 percent, while 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than two dollars a day. As President Barack Obama noted in his May 19 speech titled A Moment of Opportunity, if you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland.

For eight weeks I traveled the roads and rails of Morocco and Tunisia, listening to those voices and their hopes and fears; their struggles for women’s rights, equity, and justice; their stories about life under corrupt politicians; and their aspirations that passive resistance and civil disobedience campaigns were replacing jihadism. With the normalization of Islamic political parties, they now seem to be taking back religion and a culture hijacked so long ago by martyrs and extremists. After all, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Egypt’s Islamic Jihad couldn’t oust President Hosni Mubarak, but in a mere 18 days a people’s revolution of nonviolent protestors put their future into their own hands and did. Tunisia provided the first spark of the Arab Spring when the Jasmine Revolution took down President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a dictator of 23 years, in 28 days.

Robin Wright, in her new book Rock the Casbah, describes the Arab Spring as the fourth in a series of pivotal turning points of the Middle East over a century: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of Turkey and the Arab states; the 1948 creation of Israel and displacement of Palestinians; and Iran’s Islamic revolution that codified fundamentalist dogma. The Arab Spring, it seems, is the swan song for the Ottoman legacy of despots a transition of power from the old guard to a younger, more democratic-minded generation.

Yet a virtual community of youth and street protests in Tunisia or Morocco are much different from a civil war in Libya or an armed revolt in Syria. “No revolution is executed like a ballet,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in his book Why We Can’t Wait. “Its steps and gestures are not neatly designed and precisely performed. In our movement the spontaneity of its pattern was particularly in evidence.” But what made the Middle East and North Africa so ripe for this revolutionary improvisation the Arab Spring?