Among the angry
I Wouldn't Start From Here
Portobello Books, 480pp, £8.99<
Here is a compendium of essays datelined between 2000 and 2008, and concerning Basra, Kabul, Gaza and other places from which it might be impolitic to send a postcard signed off: "Wish you were here." In the course of attempting, in the introduction, to define "what, if anything this book is about", the author notes a question often furtively asked among foreign correspondents regarding the populations of the third world: "Why don't these bloody people just knock their bloody nonsense off? Why don't they, you know, get with the programme? Are they all just thick?" Why is it - he quotes a Palestinian friend of his as wondering - that every time you see the Palestinians on TV, they are shouting, jumping about and shooting their guns into the air? What does that achieve?
And why are the peoples of the former Soviet republic of Georgia "the worst drivers in the world, combining the mindless aggression of the Lebanese, the terrifying fatalism of the Pakistanis, the adolescent machismo of the Italians"? While being chauffeured to Tbilisi by a mournful ex-policeman, Mueller enquires: "Why do you people drive like such fucking idiots?"
"We drive like this," the driver intones, "because in Georgia, life is short."
Mueller asks his chauffeur whether he has considered the possibility that life is short in Georgia because it is full of people driving like Georgians. "This is likely," comes the baleful reply.
So far I've made the book sound more xenophobic than it actually is. Mueller's tone is in fact more akin to the amiability of Bill Bryson than to the acerbity of P J O'Rourke, but either way he is delightfully laconic, and makes everyone else sound the same. In order to travel from Jordan to Baghdad in 2003 - a journey that will prove "the wrong kind of interesting" - Mueller joins a convoy that is being inspected by two sunglassed US forces soldiers. They point out that photography is allowed, but not of them. "We," they explain, "are very much not here, if you get our drift." Visiting the British force at Camp Souter outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan, he encounters remarkably relaxed security. "Anything in your rucksack likely to go bang?" asks a corporal.
A theme of the book is western interventionism, about which Mueller seems torn. Of the "Downing Street dossier" and the embarrassing lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he writes that here is "the 'Sir, the dog ate my casus belli' approach to manufacturing consent". On the other hand, a depiction of Iraq suffocated under Saddam Hussein ends with the stark affirmation: "Ending tyranny, from within or without, is an unarguably noble pursuit."
In Saddam's Iraq, as elsewhere, Mueller notes the contrast between the Middle Eastern officialdom - "creepy, officious wankers" - and the "hyperactive courtesy" of the general populace. A silver-haired gentleman approaches him in Baghdad and spontaneously hands him two 10p British coins dating from 1973. Mueller befriends a charming Iraqi who risks all by confiding truths about the regime, but does so while smiling fixedly, in case he is being watched. "Our president," he says, grinning wildly, "doesn't care."
Mueller reserves much of his best phrase-making for the Taliban, who are "sensationally batty", "obscurantist dingbats". He recalls a visit to Kabul made in 1998, when he was briefed by the Taliban's press liaison officer, one Dr Aminzai. "You will not," he told Mueller, "be able to talk to women." Attempting to lighten the mood, Mueller tells him "not to worry, it's like that at home". But the doctor, unsmiling, persists: "It will mean trouble for you, and worse trouble for them."
The book can be read as a series of nicely modulated conversations revealing the human idiosyncrasies behind the headlines. And as Mueller is by training (if that is the word) a rock critic, there is none of that old-school foreign correspondent condescension.
In Ramallah, in late 2004, Mueller's Palestinian guide challenges a young Israeli soldier: "What are you doing here?" The soldier replies, "I don't really think I should be here . . . I'm kind of a left-wing radical." In the Arab quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, Mueller encounters a man selling perfume from a stall plastered with slogans such as "Happy September 11". Mueller gets talking to the man, who, it turns out, was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in New York. He moved to Israel, where he converted to Islam after internet discussions, changing his name from Josef to Yousef. Mueller quite likes him; he has a "holy fervour tempered with wry humour". But then he starts talking about Adolf Hitler. "He understood the Jews. Read Mein Kampf. I had a picture of him on my website with a caption saying: 'Why not focus on the good things he did?'"
Yousef, Mueller concludes, is one of the "righteously upset", and this book is a rollicking indictment of them all.