MJ: Is there an imminent possibility of full-blown civil war?
AS: Absolutely. Some things that suggest a civil war are well in place. But we have to consider where those forces would be aligned. I don't think the sheer demographics of a sectarian conflict lend themselves to a prolonged civil war. In other words, the Alawites [Assad's sect] are vastly outnumbered. They remain the backbone of this regime, but they just doesn't have the numbers or, I think, the determination to fight a protracted civil war there.
MJ: What are some of the possible endgames?
AS: I think we'll see something very bloody, very chaotic, with a fracturing of both opposition and the government, and a conflict that's really hard to discern—a conflict in which it's easy to see multiple parties rather than two parties trying to slug it out. Who knows? It's always the unexpected that determines events. Just look at the way it's played out up to this point.
MJ: Can you envision circumstances in which there's a foreign intervention?
AS: It's really hard to imagine for me. It's going to be used as a form of pressure, as a warning, but I think foreign intervention would be a dramatic step in a region that's very combustible. The very combustibility of this region makes that unlikely.
MJ: You said you went into Syria last year because you didn't feel the story would be told otherwise. How much of it is getting told now?
AS: More now because more journalists are getting in. That's for sure. Journalism is always the art of the incomplete. You get bits and pieces. And I think we're getting more bits and pieces at this point than we were, say, a year ago.
MJ: Is it frustrating to be on the outside looking in?
"What we've seen is the movement against, which is represented by the revolts, but what we're beginning to see coalesce are the movements for."
AS: Yeah, absolutely. I'm desperately looking for a visa. It's not coming. So far. As a reporter, you want to write about what's happening in front of you and to not have it happen in front of you is frustrating.
MJ: So what do we know about the Middle East now that we didn't know a year ago?
AS: I'm not sure we know anything, to be honest with you. It's still so early. When we talk about the Arab Spring, we're talking about a region that has for so long lived under the boot of dictatorship, in which civil societies have been obliterated, in which freedom of expression is subversive. And what I saw in Tahrir Square was the counterexample of that. And what I also saw in Syria, in Hama, where for a short period the security forces had withdrawn. Just for the span of a few weeks, in a society that had been ruled by dictatorship for four decades—where there's hardly any civil society, where there's no sense of opposition that's viable—we saw an idea of self-determination as society began to rule itself. That was remarkable to me, just how resilient these societies actually are even after these incredibly withering few generations of oppression. What we've seen is the movement against, which is represented by the revolts, but what we're beginning to see coalesce are the movements for. And what for represents is much more ambiguous.
MJ: So, should we fear the Islamists?
AS: I think what we're starting to see is the fruition of those trends that began even as early as the 1980s with [Rached] Ghannouchi [in Tunisia], but also in the 1990s with the Wasat Party in Egypt and changes in the Muslim Brotherhood in the decade after. These societies are on the verge of trying to strike some deal in which political Islam forcefully enters the mainstream and becomes a part of the body politic. I think that will yield a healthier society even as the cleavages sharpen between secular and religious, between mainstream Islamists and Salafists. But I think this is going to be a process that all these societies are going have to go through. How the West deals with it, I think, is a much different question. The West's reaction has tended much more toward anxiety, unease. And in some ways, for this reckoning between political Islam and these societies to succeed, you're going to need a change in mind—almost a paradigm shift within the West—over how they look at political Islam and whether they can embrace political Islam to try to make this experiment succeed.
MJ: Your discussion of the Levant in House of Stone contains a sense of almost irreversible loss.
AS: In some ways, the history of the Middle East in the last century has been a history of borders—borders that were drawn on the map, often by imperial whim, but also borders in terms of mentalities, as our notions of identity have shrunk. Whatever we thought of those ideologies that held sway a generation ago—say Arab nationalism, communism, Syrian nationalism—they've lost their vitality. In their wake, they've left smaller identities where we identify ourselves first and foremost by religion and faith. You see a shift from inclusive ideologies to exclusive notions of identity. And that has made for a much smaller Arab world, a much less cosmopolitan Arab world. Marjayoun is a great example: The town itself, which was once very vibrant politically, has become much more affiliated with this simpler, almost visceral, notion of being Christian. And that's a recurring theme you hear from people in Marjayoun and from other Christians in the Arab world—that when we identify ourselves first and foremost as a minority, we're almost setting the stage for eventual extinction. Minorities in and of themselves become imbued with a sense of powerlessness.
MJ: Why do you think Lebanon hasn't experienced the same upheaval as its neighbors?
"It's important as a reporter, a writer, a journalist, to try to restore humanity."
AS: Proponents of the Lebanese system would say you have a greater degree of freedom of expression here. You have more a sense of individual rights—and that's not necessarily because of an enlightened government but by virtue of a weak state. Critics, though, would say you're not dealing with one dictator but many dictators, and these sectarian leaders who play on fears of insecurity keep a stranglehold over the political system in Lebanon. So because they're so numerous it's much harder to rally the country against one leader or one source of oppression. I don't think Lebanon has avoided the Arab Spring because it's an enlightened place; I think it's avoided the Arab Spring because the critical mass of how you oppose such an ingrained system with power so diffuse remains unclear.
MJ: Are you more or less optimistic about the Middle East the more you report on it?
AS: I came out of Iraq very pessimistic and dejected in some ways. Egypt, I think, was an antidote; watching what happened with the revolution was quite inspirational. At least what you see now is that there's a chance for redemption in the region, and that kind of keeps you going as a journalist. What I think you see in so many of these situations are the shades of gray. The more we get away from that either/or, the better I think we understand these countries and the region as a whole. It's hard to get away from the fact that, whatever you call it—East versus West, America versus the Arab World—these two regions have been in conflict at least for my generation. So in any kind of conflict, you have a certain dehumanization that comes along with it. And it's important as a reporter, a writer, a journalist, to try to restore humanity.
MJ: You've spent a lot of time documenting violent events in godforsaken places. How did you find writing this book, which is much more personal?
After covering the Iraq War, "my marriage had fallen apart, I was away from my daughter, and I really didn't have a sense of having a home."
AS: I found it difficult. As a journalist, your job is to bear witness, and this book is in part a memoir. It wasn't easy. It was definitely a different style of writing. On the flip side, I enjoy covering the Arab world, I've spent my entire career here in the Middle East, but I would never call myself a war correspondent. The region I want to cover is beset by conflict and that's regrettable, but it forces me to cover it. Being in Marjayoun for a year, especially coming out of the war in Lebanon in 2006, I was doing what I wanted to do, and that was make sense of society, of people's lives—very much with the threat of war but in a moment where war didn't dictate everything that was going on.
MJ: You write in the book about the toll your job has taken on your personal life and your family. Do you have any regrets?
AS: There are a lot of careers you could say that about, but I think especially in journalism trying to balance your personal and professional life is endlessly frustrating. At the end of that war in 2006, I felt the cost of that more than I ever had. My marriage had fallen apart, I was away from my daughter, and I really didn't have a sense of having a home. And that was what was so important about being in Marjayoun and rebuilding the home. At its most elemental, it was about trying to find home, and in the end, I did. It sounds like propaganda for the book, but it's actually not. I now consider that house in Marjayoun—how do I put this?—it's the place where I end up when I'm looking for home.