Since antiquity, Lebanon has been an especially beautiful country. In modern times, although it’s been defined by civil war and terrorist takeover, Lebanon has been held up as a model of what the Middle East could look like if only given a chance.

Sadly, because of its proximity to Israel, Lebanon has also become a haven for the worst terrorists on the planet. Now that Hezbollah has a scary stockpile of long-range rockets, this potential “Jewel of the Middle East” will have to look to some future time for peace.

Understanding this vital country should be a priority for all of us, since so much of the terrorism fomented internationally begins here at the point Syria, Hezbollah and Iran intersect.

Now, a brave journalist – Michael J. Totten – has penned a riveting account of his time inside Lebanon. He gets to the heart of many terror-related problems in his book, “The Road to Fatima Gate” (Fatima Gate refers to a former border crossing point between Lebanon and Israel, closed now since the Israeli pullout in 2000).

He opens with the gruesome assassination of Rafik Hariri, in 2005: “An unseen assassin in downtown Beirut activated the detonator on an improvised explosive device and turned former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s motorcade into a fireball. The blast ripped apart vehicles and ignited their gas tanks, shattered buildings in every direction, blew out the windows of the refurbished Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel and left a crater in the street deep enough to swallow a house. The concussion wave shook foundations everywhere in the capital, and the sound echoed off the sides of the mountains.”

From here, Totten educates us about the roots of the turmoil in Lebanon, and more importantly, how that affects most of the rest of us today. Indeed, his description of Hariri’s grisly end also includes details about the probably mastermind, Syria’s Bashar Assad (now butchering his own people going on two years).

Lebanon, of course, exploded in civil war in 1975, and the internal struggles naturally provided opportunities for psychos like Yasser Arafat and Hafez Assad to exploit. Just when the Israelis and the Lebanese were on the verge of an historic partnership in 1982, President-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated.

As Totten points out, Lebanon went from being a regional conflict to becoming a key player in the international terror war.

Totten is nothing if not courageous as a journalist: He flew to Beirut right after the Hariri killing, pointing out that “Hardly anyone wanted to fly to Beirut now that Beirut was ‘Beirut’ again.”

He points out that one of the many things we can’t fathom in the West is the breathtaking, cultural acceptance of conspiracy theories, racism, apocalyptic thinking accepted as normal by people in the Arab world.

Totten, being the detailed journalist/writer he is, also provides us with some fascinating detail into the weirdness that is Middle East terrorism. At a gathering for Sheik Nasrallah (head of Hezbollah), Totten notes that first one could hear an almost hypnotic call to prayer, followed by music from … “Star Wars.” Then, music from … “The Terminator”! All that mixed with anti-Israel incitement.

His description of northern Israel during the 2006 war with Hezbollah is particularly striking. If you’ve ever been to the region, you know that places like Tiberias and Kiryat Shmona are idyllic. Not so in the sweltering summer of 2006.

Totten describes empty cities, loud booms and smoke and fire. This is the real face of war, and the author’s recollections bring home a sober reminder that every effort must be made to bring peace to the region … albeit peace efforts based in reality.

Chapter 16 of “The Road to Fatima Gate” (“The Mystic in His Bunker”) gives a fascinating portrayal of the aforementioned Gemayel, who once said: “We are this East’s saints and its devils, we are its cross and its spear, we are its light and its fire.”

Gemayel brought together Christian militias not to fight Israel or the West, Totten points out, but Yasser Arafat’s grotesque PLO, which had camped out in Lebanon for years. Totten recounts what might have been for the region, when Gemayel promised in a famous speech that if Lebanon wouldn’t exactly be a Christian nation, it would be a nation where Christians could live in peace. Sadly, Arafat, Assad and their murderous friends blew that dream to pieces.

In the end, “The Road to Fatima Gate” is a thoroughly engrossing read, full of sweaty palmed twists and turns. It is also an indispensible guide into the minds of the region’s key players. Would that many, many people would read it in order to understand the times in which we live.

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