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And Then All Hell Broke Loose

Richard Engel’s Excellent Adventure Through 2 Decades of Middle East History

Imagine graduating from a prestigious California college, then picking up and heading out for the Middle East with the romantic dream of becoming a foreign correspondent, leaving family and friends behind, never to return. That is essentially what Richard Engel did in 1996. Today, Engel is NBC’s Chief Foreign Correspondent in the Middle East. He has reached this lofty position at the young age of 42. He worked his way to prominence by dint of unflagging drive, seemingly endless raw courage, and the foresight (plus luck) to have been repeatedly in exactly the right place at the right time as history unfolded. And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East is Richard Engel’s third book about his life’s calling. It is a memoir and a political analysis. It is also, by any standards, an adventure story.

Engel makes no bones about the fact that he “had a comfortable upbringing.” (“My father worked on Wall Street” is his only explanation.) During his youth, he was lucky enough to spend time in places like Italy, France, Morocco, and elsewhere. He relates a seminal incident in Marrakech in 1987, when he was 13, in which he stumbled across the international Herald Tribune and became entranced by stories posted from London, Paris, Rome, and other exotic spots around the world. At that moment, Engel says, he decided he wanted to be a Foreign Correspondent, with all the romantic attachments: working in a cafe, wearing a white suit and maybe a Panama hat, typing out in the smoky air under the ceiling fans his dispatches “about intrigues and politics and spies and damsels and all the rest.”

Accordingly, upon graduating from Stanford in 1996, Engel set out for the Middle East with the modest sum, he says, of $2000. He found a flat in a slum in Cairo, worked on his rudimentary Arabic, and began freelancing for whatever publications would pay him a few dollars. Though not religious himself, he learned the proper Islamic conversational sentiments and their correct responses, in part out of respect for his hosts but also to keep the social wheels well lubricated. He also set up a nexus of informants and sources that ranged from bureaucrats in Hosni Mubarak’s government to secretive insiders in the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter of which earned him a governmental tail and wire-tapped phone. Soon he was hired as a writer/editor on the Middle Eastern Times, a small weekly written for tourists, diplomats, and expats. Two years later Engel left the Times and began freelancing for ABC and for radio, mainly because they paid his expenses and airfare, which allowed him to travel to hotspots. The die was cast.

And Then All Hell Broke Loose is an apt title, as throughout his career Engel has searched out the various spots where all hell was indeed about to break loose. He jumped from Cairo to Jerusalem, to Iraq, to Beirut, back to Iraq, to Jordan, and to Syria, always reporting live from the front lines of whatever conflict was unfolding. Then during the so-called Arab Spring, he was in each of the countries as the social order went up in flames. Over the years, Engel became as adept at tradecraft as a seasoned spy. His stories are replete with surreptitious late-night border crossings, phony passports, hanging out in run-down safehouses in bleak farm fields with sketchy “guides” who may or may not have ulterior motives.

Engel used a “human target” passport (read the book to find out what that is) to sneak into pre-Gulf War 2 Baghdad with $20,000 cash of his own money strapped around one ankle, half of which he quickly exhausted to establish four generator-equipped safehouses and to rent rooms on every side of the press hotel so he could always have a view of events from his hotel window. As the violence increased and the invasion became imminent, most reporters fled Baghdad, either of their own volition or called back by their stations. ABC replenished the $10K Engel had spent, and he stayed on. When the famous war correspondent Peter Arnett was fired by his station for suggesting in an interview with state-controlled Iraqi TV that the American war plan had failed , Engel became the last TV journalist broadcasting from Baghdad; he was the only one broadcasting live as the coalition troops moved into the city. Thereafter his was a household name.

And Then All Hell Broke Loose is a history of sorts, too — a history with Engel’s own commentary and interpretation. Islam is examined, with all it sects and offshoots. Tribal and racial differences dating back to the time before Christ are examined and traced forward through the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire to the present day. The effects of the inept drawing of boundaries after World Wars I and II are discussed. The book is, in fact, a primer in the religious, racial, sectarian, and governmental history of the region, from the viewpoint of a thoughtful reporter who has spent two decades living and working in the contested areas. Engel demonstrates convincingly the ways in which ancient beliefs and prejudices, religious and social, influence the current conflicts and dictate, to a certain extent, the possible solutions.

Richard Engel has met most of the so-called Big Men over the past two decades: Mubarak, Qaddafi, Assad, to name a few. But equally importantly, Engel has interviewed thousands of regular people of all ages — merchants and craftspeople, parents, college students, soldiers, old folks. He has crossed paths with rebels and jihadis, including ISIS members. He and his crew were even kidnapped by a renegade group in Syria, only to escape after five days when a night-time checkpoint went awry for the captors. He has pushed the edge of the safety envelope, some would suggest, to the breaking point.

And Then All Hell Broke Loose is a great read on multiple levels. It is the story of a young man who graduated from college, pulled up stakes, and never looked back. While Engel isn’t the most sophisticated of writers, his prose is clean and terse, like an extended TV report. Some of the stories repeat themselves. The geography could be clearer and the maps more detailed. In fact, one could argue that the whole book should have had a more thorough editing. But these quibbles do not detract from the impact of the story or, given recent events, the immediacy of its themes.