Jared Cohen is a Stanford Univ. graduate and Rhodes Scholar, hails from Weston, CT, and has toured in the most dangerous regions of Africa and the Mideast. At 24, he was the youngest-ever member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and a close advisor to Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. He is now Director of Google Ideas.
His book Children of Jihad (2007) reads a bit like a 007 thriller, starting in Iran in 2004, passing through Lebanon and Syria, culminating in a potentially deadly wayward visit in 2005 to Iraq. Cohen developed a never-say-die attitude in war-torn Africa, including hanging out with AK-47-toting teenagers in Sierra Leone.
He seems fearless in the Mideast, often revealing his Jewish identity when his life was on the line, say, at a club in Beirut with young Hezbollah operatives. Yet his experience with indigenous youth was almost always a positive one, despite their attitudes toward Israel and for that matter, the U.S. More than anything, this is a book of startling contrasts, from Ferraris (Beirut Ferrari showroom in photo) and Lamborghinis (p. 109) plying the streets of Beirut to Syrian nomads enjoying 200 channels on satellite TV in the desert. Let me relate a few random observations from this fascinating book.
Iran. Cohen makes a beeline for the universities in an effort to engage students in conversation. The young women in Tehran seem to live in a bipolar state of western wear concealed under the veil. In public, the black hejab (head scarf) and the black chador (long robe) have defined womanhood since the Islamic Revolution. Once entering a club, the veils all end up in a pile in the corner. Youth gather for outdoor partying on Fereshteh St., showing off their cars and listening to hip-hop music. They are nearly unanimous in their disdain of the authoritarian Government and of the hard line leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Inconsistencies stretch the imagination - Tehran is home to 11 fully functional synagogues (Synagogue Haim in photo), each one catering to an active congregation (p. 105). There are even two Kosher restaurants ! On a ride back from Esfahan, the taxi driver pointed out the Natanz nuclear facility, a uranium enrichment plant capable of making nuclear weapons. Cohen is surprised to learn that most young people are supportive of the nuclear effort and take pride in it, never considering the ultimate danger in weaponization.
Lebanon. There is more political and social freedom in Lebanon than anywhere else in the Mideast (p. 135). Cohen is overwhelmed by the vibrancy of Beirut nightlife. Clubbing in Monot, he met Muslims, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, and Syrians. He observed that Beirut had become home to women from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states, who wanted to escape the veil. He also learned that young Lebanese have discovered that members of rival religious groups make perfect anonymous romantic partners (p. 112). Sleeping with the enemy is the best way for Lebanese youth to guarantee that their nighttime indiscretions never see the light of day.