Pamela Constable’s Fragments of Grace is a better illustration than diagnosis of what’s wrong with foreign religion reporting.
Reviewed by Jeff Sharlet
FRAGMENTS OF GRACE
My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia
By Pamela Constable. Brassey’s. 263 pp. $26.95
Pamela Constable has been reporting from abroad for nearly two decades, and for The Washington Post since 1999; she’s currently the paper’s bureau chief in Kabul. As she tells us time and again throughout her new memoir, Fragments of Grace, she’s seen it all and done most of it, too. She’s talked her way into war zones, stared down dictators and gone undercover — literally, beneath a burqa — in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Fragments of Grace is her summary of what she’s learned as a journalist but also as a human being, a woman in search of “meaning.”
What did she find? Very little that you haven’t heard before, even if you’ve never come across Constable’s byline. We’re told, for instance, that truth is often a casualty of war. That may be because Third World countries are places of “perplexing contradictions,” and many Third Worlders are too stubborn to accept “the inevitable course of progress”; those who are “open-minded” may be afflicted by feelings of “hollowness and despair.” Fortunately, if you look long enough, you will come upon “life-affirming” moments, such as the sight of thousands of Hindus caught up in rapturous prayer. These affirmations are a “testament to human faith.”
Asking “faith in what?” is, apparently, beyond the scope of Constable’s reporting — which, to be fair, she acknowledges. Fragments of Grace is not just a collection of thinly observed political and spiritual truisms; it’s an implicit indictment of the kind of journalism that leaves a smart, tough, veteran reporter like her with nothing else about which to wax poetic. She writes of “dutifully [trying] to cast a little blame in all directions” when reporting from Kashmir even though she knows that’s the equivalent of saying nothing, and of filing “professional and even-handed” reports even though she wonders if they’re as true as the bloody, confused accounts of events provided to her by villagers in the midst of conflict. In Pakistan, she notes, “I learned more about the country in a few hours at a shoemaker’s workshop or a school for street children or a clinic for drug addicts than I did at a dozen news conferences by men in suits and uniforms” — a stark admission that her regular diet of official interviews and junkets is mean gruel. And yet she keeps reporting on the news conferences.
That may be a small mercy in itself. Describing herself as a “quick study” and an “emotional extruder,” Constable nevertheless comes across as ill-informed. Visiting a madrassa in Pakistan, she poses this less-than-penetrating query: Why study the Koran in “a language you don’t understand”? — the equivalent of asking an observant Jew why he or she bothers with Hebrew. Elsewhere, she writes that Peshawar looks like a scene from the Bible or “a verse from the Koran” — although the Koran features little worldly physical description. Young jihadis, she claims, are willing to die for their cause due to nothing more complex than “the perverse power of Islamic brainwashing.”
Other critics have commented on this kind of reductionist approach to Islam, a journalistic style that cues up “fundamentalism” for that which is simply not familiar, disregarding not just the nuances of faith but also the hard realities of the world. According to Michael Massing, Constable was so turned around as to which was which when reporting as an embed in Iraq that she described what was probably a call for ambulances as a muezzin’s call to prayer, exhorting the faithful in the battle of Fallujah. Such distinctions matter. And Constable’s failure to make them reveal the ways in which big media often ends up serving agendas other than journalism not out of ideological bias, but because of a star system that elevates name reporters such as Constable (Massing acknowledges that she’s a “fine reporter”) over those with real knowledge of the religion and the culture that’s being reported on.
Constable’s summaries of the rise of radical Islam in the countries she covers are thorough when they deal with politics. But when she tries to explain the cultural or religious significance of radical Islam, she retreats to the worst kind of Orientalist clichés, referring to radical Islamists as “primitive” and, most jarring to a reader with any sense of religious history, as “puritans.” Of course, radical Islam is as much a part of modern life as the “dignity and graciousness” of Constable’s upper-crust Connecticut parents, whom she visits in the first of several “interludes” that pace the book. Such interludes are necessary because the life of a foreign correspondent is a rough one, and on this score at least Constable does her readers a valuable service. She writes of the missed holidays and the boredom that are a part of the life, and also of the weeping fits on airplanes, violent nightmares, the children she never had and often imagines. Her profession has made her a “perennial barfly.” But when she stares into her drink, she’s not mulling the fate of the world or the cost of her career so much as — well, herself. Thinking back on it all, she writes that maybe she’s been “searching, in a thousand exotic places and faces, for clues to the puzzle of myself.”
This is where the “fragments of grace” come in. “When I think of the corruption and cruelty I have encountered in my travels,” she writes,”the hideous unfairness of people’s fates, the contempt for law and the irrelevance of moral merit, I thank God for the WASPy roots that once embarrassed me.” But Constable is too much of a pro to succumb fully to the temptations of cultural condescension. She rejects the facile concept of a “clash of civilizations.” She’s empathetic enough to understand even the harshest critics of the developed world. (At one point, watching President Bill Clinton on an airport lobby TV “describing in legalistic but prurient detail his office antics with a girl of twenty,” she thinks: “The Taliban were right” about Western “decadence.”) And although she writes so easily of “universal patterns of human need” that Fragments of Grace sometimes reads like a prose version of “The Family of Man,” she is no fool.
Describing an encounter with an American missionary in Pakistan (whose church, Protestant International, Constable later joined), she writes, “I smelled fundamentalism; she smelled sensationalism. I was always asking questions and taking notes; she was always praising God and thanking Jesus. It occurred to me that we were both using these vulnerable refugees; in my case to sell newspapers, in hers to save souls.”
That’s a sharp observation. Unfortunately, it tells us all too much about why Constable — and the many foreign correspondents like her assigned to Muslim countries that they’re simply too ill-prepared to understand — often miss the rest of the story.
OTHER REVIEWS OF FRAGMENTS OF GRACE:
Pamela Constable interviewed on The Diane Rehm Show