Richard Engel’s autobiography as a Middle East reporter is reflective, unflinching

NBC reporter Richard Engel has covered the Middle East for 20 years.
NBC reporter Richard Engel has covered the Middle East for 20 years. File photo

Richard Engel was 13 when he first thought of becoming an overseas reporter. He wanted to have unique experiences, flirt with danger.

To judge by his brisk new memoir, he got his wish.

In Jerusalem, he was struck by rubber bullets. In Baghdad, he was in a hotel when someone fired a live round through his window. And in Syria, he was kidnapped and held captive for almost a week.

Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, has written an absorbing book about his eventful career.

At heart, “And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East” is a nerve-racking autobiography by a journalist on the front lines, covering wars and terrorism in Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. On another level, it’s an informative portrait of a troubled region, one that has been unduly influenced by charlatans and madmen and poorly served by two consecutive American presidents, Engel argues.

Engel got his first reporting job in 1996, writing for the Middle East Times about the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist groups. Based in Cairo, he had to submit his work to local censors. One time, pointing up the absurdity of the situation, he published an article about his government minder.

“I ran the interview under the headline ‘Censor Denies Censorship in Egypt,’ ” Engel writes. “Luckily, he missed the irony.”

Engel spent the late 1990s and early 2000s with ABC and other outlets. His recollections of this period help explain today’s Middle East. In a chapter that focuses on Saudi Arabia, he recounts the history of jihadist Islam. Later, writing about his time in Jerusalem, he describes the cycle of hate, murder and revenge that resulted in “the death of the (Israeli-Palestinian) peace process.”

When the Iraq War started in 2003, Engel went to Baghdad (he joined NBC in ’04). There, he saw the unthinkable — “a stray dog carrying a severed human head between its teeth” — and lost a friend, who was killed by a suicide bomber.

Engel is frank when discussing the ramifications of the war launched by George W. Bush’s administration. “ISIS wouldn’t have existed without the US invasion of Iraq,” he writes, explaining that the fighting and its aftermath only exacerbated the Sunni-Shia divide.

He’s equally unimpressed with some of President Barack Obama’s decisions. Noting the discordance between Obama’s Libya and Syria policies, Engel writes: “The Obama Doctrine would turn out to be: help those seeking democracy when they are oppressed, except when you don’t want to and prefer to promise help while not delivering it.”

Having lived in the Middle East for 20 years, Engel wants peace as much as anyone. But as he says in an epilogue, it’s hard to be optimistic: “Many in the region have simply lost all hope, which is understandable.”

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.

“And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East,” by Richard Engel (256 pages; Simon & Schuster; $27)