Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War

Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War

by Megan K. Stack


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A shattering account of war and disillusionment from a young woman reporter on the front lines of the war on terror. 

A few weeks after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, journalist Megan K. Stack was thrust into Afghanistan and Pakistan, dodging gunmen, prodding warlords for information, and witnessing the changes sweeping the Muslim world.  Every Man in This Village Is a Liar is her riveting story of what she saw in the combat zones and beyond. She relates her initial wild excitement and slow disillusionment as the cost of violence outweighs the promise of democracy; she records the raw pain of suicide bombings in Israel and Iraq; and, one by one, she marks the deaths and disappearances of those she interviews.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767930345
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/14/2011
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 609,555
Product dimensions: 5.02(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Megan K. Stack has reported on war, terrorism, and political Islam from twenty-two countries since 2001. She was most recently Moscow bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. She was awarded the 2007 Overseas Press Club’s Hal Boyle Award for best newspaper reporting from abroad and was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting.

Read an Excerpt


Cold dawn broke on the horizon outside. The bedroom door shushed open, bringing the morning air and a warlord on predator’s toes.

I lay in a nest of polyester blankets and listened to his footsteps cross the carpet. Every muscle pulled tight. You reveal yourself in breath, in the nerves of your face. Count the breaths, in and out. He sat on the edge of the bed. Smooth breath, relax your eyes, don’t let the lids shake. Then his calloused old hand was stroking my hair, cupping my scalp, fingers dripping like algae onto my ears and cheeks.

The warlord lived in Jalalabad, in a swath of Afghanistan where the soil is rich with poppies and land mines, in a house awash in guns. People whispered that he was a heroin trafficker. His tribal loyalists clotted the orange groves and rose gardens outside, AK-47s in dust-caked fingers. They said he was ruthless in war, that his skin was scarred by an arrow. There was a vague whisper about a legendary ambush, the warlord killing enemies with his bare hands. And now those ropey hands were petting my hair, silent and brazen.

I clung to one thing: Brian, the photographer, was in the bathroom. Water slapped the floor. How long would his shower last, and how could I escape the warlord’s lechery without offending him? The truth was, we needed him. He was an enemy of the Taliban, funded by the U.S. government, making a play for power in the vague, new order that had begun when American soldiers toppled the Taliban government. I was a stranger here, and he was my best source. He said he knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding. And now he was petting me like a puppy; nobody could sleep through it. The bed creaked. Stale breath sank in my face. Papery lips pressed my forehead. I opened my eyes and tried to look groggy.

“What are you doing?”


I struggled upright, cleared a phlegmy throat, and tried to sound dignified: “You are putting me into a very awkward position.” A  black-and-white-movie line, spilling out in a moment of panic.

He smiled and reached for my face.

“Please don’t do that,” I snapped.

Then, suddenly, silence. The water stopped, the pipes fell quiet. The warlord glanced around, stood, and slipped back out of the room.

Brian stepped out; his hair gleamed with water.

I turned my eyes to him and hissed: “We’ve got to get out of here.”

I had met Mohammed Zaman weeks earlier, in  Peshawar—a cramped kaleidoscope of a city perched on the last edge of organization and authority in Pakistan. To the west stretched the lawless tribal territories, the Khyber Pass, the Afghan frontier. Driven away by the Taliban, Zaman had been living an exile’s life in Dijon, France, before September 11. Under chilly French skies he’d pined after his family’s lands, the service of armed tribesmen, and, presumably, the rich, fresh fields of Afghan poppy. When U.S. jets started dropping bombs on Afghanistan, Zaman raced back to Peshawar and holed up in a rented house, waiting for the Americans to dispose of the Taliban and clear the path home—and eager to make some money while he was at it.

I sat in the shadows of a taxi late one night, my face and head draped in scarves, making my way through the jangling streets of Peshawar for an audience with Zaman. I liked it, all of it, enormously—the poetry of the place, the intrigue of war, imagining myself veiled in the back of a clopping carriage, bringing secrets to a bootlegger. The warlord’s return had drawn throngs of men for endless meetings; I picked my way around the crowds on the lawn and sat waiting in a long drawing room. A door opened and out marched an American diplomat I’d seen at the embassy. His eyes skimmed mine and he hurried on,  stone-faced. He didn’t like being spotted there. I sat and watched him leave.

Zaman came out, tall and deliberate, face sagging from his skull. We sat with tea between us, and I asked him to take me to Afghanistan when he went.

He was solemn. “I take your life on my honor,” he said from the heights of his mountainous nose. “They will have to kill me before they can harm you.”

A few days later, we set off for war. The sun sank as we drove toward the Khyber Pass, storied old route of smugglers and marauders. Men pounded through a field hockey match in a haze of setting sun and rising dust. “Dead slow,” ordered a traffic sign. “These areas are full of drugs,” muttered the driver. In my head shimmered gilded pictures of the Grand Trunk Road, the Silk Road, Kim. On the edge of Afghanistan, stars crowded the sky, dull and dense. We crossed the border and plunged into the enormous uncertainty of this new American war. Forty Afghan fighters waited for us, young men and boys nestled together in pickup trucks. They shivered in the stinging night and gripped grenade launchers, chains of machine gun rounds trailing from the trucks. We drove alongside the Kabul River, past the shadowed bulk of mountains and tractors, along fields of tobacco and wheat. At the edge of Jalalabad, the deserted dinosaurs of rusted Soviet tanks reared from the ground.

In the core of the dusty night, we pulled up to his house. Zaman served a feast and stayed awake with us, lolling on the floor around the vegetables and lamb and spinning out long, fatigued stories. We blinked and yawned but Zaman pushed on toward sunrise. He was selling his case even then, from those earliest hours. Osama bin Laden had fled to the nearby White Mountains, he said, to the caves cut into stone, to Tora Bora. The terrorist and his followers still lurked nearby. If America was serious about this war on terror, the terrorists needed to be flushed out. He could do the job; he only needed guns, money, and equipment.

He talked on and on, weaving French into English, until the dawn call to prayer rang from a whitening sky. His words melted together. My chin was falling. I slept on the floor, and woke up in the new Afghanistan.

The first days with Zaman were easy. The stories fell like ripe fruit. But when he tiptoed to my bed, I knew we had to scrounge for another roof. There was nowhere to go but the Spin Ghar hotel, a crumbling Soviet relic rising from tangles of garden and derelict trees. Rank smells wafted through the cold corridors, over chipped linoleum, past cracked plaster walls. Mad jumbles of bodies crowded the lobby—foreign reporters, Afghans, hired gunmen in their robes and eye paint, all sprawled on the grass, smoking on the steps, flooding over the balconies.

The electricity died that night, and gas lanterns shivered in the dark cavern of the hotel dining room. Everybody was very quiet. There was bad news.

Some of the reporters had set off for Kabul in a convoy that day. Two hours out of town, Afghan bandits stopped the first car and shot the passengers dead: a Spaniard, an Afghan, an Australian. There was an Italian woman, too, who was raped and then killed. The rest of the reporters squealed their cars around and came back to Jalalabad. The bodies were abandoned on the road. It was the first lost gamble, and it pulled us a little farther into war. Now we in the dark dining room were rendered survivors, the ones who hadn’t died. The faces swim out of darkness, painted in wisps of gaslight. They are talking about the abandoned bodies, about who fetched them. I feel empty. I have no reaction. It is a gap inside of me, like putting your tongue where a tooth used to be. I know that I should feel something; to feel something is appropriate and human. I stay silent so that the others will not realize that I am gaping like a canyon. I am not absolutely sure this is real; it’s so very far from where we started. On September 11, I was in Paris, and then in Bahrain, an aircraft carrier, and Pakistan, moving slowly, unconsciously closer to here, tonight. America is at war, and we are all here too, at the edge of death, just like that, in just a few weeks. And so we are on an island, and so the roads are a place to die.

In my room the darkness is thick as tar. My fingers can’t find a lock on the door. I am groping when the door cracks forward with a grunt of Pashto. I can’t see the Afghan man but I push at him, throw my arms into the darkness and find flesh, drive him back. His cries are pure sound to me. I don’t care. After Zaman at my bedside and reporters dead on the road, this man cannot stay. Our American and Afghan words mean nothing when they hit the other ear. We are stripped of all understanding, battling in the blackness. I shove him into the hall and force the door closed against the last pieces of him, a kicking foot, a grasping arm. Later on, I realize he was probably the sweet-faced cleaning man who shuffled like a kicked stray through the corridors at night. Later I laugh, a little embarrassed. But on this night, I have vanquished. I lean limp against the door of my stinking little cave, conqueror of misunderstood forces.

Back in Pakistan, before I crossed over into Afghanistan, somebody said to me: “Every man in this village is a liar.” It was the punch line to a parable, the tale of an ancient Greek traveler who plods into a foreign village and is greeted with those words. It is a twist on the Epimenides paradox, named after the Cretan philosopher who declared, “All Cretans are liars.” It’s one of the world’s oldest logic problems, folding in on itself like an Escher sketch. If he’s telling the truth, he’s lying. If he’s lying, he’s telling the truth.

That was Afghanistan after September 11.

You meet a man, and his story doesn’t sound right. You stare at him and your brain is chewing away, and out of the corner of your eye something bizarre and fantastic trails past—a pair of mujahideen with their fingers intertwined, plastic flowers glowing in black hair, winking and fluttering with the kohl-rimmed eyes of two besotted lovers. And you can’t help but look, but then all you can do is watch these strange peacocks, stunned by the magenta homoeroticism of this dry, pious land. By the time you peel your attention back and stop your thoughts from whirling, the man you were trying to weigh out is long gone. Afghanistan was meaning washed away in floods of color, in drugs, guns, sexual ambiguity, and Islam.

I met a young man who spoke Arabic and English, which was rare and fancy for provincial Afghanistan. He had worked for bin Laden, and I was certain his sympathies lay with the Taliban, with Al Qaeda. We sat together and had long interviews. Later I found out he worked for the CIA. They gave him a satellite phone, and he was calling in coordinates for bombing targets.
Every man in this village is a liar.

Maybe that’s why nobody believed the warlords when they kept saying that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora. A pity, because it was true: Osama bin Laden packed his bags and fled into the mountain redoubt near Jalalabad after September 11. The caves were his last stop before he lost his substance and melted into the world’s most  famous phantom. Catching bin Laden was the first important thing the United States set out to do after September 11. The job was bungled so thoroughly that the war never really found its compass again. Here in eastern Afghanistan, the Americans would begin to lose the plot.

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Megan Stack’s Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, a searing account of war in the Middle East.

1. Every Man in This Village Is a Liar is, in many ways, a book about telling the truth. What truths does Megan Stack discover and reveal throughout the course of the book? Why is it so important to tell the truth amid the lies of war?

2. Stack writes an article about Palestinian suicide bombers that engenders death threats from Israeli readers. When she asks why, a reporter friend tells her: “You humanized them. You’re writing about suicide bombers as people who have corpses and families. They can’t stand to see them written about like that” (p. 44). Why is it necessary to dehumanize one’s enemies during war? In what ways is Stack’s book an effort to humanize everyone she writes about?

3. Who are some of the most memorable people Stack meets during her reporting on the Middle East? Why is it so important to tell the stories of individual human beings caught up in the suffering, pain, and grief of war?

4. Writing about the Old Testament story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice to his son Isaac in order to do God’s will, Stack observes “the trouble is that, centuries later, the Middle East is still packed with murderers who believe they are doing God’s will, privately attuned to the ring of God’s voice. This is still how Middle Eastern battles are fought, by Arabs, Israelis, and now by Americans. Blind faith is the footbridge that takes us from virtuous religion to self-righteous violence” (p. 103). Why does religious fundamentalism so often lead to violence? Has America been guilty of the same kind of self-righteous extremism it opposes in the Middle East?

5. After the killing of the courageous Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat, who “wanted to calm things down not stoke the anger” Stack writes: “There was no place in Iraq for a woman like that” (p. 197). Why is there no place in Iraq for someone like Atwar Bahjat?

6. What does Stack reveal about how women are treated throughout the Middle East? Why is it important to have a woman journalist’s view of the conflicts in the region? What contrasts are provided by the American women Stack interviews in Saudi Arabia?

7. “Here is the truth,” Stack writes. “It matters, what you do at war. It matters more than you ever want to know”  (p. 51). Why does it matter so much what one does in war? What are the consequences not just for individuals but for nations in how they conduct themselves during war?

8. Every Man in This Village Is a Liar is subtitled An Education in War. In what ways is Stack educated by war? In what ways does she educate her readers about the realities of war?

9. How does Every Man in This Village Is a Liar challenge conventional views of the Middle East?

10. Near the end of the book, Stack writes about the strange feeling of being present and absent at the same time. It occurs to her that this might be “the most American trait of all, the trademark of these wars. To be there and be gone all at once, to tell ourselves it just happened, we did what we did but we had no control over the consequences” (p. 240). In what ways is this an essentially American trait? What dangers are inherent in this way of being simultaneously engaged and disengaged?

11. Stack ends the book by reminding readers what war has taught her: “You can survive and not survive, both at the same time” (p. 245). What is the meaning of this paradoxical statement?

12. In the epilogue, Stack writes that she has “given up on pulling poetry out of war” (p. 246). In what ways has Stack found a gritty, heartbreaking poetry the war-torn Middle East? What passages in the book rise to the level of poetry? Why would she give up this way of writing about war?

13. What are some of the most harrowing moments in the book? What effect do they have on Stack and on her readers?

14. Stack concludes that the “war on terror never really existed,” that it was “essentially nothing but a unifying myth for a complicated scramble of mixed impulses and social theories and night terrors and cruelty and business interests, all overhung with the unassailable memory of falling skyscrapers” (p. 3). Is she right about this? In what sense is the war on terror unreal? 

15. Every Man in This Village Is a Liar plunges readers into the visceral particulars of the war in Iraq and other ongoing conflicts in the region, giving a vivid sense of the texture of war. But what larger points does the book make about war, America’s involvement in the Middle East, the treatment of women in Islamic countries, and other issues?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

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Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MarcusH on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an extraordinary book. Megan Stack creates a collection of journalistic entries that discuss different experiences with armed conflict in the Middle East. Stack shows how strong and how breakable people are and how war truly has no beneficiaries.The people Stack encounters throughout the book all have heartbreaking stories and you may feel a little disgusted to be American by the end of it.While the conflicts that Stack reports on are terrible and have less than hopeful turn outs, her narrative does shed light on a culture that many Americans don't understand or even refuse to understand.We are all human and Stack does a wonderfully, graphic, heartbreaking job of showing that we all share common characteristics.
labfs39 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An eager 25-year-old journalist, Megan Stack learned about the bombing of the Trade Towers while on vacation in France. Since she was physically closest to Afghanistan, her editor at the Los Angeles Times sent her to Afghanistan to be on the ground for the invasion. Thus began a seven year stint, reporting from all over the Middle East, wherever the fighting was heaviest: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, the West Bank.

When her memoir begins, the world and its problems seem clear. Ms. Stack is naive and idealistic, absorbing all she experiences and writing the reports expected of her. But as time passes and the war drags on, she begins to see things that change the ways she thinks about the role of the West in the Middle East and specifically the policies of the United States. How can a nation promoting democracy turn a blind eye to some dictators and ruin a country in order to depose another? Who's side is just? Does it even matter given the amount of human suffering the conflicts inflict? Questions such as these begin to weigh on Megan, and her thoughts become grim as she reflects on the costs of the Middle East wars.

This is who gets left behind when war comes: poor people, old people, and handicapped people. This is who they are bombing now. In this moment I am numb and still, but I am aware that I deeply hate everybody for letting this happen. I hate the Lebanese families for leaving them here. I hate Hezbollah for not evacuating them, for ensuring civilian deaths that will bolster their cause. I hate Israel for wasting this place on the heads of the feeble. I hate all of us for participating in this great fiction of the war on terror, for pretending there is a framework, a purpose, for this torment. I sit in hatred and write everything down with filthy fingers.

Although the book is somewhat dated now, with Osama bin Laden dead and popular revolutions having brought down some of the despots about whom she writes, there is still an immediacy and potency to Ms. Stack's memoir that makes it compelling. Her writing is poetic, and her self-insights are honest and direct. The only difficulty for me is that as a journalist, she must remain apart and write of what she sees, instead of stopping to help the victims. She writes of how hard that is. I think I would have just stopped and done what I could. Regardless, the book is a heart-breaking tribute to those caught in a disaster not of their own making and to her own journey to greater self-awareness and understanding.
-Cee- on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wow. Megan Stack was a finalist in 2007 for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. After reading this book, I am not surprised she was a finalist, only that she didn't win. She has fearlessly taken on a subject of great world controversy sparing no danger to herself both physically and mentally. Her writing is stunningly beautiful and poetic. It is also clear, explicitly honest, and heartbreakingly blunt.This is not a book about one experience in one country. It covers several countries in the Middle East region over a critical timeframe. Each chapter is a definitive account of a different country with her analysis of the situation as she was able to absorb and interpret what she saw and heard. Stack cuts to the heart of the problems, exposes the beauty and the ugliness of humanity, and holds up a mirror for Americans to see the reflection of their own policies and actions in this war.The tension and fear never let up. The realities of living in the midst of war hit the reader like the bombs that were dropped on villages of the innocent. Words on a page are never the same as real life experience. But this book is truly "an education in war" (as the title proclaims) to a nation that is far removed from its everyday horror and we had best pay attention. Everyone should read this one.Highly recommended.
Sararush on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Though not entirely shocking, Megan Stack's Every Man in this Village is a Liar, is at times surprising. Stack describes her most memorable escapades and antidotes, which she layers to form an essay style war collage vividly enlivening her enlightening experiences. Covering terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern hot spots, Stack conversationally engages her readers as she examines some of the absurdities of war and politics. Stack offers both sides of the table auditing violence and war policy itself. Seeing the devastation of war to people and countries through a fresh perspective, a young female reporter, was overwhelmingly gritty and at the same time startling in its obvious intelligence. Through stark and awkward prose Stack explores the hypocritical policies of nations. And the one thing Stack can trust, is that everyone involved in the wars and the fighting that she has covered--are liars. While exposing everyone and excusing no one, Stack has crafts a highly readable, brilliant and possibly the most unforgettable book of the year.
brenzi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
¿The sun is shining like every mad morning in this garish war. I wake up to the crash of bombs and tell myself, just do it for one more day. Anyway you are trapped. If you try to get out of here they will kill you on the road. So do it for one more day. You know you wouldn¿t leave, even if you could.¿ (Page 224)I¿ve always wondered what kept the foreign correspondents in the extremely dangerous regions they cover. In Megan Stack¿s National Book Award nominee, we learn at least one of the reasons. They are totally unable to pull themselves away from the danger, the excitement, the adrenaline high that just being there allows to course through their veins. For five years, Stack covered events in the volatile Middle East, from just after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan through the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Her time in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Libya are highlighted by roadside bombs, interviews of warlords, suicide bombers, death and violence. And more death and more violence.The first thing that strikes you is the dichotomy between the absolutely stunning prose and the terror-filled violence. It doesn¿t seem right that they should be lined up next to each other. Beauty glancing edges alongside carnage. But there it is, right before your eyes. Shimmering, beautiful prose/ferocious, violent bloodshed.Along the way, Stack makes the case against violence and against the course that the U.S. has chosen in the past. Regarding the war on terror she writes:¿Somewhere between Afghanistan and Iraq, we lost our way. The carnage of it and the disorder, all to create a new Middle East because the old Middle East is still here, and where should it go? Only a country as quixotic, as history-free, as America could come up with this notion: that you can make the old one go away. Maybe you can debate until it makes sense from a distance, as an abstraction. But up close the war on terror isn¿t anything but the sick and feeble cringing in an asylum, babies in shock, structure smashed. Baghdad broken, Afghanistan broken,. The line between heaven and earth, broken. Lebanon broken. Broken peace and broken roads and broken bridges. The broken faith and years of broken promises. Children inheriting their parents broken hearts, growing up with a taste for revenge. And all along, America dreaming it¿s deep sweet dreams, there and not there. America chasing phantoms, running uphill to nowhere in pursuit of a receding mirage of absolute safety.¿ (Page 243)This is a book that should be on every American¿s shelf, available to peruse at any time to remind ourselves of what we can and can¿t do to influence the lives of those in the Middle East. You won¿t regret buying it and you¿ll be rewarded with an eye-opening frankness that just so happens to come in the form of beautiful poetry.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another orientalist view of the Middle East by a reporter who practiced parachute journalism.  If you can can make it through all the adjectives and purple prose haze, you'll find a memoir of a gal out of her depth but keen on stringing together observations to promote herself and her world view.  It must have been a poor year in non-fiction for this to be a book award finalist.  It reads like she strung together her clippings with some standard tropes on war and terror.  Save your money.  It belongs with the print articles that inspired it, at the bottom of a bird cage. 
kiaflwr05 More than 1 year ago
I LOVE this book. Stacks did an incredible job of painting an incredibly vivid account of her experiences as a journalist overseas. At some points I had to put the book down as I myself became overwhelmed by tears or anger or fury. I've recommended this book to anyone that has a remote interest in what is happening outside of the USA. You don't have to be an extreme political activist to find this book engaging.
schnauzermomCO More than 1 year ago
Although the language can get a little florid at times, stay with it. Stack is widely traveled and experienced, and provides solid reporting and insights into the reality and the costs of our endless wars. A must-read, in my opinion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book brought the conflicts in the middle east to a personal level. The author portrayed the intensity and humanity in a way you could never get from tv. A very good book that will make you think twice about how you feel about the middle east.
marjo More than 1 year ago
Excellent book, written by credible, award-winning American journalist Megan Stack. For 7 years Stack lived and traveled, by whatever primitive means possible, to the most dangerous and hopeless civilian areas in the middle east. With no regard for her own safety (or mental health), she followed her compulsion to personally observe, experience and report on the lives and deaths of civilians trapped (with no hope of rescue or relief) in the eternal wars of their countries. The result is a provocative and enlightening account. If you only read one book about the wars we've stepped into in the middle east, this is the one.
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