War journalist to discuss new book in Forest Hills

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As the bombs rained down during the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, American journalist Thanassis Cambanis stared down death with many individuals who became major players in his new book, which he will discuss in Forest Hills next week, and who are part of an organization he calls one of the most effective militant groups in the Middle East.

“I spent the entire war in the front line villages that were being bombed,” said Cambanis, 36. “I met a lot of people when we were living under the same danger, and when I came back to them after the war they brought me into their homes. If I hadn’t experienced the war with them, I don’t think they’d have trusted me. And I was interested in something people don’t often ask them about: what they believe, what their daily lives are like. I was interested in personalities and beliefs.”

Cambanis’ book, “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel,” published in September, is his attempt to create a story palatable for the general public about Hezbollah, a Muslim political group in Lebanon funded and armed by Iran which has a militant wing that the United States has labeled a terrorist organization. It has gained strong support in Lebanon, thanks to its emphasis on providing what could almost be considered as a Muslim playbook for daily life and services, such as health care and education, Cambanis said.

Hezbollah will be a formidable player on the world’s political stage that the United States will have to engage, Cambanis said.

Cambanis, who was the Boston Globe’s Middle East bureau chief from July 2005 to June 2007, during which time he was based in Jerusalem, ´╗┐and covered the area for The New York Times, will speak about his book at the Central Queens YM & YWHA in Forest Hills Oct. 26 at 1:30 p.m. The general public is invited to attend and a $5 donation is suggested. The Central Queens Y is at 67-09 108th St.

“I wanted to write a book about the Middle East that was actually fun to read,” said Cambanis. “It’s a fascinating region full of fascinating human characters, and I wanted to write a book that was engaging for a reader while still addressing important ideas. I’m trying to tap into regular people who are curious or interested by the Middle East but would be bored by your average scholarly tome. This book, it’s about people like Hezbollah soccer moms.”

He covered the 2006 war, which began after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Israel launched an extensive bombing campaign. During the war, Lebanon lost about 1,200 people, many of them civilians. Approximately 160 Israelis died during the conflict.

Cambanis was also the Globe’s Iraq bureau chief based in Baghdad from March 2003 to June 2005. He is now a freelance writer and teaches graduate students in security policy and media concentrations at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. He also teaches a graduate lecture course entitled “Negotiating With ‘Terrorists’” at the New School.

In his book, Cambanis contends Hezbollah has gained such a wide following because of its ideology.

“The thesis of my book is ideas really matter,” he said. “Hezbollah succeeds because it has a powerful idea at its core and convinced millions of people to share in that idea. They don’t gain members through force, coercion or intimidation, though they use those tactics in their militant movement, but win followers with their endless war against Israel and this sort of holistic Islamic prosperity agenda, a kind of over-arching practice of Islam that gives people a lot of direction in their lives.

“It addresses how to be a better spouse, an ethical business person, how to raise your children, it gives you career counseling. It’s very much like what you’d expect from a contemporary American megachurch. That’s what makes it different from Hamas or Islamists I encountered in Iraq. There’s a complete constructive religious framework for your whole life.”

For more information about the talk, call 718-268-5011 or visit

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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