The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets by Janine di Giovanni — Book Review

by Zaher Alajlani

At Agape, we treat the books we review and their authors with utmost respect and impartiality. Therefore, I hope my criticism of Janine di Giovanni’s book will not be construed as ad hominem. On the contrary, I value her bravery and dedication as a war reporter. I also hope my review will not be perceived as an expression of any political statement.

On the bright side, The Vanishing addresses an important issue: the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip. The plight of minorities, especially in the twenty-first century, is aptly explained throughout the book. di Giovanni is an excellent writer who knows how to tell stories and describe people and places. Her attention to small details makes the narrative lively and engaging. Visiting war-torn countries does not prevent her from observing the mundane, thus humanizing those she interviews.

di Giovanni’s experiences in the Middle East often motivate her to reflect on her faith and past experiences. Through these reflections, she establishes beauteous intimacy with the readers, enabling them to witness her struggle and how her “faith is coming back to” her in “dark times” (200). And to be fair, despite the subjective undertone, di Giovanni still provides some valuable insight into Middle Eastern politics and inter-religious relations.

That said, The Vanishing contains some misrepresentations and nonfactual statements. For example, Di Giovanni writes:

To Mary [one of the interviewees], Nasser, who presided over Egypt from 1956 until his assassination in 1970, took the country forward, changing it from an underdeveloped state to a leading one in the Arab world (177-178, emphasis is mine)

In reality, Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack. He was a heavy-smoking diabetic with a history of cardiac events. The author confuses him with his successor, Anwar el-Sadat, whom Islamists assassinated in 1981, not 1970.

di Giovanni also claims that “The Christian watchdog Open Doors lists Egypt as the sixteenth-worst country in the world in terms of persecution, worse than North Korea” (195, emphasis is mine). This statement is also false. Open Doors ranks countries from highest to lowest. North Korea has a score of 1, and Egypt has a score of 16. This means North Korea is the worst country for Christians, and Egypt is the sixteenth. Thus, Egypt cannot be “worse than North Korea,” as the author states.

As for misrepresentations, di Giovanni begins her book with a timeline of what she considers critical events in the history of Christianity and the Middle East, one that serves as an anchor for her overall narrative. Unfortunately, albeit listing historical milestones, the timeline is still arbitrary. For no apparent reason, the author lists incidents that are centuries apart and neglects many important events, such as the Islamic schism, the Crusades, the Sack of Constantinople, and the rise and fall of many different Muslim states and dynasties. These are not merely things of the past. Quite the opposite, they have decisively shaped the current status of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, let alone the relationship between Christendom and the Muslim World.

Besides, the author inaccurately frames some events. To name one, she stipulates in the timeline that following the 1970 Ba’ath Party coup, Hafez al-Assad, who led the coup, relied “on support from Syrian Christians” because he belonged to the Alawite minority (13). While this is technically true, it is not entirely accurate. Since both Alawites and Christians are minorities, it is reasonable to argue that they had a high degree of mutual support. However, some of Hafez’s most ardent supporters were from the Sunni majority, notably his long-serving Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tlass, and all his prime ministers. The 1970 coup was led by two Alawites (Hafez and his brother) and a Sunni (Mustapha Tlass) against an Alawite (Salah Jadid) and a Sunni (Nureddin al-Atassi). It was not a sectarian struggle per se—an ideological one, certainly. Viewing the power struggle in Syria in the 1970s as part of the post-Arab-Spring sectarian strife is anachronistic.

The book seems to display slight sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt. The “Brothers,” the author puts it, “made plenty of mistakes, and they did not keep promises” (184). This is too mild a statement to describe the infamous Islamist organization. The “Brothers” embraced Jihadist rhetoric and openly incited violence against minorities. Their clerics (in the presence of the then-president Mohammad Morsi) called Shia Muslims “dirty” and their opposition “infidels.”

In 2013, things took a turn for the worse when a Salafist-led mob lynched four Shiites just because they were celebrating a religious feast in the home of a fellow believer. Human Rights Watch said the attack “came after months of anti-Shia hate speech at times involving the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its political party.” Hate speech has long been a trademark of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, had his share of controversial statements. In 2010, before becoming president, he described Jews as “the descendants of apes and pigs.”

Overall, such inconsistencies and mistakes in The Vanishing take away from di Giovanni’s otherwise strong narrative and force one to question her argument’s validity altogether. Had she revised the book appropriately and fact-checked more seriously, she could’ve presented a work that was not only well written but also accurate and less biased. Sadly, she missed the chance.

Zaher Alajlani is a Syrian short-story author, researcher, and translator living between Romania and Greece. He has published three short story collections in English and one in Arabic. His short stories and articles have appeared in various publications, including The Infinite Sky, Revista Echinox, Active Muse, Bandit Fiction, The Creative Launcher, Visible Magazine, Agape Review, The Journal of Romanian Literary Studies, Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory, The Experimental Museum of Literature in Greece, Masharif, and Tadween.

He is a prose editor for Agape Review and a proofreader for the peer-reviewed Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory. He previously worked as a prose submission reader for Bandit Fiction. Zaher is now a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He speaks English, Arabic, Romanian, and Greek.

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