Journalist Thanassis Cambanis, 40, is living the dream. “I wanted to be a war reporter from the time I was a kid of nine or ten listening to stories of my Greek grandparents talking about war. And, sadly, when I grew up there were lots of wars to cover.” He recently flew into New York from Beirut, Lebanon, to promote his new book, An Egyptian Story, Once Upon A Revolution, just published by Simon & Shuster. Before addressing a packed house at the West Side Barnes & Noble, he talked with TNH. “The book found me,” he said. “Four years ago, I was having dinner with friends on the West Side when Tahrir Square showed up on TV. My head exploded, because I was here and not there. I desperately wanted to go and tell the story. A few days later, I hopped on a plane and went to Egypt.”
Eminently readable, his book goes behind the scenes of a complicated struggle, a battle without a happy ending. Says Cambanis, “El-Sisi won control, and he won fawning love. But his victory still doesn’t mean that authoritarianism will prevail forever. It isn’t culturally determined. It can be destroyed. That’s what Tahrir proved.”
Like legendary foreign correspondents including Edward R. Murrow, he revels in bearing witness to world-changing events, consistently bringing a human angle to his reportage. He spent three years in Iraq. “It was intense, fascinating. It felt worthwhile to try and chronicle that time.”
Tall and lanky, a warm smile lights up his serious, Greek intellectual’s face as he talks. If this were the 1940s he could play the Gary Cooper part, the good guy courting Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls, not a role he would choose. Married to Anne Barnard, Chief of the New York Times Beirut Bureau, the couple, now parents of two, met as reporters at the Boston Globe. They transferred to Baghdad, Iraq in 2003, and then moved on to Beirut.
Cambanis grew up in North Carolina, where his late father, Stamatis Cambanis, was chairman of the statistics department at the University of North Carolina. “Both of my parents are Greek,” says Cambanis. “My family is from Paros. I define myself as Greek and American. I go to Greece once year, and was based there in the 90’s, so I was very familiar with Greek politics up to the year 2000.”
While not commenting on the Greek election per se, he did offer some intriguing opinions on Greece today. “The lesson Greece might draw from Egypt is that with a complete lack of fear – and the sense that you don’t have much to lose – you can shake a system to its core and possibly force it to change.” He adds with irony. “Another lesson you can add is that the old system won.
“The problems Greece has are more or less in accountability. Greece is a deeply flawed modern democracy, but it is a place with a representative government. There are checks and balances. We’re talking about distortions of a basically good system that is being executed in a corrupt and ineffective way. We’re not talking about a system that denies everyone a voice and rights.
“The Greeks are no more prone to corruption that anyone else, but if you have a system like Greece does, where you’re rewarded for cheating and thieving, you will cheat and thieve. It’s not a character issue. So with modern enforcements and modern rules, Greeks could pay their taxes and do all kinds of things than other people do. Not long ago, people said the same thing about the Spaniards, but then a different system was implemented and people started behaving.
“For someone trying to understand Greece in our era, so much attention is paid to Greece as part of Europe, but we have to remember Greece is also part of the Balkans, part of the Ottoman world, and the Mediterranean world. It has very long historical ties with Egypt, with the Arab world, with the Levant, with Asia Minor. It carries a lot of the legacy of Ottoman rule.”
His first book, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, was published in 2010. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York City. He writes the “Internationalist” column for The Boston Globe and regularly contributes to The New York Times, the Atlantic and other publications. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he received a Master in Public Affairs, International Relations, with Distinction from Princeton University.
Currently, Cambanis has no plans to embark on a new book. “I’m focused for the time being on the war in Syria. I’m going to be writing a lot about cities, about design, literature, music, and how they’re reflecting major changes in the Arab world today.” He likes being where he is and doing what he’s doing. “Beirut’s a lovely city. I love Beirut. I’ve always been fond of it. It’s interesting, and a great place to live. It has a great mix of people. And it’s a great vantage point from which to get to know many of the currents in the Arab world because so many groups are represented there.”