Gilsenan, an anthropologist at New York University, has written the most depressing book about the Middle East this author has read since 1989, when David Pryce-Jones published The Closed Circle. Gilsenan draws on his experiences living in Akkar, a rural area of Lebanon, in 1971-72; it apparently took him a quarter century fully to comprehend the significance of what he witnessed then.

Lords of the Lebanese Marches concentrates on a single topic: how a ceaseless competition for power, along with an undertone of violence, dominates the life of men in Akkar. Those who have it flaunt it, those who lack it bear the consequences almost every waking hour. Gilsenan's accomplishment lies in showing how "hierarchy, domination, and contest" are "basic premises of life." To those of us accustomed to the rather more gentle rhythms of Western life, this Hobbesian -- or is it Darwinian? -- struggle is both fascinating and repulsive, particularly given the skill with which Gilsenan evokes the state of incessant contention.

The harsh state of male relations in the villages of Lebanon has clear implications for states; indeed, reading about the village of Berqayl not infrequently brings to mind the brutal behavior of Middle East leaders and may go far to explain the persistently autocratic nature of their states.