You could say he whitewashes the more disturbing and violent aspects of Middle East culture, focusing on the fruit juices and parties with Silly String. But he says it too: “I was suddenly ashamed. … Was I so biased that I cherry-picked the memories I wanted to have? So committed to contesting the darkness that all I saw was light?”
You could say that his venture is privileged and aimless, an attempt to postpone adulthood. But Levinson beats you to it, such as when he ruminates on his decision to take a boat out of Yemen through pirate-infested waters. “I felt a flash of guilt. I’d spent two hundred dollars on that boat for curiosity’s sake. … While many have no choice but to take life-threatening journeys, I took life-threatening journeys just to avoid making choices.”
So he’s got the self-flagellating thing covered. Which allowed me to relax and stop trying to be so critical and enjoy the merits of the book, which were many.
First of all, Levinson is a very funny writer. Just one sample: When describing Abu Dhabi’s past, he said it was “a simpler era with smaller buildings and bigger aviator sunglasses.”
Second, he gives you a tour of the Middle East that you won’t see on CNN or read about on TripAdvisor.
The journey starts in the United Arab Emirates, where he has a job as a program coordinator at the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi. At the behest of some persistent rabbis in Abu Dhabi, Levinson has a quickie bar mitzvah, what he calls “the Jewish liturgical version of a Las Vegas wedding.” Levinson grew up as a secular Jew: “I felt about my Jewishness the way you might feel about being left-handed.”
After this rite, he goes out on a series of increasingly risky journeys. He chews khat leaves in Yemen. He looks down the barrel of an AK-47 in Afghanistan (it wasn’t loaded, but still). He learns the rules of bribing etiquette (“You gotta be classy about it”). He passes by the house in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was shot (though the locals claim no such thing happened and it was all a conspiracy).
Levinson’s travels smash a lot of his preconceptions — for instance, when he sipped 12-year-old scotch with citizens of Pakistan, a supposedly “teetotaling Islamic Republic.”
But he also finds incidents that seem like stereotypes out of a 1980s action-comedy movie, such as a Bedouin offering 50 camels to marry the sister of Levinson’s girlfriend.
After reading the book, I did feel just a bit more optimistic about the chances of peaceful coexistence between East and West. One of Levinson’s themes is exactly what you’d expect in a book about a wildly foreign culture: In the end, we’re all people. Consider the generous Yemenite who gave Levinson free lodging, mango juice and egg salad over Levinson’s objections. The man replied. “‘You’re a human being, I’m a human being. Correct?’ he said. That was all. And, ‘Maybe one day I’ll be in America.’”
And yet, the book also left me somewhat gloomy. Not that I expected it to, but it didn’t provide a solution to one of the knottiest problems of the Middle East (and everywhere else): How much tolerance should we have for intolerant people?
When confronted with more extreme elements — such as a Somali man’s hatred of an ethnic group from Ethiopia — Levinson admits he went into a self-questioning tailspin. “I didn’t like that I didn’t like these people for disliking other people. As I disliked them, I disliked me more, too.”
Don’t be too hard on yourself, Levinson. I like you and I like your book.