Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Real Arab World

I know very little about the Middle East and the Arab world. That’s not surprising; like a lot of people, all I know is what I hear on the news or read in the newspapers, and I have no ancestral connection to any of the people there. So when I was asked if I would like a copy of Live from Jordan by Benjamin Orbach, I was at first hesitant; I was expecting a dry recitation of the history of the region from biblical times and a rehash of talking points from the differing sides.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Ben’s year in the Middle East, told in a series of letters home, is a warm and person-to-person tale of the ordinary lives and trials that the people of Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Egypt go through every day just to make a living and a life. There are no talking points from emissaries or ambassadors here; just a grad student from Pittsburgh with a background in Middle East studies, learning Arabic as he goes (and teaching English to eager students), and finding that underneath all the many differences between the East and the West in so many different ways, we are really a lot more similar in the mundane ways that really matter: we want to live our lives in peace, with dignity and understanding, and we want others to respect our culture and not impose their lives on us. We as Americans expect that as a part of the American dream, and Ben shows us that it’s a universal dream as well.

For someone who knew very little about that world, I found a lot of common ground for understanding. For example, the plight of the Palestinians, people who are exiled from their homeland and are hoping against all hope to have their dreams of a place called Palestine — a place that never really existed — restored to them. In a lot of ways their stories remind me of the stories I hear from the older Cuban exiles here in Miami who have made every attempt they can to preserve what they brought with them when they left fifty years ago and who dream of going back to a place and a life that they left. The sad truth is that nothing is the way it was, and even if by some miracle they could have all they hoped for, there is no guarantee that it would be enough. It’s incredibly tragic and altogether human.

History provided the author with an interesting backdrop. Ben arrived in Jordan a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and he left six months after the invasion of Iraq by the United States. The tension and fear in the people in Jordan and Egypt is palpable, and the distrust and animosity towards America — but not Americans — is couched in every conversation. In one letter, he looks at the invasion of Iraq and, writing from 2003, shows remarkable foresight as to what will be the long-term result of our preemptive invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation. But in his tales, which are poignant, funny, and genuinely human, he shows us a world that is in so many ways like our own, with its foundations in religion and faith, distrust of authority, fascination with celebrity glitz, revulsion at material excess and immodesty, and through it all an understanding that we are all human and share far more values than either side is aware of.

If you want to really understand the Middle East, I suppose you can read a lot of history and analysis from think tanks who pay a lot of consultants to put them together. Or you can pick up this book written by an insightful and charming guy who saw the real Arab world from his tiny apartment balcony in Amman, the coffee shops and three-table eateries in Cairo, from the streets of the West Bank, and a barber’s chair in all three places.