Arabia - Unveiled and Veiled

One writer digs to the heart of Western-Arab differences, while another just skims the sands

AN English wag in his country's colonial service once said that he had two types of colleagues in the Middle East - those who spoke Arabic just well enough never to be sure of what the Arabs really said, and those who didn't understand a word but would swear to what they thought they overheard. Add to the list a third type, those who speak the language so well that they know Arabs as close friends and from these friendships also know more about themselves, and there you might find the name of Peter Theroux, author of ``Sandstorms.'' Unfortunately, Christopher Dickey falls into the second category described above, as evidenced in his fast-paced but superficial survey of the Middle Eastern culture clash between Arabs and Westerners, ``Expats.''

To be fair, Dickey does admit that his linguistic limitations did not permit him to see much from the native point of view. Instead, he confines his interviews almost exclusively to the British flight attendants he picked randomly from the Dubai Hilton pool. With these and a few other expatriates only slightly better informed about local culture, Dickey sets out to explore how Westerners and Arabs have learned to coexist on the latter's home turf.

Still, regardless of Arabic's legendary difficulty, it is odd for a reporter in Cairo with four years under his belt not to know the meaning of the word for foreigner, heard about as often in the Middle East as the word ``gringo'' pops up in Mexico. And from his book's subtitle it appears Dickey needs an even more basic lesson in geography. The imperialism-laden term ``Arabia'' usually refers to the Arabian Peninsula, not to North Africa and certainly not to Iran, both of which are also brief stops on his tour.

Dickey breaks even his own rules when he notes that reporters are supposed to stay in touch with local culture but instead seem only to associate with one another. Were this true in his case, we might have learned something from more experienced colleagues. His references to the ``godforsaken'' Arab world and the ``mad'' Colonel Qaddafi ultimately make one question how well he separates feelings from facts when writing for the major news weekly that employs him.

The author searches far for the telling anecdote about expatriate culture and does not disappoint when he nabs one. Meeting Diane Vreeland's granddaughters working incognito in a Sudanese refugee camp would be the highlight of anyone's week on the famine beat. But still, one yearns for details when he refers to the ``mutual attraction'' between Qaddafi and the female reporters who wait endlessly in Tripoli hotels for exclusive interviews.

But what irks most is Dickey's tactic, when sensing our interest wane, of quoting titillating passages from T.E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger, two of the most famous Orientalists who managed both to mystify the Arabs and to mythologize their own lives while among them.

Indeed, for all of Dickey's theories about Middle Eastern melting-pot culture, we are left only with images of the Westerners whose company Dickey apparently preferred to keep, people who might as well be anywhere they can drink cheaply and ogle sunbathers as long as they can speak in English.

In marked contrast, Peter Theroux is highly attuned to everything he reads and hears in Arabic, who he meets and whom he is mistaken for (spy? Muslim convert?) when speaking fluently in it. The secret of his own success might well be learned by students of all other cultures, that you understand foreigners best only after discovering yourself, and the only way to do that is to be able to speak their language, yet remain the person you always have been.

In fact, ``Sandstorms'' is a kind of lab book for two experiments into the Arab mind that the author previously conducted, one by translating the epic novel ``Cities of Salt'' by Abdelrahman Munif and the other by investigating the disappearance of the Lebanese Shiite cleric Moussa Sadr. Here he steps back from the 10 years he lived in Cairo and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to talk about what lay behind his decision to take on these projects of cultural challenge.

Theroux speaks sharply but with humor about the covert agenda of most other Americans writing about the Middle East. Being a creative writer wearing by necessity the clothes of a reporter, he is particularly adept at decoding the anti-Arab bias beneath the surface in the mainstream press and much closer in popular novels such as Leon Uris's ``Haj.''

A reverse lampoon of American reporting about Saudi Arabia comes off hysterically in an imaginary Saudi journalist's account of New York's 42nd Street, in which the reporter reacts with revulsion to the same things that most Americans regard as innocent fun. After all, it is nice to see once in a while how we disgust them.

Noting that ``scandals are the worst way to understand people - they are only two steps above ethnic jokes,'' Theroux shows just how badly American newspapers serve our curiosity about the Middle East when they write only about Arab excesses at the gambling tables and gas pumps.

But Theroux shows even more clearly the cultural blind spots of Americans whose Arabic is fluent. Associating both with businessmen and diplomats, he found their lack of self-knowledge only outstripped by their lack of knowledge about America itself. How many of them have the experience, much less the Arabic vocabulary, to talk about homelessness and teenage pregnancy in the United States, he asks.

``One's own culture,'' he laments, ``is the last thing you think of using a second language to talk about.''

Theroux's ambitious aim of setting the record straight about Americans and Arabs, of ``getting it right for once, who we are, who they are, and how we look at one another'' may not be altogether satisfied in this book alone, but readers of both of his literary translations and reportage can only hope that he keeps trying.

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