CRADLE of civilization, cradle of monotheism, cradle of the prophets, rocked by wars and tortured by fanaticism, and laughed at behind its back by so much of the world - a ``crazy'' place full of ``crazy'' people. For Americans who had no interest in the rest of the world, the Middle East epitomized ``abroad'' - ominous, backward, swarthy, extremist, anti-American, and xenophobia-inspiring. It was a symbol of the threat to world peace, the number one candidate for Cradle of World War III. ... Religion was, like oil, a valuable and exploitable resource whose most recent ``boom'' here followed oil's only by a few years. Unlike oil, it was not unrenewable, but infinite, and versatile - only the cutouts of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were necessary as a cover for any political direction. Like oil, it was a means more than an end, and its earthly end seemed to be fighting aliens: Jews, Arabs, Persians, Americans. I had a strong notion it was just ethnocentrism in drag.