September 22, 2005

“We Must Go to the East”

“We must go to the East” – Napoleon.
I leave for the Middle East in six days and I’ll be gone for six months. The fact that I’m still here is a mere technicality. I’m not really here anymore. I’m in a weird sort of limbo state now: my mind is in Beirut and my body is stuck in Portland.

The Judge Roberts nomination, the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, the impending arrival of Hurricane Rita, George Bush’s plummeting polls numbers…none of these things are interesting anymore. I can’t bring myself to read a newspaper and care about what it says. I can only read books. And I can only read books about where I’m going.

Mostly what I’m reading is “homework.” But I’m also re-reading parts of Tony Horwitz’s terrific Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia. It’s a collection of Middle Eastern travel essays, and there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather read while gearing up to go there myself.

Because I am only reading books right now instead of mixing up my usual book-reading with news junky fare, you get book-blogging instead of news-blogging. Hope you can handle it.

Here is how Baghdad Without a Map opens. See if you can tell me you don't want to go East after you read this. And if you like the introduction, buy the book and read the whole thing.
I was driving alone, on a moonless night, along the rim of the vast desert known as the Empty Quarter. The road was black and narrow, the occasional sign written in Arabic script I couldn’t yet decipher. I turned and turned again and felt the back wheels spin in drifting desert sand.

Retracing my route, I stopped at a small oasis of palm trees and whitewashed villas. Arab houses, particularly those in the Persian Gulf states, reveal little to the outside world. Knocking on a plain metal door set in a high wall of stucco, I wondered if the home inside was a palace or a hovel.

The door creaked open a few inches and a woman peered out, her face concealed by a black canvas mask. It formed a beak around her nose, with narrow eye slits, like medieval armor. I asked in simple Arabic if she could direct me back to the town I had left to watch the sunset, three hours before.

She paused, glancing over her shoulder. There was a rustle of garments and the whisper of female voices. Then she invited me in and slipped behind another door to find someone who could help.

Five women sat on a carpet in the courtyard, sipping tea from tiny glasses. They wore masks like the woman at the door, and billowy black shrouds that fell to their toes, concealing hair and skin.

I smiled and offered the ubiquitous Arab greeting: “Salaam aleikum.” Peace be upon you. Ten eyes stared back through their peepholes. It was difficult to tell if anyone returned my smile. Then one of the women stood up and offered me a glass of tea. She spoke in hesitant English, and her voice was muffled by the veil. “I love you,” she said.

I looked down, embarrassed, and studied the red henna dye painted in swirls across the tops of her toes. Somehow, saying “I love you, too” to a Muslim woman in a face mask didn’t seem appropriate. So I smiled and thanked her. We stood there, blue eyes to black eyes, until a man appeared at the edge of the courtyard. He wore a starched white robe and a white kerchief folded like a fortune cookie atop his head. “I love you always,” the woman said, retreating toward the black-robed huddle on the carpet.

The man explained in a mix of English, Arabic and pantomime that I should follow the oil wells, vast laceworks of steel strung out along the highway. At night, wreathed in blinking lights, they looked like dot-to-dot drawings without the lines sketched in. Before Mohammad brought Islam to the Arabian peninsula, the Bedouin worshipped stars and used them as guides in the night. These days, nomads navigate by a constellation of oil.

The drive was long and dull, and I passed the time by replaying the courtyard scene in my head. I’d noticed a satellite disk perched atop the villa; perhaps the women had been watching television. Wasn’t “I love you” what men and women often said to each other in the West? I let my imagination drift across the sand. Perhaps the women dreamed of strangers in the night – though probably not blond men in khakis and sneakers, sputtering bad Arabic. Perhaps the women were concubines, held captive in a desert harem. It was the sort of thing that often happened in movies about Arabia.

Most likely the meeting was meaningless, a linguistic impasse common to rookie correspondents. “My first few months here, I felt like Helen Keller,” a fellow journalist had confided a few weeks before, welcoming me to the Middle East. “Blind, deaf, and also dumb – particularly dumb.”

So I shrugged off the strange encounter. Surely, as my Arabic and my understanding of Arabic subtleties improved, I’d be able to make sense of such scenes, even use them as anecdotes in my future stories.

But strange things kept happening. And in the two years that followed, I often found myself in dimly lit hotel rooms or dusty airport lobbies, trying to fathom notes I had scribbled just hours before. What was I to make of the teenager in Gaza, his face wrapped in a black-checkered keffiya, who guided me through streets smudged with burning tires, then paused to ask, “Mr. Tony, there is something I must know. Are you Portuguese?”

Did he know somehow I was Jewish? What did this have to do with the Portuguese?

Months later, I arrived by boat in Beirut, amid heavy artillery fire. A lone sentry patrolled the dock, and I assumed he would ask for my papers. “Visa? Who said anything about visa?” he said with a shrug. Gesturing toward the shell-pocked shore, he slung his weapon onto his shoulder and melted back into the gloom.

Was this an invitation or a warning?

On a later reporting trip, to cover the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, I found myself stuck in Tehran traffic beside a taxi driver who kept grabbing my thigh and shrieking: “America! Donkey! Torch!” He refused to accept a single riyal for the hour-long ride.

After a time, I contented myself with scribbling in my notebooks and filling the margins with question marks. Islamic society, like the homes I had passed that first night in the desert, didn’t open easily to Westerners. To pretend that I understood all that I saw and heard was folly.

But the mystery kept tugging, even after I left the Middle East. The margins were still filled with question marks. And some nights, when the rain raps hard against my window, I wander south to the Empty Quarter, to black masks and black eyes and red-henna toes, and wonder why it was she loved me.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at September 22, 2005 01:30 AM
Comments

Sounds great!
I notice he had some Arabic ...

There's also the huge problem of understanding the culture of a place based on who the leader is; would America really be much different with Kerry as President?

So far, I don't think so. But what are the people like, in day to day to life? I don't think red-blue state folk are really much different, daily.

I suspect that Lebanonese folk are an interesting mix of "almost the same" and "surprisingly different". I'm really looking forward to hearing about your adventures.

(and Arabic progress, or lack.)

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at September 22, 2005 05:34 AM

Great piece - it makes the Japan of Lost in Translation sound like a PTA meeting.

The first book we had in our Arabic class was Alif Baa (A,B), which devotes more than 100 pages plus CDs or DVDs to just the letters. That was helpful, but this kid-style book, Your First 100 words in Arabic helps with important words like taxi, bus, and street signs.

You're lucky to know people in Lebanon already, but even with friends to translate the experience, it should be an adventure.

Looking forward to more desert pictures.

Posted by: mary at September 22, 2005 07:12 AM

Michael, this is important work you are doing and I wish you God's Speed! Be safe my friend, and send us reports from your travels in the typically brilliant manner we have come to expect.

Cheers and be safe!

Posted by: GM Roper at September 22, 2005 07:27 AM

America, Donkey, Torch...if you ever figure that one out, let us know!

Sounds like an exciting book. Have a great trip!

Posted by: Patricia at September 22, 2005 08:45 AM

I'm laughing as I read this, because a few weeks ago Michael suggested by email that I get the same book.
I did. Best thing I've read all year. Go ahead, get it.

Posted by: John Tillinghast at September 22, 2005 09:03 AM

Tom,

I don't think red-blue state folk are really much different, daily.

Having lived in the heart of both, I will give you my impressions if you like. To a large degree, yes, everywhere I have lived, folks are folks. But I have, however, noticed some differences.

Red state people are a bit gruff--to me it seemed rude at first--when they do not know you, but when they drop the gruff exterior, they are actually a bit more friendly and bubbly. Once they invite you in, they treat you like family. Where I grew up in the country, one might describe it like this: "They are not very neighborly but they can be very friendly." A blue stater will give you the shirt off his back, not because he likes you (he may or may not) but because it is the neighborly thing to do. The red stater will ignore you unless he likes you. When he helps, you get the distinct notion that it is because he like you so very much.

Also, ironically enough, I find red state people to be significantly more judgmental. This helped me understand why they stress tolerance so much. Blue staters, by and large, simply are tolerant and therefore do not have to work at it. They may think what you are doing is stupid or wrong, but they figure if you are not hurting them, its your business. Red staters, by and large, have a much more difficult time assuming this attitude. It upsets them to see the error of someone's ways.

These are, of course, huge generalizations with exceptions on all sides. Red stators have their busy bodies that drive everyone nuts and there are plenty of libertarian blue stators.

Do other people's experiences agree?

Posted by: JBP at September 22, 2005 09:07 AM

I’m sure Usama Bin Laden loves Rita…and after all why not?

The lady has always had a healthy penchant for bearded Middle-Eastern religious leaders- she even married one of them back in 1949: Prince Ali Agha Khan!

And since the Halcyon days of president F. Delano Roosevelt, Rita has also been the most popular pinup in the Pentagon and aboard US navy warships...

At last a highly consensual pop icon that will finally bridge the Washington-Mecca divide Michael talks about!

;)

Dr Victorino de la Vega
The Middle East Memo
http://www.mideastmemo.blogspot.com/

Posted by: Dr Victorino de la Vega at September 22, 2005 09:13 AM

John Tillinghast,

Glad you liked the book!

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 22, 2005 09:36 AM

Michael: I have been reading your blogs for some time now and I have enjoyed them. I find your decision to go to the Middle East (Lebanon) to be an exciting one. I am sure you will find it exhilarating and confusing, not knowing quite what you experience because it is all so new. Spend time there; forget yourself and your view of the world in order to get a better perspective on this new environment.

I remember the first time I visited the Middle East, Iran actually, pre-revolution; I was scared, excited and felt very alive. Sometimes I just could not believe what I was seeing, just take it all in.

Cities are different from the country-side (or should I say desert-side). If you can find any old Badu, hang around them, their camps, maybe a Saluki or two and their camels, you will see they have a very different mind-set, just like one of the other comments about red-state and blue-state mentalities.

Be safe, have fun and learn. I look forward to reading your blogs from in-country.

Posted by: Steve at September 22, 2005 11:21 AM

Again, many best wishes for the 'experience of a lifetime'.

Don't apologise because, "the Judge Roberts nomination, the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, the impending arrival of Hurricane Rita, George Bush’s plummeting polls numbers…none of these things are interesting anymore. I can’t bring myself to read a newspaper and care about what it says .

You are about to be on another planet in effect. I don't care about those things, and I am stuck here. When everything is politics, nothing has any real significance. It all blends into a melange of detached events.

Looking forward to the MJT outlook on a vastly diferent world.

Take care.

Posted by: dougf at September 22, 2005 11:41 AM

Godspeed.

Posted by: Steve Smith at September 22, 2005 12:06 PM

Now, that is indeed an intro--Powell's, here I come!

Posted by: malm at September 22, 2005 01:16 PM

“We must go to the East” – Napoleon.

Given Nappy's experience in the East, I think you should be looking for a better model. Marco Polo? T. E. Lawrence? No, scrap that one too.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at September 22, 2005 04:22 PM

"I leave for the Middle East in six days and I’ll be gone for six months. The fact that I’m still here is a mere technicality. I’m not really here anymore. I’m in a weird sort of limbo state now: my mind is in Beirut and my body is stuck in Portland.

The Judge Roberts nomination, the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, the impending arrival of Hurricane Rita, George Bush’s plummeting polls numbers…none of these things are interesting anymore. I can’t bring myself to read a newspaper and care about what it says. I can only read books. And I can only read books about where I’m going."

Did you really write this? Honestly... how self-absorbed can one person possibly be?

I mean, I think its great your shipping off to the ME for some time-- I really do. Too much writing on the subject comes from people who have never been there and know nothing about the dynamics. But the worst mistake a writer can make in journalism is injecting theselves into the story. In the 8 sentences I quoted, you refer to yourself 10 times.

Posted by: Truth Teller at September 22, 2005 04:51 PM

Truth teller,

I plead guity to self-absorption right now. Sorry. I'll get over it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 22, 2005 05:22 PM

MJT: "See if you can tell me you don't want to go East after you read this."

I can honestly tell you that after reading about tent-draped women peering through tiny slits and muttering "I love you" to blushing western men who are staring at their painted swirling toes, or whatever, I have no interest in going East. I'd probably get myself killed in about a week after confronting one of these womens' husbands and asking, "What the hell is your problem dude?".

Posted by: Caroline at September 22, 2005 05:41 PM

Caroline,

That scene took place in rural Saudi Arabia. Beirut, Tunis, Istanbul, and Cairo are different places.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 22, 2005 06:40 PM

That scene took place in rural Saudi Arabia. Beirut, Tunis, Istanbul, and Cairo are different places.

Then why did you post that scene with the comment "tell me you don't want to go East after you read this," instead of a scene from some one of the cities you mention?

It's kind of like your following up two posts about how you're journeying into the heart of darkness (e.g., "I take a look at each day’s news with a growing sense of dread") with one wondering why "people over-react to my travel plans as though I have a crazed death wish."

Self-awareness isn't one of your keener traits, Michael.

Posted by: Swopa at September 22, 2005 08:10 PM

If you get a chance before you go, read "Which Way to Mecca, Jack?" by William Peter Blatty. (Yes, the Exorcist authour). It is hard to find but is a hlarious story about living in Beirut.

Posted by: LibraryLady at September 22, 2005 09:36 PM

Good luck, mate! Looking forward to your "discombobulation' and writing about it. Living outside one's own country is, at first, like a dream. I wish more people could travel, to have their wandajehr, to understand at GUT level how very different but how very the same all people are. I'm an Aussie and was lucky enough to spend a year in Mexico, straight after High School, as a Rotary Youth Exchange ambassador. Every day I felt a bit more REAL, every day I would learn something new. Vaya con Dios. amigo!

Posted by: greginOz at September 22, 2005 09:41 PM

Also, after an extended stay outside their country many folks are surprised to find themselves with a serious case of culture shock when they return home. This is often worse for them because it's so unexpected.

Posted by: Michael Farris at September 22, 2005 10:16 PM

Swopa,

(Sigh.)

I was addressing Caroline's (reasonable) concerns about sexism. Not all men in the Middle East are as oppressive as rural men in Saudi Arabia. Beirut is obviously very different and vastly more liberal. Surely she knows this already, but I felt like this was a good time for a reminder.

It is probably obvious to most readers that both I and the author I excerpted find the Middle East fascinating despite the sexism, not because of it. It is a wonderful experience to find yourself in a genuinely foreign place that you do not fully understand.

I'm sorry you missed the point here, but that has nothing to do with my level of self-awareness.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 22, 2005 10:23 PM

Didn't really make me want to go there, but mostly because of the things described I find near perfect where I currently live.

Now, should you describe the food, you got a winner in me. I've seen some whole roasted lamb recipies that I would adore to try. And thier food can be so different from ours I would love to do a food tour (not the touristy type places, but real eateries). Especially in non-french influenced places (most western food is heavily influenced by french sauces at the very least).

I've enjoyed your posts in the past about the people and places - they satisfy most of any wonderlust I have to see those things. But since you are going to be over there so long, and so immersed in thier culture, could you please post about some of thier food? There should be some really different and tasty dishes there.

Two great insights into cultures is thier literature and thier food. Both reflect much of thier interests.

Anyway, hope you enjoy your stay even if you don't food blog. Make sure you update enough to keep us over here interested :) I, for one, am looking forward to your stories. And being written from a personal point of view adds quite a bit in my estimation - I would rather have that than dry biased writings dressed as "truth" - not to mention just adds to the "interesting" factor. Yours is considerably better than our current journalist (and I use that word loosly for many of them).

Posted by: strcpy at September 23, 2005 12:24 AM

That was a great intro. It certainly does make me want to go East, as well as buy the book. Thanks, and all the best in Beirut.

Posted by: Kay at September 23, 2005 02:22 AM

Mike, take this from someone who has gone farther east (living in Japan) and has learned at least a thing or two (maybe just 1.5 things).

I know you are too smart and sophisticated to fall into this trap, but the post from that book, for instance, totally romanticizes the alienness of it all.

Unlike some, I think this is a natural part of the process and a lot of fun in the beginning, but I think the most valuable things are to be learned after you get PAST that stage, and begin to see the people just as they are, without all that extra baggage.

Of course, some will never be able to see YOU as an individual. What I mean is, all will start out thinking you are foreign and strange, but some will never be able to lose this, while others will get past it and see and react to you as an individual human. The trick in living in a very foreign culture, I've found, is to figure out quickly who will never get past the "foreign-ness" of you and minimize your dealings with them.

Posted by: Zak at September 23, 2005 06:40 AM

Zak -- you are absolutely right; you learn more when you get past the exoticism. In many places Horwitz did that--you'll have to see for yourself.

Posted by: John T. at September 23, 2005 07:34 AM

If only our country's leadership had the same thirst for understanding cultures very different than our own we might not have this mess. good luck

Posted by: John Mc at September 23, 2005 10:15 AM

Without a Map is fantastic! Don't forget Paul Bowles on the fiction side of things.

How comical will our national dramas (hurricanes aside) seem while you are there? Looking forward to your trip!

Posted by: slickdpdx at September 23, 2005 05:27 PM

Keep in mind every country has their whackos...so when someone starts making no sense it might be because they are making no sense.

And also, sometimes there are strange little beliefs or ideas about foreigners that once you get, you'll understand for instance, why the Indonesian girls keeps asking to "trade noses." I thought I must have mis-understood, but then I realized she wanted the high nose instead of the little snub nose...okie dokie, interesting conversation opener.

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Posted by: SEO博客 at November 12, 2007 09:51 PM
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