A fiction writer who taught in Saudi Arabia and Egypt for five years in the 1980s recounts her experiences with balance, if not literary excitement. While Caesar notes relevant international events (e.g., the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the American bombing of Libya) and her romance with and marriage to an Egyptian colleague, she devotes her chapters to delineating characteristics of the cultures in which she lived. Topics range from intricacies of women's dress to Egyptian tribal beliefs about marriage to faulty Western press coverage of the Middle East to the accepted mistreatment of foreign-born housemaids. Throughout, Caesar successfully interweaves her students' comments on the Western books she teaches to shed light on both the Middle East and Western assumptions. Most effective are her account of the teaching of A Passage to India, which leads to class discussions of the moral blind spots fostered by political power (``shame societies and shameless societies,'' a student says), and Caesar's later ruminations on the US victory in Iraq and the World Trade Center bombing trial. In nearly every chapter Caesar observes, raises questions, and recedes as a character. This combination, plus the many incompletely developed supporting characters, results in a low-key, occasionally uninvolving tale, lacking the self-scrutiny of fine memoirs. But her persistence in examining and questioning Western and Middle Eastern cultures, and her believable embrace of some of the latter's elements and people, are what remain in mind when the book is done. She takes readers to what she calls ``a different world'' and helps them better understand and appreciate it—to see Cairo, for example, as she does, ``evolving naturally out of itself for thousands of years, influenced by other cultures without becoming an artificial imitation of them.'' Parts of this volume have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. A warm, modest work that makes compassion seem simple.
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