ARABIA: A Journey Through the Labyrinth by Jonathan Raban

ARABIA: A Journey Through the Labyrinth

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Some of the best reporting on Arabia reborn yet. Britisher Raban set out to discover why London's overweening or overwhelmed Arabs were, in either case, so unlike T. E. Lawrence's lean, tough stoics--and, ranging about the Persian Gulf emirates (no visa was forthcoming for Saudi Arabia) and their ""poor relations""--North Yemen, Egypt, Jordan--with a smattering of Arabic, ""a minimum of factual baggage,"" and a convivial taste for whisky, he picked up impressions that confound common wisdom and make absorbing reading. ""Islam,"" said a scholar, ""requires man's powerful intervention in the course of nature""--hence the amazing adaptability of Bedouin nomads whose sons are now studying medicine in Europe or engineering in the U.S.; hence the new Manhattans where only tents stood a scant ten years back. But uprootedness and insecurity are manifest too in Qatar's ""wistful yearning for a national culture"" and the subsidizing everywhere of artists and writers--who, however, turn out mock-folklore or nothing: ""Print was formal, public, and holy,"" not a vehicle for commonplace, dirth truths. (Hence the pervasive, defensive censorship.) Labyrinthine it is indeed; but not without external parallels. The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia--with their miniscule, untrained, oil-cushioned populations--are as dependent on their ""poor relations"" for skilled and unskilled labor as the latter are dependent, in humiliating ways, on them. But the most profoundly implicated are the Palestinians abroad everywhere. Why, Raban wonders, does every Palestinian hang anxiously on the news of fighting in Lebanon? And then he realizes that, ""like the Jews threatened by the Pale of Europe,"" they identify: ""An injury in one part of the diaspora is instantly transmitted through the entire system like an electric current."" He sees moreoever that Palestinians have become, like Jews, ""a huge, highly mobile class of talented middlemen""--and, in surprisingly soign‚e Jordan, nightclub-impresarios and restaurateurs. It's a ferment that he reveals in the supposedly static, lethargic Near East; by contrast, he decides on his return, London looks like a place of ""reliable weightiness."" With many side trips (to chew Yemen's potent qat, to meet Jan Morris--and talk of James), an entertaining, eye-opening jaunt.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Simon & Schuster