MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL: A Woman's Journey into the Heart of the Arab World by Laila Abou-Saif

MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL: A Woman's Journey into the Heart of the Arab World

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This dreary offering from Egypt's former leading woman theater director is an attempt to get to the ""heart of the conflict in the Middle East"" through interviews she conducted on her 1986 return trip to her homeland. With her first book (A Bridge Through Time--not reviewed) banned in Egypt, Abou-Saif has a love-hate relationship with the country. Here, she tries to balance her newly westernized sensibility with her Egyptian upbringing, to eradicate her intensely pessimistic outlook for her country. Part diary, part oral history, the book interweaves the political with the personal--uncomfortably. Decrying the inflation and poverty she observes, the author can also note that ""if you can still buy jasmine flowers in Cairo, then things must be all right."" She claims almost 500 hours of taped interviews, but those transcribed here are clumsy, pedantic, and apparently unedited: ""What is the role of the U.S. in the Middle East, in your opinion?"" she asks more than one subject. She speaks with a variety of government officials, diplomats, political leaders, artists, and intellectuals, and manages to make all of them sound alike. Her conversation with 1988 Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, rather than revealing something about the man as a writer or literary figure, is conducted as if he were a middle-level bureaucrat: ""But what do you think of the population explosion? Is there such a problem?"" And Abou-Saif achieves the near-impossible: She conducts a dull interview with the PLO's Yasir Arafat. Part of the problem here is a lack of historical and social context, as Abou-Saif fails to supply adequate background to the mostly unfamiliar names. A work, then, that could have used considerable editing--as well as re-conceptualizing.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1990
Publisher: Scribners