Middle Eastern Sketches

by Mark N. Katz. 155 pages.
Lanham, MD: University Press of America. 1997. $29.00 (Paper). ISBN 0-7618-0776-4.

Reviewed by Thomas B. Stevenson

Yemen Update 41(1999)

Travel narratives are a mix of local color, key events of the journey, and insights from the author's encounter with "the other." Usually the result is a picture of life elsewhere as it might have been experienced by the reader, the armchair traveler. Mark Katz's book approximates this pattern but his are not tales typical of the genre. His concerns are those of the academic and the images are preliminary sketches not full canvases. With these he hopes to convey "the difficulty for a Westerner to penetrate these societies; the range of thoughts I heard Arabs and Iranians express...; how these societies appear to others who live and work in them...; and what life is like in these countries generally (p. ix)."

Katz's interest in the Middle East was almost accidental. He was a Soviet specialist armed with a grant to study the USSR's foreign policy toward the Middle East. This book is a glimpse of what happened to him along the way. Unlike other travelers accounts - like Jonathan Raban's A Journey Through the Labyrinth or Eric Hansen's Motoring with Mohammed - in which the encounters are longer, Katz's forays are a series of very short (a week is typical), poorly orchestrated and seemingly unsuccessful visits. By and large they are fraught with bureaucratic annoyances and bungles - compounded by official obfuscations and attempts to create illusions that information is being passed, that day tours are meaningful, or that guests' needs are being met, even as everything is geared to insure that nothing does. Combined the chapters form a litany of disappointment and read, collectively, like "trips to hell," a picture bolstered by the author's comical and occasionally very funny comments. What we get is a portrayal of Middle Easterners, most of whom are government officials, academics, or members of the upper classes, that fits the worst of the popular stereotypes. This is not to say most researchers cannot identify with these cases. I'm sure almost all can. But this is not the image most of us with a strong affinity for Middle Easterners would offer students.

Katz's travels include research visits to Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq, participation in conferences in Morocco, Iran, and the U.A.E., and a business-pleasure trip to Egypt - an impressive list for someone whose research agenda touches on sensitive political topics. While some journeys are more productive and interesting than others, there is a common thread. A typical sketch begins with Katz spending a great deal of time trying to set up appointments prior to the trip, waiting expectantly at the airport for a ministry officer who does not show up, hanging out in well-worn hotel rooms, or waiting futilely in ministry anterooms. We learn that Middle Eastern government officials are reluctant to talk to outsiders but attempt to disguise this behind thin veils of generosity. This is true even for trips suggested and arranged by high officials, as were his to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, or as an invitee to conferences. Rather than learning about Soviet foreign policy, Katz is treated to a tour of a Saudi dairy farm and to an Iraqi archaeological excavation. The tours may not be what he wanted, but they reveal what the governments think is important or controversial.

If bureaucrats fall short of cultural norms in their version of Middle Eastern hospitality, the author doesn't always deport himself well either. Katz is introspective enough to know when his style reflects the insensitivity of a bad American guest. For example, while dining with Yemen Times editor, Dr. Abdulaziz al-Saqqaf, the two engage in a shouting match. Worse after a Saudi graduate student from a prominent family arranged his visit to that country, he reveals to his benefactor's father that his son had an Israeli on his doctoral committee. The result was a serious rift between father and son.

Not all sketches focus on bureaucrats. In Egypt, where Katz hoped to learn something about Egypt's participation in Yemen's first civil war (1962-1970) - he found that for Egyptians their defeat by "inferior" Yemeni forces was a greater humiliation than their devastating loss to Israel in 1967 - he describes his rail journey from Cairo to Luxor. The food and accommodations were pleasing if the rails a bit rough. On the other hand, the Nile cruise was on a vile, largely stationary steamer where the food was both unwholesome and unappealing.

While unkept appointments and overly solicitous, self-serving officials are the norm, the author enjoys some triumphs. At a conference in Teheran, he manages to meet a number of Iranian academics, especially female scholars, and is invited to people's homes. Readers of Yemen Update will be happy to learn that his experience in the Y.A.R. was more successful than many of his other ventures. Although neither AIYS nor the Yemen Embassy in Washington were of much help, a Yemeni national - Shaykh Sinan Abu Lahum - was.

It is on his trip to Yemen that we get a glimpse of what is to me the highlight of Middle Eastern society, the warmth and helpfulness shown to strangers. For example, I recall my own trip on the Luxor to Aswan train during which Susan and I did not have seats but Egyptians cheerfully gave up theirs so we could sit, brought us tea, and engaged us in conversation.

Despite the occasional rays of sun, some heavy clouds hang over these sketches. As I finished the book, I wondered what someone with no exposure to the Middle East would conclude. The question that stood out was, "Why do academics, who one supposes should know better, put themselves through these discomforts and disappointments?" We come away believing that Katz obtained little useful information, managed to meet mostly self-interested officials, and that even those people with whom he had better dealings acted in ways that were at least odd if not incomprehensible. These conclusions owe partly to the author's glib style but beyond this it seems he was uncomfortable and as a result disliked his experiences.

It might be easy to say my criticism is that Katz is not politically correct. Not so. I have exchanged many fieldwork stories - humorous, ribald, and critical - with colleagues in which we have poked fun at ourselves and those among whom we studied. Nor is it that what he says doesn't ring true. Even with the support of AIYS and YCSR, researchers in Yemen may have comparable misadventures with officialdom.

What is missing is perspective. As a person accustomed to long stays in the field I wonder what can be learned reliably about a peoples' feeling and attitudes, patterns of behavior, or lifestyle from a fleeting glimpse from a hotel room. I also wonder to what extent foreign policy is shaped by people who have had similar unpleasant or unproductive experiences.

These sketches reveal one side of Middle Eastern life. What is missing for the most part is some sense of ordinary people, individuals who don't seem part of the author's experience. If they were here, then Katz would have achieved his goal.

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