miércoles, 18 de agosto de 2010

Arabia by Jonathan Raban

At the end of the seventies Jonathan Raban wandered across the Middle East. Arabia was the book he wrote after impressionistic visits to Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan and, briefly, Lebanon. Paradoxically, the book starts and finishes in London, because it was there that questions about Arab identity and culture arose in the author’s mind.

In Earls Court the author muses on the question, “Who are the Arabs?” At the time in common prejudice they had a reputation for association with terrorism, being fundamentally religious and having uncountable wealth. So it seems that times have not changed that much…

So Jonathan Raban resolved to find out for himself. Unlike most authors of travelogues, however, Jonathan Raban saw his first task as learning the language and, as a result of this laudable approach, Arabia is perhaps more of an achievement than it otherwise might have been.

In a nutshell, he found Bahrain seedy and Qatar rich but built in a scrap-yard. Abu Dhabi was new and squeaky clean, eager to impress, while Dubai seemed to be populated by business sharks, opportunistic, pragmatic but obsessively driven and eager to excel. All Yemenis appeared to be overactive dwarves on a spending spree. Egypt was big and scruffy, and Jordan was like Switzerland with parties.

You will gather immediately that Arabia is not an in-depth study of Arab culture, society or indeed anything else. Its pages are heavily populated with stories of expatriates, the sort of people who might be eager to talk over a drink in a bar. Though he quotes Thesiger, Jonathan Raban seems to have neither the inclination nor the means to follow the explorer into the desert. This is not a criticism. He also quotes Alice, but does not venture into wonderland. But there again, perhaps he does precisely that, especially in Abu Dhabi.

Thirty years later, a casual visitor to the places Jonathan Raban frequented might have similar impressions, except the places and the associated reactions would all be much bigger. Bahrain’s planned causeway was built and at weekends there are even more Saudis doing what Saudis do at weekends. Abu Dhabi is vastly more splendid, and Dubai is still trying to be the tallest, biggest, the best in something measurable and sellable. Jordan may well be significantly poorer than the country Jonathan Raban found. It seems he may have found it difficult to escape the swish diplomatic and international resident areas, and he never made it to Wadi Rum or Petra, so didn’t even have a tourist experience to relate. I have never been to Yemen or Egypt, so I cannot comment on them.

One thing that always comes across in Jonathan Raban’s work is a willingness to engage with people, very often over a whisky! And, though Arabia might only make a very light scratch across the surface of its subject, its focus on individual vignettes makes it a highly entertaining and engaging read. The region is no doubt still host to many others like them. The book is also mildly informative. And, on a weekend where debates rage on the proposed construction of a mosque in New York, it is interesting to reflect how little attitudes towards the book’s subject seem to have changed.

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