This book is a travelogue of a journey Jonathan Raban took through some Arabian countries in the late 1970s. Raban's journey started in Bahrain, followed by Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Yemen, Egypt, and Jordan. Although the trip took place in the 1970s, much of what Raban observed and commented upon is still very much visible today. Today, more than ever, Arabia is divided into the have and have not countries, with Saudi Arabia setting the cultural standard for the haves. Yemen, Egypt, and Jordan still export labor to the have countries, with Yemen leading in the supply of police officers, Egypt with schoolteachers, and Jordan with technicians.
Raban set off on his journey with a little training in Arabic from an Egyptian teacher in London, and had only 3 months to observe life and conditions throughout the lands on his itinerary. Three months is a very short time to take in much of consequence, particularly with his language limitations. Nevertheless, Raban was able to cut to the quick and make some very astute observations that still ring true twenty years later. He picked up on intense respect locals had for museum exhibits and other efforts to preserve local culture in the face of rapid development. He found someone who pointed out to him the incredible love Arab men show for their children "You see an Arab father, he's fantastically proud of his kid...They'd do anything for their children, the Arabs." Raban's description of the landscape in the Gulf is very apropos: "It was at that moment in the evening when the low sun goes squashy in the Gulf and coats everything it touches with a soft, thick light the color of broom. It gilded the wailing six-lane highway. It gilded the sandy roadside where I walked. It gilded the long trail of garbage- -the crushed Pepsi cans, discarded refrigerators, torn chunks of auto tire, cardboard boxes, broken fan belts lying the dust like snakes, the building rubble, polystyrene packing blocks, and a rather-long-dead goat." But here Raban didn't attempt to capture the accompanying smells, the essences of the well-used slaughterhouse wafting over the sand at the end of another hot day, the rotting diaper washing up on the sand of what could be a picturesque beach, the sweating Bangladeshi municipal worker in his one uniform, who makes his living and puts all of his children through school back in Bangladesh by chasing the garbage across the dunes, day in and day out for twenty years.
At the beginning of his journey, Raban assessed the state of cultural exchange going on in the cosmopolitan Gulf: "What appeared to be unique to Bahrain was the way in which so many nationalities had landed upon one small patch of ground, coming together to create not a cosmopolitan city but a multitude of tiny provincial hamlets. Few expatriates ever bothered to learn more than a word or two of Arabic; they had no Arab friends; they were comfortably ignorant of the lives of the people with whom they shared this meager acreage of land. The same was true, apparently, of the Arabs themselves, the Iranians, the Indians, the Pakistanis. The different groups exchanged contracts, employed one another, purchased things at each other shops, were each other's landlords and tenants- -but they didn't mix." A longer stay might have explained some of the reasons behind these facts. Firstly, the Arabs in the Gulf, through importation of labor, have made themselves into tiny minorities in their own countries. Perhaps as a result of this, they are very reluctant to share their lives with the faceless multitudes of foreigners who they bring in to serve them. Because of the small numbers of Arabs living in these countries, expatriates are much more likely to come into daily contact with Hindi, Urdu, and Pashto speakers than Arabic speakers, so learning Arabic won't get them very far in this environment. The shop owners and landlords are, by law, locals, but they employ South Asians to run the day-to-day operations of their businesses, so the languages of the shops is English, Hindi, Urdu, or Malayam, not Arabic. The people of the majority culture, the South Asians, are generally working 80 hours or more a week, so there is very little time left over after work for mixing with others. Raban was able to make contact with a few Arabs in the Gulf, but didn't comment on the fact that with the exception of those he met at the offices of the government sponsored writers, he was meeting expatriate Arabs, generally at bars, looking for Western playmates to drink with who weren't encumbered by Muslim dictates against abusing alcohol. He also met a few of the lonely breed of Brits, who find that Arabia seeps into their blood, and who cannot bear the thought of leaving the sunny sands to return to their cold Northern culture.
Somewhere in Yemen, Raban becomes a little fatigued with his journey. After this, the quality of his observations begins to slip, and the book becomes simply another travelogue through Arabia, with more to say about Raban and his mental state than about the people he had set out to encounter. The first part of the book, however, written while Raban was still fresh in his travels, is quite entertaining and worthwhile. Despite its age, it encapsulates a great deal of what can be found in the countries of the Gulf today.