“The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East” is a comic travelogue that lassoes stereotypes. While Syria, Yemen, and Egypt are erupting into violence, a young university employee based in Abu Dhabi takes it upon himself to see what is really happening around the region and correct the media-driven impression of “over there” in a post 9/11 world.
Adam Valen Levinson – a young university employee based in Abu Dhabi at the time – takes it upon himself to see what is really happening around the region and correct the media-driven impression of “over there” in a post 9/11 world.
Adam Valen Levinson, the book’s author, is a young writer to watch. As witty as are his descriptions and antics in this book, his interests and seriousness mark him as a new champion of the pen, the way Lieutenant John Dunbar was a champion of the solo ride in the movie “Dances with Wolves,” or David, of the pitch, in the biblical Old Testament.
Like those heroes, the adventuring narrator is ready to take real risks. Valen Levinson begins his tale and keeps it flying with humor. Initially, he chronicles his own aimlessness after studying languages in college. Working as a coordinator for New York University in Abu Dhabi, using his Arabic skills, but mostly partying, he caves in when two orthodox Jewish rabbis, with yarmulkes under their caps, want to celebrate his traditional coming-of-age-at-13-ritual, belatedly and over his objections.
His rootlessness in a country only a few years older than he is, makes him more impressionable. “‘Come join us tomorrow morning—it will be your bar mitzvah,’ the rabbis entice. ‘I…I have to be at work tomorrow,’ he demurs. ‘We’ll do it beforehand—plus isn’t that your boss?’ The provost was sipping Manischewitz by the window.”
After acquiescing lightly (“I might have seen the lights atop the minaret wink”), the newly blessed and sanctioned man decides to challenge himself. He is itching to know the world beyond the bubble of comfort and media-advertised assumptions encapsulating the American satellite campus.
In Abu Dhabi, young Syrian Ali is selling falafel while young people in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, are beginning to mutiny. Adam and his friends run to meet them. After engaging with the Arabic-speaking world in Oman and Kuwait, our determined adventurer slips into Syria. In Damascus, a Christian woman from Florida has just opened a café, putting her faith in Bashar Al Assad’s leadership. Aware that most foreigners have already been evacuated, and that there is a chance her café will not survive, Adam tries to order as many bowls of lentils from her as he can.
The journey continues into Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Iran, and Pakistan. The narrator’s gift – being one of the few Americans, and possibly the sole Jew, choosing to be in the Middle East allows for some hilarious reporting. In Lahore, Pakistan, his guides are a university president’s aide and a driver, who try to inform him about their perspective. “I like India,” the president’s aide said. “Just Hindus: no, no.”
At the book’s climax, Adam takes his sweetheart from back home on a significant date: toasting the New Year 2012 in a tent colony in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with black tea and Egyptian humor. There follow forays into Yemen and Somalia, with unexpected landscapes and exchanges, and only brief consideration of dénouements on the horizon.
Part of the friction between America and the Muslim world is believing what we are told by our respective news outlets. The remedy could be as simple (and difficult) as refusing common misconceptions and seeking to know for oneself.
Part of the real friction between America and the Muslim world, you realize, is believing what we are told by our respective news outlets. The remedy for it could be as simple (and difficult) as refusing common misconceptions and seeking to know for oneself.
Every page of “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah” is deftly written and engaging; the concept is original and surprising, and the content, both funny and terrifying. As you close the cover, you may blink twice: once for false ideas chased out of your mind, and once again for the world you have brought home, in opening it.