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Far Out in the Near East : BAGHDAD WITHOUT A MAP: And Other Misadventures in Arabia, By Tony Horwitz (E. P. Dutton: $18.95; 273 pp.) : MOTORING WITH MOHAMMED: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea, By Eric Hansen (Houghton Mifflin: $19.95; 240 pp.)

February 17, 1991|Dick Roraback | Roraback, a member of the Book Review staff, has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East

In the heat of the day beside a road in Yemen, a man dressed in a white robe hiked up to his knees strides over a trackless expanse of sand. The man carries neither water nor an umbrella to screen out the blistering sun. Slung over his shoulder is a stout ax.

Eric Hansen, a visiting American, asks his driver what the man is doing.

"He is collecting wood."

"But there is no wood."

"It is not important," says the driver.

The scene is pure Arabian Zen.

They're like that, the Arabs. Somewhat unfathomable. Always ambiguous.

Scuds and MiGs to the contrary, they are a race that has not yet come to terms with the 20th Century. Correction: with the West's notion of the 20th Century. Their own construct will do just fine, thank you:

At Khomeini's funeral, a mourner tells writer Tony Horwitz: "As a Westerner you cannot understand what this man means to us because you have lost God." Hansen recalls with fondness an Imam who refused to sell exploration rights because oil was "the devil's urine." Another Arab, both wealthy and urbane, wryly observes to Horwitz: "If you want spiritual peace it is enough to have one television set."

Both Horwitz's timely "Baghdad Without a Map" and Hansen's "Motoring With Mohammed" take tentative, bewildered but often good-natured steps toward exploring the character of America's new adversaries--and allies--among the Arab legion.

Horwitz's book, while anecdotal, is the more professional, as befits a trained reporter. Hansen's romp is confined to Yemen, an arbitrary "country" that, like the author, is unfettered, exuberant and at least slightly dangerous.

Horwitz's glass is judiciously half-empty: Cairo is "the biggest upturned ashtray in the world." Hansen's hubbly-bubbly overflows: Sana, Yemen's capital, is "beautiful, magical, otherworldly." From these divergent viewpoints, both authors manage to dispense an Essence of Arab considerably less acrid than war-watchers have become accustomed to when CNN is on the scent.

Generalizing can be tricky, if not misleading, especially when the peoples examined are what Egyptian diplomat Tashin Bashiur calls "tribes with flags," but Horwitz and Hansen give it their best shots:

Arabs are fatalists--as their wrap-around word Insh'allah would imply. Insh'allah means "If Allah wills it," and when they say it, they mean it. In daily life, insh'allah is balm for the bereft; relevant to the current crisis, it would also serve nicely as rationale for a kamikaze attack.

(Crossing the Persian Gulf at night in a smuggler's boat during the earlier Gulf hostilities, Horwitz asks the captain if there isn't some danger involved. "Wherever there is darkness there is light," says the skipper, an avatar of Arabian Zen. "A man must make his own map for the shadows.")

Arabs are generous, almost beyond reason, as any wandering stranger who's hunkered around a Bedouin campfire can attest. "Overeating (even at the table of the very poor) is an obligatory expression of love," writes Horwitz, who of course includes Israeli hospitality in his appraisal. Nevertheless, the reporter, a Jew, cannot help but take note of the dichotomy between opposite banks of the Jordan River:

Arabs are inherently, almost hopelessly civil. "The first thing you notice, coming to Israel from the Arab world," Horwitz writes, "is that you have left the most courteous region of the globe and entered the rudest. . . . as though God parted the Red Sea and said, 'Okay, you rude ones, keep wandering toward the Promised Land. The rest of you can stay here and rot in the desert, saying "Welcome, most welcome" and drowning each other in tea until the end of time.' "

"A lot of this hospitality is false," Horwitz adds, but in the best tradition of Paris residents popping over to London for a civilization fix, the author, "after losing more shoving matches than I'd won," finds himself "drifting toward the Arab quarter" for a few pleasantries.

That said, Horwitz, conscious of his own ancient heritage, lists half a dozen traits--deep-seated traits, blood traits--shared by Arab and Israeli. Equally deep--the root of the current tragedy--is both sides' violent denial of the slightest similarity.

Arabs are quixotic. Horwitz is understandably disarmed by a belly-dance orchestra featuring a musician "playing" a single cymbal; Hansen revels in the sight of Islam's version of a flasher, a fully clothed man who leaps out of bushes and opens his palm, on which is printed in ballpoint-blue the message "I WANT WOMAN."

Arabs are pious. Any doubt should be dispelled at any midday in Cairo, one of the world's most chaotic cities, when everything--everything!--ceases for prayers. Buses stop, diners lay down their utensils, the vendor feverishly flogging "papyrus fresh from Tut's tomb" sets aside his 14-cent treasures to bump forehead to pavement.

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