Brynn Craffey

An American in the Middle East

Filed By Brynn Craffey | September 29, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics
Tags: Iraq war, Israel, Jewish, Middle East, Palestine

Devoid of much cash, luggage, or dogmatic notions, Benjamin Orbach, 27, left JFK airport on July 16th, 2002, bound for Amman, Jordan. An American Jew and Arabic Studies graduate of Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies, Orbach was determined to submerge himself in Arab culture, his goal being to attain fluency in Modern Standard Arabic. In the process, Orbach ended up offering his everyday Arabic neighbors and friends an alternative view of an average American, while experiencing at the same time, a culture that in recent history, has become known for its hostility toward Jews, and in particular, toward Israel--home to some of Orbach's close relatives.

During the next 13 months, Orbach wrote long emails home from Amman, Jordan, Antkya, Turkey, Aleppo, Syria, and Cairo, Egypt, updating family and friends on his whereabouts, adventures, and developing insights into Middle Eastern geography, culture, politics, and peoples. These emails, compiled and edited, form the book, Live from Jordan (and other parts of the Arab World): Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East.

Orbach's book details his evolution from a relatively naïve American, barely able to hail a bus or order a meal in the formal, archaic Arabic he learned in school, to a self-assured, knowledgeable expatriate, confidently negotiating transportation, markets, restaurants, haircuts, and the minefields of political and religious discussions in fluent Arabic. Dwelling on a shoestring budget in both Amman and Cairo, Orbach squired his visiting American mother around Amman, and traveled extensively on his own throughout Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. That he did this in the period immediately leading up to and during George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, only makes his adventures that much more daring and his book that much more interesting.

The book is filled with fascinating anecdotes, from an accidental and harrowing encounter in a Turkish brothel, to encounters with Syrian secret police, to the sometimes humorous and mundane challenges posed by living in a part of the world where turning on tap may or may not bring hot water. In both Amman and Cairo, Orbach kept a running, mental map of all Western establishments, such as McDonalds or the Hyatt, where he could avail in an emergency of modern, dependable, and clean plumbing.

Because political tensions are so great between Israel and its Arabic neighbors, Orbach concealed his Jewish identity to most of the people he encountered during his sojourn. In a move telling of America's fallen reputation, he also sometimes lied and said he was Canadian. As well, and like others before him, before he left the States he had prepared himself with a new, clean US passport, devoid of Israeli stamps or visas. Evidence of sojourns in the Jewish state are enough to block free passage across certain borders and even result in a person's arrest or disappearance.

When Orbach eventually does enter Israel for the first time after living for several months in Jordan, the callous treatment by Israeli border guards of his fellow Palestinian travelers gives Orbach serious pause. At first, he himself is taken to be Arab. Then he reveals to an Israeli guard that he is traveling to spend time with friends outside Haifa.

"Your friend is Jewish?" she asked in a surprised tone.

"Yes," I answered.

"And you are Jewish?" she replied, a puzzled look on her face.

She hadn't called Elad [the friend whom he is visiting] and had instead mistaken me for an Arab. Because my destination was Haifa, a mixed Jewish and Arab city, she had no way of knowing that my cousins are modern Orthodox Jews. Since I was coming from Jordan--where most of the border traffic is Palestinian--and had traveled throughout the Arab East, she had assumed that I was an Arab American. I glanced at all the Palestinians waiting behind me. With a sense of remorse for the abandonment of my fellow travelers and for the ending of our common experience, I answered, "Yes."

From that point on, Orbach receives expedited processing and polite treatment, emerging way ahead of the delayed Palestinians. His cultural shock, arriving in Israel--a country he had previously resided in--speaking fluent Arabic and looking like an Arab, is fascinating. His subsequent discussion of the distinction between official history, which encompasses rules, regulations, and an as-yet unattained state called "Palestine," and "people's history," is not only informative but indicates just how far he has evolved as a result of his experiences in Jordan.

As Americans, a lot of us appreciate rules and adhere to what is official. Establishing a firm set of rules and then enforcing them is a way to try and ensure equality for everyone...In a lot of ways, we take this American penchant for rules, forms, and officialdom and apply its logic elsewhere. Personally, I'm guilty of applying it to history, viewing history through the perspective of nation-states, rather than of people.

On the issue of Palestine, the United States does not officially recognize Palestine as an independent state, and for good reason: It isn't a state...With this historical background established, and given my American adherence to the parameters of national and international rules, my understanding of Palestine's existence was compromised. Because there is no history of Palestinian rule and there is no internationally recognized independent Palestinian state, I was unable to see Palestine as a place.

From the perspective of people and a people's history, though, existence and history do not depend upon official sovereignty and independence. To be sure, the actions of government institutions and the relationship between ruler and the ruled are key parts of any history. They influence the quality of a people's life; however, they are not exclusive components to a formula that determines a people's history.

This insight is something that we, as LGBT people, can personally understand.

Orbach's evolution continues through his forced evacuation from Amman on the even of America's invasion of Iraq, and his intense, personal reaction, while living in Cairo when the bombing starts and the war progresses. This section makes for one of the most fascinating parts of the book.

I lived briefly on two different Israeli kibbutzim (collectivized agricultural settlements) in 1974, and have closely followed developments in the Middle East ever since. But you don't need a particular interest nor background in the region's history to find this book fascinating.

In fact, given America's 60 years of ever-mounting foreign-aid to Israel and deeper political and military involvement in the region, culminating in our current predicaments in Iraq and Afghanistan, every American has a personal enough stake in the region to make this book a 'must-read."

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 29, 2008 9:47 AM

Brynn, thank you, the review is wonderful.

I read parts of the book before I sent it on to you, Brynn. I really liked what I read; I remember wishing I had time to read it and review it myself.

Brynn -

Glad you enjoyed the book, thanks for the positive review. Your point about "people's history" and the LGBT community interested me. I used to wonder about hiding my Jewish identity, a lot. I thought it gave me a small glimpse into what it must be like to hide other identities. I wrote about that a little here. I know, for sure, that it was a lonely experience at times.