Book Buzz: The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah

The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East by Adam Valen Levinson

With the recent news that Saudi Arabia will soon be offering tourist visas, the publication of Adam Valen Levinson’s new memoir/travelogue, The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, is perfectly timed. More than an account of his travels, the book describes both realities and the flavor of life in countries ranging from Syria to Pakistan to Somalia.

Levinson grew up in the shadow of 9/11, and as a young adult recognized how many “fear” messages about the Middle East he had internalized. Armed with a knowledge of Arabic learned in college, curiosity and a mercurial restlessness, his travels to 23 Middle Eastern countries are definitely not the stuff of standard tourist fare, nor the sort of information you would find in even a Lonely Planet guidebook.

The countries he visits are often chosen because someone has told him it would be far too dangerous, or even impossible, to cross a particular border or travel by a particular route. In fact, he stops informing his parents of his travel plans and lets them believe that he is in Abu Dhabi, where he actually does have an apartment and an undemanding job as program coordinator for New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus.

Many of Levinson’s experiences completely debunk his expectations about these countries. And occasionally, he does find himself in situations that are truly dangerous. He crosses through checkpoints too numerous to count, often with a required military traveling companion, sometimes relying on his dark skin, dark hair and shalwar kameez (traditional outfit) to pass without scrutiny.

Along the way, he meets a zany cast of characters and their tentative friendships across cultures are both humorous and thought-provoking. Because Levinson finds shared humanity in these strange situations, his internalized fears dissipate and these Middle Eastern countries ultimately end up feeling less foreign.

The inclusion of the word “love” in the subtitle refers to Adam’s girlfriend, Masha; met in a whirlwind romance just before leaving for Abu Dhabi, their conflicted relationship is communicated through occasional shared email messages at the beginning of chapters. Masha respects that Adam wants to live a life that is not average, safe and predictable, and wishes she were less fearful herself; and also that he would choose her over Iraq or the Sudan.

Levinson is currently studying humor as a key to cultural understanding at Yale University, and this information gives insight into how this book reads. There is plenty of meaty political history here and the opportunity to learn concrete facts about these areas of the world. His unorthodox approach to travel and ability to communicate in the native language shares a boots-on-the-ground view of everyday life conditions and attitudes of local people. And, in the memoir part of the narrative, Levinson employs self-effacing humor to dissect his own biases and privilege.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System. She loves to travel, but might not be quite this adventurous.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, April 25, 2018.)