An American Abroad: Adam Valen Levinson’s “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East”

“Another’s gaze is a powerful thing...I see you conscious of me, and I grow more self-conscious” -Adam Valen Levinson

By Rob Ames

Adam Valen Levinson covers a lot of ground in “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah.” Geographically (and as the book’s narrator), he uses his temporary home of Abu Dhabi as a jumping-off point to travel the region:  Egypt, the Horn of Africa (Somaliland), the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq), the Persianate world (Iran and Afghanistan), South Asia (Pakistan), and, of course, the Gulf states (Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, and the non-Abu Dhabi Emirates). Literarily (and as its author), he manages to combine comedy, travel reporting, and cultural analysis. Above all else, though, “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah” strikes me as a meditation upon  the question of what it means to be a white American in the Middle East and the various ways that experiences of cultural difference raise this question. At first glance, movement between states seems to drive the book’s plot, but, the real story is one taking place within the narrator:  as the book progresses, Levinson’s shows an increasing ability to reflect critically upon his own motives and identity.

The danger associated with the Middle East in the American mind is not only central to Levinson’s motivation in setting off on the travels his book records; it is also central to his perception of himself on these travels. He reflects, “I treated myself [emphasis mine] like an experiment, in a series of trials kept mostly random by deliberate ignorance, to test the hypothesis that had been worded for me on September 11: you can’t go there” (p. 327). He notes that the danger he encountered in these trips served not only as a personal challenge, but also to confirm his sense of himself as an autonomous being: “the me in these unknown places was freer, and freer still because the few things I really was--an American, a Jew--were like clothing I felt encouraged to wear differently at different occasions” (pp. 282-283).

These economic dimensions of identity also color his observations of political life in the UAE and the wider region. In Qeshm, one of Iran’s free-trade islands, Levinson realizes the centrality of purchasing power to his identity as an American: “With no money, we had lost the major advantage of being American in a place where nationality was meaningless” (p. 199). Similarly, successfully bribing a security guard increases his comfort with himself as a tourist in Egypt: “so long as the bakhshish is received as satisfactory, though, everything feels less scummy. I didn’t feel like the magnanimous colonist, the chalky Sahib...I just felt more complete, unashamed…” (p. 208). He frequently comments upon the contrast between the privilege of American and European foreigners in Abu Dhabi and the exploitation and exclusion of South and South East Asian migrant workers there: during Arab Spring, “the UAE barricaded us in an air-conditioned bubble,” one insulated from unrest, while “the most disenfranchised,” the “voiceless resident laborers,” were so isolated from public life they were  unable to protest in a manner comparable to those protesting in other states in the region. How, Levinson asks, could anyone protest, or “assert publicly,” “when those with the most reason to assert were hardly members of the public?” (p. 46).

Ultimately, Levinson comes to recognize that the attempt to overcome the fear of the Middle East and its residents, and thus overcome the boundary between self and other, in fact rests on that very fear: “By imagining that some Others could bring death to my doorstep, I flew to challenge them on their own turf, to see whether the existential dangers were truly there...I made each person play devil’s advocate to a stereotypical devil. Every little girl and old man stood in comparison to a deadly archetype--if the girl was sweet, she was also not prejudiced; if the man was a kind host, he was also not a murderer. I took the humanity out of the world I wanted to prove human” (p. 138). Similarly, he reflects, “each ‘next trip’” in his ever-expanding itinerary “held within it the very preconceptions I’d been fighting all along. Syria embattled more than Lebanon, Afghanistan more tense than Syria--Pakistan, more terrorized. Then Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Somalia….the way I looked for answers had made real understanding impossible. It was as if I’d set out on twenty-five thousand miles of blind dates, asking ‘are you awful?’ at first blush” (pp. 326-7). Indeed, Levinson’s increasing capacity for reflection and self-criticism over the course of “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah” is its own narrative arc that runs in parallel to the main plot arc (the chronological progress of his travel).

It is this reflective tendency that the harsher critics of ADBM seem to overlook. After publishing an excerpt from it, LitHub’s editors went on to apologize for the selection’s “exoticizing language” and “casual Othering,” recognizing that such “a failure of literary empathy and observation” could reinforce a “toxic framework within which racism flourishes and power retrenches.” If “the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah” were nothing more than a collection of such failures, it would, of course, be worthy of condemnation and condemnation alone, but fortunately, Levinson is considerably more self-aware than LitHub’s editors and comment section recognize.

The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Middle East, by Adam Valen Levinson, 368 pp. W.W. Norton & Company.