David Lamb, The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage (New York: Random House, 1987).
More accessible than academic or political studies, journalism has long been the vehicle for most popular knowledge of the Middle East. Recently, with the increase in the number of foreign correspondents writing full-length books on their experiences in the Arab region, journalistic writings have also supplanted another genre: the once common travelogues of Western Orientalists, tourists and colonial officers. David Lamb’s book falls squarely within this “new” tradition, as even its title proclaims. (The tendency to journalistic history is not limited to the Arab world, as Lamb’s previous book was titled The Africans.)
Lamb, the Los Angeles Times’ Middle East correspondent, was based in Cairo for almost four years, from 1981 to 1985. He visited every Arab country with the exception of South Yemen (where he was refused a visa). His self-declared aim is to “present a fair portrait of the Arab world today and strip away some of the stereotypes that have led to so many misconceptions about its people, its religion, its stunning wealth.” The result is a chapter-by-chapter montage of personal impressions and interviews, with occasional dollops of history and statistics, dealing with various Arab countries, personalities and trends. The subject matter is all too predictable: Islam, terrorism, the Gulf states, petrodollars and the nouveau riche, Col. Qaddafi, and so on. Despite his good intentions to acknowledge the complexity of his subject, Lamb cannot move beyond the “instant history” school of journalism. Rather than fresh insights, the reader finds constantly qualified simplifications, with only occasional genuine evocations of life today in the Arab world.