Michael Totten

“We Must Go to the East”

“We must go to the East” — Napoleon.

I leave for the Middle East in six days and I’ll be gone for six months. The fact that I’m still here is a mere technicality. I’m not really here anymore. I’m in a weird sort of limbo state now: my mind is in Beirut and my body is stuck in Portland.
The Judge Roberts nomination, the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, the impending arrival of Hurricane Rita, George Bush’s plummeting polls numbers…none of these things are interesting anymore. I can’t bring myself to read a newspaper and care about what it says. I can only read books. And I can only read books about where I’m going.
Mostly what I’m reading is “homework.” But I’m also re-reading parts of Tony Horwitz’s terrific Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia. It’s a collection of Middle Eastern travel essays, and there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather read while gearing up to go there myself.
Because I am only reading books right now instead of mixing up my usual book-reading with news junky fare, you get book-blogging instead of news-blogging. Hope you can handle it.
Here is how Baghdad Without a Map opens. See if you can tell me you don’t want to go East after you read this. And if you like the introduction, buy the book and read the whole thing.

I was driving alone, on a moonless night, along the rim of the vast desert known as the Empty Quarter. The road was black and narrow, the occasional sign written in Arabic script I couldn’t yet decipher. I turned and turned again and felt the back wheels spin in drifting desert sand.
Retracing my route, I stopped at a small oasis of palm trees and whitewashed villas. Arab houses, particularly those in the Persian Gulf states, reveal little to the outside world. Knocking on a plain metal door set in a high wall of stucco, I wondered if the home inside was a palace or a hovel.
The door creaked open a few inches and a woman peered out, her face concealed by a black canvas mask. It formed a beak around her nose, with narrow eye slits, like medieval armor. I asked in simple Arabic if she could direct me back to the town I had left to watch the sunset, three hours before.
She paused, glancing over her shoulder. There was a rustle of garments and the whisper of female voices. Then she invited me in and slipped behind another door to find someone who could help.
Five women sat on a carpet in the courtyard, sipping tea from tiny glasses. They wore masks like the woman at the door, and billowy black shrouds that fell to their toes, concealing hair and skin.
I smiled and offered the ubiquitous Arab greeting: “Salaam aleikum.” Peace be upon you. Ten eyes stared back through their peepholes. It was difficult to tell if anyone returned my smile. Then one of the women stood up and offered me a glass of tea. She spoke in hesitant English, and her voice was muffled by the veil. “I love you,” she said.
I looked down, embarrassed, and studied the red henna dye painted in swirls across the tops of her toes. Somehow, saying “I love you, too” to a Muslim woman in a face mask didn’t seem appropriate. So I smiled and thanked her. We stood there, blue eyes to black eyes, until a man appeared at the edge of the courtyard. He wore a starched white robe and a white kerchief folded like a fortune cookie atop his head. “I love you always,” the woman said, retreating toward the black-robed huddle on the carpet.
The man explained in a mix of English, Arabic and pantomime that I should follow the oil wells, vast laceworks of steel strung out along the highway. At night, wreathed in blinking lights, they looked like dot-to-dot drawings without the lines sketched in. Before Mohammad brought Islam to the Arabian peninsula, the Bedouin worshipped stars and used them as guides in the night. These days, nomads navigate by a constellation of oil.
The drive was long and dull, and I passed the time by replaying the courtyard scene in my head. I’d noticed a satellite disk perched atop the villa; perhaps the women had been watching television. Wasn’t “I love you” what men and women often said to each other in the West? I let my imagination drift across the sand. Perhaps the women dreamed of strangers in the night — though probably not blond men in khakis and sneakers, sputtering bad Arabic. Perhaps the women were concubines, held captive in a desert harem. It was the sort of thing that often happened in movies about Arabia.
Most likely the meeting was meaningless, a linguistic impasse common to rookie correspondents. “My first few months here, I felt like Helen Keller,” a fellow journalist had confided a few weeks before, welcoming me to the Middle East. “Blind, deaf, and also dumb — particularly dumb.”
So I shrugged off the strange encounter. Surely, as my Arabic and my understanding of Arabic subtleties improved, I’d be able to make sense of such scenes, even use them as anecdotes in my future stories.
But strange things kept happening. And in the two years that followed, I often found myself in dimly lit hotel rooms or dusty airport lobbies, trying to fathom notes I had scribbled just hours before. What was I to make of the teenager in Gaza, his face wrapped in a black-checkered keffiya, who guided me through streets smudged with burning tires, then paused to ask, “Mr. Tony, there is something I must know. Are you Portuguese?”
Did he know somehow I was Jewish? What did this have to do with the Portuguese?
Months later, I arrived by boat in Beirut, amid heavy artillery fire. A lone sentry patrolled the dock, and I assumed he would ask for my papers. “Visa? Who said anything about visa?” he said with a shrug. Gesturing toward the shell-pocked shore, he slung his weapon onto his shoulder and melted back into the gloom.
Was this an invitation or a warning?
On a later reporting trip, to cover the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, I found myself stuck in Tehran traffic beside a taxi driver who kept grabbing my thigh and shrieking: “America! Donkey! Torch!” He refused to accept a single riyal for the hour-long ride.
After a time, I contented myself with scribbling in my notebooks and filling the margins with question marks. Islamic society, like the homes I had passed that first night in the desert, didn’t open easily to Westerners. To pretend that I understood all that I saw and heard was folly.
But the mystery kept tugging, even after I left the Middle East. The margins were still filled with question marks. And some nights, when the rain raps hard against my window, I wander south to the Empty Quarter, to black masks and black eyes and red-henna toes, and wonder why it was she loved me.