A book where the Barbary shop never closes

Review History

January 14, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.

Michael B. Oren

W.W. Norton / 736 pages / $29.95

A cartoon published in The New Yorker just before World War II depicted an American couple speeding across a Middle East landscape in a convertible. He's wearing a pith helmet. She's in a pillbox hat. As they pass a bearded Arab with a prominent proboscis, prostrate in prayer, the husband yells out, "Hey, Jack, which way to Mecca?"

For more than two centuries, according to Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, most Americans have been as ignorant of the people and cultures of the Middle East as the couple in the cartoon.

Popular perceptions and public policy, he suggests, have been shaped by three themes: the pursuit of the military, diplomatic and economic interests of the United States; the work of Protestant missionaries, who sought to save souls, restore Palestine to the Jews and spread literacy, democracy and civil culture throughout the region; and stereotypes, including images of deserts, pyramids, pharaohs, fakirs, frankincense and fundamentalists that originated in the Bible and A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The impressions were recycled by visitors to the Holy Land, reinforced by the Moorish Palace, Cairo Street and Little Egypt, the belly dancer, at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and repackaged by Hollywood in Aladdin and Ali Baba.

These inter-related motifs provide the structure of Power, Faith and Fantasy. Oren knows how to tell a story, turn a phrase and tweak a delightful detail. To improve the transportation of military supplies, he observes, Congress appropriated $30,000 in 1855 to create the American Camel Company. Seventy-nine hump-backed creatures, accompanied by five Arab minders, were shipped to Indianola, Texas. Plans were made to order another thousand. But Americans soon learned, Oren writes, that though camels conserve water, they are also "petulant, flatulent, halitosic, and liable to induce seasickness in their riders." The dromedaries were sold to mines and circuses, or allowed to roam free in the desert.

Perhaps inevitably, the most memorable moments in Power, Faith and Fantasy catch Americans behaving badly. Although all tourists were not ugly Americans, most of them deemed Muslims inherently depraved and cruel, chomping at the bit to chop a Christian's head off. Determined to bring home a souvenir, pilgrims did some chopping of their own, removing hieroglyphs from monuments to place on mantelpieces back home. When they didn't chop, they shopped. As Americans viewed the wonders of the world, wrote one observer, they "think with their purses, admire with their cheque-books and appreciate with their yawns." And to leave their mark when they left, visitors drew Stars and Stripes on tombs and temples. One inscription, "Powell Tucker, New York, 1870," was scratched on dozens of ancient sites.

Analysis in Power, Faith and Fantasy, alas, comes in rivulets. Without elaborating, for example, Oren makes the dubious claim that "a deeper reason" for Lyndon Johnson's "almost mawkish sentimentality toward Israel" lay in the "restorationist" teachings of his Baptist grandfather.

Oren provides more evidence for his assertion that, on balance, American influence in the Middle East has been positive, citing opposition to colonialism following World War II and support for the establishment of the state of Israel. But Power, Faith and Fantasy is virtually silent about American cultural imperialism, economic exploitation, arms trafficking and assistance to reactionary regimes.

Even more problematic is Oren's addiction to facile historical analogies. His "objective," he writes, "is to enable Americans to read about the fighting in Iraq and hear the echoes of the Barbary Wars." He pursues that goal with a vengeance. Unlike the early Tripoli ruler, who plundered ships and kidnapped sailors, he writes, Muammar el Kadafi "could strike back almost anywhere in the world and with virtual impunity." In the Iranian hostage crisis, Jimmy Carter, like Thomas Jefferson, "could either try to reason with the piratical regime and purchase the hostages' release or forego negotiations and fight." When he traded arms to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to secure the release of hostages, Ronald Reagan "ignored the seminal lesson of the Barbary Wars." The Barbary shop never closes in Power, Faith and Fantasy.

Oren ought to split more hairs. Applied indiscriminately, analogies illuminate neither the past nor the present. Providing one-size-fits-all answers, they inoculate against hard thinking about difficult problems. After Sept. 11, Michael Oren concludes, "came the breakdown of American illusions and the collapse of American restraint." He's right, of course, about the unleashing of our nation's military might. But illusions persist. And Power, Faith, and Fantasy doesn't do enough to dispel them.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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