Writing off the Beaten Track: Reflections on the Meaning of Travel and Culture in the Middle East, Judith Caesar
Syracuse University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-8156-2957-5, 180 pages with xiv prelims
This is not a travel book by the British definition. Despite her to-die-for name, Judith Caesar is not the intrepid sort who boldly pushes beyond frontiers to boast "I Came, I Saw". Instead she is concerned with whether there will anyone to meet her at Dubai airport and whether her accommodation will have been prepared for her in advance. This is not the spirit in which our travel books are customarily writ. Her actual travels within the United Arab Emirates, to the restored mountain oasis village of Hatta (which made her think of the history park of Williamsburg back home) and a tourist created bedouin-camp on the edge of the sand dune desert, neither inspire her nor the reader. Even after just one night under canvas, trying to sleep on the sand, she is longing for a shower. Fortunately there are other things that separate Judith Caesar from the common breed of travel-writers. For a start Judith is an American academic. She is also sincere, disarmingly honest, decent, interested in a continuous process of revealing self-examination and focusing her observations on the small community with which she has become intimate. The source of her reflections is the newly set up American University of Sharjah where she teaches English.
It is a bizarre world. The University is a brilliant marble vision, approached through a mock Arc de Triomphe, that leads to a boulevard lined with domes, arches, columns and formal gardens. Only the Indian gardeners, toiling on the perfect gardens, and migrant construction workers erecting another Renaissance-inspired dome or Mosque-inspired collonade can actually cope with the heat. The beautiful mirage-like campus exists only to be observed from behind air-conditioned glass and to be linked to the outer world by air-conditioned transport. Many of the students are there because they wished to go to America but this was as far into the West as their families felt like sending them. They come from either a tiny strata of liberal Emiratis or from a more cosmopolitan, second-generation strand of Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. All follow the code that allows them to talk to boys in the American University classroom but acknowledge that similar conversations on the beach would be socially impossible.
The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) is a world where everyone (everyone who is a citizen of the U.A.E. that is) can afford a foreign guest-worker maid. Many of these family-helps care for the children as well as tending house and kitchen. They are usually married women, proudly sending the bulk of their wages back to their own families, who are cared for by aunts and grandmothers. Thus in a connecting circle of poverty and affluence "all around the Indian Ocean, children are being raised without their mothers." It is also a world where all clerical jobs (which a graduate student might hope for a first job, or with which a determinedly independent student might take in order to pay their own way through tuition) are done by migrant workers. It is not just the professors who are locked behind the air-conditioned windows, it is the students as well.
The classroom, in a sense, has become all. It is a forum for debate, an environment in which views can change and mature and in which there is a real engagement with literature and politics. Judith Caesar clearly relishes the extraordinary importance with which her classroom has become charged in the U.A.E. After graduation one feels, that the cosy rewards of domestic life will constrict again, most especially around the women. Like late-Victorian Britain the twin tentacles of family maintained respectability and servant-induced laziness, threaten to throttle initiative with kindness. Judith chronicles both the foreignness of her hosts, the antagonistic foreignness of many of the expatriates and how she herself is becoming increasingly alienated from the double standards of the 'American Way'.
She begins to understand the supreme importance of such local writers as Al-Murr, a man who is neither trying to explain his society to a Western readership nor make it curious and exotic, but is content to titillate his own Gulf audience with irony and so help to define the faults of his society.
This is a delicate book and is at times too focused on her pupils response to her literary syllabus. It is certainly not one that has been either edited, written or published for the market place. It will however intrigue and delight the small audience for which it was written - like the author: educated, probably educating and wishing to continue to be educated.
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by Barnaby Rogerson