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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East

Benjamin Orbach did something just a few months after the events of 9-11 that few Americans dared to do. Just when most Americans were purposely avoiding travel to the Middle East (or had left the area for good), Orbach decided to move to Jordan on his own so that he could study Arabic as it is spoken on the street. He wanted to learn everyday Arabic slang and ways of expressing himself in the language that would allow him to communicate with Arabic speakers at the deepest level. Immersing himself into the culture of Amman, and living there without the usual security surrounding most Americans in that part of the world, he learned much more about himself and the people he met than he could have reasonably expected to come away with going into the experience.


Orbach's language skills and obvious respect for the culture and people he lived among made it possible for him to fit into his Amman neighborhood so well that he formed lasting friendships with the people he saw there everyday, his barber, his grocer, students at his university, his language teachers, restaurant owners and his landlady, among them. Unlike most Americans, and probably most Westerners, he came to see them as individuals with the same hopes and desires that we all have, rather than as interchangeable parts in a single Arab culture dominated by a religion bent on destroying the West and claiming the world for Islam. Anyone who reads Live from Jordan will be able to rid themselves of that stereotypical viewpoint forever and that makes it an important book.

When I started reading Live from Jordan I wondered whether or not Benjamin Orbach's personal experiences would be similar the ones I had while working in Algeria from late 1992 until early 2002. As it turns out, they definitely were. I am not an Arabic speaker but in Algeria French is the business language of choice and most Algerians are at least somewhat fluent in the language. That allowed me to have rather detailed and intimate discussions with my Algerian co-workers and friends about our differences and, more importantly, about our similarities. Much as I suspect that Orbach will always treasure his days in Jordan and Egypt, I will be forever grateful for the friendship and trust that was offered to me by those Algerians who welcomed me into their world as an individual rather than exclude me as an “American.”

I mention my years in that part of the world only to emphasize how "true" this book read to me. I did not find a false note in it anywhere and would love to see its message spread as widely as possible.


Rated at: 5.0

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