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Sunday Book Review: Live From Jordan

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In mid-2002, Benjamin Orbach traveled to Jordan. Orbach was 27 at the time, and wanted to improve his Arabic language skills. This is hardly unusual; a handful of Patterson students travel each year to the Middle East and elsewhere to work on languages, an experience which is shared by any number of other young professionals. Orbach’s story is interesting for two reasons; he spent much of his time writing letters, and he lived in Jordan (and later in Egypt) during the build up to the Iraq War.

Live from Jordan is structured as a series of letters to friends in the United States. The book doesn’t simply reprint these letters; they’ve been edited and pasted together to make the whole more coherent. Orbach’s thoughts on the war were muddled; this is to be expected, I think, of what amounts to eight months or so of thinking through the long buildup to the conflict. Orbach made every effort to avoid Monday morning quaterbacking, although of course different things will appear important in hindsight than at the time. Eventually Orbach was forced to leave Jordan out of concern for his safety, moving to Cairo to continue his studies. He took advantage of his time in the Middle East to travel, visiting Syria, Palestine, and Turkey. Orbach is Jewish, but didn’t publicize the fact while traveling in Islamic countries. When I asked him about this he said that he’d act differently if he had it to do over again, but I kind of get the sense he made the right decision in 2002-3.

Like most good travel literature, Orbach portrays some scenes of genuine peril. His description of his first day in Jordan is interesting enough, but I found his accidental visit to a Turkish nightclub even more entertaining. The effort of the brother of one of his Jordanian friends was probably less dangerous, but somehow felt more disconcerting. That said, I’m not sure that his experience was all that different or more perilous than that of any American traveling this part of the world immediately prior to the war; I recall that even in Germany Americans were given warnings about how to carry themselves in public areas.

I’m not sure that Live From Jordan is a must read from a policy standpoint; there’s some interesting stuff here, but it’s not really eye popping. For example, his description of America-hating terrorists as “nihilists” really misses the mark, although it is unfortunately reminiscent of Christopher Hitchens; people who believe in nothing rarely take the time, trouble, and expense to suicidally blow things up. Still, as a travel book there’s a lot to like. Orbach has a lot of experiences that seem pretty typical of an American visiting the Middle East, and anyone who’s about to venture to that area (or anywhere else unfamiliar, really) could find a lot that’s of use in his work. I do have to wonder whether the epistolary travel narrative is long for this world, however. It seems to me that the blog will come to dominate this kind of story, having the advantage of near real-time distribution and of immediate feedback. Several friends of mine have travel blogs, and Ben himself now has a blog.

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