In this stunningly candid portrait of culture and politics in the Middle East, Peter Theroux dispenses with the concerned though impartial tone most journalists assume the fractious region demands. He dismisses some popular Arab leaders as "loony xenophobic zealots" and offers delightful satires of everything from hackneyed American reporting to Saudi notions of hip architecture: Populuxe "monstrosities" with stucco champagne bubbles riveted up an outer wall; a mosque with tail fins. Not least, he confesses that he was attracted to Saudi Arabia, the country on which this book focuses, primarily because of the "sexual pull of its culture and people."
That Theroux has even noticed this pull is striking. Saudi Arabia is, after all, a country where women are forbidden to appear on TV, where "The Society for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" roams city streets with sticks to scold those who dare to hold hands. But Theroux, a 34-year-old writer now living in Long Beach, finds an alluring sensuality even in land that we might see as arid ("the opaque rusty mist that shrouds Riyadh when the desert wind whips up the powdery orange sand") and among people we might deem devout: One man enjoins the author to "Accept Islam! Why would you refuse salvation?" After assuring himself that Theroux was damned, he pesters him for "whiskey, women or boys." Theroux lifts the veil on many other primal feelings, satirizing, for instance, the xenophobic folk tales that stem from Saudis' deep fear of foreigners.
At times, Theroux pushes his satire to the limit. We grin when he calls two successive guillotine executions a "double-header," but we also wonder about the depth of his sensitivity toward ordinary Arab suffering. Theroux's sympathy is there, no doubt, for he has eloquently translated a novel, "City of Salt," which shows how most Arabs have been ill-served by their leaders, and he has written a book about Imam Moussa Sadr, a Muslim cleric who offered hope to Lebanon's poor and politically powerless Shiites. But Theroux, presenting Sadr's story here only as a "spellbinding" yarn, leaves that sympathy far too implicit, slightly marring an otherwise stirring book.